Henry Miller, hot pants and ants

You think you've got problems? The Geezer's gotta cope with the 3 a.m. blues and that dratted Bob Marley. But then there's Flor, the rose of Castille ...

Published March 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Long ago, Henry Miller was important to those of us aching to become writers because he was the only American author who presented us with the musings of a literate, well-read, thoughtful person -- combined with a heavy case of the hot pants. He was a man who could be reading Denis Diderot one moment and slugging it out with a whore the next.

I am full up with Miller right now. For the 10th time -- or is it the 12th? -- I am wallowing in "Tropic of Cancer." I tell you, there is no one like him: He has such a sense of mission. He wants to communicate to us the lust for life and the lust for love and the lust for words -- all in one novel.

But I had forgotten -- until this reading -- the role of hunger in the Miller panoply. He is all over the streets of 1920s Paris with an empty belly. But he's also hungry to read, hungry to write, hungry to screw. "I have no money, no resources, no hopes," he tells us: "I am the happiest man alive."

"Dropped in at the Cronstadts," Miller says. "They were eating a young chicken with wild rice. Pretended that I had eaten already, but I could have torn the chicken from the baby's hands. This is not just false modesty -- it's a kind of perversion, I'm thinking. Twice they asked me if I wouldn't join them. No! No! Wouldn't even accept a cup of coffee after the meal. I'm delicat, I am! On the way out I cast a lingering glance at the bones lying on the baby's plate -- there was still meat on them."

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Every Sunday evening I go over to San Sebastian to eat with Jesus, his wife and his baby. Not long ago, Flor, Jesus' sister-in-law, was there, eating with us. Chicken relleqos, frijoles and tortillas.

Flor is almost 17. The name is right: She's a flower -- a dark rose, say; the rose of Castille. Delicate, long black hair that comes down to her waist, eyes large enough for you and me to drown in. And above her mouth, at the very upper edge, a slight dark down that some of us find to be irresistible.

I was talking to her about her school, and since we were just sitting down to eat, I asked her what they fed her at school.

"Nada," she said.

"No hay nada para comer?" (There's nothing to eat?)

"Sm, pero no puedo." (Yes -- but I can't.)

Why not?

She giggled, looked at me as if it were the most obvious thing on earth. Finally, she said: "Porque no hay dinero." (Because there is no money.)

She didn't say it with shame, or with malice. It's just a fact of her life. There's no money, so she doesn't eat lunch.

Foolish of me to ask, wasn't it? Flor's family is the poorest of the poor, even poor by the standards of San Sebastian. Her father's in jail in Oaxaca. He's been there for almost 10 years. He's a drunk, and in the midst of one of his attacks of delirium tremens, he thought his mistress -- he had been cheating on Flor's mother -- was casting spells on him. Brujas count heavily here. He slashed at her with a machete, left her bleeding. They don't know when he'll get out.

Flor's mother sells tamales at the public market. Her older sister does sewing, but the rest of her brothers and sisters are too young to work. Mostly they eat tortillas and salt -- and when there is a little money, beans and rice. That's it.

The thought of Flor, my lovely and gentle Flor, going to school hungry drives me bats. So later in the week, I give Jesus' wife some money to hand over to her each week for lunch.

I was there in San Sebastian not long ago. When Flor came in, I asked her if she was eating now. "Yes," she said, matter-of-factly. "I get food at school now. Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays."

How about the rest of the week?

"We gave it to Juan." Juan is her brother, now 11 years old. "He gets the food on Tuesdays and Thursdays," she said.

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Attack of the killer ants!

The place where I park my trailer in Puerto Perdido is called La Huerta. It's the stuff of paradise. It's a couple of acres that I've been renting for several years. It's heavily shaded, with towering mango trees, palms and frutales -- orange trees, grapefruit, satsumas. When it is very quiet, we can hear the thrumming of the ocean in the distance.

There are three nacimientos -- springs, and we've dug channels in the dark clay so the water can flow everywhere in the orchard. The longest of these "canales" has been named El Rio Grande -- the Big River -- which is a fine joke, since it's about 6 inches across.

We've built a series of brick pathways for my wheelchair -- complete with a cantilevered toll bridge made of bamboo over the Rio Grande so I can travel up and down the slopes, from one end of the orchard to the other. We've also installed a couple of open-sided huts -- palapas -- with palm fronds for a roof.

Recently they've brought a horror movie to paradise. The movie is called "The Attack of the Killer Ants." I've told you before about the "barrenderas" -- the ants that come through and eat all the food, drive out the rats, mice, fleas, tarantulas, scorpions, dogs and people, leaving everything clean as a whistle.

Well, the barrenderas have a first cousin, called leafcutters. And having leafcutters is like having hiccups. You remember hiccup cures? Paper bag over the head. Peanut butter and mayonnaise. Hold onto both ears and have someone feed you water. Pant, heavily. Everybody and his brother has a stupid idea on how to get rid of hiccups.

Leafcutters are the same, and the advice is about as good. Take the leavings -- the little piles of dirt -- from one nest to another. Stick rotten eggs in their entryways. Put Tanglefoot around the base of the fruit trees. Or Tabasco and Ivory soap. Stick a bag over your head, pretend they aren't there.

You don't even know you have leafcutters until you come in one day and your trees have all been defoliated. This happened to me last week. At first I didn't associate it with ants. I thought it was the work of the U.S. government. After all, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Congress have been whining about Mexico's sloppy attitude toward trafficking and transshipment of drugs. This has been going on for so long that I figured the president had finally gotten miffed, sent in the Marines to invade my orchard, to spray my trees with Agent Orange to teach the Mexicans a lesson in good citizenship.

My workers said no, that it was not the Halls of Montezuma, but attas cortahojas. Leafcutter ants.

Alexander F. Skutch -- and I don't make up his name -- tells us in his book "A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm" that leafcutters live underground, in caves about the size of the Astrodome. There may be as many as 2 million ants in one colony. You know they are there if your property collapses, or if the trees go bare naked on you. Their favorite foods are my beautiful flowering lemon trees, followed by the gracious white bougainvilleas that grow -- or tried to, anyhow -- over the entryway.

Leafcutters hide out during the day, but at night, you don't want to be around. All 2 million come out to scare the dog and strip the trees and take the leaves down into the ant Astrodome to make fungus potpie. Which they masticate with hops and malt to make dynamite ant beer. Then on Saturday nights, they challenge neighboring leafcutters to come over for keg parties and to play championship soccer games. They get riotously drunk, cheer noisily and sing old drinking songs. "Antie Mame" is a favorite, along with "Ant Misbehavin'" and "Don't Leaf Me Behind." Bloated and hung over, they sleep all day Sunday.

Despite their noisy ways, you just can't get rid of them. My workers claim that you can irritate the little bastards by flooding their superdome with water. If you do it enough times, they get in a huff, move off -- probably off to Acapulco, to do their partying there.

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The 3 o'clock in the morning blues

I wake up at 3 or so in the morning and my heart is going bang-bang-bang. It does that when I indulge myself -- when I have two margaritas instead of one.

In the old days, I could swill a dozen margaritas and then a half a bottle of brandy and dance all night on the table with a lampshade on my head and then come home and sleep like a top. No more.

One of the privileges of being a geezer is that they take away our pleasures one by one. Ten years ago they took away my food festivals: medieval dinners consuming whole beefs, chicken swimming in butter, three orders of cheesecake. After I topped 225 on the Richter scale, we -- my doctor and I -- decided I should be more selective about the things I put in my mouth.

Then they took away most of my drinking privileges. A simple case of beer would keep me awake all night. You're talking to a man who was famous for demolishing whole cases of Corona beer, single-handedly, and was still able to talk.

Finally, and not soon after, they decided to take away the pleasures of the flesh. You don't want to know the details. My doctor, who is getting to be quite friendly with me now, since I spend so much time with him complaining about being a geezer, tells me it might be "peripartum cardiomyopathy." Or maybe he said "transgenital cardiomyopathy." Or perhaps "transgenerational pheochromocytoma." In any event, I've pretty much stopped listening to him. I'm no longer interested.

Tonight, despite being on the straight and narrow (one thimbleful of mountain red, no zabaglione or crhme brûlée, saying my prayers as I settle in), I wake up and my heart starts jackhammering and I know, with the certainty that comes to all of us at 3 a.m., that I my goose is cooked. "Thank God I didn't pay American Express this month," I think.

I open the door to look out at the world before I say adieu. It's dark, very dark. They've turned off the moon. Most of the stars are fading fast. There is a bird nearby, in the arroyo, singing, "It's real, it's real, it's real." Funny, I never heard that one before.

I turn over on my other side where, because of my tinnitus, I can't hear my heart. The bird grows quiet, or maybe it just up and dies in sympathy. A Very Stupid Song starts up in my brainpan jukebox -- the one where you don't have to put in any coins, the one where they play the same song over and over again, about 15 million times, till you get to know it perfectly:

Please don't worry

'Bout a thing

'Cause every little thing's

Gonna be all right ...

My hit of the week. Bob Marley. Who isn't worried. And doesn't want me to worry, either.

I am not very interested in Bob Marley. If the truth be known, I can't stand Bob Marley. I would prefer anything other than Bob Marley. Give me Smashmouth, the Cramps, Pet Shop Boys, Goo-Goo Dolls. Give me leprosy, dengue fever, the blind staggers. But spare me Bob Marley.

He wants me not to worry, but I do worry. I worry about global overheating or whatever it's called. I worry about the Lakers, whoever they are. I worry about the sudden drop in the Dow. I worry about Monica Lewinsky's tummy.

I also worry about my workers, and their goddamned boombox, which started all this. Juan and Chiro and Leopoldo play that Bob Marley song ad nauseum. They think that Bob Marley is the bee's knees.

Tomorrow I will ask Chiro, "Cuantas veces hay que oir ese pinche cancisn." (How many more times am I going to have to listen to this miserable song?)

I've asked him this before, several times, so I am pretty sure he will say, "Quieres que lo quito?" (You want me to shut it off?) He's very amiable. He also knows where the next paycheck is coming from.

He will turn it off. But we've gone through this particular song and dance before. I know that an hour later I'll be hearing some advice. From one B. Marley. He'll be telling me I don't have to worry 'bout a thing cause he knows, he just knows that every little thing's gonna be all right.

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The end of Pedro Sanchez

Pedro Sanchez died yesterday. No big deal. Except to his family -- wife Sarah, and the three kids: Emiliano, 8, Juana, 4, and the esquincle, the one they called Junior -- barely 6 months old.

I liked Pedro. You probably would have liked him too. Good worker. Honest. He did some carpentry work for me here in Puerto Perdido. Built a hutch for me to store things in when I go north. Nice job -- artistic even -- with good strong supports. And it wasn't too expensive. Pedro didn't cheat me. He didn't do that to people, even to gringos.

Pedro died in the mountains, the Sierras, just east of El Cajon, there on the Mexican-U.S. border. It's rough country up there.

Heart attack, says la migra -- the U.S. border guards. They are the ones who brought his body in. The other Mexicans who were traveling with him didn't stop, couldn't stop to help him. When you don't have papers and someone dies crossing the border, you don't stop.

If Pedro knew he had a heart problem, he never told the rest of us. He was only 35, seemed very healthy. It might have been the strain of his last days on the road. He had been traveling for over a week just to get to the border.

Pedro has been crossing over into California for over 10 years. He would go up to Los Angeles every year to work in the CarPlace fabric shop. It wasn't a job that many Americans wanted but Pedro was capable, and worked hard, and the owner was always glad to see him, never asked for an I.D. Even with the minimum wage, Pedro could make enough money to take back to his family so they could eat, buy clothes, get medicine for the kids.

He was done in by what they call Operation Gatekeeper. Nice name. Gives us a picture of a gate, a pleasant old man waiting at the gate. If you have papers, you get through; if not, the old man shakes his head, says you have to go back.

Pedro didn't have any papers. He tried, but the U.S. State Department doesn't give visas to poor folk from southern Mexico. If you own land, or have a big business in Mexico City, or run a maquiladora -- you can get a visa. But Pedro didn't own any land, except the 20-by-30-foot lot where he lives, and his only business was carpentry.

"It used to be easy getting in," he told me once. "It was like a game." La migra would try to stop them, but it was no big deal. "They knew we were just looking for work. If we hid long enough, they'd go off for coffee, and we'd cross over near Chula Vista and get on a bus, and be in Los Angeles the next day."

But then came Operation Gatekeeper. Sponsored by Gov. Pete Wilson of California, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California -- among others. The number of agents patrolling the border near El Cajon went up by a factor of eight. The U.S. government installed lights to illuminate the canyons near the border. They built a 10-foot-tall cement fence starting at the Pacific, going east. Those who know it intimately call it "La Pared Berlin" -- the Berlin Wall.

They brought hundreds of Ford Broncos to give chase to Mexicans. People like Pedro, who had crossed so easily before, suddenly became the enemy. They had to start going up into the mountains of East San Diego County to get across.

It's rough country up there -- especially for the women and the children. It may take three or four days to get across. In the summer the temperatures can be scorching, and sometimes in the winter, it snows. No one tells you what to expect. People wear street shoes, T-shirts and jeans because they don't know any better. They aren't prepared and the "coyotes" -- those who get $300 or $400 to take them across -- don't tell them. Sometimes, when the going gets rough, the coyotes just disappear, head back toward Mexico.

There are snakes, scorpions, tricky paths and deep arroyos. Sometimes you run out of food and water. And sometimes, in the dark, you find yourself plunging down the side of a canyon. If you break something -- an arm or a leg -- the others have to leave you behind.

The services for Pedro will be held in San Sebastian next week. It'll be a simple ceremony. It cost Sarah almost every peso she had to get the body shipped back. It's a poor town, and there's not much in the way of spare change, even for funerals.

Pedro's friends will hoist the coffin and carry it to the pantesn where he will be buried next to his grandfather, Enrique. I expect there will be quite a crowd. Pedro was a good man -- straight, honest. Liked a drink from time to time, but never got into brawls at the local cantina. Lived a quiet life with Sarah and the kids. Never a harsh word -- even for his mother-in-law, the one they call Doqa Pedo, who's forever and a day complaining about how poor she is, even though she has over 5 hectares of land.

I'm going to be there at the funeral, and I was thinking that we might want to invite some of the people involved in Operation Gatekeeper to come along -- Wilson, Stevens, Smith, Hunter. They might like to see the result of their handiwork, have a chance to commiserate with Sarah, shake hands with the oldest son (who now has no father), meet the daughter (who now has no father), see the baby (who now has no father).

They say that it was Pedro's heart that gave out, there in the Sierras. La migra was chasing him up a hill, and all of a sudden he fell, twisted around, cried out -- and he was gone.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service agents found his wallet, found the pictures of Sarah and the kids, and his I.D. card. That's how they were able to identify him.

The U.S. government did help a little. It paid to bring the body over the border to Mexicali. That was where Sarah came to pick him up, to bring him home.

She can't read, so they had to show her where to sign the receipt.

By Carlos Amantea

Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.

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