I never knew if the Jiménez brothers had been married before. The thing is that now, as old men, they lived together like bachelors. Their house was a single-story home, and judging by the long hallway that connected the living room to the rest of the house, it must have had a lot of rooms, or at least I imagined it that way.
Luis, the one who looked a little dimwitted, was crippled and seemed to be the older of the two. It was difficult to know if he really was a dimwit or not. While I read out loud, he sat stiffly in his wheelchair, without speaking or looking at me. As for the sensible-looking brother, Carlos, everything about him annoyed me: his smarmy gestures and that sarcastic little smile sewn across his mouth.
The servant, an indigenous woman, always opened the door for me, and then she’d disappear down the long hallway and wouldn’t show her face again; I was never offered a cup of coffee or a glass of water in that house, ever. The two brothers would arrive immediately, Carlos pushing Luis in his wheelchair, and they’d position themselves about ten feet away from me, an absurd arrangement that made it necessary for me to raise my voice while I read to them. When I asked them, on my first visit, if they could move a little closer, Carlos told me that Luis couldn’t stand the proximity of other people and that such a distance was necessary to keep him from getting nervous. The dimwit ignored me, like I said, looking out the window the whole time or at his brother, who never took his eyes off me, and I tried to look at the two of them as little as possible.
When I finished reading, I took out the paperwork they needed to sign to document my visit. It confirmed that I was completing a specified number of community-service hours. It was the only time Luis came out of his trancelike state because, as some sort of concession, Carlos allowed him to sign the form; Luis looked proud as his trembling hand traced his crude scribble, meanwhile Carlos studied me as if he wanted to know what crime I’d committed.
They’d chosen Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment for me to read, and it was in the middle of our third session when Luis unexpectedly opened his mouth to tell me, “I’ve realized that you’re not paying any attention to what you’re reading.”
I raised my head suddenly, because it was the first time I’d heard his voice.
“What did you say?” I asked him. After three reading sessions, in which I hadn’t heard him speak a single word, I would have sworn he was not only a dimwit but mute as well.
“You don’t pay any attention to what you’re reading,” the old man repeated, not looking at me but at the window.
“Luis, stop that, will you?” his brother scolded, but Luis continued, without taking his eyes off the window, as if speaking to it and not to me. “You come to our house, you sit on our sofa, open your briefcase, and with that magnificent voice of yours you read without understanding anything, as if we weren’t worthy of your attention.”
“Please Luis, we’ve talked about this! Don’t be difficult,” Carlos told him.
“I’m not being difficult. You know I’m right,” said Luis, who apparently was neither mute nor a dimwit. However, he didn’t show the slightest sign of anger, and the incongruity between his face and what he said, coupled with the fact that he spoke while looking at the window, as if he didn’t consider me worthy of his attention, made his reproach even more offensive.
“Let the young man continue reading, will you?”
“If you want to keep listening to him, go ahead,” Luis replied, “but it’s clear that we don’t interest him in the slightest. Have you noticed that he’s always looking at his watch?”
So Luis, who seemed to ignore me, was actually aware of every movement I made. I did in fact look at my watch all the time, because reading in that house was agonizing, starting with that absurd distance the brothers put between themselves and me, forcing me to strain my voice. The dimwit who wasn’t a dimwit went on the offensive again: “Why don’t you admit that I’m right?”
He asked without turning to look at me, as if instead of speaking to me, he was repeating the words someone was whispering in his ear. I had a hunch and looked at Carlos’s mouth. While Luis spoke, Carlos’s mouth moved almost imperceptibly. My heart beat faster. I realized that the one who’d been speaking the whole time wasn’t Luis, who was indeed mute and a dimwit, but Carlos, his brother, who was a ventriloquist and whose lips trembled slightly when Luis opened his mouth. They must have spent hours rehearsing this so they could entertain themselves at the expense of their guests.
I closed the book, opened my briefcase, and put the book inside.
“What are you doing? Aren’t you going to continue reading?” Carlos asked me.
I looked at both of them, at Carlos sitting in his worn-out armchair and at Luis in his wheelchair, one beside the other. Now I understood our ten-foot separation.
They needed it for their ruse to work. As I removed the visitation form they needed to sign from my briefcase, I said to Carlos, “You’re right, when I come here I don’t understand a thing I read to you. You could have told me directly. Or do you always use your brother like a puppet to tell your visitors what you think of them?”
I stood up and he recoiled slightly, afraid perhaps that I’d hit him. He must have remembered that I was working off my probation by doing these home readings, and he was afraid of me. But I’d stood up only so his dimwit brother could sign the form and I could leave.
“You still have twenty minutes left,” he told me. “Sign it,” I told Luis, shoving the paperwork under his nose. The two brothers looked at each other, then Luis scribbled his dull signature and I ripped the form out of his hands.
“I’ll file a complaint with your superiors,” Carlos snapped, as I was placing the form in my briefcase.
“File your complaint. I’ll tell them that you treat your brother like a circus puppet, and the people on the city council won’t be very happy about that.”
I turned and walked toward the door. When I opened it, Carlos said, “We know what you did.”
I turned my head and looked at both of them.
“We know everything,” Luis added with his puppet voice, not looking at me, but out the window.
It was thanks to Father Clark, my sister Ofelia’s confessor, that I was given the home reader job. He was the head of a Christian association that helped senior citizens; it was funded through private donations and was affiliated with the local government. Since he knew the mayor personally, he pulled a few strings and, instead of cleaning bathrooms in some hospital or prison, I was assigned the job of reading books to the elderly and infirm, visiting them in their homes. My university experience worked to my advantage, and my “beautiful manly voice,” as Father Clark called it, was ideal for this line of work.
He was a tall, heavyset man and gave the impression of having chosen the wrong vocation. It was hard to imagine him crammed inside a confessional, listening to the sins of the devout who attended mass on Sundays. His forceful voice, with a thick American accent, didn’t seem to be the most suitable for conveying soft words of admonishment or consolation. Ofelia held him in high esteem, and I suspected that she was also in love with him. In the interview we had in his office, he made a few recommendations, the main one was that I shouldn’t accept anything to eat or drink in the houses I visited as a home reader, except a glass of water or cup of coffee.
I was assigned seven houses; most of the people were older and retired. I was on familiar ground with the elderly because I lived with my father, who had bone and prostate cancer. My mother had died seven years before and Papá never fully recovered. His cancer did the rest. Celeste, his caregiver, lived with us and was essentially the only person who could communicate with him. I tried to have breakfast with him and give him updates about family and friends, though I made most of it up. Between his hearing loss and the onset of senile dementia, it was hard to know how much of what I told him he actually understood. He used a walker to get around and spent his days sleeping in bed or in front of the television. Ofelia took care of the house expenses, was the one who bought his medication and took Celeste to the supermarket. I was in charge of the furniture store. In charge is one way of putting it, because the one who did all the work was Jaime, our one employee, and I went over the accounts and orders with him.
Every now and then we took Papá out for a drive. My driver’s license was suspended indefinitely after the accident, so Ofelia would drive on such excursions. Those were the few times that the two of us talked, while my father sat in the front passenger seat. We’d take the old highway to Tres Marías, where there were several open-air restaurants that sold quesadillas. We ate in the car, because for some reason Papá seemed to hear better in there and we could have a more fluid conversation.
Those moments of coexistence were the best our family ever shared. In the middle of that pine landscape, the fog coming down from the hills, and the black smoke smelling like burned oak rising from the kitchens, Ofelia and I left our squabbles aside and Papá enjoyed his squash blossom and huitlacoche quesadillas. One day, however, he had to take a shit and we needed to get him out of the car and find a secluded place among the trees. Holding on to me and Ofelia, he squatted and
pushed in vain and ended up insulting us, accusing us of not knowing how to help him. He was right, neither of us were any good at that kind of thing. He slammed into the wall of our inexperience; it was as if we belonged to some other species altogether. We never needed Celeste more than we did then; she knew what words and tone to use with him to get his bowels working. I felt useless and, in that moment, hated Ofelia; it was unfair, but I expected her to have some skill I didn’t, as if by being a woman, she should possess the particular talents our caregiver had. We ended up fighting right there instead of helping my father out of his fix, and it was then that he, finding himself entrusted to such clumsy hands, decided to take matters into his own, intensified his concentration, and let go what he had to let go, as if he were reproaching us for the totality of our immaturity and selfishness. It was, in a way, a lesson in dignity, extracted from the most undignified part of his body, and it was also his farewell as our father, because after that excursion he seemed to have given up on us. Like an iceberg emerging from the frozen continent to emigrate to its dilution, he began to treat us from then on with a subtle, almost smiling indifference and only had eyes for Celeste.
Before we hired a caregiver, Ofelia and I had thought of putting him in an old-age home, nursing homes as they are now called euphemistically. Cuernavaca, better known as the City of Eternal Spring, abounds with them, and over the course of a few weeks my father and I visited half a dozen. The idea was that Papá would be there during the day and return to the house to sleep, so he could meet people and not spend the whole day watching TV. The promotional pamphlets for these homes usually show a couple of smiling old people on the cover, almost always with European or North American features, and the pictures of the interior suggest a sense of comfort and elegance. Old age is presented as a permanent vacation, full of social and recreational activities, and there are impeccable lawns, the indispensable pool, rooms with fireplaces, and smiling nurses. But when you entered one of these establishments, there was a different reality. The impeccable lawns weren’t missing, nor the pool nor the rooms with fireplaces, but what seemed like a cheerful hotel, was in fact a hospital in disguise. The smell of ammonia on the floors gave it away, the perfectly geometrical placement of the sofas and armchairs, as well as that air of isolation wheezing through the corridors. The old-timers didn’t meet amicably like the photos attempted to make us believe but milled about by themselves, most of them didn’t even leave their rooms. The recreational activities consisted of an invited clown or singer once or twice a week, and there were also the ever-present craft workshops for painting, ceramics, and papier-mâché. The script was repeated almost identically in all the homes we visited. It’s not for you, I’d tell Papá as we were leaving, and he’d ask if it was because of the price. No, the price is fine, but it’s a mortuary, I’d respond, and he’d be quiet and dissatisfied, as if he thought that the shimmering blue pool and the green lawn were all he needed to feel at home. After the fifth or sixth visit, I decided that Papá would die in our house, far from the smell of ammonia and rooms with fireplaces. It was the best I could do for him and that same afternoon I started looking for a full-time caregiver.