the short story project


Juan Carlos Onetti | from:Spanish

Welcome, Bob

Translated by : Donald L. Shaw

Introduction by Daniel Blaustein

Onetti’s work is imbued with the notion of time, which he deals with deeply and strikingly: time and its inevitable destructive impact. We know very little about the narrator-protagonist of “Welcome, Bob”: we don’t know his name, his past or his physical attributes. He could be 30, or 40, there’s no way to tell. Yet from the point of view of the young Bob, the protagonist is already on the “other side”, namely, “the dark rotten world of adults”. The narrator once thought that if he married Inés – Bob’s sister – he could reclaim the innocence of youth. And on his part, Bob– and this was his fatal mistake – cannot picture himself on the other side: he speaks and behaves like an eternal teenager. But time, as we mentioned before, takes its toll on every human being, and there is no turning it back. “Now” the narrator knows it well: the only thing he needs to do is wait and time will do the rest – Bob will turn into Robert and join “the despicable lives of human beings” – and he will get his revenge, reveling in the sadistic pleasure it affords him.

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One thing is certain: that every day he will be older, further away from the time when he used to be called Bob, with his fair hair hanging over one of his temples, his smile and his sparkling eyes, further away from the time when he used to come silently into the room, murmuring a greeting or waving his hand slightly at the level of his ear; then he would go and sit down under the lamp near the piano with a book, or merely stay silent and apart, lost in his own thoughts, watching us for an hour at a time without moving a muscle of his face, only altering the position of his fingers from time to time in order to cope with his cigarette and brush the ash off the lapels of his light suit.

He is just as far away — now that he is called Robert and gets drunk on any old thing, covering his mouth with his dirty hand when he coughs — from the Bob who only used to drink beer, and then no more than two glasses during the longest of evenings, and who would have a pile of ten-cent pieces on his table in the bar of the club to put in the juke-box. Almost always alone, listening to jazz, his face sleepy, happy and pale, hardly moving his head to greet me as I passed, following me with his eyes all the time I stayed, as long as I could stand the gaze of his blue eyes fixed tirelessly on me, keeping up effortlessly a look of intense contempt and gentlest mockery. He used also to be with some other young fellow, on Saturdays, someone as rabidly young as he was, with whom he talked, just the two of them, very animatedly about the vast city which Bob would build on the coast when he became an architect. He used to interrupt the conversation on seeing me pass by to give me a brief greeting. Thereafter he would never take his eyes off my face as he shot smiles and muttered comments out of the corner of his mouth to his companion, who always finished up staring at me too and silently echoing the contempt and mockery.

At times I felt strong and tried to look back at him: I used to rest my cheek on my hand and sit smoking over my drink, looking at him unwinkingly, without ever relaxing attention from my face, which was intended to maintain a cold, slightly melancholy look. At that time, Bob was very like Inés in looks; I could see something of her in his face across the club-room, and maybe some evening or other I might even have looked at him as I used to look at her. But almost always I preferred to forget Bob’s eyes and I would sit with my back to him watching the mouths of those who were talking at my table, sometimes looking quiet and sad so that he should know that there was something more in me than he judged, something close to his own nature. Sometimes I boosted myself with a few drinks and thought: ‘Go and tell your little sister about this, Bob, dear boy’, while I stroked the hands of the girls sitting at my table. Or else I developed to excess a cynical theory about something or other, so that they would laugh and Bob would hear it.

But neither Bob’s attitude nor his expression showed any alteration at that time, whatever I did. I only remember this incident as a proof of the fact that he took notice of my playacting in the bar. One evening, at their” house, I was waiting for Inés in the lounge, near the piano, when he came in. He was wearing a raincoat buttoned up to the neck and had his hands in his pockets. He greeted me with a nod of his head, then looked around and came on into the room as if he had annihilated me completely with that rapid nod; I could see him walking up and down near the table, on the carpet, tramping over it with his yellow rubber shoes. He touched a flower with his finger, sat down on the edge of the table and started smoking, looking at the flower-vase. His serene profile was turned towards me, his head slightly bowed, his face slack and pensive. Unwisely —I was standing leaning on the piano — I pushed down with my left hand one of the low keys and was then obliged to repeat the sound every three seconds, watching him.

I felt for him no more than hatred and shamefaced respect, and I went on banging down the key, hammering it with a cowardly ferocity in the silence of the house until suddenly I found myself outside it all, observing the scene as if I were standing at the top of the staircase or in the doorway, seeing him and sensing him, Bob, silent and absent beside the thin wisp of smoke of his cigarette which rose trembling upwards. I felt tall and stiff, rather pathetic, rather ridiculous in the half-light, every three seconds exactly striking the low key with my forefinger. Then the thought struck me that I was not making this noise on the piano out of incomprehensible bravado, but that I was calling him; that the deep note which my finger kept on obstinately sounding at the very end of each final vibration was, now that I had finally found it, the only word of supplication with which one could ask for tolerance and comprehension from his implacable youthfulness. He remained motionless until Inés slammed the bedroom door upstairs before coming down to join me. Then he straightened up and came walking lazily across to the other end of the piano, leaned an elbow on it, looked at me for a moment and afterwards said with an attractive smile: ‘What’s on tonight? Milk or whisky? Do you feel the urge for salvation or do you want a leap into the unknown?’

I couldn’t answer anything, nor could I smash his face in. I stopped striking the key and drew my hand slowly away from the piano. Inés was halfway downstairs when he said, moving away: ‘All right, maybe you’ll just decide on the spur of the moment.’

The duel lasted three or four months. I just couldn’t stop going to the club in the evenings — I remember in passing that there was a tennis tournament going on at that time  because — whenever I remained some time without putting in an appearance, Bob greeted my return by increasing the contempt and irony in his eyes and then would settle back into his chair comfortably with a happy grimace.

When the moment arrived at which I could not want any other solution than that of marrying Inés as soon as possible, Bob and his tactics changed. I don’t know how he got to know of my need to marry his sister and of how I had embraced that need with all the strength I had left. My passionate need had suppressed both the past and any link with the present. I didn’t notice Bob then. But shortly afterwards I had cause to remember how he had changed at that period, and once or twice I stood there motionless in a corner muttering insulting things about him between my teeth, realizing that by this time his face had stopped being mocking and that he was facing me with seriousness and intense calculation, just as one faces danger or a complex job of work, just as one tries to evaluate the obstacle and measure it against one’s strength. But I didn’t attach importance to it any longer, and even came to think that in his motionless and fixed features there was a growing understanding of something fundamental in me, of an old past life of decent behavior which my heartfelt need to marry Inés was bringing out from beneath the years and events to draw me close to him.

Afterwards I saw that he was waiting for the evening. But I had only just realized this when that evening Bob arrived and came to sit at the table where I was alone, dismissing the waiter with a gesture. I waited a moment, looking at him. He was so like her when he moved his eyebrows; and the end of his nose, just like Inés’s, became slightly flattened when he started talking; ‘You are not going to marry Inés,’ he said presently. I looked at him, smiled and looked away. ‘No, you’re not going to marry her because a thing like that can be avoided if someone is really determined that it shouldn’t happen.’ I laughed again. ‘A few years ago,’ I told him, ‘that would have made me very keen indeed to marry Inés. Now it makes no difference, one way or the other. But I can hear you out. If you want to explain to me…’ He raised his head and went on looking at me in silence; perhaps he had the phrases ready and was waiting for me to finish my sentence in order to say them. ‘If you want to explain to me why you don’t want me to marry her,’ I went on slowly and leaned back against the wall. I saw at once that I hadn’t suspected to what extent and with what determination he hated me. His face was pale, with a forced tense smile of lips and teeth.

‘One really ought to divide it into chapters,’ he said, ‘there’s too much to get through in one night. But it can all be said in a few words. You aren’t going to marry her because you are old and she is young. I don’t know whether you are thirty or forty — it doesn’t matter. But you’re a man who is already mature, in other words destroyed, like all men of your age unless they are quite exceptional.’ He drew on his cigarette which had gone out, looked towards the street and then at me again. My head was resting against the wall and I went on waiting. ‘Obviously you have your reasons for believing that you are exceptional, for believing that you have saved plenty from the wreck. But it isn’t true.’ I started smoking with my face turned away from him. He worried me, but I didn’t believe him. He aroused in me a tepid sort of hatred, but I wasn’t sure that anything would make me doubt myself after having realized the necessity of marrying Inés. No, we were at the same table and I was as clean and young as he was. ‘You could be making a mistake,’ I said to him. ‘If you’d like to name something that is destroyed in me.’ ‘No, no,’ he said quickly, ‘I’m not such a kid as all that. I’m not playing that game. You’re selfish; you’re sensual in a dirty way. You’re attached to sordid things and it is the things that drag you along. You’re not going anywhere, you don’t really want to. That’s all it is; you’re old and she’s young. I oughtn’t even to think of her in front of you. And you presume…’ I couldn’t smash his face in then either, so I made up my mind to ignore him. I went to the juke-box, pressed one of the buttons and put in a coin. I came slowly back to my seat and listened. The music was not very loud: someone was singing softly in the midst of long pauses. At my side Bob was saying that not even he, not even someone like him, was fit to look into Inés’s eyes. Poor kid, I thought with wonder. He was saying that, in what he called old age, the most repugnant thing, the determining factor in decomposition, or perhaps the symbol of decomposition, was to think in preconceived ideas, combining all women in the word woman, cramming them all in carelessly to make them conform to a preconceived idea based on very scanty experience. But, he went on, not even the word experience was the right one. By then, there were no experiences left, nothing except habits and repetitions, worn-out names to apply to things and so in a sense create them. This was more or less what he was saying. And I was gently wondering whether he would drop dead or whether he would find some way of killing me there and then, if I told him of the images that he conjured up in my mind when he said that even he didn’t deserve to touch Inés even with his fingertip, poor kid, or kiss the hem of her dress, her footprints and so on. After a pause — the music had stopped and the lights of the machine went off, increasing the silence — Bob said, ‘That’s all,’ and he went away. He walked out at his usual pace which was assured, and neither fast nor slow.

If that evening I saw Inés’s face in Bob’s features, if at some moment his brotherly likeness could adopt some trick of a facial expression to fool me and present me with Inés instead of Bob, then that moment was the last time I ever saw her. It’s true that I was with her again two evenings later for our usual date, and one midday for a meeting I forced on her in despair — a useless meeting, knowing as I did beforehand that every resource of words and presence would be useless, that all my most pressing entreaties would die astonishingly, as if they had never been — dissolved in the great expanse of blue air in the square, beneath the peaceful green foliage at the height of the good season.

The small fleeting aspects of Inés’s face which Bob had revealed to me that night, although directed against me and united in their aggression, had something in common with the girl’s own enthusiasm and innocence. But how was I to speak to Inés, how was I to touch her, to convince her, through the suddenly apathetic woman of the last two meetings? How was I to recognize her or even evoke her, looking at this woman with her long body rigid in the arm-chair in her house and on the bench in the square and who kept the same resolute and determined rigidity on the two different occasions and in the two different places; this woman with her neck held stiffly erect, her eyes looking straight in front of her, her mouth dead, her hands stuck there in her lap. I looked at her and the answer was ‘no’, all the air around her knew it was ‘no’.

I never got to know which particular anecdote Bob had chosen to get this result. At all events I am sure that he did not lie, and that in those days nothing — not even Inés — could make him lie. I never saw Inés again, nor her hardened, empty form. I learned later that she got married and now does not live in Buenos Aires any more. At that time, in the midst of the hatred and suffering that I felt, I enjoyed imagining Bob as he had imagined my actions, picking out the very thing or the very complex of things which had the power to kill me in Inés and to kill her for me.

Now I’ve been seeing Bob for about a year almost every day, in the same café, surrounded by the same people. When they introduced us — nowadays he’s called Robert — I realized that the past had no time-sequence and that in it yesterday joins up with the date of ten years ago. Some threadbare trace of Inés was still there in his face, and a movement of Bob’s mouth was sufficient to make me see again the girl’s long body, her placid, unselfconscious way of walking, and for the same unchanged blue eyes to look out at me from beneath her loose hairstyle, held in place by a red ribbon across it. Far away and lost forever she could go on being alive and untouched, utterly unmistakable, identical with her own essential self. But it was hard work trying to pierce beneath Robert’s expression, his words and gestures, in order to find the old Bob and to be able to hate him. On the afternoon of our first meeting I waited for hours for him to be left alone or for him to step outside, so as to speak to him and knock him down. Motionless and silent, occasionally stealing a glance at his face or evoking Inés in the shining windows of the café, I cunningly composed the insulting phrases and chose the patient tone in which I was going to say them to him. I picked out the place on his body to hit with my first blow. But at dusk he went away with his three friends and I decided to wait, just as he had waited years before, for a more suitable evening, one when he would be by himself.

When I saw him again, when we began this second friendship which I now hope will never come to an end, I gave up thinking about any sort of attack. I made up my mind never to talk to him about Inés or about the past but instead that I should quietly keep it all alive inside myself. Nothing more than this I do almost every afternoon, in front of Robert and the familiar faces in the café. My hatred will go on keeping itself warm and new as long as I can go on seeing and listening to Robert. No one knows anything about my vengeance, but I live it, joyful and furious as it is, day after day. I talk to him, smile, smoke, drink coffee. All the time thinking of Bob, of his purity, of his faith, the audacity of his past dreams. Thinking of the Bob who loved music, of the Bob who planned to ennoble the lives of men by building a city of blinding beauty, for five million inhabitants, along the bank of the river; of the Bob who could never lie, the Bob who proclaimed the struggle of the young against the old, the Bob who was lord of all the future and of all the world. Placidly thinking in detail about all this in front of the man with nicotine-stained fingers called Robert, who lives a grotesque life, working in some stinking office or other, married to a fat woman he calls ‘m’dear wife’; the man who spends these long Sundays slumped in his chair in the café, going through the racing-papers, and phoning bets.

No one ever loved any woman as strongly as I love his vileness, the utterly final way in which he has sunk into the dirtiness of men’s lives. No one was ever so enraptured with love as I am at the spectacle of his short-lived attempts to rouse himself, the plans with no conviction behind them which a destroyed and far-distant Bob dictates to him from time to time and which only serve to make him measure exactly the extent to which he has forever defiled himself.

I don’t know if ever in the past I have welcomed Inés with as much happiness and love as I now welcome Bob daily to the dark and smelly world of adults. He is still a newcomer and periodically suffers from fits of nostalgia. I have seen him tearful and drunk, insulting himself and promising his imminent return to the days of Bob. I can assure you that at such times my heart overflows with love and becomes as sensitive and as tender as a mother’s. At bottom I know that he will never go back, because he has no place to go to; but I make myself be considerate and patient and try to make him submit. Like those bits of native soil, or those photographs of streets and monuments or the songs which immigrants like to bring with them, so I keep on making different plans, beliefs and futures all of which have the light and savour of the country of youth from which he came not very long ago. And he accepts. He always protests a bit so that I have to redouble my promises, but in the end he always says yes, he finally manages a smile, believing that some day he is destined to go back to the world and the hours of Bob. And so he remains at peace in his mid-thirties, moving without disgust or clumsiness among the powerful corpses of his old ambitions, and the repulsive shapes of the dreams which gradually were worn down by the constant unconscious pressure of so many thousands of inevitable feet.

*The story is taken from “Spanish Short Stories 1”, Ed. by Jean Franco, Penguin Books, 1966. 

*The Editorial team had made all possible efforts to contact the rights holder of this work. We ask them to write to us here.

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