Watching Ayacucho

What is this feeling? He shuddered. A mix, a mix of grief and joy and loneliness – and the realization that he could do anything he wanted.

Max walked down a small street in Ayacucho, watching the yellow in the streetlamps shine against the sky. It had rained during the night and the day; and though the sky was clear now, thin drops of water still fell from the gutters of the buildings above; the cobblestone, smooth and wet, reflected the yellow beams of the streetlamps, in a glowing yellow.

His scarf was wrapped around his neck, French-style and in his hand he held a book by Jack Kerouac. As if, thought Max, I have pretensions to be free and without fear. Though he knew at times that he did.

Yes, yes, he thought, who am I kidding? I am free. He smiled. I, a poor man's Kerouac. Nobody knows me here and nobody knows where I am. Free to glow on the margins and make love to that nothingness and do nothing. I can do everything. Freedom as weakness. Freedom as invisibility. Free because I am small. That's Kerouac's freedom. Max saw himself beneath the yellow streetlights. He felt vicious and even trembled. How simple it is to be a mouse.

The Plaza de Armas was filled with people. A crowd of fifty-thousand or more, Max guessed, circling the street. He had come to Ayacucho to see the final days of Holy Week. Ayacucho was famous for Holy Week. Tonight was Good Friday and late tomorrow night was Easter Mass. It wasn't as a pilgrimage or anything, that Max came. He traveled simply because he could, and because he wanted to. Sometimes things where he lived were sad; the girls felt trapped and alone and the whole hotel that they lived in was like net for hatching butterflies, and then lettering them go. Max could leave too, and he had. That was part of his feeling. He hoped that by leaving, just leaving he would find something real and big. For that is what his heart persistently sought.

In the Plaza, people moved about. Max, having nothing to do, sat on a bench. He listened to the clacking of shoes. He watched couples dance in the steet. A drunk man danced alone, looking sad. A little girl jumped in a shallow puddle. Above these things – the hundreds of families and vendors and murals that lined the ground – sitting at the center of the square was a large bronze horseman statute. Max admired its noctilucent beauty. Beneath it a tiny old woman sat selling candy applies. She was murmuring something soft. Surely, thought Max, Christ would bless that woman and those apples. He had no doubt about that.

On the bench, he tried to read his book. Kerouac, praying in the woods, had this to say: “'My pride is hurt, that is emptiness; my business is with the Dharma, that is emptiness; I'm proud of my kindness to animals, that is emptiness; my conception of the chain, that is emptiness; Anada's Pity, even that is emptiness' Perhaps if some old Zen Master had been on the scene, he would have gone out and kicked the dog on his chain to give everybody a sudden shot of awakening. My pain was in getting rid of the conception of people and dogs anyway, and of myself.”

Max thought deeply about this. Even the dog's suffering, that too is emptiness? I can't believe that, he thought. I want the conception of people and dogs and myself. Hell, I struggle for that. On that bench Max had a million thoughts like these – about Christ and loneliness and about the stones in on the walls in the street. He thought about luck, that he was a creature of great luck. When he looked at the sky, he saw the white moon that shined like a wink.

In time, the procession began. Max was still sitting and contemplating stones. He looked up and saw a black solemn ocean of people. Thousands of people were holding candles. Have I been sleeping? Max thought. The lights of the candles glowed against the sky in a yellow color, like fat drops floating in a broth of soup. Max worked his way through the crowd. On the street, a clear coffin rode on the shoulders of the marching priests. Max strained to see the body. Christ's hands lightly rested on the white sheet covering his body. Hundreds of people beside him on the street watched, and some cried. The horseman! Max thought and turned around. He saw that old woman still selling her apples. A soft soul prayful beneath iron rectitude. Christ continued to lay in the coffin. Max waited for something to happen with the body. All he noticed, though, was a pain in his legs and that sweat on his hands as he held the cover of his book began to feel like wax. He felt guilty, a little bit, for not understanding much.

When the procession ended Max sat back on the bench. He watched the crowd retreat from the plaza. The streets seemed hollow now. Cleaners were sweeping bits of litter from the tarmac, the tawny gold of the streetlights reflecting against the ground. Time passed and the lightness Max had felt earlier seemed distant now.

He watched the streets. The festival was dissolving into nothing. He looked at the clock on the church: it was past twelve. Max squinted. He felt his powers of perception sharpen. That was his habit when he felt small: to notice. He noted the colors beneath the flowers in the center of the plaza and the way water bent in puddle-forms on the street. A young mother with big eyes far from Max knelt down to her daughter. She was saying something soft and wiping spittle off her daughter's cheek. A hundred thousand million people in this world, Max thought, and they all have mothers. They all wipe the cheeks of their children. They grow up and old, read Baruch Spinoza, play chess in silent cafes and they fall in love. And me? Well, I'm on this bench. Perhaps, I have fallen, somewhere, from this wagon of common experience. Is this the feeling?

This was a foggy point in the night, to note the obvious. As Max was thinking these thoughts, an old man walked towards the bench and sat down. Max did not turn. Had he, the old man would have seen Max's face, which at this moment was so odd – distant, wistful, comedic, intense – that one might rightly have wondered whether this boy was equipped at all to bare the bone-breaking weight of selfhood. Perhaps I should live amongst the animals, thought Max. He did not turn. He just sat staring, dangling like a peach in a distant yellow garden.

The old man, though, began to talk. Softly at first, only to himself, but then to Max. He asked about the night, and Max said that he thought it was very beautiful. The old man's hands were leathery and dry, the circles in his cuticles like the half moon that was still winking in the sky. He held bits of bread in one hand, and in the other an unlit candle. Max was happy for this old man; he looked so gentle. A bread loaf was on the bench, and when the man picked it up his hands shook so much that it crumbled on his coat. Max helped him with the bread.

They both looked out at the Plaza for a long time. They talked about small things. The old man fingered the candle in his hands, sitting still. At one point he said something very softly about Christ. Max turned and saw that he had begun to cry. Small, diamond tears on his cheaks. Max continued sitting, watching the yellow plaza, almost tropical and desolate in the dark. Anguish and pity burned in his eyes. I cannot watch, he thought. He took twenty soles from his pocket – he didn't know why – and handed it to the man. The man's eyes were shining and wet, as if they came from beyond the grave. Max felt deep and sad. To watch, to watch, to watch he said to himself and got up from the bench and walked away, besides the church, besides the street cleaners and the iron statue and the old bastard moon – all immortal, somehow.

· · ·

At the hotel, Max lay in his bed. He thought he could see the old man's heavy gray face staring at him through the dark.

He turned to his side. The night was black, and he could hear cars honking and Occasionally teenagers would passed by his window. He could hear them laugh. He thought of his book, Dharma Bums. He could picture the name Kerouac written in yellow. Max thought of the treehouse he built in the woods. Kerouac would have approved. Those were happy moments in that treehome of theirs. He remembered how the sunsets would mix with the leaves on the trees. They sat by the fire and Conor would talk and the bright spots of the flames would dance in everyone eyes.

Max blinked and turned to his other side. He noticed that the room was cold. Everyone thinks about themselves when they read Kerouac. Usually they think about their childhoods. But the thing is – the thing is – Kerouac was not a child, and neither am I. He rubbed at his face. It was late, and he felt the lucidity of insomnia.

He thought: Kerouac, I am not ignorant that sometimes it takes a while to get young. You loved beauty and that's more than most of us can say. But to be child forever? To peer at old men on benches and remark yes, this is a glorious and peculiar world. Is that what we are to want? The freedom of being invisible?

Max felt his blood running in his veins. Birth is a chancy thing, he reasoned. Yeah, I was quite lucky. Freedom, in my opinion, has go to start there: that it’s all luck what we’ve got and I’m pretty grateful. It’s not mine; it’s everyone’s. I am for everyone. We’ve got to look out for each other. That's where my freedom starts – as pity and love as Progress. He thought of Kerouac meditating in the woods. “my conception of the chain, that is emptiness” No, that is not emptiness. That is real. Don't you realize, Mr. Kerouac, that before you can have Freedom, you've got to be alive. Those chains are not emptiness. Yes, before your soul can be liberated, you've got to have food on your table. And if you believe in Freedom before Progress, then that is called narcissism.

Max! he scolded, get to the point. But what is the point? The point is knowledge and love and human suffering. That is the point. The trains that Kerouac jumped existed because of collective man and radical hopes and the slouching and trembling brotherhood I call progress. What a fool to revolt against the very society that permits your existence. Kerouacs glowing on the margins – we cannot have that, in this struggle to survive. The real kind: people are dying.

At this, Max got from his bed and turned on the light of the room. He felt the dizzy tranquility of four a.m.. He paced for a while staring downwards and when he climbed into his covers he once more felt the silence and warmth and darkness of night.

· · ·

The following day, a crowd had gathered in the Plaza. The hot morning sun was oppressive; Max felt the headache of late-night revelations. Ha, he's had those before. Ideas, truth-like, swooping and flopping like bats in the night. At least I didn't write any letters, he smiled. That always gets me.

As he walked he saw a stray dog was licking itself on the street. (More with his habit of noting. He wasn't observant, his mom always reminded him. But he did note and note.) The white dog had fur matted with dirt. Flies buzzed around its head. A group of boys sat beside the dog on the curb. “¡Gringo!” one of the younger boys said, his mouth revealing his teeth. He wore a baseball cap and his grin was like half of a loop. Max looked with eyes wide like train terminals. “Your brother?” the boy asked pointing to the dog. He laughed. “Your brother? Your brother? Gringo.”

Max looked at the boy with the looping grin. He looked at that sad, sick dog. At once Max said: “Esa perrita? No, esa perrita es tu madre,” (That dog? That little dog is your mother.) All the boys laughed and Max smirked and walked, skipping lightly in his step.

At the plaza in the distance, men in white suits were holding trumpets. The metal shined in the sun. Max felt alive, and he cheered with the rest of them. With one remark, it was that simple he thought. He had pulled his soul from the quiet depths towards which it had receded. He knew he would go back home. The trumpets began and a bull charged into the street. Woman threw beer from the balconies above. Max did not see the face of the bull, but he imagined he imagined it was filled with shame.



Anonymous Joel Novendstern said...

Are you saying you are too pragmatic for JK? Your imagery is excellent and I feel your restlessness and the contradictions of poverty and progress. Humanity is a bitch.
Joel Novendstern

3:44 PM  

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