Elsa's Life

Luna was a state-funded art project where painters, musicians and writers worked with the elderly. The artists took turns evaluating the new clients, deciding what kind of project they would most enjoy. Clarissa, the writer, was sorry to realize how few of the old people wanted to do oral histories or to write stories. Painting, and music were what they liked the most.

Clarissa was assigned two people simply because she could speak Spanish with them. But she was sure Mr. Ramirez had a wonderful story. A Spaniard. 80 years old, still fit and muscular, with black hair and mustache, broody brown eyes. He had been a sailor and had traveled all over the world.

Every Tuesday morning she would show up at nine. They sat in front of the window that faced the bay. Clarissa opened a World Atlas and made them strong coffees with milk and then they would begin.

"Where were we?" he would ask.


"Muy bien. Copper. Next port Arequipa. Callao. Guayaquil. Buenaventura. Balboa. Colón."

And that was it. Week after week. Names of every port, with an occasional reference to cargo. Sewing machines, olives, oranges, wire cables. Clarissa and Sr. Ramirez had already been around the world several times.

He was handsome but never had a girl in any port. He never went ashore. he stayed on board in Madagascar, Rio, Marseilles. In every port, all over the world. When asked why, he said it was because he didn't drink. The only romance he told Clarissa of was a three day affair he had with a whore off a sampan in Singapore. He was alone on the ship, everyone else had gone on leave. She climbed up a rope onto the deck and she refused to leave. She wanted him to marry her and take her to the USA, didn't understand that he wasn't American. It wasn't an American ship. He remembered her fondly. They cooked, just the two of them, in the galley. They danced to music from the short wave radio. Artie Shaw's "Frenesi". At night they slept on a mattress outside on the deck, beneath the stars. At last, weeping, she slid down the rope onto a sampan which lay low in the water. The sampan was crowded with her family, all visibly disappointed in her.

Elsa, another of Clarissa's clients, lived in the Mission district, in a small house only blocks from the 16th street Bart. A shabby gray building on a car-lined street, dwarfed by graffitied apartments. The windows and doors had metal bars on them. Inocencia, Elsa's sister, opened the door only wide enough to peer over a metal chain.

It was hot, summer, and they were ironing and cooking food and boiling laundry. The windows were steamed up. Ferns and banana plants and ivies dripped as if it were Veracruz in rainy season. Bright plastic flowers and real plants were everywhere. There were two or three bird cages in every room. Canaries, parrots, finches, macaws, love birds. Juan Gabriel singing "Noche de Ronda" could barely be heard above the cacophony of bird songs, horns and sirens, pneumatic drills from the street sounded like far away jungle noises.

"AAAiii!" wailed a blonde woman in a soap opera on top of the refrigerator, "Aii Dios mío, me está matando este amor!"

"Ai, Ai, el dolor! Me está matando el dolor!" screamed Elsa from the bedroom.

Elsa was fat and soft, with beautiful strong features. Distorted now with pain, her face resembled stone images of Coatlique giving birth to the world. She screamed, in agony, until her caregiver, Lola, gave her an injection. Almost instantly she stopped crying, lay panting, sweating under the sheet. The same soap opera flickered on a television set in Elsa's room. She resumed watching it, her breast still heaving.

Clarissa thought she'd give Elsa some time to feel better before she introduced herself. She went into the kitchen and talked with Inocencia and Lola.

Clarissa explained the arts program to Elsa's sister, told her what different things they had to offer. Inocencia was all for it. "Elsa is so sad, in so much will be nice for her to see a new face."

Elsa herself seemed to be depressed by the idea, "What can I tell you about my life? It is a boring story. Pain and loneliness and suffering."

"Suffer! Suffer! Suffer!" Lola said, handing Elsa three pills, spooning water into her mouth. Elsa's arthritis was so painful she couldn't lift her head or use her arms. Of course she couldn't walk, had to be bathed and fed.

"Maybe this lady will get your mind off your suffering!" Lola said. "Tell her all about El Salvador, about the ocean, the flowers..." Lola combed Elsa's hair, roughly. Elsa cringed. it hurt her to be touched.

"You come," Lola said to Clarissa, "Cheer her up, give me a break."

Elsa smiled weakly at Clarissa. Lola smoothed the bedding, cooled Elsa's face with a damp cloth. She turned off the television, lowered the blind and left the room. Clarissa sat in the sweltering darkness, rocking quietly as Elsa drifted off to sleep. She too almost fell asleep, or rather she was awake but entered into a dream world in the tropical heat with food sizzling in hot lard in the kitchen and murmullos from the women, which even in English, murmurs, is a mesmerizing sound. Elsa slept peacefully except for an occasional moan. Tango music played and the parrot kept calling Vente, mijo! Vente! Where exactly Clarissa drifted in her reverie isn't clear, but it seemed a peaceful, painless place.

The next time she came Clarissa brought a notebook. She didn't write much down. Elsa spoke very slowly. She seemed to enjoy describing the little house where they lived outside of San Salvador, at the end of the tram lines. Their father had been killed in a mill accident when Ivan was eight and the others all younger.

"How terrible. What did your mother do then?"

" see the woman we call our mother...she was really our aunt. She was a saint, a blessed person." As Elsa spoke, her hands cramped into claws, her body arched in pain...

"When our father died. When. When he died our mother left us. When. One day she was gone. We waited for her. A long time. Our aunt, our true mother, came and she fed us. She was our mother then. When."

"We helped her cook food to sell on the street. My brother, Ivan. He. I made drinks from pineapple and mango and cucumber. Oh yes cucumber makes a lovely drink." Elsa rang her bell. "Bring me and Clarissa an agua of cucumber."

The life she described was hard. They went to a small school in the mornings. They worked the rest of the day, until late into the night. Elsa and her family weren't Catholic, but her religion was one of the things that when mentioned caused her pain. Literal pain, her hands would curl up and she would thrash like a baby dragon in the bed.

Clarissa's notes were meager. It was painful to write the repetition of work work work. Clarissa asked Elsa if she had ever seen her birth mother. Elsa was silent and then she nodded.

"But don't write her down. She was not part of my life." The mother had come in the night and had taken her three daughters. She had thin eyebrows and smelled of perfume and dry cleaned clothes. They went on a train. Far. It was hot, midday when they got to the town where she lived. As Elsa described this she began to writhe in pain and to cry.

"Please stop. Never mind..." Clarissa said, although she did mind. "You didn't stay there, no?"

"No. Marta stayed. She wanted to stay. It was bad place, bad. She. Inocencia and I ran away in the night. We walked by the train tracks all night long. There was no moon. Just the boards and the shine of the track. In the morning I fell down. I was very sick. Typhus. I was asleep in the grass. Cool grass. A woman put me in a shed by her house. Inocencia kept on walking and walking day and night until she found our home in San Salvador. One day my mother, my aunt-mother, came with a man from the church. They took me home in a car."

"My brother, Ivan. He. He was very bad. He hit us. He hurt us. He. We stopped school because there was no money. We cooked food starting very early and took it by tram to sell outside factories. No Ivan didn't work. He."

"When I was fifteen my mother sent me her to live with an aunt and uncle. Inocencia stayed. She came much later. Ivan? No. He."

Clarissa saw that Elsa was in terrible pain. She rang the bell for Lola to come give her an injection.

"Let's listen to the radio for awhile," Clarissa said. "When you fall asleep I'll leave."

It was easy for Clarissa to assume that painful memories exacerbated Elsa's very real physical pain. But the stories she told about her difficult early years in the United States did not seem to upset her or cause her any physical distress, no matter how terrible they were. She slept on a cot in the kitchen for her relative's apartment. It was hard to sleep as many people lived there and the men drank most of the night. Elsa worked in a laundry in the Mission district, on the mangle, doing sheets for $3.00 an hour, ten hours a day. After work she would come home, eat and got to bed, year in and year out for five years. She didn't learn English or go out anywhere, had never been to Golden Gate Park or to the Wharf or even to movies in the neighborhood.

"No. I never went anywhere after work. I wasn't pretty. I was. I." she said.

It wasn't that her sentences trailed off but simply as if that was all she could bear to say. "One day I closed my eyes because I felt sick. My boss shook me. Then he."

Another day she was so tired she fell asleep standing up, burned her hand badly on the mangle. She was off work for weeks but didn't get any disability. When her hand healed they didn't give her back her job. Olivia, a woman in the Mission, got her another job ironing coveralls in another laundry, where she stayed for four years. But she began slowing down because of the arthritis in her neck and hands. Her knees hurt standing all day. She got fired for not doing enough coveralls in one day. This time though the woman Olivia helped her get disability compensation. She taught her how to apply for medical insurance and food stamps, took her all the places she need to go. In all those years Elsa had never been on a bus, had lived in the Mission as one would in an isolated mountain town. When Inocencia decided to move to the United States Olivia helped the two of them find this little house that at first they shared with an old widower they cooked and cleaned for. He left them the house when he died.

Olivia found them a wonderful job, working in the laundry of the Mark Hopkins hotel, ironing sheets. How happy they had been! Their boss, Mr. Whipple, was kind to them, always made a special effort to speak to them. He called Elsa his canary because she sang so sweetly. A few times, when the laundry was short-handed, they were allowed to deliver towels or hand laundry to people's rooms in the hotel. To ride in the beautiful elevator and knock on the doors. Smell the rooms. Once a man gave them a twenty dollar bill. He laughed when they went back, said no it wasn't a mistake.

Elsa was beginning to get very sick then. Inocencia worked even harder. She put sheets she had ironed on Elsa's pile so she would not get fired. Mr. Whipple caught her doing that. The sisters had begun to cry, thinking they would both be fired. But he was a good man. He was a saint. He said, "Now even sick as you are, Elsa, you work harder than most girls I've had here. I don't want Inocensense knocking herself out and making her self sick too, got that? You two just do what you can. Long as you keeps on singing I won't complain about your work."

Elsa said that had been the happiest day of her life.

After work the sisters took the bus home. They did grocery shopping in the neighborhood. They did not ever go out, but watched TV in Spanish at home. Every night before they went to sleep they talked about their mother, remembered her and prayed for her.

"And then our mother died. She. I. Ai ai!" Elsa cried out, convulsed with pain, buckling under the damp sheet... Lola and Inocencia came in. Lola gave her a shot, Clarissa told them that Elsa had been talking about her mother's death.

"When Mama died Ivan called us from El Salvador. The minute she heard it Elsa became paralyzed. We had to call the ambulance. She was in the hospital for several months. This was three years ago. She has not been able to walk since."

"Is the paralysis real, physical?"

"Oh yes. Her X-rays show deterioration, huge swellings in all her joints. It is very real. I believe that the pain is always there but that only sometimes, to punish herself, she allows herself to feel it."

Clarissa looked down at Elsa, in a morphine sleep now on the bed. Salty tears had dried like tiny pressed flowers on he cheeks.

Inocencia asked Clarissa to join her and Lola at the table. They ate soup and good hot bread. Clarissa loved sitting there, listening to the birds. It was hard to tell them that she was leaving.

"Talking about her past is too hard on her. It is just the opposite of what we mean to do in our program. I'm going to have Angela come with her guitar tomorrow. You'll see, this will make her happy, all of you happy, even the birds."

On the way home to Oakland on Bart Clarissa decided to have Angela see Mr. Ramirez too. They would both like music much better.

As the train rumbled beneath the bay Clarissa leafed through the notebook titled "Elsa". Almost nothing was written down. One page was bland except for "I always liked oranges." It was so pitiful that when the train arrived at her station she threw the notebook into the trash.

Several months later the staff got together to bring one another up to date. Clarissa was glad to hear how happy Angela was with Elsa and Sr. Ramirez. She and Elsa sang boleros for the entire hour of her visit. Every week. Mr. Ramirez played to Angela on the accordion.

Shortly after this Clarissa left the program and went to work full-time in the East Bay. She was very busy, and gave little thought to the old people, except for Mr. Ramirez, whenever she saw a map.

Over a year had gone by when Clarissa got a phone call from Will Marks, the director of Luna. He told her that Elsa was in San Francisco General, that she was dying. Clarissa said she was very sorry, that she would go to visit her.

"Well, no," Will said, "Actually she doesn't want visitors. The slightest movement or effort is excruciatingly painful for her. But she keeps talking about one thing, obsessively. She says you promised to write her life story. She wants it before she dies. She probably has about another week, the doctor said. I was surprised, I must confess. It wasn't like you to promise something and not do it. And the manuscripts you did with the others were so wonderful..."

"Oh," Clarissa said.

"This is vitally important to her. She feels she must have something to leave behind. Whenever she talks about it she gets very ill."


Clarissa giggled, her hand over the mouthpiece. I'm talking just like her, she thought. He. When. Oh.

"Will, the first day I did say something about writing her life story. But it was incredibly hard to get material. For the last thirty years she went to work and came home. There is very, very little to work with."

Like, nothing, she remembered, but she said, "I'll bring you her story as soon as I can. In Spanish for her, because that's how she told it. An English one for you. I do want to see her, though."

Clarissa called in sick at work the next day, and the day after that.

She opened a computer file called "Elsa's Life". Damn, that's it. Tabula rasa. The worst part was that she had forgotten details like which saints were given festivals, what food the mother cooked to sell on the street.

What Clarissa did remember was only conjecture. All she carried with her, all her "material" was her own fiction. What she imagined about the casual mother with the plucked eyebrows. What she suspected about the brother Ivan.

The details which were vividly clear to Clarissa, the children walking along the railway tracks in the moonlight, the men fighting in the kitchen her first night in the U. S. , were things Elsa wouldn't want in the story at all, had even said, "Don't write that down!"

Clarissa went to the library, looked in Atlases and travel books to get names of trees and birds. The name of the beach where the sisters must have gone. Twice. She looked in books of Saints. She called the Salvadorian consulate. She bought international cookbooks and went to record stores in the Mission district. She went to the Mark Hopkins hotel and asked to see the manager. She told him she was a mystery writer, got permission to look at the laundry.

She called in sick another day and still another, as she desperately worked on page one, then page two. Three and four were Christmas in El Salvador. Five, six and seven were Elsa's mother. Expressions she used. How she French braided their hair every morning. The dishes, with ingredients, she had taught them to cook, how she made them kneel to pray at night. Page eight was the beach and what they was from the street car. Nine and ten were neighborhood festivals and New Year's Eve, with details Clarissa got from questioning waitresses and busboys in Salvadorian restaurants.

The story of Elsa's life was finally finished. Twenty-two pages, as long as she could possibly stretch it. The last page was about the birds, with their names, in the little house in the Mission how their song expressed the love of Inocencia for her sister Elsa, who used to sing like a canary.

Clarissa took the story to Elsa on a Sunday morning. She got to the hospital early but there were already many ambulances and police cars, crowds in the emergency room. Clarissa's heart was beating, her mouth dry as she rode elevators and walked the maze to Elsa's room. Inocencia sat by the bed, dozing. Elsa was asleep, thin and tiny on the bed. It was a special bed, with a sand mattress, which caused less pain to all her bones.

Clarissa embraced Inocencia, kissed Elsa lightly on her forehead. Elsa smiled but didn't speak.

"Did you bring her story?" Inocencia whispered.

Clarissa nodded, frightened.

"Please, read it." Inocencia said.

"Some things may not be quite just tell me and I'll change them right away..."

"Don't worry. Please, read," Inocencia said.

Elsa's brown eyes did not move form Clarissa. She cried out in pain only once, when Clarissa read about the death of their mother.

Inocencia wept softly throughout the reading. "Que bonito," she said about the festivals and the trips to the beach. She especially liked the parts about the laundry and Mr. Whipple, how he used to call her Inocensense.

When Clarissa finally finished reading Inocencia embraced her, sobbing. "It is so beautiful! Thank you, thank you. I will cherish this forever!"

Clarissa was dizzy with relief. She bent over Elsa, brushed her lips with a kiss.

"I hope you liked it," she said to Elsa. Elsa's eyes were closed now but she spoke to Clarissa.

"That was not the story of my life. No. My life."

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