Some Sunken Cities

Picture Credits: Michael Gaida

On the train to New Orleans an Amish couple, Esther and Ray from Ohio, say they are going on west to El Paso and a shuttle bus to a Mexican clinic. Low-cost cancer cure for Esther using cyanide from apricot pits.

Train horn signals (= indicates long horn, O short horn)
= Train stopped.

Esther and Ray
tell a story: they were in a friend’s car and he hit a deer. The airbag hit Ray’s
face. The patrolman took them to a motel. It was called The Dead Deer Lodge.
Their guests all came from deer collisions. They had a tea and aroma therapy
lounge for PTSD. The sign had a deer in a casket.

= = Train releasing brakes and proceeding.

In the observation
car a slender young woman with glasses who looks like a middle-class college
student tells the stranger next to her that she knows he isn’t a criminal,
because all her brothers have been in prison or killed someone or run drugs.
That’s what she’s doing now, on the train, for her boyfriend. You could come in
on it if you want. But I see you’ve got something going there, she says to the
guy, looking down at his crotch. I’ve got a condom if you just want to go in
the bathroom and do it.

OOOO Request signal, or give signal.

When they return
one of the porters approaches them. I had my twenty dollars of tips on the
table back there, he said. The money is gone. You’re the only people who have
walked through there.

OOO Train stopped, is backing up.

She says, are you
saying we took your money?

The porter says,
yes.

= = O = Approaching a public crossing.

Later, when the
train can’t continue due to flooding, the bus driver says her first husband
killed himself drinking cyanide from a coke bottle. She says “SIGH-nied” and
drives with two fingers while texting and drinking coke over the twenty-four-mile
Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, longest continuous, she says, veering a little to
point out a gator slumbering under a green mold trestle. She wears Elvis wraparound
shades with rhinestone crosses on the sides and takes two unscheduled vape-breaks
to selfie with passengers, feed the diabetics and “take a piddle.” The first
stop is to Buck-Ees, which boasts “world-famous bathrooms” and caramel corn, knives,
pepper-spray, jerky and energy drinks, and then the Tiger Stop, with a video
sign that reads, LIVE CAMEL. They used to have a LIVE TIGER, she said, but the
tiger died and they got the camel. The store also features knives, jerky,
pepper spray and energy drinks, and the live camel, in a stinking pen outside.

Alma Twohig
Nobles Salvant
Ruck Bulloco, and the whole company of Jefferson Home Hook and Ladder No. 1.

The next bus has a
more sober-seeming driver, but she turns on a heavy-metal radio station and
plays it loud enough for the passengers to hear. At a stop for new passengers,
someone leaves a purple bag with a keyboard case outside the luggage hold on
the sidewalk. Is it coming, or going? Over the intercom the driver says, if you
are a passenger on this bus with a purple bag and keyboard case, please come
forward so I can load your luggage.

Will the owner of
the purple bag and keyboard case please come to the front so we can load your
luggage?

Who has a purple
bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk?

There is a purple
bag and keyboard case outside the bus.

I am going to
leave a purple bag and keyboard case on the sidewalk.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A purple bag and
keyboard case.

A                     purple              bag                and           a               keyboard              case

The door wheezes
shut and the bus lurches away. A young man runs to the front and the bus stops.
He seems affronted, shocked. Even amazed. He says, I didn’t understand it was
my purple bag.

They load the baggage.

Ellen, consort of J.G. Rogers
Elise Blaise
Catherine Huth

Downtown is the
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, with a display called The Underground
Gallery:

“Visitors to the
Richard C. Colton Jr. Underground Gallery shrink to the size of an insect with
gigantic animatronic bugs, oversized exhibitry and surprises around every turn.
Feel what its like to be the size of an ant while learning about the huge impact
bugs have on the environment we all share!”

It is dark, and
cool. Giant mechanical bugs lurch out of holes. Human footsteps thud overhead.
It does not convey an insect’s view as much as a child’s in a funhouse. Or a
very particular adult experience, perhaps that of a serious actor acting a role
on the set of a low-budget monster film from the 1950s (Them, or It Conquered the World, or Invasion of the Crab Monsters):
a determination to be a professional, play it for real no matter how fake it
seems. There was always the hope that on film, it would all come alive.

The house across
the street is tilted like in a fairy tale. The landlord is working hard to paint
the front porch bright white. He will rent it immediately for eleven hundred a
month. The desire to stay in New Orleans, even as the next storm bears down, is
strong. Not just visit, but live there, in that crooked house. Be that serious
actor in a low-budget horror movie about the end of the world. Maybe it will
all come alive on film, or as a story. Be remembered, like those movies, as a brave
crazy thing, hopeless at the time.

Down the block,
names on the tombstones in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:

Coashtie Dark
Amelia Siren
Sande Shurnway

The air is thick,
sweet and peppery. Everything has a touch of green mold. A green gecko or
chameleon on pink brick. Mardi Gras beads on trees and powerlines. Grackles
with vertical stabilizers like planes, that swoop and screech over several tarnished
syllables.

Telesphore Bourque
Rene Clerc
Davis Herrod
Aurora Arceneaux
Elizabeth Wolfaith
Mantin Shutard
Annetta Bouintine
Regis Chandris

At the Voodoo
Museum dollar bills are rolled into tubes and inserted into wooden spirit dolls
to satisfy wishes. Weeks later that area will be flooded again. Everyone knows
it will happen again, and again, but still are affronted, shocked and amazed
when interviewed on TV.  Oh my god, one man
says at the rapidly-darkening sky. The olive-green street cars plow through
waist-deep water. They run on electricity from overhead cables. The seats are
wood. At the end of the line they flip over to face the other direction. The
driver walks to the controls at the opposite end and goes back again. Is there
one named Desire.

Edwin
Given                       

                                            
Eule Prytania                               

                                                                                                            Kendal
Keyes

                                                                                    Marguerita
Freudenstein

        Praeger Fontaine         

                                                
George Mekas                          
Aaliyah

                      M. Koenig                 Regis Chandris           

                                                                                       Nicholas
Dominique     

                                                                                                                  
T.J. Earhardt

James
Hederbon                                         

                                                                                           J. Tarbato

                                            
M.K. Karschendiek

The New Orleans
Home                                                                               
 

for
Incurables




The little story that haunted for a very long time

Can a story haunt you? I don’t
mean one that spooks you a little, even one that makes you keep the lights on
after reading. I’m talking about a story that leaves a scar, an invisible scab
that you return to weeks, months, and years after you’d read it. “The Girl in
the Mirror” did that to me.

Not that I could even remember
the exact title. I knew it was in a collection of ghost stories and there was
skeleton on the cover. I would have been ten, in primary school, wooden desks
and inkwells still there from earlier generations. In that final year we were
given plastic ink pens. We invariably smudged both our books and hands as we
wrestled to insert the thin cartridges. Crappy ink pens that would never be
used again, that you had to pointlessly master, and would be punished for misusing:
that sums up my 1970s education.

Other things though were quite
miraculous. Obviously the free milk was gone, and in the next decade they would
take our jobs, but that other source of sustenance, the public library, was
still in its pomp. The mobile version would park outside our tiny rural village
school (thirty pupils); we would line up and take it in turn to step into its
cave of treasures. The chosen books would be placed on a shelf in our classroom.
I can remember the L-shape of shelves, the large map of the world above. The
books from the library were placed in a special area so as not to mix them with
the school’s own books: many of which had been in the schools for decades. This
was the school that my grandparents, parents, uncles, and cousins had all
passed through.

The library service was the only
way to get modern books – not that I ever knew when books had been published.
I’d worked my way through my mother’s Enid Blyton, published thirty years
before, but I knew some books were easier than others to understand.

Who could be haunted by a story?
Not a novel, just a story a few pages in length. I don’t think I was
particularly sensitive as a child. Sensitivity isn’t a big advantage on a farm.
We always had plenty of books though. Not only did the library send its mobile
to the schools, it would also stop at the end of my parents’ farm lane so we
could walk down and get books. It would make this stop just for the two or
three families on that lane.

The library books borrowed by my
family were placed in a special place so they wouldn’t get confused with the other
books in the house. They were placed on a chair in the spare room, and had to
be returned there. My mother didn’t want to search our rooms for them when the
library next made its call. Lord of the
Flies
found its way there one week, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up
the book because of the gruesome cover. Perhaps I was sensitive, but not to real life and death. That pig skull on
the cover was somehow more unsettling than the bone fragments scatted over our
farm, jaw bones a thin boot-crunch beneath the surface. Death was ever present.
Piglets crushed by their mothers, chewed or sickly. Cats drowned in sacks.
Chickens torn apart by foxes. Stillbirths. All part of the mix.

Right now, there is much talk about how reading novels generates empathy in the reader. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The perfect synthesis of silver bullet public-health promotion, and evangelism. No need to learn from life, from loving, from hating, from being hurt or hurting. No need for anger in this sparkling new century. Just read from this list of books. Perhaps that’s why certain books are frowned upon – if it’s so easy to bestow empathy via books, then surely other, darker emotions can be conjured by the act of reading. And perhaps they should be.

When my son was around eight I
read him The Tiger Rising (by Kate
Dicamillo). A wonderful book, but (spoiler) the tiger dies. The ending takes me
by surprise too, but he’s old enough to deal with this, isn’t he? The real world
doesn’t always run smoothly.

Not all stories have happy endings,
I tell my son, nestled on the bed beside me. Surely, that was right. Wasn’t it
fair to warn him?

His bottom lip quivers. His eyes
are huge. My heart drops through the floor. What
have I done?

“How many don’t?” was his very
reasonable question.

How could I possibly answer that?
My brain raced through all the stories with less than upbeat endings. Too many.

“Three,” I squeak.

“Then we won’t read those,” he
said.

And that was the end of the
matter.

Had I told my son a story that
would haunt him?

I’m happy to report he seems
undisturbed as a teenager, and quite relishes a less-than-happy ending. The Tiger Rising, a book that deals with
rage and injustice, which let me introduce Blake to my son, is also a book
about a beautiful tiger that is killed.

What was it about “The Girl in
the Mirror” that had it slipping round and round in my head for years? I didn’t
have the book. I never went back and reread it, but it never left me. I have
more memories of thinking about that story, dreading it, then I do of reading
it. Books weren’t a thing for conversation. We could talk about comics. What superhero
could beat another, etc. – and then, later, all our talk was of music, never
stories. Who would have spoken about such a thing? If you read, you kept it to
yourself.

As the years passed all I had was
my memory of that story, and the ghostly horseman on the book’s cover. I also remembered
the first story in the anthology was called “Pride Comes before a Fall”
(actually it wasn’t, but I had the memory that it was). That cover, that title,
and the story of “The Girl in the Mirror”niggled at the edge of my brain for years.

Decades go by, and the Internet
is here. In the intervening years, I have looked for the book in second-hand
bookshops, but mostly it has faded to a memory of something not-quite-right.
When I do mention the story (by now I know people I can talk about books with) it
sounds almost Freudian. A time-travel story. Two girls switch places through a
magic mirror. One girl, rich and lazy, is from the present; the other is a
hardworking girl on a Victorian farm.

The rich girl wants to swap
places, live on a real farm to ride the horses. To avoid detection they will
leave their clothes behind for the other. The rich one goes through the mirror
first, meets the brutal parents, and of course is trapped there. It’s that image
of nakedness, vulnerability, and being trapped in an alien world that unsettled
me. The girl from the Victorian farm slips into the future and is never seen
again. Smart girl. When I told my partner about this story that had so freaked
me she thought it probably didn’t exist. That it was something I’d created. After
thirty years of films, comics, books by the thousand, how many could remain
with you? My psychedelically enhanced synapses had embellished and transformed
something I’d heard, read, or seen into a memory.

It is a time-travel story, not a
ghost story. One person is trapped on a farm forever. Perhaps this story,
lodged in my brain, influenced my decision to refuse the farm when offered a
few years later. But that’s hindsight. We create a coherent narrative after the
events, refusing to believe that life is random.

But that story was real. I was sure of that, despite having had the experience, several times over my life, where things I “remembered” have been disproved by family, or myself. I’ve learnt that memory can’t always be trusted. I might not remember something, might think I’d locked a door, or sent an email, when really I hadn’t, but my brain was unlikely to create something as elaborate as“The Girl in the Mirror” to haunt myself with.

The story that haunted me for so
long is short and not collected in other anthologies. It is no classic. Its
author, Margot Arnold (born 1925) is still alive and has spent her life writing
books such as The Officer’s Woman, Marie, Voodoo Queen, and Lament for
a Lady Laird
.

It wasn’t through the Internet
that I tracked the book down. I searched and found the Armada book of Ghost Stories, the one with that cover, and ordered
it. When it arrived, there was no “The Girl in the Mirror”. It did have “The
Skeleton Rider”,in which a character
is warned “Pride comes before a fall”.

I didn’t doubt the existence of
the mirror story, but clearly my memories were jumbled. For decades I’d assumed
if I just found that book with that cover, I would have the story. There were
other books in that series, and other similar anthologies. I bought a couple at
random but none had my story. I got on with my life. Moved house again. Back
into the countryside, though Shropshire rather than Yorkshire.

Here I could make paper boats and
float them in the stream with my son. You needed to make your own entertainment
here. It was perfect for wandering. I expected my son to have that anchorless
roaming existence I had had, but there was no dog, and he wasn’t constantly
being told to get out of the house, so never developed the habit. People in the
village muttered about child snatchers, men in white vans. I thought of my
childhood when Hindley and Brady had prowled and preyed. That had never stopped
any of my parents’ generation telling their kids to get out and get fresh air –
get out of their house. The Bogey Man only gets you if you stray from the path.
In the twenty-first century there is no safe path.

One afternoon, we are sitting by
the river, and there is the inevitable church stall of bric-a-brac, junk,
books, and food. I checked out the stalls. You can see the ending, can’t you? And
it’s true, there it was: The 8th Armada
Ghost Book.
There were several of the series. I picked them up, knew
immediately which one held “The Girl in the Mirror”, recognised the black and
white illustrations, the seventies hairstyles.

To be honest I felt quite sick
finding it again. Motion sickness, as if the world had lurched the wrong way. I
tried to force myself to read the story but something wouldn’t let me. The
words remained black letters. It was enough that I had the story, the book.

And it sat on the shelf for a
couple more years, until I finally picked it up and read the story through. It
is short and exactly as I remember it. There is no reason that story should have
lodged so tightly in my brain. I have read so many ghost stories, horror
stories in my life – have a whole collection, but that fairly crappy one stuck
in my brain, and in some small unseen ways changed my life.

We are not empty vessels. We cannot accurately predict what reading one book or story will achieve. Or that we will get the same results each time. These are not laboratory conditions. We are not rats. We are readers, and have our own stories.




The Familiar Absence of Words

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My grandma was a widow: she lived
alone for thirty years. My grandma never spoke of the loneliness, never
mentioned her loss. These unsaid things: these silences run in the family. My
mum inherited this trouble with talking and I have a knack for being silent too.

*

The day before my grandma died
she couldn’t speak. The front door was unlocked when I got to her house. It
always was now because she couldn’t be alone. My grandma spent over thirty
years alone but for the last months of her life she was solitary for only a few
hours. Carers would come every few hours to feed her, bathe her, to wash
nightclothes and sheets. My mum was there more or less constantly.

When I arrived Mum was
cleaning: bustling about. Movement helps when you’re waiting, when you’re still
hoping that there’s hope. I entered the living room, which a few months before
had become grandma’s bedroom. The curtains were partially drawn against the sun
and the room was cool and still. I’d taken my shoes off at the door and the
carpet felt soft and thick beneath my bare feet. I kissed grandma’s cheek and
sat down on her bed. Her hand was resting on top of the sheets. I slid mine
beneath her palm and felt her soft skin in my fingers.

Grandma opened her eyes. This
was the last time she recognised me and the final time I saw her smile.

She hadn’t eaten for a while
now and today she couldn’t swallow. I understood that this meant she didn’t
have long, that in a day or so she would be gone. I watched grandma as she tried
to talk: as she failed to form the words. And I leant in closer in case there
was a whisper I could catch. She didn’t have enough breath, though, and her
voice never came. I squeezed her hand tighter and wondered if there were some
weighty words I should say to her silence. I swallowed. If there were I didn’t
know them and couldn’t guess. Instead I talked about how it was spring outside and
about the snowdrops I’d passed on my way there. I told her that I loved her. I
hoped it was enough.

*

I stayed with grandma for most
of that day and read from a poetry book. The words were soothing. Love and loss
are easier on a page: less ragged than real life. I read in bursts to the noise
of grandma’s rasping breaths and paused during the worrying silences in between.
I read with intensity: I held the book like a bible.

*

My grandma died on the 16th of
March 2017 and it was a hot day. I spent most of that Thursday with her in the
room where she died. It was cool, mostly silent and still. Her breathing was
quieter by then. The nurse had visited early in the morning and given her an
injection of something that made her breaths smoother and less laboured.

Sometimes the silence was too
oppressive, though, and the watching too much. I needed movement because momentum
seems to help when you are waiting. Every so often I would walk barefoot into
the garden. I remember the textures beneath my feet changing as I left the room:
the flattened carpet of the well-trodden hallway, the gritty, cold slabs beside
the back door and then the springy sun-warmed grass below the arch of pink roses.

There were no clouds in the
blue sky, but there were birds. And a yellow kite fluttering from a string a
few gardens away. On one visit outside I found Dad there already. He’d slipped
in quietly sometime during the afternoon and nobody had noticed. He stood
against the wall of the house, steeling himself in the shade before he could go
in to see grandma. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale. He pursed his
lips and blew the silver smoke from his mouth. The cloud swirled for a second
and then vanished into the air above him. I pointed to the kite.

“Look,” I said. He nodded but said
nothing, in his usual brooding way. My dad is particularly good at silence. In
moments of sadness and tension he’s an expert of noiselessness.

A few hours later he left for
home. He was tired and needed to rest.

*

“They wouldn’t let dogs suffer
like this would they. Look at her.” It was getting to dusk outside now and I
was back inside. I watched as my aunty Susan gestured towards grandma, then
looked away and sat down on the settee at the side of her bed. I nodded. I
didn’t disagree, though the alternative was complicated and had its own horror too.
I wondered if grandma could hear: it was difficult to tell if she was asleep. Grandma’s
arm felt soft as I stroked it and her skin thin like lace. We were all ragged
and tired from the waiting. I nodded silently but didn’t speak. There: the
silence that my family is so good at again.

*

Later, Mum was pacing: couldn’t
keep still.

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I
asked. “We can watch the sunset. We’ll only be a few minutes, half an hour at
the most, and you can get some air.” We put on our coats, said goodbye to
grandma and left Susan sitting beside her bed.

The walk was slow and
soothing, the sunset fierce and bright. We stood on the pavement and watched
the orange ball slowly slip from the navy sky and then disappear. It only took
a few a seconds.

We arrived back at grandma’s
house at the same time as two of her carers. We paused at the gate and said
hello. It was John and Annie. I ushered them in front of me and followed behind,
unbuttoning my heavy coat.

Inside it was dim and
grandma’s room was lit with a lamp now. I peered around the door.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said. Susan
nodded hello and stood up. Mum, Susan and I headed into the kitchen. Annie and
John stayed with Grandma to wash her and change her nightgown. In the kitchen I
pulled up the sleeves of my cardigan, wiped the sweat from my top lip. I was
hot after the walk.

A few minutes passed and then
the kitchen door slowly opened. Annie stood in the hallway and her face looked
grave, worried.

“I’m so sorry, but your mum
has passed away,” she said.

Seconds later I was behind Mum
in the living room. Mum was kneeling on Grandma’s bed.

“Switch the bright light on,”
she said, “she can’t be dead. I need to check.” Annie clicked the switch and
the room filled with white light. I watched as mum searched Grandma’s face for signs
of life: willed her to breathe.

“Someone get me a mirror,” she
said, “I need a mirror.” I didn’t understand at first and it took a few seconds
for me to realise why she wanted one. She wanted to hold it up to Grandma’s face:
to capture fog on the glassy surface and prove that she was still alive. Except
that she wasn’t. For a second there was silence.

“We’ve been trying to wake her
for the last few minutes, Christine. I’m so sorry but she’s gone,” said Annie. I
leant forward, touched Grandma’s shoulder, touched her face. She already felt cool
and I was surprised. I’d never seen a dead person before. I’d never touched
another human like this.

I realised then that the
carers must have hesitated when they’d realised she was dead. Maybe they’d
never seen a dead person before either. And how do you tell someone that their
mother is no longer alive? What words do you choose and how do you say them?

“We’ll leave you alone for a
few minutes,” said John, and then they both left the room.

Grandma hadn’t eaten much for
months and I could see her hips protruding through her nightgown. Her legs were
just bones now. In their panic the carers had forgotten to cover Grandma up
again. I lifted the duvet, pulled it over her and tucked her in like she was a
sleeping child.

Mum was sat on Grandma’s bed
now. She hugged Grandma again and held her arm.

“I thought I’d be frightened
to touch her. I thought I’d be really frightened to touch her when she was
dead, but I’m not, Hannah, I’m not.” She turned around and looked at me. It was
strange to hear Mum say something like that. It was so straightforward, so unguarded
and clear. I touched her shoulder and was silent, stunned by the honesty and
unusual directness of her words.

Maybe this would be the start
of something: the beginning of a time where words could be shared without
difficulty, where Mum understood that I wasn’t a puzzle to be wary of or worked
out, but a straightforward human that she just needed to talk to.

Susan sat down on the settee
at the back of the room. She was afraid to touch Grandma now she was dead and didn’t
want to be too close. I understood. Grandma was suddenly so unfamiliar: too motionless,
too still.

A few minutes later I stepped
outside and telephoned Dad. I told him that Grandma was dead. I told him to
drive safely and to take his time because, well … there was no rush now. I
ended the call and stood silently in the garden. It was dark but overhead the
stars were silver and bright.

Dad arrived in less than half
an hour. I watched him kiss Grandma’s head and silently say goodbye.

Soon the doctors came and
certified death.

“We’re very sad for the loss
of your mother and grandmother,” one of the doctors said. “You have cared for
her at home very well and she died surrounded by your love.” It was an awkward,
stilted speech but well meant. It was late now and maybe he was tired too. The
doctors shook our hands and quietly left.

*

In the immediate aftermath of
grandma’s death there was such precision to how we all moved around each other:
how we hugged and held hands was so careful, so considered and calm. There was a
clarity to how we communicated too. There was no room for artifice or
awkwardness because my mum thought she didn’t understand me. We were all just
there, experiencing a death together and wondering how you live in the
aftermath of loss. My mum, my dad, me: I felt straightforward in the trio for
the first time ever. I hoped that it would last.

*

Later two undertakers came to
collect grandma’s body. I watched them remove grandma’s rings and the chain
from around her neck.

“Mum can keep them with her
tonight,” Dad said, “you know, so she can still feel close to Grandma.” I
waited in the hallway as they placed her into their black shroud. Then they
carried her through the front door and she disappeared in to the darkness.

Grandma had died in her own
home, in her own sheets, and that’s what she’d wanted. She was gone now. It was
over.

*

A week or so passed and it was
time to plan the funeral. I went with mum and Susan to see the funeral director.
It felt so surreal to talk about the cost of human-sized wooden boxes and what
clothes to put on a dead body. There was a lot to discuss and so many questions
to answer.

We decided what Grandma should
wear, what type of wood the coffin should be and what songs they should play.

“At the end of the service,”
the funeral director said, “we usually draw a curtain around the coffin. It
signifies a final goodbye.” Mum looked at me, suddenly worried.

“It’ll be too difficult,
Hannah,” she said. “I don’t think I could bear it, I really don’t.” Her voice faltered
and the funeral director handed her another tissue.

“That’s okay,” I said, “then
we’ll leave the curtain open. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

‘Absolutely not,” said the
funeral director, “the service will be exactly what you want it to be.” Susan
nodded: whatever Mum wanted.

“There you go,” I said. Mum
smiled at me and so it was agreed.

*

For the few weeks following my
grandma’s death there was a straightforwardness with my Mum that I’d never
experienced before. The openness and clarity in the way we communicated was a
relief. And I was grateful. There was no tangle of misunderstanding. For a
while Mum ceased to find worrying meanings in the way I just went about living
my life. There was no room for that: the aftermath of loss was all consuming.

On the day of the funeral we
met at grandma’s house. The funeral parlour was on the same street. It made
sense that the shiny black procession cars would come to collect us there. We
gathered in the living room where grandma had died and made small talk while we
waited.

The crematorium had big
windows and sun streamed through the glass. It’s tradition that close family
members arrive with the dead person. We got out of the cars and in convoy walked
behind the coffin as it was carried down the aisle of the crematorium. The
other mourners were already seated and they watched as we walked towards our
seats at the front. Grandma’s coffin was placed at the front of the
congregation and a man in a black suit and hat placed a photograph on top. It
was Grandma smiling. Next he laid some flowers and then he bowed.

I remember thinking that these
were all such strange rituals. Weeks had already passed since she’d died. Weren’t
we too late? I’d already said goodbye to my Grandma: I’d already watched her
leave.

Soon the celebrant started his
speech. He told the story of Grandma’s life: read out the specific details that
make people who they are, or once were. Then there was music and, for those who
wanted to pray, there were prayers.

I looked out of the window and
waited for the service to be over. I waited for the celebrant to conclude, to
direct us to stand and for us to leave the crematorium. I waited to walk past
the still visible coffin, to pass the smiling photograph of my Grandma’s lovely
face and out into the cool spring weather.

Instead the celebrant paused
after his prayer, said something about goodbye and pressed a button. I watched
as the curtains in front of the coffin began to slowly close. I looked at my
mum who sat in front of me. I waited for some big or small sign from her that
this was not the plan, that this was too upsetting, that watching the curtains
close was not what she wanted. Except no sign came and we left the crematorium
in silence.

Outside the sun was bright and
the air was crisp and cool. I breathed in and watched curls of white breath as
I exhaled. The crowd gathered to look at the flower wreaths and it took me a
few minutes to find Mum.

“Mum,” I said, “are you okay?
They closed the curtain.”

“Yes,” she said, paused and
then, “Oh, I changed my mind about that. I told them to close it when I
finalised the plans.”

“Oh, right,” I said, “it’s
just I didn’t know.” She looked at me quizzically, impatient to mingle with the
growing crowd.

“I didn’t know I should’ve
mentioned it,” she said. And suddenly there it was again: the distance between
us. It had taken just a few weeks for the fragile openness to falter, for Mum to
lapse back in to the awkward, opaque sentences I’d grown so used to since
childhood.

We stood there for a second longer,
the familiar absence of words hanging between us. Then she turned and we moved
separately into the group of mourners.




Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

In
the early hours of a Tuesday morning, an old man drives a Jeep out of Tucson
and onto Highway 286
toward the Arizona desert and the first of three sites he’ll visit where the
remains of migrants were found. He has made this trip once a week for the past
six years. Three crosses four feet tall and two feet wide, each one a different
color, blue, blue-green and rust, rattle in back. Heat from the sun warms the
windshield and a woman in the passenger seat, Alicia Baucom, cracks her window
to shrieks of air still cool from the night. A second Jeep carries a man and
two women who, like Alicia, have volunteered to help plant the crosses. Flat
land covered with cactus and scrub juniper slanted by wind unfurls into
distant, bare mountains peaked against domes of blue sky slowly revealing
itself two hours after dawn, and as the Jeeps rush down the highway, also known
as Sasabe Road, the old man, 73-year-old artist Alvaro Enciso, asks Alicia the
names of the dead migrants.

—The
one found in 2006 is unidentified, she says. The man discovered in 2015 has a
name, Valentine Guzman Flores. Thirty. Found December 29 near Three Points.
Skeletal remains. Death unknown. The third was found in 2017. His name is
Felipe Vargas. Also thirty. Found near Sasabe on June 8. Hyperthermia. Dead
less than a day. Coroner said he was fully fleshed.

—The
first two could have died long before they were found, Alvaro says.

He
hunches over the steering wheel and makes no further comment and Alicia doesn’t
speak either. She has been helping Alvaro just five months, replacing another
volunteer who broke down after he and Alvaro found a migrant’s body nearly a
year ago. The volunteer sought counseling. It was one thing to hear about
people dying in the desert but it was quite another to see a body.

Alvaro
collects information on dead migrants from the Pima County coroner’s office.
Last year, the medical examiner recorded the remains of 127 dead migrants.
Before 2000, the bodies of fewer than five migrants were found
each year. However, in 2001, the number soared to 79 and then to 151
the year after that. The number of annual migrant deaths since then has
remained well above 100.

As
he follows the highway, Alvaro notices workers laying asphalt, shoveling it off
the back of a truck, the air stung by its sharp odor as a roller inches toward
them, and two border-patrol agents lean against pickups and watch the men work.
They are either chasing someone, Alvaro says of the agents, or they’ve given
up. They don’t move as he passes them, heads down staring through dark
sunglasses at the steaming asphalt.

Alvaro
often encounters border-patrol agents. A few times he’s tripped a sensor and
they converged from nowhere to check him out. He explained his purpose and
showed them his crosses and they were cool. He had no problem with them and
doesn’t now. They have a job to do; some are good and some are bad. If they see
someone in the middle of nowhere, they get suspicious. Alvaro understands that.
He shoots the shit with them, complains about the heat. Many of them aren’t
familiar with deserts because they were raised outside of Arizona. They’ve seen
earthworms but nothing bigger and worms don’t bite. Rattlesnakes do. They worry
about snakes.

Alvaro
recalls the spring of 2017 when the border patrol could have been a problem. He
and some volunteers found a man in the desert walking south toward Mexico. He
was delirious and thought he was headed north to Phoenix. He had no food or
water. Alvaro considered his options: he could call the border patrol, give the
man something to eat and drink, or leave him to his fate. He could not,
however, transport him. If the border patrol stopped him, he could be charged
with harboring. But the man needed medical attention. How was he to say I can’t
help you, to a desperate man? Sometimes, he reasoned, laws have to be violated.
The volunteers had their own car and drove the man to a safe house. Alvaro
doesn’t remember his name but he was told later that he ate eleven pancakes,
three sausages, three cups of fresh fruit, two glasses of orange juice and five
pieces of toast his first night. He had come from Honduras and it took him two
weeks to recuperate. When he left, the staff gave him directions to Phoenix but
he didn’t make it. The border patrol picked him up.

*

Alvaro
had been unaware of migrants dying in the desert when he moved from northern
New Mexico to Tucson in 2011. He started walking migrant trails and imagined
himself crossing borders on foot. The idea appealed to him as something
romantic, people entering the United States seeking the opportunities he had.
He noticed all sorts of debris, rusted cans of sardines, sausages, beans and
other food migrants had brought with them. He collected the cans and
accumulated a huge mound to use for his art. Every can told a story of the
person who ate from it. He didn’t know if the story had a happy ending but the
can was there for him to imagine a life.

Two
years later, he took a four-hour orientation with Tucson Samaritans, a group of
more than one hundred volunteers who go into the desert seven days a week to
assist migrants. The presenter showed a map of southern Arizona covered with
red dots. Each dot represented a spot where a migrant’s body had been
found. From 2001 through 2018, the remains of 3,011 migrants
have been recovered in southern Arizona. No estimates have been offered for the
numbers not found.

Alvaro
wondered what happened to those people. He searched those locations for
anything that gave substance to those who had died. He lay on his back and
stared into an unrevealing desert sky and felt only the emptiness of his
surroundings, its nothingness that had absorbed suffering and death.

Alvaro
felt a bond with the dead through his own sense of not belonging. He was not a
gringo but he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, either. He rarely hung out with
Spanish-speaking
people, and
when he did, he assumed a different character than when he spoke English. Who
was he? He had been born in Colombia. He had left everything he knew, his
family, his country, to live in a place that was and was not his home. He began
contemplating how, as an artist, he could convey the quandary of his existence
with the experiences of dead migrants caught between the countries they were
leaving and their visions of America.

As
a first step, Alvaro snapped photographs of what he called dead sites, but a photo could not
capture the absent bodies of migrants. He hired a woman and had her wear a
black dress and drove her to the desert to be photographed. He shot beautiful
pictures of her against the sparse landscape but a woman in a black dress, a
strikingly mournful figure, said nothing about the people who had perished. He
made sculptures of red dots but they weighed too much to transport to the dead
sites. Next, he sprayed red dots on the ground like graffiti but the dots alone
conveyed nothing.

The
idea of building crosses came to him as he combed through books about Roman
history. The Romans, he read, crucified many people, not only Jesus. They left
them exposed to the sun and elements until they died. The same, he believed,
was happening to migrants. Through its immigration policies, the U.S.
government was forcing them to follow the most difficult routes north to kill
them. Where the two pieces of a cross intersected formed the nucleus of an
encounter between poor peasants of the south and the American giant of the
north and the encounter was fatal. Goliath won.

Alvaro understood that not everyone would agree with his overtly political analogy. However, he was not seeking approval but laying a philosophical foundation to buttress his ideas to mark the dead sites with crosses. Absent politics, a cross would also have meaning, not as Christian symbol (—Forget religion, Alvaro tells the volunteers. Death is very democratic. Death has no interest in faith.), but as a secular, geometric one. A cross consists of vertical and horizontal lines. Alive, people stand erect. Dead, they lie flat. Life and death existed in the same image.

*

As
a child, Alvaro had learned to accept absence. He grew up in a shanty in
Villavicencio, Colombia, a frontier town where men earned a living raising
cattle and selling marijuana. He did not wear shoes his first five years at
school. In the evenings, he gathered dead birds from cockfights for his mother
to cook, or he would walk to the slaughterhouse and collect blood to eat with
his rice because they could not afford meat. His mother had few soft edges. She
warned him against daydreaming. Dreams, she said, won’t deliver him from
poverty.

Alvaro
never saw his father. He was married to another woman and considered Alvaro’s
mother his mistress. In 1996, when he turned fifty, Alvaro returned to Colombia
and tracked him down in Honda, a village not far from where he grew up. His
father owned a big house near a cemetery and had a little store and everybody
who went to the cemetery stopped there for food and flowers. He assumed Alvaro wanted
money.

I
don’t need your money, Alvaro told him. I’m not angry with you. I have no
feelings toward you. I just want to know who you are.

They
spoke for a short time. His father appeared indifferent that Alvaro, his only
son, the result of a one-night fling, had appeared out of nowhere. It was
like looking in a mirror, Alvaro reflected afterward. His father’s disinterest,
his lack of empathy, were characteristics Alvaro shared. A woman he had dated
in New York told him, “You
don’t ask about my life or daughters. Your interest lasts only one night.” He
received her words as a revelation and on his flight back to the states he
thought of them again and decided that it although he felt bad his father was
the way he was he did not have to be like him.

They
never saw each other again. Blind, sick and unable to walk, Alvaro’s father
died two years later.

*

When he was a boy, Alvaro’s watched Hollywood movies at a theater where
his mother worked. On screen, actors smoked long cigarettes and ate in
restaurants. He saw dashing detectives and strutting cowboys. That was the life
he wanted. In 1967, when he was almost twenty-one, an aunt in Queens offered to
fly him to New York. She didn’t have to ask twice.

New
York made an impression. The tall buildings, the busy streets, the stores with
all the elegantly dressed people. He loved the seasons, especially winter. That
something could fall from the sky and turn him white left him amazed and a
believer in miracles. He thought pizza and canned foods with decorative labels
the most wonderful of meals. He sorted through trash, an odd assortment of
junk: high-school sports trophies, beat-up bowling balls, picture frames and
other garbage. Get
this out of my house,
his aunt scolded, but he continued adding to his collection. He had never had
these things. Ownership represented the promise of America. With his aunt’s
help he applied for citizenship and received his green card. He also registered
with the selective service without fully understanding what that meant but he
felt he was on his way.

However,
Alvaro soon faced difficulties. His aunt’s American husband disliked him and
kicked him out of the house two months after he arrived. Homeless and fearful
of returning to Colombia a failure, he went to a church and prayed. God, he
begged, you need to cut me a break. I’m screwed here. Any bone you can send my
way, I’d appreciate. You’re the guy who’s supposed to help.

Two
months later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Having no skills,
he joked, they put me in the infantry. It was not the divine intervention he
had sought but it got him off the street. His commanding officers trained him
to hate the Vietnamese and kill them and he did. Today, he doesn’t see a
connection between the person he was then and the man he is now. He was young,
naive and stupid. He lacked compassion. He believes that with each cross he
puts up today he atones for his actions in Vietnam.

*

After
his service, Alvaro returned to New York. He visited an Army buddy in New
Mexico and fell in love with the desert, awed by its immense limitlessness, and
promised to return and live there some day. Back in New York, he drove cabs,
mopped the floors of a peep show and working as a photographer’s assistant. He
attended college and graduate school and earned three master’s degrees in
anthropology, Latin American Studies and Contemporary Hispanic Studies. In
1980, he took a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and stayed
for almost twenty years before he got tired of the nine-to-five grind and
decided to pursue an artistic career. He had always liked to draw. His savings,
pension and veterans’ benefits would support him. With art, he rationalized, he
didn’t need credentials.

In
1999, he moved to Placitas, New Mexico, an old hippy town north of Albuquerque,
and bought a house. For two years he read books on philosophy and art
criticism. He built boxes with cutout figures representative of the American
West. He took large canvases and painted layers and layers of the same color
paint in varying shades and made frames for them. It’s not bad, he thought, but it may not be
good art.
Over the years, however, people bought his work and he felt their approval in
the money they paid him and that in turn gave him the impetus to do more
serious work that would encompass his ideas of being an outsider. After more
than ten years in Placitas, Alvaro felt the need for a more urban environment.
Albuquerque was close by but he wanted a city with a better reputation for the
arts. That led him to Tucson.

*

A
hawk flies above the Jeep as Alvaro drives deeper into the desert, the sun
higher but the air still cool although he feels it warming. Gusts rise off mountains
sweeping the air ahead of it, fanning dust. Alvaro pulls off the road and parks
near the spot where the remains of the nameless 2006 migrant were found. He had
put up a cross for him last year. A migrant sleeping nearby awoke, startled to
see him. Don’t worry, Alvaro said, I’m here for a cross, nothing more.

Alvaro
doesn’t know what happened, but a short time later someone destroyed the cross.
Hunters have used his crosses for target practice. Other people break and
remove them. He went to a swap meet one afternoon and saw one for sale. The
cross he had placed here looked like it had been hit by a sledgehammer.

Stepping
out of the Jeep, Alvaro stands stoop-shouldered and adjusts his cap. He wears
jeans that pool around his ankles and a long-sleeve shirt with triangular
patterns that restrains his paunch. Gray hair falls to his neck and he removes
his glasses and rubs his eyes.

—Keep
talk to a minimum, Alvaro says. We’re going to a location where someone died.

He
takes a blue cross from the back of the Jeep. Slivers of tin cans decorate the
wood. A red dot on another piece of tin fills the center. Friends give him
paint, off-white, beige, bland colors he brightens with whatever he has on hand
in his shop.

The
volunteers unload a shovel, bucket, bottled water and a bag of cement and
follow Alvaro. The noise of their steps breaks against small stones and the
scraping sound tears at the air like a ripped sheet.

Alvaro
moves cautiously between jumping cholla cactus, whose stinging thorns collect
like burs and can easily penetrate clothing. Blankets, shoulder packs, worn
sandals, plastic water jugs and other supplies discarded by migrants litter the
ground. They may have camped here. They may have been picked up by family or
border patrol. Their abandoned possessions offer Alvaro no hint of their fate.

He
searches the ground for bones. In 2017, a man driving home from a casino
stopped to piss and saw a human skull. The skull belonged to forty-four-year-old
Nancy Ganoza, from Peru, who had disappeared in the desert in 2009, cause of
death unknown. A DNA sample found a match in New Jersey where her two daughters
and husband lived. Her family flew to Tucson and Alvaro built a cross and they
joined him to raise it where her skull was found. Her husband propped a photograph
against the cross below a red dot. She had black hair down to her shoulders and
a winsome smile and she squinted as if she was facing the sun. Five candles
surrounded the base of the cross and a white rosary with a crucifix hung
loosely from it, and a circle of prickly pear cactus threw shadows beneath the
twisted branches of velvet mesquite. Alvaro had planted dozens of crosses for
people by then. Sometimes he knew their names but he did not know them. Until now. The
intimate presence of Nancy’s family brought him to tears.

Nancy Ganoza’s cross

It’s
so sad, Alvaro thinks now. All of it. Each death haunting. All of
them tragic, some beyond tragic. Not too long ago Alvaro built a cross for a young man
who had died from hanging, a suicide, the medical examiner concluded. Alvaro
could not conceive the agony and utter hopelessness that he must have
experienced. Knowing it was too much to go on. Deciding with what strength he
had left to take his own life rather than die of thirst,
starvation, heatstroke, hyperthermia, or madness.

The most disturbing moment for Alvaro, however, occurred last August when he found
a body in the Roskruge mountain range, a remote area close to Tucson. Five
miles from a paved highway, four miles from some houses but still in the middle
of nowhere. He had just put up a cross and was following a stone path back to
his Jeep when he disturbed two rattlesnakes and his heart was racing from
surprise and fear, the sound of their rattles still in his ears, when he saw a
dead woman. For a moment, his reaction was similar to entering a room and
encountering
someone he
had not expected.

A
sharp odor rose from the corpse. The bones remained intact and her clothes lay
around her, possible torn off by animals. A T-shirt and blue jeans and a cell
phone. She had a pair of yellow-and-pink sneakers that looked new. Very
feminine and small. At first, Alvaro thought she was a child. He called 911. An
autopsy revealed she had suffered hyperthermia and had been dead about two
weeks. She had documents from Guatemala but no identification.

Days
later, Alvaro marked the location with a cross. Was she a mother? he wondered.
Did she leave children behind? What was she running from and to? In the
following weeks he returned and looked for ID but found nothing. He lay on the
ground and traced an outline of his body with flour. He stood and looked at the
image like something from a crime scene. It was his way of sharing himself with
her. Had his life been different, had his aunt not flown him to New York, he
might have died as she had, or like the migrant he is about to acknowledge this
morning, dead without a name.

*

Alvaro
sets down the cross, takes the shovel and digs a hole. He tosses dirt to one
side and when he stops to catch his breath, silence settles around him and he
raises his head to listen to it. He asks Alicia to mix the cement. He watches
her shake it into the bucket, add water and stir it with a stick.

—That’s
enough, Alvaro says.

He
inserts the cross into the hole and holds the top of it as Alicia distributes
the cement. Alvaro asks her if it’s straight and she nods. He continues holding
it as she and the other volunteers collect rocks and stack them in a small
mound around the cross. Once it’s secure, Alvaro steps back and ponders it
within the vast solitude of the desert. Stalwart, like a sentry, unaware that
soon it will be alone and appear quite small, dwarfed by the limitlessness of
its surroundings.

Alicia
removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

—I’d
like to play “Amazing Grace.”

—Play
“Down in the Valley.”

—I
don’t know that one. I hope I can get through this without crying.

—That’s
OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

She
begins playing and Alvaro bows his head. He has put up nine hundred crosses in
six years but has no idea how many still stand. They last five, maybe ten years,
eaten by termites, beaten by weather, turned to dust. Some nuns in a church in
Cochise County heard about what he was doing and designed their own crosses.
They did not place them where migrants died but, as far as Alvaro was
concerned, where it was convenient. Their crosses have no relation to anything.
The word got out that an old man was making crosses and the nuns wanted a piece
of it.

He
does not consider himself an activist. At home, he likes to read, go to
restaurants and play with his dog. He paints pictures with red dots in
fragmented circles and lines to represent a splintered border and the ruptured
lives of those who cross. He only wants the integrity of his project respected.

What’s
happening, he tells himself, is that instead of mellowing he’s becoming
cantankerous in his old age. How does he tell nuns they’re screwing up? They
have a divine license to do what they do. They have God. How does he argue with
God?

I’m
an infidel,
he reminds himself.

As
Alicia plays, the plaintive notes drifting with the wind, Alvaro considers his
own life. With each cross, he commemorates his journey as an immigrant and its
inevitable end. His weekly desert sojourns have become a form of meditation in
which he grieves his own losses, two failed marriages, the death of his mother,
his time in Vietnam, his absent father. He is his father’s son but not his son.
He does not conceal his emotions. He empathizes to the point of tears. He can’t
control what other people do with his art but only what he seeks to achieve
with it: recognition of the dead, solace for himself.

The
struggle of migrants, he knows, will outlive him. More will die today, tomorrow
and long after he has died. He’d like to paint three thousand red dots in a
Tucson gallery but he doubts that will happen. Galleries don’t appreciate art
that won’t sell. He will never build enough crosses.

—That’s
all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes
playing.

—That’s
correct.

—Does
anyone want to say anything?

—I
hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

Alvaro
lets her comment linger. The wind whistles and carries the sound of a semi and
the volunteers shift and twigs break beneath their feet. When the noise of the
truck fades, Alvaro speaks.

—In
2006, thirteen years ago more or less, a man came here looking for the American
dream. He didn’t find it and all of his plans ended here. And those plans and his
dream left a lot of suffering behind with a family that perhaps was hoping for
him to be the person who would send checks back home for them to survive. But
this all ended here. We don’t know his name, but he had a name, a family, and
he had dreams and hopes, he had everything. That’s why we do this, to give this
person presence. To honor this person. But there will always be an empty space
at the dinner table for this person and that takes a long, long time to go away;
in fact, it never will. He’ll always be missing in some way.

At
a loss to say anything more, Alvaro stares at the ground. He wonders how much
longer he’ll mark dead sites. His knees are shot. In the old days, he’d start
at seven, walk three hours to a site and three hours back, up and down
mountains, sometimes not getting home before nightfall. These days, he seeks
clusters, areas where several bodies have been found, so he can put up crosses
without walking too far and adding mileage to the Jeep. It’s old, too.

He picks up the bucket and shovel. The two other sites are close by. He expects to finish before noon, an early day. Next Tuesday, he will return and carry more crosses into the desert and give presence to the anonymous dead with a marker no one will see. Art without a viewer. He considers their shortened lives part of the American myth. Dying for a dream.




Writing, and Chaplin

Picture Credits: Engin akyurt

Any
story, Chaplin said, can be told without human voice, with only a fork and a
spoon, at a dinner table. And, invited to many dinner parties, Chaplin, they
say, could prove it.

What
makes writing not good? The same things which make people not good. An
unawareness of their dishonesties, their entrenched imitativeness; a writer who
has spent too many years in front of a television will spend many years, if he
or she is trying to be a writer of some goodness, discharging those memories of
dramas on televisions. Half of his/her writing is vomiting them up, sick of
turning them around in one’s stomach all those years, feeling the sound of
their words as if in a tin can, never able to fully absorb them, aware of some
pervasiveness of death of honesty in them, death of innovation. Yet only half
of the writer/artist is re-wounded by this repeating what was seen and heard
there, by this disgorgement; a good half of the writer/artist is healed through
catharsis.

Flatness
is bad. Too much too even calm. Unless it is calm with an eeriness, while
terrible things go on, to show that everywhere there is a pond, there is a lily
pad, there is a frog ready to leap. Sometimes the narrator must be all calm;
sometimes descriptions of places must be all calm, to lull the reader into a
somniance. Before things begin.

But
not too much constant agitation. That will create only the need and wish for a
dark blue sleep.

The
layers and meanings of words. The writer who does not understand the double and
triple-speak of words can still fool anyone into almost anything, as can
societal attitudes. But a writer who approaches words with an already-ready
sense of suspiciousness can rule them. So intelligence, x-ray vision, are
paramount: mind you, these are unusual traits, the traits of superheroes.

But
most of all, more than dishonesties, or too much from television to disgorge,
or too much flatness or agitation, or too little wise suspicion of common words
– most of all, a writer is bad if he or she cannot self-generate heat, power.
We are, as writers, the solar collector, the hybrid engine: we take energy from
what surrounds us or our remembering of surroundings; but we must also, through
the rhythm and placement of our speech, with the jabbing moving dance or battle
motions of our ideas woven through whatever is written, make energy: that is
the writer’s job. Each writer infuses what he finds with his own needs and
medicine of response: he shows the inert reader that he or she can be offended
or delighted by what she sees, but the dedicated human brain deeply wants to overcome
danger, and, with enough resolve, can often overcome obstacles, peril. In
dwindling summary: the writer always is the fairy tale riddle-solver, the one
fate has brought, somehow entering the story already knowing what is needed
–  or by end of story or novel does.

What
the writer needs may be only an understanding of inevitabilities, and a way to
accept and even find beautiful the inevitabilities. He or she can try to make
change, and he or she does not necessarily need to succeed.

Around
an oval table, writers can read stories about finding a large Canadian goose
nesting on their roof, staying there till summer, her five goose-eggs laid and
lined up in a row, ready to hatch; they can read a poem while jazz is played;
they can read a story filled with cursing words. A woman can go to a French
enclave in Canada and meekly submit to the rudenesses which people inflict upon
the unFrench outsider and endure it for twenty-five years which then become at
least twenty-five chapters. A giant, in a story, can work his way into a house,
laugh, destroy things; people can live in a society where their minds are
boundaried and controlled, and never have the wish, let alone the need, to have
courage enough to escape; someone can decide the most loving embrace they have
ever felt is the clasp of a seatbelt on an airplane, loving the stewardesses
nagging him about being buckled in. A writer can write in one whole book about his
proud love for his religion, about the comfort like home it gives him.

But
what is underneath? The American writer about the woman in French Canada may be
realizing now the court is hers. The writer who thinks he is in love with his
religion may be realizing as he writes that it is the setting sun he looks to
each day and adores, not the people or rituals or stories in churches; and that
sun travels – everywhere. The writer who loves the buckling ritual on the plane
may be secretly wishing for the courage to unbuckle on another country, or
continent, and somehow stay. The person writing about people over-controlled in
a society may be really in love with that control, though everyone thinks the
purpose of the written piece is to lash out against the control. The giant? The
giant may represent the author’s jealous and inflamed heart, his memory of his
own displacement, of being made small; he wants all to experience his displaced
heart. And the woman with the goose on her roof may be stating that she is
feeling the authenticity of “impostor syndrome” – the truth that all of us are
frauds, compared to our child selves, when we were new and we knew the greatest
love we will ever know, our early love for our mothers, and school, and sleep.

And
the writer who reads his writing while jazz is played by a certain player? He
by the time he is finished realizes his writing is jazz, too, that the musician
whose recording he used was only his five delicious minutes of using him the
magician as a crutch. Taking courage from the original players of jazz who found
their genius footing in a country which mocked them, the writer is borrowing
footing from the ones who defeated the undefeatable odds: on a European
civilization’s instruments, they outdid them, without their instructions or
rule books, tuition, without their composers. In one generation.

How
else does a good writer be a good writer? She or he admits they know just what,
even though it is unnamed still to them as they write, they are seeking. Yes,
they are greedy. Yes, they have an overarching and ridiculous need to have
something they might not win or even deserve: and they insist on an almost
ridiculous excess of dignity. But they admit their humbleness, that they are
lacking. And from that comes humor, or sardonicness; you’ve admitted, as a
writer, need.

Declared
mortal, vulnerable: already wounded, soft white belly even more vulnerable,
because you have pulled aside your shirt to show the wound. But admired; you must
be strong to be so reckless. Only strong can dare the fates this way: such brave
display.

Writers
have a music a music class or tutor cannot give. As great singers must have
deeply felt the feel of notes in their silent throats through earliest childhood,
writers resonate with the music of the books they have read. Neither music nor
novels come from class. As a tree turns in the wind, as water rounds edges of
boulders; music logic has a fall of gravity. Writing logic has an even sharper
gravity – the rise and fall of necessity. You the writer prove you see, or saw,
an unendurability before you.

Consider
Chaplin. Chaplin takes his sad little too-large hat, his eyebrows like piles of
dark-burned ash, shoes which yes are shoes but obviously like his dreams
oversized. His cane which is to reassure, remind him, that the wisdom of the
old man is with him, though he is young. To town. His eyes like coals, he
wanders, overflowing with dreaming. Dreaming he can rise above the poor and the
poorly-placed and win the lovely girl, who will see the fervor and the delight
of his heart, and is the symbol of his prize.

Chaplin
improvises with each turn of the story; he is willing to do anything, to win.
Arrogance of any type he can both mock and envy, absorbing as he simultaneously
pushes away. The airplane Chaplin realizes is full of people who have forgotten
what the adventurous meaning of life is. To them the seatbelt is an empty,
unloving ritual: to them it is an annoyance. Chaplin would see a goose on a
roof is a sign he is lucky to be human; the goose must be there to make him
think of fairy tales, a sign he should understand the goose and gander, brave
and nesting and valiant, there to lead the way for the next generation of
nesters; the goose should make him long for family around him, too, to guard him
and give him an increased feeling of strength (Chaplin in his last, fourth
marriage, in Switzerland, fathered his last set of children: eight.)

Bored
groups of people are really the audience Chaplin dreams of, who are waiting to
see how he sets himself free from dull repetition and attitudes; an audience
waiting almost eagerly to be awakened. They’ve forgotten, or maybe never
learned well enough, the special art of making themselves the fool. Or how to
watch for the jealous giant who is everywhere, because the jealous giant is in
each of us. When we are on the plane, Chaplin knows, we need instead of pulling
down the airplane’s tiny plastic beige window shades when the glare of the sun
is on us, to let it shine on us and diffract us. For the sun, the shining sun, is
the base of, outdoes, all religions.

After
Chaplin, where is the impostor? How do we find him? Chaplin would have us
recognize the great impostor also is always in us. Acting and actors are
half-complete impostors. They might wear the Chaplin hat: an admission that to
up-end any impostors, you must admit first you are one, too.

As
Tolstoy said, all of writing is about the stranger who comes to town, or the
trip a man makes to the strange town. So: writing then is startlement, introductions,
rejections. The fairy tale riddle-solver seeing the problems before him.

And
what do you find? That a person has both badness and goodness; that a town
does, too. But you as a writer are a force of control, self-comfort, movement;
you are a painter at an easel, looking for something or someone beautiful,
wanting to record something startlingly, bravely true, something no one has
recorded before. You gain something by meeting a stranger, also, by meeting a
strange town.

The
people in the strange town? They never travelled your trip, never heard anyone
call out to you watch out for that step
which is their way of saying it is their house and they know that step is
theirs, not yours, you are but the awkward visitor, so clumsy you would likely
fall. (What is dressed up as a welcome is really their comment on how awkward
they expect you to be.) The writer says thank
you
but beneath the polite thank you
he knows the real intent of the admonishment: almost a wish that he would fall,
or full credit for having saved clumsy him, the invading guest.

Oh, do you think I’m
clumsy
, he calls out, all
grace.

Or
better, like Chaplin, tips into a neat double set of cartwheels, landing almost
exactly at his chair at the table, smoothing his hair, raising and lowering his
eyebrows, settling his cap, leaning his cane against the table to neatly,
precisely, hang his hat from top of its crook, that deep crook very much like a
goose’s or a gander’s neck deeply bent, attentive. Chaplin sits now alert at a
supper table where all the bored guests are set, as neatly as silverware, as
rows of seats on a plane; waiting, they are, for the one who will save them
from their boredom, show them something they have never seen on television: Waiting
for Chaplin. Chaplin, ready, maybe, to tell a story: with one spoon and one fork.




On Discovering Authors

There
is a book that had been on my reading list for a while. For one, having lived
for a little while in Bombay (I lived in the south where people still call it
that), I have a fascination for the city like no other, a soft spot for any
story that is based here. The nuances are abundant, hard to capture, but so
vibrant when done right. There are some cities like that – more personality
than massive plots of land, that swallow you whole and let you influence them
just as much as they change you. Countless poets and writers have written about
them, and Bombay – amchi Mumbai – as a writer’s delight, doesn’t disappoint. I’ve
read of the drug lords, of a foreign criminal fleeing the cops, of love and of
death in Mumbai, of a feminist writer from Kerela who lived about two hundred
meters away from where I did, on reclaimed land, forty years ago. I’ve watched
all the glitzy Bollywood movies. I’ve been a regular traveler in the local
trains, going back and forth from Churchgate to Andheri, walked along Marine
drive in the rain; at noon; at 3am, the skyline lit up on Diwali; with friends;
with parents; gone for morning jogs; looked out for hours at the glorious
Arabian Sea, and cried. Despite the garbage it keeps throwing back, the crowd,
the inevitable floods every few years, the rain and humidity it brings along as
side products, the sea is undoubtedly one of Mumbai’s redeeming qualities. The
food and the people come a close second. Sita aunty worked in our house,
cleaning dishes, doing jhadoo pocha
for two years. She would call me baby, even as I turned twenty-one. Even five
years after we moved, she still calls every Diwali, and asks my mom “Baby
kaisi hai
.

Yet
nothing could have prepared me for this book.

*

A
few minutes past or before my twenty-fourth birthday, depending on which time
zone I wish to adhere to, I find myself in a book store, in a quaint city in
Portugal. I’ve been reading about Pessoa, and Lisbon through his eyes, where I’m
spending my birthday weekend, but my mind is elsewhere. It’s riddled with
longing for a city that I met briefly, but that will forever have a place in my
heart; mysterious, charming and often impenetrable, dangerous and alluring,
seductive in its offering of misery and joy in equal amounts, but above all the
presence of possibility – everywhere. Some may call it hope.

There
are similarities to these two cities, I think, my mind trying to draw
connections in its wandering, to stabilize. While Lisbon is built on seven
hills, Bombay was built on seven islands. It owes its name, and its origins in
a sense, to the Portuguese, who called it Bom
Bahia
– the good bay.

I’ve
spent two hours in my flight here, reading a real account of squatters and
scavengers, of the poorest and filthiest of India, immersed in their world,
holding on to their ray of hope as if my own living depended on it. But the
world I inhabit is vastly different from the ones I’ve been reading about.

One
beer down, but more drunk on the charming bookstore I’m sitting in, this stark
difference between a world long gone (Lisbon in the 1930s) and a world very
much alive but farther from my reality than I can ever hope to comprehend
(present-day Bombay slums), doesn’t quite register fully.

It’s
my birthday, supposedly an occasion of celebration and I can’t be bothered to
fight the cognitive dissonance, so I pick up another book.

Livro do Desassossego:
the Portuguese translates as “The book of disquiet”.

As
someone who so often finds herself feeling a sense of disquiet, turmoil, anxiety,
Desassossego (I like the soft ring to
this word), I feel strangely comforted with this book in hand. Perhaps that is
the mark of extraordinary prose, sympathetic to its bone; a writer that takes
pleasure in language, pleasure in observing, no matter what the subject.

He
writes of certain kinds of eateries in Lisbon where people with uninteresting
faces, but that have a certain kind of digression from life, are frequently
found. And I wonder if I could be one of those uninteresting faces, in a
different time.

*

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is
a curious title. It refers to a huge billboard near the international airport
in Mumbai, hosting an advertisement of Italian tiles, “beautiful forever”,
behind which lies Annawadi – the slum that makes the setting. This book – Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death,
and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
, by Katherine Boo – is so much harder, because it isn’t fiction.
You grow attached to the characters as you follow them through the sewage
strewn slum lanes. You know these kids live, but that they are always on the
brink of death through disease, starvation or accident. You know they will
fight each other for the aluminium-foil wrapped meals you ate in your
international flights. Maybe you got a business class upgrade. I don’t think I
will ever be able to look at the garbage I throw away in India in the same way
again. We are known to be a dirty nation, we discuss it with our upturned noses
in our posh clean homes. And even so, I never knew how many boys have skipped
school to work in the garbage business, collecting and sorting, that their lives
depend on it, literally; that a garbage bag makes for a bed on nights when
there is a possibility of it being stolen. And perhaps for this ignorance, this
book needed to be written. One feels mawkish while retelling their experience
of the book to another but the writing itself is neither sentimental, nor
crass; it is personal, the details having been so compassionately captured.

You
try to detach, you try to contemplate on what makes the system, the structure,
such; to think of what you can do as an individual. What can you do, having
turned a blind eye your whole life, beyond the concoction of pity, sympathy,
guilt, shock, helplessness, sorrow you feel inside, for these have no purpose,
no value?

It’s easy to spiral down life’s bigger questions as you read this book – the moral dilemma, the frustration at the system. In a place like Annawadi, is a moral compass a privilege its inhabitants can afford, when the choice, every minute, is between watching your family starve, and trying to be correct in a ruthless, unfair world? Katherine Boo captures the essence of these questions in her dedicated narration. One can only imagine the monumental task she has executed with such grace.

*

I
tried hard, on that trip to Lisbon, to think about what growing a year older
meant to me. Perhaps I was supposed to have some kind of epiphany, maybe there
were vows and promises to be made about the year to come. The day itself was
only a means to reconnect with people I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Lisbon’s
trams, and the old neighborhood of Alfama, though, were altogether too charming
to entertain such existential thoughts. And wasn’t I there to escape anyway, to
drink away my millennial sorrows, those larger-than-life anxieties? And so I
let the pressure to be more slide.

*

Pessoa
wasn’t discovered, as an artist, until after his passing, when trunks full of
his works were found and studied, and his genius acknowledged. He lived his
life as a translator of French and English works, none of which were his native
languages. He is now regarded as one of the most significant literary figures
of the twentieth century.

Katherine
Boo is a journalist who has spent her career studying poor communities. On
being asked in an interview about the slum dwellers’ reactions to her, she said
that she was a circus act to them – a pale-skinned, blonde-haired old woman
following them, asking questions. She went on to say that they had more
pressing concerns, and the fascination wore off soon. There was always more work
to do, families to be raised.

That
image of Pessoa, hunched at night, scribbling away on bits of paper, and that
of Katherine Boo, sitting around in Annawadi, have stayed in my mind. They
remind me every time I feel “uninspired”, when hope is crippling at best, at
how silly that idea is. That what I do in this life, day after day may
seemingly have no impact, that one ought to create for the sake of creation
itself, for the love of life. And maybe this love for life can make one wander
into dark corners, and light a spark. Compassion, not blame, is the only thing
sure to work in the face of hopelessness. Maybe you’d make a ripple, a dent,
however small – be the catalyst of change, and maybe you’d be forgotten. Who is
to know, in a world driven by the kind of chaos, the mechanics of which, we are
yet to understand. Must the end result be our only motivation for creation, for
action? They’ve given me a glimpse into what it is like to be life-affirming
and desperately sad in the same moment.

In
Abdul’s words, to be ice, in a world made of water.

The
two authors I discovered this birthday, Katherine Boo and Fernando Pessoa, have
reignited that little sparkle in my heart. And what more could I have asked for?