Monday, October 12, 2009

BARBARIA installment 1

My novel, BARBARIA, was released by PublishAmerica in August, 2009, but the company has seen fit to price the book out of reach for normal people. The retail price (at Amazon and PubAm) ranges from $29 to $34 per copy with shipping. The company's marketing strategy is to focus on the author as customer, but I can seldom afford even their "discounted" prices.

So I've decided to serialize the book on this blog for you to read. Please let me know what you think, and if you want a discounted copy, I have some available for $14, direct sale, not including shipping. Email if you're interested:
Thanks, Don

SYNOPSIS: The setting for the tale is nineteenth century California, 1880's & 1890's. Three brothers of the Obregon family have immigrated to California from Mexico. Jorge and Raphael are identical twins of maternal African-Indian descent. Lazaro, their elder half-brother is caucasian and, with forged documents, assumes an Irish identity as Lazarus O'Brian. He aids Jorge to set up a labor camp while Raphael, always the rebel, seeks his own fortune in the highly profitable sex trade. Frances, an Irish-American woman and the adopted daughter of Lazarus, is married to a merchant seaman. A murder is committed and justice is denied to the Obregons through the dynamics of corruption and racism. The brothers conspire to take certain risks to avenge their losses.

NOTE: "Barbaria" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable, indicating one character's nickname for California, The Land of the Barbarians.




On the ship from London, even though he had paid in advance for a first class cabin, the vessel’s captain ordered Senor Obregon, Cambridge scholar and heir to extensive land holdings in the New World, to cross the Atlantic in the hold, “ with the rest of the niggers.” For six days and nights, Jorge had been crammed into the vessel’s crowded lower regions with Russian, Irish and Italian peasants, and not a self respecting negro in the lot, except himself; the only one in steerage who could actually claim an African grandparent. The European huddled masses, with Jorge in their midst, slept on the bloody floor or on wooden bloody benches, shit in slop buckets, and ate moldy food, while dozens of sick children cried throughout the nights and vomited without warning.

Standing today on Depot Street in Sacramento, California, U.S.A., Jorge Obregon itched all over, as though the fabric of his underclothing had been spun from sand. A swarm of microscopic vermin had surely taken residence beneath his skin. He smelled like a rancid cheese, and his neck seemed to have stiffened at an acute angle from the rest of his body. If he didn’t get into a tub soon, he could never again be assured of viewing the world in any other way than on a slant.

He fished two coins from his trouser pocket and thanked the porter in Spanish, who shouted up to the cab driver in English, “No rough ride for this gentleman, you hear? He’s a generous man, and he’s from my country!”

“Ah, go on. You Mexicans just stick together. Probably won’t give me but a nickel.”

“What’s the fare?” Jorge stood on a wooden sidewalk and squinted at the driver. The sun was high in the southwest and the trees on the street were mere twigs, recently planted. The road in front of the railroad station was paved and filled with buggies and commercial wagons. Obregon was pleased about the pavement, having heard rumors that city streets of the Far West were better suited to the needs of wallowing hogs than gentleman travelers.

“Seventy five cents to the Grosvenor.”

“OK, then. A dollar for a smooth ride, but if you jar any teeth loose, I take your horse in compensation.”

“Hell, Mister, for two dollars you can buy the rig and drive yourself.”

Jorge settled into a cushioned leather seat and waved goodbye to the porter. It was The Ides of March 1888, and he had been on the train for seven days and six nights, reading Nietzsche. Probably some symbolic connection there; the dark Ubermensch arrives in California on the date that Caesar fell under the assassins’ knives; perhaps an ill omen. He hoped it did not portend more exclusion problems at the end of his journey. He wanted a deep, hot bath and a real bed with a goose-down comforter. For more than two weeks he had been pilloried and humiliated by the white god-damned Ubermensch of Great Britain and America, both on land and at sea, and had had quite enough of it.

In New York Harbor, the Immigration sods had kept him for twenty four hours in their “cattle barn” before they would even talk to him, or so much as glance at his papers. When he finally arrived in Boston for his interview at Harvard, The Hotel Dunsmuir management made him sleep on tick and canvas in the servant’s quarters. A rough woolen blanket, no heat, and a coldwater basin.

Of course, after all of this inconvenience, Professor Royce had been pained to give him the bad news. Jorge’s application for admission to the Harvard University Graduate School of Philosophy had been refused. That bit had depressed and discouraged him of course, but at the same time he had been glad for any excuse to exit himself from Boston.

Jorge’s train accommodations across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains had been posh by comparison to both the ship and the Dunsmuir Hotel. He hadn’t been allowed in a sleeping car, but at least had been able to bribe the conductor for a private seating compartment. Now, he wanted a hot bath. If he did not get one, he would show these California provincials an avenging Mexican in action. Purchase a pistol, perhaps, and dispatch the Grosvenor Bell Captain. Shoot him first, then seek out the rest of the managerial staff, and tend to them as well. He would rather be strung up by one of their infamous lynch mobs than pass another night without a bath.

The Sacramento afternoon was cool, and Jorge tucked the woolen taxi blanket around his legs. He wore a dark serge suit with a celluloid collar and a black silk cravat, held with a diamond pin. He was clean shaven, and his tightly curled black hair was trimmed to collar length and neatly combed, barely showing the indentation of a bowler hat, which now rested beside him on the seat. Jorge retrieved his watch from a vest pocket. Storms on the Kansas plains and in the mountains of Colorado had delayed his arrival by twelve hours. The late afternoon sun was slanting through the windows on his right. He averted his eyes from the glare and observed the Californians, crowding the sidewalks. The Barbarians, he and his English friends called them.

His route from the railroad station was through a neighborhood of three and four story hotels and tenements. The pedestrians were mostly men in plain workers’ clothing, but business suits were in evidence, as well as women shopping with their children. Jorge took comfort from observing a number of dark faces in the throng, but suspected correctly that as he was carried farther from the station, color would fade.

“You’ll find yourself quite at home out there,” his dorm mate, Tuck, had said to encourage him, “All dark skinned folk that far west, you know. Wild Indians, going about with their feathered bonnets.” Tuck, staring through thick, round eyeglass lenses, spoke with the authority of one who considered a vast knowledge of Homer and Herodotus all that was truly necessary for a civilized gentleman. “Yes, yes. You’ll get on famously in Barbaria, I’m sure. Might want to add a few feathers to your wardrobe, eh?”

Jorge’s older brother, Lazaro (or “Lazarus”, as he now preferred) had, assured Jorge by mail that The Grosvenor was accommodating to international guests of every hue and culture, and that he would not encounter the sort of crude behavior that he had been forced to put up with in Boston.

Indeed, as Lazaro had promised, Jorge’s cab was not diverted from the front to the back door of the hotel, and he was allowed to enter the main lobby and register at the desk like a proper human being. Another Mexican Porter hoisted his bags, and he was led to his second floor quarters by a courteous white bellman, apparently Australian, who even lit the water heater, explaining in detail how to successfully draw a bath. Jorge responded with a tip that was more than generous, and restrained himself from falling to the floor and kissing the fellow’s feet.

The Grosvenor was a first class hotel, catering to an international elite, who, according to Brother Lazaro, visited California in substantial numbers for reasons of business and politics. Jorge had indeed observed a group of jovial Chinese men in the lobby, chattering away in their hilarious language with braided hair, wearing gowns. The multistoried building was designed and constructed in a Spanish style U shape, resembling a large California Mission, and reminding Jorge of Italy. The grounds were landscaped with a mix of fruit trees, cypress, lilies and dahlia. There was a central garden with graveled walkways, and benches located in groves. There were, however, no statues of saints or crucifixes in evidence, and the heart of the Spanish garden finally gave way to England in the form of an elaborate Victorian gazebo, painted white and trimmed in forest green. After his bath, he hoped to take Nietzsche to the gazebo.

Jorge removed his coat, tie and collar, then unbuckled the straps of his suitcase and began to unpack. He had just finished hanging his shirts and suits in an armoire, when there was a rap at the door. He went quickly to respond, expecting a note from his older brother, whom he had not seen since childhood. He pulled open the door, and there was the brother in the flesh, a white man in his mid-fifties, medium height, thinning hair, and the blue-gray eyes of their father.

“Lazaro!” Jorge shouted, “Is it you? Is it really you?” The two men grinned and embraced. Lazaro had tears in his eyes as he held his brother at arms’ length and studied him with some amazement.

“Ahhh. What happened to El Pequeno? Where did he go, that sweet little child?”

“Well, he’s struggling to become a man of letters, now, isn’t he? Almost a philosopher, some would say,” Jorge blushed. “But he also itches and stinks. Please allow me to bathe before we visit, lest you become infested with my lice.”

The two walked arm in arm toward the bathroom. A writing desk with pens, paper, an inkwell and two chairs, stood by a west window. Lazaro grabbed one of the chairs, “May I sit by your tub and supervise the ablutions? Let me remove my coat. I’ll even give your back a scrub. Do you remember those days?”

“I do indeed. Raphael and I used to give you a good soaking for your trouble. Auntie would always chide you,” said Jorge, peeling off his shirt. Raphael was Jorge’s identical twin brother. The pair was born in Lazaro’s twentieth year, to their father’s second wife.

“Yes, yes. She would always tell me to just disrobe and join you two rascals in the tub, but I felt it important to remain fully clothed; to maintain my authority while you soaked me through to the skin.”

Jorge turned on the water and sprinkled a generous handful of scented salts into the tub. “Let me fill this tub and call for coffee and something to eat,” he said. The room filled with steam and heady fragrances of lavender and orange blossoms.

“I’ve ordered food and drink already,” responded Lazaro, settling his stout frame onto the chair, “Cold beef, white bread, and a bottle of red wine made by Italian immigrants. The California National Dish!”

Jorge stripped and stepped into the tub, then lowered himself into the churning water with a great, luxurious sigh. “Marvelous!”

“So. It’s Senor Philosopher, now, is it Mi Hermano?” Lazaro asked, “How was your meeting with the venerable Dr. Royce?”

“I’ve been rejected by Harvard,” Jorge said, frowning, and squeezing a sponge over his head, “and I feel bad about that. But my meeting with Royce was thrilling, perhaps the high point of my life. Well, my intellectual life, at any rate. This bath is the high point of my entire life.”

Lazaro reached over and gripped the younger man’s arm. “ Tell me more about this meeting of the philosophers. Tell me more.”

“I don’t think I can really put it into words,” Jorge said after splashing about and reflecting for a moment, “He’s a man of great warmth and intelligence, and he complimented my writing. That’s what I liked best about him. He complimented my writing. He also told me that, in his opinion, Harvard’s committee on Graduate Admissions are a pack of racial bigots, and that my color is probably the only reason for my exclusion. ”

“Yes. He thinks your something of a shining star on the horizon of metaphysics. I believe that’s how he put it. He wrote to me, you know. I received his letter just two days ago.” Lazaro’s light brown hair was curled around his ears, and turning white at the temples. He wore the customary dark suit of a man of the legal profession, and a silk vest of gray and blue stripe. He wore a darker gray cravat, also pinned in place with an expensive diamond. Their father’s custom, passed on to the sons. Some had called the old man El Diamante, and he had adored the name.

“No, I didn’t know!” Jorge jerked his head about and looked at his brother through foaming eyelashes, “Josiah Royce wrote to you? About me?”

“Yes, among other things. He owns property out here, and I do some legal work for the gentleman. But primarily, he wrote about you. Most importantly about you.”

Jorge’s eyes widened, then scrunched tightly, stinging from the soap. He drenched his face and attempted to speak at the same time, “But…but…pero…”

Lazaro laughed aloud. “At this moment, you have the look of a small boy in the bath who has no command of the King’s English. How can that be? Dr. Royce says that you’re an articulate young man of amazing intellect!”

“He said that? He said that?”

There was another knock on the door, and Lazaro went to greet room service while his youthful brother attempted to submerge in a six-inch bath, and to recover from a mild state of shock. But the man was too excited, now, to lie about in perfumed waters. He raised himself, dripping, and stepped out onto a heavy, braided rug. When Lazaro re-entered the bathroom, Jorge ambushed him with a damp sponge, a direct hit to the chest. For over two hours, the two ate and talked and studied one another. This was Jorge’s first visit to California. Lazaro had come with a forged Irish passport in the 1866, and the entire Obregon family moved there from Vera Cruz in the ‘70s and ‘80s, except for Jorge, who was a student at Cambridge College, England.

“How long have you been in California?” Jorge asked him, “Are you actually citizen of this country? Do they let Mexicans become citizens?”

“Twenty two years, now,” he answered, “Papa had extensive holdings here when it was still Mexico, you know. But we lost all of the land, and had to start over. And I am a citizen, but only because they think I came from Ireland.”

“Ah, yes. Lazarus O’Brian, I presume?”

“You know what else?” he went on, “ I haven’t seen you since Papa’s funeral. Do you remember? You and that rascal twin of yours had just turned fourteen. What a pair.”

“How is my Raphael? He never writes letters. Auntie wrote that he had moved to some cow town somewhere.”

“Ah, no, Hombre. It’s a farming town called Vacaville. The Vacas were a Mexican family who owned a huge ranch there before the war. Our father knew them well. Raphael is doing all right, I guess. We don’t see him very often. He lives on the edge of the law, still. I don’t think he plans on changing his bandido ways.”

“My twin brother a criminal! What the hell is he doing, robbing banks? Am I in danger of arrest by mistaken identity? ” Jorge’s relaxed smile disappeared. A wave of anxiety dried his throat quite suddenly, causing his voice to crack, so that he sounded a bit like a chicken, guarding her eggs.

Lazaro attempted an abrupt change of subject. “Did you read the Bancroft history? Your professor friend used to study with Bancroft, you know.”

Jorge had been studying in Europe for five years, supported by Lazaro. Four years in England, interrupted midway by an ill-fated year of seminary in Rome. At Cambridge, he had attended several guest lectures by Josiah Royce, a prominent American philosopher, who was roundly criticized, even ridiculed, for his anachronistic idealism by the resident faculty. Jorge didn’t think much of Cambridge orthodoxy, and found himself enthralled by the American’s outrageously romantic view of social history. He had written Royce, and included in the letter a few comments, connecting the Harvard professor’s ideas with those of Rousseau and Marx. Royce, born in California during the Gold Rush, was intrigued by Jorge’s family connections, as well as by the youth’s philosophical leanings. He invited the young man to visit him at Harvard, and recommended the Bancroft History, which Jorge had read, forthwith.

“Yes, he provided me with an advance copy of the first volume. He told me that he’s working on a history himself. I’m enthused also. I’ve never been interested in the Wild West, until now. At school, we call this place ‘Barbaria’ …” Jorge’s voice drifted into silence. He had trained himself over the years to stop worrying about Raphael. Since Jorge had left for England in 1883, the twins had had virtually no contact. For the first several months, Jorge had written regularly, but without response. Their older sister, Natividad, whom they called ‘Auntie’, would only mention Raphael in vague and general terms when she wrote to Jorge: “ Raphael is fine. His health is good. Came by with a senorita. Still not married.”

“Barbaria, is it?” Lazaro interjected, snapping Jorge out of his trance. “ Land of the Barbarians? Oh, that’s a good one.”

“Lazaro, please. Tell me about Raphael.”

Lazaro shook his head and sighed. “We are three strange brothers, aren’t we, Hermano?”

Jorge remained silent. He couldn’t help feeling frightened. His carefully constructed defenses were slipping, preparing to tumble like the proverbial walls of Jericho. The truth about Raphael threatened to be God’s avenging clarion, and he felt he would be crushed under the impact. He stood up from his chair and crossed the room to the bed, and sat down again.

“Do you remember Arrigo?” Jorge said.

“Arrigo? Ah, you must mean the horse. Yes, yes. Father wrote me a long letter about that, years ago. He felt very guilty about sending Raphael away for killing that horse. Poor father. He really did love his children more than his horses. You can’t say the same for all men, can you?”

“Our brother was tormented, Lazaro. A tormented child,” said Jorge. “I worry about him … that … I don’t know … that he suffers too much, I suppose.”

At the age of eleven the twins’ father had taken the boys into the horse barn to witness the breeding of a mare. The children watched in silence as a caballero held a haltered mare and Father led the agitated Arrigo to mount the female from behind and penetrate her with his mighty, meter-long erection. Before dawn the following morning, Raphael tied their father’s prized and beloved stallion in the barn and started a fire in the creature’s stall, cooking the beast to a crisp. That same week, Don Castillo Guzman Obregon had his son taken away to a Carmelite monastery in the hills above Mexico City, and confined to a cell for nearly a year. After that, Raphael became cautious and more discreet, but never penitent.

“Ah, you worry too much, my brother,” said Lazaro, “Listen to me. Raphael knows very well how to take care of himself. These gringos would make him sweat in the fields for fifteen cents a day, but he laughs in their faces. He wears fine clothes, has plenty of money, and white men protect him from their own police. Don’t worry about Raphael.”

For all of their lives, since they were small children, Raphael had been the center of the family’s attention, because he was constantly in trouble. Jorge had spent his childhood trying everything in his power to get his brother to change. In the end, nothing had worked, not even incarceration.

“I’ve thought about it often, Lazaro. I talked to my confessor at Cambridge about it many times.” Jorge said.

“The stallion?” Lazaro laughed gently. “You spoke to a priest about your twin brother cooking your father’s horse?”

Jorge smiled in spite of himself.

“You told the priest that if you had done the cooking, you would have seasoned the meat first, is that it?” Lazaro roared. Jorge collapsed backwards on the bed, giggling. But tears came to his eyes, and the laughter faded into silence.

“Three strange brothers,” Lazaro repeated. “One white, two dark. One old, two young. One businessman, one intellectual, one criminal. You’re the philosopher, Jorge. What was God thinking when he sent us three into this world, bound together by the blood of our father?”

Jorge didn’t respond. He sat up, trembling slightly, wiping his tears. Lazaro knelt before the young man with a glass of wine, and held it to his lips. Jorge took the glass and drank it down.

“So, my little Indian brother.” Lazaro took a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Jorge. “You know, your mother was perhaps the most beautiful woman in all of Vera Cruz. And your African grandmother! Ah, what a woman. Escaped from a slave ship. She used to tell us such stories. Cruel and beautiful stories, in that singsong accent. We couldn’t understand half of her words, but we never tired of listening.”

“I remember her,” Jorge said, barely above a whisper. “I have memories of following her along the street, holding on to her skirt. I can still see the bright colors of her dresses in my mind. And I remember her death. Auntie was comforting Raphael and me. She told us that Mamou was going to be with our mother in Heaven.”

“Yes, that’s the sort of thing we tell children, isn’t it? To alleviate their pain.”

“It frightened me. I had never seen my mother, and when Auntie said that, I knew I would never see Mamou again. I remember reaching across in front of Raphael and grabbing the crocheted bedspread. I locked my fingers in the holes of the spread and wouldn’t let go. I was trying to keep our Grandmother out of Heaven.”

Lazaro leaned over Jorge and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re exhausted, young man. You need sleep. Stop all of this brooding, and get into bed. I’ll come for you around noon tomorrow, and we’ll take the train to Vallejo.”

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