Suddenly, his eyesight clouded.
He could still hear Spencer talking, but his voice was going to be blurred background noise. He felt his whole body hopelessly turning into an empty cave, where the accelerated beat of his heart echoed like a perturbing sound.
He was afraid of having a heart attack.
Cálmate. Ya basta.
He took a deep breath as if his lungs could caress his fast-paced heart. He took a second breath. He squinted both eyes, opened them wide, and saw her.
She was elegantly seated in front of him, her legs pulled together, closed, slightly oblique. She was staring at Spencer, her blue eyes vivid and relaxed, and her short blonde hair motionless, with a curl anchored to an ear.
He could not remember her name – it was Sandra Day O’Connor, as he will know the day after when he sold her one of his ollas – but he knew she was a Judge of a County Superior Court and a Republican former member of the Arizona Senate. He had a dizzy spell.
The audience burst into a laugh. Spencer MacCallum must have told something about Juan because everyone turned to look at him. The elegant judge gave him a curious look and slightly smiled without moving her hair.
Juan felt his heart jumping like a drunk boy.
Spencer smiled at the smiles and resumed talking.
Juan didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t understand what Spencer was saying as he only knew a bunch of English words, most of which related to pregnant cows, constipated horses, and basic necessities.
He disliked the subtle smell of that room, too elegant, too bright, too aseptic. He knew that all those people had come both for him and Spencer, but he would gladly run away. His heart was already running home and his legs would be happy to follow it. He imagined himself climbing the slopes of the Sierra behind Mata Ortiz, and smelling the sweet and fragrant May wind.
It was May in Phoenix too, but it wasn’t the same May. It wasn’t the same smell and the same silence. It was the very same year, 1977, and at the very same time, it wasn’t.
¡¿Qué carajo te pasa en la cabeza, híjole?!
He was afraid of getting crazy.
Spencer started to say something about Paquimé ceramics.
Two latecomers entered the Heard Museum’s conference room and occupied the last empty wooden chairs at the end of a row.
Juan never thought he would come face to face with so many people, all white, all rich, all middle-aged gringos coming from a different planet. If only he had imagined it… He was accustomed only to the infinite Chihuahuan horizon, its silent spaces, and to a weird solitude sweetened only by the scent of the wind, of his children and Guille.
He felt his heart panting and whistling in his ears like an old locomotive.
¡Aplácate! Que Dios me ayude…
He took the ball of clay on the table. He knew it was not the right time to start the practical demonstration – Spencer told him: You start when I finish – but he knew as well that if his hands could begin to move, his heart would begin to calm down.
His hands sank into the clay ball. He laid it out calmly, without haste, as he did throughout the last twenty years of his young life. He flattened it out with a few precise movements to get a perfect tortilla which was gently placed inside a plaster-of-Paris mold and worked from top to bottom to adhere to its sides, previously coated with vegetable oil. He took another piece of clay, shaped it like a chorizo (sausage) coil and then like a doughnut, and quickly added it to the edge of the pot bottom.
He closed his eyes, turned off his mind, inhaled the smell of the white clay that he had collected on the slopes of El Indio, and let his hands totally free as he used to quit holding a galloping horse by loosening the reins.
Only then, he started twirling out of space-time where no one could have reached him.
Juan Quezada in his old home in Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, July 28, 2007.
Photo by Raechel Running from Tucson, Arizona.