Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Storm - - George Polley

rawheadrex on Flickr

This is Eric Lindahl's story, and I'll let him tell it like he told it to me a few days before he left for Des Moines, Iowa. I didn't experience the storm, because Lisa and I were in Cuernevaca visiting her family, but I heard about it in the news, and read about it in Excelsior, el Universal and The Herald, so I knew a lot about it before we returned to Mexico City about two weeks after it hit.

The storm was unexpected, and did tremendous damage in a wide swath across the city. It even surprised the weather forecasters, who didn't see it coming. Some people said it was the old Aztec god Tlaloc, and that he was cranky about something. Just what it could have been is anyone's guess, and I haven't seen my old friend Gerardo Pulido to ask him. I'm not sure he was in Mexico City anyway, as Lisa was sure she'd seen him in Cuernevaca down by the Cortez Palace, but didn't get a good look at him, because when he saw her looking toward him, he ducked behind a tree.

Eric told me this version of what happened when we got together for coffee at Sanborn's on the Paseo, which was badly damaged, but was cleaned up pretty well by the time Lisa and I returned from Cuernevaca. What follows is just as Eric told it because I recorded it with his permission, of course.


~~~


It happened the day I got fired from my job teaching English at the Instituto Idioma y Cultura de Durango, the day Iglesia Rosario, aka “Pope” Rosario, walked into my class and caught me reading from The Herald instead of following her sacred approved system, which she views as scripture. She stood there in the doorway, arms folded sternly over her breasts, and asked me what I thought I was doing. “Teaching English,” I replied as innocently as I could manage, knowing that I had been caught with my pants down, metaphorically speaking. “Come to my office!” she ordered, which I meekly did. She fired me on the spot, aiming a long finger at the door and handing me my day's pay in its little brown envelope, the same one she gives the guy from the Department of Education his “mordida” in. She didn't utter a word; just glared at me like I was a cockroach, followed me to the front door to make sure I left and didn't try to sneak back in to say goodbye to my students, then shut the door behind me and made sure it was tightly closed and stood there until I was out of sight.

I decided to walk over to Chapultepec Park and spend the day at the Museum of Anthropology and History, a welcome relief from señora Rosario's prison. I got some small comfort from knowing that I was the fourth teacher in the past two months to be fired, “excommunicated” is the way one of them put it, a fifth had to be hauled away to a psychiatric ward, driven mad by those three students of mine, whom I'd won over through bribes, reading English language publications like The Herald and tossing Pope Rosario's sacred text into the ashcan where it belonged. A long walk through history, I told myself as I headed for Reforma, is just what I need. I can reconnoiter and come up with another plan later; jobs teaching English can't be that hard to find. The one thing I'll miss are those three goof-ball students of mine, sent by their employer, Kimberly-Clark S.A., to bedevil Sra. Rosario's fabulous institution. Gonzalo Rivera, Manuel Juárez and Eustacio Moctezuma. what a trio! The Three Musketeers! Always thinking of something, hatching some devious plot against the sanctity of Pope Rosario's Holy Fortress of Learning. What a crew!

When I got to the park, I stopped for a moment near the giant ancient ahuehuete tree, the one that I call “the-tree-that-looks-like-a-mountain” because it reminds me of a mountain in an old Chinese painting. It is ancient and gnarled, has a gigantic trunk that dwarfs people sitting around it, and huge lumbering main branches and hundreds of small and middle-sized branches that go up vertically like trees. It goes back before Moctezuma's time, maybe a thousand years. I gave its trunk a friendly tap as I walked by, then crossed the street and walked slowly up the hill toward Maximilian's castle, having decided to take a small detour through its history before visiting the Museum of Anthropology and History.

The hill gave off an odor of dry grass and smog. The park was filling up with people arriving for their midday siesta and picnics on the grass. On the small lake, lovers were already launching out in rowboats, rowing slowly. The big grey pelican, a fixture in the park, was busy pestering people for handouts as he waddled from one to another, clattering his beak. As I went up the hill past the Museum of History, a place full of horrific scenes of killing from Mexico's violent past, a place that sends chills chasing all over my body whenever I walk past it, a car bearing Guatemalan plates passed me going up, and a jeep load of soldiers passed me going down, rifles at their sides, swirls of dust curling up from the wheels.

Getting to the top, I went over to the brow of the hill, leaned against the balustrade, and looked out across the smog-blanketed city, trying to pick out Sra. Rosario's citadel down on Durango, but I couldn't pick it out, the air was just too thick with smog. Looking across the valley toward the mountains I noticed, totally out of character for this time of the year, a swelling, boiling mass of angry black clouds beginning to gather and swell. Then I was aware of the total absence of bird sounds and a general stilling of the air, as if the world was holding its breath, had sucked it up and held it in, expectantly, like an animal will do when it senses danger. Then from way off, the bank of clouds began moving rapidly toward the city, casting a black shadow beneath it as it sped across the valley, spitting lightning and rattling and rumbling as it flew, a swelling, malignant mass that gained momentum, a runaway train, a devil of a thing, charging right at us.

One of the young museum guards stepped out of the nearby guard box, stared off into the distance and motioned to his companions to come have a look. The four of them shook their heads and muttered, telling each other that things like this do not happen at this time of the year in the Valle de México, but, amigo, then how do you explain those clouds that are marching madly toward us, rattling and billowing like all Hell,? The five of us decided there were better places to be than standing on the crown of Grasshopper Hill waiting for the storm to swoop down on us. They headed for the castle door, while I, for reasons which I still don't understand, hightailed it down the road to the body of the park, hoping, I guess, to take shelter in the Museum of Anthropology and History before the storm hit, cursing myself for not having followed the example of those guys and run into the castle and slammed the door behind me.

From the other side of the hill came the loud rumbling of thunder, and then the first black thunderheads spilled over the hill and the castle, and a monstrous black avalanche of clouds that belched fire and torrents of rain and pushed a cyclone of wind ahead of and beneath it, swooshed down the hill and sent leaves and branches flying. It sounded like the end of the world! I turned on my heel and ran for the nearest substantial cover I could think of, whipped by gusts of wind and sheets of water and pelted by debris, pell-mell toward the Paseo. I got only as far as the colossus of Tlaloc when the storm hit full-force, threw me over the edge of the reflecting pool at the deity's feet, face down in the wet and the mire. I dragged myself to my feet and took shelter between the god's massive legs, thinking that it was as safe a place as any.

The rain was so dense that it blurred everything, like a river descending from the sky. Trees bent double until they broke, snapping with loud cracks! Branches and hats and people flew about like birds, flotsam carried by the wind; cars skidded into one another, floated down the Paseo like boats, three VW Beetle minicabs went by with their windows tight shut and steamed over. And overhead, well, overhead Tlaloc himself — that god of the storms, fury, and impatience — looked down, growled, and hurled another thunderbolt. I clung to one of the colossus's massive legs and prayed. Never, never in my life, I swear it, have I prayed so long or so fervently: “Lord, get me out of here, and I'll do whatever You want!” It's amazing what a man will say at times like that. And Tlaloc, hearing, swung a long arm of wind around, spun it around the Museum of Anthropology, the dirty sneak, so he could hurl it at the rear of his likeness and hit me square in the back with a curtain of wind and water that sent me sprawling on my face again in the pool. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the storm disappeared over the Museum and vanished, trailing black tatters and rumbling murderously in the distance.

When I picked myself up out of the pool and looked around, the sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Water ran in rivulets down the colossus' massive legs, ran in rivulets down me, poured over the edge of the pool onto the grass, and ran in a broad river down the Paseo. I lifted one foot out of the water, looked at it and shook my head: another pair of shoes for the trashcan! Steam began to rise from the ground, and out of the steam people dragged themselves, groping about, bewildered, looking for friends, relatives and pets, finding some lying dead under some snapped-in-two tree, others lying dazed but alive in puddles of water which were everywhere, like minor lakes; others wandered about like people raised from the dead, lost and in a daze. It was like every blade of grass and every particle in the roadway had become a steam vent, the steam quavering, drifting, hanging about, surreal, like a hallucination. I sat down on the edge of the pool and dangled my feet over the edge and just stared. Wreckage was everywhere. In the distance, I could hear the rising and falling wail of sirens as they converged on the park. I stood up, looked up into the colossus' great stone face, which seemed to be smiling maliciously over everything. I began walking home, amidst swirling clouds of steam.

Evidence of the storm's passing was everywhere between the park and my apartment on Ejercicio Nacional: there were broken trees, shattered windows, smashed cars, cars washed up onto sidewalks, wrenched and ripped awnings, junk. And everywhere, that shimmering, moving bed of steam. Oddly enough, monuments like the statue of Diana and of el Angel stood unscathed, except that Tlaloc, in his passing, had taken an awning from somewhere and draped it over Diana's nakedness, giving her a garish kind of modesty in green and white striped canvas. Turning up Tiber, I began to wonder what kind of horrors might have happened in the apartment I shared with two acquaintances who were both sticklers for cleanliness and neatness and had some very nice things. I wondered if María Antonia's shack had washed off the roof. María Antonia was their long-suffering maid, who lived with her son Eusebio, her teenage daughter Anita, and their dog Perro. I never knew why they didn't give him a more dignified name, but never asked. Maybe it was because he wasn't a very dignified sort of dog, but only a small, tan-colored nondescript little mutt who barked at everything and seemed scared of his own shadow. María Antonia was a jewel. It was a wonder to me how she managed to keep everything and everyone in balance.

Getting to Ejercicio Nacional and seeing the flotsam and jetsam scattered about, the crowds of people dragging their soaked belongings into the sun to dry, sweeping this way and that with long brooms, some simply sitting on the curb staring disconsolately at their feet, I knew I'd better shake a leg and find out what had happened back home. Passing the bakery, I saw the baker wandering around inside among mounds of soggy bread and pastry; further down the street was the lonely figure of Gustavo Heinz, our orange juice vendor, emptying glass after glass of water into the gutter, doing it very carefully, as if he didn't want to get any of it on the sidewalk. Like everything else, he was giving off clouds of steam.

“At least you didn't get washed away,” I told him, trying to put the best face on things.

“As far as that goes, I might as well have,” he replied, pouring another glass of water carefully into the street. “The damned storm washed all my oranges and all my money down the sewer! The old woman will never believe me!” He gave a shudder, catching a glimpse of his wife, the estimable señora Heinz, the shrew, shaking her broom at him and shrieking: “How dare you come back home without any money, you worm! I know what you did with it, bum, cockroach! You spent it on booze in that cantina where you like to hang out, don't tell me about any storm, liar!” He shook his head. “I've never heard of such a thing happening at this time of the year señor Eric, never! And this is twice this winter we've had a storm like this. Only this one was worse, it didn't just flush some bad cop down the sewer, it tore the Hell out of everything!” His face wrinkled up as if he were going to cry.

“Maybe it'll be the last one, Gustavo,” I said, trying my best to cheer him up.

“Por diós, I hope so! Another day like this one, and I'm finished!” The man went on to describe what had happened, he, going on about his daily duties, standing there squeezing juice for a customer when all of a sudden, WHAM! the storm hit like Hell had come, shrieking down the street and leaping over buildings roaring like a harpy from hades. The wind took every window of the supermarket out and left the inside of the store a wreckage of smashed and sodden debris. “I hid in the doorway,” he said, “and watched the wind take my oranges and dump them in the street and wash them away! I'm damned, señor, but it was just like someone was standing there dumping those things in the street, like a living being, if I believed in such things. And then the money, which like an idiot, I left in a box under the counter, the wind went in and took it all, opened the box and spilled all my cash right down the sewer after the oranges! Holy shit, señor Eric, it might as well have dumped me down there after it, the old woman will never believe a word of it, so help me God!” And he burst into tears, bawling like a baby.

I couldn't think of a single helpful thing to say, so I said nothing, kept my mouth shut, and listened. When he finished, I patted him on the shoulder and crossed the street to the apartment. As I was letting myself in, Gustavo called out:

“And the damned thing didn't break a single glass! Not one of them! How do you figure that out, señor, I ask you? I mean, whoever heard of such a thing? Who? That's why my wife will never believe me!” And he went on crying and pouring glass after glass of water into the street.


~~~


The apartment was a disaster. The storm had dumped gallons of water on the flat roof, and it all cascaded down the stairs and flooded everything, ruining the new oriental rug that my roommate had bought just the week before, the one he paid so much for because it's Persian, soaking it with sodden ashes from the fireplace. María Antonia was pushing water around with a broom and shaking her head. When she looked up and saw me, she wiped her forehead with the back of a hand and said: “Por diós, señor Eric, but the sky has fallen! Señor Justo will be beside himself! The rug is ruined! Everything is ruined! I don't know what to do!”

“I'll help you,” I told her. I looked down at the carpet, which did look like a total loss. “You're right about the carpet; there's probably nothing that can be done for it. But we can at least hang it on the line. By the way, is your room still up there?”

“Sí, señor, it is; but poor Perro shit everywhere from fright, and everything, like here, is a terrible mess!” She leaned on her broom and shook her head. “I don't know where to begin.”

It was true. Looking around, it was hard to decide what to do first, but I said “we might as well begin with the carpet.” So that's what we did. The oddest thing was that my room had been totally spared, as if Tlaloc, in a fit of compassion or a sense of irony had decided that one thorough dousing was enough. I mean, it was completely dry! I closed the door right away so María Antonia wouldn't see it, and we rolled Justo's Persian carpet up and carried it, corpse-like, up the stairs to the roof, where we slung it over the clothes line to dry. As for Anita and Eusebio, she didn't know where they were, which started her crying.

Perro, having strewn shit everywhere, was huddled next to María Antonia's shack, whimpering and quaking with fright. I went over and patted his poor head, and then we went back downstairs and began bailing water out of the rooms, pushing it down the stairs into the patio and tossing buckets full out the windows. It took us over two hours. Then we went back upstairs and began cleaning up the roof and María Antonia's two-room shack, which was a sopping, shit-covered mess with gaping holes in the roof where that howling wind had torn pieces off and sent them sailing throughout the neighborhood. We went to work with scrub brushes, soap, hammer and nails. I managed to find a few pieces of her roof in the street below, where Gustavo Heinz was still gazing disconsolately at the sewer opening, and I nailed them back into place. We could still hear the sound of sirens wailing as rescue trucks, fire engines and police cars criss-crossed the city. From up there on top of her shack, the wreckage on the tops of nearby buildings was clear to see: blown-down TV antennae, chunks of roofing, and other dogs like Perro, pooping in pools of water. And everywhere, people wandered about like lost souls. From down below, María Antonia leaned out of Justo's bedroom widow and waved to a neighbor woman across the street who was holding onto a long broom and staring off into space as if she half expected Tlaloc to come raging back again, appearing first as a small black speck in the sky, then swelling and billowing and filling the sky with howling wind, shattering bolts of lightning, and oceans of water.

“Soledad!” María Antonia shrieked; “Hey! Amiga! Comadre! Are you alright? Hey!”

“God has punished us for our sins!” Soledad replied, looking around and shrugging. “You should have been over here. My God, what a mess!”

“Ay, por diós! What could we have done to deserve such terrible punishment, comadre? You should see the mess over here!”

“Ay, diós mío, María Antonia; everything is covered with water. The señor will be furious!”

“Ay, Soledad, and so will señor Justo! You should see his carpet!” pointing with a finger and shouting in a dead-raising voice. “It is probably ruined, and he paid a fortune for it!”

“And señor Inocencio's library was washed down the stairs!” Soledad replied, leaning on her broom and shaking her head. “It came too fast, whoosh! down the stairs like a river into his library and through it. Everything is destroyed! One minute peace; the next,” snapping her fingers, “disaster!”

“Maybe it was Satan!” María Antonia shouted back.

“Yes, it's probably true, what with all the sin going on in this place,” Soledad replied; “But why would God punish us?” clearly meaning herself and her good comadre from across the street.

“For our sins, ninny,” María Antonia retorted at the top of her voice; “It could have been either one of them.” Since her meaning was ambiguous, the conclusion was left hanging in the air.

“The results are all the same, comadre, whichever it was,” Soledad responded, resolving the theological problem.

“It won't make any difference to my wife,” Gustavo Heinz shouted up from the street.

“Ay, pobrecito!” Soledad called down; “What are we going to do?”

“Clean everything up, comadre; it's all we can do.”

“And pray to God it doesn't happen again.”

“Yes, and pray to God it doesn't happen again!”

And far off in the mountains, lurking in a deep valley amidst a drenched pine forest, Tlaloc muttered to himself: “It wasn't either God or the Devil, you dummies; it was me!”

When I finished nailing María Antonia's roof back in place, and she finished cleaning up the mess inside her shack, we left Perro whining and shaking and peering anxiously up at the sky and went back downstairs. As she walked by the line where Justo's Persian carpet hung, its colors probably indelibly imbedded with fireplace ash and dogshit, María Antonia crossed herself and shook her head. Justo's anger would be boundless. All that money, down the drain! She couldn't help giggling, and by the time we were downstairs, the apartment smelling of mildew, she was laughing outright, wheezing and dancing this way and that in a fit of hysterics that left her rocking back and forth and holding her sides. When we went into the kitchen and found a salamander in the sink, she laughed so hard she had to sit down. Tlaloc, the old trickster, had left his final calling card. I scooped up the salamander and tossed it out the window into the patio.


~~~


The storm entered the city between Colonia Presidentes de México and Colonia Lomas San Lorenzo and swept north, leaving a corridor of destruction before vanishing into the mountains. The rest of the city was left unscathed. At least a dozen people drowned, three were blown off rooftops, two were squashed by falling trees, and one was washed down a storm drain. Scores of shops were flooded, causing no end of consternation (a baker was seen chasing a pan of pastries down Ayuntamiento, galloping like a horse and giving out hoarse shouts) hundreds of trees were toppled, some of them very old; a small fleet of yellow VW Beetle taxicabs sailed away down the Paseo like boats putting out to sea; and one food vendor in Chapultepec Park ended up in the central courtyard of the Museum of Anthropology and History, stall and all, and was found wandering around in a catatonic trance, muttering in Nahuatl about Hiutzilopochtli. And downtown, in the Zócalo, from whose ashes Mexico City had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Tenochtitlán, the storm took the speaker's stand and all the bleachers, set up for an Independence Day speech by the President, and left them in a pile of twisted steel and splintered wood, over which the body of a soldier was draped.

The pictures in the papers the next day, not to mention the rumors that flew about, were unbelievable. The damages climbed into the tens of millions of dollars, plus uncounted costs in personal tragedy and loss. Whole colonias laid low, whole families, innocents, dogs and cats, merchants destroyed, washed away just because (to hear our neighbor Gilberta Madrazo talk) someone ticked the gods off, not knowing just how accurate she was, or which god had done the dirty deed.

María Antonia and I had opened all the windows in the apartment to air it out, and were sitting in a couple of dining room chairs resting and having a cup of coffee, when we heard the front door open and footsteps climb the stairs. I looked at my watch: it was six o'clock in the evening. We had been hard at work for six hours. In a moment, Justo's head appeared at the top of the stairs and looked around.

That evening, after Justo had looked around and surveyed all the damage, including his Persian carpet, which, having dried in the sun, looked more salvageable than it had when María Antonia and I dragged it up to the roof and hung it over the clothesline, I went out for cakes from a bakery down the street that had somehow escaped unscathed. María Antonia fixed a pot of coffee, and the three of us sat around the kitchen table by candlelight and talked about the events of the day. Justo's office was in an area of the city the storm had missed, so seeing the reality in his neighborhood was quite a shock. The next day, he sent the carpet out to be cleaned.

I finally took my flashlight and went to bed at around eleven and dreamed about poor trembling Perro, salamanders and angry Aztec gods. It had been an eventful day, filled with shocks and surprises.

The first thing the next morning, I got dressed and went out before anyone else was up and went down Tiber toward the Paseo, where I ran into my three students from Pope Rosario's language institute at Sanborn's on the Paseo. They were surprised to see me looking so good, and asked me what had happened to me the day before when the storm hit. It was pretty unbelievable to them, as they live in a part of the city that escaped the storm. They told me they quit Pope Rosario's school and found a new school on Masaryk; I think it's called "Madeleine O'Hara's Instituto Masaryk", but I'm not sure. They said she had an opening for a teacher, and they recommended me, but I told them I wasn't interested because I'd decided to go back to Des Moines. Seeing them was a good start to a doubtful day. Things around the neighborhood began to look normal with the supermarket repaired and roofs getting patched up, and even Gustavo Heinz was back making orange juice looking none the worse for wear. That big ahuehuete tree in Chapultepec Park? Lost a few branches, that's all. Tough old tree. Perro? Oh, he's still scared shitless, which is literally true. Clear your throat and he drops a load wherever he happens to be. We hope he'll get over it eventually, but knowing Perro, I'm not making any bets. And Anita and her brother? They showed up a few hours later. Seems they missed the storm altogether, and most of the work cleaning things up.

I'm leaving for Des Moines in a couple days or so. I've contacted the Psychology Department at Iowa State University, in Ames, about finishing my Ph.D. in counseling psychology. I have a few things I still have to do and people to see here. I'll give you a call as soon as I have my tickets in hand. Then we can say our goodbyes.

~~~

That was the last I saw of him until he dropped by my apartment the day he left for Des Moines. From what I've heard from mutual friends, he's completing work on his degree and plans to start a private practice in Cedar Rapids.




Photo Credit: rawheadrex on Flickr

About The Author:
Mr. Polley has been publishing short stories and poetry since the 1970s. A poetry collection, Seeing: Collected Poems, 1973-1999 was published by Tortoise & Hare (Seattle) in 2000. A short story collection, Fernandez' Tale and Other Stories was published by Tortoise & Hare in 1999. Earlier works were published in the South Dakota Review, Crow's Nest, North Country Anvil, Wine Rings, North American Mentor Magazine and Community Mental Health Journal. His blog "Tostada Speaks" can be visited at: www.tostadaspeaks.blogspot.com