Story: Francisco Gets A Handle on Life
By: Gaither Stewart
“You don’t have any idea what the real world is,” Juan Francisco said softly, looking up from his easel and scowling at her curled form in the narrow bed a few steps away. “You’re thirty years old, verdad? But you’re still the spoiled rich girl from Las Lomas … still dependent on your father.”
He smiled to himself when he saw her twitch. He let his last words sink in before continuing, louder now.
“For Christ’s sake, when are you going to grow up? You don’t even know why you’re here, right? Tell me, if you know. Why are you here? But just don’t mention the word love, please. So why? Tell me why. The truth is—you know what the truth is?—you don’t want to grow up. You know what you should do, niña bien? You should go back home and live your life with Papá and the rest of your class.”
Marisa squirmed and wriggled at his words pouring down on her. It was that ‘rest of your class’ that got to her. Actually they were his origins too, but he shouted to the winds that he’d rejected that ‘disgusting class’. Above all, she hated his epithet, niña bien, the spoiled rich girl.
Two lamps illuminated the big canvas, the gas stove in the corner near the window burned red, and it was cozy in the long narrow room with lime-washed walls and high ceilings. But Juan Francisco was out of tune with the setting, and despite his two sweaters and wool scarf he was freezing. Immobile in front of the easel, the cold mornings were unbearable. Maliciously, he turned up the volume of the boombox blasting Mexican country music—to shake her from the bed and to dampen the roar of the morning traffic on the steep cobblestone street just outside the ground level window.
“You don’t like me, do you?” he shot at her covered form, and threw his brush on the tile floor. “You’ve never liked me. God knows why you put up with me. You just have to have a man, verdad? And you don’t want to be the niña bien, do you? But it’s in your blood.”
From an initial trickle his words had become a stream, then a torrent.
Marisa snuggled deeper under the covers.
“You are what you are and you’ll always be that. Just that. You can’t escape. You can live with an artist, you can sleep around all you want, you can smoke and drink, you can have your own apartment and vacation in La Jolla, but you’ll always be Papá’s little girl—a product of Las Lomas, Mexico City. Away from there, you’re lost. You think you’re immune to the problems that face everyone else but no, dearest little girl, you don’t know what the real world is about. You … ”
Marisa covered her ears. Will he never stop? As if I were responsible for where I was born. Real life! As if he knew what it is! He talks and talks. Unceasingly. Relentlessly. He has to say everything possible on every subject. He talks in crowds. He talks to himself, to his paintings, to the mirror, but most of all to me. I’m his sounding board. Egocentric tyrant…. But he’s right. What am I doing here? I don’t need him. If I were just not afraid he’d die without me. Or go completely insane. I’ll leave him anyway. I will. Most certainly I’m going to quit. Maybe today. I’ve said it so many times. It’s unbearable. He makes love to me in the evenings and hangs onto my breasts all night and wakes me every few hours to talk more. Or he gets up to turn on the stove. Or to feed the cat … and to talk to me. I’ll leave him. I will.
Juan Francisco Alvarez was considered the best painter in the town. The town didn’t deserve him, he himself said. So superior was his work to that of the hundreds of painters in San Miguel that he thought of his hill overlooking the town as Parnassus. He was here because of his mother, he said. Not because of some extreme filial attachment, but because she had this big house and she needed his financial support. Anyway, he’d been at loose ends in Mexico City after Gertrude left, after his bouts with alcohol, cocaine and a bad marriage.
Thank God, his small paintings sold well in the restaurants and minor galleries here as they once had in Mexico City—the wretched things he used to throw out the windows in a drunken rage. Usually he felt like burning it all. His shrink Fiedler said it was the typical case of the creator who fears his own greatness.
But those paintings are not the real Juan Francisco Alvarez, he thought. My real art is here in the back room of my studio. Or, still in my head.
He stared toward Marisa, aware of his hatred of his dependence on her—on the assurance a woman brings. His mother, however, was another thing. Her life, pobrecita, poor thing, revolved around him. She got up in the mornings to have her Johnny’s coffee ready. She set her watch by him. That is, she had until a few months ago when she shattered his new life. For no acceptable reason she took a lover. She brought him into the house. The usurper, Estéban López, was up there now. Screwing his mother. Distracting his mother from her son. What ingratitude! What neglect! What maternal wantonness!
It was already nine, maybe ten o’clock, and he hadn’t yet had his coffee. Again he frowned at Marisa. Why wasn’t she up? She was the buffer between him and the upstairs couple, his mother Elizabeta and Estéban.
He turned and looked in the big mirror he used for self-portraits and his favorite bed games. He adjusted his scarf and ran his hand through receding but still dark hair that he wore straight back. Thick sensuous lips turned outwards revealed his very white teeth marred by two brown ones in the upper center. He closed his mouth. He was pleased when people spoke of his Roman nose, strong and expressive. He liked his smooth wrinkleless face that when he wasn’t talking was apparently calm and reflective; yet he and everyone else knew it concealed a stormy nature. Tall and slim, with a narrow waist, good shoulders and his mother’s wide blue eyes, Juan Francisco knew he was a handsome man.
He turned his head to the left and right and admired his strong profile. “Thank God for Mother’s Swedish blood running through my veins,” he murmured.
He looked at Marisa’s reflection in the mirror. She had sat up in bed. He looked at her naked breasts. He liked her tousled morning look. She was a sexy woman. Somehow she looked more striking second hand. Not that she wasn’t beautiful. Maybe she was a little heavy, like many Mexican women after 30, but she was tall and dark, with big black eyes, wonderful skin and big protruding breasts. Her beauty was classical. Nonetheless he was right—Marisa Romero was the prototype of the niña bien. Poor thing! But she was right too—it wasn’t her fault; she was the product of an all-encompassing system. At least she was trying to break out. I have no right to treat her that way, he thought. But that’s just the way I am.
“Would you please go upstairs and get the coffee,” he said as gently as possible. “You know I can’t work without it.”
“Okay, okay, I’m going.” Marisa slid her feet to the cold terra-cotta floor, slipped on his robe, stepped into woolen slippers and stood behind Juan Francisco. Instinctively she wrapped her arms around him from behind, raised the scarf, and kissed the back of his neck. Peeking around him she searched for his eyes in the mirror. Just as she expected, the wild look was there. It was going to be a bad day. He said she was spoiled—in reality everyone spoiled Johnny, as the family called Juan Francisco. Now with his big exhibition in France coming up in the fall, he was like a child. And since Estéban was up there in the main house, Elizabeta was no longer at his beck and call, and most of the spoiling now fell to her.
The exhibition, the exhibition, that’s all he talked about, day and night, night and day. The eccentric artist she had known in their first months together, thoughtful and romantic, had become a monster. The exhibition would make him rich and famous, he claimed. It would change their life style. It would make him independent of his mother’s house—and him free of me, she thought.
He heard the studio door close and her muffled steps on the stone stairs outside. How could he explain that this exhibition had stopped time? At times, there was no mother, no sister either—his lost sister, Oh Gertrude, my one and only love, if you were only here, how could you leave me?—no family, no friends, no events. And nothing happened. No news, no changes. No additions to his life, nor subtractions from it. The exhibition and fame lay in the uncertain future and Gertrude and love in the irretrievable past, but today nothing existed except Marisa’s breasts during the night and the cursed paintings during the day.
Oh good God! Did he deserve this? The winter was winding down and he had to finish by August. He was in the battle, his hands bruised and battered, his studio filled with half-finished canvases, Marisa-Gertrude at night, his mother, Estéban, and his cat. And no events.
Well, not exactly no events. Only three days ago at the café where evenings he played chess, he’d come to blows with his adversary, an old friend, who was taking too much time for a move. He deserved it. What a good feeling. It had been pent-up, that blow. Release. Fulfillment. Many times more rewarding than slapping Marisa. The startled look on Roberto’s face when I backhanded him, catching him on his cheekbone. It was worth the drubbing he gave me, he thought, chuckling to himself in the mirror and rubbing his bruised forehead.
If Marisa were not such a prig. If she would only punish me. Father did. Gertrude did. If she only had the guts, the force, the necessary cruelty, our relationship could be complete. But no, she’s what she is too. They all think I’m insane and pamper me. How I need something else.
He suspected his mother spoke behind his back with his psychiatrist about his progress. Or lack of it. They’d never really cured him. What did they want to cure him of anyway? Of being a Mexican? They’d taught him how to live with his symptoms. They’d taught him to survive. But he still coddled his hypochondria, his claustrophobia, his paranoia—they had names for everything—his occasional agoraphobia. He joked to Marisa that he had so many manias that he was half Greek. He held his quirks close.
His therapist—a German, and a Freudian to boot—was supposed to be good at eliminating symptoms. He and the others agreed on the diagnosis: manic depression. He could recite their diagnoses. When he was on a high he became violent. Fiedler told him it was at the moment he began reemerging from depression that he became aggressive.
“It’s normal,” Fiedler said.
When he was on a low he was so morose that people considered him a snob. As if being Mexican were either normal or abnormal! They were right, he was not at fault. As he soared upward, omniscient, again omnipotent, he’d beaten his wife, hit Marisa, screamed at his mother, destroyed his paintings, terrorized his friends. Manic-depressive! So hopeless. So final. Like having short fingers or big feet. Manic-depressive! The only proof they had was his symptoms, and he wasn’t about to surrender them. He purposely told the German that he didn’t care, that we’re all depressives anyway, and that besides he was on good terms with death.
“Like all Mexicans,” was the most old Fiedler could respond.
He grinned obliquely at Marisa when she appeared with a tray of big mugs of coffee and the sweet breakfast rolls he loved. “Is he up there?” he asked softly.
“Estéban is so thoughtful toward your mother—and us too. He said to tell you good morning and that he would drop in later.”
She paused, aware that her next words would wreck him. “Uh, he said to tell you I wouldn’t have to come up for coffee much longer. You’ll soon be able to move upstairs, he said. Uh, they’re going to move to his house in Guadalajara.”
His hand extended to take a roll, Juan Francisco froze.
“The swine!” he whispered.
“The Schweinhund! Cabrón! Hijo de la Chingada.” His voice rose with every epithet. “Take Mother to Guadalajara! He’s out of his fucking mind. She would never leave this house anyway. What a monster! Marisa, amor,” he whispered again, “doesn’t he repel you?”
Juan Francisco knew Marisa liked the man’s gallant manners—his little Latin courtesies, his superficiality. But she should feel repulsion for his mother’s lover, the lowest, the most powerful, endless, unrelenting repulsion. The same loathing and disgust he felt for Estéban and his fucking hand kissing and fucking compassionate words.
Unfortunately he himself could muster only the shadow of the repulsion he used to be able to feel for everything. Only rancor remained. Was it a sign of advancing age? Well, most human creatures were creeps anyway. Not worth his repulsion. Disgust is one thing, repulsion another. He no longer even turned away. Cynically, he accepted one and all. Except that cabrón Estéban who wanted to kidnap his mother.
Ah, repulsion! How wonderful it once was. Like the repulsion you can feel for sewer rats. What a loss! A vacuum. Especially the repulsion he could once feel for this town, for its exiled people like himself, for its life style. Who knows how he’d lost his sense of repulsion along the way? Suddenly, from one day to the next, he’d come to feel that he was above it. That it no longer existed for him. He no longer even felt the former repulsion for his art.
“Isn’t that progress?” he once asked Fiedler. When the therapist just nodded and instead asked him to speak instead of the things that counted for him, he could say truthfully, “Well, I care for my sins. Besides my art, they’re the only things that are mine alone—that and my loneliness.”
“I think it’s wonderful for Elizabeta,” Marisa said, “after her hard life. It’s diverting. She’s been alone so long. You just want her to live for you. Admit it.”
“Diverting? I’m working 18 hours a day, my world is dayless and nearly nightless, and you say it’s diverting. Now she has no real goals in life. Just serving that conniving bastard. As if it were her duty.”
“You’re the most egocentric person I’ve ever known.”
“And you’ve known quite a few!” Although he considered himself above jealousy, her past lovers threatened him. Today as always his dark terror was of remaining alone. In those years when he was abandoned in Mexico City, his life was reduced to two choices—he could either walk the streets alone, or he could paint alone. Oh, if Marisa would only erupt and rise over him and punish him, she could perhaps then truly love him. And redeem him. Instead, she remained the niña bien—fixed, immobile, unresponsive to his needs.
“Sometimes you’re horrid.”
“You only know to go from man to man.”
He knew he was being cruel. And dishonest. He knew that her promiscuity was in pure innocence. Naively, she believed that normal life outside Las Lomas was like that. That was not to say that she felt like the emancipated woman. Not at all. Her life was simplicity itself. Marisa simply had no conception of moral restrictions. In a way he envied her—she was amoral like a child, a reflection of her entire class. If she was lost at thirty years of age, for her it was not a question of getting a grip on life. It was just about marrying some man. Above all, a rich man. There’s only one kink in her bourgeois social armor—actually her redemption, Juan thought, grinning at her candor—she loves to fuck.
“You have remarkable insight into me,” he admitted, again speaking softly. “You’re right about separation. I could never bear it. As a boy I always cried when someone left. Yet separation is my life.” But he was not about to reveal the urgency of his need of her nocturnal breasts to bring him closer to life, to fill his loneliness, and cure his ills.
Only he had been attached to the family house in the San Angel district of Mexico City. He’d cried for his father’s return after he left and never came back. As time went by, the others departed, too. First, his sister Gertrude took his love and the most real part of him with her into her hallucinatory world. Their secret love could have saved him. Then later, his mother left. His gods had abandoned him and he remained attached to what no longer existed. They had carried away his roots. When they had all departed, he became aware of his growing repulsion for existence and to distance himself from life.
In his art, he told Fiedler, he tried to recreate the former togetherness, now evaporated into the polluted atmosphere over the Valley of México, the togetherness hidden in the entangled masses, enigmatic and inscrutable, in the center of his huge dark canvases.
In his loneliness Juan Francisco Alvarez consciously began painting his solitude. He came to believe that his solitude, fearsome and loathsome as it was, was not only his weapon and his defense against the world. His solitude was his art. “That’s why we Mexicans are the world’s best painters,” he boasted. “Our solitude.” San Miguel was, could only be, a temporary haven, an exile—since he was cut off from togetherness.
“I think I’ll go talk with old Professor Fiedler this morning,” he said at the same moment the idea came to him. It was the one place he could talk all he wanted. “He doesn’t have anything to do anyway. I’ve never seen another patient there.”
Fiedler was not as old as Juan Francisco portrayed him. But his obesity and his thin gray hair, thin lips, horn-rimmed glasses, eternally rumpled suits, and his elephantine movements had made him old at forty. They had always spoken German together, which both spoke fluently: Fiedler from his German parents’ home, the German School and studies in Vienna, and Juan Francisco from the German schools he and Gertrude had frequented from kindergarten to university. The German language seemed to have set him and Gertrude apart, isolated them from the rest. From the start his and Gertrude’s loneliness—together, sought for, shared—had been the loneliness that counted. The loneliness that conditioned his life … after father left. Together, they had filled their isolation.
“The last time you asked me why I reject the concept of duty,” Juan Francisco said. They were sitting on a second floor terrace between two huge palms, surrounded by the exotic flowers and plants that made him nervous because of his various undetermined allergies.
“Yes?” the German said.
Juan Francisco watched Fiedler’s fattish hand with the stubby German fingers hover around his nose, touching the fat bulb. Fiedler wanted to pick it. Juan Francisco followed the finger with his eyes. Would he stick it up a nostril and begin his search for a glob? It was disgusting. Yet it was the one thing that made him Fiedler. ‘Nose-picker,’ he called him mentally.
“It was because of the German school. Remember how we all called it the penitentiary. Its severity drove a cleft between us Mexicans and the Germans in the school. Duty and all that malarkey never took on me. I still don’t believe that there’s some implicit morality in doing one’s duty … although I often do it.”
“So why do you do it then, your duty?”
“That’s what’s so maddening, Fiedler. Duty is so oppressive. So non-Mexican. So I began thinking then … ”
“When they all left … when I was alone at home. Just the servants and I were left. I began telling myself I had to have the courage to see myself without that bourgeois veneer of ‘I did my duty.’ I didn’t want to become self-righteous. I should’ve been, abandoned by everyone like that. I did feel like a martyr. Alone. But I … you know I detest self-righteousness. I suppose I linked duty and righteousness with God.”
“What’s that?” Fiedler said. “What’s that about duty and God?”
“You always want to come back to Him, Fiedler. I just threw out that word. I don’t know Him. He doesn’t show me any mercy.”
“And you don’t care! What about after-death then? He! He! He! You who say you have no problem with death.”
Juan Francisco laughed sardonically also. It was the German’s weak point. “Well, Professor, I don’t care any more about after-death than I do about pre-birth. What do you think of that? It’s all darkness. I only know that I exist now. You know, Fiedler, maybe we’re not as Mexican as we think, you and I. Or is that the way Mexicans really think?”
“So where do you think you belong then? Nowhere? Have you no roots? Do you call San Miguel roots?” Fiedler asked sarcastically.
We always come back to that, Juan thought. What are we doing here anyway? Fiedler must have wondered about that too. Poor Fiedler! He knows everything about me—everything except the truth about Gertrude and me. No wonder he’s always on the wrong track with me. He thinks that because I speak German and went to the same school as him that I’m like him and the others.
“San Miguel?” Juan said. “Don’t make me laugh. I mean I walk up the stairs to my mother’s apartments on tiptoe. I knock lightly on the door. I’m afraid to disturb. A stranger is now the Hausherr. The host. He commands up there. He’s the king. And I’m a visitor. A guest in my own mother’s house. I’m a ghost. She has abandoned me again. I’m again an exile in the servants’ quarters. How can I disturb them? Maybe they’re fucking. I don’t even know who I am down there. Sometimes during the night I don’t even know where I am. So I just hang onto Marisa’s tits for my life. And during the day I stagger and stumble around…. Roots seem so old-fashioned anyway.”
“Then what is there? You have to be someplace, no?”
“What do I have? I don’t have anything. Nothing except my painting. Maybe not even that.” How satisfying, he thought, to be able to let down his guard and wallow in the self-pity that had been forbidden ground at home.
He stared fixedly at Fiedler as if daring nose-picker whose index finger was poised just under his left nostril. Caught in the act again, the psychiatrist jerked his hand down.
“Und? Was denn?” Fiedler said.
“What does it matter? Nothing! Nothing! I’m just bored. No! You know what I am, Fiedler? I’m disinterested. Not yet indifferent. But today at least, disinterested. Disinterested in what remains of my Mexicanness. Disinterested in the future too. Sometimes, Fiedler, I … I’m ashamed of being Mexican. But if I’m not Mexican then what am I?”
Juan Francisco had begun telling himself during his night vigils that if he could truly become indifferent; if, since he was incapable of the stupid formal courtesy of his people … if he could learn to remain silent, at least that, he could be truly independent. Independent in his solitude. That’s what he strove to paint on top of those huge dark backgrounds—those tiny spectral figures and symbols in which he saw his own immortality.
“Indifferent? Quite frankly, my young friend, your aspiration to indifference seems at odds with your hypochondriac self. Then what about all your ills?”
“Why, you’re supposed to cure those, Herr Doktor. Is that not why I’m here?” Juan smirked but pronounced the words sweetly. With that he knew he’d nailed old nose-picker to his cross. It was as good as backhanding Roberto across the chessboard. It was better.
He was standing indecisively at the curve at the top of Calle San Francisco. Oh, Cristo Salvador, I can’t face the studio again today. I can’t go to the café, either. I don’t want to go into that foreign land downtown. Where is one supposed to go? Where can I go?
Unthinking, he turned up the hill toward his secret place. As he passed under the arch and into the trash-filled park he smiled at the signs warning not to dump trash. He followed the path through the narrow valley behind the abandoned castle and the luxury hotel with its terraces and pools. Climbing steadily, he entered the fields of cacti and mesquite trees and wild undergrowth and white dirt, a savage territory between the hills, crisscrossed by white cactus-lined paths made by people from the poor quarters on their way to the plain above. He sat down in a shaded clearing and looked around.
“My place,” he said aloud. “Alone, isolated, secure.”
He stared at a low terrace of cacti that rose up uncompromisingly before him. They were so different close at hand. What from the road seemed to be a mass of green thickets, from here seemed like life itself—throbbing, thriving, and surviving, both receiving the sun of life and giving life. They were his. He had read that some forms of cactus under certain controlled conditions could survive on the moon. It had to do with oxygen. They didn’t need much of it. The magueys. The agave. The noble plant. They provided needles for sewing, fiber for paper, clothing, baskets, medicine, roof thatching, fertilizer, fructose, and above all pulque, mezcal and tequila. You could construct a new human existence with the cactus. The wild plants seemed more real than human life. He could dedicate his life to the cactus. His real life, he thought, was up here on the desolate cactus plain. Alone with his fearful homeless soul that hung onto Marisa’s tits for salvation—the crying, searching, falling, emerging, swearing soul, in search of solitude. He, alone and fearful of the wild dogs, on the tableland of cactus surmounted by the white plain of opaque impenetrable dust. The eternal dust of Mexico. The dust that attacks eyes, ears, mouth and the very breath of life. The dust that suffocates. The dust of darkness. The dust of death.
“Bueno,” he said aloud, squinting toward the evening sun. “It’s not only the darkness. It’s also your mystery, Father Sun. It’s the dark and the light.” The sun, he knew, could resolve the unthinkable. The sun, the darkness, the cacti, the invisible vipers, they promise me the real world.
A stray dog passed. It stopped, sniffed, stared at him—perhaps perplexed to see a human being here—pissed on a plant, wagged its tail, and moved uphill along the man-made path. Strange things. But for the dog the encounter was already forgotten.
It’s when you’re alone, Juan Francisco thought, helpless and impotent, that the desire to play some outstanding individual role returns. To perform some heroic act, something wild and mad. In order to first deviate and then return to find again your place and be received again into the arms of your fellow beings. To be different—in order to return to the others. In order to be like the others. He knew he desperately needed the earthliness, the great act of individuality, to reaffirm his human link. First, individuality—then, the rejoining. In that order. Yet how he detested his contrived individuality and flamboyance for flamboyance’s sake. His flamboyance was his talk, he knew. He was a show-off, scandalous, quarrelsome, vehement, implausible, nonsensical. His exuberance and his boldness, his rebellion and his diversity—and his solitude—should only go into his painting. To others, he knew, his life style seemed flamboyant. To himself, slovenly. Of course, there were other forms of individuality— real forms like the Hitlers of this world—but being an individual on those extremes was, he admitted, hardly worth the candle.
Nevertheless, there were other more personal acts. Like … like he could kill the usurper. Estéban the swine! No? No?
But why? Why was he, at his age, still a stranger to life? Luckily, his abnormality had made him feel blessed that he was not numbered among all those countless, in-tune-with-themselves normal people. They were the real foreigners. He felt only distancing disdain for them, the normal ones. He was devoid of one iota of envy for their ordered, sane, directed lives, although sometimes he admitted to Fiedler that, yes, it was a consolation to think that we’re all ultimately headed in the same direction anyway. Most people at least start out in normality, attuned to life, before somewhere along the way they let down their guard and let go their sanity and allow their real selves—their mad, uncontrolled and uncontrollable wild selves—to surface.
I instead seem to have started out in abnormality. Never attuned to anything.
Yet, what would have happened in my life had they not all abandoned me there in the big house in San Angel? Father promised us paradise—before he reneged and died a lonely death. If Father had made good on his promises, maybe I, Juan Francisco, would never have become a fugitive. Oh, I had to flee from threatening captivity …only to become the prisoner I am today.
He remembered the moments. His contacts with real life were like stepping into another world, into the oddball world that he had dedicated himself to denying, challenging, antagonizing. He’d thought of his move to San Miguel as a move toward sanity—toward a semblance of order and self-discipline. His return to his mother was another attempt to start life anew.
From the recesses of his consciousness he recalled how he’d once felt compelled to get a grip on things. To get a handle on life—even though he still didn’t know what he would’ve done with it had he succeeded. The ordered condition he imagined probably didn’t exist. But what would it be if it did? A generalized awareness? A consciousness of everything? That could be more terrible than his out-of-tuneness, his waywardness, his solitude.
In his case, it would mean an awareness of good and evil at the same time. Then how would he choose? How could he deal with life if he had a grip on everything? Old Fiedler had once said that would be like holding the spark of mankind in your own hands.
His father’s death, in a distant land, had upset such aspirations. For he had been his son’s hold on life. The promise of his redemption. How he’d loved him. Worshipped him. He still did. As far as emotions and feelings go, that was already a lot. His father’s death didn’t fit into this explanation of life. It wasn’t fair.
He had lied to Fiedler. You have just come to understand life and suddenly you are face to face with the enigma of death. That’s the way things really go. The idea that his father was no more, that he had no future, was unbearable. Intolerable. Juan Francisco’s grip on life went up in smoke the day his father lost his future. When Gertrude, his heart, deserted him, he became a spectator to the slow, gradual, then accelerating decline and near disappearance of his own capacity for affection or for charity—or even for tolerance.
Now what remained? He had to hold onto Marisa’s tits for dear life.
Walking jerkily downhill in his uncoordinated gait, Juan Francisco raised his eyes at the screech of metal scraping metal and the roar of revving motors echoing up toward him between the high stonewalls. A crowd, yelling, shouting and gesticulating wildly, was gathered at the narrow passage of the cobblestone street between the high steps of the school on one side and apartment houses on the other. Traffic was stopped. The street was blocked. A downhill bus on one side was jammed against a gas truck headed up the hill.
Women standing around a small boy were trying to remove his torn and bloody blue and white school uniform. His chest and face were bleeding. He was crying hysterically and flailing his arms. He’d been trapped against the wall by the bus.
“No quiero, no quiero,” the boy kept screaming. “Me muero, me muero.” I’m dying. I’m dying.
“No, no, muchacho,” the women were saying, “no te mueres, estás bien, estás bien.”
Two men were pinned against the wall, crushed in a vise of steel and cement from their chests to their knees. The face of one was fiery red, his eyes jumping from their sockets. The other’s face was deathly white, his eyes closed. The faces of life and death. They had tipped the bus to free the boy but then were themselves trapped. The bus was stuck fast. The gas truck couldn’t move. No one knew what to do.
Sirens announced the arrival of firemen and police. Juan Francisco began shouting: “Do something, do something.” But the authorities pushed him aside while the chiefs consulted. The crowd fell silent.
“Move the bus, move the bus,” he shouted. “That man is dying. He’s dead.” Only once had he seen death so near—a man lying dead on a fast highway, motionless on the pavement. It was the solitude of death that struck him. He stared as the same solitude settled on the pale face of the man with his eyes closed. He knew he was about to witness the passage from life to nothingness. The spark of life was departing. It emerged through the man’s mouth and passed through his breath in a gurgle. He felt the choking sensation, then saw its UFO-like, smoky blue flight to some other place.
From long ladders propped against the wall, dark wiry men descended to the bus level. Their feet against the wall for leverage, they gradually tilted the bus another few inches while their companions below extracted the heroes-victims from the mortal trap.
Juan Francisco grinned. Mexican ingenuity had triumphed.
The one with the red face gasped, coughed, cried, staggered a few steps, turned to the crowd and laughed loud. People clapped. He was alive.
Juan Francisco observed the dead one with the pale face lying on a stretcher. They had covered him with a blanket up to his chin. Suddenly his eyes twitched. Miraculously, out of blackness, out of nothingness, with his eyes still closed, the man smiled. Life began returning to him. Juan Francisco watched the spirit, no longer free, returning through his open receptive mouth. He had recaptured life. The man was no longer alone.
The early night air still conserved a residue of the sun’s warmth when a shaken Juan Francisco stepped onto the sprawling roof terrace. Cooking smells hung in the evening air. Tables were set on the terrace and in the salon. People in sweaters or shawls over their shoulders were chattering here and there. It was the night of the barbecue.
“Hola, Johnny,” said his mother and kissed him on both cheeks. “I was worried about you.”
In a far corner next to the rear wall Estéban was cooking spare ribs and sausages and corn on the cob. He was wearing an irritating white chef’s cap. He smiled and waved his big cooking fork. Juan Francisco didn’t respond.
“Where’s Marisa?” he asked sullenly, looking around among Elizabeta’s friends. He had no idea who they were.
“I don’t believe Marisa will be coming,” his mother said hesitantly in English, the common language of her parents, which she had always spoken with her children. “She had an urgent call from home. Uh … Johnny, she left this for you,” Elizabeta said, taking a small envelope from her jacket pocket. “Now don’t let it upset you!”
He stepped closer to the light and read the few words: “Querido Juan Francisco, mi madre está mala y tengo que ir a casa con urgenza. Te voy a llamar cuando pueda regresar. Besitos, Marisa.”
“Kisses! She sends me kisses, that little puta!” he shouted rushing toward his mother and waving the note. People around the terrace fell silent. “She claims her mother is sick! That whore! I’ll bet she returned to that Nacho or whatever his name was. Leaving me alone. Not even the courage to tell me to my face. Typical of her kind. Ah, just wait till I get my hands on her again. But she won’t dare come back to San Miguel … she’ll pay …”
“Shush, Johnny, please. The others! Don’t play your usual demented self. Have some regard for me. She’ll come back.”
“No, she’ll never come back. She’s dead too. Traitoress. Liar. Just like Gertrude. They never come back, never come back, they all go, they all go. Poppy left. Gertrude left. Now you’re going too. Again! When are you leaving? When? Don’t you have the courage to tell me? I should’ve known. That one day you too would leave, again. They all leave. And your Johnny stays alone.”
Suddenly, in the stillness crashing around him, he felt ridiculous. He made a brusque movement in the direction of Estéban. Elizabeta put her hand on his arm. He should kill Estéban. He would like to push him off the roof, or crush his face into his own fire. He shook off his mother’s hand. He screamed inside. He saw his own violence reflected in her eyes. She was afraid. His insanity, he knew, lay shallow. It was visible. That thing in him frightened the others. In his solitude, he’d clung to her, as he’d clung to Gertrude, as he clung to Marisa’s tits, and to the life raft of the exhibition. The exhibition, out there in the real world where things worked. Where people married, had children, rose early for work, lived and died.
But Father had betrayed him. As Gertrude had betrayed and abandoned him. Now Marisa, wandering from man to man and offering her tits in succor, was betraying him. His chess companion too had betrayed him with a never made move. Now his mother was betraying him with that cabrón Estéban. And Fiedler, trustworthy old Fiedler, was content to sit there on his terrace with his finger up his nose.
The miracle at the wreck had raised his hopes. Only a few minutes ago, in this Sodom-Gomorrah, he had seen Jesus dead and resurrected. But it was deception and hallucination. He glared around him, his eyes unseeing. These were mysterious events. They must presage extraordinary happenings.
My old world is surely ending. I perceive a premonition of new miracles in the air. The portents are here. Only I, Juan Francisco Alvarez, perceive them. I wait for them. Only I continue the struggle. Now, in the big house on the hill, I, the solitary soldier, will resist. Isolation is my salvation. It’s the admission price.
My loneliness is my father’s gift. A sacred gift. Oh, my generous father, he paid for it with his own life. He didn’t destroy me. He gave me life. How could I succeed in my isolation with Marisa? She needs only to love and be loved. But I don’t have that capacity. She was right to escape. I must stay.
For a moment, in despair, he accepted it—Father, Mother, Gertrude and Marisa would never return. Time had stopped. He had no past. No future. Only the solitary present.