- Do you smell that?
- It smells like cat vomit!
- Yeah… do you know where it's from?
- No but I'll around
Chefi talked little and smiled a lot. Her three cabanas were built atop her little restaurant on the beach of Zipolite. They shared a large common terrace where three hammocks hung in the wind. I was the only one using the hammocks, Ken and Darcy preferred to sit and face the sea. The third tenant had the room in front of mine. His name was Roger, a busy old man who barely said hello. His door was always closed.
Roger had been living at Chefi’s on and off for two years. He owned a van, two canoes and liked to collect things. Every day Roger woke up at dawn, walked for two hours, read in a cafe, ate Chefi’s shrimp pasta and retreated to his room. He was so hurried that interrupting felt like blasphemy. I stayed out of his way and minded my own business.
Ken, Darcy and I started our days with coffee at 6 am. That morning, there was a foul smell on the terrace. Anyone who lived with a cat knows that smell. I looked for the source in the corners and behind doors in vain, then I went surfing. Back from the beach, I sat down to work but the smell was still there, too strong to ignore. It smelled like cat vomit.
I left the house for the day and returned to a crowd surrounding Chefi’s restaurant. There were armed men and 4 police pickup trucks parked in front. Oh shit… the weed! I went up the stairs to my room, picked my stash and hit it inside the palapa's roof. There was yellow tape on the balcony. Roger’s door was open.
Chefi was in the middle of the ruckus, talking but not smiling anymore. One after one, people came to her while she did her best to keep her composure. Ken was with the crowd too, stressed out and jumping from one person to the next. “That smell in the morning…it’s Roger. I found him dead in his bed. His body was all bloated... horrible oh! It was gross.”
Roger was American and he died on Chefi's property. He had a daughter and lots of belongings that did not belong there anymore. Chefi did not speak English and wasn’t litterate enough to deal with complex lawyer jargon. I told her not to sign anything until she checked every line with me, or someone she trusted.
Ken helped with US paperwork and to keep an eye on the Police. In three decades travelling across Mexico, he knew them well. Ken had been checked hundreds of times, with and without reason, and extorted a few times. He took pictures of the rooms and wrote down Roger’s full inventory. The Police circled the house with yellow tape and cleared the room. Ken stayed with them the whole time, waving his list and pictures to every man and woman passing by.
Chefi had to get rid of Roger's belongings in a legal way and deal with everything related to his death. After the cops, two funeral homes came pushing their services. Roger's room was emptied, disinfected and his body was taken for cremation. Ken talked to Roger's daughter in the US but she never showed up.
The smell disappeared and the terrace got back to normal for us the tenants, while Chefi's days became a long pile of unfinished businesses.
On a quiet evening, Chefi was cleaning up before closing the kitchen. She looked tired, more than her 64 years. Chefi was a middle-class entrepreneur in Mexico. A mother of three with no education, no insurance and barely enough to sustain her family. She had to pay for the funeral home, the cleaning and other related expenses. Chefi wasn't responsible, guilty or even related to Roger. Yet she bore the cost of his death, because no one else would.
I poured her a cup of tea and asked how she was. What affected her the most was not death or money or administrative blackholes. It wasn’t even that the Police rushed over Roger’s possessions like a broken piñata. No, to her the tragedy was worse than all. The tragedy was in Roger's relationship to his daughter.
- How can a parent let their heart grow so cold? How can a child abandon their parent even in death? She pondered.
- Some parents are bad. And some children are even worse.
- I don’t know if I was a good mother but I hope my children would be by my side when I go... And if not, at least that they see me off with dignity.
Chefi took a sip, and smiled.