Selected Poetry: 1974-
CARLOS AND THE VISITOR
a story by
Paul Seifert, M.D.
A south Texas wind tosses particles of dust into the face of a blazing sun, the way a sharpshooter flips cards into the air. The sun, blazing outside a cantina, bakes the dust to adobe and then burns holes through all of the aces. Inside the cantina, Carlos Castillo--a casting director's dream--sits at a table with his back to a far wall. Carlos, wearing a black sombrero above a thick black moustache, sits with the demeanor of threatening death blasted out of the crevices of his face, his dark eyes slits above a pair of prominent cheek bones. Carlos stares ruthlessly at a smart talking gringo, who has disturbed the proper order of the afternoon. Carlos watches the white man through eyes that are glistening and icy cold. Seething with the latent power of a coiled snake, a 45 lying at ready in his lap, Carlos Castillo is a machismo explosion waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation. The camera moves in for a closer inspection of an attractively chiseled face imbued with stark latino beauty, a face that has melted many a female heart, but a face able to turn the heart of any foolish man to stone. The gringo mistakenly directs his drunken barbs toward the Mexican sitting alone at the table near the wall. A finger edges toward a trigger. The level of energy on the screen begins to crackle with the eerie electricity that precedes the eruption of a violent summer storm...
Carlos reaches for the trapeze bar swinging from braces attached to his hospital bed and struggles to pull his resisting body to a sitting position. He is still seething with rage. How could these unfeeling gringo doctors treat a man this way? Restricting solid food! How could a man regain his strength with no solid food?
Carlos tried to reenter the scene in the cantina, but the memory of better times had faded. He knew that his mind was clouded, probably because of the drugs--he refused to call them medicina--he was being given. He had actually been filmed in that scene in the cantina, in a movie starring a youthful Richard Widmark, but the picture had to be scrubbed for lack of funds. Carlos Castillo's acting career had stalled soon thereafter. Part of the reason had been alcohol, his old nemesis. During the filming of that movie, Carlos had nearly killed the casting director's son, during a game of five-card stud, the reason--now, as then--lost behind an obliterating veil of tequila. Had the picture not been scrubbed, Carlos would have been fired anyway. Belatedly, he had finally realized that alcohol--like sex--must be construed a temporary, not a continuous pleasure. This insight, profound in its simplicity, had come too late.
Liquor had been his nemesis. Booze had placed him where he was today, in a sala de hospital, with the swollen belly of a pregnant woman, with a tube drawing off yellow fluid from his abdomen. A second tube infused another shade of amarillo fluid into his veins. And now, they had taken away his solid food. He was bleeding internally--they said. The plan was to continue transfusions. One of them wanted to insert a third tube into Castillo's stomach to draw off the stale blood they said was accumulating there, but this third tube Carlos had flatly refused. He had reached a saturation point with tubes. In addition, he was bored. They had him in a private room because he was infected with some kind of fungus that people get from the thorns of rose bushes.
His sitting position was uncomfortable, causing a drawing sensation in the back of his legs. His belly full of fluid--"ascites," they called that condition--wanted to press on something, it seemed. He recalled that the pregnant ones he had known had complained of this. It angered him that he had the symptoms of a pregnant woman. Carlos shifted onto his left side. He lay there with his eyes closed, trying to decide whether to engage la enfermera, the night shift nurse, in a contest of wills that might lead to an injection for pain, if Carlos played it right this evening.
"Pain medications are contraindicated, because of your liver disease, Mr. Castillo," the nurse would begin the repartee, in her primly superior, condescending way.
Carlos would then have to recruit his old acting skills and demand that she call the house physician to evaluate his pain. The medicos at night are known as "learning knights." Most of them were pushovers. Carlos knew that he would probably be able to wrangle something out of one of them, and not saline, either. The smart asses tried pulling that saline crap once in a while.
But Carlos also knew he would have to play it very close, adjust the level of his dolor perfectly, in order to get the shot and not end up in the X-ray department for diagnostic tests, where he might spend half the night on a marble slab. Hopefully, one of the perezoso, the lazy ones, would be on tonight. These would simply order something and then go back to sleep.
When Carlos opened his eyes, he was surprised to find a young man sitting at his bedside. This particular individual was not wearing one of the short coats that students wear. Medical students can be a pain in the ass, but Carlos had learned how to deal with them.
"Notice my yellow eyes, amigos," he would advise them, pulling down his lower lids and twisting his face up like quasimodo, so they could see the jaundiced look in his eye. "And here, and here, on my chest and shoulders, you will notice spiders, compadres, red ones with leetle feet."
Carlos enjoyed affecting a dumb Mexican accent with the students. "Leetle feet," he would repeat for emphasis. "These leetle aranas mean that I have cirrhosis of my liver. Comprende?"
Carlos studied the young man sitting at his bedside. Visiting hours had just ended, so this one was an employee, but he was no medical student. The man sat exchanging intense eye contact with Carlos Castillo, who was giving him all he could handle in return. Carlos never blinked under the gaze of another man. After a minute or two of this silly game, however, Carlos found himself bored with it.
"So, what's your problem?" Carlos asked sarcastically.
The young man did not respond.
"Are you from social services, or is it TV repair? Just don't tell me you are from pastoral care, that's all I ask."
This last barb seemed to pique the interest of Carlos Castillo's visitor. The young man leaned forward in his chair. He had not yet spoken a single word, which was singular, unusual. By now, most strangers on the ward would have spilled a name, rank, and serial number, as if the sick thrive on such vital information. This one was raro, a strange bird, Carlos concluded.
"Something I can do for you?" Carlos challenged his reticent visitor. Despite his resolve, Castillo was beginning to feel uncomfortable with the gentle, but penetrating gaze confronting him. He recalled the time during an earlier admission when an escapee from the 10th floor psycho ward had somehow found his way to his--Castillo's--room. That one had not said anything for a while either, but then he had tried to wash Carlo's feet with the stale soapy water sitting on the bedside stand. He claimed he was Jesus, before they carted him away. Similarly, this one's interest seemed too intense for anything routine.
The visitor finally cleared his throat and then replied in a quiet, unassuming voice, "I've come for you, Carlos."
"Well, why didn't you say so, amigo?" Castillo chided. "But, I should warn you, I may not agree to go. I'm in control here," he added. "Where are we supposed to go: X-ray, ultrasound, what?"
"I'm here to take you home," the visitor replied.
Carlos Castillo erupted in a guffaw.
"That's a good one, amigo, muy comico," he chuckled. "I haven't even been discharged yet."
"In a sense, you have," the young man replied.
The problema--as Castillo saw it--was twofold. First, how did all of the locos get out of the psych ward? Second, why did they insist upon picking on him when they did get loose?
Carlos glanced up at the call button, which was pinned within reach to the mattress just above his head; he wanted to confirm that the device was available in the event he had need of it.
"Well, you can piss off!" he said petulantly. "I decide when I get out of here! Nobody is throwing me out early, like the last time. So, if you are an orderly, just get yourself out to the station and tell the R.N. that I want to see the supervisor, or I'll just do that for you."
Carlos emphasized the last part of his remark by pointedly grasping the call button; his gesture was as overtly threatening as he could make it in his present circumstances.
"That won't be necessary," the young man suggested, in a tone of conciliation.
"O.K.," Carlos replied, relaxing into his sense of victory. "So long as we understand one another."
The visitor said nothing more for a few moments. He sat silently at Castillo's bedside, his eyes still locked onto the patient's eyes, his face evincing a benevolent expression that Carlos was finding increasingly disconcerting. Still, Castillo refused to back down and glared intently at his adversary.
The young man seemed indifferent to Castillo's "clarification" of the situation, raising again the possibility there might be more to this than was readily apparent.
"Is there something else I can do for you, then?" Carlos offered. He was becoming extremely irritated by the unresolved impasse.
The young man reached out for Carlos's hand, but the patient withdrew from the gesture with the sudden recoil of a striking snake. Castillo's eyes flared with anger, as they had in the cantina scenario.
"I don't know what your problem is," he observed scornfully, "but I think it is time you hit the road."
"Yes, Carlos," the young man conceded. "it is time we hit the road."
"What did you say!?" Carlos demanded, tiring rapidly of the entire comedy. "I told you I am not leaving until I am damned ready! Now, who the hell are you, smart ass!?"
A small figurine was kneeling on Carlos Castillo's bedside table. The object was an orante--a praying angel. The young man seemed intrigued by the rendition and picked it up casually. The small porcelain statue had been a gift from Carlos Castillo's sister. Carlos tolerated the object because he knew his sister would chew him out if he got rid of it. The angel was a compromise with the crucifix Castillo's sister would have preferred to have hanging at the head of her brother's bed, but Carlos had flatly refused. No crucifix, and no rosary beads! Catholicism is a woman's religion--in Castillo's view--despite, or because of, his childhood saturation with the church.
Carlos was relieved that his visitor had directed his attention to the orante and away from his--Castillo's—face. Still, he was proud that he had not backed down.
The young man was slowly turning the figurine over in his hand.
"I suppose you could say that I'm an angel, Carlos," he remarked casually.
That confirmed it! This hombre was not sano de mente, and another religious nut at that!
"Hey Zeus, why me?" Carlos lamented. All of his life he had attracted locos like flies to cow chips. Carlos found himself suddenly very tired. He was not sure he wanted to humor this silly fool, even though he was convinced that such tactics work best with psychos.
"So, you are an angel and you've come to take me home," he said, with quiet resignation.
"That's right, Carlos," the visitor softly replied.
Carlos could hardly believe he was allowing himself to be drawn into the visitor's game.
"So, is it to be cielo?" he asked sarcastically, making an upward gesture with his thumb, "or infierno?"
"If you were a seed, Carlos, would you have--as a seed--any conception of the flower you were eventually to become?"
"If I were a seed?" Carlos parroted, with a smirk.
"Do you follow the analogy?" the visitor asked.
"I'm about to enter a state of being beyond my comprehension, right? That's a little trite, amigo."
"Yes, I know," the visitor responded.
"You don't look like an angel," Carlos said. He was in the mood for a little badgering. "You know, I don't even see any wings, compadre."
The visitor gently traced the contours of the wings of the figurine with his fingertip, then he returned the object to Carlos, who enclosed the orante within the fingers of his own hand.
"I don't need any wings, Carlos," the visitor said.
"You don't need any wings," Carlos repeated sardonically. "Well, wings or no wings, you still don't look like an angel to me!"
"What does an angel look like, Carlos?"
Carlos held up the orante.
"How about this?" he suggested.
"No, Carlos, I'm sorry, but angels don't really look like that."
"Why don't you reveal yourself in your true form," Carlos prompted. "If you really are an angel, that should be no problem."
The young man smiled.
"I could do that," he said, "but I'm afraid you might be terrified of me if I did."
"Don't insult me, mister!!" Carlos warned. "I've never been terrified of anything in my life."
Castillo jerked himself to a full sitting position, using the trapeze. His anger flowered with the perceived slight.
"Do you think I'd cringe because I'd find you dreadful, like some demon? Is that it?
The young man's face was glimmering, his expression was gentle and empathetic.
"You would be terrified of me, Carlos, because I am so beautiful."
Carlos spat with derision. He pulled himself forward, shaking his head in disbelief.
"You," he declared, "are the craziest hombre I have ever met. But let me ask you something, angel," he added, giving the word its full Spanish pronunciation. "Why would they send a gringo wimp like you after a man, a man like me? They should have at least sent a compatriot! Do you mean to tell me that racism exists even in heaven, or wherever you came from?"
All of his life Carlos Castillo had been dealing with gringo bigotry. He was deeply offended that this psychopath had gone so far with his insensitivity.
"Prove to me that you really are an angel," he demanded angrily, tiring rapidly of the game. "Read my mind, tell me about my sins, or do I have to confess to you before we go?"
Carlos's voice reflected unmitigated scorn. His visitor remained placid, his face evincing that androgynous smile so typical of a da Vinci youth.
"There was an episode in your life, Carlos, that caused you a great deal of distress. It had to do with a certain amorous proclivity you once had for armadillos."
"What the hell are you talking about--an amorous proclivity for armadillos?"
"Think back, Carlos; you were quite young. You gave up that particular habit when you were told that such practices could result in leprosy. Don't you remember the novenas you offered in conciliation and how difficult it was for you to confess these things to Padre Manuel?"
Carlos jerked himself upright with the trapeze bar.
"Listen, diablo, you could have guessed all of that! Mexicans are not the only young men who have done such things. I know plenty of gringos who chased armadillos right along side of me!"
"Do you want me to be more specific, Carlos?" the visitor asked.
Castillo had been inwardly shaken, despite himself, by his visitor's strange revelation of his embarrassing youthful peccadillo. This gringo was obviously a psychic, in addition to being loco.
"Tell me the one thing in my life I've been most ashamed of," Carlos demanded, boring his gaze into the subtle nuances of emotion that seemed to be playing over his visitor's enigmatic face.
"There was a girl, Carlos. When you deserted her, you were convinced that many other women would love you with similar ardor, but you learned to your dismay that she had been uniquely perfect for you. Callously, you cast this woman off to the sad and tragic consequences of your heartless indifference."
The words seared through Castillo's heart, as a thrust of anguish. His consciousness was suddenly overburdened by a recollection of the glistening sheen that had veiled his lost lover's eyes on the last night they had spent together. This was the same painful memory that Carlos had been trying to efface all of his life, but one he had always discovered waiting for him at the bottoms of countless bottles of despair.
"What freak show did they let you out of, magico!?" Carlos spat out, as he reached for and violently clicked his call button. He was anticipating the enjoyment of watching the staff ignobly kick this brujo, this sorcerer, out of his room.
"You want me to say I'm sorry about that girl?" Carlos shouted, as his parting shot. "O.K., lo siento! I'm sorry about what happened to her. I'm sorry about all of the rotten things I've ever done!"
The charge nurse was not anxious to respond to the summons from Carlos Castillo's room. Mr. Castillo was a "difficult" patient. In report, the staff had concluded that he was experiencing considerable anxiety about relinquishing control, thus his acting out by frequently making unreasonable demands. The R.N. assigned to Mr. Castillo was on break. Unfortunately, the charge nurse would have to respond herself.
Entering the room, she was surprised by what confronted her. The patient was lying back against the pillow, one arm limply suspended from the trapeze above his bed. Approaching the bedside, she confirmed the absence of vital signs. Then she noticed an object in the patient's hand. She extracted a small figurine--a praying angel--from the hand of the deceased and placed the object on the bedside stand.
Mr. Castillo's eyes were closed. His face was placid. His death had been easy, the nurse concluded. Mr. Castillo had designated himself a "no code," so no effort at resuscitation was warranted. As she covered the patient's face, before returning to the station to begin the paperwork, she remarked for the last time what a handsome man Carlos Castillo had been. Not even the wasting from his advanced liver disease had detracted much. The nurse had heard stories about the patient's abortive acting career and she could believe them. Mr. Castillo's alcoholism had been tragic, really. The nurse speculated that he had doubtless destroyed a heart or two in his time, but now he seemed to be at peace.
The nurse picked up the small figurine from the bedside stand. How interesting, she mused, as she prepared to leave the room. Mr. Castillo had died with an angel in his hand.