Machetes and Machismo
The first thing I noticed, besides the dry, cracked paint pealing off the walls, was the penetrating stench and how quickly it hit me, like a wall of thick and humid, almost visible stink, racing into my nostrils and irritating my eyes. Right away, I thought, “What the fuck? Couldn’t they at least clean this place up or find a better funeral home for my father?”
Faded wooden benches lined each side of the funeral home’s lobby, with several people lazing about, no doubt already used to the unbearable smell. To them, this seemed routine, but to me, it was like discovering a new odor, one I’d never smelled before. I compared it to a stink I often smelled as a kid growing up in the Bronx, the one dead mice used to leave in our kitchen when we’d poison them with Tres Pasitos, named that way because once consumed, the mice usually died after a only a few steps. Sometimes we’d get lucky and they’d collapse and die in the middle of the kitchen floor. But mostly, they’d squirm off to die under the stove, or behind the fridge, or worse yet, between the sheetrock where we couldn’t get to them, and for days we’d have to tolerate that stench as they rotted and withered, while the maggots feasted on their carcasses. But this smell was different; it was much more potent, like a combination of dead mice and ammonia. I swear I thought I heard it humming.
I was appalled by the place right away, but apparently, that’s the only funeral home in the small town of San Francisco de Macoris. They call it a city, but I know a town when I see one. And I know a nice funeral home when I see one too, and that was not one of them. The room felt ice cold, despite the 100-degree Dominican heat. The walls were barren and cool gray, with patches of spackle throughout, which made it look more like an unfinished construction site, rather then a funeral home. An assortment of wooden chairs lined the perimeter of the room, no two alike, and towards the end on the left corner, was my father’s coffin.
It was a Dominican casket, made for a Dominican man; clean, well cut, handcrafted, buffed and shined, just like my father was when he was still alive, even in his later years, with his buffed shoes, creased slacks and guayabera, gold watch and chains, gelled hair, always shaved while he pimped it around town in his red Jeepeta. My relatives were already there. Most of them were mourning: some real mourning, others fake mourning, but mourning nonetheless. Someone was wailing on the other end of the room, another was moaning deep diabolic moans, my Tia Felipa was on her knees praying, and my mother’s blouse was soaked in tears.
After I gave my round of hugs and received my condolences, I mopped myself across the room toward my dead father. His widow, Danila, was standing next to the coffin. I hugged her tight and she broke down in my arms. I felt her anguish pour into my body, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the rumors were true; did she really have my father murdered?
No one really knows who nestled that shotgun under his left arm, aimed it at his ribcage and pulled the trigger, instantly exploding his beating heart. The only witness to the assassination, besides the killer himself, is my father’s simple-minded, alcoholic brother, who was still withering in shock days later; he never made it to the funeral. His various versions of the circumstances are too vague and unreliable. It is known that my father was shot at close range; that the assassin ninja’d from behind and before my father could reach for the 9 millimeter he always kept at his waist, the mercenary did his job and left my father gasping and panting like a beached whale in front of his house in La Vega; a pool of blood quickly dying his creased guayabera.
Still, no one knows if Danila had anything to do with it and I wasn’t about to press the issue. Instead, I cried and told her about the last conversation I had with my father a few months prior and how upset I was at him for not telling me my dog died at his house where I left him to be cared for, and told her how I regretted I never had a chance to admit it was my fault because I never should’ve left my dog at his house in the first place, but I never told him because our conversation quickly escalated into something more then my dead dog when I revisited old childhood wounds and reminded him how brutal he was to mother and how he always shunned me and treated me like a second-class citizen next to my older brother Guillermo and how he never manned up to his responsibilities for his family and now that he was kind of rich, he still didn’t take care of us. I told her how I spent a half hour crying in the parking lot behind my apartment in Jersey City after that talk, wishing he could’ve been a better man, but now that he’s dead, I can’t say I’m sorry and she simply looked me in the eyes and shed some tears and in that instant, while her and I were consoling each other, I then realized that that horrible stench I’d been smelling since I walked into that place, was actually my own father, rotting, lying face up in a wooden casket, his skin turning a greenish-mossy hue, slowly decaying like I imagined those mice must’ve when we poisoned them in the Bronx; only his smell was like a lake of burning sulfur in the deep of hell.
I couldn’t believe it. It was my own father that smelled so god-awful. My father. I struggled to fathom his decaying flesh, his body slowing decomposing from the inside out, because that’s what happens when we die. It was impossible to stand there, staring at my greening father, knowing he could do nothing to stop his color changes, all smelly and mossy looking. In America, his body would’ve been embalmed and preserved and we wouldn’t have been exposed to his decomposition and stench. But in Macoris, three days after he was killed, no effort was made at sanitizing, preserving or making the body presentable. And I know he would never have chosen that hideous gray jacket for his own funeral and certainly, he wouldn’t have worn that vulgar black shirt. He was a sharp dresser, always neat and clean, smelling fresh and crisp with that Givenchy he’d been wearing since the 80s.
My sister Elisa couldn’t stand to see him that way. She lunged at his limp body and frantically tried to unbutton his shirt so she could clean and dress him proper and spray some Givenchy or a little Old Spice, anything to restore some semblance of his former dignity. She had to be pried off by several men.
Guillermo had a hard time accepting the truth of the moment. I had to prop him up next to the coffin because his wobbly legs couldn’t hold his own weight. When the time came to carry out the coffin, Guillermo’s legs turned to jelly; he just couldn’t do it. But I had to. As a pallbearer, I carried my father the way he once carried me when I was only an infant. Even though we weren’t always safe from his brutality, he did keep us safe from the outside world. He provided whenever he was around. He took us on outings when he wasn’t drunk or hung-over. He always brought home a turkey on Thanksgiving and a tree on Christmas. And though he wasn’t always the best father, he was my father nevertheless.
And he wasn’t the best husband either, but the ladies loved him just the same. Even though he looked like a Dominican SpongeBob, he had a certain sugar about him that attracted women like honeybees to pollen. In his lifetime, he only had two wives, my mother and Danila. But he had countless girlfriends, mistresses, booty calls and favorite prostitutes. Once, in La Vega, he took two putas to a small motel outside town, got pissed drunk and woke up to find the whores were gone, along with his wallet and car. It’s hard to say how many kids he actually had. We know for sure he had fourteen, but we think there might be more cause he was just a horny motherfucker, and couldn’t keep track of all his adventures.
A year before he was killed, when I stood at his house for that month, he brought me to meet one of his girlfriends. She was a big-boned twenty-two year old florist, with a very beautiful, cinnamon-colored face. He introduced her as his girlfriend and she quickly shied away to tend to an intricate funeral arrangement she was assembling. “Mira que bonito trabajo hace ella,” he told me, but really, he was telling her. He was right. It was gorgeous, and the scent emanating from the medley of flowers was like I imagined heaven must smell. Her delicate Dominican fingers weaved the flowers and lace together effortlessly and I could tell that even though she didn’t know the deceased personally, she poured all her sympathy into her work. The aroma of her shop was a much-needed therapy and I wanted to stay longer but my father had other plans. We left her, and he started driving to go see his other girlfriend, who was only 19, but then remembered they recently had a fight and she was mad at him so we couldn’t go there. I asked him, “What about your wife in Philadelphia?” And he quickly responded, “I love Danila. I love all women. But I don’t take them too seriously, because in the end, when I die, I won’t be able to take anything with me to the afterlife, except the memory of all the women I’ve been with, and the only thing I could leave them, is not my material possessions, but the memory of my love.” He was 67.
And there they were. There was my mother, broken, and even though they’ve been divorced since 1989, she was weeping for the man she once loved, who abused her for over 30 years, weeping as if a significant part of her identity had just been ripped from her side. There was his widow, who because of her monstrous height and weight, spent the last few years abusing him. I guess payback is a big Dominican bitch. Of course my half-brother Tito’s mother was also there. She was one of his main booty-calls when he was less than two years married to my mother. And in a far corner, his girlfriend the florist was creeping toward the back trying to go unnoticed, but I remembered her cinnamon face, even behind the drench of tears that covered it. There were several other women too, of varying ages, lurking in the crowd, mourning, and though I didn’t know who they were, I’m sure several of them had once slept with my father. It happened just like he had predicted a year ago; only the memories and the ladies is all that was left.
The women followed like ducklings as we headed out to the blazing summer street. It was crowded on that typical workday afternoon, because despite my father’s death, life continued forward in Macoris. We paraded down the middle of the road carrying his coffin for all to see, when suddenly, a funeral band started playing up ahead. Music has a very unique effect on a person’s mood doesn’t it? Just when I was beginning to settle in to my emotions, the band, which consisted of a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, snare and bass drum, began wailing a most depressing funeral song. I’ve heard funeral songs before, but that one somehow made the casket heavier, with every horn blow and bass thump, it turned my legs to pudding. The sound of the trumpet’s dark tone stabbed like a dagger in my stomach. The music was somber and miserable, but at once beautiful, as it lead the procession down the street.
A block later, we turned into a towering Catholic church with cathedral-high ceilings. We headed down the aisle, casket in tow, and immediately I thought of all the funerals that had walked this same walk before. I thought of the weddings and of the many tears that had been shed on that very aisle; tears of both joy and pain. Behind the church’s alter stood a 20 foot, brown-skinned Jesus, his arms stretched wide, and inscribed above him was the phrase, “Yo soy la resorrucion y la vida,” and I thought how fitting as we set my father’s rotting body at the foot of Christ; my father who was by now turning greener and smellier in the vicious Dominican heat.
Despite the odor, the ceremony was nice. But it seemed like just another day on the job for the priest who frequently paused every few minutes from his memorized sermon to read my father’s name off a piece of paper, because apparently, he’d forgotten who’s funeral it was. Though his voice was sweet and sympathetic, I couldn’t help but think about the business behind the dead; how my father was not really the deceased, but just another customer. And like any corporation would, the church ensured that the ceremony went flawless.
When the priest finished his work, I realized I had become immune to my father’s stink, because I could finally smell the assortment of flowers spread all around him and I tried to find the one his 22 year old florist might have made and thought how hers must be special since she probably weaved it herself. But they were all beautiful and I was just happy to finally smell flowers, and not death.
We carried the coffin and the flowers out and loaded them onto the back of an open hearse like cargo, while the priest was already in the back office receiving a check for his services and issuing a receipt for tax purposes; the band also collected their fee from my uncle Jose.
The mourners crowded around the hearse and followed as it slowly crept down the street. We quietly marched and consoled each other for several blocks, as the onlookers looked on. Some lined the streets in sympathy, while others, begged for small change or anything we could give them, and either they were so slick about it, or I was so distraught, I couldn’t even tell if they were really begging or hustling like only Dominicans know how. I slipped a dollar to a dirty-faced barefoot kid. He thanked me and ran off, no doubt to finally get something to eat; or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. The procession snail’d along the cobblestone road, and even though I could see the cemetery up ahead, it felt like we were walking from Macoris to Porto Prince, not because of the dark faces in the streets, but because our sadness stretched the road for what seemed a century.
The hearse arrived at the old cemetery where my father was to be buried in a mausoleum with his mother, father and older sister. His mother died of old age. I’m not sure about his sister. But like my old man, his father was also murdered; chopped up with a machete by a campesino neighbor in one of those old-school Dominican family feuds, because that’s how men handled their business back then. In the old days, men didn’t creep up behind each other with shotguns; instead, they faced each other, with little more then machismo and machetes as their only weapons. But my father never saw his killer coming, so there he was, lying face up in a wooden coffin, like a green SpongeBob, leading us through the cemetery as we passed rows and rows of stacked graves, deteriorating like housing projects in the South Bronx.
I began to reminisce about growing up in the Bronx, and and how much fun we had on those holiday parties before my father got wasted and violent. When he still only had a good buzz going, he’d Merengue his square body around the living room, but his two left feet always got in the way and it looked more like an awkward hop and skip, with his butt sashaying left and right as he twisted my mother around the living room. And that’s how we spent those holidays, laughing and mimicking his Merengue skip and sneaking leftover Hennessey and Coquitowhen no one was looking. It was all fun until one of us got drunk and stupid and vomited, or my father got drunk and stupid and started beating on mom, and then we knew the party was over.
We zombie’d along, deeper into the cemetery, not surrounded by death, but by the dead. There is a difference. Death is what came for my father on that fateful night in front of his house and blasted his lungs and heart to oblivion. The dead don’t always die that way. Some go more mercifully. But death was not so gentle to my father, and so the heavy wailing of the band’s sad song continued on to the mausoleum where my father’s slot was already open and ready to receive his deteriorating body.
Two Haitian workers stood on either side of his coffin, respectfully waiting for the business to be done, knowing that their job entailed sliding the coffin in the tomb, covering the opening with a concrete slab, sealing it with cement and enclosing the deceased in that hollow place where the body will eventually wither to bones, and after, they’d collect their pay and go for some cold Presidentes.
But before they did their work, the casket was allowed to stay open for one final viewing. The sun beamed and burned at my father’s face. The women heaved themselves at him, crying uncontrollably and probably cursing him for leaving so soon. My mother cried the most. She really loved his fat ass, even though he was a Neanderthal, a womanizer, an alcoholic and a cokehead. But I guess he must’ve been a great lover since she bore him nine children.
Although he was muddy and melted by that point, he still looked handsome and respectable, even in a box. He always did carry himself with dignity. Like on that night when I was thirteen and he was hauled away in handcuffs by the Paterson police for beating my mother senseless, his face red with rage, he eventually calmed and regained his failed dignity while in the back of the police car, and as they drove him off to the county, he stared back at me, not shamed for what he had done, but with a look of pride and machismo, and that’s the moment I made up my mind to never be like my father.
But it came time to bury him and put that all behind us. “Time to shed our last tears,” I told my sister, knowing that I was lying cause that certainly wasn’t the last cry. I looked at his face and wondered what he might’ve thought in that last moment; who did he think about on his last breath; whose was the last name; whose face was the last he imagined before his mind shut down? I like to imagine that he was probably thinking about all the women he loved and those that loved him in return and how he was now taking their memory with him to the grave. I like to think he thought about my mother in that final moment, but I doubt he did; I doubt he ever really cared.
The howling grew hellish and bounced across the cemetery as the Haitian workers pulled the cover over the coffin, sealing his body in that box forever. The women fell to the ground and beat the earth as if Nature was his killer, but we all knew that wasn’t true. I’m sure some wanted to beat on Danila instead. But they didn’t.
By accident, after the coffin was closed, a part of his gray jacket hung outside the casket, but no one opened the lid to fix it and no one stopped the Haitians from sliding the box into the dark tunnel. I noticed it right away and I know I wasn’t the only one that saw it, but I didn’t say anything and neither did anyone else. We let the Haitians do their job. I wanted to say something. I desperately wanted to stop them before they enclosed the tomb. I wanted to pull the casket back out, to let them know my father’s jacket was showing and they couldn’t bury him like that because it looked too sloppy and undignified. That was not the way he lived his life. He was always sparkly clean with his old-school Dominican swagger, a true player, and to bury him like that was just not cool.
But I couldn’t imagine reopening that casket. I didn’t want to see his saggy olive-colored face again. I wanted that disgusting odor gone forever. I wanted to put it all away and not be reminded of his eternal absence. But reminded, I am. Years have passed and still I imagine what my father looks like in that box, a mere skeleton in a cheap gray suit, his jacket sticking out the coffin, looking pathetic, and no one there to help him tuck it in.