Delgado, a disabled resident of a community in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, reflects on life growing up handicapped in a slum district. He recalls his father’s flight and his upbringing at the hands of his mother. On her death, neighbourhood women attend to Delgado, who adamantly refuses to help himself. Eventually, he begins living in a community setting, with five other disabled youngsters and a succession of caregivers, including Juan.
Juan has more success with Delgado’s recalcitrance than any of his predecessors or colleagues. But when he leaves to travel to the United States, Delgado again experiences a sense of abandonment. At first, Juan struggles to adapt to his new community in the Deep South. However, his isolation is alleviated by the warmth shown by certain of the residents, among them Loretta. He also becomes friends with a young German caregiver, Daniela.
Loretta develops a crush on Juan, but in a jealous fit of rage accuses him of sexually abusing her, airing her charge a day or two after Juan leaves the country to revisit his native land. He arrives home in time to assume a small but important role in a play the Santo Domingo community have rehearsed during the latter stages of his absence.
Typically, Delgado has been a reluctant participant and brings the same attitude to the performance of the play, which relates the story of an archer in the Greek army abandoned by his shipmates on an island after he is wounded. Since then the archer has wilfully rejected all attempts to help him heal. Delgado, in a seminal flash of illumination, at last realises the significance of the play’s message and is thus empowered to do something he has stubbornly refused to do all his life.
Part One / Delgado
The cry they hear from me every day.
At lunchtime and again in the evenings, when we often have reheated leftovers, I bandy the word about in much the same way fishermen toss bait into streams. They know I’m going to badger them with it until someone scoops the blackened, stuck-together remnants of rice from the bottom of the pot and spoons a portion on to my plate.
I like most this part of the meal. But then something redeeming has to come out of eating white rice day in and day out. Our lone respite comes at breakfast when Milagros and Sylvia dole out fruit, yogurt and bread complemented by various kinds of spread including cheese. In fact, I can never raise interest in the meal and would sit it out altogether but for their pushy ways. Sylvia near yanked my arm from its socket dragging me to the table the other morning.
When I have concon on my plate I’ll begin eating as opposed to acting the goat. I’ll grab the spoon they’ve provided, stick it in the casserole – or whatever name it goes by – and ingest a mouthful. I’ll yelp a lot less than usual. I’ll be a good deal quieter all round, my noises under wraps.
Gumming the crunchy pieces or, better still, chomping them with the teeth I have remaining, I fidget less and reduce the frequency with which I smack myself on the back of the head with my left hand and gnaw my index finger, sometimes in the same instant.
Milagros and Sylvia will stop eating and exchange the most eloquent of knowing looks, one imbued with a modicum of genuine hope. If Delgado can sit still and behave himself when he chooses, might there not yet come a day … ?
But before they get carried away with a there may be hope for him fantasy I pull the rug out from beneath their feet in no uncertain fashion. I’ll spit out the medicine they thrust between my lips and upend my plate or push it halfway across the table.
One time the contents ended up in the distraught Blanca’s lap. Sylvia flew out of her chair, screamed at the top of her lungs and would’ve given me a terrific slap had I not shielded my head with both arms, denying her vehemence access.
I’d be the first to admit my table manners leave something to be desired. In truth they used to be much worse. But what did they expect when they brought me here? Did I ask to come and join this community? I hadn’t been in the place an hour when they stuck me at the head of this table and here I’ve sat morning, afternoon and evening ever since, like a prize exhibit.
As often as not in the early days, I grunted, chewed a piece out of my index finger, thumped myself on the chest with my right fist and hit the turf. Not one mealtime passed without their trying to anchor me to the chair and my rebelling against their resolve with all my might, as one long accustomed to squatting on the ground and eating with his fingers.
I had no use for knives, forks, spoons and fancy ornamentation like napkins. My knife, fork and spoon rolled into one lay at the end of my right arm. But in time I grew disillusioned with waging a one-man war. On a morning weeks after my arrival they led me to the table and there I stayed. The then caregivers looked amazed at my lack of resistance. To all intents and purposes, there ended my habit of languishing on the floor and stuffing my face with my fingers.
My earliest recollection, in this life of perdition, comprises two faces glowing down at me. Two young faces, the male one aloof, gruff, in spite of the smile, a two or three-day growth around the chin and cheekbones. I’d entered the world weeks before and no one had as yet pinned the malevolent label handicapped.
However, the smiles gave leave to other expressions soon enough. A kind of revulsion in the visage of the man and deep sadness and concern – I would call it trepidation – on the face of my mother. I hesitate to class the man my father. Before long his face receded, then it became fuzzy, then it vanished. I know not where.
We subsisted in a shantytown on the outskirts of the capital. When savvy enough to take in more than the few feet extending either side of me, I recognized our small hut of wooden planks to be one of many, no better or worse than its neighbors.
The outside world began its trespass, an encroachment more daunting by the day. For most in the neighborhood, hightailing it from point a to point b meant getting off the backside and walking, an idea shocking to me. My mother coaxed and cajoled to no avail. I can picture her today, turning away disgusted whenever I collapsed in a heap where I stood.
But this never stopped her bringing me to the church to beg. When I became too big for her to bear in her arms, she sought the assistance of a neighbor or passer-by. At the church, we propped beside the main doors. While the spiffily dressed congregation filed in and out, my mother implored me to thrust a hand and accept what the goodly-hearted had to offer.
She met their gazes with a look of lamentation, explicit in its quality of earnest beseeching. Words would have sullied the effect created. My lamentable state spoke for itself in any case. I could neither walk – no one would’ve guessed the part unwillingness played in the scenario – nor talk. In this regard, my mother’s efforts and those of others met with failure ignoble and complete.
I understood the comments people directed at me from their enormous heights but elected to respond in a language home-brewed, with a signature tune of grunts, yelps and squeals. I would perfect it in years to come and it communicated all I wished to convey.
I never considered how people looked at me, whether with sympathy, as in many cases, indifference or disdain bordering on malice at the thought such a pathetic one had been born, breathed and lived. But now and again, those who deemed me a figure of fun had to be shown a lesson.
A casual acquaintance in the village, a boy about my vintage, used to come calling with his mother, a woman on good terms with mine. Thinking back, her darling may have been beset with a disability too but one lacking the profundity of mine. If you want my opinion, most people have a disability though I won’t open that can of worms here.
His parents had named their boy Rafael, far from an auspicious moniker for any toting knowledge of the not-too-remote history of this pretty but tarnished Caribbean nation. Did his parents possess none or had they been admirers of Trujillo? Whatever, pintsized Rafael exhibited dictatorial traits, notwithstanding the shorts and grubby fingers.
Whenever he and his mother dropped in, they discovered me on the floor of the hut or lounging on the step out front, minding my business and doing my thing. He would stop and stare as if no more peculiar specimen could have existed on the planet.
I didn’t appreciate the look in his eye because I discerned more behind it than our dear mothers did, entangled in the latest gossip about so-and-so down the street who had broken his arm in a car accident or someone else who had decorated his wife with a black eye, or another who had done or failed to do God only knew what. They had plenty to keep their tongues wagging.
Sure enough Rafael played the cherub until they left us alone. Then he revealed the card he wished to play. I grunted louder and rocked back and forth in my place upon his approach but my mother, immersed in the gab with her neighbor, never noticed.
Rafael would tug at my matchstick thin arms and legs, harder and harder until it hurt. He would fling an open hand or clenched fist in the direction of my face, drawing back from striking me at the last moment. He would put food out of my reach and grab it himself when I lunged. A sweet boy, like I said.
This had been going on months when I taught him a lesson. He had begun interlacing the tugs, pulls and feints with pinches when I bit him fair and square on the left hand. He lacked the limberness, the suppleness of form, to pull back in time. Of course he burst into tears and ran and took refuge in his mother’s skirts. He maintained his distance from then.
Someone nicknamed me Delgado, on account of my lean physique, when I arrived in the community. The designation has held down the years. These days most people wouldn’t equate me with Otto, my real name. To friends of the community, to anyone who stops by the house long enough, I’m Delgado.
I don’t care what they call me. But if I loathed the name and could make the fact known would it change anything? I doubt it. More than likely they would go on using it. All sacredness flies away when you’re in the position I’m in. They pinned a nickname on me with the same impunity they did everything else.
Would Sylvia appreciate it if all and sundry began referring to her as Flaca? Few are as skinny as she, after all. By the same token, would Milagros – older than me by five years – thank anyone for the soubriquet Vieja? Of course they wouldn’t. Both of them would be ticked off.
Sometime after I turned the tables on Rafael, my mother abandoned me like that man had done years before. From overwork, her heart stuttered to a halt. During the last years of her life the burden of daily hauling me off to church, to say nothing of dealing with my behaviors, must have done her in.
I fought tooth and nail every inch of the way in an effort not to face the churchgoers, whose guilt and self-torment hung from the rafters. The cocksureness they radiated at the same time struck me as funny. But my mother, with her clips around the ears, always won the day.
Once, a man in his thirties halted before us, took one look at me, bowed his head and burst into tears. Finding his exhibition distasteful, I grunted loud in the hope of scaring him away but gained another crack across the ear for my trouble. The bleeding heart fished in the pocket of his trousers, withdrew a handful of coins and then entered the church.
The most infuriating of the lot elevated their hands and prayed over me, intoning mumbo jumbo, as if they had a direct line to God in His manifestation as the Holy Ghost. Did they believe He might then descend upon me in all His mercy, like the proverbial dove out of heaven, and erase my ills in a trice?
I know parents never miss an opportunity to extol the virtues and successes of their children. But what did my mother have to show? A useless lump, good for nothing bar taking up space. I never did a thing for or by myself, with the exception of eating, though for several years, in an ironical twist, I amounted to her principal means of livelihood.
Neighbors buried her and in so doing banged shut the lid on my days of forced marches to the church and humiliating alms begging. I didn’t shed a tear when it dawned on me she’d gone and would not be transporting me anywhere anymore. My vision never advanced beyond the day at hand – the moment at hand, in actual fact. Nor did I ponder how I’d survive alone.
I would have preferred to be left alone, to dream cockeyed dreams of the world and my martyrdom, to flounder in the dirt in a corner of the hut. Instead, neighbors from the parish looked in on me daily, washing and feeding me. Their degree of efficiency depended on my state of mind.
They took turns attending to my needs. For instance, Rafael’s mother bagged Monday mornings. Of an afternoon, Mercedes had her turn. In conclusion, in the evening, Pilar trilled her way into the hut. Three other women had the dubious pleasure of my company the next day, another three the next day and so on.
The more intrepid endeavored to persuade me to step into the open air for light exercise though the majority met with failure. Had my caregiving circle been comprised of young, pretty women the success rate may have been higher. Alas, the lined faces of the señoras denoted the hardship of their lives.
Their ministration palled. But I had absorbed a fact or two over the years and knew I wouldn’t have lasted long without them. Sometimes I refused to open up and swallow the food they spooned toward my mouth or coughed it back in their faces. Other times I accepted it with relish.
This went on a long while. I read nothing into it when I began overhearing chatter about an intentional community in an impecunious neighborhood on the other side of town. I never objected to the visits of the delegation representing them, headed by Mariane. She didn’t mind when I propped myself beside her and lowered a hand on her bare-from-the-knees-down legs.
One day more than a year after my mother passed away, Rafael’s mother bid me good morning, faithful as ever to her Monday calling. Afterwards, she and a neighbor insisted I climb aboard a van with Mariane and two other members of the delegation.
The stop-start transit across town to my new home took an hour and a half. The prayers my unsung, unofficial caregivers had held in their hearts since my mother’s death had been answered. And I’d been abandoned again.
Allow me to digress and introduce my family. I’ve mentioned Milagros, Sylvia and Blanca. Blanca sits to my left at the table. In a population in the main made up of people with shades of complexion ranging from olive through to ebony, they don’t come fairer than Blanca. She couldn’t have been christened with a more apt name.
Like me she doesn’t have much to say for herself. Sometimes I reach out my left hand and grab her or interfere with her plate or bowl. This elicits a reaction but at no time could she be accused of garrulousness. Her favorite word by far is Dee. I assume this is the name or nickname of a relative. She comes alive, quivers with delight, wrings her hands, at the mention of the woman.
She acts much the same on prayer night when we chorus at the outset of the meeting or when a favorite tune airs on the radio. I have seen her pick her nose and masticate the contents when she believed no one, Milagros and Sylvia at least, to be watching though God would be an inflexible customer if he held this against her at the pearly gates.
Frizzy-haired Lidia occupies the place on her left. We call her Liddy. At her last birthday she turned fifteen. I remember the day, long ago, a shamefaced young woman brought her to the house. I had never glimpsed agony of conscience on a par.
Liddy draws the attention of most everyone who comes to the house to the photographs fastened to a notice board in the living room. She prods the guest or visitor into hazarding guesses as to who the people are.
One features her as a young girl, hair in pigtails and ribbons. Another shows a young woman with features similar to Liddy’s. But she can’t make up her mind about the identity of the individual in this print. It boils down to her mother or her sister.
Her carefree laugh resounds in the chapel, in the workshop, in the other house and her bedroom. She has to suppress a chuckle on the frequent occasions I’m taken to task. The other morning Milagros declared straight to my face tu eres un bebé. Liddy laughed so hard her food channeled down the wrong pipe.
Next to Liddy we have Didi, when she’ll consent to join us at the table. Often the last to take her place, she needs constant reminders to sit up straight like a young lady, stop roaring at the rest of us, concentrate when she pours water into her or someone else’s glass, to name the most common infractions.
Our neighbors across the street invite Didi over every once in a while. The daughters often pop in to say hello, warm hands outstretched. Whenever they run out of water they ask if they can replenish their supply from the black barrel in our yard. We maintain it as near to the full mark as possible.
Didi dashes on to the front patio and yells out their names at least once a day. But then I’ve seen her scream at perfect strangers in the same fashion. Since she entered our lives I’ve watched her bite, spit, scratch, hit, pinch and gouge.
I’ll own she can melt into another’s arms when the mood is on her. But the sight fills me with unease for thinking of the risk run by the embraced one. The expression in her eyes never changes and when she tilts her chin and gazes at the one she has her arms around I know the hug will soon metamorphose into a vise.
I once saw her clinging to Miguel. She raised her head, laughed a deep-throated laugh and pinched him so hard he jumped. Countless times I’ve witnessed her aggression, camouflaged or not, with the folks from the other house.
Sylvia occupies the place at the other end of the table. To her left, morning, noon and night, sits Reynaldo. When I say morning, noon and night, I’m discounting the times he absents himself, claiming no interest in food. I doubt anything will ever satisfy his pining for the place he hails from, west of the capital. To this day, Reynaldo’s father makes his home there.
On my day I can wake the dead hammering on the closed door of my bedroom. But this pales in comparison to the din of Reynaldo slamming his bedroom door. How the hinges have stood up to the battering as long they have I’ll never know.
When he has done with the door he stuffs a bag with rudimentary items. Then he bolts out the front door, slamming it on its springs for good measure, realizing the futility of his flight only after rounding the bend leading to the main road. People gape and the less empathetic among the younger brigade taunt him.
When I’ve been walked to my room of an afternoon or gone there of my own volition, I often hear the local boys improvising a baseball game out front of the house, their pet gathering place for sport and less arduous recreational pursuits.
The plastic slats doubling as a window shade in my bedroom will be closed against the afternoon sun. Nonetheless, noise filters in, the smack of a ball hitting a board propped against a brick or several large rocks – their approximation of a pitcher’s throw – and the subsequent giving chase depending on how well the hitter dispatches the ball when it ricochets toward him.
They’re spent within half an hour, at the latest forty-five minutes. I can tell the ones who aspire to the American leagues and baseball’s Hall of Fame. I’ve observed from the patio and know right off the swagger and the portentousness.
But why did I refer to this? To make the point: besides improvised baseball contests they expend a good deal of time and energy baiting Reynaldo. And how he falls for it. I overhear the ruckus much as I do the clap of ball against wood when they’re at play.
When he has launched all the rocks within reach, he slams the palms of his hands down on the roof or hood of the nearest parked vehicle – as a rule the property of the father, uncle, cousin or elder sibling of one of the provokers.
This gang of young underemployed goads each and every one of us who reside in the houses. I notice them leering at me when I occasion by on a walk. They entertain each other with random impersonations of my behaviors. But, unlike Reynaldo, I pretend they don’t exist.
Reynaldo’s father, Pedro, enters our midst once or twice a month. He tends to arrive early on a Saturday or Sunday, worn out after the overnight journey. Following a bite to eat, he unbuttons his sleeves at the wrist and drops to his haunches in the garden. Milagros reminds him he needn’t feel obligated but he proceeds in all weather.
Reynaldo’s elation on these weekends knows no bounds. He shadows the small-boned man, whose creased brow and jowls take me back to the women who provided my care through thick and thin after my mother discarded the burden of her body.
But he sinks into the depths in the days thereafter. Then, more than ever, he lowers his hands on my shoulders and guides me into his room across the corridor. In the inner sanctum, he rustles up and proffers his most treasured possession, an old-style black and white portrait.
I’m able to recognize Pedro in the young man. The attractive woman with him must be his wife, Reynaldo’s mother. Whenever Reynaldo reveals it, he taps the image of his father, as sober and somber in youth as now, and kisses it.
‘Pedro,’ he says.
The woman exudes pensiveness the equal of Pedro’s. On the photographic evidence, I think of the couple as having united less out of joy than a need to find solace and companionship in a hostile world, putrid around the edges. Reynaldo resulted from the merger. I once overheard someone inquire about the whereabouts of the woman in the portrait.
‘In heaven,’ he answered.
‘Proper Respect for a Wound’ tells a heartwarming and inspiring tale surrounding a small community in the Dominican Republic. The story “finds the artistic potential and cultural currency of the personal confessional and crafts a tale that will lead his audience to identify with the disabled and their caregivers.” Mark Decker, Kaleidoscope Literary Magazine.
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