Marquez and Octavio

by Duke Miller

I am certain that The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Marquez is a good place to start a story about music. This is not an obvious idea. Trust me. I will need to make my way through these memories and come out in one piece on the other side.

There are few mentions of music in the book and for most people the paper is silent like the tips of soft fingers. That doesn’t bother me. Neither does the fact that many of the sentences in the Patriarch are three or four pages long and one runs fifty pages. This kicks beach sand into the face of James Joyce. Large numbers of people find it unreadable, as if the ink printing the words is made of high-quality boredom.

The only thing important is that I hear music coming from The Autumn of the Patriarch. My ears are like a black man from Cleveland writing a song and the book is a radio playing the composition. The melody flows across the history of Latin America with the sound of idealistic men and women scratching out an escape plan on broken plaster to the irrational signature of 3/10: the off-beats of the jailers, the repeating phrases of the interrogators, and the frenetic motion of the torturers, all combine to build toward a destruction of captured eyes looking outward from rows of mesmerizing red seats.


Spain 1930s

Join me in the power of stillness. The singers, guitars, and horns will reanimate and take their place beside the pages that are full of mass murder, pain, pedophilia, rape, and assassination. The crazy dictator has his day and the music comes from the dog ears of terror; from the muteness of bodies changing into realized fear.

The refrain is an all-consuming fire.

Bear with me while I avoid the error of confirmation. The mistake of following a well-worn path that is reinforced by expected outcomes. No, The Autumn of the Patriarch will lead me to exhilaration and unknown consequences. I’d like to think it could produce autoeroticism, but I can only hope.

So we start with no music in the normal sense, and you will enjoy it or not; yet I need to grow in the highlands and remove the hand over my heart and run away while others march over the cliff. I can no longer salute or pray and my sentiments are like the ditches of a country road waiting for cars to crash or bodies to be dumped.

Dissolution is my loving companion. I offer this to you, even if you don’t care, even if you disapprove. In fact, it is better that way. It is more personal and I can feel your eyes burn into me as if my secrets are naked atheists tied to an ancient stake.

All light fades.

The Marquez book rests upon my desk. It is heavy with humidity, stinks of mildew, and wrinkles as still-wet coffee gravitates. Ants crawl out of the pages and onto my arm. They try to get their pincers into my skin, but I mash them with my thumb and watch them squirm around and die. They are the type of ants that still kick when they are decapitated. I think they must be dictators or poetry publishers.

A few days ago I walked with Octavio through the languid streets of Mazatlán. We searched for food. I carried a cane for show and bare-chested Octavio dressed in a cap, shorts with jagged holes, and flip flops.

He is an old squatter living in the ruins of my compound on the cliff above the sea. Neighbors say he is not to be trusted and that he gets high with bad people. I am a poor judge of how the future might turn out, so I close my eyes in his presence.

The smell of shit, piss, and pot comes from the fallen, defaced existence in the pile of rubble he calls home. People should visit him on an adventure tour. They’d need to bring satin sheets that are capable of creating dreams about fancy hotels with maids and pool boys. That would be nice on the stained concrete floor of Octavio’s life.

He is thin like a speed freak, but has been free of alcohol and hard drugs for 20 years. The overworked therapist treating him recommended that he use only pot. “Marijuana has saved my life,” he says.

Music was his first love. He used to be a student and played different instruments. On most nights, I hear him at the baby grand piano abandoned in our shared ruin. His scabby hands beat on the keys and the clashing sounds are only traces of talent from a missing person. Hallucinations are part of his life now, but he is mostly present and maintains a keen sense of fairness. Sometimes I buy him powdered doughnuts and he tells me thanks for the vegetables.

We came to a long sidewalk with garbage cans. “These are the best ones,” he said. They were all near restaurants and the jackpot was finding a takeout order dumped, instead of carried home. “But if not here…well, I eat garbage,” and then he laughed with one tooth showing on the left side of his mouth.

Octavio and I found two half-filled Cokes; a partly eaten sandwich; a piece of fruit pie; and a glob of beans in a Styrofoam container. He also pulled out a Spanish language copy of The Autumn of the Patriarch. We both looked at the paperback as if the trash can was an opening into the mind of the past. The music began immediately and built an inlaid ceiling over our heads and spot lights made golden circles upon the stage where the singers moved. We were captured in our upper right balcony box and I could see a reflection on the top of the conductor’s bald head.

“Look,” he waved, “a book by the Master. I give it to you as a present.” He grabbed my arm and opened my hand and put the book there as if he were curing me. There was something putrid and sticky on the outside. I picked a few leaves from a bush and wiped the green cover that showed four flowers and distant mountains.

One of Octavio’s dogs was at our feet. He watched and waited for a bite to eat. Polo is the black and white one. He looks like an old man trying to find his teeth. His head quivers with sad eyes and he is always moving; jerking his feet, twitching his head. Polo got a nerve disease last year that should have killed him, but it didn’t, and so he lives in constantly mutating moments.

Octavio saved Polo by singing corridos to him. The songs became machetes and trains bristling with howitzers that carried soldaderas to the front where Pancho Villa shot his own men for being late to supper and then rode like a nightmare to the next town and enlisted thousands of the poor, just like Octavio, to take revenge upon landowners and fat bankers with round faces. The corridos transported themselves across the decades to come out of Octavio’s mouth and destroy the illness within the frame and fur of Polo.

That is what Octavio believes, as if Polo’s wagging tale shines from the center of the universe. There is love there and I can see it in both Polo’s and Octavio’s eyes. People invest everything that is good about themselves into their dogs. Octavio, despite his pathologies and rumored crimes, is no different. The evil, mistakes, and bad manners within people are momentarily extinguished when they love a dog.

Sometimes Octavio goes without food, but never Polo.


Colombia 1953

The sun is setting now. Octavio is at the piano and sings "Sólo Le Pido A Dios," which is not exactly a corrido, but rather the beating heart of Latin America's fight for justice.  The eternal dictators always attack the students first; the ones who are too young to totally understand the danger, but old enough to threaten those in power. The naïve, beautiful sons and daughters of the motherland are the cut off ears and tails of dead bulls and they hang on the walls of wealthy aficionados. Perhaps Octavio does not understand that it has been years since the passenger trains stopped running and thoughts of Bolivar, Zapata, Villa and Juarez have diminished like the rainbow butterflies dreaming in the tall trees. The expatriated ghost of Marques rides the black Arabian horse across the burning green stream while a dozen exiled generals wait in crumbling mansions.

I walk outside and lie in my hammock. Octavio’s voice is earthy. The fragrance of pot is in the air and I hear dogs circling within the shadowy ruin. Footsteps are in the alley just outside his chained door and suddenly he shouts “Don’t kill my dogs you bastards!”

I live in the Melodious Church of Octavio and his voice is a choir and the dogs are the parishioners and the sermon comes from a time long ago when the Division del Norte was the devil’s finger torching Mexico.

There is no end to the world’s insanity and it runs all over me as my hammock sways.

The stars come and the wind carries the sound of the waves into the rustling palm fronds. Octavio’s voice heroically rises upon the cracked piano keys. Maybe the road is not so black. Marquez’s mad patriarch and Octavio’s psychosis merge in my mind. I decide to return to my writing. I type two quick sentences that have been years in the making: “He was decaying in the tropics like a thousand books of literature lining the moist, dark aisles of the world's last library. Yet, the books sang to him and the lyrics were complex patterns of felt light.”

**************

 Duke Miller is writing everyday, even though he's sick.  He finds solace in sleep and the good fortune to be an expatriate in Mexico.  Within a few days Living and Dying with Dogs: Turbo Edition is coming out on Amazon.  When this happens, water will flow uphill and birds will fly backward to the days when they were dinosaurs.  

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