Day of the Dead

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Recently we celebrated the Day of the Dead, el Dia de los Muertos. As the shadows over Jocotepec lengthened with coming night, Vi and I went up on the rooftop patio. She began setting up the altar to the dead, los antepasados. It was not elaborate. She lit three candles, which proved difficult in the wind, but she found some old lantern glasses that made it work. In front, a bunch of bright orange flowers and, on a low table, a row of solid sugar skulls, calaveras, one for each of us. We would be four.

Mexicans of any schooling take the Day of the Dead more seriously than Americans do Halloween, but no more so, I suppose, than the Roman senate took Apollo. Yet death and the dead have more immediacy here than in a country which carefully ignores both. Mexicans have not persuaded themselves that there is no mystery in existence. Besides, tradition is tradition.

Jim arrived from Ajijic. Jim is a friend from lives now remote, once a door gunner in choppers in Asia and then a photojournalist in curious places. Very curious, sometimes. Over the years we have bumped into each other here and there and known many of the same madmen, derelicts, geniuses and human oddities. A couple of months ago he came to visit me in Joco. On the eighth day he rented a house. I guess Mexico suited him.

Vi brought up a sufficiency of Padre Kino red and put it on the small metal table. Jim pulled out a pair of good Cuban cigars. Mexico, thank god, does not concern itself with Washington’s bruised vanities. My stepdaughter Natalia joined us. She is very nearly fifteen years old. For some reason she likes Jim. She is usually quiet with strangers, remorselessly observant, and not readily impressed. I assure her that he is shockingly disreputable, but she pays no attention.

High in a cloudless sky a full moon or nearly so shed a clear silver light that cast sharp moon shadows and the wind whipped chill around us, making the candles flicker in their glass shelters. To the south beyond the town the lake glowed in what looked like mist rising from a sea of mercury. To the north, very near, the mountains loomed dark and massive in the night. Our house really is on their lower slope. Dogs barked in the distance. A couple of kids clopped by on horseback, chattering.

“Life is good,” Jim said in tones of deep satisfaction. Sometimes, if only by inadvertence, it is. This was one of them.

We talked as men will who have lived unreasonably. A misspent life is a life best spent. At least you have stories. Jim told of having met a chopper pilot somewhere in the East by the name of Six-Pack Muldoon. I think it was Muldoon. He was called Six-Pack because he never flew without beer in the cockpit. Jim asked him why. Well, said Six-Pack, in thirty years in helicopters he had only crashed twice, and both times he was sober. He wasn’t going to risk it again.

Vi brought tostadas and mole, new to Jim. They went over well. He asserts that he has never had a bad meal in Mexico. The wind picked up and the little sugar skulls grinned at us in wobbling candle light. Our dog Pelusa (“Fuzz”) came to see whether there might be a bit of tostada for her. There was. The girls listened to practice their English, with me translating important bits.

We had hung a rug to dry on the railing around the mirador. Natalia laid it out, sequestered one of the candles, and lay down to read under the moon. Jim asked her what the book was. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in translation. She has been reading the plays since she was, I think, eleven. She is not aware that reading Shakespeare is generally a source of intellectual pretension, of which she has none. She just likes William’s writing. I think he would have found this adequate.

She is the best student in her school. If she were my biological daughter, I would be insupportably proud of me. As it is, I have to settle for being insupportably proud of her. Oh well.

Living with the pair of Mexican females is half puzzle and half revelation. Americans have grown rich and specialized. We hire people to do things. Mexicans of fairly poor family do not readily hire plumbers, carpenters, or much of anyone else. The money isn’t there. Instead they rely on themselves.

I have seen Violeta and Natalia pour a concrete floor, hang a door, and wire a garage. The key is that nothing intimidates them. Natalia’s response to my purchase of a new Toyota was to sit in it for an hour with the manual, to see whether the buttons worked. Once, when I was in China or maybe somewhere else, they wanted to install a wireless card in a computer. Neither had seen a computer with the back off. Natalia is a pretty fair geekess, but that’s software. They opened the case. Where else would a card go? Hmm, these things look like the wireless card and they fit in these slots, and here’s another slot, so it follows that….bingo, done. I expect that they could do open-heart surgery, figuring it out as they went. ""See, Mama, this connects to…."

Americans, here and elsewhere, usually regard Mexicans with unconscious condescension as a race of maids and gardeners. In the local English-language fish-wrapper, the Ojo del Lago, one finds endless articles, apparently written by middle-schoolers, about how the writers just love the culture and why, they just had some wonderful Mexican experience only the other day and just respect Mexico sooo much; the tone reminds me of admiration of a collie’s adroitness with a Frisbee. They do not know that they are doing this. The Mexicans regard the Americans as helpless greyhairs who always seem lost, and walk with the body language of a mouse in a herpetarium; Mexicans do not know that many of the gringos have had lives and know things and were not always old and out of their element. It is an orgy of mutual underestimation.

A burro eee-honked nearby. The Padre Kino ran low and the cigars burned down toward fingers. I wondered whether it was bad form to hold a Cuban cigar in a roach clip. The town was darker now, lights going out. Dogs barked to each other in the distance. I tried to imagine what they were saying. Natalia turned in. The three adults sat for a long time, quiet now, watching the moonlight. There are more things in heaven and earth, someone said. Maybe he was on to something.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.

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