photo: Josh Arlington
by Duke Miller
The pulse of the ocean folded inside the man’s sad resignation. He had decided a few months ago to move to the dying water and listen to waves gasp for more pain killers. Living in Mazatlán was a treat for him; a time to relax. Perhaps he owed it to himself as a repayment on a past mistake or possibly it was because of the missing parts of his heart. He wondered about the final breaths of Mozart and how everything depended upon things that were entirely undependable.
photo: Matt Mawson
On this night he walked alone to the end of a long pier that sharply pointed toward the heart of the ocean. If he’d been born a fish he could have passed over sunken ships and life unanswered, where the rhythm was deeply walled and ignored. The salt spray hit his eyes and he blinked. His thoughts floated into the little bay and the waves were iridescent blue under the full moon. Old questions marked him and the bottles of friends followed and placed their lips over his mouth and poured inside of him. No real alcohol, but it tasted fine and his interiors drank a full draught.
The shrimpers blinked along the horizon, worried about small catches and the pirates who boarded and stole their shrimp. On the cliff above, was his fading Hollywood-styled home. Flowers and vines pierced the cracked plaster and wounded their way into his bedrooms, preparing his banquet, one drop of blood at a time.
The man looked past his home and upward into the heavens at the Graces, three girls in a line, holding each other’s hand. How sad they seemed, so far away from the toil of earth. Pray for them, he thought…pray for splendor, mirth, and cheer. He listened as they spread themselves outward through the tightly packed stars. They looked down upon his waning body and his sick friend, the sea, and shook their heads and thought: for humans there is only the universal need to go home, to move minus direction, but with an instinct for faceless, formless, and loveless dust.
Oh the Three Graces…how smart they were and they whispered to him, “There is nothing to be done…nothing. You are only human.”
He decided to go to his favorite bar in Old Town. Along a cracked wall, four or five women cut from the shadows and reached out to him, but he rejected them and the music pulled him through the swinging doors of Platino’s Lounge. This was the sort of place that understood worn looks and dead ends. Unfortunately he was becoming less comfortable in his skin and he was tired of running drunk on the beach, goofing on the street kids, listening to the partly insane call his name.
He ordered a drink and sat in a booth by the window. The bar was located in a building with a collapsed second floor, so the whole effect was of being in a damaged church. He took a sip of half mezcal and half lime juice with half a little white pill sprinkled with worm salt. Soon he would feel one and a half times better as he lay near the smooth body of Isa; translating her faint breathing, the secret diary of her lungs, into the words that she was trying to hide from him. She was very Catholic and had once told him that the Virgen de Guadalupe had brought them together. It wasn’t summer in Paris, but it would do.
The girls here were very delicate and always had silky black hair reaching a narrow waist and they could have hanged him in a lost moment, but he treated them well and they never hurt him or stole from his wealth. This was not to say they couldn't be violent and one had hurled a beer bottle at him and another had pulled a knife, but all of that was mostly for show.
The hour was perfect for him to walk home. People were still in the streets, escaping the stifling heat of their houses, and the lights from the bars and restaurants were like pieces of candy leading to his front door. As he passed Octavio’s rundown hovel he could smell marijuana and he heard Octavio rambling to himself about the outrageous bastards along the docks and the gringo who had run over one of his dogs. “Motherfuckers!” he yelled, over and over.
“Octavio…it’s me,” he whispered. The thick silence of humidity covered the scene and in a guttural voice Octavio answered, “Oh, my friend…I thought they were coming for me…I thought they were after my dogs,” and then he laughed and his favorite dog Polo whimpered. Poor Polo was dying, and Octavio was extending his insanity into new forms of horror.
When the man got home he took a bucket bath since the shower pressure was weak. He wrapped a Lao cloth around his body and slipped on some flip-flops. “Isa!” he yelled up the staircase. There were six bedrooms in the house and the lights were faulty, so he felt his way along the halls in the faded light. As he walked up the winding staircase he looked out the windows. To the right were the lights of Mazatlán, while to the left stretched the undulating ocean and the Olas Altas beach. He finally found her asleep in the top floor bedroom. The mezcal and the little white pill were making him relaxed and at peace. He had picked Isa up at one of the bars and she had been here, in and out of his life, for the past few months. They had swum in the sea and drank in the bars and ate seafood over on Stone Island.
A shaft of moonlight illuminated the chair where he sat and watched her independent and inexpensive territory move across the sheets, flying banners and stacking rocks. Smooth skin and slight facial scars told a story of tin roofs, bare feet, a drunken father, a beaten mother, and her escape on a bus to the safety of the city. She was twenty-six years old. Her eyes fluttered and her mouth moved as if she wanted to speak.
photo: Matt Mawson
Their last argument came to him. “I’m tired of being you and me at the same time,” she had said. He knew that was true. He never gave much of himself to anyone, but there was a reason. When he blankly stared at her after one of her accusations, she grew pensive and resentful. Her reaction was proof to him that nearly all women wanted a man in a complete way and nothing short of that was acceptable. Forget the possibility that in a few years or days, the woman might change her mind with all the dramatic consequences. Chances of success in most relationships were small. He had learned this the hard way and decided not to give himself away again; not to take a gamble with any woman, and so he had opted for an abstract, cold view of the world that did not include what most people referred to as love.
He imagined letting Isa go and he could see himself having doubts and then returning to an uncaring attitude, back and forth, undecided, searching for her and thinking there must be someone to blame besides himself. He probably wanted her more than anything, even more than the normal illusions which fueled him, but deep in his feelings he knew none of that mattered.
He laid his body beside her, his mind upon midnight. With his hand he began to gently stroke her and it was like painting and the slow, light skim of his fingers over her skin was, if not a masterpiece, then at least the rendering of a small, important moment. She turned over and moved on top of him. They both melted. In the moist sea breeze, he and she rose and fell together, and he could hear the sound of the waves in the distance.
photo: Matt Mawson
Slowly she dropped back into sleep, slurring a prayer to the Virgen de Guadalupe. There was the touch of candlelight and heroin about her and she often gave him instructions on how to walk and talk and act human and she would say, “I can help if you will let me." Of course, he needed no help. He was only looking to steal sparks of time from her and then turn those flashes into profound insights. He was fucked up just fine without a lover trying to make the crooked straight. That just led to public displays of ruin for the enjoyment of the lame.
He wondered about getting up in the morning: considered if it was really necessary. Another walk along the beach would give him the answer; perhaps the Virgen de Guadalupe would come to him. After all she was an angel and he was always ready to speak directly with an angel and perhaps he could introduce her to the Three Graces.
Instead of going down to the beach, however, he took to his hammock on the veranda. He thought about Isa and what might happen in the morning. Fried eggs, chilled rum, and a $500 peso note were in order. He imagined her walking away with a tooth cavity and afternoon plans and all of it carried along on thin ankles, shallow ribs, and hopes hardened by centuries of malnourishment. She would hug him and hold his face in her frail hands. A smile would cross her lips and she would become a kite as she walked out the door and the wind would take her off the cliff and down to the docks.
He could see all of this in his mind and he knew it would happen exactly as he imagined.
(Part One, Chapter Diez, Living and Dying with Dogs: Turbo Edition).
"Late last night I found out that Ratko Mladić was convicted in the Hague for war crimes. I couldn't sleep and then the memories of driving away from Tuzla, to where the old women and children were walking from Srebrenica, came to my mind. We found thousands of them in a field. They weren't dead, just exhausted. It was a freezing night and we spread sheets of plastic over them and left MREs and bottled water beside their still bodies. You could hear the breathing and it was very deep, almost eternal, as if part of the trees and the grass and the cold air. I am retired now and when I see other retirees walking the streets of San Miguel, I often think about what it would be like for all of us to walk six days with the Serbs at our backs and our families left behind in mass graves. It's just the way my mind works and I can't help it."
Duke Miller is the author of three books in print and currently working on a fourth titled "Spider in My Mouth".
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