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The Long Vietnam of my Soul, Part 5

The contours of Crabtown.

“France is not as dangerous as Spain …” —Bolano

And Baltimore is more violent than the whole of the Iberian peninsula, from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the mouth of the Tagus.

Of course, there are two cities within the contours of Crabtown, at least two, but like anything else, it takes time and patience to learn what they are.  

Easy does it over the long Memorial Day weekend of 1988.

Nieves had been on Macon Street for three days and spent all of her time at the kitchen table talking to Grandpop; who sat, as always, near the door to the backyard, his back to a china cabinet that had held letters from Spain (manicured, kept in a wire napkin holder, arranged chronologically) for 60 years; notes of birth and marriage and sickness and death from Nieves’ father and her grandfather.

The letters were frequent when Basilio was a kid, he loved looking at the stamps, practiced drawing them with colored pencils on loose leaf. For the past five or six years there were almost no letters. Then one from Nieves introducing herself. And then Nieves, who in three days was either absolutely still, sleeping sitting up on the couch in the front room, or moving from chair to chair.

Basilio circled the table as they talked, setting out cookies and juice glasses for wine, standing at the sink peeling potatoes for the bacalao Nieves promised to make if they could get a good piece of cod.

[It was one of the few promises she kept, the last bacalao al pil pil Grandpop enjoyed in this world, a Sunday dinner that enlivened the basement kitchen for the first time in 20 years and endeared Nieves to her American relatives, so touching that Basilio cooked up a kettle of hogwash to explain her disappearance on the other side of Grandpop’s death.]

Basilio prepped. Nieves talked and Grandpop listened, all together not far from the pier where the Spaniard had landed on a tramp steamer in the 1920s. Now, shipwrights at that same pier put finishing touches on a Clipper ship built to replace one just like it – the Pride of Baltimore - that sank in a deadly Caribbean squall.

Back in the Spain, a few steps behind the red and yellow tattoo of Lorca between Nieves’ thin shoulders, breathed the last days of La Movida, a brief, hedonistic carnival from the advent of the Sex Pistols to 2 minutes and 17 seconds beyond the death of Ricky Nelson.

Ding-dong, the Generalisimo is dead, El Caudillo is dead.

The fascist to whom Grandpop (already in the States for more than a decade, raising his family under this very roof, never to see his parents again) lost his youngest brother in ’37; a bald-headed little fuck who’d called the shots (line ‘em up, knock ‘em down, every day was the Third of May in Franco’s Spain) for half of Nieves’ life, a taken-for-granted fact-of-life she barely noticed until the dictator died when she was 12.

Right on time for a girl who had tried just about everything that had come her way (and some things she had to look for) by 13.

La Movida – cooler in how people talked about it than what actually occurred, gone before anyone gave it a name - began in Madrid and Barcelona and vibrated out to less fashionable cities like Bilbao and Vigo, bringing sexual freedom and music and bad poetry and drugs in which Nieves indulged heavily and often.

Grandpop asked about a vanished Spain (music meant little to him, poetry less; when Basilio was a little kid the old marinero liked to tease his namesake by calling the Beatles las cucarachas), a medieval Spain he remembered better than what had happened that morning. Nieves answered in a loose, lyrical Spanish with stories he refused to believe.

“Mierda,” said Grandpop no longer a Spaniard and never to be American. “Blasfemia.”

“No, no Tio,” she said, scratching a bare shoulder. “It’s true …”

The first morning Nieves woke up in the port city where the old Spaniard landed in 1925, she swallowed six aspirin and made Grandpop bacon and eggs: strips frying in a jagged circle, egg cracked in the middle, hot grease spooned over the yolk, making it blister and bubble.

[“Draw that,” said Basilio when she first came upstairs to his studio on the third floor. What, she asked. “The bacon and eggs. Draw that.”]

Three days in which Basilio did not paint a stroke, the first stretch of wasted time since he’d moved in with Grandpop, the tattoo of Lorca below those bare shoulders vexing him each time he stole a peek: now the poet smiled, now he frowned, always: “I’m a worm on a hook … if you want the fish that’s about to eat me, stay close …”

Our Lady of the Snows roaring through the Holy Land in the last tear of Grandpop’s life.

“Feliz cumpleanos, asshole …” — Basilio, in the shaving mirror 

Thirty years and three days old and all of a sudden Basilio can’t find his ass with both hands and a map.

Mother long dead and wife long gone; a basinet by the cot where he slept for his daughter on the weekends.

Basilio got high in the backyard every night after Grandpop fell asleep, climbing to the third floor to cut a hole in the tar-paper roof with a crowbar and a butter knife. Up there, from a rear window, he made up stories about the young mother who lived across the alley, a girl too cute to be a minute over 17 rolling fucked-up ass onto the launch pad just by taking out the trash in yellow tenner shoes and no socks.

And now this.

“Hola, primo!”

A girl he’d never met who looked just like him, down to dark brown Beatle bangs cut along the curve of an olive brow, was talking gallego Spanish at the kitchen table to an otherwise cranky old man who everyday looked Basilio dead in the eye and asked: “Why are you here?”

For this.

So this could happen.

The streets of Highlandtown were built on the rise of a hill that gave the neighborhood its name, the houses across the alley just a few degrees higher than Grandpop’s row as his stood a notch above the ones behind it.

As had become his habit, through moods as dark as squid ink, Basilio stared out the window of the back room in hopes of seeing the girl across the alley.

He gave her a name – Elisabeth – and some days were more bountiful than others. Some days he saw nothing and some days he only saw her husband – a striver with a hatchet face, his hair cut for commerce.. Rumor had it that they were religious.

In the days before Nieves, when Grandpop was dozing over the afternoon paper at the kitchen table or watering his pepper plants, Basilio spent entire afternoons hoping to see her. They’d never spoken.

Less of a rumor (the old women in the neighborhood liked to talk and favored Basilio because they’d known his grandmother, a legally blind angel) was the knowledge that hatchet head was a jerk.

Imagine that, thought Basilio as Miss Helen dished the dirt over the bent wire fence, a gorgeous young woman has an asshole for a husband.

Today, however, was not a good day for bird-dogging long-suffering saints.

Up the stairway from the kitchen came hot debate over the nature of the “two Spains” – the Castilian Cain and a Moorish Abel bashing each other’s heads with clubs.

In 1970 - the summer “The Long and Winding Road” became the last No. One for Las Cucharachas - Grandpop and Grandmom and all of the Baltimore Boullosas traveled to Galicia to visit the village where the story began.

On their way back to the States, the family spent a few days in Madrid. In the gift shop of the Prado, Basilio’s father told the kids they could have a copy of any painting they wanted.

Basilio’s cousin Donna wanted a white stallion and his little brother chose a Nativity scene. Already a crayon and charcoal prodigy at 12, Basilio brought home Goya’s “Duel With Cudgels” – the two Spains bashing each other’s brains in - over the objections of a mother who would only live a few years more.

He stapled it into the wall above his bed – a poster of Beatle George on one side, Johnny Winter on the other - with the same force he now pressed his nose against the windowsill.

Thirty years and four days old. In love with two women, neither of whom he’d touched – one he’d never said hello to – and had no hope of touching.

Basilio thought he knew obsession, believed himself a veteran of hand-to-hand combat until Nieves showed up on Macon Street with her cracked leather suitcase, her white blouse buttoned at the wrist in the heat of summer, Lorca staring through the linen.

“This is just a lollipop,” laughed Footlong Franks when Basilio explained his predicament inside the old barbershop the poet owned on Regester Street. “Something’s waiting down the line that will make this look like nothing!”

If anyone knew the obsessions of mind, body and soul, it was Footlong, a charmer who’d done time in the Kokoschka doll works, finger painting for young adults and the Becky Bafford Haunted House of Love.

Basilio made a sketch of Footlong’s profile on scrap paper while the older Lothario held court, plastic lighter in one hand, constant cigarette in the other. Shoving the image in his back pocket, he headed for the door as Footlong asked: “What’s the name of the girl who lives across the alley?”

Ninety-six hours without picking up a brush, the quick sketch of Footlong nothing more than a doodle that disintegrated in the wash.

In the beginning, which was brief, Nieves did Grandpop’s laundry and was happy to throw in a thing or two of Basilio’s if it was laying around at the back of the basement near the oil furnace. He tried to be casual, tossing a Freddie King t-shirt into the dirty pile as she dropped dish towels into the machine. Later, he watched Nieves and Elisabeth talk to each other across the alley as they hung clothes.

Grandpop’s stained undershirts on the line and a huge map of the United States above her bed upstairs (she slept in Grandmom and Grandpop’s old room), the kind teachers put up at the front of the classroom.  

Taking a break from staring out the back window, Basilio snuck into the room that, when Grandmom was alive, smelled of Noxzema and 5&10 cent store perfume; a room that for more than a decade smelled of mothballs while Grandpop mourned her on a cot downstairs.

Nieves and Grandpop were talking in the kitchen while Basilio stared at the map and all the where-to-go-next pins that dotted it, wondering how long the pink of Maryland would give way to the yellow of California or the green of Georgia. Or points well south of the South.

 “I’ve been to more funerals than my grandparents have,” Nieves told Grandpop, who reached for the carafe of wine. Nieves put her hand on his arm.

“No,” she said. “Es Verdad.”

Optiaine September 28, 2012 at 03:25 PM
I think I just got lost in a very beautiful reveriie. For anyone who grew up with bacalao on Fridays and dreams of dots on a map, this piece will send you hurtling into that place that young people long to get out of and older ones would kill to get back to. Alvarez has a better sense of the intimate and domestic and that inevitable tug of whatever lies beyond than most of us will ever be able to recognize and comprehend, much less express. Thank you for this post and the window we can peek through every time you publish his work...
Patrick Klink September 30, 2012 at 11:30 PM
"Why are you here?" Is this not the central question in every story Albarez has put to literal or figurative paper? Unlike the author and Optiane, the previous commenter, I have no experience with Friday night bacalao al pil pil. But it couldn't make the slightest bit of difference. I'm already there. Go by Macon St, and you'll be there as well. It is, and will remain, god willing, very much what it has been: a place where a melting-pot Baltimore can fight tooth and nail against the instinct to assimilate. Its strange and counterintuitive in today's society, but it's also how traditions stay alive. Basilio's grandfather need not be either Spanish or American. The fact of his being here, though, makes every subsequent generation more and more Baltimorean.

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