Walking to the Edge: Essays of Resistance South End Press, Boston, 1991

, by Margaret Randall


"We cannot develop and print a memory."
—Henri Cartier-Bresson

Can I call it Alice’s story? All I knew were a few of the corners, tangled years sloughed off in memory.

Alice was a big woman. Stately, large-boned: those would have been the words used by people for whom it was all right to be big. A few might have said Amazonian. We were raised in an era of pinched waists. Petite as eager necessity. The chin and eyes tilted upwards in admiration and support for the men we were learning to adore in every possible way. Definitely a preview to today’s wistful anorexic disappearance act.

But Alice would not disappear. Her carriage was a statement. The clean openness of her face, eyes that took you in, straight on. Her eyes challenged me. The woman Alice told me in her bearing she was big and beautiful. And she moved through her days with a particular grace.

Alice was big. She looked down or straight across and took long effortless strides, picking up one or another of her three small children with a strong yet gentle arm, gesturing endless amusement with the other. Endless possibility. She most often wore dirndl skirts, the New Mexican marriage of Indian and old Mexican striped or solid chambray. Sandals and simple peasant blouses. And her breasts were heavy, full, very beautiful.

Alice was an artist. She painted and made prints, shaped clay pots in her large hands, demanded space for her work, and art was that work of hers. But she was also a wife. A housewife and a mother. Her husband, Jack, was a university professor, an artist too, and accepted as such in the community. Professional, artist: identities not in conflict.

Alice’s three small children —and they were hers, in every daily battle— were towheads. Smelling of soggy crackers, they trailed loose wet diapers across a cluttered floor. Alice looked at her husband. Lifted and set down her children. Entering a room, she spoke, or her voice came from the next room over, the next project, something she was explaining or showing. Her focus seemed always for the work.

Perhaps I didn’t really understand that then. Or, I didn’t understand what must be sacrificed to that. It was part of the mystery, its staying power when she was gone. "Alice is strange," people would say. I couldn’t, then, have articulated all that they meant by that, nor exactly how I felt her presence and her strength. But I knew I wanted to be close to her.

I do not now remember the order: Alice married to an artist, Jack. Alice herself an artist. Alice’s work unnoticed. Sometimes not even getting done. Alice’s work beginning to gain recognition. Was that the way it went? "Alice got a lucky break! She’s been commissioned to paint a mural for the First National Bank Building!" Was that how it was?

Years later people spoke about twenty murals, one on every floor of that building which was then the city’s only skyscraper. As if I should have known: there were twenty, not one. But I couldn’t remember. Three decades later, when I returned to my city, visiting the murals would be a pilgrimage.

Alice was big. She was crazy. She had a husband. He was a professor, you know. And children. Her work was just beginning to be noticed. She painted those murals. Then Alice and Jack separated. They came apart. He came apart. Nothing much was said. His sadness and her anxiety were noted. A silence grew.

Alice was sick. She was very sick for a while, and when my mother visited her in the hospital she said "I don’t eat anymore." But later no one knew exactly what Alice’s sickness should be called. They couldn’t find "anything wrong." "There’s nothing wrong," they said. "It’s all in her head . . . psychological . . . you know how women are . . ." And Alice went home, felt better, walked through her house with those long strides of hers, picking up a child, pointing out a slash of color, the contour of a clay pot.

Then Alice was dead.

Alice died swiftly. Did someone find her? Someone must have.
Was there surprise? Was there another story, crouching behind the first? No one said suicide, but the word hung in the air, displaced. No one mentioned the name of an illness. Her illness had no name. No one pronounced a syllable, a word, there were no answered questions. The children disappeared. They must have gone with their father. Once, several years later in Mexico City, he appeared on our doorstep. I came from the market to find him sitting there, head down, his sorrow like a blanket. Over two or three days: a half dozen words.

Alice began to visit me then. Over these years she has spoken to me of necessary space. When the angry demands of men close in, threatening to leave me without room for words or images, Alice appears, looking straight into my eyes. However I turn my head, she meets my gaze. Her large hand always palm-open, signaling. She makes me look at my work, at the space it occupies.

In 1984 when I returned to Albuquerque, I wanted to visit the murals. I had never seen them complete. After initial weeks, in which I could go nowhere, I began driving past the building — now one of many such high rise structures standing for progress, for change.

One day, almost a year after I arrived, a friend and I talked as we drove. I looked up. There it was. We had time, why not? And I turned the car into the parking lot, explaining as we almost ran, entering the space, pushing the glass doors, asking about the murals.

"What murals?" All the walls were office-gray. Nobody seemed to know. "Not in this building," one smiling secretary after another told us as we went from floor to floor. I unwilling to give up, not ready to say this did not happen, it is a dream, something imagined into memory.

Then on the fifth floor, the suggestion we go to the seventh. "The receptionist there has been here longer than the rest of us. She might remember." Up we went. And she did. "Yes, they were beautiful," she agreed. "It was a real shame when they painted them over. They were peeling, you know, flaking . . ." By way of explanation. "They needed repair . . ."

This is how they repaired Alice’s murals: by erasing them completely.

I went, then, numb into the elevator, out the glass doors, slowly back across the parking lot, wondering if there was a way in which Alice’s brush strokes might still inhabit that space, still visit the receptionists mix-and-matched on twenty floors. I wondered if the language of art can remain as a person does: presence and visitation.

Alice comes to me regularly now. Sometimes the folds of her white cotton blouse just graze the corners of my mouth when I rise before dawn to write or work in the darkroom. I smell her freshness beyond inks and chemicals. The odor of wet crackers Senlin, Gracie or Carlos trailed as they laughed and ran.

Now I must tell a second story.

In the Albuquerque to which I returned in 1984, homeless people claim a space as they do across this country; a wandering, shifting, growing group of men and women for whom a roof, a job, "adjustment to society," are no longer givens but pieces of memory that have broken and fallen between the cracks.

On Central Avenue, along the few blocks that border the university, some of the homeless have become permanent fixtures: living from handout to handout, taking small shelter in doorways, foraging for scraps of food in the garbage bins behind El Patio or Pizza Hut.

One of these was The Rag Man. Some called him, simply, Rags. Ageless as so many who shun ambition are, he possessed three qualities that set him apart. He was more than repulsively dirty. He was more than commonly angry. And he enjoyed being given some item or other which he would carefully pin to his tattered clothing. He liked bright colors especially, and often a student or someone in the neighborhood would present him with a cluster of ribbons, a strand of bright yarn, a bit of tinsel, a feather.

Rags sometimes walked up close to people, threatening our compo¬sure with his sour breath or the sting of his eyes. His words particularly pierced the carefully protected cleanliness of our determined forward-motion. He would suddenly be there, close to a face, spewing a barrage of crude obscenities. Later, someone would remember: "Sometimes he could be the meanest bastard . . ." Rags was angry. Through the breakdown of conventional propriety, his anger seemed the one thing holding him together.

And so The Rag Man inspired fear in people. Some tended boundaries, tried to avoid allowing him too close. Some made a public point of dealing with his conduct. There was the winter he crawled beneath a second-hand shop called The Birdsong and lit a fire to keep warm. The place nearly went up in flames. A young woman student of mine once turned in a story she’d written about her relationship with Rags. She recounted a real or imagined afternoon on which she had invited him to her home, conversed with him at her table, offered him lunch.

I don’t remember exactly when Rags began sleeping out in the small parking alley behind my brother’s bookstore. It took get¬ting used to the image to be able to distinguish the man’s lean body wrapped in a dirty blanket or covered with scraps of cardboard. Then someone discarded a sofa, its stuffings running out through slits and sores in worn upholstery. Rags slept on the sofa, and he could be seen there dreaming through days as well as nights. The angry outbursts close up in the face of a passerby became less frequent. Maybe the man was tired.

And then The Rag Man was murdered.

It might have been for his money. Local lore had it his family kept him in small cash, perhaps paying him to stay away. He didn’t beg, yet rarely lacked for coins. It might have been a message from area merchants, to try to clear the neighborhood of homeless people. There was conjecture. Perhaps someone robbed him while he slept, beat or stabbed him, then soaked the body in gasoline and set it on fire. Or maybe someone set him on fire without looking for cash. Just for something to do.

The flames raged at three or four one morning. No one ex¬pects the police investigation to offer answers. But the people are speaking their own language of caring. Two or three, sometimes more, come to linger where the flames rose. Flowers, cigarettes, notes, poems, appear on the spot where Rags was killed. Crosses and messages have been painted on the blackened wall. One poem signed by Kippa D. (age 15) says: ". . . I envy you raggedy man / your will to live another day . . ." One night this altar too goes up in flames. The next day it reappears.

But it is the published obituary that quickens memory in my eyes, once again wets my lips in longing then throws me to my feet. For it tells me the Rag Man was Alice Garver’s youngest son, Carlos. He was 34. Survived, the papers say, by a brother in Alameda, California. A married sister in Albuquerque. "Carlos Garver was the son of Alice M. Garver, a painter specializing in Southwestern murals who died in 1966, and Jack Garver, a painter and sculptor who died last year."

Carlos’ sister Grace McCoy speaks through the lines of the daily: "He was very imaginative, very creative, a very likable guy. He was very artistic. He loved to write. One of his hopes when I last spoke to him was to get a garage or a little room so he could draw. He still had it in him." The article went on to say that Carlos was strung out on drugs from the age of 15, that he’d been on the streets since 1973. He had been treated at several mental institutions and his father tried to get him committed. But his sister Grace explained, "He would walk away, he would leave whenever it cramped his style."

The third story would have to be a question.

Would I find the answer if Alice appeared right now, if I could ask her about her own beginnings? How it was in her child- hood, what passed as tenderness or rage between her own mother and father? How food was set out, or not, upon their early table? What flesh touched flesh, and how? Where the dark places on her way to school cried out, how they might have held her wrist or emptied her eyes of song?

How did Alice choose Jack, and Jack Alice? Could she know her longings then? Were they forced to write the ritual of blood upon their sheets? Where did form and color stumble, fall, then pull themselves upright, growing against the tender side of skin?

What happened to the art undone because of Senlin, because of Grace, because of Carlos? Or, put another way, which pictures belong to each of them? Was Senlin’s canvas sold for money or for love? Did Alice offer the etchings made in Grace’s name to a friend whose presence was unmentioned on her tongue? And what about Carlos?

I was fresh and muddled back then. I didn’t really know if Alice and Jack belonged to my parents or to me. Sometimes I wondered, and my shoulders ached. My eyes learned to assume a serious knowing expression, I would nod my head thoughtfully, and avoid having to move through precise language when asked what I thought about a concept I didn’t know or a name I’d never heard.

At twenty, knowing people like Alice and Jack, I had to begin halfway through a conversation among peers. They were eight or ten years older. It made a difference then. Today when she visits, Alice and I talk about these things. And I do not let the empty places bloat or gag in silence. Now I ask. I tell.

The third story would have to be a question containing within itself another question which in turn holds another and another, each new wondering smaller than the one in which it lives, like the Dutch Cleanser figure with the can of Dutch Cleanser upon which an ever diminishing little girl figure in folkloric cap and wooden shoes offers yet another can of cleanser and another and another. Like Sandra Cisneros’ eleven-year-old birthday experience, holding within it the ages of ten, nine, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one.

If I ask why Jack’s Mexican voice did not rise above a whisper, I also need to know what Alice’s eyes were fixed on when she died. If I walk the journey backwards from the fire that ended Carlos’ angry life, I must wade through the unforgiving temperature of a winter dawn, bits of colored yarn, a sister’s right to her own map, the place of art in a woman’s hands.

Alice, I am afraid. Will my own unknotted threads trap my eyes, my mouth, tangle a detour before the finish-line appears? These three stories no longer own beginnings, mid-points, ends. They are about process, how things happen because some other unnamed something happened first, wherever we come or go without insisting upon our space, the right to own our hands.

—Hartford, Connecticut, Winter, 1988