Sunday, December 27, 2015

Where to Come From When You Don't Know Where You're Going

I left Paraguay on a bright morning, the last in a series of bright mornings. Summer was coming. The mangos were ripening and Asuncion was getting warmer. The warm weather, after a spell of rain, brought on a kind of frenetic activity. The city was more awake. The cars sped by faster. The colorful birds in the park were chirping louder under riotous clusters of vines and torn banana leaves. The flowers were blooming brighter. Passion flowers strung over walls like Christmas tree lights and huge clusters of bougainvillea spilled out over the streets.

The apartment was empty; we had either sold or given everything away the day before and the white walls of the place mocked the life we had created there as something unsustainable. The chipa vendor drove past in his car with his loud speakers announcing his product and the sound filled the empty rooms with permanence. Here was a feature of Asuncion that would last long after my own contribution had faded.

My phone wouldn’t work, so I made a run down to the taxi stand. The driver brought me back to the apartment one last time to pick up Gina who was waiting at the curb with the bags and a patient expression. Driving through traffic on Esubio Ayala Avenue, I talked to the driver about the last two years. I told him I’d worked all over the country. I told him about the little Guarani I knew. I told him about some of the classes I’d taught and listened to him talk about the life of a taxi driver in a city that knows little tourism, where the streets are too narrow for the volume of traffic and where there are no traffic lights or stop signs at most intersections. But these things had become normal for us and we didn’t bother to mention them. Rather we talked about the details of our lives and the weather.  I watched the rugged avenue of car repair stalls and shattered, oil-stained sidewalks spin away as we made our way to the bus terminal.

After waiting in vain many times for buses that were cancelled or hours late, I was happy to see ours pull into the station on time. We boarded and watched in awe as the city’s Carmelitas neighborhood drifted under our windows for the last time. The branches on the lapacho or teju trees slapped at the bus’s extra high roof. The street widened to ruta 9 and we passed the necropolis of unfinished and abandoned apartment blocks that marks Asuncion’s boundary with Loma Pyta. Next to this ghostly city of open window frames and grass-covered streets, the Mariano Shopping Mall stood, flashing its McDonald’s sign like a counter argument. In minutes, we were over the Remanso Bridge and out of Asuncion. Down the river, the city stood like a mirage in the heat haze of the afternoon for a moment and was gone, covered by the jungle-like copse of the Chaco as we came down on the other side of the bridge. In a few minutes, we were at the Argentine border and it was like Paraguay hadn’t even been just past the Parana River. It was just northern Argentina, rolling up from its pampas to meet Brazil and the rest of the humid, river-sundered continent.

At night, we crossed the Argentine Chaco, until it grew blanched and salty and lifted up into the Atacama Desert where we crossed into Chile and the town of San Pedro and flung our tent down for the first time. Returning from our desert excursions only to cook food and talk about the kindness of the local dogs, who are over-eager to be employed as guides, or at least protectors. One of whom was a Labrador with close-set eyes and an ever-wagging tail who ran behind our bikes so far into the salt desert we had to flag down a car to take him back to the shade and water of San Pedro when he started showing signs of exhaustion.

In San Pedro, we also met Sergio, who drove us out to see the flashing desert stars and the canyons surrounding the town. He was upset that we weren’t able to stay longer, but understood when we told him we had saved our time for Patagonia. “Those people are ridiculously hospitable down there,” he told us while cooking us dinner and giving us 5 dollar bottles of high-end spring water from his restaurant. It seemed if Patagonians were to be more hospitable than this man, we would be lucky to make it out without gaining a few pounds.

From San Pedro we continued down to La Caldera, chosen as the next best thing to the Parque Pan de Azucar, which Sergio had told us had been closed by landslides. We got off the bus in the grey early morning that comes to beach towns, the sand and salt and sound of gulls in the air. The wood on the homes was all weathered and grey. The dogs smelled like dead fish and followed us down the empty sidewalks. There were no window lights. The town looked empty save for the occasional sputtering neon sign.

We went down to the water to find a place to stay. As we passed a gas station, a man in a small bus called out “hey, are you looking for a hotel?” We told Mario (as it turned out his name was) that we were looking for a hostel. He told us were to find one and then added that he left from this place at this time every morning for the Pan de Azucar Park. “It’s not closed?” we asked, confused. “No, it’s not closed,” he assured us and we slung our bags down and climbed onto his little bus, leaving our dog pack escort smelling each other in the pre-dawn gas station parking lot.

There are a lot of small fishing villages outside of La Caldera and we stopped at most of them to pick up kids bound for school in the next town of Chañaral. While Gina and I dosed, the kids got on their school bus, glanced at the two foreigners and their giant bags, shrugged and went to sit at the back of the bus. Drifting in and out of sleep, I couldn’t help but to wonder how I would take it if one morning there had been an aged and bearded man sleeping on massive backpack seated in the front or my school bus, but these kids didn’t seem to mind and when we let them off, they said goodbye to us like we were a normal fixture in their lives.

We didn’t have water or enough food for camping, so Mario took me to the grocery store. As I shopped, he followed me around making suggestions. Saying things like “that’s not going to be enough to drink,” and “don’t forget to get plenty of beer!” When he saw me pick up a 6-liter bottle of water he smiled and said “good idea,” like he as waiting to see if I would remember to bring water to the desert.

Both Sergio and Mario and been right. Pan de Azucar was closed and it wasn’t. There was no closed gate, no park ranger turning back cars, but the cabanas and huts were all empty. After the landslide that had closed off a lot of this area, everything looked abandoned. Windows were glazed over, announcements flapped dryly in the wind and the sand was drifting over the parking lot we pulled into. A dog, who may have eaten some bad algae, saw us and tried to stand up, flopped over and then tried again. Mario told us that he’d be coming back the next day at 6 pm. We thanked him and sleepily stepped down from the bus and pitched our tent on the beach. Some fishing boats bobbed in the bay and some other campers greeted us and told us they’d been here three days and we were the first people they’d seen apart from the fishermen. The sick dog tried to stand up again and failed, falling back over into the sand.

In the empty park, we went swimming in the frigid waters, inspected tide pools, caught massive red-purple crabs and watched them flail around, trying to pinch something and we climbed up the rocky outcroppings to talk about the ocean, which I hadn’t seen in years. The Pacific, even down here. The same ocean north in Lima, lapping against Miraflores in the fog, in Panama City sloshing the wrong way through the Canal and in San Francisco cresting and falling under the bridge, drying on the shores of Angel Island. The gargantuan properties of the ocean were indicated by signs on the beaches which warned against swimming and the heavy pull of the receding tides on my ankles, cautioned me from going in any further than the shallows where I fell into the waves like the sick dog struggling to stand on the beach.

Camping on the beach makes everything wet. I woke the next morning damp and sand-matted and made coffee on the camp stove, holding my hands over the blue flame. There were no bathrooms and no trees and we both wandered far away into the foggy morning before coming back to the camp and washing our hands in the ocean. As our water reserves dropped, it occurred to me that if Mario didn’t come back in the evening, I had no idea how we would get out of the park that we were miles into. To take my mind off this, I suggested a walk and we walked far out onto the rocky outcroppings where the long strands of seaweed tangled against the swollen remnants of fishing boats and dead urchins.

At 6:30, Mario’s bus drove back into the camping area, we brought our large bags back onto his bus and it was like we had never been there. The fishing boats bobbed in the waves out on the bay and the fog slid back over the tops of the cliffs dampening the succulent plants that grew there, tenaciously in the sand.

We took a series of buses down into Santiago and, after camping for a week, relaxed in the city for a while before taking a flight to Punta Arenas in Patagonia.

I knew that Torres del Paine was a fantastic draw for tourists, but I hadn’t expected the crowds that 
began the moment we disembarked at the tiny Punta Arenas airport. As most of the people headed to the park were younger, almost no one seemed to have a plan. We all stood on the curb of the airport, waiting for a shuttle to come, waving frantically at the buses that passed by without even slowing. As the hour grew later, the crowd grew as more flights came in but no one procured a way out of the airport. When a small van-sized shuttle pulled up before the backpacked mass, people ran and through their bags quickly into the open trunk to reserve a place. We watched all this from far away, resigning ourselves to wait until the crowds thinned out before trying to get on anything.

Once we left the airport, we went to the Punta Arenas bus station to take a bus to Puerto Natales, which was what everyone else was doing. The bus station was packed full of the same people who had all been at the airport. We managed to wrangle the last two seats on the next bus set to depart and when we arrived at Puerto Natales, the backpackers scattered in all directions through the town, looking for accommodations and camping supplies. Within a day we were all in the Torres del Paine Park with our camping gear and dehydrated food.

Gina and I camped for seven days in the park, waking up every morning to hike to the next camp site. Some of our hikes were short, less than five hours. Others were long, over eleven hours. The problem with camping in Patagonia, even in the summer, is that it is cold. Once we stopped moving, the cold settled into our bones and the only thing to do was to climb into our sleeping bags. Every night we were in the park, we went to sleep before it was dark, but we were only a few thousand kilometers from Antarctica at the summer solstice and the sun didn’t set until around 10:30. Even after midnight, deep twilight blue currents still ran through the sky making it difficult to discern morning from evening and we woke early most days to the sun already full in the sky and though it was bright, the wind often carried away much of the warmth, making walking imperative to regenerate heat after a brisk morning coffee.

We climbed up in the park and soon the misting rains turned to snow which pecked at the verdant life of the park with the sound of something effervescing and at times it seemed the snow was not falling down but that we were rising through the trees, up to the snow white peaks above the glacial lagoons and the foraging grey foxes.

We came out of the forest onto the mountains on the third day and stumbled through snow-covered scree and frozen mud. Under a canopy of thin, leafless trees, we set up camp, continually brushing the snow off our tent throughout the night, kicking our feet back and forth in our sleeping bags to keep the blood flowing through our cold extremities. At dawn, I forced myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag into the cold damp of the tent. Lifting the flap, I saw how we had been buried in snow. The white forest floor rose and fell in peaks where tents had been set up the evening before. I packed up the tent, knocking off the snow with frozen hands and we made for the John Gardner Pass.
The snow had erased all signs of the trail and we bumbled through waist-high drifts looking for the orange markers. When we climbed above the tree line, there was no trail, only a white mountain ahead of us that we had to cross to come down into the forests nurtured by the snow melt on the other side.

We walked in a line, buffeted by wind and snow, stepping over frozen rivulets where streams of water still ran just beneath the ice. We hoisted ourselves onto rocky outcroppings and stepped down into the tunneled footprints of those climbing just ahead of us. At the top of the pass, the wind was calm and Glacier Grey fanned out like a spectral field before us. A blue like that of an eye with a cataract glowed in the fields of ice beneath our feet. The sepulchral light rose into the sky like a graveyard spilling its immortal contents into the heavens. Between the ice crags, the light was turquoise, at the bottom, where it mixed with the earth, it was cerulean and where it met the snows and opened to the sky it was teal-white, like the faint blue of milk riven with chemicals; titanium white.

In the afternoon, we came down over the pass into temperate rain forest. The thunder of the breaking glacier followed us down the mountain and the streams of melt water soaked into the loamy soil and carried little rocks down the hill side. In places, the water collected in crystal pools, reflecting back the immensities of green and blue that surrounded them. The beauty of this Magellanic forest was such that I continually wanted to lie down among the ferns and be forgotten by the rest of the world, but the cold was such that we kept walking, and by the end of the day, we had walked nearly 13 hours. For the first night since we had begun camping, I slept until dawn.

When we came out of the park, we went back to Puerto Natales to pass a day before going down to Tierra del Fuego. In Puerto Natales, we walked around in the evening, searching for the town that lay beneath the touristy veneer, the town on the Ultima Esperanza Sound patched together with corrugated metal, crackling paint, car parts, dog fur and rampant flower gardens spilling out of their wooden fences and running down the grey, windy streets in purple and red streaks.

One night we passed Central Restaurant. The letters that made up the sign were hanging from skewed angles. The place looked half-abandoned, but the light and warmth escaping from inside proclaimed that it was open, at least marginally.

Inside there were a few small tables with institutional chairs pushed up against their red and white checked tablecloths. A menu on the wall announced the five or six dishes that could be purchased plus beer and wine.  A high bar blocked the way back into the kitchen supporting a cash register and the restaurant’s proprietress who leaned against it. Seated next to the bar was a middle-aged man drinking a glass full of warm white wine. A radio speaker hanging up in the corner of the room played top 40 songs neutralized by a blanket of static.

We ordered beers and sat down next to the heater, listening to the crisped songs issuing from the radio and the slow talk of the proprietress and her customer. As if waiting for us to acclimatize to this oasis of quiet no one spoke to us until we had finished sipping our first beers and ordered another round. Then slowly, we were invited to join the conversation at the bar. We talked about Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, but we also talked about our families and the places we had come from, not only the US, but also Paraguay and, 1,000s of kilometers away, Asuncion, back beyond the tangled Argentine border at Clorinda and the Remanso Bridge back to where I had passed the last two years listening to green parrots squawk from the shaggy branches of mango and avocado trees. I thought of the drone of unmuffled motorcycles and the electric call of the man who passed through the neighborhood nearly every day offering to buy used batteries and scrap metal, the rasp of his voice resembling the galvanized things he wished to buy. I heard the sound of the number 6 collectivo trundling up our street in its heavy desiel woosh. Here in this impossibly cold summer evening, the near-tropical warmth of Asuncion was behind me. I thought about the old apartment, probably still standing empty, filled with our memories and the expectations of these previously unknown places.

I declined to order another beer and walked back out into the grey evening streets, the wind blowing down from the mountains, crowning the town and the end of the continent.    

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Drain of the Amazon

In 2012, I was in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina working for a theater company. The cast had the evening off and my coworker and I were strolling around the town looking for a place to eat. We eventually found one of the pay-by-weight places so ubiquitous in southern Latin America and settled into a wobbly table and with our plates of tepid spaghetti and marinara. While we were eating, the proprietor of the place approached us. As were weren’t in a part of town that seemed to get a lot of foreign traffic, he seemed interested to know our business. We explained, between mouthfuls of spaghetti, that we were in town for work and that we had come out to see a little before the beginning of our busy schedule the next day.

“Ahh,” he replied, “I see, and when are you going to see the Falls?”

I felt embarrassed by the man’s question as one always does when speaking a foreign language and failing to convey the basic meaning of an utterance.

“No,” I responded, trying to talk in a clearer way, “we’re working all day tomorrow and then leaving. We won’t have any time to see the Falls.”

“No,” the man responded, correcting me, “this can’t be. Foreigners do not come to this place and leave without seeing Las Cataratas de Iguazu.

I could tell he was serious by the way his mouth seemed to open wider with incredulity when I told him that’s exactly what we were doing.

When I moved away from Argentina and left my old job, I had no regrets about my time in Latin America. I had seen many places and had proven that I could move on my own to a country with no friends, no job prospects, no apartment and eventually procure all these things. When my flight took off, the Iguazu Falls were the last thing I was thinking about.

Unexpectedly, a few years later, I was offered a job in Paraguay. Until the moment I got the e-mail, I had given no thought to returning to Latin America. My time in front of the world map on my wall had been spent mostly on Asia and Africa, but I had previously seen very little of Paraguay. For a night, I had stayed in the capital and once I had looked across the Parana River at the lights of Encarnacion, imagining some kind of dim and swampy town.

I took the job and returned to the capital I had seen for a single night, years before. For my first few months in the country, I felt like I was chasing my own ghost around the town. I’d stand at an intersection and suddenly remember having stood there before. I’d walk by a supermarket and remember the purchase I had made there years earlier. Time and distance had rendered the memories vague but with a sharp edge of familiarity, like the pictures in a once familiar children’s book as seen by an adult.

My work was mostly in the capital, but on occasion, I travelled to Paraguay’s secondary cities. I visited Encarnacion and found that it had nothing in common with the dank, jungle tangled town I had imagined from the opposite bank of the Parana River years before. I visited the town of Pilar and the smuggler’s haven of Pedro Juan Cabellero in the north, but most frequently, I visited Ciudad del Este.

Ciudad del Este is Paraguay’s second city, but having only been founded in 1957, is still a very recent creation. Ciudad del Este sits on the tri-boarder confluence of the Parana and Iguazu rivers where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. The Brazilian and Argentina cities of Foz de Iguacu and Puerto Iguazu (respectively) mainly cater to tourism. Every year some 50,000 tourists visit the Falls which lies between the border of the two largest and (probably) most well-known South American countries.

Paraguay and Ciudad del Este are just up river from the action. Because Paraguay does not border on the Falls, the tourism in Ciudad del Este is of a very different kind, but like Puerto and Foz, it is the city’s raison d'être. While Brazil and Argentina bask in the splendor of one of the New 7 Wonders of the (Natural) World, nearby Paraguay provides the shopping opportunities. Ciudad del Este (CDE) is like a giant open air market. Sure, many of the shops are ensconced in indoor shopping malls, but in such a crowded way that they still resemble stalls in a middle-eastern souk. In the malls in CDE, there are shops packed into the stairwells and kiosks crowd out every corridor. Clerks sit on stools with an excessively familiar air, not like people at work, but like people at home: they watch soccer matches; they yell to each other and eat next to the cash registers. In the streets, venders hawk merchandise from rickety stalls that line the road just past the border crossing. Men stand on the other side of the border, like family and friends awaiting your arrival at the airport. Within a few seconds of your arrival, they’ve gone through the repertoire: They’ve got everything from toasters to marijuana.

The ad hoc nature of CDE, the influx of businessmen from all over the world (mostly from Taiwan and Lebanon), the emphasis on grey and black market economies has given the city a bad reputation in the past. Further away from the border, it has a slightly quieter side, but the Brazilian economy has had its impact and the tranquility familiar in other Paraguayan towns no longer exists here. Buses scoot down the streets with boys hanging out the doors, encouraging passengers to get on. Traffic rips around the city, bass booms from the cars and the sidewalks are crowded with people trying to get home from their jobs downtown.

The Puente de la Amistad which connects Paraguay and Brazil over the Parana River is, effectively a border corssing, but because it’s in the interest of both countries to keep trade flourishing, there is very little formality at the border. When you walk across, there are no passport checks. This allows members of all nationalities to pass back and forth freely between the countries. In many cases, people live in Paraguay and work or go to school in Brazil and tourists shop in CDE and return to their hotels in Foz. It has been claimed that this open border leads to far greater problems than the smuggling of mercantile goods, such as human trafficking or international terrorism.        

As a result of this unsavory reputation, numerous guidebooks claim CDE to be unsafe. Many advise caution even in the day and others suggest avoiding it altogether. This has always seemed like sensationalism to me. I’ve been to CDE dozens of times and can vouch for the fact that there’s nothing happening there to disturb the comfort of the casual traveler. If there’s anything shady happening, it’s far down in an underworld that a tourist would have a difficult time even locating, let alone becoming involved with in any way.

Despite the security of CDE, after I’d been travelling there for work for about a year, I began to feel a certain anxiety when visiting the city. The words of the man I had met, years before, in Puerto Iguazu echoed back to me every time I visited CDE. “Yes, but when are you seeing the Falls?” This man had found it absurd that as a foreigner I had come to the area even once and not made arrangements to visit the Falls, now I was working in the area on a monthly basis and I still hadn’t made an effort to see it.

A few times during my visits, I had crossed into Brazil, mainly to see what they were selling in the grocery stores on the other side of the river. My efforts were frustrated by the fact that the Brazilian side of the border looks a lot like the Paraguayan side, not as hectic, but still mostly markets and wholesale stores. The city was a farther walk and without Brazilian reales, I couldn’t take a bus.

Evidence of Iguazu was everywhere: Hotel Yguazu (as it’s spelled in Paraguay), Yguazu heladeria and local buses with Yguazu written on them. Once again, I was at the cusp of this incredible natural formation, but I never had enough time to see it. Significantly, the border crossing also posed a problem. I’d crossed into Brazil before, but I hadn’t gone very far. Everyone told me that it was possible to get to Iguazu without passing any checkpoints, but I was still a little nervous about going further into a country that I had no visa for. Gradually, I began to dismiss the idea of going to Iguazu as a hassle. I’ve never been really crazy about waterfalls or anything so I figured it was something I could afford to miss, again.

I was in Paraguay for two years and at the end of my time in the country, I found myself going to CDE every weekend for a skateboarding class I had created. With my departure looming, I began to think about the Falls again. My last class, I would be bringing my girlfriend Gina down to help me take pictures of the graduation ceremony. We could visit the Falls together as one of the last things we did in Paraguay.

Of course, the Falls weren’t in Paraguay and the visa issue was further complicated by the fact that Gina’s Paraguayan visa had long expired. If something were to happen at the border, she wouldn’t have legal status in either county. I had no idea what this would mean, and no desire to find out. It’s one thing to take a risk yourself, but imposing a risk on someone else, just to see a waterfall, even a very impressive one, was a dubious venture. I imagined being escorted back to Paraguay (I still had a valid visa) while they took Gina to some kind of international interrogation room.  Each of us yelling the other’s name, arms flung out across the bridge.

Despite this fear, eventually I was persuaded to visit the Falls by many people telling me that the border conditions were consistently lax. We woke up early on a grey Sunday morning and made from our hotel after a quiet ‘continental’ breakfast of sugared pineapple juice, toast, watermelon and suspicious-tasting coffee.

It was beginning to drizzle as we walked through Ciudad del Este to the bridge into Brazil. The Sunday morning markets were all quiet; the rickety kiosks standing empty, like crude imitations of bus shelters, the rain dripping down between the plywood roofs and pocking the hard-packed dirt ground. Scattered vendors called half-heartedly to us. We walked on with our heads down past Paraguayan immigrations offices and onto the bridge.

The bridge was under construction and we crossed over the muddied water, taking care not to step on any stray bolts and fencing that had been laid down in the pedestrian path. At the Brazilian end of the bridge, we walked through a labyrinth of fences and checkpoints, past bored-looking guards and corrugated metal panels. Emerging from the border zone, there was a whole-sale store, its name soaring over the façade in tall, black letters, Bismillah. ‘In the name of God,’ it was called.

Now into Brazil, I wasn’t too clear on which was to go, so we walked vaguely in the direction of the main bus station for a while, hoping to see something that would indicate what we should do.

The stores were all shuttered for Sunday and the misty rain had beaded over all the display windows, reflecting the dull light of the sky in millions of tiny soapy grey baubles. We saw a few people waiting for a bus, I asked if they spoke any Spanish and asked for directions. The couple we asked were from Sao Paulo and were also on their way to the Falls. They were very friendly and said that we should just follow them.

The bus came and took us to the station. From the station we caught another bus. We went down into the city. There was a farmer’s market in the middle of a closed-off street, but the rest of the city looked as empty, grey and shuttered as the area near the bridge had. As the bus continued past the city, I kept thinking how we were in his country with no documentation, but yet we were riding the bus with the same bored expressions as the Brazilians who were born there.

After a detour to the airport, we jumped off in front of the visitor’s entrance to the Falls. Even on a Sunday, the place seemed packed full of people in contrast to the rainy, empty town. I got in line and nervously presented my passport to the man at the ticket window, but, as I had anticipated, he didn’t check for a visa, but only glanced at the photo page and tossed it back, telling me the total for two adult tickets.

The entrance is far from the Falls, so we had to take one of those touristy double decker buses with the top floor open on the sides. It had begun to rain, but we took a place on the top, trying to avoid the squalls of rain that would occasionally lash against the bus. Despite the wind and the cold rain, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was one of those rare moments when a crowd of strangers are brought together by a unique experience that has been made even rarer by unexpected weather. Like the crowds of spinning and sliding hippies in the rain at Woodstock, we too enjoyed the sudden novelty of the rain and under the awning of the bus, we grinned out from bedewed ponchos and misty eyelashes.

By the time we disembarked, it was raining hard. Gina and I dove off the bus and under the roof of a nearby shelter, but it was useless. The rain was coming down steadily and the sky was a deep purple-grey to the horizon in all directions. We hunched over a little and ducked into the rain, as if our raised shoulders could somehow keep us from getting wet. We seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t had the foresight to buy rain ponchos.

The path to the Falls wove through a forested area, but it was no use, even the generous tropical leaves couldn’t keep the rain from soaking us through. Within a few minutes, we looked like we’d emerged from the raging torrent of water that everyone had come to see.  

The path clings to a hillside underneath which is the Falls. Every few hundred feet, the foliage opens onto some panorama of multiple cascades, some narrow, some wide, all of them dumping out of a dense green mass of trees and vines, like the drain for all of the Amazon jungle. We stopped at each opening, took a few quick pictures in the rain and watched the recycling motion of the water broken open by gravity into individual drops before being forged together again, battering down on a bed of large rocks.

For the afternoon, we skulked from under the trees to brave the cold exposure of the Falls and the rain before wrapping our arms around our bodies again and fleeing into the cover of a tree. By the time we’d reached the park’s terminus, we were past caring and, half-hypothermic, we stood on a grated platform over the great waters, thoroughly soaked with great chattering grins peeled out of our faces.

Later in the afternoon, we made it back to the bridge on the border. Still wet and cold, we bought a coffee from a vendor and passed the sugary hot brew back and forth as we crossed back to Paraguay. I waited until we were well past the immigrations office before I said anything. “Well,” I said, finishing the coffee, “we made it.”

Gina looked at me. “I knew we would,” she said and we walked back up the street, past the forlorn Sunday vendors, the billowing blue tarps and the rain still rattling in the downspouts.      

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Most of us have a few really brilliant images from childhood that stand out inexplicably: the dead fly and cobweb laden view of a windowsill, the flaky pattern of an old couch, the legs of a carved wooden chair, the vinyl siding of someone’s house you played at once. These memories are like guideposts in the world of our childhood memories. They are strikingly personal and, as a result, seem to make up a significant part of our personalities. Would we be the same people without the grey memory of the interior of grandma’s car on a rainy day?

Usually, we are certain of these memories. They are mundane enough to not warrant questioning them. Yet, some images remain because they cannot be reconciled with the world we have come to know. The striking orange of the fox in the backyard, the bruised tornado on the horizon, were they actually there or did our childhood imagination blend with reality to create a false impression?

One such uncertain memory I had was of a kid name Chad Tagavor. Chad had a presentable fatness to him. He was big, but well-proportioned enough that no one would have teased him for being fat. His chubby face and wide back seemed to fit him, even at a young age. Chad had a big dimple in his chin and wheat-colored hair chopped into a bowl. He was the kind of kid everyone liked.

Before the day he cut himself on the slide at Dibble Elementary, I don’t know if I even knew his name. I had only just arrived at the school a few weeks before, an incredibly shy kid who spent my recess periods slinking around the edges of the playground, turning over and examining the Flintstones chewable vitamins I’d pocketed, feeling guilty for hiding them when my mom wasn’t looking. I’d roll the slate-colored Barneys and red jasper Wilmas between my thumb and forefinger before finally pitching them in the weeds, which only made me feel worse.

My mopey playground routine didn’t often take me near the large play structure at the center. The confabulation of slides, ladders and monkey bars seemed to have been intended for other kids. I had worked up the courage once, but when I reached the top, amazed at my own audacity, there had been a Charon in Keds asking some kind of admission to the slide. “What will you give me to go down the slide?” He’d asked. Finding nothing in my pockets but a Bam Bam and two Dinos, I turned around and climbed down without saying anything.

When I walked by the structure, I’d watch the other kids climbing it and leaping from it, shouting at each other, like pirates besieging a ship. I wondered how they could be so comfortable acting like this when, for some reason, I was so worried about being noticed or drawing any attention to myself.

I was in first grade and Chad was in third. Having been at Dibble for over two years, he was more comfortable with the place, but even on his first day, he probably ran right up to the monkey bars and started swinging, yelling and challenging other kids to chicken.  Chad existed in the realm of big kids, which, when you’re six, is anyone a grade older than you. Second and third graders were big kids; anyone above sixth grade was an adult. It seemed impossible that anyone should ever live so long to be a sixth grader. I couldn’t fathom what it must’ve been like.

I didn’t know any big kids, but I heard their names called brashly across the playground, so I knew many of their names without having a face to put them to. The day I saw the blood smeared on the reflective metallic surface of the twisty slide and heard the name ‘Chad’ whispered by those who had crowded around, I only had a vague notion of the person this name was meant to recall.

This is the memory: I was at the edge of the playground. I heard someone, a kid, yell. A few of the matronly teacher’s aides who worked the playground were running, which they never did, their whistles swinging back and forth on their stalwart necks. Kids were gathering around the base of the twisty slide. I walked over, staying at the back of the crowd. It was a sunny day. The metal of the slide was so bright it hurt your eyes and dappled and smeared over the metal was more blood than I’d ever seen. “Chad,” the kids around me said. “Cut his hand,” they told each other. “The slide.”

In my memory, the blood was incredibly copious, but it was probably just the sight of the blood, of someone else’s blood, in such an unexpected place that made it appear of a much greater volume. As well as I knew that, I could not succeed in changing the memory to correspond with the reality and Chad Tagavor remained the legendary kid who was nearly exsanguinated by a slide.

Because Chad was a few grades ahead of me, I only saw him one year in every three. He left Dibble just a year after I got there. Three years later, he was in his last year at Frost Elementary when I first arrived to the school, which again, due to the unreliable nature of memory, I am only able to picture under a barrage of heavy rain.

Perhaps as a result of these incessant rains, at Frost Elementary, I gradually got over my shyness and became a loud-mouth. I shouted out stupid things in class at almost every available opportunity. I didn’t pay attention to the principal exports of Peru or to the Pythagorean Theorem. I didn’t do well in school at all after discovering that the sound of my peers’ laughter was every bit as gratifying as an ‘A’ on a quiz and much easier to procure.

After challenging teachers for a few years, I started challenging my peers. I rebelled against fashion and anything else that seemed superfluous to personal, creative growth. I listened to punk rock records, complained about ‘the system,’ stopped changing my clothes and told most people, either directly or indirectly, to leave me alone. In the midst of this quixotic teenage rebellion, Chad Tagavor appeared again as an employee of the McDonald’s on West Avenue, out by the highway.

I’m thirteen, ordering a Big Mac with no meat from him. His navy blue visor with the golden ‘M’ is squashed down on his head. He is still big, a big kid; it’s the first time we’ve ever talked. When I see him behind the register, my mind races back ten years to retrieve the corresponding picture. I see the blood and hear the kids saying “Chad” and “cut himself bad.” I put in my order. “A Big Mac,” he says, “with no meat?” It’s not mean or anything, just perplexed. He can’t help but to share the flagrancy of the order with his coworkers. “Hey, guys,” he says, turning to his coworkers “I got a Big Mac with no meat over here!” I wonder how he can be the same person from that afternoon, the blood on the twisty slide. How can I be the same person? I want to ask him if he remembers. Instead, I mutter something about how he should try it sometime, the Big Mac with no meat, that is.

Chad, being three grades ahead of me, graduated from high school my sophomore year and, in the ensuing chaos of my late adolescence, I forgot all about him, the slide, the blood, the McDonald’s, everything. Some memories disappear like that. It’s like they’re not relevant anymore and become replaced with more immediate information.

I graduated from J-High and barely managed to get into college. I did my best to reform. I convinced myself that all I ever wanted was to be independent and I shouldn’t squander something so hard won. While everyone else was cutting classes and partying, I sat in the 24-hour diner, chain-smoking, gulping down coffee and studying like I’d never studied before. I knew I was way behind most of my peers academically. Even when I worked really hard, I still got mediocre grades, but they were grades I could be proud of and this was enough to encourage me.

I went to a large university with a prominent student culture. Thursday to Sunday, the student ghetto was filled with meatheads carrying 24-packs and mini-skirted girls over their shoulders. In the coldest winter months, the girls waited outside in lines for the night clubs wearing baby doll tops and short shorts, up to their ankles in snow. For an entire year, the song Hey Ya was constantly playing from one frat porch or another, setting the mood for beer pong or some kind of drinking contest.

I decried this sort of student life from behind my overflowing ashtray and mess of papers at the diner, but once a week, the temptation couldn’t be resisted and I’d gather up my books, tip the waitress, go home, call up my friends and head down into the nest of beat-up couches placed in front yards, red plastic cups, sticky floors and people shouting ‘Whoooo!’ for no reason.  

I graduated from college and started applying to graduate programs, having enjoyed my four years of sitting in diners, chain smoking and reading. While I was waiting to hear back from admissions offices in Colorado and New Mexico, I bumped my hours up and started working full time.

Through college, I’d had a slew of lousy jobs. I had worked in one of those gas stations in which the attendant is stuck in a tiny glass box. During the day, the customers could enter the box and pick out their own sodas and cigarettes from the cramped displays, but after 9 pm, everything switched over to a cylindrical window; you rolled the money in and the cigarettes and change rolled back out. It was one of those gas stations that’s constantly lowering its prices before the competition and, occasionally, has lines around the block. There’s a certain type of person who’s willing to wait in line that much to save 15 cents a gallon—usually they’re not very friendly. But the job hadn’t been too bad. There was always lots of free coffee and I could read between costumers.

After I graduated, I picked up a job working at a bookstore. We were allowed to take home books if the spines weren’t the creasing type. Again, there was plenty of free coffee, and it was usually possible to linger in the stock room with a book a little while longer than necessary if the place wasn’t too busy; if the boss caught you with a book, he’d only ask what you were reading and if it was any good.

In the evenings, I went out a lot. I was 22 and I found the neighborhood bar scene much more manageable than the university parties had been. I worked the 2-10 shift at work, so I never had to be up early and I always got out in time to meet everyone at the bar. It was one of those beautiful times in my life when I never seemed to have to wait for anything. When you get older, all the waiting wears you down a little. When I want to go out and do something in the evening now, I’m always ready to go before it starts; after I’ve sat around a while, I lose the ambition to go. Back then it wasn’t like that, if anything, I was usually a little late to things.

I had no car and the bookstore was about a 45 minute walk from my neighborhood. Some nights my friend and ex-roommate Ella would pick me up from work and we’d go down to the bar together. We did this a lot because we had established a ‘dream club.’ I don’t think ‘dream club’ was what we actually called it, but the idea was to meet once a week and share our dreams. I recalled from some psychology class that when you have a reason to remember what you’re dreaming about—like when you know you’re going to have to report on it—you tend to remember your dreams much better.
As hippified as ‘dream club’ sounds, it was really just an excuse to hang out in the bar and drink copious amounts of Labatt beer, which we called ‘Labatt’s’. Back then, Labatt’s was still considered a domestic draft beer in Michigan. A pitcher of the stuff was like 3 dollars.

The bar we went to had this ceiling fresco, a painting of a blue sky with white clouds. It was sort of recessed, like a dome in a church. It had lights around it and the lights changed color. When I’d had too many Labatt’s, I’d start staring at it, watching the colors change and thinking all kinds of nonsense.

Ella and I had gone to high school together; she had dated one of my friends and we had all lived together for a while until they broke up and she moved across town, over where all the students lived. She didn’t seem to mind the drive back home, even after a few pitchers of beer. Sometimes, I worried she’d get pulled over, but, in addition to never having to wait, I didn’t really worry about much back then. It just didn’t seem worthwhile to worry about things.

Part of never having to wait, was always telling everyone else to be early. I did this in a half-intentional way. Technically, I got out of work at 10, but we never really left the building until a little after, like 10:12 or even 10:20. When I came out into the parking lot, Ella’s little white Honda started up from its place at the curb. I swung the door open and ducked in. “Hey.”

“You always tell me 10. You never get out at 10.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“From now on I’m never coming here until 10:15.”

“Sometimes I get out at 10.”

“Yeah, well, then you can wait.”

The bookstore was separated from the rest of the city by a tangled housing development, a golf course and a park with a marsh in the middle of it. It was just outside the city limits, but it looked very suburban, the kind of place with those long sweeping sidewalks that no one ever seems to use. We drove past the golf course and, crossing Grand River, back into the city. I tried to pry a few dream details out of Ella, but she wouldn’t budge until we got to the bar. It was a warm night and I stuck my arm out the window and let it sweep up and down in the wind.

Situated as it was between the lifeless tracts of vast university housing and an old working class neighborhood, Blondie’s, the bar, did a brisk trade and even on a Thursday night, the place was packed. We managed to walk in right as a group got up from a booth. “Labatt’s, right?” I asked and headed over to the bar.

The clouded dome overhead was changing from red to green to blue and back to red. I was trying to decide which color looked best, but I couldn’t make up my mind. Each color seemed to suit the clouds in a different way. We had discussed our recent dream fragments which led us into speculation as to their source. From there we talked about our lives, our jobs. Ella was working in a veterinary clinic and she talked a lot about the dogs that came through the place. I told her what everyone in the house was up to and complained about the GRE process and grad school, as I had been doing for months. By the time our talk had turned to the future, I was staring at the colored dome. There were two empty pitchers on the table and another 2/3rds full.

“Well, which one do you want to go to?” Ella asked from somewhere behind one of the empty pitchers.

I tore my attention away from the dome where I’d been chasing the question around for a few minutes without finding an answer. “I don’t know. I’ve never been to any of the places. New Mexico sounds interesting, but I don’t know. When I think about moving away, I have this vision of sitting on a bed in an empty apartment, staring at the wall, forcing down that feeling you used to get when you were a kid and had to spend the night at someone’s house; you know, when it was getting late and everyone was getting ready for bed, that feeling that you weren’t going to be able to go home and the vague fear of spending a night lying in the dark wide awake, feeling like you were the only person awake in the world.

“Yeah, I know what you mean. So why not stay here?”

“Naw, it’s time to go; ya’ know? Wayne is the only school I’ve heard anything from. I got in, but I don’t want to go, maybe I will but I doubt it. I’d be like 28 by the time I finished the program. I don’t want to stay here that long. What about you? Did you decide on anything yet?”

“I think I’m going to keep working for a while. I feel like I’ve been in school forever already. I might just move somewhere else and work for a while.”

As it got later, more people came into the bar. I knew some of them; Ella knew others. We abandoned our booth and went to table hopping. On the little stage in the back, someone started playing guitar. It seemed like the harder I tried to pay attention to the music, the less I heard it. After a few songs, it was like all I could hear were the conversations taking place around me. I went looking for Ella and found her laughing with a group of her coworkers. She introduced me to them, but in the dimness and confusion of the bar after midnight, I only nodded to the vague shapes before me. I asked Ella how she was getting home.

“What do you mean?”

“You shouldn’t drive.”

“Yeah, but I will.”

“You know you can stay at the house.”

“I know, but I’d rather just go home.”

“Alright, well I’m going to go in a minute.”

“Hold on a sec. I’m going too. I can drive you back.”

I lit a cigarette and tried to nurse my beer, but once you’ve made up your mind to leave the bar, it’s hard not to feel impatient with the place. I got tired of waiting and went and sat down with some other people, someone kept pouring me beers from their pitcher and after a while, I forgot I had wanted to leave.

Ella and I bumped into each other right after last call. We split the half of a pint I still had and tumbled out into the night.

A light wind had picked up and as we walked over to the car, I felt it blowing all the cigarette smoke out of my hair. The blood was singing in my ears and the cool air felt sobering. It felt so good, I lit another cigarette. It was my last one.

I was going to walk the five blocks back home, but Ella told me just to get in the car. I didn’t resist but asked if she could take me over to the gas station I used to work and get a pack of cigarettes. The place was only about two blocks away.  

I pulled the door closed and we drove out of the parking lot, under the highway overpass and, coming out of the dark, red and blue lights flew out over the car and flooded the interior. A cop car was pulling us over. Without saying anything, Ella pulled into the gas station parking lot two blocks from the bar.

Ella was pretty calm while we sat there with the red and blue lights floating over us. I was looking for a penny she could suck on. I knew it didn’t work, but it seemed better than nothing. I couldn’t say anything when she muttered, “I’m so fucked” because I agreed with her. I thought about the car getting towed and walking home alone. It made me feel terrible and I wished I’d made more of an effort to convince Ella to take a cab or something.

The cop started walking over. The cruiser’s lights were still flashing behind and with each flash his shadow sprang out past the hood of the car, like it was overeager to reach us. We both stared straight ahead, as if we were still moving the way guilty people do.

“Alright, guys, let me see licenses and some registration,” The cop was leaning down to the window. His voice sounded relaxed, like he acknowledged that the whole thing was just a charade we all had to go through.

“Sure,” Ella said, trying to sound stolid and still looking ahead, probably trying not to breathe beer fumes all over the place. She took a wallet from the console and easily pulled out the driver’s license she’d been using all night at the bar. She handed this up through the window and then reached over and opened the glovebox. It banged on my knees and I pretended to be hurt to try to lighten the situation.

Ella was still rooting around looking for the insurance when the cop’s voice suddenly boomed. “Ella Jacobs? Ellie? Ben Jacobs’ little sister? It’s me Chad!” I leaned forward to glance out the driver’s side window. Ella still had her arms up on the steering wheel so it was hard to see the cop’s face, but I saw he’d taken off his hat so she could see his face better.

“We went to school together!” The cop exclaimed. I was friends with your brother!” Then he leaned forward a little, trying to see who else was in the car. Seeing me he exclaimed, “And you’re the kid who ordered the Big Mac without out the meat! God, I’ll never forget that!” He chuckled a little like I had just made the order again.

“Holy shit, Chad,” Ella exclaimed. “You scared the crap out of me! I didn’t know you were a cop.”

“Yeah,” he said, dropping his tone a little, “it’s alright work. Listen, I pulled you over because you didn’t have your lights on. You just came out of the bar parking lot and it’s closing time. It also reeks of alcohol in this car. I’m not gonna’ give you a ticket or anything. If you want to try and blow and you’re under, I’ll let you drive home, but if not, you’re going to have to leave the car here and call a cab. Is that alright?”

Chad was leaning in the window, letting his fingers rest over the door. His palms were hanging down just under the window. A little white scar ran about an inch down the meat of his palm. The memory came back to me. I was six, standing at the edge of a group of kids, there was blood on the twisty slide. Everyone was saying ‘Chad’ and looking around.

I thought about pointing out the scar. I thought about saying ‘I remember when you got that.’ But there was no way to bring it up. It would’ve been too personal, besides, I couldn’t really be sure it was even him. I just stared at the scar hanging down over the doorframe and remembered the feeling of Flintstones’ Chewables in my pocket, like gritty little pebbles.  

Ella took the breathalyzer, probably more for novelty. Chad let out a little chuckle when the thing beeped the result back. “Yeah,” he said, “you’re going to have to leave the car here. He offered to call us a cab, but I told him that I lived nearby and that we’d walk. He still seemed impressed to have run into us. The way he acted, you would’ve thought we were old friends or in another country instead of just thirty miles up the highway from where we’d grown up and had all been kids together.

We said good bye to each other and Chad drove away. I walked across the parking lot, over to the little glass box of the gas station I used to work in. It was well after 9 pm so I had to use the cylindrical window. I rolled the money and the cigarettes and changed rolled back out.

On the walk back to the house, I told Ella about the slide and the blood and how I used to be so quiet.

“Yeah,” she said, “that’s all pretty hard to believe now.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” Then I added, “You know it’s funny, he thinks of me as forever being the kid 
who ordered the Big Mac with no meat, and for me he’s the kid who cut himself on the slide. It’s like we’re both stuck in time.”

“Well, not anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“Now you’re probably going to be stuck in this moment for each other. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, at least if I run into him again, we’ll be able to share the same memory now.” I said, sorta’ laughing the way Chad had earlier.

In the little neighborhood between Kalamazoo and Michigan Avenue, we walked past the slumping porches and the Oldsmobiles parked at the curbs. In a pool of streetlight at the intersection of Mifflin and Prospect, a cat walked slowly past. Someone yelled a few blocks away and the cat stopped and looked over its shoulder and then continued on its way like nothing had happened.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jungle despite the City

I hate to say it, but sometimes we go to the Hard Rock Café.

They just built the thing about a year ago into the ground floor of the old Hotel Guarani. It’s got all the modern crap you could want like pixie stick-colored lights and a guitar in a glass case that Courtney Love once used. As you get older, it’s true that you find yourself doing more desperate things in the eternal quest for entertainment, perhaps because you’re no longer willing to do anything too outrageous. I have a hard time even convincing myself to have more than a few drinks and I go to bed every night congratulating myself on another day of non-smoking. Still, I’m not ready to just lean back in my easy chair and just wait for death to come and obviate the necessity of finding entertainment, so, I go instead to places like the unbelievably banal Hard Rock Café.

What led me to this rock and roll-themed sports bar initially was that it was the only place open for drinks in Asuncion on Sunday evening, which is my usual night to get restless in the heat of the city and decide to kick up my heels for a bold, enterprising drink. Normally, I’d just go to some bar and complain until I forced myself to leave, but, a few months ago, after wandering all over an empty and dark downtown, I chanced upon the gleam of some bartender’s more than requisite amounts of costume flair and soon found myself in a chintzy lounge watching Michael Jackson music videos on a TV above the bar. Given that I’d never seen anything but soccer on a bar TV in Paraguay, I was soon enthralled with the videos, especially when they began showcasing more obscure artists. Thus distracted, I stopped paying much attention to the number of 6 dollar beers I was drinking and by the time an Elliot Smith video came on the TV, I was practically dancing on the bar.

Now when I go downtown for the weekend, I drift, only semi-consciously, over to the Hard Rock Café, continually thinking that maybe something else will present itself as a viable entertainment option before I get to the doors, but of course nothing ever does.

Owing to a Monday holiday, last Sunday was more lifeless than usual in downtown Asuncion. The streets were devoid of pedestrians and only an occasional bus roared by. In the grey-gold interior lights, you could see even the obstreperous buses were mostly empty. Gina and I had crossed most of downtown when we came to a cluster of popcorn sellers, people waiting for the bus and women from the countryside with jewelry spread out in ropy clusters on white sheets. Just beyond these people was possibly the only illuminated edifice in the entire city and just beyond that the Hard Rock Café.

As we approached the doors, I noticed the unmistakable sound of real symbols crashing that always distinguishes distant live music from distant stereo music turned up really loud. Where else could it be coming from but the Hard Rock Café? Unconsciously, we quickened our paces slightly, but just as we gained the door, a ‘gracias,’ a rapid strumming of a single guitar chord and a drum roll announced the end of the band and the music.

We walked into the gap left by the recently cancelled music. There was that radio popping noise of amps and guitars being unplugged as we walked in and the host eagerly arose from behind his little lectern to meet us. Our friend Everett was already at the bar, so we able to circumvent the host’s excessive formality by mumbling something about ‘amigo’ and ‘esperando’ before running off to the bar.

Everett said his band was playing in something of a battle of the bands that the restaurant was sponsoring. Gina and I sat down, ordered beers and marveled at the lack of a cover charge despite the live music, even if there were only to be three bands playing three songs apiece. Gina argued that the Hard Rock Café chain probably had some policy that disallowed for charging admittance at any of their 100s of locations (from Podgoriča to Phuket). She was right, no doubt, but I argued with her anyway stating that it was probably just that we had managed to get in right before they started charging. At this, she rolled her eyes.

Everett’s band was to play last. In the time that elapsed before they went on, we watched a band that sounded a lot like Blink 182, drank a few more beers, split a shot of whiskey and watched a band that sounded a lot like Soundgarden, or a lot like I remember Soundgarden sounding. When Everett’s band went up, I was cheering before they even played a note or introduced themselves. The Hard Rock Café was beginning to seem like an old and familiar bar and the patrons were all like people I had gone to high school with.

Everett’s band was good. They played a decent set and then all the bands came on stage while they announced the winners. I wasn’t surprised that Everett’s band won, they were clearly the favorite, but I was happy for him and his bandmates. I guess they were going to get to go to play at an international battle of the Hard Rock Café bands in Cancun or someplace. We congratulated Everett, but after the music, there didn’t seem to be any reason to stick around so we left.

There was supposed to have been a jazz thing a few streets over, but a quick perusal of the area yielded nothing but a few other restaurants that had recently opened their doors for dinner, though with the next day off, it looked like most people were just having drinks in large groups, the women with globes of wine cradled between their manicured nails, the men, freshly shaved, drinking Heineken out of those tall and slender beer glasses that restaurants seem to favor. The outdoor seating was packed and the terrible music was blasting from every available speaker.

Gina and I went to an upstairs bar for another beer and compared notes on growing up in the United States, rhapsodizing about teachers, friends and television shows that had all since receded, somewhat bewilderingly, from our constant thoughts.

We left the bar, stopped at a liquor store and bought a beer for the long walk home. The streets were busier than they had been earlier in the afternoon and the frequent cars honked and impatiently sped through red lights, others drifted around slowly like the drivers were looking for an address.

The darker and more claustrophobic streets of the downtown gradually opened up and sprouted ornamental trees. The ornamental trees grew larger until they scattered the light from the streetlamps all over the sidewalk in sloppy disco ball adumbrations. The cars passed less frequently, but when they did they went twice as fast as they had downtown. The combined colognes and perfumes of their passengers loosed into the humid night like oil and gasoline leaking from a tanker making its way through a warm ocean.

I was half-asleep when we reached our neighborhood, but conscious enough to suggest one last beer to encourage us the last four blocks down the street and up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.

No matter how late I stop by, the old woman who runs the little shop down the street always has the place open. The shop consists of a reticulated shutter, like the ones pulled down on storefronts when the mall is closed and a sort of stall behind the shutter. In order to call the proprietress, one must clap one’s hands as though applauding the empty store.

I applauded before the shutter and we waited a minute before the old woman came shuffling out. As usual, her face lit up with beatific, grandmother-like recognition when she noticed us by the door. Having been a foreigner in many different countries, I can say that children and old people are the most tolerant of your foreign-ness. Both are too concerned with you as a person to pay any attention to how poorly you might speak the language or observe the customs of their country. As she approached the shutter, the old woman’s glasses gleamed under the florescent lights and she smiled and asked us how we were. She seemed more excited than usual, especially as it must’ve been after midnight. We covered the perfunctory topics and I was about to ask her for a beer so we could be on our way, when she told us that her son from Austria was visiting. ‘Austria? How the hell does a guy from Paraguay end up in Austria? I didn’t voice my thought, but I must’ve somehow betrayed significant interest because, in a minute, our little proprietress was hurrying back to get her famous son from Austria.

The man who greeted us through the bars of the shutter was like an illusion. Although he had apparently been doing nothing more than lounging around at home, he was dressed in immaculate white clothes. His appearance was topped off with a wide-brimmed white hat, like something a pimp in the 70s would’ve worn, only now, at this time of night, after a few drinks, in Asuncion, Paraguay, it looked magical. His unique facial-hairstyle only furthered this impression. Everything below the man’s ears looked like it’s been drawn on with a pen. He had a little parenthesis under his nose and another, titled vertically, under his mouth.  Just beneath his earlobes, like little arrows pointing out his cheekbones, were little dashes of hair, so small they looked like they could’ve been rubbed away. I kept waiting for the guy to say abracadabra and disappear in a puff of colored smoke. Instead we talked about our journeys, as traveling people are wont to do.

We stood talking at the shutter for a while. I asked about Austria. Did he like it? How did it compare with Paraguay? Having never been to Austria, I kept imagining the guy in my closest point of comparison: Switzerland. While he talked, I imagined him in his white pimp hat walking under rigid Teutonic architecture, his pointy shoes clacking over the cobblestones and the grates surrounding the innumerable fountains. I imagined him like a white moth fluttering through a night of black-suited bankers on their way to the Zentral Bank. I couldn’t imagine this guy doing anything in Austria, so I had to ask him what his job was. “I play music!” He responded jovially, like he was going to play some for us right there but instead he stepped back, opened the shutter and said “why don’t you come in and have a drink with me?”

How could I say no?

The hallway that was visible from the shutter led back to a typical living room with a couch, a coffee table and a TV. Our host ordered a beer from his mother and she came in carrying one with an opener as if she were used to her son entertaining in this manner. She seemed happy to see that he’d invited us in and smiled as if to say “you’re in for a good time now!”

We talked about life in foreign parts in general. The man lamented that he’d left his home country so far behind. He had a family in Austria now and his kids, he told me, didn’t even speak Spanish, let alone Guarani. Our entire conversation was in Spanish and although I kept expecting it, this man never tried to say anything in German. All over the CIS (former USSR) countries, I had met men who were back home visiting from Russia where they worked. These men were consistently thrilled to meet a foreigner they could speak Russian with. Even after I explained to the prodigal fathers that I didn’t know any Russian, they would persist, perhaps wanting to show their families their foreign language skills, perhaps already missing their adopted language. My conversation with the magic musician was so devoid of any German vocabulary that I began to wonder how well he knew the language. He was either very stoic or happy to be away from his adopted country. It was hard to tell which.

After a few beers and a discussion about how his kids should learn Spanish while they were still young so they could talk to their grandmother. The magician told me that his brothers and sisters had also joined him in Austria and I suddenly understood why the little old woman always seemed so happy to see us, even at 1 am, when we came by the store. We probably reminded her of her kids who all live in Austria. I thought about my own mom, back in Michigan, and wondered if there were any people my age that she greeted with enthusiastic attention in the years that I’ve been gone. I found myself imagining my mom inviting the mailman or someone else in for cookies, all the while shamelessly bragging about her international son to the completely unconcerned guest. The thought combined with the beer was making me feel melancholic and I was on the point of making an excuse to go when a terrible sound erupted from the next room, like the sudden whooshing, crumpling sound of cars crashing and what I imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex mating call must’ve sounded like, all mixed together.

What was that? I asked. The old proprietress, who had been sitting quietly throughout our conversation, stood up and announced that it was her parrot. She invited us to come and see the bird in the next room.

I guess the parrot must’ve had its wings clipped or it was merely too lazy to try to do anything about its predicament. There was no cage or little chain around its scaly, black chicken claws. The parrot, about 10 inches tall, stood on a little wooden perch and looked content to stay there. As we approached, he shifted back and forth, sidestepping in the interesting way parrots do, without making any movement to fly away. “Be careful,” the old woman warned, “he’s mean.” Normally, I would’ve heeded this sage advice, but the combination of the beers and the lateness of the hour addled my judgment to the point where the best course of action seemed to be to immediately prove to these people that I was some kind of parrot whisperer.

To demonstrate the meanness of the bird, our musician host stretched a hand out, which the bird promptly attacked with its talon-shaped beak. As he didn’t seem too injured by the bird’s efforts, I stuck my own hand out to the bird, which accepting the challenge, it immediately tried to tear apart. I was too busy imaging how the bird was going to get tired of biting my finger, accept me and then climb up on my shoulder to notice that none of these things were happening. The biting didn’t hurt much, but eventually I had to concede that the parrot was never going to accept me. I pulled my hand away. Now it was Gina’s turn. I thought she would be sure to win the parrot’s affections, but again, the bird immediately began to gnaw at her fingers.

Before we went back into the house, I made some comment about how the biting hadn’t hurt. In doing so, I held up my hands, as if to show off the lack of pain in them and found that I was, in fact, bleeding all over the place. I tried to act casual, but everyone had noticed. I pretended that it wasn’t a big deal, but I was also perplexed by how the bird was able to lacerate my fingers in such a way without me noticing. It occurred to me that I’d probably had even more to drink that I realized. We went back to the living room and continued our conversation about living abroad and while discussing the pros and cons of moving away from what is familiar to one, the old proprietress gently cleaned the blood off my hands and applied antiseptic and bandages. I protested, telling her that I could do it, but she just shook her head at me and went back to her work, like I was a five year-old boy who’d skinned his knee rather than a slightly drunken 32 year-old foreigner.

When we left the shop and said good bye to the old woman and her son, I walked back home, looking at my bandaged hand and thinking about the great potential for kindness in people and my renewed respect for parrots.      

(If you happen to be in Austria and need a Latin-themed band, be sure to check out )        

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Floating World

I was sixteen, so I guess the whole thing was endowed with that sixteen year-old feeling, which I can’t really describe except to say that new things seemed to be happening all the time and none of them were really that bad.

I didn’t get along with my parents. When I was home, we argued all the time. There was this increasing sense that the disappointment I was causing them was going to become a permanent thing. Up until that point, it looked like it might have been possible to turn things around and go back to being the decent kid I had been. But now I couldn’t seem to halt my progress of becoming a pain in the ass.

The way I saw it, everyone else just couldn’t accept what I knew to be true: we were all pretty much all a bunch of bastards. The only thing to do was to reject everything. You couldn’t even talk to me about it. I had the answer and didn’t need to listen to any more conjecture. Rejecting everything was an easy credo to maintain and I didn’t want anything messing with it.  

Embittered as I was, I was still having fun. I guess that’s what I mean about the sixteen year-old feeling. I learned things that upset me, but I just let them roll off my back. It was the first time I had been able to feel bothered and simultaneously unconcerned about something. I had always been bad at stuff like that and I used to hit every problem head on like a brick wall. My first year of school, I cried every day for the first few weeks. I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d been abandoned. When I was ten and my parents left me at my grandma’s to take a vacation, they’d hardly driven away when I began to convince myself that they’d died and that I’d be alone forever with my autistic sister. I went behind the garage, which looked out over a field that was stubbly with the remains of some kind of crop. The sun was setting. I sat at the edge of the field and planted my feet down in one of the furrows of loose earth. I watched the sun set while I lashed myself with the words ‘your parents are dead’ over and over until tears came into my eyes and it seemed I would grow up with only this gnarled field for love. After years of feeling this way, it was liberating to have finally achieved apathy. 

I wasn’t in love or anything. No girl would have me. There was a girl named Michelle. Everyone actually called her ‘stache as in ‘mustache.’ She didn’t seem to mind. Someone would say “hey, ‘stache!” and she’d come over like it was her name. I got drunk one night and convinced myself that she had something no one could see. She said ‘no’ and I remember thinking that I must’ve been pretty pathetic to not even be able to get ‘stache for a girlfriend. But it didn’t bother me. Like I said, things just happened.

One of those things that I remember in incredible detail was that Ryan and I tried to stay awake for an entire weekend. Although we only made it one night, it changed my perspective. I guess my threshold for spiritual quests was low enough that a single night wandering around in the snow was equivalent to a few weeks in the desert. The weightlessness of the buildings, the way the hulks of frozen snow and light rendered everything inert and useless, it was all the furniture of a floating world and even my rejection of it was decadent.

I’d met Ryan before. He had sold punk records out of his parents’ house. I went over on my bike when I was about 14 and bought an LP and a few 7”s. He was eating pistachios out of a bag from the health food store, which seemed like the weirdest thing to me. He moved to California a few weeks later. I forgot about him until someone mentioned that he’d come back. We all called him ‘Captain’ so everyone was talking about how Captain was back, but I didn’t expect him to remember me. We’d only met once. 

He was sitting on a washing machine, at a basement show one night listening to the bands, nodding his head. A band played a Code 13 cover and dedicated it to him because they’d bought the record in his parents’ basement. I had a few drinks and went up and we started talking. He said my band needed to practice more, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t really even interested in being in a band. It was just something to do. When the last band was hauling their stuff out, we went outside and talked standing in the ruts made in the snow made by the cars, each of us wearing tennis shoes. I was kind of drunk by then. I told him about all the records I bought since I’d seen him last and gave my opinion of each one. Ryan had an encyclopedic knowledge of the DIY punk world and added pertinent comments as to who had been in each band and what they were doing now. He was older than I was and obviously knew much more, but the way he talked included me. He ended every statement with a “right?” like he wasn’t sure and thought maybe I’d know, although I knew nothing and was just some drunk kid standing on a snowy street.

Ryan came over the next night in his dad’s pickup truck. My head was still kind of fuzzy and I couldn’t think of much to say. We listened to a tape of a band I’d never heard of with a name that sounded like it was in another language. I had to keep kicking my feet together. The floor was too far down for the heater to reach and the cold was rising through the rubber floor mats. Ryan asked where we were going and Taco Bell seemed like the most convenient place to suggest.

In comparison to the dark and empty streets, the dining area was as bright as an emergency room. I walked up to the counter, stomping my frozen feet and ordered a bag of bean burritos that had heft like a garbage bag and a cup for water that I filled with orange slice. Ryan didn’t get anything and politely looked out the window when I unrolled the burritos to squeeze copious amounts of hot sauce onto them.

I felt better after eating and the conversation in the truck picked up a little. We went to Meijer’s and walked through the mercantile vastness. No one seemed to be around, the streets, the Taco Bell and now Meijer’s had all been empty. On the way home, we listened to the same tape of the band with the weird name and Ryan told me about the band and their myriad connections to the greater DIY world. I tried to make jokes about the bumper stickers on passing cars.

We started hanging out after that. Ryan moved out of his parents’ place and in with Katrina, then Katrina moved out and Ryan lived with a series of roommates who were never at home. I’d go hang out at his place all the time. He never seemed to be doing much but listening to records, so usually we’d sit on the living room floor and talk about bands. I was always a little nervous he was going to play something really important that I wouldn’t be able to recognize or that I’d mistake one band for another or just say something dumb. But gradually, I started to relax around Ryan. He seemed to be completely free of the latent desire most people have to pass judgment.

Around this time, everything really started to go to hell at home, but I was sixteen so I had that underwater feeling about all of it, like it wasn’t really happening or at least if it was happening, it didn’t matter. My dad moved out. My sister went to live in a home and I have this memory of standing on Ryan’s porch late at night that winter. It was one of those open porches that the snow drifts up onto and gets all stomped down by people walking in and out of the house. The bootprints only go from the stairs to the door. The rest of the porch, with the chairs and ashtrays, is frozen and untouched, like something after Chernobyl. I was standing on this porch. It was late at night, freezing cold out and quiet. I was smoking, trying not to use my hands so I wouldn’t have to take them out of my pockets. I listened to the glissade of cars trundling down the frozen streets, blocks away. I think it was a weeknight. You could almost hear everyone asleep. I looked down the street. The streetlights were so intense there were no shadows. The snow that the plows had piled up was frozen in golden crags. Everything the snow didn’t cover, like the ground under the arborvitae along people’s homes, bedroom windows and car tires looked wet and black. Everything else looked like burnished gold. 
The streetlights vibrated like florescent lights. I wanted to stay out after I finished my cigarette, but it was too cold. I went inside, wrapped myself up in the blankets and my sweatshirt that smelled like smoke and wind and lay down on the old oatmeal-colored couch. I fell asleep immediately, sinking into the crease where the cushions met the backrest and still hearing the blurry hum of the streetlights outside.

The next day we started talking about staying up all night. Ryan said he’d stayed up before for something like three nights in a row. I’d never done more than one. It seemed amazing to me that I’d been so impatient to accomplish the goal of staying up all night as a kid but then, soon after I’d achieved it, dropped the idea of staying up longer as something unworthy of my attention. We agreed to try to stay up all of the next weekend.

My dad called home that week. I hadn’t talked to him since he’d moved out. When I heard his voice on the phone, I handed it to my mom without saying anything for a reply. My sister came home and stayed with us for a few days and then she went back to the group home. I took naps on the couch every day after school and my mom woke me up for dinner when she got home. It was usually getting dark, by then.

I stayed up late and tried to write. I wrote a lot about snow and different kinds of light, waiting so long for the right word that it sometimes took more than half an hour to write a sentence and even then it wasn’t anywhere near what I wanted to say.

That Friday, I walked to Ryan’s after school. We listened to some records and then made dinner: a bunch of sautéed vegetables, brown rice and half a bottle of Bragg’s. I had a few plates and all the rice felt like a brick in my stomach. I went outside to smoke and it was getting dark. It must’ve been early January because it wasn’t much later than 5 o’clock and the streetlights were already coming on. A few cars went by on West Ave. but there were few other sounds.

It was exceedingly cold, so we stayed indoors most of the night watching movies and talking. I went out to the porch every few hours to smoke. Around three am, I started clenching my jaw as a subtle way to keep myself awake. There didn’t seem to be anything to do inside that didn’t involve sitting down in one way or another and, every time I sat, I started to fall asleep. Ryan seemed fine, but he saw my drooping eyes and suggested we take a walk. Not ready to give up on the idea of staying up all weekend so early, I agreed.

Whatever minimal sounds had been drifting around earlier in the evening had been killed. The street had the prickly silence of something abandoned that had not hosted sound in years. There was no wind. About a block away, like a watch’s second hand, I could hear the periodic tic of the traffic light which had switched from red, yellow and green to flashing yellow— north to south— and red— east to west.

Going out into the night was like falling into some huge frozen body of water like Lake Baikal. The snow lay heaped around like slag and our bodies seemed to dissipate in the intense cold. A breath billowed out like a mouthful of cottony cigar smoke; each word we spoke chugged out like a locomotive puff. The snow crunched under our shoes like soft ice between the back teeth.

Most people on the block had not shoveled the sidewalks in front of their homes and the path was limited to a narrow gorge where the snow had been trod by people passing in the day, most of them probably going up to the corner store to buy cigarettes or lotto tickets.

The gas station was closed. The Wendy’s was dark and the parking lot that had been recently cleared was already dusted with snow. The traffic lights ticked on and off and drew the world in red and black. And on it went. Down the street, the Little Caesar’s and the liquor store were closed. The Heavenly Ham was closed. 

The concepts behind these places seemed much more obscure with all the storefronts dark and shuttered. Why ham? Why did we need a specific store for ham? And why was it here? It could’ve been anywhere. Was there a reason why they put it here? We shook out heads, uncomprehending.

Unconsciously, we were walking downtown. After Mason Street, the buildings grew by a few stories and you could hear them up there, with their loose hanging fire escapes, cutting through the wind. The lights on the tops of the TV antennae, cast a red glow on the buildings that made them look pixilated. It was colder downtown where the buildings were taller and there were fewer trees to halt the progress of the swelling wind. I had to pee. I would’ve gone outside, but we saw a security guard standing in the doors of an old building, smoking, and asked if I could use the bathroom. A peaceable old guy, he agreed, tossed his cigarette into the street and stood back from the door to let us in. I slipped down the faux marble floors to the bathroom and Ryan talked with the guard. Their voices rising and falling like shadows in candlelight descending a staircase. The building’s echo made all the plosive sounds in their voices pock like tennis balls being overhanded down the dark hallways.

Back outside, I couldn’t tell how far we were from morning. The sky looked mauve-grey. It may have been the streetlights and all the neon floating and squirming through the glass tubes twisted into the soft contours of the word ‘open’ over and over.  

We walked back west, past St. Mary’s, and came out over on Brown Street. Even the gas stations were closed. It was like being conscious for your own blackout, walking down streets that you weren’t supposed to remember in the morning. On Brown, we walked by a bank and started talking about a girl Ryan had met there.

“Yeah,” his words each muffled by vapor, his eyes fogged over under his glasses. “But she works at a bank.”

I thought about this for a while. Imagining a young teller, brown hair pulled back into a bun, subtle indications that she was still young: perfume, horn rim glasses, turquoise nail polish. I saw how she’d be nice to everyone, even to someone with only 82.00 dollars in his account.

“Yeah, but what if she hates it?” I asked in frozen white syllables.

“Working at the bank?”

“Yeah. What if it was the only job she could get and every day she goes in to that 70s-looking building with all the same coworkers who have been there for years thinking ‘God, I’ve got to get out of here’? ”

“Then she should.”

“What if she couldn’t?”

“Why not?”

I ignored this. “But wouldn’t you say it’s possible that you and her could have something in common? What if she likes the same movies you do?”

“Ha.” The laugh came out in ghostly burst and drifted up while the hollow sound of it rang out like a wrench dropped in an empty garage. “I doubt it,” Ryan said, shaking his head.

We talked about the bank teller until we reached the Westwood Mall. Ryan wouldn’t concede to asking her out. I countered by insisting that she was probably one of the most interesting people in town and declared, only half-jokingly, that I’d ask her out if he wouldn’t. I saw myself going in and starting up a savings account on the pretense of talking to her. I saw her driving me around in her ‘90 Focus with the rust around the wheel wells. I smoked cigarettes and changed the stations until the cold brought me back to the present scene and the extinguished McDonald’s sign blocking out a dirty ‘M’ shape against the black sky signaling the beginning of Blackman Township.

We passed the old Jewel Osco and the sidewalk ended. There were no footprints on the shoulder so we walked in the street, stomping to knock the snow off our shoes again. We crossed the railroad tracks in front of the Mopar plant that looked abandoned behind the low wall of snow that had drifted up around it. A grey water tower sagged over the building. In the faint light I could almost make out the FORD SUCKS that someone had spraypainted up there years before.

It had begun to snow again and the wind had abated. The heavy flakes were falling through the dark with the sound of someone pouring salt onto a plate. Neither of us was wearing a good coat and we frequently had to brush the snow from our shoulders so it wouldn’t start to melt and dampen our clothes. A car drove past and a flume of marijuana smoke drifted out, smelling alien in the cold, like a distant jungle on fire. The smell chased the red tail lights down into the dark meadows around the airport, down by the highway on the north side of town, in the direction we were walking.

Any town on a major highway has at least two parts to it: the central shopping area and the chain stores out by the highway. In Jackson, these districts are separated by a swath of empty, treeless land where, in the summer, the grass grows long and turns yellow and, in the winter, the snow lies even and peaceful over the hillocks left by the tufts of long, dead grass. There’s an airport runway out there and, as we walked by, lights flashed over the snow. After the bright flash, the contrasting dark was difficult to navigate and we walked through patches of light and darkness, leaving drunken, lurching footprints behind us. The cars going down 94 were muted by the snow. From less than 300 feet away, we could hardly hear them, but their lights spun through the trees and falling snow like cruising searchlights.

The area between the highway and Argyle St. has a long bight of sidewalk that bridges the empty area. The county had cleared this stretch of sidewalk recently and it still had partially submerged look that concrete dug out of a snow bank often has. In the summer, one often found abandoned shopping carts and the broken ink tags of stolen merchandise scattered along the sidewalk but now there was nothing but a meandering set of bootprints coming from the other direction. The freshness of which indicated that we had probably come close to overtaking this traveler and I wondered how we had missed him and where he’d been going.

At the top of the hill, the sidewalk runs out again over the highway overpass. In the day, it’s difficult to cross the exchange, but at 4 am, we walked across slowly, stepping down from the last plate of sidewalk with the balls of our feet to keep the rising snow from spilling over the tops of our shoes.

On the other side of the overpass, the Denny’s glowed like a candle placed in the window of an empty house. The bottoms of the plate glass windows were fogged up with melting snow, conversation, newspaper ink and coffee steam. Looking in at the hunched forms and the meringue-colored lights, I imagined the rattle of dozens of coffee spoons stirring at once, the crinkling papers and the springy clink of zippo lighters and quickened my pace.

We stomped the snow off our shoes, crossing the recently plowed parking lot. The cars of the third shift waitresses and cooks at the back of the lot were covered in snow, about four inches, like they’d been there for months. Even the side mirrors balanced little caps of snow. By the door, the snow had been knocked off the newspaper vending machines, probably by the guy who stocked the papers—an aspect of the job you don’t really think about.

I opened the door and the jangly, warm sounds of encapsulated humanity came floating out into the dark, like a particularly crackly fire.

A waitress, grabbed two of the greasy, oversized laminated menus from the box by the register and cocked them under her arm in a business-like manner. “Two?” She asked. We nodded. “Smoking or non—?” I looked at Ryan. He nodded, slightly. “Smoking.” I told the waitress and she marched us to the back of the restaurant.

A few solo diners looked up to watch us walk by, but most were too busy watching the snow continue falling outside through the steam of their coffee. The conversation in the air had a showered and baggy-eyed quality, like people still weren’t too sure what they were saying to each other, or what the sense was in talking at all.

The waitress tossed the sticky menus down signaling our table, a semi-circular booth in the back, too big for two people. I ordered coffee, Ryan, orange juice and, to our waitress’ irritation, we returned the menus saying we didn’t need anything else. “That’s all you want?” She asked, clarifying. “Yeah,” I nodded. My eyes burned and I couldn’t tell if it was because I hadn’t slept or a result of all the ambient smoke. I pulled out my cigarettes and put them on the table, waiting until the coffee came before lighting one. Ryan and I didn’t seem to have much more to say to each other. We were tired enough to have retreated into our own bleary thoughts in lieu of retreating into our warm, unmade beds.

When the coffee came, I took a deep breath over the top of the cup and let the steam warm my lungs and face before taking a drink. When I looked up, I noticed that the room was full of older middle aged men. The waitresses were the only women. The men were all slightly slouched in their seats, like they were waiting for someone important to meet them, but didn’t want to look overly-expectant. A lot of them reminded me of my dad and I thought about him living in the apartments across from the jr. high. I imagined him coming in here early in the morning for breakfast with the same filmy expression.

The snow started falling thick and fast outside and the volume of conversation increased a little in wonder. As I watched it, it began to look as though the snowflakes were stationary points of light, like stars, and that we were the ones rushing up into the sky, like the whole restaurant had become unmoored and was racing up to the moon.

Ryan was holding his orange juice like he was trying to finish a thought before taking a drink. The waitresses were thanking the tired-looking men and the bus boys were crashing the leftover portions of eggs and toast and coffee into those big black tubs. The Denny’s kept rising through the snow and each patron that went out for their car, pitched headlong into the darkness. I imagined stepping out of the door and the cold wind fluttering the damp and salt encrusted ends of my untied shoelaces as I fell. I saw my mom float by, her long winter coat sounding like a flag snapping in the wind. I saw my sister in her home, flanked by smoking CNAs like hideous caryatids. And my dad, sinking like a stone, with the same tired look and his hair fluttering up, away from the direction of his fall.

We paid the bill and stepped out into the salt-smeared foyer, pulling zippers up, hats down and gloves on. The highway was ahead of us, carved out like a shallow canyon. The muffled sounds of traffic increased as we pushed open the door. “Hey,” I said to Ryan, turning as I pushed open the door. “I bet that bank teller is probably down there right now driving to work. Don’t you think?” A trickle of sunlight was running down the highway on the roofs of the eastbound traffic. Ryan thought about it a minute and then answered. “Yeah, I bet she is.”  And we stepped outside.