Off We Go Again!
As I watched Hubert Elmer Bachman walk toward me from the other side of the park in his queer gait, jerky and mincing, leaning slightly forward and balanced on the balls of his feet, it occurred to me that he was unlike other Gringos here in that he hadnít chosen to live in San Miguel Allende at all. He was an exile. And he hated his life here. At home in Brooklyn, Hubert had been an ordinary man, who, as he said, had lived in most extraordinary circumstances, in what for most people would be a no manís land strewn with land mines and booby traps. Yet, Hubert once told me, it had seemed like an enchanted kingdom where even cold realities were somehow magical - even if, as he expressed it, gloriously predictable - and promised to be eternal. Instead, his gods, as he called his former bosses and his familiar enemies, had shuttled him off on a journey into an unknown and unwanted world. His Mexico was not an enchanted land but his own hell.
His San Miguel didnít count in Hubertís scale of values. It was populated with ordinary people who had lived ordinary lives in Kansas City or Charlottesville but who now were convinced they were living on the dangerous side of life here on the frontier of civilization. I often recalled his wry grin and speculated on what he meant that once youíve associated with gods, mortals are so insignificant.
No sooner had we sat down at a green iron table in his flagstone patio than the doorbell rang, loud, insistent, exigent, four or five times. Rage flashed across Hubertís face. "Quien es?" he shouted. No answer from outside. "Quien es?" he yelled again. No answer. Disgust and fury at home in his eyes, he stood up, his hands on his hips. After a hesitation he opened the gate and spoke to a wizened old Chichimec I could see standing on the street with his hat in his hand, surrounded by three tiny dark children and four skinny donkeys.
"No, gracias, nada tierra," Hubert said softly. He didnít want any dirt today, he hadnít wanted any yesterday or any of the days before when the same man rang that same long and hard ring at his gate. He gazed severely at the old man who stared back at him fixedly and then added in English, "and I will not want any wood either when winter returns." He slammed the door violently enough to make even the donkeys jump and trot away.
"I canít take it anymore. Every morning the same thing. I know his ring. Itís infuriating that he never answers. He hears me very well. The Indio just wants to see my face and lift his white cowboy hat in deference to a rich Gringo. Iíve even dreamed about him. Crazy old man! Just because I once bought a load of dirt from him. Itís as if we had some kind of relationship or something."
It was already hot. The insidious sun was burning black. Everybody said that the sun was guilty of the madness of the town. But, it would rain again in the afternoon. The August days were muggy that year, unnatural at 7000 feet, surprising since the coldest winter local people remembered had lasted until March. Hubert had worked for months cutting and uprooting plants and small trees and replanting and reseeding his garden ruined by the unusual freeze. Now young vines and bougainvillea were climbing up the exterior walls of the house. Water in a little pond under a tree was still and murky. It had been raining hard every afternoon for the last month.
"Paradise!" he snickered. "Eternal spring! I hate this climate. If I have to put up with this rain, then Iíll take Brooklyn! Give me Prospect Park anytime over this phony Juárez Park. This is not real life. Itís all illusion. Like those papier maché Judas figures in Holy Week."
Nostalgia for Brooklyn had soured Hubertís San Miguel; he hated the constant fiestas, holy days, the Great Revolution parade, the Day of the Dead. He passed his waking hours and his daydreams in the grasp of images of his former "real" life where nothing was illusion - not even dreams. When I commented that the good climate was the reason so many Gringos spent the winters here, he glared at me with his close set eyes and said sardonically that that was not the real reason Americans came here. "They come for the cheap cost of living and servants Ö and to escape their placid lives in the States. There have to be lots of compensations for the contaminated water weíre always boiling, the chronic bronchitis and the amoebas ... the eternal dust and this shitty climate."
Hubert walked around a bit, a troubled look in his eyes. He checked that the gate was securely shut and threw a pebble in the fountain. "How I detest the word expatriate," he said.
As far as Hubert was concerned, San Miguel Gringos didnít even qualify as expatriates - even if they liked to think of themselves that way. All of them ran back home at every opportunity - Christmas, their daughtersí birthdays, summer vacations. He instead was an exile. And he claimed that the weather that others praised so much was responsible for the hopelessness of his situation. The climate was part of his punishment, the price he was paying for making wrong choices back in Brooklyn.
Moreover he detested Spanish. It was the silent "h" that irritated him most. Even his Mexican wife Ė for me she was one of the great contradictions of his life in chaos - had problems with his name because of that "h". She either dropped it where it belonged or put an "h" where it didnít belong. He winced when instead of Hubert Elmer she called him "Ubert Helmer." It irritated him. He cared about his full name and wanted to be called properly, Hubert Elmer Bachman, as heíd been known in his law practice in Brooklyn. His parents and siblings had after all made sacrifices for his education and law school. He needed his full name. "Ubert" was demeaning. Clumsy. Undignified. That unpronounced first consonant in "Hubert" was emblematic of his condemnation to eternal silence, far from Prospect Park and Bensonhurst - emblematic of his exile.
Heíd only learned to say nada tierra and nada leña to protect himself from the donkey salesmen who rang his bell twice a day, as he said, just to see his face - there was something about Hubertís narrow, almost emaciated face and sunken close set eyes and long blond hair and his angry English language that fascinated the Indios, as if he were some kind of blond god from the North - maybe he was Quetzalcoatl resurrected.
Hubert had heeded the advice of one old time resident that "Spanish is not necessary here" and, despite his wifeís admonitions, adamantly refused to learn the language. If heíd spoken any foreign language, he said, it wouldíve been Italian - or Sicilian. If he had he probably wouldnít be here today. His life wouldíve turned out differently. Heíd have been on the winning side, back there in Brooklyn, among the victorious clans today.
"Why should I learn Spanish?" he said to his friends when they teased him about his total lack of effort or even interest in learning the language. "My wifeís Spanish is enough." It wasnít that he didnít have the time to attend one of the excellent language schools in San Miguel. He could have enrolled in one of the courses for foreigners, or engaged a private teacher. But for him, he said, learning Spanish would be acquiescence to his condemnation to eternal exile. Instead he spent his time moping around the house, reading a bit, gardening, or occasionally sitting on the benches in the Jardín chatting with other Gringos actively engaged in filling up their days Ė the ones who had convinced themselves that they were enjoying a fascinating, even a risky life in a borderline country but who in reality missed "back home." Hubert seldom talked about his pre-exile sentiments. He never wrote nor received a letter. He didnít keep a diary.
If he felt like an iceberg in San Miguel, his isolation had begun in Brooklyn when his employers were defeated by the Italian speakers in territorial wars and he was tactfully sent to California, and subsequently to Mexico. The victors had nothing against him. They might have kept him - were he Italian. But they were generous, he said, and gave him an adequate retainer and requested that he leave the country. He should keep quiet. In all his years here heíd maintained the low profile as ordered. Once, drunk at Thanksgiving dinner, he confided to me that even marrying Renata was part of his front - although heíd almost gotten used to her.
It was true. The Hubert that people here saw was a stranger. Only his deformed name remained. The rest of his story was submerged. Not even his wife knew where he really came from or suspected his isolation and solitude. She was only aware of the superficial aspects of his Mexican life Ė she was irritated that he refused to learn Spanish and would never take her to the United States. Not even one shopping trip to New York. Those things were important for her big family and strained their marital situation, which didnít seem to disturb Hubert. And for those reasons she regularly packed her bags and "returned" to her parentsí home in Monterrey.
But how could he reveal to her that he was forbidden to set foot in the United States? he asked. The victors were afraid he might be arrested and talk about them - and indeed he knew a lot. Therefore he was wary, constantly jittery, his nerves raw. He once said he was afraid of some Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern spying on him. That was when he told me wistfully about the time in high school when heíd played the role of the Ghost in Hamlet. The best time of his life, he said.
A breeze was blowing gently down from the Chorro, over the back wall of the patio, rippling the long leaves of the palm trees. It sang through the dancing drapes of the open doors of his house, up the stairs and out the rear windows, spreading calm across the lower quarters of the town. Yet you knew it would be short-lived. After lunch clouds would begin gathering, appearing mysteriously from beyond the Sierra to the east. By four or five the thunder would rumble over the Bajío and lightening would strike around the artificial lakes and the parks and the rain would pour for half an hour or more.
"Ubert! Who was eet?" Her voice rising on the last word of her question, Renata stepped through the drapes and joined us at the table. She was carrying a silver tray with espresso coffees and sugar and cream. His wife was an intelligent woman but that silent "h" hung like an iron curtain between them.
Renata was white, upper class, rich, educated, apparently with nothing in common with the Indios like the dirt vendor or the working class mestizos. She said that sometimes she felt like a foreigner in her own country. Hubert thought of her that way too. What, she said, did she and her entrepreneur father have to do with a country of dark-skinned illiterates?
"No one," Hubert murmured.
"What do you mean, no one? I heard the long ring."
"No one. Just the dirt vendor, with his donkeys and children."
"Oh," she said.
"Poor old man!" If he raged at the invasive ring and concealed his real feelings about everything, I knew he felt compassion for the plight of that dirt vendor and his herd of little donkeys and gang of children. The web of poverty and ignorance that hung over the lower town saddened him. At times, when he was pissed at Renata, he said he could identify more with them than with rich white Mexicans, for they were the real strangers in their own country - as he now was in his.
In fact, he reflected, he was two times a stranger, in his own as well as in theirs. Several times heíd read to me quotations from the Franciscan, Juan de San Miguel, the founder of San Miguel Allende 450 years ago, who sang his canticles of love in order to baptize-civilize "the naked, pagan, rat-eating, Christian-scalping, uncivil, dirty dogs of Chichimecs."
"Well, Ubert, you are a fine person to speak. Poor old man! you say. You shout so mad every time he rings. You do not have to hate him." "Ate eem," she pronounced it, her voice rising charmingly on the last word of every sentence, which seemed to grate on Hubertís raw nerves.
"What do you know?" Hubert said, turning away from her and observing his own image alongside ours reflected in the picture window outside which we were sitting. It seemed he was about to jump out of his skin.
"How can you know?... Iím fifty years old and still I donít even know who I am. Weíre just props. Those are the real people Ö out there." He waved his thin hand vaguely toward the gate and beyond. He meant the people down in the San Juan de Dios quarter and those in the never completed houses and the shanties on the hill on the road toward Atotonilco and Dolores Hidalgo, which a sign identified as "Olympus" and under which some Chichimec satirist had written with black paint in sprawling letters: "home of the gods."
That September, in an attempt to jolt himself out of his apathy, Hubert on a whim joined the townís amateur theater group - the old hands were always on the lookout for fresh volunteers. He was given a minor part in a play written by a local playwright. His talent was immediately recognized. When the imminent drama professor from the University of Tennessee, George C. McCormick, who, wintering in San Miguel as heíd done the last three years, began casting Waiting For Godot, the first part he assigned was Hubert as Vladimir.
McCormick found that Hubertís stage presence, his character, his frame of mind, his solitude, the hopelessness of a man waiting for an absent god written in his eyes, reflected Beckettís world on the outer edge of existence - "...if not a world beyond extinction," he pontificated from his directorís chair one hot afternoon. Moreover he thought Hubert Elmer looked like the romantic Vladimir.
On opening night the two front rows spontaneously rose to their feet and cheered after Hubert-Vladimir on front stage sighed and expressed his own personal resignation with Beckettís words, "Off we go again," and the curtain fell.
From the front row I could read it in his face: Hubertís Godot would not come tomorrow either. He would never come to Hubertís wasteland. Up there on the stage Hubertís isolation was eternal. He was too demoralized to even talk. Beckett suited him just fine.
In the past months Hubert had found a substitute for a missing life. Taking his curtain call there on the barren stage in his wide tramps shoes, his clothes in shreds, his hair standing straight up, his beard fuzzy, and a puzzled look in his eyes, he was a study of human immobility in the face of the disappearance of the gods. He was alone. Yet the sudden discovery that he was a natural actor had changed his life. Heíd found his escape hatch. In a way, heíd been an actor all his adult life. He had to be to survive as long as he did in that ambiance of semi-legalized criminality and the vagaries of the law, to defend one before the other, without ever knowing where he truly belonged.
In a rare indiscretion in his dressing room before the curtain went up he told me that he often looked in the mirror and asked himself, "How can I know if Iíve ever been true to myself, I donít even know who I am." He said that no one recognizes the complex self-deceptions one engages in to escape the sad truth of self-knowledge - like his hiding in the wasteland under the guise of an expatriate. Each time he dressed for the stage, he felt like the matador dressing in a hotel near the arena, slowly, meticulously, as if for the final act. Each act might be his final one.
"And for what?" He said that he liked the Vladimir role but envied Estragon each time the tramp tried to escape, turning his back on the danger and saying, "Iím leaving."
Professor McCormick was so enthusiastic about Hubert-Vladimir that heíd telephoned a Mexican drama critic in Mexico City who once studied with him in Knoxville and advised him not to miss "his" Beckett and to "spread the word." A star was being born and he wanted to be the midwife. The critic sat in the first row together with two friends from the theater and cinema world of the Mexican capital.
Now, residents of the art town of San Miguel, many of whom at home never frequent theaters or art exhibits or chamber music concerts, are particularly reverent in the face of any manifestation of art and creativity. Once they arrive in San Miguel they are mysteriously transformed into artists and connoisseurs of the arts. I donít have to describe the emotion that swept over the entire Peralta Theater, from Instituto Allende students in the hot balconies to the front rows packed with art lovers and theater critics and musicians and journalists and writers, when Hubert-Vladimir and Estragon - the latter played by the local painter Allan Crillon - engaged in Beckettís famous, wry, sparse duet set outside of all time, while the desert space of the setting floated through the theater like music from the universe.
"... so we wonít hear all the dead voices," says Estragon.
"They make a noise like wings," says Hubert-Vladimir.
The duet goes on: "Like leaves. Like sand. Like leaves. They speak all at once. Each one to itself. They whisper. They murmur. They rustle.... They talk about their lives."
"To have lived is not enough for them," Vladimir says.... "To be dead is not enough for them.... They make a noise like feathers."
"Like ashes," says Estragon.
"Like leaves," says Hubert-Vladimir with a sigh.
Total silence reigned in the theater. Spectators seemed to have stopped breathing. I stared at Hubert. The song of the universe was written in his eyes. The echo of the eternal wanderer. A song from the after-life of man. As if it were his last gesture. All is futile, Hubert was saying, while Renata beside me cried.
Hubert was indeed a fine actor. No one who saw him as Vladimir would doubt that. Who is he? the critics asked. Where did he come from? Whatís his theatrical background?
"Why is Hubert Elmer Bachman hiding in San Miguel?" wrote the suspicious critic of a small arts magazine in Mexico City after hearing from his colleagues of Hubertís extraordinary Vladimir and examining his photograph made by a San Miguel photographer, which began circulating among art desks of Mexicoís major newspapers. Soon after, an interview in the local weekly, La Atención - which caused no particular stir in phlegmatic Hubert - landed on the desks of big national newspapers.
However even Hubert was astounded by an interview with him published on the first page of the culture supplement of the Sunday edition of the influential La Reforma, with a 6" by 4" photograph of him as Vladimir in center page, all translated to him by a now proud Renata. Now she had something to telephone home about.
And as happens in the world of journalism, one interview led to the other. Gringo or not, no cultural desk in Mexico City could not report on Hubertís Waiting For Godot.
Huge trucks of television teams from Mexico City animated Hubertís once quiet street in the Guadiana quarter. The reporters were delighted by the arrival of the donkey salesman and his children and Hubertís shouts of "Quien es?" from inside the patio.
However there was a downside to the extraordinary changes in his life. The more Renata was excited by the notoriety, the more Hubert gave himself over to speculation. He worried about echoes from his gods in Brooklyn of his sudden fame. How would they react? This was not the low profile they counseled. Was there some concealed danger to them in the publicity surrounding "their man in Mexico?" Hubert feared he would be called to some accounting.
But his fame spread. As the performance was repeated in the next weeks, theater barons from Mexico City flocked to San Miguel. The Peralta was eternally sold out. Professor George C. McCormick achieved an undreamed of renown. And Hubert wondered what he was to do.
Since he loved gin, a hangover from the old days of his Brooklyn gods who admired gin, and the very significance of gin, we often sat at Tio Robertoís over gin and tonic, martini cocktails and even Hemingwayian Montgomerys and discussed the meaning of life.
"You wouldnít believe it," Hubert moaned late one January evening. The Mexican winter season was in full swing. The front room of the bar was dark. Salsa music sounded from the restaurant in the patio. Hubert was morose. "Theyíve offered me to do Endgame in the English Theater in Mexico City," he said sadly. "Even movie feelers are arriving ... from the United States too. Can you imagine!"
"You have something special," I offered. Hubert in that moment was the least vain, the least ambitious person Iíd ever encountered, the most unlikely actor one could imagine.
"Itís all so weird," he said with his habitual sigh. "Thereís lots of money involved, you know."
"Thatís always welcome." I offered.
"I donít need it," he said laconically. "But thereís more to it than that," he said. "Iím afraid!" Then, grinning, "Iím leaving."
But he didnít leave and never again seemed to want to. Fame regaled him with a new confidence. In February in the English language theater in Mexico City Hubert played Vladimir alongside a well-known American actor in the role of Estragon, achieving the same success as in San Miguel. American journalists and movie and TV producers went to see for themselves this by now widely publicized American-Mexican actor.
The "phenomenon," they had labeled him.
The upshot of it all however was that the enthusiasm of Mexican TV and theatrical producers cooled when it became known that Hubert spoke only about five words of Spanish and could not possibly attain sufficient knowledge of that language this season, while for reasons of personal security Hubert had to reject any offers that required his presence in the United States.
Fortunately, he told me over his martinis, neither went down well with Renata. She demanded that he speak Spanish, immediately, and continue his booming career in the capital. Or, as an alternative, that they accept the offers in the United States. She couldnít understand when he refused both.
It was hardly a surprise that an empty house awaited him when he returned home after six good performances in Mexico City. Renata had left only a note that he liked to show somewhat gleefully to his friends as proof of her perfidy:
Dear Ubert, I have returned home for good.
You can call me when you learn to speak Spanish
or when you are ready to take me to New York.
Hubert was as if liberated. Part of his front had fallen. He was on his own. His life was full. A new Hubert, alone and apparently fearless, began partaking in the delights of San Miguel for the first time during his exile. The March days were splendid, perfect for swimming at Taboada or the Hotel Puertecita, outdoor lunches every day and languid evenings under Chinese lanterns swinging in the breeze. Hubert continued in the amateur theater, studying drama and learning new roles and broadening his general background.
We were all surprised when at parties he began speaking halting but improving Spanish - despite or because of Renata heíd enrolled in an accelerated beginners course at a language institute near his house. The newspaper vendor at the Jardín was confused when the famous Gringo rejected the English-language The News and asked for La Jornada; he was probably the only Gringo in San Miguel to read that left-wing daily.
His favorite expression at every problem or threat - Renata, Brooklyn, the climate - became, "Iím leaving," accompanied by a wide grin. "If I have to live in the wasteland, I donít need a wife. Especially not one like Renata Ė who only dreams of New York. Incredible," he said, "the amateur theater here is all I really need. Itís Beckett too, and Vladimir. I can wait here. Or abandon. Just as I like. Itís the substitute - for all I lost. For my missing life."
One late morning we were sprawled on deck chairs in his flourishing garden and he was boasting of his discovery of "the real Mexico" when the loud insistent ring from the gate sounded through the house.
Hubert grinned at me and said, "Thatís Mexico calling." He stood up, calling "ya voy, ya voy," Iím coming, and strolled casually to the gate. He pushed the electric release button, opened the iron door gently, and said to the old Chichimec with a smile, "Gracias, hoy necesito un poco de tierra." I do need some dirt today.
The other nodded gravely to his children and made to introduce one of the dirt-laden donkeys into the garden.
Since leaving journalism some three years ago Gaither Stewart has been writing fiction full time. He hails from Asheville, North Carolina, but has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad and has written for various newspapers and magazines in Europe. He recently lived for a year in San Miguel Allende in central Mexico in order to research and write the second part of a novel that takes place in Italy and Mexico. He lives in Rome.