WILD RIVER BOOKS
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines:
Isidro Tumax paints the walls of Tlaxcala. He rides to work on a pedal tricycle that appears to be put together backwards: two knee-high spoked balloon tires in front connected by a four-foot axle, the seat over a single tire in the rear. A wire-frame rectangular basket sits over the front tires, filled with the colors he will mix: an eight-liter plastic container– la primaria– the basic ochre red; four liters of la primaria heated until it deoxidizes and assumes a deeper, darker hue, like drying blood; four more liters of earthy brown ochre mined from manganese-tinted clay beds. Two larger pails are empty, for water and mixing. His brushes stand upright on their hardwood handles, peering over the edge of a bucket. They bristle with age, scraggly long hog-hair filaments bound by a steel ferrule. He has a dozen or so, from three fingers to an outstretched hand in width, tips styled for the small corners and reaches, the rounded pillars and the broad swaths of open wall. They were bequeathed by his father, also a painter of walls.
Tlaxcala, the Red City. City of ochres, mined from the silica sediment of iron-oxided clay buried in the bogs and swamps and shallow lakes fed by rivers tumbling out of the central Mexican highlands. Ochres: the red and brown palette of the stone-age artists who painted Blombos Cave in South Africa 75,000 years ago, the Cro-Magnon colors in the caves of Lascaux, the palette of Celts and Picts and Goths, the Romans and Egyptians, the Newfoundlanders, the Chumash of California. The ochred pots and monuments and walls and codices of the Incas, Mayas, Olmecs, Toltecs and Mixeca. Ochre: the first pigment.
No wall is the same, the way it responds to the paint. The angle of the sun, the persistence of clouds, presence of light and shade, the smoothness or roughness of the stucco, the subtle reflections of other walls and windows on the street, whether the street is made of light granite blocks or asphalt—all these conditions, these forces, alter the color of the paint, demand that each paint be customized to fit the wall. Isidrio’s wall this week is on Calle Lardizábal, across the street from the parroquia, the parish Church of San José. The church walls are deep ochre yellow, from another river bed higher up in the altiplano, freer of the irons and manganese that redden and darken the pigment. This yellow, facing north, and in the shade except late afternoons during the summer, will add timbre to the red on Isidrio’s wall across the street. That wall faces south, and as the sun moves across the valley over the dome of the parroquia, Isidro has two shade-free drying times to appraise his tint, morning and afternoon. Yesterday he hosed down the wall and scoured it with a thick bristled brush. Then he painted the wall with an undercoat of commercial alabaster white bought from the Comex paint store. The canvas is ready. He starts with la primaria, to get his baseline. The basic color s always too red and lacking in translucency, but from there he will know where to go, titrating the shade with other tints and dilutions of water. He dips his widest brush into the container, wipes the excess paint on the edge, and paints a rectangular swatch in the middle of the wall, more or less a square meter. He stands back to gauge the depth of his application, returns to the wall and touches up a couple of thin spots, stands back. He sits on a bench across the street, in the shade along the wall of the church,lights up a Delicado (“The cigarette for tough machos,”) crosses his knees, and watches as his red ochre begins to dry. He will not know its true hue for three hours.
On this Tuesday morning a gringo, fortyish, in Levi’s and a tee shirt, walks around the corner from Calle 20 de Noviembre, wipes the sun off of his forehead, and sits next to Isidro on the shady bench along the church wall. Tall, with a gait like an arthritic horse and a neglected pointy beard, the stranger reminds Isidro of a pale Don Quixote. The stranger looks at the ochre red swatch, glances at the buckets and brushes, at the red paint on Isidro’s hands. He nods at the swatch, then nods at Isidro as if he’s waiting for him to finish the wall. Isidro offers the stranger a Delicado; he declines.
There are few foreigners in Tlaxcala, it’s not on the tourist trail. Occasional norteamericanos wander in to buy Talavera pottery and visit revolutionary sites in Puebla, then head down to Cancun. They go to the zócalo, the main plaza blooming in bougainvillea, have a coffee at an open air table in Los Portales, watch the locals promenade, take a few photos, and disappear. Matthew Dawson, sitting in the shade next to Isidro Tumax, was such a visitor eighteen years ago, when he was twenty-two, still a colt. He had just graduated from art school and was traveling with Alice McKinley, who loved archeology and grew up among the corn rows of Iowa, whom he had met a month before in a hostel in Oaxaca. At first they were just fellow travelers heading north, enjoying being on the road. Looking back, they decided that they had fallen in love in Tlaxcala, where they walked down from the bus station and sipped coffee in Los Portales, then hiked up to the gold ornamented Basilica of Ocotlán, built on the spot where the Virgin had visited a shepherd 450 years ago. That evening they met a local photographer who had set up his portable studio in front of the bullring. The photographer dressed Matthew in a thick black mustache, a red bandanna around his neck, a sombrero and revolutionary rifle with a bandolier angled across his chest. He then outfitted Alice in black braids, a shawl and a machete. The photographer said I name you Mateo and Alicia, honorary compañeros of Emiliano Zapata, and clicked his Polaroid. The following morning they took a trip an hour outside of town through the high desert to the Olmec ruins of Cacaxtla. Alice sat in front of the largest murals discovered in the New World, depicting great battles between the Jaguar and Bird clans, sacrifices, pastoral market scenes, maize that reminded her of Iowa. Fifteen hundred year old pigments, perfectly preserved ochre reds and browns, indigo blues distilled from the leaves of the añil plant. The fluent one in Spanish, Matthew translated the museum pamphlet. Pintura mural, he said, can be translated as mural painting or wall painting. Mural: wall. Of course. His linguistic discovery made him smile, which in turn made Alice smile. Please, can we stay one more hour? she asked. They stayed three.
Back in Tlaxcala, they bought pomegranates under an awning in the tianguis, the open-air market north of Calle Alonso Escalona, and carried them back to the Hotel Alifer. As the bells of the parroquiarang the call to vespers and the sun and temperature descended, they undressed, split the blood red fruit open and took turns covering each other in glistening succulent seeds. Then removed them, one by one, from each other’s curves and crevices with their lips and tongues.
Pomegranate: pomum granatus, the seedy apple. First harvested four thousand years ago by Persians, who so believed in the power of the crimson fruit to make them invincible that when Xerxes led his armies against the Greeks they removed the metal lances from their spears and tipped them with pomegranates. The Egyptians filled their tombs with the thick-skinned fruits, insurance for life after death. Muhammad promised peace to whomever ate the pomegranate, and in Spain the Muslims built the Alhambra overlooking their greatest city—Granada—named after the ruby-pearled orb, and sowed their seeds to make great orchards. Jews believed that each sacred pomegranate held exactly 613 seeds, the number of commandments in the Torah. Christians embraced its tender sweetness as a symbol of their Virgin, her son’s resurrection, everlasting life, plentitude, hope.
Sitting on the bench, Matthew turns to Isidro and asks an artist’s question: Esta pintura ¿es especial?– Is there something special about this paint?
Isidro looks at the stranger, trying to figure out if it is a serious question or just gringo small talk with the locals. ¿Especial? he asks.
Sí, para ti–Yes, special to you.
Isidro’s eyes meet Matthew’s for a blink, wander down the street, linger there for twenty seconds, and return to the wall. This paint has been in my family for many generations, he says. He caresses his brush and returns it to its container.
Matthew waits for more. Apparently the conversation has ended.
This paint has been in my family for many generations. A long answer from a man who does not elaborate. Isidro hopes that the gringo—gringos like to engage in long conversations—did not find his answer curt or offensive. Isidro in fact likes this Don Quixote de El Norte. Not because of his questions, but because of the way he sits and looks at the wall. If Isidro talked about such things, he would not talk about paint. He would say to the stranger staring at his wall allow me to tell you about my ancestors, the Tlaxcaltecas, great warriors who, five hundred years ago, were defeated–but not humiliated– by Hernán Cortés, the fire-breathing horseman from Spain. That great snow-capped volcano overlooking our city is La Malinche, traitorous mistress of the conquistador Cortés, who negotiated the alliance of the Tlaxcaltecas with her paramour. Then she joined him on his march to Tenochtitlan, the Azteca capitol of lakes and flowers. The great Moctezuma invited them to a feast at his palace, where they smoked tobacco tubes, dined on exotic animals and drank xocolatl, the chocolate and honey beverage of warriors and nobles. As the drowsy Aztecas slept, the armies of Hernán and Malinche laid siege to the city. A story of love? Of treachery? Every day she looks down upon Tlaxcala, demanding that we choose: the Spanish Conquistadores and her lover Hernán, or the blood-letting Aztecas and their leader Moctezuma.
There is more, if Isidro were to elaborate. He would tell the story of Xicotancatl, whose statue occupies the small plaza off the zócalo. Xicotancatl, the Tlaxcaltecan cacique who saw the future and knew that the men astride monstrous four-legged beasts were greater enemies than the Aztecas. He refused to honor the alliance with the Spaniards and was hanged. Listen, can you hear? That’s Malinche and Xicotancatl, shouting at each other over the Convent of San Francisco and the bullring, how their arguments reverberate in the souls of all Mexicans who carry the genes of the conquerors and the conquered.
Isidro turns to Matthew. Tlaxcala Red is the blood of my ancestors, he says. It is in my veins. That’s all I can tell you. I just paint.
An awkwardness descends upon the two men, strangers who have just had an intimate conversation. Isidro scrutinizes his cigarette, flicks it on the granite-blocked street, steps on it and slowly rotates his sandal. Matthew looks at his watch as if he has to be somewhere.
Spain’s sailors, preoccupied with scurvy before conquest, carried barrels of pomegranates in their holds, leathery urns of Vitamin C. The Jesuit priests who followed Cortés and set up shop in Tlaxcala, preoccupied with the conquest of souls, planted the holy red fruit on the grounds of the New World’s first monastery and harvested great orchards in their missions from Veracruz to Santa Barbara. A secret the holy priests kept from the heathen Tlaxcaltecans, discovered by Matthew and Alice in that early evening sunlight of the Alifer Hotel: the forbidden fruit plucked from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the apple of Adam and Eve, was a pomum granatus. Their passion and succulent pleasure– knowing each other—was a gift of the crimson seedy apple.
Eighteen years ago Matthew and Alice, AKA Mateo y Alicia, returned from Tlaxcala to hishometown of Denver to live together and marry. The granada, the pomegranate, fruit of fertility and plentitude, worked its magic, and their love soon begat Jason and then Dawn, now fifteen and thirteen, a house in the foothills of the Rockies, hiking and skiing, a plot in the local community garden. Matthew ran productivity reports for an HMO and painted landscapes which he gave to friends and exhibited at outdoor art shows. Alice taught history and archeology at an alternative school.
At thirty-five Matthew began to awaken sensing a coarse rasping in his ear, a slight stench of carnivorous breath. In the pre-dawn darkness he would go to the den and turn on an old black and white movie on the TV, afraid to return to sleep. One morning he tried to get out of bed and could not. He was paralyzed, unable to talk when Alice came in to tell him he had overslept. He stared away from her at the wall, tears running into his ear.
Finally, the terror Matthew had awaited since a teen had caught him: the monster that had devoured his mother and his mother’s mother had found his genetic scent and tracked him down. Visits to Foothills Psychiatric Hospital and the new generation of antidepressants and anxiolytics in various combinations and doses got him back on his feet. But after a month or two the monster would corner him again. Doses were upped, new drugs were added, therapists interceded. After four hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy was recommended. The psychiatrist, whom the other inpatients affectionately called Dr. Shock, reassured Matthew that the new ECT was not like his mother had in the old days, with bruises from the straps and gran mal seizures. The electricity stabilized him, and he had managed to stay out of the hospital for more than a year. Matthew returned to programming his utilization reports and to sitting at the dinner table with his family. He hadn’t painted in four years, wasn’t sure where his paints and brushes were.
Matthew was able to function, as the psychiatrist said with a sense of triumph; but he floated through the world untethered. Alice desperately looked for a connection, any connection; but Matthew’s lines were down, not even a dial tone. His silences grew as if his battery were dying, his voice less and less audible and frequent, reduced to nods and grunts of recognition when spoken to, an occasional OK I guess when asked how his day went, a mumbled request that the children turn down the TV. Finally, after five years, Alice could no longer bear the silences. She asked Matthew to move out. He left without protest or feeling, as the children stayed upstairs and Alice closed the door, her turn for tears. He was thirty-nine.
Matthew rented an apartment close to work. Running reports did not demand affect or creativity. He nodded to colleagues in the cafeteria and ran his reports on time. On Wednesdays he had awkward dinners with his family. So, yes, he functioned. He got by.
Isidro has a routine. He watches the paint swatch dry for an hour, measuring the change of light as the color slowly bakes in the overhead sun. Then he walks across the tree-shadedzócalo to the Plaza of Xicotancatl, brushes the foot of the warrior’s statue with his hand and sits on a stool at the kiosk that sells crepes. He orders two crepes filled with the corn fungushuitlacoche, cooked with garlic and peppers. Corridos play on the boom box, ballads of revolutionary heroes mixed with songs of the new outlaws who traffic in drugs. He has a long chat with Don Artemis, the owner and cook of the kiosk, about elections, fútbol, the card for the upcoming bullfights. They are quite the pair: Isidro, rotund, with the eyebrows of a goat, generous teeth and short legs, who chooses his words one by one as if they were candy in a chocolate box; and Don Artemis, el gallo flaco—the skinny rooster– dodging in and out, clucking like a two-stroke scooter engine.
Y ¿tu hijo? How’s it going with your son? asks Don Artemis. Two months now, and nothing, says Isidro. Isidro’s only son, Isidro Junior, is almost twenty-five. Junior, married and the father of Sara and Carlito, left for El Norte several weeks ago. His father and his uncle Rubén loaned him the three thousand dollars to pay the coyote to take him over. Six months of painting walls in Tlaxcala, Puebla, Huamantla and Santa Ana, beneath the watchful snow-capped eyes of La Malinche, so Junior could seek his fortune in El Dorado. Junior called two months ago from Agua Prieta, somewhere on the Border—the next day he was crossing over with eight other men, two women and the guide. Their plan was to hike through the desert and over the Chiricahua Mountains, with their ochre-tinted sandstone. No, he did not know the name of the desert, all deserts are the same, no? Yes, the coyoteseemed to know what he was doing; yes, he was carrying enough water; yes, he felt strong, he had two days of rest in a dormitory on the Mexican side of la línea run by a Señora Gómez before starting out; yes, he would call as soon as he arrived at the safe house in Tucson, which he pronounced Took-son. It should take four or five days.
Two months now, and no word.
Don Artemis, the philosophical one, swears at los demonios chingados. Those fucking devils seduce our children and shatter our families. Tired of being poor? When’s the last time you had a job? Where’s your future in Mexico? Nothing! Come to El Norte! They turn our sons into an endless line of worker ants, marching into the desert in search of an oasis. Across that line there is no oasis, there is only loneliness. The demons are in control, and we wait and pray, wait and pray.
He hands Isidro a glass of hibiscus tea. Isidro tilts the glass and feels the cool red liquid flow through the spaces between his teeth.
How many liters of water, he wonders, does one need to cross the desert?
Isidro returns to his bench. The paint has a slight glimmer in spots, not yet completely dry. He pulls aDelicado from his shirt pocket, strikes a match on the pavement, inhales and feels the smoke filling his lungs. He crosses his legs, and waits one more hour. Not right. Not yet. But close. Maybe tomorrow.
Isidro coasts downhill on his tricycle to his house along the flats of the Río Zahupan. At the dinner table sit his wife Sarbelia, Antonia, the wife of his son, and his two grandchildren, Sara and Carlito. An invisible signal from Isidro, and they all say Gracias Señor and cross themselves. Sarbelia fills each bowl with menudo, the soul-soothing soup of beef stomach, chiles, limes, onions and cilantro. Warm tortillas are passed around. Usually the evening meal is a quiet affair, a family of few words. But tonight Carlito is animated with news: at school they chose the cast to be in the play about Los Niños Héroes, the six heroic boys who died in the Battle of Chapultepec defending their country in the Mexican-American War. Their names are…? asks Isidro, like a Sunday school teacher requesting a litany of the saints. Carlito names the six on his fingers, poom, poom, poom. I am Vicente Suárez—he was the youngest. Well, Vicente, says Antonia, your first revolutionary task is to help your sister clear the table. Sara shouts ¡Viva la revolución! Isidro smiles. As he leaves the dining room, he touches his fingers to his lips, then to the forehead of Junior’s photo on the wall.
The dishes are washed, the sun goes down, the children bathed and put to bed. Isidro goes out to the shed where he keeps his tricycle, strikes a match on the adobe brick, one more Delicado before watching fútbol on television. The cicadas in the cottonwood trees mock him, how many sons of Tlaxcala return from El Norte? How many! Four generations of painters have lived in this house. It has occurred to Isidro more than once that he may be the last. He soaks his brushes and shakes the cool water from the bristles with snaps of the handle. Then he preens them between his fingers, the way a bird beaks its feathers before roosting.
Matthew’s weekends were the hardest, facing the workless void. One Friday after work he looked around his apartment and decided that a good mobilizing strategy (as his new therapist called it) would be to paint his kitchen. Saturday morning he washed down the walls with Mr. Clean and masked the windows. After lunch he drove down to the Benjamin Moore Paints store in Denver. He looked at the bank of color swatch cards on the wall and felt overwhelmed by the choices. Like going to a library without a book in mind, or to a video store hoping a movie would jump out at him, he began to panic as he stared at all the possibilities. On the left edge of the swatch bank he noticed dozens of hues of gray. He read them: Amherst Gray, Wolf Gray, Gray Mirage, November Rain, Black Bean Soup, Iced Slate, Steel Wool, Anthracite Gray, Shadow Gray, Coastal Fog. He read on: Raccoon Fur (textured?), Deep Space, Steep Cliff Gray, Anonymous, Gauntlet Gray, Aloof Gray, Twilight Zone, Thundercloud Gray, Dream Catcher (doesn’t sound gray at all), Wrought Iron, Chilly Morning, Ocean Air, Abyss. Abyss? Where did they get these names? Wouldn’t it be a tip-off to call the Mental Health Emergency Unit if someone came in and bought five gallons of Abyss? Hello, 911, we’ve got a situation down here at the paint store.
Somehow this made him laugh (an internal laugh, deeper than a repressed chuckle, not audible to other customers.) He pulled out the various swatches of grays, put them in the pocket of his Pendleton shirt and went home. His kitchen redecoration consisted of neatly taping twelve swatches on the wall over the dining table, each with five shades of gray. Four swatches over, and three down, sixty shades of gray in all. He re-arranged them to create a sense of movement, a shift of tones, left to right, top to bottom. A modernist painting. He sipped his cup of fresh-ground coffee and admired his work.
On Tuesday Matthew drove across town to see his therapist and told her how pleased he had been to discover he could laugh. And make art. He pulled the swatches from his pocket and reviewed the week’s grays with her. Sunday was hard, as they always are: in the morning I woke up in a Coastal Fog, void of feelings like Iced Slate, could not imagine getting out of bed and climbing a Steep Cliff,and ran through the day like it was a Gauntlet. Monday was better, because I was going to work: I woke up Aloof, faced a Cloudy Day and Chilly Morning, went to work feeling Anonymous, then felt the clean Ocean Air as I ran my first reports. At night I went home, turned on the TV, and entered theTwilight Zone as I watched the Broncos beat the Colts. You’re making this up, said the therapist, let me see those swatches, and he handed them over. They’ve got some real poets in the paint shop, she said. They both laughed. No Abyss? asked the therapist. He nodded. Good, she said.
After working at the HMO for so long Matthew had a month’s vacation. Oh, where are you going? his supervisor asked as she signed his timesheet request. Mexico. Mexico? Acapulco? Cancun? No, he said, but she didn’t notice. Enjoy, said the supervisor.
When does a father start to worry? Isidro’s son is very careful, very responsible, he would not get caught in a bad situation. But then, too many stories of Mexicanos from Puebla and Cholula disappearing into the forbidden desert. Maybe he is still in the safe house, too risky to call. He said the coyote seemed to be in control. Perhaps he is in detention and cannot call from the deportation center. He promised to come home if things got dangerous. Perhaps he was caught at the border and turned back, and has moved west twenty miles to try again. Maybe this has happened several times. But then he would call to say he was taking the bus home, or going over one more time. When does a father start to worry?
Isidro is grateful for his wall, its ability to demand his attention, to focus his thoughts on color and not on waves of heat rising over desert sand. He adds some of the darker ochre to his red base and dilutes the new sample with water. He paints a swatch at eye level, where it will be in the full sun as soon as it rises over the chapel of the parroquia. Then he sits on the bench and closes his eyes.
Red ochre, the red of fire, strength, courage, invulnerability. The color of birth and life, of the butcher and the battlefield, of hope and despair. Brown ochre, lighter than umber, darker than sienna: the color of the earth, of all things natural, of adobe and deserts, the brown skin of our tribes. Tlaxcala red: the perfect mix of ochres, red and brown. Of passion and vengeance and rage and love, glory and loss, succor and treachery. Of hope and possibility.
Matthew is not sure why he has returned to Tlaxcala. His expectations seem modest, but feel miraculous: he wants to get up in the morning without making a survival list of “things to do” that will keep his heart pumping until bedtime. How about a list of things that will bring him pleasure? Pleasure, perhaps, is asking too much. He’s not looking for ecstasy or epiphany, just a day void of going through the motions. Could he dare look for memories, yet avoid the pathetic trap of nostalgia? What memories? Of possibility? Anticipation? Love? Could he feel grief? Yes, grief and tears would be welcome. Any emotion to jump-start his flat-lined feelings. Could he find himself in a moment he would want to paint? He had found that here, once, without looking. What if he finds nothing?
Matthew’s bus from Mexico City arrives at the Tlaxcala terminal at 10:30 in the morning. He walks down to Los Portales and orders a cup of café con leche and sweet rolls. He sits in the shade and watches a pack of middle-aged women in multicolored toreadors doing morning exercises in front of the bandbox, dancing to bachata music under the direction of a spandex-clad choreographer. One two three four kick to the left, ladies, three four, now turn, now to the right and back again…stay with me ladies! The early morning smell of the steamy coffee is familiar and welcoming, but bachata in thezócalo? Even Tlaxcala changes. After breakfast he sets out to rent a room in the Hotel Alifer. He becomes disoriented, by time or by all of the electricity that has been pumped through his brain. Is the hotel up the hill, or down past the Palace of the Governor? He looks both ways, then asks a passer-by, Hotel Alifer? The old man points up the hill, up Calle José María Morelos, past the State Government Offices. Gracias. Of course. He’s getting it now. He rents a room facing west, overlooking the city, with its churches, plazas, and bachata booming from the bandbox. Is this the same room he and Alice had rented twenty years ago? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Isidro carries a notebook, fifty or so unlined white pages, twelve centimeters by sixteen, with a thick cardboard black cover: his notations for the walls he has painted. The wall in front of the….office on ….street; the back wall of the …overlooking the…. For each wall he paints, he notes the direction the wall faces, its area, the colors of surrounding walls, the color and type of sidewalk or street, how the sun falls on the wall throughout the day. He records the formulas for each batch he produces as his wall approaches the true Tlaxcala red. With a red pencil he encircles the final formula, the formula he uses before moving on to another wall. Almost one hundred such notebooks rest on a shelf in his house, next to the altar with family photos, votive candles and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Each volume has the year written on the outside. Some earlier years have two volumes; in recent years the volumes are half-filled. The history of four generations.
After enslaving the tribes of Mexico, the Christians plundered their temples for gold and jewels. They discovered thousands of books, folded screens made of deer skin and fig bark, filled with intricately painted images read right to left. The heathen literature, un-decipherable, yet considered idolatrous, was an affront to the god of the conquerors and had to be destroyed. The books were piled to great heights in the squares of cities. As they burned, red, yellow and deep brown smoke escaped, hung over the square, and was carried away by the afternoon winds. The stories of great gods and leaders, conquests, laws of commerce and justice, implements of war and peace, directions for planting crops and making ceremonial liquors, revelations of the arcs of stars and equinoxes, the holy days of the 260 day calendar—disappeared. Thirteen codices survived, and were carried back as gifts to the priests and nobles of Europe.
The Codices of the Family of Isidro Tumax rest in a safe place next to the altar.
Matthew does not sleep his first night in Tlaxcala. Room 25 of the Hotel Alifer is filled with aged and familiar ghosts. He did not come to Tlaxcala in search of ghosts, but to escape them. Tlaxcala is a place you will feel alive again. What was he thinking? Mobilize. Mobilize.Tuesday, four a.m., he pulls his gaze from the cracks in the ceiling, wills himself upright, finds the shower, dresses. Don’t lay down. He walks down the hill to the zócalo and sits on a bench with his suitcase for two hours. People begin to walk by, doors open for business. He checks into the Hotel Posada San Francisco. All right. Yes. Things will be all right. Keep moving. Yes. He will go for a walk. After perusing some of the shops and reading the local newspaper he is tired. He stops to rest on a bench on Calle Lardizábal, in the shade of the parroquia, where he watches a painter at work on his wall. The painter offers him a cigarette.
Thursday, Isidro the painter’s fourth day of testing his palette, his hues and tones getting closer to true Tlaxcala Red. Like tuning a guitar with its peg, first a bit sharp, then a little flat, then back to sharp, each turn getting closer to the perfect pitch. Titrating up, titrating down. This morning he backs off one-quarter ladle on the manganese-infused ocher, adds a half ladle of de-oxidized ochre, increases the dilution by one-eighth liter, lays down his seventh swatch, writes down his latest formula in his black notebook, sits on the bench in the shade facing his wall, and lights up. Assured that his paint is drying evenly, he walks over to the Plaza de Xicotancatl and sits down at the kiosk of Don Artemis, who has already prepared a crepe of huitlacoche when he sees his painter friend coming. They have a long debate about whether narco-corridos should be banned from radio stations, and Don Artemis serves him a flan—a gift for being a gold card customer and for backing down in their dispute.
Isidro returns to his bench, crosses his legs, and appraises his latest swatch. He looks up at the sky above the wall—clear sky, no clouds. He walks over to the swatch and inspects it closely; the thickness he laid down is right. He backs up five feet, moves to the left, then to the right, to catch the various angles of the light. He repeats these motions, stooping now. He walks around the corner, then returns, walking along the wall for its entire length, as if he is a passer-by. He closes his eyes for ten seconds, then opens them, confronting the wall.
How does the painter know when he has found the true Tlaxcala red, that he has the right blend of ochres and water? He doesn’t hold up a Comex swatch card labeled Tlaxcala Red. He doesn’t walk down Calle Porfirio Diaz to see if his paint matches the red on the walls of the internet café and international call kiosk, the yarn shop and the panadería. Isidro cannot answer this question, other than to say one knows. A whisper, un susurro. It is I. I hear the whisper of my ancestors. One knows.
Isidro removes his mixing pail from his three-wheeled cart and adds his basic red ochre, de-oxidized ochre, manganese-infused ochre and water in the exact proportions as his seventh swatch, six liters of paint in all. He leans his five meter ladder against the wall, along the left side, climbs to the upper corner and begins to paint. The wall will be completed before the bells in the parroquia tower announce the call to vespers.
Friday, Matthew’s fifth day in Tlaxcala. He rises at six, showers and puts on a white linen shirt he bought from a street vender the day before. He crosses the still-empty zócalo, turns right up Calle Guillermo Barranco Corichi, buys some fresh-blended strawberry-bananabatidos from a cart, and ducks under the first row of awnings in the tianguis. As he enters the market, the cones of his retina react as if activated by a switch. He is assailed with colors of fruits and vegetables stacked in symmetric pyramidal patterns, topped with samples peeled or cut in half to reveal their inner essence. Greens of the plátanos and avocados and melons and magueys and tomatillos; reds of the cactus pears and tomatoes and watermelons; yellows of the mangos, squash flowers and pineapples; ten purples of eggplant. Gold-striped gourds. Peppers– red, green, brown, yellow. Matthew’s eyes inhale the colors. The paint poet, Swatches From the Tianguis: chipotle fire; tomatillo emerald; golden squash flower; eggplant amethyst; maguey mist; plátano haze. Pearl of pomegranate. The sensation of color overwhelms him. With hope. With fear the colors will fade to grays. He will visit the tianguis every market day, seeking his morning dose, his inoculation of color.
Isidro visits his wall to make a final check in the morning light. He carries a brush and a small can of paint, in case he has missed some spots or has made an un-even application. When he arrives he notices that the gringo is back, sitting on the bench in the shadow of theparroquia. He is leaning back, arms outstretched, looking at Isidro’s wall. Buenas días they say to each other simultaneously, eyes lowered. The stranger moves over to give Isidro more room. Isidro sits, lights up, starts to offer a cigarette to the stranger, then remembers. He checks the angle of the sun, crosses his legs, reviews his wall, exhales. He is pleased.
The two of them sit for a quarter of an hour, admiring the wall in silence. Matthew reaches into a small brown paper bag at his feet, pulls out a pomegranate, unfolds a pocket knife, and carefully cuts the fruit down the middle. He turns to Isidro and holds out a half-shell of glistening ruby pearls. Isidro notices that Matthew’s hand is covered with crimson juice, as if he has cut himself or has been painting.
Pomegranates in the Garden of Eden: Unknown
Pomegranate seeds: Ben McNeal, creative commons
Fruits in market stall, Tlascala wall: Mark Lyons
Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.
He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.
Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.
ARTICLES BY MARK LYONS
Dreams and Nightmares: Notes from the Editor, working with Liliana Velasquez
Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas
The Ecuadorians of Upper Darby
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Nuestras Historias en Español
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Our Stories in English
My Power Ranger Had One Leg: The Open Borders Youth Radio Project
The Youth Radio Project: Transcripts of Audio Stories
Welcome to Open Borders
Wild River Books
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Arnold’s Roadside Café: Route 80, North Platte
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Holy Roller
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Security Risk
A Celebration of Shrines
Introduction to Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: The Borders That Divide Us Are the Places We Find Each Other
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Tlaxcala Red