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Literatura en México

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Cinco Décadas de Cuento Mexicano. Antología. Perea, Pitman, Taylor, Tedeschi, Valenzuela

In this Building (English version)


Federico Patán
Foto: cnipl. INBA

Federico Patán



In this house we make History in our way.

Federico S. Inclán

It was large, sunny room with a very large window overlooking a park, or tree-lined street or a thick garden. The man was behind an enormous, empty desk almost at the back so you could see him as soon as you entered, the huge window to his left with the midday sun illuminating everything. On the intercom, the secretary has said, "Lopez," and he was immediately inside, in that wide, full of light room, the man at the rear, with his correct suit, precise movements and wide, really wide forehead, some graying curls on his thin nape and signs of old age, but age well cared for and contented. The secretary had limited himself to indicate the door with a gesture of his thumb as if asking a hitchhike on the highway. He knocked with excessive timidity and the (very young, very tall, very brusque) secretary said, "Just go on in." So he was in that unexpectedly large, full of light room, before the man with a neutral but not too discouraging smile, who looked at him with obvious curiosity. On the wall behind the man was the official portrait of the President.

He hadn't known what to do. At the entrance they ordered him to go up to the second floor. In the second floor a peremptory finger sent him to a heavy door of thick well polished dark wood. He knocked. They almost yelled for him to come in. A very young, very tall, very brusque secretary asked, "yes? There was another person in a chair strategically placed in the corner. He took the paper out his jacket. Almost without looking at it, the secretary lifted the intercom, "Lopez." The other person in a neat, proper, gray suit was indifferently filing his nails, although there was a question as to how he could do it wearing such dark glasses. The secretary indicated the second door with his thumb and, seeing him knock timidly, told him, ¿Just go in.¿ A smile may have slipped across the face of the other person.

So he found himself in an incredibly wide and clear room, before an older man looking at him with steady curiosity, without saying anything yet, so the silence began to be uncomfortable. To break the waiting, he said, "I'm Lopez." "I know." The voice was kind in its terse opacity. Impossible to tell from it what kind of interview it would be. Round the corner, when he saw the building, he was surprised by how white the stone was and how big the windows were, he even doubted he had arrived to the right address, but a quick glance to the notification assured him he was where he was called to be. By the entrance they had ordered him to go up to the second floor, and now this well-dressed man was saying with terse opacity, "Sit down." As he sat, he thought maybe they would offer me a cup of coffee, but immediately reproached himself for that stupid idea. "Your name?" and the question surprised him or hadn¿t he just heard ¿I know¿?, but he said, "Lopez." "I mean your full name," he was clarified in the same terse opacity, in the right hand a very expensive pen and on the wide, clear desk a very white piece of paper sprung from God knows where and how.

On the bus he had promised himself he would cooperate and now he followed the advice. "Jesus Lopez." The hand stopped its journey to the paper and the tersely opaque voice said, "Your full name, please." He was going to ask what the man was referring to when he remembered his other surname. "Lopez." The voice became just a little less calm. "I know that already." As always, there was the misunderstanding. " No, Lopez again, Lopez Lopez, Jesus Lopez Lopez." And just about to smile, he heard the other one, "I told you I already know that. I want your complete name." What absurd insistence, so unnecessary in this case. It was all right to cooperate, as he had promised himself several times on the bus, but really such insistence was absurd. The hand was still away from the paper and the voice showed then a notable change. "Here we like things to be clear, precise and prompt. If I ask for your complete name, it is because I need your complete name." And he had given it. What did they want then? Coming to the appointment he had imagined different situations, but nothing like this. He slowly repeated, "Jesus Lopez Lopez," trying for clarify and precision. "Come on, my friend, we know that is not so. There's something missing." Behind the voice some moist gray eyes were looking at him like (strange idea) a small playful animal. Something was missing? "Do you mean the Benito?" The voice, gratified, "You see how easy it is when you want to?" He liked the satisfaction in the voice and even settled himself in the chair expecting the hand to write now. But it didn't. He looked up and there waiting for him were those small playful eyes. He understood and said, "Jesus Benito Lopez Lopez." The hand went down to the paper, writing at the top the name in perfect letters. Curious, nobody except his wife knew about that Benito that he hated so much. He thought it was so ungrateful the combination of Jesus and Benito, maybe because when a child it gave him trouble at school. No one but the wife and, it was now obvious, they. Of course, one would suppose so and it should have occurred to him when, by the bus station, attentive to the bus arrival, he had gone over all the (very little) information he had about them.

"Date of birth?" He took a little moment to think, wanting to avoid another embarrassment. "May 5, 1918, about 6 o'clock in the morning." The small eyes had a kind of black filament and maybe because of it, changes in their brightness. "So, an early one. The early ones usually turn out to be rebellious." That amused him internally because it was wrong. Of all the faults his wife accused him of, the worst was his timidity. The good Maria thought it was the reason they had never achieved a better situation than lower middle class or sometimes worse. "You are smiling, friend Lopez," the voice commented with certain interest. It seemed his thought had spilled on to his lips. "It was the rebellious part. My wife..." But the voice broke in, perhaps not too harshly, "Here the word rebellious doesn't usually produce smiles." He remembered Maria saying good bye by the door, giving him lots of recommendations. "Excuse me, I didn't mean to¿" A peremptory gesture and the voice asked, "Education?" Well then, let¿s go back to him, "Just as far as high school because¿" Another peremptory gesture and the voice, "Precision, clarity and promptness, Lopez. Don't make me repeat it."

Look at those people, she had told him worriedly, cleaning him the lapels of the jacket. And those gray eyes full of black filaments watched him with a patient security, as if convinced he would arrive to where they wanted, as if it was all a matter of time, patience and skill in interrogating. The matter of education was over, duly noted, a sign that one stumble more or one stumble less, he has done his part. Done his part? They almost answered for him, they knew so much. Surprisingly much. About his first girlfriend when he was a teenager, for example. Not even Maria suspected. Since it was a fairly passionate affair, he hadn't wanted (instincts perhaps) to confess it. Then these people came and asked, "What about Professor Esteban?" He was slow in remembering, in coming back to his thoughts, and the voice, "Come, come, what about Professor Esteban?" It was so insignificant he had forgotten. Now, after forty?, no fifty years, they were reminding him for it. Don¿t lie to them, Maria had told him, there is nothing dirty in your life. You, with the head up high. There in the entrance of the apartment, in the sunny morning, it was easy to say yes. But here when the discussion was centered on the insignificance of what had happened with Professor Esteban, the world history teacher in high school, his head would not go up. They knew about that silly business! He saw himself raising his hand and with the teacher's permission, asking, "Professor, I read that the Revolution of Oct¿" And then came the unexpected wrath of someone who was living centuries behind in political development. His parents never knew he was suspended for three days (three mornings at the movies) although did they know about his low grade for that month. "A curious concern for someone who was born rebellious," that voice commented, the eyes dense with black filaments. "It was a theme of the subject." The voice discarded the explanation. "The others didn't ask any questions."

He wet his lips wishing they would offer him a cup of coffee or at least a drink of water. "I see you're thirty. Would you like some coffee? I'll order some soon, but first tell me why are you nervous? Up until now we've just had a little chat, haven't we? A friendly little chat. We just want to clear up a few points and you¿ll go.¿ Just what Maria had said: they¿ll ask you any stupid thing and that¿s all. He was having breakfast and he, who always ate well, wasn¿t feeling too hungry. Seeing this, Maria wanted to cheer him up: Don¿t give it too much of a thought, it¿s not important, as they¿ll ask: ¿Do you remember what happened February 14 fifteen years ago?¿ Gosh, that's long time ago. But almost immediately he remembered. And worst yet, he knew that they knew, although you had to wonder how and how far back. Undoubtedly, according to what ha had heard, as far back as it suited them and it seemed to suit them to know a lot. He wet his lips again. "I was fifty years old..." he said, as an excuse, but those black eyes didn't answer, they simply waited. "I felt I didn't have much life left..." he added uneasily, seeing himself entering the hotel nervously with the self-assured, unattractive woman already going up the stairs, he dealing with the manager, avoiding his dancing, mocking eyes. "But how could you forget the morality that must characterize our country?" Because sometimes the anguish of death hits you very hard, although that's not an excuse for certain people. "And once in it, why so clumsy?" The woman, no doubt an expert in such matters, said nothing; after all, she could use some rest. She saw him getting dressed, leaving some bills on the dirty bedcover and disappear. "Maybe my conscience?" he suggested. "Ah, yes, the conscience, it usually helps us greatly." And picking up the intercom, the man said, "I may ask you to bring me some coffee later. Be ready." His small black eyes looked at Lopez again. ¿For the rest of our conversation, don¿t forget we know this.¿

Maria. He remembered her the night before when they were already in bed, the apartment in silence (many years of silence, since their children had gotten married). Worried, she held him in her arms with his head on her shoulder. She felt her husband's unexpressed (inexpressible) fear and told him it was just a bureaucratic summon with no consequences at all. There were lots like that. She tried bravely to believe it and he appreciated her effort. A moment of pessimism fifteen years earlier didn't mean anything, although they wanted to turn it against him now. "Don't forget we know about that," they insisted. And they could hurt her now. That was part of their strength. And those small black eyes waiting without any hurry, secure in their position. His lips, his mouth became even drier and tingling went from his stomach to his bladder, which began to feel uncomfortable. "The coffee will be here soon, don't be so uneasy. But first (he straightened up guessing the movement) let's talk about something else that will be easy to remember because it happened only three weeks ago." Three weeks? Everything imaginable could happen in three weeks and even more. A rapid succession of events passed through his mind. Which one had already been or would be picked out? Because anything, no matter how innocent, would be enough to serve the purpose for the always tersely opaque voice. From a certain perspective, wasn't it even suspicious the way one drank a cup of coffee? Damn, here I am thinking about that coffee again and my bladder is getting worse and worse. Couldn't I ask for permission to go to the bathroom? But that might be interpreted as nervousness and nervousness as¿ What are they going to ask you? Ours is a life without events. That¿s true, he replied, a little calmer, the envelope with the summon looking at him from the night stand. " What did you do when you were walking home in the afternoon three weeks ago?"

Since the office was not far away, he could walk to and from it. It was exercise and also a saving, a situation they had always considered lucky. What did I do? Walk home, just as I have done day after day for many years. What did I do? Stop in front of the movie house to see what would be on for Sunday, or buy bread on the corner, or get my other suit from the cleaner, or¿ "Think carefully, cooperate. Remember we know about it." Three weeks. Let's see. Something unusual? Three weeks¿ three weeks... If only my bladder would give me a little peace so I could think more easily! The only thing I can remember is¿ of course! ¿The bookstore." Could you stop in the bookstore to get me a little novel, one about love but not too complicated. The newspaper was good enough for him but she liked those sugary stories for the (every time more frequent) moments of insomnia. "Yes, the bookstore. What did you do there?" First he thought about asking for help from a clerk, since he wanted to finish that quickly and get to the evening refuge at home. Then he decided to browse through a few books, a complete novice at understanding some titles, for instance, The Semiological cohesion in Horizontal Perspectives, Mathematical Philosophy (that sounded contradictory), The Holly Family (perhaps about the Christ¿s life), Religion inside the Limits of the Mere Reason (that he abandoned immediately as it had an atheistic tone that didn¿t bother him) and even a History book about the development of family and property. People wrote too much about too complicated things. He walked out of that table and spent some time with art books, whose prices scandalized him. Finally he found what he was looking for without anyone's help. On a shelf at the back of the store were several novels in cheap editions with promising titles. They were there with an air of have been forgotten, and he got some dust on the hands after checking on them. A young man, passing with a load of books, looked at him with curiosity and amusement. "And I chose one because the author was named Perez and Perez. Understand? Lopez Lopez, Perez and Perez." The familiarity bounced off the face of the other man without effect. The harsh voice said, "You should have limited yourself to that book, a good book with the beneficial lesson. But you¿" He picked up the intercom, "Hold up on that coffee. Things have gotten complicated."

Now there was a lot of pressure in his bladder. He remembered his arrival home and Maria's tense face, the envelope in her hand. Some overlook bill, he told himself, and they're threatening action. Then, after seeing the return address, he had to go to the bathroom. Later they opened the envelope ―just three lines impeccably typed. That impeccability hit him hard. What kind of mind demanded that mechanical perfection? And he remembered the much more clumsy writings from the office. There was something calming in those: maybe they said it was allowed to make mistakes, that it was something human to place a coma in a wrong place or to skip an accent, that to enter a bookstore and take just any book ¿indicates a great deal about a person. If it had been only Perez and Perez, you wouldn't be here but in your own home, in spite of the gravity of some earlier events. But to leaf through those books slowly, stopping to read whole paragraphs. We can't be comfortable with that. Remember, we have to be suspicious because that suspicion is the basis for the peace we all enjoy, even you, such an early one, so rebellious, so inquiring, so curious about inadvisable books. Perhaps we could have excused the curiosity if it hadn't been for what happened on Monday¿ What happen on Monday..." and he shook his head with a false air of sympathy.

The black eyes looked at him now with sudden, obvious harshness, his hand on the paper, full of handwriting lines, precise like soldiers on parade. At some point Lopez had lost the relationship between facts and in his head there was only a clutter of images. The error of being born early, of asking a question in class, the error of what else? Of everything, a kind of general error. He needed to forget about that exhausting pressure of the bladder, to grasp some incident that would place him in time and reality, his reality. Monday, he said something about Monday, which comes after Sunday and on Sunday she had a flu and we stayed home and I fixed some of soup she likes so much and¿ oh, yes! Somehow I burned the knob and seeing the expression of annoyance on her face, I promised to get another one immediately, that very Monday. But the stove is old and the knobs are only sold in the center of the city, where I hate to go. I went right from work and after many stores I found a similar one. "You mean to tell me that your wife is boss in your home?" There was genuine astonishment in his voice, a second indication that the terse opacity had variations.

No, no, it's not that. A woman the boss? Neither the man. We manage to be equals. Although at times, Maria¿ of course, she didn't expect to be bogged down in poverty and she's little bitter about that, but just a tiny bit. That's why for her birthday and at Christmas I get her things she's always wanted. Then she says I'm a spend-thrift but with deep satisfaction underneath, so I like the pleasure behind her complaining. I have to confess when my birthday comes¿ yes, I understand. Excuse me. Monday, you said. Well, on Monday I left the office and went down to the center of the city to find a knob. It was difficult, but at last I found one in a small store. It was the last one they had. I don't know what we're going to do next time¿ yes, of course, again right?¿ I'm a little nervous and also¿ Excuse me, could I go to the bathroom?"

The black eyes looked at him. "Of course, you may go soon, but first let's finish with this Monday troublesome thing. What did you do when you left the store?" I wondered whether to take a bus to my bus stop. Although it was pretty far, I decided to walk to save the money. I got to the bus stop in about a half hour and came... I mean, went home. "That's it almost exactly. Let's go over this again and tell me all the details. All of them." All the details? Being very tired, it was hard to decide to walk. In a moment I wanted to sit down a little while to get my strength back, but where could I do it in the center of the city? I couldn't go to a restaurant. The bus would cost less than that. Every once in a while I paused at a store not to look at the things but to rest up a little. That's the way I got to he bus stop. "I don't know why you insist on being quiet about the details that interest us. Go over your steps again and think carefully about everything." Everything? In a record store I saw a record Maria talks about almost every day, but imagine buying it! Over the record there was a poster of the singer. Much too suggestive. Do you have to be almost nude to sing? "Sometime we are going to take care of that. It also worries us a lot. However, you must understand I want all the details."

If this isn't over soon, will I hold on? Let's see, all the details. A girl wearing jeans was looking around for a special record. While she was looking, she was moving her waist around the music. I stopped at a news stand by the corner. The papers said the workers' strike was still going on. I don't understand why they're fighting. "It's stupid. Don't worry, some of them will end up here. Go ahead, we're getting to the part we want." Finally. Maybe I could go to the bathroom soon. Then, the magazines. Some people buy them so easily, any kind of them but mostly¿ Yes, the details. Well, I was watching a pump work. It was taking water from a jar and there it¿ Yes, excuse me. Well, nothing else but the bus stop. Oh, yes a young man asked me for a match.

"So a young man asked you for a match. Interesting. What did you say?" The truth, that I don't smoke. "Let's stop here for a moment. Just a match, nothing else you said. Are you sure? Think about it carefully because it's important." I don't know what you¿re trying to find. Maybe I'll have to invent something to make you leave me alone. Yes, I'm sure. He asked me, 'Do you have a match?' and I told him? ¿I don't smoke¿, and that was all. "We're going to act out the encounter. I'm the young man. Let's wait exactly a minute¿ Now¿ 'Do you have a match?' Let's see, that didn't take more than six seconds, including the answer. I'll put down seven seconds, agreed? But you talked more than a minute. So?" There are some days when you are more tired than you've ever been in your life and Monday was one of those. "I don't see the connection." My face showed how exhausted I was and the young man commented about it. ¿That you looked too tired¿ Yes. ¿Are you alright?¿ he asked me. Nothing, I¿m on my way back from work and I have no energies left. "You want me to believe you talked about that with a stranger?" Of course, why not? "There are things I consider rather intimate or for intimate friends. You're pulling my leg and I definitely do not like that." Wait, I assure you. "No, you wait and look at this picture. Look at it carefully." Who could it be? Oh, damn, it looks familiar but those police pictures¿ "I see you recognize him. Good, very good. Now tell me where you met him." Where? On Monday. "Let¿s be serious, my friend, in such a serious matter. Where did you meet him?¿ Monday when. ¿I have been trying to show you we know everything. Why get yourself any more tied up in this thing? Tell us the truth." But the fact is I did meet him on Monday and didn't even get to know him. He just asked me for a match and I answered him. "Yes, yes, I know that, you told me before. I'm not getting what I want and that always puts me in a bad mood. Why don't you try again?" Oh, God, my bladder, I can't stand it! And they don't believe me, they don't believe anything. How can I convince them I'm telling the truth? "All you are alike. All of you. They talk about how intransigent we are, but who causes it? The truth would be so much easier." Mother of God, my¿ Listen, sir, I swear to you I was on my way¿ "Yes, yes, I know, from the store, walking innocently, because all of you walk innocently and this provocateur just lately released from jail ―a mistake in my opinion― took more than a minute to ask you for a match in a pretty lively conversation to be about a match. Come on, my friend, think about it."

It's like coming up against a wall. Is it my fault he asked me for a match and about why I looked so tired? I didn't put that man there or make the conversation. I had never seen him before. You have to believe me. You just have to. You must. I want to go home. "And you will. Many, some do go home. It depends on how friendly they are with us." But I've been friendly. "Not enough. You insist on the match, an unfortunate decision, very unfortunate." But that's what happened. What would I talk to him about? "That's what we want to know." And Maria is waiting for me. "She knows where you are, she knows we're never in a hurry." But why to interpret such a simple incident that way? That's what I don't understand.

The man took a folder out of a drawer. "You call it an incident?" He wrote in his perfect handwriting, Jesus Benito Lopez Lopez, with a heavy line under it. Then on the bottom right-hand corner he added, Special Section. "If that were all, there would be some possibility, but with all the other incidents, as you call them, they add up to make us uneasy." He put inside the folder the two completely covered sheets of paper, carefully lined up. "I told you before it's our duty to be uneasy. Well, we are already uneasy."

Oh, God. "I'm going to be a bit lenient with you, perhaps because I think you can be rescued. I'm going to let you think about our talk." Then may I go? "Go? Who said anything about going? That would make us even more uneasy. No you can't go." Then? "You will stay with us two or three days in a room that is simple, but pleasant compared to some others we have. Anyway, two or three days thinking about our talk." Maria will¿ "No, why would she be upset, knowing where you came? If she asks, we'll tell her, don't worry. We are courteous, as our conversation proved." But two days¿ what are the two days for? "So you can try to remember better. In two or three days my secretary will visit you. All you have to do is remember." But if¿? "Then it is very unfortunate, the case will go to another department."

He picked up the intercom and said, "You may come for him now." 

October 1984*

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MULTIMEDIA:

BOOKS BY FEDERICO PATÁN (CNL-INBA)

Estados Unidos en sus ensayos literarios (essays. Google Books)

"Federico Patán, ensayista", por Daniel Orizaga Doguim (essay. Literatura. UNAM)

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Fuente: * From the book En esta casa. México, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987.

 

 

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