It was a lovely funeral, although nobody said so. There were many mourners. Many of them came up to me, at one moment or another, and offered me, his tearless widow, their pésames.
“Fifty years,” I heard someone say, “How will she do without him?”
How will I do without him?
They were right to ask, of course, those darkly dressed well-wishers. Such an old woman—and now alone.
“Don Manuel Hipólito Matías, farmer, born in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, June 26, 1898, husband of Doña Serafina Fernández, born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, March 31, 1912, has passed on to a better life. Burial will be Friday, Feb. 14, 1997 at 3:00 p.m. at Buxeda Cemetery in San Juan,” the brief obituary read.
He would not have found it brief. He would not have liked the rambling construction. Surely he would have taken out my name as being irrelevant. He would have condensed it to ten or twelve significant, un-wasted words.
Sufficient words for an insignificant man. Until his death, no one really noticed him. I didn’t notice him fifty years ago, until my father told me that he had given him my hand. I met him three days later, was married six months after that, and tended his house and his peones until there was nothing left to tend.
He died in his sleep, but not in a bed. For the past 20 years, he slept in a hammock in the wooden shack behind the new house. He never slept with me.
I laugh when I say “new” house. The first house on the hacienda was torn apart by San Felipe, and then by San Ciprián. Don Manuel—I always called him Don Manuel—would not be humbled by a hurricane. He and the peones gathered every scattered scrap of wood, every palm plank, every splinter, until he had enough to build the house again, smaller each time. The new house, a concrete box, was built by the government as shelter for the rural poor.
We were never poor and we were always poor. We were child poor and house poor, but we were never pride poor, nor money poor. The other old Spaniards in the barrio considered Don Manuel a wise and prudent man. The few times they had dealings with him they deferred to him, even the older ones. He was isleño, and gentle. He was a millonario, they said, meaning he had thousands of dollars in bars of gold hidden away, in case the Americans seized his land, or the crops were blown out to sea, or the cattle were infected with some God-sent disease.
What he never did was spend a single penny he could save. At first I would shut myself in my room when he would wait on the porch for Don Emilio’s man to bring the neighbor’s old newspapers.
“It is the same news today as yesterday,” Don Manuel would say. “I can wait,” he’d say.
You get used to most anything. That’s what my mother said and that is what she did. And that is what I tried to do. I made my dresses and our nightclothes out of the blanquín from the bags of chicken feed and washed them and wore them until the fabric was so thin it was like the softest, sheerest silk.
I longed for children but knew without asking that it was something Don Manuel decided he could not afford. He sometimes borrowed children, like day-old newspapers, from his isleño friends, but they–“ingrates,”– drifted off sooner or later to paying jobs on other farms.
Until the government forced him to give land to his peones, he paid them with a tiny share of the crops or animals they tended. When they got the land, most turned their backs on him, and worked only for themselves. The God-sent disease arrived, but it was not what he expected; it was time.
He lived too long, longer than his friends, with no one left but his Doña Serafina in the concrete room, with the bed my father gave him along with my hand, a bed that heard the costly cries of unborn babies.
I told the curious that it was he who asked to be buried in red; but if they had known him they would have known that it was a lie. They peered over the gilt edge of the massive mahogany coffin and were faced with a tiny, empty carcass of a man dressed in a red silk suit, surrounded by a sea of red satin.
If they had known him they would have known that it wasn’t politics: he was a life-long Republicano, and that party’s color—in its latest manifestation—is blue.
If they had known him, they would have known that it was only a grand coincidence that his funeral was held on Valentine’s Day. If Don Manuel had known, he would have chosen a day when the rates were lower.
But they didn’t know him.
I knew him. Don Manuel Hipócrita Matías Manco. I knew that he died in his hammock, his nightshirt mended beyond recognition, one of his cold gold bars clutched in his hand.
If he knew that I had used it, to buy him this, he would have died all over again.
Mi más sentido pésame, Don Manuel.
My longest, deepest regrets.