• books and publication news

The Underside of Stones: excerpt


Dead. I knew he was dead, I’d helped put him in the ground.

An honor for any gringo, my neighbor Pepe who runs the Telecable told me. Except I hadn’t understood the dead man’s son Tomás nearly well enough to grasp the nature of this honor.

Tomás was the eldest. “My father willed it.”

You don’t argue with the eldest son of a dead man, not after less than three months in a town and your sweeper dies and the responsible son says you are a pallbearer, his father willed it. Despite too much recent contact with death, you go.

The culture about me is so foreign I could be in Kabul or Papua. I’m trying to write a novel. But the dead man, my sweeper, often interrupts. “You would like a story? I have a few little stories, let me tell you a story or two.” This he’d said while he was alive. After he was dead he told me, There are hundreds of stories going on under your nose (under your eggs, he said; that took me a few seconds to figure out). Tiny stories and volcano-size stories. You gringos are blind.

He’s much ruder dead than alive.

When I’d learned to argue with him dead I said I thought most people were blind. After a while he conceded yes I was right, partly; except I from my culture was blind in a worse way.

He does have a lot of stories. Anecdotes, anyway; rambles. Mostly I only have to listen. A few he’s dragged me into the middle of. Like this one, about the statue. He wouldn’t leave me alone about it: That’s a man inside there.

Come on, it’s a statue. Look, I said, its feet are poured cement, reinforced, it’s only steel bars that’re inside there, all the way up to its outstretched hand. Look.

He laughed. All you gringos believe that. Why are you only a stupid gringo, you, a writer, a professor of criminologia?

I am, as charged, a criminologist; I have a split teaching position, Boston and Montreal. I’m here for a year in Michoácuaro in the Sierra Madre Occidentale mountains of Michoacán, to withdraw. Michoácuaro is a hillside town of 30,000, where the streets were paved just three years ago for the first time in its four century history, where burros mingle with muffler-free trucks, where pigs are allowed by ordinance to meander through town only on the end of a piece of clothesline held by kids not less than eight years old.