The Vigenère Room is empty. The hands of the clock on the wall read 6:25 a.m. Ramírez-Graham hadnt been thorough enough and had left mechanical clocks in the building. Surely he would soon replace them with red numbers in quartz, analogue with digital. Such useless modernization. Seconds more or seconds less, precise or imprecise, time will continue to fl ow on and in the end have its way with us.
The building at this hour is still chilly. It doesnt matter: you like to be the first to arrive at work. You learned that from Albert, your boss for over twenty-five years. Continuing on with the tradition is your homage to the man who did more for cryptanalysis in Río Fugitivo than anyone else. Albert is now confined to a medicinal-smelling room in a house on Avenida de las Acacias, delirious, his mind unable to respond. He is proof that its not good to overload the brain with work: short circuits are the order of the day. You like to walk down the empty hallways, to see the desks in the cubicles piled high with paper. In the still air your eyes rest on file folders and ghostly machines with the disdainful arrogance of a benevolent god, of someone who will do his work because some unknown First Cause has ordained it and its not wise to defy destiny.
You press the elevator button and enter that metallic universe where the strangest thoughts have always occurred to you. Will the elevator malfunction and plunge you to your death? You are heading to the basement, to the archives, to the ends of the earth, to a death chamber that only you inhabit. It is even colder down there. Suspended in the air by thick cables, you move without moving, in peace.
There is something special about this elevator. Its green walls, simple efficiency a solid nucleus of stable movement. What would you do without it? What would people do without them? Otis, six passengers, 1000 pounds. You stare at the name. You spell it out: O-T-I-S. Backwards: S-I-T- O. It is a message striving to break free, and it is destined only for you. I-O-T- S. Im Obliged To Say. Whos obliged to say what?
The general archives are in the basement. You are the link between the present and the past. You hang your jacket on a broken coat rack. You take your glasses off, clean the lenses with a dirty handkerchief, and put them back on. You pop a piece of spearmint gum into your mouth, the first of many. Never chewed for more than two minutes, they are thrown out as soon as the first flavor is gone.
You feel the need to urinate. That sense of having to go immediately has been with you since adolescence. Its one of the worst manifestations of your anxiety, the way in which your body compensates for your apparent immunity to emotions. All of your underwear is stained the color of burned grass. You suffer from it even more now that you work in the basement; the architect never thought to put a bathroom on this floor. Perhaps he assumed that whoever would work in the archives could take the elevator or stairs up to the bathrooms on the ground floor a normal human being, someone who might go once or twice a day and not be bothered. But what about someone who is incontinent? How insensitive.
You open the bottom drawer of your desk and take out a plastic cup with a smiling Road Runner on it. You head to a corner of the room, your back to the archives. You lower your zipper and urinate into the cup: six, seven, eight amber drops. Thats why you dont like to go to the bathroom; the result is usually incompatible with the sense of urgency. Its better to accumulate drops in the cup and then casually pass by the bathroom to dispose of your fragrant treasure at lunchtime.
You put the cup back in the drawer.
The pile of papers on your desk seduces you; bringing order to chaos, partially winning the battle against it, and being ready for the next onslaught is a game that lasts for days and months and years. Cryptanalysts desks tend to be impeccable, with papers stacked on either side, pens and reference books lined up one next to the other, the computer monitor standing guard, the keyboard on the shelf hidden beneath the desk. It is the reflection of a pristine mind that does its work with great dedication to logic.
Spanish edition copyright © 2003 by Edmundo Paz Soldán, English translation copyright © 2006 by Lisa Carter. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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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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