Suzan Still: St. Jude, Javier, and me

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susanstillI’m working hard on a sequel, tentatively titled Well In Time, to my latest novel, Fiesta of Smoke. As with Fiesta of Smoke, much of the new novel is set in northern Mexico, where I have traveled for over thirty years, often with my dear friend and spiritual brother, Javier. We are, in fact, planning yet another excursion into Copper Canyon, early in 2014, so I can check some facts before Well in Time is published.

Travel in Chihuahua is always hard travel, and so I make a discipline of reminding myself of all the reasons why I promised myself I’d never go again, before embarking. When Javier and I go on one of our annual odysseys around Mexico, and I tell people I’m going for two weeks or a month, I’m sure they have extravagant Club Med visions in their heads. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For each of our outings, Javier has purchased an automobile whose chief attributes are two: indestructibility, and low monetary loss, when we have managed to overcome the first attribute. We name these valiant jalopies, of course: Rosanante, Caramelo, El Faro, or La Guila. We feel deep love for them, as they ferry us across endless deserts and down bouldered mountain trails, and as we slowly and inevitably destroy them.

The beaten path has never been our pleasure. Javier and I are happiest when we’re stranded in the middle of the desert, with a foot-deep cloudburst flood threatening to sweep us away, with the automatic windows having failed, and with rain pelting us as we sit within, miserably cold and wet, angry with one another, and absolutely, radiantly happy. We own our lives, then, in a way most people never understand.

We were just heading into Chihuahua City from one such adventure, in which we had attended the castration of a stallion on the remote ranch of Señor Miguel Alvarez. Ahead by an hour was Hotel Cortez, our home away from home, with its four-foot thick adobe walls, its stout arcades around inner courtyards, and its general dilapidation.

To its credit, its toilets all have both lids and seats, which is not true of many of our temporary abodes on the road. But the shower floors are covered in an ancient glaze which I surmise is composed of Vaseline and generations of microorganisms and unicellular plants that live out their lives undisturbed by the maids, the craziest of whom, upon seeing me, always holds out her hand and demands, “Give me money!”

To while away the hours of passing mesquite and bent volcanic mountains, I was relating to Javier The Dilemma, a damnably knotty personal quandary with which I‘d been wrestling for months. Since I’d been working on it so long, heating it red hot in the inner fires, then hammering it to release impurities, then thrusting it into the cold bath of my rational mind, and then, starting the heating process all over again, the story had, by that time, a certain elegant suppleness to it, like good Toledo steel.

Javier listened for several wordless miles and then hung a left, off the highway.

“Where are we going?”

“I am taking you to a place where this dilemma of yours can be worked out.”

And an hour later, we were at San Judas Tadeo, a chapel about forty miles outside of Chihuahua City. It’s not one of those sixteenth-century ones I love so, that smell of mold and candle fat, with domed ceilings, high, small mudajar windows, and adobe walls three feet thick. No, this one is modern, and about as architecturally distinguished as a cereal box. In fact, everything about it is offensively tawdry, from the half-dozen shabby souvenir stands in the front courtyard to the garish plaster statues of the saint himself, distinguished only by their life-size and their general ugliness.

A bonfire of votive candles is always blazing, and a trickle of the devout and desperate is constant. Retablos in home-painted tin line the walls, picturing every kind of human disaster. Little notes are tucked behind these, usually in smudgy pencil, thanking St. Jude for answered prayers. Crutches, canes, wheelchairs, and other prosthetic paraphernalia of disability are stacked in the corners. This is the haven of last resort, the salvatory station of the cursed, ill, injured, and damned.

Truthfully, despite my generalized reverence for just about everything (I struggle with Styrofoam and George Bush), I never put much credence in such places. The sacred sites of the world, the ones I’ve visited anyway, have been so trampled by eager tourists that whatever energy originally resided there has long since been repressed or fled. Someone just told me, in fact, that the energy vortex at Sedona, Arizona has been “moved” to accommodate tour buses!

And anyway, when I’m in trouble, I doubt everything as ardently as I believe in it, on my better days. The gods seem distant, their mercy dubious, their malicious interventions much more likely. Going to such a site in such a frame of mind seems a waste, to me.

When thus afflicted, I lift my eyes from my mundane gloom and shake my fist at the sky. I fault the gods: that they’ve waited too long in releasing joy from their own holdings, so even the faithful falter. When I’ve swallowed guilt and anguish too long, I want the heavens to take their turn to weep and be responsible!

At such times, it’s the plants and their annual round that keep me from heresy. I turn to seeds, for hope. There’s more comfort from the first frail poppy shoots breaking the hard red earth, as they are now, than from an entire pantheon.

Anyway, by the time I’d related The Dilemma in full to Javier, I was fully engaged in the emotional morass that it always occasioned in me. I mean, you pray and you pray and you pray, and, most often, nothing seems to come of it. Things go on much as before, the emotional tides roll in and withdraw, leaving detritus, not answers, on the beach.

To live the spiritual life, one must take The Long View of Things. In this philosophy, Waiting is a virtue. Waiting, with a capital “W” denoting something archetypal, like Waiting Without Hope, for example.

I imagine myself in the anteroom of the Divine, with a few other poets and fringe element weirdoes, who examine their nails, or drowse, rocking. There’s a three-year old copy of Field and Stream, the Big Bass Boat issue, and a wilted philodendron.

Outside in the streets, riot has turned to bloodshed: an infinitude of pissy acts with spray cans, and shattered plate glass, are drops in the flood of urban warfare. Majesty does not give appointments, nor deign to move by a clock. So, we wait. Or Wait, if we are sufficiently evolved.

We are all here in the hope of catching the odd moment – a door creaks, the fleeting hem of a velvet cape swirls around a distant corner – when we will leap as one person to our feet, crying, “God Almighty! Please Wait! Hear us out!”

We came in an eon when it is rumored this may happen momentarily. Or perhaps be delayed another millennium.

No one is sure.

In the meantime, there’s not much to say that trees haven’t said, already: the pumping of sap, the burgeoning bud, the unfurling, fruiting, and descent of sap, again. Not to treat this as pedestrian. It’s just that trees know so well how to Wait.

But I digress. I’m having as much trouble getting to San Judas Tadeo as La Guila, who, at that point, was running rough, lurching and bucking down the road like a colt under its first saddle. I’d been to the chapel before, and when I realized that Javier was delivering me there, again, I was less than impressed, except by his kindness.

Javier has much faith in the place, however. When he was shot, and shortly after he died, was revived, and then released from the hospital, he was encouraged by his friend Jaime, a shoeshine man with a kiosk on a little placita in the red light district of old Chihuahua, to make the pilgrimage to San Judas Tadeo.

Now, that may sound romantic, or even doable, but I am here to witness that it’s a nasty bitch of a walk, in blazing, treeless sun, and uphill all the way, for forty miles! And Javier, recently arisen from a near-death coma, and with two bullets lodged somewhere near his pituitary gland, squarely in the center of his brain, undertook it. So it was no small matter, his bringing me there, and by car, no less, sparing me the embarrassment of refusing, in good health, the trek he’d made in bad.

So in I went, in my desert-blasted blue jeans, my sloping foundry boots, and my Good Day in Elk trucker’s cap. But also – and this has been my entré in Mexico, as well as my protection – with my Virgen de Guadalupe and gold Espiritu Sancti pendants around my neck. The candle stands on both sides of the altar were ablaze from top to bottom with the fiery prayers of the faithful. A wreath of red and white plastic carnations lay at the feet of the good saint, whose eyes gazed mildly and somewhat astigmatically into space. The front pews were filled with a weeping Mexican family spanning several generations, all in black.

If there’s one thing that impresses me about Mexico – and there are many – it’s the devout nature of her people. When you’ve been prayed over by an old Mexican peasant woman, as I have been, you know your future is sealed in loving protection. Any saint or ascended being who could ignore the sincerity of such a plea would scarcely be worthy of his title.

I took a seat against the back wall, and looked around a bit, amazed as always by the Mexicans’ ability to combine the sublime and the truly ugly so casually, without guilt or shame. Any sense of interior décor or decorum had been sluiced away by a deluge of items, many homemade, some manufactured in the cheapest, most garish materials, and probably toxic. They hung on the walls and from the ceiling, and invaded the floor. Plastic crucifixes, paper flowers, plaster plaques in primary colors. A flood of bad taste, all sanctified and elevated in the devotion and earnestness of its contributors.

I bent my head, and began to pray about The Dilemma. I laid it all out, although for God and the saints it was more than a twice-told tale. Somewhere in the telling, without my quite realizing it, I began to cry. By the time Javier peeked around the corner at me, a huge dark diagonal in my blurred peripheral vision, my shoulders were shaking with grief, and the weeping was a flood fit to beat any desert gully washer.

As I left the chapel of San Judas Tadeo, a palpable weight slid from my shoulders and fell to the floor, like a fifty-pound burlap sack of oats shed in the barn. I straightened my back, elevated my chin, and stepped through the door into the flat glare of the Chihuahua afternoon. It was not so much that I knew my prayer was answered. What I did feel, very strongly, was that The Dilemma had been placed into hands far more capable than my own. My job simply was to walk away, knowing that the outcome would be, by the terms and conditions of my own prayer, “for the best and highest good of all concerned.”

Javier, whose ebullience can sometimes overwhelm me, was uncharacteristically calm and solicitous. He treated me as if I were convalescent, and in a sense, perhaps I was, as The Dilemma had been raging in me like a fever for weeks. We drove into Chihuahua City in the long, slanting light of evening. The shabbiness of the outskirts was glazed in gold, and the heroic monuments of Jurassic Period-sized bronze eagles and mounted caballeros, poised on their high brick pedestals along the highway, were glossed with doré finishes.

At Hotel Cortez we were greeted like family by the owner, a haunted, handsome man in his forties, whose heroic struggle to overcome drug addiction he had related to Javier, in the depths of a long night of conversation and heroic tequila consumption, while I lay sleeping in Room 29, above their heads. The desk clerk nodded and smiled as I collected the key, while Javier headed out with his friend for a beer.

I went through the courtyard, with its clothesline of pastel towels, almost as thin as tissue paper, belling out in the evening breeze. Up the crumbling outside staircase of dubiously-reinforced concrete, and along the outside balcony over the courtyard. Then, into the dark portal to the labyrinthine hallway, all in darkness, to the beige-painted, paneled double doors of Room 29, through the central crack of which light from the street was seeping just sufficiently to find the keyhole.

This, by tradition, is our room. Whenever we are here we request it, because it is really two bedrooms with one bath. Each room has a sloping set of groaning metal springs beneath a thin ticking mattress and worn chenille spread, a battered wooden dresser, possibly of 1920s vintage, and a straight wooden chair.

It is not for the décor that we love this place, but for the architecture that even two hundred intervening years of mismanagement and odd repairs (why are there Coke cans embedded in the corners of the dropped ceilings, for instance?)  cannot quench. Its massive adobe walls, deep windows shuttered in paneled wood, worn plank flooring, and bathrooms checker-boarded in ochre and cream handmade tiles make up for the traffic noise blasting up from the narrow street below, the angled repose afforded by the beds, and the general lack of cleanliness.

I like to think that possibly Pancho Villa slept, or at least screwed, in these rooms. It’s that kind of place. And so close to the Cathedral and the central square of the old city that the bells, in the night, always seem to herald the dawning of a new day of milagros and answered prayers.

I awoke the next morning to the chiming of Matins, and the hollow rumble of a trash truck making its rounds. By Lauds, I was sitting up in bed, reviewing photos from the previous day, feeling happier than I had in many months. There was the horse’s head, on which I had particularly focused during the castration. His lips were drawn back in a grimace of anguish and pain, his head lifted from the dirt of the corral at a strange angle, as if, alone free among his roped and tied appendages, it could take off, leaving this torture behind him. If only I could have transported him to San Judas Tadeo, perhaps there would have been help for his Dilemma, too.

It’s recollections like this that both urge me to return to Mexico and scream out in my mind, “Are you CRAZY?” The new novel, however, deserves the refreshing influx of the particular madness that is Chihuahua, and I expect that, barring being disappeared by a cartel or detained at the border as a Person of Interest, I’ll be reporting to you, one day soon, about the latest adventures of Javier and me, in our as-yet unnamed wrecker. ¡Así es la vida!


FIESTA OF SMOKE front coverSuzan Still is the author of Fiesta of Smoke and Commune of Women. You can learn more about her and her books at our website.

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On December 19, 2013
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