Our Lady of Compassion
When Chepe awoke he realized, in succession, that he was cold, wet, miserable, and surrounded by a group of gargoyles who were peering down at him like hyenas drooling over a carcass.
“What? What? What?”
He struggled to raise himself from the ground but got only up to his elbows when a splitting pain shot through his head. He grabbed his temples and fell back to the ground and tried to go back to sleep, but it was no good, he was awake. He rolled over and groaned, and then felt a nudge on his back.
“Hey, you! Wake up! Time to get up!”
He groaned some more and rolled back on his back and opened his eyes.
“Leave me alone.”
“Time to get up, boy.” said one of the gargoyles, a wizened old man with a stubble beard. “Breakfast is ready.”
This provoked laughter from the other men.
“Where am I?”
“Where you’re supposed to be. Welcome home!”
This produced more laughter. Chepe sat up and his head began to throb. He rubbed his temples and blinked his eyes. He was in a courtyard, with groups of men scattered around here and there. He smelled something foul. He looked down at himself and saw that he was covered with vomit. He dropped back to the ground and rolled over. Again he felt a nudge.
“Come on, you! Get up! It’s time to eat!”
“I don’t want to eat.”
“I don’t blame you. Looks like you haven’t even finished your dinner yet.”
All the men laughed and moved away. The wizened old man moved around behind him and grabbed him under an armpit.
“Let’s go, up, up!”
Chepe stumbled to his feet and almost fell. He rubbed his eyes and temples and felt like throwing up.
“Just leave me here.”
“Can’t do that, boy. Come on.”
He tugged at Chepe’s sleeve and moved off, and Chepe stumbled after him.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Our Lady of Compassion.”
“Our Lady of Compassion?”
“Our Lady of Compassion Home for Inebriates.”
“How did I get here?”
“I don’t know. You weren’t here yesterday. I guess they brought you in last night.”
“Who brought me in?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do I get out of here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s the director?”
“I don’t know.”
Chepe followed the old man in silence to the far end of the courtyard, where some Indian women were making tortillas and stirring something in a large garbage pail over a fire. The old man stopped and gestured like a maitre d’,
They joined a line of men queued up behind the women. When it was Chepe’s turn he was handed two tortillas, and then some amorphous substance was ladled onto the tortillas from the garbage pail. It looked like vomit, and Chepe thought it smelled like it too, but it could have been his clothes. He felt nauseous.
“Good appetite! the old man called cheerfully as he bit into his portion.
Chepe looked at the mess and threw it to the ground in disgust.
“Now, now, that’s no way to act. You have to keep up your strength. You don’t want to get old before your time like me.”
“How old are you?”
“How long have you been here?”
“All my life. I was born here.”
The old man went back to his tortillas. After breakfast he got to his feet and strolled to the middle of the courtyard, and Chepe followed after him.
“You know, boy, you ought to wash up. You stink.”
“So do you.”
“That’s no way to talk. I’ll show you to the lavatory.”
They walked to the other end of the courtyard. The old man indicated a door, and Chepe pushed it open. A stench of piss and shit wafted into his face and brought back his nausea. The floor was half an inch deep in piss, the two toilet bowls were overflowing, and the urinals were brimming with piss and vomit. Chepe tiptoed to the sink and turned on the tap. A trickle of water dribbled out. He cupped his hand and sloshed water over his face, and then he removed his shirt and tried to wash it in the trickle. He tried not to breathe through his nose. He wrung out the wet shirt, then moved to the urinal and pissed into it from a distance. That made him feel better, even though his head still hurt. He went back out into the courtyard, but the old man wasn’t there. He wanted to go back to sleep, but he didn’t want to lie down on the ground again. His head was still throbbing. He felt like a drink.
“You, there.” a voice called from behind him. “You have a cigarette?”
“No.” Chepe turned. A man of about fifty was there.
“Pity.” The man moved off.
“Wait a minute.” Chepe called. “Where can I lie down?”
“I don’t know.”
“Aren’t there beds here?”
“Then where can I lie down?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the director.”
“Where’s the director?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s his office?”
“Over there.” the man pointed.
Chepe made his way across the courtyard to the door. Actually, it wasn’t just his clothes, the whole place had a smell of something like piss and vomit. He arrived at the door and saw a small sign saying: “Director. Please Knock.” He knocked, but got no answer. There was a bench next to the door, so he sat down on it to wait. After a few minutes he began to get sleepy, so he lay down on the bench and went to sleep.
He woke again to someone shaking him.
“You! You there! What do you mean by sleeping on the bench?”
“Sorry. I was waiting for the director.”
“This is the director.” The man who was shaking him pointed to a large, dignified man with a handlebar mustache standing behind him.
“Ah, Director, may I speak to you a moment?” Chepe asked.
“You’ll have to wait your turn.” the director stated, going on into his office.
Chepe waited, perhaps an hour, sitting on the bench. He didn’t dare go back to sleep, but he wasn’t as sleepy now anyway, and his head didn’t hurt as much; but he sure felt like a drink. In that hour no one else came, but neither did the director call him into the office. Thinking that maybe the director had forgotten about him, he stood up and knocked on the door. After a moment it was opened by the director’s flunky.
“I’d like to see the director.”
“He’s occupied at the moment. You’ll have to wait your turn.”
Chepe went back to waiting. After another half hour the door opened and the flunky came out and beckoned Chepe to enter. Chepe went in and stood before the director’s desk. There was no place to sit. The director stared at him and said nothing.
“Director, my name is Jose Alvarez.” Chepe stated.
“What of it?”
“I would like to leave, please.”
“No doubt. Let me see.” He beckoned to the flunky, who brought a sheaf of papers. The director leafed through them, found the one he was looking for, and studied it a moment.
“Jose Alvarez Garcia. Age forty-six. Clerk.” he said.
“That is correct. I would like permission to leave.”
“Permission denied. Is there anything else you would like?”
“Yes. I would like to know why permission is denied.”
“Because your wife signed you in here, and she has to be the one who signs you out.”
“My wife?” Chepe asked incredulously.
“Yes. You were found last night lying in the gutter by the National Police. They took you in and called your wife, and then they and she brought you here, and she signed you in. Since she is the one who is responsible for you, you can only leave when she signs you out again.”
“My wife? Peta stuck me in here?”
“Mrs. Jose Alvarez.”
Peta, the bitch! The filthy bitch! No doubt she and her mother were having a good laugh over this one right now. The bitch! The filthy bitch!
“Thank you, director.”
The director turned to some papers on his desk. Chepe left, taking care not to slam the door. Once outside he kicked the ground. The bitch! The bitch! He stomped around and cursed. The bitch! He beat his fist against the post at the edge of the patio. The bitch! The bitch! Oh God, I want a drink!
He saw some feet in front of him and looked up. It was the wizened old man.
“What do you want?” Chepe snarled at him.
“Nothing.” the old man replied.
“Go away.” Chepe said.
The old man said nothing, but neither did he move away. Chepe rubbed his temples. Then he turned to the old man and asked,
“Look, where can you get a drink around here?”
“From the porter.”
“From the porter?” Chepe asked in disbelief.
“Yes. I think he makes it himself. You have any money?”
Chepe felt in his pockets.
“That’s life.” the old man said, and started to walk away.
“Wait a minute!” Chepe called. “Will he give credit?”
“Hah!” the old man said, and kept walking.
Chepe sat down and stared at the concrete. Peta! Would he wring her filthy neck when he got the chance! Her and her mother both! The bitch!
Lunch that afternoon seemed to be a repeat of breakfast, and dinner an encore of lunch. But Chepe was hungry at both meals, so he forced himself to eat, and by not breathing as he ate he managed to get the stuff down, but he chewed Peta with every bite.
He cursed Peta with every breath he took that day, and he stomped on her with every step he took in his aimless wanderings around the yard. And as he lay awake on the pallet they assigned him that night, shivering because he didn’t have a blanket, he plotted Peta’s demise. He was torn over the question of strangling Peta first while her mother watched, or strangling the mother first while Peta watched. He wished he had a drink. Finally he slept.
The next day he had calmed down somewhat. In between rages at Peta, he considered his position calmly. The little bitch had the whip hand, he had to give her credit. Now what? Eventually she’d have to come to see him, probably today or tomorrow at the latest. He couldn’t beat her up then and there, not if he wanted out. He’d have to stay calm. Smile at her. Take her in his arms and kiss her. Peta, dear Peta. You’ve certainly taught me my lesson! Very clever of you. Once he got her home, then the bitch would pay!
In between such musings he thought about how nice a drink would be. At one point he decided to seek out the porter, and through inquiries he found the man asleep in a chair by the door.
“Are you the porter?” Chepe asked, awakening him with a start.
“Yes.” the man answered with annoyance.
“You sell liquor?” Chepe asked.
“Who told you that?” the man snapped at him.
“Never mind who told me. I would like to buy an eighth.”
“Oh, you would. Where is your money?”
“I haven’t any at the moment, but my wife is coming today or tomorrow at the latest, and I’ll be able to pay you then.”
“I think you’re mistaken.” said the porter, and he went back to sleep. Chepe felt like cursing that bastard too, but he thought better of it. He walked back into the courtyard. God, how he wanted a drink!
Peta didn’t come that day; nor did she come the next day. Or the next, or the next. Chepe’s rage did not abate, no indeed. With every passing day it waxed and took new forms, and new ideas for torture and vengeance came into his mind. The problem was that there was really nothing to do all day except to think about vengeance on Peta and to wish for a drink. His companions in Our Lady of Compassion were not the most sparkling conversationalists: the chief topic of discourse was the wish for a drink. Some of them apparently could afford to drink, judging by their smell, but these certainly were not disposed to share their bounty.
One of them was a dapper old man of about sixty, who lived in a room by himself which was fitted out like an office, with diplomas on the wall and a desk and filing cabinet. This was Licensiado Ruiz, a lawyer, who continued to practice law even though his family had committed him to Our Lady of Compassion. He had a runner who worked for him taking messages back and forth to the outside world, and on occasion he would see a client through the grill of the main door. The runner brought him his meals, and every afternoon at 2:00 p.m. he would close his office, walk across the courtyard to the porter’s chair, return to his office, and not be seen again until the next morning.
Chepe had heard that on occasion Licensiado Ruiz had even succeeded in winning liberation from Our Lady of Compassion for some of her wealthier inmates. Why then, Chepe had asked, couldn’t he liberate himself? He had nowhere to go, was the answer. His family didn’t want him back, and besides, he had gotten used to it. He had been there twenty years.
“Twenty years?” Chepe exclaimed in horror.
“Yes, twenty years.” was the reply. “Some of us have been here even longer.”
Chepe was flabbergasted! Where, oh where, was Peta? What the hell was she doing?
Exactly one week after Chepe arrived in Our Lady of Compassion, the little old man came up to him and said,
“The porter has a message for you. There is a woman here to see you.”
Aha! At last! Stay calm, take deep breaths, don’t lose your temper. He went to the porter who escorted him to the main door and opened the grill. Chepe looked out the grill. It wasn’t Peta, as he’d expected, but Rosa, his little sister.
“Rosa!” he called with delight. “Rosa! Sweet Rosa!”
“Chepe! Poor Chepe!”
They tried to kiss through the grill, but couldn’t make it.
“Rosa, you’ve got to get me out of here!”
“We can’t, Chepe. Mama and I spoke to the director. Only Peta can sign you out.”
“Peta, the bitch!”
“Mama went to talk to Peta. She told us you were here. She said it was good for you, that they would cure you of drinking.”
“How long is she going to keep me here?”
“She says until you’re cured.”
The bitch! The bitch! I’ll cure her!
“Rosa, tell Mama she’s got to get me out of here.”
“She tried, Chepe. We went to the lawyer. He said only Peta could sign you out, since she’s the one who signed you in.”
Peta! I’ll strangle her!
“Listen, Rosa. You’ve got to get me some money. Have you got any money?”
“I have a little.” She counted it out and handed it through the grill.
“Fifty cents? That’s all?”
“That’s all. That was to be for my lunch.”
“Okay, Rosa. Thank you. Listen. You’ve got to take a message to Peta.”
He tried to think of a message for Peta, one that would bring her down there to sign him out.
“Tell her I want to see her.” He could figure out the details later on. Then, as an afterthought he added, “Tell her I love her.” though he almost choked getting the words out. “Tell her I love her and I want to see her, okay?”
“Thank you, Rosa. When will you come back?”
“Thank you, Rosa. I love you. Listen, Rosa, can you bring me a blanket? I freeze to death every night.”
They tried to kiss again through the grill.
“Come back tomorrow. And if you can bring any money … .”
“Chepe, you know … “
“I know, I know, but if you can.”
He watched her descend to the sidewalk and cross the street. Then the porter was there, shutting the grill. He wished he could kick the man! But instead he said,
“Here is fifty cents. Give me a drink.”
“Where is your glass?”
Glass! Glass! He felt like slapping the insolent dog. Instead, he turned and went into the courtyard and found the old man.
“Have you a glass? Lend me a glass.”
“A glass? What would you be wanting with a glass?”
“Don’t you worry, just lend it to me.”
“Give me a gulp.”
“All right, a sip then.”
These swine! Such craven beggars! The old man returned shortly with the glass. Chepe grabbed it with joy and raced to the porter.
“Here is my glass. Fill it.”
The porter took the glass and the fifty cents and went into his room. He returned with the glass about two-thirds full.
“What is this? Where’s the rest?”
“That is fifty cents.” the porter said curtly.
“What? Is this fine imported rum, then? Fill it!”
“That is fifty cents. You don’t want it?”
“I want it filled, dog!”
“Don’t you call me a dog. You want your fifty cents back?”
Chepe scowled at him but said nothing. He turned towards the courtyard holding the glass to his breast so no one would notice it, but the old man was right there.
“My sip, please.”
“If you don’t mind, I haven’t even had a sip myself.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Take your damn sip, then.” Chepe snarled.
He handed the old man the glass, watching him like a hawk. The old man took a judicious sip.
“That was more than a sip!” Chepe cried.
“The hell it was. It was just a little sip.”
“It was more like a gulp!”
These swine! These petty, cheating swine!
“Here, give me it!”
He grabbed the glass, almost spilling some, and walked over to a corner of the patio and sat down. He would do this right, his first drink in a week! He would savor it, in little sips. He raised the glass to his lips and took the tiniest of tastes. It was delicious! He let the warm liquid roll around his tongue before swallowing gently. He took another delicate sip, then another. With each sip he closed his eyes and concentrated upon his taste buds. What delight! Towards the end of the glass he took half sips; and when it was all gone he placed the glass lovingly beside him and lay back against the wall. The first warm buzz from the alcohol rose into his head. He felt so relaxed, so peaceful. He waited for a stronger feeling of intoxication to come. He waited patiently for five minutes, but no stronger feeling came. That was it. He looked up and saw the glass. There were a few drops left in the bottom. He picked it up and thirstily drank them down, and then licked the inside of the glass. No more. That was all. He felt cheated. His first drink after long deprivation, and that was all there was to it! He wanted more. He picked up the glass and went back to the porter.
“Fill it up again.” he told the man.
“And the money?”
“My sister’s coming back tomorrow. I’ll pay you then.”
“Okay, then I’ll fill it up then.”
Swine! Chepe walked back into the courtyard and gave the old man his glass back. If only he hadn’t given him that sip! Oh well, tomorrow he’d ask Rosa to bring him a glass.
The next day he was again called to the main door, and there was Rosa.
“Dear, dear Rosa! Did you bring me … ?”
“A blanket, Chepe, here it is. I couldn’t bring more than my fifty cents lunch money. You know Mama hasn’t any money.”
“I know, I know, thank you, Rosa. I really appreciate this. And Peta? Did you talk to her?”
“I talked to her, but she said that she’s not coming until you’re cured.”
“Until I’m cured! Until I’m cured! What do you mean, until I’m cured? Rosa, do you know what it’s like in here? It’s a prison!”
“I know, Chepe, I know. I tried my best. What more could I do? She won’t listen to me.”
“The bitch! The bitch! I’ll kill her! I’ll break out of here and kill her!”
“Don’t do that, Chepe! I’ll come every day. Mama couldn’t come. No, actually she could have come, but she was ashamed to come. She said you wouldn’t want her to see you like this. She sent you a cake.”
“A cake. How nice. A cake. And meanwhile I’m supposed to stay here and rot?”
“What can we do? Peta won’t listen to us.”
Chepe summoned the porter, who opened the door sufficiently to pass the blanket and cake and fifty cents through, and then locked it again.
“Listen, Rosa, I’m sorry I yelled. Really, I appreciate this. Tell Mama I appreciate it. Listen, Rosa, go back and tell Peta I’m cured. Okay? Tell her I hate myself for having been such a drunk, and that I really love her and want to see her. Okay?”
They tried to kiss through the grill but couldn’t touch. Only after Rosa had left did Chepe remember he’d forgotten to ask her to bring a glass. He turned to the porter and showed him the fifty cents.
“And your glass?”
“I don’t have a glass. Lend me a glass.”
“I can’t lend you a glass. I can rent you a glass.”
“How much is the rental on the glass?”
“Five cents? I’ve only got fifty cents.”
“I can rent you a glass, and give you forty-five cents worth of liquor.”
The swine! But Chepe handed the man the fifty cents. The porter returned in a moment with a glass about half full.
“That’s forty-five cents.”
Chepe glared at him and took the glass. He went back to his corner. Today he would drink it all down in one gulp, and see if that gave him more of a lift. He raised the glass and toasted,
And he swallowed it down in two gulps. He glared around. He felt like smashing the glass on the floor, but thought better of it. He returned to the porter, and then he remembered the cake.
“Would you like a piece of cake?” he asked the porter. Might as well keep on the good side of the swine.
The porter produced a penknife, and Chepe opened the package and cut him a piece.
Chepe stepped into the courtyard. That was a good idea, to drink it all down in one gulp. He could feel a bit higher than he had yesterday. Actually that one glass wasn’t anywhere near enough to get drunk on, but it was enough to remind you of how good it felt. He sat down in the middle of the courtyard and looked at the cake. At least he wouldn’t have to eat tortillas and slop tonight. That was nice of Mama. She had always loved him. She had always known he would make good, and he was doing pretty well until he met Peta. That was his downfall! Peta! Strangling was too good for her. He’d slice her up into little slivers, beginning at her ugly toes, and moving up the line. He became aware of a circle of men forming around him.
“Well, what do you want?” he asked.
They didn’t say anything, but they were all staring at the cake. Beggars! Swine! To be locked up with such a bunch!
“Don’t tell me. You all feel like cake, right?”
There were nods of assent, but no one spoke.
“I am selling cake here for ten cents a slice.”
Ten cents! Ten cents! they cried in indignation.
One of them offered him three cents.
“Three cents! For my mother’s cake! Why, my mother bakes for the priest of our parish. He’s an Italian. Five cents, the lowest.”
“Okay, five cents.” A man showed him five cents.
“Have you a knife?”
“Of course I don’t have a knife.” the man replied. “Do you think they’d let us have knives? Ask the porter.”
Chepe took the cake to the porter and asked to borrow his knife.
“Five cents rental on the knife.” said the porter.
Five cents! Five cents! After he’d given the swine a piece of cake!
“I’ll give you another piece of cake.” Chepe offered.
The porter produced his penknife and offered it to Chepe, who sliced the cake and offered the porter his piece.
“That’s not a five-cent piece!” protested the porter.
“Listen, you set the value on the liquor, I set the value on the cake. Besides, I already gave you a piece.”
The porter took his piece and Chepe took the rest back to the courtyard, where he soon had them all sold. He counted his money. Forty cents. He went back to the porter.
“Here’s forty cents. Sell me another drink.”
“Where’s your glass?”
“Just throw the glass into the deal. Didn’t I give you a free piece of cake?”
“That was a gift. That wasn’t business.”
“All right, all right, just give me thirty-five cents’ worth.”
The porter returned shortly with the glass not quite half full.
“That’s not thirty-five cents’ worth.”
“You set the price on the cake, I set the price on the liquor.”
You can’t win with these swine. Chepe took the glass and downed it in a gulp, and just in time, too, because he was coming down from his previous high. He stepped back into the courtyard and looked around for the blanket, but it wasn’t there.
“My blanket!” he yelled. “Where’s my blanket? You thieves! Bring me that blanket or I’ll strangle every one of you!”
The little old man trotted up to him bearing the blanket.
“Here it is.” he said. “I was just holding it for you.”
Chepe grabbed it away from him. What a miserable bunch of thieves and no-goods. At least that night was the first warm night he’d had since he entered the place.
The next day Rosa didn’t come. Chepe waited for her all day long, and not until nightfall did he admit to himself that she wasn’t coming. Rosa! Little Rosa! Where the hell was she? Was everyone turning against him? The only thing worse than not being able to drink was expecting that any minute you’d be able to drink and then not being able to drink. That was far worse than not being able to drink and knowing you weren’t going to be able to drink.
“No booze today!” the other men on the tortilla line teased him.
How he’d love to wring all their necks, starting with the porter. He sat down on the ground with his tortillas and slop and ate them slowly. Another man, about his age, sat down next to him.
“Your wife didn’t show today, huh?”
“She’s not my wife, she’s my sister, if it’s any of your business.”
“That’s how it always is.” the man said. “At first they come, they even bring you money, and then after a while they don’t come anymore.”
“She’ll come! What are you saying? My sister loves me! Maybe no one loves you, and it’s not hard to see why.”
“They come at first, and then they don’t come anymore.” the man said thoughtfully. “At first they care about you, and then they don’t care anymore.”
“Maybe nobody cares about you, but my family cares about me!”
The man went on as if Chepe hadn’t spoken.
“And then, after a while, you stop caring yourself. You know? And then all you care about is the tortillas and slop, because there’s nothing left to care about.”
“Wonderful! A philosopher. Listen, Mr. Philosopher, why don’t you go eat your tortillas and slop over there and let me eat my tortillas and slop in peace?”
The man looked at Chepe, a long, hard look, and then went back to eating without speaking.
Rosa didn’t come the next day, or the next. Chepe was beginning to get desperate. But on Saturday he was called to the main door again.
“Rosa! Rosa! Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry, Chepe, I couldn’t come until today. I brought you a little money, and Mama baked you another cake.”
“Listen, Rosa, thank you. But why couldn’t you come?”
“I just couldn’t come, Chepe. Besides, I don’t have that much money. I have to eat too.”
“I know you do, I know. Dear, sweet Rosa. I’m sorry. I’m no good, I know it. You know I love you, Rosa.”
“I know it. You know I love you too, Chepe.”
“And what about Peta? Did you talk to her again?”
“I couldn’t. When she saw it was me at the door she closed the door in my face.”
“The bitch! Closing the door on my sister! My door! I’ll kill her! I swear, as God and all the saints are my witnesses, I will kill her with these hands!”
“Don’t talk like that, Chepe! That’s not a nice way to talk.”
“I’m sorry, Rosa, I’m sorry. You just don’t know what it’s like in here, with all these bums. With all these filthy bums! And the food!”
“I know, I know. We all feel really bad, but what can we do?”
“Nothing, nothing. So help me, God! You go and tell Peta that they can’t keep me in here forever. Some day they will let me out, and when they do I will kill her. You tell her that, okay? Tell her that if she doesn’t get me out of here tomorrow I will kill her. If they keep me here twenty years, when I get out I will kill her. Tell her that.”
“I can’t tell her that! Besides, if I told her that she’d never let you out. Besides, she won’t let me tell her anything.”
“Rosa, please, please do something. Anything! I don’t care what. Write letters to the deputy. Go back to see the lawyer. Maybe bribe the director.”
“Bribe him with what?”
“I don’t know. Borrow the money. Rosa, please listen, you’re my only hope. You’ve got to get me out of here.”
“I’ll try, Chepe.”
“And please, please come to see me every day. No matter how hard it is. When I don’t see you, I die. Really, it kills me.”
“I’ll try, Chepe, but you know how it is.”
“I know, I know, but please try.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
Chepe summoned the porter, who admitted the cake and the money.
“Goodbye, Rosa. I love you.”
“I love you, Chepe.”
“Please come every day.”
“Rosa, can you bring me a glass next time?”
“I love you.”
He reached two fingers through the grill and took her fingers in his, and squeezed them. Then she was gone. Chepe turned to the porter and handed him fifty cents. He took it without speaking and returned with a little more than half a glass. Chepe gave him a dirty look, took the glass, and downed it in two gulps. He asked for the penknife and sliced the cake, offering the porter his piece. Then he went into the courtyard and made his sales.
Rosa didn’t come the next day, or the next. This produced some amused comment from the denizens of the tortilla line, but Chepe ignored them. Once the man his age sat down next to him again, but didn’t speak. He just looked at Chepe with a knowing look. Chepe turned away from him. When the man finished eating he stood up and looked down at Chepe and said,
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Years.’” the man replied, and moved away.
“Swine!” Chepe called after him.
Well, now what? He couldn’t count on Rosa or his mother, that was becoming obvious. He’d have to buy his way out, but with what? There was some cottage industry in Our Lady of Compassion, some hammock weavers and a potter, but they weren’t making much money. He thought about Licensiado Ruiz. The Licensiado held himself aloof from the other inmates. Chepe had never even seen him talk to another inmate. He had a runner who worked for him, and apparently he had other employees on the outside. Maybe he needed a clerk. Chepe had studied some accounting back in high school; maybe the Licensiado would hire him.
Chepe walked to the lavatory and stepped into the pool of piss. He waded to the sink and took a look at himself in the mirror. He was dirty and unshaven, and his clothes were filthy. He hadn’t bathed or changed his clothes since he’d been admitted. He removed his shirt and scrubbed it in the trickle of the faucet, and then took it out to the sun to dry. He bent over the sink and sloshed water over his face and torso, and wet his hair and tried to comb it with his fingers. He went out into the courtyard and waited for the shirt to dry. When it was almost dry he put it back on, took another swipe at his hair, and walked purposefully to the door of Licensiado Ruiz’s office. He knocked and waited.
He entered and saw the Licensiado seated at his desk with a sheaf of papers before him.
“Well?” the Licensiado asked him indignantly.
“Licensiado, my name is Jose Alvarez. I am a clerk and a skilled accountant. I am temporarily out of work, and am seeking employment.”
The Licensiado stared at him for a few moments without saying anything. Then he turned back to his papers and said,
“What makes you think I would hire a drunk?”
A drunk! What effrontery the man had! What a swine! Chepe turned without speaking and slammed the door behind him. A drunk! The filthy drunk, calling me a drunk! Chepe kicked the ground and spat in fury. A drunk! He leaned on his arm against the post at the end of the patio and closed his eyes. They all treat you like dirt, no matter how hard you try, and then when you take an occasional drink to relieve your misery, they call you a drunk. He felt like weeping, but no tears came. He heard a sound behind him and turned around. It was the wizened old man.
“Well, what do you want?”
“You shouldn’t let it get to you. This isn’t such a bad place, after all.”
“What do you mean? It’s hell.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad. You get used to it, after a while. At least there’s food, and no one knocking you about.”
“Maybe you’ve gotten used to it, but I never will.”
“Oh yes, you will. They all do, after a few years. Sooner. Actually, it isn’t far from heaven. If there were only liquor here, it would be heaven. Sometimes there even is liquor, when you get a little money together. Then it is heaven, truly heaven.”
“Maybe it’s heaven for you, but it’s hell for me.”
“It’s only hell until you get used to it; then it’s not far from heaven.”
Rosa came on Saturdays now. She came every Saturday afternoon, and gave Chepe fifty cents. He didn’t dare ask her why she didn’t come more frequently, for fear of antagonizing her. Sometimes she brought a cake, or some other little delicacy he could sell. When she brought a cake he would sell it and get drunk that Saturday afternoon. When she didn’t bring a cake, he would save the fifty cents until the next Saturday, when by uniting the earnings of two weeks he could get drunk properly. Well, “properly” was scarcely the word for it, but he reasoned that a quetzal’s worth of booze was worth more than two fifty cents’ worth, and two weeks of deprivation made the final bash all the better. He was making a virtue of self-restraint.
Although he surely didn’t consider it heaven, he was getting used to Our Lady. He was even getting used to the food. And although he still didn’t like it, he began to look forward to meal times as welcome punctuation points in the boring routine of the day.
One day a new man appeared in Our Lady. When Chepe awoke that morning he spied a body lying outside in the courtyard, and out of curiosity he walked over to it and hung over the man until he awoke. Some other inmates, including the little old man (whose name, Chepe had learned, was don Ramon) also came over to examine the object. The man looked up and blinked around, and then fell back to sleep.
“Wake up!” don Ramon called, nudging the man with his foot. “Time for breakfast!”
“Leave me alone!”
“Everybody up!” don Ramon called cheerfully, lifting the man by his armpits, and indicating for Chepe to help him. Between the two of them they got the man to his feet, and began marching him to the tortilla line, albeit unsteadily.
“Who the hell are you? Where the hell am I?” the man grumbled as he staggered along.
“Our Lady of Compassion Home for Inebriates.” Chepe said.
“Oh, jolly! This is very jolly! My wife! My whore of a wife! The filthy slut!” The man went on and on, disgusting even Chepe with his turns of phrase and the spittle which accompanied them, not to mention the stench of vomit and piss which hung on the man.
“Take your filthy hands off of me!” the man spat at them, twisting away from them and then falling to the ground. Chepe and don Ramon picked him up again and marched him to the line in silence, but the man carried on and on. When the food was served, he took one look at it and heaved it to the ground and stomped on it.
“What dirt! What filthy pigs! What pigs, to eat such slop!”
“Now, now.” Chepe said, patting the man’s shoulder. “That’s no way to talk.”
“Don’t touch me, you pig!” the man said, turning away as if from slime.
“My wife! Dear, sweet Maria! I’ll kill her! I’ll kill the bitch!”
He went on. Chepe tried to ignore it. What a fool, he thought. Oh well, I suppose everyone has to go through it, but this guy just won’t shut up.
“Listen, if you’re going to bawl like a baby,” Chepe told him, “why don’t you go over to the other side of the yard?”
“Like a baby? I’ll show you who’s a baby!”
The man stood up and started to take a swing, but he threw himself off balance and fell to the ground. All the men laughed. The man stayed down and began to cry, and pounded the ground with his fists.
“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill her, I’ll kill everyone!”
Later that day Chepe thought back over the incident and was amused by his reactions to the man. He still hated Peta, but somehow he didn’t think about her much anymore. He had exhausted himself thinking about her. Only rarely would thoughts of Peta stimulate his murderous creativity – usually when something had happened to make him angry, and then he’d turn around and get angry at Peta. But most of the time, when the thought of Peta came up, it bored him and he dismissed it. Even when, after he’d been in Our Lady for six months, Rosa reported to him that Peta was now living with another man in his house, Chepe couldn’t get the old anger flowing very well. He spent a few days trying, trying to be as jealous and hateful as he could be, but somehow the old vibrancy wasn’t there. He really didn’t care. He resented the aspersion upon his manhood that Peta’s cuckolding him entailed; the laughter and innuendo he’d have to put up with from his friends and neighbors, but really, who cared? What the hell could he do about it anyway? And if you can’t do anything, then why get all excited about it?
One day don Ramon complained of stomach pains. He slept in the same room as Chepe, on the next pallet. Chepe reported don Ramon’s condition to the director, but the director said it would have to wait until the doctor came on his next scheduled round, in a week’s time. The doctor was an important man, who volunteered his services to Our Lady, and he could only be summoned in a grave emergency.
The next morning, when Chepe awoke, don Ramon was dead. Chepe shook him to wake him up, but he didn’t move. Chepe touched his skin; it was cold. Chepe sat down on his pallet. He couldn’t think. Tears came to his eyes, but he didn’t weep. At length he stood up and walked to the porter’s chair and informed the porter, and the porter told him to wait until the director arrived, and then to inform the director, which Chepe did. In the meantime he returned to his room and sat on the pallet and looked at don Ramon. He hadn’t really liked don Ramon, and he hadn’t disliked him either. In any case, he felt very sad. He felt sad for don Ramon, and he felt sad for himself, and he felt sad for everyone. He even felt sad for Peta. She had been pretty and flirtacious. She didn’t know what she was getting into when she got married, any more than he did. They were just kids. They didn’t know anything. Her mother. What could Peta do? She was caught in the middle. She only could do what her mother had taught her to do.
Later, after the director arrived, Chepe helped carry don Ramon, wrapped in a blanket, out to the main door, where he was loaded into a pickup truck and carted away.
For ten days after don Ramon died Chepe felt very depressed. For the first time in a long time he strongly craved a drink. When Rosa came the next Saturday he begged her for a few quetzales, but all she had to give him was the usual fifty cents. He drank that up right away, but it didn’t help much. He slept more; he slept most of the day when he could.
Then one day, about two weeks after don Ramon’s death, Chepe woke up with a decisive attitude. He had to get out of there. No one was going to help him. He’d have to buy his way out. It would probably take a lot of money, to bribe the director or whoever, but he would do it.
Even his attitude about drinking began to change. It disgusted him the way the others could only talk about drinking. It was true that he was jealous of the ones whose families supplied them with enough money to regularly patronize the porter, but also he was learning to live without. He was proud of his ability to keep fifty cents in his pocket for a week and not spend it on booze. Eventually he cut his drinking down to one bout per month, and then he cut it out altogether.
He began to save the money Rosa brought him every Saturday, and the proceeds from the cake sales. He hung around the hammock weavers, and after a while he learned how to weave hammocks. When he had saved enough money, he bought some skeins of string from the porter (who had a string business too, and who bought the finished hammocks from the inmates to sell on the outside), and he began weaving hammocks. In a few months he had a sizable nest egg saved up, more than fifty quetzales. He had settled into a daze, in which nothing really penetrated except for the porter’s payments for his hammocks and the daily tortillas and slop.
One day he decided to go to see Licensiado Ruiz. He pulled his courage together, went up to the man’s door, and knocked.
“Good morning, Licensiado. I want to talk to you about getting me out of here.”
“Do you have any money?”
“More than fifty quetzales. But I can get more.”
“Oh, you can. Well, it can be done, but it is very expensive.”
“Three, four hundred quetzales. And it takes a long time to put the papers through.”
“If I pay you fifty now and fifty every three months, could you get me out of here?”
“I could try. It depends. Are you hiring me?”
“Let me see the money.”
Chepe took out his wad, which had up til now never left his person for a moment, lest it be stolen faster than you can blink an eye. He handed it to the Licensiado, who counted it, made out a receipt for it, and then placed it in a drawer.
“Here you are.” he said, handing Chepe the receipt. “The next payment will be due … “ consulting his calendar, “August 12th. In the meantime I will solicit the judge. You must give me some personal data, and the names of three witnesses as to your good character … “
Chepe gave him the information, and the names of Rosa and his mother as character witnesses, but it took him a long time to think of a third character witness. He finally gave the name of Mrs. Juarez, his mother’s next door neighbor and best friend. Mrs. Juarez would do anything his mother asked. He got up, thanked the Licensiado and shook his hand, and left. He felt so good that afternoon that he even whistled a tune to himself as he wove his hammock.
One morning, several weeks after his visit to the Licensiado, Chepe received a message that there was a woman waiting for him at the main door. It wasn’t Saturday; he wondered what the matter could be. When he got to the door, he looked out and saw Peta. He was flabbergasted. He didn’t know what to think or feel, nor what to say. He just looked at her in surprise.
“Chepe.” she said, looking at him in short, furtive glances.
“What do you want, Peta?” He was too surprised to be angry, even.
“I want a divorce.” She looked in his eyes, then away.
“Yes, I’m in love with someone, and I want to marry him. I’ll sign you out of here if you give me a divorce.”
“Oh you will, will you?”
“Yes. But you must give me the divorce first. I don’t trust you.”
“But I’m supposed to trust you, Peta?”
“My lawyer drew up some papers. I have them with me. All you have to do is sign them, and I’ll go to the director’s office and sign you out.”
“I don’t trust you. What about the house? Who gets the house?”
“I get the house.”
“Piss on you.”
“Chepe, do you want out or not?”
“Peta, you’re going to have to pay for the year I’ve spent in here.”
“I’ve already paid for it, Chepe, many times over.” she said wearily.
There was a long pause. Chepe looked at her through the grill. Her eyes were lowered. Her face was gaunt. She had a pinched look around her jaw, as if her shoes or brassiere were too tight and she was trying not to show it. She had lost weight. She wasn’t pretty anymore. When he had married her, she was pretty. Well, whoever gets her now is welcome to her. She was looking at him. There was no life in her eyes; those eyes that used to smile shyly. He guessed that, if he could see himself, he would see the same thing: a hollow, dull-eyed wreck where there had once been a cocky young macho with a gleam in his eye.
“We’ll split the house fifty-fifty.”
“Oh yes! You live in the kitchen and we’ll live in the bedroom.”
“We’ll sell it.”
“I don’t want to sell it.”
“You buy my half.”
“With what? No, Chepe, if you want to get out, you will give me the divorce and the house.”
“I want to think about it, Peta. Come back tomorrow.”
“How have you been?” he surprised himself with that question.
“I’ve been all right.”
“Your new man. Does he love you?”
“Ah. You know how it is.”
“Do you love him?”
“Who knows? He treats me okay. He’s a good lover. He brings home money. He doesn’t get drunk.” she said pointedly.
“Do I know him?”
“I don’t think so. He’s from Xela.”
There was a long moment of silence. He looked at her drawn face. He felt a wave of warmth for her, but with a deep gulp he swallowed it back down.
“So I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He turned and shut the grill. He walked slowly back to his room and lay on his pallet. He felt sad. He felt like he wanted to weep, now, but no tears would come. It was funny, to finally see Peta again, and instead of being angry with her, he felt sad for her. Funny world. But he wasn’t about to trust her with his freedom. He got up again and went to Licensiado Ruiz’s office, but it was after two o’clock and the door was locked. He’d have to wait until morning.
Next morning he sought out the Licensiado.
“My wife has offered to sign me out of here if I will let her have a divorce and give her possession of my house. Can I get my fifty quetzales back?”
“No, that’s been spent.”
“Okay. Then can you handle the divorce and signing me out? I don’t trust her. I think she’ll get the divorce and scram.”
“Who will pay me?”
“She will. After all, she’s getting the house.”
“All right. I’ll have to speak with her.”
“She’ll come later today. I’ll call you.”
Chepe hoped Peta would come before two o’clock, and in fact she showed up shortly after noon.
“Hello, Chepe.” she said, looking at him warily through the grill.
“Did you sleep well last night?”
“Yes. Did you?”
“No, I didn’t.” She paused. “Are you going to sign?”
“Yes. I’ll call my lawyer.”
Chepe summoned Licensiado Ruiz.
“Peta, this is my lawyer. He will examine the papers for me. You will have to pay him.”
“I pay him? How much?”
“Fifty quetzales, madam.” said Licensiado Ruiz.
Peta thought about it a moment, and then agreed. She handed the papers she had brought through the grill, and Licensiado Ruiz examined them. She dug into her purse and came out with a fifty quetzal note, and passed it through.
“The papers are in order.” Licensiado Ruiz said. “I’ll go speak to the director.”
He trotted off towards the director’s office. Chepe and Peta stared at one another through the grill.
“Has it been hard, Chepe?” she asked him.
“Miserable.” he replied.
“At least you were on the outside.”
“It isn’t much better out here. It isn’t much better anywhere.”
“No, I suppose not. You look tired, Peta.”
“What do you expect? You do too.”
There was a long silence.
“Peta, what happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened between us?”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it. For a long time, that’s all I thought about. I don’t know. I’m sorry, Chepe.”
“I’m sorry too. I wish we were young again.”
“What good would that do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we would do things differently.”
“No, we wouldn’t. We would have done the same things all over again.”
“Peta, do you love me?”
“I loved you once.”
“I know that. Do you love me now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what love is anymore.”
“Do you love him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve stopped asking those kinds of questions.”
There was a long silence. It got embarrassing, so they looked away from each other. Finally Licensiado Ruiz came.
“All done. Just your signature, madam, on this release … “
He passed it through the grill, with a pen. Peta signed it. Licensiado Ruiz went back to the director’s office, and then returned. He handed the porter a document. The porter examined it slowly, and then said to Chepe,
“Well, you’re out. Do you want to get your belongings?”
“Piss on my belongings. Just let me out of here.”
The porter opened the door, and Chepe passed through. Peta was looking the other way. He walked up to her and put his arm around her. She startled and turned to him with a searching look. He felt a tear coming, so he looked down and steered her gently with his arm, and they walked together down the steps and out into the street.
Bob Makransky’s Astrology Corner © 2001