A green light to greatness.®

Candles

By Philip Kelly


For a Mazatlan whorehouse, I’m guessing it was posh.  An ornately carved entry door led to a room tiled in white porcelain; an airy room vaulted by a ceiling of gray-grained roble beams and walls swirled with a corn-yellow plaster.

A second floor balcony ran the perimeter, girded and grilled by a waist-high railing of cursive wrought iron, through which peeked potted birds-of-paradise and vases with jade frogs inching up their sides.  Ladies in satin camisoles – rose, pink, ultramarine – lounged in the doorways, smoking, and scratching their backs on doorjambs like cats. Others leaned lugubriously over the railing, arms splayed out, careless of their wares.

It was a slow night.

Mike sat opposite me in a purple chair. His baseball cap crooked on his head, his glasses askew. He was fast asleep. It was my duty to make a bargain with the Jefe of the establishment. Through blue cigar smoke we spoke.

“You should not have come. It is dangerous here, my friend.”

The cab ride from the dance club overlooking the sea was scary enough for me.  We rode the coastal road for a mile or so, and then wandered into a warren of industrial sites – concrete mixers in barbed-wire yards, tin sheds of auto body and painting businesses, and empty lots storing tumbleweeds. Then this place, a foursquare stucco painted the pink of a donut box.

“We have had many beers.” I nodded at Mike.

“Dangerous beers, I think.” The Jefe twirled his index finger and a girl in a crimson robe appeared. She cinched her sash as she bent to receive a kiss and a whispering. Mike woke briefly, spotted the blonde-haired woman, gave me a knowing nod. He fell back to sleep at the bottom of his nod. His face wore a look of complete peace.

The blonde returned with a silver tray and set it on the table that separated me from the headman. He drew into his cigar, blew out the blue-black haze, and with a feathery wave of his hand indicated the wares on the tray – a glass butter dish of cocaine, with a hundred- dollar bill laid on a corner; a bottle of tequila with two shot glasses; and long-necked beers sitting in a pail of ice. I pointed, he nodded. I reached for a beer.

I try always to live in the moment, but my friend Mike – we had been kicked out of a dance club at Mazatlan because he decided the best place to put on his dance moves was a long, polished bar – the bartenders pulling him down and the bouncers, menacing in tuxedos, showing us the pavement outside.

Mike was my compass for the extreme. He drank more, he climbed mountains more, swam more, traveled and worked more.

“Dos mujeres por todo noche,” Mike declared on rising from the cement – “Two women for the whole night,” and we hailed a cab. Now he was asleep.

The Jefe wore black pants and a dazzlingly white long sleeved shirt with little diamond studs at the wrists. The lights of the place played upon his straight, backcombed black hair. His face was taut, yet lined – like cracks in a smooth stone. I pleasantly thought of them as fine aging, but I knew in my heart they were scars.

There were lines at the corners of his eyes that might have come from distant laughter. He smiled now, and I thought for a moment that Mike and I might be just strange enough to live through this. Mike snorted in a dream, felt for his glasses, and wriggled back to sleep.
 
“What can I do for you, amigo?” It was English as sweet as Fernando Llamas’s. His hands opened in a welcoming way. Each finger wore a ring, some stoned, others gold-banded. Hands set in a jewelry store. I sipped my beer slowly. It felt like a movie: a table set with drinks and drugs, a whorehouse lifting above and around us like a playhouse. Then I thought of the rough streets outside and shuddered.

“My friend was insisting on ‘two women for the whole night’, but I think we might get away with a cab ride home.” I know my hand shook as I lifted my beer.

Then he laughed. The wrinkles at the edge of his eyes twitched. A ring hand motioned over the blonde woman leaning against a doorjamb. He whispered to her. She laughed too, covered her mouth with brilliant painted fingers, and disappeared.

The Jefe stood to leave. I stood and we shook hands. He spoke softly what was owed, and that I should leave it under the sugar bowl of coke. The Jefe brushed his fingers lightly, indicating it was time for us to go.

At the wooden entry door lounged two women, perhaps in their thirties, with dark mascara that gave them a raccoon look, and blood red lipstick. They wore postage stamp dresses of a stretchy vinyl – one a cherry red, the other a smart plum. It was if they had fallen to us from a slot machine. Each carried a vinyl pocketbook slung across her chest like a bandolier. I woke Mike from his distant dream to this one.
 
A man in a too-small silver suit stood smoking at the door. He nodded and pushed the door open with a forearm. Out into the Mazatlan night Mike and I went with our dates.
 
The girls squeaked in their dresses, clicked in their heels, to the waiting cab, then squeaked into the backseat and squeezed the now quite-awake Mike between them. I rode up front through the dark, unknown streets with the cabbie.

The cabbie kept shifting the rear view mirror so I could see what pleased him so.

Mike sat between the girls in a bright Hawaiian shirt, an arm around each one, his baseball cap still backwards.  One woman wore his glasses on the tip of her powdered nose. The other whispered in his ear. I had never seen him look so happy, and he was a happy man by nature. Then he was asleep on one of the lady’s shoulders. The cabbie and I chuckled. He turned the music on his radio down.

The way to our room led by the manager’s apartment.
 
The manager was an oval-shaped, middle-aged woman with dyed red hair that billowed above her head like crimson smoke. We had been staying in her place off and on, on our adventures to Mexico, for years. She always teased her fire-hair up when she saw us coming, warned us against the dangers of the night out there on the streets. I think she was in love with us. We thought of her as, called her, Mom.

Well, that wee hour in the morning, her “boys” and a couple pairs of high heels clicked by. Her light flicked on. I think I saw a curtain quiver. But it was dark.

The three of us, in uncertain light, lay Mike down in his bed.

The girls undressed him, while I turned away. They pulled a sheet over him as he dreamed his dreams, bent to kiss him. Blowing kisses to me, they cracked the door and eased out. I could hear the click, click of their heels falling on the tiles, then the taxi start up and cough away into the blue-black of dawn. The smell of their perfume lingered like gardenias afloat in a glass bowl. I found my bed and slept.

The heat and light of tropical Mazatlan beat into our room; finally woke us.  We both lay silently. I played out, in my hurting head, the calico events of the night. “I’m still alive,” I thought – coke in a sugar bowl, hookers, dancing, a cab driver with an immense moustache, a room dripping with perfume. I turned toward Mike.

He lay like a man at ease with his world in rumpled sheets, his arms akimbo behind his head, glasses set on his nose, the slimmest smile playing on his lips. Serene and tranquil.
My eyes argued against opening. Mike turned to me.

“I had your back, Bro.”

“I got your back, Bro.” It was our manifesto. We said it to each other at blackjack tables, on dangling rock climbs, in alleys in dark, exotic locales. We said it to each other as a joke when a wife or a girlfriend caught one of us in a little, bitty lie. We said it to each other when we each were caring for our dear failing mothers. I said it to Mike when his black Labrador died. Mike said it to me on the eve of my prostate cancer surgery. I got your back, Bro.

Two months ago, I got a book and a check in the mail from Mike. It was a travel book about guys running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. The check was for two thousand dollars. He knew I was struggling. Mike’s short note on a yellow stick-um on the book read: I got your back, Bro. Let’s go!

Now he’s gone.

We met in Cairo, the spring of 1976.  I was sleeping in dawn’s heat and dust in the doorway of a youth hostel. Mike stepped over me, bent and nudged my shoulder.

“You okay, Bro?”

My hands were clenched around wet twenty-dollar bills I had won the night before in a longish gambling venture in a Hilton on an island in the middle of the Nile. Mike saw the rolls, figured I was in over my head. Cairo was a rough town, and the youth hostel was in the grim part.

“I’m heading south on a train to the Sudan, wanna join me? She’s leaving soon.”

“My pack’s inside.” Mike waited by the door as I hustled up my belongings.

“Mike.”

“Junior.”

We walked out into a wakening Cairo and thirty-eight years of friendship.

A goat was lying in the narrow aisle on the train south to the Sudan. Belongings teetered in the openings above us. A man selling tea in fluted glasses moved through ringing a tiny bell. The goat answered in kind. Next to me, a calm within the din, was Mike, reading from The White Nile.

I reached into my orange, nylon backpack tied to my shoe with a shoelace – my failsafe alarm system, when sleeping. I pulled out a paperback – The White Nile.

Mike turned to me, his ball cap tugged low, and a small, knowing smile raised the corners of his mouth. He wore monocle-round, metal-framed glasses.
 
“Water, Junior? Tablets added and dissolved.” I drank and read till my head tumbled asleep again, bouncing freely along in time with the carriage as it carried us along in the desert and history of Alan Moorehead’s book on the Nile.

I dreamed I was on the back of a ferry tossing grapefruit-sized dice into a turquoise sea. In the background of my dream, I could hear Mike. He had moved across the aisle and was playing cards with robed Egyptians on a suitcase set as a table between them. It was hot as hell, and Mike was laughing.

In Africa, at night on our adventures, Mike promoted a “daring” game for us to play. Each in turn would leave the welcoming campfire and wander into the bush with its sounds and glittering eyes.

The one who would go farthest without turning on a flashlight was the winner.

While I would venture just steps into the darkness, Mike would leave for half an hour.

In Uganda a park ranger came up to us through the tall grass. He was an older man in a ragtag uniform, part ranger, part military.  He had a gold tooth and a rifle.

“Last night, when the man came between the hippo and the baby hippo.”

Grass swayed back to hide the path from which he had approached. He turned in that direction and nodded his head.

“There.”

He pointed a long finger as if painting the scene.

“Just over there, the hippo ate the man.”

We asked the ranger to take a picture of us. He grinned, set down his gun, and moved us together with his hands and shot – Mike and I, a blue sky, the high, green grass with a man-eating hippo behind us.

We thanked him, and he nodded, moved silently around us, and disappeared into tall grass.

I appear a bit wan in this treasured photo. Early on in Africa I caught malaria, did the chills; then fever in a fiercely hot youth hostel in Nairobi.

I woke in a brightly lit hospital room. My arms to my side, a white sheet to my chin, around my bed, in the light, hovered four nuns, their dark and kindly faces caught in tight ovals of white headgear. On their shoulders starched habits rose like wings. I had died and gone to heaven. No more chills, no more fever. No more of that wretched youth hostel toilet.

Out of the corner of my eye…There was Mike. He peeped around one of the nuns. Bye-bye heaven. I tried to ignore him and bring back my celestial journey.

He got me in the Land Rover a week later, drove the bush paths and ravines. He cooked me dinner and set up my tent ’til I was well enough to walk into a dark African bush without a light. “I got your back, Junior!”

A year ago fall, Mike invited me to one of his most favorite places on the globe, a sacred place astride a sacred river.

I was walking in a rainy New York City, umbrella-less, ducking under scaffolding on the Lower East Side. I was there for a long weekend with my girlfriend, who had a series of performances. While she spoke uptown, I wandered about, broke and worried. I couldn’t share either condition with her. One I was embarrassed by; the second was that a cancer worry worries another. As I ducked raindrops, my hands buried in empty pockets, my mind buried in some dark future, my cell phone rang. It was Mike.

“Bro, I got a trip planned, if you are interested.  India in January for two months, all the regular sites, but most of all my very favorite place – Varanasi. You need a break; I know it ain’t been easy. And it’s on my dime. I got your back, Bro.”

Suddenly the sky cleared. Suddenly I had money. Suddenly my cancer was gone. I skipped up Seventh Avenue. All the way uptown I thought I would go. And though, by the time I reached the Park, I knew it would be impossible, that didn’t matter a bit. I had a friend in the world who said – Climb on my back, I’ll carry you!

And I hung the map of India on my wall while I underwent the cancer treatments and painted houses. I followed Mike’s journey as though I were there. For I was.

I hung the map of India on my wall as he left with Trish, his wife. I put a big, blue star in pen ink next to Varanasi.

Mike called me once from there. Varanasi, the city of Shiva, “the City of Light.”

He was knee deep in the sacred Ganges in front of the Scindia Ghat. It was evening, and he wanted me to know that he was pushing a lighted candle out into the river as a blessing for me. Those thousands of miles away, his voice rang clear as a bell. “I just wanted you to know, Junior, I got your back.”

Trish said he went every day to the ghats that rose in red brick, in sandstone, in glistening gold along the river’s way. I had never known Mike to be spiritual. “But, Junior, he had to go each day, couldn’t wait for dawn so that he could get down by the cremation ghats,” said Trish. “To watch the wood pile up for the fires; to listen to the morning prayers chanted by rows of priests under bamboo parasols; and stand a respectful distance away while bodies wrapped in shrouds were lain on biers beside piles of wooden logs.”

Trish told me he came back each day covered with gray ash.

Book-ended on my bureau with the picture of us in Africa, I have a picture of Mike leaning above a nighttime Ganges. His ball cap, a tannish-yellow, stands out in the flash – that ubiquitous ball cap! He’s older, white hair crowding out the black, lines routing his studying face. He is being oh-so-careful, pushing a lit candle into the river.
I was in the Seattle airport when Trish called. I was on my way to visit my girlfriend. I had just bought a map of Indonesia in an airport kiosk. Mike kept saying – I owe you one, Bro.

The cancer that had kept me from the trip to India had been corralled. Mike wanted me to pick anywhere in the world I wanted to go – On my dime, Junior. Anywhere in the world! I was folding the map when my cell phone rang.

“Mike fell in a parking lot. Hit his head. He’s hurt badly. Hurry, Junior!”

I tore up boarding passes, stammered to attendants. I flew to Mike and Trish.

My girlfriend calls these tales my “Spin and Marty” stories. She’s a writer and listens with half an ear and rolling, beautiful eyes as I tell her of the “Mike and I” adventures: our hikes in Italian wine country, stopping for five-hour lunches at wineries, stumbling to find again the Chianti Trail; sailing the Virgin Islands, the boom of the mainsail swinging like a scythe. But my girl brightens when a story told is so ridiculous it becomes poem fodder. Which is quite often.

Spin and Marty. Trish, Mike’s wife, laughs and agrees with my girlfriend. “Spin and Marty Now in Their Latter Years” is the way she would have it. Trish was there from the start. She tweets back. “Who hiked to the ranger station in the Serengeti to get the tire jack as the baboons laughed and flexed their teeth, circled you like prey?”

And on another day: “Who waited under the baobabs while you boys went off into the dark with your little flashlights to play chicken with Africa?”

What can you say about a person with the nonchalance to tolerate two men bent on pulling each other out of the sickest, brokest, most boring hours of their lives? That on a journey of her own she stopped to stir the rice pudding and spoon it toward your gaunt, malarial frame. That focused on saving the planet, she held the door open for you two, reminded Mike, before he stormed the walls of Troy, to pack that little screwdriver to tighten his glasses?

And now the three of you at another hospital bed, the leader of the pack disappearing, having tripped in a parking lot a mile from home, a bag of groceries by his side, a six-pack of Coors Light?

At about five in the afternoon a nurse appeared, and I commented on Mike’s beatific smile – “That’s the morphine,” she said.

I cursed the nurse under my breath.

She erased a feeding schedule from a blackboard and with practiced, quick movements, left.

We watch from a distance safe. The man rises from his knees and stands awash in the colored lights twinkling on the temple’s wet steps. He tugs at a ball cap and smiles. You’ve left behind a room of maps, Mike.

The candle-boat flickers, struggles and twirls in the river’s eddy. Then, suddenly, free.

It bobs in the Ganges’s deep current, crests and surfs. The flame wavers. The candle totters and dives, then to rise again and shake itself to burst bright in the closing night.

The strong scent of frangipani surrounds us in the darkness, consoles us.

Free. Free now, the candle-cradle glides into a flotilla of lights – a sailing constellation of bright lights, golden flames sweeping steadily south to an immense sea.
 

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By Philip Kelly
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