The Lake Where My Uncle Drowned

A story excerpted from the novel ‘Mourning’ by Eduardo Halfon, recommended by Jonas Mekas

AN INTRODUCTION BY JONAS MEKAS

I like short novels, books that you can read on a flight between New York and London, for example. And I am tired of psychological, introspective novels. I crave for down-to-earth books about people. When I say down-to-earth I mean a wide variety of down-to-earthiness, such as the earthiness of Eduardo Halfon, which can be very complex. I have not yet had a chance to read Eduardo Halfon’s Monastery, but I have read his first, The Polish Boxer, and I’ve just finished his new, third book, Mourning.

Halfon’s writing leads you through different levels of earthiness. You read, and you cannot stop. And the reality that he describes is such that while you read, you begin to wonder what is in the “real” that is still real. Halfon was born post-holocaust, a world traveler possessed with a desire to travel. Not geographically. He travels through our past, through the memory of our civilization. And he sees it all with a very clear eye, even if he has never been there before.

There is a very funny chapter in Mourning, in Italy, where he visits a former concentration camp and discovers that it’s a re-creation, not the original — they tore down the original camp and rebuilt it, to make it more real, for tourists — which he describes with subtle irony and sadness:

I stood in silence on the threshold, as though paralyzed, just beginning to understand that what I was seeing was no more than a replica; that they had first decided to destroy the original camp and then they had decided to build, on the same spot, a replica of that original camp; that they had, in other words, built a kind of mock-up or sample or theme park dedicated to human suffering; and that I myself, at that very moment, standing on the threshold of that fake block, was a part of the whole performance.

It is in capturing the really real that Halfon’s writing hits a virtual ecstasy. I recall a chapter in The Polish Boxer in which the protagonist finds himself among the gypsies and prostitutes, where the real turns into a “separate” reality a la Carlos Castaneda. Like the prisoner’s numbers — burned on the arm of a boxer by Nazis — a too-real reality but which the man, now, years later, pretends are something else, another “separate” reality.

As with The Polish Boxer, the Mourning is a collage of stories. But eventually they all tie together. They are all of today, but they are under the veil of yesterday. A yesterday which is not clear any longer but which the protagonist vainly tries to feel, to touch, ending up somewhere, though he is not really sure where.

But the travel, as one travels with Eduardo Halfon, is always exciting, it’s always very real. I am waiting for his next book.

Jonas Mekas
Director of As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

The Lake Where My Uncle Drowned

Mourning, An Excerpt

by Eduardo Halfon

His name was Salomón. He died when he was five years old, drowned in Lake Amatitlán. That’s what they told me when I was a boy, in Guatemala. That my father’s older brother, my grandparents’ firstborn, who would have been my uncle Salomón, had drowned in Lake Amatitlán in an accident, when he was the same age as me, and that they’d never found his body. We used to spend every weekend at my grandparents’ house on the lakeshore, and I couldn’t look at that water without imagining the lifeless body of Salomón suddenly appearing. I always imagined him pale and naked, and always floating facedown by the old wooden dock. My brother and I had even invented a secret prayer, which we’d whisper on the dock — and which I can still recall — before diving into the lake. As if it were a kind of magic spell. As if to banish the ghost of the boy Salomón, in case the ghost of the boy Salomón was still swimming around. I didn’t know the details of the accident, nor did I dare to ask. No one in the family talked about Salomón. No one even spoke his name.

It wasn’t hard to find the lake house that had once belonged to my grandparents. First I drove past the same unchanged entrance to the hot springs, then the old gas pump, then the same vast coffee and cardamom plantation. I went by a series of lake houses that looked very familiar, though all or almost all of them were now abandoned. I recognized the rock — dark, huge, embedded in the side of the mountain — that as kids we thought was shaped like a flying saucer. To us, it was a flying saucer, taking off into space from the mountain near Amatitlán. I drove a bit farther along the narrow winding road that skirts the lake. I came to the curve that, according to my father, always ended up making me nauseous, making me vomit. I slowed down at another curve, a more dangerous, more pronounced one, which I recalled was the last curve. And before I could hesitate, before I could become nervous, before apprehension could make me turn around and hurry back to the city, there it was before me: the same flagstone wall, the same solid black metal gate.

I parked the sapphire-colored Saab on the side of the road, in front of the stone wall, and remained seated in the old car that had been loaned to me by a friend. It was midafternoon. The sky looked like a heavy mass, russet and dense. I rolled down the window and was hit immediately by the smell of humidity, of sulfur, of something dead or dying. I thought that what was dead or dying was the lake itself, so contaminated and putrid, so mistreated for decades, and then I thought it best to stop thinking and reached for the pack of Camels in the glove compartment. I took out a cigarette and lit it and the sweetish smoke began restoring my faith, at least a little, at least until I looked up and discovered that there before me, standing motionless in the distance on the asphalt road, was a horse. An emaciated horse. A cadaverous horse. A horse that shouldn’t be there, in the middle of the road. I don’t know if it had been there the whole time and I hadn’t seen it, or if it had just arrived, had just manifested itself, an off-white apparition amid all the green. It was far away, but close enough that I could make out each bone of its ribs and its hips as well as a repeated spasm along its back. A rope hung from its neck. I presumed that it belonged to someone, to some peasant from that side of the lake, and that perhaps it had escaped or gotten lost. I opened the door and climbed out of the car to get a better look, and the horse immediately raised one of its front legs and began to paw the asphalt. I could hear the sound of its hoof barely scraping the asphalt. I saw it lower its head with difficulty, with too much effort, perhaps with an urge to sniff or lick the road. Then I saw it take two or three slow painful steps toward the mountain and disappear entirely into the underbrush. I tossed my cigarette at nothing in particular, with rage as much as indolence, and headed toward the black front gate.

My Lebanese grandfather was wandering in the backyard of his house on Avenida Reforma, beyond a swimming pool that was now disused, now empty and cracked, as he smoked a cigarette in secret. He’d recently had the first of his heart attacks and the doctors had forced him to quit smoking. We all knew he smoked in secret, out there, around the pool, but no one said anything. Perhaps no one dared. I was watching him through the window of a room right beside the pool, a room that had once served as dressing room and lounge, but which now was nothing more than a place to store boxes and coats and old furniture. My grandfather paced from one side of the small yard to the other, one hand behind his back, concealing the cigarette. He was dressed in a white button-down shirt, gray gabardine trousers and black leather slippers, and I, as ever, imagined him flying through the air in those black leather slippers. I knew that my grandfather had flown out of Beirut in 1919, when he was sixteen years old, with his mother and siblings. I knew that he’d flown first to Corsica, where his mother had died and was buried; then to France, where at Le Havre all of the siblings had boarded a steamship called the Espagne, headed for America; to New York, where a lazy or perhaps capricious immigration official had decided to chop our name in half, and where my grandfather also worked for several years, in Brooklyn, in a bicycle factory; to Haiti, where one of his cousins lived; to Peru, where another of his cousins lived; to Mexico, where yet another of his cousins was Pancho Villa’s arms dealer. I knew that on reaching Guatemala he’d flown over the Portal del Comercio — back when a horse-drawn or mule-drawn tram still passed by the Portal del Comercio — and there opened an imported-fabric outlet called El Paje. I knew that in the sixties, after being kidnapped by guerrillas for thirty-five days, my grandfather had then flown home. And I knew that one afternoon, at the end of Avenida Petapa, my grandfather had been hit by a train, which had launched him into the air, or possibly launched him into the air, or at least for me, forever, launched him into the air.

My brother and I were lying on the floor among boxes and suitcases and old lamps and dusty sofas. We were whispering, so that my grandfather wouldn’t discover us hiding there, rummaging through his things. We had been living at my grandparents’ house on Avenida Reforma for several days. Soon we’d leave the country and go to the United States. My parents, after selling our house, had left us at my grandparents’ and traveled to the United States to find a new house, to buy furniture, to enroll us in school, to get everything there ready for the move. A temporary move, my parents insisted, just until the whole political situation here improved. What political situation? I didn’t fully understand what they meant by the whole political situation of the country, despite having become used to falling asleep to the sound of bombs and gunfire; and despite the rubble I’d seen with a friend on the land behind my grandparents’ house, rubble that had been the Spanish embassy, my friend explained, after it was burned down with white phosphorus by government forces, killing thirty-seven employees and peasants who were inside; and despite the fighting between the army and some guerillas right in front of my school, in Colonia Vista Hermosa, which kept us students locked in the gym the entire day. Nor did I fully understand how it could be a temporary move if my parents had already sold and emptied our house. It was the summer of ’81. I was about to turn ten years old.

As my brother struggled to open an enormous hard leather case, I timed him on the digital watch I’d been given by my grandfather a few months earlier. It was my first watch: a bulky Casio, with a large face and a black plastic band, which jiggled on my left wrist (my wrists have always been too thin). And ever since my grandfather had given it to me, I couldn’t stop timing everything, and then recording and comparing these times in a small spiral notebook. How many minutes each of my father’s naps lasted. How long it took my brother to brush his teeth in the morning versus before bed. How many minutes it took my mother to smoke a cigarette while talking on the phone in the living room versus while having coffee in the kitchenette. How many seconds between flashes of lightning during an approaching storm. How many seconds I could hold my breath underwater in the bathtub. How many seconds one of my goldfish could survive outside the fishbowl. Which was the faster way to get dressed before school (first underwear, then socks, then shirt, then pants, then shoes versus first socks, then underwear, then pants, then shoes, then shirt), because that way, if I figured it out, if I found the most efficient way to get dressed in the morning, I could sleep a few extra minutes. My whole world had changed with that black plastic watch. I could now measure anything, could now imagine time, capture it, even visualize it on a small digital screen. Time, I began to believe, was something real and indestructible. Everything in time took place in the form of a straight line, with a start point and an end point, and I could now locate those two points and measure the line that separated them and write the measurement down in my spiral notebook.

My brother was still attempting to open the leather case, and I, as I timed him, held in my hands a black-and-white photo of a boy in the snow. I’d found it in a box full of photos, some small, others larger, all old and the worse for wear. I showed it to my brother, who was still kicking the lock on the case, and he asked me who the boy in the photo was. I told him, examining the picture up close, that I had no idea. The boy looked too little. He didn’t look happy in the snow. My brother said there was writing on the back of the photo and gave the case one final kick, and suddenly it opened. Inside was an enormous accordion, dazzling in reds and whites and blacks (so dazzling that I actually forgot to stop timing). My brother pushed the keys and the accordion made a terrible racket at precisely the moment I read what was written on the back of the photo: Salomón, New York, 1940.

From the pool, my grandfather shouted something to us in Arabic or perhaps in Hebrew, and I threw the photo on the floor and ran out of the room, wiping my hand on my shirt, and dodging my grandfather, who was still smoking in the backyard, and wondering if maybe the Salomón who had drowned in the lake was the same Salomón in the snow, in New York, in 1940.

There was no doorbell, no knocker, and so I simply rapped on the black gate with my knuckles. I waited a few minutes: nothing. I tried again, knocking harder: still nothing. There were no sounds, either. No voices. No radio. No murmurs of anyone playing or swimming in the lake. It struck me that the house that had belonged to my grandparents in the sixties might be abandoned and dilapidated as well, like so many of the lake houses, all vestiges and ruins from another time. I felt the first drops of rain on my forehead and was about to knock again, when I heard rubber sandals approaching slowly, on the other side of the gate.

Can I help you? in a soft, shy female voice. Good afternoon, I said loudly. I’m looking for Isidoro Chavajay, and I was interrupted by thunder in the distance. She didn’t say anything, or perhaps she did say something and I couldn’t hear it because of the thunder. Do you know where I might find him? She was silent again as two fat drops fell on my head. I waited for a pickup truck that was roaring past on the road, full of passengers, to get farther away, behind me. Do you know Don Isidoro Chavajay? I asked, hearing a dog come running up on the other side of the gate. Sure, she said. He works here.

I wasn’t expecting that reply. I wasn’t expecting Don Isidoro to still work here, forty years later. I’d thought that maybe the new caretaker or gardener could help me find him, locate him in town; and if not locate him, Don Isidoro himself, because he’d died or perhaps moved to another village, then at least his wife or his children. And standing at the black gate that had once been my grandparents’, getting a little wet, it occurred to me that this house had had several owners, who knows how many owners since my grandparents had sold it in the late seventies, but always with Don Isidoro there for everyone, in the service of everyone. As though Don Isidoro, more than a man or an employee, was one more piece of furniture, included in the price.

And is Don Isidoro here? I asked, drying my forehead and seeing the dog’s snout appear under the gate. Who is it that’s looking for him? she asked. The dog was frantically sniffing my feet, or possibly frantically sniffing the scent of the white horse in the underbrush. Tell him that Señor Halfon is looking for him, I said, that I’m the grandson of Señor Halfon. She didn’t say anything for a few seconds, perhaps confused, or perhaps waiting for me to provide a bit more information, or perhaps she hadn’t heard me very well. Who do you say is looking for him? she asked again through the front gate. The grandson of Señor Halfon, I repeated, enunciating slowly. Pardon? she asked, her voice muffled, somewhat timid. The dog seemed more frenzied now. It was barking and scratching the gate with its front paws. Tell Don Isidoro, I said desperately, almost shouting or barking myself, that I am Señor Hoffman.

There was a brief silence. Even the dog went quiet.

I’ll go see if he’s here, she said, and I stood motionless, anxious, simply listening to the sound of her sandals and of the rain on the mountain and of the dog now growling at me again from under the front gate. Sometimes I feel I can hear everything, save the sound of my own name.

I don’t know at what point English replaced Spanish. I don’t know if it truly replaced it, or if instead I started to wear English like some sort of gear that allowed me to enter and move freely in my new world. I was just ten years old, but I may have already understood that a language is also a diving helmet.

Days or weeks after having moved to the United States — to a suburb in South Florida called Plantation — and almost without realizing it, my siblings and I began speaking only in English. We now replied to our parents only in English, though they continued speaking to us in Spanish. We knew a bit of English before leaving Guatemala, of course, but it was a rudimentary English, an English of games and songs and children’s cartoons. My new schoolteacher, Miss Pennybaker, a very young and very tall woman who ran marathons, was the first to realize how essential it was for me to appropriate my new language quickly.

On the first day of class, already in my blue-and-white private school uniform, Miss Pennybaker stood me up before the group of boys and girls and, after guiding me through the pledge of allegiance, introduced me as the new student. Then she announced to everyone that, each Monday, I was going to give a short speech on a topic that she would assign the previous Friday, and that I would prepare and practice and memorize over the weekend. I remember that, during those first months, Miss Pennybaker assigned me to give speeches on my favorite sorbet (tangerine), on my favorite singer (John Lennon), on my best friend in Guatemala (Óscar), on what I wanted to be when I grew up (cowboy, until I fell off a horse; doctor, until I fainted when I saw blood on a TV show), on one of my heroes (Thurman Munson) and one of my antiheros (Arthur Slugworth) and one of my pets (we had an enormous alligator as a pet; or rather, an enormous alligator lived in our backyard; or rather, an enormous alligator lived in the canal that ran behind our house, and some afternoons we saw it from the window, splayed out on the lawn, motionless as a statue, taking the sun; my brother, for reasons known only to him, named him Fernando).

One Friday, Miss Pennybaker asked me to prepare a speech on my grandparents and great-grandparents. That Saturday morning, then, while my brother and I were having breakfast and my father was having coffee and reading the paper at the head of the table, I asked him a few questions about his ancestors, and my father told me that both of his grandfathers had been named Salomón. Just like your brother, I blurted out, almost defending myself against that name, as though a name could be a dagger, and the distant voice of my father said yes, Salomón, just like my brother. He explained to me from the other side of the paper that his paternal grandfather, from Beirut, had been named Salomón, and that his maternal grandfather, from Aleppo, had also been named Salomón, and that that’s why his older brother had been named Salomón, in honor of his two grandfathers. I fell silent for a few seconds, somewhat afraid, trying to imagine my father’s face on the other side of the paper, perhaps on the other side of the universe, without knowing what to say or what to do with that name, so dangerous, so forbidden. My brother, also silent beside me, had a milk mustache. And both of us were still silent when my father’s words struck like a thunderbolt or a command from the other side of the paper. The king of the Israelites, he proclaimed, and I understood that the king of the Israelites had been his brother Salomón.

That Monday, standing before my classmates, I told them in my best English that both of my father’s grandparents had been named Salomón, and that my father’s older brother had also been named Salomón, in honor of them, and that that boy Salomón, in addition to being my father’s brother, had been king of the Israelites, but that he’d drowned in a lake in Guatemala, and that his body and his crown were still there, lost forever at the bottom of a lake in Guatemala, and all of my classmates applauded.

The golden ratio. That was the first thing I thought on seeing Don Isidoro’s face after so many years: the golden ratio. That perfect number and spiral found in the vein structure of a tree leaf, in the shell of a snail, in the geometric structure of crystals. Don Isidoro was standing on the old wooden dock, barefoot, smiling, his teeth gray and rotten, his hair totally white, his eyes cloudy with cataracts, his face wrinkled and dark after a life in the sun, and all I could think of was that the total length of two lines (a + b) is to the longer segment (a) as the longer segment is to the shorter (b).

Briarcliff.

That was the name of the camp where we spent our summer vacation in ’82, after our first year of school in the United States. Each morning a girl named Robyn, with brown hair and a freckled face, would come pick us up — in her egg-yolk yellow Volkswagen van — and then bring us back at night, after a whole day of playing sports and swimming at the Miami park where Briarcliff was located. Like the other camp employees, I imagine, Robyn helped transport all the kids. My sister generally fell asleep on the way there, and my brother kept quiet, slightly embarrassed each time Robyn looked at him in the rearview mirror and told him he had the perfect smile. I, on the other hand, awoke each morning already anxious to see her, to speak to her for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took to drive to the park, and Robyn, for those fifteen or twenty minutes, with the grace and patience of a teacher, would correct my English. Eddie, she’d call me, or sometimes Little Eddie. I remember we talked almost entirely about sports, especially baseball. She told me that her favorite team was the Pirates (mine, the Yankees), and her favorite player Willie Stargell (mine, Thurman Munson). She told me that she played first base, like Stargell (and me, catcher, like Munson, until Munson died in a plane crash), on an all-women’s team. She told me that soon, close by, in Fort Lauderdale, they would start filming a movie about baseball, and that she was the main actress. I wasn’t sure if I’d understood properly or if maybe she was kidding me, and so I simply smiled warily. A couple of years later, however, I was surprised to see her on the movie screen at the theater, the main actress in a film, with Mimi Rogers and Harry Hamlin and a young Andy García, about a girl whose dream was to play professional baseball in the big leagues. Robyn, I read on the screen, was actually named Robyn Barto, and the movie — the only one she ever starred in — was Blue Skies Again.

One morning, while we Briarcliff kids were swimming in the pool and sliding down the park’s huge slide, a man drowned.

I remember the adults shouting, telling us all to get out of the water, then the younger kids crying, then the sirens of the ambulance, then the lifeless body of the man laid out beside the small maintenance pool where he’d drowned, two or three paramedics around him, trying to resuscitate him. I was somewhat far from the scene, still wet and in my bathing suit, but for a few instants, through the paramedics’ legs, I could make out the blue-tinged face of the man on the ground. A pale blue, washed-out, between indigo and azure. A blue I’d never seen before. A blue that shouldn’t exist in the pantone of blues. And seeing the man on the ground, I immediately pictured Salomón floating in the lake, Salomón faceup in the lake, his face now forever tinged the same shade of blue.

That night, on the way home in the Volkswagen van, I waited until my brother and sister were asleep to ask Robyn what had happened to the man. She kept quiet for a good while, just driving in the dark of the night, and I thought that she hadn’t heard me or that perhaps she didn’t want to talk about it. But eventually she told me in a hushed tone that the man had gotten trapped underwater in the small maintenance pool. That the man’s right arm had gotten caught, she told me, while he was cleaning the filter for the slide. That the man had died, she told me, without anyone seeing.

When we were kids, we believed Don Isidoro when he told us that what he was drinking from a small metal canteen — which smelled like pure alcohol — was his medicine. And we believed him when he told us that the rumblings of hunger our tummies made were the hisses of an enormous black snake slithering around in there, and that it went in and out through our belly buttons while we slept. And we believed him when he told us that the ever more frequent gunfire and bomb blasts in the mountains were only eruptions of the Pacaya volcano. And we believed him when he told us that the two bodies that turned up one morning floating by the dock were not two murdered guerillas tossed into the lake, but two normal boys, two boys scuba diving. And we believed him when he told us that, if we didn’t behave, at night a sorceress would come for us, a sorceress who lived in a cave at the bottom of the lake (my brother — I don’t know if by mistake or as a joke — called her the Shore-ceress of the Lake), a dark cave where she waited for all the spoiled little white boys and girls she stole from the lake houses.

When we were kids, we used to help Don Isidoro plant trees around the property. Don Isidoro would open up a hole with a pickax and then move to one side and allow us to put in the sapling and then fill the hole back up with black earth. I remember that we planted a eucalyptus by the gate, a row of cypresses along the line bordering our neighbor’s land, a small matilisguate by the lakeshore. I remember Don Isidoro telling us that, before we filled each hole with earth, we had to bring our heads in close and whisper a word of encouragement into the hole, a pretty word, a word that would help the tree take root and grow properly (my brother, invariably, whispered good-bye). The word, Don Isidoro told us, would remain there forever, buried in the black earth.

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