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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Crash



Language collapses into a heap of shards. Somewhere in dreams the pieces reassemble, into myths, they dislodge memories and rebalance the meaning of words. Continents turn to sand.

The signs over shops in the square had not changed though it seemed trees had grown. The peaks around the village had moved closer. How much better if sea breezes swept the dirt square, and blew fronds of coconuts against rotted porches.

The new currency bore the face of Baby Bachala. The old guy had a beard, that's how you knew them apart. If you talked to residents, father and son both were regarded as puppets for the northern devil.

After the elections "Bachala" morphed. It meant 'foolish man', one who is easily duped. 'Your dog's a Bachala' or, 'they Bachala-ed the workers down at the plant.'

Language deceives, the dollar rules, two marks of a cruel con.

You needed a stack of Young Men just to buy a plate of eggs. Fruit workers lugged bags of payroll to the capital to exchange for a one identical piece of paper with a dollar glued to the rear. Each day the exchange rate got worse.

Women with brushes and pots of wheat paste stuck debts of the republic to the greenback with glue. Viaduct Estano Diaz stank of ink. The plates engraved for the new thousand banknote were cancelled, the million Baby B took its place. The walled street ricocheted the machine gun clatter of Bachala's money presses.

At weekend, the central bank recovered dollars by soaking notes in water. The domestic bills got burned. Elites wired fortunes to China and Switzerland. Baby B prepared his exit, with a mountain of stolen cash.

Lines at the central bank went around the block, so I bought a wheat paste kit from a kid at the edge of the square. It included a plastic pot of paste, and a hefty wad of young men for five dollars US. There was a blurry printout with instructions how to do the laminating.

I sat on a bench and started work with a stack of bills brought with me from the States. The instructions were explicit "All four corners must be glued down."

"How much is that CD?"

"Twenty Old Men." A million Daddy B with a Hamilton glued on back.

In the villages barter replaced money. Ten coconuts for a gallon of fuel. Two small fish for a bottle of beer. The ten-thousand bill Baby B was worth about a quarter but the notes in my pocket were a wad of lint that hardly bought a cup of coffee.

The old woman with berries tied into her graying braids at the lemon colored shack sold me a ticket to the airport.

The portraits of Señor Bachala she gave as change were bleached white as sand.

-:-

I spent the night in "La Preciosa" in another room that looked onto the tiled swimming pool filled with leaves. The terra-cotta moldings on the stairwell stirred my heart with a longing. Longing for what?

I took a large wooden rake at the edge of the pool and busied myself gleaning leaves from the surface. Beneath the slick, the water was surprisingly clear. Then a young woman in a blue bathing suit burst out of the hotel and dove in. She swam a lap without noticing that I'd gotten all the leaves off the water for her.

I don't believe in accident, or chance. Were my legs so fond of this place they led me back? Life is the history of forgetting and re-discovery. How cluttered we've become by names, places, dates, houses with photo albums, and heaps of useless journals, maps.

Today, this very day, I held in my hands a ticket, on that afternoon, a flight north, through the mountains. Would I visit the same deserted villa, encircled by vines, fer-de-lances hunting rats by the well?

Is literature just shadow play for a fickle and forgetful audience? Words drove my most precious memories into darkness. Truth merges experience with the compost of time, and somehow cheats memory every time.

Yet I did remember.

Some buildings were recently painted, others had fallen to ruin, It is quite amazing how sun, and a salt breeze will contort a piece of wood, split a hanging sign, curl the cedar shingles of an old roof. Memory rusts real property of the mind. Sentiment is the most powerful of all corrosives.

Wait a minute, that square I knew in my youth, wasn't it by the sea? Where is the sea? Is this the same country even? Perhaps my memory put the ocean there, into the picture. As I have been saying, memory is so faulty.

The old woman offered me a chance to enter a lottery.

"I'm flying out of here, why would I join a lottery?"

"But Señor, many who buy from me win. Try it you will see."

I gave her five Old Men and she handed me a white ticket with some numbers.

How far is the sea from here?" I asked.

"It is two hundred kilometers away Señor."

I tried to calculate, my thirty thousand days of rambling, border to border, language to language. It had been a season of rulers on a rampage, people were slaughtered. The town plans and names, those cannot change. Yet when change inevitably moves on, there's always a vestige of the old settlement, preserved by the scent of newly poured concrete.

How vivid it all was, a land outside of time, now just a box of shadows . . .

-:-

I met Titanio on an commercial shoot, years ago on the Island. A large estate had been rented. Ford delivered ten new luxury cars with a man in a suit who did nothing but keep the cars polished.

I had been signed by the union as an apprentice grip. "Meet Bobby V at 59th and 8th at seven o'clock. And don't forget to bring a hammer!"

Dispatch gave the same advice. If you were a connected guy you could manage with just a hammer. But if you were a bum with no family connections you needed a full kit. I took a bunch of small tools thrown in a canvas bag.

The hammer was the tool for getting things done in the movie business. It had to have a wooden or insulated fiberglass handle, for prodding the backs of lights and fuse box connections. The claw was superb for picking up plywood, and sections of set.

On the Island I was assigned to Titanio, senior grip. He had a crane to haul a platform for lights and crew, onto the roof of the big house. Titanio threw a rope around four sheets of heavy plywood, then nodded to the operator who lowered the hook. Titanio draped the loop over then signaled with his thumb, and as the load of plywood started to rise leapt aboard.

On the roof of the mansion I saw him untie the plywood and begin putting together the platform.

His completely bald head blue eyes and slow way of moving, and talking made one think Titanio lacked humor, or physical grace. This was not true. He had been a gymnast in his old country, and one day shooting commercials for Budweiser Beer he drank a few himself. Then he showed us he could still do some of the old moves he pioneered.

One of these was the standing triple somersault. "Today, because I'm an old man, I'll just do a double." He took one forward step and vaulted into the air. The air seemed to collapse as he hugged his knees, and came round two times before landing on the grass with his feet.

-:-

A recovering man returns to life. Of course that is a choice. A crash is just another crisis, a bad hangover, or an overdose. In time the deaths of others becomes an abstraction.

"You're upset. You're depressed," I told myself. Whose voice was that? She seemed to call sharply into my dark head. She must have been a bird I never recorded.

The dense forest forgets everything. So I walked, as I had many times, and after an hour when a sweat broke out on my brow I reminded myself, "I survived,  why? Was it fair? Aside from a few bruises, I was the same as any human being walking in a forest.

The junior man in the tail of the plane made it through.

Life's so fickle. There, a small warbler pulling beetles from a branch. A snake's tail vanishes under a log ahead of my footsteps. A howler deep in the leaf canopy drops the heavy wet rind of a jackfruit. None of us can ever know what the major sequence is made out of.

And so I wandered back to "La Preciosa". I had some pesos. I had my bag. And the clerk at the desk recognized me and handed me a key for the same room.

"Welcome back Señor. The hotel has had to change the rate Señor. It is now five Old Men per night."

The police knew of the crash, and said many families had been contacted. I told them I had rescued the passports of two crew members and intended to mail them home.

"Señor, those will be required by the Police." I handed them over.

Five of the crew were from this country. "Regrettable", they said. "Very regrettable."

"You walked out Señor? You are a lucky man. Please stay at 'La Preciosa' Señor for a few more days. We may have some questions for you."

"Of course."

I dug out Titanio's wallet watch and keys, and put them in a small box. I addressed it care of our production office back in New York. Another box for Ellen's purse and fake pearl necklace. Then one for each member of the crew.

I sought refuge in the hotel pool. My head ached.

Yes, I could travel, record birds but thoughts of travel collapsed, merged with a headache that split my skull wide open.

Our book is left in tatters.


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