Second Act Problems

I paid a screenplay consultant to tell me about the book’s potential for the bright lights.  The missed clue: It was my shortest book.

“The writing’s pretty good, so far,” she said slyly, “but you’re missing a second act.”

After I got myself past, “Whatta’ya mean…?” I knew she was right and that I’d known it all along.  I just needed someone to slap me for money. 

“It’s a good story,” she said.  “But you need to put in the elbow grease. Read John Truby before you rewrite.”

In truth, I had run out of creative, tension-filled plot twists.  Up to the point where I had ended the story, it moved fast, had a unique protagonist and an unusual twist to the moral argument.  But it was not the basis for a screenplay.

It wasn’t good enough for a book either, I concluded. Especially a thriller.  But the idea of tacking on contrived scenes to create another “act,” made me nauseous.

I had jumped on the first story idea that came to mind and rode it into a blind canyon.  It was a goodincompletestory.  By not thinking through the plot thoroughly on the front end, I had given myself a “second-act problem.”   In my case: No act at all.  

For all the pre-work I’d invested, I had failed to use it well.  Fortunately, I had spent considerable pre-writing time working on the setting and on fleshing out my characters.  I went back to the project notebook and dug deeper.  

Here are a few other results of the re-think:

  • My setting was more complex than I had portrayed it in the first draft.  It was a civil war, so there were many, many forces operating simultaneously.  This time I looked deeply into those social, political, international, and even geographic factors for sources of conflict. I had overlooked lots of them.

Example:The operatives, those people who actually do the dirty deeds, could not be oblivious to the fact that things were changing.  Despite amnesty, some of them were aware that their bosses might very well throw them under the proverbial bus to save themselves from international scrutiny. This offered new motives for unexpected actions.

  • Most of the named characters in the first draft came from one family or were closely connected to it.  That fact remained mostly true in the rewrite.But by thinking of these characters as representatives of the forces in the setting, a panorama of conflict potential opened up.

Example:The matriarch was a colorful old lady who tried with limited effect to impact the protagonist, her great-granddaughter.  By having this character “come alive” as it were, with the political passion of her generation, she helped spin the P into a second round of action with re-energized desire.

  • New political forces created by the end of theCold War created needs for new political subterfuge. These forces, quite apart from each character’s personality, created new tests for their strengths and exploited their weaknesses. 

Example: During the war, official agencies took on clandestine missions.  In the Sixties, the Army’s Office of theChief of Staff, known on the street as the Archivo, became a major sponsor of death squads. In the immediate, pre-ceasefire decade, new secret societies (the Cofradia and the Oficinita) arose, designed to use control over money and influence to achieve corrupt political goals in peacetime.  Membership in these groups came with complicated loyalties for the opponents and made complicated enemies for the protagonists.

  • It’s basic that your protagonist must have some weakness and the opponents must have some strength.  But by making them subject to a more complex set of situational forces, those personality attributes came to the surface in surprising ways.

Example:In the first draft, making the moral argument depended on P’s weakness, her subsequent failure, and the resulting change. But whereas the first draft concluded that protagonist’s arc had been completed, the second saw a new person emerge from the ashes of that first act into—viola!—a second act. The P’s desire remained sufficiently the same for the second act to grow organically out of the first.

Mea culpa:

Shouldn’t I have thought about these things for the first draft?  Sure.  But I seem to learn only by doing and failing (repeat, ad nauseam). So… I may not make the same mistake again.

Take away:                       

All your deep pre-thinking is precious. 

Don’t forget to use it at the front end.

Suggested reading:  John Truby.  The Anatomy of Story.


Scene 2: Volcán

Day 1

Seat race: A fixed start. Ready. Eyes on shoulders in front of her. Head in the boat, ears alert. She listen’s for coaches’ “Go!” In one movement, four blades catch the water, oars pull, powered by four pairs of legs. The boat surges then breeds momentum until the crew of sisters reaches the 32-stroke rate, counting on the stroke oar to keep them at it. Stroke…stroke…stroke. Power the sisters. Win this thing. WIN.

Win, to Itzel meant taking Patti’s place in the “A” boat. It was the end of a Saturday practice and the end of the racing season. The first race had been hard to call; then she and Patti exchanged boats for the second. She thought she won the second. Change back again for the third. The final score is a net calculation, a part of coach’s judgment. But a big part. Thinking about scores is not keeping your head in the boat. Focus, she thought, I’ll get it.

“Way nuff,” cox called, followed immediately by “Check it down!” She let us get too close to the dock, Itzel thought. She’s clueless. At the floating dock, the crew lifted the boat on cox’s command and set it into the slings. She saw Russ standing arms crossed on his chest with the men from the varsity boat, red neckerchief in a tight roll around his neck. He must have fifty of those things, she thought.

The men had come back after their practice to watch the seat race. Normally coach did not allow the men to hang around women’s practice, but the race was the last practice event. Itzy smiled at him and saw him flip a thumb up in encouragement without uncrossing his arms.

Just then she heard, “Great racing, Itzy!” and turned around to see Patti smiling, her hand outstretched. “Good luck.”

“The best,” she said and they shook hands.

Crew carried their oars to the wash down, then to the racks inside the boathouse. As she passed Russ smiled.

“You looked good out there.”

“Thanks.” She paused and looked at him squarely, open-faced.

“I’m taking a bus trip down to your part of the world this summer,” he said.   Could we talk about it after dinner tonight?”

“Yeah, I would like that.” And she smiled, holding eye contact long enough to say what she needed to say. Oh yeah…would I. Her black hair braid flipped and her rear end waggled of its own volition for a couple of steps as she moved away.

Stormy, Itzel’s roommate, came over to walk her back to the dorm then the dining room for lunch. Stormy rows seat five in the “A” boat. The novice boat had won all it’s races when Itzel was bumped up to the “B” boat without fanfare. Afterwards, the novice boat slipped but the “B” boat won its next race. Both varsity “A” and “B” boats had had very average seasons so far.

The last race of the season was in a week. Traditionally, the last race was reserved for their Ivy rival across the river, just two crews per race and just for bragging rights. More alumni, more beer and more brats showed up along the riverbank for this race than for all the others combined. It was the unofficial start of summer. Spectator encouragement was loud and profane and the crews reveled in it. Both crews finished the season with enough motivation to last for the summer.

“You looked great out there,” Stormy said. “How do you feel?”

“I think I took two and three but I don’t know if by enough.”

“Three for sure. Your boat checked in one. We could see the stutter from the shore. Anyway, how do you feel?”

Itzel twisted her mouth into, don’t know. “I will know that when coach posts the lists. I did not feel the check, who was it?”

“Not important,” Stormy said, “You know we all want the best hammer in the boat.”

“Sure, why wouldn’t you?”

“Well, we would. But Patti has been in the boat for the whole season, she’s friends with everybody.”

“So what? I’ll do fine.” Itzel stared at her, “If I make the boat, I am a team player. You will not miss Patti if we win…. And we will.” Her face was as grim as her pronouncement.

“We all want to win…. Period.” Stormy continued for a few steps. “I know you are at least as good as Patti, maybe better, we’ll find out soon enough.” She took a few steps then turned towards Itzel, “But the boats are made. It’s bloody unusual to race for a seat at the last minute. I just hope there aren’t any hard feelings.”

“What are you trying to say. I don’t need anyone’s permission to compete.” She had stopped walking and was facing Stormy. “Anyway, Patti seemed fine. We’ve lived together for the whole year, Stormy and we do fine.” She looked angry and confused as the two walked up the rise to the bus back to school.

“Why do you think Coach had us race?”

“Morale. I think he needed something objective to hang his hat on.” Stormy looked at ground as she walked, “So the boat doesn’t come apart.”

The dorm room was old, old fashioned and spacious. The jock dorm. Two beds, two dressers and two desks in the middle of the floor, butted together. Desk lamps plugged into a brass outlet in the linoleum floor. All the woodwork was scarred blonde oak. One side was utterly organized.

Stormy’s bed was unmade, papers littered her desk. The roommates were both on crew but they were two years apart. The room assignment came because Stormy was majoring in Spanish and had requested a Spanish speaker.

“Flip for the shower?”

“You go ahead, I want to call around.”

At that moment, Stormy’s phone rang. “No need for that.” Stormy listened for a moment and said “Thanks, Celia.” She looked at Itzel. “Congratulations.” She smiled.

“Yesss!” Itzel pumped her doubled fists. “Yesss. We will win, I promise you.”

Stormy looked bemused at Itzel’s intensity. “You’re going to help the boat Itzy. No question. Welcome aboard.” The delay was just noticeable when she said, “You know the table rules?”

“Sure.”

“It would be best if you skipped lunch so everyone can say goodbye to Patti.”

Except for two who left for the weekend, everyone showed up for dinner. The crew table was two normal tables pushed end-to-end. The extroverts among them kept conversation light and funny. There were no interruptions because the varsity table boundary was inviolable to outsiders. Itzy kept one eye on Stormy to see if she was appreciating her blending with the tightly bonded crew. By the time dinner was ending, Itzy felt like an insider. Commitment to the boat came natural and fast. As they began to rise from the table, Stormy suggested all of them meet at the crew’s favorite bar.

“I’m supposed to meet Russ….”

“He’ll be there tomorrow. Besides, Russ will understand…tonight anyway.”

They pushed their chairs to the table as Stormy looked for Itzy’s decision.

“Hi Itzy.” It was Russ.

“Save it, Russ,” she hissed. “Not at the table.”

The trip to the bar was a muted get-to-know-you affair that lasted one beer for most of them. Itzy and Stormy walked back to the dorm.

“What happened tonight, Stormy.”

“Nothing happened. Things went fine.”

“I mean about Russ.”

They walked while Stormy thought about it. “You blew him off.’ She turned and looked steadily at her roommate. “But you know that.”

“He knows the rules. He is not supposed to bother us at the table.”

They had reached the dorm elevator and rode up without speaking. As they reached the room, Itzy said, “Well, anything else?”

“Russ knows the rules better than you, Itzy.” She said it quickly as though she’d been just waiting to get the rest of it out. “When we get up and push chairs in, the rule gets iffy.” She threw her cell phone onto the desk. It spun and slid off onto the floor. Stormy leaned over and picked it up, “Okay…I’m going to say it. You dissed him, Itzel. Bad. Did you see his face?”

“I was just following the rules.”

“Yeah, sure. I’d be surprised if he ever talks to you again.” She hesitated, “He’s a sweet guy, Itzel. There was no need for that crap.”

Itzy spun and stalked out of the room. “I have nothing to apologize for,” she yelled back. Part way down the hall she heard the room-phone ring.

“Itzel!” Stormy’s voice boomed down the hallway.

Itzy sauntered back.

“It’s your Mom,” Stormy said, handing over the phone. “She sounds upset.”

Itzy took the mobile receiver and leaned back against the hallway wall. She waited until Stormy was well back into the room.

“Okay, Mom, hi, what’s up?”

“I have bad news, mi amor. Aunt Dolores has died.”

“Aunt Dolores in Guatemala? I thought Dolores would live forever, Mom.”

“We’re going to the funeral. Your father is more upset than I’ve seen him in years.”

“When is it? Should I send something, some flowers or anything?”

“In three days, Itzy. We are all going.”

For a moment, Itzy wasn’t sure what her mother meant. “No, Ma, that’s not possible. I’ve got a race and exams are coming up.”

“I know it’s short notice, Querida….”

“No Ma, it’s not the notice, I can’t leave. I’m in the “A” boat now and there is a race on Saturday. We have to practice.” Itzy waited for a response. Nothing. “Exams start after that. Please, Mami. It’s impossible.”

“Itzel…Dolores was the most important woman in my life. Your father’s too. I’ve already sent emails to the Provost about exams, and to the coach.” Her voice took on a cadence, “William’s ready to start the fight all over again, Querida. We need you with us.”

“I can’t go, Mom. I can’t!” The last, flinty “can’t,” squeaked out.

The phone was quiet. “This is family, Itzel. Aero Mexico at noon. Be at Logan an hour early. I’ll meet you at the airport in D.F.”

Dial tone.

She leaned against the wall; arms hung at her sides; tears streamed freely. But for one unruly sob, there was no sound. One of the girls looked out of the room next door then jerked her head back inside. The disconnect buzzer took on a klaxon sound rebounding down the muted hall. After a few pulses, she punched it off, scrubbed her cheeks with her fingers, stood up straight and looked around.

Why would Papi be ready to fight?

The River

www.flickriver.com

“I do not know much about gods;

But I think that the river is a strong brown god-sullen,

Untamed and intractable . . . .” [1]

The River

Dark clouds, dark sky. I have avoided thoughts about the clouds since coming back, but today, watching the black cumulus gather above the mountain; it presses on me. That is the feeling, pressure, as though the weight of the cloud is forcing recall from the ten thousand tributaries of the unconscious, pushing it upward, giving it a form and making it into a memory.

A young boy or man, one cannot say from this distance, makes his way downriver, across the broad expanse of shallows known as the three lagunas, in a dugout canoe. He sits just behind center, legs loosely crossed so he can unfold them quickly should the river try to wet him. He sees the sky blackening over Mt. Turu-ba-ri. It is early for rain although a storm from the Atlantic has settled itself over the eastern shore and is pumping water into the Central Valley and the next canton east. Today, the water was high enough to make for easy transit across the lagunas and he wants to enjoy it before the dry season reasserts itself.  The river’s home is the eastern canton. From there it surges from the ground as the Quebrada Maquina, fifteen kilometers northeast and is joined by dozens of smaller creeks and hundreds of springs as it follows the valley slope to the Tárcoles River and on to the Pacific.

He found the log boat years before at age ten. It stood against a tree, prow wedged securely into the fork, the lower end resting on a flat rock but still pocked with rot from the surrounding mulchy soil of leaves and worms. It had been burned and hollowed from the trunk of a bitter cedar, that wasn’t a cedar at all. But the bugs did not like it so there it stood for who knows how many years. The boy had dragged it, a little each day, hoping to surprise his father, but his father had found him out and the two of them lifted it to their shoulders. The Indigenas made it, his father said, but they had not been around here since he had married the boy’s mother. The boy used it with a single bamboo pole, hollow ends stuffed with rocks for a little weight and tied off with a flap of raw cowhide. One pole for each dry season and he had been through four.

He knew the rocks in this river. The stream comprised the better part of his mental map of the world. It extended from the south, the rock escarpments of the Potencianas to a few hundred meters north of the river. By the time his children were his age, they would surrender the outside, all of nature except their pets, in favor of an electronic world of relentless texting. But this was his youth and the river was the part he chose when those things that had to be done were. That was how he was on it today, on the wide and slow moving lagunas with their wide bars of river rock and sand. His parents had taken the younger ones to the dentist in the nearest city, and to visit with a colleague in that town.

The boy and his older sister remained on the farm. He had secured the canoe with a long rope from a tree on the shore, and it beckoned to him from the wide sand and rock bar that formed the beach of the river.  He hung the coiled rope from the stunted branch of the tree that served as his bollard. The shallow little craft would surf the thin water rapids that connected the three flat sections in the dry season, but his one attempt in the rainy season had resulted in near disaster and he had found the canoe near the confluence with the Tárcoles after a week of searching.

This boy-man had been born at home a month early, in 1956, delivered on a weekend by his father who, out of fear for his wife’s life, had done so by an emergency caesarian. He was a veterinarian so his surgery was sterile, and considering his lack of training, one could say skillful. It appeared to be the safest option given what he had been told by a physician after his second child was stillborn and his wife endangered. The trauma of the second and third births ended any further efforts to extend the family and the boy had only his sister, older by four years, for a true sibling. But like the stray and wounded animals that found their way to the veterinarian’s farm, stray and wounded children washed up at their door so that the boy now had three younger siblings, all of whom were cousins of some distant degree. His parents loved these children like their own but it was his older sister who assumed, of her own volition, the responsibility for training the younger ones to be members of the family.

Her name was Gabriela and she would leave in three months for Heredia to the university followed by veterinary school. The boy had already inherited the big black mare that she rode to high school in San Pablo. The years between them were enough that she was not a reliable playmate except when her own unfinished childhood bubbled through her sense of responsibility. The happiest moments of his youth were when her loving authority dissolved into a playful equality. She watched out for him, treated his hurts as though she were already a doctor, and comforted him in the times that his little boy behavior required timeout from his parents. When he was 11 he was careless with the latch on the bathroom door and she walked in while he was massaging his new adolescent toy. In an almost incomprehensible measure of sisterly compassion and wisdom, she chose not to see. Weeks later, when she began to tease him with, “chico malo,” (bad boy), it felt less of a reminder of the incident than it did of his emerging masculinity and his now proper sense of who he was. She loved him and he knew it.

It was that same year that Marco came to speak to their father. Marco was older than Gabriela by two years and had helped his father with the farm from time to time. Marco played the guitar, like a real musician, the boy thought, and could sing “ranchera,” like the Mexican singers his parents listened too. After the talk, Marco began to come several times a week and the boy realized that his sister had a boyfriend. If it had been anyone other than Marco the boy might have been jealous but Marco was fun, for all of them, and he often brought the boy a sweet orange or mango. When he was 13, a few days before his birth day, Gabriela told him to go down to the river and remind her parents she that had a test the next day and needed relief from their brothers and sister in order to study.

He could see them sitting on the old almendro log beneath the riverside higuerón. At least once a year his father would say that he was going to “cut that magnificent log into boards and make a chest one day,” but it had sat there for as long as the boy could remember. The big tree cast a wide shadow and the couple shared the shade with his father’s cows and the mare. The heat sucked energy from the boy and his progress was diffident, listless, down the shallow slope. He stopped a few meters away when he saw his mother’s arm flail the air. “Him,” she said loud enough for the boy to hear and he stopped. At the end of her arm was the paper fan with the picture of Jesus on one side and the beatitudes in caligraphy on the other. It returned to its choppy waving, low on her bosom. He could not hear his father at all but, “her,” rang out from his mother and for some reason, he knew they were talking about Marco and his sister. The thought brought him alert, and then just as quickly filled him with a sadness that would require many years to understand. His mother’s hands were animated the way they got when she was worried. He called out a warning and they both turned abruptly to face him over their shoulders. His father held up a hand as though to say, “wait there,” and they finished whatever they were saying. His father waved the boy closer and he delivered his message. His mother had been crying.

The family lived near the village of Lagunas on a farm that sloped down to the Turubares River. Across from the farm, lay the bleached trunk of an higuerón tree its trunk wedged under a boulder and its roots exposed upstream to the river. It was just last year that the boy had scrawled a girl’s name on that rock on the side away from his house with a thick chalk, thinking perhaps that it might last forever, or at least a long time.

Lagunas was his mother’s home. She had met his father at the university while studying to be the teacher she now was. His father, from the high elevations at the far end of the Central Valley, loved the hotness of Lagunas. He thought that being the only veterinarian in the area was propitious, even though his practice was limited to large animals and the occasional snake-bit hunting dog, and his professional fees were as often as not, paid in kind. But as families go, in any part of the world, this one wanted for little.

The sun broadcasts from the west with an unrelenting brilliance. It provides a shocking contrast when the boy checks behind; a black and towering cloud sitting over the east end of the valley. It is raining hard in the East. The boy hesitates, allowing the canoe to drift, then reluctantly begins poling to turn the craft and make his way upstream to the first laguna. When the canoe reenters the upstream lagoon, he can just make out the large tree trunk across from the beach where he ties off the canoe. The boy had climbed on that trunk since the first time he had crossed the river with his parents. He frequently climbed the matrix of bleached roots which reminded him of fishing nets, although he noticed that there were fewer of them with each of his passing birthdays. The river has risen more and he keeps the craft to the sides where the current is slower. His sister waves to him from near the tree where he ties the canoe. She holds the line and runs it through her hands as she coils it into a throwable loop. Ten meters more and he would move back and rise to his knees to bring the prow up and drive the pole hard to beach the canoe. He looks at his sister and she waves again. She looks upstream, then back at him. Her right arm shoots straight out, sideways, “Joaquín,” she yells.

He looks to his left and sees the wave enter the laguna two hundred meters upstream, a low wall of water about three feet high. The boat is sitting sideways to the current and in a frightened confusion he begins to pole the canoe to align it with the approaching wave, but headed downstream, not up. He can no longer see the wave but he hears it bearing down on him. Above the low roar he hears Gabriela; ” Joaquín,” she screams again, and then again. His alignment is not perfect. The wave has spread out as the water expands into the laguna but there is enough to catch the little craft at an angle, twisting it and flipping the aft end up and the boy into the water. Joaquin cannot swim but the wave washes him into the root mass of the tree as it floods the rock bar. He catches the roots and then works his way to the side, and climbs up, straddling the trunk as though it were the mare. He clutches the roots with both hands, gasping until he hears his sister’s yell, “Joaquin,…are you Okay?” He looks up and waves one arm heartily. It morphs into a clenched fist and his face into an exuberant grin. She waves back and then laughs, head back and hands on hips.

Gabriela’s solution is to use the rope, already secured at the other end, as a support to wade the now waist deep water to get to Joaquín. Then together they would make their way back to beachside. It took him a moment to realize what she is doing. “Wait there,” he yells, “I’ll come to you.” But she has already decided. She works her way across, paying out the rope as she goes. It will clearly not reach the opposite side but it will get her to the point where her paddling hands would help get to the tree. How they will get back without it was a question she has not yet considered.

The boy hears it first. He stares, eyes bound to the upstream bend as the choking sound of the twenty foot wall of water hunts the wide open laguna. With it comes the straight-on sound of the wave, carrying whole trees and hundreds of boulders gouged from the sides of the river, out of sight and grinding the river bottom into fine paste. The river disgorges its entire meal of thunderstorm into the flat. Time comes close to stopping as people have reported in such circumstances. The boy turns to his sister, five meters to go; she hears but she does not look. Her eyes lock his and hold him like a beam, guiding her, pulling her the last few meters. “Joaquin, stay there,” he hears it as though from the end of a very long tunnel. Their eyes still hold as the wave hits. He thinks she may have called his name once more before the water and sand fill her mouth and drag her under.

The boy has pushed his arms through the mesh of roots, his elbows twisted into the tough matrix of dried sticks. The initial shock twists the tree trunk and moves it sideways but it holds. Sometime during the minute or so that he is submerged, a large rock, suspended in the wave, smashes his left hand breaking the fourth and fifth fingers. Rock and debris pummel his head and face. As the tree quakes under the assault, he stops struggling and whoever, or whatever handles these matters, assumes control. They find him two hours later, pasted to the tree trunk and partly conscious. The boulder is gone.

Neighbors working with his father are assembling a rope tow using oil lanterns and a single flashlight to see in the dark. The boy is naked except for his shirt which hangs from one arm and is twisted into a thin rope. It is wedged into the mesh of roots and may have helped him to stay aboard the trunk. Someone throws an oversized shirt over him and his father’s trembling arm guides him to his mother who stands with the women near his tie down tree. His right hand holds the left arm well in front so that nothing touches his fingers. His mother, dry-eyed, watches him approach. She holds the frayed tie down rope and works it through her fingers rubbing each of the hemp braids, Ave Maria, full of grace, her lips moving without pause. When he is in front of her, she stops her prayers and extends her arm, her fingers feather his cut and swollen face, her stare penetrates his eyes to the back of his brain, “Thanks be to God, Joaquín,” she says. “Where is your sister?”

All that happened forty years ago this week. My sister’s body was never found. After the flood my family mourned quietly and deeply for well over a year. My father was able to splint and save the ring finger but the little one was crushed beyond repair and taken off at the first joint. It remains the most visible of all my scars. During that year I realized that if there was going to be another veterinarian, it would have to be me. To everyone’s surprise I became a serious student, eventually graduating from veterinary school in Heredia. I went to México for more training and then joined the faculty here. I stayed in the Central Valley and never went on the river again. My mother died of colon cancer 20 years later and my father just last year. He practiced until well into his nineties and left the farm in parcels to the remaining children. I got the house and retired here.

I have heard it said that one cannot step into the same river twice. The tree is gone of course, and the boulder. The river gives life and it takes life. Perhaps it is life. As I sit here today, I remember overhearing a classmate in high school tell someone that my sister was never found because she had been washed into the Tárcoles and eaten by the crocodiles. That remark might

[1] Story, Previously Published.  Poetry:  T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Poem: So you will know…




(Previously published)

So you’ll know…

Each day begins

like this: 

 

I lie here

eyes open

waiting. 

 

You arise seeming spry as ever 

go to the window lower the shade 

turn and tell me you need another forty winks

and give me one merry as ever 

 

And I lie here 

Ever the curmudgeon waiting

for you to crawl back in bed 

and cuddle me 

 

When your breathing

acquires a certain tempo

I arise give you a little peck 

on whatever part is out of the covers 

I say I love you 

 

Umm, you say 

 

I get dressed 

close the door

feed the dog 

put the coffee on

remove anything that might cause a stumble

 

I place your walker

facing properly

next to the door

Then I set your place at the table 

so you will know where to sit

Copyright, 2017

The Good Policeman

GoodPoliceman  If you were to ask, why are you writing this now, after so many years? My answer to you would be, sincerely, I do not know. I have never been one to keep a diary or a notebook. Perhaps I want my father to live forever in the minds of his countrymen, perhaps I would like to explain how I feel about being a policeman in the service of my country. Perhaps, this is what old men do when they stop working on their careers and begin to think on the old conundrums. But sincerely, I do not know.

My name is Juan Pablo Alfaro Mereía. In the Spanish manner, Mereía is my mother’s last name.  I was born on September 15, 1948, a propitious date in this country. The day is the day of independence from España, and 1948 is the year my father, Juan Pablo Alfaro Salazar died in Cartago to birth the Second Republic. He was a policeman in the first republic; I normally do not capitalize it as it would have been the last but for misguided ambition. My father was of the family of the would be dictator, which is no doubt how he came to be a capitán while so young, but that did not stop him from following Don Pepe when the revolution came.

With his rank and training, and family, my father became the commander of a company of volunteers, mostly men without any of those qualifications. He had one sergeant, a Sergeant Mereía, who defected from the old Army to help with discipline and training. We have an old photo of the two of them. On the back was the note, “To my darling Miriam, I will love you forever.” It is dog-eared from the years of my holding it as a child.

When my mother would tell me stories about my father’s service, she usually mentioned Sergeant Mereía’s name, “But he is not family,” she would say. That meant something to her. Of course, at this age I cannot pretend not to know about such things but I think that she held Sergeant Mereía in genuine affection in spite of the differences. I know she had hoped he would keep my father safe in the war. In the photo, my father is taller and lighter than the sergeant, as it should be, I thought. And he looked to be older. It was a grave disappointment to me to discover in adolescence that I would not be as tall as my father.

I would ask my mother when Sergeant Mereía was coming to visit. After the Army was abolished and the Guardia Civil was formed, he was made a teniente, a lieutenant in the new service with big responsibilities in San Jose. Nonetheless, he came often. When he was coming my mother would tweak my nose, my narizon, she called it because of its size, and say, “Oh mi amor, guess who is coming to visit you?” When I was five I would ask him to tell me stories about my father.

“Sergeant, tell me about the day my father died?”

He would stretch out in the big chair on our terrace and fold his hands over his leather belt. “Well,” he would say, “that is quite a story.” Then he would say, “Go over and turn that fan up a bit.” And I would do it. “That is better.”

“This day is a lot like that day, a very hot day in March. We were camped temporarily in the hills south of Cartago to be available should the need arise for a stout group of muchachos such as ourselves. Of the Tico volunteers, we were the best. Most of the men had little or no training, but your father insisted that we train whenever we were not doing something more important. He was the reason we were considered the stoutest and most able of all the volunteer companies.”

“On that day we were training in fire and maneuver. It was tiring work, all that running and falling down and getting up and running again, but your father knew that the men had to learn to be good soldiers in the fight.”

“What did you do, Sergeant?” When we talked liked this I called him “Sergeant Mereía,” but otherwise my mother insisted that I call him Teniente or Tío, Uncle Mereía. He would always smile when I called him “Sergeant.”

“You even sound like your father,” he would say. “My job was to follow the orders of your father. Sometimes I would give advice on how things were done in the Army. That day we were tired from all that hopping around when a courier arrived with the order to proceed immediately to Cartago, ‘On the double,’ the order read.

We broke camp immediately taking only what we would need for the fight. After we formed up, your father gave a very brave speech and said that we would force-march to Cartago. He said that he knew we were tired, but he knew that we would not miss this fight for anything. The men cheered him. He was a very fine leader your father. Then he went to the front of the column, gave the order, ‘Forwaaard, MARCH!’”

The Sergeant’s voice always boomed and I always jumped. “Your father said this in a fine voice and set the pace, staying in front for the entire march without rest,” he said.

“We were met on the outskirts by a courier from the local commander’s headquarters. He suggested to your father to remove his insignia as there was a sniper in the neighborhood.”

“The men were resting, sitting or lying on the ground and waiting for the stragglers.  Black smoke rose from a burning vehicle over near the Plaza. There was a lot of shooting.  Your father gave the order to spread out around a small church. We would use its steeple for a lookout and wait for orders.”

Sergeant Mereía paused and looked away as if in thought. His hand went to his mouth as though wiping it down to his chin.

When he began again his voice rasped. “Your father and I went to the bell tower to look for the sniper. After awhile he handed me the glasses and said, ‘Look in the window of that gable.’ I looked and sure enough there seemed to be someone in there.  At that moment,” he hesitated again, “at that very moment, I saw the puff of smoke and then heard the report of the rifle. ‘That’s him, I yelled,’ and I turned. Your father was lying on the floor.” The sergeant’s hand went to his mouth and chin like before. “I yelled for help and tried to stop the bleeding but the bullet had severed the big vein in his neck. Your father’s heart pumped enough blood to kill him in only a minute or so.”

The Sergeant looked at me and pulled me close. I sat in his lap and wept for several minutes. My mother must have heard the silence and came out to check. We both looked at her and the Sergeant waved his finger saying, “Not now, Querida,” and she backed inside the room still watching us. “Later that evening, that old bell from La Basilica rang out, signifying our victory, but with a peculiar tone this time. I have never heard it sound that way since.” His look was off, somewhere in the distance and I waited for him.

After a while I began to stir and the Sergeant said, “Just one thing more, Chico.” Again he hesitated, “As I bent down to help your father, he said, ’Take care of them,’ meaning, I have always thought, you and your mother.” I looked at the sergeant’s face then lay back against his chest.

I heard that story several more times as I grew into a teenager. On at least a couple of occasions my mother sat with us and she always had little tears on her cheeks. Once I asked him, ‘Were you mad at the sniper, Sergeant? Were the muchachos mad at him?’

“Some of them, yes. I was not. Men do their duty in these matters, Chico. It is best not to take it personally.” I remembered this instruction all my life and it has served me well on more than one occasion.

The Sergeant would always repeat my father’s last words and look at my mother if she was there and she would get up and leave the room.

One time, I must have been 12 or 13 at the time, I asked my mother, “How did the Sergeant and my father get to know each other?” I fully expected that the Sergeant had been assigned to my father’s unit by a higher commander, maybe Don Pepe himself. But she gave me a pointed look and said,

“Well, there is a little more to that story. The Sergeant was stationed at the barracks in San Jose, not far from here. In November or December of 1947, he came to the house to tell me that he was going to leave the Army if the fighting started and asked me to tell his parents if anything happened.”

I could not speak. She knew the Sergeant from before! She watched me, closely I think.

“Your father had already gone to San Isidro to wait for the Legion from Mexico. We had been married over five years by that time and we had never been apart. He came home once but it was dangerous because there were spies watching the house in those days.”

“You knew him! You knew the Sergeant from before!”

She sighed and smoothed the lap of her skirt. She sighed again, another long one. I got up and adjusted the fan and sat back down; her eyes followed me.

“Yes, Sergeant Mereía is from La Gloria. His father worked for my father.”

My voice squeaked in those days, “No! Why didn’t you tell me?” My anger boiled to the surface; I felt betrayed. My voice, at this moment was what it was. I was too angry to care.

“Well Juan Pablo, I guess, well, I guess I thought you needed to be older.”

She did not look away and something about the way she acknowledged my being old enough to understand things smoothed the anger; it flattened like dough under a rolling pin. It was replaced with a manly feeling, a little jangled but manly nonetheless, for the first time in my life.

“Tell me about La Gloria, Ma.”

She took her time, looking at me as though to make sure I really was old enough. “Hernán, that is the Sergeant’s name, and I grew up in the same village. His father worked for my father, the name Mereía is a coincidence.” She looked up at the ceiling. “He was more than a year older than me and the smartest boy in town. But he would have gone to work in the fields after sixth grade except that my father had great regard for his father, and for Hernán also, I think. When it came time for high school, my father made it possible for Hernán to attend. So, we attended high school for three years before I was sent to boarding school in San Jose. We were good friends.” She waited as though to see if that was enough.

It wasn’t. “Then what happened?” I wasn’t letting go until I got the whole story this time. I can still remember my determination, I deserve to know, I thought. It must have felt like an interrogation, but my mother was prepared.

“After my 16th birthday party, I visited the home of a friend from the academy. I met her older brother. He was a police lieutenant at the time, twenty-five, and very handsome, his name was Juan Pablo Alfaro Salazar. And three years later we married in the big church in Puriscal. My father was very happy that day.”

All of this was so new to me. I didn’t know what to ask next. Finally I said, “What happened to Tío?”

“In the year after I left La Gloria, he had almost finished high school but left for some reason and came to San Jose. After that, he joined the Army. It must have been 1938.”

I thought about this for a long time. My mother waited for me. Today, as I think about that conversation, I imagine she was watching my ‘wheels turning’ as people say.

I looked at her again and she smiled.

“Well,” I said from my new manliness, “I would love to hear the Sergeant’s version of all this.”

Her smile faded. “The Teniente Mereía cannot come by as much as he used to. He has been transferred to the delegación at another province. And, he has been promoted, and…” I thought it was difficult to for her to say it, “he has a new wife. I’m sorry, mi amor, it was so sudden, he did not have time to come by.” Then she said, “I’m sure he will, when he is back in San Jose.”

For the second time in the conversation I was lost. From the vantage point of all these years, I can still feel the shocks of her announcements that day. I imagine myself staring at her, mouth open.

He did come by, once or twice a year over the next six years. He was always pleasant and very warm to me. He kept hugging me until I got older and became obviously exasperated. After that he observed my preferred decorum. He wrote me letters to tell me how proud he knew my father would be of my various accomplishments. But the old Sergeant was gone, vanished into the ether of career and of a life having moved on.

Things changed after the Sergeant moved away. I thought that my love for my father was changing and I felt guilty. I could not put words to it early on but it felt like, without the Sergeant’s presence to remind us, we did not talk about him so much. I did not think about him so much. It was though he became just a photograph of someone I never knew. I felt guilty and the guilt became a conundrum; I knew that I should not feel that way. I would try to visualize him and remember him and to make him a polestar for my life. But try, as most surely I did try, it did not work and the guilt would not leave me.

At times I would sit on my bed and say, “He loves me,” over and over, trying to feel it. Once my mother put her head in the door and said, “What did you say, mi amor?” but her voice broke and her eyes were moist and I knew she had been listening.

“Nothing,” I told her. But she pressed me and it made me angry.

The Sergeant’s yearly visits did not serve. He tried to keep me connected to my father. I could sense his efforts, but his life had changed also and talking about my father did not make him live for me anymore. I came to think that I wanted the real flesh and blood presence of my father and I knew, in a flash one day, that the Sergeant had served that purpose—until he stopped coming. I tried once to talk to my mother about this after one of his visits but it only made her sad and I found her crying later so I never spoke to her about it again. I dealt with the guilt by putting my father into a category. I don’t know an exact word for it, perhaps, “someone to aspire to be like.”

Pride for him replaced longing and served in the place of his affection.

I graduated from university and earned a commission in the Guardia Civil in 1973. My mother was too sick with her final illness to come to my graduation from the academy, but Comandante Mereía gave the commencement address, reminding us of the sacrifices of an earlier generation and exhorting us to loyalty to a democratic government. He came up to me at the graduation party and asked me to have dinner with him afterwards. It was a polite request, but now that I was in the service, there was no refusing. (That sounds ungrateful of me, shameful for me to think that now that I re-read it. I gladly went to dinner with him).

We went to a modest restaurant in San Jose that had been a favorite of his from the Army days. It was in what would become the San Jose Chinatown in later years, lots of smoke and loud talk.

“How is your mother?”

“I am afraid this may be it, a few more months perhaps.” His head started a little bob, shaking in agreement or understanding as he watched me. He looked away for a moment or two, then back at me, his head still slowly bobbing. We had been drinking some and that may have accounted for the watery eyes, but maybe not.

“Mother would love to see you.”

“Yes,” he said, “yes, I will do that right away.”

“Mother told me a long time ago that you and she knew each other in La Gloria.”

“Yes, is that all she said?”

“Except that she came to boarding school in San Jose and that you joined the Army.”

“Yes.” He picked up the shot glass of guaro then thumped it back down. He half-turned in his chair and slung one arm over the back. “Did she tell you that my father worked for hers?” I nodded. “And that her father paid for me to go to the high school?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m sure she did not tell you that when we were in high school we were sweet on each other.”

By 1973 I was, of course, more worldly than in 1959, but I riveted to his words.

“I loved your mother more than I can say, and I think, I’m sure, that she loved me. It certainly felt that way to a teenager. But I was naïve. I was 17 and she was 15 at the time. In defiance of my father, I asked your grandfather if I could court his daughter. My father tried to protect me.  He ‘prohibited me’ but I was in love.  It is pathetic, laughable to think about it now.  But your grandfather did not think it was funny.  He sent her away to boarding school in San Jose within the week. Took her himself.

He forbade me to see her, ‘Ever’ he said. But for some reason, he did not keep me from finishing high school. I did that myself.  I was frantic. I took—stole is more honest—some money from my father, hitchhiked to Santiago and took a bus to San Jose.  But the administration said she would not see me. They would not let me enter. It had taken two days to find the school and I had walked all over this damned city.”

His lips pursed into a gritty smile. “That school is only three blocks from where we sit.” He pointed east, then swung his arm north, “and the barracks are right over there. I had had it with walking. I had my first beer, spent my last centavo and joined the Army, one-two-three, a pretty sad story. Don’t you think?”

I did not know what to think. It was definitely sad but agreeing with him did not feel right. “I am sorry for bringing this up Tío, I wouldn’t have—.”

“Oh, it’s okay among brothers-in-arms. You are old enough to know, Chico.” He had not called me that since 1960. And there it was again, when is one old enough to know everything, I thought.

“Anyway, I did not see your mother again until just before the revolution of ’48. It had been ten years or so and for some reason I took a chance on calling to ask if I could come by. To tell her something important of course.”

I nodded, “Of course.”

“It was a few weeks before Christmas of 1947; she was then a married woman for several years. I came to tell her that I was going to leave the Army if Don Pepe started the fight. I thought it would be soon. I hadn’t spoken to my father since I left home and I asked her to let my parents know if all that came to pass.”

“’You should do that, now,’” she said, but I told her that I could not face him yet and we started to talk about the old times.”

“Did she say yes?”

He looked at me disoriented, reeling perhaps, as if not understanding my question. Then looked away. “Yes she did. There had been so much time, so much water over the dam, that we could be friends again. It was a little like old times, as much as those can be. We laughed at the memories, even my teenage audacity.  It was funny, almost, by that time but I remember feeling like I had missed my life somehow.” He looked straight at me. “It was worth it, just to laugh with her again.”

“Is that when you met my father?”

“No,” he harrumphed, “your father was the real patriot. No waiting for him. He was already in San Isidro, spoiling to get on with it. But your mother asked me to find him and look out for him and that is what I did, in February, when I abandoned the Army.”

He told me he saw my mother a few times before leaving the Army, but that the police made it dangerous to be seen doing so. We became quiet, he studying the shot glass, me struggling with the question that had to be asked.

“Did you ever speak to her of love after he died?” I felt my heart pounding in my temples, in my ears. I was frightened, and to this day I cannot say why.

He looked at me squarely and every sense told me again, he was sizing up my maturity. Finally he said, “Yes. More than once…but she would not have me and I married another.”

We talked awhile longer. I filled him in on the things he did not know about my life; I had a girlfriend by then for example, and it made him smile. I told him that I was thinking about buying an automobile with my new wealth and he just shook his head, but he said nothing.

When it was time to go we stood and I put out my hand to shake his but he took my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks and told me that both he, and my father, were proud of me.  It was awkward as our big noses got in the way of each other when we switched cheeks and we both chuckled.

By the time the Fuerza Publica was formed in 1996, and we all transferred over, he was gone.

My final assignment, at my request, was to command the delegación of Puriscal in Santiago. These days it is just over an hour or so from La Gloria and I found a farm here to retire to. I have cousins and their families still living here and the Sergeant has family left also.  They all feel like family now.  As I finish this I am staring at that picture of my father and the Sergeant for the thousandth time, which one of you wrote that? To my darling Miriam.

*Previously published.  Photo courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica.

Opening Scene: Volcan!

The Day Before

Light, drizzling rain. The driver of a small car stops at an intersection. Through the slow wipers, a red, hexagonal sign reads “Alto.” The short Central American twilight is closing in on itself when the car pulls across the sidewalk and stops before a closed gate. A tall, older woman gets out, unlocks and pushes the gate open then turns back to the car. As she opens the door again, a passerby in an olive poncho steps from behind it and looks curiously at the woman.

“Are you Sor Maria Elena?”

“Excuse me?”

“Are you not Sor Maria Elena of the Order of the Our Lady’s Charity?

“I am the Señora Dolores…Zelaya.” Her throat swallowed the last syllable.

“You were the Sister, though. Were you not?”

“I was.” Her tall frame rose straighter. “I suppose I still am.”

“I know why you are here.” She gazed evenly at him.  “Do you?”