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Chapter 11

And Jacob served seven years for Rachel;

and they seemed unto him but a few days,

for the love he had to her.

Genesis 29:20

SOMETIMES, WHILE washing dishes, I would amuse myself by calculating how high a stack of dishes I had washed since going to work for our patr'on, Don Jaime. The ordinary plate used in Pancho Villa caf'e stacked twenty plates to a foot. I arbitrarily decided that a cup and saucer, or two glasses, would count as one plate, since these items did not stack well. And so forth.

The great Mazatl'an lighthouse is five hundred and fifteen feet tall, only forty feet shorter than the Washington Monument. I remember the day I completed my first 'lighthouse stack'. I had told Margrethe earlier that week that I was approaching my goal and expected to reach it by Thursday or early Friday.

And did so, Thursday evening - and left the scullery, stood in the door between the kitchen and the dining room, caught Margrethe's eye, raised my hands high and shook hands with myself like a pugilist.

Margrethe stopped what she was doing - taking orders from a family party - and applauded. This caused her to have to explain to her guests what was going on, and that resulted in her stopping by the scullery a few minutes later to pass to me a ten-peso note, a congratulatory gift from the father of that family. I asked her to thank him for me, and please tell him that I had just started my second lighthouse stack, which I was dedicating to him and his family.

Which in turn resulted in Se~nora Valera sending her husband, Don Jaime, to find out why Margrethe was wasting time and making a scene instead of paying attention to her work... which resulted in Don Jaime inquiring how much the diners had tipped me and then matching it.

The Se~nora had no reason to complain; Margrethe was not only her best waitress; she was her only bilingual waitress. The day we started to work for Sr y Sra Valera a sign painter was called in to paint a conspicuous sign: ENGLIS SPOKE HERE. Thereafter, in addition to being available for any English-speaking guests, Margrethe prepared menus in English (and the prices on the menus in English were about forty percent higher than the prices on the all-Spanish menus).

Don Jaime was not a bad boss. He was cheerful and, on the whole, kindly to his employees. When we had been there about a month he told me that he would not have bid in my debt had it not been that the judge would not permit my contract to be separated from Margrethe's contract, we being a married couple (else I could have found myself a field hand able to see my wife only on rare occasions - as Don Ambrosio had told me, Don Clemente was a humane judge).

I told him that I was happy that the package included me but it simply showed his good judgment to want to hire Margrethe.

He agreed that that was true. He had attended the Wednesday labor auctions several weeks on end in search of a bilingual woman or girl who could be trained as a waitress, then had bid me in as well to obtain Margrethe - but he wished to tell me that he had not regretted it as he had never seen the scullery so clean, the dishes so immaculate, the silverware so shiny.

I assured him that it was my happy privilege to help uphold the honor and prestige of Restaurante Pancho Villa and its distinguished patr'on, el Don Jaime.

In fact it would have been difficult for me not to improve that scullery. When I took over, I thought at first that the floor was dirt. And so it was - you could have planted potatoes! - but under the filth, about a half inch down, was sound concrete. I cleaned and then kept it clean - my feet were still bare. Then I demanded roach powder.

Each morning I killed roaches and cleaned the floor. Each evening, just before quitting for the day, I sprinkled roach powder. It is impossible (I think) to conquer roaches, but it is possible to fight them to a draw, force them back and maintain a holding action.

As to the quality of my dishwashing, it could not be otherwise; my mother had a severe dirt phobia and, because of my placement in a large family, I washed or wiped dishes under her eye from age seven through thirteen (at which time I graduated through taking on a newspaper route that left me no time for dishwashing).

But just because I did it well, do not think I was enamored of dishwashing. It had bored me as a child; it bored me as a man.

Then why did I do it? Why didn't I run away?

Isn't that evident? Dishwashing kept me with Margrethe. Running away might be feasible for some debtors - I don't think much effort went into trying to track down and bring back debtors who disappeared some dark night - but running away was not feasible for a married couple, one of whom was a conspicuous blonde in a country in which any blonde, is always conspicuous and the other was a man who could not speak Spanish.

While we both worked hard - eleven to eleven each day except Tuesday, with a nominal two hours off for siesta and a half hour each for lunch and dinner - we had the other twelve hours each day to ourselves, plus all day 'Tuesday.

Niagara Falls never supplied a finer honeymoon. We had a tiny attic room at the back of the restaurant building. It was hot but we weren't there much in the heat of the day - by eleven at night it was comfortable no matter how hot the day had been. In Mazatl'an most residents of our social class (zero!) did not have inside plumbing. But we worked and lived in a restaurant building; there was a flush toilet we shared with other employees during working hours and shared with no one the other twelve hours of each day. (There was also a Maw Jones out back, which I sometimes used during working hours - I don't think Margrethe ever used it.)

We had the use of a shower on the ground floor, -back to back with the employees' toilet, and the needs of the scullery were such that the building had a large water heater. Se~nora Valera scolded us regularly for using too much hot water ('Gas costs money!'); we listened in silence and went right on using whatever amount of hot water we needed.

Our patr'on's contract with the state required him to supply us with food and shelter (and clothing, under the law, but I did not learn this until too late to matter), which is why we slept there, and of course we ate there - not the chef's specialties, but quite good food.

'Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.' We had only ourselves; it was enough.

Margrethe, because she sometimes received tips, especially from gringos, was slowly accumulating cash money. We spent as little of this as possible - she bought shoes for each of us -and she saved against the day when we would be free of our peonage and able to go north. I had no illusions that the nation north of us was the land of my birth... but it was this world's analog of it; English was spoken there and I was sure that its culture would have to be closer to what we had been used to.

Tips to Margrethe brought us into friction with Se~nora Valera the very first week. While Don Jaime was legally our patr~on, she owned the restaurant - or so we were told by Amanda the cook. Jaime Valera had once been head-waiter there and had married the owner's daughter. This made him permanent maitre d'hotel. When his father-in-law died, he became the owner in the eyes of the public. But his wife retained the purse strings and presided over the cash register.

(Perhaps I should add that he was 'Don Jaime' to us because he was our patr'on; he was not a Don to the public.

The honorific 'Don' will not translate into English, but owning a restaurant does not make a man a Don - but, for example, being a judge does.)

The first time Margrethe was seen to receive a tip, the Se~nora told her to turn it over - at the end of each week she would receive her percentage.

Margrethe came straight to me in the scullery. 'Alec, what shall I do? Tips were my main income in the Konge Knut and no one ever asked me to share them. Can she do this to me?'

I told her not to turn her tips over to the Se~nora but to tell her that we would discuss it with her at the end of the day.

There is one advantage to being a pe'on: You don't get fired over a disagreement with your boss. Certainly we could be fired... but that would simply lose the Valeras some ten thousand pesos they had invested in us.

By the end of the day I knew exactly what to say and how to say it - how Margrethe must say it, as it was another month before I soaked up enough Spanish to maintain a minimum conversation:

'Sir and Madam, we do not understand this ruling about gifts to me. We want to see the judge and ask him what our contract requires.'

As I had suspected, they were not willing to see the judge about it. They were legally entitled to Margrethe's service but they had no claim on money given to her by a third party.

This did not end it. Se~nora Valera was so angry at being balked by a mere waitress that she had a sign posted: NO PROPINAS - NO TIPS, and the same notice was placed in the menus.

Pe'ones can't strike. But there were five other waitresses, two of them Amanda's daughters. The day Sefiora Valera ordered no tipping she found that she had just one waitress (Margrethe) and no one in the kitchen. She gave up. But I am sure she never forgave us.

Don Jaime treated us as employees; his wife treated us as slaves. Despite that old clich'e about 'wage, slaves', there is a world of difference. Since we both tried hard to be faithful employees while paying off our debt but flatly refused to be slaves, we were bound to tangle with Se~nora Valera.

Shortly after the disagreement over tips Margrethe became convinced that the Se~nora was snooping in our bedroom. If true, there was no way to stop her; there was no lock for the door and she could enter our room without fear of being caught any day while we were working.

I gave some thought to boobytraps until Margrethe vetoed the idea. She simply thereafter kept her mo hey on her person. But it was a measure of what we thought of our 'patroness' that Margrethe considered it necessary to lake precautions against her stealing from us.

We did not let Se~nora Valera spoil our happiness. And we did not let our dubious status as a 'married' couple spoil our somewhat irregular honeymoon. Oh, I would have spoiled it because I always have had this unholy itch to analyze matters I really do not know how to analyze. But Margrethe is much more practical than I am and simply did not permit it. I tried to rationalize our relationship to her by pointing out that polygamy was not forbidden by Holy Writ but solely by modern law and custom - and she chopped me off briskly by saying that she had no interest in how many wives or concubines King Solomon had and did not regard him or any Old Testament character as a model for her own behavior. If I did not want to live with her, speak up! Say so!

I shut up. Some problems are best let be, not chewed over with words. This modern compulsion to 'talk it out' is a mistake at least as often as it is a solution.

But her disdain for Biblical authority concerning the legality of one man having two wives was so sharp that I asked her about it later - not about polygamy; I stayed away from that touchy subject; I asked her how she felt about the authority of Holy Writ in general. I explained that the church I was brought up in believed in strict interpretation -'A whole Bible, not a Bible full of holes' - Scripture was the literal word of God... but that I knew that other churches felt that the spirit rather than the letter ruled... some being so liberal that they hardly bothered with the Bible. Yet all of them called themselves Christian.

'Margrethe my love, as deputy executive secretary of Churches United for Decency I was in daily contact with members of every Protestant sect in the country and in liaison association with many Roman Catholic clerics on matters where we could join in a united front. I learned that my own church did not have a monopoly on virtue. A man could be awfully mixed up in religious fundamentals and still be a fine citizen and a devout Christian.'

I chuckled as I recalled something and went on, 'Or to put it in reverse, one of my Catholic friends, Father Mahaffey, told me that even I could squeeze into Heaven, because the Good. Lord in His infinite wisdom made allowances for the ignorance and wrongheadedness of Protestants.'

This conversation took place on a Tuesday, our day off, the one day a week the restaurant did not open, and in consequence we were on top of el Cerro de la Neveria Icebox Hill, but it sounds better in Spanish - and just finishing a picnic lunch. This hill was downtown, close to Pancho Villa caf'e, but was a bucolic oasis; the citizens had followed the Spanish habit of turning hills into parks rather than building on them. A happy place -

'My dear, I would never try to proselytize you into my church. But I do want to know as much about you as possible. I find that I don't know much about churches in Denmark. Mostly Lutheran, I think - but does Denmark have its own established state church like some other European nations? Either way, which church is yours, and is it strict interpretationist or liberal - and again, either way, how do you feel about it? And remember what Father Mahaffey said - I agree with him. I don't think that my church has the only door into Heaven.'

I was lying stretched out; Margrethe was seated with her knees drawn up and holding them and was faced west, staring out to sea. This placed her with her face turned away from me. She did not answer my query. Presently I said gently, 'My dear, did you hear me?'

'I heard you.'

Again I waited, then added, 'If I have been prying where I should not pry, I'm sorry and I withdraw the question.'

'No. I knew that I would have to answer it some day. Alec, I am not a Christian.' She let go her knees, swung around, and looked me in the eye. 'You can have a divorce as simply as we married, just by telling me so. I won't fight it; I will go quietly away. But, Alec, when you told me that you loved me, then later when you told me that we were married in the eyes of God, you did not ask me my religion.'


'Yes, Alec?'

'First, wash out your mouth. Then ask my pardon.'

'There may be enough wine left in the bottle to rinse out my mouth. But I cannot ask pardon for not telling you this. I would have answered truthfully at any time. You did not ask.'

'Wash out your mouth for talking about divorce. Ask my pardon for daring to think that I would ever divorce you under any circumstances whatever. If you are ever naughty enough, I may beat you. But I would never put you away. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and heath, now and forever. Woman, I love you! Get that through your head.'

Suddenly she was in my arms, weeping for only the second time, and I was doing the only thing possible, namely, kissing her.

I heard a cheer behind me and turned my head. We had had the top of the hill to ourselves, it being a work day for most people. But I found that we had an audience of two streetwise urchins, so young that sex was unclear. Catching my eye, one of them cheered again, then made loud kissing noises.

'Beat it!' I called out. 'Scram! Vaya con Dios! Is that what I wanted to say, Marga?'

She spoke to them and they did go away, after more high giggles. I needed the interruption. I had said to Margrethe what had to be said because she needed immediate reassurance after her silly, gallant speech. But nevertheless I was shaken to my depths.

I started to speak, then decided that I had said enough for one day. But Margrethe said nothing, too; the silence grew painful. I felt that matters could not be left so, balanced uncertainly on edge. 'What is your faith, dear one? Judaism? I do remember now that there are Jews in Denmark. Not all Danes are Lutheran.'

'Some Jews, yes. But barely one in a thousand. No, Alec. Uh - There are older Gods.'

'Older than Jehovah? Impossible.'

Margrethe said nothing - characteristically. If she disagreed, she usually said nothing. She seemed to have no interest in winning arguments, in which she must differ from 99 percent of the human race... many of whom appear willing to suffer any disaster rather than lose an argument.

So I found myself having to conduct both sides to keep the argument from dying through lack of nourishment. 'I retract that. I should not have said, "Impossible." I was speaking from the accepted chronology as given by Bishop Ussher. If one accepts his dating, then the world was created five thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight years ago this coming October. Of course that dating is not itself a matter of Holy Writ; Hales arrived at a different figure, uh, seven thousand four hundred and five, I think - I do better when I write figures down. And other scholars get slightly different answers.

'But they all agree that some four or five thousand years before Christ occurred the unique event, Creation. At that point Jehovah created the world and, in so doing, created time. Time cannot exist alone. As a corollary, nothing and no one and no god can be older than Jehovah, since Jehovah created time. You see?'

'I wish I'd kept quiet.'

'My dear! I am simply trying to have an intellectual discussion; I did not and do not and never do and never will intend to hurt you. I said that was the case by the orthodox way of dating. Clearly you are using another way. Will you explain it to me? - and not jump all over poor old Alex every time he opens his mouth? I was schooled as a minister in a church that emphasizes preaching; discussion comes as naturally to me as swimming does to fish. But now you preach and I'll listen. Tell me about these older gods.'

'You know of them. The oldest and greatest we celebrate tomorrow; the middle day of each week is his.'

'Today is Tuesday, tomorrow - Wednesday! Wotan! He is your God?'

'Odin. "Wotan" is a German distortion of Old Norse. Father Odin and his two brothers created the world. In the beginning there was void, nothing - then the rest of it reads much like Genesis, even to Adam and Eve - but called Askr and Embla rather than Adam and Eve.'

'Perhaps it is Genesis, Margrethe.'

'What do you mean, Alec?'

'The Bible is the Word of God, in particular the English translation known as the King James version because every word of that translation was sustained by prayer and the best efforts of the world's greatest scholars - any difference in opinion was taken directly to the Lord in prayer. So the King James Bible is the Word of God.

'But nowhere is it written that this can be the only Word of God. A sacred writing of another race at another time in another language can also be inspired history... if it is compatible with the Bible. And that is what you have just described, is it not?'

'Ah, just on Creation and on Adam and Eve, Alec. The chronology does not match at all. You said that the world was created about six thousand years ago?'

'About. Hales makes it longer. The Bible does not give dates; dating is a modern invention.'

'Even that longer time - Hales? - is much too short. A hundred thousand years would be more like it.'

I started to expostulate - after all, some things are just too much to be swallowed - then remembered that I had warned myself not to say anything that could cause Margrethe to shut up. 'Go on, dear. Do your religious writings tell what happened during all those millennia?'

'Almost all of it happened before writing was invented. Some was preserved in epic poems sung by skalds. But even that did not start until men learned to live in tribes and Odin taught them to sing. The longest period was ruled by the frost giants before mankind was more than wild animals, hunted for sport. But the real difference in the chronology is this, Alec. The Bible runs from Creation to Judgment Day, then Millennium - the Kingdom on Earth - then the War in Heaven and the end of the world. After that is the Heavenly City and Eternity - time has stopped. Is that correct?'

'Well, yes. A professional eschatologist would find that overly simplified but you have correctly described the main outlines. The details are given in Revelations - the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, I should say. Many prophets have witnessed the final things but Saint John is the only one with the complete story... because Christ Himself delivered the Revelation to John to stop the elect from being deceived by false prophets. Creation, the Fall from Grace, the long centuries of struggle and trial, then the final battle, followed by Judgment and the Kingdom. What does your faith say, my love?'

'The final battle we call Ragnarok rather than Armageddon -'

'I can't see that terminology matters.'

'Please, dear. The name does not matter but what happens does. In your Judgment Day the goats are separated from the sheep. The saved go to eternal bliss; the damned go to eternal punishment. Correct?'

'Correct - while noting for purposes of scientific accuracy that some authorities assert that, while bliss is eternal, God so loves, the world that even the damned may eventually be saved; no soul is utterly beyond redemption. Other theologians regard this as heresy - but it appeals to me; I have never liked the idea of eternal damnation. I'm a sentimentalist, my dear.'

'I know you are, Alec, and I love you for it. You should find the old religion appealing... as it does not have eternal damnation.'

'It does not?'

'No. At Ragnarok the world as we know it will be destroyed. But that is not the end. After a long time, a time of healing, a new universe will be created, one better and cleaner and free from the evils of this world. It too will last for countless millennia... until again the forces of evil and cold contend against the forces of goodness and light... and again there is a time of rest, followed by a new creation and another chance for men. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever perfect, but over and over again the race of men gets another chance to do better than last time, ever and again without end.'

'And this you believe, Margrethe?'

'I find it easier to believe than the smugness of the saved and the desperate plight of the damned in the Christian faith. Jehovah is said to be all powerful. If this is true, then the poor damned souls in Hell are there because Jehovah planned it that way in every minute detail. Is this not so?'

I hesitated. The logical reconciliation of Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnibenevolence is the thorniest problem in theology, one causing even Jesuits to break their teeth. 'Margrethe, some of the mysteries of the Almighty are not easily explained. We mortals must accept Our Father's benevolent intention toward us, whether or not we understand His works.'

' Must a baby understand God's benevolent intention when his brains are dashed out against a rock? Does he then go straight to Hell, praising the Lord for His infinite Wisdom and Goodness?'

'Margrethe! What in the world are you talking about?'

I am talking about places in the Old Testament in which Jehovah gives direct orders to kill babies, sometimes ordering that they be killed by dashing them against rocks. See that Psalm that starts "By the rivers of Babylon -" And see the word of the Lord Jehovah in Hosea: "their infants shall be dashed in - pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up." And there is the case of Elisha and the bears. Alec, do you believe in your heart that your. God caused bears to tear up little children merely because they made fun of an old man's bald head?' She waited.

And I waited. Presently she said, 'Is that story of she bears and the forty-two children the literal Word of God?'

'Certainly it's the Word of God! But I don't pretend to understand it fully. Margrethe, if you want detailed explanations of everything the Lord has done, pray to Him for enlightenment. But don't crowd me about it.'

'I did not intend to crowd you, Alec. I'm sorry.'

'No need to be. I've never understood about those bears but I don't let it shake my faith. Perhaps it's a parable. But look, dear, doesn't your Father Odin have a pretty bloody history Himself?'

'Not on the same scale. Jehovah destroyed city after city, every man, woman, and child, down to the youngest baby. Odin killed only in combat against opponents his own size. But, most important difference of all, Father Odin is not all powerful and does not claim to be all wise.'

(A theology that avoids the thorniest problem - But how can you call Him 'God' if He is not omnipotent?)

She went on, 'Alec my only love, I don't want to attack your faith. I don't enjoy it and never intended to - and hope that nothing like it will ever happen again. But you did ask me point blank whether or not I accepted the authority of "Holy Writ - by which you mean your Bible. I must answer just as point blank. I do not. The Jehovah or Yahweh of the Old Testament seems to me to be a sadistic, bloodthirsty, genocidal villain. I cannot understand how He can be identified with the gentle Christ of the New Testament. Even through a mystic Trinity.'

I started to answer but she hurried on. 'Dear heart, before we leave this subject I must tell you something I have been thinking about. Does your religion offer an explanation of the weird thing that has happened to us? Once to me, twice to you - this changed world?'

(It had been endlessly on my mind, too!) 'No. I must Confess it. I wish I had a Bible to search an explanation. But I have been searching in my mind. I haven't been able to find anything that should have prepared me for this.' I sighed. 'It's a bleak feeling. But -' I smiled at her.' 'Divine Providence placed you with me. No land is strange to me that has Margrethe in it.'

'Dear Alec: I asked because the old religion does offer an explanation.'


'Not a cheerful one. At the beginning of this cycle Loki was overcome - do you know Loki?'

'Some. The mischief maker.'

'"Mischie" is too mild a word; he works evil. For thousands of years he has been a prisoner, chained to a great rock. Alec, the end of every cycle in the story of man begins the same way. Loki manages to escape his bonds... and chaos results.'

She looked at me with great sadness. 'Alec, I am sorry... but I do believe that Loki is loose. The signs show it. Now anything can happen. We enter the Twilight of the Gods. Ragnarok comes. Our world ends.'

Chapter 10 | JOB: A Comedy of Justice | Chapter 12