THE WAKE: CONSUELO
As we turned into the Street of the Bakers, I told the driver where to stop. He asked me in amazement, “Here?”
“Yes, here,” I answered.
As I was taking out the money to pay the driver, a face appeared in the window of the taxi. It had a flattened nose, a toothless mouth, features swollen with alcohol, into a faceless blur. The hair and beard were tangled into a single ball of filth. “Little boss,” it said, “give me five centavos for a treatment. What do you say, little boss?”
The driver did not answer and turned to stare at me. I said in a sharp tone, “Don’t give him anything if you don’t want to. Get out of here.” His attitude annoyed me. What could those poor things do to him? “Besides,” I thought to myself as I got out of the cab, “these are my people.” There was nobody outside the door of my aunt’s house except one of the adopted nephews she had taken care of. Nobody else. A feeling of infinite sadness came over me, as if I had come to the edge of a desert and found nothing.
I went in through the little kitchen to the doorway of the inner room where my aunt had slept. “This is where you used to live, little mother….” Now the room was empty. They had taken out the wardrobe, the bed, everything. All that was left were her saints. Her coffin, resting on two benches, was in the middle of the room. It was the cheapest kind obtainable. I had expected it to have a piece of glass on the lid so I could see my aunt’s face, but no, it was closed. There were four candles burning around the coffin and underneath, on the floor, was a cross made of powdered lime for the eternal rest of her soul. It is a custom to also place a pot of vinegar with chopped onion under the coffin to prevent contagion from cancer, but I didn’t see one there.
Leaning against the door frame, I spoke to her silently, “Now, little mother, now rest. No more hunger, no more pain. Now you are at peace. I got here late, but here I am, little queen.”
I was about to go in and caress the coffin when I felt a heavy hand, hard as a piece of wood, on my arm, and heard Catarina’s hoarse voice saying, “Come on out here, Consuelo. It will hurt you, hombre. It was cancer, you know. Come to my house. You can cry and scream there if you feel like, but not here.”
I turned around and saw Catarina and her step-daughter Matilde. Catarina was a stout, red-faced woman of about fifty, who had trouble breathing because of chronic bronchitis. Besides, she drank a lot. Matilde was ugly because her nose had been broken and was completely flat. She said she had had an accident but my uncle once told me that her father had beaten her when she was little and had smashed in her nose. Uncle Ignacio was Matilde’s mother’s brother and he knew Matilde from the time she was born…. My aunt was her aunt too.
The two women pulled me out of the house and into the yard. They seemed concerned about me. I asked Matilde, “Where’s my brother Roberto?”
“You told him to meet you, so he went to the bus terminal. He should be back in a little while.”
I said nothing and followed them across the yard.
Catarina’s house, No. 14, was in the rear of the vecindad. As soon as we entered, she offered me her only chair. The apartment was like my aunt’s, one small room and a tiny kitchen. Here lived Catarina, Matilde’s father José, Matilde, her present husband Pancho, her grandmother, and Matilde’s two children.
The bad smell of the toilets in front of Catarina’s house reached me as I was sitting there. But what difference did it make? My aunt had lived here, too. I looked at Matilde and, trying to keep my voice from scolding, I asked, “Why didn’t you let me know sooner? Why?”
“Well,” she said, “it happened so suddenly. She was alone….” Alone! The word burned into me like a live coal. I had consoled myself with the thought that my aunt had died in bed, surrounded by people she knew. “I think it must have been something like her liver bursting, because she vomited a lot of blood.” Matilde continued, in her flat voice, “And when she fell she hit herself against a brick and cut open her forehead…and she just lay there…. Pancho was the one who found her. I said to him, ‘Go see if my aunt wants a little tea or juice.’ Whenever I had a few extra centavos we would buy her juice. So he went and found her lying in a puddle of blood.”
Catarina said, “I told them, ‘The police have to be notified, so nobody can be accused of anything, right?’ Then those bitches, my compañeras, said, ‘The Red Cross has to be called to come and get her.’ So I said to them, ‘Call the Red Cross my ass. Nobody is taking a fucking thing out of here.’ I told them off and Gaspar went to notify the police, because she had an attack, you know. There was a lot of blood. It stank something awful.”
I wanted to stop them, to scream or to cry, but all I could do was clench my fists and curse inside me. Christ! Yes! Lay it on! Here we are to take it! Why, Lord, why does it always have to be us, the ones who have nothing? Lay it on heavier, Lord! Send all You want. I broke into a sweat realizing how powerless I was, just another poor Mexican who had nothing to fall back on at times like this.
When I could speak, I said, “Matilde, didn’t they give her any treatment at the hospital?”
“No, Gaspar told me they wanted fifteen pesos and said to take her away until he brought the money.”
“I lent them bus fare whenever I had it,” said Catarina.
“And I would give her money for her juice,” Matilde added.
I felt that they were saying this as a warning, so I answered, “Don’t worry, I’ll pay back whatever my aunt asked of you. Did Roberto come to see her?”
“Yes,” said Catarina, “that he did, and when he had it he brought her money.”
“What about Manuel?”
“You know you can’t count on that one for anything,” said Matilde. “He was here last night, and it seems he helped Roberto raise money for the funeral. I helped them, too. We collected among all of us.”
“And my papá? Did he come?”
“No. Señor Roberto told him, but he didn’t come.”
This made me very angry, and I said to her, “Yes, the great señor Sánchez. The day he dies I won’t come either….” I couldn’t keep back my tears. I was the one who should have been with her. What a horrible thing it is to feel remorse!
“Now, now,” said Catarina, “don’t cry any more. Lucky her, up there with the Lord. Poor us, left behind to suffer here. Now stop crying or you’ll get sick.”
“Do you have a little tea, Catarina, please? My stomach is hurting me.”
Instead of tea they gave me a large glass of milk, a luxury in that household. All my scruples and resentment fell away at that moment. I recognized the love and understanding that existed among them in spite of their poverty-stricken lives. What would I have done in the same circumstances?
“Matilde, have they told Jaime?” I asked.
“No. We were afraid you might be angry if you came and found him here. So we decided to wait for you.”
I thought of how my aunt had called Jaime “my dark one, my handsome little nephew.” She told me, “Marry him, Skinny. Then he will accompany me to my final resting place when I die.”
“Call him, please, Matilde. His number is on the corner of the calendar in my aunt’s house.”
“Ask him for money,” said Catarina. “Don’t be a fool.”
Matilde went to the telephone in the little store outside the vecindad. While she was gone I asked Catarina where Gaspar was. She said that maybe he had gone to bring a priest. “To tell the truth,” she added, “He’s afraid to lay eyes on you.”
Matilde came back, out of breath. “You’ve got to come and talk to him.” I went to the telephone and picked up the receiver to hear again the voice that, years before, had made me fall in love with him.
“Jaime, I called to ask you to come to the funeral, because my aunt always thought a lot of you. She would have liked for you to come.”
“All right,” he said. “I’ll come over. Caray I hope I can get off from work.”
I hung up and paid Matilde for the call. “Why didn’t you tell him about the money?” she asked.
“Because he already knows he has to bring it. Let’s go.”
I went back to sit at the door of my aunt’s house. I stayed there like a stone taking the sun and letting the wind blow over me, the dust that I had always feared because it carried germs. Let it blow…let it dirty me! I wished that my soul could fly away like the dust.
I emerged from my stupor when Roberto arrived. He told me how he and Manuel and Matilde had raised the money for the funeral. I thought to myself, “So she is going to be buried by charity too, like my Uncle Ignacio…like all of them.” There wasn’t a family in that vecindad that could bury anyone without taking up a collection. One family had kept the body in the courtyard for several days while they went around begging for money. The body had begun to smell already. Roberto and I happened to go there and when we heard about it we went to the Casa Grande to beg for money ourselves. And now my aunt, too….
“Do you need any more money?” I said.
“No, well, yes, only about thirty-five pesos that I spent on taxi fare looking for you.”
I asked him, “Well, what time are they coming for her?”
“They should be here before noon. It’s all arranged, except I still have to take the medical certificate to the undertaker’s. I’ll do it after I eat.”
When Roberto left, Matilde and Catarina came over with Gaspar. He seemed frightened. I wanted to tell him not to be afraid, that I wasn’t going to call him to account for having left my aunt alone. I was not angry with him. What could he have done? A man who didn’t know how to read or write, who lived beaten down by suffering and lack of proper food, who shared his chinchol with my aunt. What was he going to do now, all alone? I remembered what my aunt had said of my Uncle Ignacio. “What will become of this poor man if I die? He is alone, alone as an ear of corn in the field.” Now it was Gaspar who was alone. I pitied him. “Oh,” I thought, “my brothers will probably tear into him. The neighbors too, I suppose.”
Copyright © 1969, Oscar Lewis