Technical Problems

 

Mexican writer Nylsa Martínez. Photo: Alejandro Meter.

My wife’s final wishes were that I scatter her ashes in a shopping center. She always said so as if she were joking, and because of that, when she met her creator, I couldn’t convince my children to honor her request.

She didn’t have a sense of humor; she pouted.  Please don’t think that I didn’t love her, and how that explains why I speak about her like this.  I do miss her.  One gets accustomed.  She could be the worst of wives possible, and I would miss her if she were no longer at home.  Like Hitler, that Doberman she adopted and cherished.  He had the Devil’s gaze, and he loathed me.  I was scared of that dog, just like all of our guests. She always insisted the animal was her companion, that she loved him, and that because I didn’t spend time with him, I never learned how sweet he was.  Truth is, I found everything about the dog to be disagreeable.  I was ashamed to admit to others that his name was Hitler.  But when he was poisoned, I felt bad about it.  I missed his menacing eyes and the fear I felt while walking across the patio.  One gets accustomed.

Today I thought about our final conversation. I got home and she showed me pamphlets about a cruise she wanted to take, and which would dock where our children live. It was like that.  She told me how much fun it would be, and she mentioned a fashionable restaurant which served the entrecote I loved.  I noticed I was fed up that she had nothing else to do with her free time other than organizing my time. And I hated her then because I had hoped for some vacation time without her, even if it meant with our boys, but without her presence. Just to be at the hotel, go down to the bar, swim, and think about nothing.

What she enjoyed most was shopping.  Here at home, she wasn’t always pleased when showing what she had purchased.  Well, I’ll have to be satisfied with this, she would say.  What made her happy was going to the United States.   It was in a mall where one could see her happy.  She would leave me in peace until dinner.  That’s how it always was, unless if she insisted she also wanted to buy me some clothes.  Then we would trudge from store to store in search of bargains.  All of this was done just to show off to friends back home.  She would keep her bargains as secrets, which, in my opinion, her friends never would have believed.   She would never talk about how she haggled over nickels and dimes, nor how the first section she would visit was always Clearance.   The good news was that her credit card had a limit: in my opinion, a very generous one, but a stingy one when she opined.   

Her death took us by surprise.  Just like today, I was at the office when I received the phone call from Juanita, our housecleaner.  The poor woman was frantic. She informed me that an ambulance was on its way to help my wife.  What happened? What happened, Juanita?   She only told me that she had fainted, sprawled out on the kitchen floor, a wound on her hand.   

While cutting a piece of cheese, my wife suffered an attack of acute encephalitis.  We were told that an emergency operation was necessary.  She fell into a coma.  It’s difficult to make decisions when those surrounding you say there’s no time left and things need to be done immediately.  I work in the area of insurance, and I followed the steps that I would have recommended to anyone.  We were in the best hospital, with doctors who had years of experience, and who faced similar emergencies every day.  The diagnosis was kept from us from the beginning, and it remained so after the intervention.  They explained to me why, despite the life support system, and the lack of sedation, my wife remained unresponsive.  We stayed there all night.  The next day, our children arrived.  We waited.

We spent three more nights by her side.  Then they revealed the news: brain death.  I was upset with everyone: my in-laws for pressuring me and for trying to influence my children, and with my wife’s friends who wouldn’t stop weeping.  My oldest daughter asked everyone to leave, as we needed to make a decision.   I argued with my wife’s parents.  I knew what all of this meant; I knew it wasn’t because the doctors were indifferent when it came to turning off the life support system.   All I wanted to do was go home and get all of this done with.  To no longer be at that hospital, to not see her, nor gaze any more at my children, and to not hear my in-laws.  The boys helped me.  Let’s sleep on this, and we’ll decide tomorrow.

During the following afternoon, we got together.  We decided that we would say our last goodbyes.  I called my in-laws, and they became angry with me for asking them to not show up at the hospital, and for my insisting that I wished to be by her side with my children, and no one else.

The following morning, just when we were headed to the hospital, I argued with my sons and daughter.  My in-laws had taken on the burden of informing everyone about Inés’s situation.  Everyone, as a result, wished to say goodbye.  I stopped answering the phone.  I said No to everyone.  I don’t know why.  My kids accused me of being egotistical.  I left and nearly knocked down a boy crossing the street.   I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of whisky.  I didn’t want to reach the hospital.  I got back into my car and took some swigs.  Then I drove.  When I reached the parking lot, I realized the bottle wouldn’t fit into the pocket of my sports coat.  I left it in the glove compartment.

A priest and my in-laws were waiting for me outside Inés’s room.  My children too.  And some brother-in-laws had arrived…the ones living in elsewhere.   Everyone stared.  I had no strength left to chase them away; I thought about fleeing the scene, and leaving it all up to them.

I was the last one to leave the room after they turned off the life support system; I asked them to leave me alone with her.  She looked peaceful, as if she were convinced that she had done the right thing.  After leaving the room, I went straight to the doctors to sign some documents.  The family set off to a waiting room in the hospital; they wanted to organize things for the funeral.  I refused to do so. I told them I didn’t wish to see anyone else.  I was wiped out, and so I let them organize things, that it was alright with me, and that I would pay for it all.  But I did remind them of one thing…their mother wanted to have her ashes scattered inside a mall.   That there was no way we would buy a niche in the church, which was what the priest who had joined us suggested.  Nor would we create an home altar, as my daughter suggested.  Nope.  How can you even think that Mom was being serious?  No, Dad.  We are not going to do that, my son insisted.  I’m not asking you if you’re okay with this.  You can take care of the funeral service, and I’ll take care of the ashes.   Everyone started to speak at the same time, one of my sons tried to calm me down, hugged me, sniffed me, and asked: Have you been drinking?  Back at it again, Dad?  Again?  I wouldn’t say a word to anyone.  Everyone was interrupting each other.  Shit! That’s what your mother wanted.  And I will grant her that wish.  If she loved visiting those goddamn stores, well, that’s where I’ll leave her.

When I got home, I poured some whiskey just like God had ordered, and I sat in the living room.   No one was close to Inés; no one knew what she was really like.   The place she was least likely to enter was a church, unless it was for a wedding.  And then she would spend the entire ceremony criticizing the other women.

When my children returned from the hospital and found me with a glass of whiskey, we started to argue again.   They criticized me and said that I was stubborn about the ashes because I was drunk.  That I couldn’t do such a thing to them.  I left them alone and went to my room.

Once again, on the day of the cremation, we were together.  In one of the halls of the crematorium, Inés’s body was waiting in a cardboard box.  They asked us to confirm her identity.  I didn’t ask why she wasn’t in the coffin we had purchased for the funeral.  Everyone seemed to be in accord.   No one said anything.   The cardboard box contained Inés rested atop a gurney.  After confirming it was her, she was rolled away.   Quickly, one of the employees opened some curtains, allowing us to see through a window; he moved the box from the gurney and placed it by the mouth of metallic oven.  We watched how an employee slowly pushed the box inside and closed the door.  They asked for us to return later that afternoon for the ashes.  My daughter had already picked an urn.

As I was exhausted, I assured them that I would do whatever they wanted. They could seek out a church, and they could leave the ashes there.  I asked them for some time, as I wished for the ashes to be at home for a few weeks.  They found my request reasonable; I was speaking sincerely.  It was better to not fight, to abandon the idea of leaving her ashes in a mall.  I had no idea how to do so.   

My children were with me for more days and then they left.  We agreed to see one another in the near future and to bring the ashes of their mother to wherever their grandparents decided was best.

I spent some days at home.  Friends would call me and invite me out.  At work, I asked for an extended leave.  After all, it was my right…I have worked for the company for 15 years.  I’m an insurance agent as well as the head advisor at the headquarters in the city; there’s always a lot of work, but nothing that couldn’t be taken care of via a few phone calls.  No one found my request to be problematic.  They gave me a month off.

My only sister lives in Los Angeles.  We had been in contact nonstop ever since my wife’s death.  She insisted that I visit her, that a few days out of town would help me.  What could I possibly do there? I asked myself.  Besides, she was always busy, and that explained why she never visited us.  I was about to abandon the idea of the visit when the following idea crossed my mind: What if I deposited the ashes over there?  No, it wouldn’t be Houston or Las Vegas, those cities with the type of malls that she would gush about, but I would certainly find something similar.  Really...once you’ve seen a mall…

I was about to buy my ticket when some technical problems surfaced.  How would I transport the ashes?  Bringing an urn on board an international flight required paper work and a special permission, and I had no energy for that.  I didn’t have much time, and I hoped for the matter to remain simple.  I considered sending them via a delivery service, but that also seemed complicated.  They would surely check the package, and that could get me into a hassle.  And so I told myself I would do things like in old times: I would drive across the border.

I packed the ashes into two coffee cans. I bought some candy and other junk food to distract the attention of the immigration agents in case they opened the trunk.  After telling my children I was off to visit their aunt, I hit the road.

I drove through half of Sonora, and then I crossed the border as soon as possible.  The wait was around 45 minutes.  When I stopped my car at the booth, the agent asked me if it was my first time crossing with that vehicle.  I nodded.  What was the purpose of my visit?   I responded: To visit my sister in Los Angeles.  He informed me that I would need a special permission, and he sent me to another area, the one where cars are sent for secondary inspection.  I waited with a group of people who, just like me, needed the permit to drive 25 miles past the border and deeper into the United States.  It was then that I regretted my idea to travel by car.  It struck me as stupid.  I had forgotten why I always took planes.

I asked myself what would happen if the ashes were discovered.   Things might even end up with an official police investigation.  I would lose my visa in the blink of an eye.  Jackass!  If Inés were still alive, she would never have allowed me to commit such a blunder.  Never would she have risked the possibility of not being allowed to enter the United States.   She was a model traveler; we never had any problems when landing at airports.

But they gave me the permit, and I turned over the engine.   I felt at peace with Inés.  I wasn’t a hypocrite, like everyone else, not one who would claim that she was the sweetest person and that everything was perfect in our lives.  I actually think that all of us have wished once for our wives to disappear.  We have fantasied about getting home and finding a hand-written note saying that she will be away for several days, and that she needs to tend to a sick relative.  It doesn’t mean we don’t love the woman; sometimes we just need some breathing room.

When I arrived, my sister wasn’t home.   I left my car out front, and I walked to the nearest bar.  There, I ruminated.  I hadn’t thought just how I would scatter Inés’s ashes in the mall.  Did she wish for them to be hidden beneath some structure?  Or should they just be dumped in an area with plants?  Should I tell my sister about my plans?  Would she help me?  Would she inform my children?

When she finally got home, I was fed up with waiting, and I was about to get a hotel room.  She gave me a big hug, as we hadn’t seen one another for more than five years. She works in a company dealing with home security, as well as security for businesses.  It was peculiar how we had both found employment in the area of protection.  Just two years prior, she had divorced.  I always liked her ex.  She would always tell me he was impossible.  Who knows?

After eating dinner, I couldn’t help myself from telling her about my plan.  I couldn’t predict her reaction.  I had already finished off a few tumblers of whiskey, and she was thrilled to have me at home.  Our parents had died when we were rather young; essentially, we only had each other.

She burst out laughing.  You fucker! You’re joking, right?   No, I’m serious about this.  I need your help to scatter Inés’s ashes in a shopping center, but they need to stay there in a permanent way, not just for them to be scattered around. And then I became quite serious.  We drank some more.   She started joking, saying ridiculous ideas about how to scatter the ashes, one whim following the other. I was getting tired of her not taking me seriously, and she noticed.  Look, she said, I know they’ll be remodeling the fountain at The Grove in several days.  I know this for a fact because the company informs us about such matters, and how they will affect our most important clients.  For example, the branches of Tiffany’s are highly monitored.  And so, according to the plan, they will be doing the remodeling at dawn, and perhaps, with a bit of luck, you could bury the ashes in the cement-mix.  She looked me square in the eyes; I could trust her.   

During the morning, I wandered around The Grove while my sister worked.  The fountain appeared to be in perfect working order.  Strange that they would be doing repairs there.  It seemed to be the perfect spot for Inés.  All the surrounding stores belonged to expensive brands, and the restaurants served international, gourmet dishes; she would be on an eternal vacation.  All I wanted was to be by a hotel’s poolside, ordering some whiskeys from a beach chair.

We reached the The Grove on the night scheduled for the remodeling.  That mall is not a building, but more like a promenade, encircled by stores, and there’s even a small train that makes its rounds.  The fountain was located at one of its extremes, next to an artificial lake.  The stores were already closing, but people milled about.  We saw group of workers, and we guessed they were the ones who would be repairing the fountain.   They wore orange vests, and they were setting up signs around the area indicating that construction was taking place, and for people to be careful.   We sat down on a bench, waiting for the mall to empty out.

After one in the morning, they turned on a pump that sucked up all the remaining water from the fountain, and then in less than twenty minutes, the group of men started their task.  I had no idea how we would approach them and tell them about our plan.

They were checking the spouts when my sister told me, Wait here.  Let me speak with them.  I saw her approach and speak to one of the workers, and they laughed. Then she stretched out her arm, pointing me out, and the other workers turned in my direction.  I saw how one worker looked at me with pity, and then they continued with their conversation.  The worker signaled, calling over one of his coworkers.  Both of them spoke to my sister.  The other worker then looked in my direction.  Everyone looked quite concerned.  My sister returned to the bench.  What happened? ,  I asked.  Nothing, everything’s set.  We should return in two hours.

We got into the car just to kill some time.   My sister scolded me for how she would die from lack of sleep.  We bought some coffee, and then we returned to the fountain.  She took one of cans containing ashes, and she handed it over the to the workers.  From far off, I observed how they deposited the ashes into a shallow excavation surrounded by a tile floor, and how they poured some cement above the ashes.

We stayed there for a while.   Then my sister stood up from the bench to say goodbye to the men.  She refused to tell me what she had discussed with them, nor how she had convinced them.  I started to feel irritated again, and I demanded: Are you going to tell me or not?   She responded with Guess! Guess!  I had the urge to tell her to not act like that with her next husband, and that men don’t like having to guess at things, and for her to shut up already.  Relax, she responded, and I will tell you how, and she chuckled.   There’s no mystery.  When I saw that I knew the workers, and that they were the same ones who worked at other malls, I simply told them the truth.  I told them about your case.

I returned home with the other can.  My children returned later for the ashes, and they deposited them in an urn at the church where Inés and I had married.  A ceremony followed.  No one asked about the scarce amount of ashes, however I felt the heavy gazes of my in-laws.  After saying our farewells, I was about to tell them what I had done, but no, I decided to save that for a special moment.   

Translated by Anthony Seidman

Languages

LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Chronicle

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene