My sister Angela stands on her cracked driveway holding her latest baby and watches me check the supplies in my trunk. Diapers, wipes, 500 count box of latex gloves, weight lifter’s belt. Angela glances at my gear and a corner of her lip lifts in distaste.
“Hey, Berto,” she calls, “when you gonna get a real job, stop wiping old folks’ asses?”
“We’re both ass wipers, Sis,” I say, lifting my chin at the baby who’s hunting through Angela’s brown hair for her gold hoop earrings.
“Yeah, well at least this one’s mine,” she says, uncurling the baby’s fingers from her earring. “And I got my own place.”
I know she’s not trying to make me feel bad for crashing on her couch between clients. She’s just showing me she’s got something.
“And I’m going to mine.” I smile, glad to be leaving her squashed tract house with its smell of hot lard and baby powder.
Six days away from my work and I feel like the stuffing’s come out of me. I start changing back into Bertito, the youngest boy, kid number three of five, the odd one out. I start disappearing again into the sprawl of my family. I’m glad to be heading to a stranger’s house where people don’t know a thing about me, where someone’s looking at me with fresh eyes. Okay, so that first look worries them a bit. I don’t look like someone you’d pick to take care of your dying parent. Ex-con, gang member, you might think looking at me. But I don’t mind waiting out their doubt that a person like me is the right one for the job. They’ll see.
I steer my car out of the neighborhood of low wire fences and brown lawns and try to make this, my favorite moment, last. I like the drive to the new client, the dispatch sheet on a clipboard in the passenger seat, the medical supplies riding in back with my few things. I like knowing that my skills will be appreciated, and wondering what kind of old bird I’ll be bathing and feeding, whether the house will be fancy or rundown. It don’t matter to me whether it’s full of gadgets or has no dishwasher. I like trying out a different place. Someone else's, but for however long it takes them to recover, or die, mine, too.
By now Angela's back in the living room, ankle deep in squeaking plastic toys. She won’t bother to turn down the blare of the TV when she calls Father at 9:00 to make sure he’s taken his morning pills. “Yeah,” she’ll tell him, “Berto’s gone.” I can almost hear my father snort.
I been watching my father’s eyes turn yellow from years of drinking, his nose bloom like a rose. What’s he got to be proud of? Thirty years of roofing houses? But that’s a man’s work, he'd say. Not like what I do. But he’ll see soon enough. They all will. I’ve noticed his gut blowing up like a beach ball. Before long they’ll be calling, begging Berto por favor.
But the time hasn’t come, and I ask myself why it matters so much what they think. But there it is like a sour pit that rolls around inside me, ruining what I've built up for myself these past seven years. I look over at the dispatch sheet to block them from my mind. I can tell by the name, Elizabeth Suttle, that my new case is Anglo. Most of them are. Mexicans take care of their own; they aren’t afraid of their own old people.
The neighborhood I find across town is all 60s tract houses, kept nice. Smooth sidewalks and undented mailboxes. Second stories stacked up on some fancy remodels here and there. Just means the family will give me a good hard look and check around to make sure the valuables are still there when they come visit the loved one. I know all the stages by now.
I pull up in front of a house that shows the kind of care given by a once a month mow-and-blow crew. The standard bushes and shrubs have grown trunks by now. They’re trimmed back hard. Nothing new planted, nothing flowering. Wide garage door is peeling a bit. Old lady kicks, some family with kids will snap this place up and whip it into shape.
I lug my box up the brick walk and press the bell. The door opens right away and a middle-aged woman in a navy suit looks at me, then past me, as if she’s expecting someone else. Her eyes come back to me.
“Yes?” she asks, pleasant enough.
“I’m Humberto Vierra. The home care agency sent me,” I say, shifting the box in my arms.
“Oh! Well, there must be some mistake,” she smiles. “We requested a woman.”
“Probably weren’t any,” I tell her. “This was listed as an emergency. They send who’s free and work it out later.”
The woman frowns. Stage one: anyone but him.
“Well, why don’t you come in," she says stepping out of the way. "I’ll make a few calls and see if I can get this straightened out.” Her voice says she’s used to getting things straightened out.
The house has that familiar smell of old furniture and careless cleaning. There’s a faint odor of urine. I look around for Elizabeth.
“She’s asleep,” the woman tells me, nodding to a door at the end of a long hall. One of these doors must lead to the bedroom this lady in a suit grew up in, I’m thinking. I like to take places backward in my mind. Like to think what it was like back when the person stuck in bed was up cooking and disciplining, when the son or daughter hiring me played with toys on the living room floor.
The woman, daughter must be, makes a call squinting at a phone number on a bulletin board, but I know what they’re gonna tell her. No, sorry, no one else is available right now. They can send a woman in to do the bathing, but Mr. Vierra is the only one available for 24-hour care. Does she want him to leave? Does she want to wait until a woman can come in? And here it comes.
“Well, no. I guess it’s okay for a day or two. But you will send someone else in to bathe her.” They say this last bit like an instruction instead of a request because they’ve given in on getting what they called for. And I know after a few days there’s no way they’re gonna swap me anyway. That’s stage two: they need me bad.
Now that she knows I’m it, at least for a few days, I wait for the change of tone. “Sorry for the confusion,” she smiles. “This is all new to me.”
“No problem,” I tell her. “I’ll go get my suitcase.”
I can feel her eyes on me, my wide back, my dark hair, my tattoo, as I walk down her mother’s brick path to my car.
When I come back, she’s grabbing up papers spread on the kitchen table and loading them in her briefcase. She glances at her watch and looks around the kitchen. I’m already thinking about what I want to make for dinner, wondering how the old lady’s stomach does with spices.
The daughter shows me where all the basics are, magnets a list of phone numbers to the refrigerator, then, as if remembering something, leads me down the hall to the first door on the right.
She opens the door on a room with a twin bed, a sewing machine and an ironing board. “You can use this room,” she tells me. The curtains are pulled shut and the air is chilly. I recognize it: the spare room where all the junk gets dumped. Not her old room, you can bet on that. And they never like to use the word “sleep” or “stay.” “Use.” You can “use” this room. Then we want it back and you gone.
She tiptoes in to wake the old lady so she can make the introductions and take off. She waves for me to come. I like this part, like seeing who I’ll be working with. Will it be a drooling, nodding, speckled body without a thought in mind? Or someone with a bit of life and humor left? They are all so different, and so much the same.
Elizabeth isn’t too bad looking. White messy hair like spun sugar. Must be a stroke she’s had. One side of her face looks serious, like George Washington, the other bright-eyed and goofy like that Marx brother who just honks a horn and never talks. She pulls herself up on her pillows moving with her pointy elbows, looking at me with one sad and one goofy eye.
“Mother, this is Humberto. He’ll be taking care of you for a day or two. Fixing your meals and helping you with, um, whatever you need.”
She neatens up the bedside table as she tells me, "Mother hasn't spoken since the stroke. She's only just out of the hospital. After the physical therapist comes out there will be exercises to do, and there's a medication schedule on the refrigerator that has to be strictly observed." She stops to give me a doubtful look. I see her remember that I'll be gone in a day or two and watch her face relax. "And, uh, oh yes," she goes on, "she’ll need help in the bathroom."
Help in the bathroom? Looks to me like pobrecita can’t get out of bed. They’re always so afraid to mention that part.
I tell her don’t worry, we’ll be fine. But she’s looking at the ring of barbed wire tattooed around my bicep. I haven’t got my uniform shirt on yet. She doesn't ask about it. Besides, what would I say? I was young. I never been sent up. Anyway, I’m bonded now. I’m twenty seven. I got responsibilities. I got references.
I want to tell her, “Don’t worry, I’m the best. I’ll take good care of your mama.” But that’s not my style. Daughter should be happy her mama is still here. People with old mothers like Elizabeth get stuck thinking about the sadness and the problems and miss that they're lucky. I didn't have time like that with my mother. I'd like to think that if she knew what I do, how I go about caring for my old people, at least she might be a little proud. But I don't believe in heaven. I don't believe she's looking down watching me spoon sopa into my invalida. Before she died she told me what she wanted for me -- to be a priest. A priest? I don't even believe in God now. I see how things work, I understand the body and its seasons. I don't see that it has anything to do with Him.
My mother quit her job at the cannery when I was ten to take care of Abuelo, her father, when he got sick. She took in a bunch of neighbor babies and after-school kids for money. When I felt like I was disappearing in the racket of squabbling and crying and Abuelo’s ringing bell, I would pretend to be sick, too. I would lie in my narrow bed and listen to the noise of the sink and dishes, waiting for my mother’s step in the hall, the crack of light from the door, waiting for her to come stand by my bed and feel my face for fever. I remember the feeling that poured over me, just from her standing there, looking only at me. It was like when I was littler, and she smelled like sugar syrup and apricots from the cannery, when she came in every night.
When she got sick it was bad right away and she went straight to the hospital. I stood by her bed in that clean, clean room and watched her. She tossed and muttered about Abuelo, worried. I told her I’d take care of him. “No, mijo. That’s not for a boy. Not for you. Tia Elena will come.”
Finally daughter leaves and I can check things out. Elizabeth’s eyes follow me around the room. “Okay if I look at your books?” I ask. I think she nods. Lots of books here with college-type titles. History of Religion, Story of Philosophy. Surprises me. What’s locked up in that head of hers, I wonder. Or maybe it was her dead husband did the heavy reading.
I go in the kitchen and bring her back a glass of juice with a flexi-straw bobbing in it. I hold it for her while she sips. Her cheeks go hollow when she sucks and it makes her look like a sad alien with those two different eyes. She tries to bring a hand up to take the glass. Could be a disaster, but improving’s the goal. I wait until her veiny hand is curled around the glass before I take mine off. The orange juice sloshes back and forth, but she’s keeping the glass upright. “Way to go, Elizabeth!” I say. She leans forward to take a sip and some of the juice slops onto her nightgown. A corner of her mouth twitches.
“You got a washer, don’t worry about it,” I say. I turn toward her dresser. Drawers full of neatly folded slippery scarves, thick sweaters, gloves and fancy beaded purses. Done with those things forever. I find something flannel and shake it out. “Let’s get you into something dry,” I say.
I pull her nightgown off over her head and take a look at her body. Won’t need my weight lifter’s belt with her. She is thin, with blue veins showing through the skin of her chest like a road map. She still has breasts. I’m always surprised at the staying power breasts have. They lie there like flattened meringues on top of her bony rib cage. I thread her limp arms through the sleeves of the fresh nightgown and pull it on over her head. Elizabeth has been in the hospital; she’s used to strangers doing for her.
I settle her down for a nap and cruise through the house. I can see there’s a lot of cleaning to do, but I won’t be doing it. The agency gives the “financially responsible party” a checklist of chores they want done, chores we’re supposed to do in our so-called spare time. I don’t even look at that sheet. I’ll do the dishes and run a load of wash, but I’m not going to knock down cobwebs, or mop floors. I got fired for that at one agency. But this one knows what I will and won’t do. I take the hard cases, the really old people, and they let the housework thing slide. Just like the loved ones who come to visit, to check on things. I see them glance around hopefully, then notice what hasn’t been done. They don’t say anything. They need me too much.
I know someone who still works at that agency. He says this old dude from last year, Frankie, keeps calling asking for Berto. He wants me to come back and spend time with him. He isn’t sick any more, just got used to me. Frankie was pretty cool.
I told my father about that. He laughed. “What’s he want with you? He gonna leave you all his money now?” That’s what my father thinks might make up for the shame of my work—money. “One of Berto’s old ladies gonna make him a rich man one day. Ey, Berto?”
Sometimes the old people give me stuff. I’m not supposed to take it, but I do. So they want to give me a radio, like Frankie did. So what? It’s their right. It’s still their stuff, for a while longer anyway. Sometimes when I’m on a case, I think about all the things collected in a house, the favorite clothes folded up in drawers, the pictures on the walls, the furniture, the dumb souvenirs from big trips. I think about how long it’s been there and how soon before it’s going to be loaded in boxes, or fought over, or lugged to the Goodwill.
My father’s joking about the money, though. Money’s the last thing he’d expect from me. But the total last thing he expects is that he’s going to need Bertito one day, that I will be the one to give him all his old body needs.
Daughter shows up the next day two hours early. Checking up on me. Probably worried about the jewelry box on Elizabeth’s dresser. Why doesn’t she just take the damn thing with her, I wonder. Instead, she sits next to the bed with the jewelry box in her lap, talking about each piece. "Remember when Daddy gave you this bracelet for your birthday?" she says, like the red leather box is a scrapbook of memories. I know it’s just to let me know she knows everything that’s supposed to be there. She must not know about the rubber-banded stack of bills in the bottom dresser drawer under the fancy purses. Old people don’t trust banks completely.
On day five when daughter comes, I go to the store and stock up on ingredients no one but me will know what to do with. It’s okay. By now we all know I’m staying. Elizabeth pulls herself up on her pillows when I walk into the room. I watch her eyes and I know when she is smiling. Daughter is easing into the every-other-day visit. She canceled the lady bather. Like the rest of them, I guess she figured if I was changing diapers, what the hell about the bath. I started Elizabeth on flan, but now I cook menudo for us. I know all about her stomach, and I see my cooking doesn’t trouble it. I like filling these houses with the smell of epazote and chiles.
I talk to Elizabeth. I ask her questions and I give the answers for her since she’s not talking. “Ey, Elizabeth, you want some music?” “Yeah, Berto, we gotta lively up this place,” I say for her. I play the Spanish station on her bedside clock radio softly. I like to hear the announcer spitting out words like a machine gun, like to hear the rhythm of my music in this room full of beige. I watch Elizabeth’s face because I would change it if she didn’t like it. Her head wags just a bit. It’s okay.
Usually I work two weeks straight, then the agency sends someone out to replace me for a couple of days. I could have it different, but it’s hard bouncing back and forth. When it gets close to my time off, I start thinking about my family, how they all seem gripped together like fingers on praying hands. Me, I come and go. Since I only need a place to stay a couple of days a month, I’ll stay with Angela, then Raymundo, then Hector, and so on. I give them a few bills for the groceries. I see more of their lives than I would if I had my own place down the street and dropped by for beers and parties. And always I'm glad to leave again.
Even though my father doesn’t think much of what I do, still he takes credit. Because it was he who, the week after my mother died, looked around the dinner table at each and every one of us and pointed his stubby finger at me, twelve-year-old Bertito. Bertito, he declared, will take care of Abuelo. The girls were too little, I was no good at school, I wasn’t playing high school sports like my brothers. I had time to wait on Abuelo with basin and cloth, to bring him his sopa de caldo.
“Punto final!” Father said, dropping his fist on the table. But I wasn't going to argue. I was thinking about Abuelo’s dark room with the flickering candles and his santos, of doing what my mother had done. With Abuelo I learned that a body is nothing to fear, just something to wash and tend. It felt like church then with my basin and cloth in the quiet room.
I was fourteen when Abuelo died and after that I had nothing to do but get in trouble. That's when I got my tat, but I felt as much a stranger in Los Locos as I did at home. Later I got work at the hospital mopping floors in ER. Mop water tinged pink with blood, dead people, insides on the outside. I don’t know why, but none of it bothered me. I got excited when I realized I could do things other people were afraid of.
I thought of being an ambulance driver, a paramedic maybe. But there are hard tests and I get letters twisted around. Besides, I’ve got a kind of power in this job that lasts longer than one ambulance ride to the hospital.
But even now with me, it doesn’t last. First two weeks is the best. They don't know what they'd do without you. After that they get used to having you around, used to you doing all the nasty things they don’t want to do, used to not having to be there themselves. Stage three. You turn from hero to what my father thinks I am, a janitor of the body. And the old folks, they die, or they get better, or they get moved on to the nursing home, and I start all over again.
Elizabeth seems a little stronger at times. I had the agency deliver a commode and a wheelchair. There’s a chance I can get her out of diapers. The PT comes by a couple of times a week to work her arms and legs. But it’s been a month and I know where we’re headed. I’ve seen daughter paging through the bank papers in the den, heard her on the phone talking about space availability and waiting lists. I’m expensive and insurance doesn’t cover this forever.
This is when they start saying they don’t have a choice. And maybe they don’t. The hardest thing for them is this situation that is not clear, this mother who is different. I know daughter cares. I've heard her blow her nose. I've seen her eyes squint with thinking about the past. But she feels awkward, talks too loud, sits next to the bed with both feet planted flat on the floor. “Umberto!” she’ll call, just to have something to say, “Did mother have her Kumodin? Shouldn’t she have an extra blanket?”
I’m dropping pink and red capsules into Elizabeth’s plastic pill organizer when Angela calls. She wants to make sure I’m coming to Father’s birthday party at the park today. They want to talk to me, she says. Father’s looking worse and worse. Something’s going to have to be done. Meaning what? I ask. Just come, Berto, she says.
So here it is finally. What I’ve been waiting for. I’m too busy to be excited, though. I’ve got things to do to get Elizabeth ready. A bed’s opened up at Golden Vista. Daughter says it’s one of the best. I can tell she feels different ways about it; her eyes look far away, but the worry lines on her face have faded.
Daughter is supposed to be here at 3:00. She says she only needs me to get Elizabeth into her car. Someone “at the other end” can help get her out and into her room.
There’s not much to pack. I take the final load of wash out of the dryer, pulling my undershirts and boxers out of Elizabeth’s long crackling nightgowns. I get a few other things from her dresser – warm socks, a white sweater with buttons that look like pearls – and that makes me think about the bottom drawer with the purses and the money. I could take it if I wanted to. There are all kinds of things I could do, all kinds of ways I could be because I have peoples' trust. I wonder sometimes what kind of credit I get for all the things I don't do.
Elizabeth is right there, propped up on her pillows. I know daughter told her about today, but she doesn't seem to realize much, so I think for her that this is her last time in her own room. I slide my arms under her and turn her on her side so she can see out the window. The sun is out in a blue sky with tall clouds. It’s turned warm in the past week and the red geraniums I stuck in old coffee cans on the fence rail have started to bloom. She can look at those while I pack up my things in the spare room.
11:00 and everything's done. I start walking back and forth in the kitchen and my mind won't stick on anything. I'm supposed to stay at my brother Hector's next, but the thought of the noise and all his kids makes me pace faster. But here it's too quiet all of a sudden. It seems already like no one lives here. The hum of the refrigerator and the buzz of the kitchen clock feel like they're drilling into my temples.
The wheelchair doesn’t fit in my hatchback. I tie it closed with a shoelace. I lift Elizabeth onto the commode, then clean her up and give her hair a quick brush. It rises and floats around her face. I carry her like a sagging bride out the front door and down the brick path to my car. Even her serious-side eye is wider open now. She’s dropping her head back to look at the sky.
I should wait for daughter, but I will do this last thing for Elizabeth. And I want her with me for this. We will help each other.
My mind empties out as I’m driving. Ideas I thought were growing I can’t grab onto. They fade and slip away. The hatch clunks at every bump. Elizabeth slumps against her shoulder belt. The car is warm from sitting in the sun and what I want more than anything is that pleasant feeling of finishing a job well and looking ahead to a new client. Instead, I wonder why getting what I’ve been waiting for all these years makes me feel hollowed out and doomed. Like I’ve come to the end of something.
I’m late, so when I push Elizabeth’s wheelchair down the paved path to the picnic tables by the little lake, the hibachis are already going and the meat smells almost done. Radios from different gatherings blare salsa and the ball game. Angela is opening bags of chips and peeling lids off plastic tubs. My brothers are out on the patchy lawn tossing the football back and forth and shouting at their kids at the edge of the lake. I see Alma, Raymundo’s wife, pushing a stroller back and forth with her foot and counting out paper plates.
And here I come with my vieja.
I spot my father finally. He’s lying on a gray and pink striped blanket under a walnut tree, his white hat pulled down over his face. His belly looks bloated and it rises and falls in a way that tells me he is deep asleep.
We creep up on everyone with our rubber wheels. Angela’s oldest, five-year-old Victor, spots us and runs up to the wheelchair like it’s a new car. Other little ones come and touch the tires, pluck at the spokes of the wheels. I lock the brake.
“This is Elizabeth,” I tell them. They look at her, giggle, turn shy, run off together in a pack. Angela and Alma are staring at me from the picnic table. I roll Elizabeth to the table and park her next to Alma’s stroller. Before I say anything to Angela, I come around to look at Elizabeth’s face. Her skin has pinked up a bit, her head is bobbing slightly on her neck. Her eyes, one silly, one sober, look moist and bright.
“What’s this, Berto?” Angela wants to know.
She’s not calling Elizabeth “this,” she means me bringing her with me.
“We all need fresh air,” I say.
Alma has lifted her baby from the stroller. She holds it on her shoulder, with its cheek touching hers.
Raymundo trots over holding the football. He is big and sweaty. He knows I don’t play. He glances over to see that father is still sleeping. The subject is opened with that glance. I move Elizabeth so she’s pointed at the lake to give her a nice view, and I sit down at the table with the rest of my father’s children.
They look at me, waiting, like I've come with something to say. And I'm happy for my father that he has this big family to take care of him, that he is not so bad yet that he can't come to the park and sleep in the shade of a big tree.
“Berto,” Hector says, “someone needs to be in the house with Father now. He has fallen twice in one week and Alma found his pills under the bed.”
“Yes,” I say, “the time has come.” I look around at all of them and I choose Alma. After all, for them it is woman's work. She and Raymundo and their baby can move in with Father. They won’t have to pay rent any more. I will come stay between clients and help out. I tell them this. They grumble. Raymundo frowns.
But they will do it. Better they should come to me for advice. Let Alma call and say, “Berto, he has a rash, what should I do?” Let me come and show them the proper way to lift and move an invalid. How to feed someone who has forgotten how to swallow. I will oversee his care. I know where to rent hospital beds, shower chairs.
Like Raymundo can’t quit his job at Goodyear to take care of father, I can’t quit my work. Besides, I am a fuereno—an outsider. A person without a home. Called in for emergencies, sent away when the need is gone. I work with the sick and the dying and make the well feel grateful and uncomfortable. I am a person, I decide, not unlike a priest.
I see a small wind blowing Elizabeth’s hair back over her thin shoulders. I say goodbye to my family. I can’t stay.
I’m on duty still.
Vicky Mlyniec is the 2005 winner of the Bellingham Review's Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. "Berto's Duty," her first published story, won second prize in the Baltimore Review's Short Fiction Competition in 2004 and was first published in that journal. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and two sons and works as a freelance writer. She has a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UC Berkeley and has just completed her first semester in Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers.