“The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón

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 To Ariel Korob (Z”L)

The morning of Thursday, February 7, 2007, was a typical summer morning. With suffocating heat settling in for the rest of the day, it was inadvisable to walk or take the subway.

Daniel backed out of the garage on his way to temple. The last week in Buenos Aires; on Sunday, he would take Katia and their three children to Mendoza. A stream with a magnificent canyon in the background, a good way to relax for two weeks after a year-long stretch of demanding work.

2009018_Clouds_and_wheat_WEB LISA MCSHANE

“Clouds and Fields” by Lisa McShane, courtesy of the artist.

He backed out of the garage and up the driveway ramp. He looked in the driver’s side mirror. No one in sight. In reverse out onto the street. A young man on a bike grazed the driver’s side mirror. Daniel did not move forward but the guy threw himself on the hood, the bicycle caught up in his legs. He looked like a bad actor rehearsing a scene that called for a simulated accident. Asked the question, the script would read: Yeah, it hurts like a son of a bitch.

Their conversation was brief and muddled. It seemed he was fine, that the acting intended to introduce a gradual and hidden brutality.

Daniel thought of calling a doctor or the police. He wanted to call a doctor, but the guy suggested reporting the accident to the police.

At the station, a tall, short-haired officer behind the counter asked them why they were there. Motor vehicle accident involving a cyclist.  The officer looked at a policewoman behind him and at the deputy commissioner, a bit farther back. He went over to the deputy commissioner and explained the situation. A poorly concealed smirk that read Here’s a sucker for the taking appeared on the deputy commissioner’s face. He approached and asked Daniel if he had brought the car along and the cyclist if he had seen a doctor. The deputy commissioner’s tone was emphatic; he was talking about a serious matter. The vehicle, he said, will be impounded for inspection. You’ll need to make a statement. The victim is to be taken to Fernández Hospital.

This was an unknown world to Daniel. He had only been in a police station once before, and very briefly, to report the loss of his wallet and cellphone. The procedure seemed reasonable.

While the policewoman took his statement, he saw a man in a suit sitting in the waiting area, observing attentively. It seemed he had been there all along, but Daniel only noticed him then. And now? What happens next? Daniel asked of the policewoman. You’ll have to wait for the medical report, see if the kid presses charges, and wait 48 to 72 hours for the car to be inspected; you should file a report with your insurance company. She advised him to call a lawyer.

If they hold the car for 72 hours, thought Daniel, I won’t get it back until the day before we leave for Mendoza. He knew many lawyers. Some were donors, generally second and third generation attorneys, mixed in with public notaries and accountants. He thought of calling Katia, telling her everything and having her find a lawyer, but then he remembered Fabian, who was fresh out of law school and sometimes came to temple on the Sabbath. Fabian had told him of a similar case: he had accidentally run into an empanada delivery motorcycle. Besides, he was coming out of a deep depression. It was a good idea to give him a call.

He signed the police report and was free to go, but before leaving, he called Fabian. Did you make a statement? Did you sign it? Yes. I’m on my way.

The officer who had first spoken to Daniel asked him to stop by the commissioner’s office. The door was ajar. Come in, Knopoff.

He was surprised to be called by his surname and recalled how Katia reproached him for forgetting other people’s names. Calling someone by name is to recognize that person, to distinguish the individual. We all need to be recognized.

The commissioner’s face was as he imagined a commissioner’s face would be: hard lines, strong and protruding teeth, mussed up hair and perforated skin, scars sketching a map that read shit happened here. The commissioner looked serious. Come in, Knopoff … yours is a complicated case … I’m not saying that to scare you … but you know … a young man of limited means … lawyers fishing for a quick settlement … a traffic accident report signed by the driver … who knows what the vehicle inspection will turn up …

He was amazed by the commissioner’s sincerity. It was as if, by happy fortune, he had a friend on the other side of the counter. Everything was taking on a scripted appearance, and he was just now beginning to discern it.

The commissioner spoke with emphatic discomfiture, like the deputy commissioner had, as if both received the same instructions from the director of a staged scene. Daniel wasn’t worried about himself, but rather about how concerned the commissioner was.

The commissioner offered him a drink. Coffee? … Tea? … A bit of whiskey? Daniel figured that if he accepted a bit of whiskey, he’d have the commissioner on his side. But it wasn’t advisable to go through life being a sycophant; he opted for tea. Fabian arrived. He was notified by a knock on the door. The commissioner saw Daniel off with a firm handshake and accompanied him part of the way out.

As soon as he saw Daniel, Fabian said: They’re impounding your car and we’ll have to wait for the doctors to examine the kid and file their medical report; we can go. Everything seemed to be on the track of bureaucratic logic, a matter of paperwork and signatures. Daniel cordially said his good-byes to those at the precinct and sent his regards to the commissioner. They telephoned his insurance company to report the accident.

Fabian instructed Daniel to notify him should the police call him in to testify … When they tell you the car is ready for pick up, I’ll go with you … any news, you call me …

The rest of the day transpired with anxiety but without incident (meek and uneasy); it wouldn’t do any good to get upset. After all, in less than four days, vacation.

***

 Early the next day, the doorbell rang at the Knopoff household. It was the man in the suit from the police station, the same one he noticed in the background the day before. The young man from the accident waited by the sidewalk.

The man greeted Knopoff and introduced himself as the victim’s lawyer. The medical expert reported that my client suffered injuries … physical traumas that will keep him out of work for a few weeks … my client is considering whether he’ll mention these results in his statement to the police … but if we can come to an arrangement, you know, clean slate …

Knopoff, without inviting the lawyer in, asked him to wait a few seconds. He closed the door and called Fabian, but no one answered. Daniel opened the door again and asked the lawyer what they were asking for. Ten thousand pesos, and it’ll be like this never happened.

He didn’t have that kind of cash, but he also didn’t see the matter as negotiable. Besides, it was perhaps a way to help somebody who needed the money. After all, currency was meant to circulate; who knew where it would end up. They agreed to meet at the house in an hour; that would be enough time for him to make the necessary withdrawals, part from their vacation savings and part from a bank account in the red.

At the established hour, the lawyer rang the doorbell again. Daniel had managed to pull together five thousand four hundred pesos. The lawyer took the money, wished him a good day and left.

***

 In the days that followed, Daniel cancelled a dinner with donors and two meetings with couples who were about to get married. It was time, he told himself, to shut things down and leave on vacation without a worry in the world (meek and at ease).

The day before he was to depart for Mendoza, Fabian called. Daniel told him how things had ended. Fabian was concerned that they hadn’t had the chance to speak beforehand, but he didn’t express any misgivings. They agreed to arrange to go and pick up the car together later.

But Daniel did not wish to bother Fabian. The episode had definitely concluded. Retrieving the car would be a simple matter.

When he entered the police station around two in the afternoon, the officer from the previous day greeted him naturally. The policewoman who had taken his statement did not address him, but gave him a look that tried to transmit something.

He had to sign some papers acknowledging receipt of the vehicle in the same condition he had left it. The deputy commissioner shook his hand; the commissioner handed him the keys and indicated where the car was parked.

This little nightmare is coming to an end, thought Daniel with a sigh as we walked to the car. Put it in gear and take her home to the garage.

***

The day went by and night fell, but he remained anxious. Collateral effects, he thought, like when they pull a splinter from the sole of your foot … good-bye splinter, but the pain persists a while longer until it subsides and things return to normal.

With Katia, he communicated only what was necessary. She noticed he was nervous, but they were about to go on vacation and she didn’t wish to upset him.

In a few hours, bright and early, with the first rays of sunlight, the family would depart for Mendoza.

***

In the morning, Daniel Knopoff loaded the car with their things. He wanted to leave right away. Spatial distance would create emotional distance.

Daniel, Katia and their three children climbed into the car while it was still in the garage, and when he put it in reverse, he was afraid the cyclist would reappear. He tried to laugh at himself for having thought such a thing.

For the first time, it crossed his mind that he hadn’t had the car for the past few days. When Katia posed the question, he had responded that he took it to a mechanic after having retrieved it from the police. He didn’t want to worry her or let her know that he didn’t think it necessary (honestly, the idea hadn’t even occurred to him).

From that moment on, the chain of events that followed was irreversible and fatal. What happened was reported by the press:

“Rabbi Daniel Knopoff of the Grand Temple on Lavalle Street in the neighborhood of Once died in an automobile accident on a highway in northern La Pampa. The man of faith was at the wheel and lost control of the vehicle, possibly due to a blown tire. The car collided with an oncoming truck.

“Knopoff, 37, was driving with his wife and three children, all of whom were seriously injured and spent the night in the ICU at General Pico Hospital. Medical sources indicate that the condition of all four is improving. The truck driver was unharmed.” (Clarín newspaper, Tuesday, February 12).

Accounts varied: he nicked the shoulder, he was speeding, he got a flat.

At the police station, the officer who had first handled Knopoff’s case saw the news on Crónica TV.

“Hey, Deputy Commissioner, you have to see this. Check out who died on the highway,” he said.

The Deputy Commissioner had already heard the news. He regretted that they had taken advantage of that sucker. He appeared to have been a good, upstanding fellow. We have to get rid of the guys who swap out the tires, thought the Deputy Commissioner, and replace the parts, and even the hood ornaments on the cars in the impound lot. What assholes. They take such stupid risks for nothing. They’ll end up fucking things up for all of us.

Efectos  colaterales pablo besaron

Translated by Dario Bard from “Los Ultimos Dias de Daniel Knopoff” as printed in Efectos Colaterales, published by Ediciones Simurg, 2013, available from Cuspide.

Pablo Besarón is a writer and essayist from the City of Buenos Aires. His literary essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and in 2009 Ediciones Simurg published La Conspiración, a collection of his essays on Argentine literature. Efectos Colaterales is his first work of published fiction. Presently, he is working on his second short story collection and a documentary on Jewish Argentine cinematographers.

In an interview with Radio del Buen Aire, Pablo Besáron discussed his writing in Efectos Colaterales

“The Velocipedist Social Club” by Norberto Luis Romero

Download pdf: The Velocipedist Social Club

Along the town’s main street, there were no more than 400 meters from his home to the fledgling Velocipedist Social Club and Mr. Garcia walked them with his head held high and his eyes set forward, guiding his brand new velocipede beside him by its impeccable, polished handlebars, like someone proudly leading angelic, clean and well-dressed offspring to mass by the hand. But Garcia was a bachelor by inertia and his immediate plans, which had him completely absorbed, did not contemplate marriage but instead other more daring and novel ambitions. With each step he was aware that, behind the lace curtains of every kitchen window, the eyes of housewives were on him until he disappeared from their field of vision: out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the poorly concealed movements in the curtain folds, and even an incredulous face now and then suddenly veiling itself behind lace trimmings and embroidery. He knew that their curiosity wasn’t stirred by his person, despite the tight, flashy orange velocipedist outfit he wore, which was strikingly audacious in and of itself, but rather by the surprising object of his devotion, the true protagonist of that peaceful gray morning: the velocipede. Almost as tall as he was, with a front wheel measuring 1.2 meters in diameter; seen through its spokes, the scenery, the houses and the few people heading to the bakery for a hot loaf of bread at that hour, looked like images in a kinetoscope. That morning, as in previous days, the sky was overcast, but it frequently happened that the threatening clouds failed to deliver the expected rains. There were long spells without a single drop falling from the sky, and that was why Garcia, sure there would be no precipitation, hadn’t bothered to cover up the velocipede with the checkered oilcloth as he led it by the handlebars to the club. Besides, it was not his intent to keep it hidden under an oilcloth from prying eyes, but rather to exhibit it proudly so as to provoke curiosity and arouse interest.

“The Velocipede” by Sarah Northcott, courtesy of the artist.

“The Velocipede” by Sarah Northcott,
courtesy of the artist.

The velocipede had arrived a couple of weeks before, meticulously packed in a wooden crate reinforced with metallic supports that had been shipped by cargo train from the city, where he had acquired it via catalog from the renowned and recently established Michaux Company, which, a year earlier, had introduced its invention at the Paris World Fair; and since Garcia lived from rents and was free of family obligations and the financial commitments such entail, he dedicated his considerable free time to keeping up-to-date on the latest scientific and technological advances through magazine subscriptions and brochures from Europe and the United States. The cost hadn’t been miniscule, by no means, but for a man like himself, austere and free of vices, it didn’t require financial sacrifice or the assumption of debt; he merely used the sum he had set aside for that purpose, an amount that wouldn’t take him long to recover if his plans, as commercial as they were altruistic, came to fruition. He concluded his disbursements with the purchase of an old and spacious barn located on the edge of town, on which, once he had cleaned, readied and stocked it with the basic essentials, he hung a sign that read “The Velocipedist Social Club,” of which he was president and member number one, as indicated on the membership card he had issued himself the night before in an intimate and modest, yet solemn act at his home in front of his wardrobe mirror. As for the official inauguration, it would take place once he had learned to ride the velocipede and after he had given a simple but convincing demonstration.

No one was around for leagues, but Mr. Garcia was certain that in no time, when people realized the advantages and charm of this revolutionary means of locomotion, none would hesitate to buy one, if not two or more, according to the number of adult members in the family. He figured, for example, that his neighbor, Mr. Bustos, wouldn’t have any second thoughts about purchasing at least four, because beside his wife, who was fit, young and fond of strolling, he had raised two now fully-grown sons who were as clever and spirited as their parents. His own brother, without looking any further, had always been a man inclined to educate himself and one who admired all sorts of scientific and technological advances, having gone so far as to have subjected his two daughters to various rounds of a treatment that relied on electricity to eradicate certain dubious illnesses; the results turned out to be unexpectedly adverse and the girls had to be interned in a mental ward from which they had yet to be released. With the velocipede, however, the risk would be no more than a bump here and there of no major consequence.

And his dream—all men have the right to dream—was to lead this association or club and grow it until it became the biggest tourist attraction in the region. To this end, he would, first, set modest monthly dues payments, and as the number of members increased, he’d collect a modest income, an income he would reinvest in the association to expand its facilities and services to members and their respective families. Mr. Garcia was convinced that his generous idea would bring tourists to town and, with them, imminent progress. Perhaps other towns would even follow their example. What’s more, he had no doubt that history would reserve a special place for him due to his creative talent, brilliance and persistence. In all likelihood, in the not too distant future the municipal authorities would propose to name a plaza after him, and maybe even an avenue. Although the town didn’t presently have one, he was sure one would have to be built due to the imminent proliferation of velocipedes that was bound to commence once he opened the doors to the club and, before a gathering of the townspeople, delivered the inaugural speech he had been preparing for months and painstakingly practicing before the same wardrobe mirror that had witnessed his ascension to the club presidency. But in the remotest recesses of his heart hid a desire for a wish that made him blush: to see himself immortalized in bronze, atop a velocipede, in the fashion of heroes mounted on their horses.

Mr. Garcia had not taken into account that he had never ridden or even attempted to mount a velocipede, but he was sure that, following the instructions in the manual to the letter, he would become a perfected velocipedist in a couple of days. For his training grounds he chose a spacious and level area in the valley, an almost treeless and extensive field with only one inconvenience that he deemed of little importance: he would have to keep his distance from the bluff known as the Barranca of the Spirits, its eerie epithet derived from the legend that specters lived in the small but dark lake at the bottom, so dark and dense that it was really more of a bog than a lake, but that the townspeople mercifully took to calling a lake. The specters, it was said, were the souls of victims of chance accidents, unwitting hunters, passers-by and lovers who got too close to the edges of the bog, or ancient casualties of dubious and forgotten wars; it was said that their yellow skeletons wandered along the bog’s perimeter, shaking their long hair. The only thing Mr. Garcia had to do was stay away from the barranca as he practiced and learned. Also, despite being a meticulous and well-organized man with good foresight, he had failed to consider his own body. Mr. Garcia was obese, very obese. And the velocipede, as the manual explained, required the ability to achieve balance, the key to maintaining a vertical position, and that then, and only then, should one attempt to move forward on the different-sized wheels. He was sure that it must feel like flying, that riding a velocipede must generate, as the catalog put it, the thrill of flying like a seagull, although Garcia had never seen a seagull.

Having arrived at the barn shed, he leaned the velocipede lovingly against its side to display it, opened its doors, retrieved a chair and placed it on the broad sidewalk. Then he sat down to wait for the arrival of the first visitors to show interest in this new means of locomotion, of which, from then on out, he was the district’s exclusive representative. The public, dazzled by the velocipede’s novelty and convinced of its benefits, would buy the contraption without reservations and, consequently, join the Club. His face, reddened by the walk and the grandeur of his plan, looked as fresh as an apple, and under his blonde moustache, its ends arched up to the sky, a wide smile of satisfaction appeared. Every now and again, eager to race off speedily, he glanced at his velocipede with a possessive and dumbstruck look to make sure it was still there, splendid like a jewel.

This, Mr. Garcia thought, was the happiest day of his life. He was convinced that his enterprise would meet with success and that he had begun his definitive realization as a man. He sighed, marveling that he sat before his Club, the name of which, just thinking of it, filled him with satisfaction. Ah, if my father could only see me now, he thought, he’d be the happiest man on Earth! He’d say: “That’s my boy, yes sir, the family’s pride and joy, a man who sees the future.”

He entered the shed and wrote the day of the inauguration in large letters on the blackboard—he gave himself a week to learn to ride—and then he carried the board out onto the street and placed it next to the velocipede.

A few hours passed and no one came by; his hopes began to fade. What if no one had any interest in the velocipede? What if people didn’t even know it existed? He hadn’t thought of that; he hadn’t factored it into his plans. He hadn’t anticipated the need for a marketing campaign, so effective and necessary to the success of any business. Except for the handful of neighbors who had seen him walk past their windows, no one knew of the existence of the velocipede or the Social Club he had just founded. And, truth be told, he had also completely forgotten about the town’s casino, where surely the neighbors were gathered at this hour for a charity fair, this being that time of year and people being in the habit of partaking in such insipid entertainment instead of taking a chance on a novel invention … their loss.

Unexpectedly, the overcast sky, typically harmless, began to dissolve in a fine drizzle. The rain was welcomed, but his velocipede was still there, leaning up against the shed, the eaves too short to offer shelter. He quickly left his chair and hurried to protect it from the intensifying rainfall. He got it inside just in time, as roaring thunder triggered a downpour unlike any the town had seen in years. Now he was sure no one would come to his newly found club, at least not until the storm let up, and he reasoned that all was not lost if he attributed the absence of curious and interested onlookers to his lack of perspicacity; they had sensed rain in the morning air, whereas he, wrapped up in his enthusiasm, had failed to do so. It took a while for the sky to clear; by the time it stopped raining, night had fallen. Mr. Garcia lit the kerosene lamps he had purchased, for the town’s electrical lighting did not extend as far as the Club, and sat down again to admire his velocipede, doubly beautiful now and transformed into an exoticism under the glimmering lamps. As he contemplated this miracle, his doubts dissipated, his optimism returned and his appetite stirred as he realized he hadn’t eaten a bite all day. He left the velocipede in the shed, taking special care to lock the doors, and returned to his house.

The next morning there was barely a trace of the storm left, except for a puddle here and there along the way, which, with the warm rays of the sun, emanated an almost pleasant sense of stupor. Because it was Sunday, he only opened the doors of the club to retrieve the velocipede and the instruction manual. He would take advantage of the day of rest to commence his training. Leading the velocipede beside him with a firm grip and dodging puddles that were becoming increasingly scarce, he headed to the level field he had chosen for his training grounds. He leaned the velocipede up against the only tree in the area and performed a dozen leg-stretching and waist-bending exercises, always sticking to the manual’s recommendations. Once finished, slightly out of breath and sweaty, he took the velocipede firmly by the handlebars, placed a foot on a pedal and swung his opposite leg and body over the machine. But he didn’t make it as high as the leather seat, lost his balance and fell flat on the ground, dragging the invention down with him. Mr. Garcia was not the sort of man that was easily daunted; despite finding his clothes soiled with mud, he attempted it a second time, and a third, and a fourth, and many, many more times afterwards. Quietly, sweating and muddied like a pig, he leaned the velocipede once more against the tree and took various deep breaths before setting his mind to the discernment of the problem.

I’m too fat, he said to himself, and the instruction manual didn’t make any mention of this condition, nor did the magazine advertisements or the brochures warn of it. Two tears of impotence and rage dropped from his eyes as he was overcome with a sense of abandonment similar to that of a little boy lost in the crowd at an amusement fair. He looked around until he found a rock he could sit on in order to recover his strength and lift his dashed spirits. He consulted the manual again, going over the instructions step by step, as if they were the Via Crucis, and wondering where he had gone wrong. How was he going to convince potential clients of the superior qualities of the velocipede if he couldn’t ride it? How could he attract new members to the club if he couldn’t provide a demonstration? Fortunately, he was alone in that wasteland and no one had witnessed his failure. There was nothing left to do but to keep trying, persevere day after day until he managed to master the velocipede.

Every morning, as the sun rose promising ever warmer weather with the approach of summer, Mr. Garcia arrived at the meadow with his virgin velocipede, performed his elaborate stretching and warm-up ritual, left the manual open on the same rock he had used to rest, meticulously went over it page by page, and took to the challenging task at hand, always making sure he kept a prudent distance from the Barranca of the Spirits. His concentration and resolve were so intense that he did not become immediately aware of a group of children who had appeared on a neighboring hilltop, their little eyes watching his exercises and training with great interest initially until their interest turned into amusement and then outright mockery every time his obese anatomy ended up on the ground next to or on top of the velocipede. His first reaction was to ignore them, pretend they didn’t exist, but when a pair of adults joined the children, and then the following day half the town appeared on the hilltop, cackling with laughter and egging him on, half in earnest and half in jest, he felt humiliated, his sense of self-worth deeply offended; he was brought to the very verge of tears. But far from losing heart and enthusiasm, and maybe to show them his determination even if his life depended on it, he kept at it, day after day, falling, muddying himself again and again, bruising himself, hurting and holding back tears of rage. Finally, one afternoon, when the townspeople, tired and bored with the repetitive spectacle, had opted to stay home, the miraculous happened: he felt himself lifted up into the sky as he got a leg over the iron crossbar and his enormous rear end landed softy in the leather seat, causing the velocipede to vibrate; he wavered for a moment, and it almost cost him his balance and the verticality he had longed for, but then he put his pudgy feet on the pedals attached to the axel of the big front wheel. The world seemed to tremble all around him, but there he was, yes, mounted on the velocipede, and it was like riding a cloud in the sky. Without thinking about it, he executed the next step, just as indicated in figure number four, which was to apply gentle and rhythmic pressure on the pedals while holding on firmly to the handlebars. Yes, God had worked a miracle and he was rolling forward, zigzagging a bit, like a teetering child, but he was moving without losing his balance. He advanced several meters, with his confidence and faith restored. Any fears of renewed failure evaporated and his enthusiasm gave way to blind faith. He let out a shout of joy, closed his eyes and applied greater pressure to the pedals, increasing his steadiness and stability as he gained speed. Now he did indeed experience exactly what a seagull felt as it glided over the surface of the ocean: the wind in his face, the thrilling sensation of floating a meter above the hard ground. He let out another shout of joy and opened his eyes to look at the ground below him and watch it disappear, vanquished, behind him. Then, in an act of bravado, he turned his head over his shoulder, expecting to see his malicious neighbors on the hill behind him so that he could now laugh at them. But instead he discovered that there was not a soul there, and turning his head back in the direction in which he was moving, he was surprised to see the Barranca of the Spirits directly before him. He applied the brakes, following the procedure as indicated in step number 7 of the instruction manual, but he was going so fast that he went over the bank before he could even voice dismay; he rolled a few meters into the muddy sludge until the velocipede got stuck at the bottom of the bog. In the next few seconds, which seemed eternal, Garcia was able to feel the velocipede, which remained upright, sink until he was submerged up to his chest. Disconcerted, his mind was capable of only one reaction, to repeat, as if it provided some consolation, the inaugural address he had committed to memory:

“Ladies and gentlemen, admirers and aficionados of the velocipede … ”

With great effort he was able to lift himself off the seat, make his way through the bog (which tried to suck him down into its depths), push his way to its edge and, clawing at the rocky slope, climb up to safety. But the velocipede had been gulped down, greedily devoured by the muddy bog, submerged below half a meter of dark, foul-smelling water; the bog released a bubbling belch to the surface, satisfied with the feast. Out of danger, Garcia began walking, and with every step he moved more and more like an automaton as the sludge he was covered in hardened into a shell around him. Because it was dinner time, he had the good fortune of making it home without anyone seeing him.

Garcia stayed out of sight and kept quiet about what had transpired. What’s more, none of the townspeople asked why he was melancholy, or inquired about the numerous bruises that still adorned his forehead and cheeks, or about the fate of the velocipede and the club, where they had on rare occasions gone to have a look around in a gesture of incredulity and pity. Garcia became a somber and spiritless man who was typically seen lingering by the shed, where, after a few months, a neighbor had set up a pig farm, but had also kept the sign on which one could still read the words: “The Velocipedist Social Club.” The pig farmer hadn’t even bothered to take the sign down when he purchased the property from Mr. Garcia at a bargain price, including the barn shed and its contents: twelve folding chairs, two tables, a chest to store books and file folders, a box with several dozen blank membership cards and a lovely blackboard that preserved the written vestiges of Garcia’s failure.

Years passed, and when the velocipede had become but a distant memory (and even that only in the minds of a very few) an especially dry summer with extremely high temperatures was visited on the town. The bog at the bottom of the Barranca of the Spirits saw its waters retreat, and concentric circles of mud served as recorded testimony of its shrinking, until its very bottom was transformed into a great big plate of cracked porcelain. Little by little, the townspeople, with a mix of curiosity and compassion, approached the bog and lowered themselves onto the brittle surface to get a closer look at a rusted skeleton with shriveled lichen for hair. It was as if evidence of the legendary specters had been revealed and only one person did not go to see it.

norberto-luis-romero-L-mA0bPZ

Translated by Dario Bard from an unpublished manuscript titled “Club Social de Velocipedistas” provided by the author.

Norberto Luis Romero is a short story writer and novelist, and also a director and professor of cinema. He was born in Lanus, a suburb of the City of Buenos Aires, and was raised in the Province of Cordoba. In 1975 he relocated to Spain where he lived until 2013, when he moved to Germany.

Norberto Luis Romero’s short stories have received critical acclaim and have been published in periodicals, anthologies and literary magazines in several languages throughout the Americas and Europe. His published stories have been translated into English by H.E. Francis. Two short story collections featuring H.E. Francis’ translations are available from Amazon: The Last Night of Carnival & Other Stories and The Arrival of Autumn in Constantinople and Other Stories. Since 2010, Norberto Luis Romero has dedicated himself to creating graphic art with photographic collages.

More information is available at his website.

At the launch of Norberto Luis Romero’s most recent novel, El lado oculto de la noche (2012), the Spanish poet Jesús Urceloy spoke of and with the author. See video (in Spanish):

“The Contest” by Liliana Heker

Download pdf: The Contest

The contest, said the woman from the bank, would be open only to local bank employees and their families; he would certainly discover, she assured him, some shoo-ins among them. Remus’ mind lingered on the word “shoo-in.” When he was a boy, his parents bought him shoes that were too big for him, and he had to use inserts until his feet grew into them, sorry? I was saying that you will find Professor Lusarreta of invaluable assistance, said the woman. Ah, yes, he said, and thought melancholically of how old and worn his shoes got by the time they did fit him. It will be most inspiring for the writers at the bank, said the woman. Remus figured that in the world of the living, there couldn’t be more than fifteen short story writers worth reading; it was improbable that the banking sector of a seaside town—family included—would harbor even one of them, but given the state of depression he found himself in lately, the woman’s offer didn’t seem all that bad: roundtrip deluxe bus service, his honorarium and a three-day hotel stay. The idea of looking out to sea for hours, getting drunk off the pendular roar of the breakers until his soul dissolved and the tribulations of heartbreak and failure were reduced to what they really were—a drop in the universe—made a few days of reading bad writing seem worthwhile, and so he said yes, he’d accept.

St Ives

St. Ives, Herbert Barnard John Everett, 1935. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The box arrived two weeks later. It was bigger than he had imagined, and so for days he couldn’t work himself up to opening it. He glanced at the package as if it were an object of guilt, and promised himself that any day now he would call the woman from the bank and tell her, under some pretext, that it was impossible for him to judge the contest. He knew he would never actually do it, but the mere possibility offered relief. Professor Lusarreta’s call caught him off guard. She was loquacious and expressed her enormous confidence in his criteria; in fact, it had been she herself who insisted that she shouldn’t serve as co-judge, but rather as an auxiliary genius (tee hee) to the sage; after all, what could she, a simple professor, contribute to the opinion of someone of his stature? He found her disarming and was soon agreeing with the professor that the submitted material showed some highly promising signs; what diversity, what uncharted worlds could be revealed by a writer of no renown, what crap was he saying? Was he so starved for faith, even if borrowed from someone else, that he was capable of acting contemptibly in order to keep it alive? When he hung up, it was clear there was no turning back. He walked over to the box as if he were inflicting some form of self-punishment, but he didn’t open it right away. He looked at it, afraid, waiting for some cataclysmic event to free him of the commitment. Finally, cursing himself under his breath, he got some scissors and cut the packing twine.

This was no small feat. For the past several years, he required colossal effort even for the smallest of actions. He lived with drawers stuffed with papers that he didn’t have the energy to go through, clothes in jumbled piles made the mere act of dressing himself a nightmare, the bookcase was invaded by books he didn’t want but couldn’t bring himself to throw away, along with misplaced beloved books he was incapable of returning to their proper place. Now this is a big problem, he said to himself on several occasions, paralyzed in the act of searching for a certain book, looking at the disordered mess like a mountain that he would never dare climb: when chaos interferes with the only thing one cares about, it’s time to hang up the gloves. But that wasn’t an option. He didn’t even have gloves to hang up, or a towel to throw in. He only had this thing languishing inside him, dying so gradually as to be invisible to others, and so women from banks and Lusarretas of all stripes continued calling on him in the name of who-knows-what past glory, and he didn’t even have the energy to say no.

Reading the stories is worse than I had anticipated, he wrote on the back of one form, a poison of stupefying effect that I can only neutralize by plunging myself up to my nuts in Stendhal (he had taken to doing that in recent years: immersing himself in the re-reading of certain authors as if looking for some solid footing while the world collapsed under his feet). What motivates them to take the trouble? Do any of them really think they can write a page of something worthwhile? He thought that it would be possible to come up with a story based on characters like these contestants: puerile and devoid of charm, but fully believing in themselves. He suspected mischievously, however, that it wouldn’t be he who would write it—not that story or any other—because, coincidentally, he had lost all confidence in his own way with words. Had he ever really had it in the first place, or was it all a dream? Or was it one of the many excesses of his greener years?

He read with care and grief, sloshing for days through insipid episodes and trite adventures, taking the phone calls of Professor Lusarreta, anxious to exchange impressions with him, and the woman from the bank, desperate to print the award certificates. And he prepared them for the idea that maybe the material didn’t lend itself to honorable mentions … or even to a runner up; that in order to add prestige to the contest, only excellence should be recognized, didn’t they agree? And they agreed with whatever he thought was best, of course, as long as he made his decision in time for the certificates to be printed; there was a lot of excitement about the contest in town, did Remus realize it? Remus said he did and promised that yes, he’d have a decision in time. He certainly didn’t lack motivation: he needed to liberate himself of that nightmare—he felt that for the past week, he’d done nothing but read hogwash—and, above all else, he needed to find a passable story submission to justify his trip to the sea. Without a winning story, there would be no trip, he understood, and he needed the sea; the more the task of reading wore him down, the more he hung his hopes on that trip to the sea. Perhaps, in that peaceful place, away from everything that tormented him, that something which seemed dead inside him could come alive again.

Maybe it was that desire for the sea or a passing attack of benevolence, or maybe it was that the virtues, modest though they were, were real. Whatever the case, with only three or four stories to go, he came across one that he deemed acceptable. It was nothing out of this world, but at least it had a plot, the rough framework of a structure and a premise less uninteresting than the others. He quickly verified that the remaining stories didn’t offer anything better and called Professor Lusarreta. He explained, with an eloquence that was impossible to refute (that was one thing he still did very well), the distance that existed between this story and the others, and a short while later, he felt he had earned the pleasure of curling up in bed with The Red and the Black.

Two days later, after a pleasant trip on a bus with fully reclining seats, he arrived at the sea. He was only able to give it a quick look, however, because he had just enough time to get to his hotel, shower and dress for the awards ceremony. He had worked out the agenda with the woman from the bank the day before. Won’t the ceremony be a bit poor with just one award? asked the woman. By no means, replied Remus, and he thought that it didn’t much matter; he couldn’t imagine more than twenty people, if even that many, showing up for what the woman called the “ceremony.” He promised to first make brief introductory remarks explaining the contest’s rules, and then announce the winner, pointing out the story’s virtues; after that, the author would be invited on stage, handed the first prize certificate and … (he dithered, realizing that the event really was quite poor; fortunately, however, ever since he had finished reading through the entries, he had been feeling inspired) … and then the winning author would be asked to read his story, he concluded brightly. The plan seemed to comfort the woman from the bank and now Remus walked toward the Association building, promising himself that as soon as the event was over (it couldn’t last more than an hour), he’d go for a walk along the coast before sitting down to dinner. He thought his game plan—wrap up the event, walk by the sea, dinner—quite delightful. He felt light and jovial.

He arrived punctually at the Association. In the lobby, the woman from the bank, Professor Lusarreta and other bank officials were there to greet him. He was unusually friendly; he realized he was in a good mood for the first time in ages.

It wasn’t until the woman from the bank said they should go inside that he noticed all the people; they were pouring inside the building, the men wearing ties and the women dressed as if for a gala. There must be some sort of special performance, he thought, but as soon as he was led through a curtain, he realized he was on the stage of an auditorium and that the people in their Sunday best were filing into the seats. He was seated between the woman from the bank and Professor Lusarreta. By the time the bank manager began to speak, there wasn’t an empty seat. The manager’s tone was formal and moving. Remus easily fazed out the words (it was a well-practiced skill of his) and busied his mind with speculations about what could have brought such a large audience to such an insipid event. Perhaps the prize-winner was a very popular guy, he thought, although he didn’t find the possibility very convincing. Now Professor Lusarreta was speaking. Of the honor it was for her to assist someone as blah blah blah as he, and that she was like an ant helping—an elephant crossed Remus’ mind, and he wanted to laugh wildly and also write about all this because suddenly the world became an absurd and surprising place, set before his eyes so that he might tell others about it; how long had it been since he had felt that wonderful sensation?—and that, with a figure as celebrated and blah blah blah as his, what could she possibly add. It was best if she put an end to the great suspense and handed the microphone over to Remus for him to announce the results of this laudable contest that had far surpassed the expectations of their dear banking family. Applause.

Remus started off diplomatically; he spoke of the ponderable number of entries, of the effort that that must have implied for every contestant, and of what a good sign it was for such a small community to have so many people who wrote. Then he explained why, although the original rules said otherwise, the judges (he felt like the Sun King) had decided to award a single prize. He spoke of Maupassant, of Poe, of Quiroga, of epiphanies and loaded guns, of the terror or beauty that any minor incident can convey. And something that exceeded the vicissitudes of that contest began to grow inside him, something like passion which he, at that very moment, swore to nurture so that it would not die but instead grow and multiply, and. He abruptly came down from these inspired heights and named the winner. The applause was less enthusiastic than expected. The winning author walked up on stage (he was a rather young man), the bank manager handed him the first place certificate and an envelope, and Remus invited him to read his story. It was a bit tiresome for him to hear it recited in full, but he found comfort in thinking of it as the final act of his obligations.

When the prize winner finished reading his story, Remus’ applause was genuinely enthusiastic. That impeded him from recalling, a moment later, if the audience had also applauded. He was rising up from his seat when a man from the audience said stiffly:

“I demand an explanation.”

“Excuse me … ?” said Remus.

“I said I demand an explanation as to why that story won first prize.”

“Well,” said Remus with a short laugh, “it’s clear that if it won first prize, it’s because it was the best, right?”

“That remains to be seen,” said another voice from the audience. It wasn’t the same man who had spoken previously.

“Excuse me,” Remus said again, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“If you don’t understand,” said a woman with a high-pitched voice, “I’d like to know what makes you think you’re qualified to judge this contest.”

Remus sat down in his chair again. He saw the prize-winning author discreetly leave the stage.

“Ma’am, let me inform you that it’s not that one thinks he or she is qualified to judge,” said Remus, taking great pains not to lose his patience. “One is invited to judge.” With a sweep of his arm, he indicated the woman from the bank. But she looked at him anxiously, as if pinning her hopes on Remus to resolve this unexpected turn of events.

“Well, how about that. So the gentleman was invited,” said the man who first spoke up; he was standing now. He turned around with his arm extended, appealing to the audience for support. “But, you know what? If it were me,” he continued, pounding his chest, “if I were invited to a crocodile breeding congress, you know what I’d say?” Pause, dramatic effect. “I’d say no!”

An enthusiastic round of applause. A good number of other audience members now stood up. Some shouted.

Remus felt an unbearable desire to wrap his hands around the man’s neck and squeeze and squeeze until no sound could be heard coming out of his mouth. Instead, he asked:

“Would someone care to tell me what the problem is?”

“The problem, sir,” said a man whose voice was heard over the crowd and who lifted an admonishing finger (Why don’t you stick that finger up your ass? thought Remus), “is that I’m not leaving without an explanation that validates why that story that was read aloud is better than mine.”

Same here! Same here! was heard from all corners of the auditorium.

Finally Remus understood what was happening and why so many people had come to the event: all the contestants had been invited without being told who the winner was, and each one of them had come, with their supporters, certain that they had won.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a tone that he felt was persuasive, “it just so happens that literature is not an exact science; there are various imponderables that make … ”

“Imponderables my ass!” said a woman. “Tell me this instant why my story didn’t win.”

Remus looked around desperately for the woman from the bank, but she was no longer on stage and nowhere to be seen in the audience. Professor Lusarreta, on the other hand, was still there, looking out into space with a catatonic expression on her face.

“You must realize, ma’am, that I can’t possibly have the slightest idea of which story was yours.”

“It’s the one about the woman who is fed up with her husband’s … ”

“Ma’am, there were one hundred and forty three submissions; you must see that I couldn’t possibly recall the details of all of them.”

“Then I’ll read it to you; I have it here with me,” she said, holding up some sheets of paper.

“I want to read mine, too!” said a very short man.

Other voices were raised. Among them was heard the voice of the man with the admonishing finger.

“I have the solution!” he said. An expectant silence fell over the crowd. “Let’s all read our stories aloud and decide publicly which is best.”

The auditorium howled in approval: Yes! Right on!

These people are crazy, thought Remus. Right then, Professor Lusarreta whispered timidly in his ear:

“I don’t believe there’s any other option.”

“You’re as crazy as they are,” said Remus. He slammed his fist on the table. “I don’t have to explain myself to anyone!” he shouted. “I’m the judge and the judge’s decision is final!”

“A perfect fool,” said a teenager. “That’s what you are.”

It felt as if a dagger had stabbed him in the heart. That teenager was now making her way out of the auditorium and she would always harbor the memory of that clownish declaration of his.

“Don’t leave,” he said. “Please, don’t leave without hearing what I have to say.”

And he explained blindly, almost as if he were confessing, that he didn’t feel, he had never felt, that he had the right to judge anyone but himself, and it was that, that fierceness with which he judged himself when it came to something he considered noble and beautiful, and the fastidiousness he felt when too many words were written for nothing, that had impeded him from writing a single page, and perhaps authorized him to be implacable with his fellow writers.

But the teenager was no longer there. Only the enraged crowd, shouting: He feels he has no right to judge anyone but he judges us! He’s a failure! Let’s read our stories under his nose so that the truth can finally be known!

A woman stood up with the intent of reading. Various others shouted: Me next! And waved their pages in the air.

My God, I don’t deserve this, thought Remus. And at the same time he thought that maybe he did, because of his arrogance and his pride, because he thought he had the right to speak in the name of a noble and beautiful art form that he could never achieve.

He looked over and saw that Professor Lusarreta had gone. Let them read to the devil, he murmured, as for me, I’m not putting up with this. And with surprising agility, he jumped off the stage intending to escape.

He didn’t get very far. Someone seized him by the lapels and prevented him from fleeing; someone else punched him in the solar plexus. As he fell, he saw an infuriated horde of authors, all thinking highly of themselves, pounce on him, hungry for fame and glory.

La muerte de dios by liliana heker

Translated by Dario Bard from “El concurso” as printed in La muerte de Dios, published by Alfaguara, 2011, available from Amazon.  

Liliana Heker is a novelist, short story writer and essayist from the City of Buenos Aires. Her distinguished professional writing career began at the age of 17. She has won several awards and was a founding member of two of Argentina’s most influential literary magazines, El Escarabajo de Oro (1961-1974) and Ornitorrinco (1977-1986). Heker is also well known for her literary workshops, which have been attended by several critically acclaimed writers.

Practically all of her short stories have been translated into English by Alberto Manguel. The Stolen Party and Other Stories, a short story collection translated by Manguel, is available at Amazon. “The Stolen Party,” a translation of Heker’s short story, “La fiesta ajena,” is available online from the Syracuse City School District. The End of the Story, a translation of her novel Fin de la historia, is also available from Amazon. Yale University Press is presently planning an English-language collection of Heker’s short stories.

Liliana Heker was interviewed on the Argentine public television program, Los 7 locos, on November 24, 2011. Watch the interview (in Spanish) below:

“Proof of Innocence” by Andrés Neuman

Download pdf: Proof of Innocence

Yes. I like being interrogated by the police. We all need for them to verify our innocence, to confirm that we have paid our dues and can move along. That’s why I love feeling like I’m beyond reproach and demonstrating how well-mannered I am, convincing them that it wasn’t me.

Image

“We are here to look after you.” Photo courtesy of Buenos Aires Street Art.

One drives without thinking about it, letting oneself go, just like others go through life unaware of it. I find peace in the obedience of the steering wheel, the naturalness of the pedals, the breathing of the gears. And while I handle them all, or rather allow them to handle themselves, I think of the police, of when they’ll stop me again and verify that, yes, I’m on the straight and narrow, that I really am a good citizen. Ah! The wide open road.

Suddenly, two officers signal me to pull over. It’s not an easy maneuver because I just started to accelerate in the left lane coming out of a curve. Making sure to avoid any sudden move that might startle the drivers around me and—Why not admit it?—showcasing my skillful driving, I glide onto the right lane and come to a gentle stop on the shoulder. The officers imitate my maneuver, their motorcycles tilting to the side as they come to a standstill. Both wear white-and-blue checkered helmets. Both wear boots that pound the pavement forcefully. Both are properly armed. One is wide of girth and carries himself upright. The other is tall and walks stooped over.

“License and registration,” says the wide one.

“Sure, right away,” I reply.

I hand over my documentation: license and registration. I identify myself.

“Aha,” opines the tall one, examining my documentation.

“Yes …?” I ask with eager interest.

“Aha!” confirms the wide one energetically.

“So …?”

“Yes, all good.”

“Everything in order, then?”

“Like we just said, sir: all good.”

“In other words, my documentation is free of any irregularities.”

“Irregularities? What do you mean?”

“Ah, well, officer, just asking. I understand then, or should I say, you understand then that there isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to move along.”

The officers glance at each other, with a certain degree of suspicion in their eyes, I’d say.

“You’ll move along when we tell you to,” says the wide one.

“Naturally,” I immediately reply. “Naturally.”

“Ok, then …”

They seem doubtful.

“Yes? …” I decide to be helpful. “Perhaps you have some more questions for me? Or maybe you’d care to have a look in the trunk … ?”

“Listen here,” says the wide one, “don’t tell us what to do!”

The tall one lifts his head up like a turtle contemplating the sun for the very first time, and hooks a hand around his partner’s arm, trying to calm him down.

“And you! Let go of me!” says the wide one. “Or are we now going to have to inspect whatever this guy tells us to?”

“By all means, officer, by all means,” I interject. “It’s clear you both know exactly what you must do. The last thing I would dream of doing …”

“The last thing for what? What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, officer, nothing. I’m only trying to collaborate.”

“Well, don’t collaborate so much. It isn’t necessary.”

“As you wish, officer.”

“That’s better,” says the wide one, pleased.

“At your orders,” I add.

“Ok, ok!”

“Do whatever you feel the situation calls for. I’m in no rush, so you can relax.”

“We are relaxed. We are always relaxed, I’ll have you know.”

“Of course! I never doubted it.”

The wide one looks over at the tall one. The tall one, his head drooping, remains quiet.

“Are you joking or what?” asks the wide one.

“Me, officer?”

“No. My paralytic grandmother.”

“Heavens, officer! I applaud your sense of humor.”

“Turn around,” the wide one orders brusquely.

“How’s that, officer?”

“Turn around, I said.” And then, addressing the tall one, “I don’t like this guy one bit.”

“I assure you, officers, I understand your position completely,” I say, a bit nervously. “I know that you are only trying to protect us and I accept that that requires you to frisk me …”

“Hands on the vehicle.”

“Yes, officer.”

“Spread your legs wide.”

“Yes, officer.”

“And shut your mouth.”

“Yes, officer.”

The wide one, apparently quick to anger, knees me powerfully in the ribs, and I feel a ring of fire flare up inside me.

“I told you to shut up, imbecile.”

I’m frisked. Then the two officers distance themselves a few meters. They converse. I hear a phrase here and there. The chassis of my automobile begins to burn the palms of my hands. The sun beams strike me like spears.

“What do you think?” I hear the wide one say. “Should we check the trunk?”

I’m unable to make out the tall one’s reply, but I deduce that he responded in the affirmative because, almost immediately, I see, out of the corner of my eye, the wide one open the trunk and begin to roughly rummage about inside. He throws my backpack to the ground. My toolbox, too. My warning lights. A football that bounces down the highway. The officers carry out their duties with meticulous thoroughness.

“There’s nothing here,” says the wide one with a hint of annoyance. “Should we check inside?”

Immediately, they both enter my vehicle and inspect the seats, the upholstery, the glove compartment, and the ashtrays. They make a mess of it. I dare, for the first time, to interject a timid objection:

“Excuse me, officers, but is such emphasis necessary?”

The wide one crawls out of the car, shoots me look and then jabs his nightstick between my shoulder blades. For an instant, I feel like I’m floating. I fall to my knees.

“What do you have to say now, eh? What do you have to say?” the wide one barks in my ear.

“I assure you, officer,” I stammer, “I have nothing to hide.”

“Oh, no?”

“No.”

“No?”

“I said no!”

“Don’t talk back to me, then!” the wide one screams, giving me a sharp kick to the buttocks. “I know all about scoundrels like you: I have a sixth sense that never fails me. You pretend to be all proper but you are nothing but a fraudster.”

“Officer, I assure you in all honesty …”

“Shut up, you son of a bitch!” the wide one yells again. This time, though, he doesn’t hit me.

Automobiles continue to speed by us like the wind. All the while, the tall one continues going through my car silently.

“Aha!” the tall one suddenly calls out enthusiastically; his voice sounds oddly high-pitched to me. “Check this out,” he says, handing his partner the briefcase with the company’s monthly bills.

“Where did you find it?”

“Under the front passenger seat.”

“What is it? Open it. Can’t you? Give it to me. It must be one of those with a combination.” And, after trying to force it open, he exclaims: “Like I said. You think you’re so smart.”

I would more than gladly tell him the combination; inside there are simply routine accounting documents. But at this point, I’m too terrified to open my mouth.

“Let’s arrest him,” suggests the tall one. “We’ll open the briefcase down at the station.”

The wide one begins to slowly handcuff me.

“Officers, you’re making a mistake!” I say in a last ditch effort. “I don’t have a prior record. I’m not up to no good. I’m inoffensive. I’m like anyone else.”

“We’ll see about that, smart guy,” says the tall one.

They force me into the backseat of my car. They remain outside and call someone on their radio. My shoulders hurt. My head aches, also. There’s a burning sensation in my ribs. A nasal voice is heard over the radio. I don’t like this at all. The automobiles continue zipping past like the wind. I’m unsure if I should say something. In the distance, I hear the sound of my football bursting.

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Translated by Dario Bard from “La Prueba de Inocencia” as printed in Alumbramiento, published by Páginas de Espuma, 2006, available from Amazon.

Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet and translator born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and presently residing in Granada, Spain. He has been recognized by the Hay Festival and Granta magazine as one of the best young Spanish-language writers of his generation; he also contributed several English-language columns for Granta. He has written several short story and poetry collections, as well as a number of prize-winning novels, the latest of which has been translated into English and is available from Amazon.com under the title Traveler of the Century. The blog Work in Progress includes a translation by Richard Gwyn of a Neuman short story, “Mother Backwards.”       

More information available at Andrés Neuman’s official website and on a Facebook fan page. He also frequently posts new material at his blog, Microrréplicas.

In addition to Gwyn’s translation, the blog Work in Progress includes an interesting English-language interview with Neuman in which he discusses his latest novel, Traveler of the Century, and which I have taken the liberty of reposting below: 

“Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky

Download pdf: Natalia Franz


Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna.
(…) Placer de dioses, baile perverso
El tango es rito y es religión.

Frollo & Randle, “Danza Maligna”

I had been observing her for some time. Openly at first, not hiding my fascination with her face, which appeared to be designed by scalpel. Later, my glances were furtive; I was afraid that my staring would make her uncomfortable, although she seemed not to notice.

When she was invited out on the dance floor, however, I felt free to unabashedly admire her tall, slender figure, the elegant casualness of her movements, the grace with which she held her head high on a delicate neck that was revealed and then concealed by her ash-blond hair as it bobbed to the rhythm of the music. But it was her face, barely corrected with makeup, that caught my eye; there were traces of where the artificial merged with the monstrous, resulting unexpectedly in a sort of Medusa-like beauty (as Praz would put it): sunken eyes that seemed to have awakened in skin other than the one they were born in; cheekbones and arches over the eyebrows that were overly pronounced, as if sculpted from non-malleable material; full but swollen-looking lips that lacked the sensuality that plastic surgery promises.

flor-de-milonga

          Photo courtesy of Flor de Milonga.

I watched her slowly sip her champagne. She didn’t pay much attention to those around her and was always accompanied by a young girl with plain looks and a timid smile, irreparably devoid of any charm, of that glimmer of mystery that makes many non-pretty women attractive. I was reminded—an old reader of James never sleeps—of “The Beldonald Holbein,” that story wherein Lady Beldonald, a mature beauty who thinks herself clever, seeks to enliven her waning looks by having a wrinkled old lady, marked by misfortune, accompany her at social events. Her artist friends, fascinated by a face that looks as if it came straight out of a Holbein, only have eyes for her companion and soon recruit her as a model. Lady Beldonald learns her lesson: the following season, she appears in London accompanied by a young, not particularly ugly, but dreadfully dull girl.

Had the object of my curiosity perhaps arrived at a similar conclusion?

One night we were seated at neighboring tables. I thought I knew how to mask my curiosity, but eventually she caught me with my eyes fixated on that surgical achievement framed by her straight, loose hair. She didn’t seem annoyed; on the contrary, she gave a hint of a smile.

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

Confused, and surprised by my own indiscretion, I heard a timely response come out of my mouth almost immediately that I did not believe myself capable of.

“Yes, but I didn’t dare think it was really you.”

Her smile became evident and I felt I ought to invite her to dance. I believe the DJ played Fresedo’s “Vida Mía.” She was exceedingly light in my arms and effortlessly resolved, without reproach, the indecisive steps that, in my awkwardness, I could not avoid. It was the last tango in a set, and when it was over, we returned to our tables. At that moment, a man approached to greet her. That intrusion allowed me to slip away.

At the door, I ran into the Turk, his jaw made restless by a toothless mouth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his thinning gray hair tied with a rubber band at the nape. I asked him if he knew the woman I had danced with.

“How’s that? Don’t you remember her?”

He summed up the brief but (un)spectacular career of Natalia Franz, the sex kitten who, over the course of various burlesque theater seasons and supposedly humorous television programs, was undressed and lustily pursued by aging and obese comedians. She did not seem destined for bigger and better things when a motorcycle accident left her disfigured. Eight surgeries in two years produced the miracle that had captivated my eyes: a face that was designed, lifeless, where only the splendor of sunken but aware eyes revealed the existence of a living being behind the frozen, donned mask.

To show the Turk my appreciation for this information, I felt obliged to buy a gram off him. I followed him into the Men’s room to occult a transaction that everyone knew was the only reason for the Turk’s presence at the milonga. Offered the regular stuff and what he called his Gold stash, I opted for the former, at half the price of the latter; the poor quality of the product the Turk distributed did not justify extravagance. And besides, it had been two years since I last had any. Out on the sidewalk, I gave the baggie to the parking lot attendant, an unlikely consumer, but a possible reseller.

*  * *

A few days later, I related the episode to Flavia Costa.

“It must have been someone else. I remember Franz. She died on the operating table years ago. The anesthesia was too much for her.”

The next time I saw her, she was dancing with a man of indeterminate age, a toupee propped on the remains of his own hair, which was dyed that shade of black that, by contrast, highlighted his dry, furrowed skin, from which hair so shiny, so well irrigated, could not possibly grow. The vanity that I find acceptable in women always seems pathetic to me when it is practiced by men: no doubt a sign of archaic sexism. I should clarify: pathetic in men of a certain age, who out of vanity attempt to shave off years; in young men, I find the uneven locks of hair dyed in synthetic colors and the metallic objects incrusted in ears and cheeks to be amusing.

It was my observations of that old man’s disguise that made me notice an aspect of the public that had escaped my attention until then. Most of the women were heavily made-up, their faces covered by colorful crusts, their hair immobilized in highly stylized constructions or burnt in a confusion of miniature curls. The excessive exterior traits of femininity made them look like transvestites and did not endow them, by any means, with any semblance of youth. Many of the men had extended the use of hair dye to their eyebrows and mustaches, abandoning their skin to an almost mortuary-like paleness. I thought of the treatment given to cadavers in U.S. funeral services: a varnish that, far from simulating a blissful sleep, suggests the emotionless expressiveness of a wax museum dummy. Compared to these masks, Natalia Franz’s plastic surgery, I told myself, belonged in a class entirely its own: an artificiality that was brutal, but also almost ascetic. It grabbed my attention, in a most morbid way, no doubt, whereas the faces of the others made me turn away sharply, in whatever direction, as if out of fear of contagion.

Funeral services … I believe it was when those words popped into my mind that I was overcome with indescribable queasiness, an object-less fear. I went out into the street, where some venerable couples were smoking cigarettes, which were banned inside. Out from under the milonga’s complicit lighting, the crudeness of those laborious masks was underscored by streetlamps. One of the women smiled at me without parting her lips, as if she didn’t wish to reveal some dental disaster; perhaps, like the Turk, she didn’t believe in the benefits of false teeth. I walked away without looking back, turned on Acevedo and walked down to Córdoba.

At the time, I was working on an idea suggested to me by a friend who was also a filmmaker; the goal was to write a script. The Chinese, he told me, don’t wish to die abroad; they fear that if they do, there will be no rest for their souls. A group of elderly Chinese, sensing the end is near, pool together their modest savings to hire a boat to take them from San Francisco to Canton or Taipei. (A boat … a romantic but anachronistic idea. Wouldn’t it be easier to charter a plane in this day and age? I also had my doubts about San Francisco, with its very famous Chinatown. Why not, say, Lima?) The group is tricked by the captain and his crew, who abandon them in a port, any will do, maybe in Hawaii. When they discover they’ve been duped, some die of distress. A young sailor, who played no part in the deceit perpetrated by his superiors, rises up to the occasion and redeems the situation, acquiring a fistful of symbolic Chinese soil, dug up from the gardens of the Chinese consulate, so that each member of the group can lay his head on a mound of native soil when he feels the end is upon him.

The idea appealed to me, just as all irrational things that guide human behavior appeal to me, but I didn’t see how that ending could be adapted to film. It worked well in a story, but it would be difficult to give the scene impact on the big screen. And so it occurred to me to suggest to my friend a story that had nothing to do with China: the story of two elderly milongueros, who are blessed upon their deaths with a milonga in the afterlife, where they spend all eternity, happily consecrated to the ritual they dedicated themselves to in life. Later I understood that this idea, if not born out of my experiences in Villa Crespo, was at least nourished by them. The final scene would be the sudden realization on the part of an observer, who believed he had discovered the milonga by chance, that he, too, was dead. My friend was unconvinced:

“Could you possibly think of anything more morbid?”

In any case, Natalia Franz was alive. The day after I danced with her, the scent of her subtle, floral perfume remained on my right cheek. I wondered what she looked like during the day, beyond the filtered, honey-colored light of that small milonga. Perhaps she didn’t expose herself to sunlight … although for a week the sun had been hidden by more or less continuous cloud cover. Where did she live? Her name, probably a pseudonym, did not appear in the phone book. I distracted myself, entertained myself with these idle questions while I postponed my search for a novel, visually powerful finale for my friend’s film idea.

One night I returned to the milonga in Villa Crespo without much enthusiasm, without much faith in the possibility of seeing that manufactured face. I thought I recognized the same old cast, or another undistinguishable from it. Standing by the bar, I watched the dancers for a while. Next to me, the DJ scorned the use of a laptop like the one I saw Boggio use in Canning; he hadn’t even progressed to magnetic tape, instead handling with surprising skill a collection of LPs that he spun on two turntables.

I searched vainly for Natalia Franz in the crowd. I was about to give up and leave when I recognized her in a corner under the half-light with her usual, almost invisible companion. I hadn’t seen her come in and I could have sworn that when I glanced at that table just a few moments earlier, there was no one there. I decided on a direct approach.

“When we danced last week, your perfume stayed with me for several days. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the scent of a flower … what is it?”

She laughed gently.

“Because of that perfume, my friends call me Narda.”

We danced to Troilo’s “La Bordona.” At some point, my eyes, alertly avoiding collisions with the other couples on the small dance floor, collided instead with our reflection in the mirror. I recognized Natalia Franz, or the woman I believed to be her, but the man dancing with her looked like a caricature of what I believed myself to be. Was it possible that I had aged so, that my figure (not very elegant, I knew) was actually so unappealing? I turned away, like I had the night before when a smile was directed at me on the sidewalk. At the corner table under the half-light, I thought I saw another smile, conspiratorial, with a hint of mockery, on the face of Natalia’s young companion, as if she had guessed what I was then feeling.

I don’t remember under what pretense I left the milonga and quickly distanced myself from Villa Crespo. I called Flavia on my cellphone and again told her what had happened to me.

“Be careful. You might end up trapped in your own fiction. Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you. Today is Thursday. Let’s go to Niño Bien.”

I waited for her at the door of Club Leonés on Humberto Primo, where the second floor comes alive every Thursday with one of my favorite milongas. Before Flavia arrived to rescue me from what she had called my own fiction, I told myself that it was best to put my adventurous days behind me. I was no longer so young as to allow myself to become fascinated with phantoms and the arcane. From then on, I would limit myself to my favorite milongas, to dancing with friends, to forgetting about the dangerous mysteries and bad literature that lie in wait along poorly lit streets and tiny dance floors. If they were trying to tell me something, I prefer to ignore them until the day comes when I no longer can.

That night, Flavia and I stayed till the last dance.

milongas-edgardo-cozarinsky_MLA-F-138879266_87

Translated by Dario Bard from “Milonga sin nombre: la resurrección” as printed in Milongas, published by Edhasa, 2007, available from Amazon. The story was later reprinted in Pagina 12 with the title “Natalia Franz,” used here at the author’s request.

Edgardo Cozarinsky is a writer, filmmaker and playwright from the City of Buenos Aires. He began his career as an essayist and filmmaker. In 1974, with the country showing early signs of the political repression that was to worsen soon thereafter, he relocated to Paris where he published Urban Voodoo in 1985, a short story collection recounting his experiences as a self-exile. Other published works available in English include Borges in/and/on Film, The Bride from Odessa and The Moldavian Pimp, all of which are available from Amazon

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construcción, Edgardo Cozarinsky discussed his life and his work (in Spanish):
Part 1

Part 2

“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):

  

“Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo

Download pdf: Carpe Diem

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s really the way she was. I’m not sure if I’m truly describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

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“Willow Tree at Night” by Marissa Swinghammer.

“She looked like night does in the plazas,” he said suddenly. He said it naturally, giving the impression that he was unabashed about what he had just said. I asked him if she, the girl, looked like the plazas. “Of course,” said the man, stroking his temple with the palm of his hand; a strange gesture, signaling fatigue or disorientation. “But not like the plazas; like night in certain plazas. Or like certain humid nights, when there’s that mist that isn’t mist and the stone benches and the grass shine. There’s poetry that speaks of this, of the splendor of the grass; actually, it doesn’t speak of it, or of anything that has anything to do with it, but who knows. Anyway, that’s not how things were, and if I start off this way, I’ll never get to the point. The truth is I had had enough of her. She bought plants and left them on my desk. She bent back the pages of books. And she whistled. She couldn’t tell Mozart from Bartók, but she whistled anyway, especially in the mornings; she didn’t have an ear for music by any means, but she’d get out of bed whistling, roaming like a Barefoot Carmelite nun among the books and potted plants, and the dishes of my bachelor’s pad. And, not even aware she was doing it, she’d whistle a really odd melody, something impossible, non-existent. A sort of czardas she had invented. She had … How can I put it? … this monstrous joy about her, this thing that really irritated me. And, since I also irritated her, anyone would have guessed that we’d end up together, clinging to each other, and that it would be a disaster. Do you know how I met her? No, you couldn’t imagine how I met her; no one could. Pissing on a tree. I was the one pissing, naturally. Half drunk and leaning up against a sycamore on Virrey Melo Street. It was dawn and she was headed home from somewhere; strange, I never did ask her from where. Once I was on the verge of asking her, the last time I saw her, but I was afraid to. That morning by the tree she came up on me without my even hearing her footsteps. Later I noticed she was barefoot, with her sandals in her hand. She walked past me and, without even looking at me, said that piss was really harmful to plants. Caught off guard, I wet myself. She entered her apartment building and I, soaked with urine and trembling, knew then that that woman was my curse and the love of my life. In the first minute, a man knows everything that is going to happen between him and a woman. But it’s incredible how things then play out, how a man can begin by explaining to a girl that a sycamore tree can hardly be considered a plant, how she can pretend not to remember anything about the incident, referring to me as sir with joyful ferocity, as if to mark with fire the distance between us, how she can pretend to be in a hurry, to have final exams to study for, and then finally accept an invitation to sit at a café and chat over a cup of coffee, how that chat can last for hours and five glasses of gin, and how I end up telling her my life and dreams, and then move on to a nocturnal labyrinth of sidewalks, with repeated no’s, golden leaves, eventual consent and a long stairwell until I finally get her in bed. Or rather, she drags me to bed, she, who arrived there at the end of her own personal labyrinth, comprised of other streets and other memories, I hear her tell me I’m handsome, and I believe it, I tell her she is every woman, hate her and kill her off in my dreams, only to see her reborn, intact and barefoot, entering our home with an abominable flowerpot full of azaleas or eating a sweet quince pie the size of a wagon wheel. And then one day, with hate that is almost real, with indifference that is almost real, I tell her I’m fed up with so much stupidity, so much operetta-like happiness, and I begin treating her like an ordinary whore. Until one night I slam the door to her apartment on Melo Street with all my might, and hear, as if for the first time, the familiar sound of her Charles the Second of Spain reproduction crashing to the floor. See what I mean? A woman who likes Charles the Hexed! I remained outside the door for a moment, waiting. Nothing happened. That time, she didn’t hang the poster back up on the wall; I couldn’t even imagine her, later, tidying up as she whistled her non-existent czardas, that tune that erased all sadness form her heart. And I knew then that I would never return to her apartment; later, back at my own apartment, while I packed a change of clothes and my shaving kit in a handbag, I also knew, I had known for hours, that she wasn’t ever going to call or come back to me again.”

“But you were wrong; she did come back,” I heard myself say, surprising us both: me, for having asserted something that hadn’t really been made clear; and him, for having heard my voice, as if he had forgotten he wasn’t alone. The man with the tired face looked, indeed, very tired, as if he had journeyed to this town from some distant place. He was, however, from here. He had left for Buenos Aires as a teenager, but returned every now and again. I had seen him often, always alone, but now I think I did see him once with a woman. “Because you were together again, at least for a day.”

“One day, for an entire afternoon. And part of that night. Till the last train that night.”

The man with the tired face made as if to brush a lock of hair from his brow. A youthful and anachronous gesture, for it must have been years since that lock of hair existed. He looked more or less my age, by which I mean he was an older man, although it was difficult to know how old exactly. As if he was very young and very old at the same time. Like a teenager in his fifties.

“What I don’t see,” I said, “is what the problem is. I mean, I don’t understand what there is to understand.”

“Precisely. There is nothing to understand. She said so herself that final afternoon we spent together. You have to believe. I simply had to believe in what was happening. Accept it as natural; experience it. As if I had been granted, or we both had been granted, a special favor. That day was a gift, and it was real. And what’s real does not require explanation. Take that willow by the riverbank, for instance. Suddenly, it’s there. We see it because the moonlight suddenly fell on it. I don’t know if it has always been there; it is there now. Glittering in the moonlight, it’s very beautiful. I walk over and touch it, feel the humid bark with my hand, and that’s proof that it’s real. But there is no need to touch it, because there is another way to prove it. But let it be clear that this isn’t me saying so; it’s as if she’s saying it. It’s strange that she should say these things. She said them all the time over the course of the years; and it’s strange that I never realized it. She would say that the proof that it exists is that it is beautiful. Everything else is just words. And when the moonlight moves on and spoils the scene, or no longer shines on it and the tree disappears from view … Well, then we should remember the minute of beauty that willow tree had … forever. Real life can be like that. It has to be like that. And whoever doesn’t realize it in time is a poor son of a bitch,” he said, almost with indifference, and I replied that I didn’t quite follow, but that I intended to remedy the situation by ordering another whiskey. When I offered to buy him one, he turned me down again for the third time. I signaled the waiter.

“So I called her up. One night I went over to the telephone company, asked to be put through to Buenos Aires and rang her apartment. It must have been around three in the morning and four or five months had gone by. She might have moved, or might not be home, or might even be with somebody else. These things didn’t occur to me then. It was as if from the moment I slammed the door to the phone call that night, there hadn’t been time for anything else. She picked up. Her voice sounded odd, but it was her voice. A bit distant at first, as if she struggled to fully awaken. As if the insistent ringing of the telephone had summoned her from faraway, from the depths of a dream. I blurted it out all at once: the departure time for the train from Retiro; the time at which I would be waiting for her at the station; how I intended to spend the day with her … God knows what I said. Everything we had never done and were on the verge of never doing. The things people do … stroll together along the river, dance on the dirt floor of a patio, listen to the church bells, visit my childhood school. Do you see? Do you know how many years we were together? How many years had passed since the moment she surprised me by that sycamore tree? Yes, I can see it in your face … I say years and you understand. And in all that time it never occurred to me to show her around the Canaletas neighborhood, or take her down the path to the port, or show her the toy-like crossing of the mini-Dipietri trains, or the San Pedro Cross, or the spot where Marcial Palma was killed. How is it that I never thought of these things before? I don’t know. You see, that is the problem right there. Or maybe the problem is that she picked up the phone. Not only did she pick up and speak to me, she also came to San Pedro. She stepped off the train … ”

And not only did she step off the train; she was also wearing an almost-forgotten dress. It was a code between them, a secret sign only they understood. And it was as if time hadn’t touched her. Not only the time lapsed in those four or five months, but Time itself, as if that barefooted girl that had walked past the sycamore tree years ago was then stepping off the train. Finally, I saw the waiter come towards us.

“Yes, that is exactly the impression I had,” said the man with the tired face. “But how did you know?”

I answered that he himself had told me, various times, and I asked the waiter to bring me some whiskey. “What you still haven’t told me is what’s strange about it. What’s so strange about her coming to this town, wearing that or any other dress? Four or five months isn’t that much time. Hadn’t you called her yourself? Wasn’t she your gal?”

“Of course she was,” he said, and he took a small, metal object from his pants pocket, laid it on the table and gazed at it. It was a coin, although I didn’t recognize it at first; it was totally deformed and twisted. “Of course I had called her myself.” He put the coin back in his pocket as the waiter poured a measure of whiskey into my glass. And then, without regard to the waiter’s presence or anything whatsoever, he added, “But she was dead.”

“Well, that changes things a bit,” I said. “Leave the bottle, please.”

She wasn’t a ghost. The man with the tired face did not believe in ghosts. She was real, and the afternoon they spent together in San Pedro that day, and the night hours that followed, were real. As if they had been granted the opportunity to live in the present a day they should have lived in the past. When the man finished speaking, I realized that he hadn’t told me, and I hadn’t asked him, some key things. Maybe he didn’t know himself. I didn’t know how the girl had died and when. Whatever happened could have happened in any number of ways and at any time in that four or five month period. Perhaps it happened accidentally and in some other part of the world. Why not? Four or five months wasn’t that much time, as I had said, but it was enough to sprout endless possibilities. The fact is she was with him for more than half a day, and many people saw them together, sitting at a metal table at a dance with a dirt floor, walking by the shipyards, in the church plaza … She spoke with some children who were fishing, and he was chased by a dog out of a garden he had trespassed on to pluck her a rose. That night, she took the rose with her. Where? he wondered. Many people saw them and a boy even spoke with her, but how could they be expected to verify her identity if no one in town had seen her before. How could we be sure it was her and not some other woman? There’s the dress, sure, but that’s even less convincing; it evoked memories that only they shared, a certain smile or the sway of her hair. And so I thought of the hotel: both their names should figure there. He looked at me blankly.

“We did go to a hotel, naturally. And if you are asking if I slept with her, the answer is yes. She was real. From the hair on her head to the tips of her toes. Much more real than you or me.” Suddenly, he laughed, letting out an unexpected cackle that was so sincere it seemed ignoble to me. “And in the room next to ours, there was also a couple that was very much of this world.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I said.

“That’s a mistake on your part, because it is very important. It’s always been important between her and me. That’s how I know she was real. Not an illusion, not a dream, not a ghost; it was her, and only with her would I have spent an hour of my life with my ear glued to a cup, trying to hear what was happening in the room next door.”

“Both of you would have had to sign the hotel registry. That’s what I’m getting at. She would have had to give her name, her ID number.”

“Names and numbers. I get it. I also collected those sorts of fetishes and held them to be real. But, no. Neither her name nor her ID number. Only mine, with the discrete side note, ‘and guest.’ I could have been with any woman in that hotel, and with any woman they would have noted down the same thing. Try to see things the way she did: that day was possible on the condition that she would leave no trace of her presence in the real world and, moreover, that I would not even try to find one. Listen to me, please. Before, I said that day was a gift, but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s very important that you understand this fully. When do you think I learned that she was dead? The following day? A week later? In that case, I would have been blessed for those hours and this would be a ghost story. Perhaps you imagine that she, or something I think of as her, left that night on the last train, and that I then traveled to Buenos Aires and a concierge or neighbor tried to convince me that that day couldn’t have happened. No. I knew the truth by mid-afternoon because she told me herself. We had already visited the Canaletas neighborhood. We had laughed and even argued. I promised to be open-minded and she more orderly. I was about to buy her astronomy books and star charts as gifts, and she was about to buy a Danish pipe for me, and suddenly I uttered the word ‘bed.’ She became very grave. I might have noticed earlier: her fear when I wanted to show her the old part of the cemetery, where we saw the Irish tombstones, or certain episodes of absentmindedness that resembled an absolute loss of memory, or when I even hinted at any event connected to our last day together in Buenos Aires, or a fleeting sign of sorrow whenever I spoke words like ‘tomorrow.’ I don’t know. What happened is that I said I was too old for all this walking, and if she expected me to go out that night, we ought to find a bed to lie down on first. And she became very serious. She said sure, that she’d go with me wherever I wanted, but that she had to tell me something. She had thought of not telling me. She was permitted to keep it from me if she so chose. But she felt now it was necessary that I know. Otherwise, it would be like an act of betrayal. ‘Don’t forget that this is me,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget that you called me and I came. That I am here with you and that we still have several hours to be together.’ I thought she was talking about another man, and I could have killed her for it. I couldn’t say a word, however, because she put her hand on my lips. She laughed and her eyes shone bright, and it was as if I were seeing her through the rain. She told me that sometimes I was really stupid. She said she knew what I was thinking, that it was very easy to know because the faces of the stupid turn green when they are jealous. She told me there were things that should just be believed without being understood. Trying to understand these things was worse than killing them. She spoke to me of the ephemeral splendor of beauty and its truth. She asked me to forgive her for what she was about to do, and she dug her nails into the palm of my hand, pressing down until she left four distinct lines of blood. Once more she said that it was her, and that’s why she could cause pain, and also feel it; that she was real. And then she told me she was dead. And that if at some moment in what we had left of the evening, if even for a single minute of the night, I felt that this was sad and not, as it should be, something very beautiful, we will have lost forever something we had been given; we will have lost once more the day we never had. Our little flower; ours to cut. And that I shouldn’t forget the promise I had made, to take her to a dance in a patio with garlands and a dirt floor … You know the rest. Or can imagine it. We checked into the hotel, climbed the stairs with a joyful and deliberately furtive air, and made love. We had time to play spy, our ears glued to the wall to listen in on the tumultuous couple next door, stifling our laughter and shushing each other so as not to be heard. It was nighttime when I took her to see my childhood school. Night is the best time to see the building. Its cloisters look as if they are from another century. The trees in the woods seem to multiply and rise higher. The interior patios provoke vertigo. At some point during the night, we got lost. ‘I know how to read the stars to guide us,’ she told me, and said that one must be Aldebaran, the star with the most beautiful name. I didn’t tell her that Aldebaran is not always visible in our night sky; I let her guide me. Later, we heard accordion music in the distance and looked at each other in the darkness. ‘My song!’ she cried out, and began whistling her made-up czardas, now transformed into some type of tarantella. I’d like to tell you what we saw at the dance; it was like happiness itself. A rickety, beat-up car took us bumping along to the station. ‘This is when we should be the least sad,’ she told me. ‘My God, I need a coin,’ she said suddenly. I searched my pockets for one, but she said no, it had to be her coin. She looked through her purse and I feared she wouldn’t find one. But, of course, she did. She told me I should place the coin on the rails and retrieve it once the train had gone. ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’ she said, ‘but I know how you’ve always liked these sorts of fetishes.’ She also said I had to buy her a ticket. She laughed at me: ‘I’m here,’ she said. ‘This is me. I can’t travel without a ticket.’ She told me not to take my eyes off the train until it disappeared around the bend. She told me that, although I wouldn’t be able to see her in the darkness, she would be able to see me from the rear of the last car, and that I should wave to her.”

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Translated by Dario Bard from “Carpe Diem” as printed in Los Mundos Reales IV: Las Maquinarias de la Noche, published by Emecé, 1992, available from Amazon

Abelardo Castillo is an Argentine writer born in the City of Buenos Aires who grew up in San Pedro, Province of Buenos Aires. He has written several short story collections and recently published his definitive collection, Cuentos Completos (2008), availabe from Amazon. He has also authored several novels and a number of plays. His work has earned him a number of international awards. Further, he launched three literary magazines: El Grillo de Papel, El Escarabajo de Oro and El Ornitorrinco. The latter represented an important act of cultural resistance during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Additional English translations of Castillo’s short stories are available at the Barcelona Review, where Graham Thomson has masterfully translated “Ernesto’s Mother” and “Girl from Somewhere Else.” 

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construccion, Abelardo Castillo discusses his life and work (in two parts):