2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Living Up The Street: Narrative Recollections - Part 5 (pp. 138-167)

Author: Gary Soto

The Savings Book

My wife, Carolyn, married me for my savings: Not the double digit figures but the strange three or four dollar withdrawals and deposits. The first time she saw my passbook she laughed until her eyes became moist and then hugged me as she called “Poor baby.” And there was truth to what she was saying: Poor.

I remember opening my savings account at Guarantee Savings May 27, 1969, which was a Monday. The previous Saturday my brother and I had taken a labor bus to chop cotton in the fields west of Fresno. We returned home in the back of a pickup with fourteen dollars each and a Mexican national who kept showing us watches and rings for us to buy. That day my brother and I wouldn’t spring for Cokes or sandwiches, as most everyone else on our crew did when a vending truck drove up at lunch time, tooting a loud horn. The driver opened the aluminum doors to display his goods, and the workers, who knew better but couldn’t resist, hovered over the iced Cokes, the cellophaned sandwiches, and the Hostess cupcakes. We looked on from the shade of the bus, sullen and most certainly sensible. Why pay forty cents when you could get a Coke in town for half the price. Why buy a sandwich for sixty-five cents when you could have slapped together your own sandwich. That was what our mother had done for us. She had made us tuna sandwiches which by noon had grown suspiciously sour when we peeled back the top slice to peek in. Still, we ate them, chewing slowly and watching each other to see if he were beginning to double over. Finished, we searched the paper bag and found a broken stack of saltine crackers wrapped in wax paper. What a cruel mother, we thought. Dry crackers on a dry day when it was sure to rise into the nineties as we chopped cotton or, as the saying went, “played Mexican golf.”

We had each earned fourteen dollars for eight hours of work, the most money I had ever made in one day. Two days later, on May 27, 1969, I deposited those dollars; on June 9th I made my first withdrawal—four dollars to buy a belt to match a pair of pants. I had just been hired to sell encyclopedias, and the belt was intended to dazzle my prospective clients when they opened the door to receive me. But in reality few welcomed my presence on their doorsteps and the only encyclopedias I sold that summer were to families on welfare who so desperately wanted to rise from their soiled lives. Buy a set, I told them, and your problems will disappear. Knowledge is power. Education is the key to the future, and so on. The contracts, however, were rescinded and my commissions with them.

On June 20 I withdrew three dollars and twenty-five cents to buy a plain white shirt because my boss had suggested that I should look more “professional.” Still, I sold encyclopedias to the poor and again the contracts were thrown out. Finally I was fired, my briefcase taken away, and the company tie undone from my neck. I walked home in the summer heat despairing at the consequence: No new clothes for the fall.

On July 13 I took out five dollars and eighty cents which, including the five cents interest earned, left me with a balance of one dollar. I used the money for bus fare to Los Angeles to look for work. I found it in a tire factory. At summer’s end I returned home and walked proudly to Guarantee Savings with my pockets stuffed with ten dollar bills. That was September 5, and my new balance jumped to one hundred and forty-one dollars. I was a senior in high school and any withdrawals from my account went exclusively to buy clothes, never for food, record albums, or concerts. On September 15, for instance, I withdrew fifteen dollars for a shirt and jeans. On September 24 I again stood before the teller to ask for six dollars. I bought a sweater at the Varsity Shop at Coffee’s.

Slowly my savings dwindled that fall semester, although I did beef it up with small deposits: Twenty dollars on October 1, ten dollars on November 19, fifteen dollars on December 31, and so on. But by February my savings account balance read three dollars and twelve cents. On March 2 I returned to the bank to withdraw one crisp dollar to do God knows what. Perhaps it was to buy my mother a birthday gift. Seven days later, on March 10, I made one last attempt to bolster my savings by adding eight dollars. By March 23, however, I was again down to one dollar.

By the time I finally closed my account, it had fluctuated for five years, rising and falling as a barometer to my financial quandry. What is curious to me about this personal history are the kinds of transactions that took place—one day I would withdraw three dollars while on another day I would ask for six. How did it vanish? What did it buy? I’m almost certain I bought clothes but for what occasion? For whom? I didn’t have a girlfriend in my senior year, so where did the money go?

To withdraw those minor amounts was no easy task. I had to walk or bicycle nearly four miles, my good friend Scott tagging along, and afterward we’d walk up and down the Fresno Mall in search of the elusive girlfriend or, if worse came to worst, to look for trouble.

My savings book is a testimony to my fear of poverty—that by saving a dollar here, another there, it would be kept at bay.

I admit that as a kid I worried about starving, although there was probably no reason. There was always something to eat; the cupboards were weighed down with boxes of this and that. But when I was older the remembrance of difficult times stayed with me: The time Mother was picking grapes and my brother ate our entire lunch while my sister and I played under the vines. For us there was nothing to eat that day. The time I opened the refrigerator at my father’s (who was separated from our mother at the time) to stare at one puckered apple that sat in the conspicuous glare of the refrigerator’s light. I recalled my uncle lying on a couch dying of cancer. I recalled my father who died from an accident a year later and left us in even more roughed up shoes. I had not been born to be scared out of my wits, but that is what happened. Through a set of experiences early in my life, I grew up fearful that some financial tragedy would strike at any moment, as when I was certain that the recession of 1973 would lead to chaos—burned cars and street fighting. During the recession I roomed with my brother and I suggested that we try to become vegetarians. My brother looked up from his drawing board and replied: “Aren’t we already?” I thought about it for a while, and it was true. I was getting most of my hearty meals from my girlfriend, Carolyn, who would later become my wife. She had a job with great pay, and when she opened her refrigerator I almost wept for the bologna, sliced ham, and drumsticks. I spied the cheeses and imported olives, tomatoes, and the artichoke hearts. I opened the freezer —chocolate ice cream!

At that time Carolyn put up with my antics, so when I suggested that we buy fifty dollars worth of peanut butter and pinto beans to store under her bed, she happily wrote out a check because she was in love and didn’t know any better. I was certain that in 1974 the country would slide into a depression and those who were not prepared would be lost. We hid the rations in the house and sat at the front window to wait for something to happen.

What happened was that we married and I loosened up. I still fear the worst, but the worst is not what it once was. Today I bought a pair of shoes; tomorrow I may splurge to see a movie, with a box of popcorn and a large soda that will wash it all down. It’s time to live, I tell myself, and if a five dollar bill flutters from my hands, no harm will result. I laugh at the funny scenes that aren’t funny, and I can’t think of any better life.

Getting By

What was there to do in summer? After seeing my wife off to work at 7:00 in the morning, I climbed back into bed and fell asleep with our cat Benny, who was equally oblivious to the fact that most people were off to their tasks of making money. I slept hard, open-mouthed and dreaming and woke up about ten to a spear of sunlight through the curtained window—a window that was screenless so that a few flies, loosened from tuna cans and pie tins in the alley, circled the room, their blue engines coming and going from the window to the different points of my body.

It was mid-morning—or two-and-a-half hours after my wife had started answering questions about financial aid at Fresno State—when I sat at the kitchen table with my coffee and the Fresno Bee opened first to baseball scores, then to the tragic murders or attempted murders, then back to baseball scores. The facts always woke me up.

By eleven I was dressed in jeans and a comfortably loose T-shirt. I sat in the living room, legs crossed, and literally waited for a poem to surface from a brain cell, because I was clear-headed and eager to push words from one side of the page to the next. I was eager to reinvent my childhood, to show others the chinaberry tree, ants, shadows, dirty spoons—those nouns that made up much of my poetry. On that day in August nothing came except a few stilted lines about loneliness in contemporary society. I felt sick. The poems I had written in the previous weeks had been dismal efforts to rekindle a feel for the past. There I was, author of a prize-winning collection of poems, with another on the way, and I was troubled, even scared, that an empty head might weigh my previously square and confident shoulders. I sipped another coffee and rechecked the murders, this time in the Fresno Guide, and still came up with “loneliness in contemporary society.”

We lived in a complex of seven identical cottages which, if in another part of town, might have been considered charming and even historically interesting. But our complex sat between busy streets in an area of loud service vehicles. We were fenced in on three sides by Barnett’s Key Shop, a bar called The Space, and an adult movie house called The Venus. It was a “convenient” area. If one day I had locked myself out of our cottage, I could have shouted and Mr. Barnett would have heard; if I had grumbled at my bad luck, I could have downed beers at The Space and talked with those who couldn’t talk and felt much better about myself; or if I had lusted over the unattainably wicked, I could have crossed the street and entered the cool dark of The Venus to sit among the fidgeting patrons, their laps full of popcorn.

Because the area was suspiciously run-down, the rent was only a hundred dollars. We were in the seventh cottage, some distance from the busy streets and milky stares of the regulars leaving The Space. It was a relatively quiet complex since most tenants were retired. One of them was a slow-shuffling problem-drinker named Ziggy. His problem was that he couldn’t get enough. By late morning, after making a few swipes at the sidewalk with a broom and stooping for candy wrappers that had scuttled in from the rush of traffic, he was ready to put on a jacket and take the 50 or so steps to The Space where he spent the day mumbling, head down and looking into beers. Like most quiet alcoholics, Ziggy was common and uninteresting, except that he had become friend to cockroaches. “Those critters ain’t nothin’ … thur like you and me,” he said to me once at his front door and waved for me to come with him. I followed lamely and was led in shuffles to his kitchen. When the light went on, hundreds of cockroaches began to scatter and bump into one another, creating a dull clicking sound. Ziggy laughed stupidly and watched my face wrinkle with a frown as I stepped back, obviously disgusted. In a way this was Ziggy’s entertainment: To lure a person to his cottage in order to laugh at a startled face when the lights went on and the floor began to move.

The other tenants kept to themselves, and we did the same. That summer we poked a few holes in the triangle-shaped plot behind the cottage and planted zucchini and tomatoes. Within a month the zucchini fattened and the tomatoes were bloated red as Christmas ornaments. In the evening I often sat behind the cottage marveling at how these plants had grown scraggly with fruit; how from small plugs they had taken over the small patch of earth within a matter of weeks, inviting snails, worms, spiders, and “creepy things” I couldn’t even begin to name. I considered anything that didn’t talk, bark, meow, roar, screech, chirp, or heehaw an insect. It made the world much easier to understand.

By late July we were eating tomatoes daily: Eggs and tomatoes for breakfast, tomatoes bleeding between two slices of toast for lunch, and tomatoes in an austere salad of lettuce and vinegar for dinner. A late evening snack might be a chilled tomato enjoyed in front of Johnny Carson when the air conditioner had just been turned off and the windows raised, the night heat slowly descending upon us like a heavy jacket.

By early August we were at the point of unloading bags of tomatoes and zucchini onto our relatives who, in turn, wanted to shove even larger bags of the same into our arms. Throughout Fresno the gardens were full and a whole community busied itself trying to force gifts of home grown produce on one another. “Here, let’s look at photos of our vacation, and while we’re at it, let me give you a couple of bags of zucchini,” one might say to a favorite uncle, the garden at home producing more than one could possibly pass around on a good evening.

It had been a difficult year for my wife and me. We had returned in May from Mexico City with little money to inherit this cottage from my brother who was on the way up to an apartment with beamed ceilings and a swimming pool. He had had enough of the drunks who seemed forever circling the cottages, on occasion knocking at his door to borrow a wrench to fix their steaming cars or to use the telephone because they were bleeding under their shirts.

We gladly moved in. We painted one room, then another. We became ambitious and waxed the hardwood floors with my worst T-shirts. We tore off the contact paper stuck on the bathroom window, fitting it with a bright yellow shade. A week later the apartment was in order, and the next order of business was to find jobs. We scanned the want ads; we thumbed through the job listings at the unemployment building and followed the faintest rumor of work. But the truth was that neither of us wanted to be locked into jobs. We therefore brainstormed to figure a way to get by without going outside the house and came up with sign painting. An artist by training, Carolyn could paint FM Motors, A-1 Body Shop, Victor’s Repo Depot and the like with little effort. This decided, I was made salesman and my first attempt was to snare Garoupa’s Grocery, which had just moved next to The Space. A mistake for the owner, but money for us we thought.

Garoupa, a second-generation Portuguese whose laughter rose from his belly first and then into his mouth, was a small-time capitalist. He had come to love money late in his life and worked eagerly at becoming successful, first with a small store that was no bigger than a child’s bedroom and then a full-fledged grocery with a meat counter and vegetable bins—what zucchini could not be given away wound up in his grocery slowly growing soft.

“Go out there and do it,” Carolyn said. I put on an ironed shirt, slipped into my best shoes and walked to his front door briskly with a sense of audacity. But when I opened the screened door, I spotted Garoupa behind the meat counter sniffing a handful of ground round. He threw it back into the glassed counter and asked if I needed help. I looked around, from the smoke-dusted ceiling to the poorly stocked shelves. A flurry of small fans stirred the air, and I, with cold feet, pretended not to hear him and went off to search the vegetable bins. Yes, the zucchini was there, puckering in the heat. I picked one up, weighed it, and tapped it in my palm, a maneuver that gave me time to muster courage. I didn’t know how to approach this burly character. What words could I use to ask for work. “Hey there, Big Daddy, how ’bout me painting a sign for you,” I could say to which he might wave, “Get outta here.” There I was, a prize-winning poet, with another book on the way, growing useless before bins of sad vegetables. I knew the works of the best poets of this century, most of the novelists, and the short story writer who wrote: “There’s every reason to cry.” I had studied the Bible. I had underlined passages from Hamlet and knew an epigram from the Vietnamese by heart: “Spit straight up and learn something,” which I easily could have applied to that day.

I examined an onion, then a handful of limp peas, and then turned to Garoupa. I searched his coughing face behind the meat counter, a face the color of the sausage he was selling. He wiped his mouth slowly and said: “Yes!” I asked for raisins to which he replied he had none. I turned to the freezer and bought a Popsicle and brought it home to Carolyn. It was her favorite: Cherry. I broke it in two, and it was something like love, the juice running down our arms.

Garoupa’s Grocery started slowly but later snowballed into a success. He himself became adventurous and opened Garoupa’s Dance Studio next to The Venus. I suppose he imagined that after watching a porno flick patrons might want to rush next door to take lessons in the Cha-Cha. Perhaps so. The dance studio, too, became a success, but later closed for reasons we were not much interested in; we were gone and living in the Bay Area.

Carolyn found a job in financial aid at Fresno State and I was left to my own devices: reading Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs and writing poems that I crushed into balls and hurled at our cat Benny. The poems failed to excite, although when Carolyn came home, red and steaming from the ten mile drive from work, I hugged and kissed and told her about the wonderfully effortless lines that I had written for the day—lines that would raise us from our poverty. “I’m boy wonder,” I often told her, flexing my muscles. She would go through a pantomime of excitement and rub them, cooing: “O you hot Latins.”

When it was obvious that, for whatever reason, the poems I had been writing were bad, I began to consider finding a real job. Gas station attendant, car salesman, apprentice baker? The choices were endlessly sad, and so was I when I woke one day to the realization that I could only write and teach poetry and grow sad after each chapter of Madame Bovary. I thought of my brother who, at twenty-two and down to three dollars and an ashtray of pennies, said “Damn,” pumped up the tires of my old bike and rode off to the Whirl Wind Car Wash to plead for work—my brother the artist, the not-so-hot guitar player, child of a difficult past.

So this is what it’s like, I thought as I scanned the want ads in the Fresno Bee, scratching out the godawful jobs, which left mostly technical ones—dental hygienist or landscape architect—or those that rang suspiciously false: Earn money at home … I spotted, however a promising lead:

Summer Help Needed
Pacific Telephone Company
800 N. Fulton, East Side
An Equal Opportunity Employer

and suddenly I grew confident that things would work; that my application would be admired—the education, the teaching experience, the world travel—and passed to the higher ups who, in turn, would beam, “That’s our man!”

I called Jon Veinberg, who had been my roommate in graduate school and my best man at our wedding, and the next morning, just after eight, he came riding up on his bicycle, already sweating from the Fresno heat which had been balancing between 103 and 104 for the past few days. We had iced tea on the front porch and talked poetry: Montale and Hikmet, Transtromer and Stern.

At nine we got up stiffly from the porch, slightly reluctant about following through with our plans, and began the three-block walk down the alley (yet another landmark of this cluster of cottages) to the telephone company. When we arrived a staggered line was forming, and we linked ourselves to it, waving at a few friends we recognized, one of whom was an artist—and a very good one! We joked about “selling out,” but secretly we were all hoping for the best.

Within fifteen minutes we were inside sitting on folding chairs and filling out a simple application. One set of questions asked: Last Job? How Many Hours per Week? I wrote T.A. in English and three hours. I smiled at this fact and shared it with Jon who chuckled behind his moustache—a great wirey moustache that nearly touched his collar bones when he was sitting down. “You lie, sucker,” he said. “You only worked two.” We laughed into each other’s faces and returned the applications to the would-be interviewer. Instead of returning to my seat I circled the room studying the equally unemployable who were dressed in faded jeans, T-shirts, mismatched leisure suits, baseball caps, pointlessly loud shoes, rubber thongs—the unemployable in long hair or cropped hair, their cigarettes rolled in the sleeves of their T-shirts. I spotted one face in particular, a Chicano I recognized from high school, and walked over to say Orale ese! We shook hands, raza style, and passed stories back and forth like a beach ball: Our marriages, children, cars, and misplaced friends.

I wished him luck and went to sit with Jon. He too was studying the people because his face looked defeated. He stared at me and I at him, and no words were necessary to say times were bad.

I perked up, however, when my name was called and I walked over to a middle-aged woman in a bland dress whose lacquered hair was piled into a bee hive. She asked if there was an error about the three hours. “You mean thirty hours,” she asked, pointing to my application. “No, you see, this T.A.-ship was a class in remedial English and we met only three times a week,” I explained to her. She studied my face, pencil in her mouth and said, “Oh, I see.” She wrote something on my application.

A few minutes later a business-type clapped his hands and announced that the applications would be processed and those whose work experience fitted their needs would be called. He said we could go home, and someone among the unemployable said: “Muther, you can go home!” The business-type pretended not to hear and walked away down the hallway.

Jon and I left laughing but were at once dazed by the heat and harsh light when we opened the outside door. It was late morning and already the day left us no choice: To stay inside in front of the air conditioner to nurse iced tea and a book that we hoped would never end.

My first book came out in March and Carolyn planned a party in June. A book-selling party. Carolyn stirred up a minor invasion of colorful dishes: Fruit platter, shrimp salad, and party-time meatballs. Then there were bowls of potato chips and guacamole. A few bottles of Wente chablis were chilled for a toast and beers were iced in a tub.

We spent the day rearranging the house. We scooted the couch against the front window to face a small handsome Japanese print. We wiped the leaves of our three or four house plants, and cleaned the windows both inside and out. The bathroom was scrubbed, the floor vacuumed, and the living room scented with cut flowers from Carolyn’s mother, an amateur flower arranger.

By seven the first guests began to arrive, some in pairs and others alone, but all were awkwardly quiet at first because few had been to a book-selling party and didn’t know what to expect and because few had seen Carolyn and me in nine months—or years! Most guests were my relatives: brothers, sister, mother, aunt, uncles, cousins, and would-be cousins. Even my grandmother came with a cigarette in her shaking hand, and repeated in her gravelly voice all night: “Honey, your hair, your hair is too long!”

Then there were my literary companeros: Jon Veinberg and Leonard Adame. I handed out beers like tickets, and they were on their way to laughter and their overblown stories.

I had also invited my former teachers, Philip Levine and Peter Everwine, and they arrived with their wives and a well-known poet who had just ended a visiting professorship at Fresno State. The well-known poet shook my hand and retreated with Levine to take up a wine glass. Later, when Leonard Adame went up to ask about his translations from the Spanish, the well-known poet didn’t feel much like talking. He answered Leonard’s questions as simply as he could and then turned away to search out Levine.

By eight the party was loudly clever with reminiscences about my childhood. My mother: “Remember when this kid used to go raking leaves and he went up to one house and asked this lady—Armenian, I think—if she had any work to do and the lady says, ‘Yes, I have to do the ironing and cook dinner,’ and this kid don’t know what to do except say ‘Oh’ and turn around and get his little butt off her porch. M’ijo, you crack me up.”

By his third beer, my older brother started in: “And remember when he was in kindergarten I told him that peanut butter was also shoe polish? So he buffed it into his loafers and took off to school smelling like a sandwich. Gary, I’m sorry; I had to do it. You were so stupid.”

They were stories dragged from the closet, stories that were a tradition at family gatherings, especially at Christmas when they nailed my brother to the wall, reminding him of the year he tore small holes in his Christmas presents to see what they were and later, on Christmas Eve, cried because none of them was a surprise.

I laughed along, although I tried unsuccessfully to change the subject. Carolyn finally intervened to ask if this knot of relatives would be interested in buying a copy of my book. My relatives flew to their purses and brought out their wallets. I signed books and tried to explain the poems at which most of them would only stare. They were very proud.

It was while signing books and making up stories about how I composed each poem in a blaze of concentration that my sister Debra tugged me into the bedroom where she pointed out the window at a young woman on top of the tin shed in the back yard. The woman was cursing at a young man who was waving a steak knife at her. He cursed at her and she returned even more fierce words about his and everyone else’s mother.

They were a redneck-looking couple who lived in the apartment whose brick wall was a tall fence to our yard. A week before, while we were barbecuing with another couple, the woman’s voice lifted almost beautifully from a high window, “Charlie, this new Tide even gets the shit out of your shorts,” just as we were sitting down to eat and toast the good life.

Pulling down the shade, I felt inclined to telephone the police. I hesitated, however, and went over to tell Carolyn about what was happening outside. She rushed to the bedroom window and peeked through the shade. They were gone. Only the tin shed and the scraggly tomatoes.

My sister again tugged at my sleeve to whisper that the girl was at the front door. I scooted quickly past my guests, who were oblivious to what was going on, to answer the door. Calmly I answered, “Yes,” searching her face for a clue to her feelings. She asked if she could use the phone because her car had broken down. I stared at her openly but her eyes refused to meet mine, even when I swung the door open and showed her to the phone. I left her alone but waited not far from her wondering if I should be direct and tell her that it wasn’t a stalled car that brought her to my door but a steak knife. I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I felt she must have been crumbling inside and was in need of comfort.

But I said nothing, for fear of getting involved, and when the young woman was off the telephone I walked her to the door and—very stupidly—wished her luck in getting her car started. On the steps she half turned to me and looking at a cockroach that had scuttled out from the porch, said, “Thanks.”

The party was a success. I sold twenty-two books and received many handshakes and loud cheers.

Short Takes
to Carolyn

Last night Ernesto, Dianne, and I sat at the dining table playing cards and drinking while Banjo went from one to another licking us. Poor dog, all day he was locked in the third bathroom because Ernesto had relatives over and, as you know, he has that nasty habit of pissing on the feet of strangers. Reluctantly, Ernesto had lured Banjo into the bathroom with a handful of dog chow. He leapt up amazingly high for such an old dog as he followed Ernesto’s open palm with its gritty treasure. He made eating noises behind the door, then scratched to be let out, whined, and barked something like, “Come on, come on”—two syllable bursts that went unheeded, although I did slip a piece of meat under the door and wiggled my fingers for him to sniff and remember me.

We played cards, drank, and later watched Johnny Carson until the electricity failed. We lit candles just to see one another. The night sky helped out now and then with blue cracks of lightning. We told jokes—or more accurately—I told jokes and Ernesto and Dianne made sounds that could be considered laughter. Eventually Dianne, flushed from wine and wobbly as a restaurant chair, excused herself and went to bed while Ernesto stayed and begged me to go on—Ernesto, the most polite person I have ever met. Such sweetness. But finally he, too, trudged off to bed and I, not quite through with the night, went out onto the balcony to look at the roofs of other houses where I imagined laughter was breaking like the sea with every joke, funny or not.

And what did I do today? I woke very slowly with a book, had eggs and coffee, and went to work with Ernesto who wanted me to help translate some speeches of Portillo—speeches that he’s going to give at the United Nations. They were all about oil: Oil and the Third World Countries, Oil and the Coming Years, Oil’s Technological Prophecy, etc. But first we stopped off at the pharmacy near the panaderia, where I got an injection of penicillin. I’ve had a sore throat the last few days and have been tired. It wasn’t my idea but Ernesto’s. He’s at the pharmacy all the time—or so the woman behind the counter mentioned with a tsk tsk. She waited on a boy who couldn’t decide on Life Savers or cough drops before she waved me into the back room where I was asked to drop my pants as she searched, on tip toes, among a row of tiny boxes for the penicillin. Before she found it a customer called her away and I was left with my pants down, feeling ridiculous. She returned and searched some more among the boxes. When she found the penicillin she poked a needle into the bottle, shook it with a shiver of her wrist, and then turned to me, shooing her hand at me to bend over. “Mas, joven! Mas, mas,” she scolded me like a mother. I bent over until my shirt raised like a curtain, revealing my birthmark—that pirate’s patch on the left cheek—and felt the sting.

When we got to the office Ernesto greeted his workers with smiles and handshakes, introducing me as a poet and professor. They shook my hand stiffly then stepped back with nods of respect that embarrassed me. He showed me the office where we would work. It looked out on that busy street where we once shopped for shoes. Ernesto left the room and returned with a folder under his arm. He took a seat, opened the folder on the coffee table, and began work by giving me a rough (but sometimes very accurate) translation of one of the speeches. At first we worked faithfully with the original but after awhile we got so sloppy we added words and phrases that weren’t there and crossed out pretentious quips about how the poor, the noble Mexican poor, are the promise for the future. The speeches were real; they had been delivered in small towns on the frontier or in the interior while he was campaigning for the presidency. The rumor is that the mayor of each town had the streets swept, store fronts painted, and the terribly poor run into the countryside, before Portillo stepped off the plane and rode down an avenue lined with rouged girls who flung rose petals on tip toes.

We worked for five hours before we sent out for a pizza, only to return and make up some more speeches.

The day before you left, while you were out shopping for lacquerware at the national museum, I carried Mariko the five blocks to Chapultepec Park, past that pudgy policeman who usually whispers, “Here he comes, that young Mexican with his Chinese baby.” He said it again to the hangers-on at the corner, and I smiled at him, then at Mariko, and crossed the street into the park looking for a quiet place to sit. But there wasn’t any such place. If there weren’t lovers pressed to trees, then there were kids with balloons or bright candies in their hands. If there weren’t students from the Instituto Arquitectura talking in their sing-song voices, then there were cars honking, tinny transistors, and laughter from distant rowboats.

We finally stopped at a felled tree, a relief to my arms, and I let Mariko crawl in the grass and jab ants with a stick, her drool confusing them as they raced hysterically to get out of the way. Some got away, but some just kicked their feet in her drool, utterly bewildered I suppose at what was happening to them. She played happily with a handful of grass as I thought about her, how when we first arrived in Mexico her skin broke into a rash: Banjo nuzzled and licked her neck, and so started the rash that started the eczema that spread like fire and, I imagine, was a fire that she hoped to stop by scratching. But the eczema spread, some patches breaking with pus. You washed them daily, rubbed ointment the doctors prescribed, and still they teared like the eyes of small children. But the pain was ours, not really hers, because in a way she was like those ants—alive but not fully aware. At fourteen months she was only confused at why she hurt at her ankles, knees, elbows. Years from now she won’t remember the pain that kept her up that one night crying but wanting so badly to be happy that she clapped patty-cakes, her face smeared with tears and snot. Remember? I rocked her at the dining table as you tried to sing, coo, and clap her into happiness.

At the park I let her crawl with those harmless ants. Later in a rented rowboat we drifted like so many others while Mariko greedily sucked a snow cone, something I shouldn’t have bought for her but did anyway. From there we took a taxi home, but instead of going inside I carried her around the block, bouncing her quietly in my arms as I told her how I was going to miss her, how I loved her. She smiled, made noises. She played with a button on my shirt, squirmed to be let down, and said “flower,” a new word for her, when she saw a balloon in a child’s hand. “Flower, flower,” she said, legs kicking with happiness. Not a bad guess, for such a little one.

Today I met with Carmen to practice Spanish. Afterward I went alone to the Restaurante Gato Azul. Do you remember the place? I went there once with Dianne’s family who were shocked when, after a graceful lunch of soup, sopa, and steak, the waitress hurried over with the bill, pulling out bananas from her pocket as she came. She offered them as dessert and, not knowing what to do, we took the bananas and held them like candles. Feeling silly, we peeled them and ate them with big smiles. This afternoon I had custard for dessert. Later I walked to the Biblioteca Benjamin Franklin where I looked at magazines and at people, mostly Americans but some Japanese, who came and went with anchors of books under their arms. Some looked so happy and so bright that you could read from their exuberant faces, while others were gray, disheveled, and sad as crushed hats. But I found it difficult to concentrate, so I slouched in the chair, eyes closed, and tried to recall something beautiful, like an aria or our old apartment in Laguna Beach. I rested my eyes, then left the library and walked toward the Metro, stopping occasionally to look into shop windows, since I had time to kill and the rains would not start for another hour.

At home I opened a beer and joined Dianne at the table where she was playing cards and nursing a glass of wine. We played solitaire and talked, first about Lindsay, her hometown, and then ways to make money. A restaurant, we first said. Something in Iowa City, where the bored were as numerous as corn. But we figured it would be too much work, though we were on the right track, since most people make their best decisions with their mouths, not their minds. Ernesto came home, beautiful as ever in his tailor-made suit, and joined us at the table. He suggested that we make popsicles, natural ones filled with slices of banana and apple, pinches of coconut, juices squeezed from real fruit. He told us how his uncle in Mexicali once made and sold popsicles. As a kid he’d sit on top of his uncle’s truck and call out, “Helados, muy deliciosos helados,” to the kids who were, no doubt, like those from my own childhood: Brown, skinny, and crowned with spiky hair. So we talked and made sense; with beer and friends things are so clear that wealth is possible, even in the abstract. We could sell what we know, and isn’t that what I am doing now, teaching I mean. A few books read, some theory or other dissolved like sugar in your speech, and you’re pushed in front of a classroom where students believe at least half of what you say.

The truth is, I am unsure about where we will be in a year and what life we will wake up to; we’ve had close calls in the past when our passbook read close to zero. Anything is possible. Just a few days ago, while I was walking Banjo, I saw a mother and daughter who were absolutely filthy and in rags not even the dead would wear. They were walking up the street, with mother carrying a sack of things and the daughter with a soiled blanket across her shoulder. They were not your typical Mexican poor because their clothes were, from what I could tell, once fashionable, once in style. The mother had on a polyester pantsuit and the daughter wore a mini skirt and red patent pumps that were cracked like mirrors. They passed me without looking up and made their way to the end of the block only to look left and then right, and then started back up the street. When they passed me again, the girl’s face met mine and I saw a fear so great that it made me step back. I was shaken because they seemed so average, in both looks and dress (if their clothes had been clean and less tattered) and in most ways aren’t we average? If poverty could happen to them, then are we far behind from that day when we’ll carry all our belongings in a sack and call a blanket in a doorway our bed? When we look up, we’ll have the power to make people step back.

We drank and talked. The way to make money is by way of the palate, or so we think.

Remember my jacket, the leather one the Guggenheim people paid for? A Mexican cop is wearing it today, feeling perhaps handsome and smug at a street corner in this crazy city. It’s gone, that fine jacket that smelled of ham and was so unhumanly new.

Late yesterday Carmen and I had beers and taquitos at the restaurant in Chapultepec Park, where we talked in English (it was her day to practice). Afterward we returned to her car and were about to drive away when a man stepped up to the car window, knocked on the glass, and held up his wallet for us to look at. Carmen rolled down the window to ask, Que paso? He said he was a policeman and that he wanted to warn us that there were thieves in the park, especially at night, and that we had better leave. But not before we proved, of course, that we were not thieves ourselves. He asked for the car registration, then Carmen’s license. When I showed him my license he stopped chewing his gum as he read my name, street, and give-away-state, California. He looked down at me, eyes narrowing like a dog’s, and began very quietly to accuse me of “eating” cocaine.

“Los californios son ‘jipis’ y jotos, no?” he said.

I tried to be jolly as a good friend of his, and I told him that he was mistaken, that we had had a few beers but most certainly not cocaine. He accused me of smoking marijuana, of being a hippie. Suddenly he pulled a gun from his waist, shaking it and ordering me out of the car. Carmen stiffened with anger and I got out without saying anything. The cop came around, yelled at me to place my hands on the hood and spread my legs, and it was like a scene from a movie made for TV. He patted my jacket and pants and then pushed me in the direction of his car where the door opened and a fat, very fat, cop got out with a taped stick.

When he said, “Cabron, we’re going to do what American cops do to our people,” I knew I was really in trouble. The one cop with the gun drove like a maniac through the park. Fat Guy took my wallet, which he greedily opened like a sandwich, and pulled out pesos and credit cards and even my library card—anything that looked like money to him. I emptied my pockets and handed over comb, Chiclets, and metro tickets. When he ordered me to pull down my pants, I played dumb and shrugged my shoulders. But that didn’t help. He poked my stomach with his stick. Screamed: “Andale, pinche cabron. Jipi shit!”

I unbuckled my pants to show him that I wasn’t hiding anything there. Disappointed, he made me roll up my sleeves, unbutton my shirt, and take off my shoes and socks. A real thorough guy. He even tousled my hair to see if I was concealing money up there.

By then we were driving up Reforma where we stopped for a few minutes at a corner that was so gaudy with neons and Christmas lights it was like a poor man’s fair. And the poor were there, along with children and the crippled selling lottery tickets, flowers, cough drops, peanuts, and balloons. Fat Guy got out to talk to someone at a taqueria, then got back in. We drove from there to a residential area, Lomas from what I could tell.

I was scared because I thought they were going to shoot me. A routine bang in the head. I was shaking and thinking of you and Mariko, forever gone, as I waited for something to happen. What happened was that Fat Guy asked me to turn my pockets inside out. He grabbed my jacket, which I gladly took off, and searched the pockets. Again he was disappointed. He crumbled it on his lap and turned to the driver. They spoke softly as drunken priests and, without warning, screeched the car to a halt, throwing me almost into the front seat. I was ordered out of the car with no fanfare or final threats, though I did have to jump back when the car revved its engine and roared away. I walked backward, almost on my heels, feeling so relieved that I thought I was a reborn Catholic.

I walked for a while, giddy with life for you and Mariko, before I flagged down a taxi and made it home to kick off my shoes, open a beer, and sit in the dining room with Ernesto and Dianne, to again turn over ideas about making money without so much as leaving the apartment.

A Good Day

Once, when we were bored and irritable in our apartment in Mexico City, the four of us—Ernesto, Dianne, Carolyn, and I—got into the Renault we had bought the previous week and risked the rough and sometimes unfair roads that wound to Cuernavaca. We were happy in the car when we left and happier when we drove into town and discovered a fuchsia-like vine with red-flamed flowers. Carolyn took pictures of the vine from the car window—a vigorous vine that seemed to grow everywhere, on the houses of the poor as well as the rich. Dianne remarked it was the most beautiful flower she had ever seen.

We had lunch and lingered over dark beers, comfortable in the warm sunlight that slanted through an open window. We walked the zocalo where we bought trinkets from a child and visited a small museum in which the most interesting display was of rusted pistols and the sepia-colored photographs of those who had owned—or were killed by—the pistols. From there we went shopping: Dianne bought a belt for her niece and Carolyn turned over for the longest time silver charms that she hoped to add to a bracelet back in California. She chose an Italian flag and, with Dianne’s help, argued over the price with the young woman behind the counter.

After shopping we drove outside the city in search of a nursery, to make our apartment more lush since it was uncomfortably bare: A dining table with chairs, an empty bird cage, two mattresses, and an ironing board that doubled as a writing table. We found a nursery and Ernesto and I haggled over ferns. In the end we paid what was asked and paid again when a boy helped us prop the plants in the trunk.

At the suggestion of a schoolgirl who had watched us shove and twist and grunt the plants into place, we drove farther along the road to a pond that was pressed small by an arena of jagged rocks and wispy trees that were filled with birds. We walked along a leaf-littered path, paired off into couples looking very much like the tourists we were, until we were in view of divers approaching onlookers for a few pesos. We stopped and leaned against a stone fence, first to take pictures of the divers, and then of one another gazing into the distance, in the mock concentration of would-be free thinkers. Finally one diver who had counted and recounted his money stepped out onto a rock that jutted over the water. He took a deep breath, then released it. He took another deep breath, spread his arms, and leaped into the gray water that broke white as his body hit the surface. He came up smiling and pinching his nostrils. The onlookers clapped and smiled at one another.

We walked slowly back to the car, none of us looking forward to the drive back to the city, especially since the afternoon rains would soon start, so instead we started on a walk that ended only twenty feet from the car. Ernesto pointed to a harp player, a blind man who was very handsome in a felt hat and a crisp, white shirt. We walked in his direction behind Ernesto who, after a few minutes of casual remarks about the day, struck up a conversation that led to how the man had come to play the harp.

The story was that a group of Indians had come upon the wooden harp, stringless and warped, on a river bank. They turned it over in their hands for a long time but couldn’t figure out what it was. Intrigued by this piece of wood, they carried it from the river up some difficult hills and into their village. One of the men carried it on his shoulder, like a slain deer. He was first greeted by children, then women, then the other men, and finally the head of the tribe who, baffled almost to the point of worry, banged at it with his fist. That night talk filled the air. Some said it was a suitcase. Others said it was a boat for very small children, and still others argued it was a loom. One said it was a washboard. Still they couldn’t decide, so the three men who had found the harp took it back into town to sell it. But no one was interested in that piece of wood.

“But when they came to me, I knew what it was,” he said. “When I was a child in Morelia, my uncle played one, a very beautiful one inlaid with ivory and all glittery. That’s when I could see and didn’t need these hands.”

He went on to tell us how the Indians had laid the instrument on his lap and he had run his hands over its body, recognizing it immediately but not revealing his happiness because it would have meant a difficult barter. After a few minutes of friendly haggling, the Indians walked into the countryside and up the hills with a frying pan and pocket knife, very pleased with the trade.

“Young man, I’ll play for you—and for your friends of course,” he said, wetting his lips and propping the harp against his shoulder. “It’s a love song—Mariposa en la primavera.” His fingers started slowly, like the butterflies of spring, but soon they plucked vigorously at the strings. He stopped once to cough into his sleeve and another time to wipe his brow, pausing for such a long time that we thought he had forgotten we were there. But he continued and when he finished we clapped and could think of no finer music as we looked at one another, moved by the song and this man who seemed so innocent despite his age. We thanked him and, as we were leaving, Ernesto tried to give him a few pesos. He refused them with a wave of his hand, “It’s nothing, young man. Be a Mexican and go on.”

We returned to the car, paired in couples and kicking at leaves and thinking how lucky we were. I started to hum. Ernesto joined in, and our wives pushed us away to cover their ears and make faces. We hummed louder, but when they picked up handfuls of leaves and twigs to throw at us, we stopped and mockingly opened our arms to them. Leaves fluttered in the air, and we chased them humming all the way down the hill to the car.

DMU Timestamp: October 27, 2015 10:51