viernes, 5 de junio de 2009

Not Getting a Hold on Me

I tell people that i am from Wisconsin, even though I only lived there two years. My students ask me where I am from and I tell them San Juan and they feel as if it is an evasion or that I refuse to understand the questions. I have lived in Puerto Rico or it has been my official residence since 1985. But my family has lived here since 1966 and my parents and two of my five sisters still live here. It makes it simpler than a long explanation. If someone asks me where I grew up, then I tell them Iowa, but I have not been in Iowa, other than to visit one of my sister who lives there and a summer job in 1970, since 1966. These questions become meaningless. My students are right in asking me where I am from, since I am not from Puerto Rico, but I do not feel like the label of American really defines anyone very well. I have also been upset by comments like, "Oh, that's because you are an American."
I don't deny being an American and it also bothers me a bit when people patronizingly tell me that I am not like an American. That term describes me about as well as it describes anyone else. A Danish friend of mine once told me that some of her office mates were taking a trip and wanted to meet real Americans. When she offered me, whom she had talked about, they told her that they wanted to meet real Americans, or in other words, Americans closer to a stereotype.
And I live in a country that cannot really define itself, which for me is fine, but spends a lot of energy on boosterism, ignoring chaos and social problems or blaming them on national status. Every morning when I wake up I listen to a jazz station on the university station until 6:00 a.m. and then a program comes on that plays songs like, "I would be Puerto Rican, even if I was born on the moon." Of course, such an exaggeration reflects insecurity and in-your-face nationalism more than true feelings.
Saying I'm an American can also unleash a condescending attitude about the limits of my knowledge, since everyone in the "New World" is an American. This was perhaps some of the first politically correct speech. I just ignore them or explain that they themselves probably do not go through all the trouble of saying "Estado Unidedense." All those other countries have titles. A Mexican is not 'un republica de Mexicano."
All titles or descriptives are vague and lead to assumptions. Despite how television and mass culture has made our knowledge more manufactured and our ideas less individual, there is still a lot that exists beyond these lines. What might be common, what Freud discussed in Civilization and its Discontent is no doubt the engine for what we all do, but it does not determine the shape or content.
And I admit that my culture has determined a lot of what I am and that I can understand more readily someone from my generation who is American. Still, my mind is full of places and cultures and lives beyond my American self. Those who have only American lives have so many, understand uniquely their position in ther social setting, that they cannot be pegged either. Yet we live in fear of being different and want a word like American or Texan or Puerto Rican to say so much about us. We build ourselves throughout our lives and if we remain satisfied with these nationalistic or regionalistic or boosteristic titles, then we will know even less of who we are.

jueves, 28 de mayo de 2009

My Father

Until two weeks ago my father was a strong 88-year-old who could spend eight hours in his garden planting potatoes and onions, tilling, riding the mower. But he had stopped eating much because his esophagus had shrunk because of acid reflux. I always remember my father's car had various plastic bottles full of pastel Tums. Apparently he took them all the time. So when my father came down with pneumonia, and then a heart attack and stroke, it was in part to the fact that the food was not going down his esophagus, but coming up again. When this happened, part of it lodged in his trachea.
Perhaps my father could have avoided all of this if he had seen a doctor. But my fahter prided himself on not taking any medicine. When he had his hip replaced at 86 and they asked him to write down all of his medications, he proudly left it blank and when they insisted that he write them all down, he explained that he took nothing. The same was true when he had a pacemaker put in because his pulse was so low and his heart would occasionally miss a few beats. In both cases, he claimed to feel not different after these "improvements" to his body.
My father was a product of the eastern Montana dust plains. Both of his parents came from green watery areas of Scandinavia. His father's home in Sweden had been along Lagen, a broad river-like body of water and his mother had grown up in Denmark, not far from Rys, which was the largest fresh water body of water in Denmark. They planted trees in their yard that grew in the wet years and died in the dry years, a cycle that has perhaps occurred for thousands of years.
Being born in 1920, my father was nine years old when the depression began officially in 1929, but it had begun for farmers before that. My father's parents were in bad shape until the late 40s when my father had come home from teaching each summer to manage the farm and get them out of debt. So my father never threw anything away, including food that had turned some other color. There was always part that could be saved. And when he saw a deal he stocked up. All of his life he has been preparing for the next disaster, trying to become self-sufficient, but also becoming a low-scale consumer. He and my mother went on canning food and shopping for bargains for six children and themselves, long after the six children were gone. They filled their house with clothes from stores that went out of business as the bigger stores took over and from the bigger stores when they went bankrupt. Each summer my father had a huge garden and freezer after freezer filled with frozen apple sauce, blueberries, cauliflower, peas, corn, string beans, mashed potatoes: all of his garden. The root cellar added more jars of tomatoes or spaghetti sauce until there were several hundred jars and my sisters who lived nearby took jars, but could never consume as much as he produced. There are still jars of tomatoes from ten years ago or more that I open up. The seal is still tight. The jars smell of the dusty potatoes and onions that overwinter and often must be thrown out in the spring.
It is as if my father has built his life as a storehouse of provisions, enough for the next life and perhaps the life after that, like ancient burial sites where the dead are given food and provisions for the journey.
My father was cautious about not being poor. Both his parents had been poor. His mother's mother, mormor in Danish, had been the servant girl who married the drunken younger son of the owner of a small farm and with him had ten children. They sold their small farm and moved to the United States, where according to the story, my great-grandmother Jensinde refused to do the farmwork anymore. In America, the man did the farmwork. My father's father, farfar, had a gambling problem and lost the farm in Sweden. Some of his children had already immigrated and his daughter Jenny saved up her money as a housekeeper in Chicago to send for her indigent family. My grandfather Walfred was one of them. The first winter in Chicago, the family legend goes, they bought a large sack of beans and survived on beans, before moving on to North Dakota.
From my grandmother, I gathered that they worked hard to be middle class. My father told me that he had had bed bugs, but told me to tell no one. Obviously he was afraid of being labeled as poor. When we once visited Montana, my sister played with the Mexican migrant children on the farm of one of my father's cousins, and my grandmother became worried about lice and made all of them shower and be combed carefully. My father also told me the family secret when he was 85. My grandfather had been a religious fanatic and had been so insistent on converting his neighbors, that they had him committed to a mentil institution. He proved to be so helpful and benign that they let him go after a while. When he married my grandmother, they were both beyond the prime age for marrying, my grandmother stipulated that the children would be raised in the Lutheran Church and not in a pentecostal church. My father kept this from everyone for all those years. He often spoke of being shy, even though as a Lutheran minister, he was suppsed to speak and have authority and this persona fit him perfectly. He did not have to be himself. He did not speak as himself but as a representative of the church and God. Who he was, the poor farm boy who was good at school, but not very sociable no longer had to risk embarassment.
There is a long list of stories that little by little have come out. My father wet his pants at school. He had a hernia after running into a post in town and the doctor he went to gave him a large truss that he wore for years, even though it was probably unnecessary. It was a constant embarrassment. His sister's teased him about a very poor girl named Bona Dea Parker, who had once said to him in front of my aunts, "Oh Gene, didn't we have a fun time in school." His grandmother Jensinde had dropsy and supposedly hops tea was good for dropsy so he was sent to the store to buy hops. The grocer and the other people in the store joked about how the teatotalers were buying hops, insinuating that they were hypocrites and drank secretly.
My father was also a mommie's boy. His mother Inga bought him books about a boy called "Sunny Boy" and that became my father's nickname. Sunny Boy was always positive and good. He was as one-dimensional as possible and my father kept the books until my sister's took them as adornments for their bookcases. They were for boys who would later read Horatio Algers.
Of course, my father's life and personality is much more complicated than this. He surprised me many times with his actions that contradicted his stern Christian background. He was raised in a Lutheran group that was called the Inner-Mission in Denmark, because it saw its purpose as reforming the Danish church that was too indulgent. It was against playing cards, dancing, and movies when they finally arrived. It took my father 20 years to move away from these ideas, so when I was the rebellious teenager, he was not shocked, or if he was, he did not let me know.
The problem with this blog is that I will always feel like I have not done him credit, not shown enough of his weaknesses, the complexity of his background, that I do not really understand. Who can know the Great Depression, the sense of family when there is no one else around for a mile or two, the disappointments of droughts, killing the livestock because there is no food or water, unless you have gone through it.
But I want to write about this again, but perhaps not as a blog.

martes, 17 de febrero de 2009

My Life in Red

Occasionally it happens. I am walking up the hill and turn a corner to confront the red azalea in bloom and I enter the world of color. The flowers are close and spaced in a way that gives a sense of depth and the air turn red. I walk back and move in again to the color feeling that my eyes have scraped the color out of the air and it has come to rest somewhere within me.
It can also be the green light through bamboo and I will stop to feel the cool liquid breeze, the moving waves of light, the whining of a thick bamboo stalk gnashing againt another, the sudden rustle of leaves chattering above me, and the smell of damp mud. The bamboo and green light I associate with treks up to the Espiritu Santo River, the Holy Ghost River, with two large dogs panting yards in front of me, but I have felt it walking down into the gully of a creek and instead of bamboo straining out all light exist for green, rain forest palms are doing it.
The sense of these moments and sensations can seldom be shared. You can note the green light and point it out, but then it somehow has been spoken and shared and is less real once it is in the world. It has moved from feeling to consensus.
The sense is fragile. If you focus too long on moving into the red, gathering it in with your eyes, you spoil the moment. It should remain brief. Later I can remember the feeling if not the moment of suddenly being in red.
I also find that much that fascinates me (horned spiders, a large red centipede dead in the mud, the buds of an orchid, counting time and remembering events such as deaths by the blooming of a flower, finding a twig is actually a bug) will only impose the burden of a polite response on someone else when I tell about it. Being there is everything and is momentary. Memory is our great comfort.

jueves, 12 de febrero de 2009

A World Never Quite Finished

As children it seems magical, perhaps bad magic, that so many people come and then disappear from our lives. Moving as a child means that many people disappear. It is like being moved from one enchantment to another without ever figuring out the magic words or curses. It creates a huge gulf of confusion, a sudden disappearance of sense and meaning, and perhaps leads to the creation of a fantasy world that is more consistent, more maleable than the real world. It makes us all creators, artists.
I don't know what makes a person want to paint or write or dance, other than to entertain others (a risky business and hard to do)or to create a world that is understood. A few find a comfortable life through art, but most don't. As a hobby, we never completely master the skills needed.
The process, sometimes struggle, pays off with meaning or with the state where what one is doing seems to call upon another magic, almost out of time. I am using writing as an example. A distant cousin of mine whom I love very much (Lars Ly) always has five or six paintings in his studio. He moves between them, perhaps waiting for one of them to capture him. And when a painting is done is instinctual in the sense that there is no definition.
I also have a friend who complains about all she has given up to be a writer and threatens occasionally to stop. She just published a CD of her reading essays about what it was like to be a Cuban refugee dumped into the upper Midwest. Her name is Marisella Veiga and the CD is called Square Watermelons. This is a plug. I listened to it and it is amusing, relaxing (the soft voice) and profound.
I myself have had the fear, probably irrational, that at the point where I have a great book of poetry or an appreciative editor for a novel, that those genres will no longer be read. I will be obsolete. Blogs give me that feeling. And I guess I miss the fence between myself and the world that a book provides. It has an audience, but that audience is only fictionalized in the mind of the author and becomes a bit more real when he or she meets a reader. But the book is not me, it is something I made. Blogs seem to insist that this is me.
Of course everything we do creates identity. The work of blogging is creating identity. This is who I am and your reactions tell me who you think I am. Since identity is social, both processes are necessary. I still am a bit leary of the blog. And disappointed with everything about the writing life, except writing itself.

miércoles, 21 de enero de 2009

The Death of Irene

It seems to me that the feelings, actions, and script for death is set. We know how we should feel and yet the experience is so foreign and mysterious that for me it is hard to feel quite the way I should. I remember as a child a neighbor four or five houses up the street died, a fairly young unmarried woman. My father gave me her Bible and I was afraid of opening it up, of letting whatever she had that was guarded in the closed pages attack me. Death and germs were closely intertwined in my childhood, perhaps because of the polio scare when I was a child.
What has most bothered me, though, is the numbness I often feel when someone dies. After I cry for a few minutes (the only time I have cried uncontrollably at a death was when Turron, my dog, died of old age a few minutes after he had run up to me.), I have to work to make the moment meaningful, trying to recreate the life of the person who died. Vaguely I am aware that there will be a sense of missing pieces, stories that can be told but not shared, and the sense that a door has been shut in my face. But this is not the script that I am supposed to follow.
I have visited the dying. My friend Ove, whom I lived with for a year and have regretted leaving on and off for most of my life, wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday before he died. When the nurses and doctors told him that he was too sick, he wept so uncontrollably, that they shot him up with cortosone and he walked around his house, the one he had been born in and returned to, dressed in a black suit that was now too big for him, shaking hands of his farmer relatives, who may have slipped off to wash their hands. The next day he was back in the hospital in serious shape and when I went to say goodbye to him, he clasped me so hard that I had the bizarre idea that he was taking me with. And unexplainably, I had an erection.
What do you say for last words? "Vi ses?" We'll see each other. Perhaps he knew that the embrace was the only way to part. And how did he feel when I rushed off to catch a train?
My aunt had managed an architectural firm as their executive secretary. One of the partners in the firm had designed her a marvellous house. It was simplicity and elegance, built on a small plot of woods with a swampy finger of a lake behind the house. The oak trees grew up through the large balcony and the whole back of the house was glass, except for the kitchen. She had a wild flower garden in front.
And now she was in the dreary confines of a nursing home where she looked out onto a golf course across the road. At least there was that. Some of her things were in the room, but much of it was too big for the space and many other things had already been picked over as she passed from her house with her husband to the "elderly village," to separate rooms for her and her husband Frank in the "elderly village's" nursing home, to widowhood at 90 and another move to a nursing home without many pretensions.
She lost her ability for short term memory and drifted into the past as if it were the present, worrying about her mother and father, asking my father if he had seen them. But she always recognized my voice and could remember that I was coming home. I seemed to inhabit a small part of her mind that could maintain a connection with the present.
Seldom am I around when the people I love die. After seeing her for a five days, I had to go to a conference for three days and on the second day after I left she died. Unlike my sisters and father, I was not part of her death vigil. It was my sister Barbara who was with her and noticed that she was dead. At the end of the journey, this final step was small. A little difficulty breathing and then it (a ninety year stretch across most of one century and a small part of another) was over.
I had promised to write something and wrote on my way back on the plane from San Francisco to Minneapolis in a notebook I purchased after I learned that Irene had died. I wrote in Danish which seems to me often to be my own private language since I only use it a few times a month on the phone with a friend who is agoraphobic. But the pages of the notebook were not really bound and before I finished the second page, the first page had already begun to hang from about a half inch that still connected it to the notebook. What I had written had tried to work itself up into an emotion, but instead had bounced and wandered, more focused on the trip out where I had seen an incredible view from the window, the Missouri winding harshly through the furry winter hills blown free of snow, watersheds, the Grand Tetons, Lake Tahoe and finally the barren hills around San Francisco. While I tried to force myself into a more appropriate mood, I remembered the line in Tristam Shandy where the speaker compares his father at his brother's death to Cicero at the death of his daughter. They both had been heartbroken until they realized the great opportunity for writing. The more I tried to write in the notebook, the more I realized that I was trying to fit the proper lugubrious mood.
There seemed to be something else missing from my aunt's death. Usually when someone dies, you hear a story that may develop in repetition which eventually seems to be the meaning of the death. It could be final word, some irony, such as the man who dies while caring for his demented incapacitated wife. With my aunt's death there was no story. She had been in pain, she was on opiates, and a few weeks after the doctor's prediction, she stopped breathing. My sister said that she waited to see me before she died and I believe they wanted that to be my story about her death.
My father, as a Christian, refused to accept condolences. "Why should I be sad? Why should you say you are sorry?" After a while I saw it as a little homily in action or a reaction that he hoped could be used as an example in a sermon. I could almost hear him using it himself. My grandmother at the death of her last sibling was inconsolable. That large family that had emigrated from Jutland and lived first in Minnesota, then North Dakota and finally spread out along the border between Montana and North Dakota, no longer existed. I saw in my mind a creation, since by the time I saw the family farm there was running water and the renters had begun to collect old cars in the yard, including a smashed up one in which a daughter had died and the father became lame. My father had pointed out in the large photograph of the farm house where windmill had been painted in. The windmill I had seen in that picture had had a special meaning for me since my aunt had lost her thumb in the gears of a windmill and then I thought that perhaps that was why it had to be painted in. But my father did not have my grandmother's sense of being abandoned. If he did, he did not show it.
The night before the funeral, one of my sisters had gone through all of my aunt's photographs. I took a wood bound photo album that I had once shown my aunt after I found it in a box in our garage. I had planned on keeping it, but she suddenly said that she wanted it. Not understanding, I had said that she could keep the pictures and then she had told me no, she wanted it. I was surprised at the time because I saw my aunt as incredibly unsentimental and a bit ashamed of the whole western fantasy. This was somewhat born out when many of her close friends were unaware that she had been born on the treeless plains of Eastern Montana. The album reminded me that I had known very little about my aunt's life. I also took some pictures of flowers in my garden that I had sent her in the last months of her life. For an unknown reason, they remind me more of her than the album or the vases or the pottery or needlework she gave me.
These articles are emblems of my aunt. They are not like her necessarily. My image of her as sophisticated, and in the context of most of the people I grew up with she was very sophisticated, was always being contradicted in small ways. Her husband was not especially sophisticated. He was from a Yugoslavian immigrant family that lived on the iron range and worked in the mines. He was on a par with my farm relatives and in many ways more sophisticated than my father, who never said ain't but believed that Christianity was a reformation of Islam until I proved to him that Mohammed had been born in the 7th century. I remember my aunt once asking to keep a tip tray with a cursi little Mexican girl on it because she liked it so much. The album was beautiful, but it seemed too crude, too culturely infused with hyped messages to fit with my image of my aunt. I saw my aunt as the architect saw her when he designed her house.
And how do I fit into this death and life situation. Not very well, I would say. I still feel that I have all the wrong reactions and am frustrated because I cannot react the way I should. I feel a bit closer to my aunt after writing this, perhaps more than the last few years of her life where she became a gypsy being moved from home to home. She and Frank also removed themselves from the context that I had used to feel I knew them and perhaps even care for them, the symphony, the theater, the events, the fine little restaurant on a shady street in south Minneapolis. Those memories and feelings are easier to access now that the sterile little apartments are no longer a barrier between me and my better memories of Irene. It is hard to admit since it seems to make me even less of the proper mourner, but her death has liberated me from thinking of her frail, hopeless, bored, forgetful and allowed me to remember her as the fabulous avant garde cook, the woman in charge of a bustling office, the beautiful clothes, and at times the hysterical laughter. And also, now I can look back at those pictures when she was in her twenties and see that she was a rebel, both in her behavior and thought, the country school teacher who lived far enough away from her pietistic Great Depression, Great Plains parents and brother to have lovers, smoke cigarettes, drink, play cards, dance and vote democrat. But then, the pictures never show more than the thinnest slice of time and the Irene I mourn in my way, sadly enough, I hardly knew.

viernes, 5 de diciembre de 2008

The Snow Storm

My aunt is dying. Her body has been eating itself slowly for years, curling her some, removing memories, stranding others so that they are recollected but unattached to anything else, like the lone pine on the rock face of a mountain. She remembers my voice and me, but some days when I call she asks me about school, thinking I am still in school instead of having taught school for decades. The cancer is causing her pain. She takes opiates for the pain and now suddenly she remembers her husband and he is at the doctors and is coming back. For a long time she has repressed his memory. It has been a longing that is too painful. She watched over him and waited on him and protected him and pushed his wheelchair even as she began to forget what day it was or where she was.
I mention on the phone the snowstorm when I came home and took a cab to her house, but in my own confusion had the cab driver let me off at another road a mile from her house. She remembers as if the anxiety of the moment, even though she did not know about it until afterwards, had set in her mind. As it were, I got out of the cab. I told him that he did not have to take me any farther. He might get stuck. And I stood on the road for a few seconds and watched him cautiously drive off. I walked down the road that was too snowed in for the taxi and looked around at the dead end and realized that it was not my aunt's road. It was 1 a.m. The snow was still falling but now it was the hard bits that fall when the temperature falls and squeezes the last of the moisture out of the air. Being younger, I confidently turned back to the main road and walked toward hers, but as I went on, my hands grew numb. Coming from Puerto Rico and expecting to go from airport to car to house, I had not dressed warmly. My lungs stung with every breath and I occasionally I put down my two suitcases and tried to warm my freezing nose and ears with my barely warmer hands. I wore a jacket and loafers, a scarf that kept coming off because I had a suitcase in each hand. And I thought of my aunt waiting for me. I had talked to her just before I left the airport and she had suggested the cab. I finally found her road, but I could not remember which direction to go in. I was now desperate. I considered opening the suitcases and taking out all of the clothes and wrapping myself up and going to sleep next to the road. I could see houses, but all the lights were off. I walked on. Now I thought of finding a branch or a stone and breaking someone's window. I doubted if they would come unless I did. And at that moment I saw the house and a dull light from her bedroom, which was the only window that faced the road. I felt a sudden desperation and began to run. What if she and her husband had given up and gone to bed? Or if this was like a mirage in this desert of snow? And when I knocked, there she was, standing straight, smiling, as I began to blurt out what had happened to me.
I imagine that when she dies I will dream of her standing in the door waiting for me. The snow will not be cold. She will kiss me on the lips and her mouth will seem a bit crooked as it has since I have been older. And then I cannot imagine anything else, other than that dream of snow. At one point when she was losing her memory, my sisters and I sent her all of our pictures of her. I regret that now. I would like to look at them once in a while.
And is death like walking into that snow storm where all the windows of the houses are dark and you cannot find a branch or stone to break a window and wake them. Do we turn onto roads again and again that are the wrong one?
I do not know what to do. How do you say goodbye to someone who is not coming back?

Eighteen-Second Passenger

This is another altered auto (altered autobiographical)piece. I have been told by those who know that there are too many places and names in the story and it takes too long to get going. That is probably true. I have another version that is shorter.

Eighteen-Second Passenger
It was a year and a half before Karl Peter died. Of course, he didn’t know when Karl Peter would die. With AIDS, you never knew. When he lived in New York, Carlos, who went by the name Chuck--a guy who could always get you theater tickets--came down with pneumonia, got better, went to Fire Island, got sick there and two weeks later was dead. That was in 1984. Chaguito, who got sick about the same time, dragged on for years.
In the main train terminal in Copenhagen, Paul made mental lists. It made him feel in control. List one, types of transportation on the trip so far. List two, the places he and Karl Peter had been together. List three, Karl Peter’s friends whom he had met. List four, his friends whom Karl Peter met. :
When the train pulled into the ferry at Korsør, he got out and climbed the stairs to the top deck to look at the pilings for the bridge that would connect Funen and Sealand. The small island Sprogø that lay between them, once with only a white-washed farm house, a few stone and mortar buildings, and a herd of black and white dairy cattle, was now the path of a four lane highway. A low bridge connected the highway with Funen. The other end of the highway ended with a double chain of the huge soaring pylons for the bridge over the Great Belt.
Out on the deck the wind whipped his brown hair into his eyes. He turned straight into the wind, focused for a few bleary-eyed seconds on the pylons, and tried to make out land across the belt. He felt a secure removal from the world when he entered the enclosed deck. A line stood outside the small kiosk and a longer one was forming in front of the cafeteria. He found a seat next to a window facing west towards Funen. There was a newspaper on the seat which he placed on the table. The engines strained as the ship pulled away from the dock and then settled into guttural rumbling. The people in the lines and those seated at the tables in the cafeteria were somber and static. He was exhausted by the trip, and his mind latched onto thoughts and repeated them. “Motionless in motion.” He smiled at the thought, as if it applied to the other passengers whom he took in as he gazed around the cafeteria, but not to himself.
A woman who had been in the line at the kiosk lugged a shopping bag and a blue and white striped bag up to the table. She dropped her things and he turned to look at her.
“This seat free?”
She dug into the cloth bag for a thermos and some wrapped sandwiches, placed them on the table and seemed to fall into the chair. She wore white support hose up to her knees and a light plaid pleated skirt that hung squarely from her hips..
“Is that you newspaper?” she said pointing to the Politiken that was piled on the table with the sports section on top.
“Yes, but you can look at it.”
She took the front page section without acknowledging his answer and lifted it up like a wall between them.
The same year Karl Peter=s ex-lover Bjørn died, Paul had moved to Puerto Rico with Neftalí. Bjørn had moved to Bergen with a new lover and hadn't told anyone he was sick. He refused treatment and after two bouts of pneumonia he was gone. At the time Paul thought of an essay he had read about how animals go off to hide when they die. Neftalí's friend Miriam died the same year. She had a boyfriend who was a heroin addict. Her new age friends had gone to the hospital with crystals and set them on her chest but a week later she was dead. There was a big obituary in the paper that said that she had died from el mal del siglo, the scourge of the century.@ Paul had not mentioned Chuck, Chaguito or Miriam to Karl Peter. There was no consolation in numbers.
He looked at the design for the new bridge on the back of the newspaper which the woman was reading and tried to compare it with the unconnected pylons he could see to his right. The drawing was the skeleton of the bridge. A bridge looked like a skeleton. Of what? he thought. Of the ocean? Of the air? Of the small encapsulated pieces of flesh that would shoot across it? Of motion? Motionless in motion. He smiled the vacuity of the phrase.
The woman lowered the paper to turn the page and glared at him as if he were spying on her.
In 1991 Karl Peter=s mother died. A year later he moved from Copenhagen back to the farm on which he grew up. Paul was surprised. Karl Peter had worked in the same welfare office, lived in the same apartment in the Vestebro section of Copenhagen for twenty years. He had lost his Funen accent. Each winter he took his package trip to Austria and each summer his package trip to a Greek island, Patmos or Rhodes.
His friends joked about the move back to north Funen with its flat ocean-like fields of sugar beets and its soft peculiar accent, but he didn't find it funny. Werner, with whom Karl Peter had talked of setting up an antique store, was furious and said that Karl Peter was going home to cry over his dead mother and try to crawl up her snatch by sleeping in the same bed that he was born in. They never spoke together again. Werner's vulgarity was often breathtaking.
Paul asked him if he was going to sell "black pigs", since the year they had been lovers they had joked about Karl Peter's mother selling pigs illegally to a local butcher. Karl Peter had merely written back that he would have neither white nor black pigs. The farm and his family were not to be joked about. In 1993 he told Paul he was sick.
Twenty minutes into the crossing, the voices sank into the muffle of the engine=s grind. There were still no cellular phones on the ferry and would only be few for the last year it sailed.
Three of his friends, one in San Francisco, his college roommate, and someone he waited tables with in a Greek diner on Broadway and Sixty-third, died the year that Karl Peter told him he was infected. He had pneumonia once in 1992. He started AZT in 1993, but it almost killed him. Four of Neftalí's friends died that year.
From the window he could make out the church steeple in Nyborg and the tops of the trees in the forest north of the city. The woman lowered the paper again. Jet lag made it difficult for him to concentrate on anything and he stared vaguely past her. She turned the page, then vigorously flapped it open. When Paul looked at her, she lifted the paper before her face.
He brought three old New Yorkers from a pile in his office for the trip. From San Juan to New York, he read a short novel by García Marquez, La crónica de una muerte anunciada. Between New York and Gothenburg, he had read the New Yorkers. One article was about the crash of the US Air Flight 423 outside of Pittsburgh on September 7, 1994. He hadn't finished it. He reached the paragraph where it said, “Of those twenty-six seconds, only about eight seconds are crucial to the understanding of what occurred. After those first eight seconds, the pilots had become passengers,” and put it down. For him, the article with its inventory of the thousands of hours involved in the investigation, the parts, both human and machine, examples of other unsolved air crashes, the detailed last minutes of flight, had suddenly become about something else.
People began to gather their things. The ferry passed into the harbor, the motors groaned in reverse as the ship slowed down, and then came the soft thud as it touched the dock.
Everything had gone fine. He reached the bus five minutes before it left. He sat in the front and told the bus driver where he wanted to get off. Karl Peter was waiting for him next to the bus sign, thin as always, his beard bushier, a few teeth missing. They talked about the trip, about what was growing in his garden, about the riding school horses that left their hoof prints in the gravel edge next to his hedge that he raked twice a day.
Most newcomers to the area were surprised that the house was built as late as 1912. The barn was bindingsværk, a crude wooden frame with stone and mortar between the beams. The house, stables and work shed connected to form a square with an opening large enough for a wagon or truck to pass into the inner courtyard. Though the design was handy for chores, if you had a fire you lost everything. Modern farms were built like the big estates with the farm buildings far from the house.
There were three doors going outside, one down to the cellar, another out to the barn which was connected to the house, two into the dining room, three from the kitchen, one from the hallway into the sitting room, one from the kitchen hallway up to the attic with its two finished bedrooms both with doors. The downstairs bedroom had a doorway up three steps to the bathroom, an addition added at the same time as the cellar under it. Sometimes he counted twelve doors and other times thirteen.
Paul opened the door of the attic bedroom and walked down the cold path through the piles of plates, dolls, and furniture. He tiptoed down the steep attic stairs holding onto the rope that hung from the ceiling to steady himself. He edged the door open so its creak broke into small separate notes. He didn't bother with the light here since he wasn't sure where it was, found the door to the small hallway that held a shower stall, a freezer, old boots and clogs. He opened the door to the barn, then the one to the back garden and hurried out. His piss thudded into the raked gravel and steam rose from the puddle that formed and then coursed towards him. He shuddered in relief.
He looked up at the sky. Silence.
In bed he counted the doors again. When he was warm, he undressed under the covers and threw the clothes onto the floor. Beyond the hedge on the other side of the road, the neighbor=s cows shone in the moonlight. At night the fear came to him that the stillness of the house meant that Karl Peter had stopped breathing. He would listen until he heard the neighbor=s son come home on his motor scooter, or the wind in the long entangled boughs of the red beech tree. Even when the dim glow from headlights of cars on the farther road came in through the window and fluttered against the faded wallpaper on the slanted dormer walls, he felt as if there was life and relaxed into sleep.
It was June. Until eleven in the evening northern Funen hummed with half-light, a dull indistinct presence that like light fog cut vision to a few hundred feet. They sat in the garden until it became cold and drank the last glasses of wine and the coffee inside. There was little difference between the light in the room from the four candles on the high table before the sofa and liquid mixture of light and darkness outside that seemed to swell and wane with their breathing.
They didn't talk about dying, but it seemed to Paul to be the topic of the long pauses in their conversation.
“Jeppe called.” Karl Peter broke the silence.
“Was he sober?
“No. He never is anymore. He lost his job, or they forced him to retire. They kept him on for years.”
“I remember when he showed up at the apartment. Woke up in the middle of the divider in the expressway. That was fifteen years ago. Covered with mud. No keys.”
The conversation drifted back into silence. It seemed they would sit there for the rest of the evening without a word.
“It got worse. He gets stupider.”
“What did he say when he called?”
“He told me not to feel bad since we are all going to die. That was his consolation. I hung up. He called back. Thought we got cut off.”

The second morning after his arrival Paul sat at the long narrow kitchen table next to the downstairs bedroom. He had looked for the newspaper but it wasnt in the mailbox and came back in.
Another fifteen minutes and he tiptoed into the living room which had been divided into a dining room and a small sitting room. The television was by the kitchen door so when they watched television at night--this was two years before commercial television came to Denmark and there were still only the two public channels which didn't start adult programming until seven p.m.--they had to sit at the table in the stiff dining room chairs.
Paul tried to read the room. Porcelain dogs, hundreds of them, covered the end tables and corner tables and sideboards and windowsills. He lifted a few up that he thought might be Bing and Grøndahl or Royal Copenhagen or Lladró, but most of them were cheap mass-produced sentimentality, as opposed to the finer versions. On one table the dogs encircled adoringly a porcelain Marie Antoinette with a crepe ruffled skirt. A little electric cord ran from the back of skirt so the dress could be lit up. On another table, dogs, whose faces lifted to an adored master, faced a print of Saint Margaret ascending into heaven in a cloud of cherubs.
He raised a piece of Bornholm pottery from the coffee table and turned it over to look at the signature. The art nouveau deep oranges and dark reds left the different impression from the packs of dogs: autumnal peace, expensive good taste sinking back into the earth like leaf mold.
He entered the real dining room. Karl-Peter bought the huge impractical carved oak set with a part of the inheritance from his mother. The two meter long bureau with carved scenes of dancing peasants was filled with antique china and silver. Before a trip they took to Copenhagen later that summer, the first trip Karl Peter had made to the capital since he moved to the farm, they opened all the doors and Paul took pictures, just in case there was a robbery and Karl Peter had to make a claim to the insurance company. Paul still had those pictures under the rag rug place mats in a junk drawer in the house in Puerto Rico.
Official photographs of members of the royal family hung on the walls. A crude painting of King Frederik the Ninth=s, his hands stretched below his knees and his one eye uncomfortably crunched into his cheek stood on an easel by the French doors. On the wall behind the easel was a painting of King Christian the Tenth by the same artist. His forehead stretched up like he was in a convex mirror and the shoulders were as square as a box.
Karl Peter’s collection of Danish royal memorabilia began fifteen years earlier. When Paul’s visa ran out, he left Karl Peter and moved back to New York. Paul had jokingly mocked the royal family. Each week Karl Peter sent him a postcard of Queen Margarethe or Prince Henrik or of the young princes or of Queen Inga, the queen mother. On the back of one of them, Karl Peter had written, “I have been alone since you abandoned me.” The word he had used was “forladt,” deserted, forsaken. To Paul he was merely following the laws of the universe. When your visa expires, you leave. The expiration date was printed on his passport. And he had never registered with the police. In that word "forladt", there were all the implications of responsibility.
He returned to the kitchen. There was still no sound from behind the door. He got up and stood before it. The white paint was worn from the handle down to an earlier light green color that matched a scratch on the door frame. He concentrated to bring whatever was beyond the door to life. He sat down.
Karl Peter came in through the hall door with a cardboard box full of strawberries.
“I thought you were still asleep. I was trying not to wake you.”
“I've been out picking strawberries. Come look.”
Paul picked up a gritty strawberry and took it to the sink to wash it off.
“I have to go to the hospital today. You can come if you want.”
Paul bit into the strawberry.
Karl Peter rolled up his sleeve and held the underside of his forearm up for inspection. He pointed to a dark plum-colored spot.
“The dermatologist in Odense, she burns them off with dry ice. Suzanne the sadist, we call her. You can stay here. You must still be tired from your trip.”
The unexplained “we” made Paul feel excluded.
“Yeah, I am tired.”
They sat silently over coffee for several minutes.
“You know I read an article on the plane. I don=t know why I read it. It should have had a notice warning you not to read it on a plane. It was about a plane crash. The plane started falling and the second passed when they couldn=t do anything about it. There was a line in that article, “After the first eighteen seconds, the pilots had become passengers.” I keep thinking about that.”
Karl Peter looked at him for a few seconds, as if waiting for Paul to explain, then took a sip of coffee and walked into the bedroom to change.
When Karl Peter returned from the hospital, they drove to Odense Fjord which was three kilometers away through the flat fields of sugar beets. Paul brought the camera, but Karl Peter was not interested in posing, so Paul took several pictures of the fjord and of Karl Peter from the back as he walked down the path through the wild roses and snake grass.
“I've started to talk to the minister,” Karl Peter said in an off-hand way that showed his embarrassment.
“I thought you took yourself out of the state church.”
“Everybody did when I was in my twenties. I want to be buried next to my mother. I joined the church again. It makes it easier to be buried in the churchyard. I guess part of me always believed. It was always work not to.”
“Well, maybe not. I had no reason to think about it.” Karl Peter stopped to shake the sand out of his shoes.
‘Those paintings in the bedroom. The copy of The Last Supper with the Judas with a nose bigger than Hans Christian Andersen=s and all the other disciples with the same face. And that Jesus over the bed with the crown of thorns that look like a knife set. Those are yours?”
Paul stopped for an answer and Karl Peter walked away from him.
“Or those were some your mother had?”
“Mine. I bought them at the Salvation Army in Odense. I like that they are only an attempt at art. More religious. Less art.”
“Less art is right.”
There was not even a smile from Karl Peter and they came to the end of the trail and walked back to the car without talking.
“I feel that most of my life I have been the passenger, like the pilots in those last eighteen seconds.”
Paul waited for a reaction. Karl Peter stood next to the car and looked out over the fjord. The towers of the power plant in Odense were visible on the horizon.
“Do you ever think that we are hurling through space at incredible speed and at the same time spinning around 25,000 miles every day? And we don=t feel it. We are numb to movement. If you were on a dirigible in a wind and you lit a match, it wouldn=t go out. It would be moving with the wind and would not feel it.”
“I feel it.” Karl Peter raised the collar of his jacket around his neck. “Let's go back.”
Paul cranked the slatted aluminum windows open and looked out on the fog that moved down between the green mountains like a white river. Neftalí had moved into the city soon after Paul returned from visiting Karl Peter and their relationship of twelve years ended.
There was a message on the machine from a friend from Denmark. The person said only that he had something to tell him and would call back later. Paul assumed that Karl Peter was dead. He meant to call, Gurli, a neighbor who was a trained nurse who had visited Karl Peter every day since he had been sent home from the hospital. Karl Peter had battled the county social services until they installed a hospital bed and he could move home from the hospital. He realized he had dialed the wrong number when Karl Peter’s aunt answered.
“Paul. Hello. Yes, he died yesterday. Very peaceful. It=s better. It was so bad towards the end, but it was a beautiful death.”
He looked again at the address book and tried again.
“Paul. I couldn't talk to you the other day when he gave me the phone. He was in so much pain. The nurse would come and he would hide it, act like he was fine. He thought that if they gave him morphine he would die. As soon as she left he screamed and swore, making up for all the time she was there. At the end he was so bad that they sent him back to the hospital and gave him morphine. He died the next morning.”
The last months Paul called him every week. Commuting to work he took coastal Highway 188 from Loíza to San Juan to spare himself the annoyance of the strings of traffic lights on the 65th Infantry Highway through Carolina. Mornings he paid little attention to the ocean, coconut palm groves, tall wispy Australian pines. And there was always the worry that the ocean had taken a chunk of the highway and he might have to turn back and enter the snarl of traffic from Carolina to San Juan, arriving late and exhausted. But after work with the expectation of the cool dark mountain evening, he stared out at the zigzagging coast of the isthmus of Piñones and felt that the water somehow connected him to Karl Peter, that it passed across the Atlantic to the North Sea and to Odense Fjord. He never told Karl Peter this. When he got to the bridge over the Río Grande of Loíza, the view of the river with a perfectly spaced line of coconut palms in the distance, mountains and clouds farther off, gave him a vision of an imagined childhood paradise.
There was a storm the week Karl Peter died. It stuck to the island and dumped ten to fifteen inches of rain. For two days it poured without letting up. From the back door of the house, he could see no further than the gate. He fell asleep and woke up to the rain pounding on the tin roof. Electricity went out for three days. The neighbor told him that part of the road was washed out and large boulders were blocking both roads down the mountain. When electricity came back, on the television they showed hills of sand along the road in Piñones. Several places the asphalt had caved in and the chunks that were left hung three feet above the missing road.
When he finally could go back to work, he took the 65th Infantry Highway to Carolina and then Baldorioty de Castro to San Juan--Traffic lights, merging traffic, cars passing on the emergency lane, the emergency lane converting to a regular lane and bottle-necking at each overpass. His mind was fettered to the present by the constant need to react and brake, accelerate, brake, accelerate. He sat in lines of traffic jams wondering whether it was an accident or road construction that detained him as if it were the answer to the universe. He thought of the Cortazar story about the traffic jam on the way to Paris where no one ever knows the cause and people get married and die as they wait for the cars to move again. Perhaps that=s the fear of every traffic jam, that it will never move.
That day he left work early and decided to try 188. He bought the New York Times near work and made it to Piñones by four. He stopped at a bar overlooking the ocean and tried to read, but the wind off the ocean flapped the newspaper like sheets on a line. He set the half-full beer can down and the wind blew it over.
He took off for home again. By Combate Beach, two surfers ran down a sand dune into the road. Paul braked suddenly. The anger rose up to his throat and he felt his chest tighten. He hissed a few words in Spanish that would have made him blush in English. One of the surfers lifted his board like a club at the car. Paul gunned his car as a threat and the surfer held his ground. The other one gave him the finger and leered. A Jeep Cherokee came around the corner and slammed on its brakes behind him. It honked and the surfers crossed to their rusted Datsun parked off the edge of the road.
He tried to leave the Jeep as far behind him as he could. A car pulled up to the road from a shaded parking place on the beach and stopped to look before turning into the road and Paul blasted it with the horn. The Jeep was now visible in his rear view mirror only at the end of the long straight stretches of road.
A hundred feet ahead the speed zone for the grade school began. He slowed down, though the school was so isolated that no children ever walked home. The car behind him passed impatiently. In the mornings when he slowed down for the school zone with a long line of anxious commuters behind him, he imagined himself leading them in a religious ceremony. The figures of the children on the sign were symbols that inspired the commuters' worship; human hope and community. That brown and beige cement building on the long empty stretch of beach and palm housed the children no driver could see, but everyone in the long line of cars behind him must be reminded of. He looked in his rear view mirror. The Jeep was right behind him, passed in a flash of impatience, and a minute later the road was empty.
It came on him suddenly. As he brought the car around the bend, the road seemed almost to be at the level of the water. The sea grape trees thinned and he could see the Atlantic, blue to the horizon. He began to cry. He pulled over, did not leave the car or roll the window down. Soon the ocean blurred behind the tears and almost as quickly they stopped.
When he reached the bridge, he pulled over. The November weather was comfortable, but walking up the bridge, he began to sweat and his light brown shirt stuck to his skin. He stood exactly in the middle, looked out to the ocean that was mixed as far as he could see with the muddy water of the river. In the other direction the brown prairie of water disappeared into trees. In his mind he saw pieces of rivers; the creek next to his house, the waterfall on the Quebrada Reyes, the rain falling on his roof that all fed into the Río Grande of Loíza, but in his mind it was a broken network. It was not a physical entity, but a chain of places that existed simultaneously in his memory.
He took the map from the glove compartment, opened it onto the steering wheel and found the bridge. A long line of cars, that had been following a semi, passed him, each with a whoosh and gentle rocking. He looked out the windshield as if he could recognize what was on the map, then back at the ocean that ran to the edges of the paper in all directions and the blue tangle of rivers threading through the brown and green mountains.