Oct/Nov 2008 Travel

Don Esteban

by William Reese Hamilton

I have been out at El Diario, floating for two hours in a crystalline sea. It is now just past noon and as I come down along the arroyo back into town, I see the truck by the cemetery wall. It was just this morning we heard about Don Esteban, so I enter to see if it is his grave they are working on.

A group of black men are up on the far side of the cemetery and as I go over to them, I make out Nelson and then his friend Douglas. They are shirtless, digging in the hard sun with some close friends. The ones dressed in blue uniforms are resting nearby in the shade of a tin roof, little bottles of Polar beer in their hands.

"Lo siento, Nelson," I say, my hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry."

"It is the way it is," he says, his face showing no emotion. Douglas nods in agreement.

"But he was your father," I say. "So I am sorry." They hand me a Polar and I stand silently with them in the sun. "Entonces, a Don Esteban," I say, raising my bottle.

"Don Esteban," Douglas echoes softly. And they begin to dig again. The ground is hard red clay and rock. Work for the pickaxe. The shovel is just to clear and lift the loosened soil. I am tempted to get down in the grave and do a share of the digging. I can think of no more honest work. I have always had a thing for digging. You seem to be going somewhere, even though you're really going nowhere. And digging graves is perhaps the most honest work of all. That's why you can't beat the gravedigger scene in Hamlet. But it would be presumptuous to ask to dig here. There is special camaraderie, Nelson's childhood friends working together to show him how they feel.

"Is this your family plot?" I ask.

"I bought this one and the one next to it here," he points at the bare ground. They have marked out the second square with four stakes and a string of barbed wire.

"Para tu mamá?"

"Who knows who will be next? Otra Polarcita?"

"No, gracias."

The old man had had a bad night Thursday. He had not been able to sleep. They called and asked if Marisol could drive him to the medicatura in Choroní. It was not the first time. His heart had been bad for a few years. But this time the doctor sent him directly to Maracay in the ambulance. He died Monday morning at eight.

"Señor Bill, un favor," Nelson says.


"Tell Ingrid at my house that we need one more case of beer and one case of soda. Bien fría."

"Sure." So I leave them and walk into town, thinking about Don Esteban and how it was really his time to go. The truth is, I did not really like the old man. And even though I had tried hard to like him in the beginning, he had made it impossible.

He was called "Cura" in the village and for years he had been the gardener for several houses in our area.

"Do you know why he is called 'Cura'?" my friend Ricardo once asked me.

"It means 'Priest.'"

"And priests take from you. Verdad? The old man is always looking for something to take."

"Well, that's not so unusual. When anything here is lying around unused, taking it seems fair game for almost everyone. Fruit from the trees, land from the haciendas."

"But for some more than others."

When I was first here alone with very little ability in Spanish, the old man came unannounced--just opened the gate and came in, and when I turned he was already there, seated on the veranda. He drank the coffee I gave him without a word. He sat there through the morning. I gave him water, some bread, a banana. He made no move to leave. He looked at me expectantly, like a dog waiting for a bone.

When I finally went to the refrigerator for my lunch, I saw there was only a little bread and cheese. As I began to prepare my sandwich, he came into the kitchen and stood next to me, looking intently at the food. He reached out and took a hunk of bread. I didn't say anything for a while. Then I looked at him stuffing the bread into his mouth.

"Está bueno?" I asked, the annoyance clear in my voice. He mumbled something through the crust, then pointed at my cheese."

"Quiero ése," he said, about to grab the cheese off my sandwich.

"No," I yelled at him. "Es mío!" He seemed to understand that tone better and backed off a little. But I felt awkward eating my sandwich in front of him and offered him a beer. Later, when Marisol came from Caracas, he told her that he liked her but that I seemed an angry man.

By the time I have picked up the beer and soda at Nelson's posada and driven it out to the cemetery, Douglas is already smoothing the bottom of the grave and trimming the walls straight. I'm surprised the hole is so shallow.

"How deep are you supposed to make the grave?"

"About a meter," Douglas says. I'm used to six feet. Every grave I've seen all my life has been six feet.

"No necesita más?"

"It is sufficient."

The friends are carrying cement and cinder blocks up from the truck. There's some discussion about exactly how long and wide the crypt should be. They measure several graves nearby and decide that everything is as it should be. Then they begin stacking the first row of blocks, mixing the cement, pouring it into the floor of the grave.

"When is the burial?"

"Mañana," Nelson says. "We will all be at the house tonight. My mother and brother are with my father in Maracay. We will all be at home later."

"What time?"

"After nine. All night."

"Entonces, nos vemos esta noche." And I drive home.

I picture Don Esteban shuffling down our dirt road in the mornings, his great straw hat over his long square face. Hard lines, no smile. Like a van Gogh. Checking out the properties he once managed. Now he was ninety-two and his son was the gardener. Now he only looked at them and sometimes helped with the small chores.

Once we left our niece Adelita alone in the house to go off to the beach for some sun before brunch. We had made up a large platter of ham and cheese to serve with arepas and coffee, and when the old man showed up, Adelita offered him some. Without answering, he swiped the whole lot off the plate like a bear with his paw and stuffed it in his wide mouth. Later that day, Ingrid called. Could Marisol take el viejo to the medicatura? Nelson's mother Miguelina was very worried.

"The old man has no appetite," Ingrid said. "He isn't eating the breakfast she fixes him." Marisol smiled, wondering if she should say anything.

"Tell Miguelina not to worry," she said finally. "Don Esteban eats very well outside your house."

At night we have guests at our house, so we don't get to Nelson's posada until quite late. There are people still sitting in the shadows by El Triunfo, chatting. It is where I usually saw Don Esteban and his wife at night, whenever I went to buy my case of beer from Nelson. Just last week I saw him asleep in his chair across the street under the eaves of the bodega. "Buenas noches," I called out and Miguelina poked him in the ribs to wake him up. "Que tal, Don Esteban?" He looked at me through a half-cocked right eye. "Eh," he said.

The posada is filled with villagers tonight. They sit along the patio wall under the flowering tree. El Zorro is there, Carías and Francia. I stop to say hello. Across the patio, the bare sala is long and narrow and almost empty of people. At the front stands an impressive casket of polished wood, tall metal vases at each side. The lid at Don Esteban's head is open, so I go over to pay my respects. I look down through glass at the old man's face, more alive than any corpse I've ever seen. His eye is cocked, just as it was several nights before, a glint of light off the iris, and for a freakish moment I think he's actually looking out at me.

At the far end of the room, his widow sits with sons and daughters. The room is very still. And as I walk towards them I realize I am the only person here in shorts. I have never worn long pants in Choroní, but here in this humble house, I'm out of place. Even Nelson, who hates to dress in shoes and long pants, is dressed appropriately. I mumble my condolences. Nelson introduces me around to his brothers and sisters.

"Mi viejo se fué," Miguelina mutters as if to herself. "My old man is gone away." Then again, "Mi viejo se fué."

In the morning there is a service at the house, women chanting back and forth in the still stifling air. On the wall, a portrait of the almost-saint, Jose Gregorio Hernandez, smiles down at us benignly. Overnight, Don Esteban has sprouted the beginnings of a shaggy white beard and the glint has gone out of his eye. His face no longer looks at all alive. The tropics are quick to take their toll.

Miguelina looks for the last time through the glass and weeps. The lid is shut, the coffin carried out into the patio and then down the street to the church. It has real weight, I can tell by the way they shoulder it. Everyone walks silently, except for one daughter, the heavy one who lives far away in Lara. She walks beside the casket, sobbing in loud gasps. Perhaps she was his favorite.

The church in Puerto Colombia is not as handsome as the old one in Choroní, but it is their church, full of neighbors and friends. Inside its baby-blue walls, under crude paintings of saints and angels, a young priest delivers his brief, reverent service over this old man the village irreverently named "Priest."

And now they begin the two-kilometer walk to the cemetery. The old gray hearse moves slowly in front, its headlights on, a garland of flowers over its roof. But the casket is carried by Don Esteban's sons and friends. Every twenty or thirty meters, a fresh group shoulders the load. They walk slowly, carefully, in the traditional swaying motion, two steps forward, one step back. Up along the school, past Eduardo Blanco's Hardware and the great dusty field where the busses stop, through the alcabala where the men of the National Guard rise and look on. At every turn, the crowd grows. After all, this is a special event--a death, a procession, a burial in our small place. Cars stop and wait, men stand aside, give the sign of the cross and bow their heads. Up past the gas station and El Babo's market, Camping and the small yellow bridge. Then right and up the rising hill past the home of Maria. Car'e Palo stands straight as we pass, his eyes glazed. He is almost blind, but he knows a funeral when he hears one.

The road narrows here, the sides thick with vegetation and the crowd seems to swell in numbers up toward the cemetery. And I’m thinking how long it has been since his father was in our house. Not since that day when we had a house full of guests waiting for breakfast and he had remained seated at the table on the veranda where we were going to eat. When I went out to speak to him, I saw he had spit on the floor.

"Lo siento, pero necesitas salir ahora," I said. "I'm sorry, you have to leave now. We are going to eat." He looked at me like a dog expecting to be struck. "Lo siento," I said.

Later, he came up to me in the village. He was frustrated or angry, I couldn't tell. Perhaps just senile.

"You threw me out," he said. As if I had exiled him from part of his rightful domain. I felt terrible, but I knew I had to be firm.

"Sí, porque tu escupes en mi casa," I said. "Because you spit in my house."

But now, here in our graveyard, everybody has come to see Don Esteban laid to rest in this poor bare ugly spot of ground cradled by the great green mountains. Everybody but Ingrid, who has her period. For, as everyone here knows, it is a bad thing for a woman to enter the cemetery during menstruation.


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