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from the January 2006 issue

The Flesh and the Bones

My plane wasn't leaving till the next day. For the first time, I regretted not having a picture of my mother with me, but I'd always thought it idiotic to go around with family pictures in your pocket, especially of your mother.

I didn't mind spending two more days wandering the streets of that vast, dirty, polluted anthill full of strange people. It was better than walking around a small city with pure air and bumpkins who say hello when they cross paths with you. I'd stay there a year if I didn't have an obligation waiting for me.

I walked all day, breathing carbon monoxide. At night my host invited me to dinner. A woman accompanied us.

We ate worms, the most expensive dish at the restaurant. When I looked at one of them on the tip of my fork, it seemed to me like a kind of larva or botfly pupa that when fried lost its black hairs and milky color. It was a rare worm, they explained to me, extracted from a vegetable. If it were a botfly it would be still more expensive, I answered, ironically. I've had botflies in my body three times, twice in the leg and once in the belly, and my horses and my dogs have also had them. It's hard to get the whole thing out so it can be fried and eaten-only fried could it be tasty like these-and I crammed my mouth with worms.

Afterward we went to a place that my host wanted to show me.

The spacious club had at its center a runway where women paraded naked, dancing or posing. We made our way through the tables, at which were sitting men wearing ties. We ordered something from the waiter, then took our place. Beside us, a woman in nothing but a cache-sexe, on all fours, was rubbing her buttocks against the pubis of a man in a coat and tie, sitting with his legs spread. Her expression was neutral and the man, a guy of about forty, looked as peaceful as if he were ensconced in a barber's chair. The overall effect recalled a modern art installation. A few days earlier, in another city, in another country, I had gone to an art salon to see a dead pig rotting inside a glass box. As I was in the city for only a few days, I could only see the animal turning greenish; they told me it was too bad I couldn't contemplate the work in all its transcendent power, with worms eating the flesh.

There, in the cabaret, that exhibition also struck me as metaphysical like the sight of the dead pig in its enclosure of shining glass. The woman reminded me, for one short moment, of a gigantic toad, because she was squatting and because her face, mulatto or Indian, had something of the amphibian. At the table were three more men, who pretended to take no notice of the woman's movements.

From our position we couldn't see everything that was going on in the room. But at the tables around us there were always one or two women moored next to a fully clothed man. The admission ticket entitled us to have one of the innumerable women who performed strip teases at various places in the room rub against the holder of the ticket. There was a choreographic pattern to the caresses: the woman would go down on all fours, rub her buttocks against the pubis of the man, who remained seated in his chair, then dance in front of him. Some of them, more assiduous, would climb on top of the guy and pin his face between their thighs. Then they would take the admission ticket and leave.

The only woman watching that spectacle was our companion. My host called her Countess; I don't know if that was her name or her title. When I was young I knew a woman who told me she was a real countess, but I think it was a lie. Anyway, I called my tablemate Ms. Countess, the way I used to do with the other one. She watched what was going on around us and smiled discreetly, behaving as an adult was supposed to at a circus.

From every corner came the loud sound of dance music. To be able to speak to the Countess I had to bring my mouth close to her ear. I said something that distinguished me as a dispassionate and bored observer; I forget what it was. With her mouth almost glued to my ear, the Countess, after commenting on the actions of a woman near us who was rubbing her pussy in the face of a man in a bowtie, quoted in Latin the well known sentence of Terence: nothing human was alien to her and therefore didn't frighten her. And to demonstrate it she moved her body to the rhythm of the reverberating sound and sang the lyrics of one of the songs. And I accompanied her, beating time on the table.

In the room was a glass shower stall, brightly illuminated by spotlights, in which the women took turns bathing. Some wet and washed their entire body, soaping ankles, pubes, knees, elbows, hair. Others performed stylized ablutions. They're saying, I'm clean, trust me, the Countess whispered into my ear.

We waited for the drawing. The winner could choose any of the women to spend the rest of the night with, as the master of ceremonies explained.

We, my host and I, weren't drawn. The Countess hadn't bought a raffle ticket.

Then we all fell silent, without singing or keeping time to the music on the tabletop. We paid-the host paid-and left.

We said goodbye on the sidewalk in front of the bar. The Countess offered to drop me off at the hotel. And the host. I said I wanted to walk a bit; great cities are very pretty at sunrise.

I had been walking for about ten minutes, regretting not having a photo of my mother in my pocket, or in an album, or in a drawer, when the Countess's car pulled up beside me.

Get in, she said. I feel like crying and don't want to cry alone.

When we got to the hotel there was a message from my brother. I called him from the room. The Countess heard the conversation with my brother. I'm very sorry, she said, sitting on the bed, covering her face with her hands, but I'm not crying for you, I'm crying for me.

I lay down on the bed and looked at the ceiling. She lay beside me. She rested her damp cheek against mine and said fucking was a way of celebrating life. We fucked in silence and then showered together; she imitated one of the women at the cabaret by washing and singing and I accompanied her by tapping on the walls of the shower. She said she was feeling better and I said I was feeling better.

I caught the plane.

Nine and a half hours later I arrived at the hospital.

My mother's body was in the chapel, in a coffin covered with flowers, on a catafalque. My brother was smoking beside it. There was no one else.

She asked for you a lot, my brother said. So I went up to her and said I was you; she grasped my hand tightly, said your name, and died.

In the family resting place were already the remains of my father and my brother. A cemetery worker said that someone would have to be there for the exhumation. I went. My brother seemed more tired than I.

There were four exhumations. They opened the pink marble gravestone and hammered to pieces the cement plate covering the tomb. The gravesite was divided in two by a slab. One of the gravediggers went down into the open hole, carefully so as not to step on the remains of my brother, in the upper part. My brother's clothes were in good condition. He had good teeth, the molars filled with gold. When the head was removed, the lower jaw came loose from the rest of the skull. The femur and tibia were more or less intact; the ribs looked like brown cardboard.

The bones were tossed by the gravediggers into a white plastic box beside the grave. Three cockroaches and a red centipede climbed up the walls, the centipede appeared faster than the roaches, but the roaches vanished first. I said in a loud voice that the centipede was poisonous. The gravedigger, or whatever he was called, paid no attention to what I had said.

As soon as my brother's remains were placed in the plastic box, his name was written in large letters on the lid. One of the men got into the grave and used a hammer and chisel to break the slab enclosing the lower part where the remains of my father, who had died two years before my brother, were found. The exhumer got back into the grave. My father's bones were in worse condition than those of my brother, some of them so pulverized they looked like earth. Everything was thrown into another plastic box, mixed with remains of fabric; my father's clothes weren't as good as my brother's and had rotted as much as the bones. Of my father's skull only his false teeth remained; the red acrylic of the dentures shone more than the centipede.

I gave the guys a good tip. The two boxes were placed beside the tomb.

I went back to the chapel.

My brother was smoking, gazing through the window at the traffic outside.

A priest appeared and prayed.

The closed casket was placed on a cart. We followed, my brother and I, the cart dragged by the gravedigger to the open grave. My mother's coffin was placed in the lower part. A slab was cemented in place, leaving the upper part empty, awaiting its future occupant. Over this slab the two boxes with the remains of my father and my brother were deposited, temporarily. The pink marble gravestone with the names of the two, carved in bronze, closed the tomb.

They must have stolen the gold fillings from my brother's teeth when I went to the chapel to get my mother, I thought. But I was too tired to comment on that. We walked in silence to the gate of the cemetery. My brother hugged me. Want a lift? He asked. I said I was going to walk a bit. I watched the car pull away. I stayed there, standing, until it grew dark.

Read more from the January 2006 issue
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