|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.40(d)|
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POSTPONED CONFESSIONS: THE SHORT STORIES OF MAGELA BAUDOIN
THE CATEGORIZATION of literary genres is, if course, a convention imposed by academics and publishers, although we as readers know that these genres reflect an intuitive literary truth: when we read a short story, we know that we are not reading a novel. The difficulty lies in defining these conventional categories. The short story, perhaps even more so than the novel or the essay, is a mysterious genre. It is less grandiloquent than the novel and less formal than the essay. As the distillation of a single episode, with a concentrated focus on one event or one character, it suggests the aristocratic hierarchy of an anecdote or joke. It is short — yes — but it aims at portraying or containing an entire world.
Magela Baudoin's short stories are certainly unique. While meticulously observed, they speak of secrets and allude to something ever greater than the argument they propose. Although Baudoin seems to tell us her stories with the most apparent frankness, we readers sense behind her words a dark reticence, unconfessed motives and secret reasons, people and places whose names Baudoin would rather not remember. The explicit, frank, open appearance of her stories deceives us, but with such skill that we agree to be deceived. The atmospheres she creates are threatening, gloomy, stormy. There are hints of humor, but her smile is sardonic, full of irony, accusing. We come to the last page of a Baudoin story and we ask ourselves, what exactly just happened? What is the real story behind this story? We understand the intricacies of the plot, from beginning to end, the setting, the voices of the men and women who populate Baudoin's pages, and yet something essential seems to escape us. What is it that we did not grasp, what is it that should not have been lost on us?
Borges, the master of the short story (although in a notably different register) observed that perhaps the aesthetic fact is "the imminence of a revelation that does not take place." This quality of postponed promise defines the delicate narratives of Magela Baudoin.
ALBERTO MANGUEL CHRISTMAS 2015 NEW YORKCHAPTER 2
SOMETHING FOR DINNER
WHEN IT WAS ALL OVER, Mom made us promise we would never bring up the subject again. And we didn't. She raised us to never tell lies. I guess all mothers do that. But for her, "to never tell lies" meant — and this was something I could only convince my brother of after many years had gone by — not only to always speak the truth, but also something much more basic. She believed it was wrong to lie to others, but even worse to lie to yourself. What Mom hated most of all was lying to save your own skin, or to take the easy way out, or to make yourself look good. How can I put it? She thought you were better off burning in hell honestly than lying your way into purgatory.
More than once we saw her blanch with shame — because sincerity can be inhibiting — and still bring herself to tell the truth. Mom was a nurse; and when I say that, what I mean is she was cold as ice. She was constantly working, usually at night in people's homes, which paid better but still didn't pay enough in the end, and was less stable. Days she worked in a public hospital, where the salaries were strictly national but the general tone was presumptuously foreign. This didn't bother Mom as much as it did her fellow nurses. At least she had a job, she liked to remind us; we had a lot to be thankful for. In saying this, she was really trying to convince my brother, whose favorite sport as an adolescent was contradicting her, and who hated the annual holiday party, to which the entire staff of the hospital — doctors, nurses, administrators, social workers, lawyers, and even the custodian — brought their kids.
Mom always took us to the party, even though six kids made a lot of noise. In general, six kids were a challenge to feed and keep in line. That's why no one ever invited us over their house, and why she kept our doors open to everyone. No matter how many extra kids showed up at our house for dinner, she always managed, as if by magic, to feed us all. Anyway, we never missed her office Christmas party — first because there was a ton of food, second because it was usually a picnic, and third and best because they gave out presents. Our poor mother. Presents rained down from the heavens on her, like some kind of sad little holiday bonus. As for us kids, I won't lie, we always got a kick out of trying to mix oil and water by hanging out with the doctors' kids at the party.
My brother loved to embarrass Mom, to test her. It was his way of saying, "Let's see you try to play the martyr this time!" Not infrequently, he told me, or rather confessed to me, he was bad without even trying. But one consequence of Mom's complete honesty was that she was also completely predictable. When it came to raising us, she didn't go by theory and she didn't believe in dialogue. She never stopped us from saying anything, even if it was something we might regret. She spanked you twice and was done with it, or she threw whatever was within arm's reach: her hairbrush, the wooden spoon, the rolling pin, a saucepan, a couple of oranges from the fruit basket. ... But usually she whipped off her slipper and hit you on the back of the thighs, two whacks. It really didn't hurt much — at least that's what I remember — because with Mom, the punishment was more about the shouting than anything else. Also because, deep down inside, each one of us kids knew that we deserved it, which softened the blow.
Mom wasn't the type to hold a grudge, unlike my brother, who was the only boy in the house. We girls got over our anger soon enough, but he stayed mad and yelled at her, "I hate you!" He said it over and over, to hurt her, because he was the one who got spanked the most. Which, by the way, gradually stopped seeming unfair to us, and became just another fact of life. I know it's not possible that he was the guilty party for every single infraction that occurred when we were growing up. But the truth is that Mom eventually stopped asking us who did it, because the answer she received was always the same. So often enough, she saved her breath and just reached for the wooden spoon.
My brother, like my mom, was cold as ice. And like her, it took a lot to make him melt. He almost never cried, not even when she died. In fact, when I was a child, I only remember him crying once. You see, he didn't mind getting spanked if he had a chance to get even. And, at one of the hospital Christmas parties, he did. He told some of the doctors' kids that Mom hit us. He didn't give a lot of details but he was clear on the concept: "Yeah," he said, indicating the backs of his thighs, "my mom hits us." The other boys laughed, and my brother became emphatic.
"If you don't believe me," he dared them, "why don't you go and ask her!"
The boys exchanged glances, smiling maliciously. Evil can be infinitely pure when you're eleven. My brother showed no mercy. He watched them run over to the cluster of adults where Mom stood in conversation, surrounded by doctors, administrators, all the important people from the hospital.
"Ma'am," they shouted, laughing, "is it true that you hit your son?" The adults were shocked into silence. Mom went red as a beet, and even from a distance we saw her vacillate, but not for long.
"Sure," she told them with self-conscious dignity, "when he asks for it, he gets his spanking." All the adults laughed.
When we got home, we girls thought that he was in for at least ten whacks with the slipper, but all she said was, "Well, there you have it, revenge is a dish best served cold, eh?" She didn't look angry or upset. Her emotion only showed in her eyes and in her lips, which trembled ever so slightly. And even though he didn't get punished, my brother cried all night long, very quietly, as if she'd beaten him black and blue. I heard him, from the top of the bunk bed. All five of us sisters listened to him cry.
That wasn't the first or the last trick played by my brother. Mom bore with his pranks and later retold the stories with gusto, a bit proud of his audacity. Only a mother can extract tenderness from her children's misdeeds. Looking back now, I believe that her old-school way of raising us paved the way for my brother's infamous reputation, which came to precede him. In fact, it became a point of honor for him to confirm it.
She never kept a husband for long. I think she ended up enjoying the heroism of being a single mom: just her and her kids, against the world. But the truth — the gospel truth, as my brother liked to say — was that Mom was also afraid of being alone. She derived strength and support from the compassion she received from others. Everyone admired her because, in addition to her six children, she always had a lazy slacker at home to take care of. Five husbands in succession, during the years we were all in the house. "Father" was a useless word in our childhood. My brother used it for the first time when he turned seven. All of a sudden he got downcast, moody, didn't want to eat.
"What's wrong with you today?" Mom asked. She touched her lips to his forehead to see if he had a temperature.
"Nothing," he answered, looking down at the floor.
"Nothing? Then why are you so quiet?"
"I miss Daddy."
She hesitated, looked at him with guilt in her eyes, and went and brought him some Jell-O.
As far as I'm concerned, if he had pulled that number once or twice and left it there, none of us would have ever been the wiser. But he always carried things too far. And one day Mom, who was by no means slow on the uptake, really let him have it.
"Liar!" she yelled. "You don't even remember your father!"
"Of course I do."
"Well then, it's about time you forgot him."
My brother just went on playing with his toy car, as if she hadn't spoken. Mom could be colder than an ice chest.
"You listen to me." She grabbed him by the collar. "Your father might have loved you, but he left. I'm the one who feeds you and clothes you. So I'm your mother and I'm your father, and that's it. Understand?"
"Yeah," he said, a wide grin splitting his face, "I know," and he was off running.
Mom hated lies so much that she once put fresh chile peppers in my brother's mouth to teach him not to tell people that she was a doctor, instead of a nurse. His teacher ran into Mom at the hospital and then asked him in front of the whole class if she worked there. All the other students went silent. My brother swallowed hard, like he always did when he knew he was about to tell a lie.
"Yes, miss," he said, nodding. "My mom's a doctor."
The teacher made a fuss over him, her praises salted with more than a little self-interest, while the other students gritted their teeth with envy and my brother began to get a sinking feeling in his chest. "It was like a dagger," he told me. A few days later, when the teacher asked Mom for a physical exam, she almost keeled over with rage.
"The next time you tell a lie, you're getting the seeds," she shouted, while my brother crunched on the chile peppers without shedding a single tear.
When he turned thirteen, my brother learned how to drive. I can't remember who taught him, but he already knew how to warm up Mom's old Renault. He loved driving it forward a couple of feet and then backing it up. He'd agree to go shopping with her because then she would let him get the car from the garage and bring it around to the front of the house.
"When I really know how to drive," my brother promised, taking her by the arm, "I'll bring you to see your patients at night and I'll wait for you in the car until you're finished."
My mother gave him a half smile lit by her own peculiar blend of pessimism and wary faith.
"Wanna make a bet?" he shot back. "Let me have the car and you'll see, no one will drive better than me!"
"We'll see about that."
But "we'll see about that" wasn't the same as "never bring up the subject again." As far as my brother was concerned, my mother's response held an implicit promise, a reality that was as proximate as he was stubborn. Learning to drive became his only interest in life. He spent hours practicing on the living room couch, shifting an imaginary gear stick. He talked endlessly about four-and six-cylinder engines, about Formula One champion drivers — Fangio, Ascari, Farina, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna, Schumacher, etc. — and about the virtues of manual versus automatic transmission. Mom's car was a stick shift, and he was a little bit in love with it.
"Mom, everyone knows that driving stick is the best!" he told her. She just laughed.
Marlon and Josué, my brother's friends, followed his lead. He instilled in them his passion for driving, along with his recklessness. Josué was the son of a horse trainer from Brazil. His family struggled to stay afloat, like ours did. No, even more so. Sometimes Josué walked into our kitchen starving and devoured whatever lay in his path like a swarm of giant ants. His dad didn't have a car; he was a nice man, always willing to help out. Mom liked him. Marlon's stepfather, on the other hand, was really something special: at least that's what Mom said, under her breath, because she did her best not to speak ill of anybody. She wouldn't allow us to repeat what the whole neighborhood said about him, because we didn't have any proof. What I can say for certain is that Marlon's stepfather had a Chrysler LeBaron with a manual transmission and tinted windows, which he said was a taxi, but which no one ever saw him use as such, and that he always had cash on hand. He spent his days cruising in the car, always with the same group of people, and he spent his nights out on the street, drinking. He hit Marlon and his mother, not with a slipper but in a way that was impossible to describe. Mom had treated them once at the hospital. Like Josué, Marlon was always starving. He also devoured whatever lay in his path, but after he'd already eaten at home. His stepfather told him, "Go on and get it." And Marlon came to our house and got it. Mom didn't mind.
"If he's here, it's because he needs it," she told us, "and he's welcome to it."
One day at our house for dinner, right after he'd finished washing the LeBaron, Marlon told us, "It's a waste to have a car and not use it."
My brother's eyes began to gleam.
"Forget about the car and come eat," Mom said. She stole pitying glances at Marlon when he wasn't looking. Marlon's face always looked closed down somehow, even when he laughed.
That car became an obsession for all three of them. It started with their washing the LeBaron as many afternoons as possible. That meant any afternoon when Marlon's stepdad slept in instead of going out and cruising. My mom didn't like to see her son do someone else's bidding, but in truth he did it because he wanted to. They all did. They popped the hood, checked the oil, brakes, and exhaust, and even inspected the hidden mechanisms inside the doors. They spent hours sitting on the curb, not even touching the car, just studying it, guided by the intuition of my brother and Marlon, who had worked together as helpers in an auto shop during school vacation. My brother would try to boost Marlon's confidence by repeating some of Mom's encouraging clichés, and Marlon would nod silently. Before long, the LeBaron was the cleanest car on the block.
"What do I have to do to get you to wash my car like that?" Mom chided.
"Pay us," said my brother, in his best macho voice.
"Pay you? How much?" "A ton."
"Oh yeah?" Mom said, "then forget about it."
We girls knew he was lying. And Mom wasn't fooled either. Marlon's stepdad never gave them so much as a "thank you." In fact, he was the kind of guy who would charge them for the privilege of touching his car. He dogged Marlon and humiliated him, especially in front of his friends. "Hurry up!" he yelled as Marlon washed the exterior. "Hurry it up, dumbass." Marlon washed faster. "Hurry the fuck up, imbecil!" he taunted. "He's useless, just like his mother." Marlon dreamed of killing him. One time, with my brother and Josué as witnesses, the man dug a pair of panties out of the backseat, sniffed them, and shoved them in Marlon's face before tucking them away in his pocket. "Don't you go taking stuff out of my car, you got that?" he growled. My brother and Josué did their best to look away, while Marlon bit back his anger, because the only thing that mattered was learning how to drive, and the LeBaron was their ticket.
My brother's mission in life, then, was to teach them to drive; and their mission was to make sure nobody found out what they were doing. They planned it well, limiting themselves to brief excursions, fraught with nerves and adrenaline. On the day of the disaster, my brother turned the key in the ignition. The car lunged forward asthmatically because he'd forgotten to put it in neutral. He realized his mistake and turned off the motor, then took a few deep breaths to calm down. "Stupid," he said out loud. He shifted into neutral before turning the key again. This time it worked. He shifted into first and took off slowly, driving forward about ten feet. Then he backed up, leaving the car right where it started. His friends followed suit. Josué went next; he was more of a natural driver. Marlon, alas, was not. The car groaned when he took the wheel because he struggled with keeping the clutch down while shifting into first.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleeping Dragons"
Copyright © 2018 Magela Baudoin.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
POSTPONED CONFESSIONS: THE SHORT STORIES OF MAGELA BAUDOIN BY ALBERTO MANGUEL,
SOMETHING FOR DINNER,
A BUENOS AIRES SUMMER SONATA,
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT,
THE COMPOSITION OF SALT,
THE RED RIBBON,
MENGELE IN LOVE,
A REAL MIRACLE,
A WRISTWATCH, A SOCCER BALL, A CUP OF COFFEE,