Inside the door of the building was an iron gate, and in order to be buzzed through he was asked to identify himself. The voicea womansspoke to him first in Spanish and then in an accented but carefully enunciated English. He hesitated, surprisingly reluctant to reveal his name. He identified himself as the father of a student.
There was a doubtful pause, followed by a brief buzz, just enough to let him enter. Two students, both girls, passed him on the stairs. One was heavyset and blond, and the other had frizzy black curls. The curly-haired one looked East Coast; her companion Midwest and corn-fed. They had book bags, and he assumed they were going to class. The first said to the second, "Im like, Tell me youre a torero and Ill scream." The second, trailing heavily along, said, "Thats so Spanish!"
He came to a door with a bronze plaque. Centro de Estudios Norteamericanos.
In the directors office he discovered the woman who had buzzed him through. "Buenos dias," she greeted him with what he could hear was operational cheer. He was struck by her beauty, above all by the warmth in her eyes, which seemed so at odds with the falsity in her voice that he went on guard. The warmth was such that he might have stepped into a greenhouse that housed this single extraordinary bloom. He reminded himself: she was a functionary, assistant to the person he had come to see.
Yes, the director was in. Did he have an appointment?
She knew he didnt. Amazingshe could speak these rehearsed phrases and look at him that way.
From almost three years earlier he remembered a directors name. He said, "Is Madeline Pratt still the director of the center?"
If Madeline Pratt was the director, he knew her as an American in permanent residence here, hired by a consortium of choice American universities. He had had no contact with her.
"Si, senor," her assistant said.
"I want to see her," he said with a cool directness. "I have come a long way."
"And you are . . . ?"
"The father of a student."
"Please, could I have a name?"
At that moment a door to his right opened, and a woman stood there with considerably less aplomb than her assistant, also requesting a name.
There was a brittleness about her, an upright, gray-lined brittleness. Her hair was cut short, the dulled color of cornhusks, and it was shot through with gray. She wore a loose-fitting campesino blouse with a matching skirt, but her sweater gave her away. It was a mix of fall colors, even though the month was May and the day was heating up as they stood there. The sleeves were pulled up to the elbow, exposing sinewy wrists. She wore two copper-colored bracelets. The earrings were made of bronze, short dangles of an Aztec design. He thought of Hernando Cortez: with his single-mindedness and handful of soldiers, horses and dogs, hed burned his boats and given the world these earrings. He looked Madeline Pratt in the eye and said hed like to talk to her in her office alone.
She had a pleasant, practiced smile she could replace with a matter-of fact one, which told him the facts would not be to his liking. The eyes were hazel, more green than brown, and he didnt doubt she could turn their natural kindness into something administratively cold.
She showed him into her office. Stepping around her, he picked up the uninviting scent of some herbal mixture. Her walls were decorated with photographs of Spanish cultural monumentsa cathedral altarpiece, coated in gold, a pool reflecting Moorish archesand there were prints of Spanish paintings, none of which he could identify. One was of two young women, perhaps a century ago, at a beach. They were standing beside the billowing cloth of a bathhouse. The clothes they wore were diaphanous, their hair was, the light that bathed them was a pale diffused yellow.
From House of the Deaf by Lamar Herrin, the complete text of chapter 1, pages 1-15. Copyright 2005 Lamar Herrin. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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