NOTE: the following was later included in Desolation Angels.
My widowed mother’s name is now “Memère”— nickname for Grandma in Québecois—since her grandson, my nephew, calls her that. It is 1957. I am still an itinerant; Memère and I are going from Florida to try to settle down in San Francisco, our meager belongings following us slowly in a moving van.
Here we are in Florida with two tickets to California, standing waiting for the bus to New Orleans, where we’ll change for El Paso and Los Angeles. It’s hot in May in Florida. I long to get out and go west beyond the East Texas Plain, to that high plateau and on over the Divide to dry Arizona and beyond. Poor Memère is standing there absolutely dependent on me. I wonder what my father is saying in Heaven. “That crazy Ti Jean is carting her 3,000 miles in wretched buses just for a dream he’s had about a new life near a holy pine tree.”
There’s hardly anything in the world, or at least in America, more miserable than a transcontinental bus trip with limited means. More than three days and three nights wearing the same clothes, bouncing around into town after town; even at three in the morning, when you’ve finally fallen asleep, there you are being bounced over the railroad tracks of a town, and all the lights are turned on bright to reveal your raggedness and weariness in the seat. To do that, as I’d done so often as a strong young man, is bad enough; but to have to do that when you’re a sixty-two-year-old lady…yet Memère is more cheerful than I, and she devises a terrific trick to keep us in fairly good shape—aspirins with Coke three times a day to calm the nerves.
From mid-Florida we roll in the late afternoon over orange-grove hills toward the Tallahassee and Mobile of morning, no prospect of New Orleans till noon and already fair exhausted. Such an enormous country, you realize when you cross it on buses, the dreadful stretches between equally dreadful cities, all of them looking the same when seen from the bus of woes, the never-get-there bus stopping everywhere, and worst of all the string of fresh enthusiastic drivers every two or three hundred miles warning everyone to relax and be happy.
Sometimes during the night I look at my poor sleeping mother cruelly crucified there in the American night because of no-money, no-hope-of-money, no-family, no-nothing—just myself, the stupid son of plans all compacted of eventual darkness. God, how right Hemingway was when he said there was no remedy for life.
No remedy but in my mind. I raise a fist to Heaven, promising that I shall bull-whip the first bum who makes fun of human hopelessness.
I know it’s ridiculous to pray to my father, that hunk of dung in a grave, yet I pray to him anyway. What else shall I do? Sneer? Shuffle papers on a desk and burp with rationality?
I say that we shall all be reborn with the Only One, that we will not be ourselves any more but simply the Companions of the Only One, and that’s what makes me go on, and my mother too. She has her rosary in the bus, don’t deny her that, that’s her way of stating the fact. If there can’t be love among men, let there be love at least between men and God. Human courage is an opiate, but opiates are human too. If God is an opiate, so am I. Therefore eat me. Therefore eat me. Eat the night, the long desolate American night between Sanford and Shlamford and Blamford and Crapford, eat the blood in the ground, the dead Indians, the dead pioneers, the dead Fords and Pontiacs, the dead Mississippis, the dead arms of forlorn hopelessness washing underneath. Who are men that they can insult men? I’m talking about human helplessness in the darkness of birth and death, and asking, “What is there to laugh about in that?” “How can you be clever in a meatgrinder?” “Who makes fun or misery?”
There’s my mother, a hunk of flesh that didn’t ask to be born, sleeping restlessly, dreaming hopefully, beside her son who also didn’t ask to be born, thinking desperately, praying hopelessly, in a bouncing vehicle going from nowhere to nowhere.
When Memère wakes up in the middle of the night and groans, my heart breaks. The bus goes belumping over back lots of Crapford to pick up one package in a dawn station. Groans everywhere, all the way to the back seats where black sufferers suffer no less because their skin is black.
And there’s just no hope anywhere because we’re all disunited and ashamed. The only thing to do is be like mother: patient, believing, careful, bleak, self-protective, glad for little favors, suspicious of great favors, make it your own way, hurt no one, mind your own business, and make your compact with God. For God is our Guardian Angel, and this is a fact that’s only proven when proof exists no more.
THE BUS ARRIVES in New Orleans at noon, and we have to disembark with all our tangled luggage and wait four hours for the El Paso express, so Memère and I decide to investigate New Orleans and stretch our legs. In my mind I imagine a big glorious lunch in a Latin Quarter restaurant among grillwork balconies and palms, but when we find such a restaurant, near Bourbon Street, the prices on the menu are so high that we have to walk out sheepishly.
Just for the hell of it Memère and I decide to walk into a New Orleans saloon that has an oyster bar. And there by God she has the time of her life drinking wine, eating oysters on the half shell with piquante and yelling crazy conversations with the old Italian oyster man. He gives her a free wine. “Are you married, ey?” No, he’s not married, and would she like some clams now, maybe steamed? And they exchange names and addresses but later never write. Memère is all excited at being in famous New Orleans at last, and when we walk around she buys pickaninny dolls and praline candies and packs them in our luggage to send as presents to my sister. A relentless hope. Just like my father, she won’t let anything discourage her. I walk sheepishly by her side. And she’s been doing this for sixty-two years; at the age of fourteen there she was, at dawn, walking to the shoe factory to work till six that evening, till Saturday evening, seventy-two-hour work week, all gleeful in anticipation of that pitiful Saturday night in old New Hampshire, and Sunday when there’d be popcorn and swings and singing.
We get back on the El Paso bus after an hour with standing in line in blue bus fumes, loaded with presents and luggage, talking to everybody, and off we roar north and then across the Louisiana plains, sitting in front again, feeling gay and rested now, Partly because I’ve bought a little pint of port wine to nip us along.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” says Memère, pouring a nip into her ladylike portable shot glass, “a little drink never hurt nobody!” I agree, ducking down beneath the range of the driver’s rearview mirror and gulping a snort. Of we go to Lafayette. Where to our amazement we hear the local people talking French exactly as we do in Québecois. The Cajuns are only Acadians. But there’s no time, the bus is already leaving for Texas.
In reddish dusk, were rolling across the Texas plains, talking and drinking. but soon the pint runs out and poor Memère’s sleeping again, just a hopeless baby in the world, and all that distance vet to go. And when we get there. what? Liberty, and Houston, and Sealy, the dull bus stops, the sighs the endlessness of it, only halfway across the continent, another night of sleeplessness ahead and another one later, and still another one.
We are finally bashing down the Rio Grande Valley into the wink of El Paso night, all 900 miserere miles of Texas behind us, both of us completely bushed and numb with tiredness. I realize there’s nothing to do but leave the bus and get a hotel suite and a good night’s sleep before going to California more than another thousand bumpy miles.
In the meantime I will show my mother Mexico across the little bridge to Juarez.
EVERYBODY KNOWS what it feels like after two days of vibration on wheels to suddenly lie in still beds on still ground and sleep. Right next to the bus station I got a hotel suite and went out to buy chicken-in-the-basket while Memère washed up. She was having a big adventurous trip, visiting New Orleans and staying in hotel suites ($4.50) and going to Mexico for the first time tomorrow. We drank another port pint, ate the chicken and slept like logs.
In the morning, with eight hours till bus time, we sallied forth strong. I made her walk the mile to the Mexico bridge for exercise. We paid three cents each and went over.
Immediately we were among Indians in an Indian earth. Among the smells of mud, chickens, Chihuahua dust, lime peels, horses, straw, Indian weariness. The strong smell of cantinas, beer, dank. The smell of the market. And the sight of beautiful old Spanish churches rising in the sun with all their woeful, majestical Maria Guadalupes and Crosses and cracks in the walk.
“O, Ti Jean! I want to go in that church and light a candle to Papa!”
WHEN WE GO IN we see an old man kneeling in the aisle with his arms outstretched in penitence—a penitente. Hours like that he kneels, old serape over his shoulder, old shoes, hat on the church floor, raggedy old white beard.
“O, Ti Jean, what’s he done that he’s so sad for? I can’t believe that old man has ever done anything really bad!”
“He’s a penitente,” I tell her in French. “He’s a sinner and he doesn’t want God to forget him.”
“Pauvre bonhomme!” And I see a woman turn and look at Memère thinking she said “Pobrecito,” which is exactly what she said anyway.
But the most pitiful sight suddenly in the old Juarez church is a shawled woman, all dressed in black, barefooted, with a baby in her arms, advancing slowly on her knees up the aisle to the altar. “What has happened there?” cries my mother amazed. “That poor li’l mother had done no wrong! Is it her husband who’s in prison? She’s carrying that little baby! Is she a penitent too? That little baby is a penitent? She’s got him all wrapped up in a little ball in her shawl!”
“I don’t know why.”
“Where’s the priest that he don’t bless her? There’s nobody here but that poor little mother and that poor old man! This is the church of Mary?”
“This is the church of Maria de Guadalupe. A peasant found a shawl in Guadalupe, Mexico, with her face imprinted on it.”
“And they pray to Marie? But that poor young mother is only halfway to the altar. She comes slowly on her knees all quiet. Aw, but these are good people, the Indians, you say?”
“Oui. Indians just like the American Indians, but here the Spaniards did not destroy them. In French: “Ici les Espagnols sont maries avec les Indiens.”
“Pauvre monde! They believe in God just like us! I didn’t know that, Ti Jean! I never saw anything like this!” We crept up to the altar and lit candles and put dimes in the church box to pay for the wax. Memère made a prayer to God and did the sign of the cross. The Chihuahua desert blew dust into the church, the little mother was still advancing on her knees with the infant quietly asleep in her arms. Memère’s eyes blurred with tears. Now she understood Mexico and why I had come there so often even though I’d get sick of dysentery or lose weight or get pale. “C’est du monde qu’ils ont du coeur!” she whispered—these are people who have heart!”
She put a dollar in the church machine, hoping it would do some good somehow. She never forgot that afternoon: in fact even today she still adds a prayer for the little mother with the child, crawling to the alter on her knees: “There was something was wrong in her life. Her husband, or maybe her baby was sick. We’ll never know. But I will always pray for that little woman. Ti Jean, when you took me there you showed me something I’d never believed I’d ever ever see.”
Meanwhile the old man penitente still knelt there, arms outspread. All your Zapatas and Castros come and go, but the Old Penitence is still there and will always be there, like Coyotl Old Man in the Navajo Mountains and Mescalero foothills up north.
IT WAS ALSO VERY FUNNY to be in Mexico with my mother, for when we came out of the church of Santa Maria we sat in the park to rest and enjoy the sun, and next to us sat an old Indian in his shawl, with his wife, saying nothing, looking straight ahead, on their big visit to Juarez from the hills of the desert out beyond. Come by bus or burro.
Memère offered them a cigarette. At first the old Indian was afraid, but finally he took a cigarette. She offered him one for his wife, in Québecois French, so he took it, puzzled. The old lady never looked at Memère. They knew we were American tourists, but never tourists like these. The old man slowly lighted his cigarette and looked straight ahead.
Memère asked: “They’re afraid to talk?”
“They don’t know what to do. They never meet anybody. They came from the desert. They don’t even speak Spanish, just Indian. Say Chihuahua!”
Memère said “Chihuahua” and the old man grinned at her, and the old lady smiled. “Good-by,” said Memère as we left.
We went wandering across the sweet little park full of children and ice cream and balloons, and came to a strange man with birds in a cage, who yelled for our attention.
“What does he want?”
“Fortune! His birds will tell your fortune. We give him one peso and his little bird grabs a slip of paper and your fortune’s written on it.” “Okay! Seenyor!” The little bird beaked up a slip of paper from a pile of papers and handed it to the man. The man with his little mustache and gleeful eyes opened it. It read as follows:
You will have goods fortuna with one who is your son who love you. Say the bird.
He gave the little paper to us laughing.
“Now,” said Memère as we walked arm in arm through the streets of Old Juarez, “how could that silly little bird know I have a son, or anything about me? Phew, there’s a lot of dust around here!” That million-million-grained desert blew dust along the doors. “Can you explain me that? And the little bird knew all that? Hah? That guy with the mustaches doesn’t know us. His little bird knew everything.”
She had the slip of paper in her purse.
“And the little bird picked out the paper with his crazy face! Ah, but the people are poor here, eh?”
“Yes, but the government is taking care of that a lot now. Used to be there were families sleeping on the sidewalk wrapped in newspapers. And girls sold themselves for twenty cents. They have a good government since Aleman, Cardenas, Cortines…”
“The poor little bird of Mexica! And the little mother ! I can always say I’ve seen Mexica!” She pronounced it “Mexica.” I think because of the little mother. ◊