Conversation Outside El Pastizal
by Jessica Sequeira
In the street in front of the theater last week, a man I’d just been introduced to began to tell a story. He’d been crossing Corrientes and Uruguay on a red when a motorbike passing between cars, in a maneuver as illegal as his own, collided with him. The moto sped off without stopping; as the man continued to lie there, sprawled face down on the ground, a crowd circled. When he opened his eyes, a homeless man with dirty face was leaning over him, waving a hand over his leg.
“Go away, I’m okay,” said the man, irritated. “I’m going to cure you,” said the vagabond. “No need, I’m okay,” repeated the man. He felt the warm hands of the vagabond and tried to kick him off. “Hey you, I said I’m alright, are you deaf?” “He says he’s alright, I cured him!” the vagabond cried with joy, addressing himself to the crowd. Just then a policeman pushed through and noticed the scene. “Get moving now, come along,” said the cop to the vagabond, giving him a shove. More police began to arrive and break up the crowd; the vagabond dropped from sight, disappearing down an obscure side street. “Now he’s probably bragging to everyone about his achievement,” said the man to us, his half-attentive listeners, while laughing and rubbing his knee.
The bell rang and the others went in for drinks, the anecdote already forgotten; I decided to stay a while longer in the fresh air. We were in a barrio a little far from the center, where the street was quiet and cars rarely passed. The man who had spoken remained outside too, but now his performer’s face looked serious and tired. “Were you able to catch anything in what I said?” he asked suddenly. “Sometimes I think no one understands when I try to explain. Every real event has a phantom explanation —”
“I think so,” I said. “Something similar happened to me. Last year I left a notebook at Bar Lavalle and when I realized, I sent an email asking the owner whether it’d been found. The answer came back negative, and I never did recover it — by the way, if anyone you know finds a pale pink notebook with black cursive writing and notes on a book called El nervio óptico as well as more personal subjects, I’d appreciate if he or she could contact me. It must be around somewhere, things don’t usually just disappear. Anyway, ever since then the restaurant has sent weekly emails with a copy of its menu, headed by a literary quote. I’m fond of them, though I’m aware how saccharine they are.”
“This morning the line was from Giacomo Leopardi’s El infinito — ‘And into this immensity my thought sinks ever drowning / and it is sweet to shipwreck in such a sea’. Below was the menu, aubergine milanesas gratinadas with squash purée, fillets al champiñón with Noisette potatoes, fresh salmon accompanied by vegetable wok, palm heart and kani kama salad. I found the words beautiful, and so I copied down this meaningless list. But it occurred to me that were I to stop and attempt to communicate my reasons for creating such a catalogue, the reasoning would have to proceed as follows.”
“Nothing exists beyond close noticing. No idea goes beyond pure observation. Description alone, not narrative or philosophy, gives reading pleasure. Atmospheric instability requires the quick capture of moments. Only instantaneous description ensures comprehension. The historian follows a few steps behind, working from the burnt fragments of shells long detonated. I thought this, yet I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Isn’t there something that goes beyond lists? Isn’t there a significance beyond the surface layer of events? Isn’t there —”
“I see you understand,” the man interrupted. “Now I can trust you with a full explanation. Art may be what gives beauty and meaning to life, but a living doesn’t earn itself. Until yesterday my job was to stand outside restaurants and entice people in by distributing flyers. Most were ignored or looked at briefly then tossed in the street. It didn’t matter. Even if no one entered I was paid the same. So I tried to get rid of promo materials as fast as possible. Repetition brought comfort with this mechanical execution, this identical gesture performed again and again. Walking up and down the same street hundreds of times created a routine. I passed the same people — an old professor who drank coffee outside a café at a certain hour, old friends now housewives who do their shopping in the neighborhood. The same shops and statues too, and the same personal landmarks like a certain hotel.”
“A hotel — what’s so interesting about that, you might ask? But this one had something special about it. Viewed from different angles, it seemed to possess either one, two or three chimneys. It wasn’t something I noticed at first. Passing so often and at different times of day, though, the true number began to obsess me. A gap between two apartment buildings formed a passageway; I could settle my doubt once and for all. During my afternoon shift, unable to control myself, I began making my way down the path. As I continued it seemed to grow increasingly narrow, the air there increasingly thin. At some point I even found it difficult to walk. But at last I reached the end.”
“When I arrived at the boundary and looked up, there it was. It rose up so suddenly it was impossible to make out the number of chimneys, and even the building’s true height. The way it leaned forward posed a threat. Something beyond your grasp will always exist, it suggested. Something you can’t fathom. A second or third or even fourth chimney. A flickering presence, inexplicable, beyond the known. Ah! I grew so frightened I turned around and retraced my steps. All I wanted was to never return, never set eyes on that building again. In my hurry to get away I crossed the street without looking. There was a buzz in my head, everything began to shimmer. That was when the motorbike —”
The bell rang a second time. Neither of us wanted to miss the performance, so we went in search of those we’d arrived with. The conversation came abruptly to an end. It was a relief to watch the sainete, the one-act comedy that followed, pleasantly clear in its absence of phantom interpretations. After the show I went on to a pizzeria; the man made no further appearance.
Postscript. A few days later, sitting in a café in the center, I read an opinion piece in La Nación related to current elections. The previous night four presidential speeches had been streamed live on television from the Patio de las Palmeras at the Casa Rosada, before wave upon wave of banner-bearing militants. Unlike those young people, the editorial board was not captivated by the presence of La Presidenta. The tone adopted was very harsh, criticizing both the current government and the candidate chosen as successor. One supposed case of misused funds was held up as a case study. At the time of writing, the Biblioteca del Congreso employed 1558 people to oversee 13 million items, while the much larger British Library employed 1490 people to oversee 150 million. A convincing counterargument initially seemed difficult to formulate. As I awaited a second cortado, however, a solution came to me, perfectly coherent in its logic. The number of employees could be explained were a secret second library to exist, located beneath or in invisible proximity to the first. Entertained by this possibility, I turned to the section Espectáculos. To my surprise I saw a tiny color-saturated photo of the man from the theater. A new work was being staged called “Three Chimneys”, the newspaper informed readers. Funds for the production came from a private personal injury settlement, and according to the reviewer the play was a success.
About the Author:
Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.