The house stood at the top of a hill. Although the ad promised “plenty of rooms, grand living spaces, balconies and a large patio,” it was huge; much more than I had imagined. I considered walking away, lest I fall in love with the place and not afford the rent, but I was already there. I had nothing to lose by just seeing it.
As I went up the hill, I noticed the door was open. “Good afternoon,” I called, knocking on the frame. Nobody answered, so I decided to go inside. I immediately wiped my shoes on the welcome mat. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I could hear my mother’s voice scolding me for leaving shoe prints all over the floor. Walking on my tiptoes so as to avoid as much contact with the immaculate white floor as possible, I found a winding staircase leading to a level below.
I ended in a dark basement with an overwhelming smell of varnish. As I walked along a long, dark corridor with winding staircases ascending to the light above, I could see the flickering light of a television set at the end. I approached. In a small, unlit room with dark wooden walls, an old man lay on a bed. His body, already consumed by the passing of time, was merely a bundle of bones covered with a thin layer of skin. His face showed no semblance of life. I felt repugnance and fear. I thought he was dead, but suddenly the old man turned his head and looked straight into my eyes.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought the house was uninhabited.”
“I’m not in this house. The house is upstairs. I’m here, waiting,” he said.
“And who are you waiting for?” I asked.
“For death,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. It seemed like an insult to invade his darkness with my youth so I thought of leaving. I was uncomfortable. How could I understand his plight? I had a long way to go before sitting down to wait. I was about to leave when I noticed the man could not tend to himself. He sat on the bed, too weak to move, and the only light in the room was the incessant flickering of the giant television set.
“¿Who do you live here with?” I asked, anxious for somebody to come. I didn’t want to leave the old man alone.
“With nobody. I already told you, the house is empty. I’m not really here. I’m insignificant. You can leave in peace. I’ve been here a long time and nobody has ever come.”
“You’ve been here all this time just waiting for death?” I asked surprised.
“And who said it would come?”
“Death always comes, young lady. It’s the only thing guaranteed in life.”
“Yes,” I said, “but I could start waiting today and wait for a long time, or start waiting later and shorten the wait time. Or better yet, maybe I shouldn’t wait at all and let death surprise me.”
The man wrinkled his brow and looked at the floor as if considering my ideas. Those were the longest moments I remember. When he finally lifted his gaze, his eyes seemed full of life, but in truth they were full of tears that sparkled in the light of the television set.
“I think I’d rather wait here in peace. I wouldn’t want death to take me by surprise.”
“Then, shall I leave you alone? Wouldn’t you like to go upstairs and have a cup of coffee?” I suggested, determined to give him some company, even if it was only for a few minutes.
The man lifted his eyes off of the TV and eyed me up and down. I didn’t mind; anything to get him out of that bed.
“Come on!” I said. “You said it yourself, nobody has ever come.”
It did the trick. He got up with an impressive agility and with the blink of an eye he had his slippers on and a cane in his hand. I helped him down the hall to the nearest staircase. If he had gotten out of bed that easily, he might not have much trouble going up. It was so. The man who first seemed to be on the brink of death climbed up the steps without any help. Light shone on his face. The wrinkles that seemed exaggerated in the darkness were less pronounced now. With each step his legs seemed to strengthen, leaving behind the sticks that used to lie on the bed. At the top, the man looked at me again.
“The light does wonders for you,” he said smiling.
I couldn’t help but smile back. After all, the light had done wonders for him. Suddenly, his eyes flipped backwards and he lost balance, holding me for support. He looked at me with surprise as he grabbed hold of his chest, his face clearly in anguish.
“You know?” he said laughing as his body twisted towards the floor. “I never thought you’d be this beautiful. Ironic, isn’t it? After all this time, you always managed to take me by surprise.”
© 2013 Maricel Jimenez. All rights reserved.
For the Spanish version go to: https://mariceljimenez.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/la-casa-deshabitada/