Mrs Borges [story] by Randy F. Nelson

Mrs. Borges awoke to a tiny clink, a bit of background noise that seemed oddly out of place. Had it come from the distant kitchen? Perhaps two glasses slipping together in the dish drain? For a long while she lay terrified and still, wondering if it was darkness that was about to consume her or something much worse.

Since the first days of their marriage, she had hated the old house. It was Georgie’s only inheritance, and it had made her cower like this for years with its somber portraits and dark furnishings. With its accumulated sorrow. It was a classic Argentinian villa with rows of arched windows and rooms that fit into other rooms like puzzle pieces. A prison for those who were not blind. Now, in the damp early morning emptiness, Mrs. Borges (her name was Eva) imagined stepping out of bed and into a spider’s web, then further into some unspeakable horror. So when the clinking noise came to her again, she pushed the man lying next to her and said “Georgie.” It was the name his friends called him, although he never seemed pleased to hear it from her.

“What?” someone said.

“The kitchen.”

“The kitchen?” The man did not sound awake, and she pushed him again.

“I heard something,” Mrs. Borges told him.

“Okay,” he said. Then again “okay,” as if willing himself to move. Georgie swung his feet from beneath the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his face with both hands. He stood up and sniffed. Took a deep breath. After clawing up his cane, he made an unsteady step or two toward the bedroom door. This was because he was getting older, not because he was blind. In fact, he had never been entirely without his sight, had never turned his ear toward her when they talked, the way a profoundly blind person would have done. He always looked in her direction. It was what he considered to be polite. Now Mrs. Borges watched him dissolve into the darkness as if it were the familiar sea in which he swam. After he was gone, there came no sound at all.

Within a minute Eva was wondering why he had not turned on the kitchen light, something he frequently did to sort out shapes. And a bit later she was wondering why she hadn’t heard a clatter, a shout, a confrontation. Or why he was not back already saying “It’s okay. It was nothing.” Soon enough, though, she had lost any distinction between a minute and an hour. She laid back down and pulled the sheet around her shoulders as tightly as she could, like a second skin. When dawn finally arrived, she was still cowering, alone.

Mrs. Borges forced her bare feet to the floor and felt a bracing shock of cold. It helped her take hold of reality and to propel herself toward the kitchen. In the hallway she passed an ancestral portrait that glared at her–a face so flat and white it could have been starched and pressed with an iron. In the kitchen, though, Mrs. Borges could find nothing out of place. The dishes were orderly, the tablecloth straight. The lights, the appliances worked. The clock said seven thirty-five. Her mind went unaccountably to the library where the clinking of glasses and the tapping of typewriter keys were common, if unwelcome, sounds. She was not one of his bookish friends. Indeed, if the gossips were to be believed, she was not one of his friends at all, just a loose end in a marriage that had been unravelling for some time.

By midday she had dressed herself and repressed her urges to telephone any of his usual haunts. Instead, she had Manoel drive her farther into the city, toward La Recoleta, and then put her out near one of the parks. Here was the European face of Buenos Aires, where she could wander among galleries and shops and restaurants without any regard to time or to the growing suspicion that something serious had transpired. Eva spent some of his money on a necklace from a jeweler near the Alvear Palace Hotel but somehow found herself much farther north, in the Bosques de Palermo, by late afternoon. Walking toward the lake she came upon the Poets’ Garden and took one of the rose-lined paths, a significant mistake given her nervousness and insecure state of mind. Beneath one of the palms was a marble plinth supporting a bust of Georgie, bland, sightless, and cold. It unnerved her beyond any imagining.

As the days wore on, Eva felt increasingly trapped in her empty house. The servants were slipping away one by one; the ordinary expenses of living were accumulating; and there could be no calling the police with the tale of a missing husband. He was without doubt in the company of one of his mistresses, and any public acknowledgement of such would be a humiliation simply too great to bear. She spent her mornings in tears.

As a sort of revenge, Mrs. Borges began to take down the portraits in the front hall and to throw them on the floor of the great library in hopes that one of his friends would come calling. Then she would usher that person through the double doors where, unexpectedly, he would find himself tromping through generations of Georgie.

But finally she called her sister.

“You were never part of his life,” Alda said. “You need to leave. You need to stay with us in La Plata for a while, hear the laughter of children.”

“I think he might be with another woman. He hasn’t been home for days. And I’m so ashamed.”

Alda interrupted. “Of course he’s with another woman, his mamãe in that wretched flat of hers. They only wanted you as his keeper, the two of them.”

“I can’t leave,” Eva said. “I can’t.”

She spent her days walking about the city, imagining that she might run into him and imagining what she might say. She wished she had a map of his favorite haunts, but there was no map. At times she blundered into the worst neighborhoods, Congreso, Monserrat, even the villas miserias. The shantytowns resembled huge garbage piles with human creatures scavenging about. Near one, she was groped and robbed by a laughing man with a knife who then turned and ran directly through a fire after he had taken all she had. He must have been insane Eva concluded, and hardly felt the trembling in her legs. At home she slept more and more, ate less and less. On some days she did not get out of her housecoat at all. I’m haunting my own house she said to herself. I need to go to La Plata to be with Alda and the children. But she kept herself more and more abed. One morning she noticed Georgie’s leather belt lying on the floor, and it reminded her of a snake.

Since there was no divorce in Argentina, she began thinking of herself as a widow, dressing in a manner somewhat older than her actual age. Fanny, the housekeeper, left her as well to attend to Georgie’s wretched mother in the brown building on Calle Maipu. Perhaps Georgie was there. Perhaps he had died in his sleep. The house itself now belonged more than ever to Eva and her memories. Little crusted bits of paper began to accumulate in corners and little gobbets of food. There was an odor in the kitchen which she could not identify. Finally Eva managed to insert herself once more time into the ominous library. One of the lavender draperies had fallen to the floor. His leather chair had split along its seams. She went scavenging through his desk and among the shelves until she had collected a great cache of his papers. Then she burned them, every one, in the brick fireplace with the wrought iron grill.

Instead of bringing her relief, however, the destruction of his manuscripts simply made her more dependent upon his personal feelings for her. It was humiliating that he had simply discarded her in the middle of their lives. Her sister had been right. The house had never belonged to her and neither had the man. Eva kept herself ever more confined to the one room that retained good memories of him.

Soon enough, time compressed itself, and somehow twenty years had passed. She was seventy-seven, which would make him, if he were still alive, ninety-eight or ninety-nine. It didn’t matter. She had made her peace with the whole affair, realizing at last that she was no more to him than one of his fictions. It was a compliment in a way. The world had been giving him prizes now for years. From time to time she was quoted by reporters or one of his grasping biographers.

One evening, after a particularly exhausting interview with some academician from the United States, she went to bed early and fell quickly into that deep and subterranean sleep which resembles death. It was at once dreamless and comforting. A leaving behind of the world. Toward morning she was awakened by a sound, a mechanical clink like an ice cube being dropped into a glass. And, yes, she was alone. It had been her first instinct to reach out to his side of the bed, but it was empty, as it had been for years.

A slow shuffling approached the bedroom, and Eva felt a fear she had never known before. She grasped for anything that could stop her shaking. But when he finally appeared in the doorway, it was worse than she could bear. He was old. He was incalculably, incurably old and frailer than she could have imagined. Georgie was dressed in one of his elegant suits, a navy blue pinstripe that had somehow grown too large for him. He carried a bourbon glass in his left hand and his constant cane in the other.

When he touched the end of the bed with his cane, he seated himself there and turned his sightless eyes upon her. “It was nothing,” he said with a kindness that she could not fathom. “It was nothing at all. Go back to sleep.”

The undertone of sadness brought her more fully awake. “This can’t be real,” she said. “We were both so young when we first awoke. I was afraid, and you went away. Oh, Georgie, look at you. You are the embodiment of pain. And look at me, I’m. . . .”

“Hush now. Go back to sleep. It was nothing. I promise you’ll never see either of us like this again. But I did love you, all those years ago.”

“Why? You have to tell me. I’m your wife.”

“Poor Eva,” he said. “I was never married in this life. Or in the other.”

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to Lee K. Abbott’s story “Dreams of Distant Lives.”]

Image by Sergey Fotogray

Randy Nelson is a multiple-award-winning author whose work has appeared in a number of national and international publications. His first collection of stories won the Flannery O’Connor Award, and he is presently the Virginia Lasater Irvin Professor of English at Davidson College where he teaches courses in American literature and creative writing.