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This page currently contains the following articles, listed in the following order:

Reincarnation  by Richard Cretcher
At My Age?    by Allen McGill
Café Teatro Athanor, from The Jamais Vu Papers by  Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin
El Matador        by Wayne Greenhaw

5/13/04                Reincarnation                  by Richard Cretcher

         The thought of coming back to earth as another being or animal has always piqued my imagination.  Just in case the situation arose that a decision was required, I've been narrowing the options in recent years and pretty much settled on a Mallard Duck. The thought of coming back as a person was never appealing and in light of the current state of human affairs, that option is definitely ruled out now. Have always considered that it would be nice to be a male duck with all those beautiful feathers and just float around on a pond in some temperate clime.  And maybe even have a large harem around and do what ever it is that “daddy mallards” do.  However, during a walk on the beach this morning, I had second thoughts.

         Could I swallow my pride and have drab brown feathers and a long hairy neck?  Could I have an ugly pointed beak with a floppy pouch below?  After watching a large group of Pelicans today, the answer was yes!  It seems like the divide came with the 70th birthday.  Beautiful feathers are not as important as they used to be.  And the harem is sadly less exciting.  And do I want to be destined to boring days of just floating? Certainly not!  It may be the adolescent dream of being a WWII dive bomber pilot as a kid.  Or the ability to soar at high altitudes like, my favorite of all times, the B-17 Flying Fortress.  Or to skim barely above the surface of the ocean like a P-40 Flying Tiger.  With this new option, I will be able to do all these things plus much more.  Consider the joy of the dive bomb approach without the restriction of pulling out before hitting the surface.  And, don't forget the potential goody that awaits the floppy pouch.  Also there is always the possibility of being chosen the point of the V formation from time to time.  Or those times of going with my buddies to several thousand feet to soar and circle on rising air currents without ever flapping my wings.  And it’s nice to know that just plain floating is also an option.

         I watched this flock of Pelicans today and marveled at the skill of these huge birds maneuvering around the large breakers as they came in.  They would float over the top of the wave if it hadn't broken yet.  They would dive through it if it started to break.  And they could take off if all else failed.  The movements were incredible; flawless perfection.  I am glad that age has granted me the insight to choose this new direction.  It is definitely the Pelican.  And am I sorry to abandon the Mallard?  No! Well, maybe I could ask for white feathers and just a little harem.  Who would care?

5/8/04            At My Age?            by Allen McGill

"And this was Nana and me way back in 1976," I said to my grandkids, who flanked me
on the sofa. I was leafing through the family photo album, a recent Thanksgiving tradition
born when the children had grown old enough to want to know what it was like in "the
good old days."

"This was taken on July 4th, at the bi-centennial jubilee, when we were entertaining in a
big, fancy New York nightclub." I smiled at the photo, and then laughed. "We got such
applause! Your mama was there, too. She was about the age you are now. Nana and I
were the dancers in the show, like Marge and Gower Champion."

"Who?" came the high-pitched duet. Timmy, six years old, sat on Gramps left, and Lori,
four, on my right.

Ginny, in the doorway, chuckled. "Dad, you might as well be talking about the Revolutionary
War, for all they'd know about the 1970's."

"Thanks, Ginny. You certainly know how to make your 'old man' feel older. I'm a very
young grandfather, barely into my 60's."

Ginny called to the children, "I want you to go upstairs to wash up. Dinner's almost ready."

As children do, they ran to the stairs, stomped up to the landing and banged the bathroom
door behind them.

I looked down at the photo from so long ago, my fingers stroking the dress Carrie had
worn, as if I could feel its texture once again.

Ginny crossed to sit beside me, her hair the burnished auburn her mother's had been.
"Dad, why don't you go back to dancing? You say the cruise lines have called you to
perform again. It would do you good. You should be with fun people, travel, maybe
discover a new life-style."

"I don't solo well," I told her, using my tone to say that the discussion was over. I knew
that what Ginny meant by "a new life-style" was that I should find a new love interest. It's
not simple to replace a part of your life that you've lost.  

"Hey, you guys," Ginny's husband called from the kitchen. "How about giving Chef Ken
a hand in here?"

"Coming, honey," Ginny called. "Come, Dad, join us." She pulled the album from my lap,
lifted my arm to lead me toward the kitchen.

*         *          *          *          *     

"My late wife and I had visited San Miguel years ago," I tell my fellow bench-sitter.
"We'd intended to come back some day, maybe even settle here, but then the medical
problems began."

"My case was similar," says Richard, a newcomer to the colonial Mexican hill town.
"Years ago, we came here every winter. But that was before my wife's heart problems."

We were enjoying the winter sunshine in the shade of the trees that surrounded the
main plaza, known by all as the Jardin. We face the pink stone Parrochia, or parish
church, and watch the white clouds drift slowly past, seeming almost hesitant to disturb
the unvarying blue of the sky. The church spires soar as if to snatch the clouds as
they pass.  

"You'll fit in just fine," I tell Richard. "All the people, locals and extranjeros, foreigners,
are friendly and helpful. We all work well together, and play the same way. Men, incidentally,
are in the minority, so you'll be meeting many of our ladies."

Two women in their mid-fifties stroll past, calling out to me with big smiles, but studying
Richard. "Loved your performance last night, Allen," calls the petite blond. "You're always
so wonderful."

"And you're always so complimentary." I wave back, laughing. "But thank you. I'm having
fun with the part."

"It shows," calls the somewhat chubby brunette with the pretty face. "You make the
audience enjoy it along with you."

"You certainly seemed to have settled in," Richard says, with an obvious touch of envy.
"Your Spanish, the people you know--and you're a performer?"

"It's easy here. You get to know lots of people in no time at all. People come here to make
changes in their lives. New country, language, customs, challenges. You just have to be a
little outgoing,  which I’ve had to relearn."

"This town is much more sophisticated than I'd have expected," Richard says with surprise. "What kind of performer are you?"

"Well, my wife and I were singer-dancers. When I moved here three years ago to establish my
independence--my daughter and her family were more concerned about me than I wanted them
to be--I got involved right away with the local theater groups and, aside from musicals, began to
act as well. Seems people liked what I did and I've been in one or two plays a season. I began
feeling like I was forty again. Started to have so much fun in theater, that I decided to take a
cruise out of Acapulco and see what the on-board talent is like. Shipboard life was such fun.
Which reminds me, I have to go pack."    

*       *       *      *       *       *      *       *

The sea was calm and the sun brilliant, but the cruise became suddenly wonderful when I met a
white-haired widow named Karen. In tux and gown, we dined, danced for hours, strolled the breezy decks to gaze at the stars and the white crests swirling alongside the hull. In no time we were like old friends and seemed to have so much in common. She’d even been to San Miguel years before with her husband, and loved it.

“How long have you two been married?” a lady we met in the cocktail lounge the second night asked.  We laughed as one, but didn’t let on that we’d just met.

We took a shore excursion the next day. It was bright and carefree, leading to a long talk alone
that evening in a quiet lounge. Later, I walked her to her cabin door, her hands pressed warmly in mine. "Meet me for breakfast?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," she answered, and then laughed. "I haven't had breakfast with a man my own age since my husband died. Eight o'clock?"

I lifted her hand to my lips and kissed it. "Eight o'clock."

She then stroked my cheek, smiled and closed the cabin door.

But she didn't arrive for breakfast, or for lunch. Hesitant, I made my way along the deck to her cabin.  The door was ajar when I reached it. Inside, the beds had been stripped and the closets were empty.   The cabin boy avoided my eyes. 

I thought to ask the purser, but I knew what he'd say. I'd heard similar stories before. A senior's
cruise may be a final cruise...albeit a happy one. I'd be taking some wonderful memories back to
San Miguel. 
                   
Can one really fall in love again so quickly? At my age? You betcha!

4/24/04  Café Teatro Athanor, excerpted from The Jamais Vu Papers ; ©1991 Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin) -- submitted by  Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin

[Authors' note: The late María De Céspedes was a painter, writer, and theatrical storyteller. From 1982 until 1990, she was director of the Café Teatro Athanor in San Miguel de Allende. For our novel The Jamais Vu Papers, we interviewed a number of real people and wrote them into the story-including María. In this excerpt, an academic named J.X. Brillig has been transported to San Miguel de Allende under the influence of a metaphor-based placebo ]

        It was night-a warm and semitropical darkness. Brillig was standing in a tiny cobblestone lane. And now-where was he? And what was he doing here? He looked around. The street was narrow and crooked. The surrounding houses had plaster walls and tile roofs. He could hear drums-a driving, pounding, crashing rhythm coming from not far away.
      Brillig followed the sound. He emerged onto larger and larger lanes. Automobiles began to appear, some parked precariously against the high stone curbs, others bouncing laboriously along the cobblestones, preposterous anachronisms lurching through the night, trying to find their way home to the twentieth century. He recoiled from the stark and crazy shadows the headlights cast everywhere.
At last, Brillig emerged onto a spacious town square with immaculately groomed trees pruned almost into perfect cylinders. The square was filled with people. Many were dark-skinned; others were gringos of various ages.
      I'm certainly not in Sequester, Missouri, anymore, Brillig thought wryly. But where?
    At that moment a bus full of youngsters pulled up in the square and began to unload. Brillig spotted the license plate.
Ah, I see. Mexico. But surely I must be only dreaming.
  The drums were louder-now, coming from the other side of the square. There a parish church towered, its stern, shadowy gothic lines leaning against the stars. He could see outsized shadows whirling against a building. They looked like gigantic feathers dancing. Then Brillig saw that these dancers were men, women, and children, laughing and obviously having a wonderful time.      
  Aside from the drums, musicians played upon turtle and armadillo shells. And the dancers wore chains of tiny seashells around their necks and ankles. In the courtyard of the gothic church, and in the street beside it, dancers moved together to pre-Columbian rhythms. Brillig pressed closer, fascinated by the startling juxtaposition.
   To add to the incongruity, the dance swarmed around and around a statue of a certain "Fray Juan de San Miguel"-a colonialist image if ever there was one, showing a saintly, dignified, and berobed monk comforting a cowering, naked savage. The dance seemed at once a mockery and a celebration of both this "Fray Juan" chap and the parish church itself.
  Norteamericano retirees in plaid pants and flowered dresses circulated with their cameras among the crowd of onlookers, firing off salvo after salvo of flashbulbs. The whole scene was a crazy juxtaposition of the Old World and the New, the Christian and the pagan, the Hispanic and the Anglo.
    It was too much to grasp. He needed to escape from all this turmoil to consider his situation. So he wandered away from the town square and up yet another cobblestone street.
  He passed a number of markets, cantinas, and farmacias. The street began to narrow as he went, and there were fewer and fewer cars. History itself seemed to wax and wane, warp and twist through the streets of this town.
        Brillig noticed, uncomfortably, that his movements were becoming rather jerky and awkward. He stopped and rested, then started again, but the condition did not change. His limbs actually seemed to be carrying him in a specific direction, as if with some purpose.
  At last, a colorful shop sign caught his eye. It hung over a heavy wooden doorway, and featured a brightly colored lion which appeared to be trying to devour a flaming sun. The sign announced:

                Café Teatro Athanor
             Un Lugar Magico

With what little remained of his high school Spanish, Brillig was able to translate that last phrase: "A Magical Place."
        Brillig stood in the balmy night and frowned. Why am I here? he wondered. He reminded himself that he was a man of reason. He had long professed a disbelief in magic. But something like magic had transported him to this strange world of juxtapositions and dualities. And despite all his rationality, he couldn't figure out how to find his way home.
    And so he moved jerkily through the door into the café. The first thing to catch his eye was a parchment nailed to the wall. In both Spanish and English, it defined the word "Athanor":

This word originally stood for the alchemist's crucible, into which he gazed waiting for the transmutation of base metals into philosophical gold. Theater, for us, is this crucible. The metals are the human materials, the resulting gold is the secret of life.

        Brillig looked around and found himself in a tiny, dimly lit theater. Patrons sat at tables covered with white cloths, sipping coffee, beer, or mineral water. They were a blend of Mexicans, norteamericanos, and still other nationalities, speaking in an easy and amiable mix of languages.
At the far end of the café was a miniature stage, concealed now behind a rust-red curtain. The proscenium arch featured a painting of a nude woman riding some sort of exotic sea creature. Her breasts were fountains of milk, and she was flanked on either side by dragons.
  Murals on the café-theater walls featured tarotlike images of skeletons, demons, earth mothers, and cosmic lovers. Chimerical animals joined the painted throng-strange birds and bats, and four-legged, sphinxlike beasts with pointed ears and wings and tails.
       Papier mâché masks and puppets hung all about. Painted in bright primary colors, they were of close kin to the mural figures.
   Brillig could hardly catch his breath. He was not at home in such exotic surroundings, but he nevertheless took a seat. He remembered a line that someone once wrote or said: "The Magic Theater is not for everyone."
  The question is, he wondered, is it for me?
     Brillig ordered a glass of mineral water. The houselights soon went down. The curtains opened. But no actors, sets, or properties appeared before his eyes.
     Instead, he saw...
      Shadows!
        Yes, a screen spread out before him, and upon it danced a multitude of shadows. These were no stark, ascetic shadows of black and white and gray. Instead, they were wildly colored and of fantastic shapes, created out of an assortment of different kinds of media-some solid, others multicolored, painted, translucent, or transparent. It was like a stained glass window exploding vibrantly to life. Shapes grew and blossomed, shrank and subsided, appeared and magically disappeared, while the theater was filled with the music of Steven Halpern and Edgar Varèse.
        There was narration, too-of a sort. But the shadow-play was based more on images than words. And the shadows told a tale. Doubtless, it was a different tale to every single person in the audience. It was a story of a blind child adopted by animals in the forest; of her quest into the world of human beings; of the men who had invented so many machines that they became mechanical, too; of the Spirits who rule the world; and of the Dance of Creation which human beings might someday reenter.
    Brillig sat and observed, absolutely spellbound. The dance of shadows filled him with a strange and inexplicable alarm.
When the curtain closed, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. Brillig started in his seat. He felt as though a spell had been broken. He found that he could not remember the story he had just seen. He swallowed the last of his mineral water. Shakily, he got to his feet.
        Members of the audience got out of their chairs and milled about talking to one another. Brillig found something about their movements strangely alien, unnerving. Their arms and legs swung jerkily. Were they all afflicted with the strange condition he had been experiencing?
      Carefully, he crept among them, hoping to find the enchanter-or enchantress-who had produced such magic. In a few moments, he found a woman sitting alone. She had a long, elegant face framed in a mane of wild, reddish hair. Her fingers were flamboyantly adorned with rings. A handsome stone dangled from one finger by a chain.
  "My name is Joseph Xavier Brillig," he said. "May I ask what's yours?"
  "María De Céspedes," said the woman, in a low, throaty voice with a rich French accent. "I am the director of the theater."
     "I thought as much," said Brillig.
      "Please take a seat," said María. Brillig did so.
       He faltered for a moment or two, wondering what to say. He did not wish to reveal the disquieting effect María's shadow-play had had upon him-much less to admit his own strange dislocation. And so he said, without exactly meaning it, "It was a diverting entertainment-although better suited to children, I suppose."
     The woman threw back her head and laughed. Then she looked at him, smiling. "So you did not care for it?" she inquired, her eyes gleaming with mischief. Brillig had the feeling she could see right through him.
       "Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Brillig nervously. "But I am-how shall I put it?-an admirer of Ibsen. The realistic theater, that's more to my liking. I think so often of poor Hedda, revealed at the end of Act IV in the alcove, dead and bleeding from her own gunshot wound, while Judge Brack cries out, 'But my God! People don't do such things!' Now that's real theater! Something that announces its reality to us! Something that tells us, vividly and plausibly, 'For good or bad, this is the way life is.'"
     Then María leaned forward and purred a question: "But is it truly realistic?"
   The question made Brillig even more uneasy than before, so he evaded it. "Of course," he said, "as a scholar, I have read about the long and time-honored tradition of shadow theater. It is called wajang kulit, if I am not mistaken, and it comes from Java.
"But here's what bothers me. Your shadow-play reminds me of Plato's allegory of the cave-surely you remember it. People are tied up inside the cave staring at the wall. Far behind them, in the back of the cave, a fire burns. Cutout figures are carried back and forth in front of the fire, casting shadows on the wall before these people. These shadows of mere cutouts are the only reality these poor wretches know-while outside the cave and completely unknown to them bums the real and ideal light of the sun.
   "Not that I buy into Plato, of course," added Brillig firmly. "But isn't your theater rather like his cave? And aren't you perpetuating more illusion in a world where reality is already confusing enough?"
    "People sometimes sense a consciousness that they can never touch," explained María enigmatically. "A feeling of this consciousness is what I always want to express."
  "But your theater is based on nothing more than images!" complained Brillig. "And all great theater is based on great texts! Think of the Greeks, of Shakespeare. Think of Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller."
   María shrugged. "I love text," she said simply, "but it happens that I don't use a lot of text. Sometimes I use text, sometimes no. I am happy when I can only use music." Then, with a laugh, she added, "Who wants to hear shadows talking? That is ridiculous!
       "You see, I love visual language, with masks, with images out of the subconscious. To use a big mask is very different than to use your face. I use the face, also. But the symbolic quality of a mask moves people in a deeper way. You push people to see things at another level.
    "And so I never direct myself toward people's intellect. I want to touch the subconscious.
      "It is a very old tradition to speak through images, not through language. Wise people have spoken always through images. The indigenous languages here in Mexico are rich with images. In the Nahuatl language, the word for river means 'the road moving by itself.'"
        Then, savoring the phrase, she repeated, "The road moving by itself!'
   "In many ways, I prefer to play in front of country people. The indigenous people here can sometimes catch what I'm trying to do better than an intellectual-better than a learned scholar like yourself, perhaps!"
     "It all strikes me as deliberate primitiveness," grumbled Brillig.
      "Perhaps it is," said María. "I have been told that what I do is very close to pre-hispanic theater. Well, I did not know this, and had not intended to do this. Others have said that what I do is like the source of theater. And after all, there has long been a tendency in modern art to look for something more organic. Picasso and others were looking for the source of art itself. And, like other modem artists, I want to catch the duality of the human being."
   Then María paused, smiled, and lit a cigarette. "Let me tell you a story that I have not yet put on stage," she said. "It is a tale on an Oriental theme.
       "A young man pays a visit to a wise man who is meditating near a river. 'I want to know God,' he tells the wise man. 'I want to see through all of life's illusions.'
   '"Very well,' the wise man says. 'But before I answer, take this pitcher and fetch a little water for me. I am thirsty.'
        "So the young man goes to the river to get some water. But as he is about to dip his pitcher there, what does he find in the water but a beautiful woman!
       "He falls in love. He forgets the water. He makes a life with the woman. She dies. He goes through all kinds of catastrophes and drama-you can fill in that part of the story yourself! Then, one day many years later, the young man remembers his original question. He returns to the wise man, more troubled than ever, and asks him the meaning of it all.
"But the wise man only says, 'Where is my water?'"
      Brillig stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then, his voice shaking with agitation, he said, "But that doesn't answer my question! All you've done is tell me a story without a message, without a solution!"
"I try never to offer a solution," said María bluntly. "It's too easy."
This was too much for Brillig. His life was a riddle enough already. He looked around for the most effective avenue of escape through the audience, but could not convince his body to get up and leave.
        Then again, he noticed something odd about everybody's movements. Glancing at María, he could see it about her too. He gazed at his own hand. What was it exactly?
      He made another quick survey of the Café Teatro Athanor. Then he realized the truth.
    Every single person in the theater was a puppet!
        Yes, why hadn't he seen it before? Everybody's movements were perfectly orchestrated. The whole scene was like some elaborate, exquisitely choreographed minuet. The hands and limbs were beautifully carved from wood, or shaped from papier mâché. The faces were all painted and glazed with brilliant sculptural detail. And he had come here and joined them, because he was a puppet, too.
        He could even see the puppeteers now. How had he missed them before? They were huddled in threes behind each puppet. One, whose face was uncovered, manipulated the head, the eyebrows, and the right arm of each puppet with little rods. His two assistants, cloaked in black but hardly invisible, manipulated the other arm and the legs.
   It was bunraku, Brillig realized with amazement-a Japanese form he had seen on television and read about. But now it seemed that all reality was bunraku.
       He gazed closely at María. The movements of her splendid features were more elaborately subtle than those of the other puppets. Her puppeteer seemed even to control the brilliant glistening of her eye, the tiniest motion of her lips.
       And now, Brillig raised his own hand and looked at it again. He felt a cold shudder in his wooden limbs. A stick, attached to him by a small metal swivel, extended below his hand and vanished behind him. He had not raised his hand at all. His puppeteer had raised it for him. He turned his head. No one was hiding behind curtains here. In his peripheral vision, he could fleetingly glimpse the face of his own puppet master.
        "Who's there?" he asked the puppeteer. "Who are you?"
   But of course, there was no answer. And Brillig knew the question was futile. Even the sound of his voice was not really his own. His very words were merely some ventriloquist's trick.
        He felt afraid. But surely that was also the result of some string or rod. How many wires, he wondered, what kind of illusion and artifice make up human feeling?
       And my thoughts-this thought ... and this thought-who is working the controls?
  Gasping slightly, he said to María, "We are all puppets. This is all a puppet show. Is this what you meant by 'a consciousness that we can never touch'? And is it this consciousness that you're trying to express?"
   But María made no reply. She only smiled at him. Then she looked at her watch.
  "Intermission is over," she said. "The second half of the show is about to begin."
      And sure enough, the bunraku audience members were all returning to their seats.
        Brillig trembled in his chair. He felt his heart-or the sensory illusion that he called his heart-beating wildly.
       "Oh, please, María," he said. "Please tell me what comes next in this magic theater of yours. I can't bear any more surprises. My reality is battered enough already."
  "Don't worry," said María pleasantly. 'The next drama is solely for you. And you shall choose it for yourself."
And she held out a small, woolen pouch. She opened it, revealing a deck of cards, their faces down.
     "Would you care to mix the deck?" asked María.
  Brillig only shook his head. María spread the cards across the table. Brillig chose a card and turned it over.
  It was the tarot Trump III, "The Empress," a golden-haired goddess lounging on a luxurious, pillow-laden couch in the midst of a lush, green garden. She wore a glorious crown encrusted with stars and an opulent necklace of identical pearls. In her right hand she held a scepter topped with a small yellow globe- a symbol of the sun's fecundity. Resplendent wheat grew at her feet, and majestic trees towered in the distance behind her.
     On the café stage, the rust-red curtains opened. And behold, the Empress herself, the most perfect of all the puppets, was sitting there in her garden. To be sure, the wheat was cut out of cardboard and the trees sculpted out of chicken wire and papier mâché, with leaves of bright green construction paper. And to be sure, the three puppeteers were in full view.
     And yet, the whole scene was the more alive for being all illusion. Brillig heard himself mutter, "This is real. This is as real as real can get."
      Then the scene upon the stage began to change. The yellow cardboard wheat turned a wilting brown. The green paper leaves turned yellow and red; they trembled and threatened to fall. And the Empress's crown started to droop. Her expression of pleasure and contentment at the earth's bounty turned to one of anguish and despair.
  And did Brillig see a tear spill from her brilliant eye? And did that tear mar the glaze of the goddess's exquisite features? And if so, how did the puppet master succeed in making his creation weep? It was an act of splendid artifice.
     A gusty chill passed through the theater. There came a rattling like wind chimes as all the puppets in the Café Teatro Athanor shivered. He heard the goddess mourn, "She is gone. She is dead."
        This drama is for me? Brillig wondered. The thought disturbed him deeply. He turned toward María appealingly. "Help me," he said. "Help me to make her understand it is only a play. Tell her that no one has died."
    María shook her head. "I cannot," she said. "It is your story now."
     The goddess keened and sobbed. Brillig could not bear her pain. He stepped upon the stage and into her story.

3/31/2004           El Matador        by Wayne Greenhaw

     He stood straight as a fence post. Toes together. Feet anchored. Ankles touching. Not as tall nor as slender as most headline matadors he’d seen in the ring on the hillside, Juan Luis drew himself up, squaring his shoulders, stiffening his neck, raising his chin, sucking in the muscles of his stomach, wishing himself tall and slender and handsome. The muscles pulled taut and flat. He pictured himself among the best of the best, el torero.

     He followed all of the procedures as his mind flickered through the remembrance of last winter’s corrida. He heard the trumpets blare. The roar of the crowd was deafening. It was not easy to remember every single step, every minute detail, but Juan Luis worked his mind through the labyrinthine layers of thought, peeling away the mirrors of everyday happenings and fixing his memory on that one afternoon in November when the matador stepped onto the carpet of dust. 

     Juan Luis had been building his muscles every afternoon for months in the backyard of Tio Pepe’s mechanics shop on Ancha San Antonio, less than five-hundred meters from the fancy glass-walled gym on Calle Sterling Dickinson, where the wealthy gringos and the vacationers from Mexico City exercised in their color-coordinated outfits and their fancy triple-toned Nike running shoes. Instead of barbells, Juan Luis lifted auto parts -- rusted old axles, brake-cylinders, even fenders from wrecked vehicles Tio Pepe and his workers tore apart and put back together and made to run again.

     Now, in the morning in the seventh month of his fifteenth year, he stood in the semicircle of dirt in front of the concrete bench, hidden from the street by a wall of giant green leaves of the plants that grew like a tropical jungle around the border of parque de Benito Juarez. Juan Luis felt the heavy weight of the old cape through his shoulders and in his bulging biceps. He lifted the thick cape up and out, swinging in a circular pattern. His wrists that had grown thicker and stronger since the spring worked like well-oiled pistons in the engines Tio Pepe fixed in his shop.

     Juan Luis swept the cape out, straightening his left arm, keeping his shoulders perfectly balanced. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, moving with the liquid grace of a ballet dancer, his feet not becoming tangled until the pass was almost finished.

     From atop the stone house across the cobblestone street came the critical growl of the dog who watched Juan Luis’s every movement. The black-masked pit bull sat on his broad haunches, his big head lurking above the terracotta-capped edge of the rooftop garden where sometimes Juan Luis saw the maid stealing glances at his practice session between the leisurely arches of her broom. The dog appeared menacing at first glance, then Juan Luis felt a reassurance when he visibly measured the many meters from the top of the mansion to the street below. The assurance of distance made the boy flutter his cape with more bravado, causing the dog to become more angry, bearing his teeth, growling deep in his throat. He was doing his job as protector of his family, guard dog to the magnificent house.

     As Juan Luis moved, dancing quickly to keep from falling over his own feet, waves fluttered across the thick cloth of the old cape he’d found discarded outside the small ring at Ranchero Adobra off the road to Celaya. It was there that the ranchers held tientas to view the cows who would give birth to the bulls of the future. Juan Luis had heard the so-called experts sitting around drinking tequila and talking about their vast knowledge of the ring, speaking with great authority about the bravery of Don Chucho’s bulls, the dominant male genes passed from generation to generation. These men sat around the tables at Ole’ Ole’, the barroom on Calle Loreta, beneath the watchful eyes of Toro Grande, the bravest bull in all of El Bajio, the broad central valley of Mexico that stretched from Queretaro north past Leon, where the finest vegetables and the bravest bulls were grown, where they matured and were harvested. “That bull,” the men said, saluting the stuffed head and glassy eyes of Toro Grande, “he was the best. He kicked the dirt. He snorted. His thrust was straight and true. He did not try the cunning tricks of a counterfeit champion. No! He was true to his breeding. His father had been a champion before him, but even the father did not own the heart that this one had.” Juan Luis listened as he swept the floor of the cantina, sweeping it over and over until it was spotless, while taking in every word that was spoken by these men of knowledge. Between strokes of the broom, Juan Luis looked up at the huge stuffed bull’s head, his big powerful black eyes, his strong brow, and well-shaped horns that had fought the good fight on that Sunday afternoon ten years ago.

     On Saturday afternoons, he traveled with his mother and father to San Filipe, more than a hundred kilometers to the north of San Miguel. They carried with them a splendid comida of succulent carnita his mother had spent all day Friday preparing, tasty salsas, verde and rojo, that his mother made with fresh tomatoes and tomatillos, onions and peppers and garlic. On the patio of his grandfather’s house he listened intently to the old man tell the real truth about the fighting bulls. “The bravery comes from la madre,” the old man stated without exaggeration as he chewed the tender meat. As he spoke to Juan Luis, the old man’s small dark wrinkle-framed eyes were fixed on his daughter as she piled food generously onto each plate. “The mother passes the heart to her youngsters, and it is from her heart that true champions are made.”

     As Juan Luis stood under the shade of the giant trees in the park near the place where his own mother washed the clothes of the gringo family for whom she worked, he imagined the broad-shouldered toro, brown as the richest dirt, muscles as tense and undulating as the horse Juan Luis had once seen in the last throes of life, after it had been knocked into a ditch by an on-rushing eighteen-wheel transfer truck. The horse had made the most terrible sound Juan Luis had ever heard. Even now, three years later, the boy could still hear the echo of that tortured animal. He could see the head rising upward, its eyes bulging, the sinews in its neck knotting and tightening, its mouth opening and its teeth biting an invisible enemy as the sound urged out of the deep throat and the scream careened through the dusty air, expressing the torture it felt in that last moment of life, before it collapsed into supreme silence.

     As Juan Luis remembered that deadly afternoon, he held his arms outstretched, feeling the weight of the heavy rug pull on his shoulders. Overhead, leaves of the laurels shimmered. A rattling sound like dry maze in August, one stalk brushing against another, like a thousand stalks, like a million, until the number was infinitesimal, a number Juan Luis could not even comprehend in his meager mind. He shivered, chillbumps covering the backs of his forearms. The sound, he thought, was an ominous sound of something sad, like bones rattling at midnight on the Day of the Dead. It was a sign.

     As the cape swept through the thick air of the summer morning, Juan Luis whispered, “Toro! Toro! Eh, toro!” The brush of death was so close, Juan Luis felt it under his arms, where the sweat poured as the hoofbeats of the huge bull beat against the hard earth of the urban park. The sound that was so loud and real it reverberated in Juan Luis’ ears caused a vibration that tingled up through the patched soles of the hand-me-down loafers his mother had brought home from the mansion on the hill where she scrubbed floors and made beds when she was not washing gringo clothes. But to the boy, the shoes he wore were handmade of Spanish leather, crafted especially for him by a talented artisan who made handtooled saddles in a taller in the village of Mineral de Pozos, where the best chorros in all of Mexico went to have their equipment fashioned from the finest hide.

     He twisted his entire body, flexing his knees as he’d seen the great matador Valenzuela perform last November. As he pivoted, Juan Luis caught the quick whiff of the bull’s breath, the fecund flavor of the animal’s aroma, filled with fright and fury. He tasted the dry dust kicked up in the animal’s aftermath. 

     As the broad leaves of the green plants fluttered when he finished his perfect pass, Juan Luis heard the sound of applause that started as a hushed silence, began as a young senorita’s single clap, and grew to a deafening roar, thundering all around as he pirouetted on tiptoe, holding the poised pose. He would not bow to them. He held his head high -- higher even than it had been moments earlier -- proud and aloof. Now he was the master of the ring. His stature was that of Valenzuela, the dark one who came down from Ciudad Chihuahua and fought in the ring on the hill. With his last bull of the corrida, the one that came within a gnat’s hair of his non-existent belly and turned in a rage and lifted its nostrils into the hot air and breathed fire, like Beelzebub’s brother, he cut two ears and a tail. In his glittering suit of lights, a black-and-silver picture of perfection, aglow in the last glitter of Sunday afternoon sunlight, he marched proudly around the ring like a gamecock who’d just dissected the heart of his opponent. Juan Luis was sitting in the bright sun, squinting his eyes against its brightness, when the stranger threw down a goat’s skin fat with wine and Valenzuela turned it up and squeezed until the delicate stream of red hit the back of his mouth and he swallowed proudly through the count of cinco.

     “Hey, toro!” came the shout from the paved pathway that cut through the center of the park. “Hey, hey, hey!”

     Juan Luis shifted his vision from his imaginary bull to the trio of ninas in their starched blue blouses and thigh-length blue-and-green plaid skirts. All three remained half-hidden behind the large green leaves of the elephant-ear plants that separated Juan Luis’s circle of packed dirt from the brick path. The girls watched with delighted dark eyes. Covering their mouths with cupped fists, they giggled in unison.

     Rather than turn away or hide from them, Juan Luis faced them openly, shook his cape with a grimacing fury, and growled not unlike the perro on the rooftop. “Ay, ay, ay!” His toes danced in the dirt as their giggles turned to full-fledged laughter. “Juanito,” one of the girls shouted. “El matador grande, mucho calejo!

     “Ah, Juanito,” another exclaimed.

     The girls danced toward the exit, delighted in their rapture.

     Juan Luis watched as they climbed the steps and moved together toward Calle Sollano where they would continue on their way to their homes in el centro near the town square, Jardin Allende.

     As the trio stepped together, laughing and talking, their sounds blending, Juan Luis saw a movement neither he nor they had anticipated.

     From the roof of the house he saw a streak of gray. Like a flash of lighting out of a clear blue sky, the pit bull burst from its perch where it usually paced and made its sound. The dog lurched through the air, landing atop a balcony above the garage where red and pink bougainvillea flowed like colored drapes from a designer’s window. When the animal landed, the force of its muscular body tore the plant’s roots and ripped the vines, breaking his fall.

     But the dog, obviously intent in its mission, never slowed but shifted its weight and pounced through the air toward the narrow sidewalk where the girls skipped giddily up the street.

     Juan Luis, watching from his semicircular stage that had only moments earlier been his bullring, gathered the cape under his arm and ran with all the speed he could manage. He never let thought hinder his movement. He was out of the park in an instant and across the street in two leaps. Like the legendary Zorro, he whipped his cape from beneath his elbow and swung it open and out, putting up an immediate barrier between the dog and the girls.

     “Toro!” he cried with guttural rage.

     The girls hovered in a doorway, squeezing themselves into a huddle, squealing and tottering on tiptoes, dropping their books and slapping their hands together out of unadulterated fright.

     “Toro!” Juan Luis growled.

     The dog halted. He shifted the massive muscles of his shoulders to the left, then to the right. He stared bleary-eyed at the boy who stood in his way. He showed his teeth and grumbled deep in his throat. He stepped forward.

     But Juan Luis did not hesitate. He shifted his own weight. He swung the cape toward the three-foot-tall dog, waving it.

     When the wrinkle of the material slapped against his nose, the dog threw itself forward.

     Juan Luis did not give an inch. He snapped his wrist and shoved the cape toward the side of the house, forming a boundary between the angry dog and the frightened girls.

     Instantly, the heavy jowls opened and snapped.

     Juan Luis felt something tear in his right arm, but he did not jerk away. He extended it farther, not relinquishing his grip on the cape nor giving up his position.

     “Toro!” he growled again. He bit down on the word. He insisted on gaining every ounce of the dog’s attention, and as quickly as he had reacted before, the dog broke toward Juan Luis. A moment later, the dog was on top of the boy, who fell to the cobblestones. The dog tore at the boy’s clothes and gripped his upper arm in its teeth. As the pain burned through his arm like a fire, blood spurted like a crimson fountain. The teeth of the dog bore down to the bone of the boy’s arm would not let go.

     Two women rushed from nextdoor houses. With brooms, they beat the dog until he released the arm. When the women beat him harder, he yelped and ran away. The women lifted Juan Luis and swabbed his wounds with towels. After he limped to the hillside house where his mother worked for the rich gringo family he was taken to the public hospital. There, after the doctors sewed up three different wounds, fixing the tendons by tying them to the bone of his shoulder, the medical experts declared that the boy would never have the ability to hold a heavy cape parallel to his body. His muscles were too badly injured. They would never heal properly.

     But Juan Luis did not listen to the men who talked without emotion. They knew nothing. They were medical men who wore white suits and talked in words filled with knowledge of the brain but not the heart. They knew nothing of the beauty and depth of courage. He would show them. And he would show the young girls in the starched white blouses and short plaid skirts. One day they would go to the plaza and they would watch as he performed the fiesta brava without a touch of fear. He knew.

Objectives of this page: this section will contain all "short fiction stories" that meet the criteria described in Instructions .   All stories will be published in the date order of receipt, with the latest stories on top (the oldest nearer the bottom).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Underpromise and Overdeliver”

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