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El Paso

The airport in Mario’s home town is a throwback and I was out of it and in the rental car in 10 minutes. I had an internet map and found the way to the house quickly. I never would have remembered how to get there. It was a balmy evening in the desert, clear, warm, dry and still light. It had been raining almost every day for months when I had gotten Magdalena’s call. I didn’t know what to do after she told me. But in the morning I called back ­ Mario was still alive, even conscious, somewhat. They put the phone to his ear and I told him I was coming out. I logged on, bought a ticket, and called Mrs. Plunkett to dog sit Alba. My sister’s advice had been practical. At this point medically it didn’t matter what I did, but if I went I would probably feel better and so would they. I had to connect through DFW, my un-favorite airport, but the gates were adjacent. On the flights I had plenty of time to think about the whole thing., the beginning, the middle, the end, and now the real end.

As I walked into the house, there was a sign taped to the door, “No Smoking. Oxygen in Use, Hospice of Our Lady”. I saw a woman in the living room with a big hairdo in a pink dress. Jose, Mario’s stepfather is bald and stocky, with a neat mustache. He came out of the bedroom and we shook hands. Magdalena (Lena), Mario’s mother, came out and told me I had a message from a Mrs. Plunkett. For some reason I called her before going in to see Mario. Jose and Lena seemed flustered; I was. Mrs. Plunkett had had some trouble with the key, but now everything was fine. I went into the bedroom. Mario was lying on his back in a plastic diaper, oxygen tubes taped in his nostrils. I said “Hello Mario, how are you, sweetie?” but he seemed pretty far under. The plastic diaper and the way he was lying gave him a kind of Pieta` look. His skin was wood colored. He’d been jaundiced when I first met him in Florida seven years ago, and his skin and eyes were deeply yellowed when I saw him there two months ago in April. But altogether he looked a lot better than Michael Weston had when he’d died, a skeleton, in March. Like Michael’s, Mario’s mouth was very dry and starting to bleed.

“They told us a week, but it could be even less.” Jose said. He asked me to help. It was time to roll Mario over, change his diaper and give him a suppository (for pain, I guess). “ As much weight as he’s lost, he’s still heavy, you’d be surprised” he told me and asked me to put on elastic gloves. I wasn’t surprised. The liver dysfunction made him retain fluids. His ankles and feet had been swollen for months. It was one of the things that had exacerbated the pneumonia, and on the phone two weeks ago he’d complained of the pain of the fluid pushing against his kidneys when he sat in a car seat. Jose asked Lena to check one of Mario’s intravenous attachments. It was ok. “Now we’re going to roll him this way, toward you. We need to keep moving him, he’s starting to get bed sores.” Jose opened the diaper in front, so he could slip it off when we rolled him over. There was a tube stuck in Mario’s dick draining into a catheter bag. Did I remember the beauty mark at the base of his dick? To Lena, Jose said, “Wait, how’s the catheter bag look?” It was half full of bloody fluid. “It’s ok”.

So we rolled him half over onto his side. It was at this point Lena looked at me and smiled and offered me the suppository. “Would you like to give it to him?” I said something like “No, I’ll leave it to you expert nurses.” Jesus Christ, I wasn’t going anywhere near that subject with his mother, not then. I don’t know what she was thinking, probably something innocent.

This was when Mario gave a bloody, retching cough and expelled some bloody mucous from his mouth onto the pillow. Lena cried out and rushed to the head of the bed and yelled for a towel. Jose found one for her before I did. She yelled to me to raise the head of the bed. I got the controls and pushed the button on the upper right side. It raised the feet. I pushed the button on the lower right side. It lowered the feet. Jose grabbed it from me and turned it 180 degrees and pushed a button. The top of the bed went up. Mario gave another retching cough. While Lena cleaned this, Jose put his ear to Mario’s chest. Then he thumped it a couple of times and yelled Mario. He felt his neck and yelled for him to wake up or come back. I don’t know why. Lena was calling his name too. So was I. Jose listened to his chest again and said “I think he’s gone. There’s no pulse, even in his carotid artery.” Lena was crying. Mario’s father had been drifting in and out of the room. I’d shaken hands with him too, earlier. He’s a tall, thin man with dark hair and mustache, finally graying, and sad red eyes. He was in the room too at that point.

Jose told me to pick up the cordless phone and call the hospice. Just then the phone rang. I picked it up. A young man’s voice said, “ Mr. ____?” Jose’s last name. Of course, it was 8:15, it had to be a telemarketer. “I need this line for an emergency call” I said. He must have heard in my voice that I wasn’t fooling, “please get off the line.” I hung it up and Jose and Lena repeated to me the number of the hospice, which was also on the mirror in front of me. I think I managed to dial it right. I told the woman who answered that we needed a nurse right away at the address, which I knew, the ____ residence, the patient’s last name. She said “I’ll get in touch with them right away.” I guess she was the answering service at the hospice. Jose said “are they sending someone right now?” I told him what the woman had said.

Then Lena said “We have to call Betty.” She yelled the phone number to me. As I was dialing I knew it was Christopher’s number, where Mario had lived in Florida. “I’m dialing Christopher’s number.” I said, repeating it, because of course I’d dialed it hundreds of times. I really didn’t know what was going on. Betty is Mario’s aunt, Lena’s sister. I dialed the number. It rang and I handed the phone to Lena who said something like “Betty, please pick up the phone, Carlitos is dead, is anyone there?” They called Mario Carlitos, his grandfather’s name was Carlos. She started crying again. After she hung up either it rang or she dialed another number: her mother, Mario’s grandmother. To her too she said: “Carlitos is dead” and then something like “No, Mama don’t blame yourself, I told you to go home, you were here all day.” She hung up and the phone rang again. About this time I took off the latex gloves and stroked Mario’s swollen feet, then his hair. Lena was talking to someone else, Betty? I think by this time Mario’s father had gone. Later I looked in front of the house to see if he was there, drinking a beer, but he wasn’t. Lena was stroking Mario’s hair, crying and starting to say things like “my poor baby”. Jose fastened Mario’s diaper back on. With the bed raised the Pieta` pose of Mario’s handsome face and tall body was unmistakable. I went into the living room and sat down on the couch next to the woman in the pink dress. Mario’s brother Jaime later explained to me that she was a neighbor, a friend of Lena’s, not a family member. I don’t think she knew Mario very well but was there to support Lena.

The house was all on one level, not large, but well laid out and comfortable. You entered into the living room, which had a couch and a very big TV. The kitchen, where I had called Mrs. Plunkett, was to the left, and to the right was a hall with the bedroom where Mario was on the right, on the front side of the house. I was tearing up a little thinking about how kind Jose had been in taking care of Mario. Jose came out of the bedroom with tears in his eyes. “I think he was waiting for you to get here, man.” he said. My cousin Mary Ann has told me a couple of times about her grandmother’s death. She had become very ill suddenly and uncharacteristically. She hung on for several days until the last of her (eight?) children had arrived, and then died within an hour. I have no disbelief of Mary Ann’s point: she knew, she waited, she died when the person who was missing arrived. I don’t know if Mario waited for me. I don’t know if he knew I was there. I don’t know who there will be to wait for when I die.

I thanked Jose for being so good to Mario. This was from my heart. Mario was rough on all of us, his family, his lovers, his friends. I can imagine what kind of treatment he’d given a stepfather. Maybe Jose took gentle personal care of Mario in his extreme physical need at the end because of the way he cares about Lena. Maybe he’s a saint, or just a stand up guy. I don’t know, maybe it’s the same thing.

A tall, muscular guy in his 20’s was in the living room. For a moment, I thought it was Jaime. He’d gotten married again, so who knows, maybe he’d gone on a diet and started using the gym. But he walked past me in the same way I’d walked past the woman in the pink dress, so I guessed it wasn’t Jaime.

Lena came out of the bedroom and handed me the phone. “Christopher, he wants to talk to you.” The last I’d heard Christopher and Mario’s other friends in Florida despised me. After Michael Weston died, I’d e-mailed Mario, talked to him. I said the things that had ruined our relationship (our jobs in different cities, his drugs, my old house in Shepherdstown, etc.) were finished. We should get back together. The world could be paradise. I spent a weekend in Florida. Mario and I were happy to see each other. We stayed up and talked all night in the hotel room in Sarasota. Then in Feather Sound we spent the afternoon at the pool with Christopher and Ned and Janice. After I got back home I told Mario that it wouldn’t work.

“How are you doing, Christopher?” I asked. “I’m ok, I’m kind of in shock. Ned is here and Janice. Betty’s here, she came yesterday, so we all heard the news together.” “What’s Betty doing there, does she live in Florida?” I had to ask. “No, she lives out there, she came out to look for some papers for Mario’s Social Security and Medicaid. I told her they probably weren’t here.” At least I wasn’t losing my mind.

“Did you get to talk to Mario?” Christopher asked. “No, I just got to the house and he died fifteen minutes later. I hope he could understand me when I spoke to him. Was he awake earlier today?” “I don’t know,” Christopher said, “I know he was on Sunday.” I realized I didn’t want to talk to Christopher, who I like very much. Someday I’ll explain to him that the real problem with me and Mario was never fixed. I was never the one he wanted, just the best of a set of poor alternatives. Someday I’ll explain that I didn’t chicken out of seeing another sick lover over the border. I didn’t realize that Mario was dying, I’d seen him go on despite his health for years. Someday my explanations won’t sound so lame. Someday isn’t today.

“Are you going to stay for the funeral?” he asked. “No, I don’t think so, I think I’ll go back tomorrow. Thank you for everything you did for him, Christopher.” I say. I meant it. “We’ll talk again soon.” he said.

Lena was crying very loudly now. She was weeping and saying things like “Mijo, how could you leave me? My son is gone.” The phone was ringing every two minutes and more guys like the one I’d seen earlier were coming and going. I knew if I stayed in the living room, my nerves would break too. Jose and Lena’s back yard is right off the living room. It’s a manicured lawn like a putting green (I think there are a couple of holes for practice in the middle). The lawn is surrounded by cedars and some desert plants and flowers. The air was still warm and the summer evening was clear and beautiful. I sat down and thought about things and teared up a little more.

Lena was still crying loudly. Every once in a while a cousin would come out to use a cell phone or have a cigarette. Where was the lighter? No, I didn’t have any matches. I went into the kitchen to get a soda. An older woman who looked like Lena’s sister came into the living room and looked into the kitchen and gasped. “I’m sorry,” she said. “for a second I thought you were Mario”. I think she was Lena’s mother, not her sister. I went out to the front of the house to see if I knew anyone. More cousins, uncles, cell phones. The next door neighbors were outside too, kicking a ball around. I wondered if they knew what was going on.

I went back in. Jaime appeared in the living room and gave me a big hug. He hasn’t been on a diet or gone to the gym. He’s a tall guy to start with and has a beard and mustache and longish hair, so he’s pretty impressive looking. We sat in the back yard together. I told him some things he already knew. I told him how brave Mario had been for years. That his liver had been destroyed by an intense hepatitis that caused a blockage ten years ago, before I even met him. That the HIV he got just before that was just one of the things that made the inevitable faster. That Mario had lived on will power alone for the last year and a half. That he’d played a double concert with a bum horn when I’d been in Florida two months ago.

Jose came out to ask me a question, did I know Mario’s social security number? The nurse from the hospice was there and they were filling out papers. I told him I didn’t know it. In a little while Mario’s uncle Sammy came. He’s not much older than Mario and had turned him on to coke for the first time, in the Eighties. I don’t know why I’ve always blamed Sammy’s lousy example for Mario’s weaknesses and his sickness. Mario’s high school years in El Paso had been full of drugs and sex with guys. He was perfectly able to find his own vices. Sammy’s life is a wreck like Mario’s father’s. Although I’m sure he’s gay, he still lives at home in his forties, imprisoned by his crappy job and his repression. He’s a sweet person and we’d gotten along OK. We talked about the last time I’d been there, six years ago. I’d had an eye infection. While I was playing around with Mario he had reached a climax unexpectedly fast, and I‘d had to stop wearing contacts after my eye stayed red for two days. At the time I’d had a ball-breaking job and I’d let my hair go gray. Looking decades older than Mario was bad enough. Being in El Paso, barely able to see, with Mario who wanted to do nothing but snort coke all night and hang out with his pals was worse. Feeling the uncomprehending looks from Mario’s adoring friends and relatives had been about the worst.

I told Sammy how brave Mario had been. He looked at me sadly, this sweet, troubled guy, and said “Mario had everything, his brains, his charm, his career”. I said to him that Mario could have been anything he wanted. I don’t know what Mario would have said. His career may have been a success by Sammy’s standard, not his own. Sammy mentioned that we had also seen each other at Jaime’s apartment in Austin, four years ago. “We had a great time: drinking, getting high, partying. That was when I cut my pony tail off.” Actually it was one of the most miserable holidays I ever spent. The apartment was tiny. God knows I’m no one to talk, but Sammy and Mario’s dad started drinking at 8 every morning. After a day I couldn’t hear myself think and started to read books nonstop. Mario thought I was being snooty and of course it was too crowded for us to even think of having sex.

Lena was still sobbing and crying out loudly. Jaime said, “I wish I had a valium to give her.” I told him I had some with me. At that point Sammy asked if I had any of the white stuff. Those days are twenty year behind me, but I‘d had the presence of mind to bring a half pint of brandy. It was in the car. I offered him a drink, wanting one badly myself. We had some brandy in diet pepsi. The night Art died ten years ago in my house in Key West it had been bedlam for a while as well. I hadn’t made arrangements with an undertaker and the phone rang off the hook with calls from New York. The puppy, Alba, was running around, her paws clicking on the cuban tile floors. Only his mother and father and I were there in the house and once his nurse had arrived and I’d gotten the cremation plans made, things had calmed down.

Jose had made arrangements that day and asked me if I wanted to see Mario again before the people came to take his body. I went into the room again, spoke to him and touched his hand. I went out to the back yard. Lena had calmed down some by now and said the same thing to me that Jose had said, that Mario had waited till I got there. I hugged her. Jose asked if I was going to stay for the funeral. I told him that I was probably going back the next day. He said he had to give the names of the pallbearers to the funeral home and asked Jaime and Sammy if they would do it. Jaime said he or Jose should stay with Lena, but she said she’d be alright with her mother and sister. Jaime and Jose are about a foot apart at the shoulder. I told them I hoped they got the positions worked out before the service.

Before I left, Jose, Jaime and I had one more serious conversation, sitting in the kitchen. I told Jose what I’d told the others, how brave Mario had been. I also told him that I couldn’t imagine Mario had any life insurance (he was always stone broke as well as uninsurable), but the car I’d bought him was free and clear in his name. I thought they should sign it over to Christopher who had done a lot for Mario. Christopher could sell it and I’m sure he could use the money. Typically, I forgot about the horns. I smiled and said Mario’d always hated the car, but that it was probably worth a grand or so. Jose said no, it wasn’t true, that Mario had told him that he wouldn’t have known what to do if he hadn’t had that car. I don’t know: all the stupid things that had rankled me, all the dumb things that displeased Mario, all those idiotic, meaningless things.

As I said goodbye, Jaime asked me if I knew where some pictures that he had of Mario had been taken. The first I didn’t recognize. It was of Mario in his early 20’s standing in a park with an old building in the background, like the ones in Paris. The others, though, I’d taken in LA several months after we met. They were great pictures of Mario. In one he gazed off in deep thought, brooding and handsome, in the other he was smiling to charm the lens off the camera. I’d had a good several days with him there. His drug habit was down to a dull roar (he was going to Japan to perform for several weeks and was trying to kick it). I took pictures of him in the pool, at the Getty, at my friends’ house, in bed at the hotel. I wrote him every day in Japan. I loved him deeply. As I left, I looked at the pictures on Jose and Lena’s wall. The largest was one of Mario I’d never seen. He was in college or grad school. Breathtakingly handsome, with all his intelligence clear in his face; he was holding his horn, happy and confident. I hugged everyone and left.

Through the clear air thousands of lights were twinkling like souls on the mountain across the border. I found a hotel next to a restaurant where I could still get a Margarita and some fajitas (it was late by then). The next morning I got up and drove down the Rio Grand Valley to the three Indian missions that are still there. The first has a silver colored dome and is plain white stucco over adobe bricks. The inside was cool, simple and restful. I sat down on a bench and thought about Mario -- would you call it praying? My thoughts, like my prayers, have no object, they just are.

The second mission was being reconstructed. All the stucco had been removed and the brown adobe bricks were exposed. I went inside and a young man was explaining the process to an older couple who were asking questions. After they left I talked to him. His name was Jacob (zsa-cobe), an architect from Ecuador who was doing an internship on this project. He was about 25 with clear dark skin, large brown eyes and long hair tied in a ponytail tucked into his work shirt. I asked him if he was part Indian (yes, half, he said). I’d been in South America and many of the Peruvians and Ecuadorians I’d met were mestizo, also my American Mexican friends. Mario’s family is more Spanish than Indian, but Jacob’s nose, eyes and skin were like his. He said he’d studied in Paris, that Ecuador has beautiful colonial architecture. I told him I’d like to visit Quito someday. I don’t know if I ever will. When I left I thanked him and touched his hand.

The third mission was larger and on a plaza that had been part of a Presidio. Another building on the plaza was a museum with a history of the border area, Indians, Mexicans, Anglos. The guide pointed out to me a placard showing a huge equestrian statue of a Spanish nobleman and colonizer that is to be erected in downtown El Paso. Describing the depiction of Don Juan de Oñate, it read: “With frustration and delay behind him, he now faces a future of tragedy and disappointment, still obscured by dreams and hope.” The expression on the horseman’s face is one of courage and confidence. I drove through the silent desert near the border for a while, thinking about things I’d seen and the things I don’t know. I returned to the airport to leave El Paso.



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