ÁngelThe Mass for Ángel was very noisy. Next to the choir, there was a ten-piece brass band complete with snare drum and bass. The choir would sing for a bit, then the band would come in, then the choir would sing some more, then the brasses would let loose with a blast of mourning - - - loud, discordant, wonderfully off-key. The tiny cathedral of Santa Clarita could barely contain the sound.
Near where I was sitting, there was the coffin with thick panes of beveled glass on the top and sides. I was thinking how much money they had spent to bury my poor Ángel, wrapping his body in fine white muslin. But at the end of the service, when we set out for the graveyard, I realized that the glassed-in box was that of another angel, from other centuries, long, long ago. Not my recently departed Ángel.
One of the reasons I took Ángel on as a worker was because the neighbors told me he was sober and hard-working. Still, you and I have hired Personal Care Attendants who seem perfectly nice and responsible and then after a while you find they are AWOL for a week because of demon rum or being gooned out on some drug. From what I heard, though, Ángel was a respectable family man. They assured me that he would keep his partying down to respectable levels.
They were right. Mostly. Ángel wasn't interested in drugs, and didn't drink more than a couple of times a year. But when he did tie one on, it was a doozer.
And it was one of those rare times that ended his life, at age twenty-nine, at 8:03 of an evening, on the road between Santa Clarita and La Misión: a head-on with a semi.
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Over the years, I started driving down to Puerto Perdido in the late fall. These six-month visits were a Christmas present to my joints: the icy weather in the north was rattling my bones. Loudly.
Ángel worked in the orchard next door to my pied-à-terre. One day he was cutting out a path with his machete and I asked him if he knew anyone who could help me. All the things I had done so easily before now seemed to be slipping out of my grasp.
Getting up in the morning, bathing, getting into the car, getting out of the car --- none of these were easy anymore. I had been so independent, fiercely so, for such a long time ... and now I was losing it.
Ángel signed on to work for me five days a week, and soon enough, when things deteriorated further, he brought in cousin Chuy for the times when he had to be with his family.
Whatever I paid the two of them was miserable by the standards to the north. Yet they were the perfect PCAs, the ones you and I have been seeking for so long. They were masters at getting me from bath to chair, from chair to car, from car back to chair and from thence to bed. I trained them to be resourceful, and the way they dressed me and got me about could best be described as elegant.
Most of all, Ángel knew how to get me in and out of the wheelchair in a single, exotic turn . . . never stepping on my toes, never banging my knees. His moves were a fusion of the two of us, a dance: his body an extension of my own. He knew what I needed well before I did.
Ángel was married to lovely María. He was a good father and husband. And, after I had gotten to know him over the years, he became a man of my soul as well.
§ § §
Philip Roth once wrote, "You know, passion doesn't change with age, but you change. The thirst . . . becomes more poignant."
I have something quite, well, odd to confess here, but I don't want you blabbing it all over town, OK? I had this thing for Ángel, had it for several years.
His eyes were tranquil, and as black as sin. His back was straight and dark, the color of cedar, or --- perhaps --- heart-of-pine. It was the back that you and I might have had so many years ago had things worked out differently.
During the day, Ángel went about the compound like a panther, appearing and disappearing between the mango trees and the palms and the fruit trees. As he moved, I swear to you, he floated an inch or so above the ground, the sun showering gold coins on his golden back.
I never told him about this thing I had for him. I didn't want to queer my luck, in a manner of speaking. And I certainly didn't want to lose him. But he was wise; he knew.
It is a little strange, isn't it? In fact, I can't think of anything more dotty than a seventy-five-year-old geezer making goo-goo eyes at a man of twenty-nine with wife and child. Can you? It's not all that queer, though. Chaucer wrote about it, as did Shakespeare and Ovid. It was called "May and December." December was the one with the white hair and the shakes.
I figure it was Ángel's fault. Except for the times when we went to town to go to the public market or the doctor, he refused to wear much in the way of clothing, the bastard.
The average mean temperature in Santa Clarita hovers around ninety during the day. Under such conditions, Ángel didn't much cotton to shirts or shoes, and his shorts rode dangerously low on his narrow hips, causing some discomfort to a nearby codger who had been warned more than once about his blood pressure.
At bedtime, Ángel gives me my last margarita of the day, then takes me into the bedroom. He checks to make sure that I have enough water and soda. I always take care of the Jumex bottle myself. I don't want him to know that I have to piss in a glass bottle, three or four times a night. I clean it during the day when he's out watering the garden.
He puts his arms around me, helps me from chair to bed. He tucks in my legs in and draws up the sheets. He leans over me to put the glaucoma medicine in my eyes. His face is a few inches from my own. The gentle mouth, the arched nostrils, the astonishing eyelashes. The eyes, as I say, as black as sin.
He sets up the pills for me to take: one for the arthritis, one for the diabetes, one-and-a-half for the blood pressure, one-half for the sleep, and the smallest for the night terrors.
I can smell the night-blooming jasmine that he has planted, so profusely, just outside my window. He turns out the light and I can see him now, standing straight, a shadow in the doorway. (Alas, he sleeps outside, on the patio, in a hammock, wrapped in a sheet, like a mummy. The sheet protects him from the mosquitoes.)
"¿No se falta nada más, Don Flaco?" Do you need anything else, Don Flaco?
"No," I say: "No, ya tengo todo que necesito." I have everything I need. "Gracias por todo, Ángel." Thanks for everything, Ángel. Thanks for caring for me. Thanks for being here. Thank you, thank you.
§ § §
Chuy rounds up three young men to help him get me to the cemetery from the cathedral, up hill and down dale. The four of them are to float me and my wheelchair to a shady spot a few yards from the grave, under the wisteria.
Unfortunately, one of the newly drafted is blind drunk and they damn near dump me atop Sra. Gloria Luz (1931 - 2006): born the same year as I; retired from life shortly before me.
The cemetery at Santa Clarita is all sixes and sevens. No groundskeeper here. The summer storms have eroded the earth from around the graves. The tombs are simple, as befits a simple village.
Chuy wants to part the crowd to get me up next to the grave but I hold back. I'm not too keen on having the villagers see this old doofus make such a spectacle of himself, in front of everyone, eyes leaking so much woe ... for all to see.
§ § §
Just before the Mass, Chuy told me about something rather strange that occurred that morning. It had happened to him when he dropped by the house where María and the neighbors had prepared the body for viewing. There were thirty or forty lighted candles, a huge flowered cross, and a black-and-white photograph of Ángel from years ago. He was wearing his hair straight and long under a black caballero's hat, the one with the wide brim.
He is lounged back, looking directly at the camera. It was a shot taken before he had met and married María, before I had come to know him, long before his son Carlos, my godson, had appeared on the scene.
Chuy studied the photograph for awhile. Then he turned to pay homage to the figure in the coffin. "At once," he told me later, "I had this strange prickly feeling that Ángel wasn't dead at all. It felt like not only was I watching him, but he was watching me."
"Then, just like that, all of a sudden, he moved," Chuy said. "Not all of him. Just his eye, his right eye. 'This is crazy,' I thought. 'The son-of-a-bitch isn't dead at all.' I swear to you, Don Carlos, Ángel winked at me."
Dear Ángel. At such a solemn moment. Giving us a little wink. To let us know, in case we weren't sure, that everything was just as it should be.