Élan Vital

April 15, 2012 § 12 Comments

Élan Vital
Charles Rammelkamp

I was only eighteen and deferential to people I regarded as “grown-ups,” maybe because I grew up in a little town in Iowa and was going to college in another little town in Minnesota. I’d just completed my freshman year. It was why I put on my super-polite voice to ask the lady with peroxide hair if I was in the right waiting line for the bus from Laredo to Guadalajara. I was going down there for the summer for a college art program, making pottery and learning Spanish. Plus, I was afraid she’d be brusque with me, annoyed. Afraid she’d say, “Get lost, kid. Can’t you see I’m busy?” But no, she seemed genuinely pleased to be asked. Yes, I was in the right line. She herself was going to Mexico City, where she lived. For a person my parents’ age she was in good shape, not unattractive. “My bus is over there.” She pointed. I thanked her.

“What are you reading?” she asked before I could turn away.

I glanced down at my book. “Creative Evolution. It’s by a French philosopher named Henri Bergson.” It made me feel smart to say this, and I was glad this was the book I was holding rather than the usual unsophisticated junk I read.

“Mmm,” she said, as if she knew all about Bergson and the élan vital, a concept that seemed so mystical and sexy to me, humanity’s natural creative impulse that drives the evolutionary process, according to Bergson.

“Bergson was Jewish, but he converted to Catholicism.”

“Jewish men have circumcised penises,” she said. “Is it true that most men have uncircumcised penises?”

I didn’t know what to say. Why was she asking me this? She must have seen my confusion.

“I’ve read that circumcised penises are more sanitary.”

But this didn’t help much. I continued to stammer and shrug.

“Look, if you get to Mexico City, give me a call.” She wrote her name – Barbara – and her number on a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Bye!” she said. “Nice meeting you!”

Later that summer I went to Mexico City. I dialed the number she’d given me, but a man with a Mexican accent answered the phone and I hung up. I was pretty sure I’d dialed the right number, even though she’d written it in pencil and it had faded some since she’d written it. I never tried to telephone again, but I continued to take the piece of paper out of my wallet, just to remember her.


Charles Rammelkamp lives in Baltimore, Maryland in the empty nest with his wife, his daughters having grown up and left home. He edits The Potomac, an online literary journal – http://thepotomacjournal.com.  A collection of poetry entitled Fusen Bakudan, which involves missionaries in a leper colony in Vietnam during the war, will soon be published by Time Being Books.

Image: Ferris Wheel, By Leigh-Anne Fraser


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