Jan/Feb 2013 Spotlight

Pablo, Pablito – a novella

Chapter Five

by Steven Schutzman

Pablo is dreaming that he is walking with Dakota on the mountain road of the frogs but now the frogs and ditches are gone under a clear blue sky. It is years later. He is a world-traveling professional photographer, his black camera bag hanging by its strap from his shoulder, his passport in his pocket, and many maps and itineraries organized in his brain. Dakota is a medical doctor with a black bag of her own and a calm demeanor so different from the skittering elusive girl of yesterday.

Pablo is aware that though this is the inevitable future. They are in another country where people are not mean or grasping, a beautiful, colorful country of the spirit where you walk everywhere and take your time walking, with water as a destination, maybe a mountain lake.

Pablo walks with Dakota in the knowledge that they kissed once a long time ago (just as it happened, at the edge of the soccer field with a bell sounding noon) and that they will kiss again someday and, the unquestioned rule is, because the kiss must happen, they must not do anything to make it happen. Dreams. They walk slowly in this mountain place, serene and empty of other people.

Pablo stops. Though it will be a sly form of cheating on the rule, he wants to tell Dakota that if this walking goes on forever, if they never kiss again, it's all right with him, much as he wants to kiss her, that he needs nothing more than the walking in this beautiful place with her at his side. Underneath, Pablo is amazed at his own slyness at helping to bring the kiss forward by talking about how he would never help bring it forward.

I'm not normally sly, he thinks in the dream, but I'm sure sly with her.

In Dakota's eyes, rather than the sparkle of yesterday, he sees a warm steady glow, more like embers, more like Little Grandmother's calm, loving gaze and then, somehow, they are kissing, sudden yet slow. No one does it. He didn't do it, did he? He asks himself as he somehow both participates in and stands apart from the wonderful sensation. It just happened right? he thinks, as their mouths melt and flow, push and give, search and find. Deliciously kissing, they fall and float at the same time, while breathing through each other into their separate secret wordless places. It is so good. Pablo feels that he has become what he was always destined to become, united with another being without losing his distinctness.

Suddenly, with tremendously loud cracking sounds, the mountains on all sides split open and animals, black and indefinite without form, issue forth and pour down and Dakota is gone and he is alone and helpless before the flood of black animals and there is nowhere to run.

Uncome. Uncome. Uncome.

This time he really shouts that word out loud and wakes himself up with his shouting.

Heart pounding like mad, Pablo is in his bed breathing out in a series of rapid, grunting exhalations as he lays there unable to open his eyes. Molten layers of blackness slide past each other in his brain, shifting subterranean levels and currents. His skull feels full to bursting with it all. He's still grunting out, not taking any air in, afraid in his body. Got to breathe, breathe in. Pablo takes a trembling breath, a shallow one, then another and then another, each one deeper, as the dream feelings wash out of his body in ebbing waves. Finally he can open his eyes. Everything seems totally normal, though he sees, by the light, it's very late to be sleeping. Glass of water on night table as usual, congas in their stands, bird cage under its towel. Everything exactly as he left it the night before, of course. What did he expect. Whew. Wow. What the heck was that? Animals black and without form like oily sludge and yet animals just the same, much worse than the frogs of yesterday. What if that stuff comes pouring out of the boss when he goes to talk with about getting his job back today?

Pablo keeps shivering, a cool residue of sweat on his skin, as if cold slimy creatures recently out of the sea are lying next to him in his bed. He is usually a calm sleeper but his covers are a twisted, tangled mess. It's ten thirteen in square green numbers on his Dream Machine. Five hours later than he usually sleeps on a Wednesday.

After drinking his coffee, Pablo still feels at odds with himself, rested yet restless, ragged and unraveling at the same time, a rope whose ends are far away from each other. Time for the tight end to get over and tighten up the loose ends, the cure for upsetting dreams and days is not to run around outside taking care of business but to get normal with yourself by yourself in your home. No going back to work to see the boss to get his job back today, too soon for that, definitely. Maybe, he'll go out for a walk in the afternoon after he gets himself together, maybe take his camera out for the first time in a while. Maybe that's what the dream is saying, time to take photos again, to be the professional photographer he really wants to be.

What Pablo really wants to do is go check see if Dakota put the sleeping bag back against the golf course fence, keeping her promise, but no, he better not go around there so soon after yesterday and that cop and her age and that black sludge, no sense asking for trouble. If he does go for a walk, he better do it in the direction away from the golf course and the castle/cathedral school toward the ripe abandoned places like he used to as a boy, maybe visit his friend Louis, a person so untogether he makes Pablo feel together and practical and justified in his life. Louis always needs Pablo's help and encouragement and advice. That's how it is between them so Pablo knows he'd never ask Louis for help, no matter how bad he needs it now. Black sludge. Louis helps by needing help. As Little Grandmother who is a Registered Nurse always says, The best way out of your own trouble is to help someone else who's in trouble.

Pablo unplugs the phone, leaves the computer, TV, stereo and radio off, taking a well-earned vacation from the world. No more dying bosses or laughing boyfriends or soccer girls or crafts ladies in attack robes or Grand Aunts or Uncles allowed in. No obligations of any kind. Nobody he can't say No to.

Five minutes doesn't pass before he gets this flash and goes online to his bank account and figures he has six or seven weeks, two months tops, to work on his photography, before he has to get another job, if he's fired, and that doesn't include collecting unemployment he has never collected in his life.

Louis always says, That money's yours, Pablo. You paid in with your taxes. Otherwise, some other pig's going to get it. Pigs at a trough, so you might as well get your share.

Louis' policy is to be such a pig, to get himself fired from jobs in order to collect his unemployment insurance. He has the world's worst work history, needing to lie all the time about what he's been doing since high school, a very smart guy completely without job ambition, like what he's suited for hasn't been invented yet, except under-the-table bicycle messenger if he's feeling suicidal that day.

The world doesn't need me and I don't need the world, he says.

What Louis does do is write his alienated thoughts down in notebooks designed to make him famous after his death which he intends to fake so he can watch the commotion caused by such incredible notebooks. Blow the world's mind. He won't let Pablo see the notebooks because they are merely drafts for the notebooks the world will find after he “dies”. He must sharpen the writing as he recopies it into new notebooks, weeding out the bad parts, while still feeling raw and spontaneous, and aging the new pages with tea bag stains and by leaving the notebooks on his radiator.

When Pablo suggested Louis start a blog instead, Louis said he'd never do that because being famous while you're still alive is nauseating.

But if you fake your death, you're still alive.

No. I won't be there. I won't be holding my abilities and personality over everybody's head so it's not nauseating.

What about an anonymous blog?

I don't really care what people think about my notebooks.

The sadness in Louis is the sadness of a boy orphaned by the whole world. His parents are still alive, living in the suburbs of the city, but he doesn't see them much because they drive him crazy though he does let them pay his rent while he spends his time trying to find himself. Where the world says Yes to him, Louis says No to the world. Where he says Yes to the world, the world says No to him.

Pigs at a trough. Land of the freebie and home of the bribe, Louis calls the great United States of America, appealing to the cheat way hidden inside Pablo, to convince him to get himself fired and collect unemployment.

Pablo, sure all his friend wants is company during the day, feels no danger in Louis' idea of letting free time take hold in his life. He has worked since he was twelve and it really doesn't bother him, especially this last year with the decent boss and good job he still has, maybe. What he would really like to do, if he had a choice, he once told Louis, is travel the world taking photos of ordinary people and their ordinary things in their ordinary lives that become extraordinary because his camera chose them.

Right on, Louis said and told the story of an Italian renaissance painter who advised all painters to humble themselves by taking an empty picture frame out into the streets of Rome and laying it over the grass or cobblestones or water stains on a wall, ordinary things, nature being the foremost painter of all. An empty picture frame can teach us a lot about the world and about painting and being a humble artist, that Italian painter wrote.

Pablo then ragged on Louis that he was so depressed and lazy he liked the idea of carrying an empty frame around to set over things because that would let him be an artist without actually having to make art.

Louis said, No. It's just like love, man.

Love? How? I don't get you.

Say you're a guy like me, brilliant yet floundering because of the state of the world, missing one key ingredient to find your path in this godforsaken place. And then a great woman loves you and you thrive in her love, thrive because she loves you. She becomes a frame for you to bring out your best nature, find the missing ingredient and set you on your path. I just need the right woman frame.

This from a person whose love history is even worse than his work history. Zilch. Every woman Louis meets seems to have something wrong with her big time, according to him.

But Pablo said, Yeah? Go on.

I mean, you bloom in the frame of their love, like they are your sunlight and your oxygen. It could happen.

Get off your rear end and do something, you mean, said Pablo who is always trying to get Louis to use his abilities whatever they are, besides having perfect SAT scores before flunking out of college. Sometimes Pablo can feel the whole world break down and grind to a terrible halt in Louis' apartment, spewing sludge and noxious gases.

There's definitely something wrong with me, big time, according to the world's fucked up standards, Louis said that day. But I don't care.

Pablo does think of his camera as a moveable frame for him to express his feeling for the world. He aims at subjects that seem on the verge of transforming into something else, photos that call out to him for no reason he can say, photos that will eventually teach him why he took them in the first place. Studying those pictures not only teaches Pablo about the world, it teaches him about himself and how he sees the world. He knows from his photos that there is oddity within every single person, just as there is oddity in him, who never wanted to be anything but normal and accepted, who has always tried to do the right thing. And yet there are so many oddities and secrets. Some people, when they are not like everyone else, never lose the craving to be like everyone else, because it gets so hard and lonely. Such people just want to relax in themselves as they imagine other people are relaxing, though it just isn't true.

Yes, he'll take up photos up again, definitely.

Pablo had to drop photography for a while because Little Grandmother was short of funds, before her new boyfriend came on the scene to pay her dental bills, and Pablo couldn't afford the darkroom fees anymore, or the film, paper and developing fluids.

Pablo supposes he could crash with Little Grandmother for a bit after moving out of the orbit of Miss Pamela and her robes, if he's out of work and short of cash, though it will feel like a retreat like in those dreams where you're back in high school because you didn't finish a math requirement and you don't remember a fingernail of mathematics.

Little Grandmother would like it. Definitely? No? There is the problem of the new boyfriend, lasting long enough not to be called new anymore. Doesn't the guy have his own crib? He has plenty of money apparently and takes up so much space he must have a pretty big place, big like his laugh is big, like his belly is big, big like his Lincoln Continental is big. If you ever get a good parking spot, you don't want to move that thing. Pablo thinks Little Grandmother seems a real good place to park. She's under sixty still, lively, fun and wise, a great cook, thin and pretty with girlish unwrinkled skin and a rent-controlled apartment not that far from Pablo's apartment that costs more than four times as much. They are probably over there doing it right now in his old sofa bed. Little Grandmother has a big strong spirit and Pablo hopes she has found, in this boyfriend, a strong spirit too match her own. He does seem to have quieted her in a way he's never seen before. Sometimes, these days, she lets him do all the talking and story telling, smiling to herself like she just wants to let the world drift by. Pablo has to admit the guy does have good stories, endless money and excellent taste in restaurants.

Pablo does an hour of stretching and calisthenics, plays the drums an hour, figuring Dakota has put Miss Pamela off him for good. He eats a sandwich, takes a soak in the tub where he falls asleep and startles himself awake in tepid water with the crazy thought, What if another 9/11's happening? I wouldn't know about it. Crazy as it is, he gets out of the tub, wraps a towel around himself and turns on the TV. Soap. Soap. Soap. Cracks Pablo up now, how he had to go to the TV to make sure the world wasn't falling apart, and there are these soap opera characters whose world falls apart every half hour, good looking people being unfaithful to each other with other good looking people.

Almost three o'clock. Got to get out.

Too bad he doesn't watch the local news, like Miss Pamela does a few hours later, because then he would see a report about a tenth grade student, Marina Smith, missing from a local private girls high school and see Dakota's picture on the screen with her springy curls flopping down almost in front of her eyes, wearing, what else?, her uniform, white shirt, blue skirt. He would see someone people would call adorable like a child model, her eyes too bright to be real but he would know they are real. Too bad. The moment after she sees Dakota, Miss Pamela reaches for the phone and calls 911.

Pablo goes to his closet, retrieves his Nikon from behind the sheets and blankets on the shelf, unsnaps the leather case and sees the camera's loaded with film and good to go. He knew that. He never leaves it without film, just in case.

Before closing the closet door, Pablo pauses and just stands there as his mind goes through a craziness that has become familiar to him. He has been stopped again by the stack of orange and black photographic paper boxes, the top box containing the tele-photo shots he took, last Labor Day at the community pool, of an older man who looks a lot like him all the way down to the purplish green mole, his Mayan birthmark, near the base of both their spines. Pablo considers looking at his pictures of this guy to take the photo's haunting power away, like checking under the bed for monsters when you're a kid. Just another guy. A bad guy, yeah, just out of prison for manslaughter, he overheard one teenage girl say to another that day at the pool, after beating someone to death with his fists.

The man-slaughterer didn't interact with anybody that Labor Day, or go in the water, just sat in a deck chair listening to his i-pod, looking at people, his vibes jagged and electric, like a person made of shattered glass and sheered metal, his well-developed muscles superimposed on the air like clouds just before a thunder storm. Nor did the man-slaughterer pay any more attention to Pablo than he did to anyone else, turning his animal gaze on people behind his sunglasses. When he turned that gaze on him, Pablo felt a violence rising in his body, an unaccountable trembling tension and pressure that needed to be released with force and fury. He plain hated him in his muscles, and his muscles wanted to do something about it. Start a fight for the first time in his life. Crazy. Sure. And, with a guy like that, it was not only stupid but plenty dangerous. Though the man-slaughterer soon looked away, Pablo felt wounded and marked by his glance.

When the guy got up to go to the refreshment stand, Pablo did too and stood close behind him in line. There it was, the purplish green Mayan birthmark half hidden by black Speedos, so alive and weird and familiar, though Pablo had never seen his own birthmark except in the mirror. Pablo thought that if he put his ear to that thing he would hear the planetary tune of the far off world where he was born. He froze there, his heart crashing, something like an ancient empire tumbling down inside him, and his own birthmark itching wildly, blinking on and off with crazy signals from space. He struggled to fight down the urge to shove the guy hard in his back. Crazy. The urge was in his muscles, not his mind. He hated the guy's coarse ways, the gold chain around his neck, his white i-pod, his strut, his threat and how he always kept his sunglasses on so he never had to look anyone directly in the eye. An ice cream sandwich. That was what the guy ordered from the girl behind the counter. The spell was broken and the guy was just a guy again though Pablo would never forget him. Soon, he was able to snap several tele-photo shots of him as he leaned against the fence, watching the kiddie pool, eating his ice cream. Those photos are the ones causing him to pause now before closing the closet door.

Pablo has often wondered since that day at the Community Pool if it would be totally crazy to ask Little Grandmother about the man-slaughterer. But what could he possibly ask? Is he a son you don't acknowledge because he's a criminal? Is he my father? Questions contradicting her story of his origins. Accusations of lying. Crazy. Really crazy. But with the man-slaughterer's looks and height, and that birthmark, Pablo can't forget him.

The story goes like this: Working as a nurse in Guatemala, Little Grandmother rescued him from the trouble down there when whole villages of Indians and Mestizos were being wiped out by the army. She said he was such a small, calm infant, that she and a doctor friend were able, after giving him some pulche beer, to sneak him over the border to Mexico in a hammock-like harness they rigged under her breasts. At almost forty years of age, Little Grandmother had given up hope of having a child of her own. She always maintained that she and Pablo had chosen each other, two people of similar natures, both small, both calm.

Pablo has always been sure Little Grandmother is his grandmother in spirit, not in blood. She has no birthmark, he knows, since she never covered her nakedness in front of him.

Pablo knows it's crazy to believe Little Grandmother is keeping secrets from him. It's not like her to lie. She had told him from the time he was a young boy that it's always good to know and tell the truth, even a bad one, because lies trap a person in the past and keep them from growing as a person. As a boy Pablo could never lie to her and when he was finally able to, he believed, in the same superstitious part of his mind that believes the man-slaughterer is his father, that those lies were what kept him from growing taller. Such crazy beliefs are hard to shake. Logic doesn't matter or common sense. His urge to violence that day at the pool and the itching of his birthmark left a seed of doubt lodged in the muscles of his body. His father? No way.

Pablo closes the closet door, a nice afternoon ahead of him. Forget these things. Forget the cold ball bearings of such wild thoughts rolling around on the glass floor of his brain. He needs something good to happen. Though it's always better to face the bad news before it can come get you by surprise, Pablo decides, this bad news can be kept waiting as it has always been waiting.

The weather rewards his procrastination. It's beautiful out, fresh and breezy with clouds scuttling across the sky, changing the light with their shadows, now that their storming is over. If the city could be driven, it's been through the car wash this day.

Pablo walks up the avenue among the steady stream of shoppers and neighborhood types glad to be out after the storms. Though he feels he should know everyone, he knows only a few by sight, not by name. He never looks down to avoid someone's eyes and always says hello to those who meet his gaze.

Pablo snaps a pure white dog that looks like a hole in the shape of a dog burned through the world. He snaps the blue-blue sky and white-white clouds reflected in the puddles and the windshields of the cars. At a vegetable stand, he snaps an old Chinese woman, much smaller than he is, examining a tomato in her hand and he thinks the picture would be better in black and white with only the tomato in color, the red like the fierce life still inside the old lady. She is wise. She knows tomatoes.

There's a long line of parked cars on the avenue, as always, and between two of them he sees a red cheeked businessman looking for a clear space to jaywalk the traffic. Pablo snaps him, his forward-leaning animal impatience. He sees a young couple, the guy with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, the girl very upright and pushing a double stroller, turn down a little street, and something about the difference between the guy's weighed-down slouch and the girl's straight posture makes him turn off the avenue to follow them. He snaps a three shots of them but stops when he figures out he knows the couple from High School.

It is Alonzo and Marie, who were not only high school sweethearts but were the sweethearts of the high school, the nicest, most popular and best looking king and queen of the place, who everyone knew should be together, so that when they did get together it was like they were fulfilling the role and obligation of being the dream couple of the school, and every one was happy for them and they were perfectly happy with each other, even when Marie had to drop out senior year because she was pregnant. Looks like they had twins.

Pablo hesitates. With Alonzo's down-hearted kick of a walk and Marie's straight back, he can see something is wrong, that they are maybe fighting on this beautiful day, and he doesn't want to make things worse by showing up and forcing them to be the high school dream again or to damage it in front of him. Pablo wishes he had taken up photography in high school so that he would have shots of the sweethearts back then and now three years later and let the viewer's imagination fill the gap between.

It's getting late, only a few hours of light left. Any notion of the sun has disappeared behind the stacked walls of the city. Apartments hide people from each other and when they emerge some want contact, while others want to remain as invisible as they were in their rooms. Colorful apples and peaches, oranges and grapes, from far off places, darken in their bins. He snaps them. Traffic is getting heavy, loud, insistent. The cold shadows of buildings fall across the sidewalks as more people fill them, work-tired, drained of expression. Pablo imagines every single person is having the same lousy thought. He also imagines a beautiful stallion charging down the sidewalk igniting every face to wonder, snap, snap, snap, getting them off their cell phones and i-pods.

He decides two things: First, not to try to get his old job back but to find photography work no matter how long it takes, and second, to see if Dakota replaced the sleeping bag against the golf course fence. My spirit has to know, he says to himself, slyly discounting the importance of what is pulling his body back there. A single day has passed since the events of yesterday that started for no reason except a dream but now seem as inevitable as the moon.


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