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.”
He began to cry as he spoke, “She’s gone and left us, señorita Consuelo…. Do you know how much I had in my pocket when I found her stretched out on the floor? Twenty centavos. That was all I had.” His sobs kept getting heavier. “God, not even enough for a bus…nothing for a doctor, or anything. It took me an hour and a half…. I went to the police, walking without even knowing where I was going. I told the man behind the counter about it and he says to me, ‘No, this isn’t a police case.’ And off I go again, back and forth, back and forth…How is a person supposed to know his way around those offices?”
Usually men like Gaspar face up to every adversity and bear all the calamities that happen to them. But at moments like these they surrender and lower their heads. Gaspar gave in to his grief and I respected him.
After a moment, as he wiped the tears from his dark cheeks, he went on, “Doña Ana pays me two pesos a day for selling little bottles of alcohol out in the street and that’s what my old lady and me were living on. But even so we had everything pawned…everything we ever bought…the iron, my viejita’s dress, even my working tools. We had nothing at all. And in the hospital they wanted five pesos then ten pesos! There we would go, my little old woman and I, step by step…she could hardly walk, but we kept on. When the pain took hold of her she would just lean against the wall and say to me, ‘Look, man, I can’t walk any more. I can’t make it.’ And I would say to her, ‘Come on, don’t give up. Aren’t you a strong woman? Am I not here, or what?’ And on we would go again, step by step.”
Angélica, the only friend I had left in the Casa Grande, arrived dressed in black. She sat down next to me and squeezed my hands. “Here I am, Consuelo.”
A little later Jaime arrived. I tried to hold down the resentment the sight of him brought back. He had made me suffer very much. Upon entering he greeted everyone, making a polite little tour around the group. Ah, the middle class! Gaspar offered his hand, but Jaime ignored it to take the hand of Angélica, who was far better dressed than the others there. I had taken off my necklace, earrings, stockings and colored jacket, and was wearing my plain black dress and my dark eyeglasses.
Jaime acted surprised when he saw me. He held out his hand. “Hello. How are you?”
“All right, Jaime. Thank you for coming.”
I felt embarrassed and sad. Very few people had come. I had expected many more…at least all those to whom my aunt had given food and shelter. But no, we were very few. The residents of the vecindad behaved coldly. They walked past and looked at us, but no one spoke. Everyone who passed in front of the house covered his nose with a red handkerchief. They thought the color red helped keep the cancer from spreading.
Angélica said to me, “Consuelo, go over to Jaime. If you don’t he’ll say we left him alone and he’ll want to leave.”
I went up to where he stood aloof from everything and said, “I’m sorry. It shouldn’t be much longer.”
“They only gave me two hours off.”
“Jaime, you know these things take time. If I disturbed you by phoning it was only because my aunt liked you so much.” I was nervous and upset.
Roberto came back. “Well, it won’t be much longer,” he said.
“Did you arrange for her to be buried with the rest of our family?”
“No, sis, it takes too much time.” I was angry at that but Angélica calmed me.
Then I saw Manuel and María coming in. What contempt I felt for them! Even their way of walking was scornful. Why had they come? To show off, no doubt; and so that everyone would say, “Yes, they did their duty.” Manuel did not feel a fraction of genuine or even superficial grief. His jokes, his laughter…how I hated him!
Roberto and a few others were keeping watch beside the coffin. When I saw them go inside the back room I thought, “What a coward I am. Look at them next to the body, without fear. My brother is crying, poor fellow, and breathing in all the vapor that is rising less than two feet from him. And I…?” At last I went inside, where my aunt was lying. The candles had dripped so much that the wax looked like a veil. I approached the coffin and caressed it as if I were touching the feet of Christ.
I saw my brother Manuel, lounging against the wooden wall of the new carpentry shop, chatting as usual, making jokes, chewing gum, and looking for all the world as if he were waiting to see if the horse he had bet on would come in first. He was only an observer at whatever spectacle came his way. María, his wife, made me think of a gangster’s moll, observing everything and remaining untouched by it.
I decided to speak to Manuel. “How are you getting along?”
He replied with his usual forced good humor, “I’m making out all right.” He looked me over. “You’re still very skinny.”
Before I could speak, my sister-in-law said, “It’s not so strange. She was always very delicate.”
I turned my back and walked away. I couldn’t stand them.
Later, at what he thought to be an opportune moment, Manuel walked over to me. Putting his arm around my shoulder like someone trying to make up with an enemy, he led me a little away from the group to confide a secret.
“Do you know what, sis? I don’t think that the house and all the things that belonged to our aunt should be left to this guy Gaspar. Imagine, they say he used to beat her until she bled. How can we leave her things to him? We can sell some of them, and with….”
My aunt had not been laid to rest and they were already fighting over her pitiful possessions! I wanted to strike Manuel, to shout how vile and despicable he was. “Manuel, she is still here and you want…oh, how horrible.” His crafty, Asiatic expression faded, and he said, “But it isn’t right for this fool to stay here. He’s just an idiot who’s good for nothing.”
“Yes,” I shouted, “Just like you. You aren’t worth anything either. I absolutely oppose what you suggest.”
My brother couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to show his venom toward my aunt’s compañero. Gaspar had hit her? All right, she had loved him. It was her life. As in every marriage they had fought, and if she had never complained of him it was because she was fond of him. Why should we take vengeance? At least he had offered her his company, which none of us had done.
Roberto called me aside and told me that he agreed with Manuel about Gaspar.
“Look, Roberto, I don’t want to discuss this now, but I don’t think she would have had the heart to throw Gaspar out into the street. He is a poor man. He is not prepared to take care of himself. How can we put him out?”
“But why should the things she cared for belong to him? He’ll just sell them, and besides he was rough with her.”
“Look, brother, you too fight with your wife. That’s all they did. I want to do what my aunt would have done. As for her things, we’ll see.”
“But I told them that they can stay in the house too. It’s better that….”
“They? Who are they?”
“Matilde and Pancho. They are chasing after Gaspar to ask for the house. They said as soon as we carry her out they’re going to see the owner, so I said I’d move them over and get myself a few centavos from them for making sure they got the house. After all, if I can help myself….”
At last I understood the reason why Catarina and Matilde were so friendly to me. I realized it was Manuel who had spoken through Roberto’s mouth. Roberto was guided more by sentiment than by material things. It is true, as Manuel had told me, that “to be practical it doesn’t do any good to get sentimental. It is better to sell some of her things and get a few centavos from the house.” But didn’t her kindness deserve some respect? Didn’t the love she felt for the fruit of her labors, her wardrobe, her bed, her saints, deserve some honor? When she leaves should every trace of her also go? I know that everything is going to disappear, but wouldn’t it be better to erase her footprints gently?
Jaime called me. From the tone of his voice I knew he understood that I had been upset. “Come on. Let’s go buy some flowers.”
As we walked along, I remembered how Jaime and I used to go together to buy fruit. He must have been recalling it too for as we passed a fruit stand he stopped to buy some tangerines which we ate as we went. Few words passed between us; we spoke mostly of our families and friends. We bought the flowers and hurried back. I gave the rest of the tangerines to Angélica and placed the flowers at the foot of the casket.
On Monday morning, the day of the funeral, the sun was out, nice and warm. When I arrived at my aunt’s house there were about twenty-five or thirty people standing around, talking about little things. My sister Consuelo was there with Jaime, the shorty, her eternal suitor.
“Imagine, Manuel,” Matilde said to me, “your sister says that Gaspar is going to stay here in the house with everything.”
“What! No, that’s impossible. She must not know how he treated my aunt.”
At that moment Consuelo came over, and we stood there looking at each other.
“Hola. How are you?”
“Hola, sis, how have you been?”
I made a sign to her to move over where we could talk without being overheard. “Say,” I said, “is it true that you were saying that Gaspar should stay on in my aunt’s house?” I tried to put my arm around her but she pushed it off.
“But, man, that fellow treated Aunt Lupe very badly…they say—.”
“Nothing but gossip.” She cut me short. “Besides, I know what I’m doing. Nobody has more of a right than I to say what should and should not be done. The room and all the things go to Gaspar. He was my aunt’s last husband and that’s what she would have wanted.”
“Hombre! Look, Consuelo, that may be what she wanted but our poor aunt is dead now. And Gaspar was a son-of-a-bitch who hit her and who wanted to fornicate with her in front of people even when she was sick with a cancerous fistula. He treated her in an inhuman manner. Now, why should her things go to him? Why should the images of the Niño Diós that were in the family for eighty years, or the picture of the Divino Rostro that is sixty-nine years old and that had belonged to my mother and grandmother be given to him? And there are at least sixteen other pictures of saints and virgins. That drunkard would sell them one by one just to buy alcohol. He’s nothing but a worthless bum.”
Consuelo cut me off again saying, “Just like you. You’re exactly the same so why are you so surprised?”
I was angry but I controlled myself. “But, look, with what we get for the things and for the transfer of the house….”
“No, I don’t want any transfer money,” she said.
“Look, please let me finish. All I’m saying is, with what the things bring…. Man, my aunt in her lifetime never had any sign of distinction, any kind of privilege, at least let’s give her a cement headstone in death.”
“No sir, nothing doing! Things are going to be done the way my aunt would have wanted.” And as she said this, she turned her back on me in a very impolite manner, leaving me with my mouth open.
That bitch! It was she and not my aunt who was doing the talking. She was just using my aunt as a pretense to get her own way. Even at the funeral my sister came around with the same hard feelings and that same conceit that because she knew shorthand and could write on a machine she had more rights. All her life she wanted to know more than I did so she could act superior. I’m not a genius, but I’ve been around a little more and I see things a little bit clearer and more objectively than she does. The truth is that she thought I was so much of a businessman that even in that sad situation I was capable of trying to make money for myself on those useless little things. Their sentimental value was much greater than their material value and all I wanted were my mother’s pictures. I told her, “Look, Consuelo, you can come to the market and see how much I sell the things for. You handle the business of the transfer.” But she wouldn’t listen.
Finally a gray hearse arrived, a half-hour late. Those guys from the funeral parlor came to do a job and cared nothing about keeping up appearances or anything. They were completely indifferent to the grief of the mourners. It was pure business. Right off, they wanted to be paid. And there was only one funeral bus. It was one of those old public buses, with seats in rows on each side of the aisle. The bus was painted black and in fair condition but inside it was very dirty.
It’s a little ironic but even the dead have their status. The difference in price decides whether you travel first or second class. If you pay more, you get an elegant hearse, a fancy casket, a later model bus and the mourners are treated with every consideration. My aunt’s funeral was the very poorest there is. She went second class right to the end.
They drove that hearse like a taxicab, as fast as they could, with the mourners’ bus following behind. When we arrived at the cemetery, Roberto and Consuelo got out to take care of the papers. Four men lowered the casket from the hearse, carried it into the church, and set it down on some benches. My sister spoke to the priest. It seems that before getting down to work, the holy man, out of Christian charity, said, “That will be thirty pesos.” Consuelo turned to me and made a face. “It’s thirty pesos, brother.” What could I do? I handed it over.
How few priests practice what they preach! I’m so steeped in business nowadays I can see clearly that the priests, too, are doing nothing but business. If some poor guy arrives, the priest pays no attention to him, but if one arrives in a nice automobile it’s, “Yes, my son, here and, yes, my son, there.” There’s a price list for everything, with a different charge for Purgatory, Heaven and Paradise. What bastards!
After the Mass, the undertaker came over to Roberto and said, “If you want us to take your relative as far as the canyon it will cost you another seventy-five pesos.”
“Buzzards, that’s all they are…buzzards,” I said to myself. I made up my mind not to give them another centavo. There was no money left, anyway. When they saw that it was impossible to squeeze out any more, the men from the funeral parlor resigned themselves and took the body out of the church. They loaded it on the hearse again and we started off to my aunt’s last resting place.
We stopped at a section where there was an open grave almost at the foot of a big pepper tree. There were two big piles of earth, one at the head and another at the foot of the grave. It seems they had removed someone else’s remains out of the same grave. I saw leg bones still inside stockings and a skull that seemed to be smiling sarcastically at the other body about to go in. Getting out of the bus relieved our legs, and we all formed a semicircle, talking and looking around as if we were at the theatre.
It is hard to say what one feels at such moments, but I could swear that everybody had gooseflesh when the coffin was lowered to the edge of the grave. And then they began to act out the drama. “Ayyy, you are going, comadrita,” somebody said, crying. “My comadrita is going….” “Gentlemen…anybody…let us see her once more for the last time…. Ayyy, darling, you are going….” Ready to please, Roberto bent down, turned a screw that was like a handle, and opened the coffin. Several peered in to see the macabre sight.
They closed the coffin, and the gravediggers put a length of webbing under it at each end and lowered it with difficulty into the pit. It barely fit. Even in her grave my aunt was hemmed in. When the casket touched bottom it was as if life stopped. Everybody stood motionless. Then Gaspar bent over and threw the first handful of earth into the hole. I saw many hands scoop up earth and do the same. I squatted, took my handful of dirt and tossed it onto the coffin. It made a disagreeable sound as it struck. I picked up a shovel, somebody else took another one, and we worked in turns until the grave was filled.
Finally, we drove away through the canyon, thick with its beautiful, indifferent trees. “Goodbye…goodbye Dolores Cemetery. We go in grief leaving the last of the Vélezes in your entrails.” Consuelo was the only one in the bus still crying as we left. She kept looking back through the rear window even when we were outside the cemetery.
“I still have to deal with her,” I thought. I really couldn’t bear my sister any more. Imagine, a few weeks ago she showed up at the market, screaming that I was a crook, that I hadn’t paid her money. If she had only said, “Brother, I’m broke. I need fifty pesos,” I’d have answered, “Have things gone bad with you? Here, little sister.” But she came at me with claws ready to scratch, so I wouldn’t give her even five centavos.
I’m not like that with Roberto. When he’s without a cent, I’m the first one he turns to and I give him ten, twenty, or fifty pesos. I bawl him out, of course, for drinking or for playing the big-shot with his friends, but I always help him. You see, when Roberto works with me in the market, I hold back some of his money—a hundred pesos, or two hundred—without him knowing it, but I do it so that when he comes to me for money I’ll have some for him. The way I figure it, I clip him in order to help him save up something, and it works out fine.
But Consuelo is another matter. She doesn’t trust me and never really gave me a chance to help her. She sees me as an enemy instead of as a brother. Why all that hatred against me? Why that phobia? Because when I was a kid I gave her a slap or two? If I had tried to commit a disgraceful act the way some brothers do to their sisters, she would have all the justification in the world. But I never did anything bad to her. Yes, I neglected my children now and then, but the responsibility for them was not on her shoulders. It didn’t cost her anything. No, what she has against me is something sick, I cannot explain why.
What I’d like is to see her pride bent. I’d like her to fall so I could lift her up afterwards, not because I want a total victory but to have her recognize that I am her elder brother and her superior. I’d like to see her in real misfortune so that she’ll have to come to me for help. I swear I would do something for her then. I’ve come to the realization that if I spend even a thousand pesos it’s easy for me to replace them. I, who have never had anything, not even a spot to drop dead on, know now that the value of money in itself is very relative. So it wouldn’t mean a thing for me to help my sister if she would only put aside her hatred of me.
When we got back to the vecindad, it was pretty late. María and I went to the restaurant where she worked and we had supper. My friends there invited me to a game of dominoes but I didn’t want to play. I felt depressed, very depressed, and I went home early.
The priest never came to give my aunt the last rites. Gaspar had gone for him and came back and told me, “He says he can’t come because it’s too far.”
“What a miserable priest,” I said to myself. “It’s his duty to come. Besides, we were going to pay him, and even Christ himself didn’t collect for his good deeds.” I may not be a devout Catholic, but I do believe in God and His Commandments. I am not criticizing the Church, only the priest for not coming when we called.
We waited and waited until finally the bus and the hearse arrived, with the crowd of curious children who always run ahead of them.
When we had finished loading the hearse, the funeral director asked me, “Who is in charge here?”
“I am, sir.”
“Please pay me my money,” he said.
“If you wish. It is customary to ask for payment at the cemetery, but if you want it right now you can have it.” I still lacked thirty-five pesos, but Consuelo got them for me and I paid him the four hundred pesos.
When we arrived at the Dolores Cemetery, I asked the driver to back up and let us off at the chapel. The priest invited us to come in and then he asked us whether we wanted a High Mass with music for thirty-five pesos, a funeral Mass for twenty-five pesos, or a plain Mass for fifteen pesos. I took it badly and told him, “I don’t have any money, and besides the services should all be the same price.” But I said to my brother and sister, “All right, since my aunt hasn’t been given the last rites why should we haggle over the last few centavos we spend on her?” I told the priest to go ahead and give us the High Mass with music. And so he gave her the last rites, the ashes, the holy water, the Extreme Unction, and I don’t know what else.
Then we buried my aunt. And so it ended.
Consuelo and Manuel were fighting over what to do with the house and my aunt’s belongings. Gaspar had sold his things to help pay for the funeral, and Consuelo wanted everything else to stay exactly as it was. She said to me, “Look, brother, it would be better if Gaspar stayed here. I’ve already told him that Matilde and Pancho are going to move in with him.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea because the landlord will raise the rent and they won’t be able to pay it. Besides, they won’t live peacefully together because they all drink.”
I knew it was not going to work out but I couldn’t convince my sister. She said, “If my aunt had lived she would have wanted Gaspar to stay here, because she always stood up for him.” And I had to agree. But before I went home, I took my mother’s picture and a few of my favorite saints.
At last the hearse and the funeral bus arrived. I felt my breast tighten. The hour of separation had come. When my aunt was carried out in my brothers’ arms, I remembered her words, “I won’t leave here until they carry me out feet first.” How enormous a sadness I felt as I looked through the window of the hearse and saw her lying on her gray couch surrounded by flowers. Manuel glanced at me sidewise, expecting me to give way to hysterical sobs, but I would not let him see me defeated.
We got into the bus and as we left I turned my face toward the vecindad. “Now, my little mother, you must leave forever. Here your house will stay. But don’t worry, little one, I will take care of it.” And so the funeral “procession” departed.
We passed by Avenida Melchor Campo, Avenida Gutenberg, Avenida Horacio where I once had friends and many illusions about my future. It was a world completely unknown to my aunt. She had never wanted to go out with me. All of them were a little afraid of me, because they say that I am severe and not like them. But I had loved her, and while we made that last trip I felt as if she were still watching over me, inviting me to go with her as she had when I was a child, turning her head to look for me, “And Skinny, where is she?”
I still hadn’t seen her face, and I thought that when we arrived I would ask them to open the coffin. I had asked for holy water back at her house and someone had assured me that there would be water and a chapel where they could take the body and say a Mass. So when we arrived we carried her coffin to the chapel where the priest, with a smile on his lips, invited us to enter.
It offended me to see the disdainful way they commercialize and take advantage of these moments when grief keeps one from seeing clearly. Manuel, Roberto, Jaime and I got together the money to pay for the Mass. I was glad to see Manuel make the move that most killed him, that is, to put his hand into his pocket and take out the money to pay his share.
At last I stood at the opening of the damp vault that was to receive her. I asked them to open the coffin. Manuel did not want to see her, but Roberto and I did. It comforted me to see her for the last time.
As they finished filling the grave, I looked at the sky and at the surroundings. The place where she rested was lovely. She was at the foot of a large tree, like the ahuehuete tree she used to visit year after year on her pilgrimages to Chalma. There was greenery around her, and a little sun.
I asked God, “Where do the poor find rest? Will they truly have rest? Tell me, oh God, what will happen after death to a life that has been lived in martyrdom? You have said, ‘Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ But here they say, ‘We have to purify ourselves in the eternal fire.’ I rebel, oh Lord, not against Your holy purposes, but against what people say about the poor. I mourn Your life, oh Lord, told by a Rosary of Your tears, by the blood of Your footsteps. But why, Lord, why this miserable death?”
We came back. I fled to the emptiness of her room. Roberto left, saying that he was tired. Manuel went back to the Casa Grande with María, saying, “In any case I am going to get something out of this. Think about it and we’ll see.” I stayed in my aunt’s kitchen. Gaspar went into the bedroom and began to sob. Chocolate, the dog, scrambled to his feet. I wondered what would become of the dog and of my aunt’s pigeons and cat. She and my uncle had always been fond of all their pets but Chocolate was their favorite. My aunt had treated him like her child and really, that dog did understand a lot.
Gaspar came into the kitchen and after a while we began to talk. “Excuse me, señorita Consuelo, what your brother said, that he would give me permission to stay here for only a few days…well, after all, it’s for you to say, isn’t it? It’s no less than I could hope for.”
“No, Gaspar, he has no right to tell you to go. Roberto did not know how to explain it well. You stay in the house. Matilde wants it too, but don’t be upset. Tomorrow we’ll see how to arrange things.”
“Yes, but look, she has already started to take out some things. She took the brazier and the glasses that were over there.”
“Don’t worry, Gaspar. She’ll bring them back.”
Matilde came over to invite me to eat with them. I realized that they wanted to talk about my aunt’s place. Well, at least they had shown a little tact in inviting me. At any other time I would have refused, but this time I forgot my repugnance at eating there. I even forgot the odor from the toilets that Catarina never cleaned. They had prepared a stewed chicken, the best food they had, for this day. They gave me hot chicken soup, bless them. It was something out of the ordinary in their lives.
Before they brought up the subject, I asked them, “It’s about the house, isn’t it? I understand that Matilde needs it. We don’t have to decide right now, do we? There’s plenty of time, and I’m so tired. Let’s wait until tomorrow so we can go to our Villas to rest and sun ourselves. We’ll take a vacation first!” I made a sweeping gesture that made them all laugh.
The soup tasted delicious and the sauce that Matilde had made was also very good. I told her so and she replied like a child who has received a compliment, “Ay, yes…. Ay, no, it’s very poor.” I told her that it didn’t taste just right because Gaspar hadn’t eaten yet and I asked them to call him. He didn’t want to come until I sent word that “I, señorita Consuelo, say you are to come or I will go after you.”
“Oh,” said Catarina, “Roberto told him that he wasn’t to touch a drop of wine.”
“Yes, but I told Roberto that life is sacred, and we have no right to interfere in Gaspar’s.”
Gaspar came in. “You sent for me, señorita Consuelo?”
“Sit down, Gaspar, and have something to eat.”
When the meal was over I asked Matilde to return the brazier and the glasses and told Catarina to look after the house. I implored them to recite a Rosary and then I said goodbye, leaving by the path in the courtyard where I had so often come in search of peace or comfort for my soul.
The following day, with the little money I had left, I paid my aunt’s landlord part of the four months’ rent she owed him. He agreed to wait for the rest. Then I went back to the vecindad and at last convinced Gaspar and Matilde to share my aunt’s place. I told Matilde she could move in on condition that she would take care of everything as if my aunt were still there. To honor her memory, the altar and the religious pictures especially were to remain as they were. Whether they meant it or not, Matilde and Gaspar agreed. Then I went through my aunt’s possessions, and divided them up between the two of them and a few friendly neighbors. For myself I kept the shawl I had sent my aunt money for. It was her pride, Gaspar told me. I also took her papers, her scissors, and two figures of the Niño Diós, and I got back the iron she had pawned. I didn’t want to see anyone else use the clothes she wore the most, so I burned them. Then I gave some money to the woman who had helped her, five pesos to Gaspar, one to Matilde for her child’s milk, and one to my godchild. I gave them my address and left, promising to return.
The next morning I bought my return ticket to Nuevo Laredo and went to Manuel’s house to get his signature, giving permission for his children to leave the country. He was eating breakfast. Roberto was sitting on a bench outside waiting for him. By lying a little, I had no trouble getting Manuel to sign the papers. He didn’t care enough about the children to even ask any questions. Before I left, I gave Roberto ten pesos.
In the afternoon I looked for a church, went into a café, and finally left on the bus, carrying with me more grief and sorrow than I had ever borne before, my body in tatters and my whole life a moan.
(This is the last of a two-part study.)
September 25, 1969