The Bone Garden of Desire
Rossini, the great opera composer, could recall only two moments of real grief in his life. One, when his mother died. And the second time was out on a boat when a chicken stuffed with truffles fell into the water and was lost.
Sometimes, when he was nearing death, I’d go over to help Art cook. I’m down on my knees on the patio, and Art is sitting in a chair with a beer. He has grilled steaks to a cinder and caught the juice. And now I pound the meat with a claw hammer until it’s infused with cloves of garlic and peppercorns. Then I shred it with my fingers, put it all in a bowl with the saved juice and herbs, and then simmer. This is machaca according to his late wife’s recipe and it takes hours, and this is life, or the best part, he believes as he sits in the chair while I bend and pound to spare his battered old joints. It is a deep taste of something within his bones.
We are outside in the old downtown barrio while I pound in the desert sun, and nearby are the justicia flaming-orange flowers and the chuparosa with the buzz of hummingbirds and the nicotiana reaching up twelve, fourteen feet, the pale green leaves, the spikes of yellow flowers, the costa hummingbirds with purple gorgets that seem to favor it, and Art beams and says, “My birds, my plants.”
He takes another swig of beer and beads of cold moisture fleck the can. Maybe it is in the mouth, I think, as I sit down in the garden, swirling red wine in my mouth, dry wine, the kind that reaches back toward the throat and lasts for maybe half a minute on the tongue.
Anyway, when we made the machaca, Art was alive then, and being alive is gardening and cooking and birds and green and blue, at the very least. He was relaxed. I pounded the garlic and pepper, and grilled flesh hung in the air. He told me that during the Korean War, his Navy ship made a run from Philadelphia to Europe, and during the Atlantic crossing five officers went over the side and nobody ever writes about stuff like that. But he knows, he was there, and all fell overboard at night. They were all assholes, he said.
The beef was tender, the chiles hot, but not too hot, just enough to excite the tongue, and the seasonings bite, the garlic licks the taste buds, and I begin to float on the sensations as Art drank his beer and the plants grew and stirred, the hummingbirds whizzed overhead and then hovered before my face, my tongue rubbed against the rood of my mouth, and it is all a swirl of sensation as I remember that summer day cooking.
I also remember Art (died February 11) sitting down in my garden in a chair on a Sunday in January, the last day he left home under his own power. He could barely walk then, his chunky body dwindling as the cancer snacked on various organs, and his skin was yellow from the jaundice. He held on to my arm as we crept through the garden, down from the upper bench, past the bed of trichocereus, under the thin arms of the selenicereus snaking through the tree overhead. He looked over by the notocactus, with their dark green columns, their tawny rows of bristles and small bubbles of white down on their crowns where the yellow flowers would finally emerge; he looked over there were I’d scattered Dick’s bone and ash and he said brightly, Hi Dick (died August 23).
We sat in plastic chairs surrounded by garden walls that were purple, yellow, and pink, colors to fight back all the nights. He knew he’d be dead in two or three weeks, and he was. He knew he’d never see this spring, just as Dick had never made it to the previous fall. And five months before Dick had been Paul (died March 9). And five months after Art would come Chris (died August 6).
The cooking had begun earlier, like the gardening, but both took hold of me around the time my friends started dying. I remember walking to the market, coming home and flipping through books for recipes, and then cooking. While the sauce simmered, I would open a bottle of red wine and begin drinking. There was never enough red wine, never. I was always cooking from Italian recipes because they were simple and bold and I loved the colors, the red of the tomatoes, the green skin of the zucchini, and because I like peeling garlic and chopping onions and tearing basil. The oil mattered also, the thought of olives, and I preferred the stronger, cheaper oils with their strong tastes. I used iron pans coated with green enamel on the outside. There would be scent in the air.
The garden also went out of control. I put in five or six tons of rock. Truckloads of soil. I built low terraces and planted cactus and a few herbs. I had no plan and the thing grew from someplace in my mind.
I must tell you about this flower, Selenicereus plerantus. It opens only in the dark; it begins to unfold around 9:00 P.M. and it closes before dawn, slams shut at the very earliest probes of gray light. When it blooms, no one can be alone at night, it is not possible, nor can anyone fear the night, not in the slightest. This flower touches your face, it kisses your ear, its tongue slides across your crotch. The flower is shameless, absolutely shameless. When it opens its white jaws, the petals span a foot and lust pours out into the night, a lust as heavy as syrup, and everything is coated by the carnality of this plant. It opens only on the hottest nights of the year, black evenings when the air is warmer than your body and you cannot tell where your flesh ends and the world begins.
A month, maybe a month and a half, before Chris died, he came over in the evening. He could not control his hiccuping then--the radiation, you know. And he found it better to stand in his weakness than to sit. He wore a hat; his hair was falling out. So we were out in the darkness, him hiccuping and not drinking--he just did not want that beer anymore--and the flower opened and flooded the yard with that lust, the petals gaping shamelessly, and we watched it unfold and felt the lust caress us and he hiccuped and took it all in.
He understood that flower, I'm sure of it.