In Memoriam: Louis Delgado
by Barbara Finkelstein
Sid and I would travel to Puerto Rico to see customers for our business and to attend the annual Heineken Jazz Festival in San Juan. Grieving the death of Lou, we found comfort and understanding as we crawled the island. Friends from our Synanon years would sometimes join us; and in 1996, Sid fulfilled his dream of introducing Lou’s son to his father’s childhood island. Graham was with us, too. One morning back at home on Sanibel, my pen took over during my daily writing. It was as if Lou were having his say, and I just happened to be there to listen and make notes. The second surprise that day came with a phone call from Lou’s daughter, Phyllis Delgado Toor. She and her family had just arrived on the island for vacation, and “Could we get together?” Joy of joy! Yes, yes, yes! For one of those days, we met on the beach at Sanibel’s west end where the family was staying. I read aloud the first draft of this narrative, and once again, we felt touched by magic. Near to us a man sat relaxed on a beach chair. Wearing an islands’ style fedora, he was playing a ukulele. His music accompanied these words.
1. South of Maricao, along Puerto Rico Ruta 119, mangoes ripen in the yellows of sunny noon. Sedans and pick-ups angle onto the grass and plastic shopping bags balloon in wind as local men and women hurry to fill them. My husband slows our rented car as if to stop again. I laugh, my bare feet warm against soft, fragrant fruit. Luis would tell us: I could just go outside and find my food. Mangoes, bananas—aie! Limes, plantain, breadfruit, yams—all I’d need. But for Mami and Papi the island was not enough. No work even in Arecibo. They bought first shoes for us, leather and laces for feet loving cool earth, clothes, when my skin wanted sun. Adios, my aunties, my uncles. Oh, the good-byes, touches of hands and words! ¡Nuestros queridos! Our dear ones! No hurricane more frightening than the one blowing us to New York. Shoes hurt my feet—leather on cement. And the voices—I could not understand English, but I knew they insulted him, my little Papi. They took trusting eyes for stupid, politeness for weakness. They wanted only muscle but it was his wisdom they needed. And Mami, tall— you see where I get my height— beautiful— oh, the photograph on our living room wall! She is proud with conquerors’ blood, yet even she could not control my anger that worsened as I grew. Her foot on my neck, she tried to hold me to the kitchen floor. Too many years in that city! On King’s Highway we raged. In the corners of rundown buildings we shot up five-dollar bags— my longing for sweetness, my longing for paradise. Still, I learned to work as a printer. I could always keep the presses running and I had the eye for design. But my wife? I had done harm. I promised never to call, not ever to look for them, the three little ones. A new man would buy them shoes. 2. I, Luis, crawled through a tunnel, a long, dark tunnel back to myself. Would you believe a tunnel from New York under the continent coming out here in California— out by another sea, mountains up from the shore with caring people around? In this place called Synanon we still form tribes— yes, tribes—of every age, mix and color. Would you believe that like my ancestors we play a game? We clear space for a circle and bat words at one another— truths harder than stones and we do not die. Some call it rehab; I call it paradise. I have my printing, my design. I get respect, I hear it. Look at me—a man restored! Hey, you! ¡Mira! You can have what I have— a clean life, a beautiful wife. A beautiful son. Listen—my stories— I search for the right word to tell you in English, the language which so limits caring words. Imagine! Only one word for love! 3. My husband and I come to the long porch where dinner is served at Parador Hacienda Juanita. We are caught in the strength of this house: beams of nearly extinct ausubo, thick walls painted deep pink, tall, green shutters at windows and doors, old plantation tools in corners, photographs of small men and women picking beans and roasting coffee. We take our seats in wood and woven-straw chairs. After he died, a dream: He is gaunt, his skin dark-tinged. He dances slowly, feathers in his crown and on his shoulders quiver with each step. Rattles tremble in his hands. His eyes are black and frightened. He turns away from me. Who am I to him? Luis, I love you—don’t you see? He turns to my husband, looks into his eyes and dances close to him. In this presence he stops. The feathers quiet. The fear subsides. Night covers the canyon slopes. Birds cry, bamboo trees creak, leaves shake in the wind. Coquis cut loose their high singing. I say, if I had come to this island sooner, I might have understood his pain on leaving. My husband sighs, I wish he could have brought himself home. Imagine if he and I had bought this hacienda together. Can you hear him greeting guests? People would come running up this mountain! 4. I, Luis, look back over my years and think again about my story. Did I tell you I am a big man? That sometimes my size alone caused me trouble? In that community I called home I did not always fit. And I would not always listen, except to the young ones, the ones in trouble. For them I could listen. And we came to new times— again, new times with little room for old ways, for the small constellations that keep us warm. Sometimes even I bowed to the conquering hand of greed. ¡Dios mi! Tight lips called the rules. Don’t reach over the porch rail to pick a banana for breakfast anymore: file a requisition. So, I began to die, partly from the poisons of conquerors that flow in my blood, partly from too much surprise. For hurricanes, now, we have warning, but floods roll trees down canyons, tear away your house and toss even your toilet up a tree. Earthquakes shake off wives, break open the ground beneath and leave you with almost nothing. You forget who you are in the struggle. You can’t remember old ground anymore. You pack your things and go east again. The children come around with their children, and you wish now you had energy. You touch them, listen to them, and see in them their mothers and Papi and Mami. Other people tell them stories and you brag, too. But you will not drive into Brooklyn morning after morning like a modern slave. And imagine sitting in a townhouse in New Jersey at a round table only two of eight chairs filled! A man needs a circle with a carved stone seat rubbed smooth by hands working sand. His voice must fill with stories. His hands are made to welcome. Even the love of a wife does not help. You think about going all the way home. 5. In our hearts, Luis, in the realities of shared thought, we bring ashes to your island. We wait for the right time, the right place, and always we find it. Some we leave with the man selling fresh orange juice from his cart on Calle San Sebastian, and among the roots of the ficus tree in Plaza de Hostos where old men click dominoes in the hot afternoon. We let them mix with phosphorescent water lapping under the pier on a full moon night. In the mountains, where a rooster and hens roam a garden with canyon views, they will find ashes softening their nests. ¡Muy grande! We scatter more around the cathedral in Arecibo where nuns look up from arranging flowers and invite us through locked gates. Just think—your son has come to Puerto Rico! And our son, too! Look at them, Luis, these beautiful young men in this place of stature Papi helped build. And at the jam session with Giovanni Hidalgo, congas and timbales in complex rhythm, were you to walk in then at age thirty-five, all heads would turn, women’s eyebrows would rise and their hips move faster. Oh, yes, you would knock them out, those sophisticated, young San Juan professionals. They would remember a people who knew how to walk with the back of the neck straight, who knew how to extend a hand and draw a person close with the right touch. There, among perfect evening shirts and fitted skirts, at feet in polished shoes where the beat of deep heart must be danced, there, too, we leave your ashes. 6. Me gustaria saber: what draws us to one another? What spirit wraps this day when I write of your memory just as your daughter calls? Surprise! She is visiting our Florida island and soon arrives at our door, husband, two sons, a daughter already fifteen. We eat ice cream drink tea and touch photographs. Next day we meet again— towels swimsuits sandwiches a boat and a tiny island in San Carlos Bay. I snap a photograph of her family on blankets beneath the Australian pines. I could tell you, Luis, how she is like your finest self— full and welcoming. How I see your Papi’s calmness in her bearing. She carries the old wisdom. She laughs through pain. But first, I must talk about grief— how it lifts when the fire in a lost friend’s eyes rekindles in his daughter’s.