Come with me and we will sink into our pleasures. No, we won’t do a line or have a toke or open that bottle. Those things are nice but they never go far enough. The nose goes, the weed takes too long and the liver must be considered, don’t you agree? This time we will get ripped and it will not be an idiom or a metaphor. This time we will take a harder drug, one denounced by the authorities.
I have deliberately picked a room for our work. The room is very small and American sterile, it is the perfect room for exploring our secret places and stirring the strong juices that lurk in our bodies. Edward Hopper lived trapped in this room and painted it again and again. When I was a child in the years just after World War II, special years when people were grateful to have survived and yet wounded and numb, I lived in rooms like Edward Hopper painted, sterile, lonely rooms where silence reigned and yet an explosion of violence was always close by, perhaps lurking in that closet or crouched behind the sofa. My father took me one day to the Chicago Art Institute and I saw Hopper’s paintings, or so I remember, and they were among the first paintings I understood and felt. They were my world and my terrors and my loneliness.
So these matters go back a long ways with me, as I’m sure they do with you. And I am talking about the senses, about feelings, about the joy of song and the punch of death. Not certain types of feelings but being able to feel, and more important, being willing. I have been under siege, yes, I admit it, things have at times overwhelmed me. And you cannot deny that this has also happened to you. The sex crimes took their toll, so did the dying. We fled to the country and that was good but never enough. Besides, we could not stay. Country living is behind us, we can only visit or remember that part. The war came also. We felt love, we fell into the cooking, we worked very hard in the garden where we created a lover that rubbed us raw and drowned us in perfume. These things are only part of why I am talking to you from this small room with a cable television and fifty-five identical channels. The rates are posted on the door, plus the essential directions for escape when the fire comes to char our bodies. In this room, I can finally remember that it started with a tree. Come, we will go into the wood.
I met the tree long ago and have remained a slave to its song. And now it is bringing me back from the dead. My life is within the wood. Against the grain, but within the wood. I am an agnostic about God. I can believe in God but I can never trust him. I waste no time on prayers, not a single moment do I spare for such a thing. It is not that I think prayers go unanswered, I actually have no idea. It is that I refuse to listen to such answers. They cannot be enough to explain what I see. I will not be cajoled into accepting the hurt. I refuse such blandishments. The hurt is real, and the answered prayers are not enough, not nearly enough. I can live the sin, aspire to the virtue, lust for grace. I am a fallen man and I know it, and I accept the torture of living this fact. But I will be damned — and they say I will surely be damned — if I accept God’s answer. So I do not pray, nor do I worship. I can love, I can comfort. I am the tree struggling in the hot ground of my desert. No bended knee and please no messages from on high. The messages must come from here, from the ground itself or away with them. That is what I learn from mesquite, my brother-in-arms.
Do not be confused. We are not druids here or pantheists or faeries in a sylvan whirl of velvet and chimes. True, we sing, we have our song. But no chants, never chants. Or ceremonies. We believe in cells and protoplasm and sex, a great deal of sex, and stench and dirt and slime and screams in the night. We are not of the peaceable kingdom here, and we have little peace. We contain a great deal of anger and even more of violence, the hand reaches out at all hours for the throat. We wait for the moment to strike back and yet we struggle, struggle each and every second, to still that hand, to open that fist into a warm palm and caress the face. To not reach for that gun, cool, black, the barrel short, the action fully automatic, the rounds — nine millimeter — resting in a banana clip like so many fangs anxious to tear flesh asunder. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry god since we do not have that trust and do not pray, and when we see a burning bush, we put out the fire. But we can accept the storm, the pitiless sun, the rot and then the dust. And we don’t ask why, that is our wisdom, or at least the wisdom of my brother the mesquite and the one I reach toward every dusk and every dawn and sometimes in the blink of midnight.
Imagine this: a world of tongues and caresses, a constant touching of the genitals, a world hidden like the planet Venus from common view by the clouds of scents steaming off our desires, a world obscene with appetite and orgasm and strong spices and drenched in chilies. That is the world of the mesquite. And it follows me everywhere because I am the wood.
Recently I was in the city of New York to talk of the pope. They say he is senile now, but this I do not know. Anyway, I was not to speak of his mental acuity in his dotage but to his encyclical on the Culture of Death. This felt odd. I sat there in the Church of the Incarnation while the cameras rolled and a woman outside the eye of the lens asked me question after question about this pope and his fury about the Culture of Death. She was very quick with her tongue, a woman rich in agendas and welded to her cell phone.
The day before I had been hanging out with a United States senator as he wrestled with the wisdom of some war in the Balkans. I had followed him like a shadow for vote after vote, committee meeting after committee meeting, been allowed into the tent as it were while the elect, the hundred solons of the Senate, kicked the matter of war and peace around like a soccer ball and hoped for a goal. At night I stayed in a very good Washington hotel, one rich with old woods and marble surfaces, a place expensive and generous with
fine meats and vintage wines. One evening I drank with a Frenchman, an oil executive actually, who had a grandfather driven from Belgium by the German onslaught of World War I, a father born as a refugee on the march as his grandmother fled the armies during the gore of August 1914, and this Frenchman, a Catholic naturally, believed two things absolutely: that this Balkan war must be fought lest the demons of European history break loose and run amok once again as they had in 1914 and that this pope was obviously senile. This second point he would give no ground on, no matter how long we talked, no matter how many fine bottles of cabernet we drank. And as we talked and settled gratefully into our drunkenness, images of that Balkan war played across the television screen like a sporting event.
Finally, after three hours, the Frenchman caved in, caved in I believe to the wisdom of mesquite, and talked of his chief passion in life, cooking. Like myself, he falls asleep at night reading cookbooks — that tongue wet with hunger again, always that tongue. He had just been out to Texas on oil matters and bought some fine chilies to take home to his kitchen in the south of France. He said I must come and see him and his family, we would cook and let the world drift away into its madness.
The next day I left him and the senator and went to that church in New York for my meeting with the Culture of Death. They taped me for two hours as a gentle rain fell on Manhattan. I struggled to find words to connect the pope’s Culture of Death with the world as I know it and finally, just before we ended the session, I lost my temper and said that any fool can see what the Culture of Death means, see it in our uncaring faces, see it in the gluttony of our markets, see it in our denial of how most of the earth’s billions live or barely live, see it in our chemically charged and neurotic stabs at peace. I said it is not my fault that this demented old man in a dress sees this clearly, that this medieval mind grasps the true emptiness moderns ignore. Afterward I walked 30 blocks in the rain, workers hurrying past me on their way to dreams of a Friday night, and finally surrendered to a bar and wound up drinking until two in the morning. A few days later, the producers called and said the last few minutes of my taping were strong and fine and just what they needed for, well, maybe 30 seconds of airtime.
My best friend’s ashes lie underneath the shade of two mesquites in my backyard. He was a drinking man and, in his cups, a terrible thing to behold, a brilliant mind reduced by the bottle to rage and idiocy. He would in his moments of darkness lose a weekend to two or three quarts of cheap vodka a day, the body steeled to the work by grams of fine cocaine. Years ago, when he had gotten out of detox yet again, I threw him into my truck and drove for hours across the desert and plunged into a volcanic wilderness in Mexico before we came to a rest. We camped by a water hole named Tinaja Emilia, the naming happening long ago when a strange Norwegian wanderer passed through and thought to honor some woman he knew back in the United States. The ground was studded with ironwood, paloverde and mesquite. Sleeping circles left by some ancient folk lay close by and the litter of thousands of years — stone implements, charcoal from long dead fires — was scattered about. My friend began to breathe again, and when night fell he called out the constellations like a schoolboy. At dawn the brittlebush was in bloom and the black volcanic slopes were ablaze with yellow flowers. We started up the cinder slopes, very slowly since my friend was weak. Halfway up, we came upon I’itoi’s cave, his western house where he keeps one of his wives since she loves the sea and the Gulf of California swells nearby.
I’itoi is a largely retired god who was once quite popular in this area. His wife continues to live in the cave — after all, where is she to go with the old man largely out of work — and thanks to the volcanic tubes left by some eruption, she can hear the beating of the waves as she goes about her household tasks. A giant honeycomb hung from the walls, and the roar of the insects was horrible as we dropped down into the god’s dwelling. Prayer sticks left by the ancients peeked from cracks in the walls. My friend left a Marlboro Light as an offering. But then he was a praying man. We continued up, slipping and sliding, to the peak and we stood there and could see across the gulf to the mountains of Baja. The change was electric, the life pulsed in him. Then we dropped down into the camp at Tinaja Emilia and the thorny embrace of the mesquite. He never went back. I think the singing was too much for him. He chose a different path and I could not stop him in his errand. I had done all I knew how to do.
Recently, I had four biopsies in an hour. The doctors were determined to discover what was wrong with me. I could not explain the deep sickness to them, any more than I could tell them of the cure, of the wood against my face. There had been a massive and sudden swelling on my neck, my fever rose, and I went to bed and waited for death. They thought cancer, since they are reasonable people. They also had me sign a form so that they could test me for AIDS. I did not agree with what I saw in their anxious eyes. I knew I had a soul sickness like the savages we watch on television documentaries and I knew the savages were not exotic or a distant and irrelevant part of my past as a homo sapiens but flesh of my flesh and that I was paying a blood price for what I had seen and felt and devoured like red meat. I knew the sickness was within me and so was the cure. I only had to remember. And so I did. And the swelling went away. I remember the first thing I did. I cooked and then I ate. Tongues.
They say mesquite will float but I do not believe this claim. I have seen it struggle in a desert storm, the waters coming angry out of a narrow canyon, then spreading against the soft banks of the arroyo snaking across the bajada, the air electric with energy and the light rich with a green cast of violence. I have stood right there as it came like a wall — the dreaded flash flood of our nightmares but a dream too often denied our waking hours — the waters four or five feet high, the brown face roiling and foaming, a sentence garbled by the fury of the statement, and the wind is down, almost a sick stillness in the summer afternoon, the core of the downpour is miles away on the sacred peak, one called Baboquivari, another place where I’itoi lives, the god of the people who knew the ground before my kind came, and I looked up at the rock tower now hidden in clouds and darkness, a blackness only broken by the jagged teeth of lightning, and stood there staring: the foaming, licking the sentence fragments moving like a wall down the arroyo, the dirt banks here and there collapsing, falling with a roar like icebergs calving off a glacier, the hair on the back of my neck tingling from the currents of energy exploding off the peak and as I stared, I fell into the scene, lost all fear and succumbed to appetite. It took all of my will not to walk into that wall of water and merge with it and ride away with the flood. Then I saw it, a full-grown mesquite, one of the ancients that cling up above, a work requiring centuries of patience and sun and storms, saw it bobbing like a toy, totally uprooted now, a thing tired of waiting, weary of being rooted and now free to move and course hither and yon about the land.
I travel a lot, and when I travel I tell people it is for a story, but what I am really looking for is love. Not a woman for myself, but love on the faces of people and in their gait and in the smooth joy of their speech. I travel in the true desert. The Sahara, I believe, has more water than the modern world has love. I cannot easily explain this fact. Fornication seems to be operating at reasonable volume. But I sense this reality everywhere. I am in Washington having coffee with a Senate aide, an old hand who has spent decades on the hill and came to town as a youngster and I look at all the young women in the cafeteria. Washington is a city of people barely past their teens clowning around in suits, and I tell the woman, this old Washington hand, that they all look cold and empty, and I know this is not a nice thing to say of strangers but I tell her I am the true stranger here. And she says, “Everyone here is lonely, this is a very lonely city.”
Later I tell an editor in New York that I do not like the capitol. He says he does not either. I jump on his statement and offer that if I lived there I would wind up killing someone. He says no, no, he would kill himself. But I want to make this clear: I don’t know if Washington is natural or unnatural. I am not a poster boy for the Pleistocene. The city is cold, the modern world is cold, the flesh is there but people find it easier to hit than to touch, and the easiest thing of all is not to make a move, to sit and watch until your shift is over.
There is something missing, some vivid touch that the cool computer screens we now all stare into at work and at home cannot deliver. The last common feeling we have left is depression, and it is so common, we only notice it when we cannot bear any longer to go on. We can grow hair on our heads and stuff new breasts in our chests and suck fat from our hides, but we cannot seem to paste a smile on our faces. We are not the people who will die of laughter.
The mesquite lives for centuries and we come and go with our cigarettes and coffee, and the mesquite rolls on and on as we pass through from womb to grave. The tree is stark, all bent and gnarly, and fails to make good wood for lumber. There is no straight to it, just this twisting and turning as it roasts under the sun. The grain is close and dark and runs to rich reds that rouge our eyes and make us envy. When burnt, the smoke is acrid, yet sweet, and hangs over our lives as incense for a church we cannot name and a faith we cannot fathom.
Charles Bowden is a writer in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of 14 books, including Blood Orchid, Trust Me, and Juarez. This essay is excerpted from BLUES FOR CANNIBALS: The Notes from Underground, published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2002 by Charles Bowden. All rights reserved. Bowden is also the author of The Book of Isaiah in Killing the Buddha’s forthcoming book, A Heretic’s Bible (The Free Press).