The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

As Sad as She

for M.C.

Dear Assad:

I understand that, in spite of our numerous and unspeakable bonds, the time has come to thank each other for the closeness of the last few months and say goodbye. It will be all to your advantage. I think we never really understood each other; I accept the blame, the responsibility, and the failure. I try to forgive myself—only between us, of course—by citing the difficulty of remaining on the fence for x number of pages. I also accept, as merited, the moments of joy. In any case, forgive me. I never looked you straight in your face, never showed you mine.

J. C. O.

Years before, which could be many or meld into yesterday during scarce moments of happiness, she had been in the man’s room. An imaginable bedroom, a dirty and dilapidated bathroom, a shaky elevator; that’s all she remembered about the house. It was before the wedding, a few months before.

She wanted to go there, she longed for something to happen—the cruelest, the most anemic and disappointing thing—something of use to her loneliness and ignorance. She didn’t think about the future and she felt capable of denying it. But a fear that had nothing to do with her old sorrow forced her to say no, to defend herself with her hands and a stiffening of her thighs. She acquired, accepted, only the flavor of the man stained by sun and beach.

At dawn, already separate and far away, she dreamed that she was walking alone through a night that could have been a different night, almost naked in her short nightdress, carrying an empty suitcase. She was condemned to despair and dragged her bare feet along deserted and tree-lined streets, slowly, her body unbowed, nearly defiant.

Heartbreak, sadness, saying yes to death could be tolerated only because, at a whim, the taste of the man would rise into her throat at every street corner where she asked for it and commanded it to come. The painful steps became slower until they were stilled. Then, partially naked, surrounded by shadows, the pretense of silence, a distant pair of lights, she would stop and noisily take in the air. Weighed down with the weightless suitcase, she savored the memory and continued on her return walk.

Suddenly she saw the enormous moon rising over the grey, black, dirty village; with each step it became more silvery and the bloody edges containing it were rapidly dissolving. With each step she understood that she and her suitcase were not moving any closer to a goal, a bed, a room. The moon by now was a monstrosity. Almost naked, standing erect, her small breasts piercing the night, she continued walking until she was able to plunge into the extravagant moon that continued to grow.

The man became skinnier every day and the color in his grey eyes was fading, diluting, a long way away now from curiosity and entreaty. It had never occurred to him to cry, and the years, thirty-two, had at least taught him the futility of all renunciation, of all hope for understanding.

He watched her every morning without candor or lies across the cluttered, lopsided breakfast table they had set up in the kitchen for the delights of summer. Maybe it wasn’t all his fault, maybe it would be useless to try to figure out whose fault it was, whose it still is.

Secretly, she looked at his eyes. If you can call wariness, a cold bolt of lightning, her calculations, “a look.” The man’s eyes, without giving them- selves away, became larger and lighter each time, every morning. But he wasn’t trying to conceal them; he simply wanted to deflect, without being rude, what his eyes were condemned to ask and say.

He was at that time thirty-two years old and from nine to five each day he kept expanding into offices of a large place of business. He loved money, as long as there was plenty of it, the way other men feel attracted to tall and fat women and put up with their age without caring. He also believed in the happiness of tiring weekends, in the good health that fell on everyone from the sky, the great outdoors.

He was there or here, he expected mastery over all sorts of good luck, of temptations. He had loved the small woman who gave him food, who had given birth to a baby boy who cried incessantly on the second floor. Now he looked at her in astonishment: she was, fleetingly, something worse, lower, deader than a stranger whose name has never reached us.

At their irregular breakfast hour the sun shone in through the high windows; at the table the scents from the garden grew more complex, though still faint, like the simplistic beginning of a suspicion. Neither of them could deny the sun, the springtime; at the very least, the demise of winter.

A few days after the move, when nobody had thought yet about transforming the wild and overgrown garden into a sepulchral row of fish tanks, the man rose at dawn and waited for the sun to rise. At first light he hammered a can into the araucaria tree and took a few steps back, the small gun with its mother-of-pearl handle in one hand. He raised his arm and heard only the frustrated clicks of the ring pin. He returned to the house with an overblown feeling of ridicule and ill humor; carelessly, without respecting the woman’s sleep, he tossed the gun into a corner of the closet.

“What happened?” she mumbled as the man undressed to get into the bath.

“Nothing. Either the bullets are rusty, I bought them less than a month ago, they’ve cheated me, or the gun has had it. It was my mother’s or my grandmother’s, the trigger is loose. I don’t want you to be alone here at night without something to defend yourself. But I’ll deal with it today.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said as she walked on bare feet to pick up the baby. “I have good lungs and the neighbors will hear me.”

“I’m aware of that,” the man said, and laughed.

They looked at each other with affection and humor. The woman waited for the sound of the car, then went back to sleep with her baby hanging on a nipple.

The maid came in and out and it was not always possible to know why. The woman was used to it, she no longer believed in the entreaty in the man’s eyes, glimpsed so many times, as if his glance, his expression, his humid silence didn’t matter more than the color of his iris, the inherited slant of his eyelids. He, for his part, was now incapable of accepting the world; not the business deals, not the nonexistent daughter, often forgotten, often alive, tenacious, toughened, distinct in spite of his premeditated drinking bouts, his inescapable business deals, his companies, and solitude. It’s also likely that by now neither she nor he believed fully in the reality of the nights, in their brief and predictable moments of happiness.

They expected nothing from the time they spent together, but they didn’t accept this impoverishment, either. He kept playing with his cigarette and the ashtray; she spread butter and jam on toast. On those mornings, he didn’t try to actually look at her; he merely showed her his eyes, like a beggar—almost apathetically and without faith—who exhibits a scar, a stump.

She talked about what was left of the garden, about the suppliers, about the pink baby boy in the room upstairs. When the man grew tired of waiting for the impossible sentence or word, he bent over to kiss her forehead and left orders for the workers who were building the fish tanks.

Every month the man confirmed that he was wealthier, that his bank accounts were growing without effort or intentionality. He was unable to invent a true, coveted goal for the new money.

Until five or six in the afternoon he sold parts for automobiles, tractors, all kinds of engines. But from four o’clock on he used the telephone, patiently and without hard feelings, to assuage his anxiety, to make certain of a woman in a bed or at a table in a restaurant. He made do with little, with what was strictly necessary: a smile, a caress on his cheek that could be taken for tenderness or understanding. Later, of course, the acts of love, scrupulously paid for with clothes, perfumes, useless objects. Also paid for—the vice, the control, the entire night—by resigning himself to fickle and asinine conversations.

Upon his return at dawn she would inhale the ordinary, undeniable scents and keep her eye on the bony face that so mistakenly sought serenity. The man had nothing to tell her. He’d look at the row of bottles in the cabinet and randomly choose one. Sunk in his armchair, listless, with one finger between the pages of a book, he drank facing her silence, facing her pretense of sleep, facing her eyes, fixed and staring at the ceiling. She wouldn’t scream; for a while she tried to understand without disdain, wanting to bring to bear on him some of the pity she felt for herself, for life and its end.

In the middle of September the woman began, at first imperceptibly, to find solace, to believe that existence, like a mountain or a stone, is simply there, that we do not make it ourselves, that neither one of them was making it.

Nobody, nobody can know how or why this story began. What we are trying to recount here began on a quiet autumn afternoon, when the man cast a shadow over the still sunlit twilight of the garden and stopped to look around, to sniff the grass, the last flowers on the wild and stunted bushes. For a while he didn’t move, his head leaning to one side, his arms hanging down and seemingly dead. Then he advanced until he reached the hedge of the Jerusalem thorn bush and from there began to measure the garden in regular, reticent paces, each about one meter long. He walked from south to north, then from east to west. She watched him from behind the curtains on the upper floor; anything outside the routine could be the birth of a hope, the confirmation of misery. The baby had been squealing since the late afternoon, and nobody could ascertain if he was already dressed in pink, if they had dressed him like that from birth or before.

That night, Sunday, the saddest day of the week, the man in the kitchen, stirring his cup of coffee, said:

“So much land and it’s all useless.”

She eyed his ascetic face, his diluted, unfathomed torment. She saw a new malignant lassitude, the birth of resolve.

“I always thought . . . ,” the woman said, understanding as she spoke that she was in fact lying, that she had not had either the time or the desire to think about it, realizing that the word always had lost all meaning. “I always thought about fruit trees, about planting beds built according to a design, about a real garden.”

But she had been born there, in the old house far away from the water of the beach, which Old Man Petrus, using some excuse, had baptized. She had been born and raised there. And when the world came looking for her, she didn’t fully understand it, protected and tricked by the capricious and stunted bushes, by the mystery—in light and shadow—of the gnarled and intact old trees, of the innocent, tall, vulgar grass. She had a mother who bought a machine to cut the grass, a father who was good at making promises, after every evening meal, that he would start work tomorrow. He never did. Sometimes he oiled the machine for hours or lent it to a neighbor for months.

But the garden, that deformed parody of a jungle, was never touched. Thus the little girl learned that no word is comparable to tomorrow: never, nothing, permanence, and peace.

As a young girl she discovered the affectionate banter of the bushes, the grass, any of the anonymous and gnarled trees; she laughed when she discovered that they threatened to invade the house, only to retreat a few months later, shrunken, sated.

The man drank his coffee and then started moving his head, slow and resolute. He paused or he let the pause come and settle in.

“Next to the windows we can leave a corner for lounging and enjoying cold drinks in summer. But the rest, everything, has to be paved over with concrete. I want to build fish tanks. Rare species, difficult to grow. There are people who make a lot of money doing that.”

The woman knew the man was lying. She didn’t believe he was interested in money, she didn’t believe anybody could chop down the sick and useless old trees, kill the neglected grass, the flowers with unknown names—pale, fleeting, downcast.

But the men, the workers, three of them, gathered to talk one Sunday morning. She watched them from the upstairs window; two were standing, surrounding the almost horizontal chaise lounge where the instructions, the questions about cost and time were coming from; the third, squatting, with a beret, huge and calm, was chewing on a stem.

She remembered him till the end. The oldest one, the boss, slouching, with thick, white hair, his hands hanging down, stopped for a moment with his back to the wrought-iron gate. She contemplated without surprise the dispossessed trees, the large area of jumbled weeds. The other two kept walking, uselessly loaded down with scythes and shovels, pickaxes, and the bewilderment that fettered their legs. The youngest and biggest, the laziest one, kept chewing on his stem, at the end of which was a small, rose-colored flower. It was a Sunday morning and spring was shaking the garden leaves; she watched them trying to make mistakes, the baby’s mouth latched onto her breast.

She was familiar with resentment, with the man’s desire to hurt her. But everything had been talked about so many times, understood to the point of believing that one was understood and understood the other, that she didn’t believe that revenge, the destruction of the garden and her own life, was possible. Sometimes, when they both gave into the dream of having forgotten, the man would find her knitting somewhere in the garden and would start up again without any preamble: “Everything’s fine, everything’s as over as if it had never happened.” The gaunt and obsessive face refused to look at her. “But why did it have to be a boy? Buying pink yarn for so many months and this was the result, a boy. I’m not crazy. I know, deep down, it doesn’t make any difference. But a girl could end up being yours, exclusively yours. That poor thing, on the other hand . . .”

She sat still for a bit, her hands settling, and finally looked at him. Skinnier, his light eyes even bigger, he stood next to her with his legs astride, shattered and sarcastic. He was lying, they both knew the man was lying, but they understood the lie in different ways.

“We’ve already talked about it so much,” the woman said, bored. “I’ve had to listen to you so many times . . .”

“Possibly. Fewer of course than my urges to bring the subject up. It’s a boy, he has my name, I pay for his upkeep and will have to educate him. Can we take a step back, look at it from the outside? Because if we do, I’m either a gentleman or a dupe. And you, you’re a clever little slut.”

“Shit,” she said quietly, without hatred, without it being knowable whom she was speaking to.

The man looked back at the dimming sky, the certain spring. He turned and started walking toward the house.

Perhaps the whole story was born out of this, so simple and terrible: the choice depends on whether one wants to think about it or gets distracted: the man believed only in disgrace and good fortune, in good luck or bad, in all the sadness and joy that can befall us, whether or not we deserve it. She believed she knew something more; she thought about fate, about mistakes and mysteries, she acknowledged her guilt and in the end came to admit that living brings enough guilt for us to accept the price, whether reward or punishment. The same thing, when all is said and done.

Sometimes the man would wake her up to talk about Mendle. He’d light his pipe or a cigarette and wait till he was certain that she was resigned and listening. Maybe he was waiting for a miracle in his soul or in that of the naked woman, anything that could be exorcised and would give them peace or an equivalent deception.

“Why Mendle? You could have picked from many better, so many who would have embarrassed me less.”

He wanted to hear again the story of the woman’s trysts with Mendle; but in the end he always recoiled, afraid to know everything once and for all; resolved deep down to save himself, to disregard the whys. His madness was humble and could be respected.

“Mendle or anybody else. Same thing. It had nothing to do with love.”

One night the man tried to laugh:

“But that’s how it turned out. Because things have gotten so complicated, or harmonious, that today I could send Mendle to jail. Mendle himself, nobody else, only Mendle. A falsified document, his signature. And I’m not motivated by jealousy. He has a wife and three kids who are his and his alone. A house or two. He still seems happy. It’s about envy, not jealousy. It’s difficult to understand. Because for me, personally, it doesn’t do me any good to destroy all of that, to sink Mendle or not. I’ve wanted to do it since long before I found out, since before I knew it was possible. I imagine, you know, the possibility of pure envy, without any concrete motive, without resentment. Sometimes, very rarely, I find it possible.”

She didn’t answer. Curled up against dawn’s first chill, she was thinking about the baby, waiting for his first cry of hunger. He, on the other hand, was waiting for the miracle, the resurrection of the pregnant girl he’d known, his very own, the girl of the love they believed in, or built, for months, with determination, without deliberate deception, forsaken so close to bliss.

The men started to work one Monday, unhurriedly sawing down trees, which they hauled away at the end of the day in a beat-up truck, roaring with age, also gnarled. Days later they began to scythe the flowering weeds, the grass that had grown tall and succulent. They didn’t keep to a regular schedule; perhaps they’d been hired for the whole job, directly, so they didn’t have to worry about daily wages, no-shows, or slacking off. They did not, however, show any signs of being in a hurry.

The man never talked to her about what was happening in the garden. He was still gaunt and quiet, still smoked and drank. The concrete now spread over the land and its memories—white, soon grey.

Then, at the end of one breakfast, the man, resentful and unwary, stubbed out his cigarette in a cup and, almost smiling, as if he truly understood the fate of his words, said slowly, without looking at her:

“It would be a good idea for you to keep an eye on the well diggers. Between nursings. I don’t see them making much progress with the cement.” From that moment on the three workers became well diggers. They soon brought large sheets of glass to construct the tanks—enormous, placed with deliberate symmetry, out of proportion to any kind of fauna that would be raised there.

“Yes,” she said. “I can talk to the old man, go to where the garden used to be and watch them work.”

“The old man,” the man said mockingly. “Does he even know how to talk? I think he manages them by moving his hands and his eyebrows.”

She began to go down to the concrete on a daily basis, in the morning and in the afternoon, taking advantage of the wayward schedule they kept. It might be said that she too was resentful and unwary.

She walked slowly, taller now above the hard flat ground, bewildered, moving diagonally, reclaiming her old detours, her lost shortcuts once determined by trees and planting beds. She looked at the men, watched the enormous fish tanks rise. She sniffed the air, awaited the solitude of five in the afternoon, the daily ritual, absurdity conquered, very nearly turned into habit.

At first it was the incomprehensible excitement of the well itself, the black hole sunk into the earth. It would have been enough for her. But soon she discovered, at the bottom of it, the two men working, their torsos bare. One of them, the one with the chewed stem, moved his enormous biceps incautiously; the other, tall and thin, slower, younger, evoked pity, a longing to help him and hand him a rag to wipe his sweaty brow.

She didn’t know how to move away and lie to herself alone.

The old man was smoking, sitting awkwardly on a log. He looked at her impassively.

“They’re working?” she asked with indifference.

“Yes, ma’am, they’re working. Exactly what they should do every day, every shift. That’s what I’m here for. For that, and for other things I figure out. But I’m not God. I just barely see ahead and help out whenever I can.”

The well diggers greeted her with a nod of their polite and taciturn heads. Only rarely could they invent a subject of conversation, excuses that could be batted back and forth for a few minutes. She and the pair of well diggers: the calm giant, always wearing his beret and chewing on a weed that he no longer could have picked from the walled garden; the other, very young and thin, dim-witted from hunger, sickly. Because the old man didn’t talk and could remain motionless for the entire day, standing or sitting on the ground, rolling cigarettes, one after the other.

They dug, measured, and sweated as if some part of this could matter to her, as if she were alive and capable of participating. As if she had once owned the vanished trees and dead grass. She would talk about anything, be overly polite, respectful, a form of sadness that helps to bring people together. She would talk about anything and always leave her sentences unfinished, waiting for five in the afternoon, waiting for the men to leave.

The house was surrounded by a hedge of Jerusalem thorn bushes. They had grown to be like trees, almost three meters high, though their trunks maintained their adolescent slenderness. They had been planted very close together, but they knew how to grow without getting in each other’s way, using each other for support, their thorns intermingling.

At five in the afternoon the well diggers imagined they heard a bell, and the old man raised his arm. They put away, or rather tossed the tools into the cool shade of the shed, waved, and left. The old man out in front, then the beast with the beret, and the hunched skinny man behind, so that the clouds and what remained of the sun would learn of their respect for hierarchies. All three walked slowly, smoked calmly, half-heartedly.

Upstairs, her back to the din in the cradle, the woman kept her eye on them just to be certain. She stood there without moving for ten or fifteen minutes. Then she went downstairs toward what had once been her garden, avoiding obstacles that no longer existed, treading on the concrete till she reached the hedge. Obviously she didn’t always go to the same spot. She could leave through the large iron gate used by the well diggers, the imaginary guests; she could escape through the garage door, always open when the car wasn’t there.

But she would choose, without conviction, without a longing for truth, the bloody and useless game with, against, the Jerusalem thorns, be they bushes or trees. She’d seek, for nothing, with no goal, to find a path between the trunks and the thorns. She’d pant for a while, opening her hands. She’d always end in failure, accepting it, saying yes to it with a grimace, a smile.

Then she’d move through the twilight, licking her hands, looking at the sky of this newborn spring and the tense, promissory sky of future springs that her son might enjoy. She cooked, she took care of the baby, and always with a poorly chosen book she’d begin to wait for the man in one of the flowery armchairs or lying in bed. She’d hide the clocks and wait.

But every night the man’s returns were identical, easily confounded. Near October she happened to read: “Imagine the growing sorrow, the urge to flee, the impotent disgust, the submission, the hatred.” The man hid the car in the garage, walked across the concrete, and climbed the stairs. He was the same as always, the sentence she had just read was not enough to transform him. He would pace around the bedroom, rattling his keys, telling simple or complicated stories about his day at work, lying to her, sometimes cocking his gaunt face, his eyes growing during the pauses. As sad as she, maybe.

That night the woman yielded, insisted, as she had not done for many months. Everything that would make them happy or help them forget was welcomed, sacred. Under the small, half-hidden light, the man finally fell asleep, almost smiling, quieted. Sleepless again, she discovered without astonishment, without sadness, that since childhood she’d known no true solid happiness other than the garden greenery, now snatched from her. That was all there was, those things that changed, those colors. And it occurred to her, before the baby’s first cry, that he intuited this, that he wanted to deprive her of the only thing that actually mattered to her. Destroy the garden; keep staring at her meekly with those light, haggard eyes; play at smiling, ambiguous, indirect.

At the first sounds of the morning, the woman would bare her teeth to the ceiling, thinking again and again of the first part of the Hail Mary. Only the first, because she could not accept the word death. She admitted to never having been tricked, she accepted that she’d been right about her confusions, her fears, her childhood doubts: life was a mixture of inaccuracies, cowardices, blurry lies, not necessarily always intentional.

But she would remember, even now and more intensely, the sensation of being defrauded when childhood ended, then its attenuation in adolescence by desires and hopes. She had never asked to be born, had never wanted the union—perhaps momentary, fleeting, routine—of a couple in a bed (mother, father, afterwards and forevermore) to bring her into the world. And, above all, she had not been consulted about the life she was forced to know and accept. A single a priori question and she would have rejected, with equivalent horror, bowels, and death, the need for words to communicate or to strive for another’s comprehension.

“No,” the man said when she brought breakfast from the kitchen. “I don’t plan to do anything against Mendle. Not even help.”

He was dressed with strange care, as if he were on his way to a party rather than the office. Seeing the new suit, the white shirt, the brand-new tie, she spent minutes remembering and believing in her memory. That’s how it had been for her during their courtship. She was speechless and incredulous as she moved around, relieved of anguish and years.

The man dipped a piece of bread in the sauce and pushed the plate away. The woman saw the new look shining in his eyes, timid and tempting, that reached her from the table or that she had to invent.

“I’m going to burn Mendle’s check. Or I can give it to you. In any case, it’s only a matter of days. Poor man.”

She had to wait a bit. Then she managed to pull herself away from the fireplace and went to sit, not suffering and patient, in front of the thin man, waiting for him to leave.

When she heard the sound of the car die on the road, she went up to the bedroom; she soon found the small, useless gun with the mother-of-pearl handle and looked at it without touching it. Outside of her, summer had also not yet arrived, though spring was advancing with a fury, and the days, the little things, could not and would not have wanted to stop.

In the afternoon, after the ritual with the thorns and the idle streaks of blood on her hands, the woman learned to whistle with the birds and knew that Mendle had disappeared along with the thin man. It’s possible neither had ever existed. The baby remained on the upper floor and did nothing to attenuate her solitude. She’d never been with Mendle, she’d never met him or seen his squat, muscular body; she never knew his tenacious masculine will, his easy smile, his nonchalant rapport with joy. The cut on her forehead now bled slowly, dripping all the way down her nose.

The baby cried and she had to go upstairs. The old man was smoking, sitting on a stone, so still, so nothing, that he seemed to be part of his seat. The other two were invisible at the bottom of the well. Upstairs, she soothed the baby and saw the man’s wrinkled suit on the floor. She started rummaging around, looked at incomprehensible pieces of paper covered with numbers, coins, a document. Finally, the letter.

The handwriting was feminine, quite lovely and legible, impersonal. It didn’t quite cover both sides of the page, and the signature teased an incomprehensible message: Másam. But the message of the letter, the accumulation of nonsense, oaths, phrases that simultaneously feigned ingenuity and talent, was very clear. She must be very young, the woman thought, without pity or envy; that’s how I used to write to him. She found no photographs.

Under Másam, the man had written in red ink: She will be sixteen and will come naked from over and under the earth to be with me for as long as this song and this hope shall last.

She never became jealous of the man, nor could she hate him, though maybe life, a little, her own lack of understanding, the nebulous dirty trick the world had played on her. For weeks they continued to live as always. But it wasn’t long before he felt the change, before he perceived that the rejections and the apologies were turning into meek distance without hostility.

They spoke to each other but didn’t really converse. She impassively avoided the ashes of entreaty that sometimes leapt from the man’s eyes. It would be the same if he’d died months ago, if we’d never met, if he weren’t sitting next to me. Neither of them had anything to hope for. The words didn’t come, they averted their eyes. The man fiddled with his cigarette and the ashtray; the women spread butter and jam on her bread.

When he’d return at midnight, the woman would stop reading, pretend to sleep, or talk about the work in the garden, about the poorly washed shirts, about the baby and the price of food. He’d listen to her without asking questions, indifferent, without anything reliable of his own to tell. Then he’d take a bottle out of the cabinet and drink till dawn, alone or with a book.

She, in the summer night air, would keep her eye on his sharp profile, on the back of his head, where grey hairs, unexpected days before, were appearing, where the hair had begun to thin. She’d stopped feeling pity for herself and hung it on him. Now, when he came home, he’d refuse to eat. He’d head straight for the cabinet and drink through the night, through daybreak. Lying in bed, he’d sometimes speak in someone else’s voice, addressing neither her nor the ceiling; he’d tell of happy and incredible things, invent people and events, simple or dubious circumstances.

The decision was made one night when the man arrived very early, didn’t want to read or get undressed, and smiled at her before speaking. He wants me to help pass the time. He will tell me a lie for precisely as long as it is convenient for him. Something absurdly embedded in our lives, in the dull story we are living. The man held a glass just barely half full and offered her a full one. He knew, had known for years, that she wouldn’t touch it. She hadn’t had time to get into bed, he’d surprised her in the large armchair as she looked at the book again and again, at the words she knew by heart: “Imagine the growing sorrow, the urge to flee, the impotent disgust, the subjugation, the hatred.”

The man sat down in front of her, listened to the news of the day, nodded in silence. When the end of the pause was approaching, he said, in different words:

“The old man. The one you pay, who smokes, watches nonchalantly as the laborers work. He studied at a seminary for a year, architecture for a few months. There’s talk about a trip to Rome. How could he afford it, the poor devil? I don’t know how long afterwards, several years in any case, he decided to show up around here, in the city. He was dressed as a priest. He lied, not by boasting, just by confusing and misleading. Nobody knows how, he managed to live two days and two nights in the seminary. He tried to find support to build a chapel. He displayed, unfurled, blue-tinted plans, with a tenacity akin to fury. Finally, they threw him out, despite him offering to take on the cost, to personally raise the necessary money.

“Maybe it was then, not before, that he put on the cassock and went from door to door asking for help. Not for him but for the chapel. It seems he was persuasive, what with his passion and the vague story of his failure. He was clever enough to deposit the money he collected with the courts. So that when the real priests intervened they’d have no choice but to settle for a fine, which he didn’t pay, and a few days in jail. Afterwards nobody could stop him from spending his time building houses. He put roofs on so many of the horrors that surround us here, in Villa Petrus, that people call him ‘the builder.’ Maybe some call him ‘Mr. Architect.’ I don’t know if this story is true or false. Who would waste their time finding out.”

“What if it were true?” she mumbled over the glass.

“In any case, it’s not our story.”

She turned over in bed. She thought about anybody who was alive or had carried out the incomprehensible ritual of living, about anybody who was living or had been centuries before, posing questions that received only that proverbial silence. Man or woman, it didn’t matter. She thought about the giant well digger, about anybody, about compassion.

“As long as he does his job . . . ,” he began to say; then the telephone rang, and the man got up, thin and agile, his long strides slowing. He spoke in the dark hallway and returned to the bedroom with an annoyed, almost irate, look on his face.

“It’s Montero, from the office. He stayed to do the accounting and now . . . Now he tells me there’s something wrong, he needs to see me right away. If it’s okay with you . . .”

She had no need to examine his face in order to understand, to remember that she had known the reason for the incongruous story about the old man from the beginning; that he had talked and she had listened only so that they could wait together for the phone call, the conformation of the tryst.

“Más Am,” the woman pronounced, barely smiling, feeling pity grow without it turning on her. She drank down her drink in one gulp and stood up to get the bottle and place it on the small table next to her.

The man didn’t understand, he remained neither understanding nor answering.

“But if you’d rather I stay . . . ,” he insisted.

The woman smiled again, looking straight at the curtain swaying lazily over the window.

“No,” she answered. She filled the glass again and leaned over to drink it down without spilling it, without using her hands.

The man stood there for a while, silent and still. Then he returned to the hallway to get his hat and coat. She waited calmly for the sound of the car; then, almost happy in the exact center of loneliness and silence, she shook her befuddled head and once again poured cognac into the glass. She had made a decision, certain by now that it was inevitable, suspecting that she’d wanted to from the moment she saw the well and, inside it, the thorax of the man who was digging, his huge white arms effortlessly maintaining the pace of his labors. But she could not relinquish distrust: she could not manage to convince herself that she was the one choosing, thought that some other person, persons, or thing had decided for her.

It was easy, and she’d known it would be for a long time. She waited in the garden, in its ruins, knitting disinterestedly as always, until the beast came out of his cave, picked up a water jug and went looking for a faucet. She waved to him and summoned him to her. Next to the garage, she hazarded some stupid questions. They didn’t look at each other. She asked if flowers and plants, bushes and weeds, any form of vegetation and greenery, could grow there again.

The man knelt down, scratching with his dirty and broken fingernails the piece of sandy earth available to him.

“Possible,” he said as he stood up. “It’s a matter of wanting to, a little patience and care.”

Quickly and whispering and willful, without having heard him, with her hands clasped behind her back, looking at the cloudy sky and its threat, the woman instructed:

“After you all leave. And nobody can know. Promise?”

Unperturbed, detached, clueless, the man touched his temple and agreed with a heavy voice.

“Return at six and enter through the gate.”

The giant walked away without saying goodbye, slowly, swaying. The old man was listening to the angels who announced that it was five o’clock and instructed them to leave. That afternoon, she left the Jerusalem thorn bushes alone; slowly, sleepwalking, contrite, and incredulous, she climbed the stairs and tended to the child. Then, from the window, she began to watch the road, to see the increasing indigo of the sky. I’m crazy, or I was and I still am, and I like it, she repeated to herself with a happy invisible smile. She wasn’t thinking about revenge, about retribution; barely, glancingly, about her remote and incomprehensible childhood, about a world of lies and disobedience.

The man arrived at the gate at six, the chewed stem adorning his ear. She let him walk very slowly for a while along the concrete covering the murdered garden. When the giant stopped, she ran downstairs—the rapid and rhythmic drumbeat of the treads under her heels—and was smaller as she approached him until she almost touched his enormous body. She smelled his sweat, contemplated the stupid and suspicious look in his blinking eyes. Stretching up, with a burst of frenzy, she stuck out her tongue to kiss him. The man gasped and turned his head to the left.

“The shed,” he suggested.

She laughed quietly, tersely; she was looking calmly at the Jerusalem thorn bushes, as if bidding them farewell. She had grabbed hold of one of the man’s wrists.

“Not in the shed,” she said, finally and sweetly. “Too dirty, too uncomfortable. Either upstairs or not at all.” She guided him like a blind man to the door, helped him climb the stairs. The baby was sleeping. Mysteriously, the bedroom remained identical, undefeated. The large reddish bed, the sparse furniture, the drinks cabinet, the restless curtains, the same trifles, vases, paintings, candlesticks: they all persisted.

Deaf, distant, she let him talk about the weather, gardens and harvests. When the well digger was finishing his second glass she brought him over to the bed and gave other instructions. She had never imagined that a naked man, real and hers, could be so admirable and fearsome. She acknowledged desire, curiosity, an old feeling of health that had been slumbering for years. As she watched him approach, she began to become aware of her hatred for his physical superiority, for the masculine, for the one who gives orders, for someone who has no need to ask useless questions.

She summoned and held the well digger, stinking and compliant. But it was impossible, over and over again, because they’d been created definitively, insurmountably, haphazardly different. The man pulled away, grumbling, his throat stuck and hateful:

“It’s always like this. It always happens to me,” he said sadly and wistfully, without a trace of pride.

They heard the baby’s cry. Without words, without violence, she had the man get dressed, told him lies as she caressed his bearded cheek.

“Another time,” she whispered as goodbye and comfort.

The man went back into the night, probably chewing on a stem, tamping down anger, the old unjust failure.

(As for the narrator, he is only authorized to attempt calculations in time. He can repeat, at dawn, in vain, the forbidden name of a woman. He can beg for explanations, he is allowed to fail and upon waking wipe away his tears, his snot, and his curses.)

It might have happened the following day. The old man, with his thin, expressionless face, which was older than he, might have waited a little longer. Half a week, let’s say. Until he saw her sauntering through what had been a garden, between the house and the shed, hanging diapers on the line.

He lit the dangling cigarette and mumbled grumpily to his workers before moving: “I want to find out if they’ll pay us two weeks in advance.”

Very slowly, almost groaning, he managed to stand up and hobbled over to the woman. He found her without hope, more childish than ever, almost as liberated from the world and its promises as he was. The seminarian architect looked at her with pity, fraternally.

“Listen, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t need an answer. With you, not even words.”

Laboriously, he pulled out of his pant pocket a fistful of recently opened roses, prodigiously small, common, with broken stems. She took them without hesitating, wrapped them in a damp rag and continued to wait. She wasn’t mistrustful; and the only thing the tired eyes of the old man did was open the way to an ancient desire to cry, a desire no longer connected to her current life, to herself. She didn’t say thank you.

“Listen, my dear,” the old man asked of her again. “Those, the roses, are for you to forget or forgive. It’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter, we don’t want to know what we’re talking about. When the flowers die and you have to throw them out, consider that we are, whether we like it or not, siblings in Christ. They have surely told you many things about me, even though you live in isolation. But I’m not crazy. I see and I endure.”

He lowered his head to say goodbye and left. Tired out by the monologue, he started to hear in the still and stormy afternoon air the prelude to the five peals of the bell.

“Let’s go,” he said to the well diggers. “There’s no advance, it seems.”

After several nights wavering between waiting and a directionless hope, one night facing the boredom of the book and indomitable sleep, she heard the sound of the car in the garage, the muted whistle carefully rising with the stairs. Ignorant, definitely innocent of so many things, the man was whistling “The Man I Love.”

She watched him move around, the expression on her face greeted him, she accepted the glass he handed her.

“Did you go to the doctor?” the woman asked. “You promised you would. Or did you swear it?”

His bony profile smiled without turning, happy to give her something.

“Yes, I went. There’s nothing. A naked skeletal man standing in front of a mild-mannered fat man. The customary X-rays and tests. A fat man in a lab coat, perhaps not overly clean, who had no faith in his little hammer, in his stethoscope, in the instructions he wrote down. No, there’s nothing going on that they can understand, or cure.”

She accepted, for the first time, another overflowing glass. She moved her fingers and took a cigarette. She was laughing and stiffened her body to stifle a cough. The man looked at her, astonished, almost happy. He took a step to sit down on the bed; but she slowly moved away from the sheets, from the paternal caress. She still had half a cigarette and kept smoking, cautious.

Her back was turned to him when she asked: “Why did you marry me?”

The man looked at her thin contours, the tangled hair on the back of her neck; then he walked away, toward the armchair and the table. Another glass, another cigarette, quick and confident. The woman’s question had aged, grown wrinkled, spread in disarray like ivy clinging by its nails to a wall. But he had to stall for time; because the woman, though they never knew it, though nobody ever knew it, was more intelligent and more wretched than the skinny man, her husband.

“You didn’t have any money, so that wasn’t it,” the man tried to joke. “The money came later, through no fault of my own. Your mother, your brothers.”

“I already thought about that. Nobody could have guessed. And anyway, you don’t care about money. Which is even worse, I sometimes think. So, again: why did you marry me?”

The man smoked for a while in silence, nodding, stretching his pale lips over the glass.

“Everything?” he asked finally; he was filled with cowardice and pity.

“Everything, of course.” The woman sat up in bed to watch his hard, determined head shrink.

“I didn’t do it because you were pregnant with Mendle’s baby, either. There was no compassion, no desire to help somebody else. So it was very simple. I loved you, I was in love. It was love.”

“And it’s gone,” she said from bed, almost shouting. But also, inevitably, asking.

“After so much guile and dissembling and betrayal. It’s gone. I couldn’t say if it needed weeks or months or preferred to fade away slowly, one hour then another hour. It’s so difficult to explain. Assuming I know, understand. Here, in the resort that Petrus invented, you were the girl. With or without a fetus inside you. The girl, the almost woman, who can be contemplated sadly, with the dreadful sensation that it is no longer possible. The hair goes, the teeth rot. And, above all, to find out that curiosity was being aroused in you when I was beginning to lose mine. It’s possible that my marriage to you was my last real curiosity.”

She kept waiting, in vain. Finally she got up, put on a robe, and stood facing the man sitting at the table.

“Everything?” she asked. “Are you sure? I’m asking you, please. And if necessary, I’ll get on my knees . . . For this little bit of the past that we are helping each other trample, without a commitment, freely, for this little bit of the past that we crouch down over to find relief, shoulder to shoulder, for reasons of space . . .”

The man, his cigarette hanging out of his thinned mouth, turned toward her and the vertebrae cracked in his neck. Without pity or surprise, listless out of habit, she was looking at the face of a corpse.

“Everything?” the man said scornfully. “More of everything?” he was talking to the glass he held up, to lost moments, to what he believed himself to be. “Everything? Maybe you didn’t understand. I was talking, I think, about the girl.”

“About me.”

“About the girl,” he insisted.

The voice, the confusion, the careful slowness of his movements. He was drunk and approaching vulgarity. She smiled, invisible and happy.

“That’s what I said,” the man continued slowly, watchful. “What every normal man looks for, invents, finds, or is made to believe he’s found. Not a woman who understands, protects, pampers, helps, makes right, corrects, improves, supports, advises, directs, manages. None of that, thank you.”


“Yes, now; and all the bloody rest,” he said and leaned on the table to get up to go to the bathroom.

She took off her robe, the orphan-girl slip, and waited for him. She waited for him until she saw him emerge clean and naked from the bathroom, until he gave her a vague caress and, lying next to her in bed, began to breathe like a child, peacefully, without memory or sin, submerged in the unmistakable silence where a woman stifles her cries, her tamed exasperation, her atavistic sense of injustice.

The second well digger, thin and languid, who appeared to not understand life or ask it for meaning, solutions, turned out to be easier, more hers. Perhaps because of the man’s way of being, perhaps because she had him many times.

After five she’d wound herself on the Jerusalem thorn bushes, her eyes closed. She’d slowly lick her hands and wrists. Gangly, hesitant, not understanding, the second well digger would arrive at six and let himself be led to the shed that smelled of confinement and sheep.

Naked, he’d become childlike and fearful, pleading. The woman employed all her memories, her sudden inspirations. She usually spit on him and slapped him, she was able to find, inside the metal walls and the ceiling, an old riding crop, not oiled, forgotten.

She enjoyed whistling for him to come, like to a dog, snapping her fingers. One week, two weeks or three.

Nevertheless, each blow, each humiliation, each payment, and each joy carried her into the fullness and sweat of summer, into a culmination that can only be followed by a descent.

She was happy with the young man and sometimes they cried together, not knowing each other’s reasons. But, slowly and fatefully the woman had to return from desperate sex to the need for love. It was better, she believed, to be alone and sad. She didn’t see the well diggers again; she went down at dusk, after six, and cautiously approached the hedge.

“Blood,” the man said, waking her up when he returned at dawn. “Blood on your hands and your face.”

“It’s nothing,” she answered, waiting for sleep to return. “I still like to play with the trees.”

One night the man returned and woke her up; he poured himself a drink as he loosened his tie. Sitting on the bed, the woman heard him laugh and contrasted it to the clear, fresh, irrepressible sound she used to hear from him years before.

“Mendle,” he finally said. “Your marvelous, irresistible friend Mendle. And, therefore, my bosom buddy. He was arrested yesterday. Not because of my papers, my documents, but because it had to end like this.”

She asked for a shot without soda and drank it down in one gulp.

“Mendle,” she said in astonishment, incapable of understanding, of figuring it out.

“And as for me,” the man mumbled in a truthful tone, “all day I didn’t know if it would be better for him if I turned the dirty papers over to the judge or burned them.”

Then, in the middle of summer, the afternoon arrived, the one foreseen long ago, when she still had her wild garden and the well diggers had not yet come to destroy it.

She walked through the garden flattened by the concrete and, smiling, threw herself with old and familiar skill against the Jerusalem thorn bushes and the pain.

She glanced off them in softness and docility, as if the plants had suddenly turned into rubber canes. The thorns no longer had the strength to wound, and they barely leaked milk, a slow and viscous liquid, white, sluggish. She tried other trunks and they were all the same—malleable, inoffensive, oozing.

At first she despaired and then she ended up accepting; that was her custom. It was already after five in the afternoon and the workers had left. On her way she pulled on some flowers and leaves and then stopped to pray, standing under the immortal araucaria tree. Someone was screaming, hungry or frightened, upstairs. With a crushed flower in her hand, she began to climb the stairs.

She nursed the baby until she felt him fall asleep. The she crossed herself and shuffled into the bedroom. She rummaged around in the closet and found, almost immediately, among the shirts and underpants, the useless, impotent Smith and Wesson. It was all a game, a ritual, a preamble.

But she recited again, as she looked at the bluish polish of the weapon, the first two verses of Hail Mary; she slipped until she fell on the bed, reconstructed the first time and had to surrender, crying, see again the moon from that night, yielding like a child. The cold barrel of the dead gun went past her teeth and rested against her palate.

Back in the baby’s room she stole the hot water bottle. In the bedroom, she wrapped the Smith and Wesson in it, waiting patiently for the barrel to reach body temperature for her eager mouth.

She acknowledged, without shame, the farce she was enacting. Then she heard, unhurriedly, fearlessly, the three failed strikes of the ring pin. She heard, for a split second, the fourth shot of the bullet that smashed through her head. Without understanding, she spent some time in that first night and its moon, she believed that once again she had in her throat the spilled taste of the man, so like fresh grass, happiness, and summer. She advanced persistently into every corner of the destroyed dream and brain, into every moment of fatigue as she climbed the endless hill, half naked, bent under her suitcase. The moon kept growing. Pushing her small breasts, radiant and hard as zinc, through the night, she kept walking until she sank into the boundless moon that had waited for her, confidently, for years, not many.



Juan Carlos Onetti

Born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1909 Juan Carlos Onetti was a self-taught writer and a senior member of the “Generation ’45” a Uruguayan intellectual and literary movement. Onetti was awarded the Uruguay National Literature Prize in 1962, the William Faulkner Foundation Ibero-American Award in 1963, the Italian-Latin American Institute Prize in 1972, and the prestigious Premio Cervantes prize in 1980. Juan Carlos Onetti is the author of more than two dozen books and a handful of them have been translated into English including A Brief Life, The Shipyard, Body Snatcher, Let the Wind Speak, and Past Caring. Onetti died in exile in Spain in May of 1994.

Katherine Silver

Katherine Silver has translated more than thirty books, mostly of literature from the Americas. Her most recent and forthcoming translations include works by María Sonia Cristoff, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, Julio Cortázar, Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, César Aira, and Pedro Lemebel. She has received numerous awards and prizes, including three National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowships. She was recently translator-in-residence at the University of Iowa, and is the former director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Her novel, Echo Under Story (What Books Press) will be published in October 2019.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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