..First Glyph

4:30 p.m.

I met Eloisa late yesterday afternoon, when, tired of dodging the muzzled old man's glance, I departed La Cafeteria Real and its table of gesturing belles to putter along an exhaust-and-pedestrian-ridden lane. Even before planting myself on that white-painted bench there in that small plaza off the malecón, Eloisa called to me. Even before I had a chance to begin to wait there for night to fall, Eloisa wooed: "Please come dine in our restaurant, señor. It is very delicious." But, inured already to such entreaties, I placed myself on the white bench, acknowledging her not. There seemed to me, my thoughts continued, to be two extremes to attachment. First, an attachment like that to family and home. Here the subject of observation--my grandmother's accent, say, or my mother's kitchen--is so familiar that one is hard pressed to see and describe it truly. The other, the second, is that jolting attachment of the shockingly new. And here the subject of observation--a first experience in a Mexican market, for example--is lost in the stimuli of the novel, overwhelmed by it. One extreme is too familiar. The other too unfamiliar. Perspective is denied by both. It is impossible, consequently, to truly see or describe either.

"Would you like to come to sup?"

A more enlightening detachment, I thought, must lie somewhere between.

And this time Eloisa's timbre rang quite near, almost in my very ear. "I have just eaten," I answered. And I looked up to the homely girl.

"To drink?"

"No, gracias."

But then: "Will you permit me to sit down?" Eloisa ventured politely, uncertainly.

And instinctively I assented, gesturing vaguely to the vacant half of the white-painted bench. Usually such unforeseen, uninvited imposition gives me wary pause. But something very vulnerable was in this young woman, something defeated, almost desperate. Eloisa seemed to me more at risk in our tete-a-tete than I.

Fleshy with full lips, a broad flat nose, short black hair over a heavy crucifix, she asked if I was a tourist, or a student, and where I hailed from. I answered her. Then, "Mexico City," she replied in kind. She had come to Veracruz five months ago, she said quietly. She had come to Veracruz alone and penniless. I paused then in our give and take. A naked admission, this. An uncommon tale. But I believed her. A young woman on her own in a strange city--at eighteen. It suggested courage or crisis. Her eyes bespoke crisis.

Eloisa would not tell the story. Her lips pursed, her head shook and I followed her into the restaurant, expecting to hear it eventually. We sat at a round table. I ordered and sipped at a Coca-Cola through a straw. She told me how she was interested in learning English. She recited for me four perfect sentences: "I understand. I don't understand. What is your name? Where is the bathroom?" She complimented my Spanish. She corrected me once. She spoke a little slower when I asked.

Nothing in the encounter was that remarkable; nothing really occurred. But her eyes. Eloisa's eyes held a pain, a maturity. She had suffered, this one. And not the suffering of young romance gone awry. This was succussion. Something fundamental. She had been shaken. Eloisa correctly guessed my age at thirty. I incorrectly guessed hers the same. This is the kind of look I'm talking about.

"In Veracruz alone," Eloisa repeated. "Miss my mother in Mexico," Eloisa repeated. "Sola," was the word she used for alone. "Sola," was the word she used for lonely. I offered to deliver a letter for her to Mexico City. She just winced at me. She uttered an unsettled phrase. She never answered. I read in her eyes then the crisis. Something unspeakable had happened to her. She was very sad.

Eloisa wrote a note on a napkin. In perfectly grammatical Spanish she suggested we meet this morning. I agreed. We arranged for 10 a.m. in front of the Carnival stage on the Zócalo. But it did not work out. I never saw her.

Frans from Holland had been traveling in Mexico one month. He was at the end of his trip. I would be traveling in Mexico two months. I was at the beginning of mine. We grinned at one another. We nodded in camaraderie.

"Will you go to Mexico City?"

And it was in our discussion of Mexico City, of my planned ten-day stay there, that my status as a would-be writer was introduced. I explained how I needed to observe specific sites in the city; how the effort of this trip, in fact, might be termed one of research. I explained the improvements this research could mean to my unfinished novel, how already I could see these improvements in my mind's eye. I had well described the settings in general, I told Frans from Holland, but I was finding many details had escaped me. These new details were proving important, enlivening. They seemed to be what gave the setting life, I said. Life. If I could just translate...

Frans was an anthropology student studying agricultural development in Honduras. This side trip to Mexico was the climax of his summer vacation. He had that classic young European traveler look: Tall, thin; hair short, curly, reddish-blond; slight beard; round spectacles; rolling his own cigarettes. We met this morning on the bench where I sat rather anxiously waiting for Eloisa. She was late.

"And will you publish this novel?" he asked.

"I will try. I don't know. For me it is more about the writing than the publishing. Publishing would be nice."

"What kinds of things do you write."

"It is about Mexico and the Southwest United States. I don't like to talk about the content very much. I'm a little superstitious. Have you read any Latin American literature?" He named Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"It's a little like that..." I said, and hesitated, "...just not as intelligent."

Frans inclined his head at my mention of Carlos Fuentes. And I tried but failed to relate how the "magical" part of Magic Realism is its challenge. For it cannot be affected. That's the secret to the style, I proposed, to bring the magic off without affectation, naturally. I wanted to say this was part of Garcia Marquez' genius, but I couldn't remember the Spanish word for genius. I said instead, "That's what makes Garcia Marquez so famous. He does it brilliantly."

And we waited for Eloisa.

Frans remarked that in Honduras there are many small subsistence farmers that work in isolation from one another. He and others were attempting to develop regional umbrellas that would allow the farmers to be more aware of one another, to communicate. This would help them to solve common problems.

And we waited for Eloisa.

"I've heard of people in Honduras setting three appointments just hoping that one would show up," Frans told me. And I repeated a Mexican rule of thumb: "If you want your dinner guests to arrive at nine, you invite them to arrive at eight."

Finally, I gave up.

Frans from Holland invited me take in a soccer match with him at a nearby bar. The final was to be played for some European cup. But I declined. I had to continue on to the Museo de la Ciudad to commence my day's work. We shook hands warmly. We exchanged names for a second time. Until then I had been calling him "Michel" in my head. He promised to buy my unfinished novel.

Geometry grows from the palm trees sheltering this restaurant table. Mist from the fountain before blows across three navy officers who amble along cobblestones of newsprint gray. That dock over there, that beyond the malecon was almost cubist in the dark last night. That was what drew me here last night. Then I noted this little cafe, breathed its redolent smokes. And that sea wall. And those slim fishing vessels. Foghorns, too, in that dark of last night. And that hyaline red of shining beacons. Now it is the cusp of eve. I dine at The Golden Pig.

Before I repaired here to scribble these notes I clipped over to the bus terminal to check tomorrow morning's departure times for Jalapa. Strolling back from the terminal I encountered the water-filter salesman from Galveston and his squat floppy-hatted sidekick. They were walking toward the terminal, about to board a bus for their return trip to Brownsville.

We shook hands all around. We wished each other safe travels.

"My they've got some beautiful women in this country," the floppy-hatted one suddenly exclaimed.

"They sure do," I concurred.

"And a lot of them have green eyes," he said. "Have you noticed that?"

But "No, " I answered. "No, I haven't."

I smiled when I said this. I beamed even. For the comment reminded me of Lucia the French girl.

I looked up the word "genius" in my dictionary. Genialidad, is the translation.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers