*Winner, NONFICTION PRIZE
By MICHELE NIESEN
It all started innocently enough, I guess. I wanted to make an omelet. Naturally, I would have to move.
I left the city after 10 years of owning, cooking and sometimes struggling at my little bistro and wine bar in a southern suburb near Atlanta. I was done. The grit, the gridlock, the grind. Someone bought me out and I never looked back. I was turning 40. My dog was dying. My dad was dying. My relationship had already died. I wanted out. Things were sold. Houses were rented. There were yard sales. Giveaways. Things put on curbs. Goodbyes were made. What are you going to do up there? everyone asked. I’m going to grow my own food, I’d say. This was met with a flat, “Oh.” It’s not exactly, “I’m selling everything and moving to Paris with my new lover, and we’re to be wed in Fiji’.”
Moving to the country would have its compromises, but I was ready to trade international cuisine, coffee bars and shopping for specialty farms, fresh air and the good life. I drove north 75 miles from Atlanta. I bought a homestead. “Estate for sale with pool and 6 acres! Wow!” read the ad. A too big rambling ’60s mess of a ranch house with too many rooms (six) and too many bathrooms (seven), a huge concrete hole on the east side that used to be a pool and another concrete slab covered in vines on the west that, back in the day, was a tennis court. Someone had really been living it up in the ’60s, and the ghosts of cocktail parties past, coupled with the local lore of nude sunbathing, disco parties and contraband smuggling gave the place a mysterious history. It was the kind of drama and intrigue that sometimes gets lost in the hill towns of the rural South. This sort of debauchery was Savannah, not Appalachia.
The estate had fallen into disrepair, and a cloud of staid tranquility had settled over her sometime in the late ’80s. She was sitting like an aged rock star who had traded her leather pants and halter tops for shifts and muumuus. I knew there were stories to tell, and I figured there was some life left in the old girl. She just needed a makeover. The most captivating part wasn’t really the house, which needed a lot of work, but the land. Six acres surrounded by hundreds more in wooded land to the north and a western elevation that had a spectacular sunset nightly over Mt. Yonah. Spectacular gardens, a little overgrown, but intact, with perennial beds, roses, peonies, lilies of every variety from calla to tiger. Rare and beautiful specimen trees, Cyprus, lilac, Japanese Maple, hemlock, four varieties of magnolia, three different hibiscus, ancient Georgia natives and abundant wildlife. Turkey, deer, coyote and an array of warblers, starlings and swallows had found sanctuary here. A blanket of zoysia grass made it possible to walk barefoot all year. I was hooked. This would be my Hudson River Valley, my Napa, my Monticello.
I saw myself strolling along the sidewalks of a morning market, where I’d gather velvety cow’s milk and eggs with Seville-colored yolks. Spring would bring luxury greens, summer with its array of heirloom tomatoes, and autumn would produce a harvest of pears, plums and apples worthy of a Monet still. I could see Chez Panisse in the background. There I was, with Alice Waters in her new Southern outpost, Chez Y’all. I would ride my bike everywhere. I wondered where the artisan bakery was.
First, I go to the Feed N Seed and ask if they have the addresses of one of the many organic family farms nearby, or maybe know where I could get some farm fresh eggs. They shrug at the question like I have asked them to direct me to a rocket ship. As I stand in the middle a store selling salt licks, alfalfa pellets, brooder lamps and three brands of cracked corn, they say, “Nope”. Then they ask me if I have found the Lord, Jesus Christ.
I drive along country roads and pass seven places at an intersection where one can get hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza or a fried burrito the size of Arkansas. I see Greasy, Preserved, Fried, Franchised, Cheesed and Larded. The seventh dwarf will go unnamed. I see cows but no place to buy farm edibles. Zero bakeries. My Sunnybrook dreams are tarnished, but I notice Walmart has a very full parking lot.
I go to a local Mexican joint, where I sit alone and chat in Spanish and booze and talk to the Mexican busboys. This is not seen in these parts. Any of it. The dinner alone at the bar part. The Spanish-speaking white lady part. The talking to the help part. I am fresh from a trip to Oaxaca City, Mexico, and enjoy keeping my language skills intact, and maybe I’ve had a wee bit too much tequila. I feel social. Like a tourist. It was too complicated to explain to them that I am nostalgic. I had sold my restaurant and I missed Francisco, Lucino, Santos. I was romantic about the culture south of the border, and empathic to the poverty and realities that pervaded the land they fled.
Somehow, my light Scandinavian eyes recognize the faces of these people as my own. I was fond of one face in particular, like I had known him before. Hola! He was particularly enamored with my story as he leaned on his broom, and I went on and on about the Mole Rojo I just had and how this restaurant has a really authentic rendition! Is your cook from Oaxaca? Do you like working here? How long have you lived here? Here’s my number if you want to practice English or help me at my property! I’m starting a farm if you need another job! Nice meeting you! Con mucho gusto!
“He don speek Spainish or Anglish, he’s a Indian. I dunno wha you guys talk about. He don’t unnerstand nada,” said the chubby cashier.
Huh. Well I thought we were really getting each other. He kept saying, Si! at the right pauses. Si … Maybe I was a little taken by his Aztec features—or was he Mayan? Definitely an ancient culture, with a chiseled nose right off the slope of his chestnut forehead. Giant nutmeg cow eyes, high cheekbones, giant teeth, bee stung lips, angular jaw. Shiny black hair. I could almost see him in a headdress. He was an Indian alright. From a Guatemalan jungle. Maybe he’d end up being my Tonto. But for now I’d call him Mowgli the ManCub.
“Cuanto … “
“Who is this?”
“I’m calling for Juan. He has your number. He wants to know cuanto … “
“How much for WHAT!?”
“Amor … “
As a rhetorical question I would have to give it some thought. How much does love cost? As a matter of practicality, however, I was defensive and dismissive.
“Senor, I don’t have to pay for sex!”
(Sure, I’m 40, in the middle of nowhere, and the last three people under 80 are in jail, but still. I’m used to the frank and forward ways of Latin men, but this was new. I must have really looked like a desperada at the bar. )
No, senora, para TU amor …
There was a time in my life when this would have insulted me. Gotten my feathers ruffled, my collar red hot. Maybe it was getting through the last decade in the hospitality business without killing anyone that made me more accepting of inappropriate commentary. Or maybe it was after hitting a certain age and a certain girth, I had fallen off the radar. Gone were the leers, the sideways glances. This, oddly, was flattering. If not a little absurd. I mean how much was a busboy from Guatemala prepared to pay for that sort of thing anyway? Before I let my economic curiosity get a hold of me (and to avoid any insult like, “About $10…”) I just left it to the imagination. I laughed and told the gentleman that I don’t charge for sex. It was free. This is the plight of second language speakers. Stating a fact, albeit in the wrong context.
The ManCub spits on my floor. Reared by wolves indeed. I worry that the spitting means something daunting in pagan lands. I had an Ecuadorian boyfriend who insisted I spit three times after finding a snake at the front door. I can’t remember if it was cleansing or if it just had something to do with evil. I don’t have much experience with indigenous people, I’m more familiar with suspicious Latino Catholicisms. My Mayan knowledge is limited to their 13 gods, 13 months and the end of times in 2012. I wonder what they’d think of him at the Feed N Seed. It’s been two weeks since I backpedaled out of the initial “I’m not a hooker, I’m just a chatty American woman who’s bored in the middle of nowhere, and you’re cute, and I’ve had a couple of margaritas, and I think we can be friends cuz you can do that in America” debacle.
Now we are sitting on chairs in my kitchen, acknowledging each other like a couple of trees. In addition to the inside/outside confusion of expectorating on my kitchen floor, he is painfully shy without his translator buddy. He is shrinking in his chair. He doesn’t want a soda. He looks really small in my house. Around a bunch of other Guatemalans and Mexicans at the restaurant, he looked kind of tallish. He’s not fond of the dog. The cat goes to his lap and stares. He pets her like BamBam with the heel of his hand. Soave, I say. Soft. The cat looks pinched and leaves.
I don’t know why he calls. I don’t know why I pick him up either. But we’re not practicing much English. I made him flashcards and everything. But he’s still learning Spanish so maybe it’s too much. This is awkward. In any language. Every time he calls I keep figuring he needs help, that he’s in trouble. Why else would he call and ask me to pick him up at the tienda two miles away? What is it, Lassie? Has Timmy fallen into the well? I soon learn that he is not in trouble. He has not fallen into the well. He cannot speak to me, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. His cow eyes make him look innocent, but I’ve been hustled for money, bracelets, trinkets, paintings and candy by cow-eyed innocents from Costa Rica to Chiapas. I’m starting to know why I recognized him in the first place. This is what happens when they grow up.
Twenty-one missed calls. I’m now regretting that I gave him my number. I stop answering my cell phone. I vow to stop going to hayseed bars in rural towns and drinking tequila and passing my phone number out to foreign busboys. You just can’t do that here. I feel like I’ve gone back 60 years by moving 75 miles away. I start regarding my phone as alive. Like horror-movie alive. I put it on silent for weeks. I stick it in a drawer. Finally, one day I get a disturbing voicemail. Is he crying? “Soy Juan. Why don’t you answer? Somos amigos, Meechell. We are friends. It is Juan.” This is how they got me to buy the candy on the street, and this is how he gets me to call him back. He takes a cab to my house. It is March. I am cold. He is happy to see me. Como estas? I am fine. I don’t know how to say lonely, so, esta bien it is. Vamos a la cama, he says. Let’s go to bed. He walks down the hall to my room. He smells like warm coconut milk. He is 110 degrees. His hands are big and strong, and he offers me one. Surprised but softening, I take it and follow.
He sleeps with his eyes open with the phone next to his head. A ManCub alone in a new country has few touchstones. This is his lifeline. As irritating as it is for me to be jarred awake by Los Tigres del Norte as an alarm or the whirs and blips of battery shortages, it is somehow a lullaby to him. He comes from a small tribe in a country without potable water. His brother was shot point blank during guerilla warfare. He’s been working the streets since he was 8, when he graduated from the highest grade he knows, the fourth. His parents stuck him on a truck with a coyote trafficker when he was old enough to be a man, and two weeks later he was in the U.S. No wonder he sleeps with his eyes open.
He is ruining my Spanish. He cannot conjugate, and his vocabulary is limited. I try to use words he might know so we can have some sort of pigeon speak. To comment on the spitting for example, I swap crudo (rude) with mala cosa (bad thing). I’m starting to sound like Nell but on Telemundo. I’m frustrated. I ask how to say things in his language. Everything sounds like “Chweem.” It’s a monosyllabic dialect of which there are more than 36 in Guatemala, and the short, staccato rhythm of it sounds like Chinese. He really gets rolling when talking to one of his friends on the phone. I understand nothing. Numbers. Numbers are the same. Ocho. Seis. The rest could be Mandarin. I wonder how far I’d get in a country where I knew no words and had no money. I figure not far. I have all kinds of advantages here, and I still can’t find egg, nor, apparently, the Lord.
After some months, there is less pressure to make conversation. He seems content to sit at my counter and fidget with things. Que es eso? What is this? Donde compras? Where did you buy it? I have a friend who has an 8-year-old, and when I spend the day with him, he asks the same things. It’s exhausting. I mention to a friend that I think that Mowgli is retarded. She mentions Asperger’s. I think she means “Ass Burgers” and I say no, he’s not fat at all. She tells me that it’s a form of autism where the afflicted have odd obsessions and rare ticks. Wapner’s on at 7. That sort of thing.
I keep offering him food like he’s a stray dog. He refuses everything with fearful indignation like I’m trying to make him eat glass. I am offended and confused. You know, I think, lots of people think I’m a pretty good cook. He thinks I am suspect and yet keeps coming over. We take walks around the property. He coos at the flowers. He eats mint from the ground. He chews on wild chives. He spies a fig on a tree and plucks it into his mouth. Then some lichen from an old log. He’s more comfortable to forage his own. I cannot coerce the ManCub. I am Dian Fosse, and he, my Digit. I will have to let him come to me when he is ready. I am white, I am female. I am completely foreign to him, and he me, yet we fascinate each other on some level. I start feeling that we are both primates.
The summer passes. I have started dating again. After a few too many dates with the divorced and depressed, I’d rather play a game of Que es Eso? During July I attend a writer’s workshop in Guatemala on a lake. With rich American folks, I sightsee, and there are lots of Mowglis in the streets. He’s everywhere. I sit in class with the Americans and talk about our process of writing. We gaze at our navels a little too much for my taste. I mean, it is a memoir writing group, so it’s to be expected. But 30 people concerned with telling their story, with the main focus being the instructor who is a master at telling you hers … it’s mind numbing. There is a career insomniac from NYC, a preachy environmentalist with eight kids, and a bunch of women with stories about their babies and their assorted problems. And the food sucks. I did not travel to Central America to sit around with a bunch of my own people discussing their First World dramas or the latest diet or home renovation gone bad, or a presidential election they are lucky enough to vote in.
I blow off the workshop and hire a guide, Fernando, to take me to indigenous areas and teach me about Guatemala. He’s an educated guy from a Maya tribe who is trying to preserve the culture of his ancestors with EcoTours. He speaks good Spanish and a little English and at 27 is nearly an old man in this part of the world. We hang out for five days, and I wonder if this is the kind of stuff Mowgli and I would do if he could tell me anything. The poverty is overwhelming. The open sewage, the rabid dogs, the barefoot children. I have a new soft spot for my cow-eyed amigo. I know now why his parents loved him enough to stick him on a truck with eight others to risk his life to cross the border. I get a terrible case of amoebic dysentery like most in my group. Armed with Cipro and some probiotics, I have never been so thankful to catch a flight home.
The next time I see him, it is Thanksgiving ,and he is drunk out of his mind. Something I have never seen. He’s wearing Old Spice. Also new. He’s talking back, demanding I put his bike in the back of the truck, and making a lot of noise on his phone. He throws a turkey leg on the floor. I discover him out in the yard, barefoot and shirtless in a tree. It is 22 degrees out. I have decided that I need to set the creature free or put him in a zoo. I can’t manage him anymore. I cease communication. He loses interest. Or has another mistress. Legitimate or liquid, I don’t care.
He shows up after three months with a black eye. He is riding my old boyfriend’s bike that I gave him. He has put on a new orange seat. He says he wishes the bike were orange, not blue. He is wearing a T-shirt with a deer head on it that says Nice Rack. He asks me what it says. He’s gotten a little more Spanish under his belt. And his cow eyes are less soft. I tell him he can’t come by unannounced. But you never answer the phone, he says. He was fired for fighting at the restaurant. He talks about how bad the other guy looks. I note that men who used to live in huts sound a lot like men who used to live in fraternities. He’s been in the county jail for drinking in public, which, of course, in Guatemala is no big deal. Yeah, but neither are toddlers with rifles, I say. We have rules here. He wants to know if I’ll let him work at my house. En la tierra. On the land. Can you do anything? I can do todo. Everything. He’s throwing around a lot of bravado. I don’t like it.
With spring arrives a truckload of baby chicks at the Jesus Feed N Seed. They have stopped asking me if I’ve found the Lord or anyone else and are comfortable just taking my money. I get what is called a straight run and then a handful of pullets (hens). A heat lamp, crunchies, cedar shavings, a water bottle, a feeder, a box, and I’m off. I am nervous that I will have too many, kill them all, have latchkey chickens. I have 16. Mowgli wants to know why I didn’t get more. This is more than plenty, I say. I put them in the living room and watch them continuously.
In an old canning shed on the property, I replace the worn metal roof with corrugated plastic for skylights since there is no electricity. I build boxes for nests out of old scrap wood, and the man cub ties branches and logs together to make a ladder-looking thing for the chickens to sit on. We break a hole in the side of the shed and attach an old cabinet door to close it at night. We cover the two-by-four frame with chicken wire top to bottom. He digs and tamps holes with a stick. He tries a shovel briefly, but then he sets poles by backfilling like a dog. He learned how to use a staple gun today. It fascinated him, but he eventually tosses it in lieu of bending, propping with sticks and using his teeth. The coop is done. Their yard is secure. The chicks are getting feathers, and my living room is starting to stink. It is time. Mowgli wonders why I have built a house for the chickens. Don’t they have houses in Guatemala? I realize after I say it how ridiculous it must sound to him. The fact that the dog comes in and lays on the sofa with me must be pretty indulgent, too. He is free of judgmental glances though, and very gentle with the chicks. He seems to have innate powers over herding them this way or that. Just enough to funnel them through a door without spooking them, whereas I make them scatter like a break in a game of pool. We do all of this together in silence, like an underwater ballet. During the next three months, six of the chickens die. Wild dogs eat two. A late season cold snap takes another two. Two turn out to be part of a set of roosters who are just shut out by the others. I now have 10. Four are roosters. Mowgli finds the first egg.
The late night calls have stopped as well as the visits. The weather has warmed up now in the North Georgia mountains, and both of us are channeling our energy into the planting of carrots, corn, potatoes, 60 heirloom tomato plants, herbs, swiss chard, cucumbers, peppers, watermelon, zucchini, crook neck squash, garlic and enough lavender to put me to sleep for a year. I don’t think he has Aspberger’s anymore. I think I do. He’s a genius. I’ve never grown anything. He comes from a place where you farm or you perish. With a series of levers and sticks, he’s fashioned things for vines to climb on, has hung old CDs in the trees to ward the birds away from the figs and blueberries. I buy nothing but seed packets. We make, find and recycle everything from the property. I look for rain barrels and decide that $200 for a whiskey barrel is robbery and a big 50-gallon trash can will do. He hangs a clothesline for me. He puts all the gutter flows in the barrels. He works a couple days a week from daybreak to dusk, and although he won’t accept food, he’ll help himself inside and take pieces of fruit and grunt something about wanting a soda. He is not allowed to eat inside as his lack of utensil use and ignorance of the napkin make a big mess. He steps outside to eat a melon like an apple. I don’t know what he does when he’s not here. I don’t ask. He smells funny now. Like sweet rubber tires. It’s gross. I no longer want to nuzzle his neck. I figure we’ve outgrown each other’s novelty and pheromones. I discover later that he works at a vineyard and picks muscadine grapes. They smell like sweet rubber.
I have a few dinner dates with an age-appropriate white man. He’s a contractor. He tells me how he can’t stand to look at how I have dried grout on my hallway tiles, but thankfully he can fix that for me with some special acid. I did a good job otherwise, he says. He also tells me that I must be nuts to let an indigenous Guatemalan in my house, like he’s some sort of savage with a machete. I just listen and nod and think back to the winter nights when I was glad that the savage was warming the bed because propane is expensive. The savage who puts his big hot nut-colored hand on my soft white belly and all is right for a few hours. I think about how the savage and I have transformed this old yard into a teeny, self-reliant starter farm with no money, and how this other guy is criticizing me for my DIY tile work and drinking all my beer. I think of how Mowgli, slow and stoic, has cleared out dead trees with nothing but a shovel, and just yesterday he speared a five-foot-long snake on a stick and propped it in the garden to let me know he was protecting me. Then he climbed a tree barefoot to get on the roof to wire some lights. These are tribal displays of affection. Picking you up, Maya style. I decide that I am bored with age-appropriate white men and I tell the contractor so. I’ll just keep my dried grouty tiles. Someone’s been spitting on them anyway.
About twice a week now, I see the ManCub. Once for work and once at night for a visit. He and I don’t seem to like mixing business with pleasure. Some days he just calls to say hi and see how the chickens are or how many eggs I got or if I sold a lot of tomatoes at the farmers market. I don’t think we’d talk any more if we shared a common language. I have fewer misunderstandings with him than people who speak my native tongue, and I feel that any words would just complicate things. I start to think that the will to understand another is nearly as important as the language you use. I ask him one night on the sofa if he knows how old I am. He shakes his head no, puts his feet up on the ottoman and his big hand on my knee.
I have learned to bake bread, as the artisan bakery was only in my imagination. I thank the chickens for the eggs each day and watch them run around the yard and scratch and investigate new bugs. I make my omelet. And serve it with my own toast. I fill the omelet with swiss chard, tomato, Anaheim peppers and purple oregano picked just steps from my kitchen door. Mowgli gets an omelet, too, but he pulls it apart, smells the bread, picks the rosemary out, puts four pounds of salt on the egg and eats it deconstructed with his fingers. He then eats a few tomatoes off the vine and comments on how sweet they are. Puro dulce! He says eggs at the tienda are 89 cents. I’m sure they are, I say. We are still playing Que es Eso and a new game of How Many Hours to Alabama. Florida. Nuevo York. Norte Carolina. I’m going to drive there some day, he says.
I’m not completely self-sufficient at this big rambling hacienda, but figure in the worst of times I can start a fire and cook all the frogs living in my pool. I have garnered a lot from someone who doesn’t have the foggiest idea what a latte is and who has challenged my ideals about what modernization is. I have seen my future through the eyes of someone with a past steeped in Mesoamerica. His survivalist instincts and intuition have helped me discover more of my own power. I still don’t know the word for “lonely” in Spanish, but these days it feels less important to find out.
Michele Niesen is a chef and former restaurateur who moved alone out to the country to grow her own food. She is learning how to do this with her indigenous Guatemalan gardener, Juan. They share no common language. Her third book tells the humorous story of her new life.