I feel surprisingly at peace. Walking the few blocks from the subway, I took in the Brooklyn street, warming to its resemblance to the endless warrens of houses and factories I knew in Chicago. It looked just like the places Paul lived as a boy, and I thought, You cagey guy, you found the Midwest in New York. Behind the factory-now-loft stands a Russian church, thrown up in the 1920s by those determined to keep the lamp of faith lit on a distant shore. Across from that is a small park with beaten grass, the kind of sliver of light our urban planners have always tossed to the inmates of our great cities. It all felt very comfortable to me. When Paul was a small boy, I can remember walking across the tundra of Chicago to visit his parents' apartment and passing scenes just like these in this pocket of Brooklyn. And the workspace itself, with its patina of grime from machines, its workman's bench, its monastic sense of craft, hard work, and diligence, recalls the various places Paul toiled as a boy--his room, the cellar, the corner grabbed in some cottage in the country. That's part of the sense of peace I feel pervading me. I think to myself, Paul, you kept the faith.
I've gotten up before dawn and gone over his letters, which I've brought with me, and the bank statements, all the while sipping coffee in a mid-Manhattan hotel. The numbers on the statements blurred as I sat amid businessmen who were studying CNN on the lounge television, and then I'd look back down at the bank statements and feel as though I were watching the spinning dials of a slot machine, only this machine always comes up with the same result: a hundred dollars a day. December, January, February, the steady withdrawals are punctual and exact. I thought to myself, Paul, you create order even in your disorder. So later when I stand in the big room where he tore at the limits of what he called art and plunged into some place he hoped was behind that name, when I touch his row of tools on the workbench and admire his shrink-wrap machine in one corner, whirring in my head is this blur of numbers as he swallowed his earnings in a grim, orderly fashion. I look over at the wall, the one punctured by the hallway leading to the doorway and the stout pipe against the ceiling, and read once more the doormat still whispering, GET HOME. I reach up and rip the black message from the wall. This one I am taking home.
Paul was up to something here. I know this in my bones.
He kind of scowls and comes limping across the kitchen at me, saying, No, no. He takes the knife and says, Here, see, you gotta do this rocking motion, and with that he chops the hell out of the cilantro. Art will be dead in three weeks, and this is his last hurrah, teaching me how to make salsa cruda. He's real yellow now, wheezing all the time, and beneath the yellow is the color of ash.
He's got these papers to straighten out, and we go over them. He's going to do a bit of writing, and so I bring the office chair and computer. But then he can't sit up anymore, and we try to jerry-rig something in the easy chair. And then that's too much and the damn fluid is building in his body, he's all bloated and distended, and, by God, he tells the nurse who comes to the house each day, he's gotta get the swelling drained at the hospital. And she says, That won't do any good, you're not sick, you're dying. He listens without so much as a blink, I'm sitting right there, and then he pads clown the hall to his bedroom, lies down, and sleeps. In twenty-four hours, he goes into a coma. The next day, he's dead after a night of family praying and shouting over him--ancient aunts hollering messages in his ear for other family members that have gone to the boneyard ahead of him. His cousin, the monsignor, says the funeral mass.
I can still taste the salsa and smell the cilantro and feel that rocking motion as he tries to show me the right way to wield the knife. And to make salsa, his salsa, as he learned it from his wife, Josie, who learned from her parents and back into the brown web of time. Like everything that matters to the tongue, it is simple.
* Put five or six sixteen-ounce cans of whole TOMATOES into a big pot, reserving the liquid. Coarse-grind the tomatoes in a food processor, a short pulse so they come out in chunks and not puree. Now add them to the reserved juice.
* Cut up two or three bunches of GREEN ONION, in very thin slices so that you end up with tiny circles. Now very finely cut up a bunch of CILANTRO.
* Add five cans of diced GREEN CHILES, a teaspoon of GARLIC POWDER, and the onion and cilantro to the tomatoes and their juice. Sprinkle a teaspoon or two of OREGANO. Taste it and adjust seasoning.
* Now start crushing CHILTEPINS (Capsicum annuum var. aviculare) and add to taste. Add salt. Taste again. Keep crushing chiltepins until it is right for your tongue.
That was the last time I really saw him move, when he was trying to teach me how to make salsa cruda. He knew some things can't be allowed to end.
The bottom line is always simple, and the way to this line is to get rid of things. I stand at a hot stove and make risotto, a rice dish of the Italian north:
* Melt some butter in oil, then saute some CHOPPED ONION, toss in the RICE, and coat it with the oil; add the liquid (make the first ladle white wine, then go with broth) a half cup at a time, constantly stirring.
* In twenty minutes, the rice is ready, the center of each kernel a little resistant to the tooth, but ready. Each grain is saturated with the broth and onion and oil flavor.
* Then spread the rice on the plate to cool and eat from the edge inward. Pick a brilliant plate with rich color--1 like intense blues and greens, you know--to play off the white. Some mix in A HALF OR FULL CUP OF GRATED PARMESAN to the rice to make it stickier. I just sprinkle some on top and usually favor Romano, because it bas more bite. But that is your choice.
The rest is not. After all, we are in Paul's workshop, a thing to be kept clean and simple and direct. The difference between good art and good cooking is you can eat cooking. But the important part, the getting rid of things, it is always there and the kid knew it.
The kid worked. Like most products of the Midwest, I can't abide people who fuck off and don't do things. I can remember my father sitting at a kitchen table in Chicago with his quart of beer, telling me with a snarl that in Chicago we make things, but in New York they just sell things.
I look up at the torn drywall. When Paul didn't answer the phone, his uncle flew from Chicago to New York and took a cab over here to Brooklyn. Clawed his way through the drywall--I look up at the hole he made--and found Paul swinging from the big pipe. He'd left a note and neat accounts on the table, plus his checkbook, so everyone would be paid off proper.
I hum to myself as I look up at that pipe. Hum that song by John Prine about the hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes.
It got so he couldn't do much. One day his ex-wife, Mary, stopped by the ranch to check on him, and he was sprawled in the doorway, half in the house and half out, surrounded by the dogs and cats.
So Mary took him into town. He'd been busy at the ranch despite his weakness as the cancer ate. He'd been building check dams to cure a century of erosion; he planted a garden, put the boots to the cattle, and let the hills come back. He said ranching was over and it was time for the earth to get some other kind of deal. I'd run into him a week or so before at the feed mill and he was chipper. His hair had just about all fallen out because of the radiation, but he said he felt good. He was in town to get a part for the pump.
He was real lean by then, and when I went down to see him at Mary's place, he was stretched out in bed. He wanted to talk Mexico, the people, the plants, the cattle, the way the air felt at night. I brought down some pictures of Mexico and we hung them around the room. He was having some kind of magic tar shipped down from Colorado that was supposed to beat back the cancer, and he was tracking the pennant race also. People would drop by at all hours to see him, since the word was out that he was a goner. He'd smoke a joint with them, talk about this and that, especially Mexico, which he knew was color and sound and smell and taste and a wood fire with a kettle on the coals. Some of the time he lived down there in a shack with a campesino family. When he fell in the doorway at the ranch, half in and half out, he was pretty much set to go back to Mexico. That was on hold at the moment as he tackled dying.
He lasted about a week. I went over one day, and he was propped up in bed so that the tumor blocking his throat didn't pester him too much. He said, Chuck, I got some great news. We just got two inches of rain at the ranch.
Yes. I can smell the sweet grass as the clouds lift.