INCIDENTS OF My TRAVELS to
NEVER SEEKING ADVENTURE YET ADVENTURE FINDS ME
"Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!"
After nearly twenty hours of planes, busing and taxis, six of them consisting of an uneventful and boring layover in Dallas. Not to mention the day of preparation before that. We have arrived at our small burg in Guanajuato Mexico nearly at 11 PM that February 16th. Fatigued, looking to retire in our familiar room at the back of my grandfather’s house. The same room we've inhabited all those years of travel as a whole family but my uncle Rodolfo says I need to go with him to settle arrangements with the mortician.
“Yes, he has been waiting two days for your arrival now.” I was the oldest member of my family now. The patriarchy unexpectedly fell on me unwanted.
With an exhale I replied, "OK".
We leave the rest to settle in our awaiting rooms as my uncle and I depart.
Traveling by night another 45 minutes down a dark winding back-road toward the city of my birth, Acambaro, Guanajuato, my uncle drives alarmingly fast in the void, more out of memory than visible markers. This road is reputed to be a bandit haven; rumors of hijackings foster his fear. If the need were not immediate, my uncle would avoid it until the safety of daylight. But urgency prevails.
We arrived without a dreaded incident of piracy. The streets of the sleeping community were long deserted and slick with dew. Located at the skirts of a butte, and at 6000 feet above sea level, the weather varied greatly from day to night in February. The midday temperatures reach a hot 85 degrees and now, near midnight, they drop to a chilling 40. An unfortunate condensation slick the pavement now. Not properly prepared I regret only having a thin hoodie to shield me from the brisk cold.
Acambaro sits on the flanks of a flat-topped butte called El Cerro del Toro. The streets rise toward the top, steadily increasing in grade along the rise, like threading veins that abruptly stop where wagons could no longer climb. During the day one can witness this jagged advancement of civilization against the restricting forces of nature. A sharp divide from grayish concrete to green foliage. At night, the towering mount is obscured by the darkness, only the sporadic flicker of lights from a tower above it betray its presence.
As we ascend the empty street, my shoes barely keep traction on the slippery incline; the echoed bark of an unseen dog nearby accompany the magnified sounds of our footfalls. The effort in the thin air robs my breath, increases my heart rate.
A solitary streetlight behind and below casts our long shadows against the shingle that hangs above a stenciled glass window of the funeral home. The shingle, too heavy to swing, just read “Funeraria San Francisco” with opposing cocked crosses on each side of the ‘San’. The stencil on the window further stated this was San Francisco’s Victoria Hall and below that: “24-hour service”, a convenience because death has no itinerary. My uncle rapped hard on the corrugated garage door where a “No Parking” sign rattled as a result. More unseen dogs joined in the chorus.
Moments pass and the sound of a key in the lock of the man door begins to rotate. One. Two…and a half turns, all Mexican deadbolts have a long play before release. The door parts and a gray-haired man greeted us silently with a polite “Yes?” His face was thin and pale with a long thin European nose. His cheekbones protruding that practically made him look cadaverous in the dim light.
My uncle did all the talking, Apologizing for the late arrival. He introduced me but I said nothing. I could not stop my jaw from shivering. Perhaps because of the frigid cold of the night or maybe because I realize now that I was facing the unexpected fact that my immortal father lays defunct on the other side of these doors. A place that reeked of formaldehyde carried out to me on the heated draft pouring through the parted door. Though informed a few days already of his passing, it was at this point when I realized that I would never speak with my father ever again.
In an exhaust of breath, my heart plunged. I had to remind myself to draw in the next.
The man, Don Anselmo, assures us that he was awake and preparing the “guest”. He invites us in and leads us to his office, the inside of the stenciled glass. Sits us in comfortable wooden chairs with leather cushions tacked on and excuses himself for a moment. Wood is a rare commodity at these elevations, the finely lacquered armrest and a curly grooved design suggest colonial affluence. This arrangement will be pricey is my thought, I already gave Marty the Mortician back in Indiana a deposit for the transport. He was waiting for the body to arrive for his preparations for burial back home.
Don Anselmo returns with freshly made coffee, pours us each a cup and sits behind the oak desk. I barely hear his statement because of jet-lag, or because of shock, so my uncle answers all the basic questions. One that begged my attention was his questioning the scars. I explain to him that my father was sick lately, already going through preparations for dialysis as his kidney functionality depleted.
“…We four, my brothers and sister, were going to be tested to see if we could donate one of ours. Our father wouldn’t have it. If it wasn’t for the aneurysm, I am sure my father would succumb to several other maladies.”
“Aneurism?” don Anselmo questioned with a confused glance toward my uncle. Rodolfo returning a pleading look back. (An exchange I missed completely then yet it comes back to me later in the memory of the moment).
How does he not know the cause of my father’s death?
“And the toes?”
“Yes, he sacrificed them in recent years to the altar of the diabetic gods.” The joke falls flat. As an apology, I add, “If you’ve noticed, there was dark patching at the ankles…”
As I mumbled my explanation, I am distracted by the memory of the day after the surgery where they removed the long and middle toes from his left foot. That evening my brother Gabe and I kept our father company in his hospital room. The rest of the family went home to freshen up. The nurse entered the room informing my father that she needed to change the bandages and inspect the stitches. “Sure,” replied my father while distracted with a sporting event on the TV, I read a book. Gabe sat at the foot of the bed with a magazine.
After the removal of bandages, prodding and pulling at the loose ends of the threads, the nurse then excused herself to dispose of the old and bring in some fresh bandages.
There was a pregnant pause before Gabe says “Hey Pops! Do you know that I can see your entire head through the gap of your foot?”
A short silence as we looked at each other, then we all guffawed and then laughed without restraint. My father shed tears and minutes later, we managed settled down because the annoyed nurse had to finish her job. However, after she left all it took was only one snicker for the room to erupt in laughter once again.
I tried to refrain the release of a chortle at the memory but failed.
Another specter of remembrance that has an unyielding habit to chase me for two thousand miles in the past few days.
I was lost in that thought, my finger tracing along a groove of the armrest, when don Anselmo breaks my reverie:
…” I must inform you that your father and I were good friends in Seminary School back in the day. He was so healthy then which is why it is difficult for me to see that he has had such a hard life.”
Refreshed I asked, “Excuse me?”
“Yes. We met our first year at San Antonio seminary school, just the other side of ‘Toro’. We became fast friends.” He paused to sip from his coffee. “We had plans to open orphanages when we finished. All was fine until one day he returns from a visit home and says he could not stay here anymore and left for El Norte. That is the last I have seen of him until…” Gazing to his shop beyond, “It is funny how life comes around when you do not expect it.”
It was then that I realized that the display of sympathy from this man was genuine. Up to now, I assumed it was a professional mechanism to deal with the bereaved.
“Which brings me to the point as to why I have asked your uncle to bring you to me as soon as you have arrived. I have received an order to prepare your father for transport to the United States. Is this so?”
“Yes, he was adamant that he wanted to be buried next to my mother. The lot already purchased when we buried her a few months back.”
“Your uncle also discussed that he would like to hold a vigil in your father’s memory. But the process requested was for basic preparation and to ship to…” he picks up some documents from the desk “…this place ‘Baran’s Funeral Home’ in Indiana. If it is all right with you we can prepare him for the display here and provide a decent casket for that.”
“I appreciate that but truthfully, with my mother’s recent burial and now my father’s, as well as this international transport cost. Well, the funds are a bit limited.”
“I am sorry, you misunderstand. I would do this for you at the cost of materials only. One last favor for an old friend. I assure you this will be the best I can do for him. It is the least I can do”
I look at Uncle Rodolfo’s hopeful face, I can tell that this has been discussed in my absence.
I believed Anselmo’s intentions to be honest and so I assented. With a handshake, our business was settled. Anselmo asked further questions of his life after seminary school and we continued talking about my father until the purple hue of dawn glowed through the window. I tried to convey a good tale but with a limited Spanish vocabulary and Spanglish substitutes, some gestures, I am sure that I did not do my father’s tale any justice with my restrictions. It was then I realized that if I were going to represent him from here forward I would need to master his native tongue better. Assuredly, my sixth-grade level Spanglish was lovingly tolerated by my parents, the only ones I ever spoke it with. Now without them…
Don Anselmo was true to his word. My father looked regal in a dark jacket and red tie. Laying in a pine coffin with a glass top for all to observe. My sister choked back tears to comment that he looked like Sleeping Beauty awaiting the kiss of life.
In Mexico, a nine-day prayer vigil, called a Novena, is conducted in honor for the recently departed. The dead are displayed in a common room of the bereaved family home while friends and family visit, pray, and pay their respects for the duration. Embalming in Mexico is a fleeting discipline and good work depends on the mortician’s profit incentive. You might get a decent service or you might not. As a result, most of the dead may not last the entire term and so the prayers continue in memory of those absent.
As was the case when my grandmother passed nearly a decade prior. Being short and plump, she was a difficult fit for the available coffins and so was placed in one too small for her stout frame. Adjusted as comfortable as possible in the provided narrow box she was poised prominently for her Novena, in the same room that some years hence my father would have his. All nine of her mourning children were at her side, piously chanting the Mysteries of Magdalena. On about the third day of the vigil, a scion notices her face starting to swell, odors being excreted. The casket was then closed. A few days further the lid started to separate and lift. Gases in her body started to brew, expanding and disfiguring her peaceful form, pressuring the inner walls out. In haste, attempts to hold the coffin together were in vain, no duct tape or rope could restrain the expansion. The casket refused to remain closed. In a mad dash to the cemetery across town, with the heavy load over the shoulder, she was lowered to an awaiting expedited grave. Suddenly, one rope gives way unbalancing the drop and one uncle slips and falls onto the skewed box, his arm wedges between the box and the earth. His frightened wails fall on her dead ears “Mother, please! I know I am your favorite but please do not take me with you!”
The remaining time of her prayer vigil proceeded without a casket and a copious amount of alcohol.
My father will not suffer the same indignity.
Don Anselmo’s work was so immaculate that my father remained preserved and displayed throughout his Novena. Weeks later upon arrival in the United States, Marty the Mortician was so impressed with the work that he confessed he did not need to redo any work for his presentation at his funeral home. My father had yet another open casket service before his burial. The only loss was the glass casket, the pine beauty provided by don Anselmo was not up to code for burial here in the states.
There is a pricey code to bury the dead.
Later that morning of February 17th, with arrangements and discussions concluded, we returned to our small town. I entered the house quietly as to not wake anyone. I find my siblings sleeping in the same bed of our childhood. All bundled together with their jackets still on, under layers of blankets. Sharing their heat through the cold of the night. I did not want to disturb them so I lay in my parents’ bed adjacent to theirs. My body relaxes immediately. I look at the clay shingles on the ceiling that have daylight seeping through the cracks and uneven seams, light mottles the sea-foam green plastered walls and on the cracks exposing the ancient adobe bricks beneath. On a support beam over my head, a spider’s web glow with the golden light.
I believe that I have done my father a just service. I have done my duty. I hope I did. The fatigue and sleep that I have allayed in the past week finally overtake me and with one final lapping of eyelids I succumb to comfortable oblivion.
About the Author
I have always ended up in unexpected places. So I present a collection of my tales told over the years. Places that due to circumstances I might never go on my own accord.