Los Vivos Y Los Muertos

Leonardo was determined to take the perfect photograph of his grandmother. Nana
Matilde, as everyone lovingly knew her, did not object. She lay silently in her
coffin wearing a blush pink housecoat he picked to bury her in. He decided to use the chapel’s front pew as a stepladder. The rosary would begin soon and he needed to be ready to greet his fellow mourners. Gripping the headrest, his right foot struggled to keep balance as his heavy body trembled, confused by the sudden exertion. Once upright and towering over the partially open casket, he hovered an oversized Nikon camera focusing its lens.

“Aye hermano, you’re going to fall and break your neck.” Olga said.

Leonardo, shifted the direction of his camera toward his sister and snapped.

“Help me push the arrangements closer together, I want Tia Carmina to see all the flowers the family received.”

“Hey! Wait a minute, why isn’t Tia Carmina coming?”

A voice came from the mortuary reception area. Olga’s daughter, Gracie had just driven into town after taking her last final for the semester. Her uncle Leonardo looked like a vulture perched on a high branch ready to stalk its prey. She couldn’t take her eyes off him as she headed toward her mother.

“She’s too upset. It would have been difficult to be around so much family.” He said.

“Nana Matilde was 103. That’s a lame excuse, Leo. Hey Mom, doesn’t he look real skinny from behind?”

Aye que igaulada eres! Go give your Tio Leo a kiss.”

Olga pushed Gracie’s head toward Leonardo’s direction. The young woman hopped onto the pew in her heels and pecked her uncle on the cheek. Retreating behind him, she wiped her mouth against her blouse. The custom of kissing every kooky relative when greeting them felt antiquated, slightly unsanitary. They always smelled of mothballs or whatever they ate for lunch.

“Will you two please help me? I’m running out of time. Olga, don’t forget you need to start reciting the first station of the cross promptly. They want us out by 9pm.”

“Ah, that’s right, the morticians hate when it gets too rowdy at these senior citizen funerals. People are so busy catching up, they forget there’s a dead body in the middle of the room.”

Olga hurriedly began sliding baskets of flowers side-by-side as pieces of baby’s breath attached themselves to her black cardigan. She brushed off the petals, hoping no one would think it was dandruff. Gracie scrutinized her great-grandmother as she looked into the coffin.

“This is so morbid of you Leo. Poor Nana Matilde, the mortician made her up to look like a Madame Tussaud’s wax figure and here you are snapping photos of her like a tourist on vacation.”

“Gracie, you’re being rude again.” Olga warned.

Gracie pointed to her uncle, who was adjusting his lens. “How am I being rude? He’s having a photo shoot with Nana’s cadaver cause Tia Carmina is too upset to mourn in person. Trust me, that phony won’t be too distraught to throw on a moo-moo and waddle over to Nana’s to collect whatever she’s inheriting.”

“Nana Matilde loved your Tia Carmina very much. She left her the rose-scented rosary I brought back from Rome. It was blessed by the Pope, you know.”

Leonardo spoke into the camera as it clicked. He was used to Gracie but he never understood how she developed such a contemptuous nature. His sister never said anything terrible about anybody. They never did know who her father was so perhaps that had something to do with it.

“It doesn’t even look like her anymore. Olga stood up, her calves sore from squatting. Nana Matilde used to have a face that was jolly and full, now it’s so thin and bony.”

“That’s because all her blood was drained out along with every other bodily fluid.” Gracie said.

Leonardo secretly agreed with Olga. Her rosy complexion was gone and her face was sunken and pale. Her lips were so thin and slight, it looked as if she had no mouth when he peered through the camera’s viewfinder. He would never express any of his dismay out loud, he wanted the services to be dignified as Nana Matilde was in life. At least her eyes did not betray the state of eternal slumber he was trying to capture.

Señora Ramirez, Nana Matilde’s nurse, appeared in a jade silk dress Leonardo bought her at a yard sale. He insisted she wear something besides her scrubs.

“Señora Ramirez, you look very nice. I see you went to the beauty shop today!”

She smiled coyly at Leonardo, patting her immovable mane. Olga and Gracie could smell the alcohol from her hairspray as it temporarily overpowered the fragrance that came from the floral arrangements. Her steps slowed like a poised cat walking on a narrow fence as she approached her old patient. A look of distress and horror came over her.

No puede ser!” Her freshly manicured nails clutched the coffin with as her head fell limp, dangling just above Nana Matilde’s face. Everyone could hear her howls of lament.Gracie bewildered, whispered into her mother’s ear.

“A little dramatic don’t you think? I mean we’re all sad but didn’t Nana Matilde stop eating solids a few months ago? Is she like auditioning for a telenovela?

“Nana Matilde turned into a baby like most do when they’ve lived too long. Señora Ramirez really cared for her.”

“I bet she wont miss wiping Nana’s ass.”

“Perfect, Señora Ramirez no te mueves! Lets get a photo of you with Nana.”

Leonardo was inspired. A photo of Nana Matilde and her faithful caregiver watching over her even in death! The photo album he was planning would be brilliant.

Señora Ramirez, zipping her head away from her former patient, put one arm on her side and looked straight into camera zeroing in on Leonardo’s eye line.

“Oh uh, ok. That’s a big smile and you certainly have lovely teeth but could you go back to being sad? Muchas Gracias!”

“Is she like into Leo? Does she not know that he’s about as sexual as Nana Matilde is?”

“You’re making me nauseous. Please stop.” Olga pinched her daughter’s arm.

Gracie, massaged her arm and kept talking. She’d grown immune to pinching, smacking.

“I’m not the one making eyes at your brother. Esa loca probably thinks he’s loaded cause there’s no wife! Or maybe she needs a new client? Or shit, maybe both!

Leonardo wanted to take as many photos as possible. Memorializing his grandmother’s services would honor her legacy as a matriarch. He always felt like a son to her. In living over a hundred years, Nana Matilde had managed to bury all her children.  Leo was the only one left.

Their bond was the result of a bedtime ritual. Her sons enlisted to fight the Germans and the house that once sheltered them along with several daughters now married, a sickly husband who died before the war ended, and an odorous basset hound was empty. Nana Matilde would phone her daughter and in his pajamas, Leonardo would take a shortcut across the A&P parking lot to her house. A skinny boy teased by schoolmates for having ears like handles on a trophy, he’d summon the courage that hindered him throughout the school day, gallantly opening creaky bedroom doors, peaking inside pitch-black closets, and gently lifting up bed ruffles with hanging dust bunnies to check for anything suspicious. Nana Matilde, not used to the eerie silence of her house, stood innocently behind him, her braids hanging on her shoulders, no longer arranged properly over her head as the day was over. As a reward for his valiance, she would invite her grandson to sit at the kitchen table for a glass of milk and cookies with warm strawberry jam dolloped on the divots she made with her thumb.

The ritual eventually moved to begin at dinner where Leonardo would recount his day at school as Nana Matilde sipped on a cordial of pear brandy. They ate tamales with olives during Advent or cottage cheese enchiladas when it was Lenten season on formal china, a vestige from her the revolutionary desert she escaped. Within a few months he gained weight, grew into his ears and decided to live with her until the war was over.Years later, his mother would confess that she blessed the arrangement because she knew her brothers would either return from the war and marry or not return at all. Either way, Nana Matilde would be alone.

Leonardo showed his affection Nana Matilde by teasing her. He had been taught to treat his elders with reverence but his grandmother, a sweet woman, was so perfectly naive. He’d laugh when she butchered the English language while dictating her grocery list, following her around the house for the rest of the day, mimicking all her mispronunciations as she went about her chores. Sitting on the edge of her recliner, massaging her back he’d run a covert operation, unzipping her dress. When it was time to use the bathroom and both orthopedic shoes were securely on the ground, she’d stand up  only to watch her dress slide off exposing her large thick bra straps. “Muchachito!” She would scold him but her reproach was never hateful, if anything it was impersonal. She was beginning to forget who he was.

The war ended but Leonardo waited to graduate from school before he moved out.

For the rest of his adult life, he checked in on Nana Matilde before and after work, hiring Señora Ramirez only when he found his grandmother trying to fry a Sees lollipop on her comal. He continued to hold holiday gatherings at her home, inviting the extended family including the youngest generation who screamed like a tribe in ritual as they slammed the screen door, barreling in and out of the sun porch. They were oblivious that the inventor of the cookie that had left strawberry jam all over their faces was the elderly woman dozed off in a corner, drooling from one side of her mouth.

When Nana Matilde was awake she’d sing like a little bird, keeping tempo, her nails leaving dents on her fingertips. Leonardo would serve her a cordial of pear brandy and join her with a snifter of tequila. As a middle-aged overweight man, he couldn’t sit on the edge of the recliner anymore as he would surely slide off the slippery vinyl. This along with the fear of Nana breaking her hip if he unzipped her dress was enough for him to devise another way to playfully taunt her.

Once the conversation waned and people prepared to go home, Leonardo would initiate Los Vivos y Los Muertos, a game to find out if Nana Matilde knew who was living and who was dead. He’d go through a list of relatives, friends, or famous people and the object of the game was for her to correctly answer if they were dead or alive. While the game only exposed what everyone already knew, it was still funny when Nana Matilde said that her comadre was still alive and had just been to visit even though Señora Marquez died five years ago in her sleep, or that her  sister, Amada, who had been dead for twenty years was alive and well because she was Señora Ramirez who read the bible to her every night or that Olga was dead even though Olga was washing dishes in the kitchen. She didn’t know Olga had a daughter named Gracie or who Gracie’s father was although Leonardo didn’t deduct any mental points he was keeping as no one knew that one. In Nana Matilde’s world, Cantinflas still made movies and Pedro Infante still sang. She didn’t know who the current President was but that was of no consequence, she never was savvy on U.S presidents since the Catholic one got assassinated. Her innocent malfunctioning amused everyone but it was her helplessness that made Leonardo love her even more.

“Mom I’m going out for a smoke, wanna join me?” Gracie said.

“Aye, I shouldn’t but I need to relax, I’m so nervous about leading the rosary.”

“Hey Leo, ask Nana Matilde if she can tilt her head toward the camera. That may
help you get the perfect shot!”

“You wait Gracie, you’ll be wanting to see these photos once they’re developed,”

He said as he stepped off of the pew carefully. The mother and daughter disappeared outside.

Don Leo, necesitas algo mas?” Señora Ramirez asked.

“Gracias Señora Ramirez. Can you go and make sure there’s a pen next to the guest book in front? Oh, and don’t forget to greet any early arrivals.” Leonardo didn’t look at her, as he fiddled with his camera.

As he heard Señora Ramirez’s heels exit the chapel, Leonardo thought that Carmina might enjoy a close up of Nana Matilde. He was proud of the beautiful alabaster colored casket he purchased and how his grandmother’s white hair complemented the satin lining.From his pant pocket, he pulled out a scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As Leonardo lay the scapular in her hands, the pungency of the red roses produced a moment of whimsy. He pulled out two stems and snapped one off for the lapel of his dark blue suit. He took the other stem and wrapped the scapular around it. Gently, he lay the blessed rose over her crisscrossed hands. Nana Matilde grasped the rose and as she gracefully lifted herself up as the dead typically do when they resurrect, she passionately inhaled its beauty, knowing it was temporal as all things must die.

After a long pause she turned to gaze upon a very petrified Leonardo. She frowned.

“You’ve gained too much weight, Leonardo, that suit makes you look like a whale in mourning”

His hand was over his mouth in disbelief, Leonardo thought he must be dead.

“I hate cigarettes. Cigars were always my passion. Does Olga not realize Gracie’s father ran for the hills the minute he woke up next to her? That smoking is gonna shrivel up her face. As is it those big ears that run in the family and that wide nose are already working against her. Oh, and that foul mouthed bitchy one? Well, she can smoke all she wants; she’s a loveless little thing. You know she’s into S&M right? No big surprise there.”

“You can’t be Nana Matilde. You, you sound like a demon.”

Leonardo struggled to speak. It must be one of those dreams where the words can’t come out. Time slows down and you’re too mentally paralyzed to wake yourself.

“Oh no, I’m no demon, chunky monkey, just here to settle a few things. Sit the fuck down, we need to talk, she said.”

Leonardo was near tears and oddly, feeling a bit self-conscious. He tried to lose weight for the funeral but he always was an emotional eater.

With the swagger of a preteen Olympic gymnast on steroids, Nana Matilde popped open the bottom half of her two door coffin and dismounted. Leonardo backed away never losing sight of her, making sure she would not harm him. With his hand he felt his way toward the pew and sat down  terrified, eyes unable to blink. He also had an incredible urge and to pee.

“Now then, where were we? Ah yes, I think I need some pear brandy. Ya got any
inside that hefty garbage bag you’re wearing?”

“Uh, no as you recall you are dead and I prefer tequila.”

Was he drunk? He didn’t think he had anything to drink today.

“Oh that’s right, you weren’t expecting me. Too busy planning this ceremonious jerk off where we celebrate what a great family I have.” Matilde rolled her grey eyes. She turned toward a standing spray of flowers with a wide ribbon that had the last name of a local family in silver glitter. She ripped the ribbon off.

“Never liked those pompous bastards. Always thought having more money bought them prominence. All it really bought them was a better location at the cemetery and the priest’s lips on their ass.”

In a slight of hand, Nana Matilde unhooked a bottle of pear brandy hiding behind the arrangement. She opened the bottle and took a swig, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She extended the bottle toward Leonardo.

“You sure about that tequila? You look like you could use a drink. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think someone was coming back to haunt you!”

As Nana Matilde cackled at her own joke, fearful for his safety, Leonardo took the bottle and drank. The sweetness that typically repulsed him temporarily tranquilized his fear.

Muchachito, I think you and I need to play a little game. It’s called Los Vivos y Los Pendejos.”

“Nana Matilde, I think you mean Los Vivos y los Muertos?”

“No, I meant pendejos, as in stupid and dumb. You have very poor listening skills even with those gigantic ears. Listen up Dumbo, we’ve got some playing to do.”

And with that,Nana Matilde produced a chair. Leonardo had no idea where she found it as all there seemed to be were pews, a pulpit and now an empty casket. She placed the chair directly in front of him and ripped the bottle of pear brandy away from his grasp. Leonardo shrieked. He thought she was about to tear his soul out from his body.

“Ugh, I raised such a prissy thing. Oh well.” She smirked. “Lets begin. Vivo or Pendejo? The person who dressed me like Betty Davis from the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Is he a Pendejo or is he Vivo, you know, alive in case you forgot how to speak Spanish correctly.”

Uh, that would be me. I think I dressed you very appropriately and whats wrong with my Spanish?”

Eres un pocho. And you are incorrect. Pendejo or Vivo?” She pressed.

“I hope I’m alive.” Leonardo was too scared to think too deeply about being dead.

“No you’re a pendejo, trust me. This lace collar you had Olga crochet around my neck was a stupid move. Are you afraid someone will look down at my nightie? Can’t an old lady get some action one last time? So what if they’re all about the necrophilia. I’m open minded.”

Before Leonardo could give a horrified rebuttal, Nana Matilde produced a bouquet of thorny roses and smacked him across the face. As his cheek bled from several small slashes, she took another swig and continued her line of questioning.

“That crazy sadistic kleptomaniac you hired, the one that tied me to my bed every night with rope so I wouldn’t fall or move as she read dull scripture, Viva or Pendeja?”

“Señora Ramirez?” He was shocked.

“That’s right genius, Señora Ramirez.”

Pendeja?”

“Nope, she’s an evil witch I’m gonna torment for the rest of my otherworldly existence.” Raising her fingers into the air, she snapped twice. “Count on it.”

With that, Nana Matilde’s fingernails turned manicured red and a curdling scream came from the entrance of the mortuary. Leonardo looked out through the Chapel’s window. He could Señora Ramirez running across the parking lot with her hair on fire.

“Only streetwalkers where that much hairspray. Too bad that lit candle accidentally fell on her head. Hope the dress you bought isn’t flammable. ”

Nana Matilde nodded her head as she stood up and twirled her chair around. She
wrapped her legs around the chairs back, arms crossed over the top like a cabaret performer.

“What were you thinking Leonardo? Oh that’s right, too busy buying dresses while
she stole the gold medallion my mother gave me.”

Leonardo was convinced the devil had arrived and taken Nana Matilde’s soul. Or he’d fallen off of the pew after having a heart attack and was dead.

“That nurse is going to need a nurse! What a shame. Ok, lets continue. Being that you’re such a fan of the dead part of this game, Vivo or Muerto, dead or alive, how did your grandfather really die?

“Nephritis, wasn’t it something like that? I’m unsure, I was just a toddler back then.”

“Wrong. I poisoned him slowly everyday. He impregnated me nine times and like to
yell. I deserved a grand prize for living with that bastard. Like that old song, he had it coming!” She laughed.

“How could you possibly do such a thing? I never got the chance to know him!”

“I was a great cook, I could hide anything in my food. She furrowed her eyebrow. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t have, he might have made you less of a girly maricon.”

“Did you hurt poor Milo?” Leonardo had fond memories of kind basset that used to
lick and snuggle with him.

“That dog liked to fart. So, I ran over him with my car”

But you never drove a car!.”

“Not that you knew of, dummy.” She quipped.

Had Nana Matilde died? He didn’t know anymore. Were they about to have a rosary in her honor? Was this a horrific daydream due to his chronic insomnia?

“Last question Vivo or Muerto, the Carmina edition.”

“Oh no, your not going to kill her once you’re done here, are you?”

“No, not exactly but I do agree with my dominatrix great-granddaughter, she is a money grubbing shameless fatty.”

“What do you mean not exactly?“ Leonardo was stricken. Poor Carmina’s heart
would surely stop if this demon woman came for her.

“I’ll give you a visual,” and with that Nana Matilde strutted over to her coffin doors.

She flipped one of the doors open and there was Carmina, crammed into the casket like a wide swollen foot into a narrow shoe.

“No!” Leonardo had his hands on the sides of his face.

“Look Leonardo, she changed her mind! She can make the rosary after all!

The rose scented rosary was slithering out of Carmina’s mouth. At first Leo thought it an animal, possibly a centipede. Nana Matilde pointed to it.

“Don’t fret Leo, at least she inherited the pretty rosary, it’ll protect her from eternal damnation. And hey, her breath will smell good too.”

“Nana Matilde, you’ve become so angry in the afterlife. Yet you were beloved by so many. Just look at all the flowers you got!” Leonardo said with genuine despair and heartbreak in his voice. Carmina was gone and so was his beloved Nana Matilde.

“It’s meaningless, all of it. Those that sent them don’t even know me. The ones I loved died years ago. I lived too long.”

“I loved you.” He gazed at her. She was briefly silent. He wanted to remember her this way. How did it go so wrong he wondered.

“You mocked me, you disrespectful snotty mocoso.”

“I teased you out of love. Don’t you remember who I am?’

“You love in fear, Leonardo. Learn how to love properly and no one will ever comeback from the dead to reprimand you.”

“But I loved you nonetheless!”

“You have many regrets. Take a closer look.”

And with that, Nana Matilde was gone. Leonardo did not see her leave. He looked toward the coffin but it was firmly shut. The lights went out. All he could smell was cigar smoke and rotting flowers. His heart began to tighten.

Leonardo was asleep in Nana Matilde’s old reclining chair. His eyes began to open. A hum of voices spoke quietly so as not to wake him. He lifted his head. They went on talking. No one asked how he was doing or what he was thinking anymore.

He lived his last years at his grandmother’s home. The aging process made him feel like a weary traveller searching for a trace of home in a foreign country and a cloud of dreams and nightmares always managed to seep into his subconscious and prevent the reunion. A toddler ran up to him. Gracie swooped in.

“Gentle sweetheart, he’s fragile.”

“Who is he?”

“He’s your uncle, your Abuela’s brother and your great-great grandmother’s favorite grandson. They lived here together a long time ago. They loved each other very much.