Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, outside of a Mexican village called the Three Sisters, a teenage boy had climbed to the top of a 500-foot-high transmission tower.
To us in the new day, our faces skyward, he looked like a tiny hovering angel, his gaze directed over the mountains of the Three Sisters, from which the village drew its name. He was oblivious to the shouts of his people so far below, in whose midst I stood.
Then suddenly as we watched, he dropped from the sky, and nearing earth, he took on flesh, while losing it, too, as the sheer-sided struts sliced through the falling body. A leg flew out from the interior of the tower like a startled bird, and his head was falling separately, and the torso, hitting a strut, exploded, becoming for us a spray of red. I heard people around me scream and flee. The head bounced as it hit the earth. It did not crack open, and it came to rest face up.
The boy had had his shirt tied around his head, keffiyeh-style. The open eyes were on the vault of blue.
The dozen villagers who had not run away stood shocked, silent, then from their midst, screaming, the boy’s mother ran toward the tower, arms outstretched. Someone called after her, then someone else, but no one gave chase. The mother dropped to her knees and gathered up her boy’s head in her arms and rocked it for a moment, then fainted, and the head rolled out of her lap.
Five or six women came to her and carried her off. No one touched the head, now face down in a rut.
The priest behind the hills had been sent for hours earlier. He sputtered into town toward evening in his rusted-out VW. He tended first to the mother, in her dwelling, and then much later he rolled a wheelbarrow out to the tower, a small, spade-like shovel chattering in its bed, a flashlight under his arm.
This was 1968. The boy’s name was Francisco. He became a global legend.
My newspaper had sent me to the Valley of the Three Sisters to report on the progress of an anthropologist, a spidery, precise, Ecuadorian, who had found the fossilized remains of a giant ground sloth in a boulder-choked area where Pleistocene mammals were not supposed to have been. I discovered, however, that my Spanish was not good enough to ask the anthropologist questions of a scientific nature, so I went on what I thought would be a fruitless search for a translator and had stumbled upon this village.
Diego Pacheco struck a hard bargain with me, smelling my desperation; but he did invite me to stay in his house for the night. We polished off two bottles of tequila and passed out.
Sometime around four in the morning an old man named Rivera, going out to check his traps, saw Francisco ahead of him, crossing the rutted road that marked the boundary of the village. They said good morning, Rivera wondering where Francisco might be going so early like this.
It must have been soon after that encounter that Francisco had begun climbing the tower, for it was past dawn when Rivera, now walking a she-goat he had found wandering in the desert, chanced to look up and see Francisco nearing the summit.
Amazed, frightened, Señor Rivera let go of the goat’s lead and ran to get Francisco’s mother. She screamed at the news, running out of her house and through the village, across the road, and out to the tower; and soon, the whole village was running; was bunching up before the tower; as was I, shaken from sleep in Diego’s front room. “Señor Foster!” he had said, and out we ran, my head pounding.
Over the next couple of hours, Francisco’s mother tried to climb the tower, grabbing hold of one of its great inverted V legs, wrapping herself around it, and trying to shinny up, only to slide down. She cut her hands, inner thighs, and calves, to ribbons. “Francisco!” she wailed. The blood streamed from her all day. Her brother finally had to hold her from behind, gripping her arms, his thumbs pressed into the flesh on the backs of her hands. He would leave her with crescent moons in a brown firmament—and they played their part in the global legend.
Around eight o’ clock, a young man named Wilfredo Salinas volunteered to climb up and bring Francisco down. But when he had gotten a quarter of the way, a few could see that Francisco was agitated by his approach: He was yelling something no one could hear and gesturing Wilfredo down. Wilfredo yelled upward, “I’ll be all right!” But Francisco could not be calmed, so the villagers started yelling at Wilfredo. “Come down! You’ll scare him!” Wilfredo climbed down. It was at this point that someone thought they should call for the priest behind the hills.
“He is crazy about rock ‘n’ roll,” said a young man next to me, his chin skyward.
“He played the Beatles until his mother hid the record player on him,” said another young man, this one directly behind me. I turned around to face him. “Sergeant Pepper,” he said.
“But what she did,” said a woman next to this boy, “was wrap the record player in a plastic bag and put it on the front seat of a junker. Over there, señor. See? She was always after him to strip that car for parts to sell in Las Floritas. But he could never get around to it. Typical, no?” Both young men looked away, one scratching his forearm, the other rubbing the back of his neck. Her sons, I supposed.
The woman continued: “I said, ‘Francisco, why don’t you take care of that car? It’d be good for you.’ Everyone but him knew his record player was on that front seat.”
The woman tried a smile, but it shook apart as from an earthquake. She rummaged around in her clothing for a handkerchief. Wiping away her tears, she said, “A lesson for him. That was the idea.”
“My God!” breathed one of the sons, “that’s what we say to him!” He broke from us and ran to the tower. “Francisco!” he yelled. “I know where your record player is!”
The boy aloft could not hear.
I learned from a woman twisting her long braid around a finger, her eyes on Francisco, that the government had erected the tower in 1960, when Francisco was eight. It was one of scores that ran through the valley bearing aloft the copper wires that carried power to this remote part of Mexico. The boys in the village had pushed one another toward the tower, daring one another to climb to the top, but no one got higher than ten feet before getting scared. The rumor—perhaps started by the boys, perhaps by the parents—was that as you got higher the electricity increased, and any higher than thirty feet and you would be electrocuted. When the boys asked him about this, the teacher, who came in from Las Floritas and was a father of five, did nothing to stanch the rumor.
“Thirty feet?” he said. “I understood it was twenty-five.”
The boys eyed the teacher suspiciously, but eyeing the tower, they gulped. Even if the rumor were not true, the tower was a monster. Looking up, the boys could hardly see the top of it where it got lost in the blue. They squinted, wondering what it would be like at the top. They argued about what you could see. Could you see America?
One of these boys had been Francisco.
“One time, he wanted to run away,” said a man without an ear, “and he did, when he was fourteen. But he didn’t get as far as Las Floritas before he turned an ankle in the desert and had to hobble home.”
“His mother is blind in one eye,” another man said, “and losing her sight in the other. His sister is a mongoloid.”
No one around me thought there was any particular event or circumstance that might have prompted Francisco to make the climb this morning. There had been no drama at home, no argument. But then around two, as they waited for the priest to arrive—the men talking low, the women talking low, the grandmothers kneeling in the dirt, praying, rosary beads swinging as they raised their hands to make the sign of the cross—a man suddenly remembered that he had heard someone scream in the middle of the night three nights ago, and he had thought even then that it was Francisco.
“What was he screaming?” another man asked.
“‘Let me go,’” said the first man.
“No!” said a third man, turning from the tower to face the first, and so suddenly he almost fell. “No!” he said, regaining his balance, “I heard it, too! I didn’t think much of it, but I heard it, too! Only it was, “‘Let me go on! Let me go on!’”
Diego scoffed at both men, then turned his head and winked at me. “You say that,” he said to them, “because he’s up there now. You’re making it fit. I heard nothing.” He turned his head back to me. “I live closer.”
A voice from the group of women said, “Of course Diego didn’t hear it. He was drunk.” The women smiled, turning their heads away. Diego pretended not to hear her, but his jaws were clenched. In fact, all of the men pretended not to hear her, looking every which way but at any of the women.
The man who had nearly fallen said, “I know what I heard!” and turned his back on Diego. But the first man who had heard Francisco stepped close to Diego and narrowing his eyes said, “You’re not questioning what I heard, are you? You’re not questioning what I heard?”
At that moment, the elderly Señor Rivera, shielding his eyes against the sun, said, “Well! You know, it’s quite a thing what he’s done. No one has ever tried it. No one has ever dared.”
Diego whirled from his accuser to scoff at Rivera. “Bah!” he said, and so loudly it made me flinch. “He’s high on drugs! He has no idea what he’s doing!”
“Pardon me,” said Rivera. “But he’s not. I could tell when I saw him this morning. His eyes weren’t glassy, and he said hello nicely, like always.”
“He was high on drugs!” Diego repeated.
A man from somewhere behind me ran up to Rivera. “That’s right!” he said to him. “So it doesn’t count!” Another man spat at Rivera’s bare feet, and when Rivera stepped quickly to the side, he bumped into yet another man, who roughly pushed him back. Rivera fell to a knee and a hand. The men closed in on him, dust swirling above him. One man raised a fist to strike, and just then a face suddenly thrust itself in front of me. “Do you think it counts?!” I saw behind the man in front of me the man with the fist stepping toward me, and the other men turning their attention my way. Señor Rivera struggled up from the ground, his head and shoulders emerging from the cloud of dust.
“Well,” I said, heart pounding, swallowing hard, “I mean, I must say, you know, that I would have to agree with this gentleman here.” I nodded toward Señor Rivera. “I mean, it was awfully brave. I wouldn’t have done it.” I chuckled. “As you might imagine. And it had to have been a difficult climb. And strategic. How high could he have been, really, when you stop to think about it? Which I’m sure you have.”
“You don’t know him!” screamed the face in front of me.
“Who the hell are you?!” screamed a voice into the back of my head.
“Well, no one, you know.” I gave a capitulating smile to the face in front of me and quickly turned my eyes back to Francisco at the summit, as if salvation lay in doing so, and stiffened my neck and shoulders, waiting for a blow. Peripherally, I saw Diego put his hands out to the men. “All right,” he mumbled. “Never mind. Never mind.” The men dispersed and moved away from me.
I screamed inside, impotent bastards! And you know you wouldn’t dare this climb!
But after a while, my heart slowed down. I began to breathe. The sun took a seat at three p.m.
Yes, drugs or no, it was an extraordinarily difficult climb. The boy had to think with each step, Where next...? Where to reach?...What’s best?...To make such a climb he had to have extraordinary athleticism; and patience; and mental discipline. He had to master fear. I marveled at how peaceful Francisco looked up there; well, motionless, anyway; stilled; and so profoundly alone and singular; accomplished and new; incorporeal to us, and beyond the lassos tossed up from below: “...don’t!...” and “...this minute!...” and “...come back!...” And then he was falling and becoming flesh and dividing and blooming. And raining down.
I stayed in the village another week; ostensibly because of the story I was gathering on the anomalous sloth and the revolution in science its discovery was about to touch off. At least that’s how I sold things to my editor. But in truth I couldn’t leave the village because I was dazed; and if I were dazed, how might the villagers be dealing or not dealing with their tragedy?
My conclusion, for what it’s worth, was this: In witnessing horror out of scale with their lives, they had grown in scale for taking it in, becoming alien to themselves—their capacity for grief so huge, that could that capacity be physically realized, they could absorb the Three Sisters, the valley, and still have plenty of room for the sky.
The villagers—and I, yes, I, too—moved awkwardly, dreamily, trying to adjust to the new volume of ourselves—everyone but Francisco’s mother, of course, who had disappeared. There was no woman left to console, no one to reach, however lovingly thrown the lines. “...He is with God...” “...He is at peace...” The women tended to her day and night in hourly shifts and took care of her mongoloid daughter, who wailed without end when she finally understood that the brother she clung to and laughed at, especially when he put finger horns to the sides of his head and chased her like a bull, would never come back.
“He is with God,” they told her. “God wanted him.”
“But God can get a million people to play with him!”
However alien he had become to himself, Señor Rivera made it with the she-goat to the outlying home of an old woman who he thought should have it. The boys dragged their feet after the teacher from Las Floritas. The grandmothers slapped out tortillas. The dogs slept, and the flies above their eyes did not. And Diego and I went out to the spidery anthropologist, who, with a quick brush, shooed away the encroaching, greedy desert, revealing to us, under the sun, more and more and greater bones from a fantastic beast, who wasn’t supposed to have been there.
At the end of the week, I paid Diego and said good-bye. He counted the money in front of me. We shook hands. I had to wait behind a shack for a quarter of an hour when I saw Señor Rivera lingering near my car. Looking for me. Waiting for me. I did not want to talk to him. I had suffered humiliation because of him.
I went back to the Valley of the Three Sisters nine years later, in 1977, while working for another paper.
“I got a yawner here,” the editor announced to the room. “An irrigation project. But it’s in beautiful, sunny Mexico.”
“Where in Mexico?” someone called.
He scanned the one-sheet. “The Valley of the Three Sisters.”
I banged both my knees on the underside of the metal desk, trying to get up. Everyone throughout the room looked over. Francisco had not left me since I’d returned; and I had tried to write him out, so I could see him. But I could not. Reams of paper, each and every sheet angrily crumpled up, attested to that fact. Would a trip back help?
“I know the valley,” I said, rubbing my knees. “I’ve done a story there.”
“It’s yours,” said the editor. He waved the one-sheet at me, relieved to have it off his hands.
It turned out that the irrigation project was only sixty miles south of the village. Stupidly, I mentioned to the man in charge of the project that I was going there next.
“You’re going to see Francisco’s Tower?” he asked, his tone more mocking than inquisitive.
I was surprised. “You know about it? The boy? The tower?”
“Do I know about it?”
(He had been aggressive all day, all day repeating my every question after I had asked it:
“Is the company concerned about the salinity of the water?” I had asked.
With a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, palms out to me—Behold the Idiot—he had replied, “Is the company concerned about the salinity of the water?”)
“So—everyone knows about it, then?” I asked. “The tower the boy climbed?”
“Everyone knows about it then? No, I just made it up!” His men, with shovels, sniggered behind him. If rage were a gun, they would have been falling dead splash in their canal.
Nine years ago I had driven to the village over a faint and sometimes disappearing dirt road, oh-so-hopefully called Highway 16; but now a layer of shiny blacktop ran over and covered the earth.
As I approached the village, I saw a traffic light ahead of me. It was strung on a wire between two small cement buildings. Neither the buildings nor the light had been there before. I stopped. Two cars from my left and one from my right crisscrossed in front of me. At the green, I continued, and the first person I saw was Diego, standing in the doorway of what was obviously his own establishment.
Diego’s Souvenirs/Grocery/Café, it said in poinsettia red letters on the bright white wall. I waved, pulling up in front of him. He waved automatically, not recognizing me. When I got out of the car, however, he cried, “Señor Foster!” I was surprised that he should remember my name. On the other hand, I had been a part of a momentous time in the village’s life.
In addition to this souvenir/grocery/café, he now owned a second chin, which undulated as we shook hands. We were both truly happy to see one another. He invited me into his place. He had me sit down at a little table by a window, which framed the distant tower. He served up two beers and the nine years past.
“In the very month Francisco fell, another boy from the village climbed a quarter way to the top. But he got scared and came down. Lots of crying. Not only from him, but from the people who met him on the ground. You should have seen the clobbering he got from his father. But it was not nearly the one he got from his mother!” Diego laughed, revealing his teeth, several newly gold.
“But not too long after that,” he continued, “a boy from Las Floritas came. At dawn. He put on boots and gloves and he climbed; and he made it all the way to the top and down. When we asked him why he wanted to do such a stupid thing, he said it wasn’t stupid, it was beautiful. And no one could hit him, because he wasn’t theirs. His feet and ankles were so sore we had to carry him away from the tower. Even with the gloves, his hands were so raw and bloody, we had to feed him with our own. We saw that he had laid a single red rose at the base for Francisco. And that became the thing to do for the boys from Las Floritas, before they climbed. Though lately it’s a bouquet of summer blooms. I sell both.” Diego pointed at a small refrigerated flower case I had not seen.
“Then boys from all over the valley came,” he continued. “Most were not brave enough. Several fell to their deaths. But none from the top like Francisco. His mother had to move. She couldn’t stand it.”
“Where’d she go? What about the daughter?”
“They went to live with the mother’s sister, in Winterhaven. California. It’s a border town. But maybe she’s dead now, the mother. Everyone says she’s this ghost you can see wandering the dunes there.” Diego chuckled. “There’s this brother of a man in Las Floritas who races dune buggies. He says that he saw her after a race. He was sitting on top of the tallest dune, enjoying the sunset, and suddenly she was in front of him. She showed him the backs of her hands. With the white crescents, yes? And then she was gone. Poof! People say the marks show halves of a heart that can never be re-joined. They say they appeared on her hands as she slept, as Francisco began his climb, to tell her she was about to wander forever with a heart broken in two.”
“But we know that it was her brother who made the marks on her. And weren’t they fading by the end of the week?”
“Fading? Not if I can help it!” Diego laughed, then sipped his beer. “So then,” he continued, wiping his lips, “the valley boys were climbing left and right and a journalist came from Mexico City and wrote a story about what was happening. And it got picked up by other papers. You know, I always thought you were going to do a story. You were the first one here! You saw it!”
“Well. I wanted to write something.” I put the bottle to my lips.
He laughed. “Maybe you can only write about old bones in the desert!”
I shrugged; smiled stupidly. I looked out the door of his establishment. Just then, I saw a puppy, a sorrel-colored mutt, struggle up the high step into the store, then bound over to a bowl of water. She lapped at the water, noisily, clumsily, then immediately flopped down on her side to sleep. Watching her, Diego laughed. “Juanita,” he said to me. “My love-bug!”
Diego went on to tell me that the people who came to climb didn’t know about the idea of drugs being involved. “But if there are older people in the café, they’ll say to them, ‘He was just a crazy kid on drugs!’ Then these new people look at the old ones as if they were on drugs.”
Diego squinted through the window at the distant tower. “The government came and put a fence with concertina wire on the top of it. People still got over. One man tunneled under. They even electrified the fence. But then somebody came and ripped it apart. And no, it wasn’t me.” He laughed. He got up and went to the cooler. He opened it. “Another beer?”
“Sure,” I said.
“That’s two-fifty,” he said, returning with the beer, wheezing. I was surprised—I had thought it was an offer—but pulled out three dollars. He pocketed the bills. “And you know,” he continued, “I am the only one who remembers the date it happened. Do you remember?”
“August 19th. I know because I had marked on my calendar that we were going to see the bone digger that day, you and I. But everyone says, everyone except me, that it was August 6th. Does this ring a bell for you? Feast Day-wise?”
“I’m not Catholic.”
He laughed. “I’m not, either! But August 6th is the Feast of the Transfiguration. Of Jesus. The day he climbed a high mountain—you see?—and showed Peter and those others his glorified body.”
“For god’s sake,” I said.
Diego laughed. “It’s what people do, you know? Do you remember that priest who came that day, Father Juan? He heard about it and came to me. He said, ‘Diego, don’t encourage this. This is getting out of hand.’ He had tears in his eyes. But it wasn’t me! People just did it. Not me. And they kept coming. I didn’t make them come. And is it my fault they want to take pictures and have a little lunch while they’re here? Maybe take home a souvenir?” Suddenly, he took a long hard pull from his bottle.
“What happened to that priest?” I asked.
“He asked us to bury him out there,” Diego said, looking out the window, a hand flying past the desert framed, “so we did. But do you know what’s coming next year? A triathlon! Billy Ruiz, he’s a television producer—very famous—Mexico City. He’s setting it up. With my help, of course.”
Diego got up, waddled across the room, and went behind his counter. Wheezing, he lifted a framed photograph off the wall and returned with it. He handed it to me, nearly thrust it at me, as he sat. “That’s me and Billy. Everyone must start by climbing Francisco’s Tower. And he will sell the event to American television.”
Diego gazed at the distant tower. “We owe a lot to that boy,” he said. “He was our sacrifice.” He said it seriously, but then laughed and took a pull from his beer.
I pulled some more bills from my pocket and slid them across the table and went to Diego’s cooler for four more beers. “Do you wonder,” I asked him, “why people come to climb the tower?”
“Gracias,” he said, taking two of the beers. “The answer is, whatever you want, it gives you that. I’ve thought about it a lot. Who are these people? What do they need? What can I sell them?” He laughed. “Some people come to stop being afraid. Some come to mark an end or beginning. I’ve had several couples get married at the top. The priest does not climb. He speaks through a walkie-talkie. You hear the couple say, ‘I do’ through a walkie-talkie. One woman came after a divorce.” Diego shrugged. “I get the religious nuts, of course. Thank God.”
He looked off to the tower. “If Francisco hadn’t fallen, the tower wouldn’t have become such a draw. But he did. And that’s what sticks in people’s minds when they touch ground. He fell, they didn’t. And they feel good about themselves. Of course, what they forget is that Francisco did it with bare hands and feet.”
“He did? I knew about the bare hands, but not about the feet.”
“Oh, yes. Father Juan saw—when he was collecting the body. But this I don’t bring up. And to hear some of them talk, you’d think it was Mount Everest they climbed. ‘Oh, it was so spiritual! I met Francisco up there, and I knew what he knew!’ Some even say, ‘I touched the face of God!’”
Diego barked a laugh so loud it made me jump. “All over the world people are looking for God, and yet he’s only five hundred feet up a government-installed transmission tower, outside of this shithole! Imagine! But am I going to do anything but agree with them? Not on your life!” He slapped the table.
“And Francisco himself,” I asked, “why did he want to go up? Anybody ever figure that out?”
“No. Who knows what funny things were going on in that brain?”
“You mean that he was high.”
“But the old man. The old guy?”
“He was certain he wasn’t.”
“Bah!” said Diego.
“But perhaps that meant something—everything—if he wasn’t high and decided to climb.”
Diego shrugged. “What I think is that climbing the tower was like smoking a joint for him. It was a way of escape. That’s all it is for everyone. A temporary high. There’s nothing else. Nothing!” Diego took another pull from his beer.
I picked at the label on my bottle. “On the other hand,” I said, “maybe that was the one time in his life he didn’t want to escape; didn’t want to be high. Or at the least, thought he shouldn’t be. It was an incredible thing he was going to attempt, and no one ever had. And he wanted to do it purely. Consciously. Soberly. The time had come not to escape. But to meet. Something. Someone. Himself.”
“So many words, Señor Foster!”
I shrugged and looked out the window. “You say the tower’s not Mount Everest. But there are all sorts of Everests. And he had climbed the one in his world. He was now more. He was greater. People get that. And want it.”
“I think you’d have to climb yourself to see if any part of that might be true,” Diego said. He tried a smile, but the eyes were stone. He looked away, into his store, pulling hard from the bottle.
That night I crossed the new highway, went down the embankment, and walked out the twenty-five yards to the tower. I touched it. It was still quite warm from the day’s heat. I looked toward the apex, but couldn’t see it, as it was lost in the stars. I walked around the tower wondering how and where one started the climb. I saw that no matter what side you chose, you had to reach way up, standing on tiptoe, and grab hold of the sharp-edged tie beam above your head. You then had to pull yourself all the way up to waist level. This first move alone would require a fair amount of strength and a good tolerance for pain, since the sheer-edged tie beam would dig into your palms the whole time you were struggling to get waist high. I began to sweat as I considered whether I should actually try to climb a bit. My breathing became shallow, rapid. I had had at least eight or nine beers at Diego’s; but despite this, I thought, I must try. Perhaps I’d have a better understanding of Francisco, if I did.
I stood on tiptoe and reached up. I took hold of the tie beam. Its sharp edge dug into my conviction, but I pulled myself up, fast, and kept on pulling, and got myself to waist level. Then, my arms locked, but shaking, the beam now digging into my waist, I saw that the next thing I had to do was bring my right leg up onto the bar, without losing balance, and push my right foot snugly into the vertex; then with the left arm, reach up for the next beam above me, and pull myself up to a standing position, as I dragged my right foot into place underneath me. The left leg, I saw, would naturally follow up.
After three tries, I managed the sequence and stood on the first tie beam, completely winded by the effort and sweating through my clothes. My breaths, however, were deep and full. I stood on the first tie beam no more than eight feet off the ground and knew exhilaration. The sheer edge of the beam dug painfully into my feet. His will must have been incredible, I thought. Or his need. Or he would have to have been very, very high. But what drug could keep you ignorant of such pain while yet not robbing you of everything else you would need, and over so long a period of time, in such an arduous journey to the top? I looked out across the valley from my exalted height of eight feet. And then when I lifted a foot, too quickly, from the pain of the edge, I lost my balance and fell.
I hit the ground, but I only cut my elbow. I rolled onto my back. I gazed at the stars.
“You have to fall farther than that to have any impact,” I said aloud. Then I laughed at my pun. I then yelled into the desert, into the night, “I praise you, Francisco!” But it was never heard, because a couple of freight trucks, nose to tail, screaming past, buried my yawp.
I trudged back to Diego’s store, cupping my elbow. As I entered, he was tossing a jingle-ball for Juanita, who ran after it almost as much sideways as forward. He turned to see who it was; and when he saw the blood escaping through my fingers, he looked, I thought, relieved.
Then he threw back his head and laughed. He went to one of his grocery shelves. His right hand shook badly as it hovered in benediction over two types of bandages. He was drunk.
“Sit, sit!” he said. He came over to the table with an armload of Steri-pads, tape, Band-aids and hydrogen peroxide. He was tender in his ministrations. When he sat back, he looked at the array of supplies in front of him. “No charge,” he said, waving an expansive hand over them.
He then leaned forward, well forward, and put his hand on mine and said, his eyes very soft, “Señor Foster, we can’t climb the tower!” He then sat back and chuckled, his chins undulating; and suddenly I wanted to get away from him. I wanted to drive back across the valley now. I bought tequila and two six packs from Diego to keep me company.
As I headed out of town, I saw Señor Rivera walking in, this time leading a donkey. He saw me and stopped of a sudden. He waved furiously, happily, and now dropping the donkey’s lead, ran toward my car. I pretended not to see him and sped away.
I never filed the story on the irrigation project. The aggressive, mocking man in charge had stolen my concentration, so that as a result, I took very few legible notes, and those, I discovered, were maniacal. Salt! Mud! Idiot! Asshole!
My editor had heretofore tolerated my missed deadlines, my absenteeism, and my lunch-time binges, because, generally, my copy was good. But the failure here was apparently a last straw. Fittingly enough, I was assigned a desk in the paper’s morgue and put to work writing obituaries. I had no savings, a reputation for drinking, and I was not young. I kept the job.
Several years later, I read in the TV Times that Telemundo had bought the rights from Billy Ruiz to cover “The Three Sisters Games.” I went to a Mexican bar and watched them the afternoon they were on. Midway through the broadcast of the Games, they aired a lyrical “Up Close and Personal”-type segment on the “Legend of Francisco’s Tower.” The content of the segment was misleading, even false, beginning with the opening statement that Francisco was “known to everyone as a saintly boy.”
“And why did he climb the tower?” the well-coiffed, sport-jacketed interviewer asked Diego, as the two men strolled in toward the camera. The men stopped, looking up, and the camera pushed in to a close shot of Diego, squinting, as he said, “He told me it was a way to give glory to Jesus.” Music, and the camera cut to the men’s point of view of the distant summit, and then pushed in on it for a close-up of the tower’s very top, where perched Francisco, once long ago.
“Oh, my god,” I said in the shadows, staring at the screen, drunk and bathetic, “your reality is gone.” I meant Francisco’s.
Then they broadcast the climb itself; the “climbing portion of our competition.” One saw scores of men and women at the tower base, wearing brightly colored bicycle shorts, and helmets, and hi-tech climbing boots, and thick gloves, and waist and elbow pads; and they were shaking the nerves out of their legs and arms, ready to race. Two at a time would go; fastest time to the top won you this leg of the competition.
“Your reality is gone,” I said again. “But I know it! I know it!” But my head spun, so I laid it down on the bar and passed out.
In 1992, a press release from Telemundo Sports crossed my desk. The mail room had misdirected it to me. It was about Telemundo’s “New Direction for the Fall Season!” The second paragraph down, the release announced that it was dropping coverage of “The Three Sisters Games,” wherein competitors had to run, bike, and climb the tallest of The Three Sisters peaks.” I raised my eyebrows. Climb “the tallest of The Three Sisters peaks”? What about the tower? A following parenthetical remark noted that “a 500 foot-high-transmission tower had once been used, until competitors had found it too easy and a climb of the peak had been substituted.”
So. How many years now had Diego’s town not been a part of the triathlon? Two? Three? But was Francisco’s Tower nevertheless still a goal for people? Were they still coming to climb it? Was climbing it still considered a rite of passage, or a spiritual quest? Or was it, like so many mountains now, worn down and away by the too many scientifically shod feet of all the Johnny-come-latelies who did not bring any questions to the climb, but only wanted to shine at dinner parties?
Did no one any longer know who Francisco was, or how he had done it—bare hands and feet to sharp-edged steel and going where no one had gone before? Climbing the tower had been, in part at least, for marveling at the boy, for trying to know as well as you could through the soles of shoes the pain of his Homeric desire. Who was this creature? What did he want?
Climbing had been about hope, the hope that you, too, might discover something from reaching the top. But if no one could feel the tower, how much tower was there, how marvelous could the tower be, or Francisco? Had the tower died because it had been given over to people who were removed from the pain by thick soles?
I wondered if there was a story here. I even put a memo sheet in the typewriter and began addressing my editor about it. But then I took the sheet out and ripped it up. I didn’t need to get kicked in the teeth, or have people not give a damn. I had to go out for a drink.
Then, a year later, in late July of 1993, Diego wrote me. He wanted me to come down to The Three Sisters in August. They were going to embed a memorial marker at the foot of Francisco’s Tower, marking the 25th anniversary of Francisco’s climb. He wanted me to “report on the ceremony for your readers,” since, as I had been there the day of the climb, I had been one of the “actual witnesses of history.”
I could not tell from the tone of the letter whether he wanted me to come because he could not get anyone else (certainly the late July date for an August event hinted at this) or wanted me to come because he was feeling nostalgic and figured, What the hell, I’ll invite ol’ Martin Foster, as well. The former, I decided. In any case, I was interested. I knew I was, because my hand began to shake. There was a story waiting to be written. Still.
But what could I tell my editor it was about? About how the tower was variously—or simultaneously—adversary and friend; beacon and the dark in the Dark Night of the Soul? One’s Walkabout; one’s Vision Quest? About how legends fade—and begin in the first place—and why they do so? It was all that. I was sure of it. And if he would believe me, it was a way out of the morgue. I left for a bar, hands shaking, heart pounding, to think it through. I thought it through all night.
The editor, however, twenty-five years my junior, had never heard of Francisco’s Tower and only thought he vaguely recalled something on television about a triathlon in Mexico. He could not understand why this old rummy wanted to write a piece on some obscure triathlon. But it was my fault. Rumpled in front of him, sweating last night’s alcohol and this morning’s, too (I had had to steel my nerves), I did not present a picture of competence or credibility.
“Martin,” he said, “you know I read your obits now and then.”
“There’s no life in them.”
We both chuckled at that. “I have to do this,” I said.
“I’m sixty-five years old. I have to do this. Or there’s nothing any longer. I have to see.”
“I have to see!”
“No,” I said. “Please.”
“Then I quit. I must do this.” I hiccupped.
He leaned forward. “Martin, really, where would you go? You know?” He winced for me.
“Nowhere!” I yelled it, shocking us both. I got up quickly, let the room stop spinning, turned and left. I lurched down the hall, lips pressed to keep my stomach from leaping out.
And if I had forgotten how to write? Bent over, hands on knees, trying not to throw up, sweat, I saw, pooling in the creases of my shoes, I rode the elevator up and down twice before I could get my legs to move.
I drank myself into unconsciousness. I nearly missed the flight to Mexico. I could not get oxygen into my lungs. They were filled with terror.
Hot gusts of wind blowing down from the Three Sisters threw sand at the car. I touched the black dashboard, and it burned my fingers. The desert kept rising in front of me. I hoped the car wouldn’t overheat. What was I doing here? Even if I could write this story, who would buy it? What would it change? I got a flat tire from a particularly deep pothole in the blacktop. I pulled over. I fixed the tire. When I got back in the car, I grabbed my jug of water—but the last of it had evaporated.
I rolled on again toward The Three Sisters, on the three regular tires and the tiny, temporary job I had found in the trunk. It made the car look clownish. Perfect.
Then the car blew a head gasket, maybe a dozen miles from the village. I got out, slung my camera around my neck, took up my bag and the empty water jug, and walked. The sun was merciless. So was my thirst. I took off my jacket and put it over my head. The road lengthened the more I walked it. The grade never let up. And why had I brought the water jug? Should I drop it? I dropped it. ‘Unknown Man Found Dead in Desert.’
Within a mile or so I could no longer move forward without great, gasping effort. Then the desert became unbolted and slowly wheeled around me. I began to panic. Should I drop the bag? Was I going to die out here? Suddenly the village wheeled with the desert, like a toy placed on an LP. I had to keep my eyes on the road ahead; then I had to keep my eyes on my shoes; then I felt myself disassociating from these shoes. They weren’t a part of me. They were strange black things in front of me. But they weren’t going anywhere, just moving in place. How odd.
Puffs of desert sand obscured my view of the town as I entered. How did I get here? Was I here? The traffic light swung on its wire, lightless. I did not see any cars anywhere, but for one, in the street, hood up. Then I saw Diego up ahead of me, vigorously waving me toward him. I wasn’t sure he was real; in fact, I was certain he wasn’t. But I went toward him anyway. He was standing in front of his store. The letters in the name were still a bright poinsettia red, the wall a bright white.
Diego was laughing at me as I walked up, my shirt unbuttoned all the way, sweat-soaked undershirt clinging to my chest and belly, jacket over my head. His hair, like mine, was white, though he had a lot more of it. He was thin. One chin.
“I sent the letter to the same address. All these years. You never moved!”
I shrugged, broadly, angrily, and the effort of the motion almost made me fall. The village wheeled. Diego’s eyes going from me to my bag let me know he regretted the jibe. He came over and quickly took the bag from my hand. He took out a hankie from his pants pocket and wiped his nose.
“Come!” he said, “Refreshment!” Then over his shoulder, “My treat!”
As I prepared to follow him toward his establishment, two men emerged from the dark of its doorway into the light, one after the other. In an instant, I recognized the first. It was Wilfredo Salinas, the boy who had tried to help Francisco down twenty-five years ago. Same smile and kind eyes—behind glasses now.
“Do you remember our friends?” Diego announced.
“Yes,” I croaked. I extended my hand. “Wilfredo.”
“Doctor Wilfredo!” said Diego. “Doctor Wilfredo Salinas!”
“I am an oral surgeon,” he said. “Are you all right?”
“In Mexico City!” said Diego. “He came all the way here for our ceremony! And here of course is Señor Rivera,” he continued, indicating the second man, and I stuck out my hand and knew him, of course.
“Yes,” I said. He let me shake his hand as he smiled at the ground. He did not look a day older than he had twenty-five years ago.
“Come!” said Diego. Wilfredo took my elbow and helped me in.
Diego had set a table for the four of us in the very middle of his café. Liters of bottled water were nestled in an ice bucket on the table. I drank from one greedily, finishing it, before sitting down. Wilfredo brought me a T-shirt from off of one of Diego’s clothing racks. I took the coat from off my head, took off my shirt, stripped off my undershirt, and put on the T-shirt. Francisco’s Tower, the legend on it read. The room began to stop spinning. A girl no more than eleven served us.
We were the only patrons, though Diego got up twice, quickly, to tend to a customer in the store—each time a kid wanting a Coke and chips. An old, sorrel-colored dog struggled to get up the step into the store and cried for help. Diego ran over and lifted her up and into his arms. “There,” he said, “we’re all right.” He laid her in the shaft of light that penetrated the open doorway. He stroked her head.
“She cannot see much, can hardly hear,” Diego said to all of us, none of us. “But she still wants to go on her travels!”
Throughout our lunch, Diego kept checking his beeper on his belt, and when at last he did receive a page, he grabbed his cell phone from off the table, knocking over his bottle of beer. He jabbed at the numbers, getting up from the table for privacy.
As Señor Rivera, Wilfredo, and I drank beer, I watched Diego on the phone, standing over the sleeping Juanita, looking out of his doorway. The conversation was not going his way. He was gesturing excitedly. He was wiping sweat from his neck. I heard enough of his side of the conversation to learn that he was trying to get a TV news crew out to cover the dedication of the memorial plaque at Francisco’s Tower.
“But you don’t see, you don’t know, how important this tower is!” he said into the phone. “It has made the Valley what it is!” He listened; then said a weary “Sí.” He was getting passed to another person. “Bueno,” he said to the new person, with a mixture of relief and frustration.
As calmly as he could, he again launched into his story. Within a minute, however, he was wiping his neck again, then his nose. I looked away from Diego at the lunch I was not eating; and when I looked back at him, profile to me, his phone to the ear opposite, I had the illusion he was speaking to someone I could not see, just beyond his doorway.
“Don’t you see?” he said. “It spoke to a whole generation. It still does. Believe me. Sometimes you want it to shut up.” He gripped his forehead with his free hand. “But I mean, never mind.”
He was about to go on, but whoever he was speaking with cut him off. He listened. “Look, something happened here,” he continued. “It was more than a fad. Something happened here. Because of a boy. It wasn’t just a tower anymore.” He listened. “No! The triathlon was...no, the triathlon was a good thing. It was. But it wasn’t also, because no one remembered Francisco. No one remembered how he did it. No one wondered why. The mystery was gone. No one came looking for anything when the triathlon came. Just a fast time up, to beat the other guy. It had no power, the tower.”
Diego stopped to listen. “Yes, well,” he continued, “I don’t get it, either, quite frankly.” He laughed. “He simply fell, yes. Pretty damn far, to be sure, but didn’t others? And they still do. Why did he catch on because he fell? Why did this kid, this kid here, and this stunt, as you say, become famous? Why not some kid climbing something in Texas? Or California? Why Francisco? Why here? Why us? It’s a mystery! And why do we have it? This little place. And the world came. There’s something, you see?! Something’s here!”
Then Diego was abruptly coming to the table. “I have a very important American journalist here! Speak with him! He knows how important today is!” I raised my hand no, but Diego slapped the phone into it.
“Hello?” I said and listened as the harried, but polite, managing editor explained how she had been telling Diego it was just not something the station could do. And did he really think they could come up now—the day of the event? No flight, observing any law of physics, she laughed, was fast enough. Look, she continued, how about this? Why didn’t Diego take photos of the ceremony and Fed Ex them down? She’d use them as background for the weather report tomorrow night. She’d have the weatherman make a very nice mention of it.
“All right,” I said.
Diego pursed his lips hard. He understood I had capitulated, and he motioned for the phone with fast waggling fingers.
“You don’t understand!” he cried to the station manager, and then, “Here!” he said, looking at Wilfredo, and he switched gears and introduced “Doctor Wilfredo Salinas!” He held the phone out to him. Wilfredo, like me, gestured no, but finally and reluctantly took the phone.
“Hello?” he said, then listened, then said, “Well, you see, he was famous. He was a boy who inspired others. Many, many others by what he did. Including me.” Wilfredo seemed surprised to hear himself say it, but then sitting up a bit, he looked as if he were convinced it was true. “Well, I am an oral surgeon.”
In front of the afternoon window, Diego was a shadow, nodding approvingly. I saw behind him the empty highway. The little girl who served us came out of the back. She balled up her apron and stuck it in Diego’s back pocket. “Done, Daddy.” He turned around and kissed her on top of her head. She ran out.
“But don’t you see?” said Wilfredo, now exasperated himself. Diego stepped up and motioned the phone away from Wilfredo and turned and headed outside to carry on the conversation. He was not going to outright beg in front of us.
Wilfredo looked through the window at Francisco’s Tower.
“How long has he been on coke?” he asked me, as if I were the one to know.
“He is? How do you know?”
“The fidgets and–” He pointed at his nose, shrugged. “What else could it be?”
“He’s nervous? A cold?” I shrugged. Wilfredo shrugged.
None of us knew what to say. We all looked every which way, pathetic little half-smiles on our faces.
And then it came to me with the force of an afflatus: There was no great story here and there never had been. A crazy kid on drugs had climbed an electrical tower. Feeling challenged, a few boys had one-upped him. The climb became a fad. A fat schemer figured out how to encourage it. Some asshole needing a human-interest piece made some pretty words. The remote locale and very name of the place—The Three Sisters—had added a little mystery and luster, and foolish, credulous people came, until they realized it was a circus stunt. Better to climb a mountain—a mountain—for a better, higher view. Better to go to The Three Sisters themselves. And in the way all fads, mere fads, go, it had gone. And here I was, the most credulous of them all, a true believer, paying for it with the last of my life.
I was getting out of my chair, to go, to go, to fade away, when Wilfredo said, “You know, I don’t want to say anything to him, but they’re going to be taking these towers down. They’re going to be putting up windmills. Solar panels, too. These things,” and here Wilfredo jerked a thumb toward the distant tower, “they’re dinosaurs. They’re all about non-renewable resources. Oil. Gas.”
I had an image of Wilfredo reading the magazines in his own waiting room.
We looked out through the window, visualizing, I’m certain, Francisco’s Tower gone, and nothing but flat desert between us and The Three Sisters.
“Okay!” announced Diego, startling me, stepping back inside the store. “It’s time!” He put the phone down on the counter. “Let’s go!” he said, clapping his hands.
Diego, Wilfredo, Señor Rivera, and I, followed by a small group of locals (from where had they materialized?), crossed the potholed highway and walked out to Francisco’s Tower. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to run and dissolve in the running.
An accordion player was already at the tower, and he played us toward it, his bushy gray hair pushed by the wind to one side—a tumbleweed about to be loosened from its desert mooring. He stood between two life-preserver-sized wreaths on flimsy black stands, the summer blooms hanging crucified in the heat, both stands threatening to topple over with each gust.
We made a ragged semi-circle around the memorial plaque, which was covered by a rectangle of black velveteen, anchored on its four corners by big desert rocks. With a great flourish the accordion player finished his tune. There was silence, and in it, we heard, we listened to, the gusting wind soughing in the struts, yielding another kind of tune, this one haunting, strange, insistent.
Diego stepped forward and thanked everyone for coming. He removed the rocks and velveteen to reveal the plaque. It was a beautiful thing, in bronze, with raised letters. Diego had spent a lot of money on it. He read it for all of us:
“On August 6th, 1968
climbed this tower and raised our eyes
“Let us go on”
Beauty flew through me and out like a swift. Someone started applauding and the townspeople politely took it up. The wind took it all away.
“I wanted to put that he was from this town, but it got expensive,” said Diego. I was not sure to whom he was saying this. His head was bowed, hands clasped in front of him. He was gazing at the plaque.
Then he was all activity again: He took a dozen shots of the plaque. He posed various people between the plaque and the tower: kids on bikes; new grandmothers; two brothers; and a man from Las Floritas, who had climbed the tower some fourteen years ago.
I then saw Diego starting away. “Diego,” I said.
He turned. He held up his camera. “The weatherman wants to do a big piece on us. Big! I have to get these to Las Floritas. There’s a Fed Ex there now!”
The last image I have of him is of him going fast up the embankment toward the highway, one hand in the sand for support, camera strap swinging wildly to and fro from his other hand.
The villagers started drifting away. Wilfredo shook my hand. He had a flight to catch.
Then Señor Rivera was standing right in front of me. I could not ignore him. “Thank you for making the journey up here.”
I mumbled something, looking off.
He looked off himself and spoke: “All those years ago, you defended me when I said how brave he was.” He turned his eyes back to me. “You, too, were brave.” He suddenly reached out with both of his hands and grabbed one of mine. He squeezed it. “Please. It meant more than you will ever know. I held on to it, that I was not alone. My whole life I have been alone in my thoughts. Then I wasn’t. For so long, I’ve wanted to thank you.” He squeezed my hand again, then let go of it and went off.
I watched him go. I was brave?
A kid on a bike, his dog, and I were the only ones remaining at the tower. We listened to the haunting music of the struts and beams. I had impact?
“People used to climb this,” the kid said to me. “Can I take a picture with your camera?” I looked down. I didn’t even realize I had it around my neck. “Sure,” I said, taking it off.
I showed him how to work it.
He took a picture of his dog, then handed it back. “Thanks.” He then turned his bike around and rode off, the dog running after him, barking.
I was alone; and startled when the wind succeeded in knocking over one of the stands. The wind blew the wreath apart, blowing the petals across the desert and out of sight. I decided to take one shot of the plaque. But I had to take the velveteen and shoo away the encroaching, greedy sand. Quickly, I took the picture.
I then looked up, up, and back twenty-five years, remembering the boy. I put him back up there, on the highest tie beam, accomplished, calm, eyes on a new morning, and for a moment now, someone, for a moment now, free. I said, but inside myself, so the wind would not come and throw my words into the desert, “All right, Francisco. Where now?”