The Clowns


Venezuelan writer Gabriel Payares. Photo: Beto Gutiérrez.

This body won’t start again.
Cesare Pavese

The clowns arrived one Saturday, after our morning shower and just as visiting hours were about to begin. It was a cold weekend sometime in either January or February. It’s hard to tell in this place. Here every day begins the same: making our way one by one in slow procession to the bathroom, assisted by the carers, who at that hour of the morning are in a fouler mood than usual. They’re forced to get up early to have us clean and perfumed before the next shift. And to be honest, that’s no walk in the park. Some need to be dragged kicking and screaming to the shower, like animals, while others just go along with everything and it’s easy to push them gently toward the bathroom. The real problem comes later, when helping them undress or shampooing their hair or trying to get them out of the shower once the whole affair is over. And you can imagine just how delicately these bitches treat us. But not me. I’m still able to shower on my own and at a decent pace, without taking too long, without trying to escape, without even needing help to get undressed. That’s why the carers don’t bug me as much as they bug the others, especially those who can no longer walk and who shit in their pants and yet still put up a fight when it comes to having their clothes changed. They kick and scream and cover the carers in shit. “Difficult cases” as they’re called, that end up getting jabbed with a syringe and then sleeping again until well into noon. It’s worse on weekends when, on top of everything else, the carers feel the pressure of the weekly family visit. Nobody wants to arrive at the nursing home and be met with a stinky old man because there was no way to get him under the shower, or find him slumped on the sofa, dozing and chewing air. But there are also those who prefer the latter. As long as the old man’s asleep, there are no arguments or complaints, no telling the same old stories, and no tearful pleas to let him return home. That’s probably why nobody visits me anymore. Because a while ago I put an end to the hypocrisy and told everyone to go to hell. It’s better this way. It’s more honest for everyone. They lock you up to free themselves from the hassle of having you at home, or because they can’t stand the thought of you dying peacefully in front of the TV —something they would only find out when you stopped answering the phone. Yet they expect you to receive them with open arms every time they come to visit, loaded up with pills, lotions, and baby shampoo. I told them to stop doing it. I couldn’t care less. I think deep down they were relieved. What does it matter anyway? Man does not live by love alone.

I was sitting out back that morning, on one of the plastic chairs in the dirt yard, waiting to be served breakfast. On weekends we’re given croissants with white cheese and a juice box, which I make the most of by eating as far away from the group as possible. There’s no way I could sit for too long at the table with a bunch of old crazies making a mess, talking nonsense, or trying to get up every second to take a walk. Like Irma for instance, a short woman with little slits for eyes, who looks just like an elf, and who’s always giggling naughtily as if someone were whispering dirty jokes in her ear. Her mind’s so muddled and confused she can’t explain what the hell she’s laughing about or even recognize her own nieces, the only family she’s got and who visit her punctually every weekend. The rest of the time, Irma just walks. Period. The moment a carer sits her down at the table and turns around to start serving the food, the old smurf takes off on her marathon around the house, dragging with her whoever has the misfortune to be sitting next to her. Then the carers have to go in search of both and haul them back to their seats, from which Irma will try to get up again the next instant, and so on in an endless episode of The Three Stooges. Another nuisance is Álvaro, a tall, scrawny bald guy that looks just like a giant lizard. In his previous life he was a famous architect who designed public plazas and mansions for the rich. Now every five minutes he just shouts out to the world his full name and profession, stuck in a permanent job interview. The worst part is that he’s generally docile and the carers feed him like a baby, shoving spoonfuls of food into his mouth between one shriek and the next. Otherwise Álvaro would never eat. Sometimes he doesn’t sleep either, despite the sedatives they force us to take in the evening, and you can hear him shouting his refrain over and over to the night. The carers, of course, don’t give a damn about it, but pity the poor schmuck who has to share his room.

This menagerie of lost cases continues with Madame: a beached whale stranded forever in her wheelchair, from which she spits out French curses all day long. There’s also the extremely shy Amalia with her frog-like eyes, who, because of her Alzheimer’s and high blood pressure, is forced to spend the whole day thirsty and whining, no matter how many glasses of water she manages to drink in a row. Little is known about either of their pasts: they’ve had no visitors since I entered this living graveyard, and they’re both too far gone now to even answer the simplest of questions. Then there’s poor Gutiérrez, one of the few people in the nursing home I actually care about. Mostly because he keeps to himself. His daughters told me that he was a teacher or university lecturer or something like that, the irony being that he devoted his life to forming enlightened minds and now he’s almost totally feeble due to his complete indifference toward everything —absolutely everything— except what appears on the TV screen. It doesn’t matter what’s on or what channel is playing: every morning Gutiérrez sits down in the armchair in the lounge and refuses to budge from his seat for the rest of the day, or even to exchange more than just a few words. If one insists too much, he gestures for silence with an annoyed wave of his hand, as if swatting flies. As for anything else, he doesn’t eat, drink water, or do anything at all: imagine a yogi, only a lot more boring —that’s him. He greets his daughters from that same chair and they never stay longer than an hour, sharing his silence or watching the soap operas the carers turn on at noon.

And finally there’s me. The one sane old man in this nursing home and therefore the one who suffers the most. Things would be different if I was unaware of anyone or anything, if I just sat like a vegetable on a chair out in the yard, in a state beyond both pleasure and pain. My only sin was falling down in the shower, breaking my hip, and lying under ice-cold water for almost three hours since I couldn’t get up or even crawl like a worm to the phone. That, apparently, was enough to have me declared incapable: a minor fall in the shower, something that could happen to anyone. That and the bronchitis that followed, which nearly sent me to an early grave, plus the damned doctor insisting on the fact that I got dizzy because of my fluctuating blood sugar levels. The worst part is that he was right in the end: diabetes, pure and simple.

As for all the others, to be honest, they’re no more than a bunch of living corpses, completely oblivious to everything around them and to themselves. There’s no point in learning their names: they don’t last long and it’s as if they never existed. The only good thing about being locked up with them is that one goes completely unnoticed: just keep your mouth shut and walk. Of course, it wasn’t like that in the beginning. I was furious and gave everybody hell. The carers hated me and took care of me begrudgingly, or ignored me and sat me next to the most unbearable of inmates just to see me suffer. I’m a lot calmer now. I greet them politely every morning, I ask after their dozens of children with unpronounceable names, and in return they leave me mostly to my own devices. I even manage from time to time to sneak a cigarette from the night shift staff and have a smoke in peace. And at my age, don’t come to me with that story about cigarettes giving you cancer. Forty years of smoking is overwhelming evidence to the contrary and that’s that.

But if I keep on rambling like this, I won’t get to say a damn thing. It’s hard at this age to recall the order in which things happened. Memories are stubborn. They get all mixed up and tangled up in one’s mind like cobwebs. The important thing, as I said before, was that the clowns arrived, with their wacky costumes and cardboard cutout smiles, causing a commotion, startling more than one resident and nearly giving them a heart attack. There were four of them in total, counting the driver of the white van they arrived in, a mean little fat guy with a murderous look on his face. The other three were in costume: two young men and a girl, all around twenty years old. She was in red, while they were in blue and yellow, in a disgusting show of patriotism. The carers were overjoyed as they opened the door to them. I don’t know if it was due to the festive atmosphere and the enormous cake the clowns had brought along, or because of their chance to take a break from work. “Damn! So who’s the birthday boy today?” I piped up when the nameless vegetables started clapping like seals at the start of the performance. “Oh señor Fernando, isn’t it nice? They’ve come to brighten up our morning. We should make them feel at home,” replied the head carer, a sharp-witted mulatta, who emphasized those last few words as an ominous warning. Not that I could kick them out myself. I can’t stand on my feet for too long because my sciatica starts to flare up. In the end I let out an “um-hum” and turned on my heels, leaving both clowns and carers to work it out among themselves. I then headed toward the back, trying not to hear the trumpet-like sound of the first few balloons being inflated. Naturally, I had thought of an immediate comeback for the head jailer: that it wasn’t “our” morning but “theirs” that would be brightened up, or that half us “old folks” wouldn’t be able to eat any of the damned cake without spiking our blood sugar. You bet I thought of saying something. But I bit my tongue. What was there to gain by it? I opted instead for silence and withdrawal, as I’ve already said, refusing to take part in that ridiculous party that the clowns were forcing on everyone present, dragging out smiles from all the geriatrics with their prancing around and talking in squeaky voices, with their few moments of phony attention and silly questions or, in the most desperate cases, with magic tricks and bright balloons. Could they have thought up a crueler and meaner strategy? And it wasn’t until each old geriatric surrendered, metamorphosing from an embittered old person into a smiling child, that the damned clowns moved on to the next one, leaving the other to brood in peace for the little time they had left. To top it off, the task was divided among the three of them so that no one escaped their charms, not even those who were already accompanied by their family.

I’ll admit it ―why not? If I’d been worth the attention of the busty twenty-year-old clown, I think I would have even consented to wearing one of those party hats, the ones that you fasten below the chin with a string. And I wouldn’t have cared less if they’d called me a dirty old man. I mean, who decided that old people never think about sex? That we’re all about blood pressure and cataracts? That we’re indifferent to firm buttocks and perky tits? Where does it say that old age somehow magically relieves us of the desires we’ve felt throughout our lives? That’s not true, ladies and gentlemen. For those who need to be told: the fact that we lose our erections, our teeth, our hair, and our flexibility only proves that these bodies we’re born in are a paltry loan from nature, paid back with interest in the form of loneliness, illness, and lack of sleep. What’s worse, when we’ve finally accepted things as they are, when we’ve gotten used to our body’s ins and outs and its limitations, taken note of every unexpected lump and bump, every new mole that appears, every piss that’s slightly darker each time, it’s then that these bodies of ours begin to show their manufacturing defects, to display their imperfections, their irreparable shortcomings caused by wear and tear, or inherited from some dead, buried, and long-forgotten ancestor. At that very moment an invisible law forbids us feeling anything other than pain and fatigue, becoming like children again, incapable of strong emotion, of lustful feelings, of craving some passion. Living life with the flame gone out. I won’t resign myself to that. No, señor. I won’t accept becoming a defective memory device in which a few moments of affection are traded to pay off that absurd debt of having been given life. I would prefer a thousand times over to die between the legs of that busty clown than on a hospital stretcher, staring at the ceiling, using up all the medical insurance money while my children whisper “go toward the light.” I may be a decrepit old geezer, a dinosaur, but I’m also a man, for better or worse. And I want to keep on being one until the moment I die. Of that I have absolutely no doubt. I didn’t spend more than fifty years getting married and divorced as if the world were coming to a standstill to end up wearing diapers and forgetting what it feels like to have an orgasm.

Well, that’s how I am, and at this point, I see no damn reason to change. For as long as I can remember I’ve preferred solitude to playing the fool, which is a path paved with ungratefulness and abandonment. To prove a point: it seemed that no one in the nursing home wanted to miss out on the clowns’ visit except for me and poor Gutiérrez, sitting eternally in his armchair, staring at a different bunch of clowns on the TV. The carers, the other inmates, and even the families colluded with the invasion. All submitted without resistance to the power that clowns have over people: that talent of theirs to distract them away from their chores and their suffering, to convert them into an audience. That’s probably why circus performances always start with the clowns. They’re its shock troops, crushing all resistance and leveling a path to the main event. Of course, nobody ever thinks about these things. But since I don’t believe in that nonsense “if you can’t beat them, join them,” I chose to turn those few moments of inattentiveness into moments of true freedom and brighten up my morning in my own way. While a few raspy voices in the foyer were of all things singing La cucaracha, I made a beeline for the carers’ room, where nobody saw me enter and help myself to a huge cup of freshly brewed black coffee without sugar. And if that weren’t enough, to the crisply folded newspaper lying on the counter where these hyenas in uniform keep their personal belongings. If those two prized treasures —which I barely managed to sneak back to my room— don’t seem like much, it’s because nobody understands that here, inside this concentration camp, those few moments you get to exercise your own will, and not that of the doctors, your own children or the goddamned carers, are pure gold. I’m talking about going weeks without a decent black coffee, not those powdery imitations that taste like poison ivy. Or not being able to read the newspaper early in the day, untouched by the uncouth hands of these city peasants who fold it badly or not at all, and incidentally get even the simplest crossword wrong. So you’ll understand that those few moments of luxury I afforded myself were the truly miraculous moments of my day, and that I lived every one of them as though they could be my last.

Oh, but old age feels like barren terrain. And being alone for too long always leads to a feeling of numbness, to that same stupor that’s bent on giving us glimpses of death. I’m not sure if people know just how much boredom —pure existential weariness— there is in that internal clock condemning us to constantly dozing off. Still, at least we can dream. Dream or remember, which is really the same thing, and so vividly at times that on waking one wonders if it’s all just a horrible nightmare. Even more so in this madhouse, where for the past few months there hasn’t been a single intelligent soul around for company. And I mean, it doesn’t have to be Mario Vargas Llosa. I’d settle for someone who knows how to listen or who actually knows what he’s talking about. Not like those stubborn grandchildren of mine, who spend the whole day wearing headphones and listening to some sort of squawking device in their hands. I remember this retired childless couple who’d voluntarily admitted themselves to the nursing home due to the husband’s galloping Alzheimer’s, and with whom I’d gotten on well during meal times, even though I would complain about everything and everyone, ranting all day long about the same old stuff. The wife, a humble, stocky Andean woman, who’d taken care of her husband for thirty years and accompanied him to this final abode, seemed grateful to be able to chat with me from time to time. About anything really, about nothing at all, just to keep company for a while. Anyway, our chats became more frequent. I’m not sure if it was because we liked spending time together or because there was no one else around to have a normal conversation with. She was the one who taught me not to despair so much, not to spend the whole day grumbling, to resign myself to my lot a bit more. Women know much about these things. But it all came to an end when the husband started keeping a close eye on her and clenching a pathetic fist at me every time he passed me in the hall. I’m not sure if he mistook me for a former suitor of his wife or if he was just envious of not being able to offer her what I could: a simple, straightforward conversation that lasted a few minutes. The situation soon became unbearable, as I did nothing to dispel the old man's anger. A short time later they both left the nursing home. I never heard of them again. And the carers have all changed since then.

Who knows how much later it was when I woke up, still in my room, with my chin buried in my chest and the newspaper spread out at my feet. The world had shifted in my absence. It took me a few moments to orient myself, to get my memory to align with what my senses were telling me, something that had been happening to me a lot lately. Maybe I’d been infected with Alzheimer’s. Luckily, the laughter creeping in under the door reminded me where I was and what was going on. It’s always best to be in control. I stood up and a sudden burp left a sour taste in my mouth, a sign that the coffee was already wreaking havoc on my insides. Fortunately, the carers didn’t lock the antacids away, so you could take as many as you wanted without having to give too many explanations. And why the hell not? Would they rather I die of an ulcer as punishment? Prompted by the burning sensation in my gut, I hid the newspaper and went back to the lounge. It was empty except for the same old Gutiérrez, bent on watching TV with the set turned off. He was also wearing a cone-shaped party hat on his bald head that made him look like an old wizard. This, together with his droopy cheeks and his absent stare —his profound desire to no longer exist— just made him look so miserable that my rage melted into a puddle of sorrow. “Aw shit, Gutiérrez, what a drag,” I said, approaching the television and giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. I thought I heard an appreciative snort when I pressed the button on the set and the images flickered on the screen. “That’s better, isn’t it?” I told the old lizard, who was immediately caught in the glow of the idiot box. I switched the channel to a program on the deforestation of the Amazon Forest and put the remote in his hands. That way no one would notice his complete absence from this world, or at least it would appear to be a voluntary decision. And that’s something. Acts of mercy like that could not be provided to everyone in the old people’s home, at least not without causing uproar. Take Irma, for instance, sitting on the other side of the lounge in uncomplaining silence. Her waist was tied to the plastic chair with a sheet or a towel or any scrap of cloth that would prevent her getaway attempts. A ridiculously effective technique to avoid chasing after her through the nursing home, and one that revealed, more than any other, the unrelenting feebleness of our wills. At least they didn’t just put her to sleep. Irma was also wearing a party hat, a pirate’s hat made out of colorful balloons, and holding a balloon sword en garde. I’m not sure what made me angrier: the fact that the clowns had smothered her with phony affection or that our softhearted carers had tied her up afterward —like they do to cows— to keep her from wandering off. “And what about us three then? Are we being punished or what?” I asked from across the room as a gesture of complicity. She responded with a mannequin’s smile that sent shivers up my spine. At first I hesitated between approaching her and continuing on toward the kitchen, but the laughter that echoed throughout the nursing home at that moment —like canned laughter on TV— convinced me that, no matter how useless it might be, some form of organized resistance was needed. Or would we just go on allowing ourselves to be treated like furniture? Then all of a sudden, the whole plan came to me in a flash.

The first step was to untie the cloth that was restraining poor Irma. While this didn’t pose a big problem, I ran the risk of getting tangled up in it and dragged along with her when she got up. In the end I just untied her as carefully and as swiftly as I could —like those guys who defuse bombs— but it wasn’t necessary to take so many precautions: the knot loosened, the cloth dropped away, and she didn’t seem to notice. She stayed in her seat, indifferent to everything, like a wind-up doll without batteries. A chorus of applause erupted in the foyer, while the voice from the TV insisted on the urgency to save our planet’s last green lung. And we three —Irma, Gutiérrez, and me— became like animals in a menagerie that after being locked in captivity for many years can’t even remember what lies beyond their cages. Who knows how long we would have gone on this way if I hadn’t become indignant again, something that seems to come quite naturally to me. I grabbed Irma by the arm, pulled her up with a tug, and whispered into her ear, “Come on Princess, let’s go,” which restored the power to her legs. “Where to?” she asked with inexplicable lucidity as she gripped my arm with her pterodactyl claws. Not knowing what to reply, nor did it really matter, I just gruffly insisted, “Let’s go,” to which she responded by taking a firm step that left no room for doubt, regrets, or nonsense. Perhaps what Irma had been lacking all along was a fellow escapee, a hand to hold onto, someone to open the doors for her. Like I did as we headed to the back and then out to the dirt yard, skirting the side of the house, making our way to the front through the garage where the ambulance parked every time one of the geriatrics gave up the ghost. In fact, it seemed to me as though Irma already knew the way, that she’d rehearsed it many times before during her frenzied races around the home, like a marathon runner preparing for the day when she could finally run the entire course. Maybe she wasn’t as far gone as we thought. Her uncontrollable laugh, more like a cough, accompanied us to the garage where the clowns’ white van was parked. The thick wire gate, normally padlocked, had been left open by our colorful visitors. Aha! An unforgivable carelessness on the part of those cheerful little clowns! Due perhaps to nervousness before the performance? Or maybe to the fear of being locked up with the dinosaurs? Who knows. Who cares. We opened the gate, crossed to the front of the nursing home, and stopped a few meters from the sidewalk and the street, separated by just a sliding gate, the kind that groans and creaks when forced to move. Another patient in this living graveyard, so to speak. There, with my stomach already starting to ache, I peeked a few times to make sure the hyenas’ attention was still completely focused on the clowns, but also to make sure there weren’t any new visitors arriving. The final straw would be that on top of the carers’ anger I would have to face the families’ wrath too. The plan required audacity, stealth, and precision, but lacking all these, I think it was just pure luck that prevailed. With superhuman effort I managed to slide open the gate a few centimeters —enough to squeeze through if we held our breath. And even though my arms got sore, once outside I knew it had been worth it: there at last, lying at our feet, was the city. With a distinctive weekend feeling in the air, with car horns shrieking in the distance like cicadas, and sidewalks cracked by the roots of the ficus trees. Well, there it was: freedom. With all its burdens, disappointments, and sorrows. All the things that compel one to settle for breathing, for staying alive a little bit longer. Once on the other side of the gate, and with no idea how I was going to close it, I turned to Irma, slowly stretching out her hands, and said, “Well, my girl, the road’s brought us this far.” She nodded with a giggle and grabbed hold of me again even more tightly. We struggled for a moment and once more I jerked out of her grip, “Let go of me, Irma. From here on you’re on your own.” But nothing doing. She was determined. Oh great, I thought. That’s all I needed: for the old biddy to break my arm right there and then, and to have to cry out for help. When I finally managed to free myself and take a few steps back, Irma stood paralyzed on the sidewalk, confused and still smiling. The balloon sword had been lost somewhere along the way, but the pirate cap on her head gave her the look of a girl who’d run away from a party. “Well, go on then. Get going,” I insisted, pushing her toward the street corner. “Get out of here. You’re free now, I’m not. Nothing’ll happen to you when they grab you, but they’ll crucify me if I tag along.” It seemed inevitable to me that, sooner or later, either here or someplace else, she’d be found. And when that moment came, it would be better for me to be sitting in my room quietly without raising any suspicions. How far could an old woman with Alzheimer's get within, say, a couple of hours? Her nieces would be arriving at any moment for their visit and the point was that they wouldn’t find her until they’d turned the nursing home upside down, causing a huge scene in the process, confronting the carers, and telling the clowns to take a hike. It was a good plan. But the thing is that Irma just continued standing there, waiting for some divine revelation before taking her first step. Only then did I realize that trying to reason with someone with Alzheimer's was a declaration of my own madness or at least my stupidity. I summoned what little strength I had left and pulled the gate along as far as I could, which wasn’t very much, enduring the shooting pain in my back as a form of punishment. The metal screeched like a bird and the gate crawled along the rail a few inches until there was just a small crack left between the nursing home and the street. There was no way for Irma to get back inside. I waited a few moments for the pain to pass and for me to regain my breath before peeking again to see if Irma was still standing in the same spot. If I hadn’t been so worn out by the whole thing, I would have danced with pride and joy at the success of the operation. There was no trace of Irma, not even her smell of piss mixed with Jean Naté perfumed soap.

I couldn’t say the same for my heartburn. It had turned into a sharp pain in the pit of my stomach. I retraced my steps inside, feeling like a total wreck, just in time to be ambushed by the happy mob commanded by the clowns. A well-meaning relative handed me a small piece of cake, which I accepted, covering up my fatigue with a grumpy old man smile —there’s no better disguise at this age than that of a miserable old wretch. But my hands were shaking so much that I started dropping cake all over the floor and had to sit down in a corner to rest. The difficult part was over. All I had to do now was take an antacid and wait for the arrival of Irma’s nieces. How would the carers explain it all? What kind of face would the happy clowns pull? Just thinking about it made me feel a little better. This “checkmate” position would not only show up the carers’ negligence and inadequacies, but perhaps finally put an end to the visits of those grinning fiends, the clowns. And this decrepit old geezer, this old fossil would have the last and biggest laugh. But while everything was taking place, things had to go according to the clowns’ script, which I stuck to as much as I possibly could so as not to raise suspicions. I consented to put on the hideous party hat, applauded when the others did, and plastered a cheerful grin on my face, which was the most I could muster. The carers exchanged doubtful looks, surprised at my change of heart. Even the youngest one, who still treated us like actual human beings, asked me to dance a few steps to a ridiculous paso doble that was playing. I immediately declined, even though deep down I really felt like celebrating in advance. But it would have looked too obvious, and besides, my legs felt like lead. I preferred to just thank her and keep my distance. If you can’t beat them, don’t join them either.

The clowns’ visit dragged on and lunch was delayed, adding hunger to my heartburn. I alternated between the burning in the pit of my stomach —as if my insides were being sanded— and anguish over the delay in the plan, which made me turn toward the entrance every time the doorbell rang. More families came and went, as though the place were a transit lounge. But there was no sign of Irma’s goddamn nieces. It was just my luck for them to arrive unusually late that day. The clowns continued to be the center of attention, although their flagging energy levels were already becoming evident. With great tact they asked what the time was, while slowly gathering up their things. Those relatives who’d just arrived, however, seemed to be really enjoying the performance, asking for more songs and more tricks. Those who’d been at the nursing home for some time already, instead, failed to hide their urge to leave with a tapping foot, repeated glances at their cell phone or simply staring at the door as if, like me, they also somehow sensed that a great surprise lay in store. Not daring to ask for an antacid, in case it somehow gave away my plan, I resigned myself to sitting there with the plate of cake in my lap. Making a move for the medicine cabinet would just draw attention to the fact that Irma wasn’t in her punishment chair —and that mustn’t happen before her nieces arrived. There was no other option for me but to endure the torture until the clowns decided to wind up their performance and start bidding farewell to every member of the audience. I sat there, like a rock in a hurricane, with my plate of cake and my aches and pains, waiting for the time to pass until they finally left in the same white van they had come in.

Irma’s damned nieces never showed. So much effort for nothing, I thought to myself as the carers began resuming their duties. Normality would slowly return to the place. The smell of lunch would waft in —packet vegetable and noodle soup— and soon they would realize that Irma had disappeared. The sad thing was that by then there’d be no trace left of the clowns or the party, apart from the hat on my head and the plate of cake in my lap, which was already attracting the attention of the flies. Clinging to these two bits of evidence as long as I could, I might have been taken for the most enthusiastic inmate, the old man who would miss the clowns the most. “Oh my, señor Fernando,” they would say to me as they passed by, with that same tone of pity that I spurned in my own children and grandchildren’s voices. That is until they find Irma, put two and two together, and immediately come looking for me. The plan, my friends, had failed.

While the burning sensation in my gut was bent on making me confess, on getting me to prostrate myself before the carers and beg their forgiveness for a couple of antacids, at the same time a sadistic feeling inside me caused me to keep my mouth clamped shut, even though the plan didn’t make the slightest bit of sense anymore. No one would find out in time about the negligence of the carers who’d let Irma go out on the street alone. No one would link it to the clowns’ visit. It wouldn’t change the way they see us or treat us. On the contrary, things would remain relentlessly the same. Faced with having to return to routine, to taking pills three times a day, to the stupor of the siesta and chronic sciatica pain, I realized that the clowns’ triumph was implacable. A triumph based on that state of resignation they turn life into, their naive belief of what the real world is like when they’re gone: an endless pause between one happy moment and the next, between one unexpected smile and another —if and when it ever comes. Rest assured, as I now do: the clowns’ mission is not to lift our spirits or take us out of ourselves. Not at all. Instead, it’s to plunge us into the tedium of everyday life, sentencing us to be who we really are, and inflicting a monumental hangover on us in exchange for a few tiny moments of celebration. The clowns are the cruelest henchmen known to this world. The doctors, the clowns, the damned carers —all part of an insurmountable totalitarian order.

After reaching this bleak conclusion, it was impossible for me to just go and lie down as if nothing had happened and take a nap, appealing to the carers’ sympathy until the day I’m forced to wear diapers and be spoon-fed. How could I go on living like this, shuffling about as quietly as the volume level on Gutiérrez’s TV? I might be a stubborn, arthritic, diabetic old fossil, a dinosaur, but I’m also a man and I want to keep on being one until the end. Then all of a sudden, the ultimate solution came to me. Not just escaping from the nursing home, but escaping from myself and from everything else.

The first step was to slowly sink my fingers like frozen sausages into that custard pie, smothering them with that creamy muck, whose flavor —a distant, forsaken taste from childhood— would produce such a sweet explosion in my mouth, it’s hard to believe it would turn into poison as soon as it entered the bloodstream. Gnarled fingers withdraw from my mouth, leaving the other part of the plan to my tongue. They slide in and out of the pie and into my mouth, as the gooey substance glides smoothly down my throat in a rapid gesture of farewell. Until the plate is empty and the fire in the pit of my stomach goes cold. Then the wait, for the tingling sensations to slowly creep up the spine and gradually turn into tremors: first the feet, then maybe an eyelid or a wrist; for the shivers in the neck and hands; for a chill to spread across the hairless scalp; for a wave of nausea to surge up, rising higher and higher —in what seems an impossible, unbelievable few seconds— until it reaches the head and explodes into a violent migraine, acute and blinding, turning the tongue and arms to lead, and slowly filling the chest until it becomes difficult to breathe, until the chest seizes up and, at last, the world dissolves into the relief of nothingness, with nothing more to say, with no chance to repent either. The plate falls from the hands, landing on the remains of the cake on the floor, seconds before the rootless trunk collapses, without a warning cry, without regrets, with a slightly sweet grin on the face, a smile that at the last minute turned wrong. With the volume turned down low, as if by accident, that’s how the show finally ends. The clowns are leaving. The curtain falls.

The children applaud.

Translated by Paul Filev


Elena Poniatowska in LALT
Number 11

In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elena Poniatowska

Dossier: Enrique Lihn




Indigenous Literature


Brazilian Literature


On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene