A store on the avenue
R. E. Bourgeois
Published in “Polvo en el viento”, an Anthology of Cuban SF authors,
edited by Bruno Henríquez, Argentina 1998.
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon. All rights reserved.)
Carlos was fascinated by antiques. He had spent the day searching in second hand stores for a particularly interesting copy of Xenophon’s “Anabasis” a friend had seen days before. He couldn’t find it and so he was strolling on tired feet when he stopped in front of a translucent screen displayed in a shop window.
Carlos didn’t know what it was, but it stood out among the other items like a diamond on black velvet.
He pushed open the shop door, sounding a little bell, and entered a room smaller than it had appeared from the pavement. He found himself viewing a collection of eighteenth century French swords and a variety of small cases of machined marble. An old fossil of a man emerged from the back room and approached him. The frock coat he wore could have been a contemporary of the swords on display, and the man was as shabby as the garment, even though his smoke colored eyes retained the spark of youth.
“How may I serve you?” he asked with a cracked voice while he made a gesture which bespoke a classical, cultured education.
Courteously, Carlos asked about the object that had piqued his curiosity. He pointed at it.
“Ah,” the old man declared, “the translucent screen. You are a connoisseur?”
Carlos felt a strange desire to own this object. He nodded, and the old man, with a gesture of satisfaction, touched the sleeve of his jacket with two fingers, as if greeting a fellow lodge member.
“Please come with me to the back room, Seńor...?”
“Seńor Santoni.... My name is Bernardo Sapperstein. Please come to the back room. I will bring it.”
Carlos followed to a larger, more poorly lit room with a table and two chairs in the middle of an incredible mess of unmatched items. The old man returned and placed the translucent screen on the table, in front of Carlos. It was framed inside a box of machined bronze.
“Some call it a materializer of desires, but I prefer the more common name; a translucent screen,” the old man said as he left Carlos to contemplate it. “In a moment I will bring us some maté to drink.”
Carlos nodded, engrossed. He was remembering the little he had heard about such artifacts.
“This is one of the few that remain. During the junta many were lost,” the old man said as he placed the maté in front of Carlos.
Carlos knew that the old man wished to sell it. He studied the many proofs of poverty in this shack and in its tenant. Sapperstein needed to sell the screen to eat, but he did not want to let it go to just anyone.
“In another era I prided myself as being the most knowledgeable scholar in the subject,” he said thoughtfully after sipping his maté.
“I wouldn’t use it for anything selfish,” Carlos ventured shyly. He hadn’t wished to advertise his ignorance. The old man had called it a “materializer of desires” and he did not seem to be either a crazy man or a swindler. Could it be possible? A sharp painful memory stole his breath.
The expression on Carlos’ face did not pass unnoticed. The old man smiled back warmly.
“I wish to buy it,” Carlos said lightly without moving his eyes from the dark turbulence inside the gold frame.
“We will do the following,” said the old man. “You will give it a test. And I will be here. Waiting for you.”
They remained silent for about a minute. Carlos looked inside the screen. “Could it be possible?” The old man looked at Carlos, weighing something in his mind.
“If you truly desire it, do it.”
Carlos tried to say something, but Sapperstein interrupted him.
“I need to tell you that I am a clairvoyant. If I discover wickedness in your mind when it returns, I will kill you.”
He pulled a revolver from his pocket and gripped it in a small liver-spotted hand.
“Concentrate,” Sapperstein ordered.
Carlos barely noticed as the distortion field pulled him in. He reached out and placed his hand in the dark whirlpool within the screen. It flickered. And then he was in that park, in the Santiago of his youth. He was a teenager and he had his arm around the shoulders of Mariana. The breeze moved her dark hair, caressing her face while they watched the afternoon clouds, not realizing that the secret police had already found them. It was February 9, 1974 at 6:40 in the evening. They were drinking deeply of the heady wine of love in a time of danger.
One hour later they would get up from the bench and wander off to catch the bus. A little later they would get off at the plaza, cross it, and take a dark alley in the direction of Mariana’s nearby house. Nothing seemed to portend the misfortune, but a few moments later an unmarked car would appear, blocking their path like a dark mastiff. Three men would get out and surround them. Carlos would receive a pounding which would knock him unconscious onto the pavement while one of the others continued pounding him with his boots. The other goon would try to push Mariana against the wall to frisk her. Mariana would resist with her fingernails and teeth, trying to protect the leaflets she kept hidden underneath her jersey, and the thug, exasperated, would grab a bayonet and bury it in her groin with a butcher’s single thrust.
Mariana would fall to her knees pleading for help while the executioners roared away in a squeal of tires. Mariana would try to help Carlos, calling for anyone in that deaf and blind neighborhood, paying no attention to her own pain as a river flowing from her dyed the flagstones red, and she fell fainting over the damp rocks, dying shortly before eight o’clock on that fateful night, twenty years ago.
Carlos knew all this, just as he knew that his own self of twenty years ago could not foresee the approaching tragedy, and hidden like a stowaway in the subconscious of that boy who now felt like another person, whom he could not even warn, he tasted again the presence of that young wife, lost yet never forgotten despite all the ensuing trials of his subsequent life.
He took her by the chin and slowly, wordlessly kissed her good-bye. There was an interruption in the Continuum and he was once again in the dank room of the shop, sitting in front of the translucent screen.
Bernardo Sapperstein watched him with moist feverish eyes. With a slight unease he thought he felt the old man probing his mind. Carlos remembered the experience that had just ended and he thought he could smell the perfume of Mariana’s hair again. Tears crowded the corners of his eyes. He cleared his throat loudly and looked away.
“What was that?” Sapperstein asked him with a kindly reverence.
Carlos fixed his eyes on a badly painted wall and chewed his words in the face of his desire to cry.
“My wife. Killed by the secret police. I wanted to be with her once more.”
Sapperstein nodded; a world of understanding shone through his eyes.
“You can be with her. All you have to do is go back further. To the moment when you first met. Each night from now on you can return to get to know her again, to live with her moment by moment until the day of her death, and then begin again the next evening.
“Then, will you sell it to me?”
The old man smiled with sadness.
“No. I will give it to you. The advertisement was just a lure. I wanted to give it to someone who deserved it.”
He took the screen and placed it in Carlos’ hands.
“Take it. Take it and go. You are just like me. You have suffered.”
“It is of no further value to me. I once had a son, a son who wanted to be a model soldier and managed only to die in the Falklands, in a senseless war. I can no longer return through the screen to rock him to sleep or to sing him lullabies. Arteriosclerosis has robbed me of my ability to focus my mind and to use the screen.”
He nudged Carlos to the door. Carlos half covered the screen in a fold of his overcoat and opened the door. The old man said good-bye and returned to the back of the shop.
Outside a downpour fell. A tango was playing in the distance. Carlos closed the door without looking back. The click of the bolt spared him the sound of the revolver firing in the back room.
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