Cumbia

Fiction / Myriam Gurba

:: Cumbia ::

They met at a grim three­some.

She, a niece, as well as a writer, sat sidesad­dle on the deathbed.

A heather gray tunic draped her. Cut from t-shirt mate­r­i­al, it dan­gled from spaghet­ti straps. Beneath it, a scoop-necked, cobalt top mold­ed itself to her. Her ex-boyfriend, a dra­ma teacher from whom she’d escaped sev­er­al months pri­or, had enjoyed shit talk­ing the Oxfords that com­plet­ed her out­fit.

They look like under­tak­er shoes,” he’d com­plain.

He’d been wrong. They were les­bian shoes, and he hadn’t under­stood this because he wasn’t a les­bian, he was a man, one which her clever les­bian friends found dis­taste­ful in his ordi­nar­i­ness.

She stared at her uncle’s face. The insti­tu­tion­al light fix­ture mount­ed above his head­board cast a glow about his shaved head. This didn’t look angel­ic. Flu­o­res­cence can’t.

Her uncle’s nos­trils twitched and pain yanked his head up and off his pil­low. His neck tensed, tendons/tendons/tendons, and agony twist­ed his fea­tures and kept twist­ing them, con­tort­ing his cheeks, nose, brow, and mouth in ways the writer had nev­er seen done to human skin. She’d only seen dishrags twist­ed like this when her moth­er had wrung them out on hope­less school nights. She’d felt sor­ry for the dishrags.

Her uncle’s tongue scraped his remain­ing teeth, nubs resem­bling pil­on­cil­lo, and the tongue froze like a flag in midair. What else does that? Is out and wet and pink and crisp? A dog’s penis. The writer thought of one, a pit bull’s she’d watched unsheathe itself as he squat­ted at a woman’s feet.

She’d been brunch­ing on an omelet.

Eye­balls bugged. Nos­trils flared. Eyes squeezed shut as her uncle shook his head, gri­maced, and exhaled hard enough to hurt him­self.

He looked Holo­causty.

And so the niece had arranged for help.

Breathe,” she whis­pered.

shut­up…” he moaned. Anoth­er parox­ysm was on its way.

Obey­ing, she wait­ed. She want­ed.

She want­ed her uncle to have what her grand­moth­er hadn’t, a dig­ni­fied death, the best death his veteran’s ben­e­fits could afford, and she knew that a final cur­tain like that would require opi­ates.

HE WILL FUCKING HAVE MORPHINE TONIGHT, the writer texted her lit­tle sis­ter, a Jew, and nurse, work­ing in New York City, OR ONE OF THESE FUCKS IS GONNA PAY.

The sis­ter replied, THEY STILL HAVEN’T GIVEN HIM MORPHINE??????

Three knife emo­jis fol­lowed the ques­tion.

NO

In return, the sis­ter texted triple the knife emo­jis.

EXACTLY, the writer replied. She sighed. She was ready to ruin someone’s evening or life for her uncle’s com­fort. She was ready to make some­one scared, to make some­one suf­fer. She want­ed to inflict what­ev­er pain necessary—physical, emo­tion­al, or psychic—and then she would scream at the admin­is­tra­tor or staff mem­ber or who­ev­er else need­ed to be screamed at.

She would demand, “How do you like it? Oh, you don’t like it? You want relief?

 WELL, YOU CAN’T HAVE ANY.”

Her uncle’s chest heaved.

She stared.

She under­stood what she was watch­ing.

Each fam­i­ly has a dying style: she knew what her family’s looked, smelled, and sound­ed like, and her uncle’s breath­ing was increas­ing­ly approx­i­mat­ing her abuelita’s the night before she woke up dead. Mem­o­ries of her abuelita’s death rat­tle evoked goth­ic images in the writer’s mind. One of them: a Mex­i­can hag with a black lace veil plopped over her sil­ver hair. Catholic lin­gerie …

In a Taga­log accent, some­one, prob­a­bly a nurs­ing assis­tant, chirped, “Hel­lo, doc­tor!”

I’m not a doc­tor!” a man barked back.

Foot­steps approached the pri­va­cy cur­tain. It swished. The writer turned to look.

At the foot of the bed stood a svelte bear of a man in a white coat. The blue of his eyes was remark­able. They were the blue of pop music and études. This made the writer angry. Why had some­one with libid­i­nal appeal been sent to the deathbed? It was vul­gar.

The writer thought about fir­ing the beard­ed man.

Her bisex­u­al gaze locked with his.

Hel­lo,” he told her. “I am the hos­pice nurse.”

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I rarely write about love.

When I do, I’m often writ­ing about my uncle Hen­ry. If not writ­ing direct­ly about him, then I’m writ­ing indi­rect­ly about him.

I wrote this piece as what I thought was a deathbed account. My uncle was dying, though he didn’t die, and this sto­ry is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the sickbed por­trai­ture that I was mak­ing of him. I con­stant­ly doc­u­ment my uncle and am inspired to cre­ate arti­facts relat­ed to his many ill­ness­es. The first instance that I saw of such work was Han­nah Wilke’s Intra-Venus series. She cre­at­ed the pho­to­graph­ic series with her hus­band, Don­ald God­dard, while she was dying of can­cer.

The pho­tographs are equal parts beau­ty and grotesque, repel­lent and mag­net­ic, vul­ner­a­ble and rock hard. This tends to be a com­mon qual­i­ty in sickbed and deathbed por­trai­ture.

Anoth­er work that I had in mind was a paint­ing that I saw as a child. The paint­ing rep­re­sent­ed hell and fea­tured a soul burn­ing there. The soul, sur­round­ed by flames, appeared on a tall, met­al alms box in a Mex­i­can chapel. The image didn’t inspire me to give alms, but it inspired me to want to meet peo­ple in hell.

 

Myr­i­am Gur­ba is a high school teacher, writer, pod­cast­er and artist who lives in Long Beach, Cal­i­for­nia. Her most recent book, the true crime mem­oir Mean, was a New York Times edi­tors’ choice. Pub­lish­ers Week­ly describes her as a “lit­er­ary voice like none oth­er.” Gur­ba co-hosts the AskBi­Gr­lz advice pod­cast with car­toon­ist, and fel­low bira­cial­ist, Mari­Nao­mi. Her col­lage and dig­i­tal art­work has been shown in muse­ums, gal­leries, and com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters.