MOST EVERY morning following croissantitos and orange marmelade or Costco bagels and cream cheese lite, plus café americano negro, of course, we retire to the living room and sit on the red sofa.
The music machine is already playing. I turn that on before bagels or croissantitos. This morning it was Madeleine Peyroux who was serenading us. She’s been our morning music for quite a few weeks now.
And will remain so till we weary of her.
This is how the scene appeared this morning. It doesn’t last long because we are a very busy pair, but it lasts long enough to count.
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(Note: The rather loud tick, tock, tick you hear is my Aunt Ned’s (R.I.P.) antique wall clock which dates from about 1885. I date from somewhat later than that.)
I WAS A FAN of the Day of the Dead long before I moved to Mexico.
There was a ceramic Catrina that stood on the bathroom counter in my Houston condo on Braes Bayou. I had purchased it at a Mexican artisan shop in a trendy area called The Heights. The place was owned by a real Mexican who charged me $200 for it.
When I moved down here, I discovered the same thing was easily available for the peso equivalent of $20 U.S., so I wuz robbed.
It was sheer coincidence that I moved to what is likely the most famous Day of the Dead town in Mexico. Oaxaca gives us competition. Never been there.
When I moved here 19 Days of the Dead ago, there was, and still is, an artisan market on our big plaza. It was haphazard, poorly organized, and many of the offerings were sheer crap that you might find in a Five & Dime.
Things have really changed. The artisan market years back was open to the vagaries of the weather, i.e. rain. Now the whole shebang sports a canvas roof. And the offerings have improved 100 percent. The junk is gone, and spectacular, high-quality goods are on sale. You should see it.
It lasts a week, going up the weekend before the Day of the Dead and coming down the weekend after.
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Two ways to do it.
We have two ways to experience Los Muertos, as the Day of the Dead is called in Spanish: the traditional and the carnival, what I call Party Hearty. The latter appears to be the more popular option, which is unfortunate.
To experience the traditional, visitors have many options. There are numerous small towns and villages in the area where residents do what’s long been done. They clean up the cemetery, decorate the graves with flowers, mostly marigolds, light candles and sit through the night, the theory being that the spirits of the departed return to visit.
What this produces is an eerie, incredibly beautiful, silent scene. It’s what takes place in my neighborhood cemetery, which we’ve visited on the Big Night a number of times, but not the last two years out of laziness. It’s walking distance from the Hacienda, which is great since traffic in the area all week, and especially on the Big Night, is beyond belief.
The second way to experience Los Muertos is Party Hearty, and it goes like this: You go to the island of Janitzio, which floats out in our large lake. The only way to get there is via motor launch. For some reason, Janizio is incredibly famous throughout Mexico and beyond for Los Muertos, even though their cemetery is like other cemeteries, and the locals do what locals do at other cemeteries.
I think it’s the novelty of the boat ride and the fact that it’s an island that’s given Janizio its celebrity. But whatever it is, tourists flock there is droves, mobs, hordes, incredible quantities of people. And they visit the Janitzio cemetery and more. There is music, dancing, food! And all is experienced while rubbing elbows with swarms of other sightseers.
It is not an “authentic” representation of the Night of the Dead. It’s a party. If you want a party, go to Janitzio. If you want to have a more traditional experience, go to one of the other villages. There are quite a few. But traffic will be bad wherever you go on the Big Night.
The artisan market on the big plaza of my mountaintop town lasted till Sunday. The next day, I drove downtown. Most of the tourists had fled. The vendors on the plaza had packed up and gone. It was peaceful again, as I prefer it.
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I sat with a café negro Americano and a sugar donut, looked toward the plaza and shot the photo at the top. The only thing remaining of the jam-packed artisan market was the canvas roof that will come down this week.
Later I walked to my car, which was parked just two blocks away on the street you see below, drove home and breathed a sigh of relief that peace has returned till next year. The market will appear again on Easter Week. The crowds will be big, but not quite so big as Los Muertos, and there will not be two ways to do it.
Maxence had once been a cutthroat but murdering was long behind him. Now, at 78, he was a bellman at the Marbol Hotel.
He was sitting on this dark night, 2 a.m., at the hotel bar sipping a Guinness Stout and talking to Bo the barman. Maxence’s shift had just ended, and big black LeRoy had taken over the baggage cart till 10 in the morning.
Maxence always ended his nights at the Marbol bar. Nobody was waiting at home. It was ever the same. He would talk to Bo a bit, and he would ponder the past even more. Maxence had been born in France — Sant-Amant, a small town south of Paris — and had been a mercenary man.
First, it was the Legion. Later, he freelanced.
After the second Guinness, perhaps even sooner, his thoughts always turned to Chloë Jomo-Gbomo, his long-gone lover from Sierra Leone who had been killed by a berserk jitney bus driven by a Mende man high on ganja along the main avenue of Freetown.
Maxence later killed that Mende man out of pure fury, but he didn’t feel any better for it because Chloë was still dead and gone. He cried and cried.
Maxence liked Guinness Stout because it was dark and savory like the women of the African men he murdered which was how he met Chloë Jomo-Gbomo.
Chloë’s man at that time had missed Maxence’s Jeep with a bazooka shell during a dustup in the Congo. Maxence’s aim was better with his .45.
Chloë dashed out of a nearby hut and kicked her man’s dead body and spit on it. Maxence knew right away there had been no love there, and Chloë was very beautiful. He immediately made her his own, and she was happy with that.
The two of them fled the Congo together and moved to Freetown where they lived six years in a third-floor walk-up. Chloë found work plaiting hair while Maxence drank blazing café and smoked Gauloises.
Nights were spent naked and sweaty under the ceiling fan.
Maxence drank Castle Lager in those days because Guinness Stout was not sold in Freetown. It didn’t matter, he thought, because he already had something dark and delicious with Chloë Jomo-Gbomo.
On Chloë’s free day they often picknicked at Siaka Stevens Park where they would spread a blanket under the African sun shaded by a cercropia tree.
They drank Castle and ate cans of cashews. And sandwiches.
He would rub her silky bare legs beneath the skirt of kuba cloth, and she would caress the scar on his cheek.
Our spirits call you ghosts, she said one day, white and unsolid. But the scar is a good thing because it proves you’re a protective man.
He fell deeply in love for the first time in his brutal life.
And then she was dead on the main drag of Freetown as the jitney driver tried to escape, but a jitney jammed with passengers makes a lousy getaway vehicle.
She had only stepped out for a pack of Gauloises.
Maxence wandered some years through Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean picking up piecemeal murders till one day he realized he was too old for that game. He retired to hotels, luggage and tips.
The Marbol was a good gig, and he intended to stay as long as they’d let him.
Later, he would kill himself. He knew the ropes.
Another Guinness, Bo.
Coming up, Max.
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(The above is an excerpt from the longest and strangest thing I’ve ever written, The Old Marbol — Skullduggery in Dark City and Beyond, which was published hereabouts perhaps a decade ago. I just reread it for the first time in a very long time, was impressed with myself, so I put this here. The Old Marbol contains a cast of bizarre characters rivaled only by those in the famous barroom scene in the first Star Wars movie. Maybe I’ll do more excerpts here in the future.)
THE NEPHEW I once called The Little Vaquero graduated from Middle School yesterday. After the ceremony, we went out to lunch in a fancy place.
I have quite a few nephews, it being Mexico where people breed like bunnies, but this guy is the one I see most often, far more frequently than the others. He is my sister-in-law’s son, the woman who owns the coffee shop, and he was adopted fresh out of the hospital in nearby Santa Clara over 15 years ago.
This is how he looked back then. I took this photo as he sat on his new mother’s bed. Cute, huh?
The Vaquero’s had quite a few ups and downs in his still-short life. One of the worst parts was his father shooting himself to death in a sympathy play that went wrong about seven years ago.
It happened after his mother tossed her spouse out on the street due to philandering.
After that, the boy had just his mother, no father and no brothers or sisters. He and his mother quarrel a lot. She’s not well suited for motherhood. He and my child bride, however, are very close.
He’s had some unusual ambitions. For a good while, he wanted to be a priest. That notion’s been shelved, thank God, and a few months ago he announced he wants to be a model (!). My wife suspects that ambition is based in part on his idea that it’s a career that doesn’t require any studying, plus he combs his hair a lot and is fastidious about his clothes.
He does not like to study.
I doubt he’ll be a priest, and I doubt he’ll be a model. Since he’s not fond of studying, it’s almost certain he’ll follow in his mother’s footsteps as the owner of the coffee shop that will land in his lap. And that’s okay as long as he continues the custom of not charging me for café americano negro.