I looked at her face and its quiet sweetness comforted me a little. If was as if in the brief moment between life and death she had looked into the distance with the inner eyes of her soul and had seen a beautiful place, flowered and peaceful, where she would no longer suffer hunger and misery.
On the right wall of my aunt’s poor little room, the holy images of saints and virgins in their wooden frames contemplated without grief the lifeless body on the floor. The picture of my dead mother on the rear wall seemed to stare at me reproachfully for having neglected her sister. Below the picture, between the bed and the wardrobe, was an unpainted pine table decorated with purple tissue paper and strewn with yellow zempazochitl flowers. On this my aunt had placed her offerings to her dead—several glasses of water and three cheap votive candles which were still burning. Being from Guanajuato, my aunt was “mocho,” fanatically religious, and no matter what her financial state, she always provided something on the Day of the Dead. This year she hadn’t had enough money to burn incense to attract the spirits of her deceased relatives or to buy fruit or chicken or bread for them, but she had left water for the souls to quench their thirst, and candles to light their way. She even bought an extra candle for the dead who had no family to look out for them.
Flies were beginning to gather over the body and I brushed them away. I couldn’t bear the scene any longer. Everything oozed of death. I went outside. There the children, trying to look in, were tearing at the cardboard patches on the outer wall of my aunt’s kitchen. “What are you kids doing? Get out of here, go home!” I said. Some of the children moved away, but others took their places.
I went to ask Julia how it had happened. She was standing with Matilde, Pancho’s wife, at the entrance of the vecindad, gabbing as usual. Matilde, dressed as poorly as ever, had been the last one to talk to my aunt and was telling everyone about it. She repeated the story for me. Her face showed no sorrow as she spoke.
“You see, Manuel, I came by this morning and said to Lupita, ‘I’ll bring you your taquito and coffee in a moment, auntie. How do you feel?’ ‘Fine,’ she answered. Imagine! ‘Ay, daughter, don’t forget my little cup of coffee.’ ‘Now, aunt,’ I said, ‘didn’t I say I’d bring it in a moment?’ And I left. But before I got back, one of the kids came running up to my old man shouting ‘Pancho, Pancho, Lupita is dead. She fell down and has a lot of blood coming out of her head.’ So my old man comes out and sure enough, there she was on the floor. And right away he went to call you.”
“Why doesn’t the ambulance get here?” said Julia impatiently. “We’ve already called them three or four times and still those bastards don’t come. And what about Roberto?”
“I’ve already sent for him, Julita, I don’t think he’ll be long.” I stretched my neck toward the Street of the Barbers, but neither the ambulance nor my brother was in sight.
“Ay, hombre, what a sad end for your poor aunt. And I can’t even shed a fucking tear. I don’t know why, I just can’t,” Julia said shrugging her shoulders, “but believe me, Manuel, God forgives people like her. At least her suffering is over, and she’s rid of that ugly bastard Gaspar.”
None of the neighbors liked Gaspar. They said he was taking advantage of my old aunt, and beating her, too. When I had first heard that rumor I had gone to see her and to meet Gaspar face-to-face so he’d know she had someone to back her up. He was a shoemaker and it was risky because he could pull one of his knives on me. But both he and my aunt denied that he beat her. He said, “It’s a bunch of lies from a bunch of jealous old women. Why would I want to do her harm if I love her? How much do I love you, old girl, how much? Tell him, tell señor Manuel. Those women are just jealous of your marriage.”
I decided to wait by my aunt’s door and I went back into the vecindad. Roberto arrived, pale and panting.
“Well, brother, what’s up?”
“Go on in, but don’t move her because she’s already dead.”
“No!!” That was all he could say, and he quickly went into the room. I followed, and there he was, caressing my aunt’s white hair. He put his hand on her chest, hoping to feel her heart still beating. Then he started to lift her.
“No, little brother, don’t move her. She’s already dead. Can’t you see she’s lost all her blood?” And his eyes filled with tears.
“Poor thing…my poor dear aunt! Ay, Manuel, I feel so guilty. When I think how much money I’ve squandered that I could have given her. Just look at that,” he said, pointing to the small charcoal brazier which showed no sign of having had a fire recently. “She hasn’t cooked for days. And she always acted strong! Just the day before yesterday I asked her if she’d had lunch and she answered, ‘Of course, meat and beans.’ Meat and beans indeed! My poor little aunt. Now there she lies, the last of the Vélezes.”
My brother looked as though he was about to cry. He was really upset. He felt closer to my aunt than I did and spoke affectionately of her but I had always thought it was just out of his own sentimentality because, sticking to the facts, my aunt never showed very much affection for him, or for any of us, in my opinion.
I never felt as if my Aunt Lupe was my mother because she never gave us that kind of love. I was fond of her because she was my mother’s sister…a family tie, that’s all it was. When my mother was alive, my aunt was a steady visitor at the house but that was because she enjoyed a little drink. My mamá was pretty active in that direction herself so that’s why Lupita came around so often. But my mother was a go-getter and always had a peso or two more than my aunt and uncle did. So every time they came it was to have a meal or a drink or to borrow money.
When my mother died, my Aunt Lupita came to take care of us but she was there more as a servant because my father paid her a salary. She took care of us but I don’t think it was anything more than a routine thing. It would never have occurred to her to give us a sign of affection or to say anything nice to us. She liked to be helpful to people and to have everybody think well of her but our relations were…well, I could see that she felt more affection toward the bums who came there to drink with her. She spoke to them with more confidence, as if she felt closer to them. With us, she used that tone of authority, just like my father. Born to command, like my papá!
I didn’t see much of my aunt until after my uncle died. Naturally, when she felt she was getting old, she fell back on us. By then I was married to Maria and we would both go to see her. Each time it cost me five, ten, twenty pesos. But I must say Lupita never asked for a thing except when she was sick. We lived so estranged. Maybe because she was like me and wanted it that way. The further away my family is, the less problems they cause me. In that way, I’m a little more independent. Maybe that’s what she was trying to be, too.
“Listen,” my brother said. “We’ve got to give her a decent burial. But how? Uncle Igancio’s funeral cost us 500 pesos. Look, I’ll go see how much I can borrow from my godmother, though I owe her 200 pesos already. If the ambulance comes don’t let them take her away, because then it’ll cost a lot of money to get her body out of there. I’ll be right back.”
He turned and left quickly. A little later we heard the ambulance siren screaming.
“Here they come, here they come!” chorused all the neighbors and snoopers. The ambulance stopped at the entrance and a young doctor in a white uniform stepped out, with two stretcher bearers right behind him. I opened the rickety wooden door for him. He looked at the body and asked, “Well, what happened to this woman, señor? Just look at her!”
“I don’t know, doctor, she was already like this when I arrived.”
Gaspar stepped forward to give the doctor my aunt’s card for the General Hospital. The doctor read the dates, shook his head, and said, “Ay, qué caray, there’s nothing more we can do for this woman, she’s dead. Now what you have to do is notify the police and they will certify the death. Meanwhile, don’t move her. Take this card to the precinct to prove that this woman was being treated. Maybe they’ll dispense with the autopsy.”
The doctor and the bearers left and the crowd began to disperse.
“Well, Gaspar, go quickly to the police,” I said almost in a tone of command.
“Yes, yes, señor Manuel, I’ll go right away, I won’t take long.”
Gaspar left and I took a stool and sat down outside the door.
When my Aunt Guadalupe began to complain that she had a lump on her behind and that it bled and hurt a lot, I asked her, “Aren’t you doing anything for it?” She replied, “Yes, of course, Gaspar is treating me.” If it wasn’t Gaspar it was another of those people she thought had magical powers.
There was a time when she wanted to go to the hospital to be cured but I couldn’t take her right away because I was out of a job “Give me a few days to find work, so I’ll have money to take you to a private doctor,” I told her. But when I saw that she was getting worse I said, “Look, aunt, if you want to go to the hospital, go ahead. You will be much better off. Everything is clean there, and at least you will get three meals a day. I don’t believe that Gaspar takes care of you, even though you say he does.”