Mercedes’s Special Talent
She was balancing the cigarette between her fingers and shouting at my father’s corpse.
“Jorge! Wake up! I need a light!”
“He’s dead now,” I said, my voice groggy.
“No, no, it’s his depression,” Mercedes answered from the orthopedic bed. “Jorge! The lighter!”
She extended her arm and waited. She was a tenacious smoker and just a little emphysema wasn’t going to make her quit in her old age.
For years she’d spent more than half the day lying down, coughing and incessantly asking for someone to adjust her back pillow. As my father always said, Mercedes was born to be sick, just like someone who’s born to write, or to paint, or to be a father.
“I’ve been unwell since I was little,” her story went. “Mom went through hell when she had me; I didn’t sleep or eat and I was allergic to everything. I couldn’t even keep down goat milk.”
As a child, Mercedes had suffered from colic, reflux, vomiting, diarrhea, and every cold that was ever going around. Her adolescence was overwhelmed with doctors who were so ignorant they never realized that what she had was not a nervous stomach, but a fragile uterus. Adulthood didn’t bring her better health, but gestational diabetes, complications with birth, insomnia, migraines, herniated disks, edema, and thyroid problems. Her life was a relentless chain of ailments leading all the way up to the sickly present.
“Jorge, come on and light my cigarette, my arthritis is killing me.”
According to my father, they met at college, when she walked into the library one afternoon. He said she was slim, which apparently people weren’t as wild about then as they are now, but she was wearing an eye-catching blue jacket. She moved to sit on one of the sofas in the lobby, but paused, and stood regarding the chair with unusual intensity. He wouldn’t have guessed that Mercedes was calculating the number of germs lurking in the upholstery. He merely found it curious, endearing even, that she didn’t sit down and instead chose to open her book right there and read standing up.
For some reason, this image was enough for him to fall in love with her and, two years later, ask her to marry him. That first encounter was all the explanation my father needed to justify forty-five years with the same woman. Mercedes, however, would tense up with cynicism at the slightest provocation.
“I don’t know why I’m still with your father, he’s so clueless and he thinks I’m a lunatic.”
My whole life I was witness to her myriad manias. When I was little, she wore high heels even if she was at home watching TV, and she always kept her girdle on, as if at any moment she would have to rush off to lunch with the civil ladies’ society. She applied moisturizing creams several times throughout the day and ceaselessly took inventory of her wrinkles. She never let me call her Mother or Mom; she insisted on Mercedes because it was more elegant. She was also compulsive about cleaning and organization: every decoration, lamp, book, or ashtray had its place, and once she decided where it belonged, there it stayed forever. She arranged clothes in the wardrobes by color, the food in the fridge and cupboards by expiration date.
“Where are the Coca-Colas?”
Mercedes didn’t drink soda, of course, but my father and I loved it, and, unable to find any one afternoon, I asked if she knew where the Coke was, hoping to pair it with some popcorn while we watched the soccer match on TV.
“Are you insane? Do you want to die poisoned by rat piss?”
Not only were all soft drinks banned in the house after that, but so was anything that came in a can. My mother spent her entire life convinced that rats crawled with free reign all over pallets of canned food in warehouses around the world, and that this exact place was also where they emptied their bladders. She swore that even if only one batch ever turned out to be contaminated, she would be the one to get it. She also had other fears: she refused to eat chicken (to avoid the estrogen), red meat (because of the carcinogens), butter (because it made her triglycerides skyrocket), and no dairy product was to ever pass her lips (or it would exacerbate her irritable bowel syndrome). She didn’t consume flour or white refined sugars either, both of which could increase the buildup of acid in the brain. She preferred only to smoke. One pack a day of Dunhills, pricey and hard to find, and which were never to blame for her dizziness, coughing, asthma, allergies, poor digestion, nor migraines. My father, on his end, handled this ongoing string of maladies with the attuned wisdom of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other.
One night, after Mercedes went to bed, my father signaled to me to follow him to the garage. He opened the cabinet and removed a hefty black box where the electric saw was kept. He lifted the lid and there, at the bottom of the container, a dozen of our coveted Coca-Colas were hiding. We gleefully drank a few each while we watched a movie. If Mercedes, who kept fastidious track of every nook and cranny in the house, at some point learned of our contraband sodas, she never said anything.
“I need to talk to you about your mother.”
My father called me on the phone one morning to say this. He never called to talk about her, or anything else. Keeping in touch with family was one of the matters his wife took care of. I was also perplexed by the hushed manner in which he spoke into the phone. Usually, he vociferated—he was one of those people who, when excited, gradually raises his voice until everyone around him has no choice but to listen to his story. That’s how he made friends sitting in waiting rooms whenever he took Mercedes to her doctors’ appointments. But I sensed he wasn’t feeling his usual jovial self that day when he asked me to get lunch with him.
“I’m naming you executor and we need to get the papers in order.” Then he told me about the biopsy and diagnosis of lung cancer. When we were saying goodbye he added, “Don’t say anything to Mercedes. I don’t want her to know I’m sick.”
My father never interpreted his wife’s neuroses as anything other than frailty, a delicateness of spirit that was his duty to care for and which prevented her from having reasons to torment him. With everything Mercedes-related, my father had the tolerance of a Buddhist monk.
Except for when it came to jealousy. He couldn’t stand it if a man so much as looked at her. Mercedes was a tall and still quite elegant woman; when she was younger she’d been a swimmer and her body, as though refuting her hypochondria, had maintained that rigid posture of an athlete. Even still, at her age it wasn’t like she had admirers lining up for her. My father, nonetheless, looked at her like she was still the young woman he’d met that first day in the college library. If they went out together and a friend commented on how nice Mercedes looked, my father would fume, and later, when they got home, they would fight. After his diagnosis, it got worse and he started imagining she was having an affair with a younger man.
A few years back, my parents decided to rent out the studio apartment behind the house. The structure had had various lives before: as a guest bedroom, a tool shed, and for a few years, as my room, with its own private entrance, for the times I came home from college over break. When I moved away, they rented it out to a guy a few years younger than me who was still in college. There weren’t any issues until my father’s medications, prescribed to help with the pain, had the side-effect of near-fits of rage. So he got it into his head that Mercedes and that literal kid were sneaking around.
I happened to be present for one of these arguments. He was reproaching her for a supposed infidelity while she defended herself.
“You’re being ridiculous, he’s younger than our son!”
Then my father collapsed into the sofa, buried his face in his hands and started sobbing. This disarmed her. She sat next to him, put a hand on one of his thighs and with the other caressed his bald head.
“Oh, Jorge. Can’t you see that I’m an old woman?”
He started to kiss her. It wasn’t the typical scene of chaste affection that parents enact in front of their children, but something much more desperate. I backed away into the kitchen. I didn’t have the stomach to witness that drama.
While my father’s lungs were wasting away, Mercedes, the smoker, was diagnosed with the early stages of emphysema. The doctor ordered her to quit smoking, even though he knew she wouldn’t bother.
“It’s something else for me. It’s too easy for a doctor to just blame it all on cigarettes.”
The origin of her suffering might have been a mystery, but if there was anything Mercedes was certain about it was the imminence of her own death. Even when I was still really young, she talked about how she hoped she would make it to the next major life event: “I only ask God to let me live long enough to see you graduate from high school. God willing I’m still alive to see you finish college. To see you get your first job. To visit you in your own house. To watch you get married…”
“I’m gay!” I blurted out one afternoon, sick of Mercedes incessantly asking me about girlfriends, which to the rest of the world it was obvious I would never have.
“You don’t have to yell,” she answered coolly. “Christ, I’m not blind — I am your mother.”
My admission didn’t have a very lasting effect, though. She still wouldn’t let herself be deprived of the fantasy of my future wedding.
I respected my father’s wish to not reveal his condition for about two months. During that time, Mercedes continued complaining about her back, her chronic fatigue, her low blood sugar, all apparently without noticing that her husband was shedding hair and losing weight. But soon his complexion turned gray, then he barely weighed a hundred pounds, and I had to tell her. She did something unusual then: she said nothing. She locked herself in her bedroom the rest of the day and through the night. Finally, by the following morning she’d come up with her own theory.
“Your father isn’t sick. Not in the way he believes. It’s depression; what he’s feeling is the product of his weak character. And having negative thoughts can be dangerous.”
From that day to the very last, not once did she acknowledge the cancer. Instead, she talked about “Jorge’s depression.”
Eventually, one Saturday, my father couldn’t get out of bed. The following Tuesday he stopped speaking. Since he didn’t want to die in the hospital, we administered the morphine at home. I requested time off from work and set up an armchair between two beds: my father, on the verge of unconsciousness, to my right; and Mercedes to my left, refusing to accept that her husband might need more attention than her. This was the dynamic, until the morning when he stopped breathing.
“Wake up, Jorge, I need a light!”
“He’s dead, Mercedes.”
Then I saw what I’d believed was my father’s corpse shudder. Slowly, he extended an arm beyond the bed, and offered an imaginary lighter.
“Light, Jorge!” my mother insisted again.
The cigarette trembled in the space between husband and wife. Mercedes waited as he tried with his right hand to make a fist, flexing his thumb to turn a spark wheel that wasn’t there.
Always, always, for more than forty-five years, he had lit Mercedes’s cigarettes. Until, for the first time, he couldn’t: he opened his hand and let the imaginary lighter fall to the floor.
“That’s it,” Mercedes sighed.