“77” by Guillermo Saccomanno [Excerpt]
To celebrate Guillermo Saccomanno being out “Author of the Month” (get 30% off his books by using SACCOMANNO at checkout) and the release of 77, we thought we’d run this excerpt from his new book.
There was nothing magical about how I ended up in Lutz’s hole-in-the-wall. I’ll try to explain bit by bit.
I was bumbling along, rolling downhill. At twenty we believe in passion; we tremble. We allow ourselves the luxury of suffering for love since we have an arsenal of spasms at our disposal. The most trivial, sentimental foolishness thrills us or plunges us into despair. Our emotional repertory seems inexhaustible. But when we least expect it, when we pass fifty, the operatic mechanism of seduction gets corroded, and we stumble around at an age when passion gives way to indolence. Then we appeal to various resources to recover a feeling that has vanished: with each lust-at-first-sight pickup, a second-hand enthusiasm. And yet I can’t do without that giddiness, so I went searching for it at night, when the city became a no-man’s-land. There were few assaults. With a couple of pesos in my pocket, I would go out into the street and walk aimlessly, meandering. I would stroll along Santa Fe in search of quick comfort. A fast fuck and chau. If I had no luck, there were always the public bathrooms at the bus terminals. A major one was located at the de Febrero terminal, near the race track. My age, dark gray suit, glasses, a few gray hairs, black moustache, I felt, made me look respectable. More than once I was stopped by a police or army barricade. There wasn’t a single night when a green Ford Falcon didn’t spot me, marking me. The guys would give me the once-over, and since I didn’t try to dodge their gaze, they continued on their way. I had gotten used to running into patrol cars, Federal police vans, carriers, armored cars. A blackout was the sign of an operation in progress. Sometimes a helicopter flew overhead. Other times, while crossing a street, I saw a display of uniforms half a block away. They would yank a family out of a house, a building, and force them into a truck, hitting them with the butts of their rifles. The city remained deaf to the sirens, the orders, the screams and sobs of the children. There were nights when the shooting and explosions deafened me. Early one morning, passing by an empty lot, I saw some guys pull a group of blindfolded young boys and girls from their vans and shove them against a wall. I heard shutters slamming. I hid. Curled into a ball, I hid. Then, the explosions. Finally, the van’s engine. And silence. In the stillness, I left my hiding place and walked toward the open lot. They were so young.
In spite of the terror, at night I walked and walked like one possessed. It would still be a while before I was diagnosed, early one morning at a hospital emergency room, with obsessive wandering syndrome. I would come to like that diagnosis, those three words: obsessive wandering syndrome. But it would still be a while till I was diagnosed. Now it was April, and I went walking through the nights and the cool early morning till the first signs of daylight. It seemed unlikely, as I said, that a respectable-looking citizen would be loaded into a green Falcon. More likely that a gang of bums would drag me to an open space, a construction site, as they did early one morning around Dock Sur.
The giddiness had just eased up when the cramp attacked my legs.Now I could return to my apartment and collapse. All I needed was a quick nap to be ready for action again, teaching my class. Although I was sleeping less and less, I didn’t feel exhausted. But I was beginning to notice some anxiety and clumsiness in my gestures, and then a lethargy to which I reacted with an unexpectedly rapid heartbeat, small memory lapses, stumbling, all signs I hadn’t noticed before. It was then, when I turned fifty-six, anticipating my approaching decline, that I consulted the inevitable I Ching. The oracle replied: “The concealment of the light.” The power of darkness controlled everything. Light had been violated. But finally evil, because of its essentially stupid nature, would end up destroying itself. And while this prediction had its share of optimism, it was no great consolation. Like more than one depressive, I looked for solace in Taoist texts. I started going to the Kier Bookstore, as if that establishment were the anteroom to nirvana.
Bodhi was twenty-something. He was beyond skinny; he looked emaciated. In his gestures you could see an unaffected fragility, his delicacy. I met Bodhi one March afternoon at the bookstore. He adopted that nickname after Bodhi Dharma, though any queen hearing the name would have thought body. The boy was looking for The Hermetic Circle, the correspondence between Hesse and Jung. A pickup, a fast fuck, I thought, would help me endure my anguish. But the sensual attraction was displaced by a mutual courtesy. He always addressed me with the formal usted. I was moved by the spirituality the kid exuded because, let’s look at it this way, he was slightly over twenty, and I, an old man, fiftyish, considered his mystical arguments childish illusions. Who, in a bout of depression, hasn’t swallowed a bellyful of Orientalism? The esoteric can turn out to be an illusion of exile. Breathing the ether, you could forget what was happening right under your nose.
Any way you want to look at it, Bodhi smiled at me with the sweetness of an altar boy. Nothing is accidental. This meeting wasn’t.
Bodhi opened the book and read to me:
“Nothing happens by chance,” Hesse says. “This is the hermetic circle.”
The kid inspired a feeling in me that, I have to admit, wasn’t physical appetite. In his gullibility there was a kind of purity. And purity isn’t something you can buy at the corner kiosk.
I can see it in your face, Bodhi said to me. You’re damaged.
The conviction with which the boy said it disturbed me. It was the conviction of a pure soul, a saint who has come to reveal a truth. The physical attraction I had felt when I met him turned into the descent of an angel. It’s true that for a moment I thought Bodhi was possessed, one of those many sallow, scrawny types, overfed on Lobsang Rampa, who latched onto an Orientalist dream to escape from reality. In a few minutes, I said to myself, the boy’s gonna go all Hare Krishna on me.
You must be a vegetarian, I said.
I am, he replied.
He didn’t seem to pick up on my sarcasm. And if he caught it, he let it slide. He regarded me with a self-sufficiency that wasn’t devoid of pity. He made me feel ashamed of my condescending tone. Suddenly my desire vanished, and what I felt for the kid was envy of his principles, his confidence in his mystical convictions, as he admonished me.
When someone is damaged, he can’t find peace, he said. He blames his pain on other people’s incomprehension, he locks himself up inside, he weeps over the lack of love. He becomes a tormented soul.
Forgive me, I said. Maybe I misjudged you.
Forgive you for what, he said. You didn’t insult me. No, you’re the one who’s punishing yourself. Maybe you need to touch bottom. As soon as you touch bottom, you’ll search for the light.
I thought you were . . . I said. But I didn’t finish the sentence.
The hermetic circle, Gómez, he said. Believe or explode.
And what if I don’t believe.
If you don’t believe it’s because you still haven’t penetrated the darkness. Like the swimmer who jumps off a diving board: he needs to touch bottom in order to rise to the surface. Then the truth will be revealed to him.
We went into a bar on Calle Libertad. I ordered a coffee and gin on the rocks. Bhodi asked for a pitcher of water. And this struck me as a detail that revealed his personality. Captivated, I wondered if the virginal character suggested by each of his minimal gestures might be a symptom of repression and stupidity. A simple exchange of glances in the bookstore had been enough to reveal that the two of us liked one another, but now, as the conversation and the afternoon went on, I started to wonder if the boy was a madman or a genuine saint. With the first swig of gin, I grew bold enough to prod him:
Tell me, kid, have you lived your entire life in a test tube?
Bodhi launched into his story. My father was an anarchist, he said. And my mother was a spiritualist. They never got along. For him, going against management meant not working. He always came back to the house drunk. “House” is just an expression: we lived in a tenement near Barracas. We got by with what my mother earned as a nurse at Tornú Hospital. We all slept in the same room. The double bed, a crooked dresser, a couple of chairs, a little heater, and my cot in one corner. On winter nights, when my father came home drunk, he pushed my mother out of bed and forced me to lie down next to him. That’s how he initiated me in vice. A few minutes ago you were thinking that maybe I was a virgin. Don’t ask me how, but I knew you were thinking that about me. When a person has had transcendent psychic experiences, he acquires very keen perceptions. I remember the darkness of those nights, the red-hot coals in the heater, my mother’s sobs, and my father’s rough hands all over me. Till one night my mother stood her ground. She was waiting for him with a syringe. As soon as my father walked into the room, she surprised him from behind and stuck the needle into his neck. There must’ve been a really powerful drug in that syringe. My father barely had time to let out a shriek, turn around swearing and walk out to the patio, clutching his throat. He fell like a stone. Then, the ambulance. They took him to the Municipal Hospital. Since all the tenants came out in defense of my mother, she was released from the police station immediately. It was a little after that when she started going to spiritualist meetings. She came back from those meetings uplifted: she wore a grateful smile. I was very small when she took me to Luna Park, to the Basilio Science School meeting. My mother always said that Perón was a divine being. We owed him the possibility of divorce and the acceptance of spiritualism. Thanks to my mother, I was initiated into the Great Wisdom. Excuse me if I’m talking too much. Maybe I’m boring you. All it takes for me to communicate is for someone to show me his sensitive side. Just like I knew what you were thinking about me a few seconds ago, I know that now you’re sincerely moved.
Two possibilities, I thought: Bhodi needed a psychoanalyst or a confessor. I asked him why he was telling me his story, why me:
I learned that if you want someone to open up his heart, first the emissary has to open his own. You need to open up your heart. You need help.
And you, angel boy, are my emissary.
My derision bounced right off him.
I’m not the emissary, he said. You’re the one who’s been chosen by the circle.
You don’t say.
The circle is closing, he said.
Afternoon was winding down. The first shadows. The first lights. We turned onto Avenida Santa Fe. On this side of the city you were somewhere else: there were stylish shops, elegant women, men in smart suits. Even those who were dressed casually looked like they were strolling through the Windsor Castle gardens. Here the kids were not only blonds, but heirs. Me and my resentment, I chided myself. But by recalling Evita I was able to assuage my bitterness. If violence was the midwife of history, I thought, Evita was the bitch who had managed to cut those assholes down to size. Though the snobs had gotten even. “Long live cancer,” they had painted on walls when she developed it in her uterus. I looked at Bodhi. Out of the corner of my eye, I looked at him. What had he done with his pain, I asked myself. The theosophical jackass was walking along, lost in thought. His spirituality was the refrain of a frightened child, singing in the darkness to settle his nerves.
We were walking along the sidewalk of San Nicolás de Bari when two green Falcons stopped a few yards away. The cops got out in a rush, wielding rifles and pistols. A clicking of weapons, shouts. Some of them had long hair and headbands. The one in charge was a massive, dark-haired guy in sunglasses. I thought they were coming after us. But no. They dispersed, blocking the path of two women. Two women, one who looked like the mother and the other, the daughter. Both women ran back toward the church, trying to climb the stairs and enter the sanctuary. They didn’t make it. They were caught before they got there. The cops seemed more interested in the daughter than in the mother.
I remember the girl. Tiny, short hair, a little blue coat. All four of them grabbed her and beat her viciously. They stuck their fingers in her mouth to make her spit out the pill. The mother tried to shake them off, crying for help, till one of the guys hit her on the back of the head with the butt of his Ithaca. The girl was cursing. They grabbed the mother by the arms, threw a hood on her, and shoved her into one of the cars. The girl was dragged down the stairs. Her head started to bleed as it struck the steps. They seized her by the ankles and the hands, and they put a hood on her, too, and shoved her into the other car. No one interfered. Then, the slamming of the Falcons’ doors. The screech of tires.
We walked on without a word. Bodhi’s silence angered me more than my own. In his self-absorption there was a kind of superior attitude. He probably had an airtight explanation for what we had seen. I preferred not to ask him, not to listen to his thoughts. Bhodi was the same age as the girl who had been kidnapped. Maybe his muteness was easier to tolerate than the esoteric arguments he would use to explain what had just occurred.
We were making our way along Charcas, near Callao. I felt like smacking him. I couldn’t take any more of this young snot whose meekness cloaked a know-it-all quality that wore me down. That’s all I need, I thought. For some young kid to give me advice on how to live. That’s what I got for not having enough self-control to stay in my apartment, concentrating on my papers and on a journal where I spilled all my solitary anguish. As if writing could bring relief.
You’re suffering because of the internal chaos we live in, Bhodi said.
And he sighed:
When you can’t take it anymore, consult my Master.
Bhodi handed me a card.
Lutz, he said. He’s my Master, my spiritual guide.
Saying good night, Bodhi extended a cold, bony hand. I took another look at the card and was still looking at it when Bhodi vanished into the darkness. I turned onto Ayacucho. The shadows of the trees added to the nocturnal gloom. That street was a tunnel.
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