Casino de los Muertos

July 13, 2009


Casino de los Muertos

It’s been a long string of bad news with my struggle to complete repairs on the chapel. My world of  domestic maintenance unwinds in slow episodes like a magical realism novel. I casually scrape at a loose piece of plaster, and a story of repairs to a problem corner begins to tell itself in unimagined dimensions. Buried human secrets of family relationships, yearning and proximate despair wait as patiently as drying paint. My problem was leftover paint. My 1/2 of a quart of flat white paint asked to be useful before it desiccated. I thought I’d touch up the door. One thing led to another, and three hours later I had run out of caulk, had the door re-glued and clamped, and was using a palette knife to fight sui generis cracks with a volatile and messy adhesive. Of course when I found the blue paint for the outside of the door there was barely enough to prime the repairs. It was also late afternoon and hot enough to annoy yesterday’s sunburn. Around 4:30 I called Home Depot to check their Sunday hours and discovered they were open until 8:00. Home Depot is 40 miles away. In my exhaustion it seemed prudent to take the smaller can of interior paint with the formula printed on the lid, as opposed to the messier gallon. My plan was to have the paint for the morning and knock off two coats before noon.

The way to Jemez Springs is one of the most scenic, pleasurable drives anyone could hope to make. I always feel fortunate to top the hill at Rio Rancho and drift down through the mesas, past three pueblos, through the red rocks and finally follow the Jemez River to town. Like many other pleasures, doing it in reverse isn’t quite as charming. But a lovely evening was promising to arrive. My work was done and well done. It’s as much as anyone could hope for from a day. I drove to town tired and happy, sipping ice water and listening to Ray Charles and Van Morrison.

The regular paint guy, the one who always explains what I’m going to need that I didn’t know I’d need, wasn’t there. The Sunday replacement already seemed overwrought before I showed him my paint can’s formula. I told him I wanted the color matched in latex semi-gloss exterior. “This is interior paint.” he exclaimed.  “I can’t. This is only a quart. You want a gallon.” Aren’t the proportions the same with the volume increased by four? “No I can’t do it. No one can possibly predict what color it would be.” He seemed much more agitated than a problematic paint mix should make a paint clerk. He became more animated and nervous as he refused to mix the paint. My 40 mile drive meant nothing to him. Plan B.  His Plan B appeared to be more violently brushing his hair away from his face and perhaps weeping . My Plan B would include an 80 mile round trip. Sunday evening isn’t a good time to get paint mixed.

A friend had told me the Santa Ana Star Casino was featuring an exhibit of Dia de los Muertos folk art. It promised a tableau of skeletons pulling slot machine handles, skeletons winning at black jack—laughing bones. The Santa Ana Star was the next traffic light down the road, so I decided to try to salvage my drive with a visit. My relationship with Dia de los Muertos is long and as genuine as Christmas. Many years ago I was lost in Oaxaca, wandering through a barely dark evening. By chance I found myself in front of a small whitewashed house with its front door open to a homemade altar decorated with colorful tablecloths, candles, marigolds, bread, fruit and a bottle of mescal. An older man appeared in the doorway and motioned for me to come in. I did. I had no more than primitive marketplace and resturant Spanish; He had no English. “Mi Esposa…” he gestured to a photograph of a young bride. He poured me a drink and gave me a plate of mole. He talked to me about his wife, about her gifts in his home, how his mole was poor and how much he still missed her. His generosity and sincerity surpassed the shortcomings of language.

Later as celebration overtook the streets I was ecstatic with the macabre parades of dancing skeletons around the zocalo, the thick fragrant chocolate, street vendors selling sugar skulls, and glorious laughing embrace of death by the entire city. If it had been a religion, I would have converted. I would have converted not because of the pageantry, but because of the man who invited me into his home. In the years since I’ve celebrated Dia de los Muertos with the fervor of a convert. When my father died, it became very real. As my altar becomes more crowded I look forward to that too quick hour of October sundown when I sit with my front door open talking to my dead and crying. Then I party.

The idea of a casino hosting a Dia de los Muertos exhibit seemed as peculiarly apt to me as anything else once you accept that the primary  illusion of a casino is based on the concept that miracles can happen. Rock acts you thought must have died appear in the bigger lounges, impersonators of dead entertainers are moribund royalty, and in general, the clientele appear to be much closer to dancing with a laughing skeleton than winning a progressive jackpot.

Which brings me to my mother.

Weesie loved to go to casinos. Not Vegas, or even Atlantic City, but air conditioned human warehouses where a couple thousand white haired people sit in padded chairs with their magnified eyes glazed over by a jumble of spinning video images. Hallucinatory winking fishes, straw chewing farmers, modest mermaids, pink elephants, lucky radishes, bonus watermelons, nervous turkeys, zodiac signs, flags, smiling cherries and cutesy swinging bells all promised to help her pass time in a nickel machine trance of concentration, distraction and cheery cacophony. Something like a church that sells cigarettes.

Almost needless to say there was no display of folk art. But it was cool inside and I was sunburned and thirsty. I found the drink cart and got a complimentary cranberry juice. Sundays evenings are slow all over, especially casinos. The croupier was leaning against the craps table chatting with the $5 a hand black jack dealer. Nothing was happening. There weren’t enough slot machines ringing to cover the muzak. I took a promenade. The loose slots were scattered and hidden like memories. I wandered around until I found “Gone Fishin’ ”, my mother’s favorite, and headed home.


2 Responses to “Casino de los Muertos”

  1. Joe Apa Says:

    in those immortal words spoken to Clara in the paint store on Montrose…”Did ya’ prime it?”

    Take it easy on that sunburn stuff….

  2. Mike Says:

    Buenos dias. Le entiendo. Gracias. Adios.

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