Readings — From the October 2019 issue

Senior Portrait

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From The Collector of Leftover Souls, a collection of non-fiction published this month by Graywolf Press. This story, first published in the Brazilian magazine Época, is based on a week the author spent living in a nursing home in Rio de Janeiro. Translated from the Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus Whitty.

Suddenly they’ve arrived here, in front of the iron gate at the old people’s home, their whole lives squeezed into a carry-on. They’ve left behind so many delicate things—their family, their furniture, their neighborhood, the cracks in the wall, a glass by the sink, the outline of their body on the mattress. They too thought old age would be someone else’s fate, never suspecting they would stand before this threshold, left here because other people decided their time was up. The São Luiz Old Age Home is better than most in Brazil, clean and decent, with lots of warm touches. But like all other homes for the elderly, it will be its residents’ last address. The home has spent 111 years in the neighborhood of Caju, the site of Rio de Janeiro’s largest cemetery—and the final destination for everyone here.

In this place, the elderly perform daily acts of resistance: They desire a different flavor on the menu, a sexual fantasy about a muse now older than they are, tomorrow’s newspaper—because living is more than breathing. Every evening, at the age of seventy-four, Fermelinda Paes Campos, a Portuguese-born retired merchant, dresses up for a party. She drapes herself in pearls and diaphanous fabric. “These hormones won’t leave me alone. I’m exploding,” she confides. Stuck in a wheelchair, former journalist Paulo Serrado, seventy-one, dreams he is mounted on an eagle, riding over mountains. “I wake up feeling like a fool,” he says, “but that’s all right.” He was once known as Fred Astaire by Copacabana’s bohemian crowd. Holding tight to Cyd Charisse’s portrait—“the loveliest legs in film”—he twirls around in his fantasies. And eighty-nine-year-old Rosa Bela Ohanian, who lived in Europe and the United States, served on the diplomatic staff in Washington, and speaks four languages, emerges from her melancholy by crooning a love song in Danish: “I love a whole lifetime, not just a moment.”

Noemia Atela reiterates her commitment to resistance every day. She has reduced her life to the thirty steps that separate the door of her apartment from the bench at the end of the hall. There Noemia sits, positioned between elevator and phone. Via one or the other, she expects her children to emancipate her. She is forever revealing the same secret: “Don’t tell anyone. I’m leaving next week. I’ve asked my daughter to bring my suitcase.”

“Out there” is how the residents have christened the world—a land where they have been but will not be. Almost all came without a choice. First they lost their husband or wife, then it was their home they could no longer keep up, next their children’s apartment got crowded, and finally the whole world transformed into one marked by a giant do not enter sign. They arrived at the gate with their suitcases filled with their most cherished odds and ends, such as pictures from their youth, from the time their kids were children and obeyed them, the days when the reins of life lay in their hands—hands that didn’t fail them while gripping the balustrade. “It’s just for a while, until you get better,” their relatives said. And for the last time, they pretended to believe them. “I came as a guest, to stay a few months,” says Maria Prado, a retired civil servant. “It wasn’t even me who decided. I think they had a nice little talk and decided to give it a try. Then the stay got extended, and now I expect to die here.”

For most residents of the home, the exit door is barred. They go out only with authorization. The ones who rule over their comings and goings are relatives or doctors. Even for those with permission, the urge to see the city slowly wanes, eventually dying out. First time around, Paulo stayed only a month. A confirmed bachelor, he was living in his own apartment in Copacabana, assisted by caregivers after an accident immobilized his legs and a myocardial infarction ran over his heart. When his sister decided to spend a month in Europe, she asked Paulo to stay at the home. “Just so I don’t worry,” she said. Paulo went. Then he returned to Copacabana. “That’s when I realized. I was out walking with my cane and I saw a hulking shadow of a thing leap onto the counter at the café. It was a Doberman,” he says. “When I was heading back to my place, some damn housewife was out gabbing with a friend, and next to her was the Doberman, without a leash. The next day it was a Doberman and a pit bull. I thought: ‘If these tricksters come at me, what do I do?’ ” Paulo called up a gun shop, ready to buy a pistol to defend himself. “Then I remembered my grandfather. He said I was too hotheaded to own a weapon. I’d end up doing something stupid,” he says. “I gave away my pictures, blender, washing machine. I rented out my apartment and came back here. I had to accept my impotence. I no longer have the physical competence to go around out there.”

If the world is dangerous for everyone, for the elderly it is a minefield. Every pothole in the sidewalk could be fatal, every extra stair a promotion from cane to wheelchair. Their tired feet are no longer able to reach the bus in which the driver is snorting his impatience over “these old folks who ride for free, and make us late to boot.” When kids on the street make the elderly a prime target of robbery—in a clash between two groups of the vanquished, abandoned children and the forsaken old—the elderly’s legs don’t obey the orders sent by adrenaline. This is how they are gradually expelled.

Those who can still walk on their own two feet wander about the home as if they were in a medieval castle. They fear the second floor of the São Joaquim Pavilion more than Judgment Day. Those who fell and never got up again are on that floor. It is a place of long infirmities where having dementia may be a better fate than being lucid, a place of human remains who let food fall from their mouths, who repeat movements from the past that make no sense now, and who call out for those who have gone. It is a warehouse between home and cemetery. The residents pretend they are unaware of the latter—­to the extent people can ignore the dark clouds that come before the storm.

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