“Chuy, life’s too short, man.” Ernesto laid his glasses on the desk and rested the side of his head on his right palm, looking out the window. “Too short.”
He took in a breath as Chuy nattered a reply. This was the second gig in a month that Ernesto had gotten for Chuy y Los Locos to which the band had arrived late. This time, Chuy explained, the Express Passenger had broken down. The Express Passenger was an aging Chevrolet van, quite used, from Chuy’s cousin Lester Bedoya in Long Island City, which the band’s rising promise had allowed them to buy. They had removed all the seats in order to carry the band’s equipment, Chuy at the wheel. The other musicians, for whom there was no room in the van, would arrive by subway. The previous excuse, a month before, had been that the Siena had broken down. The Siena had been an even older Toyota vehicle that the band had named El Barco de Los Locos, borrowed from Lester. It too had no seats.
At least on this second occasion, just the night before, the band had arrived, although an hour late. The first time, the band had not shown up at all, and Chuy had actually traded blows with the club owner the next day, on a Staten Island street corner, who had insulted him for being Puerto Rican. This time, the owner of the restaurant/bar in Brooklyn, a friend of Ernesto’s father from Argentina, had shorted the band on its money because of their tardiness – “I had to do bird whistles, Chuy!” – and the other guys in the band had had to escort Chuy out of the place after the gig, so that he wouldn’t threaten the Argentine as well.
The musicians in the band were terrific, Chuy himself a timbales player of real note even though he was only 22. But he had taken over the management of the band as well, from Joe Corteza, the pianist who had his head on straight, had two kids, no drug issues, and could organize the band well enough to get them to gigs on time. Chuy had recently fired Joe, jealous of the band’s dependence upon the older man’s more steady demeanor, and the fortunes of Chuy y Los Locos had begun to wane.
During Chuy’s explanation, Ernesto surveyed West 23rd Street and the buildings across the way. His small talent-booking office was on the fourth floor of an old factory building now filled with art galleries, like almost all the buildings on this stretch of 23rd. It had become a very posh and self-important neighborhood. Comely, aggressively young, artfully dressed women walked around everywhere, a daily excitement for the 26 year-old Ernesto. The fashionable bohemian look of the many gallery visitors belied the clear poverty of the occasional artist seen sneaking around. The High Line was just a block away, and it symbolized for Ernesto the neighborhood’s change. He remembered it from his childhood as a kind of public dump and shooting gallery for junkies, thirty feet up.
Chuy’s anger caused Ernesto’s mind to wander, and he had a sudden, affectionate recollection.
As a small child 20 years ago, he had often visited this same building, which had had a different purpose then. His father Cacho Goyeneche had been the daytime shop foreman of a Post Office processing plant on the fourth floor. Ernesto had loved the sound of the loose planking when he would walk across the shop floor on weekends, hand in hand with his father, when the machinery was silent. His father would have extra paperwork to do, and would bring Ernesto along for company. It was a sound that child and father both enjoyed, especially when Ernesto had been challenged by his father to find the squeakiest floor plank of them all. There had been thousands of thick planks, all of them many years old, most of them slivered along the edges, thick, warped and poorly painted.
“Che chico, look around. You’ll find it.” His father would come out of the office now and then, to supervise the search. With so many loose planks, the quest was complicated and, for the boy, serious fun. Ernesto could never be sure which was the loosest. The day Ernesto finally found The Number One Plank, as Cacho had called it, Cacho brought him back to the office, sat him down across the desk, and brought an envelope from a desk drawer. Ernesto tore it open and found a paper sticker with an illustration of The Virgin Mary on it, like the ones they gave out to the best students every Friday at Saint Edmund’s School in Queens, where Ernesto was in the first grade. She smiled, The Virgin did, looking down dreamily from a swirling cloud. There were also two dollars in the envelope.
“You deserve it, kid,” Cacho said.
Cacho ran around the desk and hugged his father. He pocketed the two dollars and told Cacho that he would stick the sticker onto his bedroom mirror. Ernesto still had the mirror, in his own apartment. While The Virgin Mary had faded badly, and parts of the paper had fallen away at the edges, She still held a kind of deteriorated court over Ernesto’s bedroom.
During the week, millions of pieces of paper, envelopes, letters, personal packages, messages from home, messages to home, greeting cards, birthdays cards and every other sort of mailed item swirled, were processed and flew through all the Post Office machinery, Monday through Friday, eventually brought together in neat, paper-banded groupings that were then dumped into large canvas mailing bags. The noise in the shop made speech almost impossible. There was such a clattering metronomic racket everywhere that, of course, Ernesto could not actually hear the squeak of The Number One Plank when he visited during the week. But this was another order of thrilling excitement for the boy. Even in such chaos, his hand held tightly by his father so that he would not wander toward the dangerous machines, he could feel the press of the loose plank against the bottom of his shoe and, so, knew that it was squeaking. The sound itself was a secret…knowable, the little boy thought, only to his father and himself. Ernesto had often thought since then that no memory could be so pedestrian, yet so deeply evocative of the feelings he had for his father.
The caress by the wood of the bottom of his Converse tennis shoe.
His father, whom he had loved for the way he danced and, especially, the way he dressed when he danced – the perfectly ironed white dress-shirt, the jet-black silk necktie and just as black double-breasted suit, the black suede dance shoes with suede soles, his straight black hair laid flat against his skull with shiny Pomade – was Ernesto’s connection to his aunts, uncles and cousins back in Buenos Aires. He was the man who had begun Ernesto’s journey toward becoming a stellar asador, noted especially for his rosemaried lamb, who had given Ernesto more than a dozen recipes for chimichurri, the best being the one that contained cilantro and therefore was “no chimichurri at all, hijo,” because no such vegetable was grown in all of Argentina…his father, who was the first to teach Ernesto to dance tango, who himself expertly essayed multiple agujas, amagues and boleos with rough, legible grace, noted especially by the few actual professional tangueros in New York for his milonguero abilities, a rare accolade in that city in 1993 when the boy was 8 years old and attending his first summer milongas in a patio behind an apartment house in Queens, being led through the dance by his father… His father, who died in Buenos Aires while visiting a dying cousin, when Ernesto was 9.
Recalling this, Ernesto felt his eyes turning to glisten, and he laid his forehead onto the fingers of his right hand. Chuy didn’t notice, and kept talking.
The cousin was Roberto Goyeneche, and Ernesto’s father had at least been able to visit this cherished, famous relative – one of the greatest ever singers of Argentine tango – before Roberto died in 1994. Roberto was followed quickly by Cacho himself, who had a heart attack the day after the singer’s funeral. The last memory that Ernesto had of his father was that of laying his forehead against the side of Cacho’s closed coffin, returned to New York City from Buenos Aires. Ernesto’s mother Geraldín’s right hand patted the back of his head, caressing the boy.
Cacho Goyeneche had often reminisced about his cousin Roberto – known as “Polaco” because of his pale skin and his skinniness – especially when he and Ernesto would listen to the recording Polaco had made of the tango Muchacho, about a little boy who does not yet know the sadness of losing love, or what would come to him when he finally found love.
“Children,” his father would say. “They know so little, hijo…especially about love.”
When he learned that Cacho had died, Ernesto knew that his father had had been wrong about that. Ernesto’s soul melted within him when his mother told him that “your daddy’s…” Geraldín, sitting next to Ernesto on his bed, began sobbing. “He’s gone.”
A few days after the news, Geraldín sat with Ernesto on the couch in their living room. She leaned far forward and pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes. She had an opened letter in her right hand. She lay it on her lap and read from it, a description by her sister-in-law of how Cacho had died. “We had been dancing a tango, in Uncle Timmi’s house, for the memory of Polaco. Cacho was always so good at tango. And fifteen minutes later he was gone, too. So alive in one moment…and the next, his soul suddenly vanished. Ay Geraldín…” His aunt had been unable to complete the sentence. Ernesto laid his hands on his mother’s, crumpling a corner of the letter, himself wishing to run from this duty, that there be no need for it, that his father be alive and take his wife into his arms, to dance.
A priest eulogized Cacho in Saint Edmund’s parish church. Ernesto himself spoke at the funeral, but could not finish. Now, years later, still looking out his office window, still muttering imprecations at Chuy y Los Locos, Ernesto recalled a visit to their house by Polaco himself, on tour from Argentina, and a musician friend of whom Ernesto’s father had been a true fan, a man who had written an immortal tango about his own father’s death entitled Adios Nonino. The little boy, five years old, had been stunned by his father’s surprised, noisy amazement when the other musician had come in the front door of the house behind the celebratory, much-welcomed Polaco.
“Maestro Astor,” Cacho whispered, shaking his head and taking Astor into his arms. “Welcome!” He turned toward Ernesto. “¡Chico! ¡Imagináte! Astor Piazzolla!”
Cacho had to explain to the boy who Astor was, and when Polaco and Astor stayed for lunch – spaghetti al limón y crema, a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and sweet basil, salted, peppered and sprinkled with olive oil, and a great large loaf of Italian bread that they all broke up with their hands – Astor asked that the child sit next to him. He accepted a hunk of bread with a large clod of butter on it that Ernesto had constructed for him. Polaco and Astor both complimented Geraldín’s rustic cooking, especially the quality of freshness of her home-grown tomatoes, which, in Astor’s words, “leant music to this salad, señora.” Later in the afternoon, Cacho described that particular Saturday as the most important day in his life. “Except, of course, the day you were born, chico,” his father hurried to say to the un-offended, equally happy Ernesto.
Once he was able to get Chuy off the phone, Ernesto sat silently as he recalled his father sitting in his office in the processing plant, on the following Monday afternoon, in a white shirt and tie, looking out the window onto the shop floor. Ernesto and Geraldín were visiting, having ridden into Manhattan on the “E” train. Ernesto, as always, was amazed by the rush of so many pieces of paper through so much cockeyed machinery.
“Each of those envelopes contains something, no, Ernesto?” Cacho said. “They’re like tangos, no? Like Astor’s tangos. Each one with some surprise. With a secret, a heart of some kind.” He laughed. “Secretos.” His thin, dark face broadened with a smile. “Secrets. ¿No te rompen la cabeza? That’s like saying in English…like…something like ’Don’t they drive your heart crazy?’”
Because of the mystery of it, the boy had always cherished the question, and still did.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published this year.