I should have sung.
I should have doubled up with laughter or cried, but I no longer knew how to do those things. Or perhaps I could have lit a candle, rushed to Consolação church, said an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Gloria, anything I could remember, after plunking some change, if I had any—and during the past months I never did—in the metal box "For the Souls in Purgatory." Give thanks, ask for light—the way I did in the times I still had faith.
Those were the days, I thought. I lit a cigarette and didn't assume any of those dramatic postures, as if there were a camera in a corner somewhere watching me all the time. Or God. Without a judge or an audience, without close-up or zoom, I just sat there at the beginning of that scorching February afternoon, staring at the phone I had hung up a moment before. I didn't even cross myself or raise my eyes toward heaven. The least one is expected to do in these cases, I guess, even without faith, as if reacting to some mystical, conditioned reflex.
A miracle had occurred. A modest miracle, but essential to someone who, like me, didn't have rich parents, investments, real estate, or inheritance and was just trying to make it on his own in an infernal city like the one throbbing outside my still unopened apartment window. Nothing particularly sensational, like suddenly recovering one's eyesight or rising from a wheelchair with a beatific expression and the lightness of someone who walks on water. Even though my myopia was getting worse all the time and I often felt weak in the knees—whether from chronic hunger or mere sadness I couldn't say—my eyes and legs still worked reasonably well. Other organs, it's true, much less so.
I felt my neck. My brain, for one.
That's enough, I said to myself, naked, paralyzed in the middle of the sticky midday penumbra. Think about this miracle, man. Simple—almost insignificant in its simplicity—the small miracle that might bring some peace to the string of aimless and erratic bumps which I, with a certain complacency and no originality, was in the habit of calling my life, had a name. It was called—a job.
I looked at my face in the old scratched mirror, at the marks that belonged to the glass or my skin—I no longer knew which— and nodded in greeting. "Very good, congratulations. Now you're employed." I felt no thrill of pride, no quiver of hope light up my bloodshot eyes or push out my sagging chest where—I didn't want to remember but I did—less than a week earlier I had discovered the first gray hair.
It's true that only a complete idiot or someone totally inexperienced would feel, I won't say ecstasy, but some kind of animation for having gotten a little job as a reporter at the Diário da Cidade, possibly the worst paper in the world. I don't think I had turned into an idiot yet, not completely anyway. And as for experience—well, that marked face, still puffy from sleep, with a three-day stubble, watching me from among the mirror's scratches, seemed to have plenty of it. All right, said the face in the mirror, since you insist on confusing experience with devastation... I sighed again. No, my dear face, filling page after page on the typewriters of that pre-computer-age rag was certainly no reason to jump for joy.
But I had to be happy. And when you want to be, you are. I began to be. After all, that day might be the first step toward emerging from the morass of depression and self-pity in which I had been wallowing for nearly a year. I liked the expression morass of depression-&-etc. so much that I almost looked for a scrap of paper to jot it down. I had lost the paranoid vice of imagining I was always being filmed or appraised by some god with multifaceted eyes, like a fly's, but not that of being written about. If I had been a dancer, would I have imagined perhaps that I was being sculpted constantly, in every movement? Ah, each gesture, a true aesthetic apology of pure form.
It was funny. And pretty schizophrenic. But suddenly reality had become much less rhetorical.
"You start today, pal," Castilhos had said on the phone. In that voice at the bottom of which, to feed the old subliterary habit, I could have detected something I'd call gruff-complicitous-fondness, although it was actually nothing but an excess of nicotine and busted balls. "And see if you can keep from fucking up on the very first day, okay? I swore to the guys you were a hotshot."
Frightening: the night before, I had gone to sleep a nearly forty-year-old unemployed journalist, in debt, bitter, solitary, and disillusioned, to awaken the following day, magically, with that voice from the past informing me on the phone that I was—a hotshot. From today on, a life of facts. Action, movement, dynamism. The clappers snap shut. God turns another page of his endless, supremely boring script. The sculptor chips off another piece of marble.
I put on water for coffee. Whitish mushrooms were growing in the dampness of the kitchen. Nice. Sort of bucolic, even. I turned on the radio, got in the shower. The apartment was so small you could practically do all those things at the same time. With one hand I lathered my head, with the other I adjusted the volume of the radio in the living room, stretching out a leg to turn off the burner when the water boiled.
"Giddy-up! Onward ho! Yee-haw!" I yelled under the ice-cold water. "Yippee-hi-yo, Silver!"
Then I heard a familiar tune on the radio. It said something like, "reality doesn't matter, what matters is the illusion," with which I completely agreed. During the last months, anyway, nothing had happened to me besides fantasies. But the song that echoed in the recesses of my memory was old, like a bolero or a fox-trot, and what came out of the radio now was one of those rock songs with a desperate electric bass, mean percussion, and hysterical synthesizers. The female singer's voice sounded like glass ground up in a blender. In any case, I thought, the lyrics are right. And all the things I remembered, or thought I remembered, because in remembering them so intensely I had ended up turning them into sheer—and lousy—literature, no longer mattered.
What was left of the last piece of soap slipped through my fingers. It was so small it disappeared down the drain.