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En el Norte


En el Norte, four of my grandchildren wait for me to answer the phone. I do not yet know it is them. They are in custody at a facility. Ordered to read from a paper saying these things, something written for the lawyer.

    I hear some of it. The rest means they wait for me to hear all of it. I must steady my legs and stand as the kind of grandfather they need me to be, a hard man in a suit and a hairy chest that sweats but does not smell; a casual cold and reasonable man, the kind willing to fluff a few feathers if need be, someone who can do many things all very well, but certain and quick and find out the person in charge and deal with him, someone who can show them sense. My grandchildren want me to answer to that paper like that man.

    Maybe they hope I understand when my oldest says my real name again, not my stage name. I do not know many people who know my real name, but they like me. I tell them they always like me when they remember, as soon as they know I am a clown. They all grew up with me as a silly sidekick in El Circo de Cepillín, a dog in some shows, a tree, a physical prop to kick or climb. At least it was the kind of show the dentist would play in his waiting room. My kids were spine stiff, going into life like they wore a bodycast. As serious about money as I was silly, and because of me; I let them go on mistaking themselves. I could not all the sudden have conviction. I watched them get it all by themselves. I should at least have helped them cross a few streets, but other mothers always grabbed them. They felt safe in school routine. Telling them anything about how I raised them, once they had kids, I recognized the same glare in their eyes as those hunched over mothers who took my kids by the hand.

    My people only said ‘no’ this and ‘no’ that. No experiment in their genes. Rubén sat so still at table, and he is blessed. He can put a drill in kid’s mouths. He said yes and no, yes, sometimes, no sometimes. He said to my four grandchildren: “Look at the old man, you see what I said to you? Now do you want to be a sidekick? He died of a heart attack, not me. They call their grandfather as soon as they get stuck, but now I’m supposed to be a man without face paint.


    Señor González? Está usted allí?  

That tough everyone else called Carmelo Torres, who el Presidente would call simply the Torreador, I knew when he was still fighting in the ring. We did his, no, we did both of their kids' birthdays. Torres was afraid to die and he should have quit because his children's mother wouldn't just say to him, A la verga! or better, "You're dead to me" so he could, I think, only then be free to perform, the way in the theater they say "Break a leg." His promoter hired a team of dwarfs to come to the rescue in a pinch. Los payasos corren torros, the coyote had said. Distracting this bull, the clowns just about get themselves killed before they jump out of the ring. Los Mejicanos corren La Migra.


 First, this story, this fairytale of resentment, separation and looked for reunion, lets me say something at once obvious and trivial. We need each other. Generations need each other. Nations need one another. The way we often perform our individual lives aloof and detached, silly, or drilling to the essence, matter of fact can lead us to think and act as if such persons who act otherwise seem involved in some other objective reality, unconcerned with the struggle of our own to actualize ourselves. Faith, I would point out is a shared reality, and the problem of this story, in the words of theologian David Tracy, is the "common basic faith" assumed to interconnect family members. Traditions that pass on stories will require a storyteller to inherit the values of a story, at least to become involved, and invest personal significance.

This process "is one demanding nothing short of conversion to the commitment to actualize that common basic faith. [Story can help when]... the limit-language of an explicitly religious self-understanding...If that common faith is shared, then what I dare to call the limit-question of God as the objective ground in reality for that very faith becomes a reflective issue of major existential import. At that point, the issues of metaphysics become of singular concern for the reflective human being. How that same reality may be self-consciously articulated with existential and symbolic adequacy has been the major concern of the religions."

I am quoting David Tracy's Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (1975) to the end of his chapter on "Meaning, Meaningfulness, and Truth" which sets up for an investigation that follows called "Re-Presentative Limit-Language" where he discusses "The Fact of the Need for Fiction."

In the above story, I sat looking down at a clipping from the newspaper: Oscar Lopez, “Cepillín, 75, Clown Beloved Across Lain America, Dies” 21 March 2021 New York Times. The situation and conflict came out very quickly:

Four of my grandchildren wait for me to answer the phone en el Norte. I do not yet know they are in custody at a facility. I hear some of it and the rest means I must steady my legs and stand as the kind of grandfather they need me to be, someone who can sort them from the rest of us dirty Mejicanos. I do not know many people who know my real name, but they like me as soon as they know I am a clown. They all grew up with me as a silly sidekick in El Circo de Cepillín, a dog in some shows, a tree, a physical prop to kick or climb. At least it was the kind of show the dentist would play in his waiting room. My kids were as serious about money as I was silly. No experiment in their genes. My people only said ‘no’ this and ‘no’ that. Rubén sat so still at table, and I am not surprised he can put a drill in kid’s mouths.

The essay this is tempted to become, an anecdotal essay on revision inspired by Lydia Davis' Essays One, a book that transfixed me in late January, and one in which surprised by her essay about the historical Jesus motivated me to hold it overdue. I held it to say something with it or to engage it, both in appreciation at her understated critique of the Jesus project, and her own investigative and imaginative insight into Jesus. From the heights of her career as a short story writer, translator, her book of essays treats her reader to a seat inside her mind as she goes back over one of her short shorts, finding a word, a phrase, some cleaner line made polished. I will end in no way as authoritative when I admit that I like the first drafted spit-fire version best.


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