Loris (2)

 

I told you that well before visiting Lordsburg I had written to various people, mainly those I read about in the Liberal, seeking to make some friends in advance of a visit.  Perhaps the most brazen of these letters went to the editor himself.  In early november of 1999 I wrote to the editor, Jack Walz, and told him I would be coming to town sometime in the following year looking for a place to live.  I thought I might do better in my search if I stayed as a paying guest in a private home, rather than in a motel.  I asked the editor if he might know anyone who would consider accommodating me.

There was no reply.  But in a couple of weeks I noticed that Jack’s personal column, “Papalote” [windmill], failed to appear.  In another couple of weeks a notice appeared saying Jack was “hanging tough” in a cancer hospice.  And in a couple of months more I read his obituary.

Did I say my november letter was brazen?  I wrote another letter and addressed it to the Walz family.  I wrote about how I felt I had known Jack through his paper and felt I had lost a friend when he died.  That letter must have been very brazen or very sincere.  I don’t know which, and I no longer have a copy to review.

In any case, Jack, like me, was always interested in new people and new things.  Like me he had migrated to the desert from back east, and like me he had thoughts of someday living in Mexico.  When he received my letter he was quite interested in the writer.  He shared the letter with his wife.  They had a guest room in their house, and they decided to invite me to come out and stay with them a few days.  But within a week of receiving the letter Jack found out he had advanced prostate cancer, and was hardly in a position to entertain a house guest.

I know these things because Jack’s widow told me. 

When I inspected her house, Amelia had invited me to come back.  And I did, that night after supper.  It was about seven o’clock.  I pulled up at the gate, let myself through, found the front door open, and rang the bell.  Amelia stepped to the door with no sign of surprise, and I don’t think she even greeted me.  She just pushed the screen open and led me to the living room.  In the first five minutes we addressed the sense of prior acquaintance we shared.  It turned out Amelia was Jack Walz’s widow, and I had just put up an earnest on Jack’s house.

After half an hour Amelia said she had a mighty nosy neighbor, Lupe, who would spread gossip all over town about Amelia having a man visit her in the evening.  I said, –Do you care?  –No.  –Neither do I.–  And we talked until somewhere near midnight.  When I finally rose to leave I walked to the center of the room and said I just had to go, that I needed an early start to return to Tennessee the next day.  And Amelia rose, and came to me, and slipped her arms around me; and I let my own arms gently curl around her; and after maybe a minute we released each other, and in silence I let myself out, got in my car, and drove back to my room.

 

                             *     *     *

 

The hispanic people I knew in Tennessee were largely recently arrived.  They were dirt poor.  They were hard working.  They spoke no english.  They were open, friendly, and without prejudice, although shy.

The mexicans of the southwest were entirely different.  They were mostly born and raised in the United States.  Many of their families had lived in the area before sovereignty passed to Washington.  They had about the same educational and economic level as the gringos.

But I learned very quickly, starting with Amelia, that there was a kind of friction between mexicans and gringos.

The gringos had the sense that they were superior to the mexicans, socially and intellectually.  They seldom married mexicans.  They hired mexicans for their businesses but did not promote them so long as a gringo could be promoted.  Most noticeable to me at this early stage was that gringos hated spanish, and did not want to hear it, and were prone to react angrily if a mexican spoke to them in spanish.  Employees on the job, and even school children on the playground, could be punished for speaking spanish, and were.

Thus I found myself in quite a different situation from what I had known in Tennessee.  I found myself drawn as before to these hispanic people.  But these hispanics had their guard up.  They made friends with gringos only slowly and carefully.  They were wary.

And they were particularly reluctant to speak spanish to a gringo.  The aversion was like a conditioned reflex.  It was three months before my neighbor Lupe, the one Amelia called nosy, would speak to me in spanish.  It was a sore disappointment.  I moved to Lordsburg thinking I would be able to use spanish most of the time, becoming fluent in a short time.  Not so.  I think that when I left Lordsburg I knew less spanish than when I went there.

And there was another strain just as bad as the language.  It was not just that the gringos thought themselves superior to the hispanics.  The shame of it was, the hispanics, at some level, had swallowed the gringos’ notion.

I got my first introduction to all this in that first visit with Amelia.  Amelia was on guard for anything that smacked of anti-hispanic prejudice.  Three or four times during our conversation she picked up on something that sounded prejudiced to her, and I had to defend my meaning, explain myself.  Yet at the same time the unconsciously absorbed sense of inferiority became visible.  Amelia was embarrassed by her dark color; she dressed and groomed to minimize its effect.  It had been important to her to be married to a gringo, a leading man of the town, a man of german descent.  But above all she was ashamed of her mother tongue.  That night I got her to say exactly two words of spanish to me.  I don’t recall that she ever spoke to me in spanish again.  Through her challenges to me, and my responses, she soon knew that I genuinely accepted her as my equal.  But not only would she not speak spanish to me, she made out not to understand any of the efforts I made to speak it to her.  So our friendship ended up being conducted all in english.

*     *     *

Amelia and I scheduled the closing of our contract for the middle of september and possession for the first of october.  Back in Tennessee I prepared for my move, while she took an apartment in Silver City.

Of course you know that Amelia and I liked each other quite a bit.  Not long after my arrival in Lordsburg she dropped in, and invited me to do likewise at her place.  I did.  We went shopping together, went to a concert or two together.  We shared Thanksgiving with her family.  And the sense of closeness grew.

Long around the first of december I stopped at Amelia’s place and did not find her at home.  When I also did not find her the next week, I called up a daughter to see if anything was wrong.  There was.  Amelia was in hospital.  Then she was out of hospital, staying with another daughter, then she was back in.  I visited when I could.  But I was entirely unprepared for my visit in january.  For I found her doctor in the room, and she introduced me as her very good friend.  And the doctor explained to me that she had cancer at two sites, and that it was inoperable, and that she had three months to live.

The three months turned out to be five, and during this time Amelia was never well again.  There was nothing I could do but to visit and sit quietly with her.  And on a saturday in june the call came from a daughter telling me Amelia was gone.

We were not in love.  We were not romantic.  But we loved each other. 

I did not know how much until I saw her in her coffin.

This is an abrupt ending.  The story of my friendship with Amelia is shorter than the story of how I met her.

For it was a short friendship.  And it had an abrupt ending.

From the day I met Amelia until the last day I saw her alive was nine months, a week, and a day.

 

© 2004 Joseph Mansfield

 

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