The Horn Player: Chapter Seven
Without even shedding a tear, Maria Alejandra left me, making her way along Oro Street in the direction of Charcas. At first I sadly thought: "She's leaving for ever; it's an irreversible act. It's the end of a chapter in my life." Then the spiteful thoughts occurred to me: "It's the best thing that could have happened; she only complicated my life anyway. It's her loss, not mine."
But life - as they say in songs on the radio - must go on and, for openers, I had no reason to be standing on the corner of Santa Fe and Oro. Besides, the greasy smell of the pizzerias as well as the pushing and shoving of the crowds getting on and off the buses were grating on my nerves. I tried to walk home slowly and it's very difficult to walk slowly when you're being crushed by the idea that a meaningful relationship has come to an end. I couldn't help thinking about Maria Alejandra, but my thoughts were so vast that it was almost as though I weren't thinking about anything. I distractedly looked at the multiplicity of confused store windows on my left. To make the walk home take longer I stopped to look at a toy-shop window just before coming to Carranza Street. It was a heterogeneous multicolored world in which toy soldiers, guns and automobiles seemed to predominate. When I'm in a tough situation I tend to think about trivial matters. At that moment I thought about the injustice there was in the disproportion of sizes which prevailed among the toys. A dog made out of felt was ten times larger than a little tin train which was ten times larger than a little plastic puppy. I prophesied - but no one heard me - that life would be horrible in a world in which everything were out of proportion. I suddenly lost interest in those weighty matters and the image of Maria Alejandra forced its way back into my consciousness. That's when it occurred to me to fight the annoying reiteration of Maria Alejandra by means of a truly trivial act; I went into the toy-shop and acquired a fifty-cent plastic horn. The horn was divided into three sections: the mouthpiece was green; the middle was red and had three little holes; the bell was white and looked like a calla lily.
At home I started to play the horn. I fruitlessly tried to squeeze some melody out of it. I didn't attempt anything sublime; I was only looking for something simple, catchy: popular songs, half-time tunes, television jingles. But the horn could barely manage to emit a few isolated, strident tones. I believe that this was due to the fact that I don't know music and also to the fact that the horn was only a toy.
At that moment I heard the sound of Monica's key in the lock. "The poor kid," I thought with unaccustomed tenderness, "she's back from work. She must be tired and bored to death with the routine of her job," because the sudden image of Maria Alejandra afflicted me with the first feelings of remorse in four years. To escape them, so that my wife would secretly forgive me, I decided to act like a little kid; I decided to cheer her up. I took off my shoes and stood on the living room coffee table. Startled, my wife looked at me, first with surprise and then with relief when she realized that I hadn't scratched the table. Then I blew with all my might and my horn let out some really joyful, shrill blasts. Monica laughed like a little girl and kissed me. The simultaneous laughter and kiss brought me back to those loving times when we were sweethearts.
From that day on, when I left my job at the bank each evening, I filled in for those past meetings with Maria Alejandra by going straight home to play my horn. I'd play only till dinner time; I'd prefer to go to bed after I ate. I don't know whether it was because of the work my lungs were subjected to during the two hours a day I'd play the horn; the fact was that I'd doze right off and fall into a deep and peaceful sleep without dreams, a sleep like I'd never had before. Consequently, on the following morning I'd awaken in great mood with a rosy outlook on life.
Then seeing how beneficial the horn was for my spirits, I decided to add morning session. That's why I acquired the habit of playing every morning for three or four hours, depending on the time I'd spend on the daily shopping. Then I'd have lunch and leave for the bank, where - - it goes without saying - I never played the horn.
2My ten years of banking experience have taught me that you can divide banker's work into two great periods. The first four hours - in which customers come and go, have consultations, handle business, make inquiries - were bearable, even if not quite entertaining. But afterward, from four to seven - when the bank is closed to the public and whatever animation there is has to stem from the employees alone - a kind of sadness and restlessness invade my soul. It's true that when there are no customers around the employees usually engage in conversation and joke around. It's no less true that some of the conversations weren't too boring and that once in a while a joke might be more or less amusing. Yet these pale pleasures were in no way comparable with playing the horn.
Therefore, it was to be expected that on Friday the 27th of March of 1970 I should place the horn in the attache case meant for carrying my daily sandwich. At about five in the afternoon I went into the bathroom and, facing the lavatory mirror, I began to play the horn. At first I blew prudently, almost inaudibly, almost sighing. And even though the notes issuing from my horn never managed to form a melody, I succeeded in giving them a plaintive tone and a certain romantic quality tinged with an ineffable nostalgia. When I noticed that I was becoming depressed and that my eyes were filling with tears, I fell back into a happier vein; I played cheery, optimistic music. Gradually, my playing became louder and louder until I reached the intensity with which I usually played at home. Depending on the mirror to guide me, I simultaneously made an effort to assume the facial expressions and gestures of a soloist (while admitting the non-existence of horn soloists). During that time, carried away by my own music, I was performing with my eyes closed. When I opened them I saw that my face no longer monopolized the mirror. Attracted by the stentorian notes of the horn, all the employees had entered the washroom. They were laughing their guts out.
One person who wasn't laughing was Mr. Ansinelli, the branch manager. His heritage is Italian; his face consists of three features: a sharp nose, a straight moustache and an imposing pair of eyeglasses. His manner tends to be imperious. Coldly staring at me, he dryly ordered me to cease playing the bugle and to get back to work. I had no choice but to obey him, but not without first setting him straight, courteously but firmly, with regard to my instrument's identity as a horn. Following this brusque epilogue we all stampeded out of the bathroom. My head high, I walked with dignity past the female employees who, not having dared to penetrate beyond the unseen barriers of the gentlemanly enclosure, crowded together in a chaste throng in front of the men's room.
I returned to my desk feeling that a frozen rage directed at Mr. Ansinelli, the man who wouldn't let me play my horn, had taken possession of my soul. But his jurisdiction stopped at the bank doors. I didn't allow my repressed desires to Freudianly manifest themselves in my sleep; I played my horn at home till two in the morning, at which time my bleary-eyed neighbor from the floor below made his appearance. I, probably respectful of the rights of others and certainly exhausted from lack of sleep, put away my horn and went to bed. Monica, insensitive to the charms of music, had been sleeping for quite a long time, her ears stopped up with cotton plugs.
Luckily, the next day was Saturday. I didn't let that Saturday and Sunday go to waste; the horn gave out with the bravest sounds of freedom. Lamentably, inevitably, the fearful Monday arrived and, after it, the other four days in which I couldn't be the absolute master of my horn.
If I had any reputation at all at the bank, it was for responsibility and for having will power. That Friday, March 27, 1970, Mr. Ansinelli's implacable face definitely established the incompatibility which kept the horn separate from the bank. Two opposing forces mutely struggled in my soul: I loved the horn, I feared dismissal. My sense of responsibility told me that in no way was it advisable to lose a position in which I earned a good salary, enjoyed the esteem of my numerous superiors - Mr. Ansinelli included - and had the respect of my few subordinates. To the customary and incessant expenditures for electricity, gas and the telephone, I had just boldly added the anomalous and exorbitant payments for the apartment and the car. As a result, both abstract nouns - responsibility and will - substantially conspired in favor of my abstaining from playing the horn at the bank.
In order to obviate an unjustifiable state of anxiety in my multitudinous readers, I shall begin this paragraph by getting ahead of myself and saying that on Monday, February 1st, 1971, I was fired. The housekeeper said it was fate. I, in no mood to debate, think other factors were involved. Mainly the unfortunate disposition of the calendar. From a general point of view, I had hardly advanced a twelfth of the year and before me stretched, obstinate and lined up in an orderly row, eleven lethal months. And, more specifically, that week still had four days to go.
On the other hand, that decisive Monday found me in a terrible mood. I was just beginning to overcome, or to be overcome by, some marital difficulties. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's having my enjoyment contaminated by anger. And that very last Sunday in January was a day on which the joy of playing my horn had been clouded by an exasperating bit of stubbornness on my wife's part.
On Sunday I got up early feeling content. I leisurely lingered over my coffee and read the rotogravures unhurriedly. Later I devoted myself to playing the horn. Toward nightfall, Monica, incredibly enough, preferred our going to the movies to having me play the horn. A shocking scene ensued in which Monica thought it appropriate to go in for screams, tears and reproaches. Her arguments were varied and contradictory. I had just one coherent argument: I repeated that they don't allow horn playing at the movies. My point of view won out and we stayed home. While my sour-faced wife watched an endless television program in the living room, I locked myself in the bedroom and kept playing the horn until I fell with exhaustion. I missed dinner and slept with my clothes on. My exhaustion was extreme and on Monday I awoke after eleven-thirty. And that's how I entered the frigid, mechanistic enclosure which is the bank without having eaten and without having been able to play the horn even for an instant.
Even those who don't cultivate psychological fiction will be able - maybe - to imagine the frenzied state of nervousness and excitation with which I was seized. I suddenly realized that I wouldn't be able to make it to seven in the evening without playing my horn. Pretending to have forgotten my glasses I asked Mr. Ansinelli for permission to go home to look for them. Since I promised to return in ten minutes and since Mr. Ansinelli knew that I lived only two blocks away from the Pacifico branch of the bank, he granted me permission, not without first assuming the severe look with which he reproved me for having morally obligated him to slight his duty.
Running with desperation, I devoured the two blocks which separated me from my house and, as if in a fit of insanity, I frantically began to play the horn, trying to make the absolute most of the few minutes I had. Going down in the elevator I pressed the STOP button when I was between the third and fourth floor and went back up to my apartment. I wrapped the horn in a newspaper and returned to the bank. On the way I thought that it would be a good idea to sell the car. I really didn't need it anyway; after all, I walked to the bank and on weekends I preferred staying at home playing my horn.
"This gentleman is the assistant to the credit officer. He'll be very glad to advise you." Mr. Ansinelli directed these remarks to an impeccably dressed gentleman who looked like a retired general and who awaited me in my office. I learned that he was the proprietor of the famous Patriotic Bubble soda pop plant on Fitz Roy and that he had "hied himself" - he had recourse to this strange verb - to the bank to request a loan toward the acquisition of I don't know what cryptic equipment which, nevertheless - before I could prevent him from doing so - he described at length with an abundance of extractors, pistons, governors and other incomprehensible terms. The man was excessively polite. He aggressively squeezed my hand, lighted my cigaret, absolutely refused to sit down before I did. Then, in a melancholy tone he orally composed a detailed outline of his struggles to advance along the arduous road of progress. Attracted by the sudden remembrance of the first horsedrawn streetcar - one of the horses figures in an ample collection of anecdotes - he suddenly backed away to 1947 only to vertiginously return to 1971 at the controls of one of the modern German trucks of his fleet. Next he spoke to me about his family in general and in particular about a highly intelligent daughter who was studying public relations and on whom he and his wife pinned their highest hopes. At this point he took out his billfold with a furtive gesture that made me think he would attempt to bribe me in an effort to obtain the loan. However, what he showed me was a snapshot of the daughter who was studying public relations; I glimpsed some hair and a pair of eyeglasses.
To mitigate his uncontainable autobiography I handed him some blank forms and told him to fill them out. While the soda man was writing with an iron hand, I bent over - as if to look for a piece of paper in the box under the desk - and quickly blew on the horn. The man didn't hear a thing and kept writing. Now he had unfolded his identification and his social security card whose numbers he determinedly was copying. Then, taking advantage of the fervent buzzing of voices that held sway in the bank at that hour of the day, I'd bend over from time to time and stealthily play my horn, producing a few short and muffled notes.
And playing the horn under those circumstances is just like smoking in a railroad car in which it's not permitted. The lawbreaker smokes nervously, fearful of the conductor's approach, a passenger looks at him disapprovingly; smoking is no longer a pleasure but only a reason to be fined. In that kind of situation it's better not to smoke, not to play the horn. The soda man, his mouth over the papers as if he were going to eat them, framed a question for me every so often (he called it a doubt). The passenger, even though it's at the risk of having to stand for the rest of the trip, can change cars. This is not possible for the horn player.
Without thinking about it I took the horn out of the box, and pointing its white, calla lily shaped bell at the greyish head of hair poring over the forms, I blew with all my heart and soul and wrung a short high-pitched note out of it which blew a few strands of hair out of place on the soda man's head. Frightened, he raised his head and stared at me in wide-eyed wonder.
"Oh, for your kids," he smiled as he doubted.
"I have no children," I responded with tranquil ferocity. "It's mine and I play it whenever I feel like it."
To emphasize this affirmation, I blew even harder, and not for just a few seconds this time, but for more than a minute. My office is nothing more than a glass partition with a little sign saying CREDIT: I rose in my seat a little to be able better to observe the effect produced by the unexpected sounds. All the employees and customers conticuere intentique ora tenebant, as if I were Aeneas and the soda man, though it grieve us, queen Dido. Then, idiotically epical, I thought: "Let it be as God wills."
I brought my horn to my lips and, having recourse to all the variants permitted to me by the rudimentary structure of the instrument, I began to play in earnest. At times I'm a bit theatrical; not satisfied with the confined quarters of the credit office, I emerged in the lobby, climbed onto the counter with an agility not devoid of a certain faun-like quality and began to march up and down on it from one end to the other. The customers fearfully removed their elbows from the counter. It gratified me to be the unquestioned protagonist of the episode; it cheered me to see everyone else in confusion. I heard fragmentary comments: "It's a strike"; "It's an act of repudiation"; "I think it's an employee whose wife just died."
At that moment I saw Mr. Ansinelli swiftly advancing; he had the bearing of a Providence-sent man whose appearance was breathlessly awaited by a multitude which faced insoluble problems. Scarlet, he entreated me in quite a loud voice. "Mr. Del Prete, be so kind as to go to the Manager's Office immediately. I must speak with you."
I responded by intoning a sort of outlandish burst of laughter on the horn. The bystanders were overcome by a general hilarity which made Mr. Ansinelli look like a fool. Then, renouncing his earlier majesty, Mr. Ansinelli attempted to knock the horn out of my hand. An angelic grace guided my movements; with elegance, maintaining my poise, I leaped from the counter into the area meant for the public. Thus entrenched, I looked at it triumphantly and executed a couple of bellicose blasts in which a scornful challenge was implicit. What a grotesque figure Mr. Ansinelli was as he laboriously clambered up on the counter, dragging his high position, his fifty-five years and his 200 pounds after him! And how hilarious as he came crashing down into the public area trailing behind him the same attributes as when he had climbed up!
Immediately getting to his feet, Mr. Ansinelli charged me like a fighting bull. I broke into a swift zigzagging run keeping up my horn playing, stepping on feet and jabbing my way through with my elbows. Uncannily, an affair which had been private and artistic turned into one that was public and political. An absurd panic spread through the tranquil banking premises. People began to run and shout. A lady intuitively protected the nursing child she was carrying in her arms. A few misfits took advantage of the situation by making off with the ballpoint pens, breaking the chains with which they were fastened to the wall. Two men began a fistfight. I could hear the noise of glass shattering and right then I was captured.
When the effects of the tear gas had dissipated and when the minions of the police force had pulled out, calm was laboriously restored. Mr. Ansinelli, after hysterically placing several telephone calls, rushed to the bank's main branch and came back with the victorious order to fire me on the spot. Our bank is efficient, I'll give them that; in just a few minutes they had arranged my dismissal, they had paid me and I was on my way out of the bank with my horn under my arm.
Since I didn't know what the street was like at five on a Monday afternoon, I decided to wander around down there until seven o'clock. Curiously, now that I could play my horn I no longer had any desire to do so. I went all the way to Dorrego Street and began to walk toward the flatland. The whistle of a train that was passing overhead, off to the right, seemed to inspire me briefly. I couldn't get myself to play more than one or two notes; I was no longer interested in the horn. When I got to the polo field I tossed it at a cat that was suspiciously watching me through the iron grillwork. And that's where the horn remained, at the foot of some bushes. I have no idea whether or not someone later picked it up.
But what really strikes me as weird is the fact that hardly had I forgotten the horn when, as I was getting ready to cross Libertador Avenue, I strangely came upon Maria Alejandra who, dressed in a sort of man-tailored suit, was taking a diminutive mouselike Mexican dog for a walk.