Dancing in the Dark
“Why do we need more electricity to brighten our lives?” the village patriarch challenged the meeting. One of Bahia’s oldest and certainly its most respected resident, tall, silver-haired Carlos Calvo commanded attention. Even the diminutive but feisty mayor, Garcia Mendez, felt obliged to pause in his push for additional power and answer Carlos directly. “Because we wish to see our beloved town stride ahead, Senor Calvo. Because we want the officials from Fonatur— who will be inspecting us next month — we want these officials to carry a favourable report on Bahia de Los Angeles back to the government. We want prosperity for our town — not just for ourselves, Senor Calvo, but for our children, and our children’s children!”
Anticipating a spontaneous round of applause for this never-say-die rallying cry, the mayor paused. But he was acutely disappointed. No more than six or seven strangled cheers from his supporters close at hand. The majority of the villagers, sitting awkwardly at undersized desks or propping up the adobe walls of the schoolroom, remained annoyingly silent. Even the mayor could discern the general air of indecision. He decided on a different tack. “I am sure our good Father Bishop would bless our decision for more light?” The mayor was no great fan of the interloping padre, but—despite his agnostic sympathies—he knew the Catholic Church worldwide thrived on light.
Father Bishop had attended the meeting reluctantly, under pressure from his hostess, Senora Salgado, who owned and managed the village’s largest motel (seven undersized cabins). He was a gringo, travelling south to learn Spanish, and temporarily relieving in Bahia de Los Angeles because the village had no permanent priest of its own. Rosa Salgado of the Refugio del sol, one of the few Bahia citizens reasonably fluent in both Spanish and English, happily translated the mayor’s question. Although not overjoyed by the priest’s equivocal reply, she gave it to the crowd anyway: “I am the servant of the Shepherd and the guardian of His sheep. El Senor has no wish or desire to impose His will on His people when there is no question of morality, no rights or wrongs involved. In this case, the Lord’s people are free to choose light or darkness for themselves—with His blessing!”
The mayor scowled. From his point of view, a most unsatisfactory reply. “Are there any questions?” he was forced to ask.
“Will I be paid more?” asked Manuel Spinoza, the proprietor of Spinoza’s Service Station (where the one bowser of lead replacement fuel serves all—diesel on request). A mountain of flabby muscle, Spinoza had managed to manoeuvre himself to the front of the classroom. “How much longer do I have to work? The hours are long enough already. I want more pay!”
The mayor cast an annoyed glance at his town council offsider, Deputy Mayor Quadreny, who had been deputed to iron out these matters with Spinoza well before the meeting. As usual, Quadreny did not meet the mayor’s gaze, but stared off into space, his mind totally preoccupied with past triumphs in the civil service. This left the mayor no choice but to prevaricate. “It depends how long we wish to keep the generator running. Your council recommends starting up at six and shutting down at midnight. Eighteen hours versus the present very unsatisfactory seven.”
“Unsatisfactory for who?” pointedly asked Carlos Calvo.
Manuel Spinoza ignored the interjection. “A full-time job,” he declared in his booming voice. “Who will look after my gasoline station?”
“You will be paid!” replied the mayor sharply. “Are there any other questions?”
“What about fuel?” persisted Spinoza. “I’m not joking! I have the saint’s own job getting enough diesel. You yourself, senor mayor, complain and complain how the generator uses too much fuel. Last month—thanks to no fuel—I had to shut down twice.”
“The council will guarantee the fuel!” snapped the mayor. “Any other questions?”
But Spinoza was still on his feet. “I want payment in advance. I am not a bank. I have to pay on delivery. Besides, the generator is old. It will not keep itself running for eighteen hours a day.”
“If necessary, the generator will be replaced!” the mayor shouted. “Any questions from someone besides Senor Spinoza?”
“It is a hard question, I think.” This from Pedro Rulfo, the village policeman.
“What’s so hard about it?” the mayor snapped, before pulling himself hastily into line. “It is easy,” he smiled. “Do we, as a village, wish to enter the 21st century, or remain behind in the 19th?”
“Senor Calvo has said it, I think,” continued the guardia civil. “Who needs more light? Are the sun and the moon not enough, yes?”
A ripple of approval.
Before the mayor could defuse this latest threat, the question was answered by one of his firmest supporters, Rosa Salgado, proprietress of the Refugio del Sol. “It is not for us, it is for the gringos. They will not come to a town where the lights go out at nine o’clock.”
“Why?” asked several voices.
Rosa spread her ample hands. “Dancing. They like to dance. They will not dance in the dark.”
“They come for the fishing, I think,” argued Pedro Rulfo. “And the canoeing and the scuba diving. Even a poor fisherman is afraid to fish at night. And as for kayaking and diving, it is impossible, yes?”
“Do we need the norteamericanos?” asked Carlos Calvo. “They spend their money at the Marvellous SuperStore — owned by Senor Mayor. They spend their nights at the Refugio del Sol — owned by Senora Salgado. And they buy their gasoline from Senor Spinoza. What use are gringos to the rest of us?”
Normally this appeal would have been answered by a loud chorus of Bravo! Bravo! But tonight that chorus, muted by Father Bishop’s presence, was definitely more restrained.
Nonetheless, although not exactly cheered on by this half-hearted response, Carlos continued, “I suggest we appoint a little committee to look into this whole question. No more than six of us.”
“You, Senor Calvo!” sang the chorus, now loud and clear.
“Thank you. I will be pleased to act as chairman of your little committee. Now I will need four or five others.”
“Dr Santos!” came a number of voices.
“Pedro Rulfo!” came a dozen others.
“Senora Salgado!” shouted the mayor, a nomination loudly echoed by his supporters.
“Padre Enrique!” from the crowd.
“Manuel Spinoza!” from the mayor. Despite their public brawling, the mayor knew his man. He would vote whichever way his wallet dictated. And the mayor intended to line it with pesos.
“Myself, Dr Santos, Pedro Rulfo, Rosa Salgado, Manuel Spinoza, Padre Enrique. Six.” Carlos accented the padre. He was a firm agnostic—and proud of it!
“It would be best to have five,” craftily suggested the mayor, after a quick mental count indicated he could muster no more than two absolutely certain votes—three at the most, counting fence-sitting Father Bishop. “A split committee is no use to us. It is best the committee brings us a majority, if not a unanimous report. As Manuel is employed by the village council to run the generator, I would ask him — with the greatest respect — if he would kindly step down. Manuel?”
Although puzzled by his mentor’s sudden change of heart, Manuel had enough sense to nod his agreement. He knew the mayor for a tricky bird. Besides he wasn’t being paid to attend meetings and had better things to do with his time.
“You are a cunning old fox!” enthused Deputy Mayor Quadreny to his chief, as they walked back to the Marvellous SuperStore for a nightcap.
Mayor Mendez regarded his deputy with some surprise.
“I genuinely admire you,” continued the deputy. “A stratagem worthy of the finest traditions of the civil service! You go out of your way to renounce one of your own votes to earn the plaudits of the mob and the certainty of victory.”
“I will tell you, senor, strictly between ourselves, it goes deeper than that. I know these people. You have lived here in our village for what — three years?”
Quadreny nodded. “Since I retired from the Ministry of Finance.”
“I have lived here all my life, senor. I know these people intimately. Now, you take our Manuel Spinoza. A pleasant enough fellow, you would say?”
“Precisely. Now multiply your dislike by one or two hundred.”
“Difficult. My dislike already bubbles over.”
“The point I am making, senor, is that the doctor does not welcome the presence of Manuel Spinoza. In fact, he resents it so much that if Manuel were to claim that turtles can’t fly, the doctor would dispute that fact just to annoy him.”
“I see, senor. Once the garage-man declared his endorsement for more electricity, the doctor would vote against it. But — ”
“But the deciding factor here, senor, is Pedro Rulfo. The policeman and the doctor are thick as thieves. He will automatically vote whichever way the doctor prompts.”
“So how will you convince the doctor, Senor Mayor?”
Garcia Mendez smiled smugly. “Simple as falling off a ladder! The doctor loves motel meals—especially Senora Salgado’s. I will invite him to the Refugio del Sol for dinner. On me!”
“On what excuse?”
“What does it matter?”
“Three votes to two,” admired the deputy. “Very clever. I take my hat off to you, senor.”
“Possibly four to one. Who knows which way the priest will jump?”
“As you yourself just said, senor mayor, what does it matter?”
There was nothing wrong with the deputy mayor’s mathematics. Unfortunately, life does not always echo arithmetical equations. The dividing factor in this case was the mayor’s rock-solid supporter, Rosa Salgado.
The widowed Senora Salgado was the only villager in the Bay of Los Angeles who’d ever lived in the United States. Her eldest son, in fact, had married a norteamericana. When she returned to the Bay after two years in Phoenix, she’d saved enough money to put a deposit on the then-struggling Refugio del Sol. Thanks to her American connections, she’d turned the Sol around. It was now a real money-spinner. Even in the depth of winter, she managed to fill three or four of her seven vacancies. At the height of the tourist season, she turned guests away at the rate of two or three a day. Even now at the tail end of the season, she still had a full house. Including of course, Henry Bishop, acting parish priest of Bahia de Los Angeles, recently retired from the archdiocese of Boston, Massachusetts.
“Tell me, Father, Bahia de Los Angeles is only a small village, not a big city like Phoenix where there are shows and movies and lots of dancing and night clubs. What can Americans do after nine o’clock in a small town when the dancing stops?”
Father Henry laughed. Rosa’s English was fluent, if a bit cloudy. “Go for a walk,” he answered. “Or perhaps better still, go to bed. My father used to say that two hours of rest before midnight was twice as good as an extra two hours after. There’s often a lot of truth in these old sayings.”
“So why do americanos want our village to have lights?”
“As you say, senora, to dance away the hours. And to watch TV, listen to the radio, read books, brew cups of coffee — all the things Americans take for granted.”
“So that’s why they won’t come in their hundreds to Bahia de Los Angeles.”
“Not a factor, Mrs Salgado. That’s why we — the privileged dozens and scores of us — will come to Bahia de Los Angeles. Put the lights on all night, and I —for one— won’t return next year. I came here not just to learn Spanish but to relax, to renew, to escape all the usual big-city hassle. What a change to walk at night under the stars, to listen to the sea pounding against the beach, and the wind whistling down from the mountains. No cars screaming past, no blare from sirens and radios, no phones ringing, no hard sell from persistent advertisers and shonky merchants. No newspapers, no television, no rat race. Peace!”
Rosa frowned. “No rat-race?”
“It means striving to get ahead.”
Rosa was scandalised. “In the church?”
“Ah, Rosa, where have you been living? You’re right. Right here—where there no scandals, no theological disputes, no tearing of garments. Where a church is plainly and simply the house of God, not a house of argument.”
“Lights mean less turistas, Padre, not more?”
“Why travel four hundred miles to a place that’s just like home? I came here to rest, to relax, to get away, to learn. This little holiday’s a re-birth, Mrs Salgado, a chance to find myself, a chance to think, a chance to set new goals, new directions. When I retire, I’m going to build a house right here in Bahia de Los Angeles — provided the lights still go out right at nine o’clock!”
“You retire, Father? Never!”
“A priest forever? I believe that too, Rosa. I also believe we are all of us priests—all of us who believe in the goodness of El Senor, all of us who believe in the Light.”
“Ah! Then you do want the light after all, Father—despite what you said?”
The priest sighed. “The light is a spiritual light within us, Rosa, within our souls, within our minds. It has nothing to do with the lights of Bahia de Los Angeles. Look at it this way: God has given us commandments. Ten of them: honour God, honour our President, honour our parents; be kind and considerate to everything and do no evil to anything that lives—whether it be a fellow human being, an animal, an insect, a plant or a tree; and never offer support to anyone who wants to take away life; never to commit adultery; never to steal; never to be jealous of another man’s wife or position or possessions; never to gossip and spread false rumours; and finally promise God only that which is ours to give.”
Rosa was puzzled. “Of course we must kill an animal to eat it. A chicken or even a fish.”
The priest smiled wanly. “That is not the way I read it, Rosa.”
“You must be mistaken, Father.” It was not Rosa’s habit to argue with priests, but if there was one thing Rosa loved, it was her cooking—especially her chicken and fish.
The priest opened his hands in a benediction. “Have it your way, Rosa.”
Rosa had little sleep. She spent the rest of the night worrying about the priest’s words. She worried herself into such a stew, she coulkd hardly wait to telpehone Pare Pierre at the San Felipe Monstery next morning.
Padre Pietro was surprised to hear Rosa and felt initially that she must have misheard the grinfo’s explanation. He could not phone the gringo direct eciase he had no English and the gringo had little Spanish. Finally, at Rosa’s insistence he reported the matter to his superior, Father Juniper.
Father Juniper was a kindly man who felt that a simple misunderstanding in tabslation had occurred. All the same—to be sure—He rang Father Bishop himself at the Refugio del Sol. After the customary courtesies, he asked the gringo pleasantly but point blank if he had any objection to eating a chicken.
“I don’t eat meat or poultry, Father.”
“Nor fish. I’m a vegetarian.”
“Why? For your hea;th’s sake, Father?” Father Junioer leant backwards to give Bishop the benefit of any dounts.
“Not only that Father. It is a commandment from God himself.”
“Since he gave the commandments to Moses. Whether you look at Exodus or Deuteronomy makes no difference. The commandment is Thou shalt not kill.
“That is not what the commandment says, Father. It is quite simply expressed. Thou shalt not kill. Full stop. Period. End of sentence.”
“You are taking a too literal approach, Father. The teaching of the Church—
“You shall not kill any living thing. That is the teaching of the early church in the east. Who is to say that teaching is amore or less valid interpretation that the church of the west?”
“Immaterial, Father. You and I belong to the western church. Therefore we must abide by its rules. You have unduly worried Senora Salgado. Please tell her you were mistaken.”
“Is that your instruction, Father?”
“That is my instruction if you wish to remain licensed to preach in this diocese, Father. I am authorised by Bishop Flanenxo--”
“I cannot leave the people here in Bahia at the moment, They need me,”
“And I cannot spare a priest from San Felipe. Except once a month.”
When strong-willed Rosa reported back to the Calvo Committee, the initial vote signalled four to one in favor not only of extending the daily life of the generator but purchasing a new and morfe capacious model.
“Why are you so against a new generator, Carlo?” asked Pedro Rulfo, the policeman.
“Because I am not afraid of the dark.”
In the second and final ballot, the Committee returned a unanimouis verdict in favour of the light.
Mayor Mendez will soon be extending the Marvellous SuperStore. He even contemplates building a fifteen-room motel on his vacant lot next door. Perhaps the all too-clever Senor Mendez is committing himself to perpetual near- bankruptcy. Who knows? Only time will tell.
As for Father Bishop, who rejoices in the Light, he is no longer around to share in its blessings.
But then he was never a dancer and never wanted to dance in the dark or any place else for that matter.