Land of Promise
By María Gabriela Mizraje
Translated from Spanish by Brett Alan Sanders
to Nissim Mizdraje,
whom I have never met
Not dragging his feet despite being so tired, he who had been born in Istanbul without dreams of grandeur and without history walked as if all fear but also all illusion had been devoured by the ocean, on a journey so long that he managed to play dominoes, try out the other language, and worry about succumbing to the temptation of getting drunk.
Tall, pale, alone; uncommonly white and framed by a smile that I could never match; contained within his own certainty that nothing would be lacking; hardly a few minutes of silence, a code, an unknown visage: that’s what he was like. Someone could translate, not forgetting his well-proportioned slimness, “elegant”; even “poor but elegant”; or even more “a poor but elegant Jew.” From Istanbul, though others say – other women, really, my aunts – that he came from a town near Smyrna (or Izmir or Stambul).
His feet softly sheathed, he dragged other soles over the smoothness of the board: steadfast and exhausted, he mended shoes day after day, lining up the work and the money in an invisible promenade. They slipped over the table. He counted them, had the shoes he’d repaired recorded (not by pairs but by unit). “That’s the difference between sellers and menders, they count them by two and we count them one by one.” And when Elías helped him, he smiled: “Son, you’ve heard it said that two men don’t fit in one shoe. That sounds like the exercises you do with your piano teacher, it’s a play for four hands.” Elías was pleased, Wednesday afternoon’s only memory that could comfort him, the voice of the young teacher, Alicia, who taught him scales and short pieces in exchange for the needlework that his mother, Lumila, performed for Alicia and her mother; it would come back timing the note “sol, sol, sol” which sounded like the promise of the beach and her golden barely-damp body, just like the postcards he’d seen, the girl shaking her hair, like the blonde on the 1935 calendar. She would turn her voice to him with precise suggestion or with soft reproach saying “You shouldn’t ruin your hands like that”; he, blushing, would deliver her his hands, which she would turn over like a piece of leather, inspecting them slowly, saying, “Oh, my poor Eli,” until she started kissing them. She never abandoned that gesture. It formed part of the ritual of the lessons. Elías longed for that instant alone, it was his only certitude, and more and more he neglected his hands in the work with his father, sometimes humming “mi, mi ...” in accompaniment to his hammering, until much later he understood that those wounds were really unnecessary to attain Alicia’s kisses. He already had them assured, they were a first movement that never changed rhythm simply because he didn’t realize it.
His fingers would slidealong the piano like slippery fishes that detected a web on every key. His fingers were fishes, the fishes were shifting soles on the spotless sand, patent leather, an invitation to dance. The fingers were always further away, like promises. They always failed, like promises. And Elías spoke to his smart new teacher – all year done up in the finest plaits – of awls and rubber and glues and nails, of the hours at El Tigre (at its intersection with the Paraná and Plata rivers), of the poet of the stained letters and the guys from the parish. “But you’re a Jew,” she repeated to him as if to convince herself, and he insisted, “Yes, but I’m an altar boy.”
Elías trained with his father for the trade (others will say it wasn’t so, perhaps other women as well). With his small hands he stitched leather and even made drawings on the side that nobody would notice. “I put my mark on the shoes, it’s like keeping on branding the cows after they’re dead, the others’ shoes have a name too and if I call them slowly, they might even obey me; shame I never believed in the Magi.” Many were the feet that without knowing it bore the initials of Elías my father, who on occasion added the date.
He had the vagrant idea that in that manner – “when all’s said and done I’m the author of their repairs” – he was slipping into the life of others, that something of his was extended in them that was a witness to their steps, that could even control them. While he maintained that habit of inscriptions and continued perfecting them to the point of constructing a kind of stamp, never in those years which were stretching out like knotted cords did it occur to him to think that his name was being trampled on and that with it they were crushing his efforts against whatever curb, against whatever doorstep, against the bark of a tree, against a road.
During his escapes to the river alone with his father, Narciso – the two men of the house – he also trained: he learned to take his first strokes as if robbing the land of some promise that it couldn’t offer him. The child always thought that further away, much further away on the other side of the river, one arrived at Istanbul and at the dwellings of Smyrna, precisely at those stilt houses or “palafittes” that Lumila was accustomed to drawing for him, the ones that she sketched like crustaceans with four rather crooked legs surrounded by blue: his mother had been born in one of them, the mother who never told him stories but sometimes mimicked sinuous and even sad songs while he pretended to sleep. Later, when “the girls” arrived, it was different.
They went to the river because the shoe mender (my grandpa) was besides that a swimmer. In the open sea. He had been one in his land before climbing aboard that boat which wasn’t the first but which, despite its slowness, brought him too soon to the surprise of Barrio Colegiales. Before long his feet also came to know Barrio Once and Villa Crespo.
He could have sold fruit and didn’t do so – that job was taken by the Italian in the house in front – or applied to some neighborhood club for modest Olympic games. Instead, his sense of smell became inured to the scent of leather and failed to darken his hands, which always seemed recently emerged from the waves of the Black Sea.
After touching the Marmara Sea (which occupies the place of a preface echoing that other somewhat prophetic, somewhat foreboding sea), the water of El Tigre – he never told me but I couldn’t help but feel it – was like a desertion or simulacrum. Sometimes he smiled with light irony: “Since I came to America I’ve evolved. I passed from the salty to the sweet (America is like a dessert), from night to day: from the Black Sea to the Río de la Plata,” and succumbing lightly to liqueur, “in this river it’s impossible to drown.” “Don’t believe it,” rejoined the fellow from the room next to ours, who came from the province of Santa Fe with all its rivers,“don’t trust it, it’s like a traitorous animal. It’s not domesticated; in fact it’s brazen. This river has two faces.”
The swimmer (my grandpa) retained, nonetheless, the dignity of those who gamble – with a diminutive and precise confidence – on future events. “It’s good fishing in troubled waters.” He changed the sayings but didn’t acknowledge altering them, only fixing them, nor did he refer to corrections but rather mendings, “good swimming.”Waters and people, along with everything else, moved according to the demands of the context: “steady swimming.” It wasn’t drastic, he didn’t smack of arrogance, but when he spoke his Ladino – his Judeo-Spanish – it filled up with axioms that rolled, fell in a chain from one son to another, until finally rubbing off on me. My grandpa Narciso drew out his vowels.
They, the female descendants, would have made necklaces with his words if they could have. My father Elías, the oldest child, would have made a shield to put on his aviator’s cap, leaving one of the old man’s sayings recorded forever in letters: they were rubrics, in their way they were promises, and they didn’t boast of readings of the Bible but they weren’t unacquainted with it. The sisters could have embroidered some kind of spell on his hat that would ward off falls. Words like meteorites which grew solid to the degree that they distanced themselves from the earth, the same as with prayers. If each supplication was a stone, hymns on the other hand had wings. Would that be why Grandma didn’t tell stories or impart maxims? She just sang, Grandma, while in the patio or in the kitchen – through her apron – she slapped palms against thighs as if her hands might help the words come out, as if by doing so she might send them more swiftly onto the winds. Return them to some place of origin that only she knew and that wasn’t Smyrna either, further away from the trees, further away from the winds blowing off of the river, further away from the photographs that came to her and of the return journey that still held out its promise. “On a visit,” to be a guest, she was going to return home “on a visit,” on the sly. And they were no longer the crude words that chance might have subjected her to in her days as a desirable young woman, beneath the clumsy longing of unfamiliar hands, hands that knew nothing of water and caresses. Now she had a dozen of the whitest hands circling her table. Now her husband’s hands presided over ceremonies that she never would have imagined. Now hers had turned darker by dint of labor.
“There he goes, there goes the Turk who married the servant girl,” she couldn’t help hearing. Or putting up with the question, as she herded along her swarm of children, about their mother, “And where is she?” “I’m her.” “Pardon me, it’s just that they don’t look anything like you.” And her distress was overtaken by her maternal pride which rejoiced in her children’s whiteness, which celebrated the fact that they looked like their father, and her generosity became greater than her resentment, although sometimes, in silence, she cried. And she discovered the word genetic, and up to her final delivery scrutinized their tiny eyes in search of some characteristic that would compensate her efforts, in search of a reminiscence of their mother, in search of an invisible line that would tie her offspring to her womb, but it was in vain. For three generations we all took after Narciso, we’re all attached to his name. She loved him and celebrated his beauty, and that was another comfort in her mortification. “It’s better that way,” she tended to resign herself. “Otherwise perhaps not even he would have believed me. It’s better they’ve come out like their father.”
It was in that manner that, without their ever being apart, Grandpa was slowly turning into “the father of my children,” as if her handsome husband had ceased belonging to her, and was there only to vouch for her being the mother of five extremely white smiling children. And for that reason she cooked, for their white and bottomless stomachs, colorful foods that were able to convey visible reminiscences to her. In the tenement house or conventillo where they lived, it was she, room three’s cook, who filled the corridor with coveted fragrances and who, generous and devoted, rested her hands on her apron as if right from there, between ample pockets and ample thighs, she extracted the recipes – written for another palate, in another language.
It wasn’t on Sundays but on Saturdays that they would get away together to the river, after Narciso closed the business early. This was before Eleonora was born, and it went on for years, when he rented the small premises where, besides mending neighbors’ shoes, he sold lottery tickets to landlords and those who wished they were. The little business where Elías sometimes helped him and where a photo of Chaplin was exhibited on the shop window (with his cane touching the tip of his gleaming shoe). When father and son returned to the neighborhood, my grandma with her hands that still conserved the memories of her un-checkered apron, limp and white, would be tracing circles on its empty space expressing a less than emphatic welcome. A gesture that had something of a summons to the table and something of a reprimand for the delay (like a dare to a boys’ outing or a retort to a men’s all-nighter), something of an urgent sensual need weighed in years and something of maternal worry. My grandma, Lumila, carried her Spanish around like the varicose veins and discolored spots that intensified every summer on her dark skin, for almost a decade (pregnant every other year) enduring the heat and the Carnival holidays. She carried her Spanish like another pregnancy, the fifth in a series that was increasing the number of women in the home.
“Good thing the Turks can’t rape them here,” she consoled herself when she was alone. While she herself had left her native land fleeing because no girl remained free of risk. She had arrived at Buenos Aires in search of Narciso and other familiar faces. A cousin had introduced her to Narciso by means of a photo. “Come, if you accept” was all the missive from South America suggested. Laconic invitation from so far south, so far west, that at a point it became unreal, down to the writing which seemed to have altered itself on the Atlantic. “What will he be like?” she asked herself with scant concern, and found out it would be better that way, far from the Turks, far from that land’s water and from those others’ soap and dishes, near her cousin who gave every sign of being happy.
Yes, I like him, she thought vaguely. That man, so white, he can do for me. But how many years does he have on me? And actually they weren’t so many and the truth is that she liked how he took her by the arm. And he fell in love with her. “A marriage by correspondence is, like any other, a pact,” were the words Narciso struck on. And he continued pronouncing, with cautious enthusiasm and a radio announcer’s tone, that before year’s end there would be a wedding, and he would even invite Francisco, the Italian, who wasn’t ashamed of going around in an undershirt and who shined apples with the cuff of his shirt.
“You tell me if these fruits don’t look like mirrors. Of course they’re not transparent.”
“Mirrors neither,” Narciso laughed.
“Listen, Don, don’t be so quick to contradict me, they shine like silver. Do you know why apples aren’t transparent? Because they’re filled with sin.”
“I shine them and shine them as if I were caressing a woman’s calves, because nature is wise and sooner or later it always responds. That’s why paradise ended, and now don’t go and tell me there were mirrors in paradise too.” But Narciso had already turned away and was silently crossing the street. Francisco took measure of his back and thought, You can sure see that he swam in the Mediterranean. He was tempted to throw a pair of plum pits at his shoulders, which were piling up in his hand while he ate the plums, but he restrained himself and threw them against the curb saturated with ants and the white poison with which the man, my grandpa, hoped in vain to exterminate them.
He threw them like wooden balls. “There you go, Turk, a souvenir from paradise, and watch out for sin.” Narciso, without turning his head, responded with no more than a lifted hand in sign of salutation and Lumila received him at the door. “Watch out for sin,” he said to her in a whisper, without having even lowered his arm which, in the manner of a wake, continued binding him to the front sidewalk. At the same time, with the other hand, which he drew out from his heart, from beneath the overcoat, like a magician or a promise, he showed his wife a glistening apple. Laughter secured the door which was closed against the lost gaze of Francisco, in a fury over the ants.
Don Paco, the Italian Francisco, also shined the pits with a rag, and gave them away to the neighborhood children for “jacks.” Sometimes, when he had more time or was in the mood, or when the afternoon was dragging on because it was so hot or sales were slow, he even painted them. Some green, others red, and some fewer white. The kids had grown accustomed to that practice.
When Francisco died, these kids were the very ones – by now grown, who to the shout of “Viva Italia!” had painted the coffin – who were not allowed to enter the cemetery. Great was the indignation of the boys trussed up in their correct suits and their shoes nicely brushed, who had performed their reverent labor on the casket with brushstrokes as small as the old stones, some of which still lived on. Dried out, the last parched representatives of that fruitful dynasty rested next to a pot of geraniums on the patio of the druggist’s sister, Aurora, who’d had three children, and who – according to gossip – had also been shined by Francisco (“our dear Don Paco,” as she called him, without the hint of a blush). Aurora’s male offspring ran around, always one beside the other, in order, or one behind the other, as if except for when they slept their mother kept them from breaking out of line, as if fearing they would get lost. Upon seeing them, the neighboring women in the corridors would swiftly say, covering up their laughter, something that had become a habit: “Red-white-green,” so that, as in a litany, one of them would respond by way of correction: “Green-white-red.” The thing is that by now it was impossible to bring the custom to an end.
The birth of Aurora’s older son had occasioned rumors and a nickname. In the neighborhood they called him “The Colorado,” not for his hair but for the reddish tint of his face. As early as with the second, of clean features and clear complexion, they began to approach their defamatory formula more definitively, as if it were a revelation, the children being the flag of a connection that everyone was aware of but that nobody recognized. When the third arrived it was the Sicilian who said that the woman was going to cause her poor husband’s hair to turn green. But none of them felt pity for the man, the mockery grew resolute, and someone finished it off: “This one, of course, is the green.” “Red-white-green, that’s all there is to say.” “No,” the Sicilian corrected, not to protect Aurora but to be faithful tothe correct order of the stripes of the flag, “Green-white-red.” But those who had managed to replace “The Colorado” with “The Rojo” could no longer make the leap from Red to Green. Esteban would continue being “The Colorado” in spontaneous speech – now his cheeks were more inflamed than ever – and “The Rojo” in the saying that, by force of repetition, had ended up taking on a rapid chaotic accent, which the piano teacher on one occasion or another furtively improvised. “Red-white-green,” she repeated as if it were a footrace, and the voice of the Sicilian (which could be any woman’s) shot back: “Green-white-red.” But the others – recognizing her leadership – kept quiet when she was present. It was she, the Sicilian, who could say “Green-white-red” like no one else, and besides that she knew what it was all about, the insignia of her country, and no one challenged her in that role.
What is certain is that my father also played with Francisco’s little painted stones, and that my grandmother, to whose wedding Francisco had contributednot only fruit butalso vegetables and good humor, was fond of him. That’s why she never joined in with the colorful saying, and why Elías who, seated among his sisters, watched them go by, tended to say to her: “Look, Mamá, they always go around together, they look like the three wise men.” She would go back to thinking about her own history, trying to wipe away every humiliation as if from a chalkboard, “Good thing my children are so white.” That was the hidden reason – Narciso never knew it – for which, when he declared that everything was written in blood, she would utter, lowering her eyes ever so slightly, one of her few maxims: “And sometimes with chalk.” “Or in the water.” Narciso quickly forgot those phrases.
A marriage by correspondence. Modest. They strolled along Camargo Street, crossed Corrientes, and visited their family from Paso. I don’t know if he took her decidedly by the arm but I am sure of the precise manner in which their un-jeweled hands brushed against each other, and of some things that were scarcely brought up between them.
Close to the makeshift wooden structurewhere they left their shoes, at El Tigre,a poet used to sit and sometimes look at them, from behind his rigorous seriousness, with a disconcerting smile. The writer, who urinated behind the bushes, extracted a sticky resin from the plants and used it to sign certain letters. Elías had seen him wet his pen in that liquid that he kept in an inkwell with an Indian’s head. Leo, Narciso called him. “A lion for The Tiger” – or a Leopard – and with the word game he celebrated his growing Spanish. Leo stayed behind with the rising moon; they left ahead of it. In time my father – he only retained three words from Ladino, none in Greek, and two in Biblical Hebrew – began to think that the poet was a madman: otherwise he wouldn’t have killed himself.
My father was thirteen years old and all he wanted was to fly. Water isn’t my thing, he thought, even though I like it. More than touching the water I like to see it, from four thousand meters, seven, twelve, rising toward me like a mirage, or descending at eye level through the midst of the clouds I’m piercing. You can imagine, Papá, swimming in a rain shower, swimming in the air, not swimming sideways but upward, swimming the same way as the rain but in reverse. With the water I can make some girl fall in love with me and take her to the riverand fill her with incredible stories and tell her all about an airplane that’s visible in the distance and then she’s drowning and I rescue her while kissing her. With the water I feel guilty if I piss because somewhere there must be some defenseless fish drinking it: Don’t fish become intoxicated by men’s urine? And what if, besides that, the girl realizes what’s going on, if the smell seeps up from my pants to her startled eyes and she guesses that, as I kissed her, I was peeing on myself, was doing it in the river, the river covering my piss? Or what if she understands that she can no longer love me – pungent and delinquent as I am – or allow me to enter her house with the piano after having “disrespected nature”? The river doing things to me, I having done things to the river.
But after a while my father calmed down from his excitement over the absent girl and went back to his earthy language: Fine, if that dumb kid thinks so much, she’s not for me. You don’t need women for swimming. What’s more, it’s better if they’re not there because they ruin everything with their fears.
All of that can happen, Papá, my father felt, if the waters mix. Sometimes I also think those fabulous golden fishes are only born thanks to us men, and that others too, greener, ruddier, equally fantastical, like Francisco’s painting, grow in salty and fresh waters thanks to all that mingling of urine, the urine of every swimmer in the world, the urine of boys and of those who don’t swim but just urinate. Meadores Unidos Asociados, Papá: Associated Pissers United. That’s why those indescribable fishes are born, those fishes of an iridescent yellow which even get mistaken for white. A mutual benefit society, a syndicate, MUA, Mutual Urinators Association, mwah mwah kiss kiss or Exotic Species, Mutual of Exotic Argentines, MEA without CULPAbility, with a basin of natural water for going on Sundays and acquiring a syndicated golden tan. Why you could even make a hatchery, a giant international pissaquarium!
Did Francisco also piss in his paint tins? Is that why the paint never peeled off the stones? I saw him one afternoon, as the sun was going down, behind the track, urinating on the sheets of scrap metal and light reflecting off the sheets. You know what that man never did? He never painted anything yellow, but he always said that was something Galicians would do.
With the water I make myself a suit that turns me invisible and allows me, as I do the breaststroke, to avoid the army’s leap-frogging. I don’t want to be drafted, Papá, I want to go up in a plane and then jump out with a parachute. “What more do you want? You can do that in the military. They’ll even give you a uniform.” No, Papá, never mind, there’s still plenty of time. I’ll take off in a plane or I won’t go at all. And if not – if not, I’ll go swimming in the delta.
My father was thinking these thoughts while his father, on the shore, was stitching – from a distance it looked like he was embroidering – the sole of his shoes damaged by the last rain. And he was noticing his son’s shoes, side by side like Siamese twins, on which the heavy earth was accumulating. They sat there like silent spectators, damp, mouths open, waiting for a miracle, facing the river.
“Now I’m coming, son of mine, now, I’m coming now,” he cheerfully announced with anticipatory delight in the water’s renewed ceremony next to his only male child, his firstborn, the bearer of the family name, inherited from Turkey, where the sun rises, “I’m on my way, almost there.”
Slowly, deliberately, he went in, they were two slender figures against the afternoon light. Narciso splashed the water lingeringly over his already wet hair and was struck by a vague image, the image of an ochre plate in a very old book that his father used to show him at bedtime. Then they went on holding hands, walking as if looking for the other shore, an altar of bulrushes awaiting them. They would walk slowly, easing into that other rhythm, horizontal, the elder relaxing his pace so as not to lose the son until he left him on his own, watching over him from the distance of a few strokes. And the boy would struggle remembering movies, thinking with a start about his piano teacher Alicia, and about his mother and sisters, how they would have cheered him on if they were there. And, by then more tired, about his mother Lumila, about the hot fava beans that would be waiting for them; and again about Alicia, but this time about how if she saw him shewould tellhim how wrinkled his fingers had gotten.
He was coming out of the water with the same solemnity with which Narciso had placed himself in contact with the river, pulling himself out of the water as if a hidden camera were registering forever each one of his boyish movements. Elías thought with satisfaction: swimming will make me less clumsy, and he kissed his hands, trying to bring back their color, forgetting all about the camera.
Saturdays went on in the same way, and so did Wednesdays, and school and business and the little shoeshine box with the star at an angle, on the corners, and empty pockets, but not empty pots, never empty plates, not like the woman who lived at the back. That woman boiled water in a big stew pot just to dissemble to the other tenants, feigning a puchero stew that had disappeared some time ago and had never stopped boiling in that pot full of steaming water, sometimes throwing in a piece of hardened bread. And if it weren’t that she mended them until there was nothing left to work with, she would have even thrown in an old sock to give the monotonous water more color or a different smell. The eldest daughter, Antonia, would take a potato from their neighbors and in that way they made it from day to day, but in general she didn’t steal it raw but lifted it hot and dripping from the others’ pots, when in a moment of carelessness the kitchen had been left unattended, or the only one there was the blind girl – who heard everything but loved Antonia – and put it in their own pot, Antonia’s mother’s. The grateful mother scolded her; the little blind friend lowered her eyes. The elder daughter, who was every day older and less a daughter, the one who ended up being her mother’s mother and her siblings’ mother, at other times tossed in Francisco’s painted pits when there was no potato or sweet potato to be had, and afterwards took them out one by one with her fingers. She had learned not to burn herself, in order to play again, to not be bored, to entertain the younger children, to suck on them for a good while. She used to hand them out like caramel candies: “One for you, one for you …” and made trains of faded colors.
Later she discovered other uses for the inexhaustible stones. She tried them out with the blind girl, painting their eyelids with the touch of the green ones, and with the red their lips and cheeks. Now she too was fifteen and she continued sharing the novelty with her testing partner (who in her turn unraveled the other’s hair): she painted her up to go to Mass.
The same thing didn’t happen to the Turks – to my grandpa, to my grandma, to my father, to my aunts – as happened to Antonia and her family. The Sephardim always had food but nothing more. On the other hand, there were also ways of stretching it. That was why Elías became an altar boy, for that and to find boys for games, someone for jacks and for kites and above all for soccer. The team he rooted for was River, and he was tired of women. At church in the afternoon they would give him mate-cocido; it was scarcely better than what he would drink years later in the army, the water’s color sometimes looking like that of his mother’s fava beans and other times like that of Francisco’s pits.
“Drinking the juice of Don Paco’s pits would be better than this,” he complained some mornings in the barracks, assuming that no one would hear him or no one understand him.
He was wrong. The very soldier who used Elías as a go-between for his trysts with his lover had known the Italian. He used to buy choice fruit from him and was well-informed about his customs. Then he said something that Elías didn’t know. Cunningly, amusing himself, he challenged him: “Are you sure you’d prefer his stones? Do you want me to tell you something? You know what Francisco liked besides fruit and vegetables?”
“Yes, they belong to the same family. He had lots of little jars for keeping olives, some for the black, others for the green, but there was one among them all that had a yellow cap and that he opened on very few occasions. Wanna see it?”
Elías stepped back and the boisterous, vulgar lieutenant – he looked like a police officer – told him, as if he had it in front of him, ready to remove the cap and from there a ghost would leap out or its smell inundate everyone or a burst of fire consume them: “In this jar Don Paco kept the stones he’d removed from his gall bladder. There were five of them and he’d painted them green. Don Paco pissed in the jar. You, my little Turk, are you sure you don’t like the mate-cocido? You want me to make you try something else?”
“No, sir, thanks very much.”
“Look, I have Francisco’s recipe.”
“No, sir, thanks very much.”
“And here there are no jars.”
“Thanks very much, sir, thanks very much.”
“Macho, are you, little Turk?” Elías, pale, pressed his knees together reflexively. The lieutenant insisted. Elías couldn’t hold himself. The other was circling him, he had loosened his belt. Elías’s legs shook. “Hombre, hombre, is there anyone greener than me? Whadda you say, Turquito, little bugger, what’ll you drink?”
The boy, turning red, looked at his half boots. Urine was pouring into his worn socks. “I, sir, I drink mate—”
But the lieutenant didn’t let him finish and, touching his buckle, added: “Colored yellow, you roundhead Jew.”
My father the conscript’s running away from the barracks was an everyday affair. He would take off running without plane or flippers, but now who bothers with such things and in the long view of history who anticipated them? (No one is interested anymore in historical accounts.)
His mother Lumila waited for him with her okra stew untouched, as if he were set to return from errands with ten cents’ change in his hands and a prophetic responsibility. As if he had been held back in a domestic exodus that would never draw him away forever, as if there were no river nor border, no height nor wire fencing that could separate him from her doorstep, where the pleasant aroma opened up like a promise. “Promises are always of shelter”, Narciso pronounced.
And when he threw himself out of the plane in a parachute, with Domínguez and “El Negro” Peralta, he recalled the kites of Colegiales, near the railroad tracks.
Dizzy; Elías had to take pills after that flight in which el Flaco Domínguez had drifted toward an invisible place on the horizon; he felt vertigo and couldn’t sleep. The pharmacy was in the same place, Esteban – el Colo – was tending it now, the bottles for the homeopathic preparations were the same as before. Actually, few were the times he had entered the place. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the druggist, so obese in those days; he did remember, sharply, the day on which he’d reached that block breathless to alert him and he, the druggist, had had the pleasure of proving himself indispensable. He took up his box with the big red cross (which was always a promise) and slowly followed Elías’s steps.
It was a procession. Lumila and the others were at his side. Elías, dazed but steady, hurried on; not knowing why, he went back to grab the first-aid kit that someone else thought might be useful and along the way ran into his sisters; for a moment he thought about passing the shoeshine box off to them but knew he would lose time; without warning he snatched from the druggist’s hands the treasure that he was devoutly protecting, the holy oils of medicine, and balancing his step between one and the other box took off running beneath the rain in his father’s direction. Toward what was urgent. Toward the other life.
At the business, the shoes’ numbers had gone on accumulating behind the door, jotted down progressively until they simulated a calendar which promised to be infinite and would never return to the beginning. Grandpa checked off each expirednumber with the devotion of a convict. It was a bulletin board where he could have played an unpublished game of chess or reverted to the sleeping Kabbalah.
Digits were getting in the way of each other. Next to the numbered shoe the price of the debt, and next to that new number that of the ticket the customer had chosen and also not paid for, because almost all of them played the lottery. All of them hoped for the miracle, the stroke of fortune, that would come out of the shoe mender’s display case to make them change course. Narciso followed his customers’ apprehensions step by step and could even infer what they were going to do with the money if they won.
Jacinto was buying himself the little house, Ernesto and his wife would finally live without tenants, Ignacio was never going to work again: he would smoke imported Cuban cigars every day. The list was extensive, a catalog of masculine names to which women and children and even dogs were added to the domestic plans. Don Tobías would set up a store. Estela was going to send for her mother so she could live in Argentina, and Juana would dedicate herself to charity, feeding the children who came through the church, visiting hospitals, and founding a school. Matías would join the Jockey Club, at last.
These decisions, which sometimes they explained to him – above all the women did – by way of an excuse, as if the fact of playing awoke their sense of shame, were contained in their shining expressions at the precise moment they chose the number.
Elías had ended up deciphering those figures and adding to them, but he adopted the method or precaution of just occupying himself with what pertained to the shoes. If his father wasn’t there and someone asked him for some ticket, he would apologize, “Please come later.”
“But later that number isn’t going to be there,” replied the interested party.
“The numbers don’t run off. I’ll keep it for you.”
He had envelopes reserved for those occasions. He meticulously made note of the name and placed the envelope containing the ticket beneath the heaviest hammer, which generally he didn’t use (it had an N on the handle). His father, upon entering, would kiss his son on the head and direct himself to his “instrument.” “Ah, Don Tobías has 54, like always.” “He’ll be back at seven,” Elías asserted in his role as a well-paid secretary.
In 1942 – the year my father turned 13 – sales went down, Narciso hoped to make it up in December, “The big jackpot keeps on tempting, the people have nothing to eat,” but that Christmas wasn’t enough. “There aren’t any soup kitchens left. You can’t even find stones or pits.” And he started calling out his numbers as if he were a newspaper boy, each number, instead of being the day’s certain news, was the future’s likely news. The digits became longer, lasting as long as yawns. Narciso repeated the numbers. The numbers became periodic like presentiments, they thronged together, argued among themselves, shared a land to conquer. “43,” “54,” “37,” “8,” 48” – sometimes he didn’t know if he liked them all or really none attracted him. “They’re capricious,” he said. “I count them two by two, like the shoes of salesmen. I sell numbers and fix shoes.” But Christmas and New Year dragged him into an unprotected 1943, the tickets remained unsold, and there was no use polishing up his sayings for the customers: “There are good winnings on the river of intentions.”
It was then that Narciso was left like another ticket, inert, on the business’s display case. He couldn’t walk, it was his heart, the swimmer’s old heart which beneath Chaplin’s immovable gaze was adjusting its silent account. Elías ran to the house. Everyone came as in a pilgrimage, without candles but with burning gazes. Only the hymns were missing, but there was his mother’s weeping and the commotion of the other women.
The girls looked on in disbelief, and Elías, who had returned with the entourage, remained in a state of excitement. In the midst of that upheaval he had come and gone with the little shoeshine box hanging from his shoulder, only noticing it on his way back. He had taken hold of it, as always on his way out, like putting on one shoe and then the other, in the same automatic way that he grabbed his coat, although this time without whistling. He had crossed the streets with the dull tinkling of the cans of stacked shoe polish, muffled by the rags, paired with the brushes, but he didn’t hear its bell-like noise – its exhausted groan against the wood – nor its ascending odor, familiar, penetrating. He didn’t feel its weight, nor had his fingers distractedly touched the relief of its star which they unceasingly verified; Elías only knew that he must stand in front of his mother Lumila, look her in the eyes, and convey to her what had happened up the street.
The fright and the surprise added urgency to their steps.
“It can’t be,” Lumila sobbed.
“But it is, woman.”
“Here it is,” and Narciso took his undulating hand out from under his vest as if inviting her to a waltz, like a new magician, with a lottery ticket, opaque because of his sweat. The ’33’, we’ve won the big one. The Big Play. The Kings’ play. El Gordo de Reyes, the Kings’ Jackpot,” he insisted, with variations, as in a psalm.
They set themselves to dancing on the sidewalk. Within hours, Narciso had recovered.
That week he collected the money and made his first investments. He bought a cane and a top hat. After a few days went by, he slid his head into the hat like a shoe, grasped his cane, and looked at himself in the business’s windowpane. His right hand crossed, beneath the vest, over his chest. He went around saying “Good evening” to right and left. He kissed his children with great care, he kissed Lumila, he kissed her worn hands. Exquisite, exceedingly white, he crossed the hall with his little suitcase. “He looks like a king,” the druggist’s sister blushed, admiring. “I’m going to go around the world,” the open-sea swimmer promised to a last distracted onlooker.
Everything started after the Río de la Plata. “I mean,” he explained again, “before.”
And Narciso left by means of the river, tall and alone with the top hat, with the cane.
They all set themselves to singing on the sidewalk. At the end of several months, with the cane and with the top hat, he, the Turk, came back.
Once more he became an immigrant. Once more he counted his steps. Once more he bore shoes in his hands.