The Great Highway
[ fiction - march 09 ]
Deliberately, Amy tears a glossy color plate from a Britannica she's stolen from the library and, closing the oversized book, uses it as a tabletop on her knees. The picture is entitled Coastal Scene, but Amy's going to change all that. With a green felt-tip pen slipped into her pocket from the art table, she prints across her orphaned page: The Blue Hills. Around these words she carefully draws an oval, which she connects like a voice bubble to a field of lupine.
Outside, fog surrounds the hillside with a luminous tunnel. Coyote may be on the prowl, or Grizzly lost and confused, but a sunny day will eventually burn through like the end of trouble, lifting a tissue leaf from the Franciscan wallflower and other delicate wildflowers.
Amy draws a caterpillar with L's for legs and a backwards baseball cap for hair. It says: Pardon me, but may I please go to the bathroom? Her legs are skinny, a foot longer than her lime stretch pants, which although intended to be tight, hang loose. Over the spring scene on her lap she scribbles: Wild Life Is Mother Nature. I think the leaves that fall off the trees is her bed. Wake up sleepyhead! There's salt in the air, the scent of yarrow, hummingbird sage and checkerbloom, the bright yellow daisy-wheel of Giant Coreopsis and the little Man in Red. You may not see him, but Amy knows the Man in Red is always there.
With paint on both his face and neck, he seems to live behind a ruby lens. A boy's vermilion leather jacket, not worn, not new, and rust-red jeans rolled up at the cuffs are his usual costume, along with wine-stained gloves and crimson Brazilian-made shoes which spice up his feet more than cushion his soles. Of course, the Man in Red is just an ordinary man, no horns, no pitchfork, no thick, barbed tail swishing out his rear.
That's El Diablito: Behave yourself or the little red one will carry you off! says the caller when she picks Satan's Loteria card. Amy has all 54 of the magic-marker-color-comic game cards, which are not at all like the holy trading cards she got at her cousin's first communion. Those are not for playing games. Those cards are to teach you about the saints. Blue and gray and peach, like old broken china, they have a picture on the front and a lot of writing on the back. Her favorite is of the woman with seven arrows sticking deep into her heart. She cries, "Let it be done unto me according to Thy word," and without complaint she suffers them, the Seven Dolors.
Amy knows all about the La Señora Virgen who carried the baby Jesus in her belly. She even knows a poem by heart, but has to stand up to recite it: At the Cross her station keeping... Dang! Now everything falls on the floor, the book, her picture, felt-tip pens and a rabbit's foot. Between the sink and the paper dispenser waits the Man in Red. He's got a soft spot for Amy. She pierces his heart because her own heart is pierced. Without making a big show of it as he helps her gather everything back onto her lap, they return to the first Friday of Sorrows, the day Amy's story really begins.
Directly after Mass on March 29, 1776, Comandante Juan Batista de Anza mounts his horse. Despite being sick for over a week with fever, the 40-year-old commander has finally reached his destination, San Francisco, and no one is happier than Padre Font whose sore feet have paced out the 355 leagues from Tubac, Sonora, in little over 150 days. Like the children of Israel through the Red Sea to the Promised Land, the members of their expedition have conducted themselves like true representatives of Spanish Christianity, and now with his chaplain father and five soldados, Anza rides over hills of sticky monkey flower, through tangles of manzanita and clouds of mission blue butterflies into the one sheltered spot in all of Yerba Buena.
A sizable lagoon appears past a grove of stunted, wind-bent oaks, its banks overgrown with iris, California poppy, wild violets and fennel. On the extreme western edge, Anza finds the clear spring that feeds it, and declares this a good site for planting crops, with sufficient water for irrigation. Everywhere is abundant firewood, both dry and green, with pastureland beyond and a good supply of docile heathens.
Only the day before, Padre Font, too, noticed the advantages of the peninsula. Stone and timber for building lay to the south. Plentiful game, even bonito and whale were observed. With special interest the father noted a fairly large cave with a partition, very suitable for hermit life. All in all, the spot possessed the most delightful view, and if it could be settled like Europe, would become one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Amy takes a fat stick of graphite from her pocket. She prints the word FRUIT in big block letters, then connects it with an arrow to a tree. The heel of her left hand is covered with graphite and gray smudges begin to appear on the page. Thinking they are clouds ready to rain down upon her, she takes a timid peek at the ceiling. Acoustic tiles, some loose, some missing, all brown with years of grime and covered with sizable spit wads, threaten her from above.
Padre Font looks up, too. The Sun is transitting the celestial meridian. As soon as he and the commander dismount, the father hurries out his instrument and makes an observation as to the latitude, which he records in his log: 37 degrees, 46 minutes. After replacing the grafometro, he makes himself comfortable on a dry oak log, and despite the ache in his tooth, takes out Fray Crespi's diary and reads aloud. Anza, still weak but newly annoyed with the father's daily oration, labors up and reseats himself out of hearing distance.
The padre stops reading. He closes the book and closes his eyes. That curious pagans are watching from the Blue Hills is all too obvious to him. Do they see the arrows sticking out of his heart? Can they divine that this holy man has traveled half way round the world to save them? They can never know heaven without the sacraments, and without his help, won't have a fighting chance against the freak wave of Europeans that may not be as pious as he and his present party.
As the padre pulls arrows out of his heart with one hand and jabs them back in with the other, the Man in Red sweeps Camp Street with his broom. Just when you think he's gone, her strawberry clown appears out of nowhere! Amy smiles. It's almost April. Close to noon, the sky is clearing, and the air is thick with life. Watching as the chubby man in brown tortures himself, the clown wants to laugh, but knows too well the pain of arrows. If only the sad man knew that here in the Blue Hills, Jesus is a little baby!
Amy loves babies! She knows how to take care of them, too. Her mom has one, but her mom's in Mexico. Can she call her dad? Mexico is cool. They have butterflies as big as books and they fly like books. They've got a Mexico-only saint named Santa Death. Right next to her cousin's house, there's one in a little glass room. It wears a white wedding dress with a white lace veil and white roses, and under the curly brown wig is a bone skull that looks down at you with empty eye sockets!
At Easter she makes feathers and flowers out of paper and breaks confetti eggs on her cousin's head. Her cousin's house is big, and he has his own room with Santa Claus wrapping paper on all the walls. She knows lots of girls in Mexico. There's one with cheeks as red as the sunset. She wears tight, short dresses and lipstick. She's the girl who runs. She runs from measles. She runs from syphilis.
Red-cheeked girls live here, too. They've got nice clothes and makeup and know all about things Amy's not supposed to know. Right now one is running from her pursuer and giggling to herself, eyes wild, but she can't make a sound, can't let anyone know what's about to happen. Up from the food cellar, past pots and skillets, up to the third floor, she takes two steps at a time, tripping on someone's lunch that's been used as a cluster-bomb on the stairs.
The Padre shakes his head like a horse bothered by flies. Sounds of nature come back to him as bees discover the spills on his robe and call their brethren. In Monterey it was fleas. Now it's bees! One, then another, march up his sleeve and tickle the hairs on his thick arm. He labors up, trying to shake them out sociably, stepping on his long brown robe instead and nearly losing his balance. Embarrassed, the Father busies himself with taking samples of bleeding hearts and phacelia and blue-eyed grass, which seem to go limp even before he's got them flattened between the pages. He would prefer to draw each of them in detail. Ah, to sit with pen and ink in a field of beautiful flowers. Or, to play the psalterio for the heathen. Better than Anza's glass beads! But his opinion doesn't count, and he'd only be interrupted by morbid thoughts and the commander's often unexpected, "Everybody mount!"
To within a few feet of Comandante Anza, the Padre strolls, then settles himself on some dry grass. Should he begin where he left off? After some silence Padre Font says to the commander, "Señor, if you think it well, I will begin to say mass every morning that we might begin to sanctify the land."
"That would be agreeable to me."
"And, Señor, if you think it well, I suggest, because this is the Friday of Sorrows, we name this place Arroyo de Los Dolores."
Comandante Anza grumbles, "Why do you always say, ‘If you think it well. If you think it well.' Why can't you give your opinion plainly!"
The red-cheeked girl half looks for monitors, half looks back at her boy to see if he still wants it, then shoots straight through the heavy door toward the lavatory. She races closer and closer to the trysting place, past rooms where residents take their classes, past the old solarium that hasn't had a pane of glass in it for ten years, past the dispensary that's locked.
Anza's words seem to echo ten times from the far side of the lagoon before Padre Font comes back to himself and to the point. "Señor, this is not the first time that you've chosen to sit at a distance from me."
The commander replies, "Father, I only thought I would be more comfortable here. See, I've planted some maize."
"Señor, if I read, it is because Padre Crespi noted many things..."
Anza snaps, "It is not my duty to look for sites for missions. That is up to you and Señor Ribera. My duty is to establish a fort."
"Señor Ribera?" The father pinches a stalk of grass between his fingers and rubs it into dust as shots sound from where the soldiers have wandered. Both men struggle to their feet, Anza with a groan, Padre Font stepping on his habit again. Friendly relations have been established with the Muwekma, gifts distributed. The Comandante wants no slipups, and the Father certainly wants no innocents killed.
The red-cheeked girl thinks, If someone's in the washroom, well, news will spread just that much faster. A fight doesn't scare her. He's her boy now! And if it's a girl they don't like, she and her boy can shake the sissy ass down. A few bucks would get them some reefer tonight. He's her second boy this week and the red-cheeked girl will make him sign his name in ink right there above where he does it. She stole the pen from her teacher's desk. It's red and permanent.
"If they're making a mess of things, I'll have them beaten worse than the runaways!" fumes Anza. But the soldados are shooting at an old bear they've found asleep behind one of the ancient oaks. The beast rears up and lunges toward them, but they've already reloaded and shoot again.
When the Padre and Anza catch up to them, the bear is dead. Padre Font takes a measurement of the huge, fat, horrible thing, and records it in his diary: 7 feet long, 3 feet high. Anza instructs the soldiers to skin it. He will make a gift of the hide to the viceroy. As they hack off the dusty brown fur, several bullets are found lodged between the skin and flesh, the teeth are seen to be badly decayed and the meat smells like skunk. When the messy job is finished, Anza begins walking to his horse, saying, "We have seen everything."
The Man in Red watches as the Gun People mount their horses and ride out of the barrio. Steam rises from what's left of the bear. Some people won't eat it, but the Man in Red will and cuts himself a hunk. At the place where the strangers argued, he is the first to find the twenty glass beads, dark red, sharp like crystals, with holes bored through each one inviting a strip of willow.
Mother Nature has a necklace of pearls. She's pretty and the ones who want to be her friends are pretty, too. Amy knows Mother Nature always keeps her clothing clean and white, and with a vial of white-out, she paints a picture of a long woman with long hair and a long dress lying under a tree. A little like Snow White, Mother Nature lies there, a correction. Even the flowers and hill seem to turn back into paper where she reposes.
Like Mother nature, the Man in Red seems to erase the changing landscape. Except for a neck ornament of Spanish bling, he stands as before with his broom on Camp Street having lost track of the day of the week. A group of Muwekma he doesn't recognize build a rude arbor of willows just north of Seventeenth Street. A new comandante directs the clearing of land for the presidio, and a different padre celebrates the first holy mass for the newly arrived soldado-colonos, who bow their heads along with their wives and children. Two hundred head of cattle waste the bunchgrass as he blesses the holy food.
Perhaps the cattle won't know which plants are poisonous. The Muwekma know. It's getting cold, and the Man in Red shivers. He takes a walk, a long one, up over the Blue Hills, across the Great Highway, and out to where water and sky meet. He sits beside a pile of burning driftwood in the sand behind a clump of beach grass. It came with the Europeans and has choked out the beach pea and the beach-bur. In the darkening sky, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury reach out from the water's edge in a graceful curve like children ready to jump in after the sun.
With her fingers almost touching the door, the red-cheeked girl looks back. This boy is forbidden, a conquest, the life and death of tequila slinking along, ducking past classrooms, his arms out lanky and his knees bent like he's riding a wave. When he's one room away, she yanks open the door and dashes inside.
At the open window Amy stands with one leg bent, like a horse gazing out into an empty field. The Blue Hills are tucked back inside the book, the rabbit's foot in her pocket. Now, as the sky loses its flash, the boy bangs through the door, runs smack into the red-faced girl from behind, and knocks her down. Sheila screams with laughter and reaches up to Derrick. Amy knows them, knows what they do is a sin, knows they'll beat the crap out of her if she says anything. They live on the second floor. They both say, "Hi Amy," then go into the last stall.
Further into the corner Amy squeezes. The bathroom is where they all go to get away and they have to share. There are all kinds of worlds, in books, in stalls, in lies, in the picture of the window. She wants to laugh like Sheila, really loud and long, with a big red mouth that isn't afraid of boys. Through the window, at the edge of a bank of fog, Amy sees Mother Nature lying with arrows sticking through her and into the ground. She lays there quietly as her lupine are mowed down. Amy can hear the ferocious machines at work right now. From faraway the Comandante's voice begins yelling: Come inside, come inside, before the gates are closed!