Monday, August 14, 2017

#241: "House of the Ancients" by Clifford Garstang

~This story was previously published in REAL (Regarding Arts and Letters) (2008).

Nick—having learned from his Lonely Planet guide that the Mexico City subway is cheap, but infested with pickpockets—clutches his shoulder pack to his chest. He knows that the obvious anxiety marks him as an American or, at best, a Canadian, but right now, eyeing his fellow passengers, he doesn’t care. He’s been walking all day, like a zombie for the last hour. He’s worn out. The blister on his heel burns. He detects, via the low-pitched growl at the bottom of his gut, that he might soon be laid low with whatever it is that keeps Alexis tethered to their hotel room. And now he needs to know—it’s essential that he knows—that he is headed in the right direction. The guidebook falls open where he’s dog-eared the subway map. He boarded at Auditorio and the train has just left Constituyentes. Good. South, just as he wants, toward Barranca del Muerte. Ravine of Death.
As the train pulls into Tacubaya, a sprawling station where three lines meet, he slips the guidebook back into the bag. At least the flood of new passengers won’t identify him immediately. Unless the shiny Nikes give him away. Or his White Sox cap. Or his Levis and University of Chicago t-shirt.
When the doors hiss open, a family enters: a dark man with a guitar slung over his shoulder, a woman with a babe-in-arms, and two small boys. At the head of the subway car, the man unslings the guitar and hugs it close, plucking the strings tentatively as he sings in a piercing voice that rises above the train’s clatter. The lyrics don’t penetrate Nick’s meager Spanish, but the other riders, who nod appreciatively with the staccato beat, seem to recognize the song. The wife takes a seat with the baby and keeps her eyes low. The boys—Nick has assigned them names, Roberto for the older, and Pablo for the little one—the boys make their way through the car, Roberto down the left side, Pablo down the right, each with a grimy hand extended, stopping before every promising passenger, waiting for a coin or a head shake, or a scowl.
It is tiny Pablo, wearing green sweat pants and a tobacco-brown sweater, who stands before Nick, gazing up at him with wide, dark eyes. The father’s voice sails through the car, an arrow Nick thinks is meant for him, and Pablo bounces his open hand, a hand no larger than a cat’s paw, on Nick’s knee. When Nick presses a peso into Pablo’s palm, there is no smile, no acknowledgment. The boy breaks his gaze and moves on. At San Pedro de los Piños, the boys jostle through the rushing passengers to join their parents, and the family passes into the next car, to be replaced by a grim-faced young man selling DVDs of a rock concert that he displays on a portable player held above his head, sour chords blaring from the machine’s tiny speakers as the vendor maneuvers through the oblivious crowd.
The train hurtles through the tunnel, a passage in time for Nick, back to his Chicago commute, images of Alexis flickering on the black windows, their future together, healing the strain of faded newness, feeling their way toward something solid and lasting.

At Barranca del Muerte, the end of the line, Nick exits, passing through the darkened subterranean maze, up a series of clanking escalators, through a glittering turnstile, and into the harsh light of Avenida Revolucción.
He fumbles for sunglasses, shades his eyes, and feels dizzy. His feet ache, as do his back and bones, the gut-rumbling worse now. His hands are swollen, and tingle to the tips of his fingers. The brief train ride has done little to salve the effect of his long morning’s walk, from the Zócalo to Alameda Central, then to Bosque de Chapultapec along Pasejo de la Reforma. Was it three miles in all? Five? Whatever the distance, the sun did not seem so vicious as it is at Barranca del Muerte, bleaching the pavement bone-white beneath his feet.
It would have been foolish for Alexis to come, although she wanted to. She’s not usually a brave patient. At home, in the Lakeview apartment they’ve shared for nearly a year, she expects to be pampered when she’s sick. Chicken soup, foot massage, the works. But here in Mexico, on their relationship rescue mission, she said she wanted to power through. She’d take Imodium, she’d carry a roll of t.p., but she wasn’t going to miss anything. Not the museums, not the pyramids, not the Virgin of Guadalupe, nothing. Calling in sick to a Loop ad job she hated for its crass superficiality was one thing. This was vacation. This was real. But when it came time to lace on her walking shoes, to leave the hotel room and tramp the streets, to be more than a few steps from the toilet, she changed her mind and urged Nick to head out on his own.
On the street now, the sizzle and smoke of frying onions bites Nick’s nose and eyes. He hurries past a grill teaming with sausages as pink as bubble gum, startled by the thwack-thwack of a stooped woman pounding tortillas with her fist and slapping them onto a hot griddle. And then there are the boys, Roberto and Pablo, just ahead of him. The parents are nowhere in sight, but the smaller one turns and sees Nick. Nick is sure the boy remembers him, the coin in the subway, Nick the only passenger, certainly the only gringo, who’d come through. Of course he remembers. Nick’s stomach grabs him from the inside and he believes he might vomit, or worse, but he clenches his bowels and follows the boys.
He’s sure they’re the same boys, there isn’t a lick of doubt in his mind, but they seem older than he’d first thought, taller, less kid-like. They move fast through the crowd and Nick jogs to keep pace. They come to a thronged corner, with rushing traffic, horns blaring, like the noise the sun is now making in his head. One turns left and the other right. Izquierda. Derecha. He’s lost them.
He spots a vendor selling Coke and it’s as if this is what he’s been walking toward all day. A cold Coke. Once he tastes it, lets the carbonation burn his dry throat, feels the bubbles rise insistently inside his nose, holds the icy bottle against his scorched forehead, he’ll be all right. He can go on, start what he’s finished.
“Coke,” he says. “Uno.”
It’s Roberto behind the counter, with Pablo at his side. He’s sure of it. Roberto shakes his head, points to the label on the bottle. It isn’t Coke, there’s some other word on the bottle that Nick can’t decipher, but the relief is the same. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t familiar, that it’s a Mexican brand, because it will be the same. He holds out a five peso coin and it is Pablo who reaches for it with his filthy hand, now as large as a jaguar’s paw. Nick looks into the boy’s eyes, but there is no recognition.
He drinks. The soda is flat. Or not quite flat: there is some fizz to it but it’s not what he expected. Not what he wanted. Not what he knows. But still he drinks. When the bottle is empty, he hands it to Roberto who winks at him while scratching the black stubble that has appeared on his chin.
Nick isn’t far now from his destination—the studio of the incomparable muralist. With his thirst quenched and his goal in reach, he feels his shoulders soften, his stomach uncramp. He might splurge and take a taxi back to the hotel. He’ll lie down next to Alexis and tell her about the museum and the subway and the little boys. He’ll hold her and she’ll respond and they’ll both face tomorrow. A new day.
He turns right off of Revolucción and heads up a steep hill into the heart of the San Angel neighborhood. The first person he sees is his father. A stooped man with thick white hair shuffles out of sight behind an imposing wall. Nick runs and the hill becomes even steeper. There is a metal gate, locked and thickly barred, like a prison, and behind the bars there is a sign: Casa de los Ancianos. His father is nowhere to be seen. His father has been dead since before the new century began.
Roberto is behind the gate, in the white coat of a nurse. He waves.
The studio is at the top of the hill, directly across the street from the San Angel Inn. Nick is wheezing when he reaches the entrance, he bends over, nauseated, hands on his knees, as sweat drips from his nose and explodes in wet, gray craters on the dusty sidewalk. His breath returns, he steps through the gate and is greeted by a grinning Pablo. Nick has his wallet out, ready to pay for his ticket, but he can’t take his eyes from the gold rimming Pablo’s teeth, the boy’s thin moustache, the slight paunch that swells a too-small sweater. Pablo shakes his head, points to the sign that says Domingo-Libre, Sunday-Free, and with the open palm of his hand invites Nick to climb the stairs to the great man’s studio.
It is a plain, square space, with a wall of glass providing light to every angle. In one corner of the room a book stands open on a desk, the painter’s glasses marking the page as if he has just stepped out. Nick reaches for the book, he wants to see what the man was reading, but Roberto—it is Roberto with him now, Pablo has gone—shakes his head. In the opposite corner is an easel on which rests a canvas. It is a scene Nick recognizes, from one of the famous murals, perhaps a study for the work itself. He studies the crowd of faces gazing toward a mysterious glow at the edge of the frame. Pablo is there, his hair thinner, the paunch now substantial, leaning on his brother Roberto, hair gray-flecked, who kneels at the bier of Nick’s father, shrouded in white robes, a single calla lily in his hand.
Nick runs down the stairs. He meant to buy a souvenir for Alexis, to share this moment with her, but he can’t stay a second longer. He flees down the hill and feels his bowels surrender, filling him with the smell of his own decay. He comes to the House of the Ancients and as he passes its gates Roberto and Pablo, both frail and gray and withered, lift their bony hands in a tired wave.



“House of the Ancients” is one of a trio of stories I wrote about Nick and Alexis in Mexico, each growing out of my own travels there. Nick is engaged in the pursuit of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, searching out their work in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and elsewhere. In this story he is on his way from an inexpensive hotel near Mexico City’s historic center to Rivera’s studio, seeing other sights along the way. But his girlfriend Alexis is too ill to accompany him, and Nick, who is empathetic and probably something of a hypochondriac, isn’t feeling too well himself. When he spots the beggar boys, Roberto and Pablo, he enters a world that he never quite understands, one that evokes his own relationship with his father. The spark for this story was my own visit to Rivera’s studio on a hot afternoon. I’d taken the subway—on which I’d encountered the family with two little boys wordlessly begging from passengers—and then hiked the rest of the way on a baking sidewalk. While I didn’t see the boys again as Nick does in the story, they stayed with me and I wondered what their lives might be like as they grew older. As I walked, I passed the Casa de los Ancianos—an old people’s home—that struck me for a number of reasons. First, there was the contrast with these very young boys I’d been thinking about. Then there was the issue of the language and false cognates. “Anciano” means an elderly person, not “ancient” as the title of my story suggests. And I suppose it also reminded me of my own father, who lived the last year of his life in a nursing home. I think I meant to write more about the adventures of Nick and Alexis, but I never got around to it. Maybe it’s time.


Clifford Garstang is the author of What the Zhang Boys Know, winner of the 2013 Library of Virginia Award for Fiction, and the short story collection In an Uncharted Country. He is also the editor of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, Volumes I and II, anthologies of stories set around the world. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. In 2015 he received the Indiana Emerging Author Award from the Indianapolis Public Library Foundation. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and international lawyer, Garstang earned an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte. He lives near Staunton, Virginia. Learn more at 

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