By Gershon Ben-Avraham
The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it,
but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret.
- Jorge Luis Borges
Along the northeastern wall of the Cementerio Israelita, in the town of La Tablada, province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, are several rows of neat, evenly spaced, gravestones. Except for the names, and an occasional change in the type of stone used, the markers are indistinguishable from one another. Unless one has come to this section of the cemetery looking for the grave of someone in particular, it is quite easy to walk past all the markers and notice none of them. This is not where the notables are buried, and one might be tempted to say that the lives of those buried beneath these markers were as indistinguishable as the markers themselves. One who says this, however, would be mistaken. Every person walks a unique path, no matter how much the scenery appears to be the same. Every person has his own secrets, his own share of suffering.
On the third row from the wall, near one of the few trees in this section of the cemetery, is a gravestone sacred to the memory of one Isaac Parness. Like the others, it is simple, containing only the man’s name, his birth and death dates, and an inscription. The inscription is from the thirtieth chapter of the Book of Psalms, “Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing.” It would seem to be a very appropriate epitaph to mark the final resting place of a man who left behind a world of ashes and who, in a new world, worked for over twenty-five years at the National Academy of Traditional Argentine Tango.
On Sundays, the academy did not open until the afternoon. The official reason cited in the academy’s book of rules was “to provide an opportunity for students to attend religious services.” The unofficial reason was to provide the Madam Director an opportunity to enjoy a leisurely brunch at the Café Tirtino on the Avenida de los Sabios before classes.
Isaac Parness, the academy’s janitor, used the time to perform those chores that he could not do during the limited time available to him on a weekday. In each studio, he would sweep the floor and carefully clean the floor-to-ceiling mirror. In the large studio, he would file Victor’s music, dust the piano, and once a month polish the piano’s solid mahogany case. His last chore was to mop and wax the floor of the long hallway that ran the length of the school. When finished, usually around eleven o’clock, he would return the cleaning materials to the janitor’s closet and remove from it a small wooden folding chair. He would carry the chair to the large studio.
With the chair under one arm, he would walk around the room looking for the room’s center. When he had first started doing this, he thought he should mark the spot so he could more easily find it the next time. However, he soon noticed that the room’s center appeared to shift, ever so slightly, from one week to the next. It was as if the room went out of alignment somehow and required a minor periodic recalibration. So in the end Isaac came to rely more upon feeling the room’s center than locating it. When he felt he was in the center of the room, he would unfold the chair, place it carefully on the floor, and sit down. He would put his feet flat against the floor, rest his hands upon his knees, close his eyes, and begin to breathe in a slow rhythmic manner.
In time, and the amount of time would vary, images would rise up before him, slowly, like smoke ascending on a windless day. They would fill his mind. He would see the small town in Poland where he had been born, the banks of the river where he and his brothers swam on long, hot, lazy, Polish summer days. In winter, when the radiators in the studio would hiss and pop, he’d find himself in his mother’s kitchen. She would be bending over her stove, attending to her pots and pans, her back to him, singing a simple Yiddish song. He could smell the wonderful aromas of her cooking. Often he moved towards her, reached for her, but he was never able to touch her. When he would put his hand forward, she would move just out of his reach.
In all the time he had been doing this, there was only one person for whom, no matter how hard he tried, Isaac was unable to conjure up an image.
Sweeping the academy’s hallway one morning, Isaac heard music coming from the large studio, music he had never heard before. The melody was painfully beautiful. He stood still, listening. He seemed unable to move. It was as though a deep, dark wound had suddenly opened in the middle of his chest. Just then, Rosa Santiago, one of the newer students, emerged from one of the studio’s doors. She sat on the bench that ran along one side of the hallway, and bent down to tighten the straps of her shoes.
The music stopped, and Isaac, regaining his senses, approached the girl. “Excuse me, Miss Santiago?” he said.
The girl remained bent over her shoes, but looked up at Isaac. “Please,” she said, “just call me Rosa.”
“I was wondering if you happen to know the name of the piece Mr. Gonzalez was playing just now.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t. Last week the Madam Director asked him to bring in some new songs. She felt we were getting too used to the old ones. If you like, I can ask Victor the title and tell you after class.”
“If you don’t mind,” Isaac said.
The girl finished adjusting her shoes and re-entered the studio.
At the end of the day, Rosa looked for Isaac. She found him in one of the small studios, stacking some chairs.
“Primavera,” she said.
“Sorry?” Isaac asked.
“‘Primavera.’ It’s the name of the song you asked about. Victor says it was written by someone named Brudno, I think.”
That evening, on his way home, Isaac stopped at a record shop that specialized in tango music. It was one of those single-aisle shops with shelves from floor to ceiling on the opposing walls. The shelves contained cardboard boxes stuffed with records. The boxes were marked with large black letters on the outside to serve as an alphabetical index. The store was lit by a row of light bulbs hanging uncovered from long cords descending from the ceiling. They made the room appear as if it were being viewed through glasses with yellow lenses. A man sitting on a wooden stool staffed a cash register near the door. Three salesclerks were going up and down the aisle assisting customers. Shortly after Isaac entered, one of the clerks approached him and asked if he could help him.
“Yes,” Isaac said. “Do you have a recording of a song called 'Primavera’ by a composer named Brudno, I believe?”
“Let me check,” the clerk said. He walked down the aisle to the boxes labeled P. The boxes were on one of the higher shelves and he required a ladder to reach them. He thumbed through the boxes while standing on the ladder.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We have some Primaveras, but none of them written by a Brudno.”
An elderly man standing a few feet away from them said, “Look in F.”
“Excuse me,” the clerk said. “Did you say F?”
“I did,” the man replied. “You are looking for a song called ‘Friling’ by Avrom Brudno. Friling is springtime in Yiddish.”
Isaac smiled. Of course, he thought.
The clerk moved the ladder to the boxes labeled F.
“Ah, yes. Here it is. In fact, we have two recordings of it.” He took the recordings from the box and descended the ladder. “One was recorded by an orchestra in Montevideo a couple of years ago. The other was recorded in the early 1950s in Europe. Do you know which one you would like?”
“May I listen to them?” Isaac asked.
“Certainly,” the clerk replied. “The listening booth is at the back of the shop. Please follow me.”
In the listening booth, Isaac took out the Montevideo recording first. It was certainly the right song. However, he was disappointed. The recording lacked the depth of feeling that he had heard in the piece when Victor played it. He removed the recording from the turntable and replaced it with the European one. The record started with some pops and crackling sounds, and the band sounded muffled. Then came the singer. The singer sang in an old-fashioned style with a wide vibrato. Isaac stopped breathing. He was transported to the ghetto. The singer had lost his beloved in what seemed to be a sudden, unexpected way. “Springtime,” he sang, “please take my sorrow and bring my loved one, my dear one back to me.”
One of the clerks tapping on the door of the booth roused Isaac from his reverie. Another customer wanted to use the booth. Isaac removed the record from the turntable, placed it back in its jacket, and went to find the clerk who had been helping him.
“Well, which will it be?” the clerk asked.
Isaac handed him the European recording.
“I’ll write it up for you,” the clerk said. “Then you can pay at the front.”
When he got home, Isaac made himself coffee and heated up some leftovers. He lived in a small apartment on the third floor of an older building in the Balvanera neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The apartment consisted of two rooms: a small kitchen and a bedroom. One entered the kitchen directly from the hallway; a door connected the kitchen to the bedroom. There was a common bathroom at the end of the third floor hallway.
When he finished eating, he washed his dishes and set them in the drainer to dry. He entered his bedroom. The room was simply furnished. It contained a single bed with an iron bedstead, like those one finds in military barracks. At its foot was a brown leather trunk where Isaac kept his clothes. Beside the bed was a low wooden stool and on the stool an alarm clock and a lamp. Against the wall on the opposite side of the room was a fold-down secretary desk with a reading lamp and, beside it, a round-backed wooden chair. The desk was shut.
On top of the desk pushed against the wall were some books. Beside them was a photograph of a young woman. She appeared to be in her early twenties. The black-and-white photograph had faded in spots around its edges. The woman was smiling, her mouth partly open, exposing her top row of teeth. She had thick eyebrows, beautifully curving above her eyes. Her dark hair was of medium length, most of it tucked up under a knitted cap. However, strands of her hair had escaped the confines of the cap and hung loosely in curls down both sides of her face. She was wearing a short jacket and had her hands in her pockets. One could see a river, blurred out of focus, behind her. The picture appeared to have been taken in autumn, for the trees on the river’s banks were in the midst of losing their foliage. Isaac picked up the picture and looked at it for several moments before setting it down.
He opened the desk and sat down. He turned on the lamp, and took down a book. The book’s pages, yellowed by age, contained many penciled notes, some arrows, and underlining. The heading at the top of the page read, Part III. On the Origin and Nature of the Emotions. He read late into the night. Before closing the book, he returned to a passage near where he had begun. He underlined it:
I shall, therefore, treat of the nature and strength of the emotions according to the same method, as I employed heretofore in my investigations concerning God and the mind. I shall consider human actions and desires in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids.
In the margin Isaac wrote Sanitas.
He washed his face and hands at the sink in the kitchen, turned off the lights, undressed and lay down. He fell asleep quickly.
All that week, Isaac looked forward to Sunday morning and the opportunity to hear the record he had bought. He would use the phonograph beside the piano in the large studio. It was used primarily to teach the junior classes, and as a substitute for Victor when he was not available.
On Sunday, when he had finished his chores, Isaac took the record and the wooden folding chair into the studio. He placed the record on the phonograph table. Then he took the chair and found the center of the room. Returning to the phonograph, he placed the record on the turntable, raising the turntable’s center arm to allow the record to repeat automatically. He started the record, walked back to the chair, and sat down.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. There was only darkness, and the soft pulsing sound of the music. Then the singer began. Slowly, like a blurry image emerging out of fog, the river appeared. It grew increasingly distinct. He could hear it now, and could feel the chilly air of a Polish autumn morning. He looked up and down the river. He was alone. Then, as though out of nowhere, like a friend you chance upon in a foreign land, or in a strange or unexpected place, she appeared, exactly as he remembered her.
She smiled and turned her head slightly to one side. “Oh, how I have missed you,” she said. “More than you can know.” She took her hands out of her pockets and extended her arms to him. “Itzik,” she said. “Come. Come dance with me.”
In the afternoon, when Victor Gonzalez arrived at the academy, he heard music coming from inside the building, but found the front door, unaccountably, still locked.
A few weeks after the death of Isaac Parness, a man paid a visit to the academy and asked to speak with the Madam Director. At the time, she was teaching a mid-level class how to execute one of the simpler adornos during a pasada. Tina, her assistant, entered and called her aside. “There is a man here to see you,” she whispered.
“Who is it?” the Madam Director asked.
“Sorry, Madam Director. I don’t know him,” Tina said. “This is his card. He’s in your office.” The Madam Director looked at the card. It read in bold black Gothic letters Bernard Goldberg, Esq. She frowned. When she entered her office, the lawyer rose to greet her.
“Good morning,” he said.
“If this is about the young girl who twisted her ankle…” the Madam Director began.
The man smiled. “No, no, no,” he said, “not at all. Something quite different really. Isaac Parness was a client of mine.”
“The janitor? Isaac was one of your clients?”
“Yes. Although Mr. Parness was a man of modest means, he lived simply, had few wants, and no family. Last year he asked me to set up a fund to be used to help students who, in the eyes of the Madam Director, showed potential in the tango, but who, if not assisted, would be unable to afford the academy’s tuition. Recipients are to be determined solely by the Madam Director. I don’t know if you know it, but Mr. Parness had great admiration for you and the aims of the academy.”
Smiling, the Madam Director leaned back in her chair. “One never knows,” she said.
“No,” the man replied. “One never does. There is one additional matter. A woman named Rosa...”
“Santiago?” the Madam Director interrupted.
“No, Levine,” the man said. “Rosa Levine. The scholarship is to be named in memory of Rosa Levine.”
“And who was this… this Rosa Levine?”
The lawyer stood up. “Madam Director, I wish I could tell you, but I can’t, for I don’t know.”
Upon leaving the academy, the lawyer hailed a taxi and asked to be driven to the Cementerio Israelita in La Tablada. He got out of the cab at the cemetery gates and walked to the northeastern section of the cemetery. There, he easily found the grave of Isaac Parness. “Isaac, I have done as you asked,” he said. “May you rest in peace, my friend.”
Passing through the gates on his way out of the cemetery, the lawyer felt a slight movement of the earth, one of the many small tremors which frequently occur in the province of Buenos Aires. What he did not know was that the tremor had caused the coffin of Isaac Parness to shift, ever so slightly. The coffin now rested in a position such that if one were to draw a line from the exact center of its head through the exact center of its foot, and, following the curvature of the earth, continue it in a northeasterly direction, the line would pass over the Atlantic Ocean, several countries in northwest Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, and, in Europe, over a forest on the outskirts of a small town in south-central Poland, beneath the soil of which, along with those of many others, lay the bones of Rosa Levine.