In an essay on Proust, Samuel Beckett wrote that habit substitutes the boredom of living for the suffering of being. That statement ranks pretty high on the list of things I know to be demonstrably true about being human, but is also somewhat incomplete. Under normal circumstances, mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings or leaving for work at exactly 8:15 might take some of the edge off a creeping sensation of pointlessness or abject failure, but no amount of routine can ever completely cover up the misery of having become something that you cannot explain. It is easy to dismiss greeting card metaphors for the heart as being merely collections of trite nonsense, but I was discovering that the heart really could hurt in physical terms as well as emotional ones. Pushed hard enough, it really can break.
Deprived of any direction or guidance, my life fell into a steady routine, beginning sometime around daybreak when the chickens began to flutter about. I still didn’t know which of them was “the King,” and the royal court didn’t seem inclined towards spilling the secret. Aside from the frenzied excitement, which greeted my dumping of dried corn on the ground, they didn’t seem overly interested in paying me much mind. The three horses eventually started to grace me with their presence, and I discovered quickly that this was solely because their trough was empty. Filling it was a hassle, as the hose from the well only reached about 1/10th of the way to the trough. As I fumed about bad estate logistics, I filled painters bucket after bucket and lugged them 100 yards into the back section of the ranch. I distracted myself by calculating the weight of each trip: a gallon of water equals 8 pounds, times 6 gallons per bucket, times 29 trips… Once I had satisfied them, they went back to ignoring me. The army of cats never stopped disregarding me, being cats. Only Blackie paid me any attention, and he did so to a degree that seemed to indicate he was attempting to make up for the inhospitality of his fellow animals.
This was both reassuring and humorous, but also a little annoying. After my frigid morning shower, he was waiting for me outside the cabin door. When I started mixing concrete, he was trying to bite the water as it rushed out of the hose. When I set my plumb lines, he bit them and ran off with them; when I laid a new line of block, he would try to climb on top of them. Actually, I was coming to understand that Blackie had a sort of pathological compulsion about climbing on top of things, and this included the wall surrounding the well. When I saw him stumbling around on top of it, one slip from a very long and fatal drop, I stopped working on the cabins and added about two feet of height to the partition. He didn’t look pleased by this development. Those of us born without great intelligence seldom notice or appreciate the things other people do for us.
While I worked, I memorized my dictionary. Everything I touched, I looked up: mortar, mezcla; hose, manguera. At night, I would make lists of important words by candlelight, to use the next day: Buenas tardes, me llamo es…. Before long, I was forcing myself to think in Spanish and not say anything out loud unless I could also say it in both languages. Never before or since have I felt so incompetent, so weak and impotent. You don’t realize just how monstrously complex a thing language is until you lose it.
After making my lists, I roamed the desert, trying to ignore the increasingly violent hunger pangs radiating out from my belly. I didn’t know how long I was to be ignored by Mr. Ramos, but the tacos he left me only lasted for three days before they started to smell off. Each night it became increasingly difficult not to roam closer and closer to the distant glow of lights that was Cerralvo. I began to reason that perhaps it might be a good idea to do a little reconnaissance, just in case. Yes, recon, and I’d better take some money with me, just in case. I slapped these thoughts down as soon as they popped up, but before long they started to make progressively more sense. Reason is a fine thing when you are ensconced in a leather chair in your study, perusing a work on Kant or Gettier. In the desert, the sand can wear it away, just like everything else.
On one such excursion, I located a soccer field maintained by the city. There was no grass, no markings, just dirt, two goals, and a set of aluminum bleachers covered by a rusting metal awning. Before I realized that a decision had been made, my legs were moving, and I was circling the field in laps. Blackie joined me for a time, then lost interest and wandered off to meet one of his girlfriends. I had always enjoyed running, but this was something else, a desperate, ugly thing; an obvious desire to obliterate the last vestiges of consciousness. My memory of that night is hazy. I know that I ran for hours, past the cramps in my side and pains in my knee. I know that I vomited at least twice, never stopping. I know that at some point I passed out, and didn’t wake up until the sun backlit the mountains in the distance. My legs were on fire, and I quickly discovered that this was because they were covered in large red ants. The last thing I remember is that I did the exact same thing every night for nearly four months (minus the ants).
By my fifth day in Mexico, the tacos were a distant memory, and I was down to my last 5 or so ounces of water. I couldn’t remember how long a person could go without eating, but knew it wasn’t long without water. It wasn’t helping matters that I had an entire well of the stuff right in front of me, and yet couldn’t touch any of it without running the risk of microbe-induced misery. By mid-afternoon, I realized that the dull ache in my head was probably caused by serious dehydration and that I had simply run out of options. It was time for a drink. I remembered that the Love Shack had a small collect of five or six cups, so I went and retrieved one. I filled it with surprisingly clean, ice-cold water, and toasted Blackie before downing it. It may have been filled to the brim with tiny monsters soon to blitzkrieg my immune system, but it tasted better going down than any Chateau Petrus. I suspected that it would taste markedly worse making the return trip.
I also resolved that I was going into town that night, if I could be pried away from the toilet. I didn’t know what the chances were that someone might recognize my face from a news story seen on the internet, but I knew that they had to be significantly less than the odds of me dying from hunger in the near future, which were starting to trend towards on hundred percent. By nightfall, my stomach was still situated inside my body, and I put on a clean t-shirt and a hat and started off towards town. I only took ten dollars, because I knew it was never a good idea to go shopping for food when you are hungry, and I was on a budget. I was uneasy during the hike, and more than a little angry. Angry at myself for being here, at the bloody Hammer for dumping me in the boonies, and at my stomach for shredding my willpower. All day, my eyes had been finding words in my dictionary dealing with food, which probably had not helped matters any. The road leading to the Ramos’ ranch exited onto the main highway near an area known as “la curva,” a notorious example of bad highway engineering that caused at least several drunken accidents each weekend, as the highway took an irrational and apparently unexpected curve eastward for no reason whatsoever. I paused at the edge of the macadam, surveying my options. From this vantage, I could see three depositos within walking distance, bright Carta Blanca and Corona signs blazing in the dark. None of them looked particularly busy, but I decided to walk to the second one because it looked the least prosperous, which I reasoned equated to less well traveled.
Depositos come in all shapes and sizes. Many are large enough to drive through (like the one above owned by “associates” of Mr. Ramos). All of them have names, and the one I had chosen went by the identifier of “Las Lomas,” or, The Hills. The establishment was very modest, consisting of a single large room divided by a large partition. The wares were displayed along two walls, and consisted entirely in mass-market comfort food. A large soda cooler dominated the far wall, and made an unnatural wheezing noise that sounded roughly like someone with tuberculosis. As I took the scene in, I noticed that the concrete behind the shelving units was stained, and I could follow these tracks up the ceiling. There was so much water damage that I figured the place must look like a stream after a good rain. I couldn’t see anyone from the front door, and wasn’t really sure how to proceed. I decided it seemed proper to identify myself, lest someone think I was trying to steal something.
“Ah, buenas noches?”
The wheezing ceased and I realized with a start that it wasn’t the soda cooler making the noise, but rather something alive on the other side of the partition. Something massive, by the sounds it was making, which reminded me of the squeaking noise my grandfather used to make when he pried himself out of his leather chair, times a million. An enormously fat woman in her mid-40’s soon squeezed through the partition, attempting to set a pair of bifocals on her nose. Perhaps “fat” is not the correct adjective here, but my mind cannot summon a word corpulent enough to describe the Senora Castillo. She was continental, planetary, and I am still amazed to this day that a mass that large didn’t possess its own gravity well heavy enough to suck the bags of chips and pastries off the wall and put them into orbit. Still, for all that, her face lit up in the most guileless, genuine smile I had seen in years, and she launched into a rapid-fire sequence of Spanish that I tried to snatch out of the air and inspect.
I didn’t understand more than one word in seven or eight, but I definitely managed to comprehend “Don Gelo’s American son,” which complicated things a bit. It was obvious that the Hammer had expected my arrival here and had prepared a legend of sorts, but hadn’t bothered to include me in those he told it to. I didn’t know how to play this, so I mostly smiled and nodded like a buffoon. Secretly I had hoped that I would find someone that evening to converse with, because for all of his energy, Blackie wasn’t much of a talker. The Senora didn’t seem troubled by the fact that I obviously wasn’t participating in the platiga, but in truth her demeanor was so positive, I instantly felt better merely being around her. She wasted no time grabbing a plastic sack and began filling it with food. She didn’t seem to consider that I might have likes or dislikes, but by that point I probably would have eaten her shoe so I said nothing. When I tried to pay, she refused to take my money, and said that my “father” had pre-paid. I insisted, and she merely pushed my cash off the counter onto the floor, and blew a jet of air out her nose, as if dismissing it. I looked down at my feet, and back at her, before thanking her and walking off. I returned to that deposito many times over the next months, and she always made me feel welcome. Hardly anyone ever stood up to her, so my refusal to pick up my money somehow endeared me to her. Within a year, I would have resealed her concrete roof, and she would try to marry me off to three of her daughters.
To be continued…
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