Exquisite Corpse - Issue 3
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Fotofobia
by Mauricio Montiel

 


A Juvenal Acosta
y Andrei Codrescu

Is that not why ghosts return:
to drink the blood of the living?
-J. M. Coetzee

El apocalipsis era para él cuesti-n de todos los d'as. As' lo demostraba la luz que cada mañana, en cuanto sus párpados se abr'an como una esclusa para derramar el agua de los sueños sobre el orbe, le punzaba las pupilas con miles de alfileres desprendidos de una muda explosi-n at-mica. El dolor era tan súbito, tan brutal, que lo obligaba a cerrar los ojos nuevamente y a hurgar a tientas en la mesa de noche en busca de los lentes oscuros mientras el pulso se le desbocaba y las sienes le lat'an en un feroz preludio de jaqueca. Una vez con las gafas encajadas en su sitio -entonces, s-lo hasta entonces- se atrev'a a parpadear, a desenredar la luminosa madeja de informaci-n que la vigilia le lanzaba. Jadeante, con una máscara de sudor sobre el rostro, en tanto los fosfenos se reintegraban con pesadez de zancudos a la penumbra sangu'nea de la que hab'an surgido, empezaba con su labor de reconocimiento: all' sus piernas unidas en una suerte de cordillera que alzaba las sábanas revueltas y declinaba al pie del lecho y más allá el perfil de una silla, el polvo debutando como una compañ'a de danza en una diagonal de sol, part'culas de materia concentrándose rápidamente alrededor de formas que terminar'an siendo la puerta del baño, las cortinas que no alcanzaban a cubrir la única ventana, las manchas -su olfato, de una fineza felina, registraba lo mismo semen que licor- legadas por antiguos huéspedes a la alfombra. Poco a poco, conforme su vista descifraba ese caos fulgurante para convertirlo en un c-digo legible, comprend'a que la explosi-n at-mica era una simple jugarreta mental, parte de un sueño recurrente que d'a tras d'a intentaba reconstruir en vano. Poco a poco el sentido de apocalipsis irrump'a con su inútil carga en el mundo; los augurios difundidos por la prensa y la televisi-n no eran nada comparados con la hecatombe ocular a la que hab'a sido condenado por toda la eternidad -la eternidad, pensaba mientras una sonrisa le torc'a la boca, otra palabreja para el gran diccionario de vaguedades humanas. ¿Qué era la eternidad sino el peso del sol sobre los ojos desnudos, los segundos que tardaba en dar con los lentes sobre la mesa de noche, el lapso necesario para la desaparici-n de los fosfenos? Hablemos de eternidad, pensaba, dirigiéndose a un interlocutor invisible; hablemos de la ceguera instantánea que me veo forzado a erradicar desde tiempos inmemoriales. Hablemos de lo frustrante que resulta no poder recordar cuándo fue la última vez que uno despert- sin miedo al dolor y del pánico a la luz, del terror primitivo tra'do por las primeras flechas solares que horadan los párpados. Hablemos de la sombra, esa luz invertida donde los ojos maduran como otoños en primavera.

Esa mañana, sin embargo, despert- con la sensaci-n -trocada muy pronto en certidumbre- de que algo hab'a pasado con la luz. Al principio fue una intuici-n sutil, un cambio en la periferia del campo visual que invitaba a elucubraciones oscuras, cierta parsimonia en el polvo atra'do por el rayo de sol que se filtraba por la ventana. Una vez con los lentes puestos y el aliento bajo control, inhal- con fuerza hasta que crey- que sus pulmones estallar'an; su olfato, pudo comprobarlo de nuevo, era un aliado confiable: el aire estaba cargado de una tensi-n eléctrica que s-lo hab'a percibido en los atardeceres de verano justo antes de que se desatara el diluvio. Una ins-lita densidad se hab'a colado como un enjambre de insectos a la atm-sfera; de hecho era fácil captar un zumbido remoto, un rumor semejante al de un generador que hac'a pensar en miles de élitros remontando la lejan'a. Aguz- el o'do. Ah' estaban, diáfanos y puntuales como siempre -como cada mañana, como cada noche-, los sonidos que poblaban su universo auditivo: el correteo de las cucarachas por los rincones más hondos del hotel, el susurro casi imperceptible de las arañas al tejer su tela, el chillido ocasional de las ratas en busca de alimento -¿cuántas veces, pens-, el ansia lo hab'a empujado a nutrirse de ellas?-, el canto transparente del mosquito, el roce de una mariposa contra un cristal, la incansable letan'a de las termitas. Algo, no obstante, hac'a falta en ese orbe secreto: pájaros. Las aves hab'an enmudecido para contribuir a la extrañeza que saturaba el ambiente. Y las moscas, también las moscas parec'an haberse esfumado en pos de nuevas podredumbres. Y el olor: una mezcla de acecho y vac'o, de fermentos geol-gicos y asfalto virgen. Y la luz: una tinta espesa, de matiz grisáceo, que se escurr'a entre las cortinas y empapaba la alfombra. Y el rumor, los élitros remotos de la ausencia.

De un salto dej- la cama, los sentidos más atentos que de costumbre. Un veloz vistazo a las revistas y peri-dicos acumulados en el piso al cabo de dos semanas de reclusi-n le ratific- algo que los espectros de la noche hab'an relegado a un segundo plano: el tren del siglo corr'a -y seguir'a corriendo, hasta donde lo permitieran los rieles- hacia el abismo al que lo conduc'a una desbocada humanidad. Según denunciaban encabezados y portadas, casi todos los vagones de ese tren hab'an sido reservados para acarrear un equipaje tan ominoso como absurdo: glosas y previsiones b'blicas, shows meteorol-gicos jamás reseñados, alza en el 'ndice de suicidios, boom de las sectas religiosas, man'a colectiva. En Inglaterra, una mujer hab'a disfrazado de ángeles a sus hijos antes de hacerlos ingerir un veneno del que no se ten'a noticia desde el siglo XIX. En Irán, un grupo de muchachos hab'a prendido fuego a una mezquita como parte de un complot para borrar todo rastro del credo musulmán. En Australia, un maremoto conocido como la Última Ola hab'a dejado un saldo de decenas de miles de muertos. En Egipto, un anciano se hab'a ahorcado en su tienda frente a la pirámide de Keops con un mensaje "para la humanidad" oculto en su túnica. En un pequeño pueblo de Estados Unidos, las organizaciones en pro de la pureza aria se reun'an para urdir la avanzada que anular'a "para siempre" a las minor'as raciales. En la ciudad a cuyas afueras él se hospedaba, un contador hab'a matado en algún momento a su jefe inmediato encajándole un lápiz en un ojo. La eternidad, pens-, los apocalipsis de bolsillo: el hombre no ha aprendido la lecci-n de la historia, sigue siendo el estudiante lego que consignaba su descontrol en las cuevas de Altamira -s-lo que las cuevas se han vuelto tabloides. Los toscos dibujos de bisontes y aves y siluetas famélicas y solitarias son ya fotograf'as de una muchedumbre confundida.

Mientras se dirig'a al baño, sinti- claramente que el aire se agitaba a su alrededor como si fuera un ropaje: tan enrarecido estaba, tan denso era. Cerr- la puerta tras él y, una vez instalado en la penumbra, se quit- los lentes, acercándose al espejo. Qué mejor luz que la sombra para enfrentar la mirada enrojecida de todas las mañanas, los efectos del sol reducidos a un lagrimeo constante. Tom- uno de los cientos de envases de colirio regados por doquier -sobre el lavabo y el inodoro, en el suelo y la ducha- y se entreg- al ritual balsámico de cada d'a: una catarata para sus ojos enfermos, recomendaci-n de un oftalm-logo muerto hac'a un par de meses. Luego del masaje prescrito, de parpadear con fuerza durante varios minutos, se afeit-, se lav- la cara, se enjabon- ingles, axilas y cuello y se enjuag-. Se visti- con lentitud, gozando el roce oscuro de la ropa que guardaba en el baño para evitar el encuentro con la luz matinal -años atrás hab'a decidido que los cl-sets eran territorio de las alimañas-, silbando el jingle de uno de sus anuncios favoritos, algo que ten'a que ver con gotas para los ojos o quizá con donaciones de sangre. Se pein-, se puso desodorante, un poco de loci-n y los lentes y sali-, dispuesto a desafiar el fulgor diurno.

Descorri- las cortinas y, aunque ya lo hab'a intuido, el espectáculo que ofrec'a la ventana alcanz- a sorprenderlo: era el espectáculo de la ausencia. Hab'a coches vac'os, las puertas de par en par, en el estacionamiento y a mitad de la carretera que pasaba frente al hotel; los escasos pájaros -cuervos sobre todo, según not-- permanec'an inm-viles, petrificados, en los cables de la luz y el teléfono; las moscas parec'an imitarlos, imperturbables en la grava y los vidrios como f-siles de una especie extinta. El cielo era ahora una suerte de hospital para vientres nubosos, cargados de lluvia, que se arrastraban con pereza y a duras penas permit'an la pálida irrupci-n del sol. La eternidad, pens-, a ver qué opinan de esta eternidad. Una ráfaga húmeda le revolvi- el pelo al abandonar el cuarto, obligándolo a esbozar una sonrisa y a cerrar los ojos mientras aspiraba profundamente; hac'a años, décadas quizá que no se rend'a al olfateo de la desolaci-n con tal placer, con tanta indolencia. Ech- a andar por el estacionamiento, oyendo con amplificada nitidez el crujido de la grava y el traj'n de las hormigas, revisando los autom-viles uno por uno. Vio cajuelas que exhib'an su contenido sin ningún pudor, maletas y neceseres y bolsos con las huellas aún frescas de la fuga, ropa diseminada en el piso que remit'a a las instalaciones de ciertos artistas contemporáneos. La idea lo hizo soltar una risotada. ¿Quién hubiera cre'do, apenas un siglo atrás, que algo tan común, tan an-nimo como la ropa, ser'a elevado a objeto art'stico; por qué ese afán moderno de ensalzar lo desechable, lo perecedero? Antes, pens-, el arte se reduc'a a un lienzo y un pincel, a fijar la lucha perenne entre la luz y la sombra. Antes el cuerpo era inmortalizado con sus accidentes; hoy pesaba más la envoltura, tanto que el cuerpo hab'a desaparecido. Quedaba, claro, el cuerpo de ese delito: camisas y pantalones, blusas y faldas, zapatos y tenis -un cadáver hueco. Antes, pens-, la inmortalidad se vest'a de otro modo.

Caminaba en medio de la carretera, deteniéndose de vez en vez junto a algún autom-vil vac'o, dejándose acariciar por el viento de la sierra que se precipitaba hacia el sur, cuando una imagen revolote- en su memoria. Era el recuerdo -vago, entretejido en las hebras de un sueño casi impasible- de una madrugada ajetreada, distinta, llena de voces y pasos provenientes de todas direcciones, de motores y cláxones y puertas que se abr'an bruscamente -los sonidos de la huida, la música del exilio involuntario. A este recuerdo se sum- otro que, quizá por inocuo, le sembr- una nueva sonrisa en la boca: los maratones de pornograf'a por cable a los que le gustaba someterse desde hac'a varios años. Lejos de transportarlo a la -rbita del onanismo -la frase era de alguien que hab'a conocido en uno de los bares que frecuentaba antes de consagrar sus noches al reposo-, la pornograf'a lo divert'a a tal extremo que hab'a llegado a considerarla el mejor escaparate para atestiguar el rid'culo desfile humano; nada más c-modo que entrar a un cuarto de hotel -¿en cuántos se habr'a hospedado en los últimos meses?, ya hab'a perdido la cuenta-, recostarse en la cama, alcanzar el control de la televisi-n y desplegar el festejo de la carne frágil, transitoria, entregada a un frenes' a todas luces impostado. ¿Frenes'?, pens-; frenes' el de la sangre que trepa por venas y arterias, el de los ojos que rehuyen el sol. Frenes' el de la carne que se rinde a la sombra y al manoseo de la eternidad. La estampa de tres o cuatro cuerpos moviéndose como pistones de una máquina primaria lo acompañ- hasta las casetas de peaje que, alineadas perpendicularmente a la carretera, marcaban el l'mite de la ciudad que lo acog'a desde junio, y que se hab'a desvanecido kil-metros atrás para ceder el paso a un paisaje campestre, montañoso -el fin de la civilizaci-n. El aire pagaba su cuota en forma de un silbido persistente; las garitas -ya lo hab'a olfateado- estaban desiertas. Las revis-, no obstante, una tras otra. Vio un calendario con la efigie de una mujer desnuda coronada por un gorro de Santa Claus, una revista de fisicoculturismo con las páginas rotas, una cafetera llena hasta el tope, un radio que transmit'a s-lo estática y que decidi- dejar encendido; pens- en lo hermoso que ser'a o'r el desgaste de las bater'as conforme el d'a declinara y se lament- de no poder atenderlo. De pie en medio de la carretera, el coraz-n y los pulmones hinchados de júbilo, absorbi- el páramo plomizo de la mañana y sinti- que por primera vez en mucho tiempo pod'a comerse -no, beberse el mundo a grandes tragos. Luego fue exhalando un suspiro que pronto devino grito de celebraci-n, un bramido que reverber- en la lejan'a donde despuntaba la ciudad.

Como en respuesta al eco que qued- colgando en la atm-sfera, un rayo de sol logr- perforar las nubes y cay- de golpe sobre una gasolinera ubicada más allá de las casetas, rodeándola de un halo brumoso -una presencia reveladora en los confines del vac'o. Asombrado, su mente vuelta el museo donde alguna tarde hab'a visto una exposici-n de Edward Hopper, se dej- imantar por la luz que parec'a fluir de uno de los cuadros más desoladores del pintor: Gas, si la memoria no le fallaba, con su plácida estaci-n de servicio atendida por un hombre de chaleco que esperaba con paciencia un coche que lo salvara de la parálisis. Sigue esperando, pens-, y mir- a su alrededor; quizá algún d'a te rescate uno de estos fantasmas automovil'sticos, al fin y al cabo la inmortalidad también necesita combustible. Pasos apresurados -la primera señal humana en varias horas- lo hicieron voltear hacia la gasolinera justo cuando tres j-venes sal'an de la tienda anexa cargando latas y cajas de cereal. Supo que se trataba de un robo por la forma en que arrojaron los paquetes a la cajuela del carro que los aguardaba con el motor encendido -tras el volante hab'a una cuarta figura-, por la mirada de espanto que uno de ellos le dirigi- antes de gritar una advertencia a sus compañeros, por el dedo obsceno que brot- de una ventanilla mientras el coche enfilaba hacia el sur con un aparatoso patinar de llantas. Lástima, se dijo, y sacudi- la cabeza al recordar al hombre del cuadro de Hopper; quizá haya suerte la pr-xima vez. Al llegar a la gasolinera, pate- con aire distra'do una caja de Corn Flakes y sinti- c-mo el rayo de sol languidec'a gradualmente, c-mo la penumbra ganaba terreno; luego, canturreando el tema de una vieja pel'cula, se dedic- a pasear entre las bombas. Las vio como el legado id-neo de la humanidad: monolitos para un futuro sin gasolina ni coches, los vestigios totémicos de una cultura que hab'a fraguado su propio eclipse. El carro de los fugitivos se fund'a en un horizonte que recuperaba con rapidez su marchita consistencia.

Lo primero que le sorprendi- al entrar a la tienda de autoservicio fue la pulcritud, el ambiente casi profiláctico que reinaba en el interior. Los estantes de metal, relucientes bajo lámparas que zumbaban -su olfato le asegur- que el polvo hab'a sido erradicado por completo-, exhib'an sus productos con un orden que rayaba en la monoman'a y que lo hizo pensar en comerciales, en el set de un anuncio a punto de ser filmado; de un momento a otro, sonriendo de oreja a oreja, podr'a irrumpir un hombre de chaleco hopperiano y voz aguda que soltar'a una retah'la de descuentos y promociones. Deambulaba entre los anaqueles, buscando en vano alguna huella de los fugitivos -apenas una lata de sopa Campbell's que levant- y puso en su lugar-, cuando su o'do recogi- un rumor que hab'a pasado por alto: el roce inconfundible de una tela contra una superficie metálica. Cruz- el laberinto de conservas y descubri- que su imaginaci-n no lo hab'a engañado esta vez; a la entrada del local, de pie junto a la caja registradora, un hombre maduro, de chaleco y pelo escaso, limpiaba el mostrador obsesivamente, absorto en la jerga que trazaba c'rculos concéntricos y en las manchas invisibles que raspaba con una uña que luego se chupaba para reanudar su labor. C'rculos y uña, pausa, c'rculos y uña -y as' hasta el infinito, el inexorable ritual del aseo. En la luz de quir-fano de la tienda, el dependiente brillaba como si lo acabaran de pintar, como recién salido de un -leo húmedo. ¿Quién, pens- él, lo habrá obligado a limpiar por los siglos de los siglos bajo estas lámparas quirúrgicas? Imagin- el cuadro de Hopper, el vac'o dejado por el personaje pr-fugo, el desconcierto en el rostro del espectador que har'a el hallazgo, los encabezados period'sticos: "Fuga en el mundo del arte", "Huye criatura hopperiana". ¿Quién llenar'a ese hueco, cuál ser'a la recompensa por denunciar el paradero del personaje? Carraspe- y se dirigi- al dependiente con voz conciliadora:

-Qué tal... Buenos d'as.

En el prolongado silencio que sigui-, el roce de la jerga se le antoj- casi un escándalo. C'rculos y uña, pausa, c'rculos y uña. La sangre del hombre flu'a con pasmosa tranquilidad, inmutable. Sangre fr'a, pens-, la sangre de la espera. Nada que ver con la calidez del miedo.

-Qué tal -repiti--. ¿C-mo va todo?... Vi que unos muchachos...

Se interrumpi- al notar por primera vez el rev-lver que descansaba en el mostrador, semioculto por la caja registradora, y que el hombre movi- s-lo para continuar limpiando. C'rculos y uña. Pausa. C'rculos y uña.

-Oiga -insisti--. ¿Se siente bien?

Sin alzar la vista ni suspender su tarea, el hombre habl- por fin. Su voz, tal como la hab'a imaginado, era aguda -una uña trazando c'rculos en un cristal.

Mas...

in English by Jen Hofer

For Juvenal Acosta
and Andrei Codrescu

Is that not why ghosts return:
to drink the blood of the living?

-J.M. Coetzee

The apocalypse, for him, was an everyday concern - corroborated each morning by the light which pierced his pupils with thousands of pins shot out from a mute atomic explosion the moment his eyelids opened like floodgates to scatter the water of his dreams over the globe. The pain was so sudden, so brutal, that it forced him to close his eyes again and grope for his dark glasses on the bedside table, his pulse at a gallop and his temples pounding fiercely in prelude to a headache. Once the shades were settled-then, only then-he ventured to blink, to untangle the luminous skein of information which his vigil cast before him. Panting, his face a mask of sweat, while the phosphenes readapted themselves to the blood-red gloom out of which they had blossomed like sluggish mosquitoes, he began the work of reacquaintance: there were his legs, joined in a sort of mountain range tangling the sheets into peaks which angled down towards the foot of the bed, and beyond that was the profile of a chair, the dust like a dance troupe making its debut in a diagonal of sun, particles of matter concentrating rapidly around forms which would end up being the bathroom door, the curtains which did not quite cover the only window, the stains on the rug-his sense of smell, with feline keenness, detected equal parts of semen and liquor-left as a legacy by former guests. Little by little, as his eye deciphered that resplendent chaos, converting it into a legible code, he understood that the atomic explosion was simply his mind's dirty trick, part of a recurrent dream which day after day he tried in vain to reconstruct. Little by little, the sense of apocalypse was bursting into the world with its useless cargo; the omens disseminated in the press and on television were nothing compared to the ocular catastrophe to which he had been condemned for all eternity-eternity, he thought, a smile twisting his mouth, another useless word for the great dictionary of human vaguenesses. What was eternity if not the weight of the sun on his naked eyes, the seconds it took him to find his glasses on the night table, the lapse that was necessary before the phosphenes would disappear? Let's talk about eternity, he thought, addressing an invisible interlocutor; let's talk about the instantaneous blindness I seem forced to eradicate since time immemorial. Let's talk about how frustrating it is not to be able to recall the last time one awoke without fear of pain and panic about the light, without the primitive terror brought on by the first solar arrows boring through one's eyelids. Let's talk about the dark, that inverse light where our eyes ripen like autumns in spring.

That morning, however, he awoke with the sensation-which rapidly turned into certainty-that something had happened to the light. At first it was a subtle intuition, a change in the periphery of his visual field inducing dark ruminations, a certain parsimony in the dust attracted by the ray of sun filtering in through the window. Once he had his glasses on and his breath under control, he inhaled vigorously until he thought his lungs would explode; his sense of smell, once again he could confirm it, was a reliable ally: the air was charged with an electric tension which he had only sensed on late afternoons in summer just before a deluge broke. A strange density had slipped into the atmosphere like a swarm of insects; it was, in fact, easy to hear a remote buzzing, a generator-like murmur reminiscent of thousands of elytrons soaring into the distance. He pricked up his ears. There they were, diaphanous and punctual as ever-as every morning, as every night-the sounds which populated his auditory universe: cockroaches scurrying in the deepest corners of the hotel, the almost imperceptible whisper of spiders weaving their webs, the occasional screech of rats looking for food-how many times, he thought, had his hunger impelled him to feed on them?-the mosquito's transparent song, a butterfly's rubbing against the glass, the termites' tireless litany. Something, however, was missing in this secret world: birds. The birds had hushed, contributing to the strangeness which saturated the air. And the flies, the flies also seemed to have disappeared in pursuit of new decay. And the smell: a mixture of ambush and emptiness, of geologic fermentations and virgin asphalt. And the light: a thick grayish ink that oozed between the curtains and drenched the rug. And the murmur, the remote elytrons of absence.

He leapt out of bed, his senses sharper than usual. A quick glance at the magazines and newspapers accumulated on the floor after a two-week confinement confirmed something that the specters of the night had relegated to the background: the train of the century was running-and would continue running, as far as the rails would allow-towards the abyss to which a humanity run awry was driving it. As headlines and magazine covers were reporting, almost all the cars of that train had been reserved to transport baggage which was both ominous and absurd: biblical commentaries and forecasts, unrehearsed meteorological shows, an increase in the number of suicides, a boom in religious sects, a collective mania. In England, a woman had dressed her children as angels before making them swallow a poison which hadn't been heard of since the nineteenth century. In Iran, a group of young men had set a mosque on fire as part of a plot to eliminate any trace of the Muslim creed. In Australia, a tsunami known as the Last Wave had left tens of thousands dead. In Egypt, an elderly man had hung himself in his tent across from the pyramid of Cheops with a message 'for humankind hidden in his tunic. In a small American town, organizations for Aryan purity were scheming to get rid of racial minorities 'forever.' In the city on the outskirts of which he was staying, an accountant had killed his immediate superior by stabbing him in the eye with a pencil. Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira-it's just that the caves have become tabloids. The crude drawings of bison and birds and solitary, emaciated silhouettes are now the photographs of a perplexed crowd.

As he went into the bathroom, he clearly felt the air stirring around him as if it were a robe: it was that rarefied, it was that dense. He closed the door behind himself, and once he was safely in the semi-dark, he took off his glasses, leaning into the mirror. What better light than shadow in which to face the reddened gaze of his mornings, the effects of the sun reduced to a constant trickle of tears. He grabbed one of the hundreds of bottles of eye drops strewn about-on the sink and on the toilet, on the floor and in the shower-and dedicated himself to his daily balsam ritual: a cataract for his sick eyes, recommended by an ophthalmologist who had died a couple months earlier. After his prescribed rubdown, after blinking violently for several minutes, he shaved, washed his face, soaped his groin, armpits and neck, and then rinsed himself. He dressed slowly, enjoying the dark friction of his clothes, which he kept in the bathroom so he could avoid encountering the morning light-years before he had decided that closets were the realm of insect-whistling the jingle from one of his favorite commercials, something about eye drops or maybe blood donations. He combed his hair, put on deodorant, a bit of lotion and his glasses, and he left, ready to challenge the brightness of the day.

He drew the curtains, and the spectacle afforded by the window, though he had intuited it already, still managed to surprise him: it was the spectacle of absence. There were empty cars, doors wide open, in the parking lot and in the middle of the highway which passed in front of the hotel; the few birds-mostly crows, as far as he could see-remained motionless on the electrical and telephone wires; the flies seemed to imitate them, petrified on the gravel and the glass like fossils of an extinct species. The sky was now a kind of hospital for cloudy stomachs, heavy with rain, which crept along lazily and allowed the sun's pale invasion only with great difficulty. Eternity, he thought, let's see what their opinion of this eternity is. A humid gust of wind ruffled his hair as he left the room, making him smile slightly and close his eyes while he breathed deeply; it had been years, maybe decades since he had given himself over to the smell of desolation with such pleasure, such indolence. He began to walk through the parking lot, hearing with amplified clarity the crunch of the gravel and the hustle and bustle of the ants, examining the cars one by one. He saw trunks exhibiting their contents with no modesty whatsoever, suitcases and bags and toiletries with the still-fresh prints of escape, clothes scattered on the floor which recalled the installations of certain contemporary artists. He laughed at the idea. Who would have believed, only a century ago, that something so common, so anonymous as clothing, would be elevated to the status of an art object; why that modern zeal to glorify the disposable, the perishable? Before, he thought, art had boiled down to a canvas and a brush, to establishing the perennial battle between light and shadow. Before, the body in all its irregularity was immortalized; today the wrapping counted much more, so much more that the body had disappeared. It was still there, of course, the corpus delectus: shirts and pants, blouses and skirts, shoes and sneakers-a hollow corpse. Before, he thought, immortality dressed differently.

He walked down the middle of the highway, stopping from time to time next to an empty car, letting himself be caressed by the mountain wind which hurried towards the south, when an image whirled into his mind. It was the memory-vague, intertwined with the strands of an almost impassive dream-of a bustling dawn, distinct, filled with voices and steps coming from all directions, motors and honking horns and doors opening brusquely-the sounds of flight, the music of involuntary exile. This memory was joined by another which, perhaps because it was so innocuous, planted a new smile on his lips: the cable TV pornography marathons to which he had enjoyed subjecting himself for the past few years. Far from transporting him to the orbit of onanism-the phrase belonged to someone he had met in one of the bars he used to frequent before he began to devote his nights to repose-pornography amused him so much that he had come to think of it as the display which best attested to the ridiculous human parade; nothing was more comfortable than to enter a hotel room-how many had he stayed in these past months? by now he had lost count-lie back on the bed, find the remote control and spread out the banquet of fragile, transitory flesh given over to an obviously fake frenzy. Frenzy?, he thought; frenzy the blood which clambers through veins and arteries, the eyes which shrink from the sun. Frenzy the flesh which surrenders itself to the dark, to the manhandling of eternity. The vision of three or four bodies moving like pistons in some primary machine accompanied him all the way to the tollbooths lined up perpendicular to the highway, marking the limits of the city which had sheltered him since June, and which had vanished miles ago to make way for a mountainous rural landscape-the end of civilization. The air paid his toll with its persistent whistle; the booths=he had already smelled it-were deserted. He inspected them, however, one after the other. He saw a calendar with the image of a naked woman crowned with a Santa Claus cap, a bodybuilding magazine with its pages ripped, a coffeepot filled to the brim, a radio playing only static, which he decided to leave on; he thought of how lovely it would be to hear the batteries draining as the day declined and he regretted that he could not wait while it happened. Standing in the middle of the highway, his heart and lungs swollen with joy, he immersed himself in the morning's leaded plateau and felt, for the first time in a long while, that he could eat up-no, drink down the world in great gulps. He then exhaled a sigh which soon became a shout of celebration, a bellow which reverberated in the distance where the city shimmered.

As if in response to the echo which remained hanging in the air, a ray of sunlight pierced the clouds and landed suddenly on a gas station located beyond the tollbooths, encircling it with a misty halo-a revelation in the confines of empty space. Dazzled, his mind become the museum where he had seen an Edward Hopper exhibit one afternoon, he let himself be drawn like a magnet towards the light which seemed to flow from one of the painter's most desolate canvases: 'Gas,' if his memory didn't fail him, with its placid service station attended by a man in a vest, waiting patiently for a car which might save him from paralysis. Keep waiting, he thought as he looked around, maybe someday one of those ghost cars will rescue you. After all, even immortality needs fuel. Hurried steps-the first sign of human life in several hours-made him turn towards the gas station just as three young men were leaving the attached store carrying cans and cereal boxes. He realized that he was watching a robbery by the way they flung the packages into the trunk of the car which was waiting for them with its motor running-behind the wheel there was a fourth figure, by the look of terror that one of them gave him before shouting a warning at his companions, by the obscene finger that shot from one of the windows as the car sped towards the south with a loud screeching of tires. What a shame, he said to himself, and shook his head as he remembered the man in Hopper's painting; maybe he'd get lucky the next time. When he arrived at the gas station, he distractedly kicked a box of Corn Flakes and noticed how the ray of sunlight gradually languished, how the darkness gained territory; then, humming the theme song to an old movie, he began to stroll among the pumps. He saw them as an apt legacy of humanity: monoliths for a future with neither gasoline nor cars, totemic vestiges of a culture which had forged its own eclipse. The fugitives' car merged into the horizon which quickly regained its faded consistency.

The first thing that surprised him when he walked into the self-service store was its tidiness, the almost prophylactic atmosphere which reigned inside. The metal shelves, gleaming beneath buzzing lamps (his sense of smell assured him that all dust had been completely eradicated) displayed their products with an order bordering on monomania, making him think of ads, of the set for a commercial about to be filmed; from one moment to the next a man might burst in, smiling from ear to ear, with a Hopperesque vest and a sharp voice, unleashing a string of discounts and promotions. He wandered between the shelves, searching in vain for some trace of the fugitives-barely even a can of Campbell's soup, which he picked up and put back in its place-when his ear detected a rustling he had previously overlooked: the unmistakable rubbing of fabric against a metallic surface. He crossed the labyrinth of canned goods and discovered that his imagination had not deceived him this time; standing next to the cash register at the entrance to the store, an aging man with scant hair, wearing a vest, was obsessively cleaning the counter, absorbed in the coarse cloth which traced concentric circles, the invisible stains which he scraped at with a fingernail he then sucked, only to resume his labor. Circles and fingernail, pause, circles and fingernail-and so on until infinity, the inexorable ritual of cleanliness. In the operating-room light of the store, the clerk shone as if they had just finished painting him, as if he had only recently emerged from a fresh canvas. Who, he thought, could have forced the man to clean forever and ever under these surgical lamps? He imagined Hopper's painting, the empty space the escaped figure would leave, the bewilderment on the face of the spectator who would make the discovery, the newspaper headlines: 'Escape in the Art World, 'Hopperesque Creature Flees.' Who would fill that hole, what would the reward be for reporting the figure's whereabouts? He cleared his throat and spoke to the clerk in a conciliatory voice:

How are you-Good morning.

In the prolonged silence that followed, the rubbing of the cloth seemed almost scandalous. Circles and fingernail, pause, circles and fingernail. The man's blood flowed with astonishing calm, immutable. Cold blood, he thought, the blood of waiting. No relation whatsoever to the warmth of fear.

How are you, he repeated. How's everything going?-I saw that some guys-

He stopped himself when he noticed, for the first time, the gun resting on the counter, half-hidden by the cash register, and that the man moved only to continue cleaning. Circles and fingernail. Pause. Circles and fingernail.

Excuse me, he insisted. Are you all right?

Without looking up or interrupting his work, the man finally spoke. His voice was, in fact, sharp-a fingernail tracing circles on glass.

Take whatever you need, he said, I only ask that you don't make any mess. He paused and added: Those fellows did as they were told, and they had knives. I told them that it had taken me hours to arrange the store, that they should take whatever they wanted. Even in shelters you have to eat, they said. I know that, I said, why? We don't have anything to pay with, they said. I know that, I said, I don't give a damn, take what you want and get the hell out of here. You aren't coming with us? they said. I can't, I said, I haven't finished cleaning. Another pause while he brought a fingernail to his mouth and then, between his teeth: I'll never finish-There's so much dirt-

And what do you want that for? he said, pointing to the gun, approaching the counter slowly.

More...

Bio

Jen Hofer is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and currently lives in Mexico City where she is editing and translating an anthology of contemporary poetry by Mexican women, which will be co-published by University of Pittsburgh Press and Hotel Ambosmundos Press in 2001. Her translations, essays and poems can be found in recent or shortly forthcoming issues of Explosive, Lipstick Eleven, Rhizome, Skanky Possum, Tripwire and in the a+bend press chapbook "as far as."

Duration Press: www.durationpress.com
Transcendental Friend: www.morningred.com/friend

jenho@mindspring.com

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