...a las cinco de la tarde...
By Michael McGuire
From Doña Isabella’s house the hillside also descended.
She liked the view out over the barrio baja and she liked the sound of the water coursing through the rocks in the rainy season. This time it was different. Doña Isabella lay in her old house alone feeling the walls tremble, then...
The rocks stirred and turned and began to roll, not just the rocks in the arroyo, to some of which her house had been anchored fifty years ago, but upstream. Doña Isabella knew it was time to get up. To go. She reached for the switch and knew also that the lights were out throughout her colonia. Even in the distant city.
She found her cane where she kept it leaning against the wall, she levered herself up. There wasn’t time for her old robe. Instinct told her to get out of the house that had sheltered her and her husband through the hard years they shared and herself through the harder years that followed.
As Doña Isabella stepped onto the rough cobblestones of her unnamed calle, she heard—she felt—the back wall of her house leaning out behind her. She heard and felt the water turn and break it. A surge followed as the hillside above came with it, and Doña Isabella sensed her street trembling and shaking, beginning to give way.
There was no time to think of her neighbors. She thanked God her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren lived as far away as they did and, leaning half of herself on her cane and running with the other half, she hurried her eighty-four years into darkness... as her end of the colonia crumbled into formlessness, a formlessness beyond what even a woman who had felt form come to her and felt it leave was able to imagine.
Don Rubio’s colonia was flat, and the arroyo that cut behind Doña Isabella’s house came nowhere near his. He did not hear her house or her hillside collapse
He did hear the rain and knew it was a different rain than usually fell, even at the height of the rainy season. He watched the television until the lights went out, heard the weather girl give exactly the same weather ranges she always gave for the not so distant city, heard exactly the same jangle drown her invariable data as she turned her body this way and that, obscuring Don Rubio’s obscure colonia with the sole aim of displaying her miniskirt from all sides, especially behind, while jabbering as fast as humanly possible, gasping at times as if she had preceded Don Rubio and his neighbors into the deep, then...
The lights flickered and went out, the television flashed once and disappeared. He hurried to the front window, the only window in his humble house. Don Rubio had been born in better circumstances than he had come to and hence the honorific don. Don Rubio stared. It took his eyes a moment to believe themselves, for a wall of water nearly as high as the sill was rushing in the direction of the city. Don Rubio knew this was no ordinary flood. Oh, the water was full of the usual bags that once contained the usual crap, but this was different.
The water surged thick, more brown than black, carrying sticks and branches and, apparently, stones, which had to be very light or traveling very fast, as well as a miscellany of furniture, several pigs and a cow that must have traveled all the way from the nearest hardscrabble hill though they were not yet dead...and a slowly revolving car, fortunately empty.
Don Rubio closed his one window and locked it, as if that would do a lot of good. He hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to his paintings which hung, unframed, upon every wall and stood three-deep in any space that was clear; works which were, to a man without family, all he had. He hurried to the back of the house, threw open the door that opened into the small closed space that held off the houses that crowded as near to his as they possibly could and ran up the steps.
On the roof the rain pummeled Don Rubio who crowded himself in under the tiles that sheltered his water heater and still flared manfully against the torrent. He could see his neighbors’ roofs as crowded as his would have been if he had had wife and children, aunts and in-laws—all with less shelter than he—huddled miserably in the downpour like so many frogs.
The next morning Doña Isabella awoke in the shelter to which someone in the night had helped her. She was, it seemed, the sole representative of her kind, for the pads laid out upon the floor supported only women and children, no old women and no men. Ordinary people, like herself. Only survival in the face of time had put the doña before her name.
“Where are the men?” asked Doña Isabella of her nearest neighbor, a substantial woman with her children spread about her.
“They have gone back,” said the woman.
“Back?” asked Doña Isabella.
“Back to save what can be saved, to watch for thieves, to look for the animals that are not dead.”
Doña Isabella stared. She was in a public building, perhaps an assembly hall, the floor free of furniture of any kind and all, including herself, wearing the sweatshirts that had been issued, as if all were expected to jump up and play ball as soon as the opposition arrived.
Her cane, she remembered, had been a nice one, a gift of social services, aluminum, with rubber tipped feet spread from the base. It must have floated away. Things did. Doña Isabella hadn’t, but she had got here anyway. She looked into faces to see who she could thank for her rescue. Seeing no one, she got herself up, a creature born with front legs noticeably shorter than the rear. She limped, she hobbled, to the doorway for, as roomy as this public building was compared to her vanished house, she felt the walls closing in.
The sun shone brighter than usual through washed air. The rushing water had rushed somewhere else, leaving only mud and toys, plastic bags and dead dogs. More mud than anything. It took Doña Isabella a moment to perceive the high water mark smeared on the walls that faced the refuge. It was so much higher than she that she could not help wondering how many children might have been carried off before their time.
She turned to look behind her but saw no weeping mothers.
In fact, everyone seemed in fairly high spirits. Doña Isabella wondered at this. Perhaps their houses had not collapsed, had not been carried away. Perhaps these women and children, though they might have lost hard-earned stoves and refrigerators, documents and—worst of all—the photos of children no longer children, of family never to be seen again, had not lost everything.
At dawn Don Rubio descended the concrete stairs to the concrete space behind his house, now filled chest-high with the same water that lay still upon the street, the water he had seen from his rooftop. He knew it filled his house too. There was no other way the water could have filled his closed-in yard. It had to have come through his house. He hesitated to open the door, but he did. He had not even thought to latch it last night. The door opened because the water was equally deep on either side of it. There was no pressure, only the weight of the water and the water was still. Dead still.
Don Rubio, cold to his armpits, entered his house. He felt slimy things about his ankles and shins and, at first, he wondered if they might be eels, but eels could not descend from the mountains beyond the town. Eels were in the sea, like starfish and octopuses. Then Don Rubio knew.
The slimy things were his pastels on coarse paper that had been heedlessly laid upon any flat surface he could find. They were, ironically, also his watercolors, which had been differently, though no more safely, stashed. Pastels and watercolors swam about his ankles, caressed his shins.
For Don Rubio was an artist still, in spite of his age, at work. He had not sold much. He had never sold much. Perhaps if he had gotten out in the big world, taken trains, planes, his work under his arm, knocked on doors... In any case, he had hoped, one day, when he had done what he was trying to do...and everybody could see what he had done...to sell his work to the highest bidder, who would be—since masterpieces are always recognized, aren’t they?—bidding quite high.
Don Rubio crossed his tiny kitchen and waded into the cold of the room he lived and painted in. The water had risen no higher than it was now. Chest deep. Armpit deep. Don Rubio’s oils stared at him from the walls. They weren’t, since they had hung a little higher, in quite as deep as himself: the men’s shoulders well out of it, if the women’s breasts were coldly submerged. For Don Rubio was—it was time to admit it—something of a dinosaur.
Like the old guard of the party that had ruled Mexico for seventy years, he had done what he had done all his life. He was no trickster. He had never been questioned about some hodgepodge of hocus-pocus on television like the “artistes” they tended to interview, or glibly replied to overlong questions. Babble over babble. Bullshit on top of bullshit.
Don Rubio painted what he saw and he pitied those who had left the natural world behind, left it somewhere with the history and politics and economics that bring so many of us to our knees so much of the time; left it with character in his fingertips, individuals who ought to stare out of every painting, no matter how guardedly (or unselfconsciously) they might view the viewer for, he knew, there was more life in a face—even a child’s—in one instant of change than in a lifetime of design.
Yes, Don Rubio reflected, for the moment anyway, people were gone from the history of art, gone with the changing landscape, the world we live in, but his own characters, not to mention the world behind them, backgrounds unhurriedly rendered, now looked at Don Rubio as if he himself had drowned them, or tried to.
One, in particular, an old woman from the next colonia, the one nearest the hills that had so recently dumped their plastic bags and dead pigs upon his own colonia in which the floodwaters now lay so deathly still, was taking in the scene with something in her eyes that hadn’t been there before, as if she had just learned how deadly life, if you lived long enough, could be. For, whether your memory or your photograph was soaked or fried or only left to dry up and blow away, at the end, there was no one there but you.
Though maybe this particular old woman saw someone beside herself, namely Don Rubio himself and, if she could have spoken for them all, all his portraits, she would have.
‘How could you do this to us, Don Rubio, to me? What did I ever do to you? You didn’t pay me for sitting! You didn’t give me my portrait to hang upon my wall when I still had a wall. Don Rubio, how could you?’
If the old peahen didn’t raise a three-toed foot and point it at him now, it was only because the water was heavy upon her scabby old legs, but her eyes said it once and said it again.
‘How could you do this, Don Rubio, to your children?’
Doña Isabella was through looking at a ball court full of machine-gunned ball players, all of them flat, or nearly flat, upon the floor, though the youngest were undeniably rolling and giggling, delighted, perhaps by things—even the clock, the clock upon the wall—come to a stop.
‘This will not do,’ she said silently, ‘this is not it, I cannot wait like an animal till I’m fed, then wait till I’m fed again.’ Doña Isabella turned and launched herself into the street.
Mud covered her shoes. She was slipping and sliding, more so as she hurried, and fast approaching helplessness, if not a fall, when she spotted a stick protruding from the muck. Doña Isabella squatted to retrieve it and slid a little further to wash it in the gutter which was still running floodwater, if neither swift nor deep.
Doña Isabella stood with the help of her new stick, a bit of the sierra washed down to help her along. She tore off the remaining twigs and branches, launched herself anew and was making progress but, like the water in the gutter, she was moving more or less downhill and, as the mud decreased, the water deepened until it was up to her old shins, lapping at her old knees.
She rested, felt how the water had ceased to move, was really only standing water yet, as far as she could see in the direction of the distant city, the intervening colonias were flooded. And deeply, judging from the appearance of the houses, much more deeply than the spot where she stood, cold water licking her old thighs.
Doña Isabella took in the distant scene of families gathered on rooftops, overloaded boats laboring between swamped houses and drowned cars, ferrying those in need of rescue, Doña Isabella had no idea where, not to the refuge, she was sure, where she had found herself upon the immense floor, for there had been no arrivals while she was there and boats could hardly navigate the mudded street once they’d reached the end of the colonias under water.
Looking at the sky rising behind it all, seeing that the weather was not yet through with them, Doña Isabella knew it must be a scene from one of the hells, a cold, wet hell, most unlike the hell people were led to fear yet, even in hell, Doña Isabella was not ready to give up.
‘I will find my children,’ she said, and launched herself anew.
Don Rubio, the water generally to his chest though, at times, reaching above his shoulders to his neck, as if he were a floating head, some relic of the war on drugs, left his portraits—his individuals, as well as the world behind them, both rescued from the passage of time by the stroke of the brush—opened his front door and “stepped” into the street.
Cold, cold, cold, if still, cold as the grave, he realized, for Don Rubio knew where the campo santo was, knew it had to be flooded, knew the waters were not only entering the standing crypts but seeping down, down beneath the horizontal headstones, down into the cold earth, seeking a little crack, a slit, in an extravagant or a discount coffin, soaking rich and poor alike...while buzzards on black branches shifted foot-to-foot.
Waiting. Awaiting the hour that was sure to come.
Yes, thought Don Rubio, he should have painted himself once or twice, for he too was changing, and he too would soon be gone. For, cold as Don Rubio was, he was not above ratiocination...
And what came to the mind of a man up to his neck in cold water but a poem of Federico García Lorca’s on the death of a bullfighter on a hot afternoon at five. It entered his mind and left as quickly as it entered.
Don Rubio, with difficulty, went on.
No one in the street up to his neck as he was, Don Rubio could still see families peering from rooftops, families that had spent the night far colder than he for he had had those tiles over his head and his water heater that was still bravely roaring when he left. No, he had not had it so bad. Now boats, some with motors, some not, were seeking the old, the sick, young mothers and newborns, those who had been dropped into floodwater like so many calves, though without their inborn fatalism. Fatalism was something a human being came to only with time, with experience, Don Rubio realized, not like the calf who knew that he had it, that he had to have it, the moment he was dropped into the night, into the rain.
Don Rubio stood still but his mind would not be still.
What was he doing here? Why had he descended from his relatively safe, almost cozy rooftop? Was he hungry? Was he thinking of his beloved haunt, the café near the bus stop where men whose cases so closely resembled his own gathered at the same hour, some with a morning’s work behind them, like himself, and some, God pity them, without it. Was he thinking of the street stands, the women who would man them till they died?
Don Rubio stood still in still water and thought.
He couldn’t come up with a good reason for being in the cold up to his neck. He didn’t like discomfort, never had. He wasn’t ready for the life to come. Perhaps it had something to do with la vieja, that old peahen staring at him from the wall. Suddenly Don Rubio realized...
He hadn’t paid her.
He’d seen her one day in the market, taken a fancy to her withered skin, her brittle bones, and taken her home with him once, twice, several times, until one day he’d said, ‘That’s it, I’ve got you. Your image is what struck me and, viejita, I’ve got it. So long, old girl. I’ve got work to do, you can fall off the earth for all I care.’
Well, maybe he hadn’t said all that, but somehow he had made it clear he needed her no more, had reached in an empty pocket to show her how he’d pay for her patience, her cooperation, her stillness, next time he saw her, only he hadn’t, for he had never seen her again.
That was it. Don Rubio wasn’t ready for evacuation to the nearest shelter, or even to be carried off by the retreating waters once they condescended to move on, not until he’d paid the peahen. He’d perused his walls. He’d said goodbye to half a lifetime’s labor. Resigned himself to its disappearance, its ruination. That had been easier than he thought.
Strange, thought Don Rubio: the one commitment that remained was to some nobody creeping painfully through the workaday world and not the work itself. Can the portraitist—the realist por excelencia—have failed to do justice to the individual? And, if so, how? It was something to think about.
Don Rubio tried to reach in his pocket, the one he always kept empty to show how he’d pay later, only he couldn’t get his brush hand in there, not through such coldness, such darkness. Such stillness. Maybe what he needed was a good cup of coffee...
Then he’d pay her.
‘This, my dear, is for you. That which I should have paid you then, I am paying now. With interest. Oh, I know, I know. Your portrait’s on the wall, what’s left of it. You must come see it sometime. Along with my etchings. Ha-ha! Seriously, my one regret is that I did not paint you sooner, for we have cohabited this earth through much the same time. I should have painted you as a child, a virgin, a young mother & etc., until I, you and I together, came up with some answer to...well, to what?’
To time? To time itself?
At the thought Don Rubio was tempted to laugh again.
Someone somewhere must have pulled the plug, for suddenly Doña Isabella knew the water was moving.
It had her by her old ankles, her old knees. Its pull was irresistible, a long-forgotten lover pulling her down in the straw, only this lover had the gutter in mind, then maybe a quick trip to a distant riverbed if her old bones didn’t snag somewhere, say on a cross in the campo santo in which her friends, without exception, several of her children and one of her grandchildren, were already stuck.
Doña Isabella knew there was nothing to be done. She was a newborn squeezed into a cold night, a cadaver caught in the waters of circumstance, of natural events, and she gave herself up to it. Feet first, like the others, those who had, so uncomplainingly, preceded her.
Don Rubio, up to his neck in an absurdity, as one of his talkative tablemates might say, was fast losing his body heat.
Oh, what good café they had at the café, dark beans from the humid highlands of Jalapa, shiny beans from the serene slopes of Orizaba that not that long ago—in historic terms—had gazed down upon the unconquerable Cortez! Don Rubio had never realized it till now, but he was going to miss the familiar faces of the spent, the worn-out, the also-ran, even those of those who had never tried. He would miss the voices.
‘Don Rubio, you’re all wet!’
‘Not the old bladder, I hope.’
‘But you’re late, old man, “a las cinco de la tarde...”’
‘Look at the clock, the clock, the clock!’
‘Let it be said “eran las cinco de la tarde” when Don Rubio finally arrived.’
‘A las cinco en punto de la tarde.’
‘Sit down, sit down, viejito, we’re almost out of here ourselves.’
‘Hey, Don Rubio, you’ll never guess which of us has been swept away.’
‘That’s about it. Choking on the days he wasted here with us.’
‘You don’t look so good yourself, Don Rubio. What happened?’
‘He paid a bill.’
‘That’ll be the day.’
‘Say, Don Rubio, never mind the time, isn’t this your day not to be here?’
‘Come now, you tightfisted old buzzard, isn’t it?’
Yes, it was his day not to be there. That much was sure. But how many of his tablemates would also not be there? Maybe they’re gone. Too. Yes, he would miss them. What else?
The smell of buses, chickens cooking in the street, rotten lettuce, the determined smell of determined women who would never let their families starve, the clean smell of little girls who would come into their own indomitable time when the women who preceded them closed their stands once and for all.
‘Let me see now,’ thought Don Rubio, ‘what were the lines of the poet? Ah, yes... Here it comes. I have it!’
Don Rubio attempted to snap his fingers at the moment of his glorious summoning up of the poem by Federico García Lorca but, with hands well submerged, that did not come off too well. And as suddenly as it had come to him, the whole poem...the deadly refrain...the water, the deep water in which he was sunk to his neck, began to move. Slowly at first, then faster. Don Rubio was off: feet first. But where?
Where was he off to?
His beloved café, the friends of a lifetime, were far behind. He remembered la avenida took a turn at el campo santo where, as he had already deduced, the water must be lying cold and still. Deep. It would be a temptation, no doubt, to linger, to hang out awhile, await his pals. But if he could get by that, he’d be on his way.
‘What’s this, what’s this?’ asked Don Rubio, ‘off to the big world, knocking on doors?’
‘That’s it,’ responded Don Rubio. ‘I’m taking it with me.’
‘Taking what, old man? Your work? Oh, no. You know you can’t take it with you.’
‘I am. I have,’ declared Don Rubio, already looking at the sky.
Now if he just bumped into that old peahen on the road, so to speak, he’d pay her and they’d be quits.
Doña Isabella had not always been putting a stick half-a-step in front of her and making her way up to it, not any more than she had always been streaming feet first down a street meant for men, women and children hoping to make it from one day to the next. People on their feet as people had always been, would always be, meant to be.
Once Doña Isabella had been a child herself laughing at—why not?—a stopped clock and yet as full of dreams, perhaps even fuller, than the other girls on her calle. Not one of her dreams had ever been to be an old woman washed out with childbearing, with work, and now washed away altogether. But what did she matter?
‘My children, my children’s children,’ she thought: ‘stand up, hang on, whatever. Wherever. Never mind the clock, the days that are to come are the ones in which you will do what you will do, no more, no less.’ Doña Isabella knew she would not find her children this day, though they were probably doing...well...well enough, that it was somewhat more likely, God willing, that they would find her.