It was late, and Mercale was drowsing through the conversation. Mexico. They were talking about Mexico, the western mountains, steep roads, isolated tribes of Indians. Richard slept in his truck, he said, the whole way. And opera, that was in there, too, and the brick wall just outside the far window, that ran the length of the cactus garden. Someone said it was supposed to rain that night. The fire beside him had passed from hiss and crackle to the sharp, wind-chime stage, tinkling with pure warmth. He slipped into his chair—like a shadow, he thought. That’s what the Romans called guests at the edges of their dinners, umbrae, shadows. The brandy ran along his tongue like light and shadow along the surfaces of the glowing logs. He thought that he should speak, but he was several steps behind what they were saying. Mexico. No. Opera, walls. And then it was the peccary, the spiny-haired desert pigs that once came down the arroyos and attacked Richard’s dog, the great shaggy dog that was curled just at the edge of the hearth.
There was no real subject, he knew that, but he wanted to come in smoothly, with a sense of what had just been said, half a beat behind, close enough to keep the music of it going, not like someone flipping the dial to another station altogether. It was lovely, though, the way it all drifted back and forth, elegant even, like the play of light in and around the pieces on a well-set table—luster, sparkle, sheen. They were all old friends, and they were catching up, not with what had happened, especially, but with the way they talked about things. The subject was talking about things, and the rules were too familiar to be noticed at all, not that he might break a rule. No, he had a sense of how things moved when they were talked about. What he wanted to preserve was the ease of it all, the circle of familiarity they had let him share.
You know, he was practicing saying, once, years ago, in Mexico, in the western mountains, in fact, near Nombre de Dios, right on the river, one morning an old man shared my fire. It might have been October. There was a chill in the air, I remember, and the light on the mountains that curved from north to west around us was more brown than yellow. Perhaps it had rained. I thought he was Mexican at first. Señor, he said, in the exact timbre of the region. But he was English and lived, he said, in the village just past the river bend, had been there for years. I gave him coffee in my canteen cup, and he held it in both hands just for the warmth the metal gave to his fingers and stared down into it—the coffee, that is—as we talked. I wanted to ask him about his life there, the river, and the town of Mezquital, but mostly I wanted to say, What the hell are you doing here, though it occurred to me, so I didn’t, that he might have answered, Waiting for you, a thought that seemed both fearful and ridiculous. The point is, I guess, that he looked providential, hunkered down by the fire, serape pushed back at the shoulders, canteen cup held like an offering.
I have been thinking, he said, looking straight at me for a moment, the way television commentators do for the sake of emphasis and sincerity, about women, the mysteries of women. You can imagine my discomfort—a total stranger in a strange setting and without passing through the simplest, most basic familiarities—at his raising such a question. It’s a feeling of discontinuity, I suppose, that and a measure of embarrassment at his willingness, his need, to lurch right into something so obviously serious to him in the first minutes of a chance meeting. I have never overcome in myself the slight nausea when someone, anyone at all—an old lady muttering on a city bus about her children and their thoughtlessness or men in bars whimpering about their failures at love with their shirt tails out at their flies—commits an embarrassing error, one that is so deeply rooted in his state of mind that he cannot feel the embarrassment in it.
I’m not thinking only of our inability to understand them, he said, the inabilities of men at understanding women, but of something more. I’m not dismissing that, but there are mysteries that are not just failures of comprehension, genuine mysteries. Have you given this any thought? Of course you have. In one way or another, we all have. You look like an intelligent man, someone who thinks about what he’s doing, considering motives and all their tangled complexities. I’m right. Yes, I can see that.
There is a woman in the village, Maria Elena. Sometimes she sleeps with me. Her husband left years ago on a short trip, some minor business down river, and never came back. She does small jobs here and there, and has a concession selling cigarettes by the boat dock. I know, you’re thinking she’s beautiful and fiery, a Carmen of the Sierra Madre. Well, she’s not beautiful. Her face is too square, too Indian, and her teeth are going, and her breasts lie flat against her stomach. Oh, there’s still a luster to her black hair when she unwinds it, and her brown calves are taut and lovely when they are drawn up tight as she bends over the garden along the stone wall behind her little house. But not beautiful. No one would think that. There is something about her, though, that sits off to the side of her like a companion—less substantive than that, really, somewhere, I’d say, between a companion and a shadow, a figure not unlike herself that I glimpse now and then. Oh, I know what you’re thinking, this guy’s gone crackers, thinks his girl’s got a ghost that hangs around her, but that’s not what I mean. You understand that, I think, even though you find it uncomfortable, a little too strange for morning coffee in the middle of nowhere in Durango, Mexico. But it’s not a ghost. It’s the extra part of her, the part that’s more than what she is, more than her rotten kids or her dumb life, more than her two or three afternoons a month with me. And sometimes after we’ve been together, when she’s leaning back in bed or sitting in the chair in my room fanning her chest with her hand, I notice it, and I notice her noticing it, as well, and just for a second, we look at each other in shared puzzlement. Yes, that’s it exactly, shared puzzlement. One of the mysteries of women is that they are mysterious to themselves. Maria Elena and me and her second self together in my room and Maria no less confused than I am.
He put his cup down and cradled his face in his hands, and I thought for a moment that he might move them apart and grin at me like a child playing a joke, but he just rocked awhile on his heels and breathed loudly through his palms.
“More?” It was Richard, with a bottle of brandy extended in Mercale’s direction. He lifted his glass and watched the brandy veil itself upward along the inside surface of the snifter. Where were they? Mexico? Opera? No, not any longer. He had fallen even further behind. Lois was saying something about the tall, thin spines that are left standing after a saguaro cactus dies, how they rattle like bamboo in the wind. Hard and smooth, she said. And Richard said that they would not take a nail without splitting. This part, at least, was clear, and Mercale tried to concentrate on what had come between—another camper, the desert brown in such subtle variety that your eyes had trouble focusing on it. Perhaps he himself had added this last observation. He remembered being dizzy with hues of tan and brown that afternoon and how he had stared, occasionally, into the station wagon’s ashtray for a little relief.
Do you remember in school, he thought, the crayon in the Crayola box called Flesh, somewhere between pink and tan, and the way it never quite worked out? Even when you saved the faces for last, as soon as you got the first face colored in, the whole thing seemed wrong. Sometimes, I would try brushing it on with the side of the crayon’s tip; sometimes, I would start point down, working in circles from the outline of the face, but it would be too flat or too fair, so I would press harder, forcing the color onto the paper until the wax in the crayon began to curl up off the face like scars or fleck off onto the royal blue jacket or the forest green grass. And sooner or later Flesh would begin to bite into my finger, and then it would snap. Let them have paper faces, that’s what I finally decided, the gray-white of construction paper or scratch-sheet buckram, with penciled-in eyes and mouths. I wonder, in Mexico, does the Binney & Smith box have a crayon called Flesh in coppery brown instead of off-pink, the color of Maria Elena’s flat, Indian face, and if so, does it work any better than the one we had, that frail, incompetent version of ourselves, or does it snap with the weight of a similar frustration?
Color is like that, I guess. All its names seem so clear, so obvious, but whenever it matters, they fail to apply or fail in application. Flesh. What a strange choice. Why not skin? Flesh seems so internal, inside the skin or inside the moment, something beyond color, really. The differences between Maria Elena’s flesh and yours and mine would have to be a matter for intimacy to discover, somehow involved with that other self the old man talked about, sitting just outside her.
Mercale was not pleased that he had strayed back to the old man in the mountains and Maria Elena in the small house by the river. He moved his head against the back of the chair and listened—just for the clarity of it—to the hissing sound of his hair across the rough texture of the upholstery, like sand blown across sand or fresh snow over crusted drifts. The story was just an invention, after all, a polite contrivance created for the sake of conversation, but it was becoming substantial, real enough to be intrusive, a stumbling block. He decided to listen more carefully to what was being said, pressed his head back hard and rotated it against the cushion, but no one was talking at that moment. Richard was staring at the tip of his shoe, and Lois was in the kitchen behind him. The others were seated around the fire, taking a breather. It was obviously his turn to speak. There was a whole stop, like a pause between movements. Now, it wasn’t a matter of catching the beat just right or picking up the thread of theme and variation. Full stop. Lois came back with a glass of water, its ice cubes lilting above her walk. Full stop. Perhaps he had been asleep, just for a few moments but long enough to be noticeable. Perhaps his sleeping, if he had been asleep, had stopped the conversation. He did not remember Lois leaving the room, only an awareness that she was in the kitchen and had come back. Full stop. Mexico. Opera. The skeletal remains of giant cactus stuck up like quills or spiny hairs from the desert’s back, the almost dizzying variety of indeterminate colors—rocks, sand, faces, the mysteries of women.