All The Lonely People
(trans. Kit Maude)
The newspaper says that the city government has hired falcons to combat the plague of pigeons. It uses the word “hired”. I picture a load of falcons sitting in a semi-circle on black armrests in a meeting room, negotiating with government representatives. I barely ever read the newspaper, and when I do it’s on the computer or my cellphone; I don’t like the rough feel of the paper. But this morning I picked it up before leaving the house. My father had left it on the kitchen table, open on the story about the falcons. An expert with a complicated job title listed a number of problems caused by pigeons. “They dislodge tiles and stop up gutters,” he said. He explained that he had trained three different kinds of falcon with leather gloves and bells. A photo of one of them appeared underneath the headline. The caption read, “Peregrine falcon”. The bird was standing proudly in profile, fearsome as a conquistador.
There are never many people at the retirement home on a Sunday. Half of the nurses take the day off and, apparently, so do the residents’ families. Sundays are depressing enough without spending your time visiting a decrepit relative in an old folk’s home. I prefer Sundays because it’s not so noisy and the old people seem more tired and less plaintive. Most of them sit pressed up against each other on a worn, floral print sofa all afternoon, in silence, staring into space, like a group of teenage siblings watching TV.
When I arrive, my grandfather is sitting at the end of the sofa. Eli, the girl my grandma and father pay to give him special care, is sitting next to him on a wooden chair, reading a Gente magazine from at least a couple of years ago. She’s not much older than me, about twenty-eight, but she already has three children. She told me this once on the train: I was going home and she was on her way to another retirement home to do the same thing she does with my grandfather but with another old man. She told me that too, that she was going to take care of another old man, and when I asked how many she cared for, she said she had four right now. “All men.” I was going to say that she was like an escort but without the sex or glamor, but, fortunately, stopped myself in time.
I said hello to the both of them. My grandfather still recognises me, but he’s less excited every time. Or at least that’s how I feel when I say “Hi grandpa,” and lean down to kiss him on the cheek. He says, “It was good of you to come,” but as though he’s reading from a script, without looking at me. I say to Eli that’s it’s nice outside, why don’t we go out into the garden. Eli and I lift my grandfather off the couch and lower him into his wheelchair. I pull up the zip on his cardigan.
In the garden are a few aluminium tables, lots of plants and a bird singing in a cage. Usually there’s no one there, other than Peter, an Englishman who had a stroke and since then has only been able to say the word Wednesday. Peter circles the garden in his wheelchair, studying the leaves of the different plants and picking up litter. Sometimes, he stops by the bird and talks to it. “Wednesday, Wednesday, Wednesday.”
We sit at a table, Eli and I flanking my grandfather. He doesn’t talk much any more and if I ask too many questions it seems to irritate him a little, so Eli and I almost always end up making awkward conversation. Right now, we’re discussing our vacation plans. Eli says that she, her husband and the children are going to spend the first two weeks of January in Punta del Diablo. I tell her that I don’t have any plans as yet. “Maybe I’ll try to find a job,” I lie.
My grandfather is sitting with his chin in his right palm. He isn’t looking at us and doesn’t appear to be listening, although occasionally he raises his head to ask us what we’re talking about. When we tell him, he says “ah,” and his head sinks back into his palm.
He’s much skinnier now. A few years ago, he was quite fat; he had the perfectly rounded, firm belly some men get after they’ve turned sixty, like they were pregnant. Almost every day of his life he had lunch at a café opposite the basilica in Plaza Francia and ordered a sirloin steak with fries and a fried egg. My grandmother always said she couldn’t understand why his cholesterol wasn’t sky high, he even ate the fat. It was weird to see him like he was now, twisted and skinny, with jutting cheekbones like an alien.
Eli tells me that the last time they were in Punta del Diablo, their son Francisco broke his arm in three places after falling off a roundabout.
“Who?” asks my grandfather.
Eli puts a hand on his elbow and brings her face very close to his.
“Francisco, Eze. My son Francisco.”
She speaks to him in a louder voice than she uses with me, enunciating each word carefully. My grandfather looks at her, dumbfounded. The he turns to me with a frightened expression.
Luis is my father’s name.
“No, grandpa. Francisco, Eliana’s son.”
He thinks for a moment and then says,
I go straight to the motel from the retirement home. I do my eye-liner and lipstick on the bus. I’m sitting at the front and occasionally my eyes meet those of the driver’s in the mirror, surrounded by pictures of virgins and rosaries.
Federico is waiting for me at the door. He’s wearing a black t-shirt with a light blue shirt over the top. He seems nervous. I walk toward him, but he doesn’t look at me; he’s checking the time on his wristwatch. “So old-fashioned,” I say when I get to him. He looks up and smiles. Then he gives me a noisy kiss on the neck.
Eleanor Rigby is playing in the lobby. Federico asks the receptionist what kind of condoms they have. “I’ve got the red ones… the green ones, with ribs… extra-lubricated… then there’s the grey ones and I’ve still got some of the retardant ones,” she says in a surly voice, chewing gum. Federico buys a pack of the blue ones.
We climb to the second floor up a spiral staircase, lit by a warm red light, listening to the Beatles moan All the Lonely People. As we walk into the hotel room, a female voice greets us accompanied by a saccharine jingle. “Welcome to L’Hirondelle,” says the voice, followed by a hypocritical piano melody.
Federico is twenty years older than I am. He works at a bank. He doesn’t have children but he is married. He’s a slow kisser, shy with his tongue. He has those meteorological eyes that change colour depending on the weather and the light: sometimes they’re brown, others bluer, sometimes greenish. When we fuck, he lifts my arms above my head and squeezes hard with his hands. He plays tennis on Saturday afternoons and stopped eating meat a few years ago. When I met him, I liked him immediately, which is rare for me: usually, I only begin to like boys when I’ve noticed some kind of recurring mannerism, like the way they grab hold of a handle on public transport, or poke their food with a fork. But with Federico it was almost immediate. He was sitting in front of me when we met, at a party in a department in Villa Crespo I had randomly gone to. He was talking to a woman with curly dark hair. I watched him drink stout with his arm leaning on a wicker chair and laughing. He was wearing dark pants and a green sweater stretched out at the cuffs. He had shoulder-length hair. As I watched him, I thought about getting out of my chair, walking over to him, sitting on his lap and giving him a shocking, determined kiss, mouth wide open and lips wet.
We didn’t talk much that first time. He offered me a beer while he was getting one for everyone else. He looked straight at me and asked if I wanted one. I pushed my tumbler toward him over the glass table, feeling something inside me tremble like a baby deer in the cold woods. Then, as we were leaving, while we waited for the elevator, standing in front of the oval mirror in the landing, he asked me how old I was.
“Twenty-one,” I said. “You?”
“Forty-three,” he answered.
We heard the elevator arrive with a bump and he opened the door.
“Oh. You look younger.”
When we were done, we lay for a while in the dark motel room, listening to the air conditioner breathe. I reached for my cigarettes.
“Why do you smoke?” he asked.
“Because God tells me to.”
“Yup, God often says things like that. God is a shy man who doesn’t know what to say when it really counts, but exactly how to give useless advice.”
Federico always talks like that: he shuffles his words before dealing them out with grace and confidence, a croupier of language.
A little while ago, we spent the night at his house for the first time. His wife was travelling around the north of the continent, giving conferences. I don’t know exactly what she does, only that she gives conferences. And before she worked in a bar. Federico told me this the night I arrived at his house and saw a cocktail shaker and several different coloured bottles neatly arrayed on an old oak cabinet in the living room.
“You make cocktails?” I asked.
“No, I don’t drink much, but Laura likes them. She worked in a bar for a while, when she was living in Spain.”
“Oh,” I said and pictured her with a blonde ponytail and tight black t-shirt, brandishing the shaker while someone at the bar called her name, Laura. Then I added, “And now she gives conferences about how to make drinks?”
Federico tried to smile.
That night, before we went to sleep. I went to the bathroom to take a shower. By the side of the sink was a tortoiseshell hairclip, next to the soap.
We left the motel at five in the morning, feeling hungry. I asked him whether he would be in trouble for coming home so late. I ask with a smile. Trying to sound casual. He smiles back and says no.
The baby deer I felt inside me when I saw him for the first time has grown up now: it’s large and majestic, with horns that spread up into the sky. It struts confidently through the forest.
We buy two portions of pizza and a pair of bottles of beer at a Kentucky pizza parlour and sit on a bench in the plaza to eat. The plaza is almost empty, the only other person is Miguel, a harmless madman who sleeps there on a mattress in a pile of dirty blankets and mangy dogs.
Federico and I don’t talk much. We eat in silence, breathing in the garlic and parsley. On our more intense, brighter days, we plan vacations, children and marriage. But today he’s tired and I’m a little down. When we’ve finished eating, he puts an arm around my shoulder and strokes my hair. We hear a bird, an unusually shrill, tuneless cry, and look up to see where it’s coming from. Miguel’s dogs bark, waking him up. From his mattress he stretches out an arm and points up at the sky: “A falcon,” he says hoarsely.
Federico and I look for the falcon in the sky but we can’t see it, although we can still hear it calling out close by. We eventually give up and leave the plaza. He walks me home and on the way asks whether it was a good sign. Federico and I are always looking for good signs, indications we should stick with our relationship in spite of everything. I tell him that it must be, it’s definitely a good sign: the falcon is telling us to keep going, it’s encouraging us. But when I’m back home, waiting for the elevator and staring at the green wall tiles, I think the opposite, the cry was harsh and intimidating. You couldn’t call it a song, it was the desperate shriek of someone taken out of their habitat, someone who’s got lost.
The next day, my dad, who’s in Peru right now, phones me to tell me that the retirement home has called: there’s been “an incident” with my grandfather.
“What kind of incident?” I ask. My head feels heavy. I look at the clock: it’s nine-thirty in the morning.
“I don’t know, the nurse didn’t explain very well, he got agitated and angry. Go see what’s going on,” he sounded impatient.
Eli is standing at the door of the room my grandfather shares with another old man, Fernando. When I greet her, she tells me that we can’t go in yet, the nurses are still trying to calm him down. From inside we hear women whispering interspersed with a raspy voice, my grandfather’s voice. I ask Eli what happened and she tells me that Fernando went into the room and asked my grandfather if he wanted to go for a beer at the bar on the corner. There isn’t any bar on the corner, but my grandfather gleefully agreed. They started to get dressed in their chaotic way and a passing nurse asked what they were doing, why they were getting changed. When they told her about their outing, the nurse tried to stop them and they started to push and swear at her. “The girl told me that they called her ‘Bitch, a little bitch,’ and your grandfather slapped her when she tried to get him to sit down on the bed,” Eli says.
A few minutes later, two young nurses come out of the room. I ask them if I can see my grandfather. They say I can, but just for a little while and to try not to upset him because it had been really hard to calm him down, he was acting crazy. They seem annoyed and I feel like apologising, as though my grandfather were my ill-mannered, troublemaking child and they were kindergarten teachers.
The room is very bright. I don’t go all the way in, just stand in the doorway. Fernando is sleeping in the foetal position, his mouth open and tongue sticking out. Apparently, he was easier to calm down because he’s not tied to the bed. My grandfather, in contrast, has been manacled with the rubber straps they use when they give him an injection. He’s very still, but he’s staring up at the ceiling with his lips pursed into a frown, still upset. Very gently, from the doorway, I say, “Grandpa.” He looks at me for a while, moving his lips with hatred, like he’s about to swear at me. Eventually he gives up and turns back to the ceiling.
I leave the room and go out into the garden, shaken. Peter is there and greets me with a “Wednesday.” I sit in one of the aluminium chairs, trying not to cry. Peter continues his round on the wheelchair, studying the plants. At one point, he says “Wednesday” three times in a row in a noticeably different tone. I look up and he’s pointing at a black falcon with white spots, staring hard at me from a window ledge.
Olivia Gallo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1995. Her short story collection Las chicas no lloran, was published by Tenemos las Máquinas (Argentina) in 2019 and Alpha Decay (Spain) in 2022. A collection of pandemic correspondence with the writer Tamara Talesnik, Intranquilas & Venenosas, was published by Odelia (Argentina) in 2021. She has run a creative writing workshop since 2021.
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