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Excerpt-Avenue of Mysteries

John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries weaves a rich international tapestry that dwells equally in memory and uncontrollable imagination.

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It was a Monday-January 3, 2011-and the young woman seated next to Juan Diego was worried about him. Philippine Airlines 174, from Tagbilaran City to Manila, was quite a rowdy flight for a 7:30 a.m. departure; yet the woman beside Juan Diego told the flight attendant that the gentleman had instantly fallen asleep, despite the clamor of their yammering fellow travelers.

“He totally conked out,” the woman said to the stewardess. But soon after falling asleep, Juan Diego began to speak. “At first, I thought he was speaking to me,” the woman told the flight attendant.

Juan Diego didn’t sound as if he were talking in his sleep-his speech wasn’t slurred, his thinking was incisive (albeit professorial).

“In the sixteenth century, when the Jesuits were founded, not many people could read-let alone learn the Latin necessary to preside at Mass,” Juan Diego began.

“What? ” the young woman said.

“But there were a few exceptionally devoted souls-people who thought only of doing good-and they yearned to be part of a religious order,” Juan Diego went on.

“Why?” the woman asked him, before she realized his eyes were closed. Juan Diego had been a university professor; to the woman, it must have seemed like he’d been lecturing to her in his sleep.

“These dutiful men were called lay brothers, meaning they were not ordained,” Juan Diego lectured on. “Today, they typically work as cashiers or cooks-even as writers,” he said, laughing to himself. Then, still sleep- ing soundly, Juan Diego started to cry. “But Brother Pepe was dedicated to children-he was a teacher,” Juan Diego said, his voice breaking. He opened his eyes-he stared, unseeing, at the young woman beside him; she knew he was still conked out, as she would have put it. “Pepe just didn’t feel called to the priesthood, though he’d taken the same vows as a priest-thus he couldn’t marry,” Juan Diego explained; his eyes were closing as the tears ran down his cheeks.

“I see,” the woman said softly to him, slipping out of her seat; that was when she went to get the flight attendant. She tried to explain to the stewardess that the man was not bothering her; he seemed like a nice man, but he was sad, she said.

“Sad? ” the flight attendant asked. The stewardess had her hands full: a bunch of drunks were onboard the early-morning flight-young men who’d been carousing all night. And there was a pregnant woman; she was probably too pregnant to fly safely. (She’d told the flight attendant that she either was in labor or had eaten an inadvisable breakfast.)

“He’s crying-weeping in his sleep,” the woman who’d been seated next to Juan Diego was trying to explain. “But his conversation is very high-level-like he’s a teacher talking to a class, or something.”

“He doesn’t sound threatening,” the stewardess said. (Their conver- sation was clearly at cross-purposes.)

“I said he was nice-he’s not threatening!” the young woman said. “The poor man is in trouble-he’s seriously unhappy!”

“Unhappy,” the flight attendant repeated-as if unhappy were part of her job! Yet, if only for relief from the young drunks and the pregnant idiot, the stewardess went with the woman to have a look at Juan Diego, who appeared to be sleeping peacefully in a window seat.

When he was asleep was the only time that Juan Diego looked younger than he was-his warm-brown skin, his almost all-black hair- and the flight attendant said to the young woman: “This guy isn’t ‘in trouble.’ He certainly isn’t weeping-he’s asleep!”

“What does he think he’s holding? ” the woman asked the steward- ess. Indeed, Juan Diego’s forearms were fixed at rigid right angles to his body-his hands apart, his fingers spread, as if he were holding some- thing the approximate circumference of a coffee can.

“Sir? ” the stewardess asked, leaning over his seat. She gently touched his wrist, where she could feel how taut the muscles in his forearm were. “Sir-are you all right? ” the flight attendant asked, more forcefully.

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“Calzada de los Misterios,” Juan Diego said loudly, as if he were try- ing to be heard over the din of a mob. (In his mind-in Juan Diego’s memory or dream-he was. He was in the backseat of a taxi, creeping through the Saturday-morning traffic on the Avenue of Mysteries-in a mob.)

“Excuse me-” the stewardess said.

“You see? This is how it goes-he’s not really talking to you,” the young woman told the flight attendant.

“Calzada, a wide road, usually cobbled or paved-very Mexican, very formal, from imperial times,” Juan Diego explained. “Avenida is less for- mal. Calzada de los Misterios, Avenida de los Misterios-it’s the same thing. Translated into English, you wouldn’t translate the article. You would just say ‘Avenue of Mysteries.’ Fuck the los,” Juan Diego added, somewhat less than professorially.

“I see,” the stewardess said.

“Ask him what he’s holding,” the young passenger reminded the flight attendant.

“Sir? ” the stewardess asked sweetly. “What have you got in your hands? ” But when she once more touched his taut forearm, Juan Diego clutched the imaginary coffee can to his chest.

“Ashes,” Juan Diego whispered. “Ashes,” the flight attendant repeated.

“As in, ‘Dust to dust’-those kind of ashes. That’s my bet,” the woman passenger guessed.

“Whose ashes? ” the stewardess whispered in Juan Diego’s ear, leaning closer to him.

“My mother’s,” he answered her, “and the dead hippie’s, and a dead dog’s-a puppy’s.”

The two young women in the aisle of the plane were speechless; they could both see that Juan Diego was starting to cry. “And the Virgin Mary’s nose-those ashes,” Juan Diego whispered.

The drunken young men were singing an inappropriate song-there were children onboard Philippine Airlines 174-and an older woman approached the flight attendant in the aisle.

“I think that very pregnant young woman is in labor,” the older woman said. “At least she thinks she is. Mind you: it’s her first child, so she really doesn’t know what labor is-”

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to sit down,” the stewardess said to the young woman who’d been seated next to Juan Diego. “The sleeper with the ashes seems harmless, and it’s only another thirty or forty minutes till we land in Manila.”

“Jesus Mary Joseph,” was all the young woman said. She saw that Juan Diego was weeping again. Whether he was sobbing for his mother or the dead hippie or a dead dog or the Virgin Mary’s nose-well, who knew what had made him weep?

It was not a long flight from Tagbilaran City to Manila, but thirty or forty minutes is a long time to dream about ashes.

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Click here to read an excerpt