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A Life Perhaps Worth Restoring

Fernando Sorrentino
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1. I am the subject of an assault

Like everyone else, I have my own phobias and manias. I am obsessed by cleanliness. I like animals, but only in the zoo or in museums. I do not touch, nor do I allow myself to be touched by dogs or cats. I do everything I can to eliminate spiders or insects at home. I cannot even stand the zooming by of a fly or a mosquito. Fine.

A rotten potato was an alarming sign: the certain presence of no less than a mouse, or even worse, a rat, in my small apartment. But, where? Where?

How could it have gotten in? A stupid question, which deserved an intelligent question as a reply: how could it not have gotten in?

A rotten potato, that was all. But the pest was somewhere in the apartment, and this certainty forced me to start an extremely disagreeable series of actions to find the mouse —following an initial optimistic impulse to believe that it was a mouse, and not a rat— and, by whatever means possible, with minimal direct intervention on my part, kill it and then, without touching it —by means of broom and dust pan— throw it in the trash, take the trash bag to the sidewalk and let the trash collector truck take it far from my home, take it where they compress and bury all waste and debris.

Trembling with anticipated revolt, I went searching with a broomstick through every nook and cranny; I picked up curtain hems; rescued shoes that, no longer used, lay forgotten in their graves. Volume by volume, I dismantled my whole library, and renewed acquaintances with so many books that had once interested me, and which I would never read again. I dusted off old clothes which now looked ridiculous to me...

And so did I pass that first sterile day like a diligent and suspicious ferret. I believe I conducted a diligent and exhaustive inspection of my whole apartment which, let it be said, is quite small. It only consists of kitchen, bathroom, dining, and bedroom, none of which is too spacious.

A bachelor, I live alone, have lunch and dinner in my kitchen, and try to create the least possible disruption. This is why, for the most part, I resort to simple meals bought at delis, such as breaded cutlets or meat pies. On other, even more austere occasions, I get by with bread and cold cuts. As you can see, I do not like —nor do I want — to cook. It is just a way of wasting time and effort.

I rarely use more than one plate, one glass, one fork, and one knife. As soon as I am done eating, I wash these four items using boiling water and detergent, and I leave them bottom up in the sink. I could even say that for years I have been using these same four items.

Nonetheless —just for fun and because I love them— I like to fry a fresh batch of potatoes from time to time. This is why I usually have some potatoes stored in a spotlessly clean green plastic drawer. Never more than a kilo. I want to clarify that these few potatoes are the only edible product, aside from those in airtight containers, which can be found in my home. Logically, what I found was a rotten potato.

We all know that a refrigerator is foolproof. No mouse could ever open its door to pilfer the few items I store inside: a couple of steaks, a bag of hotdogs, a small anchovy jar, another one with green olives, a piece of fresh cheese, two or three tomatoes, a stick of butter, some fruit and...nothing else.

I prefer to buy strictly the bare essentials, and thus avoid accumulating foodstuff, as it may go rancid before I can eat it. True, this habit forces me to multiply my shopping trips; but in compensation, it gives me two advantages: not to be forced to eat what I do not wish to, just because it is there, and it forces me, pleasantly, to go out on the Villa Urquiza Streets on a daily basis. This is something I like and I need, since I spend long hours locked up at home, dedicated to my work.

2. A certain independence

For a long time now, and I hope for the rest of my life, I have been working as a translator. To get there I had to go through three difficult changes in my career: that of an office worker, that of a Spanish and literature teacher, and that of an advertising editor. I won’t even try to describe such jobs. I will say, though, that I felt uncomfortable in all of them; culturally, economically, and ethically, in the strict order I have named them.

My activities were diverse, but my personality and tastes were always the same

What I enjoyed doing was reading. And I read throughout most of my free time. I even read while riding buses and the underground. Thus, I believe I must have read for years and years, at an average of one hundred pages a day. Since I have a good memory and an excellent capacity for idea association, my reading was enriched by relating, resonances, and deep thinking. I thus learned a lot of things, the majority of which had absolutely no practical application. It doesn’t matter. I have always felt sorry for those people who are only practical.

Among the things I learned, was to be able to read in various languages. To read, not to speak, which is something altogether different.

For sheer pleasure and amusement, I translated stories by Wells, Wild, Melville, Hudson... I translated hundreds of pages from Nineteenth Century English writers: Dickens, Thackeray, Meredith...

And then, or maybe simultaneously, I jumped over to French: I translated Camus, Claudel, Flaubert, Maupassant, and... who knows how many others.

I realized that knowing two languages, it was quite easy to learn a third one. And a fourth one. And a fifth one.

The wonderfully difficult thing to achieve was to make the Spanish version not to read as a translation. Unwittingly at first, and by bits and pieces, I automatically began to paraphrase syntactic constructions from the English language into Spanish. I realized that the apparent similarity with Italian was deceitful, and that quite often there were problems requiring lots of reworking and imagination. I had, and still have, lots of problems with German, whereas I had little trouble with French. Simplifying, I would daresay that French can be translated into Spanish almost word for word.

As a natural result of these toils, there came a day I started translating books for several publishing houses.

After some sort of assessment, I saw the opportunity to gain a priceless advantage: that of my almost total freedom. The price of becoming my own lord and master. No more administrative bosses, inept deans, nor smiling executives. I didn’t think twice. I resigned from the last eight hours of professorship I had left, and started translating full time.

For the first time in my life, I felt relatively happy working. I was thirty-four years old and had been fearful of not having found a niche for myself in this world. That was eleven years ago.

I cannot deny I am satisfied with myself. As I have said, I have acquired a sort of skill or habit in the different languages I deal with. Since I type accurately and rather fast, I usually cover a lot of ground in a short time. This allows me to earn relatively well, and get paid quite frequently.

My dining room has become my desk, the place where I work, where I like to be. All walls are covered with books from floor to ceiling, except the wall with window doors leading to the balcony. As the years go by, I become closer to some of my books and grow apart from others, which does not mean I have re-read them. Sometimes I just read for pleasure, but most of the time I work on translations.

I have a fruitful routine, in general terms. I place the original book to my left, I place a sheet of carbon paper between two sheets of writing paper in the typewriter, and an ashtray to my right. I work from eight to twelve. I drink “mate”; and I cannot quit the damned smoking habit, something I swear to do on a nightly basis.

I then have a light lunch and take a nap for about an hour. I go back to translating from three to seven p.m. At this time, I go shopping or out for a walk, read stuff I like, go to a movie, or meet Elsa, with whom I have an irregular, longtime relationship which has no future. I know she wants to marry me. I don’t see the need to, and would prefer not to alter my way of life.

Above all, I translate from books in English. They are usually North American and cover subjects that do not interest me, or which I flat out reject: pedagogy, sociology, and psychoanalysis. Quite often, they begin with a page of acknowledgments: the author thanks professor So and So, who formulated interesting observations; doctor So and So who suggested this wonderful thing; to Miss So and So, who was kind enough to type the whole manuscript... This kind of rubbish annoys me but I translate it righteously, even though I ask myself what is the use of it all. I am sure the reader will carelessly skip over them.

And yet... —I realize now— what has led me to minutely recount these details of my daily, grey routine? I did not want to talk about this, but rather about the story that begins with the episode of the rotten potato. But one things leads to another, albeit not deliberately. Doubtless, I was trying to show I am an extremely methodical person and —why not?— an efficient one.

At home, everything is neat and polished to a fanatical degree. I take a shower and shave every day —I shower twice in summertime— my clothes are always impeccably clean and pressed at the laundry. I cannot press, except for square or rectangular pieces like napkins and handkerchiefs. I even find time to put shoe polish on my shoes every night, and to buff them every morning.

As I have said, except for the above mentioned kilo of potatoes, you will not find any kind of edible stuff in my home.

So, the question is: Why me?... —a maniac for cleanliness and order— why should I have to suffer the intrusion of a rat in my apartment?

From here onwards, it will no longer be a mouse, it will be a rat.

3. Defensive Strategies

No one will answer this question. It is useless to complain about destiny’s plans. But there was something quite clear: I had to find and kill the damned rat as soon as possible.

There is a saying that goes: “less clutter, less stress”. I started throwing things I no longer used in a plastic bag: four pairs of old shoes... this small move set up an explosive punishing expedition against all the things I was no longer using, and which were there just as mere heirlooms representing laziness and apathy: old pullovers, a ridiculous summer cap, worn scarves, old fashioned ties... Thusly, I filled six plastic trash bags.

I never found out the last name of my cleaning lady; her first name singles out on its own: “Nicanora”. And to Nicanora —who lives far away from me, and I suppose in indigence— I gave away all these clothes. She gladly accepted them, and took them away in three trips: two bags at a time. She thus liberated me of those useless things. My closet suddenly became quite spacious.

Meanwhile, I threw the rest of the potatoes in the trash can, I washed the green plastic drawer with hot water and bleach and put it to dry in the hot evening sun on my balcony. In the evening, I bought another kilo of potatoes, rinsed the dirt out of them with water, dried them with a dish towel, and stored them in the fridge.

At this point, I could rightfully assert there were no other edible substances inside the whole apartment. This cleaning operation constituted my first attack against the rat, a means to ask it to retreat in pursuit of more nourishing regions.

4. Attack plan and first skirmish

There is a veterinary clinic, called “My Puppy”, a block and a half away from home. Sometimes I stop to look through the window: they sell puppies, kitties, fish, and turtles. Exhibited —but not for sale— are a small lizard, a spider, and a snake.

Not satisfied with my prior precautionary measures, I went into the place and asked for professional advise on the safest and most efficient method to get rid of rats.

A woman wearing a green apron was sitting behind a desk and using a calculator. Only after I finished talking, and a silent pause, did she condescend to get up and come to the counter. This kind of indifference irked me, and predisposed me against her.

She had, nonetheless, heard and understood my question quite well. She spoke with a nasal voice, unpleasantly articulated, showing small serrated teeth underneath —or on top of— her enormous gums. Her lips contorted in a vicious smile during the most lethal part of her discourse.

She recommended some rat pills that looked appetizing —that is, to the rats— and which they would avidly swallow, without ever suspecting that the core of such delicacy hid a poisonous trap that would send them to the next world...

I felt an irresistible impulse to interject some kind of objection; this woman was disagreeable.

“Fine,” I said. But let’s suppose the rat dies in an unreachable hole. Sooner or later, a decomposition process will start and how will I be able to stand that awful smell and the idea of coexisting with the rotting carcass of a rat?

“My dear Sir,” she replied smugly; “you seem to live in the Stone Age. How old are you, if I may ask?”

“Forty-five,” I managed to respond.

“You were already in fourth grade when I was still suckling,” she replied. “That’s why you are not aware of the latest scientific advances.”

Since I did not reply, she continued:

“These Pills,” she held the box between index and thumb, “do not work as you erroneously believe. To start with, they have no venom and, by themselves, they cannot kill anyone. They act indirectly. They produce a decalcifying effect, thus when the rat falls or hits something, it will suffer a fracture in one or more bones. It will become paralyzed, unable to search for food. Thus, little by little, it will end up dying of starvation.”

She fixed me with an almost ferocious stare; I could barely hold it.

“Now, there is the second, and false problem stated by you: the animal’s decomposition, with the subsequent stench, worms etc. after effects. None of this will happen. These pills have a taxidermic drug which will impede rotting of the carcass. So much so, that any given day you will have the pleasure of owning an embalmed rat. A pet you can place on your night table.”

Although I would have preferred a less grotesque and scientific, less Anglo-Saxon plan, something a bit more trustful like facing the rat and trying to kill it by hitting it on the head with a shovel, for instance, I accepted her satanic prescription because, truly, I no longer had the strength or the will to start a face-to-face confrontation.

I went back home and dedicated myself to strategically distributing the repulsive brown pills close to the baseboards. In spite of their clean, ascetic look, I was shivering and revolted.

In short, I had spent most of the day trying to implement measures against the rat. This had altered my usual living scheme, and it bothered me no end.

By nightfall I thought it was time to get my life back on track. I had already done everything possible to get rid of the intruder and it felt right to return to my everyday activities. Therefore, I went to bed with a clear conscience and two books: the original Crime and Punishment in Russian, and the Spanish version rendered by Rafael Cansinos Assens, in 1935. As a pastime before going to sleep, I compared the original vs. the translation, phrase by phrase, of an episode which had always seduced me. I refer to the sixth section of chapter II, wherein Judge Porfirii gets confused and accuses Raskolnikow.

This was a pleasant task, and it seemed to pull me out of my surrounding reality. And yet, in a blurry and latent way, I could not stop thinking that somewhere in the house, the damned rat was perhaps very close to me. The pleasant side prevailed in my conscience nonetheless and lazily, slowly, I fell asleep. I still had time to turn off the light on my night table.

At some point during the night, I woke up. I remained still, expectant... I heard some rhythmic noises, like someone trying to tap a pen against a wooden surface.

“It’s the rat!” I whispered nervously, while turning on the light on my night table at the same time.

My room showed up, and the taps stopped. Still and attentive, I thought of the rat: motionless, its ears perked up, trying to figure out where danger or death, announced by the sudden light, was coming from.

It was 2;07 a.m. I turned off the light on my night table at 2:12 feeling sure that the taps would come back immediately. I had a plan. Guided by the taps, I would move in the dark through my familiar home until I located the whereabouts of the rat. I would then suddenly turn on the lights and kill her with a single stroke, armed with whatever was at hand.

After a long time in the dark, I had to admit that the rat had opted to remain cautiously still. It was then that my cautiously planned strategy changed into that of an irrational fighter. In some kind of a frenzied attack, I jumped out of bed, turned on all the lights in the house, grabbed a broom, and roughly ransacked the whole apartment, slamming and banging included.

I found nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nervous and perspiring, looking ridiculous in my boxers and slippers, I sat in the kitchen to grab a smoke and to think. There was nothing much to reflect on, though. A rat is a small animal; agile and slick, cunning and malleable; an animal that runs, jumps, climbs, hides... and is superbly prepared to fight for its life. It could hide in a thousand unthinkable, invisible corners and I —a huge, clumsy, noisy, and massive pachyderm— would not be able to find it.

With the last puff from my cigarette, I resolved to consider the rat episode as concluded. I went to bed and I slept. I never knew if the tapping noise came back.

The alarm clock went off at 7:00 AM. Half asleep, I already had a well defined purpose: under no circumstance would I allow the intruder to interfere or distort my usual activities, my normal life. I had to adhere to my usual activities and wait. Just wait, with no further activity on my part. Sooner or later —I thought— those damned brown pills from the vet would destroy its bones, paralyze it. They would kill it by starvation; embalm it, and turn it into a museum rat. I should, therefore, go back to my everyday tasks and not allow the vermin to steal my thoughts or my time, which I could use for more agreeable and useful tasks.

True, right, but... how could I remain indifferent before those five small, whitish eggs which had just scared me? They were still lying there on top of the kitchen table, beside the ashtray which —contrary to my daily cleaning habits— still showed the cigarette butt on top.

Rats are mammals, not oviparous. The drama therefore had acquired another slant: the intruder was not a rat.

Neither could it be a bird. Those are not creatures in the habit of being inside, nor in corners. By elimination, therefore, it had to be a reptile. A snake, a viper, a lizard?

Unspeakably apprehensive, I rolled a newspaper and used it to push the small reptile eggs until they fell noisily into an empty coffee tin I sometimes use as a pencil holder.

I washed the table top with disinfectant soap and boiled water immediately. I also washed the marble kitchen counter, top and bottom. Also the sink bowl, the walls and the floor. Who knows what kind of repulsive animal had slithered its viscous body over my dear familiar areas? (I knew reptiles are not viscous, but rather quite dry and clean, but I mentally insisted on this gruesome “viscous’ detail).

I realized it was past ten in the morning, and I had not even started my everyday work.

At this point, I had two possibilities: a) start working as usual and pretend to ignore the problem, or b) stop working and fully dedicate myself to finding a devastating and definitive solution.

5. Nené’s Interference

I know myself well, and I do not like prolonging undesirable situations. A few minutes later, I made an appearance at “My Pet — Veterinary”, carrying the 5 small eggs inside the coffee can.

“What brings you here?” said the woman in a green work coat, without raising her eyes from her calculator. ‘I see you are in trouble again”.

To me, she was not the type of person I could engage in conversation with, I don’t mean a nice conversation, just a half way logical one. Therefore I merely said:

“Could you determine the kind of animal these eggs belong to?”

She violently dumped the contents of the can on her left palm:

“I must tell you I am not a zoologist, I am a veterinarian. However, truth can be accessed through various routes, don’t you think?”

She pierced my eyes with hers, like trying to force a response out of me. I hinted a gesture of agreement.

“Some people achieve wisdom— she went on— by means of accumulating information. Others instead, ponder about things incessantly. I do both things at the same time. I complement my daily studies with serene deliberation. I pretend I am involved with bills and a calculator, while I am really reflecting on man and his destiny.”

She extended both hands, closed.

“Let’s see, guess: where are the yararacusú eggs?”

Foolishly, I signaled towards her left hand. She opened it:

“Nothing here”. She smiled contentedly, showing her huge gums and small teeth. “One to zero, I win. Here are the eggs.” She opened her right hand and rolled them over the counter.

“What kind of yararacusú eggs are you talking about? Look, these marbles are not an animal’s eggs, just that: marbles. Glass marbles, the type kids play around with. When I was a kid I read Mexican comics and they used to call the marbles “canicas”, remember?”

She was banging them violently with the butt of a paper cutter.

“See? They don’t break. They’re not eggs, they’re marbles.”

I grabbed them, felt them, banged them... and I had to admit that the woman was right. I felt suddenly ill, as if dizzy or on the verge of fainting.

“I see your pressure has gone down. Have a drink of brandy. Take it, trust me; it will be good for you.” I heard.

All of a sudden, I found myself sitting on a chair, in front of a desk on the other side of the counter. The woman had my coat in her hands and she was going through my pockets.

“You’re going to have to tell me everything. My name is Maria Inés, but everyone calls me Nené. I saw in your ID that your name is Carlos Conforte. Carlos, Just like Carlos Gardel.* You are also dark-haired, and have green eyes, that is rare. You have beautiful eyes Carlitos. Tell me all about it Carlitos, I can help you. Trust me Carlitos.”

I felt spiritually diminished and overwhelmed by the woman’s ill-advised language. The fact was I let myself be carried away by the events, and told Nené a very similar story to the one you have just now read in full detail. She became interested in some details of my recent past, and asked some precise and intelligent questions about my activities as a clerical worker, as a high school teacher, and as an advertising editor...

“Talk to me, Carlitos,” she would say every now and then, stroking my hair. I have studied psychoanalysis, and I know that talking will do you good. I was sitting on a chair, holding the brandy glass in my hand. She was standing by my side, and continued to stroke my hair. Suddenly I reacted, trying to become myself again:

“I am leaving.” I said, getting vertical.

“Hold on a second; it is almost noon. Put on your jacket, it is cold. I’ll close the shop and let’s go have lunch together in your apartment. Afterwards, we can have a quick nap in your bed... huh?”

As in a dream, I found myself on Aizpurúa Street. Nené and I walked home, went up the elevator and we had a terrible, or beautiful, lunch consisting of crackers with butter, salami and red wine mixed with Coca-Cola. We then took a nap up until about five P.M.

When I woke up, for a minute I thought I was the victim of a delusion. But there she was in the dining room. Dressed in her green work coat, —which I did not remember she wore before— elbows on my working table, Nené was sipping a cup of tea.

“Have a cup of tea, Carlitos. I was on my way out; I have to open the shop. Don’t you have any more crackers? There’s nothing to eat here, you are going to starve.... This girl here with you, who is she?”

She pointed to a metal frame with a photo of Elsa Martinez and me —covered up to our ears on a very cold day— on the promenade in Mar del Plata. Before I had a chance to decide what to answer, she continued:

“She has certain air of an evil bird, some kind of a falcon, right”

This is only a half-truth. Elsa Martinez has a big nose, but she is not evil, not at all.

“I don’t think you will end up marrying her; it is not to your advantage, she is a calculating, self interested woman.”

Outraged at the unfair attack, I chose to remain silent.

Suddenly, as if on an impulse, Nené picked up the phone and dialed a number. She started a conversation with a certain ”Beba”, whom, as I could ascertain by the conversation, was her colleague. That is to say, the owner of another veterinary in the district of Flores. They talked about business, about something that had happened at Nazca and Avellaneda, about products and prices, and at a given moment, Nené said:

“I was finally able to have two orgasms, as one is supposed to. I’ll tell you all about it on Saturday.”

Suddenly, she was in front of my mirror in the bathroom, sticking her fingers into her eyes.

“I use contacts. I was fed up with conventional glasses. They make you look old, and I still hope I’ll get married and have children.”

I had already calmed down, so I judged impartially. She was really an ugly woman: big hips, narrow shoulders, and flabby titties, worth nothing. Her features were somewhat violent, rather masculine, and she had a coarse complexion. How, and under what need did I descend to make love to her?

“A small example will suffice,” she said as if she had read my mind. I know you are never going back to the veterinary; and I do not want you to come by either.

That was the last thing she said. She closed the door and a second later I heard the sound of the elevator.

Somehow, I felt that my home and I were contaminated by Nené’s intrusion. I experienced a violent revolting sensation, and went on a sort of a disinfection exercise. I stood up the mattress to air out against a wall; I changed the linens on my bed; I washed up all the dishes we had used, including the tea cup and saucer Nené had used. I cleaned the table top with a dish cloth, and I mopped the floor. I then took a looong, long bath.

6. Waiting for an outcome

We haven’t heard about the rotten potatoes or the glass balls. We know nothing about Nené and her designs.

I tried to go on with my everyday life.

One day I noticed that my dog-eared Appleton’s was missing all the pages with the number 3 as the last digit. Another day I found a notebook page with a clumsy, childish drawing representing a small house with an A frame roof and a tree with a round top.

Once, they took all the buttons from my rain-coat, but left me a Rolex watch: I was the winner here. The next time they stole the 8 volumes of my classic edition of Don Quixote, the Spanish Classic’s edition, annotated by Francisco Rodríguez Marin. Instead, they left a paper fan with some kind of advertising for a Japanese Cleaner’s located at Lomas de Zamora. This time I was the loser.

Thus, as the days went by, the pillages and the offerings continued to multiply. I did not like this situation. All those robberies and destruction hurt me; always falling upon things I had personally bought, all very dear to me. And I was not interested in the presents left behind —even if sometimes they had material value— for I had not desired them.

All these interchanges were happening in the midst of absolute triviality. There was nothing unusual they could take from me. And they never left something unusual for me. I never received an object from another planet; a magic idol or prodigious talisman; a mummy finger, a pterodactyl bone. No. I only received very common twenty-century objects. What am I saying: twentieth century? Just the last decade. Sometimes they were new and came in their original package; sometimes they were used, and sometimes they were broken.

At the beginning, I systematically threw all presents in the trash bin. But when I saw that sooner or later they would unfailingly return, I left them where they showed up, without ever touching them.

Thus, my otherwise my tidy and organized apartment at the end of Villa Urquiza became a senseless storage room. And then one day, I could no longer distinguish my original belongings from those which showed up as presents.

This process took a few months, and I had already resigned myself to living as best as I could.

Nonetheless, I can now say that for the last month or so, my visitors seem to have forgotten me. In vain, I check the tangle of anarchic stuff on a daily basis but I realize they are always the same. There are no additions or subtractions. Or that, at least, is what I believe.

If things continue like this, that is if I am ever sure that I have been forgotten forever, perhaps I will decide to restore my house, and my life. Like in the good old times, when I had attained a certain order and had been able to take care of myself.

But, perhaps I am just facing a truce. So, for the time being, I prefer to wait a while longer. And see what happens.

Translation: Emmy Briggs
Table of related information
Copyright ©Fernando Sorrentino, 2005
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationJanuary 2010
Collection RSSThe Fictile Word
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