The Farm….again

This is what the farm looks like, looking west from the little house. You may have seen this photo before. It is not, however, what the land looks like at this moment when I’m writing. Now, it looks black. So, here’s the story.

Actually, it’s this story because I can’t add yet add to the memoir I’ve written in the last couple of posts. That’s because said memoir wasn’t working with the I/you bit and I’ve had to revise. In the meantime, I’ve been reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and John Banville’s new memoir, Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, to see how other writers have dealt with the past/present conundrum. Here’s a Banville sentence to show you what I mean: I need hardly say I knew none of these things at the time of which I am writing.

You may be familiar with Fitzgerald’s work but if you’ve never read John Banville, I recommend him. I own several of his books.

At any rate: the burned farm story. Actually, the farm has been much in my consciousness, phone calls, thinking, and doing for the past several months. It began in January with the taxes. That was the easy part. Okay, done. And then, since the farm is in a conservation reserve program (CRP) and has been lo these past forty years since Dad retired from farming, I had to follow up the taxes with more pressing demands. The FSA (farm service agency) rules are such that every few years, I need to get the prairie burned off, all one-hundred-twenty-acres. I recently posted an old story on burning the prairie which adventure convinced me not to try to do it myself again. The other piece of FSA rules was that I needed to get someone to cut trees out of said prairie because once trees get hold, they prosper, and the prairie is no longer prairie. And then one takes these invoices, which we’ve paid, to the FSA and have them logged in so the fall payment for CRP, which supports the farm, will be paid.

So. It has taken me countless hours on the phone to find someone to burn and to cut. Hours and hours. For months and months. Keep in mind, I began the search in mid-January and only now is it done. We had the local fire department do the burn the past few times and gave them a donation of around $1,000 (having a farm in conservation is a pricey business) but they can no longer do it. 1. the men are too old; 2. Kansas law now prohibits fire departments from doing it.

After many many calls and just as many estimates, I found a man who would cut out the trees for around $1100. It turned out to be closer to $1200 but it was done. And at the same time, I was calling and calling leads to find someone to burn off the prairie. One estimate was $5,000. I mean, really???? I finally found a guy with whom I’d been in high school, but he was across the state line at the Liberty Fire Dept. and had several ahead of me in Nebraska and they had to come first but he’d do what he could. Keep in mind the farm is 1/2 mile from Nebraska.

And then, by a happenstance I can’t really remember, I found the Linn, Kansas, American Legion who were burning prairie to raise funds for the Legion. Whew! Linn is about 45 miles from the farm, so I sweetened the pot by adding $400 for a total of $1400. And they burned it and did a great job.

Now, after all that backstory, Stephen, my son, and I went to the farm over the weekend. Cliff had school papers to catch up on so he stayed home, did laundry, and had a good dinner ready for us when we returned on Monday evening. Which, all in all, is a fair trade. Our primary goal was to plant grass and put straw over said grass in the hopes that it would keep away critters and birds until it sprouts.

I’ve no idea where the essay is stored in this copious record of my life on WordPress, but there is an essay, perhaps the one where I pumped out the basement, on what a mess the area around the house became after construction. I’ve been struggling with the five feet times 90 feet of ground around it since. Earlier this year, I guess over spring break, Cliff and I went up, cleared out all the weed stalks/sunflower stalks/weird red berry something or another that seems determined to root, and left bare ground. Which Stephen and I covered copiously with grass seed. A neighbor brought up two bales of straw which we then used to cover said seed. No doubt, at some point in the future, I will update the story of whether or not I finally have grass instead of very tall weeds around the house. In the nonce (doncha love that word) it’s done.

And Stephen and I drove into Marysville, turned in papers to the FSA, re-certified the CRP for the next three years….and learned that the end of 2020 may be our last year in the program as the government has cut funding for conservation and instead is buying bombs and airplanes. I have no idea what we will do then, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, I’ll think about it tomorrow. What I know is that prairie roots are 12-14 and more deep and it’s hard to put it back in cultivation. (Which I don’t want to do anyway. It’s one half section of wild in the midst of corporate farming.) Stephen and I had lunch at the Wagon Wheel Cafe which has done steady business since I was a kid, and then we drove the three hours back to Kansas City.

However, I have to tell you one more story which Cliff said I should tell. Cliff, a city boy from Baltimore, is somewhat tool challenged, in a kind way of putting it. He also began wearing a C-Pap a few months ago which, as all C-Paps do, has a harness. It has strong magnets on the harness which tend to clasp onto themselves and usually, I help him get the harness adjusted. Well. I was on the farm. He had to do it himself. He said it took a while as the harness kept tangling and at one point it was in a knot on top of his head and he said, “I looked like a Polish grandmother with a babushka on my head!”

He was glad I was home.

…..

 

 

Introducing Nick Owchar

Some of you may be acquainted with Nick Owchar from his blog Siren Calls. You may or may not know that he’s an extraordinarily competent editor and worked many year as the editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Below is his post, telling us what he’s up to now.

I worked with Nick a couple of months ago and can recommend him unequivocally. He zoned in on where I needed help and I appreciate his eyes and talent.

If you’re working o a book or stories or even poems, I expect, and need another pair of eyes. He’s the man.

 

via Why the ‘Siren’ Changed Her Name to IC

Waking Up in Mexico #2

I’ve made some changes (and revised part one to reflect those changes) because I want to use a mature voice looking back instead of writing as if it’s in the now. It’s sort of a tricky process and I’m still working out the best way to use it, basically using both I and you for myself, and I’d appreciate any feedback you may have.  (Part I, at least here on the blog, remains as if was before revisions.) Thanks faithful readers!!

PS: Brian, I count on you to point out any fractured Spanish. Thanks.

II

            I look back on those few hours with some amazement. I didn’t know I’d had a defining moment, didn’t know my life would turn in an entirely new direction. The next morning, I woke early as usual, showered and dressed as usual, and went to breakfast as usual. A chorus of “Buenas dias, Juanita,” greeted me from the crew table. I smiled and waved, but this wasn’t a morning for casual talk. We had a long day ahead catching up with yesterday’s schedule and completing today’s. Picking up fruit, a warm roll, and coffee, I returned to my room to eat as I gathered up my script, sunglasses, journal and pen, familiar pieces to cushion the day.

Driving out to the set in the back seat of the crew-mobile, a luxurious limousine complete with limousine-garbed driver, felt somehow surreal after my solo drive the day before. I didn’t have to anxiously watch for the turn-off or decide between the bridge and the creek bed. The driver forded the creek bed, the water now down to a trickle between rocks. I stared out a side window at the familiar vista, watched the goats prance on the pueblo wall, waved at the children as usual, gazed at the far mountains as usual, but last night’s experience made the sunlight shimmering over the wide plain seem more vivid. At the cabin location, I went to the costume trailer and to makeup. We shot a short scene inside the cabin with Hannah, my character’s name, and her son Joey. And then we were released while the crew set up a scene outside by Hannah’s garden.

I made a bee-line to the cabin’s porch and sat in the rocking chair. It was nearing mid-morning, and sunlight carved the mountains. The Mexico sky can be so blue, it hurts your eyes to look at it; instead, you watched the mountains. Occasionally, a solitary cloud blocked the sun and sent rippling shadows across the land, filling valleys. You had fallen into the daydream of riding a horse across the slopes and racing the cloud shadows into valleys. Someone moved behind me and I turned my head sharply to see who it was. No one there. The steps leading down to the yard empty. The hair on my arms went on end and I shivered. The name Anna surfaced in my mind. Along with the name came a sadness, weighted, rooting me in the chair. The fantasy of riding a horse to freedom dissolved and my mind struggled between half-formed questions and a knowing I didn’t understand. Did an Anna once live here? That seemed far-fetched. I knew the cabin had been used for other movie sets. Who was Anna?

Gabriela dashed around the corner of the cabin.  Gabriela almost always dashed, leaning into her task with the wind at her back.

“There you are…they’re ready…”

“Gab! Stop!”

“What?” Gabriela skidded to a stop, one hand raised, her eyes registering surprise.  “What?” she repeated.

“I…I don’t…I mean, you were going so fast…” I said.

Gabriela stood frozen, hand uplifted, staring at me. Abruptly the spell was broken and she started talking and moving at the same time. They were almost ready; could she come now?  Carmen and Lupe were waiting.

You made a show of bustling about, shaking out my long skirts, picking up your script from where you’d tossed it on the floorboards, and walked around the cabin with Gabriela, but inside I felt wooden and stiff. Those hadn’t been my words even if they had come from my mouth. Pain had settled into my chest like an angry, wounded animal.

Carmen checked my dress, twitched the long apron back into place and sent me to makeup. In the makeup table mirror I stared into my eyes, wanting to see behind them as if I could peel away a layer to see clearly. My hand lifted then fell to my lap.

“Si?” Gloria asked. Her hands tucked away stray hairs and secured hairpins. You hadn’t talked to her about the previous night and had no way to explain what had happened on the porch.

“Oh…nada…pero…” I stumbled over words. We only knew a little of each other’s language but we’d been able to communicate.

“Wait,” I said, touching her hand. You can see her reflection in your memory, sunlight framing her head, as she watched your face in the mirror.

“I’m working…trabajando en el jardin.” A miracle. I’d remembered the words for working and garden. In the same sentence. Gloria understood immediately and began loosening wisps of hair around my face.

On the set, aluminum reflector panels were set up at one corner of the garden plot. Two crew members lugged sandbags over to stabilize the legs against the slope of the ground. The director and cinematographer conferred quietly beside the camera. Along with the rest of the crew, they were Mexicans, although the director’s name was Sergio Olhovich. I’d thought that an odd name for a Mexican but somewhere in conversations, I’d learned his father was from Russia. I hadn’t learned why his father had come to Mexico but that explained his name.

When we actors had arrived in Mexico City for rehearsals, the press parties had made a big deal of this Mexican/American co-production, but out here in Durango, our American “co-” part was decidedly flimsy. The star of the shoot was Salvador Sánchez, a well-known Mexican actor. Most of the Americans complained about something or another, mainly the isolation, but for some reason I felt at home. Possibly because the expanse of sky reminded me of the farm where I’d grown up in Kansas.

Miguel, the assistant director, walked over.  He’d worked with Americans.  Today he wore a black T-shirt with Dune printed across the front. Another made in Mexico movie.

“You ready?” I nodded. As ready as I was going to be.

 

The afternoon sun threw long shadows across the set, forcing the cameraman to shift angles. I trudged back to the garden. The scene wasn’t working, a long shot, and I kept missing my mark. I felt stupid and hot.

Gloria waited at the edge of a row of plastic vegetable tops. I bent my head and felt a tissue blot off sweat. What was wrong here? Why couldn’t I just run up the hill, hit the damn sandbag, and be done with it? We had another scene to do and I was holding things up.

“Juanita,” Gloria said. “Calmete.”

Calm myself? Calm wasn’t going to propel me up that hill. Defiance jerked my head up. Eyes like deep black pools met my defiance—pools spreading in ripple-less black until I felt myself sliding into silence. A far away point of light rushed toward me and a wash of heat traveled over my forehead and down my back. I blinked. Gloria’s face swam into focus, a smile rustling at the corners of her mouth. Nodding once, I turned and knelt beside the plastic vegetable tops.

I closed my eyes and rehearsed the run, measured the slope of the hill, felt the touch of sandbag at my toe.

“Action!”

I didn’t think, allowed my body to move automatically, my hands lifting my skirts from around my legs. I skidded to a stop. My toe touched the sandbag.

“Cut!” Sergio said.

Pats on my shoulder. A scurry of movement for the next shot, a short take of the vegetable garden and a close up of me kneeling at the row of vegetable tops. The crew began moving lights, and I headed for the cabin porch to wait. I glanced down the slope towards Gloria before a reflector blocked my view. Our eyes locked and I felt the wave of heat again.

Buen trabajo, Juanita,” a crew member said in passing. I lifted my head, forced a smile.

“Thanks.”

I felt…odd…as I climbed the porch steps and sank into the rocking chair. Now there was something else to wonder about. It felt like something I’d already wondered about. Gloria knew something, had some kind of power. Not power over, just power. I traced one finger over my forehead, exploring the space where Gloria had traced a cross.

“Hey, Janet.” Holly was on the porch. She sat on the floor, curling her legs under her. “That was interesting.”

“What was?” I reached over and absently stroked her hair. Only she wasn’t a girl anymore. While she played my daughter, we didn’t have any scenes together, but I’d seen a maturity growing in her.

Holly laughed and ducked away from my hand. “You, silly. What do you think I’m talking about? Really. I watched you. You were surprised and happy and scared and disappointed all at once. I saw it on your face.”

Holly wanted information, not attention. I dropped my hand into my lap and studied my fingers as if they were foreign objects with a life of their own, reaching out to comfort without even knowing the reason.

“Do you mean how did I do it?”

“Yeah. How do you get all those things going on at the same time? I try but it never works for me.”

“I think what I did was let go of trying.” How to explain Gloria or the wash of light? Even now you can’t explain it. Did Gloria do anything or was her gaze a shortcut to clarity? Something I could do for myself if I would simply remember.

“I was frustrated and my head was cranking at all my mistakes…but when I knelt down in the garden, I became still. I kept my eyes closed and rehearsed the run over and over in my mind. I think what that did was give my body the information it needed and left the rest of me free to be Hannah. It’s like I had to let go and trust.”

Holly frowned. “But what do you trust?”

“It’s not a what…it’s more like…” What was that trust? From the corner of my eye, I saw Gabriela round the cabin corner.

“There you are…they’re ready…”

Time shifted. In slow motion, I turned my head in time to see Gabriela disappear. A crash and a scream washed across the porch. Holly leapt up and ran down the steps; crew members swarmed across the yard. I felt frozen as the memory from earlier in the day replayed itself in brutal reality. I heard the echo of Gab’s voice, saw her stop, surprised at my “Gab..Stop!” Where had the words come from that had come from my mouth?

Two men helped Gabriela stand on one leg. She cradled one arm, her face was pinched and white. A car pulled up and hands guided Gabriela into the back seat; another woman got in with her and the car sped away. No one noticed I remained frozen on the porch.

No sé, no sé—there was so much I didn’t know. Or understand. The yard became deserted. A dry wind shifted dust. I rubbed my hands over my face, pressing my fingertips against eyelids. I had nowhere to run, nothing to grab hold of and make it real. My head came up slowly and I stared at the mountains. I’d probably smeared my makeup. The black dot of a hunting bird soared on wind currents, heading my way. The air was unmoving, as if someone had made a motion that nobody breathe. My own breath was ragged, labored, squeezed out of my chest.

Soaring. What would it take to learn to soar?

That evening, the crew set up for a faux love scene. Peter and I played husband and wife but we didn’t much like each other. Each of us had made some effort to reach out to the other but Peter moved slow and I moved fast and our timing slid us past any possible interface or connection. Peter also had a habit of long, drawn out discussions with Sergio and Robert about his character’s motivations as the crew waited patiently. Sergio was always patient. I, less so.

Tonight, we were both wary, watching each other from opposite sides of the set. Unexpectedly, the generators conked out. Carmen and Lupe lighted the prop lanterns and in that soft halo of light the cabin became a home. You softened into Hannah and Peter became Dan. It had been easy to stay connected once the generator was fixed and humming again. Dan kissed Hannah gently. For that one night, light had shifted our perceptions and healing was possible.

 

Madrugada.” The word rolled on my tongue—more a butterfly taste than a dawn taste, but maybe that’s what dawn was—a multi-colored butterfly pulling light into day. I grinned. Waxing poetic at first light. Well, at least I knew what day it was: Monday, my last day of work. You remembered Saturday night when a group of us went dancing, and Sunday when we’d played volleyball in the pool. Muscles all over my body were sore. Saturday night, the oo’s and ah’s had been affirming when you’d gone down looking more like New York Janet, eye shadow, short skirt, and all.

A chorus of “Buenas dias, Juanita!” wound through the dining room as I walked in. I loved the sound of it. Peter sat alone at a far table, bent over the script. After filling my plate from the buffet, I joined the crew table. They were patient with my Spanish and in a good mood this morning.

“Juanita, do you want huitlicoche on your eggs? I’ll order some for you.” A roar of laughter went up from the table. She’d become a story.

“No, no, gracias. Ahorita, no.” I flipped one hand in the Mexican gesture I’d practiced. More laughter.

At dinner the night before, you’d ordered something off the menu you vaguely knew was fish. It was fish all right, covered in some kind of very black sauce. I’d poked it with my fork, lifting one corner.

“What’s this?” That’s when the laughter started.

Huitlicoche,” rang from a chorus of voices.

“Si….but what’s that?”

“A black hongo,” Mano said. “It grows on corn.”

Hongo translated to mushroom, probably harmless enough. I took a small bite as they’d watched. “Que Bueno!” I said, surprised. And it was good, a musky, smoky taste with kernels of corn scattered through it. They laughed but it sounded like approval laughter. I pressed for more information: what did it look like, how did they make it? It was black, Mano told me. It grew on corn in the rainy season.

A sudden image popped into my memory. Smut. I was eating corn smut. I joined in the laughter, but I didn’t have the language to tell them why I laughed, or to explain a story of Kansas corn. The farm was on high land, and while corn did best on rich bottom land along creek and river beds, Dad grew some. You couldn’t remember how many times you’d heard him say, “Corn’s not going to make it if we don’t get some rain.” Some years we got rain, other years we didn’t. In the years when there was too much rain, the corn sprouted black fungus. We cut off the black stuff before cooking. Badly infected corn was thrown to the pigs. Kansas pigs had dined on huitlicoche for decades! The image made me laugh.

The men left the table for their trip out to the set. My last day of work. Where had the time gone? Joey and his mom came in and sat at another table. She prodded him to eat. Must be nice to have your mom with you on location, someone to look after you and make sure you were all right. I started to sigh, feeling lonely again, but caught myself.

“Lift your head, girl,” I muttered to myself as I got up. “Keep your head up and just keep laughing.”

Now there was a motto. I should paste it to my forehead…well, that might interfere with makeup. Maybe in my palm.

 

My last day turned into a long day, several pick-up shots, and one long scene in late afternoon, a continuation of the run up the hill from the garden of the day before as husband rides into the yard, daughter who’d been kidnapped by the Salvador Sanchez character, riding behind him. This time I had to run to the well in the middle of the set but along level ground. We did take after take of running and hugging and crying and daughter sliding from horse, etcetera. And then we’d do the same from another direction. And then close-ups. In between takes, I’d sit in the rocking chair and rest as Gloria blotted my face and reapplied smeared makeup. I remember wondering why people thought movie-making so glamorous.

When I heard, “That’s a wrap,” feelings of relief and sadness flooded my body. I wasn’t ready to finish but oh, so grateful to stop. You did a lot of hugging and thanking and received more of the same. And then gratefully sank into the soft limousine back seat for the drive back to the hotel.

 

I walked down the hall in a bathrobe, my head wrapped in a towel, and carrying a tequila bottle. Peter was afraid no one would want to come to the wrap party he’d organized for me. I was simply afraid. Of what, you wasn’t sure. Leave-taking? Returning to New York? That sent a bit of a shiver up my spine.

I knocked on his open door.

“Hey, you’re early,” Peter said.

“Yeah, I know. I only came down for a minute.” I held out the bottle of tequila and some limes. “There wasn’t time to go shopping, but I had this.”

You wonder if you might have looked like a little girl, scrubbed clean, except for the dark circles under my eyes. Peter rocked forward as if to enfold me. But he didn’t. “Come on in.”

I walked in and set the bottle on a table crowded with bowls of chips and nuts and a tray of fruit and cheese. A bouquet of flowers was propped in a water glass.

“It looks nice in here,” I said, touching one petal on a bright yellow flower.

“They’re for you,” he said.

I smiled for what felt like the first time all day. “Thanks. I’d better go get dressed.”

Peter fidgeted. “Have a drink. We’ll inaugurate the party.” He poured two shots and handed one to me. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” he Bogarted gruffly, and lifted his glass in a toast.

Another knock on the door and a stream of men entered, crew members, making the room seem too small. All were holding bottles or bags. And singing. A serenade by the sound of it. I stood beside the table, holding my glass, eyes wide, mouth open. I started crying and laughing at the same time. The song ended. The men began unpacking bags and pouring drinks. I caught Peter’s eye and lifted my cup. We finished the toast, tossing back the tequila.

More people arrived. Peter busied himself pouring drinks and offering food. I slipped out the door and returned a few minutes later, dressed but with hair still damp and minus makeup. Peter sat on the bed, picking out the notes to a Mexican song on his guitar. Laughter and songs dispelled the heaviness of Gabriela’s accident—word had gone around she’d broken her arm in two places and cracked a bone in one leg—not erased the memory, but made it something livable. Something a part of rather than apart.

Within a round of applause, Peter handed off the guitar and went to the table. A roll of chords behind him announced another song. I saw Sergio come in the door and went to say hello. Peter was at the table, pouring three shots. I saw him pluck a flower from the bouquet and with uncharacteristic abandon, stick the flower between his teeth. Balancing the three drinks in his hands, he wove his way across the room.

“Uummmm” he said, the flower stem blocking his words. He thrust a dink at me and another at Sergio. With a free hand, he took the flower from his mouth.

“This needed an ear,” he said, tucking it behind my ear.

“I don’t know. It looked pretty stunning between your teeth!” I said. My sense of humor was back. Sergio and Peter laughed. A half-lift of cups became a toast and we tossed back the tequila.

“Think it’s going to rain again?” Peter asked.

“I think not. That was a late storm—a last hurrah as you say,” Sergio said.

“That’s why Gabriella fell,” he said. “Someone piled a bunch of planks under the porch from of the rain and 2x4s were sticking out. She tripped.”

“How’s she doing?” Peter said.

“I will call now.” Sergio looked for someplace to put his cup. Peter stuck out his hand.

“Thank you. It was a good party.” Sergio nodded abruptly and left.

“I didn’t mean to drive him off.” Peter’s voice held a plaintive note.

“You didn’t,” I said. “He was talking about calling the hospital when you came over. It’s a great party; you did a fine job.”

Peter towered a good six inches above me but he wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “It’s not me,” he said, finally looking up. “You did this. The good feelings in the room are because of you.”

Now it was my turn to look down. I was always better at giving compliments than receiving them. A little clumsily, Peter draped one arm around my shoulders, the cup in his hand jutting out at an angle.

“It’s okay,” he said.

Why was it so hard to be people? People with no roles to play.

….

Waking Up in Mexico, part 1

For my friend Brian who says, “write the Mexico book.” This is the story of how I was called to live in Mexico, at least the first part, but it’s long form, so prepare.

***************************************************************

It began with rain. Well, no, of course it didn’t begin with rain unless it was raining when my parents conceived me, but that addendum added to all my other life addendums may be over-complicating things. If we stick to the day in question, the day when my life unexpectedly and unknowingly turned ninety degrees, more or less, depending on wind and the force of water, it began with rain. A desert rain, sheets of rain, pouring off the balcony roof, sealing me inside the motel room where I’d lived for several weeks while making the movie that took me to Mexico. The shoot was on hold. That call, the call waking me to tell me I didn’t have to get up, arrived at the same moment a crash of lightening coupled with shattering thunder jarred me from a deep sleep. I grabbed at the phone and sent a pen skittering off the edge of the night table.

“Janet, right now, the shoots on hold. I’ll let you know if it’s cancelled.” I hung up the phone and peered over the bed’s side. The pen remained hidden.

Groggy and deep down weary, I dragged a blanket around me and slumped to a chair, facing the balcony’s open French doors. A whisper of mist brushed my face. I was too close to the edge. I waited, emotionally unresponsive as the rain shuddered and spit lightening.

The day before, I’d plowed. With a horse and a single-blade plow, steadying the handles, holding the reins, stumbling over clods, and mindful of the child actor clutching my skirt. Before I arrived on the set, wranglers did the hard work and plowed several rows. I only had to follow the furrow. With a horse, and a plow, and a boy hanging onto my long skirt. No problem. Yeah. Right. I knew how to plow, too much of my childhood was spent plowing, row after row after row, my hands on the wheel adjusting to the tractor’s dip and pull. But on foot,  I stumbled and wobbled. After a few flubbed takes, I learned guiding a horse was about the same as guiding a tractor. It didn’t take much pressure. The horse knew what it was doing. The boy and I were simply moveable props. Stumbling props, but nonetheless, props.

My arms were tired. Legs stiff. I flexed my fingers. The muscles in my forearms ached. I dropped my hands into my lap and curled them into the blanket’s folds.

The phone rang. I hobbled to the phone with the blanket wrapped around me.

“Hi Janet. We had to reschedule. You’re off. We’re doing the night scene.”

When I hung up, reprieved, I fell across the bed in a tangle of blanket and tossed sheets, an open script, a shirt I’d worn the night before at dinner, and towels from the previous night’s shower. I slept immediately.

 

Sunlight inched through the open balcony door when I woke. The storm was over. No sound came from the garden except for a regular lap of water at pool’s edge. Disentangling myself from the blanket, I rolled over to look at the clock: 11:40. I’d slept almost five hours. With the unexpected luxury of a whole, unstructured day ahead of me, I stared at the ceiling—what to do—swim, lie in the sun, study my script. None of that sounded particularly enticing. The image of a magic corner in the downtown market slid into my memory. The Saturday before, several of us had gone souvenir shopping and I’d seen it but hadn’t stopped—something about the shadowy corner called to a solitary journey. Open burlap bags spilled herbs or bark and hidden shelves begged discovery. I showered and dressed and left the motel through a side door.

Thick green leaves stooped over the sidewalk. My passage disturbed some fine balance and water drops slid from leaf tip. The sidewalk bent and hunched over tree roots. In some places it disappeared altogether and reappeared with no more reason than it had disappeared. I passed a farm implement shop ringed with new, bright-green John Deere farm equipment, the same machinery Dad bought. Fresh bread smells, home smells, pulled me into a bakery. I bought a still warm roll stuffed with thick chocolate. Returning to the sidewalk and staring toward the center of town, I ate, smearing my fingers with chocolate. After licking off what I could, I wiped my fingers on my pants. I’m always wiping something on my pants.

A bell in some church tower rang once. But not yet the long two-hour break in the middle of the afternoon when everything stopped. I hurried down the street until crowds filled the sidewalk and dodged a hand-cart piled high with firewood. My abrupt move bumped into a woman carrying two full buckets of tomatoes. I apologized. She smiled and nodded. Cars honked in the street. Across the street, the market stretched down the block, and sunlight slapped against the tin roof.

The sun’s hot beat dissolved as I stepped across the threshold. As my eyes adjusted and shadowy forms became more distinct, I noticed a woman staring at me. I nodded. A blond gringa probably wasn’t a common sight, especially one wandering in Durango, far from the tourist trails. I passed bridles and saddles hung on partitions between stalls and smelled the heavy scent of oil and leather. The scent followed me past the harness section and I stopped, pretending to know where I was, as I examined a stall full of huaraches, wide strips of interlaced leather attached to rubber soles made from car tires. Ahead an aisle crossing. To the left, stacks of fruit and food stalls of cheeses and bacon and unfamiliar vegetables. But if I went that way, I would be mired in food. My memory placed the magic corner off to one side, opposite the food, and my Kansas-farmer sense of direction rarely let me down. I turned right, walked past plastics to a juncture of familiar-looking pottery and turned left. Stalls held hammers and wrenches and mysterious bits of metal.

An old man, grizzled white hair curling between the tops of his ears and hat brim, watched me. His hands looked like they’d held more plow handles than I ever would but his bent fingers moved lightly, rearranging a tray of nails. I nodded.

Buenas tardes, señor.”

 “Buenas tardes, señorita.”

“Donde están las yerbas?” My halting Spanish worked most of the time for “where is…” “how much is…..” standard phrased I’d learned from the Argentinians who taught Spanish in New York as they passed around steaming cups of yerba mate—although I was pretty sure the “mate” part came from Argentina.

The man tossed a gesture over his shoulder. “Allá,” he said. Over there. I nodded and smiled. “Bueno. Gracias.”

Para servirle, señorita.”

The approaching mid-day break had pulled shoppers home and a dim stillness grew in the market aisles. Silence breathed in my ears. Two rows past the nail man, I again turned left. Ahead, light shafted from a roof opening into a yellow pool on the floor. I made out the twisted form of a tree trunk from my earlier visit and knew it marked the boundary of the magic corner. Four feet tall, the sentinel stood carved and sanded by an artist’s gentle hand. Near the bottom, a face looked up from the natural creases, its beard formed by roots.

What would it be like to have a face uncovered? Not the face shown to the world or to lovers, but the one molded to who I really was? Maybe the first task was to figure out who I was. I ran my fingers through rough leaves in an open burlap bag. What was this stuff? It seemed like all I did was question and wonder. What is this? How does that work? I looked up. A boy with deep brown eyes stared back at me from the edge of shadows.

Buenas tardes,” I said.

Buenas tardes,” he answered, ducking his head, not meeting my eyes.

But I’d lifted mine and the head chatter stopped. Candlelight glittered on a shelf. A votive candle burned at the base of a ceramic Virgin and highlighted the blue robe’s drape, leaving her face in shadow. Two shelves filled with virgins—statues of all sizes and tall glass candle jars painted with her image. She was everywhere: calendars, statues and necklace medallions, painted on a wall, on stray slips of paper. A large painting of the Virgin standing on a crescent moon hung behind the hotel’s front desk. I knew the story of Juan Diego—how he’d gathered roses in his cloak and how the image of the Virgin remained on the cloth. The Lady watched from a hundred gentle eyes. Whose face lay behind the face of Guadalupe?

Beyond the candle shelf, I spotted a tray of plastic pouches about two inches long. A colored paper picture covered the front of each, on one, a man on horseback reached down to help a man on the ground. I picked it up and saw the title, Martin Cáballo. Layers of pine needles interspersed colored powder. I picked up another and read San Miguel. A warrior angel, holding aloft his sword above the scaly tail circling his legs. That powder layered with bright red pebble-sized chunks. The pictures reminded me of my old children’s Bible, one person tormented and the holy person kind and generous. At the base of the images I deciphered words for luck and money and family. Beyond that shelf lay another shelf filled with Buddhas, all sizes, all grinning, hands folded in a satisfying gesture over fat bellies. One tiny Buddha sat alone, a tiny smile, tiny red stone at his navel where the robe draped open. A Buddha to fit in the cupped palm of my hand.

 

Late afternoon sun bounced off windshields as I stepped out of the market. A line of taxis parked at the corner, so I tapped a window, roused the napping driver. He nodded when I told him the hotel’s name, said nothing all the way back on deserted streets, and accepted my pesos with a nod. The hotel was as quiet; the garden deserted. Everyone must have gone to the set. The costumer emerged from the far wing, a loop of dun-colored clothes over one arm.

“Carmen, what are these?” Fishing the packets of incense packets out of my pocket, I held them on my palm. Carmen glanced over her arm in passing. “Ask Gloria. She knows.” She hurried on to a waiting car.

Water lapped at the end of the pool. I felt suspended, the world breathing in and out, turning its own way, rolling in no-time, while I held two packets of powder. I unglued myself abruptly and went to my room. The maid had cleaned; nothing for me to do. Left behind, my sense of humor dissolved into abandonment.

“Snap out of it!” I said aloud. “Go do something.”

I called the front desk, ordered a rental car, and drove out of town, north on the highway leading to the set, watching for the unmarked turnoff to the road leading into the mountains, a road pitted by ruts worn into the trail and marking the boundary between one century and another: tarmac to dirt and city to pueblo. I found the turn. The road looked dry. Loosening my grip on the steering wheel, the car nosed its way over the bumps. At the crest of a ridge, I stopped. Ahead, the road forked into two down-slanting tracks: sometimes the drivers took the left one and forded a rocky creek, and sometimes they crossed on the narrow, wobbly, plank bridge to the right. Some choice. Risk a punctured oil pan by driving over rocks or brave the spindly bridge and risk falling in. The rain made a difference in the creek even if it hadn’t on the road and deep water tumbled around the rocks. I chose the bridge.

“Bridge over troubled waters,” I sang to bolster my courage, inching the car forward. Simon and Garfunkel probably hadn’t known about this bridge.

On the other side, at the top of a ridge, a pueblo sat with its back to the sky. In the mornings when our caravan came through, young goats, giddy, budding horns pushing through tousled white heads, pranced the stone walls circling the pueblo. Laughing children ran to open gates. We were a traveling circus come to town. But now, as evening pressed across the land, no one came to greet my solitary car. The shuttered pueblo allowed no gleam of life. The gates wide—the goats somewhere else for the night. Were families eating supper? The road opened onto an arid range. Home and family. Running toward freedom and wanting it to look like family. “Freedom isn’t free,” Bob Dylan said, but sometimes the cost wearied me.

Beyond the pueblo, the road widened across a plain, and I passed the ruins of an old adobe fort. The fort another movie set although I wasn’t sure which movie or how many. One of the rovers who spoke English told me The Tall Man. I’d smiled and nodded. I didn’t remember much more about it than the name. At one time, a lot of westerns shot in Durango.

Around one last curve, I saw the cabin. Nothing said “movie set.” The trucks with generators, wardrobe, makeup, missing. Just a brown cabin on the brown plains that dropped away to a creek. Usually I looked forward to this view, felt like I was coming home, but today too many ghosts followed and I needed people. A quarter mile down the road I found the vehicles and pulled in behind them.

“Juanita!” a driver shouted as I walked into the camp. I grinned and waved, feeling safe again. Home.

Unlike the cabin, this location looked slapped-together with trailers scattered along the base of a prickly hill. I saw Miguel halfway up the side, guiding Holly Lynne around stunted trees. She could be my daughter—same blond hair, same cheekbones, wide smile. Rehearsals must be starting. Sharp streaks of red and gold spiked the sky. A flare of campfire appeared beyond the trees on the ridge. My hairdresser Gloria stood outside the makeup trailer. The rocky, uneven ground made for treacherous footing, but Gloria wore her usual high platform shoes. She still barely came up to my shoulder. I pulled the incense packets from my jacket pocket and showed her. “Gloria, qué es?”

She glanced at the packets and then at my face, tipping her head as if measuring me for a new hairdo, or listening. “Momento,” she said, turning to put down the brush she held. Another woman joined us and spoke to Gloria. The woman worked in costuming with Carmen but their conversation in Spanish went too fast for me to follow. She pointed to a spot below her thumb. Gloria held the woman’s hand, pressed her fingers into the spot and her voice rose in a soft chant. The woman nodded her thanks and left. Gloria picked up a plastic bottle and motioned me to follow. A back corner of my mind put together another puzzle…the times between takes, sitting at Gloria’s table, a crew member would come to her, hold out a hand, an arm, point to a leg, and I’d hear the same chant. Absorbed in script’s pages, I hadn’t paid attention, but I did remembered quick conversations and the soft roll of words.

We walked west into the crimson-spiked sky and around a tumble of boulders as high as a house. The horizon poured blood while behind us, darkness settled like soot. My doubt quotient was high. What had I gotten myself into? I’d followed her when she’d motioned, turned, and stepped precisely over the rocky ground as lightly as the village goats pranced along stone walls. My feet felt unsteady and the rest of me felt like a six-year-old being led to school. Ask Gloria, Carmen said. So I did. And now I was wandering into the night with a woman carrying a water bottle.

Gloria turned to face me. A halo of red-setting light brushed her shoulders. “Aqui,” she said, motioning for me to kneel. “Agua sagrada,” she said, showing me the bottle. Sacred water? Where’d she get holy water? I knelt, holding the packets in my outstretched hands. Shadows hid her eyes in the folds of night.

“El Señor,” the whispered chant began. She walked in a wide circle, sprinkling water, closing us inside, stopped in front of me. Her chant lifted. Stars woke. The night listened. The words shaped meaning but slipped away, eluding my understanding. She dampened her finger with water and traced a cross on my forehead; one hand hovered above my head while the other slipped the water bottle into a side pocket. Freed from its burden the second hand took wing and floated across my face before joining the other above my head. It felt as though she molded air—an energy field grew between her hands and my body. The energy moved as Gloria’s hands moved and came to rest over the packets. Her chant curled inside my ears; wonder paused in the silence between words. A night bird flew overhead—then another and another—long wings slow-flapping in the night. Heat grew in my palms. Gloria folded my fingers over the packets and passed her hands once more in blessing.

Guardelos,” she said.

“Keep them,” I heard. Keep them. Holding the packets, I struggled to my feet. Black sky cupped the last stain at the horizon and stars shone overhead. How long had I been kneeling? Shoving my curled fists into my jacket pockets, I followed Gloria back to camp. I thanked her. She returned to her trailer. I climbed the hill toward the beacon of campfire, feeling her eyes on my back but not knowing what else to say. I didn’t even know what had happened. I passed a ledge of rocks and saw the set ahead, dark figures moving beyond the circle of fire. Balancing one hip against the ledge, I studied the hill. I could climb above and watch unseen.

The desert night grew cold. The figures gathered around the campfire looked unreal, the murmur of voices muted as if the night pinned sound to the earth. The packets stayed warm; that was real. I sat on a rock and watched.

Below, lights came on and I heard “Action.” I didn’t move.

Stars flooded the sky – the moon not yet up. A deeper lightless black shaped the broken edges of mountains. Orion lay a bit farther north here and the Fish nearly overhead, but still, the same sky as over my childhood’s farmland. This sky an autumn sky: not yet hard, but not hazy either. The Milky Way like a big spider web sprinkled with dew flung from an unseen hand across the sky. Since very young I’d known there was a power bigger than any of us really understood, but I didn’t understand what had happened to me or why the packets stayed warm.

….

An Odyssey Revisited

An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is arguably the best book I’ve read in months. Mendelsohn, a Classics professor at Bard College and a translator of Greek poetry, takes the approach of telling his and his father’s story in conjunction with  teaching a class on Homer’s The Odyssey.

As with many sons and fathers (or daughters and fathers) theirs has been a troubled relationship. His father was a mathematician and computer scientist, who, for various reasons, never completed his PhD. Daniel Mendelsohn, while co-parenting children with a woman, is gay and has known he’s gay since a teenager. But as with many, he wasn’t able to come out to his parents when young.

The father, Jay Mendelsohn, now retired, asks if he can sit in on a class Daniel is teaching on Homer’s The Odyssey, and reluctantly, the son agrees. The Odyssey as well as An Odyssey is the story of a father and a son’s relationship.

Jay Mendelsohn’s first comment on the first day of class, as he sits against the wall in the classroom rather than around the big oval discussion table of students, was that he didn’t think Odysseus much of a hero because he lies, cheated on his wife, gets his men killed, and is always rescued by the gods.

Daniel Mendelsohn must somehow maintain his role of “teacher” with the students. And as the class progresses, Daniel goes to family elders and asks them to tell him stories about his father, just as Telemachus goes to elders who had returned from Troy to ask for stories of his father.

The epic poems are all ring cycles, cycling back to the past and forward again.

I studied both The Iliad and The Odyssey in graduate school at St. John’s College, and so, pulled out my much annotated and underlined copy of The Odyssey to read as I read Mendelsohn’s. Reading two copies of Odyssey’s journey at the same time was an interesting excursion.

In addition, I pulled out my copy of the Freshman Greek Manuel from St. John’s. One of my professors has given a summer course for the Graduate Institute students on the Greek language.

Most of us know the story, or at least the outline of the story: the Trojan Wars, Odysseus, Achilles, and Hector, so I won’t go into those many details, but I do want to note Mendelsohn’s remarkable writing.

The book is written in much the same style of Homer’s in that there’s a lot of dialogue and story telling, and what was also remarkable, and which I didn’t notice when I began reading, and in truth, didn’t notice for several chapters, was that Mendelsohn had omitted quotation marks for dialogue in the same way Homer’s epic is written.

True, it’s likely the formal quotation marks for spoken lines came about far after Homer, but what made it remarkable, especially reading the two copies side by side, was that I wasn’t bother by the omission and in fact hadn’t even noticed.

Mendelsohn weaves a tale of adventure, battles, backstory, life and death, in much the same way Homer does. However, Mendelsohn is much easier to read than Homer.

As I read, I had flashes of memory, sitting around a big oval table at St. John’s in Santa Fe, a tutor at one end, fourteen or fifteen of us, reading lines and discussing. I’d taken one semester of Greek (the Freshman Greek Manual and pages of practice in Greek lettering), but I wasn’t a Freshman, I was a Graduate Student, trying to cram several thousand years of language development into a short four months.

Another interesting piece I learned about my own writing is that I also tend to use ring cycles. Nothing, or very little about me, is straight forward. My writing picks up threads from the past and weaves them into present. One only need look back to the previous essay On Fire and Family to see how that plays out.

Whether or not you’ve ever read Homer’s The Odyssey, you probably know the story. Read Mendelsohn. You’ll find a modern odyssey, an odyssey that many of us take in our lives.

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