“Yes, can’t you see that I’m packing?” I was angry with the children for not even asking what had happened, so I didn’t bother to tell them why I was going away. I gave them the 125 pesos for the week’s expenses and warned them, “Be very careful. I don’t want to find any accidents when I come back. You know that you have to lock up at night and not let anyone in. Nobody has permission to go anywhere. Mariquita, if you can prepare breakfast and dinner and get to school, go; if not, let them know you’ll be absent—or figure out yourself what to do. I don’t want any more problems.”
I put on my makeup carefully and took my full-length red coat. I wore my dark glasses for I was barely able to keep from sobbing. I waited for the bus to leave and finally it pulled out at 2:45.
Along the way, I felt as though I were suffocating. Fortunately my neighbor, a young man, started a conversation with me. He looked a few years younger than I, about twenty-two, or so.
“On a vacation?”
“Yes, for pleasure.”
I talked with him gladly although I had to turn towards the window now and then to free a tear. We introduced ourselves. He was a law student in his second year at the university. When I heard he was from the north of Mexico I was relieved. Northerners are more reliable and they treat women better. By the time we arrived in Monterrey we were friends. He invited me for a cup of coffee and I accepted. I didn’t care what I did; the important thing was to distract myself from my thoughts.
Finally my neighbor went to sleep and I let the tears come pouring down my cheeks unchecked. I couldn’t get my aunt out of my mind. I reproached myself a thousand times for not having written to her. I had no money to send and I always imagined the moment when she would open the envelope and find it empty. And when I had a little money, I thought that if I sent it, she’d use it for drink. I also felt hurt because she didn’t want to come and live with me in Nuevo Laredo. I was continually asking her because I needed her. But the last time I saw her I had consoled myself with the thought that she felt close to her compañero, Gaspar, and mentally I thanked him. “At least she is not alone,” I thought. I stood before her and said, “Give me your blessing, little mother. I’m leaving now, but we’ll see each other soon.” She made the sign of the cross over my head and kissed me on the cheek…the sweetest, softest kiss. I think it was the first and only time that she did a thing like that to me. I gave her twenty pesos which she put in the bosom of her dress and I turned and left quickly.
Just two weeks later, here I was, rushing to accompany her to her last resting place! I felt a hard bar of pain across my temples and I began to hiccup in silent spasms. My neighbor’s hand timidly brushed my fingers and I thought to myself, “The Mexican man! I need to get married…a companion is necessary at times like these…here I am, so alone, and so in need….” My eyes moved along the faintly-lighted narrow aisle of the bus as I repeated to myself, “Alone….” I thought of Jaime, whom I had loved but could not respect, of Mario, whom I did not love, but ran off with, to revenge myself on my father…. The man next to me kept up the gentle pressure on my hand. “I mustn’t forget where I’m going…but I don’t want to think, to suffer any more. I wonder why life is so unhappy, especially for those of us who have nothing.” My neighbor leaned over and kissed my cheek. It was the tiniest of kisses. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, “Hmm, now you’ve made the test,” I thought to myself. “I know what you want and where you’re heading. You can’t fool me with your gentlemanly gestures.” On the next try I put my hand between his mouth and my cheek and said, “Can’t you sleep?”
He offered me a cigarette. I accepted with thanks. It gave me a chance to let some of my grief out in puffs of smoke instead of in sobs. The fact that he was aware of my troubles made things a little easier.
“You know what?” I confided. “What I told you this afternoon is not true. I’m not on vacation. I’m going to my aunt’s funeral. She was my only relative on my mother’s side. Now the whole family is gone.” Even though I felt hesitant about talking, I began telling the whole story.
We continued conversing a long time. He told me about his grandmother who was very sweet. He spoke of the differences in character between himself and his friends at the university, of how he admired the prudence and good conduct of girls like the ones who worked at Sears and Sanborn’s, and about the parties he goes to, where he behaves frankly and openly like a northerner without caring what others will say. Each of us discussed our social contacts in Mexico City. Finally we stopped talking and I rested my head against the left side of my seat. After a few minutes he kissed me again on the cheek. I pushed him away but before I knew it his lips were on mine. I pushed him back harder thinking, “That is as far as you are going to get.” I drew quite a distance away and remained with my back turned to him until my leg fell asleep. Then he said, “Why don’t you lean against my shoulder?” I rested my head on his shoulder, prepared to jerk it away if he annoyed me again, but he didn’t and soon he was asleep himself.
At the next stop my friend invited me to have supper. He made some jokes at which I laughed and by the time we got back on the bus he had become “my faithful servant.” He continued discussing a law suit he was working on. Like many law students he was already acting like a lawyer, taking on their mannerisms and personality ahead of time. I smiled at his presumption and said, “Pardon me, I’m just a plain stenographer.” He seemed to get the idea and stopped pushing his lawyer’s shingle into my face.
Finally, everybody was asleep and the bus was silent. I was the only one watching the road. The driver’s manuevers were like a bull fighter’s passes when he went by trailer trucks on curves and wove in and out of lanes with cars coming from both directions.
We entered the State of Mexico and my companion got off at Tlanepantla. Before he left, he wrote his address in my address book and said, “Write me.”
“Of course,” I said.
It was after eight a.m. when we pulled into the terminal. I had no strength to carry my suitcase. I did not want to get to my destination. I felt cowardly.
I got a taxi and told the driver to take me to No. 33 Street of the Bakers. He seemed surprised at the address I gave him and kept trying to find out where I came from, but I was crying and couldn’t speak. He said, “You must be bearing a load of grief, to be coming crying like this.” That small drop was all I needed for my cup to overflow. So I told him what I had come for and his sympathy gave me strength to get to my destination.
My aunt’s associates were the very poorest—bums, drunks, old hags, thieves, chinchol- and pulque-drinkers and they were all at the wake. The women wore clothes that were patches on top of patches, and even then their skin showed through. Each one who came into the room covered her head with her shawl or whatever piece of cloth she had brought. They came, heard the account of my Aunt Guadalupe’s death, crossed themselves, prayed an Our Father and an Ave Maria and left. And as they left, “Hombre, here, I don’t have any more but take it,” and they gave me some money, a five, a twenty, a half peso, a few centavos. It meant taking a glass of aguardiente from their mouths, but they left their pennies for the old lady who had sheltered them in her little house. This tore at my heart. We didn’t get much from them but I saw their sincerity.
It was my unpleasant duty to tell my father the news. I called him on the phone and said, “Imagine, papá, what has happened. My aunt has died.”
“Ay, caray,” he said, “look at the situation I am in, so far behind….” And he began to tell me his troubles. I saw that I couldn’t ask him for help because he was very pressed for money himself. Before he hung up he said, “If I get over there in the afternoon I’ll see what I can do.”
“That’s fine, papá,” I said. I doubted that he’d come. I don’t remember when my father has ever visited my aunt’s house.
I went back and that bastard Gaspar was there. “Have you eaten?” I asked him.
“No, Roberto, but I’m not hungry. What I want most is my old woman. My pretty little mother is gone. The people here say that I finished her off, but who should know better than you what really happened? I never struck my old woman.” His words sounded so sincere that for a moment I felt sympathy for him. “Gaspar,” I said, “take this peso and buy me some cigarettes, and get some for yourself.”
While I waited I went over to a little grocery store and bought some bread and cheese and made myself a sandwich.
Gaspar returned drunk. Instead of buying the cigarettes he went and bought a peso‘s worth of alcohol.
“Hombre, Gaspar, please show some respect for the body of my aunt.”
“Yes, señor Roberto, whatever you say.” He calmed down for a little while, then he started saying, “What do you all want? When she was alive no one came to visit her, and now everyone is here crying. Bastards, hypocrites, go to hell!”
“Don’t pay any attention,” I told them. “He feels the death of my aunt, though not so much as I do, and besides he has been drinking.” After a while he started in on me.
“No one gives orders here except me,” he said. “This is my house.”
“All right, Gaspar, all right, it’s yours for the moment, but once my aunt is buried with proper respect, you’ll have to get your things together and be on your way, because you have absolutely nothing here. This is not your house and never will be.”
“Now we see who’s giving the orders around here. My queenie newly dead and already you people are sharpening your claws. You’re all like vultures, waiting for it to be over so you can take her things.”
“Look,” I said, “you’re offending the corpse. You’re showing no respect. Now it’s up to me to get you out of here,” and I grabbed him by his clothes and took him outside. I propped him against the wall and sat down where I could keep an eye on him. I was fed up with the guy but my grief was deeper than my anger. At that moment my only aim was to give the last member of my mother’s family a decent burial. I watched the little procession of visitors that came and went through the door. I felt content that my aunt had her mourners, her flowers, and her candles.
Inside the narrow room was the open coffin. It was just a large box lined with cheap gray cloth. On the thin pillow filled with sawdust, under the sad yellow light of a small bulb hung directly above it, my aunt’s wrinkled face looked sick with use and neglect, and with a kind of boredom. Poor little old woman! Her eyes were slightly open and her toothless mouth was nothing but a black hole that seemed to be mocking us. The veins on her yellow-green forehead bulged and I could clearly see the bruise she received on her left cheekbone when she fell.
There was a wreath of lilies and four candlesticks, one at each corner of the coffin. The tiny flames of the candles flickered as if they were burning against their will. Beside each candlestick stood four men, all poorly dressed, with sad faces and folded arms. This was the guard of honor, the last homage given to my aunt by her humble friends. They looked like characters from the court of miracles.
A few women, who smelled strongly of alcohol, squatted in the tiny space inside the kitchen door, some dozing and others talking in low voices.
Outside, Gaspar was listening and shaking his head.
What a wake! That wake was something in itself just because of the kind of people who were there. Most of them were down-and-out drunkards who came because they were driven by necessity. They are a very special kind of people who live in a way that’s hard to describe. I don’t want to sound like a politician but they belonged to a Mexico that is disappearing.
Finally it all began to get on my nerves, and I said to Roberto, “Listen, brother, I think I’ll go now,” and Maria and I went home.
The next day, Sunday, I was out in the market at eight-thirty in the morning. I had a hundred figurines in a carton and was anxious to get rid of them as fast as possible. As the market began to fill up with shouts and people, I peddled them at the top of my lungs: “Figurines, one peso each, get your figurines…why pay three pesos downtown?…get them for the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. Bring a little present to your sweetheart, your mamá, your wife…only a peso, while they last.”
Slowly my carton emptied. As I walked to my aunt’s house I met Pancho and Matilde, who were looking for me.
“Look, señor Manuel, we collected a little money from Pancho’s friends. And we were thinking that you have a lot of friends here too, so why don’t you take up a collection?”
They handed me an empty shoe box and the death certificate. That left me with no choice but to face the bull.
“Say, Shorty, how about giving a hand to help me bury my aunt?”
“Sure, brother. Hey, pitch in for this buddy here, his aunt died and he has to bury her.”
Everybody put his hand into his cash box and peso by peso I managed to get together a little pile. Frankly, it embarrassed me, and I didn’t ask everybody or I would have collected a lot more. Finally I got to my aunt’s house and handed over about a hundred pesos to Roberto.
“Hi, mano, did you make up the amount?” I asked.
“No, not yet. I had to take some out for flowers and for this and that….”
“Yaaa! What did you spend so much on?” Before I could stop myself I had shown my mistrust. My brother almost got sore, but he said, “Well, I took some things out of hock that were going to be lost.”
“Oh, no wonder. You did right. It doesn’t matter, I have some more here. What time are they coming for her?”
“Well…we were supposed to have paid up by twelve o’clock, and since it wasn’t possible now the funeral won’t be until tomorrow.”
And so we had to sit up with my aunt all Sunday night, too.
At nine o’clock Roberto went off to my room in the Casa Grande, leaving me his overcoat. The hours went by monotonously in silence. The five or six people who were still there no longer spoke and just drowsed. Suddenly there was a loud thud on the floor inside. Gaspar had tried to stretch himself out on three chairs that were near the coffin, but he was so drunk that he fell off, cutting his head, sending the candles flying and nearly knocking over the casket. As I helped him up, I said, “Gaspar, man, be careful! You cut your head! Laura, please, I brought a bottle of alcohol, would you see if you can find it so I can put some on this man’s cut?”
She found the bottle, and it was empty. She gestured that Gaspar had already disposed of the alcohol…inside him. So I washed the cut with a little tequila. After that he spread some rags on the floor and, giving the coffin a goodnight kiss, he stretched out and went to sleep.
At around two or three in the morning, my eyes began to close. I felt the night and the silence like a weight on my head and shoulders, pressing me down into the bench where I was sitting. After another hour of it I went home with my wife and woke my brother.
“It’s a good thing you woke me,” he said when I told him the time. “Consuelo is arriving at five and I have to go meet her.”
“Consuelo is coming?”
“Yes, didn’t you know?”
My brother went off to the bus station to wait for Skinny and I got into bed. That blasted Skinny! Coming all the way from Laredo!
(This is the first of two parts. Part II will appear in the next issue.)