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Fernando Sorrentino Stories

I am Fernando Sorrentino, and I'm going to write this note in the first
person so that I'll be totally responsible for the truth of my words. I was
born in Buenos Aires, on November 8th, 1942.
As worthy men have said, in my fiction there is a curious mixture of
fantasy and humour that sometimes comes in a grotesque framework,
and always in a verisimilar one. I like reading more than writing, and, in
fact, I don't write too much. After thirty two years, I do not have a long
bibliography to show.
My narrative work is made up of six short story books (La regresion
zoologica, 1969; Imperios y servidumbres, 1972; El mejor de los mundos
posibles, 1976; En defensa propia, 1982; El remedio para el rey ciego,
1984; El rigor de las desdichas, 1994), a long tale (Costumbres de los
muertos, 1996), and a not too long novel (Sanitarios centenarios, 1979).
My books for children have, mutatis mutandis, those same
characteristics, and include the following: Cuentos del Mentiroso, 1978;
Aventuras del capitan Bancalari, 1999. I am also the author of two
interview books: Siete conversaciones con Jorge Luis Borges, 1974; Siete
conversaciones con Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1992.
I can easily state that my stories are found in a certain number of
anthologies in Spanish, English and other languages. As far as I know, I
have been translated into the following languages: English, Portuguese,
Italian, German, French, Finnish, Hungarian, Polish, Chinese,
Vietnamese, and Tamil. I also write essays about Argentinian literature,
which are generally published in the newspaper La Nacion, in Buenos
Aires.
As with anybody else, to a greater or lesser extent, I have received a
good number of literary prizes. To sum up, I am relatively happy.

****
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

There's a Man in the Habit of Hitting Me on the Head with an Umbrella

There's a man in the habit of hitting me on the head with an umbrella.


It's exactly five years today that he's been hitting me on the head with
his umbrella. At first I couldn't stand it; now I'm used to it.
I don't know his name. I know he's average in appearance, wears a
gray suit, is graying at the temples, and has a common face. I met him
five years ago one sultry morning. I was sitting on a tree-shaded bench
in Palermo Park, reading the paper. Suddenly I felt something touch my
head. It was the very same man who now, as I'm writing, keeps
whacking me, mechanically and impassively, with an umbrella.
On that occasion I turned around filled with indignation: he just kept
on hitting me. I asked him if he was crazy: he didn't even seem to hear
me. Then I threatened to call a policeman. Unperturbed, cool as a
cucumber, he stuck with his task. After a few moments of indecision,
and seeing that he was not about to change his attitude, I stood up and
punched him in the nose. The man fell down, and let out an almost
inaudible moan. He immediately got back on his feet, apparently with
great effort, and without a word again began hitting me on the head
with the umbrella. His nose was bleeding and, at that moment, I felt
sorry for him. I felt remorse for having hit him so hard. After all, the
man wasn't exactly bludgeoning me; he was merely tapping me lightly
with his umbrella, not causing any pain at all. Of course, those taps were
extremely bothersome. As we all know, when a fly lands on your
forehead, you don't feel any pain whatsoever; what you feel is
annoyance. Well then, that umbrella was one humongous fly that kept
landing on my head time after time, and at regular intervals.
Convinced that I was dealing with a madman, I tried to escape. But
the man followed me, wordlessly continuing to hit me. So I began to run
(at this juncture I should point out that not many people run as fast as I
do). He took off after me, vainly trying to land a blow. The man was
huffing and puffing and gasping so that I thought, if I continued to force
him to run at that speed, my tormenter would drop dead right then and
there.

<2>
That's why I slowed down to a walk. I looked at him. There was no
trace of either gratitude or reproach on his face. He merely kept hitting
me on the head with the umbrella. I thought of showing up at the police
station and saying, "Officer, this man is hitting me on the head with an
umbrella." It would have been an unprecedented case. The officer would
have looked at me suspiciously, would have asked for my papers and
begun asking embarrassing questions. And he might even have ended
up placing me under arrest.
I thought it best to return home. I took the 67 bus. He, all the while
hitting me with his umbrella, got on behind me. I took the first seat. He
stood right beside me, and held on to the railing with his left hand. With
his right hand he unrelentingly kept whacking me with that umbrella.
At first, the passengers exchanged timid smiles. The driver began to
observe us in the rearview mirror. Little by little the bus trip turned into
one great fit of laughter, an uproarious, interminable fit of laughter. I
was burning with shame. My persecutor, impervious to the laughter,
continued to strike me.
I got off - we got off - at Pacifico Bridge. We walked along Santa Fe
Avenue. Everyone stupidly turned to stare at us. It occurred to me to say
to them, "What are you looking at, you idiots? Haven't you ever seen a
man hit another man on the head with an umbrella?" But it also occurred
to me that they probably never had seen such a spectacle. Then five or
six little boys began chasing after us, shouting like maniacs.
But I had a plan. Once I reached my house, I tried to slam the door in
his face. That didn't happen. He must have read my mind, because he
firmly seized the doorknob and pushed his way in with me.
From that time on, he has continued to hit me on the head with his
umbrella. As far as I can tell, he has never either slept or eaten anything.
His sole activity consists of hitting me. He is with me in everything I do,
even in my most intimate activities. I remember that at first, the blows
kept me awake all night. Now I think it would be impossible for me to
sleep without them.

<3>
Still and all, our relations have not always been good. I've asked him,
on many occasions, and in all possible tones, to explain his behavior to
me. To no avail: he has wordlessly continued to hit me on the head with
his umbrella. Many times I have let him have it with punches, kicks, and
even - God forgive me - umbrella blows. He would meekly accept the
blows. He would accept them as though they were part of his job. And
this is precisely the weirdest aspect of his personality: that unshakable
faith in his work coupled with a complete lack of animosity. In short,
that conviction that he was carrying out some secret mission that
responded to a higher authority.
Despite his lack of physiological needs, I know that when I hit him,
he feels pain. I know he is weak. I know he is mortal. I also know that I
could be rid of him with a single bullet. What I don't know is if it would
be better for that bullet to kill him or to kill me. Neither do I know if,
when the two of us are dead, he might not continue to hit me on the
head with his umbrella. In any event, this reasoning is pointless; I
recognize that I would never dare to kill him or kill myself.
On the other hand, I have recently come to the realization that I
couldn't live without those blows. Now, more and more frequently, a
certain foreboding overcomes me. A new anxiety is eating at my soul:
the anxiety stemming from the thought that this man, perhaps when I
need him most, will depart and I will no longer feel those umbrella taps
that helped me sleep so soundly.

One

Reasons for the Extinction of Basilisks

The most casual observation would seem to suggest, beyond a doubt,


that the basilisk species is on its way to extinction. Based on the studies
conducted so far, it is clear that this is not the result of their persecution
by the natives-driven by their superstitions-but is due rather to the
length that these creatures require to carry out their reproductive cycles
and the obstacles they encounter in that process.

It is patently untrue that the basilisks can kill with a mere glance. It is
their custom instead to project from their eyes jets of blood. This blood
produces on the skin of the person affected a type of ulcer or pustule
that secretes an organic substance from which emerges a worm known
scientifically as Vermis basilisci (Boitus). These worms thrive in the
human body parasitically and gradually destroy the nervous system to
the point that, in their final stage, they end up emptying the cranial
cavity. This process can take from thirty-five to forty years. The victim
slowly loses control of his limbs and his senses and may even suffer
premature death. The Vermis, however, does not abandon the body
until it has completely destroyed the encephalic mass. At this point, now
acquiring the form of a kind of small snake-never measuring more than
twenty centimeters in length-it leaves the cadaver and begins a slow
migration toward the marshy regions. Few do in fact reach their
destination, since on their often lengthy trajectory they die of hunger or
are devoured by crows or owls, and also by small carnivorous mammals
such as the sable, the ferret and the ermine. The small numbers of snakes
that manage to survive complete their metamorphosis amidst the heat
and humidity of the marshes, from which, after a period that varies from
five to six weeks, they then emerge transformed into basilisks. It is, to be
sure, untrue that they are capable of killing with merely their glance.

Two

The Diet of Horses

Nor is it true that horses are exclusively herbivorous. Doctor Ludwig


Boitus has proven that it was people of primitive societies who
accustomed them to that condition: this was motivated by economic
and, above all, safety concerns.

The fact is that in every horse exists a latent carnivorous instinct.


Moreover, horses are the only animals who were originally carnivorous.
The truth is that if they are fed a diet of only raw meat, the habits and
appearance of the creatures undergo a transformation: their innocent
brown eyes acquire a malignant ocher cast; their front teeth lengthen
and curve; their gait becomes sinuous and smooth; their movements
tend to turn furtive; their talons, freed from the hooves turn into claws.
The horse is now the strongest, the largest, the fastest and most agile of
all carnivorous animals.

Those primitive peoples who redirected to useful tasks the only


ferocious animal that ravaged their villages came to realize in time that it
was also desirable to blend into the world some sort of harmless horror.
So, selecting several inoffensive, beautiful and useless animals that were
accustomed to devouring their crops, they got them used to the taste of
meat: thus it was that what we know today as lions and tigers, panthers
and jaguars came into being.
Categories: Spanish, Fiction, Forests, Americas, From 1950 to 2000,
Argentina, Fernando Sorrentino, Donald A. Yates, Nature, Animals
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Naomi Lindstrom

Unjustified Fears

I'm not very sociable, and often I forget about my friends. After letting
two years go by, on one of those January days in1979 - they're so hot - I
went to visit a friend who suffers from somewhat unjustified fears. His
name doesn't matter; let's call him - just call him - Enrique Viani.
On a certain Saturday in March, 1977, his life changed course.
It seems that, while in the living room of his house, near the door to
the balcony, Enrique Viani saw, suddenly, an "enor-mous" - according to
him - spider on his right shoe. No sooner had he had the thought this
was the biggest spider he'd seen in his life, when, suddenly leaving its
place on his shoe, the animal slipped up his pants leg between the leg
and the pants.
Enrique Viani was - he said - "petrified." Nothing so disagreeable had
ever happened to him. At that instant he recalled two principles he had
read somewhere or other, which were: 1) that, without exception, all
spiders, even the smallest ones, carry poison, and can inject it; and, 2)
that spiders only sting when they feel attacked or disturbed. It was plain
to see, that huge spider must surely have plenty of poison in it, the full
strength toxic type. So, Enrique Viani thought the most sensible thing to
do was hold stock still, since at the least move of his, the insect would
inject him with a definitive dose of deadly poison.
So he kept rigid for five or six hours, with the reasonable hope that
the spider would eventually leave the spot it had taken up on his right
tibia; clearly, it couldn't stay too long in a place where it couldn't find
any food.
As he came up with this optimistic prediction, he felt that, indeed, the
visitor was starting to move. It was such a bulky, heavy spider that
Enrique Viani could feel - and count - the footfalls of the eight feet -
hairy and slightly sticky - across the goose flesh of his leg. But,
unfortunately, the guest was not leaving; instead, it nested, with its
warm and throbbing cephalothorax and abdomen, in the hollow we all
have behind our knees.
***
Up to here we have the first - and, of course, fundamental - part of this
story. After that there came some not very significant variations: the
basic fact was that Enrique Viani, afraid of getting stung, insisted on
keeping stone still as long as need be, despite his wife and two
daughters' pleas for him to abandon the plan. And so, they came to a
stalemate where no progress was possible.

<2>
Then Graciela - the wife - did me the honor of calling me in to see if I
could resolve the problem. This happened around two in the afternoon: I
was a bit annoyed to have to give up my one siesta of the week and I
silently cursed out people who can't manage their own affairs. Once
over at Enrique Viani's house, I found a pathetic scene: he stood
immobile, though not in too stiff a pose, rather like parade rest; Graciela
and the girls were crying.
I managed to keep myself calm and tried to calm the three women as
well. Then I told Enrique Viani that if he agreed to my plan, I could
make quick work of the invading spider. Opening his mouth just the
least bit, so as not to send the slightest quiver through his leg muscle,
Enrique Viani wondered:
"What plan?"
I explained. I'd take a razor blade and make a vertical slit downwards
in his pants leg till I came to the spider, without even touching it. Once
this was done, it would be easy for me to hit it with a rolled-up
newspaper, knock it to the floor and then kill it or catch it.
"No, no," muttered Enrique Viani, desperate, but trying to restrain
himself. "The pants leg will move and the spider will sting me. No, no,
that's a terrible idea."
Stubborn people drive me up the wall. Without boasting, I can say
my plan was perfect, and here this wretch who'd made me miss my
siesta just up and rejects it, for no serious reason and, to top it off, he's
snotty about it.
"Then I don't know what on earth we'll do," said Graciela. "And just
tonight we have Patricia's fifteenth birthday party ..."
"Congratulations," I said, and kissed the birthday girl.
"... and we can't let the guests see Enrique standing there like a
statue."
"Besides, what will Alejandro say."
"Who's Alejandro?"
"My boyfriend," Patricia, predictably, answered.
"I've got an idea!" exclaimed Claudia, the little sister. "We can call
Don Nicola and ..."
I want it clear that I wasn't exactly wild about Claudia's plan and had
nothing to do with its being adopted. In fact, I was dead set against it.
But everyone else was heartily in favor of it and Enrique Viani was more
enthusiastic than anyone.

<3>
So Don Nicola showed up and right away, being a man of action and
not words, he set to work. Quickly he mixed mortar and, brick by brick,
built up around Enrique Viani a tall, thin cylinder. The tight fit of his
living quarters, far from being a drawback, allowed Enrique Viani to
sleep standing up with no fear of falling and losing his upright position.
Then Don Nicola carefully plastered over the construction, applied a
base and painted it moss green to blend in with the carpeting and chairs.
Still, Graciela - dissatisfied with the general effect of this mini obelisk
in the living room - tried putting a vase of flowers on top of it and then
an ornamental lamp. Undecided, she said:
"This mess will have to do for now. Monday I'll buy something
decent-looking."
To keep Enrique Viani from getting too lonely, I thought of staying on
for Patricia's party, but the thought of facing the music our young
people are so fond of terrified me. Anyway, Don Nicola had taken care
to make a little rectangular window in front of Enrique Viani's eyes, so
he could keep entertained watching certain irregularities in the wall
paint. So, seeing everything was normal, I said goodbye to the Vianis
and Don Nicola and went back home.

***
In Buenos Aires back in those years we were all overwhelmed with
duties and obligations: the truth is I almost forgot all about Enrique
Viani. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I managed to get free for a
moment and went to call on him.
I found he was still living in his little obelisk, only now a splendid
blue-flowering creeper had twined its runners and leaves all around it. I
pulled a bit to one side some of the luxuriant greenery and through the
little window I managed to spot a face so pale it was nearly transparent.
Guessing the question I was about to ask, Graciela told me that, through
a kind of wise adaptation to the new circumstances, nature had
exempted Enrique Viani from all physical necessities.
I didn't want to leave without making one last plea for sanity. I asked
Enrique Viani to be reasonable; after twenty-three months of being
walled up, this spider of ours was surely dead, so, then, we could tear
down Don Nicola's handiwork and ...

<4>
Enrique Viani had lost the power of speech or at any rate his voice
could no longer be heard; he just said no desperately with his eyes.
Tired and, maybe, a bit sad, I left.
In general, I don't think about Enrique Viani. But lately, I recalled his
situation two or three times, and I flared up with rebellion: ah, if those
unjustified fears didn't have such a hold, you'd see how I'd grab a
pickaxe and knock down that ridiculous structure of Don Nicola's; you'd
see how, facing facts that spoke louder than words, Enrique Viani would
end up agreeing his fears were groundless.
But, after these flareups, respect for my fellow-man wins out, and I
realize I have no right to butt into other people's lives and deprive
Enrique Viani of an advantage he so treasures.

**
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson

An Enlightening Book
Ludwig Boitus: Stelzvögel, Gottingen, 1972

In his brief prologue to Stelzvögel, professor Franz Klamm explains that


Dr. Ludwig Boitus travelled from Gottingen to Huayllén-Naquén with
the sole purpose of studying in situ the assimilative attraction of the
long-legged bird popularly known as calegüinas (this name has almost
unanimous acceptance in the specialist literature in Spanish and it will
be used here). Stelzvögel fills an acute gap in our knowledge of the
subject. Before Dr. Boitus' exhaustive investigations -- the presentation
of which takes up almost a third of the volume -- little was known for
certain about calegüinas. In fact, except for fragmentary qualitative
studies by Bulovic, Balbón, Laurencena and others -- works plagued by
whimsical, unsubstantiated claims -- before Stelzvögel, the scientific
community lacked a reliable basis on which to base further research. In
his work, Dr. Boitus starts from the -- perhaps debatable -- premise that
calegüinas' main character trait is its very strong personality (using the
term personality in the sense established by Fox and his school). This
personality is so potent that simply being in the presence of a calegüinas
is enough to induce strongly calegüinas-like behaviour in other animals.
The calegüinas are found exclusively in the Huayllén-Naquén lagoon.
There, they flourish -- some estimates put the population as high as one
million -- helped both by local by-laws, which make hunting them
illegal, and by the fact that their flesh is inedible and their feathers have
no industrial use. In common with other long-legged birds, they feed on
fish, Batrachia and the larvæ of mosquitos and other insects. Although
they posses well-developed wings, they rarely fly, and when they do,
they never go beyond the limits of the lagoon. They are of a similar size
to storks, though their beaks are slightly larger and they do not migrate.
Their back and wings are a blueish-black; their head, chest and belly, a
yellowish-white. Their legs are pale yellow. Their habitat, the Huayllén-
Naquén lagoon, is shallow but wide. Since there are no bridges across it
-- in spite of many representations to that end -- the locals are obliged to
make a long detour in order to get to the opposite side. This has had the
effect of making complaints to the local newspaper almost continuous
but communication between the shores of the lagoon rather scarce. To
the uninformed observer it would appear that residents could cross the
lagoon quickly and easily by using stilts and even without them, at its
deepest point, the water would barely reach the waist of a man of
average height. However, the locals know -- although perhaps in a
intuitive way only -- the assimilative power of the calegüinas, and the
fact is that they prefer not to attempt the crossing, choosing instead -- as
already stated -- to go around the lagoon, which is encircled by an
excellent asphalt road.

<2>
All this has not stopped the hiring of stilts to tourists becoming the
single most important part of the Huayllén-Naquén economy, a
circumstance that is perhaps justifiable in view of the scarcity of basic
resources in the region. The absence of serious competition and the lack
of official pricing has made the hiring of stilts a very costly business
indeed; inflating prices to outrageous levels is the only way tradesmen
can recoup their inevitable losses. In fact, there is a rather limited
Huayllén-Naquén by-law stipulating that shops hiring stilts should
display a sign, positioned in open view and written in bold lettering,
warning that the use of stilts may lead to fairly serious psychological
alterations. As a rule, tourists tend not to heed these warnings and, for
the most part, treat them as a joke. It should be noted that it is simply
not possible to make sure that the notices are read by every single tourist
even when, as is undeniably the case, the shopkeepers comply with the
by-law punctiliously and place the signs in highly conspicuous places.
The authorities are notoriously inflexible on this point. It is true that
inspections are not very frequent and are always preceded by a warning
sent a few minutes beforehand -- but the inspectors are known to
perform their duties conscientiously and it can only be coincidence that
there is no recorded case of a shopkeeper being sanctioned under the by-
law.
Once in possession of their stilts, the tourists, either by themselves or
in cheerful, chattering groups of two, three, five or ten go into the
Huayllén-Naquén lagoon with the aim of reaching the opposite shore
where they can buy, at very reasonable prices, tins of exquisite fish -- a
product that provides the main source of income for the population on
that side of the lagoon. For the first two or three hundred metres, the
tourists advance happily; laughing, shouting, playing practical jokes and
frightening the calegüinas, which, like all long-legged birds, are
extremely nervous creatures. Gradually, as they penetrate deeper and
deeper into the lagoon, the tourists become more subdued while, meter-
by-meter, the density of calegüinas increases. Soon the birds are so
numerous that progress becomes extremely difficult for the tourists. The
calegüinas no longer run or fly away nervously -- as their numbers rise,
they appear to grow in confidence, although their behaviour could also
be explained by the fact that, by then, most movement is physically
impossible. Whatever the reason, there comes a moment when shouting
is no longer enough and it becomes necessary to use sticks and hands to
shoo the calegüinas out of the way. Even then they concede very little
ground. This is generally the moment when the tourists fall silent and
the joking and laughing comes to an end. Then -- and only then -- they
notice a dense humming emanating from the throats of the thousands of
calegüinas, filling the entire lagoon. In its timbre, this humming is not
very different from that of doves -- it is, however, considerably more
intense. It enters the ears of the tourists and resonates inside their heads,
it fills their minds so completely that, gradually, they too begin to hum.
To start with, this humming is a poor imitation of the birds, but soon it
becomes impossible to distinguish between the humming of the humans
and that of the calegüinas. At this point, the tourists often start to
experience a choking sensation, they can detect nothing but calegüinas
for as far as the eye can see and soon loose the ability to differentiate
between land and the water of the lagoon. In front and behind, left and
right they see an endlessly repeating, monotonous desert of black and
white made up of wings, beaks and feathers. There is usually one tourist
-- especially if there is a large group of them on the lagoon -- who
perceives the wisdom and convenience of returning to Huayllén-
Naquén and sacrificing their prospective purchase of exquisite fish at
very reasonable prices from the opposite shore.

<3>
But where is the opposite shore? How can they go back if they have
lost all notion of the direction they came from? How can they go back if
there are no longer any points of reference, if everything is black and
white, an endlessly repeating landscape of wings, beaks and feathers?
And eyes: two million blinking, expressionless eyes. In spite of all the
evidence that returning is no longer an option, the tourist who is most
lucid -- or rather, least delirious -- addresses his companions with some
pathetic exhortation: 'Friends, let us go back the way we came!' But his
companions cannot understand his strident croaks, so different are they
from the gentle humming they are now accustomed to. At this point,
even though they themselves answer with the same unintelligible
croaks, deep down they are still conscious of the fact that they are
human. Fear, however, has unhinged them and they all begin to croak
simultaneously. Unfortunately, this chorus of croaks has no meaningful
content and, even if they wanted to, the tourists would be unable to
communicate their final coherent thought: that they are all calegüinas. It
is then that the elders of the calegüinas community, who up to this point
have kept knowingly silent, begin to croak with all their might. It is a
triumphant croak, a cry of victory that starts from that inner circle and
spreads quickly and tumultuously through the length and breadth of the
Huayllén-Naquén lagoon and beyond its limits to the remotest houses of
the nearby town. The locals put their fingers in their ears and smile.
Happily, the noise lasts barely five minutes, and only after it has
completely stopped do the tradesmen get back to making as many pairs
of stilts as tourists have entered the lagoon.

***
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson
Chastisement By The Lambs

According to very diverse -- and always very reliable -- sources, the


'Chastisement by the Lambs' is becoming increasingly common in
several parts of Buenos Aires and the surrounding area.
All reports agree in their description of the Chastisement: suddenly,
fifty white lambs appear -- you could say 'out of the blue' -- and
immediately charge towards their victim, obviously chosen beforehand.
In a few short seconds they devour the person, leaving only a skeleton.
As suddenly as they arrived, they then disperse -- and pity anyone who
tries to block their escape! Many fatal cases were recorded early on,
before prospective heroes learned from the fate of their predecessors.
These days, no one dares oppose the Chastisement.
There is little point in going into the details of the phenomenon --
everybody is largely aware of the facts thanks to the media, and
photographic and video documentation is widely available.
Nevertheless, the majority of people are worried by the Chastisement
and its consequences. The majority of people, however, are simple, they
lack education and the power of reflection, and their concern is limited
to a desire that the Chastisement did not exist. Of course, this desire
does not put an end to the Chastisement and certainly does not help to
determine its causes or raison d'être.
These people's basic mistake is that, as immersed as they are in the
facts of the Chastisement itself, they have forgotten the victims. During,
say, the first one hundred executions, what kept me awake at night was
the irrefutable existence of lambs that were not only carnivores but
predators -- and of human flesh at that. Later, however, I observed that
by concentrating on those details I had been neglecting something
essential: the victims' personality.
So I began investigating the lives of the deceased. Borrowing my
methodology from sociologists, I started with the most elementary: the
socio-economic data. Statistics turned out to be useless, the victims came
from all social and economic strata.
I decided to change the focus of my investigation. I searched for
friends and relatives and eventually managed to extract the pertinent
information from them. Their statements were varied and sometimes
contradictory, but gradually I began to hear a certain type of phrase
more and more frequently: "Let the poor man rest in peace, but the truth
is that ..."
<2>
I had a sudden and almost irresistible insight into the situation and
was almost completely sure of my germinal hypothesis the day the
Chastising Lambs devoured my prosperous neighbour, Dr. P.R.V., the
same person in whose office ... but I will come to that.
In an absolutely natural way, P.R.V.'s case lead me to the definitive
understanding of the enigma.

*
The truth is, I hated Nefario -- and while I would not want the base
passion of my hate to pollute the cold objectivity of this report,
nonetheless, in order to provide a full explanation of the phenomenon, I
feel obliged to allow myself a digression of a personal nature. Although
it may not interest anyone, this diversion is essential -- as long as I am
believed -- for people to judge the veracity of my hypothesis concerning
the conditions necessary to trigger the Chastisement by the Lambs.
Here is the digression:
The fact is, the climax of the Chastisement coincided with a
lugubrious period in my life. Troubled by poverty, by disorientation, by
grief, I felt I was at the bottom of a deep, dark well, and incapable of
imagining any way out. That is how I felt.

Nefario meanwhile ... well, as they say, life smiled at him, and
naturally so since the only objective of his wicked existence was money.
That was his only concern -- earning money -- money for itself -- and
toward this holy purpose he concentrated all his merciless energy
without regard for others. Needless to say, he was overwhelmingly
successful. Nefario truly was what you would call a 'winner'.
At that time -- I have already said this -- I found myself in a very
needy situation. It is so easy to take advantage of anyone who is
suffering! Nefario -- that greedy vulture who had never read a book --
was an editor. For want of better things to do, I used to undertake some
translation and proofreading jobs for him. Nefario not only paid me a
pittance but also took pleasure in humiliating me with excuses and
delays.
(Suffering abuse and failure was already part of my persona, and I
was resigned to them.)
When I delivered to him my latest batch of work -- an awkward and
hideous translation -- Nefario, as on so many other occasions, said to me:
<3>
"Unfortunately, I am unable to pay you today. Haven't got a penny."
He told me this while in his lavish office, well dressed, smelling of
perfume and with a smile on his face. And of course, as a 'winner'. I
thought of my cracked shoes, my worn clothes, my family's urgent
needs, my burden of pain. With effort, I said:
"And when do you think ...?"
"Let's do this," his tone was optimistic and protective, as if he were
trying to help me. "I can't do this Saturday, because I am taking a short
break on the Rio beaches. But the following one, around eleven in the
morning, come to my house and we will settle this little account."
He shook my hand cordially and gave me a friendly and encouraging
pat on the shoulder.
A fortnight went by. The yearned-for Saturday arrived, and so did I
at the beautiful Once De Septiembre Street. The green of the trees, the
smell of vegetation, the radiance of the sky and the beauty of the district
all made me feel even more desolate.
At five past eleven I rang the bell.
"The master is resting," I was told by a maid in uniform.
I hesitated a moment and said:
"And the lady of the house?"
"Who is it, Rosa?" I heard someone ask.
"It's me, madam." I raised my voice, clinging to the possibility: "Is
mister Nefario at home?"
Rosa went inside and was replaced by the cosmetic-covered face of
Nefario's wife. In a tone that reminded me of a heavy, cigar-smoking
tycoon, she enquired:
"Haven't you been told that the master is taking his rest?"
"Yes, madam, but we had an appointment at eleven ..."
"Yes, but he is resting just now," she replied in an unappealable
manner.
"Might he have left something for me?" I asked stupidly, as if I did
not know Nefario!
"No."
"But we had an appointment at ..."
"I am telling you, he did not leave anything, sir. Please don't be
annoying, sir."
At that moment I heard a jabbering, bleating sound and witnessed the
arrival of the Chastisement by the Lambs. I moved to one side and, so as
to be more secure, climbed the fence, although my conscience told me
that the Chastisement was not searching for me. Like a tornado, the
lambs burst into the front garden and, before the last ones could arrive,
those in the lead were already inside the house.

<4>
In a few seconds, like a drain swallowing water from a sink, Nefario's
door absorbed all the animals, leaving the garden trampled, the plants
destroyed.
Through an exquisitely designed window, Mrs. Nefario appeared:
"Come, sir, come!" she pleaded tearfully, her face congested. Please
help us, sir!
Out of a certain sense of curiosity I went in. I saw the furniture
overturned, mirrors broken. I could not see the lambs.
"They are upstairs!" I was informed by Mrs. Nefario as she pulled me
in the direction of the danger. "They are in our room! Do something,
don't be a coward, behave like a man!"
I managed to resist, firmly. Nothing could be more against my
principles than to oppose the Chastisement by the Lambs. A confused
cacophony of hooves could be heard coming from upstairs. The round,
woolly backs could be seen shaking happily, accompanied by some
forceful movements aimed at an unseen object within the mass. For one
fleeting moment, I perceived Nefario; it was only for a second:
dishevelled and horrified, he shouted something and tried to attack the
lambs with a chair. However, he soon sunk into the white, curly wools
like someone violently swallowed by quicksand. There was another
centrical commotion and the growing noise of jaws tearing and
crushing, and every now and then the thin, sharp noise of a bone being
cracked. Their first withdrawal manoeuvres told me that the lambs had
accomplished their task and soon after the little animals started their
swift descent of the stairs. I could see some bloodstains in the otherwise
unpolluted whiteness of their wool.
Curiously, that blood -- to me a symbol of ethical affirmation --
caused Mrs. Nefario to loose all reason. Still addressing me with tearful
insults and telling me that I was a coward, she irrupted in the living
room with a large knife in her hands. As I knew very well the fate of
those who attempted to obstruct the Chastisement by the Lambs, I
respectfully remained in the background while observing the short and
remarkable spectacle of the dismemberment and ingestion of Mrs.
Nefario. Afterwards, the fifty lambs reached 11 De Septiembre Street
and, as on many other occasions, they escaped by dispersing into the
city.
Rosa -- I do not know why -- seemed a little impressed. I called out a
few comforting words to her before, free of hate, saying good-bye to the
girl with a smile.

<5>
It is true: I had not and would not manage to obtain from Nefario the
payment for that awkward and hideous translation. Nevertheless, the
green of the trees, the smell of vegetation, the radiance of the sky and the
beauty of the district filled my heart with joy. I started to sing.
I knew then that the dark well into which I had sunk was beginning
to be lit up with the first rays of hope.
Chastisement by the Lambs: I thank you.

*****
Fernando Sorrentino

Essence And Attribute

On July 25, as I tried to hit letter A, I noticed a slight wart on the pinky
of my left hand. On the 27th it seemed considerably larger. On the third
of August, with the help of a jeweler's loupe, I was able to discern its
shape. It was a sort of diminutive elephant: the world's smallest
elephant, yes, but an elephant complete down to the smallest detail. It
was attached to my finger at the end of its little tail. So that, while it was
my pinky finger's prisoner, it nevertheless enjoyed freedom of
movement except that its locomotion completely depended on my will.
Proudly, fearfully, hesitatingly I exhibited him to my friends. They
were revolted, they said it couldn't be good to have an elephant on one's
pinky, they advised me to consult a dermatologist. I scorned their
words, I consulted with no one, I had nothing further to do with them, I
gave myself over entirely to studying the evolution of the elephant.
Toward the end of August it was already a handsome little gray
elephant the length of my pinky although quite a bit thicker. I played
with him all day. At times I was pleased, to annoy him, to tickle him, to
teach him to do somersaults and to jump over tiny obstacles: a match
box, a pencil sharpener, an eraser.
At that time it seemed appropriate to christen him. I thought of
several silly, and apparently traditional, names worthy of an elephant:
Dumbo, Jumbo, Yumbo ..., Finally, I ascetically decided to call him just
plain Elephant.
I loved to feed Elephant. I scattered over the table bread crumbs,
lettuce leaves, bits of grass. And out there at the edge, a piece of
chocolate. Then Elephant would struggle to get to his treat. But if I held
my hand tight, Elephant never could reach it. In this way I confirmed
the fact that Elephant was only a part - the weakest part - of myself.
A short time later - when Elephant had acquired the size of a rat, let
us say - I could no longer control him so easily. My pinky was too puny
to withstand his impetuousness.
At that time I still was under the misapprehension that the
phenomenon consisted solely of Elephant's growth. I was disabused of
this idea when Elephant reached the size of a lamb: on that day I too was
the size of a lamb.

<2>
That night - and a few others too - I slept on my stomach with my left
hand protruding from the bed: on the floor beside me slept Elephant.
Afterwards I had to sleep - face down, my head on his croup, my feet on
his back - on top of Elephant. Almost immediately I found just a portion
of his haunch to be sufficient. Afterward, his tail. Afterward, the very tip
of his tail, where I was only a small wart, totally imperceptible.
At that time I was afraid I might disappear, cease to be me, be a mere
millimeter of Elephant's tail. Later I lost that fear, I regained my appetite.
I learned to feed myself with leftover crumbs, with grains of birdseed,
with bits of grass, with almost microscopic insects.
Of course this was before. Now I have come to occupy once again a
more worthy space on Elephant's tail. True, I am still aleatory. But I can
now get hold of an entire biscuit and watch - invisibly, inexpugnably -
the visitors to the Zoo.
At this stage of the game I am very optimistic. I know that Elephant
has begun to shrink. As a result, I am filled with an anticipated feeling of
superiority by the unconcerned passers - by who toss biscuits to us,
believing only in the obvious Elephant they have before them without
suspecting that he is no more than a future attribute of the latent essence
which still lies in wait.

From En defensa propia, Buenos Aires, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982.


**
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson

My Friend Luke

I have a friend who must be the sweetest, shyest person in the world.
His name is brittle and ancient (Luke), his age modestly intermediate
(forty). He is rather short and skinny, has a thin moustache and even
thinner hair on his head. Since his vision is not perfect, he wears glasses:
they are small, round and frame-less.
In order not to inconvenience anyone, he always walks sideways.
Instead of saying 'Excuse me', he prefers to glide by one side. If the gap
is so narrow that it will not allow him to pass, Luke waits patiently until
the obstruction -- be it animate or inanimate, rational or irrational --
moves by itself. Stray dogs and cats panic him, and in order to avoid
them he constantly crosses from one side to of the road to another.
He speaks with a very thin, subtle voice, so inaudible that it is hard to
tell if he is speaking at all. He has never interrupted anybody. On the
other hand, he can never manage more than two words without
somebody interrupting him. This does not seem to irritate him; in fact,
he actually appears happy to have been able to utter those two words.
My friend Luke has been married for years. His wife is a thin,
choleric, nervous woman who, as well as having an unbearably shrill
voice, strong lungs, a finely drawn nose and a viperous tongue suffers
from an uncontrollable temper and the personality of a lion tamer. Luke
-- you have to wonder how -- has succeeded in producing a child named
(by his mother) Juan Manuel. He is tall, blond, intelligent, distrustful,
sarcastic and has a fringe. It is not entirely true that he only obeys his
mother. However, the two of them have always agreed that Luke has
little to offer the world and therefore choose to ignore his scarce and
rarely expressed opinions.
Luke is the oldest and the least important employee of a dismal
company that imports cloth. It operates out of a very dark building with
black-stained wooden floors situated in Alsina street. The owner -- I
know him personally -- is an Arab with a ferocious moustache - a bold
Arab, a vociferous Arab, a violent Arab, a greedy Arab. My friend Luke
goes to work dressed all in black, wearing a very old suit that shines
from age. He only owns one shirt -- the one he wore for the first time on
the day of his marriage -- and it has an anachronistic plastic collar. He
also only owns one tie, so frayed and greasy that it looks more like a
shoelace. Unable to bear the disapproving looks of the Arab, Luke,
unlike his colleagues, does not dare work without his jacket on and in
order to keep this jacket in good condition he wears a pair of grey
sleeve-protectors. His salary is ludicrously low, but he still stays behind
in the office every day and works for another three or four hours: the
tasks the Arab gives him are so huge that he has no chance of
accomplishing them within normal hours. Now, just after the Arab cut
his salary yet again, his wife has decided that Juan Manuel must not do
his secondary studies in a state school. She has chosen to put his name
down for a very costly institution in the Belgrano area. In view of the
extortionate outlay this involves, Luke has stopped buying his
newspaper and (an even greater sacrifice) The Reader's Digest, his two
favourite publications. The last article he managed to read in the
Reader's Digest explained how husbands should repress their own
overwhelming personality in order to make room for the actualisation of
the rest of the family group.

<2>

*
There is, however, one remarkable aspect to Luke: his behaviour as soon
as he steps on a bus. Generally, this is what happens:
He requests a ticket and begins to look for his money, slowly. He
holds up one hand to ensure that the driver keeps waiting, unsure of
what to do. Luke does not hurry. In fact, I would say that the driver's
impatience gives him a certain amount of pleasure. Then he pays with
the largest possible number of small coins, which he delivers a few at the
time, in varying amounts and at irregular intervals. For some reason,
this disturbs the driver, who, apart from having to pay attention to other
cars, the traffic lights, other passengers getting on or off, and having to
drive the bus itself, is forced to perform complicated arithmetic. Luke
aggravates the problem by including in his payment an old Paraguayan
coin that he keeps for the purpose and which is invariably returned to
him. This way, mistakes are usually made in the accounts and an
argument ensues. Then, in a serene but firm manner, Luke begins to
defend his rights, employing arguments so contradictory that it is
impossible to understand what point he is actually trying to make.
Finally, the driver, at the end of the last tether of his sanity and in an act
of final resignation, chooses to throw out the coins -- perhaps as a means
of repressing his wish to throw out Luke or, indeed, himself.
When winter comes, Luke always travels with the windows wide
open. The first to suffer as a result of this is Luke himself: he has
developed a chronic cough that often forces him to stay awake entire
nights. During the summer, he closes his window and will not allow
anyone to lower the shade that would protect him from the sun. More
than once he has ended up with first-degree burns.
Because of his weak lungs, Luke is not allowed to smoke and, in fact,
he hates smoking. In spite of this, once inside the bus he cannot resist the
temptation to light up a cheap, heavy cigar that clogs up his windpipe
and makes him cough. After he gets off, he puts away his cigar in
preparation for his next journey.
Luke is a tiny, sedentary, squalid person and has never been
interested in sports. But come Saturday evening, he switches on his
portable radio and turns the volume up full in order to follow the boxing
match. Sundays he dedicates to football and tortures the rest of the
passengers with the noisy broadcasts.

<3>
The back seat is for five passengers. In spite of his very small size,
Luke sits so as to allow room for only four or even three people on the
seat. If four are already seated and Luke is standing up, he demands
permission, in an indignant and reproachful tone, to sit down -- which
he then does, managing to take up an excessive amount of space. To this
end, he puts his hands in his pockets so that his elbows will remain
firmly embedded in his neighbours' ribs.
Luke's resources are plentiful and diverse.
When he has to travel standing up, he always keeps his jacket
unbuttoned, carefully adjusting his posture so that the lower edge of his
jacket hits the face or the eyes of those sitting down.
If anyone is reading, they are easy prey for Luke. Watching him or
her closely, Luke places his head near the light so as to throw a shadow
on the victim's book. Every now and then he withdraws his head as if by
chance. The reader will anxiously devour one or two words before Luke
moves back into position.
My friend Luke knows the times when the bus will be fully packed.
On those occasions, he consumes a salami sandwich and a glass of red
wine. Then, with breadcrumbs and threads of salami still between his
teeth and pointing his mouth towards the other passenger's noses, he
walks along the vehicle shouting loudly, 'Excuse me'.
If he manages to take the front seat, he never gives it up to anyone.
But should he find himself in one of the last rows, the moment he sees a
woman with a child in her arms or a weak, elderly person climb on
board he immediately stands up and calls very loudly to the front
passenger to offer them his seat. Later he usually makes some
recriminatory remark against those that kept their seats. His eloquence is
always effective, and some mortally ashamed passenger gets off at the
next stop. Instantly, Luke takes his place.

*
My friend Luke gets off the bus in a very good mood. Timidly, he walks
home, staying out of the way of anyone he meets. He is not allowed a
key, so he has to ring the bell. If anyone is home, they rarely refuse to
open the door to him. But if neither his wife, his son nor the Arab are to
be found, Luke sits on the doorstep until someone arrives.

****
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson

The Empire Of The Parakeets

The nickname 'parakeets' is often given to those quite harmless, short-


lived, tiny green orthoptera that, on summer nights, keep flying round
and round lights. Their movements do not appear to be governed by
intelligent thought. Lacking the fly's sharp sight and rapid reactions, the
nuisance is easily eliminated by crushing them between the thumb and
index finger. In contrast to the mosquito, they are incapable of biting.
Nevertheless, they are sheer torment for anyone trying to read or eat.
They throw themselves blindly against your face or eyes; they drown in
your soup; they smudge your writing. By the time you manage to brush
aside the five or six parakeets walking on your fork, another ten or
twelve are already in your ears or up your nose.
Why should these tiny green orthoptera, the parakeets, be so stupid,
so feeble-minded? Their behaviour is perhaps the least sensible of any
living thing - those who believe that this behaviour is common to all
insects are wrong. For instance, a man can establish, with a cockroach, a
kind of relationship, if not friendly then logical at least: the man will
attempt to kill the cockroach, which will try to run away and hide. This
is simply not possible with the parakeets: no one knows what they are
doing or why they are doing it.
"But," asks Dr. Ludwig Boitus himself in one of his latest papers, "is
the parakeets' behaviour really so mad? Let us start from the premise
that all living beings orientate their actions towards the preservation of
their species. Why should the parakeets' behaviour be an exception to
such sound, well-proven law? [...] The modern researcher," he adds,
"must not limit himself to simple statements to the effect that the
parakeets' actions are gratuitous and senseless; he should make an effort
to determine the true logic behind the apparently absurd, illogical
behaviour of the parakeets. This behaviour is merely an outward
expression of an inner motivation and it is time we found out what that
might be."*
Dr. Boitus mentions two facts that have generally been ignored:
firstly, in recent times it has been observed that the parakeets fly less
around lights than around people's heads and secondly, their numbers
are increasing. He points out that although the parakeets seem to lack
even a minimal offensive or defensive weapon, five hundred or a
thousand of them, by continuously harassing a man -- entering his ears
and eyes, walking on his neck, stopping him from thinking, reading,
writing or sleeping -- can force him -- in fact, do force him -- into a state
of complete mental derangement. In this state, it is the man not the
parakeet who does not know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is
a state in which the man does not even know who he is and when he
enters it, when he loses consciousness of his own self, he inevitably
becomes resigned to being surrounded and dominated by the parakeets.
Furthermore, from that moment on he can no longer live without the
parakeets, without feeling them inside his ears, his eyes, his mouth.
What has occurred is a phenomenon that "in the field of drug addiction
is known as dependency. And this," Boitus adds, "is the true purpose of
the parakeets, the underlying logic behind their apparently absurd and
illogical behavior."

<2>
The parakeets are inexorably expanding their empire. To date, they
have taken over every civilized country -- the more advanced a nation's
technology, the stronger their hold. Wherever there is electric light, the
parakeets reign supreme.
On this point, a world atlas accompanying the article shows how few
countries are still free of the Empire of the Parakeets. However, we
believe that the inclusion of this map is a fallacy: this is not a political
empire. Parakeets rule only over minds. When these have been
'parakeetised' -- to use the neologism coined by Boitus -- they go on to
parakeetise the bodies, which consequently begin to perform essentially
parakeetic actions. As Dr. Boitus concludes: "At this point, only
primitive communities and the poorest countries remain almost free of
parakeets, countries untouched by the development of mass media."

* BOITUS, Ludwig: "Funcion de la cónducta de los insectos en la


preservación de la especie", en Anales del Mundo Contemporáneo,
XXXIV, 158, La Plata, Universidad de La Plata, enero-febrero, 1973.

****
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

The Horn Player: Chapter Seven


[From an apocryphal novel]

1
Without even shedding a tear, Maria Alejandra left me, making her way
along Oro Street in the direction of Charcas. At first I sadly thought:
"She's leaving for ever; it's an irreversible act. It's the end of a chapter in
my life." Then the spiteful thoughts occurred to me: "It's the best thing
that could have happened; she only complicated my life anyway. It's her
loss, not mine."
But life - as they say in songs on the radio - must go on and, for
openers, I had no reason to be standing on the corner of Santa Fe and
Oro. Besides, the greasy smell of the pizzerias as well as the pushing and
shoving of the crowds getting on and off the buses were grating on my
nerves. I tried to walk home slowly and it's very difficult to walk slowly
when you're being crushed by the idea that a meaningful relationship
has come to an end. I couldn't help thinking about Maria Alejandra, but
my thoughts were so vast that it was almost as though I weren't thinking
about anything. I distractedly looked at the multiplicity of confused
store windows on my left. To make the walk home take longer I stopped
to look at a toy-shop window just before coming to Carranza Street. It
was a heterogeneous multicolored world in which toy soldiers, guns and
automobiles seemed to predominate. When I'm in a tough situation I
tend to think about trivial matters. At that moment I thought about the
injustice there was in the disproportion of sizes which prevailed among
the toys. A dog made out of felt was ten times larger than a little tin train
which was ten times larger than a little plastic puppy. I prophesied - but
no one heard me - that life would be horrible in a world in which
everything were out of proportion. I suddenly lost interest in those
weighty matters and the image of Maria Alejandra forced its way back
into my consciousness. That's when it occurred to me to fight the
annoying reiteration of Maria Alejandra by means of a truly trivial act; I
went into the toy-shop and acquired a fifty-cent plastic horn. The horn
was divided into three sections: the mouthpiece was green; the middle
was red and had three little holes; the bell was white and looked like a
calla lily.

<2>
At home I started to play the horn. I fruitlessly tried to squeeze some
melody out of it. I didn't attempt anything sublime; I was only looking
for something simple, catchy: popular songs, half-time tunes, television
jingles. But the horn could barely manage to emit a few isolated, strident
tones. I believe that this was due to the fact that I don't know music and
also to the fact that the horn was only a toy.
At that moment I heard the sound of Monica's key in the lock. "The
poor kid," I thought with unaccustomed tenderness, "she's back from
work. She must be tired and bored to death with the routine of her job,"
because the sudden image of Maria Alejandra afflicted me with the first
feelings of remorse in four years. To escape them, so that my wife would
secretly forgive me, I decided to act like a little kid; I decided to cheer
her up. I took off my shoes and stood on the living room coffee table.
Startled, my wife looked at me, first with surprise and then with relief
when she realized that I hadn't scratched the table. Then I blew with all
my might and my horn let out some really joyful, shrill blasts. Monica
laughed like a little girl and kissed me. The simultaneous laughter and
kiss brought me back to those loving times when we were sweethearts.
From that day on, when I left my job at the bank each evening, I filled
in for those past meetings with Maria Alejandra by going straight home
to play my horn. I'd play only till dinner time; I'd prefer to go to bed
after I ate. I don't know whether it was because of the work my lungs
were subjected to during the two hours a day I'd play the horn; the fact
was that I'd doze right off and fall into a deep and peaceful sleep
without dreams, a sleep like I'd never had before. Consequently, on the
following morning I'd awaken in great mood with a rosy outlook on life.
Then seeing how beneficial the horn was for my spirits, I decided to
add morning session. That's why I acquired the habit of playing every
morning for three or four hours, depending on the time I'd spend on the
daily shopping. Then I'd have lunch and leave for the bank, where - - it
goes without saying - I never played the horn.

<3>

2
My ten years of banking experience have taught me that you can divide
banker's work into two great periods. The first four hours - in which
customers come and go, have consultations, handle business, make
inquiries - were bearable, even if not quite entertaining. But afterward,
from four to seven - when the bank is closed to the public and whatever
animation there is has to stem from the employees alone - a kind of
sadness and restlessness invade my soul. It's true that when there are no
customers around the employees usually engage in conversation and
joke around. It's no less true that some of the conversations weren't too
boring and that once in a while a joke might be more or less amusing.
Yet these pale pleasures were in no way comparable with playing the
horn.
Therefore, it was to be expected that on Friday the 27th of March of
1970 I should place the horn in the attache case meant for carrying my
daily sandwich. At about five in the afternoon I went into the bathroom
and, facing the lavatory mirror, I began to play the horn. At first I blew
prudently, almost inaudibly, almost sighing. And even though the notes
issuing from my horn never managed to form a melody, I succeeded in
giving them a plaintive tone and a certain romantic quality tinged with
an ineffable nostalgia. When I noticed that I was becoming depressed
and that my eyes were filling with tears, I fell back into a happier vein; I
played cheery, optimistic music. Gradually, my playing became louder
and louder until I reached the intensity with which I usually played at
home. Depending on the mirror to guide me, I simultaneously made an
effort to assume the facial expressions and gestures of a soloist (while
admitting the non-existence of horn soloists). During that time, carried
away by my own music, I was performing with my eyes closed. When I
opened them I saw that my face no longer monopolized the mirror.
Attracted by the stentorian notes of the horn, all the employees had
entered the washroom. They were laughing their guts out.
One person who wasn't laughing was Mr. Ansinelli, the branch
manager. His heritage is Italian; his face consists of three features: a
sharp nose, a straight moustache and an imposing pair of eyeglasses.
His manner tends to be imperious. Coldly staring at me, he dryly
ordered me to cease playing the bugle and to get back to work. I had no
choice but to obey him, but not without first setting him straight,
courteously but firmly, with regard to my instrument's identity as a
horn. Following this brusque epilogue we all stampeded out of the
bathroom. My head high, I walked with dignity past the female
employees who, not having dared to penetrate beyond the unseen
barriers of the gentlemanly enclosure, crowded together in a chaste
throng in front of the men's room.

<4>
I returned to my desk feeling that a frozen rage directed at Mr.
Ansinelli, the man who wouldn't let me play my horn, had taken
possession of my soul. But his jurisdiction stopped at the bank doors. I
didn't allow my repressed desires to Freudianly manifest themselves in
my sleep; I played my horn at home till two in the morning, at which
time my bleary-eyed neighbor from the floor below made his
appearance. I, probably respectful of the rights of others and certainly
exhausted from lack of sleep, put away my horn and went to bed.
Monica, insensitive to the charms of music, had been sleeping for quite a
long time, her ears stopped up with cotton plugs.
Luckily, the next day was Saturday. I didn't let that Saturday and
Sunday go to waste; the horn gave out with the bravest sounds of
freedom. Lamentably, inevitably, the fearful Monday arrived and, after
it, the other four days in which I couldn't be the absolute master of my
horn.

3
If I had any reputation at all at the bank, it was for responsibility and for
having will power. That Friday, March 27, 1970, Mr. Ansinelli's
implacable face definitely established the incompatibility which kept the
horn separate from the bank. Two opposing forces mutely struggled in
my soul: I loved the horn, I feared dismissal. My sense of responsibility
told me that in no way was it advisable to lose a position in which I
earned a good salary, enjoyed the esteem of my numerous superiors -
Mr. Ansinelli included - and had the respect of my few subordinates. To
the customary and incessant expenditures for electricity, gas and the
telephone, I had just boldly added the anomalous and exorbitant
payments for the apartment and the car. As a result, both abstract nouns
- responsibility and will - substantially conspired in favor of my
abstaining from playing the horn at the bank.

4
In order to obviate an unjustifiable state of anxiety in my multitudinous
readers, I shall begin this paragraph by getting ahead of myself and
saying that on Monday, February 1st, 1971, I was fired. The housekeeper
said it was fate. I, in no mood to debate, think other factors were
involved. Mainly the unfortunate disposition of the calendar. From a
general point of view, I had hardly advanced a twelfth of the year and
before me stretched, obstinate and lined up in an orderly row, eleven
lethal months. And, more specifically, that week still had four days to
go.

<5>
On the other hand, that decisive Monday found me in a terrible
mood. I was just beginning to overcome, or to be overcome by, some
marital difficulties. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's having my
enjoyment contaminated by anger. And that very last Sunday in January
was a day on which the joy of playing my horn had been clouded by an
exasperating bit of stubbornness on my wife's part.
On Sunday I got up early feeling content. I leisurely lingered over my
coffee and read the rotogravures unhurriedly. Later I devoted myself to
playing the horn. Toward nightfall, Monica, incredibly enough,
preferred our going to the movies to having me play the horn. A
shocking scene ensued in which Monica thought it appropriate to go in
for screams, tears and reproaches. Her arguments were varied and
contradictory. I had just one coherent argument: I repeated that they
don't allow horn playing at the movies. My point of view won out and
we stayed home. While my sour-faced wife watched an endless
television program in the living room, I locked myself in the bedroom
and kept playing the horn until I fell with exhaustion. I missed dinner
and slept with my clothes on. My exhaustion was extreme and on
Monday I awoke after eleven-thirty. And that's how I entered the frigid,
mechanistic enclosure which is the bank without having eaten and
without having been able to play the horn even for an instant.
Even those who don't cultivate psychological fiction will be able -
maybe - to imagine the frenzied state of nervousness and excitation with
which I was seized. I suddenly realized that I wouldn't be able to make it
to seven in the evening without playing my horn. Pretending to have
forgotten my glasses I asked Mr. Ansinelli for permission to go home to
look for them. Since I promised to return in ten minutes and since Mr.
Ansinelli knew that I lived only two blocks away from the Pacifico
branch of the bank, he granted me permission, not without first
assuming the severe look with which he reproved me for having morally
obligated him to slight his duty.
Running with desperation, I devoured the two blocks which
separated me from my house and, as if in a fit of insanity, I frantically
began to play the horn, trying to make the absolute most of the few
minutes I had. Going down in the elevator I pressed the STOP button
when I was between the third and fourth floor and went back up to my
apartment. I wrapped the horn in a newspaper and returned to the bank.
On the way I thought that it would be a good idea to sell the car. I really
didn't need it anyway; after all, I walked to the bank and on weekends I
preferred staying at home playing my horn.

<6>
"This gentleman is the assistant to the credit officer. He'll be very glad
to advise you." Mr. Ansinelli directed these remarks to an impeccably
dressed gentleman who looked like a retired general and who awaited
me in my office. I learned that he was the proprietor of the famous
Patriotic Bubble soda pop plant on Fitz Roy and that he had "hied
himself" - he had recourse to this strange verb - to the bank to request a
loan toward the acquisition of I don't know what cryptic equipment
which, nevertheless - before I could prevent him from doing so - he
described at length with an abundance of extractors, pistons, governors
and other incomprehensible terms. The man was excessively polite. He
aggressively squeezed my hand, lighted my cigaret, absolutely refused
to sit down before I did. Then, in a melancholy tone he orally composed
a detailed outline of his struggles to advance along the arduous road of
progress. Attracted by the sudden remembrance of the first horsedrawn
streetcar - one of the horses figures in an ample collection of anecdotes -
he suddenly backed away to 1947 only to vertiginously return to 1971 at
the controls of one of the modern German trucks of his fleet. Next he
spoke to me about his family in general and in particular about a highly
intelligent daughter who was studying public relations and on whom he
and his wife pinned their highest hopes. At this point he took out his
billfold with a furtive gesture that made me think he would attempt to
bribe me in an effort to obtain the loan. However, what he showed me
was a snapshot of the daughter who was studying public relations; I
glimpsed some hair and a pair of eyeglasses.
To mitigate his uncontainable autobiography I handed him some
blank forms and told him to fill them out. While the soda man was
writing with an iron hand, I bent over - as if to look for a piece of paper
in the box under the desk - and quickly blew on the horn. The man
didn't hear a thing and kept writing. Now he had unfolded his
identification and his social security card whose numbers he
determinedly was copying. Then, taking advantage of the fervent
buzzing of voices that held sway in the bank at that hour of the day, I'd
bend over from time to time and stealthily play my horn, producing a
few short and muffled notes.

<7>
And playing the horn under those circumstances is just like smoking
in a railroad car in which it's not permitted. The lawbreaker smokes
nervously, fearful of the conductor's approach, a passenger looks at him
disapprovingly; smoking is no longer a pleasure but only a reason to be
fined. In that kind of situation it's better not to smoke, not to play the
horn. The soda man, his mouth over the papers as if he were going to eat
them, framed a question for me every so often (he called it a doubt). The
passenger, even though it's at the risk of having to stand for the rest of
the trip, can change cars. This is not possible for the horn player.
Without thinking about it I took the horn out of the box, and pointing
its white, calla lily shaped bell at the greyish head of hair poring over the
forms, I blew with all my heart and soul and wrung a short high-pitched
note out of it which blew a few strands of hair out of place on the soda
man's head. Frightened, he raised his head and stared at me in wide-
eyed wonder.
"Oh, for your kids," he smiled as he doubted.
"I have no children," I responded with tranquil ferocity. "It's mine and
I play it whenever I feel like it."
To emphasize this affirmation, I blew even harder, and not for just a
few seconds this time, but for more than a minute. My office is nothing
more than a glass partition with a little sign saying CREDIT: I rose in my
seat a little to be able better to observe the effect produced by the
unexpected sounds. All the employees and customers conticuere
intentique ora tenebant, as if I were Aeneas and the soda man, though it
grieve us, queen Dido. Then, idiotically epical, I thought: "Let it be as
God wills."
I brought my horn to my lips and, having recourse to all the variants
permitted to me by the rudimentary structure of the instrument, I began
to play in earnest. At times I'm a bit theatrical; not satisfied with the
confined quarters of the credit office, I emerged in the lobby, climbed
onto the counter with an agility not devoid of a certain faun-like quality
and began to march up and down on it from one end to the other. The
customers fearfully removed their elbows from the counter. It gratified
me to be the unquestioned protagonist of the episode; it cheered me to
see everyone else in confusion. I heard fragmentary comments: "It's a
strike"; "It's an act of repudiation"; "I think it's an employee whose wife
just died."

<8>
At that moment I saw Mr. Ansinelli swiftly advancing; he had the
bearing of a Providence-sent man whose appearance was breathlessly
awaited by a multitude which faced insoluble problems. Scarlet, he
entreated me in quite a loud voice. "Mr. Del Prete, be so kind as to go to
the Manager's Office immediately. I must speak with you."
I responded by intoning a sort of outlandish burst of laughter on the
horn. The bystanders were overcome by a general hilarity which made
Mr. Ansinelli look like a fool. Then, renouncing his earlier majesty, Mr.
Ansinelli attempted to knock the horn out of my hand. An angelic grace
guided my movements; with elegance, maintaining my poise, I leaped
from the counter into the area meant for the public. Thus entrenched, I
looked at it triumphantly and executed a couple of bellicose blasts in
which a scornful challenge was implicit. What a grotesque figure Mr.
Ansinelli was as he laboriously clambered up on the counter, dragging
his high position, his fifty-five years and his 200 pounds after him! And
how hilarious as he came crashing down into the public area trailing
behind him the same attributes as when he had climbed up!
Immediately getting to his feet, Mr. Ansinelli charged me like a
fighting bull. I broke into a swift zigzagging run keeping up my horn
playing, stepping on feet and jabbing my way through with my elbows.
Uncannily, an affair which had been private and artistic turned into one
that was public and political. An absurd panic spread through the
tranquil banking premises. People began to run and shout. A lady
intuitively protected the nursing child she was carrying in her arms. A
few misfits took advantage of the situation by making off with the
ballpoint pens, breaking the chains with which they were fastened to the
wall. Two men began a fistfight. I could hear the noise of glass
shattering and right then I was captured.
When the effects of the tear gas had dissipated and when the minions
of the police force had pulled out, calm was laboriously restored. Mr.
Ansinelli, after hysterically placing several telephone calls, rushed to the
bank's main branch and came back with the victorious order to fire me
on the spot. Our bank is efficient, I'll give them that; in just a few
minutes they had arranged my dismissal, they had paid me and I was on
my way out of the bank with my horn under my arm.

<9>
Since I didn't know what the street was like at five on a Monday
afternoon, I decided to wander around down there until seven o'clock.
Curiously, now that I could play my horn I no longer had any desire to
do so. I went all the way to Dorrego Street and began to walk toward the
flatland. The whistle of a train that was passing overhead, off to the
right, seemed to inspire me briefly. I couldn't get myself to play more
than one or two notes; I was no longer interested in the horn. When I got
to the polo field I tossed it at a cat that was suspiciously watching me
through the iron grillwork. And that's where the horn remained, at the
foot of some bushes. I have no idea whether or not someone later picked
it up.
But what really strikes me as weird is the fact that hardly had I
forgotten the horn when, as I was getting ready to cross Libertador
Avenue, I strangely came upon Maria Alejandra who, dressed in a sort
of man-tailored suit, was taking a diminutive mouselike Mexican dog
for a walk.

A Lifestyle

In my youth, before becoming a farmer and cattleman, I was a bank


employee. This is how it all came about:
I was twenty-four years old at the time and had no close relatives. I was
living in this same little apartment on Santa Fe Avenue, between
Canning and Araoz.

Now, it's well known that accidents can happen even in such a small
space. In my case, it was a tiny accident; when I tried to open the door to
go to work, the key broke off in the lock.
After resorting in vain to screwdrivers and pliers, I decided to call a
locksmith shop. While waiting for the locksmith, I informed the bank I
would be coming in a bit late.
Fortunately, the locksmith arrived quite promptly. Concerning this
man, I remember only that, although he looked young, his hair was
completely white. Through the peephole I said to him: "My key broke off
in the lock."
He sketched a quick gesture of annoyance in the air: "On the inside?
In that case, it's already a more difficult matter. It's going to take me at
least three hours, and I'll have to charge you about ..."
He estimated a terribly high price.
"I don't have that much money in the house right now," I replied. "But
as soon as I get out, I'll go to the bank and pay you."
He looked at me with reproachful eyes, as if I had suggested
something immoral to him: "I'm very sorry, sir," he articulated with
instructive courtesy. "But I am not only a charter member of the
Argentine Locksmiths' Union, but also one of the principal framers of
the Magna Carta of our organization. Nothing has been left to chance in
it. If you should have the pleasure of reading this inspiring document,
you would learn, in the chapter dedicated to 'Basic Maxims,' that the
perfect locksmith is prohibited from collecting subsequent to the
conclusion of the work."
I smiled, incredulous: "You're joking, of course."
"My dear sir, the subject of the Magna Carta of the Argentine
Locksmiths' Union is no joking matter. The writing of our Magna Carta,
in which no detail has been overlooked and whose various chapters are
governed by an underlying moral principle, took us years of arduous
study. Of course, not everyone can understand it, since we often employ
a symbolic or esoteric language. Nevertheless, I believe you will
understand clause 7 of our Introduction: 'Gold shall open doors, and the
doors shall adore it.' "

<2>
I prepared not to accept such ridiculousness: "Please," I said to him.
"Be reasonable. Open the door for me, and I'll pay you at once."
"I'm sorry, sir. There are ethics in every profession, and in the
locksmiths' profession they are inflexible. Good day, sir."
And, with that, he left.
I stood there for a few moments, bewildered. Then I called the bank
again and informed them I probably wouldn't be able to come in that
day. Later on I thought about the white-haired locksmith and said to
myself: "That man is a lunatic. I'm going to call another locksmith shop,
and, just in case, I'm not going to say I have no money until after they
open the door for me."
I searched in the telephone directory and called.
"What address?" a guarded feminine voice asked me.
"3653 Santa Fe, Apartment 10-A."
She hesitated a moment, had me repeat the address, and said:
"Impossible, sir. The Magna Carta of the Argentine Locksmiths' Union
prohibits us from doing any work at that address."
I lit up in a flame of anger: "Now listen here! Don't be ridic..."
She hung up without letting me finish the word.
So I went back to the telephone directory and placed some twenty
calls to as many locksmith shops. The instant they heard the address,
they all flatly refused to do the job.
"O.K., fine," I said to myself. "I'll find a solution elsewhere."
I called the janitor of the building and described the problem to him.
"Two things," he answered. "In the first place, I don't know how to
open locks, and, in the second place, even if I did know how, I wouldn't
do it, since my job is cleaning up the place and not letting suspicious
birds out of their cages. Furthermore, you've never been too generous
with your tips."
I then started to get very nervous and carried out a series of useless,
illogical actions: I had a cup of coffee, smoked a cigarette, sat down,
stood up, took a few steps, washed my hands, drank a glass of water.
Then I remembered Monica DiChiave; I dialed her number, waited,
and heard her voice: "Monica," I said, feigning sweetness and
nonchalance. "How's everything? How's it goin', honey?"
Her reply left me trembling: "So, you finally remembered to call? I
can tell you really love me. I haven't seen hide or hair of you in almost
two weeks."

<3>
Arguing with women is beyond my capacity, especially in the state of
psychological inferiority in which I then found myself. Nevertheless, I
tried to explain to her quickly what was happening to me. I don't know
whether she didn't understand me or refused to hear me out. The last
thing she said before hanging up was: "I'm nobody's plaything."
I now had to carry out a second series of useless, illogical actions.
Then I called the bank, in the hope that some fellow employee could
come and open the door. Bad luck; it fell to my lot to talk to Enzo
Paredes, a dimwitted joker whom I detested: "So you can't get out of
your house?" he exclaimed abominably. "You just never run out of
excuses not to come to work!"
I was seized by something akin to a homicidal urge. I hung up, called
again, and asked for Michelangelo Laporta, who was a little brighter.
Sure enough, he seemed interested in finding a solution: "Tell me, was it
the key or the lock that broke?"
"The key."
"And it was left inside the lock?"
"Half of it was left inside," I replied, already somewhat exasperated
by this interrogation, "and the other half outside."
"Didn't you try to get out the little piece that's stuck inside with a
screwdriver?"
"Yes, of course I tried, but it's impossible."
"Oh. Well then, you're going to have to call a locksmith."
"I already called," I retorted, suppressing the rage that was choking
me, "but they want payment in advance."
"So, pay him and there you are."
"But, don't you see, I haven't got any money."
Then he grew bored: "Man, Skinny, you sure have your problems!"
I couldn't come up with a quick reply. I should have asked him for
some money, but his remark left me baffled, and I couldn't think of
anything.
And so ended that day.
The next day I got up early to start making more phone calls. But -
something quite frequent - I found the telephone out of order. Another
insoluble problem: how to request the repair service without a telephone
to place the call?
I went out onto the balcony and began to shout to people walking
along Santa Fe Avenue. The street noise was deafening; who could hear
someone yelling from a tenth floor? At most, an occasional person
would raise his head distractedly and then continue on his way.
<4>
I next placed five sheets of paper and four carbons in the typewriter
and composed the following message: "Madam or Sir: My key has
broken off in the lock. I have been locked in for two days. Please, do
something to free me. 3653 Santa Fe, Apartment 10-A."
I threw the five sheets over the railing. From such a height, the
possibilities of a vertical drop were minimal. Wafted about on a
whimsical wind, they fluttered around for a long time. Three fell in the
street and were immediately run over and blackened by the incessant
vehicles. Another landed on a store awning. But the fifth one dropped
on the sidewalk. Immediately, a diminutive gentleman picked it up and
read it. He then looked up, shading his eyes with his left hand. I put on a
friendly face for him. The gentleman tore the paper up into many little
pieces and with an irate gesture hurled them into the gutter.
In short, for many more weeks I continued making all kinds of
efforts. I threw hundreds of messages from the balcony; either they
weren't read or they were read and weren't taken seriously.
One day I saw an envelope that had been slipped under my
apartment door; the telephone company was cutting off my service for
nonpayment. Then, in succession, they cut off my gas, electricity, and
water.
At first, I used up my provisions in an irrational way, but I realized in
time what I was doing. I placed receptacles on the balcony to catch the
rain water. I ripped out my flowering plants and in their flowerpots I
planted tomatoes, lentils, and other vegetables, which I tend with loving
and painstaking care. But I also need animal protein, so I learned to
breed insects, spiders, and rodents and to make them reproduce in
captivity; sometimes I trap an occasional sparrow or pigeon.
On sunny days I manage to light a fire with a magnifying glass and
paper. As fuel, I'm slowly burning the books, the furniture, the
floorboards. I discovered that there are always more things in a house
than are necessary.
I live quite comfortably, although I lack some things. For example, I
don't know what's going on anywhere else; I don't read newspapers,
and I can't get the television or radio working.

<5>
From the balcony I observe the outside world and I notice some
changes. At a certain point the trolleys stopped running. I don't know
how long ago that happened. I've lost all notion of time, but the mirror,
my baldness, my long white beard, and the pain in my joints tell me that
I'm very old.
For entertainment I let my thoughts wander. I have no fear or
ambitions.
In a word, I'm relatively happy.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

A Psycological Crusade

A good system for revealing as yet unknown facets in man consists of


placing the subject in a totally new situation and observing his reactions.
For example: if I make a phone call and I hear a voice on the other end of
the wire say "Hello," the experiment will lack any scientific or
informative value since the subject has done nothing more than to react
in a routine manner in response to an equally routine situation.
Therefore, it does not provide me with the opportunity to investigate
any hidden aspects of his personality.
How can I learn, for example, if a particular storekeeper - all
amiability and smiles as I make my purchase - might not be capable of
strangling me over a matter of a few small coins? The best thing, then,
would be to stimulate the man's unforeseeable reactions; these can be
quite instructive.
I shall propose several examples.
1. I pay for the meager amount of a half kilogram of bread with a bill
of the largest denomination in circulation and I flatly refuse to accept the
change. I attentively observe the baker's covetousness, willing as he is to
take advantage of my presumed insanity. I leave. Five minutes later I
enter the store once more, this time accompanied by a police officer, and
I accuse the baker of having refused to hand over my change. I study his
anger at my bad faith, his disappointment at the foiled rip-off. Fearful,
perplexed, he stammers incomprehensible excuses under the suspicious
stare of the policeman, who does not believe that someone would refuse
to accept that kind of change. He humbly hands me the necessary
amount and I magnanimously declare that I prefer to consider the
unpleasant episode closed. The officer, somewhat disappointed, says
"Whatever you say." I observe with satisfaction the immense relief on
the baker's face.*
2. I invite a friend of mine to have dinner at my home. When he
arrives, I prevent him from entering with the accusation that he had -
twelve or fourteen years earlier - stolen my girl with whom, of course, I
was madly in love. I observe his astonishment (we've known each other
for only a few months), his hesitation (could I possibly be the one who
...), his sorrow, his rage ...
3. I get on the bus and say "To such and such a place." When the
driver - who is busy keeping his eyes on the traffic - opens his hand to
collect the fare, I drop a chess rook and a sprig of parsley into it. The
question is: how will the busdriver - a person of habitually unstable
nerves - interpret this enigmatic offering?

<2>
4. I take a trip to the resort city of Mar del Plata and check into one of
the most luxurious hotels. Just as soon as the maid leaves, I put the bed
out in the hallway and take a refreshing nap, particularly well deserved
after such a tiring trip, right there.
5. By means of a skeleton key, I let myself into any house when the
owners happen to be absent. I await them placidly seated, smoking,
drinking whisky, watching television. The subjects arrive. Then I harshly
rebuke them, I shake my fist at them, I say "How the devil do you have
the nerve to walk into my house?," paying no attention to their
explanations, or paying attention (it makes no difference), I demand that
they show me their deed to the house, I do not allow them to open the
drawer in which they ridiculously claim the deed is since that drawer is
an inalienable part of a piece of furniture which, in turn, is an inalienable
part of my house and, consequently, in no way could possibly contain
the deed to a house belonging to people who are strangers, suspicious
characters and perhaps criminals and well-known members of the
underworld, etc.
6. I become acquainted with a prim, rather silly and let's say quite
pretty girl. I ask her for a date, I tell her I love her, I become her fiance
and thus the date of our engagement arrives; the celebration takes place
at her house. Someone makes a toast. Then there's another toast. There's
a third toast. Finally, the long-awaited moment arrives in which the
fiance - a well-mannered boy, if such an entity can be said to exist -
offers his betrothed the beautiful surprise that has been talked about so
much. Smiling with love and happiness, I hand over a package of
considerable dimensions. The bride-to-be tests its weight; it seems great
to her. The keenest curiosity is etched on the guests' faces. Everyone
forms a circle and the women squeeze around the ecstatic bride-to-be.
The fancy gift wrapping goes flying and so does the bow with which it's
adorned. Now a rich case lined in black chamois comes into view. "An
expensive jewel!" my sweetheart thinks and that gleam of covetousness
that I see in her eyes justifies me in advance. Her fingers rush to unsnap
the automatic lock. The lid rises with a plush click and a beautiful, multi-
colored, cheery extremely venomous coral snake sinuously slides, in
search of freedom, along my sweetheart's ivory arms.

<3>
7. I wait until the manager of the firm for which I work is in his
impressive, carpeted office, conversing with his most important client
who is about to close the deal on a purchase worth an astronomical sum.
I rap timidly on the door; I hear "Come in;" I enter with discrete and
modest steps; I say with a circumspect hint of a smile, "Pardon me, sir;" I
walk to the imposing wooden cabinet, open it and urinate torrentially
upon portfolios, books, equipment, contracts, documents and papers
which may or may not be important.
Of course, there are a few simpler variants which I bequeath to those
who may still lack the necessary practice and who may want to take up
this psychological crusade. Here are a few:
Making passionate and even erotic remarks to members of the
Salvation Army without regard to sex or age. Standing on the drugstore
scale and staying there all day without allowing anyone to weigh
himself. Buying two hundred grams of salami, sliced very thin, opening
the package and, using the beautiful red slices, outlining a heart and
writing I LOVE YOU on the delicatessen counter. Traveling on the bus,
seated next to the aisle; waiting for the time your neighbor, man or
woman, has to get off and says "Excuse me;" and you answer
categorically, "No," and you absolutely refuse to allow him or her to
pass.
The psychological crusade can cause a certain amount of anxiety (as
does any crusade), implies one is involved in serious difficulties (as does
any crusade). But, what do these inconveniences mean compared with
the delight of observing the reactions to which the psychological crusade
gives rise?
This is, at any rate, what I imagine, for - I confess - I'm nothing more
than a mere theoretician and it's probable that I'll never put my ideas
into practice. But you can - and should - do it.

* Note that we are dealing in mere hypothesis. This baker would react in
the manner indicated, the one down the block perhaps would not be
intimidated by the presence of the police officer and would impudently
affirm that he had given me the change, etc. As can be seen, by repeating
this experiment - with different bakers and, especially, with different
policemen - we can succeed in plumbing the depths of bakers' souls.
This is true to a lesser extent with respect to policemen's souls.

A Question of Age
by Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Michele McKay Aynesworth

A la versión original

On those rainy days, Mario would insist on having some of Grandma’s


special sugar-coated fritters. Flattered and smiling and only too happy to
comply, she’d send Coca to reorganize the junk room or to rid the
closets of dust balls. This is how she managed to have the kitchen to
herself.

In that great, dark, solitary house, I could choose to stick around as


Grandma’s veined hands ever so slowly fashioned her “frittahs,” or go
with Coca and watch her redo the junk room.

Coca called it the attic, but I knew very well from my illustrated
dictionary that an attic couldn’t be a ground floor cubbyhole looking out
on a brick boundary wall. This end of the yard was quiet and moist,
with an old rectangle of rusted iron, some flowery tiles, and a faucet for
watering the garden — although the faucet had no spigot, and in any
case, no one watered the garden. In fact, it was hardly a garden at all. It
had no plants or cultivated flowers, just an assortment of weeds and
vines, along with pill bugs, ants, ponds, toads, and mice.
I think I was fourteen before I discovered what the outside of the house
looked like. I hardly ever went out, and when I did, I always came and
went using the sidewalk on our side of the street, so I knew the houses
across the street by heart, but not the one that had sheltered me since I
was born.

One day I decided not to make any diagonal crossings, just right angles.
From the corner, I walked along the sidewalk opposite our house. To my
left loomed wire or wrought-iron fences and overgrown plants; to my
right, trees imprisoned every few meters in dirt squares. Their cool,
restless branches would link up overhead in spring and summer, sifting
the sun’s rays. But this was a winter day, and dusk had set in.
Everything was so sad, the breeze mute and listless, the street empty, the
lights dying in high-ceilinged rooms. I don’t know why, they made me
want to cry, and suddenly I thought of Mirta, an older girl who went to
my school.

I was standing on blue and white mosaic tiles consisting of nine little
squares each, and the wind was about to carry off a dirty page from El
Gráfico. I stepped on it in time, and without bending over, read,
“Musimessi, star goalkeeper for Newell’s Old Boys.” I let it go, and the
paper groaned harshly as it scudded along before ending up in the
sewer.

How gloomy my house was! You could hardly see it. Dark, withered
vines covered the rusty black iron grille. Behind it, gray palms, peeling
pines, and the almighty rubber plant obscured even the dim outline of
our house, whose cracked and stained walls resembled nothing so much
as roadmaps. But the gabled roof, its once-red tiles now a muddy violet,
stood out in sharp relief against the white sky.

The house also had an attic, but since Coca slept there it was no longer
an attic, but a bedroom. Grandma, of course, called it the maid’s room
(just as streetcars for her were trolleys, shoes slippers, and the Primera
Junta subway line forever The Anglo).

I liked the little room with its upside down V for a ceiling and its thick
beams of dark wood. Every night Coca would listen to the radio play
broadcast by Radio El Mundo on a very old, very tall, and very hard-to-
hear radio that towered above a kitchen bench. Half the room was taken
up by a huge, three-door mahogany wardrobe with an oval mirror.

Inside its doors hung tango singer Carlos Gardel in sky-blue gaucho
garb; cowboy actor Robert Taylor; and dapper movie idol Ángel
Magaña, in coat and bowtie. There were also posters of the Virgin of
Luján and of the saintly Mapuche Indian boy, Ceferino Namuncurá.

On the wall a color photo taken the day of her wedding to Ricardo
showed a different Coca, with her hair piled high, her lips red and
smooth. A bottle of cologne and a sulfur stick sat on the marble-topped
lamp table. The best thing in the room, however, was a window like a
porthole with two pink panes that could be opened one at a time.

And so, when Coca said she was going to clean the attic, it was
understood she meant the junk room. And if it pleased Grandma to
make fritters for Mario, it was not so much that she liked doing it, but
that she could regain a little of her former importance, when it was she
who ran the house, when they had not yet put her on the sidelines.

Of course, since she was senile (arteriosclerosis, eighty-six years old), her
manias and confusion came as no surprise. She could not be blamed for
lying or making things up sometimes. Dr. Calvino explained that such
maladies were typical of old age, and since there was no cure, it was best
just to accept the situation. In any case, Grandma was adorable and
didn’t bother anybody.

She would pass autumn and winter afternoons with a shawl across her
knees and a scarf around her shoulders, rocking away in an enormous
chair that yet seemed lost amid the endless lilac-colored flowers and
greenish birds on the living room walls. Sitting there with her hands
intertwined, she would think about who knows what, looking out past
the black oval table with its crude, crocheted doily. Or she would polish
all the metal objects in the house till they shone scandalously in the
midst of things so dull and melancholy. I used to bring her bronze
candelabra or silver fruit bowls, but Mario put his foot down, saying I
was only encouraging her tendency toward what might be called
obsession.
Be that as it may, now that the weather was milder Grandma had taken
to wandering about in the yard’s many unexplored corners. In the
evening she would sit well away from the house on a little straw chair
until, at length, Coca would fetch her back inside, citing the dangers of
the evening dew. Convincing Grandma to stay in the living room was
not easy, however, and every day she spent more time in the garden,
usually near the ruined statue. Dr. Calvino advised us to let her have her
way so long as she did not catch cold, given the weak state of her
bronchial tubes.

When Mario got up to secure the shutters the night of the Santa Rosa
storm, he was shocked to see Grandma out in the rain, a fragile plant
being blown about by the raging, icy wind. Dr. Calvino diagnosed
pneumonia, and now to senility was added delirium. Grandma started
seeing little men. “Little men?” Right, the little men in yellow shorts and
red jackets with tall black boots on their feet and blue velvet caps on
their heads.

It was no good interrupting her with the news that Telma had given
birth to twins or showing her the sheets Aunt Marcelina had just
finished embroidering. The city of little men was called Natania and
consisted mainly of woods, towers, and bridges; the fortress of the king
and his three ministers was guarded by winged lions and eagle-headed
bulls. “By statues of lions and bulls?” No, by flesh and blood lions and
bulls.

Dr. Calvino put on the special face that family doctors will assume, and
the house became an obligatory stop for commiserating cousins,
however distant.

When finally the old lady’s delicate little life expired completely, the
undertakers showed up with the absurd trappings of death. They set up
a funeral chapel in the room where Grandma used to polish her metals,
and the coffin handles shone as if she had buffed them herself.

The aunts, one of whom was still single, recalled how as a young girl
Grandma was always ready and willing to work, while the uncles —
notaries and lawyers all — sipped coffee and cognac and weighed the
chances of Balbín-Frondizi versus Perón-Quijano in the upcoming
presidential elections.
I passed the night viewing a procession of faces (with an occasional
thought for Mirta) until, deserting the wake, I took refuge in the
garden’s thick tangle of plants, surrounded by scraggy palms and blue
bellflowers that died almost as soon as they were plucked.
Remembering her there, with her glasses and her black coat, I cried,
though quietly.

Since Grandma was no longer around to be scandalized, Mario allowed


a so-called fiancé to move in with Coca (now separated from the Ricardo
in the color photo). He turned out to be a grim sort, with little hair, bad
manners, and no words. During the first week, returning from I don’t
know where, and always at about the same time of day, he would spend
the afternoons gazing out the round window at the house opposite ours.
Saturday he showed a perversely creative streak. Things were just fine
as they were, but with Mario’s consent, he embarked on a brutal
revolution.

He planned to start with the yard, no less, cutting down weeds, sowing
grass, cultivating flowers. And then the garden would be nothing more
than a garden: smooth and clear and clean. No longer would I be able to
think and play in secret, mysterious places. No longer could I go where
the fattest palm, the wild privet hedge, and the fallen statue covered in
moss and lichen (as my eighth-grade botany text would say) formed a
private space.

The statue’s base was completely hidden by weeds, but below it — if


someone were able to lift the heavy thing — the ground was flat and
compacted to form a perfect circle. That’s where we first began to
communicate. The block of marble had been lost in the garden for some
time now. A half-blurred little heart and arrow read ELISA AND
MARIO, yet Mario had been a widower for more than twenty years.

A neighborhood dog delayed the garden takeover. Barking and whining


day and night, it was a stupid, unbearable dog, and indeed, the
boyfriend couldn’t bear it. In a gesture typical of the way he went about
solving problems, he tossed some poisoned meat over the dividing wall.
The neighbors — who for other reasons were just as boorish — filed a
complaint with the police, and he had to spend two days in jail.
Once free, he turned his attention to redoing the inside of the house.
Mario was already very old and quite powerless, one more useless thing
that, instead of finding a niche in the junk room, found one in the
library. With careful, old-fashioned penmanship, he sat copying — why?
what for? — romantic, high-sounding poems in a schoolboy’s notebook.
But the weeks flew by, and the fellow had almost finished remodeling
and painting the whole house in ever brighter colors. He would soon be
attacking the garden.

He began to clear it, moving in a circle that centered on the house. Of


course, there was a good way to go before he reached the statue, so I still
had time to talk and get more details. Meanwhile, he pulled up the first
weeds, got rid of the cans and rocks that had accumulated over more
than twenty-five years of idleness, killed countless innocent toads, and
thus completed the first round of the circle. Fortunately, since each new
round covered a larger area, his progress became slower by the day.

At school I was extremely nervous, imagining that he was closing in on


Julio the pine tree (when looked at from the proper angle, the knots read
JULIO), and, indeed, he had done so. The ground was completely
cleared and smoothed down around it. They had already begun an
orderly migration, and even though they should have let me know, they
never told me where they would settle next.

To make matters worse, he passed up his regular Sunday session with


the boys, those pool-hall clowns with cigarettes hanging from their
mouths, and stayed in the garden drinking maté with Coca and reading
lies in the newspaper, so I could make little progress.

The next day I had a zoology test, but my eyes kept gravitating toward
the window, making it impossible to concentrate. I wasn’t in a mood for
amoebas and paramecia; I couldn’t think about such stupidities,
knowing without a doubt that Monday he would get around to the
pedestal.

I went to say good-bye at two in the morning and became so upset I


couldn’t sleep a wink. Zoology was the last thing on my mind. I tried
cheating, but the teacher caught me and took away my test.
At last, sitting there on the school bench in peace and comfort, I was able
to recall once more the little men in yellow shorts and red jackets with
tall black boots on their feet and blue velvet caps on their heads.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

An Enlightening Tale

This was a very honest beggar.


One day he knocked at the door of a luxurious mansion. The butler
came out and said, "Yes, sir. What do you wish, my good man?"
The beggar answered, "Just a bit of charity, for the love of God."
"I shall have to take this up with the lady of the house."
The butler consulted with the lady of the house and she, who was
very miserly, answered. "Jeremiah, give that good man a loaf of bread.
One only. And, if possible, one from yesterday."
Jeremiah, who was secretly in love with his employer, in order to
please her sought out a stale loaf of bread, hard as a rock, and handed it
to the beggar.
"Here you are, my good man," he said, no longer calling him sir.
"God bless you," the beggar answered.
Jeremiah closed the massive oaken door, and the beggar went off
with the loaf of bread under his arm. He came to the vacant lot where he
spent his days and nights. He sat down in the shade of a tree, and began
to eat the bread suddenly he bit into a hard object and felt one of his
molars crumble to pieces. Great was his surprise when he picked up,
together with the fragments of his molar, a fine ring of gold, pearls and
diamonds.
"What luck," he said to himself. "I'll sell it and I'll have money for a
long time."
But his honesty immediately prevailed: "No," he added. "I'll seek out
its owner and return it."
Inside the ring were engraved the initials J. X. Neither unintelligent
nor lazy, the beggar went to a store and asked for the telephone book.
He found that in the entire town there existed only one family whose
surname began with X: the Xofaina family.
Filled with joy for being able to put his honesty into practice, he set
out for the home of the Xofaina family. Great was his amazement when
he saw it was the very house at which he had been given the loaf of
bread containing the ring. He knocked at the door.
Jeremiah emerged and asked him, "What do you wish, my good
man?"
The beggar answered, "I've found this ring inside the loaf of bread
you were good enough to give me a while ago."

<2>
Jeremiah took the ring and said, "I shall have to take this up with the
lady of the house."
He consulted with the lady of the house, and she, happy and fairly
singing, exclaimed, "Lucky me! Here we are with the ring I had lost last
week, while I was kneading the dough for the bread! These are my
initials, J.X., which stand for my name: Josermina Xofaina.
After a moment of reflection, she added, "Jeremiah, go and give that
good man whatever he wants as a reward. As long as it's not very
expensive."
Jeremiah returned to the door and said to the beggar, "My good man,
tell me what you would like as a reward for your kind act."
The beggar answered, "Just a loaf of bread to satisfy my hunger."
Jeremiah, who was still in love with his employer, in order to please
her sought out an old loaf of bread, hard as a rock, and handed it to the
beggar.
"Here you are, my good man."
"God bless you. "
Jeremiah shut the massive oaken door, and the beggar went off with
the loaf of bread under his arm. He came to the vacant lot in which he
spent his days and nights. He sat down in the shade of a tree and began
to eat the bread. Suddenly he bit into a hard object and felt another of his
molars crumble to pieces. Great was his surprise when he picked up,
along with the fragments of this his second broken molar, another fine
ring of gold, pearls and diamonds.
Once more he noticed the initials J.X. Once more he returned the ring
to Josermina Xofaina and as a reward received a third loaf of hard bread,
in which he found a third ring that he again returned and for which lie
obtained, as a reward, a fourth loaf of hard bread, in which ...
From that fortunate day until the unlucky day of his death, the
beggar lived happily and without financial problems. He only had to
return the ring he found inside the bread every day.

Doctor Moreau Did It


Fernando Sorrentino

1.

Everything in life has its season. And so the day came when Marina
said, “I want you to meet my folks.”
2.

Ten years have passed since that muggy summer afternoon out in
Acassuso. I can still see the eucalyptus trees swaying overhead and
smell the distant rain; it’s Marina’s face I can’t remember.

She was a knockout, I’m sure of that. I was in love with her, of course,
but no one can deny she was a knockout. And what else... what else can
I remember? She was a tall brunette, dumb and cheerful, infinitely
loveable. How many times we swore we were meant for each other! I
wonder if I seem as hazy to her now as she does to me.
3.

We were in our twenties, and everything was going right for me. Till
then, I’d never known bad luck, and if I had, I’d forgotten it. With wide-
eyed optimism, I took for granted the honesty of politicians, the
promotions I’d earn during my career, the completion of my studies,
and the dignity of mankind. I inhabited the best of all possible worlds.

Except for minor, foreseeable blips, my plans were all on target. There
was no doubt that within a year at most Marina and I would wed.

So, as everything in life has its season, the day came when Marina said,
“I want you to meet my folks.”
4.

Señora Stella Maris was an older version of Marina (whose whole name
was, unfortunately, Marina Ondina). I expected Marina to be just like
her in another twenty years when we’d have a daughter of our own with
names less cloying. Such was the long-range goal I had in mind as I said
hello. Señora Stella Maris was, of course, an elegant lady of forty-five,
tall, brunette, and cheerful.

Marina’s father, on the other hand, turned out to be the most disgusting
man I’ve ever known. His lot in life was to be short. Now this is not a
serious problem. He was not a dwarf, he just wasn’t very tall. What
completely floored me was the fact that his head alone took up more
that half his height. And, my God, what a head! The first thing that
caught my attention (or, rather, put me off) was his strange color. His
skin, reflecting the shifting light, could be dazzling at times, varying
from pink to black with all the shades in between. At the same time, it
seemed clammy and sticky. He was completely bald and clearly always
had been. No hair would ever sprout on that head. Its upper half
threatened to become a perfect globe, but, foiled at the equator (more or
less at the height of his missing ears), the head morphed into a
cylindrical column which, without any transition for neck or shoulders,
became lost among the folds of a kind of yellow, floor-length terry-cloth
tunic. In other words, Marina’s father had the same diameter from top to
bottom. He was a round-topped monolith, wrapped half-way up with a
yellow towel. Located a few centimeters above the toga, Señor Octavio’s
mouth, a mobile, toothless fissure, at once supple and hard as horn,
would draw in until it disappeared—or would open so wide it seemed
his throat had been slit, and his head, left to teeter on its precarious base
by the slipshod assassin, seemed likely to come crashing down at the
slightest movement. Where his ears and nose should have been, the skin
was as polished and smooth as his bald pate—nothing, not even a scar
or a wrinkle, not the slightest mark. The two eyes were huge, round, and
bloodshot, with no eyebrows or eyelashes, no whites, no pupils, no
expression.
5.

“Señor Octavio is on a diet,” explained Señora Stella Maris, seeing me


stare at the plate intended for her husband.

Señora Stella Maris, Marina, and I ate what you might call normal food.
Señor Octavio’s plate, on the other hand, was like an anthology of sea
life. The sudden stench exploded in my nostrils, bringing tears to my
eyes. Since my future father-in-law’s sleeves were knotted at the ends,
he wielded his knife and fork like a person who’d forgotten to remove
his gloves. Round after round of raw fish, mollusks, and crustaceans
were quickly polished off. By my estimate he ate at least five kilos of the
gaudy things; I could make out squid, shrimp, oysters, crabs, snails,
jellyfish, mussels, clams, starfish, sea urchins, coral, sponges, and fish of
questionable identity.

“Señor Octavio is on a diet,” repeated Señora Stella Maris toward the


end of the meal. “Shall we have our coffee in the living room?”

I made way for Señor Octavio and watched him walk by. He moved
erratically, sometimes taking a very quick step, sometimes a very slow
one, without the regularity of a limp. His way of walking made me think
of a car with four different wheels—triangular, oblong, round, and oval.
I already mentioned that his yellow toga covered him completely, except
for his head. The garment’s tail was so long it dragged behind him like a
bridal train.

Señora Stella Maris placed a tray of cups on an elaborate, eight-sided


coffee table flanked by two small sofas. Marina and I sat in one of them;
facing us, with the table in between, sat Señor Octavio and his wife. I
now noticed another oddity. As if to emphasize important points when
he spoke, invisible arms seemed in motion beneath Señor Octavio’s
tunic. So violent and frequent were the yellow bubbles formed by the
toga, his body appeared to be boiling.

Señor Octavio hogged the conversation. He talked and talked and


talked. I wasn’t really listening, however. I was asking myself, “Could
this monster possibly be the father of Marina, my lovely, delightful,
angelic Marina?” Suddenly I was sure that in her youth Señora Stella
Maris had been unfaithful to her husband and that Marina was the fruit
of an illicit love affair. Carried away by this idea, I found myself casting
complicitous looks at Señora Stella Maris (fortunately, she didn’t see
them) as if to say I was in on her secret, but wasn’t about to give her
away. On the contrary, I approved wholeheartedly, and, in fact, would
have forgiven anything rather than acknowledge this babbling monster
as the father of my Marina.

A question aimed my way brought me back to the present. The


conversation had sunk to a new low, with Señora Stella Maris holding
forth energetically on the topic of illnesses—one she seemed right at
home with.

“You’re like a fish in water,” remarked Señor Octavio.

Smiling proudly, she plunged ahead. Her résumé was impressive:


operations, fractures, heart attacks, liver ailments, nervous
breakdowns... Being somewhat timid, I’d kept quiet up to now, but
stung by a look from Marina, I humbly offered up the asthma attacks
that plagued me from time to time.

“For asthma,” said Señor Octavio, his voice bubbling over, “there’s
nothing better than the sea. The sea is far better than any of those
worthless cures doctors prescribe, except, of course, for cod liver oil.”

“Really, Octavio,” retorted his wife, “you can’t be serious. Remember


that time in Mar del Plata, I caught a cold that lasted two months.”

“Stop fishing for arguments,” Señor Octavio insisted. “You caught that
cold here, just a few kilometers from Buenos Aires, when we were going
to Mar del Plata, not in Mar del Plata. There’s nothing like the sea for
one’s health.”

“Of course, of course,” they said, we said, I said; “the coastal climate, the
iodine, the sand...”

“Nothing better than the sea,” repeated Señor Octavio in a tone of


unshakable authority. “Eight days at sea, and so long asthma! You won’t
even remember you had it.”

“Sure, Daddy,” agreed Marina, “you like the sea because you’re an
Aquarius, but there are people who feel out of place in... Me, for
example, even though I’m a Pisces...”

“And my sign is Cancer,” said Señora Stella Maris, “but I don’t much
like the sea, either.”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned,” Marina confessed, “it gives me the


creeps.”
“Eyewash,” said Señor Octavio. “It’s all a matter of getting the body to
adapt. Once you get used to it, you’ll see how the sea can soothe your
nerves.”

“Talk about nerves,” interrupted Señora Stella Maris, “what a scare we


had on that flight from Río...”

“I warned you.” Señor Octavio’s guiding rule of conduct was to argue


with whatever was said. “I told you, go by boat. Boats are safe,
comfortable, cheap, you can smell the sea, you can watch the fish...
Planes may take less time, but there’s just no comparison.”

The force with which he said this left us at a loss for words. I didn’t feel
up to any more conversation. As a matter of fact, I didn’t feel up to
much at all. Though his high-handed pronouncements were delivered
with a surprising friendliness, Señor Octavio’s monstrous appearance—
his watery voice, the smell of his seafood diet—convinced me it was
time to go. I could feel the sweat breaking out on my brow, my shirt
collar getting tighter. I was quite disoriented, sick, in fact, and only
wanted to go home. My legs began to sway uncontrollably, and the
rumblings in my stomach promised imminent eruption.

But that yapping threesome was unstoppable. Though their comments


always met with an objection from Señor Octavio, Señora Stella Maris
and Marina did not seem to mind. This was clearly their normal way of
conversing.

Once more I realized that my opinion was being asked for. The topic for
debate was where Marina and I should go on our honeymoon. Running
her words together without much conviction, Marina suggested the
countryside, the hills of Córdoba, the northern provinces; Señor Octavio
held firmly for Mar del Plata.

“It’s healthier,” he said, “more natural. You have the sea, the salt, the
iodine, the sand, the seashells... Nothing better than the sea.”

I was about to pass out. I thought I could hear Marina arguing in favor
of somewhere quiet, away from the tourists...
“You want somewhere quiet?” Señor Octavio was not to be outdone.
“You’ve got San Clemente, Santa Clara del Mar, Santa Teresita... There’s
scads of quiet places on the Atlantic coast!”

With great effort I got up and announced feebly that it was time to go.

“So early?” asked Señor Octavio, checking his watch. “It’s just eight
minutes to midnight.”

The reproach accompanying his words threw me back on the sofa. What
a powerful influence that dreadful man exerted!

I clung to the hope that a bottle of whiskey recently brought in by


Señora Stella Maris might boost my spirits and emptied my glass in one
swallow.

“In my heyday,” Señor Octavio was saying, “when I was young, we


would go down to the waterfront bars in Bahía Blanca to dance...”

I was momentarily distracted as I tried to imagine Señor Octavio


dancing.

“Sometimes we would dance till the sun came up. But young people
these days, eight o’clock and they’re already in bed, with their wittle
bwankeypoos and their wittle hot water bottles... Ha, ha, ha! Like a
bunch of kindergarten kids.”

Señor Octavio’s monologue, punctuated in its final phase by the


offensive baby talk, had taken on the unmistakable tone of a personal
attack. I stood up, resolved to use force if necessary to get away. Luckily,
I didn’t have to resort to violence. Señor Octavio recovered his charm
and, after holding out the knotted end of his sleeve to me, said, with the
unhurried ease of someone preparing to bring a perfect day to a close,
“Well,” and through the terry-cloth sleeves, he rubbed his hands
together, “now to bed with a good book.”

I nodded vigorously. I wanted to get out of that house. If I’d stayed


another second, I believe I would’ve fainted.

“I’ll walk you to the sidewalk,” Marina said.


6.

The blessed fragrance of pine and fir trees hit me as we crossed the yard.
I breathed deeply, letting the fresh air dispel any lingering fish odors. I
felt refreshed; suddenly my stomach trouble was gone.

“You saw poor Daddy?” began Marina.

“Yes,” I answered vaguely, not sure what to say.

“He’s much better,” she continued, putting her arm around my waist
like someone about to confide a secret. “A year ago we couldn’t get him
out of the pool. Day and night in the pool. Now, at least, he eats at the
table and sleeps in his bed. That’s progress, isn’t it?”

She said so many things, but I focused on one, the least important: “Your
house has a swimming pool?”

“Of course, didn’t I tell you? In the back yard. I can’t show it to you now
because Daddy’s using it. Every night he takes a dip before he goes to
bed. He digests his food better that way.”

I asked a stupid question: “Doesn’t it interfere with his digestion?”

“Oh, no, just the reverse. He needs salt water. True, when he’s in the
water, he gets very aggressive and doesn’t recognize anyone, not even
us. When he’s back on land, well, you saw how nice and friendly he is...”

Appalled, and wanting to stall, I checked my watch. Marina was waiting


for me to make a move.

“And the neighbors?” I asked. “Don’t they complain?”

“Why should they? There’s no noise. Daddy couldn’t be any quieter. He


doesn’t even dive in. He goes to the edge of the pool and lets himself
slide in like this: shhhh...”

Her hand slithered softly over my face. Startled, I jumped back. Marina
tried to put me at ease with a funny story:
“One night he was halfway under water, near the edge of the pool. Our
neighbor’s little dog came through the hedge and started sniffing
around the pool. Then some of Daddy’s arms popped out and . . . shak!”

And with a playful smile, Marina pretended to strangle me. She didn’t
touch me, she just moved forward, with her arms, suddenly strong and
rubbery, stretched out in my direction. If before I had jumped backward,
I now flew several meters. Marina started laughing, amused by this
overreaction. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Her mouth seemed
to open all the way to the back of her neck, her head became rounder
and longer, her nose and ears disappeared, she lost her magnificent dark
hair, her skin tone was alternating between black and pink... To keep
from falling, I leaned against a tree.

“Hey, what’s the matter?” Marina shook my arm, and I came to my


senses.

She was the same adorable Marina as always: a tall brunette, dumb and
cheerful, infinitely loveable.

“It’s nothing,” I said, fighting to breathe. “I just don’t feel very good.”

To cheer me up even more, she said, “Why don’t you come over for a
swim tomorrow morning. It’s Sunday, you know. Bring your suit, and in
you go.”

I promised I would, around ten. I said good-bye to Marina as always,


with a kiss.

“See you tomorrow,” I said.


7.

But I didn’t go back.

With sudden clarity, before the train had reached the second stop on my
way home, I knew what I had to do. For the next two weeks I was a
whirlwind of feverish activity, putting all my affairs in order. I avoided
answering the phone and managed to change my address as well as my
job. As the crime stories say, I no longer frequented the usual places. In
time, I was able to settle permanently in the province of La Pampa. The
city of Santa Rosa enjoys a very dry climate and is located as far from the
Atlantic Ocean as it is from the Pacific.

Fernando Sorrentino

Essence And Attribute

On July 25, as I tried to hit letter A, I noticed a slight wart on the pinky
of my left hand. On the 27th it seemed considerably larger. On the third
of August, with the help of a jeweler's loupe, I was able to discern its
shape. It was a sort of diminutive elephant: the world's smallest
elephant, yes, but an elephant complete down to the smallest detail. It
was attached to my finger at the end of its little tail. So that, while it was
my pinky finger's prisoner, it nevertheless enjoyed freedom of
movement except that its locomotion completely depended on my will.
Proudly, fearfully, hesitatingly I exhibited him to my friends. They
were revolted, they said it couldn't be good to have an elephant on one's
pinky, they advised me to consult a dermatologist. I scorned their
words, I consulted with no one, I had nothing further to do with them, I
gave myself over entirely to studying the evolution of the elephant.
Toward the end of August it was already a handsome little gray
elephant the length of my pinky although quite a bit thicker. I played
with him all day. At times I was pleased, to annoy him, to tickle him, to
teach him to do somersaults and to jump over tiny obstacles: a match
box, a pencil sharpener, an eraser.
At that time it seemed appropriate to christen him. I thought of
several silly, and apparently traditional, names worthy of an elephant:
Dumbo, Jumbo, Yumbo ..., Finally, I ascetically decided to call him just
plain Elephant.
I loved to feed Elephant. I scattered over the table bread crumbs,
lettuce leaves, bits of grass. And out there at the edge, a piece of
chocolate. Then Elephant would struggle to get to his treat. But if I held
my hand tight, Elephant never could reach it. In this way I confirmed
the fact that Elephant was only a part - the weakest part - of myself.
A short time later - when Elephant had acquired the size of a rat, let
us say - I could no longer control him so easily. My pinky was too puny
to withstand his impetuousness.
At that time I still was under the misapprehension that the
phenomenon consisted solely of Elephant's growth. I was disabused of
this idea when Elephant reached the size of a lamb: on that day I too was
the size of a lamb.

<2>
That night - and a few others too - I slept on my stomach with my left
hand protruding from the bed: on the floor beside me slept Elephant.
Afterwards I had to sleep - face down, my head on his croup, my feet on
his back - on top of Elephant. Almost immediately I found just a portion
of his haunch to be sufficient. Afterward, his tail. Afterward, the very tip
of his tail, where I was only a small wart, totally imperceptible.
At that time I was afraid I might disappear, cease to be me, be a mere
millimeter of Elephant's tail. Later I lost that fear, I regained my appetite.
I learned to feed myself with leftover crumbs, with grains of birdseed,
with bits of grass, with almost microscopic insects.
Of course this was before. Now I have come to occupy once again a
more worthy space on Elephant's tail. True, I am still aleatory. But I can
now get hold of an entire biscuit and watch - invisibly, inexpugnably -
the visitors to the Zoo.
At this stage of the game I am very optimistic. I know that Elephant
has begun to shrink. As a result, I am filled with an anticipated feeling of
superiority by the unconcerned passers - by who toss biscuits to us,
believing only in the obvious Elephant they have before them without
suspecting that he is no more than a future attribute of the latent essence
which still lies in wait.

From En defensa propia, Buenos Aires, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982.

****
Four Lilies
The Music I Like Best
Fernando Sorrentino

A
few days ago I left the house and turned onto Calle Olazábal. I walked a
few blocks and before I got to Calle Cuba I saw a little old lady with a
nice, cheerful face. Then an envelope fell out of her purse but she didn’t
notice. I hurried on, picked up the envelope without being noticed and
found a wad of bills inside.

I went back home and hid the money in my math book. With that
money I’d be able to get myself several CDs of the kind I like—real
crazy, man—, and while I was thinking about it, I turned on the boom
box full blast to help me think straight.

Next day I realized I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I’d make a sacrifice
and get my Mom a thing for grinding meat, or maybe an electric carver.

I headed for Avenida Cabildo to find how much a meat grinder or an


electric knife was going to cost. I went there via Calle Mendoza but came
back on Olazábal and there was the little old lady still. She was walking
from Arcos to Cuba and back from Cuba to Arcos with her eyes fixed on
the sidewalk as if she were looking for who knows what.

I heard the doorman in an apartment building telling a woman:

“She lost the envelope with her social security, you know. She’s been
looking for it all night.”

I set off home at full speed and got the money I’d hidden in my math
book. I chucked the envelope into the trash and put the bills into my
pants pocket. I ran, ran, ran faster than a flying bullet to Cabildo and
bought those CDs—real crazy, man.

n Saturday night I dreamed about a sorcerer. He was dressed like


sorcerers always dress in tales, with a black gown and a high pointed
hat. There were half moons and silver stars printed on the gown and hat.
The sorcerer was very thin, very old with a bony pointed nose and a
very long, very white beard. And the important thing about it all was
that he told me the secret formula of invisibility. Obviously I dream
these things because my Dad’s a pharmacist and I’m used to hearing
about formulas.

As soon as I woke I jotted it all down on a piece of paper and went


looking for my friend Marcelo to share it with him. We shut ourselves
up in the lab behind the shop and got to work on a regular army of
flasks, test tubes and stills, pouring from one to the other all the acids
and powders and other muck the place is full of and heaven knows what
they are used for. We got really enthusiastic and, to tell the truth, didn’t
follow the sorcerer’s recipe any more: we’d taken off and were using our
own initiative adding more and more ingredients, mainly until we’d got
a huge flask filled with a thick, black, boiling liquid. Marcelo stirred it
with a wooden spoon and poured some of the liquid into a test tube.

Then I pulled my little dog Lucas over, by force because he tried to get
away as best he could, so I held him down by the nose and made him
drink the whole test tube full. The glass was very hot to my fingers and
Lucas opened his eyes very wide. When I let him go it was very odd, he
gave something like a series of coughs and sneezes, then was still, barely
breathing. Marcelo and I watched him for over an hour but nothing
noticeable happened.

“It isn’t a prescription meant for dogs,” I said when I saw that Lucas was
dead.

“Well,” Marcelo answered, “let’s see if the wizard’s spell works on us


then.”

We filled the test tube twice, and first I, then he, drank a good deal of
that black, steaming liquid. Sometimes it tasted like cough syrup, other
times like sulphur or gunpowder. Marcelo, as Lucas had done, choked a
bit and sneezed several times, but in my case my eyes filled with tears
and I felt a blaze of fire in my face and in my stomach.

Very patiently we waited for an hour, then another, and another. Since
we could see that nothing was wrong with us, we went to watch TV and
had to admit the sorcerer had made fools of us.

or my birthday, my mother asked me if I’d prefer to have a clown or a


magician. I think clowns are stupid, so I chose the magician.

He turned out to be a thin, pale man, with black trimmings—hair,


mustache, tuxedo, tie and his bag of magic tricks.
He greeted us all in an old fashioned way, very polite, and we all started
shouting:

“Ma-gic, ma-gic, ma-gic, ma-gic!”

The man smiled, pleased, and did several tricks that I’d seen other
magicians do before. He turned one handkerchief into seven or eight, he
pulled out a white dove from a top hat. Then with a pack of cards like
they use in cowboy films, he did a number of tricks I couldn’t
understand.

“This conjurer knows what he’s doing,” said my dad under his breath.

I don’t know how, but the magician heard him.

“Thank you for the compliment,” he answered, “however, I’m not a


conjurer, I’m a magician.”

“Alright,” said my dad, smug, as usual, “We’ll say you’re a magician,


not a conjurer.”

“I can see that you don’t take me seriously. To convince you I’m going to
turn you into an animal. Which animal would you prefer to be?”

Papa let out a laugh that nearly deafened us, opening his mouth as wide
as a hippopotamus. He seemed to read my thoughts because he said:

“Since I get to choose, turn me into a hippopotamus. And turn the rest of
them into whatever animals you like.”

The magician gave a little wry grin, moved his fingers and his arms, and
Dad turned into a hippopotamus and for a minute I could see a spark of
terror in Dad’s bulging eyes.

“This hippo’s filling up the whole apartment,” said the magician


reprovingly, “I’d better turn the others into smaller animals.”

And straight away he turned my mom into a toucan, taking advantage


of the nose she already had, probably. Then he turned my grandma into
a turtle. He really did a good job on my maiden aunts and turned them
into an owl, an armadillo and a seal, all very much like they’d been
before. When it came to my bossy married aunt, he turned her into a
spider and her henpecked husband into a fly.

He was nice to the kids though. He turned them into cute, cuddly
animals: bunny rabbits, squirrels, canaries. But Gabriel who had a broad
face and was spotty, he turned into a toad. Little Lucila was only two
months old so he turned her into a humming bird.

When I was the only one left he put his hand on my shoulder and told
me:

“You’re going to have to take care of all these animals, though the spider
and the fly, and some of the others will be able to get along without
you.”

And he packed up his bag of tricks and left.

I tried for four days to look after them and see they were fed, but I could
soon see that the job was far too much for me to do so I called the zoo.
The director himself thanked me and accepted my donation.

I used to go visit my family and friends every day at first, then once a
week, but I have to admit that now I hardly ever visit them any more.

his morning when the bell rang for recess I stayed in the classroom
because I hadn’t finished the assignment.

Beveretti and Campitelli stayed on too, thinking up some mischief as


usual. The two of them had four things in common: they were tall, they
were blond, their hair was a mess and they were always up to
something.

They were playing with something black and messy. It was a big, fat,
hairy spider, but not a real one. It was made of rubber like the ones they
sell at joke shops.

Smirking, Beveretti and Campitelli put the spider in Miss Monica’s


glasses case. Our teacher was a very skinny, angular woman who
always looked disgruntled. I felt sorry for her since I’d heard she never
married because she looked after her mother who was paralyzed and
spent her life in a wheelchair. But who’d want to marry a woman as
plain and short sighted as Miss Monica?

Still, I didn’t want to miss seeing her find the phony spider.

Back in the classroom, Miss Monica sat facing her desk and looking at
us. She stretched out her left hand automatically, the way she always
did, looking for her glasses.

When she felt the spider along with the glasses she had to turn her head
to see what the devil it was.

Her expression was one of tremendous surprise:

“Oh,” she said, “a spider. My favorite!”

And without putting her glasses on, she took the spider to her lips and
very neatly bit off each leg, one by one, and swallowed them quite
hungrily. Then she ate the pedipalps and the chelicerae. Soon, her white
teeth moved like a guillotine, with metallic precision, and snapped
down on the abdomen and cephalothorax.

With a pleasure that seemed almost sublime, her eyes on the ceiling,
Miss Monica chewed and swallowed the indigestible rubber spider. And
she seemed to enjoy it so much that neither Beveretti nor Campitelli, nor
I, nor anyone else dare tell her that instead of a delicious spider she’d
eaten a rubber toy.
Habits of the Artichoke
Fernando Sorrentino

V
ery few people are familiar with Ohm Alley. Its only block of any length
runs near the corner of Triunvirato and De los Incas avenues. I live in a
small balcony apartment facing the inner courtyard.
Even though I am forty-eight, I have never felt I would—or could—get
married. I manage quite well on my own. My specialty is not agriculture
or botany; I teach Spanish, literature, and Latin. I don’t know anything
about those natural, rural sciences, but I do know a thing or two about
linguistics and etymology. It is from these fields that I began my
approach to the artichoke—alcaucil in Spanish.

As you know, a significant percentage of the Spanish lexicon has its


origin in the language of the Arab invaders of the eighth century.
Sometimes they would create a word by giving an Arabic form to a
Latin or Neo-Latin noun that was in current usage in Spain.

Such is the case with the Mozarabic caucil, which derives from the Latin
capitiellum, meaning “little head.” Thus, alcaucil (article plus noun)
means “the little head.” This popular name has, shall we say, greater
“expressivity” and “utility” than the scientific term Cynara scolymus.

Let us see why.

In Buenos Aires no one has ever seen an artichoke plant. From the
vegetable markets, we are acquainted with, specifically, those little
lifeless heads whose heart (better said, receptacle) and the bases of
whose leaves (or rather, scales) are, certainly, very tasty. Well, then,
these little heads contain the seed of the flower, and the horticulturist
pulls them off the plant before it can develop, as, otherwise, the heads
become hard and inedible.

I lived my whole life in complete ignorance of the morphology, life, and


abits of the artichoke. Now, however, I can say without being pedantic
that I have acquired a good deal of information and have become
somewhat of an authority on the subject. I am aware, of course, that,
regarding the artichoke, much remains to be learned.

The artichoke can be cultivated in a flower pot of generous proportions.


Since it is a kind of thistle, a tough, hardy plant, it requires little care; it
grows quickly; it reaches a height of approximately one meter, and
horizontally speaking, a longitude that has, until now, been impossible
to determine.
Although, as a rule, I don’t find plants interesting or attractive, I
accepted with feigned gratitude the artichoke plant given to me by a
neighbor nicknamed Peaches: simple and boring, of a certain age and
myopia, she has a son named Sebastian who is rather a dim bulb.

Young Sebas—an apocope favored by his mother and his friends—had


difficulty completing tenth grade. Somehow I found myself giving him
free Spanish lessons so he could attempt to learn in a few days what he
had not managed to learn, or even suspect, in the previous eleven or
twelve months.

I don’t make any bones about the fact that I am an excellent Spanish
teacher, with twenty years’ experience—and weariness—wielding the
chalk. But Sebas—hopelessly plebeian and empty-headed—ended up as
I had foreseen, duly flunked by the March examining committee.

Madame Peaches—maternal bias apart—managed to understand that


the fault lay not with me but with her son, and in order to thank me in
some way, gave me the aforesaid artichoke plant.

Madame Peaches visited my apartment briefly, committed untold errors


and half-truths as she spoke, paid not the slightest attention to anything
I said, conveyed her disillusioned view of the world, and—at last!—
withdrew, leaving me with the sensation of displeasure that people of
low intelligence and boundless ignorance habitually arouse in me. And
there on the balcony the artichoke plant remained, together with a
certain ill will, in its red and white flowerpot.

Little by little it began to propagate a multitude of dull-green heads


(artichokes). By their own weight, they pulled down the resisting stems
and began to creep along the balcony floor as if they were the many
claws of an amorphous, unidentifiable animal, a kind of spiny land-
octopus, with something of the stony green rigidity of prehistoric beasts.

Thus, a week must have passed.

I have spent years vainly fighting the advance of red ants, those
invincible, omnivorous little insects that occupy an infinite number of
caves in my apartment. One afternoon I happened to be sitting on the
balcony; I was reading the newspaper and drinking mate.
And so I observed that four of the many artichoke heads were hunting
down red ants. Their strategy was at once simple and efficient. With
their scales down and their stem up, they would run like spiders, seize
an ant with delicate exactitude, and through rapid traction and
mastication, carry it to the center of the artichoke, where it was ingested.

By carefully observing the way the moving stems, or tentacles, widened


at certain points, I could tell that the ants’ bodies were transported to the
central stem, where—I imagined—the digestive apparatus of the
artichoke must be located. More than once I had seen something similar
in documentaries. When the snake swallows a mouse or a frog, the
victim’s body can be seen sliding through the body of the executioner;
just so did the artichokes eat.

I was elated. This incident seemed auspicious. The artichokes were


untiring and insatiable. I realized that, in no time, they would achieve
what I had failed to do for years: they would make an end, definitively,
of all the red ants in my apartment, those ants that I, in my impotence,
so hated.

Indeed, that is what happened. The time came when not a single red ant
remained. Then the artichoke began to spread out, looking for other
food.

Some artichokes strangled and devoured the other balcony plants:


hollyhocks, geraniums, a rosebush that had never flourished, some
ancient ferns, a wild, spiny cactus. Other artichokes, however, preferred
to dig in the ground, capturing useful earthworms and harmful vermin
alike. A third group climbed the walls and penetrated the spiders’ dark
lairs.

Truly, those artichokes had a healthy appetite, and they were growing.
They were constantly growing. It did not take them long to occupy the
whole balcony. Like a climbing vine, they covered the floor, the ceiling,
the walls, twisting and turning until they formed an impenetrable
jungle.

I must confess, at that point I was a bit scared: I feared, stupidly, that the
plant would continue growing until it occupied the whole apartment.
“Very well,” I told it, “if that is your intention, I will starve you to
death.”

I lowered the gray wooden blinds and hermetically sealed the panes in
the dining room and bedroom. I was sure that, deprived of food, the
artichoke plant would languish, weaken, shrink, and finally wither away
in dried-up fragments until it died.

I took that precautionary measure Monday, April 11, 1988. Because of


some labor dispute or another, classes at my school were suspended
toward the end of the week. I took the opportunity to escape briefly to
the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, accompanied by a sort of girlfriend—
middle-aged, of course—whom I have been dating for many years, a
math teacher named Liliana Tedeschi. Both train lovers, averse to buses,
we departed from Constitución Station Wednesday night and
subsequently spent three beautiful days in that charming autumnal city.

Sunday, April 17, around eight in the morning, I found myself back in
my apartment on Ohm Alley. As I am afraid of thieves, my door is
armored and has two safety bolts. Feeling modestly proud of my
foresight, I opened the first bolt, I opened the second, I pushed the door.
I noticed that there was a certain amount of resistance: not too much, it
is true, but, in fact, resistance.

Then I entered a kind of artichoke wonderland. I was met by a strong


current of air: in my absence, these characters had first eaten up the
wooden blinds and then destroyed the window panes. Now, like giant
jellyfish, they had scattered throughout the apartment and methodically
covered floors, walls, and ceilings, they snaked around corners, they
scrambled up the furniture, investigated nooks and crannies...

This is what I saw at first glance. I promptly tried to assess the situation
more systematically. Although I tried to remain calm, I could not help
becoming indignant in the face of such abuses.

The artichokes had opened the refrigerator, the freezer and all the
cupboards, and had eaten the cheese, the butter, the frozen meats, the
potatoes, the tomatoes, the pasta, the rice, the flour, the crackers...
Walking across the kitchen, I stumbled over now-empty jars of
marmalade, olives, pickles, chimichurri sauce...

They had devoured everything that was humanly edible, and now,
before my enraged eyes, they fell upon everything that was artichokably
edible, namely, any form of organic matter—dead or alive. And I saw
them chewing, clawing, and gnawing on the furniture-leather, feathers,
wood, and all. And I saw them chewing, clawing, and gnawing on the
books—oh, God!—my precious books, lovingly collected over a period
of thirty years, the books that I had underlined and annotated—never
using ink, just pencil—in my neat, careful handwriting, not once, but a
thousand times!

I do not own a butcher knife, but I have a pair of scissors for cutting up
chickens. I stuck an artichoke stem between the steel blades and—full of
hate and joyously malicious—snipped off the enemy’s abominable head.

The beheaded artichoke rolled a few centimeters. Instantly, the cut stem
branched into countless smaller stems, and simultaneously, fifteen,
twenty, fifty new heads were born. Furiously, they threw themselves at
me, trying to bite into my shoes, my legs, my hands.

Then, bit by bit, I retreated toward the bathroom and the bedroom,
where the density of artichokes per square centimeter was considerably
lower. I am—or I tell myself I am—a person who is quite rational, and I
was determined to maintain my composure; it was simply a matter of
staying calm and thinking a little, since I never doubted—I have always
had great confidence in myself—that I would soon find a solution to the
problem presented by these artichokes.

I began to reason.

During my absence, what had exasperated them, even driven them


mad? Unquestionably, it was the lack of food. Indeed, during the
previous weeks—when they had been eating normally—the behavior of
the artichokes had been dignified and judicious. I had only, then, to
provide them with the necessary food in order for them to return to their
former calm, docile selves.
Using the bedroom telephone—there was little left of bed, lamp tables,
closets, or clothes—I called the Two Friends market. The first friend sells
meat; the second friend, fruits and vegetables. From the first, I ordered
eight kilos of cheap cuts: liver, lungs, bones. From the second, potatoes
and squash, which cost little but yield much. I asked them to deliver it
all right away: thus I could satisfy, temporarily, the artichokes’ hunger.
Later I could seek—and would find—the definitive solution.

While the artichokes and I waited for the food supplies, they continued
to gnaw. The noise produced by their gnawing is similar to the sound of
a box of matches being shaken, with the exception that no one is
constantly shaking a box of matches, while, on the other hand, the
artichokes were gnawing, gnawing, gnawing the whole time. They
continued gnawing on what was left of the furniture, going for the wood
and spurning any lacquer, metal, or plastic adhering to it.

I thought: “As long as they have something to eat, I will be safe.” And
then, immediately: “What is taking the Two Friends so long?”

Then the doorbell rang (not the intercom buzzer, but the bell of the
apartment): it rang with that long, impatient sound that I abhor.
Anticipating my movement, an artichoke pressed the spring lock and
opened the door, slowly.

Through the opening, against the darker background of the hallway,


wearing a white apron and cap, and with an enormous wicker basket
carried in both hands, appeared the fat, primitive errand boy whom I
had seen many times washing down the sidewalk in front of the Two
Friends market.

The young man—an enormous twenty-year-old blockhead weighing


close to a hundred kilos—hesitated a moment between greeting me and
entering. There was nothing else he could do: in a matter of seconds he
was enfolded by a green web, ductile and efficient, consisting of forty or
fifty artichokes. He could not scream or move his arms. With artichokes
on his eyes, at his throat, and in his mouth, half strangled, and, whether
alive or already dead I do not know, he was dragged—lightly as a
feather—to the middle of the dining room, and there the artichokes, in a
riotous rumble, got down to the task of piercing and eating their way
through the fat boy from the market, as well as his wicker basket, the
potatoes and squash, the liver, lungs, and bones.

That image of the little artichokes running all over his great body
reminded me of red ants when they dissect a cockroach, dead or alive.

While these artichokes were ingesting the errand boy, others had locked
the apartment door and were now guarding it, far from my reach.

I therefore shut myself up in the bathroom, an area that was still devoid
of artichokes. I slid the metal bolt into place, then sat on the edge of the
bathtub trying to imagine a quick way to defeat them. With an advanced
case of nerves and little time to think, the best plan I could come up with
was to start a fire. But, using what? Already, there was hardly anything
left that was flammable, my house was just a skeleton of inorganic
materials. This, and similar speculation, was useless in the end. The best
thing—I told myself—is not to think at all. And to wait. Seated on the
edge of the bathtub, to wait. Contemplating with stupid attention those
familiar objects that were so deprived of interest: the sink, the mirror,
the tiles...

The artichokes have already begun gnawing and perforating the


bathroom door in twenty different places. Soon there will be twenty
narrow openings and, suddenly, twenty dull-green heads advancing
toward me.

I am waiting: neither resigned nor passive. I have torn out the towel rack
and am grasping it like a cudgel: I shall not give up without a fight; I
intend to inflict the maximum damage. I repeat what I said in the
beginning: I have learned a great deal, but there is still a lot I don’t know
about the habits of the artichoke.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Thomas C. Meehan

In Self-Defense

It was about ten o'clock on a Saturday morning. My eldest son, who's


the devil incarnate, thoughtlessly scrawled a curlicue on the door of the
neighboring apartment with a piece of wire. Nothing alarming or
catastrophic, just a quick little flourish, most likely unnoticeable to
anyone who wasn't on the lookout for it.
I confess this with embarrassment: at first I thought about keeping
quiet (who hasn't had such moments of weakness?). But then I realized
that the right thing was to apologize to my neighbor and offer to pay for
the damages. This decision in favor of honesty was supported by my
confidence that the costs would be slight.
I gave a quick rap on their door. About my neighbors I knew only
that they were new in the building, that there were three of them, and
that they were blond. When they spoke, I found out they were foreign.
When they spoke a bit more, I assumed them to be German, Austrian, or
Swiss.
They laughed good-naturedly and gave no importance whatsoever to
the scrawl; it was so insignificant that they even pretended to strain to
be able to see it with a magnifying glass.
They firmly and cheerfully rejected my apologies, said that «boys will
be boys, » and, in short, refused to let me pay for the repair costs.
We took leave of one another with hearty handshakes amidst
resounding laughter.
When I returned to my apartment, my wife - who had been watching
through the peephole - anxiously asked me: «Will the painting be
expensive? »
I calmed her: «They won't take a cent. »
«Lucky break, » she replied, and squeezed her purse slightly.
No sooner did I turn around when I saw a tiny white envelope by the
door. Inside was a calling card. Two names printed in small square
letters: WILHELM HOFFER AND BRUNNEHILDE H. KORNFELD
HOFFER. Then, in minute blue handwriting, there was added: «and
little Wilhelm Gustav Hoffer send cordial greetings to Mr. and Mrs.
Sorrentino and ask a thousand pardons for the unpleasant time they
may have had over the supposed mischief - which was no such thing - of
little Juan Manuel Sorrentino when he adorned our old door with a cute
little sketch. »
«Good heavens! » I exclaimed. «Such genteel people. They not only
don't get angry, but they offer apologies to boot. »

<2>
To repay such kindliness in some way, I took a new children's book
that I was keeping as a gift for Juan Manuel and asked him to present it
to little Wilhelm Gustav Hoffer.
That was my lucky day; Juan Manuel obeyed without imposing any
humiliating conditions on me, and he returned bearing the sincerest
thanks of the Hoffers and their offspring.
It was about twelve o'clock noon. On Saturdays I usually attempt,
unsuccessfully, to get in some reading. I sat down, opened the book,
read two words, and the doorbell rang. On these occasions, I'm always
the only one at home and I have to get up. I let out a grunt of annoyance
and went to open the door. There I found a young man with a mustache,
dressed in the uniform of a little tin soldier, eclipsed behind a huge
bouquet of roses.
I signed a paper, handed him a tip, received a kind of military salute,
counted two dozen roses, and read an ocher-colored card: «Wilhelm
Hoffer and Brunnehilde H. Kornfeld Hoffer send cordial greetings to
Mr. and Mrs. Sorrentino and to little Juan Manuel Sorrentino, and thank
them for the lovely book of children's stories - nourishment for the spirit
- with which they have honored little Wilhelm Gustav. »
Just at that moment, my wife returned from the market, burdened
with shopping bags and stress: «What beautiful roses! Do I ever love
flowers! How did it ever occur to you to buy them, you who never think
of anything? »
I had to confess they were a gift from the Hoffers.
«We've got to show our appreciation for this, » she said, distributing
the roses in vases. «We'll invite them to tea. »
I had other plans for that Saturday. Weakly, I ventured: «This
afternoon? »
«Don't put off till tomorrow what you can do today. »
It was about six p.m. Gleaming chinaware and a snow-white
tablecloth covered the dining room table. A short time before, obeying
orders from my wife - who was seeking a Viennese touch - I had to put
in an appearance at a delicatessen on Cabildo Avenue to buy some little
tea sandwiches, tiny pastries, sweets, and other dainties. Everything first
rate, of course, and the package tied up with a little red-and-white
ribbon, so that it all really whet the appetite. As I passed by a hardware
store, a mean stinginess drove me to compare the amount of my recent
purchases with the price of the most gigantic can of the best paint. I
experienced a slight feeling of distress.
<3>
The Hoffers didn't come empty-handed. They were encumbered by
an enormous cake - white, creamy, baroque - that would have sufficed
for a whole regiment of soldiers. My wife was overwhelmed by the
excessive generosity of the present. I was, too, but I was now feeling
slightly uncomfortable. The Hoffers, whose chatter consisted mainly of
apologies and flattery, did not succeed in capturing my interest. Juan
Manuel and little Willie, whose games consisted mainly of running,
fighting, shouting, and wreaking havoc, did succeed in alarming me.
At eight o'clock it would have seemed to me commendable of them to
leave. But in the kitchen my wife whispered in my ear: «They've been so
nice. That cake! We've got to invite them to dinner. »
«To eat what? There's nothing to eat. Why have dinner when we're
not hungry? »
«If there's no food here, there will be at the dell. As far as not being
hungry is concerned, who said we have to eat? The important thing is to
share a table and spend an enjoyable time together. »
Despite the fact that the important thing was not the food, around ten
in the evening, loaded down like a mule, I again transported huge,
fragrant packages from the delicatessen. Once again, the Hoffers
demonstrated that they were not the kind of people who show up
empty-handed; they brought thirty bottles of Italian wine and five of
French cognac in a chest made of iron and bronze.
It was about two o'clock in the morning. Exhausted by my treks,
gorged with an excess of food, intoxicated on the wine and cognac, and
giddy with the emotion of friendship, I fell asleep immediately. It was a
lucky thing; at six o'clock, the Hoffers, dressed in casual clothes and with
their eyes protected by dark glasses, rang the doorbell. We were driving
with them to their country house in the neighboring town of Ingeniero
Maschwitz.
Anyone who says this town is right near Buenos Aires would be
lying. In the car I thought nostalgically about my mate, my newspaper,
my leisure time. If I kept my eyes open, they burned; if I closed them, I
fell asleep. The Hoffers, mysteriously rested, chattered and laughed
during the whole trip.
At their country place, which was very pretty, they treated us like
kings. We basked in the sun, swam in the pool, had a delicious cookout,
and I even took a nap under a tree full of ants. When I woke up, it
dawned on me that we had come empty-handed.
<4>
«Don't be boorish, » my wife whispered. «At least buy something for
the kid. »
I took Willie for a walk through the town. In front of a toyshop
window, I asked him: «What would you like me to buy you? »
«A horse. »
I thought he was referring to a little toy horse, but I was mistaken; I
returned to the country house on the rump of a spirited bay, holding on
to little Wilhelm's waist and without even a small cushion for my aching
behind.
Thus passed Sunday.
On Monday, when I got home from work, I found Mr. Hoffer
teaching Juan Manuel to ride a motorcycle. «How's it going? » he asked
me. «Do you like what I gave the lad? »
«But he's too young to ride a motorcycle, » I objected.
«Then I'll give it to you. »
Would that he had never said that. Seeing himself stripped of his
recent gift, Juan Manuel burst into an ear-splitting conniption fit.
«Poor little guy, » Mr. Hoffer sympathized. «Kids are like that. Come
on, little fellow, I've got something nice for you. »
I got on the motorcycle, and, since I don't know how to ride one, I
began to make motorcycle sounds with my mouth.
«Halt, right there, or I'll shoot you! » Juan Manuel was aiming an air
rifle at me.
«Never aim at the eyes, » Mr. Hoffer advised him.
I made the sound of a motorcycle braking, and Juan Manuel stopped
pointing the gun at me. We both went upstairs to our apartment, rather
pleased.
«Oh sure, it's all fine and dandy to receive gifts, » my wife pointed
out. «But you have to know how to reciprocate. Let's see what you can
do in that department. »
I grasped her meaning. On Tuesday I acquired an imported
automobile and a carbine. Mr. Hoffer asked me why I had gone to the
trouble; with his first shot, little Willie broke a street light.
On Wednesday there were three gifts. For me, a massive bus used for
international travel, equipped with air conditioning, a bathroom, sauna,
restaurant, and ballroom. For Juan Manuel, a bazooka manufactured in
Asia. For my wife, a luxurious white evening gown.
«Where am I going to wear that gown? » she commented,
disappointed. «On the bus? It's your fault for never giving his wife
anything. That's why I'm getting handouts now. »

<5>
A horrendous explosion almost deafened me. To test his bazooka,
Juan Manuel had just demolished, with a single shot, the house on the
corner, which has fortunately been uninhabited for some time.
But my wife was still going on with her complaints: «Oh, sure, for the
gentleman, a bus big enough to travel in as far as Brazil. For the young
master of the house, a weapon powerful enough to defend himself
against the cannibals of Mato Grosso. But for the maid, a little party
dress. Those Hoffers, like the good Europeans they are, are a bunch of
cheapskates. »
I climbed up into my bus and started the engine. At a solitary spot
near the river, I stopped and parked. Lost in the huge seat, enjoying the
cool half-light that the drawn window shades afforded me, I there gave
myself over to serene meditation.
When I knew exactly what I had to do, I headed for the government
ministry to see Perez. Like all Argentines, I have a friend in a ministry,
and this friend's name is Perez. Now, although I'm quite enterprising, in
this case I needed Perez to intercede with his influence.
And I succeeded.
I live in the district of Las Cañitas, which is now called San Benito de
Palermo. To build a railroad from the Lisandro de la Torre station to the
door-way of my house, the silent, resourceful, and uninterrupted labor
of a multitudinous army of engineers, technicians, and workmen was
called for. Using the most specialized and up-to-date international
machinery, and after expropriating and demolishing the four blocks of
sumptuous buildings that formerly extended along Libertador Avenue
between Olleros and Matienzo Streets, they crowned such an intrepid
undertaking with resounding success. It's superfluous to point out that
the buildings' owners received fair, instantaneous compensation. The
fact is that, with a Perez in a ministry, there's no such word as
impossible.
This time I wanted to surprise Mr. Hoffer. When he came out at eight
o'clock Thursday morning, he found a shiny red-and-yellow diesel
locomotive hitched to six railroad cars. Over the door of the locomotive,
a little sign read: WELCOME TO YOUR TRAIN, MR. HOFFER.
«A train! » he cried. «A whole train, just for me! It's the dream of my
life come true! I've wanted to drive a train ever since I was a little boy! »
Mad with joy and without even thanking me, he climbed up into his
engine, where a simple instruction manual awaited him to explain how
to run it.

<6>
«Hey, wait, » I said, «don't be so rambunctious. Look what I bought
for little Wilhelm. » A powerful tank was destroying the sidewalk
pavement with its caterpillar treads.
«Neat-o! » shouted little Wilhelm. «And how I've been wanting to
blow away the obelisk. »
«I didn't forget your wife either, » I added. And I handed him the
very finest, softest mink coat, recently received from France.
Since the Hoffers were so eager and playful, they wanted to try out
their presents at that very instant.
But in each gift I had placed a little trap.
The mink was coated on the inside with a magic evaporating
emulsion that a witch doctor from the Congo had given me, so that,
scarcely did she wrap herself in It, Madam Brunnehilde was first
scorched and then turned into a gossamery little white cloud, which
disappeared up into the sky.
No sooner did little Willie take his first cannon shot at the obelisk,
when the tank turret, actuated by a special device, was shot off into
space, and it deposited the little fellow, safe and sound, on one of the ten
moons of the planet Saturn.
When Mr. Hoffer set his train in motion, it swiftly and uncontrollably
hurtled along an atomic viaduct, the route of which, after crossing the
Atlantic, northwest Africa, and the Strait of Sicily, suddenly ended in the
crater of the Mount Etna volcano, which, at that time, was erupting.
So it was that Friday came around, and we received no gifts from the
Hoffers. In the evening, as she was preparing dinner, my wife said:
«Yeah, that's the way it goes. Be kind to your neighbors. Spend money.
A train, a tank, a mink coat. And what do they do? Not even a little
thank-you card. »

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

Mere Suggestion
My friends say I am very suggestible. I think they're right. As evidence
of this, they bring up a little incident that I was involved in last
Thursday.
That morning I was reading a horror novel and, although it was
broad daylight, I fell victim to the power of suggestion. This suggestion
implanted in me the idea that there was a bloodthirsty murderer in the
kitchen; and this bloodthirsty murderer, brandishing an enormous
dagger, was waiting for me to enter the kitchen so he could leap upon
me aid plunge the knife into my back. So, in spite of my being seated
directly across from the kitchen door, in spite of the fact that no one
could have gone into the kitchen without my having seen him, and that
there was no other access to the kitchen but that door; in spite of all
these facts, I, nonetheless, was fully convinced that the murderer lurked
behind the closed door.
So I fell victim to the power of suggestion and did not have the
courage to enter the kitchen. This worried me, because lunch time was
approaching and it would be indispensable for me to go into the kitchen.
Then the doorbell rang.
"Come in!" I yelled without standing up. "It's not locked."
The building superintendent came in, with two or three letters.
"My leg fell asleep," I said. "Could you go to the kitchen and bring me
a glass of water?"
The super said, "Of course," opened the kitchen door and went in. I
heard a cry of pain and the sound of a body that, in collapsing, dragged
with it dishes or bottles. Then I leaped from my chair and ran to the
kitchen. The super, half his body on the table and an enormous dagger
plunged into his back, lay dead. Now, calmed down, I was able to
determine that, of course, there was no murderer in the kitchen.
As is logical, it was a case of mere suggestion.

**
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

Method for Defense against Scorpions

People are surprised, fearful and even indignant over the considerable
proliferation of scorpions which threatens Buenos Aires, a city which
until quite recently had been entirely free of this particular genus of
arachnid.
Unimaginative individuals have recourse to an overly traditional
method of defense against the scorpions: the employment of poisons.
The more imaginative fill their houses with toads, frogs and lizards, in
the hope that they will devour the scorpions. Both groups fail
abominably: the scorpions firmly refuse to ingest poisons while the
reptiles refuse to ingest scorpions. Both groups, in their ineptness and
haste, succeed in one thing only: to exacerbate - even more, if possible -
the hatred which scorpions profess toward all humanity.
I have a different method. I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to
disseminate it; like all trailblazers, I am misunderstood. I believe my
method to be, in all modesty, not only the best, but the only possible
method of defense against the scorpions.
Its basic principle consists of avoiding a direct confrontation, of
engaging in brief but risky skirmishes, of concealing our enmity from
the scorpions. (Of course, I know that one must proceed with caution, I
know that the sting of a scorpion is fatal. It is true that if I were to stuff
myself into a diving suit I would be completely safe from the scorpion; it
is no less true that if I were to do that the scorpions would know, with
complete certainty, that I fear them. And I am very much afraid of
scorpions. But one mustn't lose his equanimity.)
An elementary measure, one which is effective while free from
overemphasis on violence and ominous theatricals, is composed of two
simple steps. The first is to tie the cuffs of my trousers with very taut
rubber bands; this is to prevent the scorpions from crawling up my legs.
The second is to pretend that I suffer greatly from cold and to wear a
pair of leather gloves at all times; this is to avoid being stung on the
hands. (More than one negative spirit has pointed out only the
disadvantages that this method entails in the summer without
recognizing its undeniable and more general merits.) The head,
however, should be left uncovered; this is the best way of presenting the
scorpions with a brave and optimistic image of ourselves. Besides,
scorpions are not normally in the habit of hurling themselves from the
ceiling onto the human face, although at times they do. (This, at any rate,
is what happened to my late neighbor, the mother of four cunning little
kiddies, now orphans. To make matters worse, these facts give rise to
erroneous theories which only serve to make the struggle against the
scorpions more arduous and troublesome. As a matter of fact, the
surviving husband, with no adequate scientific basis, affirms that the six
scorpions were attracted by the intensely blue color of the victim's eyes
and adduces as flimsy proof of such a rash assertion the fact, totally
fortuitous, that the stings were distributed in groups of three to each
pupil. I honestly believe that this is a mere superstition dreamed up by
the cowardly mind of this pusillanimous individual.)

<2>
Exactly as when on the defense, it is necessary to pretend to be
unaware of the existence of the scorpions while attacking them. As
though by accident, I - as cool as could be - managed to kill from eighty
to a hundred scorpions every day. I proceed in the following manner
which, for the survival of the human race, I hope will be imitated and, if
possible, perfected.
Appearing distracted, I sit down in the kitchen and begin to read the
newspaper. Every once in a while I look at my watch and mumble to
myself, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the scorpions: "Damn!
Why the devil doesn't Perez call?" Perez' undependability angers me
and provides the excuse to stamp my feet wrathfully on the floor a few
times; in this way I massacre no less than ten of the innumerable
scorpions which cover the floor. At irregular intervals I repeat my
expression of impatience and in this manner I manage to kill quite a
large number. This is not to say that I slight the equally innumerable
scorpions which completely cover the ceiling and the walls (which are
five quivering, throbbing, shifting black seas); from time to time I feign
an attack of hysteria and hurl some heavy object against the wall, not
neglecting to keep cursing that damned Perez for taking so long to call.
It's a shame that I've already broken several sets of cups and dishes and
that I live among dented pots and pans; but the price of defending
oneself from the scorpions is high. At last, someone inevitably calls. "It's
Perez!" I shout and rush to the phone. Naturally, my haste and my
anxiousness are such that I fail to notice the thousands upon thousands
of scorpions which softly carpet the floor and burst underfoot with the
gelatinously harsh sound of an egg being cracked. At times - but only at
times; it wouldn't do to overindulge in this recourse - I trip and fall full
length, thus appreciably enlarging the area of my impact and,
consequently, the number of dead scorpions. When I get to my feet once
more, my clothes are completely decorated with the sticky corpses of a
great many scorpions; detaching them one by one is a delicate task but
one which allows me to savor my triumph.
<3>
Now I'd like to indulge in a short digression in order to relate an
anecdote, enlightening in itself, concerning an incident that happened to
me some days ago and in which, without intending to do so, I played a
heroic role, if I say so myself.
It was lunch time. As usual I found the table covered with scorpions;
the silverware, covered with scorpions; the stove, covered with
scorpions... With patience, with resignation, with my eyes averted, I
gradually pushed them off and on to the floor. Since the struggle against
the scorpions consumes the greater part of my time, I decided to fix
myself a fast meal: a few fried eggs. There I was, eating them, every so
often pushing aside some particularly bold scorpion that had climbed
up on the table or that was walking on my knees when, from the ceiling,
an especially vigorous and robust scorpion fell - or jumped - into my
plate.
Petrified, I dropped my knife and fork. How was I to interpret that
behavior? Was it merely a chance occurrence? An attack on my person?
A test? I remained perplexed for some instants ... What were the
scorpions' intentions toward me? Being a seasoned soldier in the battle
against them, I understood immediately. They wanted to force me to
modify my method of defense, to make me decidedly shift to the
offensive. But I was very sure of the effectiveness of my strategy; they
would not succeed in tricking me.
With repressed rage I saw the scorpion's thick, hairy legs splashing in
the eggs, I saw its body becoming impregnated with yellow, I saw the
venomous tail waving in the air like a shipwrecked sailor calling for
help... Objectively considered, the scorpion's death struggle constituted
a beautiful spectacle. But it made me a bit nauseous. I almost bungled it;
I thought of tossing the contents of the plate into the incinerator. Still, I
have a great deal of will power and managed to restrain myself in time.
If I had not, I would have earned the abhorrence and the reproof of the
thousands upon thousands of scorpions which, with renewed suspicion,
were watching me from the ceiling, the walls, the floor, the stove, the
lamps ... Then they would have had a pretext to consider themselves
under attack and who knows what could have occurred.

<4>
I steeled myself and, pretending not to notice the scorpion that was
still struggling in my plate, I ate it distractedly together with the egg and
even mopped the plate with a crust of bread in order not to leave even
one bit of scorpion and egg. It turned out to be not as repugnant as I had
feared. Just a trifle acid perhaps, but that sensation might have been due
to the fact that my palate was still unaccustomed to the ingestion of
scorpions. With the last mouthful I smiled with satisfaction. Later it
occurred to me that the scorpion's shell, tougher than I would have
liked, might cause me indigestion so, delicately, in order not to offend
the rest of the scorpions, I drank a glass of Alka Seltzer.
There are other variants of this method but, and this is the crux of it, it
is necessary to remember that it is essential to proceed as if one were
unaware of the presence - better yet, the existence - of the scorpions.
Even so, I am now assaulted by some doubts. I think the scorpions have
begun to realize that my attacks are not accidents. Yesterday, when I
dropped a pot of boiling water on the floor, I noticed that, from the
refrigerator door, some three or four hundred scorpions were observing
me rancorously, suspiciously, reprovingly.
Maybe my method too is destined to fail. But, for now, I cannot think
of any better method of defending myself from the scorpions.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Thomas C. Meehan

Piccirilli

For some time now, my bookshelves have been filled to capacity and
overflowing. I should have had them enlarged, but wood and labor are
expensive, and I prefer to put off these expenses in favor of other, more
urgent ones. In the meantime, I've resorted to a temporary solution: I
placed the books in flat, and in this way I managed to make better use of
the little space available.
Now it's well known that books - whether they're vertical or
horizontal - gather dust, bugs, and cobwebs. I haven't the time, the
patience, or the dedication to do the periodical cleaning required.
On a certain cloudy Saturday a few months ago, I finally decided to
take all the books out one by one, give them a dusting off, and run a
damp dustcloth over the shelves.
On one of the lower shelves, I found Piccirilli. Despite the dust in
those nooks, his appearance was, as always, impeccable. But I became
aware of that only later. At first, he just looked to me like a piece of
shoestring or a bit of cloth. But I was mistaken; it was already Piccirilli,
from head to foot. That is to say, a complete little man five centimeters in
height.
In an absurd way, it struck me as strange that he should be dressed.
Of course, there was no reason for him to be naked, and the fact that
Piccirilli is tiny does not warrant our thinking of him as an animal.
Stated more precisely, then, I was surprised not so much by the fact that
he was dressed as by how he was dressed: a plumed hat, a filmy shirt
with point lace edging, a coat with long tails, leather, floppy topped hip
boots, and a sword at his waist.
With his bristly mustache and his pointed, little Vandyke beard,
Piccirilli was a tiny living facsimile of D'Artagnan, the hero of The Three
Musketeers, just as I remembered him from old illustrations.
So then, why did I name him Piccirilli and not D'Artagnan, as would
seem logical? I think, above all, for two complementary reasons: the first
is that his sharp pointed physique literally demands the small i's of
Piccirilli and rules out, accordingly, the robust a's of D'Artagnan; the
second is that, when I spoke to him in French, Piccirilli didn't
understand a word, which demonstrated to me that, since he was no
Frenchman, neither was he D'Artagnan.

<2>
Piccirilli must be fifty years old; there are a few silver threads running
through his dark hair. I am thus calculating his age the way we do with
human beings of our size. Except that I don't know whether identical
amounts of time are meted out to someone of Piccirilli's tininess. Seeing
that he is so diminutive, one tends to think - unjustifiably? - that
Piccirilli's life is shorter and that his time passes more swiftly than ours,
as we understand the case to be in animals or insects .
But who can know that? And even in the event that it is so, how does
one explain the fact that Piccirilli wears seventeenth-century clothes? Is
it conceivable that Piccirilli is nearly four hundred years old? Can
Piccirilli, that being who occupies so little space, hold title to so much
time? Piccirilli, that being of such fragile appearance?
I should like to question Piccirilli on these and other matters, and I
should like him to respond; and, in fact, I often do put such questions to
him and, in effect, Piccirilli answers them. But he can't manage to make
himself understood, and I don't even know whether he understands my
questions. He does listen to me with an attentive look on his face, and,
no sooner do I fall silent, he hastens to answer me. To answer me, yes,
but in what language is Piccirilli speaking? Would that he spoke in some
language I don't know; the trouble is, he speaks in a language that is
nonexistent on earth.
Despite his physique so suitable to the letter i, Piccirilli's high-pitched
little voice only utters words in which the exclusive vowel is the o. Of
course, since Piccirilli's voice timbre is so extremely shrill, that o sounds
almost like an i. This, however, is a mere conjecture on my part, since
Piccirilli never pronounced the i; hence, neither can I guarantee, by way
of comparison, that that o is really an o, nor, as a matter of fact, that it is
any other vowel.
With my scanty knowledge I endeavored to determine what language
Piccirilli speaks. My attempts proved unfruitful, except that I was able to
establish in his speech an invariable succession of consonants and
vowels.
This discovery could have some importance if one were sure that, in
reality, Piccirilli speaks some language. Because any language, however
poor or primitive it may be, will probably be characterized by a certain
linguistic scope. But the fact is that all of Piccirilli's speech is reduced to
this phrase: "Dolokotoro povosoro kolovoko."

<3>
I call it "phrase" for the sake of convenience, for who can know what
those three words contain? Whether they really are words, and whether
there really are three? I have written them like that because those are the
pauses I seem to perceive in Piccirilli's single-stringed diction.
As far as I know, no European language possesses such phonetic
characteristics. As for African, American, or Asiatic languages, my
ignorance is total. But that doesn't concern me since, on the basis of all
evidence, Piccirilli is, like us, of European origin.
For that reason, I addressed him with sentences in Spanish, English,
French, Italian; for that reason, I attempted words in German. In all
instances, Piccirilli's imperturbable little voice responded: "Dolokotoro
povosoro kolovoko."
At times Piccirilli irritates me; other times I feel sorry for him. It's
obvious he regrets not being able to make himself understood and
thereby initiate a conversation with us.
'Us' includes my wife and me. The intrusion of Piccirilli produced no
change in our lives. And the truth is that we esteem and even love
Piccirilli, that minuscule musketeer who eats with us in a very mannerly
way and who keeps - Lord knows where - an entire wardrobe and
personal possessions proportionate to his size.
Although I can't get him to answer my questions, I do know he is
aware that we call him Piccirilli, and he has no objection to being called
that. On occasion, my wife affectionately calls him Pichi. This seems to
me like a breach of formality. It's true that Piccirilli's smallness lends
itself to affectionate nicknames and loving diminutives. But, on the other
hand, he's already a mature man, perhaps four centuries old, and it
would be more appropriate to call him Mr. Piccirilli, save for the fact
that it's very hard to call such a tiny man Mister.
In general, Piccirilli is quite proper and demonstrates exemplary
behavior. At times, however, he playfully attacks flies or ants with his
sword. At other times he sits in a little toy truck, and, pulling it by a
string, I take him for long rides around the apartment. These are his
meager amusements.
Does Piccirilli get bored? Can he be alone in the world? Are there
other creatures of his kind? Where can he have come from? When was
he born? Why does he dress like a musketeer? Why does he live with
us? What are his intentions?

<4>
Useless questions repeated hundreds of times, to which Piccirilli
monotonously responds: "Dolokotoro povosoro kolovoko."
There are so many things I would like to know about Piccirilli; there
are so many mysteries he will carry with him to the grave.
Because, unfortunately, Piccirilli has been dying for some weeks. We
suffered a great deal when he got sick. Seriously ill, we immediately
learned. But what treatment could be devised to cure him? Who would
dare surrender the tiny body of the being called Piccirilli to a physician's
judgment? What explanation would we give? How were we to explain
the unexplainable, how speak of something about which we are
ignorant?
Yes, Piccirilli is leaving us. And, helpless, we shall let him die. I'm
already concerned about knowing what we're to do with his almost
intangible corpse. But I'm more concerned, infinitely more concerned,
over not having delved deeply into a secret that I held in my hands and
that, without my being able to prevent it, will escape me forever.
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Jonathan Cole

Problem Solved

Who hasn't heard of the Insignia Financial Group, a lending institution


that underwrites vehicles, agricultural and industrial machinery and,
generally, all types of manufacturing products?
I spent three years working at the branch office over in the Parque
Patricios neighborhood located on Avenida Caseros. After I was
promoted to a higher position, the company transferred me to the
Palermo branch on Avenida Santa Fe. Since I already lived over on Calle
Costa Rica, just six blocks away, the change worked out very well for
me.
Although prohibited by regulations, every now and then we were
visited by a few vendors and sales representatives who peddled a
variety of articles. Our bosses tended to be lenient and let them in, and
so it had become routine practice for the employees to buy things from
these people.
This is how I met Boitus, an exceptionally odd person. He was thin as
a wire and balding, wore antique-style glasses, and always dressed in
the same grimy, threadbare gray suit, all of which gave him the air of a
man who had escaped from a silent film era movie. He had a speech
defect, causing his "r" to sound like "d".
He sold encyclopedias and dictionaries in installments and took cash
payments for other less costly books. I became one of Boitus' clients
because it proved to be a convenient arrangement: I would ask him for a
certain book by a certain author and a few days later Boitus would show
up, always reliable, with the book in question and at the same price as at
the local book store.
It didn't take me long to figure out that Boitus was not only
extravagant in the way he looked, but also in the way he moved and
talked. The vocabulary he used was both peculiar and exclusive: when
speaking of Juan Pérez, our nation's president, he referred to Chief
What's-His-Name. He didn't use the sidewalk, but rather the public
walkway. He didn't ride on the underground rail, microbuses or trains;
instead he traveled on the public passenger transportation system. He
never said, "I don't know"; it was always, I'm unaware.
One day, as I listened to a certain exchange, I could hardly believe my
ears. While at my desk, concentrating on some work related matters, I
heard Lucy, one of our most veteran employees on the verge of retiring,
ask him, "Tell me, Boitus, have you ever thought about getting married?"

<2>
My curiosity forced me to look up and glance over at Boitus. He
broke into a smile that was considerate, perhaps even indulgent.
"Why, my dear Ms. Lucy, there's a simple answer to your question."
He paused for effect. "I can't marry for three reasons: in the first place,
I'm not in an economic position to do so; secondly, I lack the funds; and
thirdly, I'm broke."
Boitus' answer and, especially, the bewildered look on Lucy's face
caused me to burst out laughing, although I tried my best to contain it.
"Well, well," I told myself, "this Boitus guy is quite the comedian."
I got used to Boitus' periodic visits, during which, besides finalizing
book purchases, I was entertained by his eccentricities, paradoxes, logic
and outlandish ideas.
He always showed up carrying a brown leather briefcase, so worn
that it had become gray, in which he kept invoices, receipts, brochures
on encyclopedias, business cards ... anyway, a collection of business
related papers which, God knows why, he generically termed his
judgment tools. But besides the briefcase, he always carried five or six
packages with him: cardboard boxes filled with books to be delivered.
The day came when our branch manager, Mr. Gatti - an easy going
and understanding guy - was promoted and transferred to the head
office. His replacement, Mr. Linares, wasn't really a bad person;
however he had a baroque way of speaking, loved circumlocution and
was a stickler for rules and regulations. The moment he took over, he
laid down the law and from them on, neither Boitus nor any of the other
salesmen were allowed over the threshold of the Palermo branch of the
Insignia Financial Group.
It was a minor problem, quickly resolved. Boitus and I exchanged
phone numbers and thus, my purchases and his sales could continue,
but with one difference: instead of delivering books to the office, Boitus
brought them to my house.
At some point I realized that I'd now been working at the Palermo
branch office a full year and that, consequently, I'd known Boitus for a
year and that I bought books from him at fairly regular intervals. But at
no point did he ever refer to himself as a "bookseller". He called himself
a cultural disseminator.
The cultural disseminator would arrive at my apartment weighted
down by his dilapidated briefcase, packages and cardboard boxes to
deliver my books, after which he would usually rattle off a string of
surprising sophisms and, after about 15 minutes, would leave.

<3>
I remember well his final visit. Boitus had unleashed an especially
strange and extended monologue aimed at instructing me in the use of
an absurd taxonomy of his own invention. According to his schema,
coffee was a brew, tea was an infusion and boiled mate leaves, a tonic.
However, I couldn't get him to explain the grounds for these
classifications.
Then something weird happened: his ideas, which had seemed funny
to me at first, suddenly started to irritate me, undoubtedly because of
the visceral rejection I feel toward irrationality and error. And, despite
suppressing my aggravation, I watched happily as Boitus finally
departed with his shabby briefcase and his boxes and packages.
Being that the ground level entrance was permanently locked, I had
to follow him down and let him out of the building. Returning to my
apartment, I realized Boitus had forgotten one of his parcels on a chair.
It was a round cardboard container, very similar to the ones used to
store men's hats. Two green ribbons, originating along its edges but now
fallen against each side, functioned as a way to carry the box
comfortably.
I removed the lid and, although he couldn't possibly have arrived
home yet, I immediately called to inform him of the forgotten
merchandise. The phone rang five times before the answering machine
picked up. I left a message, the tone of which - polite, yet urgent - left no
room for doubt.
That night, Boitus did not return my call. The next day, either. I tried
calling and leaving messages for several days at different times.
When I called a week later the phone rang I don't know how many
times but neither Boitus nor his answering machine picked up. "The
phone must be disconnected," I told myself.
A few hours later my calls were answered by a female voice that
recited: "The number you have dialed does not belong to any client
within the Telecom network." A while later, dialing Boitus' number
produced nothing but silence, as though both the number and the phone
itself had disappeared.
At the office, I mentioned all this to Rossi, whose desk adjoins mine,
and he offered to come over to my place.
"As long as it isn't a bother," he added.
"Quite the opposite," I said, "I'd appreciate your help."
And so it happened that, having finished our workday, Rossi visited
my apartment for the first and last time. Opening the box he drew back
with a distasteful look on his face.

<4>
"Oh man. Looks like this is going to be complicated."
"Definitely. Can't say I didn't warn you."
Then Rossi completely lost interest in the box and became distracted
as he looked around. In a matter of seconds he had me feeling nervous.
He's a restless guy and started walking the length of the apartment
offering different criticisms or suggestions which I had never asked for,
such as, "This would be a good place to hang a mirror," or "Aren't your
doors sealed against draughts? There seems to be air getting in."
He stopped in front of a framed picture of Cecilia Capelli, picked it
up for a moment, put it back down in a slightly different location and
then commented, "So this is your girlfriend? Cute girl, congratulations."
I told myself that he could have dispensed with both his remark and
the congratulations: my love affair with Cecilia was in a state of
deterioration and several times I had been tempted to get rid of the
picture since its presence only served to upset me.
He then inspected my library and seized the opportunity to ask to
borrow A History of Argentinean Soccer. I detest lending books (or
borrowing them, for that matter) but as he had been so kind as to come
over and help me, I couldn't say no.
I had ascertained that Rossi was restless. A few days later I found out
that, in addition, he tended to talk too much. Consequently, on Friday,
Mr. Linares called me to his office and closed the door after I'd entered.
Through the intercom he commanded, "Flavia, no calls until further
notice."
He had me sit facing him over his desk and then, with a smile that
was intended to look congenial but was obviously forced, he told me,
"My dear Sainz, it's not that I want to involve myself in something that's
none of my business, but in a certain way, you being a young man of 28,
relatively new to the company, and seeing how ... "
"I'm about to be heaved down into the labyrinth of his meandering
prose," I thought.
" ... I'm somewhat older, with more years under my belt, and your
manager on top of that, a kind of father figure within the company you
could say, I have a kind of - how should I put it? - moral obligation to
help you. Am I right?"

<5>
Since Mr. Linares was waiting for an answer, I immediately agreed,
motivated by the desire to get him to stop talking as soon as humanly
possible.
"Well then," he continued, "if it is acceptable to you, tomorrow, which
is Saturday and will give us some free time, I'll take a little jaunt over to
your house to see what we can do ... "
I had no choice but to accept his offer. Back at my desk, Rossi avoided
eye contact. However, a few minutes later he approached me and
muttered in my ear, "Don't think I'm the one who told him about it. He
already knew. It's hard to hide these things."
I wondered how Rossi knew that Linares had found out.
On Saturday I had to get up early. I couldn't have Mr. Linares over to
a typical bachelor's apartment that hadn't been cleaned in at least two
weeks. I spent most of my morning on detestable chores: vacuuming the
floor, dusting the furniture, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen ... Finally
by 11 my house was in a presentable state for receiving Mr. Linares.
When he showed up he wasn't alone. With him were Araujo, our
office errand boy who was fond of gambling, and another gentleman I
had never met who wore a suit, tie and spectacles.
"Dr. Venancio," said Linares, introducing him. "He's a legal
representative, or, if you prefer, an attorney, who will certify the
affidavit. As for Araujo," he added affably, "he needs no introduction.
Who doesn't owe Araujo a favor or two, right?"
Araujo, dressed in his office uniform, smiled shyly.
"Araujo is only here as a witness, so that Dr. Venancio can get his
signature on the affidavit."
"Fine," I said. "Sounds good."
Mr. Linares took the lid off the box and, holding the lid in his right
hand, carefully examined the contents. Dr. Venancio and Araujo
immediately did the same.
"Everything in order, Araujo?" Mr. Linares asked.
"Yes, Sir, no problem."
Dr. Venancio spread the affidavit out on the dinning room table. It
was three pages long. He signed his name in the margins of the first two
and at the bottom of the third. Then he turned to Araujo and indicated
he should do the same. Araujo signed slowly; it was obvious he was not
very seasoned at working with papers and documents.

<6>
"Should I sign?" I asked.
"It's not necessary," replied the notary public, "but it isn't prohibited,
either. It's up to you."
"I'm going to sign just in case."
I took a moment to read the affidavit and confirmed that it rigorously
conformed to the truth. Then I signed it.
"And you, Mr. Linares? Would you like to sign?"
"No, Doctor, it doesn't appear to be necessary. Or even prudent."
After exchanging a few platitudes about the weather, my visitors left.
I had planned to go to the movies that night with Cecilia but around
six in the evening she called to cancel the date.
"The problem is my father," she explained. "Well, that is, if you want
to call it a problem. I don't think there's any reason for concern, but he
does. He thinks that your situation might affect his chances of getting
elected mayor."
I felt like telling her to go to hell, along with her distinguished father,
a power hungry political schemer, but I held back and only said, "Fine,
sounds good."
I thought, "It's just as well, I'm fed up with her."
I looked up Boitus' telephone number using a directory on the
Internet and found out he lived on Calle Fraga, in the Chacarita
neighborhood. Sunday morning I headed over to the house in question.
There, I found a wooden barrier around the building with a sign that
read: NOTICE: BUILDING TO BE COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED. NEW
CONSTRUCTION OF ONE AND TWO BEDROOM APARTMENTS.
With the exception of a few unexpected events, my life continued its
normal path.
It wasn't long before I was given another promotion that entailed one
advantage and one drawback. The former involved a substantial salary
raise: suddenly I was earning practically double what I had been up to
now (which already was no small sum). The drawback resided in that I
had to carry out my new duties in the suburb of Béccar, quite a distance
from my place on Calle Costa Rica.
I added up the pros and cons and, after finally accepting the
promotion, resigned myself to a long commute between Palermo and
my new destination. The ideal situation would have been to buy a place
in Béccar or in San Isidro, but to come up with the money I first would
have had to sell the apartment on Calle Costa Rica.

<7>
Without meaning to I had also gained a certain notoriety and I
discovered that having it wasn't all that bad. Photographers and feature
writers showed up from the newspapers La Naci—n and Clar’n and
from the magazines Caras and Gente. I was subjected to interviews and
was photographed - now smiling, now solemn - next to the round box. I
was also invited to talk on television news programs, something I did
with some degree of vanity. I didn't even turn down invitations to
appear on frivolous talk shows filled with gossip and tabloid stories.
In the end, "Doctor" Ignacio Capelli didn't succeed in being elected
mayor of Tres de Febrero County, a fact that pleased me to no end. At
this point I had had it with Cecilia, so a few days later I found a random
excuse to break up with her.
On the other hand, something wonderful had happened. I had gotten
into the habit of having an afternoon snack after work at a café near
Béccar station. At the same time of day, several teachers from a nearby
school would come by after finishing with their classes. They were
lovely girls who spoke loudly and always roared with laughter.
I was attracted to one of them (I already knew her name, Guillermina)
and, more than once, our eyes - hers a crystal blue - met across the
tables. One day as I was leaving, I arranged for an "accidental" meeting
out on the sidewalk and was able to strike up a conversation. Straight
away I accompanied her home, first by train until we reached the
Belgrano neighborhood, then by foot a few blocks. She was 25 years old,
her name was Guillermina Grotz and she still lived with her parents.
Things went well and it didn't take me long to become her boyfriend
and, a few weeks later, begin intimate relations.
One afternoon, as we lay on a hotel bed, she asked me, "Wouldn't it
be cheaper for you to invite me to your apartment?"
Surprised, I looked her in the eyes. "Aren't you aware of the problem
I have ... ?"
"How could I not know? Everybody knows about it. But it can't be all
that bad."
The generosity I saw in her eyes moved me. I felt a tear welling up,
but quickly wiped it away.
The following Saturday I took Guillermina out to a movie in
Belgrano. Afterward, I treated her to dinner at a restaurant on Avenida
Cabildo.

<8>
"Well," I told her, "now we're going back to my place to end the night
on a dignified note."
As we entered the apartment and I turned on the light, Guillermina
cried out, "At last, I get to see Mr. Sainz's mysterious bunker!"
But before she had a chance to get to know the place, she stopped in
front of the round box. She hesitated for a moment, and then lifted the
lid. The expression on her face didn't change one bit, but she said, "You
were right. We should go back to what we were doing before ... "
I wanted her to define her terms, so I asked, "Should we go to the
bedroom or do you want to leave?"
"I hope I don't offend you, but I prefer to leave."
"Why should I be offended? You're completely within your rights ... "
Guillermina lived near the corner of Cuba and Mendoza. I stopped a
taxi coming down the street and bid her farewell.
But not for good. There was no reason we should break up. On the
contrary - the experience had drawn us closer together.
Three months later we were married and went to live in a tiny
apartment we had rented outside the city, in San Isidro, a place that was
soon crammed with all the belongings Guillermina and I had brought
from our respective former homes. My dinning room set consisted of a
table and four chairs, but I could only bring three of the four to San
Isidro.
At my workplace I was subjected to questions that were as naïve as
they were predictable, and, as well, faced some slightly troublesome
bureaucratic snags, none of which kept me from continuing to rise in the
company.
In fact, I'd say that in this regard I couldn't complain. Each new
success brought me a higher position and I continued to climb the
hierarchical ladder and earn more money.
One Friday afternoon (the best moment of the week) I was
summoned to the head office. No less than the senior director himself
offered congratulations and assured me that, without a shadow of a
doubt, within the year I would be named manager of the Mar del Plata
branch office.
"So, Mr. Sainz, it would be best for you to begin getting your affairs in
order ahead of time."

<9>
Mar del Plata is a magnificent assignment, although being so far
down the coast, it will mean Guillermina has to resign her teaching
position and the two of us will have to move. Once there, it won't be
hard for my wife to get a job at another school.
Guillermina and I have become frugal to the point of greediness. We
want to have enough money to buy a relatively spacious apartment in
Mar del Plata, and I believe we will. The only possible way is to save
and save and save, since we can't count on the money we would get
from the impossible sale of my former residence on Calle Costa Rica,
which - by the way - had all its utilities cut off: electricity, telephone, gas,
water ... I also stopped paying the building maintenance fees and the
municipal taxes.
"They're going to take you to court and foreclose on the apartment,"
Guillermina often comments.
Without fail I answer, "But they'll never find a buyer."
"That's true," Guillermina always replies in turn, "but it's not our
problem."

[This short story was one of the finalists in the 23rd annual 'Hucha de
Oro' Competition (FUNCAS), Madrid, Spain.]

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

Rewarding Superstitions

I live off the superstitions of others. I don't earn much and the work is
pretty hard.
My first job was in a seltzer plant. The boss believed, who can say
why, that one of the thousands of siphon bottles (yes, but which one?)
harbored the atomic bomb. He also believed that the presence of a
human being was enough to prevent that fearful energy from being
released. There were several of us employees, one for each truck. My
task consisted of remaining seated on the irregular surface of the siphon
bottles during the six hours daily required in the distribution of the
seltzer. An arduous task: the truck jolted; the seat was uncomfortable,
painful; the route was boring; the truckers, a common lot; every once in
a while a siphon bottle would explode (not the one with the atomic
bomb) and I would sustain slight injuries. Finally, tired of it, I quit. The
boss hastened to replace me with another man who, with his mere
presence, would prevent the explosion of the atomic bomb.
Immediately, I learned that a spinster lady in Belgrano had a pair of
turtles and that she believed, who can say why, that one of them (yes,
but which one?) was the Devil in the form of a turtle. Since the lady, who
always wore black and said her rosary, couldn't watch them continually,
she hired me to do so at night. "As every one knows," she explained to
me, "one of these two turtles is the Devil. When you see one of them
begin to sprout a pair of dragon wings, don't fail to inform me, because
that's the one, without a doubt, who is the Devil. Then we'll make a
bonfire and burn it alive so as to make all evil disappear from the face of
the earth." I stayed awake during the first nights, keeping an eye on the
turtles: what stupid, clumsy animals. Later I felt my zeal to be
unjustified and, just as soon as the spinster lady went to bed, I would
wrap my legs in a blanket and, curled up in a folding chair, I would
sleep away the entire night. So I never managed to discover which of the
two turtles was the Devil. Later I told the lady that I was going to give
up that job because it seemed it was bad for my health to stay awake all
night.

<2>
Besides, I had just learned that there was an old mansion in San Isidro
overlooking a deep ravine and, in the mansion, a statuette depicting a
sweet French girl from the end of the nineteenth century. The owners, a
very old, grayhaired couple, believed, who can say why, that that girl
was sad and pining for love and that if she didn't get a beau she would
die shortly. They provided me with a salary and I became the statuette's
boyfriend. I began to call on her. The old folks left us to ourselves,
though I suspect they spied on us. The girl receives me in the gloomy
parlor, we sit on a worn sofa, I bring her flowers, bon bons or books, I
write poems and letters to her, she languidly plays the piano, she
glances at me tenderly, I call her "my Love," I furtively kiss her, at times
I go beyond what is permitted by the decorum and innocence of a late
nineteenthcentury girl. Giselle loves me too, she lowers her eyes, sighs
slightly and says to me: "When will we be married?" "Soon," I answer.
"I'm saving up." Yes, but I keep putting off the date since I can't save
more than a little towards our wedding; as I've already said, you don't
earn very much living off other people's superstitions.

**
Superstitions that Pay
Fernando Sorrentino

I
live from others’ superstitions. It doesn’t bring in much money and the
work is pretty hard.

My first case was in a plant where they filled soda syphons. The owner
believed, heaven knows why, that one of the thousands of syphons (but
which one?) held an atomic bomb. He also thought that the presence of
one human being could stop the tremendous energy inside from
escaping. There were several of us hired, one per truckload. My job
consisted in sitting on the bumpy top of packed soda syphons for six
hours a day while they were being distributed. It was hard work: the
truck jolted, the place where I sat was uncomfortable, even painful, the
drive was boring; the truck drivers were a crude lot. Every now and
then a syphon would burst (not, however the one with the bomb in it)
and I’d receive several small cuts. Finally, worn out, I handed in my
resignation. The boss quickly replaced me with another man whose
mere presence, the same as mine, could stop an atomic explosion.

Almost at once I heard that a maiden lady in the suburbs, in Belgrano,


had a pair of tortoises and believed, heaven knows why, that one of
them (but which one?) was the Devil disguised as a tortoise. Since the
lady, dressed in black, and constantly telling her beads, couldn’t keep an
eye on them all the time, she hired me to do it at night. “Everyone
knows,” she explained, “that one of these tortoises is the Devil. When
you see one of them is developing dragon’s wings be sure to let me
know; that one will be the Devil, no doubt about it. We’ll light a pyre
and burn it alive and evil will be removed from the face of the earth.” I
managed to stay awake the first few nights, watching the tortoises—and
what senseless, graceless animals they are. Then it seemed to me that all
that enthusiam for watching tortoises wasn’t justified, and as soon as the
old maid went to bed I wrapped my legs in a blanket, curled up on a
chair in the garden, and slept through the night. I never could see which
of the two tortoises was the devil and told the lady that I’d prefer to give
up the job since it wasn’t good for my health to spend all night awake,
watching them.

Besides, I’d just heard that outside Buenos Aires, in San Isidro, there was
a very old house on the edge of a cliff and that in it was a dear little
statue of a sweet young French girl, very fin de siècle. The owners, a
grey haired old couple, thought, heaven knows why, that the girl was
lovesick and sad, and if they didn’t find her a fiancé she’d soon be dead.
They made me an offer, and so I became fiancé to a statue. I started
calling on her. The old couple left us alone, though I’m sure they secretly
kept an eye on us. The girl received me in their melancholy drawing
room and we sat together on a threadbare sofa. I took her flowers,
candy, or books and wrote letters and poems to her; she played the
piano languidly, and gave me gentle looks. I called her mon amour and
kissed her furtively, and went farther at times than would have been
proper with an innocent young girl from the late 1800s. And Giselle
loved me too; she’d lower her eyes, sigh softly, and say “When can we
get married?” “Soon,” I’d tell her. “I’m saving up for it.” And I am, but
keep putting it off, because I can’t save enough to get married on. As I
said already, you don’t earn much living off others people’s
superstitions.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Clark M. Zlotchew

The Horn Player: Chapter Seven


[From an apocryphal novel]

1
Without even shedding a tear, Maria Alejandra left me, making her way
along Oro Street in the direction of Charcas. At first I sadly thought:
"She's leaving for ever; it's an irreversible act. It's the end of a chapter in
my life." Then the spiteful thoughts occurred to me: "It's the best thing
that could have happened; she only complicated my life anyway. It's her
loss, not mine."
But life - as they say in songs on the radio - must go on and, for
openers, I had no reason to be standing on the corner of Santa Fe and
Oro. Besides, the greasy smell of the pizzerias as well as the pushing and
shoving of the crowds getting on and off the buses were grating on my
nerves. I tried to walk home slowly and it's very difficult to walk slowly
when you're being crushed by the idea that a meaningful relationship
has come to an end. I couldn't help thinking about Maria Alejandra, but
my thoughts were so vast that it was almost as though I weren't thinking
about anything. I distractedly looked at the multiplicity of confused
store windows on my left. To make the walk home take longer I stopped
to look at a toy-shop window just before coming to Carranza Street. It
was a heterogeneous multicolored world in which toy soldiers, guns and
automobiles seemed to predominate. When I'm in a tough situation I
tend to think about trivial matters. At that moment I thought about the
injustice there was in the disproportion of sizes which prevailed among
the toys. A dog made out of felt was ten times larger than a little tin train
which was ten times larger than a little plastic puppy. I prophesied - but
no one heard me - that life would be horrible in a world in which
everything were out of proportion. I suddenly lost interest in those
weighty matters and the image of Maria Alejandra forced its way back
into my consciousness. That's when it occurred to me to fight the
annoying reiteration of Maria Alejandra by means of a truly trivial act; I
went into the toy-shop and acquired a fifty-cent plastic horn. The horn
was divided into three sections: the mouthpiece was green; the middle
was red and had three little holes; the bell was white and looked like a
calla lily.

<2>
At home I started to play the horn. I fruitlessly tried to squeeze some
melody out of it. I didn't attempt anything sublime; I was only looking
for something simple, catchy: popular songs, half-time tunes, television
jingles. But the horn could barely manage to emit a few isolated, strident
tones. I believe that this was due to the fact that I don't know music and
also to the fact that the horn was only a toy.
At that moment I heard the sound of Monica's key in the lock. "The
poor kid," I thought with unaccustomed tenderness, "she's back from
work. She must be tired and bored to death with the routine of her job,"
because the sudden image of Maria Alejandra afflicted me with the first
feelings of remorse in four years. To escape them, so that my wife would
secretly forgive me, I decided to act like a little kid; I decided to cheer
her up. I took off my shoes and stood on the living room coffee table.
Startled, my wife looked at me, first with surprise and then with relief
when she realized that I hadn't scratched the table. Then I blew with all
my might and my horn let out some really joyful, shrill blasts. Monica
laughed like a little girl and kissed me. The simultaneous laughter and
kiss brought me back to those loving times when we were sweethearts.
From that day on, when I left my job at the bank each evening, I filled
in for those past meetings with Maria Alejandra by going straight home
to play my horn. I'd play only till dinner time; I'd prefer to go to bed
after I ate. I don't know whether it was because of the work my lungs
were subjected to during the two hours a day I'd play the horn; the fact
was that I'd doze right off and fall into a deep and peaceful sleep
without dreams, a sleep like I'd never had before. Consequently, on the
following morning I'd awaken in great mood with a rosy outlook on life.
Then seeing how beneficial the horn was for my spirits, I decided to
add morning session. That's why I acquired the habit of playing every
morning for three or four hours, depending on the time I'd spend on the
daily shopping. Then I'd have lunch and leave for the bank, where - - it
goes without saying - I never played the horn.

<3>

2
My ten years of banking experience have taught me that you can divide
banker's work into two great periods. The first four hours - in which
customers come and go, have consultations, handle business, make
inquiries - were bearable, even if not quite entertaining. But afterward,
from four to seven - when the bank is closed to the public and whatever
animation there is has to stem from the employees alone - a kind of
sadness and restlessness invade my soul. It's true that when there are no
customers around the employees usually engage in conversation and
joke around. It's no less true that some of the conversations weren't too
boring and that once in a while a joke might be more or less amusing.
Yet these pale pleasures were in no way comparable with playing the
horn.
Therefore, it was to be expected that on Friday the 27th of March of
1970 I should place the horn in the attache case meant for carrying my
daily sandwich. At about five in the afternoon I went into the bathroom
and, facing the lavatory mirror, I began to play the horn. At first I blew
prudently, almost inaudibly, almost sighing. And even though the notes
issuing from my horn never managed to form a melody, I succeeded in
giving them a plaintive tone and a certain romantic quality tinged with
an ineffable nostalgia. When I noticed that I was becoming depressed
and that my eyes were filling with tears, I fell back into a happier vein; I
played cheery, optimistic music. Gradually, my playing became louder
and louder until I reached the intensity with which I usually played at
home. Depending on the mirror to guide me, I simultaneously made an
effort to assume the facial expressions and gestures of a soloist (while
admitting the non-existence of horn soloists). During that time, carried
away by my own music, I was performing with my eyes closed. When I
opened them I saw that my face no longer monopolized the mirror.
Attracted by the stentorian notes of the horn, all the employees had
entered the washroom. They were laughing their guts out.
One person who wasn't laughing was Mr. Ansinelli, the branch
manager. His heritage is Italian; his face consists of three features: a
sharp nose, a straight moustache and an imposing pair of eyeglasses.
His manner tends to be imperious. Coldly staring at me, he dryly
ordered me to cease playing the bugle and to get back to work. I had no
choice but to obey him, but not without first setting him straight,
courteously but firmly, with regard to my instrument's identity as a
horn. Following this brusque epilogue we all stampeded out of the
bathroom. My head high, I walked with dignity past the female
employees who, not having dared to penetrate beyond the unseen
barriers of the gentlemanly enclosure, crowded together in a chaste
throng in front of the men's room.

<4>
I returned to my desk feeling that a frozen rage directed at Mr.
Ansinelli, the man who wouldn't let me play my horn, had taken
possession of my soul. But his jurisdiction stopped at the bank doors. I
didn't allow my repressed desires to Freudianly manifest themselves in
my sleep; I played my horn at home till two in the morning, at which
time my bleary-eyed neighbor from the floor below made his
appearance. I, probably respectful of the rights of others and certainly
exhausted from lack of sleep, put away my horn and went to bed.
Monica, insensitive to the charms of music, had been sleeping for quite a
long time, her ears stopped up with cotton plugs.
Luckily, the next day was Saturday. I didn't let that Saturday and
Sunday go to waste; the horn gave out with the bravest sounds of
freedom. Lamentably, inevitably, the fearful Monday arrived and, after
it, the other four days in which I couldn't be the absolute master of my
horn.

3
If I had any reputation at all at the bank, it was for responsibility and for
having will power. That Friday, March 27, 1970, Mr. Ansinelli's
implacable face definitely established the incompatibility which kept the
horn separate from the bank. Two opposing forces mutely struggled in
my soul: I loved the horn, I feared dismissal. My sense of responsibility
told me that in no way was it advisable to lose a position in which I
earned a good salary, enjoyed the esteem of my numerous superiors -
Mr. Ansinelli included - and had the respect of my few subordinates. To
the customary and incessant expenditures for electricity, gas and the
telephone, I had just boldly added the anomalous and exorbitant
payments for the apartment and the car. As a result, both abstract nouns
- responsibility and will - substantially conspired in favor of my
abstaining from playing the horn at the bank.

4
In order to obviate an unjustifiable state of anxiety in my multitudinous
readers, I shall begin this paragraph by getting ahead of myself and
saying that on Monday, February 1st, 1971, I was fired. The housekeeper
said it was fate. I, in no mood to debate, think other factors were
involved. Mainly the unfortunate disposition of the calendar. From a
general point of view, I had hardly advanced a twelfth of the year and
before me stretched, obstinate and lined up in an orderly row, eleven
lethal months. And, more specifically, that week still had four days to
go.

<5>
On the other hand, that decisive Monday found me in a terrible
mood. I was just beginning to overcome, or to be overcome by, some
marital difficulties. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's having my
enjoyment contaminated by anger. And that very last Sunday in January
was a day on which the joy of playing my horn had been clouded by an
exasperating bit of stubbornness on my wife's part.
On Sunday I got up early feeling content. I leisurely lingered over my
coffee and read the rotogravures unhurriedly. Later I devoted myself to
playing the horn. Toward nightfall, Monica, incredibly enough,
preferred our going to the movies to having me play the horn. A
shocking scene ensued in which Monica thought it appropriate to go in
for screams, tears and reproaches. Her arguments were varied and
contradictory. I had just one coherent argument: I repeated that they
don't allow horn playing at the movies. My point of view won out and
we stayed home. While my sour-faced wife watched an endless
television program in the living room, I locked myself in the bedroom
and kept playing the horn until I fell with exhaustion. I missed dinner
and slept with my clothes on. My exhaustion was extreme and on
Monday I awoke after eleven-thirty. And that's how I entered the frigid,
mechanistic enclosure which is the bank without having eaten and
without having been able to play the horn even for an instant.
Even those who don't cultivate psychological fiction will be able -
maybe - to imagine the frenzied state of nervousness and excitation with
which I was seized. I suddenly realized that I wouldn't be able to make it
to seven in the evening without playing my horn. Pretending to have
forgotten my glasses I asked Mr. Ansinelli for permission to go home to
look for them. Since I promised to return in ten minutes and since Mr.
Ansinelli knew that I lived only two blocks away from the Pacifico
branch of the bank, he granted me permission, not without first
assuming the severe look with which he reproved me for having morally
obligated him to slight his duty.
Running with desperation, I devoured the two blocks which
separated me from my house and, as if in a fit of insanity, I frantically
began to play the horn, trying to make the absolute most of the few
minutes I had. Going down in the elevator I pressed the STOP button
when I was between the third and fourth floor and went back up to my
apartment. I wrapped the horn in a newspaper and returned to the bank.
On the way I thought that it would be a good idea to sell the car. I really
didn't need it anyway; after all, I walked to the bank and on weekends I
preferred staying at home playing my horn.

<6>
"This gentleman is the assistant to the credit officer. He'll be very glad
to advise you." Mr. Ansinelli directed these remarks to an impeccably
dressed gentleman who looked like a retired general and who awaited
me in my office. I learned that he was the proprietor of the famous
Patriotic Bubble soda pop plant on Fitz Roy and that he had "hied
himself" - he had recourse to this strange verb - to the bank to request a
loan toward the acquisition of I don't know what cryptic equipment
which, nevertheless - before I could prevent him from doing so - he
described at length with an abundance of extractors, pistons, governors
and other incomprehensible terms. The man was excessively polite. He
aggressively squeezed my hand, lighted my cigaret, absolutely refused
to sit down before I did. Then, in a melancholy tone he orally composed
a detailed outline of his struggles to advance along the arduous road of
progress. Attracted by the sudden remembrance of the first horsedrawn
streetcar - one of the horses figures in an ample collection of anecdotes -
he suddenly backed away to 1947 only to vertiginously return to 1971 at
the controls of one of the modern German trucks of his fleet. Next he
spoke to me about his family in general and in particular about a highly
intelligent daughter who was studying public relations and on whom he
and his wife pinned their highest hopes. At this point he took out his
billfold with a furtive gesture that made me think he would attempt to
bribe me in an effort to obtain the loan. However, what he showed me
was a snapshot of the daughter who was studying public relations; I
glimpsed some hair and a pair of eyeglasses.
To mitigate his uncontainable autobiography I handed him some
blank forms and told him to fill them out. While the soda man was
writing with an iron hand, I bent over - as if to look for a piece of paper
in the box under the desk - and quickly blew on the horn. The man
didn't hear a thing and kept writing. Now he had unfolded his
identification and his social security card whose numbers he
determinedly was copying. Then, taking advantage of the fervent
buzzing of voices that held sway in the bank at that hour of the day, I'd
bend over from time to time and stealthily play my horn, producing a
few short and muffled notes.

<7>
And playing the horn under those circumstances is just like smoking
in a railroad car in which it's not permitted. The lawbreaker smokes
nervously, fearful of the conductor's approach, a passenger looks at him
disapprovingly; smoking is no longer a pleasure but only a reason to be
fined. In that kind of situation it's better not to smoke, not to play the
horn. The soda man, his mouth over the papers as if he were going to eat
them, framed a question for me every so often (he called it a doubt). The
passenger, even though it's at the risk of having to stand for the rest of
the trip, can change cars. This is not possible for the horn player.
Without thinking about it I took the horn out of the box, and pointing
its white, calla lily shaped bell at the greyish head of hair poring over the
forms, I blew with all my heart and soul and wrung a short high-pitched
note out of it which blew a few strands of hair out of place on the soda
man's head. Frightened, he raised his head and stared at me in wide-
eyed wonder.
"Oh, for your kids," he smiled as he doubted.
"I have no children," I responded with tranquil ferocity. "It's mine and
I play it whenever I feel like it."
To emphasize this affirmation, I blew even harder, and not for just a
few seconds this time, but for more than a minute. My office is nothing
more than a glass partition with a little sign saying CREDIT: I rose in my
seat a little to be able better to observe the effect produced by the
unexpected sounds. All the employees and customers conticuere
intentique ora tenebant, as if I were Aeneas and the soda man, though it
grieve us, queen Dido. Then, idiotically epical, I thought: "Let it be as
God wills."
I brought my horn to my lips and, having recourse to all the variants
permitted to me by the rudimentary structure of the instrument, I began
to play in earnest. At times I'm a bit theatrical; not satisfied with the
confined quarters of the credit office, I emerged in the lobby, climbed
onto the counter with an agility not devoid of a certain faun-like quality
and began to march up and down on it from one end to the other. The
customers fearfully removed their elbows from the counter. It gratified
me to be the unquestioned protagonist of the episode; it cheered me to
see everyone else in confusion. I heard fragmentary comments: "It's a
strike"; "It's an act of repudiation"; "I think it's an employee whose wife
just died."

<8>
At that moment I saw Mr. Ansinelli swiftly advancing; he had the
bearing of a Providence-sent man whose appearance was breathlessly
awaited by a multitude which faced insoluble problems. Scarlet, he
entreated me in quite a loud voice. "Mr. Del Prete, be so kind as to go to
the Manager's Office immediately. I must speak with you."
I responded by intoning a sort of outlandish burst of laughter on the
horn. The bystanders were overcome by a general hilarity which made
Mr. Ansinelli look like a fool. Then, renouncing his earlier majesty, Mr.
Ansinelli attempted to knock the horn out of my hand. An angelic grace
guided my movements; with elegance, maintaining my poise, I leaped
from the counter into the area meant for the public. Thus entrenched, I
looked at it triumphantly and executed a couple of bellicose blasts in
which a scornful challenge was implicit. What a grotesque figure Mr.
Ansinelli was as he laboriously clambered up on the counter, dragging
his high position, his fifty-five years and his 200 pounds after him! And
how hilarious as he came crashing down into the public area trailing
behind him the same attributes as when he had climbed up!
Immediately getting to his feet, Mr. Ansinelli charged me like a
fighting bull. I broke into a swift zigzagging run keeping up my horn
playing, stepping on feet and jabbing my way through with my elbows.
Uncannily, an affair which had been private and artistic turned into one
that was public and political. An absurd panic spread through the
tranquil banking premises. People began to run and shout. A lady
intuitively protected the nursing child she was carrying in her arms. A
few misfits took advantage of the situation by making off with the
ballpoint pens, breaking the chains with which they were fastened to the
wall. Two men began a fistfight. I could hear the noise of glass
shattering and right then I was captured.
When the effects of the tear gas had dissipated and when the minions
of the police force had pulled out, calm was laboriously restored. Mr.
Ansinelli, after hysterically placing several telephone calls, rushed to the
bank's main branch and came back with the victorious order to fire me
on the spot. Our bank is efficient, I'll give them that; in just a few
minutes they had arranged my dismissal, they had paid me and I was on
my way out of the bank with my horn under my arm.

<9>
Since I didn't know what the street was like at five on a Monday
afternoon, I decided to wander around down there until seven o'clock.
Curiously, now that I could play my horn I no longer had any desire to
do so. I went all the way to Dorrego Street and began to walk toward the
flatland. The whistle of a train that was passing overhead, off to the
right, seemed to inspire me briefly. I couldn't get myself to play more
than one or two notes; I was no longer interested in the horn. When I got
to the polo field I tossed it at a cat that was suspiciously watching me
through the iron grillwork. And that's where the horn remained, at the
foot of some bushes. I have no idea whether or not someone later picked
it up.
But what really strikes me as weird is the fact that hardly had I
forgotten the horn when, as I was getting ready to cross Libertador
Avenue, I strangely came upon Maria Alejandra who, dressed in a sort
of man-tailored suit, was taking a diminutive mouselike Mexican dog
for a walk.

**
Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Thomas C. Meehan

The Life of the Party

1
My wife's name is Graciela; mine is Arthur. «They're such a charming
couple,» our friends are always saying. They're right, we are a bright,
young, elegant, Cosmopolitan married couple, good conversationalists
and financially secure. As a result, a large part of our life is spent at
social gatherings. People vie to invite us, and we must frequently choose
between one party and another.
The essential feature of our conduct is that we never have to be
begged. We hate giving the impression that we're aware of our qualities
and, hence, when accepting their invitations, that we are bestowing a
great honor upon our hosts. But they do consider it an honor, and this
fact also weighs in favor of our reputation as generous, magnanimous
people, free of pettiness and suspiciousness.
I swear we make no effort whatsoever to stand out. Nevertheless -
and I'm speaking impartially - Graciela and I are always the best
looking, the nicest, and the most intelligent. We are the life of the party.
Graciela is surrounded by the gentlemen; I, by the ladies. Naturally,
were strangers to jealousy and distrust; we know that no man, except
Arthur, is worthy of Graciela; that no woman, except Graciela, is worthy
of Arthur.
How many people must doubtlessly envy our social success! And yet,
Graciela and I detest social life, we abhor gatherings, we hate parties.
Moreover, we are actually shy, contemplative individuals given to
silence and solitude, to reading and intimate conversation; persons who
despise crowds, dances, loud music, frivolity, small talk, and forced
smiles.
Well then, why the devil are we so urbane? Why can't we turn down
even a single invitation to a social gathering?
The truth of the matter is that deep down Graciela and I have no
willpower and we don't dare say no. On our way to a party, we're
submerged in gloomy thoughts, bitter tribulations, and painful guilt
feelings. But once we enter into the noisy whirlwind of the throng, the
voices, faces, smiles, and jokes all make us forget the annoyance of being
there against our will.
But then, home once again, how it hurts us to consider how fragile
our personality is! How painful our feeling of helplessness! How
horrible to see ourselves always obliged to be the life of the party!
Burdened by a problem similar to ours, two ordinary people might
have fallen into despair. But , far from that, Graciela and I are in the
midst of a campaign to avoid further invitations, to cease being the life
of the party. We have devised a plan, the purpose of which is to make
ourselves unpleasant, obnoxious, abhorrent.

<2>
Now, then, when we're at parties, we don't have the courage to
appear unpleasant, much less obnoxious or abhorrent; to such a degree
are we imbued with our role as the life of the party. But in our own
home, where serenity invites contemplation and where the pernicious
influence of parties doesn't reach, we are transforming ourselves into
pariahs of refined society, turning into the antithesis of the glorious life
of the party.
When we put our plan into practice-some two months ago-it still
suffered from many shortcomings. Our inexperience, our excitement,
our lack of cold-bloodedness at first caused us to make some serious
mistakes. But people learn throughout their lives; little by little, Graciela
and I were improving. I'd be exaggerating if I said we've achieved
perfection; I can state, however, that we feel pleased, satisfied, even
proud of our latest performance. We are now awaiting the fruits of our
labors.

2
There's always some couple that's especially friendly toward us and
wants to be invited to our home. We have no objection to doing so, but
we take the liberty of delaying to the maximum the moment of
extending the invitation. When it does come, the couple, whether it's a
pair of young nonconformists living together or a ripe old married
couple, is waiting for nothing else and rushes to accept it.
We made the Vitavers wait a long time, a very long time, before
inviting them. The point is that, given their dangerous qualities, with
that kind of people one had to be careful. I preferred not to improvise,
and I wanted us to be very well prepared.
Beneath his false air of the respectable gentleman, Mr. Vitaver is semi-
illiterate. His lack of culture, an unlimited bad faith, a total disregard for
his fellow man, and an implacable dishonesty have, of course, led him to
make a fortune. After all kinds of marginally legal businesses, he has
established himself as a pornographic book publisher. Hence, one of his
favorite expressions is, «We, the disseminators of culture . Needless to
say, I despise Vitaver: his spiritual emptiness, his greed, his coarse
humor, his eagerness to please, his Impeccably shaved face, his
unscrupulous beady little tradesman's eyes, his exquisite clothes, his
manicured fingernails, his suspiciousness, his desperate need to be
respected, to make a proper place for himself. For my taste and
character, all these wretched features combined to paint an atrocious
portrait. And Vitaver sought out my friendship; my supposed
connections with what he called «the world of letters» were important to
him. He doubtlessly cherished the idea that my frequent contact with
novelists, critics, or poets would act by way of osmosis on him, taking
the rough edges off his mercantile crudeness. He never suspected that
the majority of those writers - as brutish and uncultured as he himself -
were concealing what was only stupidity beneath extravagant attitudes
that sought to be shocking.

<3>
Vitaver's wife is not his wife, but his concubine. This fact, which
should be immaterial, irrelevant to approval or reproof, fills the Vitavers
with pride. They imagine that such daring covers them with a glorious
halo of modernity and open-mindedness; they never miss an
opportunity to talk about it. I don't know what her name is; Vitaver calls
her Adidine, a nickname that, although it evokes shades of prostitution,
also sounds like a pharmaceutical product. The latter is an attribute that
fits her very badly, however, for there is nothing aseptic about Mrs.
Vitaver. On the contrary, her taut, shiny, moist oily skin evokes all the
possible humors of the human body. In general, when both dimensions
are compatible, she tends more to width than to length: her fingers are
short and fat; her hands are short and fat; her face is wide and fat. All of
her is broad and fat. And she is obtuse, and she is ignorant, and she is
pompous, and she is dyed, and she is daubed, and she is bejeweled, and
she is repugnant.

And so, Vitaver and Adidine, based on grossly commercial reasons,


sought our friendship, the friendship of the life of the party. And we
were sick of being the life of the party, and we were sick of these
Vitavers in particular and of the hundreds of Vitavers who tormented us
weekly with their stupidity, their frivolity, their mercantilism.
At that point, we invited the Vitavers to dinner at our home.

3
Graciela and I are neither princes nor paupers. But we live comfortably,
we can renew our wardrobes often, and we have a small car and lots of
books. We own our apartment. It takes up the entire second floor of a
house on Emilio Ravignani Street, a house built in 1941, solid house with
very thick walls, fine wood, and very high ceilings, house that has not
yet succumbed to demolition and the subsequent construction of a
fragile apartment building with apartments heaped up on top of one
another.
On the ground floor there's a hardware store; then there's the
entrance to the flat below us and, right next to it, the door to ours. The
door opens directly on a steep stairway made of black marble that leads
up to the second floor, where our home actually begins.

<4>
We like the flat. It's larger than we need, so in case of emergency we
can change the furniture from one room to another and carry out other
strategic maneuvers.
The heavy rain that fell the night of the Vitavers' visit was a challenge
to my creative spontaneity. Although it wasn't foreseen in my plans, I
knew how to take advantage of it to the maximum.
From behind the closed shutters on the second floor, we peeked out
at the ostentatious arrival of Vitaver's enormous car, we saw how he
parked at the curb across the street (there's no parking on our side); with
delight, we observed the Vitavers get out, encumbered by raincoats and
umbrellas, and we watched them cross the street on the run and rush
headlong against our door like two fighting bulls. Unfortunately, we
have a balcony, and it sheltered them a bit from the rain.
Beside our door there are two doorbells, each with a little cardboard
nameplate. The first announces my last name; on the other it says MR.
JABBERWOCKY, a name I took from a poem in Through the Looking
Glass. Besieged by the whirlwinds of freezing rain, which the wind
pelted at him every little while, Vitaver rang the doorbell corresponding
to my name once, twice, and once again. That noise, monotonous, of
course, sounded to us like celestial music. Vitaver rang, and rang, and
rang; Graciela and I did not answer.
At last, Vitaver inevitably rang the Jabberwocky's doorbell, from
which he received the little electric discharge I had foreseen. Naturally,
it's Vitaver's fault; who told him to ring the doorbell of an unknown
person?
Our ears pressed to the shutters, Graciela and I listened with glee to
the Vitavers' conjectures: «I tell you, the doorbell gave me a shock!»
«It just seemed that way to you.»
«You ring, you'll see.»
«Ow! Me too!»
«Didjuh see? Can the bell be ringing upstairs?»
«Is the number of the house right?»
«Of course. Besides, there's his last name.»
Then I barely stuck my head out through the shutters and, prudently
covered with a waterproof hat and an umbrella, I shouted from the
second floor: «Vitaver! Vitaver!»
Happy to hear my voice, he ran out to the edge of the sidewalk to try
to see me, because of which he got much wetter. He tilted his head back
and completely neglected to hold his umbrella up. «How are you,
Arthur?» he shouted, squinting his eyes against the rain lashing his face.

<5>
«Fine, just fine, thank you,» I replied cordially. «And your wife? You
can't have come alone, have you?»
«Here I am,» said Adidine, obligingly rushing out next to Vitaver. It
was wonderful to behold the way the water was running down over her
tightly set hairdo and her fur coat.
«Hello, there, Adidine. How are you? Always so pretty, eh ... ,» I said.
«What a downpour! And just this morning the weather was beautiful.
Who could have imagined that? But ... Well! Don't just stand there
getting soaked! Get up against the wall, and I'll let you in right away.»
I closed the window and let ten minutes go by. Finally, I called out
again: «Vitaver! Vitaver!»
He was obliged to go back out to the curb.
«Please excuse the delay,» I said; «I couldn't find the key to save my
life.»
With great difficulty, Vitaver etched a woeful smile of understanding
on his face.
«Here comes the key,» I added. «Catch it and go right ahead and
open the door yourself, if you will. Just take it for granted you're in your
own home.»
I threw it to him with such bad aim that the key ended up falling into
the water in the gutter. Vitaver had to squat down and stir around in the
dark water for a while with his hand. When he stood up, having now
salvaged the key, he was wetter than a mackerel.
He finally opened the door and came in. I already pointed out that
the stairway marble is black; so it barely gets dark and you can't see a
thing. Vitaver groped around on the wall in the darkness until he found
the light switch. From upstairs I heard click, click, click, but the light
didn't go on. Then I shouted: «Vitaver, it looks like the light bulb burnt
out just this minute. Come up very slowly, so you don't fall. »
Clutching the two railings with an iron grip and in the uncertain light
of short-lived matches, the Vitavers came hesitantly up the stairs.
Graciela and I awaited them above, wearing our warmest smiles. «How
are the charming Vitavers?»
Vitaver was getting ready to shake hands with us when a shriek of
horror from Graciela turned him to stone.
«What have you got on your hands?! Oh, my God, look how you're
all stained! How awful, your clothes! And Adidine's beautiful coat!»

<6>
Huge red stains covered Vitaver's right side and Adidine's left side.
«Damn!» I became indignant, clenching my fists in a rage. «What'll
you bet Cecilia took it into her head this very day to paint the stairway
railings? What a stupid girl!»
«Cecilia is the maid,» sighed Graciela, considering the matter at an
end. «She's driving us crazy with her dumb tricks.»
«Domestic help is getting worse every day,» Adidine said heroically,
as she looked out of the corner of her eye at the hairs of her mink coat all
stuck together. «I just don't know how we well-to-do families are going
to get along!»
She had no idea to what extent this last statement worsened her
situation.
«Tomorrow without fall,» I insisted with a dire look on my face and
an admonishing index finger, «I'm putting Cecilia right out in the
street.»
«Oh, the poor girl,» said Graciela. «Just now, when she was beginning
to learn? And she's already like a member of the family.
«Right out in the street!» I repeated with greater emphasis.
«But consider the fact that poor Cecilia is an unwed mother, that she
has two babies. Don't be inhuman!»
«I'm not inhuman,» I specified. «I'm being just, which is quite
different.»
"Justice cannot be upheld without a humanitarian foundation,»
Graciela adduced. «Epictetus said that ...»
And leaving the Vitavers disdainfully forgotten, Graciela and I
engaged in a learned debate, abounding in apocryphal quotations and
authors, concerning justice, equity, morals, goodness, and other values
remotely applicable to the case of the nonexistent Cecilia.
The Vitavers listened to our conversation, anxious to intervene but -
inept as they were - without knowing what to say. Evidently, they were
suffering, they were suffering a great deal. But how artfully they
concealed it! They too aspired to be as worldly wise and as congenial as
we are; they assumed that, in a similar predicament, Graciela and I
would not have lost our smiles.
We finally remembered the existence of the Vitavers and helped them
rid themselves of their rainwear, umbrellas, and coats. Vitaver was
wearing a magnificent, black dinner jacket, a shirt with narrow lace
edging, and a bow tie; he was elegant to the extent that such an outfit
could refine his rough, underworld nature. Adidine was wearing a long
white sparkling evening gown; she was profusely jewelled, finely
perfumed.

<7>
«Oh, Adidine!» Graciela exclaimed with admiration when the intense
dining room light fell fully on those wonders. «How elegant, how lovely
you look! What a beautiful gown! And those shoes! What I wouldn't
give to have clothes like that! But we're so poor. Look what I had to put
on. These are my best clothes.»
The Vitavers had already seen our apparel and had already
pretended not to notice anything unusual about it. But Graciela and I,
implacable, were not about to exempt them from the unpleasant
experience of looking over our garb while they, in turn, were attentively
observed by us.
«Look, Adidine, just look,» Graciela repeated, twirling around like an
advertising model. «Look, look.» She was all disheveled and had no
make-up on. She was wearing a very old mended blouse and a plain
skirt covered with big grease spots and with the hem unstitched. She
had on silk stockings perforated with big holes and long runs and, over
the stockings, a pair of brown anklets that partially disappeared inside
some dilapidated slippers. «Look, Adidine, look.» Adidine didn't know
what to say.
«And I, what am I to say?» I intervened. «I don't even have a shirt!»
In effect, I had put on a grayish municipal street sweeper's smock
right over a heavy woolen undershirt full of holes. Around my bare neck
I had tied a frayed old necktie. A pair of baggy, dirty-white bricklayer's
pants and black hemp sandals rounded out my attire.
«That's life,» I said philosophically, as I scratched my five-day beard
and chewed on a toothpick. «That's life, friend Vitaver, that's life.»
Completely disoriented, Vitaver vaguely nodded his head. «That's
life,» he repeated like a parrot.
«That's life,» I insisted yet once again. «'So goes the world, Don
Laguna, / Old pardner, nothin' lasts, / Fortune smiles on us today, /
Tomorrow it'll give us a lash.' Faust, by Estanislao del Campo. What do
you think?»'
«Hub? Oh, yeah,» he said hurriedly. «I read it. I remember that old
Vizcacha ...»
«You know what Manrique said about the gifts of fortune, don't
you?» I interrupted him. «He said: ŒFor they are gifts of Lady Fortune,
/ who swiftly spins her wheel ...»
Then, with an affected voice and grandiose gestures, I recited five or
six stanzas for him, something I love to do. «Do you get it, Vitaver?»

<8>
«Yes, yes, how fabulous!» He hadn't understood a word, and that
wretched adjective of his was tantamount to making his crimes worse.
«Today you're loaded with money,» I added, poking his chest with
my index finger. «You have social status. You have intelligence. You're
cultured. You have savoir faire. You have a beautiful wife. You have
everything, right?» I stopped and stared at him, obliging him to answer.
«Well, maybe not everything,» he smiled conceitedly; he actually
thought he possessed all those endowments!
«Tomorrow you could lose it all,» I then said in a gloomy tone, to
show him another facet of the drama of life. «You could lose your
fortune. You could end up in jail. You could become seriously ill. Your
intelligence could atrophy, your culture become watered down. Your
savoir-faire might be scorned. Your wife could be unfaithful to you.»
I went on haranguing him for a long time with the vision of an
atrocious future made up of imprisonment, illnesses, and misfortune.
We were acting out an odd scene: a ragged beggar was solemnly
pontificating before a gentleman dressed in strict formal attire. Together,
we constituted a kind of allegory on the disillusionments of the world.
While I soliloquized, the Vitavers' fretful little eyes were leaping here
and there. How humiliating! To have worn their best clothes and be
received by two grimy, woebegone, melancholy tramps! «How can this
be?» they seemed to be thinking. «And what about the clothes, the
jewelry, and the elegance they always displayed at parties?»
«We've been left with nothing, friend Vitaver,» I said, as if
responding to their thoughts. «Yesterday we even had to sell the dining
room furniture at a loss.»
Then - as if it were necessary - the Vitavers cast a stupid glance over
the obviously empty dining room.
«Ubi sunt? Ubi sunt?» I emphasized. «Tell me, Vitaver: Ubi sunt? Ubi
sunt? Ubi sunt mensa et sellae sex?»
«And so,» said Graciela, we have no choice but to have dinner in the
kitchen.»
«Oh please! That's quite all right,» said Adidine.
«And we don't have a table in the kitchen, either, so we'll have to eat
on the marble counter top. If you'd like to come this way.»
I knew the condition the kitchen was in, and I watched the Vitavers'
faces as stupefaction, disbelief, and repressed anger swiftly passed over
them.

<9>
The kitchen was a kind of monument paying homage to disorder,
laziness, filth, and abandonment. In the sink, semisubmerged in water
so greasy it was thick and on which floated the remains of meals, were
heaped dishes, pots, platters, silverware, and sticky saucepans. Thrown
here and there on the floor were about ten days of damp old
newspapers. There stood against one wall an enormous trash can
overflowing with garbage, with swarms of flies, cockroaches, and
worms running and wriggling over it. In the air there floated the smell
of grease, fried things, wet paper, and stagnant water.
The Vitavers looked very solemn.
«In just a jiffy,» said Graciela, trying in vain to give her words an
optimistic tone, «in Just a jiffy I'll spread the tablecloth» - and she
pointed at the marble sink counter, also covered with remains of meals
and empty cans of mackerel - «and we'll eat ... although ... although ...»
Graciela burst into loud weeping. Playing the role of humanitarian,
Adidine tried to console her. «Oh, poor Graciela! What's the matter? For
heaven's sake!»
«It's, it's just that ...,» Graciela stammered between sobs and hiccups,
«it's Just that we don't have a tablecloth either.»
Indignant over this breach of confidence, I let fly a furious punch
against the wall. But Graciela was unrestrainable: «Everything, we've
lost everything!» she howled. «We have nothing! Everything, everything
sold at a loss! Even my first-communion dress! Everything, everything
lost and all through his fault!» And she pointed a tragic, accusing finger
at me.
«Graciela!!» I roared melodramatically, giving her to understand that
a single word more from her could drive me into committing an
irreparable act.
«Yes, yes, yes!» she insisted, wailing louder and louder and looking
to the Vitavers, as if calling upon them as witnesses to her misfortunes.
«All because of him! I was happy in my parents' home! We were rich, we
lived in San Isidro,5 in a cheerful home with a rose garden. One
ominous day, that happiness was cut short. One ominous day, a monster
appeared, a monster that was stalking my youth and beauty, a monster
that took advantage of my innocence.»
«Graciela!!!» I insisted with concentrated rage.
Ignoring me, she continued on, always addressing the Vitavers: «The
monster had a human shape and it had a name; its name was ... Arthur!»
And she emphasized this name by pressing her clenched fist against her
forehead. «And this monster took me from my home, wrenched me
away from the affection of my parents, and carried me off with him.
And he put me through a life of privation, and he squandered my entire
fortune at the race track and the gambling casino. And when he gets
drunk on absinthe and vodka, he scourges my back with barbed wire.»

< 10 >
Blind with rage, I hurled myself at Graciela and dealt her a
resounding slap across the face: «Silence, thou vile insane woman!» I
shouted, addressing her with the archaic form, thou, so everything
would seem more theatrically tragic. «How dare you reproach me? Me,
the pitiful victim of your whims, your insolence, and your adulteries?
How can you offend in such a way the proud, worthy man who, by
pulling you up out of the slime, redeemed you from sin and guilt by
marrying you?»
And I, too, began to cry and compete with Graciela over who could
scream the loudest. Such weeping! We cried with so much conviction
that there came a moment when we really couldn't hold back our tears.
The Vitavers, pale and glum, were completely baffled. They had come
to our home - the home of the life of the party - in the hope of enjoying a
pleasant evening, and now, dressed in their luxurious outfits, they were
like spectators at an incomprehensible fight between a poverty-stricken
married couple.
They were saying something to us, but, intent on the pleasure of our
weeping, we payed no attention to them. Patting me affectionately on
the back, Vitaver dragged me over to the wall, near the garbage can.
«Better times lie ahead, man,» he said. «The Lord'll test you, but He
won't break you.»
That man, together with his habitual use of you know and I seen,
gave me renewed courage for the struggle.
«You mustn't despair,» he insisted, but he was the desperate one; it
was quite obvious he wanted to disappear as quickly as possible.
Now Adidine came to my side, holding up the fainting Graciela; now
they were urging us to make peace; now we were making up.
Drying her tears and blowing her nose, Graciela cleared the counter
top by indifferently shoving aside the cans and dishes with her arm until
they fell into the dirty water in the sink. But the counter was still
covered anyway with crumbs and the somewhat moist, greasy remains
of meals. By way of a tablecloth, she spread over those bulging things
one of the newspapers she picked up off the floor. On the newspaper she
set out four plates laced with cracks, four yellowish spoons, three
everyday glasses of different styles and colors, and a large cup for cafe
au lait.

< 11 >
«We only have three glasses,» she explained. «I'll drink out of the
cup.»
How dirty, how greasy, how sticky everything was! How the flies
flitted about over our heads! How the cockroaches ran up and down the
walls! How the worms wriggled about on the floor!
The four of us sat up against the sink counter and our knees kept
bumping the doors of the cupboards built in below it. We were
extremely uncomfortable. Vitaver cut a strange figure, seated in the
midst of that sort of garbage dump, with his dinner jacket, his shirt with
narrow lace edging, and black bow tie, next to his wife, with her low-cut
white evening gown and luxurious jewels. On the other hand, Graciela
and I were in complete harmony with that filthy, sordid atmosphere.
«There's just one course,» said Graciela, apologizing. «Noodle soup.
«How delicious!» exclaimed Adidine. (As if anyone in the world
could consider that fare for sick people as delicious!)
«Yes, it is delicious,» Graciela agreed. «It's a pity that, because of the
fight, it got a little burned.»
And from a pot all oozing over and stained, she began to take out
some shapeless tangles of dried out, burnt, and now cold noodles and
distributed them onto the plates.
«Adidine,» said Graciela, «since you're by the sink, could you please
fill the glasses with water? We have no wine.»
Adidine stood up submissively and turned on the tap. Just as we had
foreseen, the water shot out with extraordinary pressure, bounced off
the gelatinous utensils in the sink, and spattered Adidine's white gown
with the remains of food.
With what disgusted faces the Vitavers ate! And how they tried to
conceal it so as not to offend us! And how bewildered they were! Were
we really the life of the party? Might we not be a pair of imposters?
Constantly surrounded by the grease, the stench, the cockroaches, and
the flies, they finished their dried-up burnt soup as well as they could
and drank a little water from the cracked glasses. With their clothing
stained, their stomachs upset, and spirits chagrined, they said they had
to leave, that they had some commitment or other. Despite our urging
them repeatedly to have some more soup, they insisted they had to
leave, a discourtesy that grieved us, of course. They put on their coats,
covered up with their rainwear, and went down the stairs.

< 12 >
«Don't touch the railing,» I warned them. «It's just freshly painted,
you know.»
Before they got in their car, we bade them an affectionate farewell
through the window: «So long, dear friends! It's been a real pleasure!
Wish we could have these delightful get-togethers more often! Come
back anytime!»
They waved at us quickly and rushed headlong into their car, which
pulled away with uncommon speed.

4
Two weeks have now passed. During that interval, we have relied on
the Vitavers to slander us enough to dissuade anyone from inviting us to
another party. I know Vitaver well and I can foresee his wickedness; I
know he will have said awful things about us. However, our reputation
is too strong; it won't be easy to bring it down through slander.
So now we find ourselves at another party. We're sporting our best
clothes, and we're perfumed with the finest fragrances. We display our
most expensive jewelry, wear our most sophisticated smiles, and show
the warmest cordiality.
We see the Vitavers, each with a drink and smiling, smiling forced
smiles. The Vitavers see us and the smile freezes on their faces. Without
letting them react, we shake hands with them very naturally and quickly
begin to converse with the Carracedos.
We don't like the Carracedos either, for reasons similar to those which
make us reject the Vitavers. On the other hand, the Carracedos are
desirous of becoming friendly with us; they admire us and hope to gain
material advantage from a relationship with us. He is a prosperous
businessman, an expert swindler, adept at defrauding. To strengthen the
bonds between us, he believes it the opportune moment to appeal to
confidences: he tells me about his financial plans, describes the future
expansion of his businesses, and tips me off to some tricks about how to
make some illegal money and go unpunished.
Carracedo smiles, he smiles a forced smile, proud of his commercial
shrewdness, smug about being so able to multiply his wealth, happy
with his possessions, his weekend home, and his foreign car.
The Carracedos are so courteous, so cordial, and so friendly toward
us that, well, not to invite them to dinner at our home would be
inconceivably rude, an act of blatant discourtesy unworthy of the life of
the party. So, we invited them; they're coming on Saturday.

< 13 >
And then we, Graciela and Arthur, now thoroughly caught up in the
whirlwind of the party, go flitting from room to room, lavishing smiles,
kisses, and handshakes. We dance, we tell and laugh at jokes, we are
brilliant and admired, and everyone feels appreciation, but also envy,
toward us. «They're such a charming couple,» our friends always say.
Because Graciela and I are always the best looking, the nicest, the most
intelligent. Because Graciela and I are still the life of the party.

Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Thomas C. Meehan

The Return

In 1965, I was twenty-three years old and was studying to become a high
school language and literature teacher. An early, September spring was
in the air, and very, very early one morning, I was studying in my room.
My house was the only apartment building in that block, and we lived
on the sixth floor.
I was feeling sort of lazy, and every now and then I'd let my gaze
wander out the window. From there I could see the street and, just
beyond the sidewalk across the street, the manicured garden of old Don
Cesareo whose house occupied the corner lot, the one which was cut off
diagonally at the corner; hence, his house had the shape of an irregular
pentagon.
Next to Don Cesareo's stood the beautiful home of the Bernasconi
family, lovely people who used to do nice, kind things. They had three
daughters, and I was in love with the eldest, Adriana. So, every once in a
while I cast a glance toward the sidewalk across the way, more out of a
habit of the heart than because I expected to see her at such an early
hour.
As was his custom, old Don Cesareo was watering and caring for his
beloved garden which was separated from the street level by a low iron
fence and three stone steps.
The street was deserted, so my attention was unavoidably drawn to a
man who appeared in the next block and was advancing toward ours
along the same sidewalk that ran in front of the homes of Don Cesareo
and the Bernasconis. Why wouldn't my attention be attracted by that
man, since he was a beggar or a tramp, a veritable rainbow of dark-
colored rags?
Bearded and skinny, his head was covered by a yellowish, misshapen
straw hat. Despite the heat, he was enveloped in a tattered, grayish
overcoat. In addition, he was carrying a huge, dirty sack, and I assumed
he kept in it the alms and remains of food he collected.
I continued to observe. The tramp stopped in front of Don Cesareo's
house and asked him for something through the iron bars of the fence.
Don Cesareo was a mean old man with an unpleasant personality;
without acknowledging anything, he simply made a gesture with his
hand as if to send the fellow on his way. But the beggar seemed to be
insisting in a low voice, and then I did hear the old man shout clearly:

<2>
"Go on, you, get out of here, and don't bother me!"
Nevertheless, the tramp again persisted, and now he even went up
the three stone steps and struggled a bit with the iron gate. Then, losing
his meager patience completely, Don Cesareo pushed him away with a
fierce shove. The beggar slipped on the wet stone, tried unsuccessfully
to grab hold of a bar, and fell violently to the ground. In the same,
lightning-flash instant, I saw his legs splayed upward toward the sky,
and I heard the sharp crack of his skull as it struck the first step.
Don Cesareo ran down to the street, bent over him, and felt his chest.
Frightened, the old man immediately grabbed him by the feet and
dragged him out to the curb. He then went into his house and shut the
door, in the certainty that there had been no witnesses to his
unintentional crime.
The only witness was me. Soon a man passed by and he stopped next
to the dead beggar. Then came others and still others, and the police
came too. The panhandler was put in an ambulance and taken away.
That's all there was to it, and the matter was never spoken of again.
For my part, I was very careful not to open my mouth. I probably
behaved badly, but what was I to gain from accusing that old man who
had never done me any harm? On the other hand, it hadn't been his
intention to kill the panhandler, and it didn't seem right to me that a
legal proceeding should embitter the final years of his life for him. I
thought the best thing would be to leave him alone with his conscience.
Little by little, I gradually forgot the episode, but every time I saw
Don Cesareo, I experienced a strange sensation on thinking that he
didn't know I was the only person in the world aware of his terrible
secret. From then on, I don't know why, I avoided him, and I never
dared speak to him again.
***
In 1969 I was twenty-six years old and had my degree in the teaching of
the Spanish language and literature. Adriana Bernasconi hadn't married
me but some other fellow, and who knows whether he loved or
deserved her as much as I did.

<3>
Around that time, Adriana was pregnant and very close to delivery.
She still lived in the same beautiful house as always, and she herself
looked more beautiful every day. Very early that suffocating, December
morning I was giving private grammar lessons to a few young high
school boys who had to take an examination, and, as usual, every now
and then I would cast a melancholy glance across the street.
Suddenly, my heart - literally - did a flip-flop, and I thought I was the
victim of a hallucination.
Approaching along exactly the same path as four years before was the
beggar whom Don Cesareo had killed: the same ragged clothes, the
grayish overcoat, the misshapen straw hat, the filthy sack.
Forgetting my students, I rushed headlong to the window. The
panhandler was gradually shortening his steps, as if he were already
near his destination.
"He's come back to life," I thought, "and he's come to take revenge on
Don Cesareo."
However, now treading on the old man' s sidewalk, the beggar
passed in front of the iron fence and continued on. Then he stopped
before Adriana Bernasconi's door, pushed down the latch, and entered
the house.
"I'll be right back!" I said to the students, and, mad with anxiety, I
took the elevator down, dashed out into the street, crossed on the run,
and went into Adriana's house.
Her mother, who was standing by the door, as if ready to leave, said
to me: "Well, hello there, stranger! You ... ? here ... ? Will miracles never
cease?!"
She had always looked favorably on me. She embraced and kissed
me, but I didn't understand what was going on. I then learned that
Adriana had just become a mother, and they were all very pleased and
excited. I could do no less than shake my victorious rival's hand.
I didn't know how to ask, and debated whether it would be better to
remain silent or not. I then reached an intermediate solution. With
feigned indifference, I said:
"Actually, I let myself in without ringing the doorbell because I
thought I saw a panhandler with a big, dirty bag slip into your house,
and I was afraid he might be getting in to steal something."
They looked at me in surprise: panhandler? bag? to steal? Well, they
had all been in the living room the whole time and didn't know what I
was talking about.

<4>
"Then I must surely be mistaken," I said.
They then invited me into the room where Adriana and her baby
were. In situations like that, I never know what to say. I congratulated
her, kissed her, looked at the little baby, and asked what name they were
going to give him. They told me Gustavo, like his father; I would have
liked the name Fernando better, but said nothing.
Back at home, I thought: "That was the panhandler whom old Don
Cesareo killed, I'm sure of it. He didn't return to take revenge, though,
but rather to be reincarnated in Adriana's child."
However, two or three days later, my hypothesis seemed ridiculous
to me, and I gradually forgot it.

***
And I would have forgotten it completely if it weren't for the fact that in
1979 an incident made me remember it.
Further on in years now and feeling capable of less with each passing
day, I let my attention touch lightly on a book I was reading next to the
window, and then I allowed my glance to wander here and there.
Adriana's son, Gustavo, was playing on the flat roof terrace of his
house. That was certainly a rather immature game for someone his age. I
thought the boy must have inherited his father's scanty intelligence and
that, had he been my son, he would doubtlessly have found a less
insipid way to amuse himself.
He had placed a row of empty cans on the dividing wall and was
trying to knock them over with stones thrown from three or four yards
away. Naturally, almost all the rubble was falling into the neighboring
garden of Don Cesareo. It occurred to me that the old man, absent at the
time, was going to have a real fit when he discovered a large number of
his flowers destroyed.
And just at that moment, Don Cesareo came out of the house into the
garden. He truly was very old and walked with extreme unsteadiness,
putting down with great caution now one foot and then the other. With
frightful deliberateness he walked to the garden gate and prepared to
descend the three steps that led down to the sidewalk.
At the same time, Gustavo - who didn't see the old man - finally hit
one of the cans which, as it ricocheted off two or three juttings of the
walls, fell with a loud racket into Don Cesareo's garden. The latter, who
was in the midst of the short stairway, started at hearing the noise, made
a sudden brusque motion, slipped wildly out of control, and shattered
his skull on the first step.

<5>
I saw all of this, but neither the child had seen the old man, nor the
old man the child. For some reason, Gustavo then abandoned the flat
roof terrace. In a few seconds, a lot of people had already gathered
around Don Cesareo(s corpse, and it was obvious an accidental fall had
been the cause of his death.
The next day, I got up very early and immediately installed myself in
the window. Don Cesareo's wake was being held in the
pentagonalshaped house; there were several persons smoking and
conversing out on the sidewalk.
Those people stood aside with revulsion and uneasiness when, a bit
later, out of Adriana Bernasconi's house came the panhandler, once
again with his rags, his overcoat, his straw hat, and his bag. He passed
through the group of men and women, and slowly, gradually
disappeared off into the distance, in the same direction from which he
had come two times.
At noon I learned, to my sorrow but not to my surprise, that Gustavo
was not found in his bed that morning. The Bernasconi family initiated a
desperate search which, with stubborn hope, has continued to the
present day. I never had the heart to tell them to give it up.

Fernando Sorrentino

The Spirit of Emulation


Among the inhabitants of the apartment building on Paraguay Street,
where I live, the spirit of emulation is quite intense.

It's true that for a long time they limited themselves to rivaling one
another in dogs, cats, canaries or parrots. The most exotic among them
never went beyond little squirrels or a turtle. I myself had a beautiful
German shepherd named Joey that was just slightly smaller than our
apartment. However, besides Joey - and this was something completely
unknown -, there lived with my wife and me a lovely spider of the
species lycosa pampeana.

One morning, at nine o'clock, while I was feeding my pet, the neighbor
from 7-C - whom I had never even seen before - came by to borrow my
newspaper for a moment, for who knows what confused reason.
Afterwards, without managing to leave, he just stood there for a long
time with the newspaper in his hand. He was staring, fascinated, at
Gertrude, and in his stare there was something that made me shudder. It
was the spirit of emulation.

The next day he came by to show me the scorpion he had just bought. In
the hallway, the maid of the people who live in 7-D overheard our
dialogue on the life, habits and feeding of spiders, scorpions and ticks.
That very afternoon her employers acquired a crab.

Then, for a week, there was nothing new of note. Until one evening
when I happened to be on the elevator with one of the neighbor women
on the third floor: a languid, young blonde with one of those vacant
stares in her eyes. She was carrying a big, yellow purse, the zipper of
which was partially broken: every little while, through one of the breaks,
there would poke out the tiny head of a golden yellow lizard.

The following noon, as I was returning from the grocery store, the bags
almost flipped out of my hands when I bumped headlong into the large
ant bear (or anteater) which was being lowered from a truck, en route to
the doorman's office. One of the many onlookers who had congregated
there mumbled - in a voice loud enough to be heard - that in truth the
ant bear was not a real bear. The attorney's wife looked startled at this,
and ran, trembling, to take refuge in her apartment. I didn't see her
reappear until a few days later when, with a radiant and disdainful face,
she came out to sign the receipt for the freight delivery men who had
just brought her an American brown bear.

<2>
My situation was now becoming untenable. The neighbors denied me
their greetings, the butcher refused me credit, and I was receiving
insulting anonymous letters every day. Finally, when my wife
threatened me with separation, I realized I could no longer endure an
insignificant lycosa pampeana a single day more. I then entered upon an
unprecedented round of activities. I borrowed money from several
friends, I became indescribably frugal, I stopped smoking... In this way I
was able to purchase the most marvelous leopard you can imagine.
Immediately, the fellow in 7-C, who always followed right in my
footsteps, tried to outdo me with a jaguar. And, although it may seem
illogical, he succeeded.

What hurts me most is dealing with people who lack aesthetic


sensitivity, people who don't perceive quality, people who are merely
quantitative. There wasn't a single neighbor who bowed before the
superior beauty of my leopard; their understanding had been blinded by
the greater size of the jaguar. At once, all the neighbors, spurred on by
the boastful air of the jaguar's owner, gave themselves over to renewing
their animals. I had to recognize that my humble leopard no longer
provided me with my former status.

In the face of stealthy telephone conversations my wife was having with


some anonymous gentleman, I saw that my only alternative was
ironclad. With no remorse whatsoever, I sold the furniture, the
refrigerator, the washing machine and the floor-waxer. I even sold the
television. In short, I sold everything that could be sold, and I bought an
enormous anaconda boa constrictor.

A poor man's life is hard: for only three days was I the hero of the
building.

My anaconda boa broke every dike, it destroyed every sense of


moderation, it brought down the most respected conventions. In all the
apartments there now multiplied lions, tigers, gorillas, crocodiles ...
Some even had black panthers, those panthers they don't even have in
the municipal zoo. The whole building resounded with roaring, howling
and chattering. We spent the nights awake; it was impossible to sleep.
The intermingled odors of felines, quadrumanes, reptiles and ruminants
turned the atmosphere unbreathable. Huge trucks brought tons of meat,
fish and vegetables. Life in the building on Paraguay street became a
little dangerous.

After a very long time, I had a disturbing experience when I once again
shared the elevator with the languid, young neighbor woman on the
third floor, who was now taking her Bengal tiger out for a walk around
the block to go pee-pee. I recalled her lizard that stuck its tiny head out
through an opening in the zipper. I felt moved to tenderness. How far
behind we had left those first, difficult and quixotic days of scorpions
and crabs!

<3>
Finally there came a moment when nobody could be trusted. The
doorman, under the tense surveillance of several of the apartment
owners, washed his two-horned rhinoceros with soap and water out on
the sidewalk, and then - as if nothing had happened - he herded it into
his apartment. This was more than the man in 5-A was accustomed to
putting up with; a few hours later he triumphantly ascended the stairs,
leading his hippopotamus by its bridle.

The building is now flooded and semi-destroyed. I am composing this


report on the roof, in unfavorable conditions. Every so often, I'm startled
by the plaintive trumpeting of the elephant that lives with the people in
7-A. I'm writing with my watch in view, since, at eight-minute intervals,
I must take shelter amidst the ruins of the stairway so that the jet stream
of vapor ejected by the blue whale in 7-C does not ruin these pages. And
I write with a certain uneasiness, being, as I am, under the imploring
gaze of the giraffe in 7-D, which, by sticking its head up over the wall,
never ceases, for even one second, begging crackers from me.

Translated from the Spanish by Thomas C. Meehan

[From Imperios y servidumbres, Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 1972.]

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