The long hallway where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group, Leopoldo thinks, the long hallway like a passageway inside cloisters or convents where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group every Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00, the long hallway with its hollowed benches alongside its walls where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group to hand them sugar bread and milk, where the apostolic group performed cheerfulness and chattiness for the old and the infirm, the long hallway that’s probably empty at night just as it is empty for Leopoldo tonight despite all those Saturdays he’d spent there when he was fifteen years old, all those Saturdays he spent in that long hallway at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín trying to cheer up the old and the infirm who’d been forsaken by their families or who had no families or who had nowhere else to go, who had toiled in menial jobs the entirety of their lives—did you even ask the old and the infirm about their jobs, Leopoldo? what could you have possibly said to them to cheer them up? did you actually cheer them up or were you simply a reminder to them that god’s blessings were elsewhere like they’ve always been?—whose last days were spent along a sunless hallway that smelled like the eucalyptus and menthol ointments they rubbed on their chests which must have reminded them of the Merthiolate their mothers would swab on their scraped elbows and knees, whose last evenings were spent on donated hospital beds inside rooms with unreasonably high ceilings (why did the Jesuits build those rooms with such high ceilings? so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?), inside rooms where Leopoldo and Antonio would stroll amongst the donated hospital beds with their bread baskets just in case they’ve missed someone in the hallway, just in case someone couldn’t get out of bed but still wanted one sugar bun (what did the Jesuits think this exposure to the suffering of the old and the infirm would do to a band of scrawny fifteen-year-olds? did the Jesuits think that it would change their lives? that they would grow up to be stalwarts against suffering and injustice instead of growing up to be just like everyone else except every now and then the memory of the old and the infirm visits them? except too often they feel guilty about the suffering of the old and the infirm yet at the same time feel superior to everyone else because they were good Samaritans then?), the long hallway where the faces and names of the old and the infirm continue to slip from him, year after year one more conversation or gesture or emotion vanishing from that long hallway like a punishment, although if you ask him about it Leopoldo will tell you that he’s not fifteen anymore and does not believe in punishments handed down from a god who’s in any case too busy not existing just as Leopoldo’s too busy not existing or barely existing in that long hallway in the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín.
At their weekend spiritual retreat in Playas, during their sophomore year at San Javier, inside a cement structure that looked like a boarding school / beach house that had been abandoned in the 1970s, Father Lucio chastened them with a phrase that, because it was hilarious and true and shameful, and because the chapel was dark and crammed and they had to sit too close to each other on foldable beach chairs, none of them would ever forget, and what Father Lucio said that night was that with the same hand that holds the cross of christ you masturbate, yes, that’s exactly what he said, fellows, we couldn’t have asked for a more punnable phrase, with the same hand that holds the cross of christ you masturbate, and what Leopoldo also remembers of that retreat house is the coarse sand spilling inside the cement patio, the coarse sand creeping under the gates that led to the beach as if trying to escape from whatever was outside, which was just a desolate beach streaked with algae where Father Lucio had allowed them to play soccer before mass, the wind blowing sand on their faces, the late afternoon surprisingly cold and bleak, although Leopoldo didn’t feel cold or bleak—pass the ball, Microphone—and aside from Father Lucio’s infamous phrase what Leopoldo will remember of that spiritual retreat is that after their evening mass on Saturday, disregarding Father Lucio’s warning that no one was to leave their rooms upstairs—stay alone with the lord, Drool—Antonio escaped from his room and evaded the pack of Dobermans that had been unleashed by the priests and sneaked inside Leopoldo’s room, where late into the night Leopoldo and Antonio argued about god and what god wanted from them and we have a responsibility to him, Leopoldo says, the lord has chosen us, Antonio says, the Dobermans barking outside Leopoldo’s door as Leopoldo raises his glass toward the light and says we must be transparent like this glass so that god’s light can pass through us.
If someone were to ask Leopoldo about what happened to him on the morning he graduated from San Javier, on that wretched graduation ceremony at San Javier’s coliseum in which he was the so-called valedictorian speaker, Leopoldo would first assume a resigned facial expression that would allow you glean that, sure, Leopoldo acknowledges the widespread corruption of his country, but he isn’t really resigned to it, although of course he is, and after his pantomime of resignation he would shake his head for you as if about to relay an unfortunate incident that didn’t happen to him but to some other studious graduate from San Javier, and yet because no one has asked him about what happened to him on the morning he graduated from San Javier—who goes around asking people about high school anyway, Microphone?—the memory of his graduation day is no longer bounded by his surface retellings of it, in other words by the plausible contours that would be required of him if he had to retell it to someone else, freeing him to revisit his graduation day from whatever vantage he chooses, even the most implausible ones—nothing’s implausible if you don’t have to retell it to someone else—flying along with the birds, for instance, that had entered the coliseum on his graduation day through an opening on the west section, planing above the basketball court and the cement stalls coded with colors and numbers (a pointless seating code, some might add, since on this Saturday morning there’s no basketball game, only a ceremony for the 112 San Javier students about to graduate, although even if there was a game the seating code would still be pointless since all basketball games here are strictly intramural, between San Javier students only and therefore always without a sizable audience, except once the priests did share their coliseum for the citywide intercollegiate basketball tournament, a decision some San Javier parents protested soon after the game between Rumiñahui School #22 and Túpac Yupanqui School #145 because who knows what kind of people attend those events (the families of the students playing, mostly), who knows what kind of people might maraud through the halls of San Javier after a sweaty match (three students from Túpac Yupanqui, looking for a restroom), and since no one knew what kind of people, some San Javier parents protested and successfully overturned the priests’ decision to share their brand-new coliseum with the poor students from the public schools so that was that, no more of those kinds of people here), planing above San Javier’s coliseum and above Guayaquil and above his wretched continent, planing above the foldable chairs on the basketball court, where the children are pointing at the birds and where León Martín Cordero is scowling at the birds and where Leopoldo is glancing up at the birds as he rehearses his valedictorian speech in his head, and although the birds fly away as the graduation ceremony begins, Leopoldo remains up there, watching Father Ignacio, the school principal known for his ability to deaden even the liveliest of parables, lumbering up to the podium and welcoming our distinguished guests, enumerating our distinguished guests, sharing an inspirational graduation anecdote from his youth that concludes with Ignacio adolescing by a portrait of our Madre Dolorosa, reminding everyone in the coliseum that, as is the school’s tradition, the letters the students wrote to our Madre Dolorosa six years ago will be returned to them today, urging the graduating seniors to meditate on what they wrote to her, introducing our valedictorian speaker, Leopoldo Arístides Hurtado, effusively thanking Leopoldo Arístides Hurtado for leading the team that won at this year’s academic intercollegiate television contest, Who Knows Knows, and as Leopoldo heads to the stage his classmates are saying good one cabezón, check, check, the Microphone to the microphone, keep it short loco I got to pee, and then Leopoldo’s standing behind the podium and he’s delivering his valedictorian speech—whatever did you say in that speech, Leopoldo? do you even remember? who did you think you were going to impress? were you trying to inspire yourself to be something other than what you turned out to be? did you think that León would be impressed and that then or later he would anoint you as his successor? why weren’t you thinking about your grandmother in the audience? and what the hell was that green blazer you were wearing?—damn, León says, that kid sounds just like me, oh that’s just great, Antonio’s grandfather says, yet another demagogue, and then Father Ignacio announces the prizes for theology, for mathematics, and then for the grand prize, for the highest academic achievement in the last six years, the first prize goes to Jacinto Cazares, hey, wait, isn’t the valedictorian the valedictorian because he’s the first prize, no, must be a mistake, which Father Ignacio seems ready to correct because he’s pulling the list of winners closer to his glasses, and what’s disheartening at this moment is that Leopoldo can easily imagine Father Ignacio’s calculations: On the one hand, when Father Ignacio inspected the rankings to select the valedictorian speaker four or five weeks ago, Leopoldo’s score was obviously higher than Jacinto’s, on the other hand the vice president is here, the minister of agriculture, the former president and our current governor, León Martín Cordero, the minister of finance, eight senators, all of them San Javier alumni who wouldn’t appreciate hearing about grade tampering on the premises, and part of Father Ignacio’s calculations would have included a recalculation that consisted of allowing himself to remember all those times his memory has failed him before, yes, of course, it has failed him many times before, there are passages in Romans he can no longer recite from memory, plus his eyes aren’t what they used to be, that’s it, he could have easily erred when he first read Leopoldo’s scores four or five weeks ago so Father Ignacio taps on the microphone and says first prize, Jacinto Cazares, second prize, Leopoldo Hurtado, third prize, Antonio José Olmedo, and as Leopoldo remembers the finality in Father Ignacio’s voice it surprises him that he has never revisited this day from Antonio’s vantage, okay, let’s try it, Leopoldo is Antonio and he’s rushing toward Jacinto along the first row of graduates and he’s shouting you goddamn cheat, who did you bribe this time, did you bribe Elsa? (rumors about Elsa Ramírez, Father Ignacio’s secretary, tampering with admissions tests for a fee had been circulating for years), shouting and looking as if he’s about to sob out of rage, and neither Antonio’s outburst nor the possibility of him sobbing in front of everyone surprises any of his classmates because after six years of sharing a classroom with him they’re used to him crying about everything, and as Leopoldo looks up at the stage he isn’t surprised to see Father Ignacio’s pretending there’s no commotion below, no Father Francisco fuming toward Antonio and shouting sit down right now, no Father Francisco grabbing Antonio’s arm and escorting him outside, no Leopoldo’s grandmother standing up and demanding an explanation, come on, no need for a spectacle, señora, someone says, we’ll sort it out after the ceremony, Jesus, Julio Estero’s mother says, these people have no manners.