The Hidden Signs

Born in Veracruz in 1932, JUAN VICENTE MELO was educated in Mexico and received a scholarship to study medicine in France. At present he is director of publications for the Casa del Logo of the National University of Mexico. He is the author of three collections of short stories: LA NOCHE ALUCINADA, LOS MUROS ENEMIOOS, and FIN DE SEMANA.

HER voice reached him through the sound of the running water: “It’s getting late. You’ll be late. It’s already eight o’clock.” He could picture his wife, naked and fat, scrubbing her shoulders and soaping her armpits, her mouth open under the shower, in a cloud of steam. He hesitated for a moment. Then he went over to the window and raised the blind.

In the dazzle of morning light the building across the street seemed to have turned black: it was a dark, shapeless, shimmering mass. The half-open windows gave oil blue and reddish glints that changed in the light wind and were reflected on the walls and on his face. He closed his eyes until he stopped seeing rings of color. Then he tried to line! some sign or omen in the sky. in the street, in the lightness of the air, in the people walking calmly along; some least hint of danger; something that would oblige him to say I won’t go, to find any excuse at all — I’m sick: it’s this damned rheumatism — to stay there, tranquil, protected, invulnerable, inside the house, guarded from harm by that fat woman who was shouting to him, “Are you still here? You’re going to be late again,” After all, she’s always been warned about my health.

He breathed deeply and tasted the soft fragrance of the roses in his throat. There was a garden in front of the building across the street, and a group of children were struggling to see who would be the first to gel on the bus. At the corner a girl was trying to keep the light, hot wind from lifting her skirt. Two women greeted each other at the top of their voices — “How are you? Isn’t it hot!” — and he loosened the knot in his tie.

He closed the window and let the blind fall down, secure in his belief that it didn’t make the slightest noise. As he passed the bathroom door he stopped, heard the running water, heard his wife singing, as if she were gargling, “Your love has brought me so-o-omething, I don’t know wha-a-at,” and smiled. At that point she’d be washing her huge, flaccid belly, which was covered with little black scars as if she’d had a baby at some time. He knew this because he once went into the bathroom without knocking and saw her. He closed the apartment door carefully, and as he went down the stairs he congratulated himself on the masterful way he’d learned to deceive her every morning. He stopped at the corner to look up the horoscope in the newspaper.

“Monday, August 20. Pisces. If you were born between February 19 and March 20. you should avoid arguments. A favorable contact. Prosperity in business affairs.”

But he said to himself, it isn’t so, there’s got to be something more, something different. Something has to happen. And as usual he rehearsed the shape and size of things, very slowly and carefully: first the building in front of his house, the closed or open windows, the garden; then the sky, the street, the trees. He remembered the morning when a loud and sudden opening and closing of windows coincided with his bumping into somebody at the corner, the result being that his right knee hurt him even worse; he had stayed in bed for two whole days, doing nothing but massage that hot, red, formless bulge. The horoscope hadn’t said a thing, at least not anything in particular. “Prosperity in business affairs. Avoid arguments.” The same as on every Monday. He also remembered how motionless everything was on that other day: the strange, mysterious look of the street, incredibly deserted at that hour, and the frightening sense of emptiness that surrounded him. The horoscope hadn’t said a thing, at least not anything in particular. “A favorable contact. Avoid arguments.” That was —yes, I’m sure of it — that was the morning when one of the secretaries died a sudden death in the office. Margarita. Her hand fell onto her typewriter. Her lips were twisted, her eyes wide open. Poor Margarita. And every day was like that, especially Monday, with the horoscope always saying the same thing, with the sky always telling the same lies, always hiding the signs. And the people, the street, the windows, the air, the light: more than enough of everything, inspiring confidence, waiting for the right moment for the fatal blow. He tightened the knot in his tie so hard that it hurt his throat, with the same quick, nervous gesture he’d used to cover his genitals as a boy during fights at school, as if by tightening his tie he could protect himself from something, some invisible and all-powerful enemy, some hostile or vengeful element, some silent attack.

I’m glad it left. It was full. Besides, those buses are uncomfortable, and they stink. I’ll wait for another one.

But when the next one came by he didn’t signal for it to stop. Too old. A wreck. It’s buses like that that get into accidents at every corner. Quarter past eight. I’ll be late again. But I don’t care. Better late than never. He tapped his foot impatiently and felt that horrible twinge in his knee. He put his hand on his shirtfront for a moment, feeling the steady rhythm of his heart; then, with two fingers he gently traced the course of a vein in his neck. Another bus went by without stopping, without heeding the signals and insults of the people who were waiting there beside him and who might be accomplices in the day’s deceptions, in the false innocence of everything. I’m going to take a cab. It’s getting late. It was always the same: he let three or four buses go past, looked at the people standing beside him at the corner, and decided to take a cab. It’s more comfortable. None of those smells. None of those germs in the air.

Half past eight. By this time the boss would be dictating letters, talking on the telephone, issuing orders; his wife would have finished showering; she’d be cutting her toenails or deodorizing her armpits. Suddenly he had the feeling that something had changed, that the air was lighter, that the light was different, that it was growing cold, that the persons and things he saw had a different weight, that they were all flying away. He had the feeling that someone was watching him. But no one was watching anyone. Nothing had changed. Fever. I’ve got a fever. He took his pulse. I’m definitely going to change newspapers. This horoscope business is a fraud, just like the lottery. Prosperity in business affairs. How stupid can you get? They’ve all ganged up. Pm sure of it. I’m sure something bad’s going to happen to me.

WHEN he finally noticed it, there was a taxi parked nearby. The driver was changing the meter. He stuck out a finger — a slow, stiff finger, its knuckles withered and deformed — and pointed at an indeterminable point. He opened the right-hand front door, then closed it. That’s the suicide seat. I wouldn’t have a chance. He opened the rear door, got in, and slammed it behind him.

“Can’t you read?”

“What did you say?”

The driver pointed to a decalcomania in red letters: “Please do not slam the door. I listen to station XMEX.”

He read it out with a very slight movement of his lips, repeating every word. The driver grunted, said something he didn’t understand, and started off. He had to tell him the street and number twice.

“Speak up, speak up.”

The taxi gave a sharp turn, and its wheels skidded on the fresh asphalt. He felt as if the street were falling on top of him, as if the buildings were collapsing. He was sure he’d heard the sound of broken glass in his ears. He wiped his brow. Pd have done better not to have got into this cab. Something told me I should never have got into it. Pm going to get out right here. Another turn. Stop. Quick braking. The squeal of tires. Just barely in time, just the minimum distance to avoid colliding with another car, to avoid crossing the white line, to avoid dying with that sound of broken glass in one’s ears. Go. Fast, faster. The driver smiling, insulting other drivers, making the car weave in and out, making it dance, faster and faster, tuning the radio with one hand, his other hand on the steering wheel, faster, smiling, his lips fat and purple, his teeth yellow and uneven, a scar on his forehead, crossing himself as he passed a church, speeding up, slowing down. And his passenger clutching the door handle, looking at the photographs, the pictures of saints, the words written on the roof, the words written on the windshield, next to the decalcomanias of the trailic department, watching the driver smile, seeing the smooth, clean streets — they looked clean, anyway — and the houses and the pedestrians, the long dark tunnel, the cloud of dust over the streets and houses and pedestrians. Pm going to die right now. I’m sure oj it, right now, he’s going to crash head on. I’m going to vomit, I’m going to die, I’m going to live somewhere else, this can’t go on, I can’t let it, I can’t let this character murder me, somewhere else, I’m going to live somewhere else, by the sea, by the sea, I knew this would happen. Traffic light. Another. Red light. Attention. Danger. I’m not going to get there, ever. It’s like going on a trip. Ton can’t live like this, you can’t live here in this city. Everything is so far away. Somewhere else. By the sea, by the sea. Here, you could die at any moment. Everybody could die. This city is going to be empty.

“Look at that, the way they squashed that guy.”

He saw the truck crushing, piercing, destroying the little blue car. The photographs, the pictures of the saints, the phrases, the decalcomanias, all of them were dancing. “Your lo-o-ovc has brought m-e-e something, I don’t know wha-a-at.” He heard the driver shouting something, shouting something, shouting something. He felt that dreadful pain in his knee, as if a spear had been driven through it.

Nine o’clock.

He decided that the office where he’d worked for ten years was not as ugly as they said. He leaned against the wall and felt somewhat calmer. A few moments later, as he took the elevator, as he entered his tiny office, as he sensed the cool dampness of the ledgers, he wanted to smile, to be amiable, to smoke less than he did, to be overly grateful for the cup of hot coffee brought to him by the girl who took the place of Margarita, the poor secretary who died one morning without knowing what was happening, without uttering a word, with no more than a stupid grimace on her lips, a victim of the city, of himself and everyone, of the hidden signs he would never learn to discover.

Translated by Lysander Kemp.