It was from a friend of my mother that I learned something else: One afternoon before I could walk, two men from the government knocked on our apartment door in Oakland to tell my mother that her husband’s body had been identified in a morgue in Oaxaca, Mexico.
When you seek one world, physics demands you leave another behind. Physics admits no half-measures. Here, or there, but not both. I already knew that, and a bachelor’s degree-worth of other things, too, when I finally crossed the border myself, took the series of bus rides that would culminate in Oaxaca. Long miles and long hours, but you don’t go forth without a reason, either a better view ahead or a worse one behind. My own rear-view mirror wasn’t the worst in the world, but I would not mourn its passing. And more, south and east led to, might lead to, my father, gone since before we met, dead as long as I had been alive.
There was a man in Oaxaca who knew a family in Santa Maria del Tule who maybe knew my father. I thought I spoke and understood Spanish but I thought a lot of other things that proved to be incorrect, too. Sergio Padilla Flores and I took the bus from Oaxaca to Tule, its more common name, five days after my arrival. I thought Sergio was at least seventy, yet he was describing, as well as I could understand, the two brothers in Tule as a generation older. My second morning in Oaxaca, Sergio had taken me into a double-locked storeroom in a crumbling once-proud building on La Calle Armenta y Lopez, just east of the Zocalo in the center of the city. He convinced someone to spring the locks for us. We entered a windowless arena stifling with wood, metal, and cardboard file cabinets. Sometime during the fourth afternoon we found the newspaper from 1946. My father was one of twelve persons killed when a bus jumped the road near San Bartolo Coyotepec. The driver was one of the fatalities but three survivors spoke of a massive pack of coyotes filling the lanes as the bus began a blind descent. They surmised the coyote explosion caused the driver to react instinctively, and incorrectly, and down the bus tumbled. In an extremely rare occurrence for the time, an autopsy was performed on the driver, and his cause of death was not the crash but a heart attack.
Before I had come down, I spent four Mondays in the old San Francisco Public Library but found nothing connecting Traven to Oaxaca. That didn’t worry me because everything I did read on Traven had the taste of “well, we don’t really know anything concrete about this man, but we’ll repeat these reports that might be true.”
That last letter my mom had received, or, more properly, of the three letters in the bottom of her dresser, the one with the most recent date, was postmarked Mexico City, and suggested he was close to his quarry. Then there was a yellowed telegram from Oaxaca, inexpensive, four words: Paydirt. Manuscript to follow. Then nothing, nothing saved anyway, and then the knock on the door, according to the only friend my mother seemed to have, and they showed little intimacy in the time I knew them, and the news of his death.
I don’t know how newspapers are preserved in the States. I am not a trained historian. I planned to be a physical therapist but after graduation never took the state boards. I have no expertise to compare this twenty year old edition of La Imparcial with any other aged newspaper. I can say that compared to the March 16th San Francisco Chronicle that I half-read on the first bus, from Oakland to Los Angeles, this one was brittle. Delicate. Cradling its pages in my hands was a blessing, a gift I wanted to have earned but felt unsure that I had. The top half of the front page was a picture that looked like a still from the a film-noir movie set, a close-up of two bodies propped next to the wreck of the bus, as bloody as a black and white photo can be. I didn’t think either of the bodies was my father, although the face of the man on the left didn’t look like any father who had ever walked this earth.
Again I wondered what the Oaxaca connection was, and it was for this question that Sergio and I were side-by-side on the Tule bus, the morning sun staring at us through the windshield, the driver’s transistor radio blaring as if it knew it were chosen from all the radios in all the buses this day to represent the heart of 1966 Mexican pop music.
We reached Tule and the big tree that the guidebooks brag about, the only reason I had ever heard for visiting the town. As wide as a house and several times as tall, it is no ordinary tree. Were I a believer in alien visitations I would have thought it delivered from another galaxy. Equally captivating was the brilliant white church just behind it. Alone, it would have been a good-sized structure, but here it was dwarfed by the tree. Sergio took me into the church as soon as we were off the bus and, after doing what all good Catholics do in that part of the world, he disappeared into a side room, leaving me to gaze alone at the etchings and paintings. He returned in thirty minutes to find me on a wooden bench contemplating the suffering face of Jesus. He started to speak but paused, giving me time to re-acquaint myself with the twentieth century.
“Sr. Eduardo, I am sorry to tell you that the two gentlemen we have come to see are no longer living.” This was spoken in Spanish but I had no trouble with either the literal or broader significance of the words. He continued: “The elder brother, Don Pedro, suffered a stroke and died after a day. His younger brother, Don Jose Maria, hearing the news, responded with a killing stroke of his own. The masses were given this morning. Would you like to visit the cemetery?”
I looked back at Jesus on the cross. I wasn’t Catholic, wasn’t anything, but wished that I were.
“Yes, let’s go.”
The cemetery was a short walk in the relentless heat. Several mourners were leaving, though not all. A priest accompanied them. Sergio spoke softly with the priest, nodded discretely toward me, then returned to my side as the priest and the others continued their exodus.
“Over in the corner, near the bougainvillea,” he told me.
The priest returned briefly. I wondered if there were more to the ceremony. In my cautious Spanish I asked him if anything else was going to happen, as I noticed many of the mourners still in the area, sitting on dusty monuments, fanning themselves, and chatting. He replied that it might rain.
We walked on and easily found the freshly turned dirt and the two shiny stones: Pedro Mendez Huerta and Jose Maria Mendez Huerta, both awash in flowers. They were in a row of three, the third much older, the name less obvious. It seemed to read Gerard Gales. It seemed to be the same name as my father. There was nothing to say. There was no reason to be there.
A week later I was back in California reading Traven’s The Cotton Pickers for the fifth and final time. I finished it and burned it in a metal trash can behind my apartment building. Next I burned my father’s letters. As the afternoon sun faded into an unseasonably chilly sunset, I burned the photos one by one, saving until the end the glimpse of my father, and his hands, and Marisol, and her breasts, not before admiring for one last time the look on her face, the smile on his, and, yes, the breasts, covered though they were by those hands. Then I added my passport and stoked the flames until there was nothing but ash.
I moved across the bay to San Francisco to an even worse apartment not two blocks from the corner where Marisol’s kitchen and apartment had stood before falling to a wrecking ball and, in succession, a Rexall pharmacy, a real estate office, a Filipino market, and a Salvadoran restaurant.
I apprenticed for six months before signing on as a landscape gardener trainee for the city of San Francisco. I spend my days on my knees in Golden Gate Park, ripping out invasive species, replacing them with boring but native varieties as tourists step around me as if I were inanimate.
Muni runs a bus but I have had enough of buses, so each dawn I walk the two miles to the park and at dusk I walk the two miles home. My evenings are a tight circuit of three bars in the Avenues between Rivera and Taraval Streets and my nights, sleeping or not, in my cell of an apartment on 43rd Avenue. On windless nights I can’t help hearing the waves from Ocean Beach but that’s as close as I get to the saltwater that kisses the city’s edge. I stopped reading altogether and I never think about my father.