Paraguay

20 years since slogging through the reddish mud country roads of Guaira, Caazapa, and Caaguazu. Guarani names that I practiced saying over and over before the flight to Asunción. A language that survived because of coitus, six women to every Spanish soldier.

Sitting shotgun in a truck, 3 of us squeezed in the front (Cayo, Ernesto, Me), no seat belts, sipping yerba mate. I’m speaking Spanish, asking questions about recycling plastic and filtering water with chlorine. Cayo drives, points his finger up at the windshield, motioning to each vehicle we pass on the two lane highway. Yvaga, he says, cielo, heaven. That’s where you will go when you die, his finger silently communicates. Watching this ritual I see the other drivers smiling at us, their fingers also pointing upward, telling us the same thing.

Cayo asks me about California. The Paraguayan campo has no cable TV, no CNN, no movie theaters. He doesn’t question me about celebrities or our president, he asks about the land, trees, animals, what the air smells like, feels like. I tell him about non-native eucalyptus trees, how they suck water out of the earth, take nourishment away from other plants. He understands. The conversation is easy, like the cumulus clouds that float like cotton above us. Ernesto speaks and at first I think I understand, the cadence sounds the same, but then I’m lost in a time before Spanish, before South American roads. I close my eyes for a few seconds, a lightness takes over. I’m hearing a language not of an evangelizing church or of plundering capitalism, but of a people, a community. A few minutes later we slow down, pick up a hitchhiker, normal in this part of Paraguay. I see the guy sitting in the truck bed, a large heavy sack between his legs. A man on a journey, we both watch the road, I look out the front, he looks out the back.

The 2-Hour Attorney

I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, the newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged, middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts.

No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.