The Problem with Ernesto

© 2001 by Stephanie Lee Jackson





"Pink Wall," Stephanie Lee Jackson, oil on wood, 1999.
private collection of Rhonda and Lloyd Weaver
Just yesterday I was talking with Claire about our old ghost, Ernesto, and she complained, Sometimes I think I m crazy. Nobody here believes me. When I mention it their eyes glaze over. I myself am sick of explaining it. Whenever the subject comes up, I say, yeah, I had a ghost. Executed during the Inquisition. Really pissed about it. But he s gone now. People get a look of mild alarm, like someone just hit them with a teddy bear, and when they realize there s no long, dramatic story coming, they relax again. So I suppose I d better put the long, dramatic story down on paper while I still remember the details.

Ernesto lived, or existed I suppose is a better way of putting it, in Gretchen s house, although he pre-dated the existing structure by several hundred years. When we asked him if he d lived in the house, he replied, No, below. And indeed, Guanajuato, Mexico is one of those archeologist s fantasies, along the lines of Rome, where the eighteenth-century cathedrals were built with the bricks of sixteenth-century missions, which were built deliberately on top of whatever native holy place the colonial Spaniards were anxious to quash, which in its turn was probably built on the site of the prehistoric communal fire pit. The town is riddled with tunnels, connecting the houses, cathedrals and government buildings, some secret, some walled-up, some filled with Spanish gold and the bones of heretics and hapless Indians, some used as arterial bus routes. So I assume some of the rocks in the foundation of Gretchen s house were originally part of Ernesto s fireplace, assuming he needed some continuity of circumstance in order to hang around. I doubt it, though. He was a stubborn old bastard.

I rented the house from Gretchen, whom I met in the café one morning when she arrived for one of her erratic Mexican sojourns. She slumped in her chair complaining about back pain, caused by driving for five days from Toronto without stopping, while her twelve-year-old daughter, Laurie, smiled seraphically into my cheekbone. Gretchen, it transpired, was a glass sculptress and painter who would be famous if she weren t unfortunately born female, and Laurie was an actual seraphim. I liked Laurie a lot.

"Your work is very decorative,"said Gretchen dismissively, after looking at the first image in my portfolio. Then she looked at the rest of them, and decided I was a real artist after all. You shouldn put that floral one first, it gives people the wrong idea. You probably t like my work, it s much more spontaneous.

When I saw her paintings I was reminded forcibly of my art school years, wherein I would put on the Cure at 3 A.M., staple a canvas to the wall, empty my brain, and attack it with all the inarticulate angst of twenty-four. The resultant images were twisted, tortured, surreal, and difficult to live with. They got a lot of peer attention but nobody wanted to buy them, and after I outgrew some of my youthful misery, my paintings grew both more cheerful and more controlled. Very often during those times I got the feeling that I was channelling the figures and dreams of some otherworldly spirits, and this was problematic, because if the spirits didn t feel like painting, I was at a loss.

No, actually I like your work, it s a lot like the stuff I used to do, I told Gretchen, and although I doubt she would have been overcome by flattery had she been listening, at least she perceived me as an ally. The other expatriate painters in town, male, were more conservative and more financially successful than Gretchen and I, no doubt doing a thriving business with Middle America Hotel Rooms, Inc. I gave Gretchen a free massage for her back pain, and she decided I was the best thing since cheese.

I liked Gretchen s house better than her paintings. She found it by scanning the hillside with binoculars, searching for abandoned buildings, tracking down the landlady, and convincing her to rent it at bargain-basement rates. There was some indication that it was for sale, but what was certain was that it had been empty for some time and nobody seemed to want it. Gretchen arranged and paid for all repairs to roof, plumbing, gas and electricity, because the landlady wouldn t go near it, not even to collect the rent. At first glance I knew that it was the studio, literally, of my dreams--a sky-ceilinged, light-drenched, two-story palace with a roof terrace and a panoramic view of the city. When Gretchen said I could have it for six months at $260 per, I abandoned all previous plans.

Aside from a few trifling inconveniences such as getting broken-into over Christmas, the front door locking me out for no explicable reason, erratic shower flow, and an unclosable roof door which banged like heavy artillery in high winds, the first few months were bliss. I put Arvo Pärt De Profundis on a repeat loop at top volume in my studio to sustain the correct vibration, and painted the Pantheon at late afternoon on Día de los Muertos, rose and gold shining through tacky wreaths and casting long shadows over the mausoleums. I felt no guilt over noise and neighbors; when the British guy down the alley approached the family next door about muting the cries of the pit-bull puppies living on their roof, they told him to fuck off and go home, gringo. So I figured live, let live, and drown them out.

One afternoon in mid-March, though, I went downstairs for lunch, and when I went back up half an hour later, glass of milk in hand, the top floor was full of smoke. The little shelf in the sunroom, arranged as a sort of informal altar, was a roaring wall of flame. I said shit, ran down the stairs again, poured the milk into the sink for some reason, and started filling up buckets. I realized that I had no idea what number to dial for the fire department, or if there even WAS a fire department, or how they could get fire trucks or hoses anywhere near a narrow cobblestone alley halfway up the side of a mountain.

I yelled INCENDIO! AYUDA! out the window, and ran up and down the stairs with buckets of water and wet blankets. The bedroom was so full of smoke that I had to crouch. I tried to fill up the wash tub, but couldn t get it out the bathroom door. I said shit some more, turned off the gas, and ran foolishly about.

But when the firemen, called bomberos , which word I found enchanting, actually arrived, the fire was under control, and I was looking for a broom with which to clear the wreckage. They videotaped me and the smoking ruins of my altar, took down my name and age (why?), and one of the firefighters came down with some blackened debris in a wet blanket and asked where I wanted to put it.

In the alley, I said, bemused.

Later on, I could only speculate as to the cause; it seemed almost supernatural. I mean, my ALTAR suddenly burst into FLAME, that SCARY. There were no lit candles, no cigarette ends, no flammable chemicals anywhere in the vicinity. It was a sunny day, and Lord knows that sunroom heats up, but surely it wouldn t get hot enough to spontaneously combust. The only thing I could figure is that the quartz crystal, supposedly there to generate good energy, might have acted as a magnifying glass and ignited the fabric. Or somebody said that Mexican candle wax has a high petroleum content; maybe the candle exploded.

But the only things of value I lost were my old journal (which I saved, in its partially charred state, in a plastic bag for my future archivists and biographers), my Tarot deck, and my Furby. Other casualties were some of Laurie s dolls and a rustic-looking chair which was singed down one side. The bedroom walls were horribly and unwashably smokestained, while the sunroom was entirely black. I had to put my art on hold, spending the next two weeks washing linens, scrubbing walls and floors, airing the house and the bedding, and repainting the top floor a calming peach. My main fear was that Gretchen would freak out and evict me, but she didn t even respond to my apologetic but responsible-sounding emails.

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