Mr. Beneset’s son arrives at the geriatric home and greets the girl at reception: a nice, sensible girl who was, in fact, the one who, when he was looking for a home for Mr. Beneset, tipped the balance and led him to pick this one and not the other one, in Putxet, which he’d also liked. She and Mr. Beneset’s son chat about this and that. About life in general, about Easter Week, which is fast approaching, about the newly asphalted road and about how Mr. Beneset has been doing lately. When it feels as if they’ve spoken long enough, the son says, “Anyway . . .” and smiles as if to say, “This is a really fascinating conversation but I’m afraid I’ve got to leave you now and go on up to the room.” The girl, who actually is quite sick of having to talk about nearly the same this-and-that with each and every friend or family member of a resident, uses an expression that says, “God, what a shame we have to cut this short but I understand that some things take precedence, and visiting your father is one of them.” So Mr. Beneset’s son walks away from the desk and out to the patio. He crosses it, crunching the gravel under his feet with adolescent vigor, gets into the elevator, gets off on the third floor, and heads down the hall toward his father’s room. Number 309. He raps on the door quietly at first—knock, knock, knock—then louder, and finally, when there is still no response—Mr. Beneset is getting so deaf that he probably doesn’t hear him—he turns the door handle and walks in. Mr. Beneset is standing in front of the mirror. He’s adjusting his underwear, which is black with scalloped lace edges, the kind the French call culottes and the English call French knickers.
“Always knock before entering a room, I’ve told you that before,” Mr. Beneset says.
“I did knock, Father, but you didn’t hear me!” his son replies. He’s shouting, because if he didn’t shout, his father wouldn’t hear that either. He’s about to ask him why it is that he hasn’t used his hearing aid in months, ask what the point of all those trips to the pharmacy on Balmes was, why they bothered getting the ear mold and having it fitted, teaching him how to put it in, if all he does now is leave it in its case, in some drawer. But he doesn’t say anything because he figures that if he did, and if (for one reason or another) his father were to decide to start using it again, it would be him who’d have to go get new batteries, teach him how to put it in again, and maybe even go through the whole process of getting an ear mold made all over again, because in time that kind of plastic loses elasticity and, once it’s hardened, it won’t adjust the way it did at first and you’ve got to start all over. So he decides to keep his mouth shut.
“I’ve always told you, ever since you were a little boy, you must knock before walking into a room. I’ve said it for years, have I not?”
The son walks over to his father and gives him a kiss on the cheek. His father gives him one, too, then grabs his neck so he can’t pull away and gives him another. The father loves his son very much. He’s all he’s got.
“But it just goes in one ear and out the other. You never pay any attention.”
“Father . . .”
“Don’t try to claim it’s not true.” Mr. Beneset is clean-shaven, his white mustache set off against his tanned skin. He stares at his son. “You been drinking? Don’t drink, son. You always did like a drink. Your nose is all red, and only people who drink a lot have red noses. That’s why in cartoons the drunks always have red noses. And you have a red nose. Don’t drink. I’m telling you, look what happened to Uncle Toni, he ended up an alcoholic. Ay, Toni . . . Now there was a man who drank. That’s why he ended up an alcoholic. But at least he had good reason. His daughter died, his wife left him, poor man. You’ve heard about him.”
Mr. Beneset’s eyes well up with tears, but he tries to hide it. His son notes that his hair has been cut very short, so in order to help him change the subject, he mimes scissors with his fingers, smiling and nodding in approval. Mr. Beneset’s face lights up.
“Doesn’t it look good like this, so short? At my age, hair looks much better short. You don’t have to worry about brushing it. And it dries fast when you wash it so you don’t get pneumonia.”
From the back of a chair, Mr. Beneset takes a bra, which is also black and also scalloped. His arms are so thin that, when he puts them behind his back to fasten it, it seems as if they’ll break off. His son reaches over to help.
“Stop it, stop, I can do it myself. I don’t need any help. I’m not as bad off as all the old fogies around here yet. It’s full of old folks, this place. Getting old is terrible, you know. That’s why you should take care of yourself now, while there’s still time. Don’t drink. I know you do, you know. You love drinking. What a disgrace, that day your friends had to bring you home, you were so drunk you passed out. OK, that’s enough talking, it wears me out.”
With his walker, Mr. Beneset shuffles slowly to the bathroom. He looks in the mirror, adjusts his bra.
“Hand me that stool.”
His son moves the white plastic stool that was in the shower stall for him. Mr. Beneset takes a toiletries case from the shelf and sits down. From a clear plastic bag full of rainbow-colored cotton balls, he extracts one, a pink one. He unscrews a tube of foundation, squeezes some out onto the cotton ball, and slowly spreads it over his face. Next he puts on powder, so his skin won’t shine. He lines his lips with a brown pencil and, just as he’s about to apply his maroon lipstick, someone knocks on the door. It’s the girl who’s come to make his bed.
“Good morning, Mr. Rafael,” she says.
“Good morning, Sweetheart,” Mr. Beneset replies. He turns to his son and says, “That’s Margarita, she’s a very sweet girl. Isn’t she sweet? Margarita is Cuban. Cuba’s a beautiful country. They have lots of sugar cane there, isn’t that right, Margarita?” Margarita nods.
When he’s done applying his lipstick, Mr. Beneset starts on his eyes. First he draws a line underneath, then one above. He puts brown eye shadow on his lids, and then a layer of orange above that, just below his eyebrows. Then on to his eyelashes: mascara. He’s panting. He asks his son to hand him his blouse. It’s on a hanger. His son passes it to him. He puts it on.
“See you later, Mr. Rafael,” Margarita says when she’s done making the bed. She leaves.
“She’s a very pretty girl,” Mr. Beneset says. “Make sure the door’s closed all the way. Close it good. I don’t want anyone to hear us. Isn’t she pretty? There are some very pretty girls here, poor things, taking care of a bunch of old fogies. Makes me sad. Makes me think: poor girls, here taking care of all these old fogies when they could be doing something else. But of course, where they’re from—because they’re all from other countries you know—people are starving, and here they can make a living. Margarita’s Cuban. From Cuba. But she doesn’t eat meat. She’s a vegetarian. Maybe you should stop eating meat, too. Or maybe not. Are you taking care of yourself? There’s another one, Yuli her name is, she’s not Cuban, but she has big breasts, very nice breasts; she’s sweet. You know, everyone is on the make here, and if you’re willing to pay, anything goes. And they’re so pretty . . . I had to tell them to stop bathing me, my pecker would get stiff as a lead pipe. There was one, there was this one who used to say, ‘Ay, Mr. Rafael, it’s so big! . . . At your age!’ I tell them to just leave it, I’ll take care of that area myself, it makes me feel strange, poor things, so young, choking some old fogey’s chicken. A lot of men take them up on it, I bet. And they are clean. They use gloves. Not like the old ladies who pretend they just wandered into the wrong room and climb into your bed to see if you want them to do you. With their mouths. One of them propositioned me, you know. With her mouth, she said. You know what I mean by that, right? You get what I’m trying to say?”
Slowly Mr. Beneset shuffles over to the bed, sits. He puts on his panty hose, skirt, and shoes, which are wide and flat. He grabs a paper bag, the kind with handles, and puts in a bottle of water, his toiletries bag, and an old newspaper. The pair of them exit the room, Mr. Beneset gripping his walker. They take the elevator and, to get to the back patio, walk through the lounge. They greet two women and a man sitting sideways on wicker armchairs, staring off into space. They find a bench out on the patio and Mr. Beneset takes out the newspaper, wipes off the bench, removes the cap from the bottle of water, and takes a sip.
“I opened it before you got here. So I’d be ready. You come so seldom that I don’t want to waste one minute . . . I know you’re busy, Son, I know you are, I don’t blame you for coming so seldom.”
Mr. Beneset wipes the makeup from the corners of his mouth with one of the ten or twelve tissues he’s got stashed throughout the various pockets of his jacket. Then he combs his white lawn of hair, the centimeter that the hairdresser left him. He’s got to keep his eye on her, make sure she doesn’t get carried away, because whenever she can, she’ll use the electric clippers. Which makes sense, because, Mr. Beneset explains, with the clippers, you can whip out a haircut in a minute, and with scissors it takes a lot longer. Whether she charges by the cut or by the hour, it’s in the hairdresser’s interest to finish her job as fast as she can.
“When people die here,” he says, “they say they’re gone. You know someone’s died because, suddenly, they’re not there anymore. Suddenly, they’re never there again: not in the garden, not in the dining room, not in the TV room, not anyplace, and just the day before, they were always there. The first day, who knows: maybe they’re sick. But if a few days go by and you don’t see them anywhere and you ask what happened, they tell you they’ve gone. Gone where? They don’t tell you that part. Last week, another one went. Sometimes at night you hear noises in the hallway. Suddenly you hear footsteps, scurrying, this way and that, rushing around. They must be taking a body out, I always think. It makes sense for them to do it at midnight so the rest of us don’t get upset.”
Mr. Beneset looks at his son and, because he’s backlit, he can hardly see his face. He says that he’s been thinking maybe he should get the cataract in his right eye operated on (the one in his left eye was operated on five years ago, just before his first cancer). But, he also says, what’s the point of investing so much time and headache when he knows he doesn’t have much time left, and the little time he does have is already too much? He takes a sip of water. He realizes that some spittle has collected at the corners of mouth and wipes it with one of the tissues from his pockets, but then realizes that he’s smudged his lipstick.
“I smeared it all over, didn’t I?”
“No, just a tiny bit. Here, hand me the tissue, I’ll fix it.”
With the tissue, his son wipes off all the lipstick that had smudged up onto his cheek. He doesn’t tell him that he never gets his lip liner right, that he always draws the line too wide, nor does he say that he never gets his eyeliner right, either.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I dream they’re calling me from heaven. My father, my mother, all my brothers and sisters. ‘What’s taking little Rafael so long to get here?’ I’m the only one left. Ricardo was the first to die. Then my father, that was . . . How long ago was that? I don’t even know. Sixty-some years ago. Arcadi was the last, and even that was twenty years ago.” Mr. Beneset has been a widower for three years. Curiously, though his wife is dead, she never appears in his dreams, inviting him to join her. It’s only his blood relatives—siblings, parents—who call down to him. “I’ve outlived my longest-living brother by twenty years. I’ve had enough. If I could, I’d take one of those pills, the ones that put you to sleep and then once you’re asleep you never wake up, because they don’t just put you to sleep, but while you’re asleep they kill you, painlessly. I don’t want to suffer anymore. The other day I was talking to the doctor, I said to her, ‘Why don’t you just give me one of those and we’ll get it over with quick?’ She got mad at me. ‘Don’t joke like that!’ I wasn’t joking. How would she know if I’m joking or not? I’m being serious, but no one believes me. Sometimes I look out the window and I think how easy it would be to jump. Getting through it, though, that’s the hard part. If I could sit down and get my legs over the sill, no problem. But I’m not strong enough, and I can’t ask you to do that for me.”
Some of the old folks strolling through the patio stare unashamedly. A man with droopy eyes, sitting on the bench across from them, gawks at Mr. Beneset’s legs, his mouth half opened. His son thinks that if he’s going to wear panty hose, he ought to tell him to do something about the hair on his legs, but then figures that, if he were to listen to him, it would be him who had to go buy the razors, or the wax, or whatever you use, and decides to keep his mouth shut. Mr. Beneset looks at his son.
“OK, let’s go back to the room.”
“Already? We haven’t even been out here half an hour.”
“That’s enough for me. Really. I’m tired.”
His son helps him stand. They walk through the lounge where the two women and the man sit sidelong, staring off into space. They take the elevator, get off on their floor. Back in his room, Mr. Beneset sits on the bed and looks at the clock.
“It’s not quite lunchtime yet. You go ahead and go, you’ve got work to do. And don’t rush back, I know you have a lot of obligations.”
They kiss, the son half turns, starts to walk away, stops at the door, turns back, waves to his father, closes the door, and uses the tissue to wipe the lipstick his father’s kiss left on his cheek. As the son enters the elevator, Mr. Beneset takes out his toiletries case and begins to mend his hangnails. Then he cuts and files his fingernails. Next he opens the bottle of nail polish and applies the first coat. He starts on the pinky of his left hand and ends on the pinky of his right. When the first coat is dry, he puts on the second.
Translation of “El Senyor Beneset.” From Mil cretins. © 2007 by Joaquim Monzó. Published 2007 by Quaderns Crema, S. A. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2010 by Lisa Dillman. All rights reserved.