There was a knock on my door. I opened it to reveal a woman, not young, famous for her beauty.
“May I come in?” she said.
Mutely I stood aside.
It was two and a half years since my visit to Ethiopia. For a while I supported myself by giving lectures. When business tapered off, I tried to return to the university, only to find, with the budget cuts, my position had been eliminated. I took a series of part time and temporary jobs. I grew a beard—it was a grizzly gray beneath my red moustache. My dreams disturbed me. I felt very alone.
That week I had gone on a three-day cruise around one of our offshore islands. It was a job, not a vacation: I provisioned and cooked for twenty-six people. Szechwan chicken, guacamole, blueberry pancakes—one thing after another. I sweated over a tiny stove in a tiny galley. I returned home tired but pleased. I had earned one hundred and thirty dollars.
The famous beauty took a seat.
“How do you like living here?” she asked.
I could only assume the question was serious.
“I like it,” I said.
“The building is run down.”
“Yes, but it has character.”
“Youre satisfied, then? Content? Do you mind if I smoke?”
I went looking for an ashtray.
I had three rooms: a small bedroom—really a screened-off alcove—a tiny kitchen, and the living room. A bathroom too, of course, a large one which doubled as my darkroom. The walls were inch square white tile, the tub had clawed feet, there was an overhead tank and chain for the toilet.
One interior wall of the living room was brick. On it I hung my photographs.
The woman was examining these, unlit cigarette between her fingers, when I returned.
“You do good work,” she said.
“Are you content, then?”
“I dont know what you mean.”
“Youve had time to think,” she said. “Surely you can answer a simple question.”
A match flared. She sucked smoke.
“I’m human,” I said. “I am content with some things, but not with others.”
“All right. No.”
“You want an answer? No—no, I’m not content.”
She sat again and crossed her legs, which were long and fine. She closed her heavily mascaraed eyes. For a moment she looked weary and worn.
The door opened. A young man came in, followed by a nurse with a red cross sewn to the front of her uniform. A moment later a quarreling couple entered. He looked rather seedy, an older man with short hair. A neighbor, Irish Wolfhound on its leash, peeked through the door. Behind him I saw the lady who lived across the street.
The woman famous for her beauty gestured. I followed her into the kitchen.
“There are three tasks,” she said, “you must accomplish. Only then will you be allowed to return.”
I put water on for tea. Through the door I saw more people arrive: neighbors, friends, strangers. I put a flagon of white wine in the freezer, to start it cooling, and dumped a package of chips into a bowl. Rummaging around I found three ripe avocados, a lemon, hot sauce, and a handful of green onions. I hummed to myself as I chopped the onions and scooped out the meat of the avocados. The famous beauty wiped clear a stainless steel bowl and handed it to me.
“The first task,” she said, “is to bury your mother. The second is to fall in love.”
“And the third?”
“I cant tell you that.”
“Typically cryptic,” I said.
I added chopped lettuce, garlic salt, and a touch of curry.
“Here,” I said. “Taste it.”
A magician, hair askew, demonstrated sleight-of-hand. A black disk revolved on the stereo. Music appeared out of grooves in the plastic. I poured gin and tonics, white wine, and absinthe which turned cloudy over ice. I interrupted conversations, added observations about the weather, memorized names. When the gaiety flagged, I suggested parlor games.
A foursome played strip poker in the corner.
“What makes you think,” I said, “I want to return to Ethiopia?”
“Let’s not be coy.”
We were in the kitchen again, slicing celery for the onion dip.
“It’s annoying,” I said, “to be thought transparent.”
She put a hand on my arm.
“We arent malicious,” she said. “Try to remember that.”
I had to hurry—the crowd had grown unruly. One of the poker players, a girl in black stockings and garterbelt, was fending off a drunken Indian. A red-headed man careened through in a wheelchair, a fierce glint in his eye. I tried to restore order by standing on a table top and shouting, but people ignored me. I hurriedly passed out more chips, more guacamole, and offered everyone black coffee instead of white wine. Nevertheless the din increased. A punk rocker had found my stereo, and turning the volume up full blast, he bounced from person to person like a pogo stick. A tennis player—I recognized him from my past—beat with his racket at a red-necked Southerner. And a bum, I saw in despair, had crawled through the open door, and even now was eyeing my collection of brandy.
I played the piano and sang at the top of my lungs. I tried to harmonize disparate voices. I led people from place to place, trying to establish groupings of peace. I rhapsodized about the stately wheel of the heavens, I talked about the flow of spirit, the conservation of energy. Instead of listening, the girl in black stockings brushed out her hair, and allowed a man to lick at her crotch. Behind her the Indian vomited onto my Persian carpet. A gay man flared his nostrils, and backed into a large woman. “Get off my ass!” she snarled. Someone slapped her—a picky girl in a Peter Pan collar. I restrained an oaf who wanted to break down my wall. He gibbered in a foreign language, lowered his shoulder, and tried once more to batter his way through.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Dont you think that’s enough?” said the woman famous for her beauty.
The music died.
Slowly they filed out.
The bum had two bottles of my brandy under his coat. I saw them, but said nothing. One of my neighbors shook my hand.
“We must get together again,” he said. “Real soon.”
Finally there were left only the famous beauty, the girl in black stockings, the Indian whso was too drunk to move, the magician, and myself.
We all got into my car, a rattly old Ford with rusted fenders. We had to carry the Indian; we folded him into the trunk, leaving the lid ajar so he wouldnt suffocate. The magician and the girl in black stockings got into the back. She sat directly behind me, and propped her legs up on the seat. She touched her ankles to my neck, and pressed the spiked heel of one shoe against my cheek. A thrill ran down to my groin. The magician, muttering incantations, palmed cards, rolled silver dollars across his knuckles, and pulled a silk flower from one nostril. I searched in my pockets for the key. The famous beauty, silky knees pressed together, repaired her make-up.
The night was very dark. The moon, it was rumored, would not rise until very late. A shortage of illumination—there was only so much to go around—kept the streetlights from working.
We went down Palm Avenue, past Stater Brothers, then along San Timoteo Canyon. Sand blew across the road.
It rained, and stormed. The car rocked from side to side. Eventually we climbed a last hill and came to the cemetery.
My mother’s coffin lay under a pine tree. Other coffins—empty, broken, ornate and plain—were scattered about. Two tramps warmed their hands over a fire.
Mother immediately began to talk.
“What a state! Such a strange place to be! Where is the moon? Doesnt an aged mother deserve a little moonlight?”
“Have you ever noticed,” the magician said, standing to my right, “how my wrists swivel when I palm a card?”
“Is it too much to ask, a little consideration? Moonlight, a street lamp—oh Donnie, some sunshine!”
“I have a torch,” I said wetting my lips. “If I can find it.”
“Does it have to be so cold?” she continued. “Did I work my fingers to the bone, for this? Why must I lie here, year after year after year!”
The girl in black stockings, to my left, tugged at one garter. She stretched out her leg and admired the glistening toe of her shoe.
“Theyre Charles Jourdan,” she said. “One hundred and twenty dollars. Arent they nice?”
“Oh Donnie, Donnie,” my mother called from her coffin. “Why does it have to be so lonely?”
I turned to the woman famous for her beauty.
“What can I do?” I asked thickly.
“Bury her,” she said.
I panicked, and ran. I ran past pine trees and elms and weeping cypress. An owl brushed my face. Finally, exhausted—I must have run miles—I stopped. I flung myself onto the grass.
“Here’s a shovel,” said the woman famous for her beauty. “Why delay?”
“Oh Donnie, Donnie,” my mother cried, somewhere nearby. “The light—why is the light so thin!”
I leaped to my feet, and ran again. I plunged through bushes, crossed streams of water. My lungs ached. I fell at last next to a tombstone.
“There’s a hole already started,” said the famous beauty. “A little deeper, and it will serve.”
“Oh Donnie!” my mother’s voice cried. “Oh Donnie! I’m so tired!”
I found hidden resources of energy. I ran faster than I had ever run before. I created winds, tornadoes, storms. Trees bent in half as I passed. I collapsed at last next to the pile of earth.
“I’ll do it!” I cried. “I'll bury her!”
From deep in the coffin came a sigh.
The shovel had an oaken handle. I dug all night. Blisters raised on my hands. The next day they broke, and re-formed. The second night and second day were agony. My muscles stretched and tore. Each shovelful was heavier than the last. The famous beauty brought me a thermos of tea and sandwiches—liverwurst and cress, egg salad and thyme. The magician juggled balls which vanished in mid-air, only to reappear from his mouth. The girl in black stockings arranged her legs so the sunlight shone on their silky surface. On the third day all was finished. I threw aside the shovel and climbed out. My face was black with sweat and dirt.
I placed a flower in the coffin. My mother’s eyes were closed. A soft snore escaped her lips. I nailed the lid shut.
It was already dark. An orange moon bulged over the distant hills. The two tramps, brushing crumbs from their hands, came over to help. We slipped ropes under the coffin. Grunting with effort, we lifted it off its bier and carried it to the hole. As we lowered it, the coffin became lighter and lighter; it became the color of smoke. The rope slipped free, as though the coffin were no longer solid; but the first shovelful of dirt thumped convincingly onto the wood. Each person, the famous beauty, the girl in black stockings, the magician and the two tramps, tossed a handful of dirt into the grave. Gradually I filled the hole. Just as I was replacing the sod, I saw the Indian. He had floated free from the trunk of the car, where we had left him. He drifted by overhead, grinning like Indians everywhere, teeth stained with betel, barbaric ornaments hanging from the lobes of his ears and the septum of his nose, ochre rubbed onto his ankles and the soles of his bare feet. Ohh, we all went, the woman, the girl, the magician, the two tramps and myself. Ahh, we went, sod falling into place, orange moon breaking free into the sky, Indian drifting overhead, grinning, grinning, finally winking one eye as we all, softly, applauded.
NOTES: During the years that I found novels impossible to write, I worked for a while, part time, at a local bicycle shop. I would spend the day there, when it was closed, doing most of the repairs. I'm an old bicycle mechanic and a frame builder, too. One day, while taking apart a Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub, a poem suddenly came to me. It appeared complete, from beginning to end. I quickly wrote it down--"Waiting For Lions," it was called. I returned to the Sturmey-Archer hub and almost immediately another poem appeared. I wrote it down, too. Soon there were five such poems--you can see them from the Poetry page. All of them were concerning Ethiopia, a country I had never visited and about which I knew very little. These poems remain a mystery to me. I hadnt written a poem since I was a boy. I hadnt been thinking of poetry and had no inclination to become a poet and havent written a poem since.
After these poems, I read a little about Ethiopia. One day an idea for a story occured to me, and I wrote the first of my Ethiopian stories, called "Journey to Ethiopia." It was published in Flashpoint, the literary magazine, some years later. A few months afterwards I wrote this story, "Motherburial #1," and some time later another couple, "Iseult," "The Generalisimo,"and "The Two-Headed Woman." And some years later, of course, in desperation, I rode my motorcycle into southern Mexico to see if I could write a novel there. A day before I left, I was browsing through a used book store, and found a volume about the Field Expedition to Ethiopia in the years before WWI. I took it with me. And in Manzanillo, in an abandoned house next to the ocean, in a coconut grove, I wrote my first novel in many years, The Ethiopian Exhibition, which drew heavily on the information in that book. Ethiopia was the first of my Mexican novels, and was published by FC2, initially by itself and then as a part of Mexico Trilogy.
Clearly Ethiopia became for me a metaphorical place, a country of magic, mystery, and strange beauty. The genesis of this metaphor, however, remains unknown. But I will be forever grateful for its presence.