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In the early 1970s, three American students living in Mexico witness the crucifixion and death of a man in a Mexican village at Easter. The man was not supposed to die. At first there is no explanation for his death. Then the villagers turn on the Americans, forcing them to find sanctuary in a small church. "A Crucifixion in Mexico" is about what happened to two of the Americans in the years that followed. Gloria is a wanderer. A failure by contemporary standards, when she was twenty she did not think in terms of...
In the early 1970s, three American students living in Mexico witness the crucifixion and death of a man in a Mexican village at Easter. The man was not supposed to die. At first there is no explanation for his death. Then the villagers turn on the Americans, forcing them to find sanctuary in a small church. "A Crucifixion in Mexico" is about what happened to two of the Americans in the years that followed. Gloria is a wanderer. A failure by contemporary standards, when she was twenty she did not think in terms of marriage or children or success. She thought she would travel, enjoy her life. Now she is filled with self-doubt. Andrew, on the other hand, is a success, moving comfortably from one compromise to another, conforming his way to safety. "A Crucifixion in Mexico" deals with politics, racism, religion and the end of the ideals of the "boomer" generation.
I saw a crucifixion once. I don't tell the story often. It is too hard to start and once started you have to go all the way to the end. Then you have to look at the faces of those you've told and see what they think of you, not of the story, but of you. I hate myself for that, telling the story to people I hardly know so they will know something about me.
I did see a crucifixion once. I saw a man hung on a cross, hammered to it, hung until dead, which wasn't all that long a time. It was supposed to be longer.
Someone once told me I should write it down, the story of that day, but I can't. Twenty years later and I still can't write about it. I can hardly talk about it. I've only told the story three times without Andrew and that was three times too many. With Andrew, I have told it another three times.
Andrew was there that day and he is the one who begins the story when we are together. I always know when he will begin. We will be holding our first drinks of the night, margaritas, always in thick stubby glasses, not those green bowl things you get in Mexican restaurants. We are always in his parents' house in Sedona, Arizona, home of the rich and the not-so-great artists, his father being one of them. I sit on the couch or on the fat leather ottoman. Andrew sits next to me or near me and whoever it is who is about to be introduced to our common history sits across from us.
Before he starts, he always gives me this little smile, as though he is saying, "It is time now, Gloria, to tell the story." Then he turns tothe guest.
"You know, we once saw a crucifixion. Yes, we did. In Mexico," he says each time. I nod and it begins again.
The reaction to that opening line is always interesting and always the same.
"You're kidding," they say. "You have to be kidding, right?"
They are the women Andrew has brought home to his parents and to me. He has never asked my opinion of them afterward and I've never offered one. I think this is his idea of a baptism by fire. If they can make it past this, past the weekend in the strangeness of Sedona with all its ticky-tacky stores, past his parents, that rabid Republican father of his, past the drinking, past me and past the crucifixion story, they can make it through anything. That may be his thinking.
Or, he could be just trying to reveal something of himself, some depth or whatever it is the softer men feel they are supposed to show and that this story is the only way he knows how to do it. I've never asked him why he tells the story and none of the women has lasted much longer than the weekend, as far as I can figure. So, perhaps the story doesn't work well for Andrew or maybe it works too well.
The other thing the listeners always say is, "Oh, you mean one of those passion plays, like in Germany? Is that what you mean?" They are happy with that thought. But we shake our heads slowly, tighten our jaws to show how much more serious our story is than that little drama.
No, this is nothing like that, no cute folk with leather shorts and hairy knees climbing mountains and singing songs. Nothing like a happy passion play in Bavaria or wherever it is where lovers of all things living and growing and haters of all dead Jews gather. No, our crucifixion was nothing like that.
Yet, that is how it started. I did think we were going to see a passion play, all innocent and clean. I had organized the day, an adventure. I told them how interesting it would be. I'm the one who got them there to the taco stands and the priests in their pink petticoats and to the one poor man who was about to be crucified. That's the way I remember it and I remember things quite well.
The first thing they always want to know is why. They want that answer before they have heard the story about all the things that happened that day. Why, they want to know, was a man crucified? Why is something we Americans always want to know first.
A Mexican wouldn't ask why. A Mexican would nod us on, agreeing that yes, men are crucified, and wait to hear the story. A Frenchman would shrug and make that little kissing movement with his lips, a moué, a sort of "Oh, well, I've heard it all, even that, but I will listen." But, Americans, they have to have the reason first.
"A penance," Andrew tells them and then it is time for me to start.
"Five years," I say. "He had done it for five years."
"Something about his daughter being sick," says Andrew, looking to me for my nod. "And the man promised to be crucified every year for five years if she lived."
"It was his last year," I say and always give another quick nod. I don't know if it is true, the part about it being his last year, but it is what I heard that day and is as close to the truth as I can get. Andrew also remembers it that way, because he nods when I say it.
"How?" they want to know, still not waiting for the story.
"How did they do it?"
They don't offer suggestions of how it might have been done. They don't ask, "Was he tied on? Is that what they did? Was he tied on to the cross with a little seat for him to sit on?"
They don't ask, "Was he doped, tranquilized like in those Arab countries before they behead somebody or cut off their hands?" You might expect that, for them to search for a softness in the story, something to make it easier for them, but they don't.
"How did they do it?" is what they want to know. Three nails and a hammer. That's how you do it every time. Of course, first you make the poor bastard carry the cross up and mountain and beat him along the way. That's what you could say to them but you don't.
"Nails," I tell them and jab one finger into my palm. "With nails in the hands. They nailed him on, like the crucifixion."
And, as it was in the beginning, so it will always be.
"Or maybe here," I say, moving my finger to the wrist. "There was a doctor there to show them where to put the nail so he wouldn't die of shock. You see, he wasn't supposed to die. It was his last year."
They always want to know why no one stopped it.
"Where were the police?" one of Andrew's women had cried, her eyes moving quickly from his face to mine. "Why didn't someone stop him?" she cried.
Andrew and I both smile at that or maybe laugh softly. How could anyone, any American, understand?
"Were there priests there? Why didn't they do something?" the one who must have been Catholic wanted to know.
"Because they were part of it," I say. "It was like a party, a holiday."
"There were thousands of people there," Andrew says and looks at me.
"One hundred thousand," I say.
"That many? I can't believe there were that many." He says it every time.
"That's what they said in the paper the next year when they also said no one was ever really crucified," I tell him and we laugh together, looking at each other as though no one else is in the room.
"They came from all over Mexico to see it," Andrew tells the listener.
"The fields were covered with people and they were all dressed in those white pajamas. Peasants, real peasants," I tell them.
They are always leaning forward now, glasses clinched in their hands. Andrew's and my glasses are usually moving, from hand to mouth to table, slowly, steadily. Perhaps he will ask me at this point, "Need another?" but I believe that when the story is going well, he does not ask. We continue, moving through the silence to the telling.
"A real fiesta," Andrew says. "People were selling Coca-Cola, food, souvenirs."
I don't remember souvenirs but I remember the people selling their sticky candy from trays hung around their necks, that yellow, flat candy made out of some kind of jelly. I remember the ones pushing the dripping wet bottles of soda at us as we walked up that road with hundreds of others. It was hot and dusty and the road was nothing but a dirt path leading from the town outside Mexico City to the crucifixion.
Twelve of us were there that day. Becky and Joe had come and Ricardo who was half French and half Mexican and in love with my roommate Cynthia, although I could never understand why. She was there with her long, thin, black hair parted in the middle so both sides fell across her face leaving only this pointed little nose and chin poking out.
Michael O'Brien, the big Irishman from Minnesota, had come. He had just flunked out of college up there but he didn't care. He still wasn't big enough to play football for them. He had come down to visit friends at the American university. Later he joined the Army and went to Viet Nam. I never heard anything else about him.
Shotzy, the tough little redheaded stewardess from Detroit was with us. It was Shotzy who told me about the crucifixion. She had been there the year before but had left early and saw almost nothing. So I really didn't know what was going to happen.
Marjorie, good old Marjorie, was with Andrew. They left Mexico together a few months after the crucifixion and moved to Chicago. Terry was there too, all two hundred and eighty pounds of him, dressed as always like the Mr. Big character in a Humphrey Bogart movie, white wrinkled suit and a Panama hat. Tagging along and sniffing after Shotzy was Tim, little and ugly with kinky brown hair and freckles. He was down on spring vacation visiting his dad at the embassy and latching on to us wherever we went.
And then there was Paul, handsome, tall, mean Paul. My own true love. He had been complaining from the minute we left the city. That was the way he was, always complaining about me and how I made his life so miserable.
But all Andrew or I say is that there were ten or twelve of us that day. We don't count them out and we don't talk much about our walk up the road, nor do I when I tell the story alone. We say nothing other than that it was hot and they were selling things and it took us an hour to reach the mountain.
The mountain was more a craggy hill and I had told them this must be the place where it would happen. Even at a distance it looked too steep but I kept thinking there would have to be a way for the cross to be planted on top. I thought maybe there was another road we couldn't see that wrapped around the back of the mountain, that they would bring the cross up that way. They certainly couldn't bring it up the same road we walked because at the end we had to climb hand over hand, holding onto bushes and rocks to pull ourselves up, to get a seat above the place they would hang him so we could look down on it all.
I tell the listeners how we perched ourselves on the side of the mountain and watched below for a sign that the crucifixion would be there, somewhere. I tell them only four of us made it up there, my boyfriend Paul and I and Ricardo and his girlfriend Cynthia. Andrew didn't make it up that high, I tell them, and he nods with my words. I tell them the others, like Becky and Joe, fell away long before we reached the hill. Terry told us later how he never went further than a seat under a shady tree near the road. There he sat for hours waiting for our return. He saw nothing of what happened. He only saw the candy sellers and all those others who kept moving up and down the road.
"Then," I pause for a second, "they start to stone us."
"You're kidding," says Andrew. He never remembers this part. I go on.
"There were these people sitting above us on this little mountain and all of a sudden I felt something hit me, like a sting or something." I wince and jerk my shoulder to show them how it was, the first hit.
"I look behind me and all these guys are sitting there, just smiling, like nothing is going on.
"Then these rocks start falling, pebbles first and then they got bigger and bigger and bigger, bouncing all around us." My words are coming faster now, like the rocks.
I don't tell them how Ricardo warned me when I turned to look at those behind us. "Don't look at them, Gloria," he said. "Look down." It was because of my eyes, I thought. He didn't want them to see my light eyes. But, I did look at them. I peeked up at them and they were all staring at me, sitting, crouched like animals and I could see they had moved closer.
I tell them, "In front of me there is this little boy and all of a sudden something hits him and his head opens up like a melon." I open my hands from the prayer position to show them how his head split as though halved, each half falling into a palm.
"I don't remember that at all," Andrew says, his voice hoarse.
"You weren't there," I remind him. "You were below us on the hill. You were with Marjorie. Remember Marjorie?" I sing her name and roll my eyes.
"What happened to him?" the women demand, bringing me back. "What happened to the little boy?"
But I have passed that. I shrug. "Oh, someone helped him. The Red Cross was there or the Green Cross. Whatever."
I say it the same way I felt that day, that it didn't matter. We didn't know what happened to the boy. We didn't stay to find out. Besides, Andrew gets anxious here to get the story back on its way, to move it along to where he is back in it. So I don't tell them how they chased us down the mountain.
The times I have told the story without Andrew, I felt empty and then ashamed, like after sex with a man I didn't care about or one who didn't care much about me. I felt as though I had stripped for them, paraded naked for them, wearing only high heels, looking over my shoulder at them, flirting. After I finished telling the story those times, I ran away and left them sitting there.
The first time it was a Navajo artist, a good one. I was working for an advertising agency in Scottsdale. They needed a press kit on him for a local gallery opening. I went up to Flagstaff to talk to him and see his work. For two hours he told me stories about his childhood, his family, his people and what drove him to his art and what kept him painting. When there was nothing else I needed to hear, I turned off my tape recorder and told him about the crucifixion.
I said, "I saw a man crucified once."
He was shocked silent by the story. He sat there in his rocking chair, his arms wrapped across his chest, holding on to himself. I don't remember him asking me one question. I packed up and went back to Scottsdale. Two or three days later I realized I had a terrible crush on this man, a giddy, schoolgirl crush and I prayed he would call, this married-with-two-children Navajo artist. He didn't. I am not surprised.
Then, the newspaper reporter. I told him after a long, good afternoon of conversation which started with an early lunch and stretched out for hours. It was always like that when we talked. He was one of the few people I knew in Scottsdale who seemed interested in life, excited by it. Perhaps I finally told him the story to show him how exciting I was.
Like the artist, the story shocked him into silence but later he called, three times that night. He said he couldn't get the story out of his mind. He thought I should write it, sell it to a magazine. He could see how it could be done, a story about this American girl who thinks she is going to have a great day being a tourist in Mexico and sees a crucifixion instead.
"I really think you need to write it," he said and he sounded worried, upset.
"It does have an effect, doesn't it?" I said.
"And it would sell," he said. "I know you could sell it." That was the real bottom line for him, that the little story could be sold.
I didn't talk to him much after that. He called a few times but we never had the long, lingering talks we once had. Maybe I had reached the end with him so I told him the story. Maybe the telling was the end or maybe the end came with his line about selling it. It certainly doesn't matter now.
With Andrew, I have never felt bad after the story. We linger, especially him. We stay late at the dinner table with brandy or Grand Marnier and coffee after the audience has gone to bed. We go out to the patio or take a walk down the dark street with those Sedona red-rock mountains looming out there in the darkness. He talks then about his feelings for me, the Mexico feelings.
He had a crush on me in Mexico. He has told me that after each time we've told the story. And he asks me, every time, "Didn't you know?"
I always shake my head and laugh and say no because I didn't know then and I don't know now. I am not sure there ever was a crush. Maybe it is only the feeling he gets after we tell the story. But if he did have the feeling back then, I wish I had known, I think I do. It might have made that time easier.
Paul didn't care about me. I knew that. On that day he hung back, pretending he wasn't with me or with any of us. He hated the crowds and the dirt and the noise. He was angry that I made him come. Still, when we finally ended up on the small grassy field, there were only the three of us left, Andrew and I and Paul. Everyone else had disappeared and we were standing there alone with a hundred thousand people standing in the fields below us.
"Like a blanket," is how I describe it. "We were alone in this field, these little white faces, and below us," here I raise my arms and move them apart in a flowing motion," were these thousands of people."
It was then, in that green field with the black and white blanket below us, that I realized something was terribly wrong. The realization hadn't come with the boy's head opening like a melon but with what I could see moving on the road which ran beneath the rise of one side of our field. What I saw made me know I was wrong about the whole idea of the day. I knew then, at that instant, that what was going to happen would be very, very bad.
I think I said then, "Oh, no, no, I don't want to be here." But I don't tell them that, the listeners, and I doubt Andrew or Paul heard me on that day.