••• The International Writers Magazine:Dreamscapes Fiction
Can of Tuna
Allen P Cook
Her head travelled horizontally back and forth trying to get its bearings--restless wheat in a breeze. The Basilica of Nuestra Senora del Pillar lay in front of her, big as a football field.
Soon after Christ’s resurrection, St. James preached the gospel in Spain. On 2 June, AD 40 while he was in deep prayer, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro and instructed him to build a church in her honor, the first church to honor the Virgin: “The place to be my house and the column (Pillar) shall be the title of the church.” The first chapel was built and destroyed and replaced with Romanesque, Gothic and this present Baroque structure. In all of them the statue and the pillar remained intact. Most recently, Pope John Paul II declared Nuestra Senora del Pillar to be, “The Mother of all Hispanic People.”
The basilica bedazzled Donna. Late afternoon wrapped everything with thin sheets of sun.
It was very windy. The sky turned into a piece of Delft pottery with pictures of horses and men slashing each other silly. In an unexpected moment, a big sailing ship washed over the roofs of the city. Bits of blue porcelain flowers went flying overhead—fractured-- and if you weren’t careful they almost hit you right in the kisser.
Although Christmas would be in a few days, and the days were growing ever shorter, it stayed light pretty late. Evening opened into a delicate umbrella of dark, which Donna twirled around in her head as she walked the streets.
Donna enjoyed walking in this half-light to Pillar. Besides, the Basilica wasn’t far from her “piso,” which she found a little dreary; the apartment was small, dark and cramped, but in central downtown. Her Spanish friends raved wildly about its location, apparently perplexed over her negativity about being so deep downtown. Donna also realized that the Zaragozanos also buried their dead in what looked like apartment houses of tombs. In general, the Spanish loved getting together, whether alive or dead.
The grace of globalization brought her and her family here. Her husband had a chance to teach at a new International School and to get an adjunct position in an American University Program. He took the job and the whole family to live in Zaragoza the ancient capital of Aragon in northern Spain. Every day was a new loaf of unbelievable bread.
She couldn’t deny that some present difficulties were her and her husband’s own fault. Actually it wasn’t only their fault; they were lured into the present situation. A few months ago her husband signed a two-year contract to teach mathematics to the kids of international executives in Zaragoza. Both John and she were having problems with getting jobs in the states and thought this international opportunity was going to be the start of an experiment—great for the whole family. Globalization would mean a carnival of cultures: bargain basement vacations, cotton candy, hotdogs, soda, paella, fancy foreign cars, five-dollar shirts, seven dollar pants, and a general smile. The whole family suffered enough in the American economy and now were more than ready to take that globalized cruise ship to the wonderful.
They could experience the glories of the Spanish culture on the pocket book value of green stamps. They would have all the wonders of the local life with left overs to visit other countries. Everyone would be jumping a dance of the Jota of joy.
In retrospect it was no one’s real fault that they were given “alternate facts.” The company executives form Michigan were all pulling in fine salaries with generous overseas allowances; they were happy-globalized critters. When they calculated what a generous teachers’ salary was in Spain, they thought that would be a good amount to pay their American teachers.
Wrong. What was a deal for the executives was a financial pit for the teachers with families; single teachers could make out OK on their salaries, but families were left out in the cold Spanish wind. This part of Spain was freezing in the winter.
As she sauntered around the square in front of Pillar, she thought more about being an American ex-pat. In terms of money it hadn’t been easy living here these past few months with two young boys (seven and nine) and her husband but Donna also suffered from a bad case of culture shock. She hit her head up against the language barrier.
She didn’t speak much, if any Spanish, but what the hell. People at home told her, “Don’t worry, Spanish is easy, you’ll just pick it up.” She knew now her friends thought you easily picked up another language, because most of them didn’t know any other language than American and some English. She switched language-gears back to last week.
One afternoon she was in the open-air market trying to get the cheapest potatoes she could get. She didn’t have much success; everything was more than she wanted to pay. It was more than a matter of penny pinching. Donna worried a lot about money. After a half hour of stalking the stalls, she finally took a break from her potato fiasco. Living on the wild side, she decided to splurge and get some cut flowers.
Everywhere in Spain you could get the greatest cut flowers, even in December, and they were really cheap. She walked over to the flower section of the mercado to an unassuming flower stand and queued-up. Suddenly, the old lady in front of her on line started to talk Spanish— something about prices of tomatoes and the expense of apples this time of year, even if they tasted rotten.
Donna flustered. She wanted to reply with something like, “Bien, gracias,” (good thanks) which she knew was ridiculous but she just couldn’t put any coherent words together—she couldn’t even get out “Si senora.” Her mouth became a brick wall; she couldn’t eek out a word. Nevertheless, the old bitty would not stop yacking. Donna wanted to strangle the old dear but was defeated by the woman’s kindness. Even if she could get a word in edgewise, Donna didn’t understand what the lady was saying, so how could she know what to say, if she could say anything: she was reduced into the psyche of a two year old who was five foot five and had rather big boobs. She felt like a total idiot.
Donna pointed to her own two ears, shook her head from side to side and smiled sadly. She then pointed to her mouth and also sadly shook her head. The old lady was greatly moved. “OOOOh, you poor dear, you can’t hear and can’t speak, “Muy triste.” And you are so young and pretty. How dreadful!” The old lady then did something that would never happen at home, except maybe in New York on Black Friday, or if Al Capone were robbing a bank. She broke right into the front of the line. She told people that this young woman couldn’t hear or speak so they needed to let her go first.
Donna almost dropped a load in her pants; how could she have deceived this old dear with her bald face lie? As she walked to the front of the line, she wanted to crawl into the nearest hole, yet she smiled broadly as if she were Queen Elizabeth. She picked out a bunch of flowers and smiled some more -- more profusely than ever. She made eye contact with the old lady. She momentarily thought of shrinking off into a hole: how humiliating to have to play these puerile games. She was greatly relieved when the whole incident was over. But not quite.
The bitty now hooked onto Donna’s arm and started to walk through the market. Donna was in a deep sweat. Her underarms felt like two lakes. What to do? How could she escape all this good will? In quasi-desperation, she then pointed to the bus stop and the old lady got the point. The woman asked in her tweety-bird Spanish, “So you want to go home on the bus?” Donna smiled. She then walked with her new best friend, the nadir of her afternoon, to the bus stop.
They waited for about ten minutes. Finally the bus came. The driver opened the door. As Donna finally freed herself from the clutches of goodness, she could hear the old lady talking to the bus driver something like, “Sir, please take extra care with this young lady who is deaf and dumb.” She held Donna affectionately in her arms. She then talked very slowly and very loudly the way one does with a child or to someone who doesn’t understand the language, “Be sure, dear, you cross the avenue carefully since you can’t hear the traffic!”
Donna smiled from her seat, waved the woman off and was finally free. But now the real terror set in. She was petrified. What if she went to the market and the kind old woman actually saw her making conversation? She swore she would never go to the market again unless disguised.
How could a person be so kind and so annoying at the same time? Donna loved Spain. As she took her walk around the square she fretted some more. Two other things about living in this place particularly got under Donna’s skin.
When people were supposed to take an afternoon siesta they didn’t. During siesta, she could hear via the air well in her apartment everyone’s arguments. People yelled like bad Wagnerians; TVs blasted; dogs barked; kids screamed, “Mama, Mama, Pedro threw my doll into the garbage can!” The other day Donna even saw a few omelets fall pass by her living room windows. Apparently pissed off about lunch, they flew down onto the sidewalk via someone’s kitchen table. In general, she would rather be thrown into a den of snakes with garlic wrapped around her neck then subjected to the noise of her apartment house.
Don’t people like quiet?
Then there was the Spanish love of late-late night. Food was a problem. The only thing you could get for supper before 10PM was a glass of water; you might starve to death if your stomach was on Eastern Standard Time. If she were going out for supper, Donna would take a snack of something around 6PM, so she survived her jumping-kangaroo stomach. Spanish dinner played havoc with American digestion.
There was also the party time atmosphere of the streets. One night a few weeks ago, around 2 AM when she came home from a dinner engagement, she looked out the bedroom window to see if the family car was OK, parked right on the street. She saw some guy going at it with a woman on the hood of their cute little Ford Fiesta. She yelled--pissed as hell, but they were too far into it to stop.
Don’t people ever sleep?
But her discord was more generalized than siesta and late nights. Some days her whole personality felt cloudy. When she felt lower than a dachshund’s stomach, she took two aspirin, a glass of Jerez (Spanish Sherry) and thought about the wonders of sunny Spain. She hoped it would countermand the icy blasts of Zaragoza wind. After she drank a glass, she drank a few more glasses and became quite happy.
When down, she would speak to herself as sharp as a pencil point, “Who wouldn’t be upbeat with an opportunity to live in Spain for a year or so. This place overflows with culture/history. It pours all around town—out of great castles, all over roads onto the sidewalks! I always loved celebrating Cinco de Mayo. I should be dancing down the streets in a peasant dress. ”
Some mornings her gloom dived down deeper than a sea dingle. Even though an agnostic, she always said her prayers before she went to sleep, and never failed to pray for a quiet mind. Why did she toss all night and wake up in a bad mood?
She knew she couldn’t stop North Korea from making atomic weapons that would blast Disneyland off the face of the planet. She could never lose those last thirty pounds so she could go to the beach and look good, if not hot. Maybe terrorists, in their religious ardor could get things mixed up, explode themselves and just forget about everyone else. After all, they wanted some eternal paradise while the rest of us were happy about slugging it out in Macys during Christmas. (As a kid, Donna thought that Christmas was probably the closest she would ever get to paradise.)
Night after night, she carried these anxieties into the bathroom for her 3 AM pee and could never fall back to sleep. Consequently, in Zaragoza, each dawn came like a shovel of dirt landing on a coffin.
After walking the Pillar Square for a half hour or so, and ruminating over her present predicaments, she ended up right in front of the Virgin’s statue in front of the church. Donna lowered her head, and the prayed that the Virgin Mary would transform, right now in front of her two eyes, this holy statue into Mr. Clean and scrub Donna’s worries down the drain. Not happened.
To Donna’s chagrin, The Virgin Mary brought back (she did not dissolve) old time memories of great anxiety from her childhood days, which now came flooding ever more viciously out of the walls of the basilica. Why would Mary assault her when she was so vulnerable?
Once she had to read a story in front of her 6th grade class. She held the book and read with feeling, when suddenly her nose started to run. She didn’t want to wipe her nose with her sleeve (she didn’t have a Kleenex) and so she kept on reading. Her nose kept on running. The kids kept on laughing. Afterwards, they said she read the best snot story they ever heard.
Donna then remembered Silvia Knudson, a blond beauty who was the most popular girl in Donna’s class. Silvia loved Donna, who loved sauerkraut. Silvia assured Donna of social success, in spite of her occasion faux pas. Since everyone admired Silvia, Silvia made sure Donna knew all the “right people.” Once Donna even asked Silvia to share with her the sauerkraut that Mrs. Knudson sent to school in a thermos for lunch (first generation Scandinavian immigrants). When her friends found out that Donna asked Silvia for some sauerkraut, it was almost the end of Donna’s social life. How could any cool kid ask Silvia to share her yucky sauerkraut? Kids thought that Donna was a weirdo; middle school can be particularly cruel.
Her worst anxiety came from turkeys. Sometimes she saw ghosts of turkeys showing their teeth when she looked into the mirror, even though she knew turkeys did not have teeth.
One birthday evening (her mom turned thirty-nine) people filled the house. For the celebration a turkey was set on the kitchen table, waiting to be brought into the dining room for the main meal. Suddenly, Donna’s dog, Lamb Chop, jumped onto the table and munched off a leg from the bird. With the leg dangling in his mouth, he ran upstairs. Donna ran after him. Guests’ eyes popped.
Although it wasn’t really her fault that Lamb Chop ate the birthday dinner, she felt that she was, once again, the butt of people’s humor. She was totally mortified. Eventually, her parents coached her back to the party but they never even noticed her total panic. She probably should have seen a shrink about the incident but her mom and dad were very middle class and didn’t believe in that sort of thing.
Birds still make her a bit cautious. When she thinks about turkeys she still hears people laughing.
Nevertheless, the flocks of pigeons that dive bombed Pillar, delight her: she loves flying things as long as they don’t get too close. Pigeons peck all around the square then, in a second, are off to sweet delight – they turn into pearls, which move around the sky. It’s as if the Virgin’s jewelry that wraps around the city suddenly falls down and reveals tidbits of stars. Donna’s eyes sail with wind wiffs. They tie up to wash lines of light dangling overhead. Though solid squarely on the ground, the Basilica almost floats away in an armada of brilliance.
Donna stared again at the Basilica domes. What first catches a person’s breath when he or she sees Pilar are the many towers and cupolas, which zigzag off the roof of the church into the air. The building had multiple domes covered with blue, green, white and golden mosaics. The colors slab the air with globs of rainbows. The place reminds one of a mosque with its giant domes, more than any Romanesque or gothic cathedral. (Zaragoza had been a stronghold for the Moors for hundreds of years and the city architecture reflected this affinity.) The small cupolas must be at least twenty feet wide while the large one, around which the small dome congregated must have been at least forty feet in diameter--like little chicks surrounding the mother.
Donna finally walked over to the right door and went in. A person might imagine that the church would be in the shape of a cross with the altar up front where the two axis meet. Since Pilar is a giant rectangle there is no crisscross. Yet, within a minute or two, Donna could see the huge candlesticks and massive marble table that served as the altar, which was roughly in the middle of the church.
Stillness fell off the ceiling into the air.
The greatest treasures of Pilar lay in its ceilings. Many of them were painted by Goya whom some call the greatest of Spanish painters. As her eyes wandered, bodies flew into range of sight--ceiling after ceiling. The paintings were Baroque masterpieces illustrating the vitality of Spanish belief and the sensuality of its form. Goya was born a few miles from Zaragoza and one of his first big commissions was to paint the interior of Pilar.
Before she actually lived in Zaragoza, Donna never even knew either the city or the Basilica existed, never mind knowing that the Pilar was filled with incredible Goya masterpieces. It never ceased to amaze her that she knew more about Donald Duck than she did about Spain.
Her education was incredibly thin.
Across the floors, bodies moved here and there in small processions. The giant candles gave the church an air of shadows and flickers. A good number of men and kids were in church dressed neatly, but it was the old ladies who particularly caught Donna’s eyes. They moved all around dressed in black dresses and veils –sometimes with hankies thrown on their heads.
Donna knew she had her own post-modern turn–offs. She felt that the old women dressed in black contrasted frightfully with the glorious Goyas that plastered the whole place. Pilar’s interior divided the world into two camps: the vibrant and arty in one part, and then the dark—the world of religious orthodoxy. These small figure, brought into Donna’s ecological mind herds of wildebeests on migration in the Serengeti; slowly going somewhere without knowing exactly where.
The ladies in black were a type of crustacean that crawls across the ocean bottom of religious fervor. When she saw them, she thought of that dark figure of Froggie, who, when she was a small girl watching Children’s Theater, would pop out of TV to “pluck his magic twanger.” She looked up at the great Goyas and then down at the faces of spider ladies clustered with the lace of ages. The webs of years fell over her eyes. She was a bit frightened.
Much of her fear was self-generated. These old bitties were probably as kind Bambi’s mom, but in looking at them, the reality of age started to creep. She suddenly remembered the other morning looking into the bathroom mirror and seeing her face form sand dunes of shifting time. She may gasp a bit at seeing the Spanish Shelobs but she recognized that dilapidation in lace and silk also revealed her own face. Each passing year, she turned gradually from effervescent into bags.
She thought a moment: these creepy ladies brought up some fresh money possibilities to mind. After all, she came here today to get some ideas about how to deal with money difficulties.
With the surreal in focus she switched the sanctuary into bank robbery. Robbing a bank is one way to get a lot of money fast. No one would ever expect her of being a bank robber. She was a “rich American” who lived in the most she-she part of town. Of course she would have to brush-up on her Robbing Spanish Banks for Dummies, then again, maybe she just might not have any problems with language and not say a word – just go into a bank with demands for all their money written down on a piece of paper and take one of her son’s fake pistols. She might come out with millions with little sweat.
She loved Bonnie and Clyde; she thought highly of Robin Hood. She would never rob a bank because she didn’t want to get caught and end up in a Spanish jail, not because of her high moral trepidation. Nevertheless, she was impeccably honest.
As she came closer to the altar she started to shake. This image of our Lady of the Pilar gave her the chills. Supposedly Our Lady was carried on a cloud by angels to Zaragoza during the night. As they were travelling the angels built a column of marble and fashioned an image of Mary. The pillar and statue were supposed to be part of the main altar.
The question of whether the whole religious thing was hokey: whether the Virgin actually ever appeared to St. James or whether St. James was ever in Zaragoza was beside the point. Donna could feel the joy and aspirations of all those people around her praying for heaven knows what, but ardently beseeching the Virgin. For a moment she was taken over.
Religious experiences remain out of her ordinary mind. As long as she had a social hook on which to hang religion, she was fine. She would take gladly take part in “religious events” as long as they had some cultural meaning. She pondered on her Protestant background.
Last year the boys had a Palm Sunday event at their local Methodist church in which they played musical chairs to a jazzed –up version of “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” They were the last to be seated in a number of rounds of the game and won dozens of cupcakes. That was a good religious event. In contrast, she didn’t quite know what to do with “European miracles” as a topic of her experience.
For the moment she placed Pillar in the category of other miracle she knew something about: Hill Comora and the Book of Moroni; the Italian priest - Father Pio or Something who hit the international papers with his stigmata, the kids at Fatima who supposedly predicted Pope John Paul would be shot fifty years before he was actually shot; “the prophecies” of Nostradamus who predicated the rise of Hitler, and the Holy Waters of Lourdes. She knew Zaragoza was not Lourdes but she mixed up places effortlessly in her daze of globalization; oddly, or at least most illogically, she could get her bearings of Zaragoza by thinking about Lourdes. She reasoned, not too carefully, that one Virgin miracle was much like another: a miracle is a miracle.
The giant Basilica tumbled down and she was suddenly in Lourdes.
She could relate to the Our Lady of Lourdes much more easily than to Pillar-- the rather esoteric wonder of Zaragoza. She had heard about Lourdes since she was a little girl. Lourdes made the movies. In contrast, Pillar was a miraculous unknown. She could therefore appreciate her present situation, praying to Our Lady of Pillar if she put it in the perspective of Our Lady of Lourdes.
She remembered back on her trip a few weeks ago. All her friends had told her never go to Lourdes (She went anyhow; Lourdes is not far from Zaragoza.) Lourdes was the site of another Basilica erected on the spot where St. Bernadette had visions of the Blessed Virgin. During these visions the Virgin had told the teenage Bernadette to start digging a hole in the side of a mountain. Out of the hole would flow a stream the water which would heal pilgrims.
Donna never believed a word of this yarn. She was brought up Congregationalist. Saints do not appear to Congregationalists except in the form of health foods.
In spite of her protestant doubt, Lourdes was a bit of a surprise. As she wadded through all the little shops surrounding the basilica, which over the last century had grown into the French equivalent of Mall of America, hundreds of shops with plastic Madonnas and vials of Holy Water--veritable bathtubs of divinity. As she wandered through the plethora, she began to get strong vibes from many of the people.
Perhaps it was the look of a mother who was so carefully tending her son in a wheel chair. He was not able to walk, talk, or even keep his head up straight but the overflow of love from her to him filled Donna up with a Hoover Dam of emotion.
Her first and only night at Lourdes would be particularly hard to forget. Each evening there was a candlelight procession of pilgrims to the U-shaped staircase of the basilica. Many people were just holding candles and singing hymns to the Virgin, while others were in wheel chairs; yet others were even in portable beds of sorts. Donna knew the whole thing was ridiculous… a way of giving people false hope, in fact maybe a way of getting some who was sick even sicker; the weather was also not exactly balmy. With such wind anyone could catch a death of cold. In spite of her inability to believe in Bernadette and the Virgin, she was sure something wonderful about the human spirit was happening.
A stream of water out of a mountain—poppycock; it was probably a simple geological imperative. How could drops of this stream heal the seriously ill? Undoubtedly, the phenomena had some kind of medical explanations? Similarly, who would think the statue of the Virgin on top of a pillar, Nuestra Seniora del Pilar, was able to help someone get out of a financial jam? Donna had seen enough used car salesmen in her life to smell a fart or two being sold as fancy perfume.
As she waked ever closer to the altar she couldn’t get Lourdes out of her mind. Even if Pilar did have some powerful message about heaven knows what, how could anyone explain all these back spider-like-critters roaming the church lighting up candles and what nots. The whole scene might be a fire hazard.
Besides the very people she now saw knelling and crossing themselves, probably voted for the Fascist Franco and his gang of hoodlums. They would likely crucify any woman left her husband. They might probably support those who hated Muslims. Catholic Spain had a dicey history concerning freedom. In the 1490’s it was one of the first Western countries that not only got rid of the Muslims but also expelled those “pernicious Jews--those criminals who killed Christ!”
As she sat in the pew she tried to clear her confusion and started talking to the Virgin. “Dear Virgin, I know I am not Catholic. I usually think I am agnostic, but I believe that all makes little difference in your mind. I am sure you can help in some way with my big present problem. Money.”
She began going over her accounts, talking to Mary over and over as if the Blessed Virgin of Pillar was a financial counselor.
American teachers with families, new to living in Zaragoza, did not live like Spanish teachers with families, all of whom have been living in the city for probably hundreds of years. A bit of common sense in this cocktail of fact should have cleared things up. A newly arrived American family in Zaragoza needed lots of support mechanisms, including a robust paycheck. Donna had to have help. She reviewed in more detail with the Virgin incidents in the recent past.
The geography of the situation also spelled out life-style danger for Donna in less obvious, but symbolic ways. They arrived in Zaragoza about twelve hours late (again, not anyone’s real fault). They were greeted by a red-clouded thunderstorm that had almost blown the plane into the arrivals building. De-planing onto the runway, Donna’s lovely hat (it looked like Hermes but was Target) went flying off her head, never to be seen again. She was alarmed. She hadn’t quite imagined that Zaragoza would be so harsh.
The fierce breath of Zaragoza’s Moncayo that great mountain outside Zaragoza, funneled wind into the city faster than you could get government subsidized gasoline into your car. As far as you could see the landscape was rather bleak, filled with dust and dirt-- not kind, happy and beautiful. But at least things were organized. Cars were waiting at the arrivals gate, ready to take all the teachers to their hotel. Everyone was excited. After all, it was a new life. On the way into town, Donna’s youngest son asked. “Mommy can we live in a hotel?” Donna who was feeling apprehensive and answered curtly,” No. We’re staying in a hotel not living in a hotel”
The Commodore was not exactly a four star beauty. True, for Zaragoza it was one of the better places to shack up, but its location had a big sore point: it was situated right next to the city soccer stadium—a big monster with clique lights that might double for little suns thinking it was midday when in reality it was midnight. Even the curtains, made from heavy lined synthetics, couldn’t keep out the bright smile of lights.
Such initial impressions would not be problematic for any mature person. But Donna wasn’t a mature traveler; she was super mature -- a mother of two young boys. She picked up everything floating around the atmosphere like a Dust Buster. She had to answer her kids’ questions: “Mommy, can’t we have a can of Coke? Why does it sound as if everyone is yelling at each other? Why does it look like people are eating supper when it’s almost midnight? Why are the rooms so bright when we want to go to sleep? “
Most difficult was the big existential, the Olympic Gold Medal of all questions: “Mommy, why are we here? Why did we leave home?
With all her antennae alert, on entering the hotel Donna immediately noticed that things were not exactly dirt-cheap. Fear started to creep up her spine. She had concerns when she looked at the hotel costs—advertised on the back of her room door. What! For this place! Are these people bananas? But she quickly settled down: Who cares? She wasn’t paying, it was all part of the school deal.
As she meditated in the Basilica these scenes flashed back into her head in a min-moment of reflection. She then got control of her mind and settled into a pew comfortably. She really started talking to the Virgin del Pilar in earnest.
“Dear Virgin, I have tried everything to make the money stretch, but after we pay the rent there is simply not a lot left over —not even enough for food.
I even go comparison-shopping for tomatoes. The other day I went into three stores before I found the cheapest. And who knows if they are organic or filled with poisonous fertilizers? In light of the landscape around here I wouldn’t be surprised if instead of seeds, the tomatoes around here were filled with little rocks. Meat is untouchable. A scrawny little chicken is half of my entire grocery bill. Any kind of beef is out of the question.
After I almost have a heart attack with the price of food, the question then still remains what should I do with it after I buy it? Cereal and milk will only go so far with regard the kids. Most of the time, I give them spaghetti with some kind of salad. I can’t rely on many homemade dishes because I can’t home-make them. In the States we used to fall back on pizza when things got lean but no pizza here. We also could do toasted cheese sandwiches, but the cheese here is quite expensive and pretty strong. My kids simply don’t like Spanish cheese.
I try to give the kids juice to drink but that’s real expensive, then they want soda, which is even more expensive and totally unhealthy. I can basically only afford milk except as a rare treat.
I long for those days when we would pack up the car, go out to eat at a local diner, eat as much as we could, and have the waitress pack up the rest, which we could then eat for the remainder of the week. I realize that Spain does not have diners but I didn’t realize that we couldn’t ever afford to go out to a restaurant. Not only are things expensive. The kids can’t eat supper at 10PM. They are about to eat their clothes off by 10PM.
Dear Mother Mary, please let me continue to rant. There are other problems I don’t exactly know how to deal with, which come from this dearth of money. I am quite nervous and very grouchy about everything, when I want to be positive and happy about everything.”
She then heard Mary whisper in her ear ever so sympathetically. “I know. It’s your husband.”
Donna then started up about the recent quarrels they were having. “I know he feels totally responsible for this mess. But I get cross with lots of things he tries to do to make things better. Take last night. He wanted to help me put the wash away. Damned (Sorry for using such language in front of you, Blessed Mother)! He can be such an idiot. He is intrinsically sloppy. He can’t even fold up a shirt or a sheet correctly. Who does not know how to put socks away? After his feeble attempts at laundry helping and a number of altercations we had about Spanish dust, I threw him out of the bedroom.
As he left he told me to choke on my f…ken wash and I should drop dead as I tried to swallow.
The kids are also under pressure. They like school although it is a very small school—less than a hundred kids grades 1-12. I am sure they are getting a top notch education, but I feel for them. They know we do not have a lot of cash to spend on them and they seem OK with us being frugal. But, dear Virgin, Christmas is next week and we have only been able to get the kids one present each. Our Christmas tree looks like a bush suffering from a bad case of psoriasis.
Once other thing that drives me crazy: Zaragozanos do not seem to celebrate Christmas at all. Maybe it’s different in the big Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona but in our lovely backwater of Zaragoza, the Christmas spirit is not flying around in the air.
I know it’s cultural. Zaragozanos don’t much celebrate Christmas. They rather celebrate Holy Week and the Crucifixion; they deck out in full spectacle Samana Santa, which is the exact opposite of Christmas. I know that Holy Week is close to your Catholic Heart so please don’t misunderstand me. I mean no offense. As an American used to Easter eggs and Easter Bunny chocolates, you must understand that Spanish Holy Week comes as a bit of a shock when juxtapose to Navidad.
During Samana Santa long parades of people march in solemn procession through the streets beating drums with their knuckles until there is blood everywhere. Some carry chains. You even see young kids beating bloody drums. If that’s not scary enough all the people dress up in Ku-Klux-Klan hats and robes. It’s as if you landed in some crazy time machine right in the middle of the Inquisition.
The Ku-Klux-Klan marchers carry enormous statues of Christ, the saints, and most importantly of you, Dearest Virgin, in a slow sober rhythm. I know that each year you must look forward to getting out into the streets and moving around town, but you must understand that if Samana Santa parades happened in New York you would have the American Civil Liberties Union on your back in one nanosecond.
From all these ramblings about money, vegetables, Christmas, and the Clan you can sense my disorientation. I am not a whiner; I am simply desperate. I am sure you find the whole situation a little odd: an American agnostic with a Congregationalist background complaining to the Virgin Mary in one of her great Spanish pilgrimage sites, about just how expensive Spain can be for a family of four. I am a woman trying to get through a crises, desperately trying to keep her marriage together, and trying to find some appropriate toys for her kids as Christmas presents. Please help.
I know you know, but I want to tell you that one of my tactics to maintain my mental stability these last few days is to recite over and over to myself—between the fears plaguing my moments: Blessed Virgin Mary have mercy on us. I know you can do something to get me out of this mess.
Frankly, I have no idea what it all means. Don’t misunderstand me, Compassionate one, I am not saying I believe in you or in a word that the Catholic Church preaches. I am afraid the Catholic Church, as do other great religions, have far too much blood on their hands for my taste. I am not just casting aspersions at the Catholic Church. Take the Puritans (from whom the Congregationalists, Unitarians and great American poets in the Transcendentalist traditions trace their history) -- they even hung women as witches. While I am generally anti-religion, I am actually quite religious. Just between you and me, I think it might be better today for a person to belong to a health club than to some of these organized (or disorganized) churches.
I entreat you for mercy, even if you are a figment of imagination (Please forget this rather rude comment). I am a patient woman. I don’t expect an immediate answer, but if you have any suggestions the sooner you let me know the better. You can contact me by email, text, cell or even apparitions. I also pay attention to mental whispers. I know you work in mysterious ways so I am open to most any type of communications (they maybe coded).”
Unfortunately, after her rather frank conversation with the Blessed Mother, Donna felt no better than before. Babbling enabled Donna to hit a white-hot center of thought. She could see through many of her ghosts. They had formerly burnt red and fiery orange, but now they purified into translucent. Her note of total panic made it clear: she lived in desperation.
For the first time in her life, she knew the real fear of poverty. Worse than the fear of poverty was the fear of being unable to get out of poverty. The family was stuck. They couldn’t get back to the States or even make a change in their present income, so that they might live in Spain with any degree of comfort. The whole balygon lent her whilom prayers a note of annoyance. She then turned white hot angry. Why did she ever marry? Why did she have children? How did she get into this crazy house?
She got up and walked as fast as she could to the nearest exit. She needed cold air. Things would work out somehow. She wanted to scream. Once she got out the huge doors she walked Olympic fast, almost running through the square, she had to get free of that “God damned church.” She had to get home and get something prepared for dinner.
From Pilar she went back home through the center of the Old Town. The tiny streets were filled with small bars and bunches of people hanging in cafés. They were mostly eating tapas and drinking wine. The traffic moved at a snail’s pace. This Old Town had been bombed badly in the Civil War by the Republican forces from Barcelona. It was romantically colorful, but from a practical perspective, it needed a good spray wash. During the war Zaragoza was a Fascist stronghold while Barcelona was solid Republican. Today the city is still very conservative.
As the streets wound her through the dark, Donna spotted some of her favorite stores, which she would love to frequent …only if she had the money. These places represented to her the “real Spain.” She loved one shop in particularly. She called it Senor Mueblas—Mr. Furniture. As she passed the windows her heart beat a little faster at wonderful things.
She particularly loved one inlaid escritorio. It was on a stand and made out of geometric in-lays of various woods. The desk had many small drawers all were surrounded with thin veneers of mahogany; it had three rows each with three doors. She gulped down her throat,” When the Spanish were classy they were really classy.”
Behind the inlaid desk was a wonderful tapestry. It had some figures in a park setting who were eating under a most commodious tree. Even if she could afford it, she would never be able to afford a house in which to hang it. Like the desk, it looked as if it was 17th-18th century and probably made for some very wealthy merchant, churchman or noble. It was a piece straight out of Architectural Digest.
Her fear of poverty almost totally disappeared when she saw the Pinocchio Desk. It was not too large, and stood on four legs each about three foot high. Everything was carved deeply the way she remembered items on Geppetto’s workshop in the Disney movie. This was the kind of thing that she came to get in Spain. She dreamt of the real Spain, not about the ulcer she was getting because she had too little money to buy onions.
She was suddenly all smiles. In this part of Zaragoza it was as if she had landed in the nineteen the century. Rather than industrialized enlightenment, Spain was a romantic, if not sociological, ideal. Great art, distinctive regions with local color, peasants, nuns and priests dressed up in robes---in short, a population filled with traditional values, blessed with the gallantry of Don Quixote around every corner.
Within fifteen minutes or so she was out of the Old Town. She came to a big plaza named after someone she never heard about, or was it name after something? Whatever. After walking another fifteen minute or so she was in her neighborhood, which was situated around Plaza de San Francisco. The Plaza surrounded a good size park that reminded her of Columbus Circle at the southern tip of Central Park. She opened her purse and counted her money carefully; she had the rough equivalent of twenty dollars. She had to buy something for supper, a snack for the kids and a treat for everyone for Christmas dinner—only a few days away.
She went into the neighborhood grocery store intent on getting what she had to get. The place sang, “I am crowded, bleak and unfriendly.” Once inside she could only think, as she perused the three of four aisles, why would any sane grocery store have so many different kinds of beans: canned, bagged beans, loose beans, raw beans, dark beans, light beans, beans mixed with other beans? She then heard in the back of her mind the little ditty she once sang as a kid:
Beans, beans are good for your heart,
The more you eat the more you fart,
The more you fart the better it is,
So eat your beans at every meal!
She couldn’t face beans this afternoon. She then went down the pasta aisle. What pitiful choice of paste; only linguini, no interesting shapes, nothing freshly made, nothing even Italian. Spanish pasty pasta—please! Nevertheless, in spite of nutritional and ecological misgivings she picked up a package: at least the kids would find it filling.
She needed to get some meat. The only thing she could afford to buy was chicken, and she could barely get enough courage to buy it. Some chickens still had their heads on their bodies. Hanging in the butcher section you also saw chicken feet. Once again, her youth haunted her as it sang softly: “Smelly, stinky chicken toes, Harry sticks them up his nose.” No! She had to stop this nonsense. Money be damned! She was going to get a cleanly prepared chicken without its head and feet.
She then suddenly spotted ambrosia out the side of her eyes. She looked longingly: a can of tuna fish.
It was outrageously expensive, but what a Christmas treat it would be! She would buy some onions, mayo and get a load of white bread and everyone could have a toasted tuna fish salad sandwich for lunch on Christmas Day.
She knew she was being totally a baby. Tuna fish was rip off. You could get two chickens for one can of tuna fish. She blanched. Something didn’t jive. Why on earth was this tuna so expensive? Don’t the Spanish fish all over the place? Then she saw the secret: it was Bumble Bee Tuna Packed in Water, imported from the States. She wanted to cry.
No, she would not succumb to infantile reactions. She had to be a grown-up. Bumble Bee was just too expensive. She would buy some tomatoes and maybe one or two chocolate elephant ears, which everyone in the family adored, and get out of this dreadful store, immediately. First the threat of poverty, then her rather rude talk with the Virgin Mary and now this Bumble Bee Tuna Fish can—it was too much. She felt a bit light headed and confused.
The bomb fell. As Donna finished checking out her groceries, just about to leave the store with her plastic shopping bag, one of the Shelob old ladies like she saw in Pillar --more spider than human--ran over to her. The dreadful insect grabbed Donna’s pocket book and started screaming, gesticulating mad as a hatter, “Thief, thief, thief!!!!” (Donna heard English, even though she knew it was Spanish.) The Banshee then put her claw in Donna’s pocketbook and brought out a can of Bumble Bee Tuna Packed in Water!
Everyone in the store stopped in their tracks A crowd started to gather around her: a murder of crows. People started to murmur among themselves. For Donna it was as if the mocks of her classmates concerning sauerkraut plunged into the laughter of people about her whilom dog eating her mom’s birthday turkey. Everyone was ready to crucify her on the cross of Bumble Bee Tuna.
She honestly couldn’t clearly remember what happened. It was difficult for her to admit she shoplifted and can of tuna fish in a Spanish bodega, in order to make tuna fish salad on toast for Christmas lunch. She wanted that Water Packed Bumble Bee Tuna really bad. Until today, all the tuna she had ever seen in Spain was oil packed, which everyone in the family hated. She knew she couldn’t afford it, but she would never steal it. But she did steal it.
The crowd started jeering at her when people realized that she could really speak Spanish. When she started to dial her mobile phone, they could hear her speaking English; everyone then really started being pissed off. An American middle-aged lady stealing a can of American tuna fish was an outrage that need to be addressed Justice needed to be done. Donna could hear people raise their voices with a lot of anger.
They accused her of robbing the Spanish nation, not simply the bodega. Americans had so much more money than they would ever have. How could an American lady rob food from a Spanish grocery store? Just look at her clothes—only the most fashionable sneakers, a beautifully knit sweater and fake fur coat. Look at her blond hair, impeccably combed like Princess Grace—a stunning Rubia. Look at her jewelry. She had gobs of amber around her neck and wrists. That alone would pay for a shopping cart of treats for an entire Spanish family of mom, dad, kids, grandparents and loads of cousins!
She had her phone although the old Shelob tried to grab it from her. There was an altercation between them, but Donna would not let go of her phone. She was desperate; she would call John and ask him to come to the store and explain what happened. Well almost. Donna started to cry, but only for a minute. She froze. What if he didn’t answer, or pressed the wrong button trying to answer the phone and instead getting the stock market printout for the last week, rather than connecting with his wife? He was not electronically gifted.
They finally connected. John appeared in about ten minutes, during which time Donna was taken into a back office, where she sat in a very uncomfortable chair opposite an older man at a desk, who was obviously the store manager. She wanted John to be near, but also dreaded seeing him. She knew he would blow his top. How could she explain herself?
How could she have been so stupid as to shoplift in a bodega? There was nothing worth shoplifting. How could she have put the entire family in legal danger? This wasn’t Sachs Fifth Avenue! It was a dusty, somewhat-of-a-Spanish backwater and who knows what could happen here with the law? In such a conservative place, didn’t she know that the Guardia de Civil, the civil police, was notorious in the way they treated criminals? Worse of all, it was just before Christmas. What would we tell the boys about their mom being in jail for Christmas? What would happen with her husband’s job? What would happen with the boys and the kids at school? How would fellow expats treat the boys and the entire family? Not being liked by the Spaniards was bad enough, but to be ostracized by the ex-pat community would be intolerable.
John would dis-own her.
How could she shoplift a can of Bumble Bee Tuna Packed in Water when she didn’t even understand why she did it? Besides, whatever she had initially told herself in the way-back parts of her mind, she actually knew that no one in the family was crazy about tuna fish---even if it had been imported from the States. A cheese sandwich would have made just as good of a Christmas luncheon as tuna fish. Her children only wanted to be part of the family and showered with affection, not feast on a can of Bumble Bee Water Packed Tuna. The kids didn’t care about any of this nonsense.
She started to shake when he opened the door.
He came straight over to her and placed his arms around her and spoke softly, ”Don’t worry things will work out just fine. We have been in much more difficult situations and got through them. I am sure we will weather this one also. After all, I love you and you love me. We are bound with ties that neither of us can understand. The Spaniards and their damned tuna fish be damned.”
Donna then told him about the horrid lady in black yelling at the top of her lungs and gesticulating wildly. She started to weep when she mentioned the crowds of shoppers pointing at her and saying nasty things—even though she didn’t know exactly what they were saying. He held her tighter and kept on telling her that things weren’t as bad as she thought. Besides she had to give herself a break. She had been under tremendous strain these last weeks and it was no wonder that she behaved in a stupid way. Stupidity was not her simply her domain.
All this happened because he was stupid enough to take this job and believe what the HR people had said about the place: This opportunity would be great for his future career and great for the kids who would end up in a few months speaking Spanish like natives. It was the best globalization could offer the whole family. The world was his oyster, and the oyster shell had just been cracked open.
For the first time in their entire marriage they then looked at each other with a love that they had never before expressed. Times had always been rough. It had been a rocky relationship from the first, and Donna was sure that John would drop her like a hot tomato as soon as the boys were old enough to take a divorce in their stride. On his part, John thought Donna was only interested in milking all she could get out of the relationship. If she could milk someone richer, better looking and more malleable she would drop John (and probably the kids) like hot tomatoes.
They now knew that they had both been wrong. They had a marriage as solid as a battle ship. John was sure that if the ghosts of Zaragoza could come back from all the past centuries and wander the city, “They would celebrate our affection.”
The real problem had been their stupidity. As he held her and as she started to cry, he also started to cry. They both knew affections once hidden from their stupidly suspecting eyes. The old manager then got up from his chair and quickly left the room. John, Donna with pocketbook, and a can of tuna were alone. No questions were asked, since no answers were necessary. Sometimes things happen for the hell of it and you can only do the best you can to get through them. Things always work out, even if it’s not the way you would hope they would work out.
Although she would never say a word to anyone, most particularly her husband, Donna could swear she saw for a brief second the Virgin Mary hovering above the tuna can. She immediately stopped this thought. She wanted to kick herself in the ass at being so weird. The Virgin of the Tuna was just another one of her crazy thoughts.
Even though John backed her up to the bejesus, she knew when this entire fiasco was over, that she needed to start being straight with herself. Under the guise of generosity, she was sometimes deep down selfish. Lifting the tuna fish can was not about her love for her family, but about her being pissed off that life had given her a bad hand. Not true.
Life had dealt her a wonderful hand albeit a little inconvenient one at the moment.
Within a half hour the Guardia Civil then appeared. They asked for passports which fortunately both John and Donna had ready; the two of them had at least learned always to carry around proper papers as American living abroad. The two Guardia took them out of the store. One officer interlocked arms with John, one interlocked arms with Donna. As they left the office the senior Guardia said something to the manager but John and Donna were too humiliated to take note. The people in the store stared. Fortunately the old lady, the Shelob with just two arms and two legs had vanished.
John and Donna got into the police car and Guardia closed the car doors. One of the officers asked where they lived. John gave him the address. Within five minutes the car passed the address. It stopped down the block. No one in the apartment house could see John and Donna get out of the police car.
The feared Guardia then wished the couple a good afternoon and left. The two perpetrators were stunned. Nothing would be done. No arrest. No legal fines. Nothing.
A few days later, John received an astounding call from the Taipei International School offering him a position at twice his present salary. He could start immediately. They would welcome his family. The school was well established and had many years of experience working with faculty who had families. Families loved the place.
Within a day of the phone call John’s salary was more than doubled at Zaragoza; HR said everyone loved having John as a teacher and they didn’t want him to leave.
Within the week the American Military offered Donna a job in as a University liaison--- a position Donna had applied for weeks earlier. Employment came with full base privileges, including BX, an ice cream store, entertainment, movies, bowling etc. all the things the boys would love. Pay would be in dollars.
John and Donna decided to stay in Zaragoza.
Although she never mentioned it to anyone, barely even to herself, Donna knew that she had actually seen in the bodega the Virgin hovering over the can of Bumble Bee Tuna Packed with Water.
© Allen P Cook August 2017
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