Author Archives: Judith Mendoza-White

Mornings with Doves, Judith Mendoza-White

When José María opened his eyes to the new morning, he knew this would not be an ordinary day. Apprehension tightened his eyelids as he snoozed the alarm, struggling to face the dim light of the early autumn sun and dismiss the irrational foreboding that kept him curled up under the blankets.

The ominous feeling tightened the pit of his stomach into a knot while he stood in the shower, lathering his body with soap and water to wash away the vague sensation of discomfort and fear. The dream came back to him with the sudden sting of the after-shave lotion: a dark, uncanny dream, as real as the water running down the sink. A dream in which he, José María, knew he was dead.

During breakfast, he tuned in to loud music on the radio and chatted to his wife and daughter, who were getting ready for work and school and only contributed absent-minded answers to his incessant, unusual small talk.  Eventually, alone with his thoughts in the overcrowded suburban train, he was forced to face the idea. He knew this was the last day of his life. The feeling, which had started as a mere aftertaste of last night’s dream, had now become an absolute certainty.

He walked the first of the three blocks that separated the underground stop from the insurance company where he worked, but stopped before reaching the busy intersection ahead. It was stupid to continue plodding along the noisy downtown street as if this was yet another ordinary weekday, avoiding the hurried passers-by who elbowed their way past him, the offending odour from last night’s garbage bins climbing to his nostrils. Wasting the last day of his life in front of the paper-crowded desk, just like every weekday of the last twenty-five years, would be even more absurd.

Retracing his steps, he turned the corner and walked to the nearby park where he often ate his lunch on warm, sunny days like this.  In what felt like a split second he found himself sitting on a sunny park bench, a large pot of chocolate ice-cream on his lap. Half a dozen doves cooed and picked at the gravel around him. José María stared at the half-eaten ice-cream. He did not remember buying it; it might as well have materialised in his hands by magic. The eerie sensation increased. How did he even get to this park? It did not look at all like the one where he usually sat during lunch breaks away from the office.

This dream has been playing up with my head, he concluded. With a sigh of exasperation, he pushed the ice-cream carton away.

He felt unusually tired. Leaning back on the bench, he thought of his wife and daughter. If this was indeed the last day of his life, shouldn’t he be spending these last hours in their company? Cecilia was doing a Math test that morning; she had mentioned it during breakfast. He imagined her eagerly jotting down figures at the school desk, the unbecoming uniform creased, her thick brown hair tied back in the usual careless ponytail. He smiled at the vision, which appeared so vivid that his fingers moved as if he could reach his daughter’s worried frown. At this point his daughter looked up and smiled at him, as if she could feel his eyes on her.

The image soon faded, and José María stretched his legs under the warm autumn sun that bathed the park, empty and still at that early morning hour. With a start he realised someone else was sitting at the opposite side of the bench.

‘Rodríguez?’ José María gasped, ‘Rodríguez, from General Villegas High School?’

The newly arrived nodded and smiled. The world was indeed a small place; what with running into an old high school friend in a small hidden park, lost in the hustle of downtown Buenos Aires. He had not seen his classmate, or thought of him, since the day his family moved away from the small country town almost thirty years ago. As he went to say this out loud, Rodríguez opened his briefcase and took out a crumpled paper; a page torn out of a school copybook. It was an unusual briefcase; it reminded José María of the school bags they both used to take to class. Rodriguez pointed at the figures on the paper.

‘The Math exam, do you remember? We both failed, like your daughter Cecilia’.

Irritated, José María thought that Rodríguez could not possibly know his daughter’s name, even less the result of the test she’d be doing this very minute. He went to say this, but instead heard himself telling his old school friend about last night’s dream.

Rodriguez listened in silence and then replied in a calm, matter-of-fact tone: ‘We are brought up in the fear of death; that’s the problem. Yet it is nothing but another form of life. A crossing… A transition, that’s all.’

A white dove fluttered its wings over José María’s shoulders, distracting him from the conversation. He threw his arms up in the air to scare it away. When he turned to his school friend, he found that he had left without a word of goodbye.

Shaking his head at Rodriguez’s lack of manners, José María thought that since the bench was now empty, he might as well lie down for a while and enjoy the sun before starting the walk home; perhaps even put a hint of tan on his white-collar, middle-aged skin.

When he tried to lie down though, he found the park bench was no longer a bench but a narrow, uncomfortable bed. No, it was a stretcher, a hospital stretcher; and the doves around him had turned into men and women dressed in white who leaned over him, placed weird gadgets on his mouth and his bare chest.  His wife’s teary face flashed amongst the others; José María tried to call her name, but the words refused to leave his dry, sandy throat. Cecilia stormed in, still wearing the ugly dark-green uniform. She pushed her way through the figures clad in white that surrounded him, trying to reach him, her voice breaking into sobs.

‘Dad! Daddy!’

Her mother put her arms around Cecilia, pulled her away from the scene. A sudden pain, sharp as the tip of a knife, stabbed José María’s chest as the voices and the faces around him faded in the distance.

He opened his eyes to Rodríguez’s soothing voice in his ears.

‘Nothing wrong with a good cry, my friend.’ Rodríguez’s hands were on his shoulders; an incorporeal, yet comforting gesture. ‘I used to cry my eyes out as well; at the beginning, that is. You miss them all so much, it’s only natural to see them in your dreams. You’ll get used to it soon enough, though. Sooner or later they’ll all cross the border and end up here, anyway. It’s only a matter of time. And time on this side, let me tell you, goes by real fast…’

Wiping away his tears, José María looked into Rodríguez’s eyes. They were the same eyes that used to smile at him in class, decades ago. It was then he realised he was staring at Rodríguez’s teenage face; smooth, unlined, unchanged.

Leaning back on the park bench, José María closed his eyes and allowed the white doves and the new knowledge to descend upon him. In this way he learned, while his eyes dried out and the last tears disappeared down his throat, that the dead dream too.

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Judith Mendoza-White

Judith Mendoza-White is a bilingual writer published in Spanish and English. Her novel ‘La lluvia en dos patios’’ was a finalist in the Hispania Award of Historical Novel in Spain, and was published by Editorial Altera in June 2014. She is also the author of the English version of the novel ‘Rain in Two Courtyards’, and is represented by Drummond Agency for the English speaking world. Among her other works, her novel for children ‘A Medicine for Benvolio’ won first prize in the International Contest of Children’s Literature in Peru and was published by Editorial San Marcos in 2013. She is a citizen of two countries and the world. She is now enjoying the writing of her second novel and doing research for her PhD.

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Winter Jam, Judith Mendoza-White

One

By the time I had climbed up the first flight of stairs I already knew that Julián had hit rock-bottom. The odour of rancid food and urine worked its way into my nostrils as it had carved its way into the walls decades before. While I kept climbing up the steps one at a time I amused myself looking down at the hollowed surface in the centre of the timber, where hundreds of other feet had preceded mine, and tried to guess some vestige of brown or green lost along the years or the decades. The remains of old and new graffiti screamed against the government, the country or life itself from the dirty walls, hostile as those of a prison.

I was out of breath when I reached the sixth floor. Julián shouted, ‘Come in!’ from inside when I rang the doorbell; the door was not locked, sure, anybody would have known that whoever lived on the top floor of that pigsty had nothing to give or to lose.

‘Ah, it’s you. Come in, viejo.’

It was cold, dead cold, inside. It somehow felt colder inside the room than out in the street on that freezing mid-July early afternoon. Julián was wrapped in a threadbare blanket with a design of large brown and white squares; I recalled similar checked blankets from my childhood or my teenage years. There is no closet in Buenos Aires which does not sport one of those old-fashioned blankets folded up on the top shelf. On the sofa next to Julián another figure was curled up under a wooden shawl: Roxana. She smiled an absent-minded grin towards me but her eyes did not move away from the screen of the black and white television set. The incessant chatter of one of those gossip shows that entertain or increase the emptiness of the siestas blared from the screen, the street noises muffled by the sound and the closed curtain-less window.

‘Do you want mate? Give him a mate, che.’

Roxana handed me a lukewarm mate without looking back. I sat in the only empty armchair. There was a hole on the dry leather seat and its oblique legs tilted outwards, in the fashion of the fifties. As I sat down I saw the guitar leaning against the cupboard and I turned away to avoid seeing it, to look at Julián.

‘It’s crazy to bump into each other in the street after all these years, isn’t it,’ said Julián as he reached and took a cigarette out of the packet that I had just deposited on the table.

‘Buenos Aires is a big city, but not that big after all… One ends up coming across people sooner or later, I guess,’ I said, aware of the banality of the comment. If it were so, we would have bumped into each other some other time at some point of those twenty years, more than twenty perhaps, though what difference does it make after all, who’s counting?

Julián had spotted me in one street or other near Once train station, an area I had not set foot in for years, and to which only the possibility of a good business deal could take me. The deal had been excellent indeed, and the cheque was already in my pocket when Julián bumped into me while I scanned the noisy avenue trying to find a taxi. The evening was dull and windy, there was a fine silent drizzle that threatened to turn into heavy rain, and most taxis were busy. My hand clasped the wallet in my pocket when I felt the fingers on my arm, and I almost turned away and ran before I saw his face. Julián. Twenty years. Or was it longer than that?

The blanket slid off Julián’s shoulders and I saw the outline of his bony arms covered by a thick turtleneck that had seen many winters, his stomach flat under the purple wool. I thought of my round stomach, the stomach of a man who orders lunch in upmarket restaurants without looking at the price list, who needs but to send the maid down to the cellar if he wants to enjoy a good bottle of wine with his dinner. Julián had always been skinny, with that skin-and-bone- rocker air that only added to his Mick Jagger looks, which he had consciously or unconsciously learned to emphasize with the ironic grin of his large mouth, which seemed to take over the whole of his face when he laughed. Twenty years of gigs in seedy basement bars, cheap joints and the odd meal does not help anyone keep the weight on.

If I had stayed on with the band I’d also have a flat stomach, and maybe a room in some pigsty or other like this one here. Instead, I have a beer belly but also a BMW sitting in the parking lot round the corner, a penthouse on Libertador and money to do or buy whatever takes my fancy. I feel sorry for Julián, yes, I’m sorry for him but it all makes me a bit sick as well; when we were twenty we didn’t even smell the piss in the clubs where we played, it did not bother us to spend the odd night on that creaky sofa that we found in the street and pushed up the stairs for two hours, all that puffing and sweating over the goddam sofa, but with the cover knitted by one of the many girlfriends or one-night-stands that used to flutter around the house we covered the stains, and if somebody had asked what colour was the sofa or the dozen chairs that came from God knows where, nobody would have known or cared.

But it’s a different story now, for God’s sake, anyone in his forties starts to notice a few more things, the wires poking through the seat start to hurt, at this age we snort as I did when I walked in and smelled the grease and the dampness on the walls; it’s no longer easy to live on mate, cheap beer and last night’s pizza boxes, and the dreams of fame have turned into memories, yeah, good moments while they lasted, there’s no denying that, but to drag them along the decades is absurd and doesn’t do anyone any good, just a look at Julián is enough to prove me right.

… it’s great of you to drop in, we could barely talk the other day, in the street, what with the rain and all…

… it was a different world, viejo. Those were the nineties… If it was now with Facebook and WhatsApp and all that crap I’d know every bit you’ve been doing in each and every day of all these years… I’d recognize your kids if I came across them in the street. How many kids do you have? Even your dog I’d be able to tell.

… He must be happy, your old man… CEO, are you? … He almost had a stroke, remember? When you dropped out of university to tour the provinces…

… c’mon loco, take a toke for old times’ sake… no? Ok, it’s your loss, viejo…

… are you coming on Friday? We are playing at Parnaso, here, take a flyer… Yes, El Parnaso, in Floresta, the same but not the same actually… they haven’t invested a cent on it for years and the basement is pretty run down… but they don’t charge to play, and we can always make a few pesos from the door cover if we bring enough people…

… Clarita is trying to get us a spot on the radio. Yes, she drops in from time to time, but she’s been having some issues with the kids… She’s got two, and her husband went to Brazil last summer to do a couple of gigs and looks like he’s lost the way back…

… Che, how about a jam? Come over on Saturday, if you can’t make Friday… Do you still have your bass guitar?

 

Two

…The door was always open, after all he was asking for it. That seedy rundown apartment block, that creepy back alley. Anyone could come in day or night, even the front door of the building would not lock unless you gave it a good push. Nobody saw me when I walked in that Saturday evening, much earlier than Julián had suggested. I knew the others would not be there yet, and Roxana is always out at the handcraft market on weekends. Julián was alone, his fingers caressing the guitar strings, his eyes closed in the solitary winter jam. The extremes of his large Mick Jagger mouth curved in a private, placid smile. I listened to the languid bittersweet string of notes for some time before I took the gun out.

I still have the bass guitar, yes, but I think the time has come to burn it with the other junk or put it in the bin. It annoys me but not as much as it annoyed me to see Julián’s guitar, so clean, so shiny, the strings taut and new, the only thing that was in good condition in that pigsty he lived in. All Julián cared about was his guitar, his music. He condemned himself to stale pizza and cask wine because he wanted to live for his music, to be what he had been born to be. And he did not care for shit. That was the worst thing: he honestly did not care.

Me, that’s another story. I just couldn’t keep freezing my ass in those damp basements, could not put up with the lack of money, the lack of everything; the rock-hard beds started to bother me and then came María Paz. She also put up with a few months of late night gigs and drank cheap wine with us in bars with cement floors and no ventilation and she even enjoyed it, sure, a bohemian interlude in her rich daddy’s girl world, but it had to end. I knew it would end, and if I wanted her to stay it had to end for me too.

On Sunday I’ll stay home while María Paz takes the kids to her parents and I’ll de-clutter all those boxes that have been piled up in my office forever. I’ve been meaning to do it for ages, all those drawers full of demos and CDs and the guitar, the blessed bass guitar that I used to play every now and then until there was no more time. No more time to waste on anything but keeping it all up, the money, our beautiful life, my perfect world.

… Because Julián was happy. I saw it in his eyes that day, sitting on that stupid armchair wrapped up in the old blanket, in that cold dirty pigsty. I don’t know how anyone can be happy among all that crap, and then Roxana and the mate like twenty years ago, luckily they had no kids, sure, Julián did not want children, he needed nothing but his music, he didn’t even need Roxana, she stayed because she chose to, because she never left. Or perhaps she did love him. Who knows? Who cares?

Now I can go on with my life, and there will come a time when I’ll forget about it all, like I had managed to do before that damned evening in which the rain and the city put me in Julián’s path and it all started to hurt once again.

….Forgive me, viejo. I had to do it. If you stayed around I could not keep ignoring that other world that is still out there even if I chose not to see it. Without you I can live without music, without dreams. With you gone, there may come a time when I talk myself once again into believing that I am happy.

 

Notes:

Viejo: Lit. old man. Colloquial form used to address male friends.

Mate: typical Argentinean drink, a kind of green tea sipped from a pot by means of a straw and usually shared with others.

Once: suburb in Buenos Aires inhabited for the most part by working and lower classes, especially the areas around the train station.

 

Download a pdf of Winter Jam

Judith Mendoza-White

Judith Mendoza-White is a bilingual writer published in Spanish and English. Her novel ‘La lluvia en dos patios’’ was a finalist in the Hispania Award of Historical Novel in Spain, and was published by Editorial Altera in June 2014. She is also the author of the English version of the novel ‘Rain in Two Courtyards’, and is represented by Drummond Agency for the English speaking world. Among her other works, her novel for children ‘A Medicine for Benvolio’ won first prize in the International Contest of Children’s Literature in Peru and was published by Editorial San Marcos in 2013. She is a citizen of two countries and the world. She is now enjoying the writing of her second novel and doing research for her PhD.

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All His Dead, Judith Mendoza-White

NOTE: This short story is one of the collection ‘Of Goodbyes and Mourning’, which consists of twenty-two stories dealing with death, fear and loss.

 

In every summer afternoon, when the entire city took refuge behind closed shutters and drawn curtains to escape the scorching Buenos Aires’ heat, don Luciano Gómez sat in his usual neighbourhood café. Afflicted by the obstinate insomnia that sometimes heralds old age, he no longer managed to enjoy much sleep. There was a time when summer siestas were something to look forward to, a daily pleasure he would not have traded for anything. They had now become a luxury he could no longer afford. An afternoon siesta would trigger sleepless nights that he would spend listening to the buses screeching to a halt in the corner, counting the drunken voices climbing up the walls to his bedroom window. The beginning of old age had therefore forced him to sacrifice his siesta, and the corner café was an easy option that took him out of the house in those otherwise empty hours.

That’s what being old was about, after all: spending one’s hours in the best possible way. Luciano Gómez, or don Luciano, as he was known in the neighbourhood, did not have much to complain about. He had a good retirement pension, he owned the apartment where he lived and another one, smaller but situated in a better area of the city, where his divorced daughter and his only grandson lived. Don Luciano had stopped expecting much from life some time ago, and the slow mundane development of his days did not bother him. Anger, jealousy and desire had progressively faded away, allowing him to make peace with himself and the others.

The morning was easily spent, even if don Luciano could no longer sleep past the first light of dawn. The prolonged mate[1]on the balcony, the watering of the many plants and flowerpots scattered around the apartment and the reading of two newspapers kept him busy throughout the morning hours. Then it was time for his usual round to the corner shop and the baker’s, which provided many occasions for small talk with the neighbours and helped kill time until lunch.

After lunch, siesta time began, with its slow empty hours. Then don Luciano rolled up the third paper of the day under his arm, reserved for the occasion, and walked to the corner shop squinting under the glare of the furious afternoon sun.

The bored waiter usually made some idle conversation before taking his order; the high temperatures, soccer, the remote chance of rain. Don Luciano never sat at the same table or ordered the same thing: those small decisions contributed to break the monotony of the hour. Cappuccino, lemonade, black coffee, mineral water. A toasted sandwich or a biscuit later in the afternoon, once lunch digestion was well under way.

The waiter then disappeared behind the counter. Don Luciano opened his newspaper and started to read, but the silence around him and the fact that he had read the same news twice in the morning papers soon made his mind wander away. At that point his calm eyes, where old age had painted bluish hues in the brown, looked up to the open window, and don Luciano started once again to count his dead.

 

Sometimes he started at the very beginning: the blonde he had met in high school. He went over the features he had never forgotten, the way her hips swung by him in the breaks, his surprise at the hardness of the ground under the shovel. From then on it was easy. It was a question of caution and attention to detail; that was all there was to it.

Later, at the university, there had been two more; men this time. One of them stole his idea for the master thesis (it was actually his own fault, Luciano’s, for failing to keep his mouth shut; from then on he had learned his lesson though). So did the thief, of course. The second one was at the time Lupita’s boyfriend. Lupita was don Luciano’s wife, who had passed away five years ago. Don Luciano missed the muffled sound of her slippers on the kitchen floor in the morning, the shared rounds of mate, her sparse talk. Lupita had never been talkative, and he had known he’d marry her from the moment he saw her squinting her short-sighted eyes over a book at the library, the thick glasses half-hidden under a long blonde fringe. After her boyfriend’s death it did not take Luciano long to convince her to join him for dinner and a movie. After forty years of marriage and two daughters she had died during her sleep without noise or fuss of any kind, the same way she had chosen to do everything else in her lifetime.

 

Some afternoon or other don Luciano inverted the order and counted from the end, starting by his most recent dead. The new neighbour at apartment D: young, noisy and bad-mannered, with her insolence and late-night parties at weekends. It had not been difficult.

The member of the club where he had spent his evenings for the last 20 years. Soon after don Luciano joined the club they had had a violent argument over political or religious matters. Don Luciano had clear, absolute ideas and opinions on every matter; he had always prided himself on that, even in his teenage years. That had made his life easier, there was no doubt about that. Life is better lived when there’s no room for doubt or further possibilities: don Luciano went through life with the peace of mind of the blessed few who know that what they say or do is right and indisputable.

The day after the argument at the club, don Luciano had been the first to apologise. He had done so in public, in a low humble voice, in front of the other members of the daily card table. They had all looked at him with good eyes from that moment on, and his reputation for being a good-natured chap had been firmly established. Don Luciano had waited two years to pay his antagonist back, and all that time he treated as a friend the man he knew unworthy of sharing the air he breathed. It had not been hard; it had all been a question of patience, and don Luciano had always counted patience amongst his many virtues.

The hours of the afternoon kept dragging slowly past him; don Luciano called the waiter, ordered another coffee or an orange juice, sometimes a small croissant or an ice-cream. The huge fan continued to blow warm air towards him, and don Luciano continued to count and re-count.

The blonde who though herself out of his league, who made fun of him in front of all the class on graduation day. The ideas’ thief. Lupita’s boyfriend; and later one of his friends, who had started to nose around too much. The guy from the club. The two from the soccer team, who had laughed for days at Luciano’s poor attempts in the neighbourhood’s Christmas championship. The head of department, lazy good-for-nothing who had denied him a well-deserved promotion. The noisy neighbour.

All of them obstacles in a methodical, orderly life. Don Luciano minded his business and expected the same from everyone else. That was why he had chosen Lupita: because he knew life by her side would be easy and comfortable, with no surprises of any kind. But people insisted in standing in the way of his life plan, which he knew was modest enough.

 

People started to walk past the café’s windows, the worst heat of the day already over. Don Luciano called the waiter and paid the bill, thinking that his daughter and grandson would be at the apartment in less than half an hour. He’d buy some pastries or an apple tart, his grandson’s favourite, at the bakery round the corner. It was still too hot to sit on the balcony; it’d be better to have mate or cold lemonade in the living-room, with the air-con on.

As he was leaving the bakery, holding the apple tart wrapped in crispy white paper with both hands, he stumbled upon his neighbour from the fifth floor, who was accompanied by a friend he did not know. He smiled and bowed his head as she walked past him; they had known each other for ages, Lupita used to go up to her flat for coffee and a chat on the odd day.

‘That’s don Luciano, from 1 B’, whispered the neighbour to her companion as they walked away. ‘A good man if there are any. Never in his life has he bothered a soul. If there were a few more like him around, the world would be a better place.’



[1] Mate: typical Argentinean drink, a kind of green tea drank out of a pot by means of a straw, usually shared with others.

 

Download a pdf of All His DeadDownload a pdf of All His Dead

Judith Mendoza-White

Judith Mendoza-White is a bilingual writer published in Spanish and English. Her novel ‘La lluvia en dos patios’’ was a finalist in the Hispania Award of Historical Novel in Spain, and was published by Editorial Altera in June 2014. She is also the author of the English version of the novel ‘Rain in Two Courtyards’, and is represented by Drummond Agency for the English speaking world. Among her other works, her novel for children ‘A Medicine for Benvolio’ won first prize in the International Contest of Children’s Literature in Peru and was published by Editorial San Marcos in 2013. She is a citizen of two countries and the world. She is now enjoying the writing of her second novel and doing research for her PhD.

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