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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 56-61

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Esbjerg, on the Coast

Juan Carlos Onetti

Luckily the afternoon has turned less cold and at times the sun, through drizzle, lights up the streets and the walls; because at this hour they must be walking in Puerto Nuevo, near the ships or marking time from one dock to another, from the kiosk to the sandwich stand. Kirsten, corpulent, in low heels, a hat crushed down over her yellow hair; and he, Montes, short, bored and nervous, stealing glances at the woman's face, learning without knowing it the names of ships, following, distracted, the maneuvers with the ropes.

I imagine him biting at his mustache while he weighs his desire to shove the woman's peasant body, fattened on the city and leisure, and make it fall into that strip of water between the wet stone and the black iron of the ship, where there is a boiling sound and the space one might keep afloat in narrows. I know they are there because Kirsten came today at noon to look for Montes at the office and I saw them leave, walking toward Retiro, and because she came with her rain-filled face, that face of a statue in winter, face of someone who went on sleeping and did not close her eyes under the rain. Kirsten is heavy, freckled, hardened. Perhaps she still smells of the bodega, of fishermen's nets; perhaps she will come now to have that motionless odor of stables and cream which I imagine she must have in her country.

But at other times they have to go to the wharf at midnight or at dawn, and I think that when the whistles of the ships allow Montes to hear how she advances on the stones, dragging her man's shoes, the poor devil must feel he is plunging into the night on the arm of disgrace. Here in the newspaper is the announcement of the ship departures for this month, and I would swear I can see Montes enduring that immobility from the instant the ship blows its whistle and begins to move off until it is so small that it is not worth the trouble to go on watching; moving at times his eyes—to ask and ask, never understanding, never receiving their answer—toward the fleshy face of the woman, who must be calming down, huddled for long minutes at a time, sad and cold as if it were raining in her dream and she had forgotten to close her very big, almost pretty eyes, tinted the color of the river on days when the mud is not stirred up. [End Page 56]

I knew the story, without understanding it well, the very morning Montes came to tell me he had tried to steal from me, had concealed many Saturday and Sunday bets so he could bank them, and now couldn't pay what they had won from him. It didn't matter to me to know why he had done it, but he was furious with the necessity to tell it, and I had to listen while I was thinking of luck, such a friend to his friends, and to them only, and especially so as not to get angry, for in the final analysis if that imbecile had not tried to steal from me, the three thousand pesos would have had to come from my pocket. I insulted him till I ran out of words. I used every means I could think of to humiliate him until there remained no doubt that he was a sorry man, a filthy friend, a bastard and a thief; and there was not the shadow of a doubt that he agreed with me, that he had no objection to admitting it to anyone if at any time I had the notion to demand it of him. And also from that Monday it was established that each time I suggested he was contemptible, indirectly, dropping the allusion in whatever chat, no matter what the circumstance, he would...


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