|Street Of Wounded Mercedes|
by Philip Daugherty
Duende burns the blood like broken glass
Heading south from Barcelona, I barely caught the night train. Unable to find an empty compartment I was welcomed by three Spanish gypsies sharing an evening meal. I took a seat and accepted their offered hospitality, a sliver of apple balanced on the edge of a knife like a new moon.
The men still smelled of vineyards they'd worked in the South of France. Their features, burnished by a summer picking grapes, were rosy with the wine they were heartily consuming. When the carriage lights lit up, one man unlocked his guitar case and began to play. Strumming tentative tremolos he warmed to his work until his right hand became a blur.
Soon flamenco filled the compartment. The guitarist hunched over his instrument, attracting passengers who came to lean through the doorway and pass a bota of red wine. The guitarist needed little encouragement. Playing, he acquired an abstract stare, listening to an intelligence from far away. His hair was thick and black, an unruly curtain that hung over his brow. At softer places he emerged from his musical concentration to search our eyes. His instrumental skill was practiced, fluid and relentlessly compelling.
I was happy to have fallen in with an energetic tribe whose speech was laced with Calo, a gypsy dialect. I remembered their migrant clan in the north country of England. The gypsies came through my village and sold onions, told fortunes which they called dukkering, stole milk from our doorsteps and set clever snares along the hedgerows for rabbits, which they sold. I wanted to follow their painted caravans and live barefoot like the gypsy lads sliding off horses tethered under the hawthorn trees, where bombs had scattered Vicker's dairy into a brick- strewn lot. I snuck out with Billy Robson that night to watch the travelers drink and dance. Hiding in the shadows,we were spotted and hauled into the campfire circle which was a deal more fun than lying in cold wet grass. Coming home I was walloped for smelling of smoke, not wearing shoes and playing with 'dirty tinkers.'
Here on the train, music mingled with bread, wine and worn work clothes of my companions and made the the carriage scene close and familiar. The men possessed an instinct for camaraderie, against the fleet darkness of the windows their easy elegance spoke of a restless, outcast people conditioned to spontaneous pleasure by centuries of persecution. I sensed a fragility in our journey heightened by its speeding passage. I took out my journal to scribble what I hoped became a gypsy ballad. Recalling a Greek hospitality that affirms 'all strangers are sent by God,' I wrote... a time must come
in the lives of many men
to make a gesture of their sacred hours.
Flamenco has a hypnotic force. Its rhythmic ferocity charges ahead then abruptly quits; nothing lingers but a sensual absence that abandon listeners on the edge of their soul. This train music certainly captured more than my ear.
The night flashed as the train scuttled through coastal towns. The guitarist could make no mistakes and vineyard hands, fast as dove wings, clapped a leathery beat. The youngest gitano took out a Gauloise packed with kiff and passed it around. Singing, sweet smoke and raw exuberance attracted more night travelers.
Our party continued over narrow rails that only fit Spanish trains. There was no room to dance nor castanets to provide the traditional clatter of Kali's teeth, instead the guitarist strummed to the track's insistent flattery of life and death.
One man flashed folded cash he'd earned picking French grapes and showed off a frayed snapshot of two freshly washed and combed children. Meanwhile we all clapped to sustain the pulse of every tune and took turns furiously gasping the Moroccan kiff as if soon to be hurled from some impossible height into the sea because
those who dance, those who sing know
time is a game of light
between the Sun and the Moon.
The music and the wine held a steady course, so did the train caterpillaring south from the Costa Brava's broken coastline as it had so many nights-- a resolute, mechanical destiny that binds wanderers' temporary fate. I slid my fragmentary ballad into my pack.
By morning we crossed the Rio Tauria, rattled into Valencia and clambered off the train, a bedraggled hungover crew. On the platform the guitarist scribbled an address on a torn rail ticket. After sleepy handshakes, I was directed to check out a local lodging.
I walked half way around a broad plaza, turned down a narrow street and checked into the seedy hotel suggested by my companions. I soon lay studying my room's ochre ceiling grained with reefs of nicotine. A lone window was bricked over and the bed was lumpy, but I drifted off. Asleep in a shifting limbo state that was still travel, I hastened down an endless train corridor witnessing scenes neither past nor present, flash windows of fragmented realization.
I awoke some hours later to record a few frayed images in a notebook and explore my digs. Some refuges are drafty in the way they admit their character; this pension was no exception. The room reeked of some barbarous fumigant. Opening a bedside cabinet, its drawer revealed two hypodermic needles. A torn carpet under ashtray furniture led to an ominous gestapo toilet. In the bare hall, footsteps creaked as though each guest strained to remain unheard. I had to get out of there.
In the late afternoon the taxi dropped me on a street cluttered with partially dismantled Mercedes. At a small shop I bought a local wine, a raffia bottle of tinto from a woman with iron gray hair and a face of weathered chestnut. Fumbling to count small change, she shrugged despairingly. I pushed the coins toward her and displayed the name on my scribbled ticket stub. Examining it, the senora remembered: Si senor. Los calderos, she said, muy cerca senor. She guided me to a building railed with balconies and handed me over to a gypsy kid .
The boy led me past a stairwell where two furtive teenagers in leather jackets brusquely turned their backs. Further down this corridor, I was delivered into a spacious apartment. The quarters were one expansive high ceilinged room furnished with a random mix of stuffed sofas, captains chairs, assorted carpets and fat pillows. The plaster walls were hung with sample pieces of hand beaten copper ware. On one side a tremendous kitchen's panel of hooks suspended paella pans, kettles, braided onions, garlic and below these, regiments of olive oil, vinegar, bundled cooking herbs and steel utensils on a grand restaurant scale.
Tidy despite its numerous occupants, the place smelled of cigarette smoke and dusty wool carpets. Three men and a squad of children bundled on and around one of the sofas turned from a rowdy television soccer match to appraise me.
I waited for someone to beckon me forward. The same man--I recognized him from the train--.advanced, shook my hand then spoke quickly to an older woman who came from behind a butcher block table where she was varnishing pomegranates. The woman reached into her blouse and morosely threw a roll of bills onto the table. Taking this clue, I pinched out my wad of pesetas and planted them alongside the bottle of wine. With a cash reserve stashed in my boot, I hoped this offering would rekindle a spark yet not appear so generous as to provoke my hosts into considering me a gajo, a gypsy's easy mark.
Seeing my cash,the senora recovered her own bills and returned to the task of varnishing her pomegranates. My train friend grabbed the money and vanished with his mates.
I was immediately swarmed by gypsy kids assailing me with giggled attempts at American slang. A wide eyed girl in polyester bunny slippers and a crucifix at her throat, scrutinized my palm, announcing : OK? Here it eez buena fortuna.OK? The others hovered around winking at one another and staring cockily at a stranger.
I was relieved when three men returned and chased the kids out to help safari in food and drink. More guests arrived. These newcomers passed around an acrid pipe then began uncorking wine and opening guitar cases. Clearly a party was underway. Absently checking my wrist I realized my watch was gone. A flea market ticker, it wouldn't be missed. I wondered if the little bunny footed urchin was the thief but she returned my prying stare and raised wrist with a wide eyed insolence.
Accompanied now by raucous kids, riveting guitar chords, green olives and sliced platters of fruits, sausages and cheeses, an old song started again. It was a familiar tune and knew its way underfoot. The room gathered criss cross conversations infiltrated by children filching cigarettes. Amid this tumult of runny nosed anarchy, the musicians made a semi circle of chairs and bent their heads to serious flamenco and tremulous rhumbas. The women took turns dancing with one another. New arrivals joined in. One narrow hipped male dancer displayed bursts of style whenever the music moved him. Soon the guitarists were seduced by a steady beat, so was everyone else.
By now the party had acquired its own life, a coltish determined existence too familiar to my somewhat bored train hosts who signaled me to step away from its heat. We strolled outside and shared a trinket of brandy. A gallant moon tinted the sky. Hints of diesel leaking from abandoned Mercedes wafted down the street. One of the gypsies spoke good English with a heavy cockney tilt. The four of us strolled, until atop a flight of steps, the flask went empty. We decided to walk back and flung into one of the still drivable car wrecks, running intersections until we hit Calle Jativa, an avenue that led to the Plaza de Toros.
Valencia's doric Plaza de Toros, built on the ruins of a Roman amphitheater still echoes Flavio Marcello's original gladiator arena. The arena faces the train station and a steady police presence patrolled its circumference. Four Guardia Civil shouldering machine pistols lounged by the dimly illuminated main gate.
The cockney speaking driver laughed as he parked brazenly on the sidewalk. We ducked out of the car and ran across the plaza, skulking between colonnades of the abattoir where bulls were butchered and their meat once distributed to the poor after a corrida, where we relieved ourselves in the shadows and watched two cops stroll off down the avenida. Then we ran to clamber over a tall barred gate gripping its row of spikes before dropping down.
To our right, a wall intersected a low building with an iron rain spout spiked into its stones. The smallest gitano scurried up and the others followed urging me along. I monkey'd up the drainpipe onto the top of the wall which was well above head high and laid up in flinty stone. Five steps along, a leafy shade tree hung down. Feeling my way through the branches I heard a snort like a horse asking a question in the night. I stopped very close to the driver who touched my arm and pointed: below loomed the silhouette of five bulls darker than darkness. You don't wannter drop into that lot mate, the driver warned me.
Barely wide enough to accommodate our feet, the wall's top stones had luckily been plastered level. Nonetheless I looked ahead for steadiness. Out of habit I wore rough out cowboy boots, their heels wedged by a fondness for scuffing when I danced. The fear of dropping into a thicket of bull horns distilled my senses. I shuffled forward smelling a familiar ammonia of herded cattle. Shadowy walls separated other corrals, all of them also holding bulls.
I heard one animal shifting below as if the bull was arranging a ladder. Horn scraping stone made a jarring sound. These bulls had a slow dance in them too and it shifted in a restless vigil. Here and there moonlight reflected a hoof's polish or an eye's gleam although more of the animals could be heard than seen.
Listening's strain heightened inner memories. Standing in the night air I heard my mother calling as she had when I ran between colliery houses to scavenge coal on the train tracks against Northumberland's wintery cold. Many years after, she still called from the grave, a ghostly voice heard usually when I was in a jam.
I was brought into the moment by another sound. It was the English speaking driver, murmuring a nightrider ballad to quiet the bulls. Distracted, a halting step came close to landing me in the corral. Regaining balance I remembered my mother's usual castigation when I came home with bloody knees and my jersey full of stolen apples: Ye will hang me lad, she'd say, by God ye will hang.
Much closer to this rueful warning was the toros' fate. In a few days, they'd be killed, dragged unceremoniously from the ring and hung on a hook.
The driver urged me to tightrope after his lead. We lowered ourselves into a walled lane that led to the chiqueros, chutes holding a bull before it is goaded into fight. The arena gate was blocked by an unharnessed drag used to rake sand. We used this rig to boost themselves over the arena's encircling walls and walked across the deserted bullring.
Sand tidily combed into concentric furrows yielded to our heels adding to a sense of violating prepared ground. Only reefs of a few motionless clouds blunted each horizon. Above the rows of stadium seats two tiers of benches circled the arena under a parapet. The benches offered refuge to urban ghosts, a throng of local junkies nodding in vague, insubstantial patience. This strung out crowd was allowed nightly into the stadium under a requirement that they'd keep off the streets until morning if they stayed in the bleachers and off the arena.
The three gypsies and I formed a small close circle. A waft of dewy sand and marrowy blood lifted its stale spoor. Amused, the watching junkies offered feeble applause to the four indistinct visitors trespassing below and hurled encouragement or discouragement, it was hard to tell as their jeers were in Valeciane and eerily muted .
The driver tossed his chin toward the cadaverous mob and punched his cigarette toward his arm miming the act of shooting up. The fluency of his cockney English was amusing.
Don't pay that lot no attention mate. It's the usual chivute come to wait for their picador. Course he's never going to arrive. I was left out on the snow myself once. When the money I owed dealers scared me outta London I was so strung out me own mum didn't recognize me.
I believed him. The driver had the boney leanness of a young man but his cheeks were scooped and his crowfoot eyes aged from past addiction. Exhaling a cumulus of smoke from his shrinking cigarette, the driver snapped his head side to side, slowly extended his arms in a symbolic cross, and stamped his feet, in disdain of death, he explained, because his tribe viewed the dead as unclean. He narrated how his friends came to trespass the arena's expensive blood, incidentally provoking its squatters but muy importante, to dance, in compensation for those who don't.
Where are the cops? I inquired, thinking of their submachine guns.
The driver shrugged. Working this plaza is retirement.Old coppers wouldn't run.arfter you even if they could. Besides, it makes them feel righteous seeing gypsies and junkies under one roof. Spanish coppers aren't as polite as London. God bless it, a lot of 'em are on the take.
I'm not from London. I interjected.
Can't help that can you. The Isle o' Dogs is where I was. Never got a passport coz my mum is from Castile. Me an her younger bruvver flogged antiques in the East End, some of 'em not very old antiques, know what I mean? Had a stall off Portabello Road. The London dicks was down our froats. They'd call you 'sir' mind you an never took a penny. They was about to nick me so what with the drugs and all I buggered off, back here to Spain.
Eager to get on the other two gypsies coughed impatiently.
In reflection, long after Spain, I sensed that if more people danced it might cast grace onto a wider world. I was no gypsy but still a razzmatazz case: my rambling father, a singing water in New York in the '30s, would soft shoe to the crackle of bacon in a pan. Later, seduced by popular music there seemed no other freedom that touched every line and curve of bones. Dancing kindled a spark I've seen in spirits as diverse as Topanga hippy girls, Greek fishermen, Cheyenne fancy dancers, Broadway hoofers and round bellied Cairo women. I'd dance with them drunk, sober or just high on music. Here in the arena, I watched my companions form slow mudras with their hands and began taking gypsy steps down the old salt road worn by the shamanic journeys of exiled men.
I listened, letting impulse fuel my own dance in the dirt. We clapped, jumped, stomped and lent a knee to earth, shouting declarations to remembered lovers, each one of us shaping a zambra until its shadows shriveled to gollums of fading darkness and our dusty footwork was done.
The moon was melting so were the ghosts who departed toward the gossip of another day, in a hurry because addicts have a merciless white horse to catch. The last ghost scrambled out as if left responsible for the enormous nightmare of remembering he'd soon be shivering in needle park and begging the coins to rescue hell from eternity.
My tongue tasted squamous and my head was developing a dullard's weight from too much wine. Dedicated winos develop the sensation of balancing a ball on top of their head. A Larimer Street drunk in Denver once told me this 'short dog bubble' happened with years of cheap booze fermented from fruit juice containing no grapes at all. I hoped good wine in excess
only meant a mild headache.
As Valencia's 'famous early light,' as my tour book claimed, flooded the bullring, a luminosity that had 'heralded kings' tinged the sky. We left by the high public gate careful not to hook ourselves on its helmet spikes. As we clambered over I inquired as to the meaning of chivute? The driver's reply was: whitewashers, a gypsy insult directed at people evading the truth.
Directly across the wide avenue our abandoned Mercedes tilted across its curb. Earlier, I hadn't noticed the car's ravaged condition. One door was missing as was the rear window and both headlights were dark sockets. One front tire was almost flat. Only the capital letter, MER trailed by the chrome suffix DES remained above where a bumper had been.
A weary guarda stood vigil over the vehicle, another with one boot on the front bumper tapped his little book with a pencil. Both cops seemed glum at having to be mirrored by such a graceless wreck. The gypsies apologized; they knew Spanish lawmen have itchy triggers because they believe only dead gypsies are honest gypsies. Everyone also knew, even though officially deceased, Generalissimo Franco was watching from his slit window in the sky. The officer with the book intoned a sermon from the tightrope connecting graft to morality. Everybody fidgeted on the fat cobblestones and tried to listen. The driver hinted a bribe and looked at me, so did the cops. Deciding not to resist a popular local election I suckered over five Spanish bank notes, about ten bucks at the time.
The cops left and I helped push start the car. We got in and shuddered along the boulevard back into the narrow street among the other trashed Mercedes. When we drifted back in the party was stretching its legs. I smiled back at some reprimanding glances for abandoning their scene. Some women were dancing. After a jolt of coffee I rose to face an undulating gitana who smiled invitingly. Twirling a purple skirt she kicked its layered hems and rippled her fingers. I was an easy pick.
As we began to move I noted a crescent scar on her forehead which the woman brushed self consciously: Una cicatriz, viejo-- an old scar, she said. She had a sibilant Castilian lisp as she explained her name--Lidia--meant 'the game,' a slang term for the bullfight racket.
We drifted closer. With her waist crooked in my arm, Lidia swirled easily and maintained a grave coquettishness; wherever I twirled, dipped or lifted her she was always on time. I felt transmitted heat no matter where I placed my eager hands.
We were doing pretty well and the guitars stuck with us, animating every step until our little fandango reached some ecstatic fixed point out of time, out of mind. I'd never danced so fluidly. By now my hands had done some tinkering, initiating tentative kisses. There was nowhere to go but forward. Whether this meant upstairs, downstairs, under a lamp post or under arrest, I was jail bait. Just as my enthusiasm over a lack of folds in our universe kicked in, the musicians turned sullen and their sexy rhumba ended. Lidia immediately losing interest too, absently twisted her braid, stepped aside and sat down.
Lidia's voluptuous breasts had invaded my chest. I'd imagined hovering over her gate less eyes that promised a generous and experienced banquet. She'd encouraged my adventurous embrace and my back still felt the prickling dimple of her nails. I stared cooly at the other men measuring me for the hopeful entertainment that I'd react dramatically to prove the sincerity of my lust.
A few women who'd stopped dancing approached their men to link arms, whisper and watch. Lidia sat flicking her skirts and accepted a cup of coffee. Morning revealed worn spots on the carpets and cracks behind the array of copper cauldrons that hung from the walls. Lidia sipped her drink and looked absently at my boots. Across the room a frail abuela in a black dress raised her right hand, furling it like an iris, she emitted a gypsy wail. The guitarists dutifully followed this woman's tarantas-- a song of lament, as though morning erased the night's revelry and all its music was finished.
Out of a witnessing boredom, a few men looked to me. Confronting this challenge to my brief courtship I felt a throat-tightening iron. I'd grab Lidia, taxi her to my hotel, unfold her on its porridgy bed where we'd do our eiderdown best to steam up the fake window. I was sure poems waited to sprout like weeds from my tongue and I'd garland Lidia with bushels of orchid petals stored in my loins. Fat chance. She'd chosen another mug ... of hot coffee.
I reasoned that following your zipper in Spain was risky. Spanish girls were escorted by a grandmother while their fathers watched through rifle scopes making sure daughters kept their legs crossed and socialized in groups, both eyes demurely lowered. Spanish dating etiquette refurbished the Inquisition with strictures governing virginity that divided women into virgins and sluts. I'd spotted this polarity in the way the locals ogled girls. No matter how piercingly men whistled and devoutly scratched their crotch, good Spanish senoritas offered few discounts, price breaks or summer specials, consequently there were plenty of practicing saints and plenty of practicing whores, too. This lame clich didn't help my situation.
Looking around it was likely my hosts were all dangerously connected to Lidia and had enough cutlery to carve and feed my important equipment to the cats. Fortunately most of the men detecting my ambitions were only amused. The driver sidled up and advised, Take it easy my friend, beauty can't be eaten with a spoon; the driver's words only puzzled me as he squeezed my arm amiably and left.
Our gathering was breaking up. Before it did, the almond eyed matriarch who'd been varnishing her pomegranates began demanding more cash. She was in a brusque temper animated by another shindig's mess of empty bottles and burn holes in her rugs. I guessed the woman also hated morning's irritations of rowdy children and tight trousered lotharios demanding breakfast. This woman's contempt was enjoined by two youths--I guessed one was her son-- who pointed a finger in my direction.
The louder of the two, a skinny punk kid stepped in to drill his fist into my chest and demand pay for the night's 'entertainment.' I looked around for help but there was none. The loudmouth's bullying initiated no aid from anyone else either so he settled for spitting on my boots. By my working class code spitting was micro seconds away from knuckle trouble.
The few gypsies remaining acquired a renewed interest in my situation. Seething, I heard my berserk inner herald trumpeting the call to fight, fuck or fry eggs with grizzly bears. I'd managed to travel for years without a fight but the kid pulled a knife. Looking at the blade, I hoped the kid was bluffing, a fleeting hope, because the soccer hooligan in me knew damn well he wasn't.
The punk began flaying his knife around in short circles and let fly another greasy spit wad. Feeling his drool on my only gypsy shirt I resolved myself already dead. The kid's abuse insulted hospitality consequently its Goddesses were not pleased. The Marquis of Queensbury was not going to be happy either, because I intended to displease him too. A boyhood of physical abuse licensed me a vengeful temper; forgetful of wounds that had educated me, I felt coldly and thoughtlessly nihilistic.
Fortunately, my nasty picador pointed his knife like an umbrella and rushed with his head bent in a clumsy lunge. I parried his knife wrist and punched the kid on the temple. He had a thin skull and went instantly wobbly. I eased him into a befuddled heap, slung his dropped blade onto the pomegranate table, hurdled the sofa and sprinted out the door.
I hurried down the street anticipating pursuit. There was none. I had no carving marks, though my knuckles hurt.
I disliked fights until they started, at which time it didn't matter whether you liked them or not. I'd had scraps as a lad in a coal mining village where the pecking order was regularly established among a tribe of Geordie schoolboys. I'd hear regiments of heroes urging me forward and find the attention of an adversary's eyes curiously engaging to my terror. There was invariably a painful aftermath to violence's infantile panache, so I felt apprehensive about decking a gypsy. Sooner or later his tinker's drao--.a gypsy curse-- might catch up with me. This was superstition but I was superstitious. I reached into my pocket and threw a few pesetas on the street; if an unjust fate is following you it's smart practice to toss it a bribe.
Tired, I made my way back to the 'Hotel Dismal'. Valencia's busier streets were filling. I smelled warm ovens of pastry and a nutmeg scent of coffee and nodded back at waiters looking for customers to fill their outdoor tables. Men in short jacketed suits hurried to offices making sure to straighten up suggestively at every woman who passed in range.The girls in short skirts and stylish heels looked ahead barely lifting an eyebrow. From atop a hill I scanned the city's red tile and numerous church cupolas. I'd read how Spanish country women once shaped wet clay into tiles using their thighs as a mold. Here's to the making of every roof, I announced, saluting a city sheltered by the curve of its womens' naked limbs.
I recalled my initial plan, to drift south drawn by the warm promise of Malaga. I'd disembarked in Valencia by impulse. It was time to leave but not because I'd been ushered out by somebody with a knife. I'd originally anticipated a gentler visit for sure but to somewhere else neither at the end nor the beginning of my road. In the next town there'd be an eloquence of the sea where I planned to linger over tapas and watch strolling locals who hopefully didn't spit on their guests.
I promised myself a white plastered room overlooking a promenade and maybe a view of a rocky coast. I promised myself local conversation and honest curiosity and, because I'd broken enough promises to know self-betrayal can become neglect, felt eager to get going.
Climbing the funky hotel's linoleum stairs to haul my gear from the room, I glanced at the bed and conjured an odalisque of a reclining Lidia. Even in imagination her fragrance lingered. I hesitated over thoughts of returning to her car wreck street before checking out.
Back on the platform a crowd had formed. I barely secured a second class carriage seat. Clattering further south, the train's insistent tap dance never wavered. I listened to it trick me into believing I wasn't moving. A sweetness of travel is an immobility connecting so many destinations into no destination at all.