..First Glyph

February 5
4:10 p.m.

Odors of raw poultry and raw pork and beef mingling with fumes of pungent flowers, accenting reek of over-ripening mangos and green oranges and then octopi and tuna and other nameless sea harvests. Hand-tooled leather seethes its smell from belts and from hats and from wallets and then there emit the herbs, too, all arranged in tiny wooden drawers, or spices. Or this stall blares pirated American rock music and tropicales, while this vender marionettes a kid's rubber crocodile so as to make you almost trip over the kid's rubber crocodile, to make you consider the kid's rubber crocodile. Vari-colored balloons at the entrance. Women bargaining. Women gossiping. Parti-colored balloons at the exit. Men discussing seriously. Men chuckling lewdly. Pots and skillets and sizzling meats and chiles in that far corner where at a round counter hunch-shouldered people lunch on tacos. And behind the round counter a dark soup steams. And above the round counter a soccer match animates a television screen. A hundred furtive eyes seek that television screen: From over a temporary wall behind which pile baskets high; from around blankets finespun or gauche; from before t-shirts blazing cartoon characters and sports emblems. Even the tired old man in the security uniform stands transfixed by the soccer match. Children fence with driftwood sticks around the security uniform, charging his aisles, peppering the chaos with their shouting and shrieks. A mangy dog ambles through. A man strides through with a side of raw beef. A man quarters a chicken. A girl pads by with a bowl of steaming dark soup. A man paints your name on a grain of rice. And these lanes you sidle through are so narrow that from around a string of ceramic vegetables, or from around a hanger of lace or linen table cloths, or from around a stack of bottled vanilla, a face surprises you as it suddenly peers into you severely, as it surveys your pass, as it returns to its figures and calculator, or its gum chewing, or its nursing its child. The affect is consuming at first, visceral, until, suddenly, the market ejaculates you onto the street, or onto the plaza, or onto the sidewalk and all you can do is chortle and look behind you agog. Once this scene so overwhelmed me that I was half blind to it. But so calm I am now, on this trip. I see it all clearly. A man offering coconuts. Another man hefting another side of raw beef. A man leaning numb and bored before carefully arranged pyramids of mandarins and pineapples. And then the votive candles for sale. And then the crucifixes for sale. And then the devotional paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary and Elvis Presley. And how organized it is, a very practical disorder. And the sensory overload, the super-sensory assault, the assault on the sense organs. I walk the myriad stimuli of the mercado now and see it clearly. Such detachment this trip. Where is my excitement? Ten years ago I would have waxed rhapsodic just over the palm fronds, or the sea breeze, or the romantic name of the city--"Veracruz." Now I wander through the marketplace virtually unmoved. Hieronymous Bosch, I think of now. Thelonious Monk. I've lost something in the passing of that giddy inspiration. Callowness?

When you order a café con leche here at La Cafeteria Real the waiter brings to you a glass at the bottom of which swills about one inch of dark black coffee. To get the leche meant to complement this café you ping the side of your glass with a metal spoon. From thin air, it seems, another waiter appears with a kettle full of boiling milk. Quite theatrically then he pours the milk, lowering and raising the kettle as the stream of milk arcs and then ceases. When the glass is empty again you ping it again with the metal spoon. This time the waiter arrives to provide you both the timid inch of café and the theatrical glassful of leche. I must say, it really does rival La Fonda Vieja.

By coincidence, I've positioned myself near the ladies room. 'Twould be a roguish plot to hatch, faith! But I didn't. Still, I watch the women come and go.

But without such detachment it would be impossible for me to accomplish what I have come to accomplish, I think. It is because of the calm, I think, that I can really look into that around me; that I can discern what lives in this setting that I did not capture in the unfinished novel. Without the calm, without the detachment, I would not have the patience to seek out the restaurant where Domingo's plot opens, or the museum in which he experiences the pivotal mural. Nor would I be sitting here right now and scribbling about this calmness and detachment and beginning to wonder if perhaps the calmness and detachment might be a step toward understanding the mystery. I mean, the mystery must have something to do with how Bach and Bosch and Montaigne viewed the world. But how elusive! How speculative! How do you even begin to approach such a question? Did Bosch and Montaigne and Thelonious behold the world with calm, with detachment? Is this a scantling part of how they did what they did? Did they express something that lasted because they could see something lasting? And did they see something lasting because they were detached?

The detachment does not come naturally. Today even I felt residual twinges of my early enthusiasms, those that sweep you into the moment instead of letting you observe the moment. When I finished studying the museum this morning, I suddenly ecstatically thought I should scribble these notes at the beach. The Villa del Carmen bus takes you there. I refrained. Instead I swallowed carrots and fresh tortillas in my hotel room, read Shakespeare and snoozed. That nap and meal and reading better served the notes I just collected in the centro than a strenuous trip to the beach would have; as it will better serve the work I will do this evening on the museum's exterior. And if I were reclined on the beach right now I would not have commented to myself on this calmness and detachment, and then stumbled into this thoughtstream that led me to consider what such calmness and detachment might contribute to my understanding of Monk's dissonance.

I need to clip my thumbnail. It digs into my forefinger as I scribble. My forefinger aches.

La Cafeteria Real is quite large. It seems to occupy a full square block, but it does not. A pharmacy on the harbor side of the edifice is flanked by the northern and southern arms of the restaurant. The restaurant wraps around the pharmacy. The kitchen connects the arms.

Yesterday, on the harbor side, I scribbled beneath the tall ship from Bangkok, before the boy swimmers, watching amblers pass. Today, on the opposite side, there is no view. The windows are smaller here, curtained; the mood cooler; the waiters more attentive. Through the gap between the curtains I descry a church steeple, the advertising offices of three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor.

An old man stews near glancing at me now and again. I expect him to address me if I stop scribbling. I find the Veracruz accent difficult. I will keep scribbling. I'm waiting for night to fall. When night falls I will return to the museum to study its exterior facade by streetlight. I expect to see it differently then. The old man speaks now at the young waiter. The old man speaks at some length. With circular gestures, he speaks. The young waiter figures there like an altarpiece, simultaneously there and not. This old man really wants someone to talk to. He has something of a woeful countenance.

I wonder why I've not seen a La Michoacana. I've idly sought this Mexican popsicle shop--and in vain. Its absence perplexes me here in sultry Veracruz. What a fine and simple treat those shops merchandise. Crushed fruit and water, frozen. Voluptuously sweet and cold. Very popular. In some towns you can find three of those shops situated on three of the central plaza's four sides. The popsicles will no doubt make an appearance soon.

As I re-read these notes a complement of four young women entered and alighted at a round table some meters from mine. They chatter away gayly in Spanish. I can hear their voices. And their voices are passerine. But it is their gestures that really captivate me. A toss of this one's head. Then the storyteller opens her palms in emphasis, bends back her wrists à la Ballanchine. Another combs her hair unconsciously with small even fingertips. I've thought my fascination with dancers might be rooted in this lifelong preoccupation, in this appreciation for the smaller movements of a woman. To watch a woman's arms swing as she hips along, or her hands as she colors her nails, or the tilt of her shoulders as she disrobes for a dip in the sea gives me an exquisite pain. And when she is quite unconscious of herself and naturally elegant that pain becomes acute. Is this not what dance tries to capture, I wonder? To formalize? To heighten? This natural unaffected play of the body? When I see a ballet I invariably feel that same exquisite pain. And a tightness in my throat, I feel, a constriction. I can scarcely breathe sometimes.

I'm tired of dodging the old man's eyes. I will wait somewhere else for night to fall. A plaza nearby, maybe. I've motioned to the waiter for my check.

I can feel suddenly Jacob's turmoil.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers