by Graciéla Inés Tillard
It was just a day like any another; the only difference was he had became unemployed. Manuel was walking trough the city without a destination, watching without seeing, with nothing to think about; he was just moving around. People enclosed him, passed him by, knocked him down. But they were nobody: they belonged to the reality he had already left.
* * *
That morning, when Manuel arrived to his workplace, the parking attendant received him and shook his hand, saying good morning, as always. There was, as usual, a crowd facing the elevator doors; a number of open smiles and nodding heads reciprocated good morning salutes. It was the same old routine inside the elevator box: a hello to the operator, a slap on the fourth floor secretary’s shoulders, a strong handshake to the (third line) executive of the new enterprises at the seventh floor; and then, when he entered in the offices, the humdrum succession of shakings, squeezes and slaps to wish good morning to each other.
Manuel found a memorandum upon his desk. He read it with the corner of his eye as fitting the briefcase on the table: an appointment at the council parlor at 10 o’clock. He asked one of the floor girls for a coffee; she brought it in with a smile, put a hand on his shoulder, and chatted about her problems at home until he had drunk it up; he barely listened, since he had begun to worry about the reason for the appointment.
The last time he had received a similar note was at the end of the detergent advertising campaign, but he hadn’t had such an account for at least the last three months.
* * *
Manuel had been walking for five hours. The traffic became more and more intense, and there were horns blaring and motors roaring, but he was almost unaware of them. It was the end of the day, the going-back-home time, but he wasn’t going home; he was just walking around with no destination.
* * *
It was almost 10 o’clock. He got up and walked to the appointment parlor. He was announced and immediately received by the personnel director and both floor managers. They talked... they said something. If Manuel had had to repeat all they said, he wouldn’t have been able to. Still he remembered clearly that they explained to him plainly that they were dismissing him because the company didn’t need him any more; they said he could choose a position of lesser importance (and salary) in one of the domestic branch offices where the payments were received. Everyone knew that it was the sure way out the company once and for all.
* * *
The traffic noise diminished slowly, and almost without noticing it Manuel looked around. He barely recognized the place. He was facing the entrance of some park surrounded by high walls with steel tips on them. The gate was magnificent, with strong bars and a delicate filigree of metallic leaves and flowers. He felt attracted to it and began to walk along the uneven path of stone slabs. There were a few trees to his right and a thick forest a little farther.
* * *
They offered him a limited time to answer, and he agreed. Seventy-two hours. Three days to say ‘I am going to the domestic branch office’ or just to say ‘I am leaving’. There was really nothing holding him to the city. His parents had died some time ago, far away in the family home, which had been claimed by the bank to discharge the mortgage. His father had always been a man with many illusions and a few practical skills. Even in his old age he believed he could work the property and earn enough money to pay all his debts. But he could not. A harmful episode provoked his sudden death, and a short time later his mother left forever.
* * *
The afternoon light was dwindling, and a nearly white penumbra surrounded him. The air was humid, and Manuel didn’t hear any other noise but the whispering breeze through the boughs of the old trees. A bench by the path on his right invited him to rest; he really had been walking on and on for too many hours. It hadn’t been a fast pace, but now he became aware he was tired. He sat down and slowly leaned back.
* * *
His marriage was almost forgotten. The things that linked him to Marcela weren’t unbridled passion, nor were they mundane interests. The courtship had stretched out for more than five years, and their acquaintances increasingly asked when they would be bride and groom. Finally they got married because they didn’t have anything better to do; they hadn’t enough courage to end their engagement. There wasn’t any kind of passion between them and he wasn’t surprised when Marcela told him she had met another man and that they were in love. As easy as the marriage had begun, it ended.
* * *
From his left something appeared to approach him, grazing the ground. Manuel turned his head, but there were only dry leaves. He glanced toward the opening in front of him, but he couldn’t see its end: a white fog was covering it. Once more, he thought, something was running toward him, but it was just a dry leaf again. He kept looking at the leaves, expecting the breeze to move them, but the breeze was blowing some another way.
He looked for the gate; it should be there a little farther away, on his left hand, but the fog had also covered it up with a white veil. He clearly felt a hand grasping his ankle and shook his foot quickly, sweating cold. He smiled when saw the dry leaf rolled up around the shoe. He moved his foot and the leaf fell down. Another leaf grazed his neck, giving him chills. Uneasy, he stood up from the bench and walked — at least he tried — toward the exit.
* * *
When Manuel said good-bye, the three managers had come close to him and shaken his hand, one by one. He felt the dry, gross, rough skin grasping his hand, mixed up with smiles and words he didn’t listen to. He left. The receptionist saluted him with an enormous mouth full of sharp teeth; the secretaries opened and closed their mouths like dogs being fed. He said something to get out there fast. He entered the elevator and the attendant threw him a plain glance of hatred. Manuel didn’t want to take the car from the parking attendant, because the boy would be waiting for him with a dagger in his hand.
While he walked away couldn’t free himself off the feeling of fright when the managers squeezed his hand. They were claws. Murderous claws. Hook-shaped fingers with metallic bones and plastic nails.
* * *
His feet entangled in the mattress of leaves and he stumbled, dropping down very slowly. Manuel put his hands out to break his fall, and they were buried in those rough, dry leaves that now resembled too much those other hands. He tried to shout, but his mouth was full of dry leaves; he tried to raise himself up but slipped once and then again, crumbling the leaves in small pieces with each attempt; he fought to breathe, but there were small dry pieces of leaves into his nose, filling his throat, drying and drowning it. A lot of them slid between his collar and the skin of his neck, and rasped, injured, hurt...
Manuel felt his hands were lacerated and moved them from the ground. He leaned his chest over the bed of leaves and just an instant later was aware of his mistake. Now the leaves climbed up his back, and he felt them inside everywhere, felt them looking for his skin under his clothes like dry hands scratching his waist, his calves, his back, his skull, his thighs.
Desperate, he turned over, trying to find air for his lungs, but the leaves inside his throat wouldn’t let him inhale. Manuel coughed and spat. He tried shouting. He looked up to the sky but saw only the white fog. He tried to clean his face and nose and mouth with his hands; he could see them; the fog didn’t cover them, but they were two enormous red spots. With his last bit of strength he brought his hands nearer to his eyes to see them more closely. A howl of fear filled his ears. There were two enormous, bloody red, dry leaves where his hands should be; he saw them approaching his face. Unable to control them, he felt the leaves snatching his eyes out.
Copyright © 2005 by Graciéla Inés Tillard