Last evening I was lounging on one of the lacy wrought iron chairs that decorate the drinks patio at our local playhouse. The Lakeside Little Theatre is a community endeavor that’s been producing plays in English for 44 years, more than enough time to have been the beneficiary of some of our local Sunset Boulevard types, thespians who got their big break on the LLT stage. And then died. As a result, our little theatre is an oasis of opulence. Actresses often wear real fur and 1950s Balenciaga that’s been bequeathed to the wardrobe department, and the prop department is full of Bierdemeier antiques, with an art collection like Sotheby’s.
The chimes had been rung and the house manager, decked out in a sequin /palazzo pants number that would have been perfectly appropriate at the Kennedy Center, was shooing in the audience; gay couples in skin tight shirts, ancient widows in mink stoles being pushed by their Mexican attendants, the tanned and platinum haired gang from the view properties up on the hill, and the tourists who innocently earn their derision by showing up in shorts and Hawaiian shirts.
I had a bit of time to kill before heading backstage to help change the costume of the lead actress in our production of Kiss Me Kate, and I always like the patio in the evening. Some combination of its location on the side of the mountain and lighting makes the sky look purple, and when it’s clear and starry, to look up through the palm trees and bougainvillea and giant saguaro cactus into the dark orchid sky is impressively romantic.
Earlier in the afternoon, I had received yet another squawking call from a potential client who was watching the Glenn Beck show on the Fox News Channel and wanted some inside information on the escalating violence in Mexico. He was worried and thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to retire down here after all, because according to Glenn Beck the country is imploding and the Mexican government is going to collapse within a year.
I promised him I’d look into it, which I did. I stuck my head through the gate in the wall that separates our front garden from the street. As I expected, an old lady with her stockings falling down was inching up the street, carrying a string bag with some fruit in it. My dog was sprawled in the sun in the apron of my neighbors garage. A couple of chickens were lethargically pecking in the yard of Thomas. (Toh-mahs, we say. I used that weird word order “in the yard of Toh-mahs” to avoid the hissing sound of Thomas’s, not because I now speak English as if Spanish were my first language. Although I can’t lie, I do that, especially when talking to Mexicans. For no reason at all, I’ll catch myself saying something like “The juice, can it be that you will put him on the table?”, in the hope that speaking gibberish is somehow closer to Spanish than regular grammatical English) A trio of hummingbirds droned at the orange honeysuckle vine that crawled over and through his fence. The fence of Thomas.
At the bottom of our street, the lake glittered, and at the top, the mountains drifted gold and craggy. I noticed a gringo, easily identified as a visitor, getting what he thought was an art shot of the somnolent beauty of a Mexican village street. When he looked at it later, he would wonder why he had taken a picture of a trashy vacant lot full of broken glass and weeds. It happens all the time. I went back to the phone.
“Um, not too much in the way of violence, Hugh”, I said. “I think it’s probably still pretty safe to come. If you don’t get murdered in the cab on the way to the Houston Airport, I mean.”
When the time came, I went backstage where the volunteer players- mature cupcakes who were delighted with the opportunity to cavort around the stage in racy chorus girl outfits while singing “It’s Too Darn Hot” –were waiting to go on. The stage manager pushed through hissing into her headset, “Goddamit, I don’t want those little brats sprawling all over the furniture,” referring to the adorable adolescent prop girls who were dressed as court jesters and who were prevented by the act of respiration from remaining still enough between acts to satisfy her. Violet and I got into position to change the lead from her opening act cocktail dress into the full Smithsonian quality Elizabethan regalia she wears in Act 2. On stage, a Mexicana with a voice like a bell sang “Hanohther Hoapnin’, Hanohther Cho!”
My friend Violet and I often work together on these shows, although her commitment to the theatre runs deeper than mine. She’s been involved with it since it was just a scratchy blanket slung over a clothesline at the Chula Vista golf club. There is a rumor that “Steel Magnolias” will be staged again, as the ten year period between reprising shows is about to expire for the second time. If so, Violet has a fair shot at playing all three generations of female leads.
I fell under Violet’s spell in my early days in Mexico, when I met her at an open house. She has waist length red hair which she successfully anchors into messy updos by stabbing it with any random office supplies or kitchen utensils that happen to be around, and she wears raffish whorehouse outfits of eyelet and denim with cowboy boots, over which her concha belts , seed bracelets, turquoise, silver, coral and fetish necklaces rattle like marbles spilling on a tile floor. I overheard her suggest in her syrupy drawl that the house would have a better chance of selling if the closets didn’t smell like “twelve mahls of beat up ol’ wolf pussy”, a phrase that so impressed me I’ve been following her around ever since. She is a bit of an iconoclast, and her contempt for tourists, smokers, fat people, dumb people, Mexicans, homos, drunks, old people, Canadians, and other realtors has lent a puzzling mythical quality to her success as a real estate agent. My fascination with her is the reason I’ve ended up with some expertise in the goings on backstage of our community theatre.
She and I talk about the sudden spike in perceived violence here in Mexico, why the coverage up North has increased so much. It’s hard to know how to respond to clients who are freaking out about the news stories they see. When Bruno and I moved into our townhouse in the most banal suburb in Northern Virginia, practically the first thing that happened was some crazy Indian cab driver cut his wife into pieces and put them into a suitcase which was later found in the Food Lion dumpster. In the space of five years we endured 9/11 and the Beltway Sniper, and when my daughter went to Virginia Tech, she had to cope with the massacre of her classmates in her freshman year, a tragedy that makes narco gangs killing each other seem refreshingly symmetrical.
When I walk home from the theatre at night, exchanging greetings with the teenagers who neck in the doorways, waving at Alfonso who runs the taco stand, trying to identify the smell of the evening air–orange blossom? jasmine?–and even nodding at our local drug kingpin, an amiable moonfaced boy who wears plaid cholo shorts and white athletic socks pulled up so high they look like nurses stockings—well. I know that somewhere under our big purple sky there’s a gunfight going on.
But it’s not here.
Note: This entry was originally published here, on March 8th, 2009.