In this poignant novel, a man guilty of a minor offense finds purpose unexpectedly by way of his punishment—reading to others.
After an accident—or “the misfortune,” as his cancer-ridden father’s caretaker, Celeste, calls it—Eduardo is sentenced to a year of community service reading to the elderly and disabled. Stripped of his driver’s license and feeling impotent as he nears thirty-five, he leads a dull, lonely life, chatting occasionally with the waitresses of a local restaurant or walking the streets of Cuernavaca. Once a quiet town known for its lush gardens and swimming pools, the “City of Eternal Spring” is now plagued by robberies, kidnappings, and the other myriad forms of violence bred by drug trafficking.
At first, Eduardo seems unable to connect. He movingly reads the words of Dostoyevsky, Henry James, Daphne du Maurier, and more, but doesn’t truly understand them. His eccentric listeners—including two brothers, one mute, who moves his lips while the other acts as ventriloquist; deaf parents raising children they don’t know are hearing; and a beautiful, wheelchair-bound mezzo soprano—sense his detachment. Then Eduardo comes across a poem his father had copied by the Mexican poet Isabel Fraire, and it affects him as no literature has before.
Through these fascinating characters, like the practical, quick-witted Celeste, who intuitively grasps poetry even though she never learned to read, Fabio Morábito shows how art can help us rediscover meaning in a corrupt, unequal society.
Home Reading Service by Fabio Morábito, translated by Curtis Bauer, is forthcoming from Other Press on November 2, 2021.
It was thanks to Father Clark, my sister Ofelia’s confessor, that I was given the home reader job. He was the head of a Christian association that helped senior citizens; it was funded through private donations and was affiliated with the local government. Since he knew the mayor personally, he pulled a few strings and, instead of cleaning bathrooms in some hospital or prison, I was assigned the job of reading books to the elderly and infirm, visiting them in their homes. My university experience worked to my advantage, and my “beautiful manly voice,” as Father Clark called it, was ideal for this line of work.
He was a tall, heavyset man and gave the impression of having chosen the wrong vocation. It was hard to imagine him crammed inside a confessional, listening to the sins of the devout who attended mass on Sundays. His forceful voice, with a thick American accent, didn’t seem to be the most suitable for conveying soft words of admonishment or consolation. Ofelia held him in high esteem, and I suspected that she was also in love with him. In the interview we had in his office, he made a few recommendations, the main one was that I shouldn’t accept anything to eat or 9 drink in the houses I visited as a home reader, except a glass of water or cup of coffee.
I was assigned seven houses; most of the people were older and retired. I was on familiar ground with the elderly because I lived with my father, who had bone and prostate cancer. My mother had died seven years before and Papá never fully recovered. His cancer did the rest. Celeste, his caregiver, lived with us and was essentially the only person who could communicate with him. I tried to have breakfast with him and give him updates about family and friends, though I made most of it up. Between his hearing loss and the onset of senile dementia, it was hard to know how much of what I told him he actually understood. He used a walker to get around and spent his days sleeping in bed or in front of the television. Ofelia took care of the house expenses, was the one who bought his medication and took Celeste to the supermarket. I was in charge of the furniture store. In charge is one way of putting it, because the one who did all the work was Jaime, our one employee, and I went over the accounts and orders with him.
Every now and then we took Papá out for a drive. My driver’s license was suspended indefinitely after the accident, so Ofelia would drive on such excursions. Those were the few times that the two of us talked, while my father sat in the front passenger seat. We’d take the old highway to Tres Marías, where there were several open-air restaurants that sold quesadillas. We ate in the car, because for some reason Papá seemed to hear better in there and we could have a more fluid conversation. Those moments of coexistence were the best our family ever shared. In the middle of that pine landscape, the fog coming down from the hills, and the black smoke smelling like burned oak rising from the kitchens, Ofelia and I left our squabbles aside and Papá enjoyed his squash blossom and huitlacoche quesadillas. One day, however, he had to take a shit and we needed to get him out of the car and find a secluded place among the trees. Holding on to me and Ofelia, he squatted and pushed in vain and ended up insulting us, accusing us of not knowing how to help him. He was right, neither of us were any good at that kind of thing. He slammed into the wall of our inexperience; it was as if we belonged to some other species altogether. We never needed Celeste more than we did then; she knew what words and tone to use with him to get his bowels working. I felt useless and, in that moment, hated Ofelia; it was unfair, but I expected her to have some skill I didn’t, as if by being a woman, she should possess the particular talents our caregiver had. We ended up fighting right there instead of helping my father out of his fix, and it was then that he, finding himself entrusted to such clumsy hands, decided to take matters into his own, intensified his concentration, and let go what he had to let go, as if he were reproaching us for the totality of our immaturity and selfishness. It was, in a way, a lesson in 1 1 dignity, extracted from the most undignified part of his body, and it was also his farewell as our father, because after that excursion he seemed to have given up on us. Like an iceberg emerging from the frozen continent to emigrate to its dilution, he began to treat us from then on with a subtle, almost smiling indifference and only had eyes for Celeste.
Before we hired a caregiver, Ofelia and I had thought of putting him in an old-age home, nursing homes as they are now called euphemistically. Cuernavaca, better known as the City of Eternal Spring, abounds with them, and over the course of a few weeks my father and I visited half a dozen. The idea was that Papá would be there during the day and return to the house to sleep, so he could meet people and not spend the whole day watching TV. The promotional pamphlets for these homes usually show a couple of smiling old people on the cover, almost always with European or North American features, and the pictures of the interior suggest a sense of comfort and elegance. Old age is presented as a permanent vacation, full of social and recreational activities, and there are impeccable lawns, the indispensable pool, rooms with fireplaces, and smiling nurses. But when you entered one of these establishments, there was a different reality. The impeccable lawns weren’t missing, nor the pool nor the rooms with fireplaces, but what seemed like a cheerful hotel, was in fact a hospital in disguise. The smell of ammonia on the floors gave it away, the perfectly geometrical placement of the sofas and armchairs, as well as that air of isolation wheezing through the corridors. The old-timers didn’t meet amicably like the photos attempted to make us believe but milled about by themselves, most of them didn’t even leave their rooms. The recreational activities consisted of an invited clown or singer once or twice a week, and there were also the ever-present craft workshops for painting, ceramics, and papier-mâché. The script was repeated almost identically in all the homes we visited. It’s not for you, I’d tell Papá as we were leaving, and he’d ask if it was because of the price. No, the price is fine, but it’s a mortuary, I’d respond, and he’d be quiet and dissatisfied, as if he thought that the shimmering blue pool and the green lawn were all he needed to feel at home. After the fifth or sixth visit, I decided that Papá would die in our house, far from the smell of ammonia and rooms with fireplaces. It was the best I could do for him and that same afternoon I started looking for a full-time caregiver.
When Carlos Jiménez talked with Father Clark to accuse me of ending my session twenty minutes early and having forced them to sign the visitation form against their will, the priest asked me to meet him in his office, where he scrutinized me with those eyes that were as celestial as they were expressionless. I told him that I had indeed left the Jiménez brothers’ house twenty minutes before concluding the reading session, requesting that they sign my exit form, but it was a lie that I’d forced them to do so.
“And do you mind telling me why you ended your reading twenty minutes early?”
I told him that the lucid brother had criticized the way I read, not by facing me head-on but by using his mute brother, who’s a total dimwit. Father Clark didn’t understand what I was talking about and I had to explain what happened in detail.
“Señor Carlos is a ventriloquist and he spoke to me as if it were his brother who was speaking. The brother, the dimwit, moves his lips like a fish, while Señor Carlos speaks through him. The mute doesn’t understand a thing, because if you speak to him, he doesn’t even look at you.”
The priest stood up suddenly, pushing his chair back and hitting the wall where there was already a mark in the plaster, an indication that this was his usual way of getting out of his chair, and he walked to the window with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Eduardo,” he said in his gringo accent, “you should have reported everything you are telling me when it happened. Now you find yourself at a disadvantage, because there is a complaint against you, you are accused of aggressive behavior. I am going to have to take matters into my own hands.”
He looked outside. He was clearly excited, and I thought that behind his bland appearance he hid a belligerent side. It must have been this that made him so attractive in Ofelia’s eyes. However, as organized as she was, I had my doubts that she’d tolerate her house filling up with marks on her walls, like those the priest left when he got up from his swivel chair.
“I am going to talk to the Jiménez brothers, to see if I can convince them to withdraw their complaint,” he told me. “You were lucky they spoke with me and not with the people on the city council. A formal complaint would not look very good for you right now, Eduardo.”
He put out his hand to signal that the meeting had ended, and he told me that he’d keep me informed. I thanked him and left his office. I ran into Ofelia at the entrance to the building. I asked what she was doing there, and she told me she’d come to see Father Clark. If you wait for me, I’ll drive you home, she told me, and I asked for her car keys so I could wait for her in the parking lot. Inside the car, seeing that she was taking a while, I started it up. I hadn’t started a car engine since my driver’s license had been taken away four months earlier. The place was empty, so I put it in first gear and let out the clutch. I drove one lap around the parking lot in second, then another one, and continued making laps in second gear. I thought that my own life seemed to be stuck in second gear; I hardly saw anyone and spent my mornings in the Sanborns de Piedra restaurant chatting 1 5 with Gladis and the other waitresses. My few friends had distanced themselves from me or I’d distanced myself from them, which one wasn’t clear yet. In a way, I took pleasure in that distance and was trying to extend it, because I hoped to transform myself in some way that would surprise them when we saw each other again. However, since I hadn’t received the slightest indication from them that they wanted to reconnect, I started to believe that their separation was real, not contrived like mine, and that I was really going to end up alone, going in circles, the way Ofelia found me when she finally appeared in the parking lot. I stopped and got into the passenger seat so she could take the wheel. Since she didn’t ask me anything about my interview with Father Clark, I suspected that he’d told her everything already, which annoyed me.
“Why didn’t you ask me what we talked about instead of asking the priest?” I said.
“I didn’t ask him anything,” she snapped.
“I bet he told you about the Jiménez brothers.”
“He only told me that they were canceling your readings.”
“And did he tell you why?”
“No, I was going to ask you that.”
I didn’t know if I should believe her, so I kept quiet.
“Aren’t you going to tell me?” she asked.
Instead of answering I asked, “How can you like him?”
She blushed. “Who told you I like him?”
Her eyes were shooting fire and for an instant I saw the Ofelia of my childhood, when we got along so well.
“It’s obvious, because of how you talk about him.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
We didn’t speak to each other the rest of the drive home. She stayed for dinner because she had to look over a few bills with Celeste and, while we ate, I recounted what had happened at the Jiménez brothers’ house. I did it hoping I might amuse my father with an interesting story, but even though he watched me the whole time, his expression remained absent and I doubt he followed a single word I said. Celeste was the most impressed; she didn’t know that such a thing as a ventriloquist existed. Ofelia and I explained that these people are capable of speaking with their stomachs and we gave her a little demonstration, me taking the role of the ventriloquist and Ofelia the puppet that opens its mouth, but our little show was so bad that Celeste ended up more confused than before. Papá didn’t laugh even once, and when we finished, he nodded to Celeste that he wanted to go to bed.
Once the cancer set into his legs, he suffered from bouts of severe pain that was even more acute when he made certain movements, like getting into bed, and on this occasion Ofelia and I heard him moan in agony. The TV was on, so we concentrated on the screen, waiting for Papá to stop moaning.
“This is no way to live,” I told her.
“We can’t do anything about it.”
“There has to be some way to end this.”
“Sometimes you scare me when I hear you talk,” she said.
“You come two or three times a week, you stay for a while and then you leave; I’m always here, I hear him when he whimpers because of his bones or when he can’t shit, and then he starts to insult Celeste. Every day it’s the same. After all that moaning, he stops being your father and turns into something else.”
“So, you’d be able to do it,” she said.
“He’d thank me for it, but I don’t have the nerve.”
We sat in silence, not taking our eyes off the TV. Then I reminded her about the cat.
“The one they set on fire,” I told her.
We were kids and I’d found the cat in a vacant lot close to our house, beneath some rocks, hairless and in agony, its skin dark and translucent from the burn, its pure white teeth in stark contrast to its partially charred body. It hardly moved, though, incredibly, it was still alive after the torture it had received, most likely at the hands of some hooligan kids in the neighborhood. They’d thrown gasoline on it, because the place reeked of it, and thought they must have been the ones who’d hidden it under the rocks, because the sight of the animal writhing in its last spasms of life must have scared the hell out of them. Don’t look, Ofelia had ordered, and I moved back a few steps, obeying her, the way one obeys a goddess. She picked up the biggest rock she could find, lifted it with both hands, and I heard the crinkle of its skull when it broke; then she put the rock back in its place, sealing that rudimentary grave, and for the next several days I’d walk by the lot and stop for a few seconds, long enough to make sure that the little mound of rocks was still there.
Translated by Curtis Bauer