Among all the places I can begin my story, I have chosen the moment I was fired from my position as a professor of language and literature in a private school in the city of San Isidro. For 21 years (I am now 46), I lectured, very methodically, on Spanish and Latin American literature to youthful students, who, as time went by, were becoming odder and odder and more and more absurd. It isn't that I didn't get along with them (in fact, they used to vote me not their best teacher, but one of their nicest). More than once I conferred degrees on them at commencement, but as the years dragged on, I began to feel that they and I had nothing in common, or at least nothing positive in common.
My enthusiasm for the so-called never interfered with my enthusiasm for soccer. It's well known that the five top teams had lots of fans in the country, but there were also many who were wild about teams from their own region. So, for example, in Caballito there are quite a few fans for Ferro Carril Oeste, and in Saavedra lots of Platense fans, and in our area there are lots of us who root for the Matador blue-and-red, that is, Tigre.
I was born and raised in the northern part of Gran Buenos Aires, precisely in San Fernando, and I still live there. My father had a small boat, "La Bonita," which we moored on one of the little islands in the river delta. Our little trips on those rivers and inlets constitute that part of my life that Rilke called "the treasure" of his childhood. When my parents died two years apart, my brother César and I made the sensible decision to sell the enormous mansion where we were born, a structure on a lot that occupied a quarter of a city block. This house had now become a burdensome piece of property, non-functional and difficult to keep up. With the sizeable sum of money acquired from the sale, each one of us got a nice condo more in keeping with city than rural life. My brother settled down in Buenos Aires, in the Núñez district, and I at 200 Monseñor Larumbe Street in the town of Martínez.
We also sold the boat we cruised around in when we were kids. This boat was now old, needed lots of repairs, had lost its charm and even reason to exist, and had turned instead into an endless stream of expenses. Its recent life wasn't very kind to it. Five or six years later I found out it had been turned into one of those vessels condemned to a life of scrap metal existence on the outskirts of the San Fernando waterfront, that is to say, in the "boat cemetery."
Overcome with a feeling of silly nostalgia I suddenly felt as I went aboard to take a good last look at "La Bonita", a broken down piece of junk that was rotting away in that lonely windswept stretch of water. I didn't quite realize how destructive time can be. When I stepped onto the wooden deck, now badly rotted, I broke through it and fell down into the small hold. I must have hit my head on one of the steel supports for the deck because, when I came to, it was dark. How long had I been unconscious? The fact is that, in pain and with the side of my face covered in clotted blood, I managed to climb back up onto the deck. This little episode made me resolve never to go through another one like it.
Nevertheless I ignored my own promise. Like someone who visits the grave of a loved one, an irresistible impulse led me-every two or three months-to walk around on "La Bonita". I don't know the scientific hydrographic explanation, but in that little turn of the river there is a kind of centripetal force that directs the current toward the middle of the stream. Owing to the force of the water, the rope that moors the boat is always extremely taut, almost as if the boat were trying to escape its prison.
Having learned my lesson from the accident I had on my first inspection, I knew that if I stepped on the solid supporting posts that served as a sort of skeleton for the whole deck, I was not in danger of having the wooden surface of the deck give way under my weight. I climbed onto the stern, which was the section of the boat that pressed up against the dock, covered with old tires, and I then passed all the way to the boat's prow where I would just let my mind wander aimlessly, calling up happier times.
Anyway, I had started to say that I got fed up with my teaching job. I began not showing up at school, requesting more and more days off. I stopped correcting exams, which were all unfailingly alike. In the faculty lounge I became impatient and distant, looking at my watch at least three times every few minutes. I wound up a neurotic professor, annoyed by my male colleagues, who chattered away about electronic games, and once in a while politics, and also by my female colleagues, who were planning coming-out parties for their daughters, and who exchanged weight-loss diets.
Then came a decisive event. The school was private and therefore actually a commercial operation with the same attributes as, say, an auto body shop. One day the ownership changed, and some young ladies showed up, spouting pretentious nonsense about "forward-looking educators" (they used those very words in their presentation). It was then that I realized that my future was already decided. Those women held degrees in education, which meant two things: first, they were living in an artificial world of theoretical books on pedagogy and education, where one was immersed in "goals and objectives", full of little triangles, circles, and arrows without any possible practical application. And, second, these "experts" had never touched a piece of chalk or an eraser, in front of thirty or forty teenagers with unpredictable reactions (the equivalent of a soccer coach, who had never played the sport, not even in an informal pick-up game).
They were young pedants, with pretentious first names and intellectual impoverishment, all of which caused me to hold them in absolute contempt. Not too much time went by before I received some warnings about my unconventional way of teaching the course (let me make it clear that the word "course" was their word for it, not mine). So on April 30th, Yanina and Magalí decided to let me go.
Far from driving me to tears or thoughts of suicide, the matter actually proved to be rather pleasant. Thanks to my many years of seniority, my severance pay was actually not bad, and for the first few months I didn't have to worry too much about finding a job. It wasn't as though I began squandering my money. I was just enjoying some of the simple pleasures of life-like sleeping past nine, or going to any one of the many cafés in Martínez near the corner of Santa Fe and Alvear, ordering coffee and a couple croissants or reading a non-professional book, or checking over some of my own writings. To sum it all up, the typical "schedule" of a single man-no wife, no girlfriend, no obligations. The so-called "schedule" of a happy man. I suppose it's because even happiness, like misfortune, follows a certain schedule.
About the middle of July I decided that now it was time to get back to earning some money. I evaluated my strong points, so I said to myself, for better or worse, some kind of teaching would be the most likely avenue for me to pursue. But this time I decided to change course: instead of giving classes in a regular educational system, I would try to open a "writers' workshop" for people who wanted to get a start in writing fiction.
I still haven't mentioned that, along with my teaching, I had been able to publish a fair number of books, not on theoretical pedagogy, but imaginative literature. I'm not a member of the cadre of authors of best-sellers, I mean the authors who write books for people who never read. As compensation my stories normally enjoy favorable criticism, and I myself am pretty well known, and I've acquired a modicum of prestige. I'm not saying this to boast-it's simply a fact.
I put an ad-short because they're pretty expensive-in the popular daily papers, Clarín and La Nación and another one, much longer but less expensive, in the cultural magazine Cálamo Indócil. Every now and then in the days after they came out, I would get a call from an interested party.
My apartment on Larumbe Street is pretty big. The dining/living room enabled me to set up a sort of classroom around a big table, making it unnecessary for these "students" to snoop around in my writing room. Besides, the "old book" aroma so characteristic of libraries was conducive to shared creation-something the participants would probably appreciate.
Fourteen had a serious interest in all this. But I didn't feel like getting a crowd in the place nor working more than one day a week. So, perhaps compelled by my taste for the unplanned and the unusual-I chose six people at random: four women and two men. (There was a lot that, in a satirical vein, I could write about these individuals, but I don't want to get away from my exact story, which began with the words, "Among all the places I can begin my story. . . .").
The first Wednesday of August, at 5 in the afternoon, I began my new "career." It didn't take me more than a half hour to realize that these people were there more in search of catharsis than a genuine interest in narrative literature and the desire to be in a supposed apprenticeship. I began by reading them one of Jack London's stories to show how words, if well chosen, can be colder than the very snow and ice of Alaska they are describing, but I didn't get, even remotely, the reaction I was hoping for.
The participants were really only interested in displaying their own work. Almost as if they had all come to an agreement (something impossible since they didn't know each other), they all brought sizeable folders, chuck full of pages produced on a computer.
We began, as common courtesy mandates, with the ladies. Three-Susana, Graciela, and Norma-were mature women, all middle-aged with dyed hair. The fourth, Alejandra, tried to smoke during the class, but I didn't permit it because I can't stand the smell of cigarettes. She was a young woman, slender, with short hair, a dynamic personality, and with a "rebellious" air about her. Nevertheless, her writing, although tauter and edgier, wasn't really that different from that of the other women.
So they read their stories-full of incongruous and rambling elements with some points in common. In general they wrote about love with the typical sentimentalities. In one of their stories the boredom that the couple in the narrative had come to led inexorably to the appearance of a young man who showed the middle-aged woman that she was still able to love and be loved. In others there were lots of beach scenes at dusk, the ocean raging to mirror their passion, furtive evening dalliances along the wooded lanes, there were expressions like "eternity," "moved to tears," "the warmth of her embrace," "her swelling breasts," "her delicate throat," "Baccarat crystal," "Carrara marble" . . . . Alejandra went so far as to write about a group of young people, who, seated on the ground, played the guitar and sang protest songs and read revolutionary poems to each other.
It was my first day in the course, and suddenly I felt myself wishing it was the last.
Then it was the men's turn. The younger of them (24 or 26?) had been stuck with the name "Elvis," but he read a story which, in spite of some syntactic stumbles and a certain naiveté, seemed pretty decent to me. I realized that here was a pupil I could get through to.
When it came to the older one (he must have been around 35), things got complicated. I'm pretty tall-6 feet-and weigh about 185, but this man was a head taller than me and, judging by his build, must have weighed close to 300 pounds. Maybe I'm a bit (or very) neurotic, but that bulk of a man was not at all to my liking, and I was sorry I had accepted him as a member of the class.
Moreover I didn't particularly like his face. His long drooping cheeks gave him the look of a boxer dog, and neither did I like his straggly sparse beard. He wore glasses with bold frames that seemed to me to make a type of visual statement: "Careful! These glasses show me to be a real no-nonsense intellectual!"
The big bruiser said his name was Tomás de la Sierra, a name I didn't believe and that sounded to me like a rather uncouth artistic pseudonym. Just to myself and to cut him down a peg I changed it to the derogatory "Gumersindo Serrucho".
He had decided to write an epic poem about the life of a white collar worker, which, according to his explanation, had been about his own life when he begin his office job. He had written a rough draft in free verse since, according to him, "regular meter and rime are immature artifices of mediocre poets," an assertion that made me doubt the worth of-sticking to just Spanish-language writers-Garcilaso de la Vega, Sor Juana Inés or José Hernández.
If I remember correctly, he appealed to the famous idea of Papini, who insisted we accept the idea that, if well written, the life of the most common and most pedestrian of men, can be thrilling and passionate. I always felt that Papini was correct, but this idea, when advanced by Gumersindo Serrucho, became hollow and even stupid.
Then he kept babbling away, using as examples an extensive list of authors, dates, theories, movements, disputes and several poetic arts he had sampled to create his own works. I noticed that he drew special pleasure from carefully pronouncing names in other languages.
I already said that all of them had brought folders full of their papers. He did likewise, but from his briefcase he took out five additional folders, one for each stanza of the work. He explained to us that his epic administrative poem (entitled "The Officeid") had stopped in Canto Six, the moment when the main character descends into the Inferno of the Filing Cabinets and discovers the terrible truth of the company he works for, thus accepting the mission of rescuing from the abyss of Confusing Corruption all the employees-in particular María Blanca, a young woman, who was the target of lewd suggestions and sexual advances from the well-heeled son of the equally well-heeled director of the company.
The three ladies looked suggestively at the new Virgil. Alejandra managed to insert the word "alienation" into her comments. Susana suggested to him that he had had the misfortune to live in the wrong era, but, fortunately, time would save his works. This comment, usually the consolation of those who attempt to make it in literature and fail, filled him with so much emotion that his hands began to tremble.
I felt nervous, too, but for other reasons.
In a sudden flash of brilliance and impatience, I explained that the course would last two months.
"In eight meetings we can achieve a lot," I ventured. "Then I want to begin with others who also would like to present their works."
Thank God they agreed, with no objections. As I said goodbye to them, I thought there were only seven weeks of torture left, and I tried to think, in the future, of another job less annoying to me.
The next day, Thursday, at about six in the evening, the doorbell on the Larumbe Street side rang. Since I am rather unsociable, and I don't like to be interrupted or obliged to do anything I don't want to do, I let out an ill-humored snort, and went over to the intercom.
It was that pest, Serrucho. Taken by surprise, I couldn't very well not let him in. So he came in with his portfolio, which now looked even bigger than it had done the evening before. This time he brought all his papers along with two of my books in which he begged me to write some sort of a dedication. I didn't like to write dedications or autograph books because on more than one occasion I had seen them later on display in used-book stores. Nevertheless I did it, and it was not the last time in that unpleasant afternoon that I had to do something I really didn't want to do.
I noticed that the books were all marked up with notes, and not in pencil but bold ballpoint pen. I notice that he suffered from the horrible practice of folding over the corners of the pages to indicate where he had stopped reading.
"Maestro," he said, using a term of address which didn't jibe with his use of my first name that he had used before, and which I didn't know whether to take seriously or as a joke. "I'm an admirer of yours, and I've read all your books."
He followed with a long-winded congratulatory speech, and, as we went along, he began slipping in suggestions regarding various aspects of the short-stories that I had written with such care and affection, all of which led me to believe that, far from having read all my books, he had read only the two he had brought along with him (and which I might say in passing, were some of my amateurish beginning stuff, stuff that I was not at all pleased with).
Even if he was right (and he never was), I was not interested in his opinions and in no way would they induce me to go so far as to change a single comma.
He proposed different endings-each one more absurd than the previous. He regularly resorted to exaggerations, which were little more than clichéd situations from literature of the fantastic-mirrors that opened up to reveal another dimension, a face-to-face dialog with Death, a journey into the future on the ship XZ00000-I don't know how many zeros it had-and finally as a tortured result of the protagonist's intelligence, the idea that everything had just been a dream.
While he was talking, I discovered another reason to despise him-possibly because of the way he pronounced his words so emphatically, I could feel little drops of saliva spraying out from between his yellowed teeth, which were covered with dark nicotine stains. In this unending saliva spray Serrucho was covering my living-room floor with a layer of tremendous disgusting imbecilities.
Once again I cursed to myself the idea of having planned this writing course. To free myself from my "guest" and to get rid of him, I got the idea of making up a lie that people were waiting for me in Buenos Aires and that I was already running late. I added, trying to make it believable, and to distance myself from him physically and psychologically, I avoided using his first name:
"You know I don't have a car and the train schedules are not very reliable." Oh, oh, that was a mistake.
"No problem," he said. "I'll take you. I'm parked right around the corner."
I thought, "Fuck you, asshole," agreeing to get a ride to nowhere.
"May I use your toilet? This chilly August weather makes me feel like I have to go."
After this tidbit of physiological information, he headed toward the bathroom. I thought, "This clumsy bastard will wind up splashing all over the edge of the toilet bowl." I then heard the noise of the toilet flushing, and, at the same time, Serrucho came in, which indicated to me that after performing his urinary necessity he hadn't even washed his hands.
"My God," I thought, "Isn't there one, just one thing going in my favor!"
"Wait just a minute," I said to him, "I have to go, too," and, to make things worse, Serrucho hadn't even lifted up the toilet seat, which was now covered with the yellow stains of his piss. I filled the drinking glass with hot water and poured several glassfuls on Serrucho's urinary trail. Then, as I lifted up the seat to let the water rinse it off, I was overcome with pure disgust and hatred for this man.
A couple minutes later I was in Serrucho's car, starting a useless trip into Buenos Aires.
"Maestro, where do you want me to drop you off?"
I congratulated myself on having forced him to continue using a respectful title with me, and I then got the brilliant idea of choosing a strategic spot to be let off.
"Near Barrancas de Belgrano is fine for me."
"Are you going to Chinatown to buy fish?"
This abrupt "no" didn't offend him in the slightest. During the whole ride he kept on trying to show off his literary knowledge by explaining various theories. He was excited by the idea of getting published. When we had to stop at the traffic light at Libertador and Larralde, he handed me a letter. One of those phony publishing houses that sponsor fake writing contests and whose prizes consist of the publication of the contestant's works, had picked him out by mentioning his story, "Solitude and the Infinite," and in the letter they showered him with congratulations.
I asked him if he had had to pay some sort of a fee to participate in the contest. His answer was, just as I had expected, affirmative.
"As you can see," he explained, "those of us who have been blessed with the gift of knowing how to write, we have to show what we have done, that is, of course, I mean publish our stuff, proving that it was more than just good luck. Sooner or later posterity will create its great anthology and that's where we will come in."
I got off at Libertador and Blanco Encalada after being forced to shake his right hand, the one, of course, that he hadn't washed after having gone to the toilet. From his car he waved goodbye to me again with a smile and pulled away. I wondered, as though it really mattered, where in the world Serrucho would be going now. I felt weak after having made an enormous physical effort, leaving me tired and dazed almost as if someone had been playing music at full volume for hours and hours, forcing me to listen over and over to some horrible song.
After walking a few blocks I got to the Barrancas de Belgrano Station. And at the very worst time, just when people had gotten off work and were flooding into the various forms of public transportation. On the car I not only had to stand up all the way but was packed in tight with the other passengers, almost crushed to death. I got off at Martínez, still in the grips of this horrible mood he had put me in, swearing and cursing to myself this god-damned son-of-a-bitch Gumersindo Serrucho.
At home I was overcome by the humiliation of realizing that I had just lived through some of the most useless and horrible moments of my life, and I was virtually terrorized by the almost certainty that events like this could happen again and again in August and September.
In the three weeks following our Wednesday literary sessions, there were no particular surprises. Elvis, the only participant who had the slightest possibility of producing something halfway decent, left the group, a fact that had absolutely no relevance for the rest.
I found out that Serrucho had acquired a certain hold over the more mature women in the group. Maybe over Alejandra too, but even so her attitude toward him was a little more distant.
Serrucho's decorative prose, filled with all sorts of tasteless things, had the effect of creating an almost sexual pleasure in the women. This all sort of put me down a notch or two. Anyone observing the situation would have thought that he was the coordinator of the workshop, and that I was just a timid participant, who every so often raised an objection to some of his tasteless observations. Somehow, and perhaps because I had gotten used to the situation, the whole thing started to strike me as amusing. I began to try to figure out just how far an idiot, led on by his clueless vanity, could be capable of leading a group like this.
At the beginning of the second month he came up with something new. He acquired that way of taking on a look, a sort of glow that hinted at a supposed discovery.
"The history of literature is incomplete. The most interesting part is missing," he stated enigmatically like someone who is trying to win over his readers by taking on a look of mystery. So far, we know about Madame Bovary, we know about Captain Ahab, we know about Robinson Crusoe, and-why not?-even the glorious Don Quixote?"
The women nodded in agreement, a sign that could be taken to mean, "Yes, yes, we are quite familiar with those works," although I was sure that they had never even glimpsed the covers of these books.
After a brief theatrical pause, Serrucho went on, "But no one, dear ladies"-I don't know if this particular phrase included me in the whole group or rather excluded me, "has spoken to us about the characters who are integral parts of these stories. We can't appreciate the perspective of Charles Bovary, who we only figure to be a nobody, we are ignorant of the whalelike thoughts of Moby Dick (if London did that with a dog, why not tell a tale from the viewpoint of a whale?), we are ignorant of the tribulations of Friday and his feelings toward Robinson, we don't have the slightest idea of Sancho's real reasons for doing what he did, or those of Aldonza Lorenzo or Maritornes or Doña Rodríguez. So our task is to create what I have called "spin-off novels." We take all these characters, bring them to to life, carefully following the stylistic guidelines of their authors."
In a sort of childish payback I had determined to offer no opinion, but at that point couldn't hold back.
"That is precisely the way historical novels handle their secondary characters and cause them to behave appropriately in the milieu of their times."
But Serrucho was not fazed at all by this.
"A historical novel tries to recreate an era. Anyone can do that with a handful of background facts. It's a question of creating an exact counterpoint of a psyche, the inner logic of the characters condemned to a subservient role."
"Let me see if I get this straight," I added, just to be nasty. "According to you, we could take Murders in the Rue Morgue, and relate them from the viewpoint of the orangutan. Doubtless it would be an example of intellectual honesty. It might be worth trying as an experiment."
It seemed to me that my irony was painful to him. His face became more serious, almost stunned, like someone who had suddenly taken a "sucker" punch. I felt slightly encouraged.
In the remaining sessions he tried hard to create a philosophical foundation for his theory. He attributed this to a careful reading of Hegelian dialectic.
"The thesis is that the work already exists. But the spirit must go forward and find its own negativity in what already exists. The literature we are working with must achieve antithesis. Finally we reach synthesis, which comes in the last chapter of the novel we have created. I can predict that that will be a type of dialog between the two forces that have been struggling with each other for the last several hundred pages."
(In my head I heard the words of Borges: "So foolish did these ideas seem to me, so pompous and drawn out their exposition. . . .")
Thank God-the last Wednesday of September arrived and, with it, what I considered a physical and psychological liberation-the death of a workshop that never should have been born in the first place.
The previous Monday I had received an excellent piece of news that I withheld from the participants since I wanted to hear neither congratulations nor inane comments. My novel, If you'll allow me, I could contribute . . ., had just won the first prize in a competition sponsored by a very prestigious publishing house in Barcelona. The manner of writing it was not very original, but I nonetheless got through it (various characters contributed facts, which explains the title), about a single event in such a way that finally the reader himself is the one who creates the end of the story. In Argentine literature Marco Denevi was brilliant at this in his Rosaura a las diez. My prize-winning novel-I confess freely-is nowhere near Marco's creation, but the royalties were substantial and were well handled and well invested, not only relieving me from the obligation of setting up another workshop but also relieving me from the obligation of undertaking another money-making venture for the rest of my life.
So, to sum it all up, I got ready to be happy, Or, you might say, relatively happy.
The last Thursday of September I was rid of Elvis, Graciela, Susana, Norma, Alejandra and, above all, Gumersindo Serrucho, who would soon become a ridiculous part of the past.
In October I got the idea for a sort of complicated short story. Sometimes my muse visits me, enabling me to write effortlessly with no stumbling blocks or pitfalls, but that wasn't how this story was going. Although I had a very clear central idea, I just couldn't get my narration off on the proper path. I had stopped and started several times, but these faulty fits and starts turned out to be-well, just not right. So, naturally, all these pitfalls put me in a bad mood.
One afternoon, as I found myself in this unpleasant state, I received an unexpected visit from Gumersindo Serrucho.
Remembering only too well the nasty toilet episode, this time I went down to the main floor and met him out on the sidewalk. Two or three times he looked into the building as though he were reminding me that the proper procedure on my part was to invite him into my apartment so we could have a more leisurely and comfortable chat.
He told me he was writing a new version of Moby Dick. He was determined to write about seven-hundred and some pages of text (pretty much the same length as the Spanish translation) because in his experimental theory the new work should have the same number of words as the original. I ignored this preposterous position and refrained from making any comment at all.
"Maestro," he said to me, "I hope it's no trouble but I'd like to leave you what I've written so far."
He thrust his hand into his damned case and pulled out, not just one three-tab manila folder but a bulky cardboard file, chuck-full of office-size pages.
"Your opinion," he added, "is always welcome. Don't hesitate to criticize me in case you see something that you think is wrong. I'm always ready to learn from those who know more than I."
I thanked him for his trust in me and said "Good-bye," file in hand. I spread the whole work out on my dining-room table. The first page went as follows:
IN THE VERSION OF THE AUTHENTIC MOBY DICK, THE WHITE WHALE
A SPIN-OFF NOVEL BY TOMÁS DE LA SIERRA
ARGENTINE WRITER AND POET
On p. 2 there was a long recounting of the accomplishments of Tomás de la Sierra, public accountant, with such-and-such a registry number, with an office at such-and-such an address on Talcahuano Street. For example, "This valley where we reside," a poem, registry published (February 2008) under the auspices of the Plaza Lavalle Poetry Circle, or Honorable Mention in the Narrative Competition organized by the Association of Friends of the Ecology, Villa Crespo branch, for his story "Death of the Cactus" in August 2010. The list concluded with Participant in the Narrative Workshop headed by the great writer Cristian X. Ferdinandus, from August to September of the year 2012.
On p. 3 the novel itself began.
I opened it up at random and tried to read two or three pages. The lack of coherent expression became more and more obvious as I went along. The paragraphs, instead of getting clearer, became more and more cryptic, with a profusion of subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, creating virtual labyrinths that often ended with indecipherable non sequiturs.
I admit that, for a moment, I started to doubt myself. What if he really was a verbal genius, like Joyce? However, the words with which the narrative began quelled my fears.
"Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Moby Dick and I'm a white whale. I swam and swam happily through the seas which have been created since the beginning of time, when in the beginning was the Word, the seas that encompass the universe or are a non-illusory mirror of those who succeed in finding undying future in the watery depths. I ate plankton, prawns, and everything that the great Whale God would provide me with the generosity of a non-animal god in the mythological sense, but one that believed in unforeseeable fate. The currents of the Atlantic and the Pacific kept no secrets from me . . . ."
To eliminate the problem once and for all, I resolved to do four things: 1) not read Serrucho's work; 2) not offer, therefore, any opinion of Serrucho's work; 3) not offer any explanation to Serrucho; 4) not have anything at all to do with Serrucho from this moment on until Final Judgment Day.
But from the fifth or sixth day, Serrucho appeared over and over in my life-sometimes ringing the bell on the electronic lock of my apartment door on Larumbe Street, sometimes calling me over and over on the phone. In any case when I heard his voice I pretended not to hear or understand him. I would say, "Hello! Hello! Talk louder please!" Serrucho virtually screamed, but I remained implacable and hung up the phone or cut off the intercom system.
Nevertheless such extreme defensive tactics were not my style.
For a while I thought about reporting him to the police, and I even went so far as to go into the Italia St. Station. The skeptical look on the face of the officer really embarrassed me. Surely he must have thought this was all the result of a spat between homosexuals who couldn't resolve their differences by themselves, and he tried to send me packing without really paying much attention at all to my complaints.
As I left I found myself in an extremely gloomy state of mind. As I slowly walked the few blocks between the station and my home I kicked a bottle cap along the street three times; the fourth time it dropped into a sewer drain.
"No," I said to myself, "This constant trying to dodge him is getting nowhere. It's pretty obvious that Serrucho will keep on keeping on. I have to find another solution, something drastic."
I decided to change tactics. I concocted a plan (which I named "Project Ahab"). I made a couple changes and waited. I waited for the sound of the automatic door lock or at least the sound of the telephone, For several weeks there was absolute silence.
Paradoxically now I wanted something to happen, something I used to fear would happen. But, if it didn't happen, neither was it necessary for it to happen since by then the problem had gone away by itself; it was no longer necessary to put Project Ahab into action. And, even so, instead of feeling satisfaction and pleasure over the fact that the problem had suddenly gone away by itself, I was left with an unpleasant taste in my mouth, difficult to explain.
What is certain is that, when we got completely into Summer, I had forgotten Gumersindo Serrucho (almost). I had finished my recalcitrant story, and I was excited by the possibility that it and other of my stories would be translated into German and English and, to sum it all up, I had become a relatively-what you might call-"not unhappy man."
One afternoon, when I was coming back from grocery shopping, as I turned the corner of Italia and Larumbe, I saw him ringing my doorbell. But instead of being alarmed, I felt happy.
From that point on things started happening faster and faster. But what was really happening in a sudden, almost speedy, way was actually passing through my mind with the slow pace of things you think of over and over and over. I greeted him in a friendly tone and asked him if anything was the matter.
He said, "I called you over and over and never could reach you-not on the phone, not on the intercom on your door."
He seemed mildly upset.
"Gosh, I don't know. I'm usually home."
Ignoring my excuse, he said, "I'm going through a period of writer's block. I just can't move ahead with Moby Dick." Immediately he went through a long litany of clichés and excuses about inspiration and work.
"Of course," I said, "The dreaded blank page on the computer screen."
I knew that this overworked cliché, which even shows up in the tasteless newspaper rags, would please him. He stood looking at me carefully, realizing he had found a kindred spirit. But it was obvious he was nervous and upset.
"When this happens." I explained, "You really should stop working until your juices start flowing again and get you back on track. If you have your car here, I propose we take a drive without thinking of anything important. You will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel."
"In God's name what light and what tunnel am I talking about?" I thought to myself, congratulating myself at the same time on my histrionic skill.
He seemed so content and satisfied that I even got so far as to feel some pity for him.
"Wonderful! My car is parked just two blocks away."
"Wait just a second," I said, as I indicated the bag of groceries I was carrying. "Let me leave this stuff in the house, and I'll be right with you."
"I brought you the second volume of my Moby Dick," and he handed me a file box even bigger than the first volume.
"Perfect," I said. "That way I can read both volumes, one after the other, and then I can give you an intelligent opinion on your entire work."
He didn't ask to go to the "toilet" (which was what he called the bathroom). I went up to my apartment, left Moby Dick II on a chair, and grabbed the portfolio I regularly took with me when I had banking business or appointments scheduled.
"I propose that we go to Puerto de Frutos at the Tigre. I think it's a beautiful spot."
We went in Serrucho's car to the Puerto de Frutos. Just like two office workers taking a ride, each one of us carried his folder (which we could just as easily have left in the trunk of the car).
Just to pretend that I was really doing something that had to be done, I checked the price of some wicker mats that I really had no intention of buying and some quail eggs, which I would never have eaten. I deliberately wended my way through the shabby market stalls.
These silly little activities seemed to tire him out. Maybe he was wondering how some guy who was doing pretty well with his writings could waste his time on trivial pursuits like comparing the prices of olive oil or raving about the taste of a certain kind of stuffed olives.
"So tell me, Tomás, do you read what you've written to members of your family?"
"I'm a widower. My wife died very young in a car accident. So I've not been blessed with children," he answered me sadly.
"A sentimental man," I thought to myself. "So much the better."
"As far as writing goes, it's best not to mix work with the family or anyone else," I said as I was mildly distracted, my attention wandering to a display of delicious-looking salamis, sausages, and bologna rings, that were in the next stall. "It's best to be alone and stick to one's own personal tastes, not someone else's."
"That's right," he agreed. "It's probably the best way to go."
"Give me your briefcase," I suddenly demanded.
"Oh, no, maestro. I can't have you carrying something so heavy."
"Give it to me right now!"
I spoke in a low voice, but at the same time curt and no-nonsense. He handed it over to me like a robot.
In a flash I lifted a big block of cheese from the meat stall and put it in his briefcase and handed it to Serrucho.
"Maestro, please. Someone could have seen us, and we'd be in trouble."
"You're right, but since no one saw us, we shouldn't worry about something that didn't happen.
"To be a writer, you have to know someone's soul, frontwards, backwards, and sideways." I was starting to rave. "These acts of violence, although slight, were charged with enormous symbolism. Now I know, for example, what a petty thief feels like. If some day I have to write a spin-off novel about Oliver Twist, who in the original novel steals handkerchiefs, I will have at my fingertips a wealth of information, not possessed by strictly intellectual writers."
"But then you . . . you have accepted my hypothesis."
"Not completely, but it's true, in large part. Certain flashes of information don't pass unnoticed by a man who has a refined and delicate spirit. The problem, Tomás, and, believe me that it's a serious problem, the problem comes from the fact that you say the wittiest things to the most unappreciative listeners. A group of overweight women with dyed hair and false teeth was not the readership you should have. I hope that you've seen in my ironic comments-not an attack against you but against all those who spoiled our workshop experience."
I knew this was making him happy. We got in the car.
"You have to distance yourself: you have to be on the exterior of things. Also even back in your infancy. A very big and fundamental part of my childhood lies in the scrapyard of the port of San Fernando. Would you like to visit the little boat where I was happy, sailing along on the streams that flow through the Delta?"
Thanks to our car, within ten minutes we were already in the scrapyard. The intense heat and humidity told us we were going to have one of those terrible storms that hit our eastern shore. Every now and then you could hear the chirping of a cricket.
"This boat," I said, "is on the water. Of course, it's not on the vast expansive sea of Moby Dick, but it's water, and it's well known that all the bodies of water in the world are connected to each other. You have a problem with the climate of the text, and that's where you get 'writer's block,' I mean the ghost of the white sheet of paper. That's why I've brought you here. There is nothing better than a sea coast place like this to enable you to get inspired."
I don't know if Serrucho agreed with this silly nonsense coming out of my mouth, but I do know that he listened carefully to everything I said.
"Come on," I added. "Let's go on board and go out onto the prow. There, leaning on what was left of the railing and gazing at the horizon, you will regain the maritime atmosphere of Moby Dick."
On the deck by now, I carefully stepped on the solid framework of the deck, and I cautiously moved forward a few feet. But before I got even one more foot out, Serrucho's weight of close to 300 pounds broke through the rotting wood of the deck, and his bulky body landed down in the hold. A tremendous crash echoed through the ship.
I looked down into the darkness. Serrucho, at best, was dead. At worst he was unconscious. I told myself that it wasn't necessary to break his skull with the hammer, which, foreseeing the unforeseen, I had carried with me in my briefcase. Besides I'm not a murderer In any case it was all Serrucho's fault. He was careless enough to walk out onto a surface that was clearly in terrible condition.
And I told myself, "Don't forget either than he urinated on your toilet seat and that he didn't wash his hands after taking that leak."
I got off the boat and back onto land. The rope line was taut, as usual, and held the boat fast to the dock, the boat that was straining to break loose from its "prison." In my briefcase, in addition to the hammer, which I didn't have to use, I had taken the precaution of bringing along several more tools, among them a serrated knife. Using it I sawed through the heavy rope line that held the Bonita fast. And, just to be sure, I pushed with the sole of my shoe, against the boat's stern. Totally unnecessary. The centripetal force of the stream pulled the boat from its mooring place and carried it out into the middle of the current whose waters flowed south toward the River Plate. And then toward the Atlantic Ocean, until it perhaps would get all the way to the coast of some African country: Gabon, Angola, Namibia . . . ? Or maybe the boat would never get to any land in the world and, like a rudderless ship, would sail phantom-like through all the seas of the world, without landing on any country, and, once there, from some unknown spot down in the hold, Tomás de la Sierra, vain and useless writer, could affirm properly and truthfully that, just like his spin-off Moby Dick, he had sailed, as lord and master, all the seas of the world.
Serrucho's car would stay right there on the edge of the waterfront until someone found it. It wasn't my problem.
I walked to the San Fernando Station. But before I got there I was overtaken by the first gusts of the approaching storm, and the raindrops would have the effect of raising the level of the Paraná and Plate Rivers.
I took the train and got off at Martínez. Now it was pouring, and, having no umbrella, I got soaked. It made me think that in La Bonita these raindrops would annoy Gumersindo Serrucho. On the way home, I was humming a catchy tune that actually I had always hated. Now I felt relieved. Almost happy, I would even say.
I was sorry that the briefcase with the cheese I had snitched at the Puerto de Frutos was now in the hold of the boat and of no use to anyone-but in the refrigerator I had some cold cuts left, and, with that and a nice bottle of red wine, I prepared myself a tasty and restorative supper.
Then I started to look through Serrucho's papers again. In effect he had written more than two hundred pages in his alternative novel about Ahab and the sperm whale. By the time I got to page 30, I verified that he had used this term five times in every single paragraph.
In the second manuscript bundle, the one he had given me just a few hours before, I found another envelope fastened with a paper clip on the first page. Inside, one page outlined the plan that Serrucho had concocted to write a story, maybe a detective story.
The story was told from the point of view of a so-called "writing genius," who knows that he will be murdered by the director of the Writers' Workshop, but he does nothing to prevent the crime since he sees it as the inexorable destiny of writing (something that must be done to enrich literature). "The truth," concludes the story, "will come out with the spin-off novel of MY maestro."
What a pity-his idea (fairly logical) could actually be carried out. But, as a security precaution, I probably shouldn't publish it. I put away the last page and approached the fire with the first pages of this story. This fire will soon obliterate my confession and will then also obliterate with a joyous fury the watery testimony of Serrucho. The fire . . . maybe that too will be the final destiny of all words.