Wednesday, September 30, 2015

1979 (Book Zero)

Spread from Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) (Source: The Newberry Library)

Ponce, Puerto Rico was the world I once knew best. It was a small city nestled on a leeward coastal plain, intensely hot, strangely arid, and occasionally dusty. And within this world, there was our house. Small, marble-floored, with brises-soleil and a large, concrete carport with black, cast-iron gates, it sat on the end of a cul-de-sac, Calle C D-12, on a bluff overlooking a large sugar cane field. A large Honduras pine marked the entrance to our driveway. From there, we watched as crop dusters strafed the field, the combustive whine of rotary engines sharpening in pitch as the pilots nosed their machines over the edge of the bluff, slatted wings trailing ribbons of atomized insecticide that descended on the houses in a murky, cooling cloud. Then there were the pre-harvest burn-offs—large, controlled fires that singed the leaves off the cane stalks and left a forest of draggled pikes. One never saw the flames during the day. There was only a grey billowing that smelled like burnt trash. The heated winds carried blackened slivers of ash that rained and dissolved into the air above. At night, if you looked hard enough, you could see a corona of flames through the haze. And then there were rats, scampering up the bluffs, dun phalanxes escaping the fires. Once over the edge, they helped themselves to the pigeon coop in our back yard, leaving slurries of feathers, blood, and eggshell in their inroad.

On those days without smoke, insecticide, rats (or, once even, a late-night temblor that caused the iron gates on the carport to issue an infernal clanging)—that is, on most days—it was a world for the senses. We drank lime water underneath a hurricane fence canopy braided with bougainvillea and Indian mallow, a technicolor refuge from the sun’s cruel transit. Weekends were for excursions by station wagon. Driving inland, to where the coastal plains sloped up into the humid mountains, we went to a company picnic in an abandoned sugar cane farmhouse. Land crabs scampered along dilapidated floorboards, making a clicking sound as they sidled onto the manicured, virisdescent lawns. From dusk until darkest night, the air was noisy with animal banter, from a cane toad’s solitary staccato, to the coquí’s onomatopoetic mating call. A trip through a winding road at dusk in Adjuntas led to an emergency stop by a creek bed to tend to my carsickness, revealing a scene of wonder: jittery constellations of glowing fireflies and click beetles hovering slightly above the ground, a sight rivaled only by that of a spear fisherman jumping into a phosphorescent bay at night, emerging lambent and wraith-like, as if outlined by St. Elmo’s Fire.

I often played by myself, either outside or in. And if I was not busying myself with die-cast cars and airplanes, I was always opening books. I was reading at age 2, but cannot remember the act of doing to so. I preferred the images inside encyclopedia or issues of National Geographic, searching for fighter jets, space capsules, solar systems and galaxies, anything that could be reproduced on a notebooks or graph paper with pen or pencil. That was one way in that I engaged with the world outside my home. Then there were times when my mother would wash the marble floors inside or the smooth, concrete carport with a garden hose, leaving pools of water. I would find one that was large enough and lie in it face down, turning and lowering my head so I could submerge my ear into the cool liquid. I listened as the world outside became a watery roar. The carport was my planetary conch shell, amplifying the surging of faraway oceans.


It is now May 1979, and I am in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. We moved here in February, to this little town north of Lake Charles, where my father took a position as an operations manager at a chemical plant. Our house was in a newish development, each plot of land carved out of a longleaf pine forest, with ditches running along either side of built and unbuilt streets. During the hot and hazy afternoons, my brother and I would run out to these ditches and check our crawfish traps. We evaded horseflies and if feeling mischievous, would catch as many dragonflies as possible, folding their wings back so we could look closely at their glazed eyes and alien mandibles. One of our neighbors had an impressive collection of reptiles, and an equally impressive swimming pool, with an unusually springy diving board that would cause panic in even the most forgiving of home insurance adjusters. We rode dirt bikes into the pine forest, jumping off ramps fashioned out of planks and logs. My room had a set of French doors that opened up into a glen, and beyond that, the hazy effluvia from a nearby bayou.

Only a couple months earlier, I was in a second-grade classroom, staring through jalousie windows as a midday cloud burst overcame the green mountains. My new classroom had fake wood paneling and clerestory windows that offered no views outside. Even if they did, the scenery that would have been revealed was altogether different: a two-lane road with gas stations, strip malls, used car dealerships, and bait-and-tackle stores. My mother drove us into town on that same road. I pressed the black bakelite buttons on the radio, switching between the FM and AM bands, trying to find a station that was in English. Puerto Rico may have been remote and surrounded by water, but Western Louisiana was a portal to the world. I spoke Spanish at home, stumbled with English at school, and took French grammar lessons before lunch. Our teacher was a tall woman from Belgium (or at least that was my recollection) who wore long, grey wool skirts. She began each lesson by slowly unrolling a large piece of purple felt that she hung from the blackboard. From a canvas sack, she produced velcro-backed black-and-white cutout drawings of objects that would be covered in that day's vocabulary lessons. As we repeated "Je conduis la voiture," she stuck the car on the felt, adding trees, houses, and people. When it came teaching us "La Marseillaise" and other songs, she replaced these with the French flag, birds without tailfeathers, and children sleeping in beds.

On a warm midmorning, sometime during May 1979, my second grade teacher appeared at our door bearing a gift: a hardbound copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Call it Book Zero, the first I ever knew of as “a book.” It was not so much a bunch of pages with words in a language I was struggling with, but a thing that one person gave to another, evidence of an exchange, something one did to be nice. I was not exactly sure what the occasion was for this book, but giving it to me was as important as the book itself. I had no idea who Huckleberry Finn was, or for that matter, Mark Twain. I knew that Louisiana was close to Mississippi, and yet I had an inkling that the book would be forever linked to this particular place and this time. If, as Emily Dickinson counsels, “There is no frigate like a book,” then this one given to me on a hot afternoon in Southwestern Louisiana was more fata morgana than Flying Dutchman. It was an airy, fleeting prologue to the worlds beyond bedroom and printed page, an illusion so tangible and affecting, so altering.

[Note: this is the piece I read aloud at Horizon House in Indianapolis, Monday, 28 September, as part of the Public Collection initiative. For more information, visit . Many thanks to Stuart Hyatt for allowing me to be part of this wonderful project]

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