Plant Teacher: Excerpts
It is a little-known fact that LSD can be injected intravenously. In 1972, a hippie in Oakland, California flushed a full syringe of lysergic acid diethylamide down the toilet in anticipation of a police raid. Surprisingly, rather than clogging up the building plumbing, the small syringe found its way into the city’s combined sewer system. In average weather, our story may have ended there, but the unseasonable torrents of rain that week mingled the sanitary sewage with the storm water runoff and created an overflow of noxious liquids, which was shunted through an outfall pipe leading into the Bay.
Embarking on an adventure that an inanimate object could not fully appreciate, the little syringe hit the Pacific Ocean, caught a westward-moving current, and eventually found itself more than three thousand miles away from its birthplace at Laricci’s Plastics in Linden, New Jersey and circling the outer edges of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest collection of plastic refuse. A constantly circulating trash vortex beginning five hundred miles off of the California coast, the garbage patch covers roughly twice the area of the continental United States and swirls languidly across the northern Pacific past Japan and as far south as Hawaii. It continuously draws into its event horizon the plastic bags, bottles, tampon applicators, ballpoint pens, lens caps, yoghurt containers, CD jewel cases, and other non-biodegradable refuse of the Pacific Rim nations.
Hardly any sea life ventures into the garbage patch, but, in 2002, the syringe, which had made one and a half tours of the giant vortex and now hovered on its southeast edge, was snapped up by a young Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), which mistook it for a squid. The toothfish and its school meandered east to two hundred miles off the coast of Chile before they were netted by a group of pirate sea bass fishermen who sailed with their catch back to Tocopilla, unloaded the illegal harvest onto ice trucks in the wee hours of the morning, and, after three weeks at sea, hurried back to their homes to shower and to make love with their wives.
On that same spring morning in September, Pilar “Queca” Ortega de Feliz, the housekeeper for the Torres family, purchased tomatoes, potatoes, onions, three heads of garlic, a half kilo of mussels, a string of dried guajillo chili peppers, and a small merluza negra (as the toothfish, or sea bass, was called in Tocopilla). She stuffed her purchases into an enormous straw shopping basket and trudged back to the Torres house to make a delicious seafood soup. When slitting open the merluza negra, Queca saw the syringe and, disgusted, threw the entire fish in the garbage.
That night, the local neighborhood cats found a feast worth fighting for. A vicious feline brawl broke out in the back alley of the wealthy neighborhood, a resident threw a shoe, and a lucky tomcat snatched an entire fish and high-tailed it into his secret den, the canvas-covered bed of a 1987 four-wheel-drive pickup truck. Imagine the cat’s surprise when he awoke the next morning from a sated sleep to find the truck in motion. He cowered over his fish and, with a cat’s limited sense of time, had no idea how long he spent on his voyage.
Rico Herrera, on the other hand, who was manning the truck, knew exactly how long the trip lasted. It was a fourteen-hour journey from Tocopilla, and, every September before the Fiestas Patrias, Rico took off a week from his successful gardening business to drive up to the coastal town at Lake Titicaca where his Aymara mother, hispano father, and extended family of five siblings, fourteen aunts and uncles, and countless nieces, nephews and cousins still lived.
By the time he reached Puno and pulled his truck to a stop, Rico’s lower back was aching. So, although normally an animal lover, he was in no mood when, drawing back the canvas splayed over his truck bed, he saw a flea-ridden cat with half a rotten fish cowering in the cardboard box that held the beautiful hand-loomed woolen blanket that he had purchased in Santiago last month for his mother.
“Puto gato!” Rico yelled. The cat leaped immediately out of the pickup truck, touched ground in Peru, and dashed off to make a life for itself in its new country. Rico grabbed the half-eaten fish and hurled it fifteen feet where it landed, with a splash, in the waters of Lake Titicaca. Mrs. Herrera washed the blanket several times, but it lost some color and never smelled completely fresh again.
Graduation from Brown was the best day of his life. Not summa cum laude. Not magna cum laude. Just cum laude, but acceptable. Good enough to grab a degree and get out. Good enough for his father, despite family protests, to turn off his oxygen that evening and light a cigar. “My youngest child out of school, it’s something to celebrate,” he rasped, before promptly dying—not of the emphysema, but of a brain aneurism, something entirely unrelated and entirely unexpected.
Scratch that. Graduation from Brown was the best day of his life until 8:49 that evening when his father, whom he had admired, loved, and deeply adored, but largely from a distance, was announced dead on arrival at Providence Hospital. “It’s this damn little provincial town,” wailed his mother, who thought anywhere but New York and Paris were petty bourgeoisie pretenders to real cities. “At Bellevue they would have helped him.”
Martin, who was still burping portabella steak in brown sauce after the turbulent departure from the restaurant, could hardly make eye contact with her. This evening, and for many months to come, it would be all about her.
Siblings crowded around the matriarch, offering comforting hugs, pats and coos. Rubies, emeralds, gold and purple amethyst sparkled on fingers, wrists, earlobes. His half-sister, Frances, slipped a perfectly tanned arm around the stately woman and gently hugged. “Mamita, mamita, we’ll be okay. He was happy today, mamita, we’ll be okay.” Frances spoke with perfect native Spanish, which Martin deeply resented.
He saw the weeks ahead unfolding unavoidably before him. Funeral arrangements. White oleanders. Cremation, but a traditional mass and a funeral plot at St. Luke’s. Lawyers. Papers. One half-brother, two brothers, four half-sisters, two ex-wives. Plenty to sort out, and the Banzer family machinery would chug forward making it all happen. Politely, efficiently. There would be nothing to dispute, nothing to contest. Every i would be dotted. Every t crossed. Every loophole tightly closed.
A hand slipped into his. His oldest half-sister, Karen. She squeezed him while they watched nurses, doctors, and orderlies filing by. Blue scrubs, pink scrubs, cheerful yellow walls designed to evoke warm and hopeful feelings. But no amount of color could disguise the antiseptic smells and the pervading atmosphere of sickness and death. “What am I going to do?” his mother was crying. “What now? What now?”
Martin knew what he was going to do. He was going to La Paz.
Late October in La Paz meant spring. Sweet cool breezes drifted down from the Andes to rustle through the eucalyptus trees and nestle in the valley. Tropical fruits found their way overland from the eastern departments and poured forth into the markets. Heaps of dried tamarind rested on wooden tables, ready to be taken home and blended into an aromatic brown punch. Achachairu: hard balls of orange that popped open to release a white jelly. Okoro: prickly pods that peeled away from a flesh that tasted like lemonade. Vendors offered mocochinchis on the street corners. Loosely translated as “boogers,” these were caramelized peach or peanut drinks spiced with cinnamon.
Cheryl felt like a bottle of champagne that had been jostled and then suddenly exploded open. Ebullience had welled up within her and was now gushing forth. Until La Paz, she’d never been outside of a two- maybe three-hundred mile radius around Winchester. She’d watched the Woodie Allen movies. She’d listened to his need to have wonton soup at two in the morning if he wanted wonton soup at two in the morning, and she’d felt the call to New York City. She’d applied to Columbia—was accepted—but she hadn’t gotten a scholarship. So it had been Virginia for college. UVA was stately, and Virginia was beautiful, but she realized one state in one country was just a very small slice of the world.
Now, just as she’d dreamed she would, she loved La Paz. She loved the energy, the colors. The weather, so far, hadn’t been dramatic. The difference between winter and spring had meant a switch from a jacket to a sweater. She folded the scarf that Gus had given her and tucked it away in a drawer. She bought copper earrings from a street vendor—they looked like gold—and wore them with a bright red turtleneck. Spring meant new life. She was completely adjusted to the thin air now. She could walk briskly to and from work. In the evenings, she’d spend forty minutes on the exercise bike at the gym. She could eat the vegetables and fruits without a problem. Her complexion was improving. Her migraines were fewer and farther between. She had never felt better.
Bolivia forged ahead with her own plans. Bolivia did not rest quietly and let her visitors just go about their business. Bolivia intervened in lives. She was heaving and groaning and protesting her way towards left-wing authoritarianism. The president was threatening to kick the U.S. ambassador out. He redrafted the national Constitution within a military encampment blockaded by army tanks. Students protested outside, and three protestors were shot and killed.
The eastern department of Santa Cruz, fat and comfortable with its hydrocarbon industry, called for autonomy; its wealthy citizens were tired of paying taxes to subsidize the impoverished government in La Paz. Collas and cambas, West and East, spoke of a civil war. The president, wearing a tri-colored sash over his cream-colored sweater, stroked his fingers across his jaw and chuckled. He pushed aside his llama steak and his strawberry licuado long enough to ordain that if there was to be autonomy, there would be autonomy for all. Every ethnic group in Bolivia—and there were at least thirty-six—should be allowed its own federalist system of government, its own tax collection, its own language choice in schools and in the public sector. He wiped his hand across his mouth, threw his napkin on the table, and proposed a decentralized, disintegrative solution for a country already popping open at the seams. A governor spoke out against the plan. The president ordered mango licuado for the following day while the governor was arrested.
The chipper North American media reported on a growing populist movement and noted that certain South American intellectuals wished to nominate the Bolivian president for a Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, how the president smiled when an aide brought him that news. He gave the man a warm handshake and didn’t fire him until the following week. The president wanted his amended Constitution and he wanted his burgeoning coca fields and he wanted his nationalized hydrocarbons and he wanted his land redistribution and he wanted his puto Nobel Prize. The next week, he ordered a tamarind licuado and he fired the aide for telling him that the press coverage was bad. Soon enough, the puto blanco journalists would learn to keep their big traps shut.
In New York, Carmen was building her South American blog. Her blue tooth hummed constantly in her left ear. She made calls to La Paz, Caracas, Quito, Managua, and Buenos Aires. She asked probing questions, reviewed resumes and portfolios. Panama City, Tegucigalpa, Asunción, Montevideo. Her new reporters were lining up nicely. She would start with the capital cities, and then branch out. Carlos would quit his job with Google and help. Donald told her it was a fabulous idea. That was the extent of his involvement. She chipped a nail while simultaneously typing and talking to him on the phone. She examined the small, white half-moon. Maybe she should try beige.
Bolivia stretched. Bolivia moaned. She wrapped her mountainous arms and her jungle thighs around her populace and dared them to make history. She drenched them with her rains and she suffocated them with her heat. Especially her heat. She let the temperatures flare.
Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. Her words have reached audiences on six continents. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher.
Copyright Caroline Alethia.
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