By Pablo Agrio
He was ready to go, but terribly afraid.
Death was knocking at the door and he knew it. He used to be big a man, but old age had shrunk him. White hair with a touch of gray. Liver spots covered his face. A new arrival he was. Hospice the best option.
When Octavio showed up, he was handed the chart by Lorena, his supervisor. He received a brief explanation of the situation. The client was terminally ill. That was the bottom line. He looked at the clipboard and his face registered shock.
“Are you okay?” asked Lorena.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s nothing.”
Lorena was smart and hard working. A single mother of two, dedicated to her job. Early forties maybe. Cared for her workers. Made clients and relatives feel comfortable. He took his leave quickly before she asked more questions. She knew him as Octavio Paz, dedicated and dependable. Not a whiner.
He regained his composure, put on a baseball cap and went to see the client.
He had his eyes closed, resting. Unrecognizable. Octavio waited a moment, checked the paperwork and looked at the headboard. Carlos Hermosillo, it said. He introduced himself.
“Hello, Mr. Hermosillo, I’m Octavio,” he said. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”
The old man opened his eyes and shook his head. Octavio told him he would see him later at meal time and left.
So it began. Octavio would show up on his workdays and do his duty. Towards the end of the shift he would drop by and pull up a chair next to the old man. There wasn’t much conversation at first but by the second week things picked up. It looked like the old man had something he wanted to get off his chest.
He told the story in bits and pieces, matter of fact, with just a trace of regret. Between listening to what he was saying and gauging his emotions, it was hard for Octavio to tell.
He’d married his high school sweetheart. They were both third, maybe fourth generation Mexican-Americans. At first, Octavio wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it. He would bring a magazine with him to entertain himself. The old man would talk as if talking to himself. They’d had two children, a boy and a girl, grown and successful he was sure—although he hadn’t seen either one of them in a long time.
He was not sure when it happened. Perhaps soon after the kids left home or maybe before that, but he hadn’t been living much of a marriage. To the world they were husband and wife, but privately they lived separate lives.
“Before,” Octavio muttered.
He worked as a butcher for a guy from Chicago who acted as if he was connected. He made real good money. The boss (that’s what he called him) loved him and treated him like more than just an employee. He would often send him on business trips to check out some new product or equipment related to the business. Life was good, simple. Then he met the nurse (he didn’t use her name — protecting the innocent, maybe?) on a flight back to LAX. They were sitting next to each other on the plane and the conversation just flowed. He thought nothing of it even when he asked if he could meet her for lunch or something. She agreed and they exchanged info. He was in his early fifties and pretty much done with life but now he felt his blood pumping again.
At first, he was careful to have an excuse for his whereabouts. He knew the change in his routine would cause his wife to start wondering, but he rationalized that—given the way things were—she probably wouldn’t even notice. The nurse made him feel young again and the more time he spent with her, the more he felt that it was where he belonged. He didn’t like the area she lived in and hated going there, so he set her up with an apartment in a more upscale neighborhood.
They were about to celebrate the second anniversary of the affair when she asked why he bothered to return to his wife. She suggested he get a divorce and make things right with everyone. He knew that made a lot of sense, but for some reason he was scared to death to rock the boat. However, he didn’t know how to explain this fear to her. The subject was worrisome, threatened to destroy the good thing they had going.
He began to rehearse how to break the news to his wife. He thought about talking to the children first but decided against that. The girl was close to her mom and wouldn’t understand. And the boy could go either way. No, it was best to go straight to her and then let the kids know.
The stress of the situation was threatening his otherwise good health. He felt he needed to have the talk as soon as possible or risk losing the nurse. He presented his case to her on a Friday evening, hoping to have something good to tell the nurse the following day. She was in the kitchen fixing something to eat. He went straight to the point. He told her she could keep everything. He would just take his car and personal belongings. She took it all in and remained unusually calm. Then she spoke:
“So that’s it. I was wondering when you would get around to telling me about your plans. You think you can just discard me, replace me with a younger model. You get to live happy, but what about me? What am I supposed to do? Sit in this big house and just stare at the walls? Okay then, you want a divorce, you’ll get a divorce. Take your things with you and don’t come back. You’ll hear from my lawyer.”
He tried to tell her that there was no need for lawyers to get involved, but she was done talking. She walked off without looking at him. He felt goosebumps all over and his stomach turned. He sat down for a moment to collect himself and thought about having a drink but decided against it.
He showed up at the nurse’s place carrying his clothes. He must have looked awful because she came to him and put her hand on his forehead to see if he had a temperature. He told her what had transpired.
His wife hired a gold digger of a lawyer. She knew her job and she took him to the woodshed and spanked him good. Between paying his lawyer and what the court awarded his wife he was left with nothing. He started working overtime just to break even. When the lawyer found out she took him back to court and asked the judge to increase the settlement based on new income. And despite his lawyer’s objections the judge did. The shock caused his jaw to hit the ground.
The nurse told him in no uncertain terms he needed to do something or else. She was now the one picking up the expenses and that was bullshit.
He carried a worried look everywhere. Things were so bad his boss called him to the office and asked him if he was okay. He assured him all was well. The boss gave him a long hard look and offered to help with whatever it was that was troubling him. He said nothing. He left work and instead of heading home he checked in to a nearby bar. He ordered Tequila. He sat at the bar and drank his troubles away. Halfway through the bottle, Tequila spoke to him and gave him the answer to his problem. He finished the bottle and after paying his bill he stopped at the bathroom to gather himself before embarking on the mission.
“So alcohol made you do it,” asked Octavio.
“No, no, no…” said the old man.
“What, then?”The old man said nothing. Closed his eyes. Octavio stared at him for a moment and left.
The following day Mr. Hermosillo continued.
A couple of weeks later, a couple of detectives were waiting for him outside the plant where he worked. They told him his children had reported his wife missing and they wanted to know if he knew anything about her whereabouts. He replied he didn’t and acted surprised and concerned. They wanted to know if the children had called him and if not, why not. He told them he hadn’t heard from them but long hours at work kept him from communicating much with them. They asked a lot of questions and in the end, they told him they would be back if they needed more information from him.
They weren’t lying. They kept showing up over and over, everywhere. He started to fear he would get to a point where he couldn’t remember what he’d said to them on any previous occasion. He reached out to the children, but they made it clear they didn’t want to talk to him.
Of course not.
To her credit, the nurse did not ask him any questions. She stuck to what she knew to be her truth and nothing else. Ignorance is bliss, they say. When he suggested they go to Rosarito for a little vacation, she readily agreed. They needed a break. They left in the middle of the night.
You were running, your conscience bothering you.
He was just starting to relax and take control of his nerves when a couple of federales came calling at his door.
They told him he needed to accompany them to the police station to answer some questions in connection to his wife’s disappearance. He asked about a lawyer. They told him they didn’t know anything about that. At the station, he thought he answered their questions well and hoped to be excused, no harm no foul. They left him to go make a call, or so they said. When they came back, they placed him in handcuffs and told him he would be kept in detention until he told them what happened to his wife. They also told him they’d just arrested the nurse as an accessory, and she would be kept in jail until such time as they could clear her name. He pleaded with them. He told them they were wrong for what they were doing and asked to speak with an American representative. He was placed in a filthy holding tank that reeked of piss and other unrecognizable odors. He was incommunicado and not sure of his options, afraid to eat and afraid to sleep lest he fell victim to disease or his fellow inmates.
About the fourth day into his ordeal, a guard brought him a note he said was from the nurse. In the note she begged him to do something about her situation because she was getting roughed up by the other women in the detention facility. Serves her right. He became enraged and started screaming like a wild animal. Guttural screams announcing powerlessness and defeat.
Told the guard he wanted to speak to the Federales that brought him in. They took their time coming. When they took him back to the interrogation room, he promised to tell them everything if they agreed to let the nurse go. They said sure, but they lied.
When they took him across the border to San Diego, the same detectives who had first approached him outside his job were there waiting for him. They said they would read him his rights and once he’d repeated everything he’d told the federales they would make sure the nurse was freed. He did, but more than that he took them to the site where he’d buried the body.
His boss visited him while in jail awaiting trial. He was on no-bail status, so there was nothing he could do for him on that account. Looking at him through the glass window, with the telephone receiver in his hand, he whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me? I could’ve helped.”
Convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison with a life sentence. Now in his late eighties and terminally ill, he was granted compassionate release. He had no place to go and no one to turn to. That’s how he’d ended up in hospice.
He lasted another month or so. As soon as Octavio walked in, Lorena gave him the news. Even though he was expecting it, he felt the blow.
“You okay?” Lorena asked.
His eyes welled up. “That was my dad.”
(Bio: Pablo Agrio is a former Marine and police officer who spent time in prison for murder. During his incarceration he obtained a law degree. His award-winning essays have appeared online and in print. His memoir In Pursuit of Happiness was published by BookBaby in 2020 and Octavia, a short story, was published by The Yard: Crime Blog in 2021. He is a member of the UCLA Wordcommandos Creative Writing Workshop for Veterans.)