only the sun moves
Austin, Texas — He just about whispered the news. “Baby, Joan Didion died.” My partner’s been speaking in a softer voice lately, but this was barely audible. After a brief cry in the bathroom I felt frantic to get out of the house.
A few weeks ago I’d passed a cemetery on a road I didn’t know well and had been meaning to stop back once the sun came out. It was another overcast day (though warm), but it’s where I wanted to be. Maybe I could bring flowers to a stranger since I couldn’t bring them to her. I think that was the general idea. I crossed the Colorado River and re-found San Jose Cementerio on a busy road across from La Herradura Western Wear and Pak n Save (“Groceries, Beer, Ice, Milk, Tobacco Accs. Drive Thru”) between Milagro Auto Sales and El Tapatio Muffler Shop.
I spent an hour slowly weaving around, my boots crunching the leaves. I didn’t notice a year of death, falleció, later than 1937. Every marker, whether a tiled cross or nameless shard of cement, had a small candle to call its own, still clean and white from All Saints’ Day seven weeks prior, along with either loose stems or an entire cross made of now-brittle marigolds attached in whatever way possible.
The women are who caught my eye. (I was there for her after all.) I noted many, and cast each of them in novels she never wrote. Their names, given mostly in the 1840s, are as captivating in stone as they are on the tongue.
Francisca A Urias
Sra. Feliz Cantu de Nieto
La Sra. Victoria Cantu
Sra. Juanita de Celestino
Recuerdo. For a brief moment I laid a thin veil across the scene, across these ancestors of fellow Austinites. Visions of their names, and ideas of her ideas, floating in a low wind like the summer dust around here. Fire ants have taken over one section en masse. I picked up a muddy business card for La Mariposa Mexican Imports from under the junipers. It lists a cell phone number for both Maria and Joe, is exactly 9.2 miles away and is closed on Sundays. There’s no fence around San Jose Cementerio but I purposefully exited below the metal archway, its name spelled out in individual white letters roughly secured to a wire grid, and realized I’d been here before.
During the 2015 dry season, wearing a different pair of boots, I walked down the road through the banana farm to NIC-64, the only highway on Isla de Ometepe. I’d call this intersection the center of the universe in San José del Sur, a village at the foot of Volcán Concepción. “As far as the town goes, Graham Greene might have written it,” is how Didion described Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico. Well, both Greene or Didion might have written San José del Sur, but I’ll have to act as pitiful stand-in.
There’s the stucco church (classic baby blue and white with carved wooden doors and home to Radio Catolica Ometepe), the red metal swing set out front, and the bus stop. In my brief time on the scene, a nun boarded the 4:00 p.m. bus to Altagracia, and then we all waited as the man on horseback herded his cattle across the road in front of us. A minute further down the road I watched men using the basketball court to fill sand bags. Next to them, a trio was having batting practice at the ball diamond, which made more sense to me. A few homes had windows cutout of the cinderblock to sell cigarettes and snacks, which made it feel like anything in the world you’d in fact need, was here.
The cemetery entrance is made of arching metal letters in white, “San Lazaro San Jose” and wild clusters of pink periwinkle blend naturally with the tombs’ orange, yellow, blue, pink and turquoise wash. Most of the structures are above ground cement tubes, some are tiled rectangles, and some are simply mounds of dirt in the appropriate size with cross at the head and wildflowers growing on top. A few chickens wander around and a large sow keeps my guard up. A different San José, but not so foreign.
As I probe the available maps to write this, I catch my breath when I see the closest settlement to San José, center of the universe, is called Sacramento—as is the capital of California, 6,200 kilometers away, where Joan Didion was born in 1934.
Back in Tejas, I drove home along East 7th Street and pulled over behind the grocery store for a few more minutes out of the house, parking next to a turquoise Pontiac with a cowhide-printed sun visor and someone living inside. I like this street—thankfully still smattered with decades-old small businesses that are comforting to be around. There’s Estrada’s Cleaners & Tuxedo (Est. 1960), City General Store (a squat wooden botanica owned by a friendly Air Force veteran from Miami), shuttered meat markets, pawn shops, taquerias, body shops, tire shops, car washes.
I took my turn towards home onto Chicon and realized I’d never seen her here until now; had never looked for her since moving to Texas. I think she’d like the cemetery and I think she’d like this street, with their marigolds and white sage, tamales and mountains of tires. She’s so clearly right there. Every time I focus or slow down enough to take note of something, which is often, is where she lives for me. I keep my boots on for a while after I get home. It unnerves the dog but I like the way they sound on the pine floors.
December 23, 2021