“Black Holes” by Samanta Schweblin

Download pdf: Black Holes

Dr. Ottone halts in the corridor and begins to balance on the balls of his feet, very slowly at first, with his eyes fixed on one of the hospital’s black and white floor tiles, and so Dr. Ottone is thinking. Then he makes up his mind, returns to his office, switches on the lights, leaves his things on the couch and rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file, and so Dr. Ottone is preoccupied with a certain case and has determined to resolve it, to find an answer or, at the very least, to refer the patient to another doctor, for instance, Dr. Messina. He opens the file, looks for a specific page, finds it and reads: “… Black holes. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, you’re here, and then suddenly you’re at home, in bed, with your pajamas on, and you know for certain that you haven’t locked up the office or turned off the lights or traveled the distance you had to travel to get home; what’s more, you haven’t even seen me off. So, how could you possibly find yourself in bed with your pj’s on? Well, that’s an empty space, a black hole is what I say, zero hour, whatever you want to call it. What else could it be? …”   

Samanta Schweblin Black Holes Agujeros Negros

“Empty Hallway of Hospital,” photograph from 10Wallpaper.com.

Dr. Ottone returns the page to the file, picks up his things, switches off the lights, locks up his office and sets off to see Dr. Messina, whom he is certain to find at this hour. Ottone does indeed find Messina, but asleep on his desk and with a statuette in his hand. He awakens him and hands Messina Mrs. Fritchs’ file. Messina, still half asleep, asks himself, or asks Dr. Ottone, why he has awoken with a statuette in his hand. With a shrug, Ottone conveys that he does not know. Messina opens his desk drawer and offers Ottone a cookie, a cookie that Ottone accepts. Messina opens the file.

“Turn to page 15,” says Ottone.

Messina flips through the file, finds page 15 and reads it carefully. Ottone waits expectantly. When Messina has finished reading, Ottone asks his opinion.

“You believe this, Ottone?”

“The business about black holes?”

“What is it we are talking about?”

And so Ottone recalls Messina’s habit of replying only with questions, and this makes him nervous.

“We’re talking about black holes, Messina …”

“And you believe this business, Ottone?”

“No. You?”

Messina opens his desk drawer again.

“Another cookie, Ottone?”

Ottone takes the cookie Messina offers him.

“Do you believe it or don’t you?” insists Ottone.

“Do I know this Mrs. … ?”

“… Fritchs, Mrs. Fritchs. No, I don’t believe you do. She’s only been to see me twice and this is her first treatment.”

Someone knocks on the office door and peers inside. Ottone recognizes the janitor and asks:

“What is it, Sanchez?”

The janitor explains that Mrs. Fritchs is waiting for Dr. Ottone in the floor’s main hall. Messina reminds the janitor that it’s ten at night and the janitor explains that Mrs. Fritchs refuses to leave.

“She’s sitting in the hall in her pajamas and says she isn’t going anywhere without seeing Dr. Ottone. What do you want me to do?”

“Why didn’t you bring her, then?” asks Messina as he studies the statuette.

“Bring her here? Or to Dr. Ottone’s office?”

“What did I just ask you?”

“Why I didn’t bring her.”

“Bring her where, Sanchez?”

“Here.”

“And where is here?”

“Your office, doctor.”

“Where should you bring her, then, Sanchez?”

“Your office, doctor.”

Sanchez bows slightly, excuses himself and retires. Ottone looks at Messina, Messina whose jaw is pressing his lower row of teeth into his upper row of teeth, and so Ottone is nervous and still waits for Messina’s answer, Messina, the doctor who begins gathering up his things and arranging the papers on his desk.

“Are you leaving?”

“Do you need me for something?”

“At least give me your opinion, tell me what you think should be done. Why not see her yourself?”

Messina, already at the door of his office, halts and looks back at Ottone with a slight, barely noticeable, grin.

“What difference is there between Mrs. Fritchs and your other patients?”

Ottone intends to respond, and so he begins to raise his index finger from its resting place to bring it level with his head, but he thinks better of it. And so Ottone’s index finger remains at waist level, neither signifying nor indicating anything in particular.

“What are you afraid of, Ottone?” asks Messina, and he exits, closing the door behind him and leaving Ottone alone with his index finger slowly descending until it hangs from his arm. At that precise moment, Mrs. Fritchs enters. Mrs. Fritchs is wearing light blue pajamas with white trimmings and embellishments on the collar, sleeves, belt and other extremities. Ottone deduces that the woman is in a state of considerable nervousness, and he deduces this from her hands, which are constantly moving, the look in her eyes, and other observable signs that, although they are typical indicators, Ottone considers it unnecessary to list.

“Mrs. Fritchs, you are overly nervous. It would be best if you calmed down.”

“If you don’t resolve this problem, I’ll file a complaint, doctor. This is an abuse.”

“Mrs. Fritchs, you have to understand that you are undergoing treatment; your problems aren’t going to disappear from one day to the next.”

Mrs. Fritchs glares at Dr. Ottone with indignation, scratches her right arm with her left hand and says:

“Do you think I’m stupid? Are you telling me I need to put up with popping up all over the city in my pajamas until you determine the treatment is over? What am I paying health insurance for?”

Ottone imagines Dr. Messina walking down the hospital’s main stairs and that provokes diverse sensations in him, sensations he is not going to go into at the moment.

“Look,” says Ottone patiently, beginning to balance, slowly at first, on the balls of his feet. “Calm down. Understand that your problems are psychological in nature. You invent things to hide other, more important things. We all know that you don’t really go around the hospital in pajamas.”

Mrs. Fritchs untwists the folds at the hem of her nightshirt, and so Ottone understands that this will be a long visit.

“Please sit down. Relax and let’s talk a while,” says Ottone.

“No, no I can’t. My husband will be home any minute and I won’t be there. I have to get back. Please, doctor, help me.”

Ottone is quickly overcome with the first of the postponed sensations of Dr. Messina walking down the stairs. Air coming in through the seams of his coat, and so he feels cold, a bit cold.

“Do you have money to get home?”

“No, I don’t carry money on me when I’m at home in my pj’s …”

“Well, I’ll lend you some so you can get home and the day after tomorrow, at your regularly scheduled appointment, we’ll talk about these matters that are on your mind …”

“Doctor, I have no problem taking your money and going home if that’s what you want. But I told you already, you know, that in a short while, I’ll be back here again, and every time it gets worse. Before it was every once in a while, but now, every two or three hours … Bam! Black hole.”

“Mrs. …”

“No, listen, listen to me. I recover, or rather, I return to where I was. How can I explain it? Let’s see … I disappear from my house and appear in my brother’s house, so I despair, imagine, three in the morning and I appear in my pj’s—in my pj’s in the best of cases—there in my brother’s bedroom. So I attempt to get back home. Do you know how I suffer, doctor? I have to get out of the room, get out of the house, without anyone noticing, and hail a taxi, in my pajamas, doctor, and without any money on me, imagine, having to convince a cabbie that I’ll pay him when we get there. And when we are almost there … Bam! End of black hole, I’m back home again.”

Ottone takes advantage of this moment to analyze the second sensation of Dr. Messina walking down the stairs. Getting in a car, temperature more agreeable, relief upon depositing the weight of the briefcase on the passenger seat.

“Besides, imagine, me at home always with money on me and a coat tied around the waist of my nightshirt, just in case. But not anymore. I said enough. When I fall in a black hole, I no longer even try to return. I never make it back anyway, I figure; I take taxis that almost never drop me off in time. No. Enough. Now I stay put wherever I might be until the black hole ends and that’s it.”

“And how long do these black holes last?”

“Well, see, I can’t say exactly. Once I went and returned in a split second, no problem. And another time I was at my mother’s house for quite a few hours. At least there I knew where things were kept. I made myself some mate and waited patiently for three hours, doctor. What a disgrace.”

Ottone wonders how many minutes have elapsed since Mrs. Fritchs appeared at the hospital, but is unable to arrive at a definitive answer; maybe five, maybe ten … he does not know.

Sanchez knocks on the door and sticks his head in. Ottone asks:

“What is it, Sanchez?”

“Dr. Messina is looking for you.”

“How’s that? Didn’t he leave?”

“Yes, he did, but then he was back here again a short while later. He looks a bit anxious to me. He’s half dressed … or undressed. I don’t know which, doctor, but he’s asking for you.”

“What did he say exactly, Sanchez?”

“He wanted to know if you were here and if you could do him the favor of going to see him. He looks angry …”

Dr. Ottone looks at Mrs. Fritchs, who scratches her left arm with her right hand and responds to his look with a recriminating gesture.

“You’ll have to excuse me.”

“No, I’ll go with you.”

“No, please, Mrs. Fritchs, do me the favor of staying here. An angry Dr. Messina is enough of a problem as it is.”

Sanchez seconds Ottone’s statement with a nod and exits, walking down the corridor, the corridor down which Ottone follows a few meters behind him.

Messina appears from behind a dividing screen in his office minutes after Messina is not sure what, and finds Mrs. Fritchs sitting in a sofa. Messina looks at his hand and asks himself why he’s holding the same statuette again. Bewildered, he looks at his desk, at the empty space where he had left it not long before. Then he looks at Mrs. Fritchs, and Mrs. Fritchs, her hands grasping the sofa’s armrests as if she is about to fall toward or from some place, looks back at Dr. Messina.

“And who are you? What are you doing in my office?”

“Dr. Ottone said …”

“Why are you in your pajamas?”

“The janitor and Dr. Ottone went to look for you down …”

“Are you Mrs. Fritchs?”

“You are in your pajamas, also,” observes Mrs. Fritchs, looking apprehensively at the statuette in the doctor’s hand.

Messina verifies that he is indeed in his pajamas and mentally comes up with possible hypotheses to explain his present predicament, puts the statuette back on his desk and straightens the collar of his undershirt so that it is aligned with respect to the axis of his own neck, a position for his undershirt that makes of Messina a more confident man.

“Are you Mrs. Fritchs?”

“Dr. Ottone told me to wait here.”

“Did I ask you about Dr. Ottone?”

“Yes, I am Mrs. Fritchs. I’m waiting for Dr. Ottone.”

“Does this look to you as if it could be the office of a doctor like Ottone?”

Messina mentally compares the figure of the woman before him with that of his wife and derives no benefit.

“Are you the woman having trouble with black holes?”

“Aren’t you, too?”

At that moment, a few things dawn on Messina, things of which he regards only two as pertinent and worthy of further consideration: first, an explanation of what might be happening to him; second, the notion that Mrs. Fritchs may be a very intelligent person. He thinks of a question to test the latter:

“Why are you waiting for Dr. Ottone?”

“Ottone and the janitor went down the corridor to look for you. You are doctor …”

“Messina?”

“That’s it. Messina. I need someone to help me.”

Messina searches for and finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file on his desk and, with his back to her, reviews its contents while his mind begins to connect ideas about black holes, people in pajamas and statuettes. He asks:

“What do you believe is happening to us?”

“I’m not sure about you, doctor, but in my case nothing,” says Sanchez entering the office through the door and holding out a set of keys. Messina quickly looks over at the now empty sofa where a second before Mrs. Fritchs sat.

“What are you doing here, Sanchez? Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Sanchez, his arm extended towards Messina with the keys dangling from his index finger, says:

“Here are the keys, doctor. I’m leaving.”

“Where are you going? Where is Mrs. Fritchs?”

“My shift ended at ten, it’s now ten thirty, and I’m leaving.”

“Where is Mrs. Fritchs?”

“I don’t know, doctor. Please take the keys.”

“And Ottone? Where’s Ottone?”

“He’s looking for you, doctor. I’m going now.”

Messina exits his office without taking the keys and walks down the black-and-white tiled corridor to the main hall, where he finds Ottone.

Ottone folds the fingers of his right hand into a tight, closed fist, with no air in its center, and presses down on these fingers with his left hand, causing his knuckles to let out a series of cracks, and so Ottone has seen Messina, is extremely anxious and is disturbed by the sight of the doctor, Dr. Messina, half dressed, or undressed, Sanchez was unable to say which, and Ottone is now unable to determine himself which would be correct.

Messina is about to go over and ask Ottone something when he notices he is holding the statuette in his hand, and so he asks himself, or he asks Ottone, why that statuette is in his hand. Ottone conveys with a shrug that he does not know. Messina opens his desk drawer and offers Ottone a cookie. Ottone takes the cookie without asking himself how it is that both of them, Ottone and Messina, are no longer in the main hall, but rather in Messina’s office.

And although Messina thinks of saying something about it to Ottone, he decides against it and simply places the statuette on the hall counter, because, in effect, they are once more in the hall and not in Dr. Messina’s office.

“Are you alright?” asks Ottone.

“Do you think I can be alright in the state I’m in?”

Ottone observes Messina’s rumpled undershirt.

“What’s your opinion now, Messina?”

“About what?”

“About black holes.”

“Where is Mrs. Fritchs?

“She’s in your office.”

“Are you kidding me, Ottone? Don’t you realize that I’ve just come from there?”

Ottone thinks about something he can’t explain, but when he sees Mrs. Fritchs running in the distance from one corridor to another, he suggests to Messina that they ought to go get her. Messina’s eyes open wide and he leans towards Ottone as if he is going to tell him a secret. Ottone listens attentively:

“Don’t you realize that she knows?”

“Knows what?”

“Why do you think she is running around like that?”

Ottone makes to crack his knuckles again, but Messina reacts quickly and, taking him forcefully by the wrist, says:

“Didn’t you notice?”

“What?”

“Didn’t you notice what happened the last time you cracked your knuckles?”

“Were we there?”

“In a black hole?”

“Yes?”

“Do you really need me to answer that?”

Their conversation is interrupted by the jingling of a set of keys dangling at the height of both doctors’ foreheads from the end of Sanchez’s finger. Sanchez announces:

“The keys. I’m leaving.”

Messina suggests to Sanchez:

“Why don’t you bring Mrs. Fritchs to us before you go?”

Ottone seconds the idea eagerly and adds:

“Yes, bring Mrs. Fritchs here and then we’ll take the keys.”

Messina indicates to Sanchez the corridors down which Mrs. Fritchs can occasionally be seen crossing the main hall, sometimes walking worriedly, and other times hastily. Messina pats Sanchez on the back a few times as Ottone smiles at him and urges eagerly:

“Go ahead, Sanchez, go and bring back Mrs. Fritchs.”

Sanchez looks down the hall towards the corridors and then at the doctors. He leaves the keys on the counter and says:

“I see you have a problem on your hands. But I’m the janitor and my shift ended at ten,” and he leaves.

Messina stares at the keys that have been left next to the statuette and then, desperately, focuses his attention on Ottone, Ottone who is looking back at Messina, but whose senses are now perceiving other things, things like Sanchez going down the stairs, Sanchez feeling the cold air of the street on his face, Sanchez thinking that he is never dressed as warmly as he should be, and that it’s all his mother’s fault, who, unlike other mothers, never admonished him about these sort of things. Messina then thinks of Sanchez boarding the 134 bus, branch line two or three, either one, and when he is about to think of Sanchez opening the front door of a house, a house where, logically, this same Sanchez lives, what he sees is Mrs. Fritchs, or rather, he doesn’t see her, or better put, he sees her disappear before his eyes. And so Messina asks Dr. Ottone:

“Did you see that, Ottone?”

“See what?”

“Didn’t you see it?”

Ottone is on the verge of responding, and his imminent intent can be deduced by his index finger, which, slowly, begins to ascend toward his head, and when it arrives, when the finger is level with his head and Ottone articulates his first words, then this doctor, Dr. Ottone, finds himself standing not before Dr. Messina, but before Clara, in other words, his wife, in his home, both of them in pajamas.

In a hospital corridor, now even farther from his office, Messina asks himself, once more, what he is doing there at this hour of the night, half dressed, or undressed, with a statuette in his hand, and when he is about to ask himself the question aloud, the hospital corridor is suddenly left completely empty.

Samanta Schweblin el nucleo del disturbio agujeros negros black holes

Translated by Dario Bard from “Agujeros Negros” as printed in El Núcleo del Disturbio, republished by Editorial Planeta under the Booket label, 2011, available from Paradigma Libros. Originally published by Editorial Planeta in 2002.

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine short story writer from the City of Buenos Aires. She has published two award-winning short story collections, El Núcleo del Disturbio and Pájaros en la Boca, both available from Amazon. English translations of one of the former’s stories (“Killing a Dog”) is available from London-based quarterly The Drawbridge, and the latter’s title story (Birds in the Mouth) is available as a Kindle editionSchweblin won the 2012 Juan Rulfo Prize for her short story, “Un Hombre Sin Suerte,” available for download from Radio Francia Internacional

More information, including several short stories in Spanish, are available at her official website.

For interesting analysis on Schweblin’s writing, I recommend Paul Doyle’s blog, bythefirelight.

Samanta Schweblin describes her writing in this video interview (in Spanish):

  

3 thoughts on ““Black Holes” by Samanta Schweblin

  1. Pingback: Short Story Black Holes by Samanta Schweblin up at Contemporary Argentine Writers | By The Firelight

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