by Iris Monica Vargas
We reside in different universes, Ulises and I, but I know not which one is inhabited by whom. Mike, his nurse for tonight, presses Ulises to swallow the pill he had given him a few minutes ago. He offers him a glass of water with a straw but Ulises produces no reaction conducing to accept it. Ulises does not fight or refuse actively – that isn’t what he does. He is eighty-four years old. He doesn’t fight anymore.
The only way, at all, for Ulises to refuse something is by keeping his lips pressed tightly, like a newborn who has just been breastfed. But is he really refusing? He utters a phrase clearly and audibly, with a strength he has not displayed before. Nothing he has said until now have I been able to understand, though he has uttered little. It hasn’t been due to a lack of attention from my part, either. I have attempted to listen carefully. The phrase he utters now, he does, too, with unusual certainty. In his voice there is calm, a certain firmness of purpose. “I will find out,” he says.
It is the only thing I can understand. Everything else is lost. “What did you say, Don Ulises? Can you please repeat what you just said? It’s just that I couldn’t understand it,” I ask him, diligently and carefully, pouring sweetness over my voice. Not that it’s of any use, however. Ulises does not respond.
“Don Ulises, what I’m trying to say is that I have not been able to understand what you just said because you’ve said it so softly that the only thing I caught was something about you wanting to find out about something but… I don’t understand what you’re referring to…” I explain, already too embarrassed of myself for my lack of understanding. I am, after all, his Spanish-language medical interpreter. If there is anyone who should be able to understand Ulises, it is me. That is my job. I, then, make another dedicated attempt at reading his lips. It is to no avail.
Ulises has decided not to repeat anything he’s said. If he is aware at all of what goes on around him, he shows no sign of wanting to please or humor me in the least. He slowly tilts down his head, and slowly, too, it seems to me – as if suddenly my pupils were witnessing so much light, so vast a sea of visible energy, that it would be possible for the eyes to capture the infinity of fragments that is movement – Ulises turns his face away so as not to look at me. “Don Ulises… I swear to you I have tried but I haven’t been able to hear you very well. That’s why I haven’t understood what you’ve said. I am not testing you in any way. I really just want to help you. Do you understand what I am saying, Don Ulises? Or is it me who can’t understand you? If it’s me, I really apologize to you,” I say softly, almost begging. I feel inadequate and awkward, even cruel, asking the elderly man to repeat himself despite the great efforts he has made to say anything the first time. Ulises continues to look afar, into a distant horizon; but the horizon is a curtain. His body is bounded by hospital curtains. Ulises whispers. The combination between the slow speed of his utterance and its volume conforms a shell between my left hand and my ear. My body instinctively reclines over his bed – the angle between my chest and my legs ever sharper – until my hospital ID badge touches Ulises’ hospital gown. Nurse Mike hurriedly grabs my badge, and gazes at me as if he had just “saved” it, and me, its wearer, from microbes, perhaps, or other types of fear. A hand gesture accompanies the action as if saying: it is dangerous to get so close. Do not.
Ulises utters something. He talks about corn and fresh soil.
His ancient hands, barely levitating over his lap, tremble slowly, an intermittent dance: a telluric movement over dry land, tiny, and almost imperceptible; the light nodding, perhaps, of a dying, wrinkled orchid in the wind. He says “it’s better this way.” What was that? Yes! I think to myself. We’ve got something. Corn. Soil. Ah! I cannot decipher anything of importance in this piannisimo recital of his. At times, however, his mouth opens and stretches toward his cheeks with a surprising flexibility, with some measure of purpose even, and his enunciation becomes clear. Most of the time, though, he remains somewhere else.
Or is it me who isn’t here? It is him who has gone, right? Not us?
He walks over a very long stretch of road, a narrow path that leads to an open wide countryside. The sky is blue and utterly serene. A tired, copper river nearby washes the hands and the dresses of women, young and old, who wash their weather-beaten clothes on its shores. Men wearing straw hats sweat under the earth they work with their hands, dry and rough and infinite, to render it fertile. Not far away lies the tower where they process sugar cane. Up there, in the farther distance, there is corn.
“Compay Ulises! How’s the comadre?” Compadre Lolo asks.
“All fine, compay Lolo, all fine. How is the family?”
“Well, Tego has been very sick lately,”
“I’ve heard, I’ve heard… I am so sorry Compay”
“…but we’ve been giving him some remedies that Comay Pancha says are good for those kinds of things. Do you know who else would have something for that, Compay?”
“Ay, Compay Lalo, I don’t know, I don’t know, but I’ll find out… I’ll find out.”
“Don Ulises, I’m your interpreter. I’m here to help you communicate with Mike, who does not speak Spanish, only English. He is going to be your nurse for tonight. He says he would like for you to, please, drink a little bit more water. That will help you swallow the pill that he gave you a little while ago… the one you have in your mouth,” I tell Ulises.
“Ok,” Ulises says, finally.
Mike nears the glass to Ulises’ wrinkled, almost absent lips which, aided by the straw, like legs assisted by a cane, absorb a small amount of liquid. “Ask him if he’ll drink some more,” says Mike.
Ulises follows Mike’s instructions, his mouth undressed, no longer bearing teeth. The pill that had been slowly rocking back and forth curled up inside of his heavy tongue finally slides down Ulises’ throat and he again whispers. He mumbles words amongst which peek, fleeting yet clear, as a mock or a challenge to his interpreter, corn, soil and respite.
“Well, so… ask him if he’s alright, if he needs anything else or if there’s anything else I can help him with,” Mike tells me. “Do you need anything else Don Ulises? Can we help you in any other way?” I tell him, “Your nurse, Mike, will be leaving soon, and he wants to know if you need him to bring you something. Is there anything else we can do to help you?” Ulises shares, almost inaudibly, a cluster of hints (about that mysterious place where he is to be found, perhaps?), clues we cannot yet decipher. Among them, the phrase “young man” arises from his mouth suddenly, like a question. And as his mouth utters the words, his eyes focus in on Mike, who doesn’t notice. Perhaps there it has happened: a crossover between our worlds. Maybe two parallel universes have overlapped, if only briefly. Don Ulises: convalescing on a hospital bed. Nurse Mike by his side. Mike, working hard under the Caribbean sun; Compay Ulises next to him.
(Who am I in this scenario? Who exactly am I to Ulises? When I repeat his words, do I become him? Or an extension of him, like an arm or a hand?)
“Do you need anything else Don Ulises? Mike says if you don’t need anything else, then we will leave you alone so you can get some rest, ok?” I tell him, then turning to Mike I ask, “Do you think Don Ulises will be able to rest with the TV on as loud as his roommate has it?” Mike’s jaw treks on his face pushing the center of his mouth up as he answers, “has he said it bothers him?”
“Don Ulises, please know that if there’s anything that you should need, you can always press the red botton on the remote control. That will have Mike come back immediately to help you, do you understand? Please take care. It was very nice to meet you, Don Ulises. Many blessings.” Ulises glances at me. He does this as if he was doing it for the first time, his eyes wide open, as if standing in front of the seaport he said goodbye, after the embrace, to an old friend. Never before during our interaction had he seemed to me more awake than at that instant. He smiles at me. He says, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” And his words are clear, completely audible, determined even. I smile, close the curtain around him and catch up with Mike outside the room.
Behind the curtains Ulises raises his left hand to collect the sweat that keeps falling down his forehead. A day’s work has ended. He picks up the small sack of things he always carries with him, propels it back and allows it to fall over his half bent body. He begins his way home, traversing the long and narrow road up the mountain. The blue turned orange and pink a few minutes before, and is now gray. Night is becoming. Ulises gazes at the fantastic sight over his body.
“Corn,” he whispers.