Nonfiction by Robin Schauffler
A cabman is the especial dispensation of Providence – no one can foresee whether he will be scowling and truculent, plainly intending to force the last sou, or whether he will prove a sort of high priest of his town, extending his pontifical blessing over his streets and showing himself a father to his fares.
— Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography
Thunder exploded over the mountains of central Mexico one midnight in early June. Our little house cowered. Peals fifteen seconds long shook the cinderblock walls, and the hanging lamp in the bedroom swung like a drunk. Rain slashed through leaves and branches to pummel the roof and cascade off the eaves in glossy sheets. The patio filled with water, thousands of tiny droplets clattering on the surface like a snare drum. In a flash of lightning the streetlight above our window went out and the red numbers on our clock face disappeared.
Hours before, at sunset, I had strolled home from work under a gentle peach-colored sky. Now the world had changed its personality – so fast. Peter slept unaware beside me as I lay still in the pounding heart of the storm.
We had arrived in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, in October, at the start of the dry season. For months, every day was clear and warm and dazzling, every night cool and sprinkled with stars. We rented a little two-room house from a Mexican doctor and his family. It was partly furnished, and had running water and electricity and a phone line, and an avocado-green fifties-style refrigerator whose door fell off one morning while Peter stood with his back to it, scrambling eggs. The living room sported fuzzy red-and-black-patterned sofa and chairs, which the doctor’s wife proudly called “the ugliest furniture in the world.”
Slowly, we learned the simplest things: to buy tortillas before they ran out in mid-afternoon; how to choose the best avocados, depending on whether we wanted to use them that day or the next; how to hail a taxi and negotiate the fare. Peter figured out the tangled bus system. I made friends with the women who ran the neighborhood photocopy shop, and learned it was impossible to make a copy between 7:30 and 8:15 in the morning, because that was when the schoolchildren from the primaria across the street rushed in to buy their candy and gum to have at recess, and the lines of giggling uniformed boys and girls stretched along the sidewalk. We mastered the complicated dance of always having enough fresh water, in five-gallon plastic bottles called garrafones: if we ran out before the delivery truck came on Tuesday, we could buy a garrafón in a nearby shop and lug it home, but we had to put down a deposit for it, and some shops wouldn’t sell us a full garrafón unless we brought them an empty. Et cetera; inside every small task, Mexico cradled a new lesson.
The too-hot season began in April and became unbearable by late May. We followed our neighbors’ example and stayed indoors, resting, during the hot dead air of the afternoons. The sky turned a hazy pinkish-gray.
Our cracked kitchen window looked onto a narrow street where passing cars and trucks and horses churned the gravel into tornadoes of dust. One morning I put a coffee cup on the windowsill, and by afternoon it had left a clean, protected circle in the day’s new layer of grit. “During the hot season, you must sweep and dust every day,” the doctor’s wife advised.
That first night of our first rainy season I listened to the thrashing outside, and flinched when thunder cracked and lightning shellacked every leaf on every tree an eerie silver. The bedroom filled with the scent of earth and ozone, and I felt another lesson coming on.
Before Mexico, I’d lived most of my life in damp, misty western Oregon, a place famous for its wet weather. I’d always thought I knew rain, understood every one of its secrets. But Oregon’s showers and drizzles and soft rainy afternoons and steady weeklong downpours never intruded or disrupted; they were just there, a part of the world I lived in. This Mexican rain was a new creature, one with an angry roar. I was unprepared.
The world was quiet again when Peter and I crawled out of bed at dawn. The pampas grass and the zapote tree and the Russian olives along the patio dripped and sparkled. I tiptoed into the living room. Shallow puddles crept across the pink concrete-tile floor. The papers on my desk were soaked in inky rainwater. I stood in my slippers with my arms tight across my chest while Peter called our landlord, the doctor, whose house was just across the yard. “¡No te preocupes!” the doctor said. “Our roof is also leaking!”
Inside, the sofa and chairs stood with their wooden feet in an inch of water, and looked uglier than ever. Peter pushed at the lake on the floor with a mop while I got ready for work. “I can’t finish this,” he reminded me. “I have to be downtown at eleven for a meeting. We’ll take care of it tonight.”
“But this is a flood,” I said, annoyed at his casual shrug. I was nearing the end of my first semester of teaching English, and a heavy schedule of exams and grading hung over me like the storm clouds of the night before.
I picked my canvas briefcase out of a puddle, toweled it off, and left for work. I tried to slam the front door but the wood was swollen with rain and it stuck against the damp tiles. Outside in the clear morning, grass and weeds lay flattened by the storm. As I splashed to my bus stop, neighborhood dogs snuffled for treasure in the creek rippling over the pebbly street.
The bus tires tossed up a glistening spray. On the public soccer fields three men floated in a rubber raft, trailing fishing lines. “Ah, soccer season is over,” the bus driver said. “Now it is fishing season.” We passed police headquarters, where chocolate-colored liquid surged around the knees of a black-uniformed officer. He stood with hands on hips and gazed at islands of dumpsters, soda machines, streetlights, police cars stranded around him in the brown sea.
At school, my English students bounced in their seats, distracted and silly. High school would be over in two weeks, and they were sure they already knew everything for their exams. “What’s the matter with you today?” I asked my highest level class. “Oh, we are very happy!” explained green-eyed Maite, whose job it was to explain things to me. The change in the weather had flowed into them like a tonic. I knew I would trudge home to a pile of paperwork, the beginning of final grading. This did not make me happy.
The day warmed and steamed; the students squirmed. I was too hot by noon in my light cotton blouse, and I could only fret about my soggy desk at home. In the Language Lab, I turned to my Mexican colleagues for sympathy. Silvia chirped, “Oh yes, I have in my kitchen a river!” Laura shrugged and waved a hand in the air. “Yes, of course! This happens always!” They laughed at my sagging shoulders. I gathered my books and headed for the bus stop to get downtown for my afternoon class.
The bus was crowded and warm and moist. I sweated against the metal seat; a large woman in a white T-shirt squashed me amiably into the rattling window.
In the cramped second floor classroom, my ten-year-olds were as squirmy as the high school group, as restless as the thunderclouds I could see rebuilding over the distant hills. Gloria chattered in Spanish about her tennis lesson; Fernando poked Mauricio with his pencil. A puddle lurked on the floor at the front of the room; the students laughed and splashed when I asked them to come to the blackboard. By the end of class I had lost my voice from exhaustion and wanted only to be home, to dry out my poor desk and mop the floor and go to bed.
But I couldn’t go home yet. I had agreed to talk with my energetic red-haired supervisor, Audrey, at her house. Peter would meet me there, and we’d take a taxi home together. Audrey, an Australian expat, had a Mexican husband and children, and she’d lived a dozen rainy seasons in Morelia. She was all enthusiasm as we sat at her round dining room table drinking tea. She cheerfully outlined the benefits of me teaching six more hours a week.
I tried to turn her down. “It’s just that, at the end of such a long day, I don’t have the energy … .”
“That’s because of the hot weather, and the dust! Now the rains have started, it’ll be cooler. You’ll feel much better.”
I didn’t feel better, but I caved in. She pulled the textbook from her canvas bag and went straight to planning the course: “Here, you’ll start with Chapter Three; they already know the simple past … .” I could see she had signed me up before the discussion began.
While we pored over lesson plans, clouds snuck in and covered the sky in gray. Peter arrived, dressed for business in a short-sleeved shirt and his good navy slacks. Neither of us had a raincoat; the morning had been so clear and innocent. We sat in Audrey’s yellow-walled living room as the storm broke. Rain hurtled into her back yard, washing the children’s bikes in a shimmery glaze.
“How long’s it going to keep raining?” I asked. Maybe we could wait it out.
“Oh, September, October,” Audrey said over her shoulder as she cleared the teacups.
“Let’s go,” I said to Peter, and shot them both a nasty look as I gathered my things. September? I was sure I wouldn’t make it. Audrey rummaged in her kitchen cabinets and pulled out a stack of black plastic garbage bags. “Here,” she said, “you’ll use these to cover everything in your house that can’t get wet. And you’ll put buckets under the leaks.”
“Oh, just great,” I thought. “We’ll be covered with plastic and stepping around buckets for four months?”
She glanced out the door at the flooded street. “You need an umbrella!” she said.
“We don’t have one,” I muttered.
“Well, you must get one,” she said as she waved us goodbye.
Across the street a man in a white shirt and tie stood in his patio and looked through the iron gate at his car, huddled at the curb up to its hubcaps in a swirling river. He shrugged and went back inside.
We scuttled the two blocks to Lázaro Cárdenas, the main street, to find a taxi. We were both soaked before we got there. Traffic slouched along Lázaro; water surged around hulky square-faced buses, red-and-white taxis, growling trucks, VW bugs. Drivers squinted through shuddering windshield wipers. My blouse was plastered to my back. The combis and buses bulged with rain-soaked bodies, and taxi drivers ignored us. Peter did not leap like Superman into the street and heroically flag a cab to rescue his girl. I set my jaw and pouted. Time crawled across the soggy afternoon. A bus stopped on the corner in front of us, dousing us in gray slush. The whitewashed scrawl on the front window said Plaza Carillo. “Oh! We can get a bus home from there!” Peter said. “Let’s go!” We jumped for the door and squeezed into the aisle as the bus plunged back into the river of traffic.
Grime ran down the windows, rain sluiced across the windshield, gray mud shot up from the tires. The bus lurched across town and we stumbled out at the corner of the broad, traffic-choked Plaza Carrillo. We rushed under a protective-looking roof, and a hidden downspout drenched the back of my neck. Peter dug in his pockets for small change for the next bus fare, reluctant now to pay twelve little pesos for a taxi. The belching, grinding buses were all going somewhere else. But I began to see a few empty seats; this meant that some people had made it home. Peter stood with his arms folded, scouting for our bus, the Jesús del Monte. At last I said, “If I see another empty cab, I’m getting in it. You can stand here and wait.” Maybe he didn’t hear me; he stared at the shiny wet street.
An empty cab came, and I flagged it and got in without looking behind me, said, “Vista Bella, por favor,” and dropped my head back against the seat. Peter scrambled in after me, but we didn’t speak. The cabby glanced in his mirror at my sodden hair and gloomy look and raised an eyebrow, then began chatting us up. He and Peter exchanged the usual small talk: “¿De dónde es usted? Where are you from? How long have you been in Morelia? Do you like our city?” I did not participate in their banter. “O, sí, es una ciudad muy linda, blah, blah, blah … .”
When the introductions were finished the taxista launched into an enthusiastic speech. His topic was the weather. He was still keeping an eye on me. “Here in Morelia, the people like to exaggerate,” he declaimed. “In May, everybody said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, it is a drought!’ But it was not a drought. It was only the dry season, like every year. And now, you’ll see, people will complain about the rain. Last week it was too dry; now there is too much rain.” He spread his arms in a cheerful shrug, leaving the taxi to decide its own course. Rain dripped in around the windows; windshield wipers flailed at the filthy water streaming across the glass. A plastic Virgin of Guadalupe swung from the rearview mirror.
We passed the park where the bands waited to be hired for a santo or a fiesta. A trio of bedraggled musicians in matching black cowboy hats and boots and red shirts huddled under a eucalyptus. Water drizzled off their hat brims into the sand. Glaring out the window, I had to admit to myself that the rain was slowing down.
Peter was still blabbing away, practicing his Spanish by asking the cabbie which he preferred, the dry season or the rainy season.
“Oh, I prefer the rains, of course!” The cabbie glowed. “And why?” he asked himself aloud. He lifted one hand off the steering wheel and raised a finger to tick off his points. “Primero. Porque, in the rainy season, everybody needs a taxi!” He grinned at me in the mirror, raised a second finger. “Segundo. Because I am a farmer. In this season, I go to my land, I plant, I work. Then I come to town and drive my taxi. This rain is good for the crops, very good for farmers.” This argument made sense, but we were not farmers, and our roof leaked. The taxista wasn’t finished. “Tercero.” He paused and raised another finger, as though he knew he had yet to convince me. “The time of the rains … es más romántico.”
“¿Romántico?” I snarled. It was the first word I had spoken since I got in the cab. “¿Cómo?”
His voice warmed with zeal as he preached his sermon. “It is a time,” he said, “to be indoors, to be with your sweetheart, to be a couple. The students, they can be studying in a café, or happy at home, snuggling together, while the rain is outside. Inside, you are tranquil, you can have candles, a coffee … outside, it is so green, and so fresh.” He flung his left arm out the window to gesture at the brilliant green grass beside the road, and I realized that just yesterday it had been a wispy yellow-gray. He coaxed his cab up the grade into our neighborhood, swashed through puddles, laughed at the cars stalled beside the road. He hummed a snatch of a romantic mariachi ballad. The cab dove over the last speed bump and into our narrow lumpy street, where a brick-red stream surged down the center of the road. The cabby crowed, delighted to find himself boating along the stream in his red-and-white ship. “The rainy season,” he said, “is the time for lovers.”
When we pulled up at our big wooden gate, darkness had arrived and the rain had stopped. Peter paid the taxista five pesos more than he asked for. Inside the compound we found a moist and velvet world. Leaves were spangled gold in the light of the single bulb that hung from the jacaranda, and fireflies winked across the yard. The sky was a deep midnight blue like a glazed tile, with sharp little stars caught among the branches. I breathed gulps of cool, lively air. Fresh. And romantic. We found a note from the landlord pinned to our front door: a man might come tomorrow to fix the roof, if he could get his motorbike running. The warmth of the day had dried the puddles in the living room and kitchen, and the afternoon’s rain had not penetrated the roof. Emiliano, our neighbor across the street, had delivered a load of firewood, the scraps from his woodworking shop.
I warmed tortillas on our two-burner gas stove, and Peter built a fire in the corner fireplace. I didn’t look at my desk. It could wait. We snuggled up before the hearth on the ugliest sofa in the world, and listened as the ancient mysteries of thunder and lightning approached again over the mountains.