Halvard Johnson



This morning, the sparrows are hard at work after last night's rains. The red Spanish tiles are their condos, the places where they nest, somewhere in the crannies of the roof, the tight little spaces between the down-curving upper crescents of tile and the up-curving lower ones, or between those lower ones and the corrugated sheets of metal beneath them. We'd wondered whether they actually build nests in those tiny spaces among the tiles, and this morning we found out that they do, for one nest, a tangle of yellowed grass and something white and fuzzy, maybe a bit of cotton, was hanging down, ready to be washed completely away by the next rainstorm to come along. The sparrows were flying and hopping about the edge of the roof, craning their necks down at times to peer into other little openings in the roofing materials, as though checking out new locations, places where they might do well to rebuild their nest. Looking down from our windows, we see that the cats–the black one, and the gray and white one and her gray and white kitten–have all survived the storm.


Long ago now, I found myself standing in the gathering darkness on the bank of the Irrawaddy River. My traveling companions, exhausted from the flight up to Pagan, were all asleep, though the evening was still young. From a long barge-like boat moored to posts on the shore, men and women were off-loading large clay pots to sell at the next day's market. There were several rows of these dark, wide-mouthed pots along the sandy edge of the river, stacked in twos and threes and sometimes fours. The river behind them–broad and placid–still held some of the gold of the setting sun, but they were already working in the electric light of a beam cast from a lamp on the barge. Nearby, to my left, two oxen began hauling a barrel-like water wagon up toward the road beyond the low-lying buildings behind me. My ears were full of the sounds of low voices from the barge, and of the measured tread of the oxen as they pulled their creaking wagon toward the town, last light fading in the west.


Lynda comes up from downstairs and says, "I'm too old for most of those people down there." I ask why, and she just sighs. The next day I ask her the same question, and she says, after some hawing and hemming, "Well, they're just so active." And the next day, alone in my studio, it strikes me that those bright, thin, active, younger ones–the ones who run five or six miles every day no matter how cold it is, the ones who go back out to their studios in the barn every night no matter what, the ones who get themselves out to where the back road crosses the railroad tracks and wait in the cold for the ten-forty train to round the curve and aim its light on them, coming closer and closer in the terrifying dark, before passing beneath their feet–those younger ones see us as warnings. We warn them–just out of their writing programs, the ink still wet on their MFAs–of failure. And they, when they see us, during lulls in their breakfast or dinnertime chatter of agents and contracts and cover photos, know us to be failures because if we were not they would already know of us. So we stretch out our legs by the fire after dinner, as they go off to work, and we take comfort in our scotch and in the warmth of the fire, and knowing the numbers–that most MFA-ers give up writing within five years of receiving their degrees–begin, halfway between waking and sleeping to play our game of winners: "This one. No, that one. No, this one."


Several years ago I spent some time down in Old Mexico. The town I was living in was a stony old colonial town perched on the side of a large hill. Many of its streets were steep and paved with rough stones and boulders set by hand, as we sometimes saw when repairs were being made to the infrastructure, causing those living in certain blocks to be without water and electricity for days and weeks on end. I was, one day shortly after my arrival, heading across town toward a little bar called Los Manos Olvidados, when as I passed through the central plaza the afternoon rain began to come down. Many people scurried for cover of the arcades across from the east and west sides of the plaza. Some remained sitting on the wrought-iron benches under the laurel trees in the plaza, covering their heads with newspapers or pieces of paper. I put up my umbrella and kept going, across the plaza and down one of the streets running alongside the parish church.

Manos (as it was called) was in a street running east and west, downhill from the plaza. It was tucked in between two larger buildings, one of which had in earlier times been the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition for all of New Spain. The building was of unpainted dark stone (unlike most of the rest of the buildings in town, which were painted in cheerful reds and yellows and blues), and I saw no signs of life there. The door was never open. After dark, there were never any lights within. Another building nearby (not quite so dark) had been at one time the jail to which prisoners of the Inquisition were consigned. None of the maps of the town I'd seen had marked the locations of these two buildings, and it was only one ancient guidebook that even made mention of it. The town, it seemed, preferred to associate itself, historically speaking, with the revolution than with its inquisitorial past.

At the door to Manos, I shook some of the wetness from my umbrella, folded it up, and stepped inside. The bar was crowded, standing-room only, and the crowd was a noisy one, frequently breaking into cheers and applause. The reading I'd come to hear was already in progress, it seemed. Cigarette smoke filled the room, and I coughed once or twice as I elbowed my way to the bar. The woman behind the bar lifted her chin in my direction, so I ordered a Corona and lit up myself. Then, beer in hand, I turned my attention toward the little stage at the back of the room.

No reader stood at a lectern there, but rather a squat little man in denims and cowboy boots sat in an armchair reading. He read silently, as though he were at home alone in his living room, never once looking up at the cheering crowd crammed into the bar. He sometimes seemed to be mouthing words as he read, but no sound issued forth from his lips.

At first, I was at a loss as to what was going on, as to what the crowd were cheering, but slowly I came to realize that whenever he'd shift in the chair or cross his legs, for example, a great cheer would go up. And when the "reader" would lick the index finger on his right hand to turn a page, the shouts and cheers would be even louder and more enthusiastic. Even those moments when he lifted his eyes from the bottom of the left-hand page to the top of the right-hand one were greeted with a chorus of cheers.

I tapped the elbow of the man standing immediately to my left and asked, in Spanish, "What's going on here?" and he just shushed me, lifting a finger to his lips. But a few minutes later he cupped a hand to my ear and whispered "He reads here every Wednesday evening." I wanted to ask more, but he turned his back to me.

For more than an hour, this roomful of idiots watched and cheered as this strange "performance" continued. And when the reader closed the book from which he had been reading and took up a sheaf of pages bound only by a clip, a roar went up that probably could have been heard by some of those long-dead inquisitors who haunted the building next door. This seemed to be what these people had really come to "hear." Almost every line our silent reader read now seemed to occasion a chorus of beery "olés." Turning a leaf of his typescript raised pandemonium. But still, not a sound from the "reader."

I finished my third Corona and, no longer amused, stepped out into the street, where the rain had ceased and the rocky pavement still glistened in the light of the streetlamps. Half a block away I heard an ovation go up that went on almost forever, and I was well on my way home when I turned around and looked back up the hilly street and saw the first few members of the reader's "audience" coming out from Manos, trailing their hilarity out into the gathering night. I imagined the reader rising from his chair, turning to his audience, and taking a bow, just a little one, as he paused at the first of the three steps leading down from the tiny stage.


For our first three days we mainly watched the tides come in, go out, come in, go out. Except for when it was dark–and when it was dark it was dark here–no lights through the trees, no lights on the water, no lights (well, maybe there was one at a house on the west side of West Bay and farther up). By day, we were, those first few days, like spectators at a tennis match during which the players played as slowly as they possibly could, and the tide was a long, high lob that took several hours to travel the length of the court. The ball would invariably stay in play and the return would take another several hours to drive the opposing player way back beyond the baseline, well out to sea.