My Friend Emma
[January 20 - - - Puerto Perdido, Oaxaca]
I carry some presents back to Mexico with me. A box of felt-tip pens and a Walkman for Nano, who works for me. Some Adidas for Roberto, the fisherman. And a bag full of presents - - - games, drawing materials, toys for the children at the Escuela Palma Real, the school for the disabled children there on the south coast of Oaxaca where I volunteer as part-time driver and factotum.

I buy a chess-set for Carlos, the clubfoot. I get a doll for María of the slow wit and sweet face. I buy a random selection of toys for the sixteen other children.

Finally, I buy a tiny soccer-ball key set for Diego, my good friend who works there, cleaning the grounds, climbing the coconut palms, fighting with the rats and snakes and stinging wasps up there so he can drop a few fresh coconuts down to those of us waiting below.

And for me? I give myself ten books for a long winter's read. The Way of All Flesh, Tom Jones, The Magic Mountain, six volumes of Faulkner, and just to keep my foot in the real world, the complete Raymond Chandler.

When I arrive, Emma, the head of the school, is, despite the wilting heat, so fresh in her white dress that I could hug her - - - and I do. Her blonde hair, her eyes wide and green, her great soft lovely throaty voice. Her only concession to the heat is her moustache. For yes, and alas, dear reader, my lovely Emma - - - tall and regal - - - wears a moustache. Not for disguise (who would this angel have to hide from?); no - - - merely as acknowledgement of the day. Starting at ten each morning, until seven or so in the evening, Emma grows a clear liquid moustache, tiny droplets across the upper lip. Nothing else in the devastating scorching wilting burning of the southem Oaxaca day seems to faze or possess her.

It turns out that her airplane will be leaving at eleven the next morning. She will be returning to Sweden to raise money for the school. And it just happens that in the morning, four hours before take-off, the school jeep chooses to go out to lunch. "Since I am the official school taxi-driver," I tell her, "I will taxi you to Pochutla and Puerto Escondido and the airport."

When we get to Pochutla, the passport photographs aren't ready; she also finds that she has no clothes for the cold of Stockholm, and none of her official documents are ready. Does this bother her? No; five years in Mexico have given her what we call "the ahorita method of dealing with the world." (Ahorita technically means "a little now." When you ask someone to do something, they say "ahorita." This means it can be done in five minutes or five years. It's better than mañana. That one often means "not maybe for forever.")

Emma loves all her charges at the school without question - - - even the most homely and drooly of them. She also loves the prospect of her upcoming journey. She loves me for taking her to the airport. She loves life. She loves the world. She even loves her crappy Jeep. Emma, indeed, is addicted to a love of all things great and small - - - and all us creatures (great and small) thus react to her with love.

We ride past the desiccated fields of southern Oaxaca, where a drought has turned the trees sere and brown, the grass dry, the streets to dust. Even through it is still morning, the hot wind lashes at us. As we drive, suddenly, there it is. The burning bush. The flaming branches, the leaves erupting in smoke and fire, ashes filling the car with an atmosphere so heavy and weighted that I can scarcely breathe, much less drive. l look for some nearby cliff from which I can drive my VW combi directly into the Pacific, to save us. A great car dive so we can be out of it. That's when our conversation gets under-way. And when I think even more of plunging our transport vehicle into the sea.

EMMA: You know, it would be interesting to know why you did it to yourself.

ME: Did what to myself?

SHE: Became a cripple when you were so young.

ME: Oh.

ME: (Pause)

ME: (Humming a song): Hummmm.

SHE: What do you think you wanted to teach yourself?


SHE: Maybe you did it to you to teach yourself compassion.

My old and dear friend Emma, the angel of Puerto Jesús - - - now asking me that royal birdbrain question - - - the one that I've fielded in so many idiot variations over the past four decades; been subjected to coming from the mouths of the fools of the earth so regularly. I've heard this one so often that I could scream. (The only one that I get more often is when someone tells me about their mother, or brother, or aunt, or uncle, or their own self - - - a person who because of some accident, or wasting disease, is supposed to be worse off than I am. As if I want to know, as if I can actually make use of such information.)

SHE: Why do you think it is?

ME: (You're quite persistent.)

SHE: I can't hear you.

ME: I said it really is a wonderful morning. A little smoky.

SHE: Do you know why?

The angel of my days wants to know why I live with this body which has been, for the past thirty-eight years, incomplete, a seventy-five-year-old body bonded with a brain half that age - - - a body in which there is such lousy communication that leg doesn't know how to move like leg, foot like foot, arm like arm. It's a body burned out by a holocaust that came over the land many years ago, left a part behind, the rest in a dither somewhere else. And this lovely ninny asks me why I want to subject myself to a life-long marriage to aluminum poles and straps and stocks, with the impossibility of moving through the days comfortably, if at all. ("What's it like to be disabled?" another peahead once asked me. And after a moment, I came up with the best, most honest, response of them all: "Uncomfortable," I said. And it is.)

The question of questions - - - the one they always lay on us moving in the toils of whatever disease or stroke or fall-apart body part we have been granted: muscular dystrophy, quadriplegia, polio, stroke, cancer of the brain, cancer of the rectum, cancer of the soul. And what they really want to be asking is why in hell do you need to do this to you?

"Did you do it to teach yourself compassion?" she says again. I go on humming the Götterdämmerung. My gorge rises up to and beyond the medulla, and still I say nothing. I want you to understand, dear reader, that - - - despite my ratty appearance and even rattier ways - - - I have been carefully schooled, over the years, to be a card-carrying scholar-gentleman.

As part of my training, starting at age zero, I was taught that when people talk nonsense, even the most arrogant nonsense, even arrant blindside bonehead dorknose nonsense - - - I have been taught to smile, and nod, perhaps to agree (gently); or to disagree (even more gently) and then, just as gently, move on to the next question. That is what I have been taught in my dozens of years amongst people who firmly believe themselves to be practicing members of the upper class.

"I will, besides," I mutter to myself, "always have the ultimate vengeance. Because I will never tell these people the truth that the kids at her school and I share - - - the truth of the gods." Even my own sweet Emma: Let's never reveal it to her; never tell her - - - in a way that she would understand - - - the central fact of this particular life.

I may be arrogant - - - even vicious, at times - - - but it is quite against my religion to be wantonly cruel to those who are only to see and know and understand the truth thirty or forty or fifty years down the line from now, when old age smites them. Only then will they come to understand the truth that the kids and I share with each other without comment.

I do forgive her, though. We have to, don't we? Her question was, in fact, but a perverted undertone of her own charity and sweetness. If she didn't have such an open and kindly nature, after all, if she were a paranoid schizophrenic like the rest of us, she would never, ever keep on doing this wretched school for indigent cripples in impossible Mexico. My beloved Emma is, if nothing else, as she fights for her charges against all odds, a saint - - - probably much more so than that bothersome Mother Teresa. The latter does her good works shored up by a very odd fantasy creed. Emma would never be so silly as to tie her works to such a lurid black-magic mumbo-jumbo deism.

It is for this reason that when I take my leave of this new, improved and up-to-date Mother Teresa I hold onto her for a long time, there in the Puerto Escondido airport, the two of us in a sweat-filled full-of-forgiveness embrace, when I am able to suggest that she do one very important thing.

"Remember, Emma, above everything else," I whisper to her, before she boards the plane for her ten thousand mile journey to the east: "Remember, my sweet, no matter what you do - - - do not let them make an institution out of you. Hear what I'm telling you: you must not now nor ever be an Institution for Good," I murmur. And as I turn, and let her go, I know she is wise enough that she will remember my words . . . and act accordingly.

It's only later - - - much too late - - - that I tell myself: "What an unkind thing that was to say to her!" Perhaps it was as unwittingly cruel if not loving as the doozer she laid on me.