Rotations ( Luis Ignacio Helguera, 1991)

Luis Ignacio Helguera


translated by Pablo Helguera

[note: this short story was published in Textual (magazine of El Nacional newspaper) in Mexico City in 1991, and later included in the anthology “El cara de niño y otros cuentos”, Ediciones Sin Nombre, Juan Pablos Editor, 1997.]

It was perplexing to me that his expression was so beseeching given that the salary and the working conditions he was offering me went far beyond my aspirations. A friend who now lives abroad had recommended my services to him. I was a bit desperate, without a job, I hate offices; work is best for me when I do it inside the warmth of a home. I accepted immediately. From 9-2pm and 4-6pm for a year, doing what I know with such a high salary… and the home of Mr. Gonzalo Márquez Cámara being seven blocks away from mine. And it’s an old house, the kind that I like, full of corners and crevices, of architectural whims, of large and small spaces that make one think where a certain hallway might lead, what is the point of that niche and why is there a skylight there. The decoration was strange and a bit shabby. Interior decoration portrays someone’s taste, and someone’s taste is the self-portrait of a person. In Mr. Márquez Cámara’s living room there was a magnificent Chinese table with a fine porcelain set, some nativity scene figurines and an ancient stuffed lion toy. The mahogany bookshelves in my office —that is, the library— I always liked, but I could never handle the dust, the veranda table with a glass cover where I worked, the poster of a train stopped in the middle of its path, the plastic-upholstered armchairs — you don’t want to sit on them because they make so much noise, so what are they doing there?— a watercolor depiction of a fish hung really high up, the elaborate doorframe, window ledges and ceiling ornaments painted fake gold.
One has to feel at home in order to work well, I thought. On the first days I accumulated an enormous pile of documents, more and more paperwork next to my table. I would go from the library to the warehouse in the patio and from the warehouse to the library. The whole gathering process took me all of the first week. The anxiety came later. One empty week. The only thing with dynamism was my coffee cup —they would give me a faultless coffee— and my ashtray, full of cigar stubs. At the end of each day I would mix papers on the table, in order to pretend, and I would leave. I sometimes was afraid that they would find one of those little pornographic drawings I would make to kill time. But there was no surveillance. As soon as I was able to verify it, I became bohemian, cynical, shameless. I started secretly peeking the lower level of the house, smoking and making my drawings. I even kept one, of Márquez Cámara, which is not bad. Another week went by.
Its fair to say that it wasn’t always that way. On the first day, for instance, I arrived at nine thirty, blaming myself for my nocturnal escapades. The female dog barked. They opened the gate for me at nine forty. I was leaving. Juanita, the slightly minuscule maid, always rosy-cheeked and with a shy smile, opened with such naturalness that I walked in without saying anything. And the secretary —or whatever she was—, Remedios, who was a sullen, proud brunette, always in a white robe, welcomed me at the doorstep, took me to the library, and said: “so Mr. Gonzalo says that whatever you need you just need to ask me.” Don Gonzalo, I later learned, slept until late and would wake up shouting confusing orders. I got used to show up at nine thirty, ten. I only seemed to find dissatisfaction in Remedios, but I later understood that her dissatisfaction was general and it did not relate to my lateness but, if anything, my presence.

In the second half of the day there were also some adjustments. They only let me in at four on the first day, so I decided to arrive at four thirty or five, after the nap, which looks like both Juanita and Remedios also took, and I would leave exactly at six. All this without crossing a word with Márquez Cámara. When I would run into him, he would slap his forehead and say “the papers! I will definitely go get them for you, ok?” I would get the biweekly check perfectly on the dot, given to me by Remedios.
More out of tediousness and uneasiness than remorse, on the fourth week I went back to work with dedication and in a few days I reduced the paper pile to a third. I was so relieved that I slowed down my work and I entered into another phase of sterility. Well, it is also very pleasant not doing anything at home, I thought.
I never locked myself up, I would hear the groans of Márquez Cámara at ten thirty, and would hear him babbling his orders until eleven thirty, when he would sit in his lavish bar to have his frist drink, usually tequila with orange juice. The library only had two windows, small and oval-shaped. Through the first one I would only see some gas tanks and the dry ivy of the backyard; through the second, I would see the bar, installed in the luminous hall with very high vaulted ceiling. I would spend hours — and sometimes, entire mornings— looking at the illuminated bar through the little window, and also see a huge plaster copy of the head of Michelangelo’s David next to the bar. The next day, the David would appear in the middle of the hall or rather, pushed toward the passage that led to the living room. Where they trying, testing to see where it would look better, or worse? That’s what I thought of everything: that it was provisional, that they were redecorating the house, that everything was in rotation in search of its better —or worse— placement.

I say this because everything was changing place, as if the waves of a secret sea was governing the house. And the tide reached the level of the pictures: that splendid portrait of an emaciated Beethoven by Ignacio Rosas, the watercolor of some lost barges, the horrid portrait of Don Gonzalo’s mother, and anyway, that decorative grand piano, the Chinese table and the rest of the furniture of the dining room an living room. Everything in rotation, with the exception of the things in the library where I worked.

I started figuring out the research puzzle and after six months of work I had distilled all the material into 30 research pages with —I thought— a fairly solid and compact summary. New excursions into the warehouse —where once someone came out gravely infected by fungus, as Remedios secretly told me, one of the very few instances when she confided something to me, without the expectation that I would share back something with her, since she was not interested in what anyone would tell her— helped my gathering of new data and other missing sections. My boring work was finally taking shape, in contrast with the house, which seemed adrift amidst its secret ocean. One time the Beethoven —to top it off— joined the David in the bar. But if there was clarity about something it was that the David was the unquestionable barman, and the Beethoven went back to its melancholic spot in the dining room.

I have always liked bars. To sit there for hours for nothing, not to satisfy any physiological need such as feeding oneself, just to drink for the purpose of drinking, to feel the transit of life at the pace of drinks. Just like in no other place, bars contain that sense of the unnecessary… I never secretly drank at that bar nor did I sit there with Márquez Cámara. Ok, yes, that one last time, but how many times I did see him drinking his double aperitif at eleven thirty —before going to the bank, which was often—, the long one around one or two — after returning from the bank— and the evening anise. I never asked him for a drink and he, despite his surliness, might have wanted that, to talk with someone who was not the maid or the secretary. Maybe not.
That one time I was immersed, by intertia, in the analysis of the papers until past three, when Remedios and Márquez Cámara both entered the library and said: “Licenciado, we are going to have lunch, do you want to join us?” Márquez Cámara was seconding her timidly, looking at the books. At that moment, I don’t know why, I had a revelation: “They are lovers.”

They ate in the kitchen, the three of them packed in a little table. I thought that eating with them I would find out about a few things. But the conversation, if there was any, as perfunctory and insubstantial, dealing with what was in the fridge, the flies, the heat. In order to break the agonizing silence I asked Márquez Cámara a few questions about the house, which he evaded with a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance. I still made a third attempt, saying something about my work, but it was clear that they were listening to me reluctantly. Aside to that, I was not able to repeat the experience: the food was nightmarish and when I got home I had a very bad time. I have never again tried such a greasy broth, such oniony beans, or a more sticky steak, which appeared designed to hinder conversation.

One of those days Márquez Cámara stopped remembering that he needed to give me those papers; he would only say hello to me, and if I am not mistaken, with certain dryness. I was afraid: either he suspected that I wasn’t working enough or he was no longer interested in the project for which he had hired me. In both instances my job was at risk.
I decided to redouble the rhythm of my work first, and then I spoke with him. I brought back the mountain of documents to the floor and then I told him I wanted to present a detailed report of my research. A bit taken aback, he agreed. Three days later, at the scheduled hour, he reluctantly entered the library, screaming things to Juanita. He sat down, he drank a cup of coffee with me, he listened to the fourth part of the report and then interrupted me, impatiently:

—If I may, if I may, licenciado. I congratulate you, I see that you are in the right path. Please continue that way; I already got an idea. See, I don’t have much time. But I already see that everything is going well. And you know: whatever you need, office supplies, copies, tell Remedios.
—Only one thing, Mr. Márquez Cámara: those private papers that you told me about. Without them I can’t continue.
—You are right. I’ve had many pressures, and you see how things accumulate. But you will definitely have them tomorrow.
I did not believe him, but the next day, at the time of the morning aperitif, he walked very calmly into the library, with a giant plastic bag full of papers, white, gray, green, sepia. He walked in whistling, very quietly, as if trying to tame a slight nervousness. “Good morning — he said. Here are the documents.” And he left, whistling quietly. He served his double aperitif, he drank it slowly and noisily, and then yelled: “Remdios! I am going to the bank, eh, I will be back soon.”
I started to rummage inside the bag. There were dry cleaning notes from 40 years ago, grocery lists, messages, recipes, souvenirs — there was a paper napkin that said: “to Lolis from Polo with love, Restaurante Prendes, 1949”— letters and family photos, Christmas cards, birth and death certificates, as well as five documents that pertained to my research, whose objective character, must be said, had nothing to do with genealogies. But I was immersed for a while in Don Gonzalo’s album: I saw him on his mother’s lap, on a tricycle. Sad letters and photos full of hopes and projects that time obliterates. I took my documents and gave the bag back to Remedios, since I was so uncomfortable by its lack of modesty I didn’t want to bring it directly to Márquez Cámara. Remedios took the bag with total naturalness, as if she knew its content and thought normal that Márquez Cámara would have given it to me. Or they didn’t know what it contained? No, maybe they didn’t even know. Or they knew and Márquez Cámara didn’t care? Or he didn’t remember. Or he preferred not to remember.
At what time did those mysterious interior movings occurred? At first I imagined they were nocturnal, due to those clandestine operations that night envelops. I imagined Márquez Cámara pushing furniture around, and sweating and drinking one beer after another. And Remedios and Juanita helping him to place everything. That is why they would wake up so late. That was the impression I had when I would arrive in the morning and find the living room transformed, the pictures changed, always near the worst possible taste. There is bad taste art, I thought. I would arrive in the morning and the light would show me the new setting, the recently installed décor for the same stubborn life.
When I asked permission to Márquez Cámara for not going to work in the afternoons and he gave it, almost bothered that I would not be able to take it on my own, and then when I started arriving earlier in the mornings now with a key of my own, I changed my opinion. I thought that the moves could take place in the evenings, starting at around six thirty: yes, at that anemic hour, of melancholy and anxiety, during which certain people can feel the desire to do things like these. Sometimes it was just a small change in the position of the armchairs, of the Chinese table, so not to leave things as they were, barely vanquishing fatigue. Other nights, in contrast, the interior looked upside down and it appeared that the night before had been one of a wild party.
Starting with the dust, my office was almost a sacred space to them. At the most sometimes a book was missing: I knew the library by heart by then and I would notice. What took me a while to realize was that it wasn’t because Márquez Cámara was interested in reading, but that he wanted to try out the look of certain books in the ex-office or on the kitchen shelf. I then became sensitive to these minimal moves and was able to notice that the train would move a few centimeters —ironic, it being that it was a full speed train—. This could be consequence of the healthy work of the duster, but on one hand, everything remained dusty, and on the other, to lift —which means, to take out the nail and nail it again— the picture of the fish up a few centimeters, beyond two meters, which considered the people’s heights involved, would require a ladder… My papers, the work kept inside the green folder on the table —I should say this, after setting subtle traps— were never touched.
Again, a period of wandering, of going around the garden, the warehouse, playing a bit with the dog, reading two documents per day, smoking a cigar, writing a paragraph, making a drawing of Remedios without a robe, dozing, leaving. And every two weeks, when Remedios would give me my check, I would leave an hour early with the pretext that I was going to the bank.
With everything, three months before the end of my contract, I still had to study three short documents as well as a long one, write some four more pages, and the conclusions—some four or five pages more— doing a general review of everything and that was it. The rhythm was excellent. But just before making that summary, I was invaded by a strange anxiousness for finishing right away. I decided to change my schedule from the mornings to the evenings, which was when I would be more depressed at home and when paradoxically I allowed me to get more focused at work. Márquez Cámara accepted, with slight discomfort: “Well — he said—, from four to six thirty. No more time is needed, right?”
On the first afternoon I forgot my keys and rang the bell again and again. The ugly dog was licking my hands through the gate. Suddenly I realized it was open, and I walked in. Márquez Cámara was sleeping, sitting on a chair just at the entrance of the house, blocking the way. I tried to walk in without touching him but I managed to knock his chair.
—Eeh?… bring me iceeteaa…
I nodded and walked in. Later I heard him waking from his nap to request iced tea.
It was hotter inside the house than outside, and as much as I tried to work, those afternoons became an ordeal for me.

One time I encountered a different scenario: Márquez Cámara standing in the middle of the run-down garden, running gardening and restoration projects. He was laughing with Remadios and Juanita —whose only way of speaking was through laughter— debating measurements. There were three construction workers and one gardener. A strange light was falling on the garden and everything, despite the time of day, gave the impression of it being a radiant midday. I managed to hear an order by Márquez Cámara that sounded to me like total nonsense: to tear down the old oak tree in order to place a bust of his father, surrounded by rose bushes.
—Good afternoon— he said—, sorry, eh, we are remodeling.
But with each passing day everything looked worse. At work at the bar was one of the construction workers, supposedly to patch the walls but who seemed intent to destroy them. Since the remodeling work appeared to intensify in the afternoon, I decided to change my schedule again, without informing anyone: a bit in the morning and a bit in the afternoon. But soon the works started from early in the morning and would continue until late.

I remember very well that morning of the sudden explosion of Márquez Cámara. He screamed for Remedios and Juanita: “This is already intolerable! One can’t live here anymore! Clean all this immediately!” Remedios started to protest about something and he screamed more and more. I lfet.
When I returned in the afternoon, I was puzzled for not finding drills, nor shovels nor screams. In the ex office, sitting, were Márquez Cámara, drinking anise which was beyond half a bottle, Remedios and Juanita, who didn’t drink, but were laughing as if they were drinking. The three of them said hello to them emphatically, which was a strange thing. From the library I would hear the faint laughter of Márquez Cámara followed by the one of Remedios and Juanita. I was able to hear Remedios saying “Oh no, don Gonzalo, how can you say that, it can’t go there, it looks horrible.” I did not understand the words, every time more garbled and dragged by Márquez Cámara, but I did notice that every time he finished speaking the three of them would laugh. There were no workers in the house anymore, the afternoon was darkening and only their voices and laughter would obscenely break a sordid silence. I left as soon as I was able.

I was immersed at work one afternoon when I heard some screams in the upper floor. I came out of the library: it was Juanita calling Márquez Cámara, who despite his enormous belly and sixty something years ran up the stairs in three strides, while he screamed at me, looking me to the side: “give me a pencil or a ruler! And a glass of water!” I gave him what he needed in the stairwell: first the pencil and then the glass. From one of the bedrooms horrible groans were coming out. They were from Remedios. A little while went by. The groans ended. Márquez Cámara came down peacefully, and since he saw that I was waiting for him he said, like a doctor who has been keeping the diagnosis to himself: “it’s…it’s epilepsy”, he shrugged and went to the bar. A few days later, there was another attack. Remedios stopped being seen around the house, surely because she was embarrassed to cross paths with me.

One morning, upon arriving, I saw that the tide of the previous night had been higher than usual. Everything was mixed up, as if after an earthquake. Surprisingly, I found the library upside down: the books and bookshelves were thrown on the floor. The construction worker who was working there greeted me. Márquez Cámara walked behind me: —Apologies, you know we are amidst renovations: they are patching the walls. I hope this won’t disturb your work.
—No — I replied— but I need that they don’t work here while I work.
Márquez Cámara gave my order, which he seemed to regret, and the construction worker left. The only thing they left untouched was the veranda table. I felt in it as if in the middle of a shipwreck. Happily, I was giving the finishing touches to my work.
I was amidst all this when one day the construction workers disappeared. Remedios seemed to still be on the upper floor, or was she gone? Juanita was the one giving me the check now, right on time as usual but only as if she were giving me a random piece of paper, without Remedios’ secretarial spirit. The rotations had become minimal.

According to my calculations, it was my last day. I arrived early. Juanita was sweeping the backyard. Later I heard the gate: Juanita was going grocery shopping with the dog. Id did not hear her come back. Around noon, later than usual, Márquez Cámara came down. He approached the bar, which more than drilled looked machine-gunned, eating a hard boiled egg. He served himself a tequila with orange juice, opened a bag of peanuts and sat at the bar next to the David, crestfallen. I delved into work, to the very end, the last commas, the final corrections. I felt that my seventy five pages were very consistent, I pressed the wad of paper and hit it against the table to straighten it, with a satisfying feeling. It was beyond one o’clock and, against his habits, instead of going to the garden or the bank, Márquez Cámara was still at the bar. I made an auditory reconstruction: I had heard more than usual the noise of the ice and the liquid poured into the glass. I don’t know why, but I yearned to leave. I saw everything one last time. I entered the bar.
—Mr. Márquez Cámara, can I talk to you?
He suddenly, confused, came out of his alcoholic stupor.
—Eeh? Yes, tell me…
All his hair and his glasses were covered by plaster dust.
—I have finished the work. Here it is. Take a look at it, if you like, and we can talk on Monday or Tuesday…
—No, allow me. Sit down. Do you want to drink something… a little tequila?
—Ok, with orange juice.
He served it to me. We toasted.
—To your work— he said.
I started to drink and he to read. He was trying to focus. He started to jump more and more pages.
—So good— he remarked—, its very interesting. Looks like this is excellent research. Your sourcing, yes: your sourcing of the documents is very good. But allow me…
He refilled the glasses.
—But there is still a month to go, which if you attend, I will pay you for.
—No, not to worry— I replied—. My work is finished. Two days ago you gave me the last payment and the truth is that what you paid me in total for this work is more than fair.
—Think about it. It would be good for you.
—But… I don’t understand. Please take a look at the work I’ve done. I think its complete…
—I have no doubt, based on what I have seen. You are very competent. That is why I want you to reconsider my proposal.
—Please, you are already part of the house…
—But what would I do? My work is done.
—Yes, yes, but I have more projects for you, for many years, you will see. In the meantime, let’s continue like before.
—We can’t do that, because before I had a project to do and now I don’t.
—Who cares? Be patient. You wil have work, I promise.
—What will it consist of?
—Mm.. it will be related to your research. I can’t tell you more at the moment.
—Very well, when the project is more clear, call me and we will talk.
—No, no, this is your office. I will take the project to you the next year, one day, be patient. In the meantime, do your think and I will continue paying you as always… do your thing… you are part of the house…
He demanded, he begged me, he offered me more money, with desperate gestures, severe and supplicant gestures….

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