from “O Cheiro do Ralo”

Soran was an anagram. That’s what he told me. He also told me he’d paid a very high price to get his hands on the watch. He took an old pocket watch out of his jacket pocket, all gold. I noticed it had once had a cover, a protective cover. He swore it had belonged to Professor Soran. I asked who the hell was Soran. He told me Soran was an anagram. He snatched the watch back from my hands and returned it to his inside jacket pocket.

So, how much you gonna give me for it?

A strong odor came rising up from the drain and invaded my nose. It invaded the whole room.

That smell, like shit, it’s from the drain, I said.

I think I was embarrassed that he would think the smell was coming from me. He said that Soran was a wise man, a visionary. My back itched and I realized that when I’d looked at the watch I hadn’t even bothered to check the time. I was in a hurry, but it felt awkward to look at my own wrist.

Could I see just one more detail on that beautiful watch of yours that belonged to Solon? Soran, he corrected. Two-thirty. I didn’t know if I could trust that old thing. Does it still work? Almost by instinct I put it up to my ear. It played a nice melody. That’s what he said. Confirming that the watch did once have a cover and by opening it the music started to play.

He said the song it played was the same one the gas delivery truck plays. I couldn’t help myself and I checked, fifteen minutes to one, on the made-in-China knock-off strapped to my wrist.

He told me how he’d come to own the watch, through an archaeologist. I said that I hadn’t imagined the watch was as old as that.

He didn’t get the joke. He said this archaeologist, whose name escapes me now, acted as a spy. I knew that one of those stories I didn’t feel like hearing was about to come out.

He told me Soran was an anagram. After the whole story he concluded that, despite its inestimable value, he would be willing to give me a special price.

I said I wasn’t interested.

If it at least still had the cover, I said.

He scowled.

He looked at the watch again.

He said I didn’t understand what an opportunity he was giving me. He said luck opens up its doors for everyone, at least once a lifetime. But if that opportunity goes wasted, luck shuts the doors again.

He left, slamming the door behind him.

***

The girl was really slow.

Her face was melancholy. Almost expressionless.

The sandwich she served me was equally unappealing.

I remembered the joke we used to make in the canteen at my first job. 007. That’s what we called the steak.

Because it was cold, hard, and had nerves of steel.

While I ate, I devoured the book I had propped up on the counter.

American Tabloid. James Ellroy. It was a good book. Ellroy wrote in the rhythm of my thoughts. Stunning. Dizzying. A tempest. Tormented.

I left half my sandwich.

The Coke was in a can.

I started thinking in the rhythm of James Ellroy.

When I caught myself, there was a huge ass before me.

Full. Almost deformed.

It was the girl’s. I thought that, deep down, she was good.

I smiled. She looked back with her melancholy face.

I asked her name.

I couldn’t pronounce it.

Deep down, she was good.

I asked how long she’d been working at the diner.

One week.

I thought with that face, she’d lose her job in the same length of time.

She turned around and bent over to grab the order that had slipped out of her pocket. Maybe she’d retire on the job. Maybe she’d be promoted to manager. She asked what I was reading. I showed her the cover. James what? Ellroy, I replied.

She told me I looked like that guy from the ad on TV.

I tried to remember his face.

I smiled at her.

Didn’t you like the sandwich?

I’m not hungry.

I ordered another Coke.

She turned to get it.

I thought how I could spend a week just looking at her behind.

I went to the register. I paid my bill and asked for some cigarettes.

The guy gave me a piece of candy with my change.

Raspberry.

I walked up to the counter and gave the candy to the girl. What’s your name again, I asked. I’d never be able to pronounce it. She didn’t smile.

She put the candy in her pocket.

I wanted to ask her to turn around one more time.

I went back to work. I wanted to want to stop smoking.

***

She came in. She had a cutlery case in her hands.

It’s silver.

I made an offer. She told me life was hard.

I explained that the smell was coming from the drain.

She accepted the offer, nodding her head.

This case has a lot of stories to tell.

I don’t doubt it, I said. I took the key out of my pocket and opened the drawer.

I put the money on the desk.

She didn’t even count it. She thanked me with a nod of the head.

She went to the door.

She came back.

She looked at the case with jaded eyes, sliding her hand affectionately across the lid.

She said life was hard. She left.

I got a bitter taste in my mouth.

All of a sudden I was looking at a shoe. It was mine.

He comes in, carrying some sort of strange animal. Chinese porcelain. Such-and-such dynasty. I couldn’t tell if it was a dragon or a cat. He must have figured out on his own that I wasn’t interested. I lit a cigarette.

***

When I came around, she was asking what I thought about it. I said that’s just how it was. So you think it’s right for a father to do something like that? What? Gamble everything away? Of course not.

She asked if I was going to eat my salad. I said I wasn’t hungry. She said they were already at the printers. The invitations. She said she loved me. She said she’d be happy by my side.

I said only dupes believed in happiness.

She covered up her face, trying to cry. You insensitive jerk!

That’s what you are. Insensitive.

She got up from the table. I filled my wineglass.

Sorry. She said.

Sorry for what? I got upset. I don’t want to ruin this night. It’s just that, sometimes, you try to act so insensitive. It’s only a month away.

I said I didn't want to get married.

She got a funny look on her face.

She slapped me.

No one slaps a man. That’s what my dad used to say.

Are you crazy?

Of course not. And to prove it, I’m putting an end to all this bullshit.

You said our relationship is bullshit.

She slapped me again.

I got up.

She pushed me so hard I sat back down again.

I don’t like you. I’ve never liked you. I’ve never liked anyone.

Kneeling on the ground, she cried in a funny way.

I laughed. Get out! You’re crazy! Now I’m the one who doesn’t want to get married to a fool. Have kids who are crazy as hell. Get out! And don’t ever show up here again! You freak!

What will everyone think, with the invitations at the printers.

That’s what I heard as I closed the door.

***

I watched the little white pigeon. More gray than white. Missing more toes than ones she had. Kites, maybe? Here in downtown, I doubt it . . . She took a dump right as she took flight. Her little shit, whiter than her, plopped down on some bald guy’s head.

They knock on the door, I go back to the desk. Come in. He comes in with a flute in his hands.

I get a bitter taste in my mouth. If only I had a piece of candy. Raspberry. This flute has a lot of stories to tell. He plays a few notes. I can’t help it. I laugh. I laugh uncontrollably. I laugh about everything and everyone. He stops. The flute shuts up. I make my offer.

He laughs.

Life’s hard. I say.

***

She walks in crying.

She asks me to forgive her.

Says she loves me.

Says she won’t let go of me that easily.

She hugs me. Me, motionless. I say she’s got nothing to offer me.

She slaps me across the face.

Says I’m not going to get away that easy.

Says I’ll come crawling back.

I never liked her.

I never liked anyone.

She leaves.

The smell of shit fills my nose.

***

Paul Auster confuses me. He writes in the rhythm that I think. Dizzily. All those Mr. Whites, Mr. Greens. Like in the board game.

Mr. White, with the knife in the library.

Hand to Mouth.

She brings me my sandwich. She almost smiles.

She turns around to get my Coke.

I could spend a week just watching her turn around.

Is that another book already?

I show her the cover.

Paul what?

She says she likes to read. Just magazines, though. Star magazines. TV stars. I’d pay just to look at that ass.

I order a coffee.

Not hungry again?

Nope.

Her name is a combination of at least three other names.

Her dad, her mom, and some TV star.

She asks mine.

I tell her.

She repeats it out loud.

She must move her lips while she reads.

She must move her lips even when she’s just looking at the pictures of the stars.

Must move her lips recalling their names. Roberto Carlos.

***

I catch myself looking at a pitcher of juice I’d made.

I close the fridge.

I turn on the TV.

I imagine a number of things, mixed with what’s on the TV.

On channel 80 three people are getting it on, in that tried-and-true porno choreography.

On the Discovery channel, a frightened monster.

The American sitcom and its canned laughter.

On the Cartoon Network there’s a cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid.

On the ceiling, an unscrewed bulb.

On the sofa, my clothes from yesterday.

On the shelf, more books to read.

The news plays the attack on a world I made myself.

***

He comes in. In his hand there’s a birdcage with a canary. It’s stuffed.

Does this have a story!

I make my offer.

He laughs with his eyes closed.

I grab the little key and open the drawer.

He counts the bills, one by one.

Three times.

He moves his lips while he counts the money.

He tries to shake my hand, like someone who’s just closed on a big deal.

I pretend I don’t see his hand. I don’t even bother justifying the smell.

He leaves. He thinks he’s happy.

***

She comes in.

She’s shaking.

Doesn’t look me in the eye.

Her eyes don’t even seem to move.

There’s a jewelry box in her hands. Inside there’s a bracelet, a pair of earrings, a tie clip, an Agnus Dei charm.

All gold.

I complain about the smell, as if it were the first time I’d noticed.

It’s from the drain.

I ask its origin, just to be able to haggle.

She says she inherited it.

I make my bid, I shoot low.

She accepts right away.

She’s shaking.

I know that soon she’ll stop shaking.

O Cheiro do Ralo © Lourenço Mutarelli. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2013 by Zoe Perry. All rights reserved.