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Rice and Beans

by Duke Miller

B. Traven, George Gershwin, and the demented woman whisper into my ear, "Tell the story. Please."
"Certainly, I'm just the man for it. Ni modo."

I love to eat rice and beans, it makes me feel like a worker in the fields, the ones with the straw hats and sandals. The ones who careen between sullen looks and loud laughter. The ones who drink too much and are proud beyond recognition. They are bent over with account books pressing down upon their backs. They have few choices in life due to the giant non-stop metal wheels that grind up the countryside and eviscerate the cities. Broken bones and scars are the story of politics and servitude and company stores.

B. Traven knew all of this. He felt these images like cuts dripping blood into the soil, like flesh dropped into a hole. He knew the significance of how the human body fertilizes the ground in order for plants to grown. Death, sickness, and malnourishment are often the bounty of unfair, low paid work. The poor stumble and fall. The pain wraps around the world thousands of times, each vertebra and tibia, each twisted smile, all connected like a string of stolen pearls. The story of the oppressed is usually lost on the rich. They have a tendency to overlook the overarching theme of how the world has been built.

No, that sort of agony is generally hidden, without texture or testimony. Without sound, lost in the cycle of our lives upon this Earth.

B. Traven tried to set the record straight. He moved to Mexico and got up close to the injustice. He was a pretty cranky guy apparently, but in the end, he entered a small, rather high space, occupied by only a handful of writers and social agitators.

"Just rice and beans," I said, "thanks."
"That's all?"
"Yes, but can I get some garrafon water with ice and lime?"

Rice and beans remind me of my past and sure enough the dark figures appear beside my table, just there, where the sunlight wraps around a corner. Who are they, I wonder? I watch and listen to their conversation. They look like slaves and sick kids, but they talk like actors. They complain about the show and how bad the director is. Birds peck nearby and begin to sing a song that stretches all the way from the dawn of civilization to the opening of George Gershwin's new opera called The Birth of Food.

Birds are extremely critical to the development of civilization. The stage designer has constructed a massive spotlight that acts like the sun, with singing birds flying through the light. Unfortunately, the fake sun partially blinds most of the audience. Some of them are rich and hire mad dog lawyers. The criminal allegations and legal suits are too much for Gershwin.

He dies not long after the opera opens on Broadway. During his last days he curses technology, but his real complaint is that everything smells like burnt rubber. When he gives dinner parties, he takes food off the plates and throws it at the guests. "This shit tastes like burning rubber," he shouts. He also mutters, "I can't teach birds how to sing, they either have it or they don't."

It is at this point that the demented woman enters my peripheral vision. She wanders out upon the stage of Gershwin's opera. She approaches my table. She wants to talk about the kitchen crew.

"I'm 90-years-old," she says. "Who are these other people?"
"I think they're actors in the only opera George Gershwin ever wrote. It killed him."
"I know that production. Isn't it called Blue Monday?"
"No, according to my sources the title is The Birth of Food."

The woman launches into a speech that praises the cooks of the restaurant, Javier and Renee, and her handsome, gentle son who is a physicist from Poland, but who lives and works in Austin, Texas. She talks about WWII and how the Soviets rounded everybody up after the Nazis left Warsaw, how she never saw her husband again and heard he died in Siberia. She never looks into my eyes but says she raised her son despite the poverty and then she pats her hip and tells how she fell off a bridge and broke her legs. She looks left and right and says she hates how people violate her space, but when they do that, she simply sings directly into their faces. All of her words are measured or very fast as if a record player couldn't make up its mind.

I listen for what seems like a complete tennis match and then get up to wash my hands. When I come back, she is eating my leftover chips and between bites she continues to say how great the cooks are.

I last a few more minutes and then call for the bill. I take it to the register and ask a waiter about the woman. He says, she comes in every so often and her son says to please feed her and to keep a tab and at the end of the month he will pay. The waiter says, the owner never charges the son and she eats for free, but mostly just rice, beans, and tortillas. He says, they have been feeding the sweet, demented woman for about five years.

"Why only rice and beans," I ask.
"Well, sometimes she says, she only wants historic food. Something painful and with a soul."

When I reach the entry way to the restaurant, I turn and watch the woman at my table as she eats the final bit of chips and salsa and then I think about B. Traven and the Mexican poor and how George Gershwin wanted to write songs about the birth of food. I think about how both Thomas Wolfe and one of my old girlfriends died of brain dysfunctions and it seems that everyone is a victim of having their brains eaten out by something going wrong. If not the brain, then the heart or the spirit. I stand frozen there until she finishes and slowly, she totters back through the door of the kitchen and disappears.

B. Traven, George Gershwin, and the demented woman all talk to me on the way home. I hold their hands as we walk. It is difficult, but I'm just the man to do it. All of a sudden, it begins to rain and I turn my face toward the clouds and the drops hit me like the days of the old woman and I can't move again.

I stand that way until someone bumps into me and asks, "Are you alright?"
I don't answer, but I do put one foot in front of the other.
"Ni modo," I say over and over again as I make my way home.


Duke Miller: I'm still alive. Still writing, working, trying to figure out a few things. I know someone who is totally cynical about politics. He's seen it all at the highest levels. I use him like a weather vane in Kansas and he is telling me this time it is different, this time we could lose it all. I believe him. That's one of the reasons I work in the park.

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