Ashes

A story Patrick sent to me on 13 March 2015.

In the kitchen preparing breakfast I have bacon on medium heat, abiding by Steinbeck’s advice to cook it slowly, a couple of eggs at the ready, abiding by my own rule never to put eggs in the refrigerator, and humming to myself to cover the absence of anyone to share the morning, I hear noises up behind the house. For a moment my subconscious believes it is the person I jokingly call my bitter half, finishing her meditation, my signal to start the toast, but it takes only a second to remember that can’t be so, she having departed the earth a while ago.

It is over a year since I have taken the hatchet and saw to the brush and brambles blocking the way to the water deposits and beyond those, if you persist, up the overgrown paving stones which lead eventually to the highway. My first thought, after that bitter half nudge, is that Fanin’s sheep have escaped yet again from his land. He keeps them a few terraces above mine where they graze the olive grove free of weeds. Often when the weather is dry they find a way over the fences and make for my front garden. Sometimes in the middle of the night I have been awakened by the rasp of their rough tongues stripping every tender plant, even standing on hind legs for new growth on the lemon trees, contented baas and farts outside my bedroom window.

Several years ago they had helped themselves to the new mandarin orange tree outside the cottage at the entrance to the garden. Antonia, who has three terraces adjoining mine told me I might just as well pull the mandarin up and plant a new one. She says it takes seven years to expunge the effects of sheep saliva from the sap, and the leaves will ever curl and wither before fruit can ripen. It seems she was right, but I still haven’t the heart to uproot the spindly stunted tree. I turned the burner under the bacon off, experience having taught me that lesson, and unlocked the kitchen door. The bottom hinge has rotted loose, but automatically I lift the handle so that the door clears the floorlight to the cellar without scraping the glass. I step out into the moist warmth of this April morn and cock an ear in the direction of the water tanks. It is not a sheep, unless it is one capable of speech. What’s more, if it is a sheep that speaks, it is suffering from coprolalia, for those are the only words issuing from the thicket.

“Shit.” Slash. Slash. “Bitches.” Slash slash.

I recognize the voice. It is my neighbor Steve, just returned from New York. His is the house sitting on the hanging rock which gives my house its name: Under the Hanging Rock – in Spanish, Davall es Penyal. He is no doubt retrieving the various household items which have been tossed this way by the feuding women who occupied his place while he was away for his mother’s funeral. He won’t retrieve the mattress, that’s for sure. It has been rained on and would weigh more than he could alone drag up the overgrown path.

I climbed the steps up m my kitchen, walked under the avocado trees and stumbled up to the stones leading up to the water tanks. There he was, a skillet in one hand, the other separating himself from brambles clawing at his clothes.

“Hey Steve. Can I help?”

“I doubt it. But thanks anyway.” He whacked with the skillet at the brambles and stomped them down with his boot. Finally he was free of the worst tangle, higher than his head. He stopped about six feet away, separated by the intervening branches of a fig tree responsible for several collapsed retaining walls.

“I lost my mother,” he said.

“I heard. I’m really sorry to hear it.” I wasn’t really, and I doubted he was either. A more unpleasant woman I have never known, may she rest in peace, finally. Everyone I know who ever knew her is in agreement with that sentiment, and none of them are hesitant to say so.

“No. You don’t understand.” He bent over and came up with a wooden spoon. “I lost my mother.” He stuffed the spoon into his back pocket and reached down for something else. “Iberia lost my luggage.” He spread his arms, a utensil in each hand.

“You mean…”

“You got it.” His sudden burst of laughter was tempered by booze and tobacco. “Her ashes could be in the Canary Islands at this very moment.”

He started up the steps pushing the weeds aside with his knees.

“At least now I can cook breakfast. I already found the coffee pot in the vines.”

He saw I was on the point of suggesting he join me for breakfast, but he waved the skillet at me. “Thanks, but I’d be lousy company. I’d invite you up, but you’d be better off to stay away until I can clean up the dogshit, The ladies left behind a fucking dog, can you believe it? You want a dog? I don’t want a dog, either. See you later.”

He fought his way up the path, using the skillet like a machete and cursing nature on every step.

I liked that story about Steve and his mother’s ashes, and told it to various friends over the next few weeks. Mostly friends who lived in other parts of the island. I had the feeling it would not be so appreciated by acquaintances in Deià itself. They had already heard Steve’s version of it anyway. Our village was still considered by many to be what it used to be, a bohemian colony of hippies, artists, black sheep, alcoholics and drug addicts. Now there were zero hippies, fewer artists, only one or two serious alcoholics; druggies still flourished, though with newer, more fashionable products. So people my age from Pollença, or Palma, or Andratx thought it was funny and typical of Deià, but a bit risky in Deià itself.

Time passed, and, for reasons not germane to this telling, I left the village after living there thirty-five years. I was only recently living alone for the first time in decades, and perhaps for this reason a small group of bachelors began inviting me to their occasional luncheons.

These were held in the home of one of the oldest resident foreigners. Everybody called him Black George, to distinguish him from Tennis George and just George, though I’m not sure anybody addressed him as such. I certainly never did. It was useful however, until just George died, and Tennis George moved to another village after his wife left him.

Black George used to cook lunches for a few of us once or twice a year at his finca high above the village. But recently taking care of all that land and living so isolated was no longer practical and he had sold that place and now lived in a two bedroom house right at the edge of town. He no longer did any of the cooking at these gatherings. He was getting on for eighty-four. Tal usually brought the main course, fried chicken. Tal used to be my neighbor on beyond Davall es Penyal. He drank too much. We had continual disputes about parking space, sometimes at three in the morning when he would come home from the bar and bang on the door of one of my guests.

Owen was good at making salads, and Lanny was proud of his mashed potatoes. I was never asked to bring anything, so I always showed up with a bottle or two of red wine. Cecily, the widow of just George, was the only female invited. I had the feeling she served as a sort of chorus judging male behavior. Usually she sat silent at the end of the table with a gentle, ironic smile on her face, though from time to time she would make an observation on whatever point of gossip was in the air.

As the intake of wine increased, so the histories of legendary events became more and more outrageous, always at the expense of none of those present. A favorite topic revolved around famous episodes of drunkenness.

I had little to contribute when there was a hole left in the conversation for me to fill, the others glancing in my direction. I had always kept pretty much to myself with my partner Stephanie, and hanging out in the bars was not our style. I had a few stories at second hand, so to speak, and when trundled out, they were taken up and amplified by someone who had been present. For instance, when I mentioned the night that Lady June went missing for several hours. She had left friends in the bar where she had imbibed more than a few, and when the bar closed at four in the morning she had not returned to join them. Nor was she in her apartment in Ca’n Renou when her neighbor Frank checked.

The alarm went out. More than one of our colony had fallen into the torrent, which ran along the path down through the village, so that was the first place to look. One of her friends had seen her talking to Brian earlier, and called him at home to see if by chance she had accompanied him.

“She was passed out lying on the wall in front of the Residencia when I went by,” he said. Frank, her neighbor from Ca’n Renou went looking for her there.

“Everybody knows that story, Pat,” said Tal. “She rolled off and didn’t even wake up, lying in the briar patch two meters below the road.”

I went on. “What about the night she backed out of Karin’s driveway and left her car hanging over Tomeu’s garden wall? That one I saw myself. Had to call the tow truck. A miracle she didn’t end upside down amongst his cauliflower patch.”

“And lucky she had a Seat 500, the door opens backward. So she could climb out,” said Cecily.

Lady June had left paint and a side view mirror from that Seat on the last curve down to Soller. Everybody had another episode to tell, but eventually somebody reminded us that she was found in her bathroom not that long ago.

“Must have been a stroke. She was up against the door, and they had a hell of a time getting in.” I can’t remember who put in that detail, but I had heard it before. I wondered out loud if they had to take the door off the hinges.

That got me a communal glare and a moment of silence before George said, “It wasn’t the door that was off the hinges.” That brought a bit of laughter. I lifted my glass.

“Here’s to Lady June.”

After the salad the talk shifted, this time to Alfred. I told the one I had heard about him getting pissed off at loud music from Gesa’s house right across the torrent from his house. Her parties were famous and for sure he had participated in many of them. But this night, he crossed over the bridge and walked into her house, straight through the happy dancers into the kitchen where he slugged Gesa in the kisser, or so it was reported to me.

“We’ve all heard that one too, Pat. But it wasn’t quite like that.”

So I had to hear the corrected version.

Then I told my own personal run in with Alfred on our first meeting.

“I sat down at the table with him, first time we ever spoke to each other. He said ‘Wagner isn’t in one key or another.’ I guess he knew I was a musician? `He wanders from one key to another, chromatic all the way. ´”

“So? I asked him.”

“’So what kind of a composer can’t settle on one key or another?’ he said.” Blank stares again from around the table. Some people can tell funny stories, some can’t, they seemed to be saying.

“You read his first book?” Lanny said. “Memoirs of an Aged Child?”

Tal chortled and drank half of another beer. Somewhere along the line he had switched from red wine. “Couldn’t be worse than his last one. What was it called?”

“Difficult Women.” I said.

“Yeah. One line really killed me,” Owen put in. “`Are you a maid’ he asks what’s-her-name, used to live next door to you, George?”

“What do you mean, his last one? Owen said. “You mean his other one. Two books in a lifetime.”

“He left two wills, both with the same date. Different instructions. Pretty perverse.”

“What did you expect? You think he would change character right at the end?”

I lifted my glass.

“Here’s to Alfred. Wagnerian sop.”

The next time we got together, I had another short anecdote about Steve to relate.

“These two gay guys are renting McKinley’s house next door. They are driving home from Sa Fonda and see a body lying in the middle of the road. From the fedora lying next to him they recognize Steve. He has passed out flat on his back, maybe looking at the stars till he fell asleep. They wrestle him into the car and deliver him to his door.”

“Did they have their way with him?”

“Which way is that?” I asked.

There was a brief silence and Lanny asked how we liked his mashed potatoes.

About this time, another of the colony had gone the way of all flesh, as she herself might have said. Diana, this time, who was a painter and had lived twenty years with Brian, another famous drunk and excellent painter. Both of them had works hanging in Ca’n Xelini, the tapas bar in town.

It was maybe too soon for ironic comments about her paintings of roosters and turkeys, or the series of bird-like figures playing jazz which hung in a corner of the bar. But I had spent a lot of time with her after Brian’s liver took him out, and I had one story from her I could retail with respect. In fact it referred back to Lady June in the briar patch.

You remember it was Brian who had seen her lying on the wall.

Well, he was walking home, six kilometers along the highway, in the middle of the night.

“He wanted to continue drinking. I wanted to go home,” Diana told me. “So I caught a ride with a friend headed in that direction.”

Diana and I were on our way to Puerto Sóller for a meeting with Joan Guaita, a gallery owner in Palma. Diana had not been able to paint since Brian died, nearly two years at this point. They had always painted together in their studio above her house in Muleta, and dozens of his paintings, unfinished or unsold were still there in racks on his side of the studio. I had called Joan with the idea of selling or somehow disposing of the paintings not wanted by Diana or Brian’s daughter.

“He shouldn’t have been drinking at all,” she continued. “But there was no stopping him, of course.” She flapped her hands in that way she had, sort of like her fowl musicians. “Until the day he died he was convinced I had deserted him in the bar with no way to get home. No taxis at that hour. So he walked.”

We arrived at the Port to meet Joan and a colleague in Es Canyis, a traditional Mallorcan restaurant. Walking along the water’s edge, Diana pointed out a stone cottage with green shutters standing alone between two modern hotels.

“Brian and I used to own that house. We sold it when the Port became so noisy.”

Joan explained that there was a new association just formed in Palma dedicated to caring for deceased artists’ works. Brian’s paintings would be the first in the collection. They would be exhibited in the building being prepared for that. A catalogue would be printed. Works could never be sold, but could be lent to public institutions on a temporary basis. It seemed the right way to go. After the lunch of canelones, paella, and Mallorcan wine, it was left that Diana would look at the contract and explain it to Brian’s daughter.

On the way back to the car Diana was downcast. I took her arm and we walked along the new promenade along the beach.

“He was convinced till his dying day I had left him with no way home. But I gave him the keys. He just forgot.”

I finished up my little tale. The others had politely waited for me to finish, though I could sense they were impatient. Behind Cecily’s head there was in fact a lovely painting by Brian, the coastline with a wonderful expanse of sea beautifully executed. I had one of Brian’s, given to me by Diana for my help with Joan Guaita, but this one on George’s wall was even more beautiful. I was envious.

“Is that the end of the story?” said Tal.

“She had to get a taxi to pick up the car the next day. But he never believed it. When he woke up from the binge, the car was there below their house. He still thought she had driven home and left him behind. That was that. It was for her a great source of sadness.”

This time Owen lifted his glass.

“Here’s to Brian.”

“And Diana,” Cecily said.

The third and last time at George’s place, it was my turn to say something. You know how it is. Everybody talks back and forth for a while. Then someone tells a tale, and we all listen. Then that one reminds somebody of another one, and so on it goes. After a while it is either me or George, and recently George has dropped out of the circuit, unless pressed. He seems to have turned inward. I suspect his weekly visits to Palma with Owen have something to do with it, but how do you ask?

So I took my turn, and told my version of Steve’s mother’s ashes, which after all was an eyewitness account of sorts, even though everybody had already heard it one way or the other.

I finished with Steve whacking weeds with his skillet on the way up to his house.

Dead silence and glares.

“Do you think that’s funny?” Tal asked.

“Give him a break,” Owen said. “How was he to know?”

Lanny, ever the straight man said to me “Steve died the day before yesterday.”

And so it was that I learned that Steve, at fifty-five years old had joined the ranks of people piling up in our past.

Dumfounded I lifted my glass.

“Here’s to Steve.”

“And Diana” said Cecily.

“And your George, Cecily,” said Owen.

“And Bruce,” said Tal, referring to his late father.

At which point George straightened up a bit in his chair.

“And damn it, how about a toast to life for a change. It’s much better than the alternative.” We all drank to that.

Then in a softer voice, he added “As far as we know…”

——————-

A story Patrick sent to me on 13 March 2015.

One Reply to “Ashes”

  1. Es una maravillosa historia, de tantas que vivieron estos peculiares seres en busca de una vida alternativa, apasionada y libre.
    Patrick, Pat, amante de la vida, siempre percibiendo hasta el mas pequeño detalle de los sucesos acontecidos al rededor de ese riachulelo que unia y desunia a los pasajeros de ese tiempo en Deia.

    Tu cuento, tu copa, esta con nosotros.
    Gracias, Patrick, gracias JP.

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