“madness really is contagious”—more from “the part about amalfitano” in bolaño’s 2666


They returned the next day but were told that the patient was on bedrest. The same thing happened the following days. One day their money ran out, and Imma decided to take to the road again, this time heading south, to Madrid, where she had a brother who had done well for himself under the democracy and whom she planned to ask for a loan. Lola didn’t have the strength to travel and the two women agreed that she should wait at the boardinghouse, as if nothing had happened, and Imma would be back in a week. Alone, Lola killed time writing long letters to Amalfitano in which she described her daily life in San Sebastian and the area around the asylum, which she visited every day. Clinging to the fence, she imagined that she was establishing telepathic contactwith the poet. Most of the time she would find a clearing in the nearby woods and read or pick little flowers and bunches of grasses with which she made bouquets that she dropped through the railings or took back to the boardinghouse. Once one of the drivers who picked her up on the highway asked if she wanted to see the Mondragon cemetery and she said she did. He parked the car outside, under an acacia tree, and tor a while they walked among the graves, most of them with Basque names, until they came to the niche where the driver’s mother was buried. Then he told Lola that he’d like to fuck her right there. Lola laughed and warned him that they would be in plain view of any visitor coming along the cemetery’s main path. The driver thought for a few seconds, then he said: Christ, you’re right. They went looking for a more Private spot and it was all over in less than fifteen minutes. The driver’s last name was Larrazabal, and although he had a first name, he didn’t want to tell her what it was. Just Larrazabal, like my friends call me, he said. Then he told Lola that this wasn’t the first time he’d made love in the cemetery. He’d been there with a sort-of girlfriend before, with a girl he’d met at a club, and with two prostitutes from San Sebastian. As they were leaving, he tried to give her money, but she wouldn’t take it. They talked for a long time in the car. Larrazabal asked her whether she had a relative at the asylum, and Lola told him her story. Larrazabal said he’d never read a poem. He added that he didn’t understand Lola’s obsession with the poet. I don’t understand your fascination with fucking in the cemetery either, said Lola, but I don’t judge you for it. True, Larrazabal admitted, everyone’s got obsessions. Before Lola got out of the car, at the entrance to the asylum, Larrazabal snuck a five-thousand-peseta note into her pocket. Lola noticed but didn’t say anything and then she was left alone under the trees, in front of the iron gate to the madhouse, home to the poet who was supremely ignoring her.

Madness is contagious, thought Amalfitano, sitting on the floor of his front porch as the sky grew suddenly overcast and the moon and the stars disappeared, along with the ghostly lights that are famously visible without binoculars or telescope in northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

After a week Imma still wasn’t back. Lola imagined her tiny, impassively staring, with her face like an educated peasant’s or a high school teacher’s looking out over a vast prehistoric field, a woman near fifty, dressed in black, walking without looking to either side, without looking back, through a valley where it was still possible to distinguish the tracks of the great predators from the tracks of the scurrying herbivores. She imagined her stopped at a crossroads as the trucks with their many tons of cargo passed at full speed, raising dust clouds that didn’t touch her, as if her hesitance and vulnerability constituted a state of grace, a dome that protected her from the inclemencies of fate, nature, and her fellow beings. On the ninth day the owner of the boardinghouse kicked her out. After that she slept at the railroad station, or in an abandoned warehouse where some tramps slept, each keeping to himself, or in the open country, near the border between the asylum and the outside world. One night she hitchhiked to the cemetery and slept in an empty niche. The next morning she felt happy and lucky and she decided to wait there for Imma to come back. She had water to drink and wash her face and brush her teeth, she was near the asylum, it was a peaceful spot. One afternoon, as she was laying a shirt that she had just washed out to dry on a white slab propped against the cemetery wall, she heard voices coming from a mausoleum, and she went to see what was happening. The mausoleum belonged to the Lagasca family, and judging by the state it was in, the last of the Lagascas had long since died or moved far away. Inside the crypt she saw the beam of a flashlight and she asked who was there.

Christ, it’s you, she heard a voice say inside. She thought it might be thieves or workers restoring the mausoleum or grave robbers, then she heard a kind of meow and when she was about to turn away she saw Larrazabal’s sallow face at the barred door of the crypt. Then a woman came out. Larrazabal ordered her to wait for him by his car, and for a while he and Lola talked and strolled arm in arm along the cemetery paths until the sun began to drop behind the worn edges of the niches.

 

Madness really is contagious, and friends are a blessing, especially when you’re on your own. It was in these words, years before, in a letter with no postmark, that Lola had told Amalfitano about her chance encounter with Larrazabal, which ended with him forcing her to accept a loan of ten thousand pesetas and promising to come back the next day, before he got in his car, motioning to the prostitute who was waiting impatiently for him to do the same. That night Lola slept in her niche, although she was tempted to try the open crypt, happy because things were looking up. The next morning, she scrubbed herself all over with a wet rag, brushed her teeth, combed her hair, put on clean clothes, then went out to the highway to hitchhike to Mondragon. In town she bought some goat cheese and bread and had breakfast in the square, hungrily, since she honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. Then she went into a bar full of construction workers and had coffee. She’d forgotten when Larrazabal had said he’d come to the cemetery, but that didn’t matter, and in the same distant way, Larrazabal and the cemetery and the town and the tremulous early morning landscape didn’t matter to her either. Before she left the bar she went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She walked back to the highway and stood there waiting until a woman stopped and asked where she was going. To the asylum, said Lola. Her reply clearly took the woman aback, but she told her to get in nevertheless. That’s where she was going. Are you visiting someone or are you an inmate? she asked Lola. I’m visiting, answered Lola. The woman’s face was thin and long, her almost nonexistent lips giving her a cold, calculating look, although she had nice cheekbones and she dressed like a professional woman who is no longer single, who has a house, a husband, maybe even a child to care for. My father is there, she confessed. Lola didn’t say anything. When they reached the entrance, Lola got out of the car and the woman went on alone. For a while Lola wandered along the edge of the asylum grounds. She heard the sound of horses and she guessed that somewhere, on the other side of the woods, there must be a riding club or school. At a certain point she spotted the red-tiled roof of a house that wasn’t part of the asylum. She retraced her steps. She returned to the section of fence that gave the best view of the grounds. As the sun rose higher in the sky she saw a tight knot of patients emerge from a slate outbuilding, then they scattered to the benches in the park and lit cigarettes. She thought she saw the poet. He was with two inmates and he was wearing jeans and a very tight white T-shirt. She waved to him, shyly at first, as if her arms I were stiff from the cold, then openly, tracing strange patterns in the still-cold air, trying to give her signals a laserlike urgency, trying to transmit telepathic messages in his direction. Five minutes later, she watched as the poet got up from his bench and one of the lunatics kicked him in the legs. With an effort she resisted the urge to scream. The poet turned around and kicked back. The lunatic, who was sitting down again, took it in the chest and dropped like a little bird. The inmate smoking next to him got up and chased the poet for thirty feet, aiming kicks at his ass and throwing punches at his back. Then he returned calmly to his seat, where the other inmate had revived and was rubbing his chest, neck, and head, which anyone would call excessive, since he had been kicked only in the chest. At that moment Lola stopped signaling. One of the lunatics on the bench began to masturbate. The other one, the one in exaggerated pain, felt in one of his pockets and pulled out a cigarette. The poet approached them. Lola thought she heard his laugh. An ironic laugh, as if he were saying: boys, you can’t take a joke. But maybe the poet wasn’t laughing. Maybe, Lola said in her letter to Amalfitano, it was my madness that was laughing. In any case, whether it was her madness or not, the poet went over to the other two and said something to them. Neither of the lunatics answered. Lola saw them: they were looking down, at the life throbbing at ground level, between the blades of grass and under the loose clumps of dirt. A blind life in which everything had the transparency of water. The poet, however, must have scanned the faces of his companions in misfortune, first one and then the other, looking for a sign that would tell him whether it was safe for him to sit down on the bench again. Which he finally did. He raised his hand in a gesture of truce or surrender and he sat between the other two. He raised his hand the way someone might raise a tattered flag. He moved his fingers, each finger, as if his fingers were a flag in flames, the flag of the un-vanquished. And he sat between them and then he looked at the one who was masturbating and said something into his ear. This time Lola couldn’t hear him but she saw clearly how the poet’s left hand groped its way into the other inmate’s robe. And then she watched the three of them smoke. And she watched the artful spirals issuing from the poet’s mouth and nose.

 

The next and final letter Amalfitano received from his wife wasn’t postmarked but the stamps were French. In it Lola recounted a conversation with Larrazabal. Christ, you’re lucky, said Larrazabal, my whole life I’ve wanted to live in a cemetery, and look at you, the minute you get here, you move right in. A good person, Larrazabal. He invited her to stay at his apartment. He offered to drive her each morning to the Mondragon asylum, where Spain’s greatest and most self-deluding poet was studying osteology. He offered her money without asking for anything in return. One night he took her to the movies. Another night he went with her to the boardinghouse to ask whether there was any word from Imma. Once, late one Saturday night, after they’d made love for hours, he proposed to her and he didn’t feel offended or stupid when Lola reminded him that she was already married. A good person, Larrazabal. He bought her a skirt at a little street fair and he bought her some brand-name jeans at a store in downtown San Sebastian. He talked to her about his mother, whom he’d loved dearly, and about his siblings, to whom he wasn’t close. None of this had much of an effect on Lola, or rather it did, but not in the way he had hoped. For her, those days were like a prolonged parachute landing after a long space flight. She went to Mondragon once every three days now, instead of once a day, and she looked through the fence with no hope at all of seeing the poet, seeking at most some sign, a sign that she knew beforehand she would never understand or that she would understand only many years later, when none of it mattered anymore. Sometimes, without calling first or leaving a note, she wouldn’t sleep at Larrazabal’s apartment and he would go looking for her at the cemetery, the asylum, the old boardinghouse where she’d stayed, the places where the tramps and transients of San Sebastian gathered. Once he found her in the waiting room of the train station. Another time he found her sitting on a seafront bench at La Concha, at an hour when the only people out walking were two opposite types: those running out of time and those with time to burn. In the morning it was Larrazabal who made breakfast. At night, when he came home from work, he was the one who made dinner. During the day Lola drank only water, lots of it, and ate a little piece of bread or a roll small enough to fit in her pocket, which she would buy at the corner bakery before she went roaming. One night, as they were showering, she told Larrazabal that she was planning to leave and asked him for money for the train. I’ll give you everything I’ve got, he answered, but I can’t give you money to go away so I never see you again. Lola didn’t insist. Somehow, though she didn’t tell Amalfitano how she did it, she scraped together just enough money for a ticket, and one day at noon she took the train to France. She was in Bayonne for a while. She left for Landes. She returned to Bayonne. She was in Pau and in Lourdes. One morning she saw a train full of sick people, paralyzed people, adolescents with cerebral palsy, farmers with skin cancer, terminally ill Castilian bureaucrats, polite old ladies dressed like Carmelite nuns, people with rashes, blind children, and without knowing how she began to help them, as if she were a nun in jeans stationed there by the church to aid and direct the desperate, who one by one got on buses parked outside the train station or waited in long lines as if each person were a scale on a giant and old and cruel but vigorous snake. Then trains came from Italy and from the north of France, and Lola went back and forth like a sleepwalker, her big blue eyes unblinking, moving slowly, since the weariness of her days was beginning to weigh on her, and she was permitted entry to every part of the station, some rooms converted into first aid posts, others into resuscitation posts, and just one, discreetly located, converted into an improvised morgue for the bodies of those whose strength hadn’t been equal to the accelerated wear and tear of the train trip. At night she slept in the most modern building in Lourdes, a functionalist monster of steel and glass that buried its head, bristling with antennas, in the white clouds that floated down from the north, big and sorrowful, or marched from the west like a ragtag army whose only strength was its numbers, or dropped down from the Pyrenees like the ghosts of dead beasts. There she would sleep in the trash compartments, which she entered through a tiny door. Other times she would stay at the station, at the station bar, when the chaos of the trains subsided, and let the old men buy her coffee and talk to her about movies and crops. One afternoon she thought she saw Imma get off the train from Madrid escorted by a troop of cripples. She was the same height as Imma, she was wearing long black skirts like Imma, her doleful Castilian nun’s face was just like Imma’s face. Lola sat still until she had gone by and didn’t call out to her, and five minutes later she elbowed her way out of the Lourdes station and the town of Lourdes and walked to the highway and only then did she try to thumb a ride.

For five years, Amalfitano had no news of Lola. One afternoon, when he was at the playground with his daughter, he saw a woman leaning against the wooden fence that separated the playground from the rest of the park. He thought she looked like Imma and he followed her gaze and was relieved to discover that it was another child who had attracted her madwoman’s attention. The boy was wearing shorts and was a little older than Amalfitano’s daughter, and he had dark, very silky hair that kept falling in his face. Between the fence and the benches that the city had put there so parents could sit and watch their children, a hedge struggled to grow, reaching all the way to an old oak tree outside the playground. Imma’s hand, her hard, gnarled hand, roughened by the sun and icy rivers, stroked the freshly clipped top of the hedge as one might stroke a dog’s back. Next to her was a big plastic bag. Amalfitano walked toward her, willing himself futilely to be calm. His daughter was in line for the slide. Suddenly, before he could speak to Imma, Amalfitano saw that the boy had at last noticed her watchful presence, and once he had brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes he raised his right arm and waved to her several times. Then Imma, as if this were the sign she’d been waiting for, silently raised her left arm, waved, and went walking out of the park through the north gate, which led onto a busy street.

Five years after she left, Amalfitano heard from Lola again. The letter was short and came from Paris. In it Lola told him that she had a job cleaning big office buildings. It was a night job that started at ten and ended at four or five or six in the morning. Paris was pretty then, like all big cities when everyone is asleep. She would take the metro home. The metro at that hour was the saddest thing in the world. She’d had another child, a son, named Benoit, with whom she lived. She’d also been in the hospital. She didn’t say why, or whether she was still sick. She didn’t mention any man. She didn’t ask about Rosa. For her it’s as if Rosa doesn’t exist, thought Amalfitano, but then it struck him that this might not be the case at all. He cried for a while with the letter in his hands. It was only as he was drying his eyes that he noticed the letter was typed. He knew, without a doubt, that Lola had written it from one of the offices she said she cleaned. For a second he thought it was all a lie, that Lola was working as an administrative assistant or secretary in some big company. Then he saw it clearly. He saw the vacuum cleaner parked between two rows of desks, saw the floor waxer like a cross between a mastiff and a pig sitting next to a plant, he saw an enormous window through which the lights of Paris blinked, he saw Lola in the cleaning company’s smock, a worn blue smock, sitting writing the letter and maybe taking slow drags on a cigarette, he saw Lola’s fingers, Lola’s wrists, Lola’s blank eyes, he saw another Lola reflected in the quicksilver of the window, floating weightless in the skies of Paris, like a trick photograph that isn’t a trick, floating, floating pensively in the skies of Paris, weary, sending messages from the coldest, iciest realm of passion.

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