It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

NYS Route 212

By Tove Danovich

Travel

Traveling in a car is like moving through two worlds at the same time. Inside you are mostly still while flashing past houses, people, and trees at almost unthinkable speeds. Entire towns and lakes vanish within minutes. Right now, we’re going sixty on a road made for half of that. The driver and the road controls our movement—the pull of our bodies away from and toward the window each time we run past a curve, the hum of vibrations that goes up through the seat. When I relax my mouth—which isn’t often because the conversation is funny—my teeth chatter against each other with an involuntary click.

We’re driving through upstate New York, trying to find our way to Woodstock. Matt and I have never been and even though Paul tells us that it’s full of hippies and gift shops it’s a good excuse for a drive. “It really shows you what would have happened if the sixties never died.” Paul bought his first and only pair of Birkenstocks there a few years ago but hasn’t been back since.

With Paul behind the wheel of his car, we get lost on the way and end up doing a big loop away from the town and then back toward it again. A five-minute drive becomes an hour long after taking the wrong road at the turnpike. “You need to get a map,” I tell Paul, and he glowers in response.

But getting a little disoriented transforms into a beautiful detour. We drive beside a lake that reminds me of Tahoe; the water is pure crystal with an island of trees in the center. According to a fire station’s sign, we’re in the town of Lake Hill, a place where the GPS on our phones won’t work. None of us can even tell how lost we are.

It’s seventy-five degrees outside. We roll the windows down and it doesn’t take long for my hair to get tangled from the wind in my face. It rolls over each curl, twisting it around until the hairs rub together and felt themselves into knots. With the windows down I can actually feel the speed. To be fair, I’m not sure I could tell the difference between sixty miles an hour and thirty from the wind alone. Colors blur together outside; individual plants and trees turn into streaks of green and brown and yellow. As we speed up, that swaying back and forth in my seat grows more rhythmical. Inside the car it’s still all hum and sleepiness and vibration. It reminds me of being in the rocking chair at home or out on a boat where the waves slap against the wood with a dull splash. Driving gets into your bones that way.

I can finally look down and see the pavement flashing beneath us, turning into one smooth panel instead of the gravelly asphalt that’s actually there. Water’s running right along the road now and I’m glad to have my seatbelt on. Paul’s road crazy again. His usual gruffness vanishes the longer he’s behind the wheel until he actually seems happy, enthusiastic even. It’s as though the road transforms into a racetrack in front of him—the Cliffside highways of Monte Carlo or the sharp angles of Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps track. Only once or twice have I ever told him to slow down. That doesn’t mean I don’t grip the door when he takes an especially sharp turn. It’s a little too easy to imagine this car crashing, tumbling in sideways somersaults down to the water and against all those sharp rocks.

The water rushes over the stones and natural dams of twigs and branches, turning white as it hits them and then flows back the way we came. It’s only a narrow river but the water’s energy gets more concentrated as the sides close in.

A while later in the drive, we pass through the Catskills. I can hear the waterfalls. It’s the first real melt of the season and all that runoff races from the top of the mountains and turns into a dull roar and spray. I love how the sound of water can tell you what type it is. Ocean waves crash against the rocks in a musical way; there’s a rhythm to the bursts of silence between them. Waterfalls stay at a consistent level of sound, static that gets into your ears whenever you stand too close to them.

All that water must be working its magic because suddenly the boys both have to pee. They get out of the car and walk into the woods. I trail after them and almost catch up with Paul whose back is towards me. Somewhere in between this sight and the fact that he’s yelling at me not to come any closer, I remember why we stopped the car in the first place. I’m left looking very intently at the scenery, pretending I’d meant to find my way to this spot all along.

Without the rush from being inside a car, the wind is calm in comparison. To look at the plants, I would think the wind was coming from all directions at once. Each tree or shrub moves in a different way. One little plant with seedpods on it splits stalks into two groups as if breaking to let the wind pass through. The largest tree branches groan a few seconds after the breeze is gone. Maybe if I hung colored strings in the air I could actually see the currents and tides of the wind.

Break over, we return to the car. We’d rolled up the dark-tinted windows before parking and now it’s like looking out of cheap sunglasses. On a warm spring day like this one, that invisible wind is the only link between what’s outside the car and in it. Without the air around me, it’s like I’m watching a poor-quality video of the Great Outdoors instead of being here, passing through.

The three of us are all a little off today. I’m hungry although it’s too early for dinner. Where’s a mom who packed sandwiches in the cooler? We’re winding down the mountain now, back the way we came. We pass through towns that are still covered in a foot of snow. The steep roofs of the houses make upside-down V’s; there are so many of them that it begins to look like a row of jagged teeth along the road. In an empty field, I see two dogs playing, kicking up white snow like water rapids. Through the dark glass, the colors are muted and the sky almost looks gray. It’s a little colder outside but I roll down my window one last time and see the colors open up into pale yellows streaks through a sharp blue. The car turns and I start rocking back and forth again in my seat.

The railroad left the small West Texas town twenty-six years ago, and Cascade lay deserted for most of the next two decades. The traffic on I-10 rarely found a reason to stop: going west, El Paso seemed a better choice to stay for the night; going east, the next city, Hasselton, promised better motels, restaurant, and better water.

At an altitude of 4,734 ft, Cascade never had any wells, and water is piped in from Hasselton. The townspeople use it sparsely because of its cost. In motel rooms, signs ask travelers to preserve as much water as they can.

The sky here is ringed by jagged mountains, and the sun is brutal during the day and in the evening hours dissolves in violent and fiery reds. Construction is difficult, expensive, and the population has been stagnant – not too many teenagers choose to stay in town, and fewer return after college. If in centuries past a hermit had looked to flee civilization and punish his body, he would have looked with tenderness upon Cascade.

Today, Edward Costa and his family are running most of the town of 546. He owns both motels, and his son and daughter are operating Cascade’s two gas stations. The profits are modest, but land prices are negligible, and Costa has long paid off debts and mortgages.

His patience and steadfastness have been rewarded. For the last seven years, Cascade has made a slow comeback. Three souvenir shops have opened on dusty Main Street, and Costa has built a forty-bed hotel with pool, sauna, and a state-of-the-art gym. The debris in still-empty lots has been cleared away, and old Corollas and Jeeps have been replaced with shiny Nissans and Suburbans. The surrounding mountains still choke Cascade, yet the lack of new citizens is at the core of Cascade’s budding fame.

“Some people look down on us,” Costa, a bear of a man with steel-gray hair and polite demeanor, explains. “They think we’re perverts, deviants, and sinners. But,” and here he raises the empty palms of his hands, as if to show that he isn’t hiding anything, “God’s ways are mysterious, and Pablo has done no harm to anyone. God is working through him.”

Come spring, cars turn off the highway and find their way to a freshly cemented parking lot at the foot of Craig Mountain. What a spring visitor looks up to once he gets out of the car is a vast garage with twenty-seven white-and-blue doors. Adjacent to the richly adorned adobe structure stands a small house. It seems older than the garage, and its walls are cracked and dirty. Yet this is what the visitor has come for. In this small hut, Pablo the Oracle has lived his whole nineteen year-old life.

“He’s never left the house,” Adrian Gutierrez, a close neighbor, says. “At least not on his own two legs. They have to carry him on a stretcher, otherwise he might break a leg or an arm, or all of them. But he’s smart like the devil.” Gutierrez laughs, rubbing his neck. “Have you seen the Caddies yet? Whoa, you’ve got to see them. That’s how he gets around.”

Thirteen Cadillac Escalades are gracing Pablo’s garage. There are also two Ford Excursions, three Lincoln Navigators, two Toyota Land Rovers, and six Hummers. The interiors of the cars have been customized. Only the original driver’s seats remain, the rest has been transformed into curving divans, with suede or velvet surfaces.

The last vehicle in Pablo’s garage is an ambulance. “Sometimes something goes wrong inside his body,” Gutierrez, a stocky, sun-burnt man in his forties, who works construction in El Paso, explains, “and they have to keep him alive for an hour or two. The next big hospital is in El Paso, so he bought that ambulance. He could afford to buy that thing. If it’s an emergency, they send a helicopter, but Pablo likes riding in cars.”

In 1998, Pablo’s aunt Elmira, his only relative, erected a ten-foot wooden cross in front of the hut. Early visitors reported that the Jesus figure’s wounds were bleeding, but before authorities could investigate the case, the cross disappeared.

In Albert Costa’s view, the priest, who comes every Sunday from El Paso, had it taken down in order to keep “the Lord’s image clean.” But, he considers, “If it should have been a fake, maybe Elmira took it down herself. Maybe she thought it was a bit much, you know. A beginner’s mistake.”

Pablo’s miracles did not need any ornamentation, even though they still have not been widely publicized. Press, in Pablo and his clients’ case, is not desirable. Word of mouth, however, ensures him a steady and steadily increasing following. “After all,” Gutierrez smiles, “who wants their face in the papers, telling everyone you just won a million dollars, or ten or twenty.”

For the past seven years, Pablo, who has never visited a schoolhouse and did not receive a private education until the age of fifteen, has predicted the outcomes of state lotteries. According to believers, he has never failed.

Pablo does not ask for payment. He has never bought a lottery ticket himself, but happy pilgrims have shown their gratitude and made sure that the Oracle receives the best medical attention possible.

Pablo was born in 1982. “In a town as small as this one,” Albert Costa muses, “it is sometimes difficult to suppress unhealthy tendencies. You know what they say about isolated towns like ours, ‘narrow shoulders, large feet and heads.’ It’s unfortunate, but it’s not his fault.”

Pablo’s father was also his mother’s oldest brother. According to town folklore, Santiago and Gabriela Diaz were inseparable from an early age. It is reported that Santiago, once his sister drew attention from other boys, stabbed one of them, injuring his rival severely. After that incident, Santiago was said to have left for California to avoid prosecution, but Costa is sure he never left town. “If you want to stay hidden in this region, it’s no big problem. Really.”

At age fifteen, Gabi Diaz gave birth to her son. But Pablo left her womb with weak bones; his spine was never able to support his body.

Gutierrez is convinced that this wasn’t the first misstep inside the Diaz family. “Don’t get me wrong. I love this town and the people. I’m one of them. Life is hard in Cascade, but we’re family. Sometimes however, we’re probably too much like family. I don’t ask any questions, but if you look around – I resemble a lot of people here.”

Pablo might have died early without sufficient medical support or, as some Cascade rumors have it, would surely have been killed by Gabi’s father Manuel, a former railroad worker who had lost his job and supported his family by cleaning chemical tanks outside of El Paso.

Yet Gabi foresaw the difficult birth and went to the border city to have her child. Only when Pablo was two years old, did his mother return to her hometown. How she took care of herself and Pablo in those two years is subject to much speculation.

Trying to protect Pablo from her raging father, who disowned his son and daughter, Gabi died at the hands of Manuel Diaz on Feb. 18, 1984. Manuel went to prison, and instead of restoring his family’s honor, he brought about the end of that family. Maria Theresa, his wife of thirty-one years, committed suicide after her husband had been sentenced to twenty years in a state penitentiary, and Manuel died ten years later in a prison riot. Pablo had to be raised and cared for by his aunt Elmira. Santiago, the boy’s father, who many claim to have seen sneaking around Pablo’s residence, is still at large.

Gabi’s infant son only moved with pain, never learned to walk, and was often believed to be on the brink of death. Pablo’s teeth were small, soft, and his jaw unable to handle harder foods. Yet he was known as a gentle child who didn’t complain much, and early on he showed an even, some call it meditative, temperament.

When he was thirteen, still illiterate, and entertained only by television and children’s picture books, Pablo, one Saturday evening, surprised his aunt’s family by muttering the correct lottery numbers moments before they were announced. Elmira Beltran has refused to talk to the media about her nephew, but it is rumored that Pablo had no idea what he was doing and what effect his talent might have on his family.

Maybe because Pablo revered the Reverend Billy Graham, or maybe because he watched mostly Westerns, singing along feebly with Gene Autry, the young teenager refused to give his aunt the winning numbers before the next drawing, even though he admitted he knew them days in advance.

He wouldn’t use his clairvoyance for personal gain, but, as rumors spread like wildfire, agreed to help strangers. And while he refused to buy lottery tickets, he allowed his aunt to accept gifts from grateful pilgrims.

“It’s an act of God,” Blanca Grappoli, another close neighbor, says. “God is with this child. Who knows what else he’s capable of?” Yet she contends that Elmira Beltran is far less godly than her nephew. “The gifts? The Caddies? The money given to the community? That’s Beltran’s doing. I know for a fact that she has people sign contracts before they receive the winning numbers. Pablo, I’m sure, has no clue what she is doing behind his back. For him, the cars are toys, wonderful toys that allow him to get out of the house.” Grappoli’s own son, the same age as her famous neighbor, is studying chemical engineering in San Antonio. She has lived in Cascade for over forty years, and expects to be buried here one day.

She confides that Pablo’s biggest delight is a trip to El Paso, where he directs the driver to a Jack In The Box drive-thru. “He’s able to eat the mushier parts of their food. He loves milkshakes.”

If Pablo, as Grappoli suspects, is able to work more and even bigger miracles, he hasn’t let on yet. Beltran keeps a close lid on her nephew’s life; he’s rarely seen in public, and never outside his car. Yet the steady stream of cars turning off the highway and into Cascade, speak volumes.

Jeff McMahon, a construction worker from Miami, Florida, has made the trip with his wife and two children. His ’86 Chevrolet broke down three times on his way to Texas, but “That punk won’t do it by phone. Who does he think he is?” Disgruntled pilgrims like McMahon are the minority though. Most people seeking the Oracle’s favor, are happy to be given an opportunity of a lifetime.

Pablo has predicted the right outcome in most states of the lower 48. The increasing number of pilgrims has led to decreasing earnings, but Albert Costa is sure that, “there is still enough for everyone.”

Representatives from both the Catholic Church and the Texas state lottery have investigated the case. The pope is said to have taken interest in Pablo, but the church has yet to embrace or condemn the Oracle. State authorities have not been able to mount any charges against him. “He doesn’t know anyone, he doesn’t have any shady visitors, he doesn’t need the mob to help him,” Gutierrez says with a shrug. “It’s just Pablo.”

In Cascade’s souvenir shops, you can buy posters, postcards, and beach towels bearing Pablo’s idealized image – he resembles baseball star Alex Rodriguez – a halo surrounding his curly dark hair. “We’d love to have Rome declare him a saint,” Costa says, “but it’s a long shot. Then again, our town has survived more than a hundred and fifty years, on little more than devotion, hard work, and spit. We can wait a little.”

In the meantime, El Paso archbishop Richard Broadhead, has condemned the pilgrimages to Cascade. Without word from Rome, he has stopped short of passing judgment on the nineteen year-old, but has denounced Pablo’s SUV fleet, as well as the greed of the fortune seekers.

Broadhead is a lean, energetic man in his sixties, with a long face and sunken cheeks. “God does not play the lottery,” he says sternly, sitting in a white armchair in his El Paso office. So far, he has refused to visit Cascade and “grace this nonsense with the church’s presence.”

“Handing out millions of dollars to families, even families in need, is not church policy. The church is about spirituality, and Cascade is nothing but a cheap circus, as far as I can see. Pablo Diaz was born in sin, and who tells us that it’s not the devil working through him?”

While the town of Cascade is grateful to its most prominent citizen, the lotteries would like to plug the hole Pablo is tearing into their earnings. Offers to pay off the Oracle have fallen on deaf ears, threads to sue him have led nowhere.

“The only thing they can do is change their system or close down the lottery,” Costa claims. “But it’s a bureaucratic process. It’s slow.”

A small group of townspeople, however, is not happy with the Oracle. “He’s an idiot, a cripple, born from vice and lust. And why doesn’t he give the right numbers to the ones around him?” Jesus Sanchez, president of Cascade Against Blasphemy (CAB), asks. “We are his kin. But what do we have? Why does he insist on helping strangers? It ain’t right.”

Last May, shots were fired at Pablo’s car. CAB denied its involvement, but Sanchez and his followers had to deal with broken windows and death threats in the aftermath. On the broken facade of the old movie theatre, a relic of the railroad past, a spray-painted warning reads, “You want to die? Go mess with Pablo!”

No one was hurt in the May attack, but the Oracle’s fleet has been equipped with bulletproof glass to forestall any further assaults. On a recent August night, with veins of red crisscrossing the sky, Pablo’s favorite Escalade, painted a custom dark purple hue, and equipped with gleaming rims, left the garage. Beyoncé Knowles latest hit made the behemoth vibrate. As it passed a group of pilgrims, signing up for audiences the next day, a small, spidery hand appeared in one window, waving.

“The Oracle,” someone shouted, and the crowd applauded.

 

An old man with six fingers total saws lugubrious anthems of loss and love on a zither with a caved-in box and crooked plectrum. His only lyric: ¿por qué? repeated over and over like incantation. He sits on an old barber’s chair perched against a crumbling wall along one of the Zócalo walkways. He has breadcrumbs in his moustache, and the graffiti behind his sombrero’d head, reads, in Spanish: Fuck Your Mother. We drop a few sweaty coins into the empty yogurt dish at his feet. His eyes drop like bats feeding.

Vendors flash their wares. Leather wallets with big silver snaps. Purses of all sorts of hides bearing the ecstatic faces of the toothy gods, handbags made of tortoise shell and obsidian. Earrings of snail shells, snakeskin belts. Something about this commerce stirs in us a sly uneasiness, but admiration. This is a market without middleman, and the directness of it—the chance to place the pesos for a turtle purse into the durable hands of the man who, just last week, ripped the small wriggling body from the shell—is chilling, as it is alluring.

Like somnambulists, we zombify the market, wide-eyed and stiff-legged, not saying a word or looking at each other, Mexico City the only reaction shot we need. I want to know everything Louisa is thinking, if thoughts of Chicago evaporating like tea steam rush her with their thin whistle, if she is only in the moment or already forcing upon it reflection from some unknowable, but probable future. I want to know, but stare straight ahead until she speaks.

“I’d really like an agua fresca.

Her voice is like the hand that pulls me from the bottom of the pool, where I lost myself gathering pennies to the point of drowning; the same penchant for blind engrossment that caused me as a child to piss myself while watching Sesame Street. I suck air. It’s filthy and wonderful. All sewage and roasting corn.

“We have to find the kind that’s all fruit, or mixed with milk,” I say, “the ones mixed with water can hurt us.”

“It’s so tempting though,” she whines, gesturing to a stand mixing prickly pear drinks, cantaloupe, coconut, tamarind.

“Those are the water ones, baby,” I say, “Trust me, you don’t want to get sick.” And immediately I hate playing the role of reason, of lack of surrender, but I’ve been struck with parasites many times before; once, years ago in Mérida, Yucatán, when I couldn’t help but eat a guyaba berry rolled in chile powder, handed to me by a cloaked 100-year-old Mayan woman sitting streetside on a blue plastic crate. I paid for such surrender with high fever and higher intestinal duress for weeks, cut with no sleep and freezing cold sweats. It was only later that I found out that, in Taíno mythology, that the guyaba was typically reserved for opías, or the walking dead, who would parade the Ceiba forests and make of the berry the edible centerpiece for their night-feasts, taking the form of pale navel-less humans, or bats. In fact, according to the legend, the ruler of these dead bore the name of Maquetaurie Guayaba, Lord of Sweet Delight. The nectar of the berry was often used as the base of a black body paint used to evoke the nature of death in various rituals and rites. So, maybe that had something to do with it.

“Oh, I know,” Louisa croons as we pass the fruit drink stands, “but they look so good.”

Restraint, especially when it comes to ingestibles, when we’re traveling has thankfully never been our strong suit as a couple. But pass the stands we do. Soon, as if antidote, we’re looking to buy a knife from a short middle-aged man in a tank-top, serpentine scar tattoos adorning both of his shoulders, moustache guyaba berry-death paint-dark, straw sombrero ripped open at the top, exposing his wet knotted hair. Surely we need something sharp with which to excise our agua fresca loss. We make this transaction wordlessly. The scarred man shows us various knives—thick-bladed, thin-bladed, switch-bladed, stone. Bright knives inlayed with jewels, knives used and stained with old blood and rust. When we shake our heads, he retrieves a new one from its slumber on his crowded blanket. He is barefoot and his foot-tops bear old puncture wounds.

After seven failed attempts, he retrieves a stunning obsidian knife with an Aztec design carved handle of green onyx. It is ancient-looking and beautiful, fresh from some painful sacrifice—agua fresca or otherwise. This is the one. The eyeballs convince us; carved into the handle, they bug-out at us, hypnotic enough for Louisa, continuing our opera of silence, to grab my unscarred shoulder. The man sees this, nods, and immediately wraps the knife in bubble-wrap and scotch tape. We pay him the 150 pesos (about twelve bucks) without bargaining, he touches our scalps as if blessing us, his tepid hands the texture of hessian, and we move on to the section of city on the other side of the Zócalo, where we have not yet been. Stone knife safely sheathed in packing material, we stroll the streets, teeming with life and neighborhood, dollies overloaded with wares of all kinds—carpets, jugs, cow heads, clothing—small cars honking, open flatbeds rattling, bicycles swerving, barely navigating the madness of street stand and pedestrian. We think of that man and his zither, can’t decide whether everything or nothing we see answers his endless question of Why? We barely navigate this madness ourselves, oblivious to the rules, the imbroglio of smell and sound, looking for anything alive to eat.

We were somewhere in Colorado after driving the day through Nevada and Utah, and we had miles ahead to go. The sun had set only a few minutes before, the twilight dimming over racing lengths of the Colorado River that we raced in turn, and the blue-edged black of early night was swiftly flooding the sky; we pulled into a gas station below a ridge lined with fast-food restaurants. Their signs were electric and bright against the deepening dark of the winding hills we’d driven behind us, and the plastic yellows and reds made the clean white and green panels of the gas station look more natural, somehow.

We were the only customers until a young couple in a black SUV pulled in across the empty lot. They stood close together on the other side of their car while they filled up, and talked in low voices. They both wore jeans and dark hooded tops; he put out a hand and touched her shoulder, awkwardly.

The distance from horizon to horizon above us, above the buildings and the highways, was vast, in its size, in its overwhelming impartiality. Dust from the road blew across the concrete beneath us; it settled and then passed as the breeze picked back up, and swept out into the shadows and the emptiness of the mountains and the valleys.

*

We were somewhere in West Texas and the man with the gut overhanging his belt was smiling as he spoke. Sweat beaded at his temples and he wore expensive-looking sunglasses under the white brim of his faded baseball cap. He was looking at Zara so I assumed he was talking to her; through the thickness of his accent I had no idea what he was saying. I kept the handle down and watched the numbers on the pump gauge race higher and higher. We’d come too close to running the tank empty. We’d been driving with the fuel light on for the last few hundred miles of old derricks and faded red soil and scrub. The orange LED had become increasingly apparent with every cresting hill that revealed nothing ahead but more of the same wide flats.

The air-conditioned convenience store of the gas station was a world away from the harsh dry oven heat of the morning outside. I grabbed a couple of bottles of water from the fridges and a pack of jerky from the display hooks and walked to the counter.

I paid with card and as soon as I’d signed the receipt and handed it back the lights flickered once and shut down. With a last despairing whine, the air conditioning choked into silence. Instantly the interior fell into shadow and the air turned still.

Customers groaned. The counter staff, a trio of women between fifty and sixty, fluttered to the computer and tried helplessly to turn it on.

‘Sorry,’ one of them called. ‘No gas. The pumps have gone too.’

Another minute and we would have been stuck here until the power came back. I made my way to the backroom bathrooms using the light of my phone’s screen to light the windowless corridor. When I came back out the power was still off. We got back into the car and drove away, leaving behind us the powerless gas station and the waiting customers, waiting still.

*

We were somewhere in Mississippi and we’d just crossed over both the state line and another one of the endlessly long bridges across the water. It was afternoon and I’d texted a photo of the road ahead of us to Joe Daly in San Diego. I was writing a text to someone else when I pressed a wrong button on my phone and it deleted the three weeks’s worth of conversation we’d been having.

The sun was over the sea and behind the ragged ghosts of clouds it was in glory; Zara reached down into her bag for her camera and passed it over to me.

Soon the long green marshes and waterways gave way to concrete sidewalks and suburban buildings and we found a low-roofed gas station circled with pickup trucks, with mothers in pulled-back ponytails and busy walks, with teen basketball players and laughing men in singlets holding beer cans. As we stood by the entryway a man with a head of tangled brown hair and a thin, scratchy beard walked up to Zara with carefully deferential steps. With all politeness, in a voice like road gravel and iron filings, he said hello.

‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ he asked. ‘Do you suppose I could buy a cigarette from you?’

Zara smiled and gave him one, waving away his offer of money.

‘Thank you,’ he said, and held it up to us happily, almost as if brandishing a prize. ‘First one I’ve had since I got out of jail this afternoon.’

*

We were somewhere in New Mexico and Zara was inside the gas station, buying something to drink on the road. I was leaning against the rough stone rear wall around the corner from the automatic doors, smoking. I’d barely lit up when the big Native American standing next to his truck straightened up and walked over to me.

‘Hey man,’ he said. ‘How are you today?’

He looked like he was somewhere past forty years old. He had a battered black cowboy hat and his face was solid and scarred and round. He wore a weathered denim jacket and a t-shirt that was rumpled and old over the size of his torso, all slack with fat and slouching muscle.

‘Well, thanks, man,’ I said. ‘How about you?’

He nodded once or twice at that, looked away, looked back.

‘Pretty good,’ he said.

He looked away, looked back.

‘That’s some accent you got there,’ he said. ‘Where are you from?’

His voice was slow and deep; melodic within a single register and unfettered by any trace of emotion.

‘Australia,’ I said. ‘Melbourne, Australia.’

‘An Aussie,’ he said, pronouncing the middle sibilants with hissing American esses, rather than buzzing Australian zeds. ‘Wow, you’re far from home.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling. ‘I’m on a road trip with a friend of mine.’

‘OK,’ he said, and looked away, looked back.

‘Chester Healy is my name,’ he said, and he stuck out a hand. We shook, and his grip was even in its strength.

We spoke, and I started to notice his speech fell into a pattern free of any of the flowing syntax I associated with conversation. He broke his replies apart with that curious look away, look back, wordless every time. Our talk fell into question, response, pause. Question, response, pause.  And Chester Healy casually, unthinkingly, dropped curses where they seemed out of place, further breaking the rhythm of his words.

‘So where have you been to?’ he asked, and he lit a cigarette.

‘Oh, everywhere,’ I said. ‘We started in LA, we drove out to New York across the north, then came down South through Washington and through Louisiana and Texas, and now we’re headed back to LA.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Washington,’ he said, saying the word as if it had some further importance than any other. ‘So did you get to see that fuckin’ nigger they got there, the one who keeps throwing his weight around?’

‘Of course,’ Chester Healy said, after a pause, look away, look back, ‘My wife is a black lady, so I can’t say too much. She gives me a hard time when I say fuckin’ things like that.’

Zara came around the corner then, and I introduced her. Chester Healy looked around at the cars at their petrol pumps and rubbed a hand across his chin.

‘I better be movin’ on,’ he said. ‘Things to do.’

He paused, looked away, looked back.

‘Say, do you have a spare couple bucks?’ he asked.

I only had a five in my wallet, and I handed it over. He shook my hand again. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘If you’re going near Flagstaff, watch out for smoke. I heard it fuckin’ over the radio. That whole place is fuckin’ on fire.’

His face, for the first time, split into a grin.

‘It sure was nice to meet you though,’ he said. ‘Never met a real live Aussie before.’

*

We were somewhere in Nebraska and I was drinking Red Bull. Zara had never tasted it and she sipped from the can and pulled a face.

‘Is it always that sweet?’ she asked, and shook her head. ‘I’ll stick with coffee, I think.’

I smiled and tipped the can up to swallow the last of it. The sweet, faintly chemical taste of energy drink was cold and sharp. A tingling wave ran over my scalp and I resisted the urge to run my hand through my hair.

For no apparent reason, the gas station garden beds were dotted with cheerful plastic dinosaurs. In lime green they stood watch over the roads leading into and out of the place, wet with the faint haze of rain that gently soaked the air.

*

We were somewhere in South Carolina and we’d been driving through a morning of thick, sweet-smelling warmth on our way to Charleston. The roads were overgrown and verdant at the sides, and pleasant in their dense miles of dark and leafy green. The night before we’d pulled in to the deserted parking lot of a small and modern-framed church to plot our route and the air had been awash with the scent of cinnamon.

It was sunny and the highway was lined with white honeysuckle. The plants were reaching and alive; long, long vines strung the trees further back into the woods. We drove into a gas station and when I got out of the car the sunshine was a gentle heat on my back. A flock of birds flew overhead in a long V and one of them called out a whistling arpeggio. Away in the foliage, another bird, unseen, called back.

Zara went inside while I worked the pump, and we passed each other at the doors as I walked in to get something to eat. I wandered through the aisles and the attendant kept a curious eye on me as I walked back to her with a handful of muesli bars.

‘So…’ she said slowly, in the first true Southern accent I’d heard on the road. She was pretty, in a plump, flushed way, and her sharp-collared white shirt was open two buttons at the neck. Her hair was streaked blonde and she wore golden rings. ‘Where are you all from?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m from Australia.’

‘Well,’ she said, and she smiled and leaned in towards me, ‘That lady out there in the car? I don’t know who she is to you, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.’

‘Ah,’ I said.

I returned to the car and as I was pulling my seatbelt on I told Zara what the woman inside had said.

‘Right,’ Zara said. ‘That explains why she was smiling and nodding so much.’

*

We were somewhere in Iowa and the storm had finally broken. The rain had come down in pounding torrents as we crossed the swollen Mississippi, and it had thrown hard across highways where the only guides through the blattering screens of water across the windshield were the fading red brake lights of the cars ahead, but for now, the clouds were exhausted, and holding back their recovering strength.

The turnoff to the gas station took us up a winding spiral road that wrapped around a hill in the middle of nowhere, nothing more than a place for people who need to refuel. The lot was busy with traffic, so we filled up and then moved the car to park by the embankment around to the side.

People bustled inside, talking to each other across the racks of road stop clothing, filling up cups of coffee at the dispensers, poring over the dried-out convenience foods in heating cases. Zara was fascinated by the hangers full of Jesus t-shirts emblazoned with psalm numbers and sorrowing pictures of the Saviour on the cross. She searched through them while I went to the counter to pay.

A bald man in rimless round glasses was there, talking to the clerk, and the two of us struck up a conversation. He’d been the principal of the local school for twenty years – appropriately, he looked like James Tolkan, the principal from the Back to the Future movies.

He was friendly, and we spoke a little about how long he’d lived out here, in this quiet space far away from the cities. He asked if I knew much about Iowa, and I mentioned Field of Dreams. He laughed at that, and we traded lines back and forth. He saw a lot of truth, he said, in the one about Heaven.

When I got back outside the air was cool and damp. Down below the top of the hill, soft green land stretched out, far into the distance. The sky was a rolling patchwork of light greys, and close. The breeze blew, only slightly, and I looked out to the smoky wisps of rain on the horizon, away on the edge of seeing, and then back to the peace of the place at hand.

What did it mean to say “as it’s beautiful?”

I’d heard a woman’s voice murmur behind me in a language I vaguely remembered.“Comme c’est beau,” she’d said.Her words allowed me to forget for a moment that we were at an Arizona pancake breakfast and that no one else at the campground’s popular morning cookout had understood her.Only I looked up from my plate of shortstacks.

There lay before us a petrified tree trunk, an ancient, formless hunk of wood I wouldn’t have labeled “beau” at all or in any form.At its base, a plaque proclaimed its age at a hundred million years, with the rings to prove it.

As I sat applying more maple syrup pretending that’s what cowboys used to do, language had suddenly caught up with me.I understood only then that, after all these achingly beau travels through the United States, I’d be returning to the same country she would.Having wandered this far west, all the way to a painted desert and a petrified national forest, I’d managed to overlook the fact that I was tourist.

You, Two.

By Zoe Brock

Travel

You are still a woman, at least you were the last time you checked. You check again, just to make sure. While you’re at it you admire your tan lines. Yup, doing good.

If you were the sun you’d kiss you too.

Day four.

You sleep badly but it’s of no consequence. To awake with a faceful of such beauty is almost visually jarring, then immediately soothing. Nature can really blow the socks off you sometimes, even when you aren’t wearing any, like now, because it’s too damn hot. The thought of socks makes your toes twitch. If your toes had faces they’d be frowning.

You are not alone. Your friend is asleep next to you, travel weary and slightly late to the party, but determined to make up for it. She arrived last night, an angel in a shuttle, coasting along a tar-black road on a tar-black night. The generators were down and the hotel was saturated in darkness. You’d given up waiting for her and were heading out for a drink, and you knew, the second before it happened, that when you stepped out of the shadows and into the streetlight, you’d find each other. It was so. The bus lights illuminated you, you both screamed with joy.

Kismet. Boom. Welcome to Tulum.

Now there are two.

You look around. This is, quite honestly, the sexiest room you’ve ever stayed in. You decide to stay another night, even though you can’t afford it, because life is short and there’s no use hoarding your nana’s fine china for special occasions. You’ve got to bust that shit out and let it get used and chipped and broken. The ancient Egyptians were wrong, you can’t take stuff with you when you die, and money is no exception. You think this, and you wonder, ruefully, if you’ll feel the same thing in a week when you check out your depleted bank balance.

You shrug.

Bartender!?

This morning you swim and wander, meeting people and making new friends. You run into friends of friends from Burning man and the synchronicity of everything reaffirms the right-on-ness of your decision to come here. You’re blessed to have your partner in crime with you. Her spirit helps to elevate you. She is a torch shining light upon you whenever your darker side appears. You are grateful.

You teach two people to bodysurf and watch your friend whirl topless cartwheels in the sand. This is the day you almost drown in the unforgiving ocean from uncontrollable laughter. It would not have been a bad way to go.

Day five.

At some point in the night the wind stops. At first this feels like blessed relief but soon you become aware of two things: it’s much hotter now, and, the mosquitos are coming.

Itchy, you seek solace in the ocean. You delight in confusing the swarming halo of bloodsuckers that hover overhead by diving beneath the waves and appearing elsewhere. Karma is a bitch.

The wind picks up before noon and blows your angelic crown of little devils away. Good riddance.

It’s time for a frosty beverage and you go inside to help prop up the bar. You’re selfless like that.

You hear that one of your heroes has passed away. Gil Scott Heron, ivory tickler and deep throated poet, a man who inspired you with his blunt honesty and heart stained sleeves. Gil always told the truth. Always. About his drug use, his mistakes, his lessons learned.

You drink a beer in his honor and play “Give Her a Call” before you sleep. It makes you feel sad and small and you miss the person you’ve been missing even more. You wish he would listen to that song. You wish he would really listen to it. Your heart hurts and you fall asleep with one hand on your heart and the other between your legs, holding yourself together, fearing you may break in half.

Day six.

You escape the beach and drive inland towards the ruins of Coba. You pass small villages where small statured women in bright dresses beat rainbows of hanging rugs with wooden poles and skinny dogs dart into traffic, trying to give you a heart attack and make you accountable for the portion of the car insurance that Hertz said isn’t covered by the ‘full liability coverage’ you purchased. Oh, Mexico.

In Coba you visit an ancient Mayan ruin dedicated to the honey bee. It makes you happy that an entire race of people worshipped the tiny creature you consider your totem. You hug the temple. It feels old and warm.

You ask a Mayan what he thinks about the paranoid among us who believe 2012 will be the end of the world. He laughs and says people should chillax. The world will keep on bumping along, long after we’ve killed ourselves off, he tells me. So there you go. Straight from a Mayans mouth.

Afterwards you drive to an underground cenote and jump 30 feet from a platform into cool fresh water while bats circle stalactites and small, fearless fish nibble your toes. It is quiet down there. It’s like a church. You’re in a holy place and you let the solitude and quiet envelop you until other humans come and break the peace. You leave.

The drive back is marred by the deaths of hundreds of butterflies. Perhaps thousands. They fly with such grace and beauty across the road ahead of you, and hit your windshield with such violence that it’s impossible not to gasp at every splat. Little yellow wings dot the asphalt. It’s carnage. There is nothing to do but grip the wheel and drive.

You make a pit stop at the police station on the way back to the beach to retrieve your license plate. The police have been kind enough to hold it for you after they removed it from the front of your car as punishment for a parking violation. They look so officious in their uniforms. You are tempted to do something weird so you can be thrown into a Mexican jail, just for a few hours, because you know what an awesome story it would make. Nothing like that happens. You pay your fine and retrieve your property.

Back at the hotel you are offered a cookie.

What kind of cookie, you ask.

It’s not peyote, you are told.

Seriously, what’s in it, you insist.

Everything, and nothing, comes the reply.

You eat the cookie.

The cookie messes you up.

You regret the cookie.

Bad cookie.

Day seven.

You are both awake at dawn, fuzzy-muddle-muggle-headed and confused from the night before. You watch the sunrise from different vantage points along the beach. You’re hungry and wish ceviche was on the breakfast menu. There is not enough ceviche in Mexico to satisfy your cravings for it.

Today you receive the most perfect massage of your life. You are a professional massage receiver, so this is no mean feat. You climb a ladder into a tall tree house and lay down on a bed with a view over the jungle and cenotes to the west. You undress and allow a gorgeous man with soulful eyes to manipulate your body and sing into your soul. When it ends you are happy. He is named for a holy book and for a minute you think about suggesting unholy things for the two of you to do together. But you don’t. Despite the mastery of his touch your body still feels like it belongs to another.

You drive back to your hotel to pack your things and prepare for an early departure. You watch the sun set and dream of never leaving. This place has captured a part of you. You run your fingers through the sand and find a pale pink shell. You let the shell slip through your fingers and into the foam. Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints, you murmur.


In the morning you’ll be gone, but you know you will be back. You’ve made too many friends here.

Day eight.

You rise again at dawn. The drama of the sunrise sucks a gasp from your breast as you lay beneath a light blanket on a beach chair and watch it all unfold. A scoop of pelicans flies low over the breaking waves, heading North for breakfast, and two beach dogs play and chase each other with early morning abandon. You, a golden girl, swim in a pink ocean, wearing nothing but pink panties, watching pink light dapple the clouds above.

It’s time to go. Back to reality, back to life. Back to a new job and new beginnings. It all feels strange. You are excited and replenished. You love new things but you dream of beginning again something old, of making that precious thing new and improved. You take a deep breath. What will be, will be. You are deserving of love and lust and luck. You believe in yourself, perhaps truly for the first time.

Viva Mexico, where the police are thieves, where colors heal, where there’s no such thing as “margarita mix”, and where old VW Bugs come to die.

Hasta la vista.

Gracias.

You

By Zoe Brock

Movies

YOU are a woman.

You might not have been a woman before you started reading, but for now, you most certainly are. Have fun with it, you slut.

You are a woman.

On March 3, which happens to be my father’s birthday, Totally Killer was published in French. Three weeks later, at the invitation of my publisher, Éditions Gallmeister, I flew to Paris to kick off a five-day, two-city book tour.

I expected to visit a few librairies, attempt to read from François Happe’s superb translation of the book without my tongue falling out, and be back in my hotel room by ten every night. I expected to get a lot of reading done. I expected to take long hot baths. I expected to see the sights. I expected no one to have read the book. I expected to be pretty much ignored.

Let’s just say my expectations were exceeded in the best possible way.

I was too busy meeting booksellers, inscribing books, decrying capitalist exploitation, and trying to remember the difference between envie de and besoin de to pay much attention to Twitter. (Plus, Twitterific didn’t work on my iPhone. #twitterificfail)

So here, then, a month late, are tweets I would have tweeted were I tweeting while in France. (Note: My brain does not have a 140-character counter, so if some of these run a touch long…c’est la vie.)

 

 

PREMIÈRE PARTIE: PARIS

 

1. Mardi/mercredi, le vol

 

Can the contrast between the point of departure and point of arrival be more stark than Newark to Paris direct? The City of Lights from the City of Raw Sewage.

 

* * *

 

Boarding the plane, the pre-flight stress behind me, I’m suddenly overcome with emotion. It hits me: I’m going to France—fucking France!—on a book tour! Me! Somewhere my French teacher is smiling. My English teacher, too.

 

* * *

 

No one’s sitting next to me! Cool. I can totally stretch out.

 

* * *

 

This Whiskey Brothers podcast is funny.

 

* * *

 

Air France is not stingy with the vino. Or the Champagne.

 

* * *

 

The flight attendant and the pilot speak French (duh). I shall have to break out my un peu Français soon. Zut alors!

 

* * *

 

Philippe, my editor, meets me at the airport. He identifies himself by waving around a poster of the Totally Killer cover. There is a French word for the kind of cajones it requires to wave around a poster of a gun at an airport. That word is chutzpah.

 

* * *

 

Philippe is wearing a hip t-shirt, jeans, cool glasses, and a corduroy blazer. I am wearing a hip t-shirt, jeans, cool glasses, and a corduroy blazer. This is the first clue that Philippe and I have a lot in common.

 

* * *

 

“There has been a change in the schedule,” he tells me. From the level of apology in his voice, I’m certain the TV interview (which I’d bragged about on Facebook) has been kibboshed—but no. “The interview with Radio RFI is off. She really wants to do it, but she can’t, because they are on strike.” Bienvenue à France!

 

* * *

 

I haven’t slept since Monday night New York time, and it’s now Wednesday morning in Paris. No way I make it through the day without a serious power nap. But what hotel will check me in at nine in the morning? Fortunately, Marie-Anne, my publicist, has thought of this, and arranged for me to check in early. This is the first clue that Marie-Anne is really kick-ass at her job.

 

* * *

 

Snowing in New Jersey, but 68 and sunny here. Paris, je t’aime.

 

* * *

 

The Hotel de la Sorbonne is a small and quiet inn right across the street from the eponymous French university. The Pantheon is a block away. I can walk to Notre Dame from here, easy. Of more exigent importance, there is a bed. J’ai fatigue. J’ai besoin de zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

 

 

 

 

2. Mercredi, l’après midi

 

 

There’s a bookstore every other block here. I’m not even exaggerating. There are more bookstores than bars, seems like. And in almost all of them, there’s my book, often in the window, usually prominently placed, sometimes with a note of endorsement from the bookseller.

 

 

 

* * *

 

Let me reflect on the enormity of that for a moment: My book is in almost every bookstore in Paris. I honestly don’t even know how to process this.

 

* * *

 

Also of note: how often the word art is used here. So many buildings, museums, streets, shops, all with art or arts in the title.

 

* * *

 

The streets of Paris are named after writers. In New York, city of bankers, the streets are either numbered or bear the surnames of the aristocratic dead.

 

* * *

 

I meet Marie-Anne and Philippe for lunch at a restaurant hidden above a cinema that is said to be owned by Catherine Deneuve. I have a double espresso.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne reminds me of my friend Ruth. This means nothing to you (unless you’re Ruth; hi, Ruth!), but to me, it means I can relax and let her do her thing. Both Marie-Anne and Ruth are really really good at Getting Shit Done.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne walks really fast. I walk fast, too—I lived in New York for ten years; I don’t mosey—but wow, can she fly.

 

* * *

 

Craig Johnson” sounds funny when spoken with a French accent. (Craig is the author of Little Bird, also published by Gallmeister).

 

* * *

 

To the 16eme Arrondisement, and the broadcast headquarters of France24, a relatively new cable news network in the manner of CNN. “There are 23 million viewers,” I’m told. That’s how many Facebook fans I have, give or take 23 million.

 

* * *

 

I’m getting my makeup done (!) when a production assistant comes in and tells me that the show has been revamped. “Elizabeth Taylor just died,” she said. “I don’t know if you knew that.” I didn’t. My first thought: Duke should write about that.

 

* * *

 

Katherine Nicholson—Kat—is the host, and she will be interviewing me. She’s very nice. She tells me she just finished the book, and she really liked it, especially all the pop cultural references.

 

 

* * *

 

Forgot to mention: Kat is British. For some reason, after a day of calibration for French and French-accented English, a British accent sounds almost like a different language.

 

* * *

 

Kat does two takes. On one, she pronounces the “r” at the end of “Killer”. It sounds cooler when she drops it: totally kill-uh. They go with that one.

 

* * *

 

Eight minute interview gone in the blink of an eye. I manage to sit still and not use “like” or “uh” too much. Also, my hair looks good.

 

* * *

 

“There’s one thing about the book. I didn’t want to say it on the air,” Kat says. I’m all, uh-oh. She says, “The phone on the cover? That’s from the mid-90s, not 1991!”

 

* * *

 

Back to the hotel to rest up for the party at Philippe’s apartment.

 

* * *

 

Writing the first TNB postcard. I hope this works…

 

 

 

 

3. Mercredi, le soir

 

 

Marie-Anne fetches me at the hotel. We cab across town, to Montmartre, Pigalle, and the 18eme Arrondisement. The hip part of town.

 

* * *

 

The cab stops in front of Le Moulin Rouge. I mean, there’s the fucking windmill, right there! I feel like I should burst into song. Hey sisters soul sisters gotta get that dough sisters…

 

 

 

* * *

 

Philippe and Anne, his wife, have a to-die-for apartment. Super-high ceilings, spacious rooms, oversized windows overlooking the side street where they live, huge bookshelves teaming with books, and really cool art on the walls.

 

* * *

 

I am looking at the books on Philippe’s shelves. It is clear to me why he bought my book, as we have the same exact taste in books. It’s like someone has teleported my bookcases to Pigalle. (I suspect Richard Cox).

 

* * *

 

Todd’s “Taylor Mix,” the one on the first page of Totally Killer, is playing on the stereo.

 

* * *

 

I meet Oliver, my publisher. He is carrying a box of wine into the vestibule. And not a case of wine—a cardboard box full of wine, in which the bottles are stacked one on top of the other, like socks. Talk about an entrance!

 

* * *

 

Philippe whips up quite the pasta salad.

 

* * *

 

“We don’t publish books we like,” Oliver tells me, patting my back. “We don’t have time for that. We put out ten books a year; we only publish books we love.”

 

* * *

 

The apartment begins to fill up. The Gallmeister crew: Oliver, Mary-Anne, Katarina (who is from St. Petersburg), and of course Philippe; Anne; and twenty or so Parisian booksellers.

 

* * *

 

I am expecting them to regard me as an arriviste. I am expecting them to regard me with suspicion. I am expecting them to make for the wine and the cheese and ignore me entirely.

 

* * *

 

I can’t believe how many of them have read the book! I can’t believe how many of them like it! I can’t believe how much French I can understand!

 

* * *

 

When your work is being complimented, your fluency jumps up a notch right quick.

 

* * *

 

One of the booksellers, a beautiful and hip woman named Sophie, is wearing the coolest ring I’ve ever seen. It’s basically a jagged piece of broken mirror on a ring. I want to get one like that for Stephanie! I compliment her on the ring, in my best French, which falls somewhere between “un peu” and “repeating ça va over and over.”

 

* * *

 

In France, it is against the law to sell a book for less than a slight percentage less than the price listed on the jacket. (Talk about prix fixé!). What this means is, a mega-box-store—or an Amazon—can’t kill off the indies by selling books at enormous volume discounts.

 

* * *

 

What this means is, indie booksellers are protected by the government from huge monolithic corporations underselling them into extinction.

 

* * *

 

Vive la socialisme!

 

* * *

 

“That would never fly in America,” I say. “To us, capitalism and the free market must be defended against all opposition—even if said opposition is The Good of All Humanity.” In the USA, our motto is shareholders über alles.

 

* * *

 

The French government is like the Lorax, and the price regulation is an edict protecting the Truffula trees/bookstores from the brutal ax of Once-lerian capitalism.

 

* * *

 

“Once-ler” is almost an anagram of “Olear.”

 

* * *

 

I ask Philippe and Katarina what Oliver’s last name is. “Gallmeister,” they say, and they both laugh at me.

 

* * *

 

I ask about politics. Everyone knows who George W. Bush is, and that he is an asshole, but Dick Cheney is more of an unknown. I enlighten them.  “He is a walking example of eminence grise,” I say.

 

* * *

 

Q. How do you make a Frenchman make a face like someone just broke wind? A. Ask how he feels about Sarkozy.

 

* * *

 

Q. How do you make a Frenchman flee in horror? A. Ask about Marine Le Pen.

 

* * *

 

If Sarah Palin were French, blonde, smart, dignified, classy, able to connect with a broader group of people, and the daughter of a perennial far-right political candidate, her name would be Marine Le Pen. Sarko is toast and she’s running; people are afraid.

 

 

 

* * *

 

I keep waiting for some other writer to show up. It’s hard to believe these people are here for me.

 

* * *

 

I give a short speech. I thank Philippe and Anne for hosting, and Oliver and Marie-Anne for coordinating. I thank the booksellers for coming. I tell them it’s an honor to be here. I tell them I love France. Then Oliver makes a few jokes, and the party continues.

 

* * *

 

I ask Sophie where she got the ring, explaining that I want to get one for my wife. “My friend made it,” she says. “When are you going back? I can see if she can make her one.” But Sunday is too soon.

 

* * *

 

So Sophie—lovely, amazing Sophie—gives me her ring to give to Stephanie! (I offer to pay for it, but she won’t let me). “My friend will make a new one, and she’ll be glad someone is wearing it in New York.”

 

* * *

 

Sophie, you are awesome.

 

* * *

 

Oliver doesn’t believe me. He (sagely) makes sure the gift is really a gift and not a translation error.  He makes sure I’m not making a…what is the French word for faux pas?

 

* * *

 

I met Emmanuelle, my sub-agent, who is directly responsible for me being here.  God bless you, Emmanuelle.

 

* * *

 

The others are sitting in a circle, all but Oliver smoking, arguing about the future of books, publishing, the price fix law, literature in general, in France. I’m tired, and I’m not fluent to begin with, so I only understand a few words here and there, but it’s fascinating to watch them talk.

 

* * *

 

The (friendly) argument is mostly between Oliver and a man named Sebastian, who has an incredibly expressive face. He gesticulates liberally as he makes his points. I love watching him talk.

 

* * *

 

The party winds down. Wednesday night, and I don’t get back to the hotel room until 2 am.

 

 

 

3. Jeudi, l’après midi

 

 

I sleep till noon. Longest uninterrupted sleep I’ve had in quite some time. A few hours to walk around the city before the radio interview.

 

* * *

 

Everything comes with salad here. Croque madame, steak frites, escargots. Salad is like the French French fry.

 

* * *

 

The waiter is furious for no apparent reason (fortunately, he’s not furious at me). I would totally watch a reality show that just filmed French waiters at work.

 

* * *

 

The architecture in Paris is homogeneous, much of it built in the same style, at the same time, and imposing in its unquestionable beauty and ostentation. Like every building in the city is wearing a tuxedo. The same palette: an off-white, faded by the elements and yellowed by cigarette smoke.

 

* * *

 

That’s why the Eiffel Tower is so amazing: it couldn’t be more different than the prevailing architecture of the city. It’s like this roller coaster-like monument to science fiction dominating the skyline.

 

* * *

 

Notre Dame looks like a spaceship. It does.

 

* * *

 

Lots of students milling around. No one is fat, and no one is emaciated. Healthy figures, devil-may-care coiffure, black and gray and dark blue clothes, funky glasses, cigarettes going. I love it.

 

* * *

 

No one smokes inside restaurants or hotels, but outside, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Even Zidane, arguably the greatest French athlete, smokes.

 

* * *

 

I have a man-crush on Zidane. (In English, this would be a good joke, but I’m not sure how to convey the subtlety in French, so I keep it to myself.)

 

* * *

 

At the pharmacie, I find a bottle of Klorane, the best shampoo on earth. Score!

 

* * *

 

My cell phone rings, startling me. Unknown caller. Who the hell is calling me? It’s a man’s voice. I panic; I’m sure it’s Oliver, and I’ve overslept and missed the radio interview.

 

* * *

 

It’s Nat Missildine, ringing from Dijon!

 

* * *

 

He has an ever-so-slight French timbre in his voice. This pissing-in-the-violin stuff is a ruse, I think; he speaks French just fine. He is—and this will come as a shock to no one—very nice.

 

* * *

 

“Don’t tip the waiters!” he says at the end of our chat.

 

* * *

 

Off to do the radio interview!

 

* * *

 

Odile Barski, my fellow radio guest, is incredibly elegant. She wears red fingerless gloves and a matching scarf, and her bearing is downright regal. She would be a perfect Lydia Murtomaki in the French film of Totally Killer.

 

* * *

 

I resist the urge to make a “Are you Banksy?” joke to Madame Barksi.

 

* * *

 

Odile says she’s read my book and she really enjoyed it. Is she just saying that to be nice? Something tells me no. Her IMDB page is a mile long—even longer than Duke’s.

 

* * *

 

This is a live broadcast, in French. I will have a translator, who will whisper in my ear as Tewfik Hakem, the affable host, speaks. She will then translate what I say as I say it. So I should talk slowly. No pressure.

 

* * *

 

Tewfik is around my age. He’s wearing jeans, a white t-shirt, and a sweater vest. He says he likes the book and is looking forward to discussing it.

 

* * *

 

“We will play Elvis Costello for you at the end of the segment,” Tewfik says.

 

* * *

 

Okay, this whole translation thing is VERY hard. You have to actively not listen to the person talking to you, making eye contact with you, and instead listen to the person whispering in your ear.

 

* * *

 

Why is it that at any live event, I always feel the need to burp really loud? A Tums, a Tums, my kingdom for a Tums!

 

 


 

What’s really difficult about this is, I can understand French just well enough to get what Tewfik is saying. Which means I have to just ignore him and tune him out to make this work. This would have been easier if he were speaking Japanese.

 

* * *

 

We are just talking about thrillers. All around the world, ambassadors from countries are communicating this way about nuclear arms and ceasefire treaties. I have a whole new respect for diplomats.

 

* * *

 

Tewfik seems to have really enjoyed the book.

 

* * *

 

Phew, that’s done. And here comes the Elvis: photographs and fancy tricks, to get your kicks at sixty-six…

 

* * *

 

“Fathermucker” does not translate into French. Hanging out after the broadcast, Tewfik asks me about my new book. “It’s called, what, Motherfucker?”

 

* * *

 

Back to the hotel, to interview with two bloggers. Or, as they are called in French, bloggeurs (accent on the second syllable).

 

* * *

 

Nicholas interviews me for his blog. He asks about The Nervous Breakdown. He thinks it’s great. He would like to do something similar in France.

 

* * *

 

I am explaining the inherent problem with the capitalist system: that it is finite. Its success depends on worker exploitation, and one of these decades, we’ll run out of workers to exploit. And then where will we be? Nicholas nods in furious agreement.

 

* * *

 

Marie-Anne and I walk to the bar where we will meet a group of bloggeurs. This involves going past Notre Dame. And going past it really quickly, because she walks really fast, as discussed. Did I mention it’s hot today? It’s hot today.

 

* * *

 

The event is on the second floor of a bar called Étages. I order a Champagne cocktail, because they have them, and because that’s what Victor Laszlo ordered at Rick’s Café Americain.

 

* * *

 

Louis Renault, one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema, and speaker of some of the best-known lines (“I’m shocked, shocked,” “Round up the usual suspects”): a Frenchman.

 

* * *

 

“Speak French if you can,” Marie-Anne says, as I introduce myself to the assembled bloggeurs (there are about a dozen, I think, who were good enough to come out).

 

* * *

 

“Oh, do you speak French?” asks Laurent, one of the bloggeurs, whose English is terrific (he worked in New York for awhile). “Un peu,” I announce.

 

* * *

 

Wow, a lot of the bloggeurs have read the book! And everyone who’s read it seems to have enjoyed it.

 

* * *

 

C’est vrai—je parle Français maintenant. That’s right. I’m getting’ my French on.  Somewhere, my high school French teacher is cringing.


 

* * *

 

You know the guy who wins for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and goes up to the podium and thanks the Academy in painfully slow and stilted English? I have enormous sympathy for that guy right now.

 

* * *

 

What I’m doing is, I’m trying to use English words that sound like they might be cognates, and pronouncing them like Maurice Chevalier. I just used the word erudite. The bloggeurs were impressed.

 

* * *

 

Talking about the new book—I defer to Philippe a bit here—I have to use the word motherfucker to explain the title. Fortunately, no one seems offended.

 

* * *

 

You know what this is? This is a book club meeting. The Totally Killer book club meeting. How many American novelists can claim that the first time they visited a book club to discuss a book they’d written, it was in Paris and they had to speak French?


 

* * *

 

The bloggeurs are great! I hope they write nice things about me. (Mental note: Google yourself in French when you get home).

 

* * *

 

The bloggeur party ends, and we head for a late dinner at a small, busy restaurant a few blocks away. Laurent joins us. The waiter looks like he walked out of a movie from the 1970s that Duke would write a TNB post about. He has the best glasses ever.

 

* * *

 

I love watching the waiters.  I really want that reality show.

 

* * *

 

Casting the French movie of Totally Killer (which would go down in Paris instead of New York). Marie-Anne wants Jude Law as Asher; Philippe and I shoot this down. I propose Romain Duris. “Too short,” Philippe says. But he looks the part.

 

* * *

 

“Sara Forestier would play Taylor,” Marie-Anne says, pronouncing the surname like it’s the Subaru model. “Sara Forester? She’s French? Because she sounds like she’s from Wisconsin.” “No, no, she’s French.”  She shows me Forestier’s picture on her iPhone.  I’m sold.

 

* * *

 

“Do you want wine?” Philippe asks. Mais oui! I’m in France, for Pete sake! Wine me!

 

* * *

 

Steak frites! And more salad.

 

* * *

 

It’s almost midnight, and the evening comes to an end. Laurent says, “You know, your French is better than en peu.” I tell him I’m using that as a blurb.

 

* * *

 

Last night at the Hotel de la Sorbonne. Tomorrow, after petit-dejeuner with my friend Melissa (“Breakfast is the new drinks,” she’ll tell me), it’s off to Lyon for the Quais du Polar Festival International and more adventures.  But it is already clear that Éditions Gallmeister is formidable, magnifique, superb, and other not-false cognates, and that I lucked out with my publisher.



 

Next time: La Deuxième Partie…The Kings of Lyon.


Money: it’s not the Mark anymore, obviously, but the Euro. It comes with a slew of coins, of which I have countless every evening, because I’m not used to coins anymore. Having lived in the States for fifteen years, I’m also not used to the different-color-and-size bills, which my memory doesn’t accept as German. The other Germans do however, and once called the Euro the Teuro (the Expensivo). They don’t use that nickname anymore. Starbucks Latte starts at $4.50.

Toilets: Few of the truly Teutonic bowls remain, but I happen to have rented one with my apartment. New bowls don’t swirl water the American way but push it, dump it. But they do look pretty much the same. Old bowls however have a step, a throne, on which things rest until the flush. “Good for taking samples,” a friend remarked.

Sports: If you don’t like soccer, you’re out of luck. There’s a bit of tennis in the news, a bit of Formula One (see above; hey, a German is the reigning champion), and the rest is soccer. Oh, there is also handball (soccer with the hands). Every other sport in any other country is dutifully ignored to talk some more about the dismissal of the Bayern Munich coach and the re-hiring of one of his predecessors. I’d rather watch Clippers games.

Cars: I thought I loved Audis. After five weeks in Germany I’m looking forward to seeing Crown Vics. Imagine a school full of Little Princes.

Speech: There’s a strange wordy meekness in colloquial, and now even written, German. What in English would be a hearty “Let’s do it,” becomes a “Ja, das könnten wir schon auch noch mal machen.” It expresses weariness and the not-so-secret conviction that things will not be possible. It’s the same pattern used for complaints about life and work.

Recently, while scouring the sports pages for reading material (I’m not a soccer fan), I came across this sentence, describing the problems Ferrari is having with its Formula One team, its small steps of progress, and the fans’ impatience: “Für einen so vorsichtigen Aufwärtstrend wie Ferrari ihn mit dem Brasilianer Felipe Massa auf Platz fünf und dem Spanier Fernando Alonso auf Rang sechs in Malaysia andeuteten, findet das in größeren Kategorien tickende Temperament Italiens tatsächlich keine wirkliche Nuance.”

Translated, the sentence means, “Ferrari fans were not impressed.”

Heating: It’s hot and dry in German houses, hotels, galleries, and apartments. In the 80s and 90s, old apartments still had large, tiled coal ovens to heat the rooms. They kept rents affordable and every surface dusty-red. If you came home in irregular intervals, you found your home icy-cold and it took two hours for the oven to heat up again. Windows were crappy too, and my flowers always had fresh air, even after I had sealed the frames and cracks for the winter.

Nowadays, central heat rules even the German capital, and only the staircases remain as dark and damp as ever, emanating the dank smell of Protestant churches. Inside it’s hot and dry. In bathrooms, the heaters are ladder-shaped, great for drying towels, socks, etc. The windows are new and airtight. When I wake up in the small apartment in the geriatric district of Steglitz I feel as though I’m having a nosebleed. My tongue can only be removed from wherever it’s stuck with force. I hang wet laundry everywhere. It dries in mere hours.

Complaints: Not even Germans like Germany. Many of the people I talked to have plans on leaving, dreams of leaving (I heard those same comments in Buffalo, NY. Most of the ones who left ended up in North Carolina).

Germans love to complain about life and their country. It seems in bad taste not to take life hard. I fit right in. It’s as though complaining is a way of showing that you’re in on the joke, even though and because you have no idea what that joke might be. However, they do seem certain that there is one. If you don’t complain you’re either an arrogant asshole, or you are just showing how superficial and gullible you are. Saying you’re enjoying yourself is as bad as admitting that you have three nipples or a second belly button.

Berlin: it’s hard to embrace a city that was 70 percent destroyed and rebuilt on a smaller, uglier scale after World War II. What remains of pre-war Berlin is quite beautiful, yet it feels impossible to fully embrace it. You might find a particular building beyond the park fascinating, even beguiling, until you find out it housed the Nazi court that sent political dissidents to their death. The feeling is close to finding out your beloved grandfather was a war criminal. Here, your whole family turns out to have been war criminals. They’re your family. You love them, especially in the spring, which is always fragile and seduces young couples in parks and by the canals. You love them. They are war criminals. You love them?

Language: It’s difficult for me to speak German, it won’t fit into my mouth correctly. People comment on my accent. Then there are sudden bursts of language, old channels opening and releasing idioms, sayings, and TV jingles I haven’t heard or used in fifteen years. These come with discomfort, as though I’ve sworn or eaten a bag of candy.

I love to think that I love Berlin, but there comes a moment when what your eyes find again is not what you remembered. And when I put the old images on top of the new they won’t fit anymore. It’s a delicious moment, full of hidden longings. I’m trying to see how my lover has grown. But maybe the gap between old and new has widened too much, my mind refuses to fall in love again. Maybe I’m in love with my memories of fragile and seductive springs. Maybe that’s what Berlin has become for me — a place without a present.

Contrary to popular belief, the most dominant dog in any given pack is rarely the first one you notice.

Like any dictator, an alpha dog may be either benevolent or tyrannical, but unlike many human dictators, alpha dogs are never emotionally fragile, touchy, needy, or exceptionally demonstrative.  They just don’t generally stick out unless something has gone seriously awry.

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

I do have coffee a lot in Berlin now, since I’m in Germany for several weeks and have chosen the old and new capital as my base camp.

I lived here for eleven years, fifteen years back. That might explain why I can’t see to get a grip on the city. There are places I don’t recognize anymore, renovated, restored, re-done, over-developed. Those are the easiest, since they are merely new. But there are also tons of places that haven’t changed one bit. Not at all. Or, to be more precise, the places haven’t changed, and according to the circular laws of fashion, the outfits of the people who inhabit these places (take, for example Kottbusser Tor, a major hub in the still somewhat cool district of Kreuzberg, which looks as ratty and lost and crowded as ever) have reverted to 80s Berlin chic – black, short jackets, black boots, asymmetrical and bleached or dyed hair. Nothing looks new or clean. It’s enough to creep me out. I have aged, whereas Berlin has remained the same. None of my life has happened. It can’t have. I’m Pamela Ewing’s dream of Bobby.

Germany produces what are arguably the best cars in the world. Germany also makes some of the best kitchen appliances money can buy. You’d expect flying Minis or VW Polos by now, and they might come soon, but free wifi is another matter. Forget free wifi, internet connections are dreadful in general.

In the free world coffee shops are there to provide wifi and barely drinkable java. Not here. And even if you get wifi, it’s bound to break down at regular intervals, about every 15 minutes or so. I’m drinking a lot of Starbucks for that reason, because they are “experimenting” with free wifi. It’s slow. It’s freaking excruciatingly slow. Do you remember dial-up?

Germany also brought you the tear-free onion-hacker. Try to buy one, though. Half the businesses don’t accept credit cards. Instead they use EC-cards, Euro-Cheque cards. Kinda like debit cards but the money is always guaranteed, even in case of over-drafting. But of course that EC business excludes foreigners, American or otherwise. And I can’t shake the feeling Berliners like it that way.

Why? Well, when I arrived I tried to buy a Handy (the, umh, German term for a cell phone). Turns out, pre-paid phones need to be registered to an owner, and in order to become such an owner, you need to have a Personalausweis, the German ID card. I pulled my passport, it’s truly German, but that wouldn’t do. ID card or bust. With pride, the young sales clerk said, that this system ensured that terrorists could not make anonymous, unregistered calls, the way they can in America. He was beaming. I was not. But our faces were both red. My friend bailed me out. I do have a handy now, and if I should use it for stalking people (the clerk was also happy to prevent that), or try terrorizing Germany, my friend will get busted. I tried to pay with credit card.

Germans love soccer and the newspapers’ sports pages are devoted to soccer alone. Well, okay, there’s ice-hockey (yes, they call it that), handball (another sport without an American future), and tennis (but only if a German player defeated a much better foreign player. The devotion to soccer extends to the fitness club I joined here on a very expensively temporary basis, but where they do serve a mean coffee. The urinals sport small goals (yes, down there), with tiny soccer balls dangling from the goal post. You aim, and, if it’s strong enough, “Goaaaal.” If you drink a lot of coffee, as I do these days, you score a lot.

I recently woke to a blue sky over a place I didn’t want to leave and I should have guessed that from there the rest of the day would take on the kind of proportions it didn’t fully deserve.

San Francisco isn’t supposed to be part of America, but I saw it as heartland visiting again after eight years living away and abroad.If there was anywhere I fit in, on any continent, it had to be this place with the blue sky white at the edges and fierce MUNI drivers and food choices galore and ideas forever coming to fruition and close, brisk ocean.Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes. I’d convinced myself moving back might make my world less complicated. So I went looking for signs urging me to return and, if those didn’t turn up, I needed irrefutable reasons why my young family and I should live out the rest of our days here, within a country that was plummeting further, rising from the ashes or just realizing the dream.Until I confirmed which one applied, I was only on vacation.

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.

This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.

You just never know.

I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.

We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.

Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.

The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.

The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.

I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.

“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.

He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”

“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”

“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”

“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”

“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.

“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone must be broken.”

“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.

Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.

Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.

“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.

So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.

I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”

“They fried it.”

“I’m serious.”

“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”

“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”

And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.

“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.

“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.

“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.

“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”