Friday, January 24, 2014
Chapter One - King of the Chicanos
Doesn't take much to make a writer happy. The mere positive mention out of the blue of something I published four years ago is enough to get me clicking my heels. I'm enjoying some good news this week about my 2010 novel King of the Chicanos (Wings Press.) Nothing's final yet so I don't have details, but just the fact that my book came up in a particular discussion made the arctic vortex a little more bearable these past few days. Fingers crossed that ultimately I can invite you all to a celebration.
Meanwhile, to keep the mojo working, here's the opening chapter of King of the Chicanos. Hope you like it.
Groans and Whispers
Las Trampas, New Mexico
copyright Manuel Ramos, all rights reserved
On another dry, hot summer day in the last year of another century, Pancho Arango stood in line by an open casket in a packed, abbreviated version of a church in northern New Mexico. The good and religious people of Las Trampas had resurrected San José de Gracia from ruin. They had patched the crumbling adobe, reinforced the ceiling and walls, and painstakingly applied a thick coat of sealant to the wooden floor that covered graves dating from the eighteenth century. Although he tried to lose himself in the heavenly mythology of the torpid funeral mass and the somber throng of mourners, he found himself reflecting on the secular life and times of a man he had loved and hated, feared and pitied.
He had promised himself that he would not attend the funeral of Ramón Hidalgo. The promise did him no good. He failed in the same way that he failed when he had tried to erase the part Hidalgo had played in his life. When the time came, Arango broke the promise without understanding what it meant. He had to be present when Hidalgo received his peace and his place in history and thus he broke his promise without hesitation, without calculating what the cost would be, what the price for attendance had to be.
The sunburned farmer ahead of Arango in the viewing line wore an ill-fitting black suit that exposed frayed cuffs of a shirt that once had been blazing white and an inch-and-a-half of gray socks that once had been midnight black. The man’s bushy, gray eyebrows, full head of gray hair that hung over the frazzled shirt collar, and the glassy, yellow eyes shielded his identity for several minutes, but just as he moved away from the coffin Arango recognized the scar -- the mark of the man who had stood next to him while policemen jabbed heavy metal batons at both of them, who had run with Arango when an errant missile of tear gas landed at their feet and exploded in the faces of the policemen.
Hidalgo’s dark, waxen face, surrounded by silk and velvet, glowed with serenity. Arango’s dulled senses strained against the uneasy peace that tried to overwhelm him. The inert body in the lustrous coffin, the deep-eyed, gravely-voiced priest, the somber, medieval church, the tense mourners: these images served their orchestrated purpose and what should have been a loud, wild celebration of a wild, demanding life was only another church funeral, one more procession of grief and prayer and fear. The fiery, glowing eyes were closed and the half-smile beneath the thin mustache betrayed the irony that even in death Hidalgo understood.
Arango found his way to a pew and sat on the hard wooden seat. Summer burned the wild flowers and weeds and heated the earth but inside the cool air of the adobe building comforted all. A panel of brightly colored, vividly detailed retablos framed the altar. San Isidro smiled ambiguously as a sweating angel plowed his fields. San Francisco stared off to the distant right, a skull in the background. San Miguel brandished a sword that dripped blood. The black San Martín de Porres lovingly cradled the Christ child, and The Little Flower clutched her heart and cried the tears of martyrdom for those who refused to see the beauty and power of the one true God.
Swallows twittered along the outside rim of the ancient building. A dog barked and growled near the massive doorway and Arango remembered the stories told by his grandfather about the dog that escorted souls to the underworld. He also remembered that many years before, the dead man’s wife had adopted such a dog.
The priest droned solemn entreaties and rhythmic refrains and the assembled crowd answered him with beautiful, resonant verses scripted for them by apostles and prophets.
Mi alma está alejada de la paz,
he olvidado la dicha.
Dije: Ha concluído mi vigor,
y la esperanza que me venía del Señor.
Recordar mi miseria y mi vida errante
es veneno y amargura,
Recuerda, sí, recuerda,
y mi alma se abate dentro de mí.
They prayed in Spanish and made the sign of the cross in Spanish and they kneeled in supplication in Spanish but Arango could not help but imagine that Hidalgo’s inanimate ears transformed the words into songs of praise and glory, into a patois of English and Mexican slang, into blues and jazz and tejano music that lifted his casket with the spirit of his life. The mass should have been punctuated by the sounds and colors of Hidalgo’s life. The loft should have echoed with gritos from a choir of angry protestors. The paranoia-inducing background noise of police riot-squad mobilization should have filtered from behind the altar. Young men and women wearing bandanas across their foreheads and huelga buttons on their faded denim shirts should have crowded the priest off the altar so that they could make speeches that demanded justice, revenge, y que viva la raza! Outside the church, a mass of swaying humanity, arms linked in a sign of perpetual resistance, should have been singing the verses of De Colores.
What Arango heard was something else and there was no way for him to know which sounds were real. Over the drone of the priest and his prayers, the groans and whispers of ghosts of penitentes begged their God for mercy and peace and forgiveness before they silently, humbly marched to the morada and the whip and the pain.
The mass ended and pallbearers whom Arango did not know carried the casket to the hearse. They might have been relatives; they could have been men from the village. Bodyguards and attendants often had escorted Hidalgo during his life. They were dark, burly men who kept to themselves and answered to his whims and phobias. Now older, more fragile men accompanied his body with far less ceremony than he had been accustomed to, and with far less urgency.
Arango sat in a rented car and waited patiently for an opening and then pulled in line for the long, hot, dusty drive to the weedy cemetery where the priest said final prayers in Spanish, then whispered his condolences to the few who lingered around the open grave after the prayers were finished.
Sad-faced, chipped angels hovered on an archway over the worn rut at the entrance to the cemetery. A rusty, broken iron fence enclosed the group of mourners and the small gathering of newspaper and television reporters from Albuquerque. The fence served as a sardonic symbol of futility, a reminder that, for now, everyone had destinations, other places where they could take up space but that, eventually, the final space was reserved behind that rickety yet immovable fence.
The tombstones carried the names that had etched themselves on the New Mexican landscape: Baca, Griego, Hernández, Martínez. Pancho believed that it was not right that Hidalgo was buried in the beautiful state of New Mexico. He had lived out the last years of his life where someone had chosen to plant his bones, but he belonged elsewhere. Maybe Texas, where he was born, or so he had boasted many times. Or California, where his myth had been nurtured in loud, agitated meetings on college campuses on the brink of violence. Or Colorado, where clamoring crowds of the poor had raised his silk-screened portrait as well as their fists at the nervous figureheads of their oppression.
No, not New Mexico. He belonged where his triumphs had been direct and personal; where he had staked his claim so many years before when he had called everyone's bluff and bet against overwhelming odds that paid off in defeat and death. He should have been buried where he had emerged victorious in a halo of glory and legend. The truth, however, was that the place no longer existed for him. He had lost it, as he had lost everything else, as Arango had lost it, as an entire generation had dropped that magical time and place and never would pick it up again. Hidalgo had to be content with beautiful but lonely New Mexico.
Arango shielded his eyes from the sun and squinted at the faces he recognized and, yet, did not know. They were faces from another time, another existence, and the details of their importance teased him, out of reach of his awareness but dancing at the edge of his consciousness, fading in and out of his sight as they had done over the years, through all the times and places Hidalgo and Arango had journeyed together.
The man with the scar along the border of his face had not come to the cemetery.
Arango could not hold back the rush of emotion that slammed him as the coffin was lowered into the hole in the earth. His tears fell and were sucked into the dust the same way that Ramón's physical remains were sucked into the dark void of the grave. A few of the others noticed Arango’s emotion, assumed wrong conclusions about him and what he was doing there, and one or two even nodded in recognition. Despite the crowd, the buzz from the television camera and the rolling sway of the earth caused by the burial of a man who once had been a god, Arango stood alone, as tall and straight as he could manage under the weight of all he knew, all he had witnessed, and he convinced himself that only he among all of them had a right to be there. He had been the one who had truly listened to Ramón when all the others heard only blasphemy, who talked, shouted, cursed at him when he failed to respond, and who walked out on him when it was much too late for such drama. Pancho Arango made himself believe that he, alone, knew the story.