Read an Excerpt
From Musicians and Watchmakers
* * *
My grandmother knew the secret of eternal life. It consisted of a group of such simple rules that it was incredible that no one other than she herself knew about and practiced them. Sometimes we would participate in the ritual, thus guaranteeing ourselves, if not complete immortality, at least a good dose of it.
One of the ceremonies of this cult consisted of boiling Swiss chard and eating it immediately, sprinkled with the liquid from the concoction mixed with the juice of two large lemons. In the most perfect enactment of this rite, you would boil the chard beneath a lemon tree. When it was ready, you would make a cut into two lemons that were hanging from the tree right above the pot, so that the juice that fell on the chard would retain its vitamins, without losing a single drop of its nutritional value.
My grandmother said that ninety percent of human ills came from constipation. At home we all suffered from it, and there was a continuous coming and going of prescriptions to ward it off. Despite her wisdom in this area, my grandmother suffered from constipation more than anyone else. Whenever she managed to move her bowels, she would walk around for a while with a big smile on her face, and she would tell everyone about it. She was even known to crack a joke, or recall springtime in Kiev.
Those spingtimes came after really hellish winters. Just when it seemed as if the cold and the snow wouldlast forever, one morning she would draw the curtains and watch torrents of water flowing past her window. As soon as the water had passed, the sun would suddenly burst forth, everything would erupt into flowers, and the woods would fill up with wild cherries. Sweet cherries, not like the ones we get here. And that's how it would be the next day, and the day after that. Not like here, with these springtimes that don't even know what they are.
That's how my grandmother would describe her native land, whenever the activity of her bowels put her in a good frame of mind
* * *
I don't know if Otilia ever deluded herself into thinking she was pretty. Perhaps one summer afternoon, while she was crossing Nueve de Julio Avenue in a streetcar with her fiance, a good-looking guy who resembled Clark Gable and was younger than she. You probably want to know how she caught him. It happened at a dance, where she and her next-in-line sister each nabbed a boyfriend.
The boys were friends. They hadn't been in Buenos Aires very long, and they earned a living as best they could. They also enjoyed the usual pastimes of bachelorhood. For thirty cents they could have a wonderful time on a sunny day: ten cents for the streetcar to the public beach, ten to get back, and ten for a salami sandwich. Stretched out in the sunshine, sporting their wool bathing trunks, their little mustaches, and their innocence, they would talk about the future:
"Hey, man, you gonna get married?" asked Clark Gable.
"Um, ... no," the other one answered. "I'm gonna travel."
Nevertheless, the weddings took place only a month apart, shortly after the conversation at the public beach. Otilia got married first. (How the pretty girl envies her ugly sister's good fortune!) I witnessed Grandma's preparations. She stationed herself out on the patio of the house in Donato Alvarez, next to a bag full of little rolls. She cut them all in half and smeared them with something. On the folding tables they set up that night on that same patio, platters bloomed with little rolls, bottled orangeade and beer. I don't know if there was anything else, because I hardly even managed to get close, and when I did, I had to put up with my aunts' sloppy kisses and tell them what my name was, how old I was, and if I loved my little brother.
Nor was I able to observe the glorious moment when the brides took leave of their family homes and acquired the privilege of being supported by their husbands. The guests piled up around the bridal canopy, which was illuminated by an electric bulb. Clark Gable and his friend were tall guys; they had to tip their heads slightly to the side under the canopy, while the little lantern rested on top of their Vaselined hair. Despite this minor inconvenience, everything turned out fine. On tiptoe, stretching out my neck to no avail, I heard the rabbi intone the praises to God which began the ceremony.
I was just a little girl, but I already understood that you were supposed to get emotional, that the jasmine-scented breeze came from the garden next door (because at my grandparents' house there were only some red wildflowers that didn't smell at all), and that more than one guest disrespectfully turned around in the middle of the ceremony to cast watchful glances at the folding tables. At the first of these weddings I learned something: I didn't have to stay until the end of the ceremony to get from the wedding canopy to the food tables. That's what I did the first time, and I nearly got trampled.
Some years earlier another marriage had been celebrated in that house, a marriage from which I was born, and three years later, my little brother (yes, I loved my little brother). After Otilia and Amanda's weddings, Grandpa got sick and I stopped going to the house in Donato Alvarez. I had no further news of him until they took me to La Chacarita cemetery (because my grandfather, an atheist, a socialist, and a vegetarian, was cremated according to his explicit wishes and doesn't repose among our other relatives in the Jewish cemetery). They didn't tell me before taking me to the cemetery that Grandpa had died so as not to upset me. We stood for a while looking at a little box which couldn't possibly have contained Grandpa. Otilia and Amanda didn't go to the cemetery on account of their "condition." My cousins were born, also a month apart: first the son of Otilia and Clark Gable. They went off to live in General Pico, and we lost sight of them for a while.
Thus ended a long and difficult period for my family, but one that was lovely and full of fun for me. I would sniff the cookies that Grandma baked in the kitchen; I would watch Mele, Otilia, and Amanda rehearsing didactic plays for the Socialist Party Theater Group; and I would see a windmill emerge on the canvas Mele was painting. The canvas didn't interest me as much as the palette, covered with all kinds of colored stains and peaks.
* * *
Otilia and Clark Gable set themselves up in a room, in which they crammed a double bed and a couple of little night tables, a dining room table with chairs, a wardrobe, a cupboard, and a side table. In a vase that she called the "centerpiece," Otilia put a bouquet of artificial flowers that she had made herself. When the Chipmunk was born (we called him that because of his chubby cheeks), they also had to squeeze in a crib.
Motherhood didn't make Otilia more beautiful, but it did make her fatter. It was no longer possible to visualize her as she had been during her engagement: skinny in her blue linen sailor dress, white spool-heeled shoes, and a mane of hair with little spitcurls on her forehead. Clark Gable, on the other hand, was even thinner than before, but still goodlooking, wildly happy, and a great prankster.
Once in a while Clark Gable's mother and sister would come from Entre Rios to visit the couple. As married women, they enjoyed a certain amount of leisure and could travel for pleasure. They had screechy voices, and they practiced a form of birth control that consisted of repeatedly jumping off a table onto the floor after "having relations" with their husbands. They were famous for the number of miscarriages they provoked: in that family no one had had fewer than thirty or forty.
Otilia and Amanda, by hook or by crook, had become married ladies. Otilia chose names for her children from the social pages of El Hogar. The same names as the children of Senora Peralta Ramos or Senora Martinez de Hoz. She avoided those that were too obviously Catholic, such as any combination with Maria. Amanda, who had fewer pretensions and who was more sentimental and a great interpreter of tangos, gave her children more popular names. They were called Evaristo, Azucena, and Greta. This last name, which might be considered an exception, was a concession to her enthusiasm for foreign actresses.
With the business of the names, a long family tradition was broken. All Otilia and Amanda's female cousins were named Dora; all the male cousins, Leon. To differentiate, they were classified as Dora, Dorita, Ugly Dora, Big Dora, Little Dora, Uncle Jose's Dora. Then there were Leon, Little Leon, Big Leon, Leon the Watchmaker, and Leon the Lawyer. When they all got together, there was never any confusion: each one knew very well who he or she was and who all the others were.
With three of her four daughters already married, Grandma was happy. At other relatives' weddings, which didn't take place beneath the grape arbor, but rather in rented halls, she had her picture taken with her daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, all dressed up and with new shoes. I learned to distrust the smiles that abounded at those social events. As soon as Grandma returned home from the party and put on her housecoat, her true colors emerged. Her face reflected an existence full of suffering, yoked to the side of a silent husband and daughters who fought like wild beasts, feeding on their insatiable bitterness. The four of them were, according to what I overheard from their arguments, bitches, vipers, egotists, imbeciles, tightwads, and evil incarnate. I watched them, trying to discover those qualities in their faces, but without discerning much except that they were fat and ugly.
After each fight they would break off relations forever. But they got back together after each wedding and wake, displaying tender smiles, too much rouge, and their kids, and they eventually patched things up. For a while calm would reign. We'd organize a picnic. Everything would turn out badly, plagued by ants, mosquitoes, and packed buses. "When poor people try to have fun ..." Mele would say. She was the one who got married late. Like her sisters, she was very fond of dramatic scenes. Grandma would try to lift our spirits by telling us funny stories that happened to other people: Some guy's business failed and he ended up on the street; someone else's trip got screwed up; another one had to leave school for financial reasons; yet another gave birth to a sixth daughter. She would laugh until she choked, never noticing if anyone else shared her mirth.
The same things weren't funny when they happened to her. Then she'd fall into a bitter depression, the grayish circles under her eyes would become more prominent, and she would take the event as further proof of her ill fortune.
In spite of her own unfortunate experience, she was a great advocate of marriage. She advised her girls to go to parties wearing beautiful, very low-cut dresses, with lots of jewels (real or costume, the main thing was that they should glitter), and to keep an eye out for the boys. Mustn't be a ninny. She'd say: "Young man, I'd like to introduce my daughter." The victim, taken by surprise, had no time to consider that not only did he not know the person to whom he was being introduced (which in itself is quite normal), he also didn't know the person making the introductions (not so normal).
This strategy never failed. The candidate would blush, offer his arm to the girl, and ask her to dance. Her mother would sit down next to the other mothers, who peered at her out of the corner of their eyes. It was pure envy, since their own daughters stood like wallflowers at the other end of the room, pretending to be thrilled chatting among themselves, while the others were already trying on their trousseaux or pushing baby carriages in the park.
* * *
On certain afternoons we had visitors at the house in Donato Alvarez. My aunt and uncle from Constitución would come, give me wet kisses, et cetera, and ask that stuff about loving my little brother. Once they brought their grandson along to play with me, but he was coughing a lot, so I wasn't allowed to get too close. I watched him from a distance, sitting on the bottom step of the stairway that led to the terrace. When everyone was distracted, I climbed the entire staircase. When I reached the top, I lost my footing and tumbled down to the bottom, landing on top of Otilia, who was waiting for me with arms outspread. I hit her in the nose with the heel of my shoe. After that, she glared at me with hatred in her eyes, applying rags soaked in vinegar to her injury. She didn't say anything to me because I was just a child, but I'm sure that, from that moment on, I too became a bitch, a viper, an egotist, tightwad, imbecile, and evil incarnate, like all the other women.
My grandfather, the only man in the household, didn't generally participate in the conversations. Everyone remembers how he used to give orders to his daughters. Whenever he noticed them looking very happy, laughing a lot, or acting goofy, he'd give them a laxative. He was of the opinion that all strange behavior was the result of intestinal disorders. "Do you remember," Grandma would say whenever she was in a nostalgic mood, "how Papa drove you crazy with Josselin tea?" and she would shake with laughter.
When Grandma immigrated from Kiev to Buenos Aires she was eleven years old. They sent her to school, where she learned Spanish very well. She sang tangos like a sick bird:
Indelible scars from a wou-ou-ound ... (trill)
She never spoke of how she ended up marrying Grandpa. She gave birth to her daughters quite easily, one after another. They always arrived before the midwife, anxious to be born and start quarreling. There were some very bad times. Unemployment. Evictions.
At a charity ball, money was collected, as it was for other poor families, to help them get a new house. El Hogar published a short article about that ball. Taking advantage of the occasion, several of the girls made their debut into society. A few courtships began. In subsequent social notes appearing in the same magazine, there were pictures of their engagements, marriages, and announcements of their first babies' births. The young mothers selected names for their little celebrities, the same names that Otilia's children bear, even today.
Before they were married, Otilia and Amanda were salesgirls at La Piedad department store, where they extolled the beauty of the bathrobes and housecoats to their customers. Mele, the one who was slow to marry, never worked outside her home. Sometimes she would sew or do housework, and when she was done, she'd go off and paint. She painted flowers, sailboats at sunset, Dutch landscapes with tulips, and haystacks beside country houses. She copied them from some postcards she had.
On Sundays we'd all have lunch at Donato Alvarez. Otilia and Amanda's fiances would be there. The men livened up the atmosphere: they were talkative, they'd bring bottles of wine, and they'd sit you on their laps so you could demonstrate how you were learning to read. The women didn't fight. I would recite verses, taste Papa's port, and announce that I loved my little brother....
* * *
Grandpa slept on a sofa in the corner. No matter how early one arrived, everything was always in perfect order: the bed made, the floor swept. Grandpa read La Vanguardia, books by José Ingenieros and Juan B. Justo, and essays on vegetarianism. He'd sit me on his knees and make me spell out: l-a-v-a-n-g-u-a-r-d-i-a. Afterward he'd send me out to the patio to play. He had a large mustache whose ends pointed up and whose shape he maintained by sleeping with something called a mustache guard.
Grandma slept in another room, which was very untidy. On top of the table, among dirty cups and bottles of medicine, you could see the twin arches of her false teeth in a glass of water, and her corset, much larger and more complicated than those of her daughters, with laces and whalebone everywhere.
Grandpa belonged to the Socialist Party. Firmly divorced from religion and family traditions, he devoted himself to instilling revolutionary ideas in his daughters. He taught them that everyone was equal, Jews and non-Jews alike. The little girls learned to sing the "International" before they knew "Rock-a-Bye Baby." He never managed to make them vegetarians. He had to content himself with eating his greens at the far corner of the table, casting an occasional disgusted glance at the stew that they devoured. He taught them to love worknot by example, however, since, thanks to a combination of bad luck, periods of crisis and unemployment, his ill health, and his brothers' selfishness, he didn't live a very active life, although it was full of all the appropriate maxims and readings. In their peaceful moments, the four girls would sing:
The sewing machine sings its hurried song, while the good woman sews and sings along.
Mama was the only one of the four with any schooling. "We starved to death so you could study, bitch," her sisters frequently reminded her. "Studying is the only thing that keeps me from blowing my brains out for having to live with you, vipers," Mama would answer.
She was the first to get married, and, loyal to her father's ideas, she did so at City Hall. I was told this, since in those days children didn't witness their parents' marriages. On the wedding night, one of my classmates explained to me, the man puts his front thing into the woman's front thing and he leaves a little juice that makes a baby in the woman's belly. If he gets carried away and leaves too much juice, it could turn out to be a very big baby, like her uncle who weighed fifteen pounds when he was born and his mama almost died. It could also happen that, after nine months, when they sliced the mother's belly open and took out the baby, there might be a little unused juice left inside the mother. In that case, after a while, another baby would start to grow, and that's how you could get a little brother and always have to tell people that you loved him.
Grandpa's other daughters weren't as loyal to him as Mama was. As soon as they realized that they weren't going to get anything (I mean husbands) out of the committee meetings and the Socialist Party Theater Group they went off to look for them, without any scruples whatsoever, at Jewish parties and weddings. I don't know how Grandpa, who was always saying that religion was the opiate of the masses, must have felt, standing before the lighted wedding canopy and listening to praises of the Jewish God at his daughters' weddings. As far as all his other ideas were concerned, Otilia very clearly and frequently said that he could stick them up his ass. Jewish husbands weren't "equal" to the others, they were better, since they didn't spend their lives playing pool at the cafe, and if they had a fight with you, at least they weren't going to call you a "dirty Jew."
"I'm so glad I married a Jew!" Otilia said. "You should see how Clark Gable worries about his wife and children! Big Dora's daughter married a Christian. She said she was "in lo-ove" (sarcastic tone). And so? What did she get out of it? She's sure sorry now, poor thing! No, not poor thing, stupid thing! Because not a Sunday goes by that he doesn't lose every penny at the races. No wonder she has to suffer so much and sew for other people, poor thing, just so they can eat!"
As she spoke, Otilia finished polishing her nails dark red and waved her hands to dry them.
Evening was falling. Like flames, Otilia's nails passed before my eyes, and from the back of the patio came the smell of the sulfur that Grandma was burning to disinfect who-knows-what.
* * *
Doctors don t know anything, Grandma used to say. "They're businessmen. They don't care about taking good care of you; they want to hurry up and finish so they can go on to the next patient."
She and the four beasts spent their lives consulting doctors, because no doctor was any good. They preferred "naturists" and homeopaths, because, as they would say, "they cure with natural things," although they never followed any of the treatments for very long.
There was one doctor whom they respected more than the others. He had his prescriptions filled in the only pharmacy in Buenos Aires where they had the Elixir of Eternal Life, and where they displayed the following publications in the window: "War to the Death Against Toxins;" "Wheat Germ, the Germ of Life;" "The Sedative Properties of Black Molasses;" "Live to Be One Hundred with Daily Visits to the Bathroom;" and "Keep Death Away with Ten Lemons a Day."
The doctor placed the utmost importance on anything that was consumed by mouth, but he combined his dietary recommendations with general advice on hygiene, publishing both in a brochure. Each patient received one of these brochures along with the appropriate medication for his or her ailment. It was recommended that one sleep with the windows open, even in the middle of winter; that one wash one's hands before eating; that one avoid all contact with other people's saliva (here there was a little note about the number of microbes that two people exchange with a single kiss); and that the following practice be observed:
"Moisten sexual organs with cold water every day."
After having been respected and consulted by the family for quite a while, this doctor was replaced by another one (Otilia's discovery) who cured all illnesses with different sorts of enemas, a method that she found truly harmless.
It was kind of a pity, because the first one washow shall I put it? more eclectic.
They would sit down next to our beds, look at us sadly and move their head a certain way, bending their necks first to one side and then to the other, so that their skulls bent alternately toward each shoulder. They would listen to the details of our illness and murmur: "Poor little boy. Ay, ay. Poor little girl. Oy, oy, oy." Papa's sisters weren't like my maternal aunts at all. They were long-suffering, respectful, and they didn't engage in arguing in front of other people. Sometimes they would run into the beasts when visiting our house. "It's been so long, girls! Can you believe it?" They weren't as close to us as Mama's sisters were: we always looked upon them as the visiting team. As soon as they left, the local gang would rip into them without compunction, recalling the time when Papa's family was starving to death in the Jewish section of Entre Rios. There were nine siblings. "Nine who lived," Grandma clarified, immediately bursting into one of her paroxysms of laughter. Grandma swore that Papa's mother fed her children a staple diet of angel hair pasta in milk until they were fifteen years old, and that's why they all turned out weak and sickly (my father's premature death confirmed that fact, according to her).
I don't know if the story about the milky soup was entirely true, but I can attest that my paternal grandmother believed that this was a nutritious childhood dish. All dried up, dressed in mourning, and with sparse white hair, she'd serve it to me in her kitchen, while in the dining room the adults entertained themselves with port and cookies. It was a sweet soup with milk skin floating on top and a few bits of angel hair pasta that got stuck in my throat. With considerable effort (because she could barely speak Spanish), my grandmother explained that the soup was good; if I didn't eat it, I was bad, and if I ate it all, I would grow up to be big and strong....
* * *
You're going to kill me, Grandma said. You're going to finish off the few years of life I have left." She said this in a suffocated voice, weak and intense and tremulous at the same time, as she placed her fist on the table in a feigned blow since, according to her, she was so broken down, so worn out, that she didn't even have the strength left to make a proper fist. During these scenes she looked very hunched over, her hair in disarray, with a vacant expression and purplish circles under her eyes. After pronouncing each phrase she seemed to collapse, with her lower lip hanging out and trembling like a leaf.
Her phrases began in a low tone, almost a whisper, and rose up to a high pitch at the beginning of the last syllable, whose vowels were stretched out long enough to achieve (without losing the rhythm) an even sharper pitch than at the beginning. That is to say, an ascending tone:
You're going to k-i-i-i-l-l ... (and in a descending tone):
me-e-e-e. (and again, voice rising):
You're going to finish off thc few years of life ... (descending pitch):
I have ... le-e-e-e-f-t.
The fights Grandma had with her daughters were different from the ones they had among themselves. The beasts fought like equals, and none of them seemed lessened by the experience. They spoke plainly: "You want to screw up my life, you bitch, you Viper, but I won't give you that pleasure." They were young, vigorous women who had nursed from none other than my grandmother herself and who had been nourished by a naturistic-vitaministic-anti-constipationistic regimen. Their mother, on the other hand, was old and quite worn down by the life she had led (always sacrificing herself to raise her daughters).
I never figured out how the fights began because I wasn't there (children should be spared violent scenes). I drew closer when the shouts penetrated the closed door and crossed the patio. Then I'd spy from behind the door, or I would go right into the room and no one took notice of me. At those moments the accusations usually referred to very ancient matters, and Grandma would be receiving the fatal blows.
The blows were almost always of the verbal variety. Only once did I see Grandma receive a punch in the arm. I waited to see if she'd be felled by lightning, but strangely enough, Grandma seemed to calm down with the impact. She rose from her chair (she almost always fought from a sitting position, due to her extreme weakness), and she left the room, rubbing her arm.
From the first fight I ever witnessed, during which Grandma announced, as usual, that she was dying, to her actual death, twenty-five years ensued. Only in the last few years did she modify her technique a bit. She no longer threatened to die, but rather she would ask for a cup of tea, grab the cup with tremulous hands, and spill the entire contents down the front of her blouse. A daughter would have to help her change her clothes, to keep her from catching a chill. Or else she would say, "All right, Otilia, all right, don't be that way." A clear wish for reconciliation. Proof that Grandma was tired of violence and honestly desired peace. Unfortunately, the one with whom she was fighting at the time wasn't Otilia, but rather Amanda. The confusion of names infuriated her daughter even more. "You pretend to be stupid," she shouted at her. "You want me to think you don't know who I am, that you've got me confused with that other snake!"
And it went on like that until that poor mother ended her sad days. According to her, she deserved a happier ending.
Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger