13

Sitting in his place across from me, my father explains—Because, he says, because it needs to be explained, it always needs explaining.

We have ordered another pitcher of beer, our fourth, and I fill his glass. Why not? We have no place to go.

Even now, he says, sometimes I still do not believe it. But these things have happened, he says. Things like this—they happen. Bigger secrets, worse than this one, mijo, even those have been kept secret.

What was the secret? In a manner that for everyone remains both mysterious and obvious at once—she was a drunk.

Everybody knew she liked a drink, so that it was said of her, that she had even said of herself, She could drink like a man, drinking beer and brandy and wine and whatever else, this to lift the spirits, this to call forth her stories, this—now the story goes—to ignore that enormous purple mark everyone but her was watching. How had she coped?—it is whispered among us; this was how; then somebody touches another’s arm, saying, The poor thing.

What Concha had heard, then—what had made her run down the hallway—were the pitiful sounds of pain and fear that come from too much vomit, from losing control of one’s bowels. Once the door was opened, Concha saw Pati laid out on the floor of their bathroom, no longer with energy enough to aim for the toilet, her clothes soiled. She had surrounded herself with her own bile, stinking up the house, filling it with the smell of old booze and shit. She was pale, and, because her liver had quietly begun to cease, she was light yellow, her skin taking on the color of the poisons floating through her. She moved to vomit again, but nothing came out. Then her mouth oozed brown saliva.

They took Pati to the hospital, and she was cleaned up, washed, set up in a bed, given water, given food. In a couple of days she was very yellow, even her eyes and tongue and lips—everything had turned the palest yellow, the color of corn starch in water. In those days in Ecuador there was nothing much that could be done—nothing much, for that matter, can be done now, either—and so they began to make preparations. The fight, doctors said, even if she fought bravely, would be over inside of a few weeks.

Concha delivered notice to the administrative offices of Cristóbal Colón, saying that Pati had fallen very, very ill, that she was not expected to return.

I’d hoped it was nothing—one woman said sadly, who worked there and knew Pati.

What do you mean?—Concha asked her.

The woman leaned closely over the counter, saying, I had been hearing her in the bathroom. Over the weeks. She stayed in there a long time. Sometimes she was vomiting. Sometimes she was making waste. I asked her what was wrong. She told me it was nothing. She told me she was fine. A passing bug, she said. But I knew. I knew something. The woman paused to lean even closer to Concha, as if to conspire. She said, Still, I had hoped for her. She had started to stink a little.

Then Concha took the children to Pati’s house, in order to gather some of Pati’s clothes, maybe some trinkets or other reminders of home, to make the hospital tolerable—comfortable enough, at least. But when they arrived to her house they found its horrors, its secrets. To say unkempt, to say that word, this is just a joke, since that word unkempt cannot begin to contain, and cannot possibly mean, what they found there. They opened the door and, inside, it seemed as though wild animals had been through to kill each other; the smell alone seemed to confirm that theory. As they searched out things to bring to the hospital, books, a blanket, perhaps something to knit—what was that smell?—they held their noses at first, but finally they lifted their shirts over their faces. Concha tied a handkerchief around her face. They walked around the front room and the kitchen, and nothing was in its place, if it belonged to a place at all. There were clothes and towels thrown over the furniture, dishes that looked as though they had been used, and reused, and reused, then ignored. There were bath towels, a dozen or so, laid out here and there on the floor. And food, food lay open, and old, and rotting everywhere—on the floor, on the furniture, on chairs and tables. Bottles, empty, full, half-filled—many, many bottles—lay strewn on the dining room table, on the sofa, in the kitchen, on the counters, in the cupboards, her cheap vodka, a drunkard’s best keeper of secrets. She had been sick a long time; that, at least, was clear. And what was that smell? Nothing they found pointed directly to it. Could old food, could unwashed dishes—could these stink so bad as this? Nofrito, my father, doubted it. The children complained, keeping their noses in their shirts.

Concha went to the bedrooms, but she told her children to stay where they were, to stay put here in the front of the house: Do not leave the kitchen or living room, she said. Do not walk around this place. Perhaps, my father supposes now, Concha was trying to preserve some of Pati’s dignity, a little if at all, by keeping the children away from those back rooms, from the bathroom, from Pati’s own bedroom, for what other, darker, sadder secrets lay waiting back there?

When Concha left to those rooms, the children continued exploring the front room. Anita made a game of walking on the tops of towels which lay all over the floor. She jumped from towel to towel, as though they were lily pads and she were a frog. For no reason—what reason does a child need?—she lifted one of the towels.

What is this?—she asked out loud. It looks bad, she said.

Both boys came to her and saw feces, human, old—days, maybe weeks—left to rot, squished flat from having been walked on, again and again. They lifted the other towels and they found the same thing under those, too, trails of waste under every one—probably from the days she was too drunk to hurry.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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