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Jack Smith

Even a house built on a rock by a wise man in tranquil Baja can be a fool's paradise

July 21, 1985|JACK SMITH

When Romulo Gomez built our house on his land at Santo Tomas Bay, in Baja California, it was the third house in his little community, La Bocana. Now there are 10.

We had come down after the Fourth of July weekend, though, and none of the other owners were in residence. We had the landscape to ourselves.

Our house stands a few meters below the road that runs poorly between Gomez's store, at the mouth of the river, and the port of Santo Tomas, a decrepit fisherman's camp at the northern point of the bay. Several times a day a pickup or a stake truck will come along the road, going one way or the other, and sometimes a camper will come crawling over what must seem to its driver the road to the world's end.

It is possible not to see another human being for two or three days in a row. The phone does not ring because there is no phone. In 24 hours we feel a profound release from our ties. There is nothing to do but read and eat and look out the windows and take walks and sleep.

For people who live their lives at the end of a telephone, not having one is a curious psychological phenomenon. It is as if some critical relay in one's nervous system has been disconnected. One knows the phone will not ring; but that is not enough. It is only after it has not rung for 24 hours that one's receptors begin to turn off. One not only is relieved of answering the phone, but of using it in pursuit of one's responsibilities.

I had brought down Page Smith's latest volume--"America Enters the World: A People's History of the Progressive Era and World War I." In our cozy house, free of distraction, I could feel the world of Teddy Roosevelt, vivid and close. The words of that era's great muckraking journalists had an undiminished vigor, and I could hear the Colonel's tinny voice, thrilling the faithful after his nomination at the Bull Moose convention--"I say now as I said here six weeks ago, we stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."

Our situation doesn't seem to have changed that much.

Our days were not without drama and discovery. My wife found a magnificent moth that evidently had died banging itself against a window. It was dark velvet, with a pattern beyond imagining and a wingspread of 5 inches. She spread it out on the window sill above the kitchen sink, beside Aristotle's lanterns, turban shells and other lovely skeletons of wondrous life.

Less engaging was the dehydrated body of a small rat, or perhaps a large mouse, that my wife encountered in her housecleaning. It was evidently the last of the family that had got in when burglars broke the big window in the front bedroom.

It was just as well that we had no company. I had packed a suitcase, but left it on my bed at home. I found only one shirt on a hanger in the Baja house. No underwear, no socks. It was like being poor--except that we had plenty of food and beer.

On Thursday my wife discovered that the basin in the bathroom was leaking again. We had hoped that Gomez's man had fixed it. On Friday morning Gomez himself showed up. He had already been to Tijuana and back. I told him about the leak.

"It is leaking again?" he said, with his practiced air of incredulity.

He went into the bathroom and squatted at the cabinet to examine the pipes below the basin. We squatted behind him to look over his shoulder.

The pipes did not seem to be leaking.

'You see that paper I put in there?" my wife said. "You see the water it soaked up?"

All the same, it was not leaking now.

I was reminded of the time we had complained that our fireplace was smoking, just after the house was finished. Gomez came over to inspect it, and every time he watched the fireplace it would not smoke. When he turned his back to it, to assure us that it did not smoke, only then would it smoke.

Often we have had the impression that Gomez has some sort of psychokinetic effect on inanimate objects.

On Wednesday there was big news. I saw a wagon behind the Biane house and realized that we had company. The Bianes built their house, after ours, on the spot that my wife and I had picked out as our own. Gomez had put our house where he wanted it, though --higher up and in the middle of the road--because he said that the road had the best view. To this day the new road forms a loop around our house.

Pierre Biane hiked up and invited us down to his house the next morning for champagne. He had been in the wine business and had just recently got out; he had the last of his champagne in his refrigerator.

The next morning we went down to his house and sat in his living room, drinking champagne and looking out his picture windows at the view we would have had if Gomez hadn't built our house in the road.

Actually, our view is grander, since it sweeps the entire bay; but I would like to have been closer to the rocks, so the sound of the sea pounding would have been louder in the night.

It is possible to be discontented, wherever you are.

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