Chris Sawyer Lauçanno

Chapter 38: I Become Master of My Own Affairs

I entered the doors of El Colegio Americano with a slight amount of trepidation. Unlike my first visit, the school was bustling; some kids whizzed here and there; others strolled more slowly, lost in conversation. I stood in the foyer for a moment, then noticed Prof. Benz, wearing it seemed the same black suit, standing in front of his office doorway. He greeted me rather gruffly, asked my name again, then yelled at a red-headed kid about my age who was chatting with some other boys in the patio. As the boy slowly ambled over to join us, the headmaster informed me I would be taking the same general classes as Miguel.

“Miguel Brooks, Cristóbal Sawyer; Cristobal, Miguel,” said Benz succinctly.

Miguel removed his black leather glove and we silently shook hands. Obviously, a man of few words, the headmaster in one sentence charged Miguel with escorting me from class to class and introducing me to the teachers. He then abruptly turned on his heel and entered his office. Once he’d vanished, Miguel and I struck up a conversation and I learned in the space of a few minutes that 1) most of the teachers were OK, but Benz was an asshole; 2) there were only seven students, now eight, counting me, in our class—the second year of secondary—and that four of them were girls, two of them stuck up, the other two ugly; 3) Miguel was Mexican-born to an American cattle rancher and a Mexican mother; 4) despite his Gringo looks, he spoke only a little English; 5) the first class of the day, following the flag raising, was algebra.

Suddenly, from the courtyard, three short trumpet blasts permeated the air.

“Assembly,” instructed Miguel. “Obligatory and corny.”

We proceeded to the interior patio, dominated by a large flag pole. A small ensemble of students—one trumpeter, one trombonist, three snare drummers—stood at attention on the far side of the pole, with Benz and the other teachers, most of them fairly young but wearing uniformly dour expressions, flanking them. The rest of the students gathered facing them, silently awaiting the ceremony’s commencement. Once Benz was sure the last of the stragglers had arrived, he strode forward, his back to the band. I thought he was about to speak, but instead he raised his arm, and then, with a flourish brought it back down to his side. In tandem with this realignment, the Mexican national anthem started up, led off for several measures by the forceful drumming of the snares. Finally, the prelude to the melody, in a dubious harmony, was blared by the trumpet and trombone, followed after a few bars by a solo again from the snares. While the drum rolls continued, sounding a bit like horses pawing hollow ground, Benz squared himself, and again extended his arm. This time when he brought it down, in semi-synchrony with the first notes of the brasses, and with the drums counting out the martial signature, the entire student body, save me, who didn’t know the words, broke into spirited song. During the singing two boys marched forward carrying the Mexican flag, who after expertly attaching it to the cord, sent the banner slowly aloft so that it reached its apex just as the last chorus resounded in the courtyard.

I expected at this point that Benz would have made a brief welcoming speech or proffered a few words of wisdom, but instead, in stony silence, he filed out of the courtyard. No one else spoke either; all that could be heard was the shuffling of feet as we and the teachers set off for our respective classrooms.

​That morning I met a few more classmates who seemed friendly and outgoing, particularly two brothers, Jaime and Luis Delgado. I also collected books and syllabi for algebra, Mexican geography, Spanish Literature and biology. According to Miguel, the afternoon would bring English and Latin. The teachers were all welcoming; in each class I was asked to introduce myself and recite my history. By the fourth class of the morning, the account became extremely brief.

At first, I was a bit puzzled by the schedule. Assignments in geography and Spanish were for Wednesday, while in math and biology the homework was due the next day. Miguel finally solved the mystery: Spanish literature and geography only met three times a week; on the other days we had world history and Spanish grammar. The other two classes met every day. In the afternoon, he told me, we’d have Latin on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, sports on Tuesdays and Thursdays; English though, to his chagrin, was daily.

So far none of the classes had been conducted in English nor had I even heard a word of English. I had no trouble keeping up verbally, but was concerned about being able to read and write at the high school level. I had never written much in Spanish, nor even read more than a few novels and the daily newspaper.

By siesta break my stomach was churning, not from hunger, but from anxiety. Would I be able to catch up? Would I make new friends and fit in? But perhaps most important, would I be able to hack living on my own, being totally responsible for myself in what seemed such an overwhelming situation? Could I muster the necessary courage, alone, friendless, in a foreign country, in a new city, in a new school?

Though it wasn’t raining when I emerged from the school building, the sky was still uniformly gray, a match, I thought, for both my pants and mood. I wandered along the river for a while, then reversed myself and walked up to the main drag, the Ave. 20 de Noviembre. Outside the Hotel Casablanca I paused for a moment, hoping against hope that somehow my mother or Ray had decided after all not to go and would suddenly burst through the doorway to rescue me. I knew, naturally, that it was an impossible scenario. I was alone and would be alone. I walked on up the street, past the cathedral and the plaza, to the corner of Calle Victoria where I turned right and slowly ambled up to the doorway of 304. I rang the bell, just in case, but meanwhile produced my key. As I walked up the stairs, my resonant footfalls mimicked and mocked the beating of my heart.

Once in the house I went into my bedroom and flung myself on the bed—one of the few pieces of furniture we had acquired—and buried my head in the pillow. The cathedral bells tolled twice. Traffic roared past. Voices drifted up from the street. A siren wailed in the far-off distance. I tried to shut out all the peripheral sounds and listen only to myself, but in vain; even the bed squeaked.

I sprang from the bed and strode to the window and opened the shutter. The sky was lightening some. The Cerro del Mercado, the giant iron-laden hill to the north of town, mined for centuries, seemed almost purple, almost beautiful. Below a few people, chattering happily, walked by, heedless of my crisis or even my presence. I closed the shutters, plunging the room back into semi-darkness. Then, after making sure I had my key, I descended the stairs and emerged into the growing luminescence of mid-afternoon.

When I was a child, my grandfather often quoted to me Joe Hill’s last words, “Don’t mourn. Organize!” Although I knew that Joe was referring to organizing the labor movement, I now reinterpreted his refrain as a rallying cry for action on my own behalf. Like a Wobbly against the Pinkertons, or the anti-fascists against Mosely and the Met Police on Cable Street, I mustered my resources and marched forward on all fronts, seizing my life, making it over to suit myself. Consequently, by the end of the first week of living alone I had not only adjusted to my circumstances, but had begun to discover how delicious total freedom truly could be. In fact, I wasn’t at all disappointed when on Saturday morning I received a telegram from Ray saying that he wouldn’t be able to get up to Durango on the weekend as he had planned. I wired him back telling him that he needn’t worry about me.

I was truly a beaver on my own behalf that first week, busying myself making the house somewhat more habitable. I marshalled my meager but adequate purchasing power, in the form of pesos given me by Ray, buying a used two burner kerosene stove for cooking, a small kitchen table and chairs (that doubled as a desk), a set of pottery dishes and glasses, some used silverware, a butcher knife, some used pots and pans, an alarm clock, a woven straw rocking chair, and an electric heater since the place was beastly cold, particularly at night. I scavenged a good supply of wood for firing the water heater, too.

I also discovered a fabulous torteria around the corner that served up exquisite tortas of chicken and avocado on a refried bean base, topped with an incredibly hot green salsa, all for about two pesos, the equivalent in those days of 16 cents. I dined there every day at lunchtime; in the evenings I usually cooked my own meals, largely hamburgers, with rice and some sort of green vegetable on the side. Since I didn’t have a refrigerator, I had to purchase perishable goods daily, but this was hardly a bother as I was at the market every day anyway to seek out other household items, mainly at the used goods stalls. My last stop on the way home was always at the liquor store on Ave. 5 de Febrero where I purchased two beers, usually Carta Blancas, that I sipped before retiring for the night, after my homework was finished.

Both my resourcefulness and moderation surprise me some now, but I realize that my model, or at least an important model, was none other than my boyhood hero, Robinson Crusoe. Although hardly shipwrecked, I fancied myself as a modern-day urban Crusoe, creating my own kingdom from the leavings of civilization. (Everything I purchased was used.) And while I didn’t directly thank Providence for my good fortune, I was hardly heedless of the benignity of the gods. I’m not sure how I factored in attendance at school and the social interaction that accompanied my daily forays into that world, but I suspect I looked upon these tasks as belonging to a separate reality.

School did, however, occupy a fair amount of my attention. My trepidation about my written Spanish turned out to be well founded. My grammatical control over complex sentences was abysmal, and my vocabulary impoverished. Profesora Perez, the composition teacher, a young, stylish woman with a delightful laugh, took pity on me; rather than forcing me to write the long essays required of the others, she instead assigned me scores of exercises from an elementary grammar text. I was tested, it seems, almost daily, and to my delight, began to acquire perfect marks on the quizzes. On the other hand, Profesora Alvarez, the geography teacher, a shriveled older woman, a widow, I guess, judging from her wholly black attire, cut me no slack. On each paper, every miniscule error was marked and inevitably I received no grade higher than a “70.” On the quizzes, though, all multiple choice, I always got “90s,” thus offsetting the poor marks on my written work.

English was another matter altogether. The class was taught by a true Yanqui, an Ichabod Crane-like figure from Paterson, New Jersey named Rubright.  Since I was far beyond the rest of the class, I was assigned to spend the hour at the library reading a prescribed set of books and writing essays about them. Once a week, for the first half-hour of siesta, I was to meet with Mr. Rubright to discuss my work. I liked the arrangement quite well, despite having to give up a bit of free time. His wife, Mrs. Rubright, a jolly woman, taught world history, in English, but I had to stay in that class.

Chapter 39: I Become Friends with David

Toward the end of my second week of independence, Ray wired me to come down to Sain Alto on the weekend. Accordingly, I took the early morning bus on Saturday, arriving, after the two-mile hike from the main highway, just in time for lunch.

Ray, over the last two weeks, had been engaged in a similar project to my own: fixing and furnishing a large old adobe as the offices for the company, and as lodgings for him, the office manager Javier, and a few others. Aside from feeling that my home improvements were far more creatively assembled (he had bought everything new), I remember virtually nothing about the weekend save that I consumed a huge plate of refried beans and tortillas at the one cafe in town, and that I went underground at the mine. Presumably, I must have given him a report on my doings, but I cannot recall any acknowledgment from him whatsoever. I suppose, though, that his decision to send 17-year-old David, Samuel’s son, whom I had first met at the Fronteriza mine, and who, along with his father was working for Ray again, to be my companion in Durango, constituted some sort of response.

At first, I was not thrilled with having to share my life with David but I don’t remember trying to talk Ray out of it either. Perhaps, entangled in my twisted logic, I envisioned David as Friday to my Crusoe. In reality it wasn’t like that at all: rather than serving me, David became my best friend. Together we shopped in the market, drank coffee and Coca-Cola at cafes, smoked cigars and drank shots of tequila at home, explored every street of Durango, and worked together on home furnishing projects. As it turned out, David was a fairly skilled carpenter. We acquired a rusty saw, a hammer and screwdriver and together fashioned a dining room table and a desk, both made from plywood and two-by-fours, and built some bookcases, side tables and even a china cabinet.

Each night, before our tequila nightcaps, I’d tutor him in reading and writing. I also read my assignments in Spanish literature and geography to him out loud. Together we’d discuss the readings. I quickly realized that David was exceptionally bright; within two weeks of our nightly sessions, he was reading and writing himself. On occasion, he’d even read my assignments to me, and though he’d frequently stumble and need assistance deciphering a word, his literacy was clearly gaining day by day.

I had a three-day weekend on the 20th of February for the Día del Ejército, and David and I decided to take a vacation to Mazatlán. Deciding that a four-day holiday was better than three, I wrote a note to Prof. Benz excusing myself for the Friday before the Monday holiday.  Most of Thursday evening was spent preparing for our adventure; at six the next morning we were on a bus climbing into the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The scenery was spectacular: from cattle and horse ranches, to pines and jagged peaks, around impossible curves with 1000-foot drops, to finally the semi-tropical plain just south of Mazatlán, and then the city itself, ringed by hills.

David thought we should camp on the beach but I figured we could find a cheap hotel. A few promising ones, that is, dilapidated establishments, were scattered in the vicinity of the bus station. The first two I tried (David sat in the plaza in front of the basilica with the bags) were full. The third hotel, Las Palmas, had a small room at a reasonable price but the proprietor was clearly loathe to rent it to a 14-year-old-boy. (Somehow, I had forgotten how old I really was.) I hastily concocted a story that my father was to arrive later, but that my companion and I needed a place to put down our bags and rest until his arrival. He clearly didn’t believe a word of the story, but an extra twenty-peso bill (double the room cost), helped to persuade him.

The room wasn’t much: two single beds, a tiny window overlooking an airshaft, some hooks for hanging clothes, a stained washbasin housing a clan of large slick-backed cockroaches. David and I didn’t care. We put down our bags and exited to find a taqueria. Over lunch we discussed our plans. I, naturally, wanted to go to the beach but David seemed curiously reluctant. I finally brought out of him what the problem, or problems were: he was afraid of water, since he couldn’t swim, and, he didn’t have a bathing suit. The second difficulty I told him could be easily solved, but he said that I’d already spent too much money on him. I told him I’d advance him his pay for the week and he could buy his own swimming trunks, and his meals, or whatever. “But really,” I said, “I have enough money for both of us, this was my idea, I wouldn’t have come alone, and I needed him. He finally brightened. I pushed 100 pesos in his direction and we set off to buy him a swim suit.

The next few days were glorious. The weather was perfect, the water cold, but swimmable for brief periods, the beaches relatively uncluttered, though enough women in bikinis were on hand to make it interesting. I tried to teach David to swim, but with no success; he wouldn’t go more than a few feet from the beach and would retreat quickly at the sight of a large incoming wave.

The Old Centro of the town didn’t impress me a whole lot. It seemed in a perpetual state of construction, so that the tropical air was constantly permeated by the sounds of piledrivers and jackhammers. But I liked walking along the Paseo del Centenario, and sampling the different beaches from Olas Altas to the Playas del Norte and del Sur.

We also solved the problem of our being underage at the hotel. Each day, including on the afternoon of our arrival, David would call the hotel from a pay phone and, in his deepest voice, ask for us. Naturally, we would be out. He would then, with seemingly great urgency say that he was my father and that he had unfortunately been delayed in Durango. We should remain, therefore, at the hotel for one more day. Whether the management ever caught on, or believed it to begin with, I never knew, but I never paid the proprietor a mordida again.

Our house, Calle Victoria

Chapter 40: I Become Reunited with my Family

It was David who spotted the Impala parked in front of the house. I was the one who noticed the lights were on in the kitchen. We both stopped talking immediately. It was early evening and cold. In fact, I had begun shivering on the way from the bus station, largely, I suppose, because of my sunburn. But it was also cold, a radical contrast from the sun and warmth of Mazatlán. I stopped at the doorway and started to enter; David pulled me away and whispered that before we ascended, we needed to invent a suitable story. I hefted my duffel again and we walked down to the corner cafe. Over coffees we worked at hatching our scheme. After a number of ruses were discussed and discarded, we finally decided that we should not go in together. I would return first and announce that I had been invited to the beach by the family of a schoolmate. (That would explain not only my absence but my very obvious sunburn.) David, I would say, had decided to visit his family in Fresnillo and would be returning shortly. (Darker skinned than I, his slight burn wasn’t apparent.)

I opened the door quietly. Indistinct voices reached me. Ray wasn’t alone. As I neared the top of the stairway, I could now make out Ray’s words and they were in English. Then, I heard my mother’s voice. I almost dropped my bag. I was prepared for Ray; I was totally taken aback—simultaneously delighted and chagrined—that my mother and siblings had arrived. But before I could get over my astonishment the door was flung open and both my mother and Ray stood framed in the opening, the yellow light from the hall turning them into black, looming forms, more ominous than welcoming. I cried out, my voice cracking with emotion, wonder, uncertainty, excitement. Then, summoning my courage and guile, I ran up the last few steps and hugged my mom, gave an abrazo to Ray, and stepped inside the house. Cesar came running from somewhere, and I picked him up and hugged him, too, and I didn’t know whether it was good or bad that I had such a large welcoming party, but I plunged in, trying to be as calm and natural as I could be, but with my heart pounding and my head scattering itself in all directions at once, and I was trying desperately to make the transition gracefully and cover up my adventure and yet explain myself, and somehow it worked, and I had just concluded getting the details of my family’s arrival, without revealing much about my departure, when David arrived from Fresnillo and got introduced. I went to bed not long afterward, relieved that the excitement they felt at their arrival, just a few hours before mine, had eclipsed my tardy appearance.

That night I had a hard time getting to sleep, though I was exhausted. While not unhappy about seeing my mother and siblings, I had a distinct sense of loss. It wasn’t that the party was over; that was far too simplistic a way of putting it, and besides, with the exception of a nightly tequila shot or two before going off to bed there hadn’t really been a party. I had acquitted myself honorably. Indeed, I had done all of my schoolwork, taken care of the house—enhanced it even—managed my affairs with aplomb. What was really bothering me was the realization that I would no longer be able to run my life exclusively on my own terms, that I would once again be looked at as a 14-year-old boy, subjected to the rules of offhand adults, and I frankly didn’t know whether I would be able to handle the new, old regime. Once given freedom, servitude, I thought to myself, would be unbearable. But what to do? And on top of that, how could I convince them to keep David on in Durango? Over the weeks together we’d become inseparable friends, and while I knew intuitively that our relationship would now be altered, I didn’t want to surrender this link to my former independence. The birds were singing before I fell asleep, and were still singing when my mother woke me up before the alarm sounded. It was both familiar and odd to hear her voice. The smells of bacon and coffee drifted in through the open door and I could hear a bustle of activity in the kitchen. When I presented myself a minute or two later, I noticed my breakfast was already on the table. In place of my usual cup of coffee, however, was a glass of milk.

“Mom, I don’t drink milk anymore. I drink coffee now.”

She gave me a startled look.

“And tequila too?” she asked.

“Huh?” I muttered, feigning grogginess.

“I noticed the half-empty tequila bottle yesterday.”

“Someone gave it to David,” I replied. “But he doesn’t drink it.”

“I see,” she said, clearly unconvinced.

Eventually she poured me a cup of coffee, and I drank it down with my eggs. I had not eaten breakfast for the last two months and I had a hard time finishing it.

We didn’t chat much more. Maria started crying, and I took advantage of her preoccupation with my sister by waking David and informing him about what to say should he be queried about the tequila. I then hurried out of the house, a full 45 minutes before I needed to be. Since I still had a few pesos left from the Mazatlán trip, I stopped off at a cafe and had another coffee in an attempt to clear my head before school started.

I was now even more depressed than I’d been the night before, but I couldn’t really pinpoint the source. Part of it, of course, was that I was severely feeling curtailed in my independence. But beyond that it struck me that the reimposition of authority over my life was a hollow gesture, an empty convention that my mother, as my mother, felt obligated to institute, rather than a true expression of concern for my well-being. Although I had feared being grilled about my Mazatlán escapade, in actuality just a couple of questions about it had been tossed my way, and my answers hardly even listened to. Similarly, only a few passing, almost disinterested queries had been posed about school or what I had been doing for the last couple of months. The furniture that David and I had built had not even been commented upon. Only the tequila bottle had attracted notice.

I stewed so long over my situation that I was late for my first class. Benz issued me a demerit. This meant I’d have to remain after school for an hour each day that week. I was totally unfazed by the penalty. It would give me an opportunity to start my homework in the relative tranquility of the tiny library.

It’s difficult now to reconstruct what happened inside my head in the days following the reunion with my family. I can remember only feeling, at first, in despair at the sudden curbs on my freedom, and then not feeling that way. I suppose I simply came to recognize that things were simply as they were, that kicking against the pricks wouldn’t result in much of a gain. I didn’t really surrender myself to the status quo, though. I sublimated, resorted to subterfuge, learned how to make my accommodations with reality, learned to take and make freedom within a fairly loose structure of confinement. Which is to say that outside of the house I still exercised my independence every chance I got.

I made it a habit to have a coffee each morning at the Excelsior, and would frequently not return to the house during siesta. Instead, I’d stroll along the river, grab a taquito or torta somewhere, and pretend that I was still in control of my life. Once in a while I’d concoct a scheme to spend an evening or all of Saturday or Sunday by myself, pleasing only myself, but most of the time I went along with the new order, even enjoying some of the benefits like prepared meals and laundry services and the attention and charm and delight of Cesar and Maria.

The only major problem I had was with the disintegration of my bond with David. My mother and Ray treated him like hired help, and accordingly, he began to see himself as that. This annoyed me terribly. David, I knew, was capable of freedom, of being his own man but I realized that like me, he had simply gotten in step with the new arrangement in order to survive. I tried to bridge the gap that was rapidly developing between us, but I couldn’t. It was as if our deep friendship had been a dream. Occasionally we’d still spend time together in the afternoons or a weekend together, but it wasn’t the same anymore. He worked for us, and by extension for me, and he couldn’t really let down and be himself. We talked about it, but I could see that he found it too schizophrenic to switch roles, even when it was just the two of us. I got worse after his sister Elena came to work for us, as he now elected to spend most of his free time with her.

To be honest, I was moving away from David too, and making friends at school, particularly with Luis and Jaime. By early spring the three of us were together a lot, hanging out, goofing around, talking about girls and sex and adventures we’d like to have. Luis could drive, and though he wasn’t usually allowed to use his mother’s little Renault, he from time to time wangled it away from her. We’d pool our money, buy a tank of gas, and set out for the countryside. Occasionally we’d drive out to La Zona, an area outside of town filled with brothels, strip joints and seedy bars. It was thrilling and dangerous, so thrilling and dangerous that we never, ever got out of the car. We’d simply cruise up and down the two or three block area, eyeing the prostitutes, commenting on their charms, or lack of them.

Once, when we were stopped at a corner to let a drunk cross the street, an old prostitute came up to me and offered herself. When I didn’t respond, she opened her blouse and stuck her large breasts in my face. Luis drove off before I could even react, leaving her on the side of the road cursing and screaming after us. For days after that I relived the image in my waking and sleeping dreams. In some, I recoiled; I was interested, entranced even by the idea of sex, but not yet quite ready to embrace the physical act.