The Skating Rink, p.1Roberto Bolaño
THE SKATING RINK
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
If I must live then let it be
rudderless, in delirium
The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli
The first time I saw him, it was in the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, that is, back in the vague shifty territory of our adolescence, the province of hardened poets, on a night of heavy fog, which slowed the traffic and prompted conversations about that odd phenomenon, so rare in Mexico City at night, at least as far as I can remember. Before he was introduced to me, at the door of the Café La Habana, I heard his deep velvety voice, the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years. He said: This is just the night for Jack. He was referring to Jack the Ripper, but his voice seemed to be conjuring lawless territories, where anything was possible. We were adolescents, all of us, but seasoned already, and poets, so we laughed. The stranger’s name was Gaspar Heredia, Gasparín to his casual friends and enemies. I can still remember the fog seeping in under the revolving doors and the wisecracks flying back and forth. Faces and lamps barely emerged from the gloom, and, wrapped in that cloak, everyone seemed enthusiastic and ignorant, fragmentary and innocent, as in fact we were. Now we’re thousands of miles from the Café La Habana, and the fog is thicker than it was back then, better still for Jack the Ripper. From the Calle Bucareli, in Mexico City, to murder, you must be thinking . . . But it’s not like that at all, which is why I’m telling you this story . . .
I came to Z, from Barcelona, halfway through the spring
I came to Z, from Barcelona, halfway through the spring. I had hardly any money left, but wasn’t too worried, because there was a job waiting for me in Z. Remo Morán, who I hadn’t seen for many years, although I was always hearing about him, except for a while there when he disappeared off the radar, had offered me a season’s work, from May to September; the offer came through a mutual friend. I should point out that I didn’t ask for the job; I hadn’t been in touch with Morán, and never intended to come and live in Z. It’s true we’d been friends, but a long time before, and I’m not the sort to ask for charity. Until then I’d been sharing an apartment with three other people in the Chinese quarter, and things weren’t going as badly as you might think. After a few months, my legal situation in Spain became, however, to put it mildly, precarious: without residency or a work permit, I was, and am, living indefinitely in a kind of purgatory until I can scrape up enough money to get out of the country or hire a lawyer to sort out my papers. And of course that’s a dream, for a foreigner like me with little or nothing to call his own. But anyway, things weren’t going too badly. I had a long series of casual jobs, from manning a newspaper stand on the Ramblas to sewing up leather bags in a sweatshop with a rickety old Singer, and that was how I earned enough to eat, go to the movies and pay for my room. One day I met Mónica, a Chilean girl who had a stall in the Ramblas; we got talking and it turned out that both of us had been friends with Remo Morán, at different times in our lives: I’d met him years before, while she’d gotten to know him more recently in Europe and seen him pretty often. She told me he was living in Z (I knew he was somewhere in Spain) and said it would be crazy, given my situation, not to visit him or at least give him a call. And ask for help? Naturally I did nothing of the sort. Remo and I had drifted too far apart, and I didn’t want to bother him. So I went on living or surviving, it depended, until one day Mónica told me that she’d seen Remo Morán in a bar in Barcelona, and when she’d explained my situation, he’d said I should go straight to Z, where he could find me a place to live and a job for the summer at least. Morán remembered me! I have to admit I didn’t have any better offers, and up until then my prospects had been as black as a bucket of motor oil. The idea of it appealed to me too. There was nothing to keep me in Barcelona; I was just getting over the worst flu of my life (I still had a fever when I got to Z), and the mere thought of spending five months by the sea made me smile like an idiot. All I had to do was jump on the train that runs up the coast. No sooner said than done: I filled my backpack with books and clothes, and cleared off. I gave away everything I couldn’t carry. As the train drew out of the Estación de Francia, I thought: I’m never living in Barcelona again. Get thee behind me! No regrets! By the time I reached Mataró I had begun to forget the faces I was leaving behind . . . But that’s just a figure of speech, of course, you never really forget . . .
Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy
Until a few years ago I was a typical mild-mannered guy; ask my family, my friends, my junior colleagues, anyone who came into contact with me. They’ll all tell you I’m the last person you’d expect to be involved in a crime. My life is orderly and even rather austere. I don’t smoke or drink much; I hardly go out at night. I’m known as a hard worker: if I have to, I can work a sixteen-hour day without flagging. I was awarded my psychology degree at the age of twenty-two, and it would be false modesty not to mention that I was one of the top students in my class. At the moment I’m studying law; in fact, I should have finished the degree already, but I decided to take things easy. I’m in no hurry. To tell you the truth I often think it was a mistake to enroll in law school. Why am I putting myself through this? It’s more and more of a drag as the years go by. Which doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I never give up. Sometimes I’m slow and sometimes I’m quick—part tortoise, part Achilles—but I never give up. It has to be admitted, however, that it’s not easy to work and study at the same time, and as I was saying, my job is generally intense and demanding. Of course it’s my own fault. I’m the one who set the pace. Which makes me wonder, if you’ll allow me a digression, why I took on so much in the first place. I don’t know. Sometimes things get away from me. Sometimes I think my behavior was inexcusable. But then, other times, I think: I was walking around in a daze, mostly. Lying awake all night, as I have done recently, hasn’t helped me find any answers. Nor have the abuse and insults to which I have, apparently, been subjected. All I know for sure is that I took on too much responsibility too soon. For a brief, happy period of my life I worked as a psychologist with a group of maladjusted children. I should have stuck to that, but there are things you can only understand years later, with the benefit of hindsight. And anyway I think it’s normal for a young man to want to improve himself, to have ambitions and goals. I did, anyway. That was what brought me to Z, not long after the socialists won the municipal elections for the first time. Pilar needed someone to manage the Social Services Department, and they chose me. My CV wasn’t monumental, but there was enough in it to qualify me for the job, which was complicated and, as in many socialist municipalities, almost experimental. Naturally, I’m a paid-up party member (unless, that is, they’ve already made an example of me by publicly revoking my membership) but that had nothing to do with their final decision: they went through my application with a fine-tooth comb, and those first six months were exhausting, not to mention turbulent. I’d like to take this opportunity to speak out against those who are trying to claim that Pilar was so
It’s true: in May I found a job for Gaspar Heredia
It’s true: in May I found a job for Gaspar Heredia, Gasparín to his friends, a Mexican, a poet, and flat broke at the time. I’d never have admitted it, but I was in a state of nervous agitation as I anticipated his arrival. And yet when he appeared at the door of the Cartago, I hardly recognized him. The years had taken their toll. We gave each other a hug, and that was it. I often think that if we’d got talking or gone for a walk along the beach, and then drunk a bottle of cognac and broken down crying or laughed until dawn, I’d be telling a different story now. But after we hugged, a mask of ice clamped itself over my face, preventing the slightest expression of friendship. I knew he was helpless, small and alone, perched on his stool at the bar, but I did nothing. Was I ashamed? Had his presence in Z released some kind of monster? I don’t know. Maybe I thought I’d seen a ghost, and in those days I found ghosts extremely unpleasant. Not any more. Now, on the contrary, they brighten up my afternoons. It was after midnight when we left the Cartago, and I couldn’t even bring myself to try to make conversation. Still, although he was silent too, I sensed he was happy. At the campground’s office, El Carajillo (“coffee with a dash”), as he was known, had the television on and didn’t notice us. We kept on going. The tent that was to be Gaspar’s home had been pitched off to one side, next to the tool shed. It had to be in a relatively quiet place, since he would be sleeping during the day. Gasparín was perfectly content; in his deep voice he said it would be like living out in the country. As far as I know, he’s lived in cities all his life. On one side of the tent there was a tiny pine, more like a Christmas tree than the sort of pine you normally find in a campground. (Because the spot had been chosen by Alex, and he was always playing some incomprehensible mind game, I couldn’t help trying to guess at its arcane significance. Was Gasparín like a Christmas present?) After that I took him to the washrooms and showed him how the showers worked, and then we went back to reception. That was it. I didn’t see him again until a week later, or something like that. Gasparín and El Carajillo became good friends. It’s hard not to be friends with El Carajillo. Gasparín worked the standard hours for a night watchman, from ten at night till eight in the morning. Night watchmen sleep on the job, that’s par for the course. The pay was good, better than the other campgrounds, and there wasn’t too much work, although Gasparín had to do most of it. El Carajillo is very old and almost always too drunk to go out and do the rounds at four in the morning. Meals were provided by the company: that is, me. Gasparín could have breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Cartago, and he didn’t have to pay a peseta. Sometimes I checked with the waiters: Did the night watchman come for lunch? Does he usually have dinner here? How long since he’s been in? And sometimes, though less often, I would ask: Have you seen him writing? Scribbling in the margins of a book? Or staring at the moon like a wolf? I didn’t persist, though, mainly because I didn’t have time. . . . Or rather, I was busy with things that had nothing to do with the distant shrunken figure of Gaspar Heredia, who seemed to be turning his back on the world, giving nothing away, hiding who he was and what he was made of, and the courage it had taken to keep on walking (or running, more like it!) toward the darkness, toward the heights . . .
The campground was called Stella Maris
The campground was called Stella Maris (a name reminiscent of rooming houses) and it was a place where there weren’t too many rules, or too many fights and robberies. It was frequented by working-class families from Barcelona and young people of modest means from France, Holland, Italy and Germany. The combination was sometimes explosive and would have blown up in my face for sure if I hadn’t immediately adopted El Carajillo’s golden rule, which consisted basically of letting them kill each other. His harsh way of putting it, which struck me as funny at first, then disturbing, didn’t reflect a contemptuous attitude to the clients; on the contrary, it sprang from a profound respect for their right of self-determination. El Carajillo was popular, as I soon found out, especially with the Spaniards and various foreign families who came back to Z year after year for their summer holidays. In the course of his one, protracted round of the campground, he was continually invited into campers and tents, where he was always offered something to help him while away the night: a drink, a slice of cake or a porn magazine. As if he needed any help! By three in the morning the old man was drunk as a skunk and you could hear him snoring from the street. Round about then, calm descended on the tents, and it was pleasant to walk down the campground’s narrow graveled alleys, with my flashlight switched off and nothing to do but listen to the sound of my own footsteps. Before setting off on my round I’d sit on the wooden bench by the main gate talking with El Carajillo while the sleepless and the revelers went in and out bidding us good night. Sometimes we had to carry a drunk to his tent. El Carajillo led the way because he always knew where each person was camped, and I followed with the client on my back. Occasionally we got tips for this and other services, but usually we weren’t even thanked. At first I tried to stay awake all night. Then I followed El Carajillo’s example. We retired to the office, switched off the lights and settled down, each in a leather armchair. The office was a prefabricated box with two glass walls, one facing the entrance, the other facing the swimming pool, so it was easy to keep a more or less effective watch from inside. The power for the whole campground often failed, and I was the one who had to go into the Outer Darkness and solve the problem; not that it was really dangerous, but in the little hut where the fuses were, you had to squeeze past a whole lot of dangling wires. There were also spiders and all sorts of insects. The buzz of electricity! The campers, whose television viewing had been interrupted by the blackout,
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