A Question of Age
by Fernando Sorrentino
Translated by Michele McKay Aynesworth
On those rainy days, Mario would insist on having some of Grandma’s special sugar-coated fritters. Flattered and smiling and only too happy to comply, she’d send Coca to reorganize the junk room or to rid the closets of dust balls. This is how she managed to have the kitchen to herself.
In that great, dark, solitary house, I could choose to stick around as Grandma’s veined hands ever so slowly fashioned her “frittahs,” or go with Coca and watch her redo the junk room.
Coca called it the attic, but I knew very well from my illustrated dictionary that an attic couldn’t be a ground floor cubbyhole looking out on a brick boundary wall. This end of the yard was quiet and moist, with an old rectangle of rusted iron, some flowery tiles, and a faucet for watering the garden — although the faucet had no spigot, and in any case, no one watered the garden. In fact, it was hardly a garden at all. It had no plants or cultivated flowers, just an assortment of weeds and vines, along with pill bugs, ants, ponds, toads, and mice.
I think I was fourteen before I discovered what the outside of the house looked like. I hardly ever went out, and when I did, I always came and went using the sidewalk on our side of the street, so I knew the houses across the street by heart, but not the one that had sheltered me since I was born.
One day I decided not to make any diagonal crossings, just right angles. From the corner, I walked along the sidewalk opposite our house. To my left loomed wire or wrought-iron fences and overgrown plants; to my right, trees imprisoned every few meters in dirt squares. Their cool, restless branches would link up overhead in spring and summer, sifting the sun’s rays. But this was a winter day, and dusk had set in. Everything was so sad, the breeze mute and listless, the street empty, the lights dying in high-ceilinged rooms. I don’t know why, they made me want to cry, and suddenly I thought of Mirta, an older girl who went to my school.
I was standing on blue and white mosaic tiles consisting of nine little squares each, and the wind was about to carry off a dirty page from El Gráfico. I stepped on it in time, and without bending over, read, “Musimessi, star goalkeeper for Newell’s Old Boys.” I let it go, and the paper groaned harshly as it scudded along before ending up in the sewer.
How gloomy my house was! You could hardly see it. Dark, withered vines covered the rusty black iron grille. Behind it, gray palms, peeling pines, and the almighty rubber plant obscured even the dim outline of our house, whose cracked and stained walls resembled nothing so much as roadmaps. But the gabled roof, its once-red tiles now a muddy violet, stood out in sharp relief against the white sky.
The house also had an attic, but since Coca slept there it was no longer an attic, but a bedroom. Grandma, of course, called it the maid’s room (just as streetcars for her were trolleys, shoes slippers, and the Primera Junta subway line forever The Anglo).
I liked the little room with its upside down V for a ceiling and its thick beams of dark wood. Every night Coca would listen to the radio play broadcast by Radio El Mundo on a very old, very tall, and very hard-to-hear radio that towered above a kitchen bench. Half the room was taken up by a huge, three-door mahogany wardrobe with an oval mirror.
Inside its doors hung tango singer Carlos Gardel in sky-blue gaucho garb; cowboy actor Robert Taylor; and dapper movie idol Ángel Magaña, in coat and bowtie. There were also posters of the Virgin of Luján and of the saintly Mapuche Indian boy, Ceferino Namuncurá.
On the wall a color photo taken the day of her wedding to Ricardo showed a different Coca, with her hair piled high, her lips red and smooth. A bottle of cologne and a sulfur stick sat on the marble-topped lamp table. The best thing in the room, however, was a window like a porthole with two pink panes that could be opened one at a time.
And so, when Coca said she was going to clean the attic, it was understood she meant the junk room. And if it pleased Grandma to make fritters for Mario, it was not so much that she liked doing it, but that she could regain a little of her former importance, when it was she who ran the house, when they had not yet put her on the sidelines.
Of course, since she was senile (arteriosclerosis, eighty-six years old), her manias and confusion came as no surprise. She could not be blamed for lying or making things up sometimes. Dr. Calvino explained that such maladies were typical of old age, and since there was no cure, it was best just to accept the situation. In any case, Grandma was adorable and didn’t bother anybody.
She would pass autumn and winter afternoons with a shawl across her knees and a scarf around her shoulders, rocking away in an enormous chair that yet seemed lost amid the endless lilac-colored flowers and greenish birds on the living room walls. Sitting there with her hands intertwined, she would think about who knows what, looking out past the black oval table with its crude, crocheted doily. Or she would polish all the metal objects in the house till they shone scandalously in the midst of things so dull and melancholy. I used to bring her bronze candelabra or silver fruit bowls, but Mario put his foot down, saying I was only encouraging her tendency toward what might be called obsession.
Be that as it may, now that the weather was milder Grandma had taken to wandering about in the yard’s many unexplored corners. In the evening she would sit well away from the house on a little straw chair until, at length, Coca would fetch her back inside, citing the dangers of the evening dew. Convincing Grandma to stay in the living room was not easy, however, and every day she spent more time in the garden, usually near the ruined statue. Dr. Calvino advised us to let her have her way so long as she did not catch cold, given the weak state of her bronchial tubes.
When Mario got up to secure the shutters the night of the Santa Rosa storm, he was shocked to see Grandma out in the rain, a fragile plant being blown about by the raging, icy wind. Dr. Calvino diagnosed pneumonia, and now to senility was added delirium. Grandma started seeing little men. “Little men?” Right, the little men in yellow shorts and red jackets with tall black boots on their feet and blue velvet caps on their heads.
It was no good interrupting her with the news that Telma had given birth to twins or showing her the sheets Aunt Marcelina had just finished embroidering. The city of little men was called Natania and consisted mainly of woods, towers, and bridges; the fortress of the king and his three ministers was guarded by winged lions and eagle-headed bulls. “By statues of lions and bulls?” No, by flesh and blood lions and bulls.
Dr. Calvino put on the special face that family doctors will assume, and the house became an obligatory stop for commiserating cousins, however distant.
When finally the old lady’s delicate little life expired completely, the undertakers showed up with the absurd trappings of death. They set up a funeral chapel in the room where Grandma used to polish her metals, and the coffin handles shone as if she had buffed them herself.
The aunts, one of whom was still single, recalled how as a young girl Grandma was always ready and willing to work, while the uncles — notaries and lawyers all — sipped coffee and cognac and weighed the chances of Balbín-Frondizi versus Perón-Quijano in the upcoming presidential elections.
I passed the night viewing a procession of faces (with an occasional thought for Mirta) until, deserting the wake, I took refuge in the garden’s thick tangle of plants, surrounded by scraggy palms and blue bellflowers that died almost as soon as they were plucked. Remembering her there, with her glasses and her black coat, I cried, though quietly.
Since Grandma was no longer around to be scandalized, Mario allowed a so-called fiancé to move in with Coca (now separated from the Ricardo in the color photo). He turned out to be a grim sort, with little hair, bad manners, and no words. During the first week, returning from I don’t know where, and always at about the same time of day, he would spend the afternoons gazing out the round window at the house opposite ours. Saturday he showed a perversely creative streak. Things were just fine as they were, but with Mario’s consent, he embarked on a brutal revolution.
He planned to start with the yard, no less, cutting down weeds, sowing grass, cultivating flowers. And then the garden would be nothing more than a garden: smooth and clear and clean. No longer would I be able to think and play in secret, mysterious places. No longer could I go where the fattest palm, the wild privet hedge, and the fallen statue covered in moss and lichen (as my eighth-grade botany text would say) formed a private space.
The statue’s base was completely hidden by weeds, but below it — if someone were able to lift the heavy thing — the ground was flat and compacted to form a perfect circle. That’s where we first began to communicate. The block of marble had been lost in the garden for some time now. A half-blurred little heart and arrow read ELISA AND MARIO, yet Mario had been a widower for more than twenty years.
A neighborhood dog delayed the garden takeover. Barking and whining day and night, it was a stupid, unbearable dog, and indeed, the boyfriend couldn’t bear it. In a gesture typical of the way he went about solving problems, he tossed some poisoned meat over the dividing wall. The neighbors — who for other reasons were just as boorish — filed a complaint with the police, and he had to spend two days in jail.
Once free, he turned his attention to redoing the inside of the house. Mario was already very old and quite powerless, one more useless thing that, instead of finding a niche in the junk room, found one in the library. With careful, old-fashioned penmanship, he sat copying — why? what for? — romantic, high-sounding poems in a schoolboy’s notebook. But the weeks flew by, and the fellow had almost finished remodeling and painting the whole house in ever brighter colors. He would soon be attacking the garden.
He began to clear it, moving in a circle that centered on the house. Of course, there was a good way to go before he reached the statue, so I still had time to talk and get more details. Meanwhile, he pulled up the first weeds, got rid of the cans and rocks that had accumulated over more than twenty-five years of idleness, killed countless innocent toads, and thus completed the first round of the circle. Fortunately, since each new round covered a larger area, his progress became slower by the day.
At school I was extremely nervous, imagining that he was closing in on Julio the pine tree (when looked at from the proper angle, the knots read JULIO), and, indeed, he had done so. The ground was completely cleared and smoothed down around it. They had already begun an orderly migration, and even though they should have let me know, they never told me where they would settle next.
To make matters worse, he passed up his regular Sunday session with the boys, those pool-hall clowns with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, and stayed in the garden drinking maté with Coca and reading lies in the newspaper, so I could make little progress.
The next day I had a zoology test, but my eyes kept gravitating toward the window, making it impossible to concentrate. I wasn’t in a mood for amoebas and paramecia; I couldn’t think about such stupidities, knowing without a doubt that Monday he would get around to the pedestal.
I went to say good-bye at two in the morning and became so upset I couldn’t sleep a wink. Zoology was the last thing on my mind. I tried cheating, but the teacher caught me and took away my test.
At last, sitting there on the school bench in peace and comfort, I was able to recall once more the little men in yellow shorts and red jackets with tall black boots on their feet and blue velvet caps on their heads.
Story © 2007 by Fernando Sorrentino
Translation © Michele McKay Aynesworth
From Imperios y Servidumbres, Barcelona, Editorial Seix Barral, 1972.