Lalo

Patrick Madden

As we wind east among the residential streets of northern Montevideo, the sunlight through the bus windows warms my arms, but the breeze chills my neck. Outside, people are enjoying the day. Three girls are jumping rope outside a dispensary. An old man sits on a stool in a sliver of shade. With no shirt and a great gut that hangs over his shorts, he looks naked. He nods as the bus passes, and the strands of garlic behind him sway in the store window.

In the morning, Karina had awakened me. “We’re going to visit Lalo today,” she said. She speaks about Lalo in whispers and euphemisms. It’s been seven years since her brother died. She visits him every week.

Just past the Municipal Cylinder, the bus drops us off. To one side is a pasture surrounded by eucalyptus trees. A few families have laid out blankets and baskets. Behind them, horses graze. Their owners stand by, smoking, leaning against their carts, resting for the afternoon’s scavenging. On the other side, a row of shops: florerias, santerias, marmolerias, a bar. Alongside the flowers and statuettes and plaques, they sell bathtubs and sinks with stainless steel fixtures, and tombstones.

Seven years ago, Lalo was killed. A few hours later, across the country, a knock came at his parents’ door. Knocks like this always come in passive sentences, without agents, without reasons. This one came with blinding confusion, a man clearing his throat, his partner stoic, words that hit with the force of a bus. At what moment could they excuse themselves, after declaring the inexcusable, with what words could they take their leave after having taken so much else?

My mother-in-law buys flowers, then she and Karina leave me behind. I browse the ready-made inscriptions on the gravestones against the wall, already understanding that consolation is part sale, that lines from songs and poems are a crutch for the faint of tongue or mind, or the temporarily so. When I look up, my wife and her mother are nearly gone from sight, passing through an iron gate across the road.

In the morning, we got dressed in silence, and Karina prepared breakfast. Her mother said that she wasn’t hungry, that she didn’t want me to go. Karina whispered, “Come anyway.”

I sprint across the street to catch up just as they turn down a black marble staircase set in an expanse of gray concrete. I glimpse the shield of the Armed Forces in a plaque on the outer wall. Underground it’s cool despite the light filtering through the sunroofs above. The room is a giant archive, with rows of sterile metal lockers lining the walls. The matte gray metal distorts the light it reflects into a haze. Scattered about are vases and plaques of honor. Until I inspect them closely, everything is a blur. Each locker bears a name preceded by initials signifying rank.

When it became clear that his soccer skills weren’t going to be enough for the A-league, Lalo joined the army for the chance it offered him to be a different man that his father had been, to help support his mother and younger siblings. He graduated top of his class at the Military High School and went on to become an expert marksman and rider. He was assigned to Colonia, four hundred kilometers west of Montevideo, to train younger cadets. He shared a room with a captain’s son.

Lalo is in the second row, two in from the main hallway and two up from the floor. I quickly give up on searching for a significance in the twos.

Seven years ago, according to witnesses, Lalo and his roommate retired to their room after a day of training. The captain’s son was always second best, never fast enough, never quite as accurate with a rifle. That night he began threatening with a revolver, talking like he was joking. Lalo was serious. “Put that down,” they heard him say. “Don’t point that.” He was dead in one shot. The military tribunal believed it was a gun-cleaning accident.

His mother gently places the flowers in a hanging vase that rests against his steel door. She bites her lip, closes her eyes, slowly genuflects. She ignores me as she turns to leave.

I follow a few paces behind, remembering the brother I never knew, wondering what right I have to pretend to feel. On the surface the air is thick and stifling; the impartial sun warms my chilled skin.

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Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and he’s recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship to Uruguay. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays.