“The old age of a man starts on the day of his mother’s death” José Lezama Lima (Paradiso. Havana, 1966)
In the center of the city several boys play with marbles over the dry mud of a vacant lot. One of them, thin and with gnawed overalls, still can’t explain how he lost his father. “Peritonitis”, they announced on a solemn tone, as if it was a universal term that any child should imagine.
His mother was pregnant at the time, and poverty fell upon them like an. Inescapable curse. The boy became part of a horde of the unwashed that swirled around on that school that was supported with the magnanimity of a Franciscan congregation.
When he goes out at noon, years later, he stops to bet a few cents on marbles. He is skillful, by the way, and he takes aim with the knuckle of his thumb, showing the skill of an expert. – Chiras pelas!- he screams, and at the same time he picks up the coins much to the frustration of his rivals. He takes a few steps back and suddenly returns. With a gesture he spills the money in the center of the circle formed by the kids. Ezequiel and Hortensia, two ragged children living on the street, stand up and scream at him in unison:
- You are too much, you sly skinny dude! – between laughter and booing. He continues straight ahead with a wide grin and giving the middle finger.
The cardboard house smells of urine and cheap alcohol. A familiar stench because of its persistence. His mother is lying between dirty blankets, shivering. It’s not the first time that he has to reluctantly pull her up and throw her on the cot to sleep it off. But this time he notices that she is sweaty and delirious. No one else is there. His little sister has been staying with an aunt for the last few months to avoid contagion and he realizes that he is completely alone in the face of the upcoming disaster.
The only thing that comes to his mind is to go to the “La Lucha” butcher shop to seek help from the salesperson. Terrified from the wave of infections, the plump woman, with her apron smeared with blood, refused to let him in, although she suggest he look for help at the neighbor pharmacy to the young doctor on call. Agustin finds him immersed in his cell phone and quite unable to tend to emergencies.
–She might die –, the boy begs, his voice cracking with haste.
–They are all the same –, the doctor replies with disdain. – They come when they are already dying.
The boy looks at him with astonishment, wondering if this diatribe is a preamble to answer his call. The young doctor, without asking for more information, hands him an illegible prescription with five medications that seem to have been written automatically. Agustin looks at the paper several times trying to decipher it and asks for the price.
–How should I know!–, he replies – ask at the counter, dammit.
Discouraged, he buys what he can with the meager money he scavenged from the drawers of his dump of a home and goes back to tend to the sick woman, who is moaning and breathing heavily.
He knows that this is a coronavirus infection – this has been drummed into him nonstop – but that it kills diabetics, obese people, and the poor, like his mother. The official figures lie, because in this neighborhood alone the deaths are counted by the dozen. There is not a day that goes by without someone waking up cold and exhausted, as if the virus had sucked the blood and air out of them with a jolt. Besides, all of the neighbors know that the hospitals have been saturated for several weeks and that “intubating” the most seriously ill patients is an act of mercy, as useless as praying to the saints or to the virgin Mary. Death is crawling in every corner of this miserable town.
With great effort, he manages to half-lift the woman and gets ger to swallow her pills, anxious to see any immediate result. But nothing happens; her skin has turned earthy, and she is still panting and semi-conscious. It will be a long night, if she manages to get through it.
There is no pone or any way to contact the other family members – who by the way have never shown any interest in her predicament -, so Agustin succumbs to his resignation and prepares to stand guard at the bedside of the sick woman. Well into the early hours of the morning, sleep overcomes him, and he falls dejected next to the modest bed where his mother lies in agony.
The cold awakens him as the sun peeks through the walls and the corrugated tin roofs. Icy steam rises from the dirty streams and several dogs can be heard barking in the surrounding area.
In the half-light he approaches the woman’s face, which now shows an icy lividity and a sordid breathless grimace. The boy does not need to see it; “death has taken her” as the voices in the neighborhood say. He is surprised of his lack of affection, there is no room for tears for grief. He will have to check his belongings to look for some money and with what he can find, buy a mortuary box and manage a decent burial in the cemetery of the neighborhood.
Two days later, bathed and combed, he watches as a laborer throws the pine box (the cheapest one, please – be begged at the time) to the freshly dug hole and shovels dry earth over it, the same earth that saw them grow and walk through this barren, homeless life.
That night, Agustin, barely fourteen years old and wondering what’s next – sinks his elbows into the bar and for the first time in his life, with the money he had left, he tastes the aguardiente that burns his throat, but that somewhere in his conscience will allow him to exorcise the ghosts that still haunt him.
Upstairs, in a corner of the room, a television plays the recurring voice of the COVID czar, as they have come to call him, who once again displays the number of infections and deaths, emphasizing on the “recovered cases”. Absorbed in the succession of images, the boy gulps down his second glass of liquor and begins to lose sight of the horizon.
Behind him, a group of gangsters, shouting amidst the tobacco smoke and bravado, make fun of his alcoholic blunder; another disgraced man that will join their ranks.
Outside of the dump, night falls, and the plague continues to pierce the nameless homes, without number, where so many other miserable people survive and die under the same anonymity.