This short story by Argentine writer Liliana Heker is part of Please Talk to Me: Selected Stories, published recently by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. The story, “The Music of Sundays,” from 2001, captures a delicate world remembered vividly by the writer’s aged protagonist, a world that opens up to his children and children’s children when they finally experience what the old man has been talking about.
As Alberto Manguel opines in his introduction to the book, “A certain Hasidic belief in the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm underlies Heker’s conception of the universe.” Heker dedicated this story, translated by Miranda France, to Gonzalo Imas. The book can be purchased directly from the Yale Press site.
THERE WAS A MOMENT in the afternoon—usually around four o’clock, perhaps five o’clock in the summer—when the old man would lean against the window, his head a little to one side, his hand pressed against the other ear, and say in a mournful voice: ‘what a shame about the music.’ By then we might have been talking for hours about the tangos of Magaldi or Charlo and all to please him because (as Aunt Lucrecia once said) there’s no point coming to see him with a face like a wet weekend—we can make a little sacrifice to see him happy. In fact this little sacrifice was bigger than it seemed because if he was to enjoy his football as God intended (in his words), apparently the old man needed to feel a crowd around him. That meant we all had to stay glued to our seats until midnight because, as he put it, he wasn’t going to sit down and watch even the league table with the other residents in the Home, they were a bunch of old farts, and once a Basque had got so excited about a Chilean goal that he took a great leap backwards, fell on his neck, and now he’s pushing up daisies. So on Sunday nights we settled down in front of the television —Mom, Dad and me, Aunt Lucrecia, Uncle Antonito and even the twins—all grouped around the old man, who sported a knotted handkerchief on his head for the occasion and, in the absence of chuenga, that home-made gum you could buy at 1940s football matches, worked his jaws on a piece of old tire. It was even worse when Boca was playing: then it was the blue and gold shirt he stuffed in his mouth and not even Uncle Antonito, who’s a devoted follower of River, dared crack a joke; the one time he ventured that somebody’s goal had been offside, the old man jumped on him with such ferocity that if the twins hadn’t stepped in—the old man dotes on them, never mind that they wear little hooped earrings and hair down to the waist—Uncle Antonito might have gone to join that codger who cheered the Chilean goal.
In short, other than an inadequate musical accompaniment, the old man really had nothing to complain about. So whenever he started harping on this theme about the music all we did was tell each other he had a screw loose and think no more of it. Until
one afternoon Uncle Antonito, who was sick of hearing about the tangos of Corsini—and especially sick of the old man greeting him with the chant You should see our goalie. What a star!—which is how Boca fans celebrated their legendary goalkeeper in the 1920s—lost his patience and as soon as he heard ‘what a shame about the music’ he said ‘What is this music you keep bleating about, Dad? Because the only music I ever hear is you yattering on all the blessed day.’ But the old man stopped him there; he raised his hand in a signal to be quiet and said loftily: ‘I’m not talking about the music I hear, Antonito, I’m talking about the music that’s missing.’
I think if it had been left to the rest of us, the story would have ended there and then. I, for one, confess that I had absolutely no interest in ascertaining what glorious music it was that the old man found lacking in his life. I was beginning to tire of his whims; it isn’t exactly fun for a girl of my age to sit with her grandfather until midnight, screaming like a banshee every time someone scores a goal and all for the sake of making him feel loved. Uncle Antonito put it bluntly: If his problem is that he can’t find some music or other, let him go and look for it up his sister’s fanny. But the twins aren’t the sort to give up so easily. They kept badgering the old man until finally he said: Well what music do you think I mean, boys? The music of Sundays.
Later they told me how they had coaxed out of him what he meant by the music of Sundays, something that had once been everywhere—or so he told them—and that you would have heard as soon as you woke up. They said he compared it to a communion or a symphony that ended only when night fell and the last of the lorries returned. Which lorries? I asked the twins. But I could scarcely make out their explanation with both of them laughing so much as they tried to imitate lorries making music.
The following week they came up with an idea: for the old man’s birthday, their gift would be the music of Sundays. All the people in their building had already agreed to help: all we had to do was persuade my grandfather that this year the celebration was going to be at the twins’ house (they live in a kind of tenement block, in Paternal) and bring the food; they would arrange everything else.
We protested, of course, but it’s hopeless with the twins.
So on the Sunday of the birthday party there we were with our platters: Mom, Aunt Lucrecia, Uncle Antonito and me, waiting for Dad to arrive with the old man. The twins had instructed Dad to bring him as late as possible, and Dad agreed, but that turned out not to be such a good idea: the old man arrived in a foul mood and didn’t say hello to anyone, merely observing that even the old neighbourhoods were a disgrace these days. He said that there was no communion any more, no harmony, and that nowadays everyone was looking out for themselves. It wasn’t a promising start and things went downhill from there. I spent lunch wondering why I was wasting my whole Sunday in this tenement for the sake of pleasing some miserable old fantasist. By the time coffee arrived I had made myself a firm promise that this would be the last Sunday I sacrificed for the old man (and in fact it was). Perhaps we were all thinking the same thing, because suddenly we all fell silent, as though by design. And in the midst of our silence the sound of a radio came from the window. It was transmitting, rather louder than you’d usually expect, something that sounded to me like the Avellaneda Derby. See, Grandad, we were right, said one of the twins; you can still hear music in the barrios. The simulation had begun.
We looked at each other with resignation, because we already knew from the twins what was coming: lots of radios, turned right up, broadcasting different games from behind the windows, two or three lads in a doorway singing that chant the old man loves, a bunch of kids audibly kicking a ball around somewhere. And us, like a bunch of idiots, humouring him. That’s not music, he said; you think one swallow makes a summer? Well I felt like chucking it all in and leaving then, but the twins were undeterred, insisting that no, the music of Sundays had not disappeared, that in the barrios you could still hear it in any street. And then with apparent spontaneity, they suggested we all go for a stroll to see if they were right. Showtime, Mom whispered to me, and Uncle Antonito snorted angrily.
We filed outside in a kind of procession. The twins went at the head; behind them was Dad, trying to soothe Uncle Antonito; then came Aunt Lucrecia with my grandfather. As we were leaving, Mom grabbed my arm and said: Wait, let’s stay back a bit because this is the most ridiculous charade I’ve ever seen. So we went last of all.
We were walking very slowly, following the twins, and straightaway we began to hear radios. One or two in front of us, another, at full volume behind us, others, still faint, further off. From behind a thick wall, the voices of children could be heard; they were saying pass to me, they were saying come on, ball hog. Three boys sitting in a doorway started singing, just as we passed them, You should see our goalie / What a Star! / He can stop a penalty / Sitting on a chair / If the chair breaks / We give him chocolate / Come on Boca Juniors / Down with River Plate! I stole a sideways glance at the old man; for the first time that afternoon he appeared to be smiling. Cheers came from one house; their echo seemed to expand in the street. On the other side of the wall, the boys’ shouting grew louder and more passionate as though this were no longer a performance but something on which their lives depended. The afternoon quietened, the noise of buses and cars fading away, while the voices on the radio got louder and more numerous, they were saying Negro Palma intercepts, they were saying Francéscoli moves forward, they were saying header from Gorosito, Márcico’s waiting for the pass. I heard, or thought I heard, Rattin’s name, but it couldn’t be—wasn’t he the one the old man said insulted the Queen back in the 1960s? I heard Moreno takes it on the chest, kills it with his left foot, turns and . . . Goooal! shouted the boys in the doorway, goooal! from the windows on that block, and from a different building too, and another further away. And some element of that shout lingered, as though caught in the air, I saw it in Dad’s face, and in Aunt Lucrecia’s; even Uncle Antonito seemed to sense it, something like a net being woven around us, gathering everyone together in the benevolent Sunday afternoon. Mom squeezed my arm, the twins looked at each other with amazement, the old man shook his head as though to say that it was true after all, the music was there, the music was still there. The doorway boys roared, the people in flats started arguing from one balcony to another. Mamita, mamita, shouted a boy coming towards us, and a startled mother looked up from the kitchen sink, elegant dodges were celebrated on vacant lots and patches of grass, Oléee-olé-olé-olá, they chorused in the stands, Look at us now, look at us now, they shouted in the streets, Come on Argentina / we won’t stop cheering you, they sang in the halls, the roof terraces, the courtyards. And from far away came an unsteady noise, a murmur that kept growing louder, emanating from the very edge of the afternoon, that hour when people start listening to old dance songs and mulling, with contentment or bitterness, over the events of the Sunday that is ending. We saw them approaching, ever clearer in the hazy light of dusk, blowing their horns in time, a surging crowd of people waving blue and white flags, blue and red flags, red and white flags, gold and blue flags. Everybody in the neighbourhood came out to welcome them to the party, and the whole city rang with noise, like one unanimous, jubilant heart.
Afterwards would come the melancholy of Mondays, and there would be stories of fear and death, and later we would close the old man’s eyes for the last time. But we would always know that under the sky of a distant Sunday, there had once been a music that had made us briefly happy and peaceful.
From Please Talk to Me: Selected Stories, by Liliana Heker, edited and with an introduction by Alberto Manguel, translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France, published by Yale University Press in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series in 2015. Reproduced by permission.