..First Glyph

March 3
1 p.m.

La Barca, Jalisco; Restaurant Potsdam; and this table cloth is blue and round and I wait now on a cappuccino d'olla. Again I'm afforded a pleasant view of the central plaza, or, la plaza principal, as they call it here. My view would be choice were it not for the sandstone column supporting the arch that supports the roof over this side of the gallery that ensquares the plaza. I cannot see the gazebo or well-groomed trees for that sandstone column. But it is a sandstone column, and so picturesque, and so forgiven. This, I think, is the smallest untouristed town I have yet visited. Tequisquiapan was much smaller, but with tourists.

The bus terminal was empty when I arrived. I was self- conscious treading through it. The city bus was then empty when I boarded. I was self-conscious riding in it. Something about a crowd prevents my feeling conspicuous. My gringo- ness is not the only curiosity in a crowd usually. Other distractions compete. And such relative camouflage reassures one in hinterland Jalisco. Jalisco is the seat of one of Mexico's fiercest and most ruthless drug cartels. So wandering alone, through rarely-traveled parts of the state, has always felt to me uncomfortably daring. What do I not know about this little town? Would I avoid this little town if I knew what I do not know? Could it harbor the warehouses or headquarters for some drug kingpin? This could explain the vacant streets, yes. This could explain the empty plaza. Might I be mistaken for an American drug enforcement agent? Such agents have been discovered and tortured and executed in this state, you know. And why else would I be here, if not on some drug enforcement mission? I mean there is no reason to be in La Barca, Jalisco, to come to La Barca, Jalisco. There is nothing here. Nothing but a storage facility for hundreds of kilos of cocaine, probably, or a safe house for the cartel, a safe house from which that kingpin probably right now surveils me through a pair of binoculars. And then, of course, there are these paranoid questions I am asking myself. For these paranoid questions make me afraid of being misperceived by that kingpin with the binoculars, of being misunderstood by him. And does not my fear of being misperceived make it even more likely that I will be misperceived? Paranoia gives one that suspicious look, you know, that look of having done something untoward, or, of preparing to do something untoward. And so how do I save myself now, now that I have so compromised myself, now that I have put my life in such immediate jeopardy? Simple. I just listen to my friends and folks back home. I listen to southern Kansas philosophy. "You'll get killed in Mexico," southern Kansas philosophy goes. "You'll get killed in Texas," southern Kansas philosophy goes. "You'll get killed in California," they say. Yes, I listen to southern Kansas philosophy. That's what I do. I stay at home. I remain here in southern Kansas where it's cozy and secure. I never leave southern Kansas. I get a job at the local high school teaching Spanish and genuflecting devoutly, once a day, before my misinformed fears, before my xenophobia. That's how I save myself.

I can't distinguish this flavor. Is it amaretto? I don't know what d'olla means. Good cappuccino.

I could note La Barca's warm air, I guess, its dryness, or that tinge of dust in it. But that's about it. I don't really need any descriptions from here. My unfinished novel is more concerned with the countryside between the cities and towns of Jalisco than with the cities and towns themselves. The setting I seek is what you notice in passing, not what you dawdle over, study. The rough rocky scrub of the arid hillsides, for example; that grain elevator over Poncitlán; that church steeple over San Jacinto; or, that string of small agricultural settlements along the highway. Yes, those settlements I could sketch. I resist calling them more than just settlements. Not towns, not hamlets. Just small congregations of dwellings abutting here and there along two lanes of pavement, seeming even to draw their nourishment from those two lanes of pavement. Bare boxy cabins make them up. Red bricks mortared over concrete under tin. I guess I might mention, too, that stench of slag I breathed near Ocotlán. Or that dump burning outside Jamay, its odor of oregano.

Five men circle a restaurant table near me. They converse. A sixth enters now. He wears a guayabera. This is the daily Conference of Potsdam, I guess. I hearken. The Jalisco accent is somewhat distinct from that of Mexico City. Mexico's is a firmer rhythm, a more staccato enunciation. Jalisco's is more mellow, elastic, elided. And this morning I listened to a man confabulating with the bus driver as we roared out of Guadalajara. Both of them, speaking this smoother Spanish, used "Ay" repeatedly instead of "Sí." I paid closer attention to confirm this. It was confirmed. This must be a kind of "yeah," or "yep."

I first really began to speak Spanish here in Jalisco. I chatted daily with the doña of the home I lodged in. I chatted with that old woman as she tottered about the kitchen cobbling together our afternoon meals. I picked up from her that hard "h" sound that some Jalicenses use to pronounce their terminal "r"s, like in "hablar." And then there was Lety, of course. Every night on her porch I practiced with her, conversed. I don't recall any specific linguistic habit I acquired from Lety. But I do remember her fabulous voice. Almost husky, it was. And that crucifix she always wore. And that fiery tongue of hers.

Coconut milk, maybe. Maybe it's coconut milk. I can't figure it out. D'olla. Hmm. I will have to look it up.

I grow weary of these entries. I grow weary of contemplating these entries between the scribbling of these entries. These entries have become the only way I process this journey. I can't help it. As soon as anything happens to me, as soon as I observe anything notable I begin to shape in my mind how I will scribble it down. This pondering, this thinking that has grown up out of these entries, this constant construction and reconstruction of scenes and anti- scenes is taxing. It's making it more and more difficult for me to filter out what is worth scribbling. In the beginning, the filtering was much simpler, even effortless. What was worth scribbling seemed to me quite clear; it was salient. Now I've arrived at a place where I don't feel like I am filtering anything. At least in my mind I am not. My mind just lets it all in; all of it--everything. For example, last evening, after jotting some notes over that coffee in Sanborns, I made a short trip to the Guadalajara house in which I lived for those two months ten years ago. Symbolically, this house is significant to me. It is the place, you might say, where I began this very journey, where I began learning, firsthand and unchaperoned, about Mexico and its language and its dangers and its museums and its women. And it was the place where first I tried to do what I would always try to do thereafter, what I am trying to do even now, what I fret over even now, or buckle under--this immersion in culture, this absorption of culture, and this wringing from it of expression. So I made a journey to this symbolic place. From the centro I started. No map, did I follow. No address, did I go in search of. Only my memory had I as guide. The same trolley I rode then out of the centro that I had always ridden into it ten years ago. The same fountain I arrived at that I had always departed from ten years ago. The same thoroughfare I strode in search of the same street out of which I had always turned ten years ago. And, miraculously, I did not get lost. There hummed the trolley as it skated under its electric lines. There the fountains of Minerva bubbling and hissing. There, Avenida Lopez Mateos. Then the sought street. Then the three neighborhood plazas I always skirted hurrying along that street. And finally the slat glass windows behind which I first suffered turista. Sitting in the driveway even, in front of that sought house, was the same small blue car that had been parked in front of that house ten years ago. I walked up and down the street once or twice then. Back and forth, I paced, in front of the house, surveying it, soaking it up, realizing from the one blue car now sitting in the driveway, from the absence of the small brown one on this Wednesday evening, that probably the anciano who had tended me through that first sickness was now dead, that probably his wife, that kind old doña who had set our meals every afternoon at 2 p.m., who had given me my Jalisco way of pronouncing terminal 'r's, was probably dead, and that probably their one-legged son now managed the household. The blue car had been his, you know, the son's. And so there I was stewing, pacing back and forth in front of this house, remembering the garden courtyard behind where the old man would peruse his newspapers and grin his lipless grin at this eager young American student. And I was thinking all of this in terms of this entry, in terms of how I would scribble it down here when I returned to my hotel room, or when I arrived here at this restaurant in La Barca. I was shaping it already in my head, you know, into exactly the form it would take in words. But then, as I departed the house, as I soaked up that last impression of this revisit, as I started back down that street of the three small plazas, my massaging of this entry continued, or, really, the reconstructions of it began. For I had strode along that street almost every day for two months when I was twenty. And every one of those days I had noted in the third of the three small neighborhood plazas a bust of Hector Berlioz. Yes, Berlioz. I recalled that bust now. I would have to work that bust into this entry. It was Berlioz after all. A great genius. And then, by some cockeyed string of associations, I remembered laundering my clothes in a small launderette behind that Guadalajara house, in a launderette on Calle Nikolai Gogol. Yes, I did my laundry on a calle named for Gogol. And then, again semi-logically, I recalled that in my hotel lobby hangs a bad reproduction of Van Gogh's Irises. Ah ha! The white of the flowers is too yellow, you know. I would have to mention this too, you know. Van Gogh I would have to mention, and Gogol and Berlioz. And then, from these three allusions, you know, from Berlioz and Gogol and Van Gogh I could spring into some new contemplation of art, into some new perspective on this perplexing enigma, this mystery I chase. But I became weary suddenly; weary of how constantly there are these things to describe and address; and how constantly there are these interesting ways of describing and addressing them. And I was, I am, rather, so weary of this that I've stopped even taking notes on what I might scribble about later. It's too much. I've already too much to scribble about. This form was unfamiliar to me in the beginning and so an automatic filter. It is so familiar to me now though that it has the opposite affect. A canoe, it is, with a hole in its bow. And it's flooding. A canoe, it is, and I can't seem to climb out of it. And it's flooding. I feel like I'm sinking, drowning in a million impulses, in a whirlpool of stimuli, in life unstoppered. I just crave to erase it all now. To go blank. To bank the canoe. To climb out of the canoe. To plod some dry path of thoughtlessness. I will seek something else to address now, maybe. Yes, some relief. I will talk about Romeo and Juliet now, maybe. Yes, relief. About how that movie I watched on that bus yesterday portrayed the two protagonists as Christ figures. About how they were so willing to sacrifice their families' wishes to their love. About how they were so willing to sacrifice their lives to their love. About how the filmmaker made this so clear, this parallel with Christ. Images of Christ, he used so clearly. Big giant images of Christ. But I read the play so differently. To me it was an ultimate love clashing with an ultimate hate. But maybe I didn't read the play so differently. Maybe this is the same reading. Maybe Christ is an ultimate love clashing with an ultimate hate. But I think I am going to stop now. I really need to stop now because I feel like I am not feeling so well. I feel like something is coming loose in me, maybe, like I am approaching the abyss, maybe. There sits a kid's penny ride in front of this restaurant, you know. I sit drinking from a mysterious coffee, a coffee tasting maybe of horchata, and this penny ride sits there in front of me. About every ninety seconds or so the penny ride moves back and forth. It is a large pink Bugs Bunny on a big blue space rocket. The Looney Tunes theme erupts when it moves. And Al otro lado del sol. The evil rich strongman. Yes. The evil rich strongman controls everyone's life, you know. The evil rich strongman does all he can to confuse and subvert the high ambitions and true love of the two younger characters--of the beautiful young mother, of the brave idealist immigrant. He does this because of his lust for the beautiful young mother. A grave phlegmatic father figure inhabits the setting of that telenovela. A solicitous nurturing mother figure inhabits the setting of that telenovela. A henchman, too. Border patrol agents. A drunkard brother. But it is the evil rich strongman. It is the evil rich strongman that is the story. He is the whole story. It's all about him even though it does not seem to be about him, even though the writers of that telenovela probably do not even realize it is all about him. I have lost all taste for that telenovela. All taste. This is the last I will mention of it--ever. If I could vomit it up, I would. I see now the difference. Al otro lado del sol is about the evil rich strongman, you know. Romeo and Juliet is about pure young love, you know. One is an offering laid at the altar of money. The other is an offering laid at the altar of God. This is all I can say. I can put it no other way at present. No other way. I will declaim to my father: "The trip was a success! I am more determined than ever to see my unfinished novel through!" I hear people ask: "Do you speak English?" "Are you traveling alone?" And my grandmother's western Kansas accent yesterday. I heard it. I called her from a Guadalajara plaza by pay telephone. "That's just fah-een, Johnny. Glad to hee-er yer voice." And suddenly, you know, even my digressions unhinge. But suddenly now they too find their place. Even my digressions cannot escape this way that I'm thinking. This thinking that won't desist.


John Dishwasher

The Gods of Our Fathers