I’ve been intrigued, engaged, obsessed by a recurrent dream. It has roots in actual memories. A reality for me I can’t totally account for. Can’t dismiss.
I dream of a house. This house has a section, a wing, in which I live. This, I discover, is but a small part of the whole. It’s in reasonably good shape; but it does not hold my attention. I am continually drawn to, bewildered, and confused by other wings, annexes, courtyards, Els. They extend in different directions. Exist in various states of disrepair, dilapidation, ruin. Sometimes they are its center. The part I do inhabit merely clinging to an edge.
There are clear points of contact between these dreams and places I have known. Houses I remember: My parents’ house, on Beach Point in North Truro, was like this in a way. My home growing up. It had various sections. Rooms closed-off to be rented in the summer. An office for the business. A garage. A deep basement, enlarged after the Cuban Missile Crisis. A project abandoned. A realization of futility?. There was an industrial-scale laundry for the cottages. This house even had a mirrored twin built for my father’s partner. Add in the many cottages my father built over the course of my childhood and our neighbor’s property which he bought when I was in high school. It felt like I was growing up on a Monopoly board. Flat land. A straight road. The linear sprawl of his construction, focused acquisition, naked ambition.
My Aunt’s house in Sacavém, Portugal was most likely an precedent for the structures in this dream. She and her husband were teachers. They lived on the second floor of what must have originally been a rural villa in the early nineteenth century. It might have been older. At the time I knew it, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, it had long before been taken over by the town for a grammar school.
At that time Sacavém was a distinct, separate, small factory-town outside of Lisbon. A short pigtail-stream screws itself into the Tejo estuary there. The area has been occupied since prehistoric times. It must have been heaven-on-earth. By the late nineteenth century it had industrialized, specializing in porcelain. For the first half of the twentieth century, the time just before I knew it, it had relentlessly eroded away any of its prior vigor. Until all that was left was a tired, dirty shadow of its former self, waiting to be swallowed by the capital’s sprawl. An inevitable result, it seemed, like the progression of some terminal disease. The city reaching out and swallowing it whole. A process that is now complete.
The tidal stream, its Portuguese name, a Ribeira de Sacavém; using this diminutive and feminine form of rio, river. Its rounded banks of slick, dark-gray mud rising high above low water, the color of smooth, worn rubber. A moist sheen extended from the top of the bank right across the water’s greasy, glassy surface to the other side. Still-water transitioning imperceptibly into a dark slurry. Dirty, it acted as a bright mirror, reflecting blue sky and sun, or clouds. When I was there, in winter, it often reflected a thick, gloomy overcast.
A little basin pooled just out of sight of the Tejo on this pig-tail stream. Cement-colored factories blocked our view of the wider estuary. Three bridges crossed it here. A highway bridge, a railroad bridge, close against each other. And, just a bit removed, an aqueduct. Not a classic roman aqueduct. A baroque-era replica of one of these stands in Lisbon, vaulting its waters, Aguas Livras, Free Waters, across a chasm between two of the city’s seven hills.
The aqueduct in Sacavém had the form of a perfectly hemispherical arch. At least that’s how I remember it. A geometric perfection materialized in concrete pipe about two meters in diameter. A construction, a soaring extrusion, rising high enough above the water to allow sailing lighters, still in use at that time on the Tejo, to pass beneath it without lowering their masts. Slick mud, black water, a few black-hulled lighters nestled against the bank. High re-curved prows and single, sharply raking masts reflected in a vertical symmetry on those opaque waters. Framed by the aqueduct. Its reflection completing a full circle.
Their house stood on the top of a broad, flattened hill, a dusty plateau above the town. From the train station one approached it along dark, Dickensian streets, ultimately winding up a steep cobble-stoned lane bordered on one side by a high masonry wall topped by shards of broken glass. Its curved top, cast in pebbly mortar, strewn with shattered bottles, dangerous serrations of varicolored crystal poking out, catching the light.
At its end this lane made a sharp left turn through a high arch, the remains of the ancient villa’s carriage-way, I suppose. A wall of houses opposite the mossy guard-wall…. I think…, no, I’m sure. This sharp-topped wall formed the back of an army barracks we would pass by its wrought-iron gate flanked by a matched pair of conical-topped guard houses back at the square below. Doe-eyed young men in red berets stood in a slouched at ease. Their guard boxes a combination of old-world whimsy – almost Disneyesque – and a then still powerful Fascist brutality. Their black automatic rifles held lightly at Parade Rest. During those years, this small army from this tiny country attempted to resist rebellions across Africa and southern Asia. At that same time, the United States was only embroiled in one little war, Vietnam….
The unbroken wall of houses along that street was pieced by small, lace-covered windows framing either side of low, narrow doorways. Doors hewn from wormy, ancient wood; encrusted with thick, dark paint; armored with heavy wrought-iron straps; secured by over-sized latches and locks. Below them stone sills punctuated the steep incline of the street. Short horizontal surfaces, deeply worn and chipped with age, bridged a deep, cobblestone gutter. Channeling torrential winter rains, this gutter had been constructed to act as a sluice-way for household garbage and a sewer, carrying away the contents of chamber pots dumped from upstairs windows. The street cobbled in large, rounded blocks of granite. Uneven, trudging up the hill, leaning forward, head down to watch your footing; we kept an eye out for trash and heroic smears of dog shit. It could have been 1760 or 1860 in that soft dusk. Failing light falling from a narrow strip of sky overhead.
On that last, long climb the wall opposite the barracks became a flat, crumbling stucco expanse, veined with deep cracks. Its color, technically a yellow-ocher, varied from pale ivory to a coarse, mustard; crisscrossed with streaks of rust, stained in blotches of dark mold and smears of faded green-algae. Half-way down its length was an opening. My memories of this detail, and many others, is indistinct.
I am describing an actual house, at least it once existed, though now it seems to have fallen prey to a Sol e Vista, Sun and View, cartoon Mediterranean fantasy that has blighted Lisbon and so much of Iberia. It’s hard to even find this place for certain today, reconcile what was and seemed so permanent with the town’s current planned community layout. My malleable memories are of a place that was long-enduring. It’s no longer there. Last glimpsed from an airliner window on final approach, at least I thought I recognized it…. Which trip was that?
The building’s main entrance was through a broad passageway, wide enough for three or four to walk abreast. It lay under a simple stone arch or flat lintel. I’m not certain. A steep rise of dusty, wooden treads extended upwards. Faded, painted-wood walls, spindly handrails, and a planked overhead paralleled the steps up to double doors on the first floor. Its treads worn, bare wood. Worn the way the stone steps of an ancient church are. Edges rounded and chipped. Deep hollows where traffic concentrated. The wear compounded over endless repetitions. These treads bounced underfoot. Echoes of your footsteps stayed with you, lingering along with the smell of limestone dust mixed with chalk. A grit that crunched between your teeth; would lodge in your eyes; and coat the insides of your nostrils.
Four times a day; in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, and in the evening; these steps resounded to young footfalls. Up, then down. Up, then down again, every weekday throughout the school year. Segregated classes of boys and girls marched in dirty-gray uniforms, infantile versions of the blue coveralls and gray smocks their parents wore to work in the porcelain factories or as maids in service in middle-class homes. As you met a group on the stairs. It parted around you. Their nervous chatter momentarily stilled. All eyes on the foreign strangers.
Children’s worn faces. Undersized physiques wrapped in their uniforms. A miniature race of preternaturally old people, trudging up or down. They wore their lessons as heavily as they wore their uniforms: “We are stuck here. We won’t amount to anything.”
“Do what they say.”
An occasional bright eye, a ruddy cheek, startling to see. A shock, reminding me that these were children not so unlike me. That life does find ways to break free. Sometimes….
A landing at the top of the stairs. A series of doorways set in age-darkened wood under dimly lit transoms that led to classrooms, my uncle’s office, and my aunt & uncle’s living quarters. Passing through these portals as a privileged guest and family member, my passage, so casually completed with no more effort than climbing a hill and those steep stairs; took me where hundreds of others attempted to go, in vain. Twice a day, for years, these children had brief glimpses of such a life. They never would reach. Privilege’s guilty pleasures have never come home to me as forcefully as when I passed this way.
Privilege, an aura suffusing my dreams of many-chambered houses. This was, one might say, a peculiarly humble privilege. This house may have once been a villa; but it did not hold great wealth at the time I knew it. The power wielded there was petty. Petite Bourgeois, the proper label for its inhabitants and their concerns.
I was young in an old family. Not old as in venerable, just old. My father and his siblings straddling sixty as I approached puberty. My aunt’s husband perched in his late seventies. He set the tone. Ran the house. Ran the town. They named a street after him. The only concrete corroboration left that any of what I remember of Sacavém ever happened!
When Magritte chose to paint anonymous men in dark suits, carrying umbrellas over round heads encased in bowler hats he had my uncle in mind. Forget that Magritte was painting in the Twenties and this was forty years later. My uncle was just that sort of early Twentieth Century European Petite-Bourgeois Magritte portrayed. His position…. He held a rough equivalence to our Justice of the Peace. The American term doesn’t do justice to what this office meant in that place and time. He headed the school. Taught the older boys. Kept the town’s records. One couldn’t be born, graduate, get married, or get buried without his permission, in writing. His ornate, well-practiced signature scrawled beneath his Great Seal of Office, beside an array of government tax-stamps, cascading off the bottom of a folio page of rag paper, hand-scribed to order. Without this no one could claim to have achieved any of life’s great transitions.
Supplicants required an appointment during his short and irregular office hours. Entire families, led by the head of household, the paterfamilias, must present themselves, decked-out in their Sunday best. Men and boys, hats in rough-calloused hands. Women and girls, heads bent low beneath scarves pulled tightly over their ears, under their chins. Eyes averted. Everyone responding to his guttural commands, “Sim você Excelência! Não você Excelência! As he lay a gimlet eye on them over his pince-nez, looking for any trivial technicality as an excuse to send them packing. Worrying how they could fit a search for yet another obscure document or buy another cellophane envelope of tax-stamps during office-hours half-way across town that were only open when they had to be at their own jobs. Do all this and then set another date on which to apply for his consent. He was also Honorary Chief of the Fire Brigade.
Walking the streets of Sacavém with him was to attend at a procession. His shiny, bald head coddled in his Bowler. His long, black overcoat, its mutton-fur collar worn tight against folds of flesh at his neck. He wore a perennial mourning armband and a fresh white carnation in his buttonhole. Short, he was contained in his clothes. His umbrella swung in wide arcs from a crooked forearm. It poked ahead of him like a weapon as he negotiated busy inclines. Other times, it arched over his head ceremonially, protecting him from sun or showers. As he swept along, he kept up an endless series of mumbled greetings, touching his hat-brim, nodding slightly. All depending on the rank of his acquaintance. As every single person we passed stopped, bowed their head, and greeted him by name.
Not out of bonhomie. They were, almost every one, nervous and a great deal of his satisfaction came from his enjoyment at their discomfort. In the grander scheme of things he was a nobody; but in this town, he was everything. This was the prevailing factor in his life and, he liked to think, in the lives of all those around him. He was chained to this circle of his influence where he could exercise his power and enjoy obeisances. Trapped by it as much as any of the hapless burgers or workers who crossed his path. Bound by these forms and rituals.
I found it strange when I got around to reading Kafka how familiar his world was to me. A teenager growing up in New England in the nineteen-sixties I had an eerie sense of identification with “K” and his world. I felt I knew his judge.
I digress. Hard to admit to this one instance when I feel as though this has been one long series of digressions. This will likely continue as a ramble; but it’s not possible to have a true sense of that house and its place in my imagination without some background on its master. Uncle by marriage. His wife, my aunt. My father’s oldest sister and, at that time, only surviving sister. A tall woman. Red hair faded to gray. Striking looks diminished by age. A little heavy, big boned as they say in English. Forte, strong, as they put it there. She had a striking resemblance to my father. When young they had both been very attractive. The years took their toll: jowls, double-chins, bags under their eyes. This gave my father a stern look, though he was still considered youthful. She retained just enough delicacy, a trace of femininity, think of Julia Child, not to appear to be his brother in drag. They shared broad, Slavic features with their mother. Except that she was very short and they were both tall for their time and place. My grandmother had the appearance of an ancient Asian potentate of indeterminate sex. A vision off the steppes. My aunt was, all in all, a handsome woman, dressed in high-necked, long-skirted outfits. I remember faded-rose, lace-trimmed chintz.
She wore a hat outdoors, always, over an open-weave veil. Hat-pins stuck through hair piled high. Her hat, her veil, her jeweled pins, fought to keep her wispy hair in place. I can picture her gathering stray strands, pacing back and forth, late again. A tall woman then. She might be considered one even now. Her husband was a dozen years older and a foot shorter. She could have passed for a Windsor; her air, her dress, her looks; carried that kind of aura: a whiff of a prewar manner in fashion across much of Europe in her youth.
Exiting the windowless chamber between the public spaces and their apartments one entered at the corner of a large, tall room facing a row of French-doors opposite along the South side of the building. These opened onto tiny, wrought-iron railed balconies. No more than shallow-arced lintels projecting a few inches beyond the wall. There wasn’t much to see in this direction, looking into the sun. The back-lots of ground-floor apartments lay directly below. These were a mystery to me. Occupied, though I rarely saw any sign of anyone who lived there. I’m guessing they were poor craftsmen and their families. Not as poor as displaced families living in shanty-towns all around Lisbon.
Beyond these yards was a low, stone wall. A narrow path ran parallel before a sere, barren field. A lone olive tree often had a burro tethered to it. Ivory colored, openwork-lace curtains ran from floor to ceiling. They guarded our privacy and acted as screens, catching fat, black, stupid, winter-flies in their folds.
On long, boring afternoons, as I waited for the household to leave for a day’s excursion into the city. A logistical nightmare playing itself out in six acts, watching my hopes to visit a museum, the aquarium, or a castle dwindle from tenuous possibility to ultimately vanish into another dumb, empty, mid-winter afternoon. The glare to the West increasing. As closing times grew near and then passed with no sign we’d ever leave the house before dusk for the hour-long trip into the city. I passed many days in a trance-like state. The minor agonies of a dependent minor’s hopeless state.
My boredom balanced by a deeply repressed anger. I took out my frustrations on those flies. Standing encircled within a curtain’s embrace. Its thick, cord-like linen wrapped around me in musty net-like curls. I would trap flies in the folds of its hand-work embroidery. Feel them buzz against my palm. It was as if I were holding my irritations manifest. I would squeeze, slowly. Eventually they burst, oozing white and red muck in a tiny climax. The red, dazzling. Just like blood, our blood. That’s how it looked smeared on lace or in perfect tiny droplets on my hand or streaked across a fingertip.
I don’t recall feeling much of anything. I did it as one would bite his nails or absentmindedly kick a can. I’d gloss over any fleeting remorse at these minor murders. My shame at soiling my aunt’s curtains displaced by focusing on my curiosity, studying the results clinically, in minute detail. Until imagining microbes spreading across my skin led me to furtively wipe the evidence onto the curtain and walk away.
I would, over the course of a waning morning and creeping afternoon, weigh the odds. A single fly’s entrails would never be noticed. Would six? Would a dozen across four sets of curtains at four windows? I’d crush an empty shell, all broken machinery, wings and abdomen, compound eyes and mouth stalk underfoot. With a side-glancing swiping kick I’d send it out over the edge of the sill into space.
Sometimes young boys played football in the field opposite. They were as foreign to me in their lithe, dusty exercise, as far beyond my own experience, as the donkey, braying himself into a fevered pitch of irritation under the shadow of his lone olive tree. He would sometimes grow an impossible erection. It almost touched the ground. He was no doubt reacting to some irresistible equine temptation somewhere beyond my view. His prodigious member was anatomically equivalent in every detail. Only gigantic and monstrous in its exaggeration: a gnarled shaft, a swollen purple head. It looked painful. This was fitting, in a blunt matter-of-fact way, as if IT were the cause of all his raw anguish. Not merely a symptom. Its cries sounded as though drawn from a horrifically animal injured. Not simply the lustful calls of a brute beast.
Its appearance related, in its parts, to my own recent discoveries concerning an appendage that had until quite recently only met the most banal of uses. The donkey’s agonies; so incongruous that, though I could plainly see and decipher what was there in plain sight in front of me; I was, for once, not armored within a know-it-all’s complacency when my little brother would point, crying out, “What’s wrong with the burro?”
My aunt’s implausible answer attempted at maintaining innocence. Hers? Ours? Her blushing rationalizations, ignoring the blatantly obvious behind some feeble attempt at diversion, was strangely welcome to me, defending a last, hard-held refuge of childhood. I willed myself to believe that adult life would never hold such depths of pain, such misery, such naked longing as was so plainly on view outside that window.
Adjacent rooms met this one on three sides. Small bedrooms on either end. Furnished in a spare, faded, art-deco. The kitchen door stood opposite the entry. High, plaster walls ran all around. Pierced by tall, transomed doorways of dark, burnished wood. Floorboards of scrubbed, blond wood. Probably chestnut. Covered by a scattering of antique rugs. A long table and various chairs didn’t quite fill the space. The room had an in-determinant existence. Not contained by any single purpose.
It was the site of many family dinners. Aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins to me. Along with our uncle’s adult children from his first marriage. Happily married himself. He was a firm believer in the institution. My uncle went through life a perennial widower. He ultimately outlived three, or was that four wives? For these events the room was full of people, echoing to a bustle of conversation. Its long table, all its leaves in place, set in formal style. A card-table and an occasional table, mismatched in height, sat along the back wall, set in miss-matched linens and odds and ends of porcelain and cutlery for the children. I always preferred the adult table. This was the case as far back as I can remember.
These meals took up most of the day and rolled on into the evening as course followed course. Then dessert and tea. You could only drink Coffee at a café. This required an outing en entourage. My uncle, his jacket slung about his shoulders in good weather, led the way, making his required greetings as the rest of us followed along in a ragged line, coalescing or breaking-apart into various knots and clumps. If my father’s youngest brother was there the two were bound to have a discussion that would quickly devolve. My father, the American entrepreneur, argued in favor of Capitalism and my uncle, the frustrated artist, playwright and philosopher, toiling as a human adding-machine for the Bayer – a lover of Tolstoy and Russian symphonies – would take a Marxist view.
They argued in voices raised in proportion to the amount of wine, aguardente, and whiskey they had imbibed. It was a truism in those days, “No one who drinks Houisque, as they pronounced it, can have a drinking problem.” My mother and my aunt, both short, dark, and with nervous temperaments, anxiously eyed their husbands. Desperate to quiet them and afraid verbal disapproval would only lead to greater outbursts. Only the possibility of attention from the police, potentially leading to the involvement of the PIDE, the national secret police; would lead someone outside the two couples, my father’s sister or her husband, or even his august, middle-aged son – the heir-apparent to his father’s gravitas – to intervene, forcing the two into a reluctant truce, closing their only outlet for their brotherly passions to express themselves.
Sidelong glances between them, Nothing settled. Past the army barracks gate we would cross the highway at a conning tower-like installation. The Guarda Nacional Republicana, the GNR an icon of state vigilance, post sat in the middle of the road on an island where it breasted the flow of traffic. A trooper in a black leather-jacket; his automatic weapon casually draped his over his arm; watched cars go by. His white motorcycle helmet and gauntlet gloves distinguished him from the local police in plain, blue fatigues. The GNR was in charge of traffic enforcement. With their brutal appearance they stand in, even now in my mind’s eye, for the furtive, faceless PIDE.
I’ve managed to lead us all the way back down to the lower town, when what I wanted to do was take you into the rest of this memorable house. For these big dinners, or the many, more intimate meals the six of us shared there; my aunt supervised the day-maid-cook, cooking its main elements herself. The kitchen sat opposite the front entrance with its own door onto the landing at the top of the stairs, a service entry. It was long and felt quite narrow, more so because of the height of its ceiling. An imposing range squatted along its back wall. It might have still been wood-fired. Most certainly it was originally. Hooded by a high masonry mantle, the vestigial remains of the ideal of kitchen-hearth that is, to this day, an integral part of all Portuguese kitchens. A sink, a long marble trough with a high-necked tap and drain of verdigris copper, sat opposite. Cupboards, high, dark wood with open-front doors ran along that wall. A pie-safe with rusty metal screening stood in a dark, shall I say dark-er, corner.
At the end of this room a window looked out over the courtyard. Across the way, a tumbledown shed. A dilapidated stone structure with sagging beams and falling clay-tiles. It enclosed the far end of what must have originally been the villa’s stable-yard. Chicken-coops clustered against its wall. Hens and a rooster foraged the yard. Some were of that gruesomely fascinating variety, sporting ruff-collars and bare, scrawny-necks. Uncomfortably ready for their fate. Like French nobles in a tumbrel-cart, bare throats shorn of lace, ready for the guillotine. Their forever-startled expressions completed the resemblance.
At this window it was always shady. Most probably because this being the eastern end of the house and none of us early risers we never saw it any other way. Cracked panes of varying hues of ancient glass rose high up the wall, pouring a cool emanation down the length of the kitchen. The only light besides a bare-filamented bulb hung above the stove. An exposed-wire electrical system of fuzzy-insulated, paired wires circled every room, between glass studs placed above the painting molding. Circuits ran down at each doorway into imposing, round-dialed, Bakelite switches or to outlets feeding a hefty 210 volts through large round-pronged plugs to the frayed cords of various antique lighting fixtures and a console Blaupunkt radio.
The bathroom’s was to the left of the window at the far-end of the kitchen. An improvised structure cantilevered off the far-wall, overhanging the courtyard. In centuries past an old wagon filled with sour-hay must have sat beneath this second floor commode to catch its outfall. Replaced by a flush toilet with a high tank as was common in most places in Portugal. Chamber-pots were still in use and squat-plates were not uncommon. This toilet faced an array of metal-mullioned windows. An expansive view from this eat up among the leaves and branches of a willow. We sat there as if in the glazed nose of an old bomber. Ready to be launched from the side of the house. Not only was this a rather un-private space it was a rickety structure. Slender, rusting iron-brackets bracing its cantilevered structure.
These ancient toilets had narrow necks, narrow, sinuous throats. A coarse-bristled brush, damp from constant use, sat in a holder to one side. Fickle and intolerant of whatever might end up in the bowl. A covered enameled-tin pail overflowed with the soiled squares of waxed tissue that passed for toilet paper. The bidet helped. Washing our hands in cold water, rubbing sharp-edges off an unctuous brick of marbled lye-soap at the small basin, completed our ablutions. A cold shower recently augmented by a propane heater rounded out the room’s amenities.
My aunt’s husband was dramatic in all things. Had a penchant for sentimental tears. He would let loose at the slightest provocation. Except when it came to showing concern for his petitioners. He enjoyed his food served blisteringly hot. Would refuse a dish at a restaurant, repeatedly, until the waiter gave-in and brought him his soup still at a rolling boil. He would spoon it down before anyone else had managed a sip from their now tepid bowls, having waited politely to start until the staff had met his demands.
He enjoyed his food heroically spiced. From the Alentejo, he spoke with their furry accent, sounding like he had a mouth-full of marbles. He prided himself on his hometown’s hot peppers, eating them in every form in a variety of dishes: Thin-sliced, cured pork-tenderloin, Salpicão, home-cured Chouriço broiled at the table in flaming aguardente, Frango a Caçador, a casserole of roasted cock-rooster.
Flamboyantly brave when it came to food he took in. Terrified at the consequences. He had hemorrhoids. Not garden-variety hemorrhoids; heroic, epic hemorrhoids. His visits to that overhanging water-closet couldn’t have taken up more of the household’s attention if he had been the Emperor of China. Constipated too, naturally, holding everything in as long as he could since its ultimate evacuation scared him so. A Freudian dream….
He approached the prospect of a visit to the bathroom the way most people contemplate major surgery. His fear of all things medical, especially those involving the shedding of his blood, was so great he would never consider a surgical intervention. No matter how tantalizing the potential of a happy outcome. His morbid fear of blood-loss led to prodigious blood-lettings. The little pail next to the toilet overflowing with gruesome evidence of the resultant carnage. Like the mountains of spent bandages behind a field-hospital tent after a Napoleonic battle.
Returning to the table ashen…. Yes, this often happened at mealtime. An ongoing, unspoken concern at table. Except when it became a subject of general conversation: The severity of his latest episode. Surgery out of the question…. He outlived most of the people there; but the threat of his mortality hung over us. Serious concern intermingled with absurd hilarity colored by palpable humiliation.
We’ve finally arrived at the portal leading beyond the living quarters. But, before we enter we need to leave their apartments by the kitchen door and duck through my uncle’s office to enter a classroom on the West end. There were various classrooms. Not as many as you might expect, and frankly; I’m not sure of the total. A significant appeal of this house, its lasting fascination, has been fostered by the way certain rooms were open to me while others were not. This led to my present difficulties reconstructing a coherent mental model of its interior. Parts are clear, parts fuzzy, and others just blank. This resonates with the dream-scape I’ve re-visited so many times over the years.
I remember two classrooms; but only have detailed memories of one. A wonderful room in so many ways. Entering through my uncle’s office, its door opened into the front by the teacher’s desk, my aunt’s desk on the right. Blackboards. Dark slabs of slate; split along a parting line; ran along the wall behind her desk to the right and down the side to the left. This wall separated this, girls’ classroom, from the next one. A rough bare wood floor. Uneven, as I recall it, the softwood worn away leaving the knots raised. Little double-desks, seats attached by cast-iron frames. Like those on a park bench. Sloped-tops stained by decades of ink spilled from built-in wells. Desks filled the room, leaving a narrow aisle at each side. The far end wall pierced by tall windows fitted with wooden-slatted shutters to keep out the heat and brilliant glare of the afternoon sun. French-doors opened onto a long, narrow balcony. The view towards the river blocked by the crown of a massive date-palm.
I cannot say enough about this tree and the place it holds in my imagination. On the downhill end of the building this rickety balcony perched high above the ground. The villa’s ancient garden below. The palm’s top towered over and embraced the balcony. Its trunk led downwards from a great, overturned bowl of sharp, serrated fronds. Thick at the top, the trunk tapered from a wide, bushy collar of woolly, frayed stalks to recede downward in a false perspective. A narrowing, nubbly length of ancient frond-scars reaching down to the garden far below.
Long fingers of dates, arrayed on branching stalks, hung from the crown. Deep-green leaves, ink-like against jagged bright sunlight. Its trunk, the color of an elephant’s hide, deeply scored with a diamond knurl. Sprays of dates, deep-brown nodules either side of thin orange stalks, hung down, swaying in the wind that rustled with a tremendous exhalation of sound. Standing there was like hearing the ocean in a gigantic, exotic shell.
Its crown, as big as a house. This view from the balcony took us right in amongst its rooms. Someone once told me there was a specific variety of rat that only lives in date palms. This crown, I believed, was inhabited by entire communities of exotic creatures. Flights from Boston to Lisbon in those days went on to Rabat, Morocco. Standing there with my head in the crown of that palm was as close to North Africa as I ever got. Later, I’d think of this tree whenever gazing at an Odalisque by Matisse, or think of Egypt, or read Burroughs or Camus’ adventures in North Africa.
This balcony, just wide enough for two people to squeeze past each other, reached the full width of the building. An iron-spindled railing with a rotting wood cap. Long, soft splinters, coming away in handfuls…. Didn’t inspire confidence…. A long way down.
My strongest memories of this part of the house are from when I was younger, fifth or sixth grade. I’m not quite clear how classes were structured. An all-girls class, at least some of them were my age, some older. I was rarely allowed in during school hours. I do have a composite memory, conflating the few times I was there during school-hours. This memory carries the faintly dis-corporal sensation of public exposure. Self-conscious, I was excited at the same time. I’d never been in an all-female environment. Thirty girls and my aunt, standing, smiling at me. Salazar’s official portrait presiding over our heads in his full paternalistic glory.
A vaguely sexual tension in the air. Vague; both because of our youth, still children in adult eyes; and because there was so much else going on. I saw these girls as distinctly exotic and they saw me as alien too. A flood of novel allusions washed over me. To them, I embodied all they’d ever projected onto America. Beneath it all, a fizz, the latent energy of a class breaking free from its routine, taking advantage. Dozens of bright, young, female eyes arrayed in ranks, smiling at me. Spindly, colt-like legs and dirty, knobby-knees showing behind those old-fashioned desks, drawing back, stamping. My aunt in high color. Her broad smile. She stood off to my right beside that unfamiliar red and green national flag, hanging in broad furls. A sensuous flag, crimson and verdant green in folds of soft, velvety wool. Nothing like the crisp nylon of American flags. I saw all this. Stinging eyes peering over the tops of aching cheeks pushed up into a painful smile. A rictus of joy and fear and excitement. I wanted this moment to never end while desperately hoping my aunt would call for quiet and escort me out of the room before I my trembling knees betrayed me.
Later, watching Fellini, reading Thomas Mann and Günter Grass, so much of twentieth century European culture resonated for me as if I were responding to my own memories. Memories I can trace back to experiences in this house. Fellini’s fantasies of female worship of a smiling male ego; images of naive male desire fulfilled by unconditional, feminine acceptance felt as a boundless wave of comfort, security, externalized self-love. I imagine I remember these scenes based on what I remember of that classroom. Stirrings of desire….
In Portugal at that time, as in so many less promiscuous societies than ours, there was a sharpness, an earnestness to interactions between boys and girls. In a society that still maintained a habit-of-the-veil a frank look at a girl’s face carried overtones and nuances I had not been exposed to before. It was possible to imagine love-at-first sight here, projecting as much as my romanticized imagination would want onto a simple introduction or a chance eye-contact in the most innocuous social setting. I could spend a day reeling, recalling the flash of a pair of dark eyes. Looking for excuses or elaborating scenarios that might lead to another opportunity to repeat such an encounter. By the time I was ten or eleven my mother had already begun to instill in me an aura of danger over these flirtations. Spoiling my vain hopes, insisting that no matter how much I might wish girls desired me they were really after our money. I tried not to believe her jealous rationalizations They were already doing their damage.
I remember beating chalkboard erasers. Not sure how embroidered these memories are. They do have a basis in fact. I’m sure of it. This was something I’d done back in my own school. Enjoyed the freedom of leaving the classroom, going outside school-doors during class-hours. A palpable thrill.
In Sacavém, beating the erasers involved taking them out on that narrow balcony. Deep in the crown of that palm, standing inside a raging surf. A living crescendo of wind rushing through it, bathing me in dappled light, vibrant with its energy. The wind swirled around us. Impossible to avoid clouds of chalk-dust. Clapping, a standing ovation of two turned towards the glorious day. I must insist I remember I must have done this at least once with a girl from the class. More likely it was with my little brother. His spiky-copper crew-cut buzzing with barely contained nervous energy. It wasn’t easy to find something for him to do, to distract him, to avoid unleashing one of his tantrums.
Waves of chalk-dust filled my eyes and nostrils. Something strangely appealing in that. Something akin to my perverse enjoyment of smoking as a youth. Something I began to dabble in at that age. Back on Cape Cod, sneaking off with my neighbor’s daughter. The younger of two sisters. Older than me. Her father had recently buried following a hard death from lung cancer. I tagged along as she stole into a little hollow beneath bayberry bushes behind their house. There was no vegetation over four feet tall within half a mile of where we lived; but somehow we could dip into this hollow. Damp at high tide although it was as far from water as you could get; maybe five-hundred feet from the bay on one side; about the same distance from Pilgrim lake on the other. Just out of sight beyond the highway.
Completely domed over by bayberry scrub this hollow formed a den for woodcock. In there we were invisible. Dropping in was like stepping through a trap-door. To safeguard our secret location we circled the area on our bicycles, riding aimlessly on the short access road between Shore Road and Route Six until no one was in sight. She rode a Raleigh. Mastered a left-foot-on-the-peddle-hop-skip-and-leg-over style even though it was a girl’s bike, lifting her leg over the seat, steering with a short strip of leather hitched to its handlebars. Reigns to control her mount.
Down in our hollow, the ground wasn’t sand as it was everywhere else where we lived. A fine forest-like mold. Thin dead-leaf detritus layered over hard-pan clay. The sound and pressure of the wind, a constant presence, disappeared down there. Quiet. It held an intimacy. We were never attached, though it was impossible for me not to see her as an older and desirable, and most importantly, present female. The way she handled and then light a cigarette. Put it to her lips. Inhaled…. The catch of her breath. A long sigh of exhalation. Smoke funneling out from her nostrils, rising past a fluttering eyelid….
I dabbled as a smoker during my teenage years. Strictly a summer-activity. During the school-year I couldn’t sneak the smell of tobacco past my mother. We lived in a smoke-free home. My father was never taken-in by the delusion that smoking wasn’t deadly. A lesson in how insight and self-deception can happily cohabitate. He never made a similar connection regarding alcohol.
In the summer, my little squad of after-school friends; basically anyone living a bike-able radius from my house; would brazened buy cigarettes, “For so-and-so’s father.” at the local market. We’d take turns carrying the hard-box of Winstons in our shirt pockets, looking for a secluded place to smoke.
I bring up smoking because of the chalk-dust. Beating erasers, or just breathing in the dust rising off that classroom floor in Sacavém, would trigger my asthma. Growing up with asthma, its drama, the sudden inability to breathe, brought a perverse focus. Not only my attention on the simple act of breathing; but those around me. Everyone riveted to my struggle for breath. An ongoing preoccupation. If not on thoughts of imminent death. A gnawing awareness. A bad attack could be fatal. This all fed, if it hadn’t actually been precipitated by, a my self-obsession. I found my asthma, and frequent chest-colds, welcome, even comforting….
There had been tuberculosis in my family. My father’s youngest sister Elisa died in Guarda. Where my mother grew-up. Elisa lived there, in part, because of the sanitarium. In the hope its cold mountain air would improve her condition. She died before I was born. Lost her struggle just a few years before antibiotics made this, temporarily, an old-fashioned disease.
She was married, by one of those implausible coincidences, to my mother’s old boss. Long before meeting my father, she worked as a telegraphist at the Post Office in Guarda. Elisa’s portrait hung on my widower-uncle Lionel’s bedroom wall, emanating an air of ethereal beauty. Passion beneath the pallor. A fire in the eyes of a fevered invalid.
I knew her husband as a dapper, aging George Sanders-like character. The soigné, male actor of the nineteen thirties; not to be confused with the butch, female writer of the eighteen fifties. He told rambling after-dinner stories. Dd simple magic tricks revolving around his gold cigarette-case or his diamond studded Zippo lighter. His manicured fingers executed sleight of hand with studied aplomb. He carried off a smoldering sensuality that must have fit well with hers. At that time he had an arrangement with with his young housekeeper. A frail, little creature, another pair of smoldering eyes…. Hers red from tears of shame rather than passion. She quietly prepared and brought us our meals. Cleaned his apartment and retreated to her spare alcove, her crucifix, and rosary,.
It’s difficult to proceed in a straight line. So many intersections, so many paths leading in so many directions. Difficult to know when to break off to return to that house in Sacavém.
Girls, a dusty floor, blue-black ink splattered desks, my aunt out of context, black-board erasers; presiding over all, that wondrous palm. Let’s leave it at that and make our way back through my uncle’s office. Cringe in sympathy for a family huddling behind their trembling father, hat-in-hand. My uncle planted behind his desk. I cut through his office, eyes averted. Re-enter their apartments. Cross the great room and pass into their dark kitchen, wandering off towards the back. If anyone sees me, I’m going to the bathroom. If the coast is clear I duck through another doorway into another space.
It’s hard to call this a room. Just beyond the kitchen corner there was a pantry of sorts. Cupboards of dry goods. Ancient, foreign labels exotic to me. Past them was another rustier pie-safe. The chimney to the kitchen range backed up to this space. I’m not clear how it was arranged. There was a doorway. Like a tall cupboard-door. Opening it and peering in, it was like a shallow closet; but also clearly a flue, dark and smoke-stained. An enormous Presunto, a Portuguese cured ham, like an Italian Prosciutto hung there.
Presuntos are not generally smoked. At least not the way we think of smoking bacon. They’re frequently hung over a mantle to be tempered by cycles of heat and cold, gently flavored by wisps of smoke. This one hung in this chimney. I can’t quite explain it. Likely it was an old, unused flue. Chosen for it’s cool, dark, well-ventilated cavity. It may seem strange to make so much over this; but if you knew how seriously presunto is taken you would understand.
This was no doubt a prize presunto taken from a porco preto. Black pigs, the pride of my uncle’s native Alentejo. It hung in state. A bolt of cheesecloth draped about it’s noble form. Stained by the exudation of paprika, black pepper, and olive oil coating this massive haunch.
This image has had a tenacious hold on my imagination over the years. Some primal insight into the deep underpinnings of Iberian art? On discovering Ribera, Velásquez, Goya, even Manet there were echoes of this shallow dramatic space: Chiaroscuro, a symbolism of death in still-life, echoing that pig’s leg, hung from a carefully laced length of twine. Faded light pouring in over my shoulder from a flyblown window.
AN example of a profound reverence for food. A heritage reaching back deep into prehistory in that place. People caring for the land, husbanding their animals, curing and preserving meats as though doing so were an act of veneration. As well as a means of assuring sustenance. I was fortunate to be exposed to this tradition in Portugal and in my parent’s home growing up. That presunto has been an enduring symbol of all that for me.
These may seem rationalizations after-the-fact. They don’t quite explain the immediacy of this image for meat the time. I don’t know. I was precociously interested in these matters. Still, there had to be something else that burned this image so deeply in my mind in the first place. A primal immediacy: Carnal. Morbid? Appetite. I knew even then how good a presunto like that one tastes. An affront to the senses. A shock to anyone whose conception of food has been limited to the products for sale in a supermarket. Mystery. A secreted-ness that resonated with me. In some sense I must have taken it as a personification. More than a dead thing. It inhabited its own hidden, secret realm. Secrecy. Already a deep fascination of mine. I was susceptible to such a presence.
Personification may off the mark. Embodiment might be more to the point. An incarnation. Flesh. Dead flesh, true; but in a way transformed flesh. Dressed and cured, abstracted it to a degree. A representation of flesh. Not just a joint off some pig. A hind-quarter, a haunch, a thigh and buttock, to be precise. On the cut side, the inside of the thigh, the exposed incision smooth and clean. The blade expertly found the joint. The white ball of the hip-socket intact. Not just intact…. At the foot-end, just above a prim, sharp, black hoof; right where the two bones of the shin met; twine pierced this spot just above the ankle joint. Anyone intimately involved with curing meat knows that any cut, and the ends of all bones, must be treated properly. Any nick or ragged pocket of flesh is a natural point of ingress for mold or bacteria to spoil the piece.
In such a crafted thing there is a deep respect for, a veneration of the animal, approaching a meat-cutter’s Platonism. Butchery is too crude a term. At least the way it is done today. Its finer points lost. The violence of actions taken out of any broader context beyond speed. Hog-butchery today holds the horrors of a drive-in movie. Chainsaws hungrily seek out any crook, slashing through meat, bone, and sinew to find the quickest line. Brutality in the name of expediency to meet a demand for the lowest price. A nightmare pace repeated hundreds of times an hour. All day, every day. Violence is done to the animal this way. Not simply its death. The profound disrespect for an animal that has lost its life to feed us.
Chainsaws have done the same thing to wood. Natural crooks use to provide knees and crotches. It takes time and care to search them out. Preserve them as a tree is reduced to manageable parts. Chainsaws tear at joints with that same raw appetite for easy dismemberment. Efficiency, chasing the least effort without regard….
A living pig, even a renowned porco preto of the Alentejo, is not everyone’s idea of a handsome or beautiful animal. I will posit that this vision, this draped venerable Iberian icon, half-hidden in deep chiaroscuro, could have been an erotic image. Not consciously so. Subliminally, to a boy looking for any hint of the delights of sex. A promise just out of sight, over the horizon….
A curious parallel. A figurine. A porcelain bust in that same house. With it, her… I carried out my first, tentative experiments in kissing. Almost life size, an effigy of a young peasant girl. Perhaps a gypsy. She, how else could I refer to one with whom I shared these moments? Working out the intricacies of nose-placement, tilts of the head. All that’s required to properly execute a genuine kiss on the lips. Fired clay. Her complexion and clothing picked out in colored glazes. A mannequin of fine proportions. Cool and then warm: An appropriated Galatea. Met long before I knew anything of that story.
I can still feel the firm definition of her lips. Sculpted lines of her nose laying alongside mine. The coolness of her cheek. Most of all her willingness. Her tacit acceptance of my desire. Her acceptance of me in my unformed, pre-adolescent-self. An acceptance assembled from a cloud of vague notions I had gathered, inherited, fantasized of what made-up a feminine personality. I projected all of this onto her little, brittle, hollow form. She shared these kisses with me. Held our secret. The secret of what it all meant for me. Dumb to everyone. She was there for me whenever I passed her perch on a sunny ledge between the great room and the room my brother and I slept in. Interminable days, waiting. Always waiting. Whenever we finally did get everyone ready to go out I’d find some excuse to run back. For my coat say, so I could kiss her a lingering, farewell.
Was the presunto a stand in, a locus for projections of rougher carnal desires hidden deeper? Ball joint, buttock, thigh, loin, inner thigh, skin…. Tapered curves, the contours of a firm musculature. Like a statue. This cured haunch could have carried these allusions straight through my young mind’s eye without my having any awareness of it.
Beyond the altar of this presunto this room went on in a semi-gloom. More opaque as I went farther from the lone, un-shuttered window. Deepened, and now impenetrable, in my tenuous memory. The powers of repressed secrets are heightened by one’s inability to see through them clearly. This room holds a fascination out of all proportion to any concrete reminiscences I have retained.
I remember it as a repository for the unwanted, ancient cast-offs. Unlike an attic I might have run across in America, I retain the flavor of this as a distinctly dramatic place. Operatic. The kind of space Don Juan, or Mozart himself, might have impatiently tossed a mask. No longer needed, leaving it behind to face centuries of dust. Hidden by cobwebs in dim light. Left there to wait. Left there for me to find.
I have no more than a dream-sense-memory of turning my head. How I held my arms folded, peering into a box or a tray or a shelf…. Something incredibly ancient, ivory, lacy, decayed. All I have is the merest whiff of recollection. Returning another time, a few years later, eager to confirm what I recalled. I was unable to find it again. Whatever it was. The uncertain existence of an improbable treasure. Its memory still held enough detail… maybe just a hint plausibility garnered from the sense of immediacy it held….
This house has carried a symbolism rife with echoes of Freudian motifs. A style of analysis, a way of looking at the inner-world, with roots in a similar post-Victorian moment. It seems sufficient to hold such a concept in mind without going into a tiresome inventory of equivalencies, footnoting resonances. I’ve exposed the valences of my memories. How they established patterns that held true over the years. That have resonated within my psyche. Various elements found there; drawn from my unspoken, even unformed interests, yearnings, hopes, and desires; grew to take on great significance for me. My attraction to edges, boundaries. Places not quite held in an immediate present. Places that have carried within themselves echoes of times tantalizingly beyond my reach. Places that allowed me to glimpse dramas, life carried out with a fullness of feeling and an open acknowledgement of fatality.
It’s clear to me now. After putting this more or less explicit account together. That I’ve added other structures to my dream-life over the years. Other places that have drawn my awareness in a similar fashion. Places that became important to me for the ways in which they interlocked with details first glimpsed in that house. Just as later in life I may have tested my actual kisses against the impressions imprinted on me by my Galatea. It is eery how significant she may have turned out to have been.
A most obvious lesson, one I’ve long carried with me, more or less consciously, has been the challenge thrown at me by these dream-structures. How they have shaped my attitudes towards complexity. How I came to reconcile my varied interests, deep interests in a wide variety of spheres of thought and action. How I was to proceed within these psychic chambers. These dreams have persisted. Perennial reminders of how important an edifice this has been for me. The paths I’ve taken have not always allowed light and air into its neglected chambers. This has done violence to the integrity of my being as I’ve neglected certain areas in favor of others.
I have come to be thankful for blessings received as a result of spending so much of my life stumbling about in the dark. It may seem funny to call such a propensity a capacity! For most of my life I’ve seen it as a curse. It is becoming clear to me that it is a capacity. The capacity to resist partial solutions. A great gift.
As a result I have been losing my fear of the dark. It has illuminated my need to be oblique, to stumble into what I could not dare declare an outright goal in advance. This habit of indirection has receded as I’ve developed a consonant ability to face questions that disturb, unsettle…. Irresolvable questions….
I’ve lost my desperate need to self-dramatize my struggle. A realization that it is easier to see more clearly in dust and gloom if one is careful. Purposeful, instead of blundering about flailing with dramatic, violent gestures. I’ve come to see that a simpler and more direct approach allows me to inhabit my edifice entire. Discovering that finding the best way is done by placing one-word-after-another with as much lucidity care as I can muster.
Writing. An art and a craft that holds all the rest in its embrace….