By Abelardo Castillo
Translated by Graham Thomson
If Ernesto got wind of the fact that she had come back (because she had come back), I never knew, but the fact is that not long after he went to stay at El Tala, and all that summer, we only saw him once or twice. It was hard to look him in the eye. It was as if the idea that Julio had put into our heads —because the idea was his, Julio’s, and it was a strange idea, disturbing, dirty— made us feel guilty. It isn’t that we were puritanical, no. At that age, and in a place like that, nobody is puritanical. But for that very reason, because we weren’t, because we weren’t the least bit pure or pious and all in all we were pretty much the same as everybody else, there was something disturbing about the idea. Something shameful, cruel. Attractive. Above all, attractive.
It was a long time ago. The Alabama was still there, that service station they had built on the way out of town, right on the highway. The Alabama was an innocent enough sort of restaurant, innocent enough by day, at least, but around midnight it turned into something like a rudimentary nightclub. It stopped being rudimentary when the Turk came up with the idea of sticking some rooms on the first floor and bringing women. He brought one woman.
‘Yes. A woman.’
‘Where did he get her from?’
Julio assumed that mysterious attitude that we knew so well, because he had a special way with gestures, words, inflections that made him uniquely notorious, and enviable, a kind of cut-price provincial dandy; and then, in a low voice, he asked:
In the country, I told him. In the summers Ernesto went to spend a few weeks at El Tala, and this had been going on since his father, on account of what happened with the mother, had stopped having any inclination to come back into town. In the country, I said, and then asked:
‘What’s Ernesto got to do with it?’
Julio took out a cigarette. He smiled.
‘You know who she is, the woman the Turk’s brought?’
Aníbal and I looked at one another. Then I remembered Ernesto’s mother. Nobody spoke. She had gone off four years before, with one of those theatre companies that tour the towns; brazen, my grandmother said at the time. She was a good-looking woman. Dark and shapely, I remembered. And she wouldn’t have been very old, maybe forty or less.
‘A whore, isn’t she?’
There was a silence and it was then that Julio hammered the idea home, right between our eyes. Or maybe it was there already.
‘If it wasn’t his mother…’
That was all he said.
Who knows. Perhaps Ernesto got wind of it, because that summer we only saw him a couple of times (afterwards, they say, his father sold up and nobody ever mentioned them again), and the few times we did see him, it was hard to look him in the eye.
‘Guilty of what, huh? After all, that’s her life, and she’s been in the Alabama three months now. And if we wait till the Turk brings another one, we’ll have died of old age.’
Then he, Julio, added that all we had to do was get hold of a car, go there, pay, and end of story, and that if we didn’t have the guts to come with him he would find someone who wasn’t such a wimp, and Aníbal and I weren’t going to let him say that about us.
‘But it’s his mother.’
‘His mother. What do you call a mother? A sow has piglets, too.’
‘And eats them.’
‘Of course she eats them. So?’
‘So what has that got to do with it? Ernesto grew up with us.’
I said something about the times we had played together; then I stood there thinking, and someone, out loud, formulated exactly what I was thinking. Perhaps it was me:
‘You remember what she’s like?’
Of course we remembered, we had been remembering for three months. She was dark and shapely; there was nothing maternal about her.
‘And anyway, half the town’s been there already. We’re the only ones.’
Us: the only ones. The argument had the force of a provocation, and the fact that she had come back was also a provocation. And then, grossly, it all seemed easier. I now believe —who knows?— that if it had been just any woman, we might never have thought seriously of going. Who knows? It’s a little scary to say it, but secretly we helped Julio convince us; because what was wrong, what was shameful, what was monstrously attractive about the whole thing was, perhaps, that it was the mother of one of us.
‘Don’t be disgusting, please,’ Aníbal said to me.
A week later, Julio declared that he would get the car that very night. Aníbal and I waited for him on the boulevard.
‘They must not have let him have it.’
‘Maybe he backed out.’
I said it with a sneer, I remember perfectly. But it was a kind of prayer: maybe he backed out. Aníbal’s voice was strange, the voice of indifference:
‘I’m not going to wait all night; if he doesn’t come in ten minutes, I’m going.’
‘What will she be like now?’
‘Who… the bitch?’
He had been on the verge of saying ‘his mother’. I could see it in his face. He said ‘the bitch’. Ten minutes is a long time, and then it was hard to forget when we used to go and play with Ernesto, and she, the dark, shapely woman, would ask us if we wanted to stay and have some milk. The dark woman. Shapely.
‘This is a mess, you know?’
‘You’re scared,’ I said.
‘Not scared, something else.’
I shrugged my shoulders:
‘As a rule, they all have kids. She has to be somebody’s mother.’
‘It’s not the same. We know Ernesto.’
I said that that wasn’t the worst thing. Ten minutes. The worst thing was that she knew us, and that she was going to see us. I don’t know why, but I was convinced of one thing: when she saw us something was going to happen.
Aníbal’s face looked scared now, and ten minutes is a long time. He asked:
‘What if she throws us out?’
I was about to answer him when I felt a knot in my stomach: from main street came the roar of a car with a broken exhaust.
‘It’s Julio,’ we said in unison.
The car sped around the curve, powerfully. Everything about it was powerful: the headlights, the exhaust. It raised our spirits. The bottle he had brought raised our spirits, too.
‘I stole it from my old man.’
His eyes were shining. Aníbal and I, after the first gulps, had shining eyes, too. We took the Calle de los Paraísos, in the direction of the level crossing. Her eyes used to shine, too, when we were kids, or maybe it seemed to me now that I had seen them shine. And she wore make-up, a lot of make-up. Especially on her mouth.
‘She smoked, you remember?’
We were all thinking the same thing, because it hadn’t been me who made the last remark, but Aníbal; what I said was that, yes, I remembered, and I added that everything starts somewhere.
‘How long to go?’
And the ten minutes were long again; but now they were long in exactly the opposite way. I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was remembering, we were all remembering, that afternoon when she was cleaning the floor, and it was summer, and the top of her dress as she stooped down had separated from her body, and we had nudged one another.
Julio stepped on the accelerator.
‘When all’s said and done, it’s a punishment’ —your voice, Aníbal, was not convincing — ‘a revenge on behalf of Ernesto, to make her stop being a whore.’
Someone, I think it was me, said something totally obscene. Of course it was me. The three of us guffawed with laughter and Julio accelerated more.
‘What if she has us thrown out?’
‘You’re sick in the head, you! If she gets uptight, I’ll speak to the Turk, or I’ll kick up a fuss to make them close the joint for lousy customer service!’
At that time of night there were not many people in the bar: a couple of travelling salesmen and two or three truck drivers. Nobody from the town. And, believe it or not, that made me feel bold. Not accountable. I winked at the little blonde behind the bar; Julio, meanwhile, was talking to the Turk. The Turk looked at us as if studying us, and from the defiant face that Aníbal put on I realized that he, too, was feeling bold. The Turk said to the blonde:
‘Take them upstairs.’
The little blonde going up the stairs: I remember her legs. And how she moved her hips as she went up. I also recall that I made an indecent remark to her, and that she answered me with another, something that (perhaps on account of the brandy we had drunk in the car, or the gin at the bar) we found very funny. Then we were in a neat, impersonal, almost spartan room with a little table in it: a dentist’s waiting room. I wondered if they would pull our teeth. I said to the others:
‘I wonder if they’ll pull our teeth.’
It was imposible not to laugh, but we tried not to make a noise. We spoke very quietly.
‘Like at mass,’ Julio said, and again we all found this incredibly funny; but nothing was as hilarious as when Aníbal, covering his mouth and giving a kind of gasp, added:
‘And then the priest’ll come out of one of these doors!’
My stomach hurt and my throat was dry. From laughing, I think. But suddenly we became serious. Whoever was inside was coming out. He was a short, chubby man; he looked like a little pig. A satisfied little pig. Nodding his head towards the room, he made a face: he bit his lip and rolled his eyes.
Then, as we listened to the man’s steps going downstairs, Julio asked:
‘Who’s going in?’
We looked at one another. Up until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me, or I hadn’t let it occur to me, that we would be alone, separated —just that: separated— in front of her. I shrugged my shoulders.
‘How should I know? Anyone.’
Behind the half-open door we heard the sound of water pouring from a tap. Lavatory. Then a silence and a light that hit us in the face; the door had just been opened wide. There she was. We sat there looking at her, fascinated. The half-open negligée and the afternoon that summer, back then, when she was still Ernesto’s mother and her dress had separated from her body and she asked us if we wanted to stay and have some milk. Only the woman was blonde now. Blonde and shapely. She smiled with a professional smile, a vaguely malicious smile.
Her voice, unexpected, startled me: it was the same. And yet something had changed in her, in her voice. The woman smiled again and repeated, ‘Well?’, and it was like an order; a hot, sticky order. Perhaps that was why, all three of us together, we stood up. Her negligée, I remember, was dark, almost translucent.
‘I’ll go,’ Julio muttered, and stepped forward, resolute.
He managed to take two steps: no more than two. Because then she saw us properly, and he suddenly stopped dead. Who knows why he stopped: from fear, or from shame, perhaps, or from disgust. And there it all ended. Because she saw us and I knew that when she saw us, something would happen. The three of us had stopped, immobile, nailed to the floor; and seeing us like that, hesitant, with who knows what expressions on our faces, her face was slowly, gradually transfigured until it took on a strange and terrible expression. Yes. Because at first, for a few seconds, there was perplexity or incomprehension. Then there wasn’t. Then she seemed to have obscurely understood something, and she looked at us with fear, torn, questioning. Then she said it. She asked if something had happened to him, to Ernesto.
Pulling her negligée closed she said it.