Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Barranquilla XVII: Mourning Joselito

Dawn was just breaking and was she was already in mourning. Nancy sat alone--not even Ruiz was up yet--pensive at the courtyard breakfast table in a black satin gown. Fat Tuesday on the Colombian coast is a denouement, still a party, but with a theme well suited to reflection.

The final send off parade was not another manic celebration along the wide open swath of the industrial corridor, but a funeral procession within the narrower concrete banks of the Calle 84.

Within hours of the last revelers staggering home, or falling on the wayside of the once a year phenomenon of streets turned open air nightclub, women in black veils lined the raised sidewalks to weep for Joselito.

According to legend, Joselito was a coach driver who was found passed out drunk in his carriage the last day of Carnival. His friends put together a make-shift coffin and toasted Joselito with cane liquor before drawing his coach through the streets. Thousands of last-legged celebrants, laden with the guilt of their own overindulgences, stricken with grief for the unknown man whose fate was worse than hangover, fell into line unaware of the joke being played. Hundreds of years later Barranquilleros still recreate the mock procession. No one mourns more devoutly than Nancy Meyer.

I made my own coffee in the kitchen and joined the somber matriarch. She attempted a smile, but her mouth could not push back at the wrinkles weighing down her cheeks; her eyes were dulled with sleeplessness and the recent humiliation of her dethroning in the bleachers. Her face was a mask of somnolent reflection betraying the tens of thousands of hours at trial before the mirror, in cross examination of every new blemish and imperfection, the accumulated testimonies in the case of beauty versus time. I noticed what seemed a new flaccidity of jowl, a new ring on her neck recording her sixty fourth Spring. The coming year would leave her a half century past her reign as Queen Carnival.

I hadn’t returned to Villa Meyer until yesterday evening, and had yet to hear what happened to Nancy and Diego after their scuffle in the stands at Saturday’s parade. The sergeant at the police tent had assured me they were not in the habit of arresting the elderly. Nancy seemed to have enough on her mind without me asking about her ignominious departure.

“Diego has returned to Bogota.” Nancy said.

“Is he alright?”

“A papaya given, a papaya taken,” she said. It was a Colombian expression, with so many uses I was never sure of the meaning. In this case, an admission that she had allowed herself to play the fool, or perhaps there was another papaya.

We sipped our coffee and listened to the breeze blowing through the mango and almond trees, ripping at the dead palm fronds and rustling the plastic on the trash heap the next courtyard over. In the distance I could make out the churn of river-stained surf.

We lingered in our thoughts as the grey light of dawn gave way to morning sun that rose hot and sharp over the coastal hangover. As I thought of the words to thank my host for her hospitality, I saw the confidence rebuilding in the grooves of her face. She put her cup on the table and took my hand into hers. What power those eyes must have held forty years ago. The old puma’s stare no longer mesmerized.

“You know there is room for you here, my love.”

She squeezed her hand to feel for Diego’s replacement. Why wouldn’t she entertain the possibility with the lost gringo, out of step with time and reason, on a sojourn to understand a place where she fancied herself royalty. I was an older man for her after all, Diego was seven years my junior.

Clasped in the dry scales of her hand, I entertained the possibilities of lingering at the Villa Meyer--Irene’s outrage, Ruiz’ redoubled looks, the upstairs bedroom. Had Diego made love with the woman five decades his senior? It seemed implausible that the shadow of a boy was capable of such a delicate production as intercourse with a sexagenarian, but then I could not have imagined the unannounced explosion of energy that propelled him off the bleacher and into the gut of his foam spraying antagonist, or his furious protest at his and Nancy’s arrest on the parade grounds.

The spell was broken when the doorbell rang. Irene was at the front gate, she had either crashed with someone in town or stayed up all night. By her red eyes and flushed face I guessed the latter. She grumbled morning and went straight for her bedroom.

Moments later a guttural roar shook the house. Irene burst back through the bedroom door and headed straight for the computer where her sleepy eyed youngest daughter was watching a video. She grabbed the child’s arm and began shaking her.

“Everything is a mess. What is wrong with you? I didn’t raise you to be a pig!”

The little girl, who couldn’t have been awake more than a few minutes, protested her innocence. Irene slapped her across the face.

“Don’t talk back to me. You need to learn how to act like a girl.”

I ducked into the room which looked about the same as it had on the first night when five of us shared the two mattresses. The mess, dirty clothes and empty DVD boxes on the floor, an overflowing ashtray by the bed, was mostly Irene’s.

By the time I reemerged with my backpack, Irene was finished with her youngest daughter. The little girl whose name I had already forgotten, children are an afterthought during Carnival, was curled into a ball crying in the corner. I wondered if she was old enough to know that mommy’s cocaine addiction and not anything she had done was responsible for the outburst.

“You are a good girl. You are a very good girl.” I said it several times as I patted her on the head. It was all I could think to say.

I paid my respects to the matriarch in mourning, thanking her for everything. I would not have experienced Carnival had it not been for Nancy Meyer. I tried to give her the press pass she had insisted so vehemently I get, but she smiled and shook her head.

“That is for you, mi amor, so you’ll remember to return to us.”

She bid me a speedy return, in time to celebrate another Carnival.

“When you do, I have a niece for you. She is a good girl, she will make a good wife.”

I returned to the city in time for a family lunch at the Najar’s, Rosita and Elena were eager for a report on Carnival with the Meyers. The two families were plausibly within concentric circles of gossip, so I spared the salacious details. It was scandalous enough to the old maid and her ancient mother that an old and single woman like Nancy was still out on the town in any capacity. Elena smiled and shook her head whenever I mentioned the elder Meyer.

“No, no, no” she said as she chuckled into her lap. The joke would have been funnier if she had known about Nancy’s twenty something lover, or their parade exit in handcuffs. The comedy for her was a woman who did not know when to accept the limitations of age.

With the whole Najar clan back, stuffed into their living room, there was not enough couch space to accommodate the toll of sedation induced by mama’s fish soup. Rosita must have sensed my hesitation before the long road to Monteria. Since their Carnival renters had left that morning and they did not have a new tenant, she suggested I take back the apartment.

“Wee-liam! Stay! As long! As you want to!”

My eyelids were too heavy to contemplate the next move, though the journey had been condensing in my mind for weeks. Across the jungle to Panama, up the spine of Central America to Mexico and Texas, from New Orleans to Natchez and finally the Trace home.

First I needed a nap. I handed Mama the bills meant for the bus ticket and shuffled into the tenant’s apartment where I fell back into the uneven mattress and afternoon dreams of death and lost time.

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