“Ay, no,” she said, “but Gaspar is out of work. The other day his good-for-nothing boss had him make some shoes and hasn’t paid him yet. Can you imagine?”
She always told me the same story, because that’s what Gaspar told her. But I could see through him. He didn’t know that I, Roberto Sánchez Vélez, was the King of the Liars. I never believed Gaspar’s stories although it is true that he knew how to work. He would get his tools together, a knife, a hammer, some pliers, and would work well for a few days, but after a while he would pawn them so he could go get drunk. The result was that my aunt never had three meals in one day, I am sure of that. This hurt me very much, because I felt to blame for what had happened to her. When I had had money, more than enough to have given her some, I hadn’t done it. Oh, I had helped her a little, but it wasn’t enough. For a moment I was tempted to steal. I used to be able to get two, three, or four thousand pesos easily, but I was harming half the people in the world without realizing it. My only thought had been for what I could get for myself. But I honestly didn’t want to do it anymore, because—it is no disgrace to say it—I don’t know why, but before God I was afraid.
And so it went until the time came when I told her, “All right. I will come tomorrow to take you to the hospital.” And she said, “I will appreciate it with all my heart.”
The next morning I got five pesos together somehow and came running over. My aunt wasn’t ready. After greeting me she came out and said flatly that she wasn’t going to the hospital because she was afraid of dying, afraid that they would experiment with her body and would disembowel her. Actually, I felt a little relieved. I thought, “I’m not going to bother visiting her any more.”
On the following day, there I was with her again. This time everyone in the vecindad told me how Gaspar had beaten her up, so I spoke to her about moving over to my house.
“No, son, I won’t leave here until they carry me out, feet first.”
Then, about two weeks before my aunt died, my sister Consuelo came here from Nuevo Laredo, where she had taken Manuel’s children. She was trying to arrange for them to go to school across the border so she had to run all over the city getting the papers signed. Finally she got around to visiting my aunt.
“And how are you, little mother, so lovely, so precious….” She gave her a kiss, and the old woman greeted her with tears of pleasure. She was like that, always crying. So they kissed and hugged. When Consuelo found out my aunt was sick she immediately took charge and went with her to Dr. Ramón.
The next day my sister said to me, “Listen, Roberto, how barbarous you are, how inhuman, how useless!” She blamed me entirely for not taking care of our aunt. Why hadn’t I taken her to a doctor, why hadn’t I helped her, why this and why that?
She was probably right but I told her she shouldn’t talk like that because I was doing more for my aunt than anyone else. “You! You haven’t tried anything,” she replied. She had Dr. Ramón’s prescription filled and after several days went by she said, “This medicine is not doing any good. I think we are going to have to take her to Dr. Santoyo.”
“Caray, sister, Santoyo charged twenty-five pesos for an office call and fifty if he comes to the house and I don’t have any money right now.”
“Well then,” she said, “here are the twenty-five pesos for the doctor.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”
That day turned out to be a very bad one in the plaza. I didn’t earn a cent and there was no food at home. We didn’t even have milk for the baby and had to give him rice water with sugar. So I felt obliged that evening to use ten pesos from Conseulo’s twenty-five for milk, bread, and rice. At night a neighbor of mine came over and I said to him, “I have a little problem. Could you lend me ten pesos until Saturday?”
“Yes, of course, señor Roberto, here you are.” So the next day I took my Aunt Guadalupe to Dr. Santoyo. We had to go by bus because there wasn’t enough money for anything else. I said, “Look, old woman, forgive me, I know that the bus shakes you up, but do you think you can stand it?”
“Yes, yes, let’s go, boy,” she said, “as long as I get there.” So we went. There were two or three patients ahead of us, and as there was a chapel in the clinic on the floor above I took my aunt upstairs and we both prayed a while together. It was nice there and my aunt felt better after asking her favors. Then we went back and waited for our turn.
The examination took only about five minutes. When my aunt came out, she told me, “Look, he gave me this medicine, a salve.” Actually, the salve was for hemorrhoids. I know because Dr. Santoyo had prescribed the same thing for my wife. The doctor, who was behind me, whispered, “Cancer. Tomorrow go to the General Hospital. You can find me in ward thirteen.”
The next day Gaspar and my aunt went to the hospital alone. When they got there they sent them all over and told them to come back the next day.
The next day I took my aunt back again. Gaspar came with us. All that happened was that a nurse wrote down information about my aunt’s symptoms.
“Ay, that old nurse is mean,” my aunt said. “She speaks roughly to me. ‘Stand here,’ she says, ‘go over there. Don’t shake so much.’ It’s like an ice box in there. I felt like a seltzer bottle that had been put into a regrigerator. My fingers were twisted with the cold. Would God have put us into the world and not expected us to shake when it was cold?”
“Ay, Díos mío,” I thought to myself, “why do we have to put up with such misery?” To my aunt I said, “Ah, it’s the people who don’t have any money who get this kind of treatment. But don’t worry, if that nurse says anything tomorrow you can tell her where to go.” I just wanted my aunt to know that I was backing her up all the time.
They did nothing for her there at the hospital, absolutely nothing. They made her waste her time miserably and spend money that she didn’t have. My aunt had advanced intestinal cancer, and it was incurable.
On November 1, All Souls Day, I had earned very little money, only six pesos, and I went to her house and saw everything so wretched, so pitiable, and—ay, it tears my heart when I remember this. How I wanted things to be different! My wife, my son and I at least had beans to eat, but the poverty of my aunt! I told her, “Caray, aunt, this was a very bad day for me. I made practically nothing. But look, take two pesos and I’ll use the rest to buy milk for the boy.” I wasn’t telling her the truth, because milk costs fourteen pesos a bottle and I only had four left. Then she said, “Ay, son, don’t worry about me. You must give it to your son and to Andrea.” I told her they had plenty to eat so she accepted the two pesos.
“Good-bye, and God bless you, and Martincito de Porres, the Holy señor of Chalma….” She always commended me to all the saints, and perhaps they have helped me more than once. I left in despair, saying to myself, “She is going to die, I know it for sure. I don’t think she’ll last out the year.”
On Saturday, the 2nd of November at about ten in the morning I went to my brother’s house. I had some porcelain figurines I had given my wife, two little dogs and a cat, which Manuel had bought at a bargain. And I was taking them to the plaza to sell. I went to my brother and said, “Shall we go to the plaza? I’ll go ahead because I want to sell these, and you know it’s best to get there early.”
“Yes, hombre, you go ahead and I’ll catch up.”
I had no more than walked to the market, greeted some friends, and set out my wares, when my sister-in-law María came up and said, “Listen, Roberto, you’d better go to your aunt’s house in a hurry because she’s bleeding all over and is very bad.”
A woman stopped to look at the figurines.
“Come on,” María said, “run, hurry.”
“Wait a minute,” said the customer. What is the least you will take for these?”
“Give me a peso for everything. You can see what a bargain you’re getting.”
“All right, it’s a deal. Now go ahead.” And I ran, leaving María far behind.
I reached the door of my aunt’s house and found my brother there. I went in and saw her. It was a very sad sight because she had died in much pain and in a way more wretched than the deaths of any other members of my family that I can remember. She was stretched out, face down.
I went over and touched her chest. She was very cold and I began to tremble. I could imagine the desperation she must have felt at the hour of her death. And I said, “Caramba, brother, look, here is the last of the Vélezes.”
I felt like crying, but I couldn’t.
“Ah, thank God she is at rest,” I said. I had asked God to heal my aunt, but that if it were His will to take her, that He would not let her suffer very much. And just look how quickly she has died. “What shall we do now? I only have forty centavos in my pocket.”
“Yes, what shall we do?” Manuel asked. “Who’s going to take charge of all this?”
“I will, brother, who else?” Then I asked him for five pesos and hurried to my godmother’s house to see if she would lend me some money. But when I got there, my godmother had just gone to pay us a visit, so I left a message for her and went back to the Panaderos vecindad.