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First Visit, Last Farewell, continued


Those who can visit come to visit. They stream their way to the great house in Santa Tecla that was once a private club and preposterously boasted of the American South. They stream their way there and wait in the exotic orchid garden or in the rooms with the ceilings that went way up high, and they wait their turn, like so many sinners bound for confession. They wait to speak to Don Alberto, to sit in chairs behind their steaming brews of black sugar-sweetened coffee while the great man sits with them, still capable of chairs, and then, later, not capable of chairs, he reclines against the sofa and, later, does not leave the bed. The campesinos and the city folk. The old men and the young ones. The former maids and their children and their children too, and the distant relatives, and the son he fathered, yes, there was a son he fathered before Nora and Ana Ruth and Martha and Adela and Beto, before he married Tere: that son comes too. They all come, and he receives them one by one, while Bill worries, and Mario and Rodi worry, and certainly the others worry, too, that he is ebbing too quickly, letting himself go less corporeal with each hola, each rubbing touch of the hand, each memory that he makes for them and leaves to them, in passing. Maybe already he wants to be way up in the hills. Maybe already he dreams of the parakeets that slice the sky or the crop he will not see complete itself with cherries.

I can take you up to St. Anthony’s, Bill tells him. Or doesn’t tell him. That part is not remembered. I can take you up to St. Anthony’s, Bill wants to tell him. I can take you into your own silent place. Away from other people’s memories, away from all those waiting, still, to say goodbye.

But Don Alberto is sicker now and the sickness smell steals through his skin, fumes from his lungs, is persistent; he is too weak to travel. The maids palm antiseptics into every surface, spray the house with the acrid stink of Lysol, walk as quietly as they can in their rubber shoes. The maids go in and out, and the children, the grandchildren go in, rarely come out, and then there is a new knock at the door. It is Hilario PeŇate, an outlaw braving the consequences to see his former friend.

So you are going to go now, Hilario PeŇate says, when he is standing bedside, a big man hovering over a much too small one. I heard you were dying.

Hilario PeŇate, Bill’s grandfather says, whispers maybe, extends a hand. My God. Hilario PeŇate.

“Who?” I ask Bill now. “Who?”

“Wait,” Bill says, and he finds the man’s picture in the picture books—Hilario PeŇate holding my husband high, July 20, 1958. In the photo, it is Bill’s first birthday and his feet are nudged up against the big man’s pistol-loaded holster, his little face, which looks like Jeremy’s face, which also looks like his grandfather’s face, just inches away from the outlaw’s jowl. “Hilario PeŇate. Remember? I told you. My grandfather’s right-hand man for 20 years, maybe 30. His administrator, in charge of all of the farms. The man he trusted with the growing and the picking, with the land he owned. He was the one.”

“When you were growing up?”

“No. He was gone when I was growing up.”

“Where did he go?”

“He disappeared.”

“Why did he go?”

“Because he had a lot of enemies, and because one of his enemies tried to kill him. Somewhere up at the farm, I don’t know where, and I was too young to remember now exactly when.”

“Hilario PeŇate,” I turn his name over with my tongue. “Hilario PeŇate.”

“It’s a funny story,” Bill says. “A funny sad story. Because PeŇate’s assassin waited for PeŇate behind a ledge of dirt. Somewhere near the side of some road he crouched and waited for PeŇate to ride by.”

“And then?”

“And then when PeŇate finally came as the assassin knew he would, the guy stood up and shot at him, but the bullet ricocheted off of the dirt ledge. PeŇate pretended to die, that was the thing. Fell down dramatically from his horse, and the guy who thought he’d shot him went to take a shit. He was busy with his business when PeŇate, his horse now tied to a tree, his big feet quiet in the bushes, lifted the loaded pistol from his holster and shot the shitting assassin point-blank. The news made its way quickly to the national guard, and the guard started hunting for PeŇate, and when my grandfather heard that there was a bounty on his friend’s head, he went into the hills and he found him and he warned him: You’ll be caught. You have to leave. You have to leave right now.”

“So your grandfather never heard from PeŇate again?”

“No. Not until when he was dying.”

“And you never saw PeŇate again?”

“Not until he came that day. No. And never after that.”

“What were you thinking, when you realized it was him?”

“I was thinking that he had the sweetest face, this really sweet and gentle face that didn’t belong with the hands of a murderer.”

So you’re going to go now.

I heard you were dying, and I came.

And then they hugged one another, the administrator and his boss, and PeŇate took a chair and started to speak of life in exile. Bill left them to themselves, Bill says. He left it in a private place, these two men’s last goodbye.

 

Don Alberto died one month to the day that they’d discovered he was dying. He died anchored into the hands of those he loved and into the memories of others, died, but not before he’d made his peace, saying to Bill: I have confidence in you. Take care of your brothers. Don Alberto died and I imagine, because Bill imagines, that he died thinking of the farm, thinking that you could always trust the land, you could always depend on things to grow. Sit in the shade and watch blossoms give way to the green that will soon give way to cherries.

They honored him at St. Anthony’s Church, where he hadn’t gone in some 30 years. They said their prayers and lit their candles, and then drove his body north. It was a long black hearse. It was morning, early September. They were the only traffic, they were what moved through the streets as the crowds gathered around and pressed tremulously close. The people from the neighborhood who wore their Sunday suits. The people from the hills who had heard the news and started out at dawn to walk the miles, their shoes hung about their necks to save them for the procession. In the streets of Santa Tecla, they stood together, undivided, while the long black hearse pulled through, and above, beyond, in the towering distance, parakeets threw themselves against the sky and trees took their morning sips of sun. And then it was men, my husband among them, who conveyed Don Alberto’s casket to its grave in the heart of the city. Who planted the man in the hollowed ground as a farmer plants a seed.

Excerpted from Still Love in Strange Places by Beth Kephart, copyright ©2002 by Beth Kephart, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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