El Salvador

January 15, 2016

Originally published in Verbicide Magazine

 

EL SALVADOR

 

 

 

Sling me some buffalo antler

Upon these shoulders
They’ll carry off cancer
Bovine pull her from the wires

The wide-brimmed hat was an early indicator that I had gone too far. That I had stayed too long. Tipping my boots upside down yielded a steady current of sand. Not sand from slushy Connecticut parking lots or Maine beaches. This was a whole new breed. The desert dust of rocks from a rainless and baked lowland prairie.

I think it was sometime between 1890 and 1990. My mind is not what it used to be. Sheila had the bone  marrow cancer and her cheekbones were shaded like some malicious artist had darkened them with graphite. She spoke in forced little whispers while her sister would brush aside wet strands of hair, matted to a porcelain forehead. Sheila pushed away the pills of medicine her doctor attempted to cure her with. There was only one thing that could banish the affliction from her cartilage. Late at night, we lay side by side under the quilts of her death bed. She told me all about the buffalo, and how they were her only chance.

Upon these shoulders
It’s a long way back
To suburbia to hold her
Off guard when this heart attacks

For the first few days in El Salvador, my boots still had damp New England earth in their treads and my ears rang with the racket of locomotive engines. For the first few weeks, my face was sore from the constant squint n’ smile reflex to the sun. That was how the locals knew I was a foreigner. Not only did they rarely squint, but they could do it without smiling. Yet my facial muscles came to relax, and I began to blend in with the local populace. Trying to remember Sheila’s face was like reminiscing about a character from an old story. My pursuit was to save her life, but that western land had other intentions for me, boy I’ll tell ya.

They did not serve water, lunch, or dinner at any of the bars. Only breakfast and liquor imported from the American South. Records show that it was because of a draught, or some riff between rail contractors. I would wash scrambled eggs, home fries, and Italian sausage down with Snail Honey River brand bourbon. Aged no years. Records show that it got its name from a mythical river somewhere. Or some peddler of viper oils. I just think it sounded ornamental enough to cover up the burn of it.

It’s a long way back
Don’t think we can make it
Off guard when this heart attacks
Buffalo venom in the spit

And so I was having a conversation with Hannabelle about the wavering fundamentals of cosmopolitan democracy, when my entire left arm went listless. Hannabelle was a well known girl at this brothel above a bar that I can recall having really knockout maple syrup. I asked Hannabelle if it was tapped from desert maple trees, and she said

“Whats tapped from desert maple trees?”

I replied with gibberish. She asked me what was wrong and started hollering for help while rushing back into her clothes. Next thing I knew I was laid out in some new death bed at a sooty clinic. I told the doctor I was sleeping in a pile of ghosts, and he said that I talked fancy for an easterner. I told him my mind wasn’t what it used to be. The air out there does strange things to your tongue.

Don’t think we can make it
Out West, hoofs play piano
Buffalo venom in the spit
Descend from a cowboy soprano

The doctor, with his gun fighter mustache, gave me low-proof whiskey to serve as some sort of substitute for water. It replaced the embers inside my skull and drove me to a confession. That I needed to extract the cure from a buffalo. He told me they were technically bison and that the venom would be useless without ‘Lophophota.’ Some sort of essential cactus juice. Dr. Mustache gave me a vial of it on the house.

Wide-brimmed hats were pertinent when guys like Leonard ‘A-Minor’ Jones played the piano. A wide-brimmed rim would hide the fact that you were a forty-six-year-old man, crying right into his mug of Snail Honey. When A-Minor sank into the bench to play, you knew a salted ocean was yet to flood the cavities of your skull. He had what they called ‘heavy handed blues,’ or some disease that bloated his fingers. His piano had eighty-nine keys. Two a-minors in the same octave. Records show that a-minor is the saddest sound. I think it’s the happiest sounding note, and it just reminded all us crumbly men of something better.

Out West, hoofs play piano
The minor keys hang a melody
Descend from a cowboy soprano
My buffalo memories are getting dusty

I did what they call ‘taking the bull by the horns,’ except the bull can be construed metaphorically for a desert in which I became lost in for three days. I think something happened out there, in that dry prairie. My face like rusty leather. Fennel seeds from sausage dug deep into my gums. A-Minor’s songs looped in my head to shut out screeching hawks and the sound of the sun. Children ask me what the sun sounds like in the desert. I just say it sounds like snow falling, except with more buzzing.

The charred draw reed plate of a harmonica is excavated from a fire pit. Ashes and screws are tapped off on a rock slivered with quartz. I don’t recall how I derived that venom from the buffalo. Maybe an old native gave me guidance in his language. I suppose it is possible that I saw a giant, talking wolf head in the stars who handed down a premonition. Maybe I just waltzed up to one of the big, mopey squares of fur and made him drool into my vial of cactus syrup. The record shows nothing.

Now when I try to remember Leonard’s songs, they sound all thin and wishy-washy. Like a tune being carried under water on a piano in a shipwreck. Nestled on a sandy basin in a sea of bourbon. It’s like a song you tried to imagine from a story.

The minor keys hang a melody
They’ll carry off cancer
My buffalo memories are getting dusty
Sling me some buffalo antler

My wife tells me I talk fancy, and then I explain what the air out there does to you. I teach Sheila how to frown in the sun. She gives me quizzical glances and tells me she never said anything about any buffalo (bison). I tell her that the next time she gets sick to be more careful of what she tells me. To refrain from delusional, nocturnal rambling. Sheila says

“It’s too soon to talk like that.”

I am still getting accustomed to time not feeling all dream like. I do not apologize for my time away or for my abrasive way of speaking. I don’t mention my failing heart or the nights I stayed up late discussing politics with painted ladies. I toast with cold water and I eat nothing but lunch and dinner. Sheila’s bones and my heart could betray us at any moment, so I decide that time will be for standing in, and not something to watch from afar.

For a while I can appreciate how I got out of El Salvador alive. I know many of my old acquaintances did not. My grandkid tells me bison have horns and deer have antlers. She asks me what the desert sounds like. I laugh and tell her that my buffalo memories are getting dusty.

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