Story — From the February 2015 issue

Family Life

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Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

It’s not hot out, it’s not cold. A shy, sharp sun overcomes the clouds, and the sky looks, at times, truly clean, like the sky blue of a child’s drawing. Martín is in the last row of the bus, listening to music, bobbing his head like the young folks do. But he’s not young anymore, not by a long shot: he’s forty years old, his hair is fairly long, black, and a little curly, his face is extremely white — Well, there will be time later to describe him. Right now he has just gotten off the bus carrying a backpack and a suitcase, and he is walking a few blocks in search of an address.

The job consists of taking care of the cat, running the vacuum cleaner every once in a while, and watering some indoor plants that seem destined to dry out. I’m not going to go out much, hardly at all, he thinks, with a trace of happiness. Only to buy food for the cat, to buy food for myself. There is also a silver Fiat that he has to drive every so often. (“So it can breathe,” they’ve told him.) For now, he’s spending time with the family: it’s seven in the evening, and they’ll be leaving very early, at five-thirty in the morning. Here is the family, in alphabetical order:

bruno — sparse beard, blondish, tall, smoker of black tobacco, literature professor.

consuelo — Bruno’s partner, not his wife, because they never married, although they act like a married couple, perhaps worse than a married couple.

sofía — the daughter.

She’s just run past, the little girl, chasing after the cat toward the stairs. She doesn’t greet Martín, doesn’t look at him; these days kids don’t say hi, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, because adults say hi too much. Bruno explains to Martín some of the details of the job while at the same time arguing with Consuelo about how to organize a suitcase. Then Consuelo approaches Martín with a friendliness that unsettles him — he isn’t used to friendliness — and shows him the cat’s bed, the litter box, and a post where the cat can sharpen its claws; though none of them get much use, Consuelo says, because the cat sleeps wherever he feels like it, does his business in the yard, and scratches on all the chairs. Consuelo also shows him how the little door works, the mechanism that allows the cat to go out but not come in, or come in but not go out, or come in and out as he likes. “We always leave it open,” says Consuelo, “so he can be free — it’s like when our parents finally gave us the keys to the house.”

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

Martín goes out to smoke and sees an empty area in the yard: two and a half square meters of disheveled grass where there should be a few plants and maybe a bush, but there’s nothing. He flicks his ashes onto the grass, puts out the cigarette, and wastes an entire minute thinking about where to throw it. In the end he hides it under a dead plant. He looks at the house from the threshold, thinks that it isn’t so big, that it’s manageable. He finds a large hourglass on an end table and turns it over —

“It lasts twelve minutes,” says the little girl, who then, from the top step where she is trying to hold on to the cat, asks him if he’s Martín.

“Yes.”

And if he wants to play chess.

“Okay.”

The cat wriggles out of the girl’s grasp. It’s an uneven gray color, with short, dense fur, a thin body, and fangs that protrude slightly. The little girl goes back up the stairs. The cat, Mississippi, seems docile. He goes up to Martín, who wants to pet him but hesitates: he’s not so familiar with cats, has never lived with one before.

Sofía comes back. She’s in her pajamas now, and she walks clumsily in her big Chilote slippers. Consuelo asks her to not bother them and to go to her room, but the girl is carrying a heavy box, or a box that’s heavy for her, and she sets up the chessboard on the living room table. She is seven years old, and she has just learned how to move the pieces, along with the game’s mannerisms and affectations; she looks cute with her brow furrowed, her round face in her hands. She and Martín start to play, but after five minutes it’s clear that they’re getting bored, he more so than she. He proposes to Sofi that they play at losing, and at first she doesn’t understand, but then she explodes in sweet, mocking laughter — the one who loses wins, the goal is to give up first, to leave Don Quixote and Dulcinea unprotected, because it’s a Cervantes chess set, with windmills instead of rooks, and courageous Sancho Panzas as pawns.

How idiotic, thinks Martín, a literary chess set.

The pieces on the board look tarnished, tasteless, and although he’s not one to form quick impressions, the whole house now makes him a little anxious and annoyed, but not because of anything he sees: the placement of each object surely answers to some obscure theory of interior design, but an imbalance persists, a secret anomaly. It’s as if the things don’t want to be where they are, thinks Martín, who is nevertheless grateful for the chance to spend some time in this bright house, so different from the small, shadowy rooms he tends to live in.

Consuelo takes the girl upstairs and sings her to sleep. Though he listens from afar, Martín feels that he shouldn’t be eavesdropping, that he is an intruder. Bruno offers him some ravioli, which they eat in silence, with a phony masculine voracity. Something like, Well, there are no women around — let’s not use napkins. After the coffee, Bruno pours a couple of vodkas on the rocks, but Martín opts to keep downing wine.

“What’s the name of the city where you’re going to live?” Martín asks, to have something to say.

“Saint-Étienne.”

“Where we played?”

“Who’s we?”

“The Chilean soccer team, France, ’98.”

“I don’t know. It’s an industrial city, a little run-down. I’m going to teach classes on Latin America.”

“And where is it?”

“Saint-Étienne or Latin America?”

The joke is so easy, so rote, but it works. Almost without trying, they draw out the after-dinner conversation, as if discovering some belated affinity. Upstairs, the little girl sleeps, and they can also hear what might be Consuelo breathing or snoring slightly. Martín discovers that he’s been thinking about her the whole time he’s been in the house, from the moment he saw her in the doorway.

“You’re going to be here four months,” Bruno tells him. “Make use of that time to have a go with one of the neighbors.”

I’d much rather have a go with your wife, thinks Martín, and he thinks it so forcefully he’s afraid he has said it out loud.

“Enjoy it, cousin,” Bruno goes on affectionately, slightly drunk, but they aren’t cousins. Their fathers were, though: Martín’s has just died, and it was at the wake that they saw each other again for the first time in years. To treat Martín like family now makes sense; it’s perhaps the only way to build a hasty sense of trust. The idea had originally been to rent out the house, but they couldn’t find anyone suitable. Martín was the most reliable person Bruno could find to house-sit. They’ve seen each other very little over the course of their lives, but maybe they were friends at one point, when they were still children and were compelled to play together on some Sunday afternoon.

Bruno lays out for him again what they’ve already talked about over the phone. He gives him the keys, they test the locks, he explains the doors’ quirks. And again he lists the advantages of being there, although now he doesn’t mention any neighbors. Then he asks if Martín likes to read.

“A little,” says Martín, but it’s not true. Then he turns overly honest: “No, I don’t like to read. The last thing I would ever do is read a book.” After a pause he says, “Sorry,” and looks at the overflowing shelves. “It’s like I’ve gone to church and said I don’t believe in God.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruno says, as if approving the comment. “A lot of people think the same thing, but they don’t say it.” Then he picks out some novels and puts them on the end table, beside the hourglass. “Still, if you ever feel like reading, here are some things that might interest you.”

“And why would they interest me? Are they for people who don’t read?”

“More or less, ha.” (He says this, “ha,” but without the inflection of laughter.) “Some of them are classics, others are more contemporary, but they’re all entertaining.” (When he says this last word, he doesn’t make the slightest effort to avoid a pedantic tone, almost as if he were making air quotes.) Martín thanks him and says good night.

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is the author of The Private Lives of Trees and Ways of Going Home. My Documents, a collection of stories, will be published this month by McSweeney’s Books.

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