Short Story From Collection Angst by Adriana Riva
When there was nothing else they could do and Dad was discharged, I thanked the doctors with a weak handshake. Then I went downstairs to the hospital cafeteria and stuffed my face with two servings of ravioli with tomato sauce. Mom came down a bit later and ordered a coffee, which she stirred with a spoon for what seemed like an eternity. She drank the coffee cold in a single gulp, and while signaling the waiter for the bill, she asked me to take care of the transfer arrangements. She was beyond handling things.
Once home, Dad was conscious only for a few more weeks, but I never felt so comfortable with him as during those days of catheters and jello, when he didn’t want to see anyone except Mom, and me—his only daughter. His friends called all the time, dropped by with letters and offerings, but they were banned from the back room, where the fermenting smell of expired medicine and celery soup was enough to defeat your will to live. None of them saw Dad prostrate on the orthopedic bed, with his arms covered in black spots that looked like strawberry seeds, his pupils clouded, his skin nearly translucent. That privilege belonged to Mom, to the nurses, and to me. And also to Cacho, a 250-pound character who did Dad’s blood transfusions while listening to cumbia music on his headphones.
Back from the newspaper office, I sat on a chair next to the bed, and Dad told me stories from his life that I had never heard before. Girlfriends who had left him for no reason. Christmas Eves putting on puppet shows and sledding on grass. Beach houses full of sand. During those nights, we reviewed the material before the final exam in the great beyond. I tried squeezing out every detail from this slippery present, but it saddened me to know that I was going to forget it all. First his stories, and then him.
Making good use of his cerebral faculties, during these visits Dad would sometimes slip some requests into his stories. He told me where he wanted his casket to be placed during the viewing, and he dictated one of his death notices to me. It read: “The foreman and staff at San Carlos and El Otoño regret to announce the passing of Eduardo Sebald. Our thoughts are with his family during this difficult time.” He was a man who loved playing the rancher—wearing vicuña ponchos and carrying silver gaucho knives around his estates—standing in the plains like a caudillo. He rolled the dice with the confidence of someone who didn’t need them, and the notice was his last piece of self-praise.
At times, when I found him sleeping, I would stay with him for a while, making out the different voices tapping against the window. I listened to the roars of the avenue and the whispering of the dancing lindens, the rusty brakes of the 67 bus skidding on the icy road, and the rabid barking of the neighbor’s Doberman. Underneath the symphony was the rhythm of his labored breathing. Gnawing on my nails, it made me feel as if I was falling down a monstrous hill. Before leaving, I would touch his arm. He had the smooth, tight skin of a dolphin, and I wondered if it had always been like that.
We were a distant family: Dad, Mom, and me. Back when I was a kid, before leaving for the theatre, they would come into the kitchen where I was having dinner by myself in my pj’s, with Ramona or Gudelia, and give me a kiss on my wet hair. Mom dressed up in pearls with outfits that looked like they were made of cellophane. In his tuxedo, Dad wore such strong cologne that for years I thought they were one and the same—that pink peppercorn scent and him. In their gala costumes, they made the perfect pair.
The night before he lost consciousness, Dad gave me two sealed envelopes.
“They are letters for you to read at my funeral. Don’t open them until then.”
One envelope had my name written on it, the other just said “Funeral.”
“And take care of yourself, kiddo, I hear it’s cold outside.”
Dad never spoke again. From then on, he only opened his mouth to let out hoarse groans, his eyes like a toad’s, and I started waking up in the middle of the dark night. I would turn on the table lamp to look at the clock.
Two thirty-seven, three-fifty, four-fifteen. I memorized those numbers, hoping for a serendipitous connection so that I could say “I know” when they told me he had died at three-fifty—“I woke up at that exact time.” I wanted to sprinkle his death with fairy dust.
The afternoon I got the news I was working on a piece about a dead boy on a Turkish beach; he was running from the war. When the phone rang, I was in the midst of a cloud of smoke, working on a turn of phrase. The screen showed UNKNOWN CALLER—home.
“Come right now, it’s urgent! Just come. Come right now!”
Mom’s voice sounded unhinged, horrified. She didn’t dare tell me my father had died. I didn’t ask her either, I hadn’t looked at my watch all day. Before leaving, I finished the article. It was a strange reaction, but I needed to take care of business before breaking down.
When I arrived, the nurses hugged me. There were two of them, and they always wore their hair up. But now they had it down. They didn’t care about their appearance anymore, and that irritated me.
“He’s gone, he’s gone,” one of them kept saying.
“And my mom?” I asked.
“She’s with him.”
I went into the room and saw that her tears had left two clear lines down her made-up face. She looked like a witch from a children’s book, the scary but hypnotic type.
“He’s so cold…I can’t believe how cold he is,” she told me while holding me by the shoulder.
Mom and Dad had stayed married for thirty-three years, mostly to avoid hurting me. What had at first seduced them to the altar had dried out like old lasagna in the fridge. She did love him, though. Dad had been an absent lover but a responsible husband, and in time Mom learned to not take the marriage personally. She had her own battles. She fought against other people’s prejudice, which she herself had adopted and fed through the years. “Hell is yourself, Clara,” she told me once, exhaling clouds of smoke, before she gave up cigarettes. People loved her. Every morning she dressed up as the person everyone thought she was. Only she doubted herself.
I went up to Dad and touched his hand. It was ice cold, it was true. The only other dead person I had seen was a man lying on the street, missing a shoe, his face covered with a blood-splattered t-shirt. A policeman kept kicking him softly to confirm that he was really dead. I, too, wanted to prod my father’s arm, but when I did, it felt like sticking my fingers into Play-Doh.
When I turned around, Mom was drying her tears with a wrinkled handkerchief, looking up to avoid messing up her mascara.
“There’s so much to do, we’re going to have to divide up the tasks. We’ll need a doctor to sign the death certificate.”
“Do you want me to call Dr. Logan or Dr. Gutiérrez?” I asked.
“No, no, those two are useless, they don’t know anything. We need to handle this. You have to manage death like a wedding: arrangements, arrangements. I’m going to call Dr. Naón. He might be loopy and half-blind, but we go way back,” she said. “The people from the funeral home should be here soon, I called them first. And Gudelia is out getting some sweets and finger sandwiches. Do you think that will do?”
The golden light making its way through the window started to fade. I began to panic. I thought about making cranes out of paper napkins for the guests, putting together white flower arrangements, processing his death deeply during a forty-nine-day ritual, how I had read Buddhist funerary rites usually go. Because really, how long does death last? That precise instant when a heart stops beating?
“What can I do?” I asked her.
“You call people. We’ll have the viewing here, starting at nine tonight.”
I went to the kitchen where the phone was and looked in a drawer for the guest list for a surprise party we had thrown for Dad two years before, when he had turned sixty. There were all the names and phone numbers I needed.
Before starting with the calls, I took my shoes and socks off and rubbed my feet. I liked massaging my white, clammy toes.
Phone calls went on like a pre-recorded mantra. “Hi, I’m Clara Sebald, Eduardo’s daughter. I’m calling to let you know Dad passed away today. The viewing will be at home, starting at nine tonight, and the funeral is tomorrow, at the Gardens of Rest cemetery, at ten-thirty.” Even though pretty much everyone knew Dad was sick, the news still surprised people. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” they said, as if I were some kind of liar. It was one of those phrases to buy some time. What’s the capital of Kazakhstan? The capital of Kazakhstan, you say? Then, almost everyone told me they were sorry for my loss, “I’m so sorry, sweetie,” and shared their feelings about my dad, “I cared about him so much.” Some of them went overboard, like when kids are just learning to color.
“Oh no, that can’t be. No. Are you serious?”
“Could you let me know how to get to Gardens of Rest?”
“Honestly, I couldn’t say.”
“Did you know your father and I had a fling at sixteen? Nothing serious though, we were just kids.”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“And what are you going to do with the house?”
“I don’t know, what are you doing with yours?”
I broke down during these conversations. Every time I said “Dad passed away today,” my voice would turn into a very thin thread. But I liked making the calls, I wished they wouldn’t have to end, so when I was through with the list, I took out his phone book and started to dial all the numbers I could find until there was no one left for me to call. When I finally hung up, I realized my legs had fallen asleep and a sudden sadness swallowed me whole. I had all the strength of a dried-out twig.
People started coming at nine and soon enough the living room was overflowing into the hallway with people in suits. A viewing made up of the smell of tobacco and the hiss of high heels. Many came in upset but in no time were chatting animatedly, shamelessly—mayo resting on the corner of their piggish mouths. Mom had put on make-up again, and she was wandering around with a composure that angered me—I hadn’t been able to move from the corner of the stairs. I decided to step away and went to the study where the casket was. It was lined with a bright white satin fabric that could blind death itself. The funeral home staff had done a great job with Dad. He still looked like he belonged to this world. I still looked at him with distrust, from afar. He had begun to decompose.
A young and attractive woman, dressed in the colors of an African flag, was crying in silence by the casket, devastated. It was like stumbling upon a baby grand piano in the middle of the forest—I had never seen her before. All the strangers hovering around the house like fruit flies had come over to offer me their condolences. But the woman didn’t even look at me, she was committed only to Dad.
All the cigarette smoke clouded my eyes and grief came over me with the speed of the passing lamp posts through a moving train window. Denial, commitment, sadness, greasy churros, and anger. When it grew to rage, I locked myself in my bedroom with a slam of the door. Mom knocked. I thought she was coming to my rescue, but instead she asked me to write a few words for her to read at the funeral. Without even thinking, I spewed out:
Eduardo, what am I supposed to do now? Do I still answer to my married name? Where did you go? I have something to tell you. Not really. You used to do the talking, now no one talks. Clara will sell everything; she would put me up for sale if she could. I can’t even figure out how to use the Internet or the electric oven I bought. We’re emptying the house, she’s going to help me, we’re throwing away ancient stuff, we won’t stop until we get rid of everything. We’re going to collect black garbage bags full of anachronisms and we’re going to throw them in the tub out back. When they’re full, the Salvation Army will come to pick up the trash. I hope they don’t take long. I should have the bathrooms redone, but I don’t have the energy. The house is full of tubs of water where nothing flows. Papers get stuck. But at the end of the day, life is all about readjustment, and I’m an expert at that.
That night I fell asleep and dreamed of the young woman. There was a green field, and she took off her white gloves, clapped, and then put them back on. My own gloves, on the contrary, were slipping away.
The next day began with lazy birds and naked trees shivering with dew. I didn’t know what to wear for the funeral, I couldn’t tell a trendy coat from a tablecloth, so after a few seconds I decided to go with a long black skirt and a gray sweater that scratched my neck.
Juan, my boyfriend, came by early to ride with us in the car provided by the funeral home. He couldn’t make it to the viewing because he worked the night shift at an Irish bar with two of his slacker friends. He also was part of a past I couldn’t connect with anymore. He looked me up and down as if I was a strange something he’d found at the bottom of his eighth amber ale.
“You look like an Orthodox Jew, Clara” he said.
He had bad breath and I ignored him, looking instead at his pointy crocodile boots.
“Are you saying a few words at the ceremony today?”
Mom said it was time to go. I grabbed my bag, put one of the white envelopes Dad had given me inside, and got into the black car, which smelled of lavender and bleach. Mom and Juan talked about a mushroom and blue cheese recipe the entire time. I looked out the window. When we got on the highway, all I could see were lingerie ads.
There were a ton of people at the cemetery, a hundred times more than at the viewing. As soon as we stepped out of the car, the greetings began. I felt like a rock star minus the studded jacket. People were patting me on the back with gratuitous force, as if I were choking on a hard candy, while others kissed me, reeking of lipstick and fur coats. No one dared utter the word death. “I’m so sorry about your Dad,” they said. About your Dad. Walking through the crowd, I had to bite my lip to keep it from trembling.
Once inside the humid chapel, Mom, some distant relatives who shared her jawline, and me, sat in the front row. The priest had a nose like a pickle and his skin was riddled with lentil-like moles. He spoke in hushed tones and a slow pace—tired, perhaps, of preaching the Word. He told us to think of the grave as a cradle, that time only measures itself, and then something about God on a rocking chair. Then, he apologized.
“I’m sorry, I can’t remember where I was going with this. Now Eduardo’s daughter will say a few words,” he announced and looked at me with the kindness of a saint.
I stood up and when I took the envelope out of my bag, I realized I had brought the one that said “Clara.” My heart started beating fast. Standing still, I opened it. In blue ink and a spidery childlike handwriting, Dad had written:
Dear Clara, remember the story about the bunny? I used to tell it to you over and over when you were a kid. It’s all there, in that story, everything I ever wanted to say to you.
While I was putting away the letter, my mind in disarray, I noticed that the letter took on a disproportionate volume inside the envelope. Someone coughed and someone else blew their nose. Trying to piece together a speech that made sense in my head, I walked slowly towards the podium, feeling hundreds of eyes piercing my back. What had Dad written in the other letter? What was I supposed to say about him? When was Mom’s turn to speak? When I turned to face the jury, all I could make out was one neck, upright like a swan’s: it was the young woman, the one from the viewing and from my dream. She was looking at me as if I were a work of modern art.
I’d never been a good public speaker and my voice came out as softly as the priest’s.
“I would’ve liked to tell you one of Dad’s jokes, but I never really got them. For years I tried to understand him, but someone once told me we shouldn’t try to understand our parents because that’s how it works…Parents are just a series of accidents. And Dad was everything I want and don’t want to be.”
Someone had put my heart in a cocktail shaker. I swallowed—bitter and coarse. I didn’t know what else to say. I turned my head to the priest and with my eyes, begged him to save me.
“That’s it,” I said.
“Don’t you want to share a memory about Eduardo with the rest of us?” he asked.
I dug into my mind and remembered the times I went out with Dad alone. We went to the cinema, always. Then we discussed the plot, the actors, the photography, the clothes, the music, the extras…We talked about the movie because we didn’t know how to talk about anything else. We weren’t friends—just two people that some nights lived in the same house and made an effort to get along. When we were together, the awkwardness was constant, like spending time with a headmistress. Every outing was a nuclear physics exam.
The summers we spent at the beach, Dad forced me to get in the water with him as soon as we arrived. We would change into our bathing suits and make a run for the water. I used to picture myself in the middle of a row of brothers and sisters. Only then could I put up with such an arbitrary ritual that tried joining parallel souls.
There was also that Christmas when Dad showed up four days later: we celebrated it on the twenty-eighth because he didn’t want to miss it. That’s the kind of thing Dad did, things I was supposed to be grateful for but instead, only increased my cancerous resentment after so many years of solitude. That Christmas I got a globe that we spun around, imagining where we’d like to live. My finger landed on the turquoise ocean—Dad’s too.
Maybe it was the nerves, the rush, the absence, but I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Anything, a day at the park, a camping anecdote, a trip you took together…,” the priest said to me, encouragingly.
I opened my mouth and babbled “a camping anecdote, a trip?” …The capital of Kazakhstan, you say?
I closed my mouth and felt like a bird, left behind over winter.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Anyone else want to share?”
Nine people took turns telling moving anecdotes of my father and I felt tiny. My title as an only child felt too big for me, like a suit I could never quite fill. I used to think that next to my father, my size was a matter of age and gender, but now I simply saw myself as minuscule.
When we got out of the chapel, the sun hurt my eyes. The cemetery was carpeted in waves of bright green grass. It was a garden sprouting a German army of rectangular tombstones, which we stepped on with filthy shoes to get to the black hole where the casket was placed.
At the foot of the grave, a girl seated on a bench with her coat all buttoned up was singing with her guitar. Behind her, on the horizon, some yellow weeds moved side to side as if asking for help. Mom had hired an entire service for the funeral. The girl was off pitch, but even so, her singing passed on an immense pain. My ordinary sadness couldn’t compete.
I looked up at the paper sky to catch my breath and tried to smell its light blue color. When I looked down again, the young woman was standing right in front of me, across the two-meter death hole. This time her crying was different, spasmodic and so bitter that at first, I was moved, then scared, and finally offended…how could this perfect stranger cry more than me? The young woman’s eyes and nose were swollen. She didn’t even bother wearing sunglasses to mask her pain. People could be so rude. Jealousy nestled around my neck.
By the third song, one of the cemetery employees, carrying a basket bursting with red lilies, started giving them away so people could throw them on the casket. Then, the hole would be covered with a rug. Forming a horseshoe around the grave, those in the front started throwing the flowers. But the people behind us also wanted to bid farewell to my father, so in a matter of seconds the crowd started pushing and shoving, so that everyone could have the chance to throw their flowers. A stocky man elbowed his way in, unknowingly pushing another man who in turn pushed the young woman right next to him. With a sharp scream, the young woman lost her balance, tripped on the iron rod around the grave, and fell into the hole. The girl stopped playing the guitar and covered her mouth with her hand to silence her shock. A few others did the same. No one could believe it. I leaned in to look inside the hole, and when I saw the young woman on her back with terrified eyes, stiff as a board, I had to cover my mouth too, to avoid laughing. Something tickled me. Someone had put a coin in the piggy bank of human comedy. The funeral, death, life…the whole thing was an absurd comic book that we had mistook for a doctoral dissertation.
Juan, who was next to me, jumped in the hole to assist the young woman. With the help of three other men kneeling over the grave, they pulled her out.
“Are you okay?”
Speechless, the young woman nodded, still in shock. Her hair was messed up and she had mud on her knees, legs, and hands. She was filthy. She made an effort to smile, revealing a perfect set of teeth that looked like a piano keyboard.
“Are you sure? Did you hurt yourself?”
The young woman kept nodding, totally out of it. Juan grabbed her by the arm and took her aside. The guitar girl went back to playing and people continued throwing flowers. Mom reached for my hand and squeezed it. It was her way of showing love.
After another round of condolences, people started leaving. The young woman was gone, she’d flown away to lover heaven. Once inside the car, I asked Mom who she was.
“I have no idea, there were a lot of people today I didn’t know. I’m exhausted,” she answered.
On the highway, I thought about Dad’s letter, about the white bunny who hurt his paw and in exchange got a sugar cube. I closed my eyes and saw Dad twisting his wrist, acting out the animal’s accident. He wore an argyle sweater, as scratchy as his beard. It was an insignificant story, short, and without an ending, but I never told him so. I was always a bit scared of Dad, scared of the unknown.
“What’s going on with you, where are you?” Mom asked softly.
I didn’t know how to answer her. Out the window, I noticed an early twentieth-century mansion, surviving in the shadow of a concrete shopping mall. Standing there, stoic, it radiated a disdainful grandeur still.
About the Author
Adriana Riva (1980, Argentina) has an extensive career as a journalist and is the author of the short story collection Angst (Tenemos las Máquinas, 2017) and the novel La sal (Odelia Editora, 2019). She also writes books for children.
About the Translator
Denise Kripper (1985, Argentina) is a literary translator and translation scholar. She is also the translation editor at Latin American Literature Today. She lives in Chicago, where she’s a member of the Third Coast Translators Collective.