I Could Stand Here Forever (55)

line of squiggles, trees and leaves and grackles

If I were told to create a scrapbook of our springtime in Palm Springs I would include a photograph of the full moon setting in the west this morning, its newly-waning glow poised above the mountains just as the light began to find the day. I’d bottle the air I woke up to last night, how it felt to sit in the center of my bed breathing in the scent of lemon blossoms. Wow, I thought. Inside my home! In the middle of the night! What a gift, I thought. I’d add an audio file to the scrapbook of the grackle who’s calling out this morning from the telephone pole. I’m in the courtyard filling the tray feeders, seeds sliding through my fingers as I listen. It’s his second morning here. I’ve never had a grackle near my home before. It feels like wishes coming true. It makes me want to drive down the western coast of mainland Mexico again, south from Topolobampo on a morning in early April, watching the world begin to show itself around me as I drive along the carretera in the last of the dark. I will park my car off the highway beside the tiendita after the toll booth. I will buy warm tortillas and beans and salsa for breakfast. Even before I get out of the car I can hear them, like nothing else I’ve ever heard before. I stand beside the road turning in a long, slow circle. I see big black birds in every tree, lines of trees that stretch along both sides of the carretera, no cars at this hour. I can see the sea off to the right. The air is wet with it, but the morning sun is warm. Sunlight glints off black feathers, making the birds shine between the leaves of the trees. It takes a little time for it to sink in as I stand there, even though I’ve been here before, even though I’ve sought this out. Every tree is filled with grackles, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as I can see along the road. The air is a cacophony of their calls, these wild, wacky, exotic, zany, happy bird noises. They fill me with their exuberance, their vibrant, lusty liveliness. I am in love with these great-tailed grackles. I am in love with Mexico on an April morning by the sea. I could stand here forever.

[Editor’s note: This piece was written in response to a writing prompt from Bryan Chohen’s book Four Seasons of Creative Writing.]

Goodbye Grackle (7)

I hear a bird who is not one of my “regulars,” and I stop sweeping, stand listening in the open doorway of my trailer home. A timid peep comes from the Palo Verde, a verdin, who also doesn’t visit often. But his is not the sound I’ve stopped for. It was someone louder. Someone is calling from the top of the electrical pole across our small road. When I walk outside to look, I can’t see anyone up there. But he keeps talking, so I go get my binoculars. I used to bring them out to the courtyard every morning, to sit beside my notebook, my pens, my small pile of books. Sometimes I would just sit and watch my regulars, my mourning doves, my house finch, my hummingbirds. But they would be handy when someone unusual showed up. It’s a habit I’d like to resurrect. Now I study the top of the pole with the binoculars. It takes a bit of time, but when I see the bird it clicks. He is a great-tailed grackle, one of my favorites. I used to talk to them when I walked in the mornings along the bike path. But now there is no water for them on the golf course, and I don’t hear them anymore. I would say they never come to our trailer park, but there he is. I watch him on the pole, glossy black, big tail waving, intense. I stand listening to his calls. I should have recognized his voice. It is the sound of the Mexican mainland to me, a return to civilization, the exotic calls both welcome and comfort. He flies off heading south. I stand at the edge of my courtyard and watch him fly away. It feels like he came to visit me. Warm tears push at the corners of my eyes. And now the moon is in the south, too, a thin waning sickle in our pale blue sky. I breathe and settle. Goodbye, grackle. Hello, moon.

Fast Food (51)

When I lived in Todos Santos, I would ride the bus to Cabo San Lucas to pick up the mail sent to me from my box in northern California. I would go to the Burger King there, indulge in a Whopper that tasted remarkably like the ones here in the States. (When I was an adolescent, I remember my disappointment when my girlfriend and I found a McDonald’s in Germany but the hamburger there still tasted like a foreign country.) In Cabo San Lucas, hamburger in hand, I’d walk along the harbor, or sit perched on the steps overlooking it, and savor the familiar taste as I chewed. After, I’d go to the Häagen-Dazs store and eat ice cream. Before Cabo San Lucas, I never even knew they had Häagen-Dazs stores. I haven’t seen once since. But the best fast food I had in Mexico was the morning after the cats and I had crossed over to the mainland on the ferry from La Paz. We were stopped in line before a toll booth, and a man came up to my window. He had a small blue and white cooler with him. I don’t remember what he called his wares, but I bought one. The plastic bag was warm, and that surprised me. He was using the cooler to hold in the heat. I paid him, then caught up with the toll booth line, and headed south along the toll road. I remember there were big black birds in the trees lining the highway, their calls an exotic din. I unwrapped the plastic bag, warm skinny rolled tortillas, like taquitos only not fried. They were filled with potatoes and a glimmer of meat, and I remember how tasty they were, how good the freshness and the warmth felt in my mouth. I remember marveling to think that kind of homemade breakfast would find me on the highway like that. I can still see the diffident way the man walked toward my car, the blue and white cooler in his hand. And I can still feel the soft warmth of the tortillas against my fingers while I ate and drove, the air alive in grackles.

Crossing (30)

I am fascinated by the boundaries between us. Borders between countries, lines drawn on rock, boundaries between people, between cultures–arbitrary or innate, they separate us, define us. But boundaries aren’t just barriers. They provide the arena for moving back and forth between the two. They offer the possibility of exchange. I can ride the charter bus from the Coachella Valley to Algodónes. I can walk across the border and be in Mexico. One line, drawn no doubt by nations after war, shouldn’t be able to make so much difference. I’ve studied the border from the bus, the way the fence runs through the desert, a jagged monster, the sprawling remains of extraterrestrials. I can find no clues, no evidence that one side of the fence should be so different from the other.

shot of the border looking toward Mexico from the U.S.

But walk a few yards toward el otro lado, the other side, and you can feel the change. It is of the body, I believe, and not the mind, yet I return to it again and again and again, wanting to make sense of it, trying to figure it out. When I walk across, my body knows I’m in a foreign country. Because I lived there once, it feels like coming home, but this is a comfort of the heart, I think, the soul, and not the body. The body knows this is not the land where it was raised. It’s not geography. My scrutiny of the fence line across the desert between us revealed nothing, only made me marvel, knowing just across it lives another world, a stone’s throw only, two crows flying. The land doesn’t change at the border, but we breathe different air. Spanish diphthongs and mariachi and sidewalks all sing Mexico. Grackles call out in their native tongue. Our bodies know.

Dark As Night (28)

Dark as night the heads of children racing back and forth across the plaza shouting, hair shiny in the early dusk. Dark as night the grackles roosting in the jacarandas of the zocoló. Dark the skin of every single body in the crowded square, except her. Old men, young women, clustered, Spanish a loud, steady murmur, the rapid curve of a summer creek, as steady as the grackles calling from the trees, a cacophony of conversation, a mad frenzied orchestra tuning up. Dark as night the glistening black feathers, dark the skin, dark the grackle silhouettes, dark of every being in the zocoló but her, her white skin a bruised thumb, dumb with her estadounidense self. She would lose her Puerto Rican friend over a careless email about walking through the plaza in that Sunday twilight, the dirty cement, the alien dark-skinned world, her senses dulled by too much beer. Not racism, though, only sinking in a sea of otherness, aching and alone. But now she dreams of it like dessert. She’ll go again, sit nodding, smiling on a bench, tears sliding down her face in the half light. Eyes closed, the symphony surrounds her. The grackles make her heart dance in her chest, bump against her ribs. She holds still in the center of that boisterous foreign world where language is music. Her white skin gets lost in the late dusk until her estadounidense self all but disappears. She sits there while the light slips away, until it feels right to be there in the heart of things, dark as night and plain as day.

[Editor’s note: This piece was begun with a writing prompt from my Monday night writing workshop led by Alaina Bixon. We were told to begin a poem with a cliche. Thank you, Alaina.]

The Music of Mexico (22)

When I flew to Cabo San Lucas for the first time, a kind man took me in his taxi to catch the local bus just outside the airport. I remember a woman smiling at me when I took my seat. The bus driver left the door open as he drove, dirt flying away from the wheels where the side roads reached the paved highway. I was a ringing bell, the loud music and the air and the open desert in the distance resonating through me. I was so filled up I cried. There were times when I lived in Mexico when instead it was all dissonance, when I counted music blasting from six different neighbors in crazed competition, or on the fourteenth day of the town saint’s festival when the rockets exploded nonstop, and after two weeks of it, my endurance was shot. I wanted to scream. But there is a cadence to a country, some etheric weaving of language and land, of custom and spirit, and our bodies grow used to this rhythm. We miss it when it’s gone.

vegetables in wooden bins at Mexican market

When I first came back from Mexico, Sortera’s family produce stand at the farmer’s market here became one of my comforts. I latched onto them as one of the places I could still speak Spanish. I remember when I was still raw, listening to their rapid speech, their lively, happy banter, their laughter, for me the undercurrent to everyday life in Mexico running through it. I would stand there choosing a head of green cabbage, or filling a plastic bag with yellow and red and green bell peppers, and let it all wash over me, both soothed by it and filled with yearning. The ambient sounds were wrong, I know, but if I closed my eyes, I could have been standing at my favorite produce stand in the tianguis in Ajijic, the weight of the cabbage heavy in my hand. The day I spent in Algodones, it was the song of the grackles by the river that swept me back in time. And later in the little town’s zócolo, part park, part plaza, I sat on a white wrought iron bench and let the familiar sounds cradle me, the taco vendors, the music cranked up from someone’s car stereo, the loudspeaker mounted on a passing car announcing some event, the occasional grackle. I closed my eyes and let the music of Mexico wash over me. Now I let the memory carry me back, let it ring my bell.


Fruta Picada (5)

The first time I saw a street vendor selling fresh-cut fruit in Mexico I was wandering through a residential neighborhood in Cabo San Lucas, where a man wielded a small portable set-up, rolling it along the banquetas there, the sidewalks. His work area held whole fruit, cucumbers and pineapple prepped for making slices, his tools, his cutting board, his kitchen towel. It was framed of wood and bordered on three sides by glass. I watched from a small distance, fascinated, while people stopped to make their requests, listening to the rapid-fire Spanish, the different selections. In Ajijic we had a fruit stand every day at the edge of the plaza, and one just east of town on the carretera, the highway. Wednesdays another family always set up shop at the top end of the open-air market, the tianguis. You could find mango and melons, papaya and cucumbers and jicama, sometimes huge bosenberries or bright red strawberries or pineapple, fresh coconut. When there was time, they’d make up clear plastic cupfuls in advance, all cantaloupe or watermelon, or a mixture of berries, the bright colors and succulent fruit a still life on the street. Or you could ask for your own particular combination from the fruit on hand, and they’d prepare it for you. Some vendors use a dry blended chili powder; others offer a chili sauce. Always there is fresh lime and salt. The first time I tasted limon y sal y chile on fruit, it surprised me, all that hot, tangy, salty sweetness. But it grabbed me, too. I loved it. And when I was counting calories, I’d go for the cucumbers.

cut fruit and cucumbers in plastic cups in Mexico

I remember stopping once at the fruit stand on the highway east of town. I was walking home from shopping at the Super Lake grocery store in San Antonio Tlayacapan. I sat on the curb near La Floresta with my large plastic cup of cucumber spears with lime and salt and chili sauce. I savored each long luscious slice, dipping again and again into the spicy red sauce pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic. And our first day on the mainland, the cats and Lolita Roja and I found fruit as if by magic en route to San Blas. The downhill road to the coastal town wound its way through the trees, and at one slow turn three women materialized in front of my car, apparitions with cups of cut fruit in their hands. I got flustered–by the unexpected suddenness, the blind curve, the rapid Spanish, my own ambivalence and groggy brain after a day of driving. I pulled over on the side of the road and chose one container of mixed melons and one of green mango. When I told them I wanted to save the fruit for later, they put the chili powder and the salt in little plastic bags for me, gave me whole limes. We stayed two nights in San Blas, time for the cats to recover from their ferry crossing nightmare. I made three meals of the fruit. It was the perfect thing. I would sit on the veranda outside our room in the warm April breeze eating green mango con limon y sal y chile. I watched the lighthouse revolve, watched our little patch of water move up the estuary, slow and quiet. I listened to the grackles calling from the trees, from the rooftops. I licked lime juice from my fingers and studied the houses down the street and wondered what it might be like to live there.

patch of estuary with lighthouse on the opposite bank

view up San Blas street from veranda

[The photo of the fruit is copyrighted by antefixus21 and can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21728045@N08/2328071644/.]