From Ilan Stavans' Collection, "The One-Handed Pianist"

The Invention of Memory

For Ishai P.

First published in Alaska Quarterly Review

    "Healing," Pop would tell me, "is not a science, but the intuitive art of wooing Nature."

        -W.H. Auden,
        The Art of Healing

       Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

        -Paul Bowles,
        The Sheltering Sky

       One has to begin to lose memory, even small fragments of it, to realize that memory is what our entire life is made of. A life without memory wouldn't be life, just as an intelligence without means of expression wouldn't be intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our action, our feeling. Without it we aren't anything.

        -Luis Bunuel,
        My Last Sight

       Night had fallen. I was having a snack and heard noises: a cardboard box being dragged across the floor, the tapping of a hammer, the telegraphic conversation in distorted syllables of three, maybe four, people. I was overtaken by curiosity and peeked from behind the curtains. I saw a moving van outside and some workers carrying in a lamp, a typewriter, and seemingly hundreds of numbered boxes. Moving should be done during the day, I said to myself. I went down to the kitchen, put the kettle on, and fixed a cup of tea. Eager to spy once again, I went back upstairs with my cup and sat down in front of the window.
       After a few moments, I was able to perceive his silhouette: he was tall and thin and had an overabundant and curiously wild-looking beard. He was wearing a turtleneck sweater and dark pants. His round head reminded me of an Italian baritone singer who had worked with Abel in a presentation of Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro, I don't remember which, at the National Auditorium. I remembered that Mrs. Debeikis had tried to predict the man's profession. More than an academic, he must have been a writer or a diplomat, even though the latter didn't seem appropriate for someone who was going to live in a neighborhood so far from embassy row and the government offices. I watched attentively. The door to No. 91 was partially open. I turned to see that the old widow, Mrs. Debeikis, sporting a cane that now seemed to become even more flimsy and useless, had gone outside to welcome them. While it occurred to me to go out and join them, I decided against it because it had been a trying day--I was too tired to make the effort. It was for the best; after all, I had decided to keep my contacts with the new neighbor to a minimum. The trials and tribulations of the previous renters in No. 58 had drained me, above all, the Becerra family, of whom both Abel and I had grown fond and whose departure had affected me profoundly; it was as if I had seen in their departure the fleeting nature of life, a universe composed of intense longing, of evanescent bubbles that appear suddenly, disperse, and then pop.

* * *

       Early that morning my neighbor, Mrs. Debeikis, rang the doorbell. She had come to tell me that, finally, she had managed to rent the house across the street, No. 58. She would have called but, ever since the doctor had recommended she get some exercise, she would go out whenever the sun was shining or when she felt energetic, ready to battle the forces of death.
       As I got to the door, I saw her cane through the peephole and understood immediately that she had some news. After having tried repeatedly to rent the house for eight months, perhaps a year, without success, she would become depressed every time she talked about it. It was obvious things had changed now.
       The rent--during our conversation, she kept mentioning the rent. The sum wasn't very much; one might say, in fact, it was ridiculous. Indeed, she brought up the amount several times, as if she couldn't believe it herself or as if she wanted to blame the hard times--they were dismal then, as they always are--that faced the nation and, of course, the world at large. Ever since Abel and I started renting No. 85 over seven years ago, I remember her believing that her three real estate properties in Copilco, our own neighborhood, would increase in value. Sooner or later, the buyers would fight over them, she would say. It wasn't true, of course. Just another one of those convenient falsehoods people convince themselves of.
       Mrs. Debeikis had widowed at an early age. According to what she had once told me, her husband, an investment baker pitiful vision of the stock exchange, had left her only these minuscule properties, which at the time of his death, decades ago, were almost worthless. They hardly gone up in value. Her husband had been suffering from a liver cancer that killed him in two years. She was drained from the entire agony, burdened with debts, and had a young daughter still living with her. Happily, she took care of things as only suffering mothers know how, educating her daughter, working in her sister's floral shop, and renting out Nos. 58 and 85. Today, her daughter is married, has a child and lives far away--in Connecticut.
       Mrs. Debeikis's brother-in-law, who helped her take care of her properties, had recommended time and again that she sell everything. "Things won't improve," he would say. Only then she would have no headaches; she wouldn't always have to be arguing with those ignorant plumbers, swindling locksmiths, nasty repairmen, and careless painters. But she resisted. First, because she depended on the rental income in order to live (recently, a monthly check that her daughter would send her from a bank in New York would also contribute to her daily income). She was afraid to sell her properties, and not know how to save enough money to last her for a lifetime, even if she was already at a fairly advanced age. And, second, because Mrs. Debeikis would say: "If I have to pay to have the plumbing, the rotting ceilings, and the broken door hinges fixed in my house ... what difference does it make to deal with the problems of Nos. 58 and 85 as well?" Truth is, at 74 years of age, the old lady was becoming ever more intolerant OF the repairmen, irregular rent checks, and the behavior of the renters.
       She had told me that she had placed ads to rent No. 58 in the classified section of several newspapers in Mexico City. A friend of her son-in-law in the United States had even put her in contact with a realtor on Wall Street; perhaps some foreigner would be interested in the house. The commission would probably be high but so long as the place got rented, it would be worth it. She didn't get any offers, however. Not until now, at least.
       Architecturally speaking, house No. 58 is only slightly more attractive than the one Abel and I rent. Both consist of a story and a half, two bathrooms, three bedrooms (the master bedroom is upstairs), kitchen, living room, a garden in the back, and a garage behind the entryway. Both are about 300 square feet in size. Large windows face onto the street; if I want, therefore, I can spy on my neighbors and they can also spy on us. According to Mrs. Debeikis, both houses were built at the same time, in 1962, by a man of German descent, a Mr. El¡as Fischer or Eliyau Fickter (his signature, scratched on the exterior of both structures next to the porticos, has been all but erased with time and it's difficult to decipher it). But he must have been more inspired when he designed the house in front. Whoever compares the one on this side to No. 58 would conclude that, despite its poor condition, it displays a more modern aesthetic, the courage to experiment that was typical at the time, an audaciousness absent in the architecture of No. 85.
       The entryway on this side has a small black iron gate that is now rusted, a victim of neglect. On each side of the house, the bricklayers built walls with irregular-sized bricks in such a way that there are symmetrical holes everywhere, through which pedestrians walking down the sidewalk could peek inside and vice versa. Originally, those walls were white but each new renter has added more coats of paint of different colors in order to give the place a distinct personality, a feeling of newness. Some ten years ago, Mrs. Debeikis allowed one renter to add an additional floor on the roof. The renovation changed the appearance of the house. The new room isn't anything more than a laundry room--in No. 85 the washing machine is next to the storage room--and an exercise room with a small gym machine. But the last three renters used the area for other purposes; one renter even installed a bar.
       More than likely, its quirky construction, its strange appearance, will turn off any future renters; but the house has been rented four times since Abel and I have been living across from it. First a dental student inhabited it. He was the son of a multi-millionaire from up north, Monterey, if I'm not mistaken. He would leave every day at 8:00 in the morning and return at 10:00 in the evening. An easy-going, cordial guy. His principal defect was the drinking--and there was also the noise. Every two or three weeks he would organize such loud, wild parties that even the Romans would be envious. The uproar produced by these orgies held on the witches' Sabbath was shocking. One would get the impression that these parties took place in our own garage and, if such strident noise could be heard in No. 85, then surely Mrs. Debeikis would hear it right inside her own eardrums. At one of the parties, early in the morning, one of the party-goers, who was screaming like Tarzan, threw an empty bottle of tequila at our bedroom window and broke it. The police came, the host had to apologize to us and, by noon the next day, his father, who was in Nuevo Laredo at the time, had already sent two workmen to fix the window. Nevertheless, Mrs. Debeikis, who had always esteemed our friendship, apologized to us and gave a serious talk to the student. Apparently, she couldn't evict him because the rent contract stipulated that eviction was possible only under certain conditions, two of them being assault and destruction. The incident was followed by some months of peace, but the bedlam soon began again. Despite his shyness, Abel, who was possessive of the serenity and repose he enjoyed during his three-and-a- half evening hours of practicing the violin (in the mornings the clamor of automobiles and trucks disturbed him), had to lodge a complaint. As a result, No. 58 was empty in a matter of weeks.
       Then a family rented the house. Their name was Becerra. The mother, a German, spoke horrible Spanish. Her husband had been a politician and had worked in the Office of Tourism during the initial years of the Jose Lopez Portillo regime. But there had been a scandal and he was sent to jail for corruption. The couple had moved to Cuernavaca and then to Copilco in Mexico City, intending to start over. He had bought a sausage factory in Tlalpan. They had two daughters, the youngest of which was mentally retarded. The older one, already an adolescent at the time, played ball and jacks on the patio while the other would look at her and laugh, benevolently, with that simplicity common to down-syndrome people. Sometimes their friends would come to visit and they would spread out a bunch of dolls under the portico. I would greet them in the mornings, before heading off for classes. The older daughter would ask me if that day I was going to tell my students about Cuauth‚moc or Hern n Cort‚s, two names she had learned at school. And Abel, who feels intimidated by children and, from the very day we got married made it absolutely clear that he was opposed to procreation because his musical career was the most important and it deserved all of his attention, would give them candy and gifts on Halloween; in time, he indeed became quite fond of them. I used to tell him that around the girls he seemed like a good-natured uncle, as he would always laugh around them. When he would return from a rehearsal or giving a concert at the university, the two girls would run to greet him, always ready to give him a kiss. Since their cousins lived far away in Berlin or Frankfurt, I forget which, he became the center of their attention. And Abel would play with them. The retarded one would carry his briefcase for him and the older one would follow him into the house, begging him to show his violin to her and to explain how he played it, and the kinds of sounds it made. Sometimes, the little retarded one would throw herself on him, hugging his left leg without letting go until her mother or sister would pull her away.
       But the Becerra family didn't live long in our neighborhood. One morning, without offering any explanation, they informed Mrs. Debeikis that they were moving to Germany. The husband had told me that he had been offered a position in a chemical factory that was a part of the arms industry and that his wife had gotten a job running a kindergarten. She never did like this country, she once confessed to me. To her, it seems too uncivilized, almost barbaric. The Mexicans, I remember her saying, are not only lacking in introspection but they are unpredictable, pessimistic, and given to improvisation. I later found out they paid two months in advance, packed up, and said good-bye, just like that.
       Next, a young couple rented the house for four years. They moved out after a turbulent divorce. He was a Rotarian whom Abel and I never saw. She was slender, appealing, athletic, absent-minded, and more coquettish than pretty. She liked to tan herself on the roof and ride her bicycle in the park nearby. Something about her face that moved me. The first thing she did upon moving into No. 58 was plant carnations and gladiolus in an earthen pot that she had purchased at the market in San Angel, and she bought fertile soil from the nursery in Coyoac n. Having been abandoned by the love of God and mankind, she told me, that's what house No.58 needed. Even though she was small and fragile, the woman seemed like the perfect housewife. One or two months after arriving, and later enthused by the aesthetic effect of the flowers at the end of the entryway, she painted the iron gate a light blue color. Good taste, I commented to Abel, though I retracted my opinion the very next afternoon when I saw an interior decorator, one of those immature types who wears a big overcoat and constantly puffs on those Cuban cigars, pull up in a moving van, unload some huge, ugly smoke-glass mirrors, and hang them on the four walls of the master bedroom. Well, all right, to each his own, I guess. Time passed, the couple seemed to be quite happy, and this state of bliss, while unknown to neighbors, did seem pleasant. It also seemed obvious that at some point she would become pregnant but, no, she began to wither instead. Her face began to reveal that familiar expression of barrenness, so typical of infertility. Not long afterward, I learned of the divorce from Mrs. Debeikis and, once again, the house became silent.
       Until this one morning at the end of October, the very same day Abel left for Europe and the Soviet Union. The doorbell rang. I opened the door and saw the old lady swaying back and forth even though she was leaning on her cane. She had come on a bus on Taxque¤a Avenue and wanted to let me know that finally No. 58 had been rented. The night before they had called her brother-in-law from New York. They wanted a short-term contract, renewable monthly. The overabundance of vacant apartments in Mexico City had thrown the real estate business out of whack. The offer wasn't worth it . . . but when there's nothing else, what is one supposed to do? The person about to move gave the impression he wanted to be near the University and Coyoac n neighborhood. Maybe he was an academic. Mrs. Debeikis's brother-in-law had received a curriculum vitae and some other legal documents by mail, and the new renter was already on his way.
       "The only sure thing about all this is that the renter is a foreigner," Mrs. Debeikis confessed. "A Czech."

* * *

       I turned off the light and continued my vigilance. The flurry of the numbered boxes hypnotized me. Some moments passed. Mrs. Debeikis said good-bye while more boxes were being carried into the house. What did they contain? The new renter took some money out of his billfold and handed it to one of the movers. He then walked to the corner. The specter of a young, masculine person talking in the phone booth. The Czech waited until he was off the phone, then he entered the booth. He tried to make a call but apparently couldn't get through. As he returned, the movers were sitting on a bench, relaxing as they smoked their cigarettes, blowing smoke rings into the air that spread out and intertwined among themselves as if they were being guided by remote control. They had finished moving and were waiting for a tip. I thought it strange that the van didn't even contain a desk or other necessary furniture, only a folding chair. The Czech is not to be trusted, I surmised. I remembered that a few days earlier, a department store had delivered a king-sized mattress and a refrigerator. That day at noon Mrs. Debeikis had a doctor's appointment and, since it was Tuesday and I didn't have any classes or meetings, she asked me to take care of the keys and help her with some household chores. She had also asked the plumber to come by and fix the sewer lines and a toilet in No. 58 and, finally, to take a look at my shower stall that for months had been pleading to have someone clean out the scum.
       I continued spying until I got bored. I decided to watch the news on TV for a while and then go to bed. I heard the doorbell early the next morning. I thought it would be Mrs. Debeikis but when I asked when I asked who it was, I heard a rough, scratchy, almost aphasic voice.
       "Excuse me ... I'm sorry to bother you." I smiled cordially. "I am the new tenant of house No. 58. I've tried several times. The telephone at the corner is broken and I need to make an important call. I didn't want to bother the old lady in No. 91 because I can tell it's difficult for her to get around. I'll make a request for telephone service tomorrow. I promise."
       Although he had a strong accent in English, his Spanish was perfect. I opened the door and there he was. It's hard for me to describe him--language suddenly seems terribly inaccurate. He must have been about 52 years old, handsome, an intellectual who retained an air of melancholy. Something, an impulse, made me think to myself that if I had let him talk some more, if I had given him the time, I would have discovered his radiant wisdom. The impression I got was that he had been seasoned by unhappiness and by the ineptitude of human affairs: his face, which could be described as "ghostly" or "terrified", conveyed signs of trepidation, as if he was on the verge of an irrevocable repentance. Something made me think of the sorrowful figure of Don Quixote; all he lacked was a suit of armor, a shield and his horse, Rocinante, I thought. After a few moments, it also occurred to me that he looked like an Iberian conquistador gone astray.
       I would have wanted to tell him that in Mexico the telephone company takes years, sometimes five, even ten--to connect a new line. But I immediately remembered that in Czechoslovakia under the Communist government, the bureaucracy, despite the people's lack of conformity, has all the time in the universe.
       I directed him toward the vestibule. With a gesture of feigned humility, he asked me if he could make a long-distance call. Before I could answer him, he took out a fifty-dollar bill. "It will be less, I assure you," he said. A friend had told him that there were telephone booths for calling overseas next to the market in San Angel, in Mixcoac, and in Coyoac n plaza. He had also been told, however, that it might take hours to get an overseas connection. "Keep the money until the next phone bill arrives ...," he added. "Then you can pay me the difference."
       To acquiesce to his request, I knew, would be the beginning of one of those relationships with neighbors based on mutual favors and disagreements. So, what should I do? Opt for rudeness and discourtesy? It wouldn't have been my style and, if Abel were to learn of the incident later, he would be furious. I had no recourse but to point to the telephone. The Czech put the money next to it and closed his eyes. He opened them seconds later and began dialing. He stopped: incorrect dial. With a show of ineptness, distress, and shortness of breath, he said he would return instantly--he had to look for his address book. I smiled. Clueless as to what to do while he was gone, I went upstairs and looked out the window. I saw him cross the street and then return. At the telephone once again, he dialed and talked for some seven or eight minutes; first in English, then in Czech.
       I went downstairs. He had hung up.
       "Where did you learn to speak Spanish?" I asked him. "I'm amazed..." "When I was young," he smiled. "I learned it when I worked in Prague as a translator and a tourist agent. But it was no heroic feat because my mother was Mexican." "Really?" I waited for him to say something else but he didn't. "And where from in Mexico?"
       "Mexico City. This very neighborhood, actually..."
       Standing there, caught up in that situation where someone is introduced to a future colleague or friend, we talked for fifteen minutes. He told me he had just arrived from England and was tired. Prompted by the New York realtor, he said, Mrs. Debeikis had been nice enough to order a mattress from a store on Insurgentes Avenue; otherwise, he wouldn't have anything to sleep on tonight. We agreed that the colored-glass mirrors in the master bedroom were horrible. We talked about the previous renters, including the Becerra family. He then asked me if Copilco was safe. He had rented the house without knowing anything; the real estate company had only shown him a picture. Strangely enough, although he was concerned with safety he had decided to rent the house because he liked the area. At first sight the neighborhood looked peaceful and pleasant to him, he said, like in his mother's days. I told him the Schools of Dentistry and Law are a mile away, perhaps less. San Angel has a post office and there are stores every five or six blocks. Also, there's a supermarket, Aurrera, just across the street from the Ghandi Bookstore on Taxque¤a Avenue. The neighborhood association hires a permanent watchman who, every morning at 3:00 a.m. sharp, blows a whistle like a soccer referee, to let everyone know that all's well in the area. And a street sweeper cleans up every week, except during Lent, the latter part of September, and every time he decides to take off. I added that the municipality, whose offices are just south of here, has planned a Metro station on Copilco Avenue, but it's no more than that, simply a proposal. And the entire world knows that if Mexico wants to get rich, it would export unfinished proposals.
       "It's curious that your house number is 85 and mine is 58," he said all of a sudden. "As I got here through Cerro del Agua street, I noticed house numbers begin strangely with No. 32 and end with 34, and there's a number that repeats itself three times: 42. "Yes," I responded. "One gets the impression that the engineer who numbered the area had no plan in mind."
       "Or else he had a bad memory," he said. I smiled. We would have continued talking but I excused myself. I had a class at 9:30 next morning and needed to get some sleep. I walked him to the door.
       I was left with the impression that both of us had a lot to say, but we had been cut short; moreover, I remembered that he hadn't told me his name.

* * *

       That night I once again became a victim of curiosity: I went to the window and saw him alone, lying down on the mattress. His lights were off, as if he didn't care whether he had electricity or not. He had placed the mattress in the middle of the bedroom. To one side, I thought I saw a typewriter and the folding chair. Even though from my window I only managed to see his multiple shadow reflected infinitely in the mirrors, I had a vivid recollection of his vague, sorrowful appearance.
       He was on his back, motionless and serene, as if meditating on the reincarnation of some celestial truth. Such spirituality, I must confess, triggered a defenseless skepticism in me. Perhaps he was a Hare Krishna. Is he interested in Buddhism? A yellowed copy of the Bahavagad Gita in Sanskrit, left behind by the Becerras in a shelf down in the main floor (I saw it one day Mrs. Debeikis showed me some newly-painted walls in the house), came to mind. Had he found it behind a bookshelf in the study downstairs? Books are to be preserved, so I guessed he hadn't thrown it out. I remembered that just weeks earlier Abel and I were invited to dinner at the home of a concert singer who performed with the orchestra from time to time. A fat, open-minded spinster, the wife of God only knows whom, had sat down next to me and, at one point, we were talking about a Medieval mystic who had experimented with unfamiliar elixirs, immersed himself in hallucinating exercises using psychedelic dyes and iodate paintings, and could relate to the vowels of the Bible, but not the consonants. According to this lady, the mystic did everything possible to acquire a perfect union with the divine. Upon hearing such nonsense, I looked at her. I now realize I didn't show much confidence in her, but I've already said it: those things seems ridiculous to me and I can't hide it. And I didn't do anything to encourage her to continue either. She just let fly with her psychic hodge-podge and there was no stopping her. The mystic, according to her, had discovered a hidden secret, a truth denied to the rest of humanity. Slightly annoyed, I answered back that having survived the beatnik era and, later, the hippie revolution, those practices were anachronistic and anti-modern. The Czech, notwithstanding, was apparently still stuck in that era.

* * *

       I knew that to spy on a neighbor's privacy was not right. Repeatedly, Abel had scolded me for prying into other people's lives, like the Monterey dental student, for instance. "You are the civics teacher here," he would caution me after finishing his evening practices or upon sitting down for dinner. "You, more than anyone else, have to accept the rules of modern urban life. No reason to be sticking our noses into what doesn't concern you. Be careful... You'll get yourself into trouble." But I didn't think there's much truth to the saying that curiosity killed the cat, either. Granted, my excuses were elusive. I responded, for instance, that we do the same thing at the theater: as audience, we are invited to stimulate our curiosity by acting as the fourth wall to a scene of illicit love or the decadence of an era, other people's lives unfold on stage right before our eyes. And this, thanks to that invisible wall.

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