Chris Sawyer Lauçanno
Chris Sawyer Lauçanno
Chapter 9: I Become Seriously Ill
Despite my mother’s care in following Dr. Spock’s advice, I was not a terribly well baby. Along with the usual colds and fevers, I was prone to all sorts of other ailments: stomach complaints, bronchitis, and more than my share of skin rashes. It took my mother a while to figure out that I could barely tolerate milk from a bottle; after a year or so of trial and error, she finally discovered that a few sips of the liquid would give me distress and cause me to break out in large red blotches. After that, I was forbidden milk. Not infrequently, however, I would react similarly to some unknown food item I had ingested. Occasionally, the determination of the cause was made quickly. Sometimes it was not.
My father’s detective style was simple. He would feed me one suspicious item each day and wait to see if I’d become sick the next; if I didn’t, the process would be repeated until they finally hit on something that produced an undesirable result. Although a relatively crude method, it worked. By the time I was three, they had compiled a list of 14 foods, ranging from green beans to oysters that were on the prohibited index, and 11 more that were suspect.
It was probably because my parents had become accustomed to my frequent but usually minor illnesses, that they didn’t particularly pay rapt attention to a bout of stomach problems that went on a bit longer than normal. I suppose the trouble began like most of my food-induced afflictions: a little vomiting and a bad case of runny bowels. But by the third day, when instead of improving, I became decidedly worse with high fevers and listlessness, my mother began to worry.
It was then that I was bundled up and taken to the Social Security Hospital, a large establishment that did its best to serve its afflicted, often indigent clients. There was usually, even in the emergency room, a two to three hour wait to see a physician. But my father, having quickly learned the time-honored Mexican custom of the mordida, bribed the receptionist who managed to usher me in to see a doctor almost instantaneously, leaving those with broken arms and heads and legs and bursting appendices and gunshot and knife wounds patiently waiting a bit longer.
The doctor made his diagnosis in a flash: typhoid fever.
I have no recollection of the intravenous or cold compresses. I only remember the pink tile floor, white walls, my mother seated on a red wooden chair with a woven straw back next to me, a series of cribs with other infants whimpering, and other mothers and grandmothers intoning at seemingly equal intervals “Ay Dios mio.”
Chapter 10: I Become a Young Spanish Republican
We had not been too long in Mexico before my father rediscovered his true Spanish self. Perhaps someone had given him the name of someone to look up or he may have simply stumbled across a fellow Basque or Spaniard in a bar and one thing led to another. Soon, however, he began to attend meetings of the Spanish Republic in Exile. Because he was highly desirous of making sure that I would not get confused as to who I was—a Basque first, a Spaniard second, a North American third—I was frequently dragged along to these rather raucous gatherings. I guess he assumed that the political leanings, not to mention the language, would somehow become imbedded in my soul.
What I mostly have retained about these convocations was that the hall was cavernous with wood paneling, that most of the members were old men (or at least they seemed that way to me), and that there was a great deal of arguing. And then at the end of the meeting some songs would be sung, especially “Himno de Riego” with its resounding refrain that went something like this: “Soldados, la patria nos llama a la lid. Juremos por ella vencer o morir.”This chorus was also sung twice at the end of the anthem followed by boisterous cries of “¡Viva la República!” Glasses were raised and “juremos por ella vencer o morir” intoned again and again.
My job, which I took quite seriously, was to wave el tricolor. The flag, with its red, yellow and purple stripes matched a pin stuck to my shirt or sweater that I always had to wear to these meetings.
Like a well-trained Pavlovian dog, I quickly came to associate the little medallion with a night out. The routine was invariable: my father would call me into my room, remove from the dresser the tiny wooden box that contained the amulet, and then with ceremonial flourish, affix the pin to the upper-left side of my shirt. When we returned home, he would carefully remove it and redeposit into the box which would then be returned to the top left dresser drawer. He had a matching one that he always wore in his left jacket lapel. I liked the pin with its colorful stripes. I also liked the bond it created between my father and me.
After the last shouts of “¡Viva la República!,” some of the group would repair to a café where a great deal of wine would be consumed, endless cigars, pipes and cigarettes smoked, fried squid eaten, and the rapid conversation continue, punctuated now and then by a round of patriotic songs of which I can only recall sonorous tones rising and then crashing into the obviously important words: “¡Ay Carmela!” Usually by the time we got to ¡Ay Carmela! the singers held forth in a less than harmonic fashion but with heightened gusto. I always encouraged to join in by those seated nearby but I think I only sang those two words.
I drank mineral water and ate churros, and the waiter, a tall, gaunt man, occasionally invited me back to the kitchen where a girl, his daughter I suppose, a few years older than I, entertained me.
Despite their exile, everyone, except one old man who used to cry during the singing, seemed to be having a good time. I used to wonder why, when everyone else was laughing and snorting and gesticulating, and calling to one another across the room, this old man was so quietly unhappy. I probably tried to ask my father about it, and maybe he explained, but all I can recall is that I would always be on the lookout when the songs began, to see if tears would slowly roll out of the corners of his tired hazel eyeballs and course down his wrinkled cheeks. No one else ever seemed to pay any attention to his weeping, maybe because he always managed to keep singing through his tears.
My mother never went to any of these meetings or joined us at the convivial gatherings afterward. I doubt that she was invited, although a few of the other men brought along their wives. I, however, was the only small child, and consequently was indulged far more than I probably should have been. One fat woman named Concha used to take me on her lap, and in the way one would feed a pet squirrel, stuff churros in my mouth. She wore a lot of perfume and had long earrings and squealed at me in an amusing, high-pitched voice. I didn’t particularly like her and would eventually squirm down and head back to my seat or wander about the restaurant until finally someone would round me up and return me to the table.
I didn’t mind being seated at the table because someone would almost always add a little wine to the mineral water in my glass. I have no memory of ever getting drunk but I do recall liking the taste so much that I began to expect with eager anticipation the customary adulteration to the otherwise bland agua mineral.
One of the men taught me to say “Muerte a Franco.” I was already adept at “¡Viva la República!,” and enjoyed, to the approval of all the attendees, enunciating these phrases one after another, at which point the whole crowd would chime in with me, even the sad old man whose lip would tremble on the “púb” in “República,” with the result that he inevitably finished the slogan slightly after everyone else.
Chapter 11: I Become a Taxi Rider
I really don’t have much recollection of being put into a taxi by myself when I was probably three. But for my mother it was apparently a pretty important event. What happened, as well as I can reconstruct it, was that my father and I had gone out somewhere, probably to grab a taquito, when he suddenly felt inspired to head to the hipódromo. Apparently he got a tip on a horse, and not wanting to be distracted with a kid in tow, he put me into a taxi, gave the driver the address and some cash, and told him to take me home.
I suppose it would have worked out fine except my mother had also gone out, so when the taxi pulled up at the house on Orizaba, there was no one to receive me. The befuddled driver decided to continue on with his pick ups and drop offs, then return me later. He put me in the front seat, let me play with his Jesus medallion that usually swung on a chain from the mirror, and proceeded to pick up passengers here and there along the Paseo de la Reforma, Insurgentes and no doubt on countless other boulevards. I remember little about the ride except that the cabbie wore a black scally cap though he certainly wasn’t Irish. He had large hands, black hair and a thin mustache. In between rides he would ask me questions and tell me where we were but I don’t recall either the questions or the answers or what landmarks he pointed out to me. At some point, when he got back in the vicinity of Colonia Cuauhtémoc, he made a brief detour and pulled up again in front of the house.
This time my mother was home. And she was not pleased, particularly after the kind taxista told her he’d been driving me around for a couple of hours.
This was probably not the camel-back breaker, but it likely did contribute in no small way to my mother and father parting company not long after.
Chapter 12: I Become a Traveler
No one ever told me what exactly precipitated the breakup between my mother and father but it’s fairly clear that his chronic gambling and rather heavy drinking had a great deal to do with it. I think my mother thought that once I was born, my father would change his ways and become a provider, or at the very least, dedicate himself to painting. But his aversion to having a job
or career was clearly far stronger than either his desire to raise me or to become the artist he might have been.
I suppose they must have fought but I can’t recall a single scene during the period preceding the split. I was, of course, aware of my mother’s distress with him on various occasions but they had some sense, I suppose, to wait until I was asleep to argue. Or perhaps I’ve just blocked those memories.
I’ve never blamed my mother for deciding to abandon, from all accounts, the wreck that was my father. For all his charm and verve he was, at best, a difficult man to have as a partner; at his worst, he was a horror.
How we left Mexico has also always been clouded in my mind. My feeling is that my mother one night, while my father was out on a binge, simply decided that she’s had enough and took me to the bus station where she bought a ticket for the border and disappeared with me. I say this because I remember the station well, with its cacophonous crowds and exhaust fumes. And I have some recollection of the bus ride but I have no memory of saying good-bye to my father or that there was any uproar of any sort, or any tears or remonstrations or protests. I am certain that he did not accompany us to the terminal for I do distinctly recall asking my mother whether he was coming with us. I don’t know what my mother told me, but I do recall looking for him in the crowded waiting room before the midnight express rolled northward to Juárez.
On the trek out of Mexico City I have only sensory impressions, mainly of the pre-departure: my mother’s hand pressed into mine; the acrid smell of cigarettes mixing with diesel fumes, urine, sweat, shit; bright fluorescent lights; a large waiting room with wooden benches without backs; a row of windows with mustachioed men sliding tickets under glass, counting out change; the huge green letters of the bus company sign; a dozen doors emptying into a cement courtyard; crowds of people milling about. Women with children wrapped up in thin rebozos, two or three more young ones circling around their skirts; old men wearing straw cowboy hats, straps knotted firmly behind their heads; vendors hawking their wares in shrill voices, their baskets heaped with steaming tamales, taquitos, carne asada, fruits, drinks; a blind man playing guitar, a frayed sombrero placed upside down in front of him to catch the occasional centavo; a gaunt and ragged woman in the corner sitting on the floor, a child sucking at her breast, her hand out: “Por el amor de Dios.” An amputee on a cart, cup in hand, repeating the same words. Young men in tee shirts and baseball caps; families—grandma, grandpa, mama, papa, a score of children—gathered about a congeries of cardboard boxes, patched market bags and worn suitcases. Fathers. But not my father. Young women in white dresses entwined in the arms of young men in black pants and white shirts, broken teeth meeting broken teeth in short, slobbery kisses. On the dirty tile wiles big placards with departure and arrival schedules; words enshrouded in static, warped and warbling, now and then emanating from a loudspeaker.
The purring of the bus motor; the settling in on narrow plastic seats; the smell of my mother’s hair; the cries of babies, soft voices of mothers, snippets of conversation. Then morning: the sun breaking over the desert, its fiery fingers clutching the cacti, brush, rock and hills.
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NOTE BENE: Alyscamps Press in Paris, has just put out a chapbook by Chris Sawyer-Lauçanno,
Just Words: Homage to Roman Jakobson. Sawyer-Lauçanno tells us that it was based on notes he kept when he was under Jakobson's tutelage as a graduate student. These were later discovered by the author's granddaughter when sorting through items to go to UC Santa Barbara as part of his archives there. The chapbook is available from:
In the UK: Julian Nangle [email@example.com]
In France: Michael Neal Books, [michaelnealbooks.wordpress.com]
In the U.S.: Karl Orend/Alyscamps Press: [firstname.lastname@example.org]