Tony Press

“Elusive as an alley cat.”   She was a woman I met one time only, when I was sixteen, and that’s what she said, her grey eyes never lighting on me, but fixed on one dusty square of her kitchen window as she reminisced about my father, a man I had never met at all, a man she hadn’t seen in twenty years.  Her name was Marisol and she had once possibly been married to my mother’s older brother, the one who repaired televisions and died and had a funeral when I was about five years old.  I remember the funeral but not the man.  Straining for the right words, Marisol’s best appraisal was that my father was as elusive as an alley cat.  Two decades later, I found a poem by Francisco X. Alarcon and the very phrase in Spanish:  huidizo como gato de barrio.  I was confident Sr. Alarcon was not a plagiarist, but I couldn’t work out if the dates added up.  It didn’t seem likely she could have read it before we met.  It must have been “simply” - that absurd word we use for the vagaries of life and language - “simply” an expression from her collection.

I was in utero when my father went south.  For longer than you might imagine it didn’t cross my mind that he existed, or had existed.  I didn’t know his name until I was eleven – one morning a new teacher insisted I be able to write it on a family tree.  From the to-my-eyes ancient woman (she must have been all of forty, and when I think back, she was an extremely attractive forty) who determinedly didn’t smoke while I drank lemonade and had three of my own in her spare, spotless kitchen, in San Francisco’s Sunset District in a house with no visible ashtrays, but whom I’d bet ten to one had herself smoked from the age of fourteen, and no doubt still had a stash of Camels tucked inside her sweater drawer, from Marisol -- “just call me Marisol” -- I learned he wasn’t the first in the family to go south, that his own father had made it all the way to the equator, the years he “worked on the canal.”    

Sometime after our sole encounter, when she must have known she was dying, she packaged a small box of letters and photos and mailed it to me, signing the note “Aunt” Marisol.  The photos convinced me that my nose was less unique than my schoolyard friends had always imagined, and one of the letters made it clear that my grandfather (another man I never met) had once earned his keep in Panama playing piano for one of the flophouses that dotted the Isthmian Canal Commission’s construction sites.  Most were shacks or tents with nothing more than cots, but his, with a carefully-lettered “Smiley’s,” on the door, was a building of adobe brick with real beds and real women, and a bar, a piano, and my grandfather.   Maybe I did have a musical bone in my body.

It was a week after I’d received the package that I realized there was another two-by-three photo I hadn’t noticed, stuck to the inside of one of the envelopes.  I thought it was my mom, much younger, with my dad.  I thought it was, but then I knew it had to be Marisol.   She was smoking and wearing a strapless summer dress.  My father stood behind her, his arms around her and his hands crossing and cupping her breasts.  She was looking up at his dazzling camera-ready smile.  Over their heads was the clock I’d seen above Marisol’s kitchen sink.

I was born in 1945, three weeks after my father bolted from a Texas army hospital.  He was recuperating from a head injury he’d received overseas, or not overseas.  He left prior to his medical discharge because he had it on good authority, my mother would have read in the letter he sent her and that, improbably, she saved for me, or, more likely, inadvertently neglected to destroy, for there was little else in her meager possessions to suggest she had once lived with, married, borne a child by, this man, that he had it on good authority, he was confident, that he could find and befriend the mysterious author - - American?    German?   Mexican?  More than one man? - - - who used the name B. Traven, and who was reputedly tucked away somewhere in Mexico.

To say that “I was born” is so boring.  In Mexico, the expression is dar la luz, give the light, or, in the sense of “When is your baby due?  ¿Cuando das la luz?” But when I received the light, it wasn’t enough to lay eyes on him.

The source that was the imprimatur of my father’s decision was a man named Hans, a loquacious prisoner-of-war happily emptying bed-pans in the hospital in San Antonio, thriving in a job much calmer than his infantry work back home.  Hans confided to my father, according to the first letter, scrawled as he bounced in a southbound Mexican bus out of Nuevo Laredo, that while he had never met the man himself, his own brother-in-law, not terribly lamentably killed in ’42, was once a confidante of B. Traven, and, yes, Traven was German, though that wasn’t his real name.  Moreover, Hans had read, after the brother-in-law passed, his packet of Traven’s letters, preserved in their envelopes covered with Mexican stamps.  And upon each envelope was a return address.  There were six envelopes, the postmark dates not always distinct, with four different addresses.  Hans recalled two of the addresses, the two which had been, he believed, the most recent, and he generously bestowed those addresses upon my father.  “You are a man who will appreciate this.  It is a burden I am lifting from myself.”

My father, according to “Aunt” Marisol, had signed up in homage to Hemingway, with the ambulance corps, but never, she firmly believed, never crossed the ocean, for some reason serving our nation best along the Texas border.  The injury, a serious one, occurred outside a roadhouse in West Texas.  Or perhaps on a shooting range in San Antonio.  My minimal extended family thrived in a region of selective recall. 

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