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SERENADE
by Judy Goldstein Botello

In those days California still wore the cloak of her own legend, especially for East Coast dreamers like me. So in 1969, when I finally emerged from the long dark tunnel of medical school and headed west, I felt like some latter-day Odysseus bound for a fabled land.

In Berkeley I lived in the downstairs apartment of a duplex on Haste Street. The outside of the house was painted pink; inside, the ceilings soared and each of the tall windows shimmered with sunlight filtered through green leaves. During the long golden evenings, I would sit on the front steps with a glass of wine and listen to the guy upstairs practicing blues on his guitar. Sometimes I would strum some Joan Baez-y thing on my own guitar, or sometimes my neighbor and I would jam together. On weekends I went for long walks, usually ending up on the campus where there was always music and dogs running around catching frisbies and some soapbox orator or other whose harangues would float across a bright sea of Indian print shirts redolent of patchouli and marijuana and incense.

But within a few years the seductive dream of the sixties had given way to a kind of tawdry morning after, and California’s mythic cloak was coming apart at the seams. I found myself newly single and stranded in San Diego County where my ex-husband’s job had landed us.

In Escondido I lived in a tract house on a cul-de-sac. The house was painted the same beige earth tone as all the other houses. Inside, the low ceilings were soundproofed with popcorn and the square sliding windows looked out on a bare dirt backyard. There were no front steps to sit on, and you couldn’t really go for a walk in Escondido because there were no sidewalks. (The city council wanted to retain the “rural atmosphere” of the town.) Besides, even if there had been sidewalks the only available destination was the mall, a drab strip of commercial establishments dominated by Sears Roebuck. The monochromatic evenings were punctuated only by televisions flickering in the windows around the cul-de-sac. At night I would stare into the barren darkness listening for sounds of life, but all I could hear was the dull thud of my heart shrinking into a desiccated lump.

Then everything changed.

It started with guitars in the night. Deep in sleep, I felt the round bright chords tossed against my window like little golden apples. Then I heard soft male laughter and a familiar tenor voice singing: “Abre el balcón y el corazón”, “open your balcony and your heart”. I came awake in the darkness, smiling. The closest thing to a balcony in my Escondido tract house was a concrete patio; but I switched on my bedside light, padded across the carpet, and slid open the glass door. If I had imagined a serenade before that night, I would have seen it in grainy black-and-white: a balcony, a young girl in white chiffon, a handsome swain below on one knee, his sombrero over his heart. But the woman who now stood at the patio door wrapped in a red flannel bathrobe was a thirty-four-year-old divorced mother of two young children, and the serenaders were two tipsy co-workers of mine, both too portly to balance on one knee. It didn't look anything like the old movies, but in my memory that night glows with an amber light, soft and warm, as if seen through a tinted lens, a diffusing filter. Carlos and Jorge came in from the chilly December air and sat on the end of my bed drinking coffee and singing in Spanish of moonlit lakes and fishermen, of broken hearts and tequila. I reclined on the faded quilt, periodically hissing “shhh” when I remembered that my kids were sleeping in the next room. After I went to the kitchen for a second round of coffee and a bottle of Kahlúa, I pulled my old guitar out from under the bed and tried to tune it to theirs. The strings were brittle and stiff and almost impossible to tune; the E string snapped when I wound it too tight. The guitar, cheap when I had bought it twenty years before, wore the scratches and cracks of my restless youth and the dust of long silence. One of the hinges had come off the plastic case; inside were various sheets of songs with chord notations, some in my own writing. “Mr. Tambourine Man” stared up at me from where a young woman's careless hand had flung him back when the music stopped. Carlos grinned. “We have to get you a new guitar,” he said. “I'm gonna teach you some good songs!”

Carlos and Jorge had both come to the U.S. from central Mexico when they were in their twenties, and they had met one another at the local community clinic where Carlos was the administrator and Jorge a health educator. After Jorge's wife left him for an American accountant, he and Carlos became roommates, sharing the expenses of Jorge's little house on the other side of town. When I came to work at the clinic, they were both kind to me despite my natural East Coast reserve.

But after the night of the serenade I was ready to accept their invitation to a backyard barbecue a few weeks later. My kids were with their dad for the weekend, and my biggest plans had been to arrange my spices in alphabetical order. A little social life sounded a lot better, so I combed my hair, put on some lipstick, and drove across town.

The garage door was open, and there was a hot ping-pong tournament going on as I walked by. Letting myself into the house through the front door, I followed the sound of voices to the kitchen, where a bilingual assembly line buzzed at the counter as chopped tomatoes and chiles somehow collected themselves in clay bowls amid the cheerful chaos. The fragrance of corn tortillas drifted in through the open window and drew me out to the patio where Carlos and Jorge presided over a brick barbecue. They waved when they saw me, and Carlos pulled a chunk of carne asada off the grill, wrapped it in a hot tortilla, and popped it into my mouth. “Try it, you'll like it!” he said. And I did.

Later, as dusk began to fall, the guitars came out. Carlos and Jorge sang the old romantic Mexican songs of their youth. Bob Shaffer, a long-limbed rancher with thinning blond hair and a grizzled beard, sang the old folk songs of his youth and mine. By the time I went home, he and I had managed a pretty fair rendition of “Feelin' Groovy”. As I sank into sleep, the music seemed to drift across town and settle around me like a bright net over dark water.

A week later I crossed the border for the first time.

Carlos called me on Friday.

“We're going to Sevillano's tomorrow,” he said. “Jorge's requinto guitar is being repaired, and Bob wants to order a new flamenco. Want to come?”

“What's Sevillano's?” I asked, dubious.

“Miguel Sevillano. He's a guitar maker in Tijuana. We all have Sevillano guitars. Didn't you notice the labels? C'mon, you'll enjoy it. Who knows? You might end up with a Sevillano guitar, too!”

“I don't know.” I stalled. “My kids are gone and I was going to clean out my cupboards . . .”

“Don't give me that!” Carlos's laugh rose from deep in his chest. “I'll pick you up at 9:00 mañana.”

By 9:35 the next morning I allowed myself to peek out my front window, wondering if I had imagined the invitation. At 9:55 I heard the unmistakable chugging of a Volkswagen engine outside and saw Carlos's blue van in my driveway. “What took you so long?” he grinned as I climbed in. I shot him an annoyed look and settled down next to Bob and his wife Sue, a tall, comfortably soft woman whom I had met at the barbecue and who greeted me like an old friend. Jorge rode shotgun, downing Budweisers from the cooler at his feet and laughing amiably at Bob's Peace Corps stories, all of which he had obviously heard before. The van rattled onto the freeway and headed south.

At the San Diego-Tijuana border the wide straight lanes of Interstate 5 come to an abrupt halt; indeed, all linearity seems to end. The blue van wove in and out of traffic that looked as though it had no direction at all, or all directions at once. Cars cut randomly in and out of what would have been our lane, had there been any lanes.

“Is it always like this?” I clutched Sue's arm.

“No.” She gave my hand a pat. “Sometimes it's really scary!”

A gigantic bronze Cuauhtémoc suddenly loomed directly in front of us, headdress glinting in the windshield. We swerved around him and maneuvered through the traffic circle, continuing south along the road whose only name seemed to be The Old Road to Ensenada. Finally we pulled over to what would have been the shoulder, had there been any shoulders, in front of a pharmacy and a tire shop.

“Where are we?” I asked. “I thought we were going to a guitar store!”

“We are.” Carlos slid open the van's side door and I stepped out. Then I saw the sign: GUITARRAS, in hand-printed letters, so faded that it almost disappeared between the newer, larger FARMACIA and LLANTAS signs that flanked it. It was carved in the shape of a guitar and jutted out from a block wall over a narrow doorway. Carlos entered, and we all followed.

The floor space in the rectangular room was almost completely filled by a rough wooden workbench, covered with sawdust and hung with a few simple hand-tools: a vice, a saw, an awl. Bending over the workbench with his back to the door was a small dark figure. He appeared to be filing something with intense concentration and did not respond immediately when we went in. Carlos called out, “Don Miguel!” The man turned slowly, straightening up and wiping his hands on his long brown apron. When he saw Carlos and Jorge, his smooth face opened into a broad grin, and he embraced them both amid soft exclamations of greeting.

“You remember Bob,” said Jorge. Sevillano shook Bob's hand, then embraced him. “¿Cómo estás, Roberto?” he inquired. “¿Y cómo está la guitarra?

“And this is Bob's wife Susana, and our friend Judy.”

Sevillano shook hands gravely with Sue and with me. His hand felt surprisingly large for such a slight man. The palm was callused.

Mucho gusto, señora,” he said, inclining his head in a subtle bow. I merely nodded, unsure of the proper response.

By that time, Bob had taken a flamenco guitar off the wall and was tuning it, one leg propped on a Corona beer carton. Sevillano disappeared into a back room and emerged with a small requinto guitar, which he handed to Jorge. “She is better than ever,” he said. “See if you recognize her voice.” Tenderly, Jorge caressed the smooth face of the guitar.

¡Míra!” he breathed. “The crack is gone!” Jorge strummed a chord as Sevillano folded his arms over his chest with a confident smile. On the flamenco he had taken from the wall, Bob struck up “El Rancho Grande”. Jorge joined in with his requinto, tentatively at first, then gathering confidence until Carlos, who had been examining the half-formed instrument on the workbench, raised his head with an exuberant “ay yay yay yay yaaaay,” and a couple of passersby stopped at the open door to listen. Sue had draped her sweater over the room's only chair and was seated on its cracked vinyl. I found a spot on Bob's Corona carton and sat down, gazing around the little shop.

The walls were hung with guitars in varying stages: a shiny new flamenco, ready to buy; an elegant classical with no strings or tuning keys; an old requinto whose face was scratched and dull but whose mouth sported a new mother-of-pearl rosette. Two pairs of dusty castanets dangled from a nail below a bare lightbulb. Surrounding the guitars and covering most of the wall space were the girls: scores of pinups in provocative poses, some fresh, others a little worn. A brunette in leopard skin décolletage leaned from a Cadillac convertible. Just below her hung a faded 8 x 10 aerial photograph of Dodger Stadium. Tacked haphazardly around Dodger Stadium were old snapshots of Little League teams, small boys staring proudly at the camera. On the back wall hung a life-sized cardboard skeleton, and around him were tacked a few Polaroids of a family wedding along with two publicity photos of Mexican guitarists and one of Goldie Hawn. On the contiguous wall, and higher than any pinup, a pink and gold Virgin of Guadalupe raised her right hand in blessing; the gothic lettering proclaimed her Reina de México y Emperatriz de América.

Bob had hung the flamenco back on the wall and was crouching beside Sevillano, who had pulled several thin sheets of wood from a cabinet along the floor.

“He's choosing the wood for his new guitar,” Carlos explained to me. “Why don't you take a look, too? This one has a beautiful grain.” He laid a fragrant sheet of rosewood over my knees, and my fingers traced the graceful swirls running through it. Jorge brought over a couple of sheets of cedar for the guitar's face, and I lingered over one with a rich golden brown color. “Like your hair,” said Jorge. Sue was sorting through a drawer full of silver tuning keys, some elaborately carved, some simple. By the time Bob had finished designing and ordering his guitar, I had chosen mine down to the tiny butterflies to be inlaid around the mouth. Sevillano listened attentively as Carlos explained what I wanted. “Muy bien,” he said, simply.

“Is that it?” I asked Carlos. “Doesn't he need to write out an order slip? Don't I have to leave a deposit? Shouldn't I have a receipt?”

Carlos laughed. Sevillano called a small boy from the back room and sent him running out the door. A moment later the boy returned with a nylon shopping bag full of cold Coronas, which he handed around the room.

“That's your receipt,” said Carlos. He helped himself to one of the guitars on the wall, and Jorge played a riff on his requinto. They launched into “Camino de Guanajuato”, Bob following the chords. Don Miguel leaned against his workbench and smiled benevolently while Sue and I hummed and swayed.

No vale nada la vida,” they sang, “Life is worth nothing!” And they sang it with such joy that I waved my Corona bottle in a spontaneous salute.

For me, the next few months were filled with music. Carlos gave me several tapes of Mexican songs he thought I would like. Chavela Vargas, he told me, made him think of me. I wasn't sure how to take that: her voice sounded like smoky rooms and candlelight, not the self-image of a lady doctor from Philadelphia. But in the privacy of my car, driving to work, I found myself singing along with her: “No soy de aquí ni soy de allá”, “I am neither from here nor from there.” In the evenings, at home, I listened to the tapes with earphones on my ears and a dictionary on my lap, trying to learn the words. One of my favorites was “La Bamba”, of which I understood only six words: “Para bailar la Bamba se necesita . . .” Whatever it was one needed to dance the Bamba, I wanted some.

By the time Carlos took us all back to Tijuana again, it had been two months since I had ordered my guitar and my fingers were itching to strum it. Sevillano greeted us with his grave courtesy and assured us that our instruments were almost ready. When he brought mine out to show me, my spirits sagged. The guitar looked naked with its unpolished face and half-carved neck. Bob's instrument was at the same indeterminate stage of gestation. Carlos and Sue went down the street and brought back a six-pack while Bob and I tried out “Me and Bobby McGee” on a couple of classical guitars from the wall. Bob was off-key, and the beat was too slow, and my Janis Joplin imitation was a nasal whine. But Sevillano's calm, kind expression never changed as he polished a red flamenco until it shone. Then Carlos opened a beer and played “Cielito Lindo”, which we could all sing. We toasted to Sevillano's health and promised to return soon.

“It's lunch time,” Carlos announced as we turned into a narrow street, made even narrower by cars that were double-parked up and down its length. Carlos left the van in what looked to me like the middle of the street, and slipped a bill to one of the small boys who surged around us. “Mexican car insurance,” he explained, grinning. On the sidewalk outside the restaurant an enormous copper pot sat on bricks over a wood fire. A mass of fragrant steam almost obscured the figure of the man who was stirring the pot with a five-foot-long wooden paddle.

“What is it?” I asked, half afraid of the answer.

Carnitas.” Sue took my arm reassuringly. I was translating in my mind: Carnitas. Little meats?

I couldn't hear her answer. Three mariachi bands blared from three corners of the restaurant; waitresses shouted orders across a counter in the front; and at long wooden tables patrons sang lustily and called out for more beer, more carnitas. We managed to find four empty places at one of the long tables, and within five minutes we were singing and shouting, too. I discovered that carnitas are succulent chunks of pork which, when wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla spread with salsa and cilantro, taste so sweet that I consumed five tacos and was licking my fingers before the word cholesterol even entered my mind. After we had devoured the first kilogram of meat, Carlos ordered another round of Pacifico beers and beckoned to one of the bands. Five men approached our table. All wore tight pants, short jackets, and big mariachi sombreros. Their black costumes were festooned with silver studs. Their boots and their belts were soft leather, elaborately worked. A short, fat man played the guitarrón, an oversized guitar with a full, deep voice like that of its owner. The requinto player, small and animated, beamed and bobbed as his fingers moved like a hummingbird's wings across the strings. The trumpeter looked like Don Quixote, tall and thin and gloomy, with eyes that drooped to match his mustache. It was the guitarists with whom I fell in love, both of them: one stocky and middle- aged with salt-and-pepper hair and kind lines at the corners of his eyes, the other young and intense with long black hair and full, pouting lips. It was the younger one who gazed insolently at me as they sang “Ella”; but it was the older, kinder one who nodded and smiled when, after my third beer, I belted out the chorus to “Corazón, Corazón”.

April came and went, and at the end of May we went back to Sevillano's. The guitars, he assured us, were almost ready. That evening we ate at the old Palacio Azteca Hotel, on the top floor, overlooking the lights of Tijuana. The grizzled waiters, dignified despite missing teeth and bent frames, hovered like courtly ghosts from the 1920s when Tijuana had been the playground of Hollywood celebrities who came to gamble at the Agua Caliente racetrack and to drink in the prohibition-free clubs. In the restaurant's dim light, a patina of old elegance seemed to cling to the worn leather seats and faded draperies. The city, spread out below us like a feast, looked glamorous, pulsating with life. The band played Latin rhythms: bolero, danzón. I danced with Carlos.

“You move like a gringa,” he told me. “Loosen your hips!” He stepped back and demonstrated, to the amusement of Jorge who was smoking a cigarette and watching from the table. Bob and Sue threw me sympathetic glances. I tried to get back to my seat, but Carlos planted both his hands on my torso. “Let yourself go,” he instructed. “Just move from the waist.” I blushed and tried out a step or two, holding myself stiffly away from Carlos and watching his feet. He laughed. “Never mind,” he said. He draped his arm around my shoulder, leading me back to the table. “I'll buy you a margarita.” I reached for the pack of Winstons lying by Jorge's glass. He looked surprised, but flicked on his lighter and held it out for me.

“I didn't know you smoked,” he said.

“I don't,” I answered, inhaling deeply. Through the veil of smoke, I watched the dancers. A short bald man glided across the floor with a big brunette in a tight electric-blue dress. He gazed at her as though she were the most beautiful woman in the world as they undulated in perfect unison, sensing each other's moves. Despite an elaborate chignon and heavy make-up, the woman looked at least fifty, and her overblown flesh strained against seams and bodice. But she moved her hips with an easy sensuality, and she radiated a serene confidence in her femininity. I wriggled my buttocks a little on the chair, surreptitiously, practicing to the beat.

In June when the guitars weren't ready, we went to a bullfight.

“It isn't really a fight,” said Carlos. “That's just the gringo translation, but it's wrong. In Spanish we call it a corrida, a running of the bulls. Or sometimes we call it la fiesta brava, the festival of courage.”

“Does the bull ever win?” I asked. We were sitting on wooden seats in the old bullring in downtown Tijuana. I felt underdressed in my Levis and T-shirt; many of the local women were decked out in high heels, summer suits, and wide-brimmed hats.

“It isn't about winning or losing!” Carlos was impatient. “That's what I'm trying to tell you. It's not a contest.”

“Then what is it?” I asked, impatient myself. By this time I had learned that it was almost impossible to get a direct answer to a direct question from either Carlos or Jorge. Conversation seemed to move the way traffic moved in Tijuana: in no direction at all, or in all directions at once.

“When the matador comes out, watch how he calls the bull,” Carlos said cryptically. I could tell by the tilt of his head, slightly up and away from me, that there was no use in asking any more questions.

But when the first matador swept into the plaza, sparkling in his suit of lights and brandishing his cape, I couldn't restrain myself.

“What do you mean, ‘how he calls the bull’?”

All Carlos said was, “Look.”

As I watched, the matador faced the massive beast that was pawing the ground fifteen feet away from him. He seemed to impale the animal with his eyes, fixing him with an intense gaze. The bull stopped pawing and stood motionless, returning the man's gaze. The two remained that way for almost a full minute, locked in a mutual absorption that shocked me with its intimacy. Then the matador gave his cape the slightest flick, never taking his eyes from the eyes of the bull. As if drawn by a secret cord, the bull began to move, running toward the man, head down, horns out. The matador's body was absolutely still, every muscle poised and perfect, like a stag scenting the wind. Only his hands moved, sweeping a sudden circle of cape across his body and leading the bull's head in an arc that passed only inches from his legs. The bull stopped behind the matador, facing away from him, immobile. The crowd roared “¡Ole!” and I exhaled the breath I had not known I was holding. My heart was pounding and my palms were wet. Heat and blood and dust filled my nostrils, and I was still shaking when the inevitable moment arrived: The matador raised himself over his bull, long sword poised. I covered my eyes with my hands, peering out from between my fingers. I saw what I knew I would see, what I both feared and needed to see: man and animal, now locked together by a palpable energy, merged into one, joined in the final climactic plunge of the blade into yielding flesh. The bull sank to its knees. The crowd rose up, roaring. I buried my face in Carlos's shoulder and wept.

Our regular visits to Sevillano's had taken on the air of pleasant social calls, and I had almost forgotten about the guitars. As my Spanish improved, I began to listen intently to the conversations during those visits, trying to glimpse the story I believed must lie hidden behind the reserve and the modesty of this remarkable craftsman. I learned only that he had come north years before from a poor village in central Mexico to seek a better life in the bustling commerce of the border. I learned that he closed his shop every Monday to take his wife to the market, and that he was an avid fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers even before the young Fernando Valenzuela came up from Mexico to pitch. It would be years before I knew him well enough to ask him how he had learned his art. Then he would simply shrug and reply, “Everyone in my village makes guitars.”

During August's visit the conversation in the shop centered on baseball. The Dodgers were playing the Padres in San Diego the following Sunday, and Jorge and Carlos planned to meet Don Miguel at the stadium along with his two sons, his brother, his brother-in-law, and a few nephews. Suddenly, in the middle of the discussion, Sevillano said, “Ah!” and disappeared into the back room. He emerged with two gleaming guitars, one in each hand, which he handed to Bob and to me without a word. I sat on the Corona carton and ran my hand again and again over the smooth curves of the instrument. I inhaled its warm wood-and-fresh lacquer smell. I strummed a C chord, then a G, then a D. My fingers were trembling, but the sounds they brought forth were full and rich, the strings sensitive and responsive to my touch. The guitar almost played itself; it made me sound better than I was.

“Do you like your little classical, señora?” Don Miguel addressed me directly for the first time since we had met. I answered him in Spanish:

Sí, Don Miguel, sí, me gusta mucho. Gracias.” He knelt down beside me and pointed through the strings to the label inside. In black scrolled letters it read “Miguel Sevillano” along with the month and the year.

Bob gave me an E, and we tuned to each other. He sang “Here Comes the Sun” and I followed along. Then we both sang “Peaceful Easy Feelin’”, and by that time the boy was back with the beer and Carlos and Jorge had guitars in their hands. When they sang “De Colores” my guitar and I sang the harmony. Then they did “La Bamba”, and my fingers found the beat, and at the chorus I stood up and began to dance, hips loose and easy, moving from the waist.

 



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