Thursday, December 22, 2016


By Juan Montoya
Jose Ortega looked out from his window at the gritty snow piled over the sidewalks of his home in Chicago Heights.
It was late November, and the daily blasts of icy wind buffeted the frozen landscape. Even though the sun was shining , the vapor from the exhaust of cars and from the muffled faces of pedestrians told him the bright sunlit panorama was deceptive.
It was frigid outside.

Ortega, 58, and a recent widower, paced the rooms of his house alone. Out of habit, it seemed to him, he drank his coffee (one lump of sugar, cream) and looked out the front picture window.
He missed his Alma, his late wife. For the best of 35 years they had lived a good life together. The children had all grown and long since departed, dropping the occasional note and making small awkward talk through the infrequent telephone call. They had scattered like leaves after they grew up and spread all over the country.

The last time they had all been together was when they buried his Alma – at 52, just a wisp of the woman he had married in South Texas so many years ago. His thoughts overtook him and once again he walked through the old roads of memory and courtship.
“She was quite a woman,” Ortega thought, and was startled to hear the sound of his own voice resound through the empty rooms of his lonely house. Now you’ve really gone off the deep end, he told himself. Next thing you’ll know you’ll be answering yourself.

He had been visiting the doctor even before Alma had died. His heart problems had worried her sick, even after the triple bypass operation had stabilized his health. He knew he was living on borrowed time.
Which was why he felt betrayed by fate when the usually energetic mate of his life suddenly returned from a scheduled doctor’s appointment and sat him down on the kitchen table, holding his hands in hers.
“It’s cancer,” she said slowly. “I don’t have much time.”

Looking back, Ortega realized that moment was the start of the downward spiral his life had taken. Unwilling to believe the diagnosis, he insisted on two, three, and even a fourth opinion. The verdict was the same: It was cancer, and it was terminal.
He remembered the faces. Try as they might to be comforting and gentle, once they told him the news they became distant and vague. He felt a void separated him from them and alone in his despair – a helpless witness isolated from the life-and-death struggle her body fought with the insidious black cells that were devouring his beloved Alma from within.

The end had come quickly as she had predicted. Within three months after the first diagnosis, he could hardly recognize the happy face and optimistic being he had loved at first sight. Now that face was distorted and racked with pain. And yet, for all the strain on her frail body, she seemed to handle it better than he did.
“Who is going to take care of my Pepe?” she would agonize as they held each other in the wan light of the evenings as he tried to comfort her. He felt helpless. But when he was at his lowest, somehow she would gather what little inner strength she had left to buoy his spirits.
“You’re still a good looking man,” she would tease weakly. “And besides, I hear that a lot of young women are attracted to mature Hispanic men like you.”

The thought that a younger woman would take any interest in him amused Jose. Passing by a mirror, he would see a graying, middle-aged man with a slight paunch, his back bent from life’s burdens. It made him melancholy to think she would use her remaining strength to comfort him.
The disease consumed her with a vengeance. Always of slight build, Alma quickly became bedridden and frail. The woman who for years had provided him with strength to battle the odds of segregated work places, discrimination, and hard times, now was caught in the tug-and-pull battle between the forces of life and death.
She died that fall.

When his sons and daughters came to the funeral, they were surprised at how small their mother appeared. Shallow-faced and unbelievably thin, her wasted body touched their own insecurities and they quickly rose from the praying pew before her coffin, afraid.
His grandchildren, accustomed only to their grandparents' portrait in their homes could not believe it was the same woman. Their parents trundled them off as soon and as decently possible. In the end, only Jose and some of his old factory pals stood around the frozen ground as Father Kowalski from the nearby parish church tossed bits of rock-hard dirt clumps upon her lowered coffin.

“We’re getting old, Pepe,” said Rafa, a long-time friend who accompanied him to the cemetery. “It won’t be long before we join our difuntitos ourselves.”
“You’re right, compadre,” Pepe had replied. He gave a deep sigh and turned away from the hole so that the impatient backhoe operator could finish his job and leave. “Somehow I always believed that I would go first. It almost doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s God’s way,” Rafa had answered. “You can’t second-guess the guy upstairs.”

And yet, Pepe found himself doing just that.
In the days that followed, he wondered whether he had done the right thing taking the young girl from northern Mexico with the mirth of life bubbling inside her away from her family and homeland. Had it been really better for them here?
In the south they had lived modestly, but together. Everyone there seemed to feel for each other. Like one, they had looked out for each other’s needs. When one had, everyone had. When no one had, their need brought the people together, rather than distancing them from one another. In a way, the hard life and land had enriched them all.

The good-byes had been painful. For weeks after he had decided that the opportunities in the north were better for them, Alma had been sad. She had abided by the decision – a tradition of obedience mandated by God, her mother had told her – but it had hurt for her to leave her family far more than it had hurt him to leave his.
Even before they had actually struck out on the road, he would come upon her sniffling quietly in the dark corners of rooms in their house. She would grow quiet for long stretches of time even after they had arrived in Illinois.

Time, and the arrival of the children, lessened the effect. He rose quickly in his job – albeit facing the usual obstacles – and they moved to the Heights, to this very house in which he now stood looking out into the bleak winter scene. About the only time he went out of doors now, it seemed to him, was when he went in for his regular checkup.
He drove to the Doc Allen’s and got there early. As he waited, it struck him as funny that one old man was looking after another old codger, and he teased the physician.

“I wonder who’s going to die first, Doc, the doctor or the patient,” Pepe said as the cold stethoscope was placed on the surgical scars of his chest.
“I think it better be me so you won’t sue me,” replied Dr. Allen. And then, more seriously, “Why don’t get out of the house a little more, Jose, and get your mind off your problems? Don’t overdo it, mind you. But why don’t you visit your kids and grandchildren? You deserve to relax a little bit. Life goes on, you know.”

Pepe replied lightly and left the office. He turned the radio on in his car on the way home and listened as the news announcer noted that 12 deer hunters had died during the current season as a result of accidental shootings and overexertion.
"The deer 12, hunters zero," the morning show announcer had quipped.

Alma had never liked to hunt and had gone with him to the cottage they had bought on the banks of the lake near the Wisconsin border only to give him company. She hated the thought of killing the pretty animals, and had declined to shoot at any animals from the blind in the nearby woods.
Instead, they had spent the week watching the sunrise color the blue-green water with amber hues and gorgeous pastels. Those had been some of the most enjoyable days of their life together.

From then on it became an inside joke between them that they would tell their friends and neighbors they were off deer hunting and spent a week with each other walking through the cool forests and by the lake shore. After a few years, the neighbors caught on and gave up asking how they had fared with the game.
“How was hunting?” asked their neighbor Mrs. Radzne after one of their annual trips.
“You should have seen the buck that got away,” Jose would laugh.

When he got home from the doctor, he had made up his mind. He went into the attic and retrieved his hunting gear. It had been years since he had taken out the rifle, but he didn’t bother to clean it. Everything was exactly as he had left it.
As he loaded his car, he could see the neighbors looking at him through the curtains of their kitchen and living-room picture windows. Mrs. Radzne , or Mrs. Radz, as everyone called her, actually came outside her kitchen door and wished him luck. He detected a touch of pity in her voice and winced inwardly.

"Good luck, Jose," she said. "Bring us back some venison."
"You betcha," he replied with a smile as he climbed into the car.
He took a last look at the empty house and sighed heavily, its past cheerfulness buried with the memories of Alma.

The drive to the lake was also full of memories, every landmark reminding him of the small talk he and Alma had shared on the way to the cottage. Here and there, a pickup or station wagon on the opposite lanes of the interstate toted a deer tied to the roof. Hunting was good, apparently.
Upon reaching the cottage he unpacked his bags and unloaded his gear. Slowly, he discarded his city clothes and put on his bright orange hunting vest over heavy camouflaged canvas trousers. He adjusted his cap and grabbed his rifle.

“Don’t overexert yourself,” Doc Allen’s voice echoed in his head as he stepped out into the bright sunlight.
He walked toward a tree line at the far end of the meadow, the crunch of the semi-frozen grass crackling under his boots and brushing his legs. At the far corner of the field, a doe looked up and twitched nervously as the man approached. She glanced quickly toward the trees as he slowly started trotting toward her dragging his rifle by the sling behind him with his right hand.

About halfway to the trees, he staggered and clutched his chest, lurching through the high grass toward the doe. She eyed him warily and moved closer to the woods. Before she sprang, he was lying face down on the ground, the rifle discarded a few yards behind him. The frozen snow by his mouth was slowly being dyed light red.

The doe, sensing that the danger had passed, walked slowly toward the
prostrate man. She sniffed at Pepe and looked around. Then she started walking and disappeared into the shade of the cold, dark woods.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


mejor hablar de mi babi de san benito . . . .

better to speak of my love from san benito . . .