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Alejandra Zina | from:Spanish

The Lookout

Translated by : Frances Riddle

Introduction by Miri Viksman

“The Lookout” by Alejandra Zina is a story about a chance encounter between two friends who had not seen each other since boot camp. “Fate. To live in the largest city in the country and suddenly find yourself underground with someone you haven’t seen for centuries,” the narrator determines. Ismael invites Morin to dinner at his house, with his wife Angela. It seems as though Zina focuses on small, insignificant details: she provides an elaborate description of the dinner—the food, the banal actions and rituals of the cooking, the serving and clearing from the table, the small talk—and reveals very little information about the characters, their inner worlds, their motives. But within this mundane, familiar and pragmatic picture, the author deftly creates small cracks that stir a sense of unease within the reader, a certain suspicion and vague feeling of danger.
Many questions that arise from the text are left unanswered: who is Morin? Why did he come? Was the encounter between the two friends truly random? But these questions only enhance the pleasure the reader experiences from the story and from its unexpected and touching end.

 

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He brought him home unexpectedly one night. They’d happened to cross paths at the Carlos Pellegrini station; like in the movies, the two were coming from opposite directions and they bumped into each other. Fate. To live in the largest city in the country and suddenly find yourself underground with someone you haven’t seen for centuries.

The two men stood in the doorway to the kitchen, waiting for her to turn off the faucet and come say hello.

“Do you remember Morin? We were together at Puerto Belgrano,” Ismael said as he put his arm around a guy about as tall as him but more sinewy, with olive skin and green eyes, like many people from the province with European blood.

Ángela dried her hands on her jeans and walked towards them. No, she didn’t remember him, but she nodded with an open smile. When she smiled, her gray eyes sparkled and her irises lit up, yellowish like a cat’s. With her face red from the heat of the oven, her eyes shone even brighter. She felt the difference in temperature when she greeted the man, the contrast between the cold of the street, an unexpected relief.

“Do we need anything from the store?” asked Ismael.

Ángela shook her head and turned back to check on the chicken. Luckily she’d cooked a whole one that day. She usually just baked one piece for each of them, two legs and thighs with lots of lemon, a curl of butter, slices of onion, and strips of red bell pepper.

At one point Ismael began to tell stories from when they were at the base, the only thing that linked them, now dug up like a long-lost object. But that was after they’d finished the baked chicken and potatoes, after they’d drank the two bottles of Norton that the men had bought before coming up to the apartment, after the three red apples had been peeled and sliced on a plate as an improvised dessert, after the guest had told the story of his visit to his parents’ home in Posadas (where no one had been expecting him), after Ángela had realized who Morin was.

“Do you remember, love?” Sometimes Ismael’s questions had the tone of an interrogation, as if he were testing her memory and concentration.

“What?” Ángela placed the pile of dirty silverware on top of the stacked plates and stood up from her chair.

“The recruit who killed himself.”

“How terrible.”

“But I told you about it, don’t you remember? We were on lookout duty, he got a letter from his girlfriend saying she was leaving him.”

Morin lowered his head, pensive.

“At twelve o’clock the mail came and a half hour later he shot himself, right?” Ismael touched his comrade’s elbow.

Morin nodded as he took a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, he held it in his hand but never lit it.

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“Who can ever know why people kill themselves . . .” Ángela put down the stack of plates she’d been holding in her hands.

“What a marine says, is true; what is promised, is done; what is done is honorable,” Ismael recites with an exaggerated solemnity. “Branded with fire,” he says, tapping his palm three times against his forehead.

Out of the corner of his eye, Morin notes Ángela’s impatience: she wants to listen to them but, at the same time, she wants to finish clearing the table. Morin pushes his chair back and starts to stand up.

“No, no, no, I’ll get it,” Ángela places a hand on his shoulder to push him back into his seat.

“His guide licked up the blood.”

“What guide?” asked Ángela, picking the plates back up.

“The dog he had lookout duty with. When you arrived to the base, they assigned you a dog, a German shepherd. You had to train it, feed it, take it to the kennel. You took care of the dog and the dog took care of you. That’s how it was, right?” Ismael asked, touching Morin’s arm.

Morin nodded his head but his gaze was lost in the tablecloth, his nostrils flared, as if he were holding back his emotions.

“Poor thing,” Ángela frowned. “What I wouldn’t give to have one.”

“A dog?” Ismael asked, surprised.

“Yes,” Ángela shouted from the kitchen.

“A dog here?” asked Ismael, raising his voice.

“Why not? Coffee?” Ángela stuck her head into the hallway.

“Morin wants some. Me too,” responded Ismael, still shouting.

The two men remained silent, listening to the sounds from the kitchen: the stream of water splashing into the kettle, the kettle being placed on the burner, the friction of the match on the side of the box, the hum of the gas.

“We’re trying for a baby,” said Ismael as he rolled up the cloth napkin into a tube folded in on itself, like a noodle of orange play dough.

Morin was far away.

“We’ve already had enough time for ourselves, doing exactly what we wanted to. Well, as much as we could. It’s about time we started the campaign. And what about you?”

And what about him? Nothing. No one.

From the hallway, she looks at her husband’s friend; he has the body of someone who works in the fields. When she’d touched his shoulder to make him sit back down she’d felt his strength, and something else. Like touching dry ice, something cold and burning at the same time. At first glance, he looked much younger than Ismael. No gray hairs, no receding hairline, no crow’s feet. But there was something in his eyes, something old.

“Ángela, I’m talking to you.”

“Yes.”

“What are you doing?” asked Ismael, containing his laughter. “She’s like that,” he explained to Morin.

Ángela stood in the hallway that joined the kitchen and living room, stiff as a statue, her mouth open and her eyes fixed on the ceiling. As though she were lost in a trance or a revelation. Ismael thought it was funny when she did this. He thought the problem was that she had too many ideas at the same time, and they got all jumbled up. How many men are married to a woman who really entertains them? Few. Fewer than you’d expect. He was lucky. And he was sure she would be a good mother, even if his family thought otherwise.

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“You have to pay attention to certain things,” Ángela responded, straightening her hair with both hands as she returned to her seat. “Oh, listen to this, the other day I read an incredible story. There was a man who for forty years always used the bidet to wash his face. One day, watching a television program, he realized he’d been doing it wrong for forty years and no one had ever shown him how to use it.”

Ismael laughed. Morin smiled.

“That’s impossible.”

“The guy decided that if his wife and his five children had never said anything to him (knowing how he used it), if they let him stick his face where they’d put their you know what, then he must be completely alone in the world.”

“And did he leave home?” Ismael asked, trying to draw out the joke.

“Yes, he moved into a boarding house with no bidet, to recover, like a wounded animal.”

Ismael burst out laughing and ran to the bathroom saying he was going to pee himself. Morin grabbed his half full glass and finished his wine in one gulp. Ángela looked in the direction of the bathroom, leaned her chest against the table, and spoke calmly, with a hint of hostility.

“He’s also a little slow to figure things out.”

Morin licked the maroon drops from his mustache and smiled like a kid who’s just been discovered in his hiding spot.

“I suppose you came for some reason.”

Morin looked at her with curiosity. As she spoke, Ángela outlined cemetery crosses on the tablecloth.

“We have a box in the closet where we keep the secrets that are most important to each of us. We wrote them down on little pieces of paper, we read them out loud, and we put them away. It was Ismael’s idea; he said it would make our love stronger. With our secrets known to one another but well guarded. I’m certain that your name isn’t in that box. But you’re here and I don’t know why. Does he owe you something?”

Morin rolled his cigarette across the tabletop and caught it before it fell off the edge. She pressed the back of his hand.

“Tell me.”

Morin started to shake his head, but looked instead towards the bathroom. Ismael was tucking his shirt into his pants as he returned to the table.

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“My God, I almost died.”

The kettle shook on the burner, Ángela jumped up and ran to the kitchen. As the coffee dripped through the filter, she held her nose over it and slowly inhaled the toasted aroma. It could just be a reunion of old friends, a fit of nostalgia and nothing more. She arranged the coffee serving set on a tray with bronze handles. So many things become luxurious as time passes, like the porcelain coffee set she’d inherited from her grandmother. It looked like a relic.

Ángela returned balancing the tray. Ismael had pushed his chair back from the table, his body stiff, his gaze nailed to his old comrade. As if he’d just realized something that everyone knew except him.

As Ángela served the coffee they heard a loud bang on the bottom of the apartment’s front door, it sounded like the toe of a hard shoe, a forceful kick. The three of them looked at each other.

Ismael stood up from his chair in slow motion. The night suddenly seemed to grow longer. How long had they been at the table?

“I’ll go see.”

When he opened the door, he found the hallway just as it always was: the automatic light turned on, the ginger colored floor tiles, the worn doormat of the apartment across the hall, the sound of the elevator starting and stopping. Ismael slammed the door shut and stood for a moment, waiting. The bang repeated again. He put his eye up to the peephole but all he saw was blackness. He put his ear against the keyhole and he heard panting, nails clicking on the floor, a bark echoed through the hallway.

He opened the door and pushed the button to turn on the light, from a few steps away the German shepherd looked at him with his tongue hanging out and his sides rising and falling like an accordion. He looked as if he’d just climbed fifty flights of stairs instead of five. Ismael looked towards the living room. Ángela stood with the coffee pot in her hands, shocked, as if she couldn’t understand how her desire for a pet had been fulfilled so quickly.

The dog slipped between Ismael’s legs and skated across the parquet. He rushed into the apartment, falling and standing back up, barking and whining, his tail whipping wildly back and forth. He darted around Ángela’s legs like a chair blocking his path.

Morin stood up to greet him. He could already see him, he could already feel him. The way he jumped up on him, resting his two front paws on his shoulders to lick his face adoringly. The same desperate licks he’d given him that midday in the lookout tower. Then, he had been saying goodbye, and now, he was welcoming him back.

 

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