Tale Two (From “Three from Once”)
By Marcelo Birmajer
Translated from Spanish by Sharon Wood
Introduction to the Three Tales
The three tales that follow are the result of a commission and a power cut. If it hadn’t been for that commission, maybe I would never have written them. If it hadn’t been for the power cut, there would have been eleven of them rather than just three. About three years ago now, Natan Berblum, a printer with a house in the Belgrano area and a shop in the Once district, called me up and told me he had had an idea. For Passover – three months off – instead of sending a card to a couple of dozen important clients in Miami, across Latin America and Argentina, he wanted to give them a book. Berblum printed tourist brochures for large travel firms, books and leaflets for various reformist synagogues, and the stationery for any number of conferences and congresses. He had an office in Miami and another in Venezuela. I had read in a newspaper article that he printed all the brochures for a tourist agency for gays. He had started out as a printer, but now he also owned the concession, amongst others, for one of the kiosks at the airport for Buenos Aires, Aeroparque. He also had interests in the distribution of books to the kiosks.
His voice was gruff, he had a cigar clamped between his lips. He had always been fat. He wanted me to write eleven stories about the district of Once (translator’s note: ‘Once’, as well as being the name of a district of Buenos Aires, means ‘eleven’.) He would print an edition of one hundred copies and would pay me an advance and a fee, a fixed price. Not a penny in author’s rights. After two years, I could use the stories as I saw fit, but he could bring out new editions of his book whenever he wanted, although never more than one hundred copies a year. We discussed fees for a few moments and reached a deal.
I decided to start the book with two stories. I knew the first one, about Pamela and Beto, myself. I needed a woman to tell me the other one. A week later I set up a meeting with the woman in my office, and I walked along Ecuador Street remembering the story of Alberto ‘Beto’ Zimerman.
I heard Pamela and Beto’s story walking along Ecuador Street. Towards the end, some things about the street rather surprised me. The shops seemed particularly dirty, while blank-faced employees and proprietors alike were to be seen sitting idly at the entrances. Ten blocks or so had had their power cut. The Once district was sweating and the dust was sticking to canopies that were none too clean in the first place. The rubbish that had collected around the roots of the few trees seemed even more foul-smelling than usual. I had a horrible feeling rats would soon appear.
I was arriving late because I had only left my own house at three o’clock. My house is at the intersection between the North district and Once, in an area still blessed with light and power. On the corner of Ecuador and Lavalle, the man in a kiosk where I bought a packet of tissues told me there had been no light in Once since four o’clock the previous afternoon. The huge international company that had bought up the light of half the Federal Capital of Argentina hadn’t been capable of maintaining a mains cable and a fire in one of its plants left half the city without light. The cut, although locals didn’t know it at the time, would last ten days. When I reached Ecuador Street it was chaos again, and almost unbearable. I went up to my office on the sixth floor by the stairs. On the flight of stairs between the first and second floors I met the only man of religion in the building: a Jew with a black beard, black caftan, side locks, felt hat and fixed expression. The man caught my attention because I thought I knew him from another life – without his religious clothes or beard. I saw from the – how ironic – electricity bills scattered around the foyer that his name was Jacobo Weir. I went past him without greeting him and without being greeted. It was Friday and it would have cost me nothing to wish him “Shabbat shalom”, but it annoyed me that he never spoke to me, and I didn’t want to come across as saying “I’m Jewish too”.
On the fifth floor the janitor told me that two hours before, the lights had come on for twenty minutes and then been cut off again.
I reached my office sweating, and automatically switched on the computer and looked to see if there were any messages on the answering machine. Both machines refused to work without electricity. After five years of accepting capitalism and feeling even a certain sympathy for globalisation, it seemed to me high time to go back to the socialist terrorism that led to the October Revolution and set fire to all the private enterprises that had bought up public services in Argentina, starting with the houses and property of the owners. I wanted the boss of this wretched electricity company to order his wife to carry me up the stairs and then use her tongue to lick off all the sweat that walking up them had extracted from me. After that I would make her pay for the inefficiency and carelessness of international monopolies. If the light came back on during the sexual act, fine, I would forgive them and we could go on as if nothing had happened. But they were only getting one hour to do it.
I looked for a notebook, a pen – the only things I can always find – sat down at my shiny wooden table and wrote down the story of Pamela and Beto. As I was writing I said to myself that all the light in the world could stop working and even so old Mossen would carry on writing his stories just the same. I didn’t need electric light, just someone willing to pay me. But then, as I was coming towards the end, I remembered I’d made an appointment with a woman who was coming to tell me her story, and the entry phone wouldn’t be working. I’d have to go down the stairs again and wait for her there. I decided against even an hour of clemency for the electricity company: if the light wasn’t back on in five minutes I would form my own guerrilla cell. I finished writing the story of Pamela and Beto, and the light hadn’t come back on. But the story turned out well, which improved my state of mind a little. I went down to look for Inés, who should have arrived about five minutes before. Jacobo Weir was still standing at the same point of the stairs. He didn’t say hallo to me, and I didn’t say hallo to him. Outside, I looked right along the street from one end to the other, and I tried to find some connection between the woman’s absence and the power cut. Maybe the lack of traffic lights had delayed the bus that was to bring her from Villa 31 on the Retiro? No, it couldn’t be that. Besides, I had offered to pay for a taxi for her, and taxi drivers are never worried by the thought of crossing a city without traffic lights. I went back up to my office leaving a trail of sweat behind me that maybe Jacobo Weir would slip up on if he ever got tired of playing Orthodox statues.
I opened the door and hurled myself towards the fridge. The bottle of mineral water I’d bought a week before was as hot as my body. I poured it over my face and let a few drops fall onto my tongue, but the tepid water was disgusting and made me feel sick. I went into the bathroom, turned on the tap and put my face and mouth to it. At that moment I had a revelation. My answering machine had a mini cassette, I had a journalist’s tape recorder that worked with the same mini cassettes: international enterprise had not yet drained my batteries of energy and I could listen to my messages! I could listen to my messages! I realised how upset I’d been at not being able to go through my daily ritual, pressing the button on the answering machine and listening to a series of meaningless hisses, or a couple of unimportant messages, from my mother, my brother, my wife, or the telephone company offering me its services. Without bothering to dry myself I took the cassette out of the answering machine and put it in my tape recorder. A couple of whistles and whines later there came on a voice I struggled to recognise. It was Natan Berblum, he was telling me that owing to the power cut, he was putting our project on hold. I could keep the advance in part payment for a final delivery date yet to be specified, next year or the one after that. I switched off the machine without listening to any more messages. How could he deliver a knock-out blow like that because of one day’s power cut? I thought Berblum was God, and now he was showing me he wasn’t even a man. I lifted the phone to call him, but that worked on electricity too. I didn’t think I could go on without power any more. I felt like a Comanche in the last corner of the last reserve, about to be assassinated, far away from everyone and without even a stick of dry wood to send up smoke signals. My armpits were clamped to my side with sweat, and Inés still hadn’t arrived. Maybe it was luck itself that had got lost, now that the project had been cancelled. But I wasn’t going to give up that easily, no indeed. I went down the stairs at a run. Natan Berblum’s print works were on Boulogne sur Mer and Lavalle, barely six blocks from my office. Jacobo Weir, still standing on the stairs, saw me pass at the speed of light.
I walked quickly to the Berson print works (Berblum and sons) and saw Rita, the secretary (she of the breasts like stalactites). Her red hair was drawn up into a ponytail and her cultured peasant’s face had a haughty expression. A tough woman. She was the only living being in the district who didn’t seem to be affected by the power cut. Would Natan take the cigar out of his mouth to pay attention to the body of her invulnerable forty years? “A woman who’s beautiful at forty” I told her once, “will always be beautiful”. “I’m not forty yet” she answered me, contemptuous. She called Natan on the intercom.
‘Have you got electricity?’ I asked in astonishment. ‘Everything seemed down all round here.’
‘For this, yes’, she said.
‘Go up these stairs’ she replied, pointing to some greasy-looking mosaic steps.
On the first floor, Natan was to be found in the best of all possible worlds. A room in shadows, half-lit by that rare thing, electric light, and with air conditioning. I didn’t ask again if he had a generator, but later I learnt he’d given a few pesos to a worker to cut him some electricity from another company’s cable.
‘Why have you got everything off downstairs?’ I asked.
‘So the neighbours don’t get jealous’, he replied.
I noticed that on a green baize table he had stacks of green notes piled up in bundles. It was a lot of money. Maybe he left it there so it could get some air conditioning too.
‘We had to do it in time for Passover’, he explained, ‘and we were short of time. Every day I had to shell out for something, today I was supposed to talk to the binders. There’s nobody around anywhere, the telephones aren’t working, the computers aren’t working. I had to call off the project for the moment.’
‘Natan’, I said to him, ‘we’ve got two and a half months. The power will be back on tomorrow. I’ve already made a start, I’ve written a story.’
‘And I paid you an advance’, he told me. ‘But the power won’t be back on tomorrow. They called me…’ He was vague as to the ‘who’, and he liked to keep it that way. ‘I don’t think we’re going to get more than twenty minutes in every twenty four hours for the next ten days.’
‘I can write without light’, I said.
He took his cigar out of his mouth to say:
‘You writers have holy light. But without electric light I can’t do a thing.’
‘You’ve got partners in Miami and Venezuela…’
‘I’d rather have no clients at all than go to all this trouble to give them a book. We’ll leave it for next year.’
‘Look at all this money you have…’ I said suddenly.
‘It’s not all that much’, he said. ‘Any anyway it isn’t mine.’
‘Give me a cigar’, I said.
‘Are you going to smoke it?’
‘No. I bite them.’
He took a cigar out from his inside pocket and gave it to me.
Jokingly I pointed to the piles of money and said:
‘And one of those.’
He picked up a bundle, peeled off a fifty dollar note and handed it to me.
‘I was kidding’, I said.
‘Keep it’, he said.
‘It’s not yours’, I said.
‘I’ll pay it back’ he said.
I took the note and put it in the back pocket of my trousers.
I headed back to my office with a cigar between my teeth and Rita didn’t even raise her head to say goodbye. But her breasts were still looking up.
In the kosher butcher’s, the meat was going rotten. I saw the owner of the ice-cream shop selling it off at a peso a kilo, sweeping litre after litre of yellow liquid down the drain, all the dead and mixed-up flavours in this decomposing mess: coconut, pistachio, vanilla, zabaglione. Shopkeepers who had survived one of the worst economic crises of the century now saw themselves defeated by a power cut. The whole district was like Job. The proprietor of an empty bar was looking up at the sky as if to ask: “What more?” It wasn’t the rats who worried me any more, it was microbes. The smell of rotten meat drifted through the still, summer air. The rubbish seemed to be mocking us. An outbreak of typhus would soon be announced, or cholera, and we would return to the age of the ghetto. A religious man passed by me, without sweating, dressed in his clothes fit for the Polish winter, hurrying his steps to prepare for the Sabbath.
I reached my block slightly cheered by the cigar I was chewing. Inés wouldn’t come. I stopped in front of Jacobo Weir and said to him:
‘Would you like me to help you up?’
‘Yes please’, he said.
‘I’m sorry’, I said to him sincerely as I put my hand under his arm. ‘I didn’t know you wanted to go up.’
‘I know, I know’, he said to me. ‘And I didn’t ask you. I don’t know if you can.’
It was the Sabbath: Jews are not allowed to work or to carry objects. I didn’t know either if you could carry people or not. I was surprised Jacobo Weir didn’t know any more than I did.
‘I’ve got a slipped disk’, he said. ‘I can’t climb up stairs.’
He lived on the fourth floor.
‘So how do you manage on Fridays?’ I asked. ‘If you can’t use the lift…’
‘I came to an arrangement with the janitor’, he told me. On Fridays at quarter past five he leaves the lift door open for me, I get in, close it and he calls the lift from the fourth floor.
I knew that in some buildings where there were a lot of religious people the lifts stopped automatically at every floor so the elderly could use them without violating the Sabbath. Jacobo Weir had resolved the problem manually.
‘Why didn’t you ask the janitor to help you up?’ I asked, panting by now.
‘I don’t know if you can. A Gentile can help you, but only if you don’t ask him directly.’
His ignorance and the excess of zeal with which he observed the norms brought back my feeling that I had seen him somewhere without his religious attire, and reinforced my suspicion that he wasn’t born into a family of practicing Jews. Orthodox practicing Jews have the rules at their fingertips and take things much more in their stride: they wouldn’t have hesitated to ask for help to get up the stairs. We struggled on up and I took an introspective look at the situation: it was like a battlefield, and I was helping my wounded companion to get back to our trenches.
‘Please, come in’, he said, opening the door of his flat.
In the shadows I saw a woman sitting with a cloth on her head and an enormous pair of glasses. I couldn’t work out how old she was. There was nobody else.
‘My wife will bring you some iced tea’, he said, and he ordered: ‘Bety!’
Bety went to get my iced tea.
‘How do you manage to keep it cold?’ I asked.
‘Ah’, he explained, ‘I meant to say it’s not iced.’
‘That’s fine’, I said. They brought me the tepid tea.
Bety picked up a religious book and begin to read it, murmuring to herself.
‘Can women read all the books?’ I asked Jacobo Weir.
He shrugged, and the expression on his face said he didn’t know.
‘When did you become religious?’
‘In 1994’, he replied.
‘During a trip to Israel?’ I asked.
‘No, what trip to Israel’ he replied in a different tone, that of a lay Jew. ‘Here.’
‘My younger brother became Orthodox over there’, I said, ‘at the Wailing Wall. He came back to Argentina after than but he carried on being religious.’
‘Baruj Ashem’ said Jacobo Weir, returning to his present state.
His hands were covered with black hair.
‘Right’, I said, ‘I’ll be off. Shabbat Shalom.’
‘Stay a little longer’, he offered. ‘I have a little leikaj.* Bety!’
Bety had taken her book onto the balcony but she came back with a tired step, put the book on a table and looked at her husband with a mixture of submissiveness and rebelliousness.
‘I don’t want anything’, I said. ‘Thank you very much.’
‘I’ll go out and get something cold to drink’, said Bety.
‘Where from?’ I asked.
‘In Baruj’s shop. I don’t know how but they have cold drinks there.’
‘They buy ice from the service station at Jean Jaurés’ said Jacobo Weir. ‘They’ve got electricity, I don’t know how.’
‘That’s because it’s on the other side of Cordoba Street’, I said. ‘They still have power over there.’
‘I’m going to buy the drinks’, said Bety. And she went out.
‘You don’t want any leikaj’,* Jacobo Weir said to me. ‘You helped me up. Today is the Sabbath. What can I do for you?’
‘Tell me how you became religious’, I said.
Jacobo Weir lifted his face to me and his tranquillity seemed no more than one of the items of clothing he had started wearing in 1994.
‘You’re asking a lot’, he told me.
‘You don’t have to do what I’m asking. I would have been an imbecile if I hadn’t helped you up.’
Jacobo Weir gave a guffaw of laughter. He stroked his beard.
‘I’ll tell you’, he said. ‘Who knows how much longer I have to live?’
‘A slipped disk won’t kill you.’
‘It’s being married that kills you’ he whispered in a jovial tone. And he gave another loud laugh.
I didn’t answer, but I fixed him with a smile.
‘Bety’s a good woman’ he told me. ‘She did tchuva, like me.’
In the absence of light, the silence acquired mystical dimensions.
‘I fell in love with the daughter of a friend’, Jacobo Weir said suddenly.
I looked at him in surprise.
‘Didn’t you say you wanted me to tell you?’ he said, passing from formal to informal address. ‘I’m telling you. I fell in love with a friend’s daughter.’
‘Incredible’, I said.
‘What’s incredible about it? Is it incredible to fall into temptation with a twenty-five year old girl? Not falling would be incredible.’
‘No’, I said. ‘Incredible because I’m waiting for a woman who hasn’t shown up and who was going to tell me a love story. Now it seems you’re going to tell me one.’
‘Do you always keep interrupting like this?’ he asked me.
‘It’s a fault, I said. ‘This woman who hasn’t turned up had an affair with an Argentine boy who died in the war of Lebanon. And when I was helping you up the stairs to your flat, I thought “We are two soldiers, I’m helping my mate reach his trench”. And the fact that you now have a story to tell me seems part of whole series of interlocking coincidences.’
He waved my theory aside with a movement of his hand.
‘I was coming back from Miramar and her parents asked me to take her back to the Capital because she had an end of term exam to do in Architecture.’
‘Was she still studying at twenty five?’ I asked.
‘She was a girl who had problems’, he said. ‘A lot of problems. She was very unbalanced. You could tell by her body she was crazy, but it took the form of beauty. She had a crazy body, absolutely stunning.’
I looked for signs of lust in Jacobo Weir’s face, or of grief, but the battle really did seem to be over: the bloody battle we men are obliged to wage when the woman we most love and will never have again vanishes from our lives. He spoke with the calm of a man who has managed to reach the other bank of the river of love.
‘I took her to Buenos Aires. I knew from her parents that she took drugs. That she had a lot of boyfriends. She tried to study but she found it really difficult. Various doctors tried to get her off drugs, they took her to the United States. Nothing. Veronica.’
‘What was the matter with her?’ I asked.
Jacobo Weir thought for a few moments and lifted a finger to his right temple.
‘I think it was in her head’, he said. ‘Her brain, I mean, not a psychological problem.’
‘Did they do any tests?’ I asked.
‘Several. But they could never find anything. Just the same, I think it was something neurological rather than psychological.’
‘Can a neurological problem turn you into a drug addict?’ I asked.
‘Living can turn you into a drug addict’ said Jacobo Weir, ‘even more so if you have a neurological problem. We talked, while I was driving her to Buenos Aires. I listened to her, I didn’t try to advise her in any way. She told me about her boyfriends, how one of them would hit her, what it felt like sticking needles in. Maybe she was expecting me to tell her to shut up, or to be scared, or hoped that for sheer horror I would lose control of the van and she could finally die. But I felt something, I don’t know if it was compassion, or maturity, I felt I knew she couldn’t say these things to her father and that I was doing her a good turn by listening to them. I wasn’t religious at the time but I still had the concept of doing a good turn.’
A tragic grimace twisted his face.
‘Then near Chascomús, she told me I was “peace”. That’s what she said to me. “You are peace, Jorge.”’
‘Jorge?’ I reacted.
‘My parents called me Jacobo, but ever since I was a teenager I’d called myself Jorge.’
‘What about now?’ I asked.
‘Jacobo’, he answered. ‘After telling me about her whole disastrous life, Veronica was quiet. She was like a child, a little girl who had just woken up and washed her face. “My father always brought me here to eat croissants”, she said. “Do you want one?” I asked her. We stopped and ate some croissants. She cried while she was eating them. She took one of my hands and kissed it. I pulled my hand back, alarmed. When we reached Buenos Aires she said: “Can I call you some time to talk to you?” “Of course”, I replied. “But don’t tell Gerardo”, she told me. Gerardo was her father. I didn’t answer her. She got out and her legs brushed against mine. I realised I was in love and I mustn’t let her call me. I should never talk to her again. She was a madwoman with a killer body: not only was it destroying her, it could destroy me too. Do you like women?’
‘Of course’, I said.
‘I mean, do you like them?’
‘I’m not sure what you mean.’
‘Are you faithful?’
‘You asking me that’, I said, ‘dressed like that, makes me feel as if I’m in a confessional.’
‘God free us’, he cried. ‘We Jews don’t do confession.’
‘Go on’, I asked him.
‘Poor Veronica’, he continued. ‘She called me, night and day. If Bety answered she would hang up. She didn’t answer very often, thanks be to God, but I knew it was her. The madwoman had broken free. I was her new drug. After that, they went to Brazil.’
‘To Brazil. All of them. Gerardo, Veronica, and Marta. The treatments weren’t working, she wasn’t making any headway at the university, and Gerardo had some important business in Brazil, the concession of a hotel restaurant. He left with the whole family. We received letters and phone calls telling us she was better. I found that hard to believe, but Gerardo spoke about the improvement in his daughter with conviction, even while he didn’t deny the difficulties of the past. He never said: “she’s fine”, always “she’s better.” That made it seem more plausible. A year later they invited us to go and visit them. Bety and I decided to go.’
‘Do you have children?’ I asked.
‘Bety can’t’ replied Jacobo Weir heavily. ‘We arrived in Brazil. The restaurant was a luxury pizzeria in a hotel in Barra de Tijuca. Gerardo, Veronica and Marta lived in the hotel. Bety and I preferred to rent an apartment by the sea for a couple of weeks. At first we thought of driving there, but my van had been stolen.’
Jacobo Weir did something extraordinary with his eyes. He didn’t exactly roll them right back until just the white of his eyes showed, but something like that. He stood up and took his teacup with him.
‘Do you want some more tea?’ he asked.
‘No’, I said. ‘I’d rather wait until your wife comes back with the cold drinks.’
He left the room and came back with his cup full of tea.
He put the cup onto a side table and before sitting down he said:
‘My van wasn’t stolen. I sold it to buy Veronica a ring.’
‘Can I go and get myself some tea?’ I asked.
I had realised that when Bety came back, Jacobo Weir wouldn’t be able to go on with his story.
‘There are clean cups on the shelf’, he told me, ‘the white ones.’
I found the kitchen, the shelf and the porcelain teapot with the black tea inside.
‘Sugar?’ I shouted.
‘It’s already in’, replied Jacobo Weir.
I sat down swilling my tea around in its cup, which I held in both hands. I couldn’t help noticing once again the hairy hands of Jacobo Weir.
‘Why did you do that?’ I said. ‘Why did you sell your van to buy a ring for a girl you hadn’t seen for a year?’
‘Who I hadn’t seen for a year, and who I’d actually been avoiding. I don’t know. Her body, as I told you, was a killer. I fell in love, I went a little crazy. My heart was broken at the thought that she had offered herself to me, that she had come to me, and I had let her go. And that now, in Brazil, she was going to bed with blacks, with old men…. And I had abandoned her. Me, her peace. I wanted her for myself.’
‘But a year had passed’, I said. ‘Was she still calling you?’
‘Never again, once she got to Brazil. But now I wanted her to call me.’
‘Didn’t you get over her after a year?’ I asked.
‘I never got over her’, he replied. ‘Bety believed the van had been stolen, no problem there.’
‘What is it you do?’ I asked.
‘Now I live on rental income from two apartments I inherited. But at the time I would deliver things for market with my van.’
‘And you sold the van?’
‘I’ve told you that already. I went crazy. We got to Brazil and when I saw her I didn’t regret it. She was the woman I’d been dreaming about those last few months, and she would be mine.’
‘What was it you wanted from her?’
‘Everything she could give me. I would give her the ring, I would ask everything of her and I would accept whatever it was she wanted to give me.’
‘What do you mean by everything?’
‘Running away together. Getting married, having children, whatever she wanted.’
‘But she wasn’t right in the head’, I said. ‘How could she have…’
‘I didn’t care’, said Jacobo Weir, and raising his finger to his temple again he added: ‘I wasn’t right in the head either.’
‘It was obvious Veronica was better’, he went on. ‘Indeed, she’d stopped taking drugs. She didn’t rush madly in and out of any room where she happened to be, and she didn’t give nervous little twitches. She didn’t say anything about any new ‘projects’ (in her worse moments she was quite capable of signing up to three separate degree courses at the same time). She behaved like a good unmarried daughter, sticking close to her parents. But all that was on the surface. She was polite towards her parents in a way that was not just excessive, it was empty. She went to the beach, went into the water but it was as if the sea didn’t get her wet at all. She couldn’t feel the things she did. What was in her soul? She was like a nun. Her white face, her careful gestures, very silent, slow, calm movements. And according to her parents and as far as I could see, too, completely chaste. One afternoon I tapped on the door of her room and she let me in without asking what I wanted.’
‘Didn’t you feel guilty about making a destabilising proposition to a girl who was in recovery?’
‘Very’, said Jacobo Weir. ‘I was shaking, and my mouth was as if paralysed. I felt much more guilty about Veronica than I did about Bety. I said to Veronica I was begging her forgiveness for not taking her calls. She told me not to worry and she stroked my face, gently. I shaved in those days. I took her hand and kissed it, as she had kissed mine in the croissant shop. “I’m better”, she said. “I’m not”, I replied. “I want you. I know I can make you happy. You’re the only thing I care about.” I believed everything I was saying. “The last time I was near you was in my van”, I went on, “afterwards I didn’t think I was strong enough. But when you went away… I can’t be in that van if you’re not there. I sold it. This is for you, Veronica”.’
‘Did she accept the ring?’ I asked.
‘She tried to refuse it, but I didn’t let her. She took my face in her hands and kissed my lips. She said “I can’t accept the ring, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m still not well, I’m still very confused”. “I won’t give it to you then”, I said, “I’ll just leave it in left luggage for the moment. If you say yes, you keep it; if you think about it and decide to say no, you give it back to me.” She laughed at the left luggage part, and I had said it to make her laugh. Bety never laughed at my jokes. Besides, I was peace, her peace. For Bety I was just punishment.’
‘What about now?’ I asked.
‘Now we are each other’s consolation. There was love between Veronica and me, I realised. Her body was intact. She wasn’t indifferent to me, she hadn’t thrown me out of her room with terrified screams, she hadn’t laughed at me. “I don’t think I can stand living here much longer”, she told me. “I’m going back to Buenos Aires to give you back your ring.” “If you decide to give it back to me”, I said. She nodded. She was giving me a chance: she would think about it. I left her room full of hope, I was euphoric. I went to Bety and we went to the beach. I was like a young man and Bety was happily surprised. I told her we were on holiday, and all our problems and bad temper could be put down to stress. I had visited Veronica three days before going back to Buenos Aires and the last three days were perfectly normal. Nobody realised a thing. Gerardo was fine, happy to see his friends and even happier that his daughter was at least calm. Marta, on the other hand, was watching her daughter closely, she wasn’t so easily persuaded that she was better and I believe, although I hope God would forbid it, that she even suspected something. They took us to the airport and as the plane headed back to Buenos Aires I felt as though that was the best holiday I had had in my life.’
Like a TV advert in the middle of a programme, we heard Bety’s key turn in the lock, a buzzing sound and the cry: ‘light!’ Bety pressed the switch in the living room and I saw clearly a bare and lifeless room with just a couple of rabbinical figures decorating the walls, which were of a severe white.
‘Let’s take the lift so we can check what I asked you’, I said.
‘He wants me to see a mezuzah he’s got’ said Jacobo Weir to his wife.
‘I’ll show you another time’, I said to Bety.
‘Off you go’, said Bety. Pointing to the bag she hadn’t even put on the floor yet, she added: ‘Don’t you want something to drink?’
‘No, thanks’, I said, ‘I had some tea.’
My throat was dry and I was dying for a sip of something.
We took the lift up to my office. I opened the doors and pressed switches.
‘I’m going to have to give you a mezuzah’, said Jacobo Weir.
‘I’ll accept it with thanks’, I said. ‘But you can tell Bety I haven’t unpacked it yet.’
He waved his hand as if to say it didn’t matter.
‘A week later, her parents brought Veronica’s dead body back to Buenos Aires. They buried her at the Tablada cemetery. She’d killed herself, with pills, in her room in the hotel. At reception they told Gerardo and Marta that not long before she took the pills a young man had been in her room. The day of the funeral we barely exchanged condolences. They fixed things so they wouldn’t have to bury her against the wall, as you usually do with suicides. A few days later they came to my house. Gerardo was devastated, he couldn’t speak. He’d aged a hundred years. Marta took it more calmly, and she was the one who told us that before she died Veronica had put a ring on her finger apparently worth around ten thousand dollars. The ring was a mystery to both of them. The only money Veronica had was what they gave her, and they didn’t know anyone else who could have given it to her. Why had she put the ring on to die? After the police had analysed it they put it back on the same finger. Mysterious as it was, their daughter had made up her mind to die with this ring on, and they were going to respect that. I had just bought a new van with some savings I had, and I just about convinced Bety that I’d used the insurance money. She never looked into my accounts.
We were sitting either side of the shiny table in my office. I couldn’t have any messages because I had forgotten to put the mini cassette back into the answering machine. The computer was on and I didn’t bother to switch it off – the power cut would do that soon enough. I went into the bathroom, took some water from a tap and rubbed it on my face and round the back of my neck.
‘But she found out’, he said. The price of the van and the price of the ring, although there was no way Bety would check them, were both in thousands of dollars and even for Bety these things add up. One day someone phoned and said he was the person who’d bought the van. I had taken every precaution I could, used a middle man… but these things happen. At first Bety thought he was a thief who wanted to blackmail us, get something more from us. I encouraged this theory. But as the weeks went by she started to put two and two together. In the end she realised I had taken money out of our savings account and that I hadn’t been paid any insurance money. That was the end. You have to remember’ went on Jacobo Weir, pressing his hands together, ‘that at the time neither my wife nor I were practicing. Ours was a classic neurotic upper middle class marriage with its squabbles, its ambitions, its selfishness and its normality…Bety went crazy. First she went at me until she made me confess I was the one who had given the ring to Veronica. She told me that if I didn’t confess she would throw herself out of the window. I confessed. She asked me if I had been to bed with her and I answered the honest truth – never. She didn’t believe me. I swore to her that just as she had accepted my guilt about the ring, she should also believe me when I told her that I hadn’t been to bed with Veronica, and that wouldn’t change even if she did throw herself out of the window. “That means that as well as mad you’re an idiot” she screamed at me. I agreed with her. “I’m going to tell Gerardo everything” she shouted at me. “You’re only going to cause them more pain” I said tonelessly. And at that point she did try to throw herself out of the window. I stopped her. She fell against me and sobbed for a long time. After she’d got some of it out of her system and I was thinking that maybe something new could grow between us, she said to me, perfectly calmly: “I want the ring”.
‘You heard – she’s got it.’
‘I want it,’
‘I want that ring.’
Jacobo Weir slipped his right ring finger into the fist he had made of his left hand.
‘The dripping water that wears down the rock, is that the right phrase?’ asked Jacobo Weir without waiting for an answer from me. ‘Women and children can ask for something any number of times. There’s no way, if you are married, you can refuse a wife something she wants that badly. Men can’t keep up a request for that long, we think asking like that undermines our dignity somehow. But it’s not that we are dignified, nobody is dignified. We’re not made for dignity.’
‘How should we be made in order to be dignified?’
‘Without desire’, said Jacobo Weir, ‘like tortoises.’
‘Are tortoises dignified?’ I asked, amused.
‘I don’t know. I always thought tortoises didn’t feel desire. Bety bent me to her will. She demanded the ring of death from me. If I had sold the van to buy this ring, then I had to give it to my wife.’
‘Had you already forgotten Veronica?’ I asked. ‘I mean, did you think about her?’
‘I don’t know’, repeated Jacobo Weir. ‘My head was full of my wife’s demands. She cried, she insulted me, she demanded to have the ring without suggesting how on earth we might get it back. Splitting up with her wasn’t an option. Bety accused me of sleeping with Veronica because she, Bety, couldn’t have children. If I split up with Bety I would kill her, and I had already killed one woman.’
‘I don’t think Veronica killed herself for you’, I said, ‘She was a girl who wasn’t destined to live for very long.’
‘She put the ring on before she died. Who knows? But I couldn’t bring myself to split up with Bety, I couldn’t leave her, I couldn’t bear it myself. I just wanted her to stop asking me for the ring. She wouldn’t even let me sleep, she wouldn’t let me eat. Though we never stopped having….’
Jacobo Weir stopped for a moment, Should he tell his story with the permissiveness of his lay past or with the rigid discretion of Orthodoxy?
‘…We never stopped having sexual relations. During the most intensely passionate moments she would ask me for the ring. She moved her body as she had never moved it before, as she asked me for the ring. Those terrible, dreadful days were the days when we had the most sex: we were like the newly married young things we had never actually been. But I wanted to die: she didn’t stop asking me for the ring.
‘Didn’t you think of getting the money together and buying another one like it?’
‘She wanted that ring. Veronica’s ring. It was owing to her. How could I have betrayed her like that? I had to give her the ring, it didn’t matter how I got it. Now comes the worst bit, I don’t know if I should even tell you. It’s the Sabbath.’
‘Why have you started addressing me more formally again?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe because of what I’m about to tell you. You know the headstones are not laid for at least a month. For that month at least I could… I could… get the ring without damaging the stone.’
My attention was glued to Jacobo Weir. Could he have gone that far?
‘First I got the money to buy another ring the same. I asked for false credit through a contact at the bank, and I bought the ring. Later, I bribed one of the cemetery guards and drove there with Bety in our new van. I went into the cemetery at half past midnight, the guard let me in and, in front of Bety, he told me everything was ready. The guard had no idea what he was saying, I’d told him what to say and stuffed a wad of notes in his hand. I asked Bety if she wanted to go with me. She said she didn’t and she would wait in the van. I took an hour, together with the guard, and we went back sweating and dirty. Bety was waiting for me in the van, quite calm. I gave her the earth-covered ring. She looked at it carefully, cleaned it on the hem of her jacket, and put it on her ring finger. I put the van in gear.
‘Did you give her the new ring?’ I asked, like a stupid child.
Jacobo Weir didn’t answer immediately. He raised the palm of my hand to cut me off.
‘A month later, they still hadn’t laid the headstone. We saw Gerardo and Marta. Gerardo was the same as always with me but Marta wouldn’t speak to me. They came back to live in Buenos Aires. The tragedy made it impossible for them to go on living in the hotel. The Brazilian police told them that Veronica’s visitor had stolen things from two of the hotel rooms. There was nothing strange about that: Veronica chose the worst low-life to be with. They also discovered that the young man had taken her pills. The police had arrested him for the hotel thefts and discovered he had a long record, including two murder charges. The police asked for Veronica’s body to be exhumed for a new autopsy and the courts, with her parents’ permission, had agreed. Gerardo and Marta wanted to be sure she hadn’t been persuaded by this delinquent to take the pills and commit suicide. I think Gerardo also had the faint hope that his daughter hadn’t committed suicide at all. They dug up her coffin one Tuesday and on Thursday the forensic team confirmed the suicide: at least, she had swallowed the tablets with no outer signs of violence. On Friday, Marta and Gerardo came to our house, even more shattered than before. Bety hid the ring of course, under a floorboard in our sitting room. Marta was in such a bad way that she forgot to show her antipathy towards me and through her sobbing she said: “Oh, if you could have seen her, my love, my darling, with her ring, like a fiancée. She was never married, my darling, I dreamt of seeing her married, whoever gave her that ring, it was really precious, somebody loved her in this world, somebody loved her…”and with that she fell into Bety’s arms.
When Gerardo and Marta left I felt as if Bety and I were the only couple left in the world. We were alone and, like today, the Sabbath was just beginning. We didn’t celebrate it in those days. What was my wife going to do? Ask me yet again to go and take the ring off a dead woman’s finger? Ask me where I had got the money to buy the false ring? She went into the kitchen and I though she was going to kill herself with the meat cleaver. I waited. If she killed herself, I would kill myself after her. I had nothing to lose. But she came back in, with a cloth on her head, the same cloth you saw her with today. She said to me: “God exists. I lost the ring. Now I know where it is. We were too far away. We have to come back. We have to make tchuva”.’
‘And so we became religious’, said Jacobo Weir.
The light had gone off again.
‘Shall I help you down?’ I asked.
‘No’, he replied. ‘I can make it going down. It takes me a while, but I get there. Thanks for your help.’
‘Thanks to you’, I said. ‘Shabbat Shalom.’
‘Shabbat Shalom’, he replied.
I waited about twenty minutes to make sure he had reached his flat and then I went out to find a bar that was stealing electricity from the company still functioning and which could sell me something cold to drink.
* Leikaj – the honey cake eaten on Pesach, on Shabbat, or after ceremonies.
Copyright © Marcelo Birmajer 2010, Translation copyright © Toby Press 2010
Marcelo Birmajer is a prolific journalist, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His work includes the novels Tres mosqueteros (Three Musketeers), Historia de una mujer (Story of A Woman), and the much-translated short story collection, Historias de hombres casados (Stories of Married Men) and many works for children and young adults. He is also co-author of the award-winning film El abrazo partido (Lost Embrace). Birmajer’s fiction usually revolves around the Porteño neighbourhood of Once and its colourful inhabitants, and features Jewish characters and issues. He has been described by Edith Grossman (New York Times, January 29, 2005) as a “knockout, with that moving, bittersweet quality found in Yiddish literature,” and his new novel, La despedida (The Farewell) is another work of Jewish fiction set in the Once neighbourhood.