By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
Thus, the ghosts of my Friday afternoon.
A day later, as dark gave way to morning light, under an inky sky made almost white by starlight, I leaned against a smooth tree trunk a hygienic distance from the slaughtered steer. Buried in coals and earth, the carcass smoked in a way that ought to have reeled me in to its gustatory pleasures. Instead, I could feel my stomach rising again. And I could feel something else: a tapping on my shoulder.
I had been considering the ground around the roots of this particular tree so intently that I can see its gnarled, knuckled fingers clutching the dirt even now. I turned my head without standing up. There was a man as solid as the tree itself and just as verifiable, a man who appeared gradually to me in order of his smile, dark eyes, cowboy hat and mustache, plaid shirt and blue jeans, beer belly, silver belt buckle, white undershirt, hat sweat-stained at the crown, his mouth a bone yard of rotted enamel and incompetent dental scaffolding.
He smiled. "Where's the party?" he asked.
My Spanish is not so good, and it wasn't clear to me at the time whether the verb was present, past or future. If past or present, I figured, he's making a joke about my wretched state—like asking "How'd you get so drunk?" If future or present, perhaps he's asking about the smoking steer entombed in glowing hardwood coals. I bet on the steer.
"Here," I said in the simplest Spanish I could generate. "My brother and Anna. Marriage. On Sunday. In the church. Then, here for the fiesta."
He smiled. "Ahhhh," he said. "The little church?"
I said nothing for a moment, figuring that even a nod might toss my stomach. "Yes," I said finally.
"Pues, hasta la vista"—well, until then.
I closed my eyes and opened them, and the man was gone.
Later that morning, my cousins joked that I'd been smoking pot or hallucinating; shortly, however, the Ramirez clan had them convinced that I had seen Don Jose.
There was just one problem with this explanation: Don Jose is dead. Has been, apparently, since a time in my youth. And while this chronological flaw annoyed my family and made my brother smile enigmatically, it was greeted as something special by my brother's future relations. They didn't quite say I had the gift, that I was special, but they looked at me with admiration, I think. David patted me on the back on his way to check his smoldering beef; Doris said something to me in Spanish that my brother translated: "You can see."
"Maybe I just saw someone who looked like Don Jose."
"Maybe," my brother said, and in that moment, in his openness to the possibility of ghosts, I could see that he was already lost a little to the Western Enlightenment.
That afternoon, the Mayans from the highway came to Casa Ramirez, a raggedy bunch of men no more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, with skin the color of saddle leather, hair so black that it seemed to bend light, and noses that suggested nobility —immense pointed things like the proboscises of Easter Island. They spoke to Doris. She looked at me, said something unfathomable in Spanish, and then retrieved Anna. Doris, Anna and the Mayans spoke, indicating me. In cobbled-together English, Anna said, "You, they, tonight, to sleep and see Don Jose." I filled in the gaps.
Don Jose, it turned out, was a long-dead village elder whose memory survived because of infrequent but well-reported appearances. That he appeared at all I credited to the fact that he was outlived by a reputation for rare goodness, outlandish generosity and raw—if very local—political power that made him something like a saint who might intercede on behalf of people hollowed by misery.
That night, I kept vigil with the Mayans. They spoke to me through my brother, revealing their deepest desire: to use my presence at this campfire to conjure Don Jose again so that he might help them with their problems. They were sick, poor and bewildered. They wanted Don Jose to cure the strange, choking coughs of their children. They wanted Don Jose to curb the voraciousness of the work-crew leaders towering over the nearby farmland. They wanted to go home—across the mountainous spine of Baja, across the placid Sea of Cortés, across an almost cosmic stretch of the Mexican mainland—to a place they recalled for its lush, primeval fertility.
And I failed them in almost every way a man might. I tried to explain how global capitalism works, but the understanding availed them nothing. I described the various agencies in the U.S. that limited the use of pesticides; there might be sister agencies in Mexico, I observed. I urged them to speak to the local police or mayor or whoever it was that governed this place. Barring outside help, I urged them to organize, describing vividly the broad sweep of the labor movement—in my country and in theirs —and reminded them that, even then, a guerrilla outfit had mustered north of their homes in the state of Chiapas to combat precisely such indignities as they had described. I was as useless to them in that moment as a second set of nipples. And as the night wore on, I fought off sleep and waves of nausea aftershocks. Don Jose steered clear of our small halo of light. Toward dawn, the Mayans drifted off toward wherever they scratched a living from the dust, promising my brother they would return Sunday afternoon for his wedding. But I knew they wouldn't.