Xs and Rs

Matthew Gavin Frank

To the chocolatier, we are targets, pins to be knocked over, a pair of ice floes over which to hop across the river to the sort of bank that’s lined with endless 13-inch monitors, blinking spare hashes, strike Xs, pixilated turkeys.  And so, to increase her chances, she fattens us up, bowling ball or fairy tale witch, sweet, dark antioxidantal duende, this evil seductive goblin of Mexican myth, this more-than-muse in more-than technicolor, this “spirit of evocation” responsible for extracting both a physical and emotional reaction to fear and art, flavor and music, for eliciting chills and rapture, nausea and tremors, a penchant for the illogical and big-time silliness, ribaldry in both the fuck me sideways and oceanic senses, roll-roll-roll me in dirt and water, strip me to the metal in my blood—elemental? Hellimental!—this heightened awareness of death and, in turn, the vibrancy in the land of the living, rocking us to our very cores, imperialist flamenco souls, castanetting our coccyges until we are nothing but itchy human-sized uvulas wiggling to the melody that coats us in a sheen resembling half-melted 89% cacao.  In short, this is chocolate with a capital X.

Frederico Lorca would have called this duende woman and her wares, “a reminder that ants could eat [us] or that great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on [our] head[s];” would have concluded that, “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation;” that, “Everything that has black sounds in it, has duende;” that, “This mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched the heart of Nietzsche, who searched in vain for its external forms on the Rialto Bridge and in the music of Bizet, without knowing that the duende he was pursuing had leaped straight from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz or the beheaded, Dionysian scream of Silverio’s siguiriya;” that, “The duende? The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation.”

Louisa and I, stumbling through this market-with-no-name in Oaxaca City, Mexico, find we have nothing in the way of a Lorcan retort.  As such, we have to believe what is told to us, ingest what we see.  In this chocolate, the bowling ball woman’s fashioning of it, our eating of it, is my mother’s cancer made palatable, Louisa’s and my role as her nurses-for-a-year-in-suburban-Chicago given a dark brown rectangular context, and the awareness that this is horrible and delicious, a “Black pony, big moon, / and olives in my saddlebag” (Lorca, “Rider’s Song).  Ride, rise, eat, do not heed the amoebic water or pits in the fruit, bite and swallow with abandon, so I decree it, I, your bola de bowling for the evening, she decrees, merely by passing us a basket of sweet bread with our thick hot chocolate brews.  Finishing the last, we pay her, not yet cramping, wondering if we ever will, and take the leftover bread, which we place in the callus-torn hands of a bristle-haired viejo, his belly concave, spooned out with El Gigante’s melon-baller, his suspenders tight, the waistband of his pants orbiting at a moon’s distance from his waist, dead man’s clothes to be sure and, the duende ever-present here tonight, he responds with overture, composition, lighting up in the face of crying.

We walk to the famous Casilda stand for thin aguas frescas to wash the chocolate, and all things Lorcan from our mouths.

“This is it,” Louisa says, the old man eating his bread so slowly behind her, so focused as if building a model airplane blind with tweezers and the last sewing needle still stuck in my mother’s infamous red tomato pin cushion—the one I couldn’t resist playing with as a child, in spite of her “sharp” warnings.  With that needle, she pricked her own finger so I, not ten years old and wicked-curious, could look at her blood under the microscope she and my dad had just birthday-gifted me.  I remember pressing the droplet flat under the coverslip, carefully millimetering the slide beneath the springs to hold it in place, still believing at this point that my eyesight was finite, the glass grinding like chocolate against the metal, remembering its infancy as sand.  Her cells then, so much younger, swam like flying fish, which is to say, inches above, then into the water, immune; to both drowning by air and by ocean, immune.

Fuck you, duende!  And your asshole guitar!  Just because you are ancient, does not mean your aren’t premature—whatever you are, whatever it is—such a pathetic two-letter word to encompass all mystery and the shit that defies description, and the I even worse, pillar of consciousness so easily tipped over, ceiling collapsing, but used again and again as the lens through which reality is compartmentalized in tiny single-sock drawers, one for every birth, the files rarely overlapping and rarely standing alone, like the cheese, the cheese, the cheese of all mother-sung nursery rhymes, repeated without ever anchoring itself in the desired effect—peaceful sleep, tucked-in and parented forever.

And so what else can we do to describe the trickle-down of being alive—the fear and art, flavor and music, the chills and rapture, nausea and tremors (Oh, have I plumbed that file already?) the notion that inside everything is yet another thing, and inside that…, the me and her, and him, and us, and we, and you, and you, and you, and you—but stop and say, “This is it,” by which we mean, fruit drinks?

“…the stand we read about,” Louisa says, and she’s right.

Casilda is one of the oldest stands in this, one of the oldest markets in Mexico (Mercado de Benito Juárez, stalls 30 and 31 for you guidebook aficionados), and behind its rotted wood frame, two old women, themselves redolent of raw onion and citrus peel and clove and sweat after a day of juicing fruits and vegetables, their inside-body stuff coming out and the stuff inside that…, pour, with matching arms, our plastic cups with horchata con tuna (a spiced rice water infused with almonds and cinnamon pureed with prickly pear) and melone (um…), topping each with relevant fresh fruit and ground tigernuts.

This is precisely the cool, fresh watery juice that we need to restore an old, half-remembered illusion of equilibrium (certainly not wombic)—whether or not that’s a good thing—after that chocolate.  In our sipping, the shuffling sound of some fat-ass bird bathing in a mudpuddle, the old man finally finishes the sweet bread, and a small girl (she can’t be more than nine), a white beaded star barrette in her hair, and her little brother, shirtless and pot-bellied, approach us, selling prints of huts and cows, Zapotec calendar stones and village scenes—the sun and the stars in the sky at the same time, mountains, mariachi, churches and women with bowls on their heads, contents concealed, fish and piñatas, trees that reach higher than clouds, cacti and farmers and burros and blooms—saturated with natural bright inks, painted over cowhide.  She tells us in a small voice, thumbing through her ample pile, pointing to each and looking at us afterward, to see if we nod Yes, or smile or show any kind of affirmative sign, that she has made all of these herself.  It is her job, in the family, to make and sell these here.

And so, we buy two, and I ask her if she would sign them.  She looks confused.  We are squatting to the dust floor of the market and all around us, yellow pant leg and leather boot, cloth shoe, and dress hem, not a single bare calf.  I take a pen from my pocket, and draw on the air above the prints.  “Tu nombre,” I say.

Again, she looks confused, and asks one of the old Casilda women to help her.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” the old woman asks, in a voice that whirs like her famed blender.

“Ruth,” the girl answers, liquefied.

Chills and rapture, and again, for the second time today, I want to ask someone if they are my dead grandmother.  We watch as the Casilda woman, her hock of an arm sheathed in sweat, writes, slowly, in my pen, in crooked letters, ink struggling to leach into the cowhide, R-U-T-H.  We watch as the girl studies this, the strange symbols that are her name, a portion of her identity concealed from her in a discipline she never mastered.  Her brother transfixed over her shoulder, scratching at his gut, his extra skin flubbing, we watch as Ruth copies these symbols, slow, careful, onto the second print, so neat, but potentially unreplicable, symbols to be savored—this is Her! in curve and line and cabalistic connection.  What is R, and what is its sound?  What does it have to do our lives, or mine, or hers, or yours, or yours, or yours?  This is who we are?  R?  We are R?  Grandma is R?  She is R?  I am R?  She finishes, regards the image of her name, and copies it one more time, onto another print in her stack, for, I think, herself, so she can remember.

With these prints under our arms, swollen, magnificent, sad, beautiful, we walk through the market, get a little lost, revise lost, find an outdoor stand selling chilhuacle negros y rojos on the outskirts of the Mercado, the walkways now jammed, people pushed against building fronts and into the streets from the curbs, and we see Ruth out there with her brother among the crowd, carrying her art, standing with a hunched old man in a pink sombrero, their grandfather, we’re sure of it, and we hold the prints into the air, and Louisa shouts, “Ruth!” and we wave, and they wave, the grandfather’s laugh threatening to dislocate something, in him or out of him, in us, maybe, and in this mob and blender, this mixing of musics, smells of spice and spoilage, in the kind of forced separation that peels cartilage from bone, we can only wave like filled-up fools into it, the void, street-wide but uncrossable, and, silly, vulgar, artistic and dead, live in some silent calling, beheaded and reheaded, Dionysian and Apollonian, neurotic, prayerful, microscopic and swimming,



Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of “Pot Farm” (The University of Nebraska Press/Bison Books), “Barolo” (The University of Nebraska Press), “Warranty in Zulu” (Barrow Street Press), “The Morrow Plots” (forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), “Sagittarius Agitprop” (Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books), and the chapbooks “Four Hours to Mpumalanga” (Pudding House Publications), and “Aardvark” (West Town Press).  Recent work appears in The New Republic, The Huffington Post, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Black Warrior Review, The Normal School, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. He was born and raised in Illinois, and currently teaches Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.  This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish-thimbleberry ice cream.

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