I saw him lying in his hospital bed, his shaved head stitched up and smelling of ether and alcohol. There was very little white hair left on his head. The faded gown revealed the ghostly traces of bodily fluids of other patients. The pronounced cheekbones, the dark bags under his eyes, the IV tube showing through his skin, a Christ on a cross in the neuropsychiatric ward. It was my grandfather, admitted six months earlier without an encouraging diagnosis.
The May heat made the window fog up obscuring the outside.
The air conditioner shut off. The stickiness that had been lurking between the medicine jars and the once white sheets began to fill the small room. A thick hot breeze from the street, sweeping over the dirty brick of the hospital and its echoless corridors announced the sudden arrival of night. I didn't want to walk out into that deep darkness outside. The stillness muzzled the nighttime sounds. Through the large window you could barely see a few points of light from cars going somewhere else. It would be better to wait for the doctor.
I had told my mother that I would care for my grandfather until six at night. The amber light barely illuminated the wooden furniture in the neuropsychiatric hospital entrance. No one answered the bell. A barely legible note on the reception desk read "I'll be back in 20 minutes, please go in" and I remembered the woman with a nurse’s uniform who, from the sidewalk in front, had gestured for me to enter. Diplomas hung on the walls, and a group photo of a medical convention with the face of one of the participants circled. The sound of the air conditioner in its battle with the May heat reminded me that according to the news it would be the hottest season in 50 years. The door should be full of flyers promising fresh sea air, fried fish, beer, women. Since the most recent relapse of my grandfather I had had to exchange all of that to take care of him on Saturdays, speak with him while the nurse changed his diapers or look at him fixedly in the left eye which from time to time opened when he wanted to return to the present. I sat on the sofa to read (I chose Poe those afternoons), I kept a distance from him because of his sudden muscular attacks that startled me.
I walked from the reception to the rooms. I crossed a large covered hallway, which shrank as I entered it; I had the sensation of being devoured.
The rooms formed a parallelogram. The center of the interior garden was decorated with a covered well. From the openings of some rooms tenuous light managed to slide out; in others the darkening night was already a reality.
The place gave off a faint bittersweet odor. Death must smell, I thought. I could distinguish almost inaudible sounds; cries and murmurs of goodbye. The old man with the lost look and inexpressive face rocked himself in his wooden chair. He was waiting for something. The orange light of the afternoon slipped through the glass, the air conditioner blew and stopped in intervals. I began to feel suffocated by the lack of air. I stopped at the water fountain next to the old man in the rocking chair; a cat prowled restlessly. The chair rocked the stiff old man and the purring cat on his lap. I couldn't avoid the sudden blast of stink of urine that hit my nose when I bent down. I drank with my eyes closed. I tried to hold my breath; when I attempted to leave a hand grasped the sleeve of my shirt. It was the old man looking at me as if I could take him out of the hospital; a fine thread of spit hung from his lip. A resonant voice coming from some deep dark place garbled what sounded like my name. I grabbed his hand forcefully to free myself and walked quickly to my grandfather's room.
From one of the other rooms you could hear voices praying, the warm breeze drifted toward the murmuring.
I entered his room and saw him laid out in the hospital bed, his head stained with iodine looking like a tabloid photo.
I decided not to leave the room while it was so dark outside. I made myself comfortable on the small sofa. After eleven my grandfather slept through the night, I thought of doing the same but a whimper scared away sleep. The whole place was in darkness; I could only make out the distant sound of traffic. Again the incomprehensible whimpering behind the door. I went out to the garden, a few steps from his room. The night and its chaotic lights penetrated through the skylight. The murmur of prayers continued, now with more force but still without being intelligible. I went forward, feeling my way, expecting that my eyes would adjust to the darkness and could distinguish something between the shadows. I remembered the rocking chair of the sick old man and I headed toward the other side, in the direction of the entrance. The darkness barely allowed me to see shapes. The chants began again, now closer, I guess they were about twenty feet away. I tried to move more quickly in spite of the fact that I couldn't see where the hallway led. I stopped to orient myself, I touched the wall. On my calves I felt the terrifying caress of the cat and heard its purring. Once again I heard the old man saying my name. A buzzing threatened to explode my head, I breathed with difficulty, I fell. Forgiveness, oh my God, Forgiveness and absolution they raised their barely audible voices, surrounding me... Forgiveness and Mercy, Forgiveness and pity! Trembling, the tension and horror constricted my mouth. I managed to lift myself up. Leaning against the wall I walked blindly. Once again, silence reigned. I thought I had walked around the square, but the rocking chair stopped me and I fell over it. The cat leapt on me and meowed with a voice almost human. Everything fell silent. Exhausted, I closed my eyes. In a light sleep I heard the gasping effort of the air conditioner.
I awoke when the reek of urine crawled up my nose. The sun shouted over the central patio. I gathered myself together on the closed well; out into the silence of profound sleep the kitchen sent forth the aroma of breakfast. Relieved I felt the strength to return to my grandfather.
Without warning my heart began to beat wildly, hitting the walls of my chest as if ancestral drums were announcing a disaster. Once the again the rigidity of my face, the hardening of my joints, neuralgia sawing up my brain. A thread of saliva formed and began its journey outside my mouth.
From the long tunnel like hallway emerged a young man with a familiar face. He was sweating in the May heat. His sickened and frightened look didn't stop him from bending down to drink next to the chair, when he closed his eyes I took him by the sleeve...