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JACK SMITH

Raising a Glass in Mr. Gomez's Memory

October 17, 1994|JACK SMITH

Mr. Gomez is dead.

I feel obliged to pass this on to the many readers who may feel they knew him from the columns I have written about the house he built for my wife and me in Baja California and from the book I wrote about that adventure, "God and Mr. Gomez."

Romulo Gomez died of cancer the other day in a Duarte hospital. His wife, Delia, had died a few years earlier.

Romulo leaves two sons, Sergio and Pepe; a daughter, Marisa, and several grandchildren. He was 83.

The book was a bestseller--No. 1 for several weeks--but I always thought it would have sold even more if I had not presumed to use God's name in its title. Several people wrote that they found it on the religion shelves of their bookstores.

It was not religious, any more than I am religious or Mr. Gomez was religious in a conventional way. I called it that because it was sometimes hard to know who was running things in Baja--God or Mr. Gomez.

In Gomez's mind, the source of anything in Baja that was inexplicable was God. I was especially concerned about water when we were planning our house, water being in short supply in Baja.

"What about water?" I asked Gomez one day.

"I will provide the water," he said.

"Where does the water come from?" I persisted.

"The water, it comes from the reservoir," Gomez said.

"But where does the water come from," I asked, "that is in the reservoir?"

"The water it comes from the well."

"You have a well?"

"Oh, yes." That seemed to be his standard phrase for dealing with anxious questions. "Oh, yes," spoken like two musical notes, the oh rather high and the yes lower on the scale, and full of reassurance.

"Where is the well?"

"It is right here, of course. Behind the store."

The phrase "of course" was also a favorite of Gomez's, I had noticed, sometimes having the effect of making the most patent improbabilities seem perfectly credible.

Some readers have the impression that there was a streak of the con man in Gomez. Not so. Gomez was honest and trustworthy to the bone. It was his way of dealing with the truth that sometimes aroused suspicion.

I quote from the book a revealing passage:

I opened the cervezas and we sat out on the porch in the folding chairs. It was a blameless day, as beautiful as the February day more than a year and a half earlier when my wife and I had first seen the bay.

"Romulo," I said, trying not to sound too inquisitorial, "when are we going to know the actual cost? It keeps going up."

"Don't worry, Jack," he said in his reassuring tone, "we will put it all down in writing."

"We put it down in writing once before," I reminded him.

"That's okay . We will put it down again."

"When?"

"When the time is ripe."

There was no point in that course. I decided to change directions.

"When the house is finished," I said, "if it ever is, how will we know it's ours? You aren't going to give us a deed?"

He laughed, a gentle laugh that expressed not ridicule but a nice appreciation of my humor. "You know, Jack, I can give you no deed. You are not a Mexican. It is against the law. Do you want for you and me to break the law?"

"Of course not, Romulo. You know that. It's just that I want to know -- well, you keep saying the house will be ours."

"Of course it is your house."

"How will I know that -- when the time is ripe?"

He spread his hands in a gesture that was at once humble and majestic. "I will give you the key."

It was beautiful. I had never admired Romulo more. He had circumvented all the laws and the clerical minds and the petty demands of vain and fearful men and reduced the issue of possession to its one essential. I would have the key. In the eyes of Dios what else mattered?

One day when I was climbing over the rocks below our house, I noticed signs of erosion. It must be that the runoff from the rain was inching closer to the house. Every storm must carve its perch. Inexorably it advanced on our vain little pile of bricks. I wondered. Would the whole house fall?

That night at the store I asked Gomez about this unrelenting peril. "Someday, Romulo," I said, "our mansion is going to slide right into the Pacific Ocean."

"Oh, yes," he said. "Someday. But five hundred years from now, Jack, you will still be living in that house."

"Maybe so," I said. "But isn't there something we can do about it now?"

"Well," Gomez said, "would you like to try a little tequila?"

Good idea. A tequila to Mr. Gomez.

*

Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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