Excerpt from 'Novel Explosives'
A Novel in 3 Parts
By Jim Gauer
All rights reserved.
The story of how I came to live in Guanajuato, Guanajuato, is a fascinating one, fascinating. It is not, however, it should be noted, right up front, a story that I am in any way well-equipped to tell, in the sense, in the very real sense, in the I'm sorry to be the one to break this to you sense, that I myself have no idea how I came to live in Guanajuato. In some such sense of the word, I found myself one day, living in Guanajuato, as though I'd picked up a curious object while walking a mountain trail, with no conception whatsoever of how I'd come to be living here, apparently some time ago, no recollection of whatever chain of events I was myself at the end of, and no sense at all of having led a prior life. I certainly had a prior life; I am, after all, in all probability, somewhere in my mid-fifties, and no one comes to be living somewhere in his mid-fifties without having had a prior life; it takes time in any case to become of a certain age, time in which events would no doubt have taken place, even if one can't recall them, and these events would have made up what amounts to my prior life, so I had no doubt that I had one, whatever it had amounted to. The fine lines and wrinkles that appear on one's face, with the passage of time and exposure to sunlight and the gradual accumulation of certain habitual facial expressions, don't just appear out of nowhere one day, and assume their positions around the downturned mouth, or the worry-furrowed eyebrow, or the scrutinizing eyes; I had no doubt that time, and the pressure of events, and the long narrative chain of time-sensitive circumstance, had produced these lines and wrinkles I could read on my own face, even if I myself was unable to recreate them. Somewhere along the way, however, the narrative chain had come unlinked, the chain of cause and effect by which one set of circumstances gives rise to the next set of circumstances. I myself was a link that was both the end of one chain, one I had no recollection of, and the beginning of another chain, of whatever would happen next. While I don't doubt for a moment that my story must be a fascinating one, I, to put it bluntly, do not know a word of it; I found myself one day, like finding a link of anchor chain in the mountains of central Mexico, and not only was this chain link me, but I had no way on earth of explaining how I'd come to be here; as far as I could tell, as I stood there trailside, I might as well have appeared out of thin mountain air.
I woke up one morning in a room, as it would soon turn out, in a small hotel, with no clue at all as to my identity or whereabouts. I showered, shaved, dressed, using clothing I found lying in a comfortable-looking chair, went down to what was recognizably a hotel lobby, and was told by the desk clerk, a man almost certainly of Indian and perhaps Spanish descent, that the town I was in was called Guanajuato. I looked around the room, at its warm terracotta flooring tiles, covered with blue, yellow, magenta, purple, and white woven rugs, at its rough-hewn wooden seating, its paintings, of wildly colored mythic birds, hung somewhat erratically on whitewashed plaster walls, its glassed-in display cases of hand-painted ceramic plates, its front door facing a narrow cobblestone street, a street I almost certainly must have walked upon previously, and found nothing at all that I recognized, nothing that served to trigger even the faintest of memories, of drinking too late, say, at a local bar, of a wild night of revelry, of buying one too many rounds for newfound companions who were enjoying my company, of discovering to my amazement the lateness of the hour, my state of inebriation, my need for a good night's sleep, and having to seek therefore shelter from the cool air of the night. Nothing, as they say, came back to me. There was nothing whatsoever here in this room, however warm and authentic it appeared to be when I looked around at the room's belongings, which reminded me of anything of a personal nature; as far as personal reminders go, the room might as well have been empty. The room itself, however, far from being empty, held beautiful weavings and hand-painted ceramics and rough-hewn wooden furniture and wild mythic birds, things that I could see with my own two eyes, or perhaps I should say the eyes that, for the sake of simplicity, would need be thought of as my very own two eyes.
To be clear, it's not that these objects lacked associations; they were not in any way cut off from the rest of history and somehow stranded here. I knew, for example, that one of the painted mythic birds was Quetzalcoatl, sacred god of the Aztecs, god of sky and creation, patron of the priesthood, of learning and knowledge, this bird had lost nothing of its history and associations, but this had nothing to do with me, there was nothing about the bird that I could associate with personally, it was the same bird to me that it would have been to any other man, any man with a knowledge of Quetzalcoatl, except that any other man would find, in addition to his knowledge, a connection to himself, a set of associations he took personally and therefore regarded as properly his. These associations did not, in any sense, belong to me; they belonged, properly, to the bird. I don't want to convey the impression that I was uninformed or ignorant. To the contrary, I seemed to know quite a lot of things, it's just that none of the things I knew belonged to me; my own knowledge was not in any way a personal possession, it could just as well have belonged to anyone. I knew, to give another example, simply by looking at them, that the colorful rugs on the square-tiled floor were hand-woven on a loom, as was indicated by the manner in which they lay on the floor, not quite flat, with small bubbles and waves caused by the uneven weaving, an effect that is not normally produced by a machine. I also knew that they were, in all likelihood, colored with natural dyes, indigo from the Anil plant, deep magenta from the cochineal insect, the yellow of rock moss, the sea snail purple, the very sea snail, purpura pansa, from the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca that was so prized by the Europeans after their invasion of the New World, these were all things I knew, I just didn't know them personally, they could just as well have been known by someone else. I had knowledge, in other words, I was clearly the sort of man in possession of a set of facts, but there are, after all, all sorts of men in possession of facts, so what sort of man was I? I had no idea.
I left the front desk, climbed the stairs back up to my room on the third floor, used the key that I had somehow acquired to enter the room, and made a conscious decision to take a good look around. The room itself was spacious and light-filled, once I'd opened the shutters, situated as it was at the front of the building, with two tall windows sunk deep into thick whitewashed walls, overlooking what appeared to be a large town or small city, set between steep hillsides in an undulating ravine, filled with church spires topped with crosses and weathervanes, and the basilica domes of nearby cathedrals, and closer to the earth, a winding maze of narrow streets. From my perspective, on first sight, I mean really and truly on first sight, since I had no impressions at all that would have preceded these first impressions, I appeared to be situated on a hillside just above the center of the city, a conclusion I drew no doubt tentatively from the evidence gathered by my eyes, evidence that the buildings grew more dense and somewhat taller around a plaza just below me and perhaps twenty degrees to my left. The hillside opposite was jammed with box-shaped houses in every imaginable hue, forest green and royal purple and orange and pink flamingo, stacked up the slope above the city center, with a large stone statue at the hill's highest point. The heart of the city, I concluded, lay at the bottom of a valley between these two hillsides, the one I resided on, and the one rising opposite me, with a statue at its peak. The city center itself struck me as genuinely beautiful, though in fact I had nothing other than impersonal images, like pictures in books, to compare it to, deep yellow and pale green and dusty-rose-colored buildings, interspersed with townhouses with wrought-iron balconies and window boxes filled with red and yellow flowers, and here and there, laundry hung out on a balcony railing to dry; the sun was out, as might be expected, on the sort of day when people put out laundry on a railing, at least assuming they were expecting their laundry to dry. The narrow streets were filled with scores of people, walking from one place to another, on their own two feet, the way people could be expected to walk, on a day when the sun is out, in order to get from here to there, from one point to another point, from where, in some sense, they are already, to somewhere, altogether, elsewhere instead.
The first order of business, now that I had my physical bearings, though to tell the truth, I had been uncomfortable with the idea, when speaking with the desk clerk, of asking him directly "What is Guanajuato?" as it seemed to me that such a question might have struck him as somewhat odd, as odd perhaps as asking him a question like "Who am I?" and I was not as yet convinced that it was a good idea to begin striking people as odd; I mean, let's face it, at this point, while I had my physical bearings, I had no idea where I was, since it was apparent, if the clerk could be believed, that I was in Guanajuato, but the truth is I had no idea where or what Guanajuato was, it was almost certainly in Mexico, if Quetzalcoatl could be relied upon, but otherwise, what and where was it? ... in any case, to get to the point, the first order of business was to examine my belongings, or at least to look at the things in my room, assuming that they belonged to me, assuming that I was the one to whom they could best be said to belong. In the closet of the room, I found several linen shirts hung neatly on hangers, two pairs of well-pressed slacks, a pair of dark loafers, and a large green duffel bag that I could only assume was mine. In a chest of drawers along one wall, I found boxer shorts, pairs of black dress socks and clean white athletic socks, two pairs of folded jeans, and a stack of short-sleeved knit shirts, clothing that I would, from this point forward, unless and until someone else came forward to claim them, regard as belonging to me, and therefore among my belongings. The bathroom proved to be a far easier undertaking: it contained a hairbrush, toothbrush, razor, and toothpaste, things that could have belonged to anyone; frankly, if someone had come forward to claim them, I would have simply handed them over, I really didn't care to whom they in fact belonged; if someone had identified them as theirs, I was prepared to identify them as theirs. With the possible exception, then, of the items in the bathroom, I now had a set of personal belongings, whether borrowed or owned, I had certain things to begin with, it was a good place to start, and I clearly needed to start somewhere, so I began right here, by assuming that I was the sort of man who would be in possession of just these items. At least for now, these things were mine, they were already taking on this association, and if turned out later I had borrowed them, I would have to deal with that when the time came.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, taking stock of my situation. I had, on the one hand, a roof over my head, clothing to wear, toiletry items, at least for the time being, and the name of a location. I had a native tongue, American-accented English; when speaking with the desk clerk, it had quickly become apparent that I possessed only the most rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, the sort of Spanish one might acquire from a few carelessly attended courses in secondary school, words of basic courtesy to be used in initiating and concluding a brief conversation conducted primarily in English, words for where and why, words for how much, the ability to conjugate the verb "to be" in the present tense, and a miscellaneous collection of curse words like "puta" and "swate" and "ojete" and "pendejo," words that would indicate some previous association with native language speakers under circumstances outside the boundaries of basic human courtesy. A brief review of my facial features while shaving had revealed that I was deeply tanned and therefore dark-skinned from sun exposure, my face was in fact as dark as the desk clerk's, and judged by color alone, I could have passed for a Native American, I was in fact so deeply tanned that it was something to be accounted for, I looked like a man who might have washed ashore on a beach and found no place to take shelter from the sun for quite some time, perhaps the victim of a shipwreck, or some foul play at sea, it was apparent that left unchecked my mind was prone to wandering off into romantic and adventuresome fantasies, I took note of this propensity, and brought these speculations to a halt. I was an American with little Spanish and a deep, inexplicable, tan. I was slightly taller than medium height for an American. I was lean, whether from some hardship or natural body-type. I wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses. My hair, bleached from the sun, had not been recently cut. And I had a large painful knot, the size of a baseball cut in half, on the back right center of the top of my head.
And on the other hand, I seemed to be in possession of a large collection of facts, none of them personal, and I seemed to be capable of producing, as I sat there taking inventory, a great many thoughts on a variety of subjects, but had no personal context for any of these thoughts. Other than their variety, there was nothing to distinguish them from the thoughts of any number of reasonably well-educated men. I could, for example, explain to myself how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity, I could briefly describe Green's Theorem, and place it as the two-dimensional limited case of Stokes' Theorem, but I couldn't tell myself if any of this mattered to me, and it was apparent that beyond a certain point, my knowledge of Riemannian geometry became vague and unstable. I could recite quite a number of poems, the way a man might do when attempting to distract himself from some uncomfortable dental procedure, but I identified more with the man seeking distraction from the drilling of teeth than with anything to do with the poetry itself. If I'd been told that I was the sort of man who had memorized poetry as a means of distracting himself from some sort of unpleasantness, I couldn't have disputed this. I seemed to know the names and models of a great many automobiles. Did this mean I'd been an auto salesman? And so on. Without any organizing principle, my thoughts were just thoughts. When I searched around in my thinking for something I took pride in, for example, as a means of providing context, and organizing my thoughts, I could find nothing at all that gave me a sense of pride. I went category by category among a large number of subjects, looking for something that might signal a growing sense of self-esteem, and nothing I could think of gave rise to a sense of esteem, all of my thoughts seemed more or less equivalent, they didn't seem to be organized around the rising and falling of some sense of myself as someone to be esteemed. Perhaps I'd done nothing in my prior life that I was proud of, perhaps I was the sort of person for whom knowledge itself was a form of distraction from unpleasantness, but one might think, under the circumstances, that I'd at least feel some sense of pride regarding the depth and variety of the knowledge I could make use of in order to distract myself. I was like a man sitting in the attic of another man's home, finding objects that have been stored away, as having value for another day, and feeling only a mild sense of amusement over what the other finds valuable. It was with some difficulty, I must admit, that I came to recognize that I was, evidently, precisely that other, and that while I might find him amusing, he was, after all, evidently me.
Excerpted from Novel Explosives by Jim Gauer. Copyright © 2016 Jim Gauer. Excerpted by permission of Green Integer.
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