The International Literary Quarterly

November 2007

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Ways by Lydia Davis


I lived in Buenos Aires for two months in the summer of 1965, when I was just turning eighteen. My memories of that time, though sparse and fragmented, remained vivid, and a year later, after my first year of college, I wrote a short story set in the city as I remembered it and depicting the sort of life I thought I could imagine there.

It was a city of friendly and courteous people, tasty and abundant food, vibrant culture—the fifth largest city in the world, commonly called the Paris of South America, with broad avenues, handsome parks and public buildings, including the spectacular Teatro Colón, and mansions in the style of 18th-century France alongside a tremendous growth of high-rise apartment and office buildings.


It was also a city of shattered and rubble-choked sidewalks, recurring brief and unannounced strikes, nightly cut-offs of telephone service, complex and inefficient bureaucracy, and a rather casual attitude toward scheduled appointments. The leftist students in particular were a powerful political force, and, at the time, because Lyndon Johnson had recently escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, more shocking, sent Marines to repress the Santo Domingo uprising, there was considerable anti-U.S. sentiment, although this rarely extended to my family personally.

I was oblivious, for the most part, of the political situation. I spent my days practicing the violin, attending dance classes, working in a Catholic orphanage, studying Spanish, going to concerts with my mother, taking walks by myself, and writing in my journal. I observed the caged chickens in the markets, talked in halting Spanish to butchers and embassy guards, and wrote descriptions of the mist-filled city parks at night and the glimpses, through the windows of private houses, of “gray heads” bent over their tea. I was interested in what was exotic to me: a gypsy girl selling lemons on the sidewalk, the wheels of horse-drawn delivery carts twinkling in the sunlight, a gaucho roasting whole goats in a restaurant window; but I missed my friends and did not always know what to do with myself.

Recently, I read Marguerite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, a meticulously researched account of Argentina’s “Dirty War” that is at once riveting and frightening. The Dirty War began in 1976 but was made possible by a succession of earlier coups and political upheavals beginning as far back as June of 1966. One particularly disturbing section of the book depicts the surface normality of daily life in the city of Buenos Aires—the bustle of the city streets, the cheerful shopping expeditions, the festive dinners—that continued even as the prolonged imprisonment and torture of “subversives” was being carried out, often only a few feet away. This was not a country at war, and those carrying out the torture were often enough fond fathers and husbands. I then looked again at my family’s stay in Buenos Aires and saw it in a different light, as though the horror of the events that would follow in the not-so-distant future loomed already over the city, as though the geography of sidewalks, streets, houses, public buildings in which we took part in the normal life of the city were itself already less innocent.

Ways was written in the summer of 1966, when I was nineteen, for a fiction workshop led by Grace Paley during a summer session at Columbia University. (Fiction workshops were much less common in those days, and this was the only one I ever enrolled in.) I reproduce it here more or less as it was written: I have corrected a few spelling mistakes (e.g. “boothes,” “tableclothes,” and some of the Spanish words); changed the spelling of Louis (English or French) to Luis (Spanish); and reduced the capacity of the opera house from 12,000 to 3,000. If it were my choice now, I would not title the story Ways, which is vague and unexciting.


This afternoon the wind blew in gusts along the street. The women’s cheeks warmed with color, their hair tousled, the men spread their woven and fringed scarves over their shoulders. Today was Sunday, the fruit stands boarded up, gratings lowered on all the store fronts. As the afternoon darkened there were only a few breaks in the dusk in each block; a confitería on the corner with its glass doors closed, men inside leaning over their tea, their scarves rumpled against their collars, their hands gesturing or cradling their cups in the cold and white light. Here and there along the street trays and tiers of candy flowered from booths between the stores. Curtaining above them hung lines of tickets for the national lottery. The proprietor sat reading a folded newspaper on a stool behind the counter. On the corner across the street from the confitería a neon sign glowed down the front of a parrilla, where grilled beefsteaks were sold.

The old man crossed over the cobblestones of the street to look in at the parrilla. Its white tablecloths glimmered and a few white-jacketed mozos stood talking behind the bar. Just after dark: people would not begin arriving until nine. Peering in the window, his eyes sparkled a moment under his heavy eyebrows. Slowly he put his hands to his collar and turned it up. Away from the window he folded his hands across the soft ends of his shawl, paused a moment, and walked on.

Such a very difficult matter to decide, he began to think. I do not want him in the house with me. He is not quiet like an old man, and he eats and drinks a great deal. He would never be content with a little omelette and vegetable. He frowned and then thought of other things. Should he take tea there on the corner or go on home and have a little maté? He walked along slowly and imagined each experience carefully. It comforted him to hold the silver maté cup in his palms, to stir the leaves about with the long silver strainer. To sit quiet with his considerations, with his own damp and undisturbed smell, with the noises he was accustomed to, the clanging of elevator gates in the hall beyond the door and an occasional drift of voices, the ticking of a small alarm clock in his room, the other rooms silent. He could sit at the kitchen table with La Prensa folded before him and look again at the review of Ricci’s first appearance in the city. It was comfortable to suck up the hot bitter drink while he read about the brilliant cadenza that opened the Ginastera concerto, while he remembered the perfect intonation of the violin. Ricci seemed alone there on the edge of the stage, with the orchestra silent behind him. The old man frowned again and rubbed his hands across his eyes; he was ashamed and humiliated when he couldn’t stop coughing. He wanted to hear every sequence and every interval, but he wheezed and choked. Three thousand others were quiet. He said angrily to himself, I am an old fool spoiling the music.

The old man crossed over the cobblestones to the confiteria. The glass door didnĄt open easily; bending his head he pushed the door, forwards and back a few times until a young man coming out swung it inwards. The old man stumbled and looked up against the light. The young man was about thirty. He eyes opened for a moment in surprise and he started to murmur "Perdón". Then he looked irritated.

Papa, what are you doing?”
The old man’s eyes watered from the smoke and light and he looked down.
Papa, do you want me to come to the house later this night, after you have eaten?”
“Yes, yes Luis. Come and we’ll talk about it,” the old man answered.
Sitting at a table by the dark window the old man cupped the tea between his palms and looked out at the bus stop. The first swallow of tea flowed comfortably over his throat, his cold fingers curled newly sensitive around the warm china. He saw life as isolated moments like this of particular pleasure or pain or embarrassment. A small Indian boy came into the crowd of tables with a sheaf of newspapers. He called out “Diario, La Prensa.” The old man put ten pesos in the boy’s hand and laid the newspaper on his lap. Another moment, another picture silenced the talk around him and took him out beyond the city, through dripping streets near the river.

Once when Luis was younger he had forgotten his father at a tea party and driven away with some friends. The old man had insisted on walking back into the city through the wet suburb. He walked in a vast stillness, in the dark after a rainfall. He passed houses and bramble-filled vacant lots where the path was mud, where logs and pieces of metal tripped him. At the crossroads a lake had gathered and reflected one lamp that swayed in the wind above it. Across the railroad tracks the call “Diario” had been the only sound. Stillness swallowed the voice again and again. Many streets over, it passed behind him.

Another sip of tea lost itself in the old man’s mouth. His breath caught in his throat and he struggled for air. Choking, he coughed again and again; wind rasped down his throat and his chest ached. Tea from his cup splashed onto his wrist and his eyes filled with tears. He set the cup in its saucer and with a leaf-like paper napkin wiped the back of his hand and his lips. At the tables close by a few women watched nervously the old man looking guiltily up with his wet eyes, his crown bare and his nose arched down at this tea. His hands dabbed at the spilt tea and groped in his pockets for some change. The mozo stopped by his table and collected ten pesos from him, carried away the empty cup and the wet napkin, and the old man got up and left.

The vague worry clouded his mind again. Some decision he must make, something hard to face. The streets lay deserted now. Electric buses passed, their two long rods attached to two wires over the street, sizzling and sparking when the wires crossed. Old-fashioned taxi-cabs blinked their headlights bright and dim, white and yellow, as they trundled around the curve with red libre signs in their front windows. The old man remembered that Luis wanted to move in to live with him. He must decide now. He pushed the button at the corner for the light to change. As he stood with his hand resting on the post his throat thickened again, his knees weakened. As the coughs cracked in his throat the signal turned red and one by one the cars drew up to the left and the right. His chest rose and fell and his forehead dampened. No one noticed; the cars began blinking their lights and honking their horns. The coughs shook him. At last the traffic started slowly up in a mass and then drifted apart. His saliva tasted bitter.

At home, the old man found a little blood on his collar and was disturbed that his good coat might be spoiled. There was enough wine for Luis later. An extra bottle in the laundry closet, standing in the cold under the stone sink and hanging net bags. Sitting at the kitchen table his eyes strayed over the Gu°a Musical in the paper and read a notice for “Martha Argerich y Ruggiero Ricci” to play tomorrow in the Teatro Colón. Ah, Ricci again. The girl Martha, though, had not impressed him. She had taken the difficult passages too fast. The old man pushed the paper aside. He felt a little foolish to take so much interest in the music now when he wouldnĄt be hearing any more of it. He didnĄt see where the money would come from now to pay for the food Luis ate, and the electricity when Luis stayed up with his friends. The frigorífico, the meat-freezing plant, had closed down for lack of beef and Luis had nothing to live on.

The apartment grew colder and damp as it became time to prepare supper. The old man rubbed the spot off his coat collar with cold water and plugged the electric heater into the living room wall. Foolish man that his son was, he thought, that he never trained himself for anything better than a meat-packer. An upright piano darkened one corner of the room. Its keys were chipped and the strings inside rotted away or tightened and broke. the old man touched a chord that lay easily under his hand. Only one note sounded distantly.

Out of the refrigerator he took a cloudy glass of red wine and a thick bowl of cold string beans. He washed a large green apple and peeled it expertly in dangling circles over his plate. When Luis was two years old he used to chew the end of the peel as it looped perfectly from the knife. My fingers have not changed. My teeth are still strong. The difference is that I am frightened of not knowing about things. Slices of the apple fell onto the plate, and seeds and stem dropped beside them. Luis was a strong boy when he was two, and a cross baby. When his mother stopped nursing him at seven months his eyes were always sleepy and he had a crest of soft hair on his head.

Luis had grown up strange and unknown now, a full man who would be angry often and for no reason if they lived together. But a son could not be denied. The old man filled a kettle with water and lit the stove. He would drink maté and Luis would have wine. Perhaps they would be friendly and everything settled. It had been a long time since they had spent an evening talking. He put the kettle over the flame and cleared away the apple peelings.

The old man looked critically at the kitchen, at all the dust gathered in corners, stains on the floor, cucurrachas running now and then along the baseboards behind the sink, at what might be changed with Luis here. The tired old things that worked falteringly under his hand might break under Luis’. A big man who draped sides of beef over his back, who gripped the long bloody shoulders in his hands, in uniform hooded like an Arab, couldn’t live in a small, old man’s way.

The doorbell from downstairs buzzed by the refrigerator and the old man dropped the maté leaves he held in a spoon. He let Luis in. The small gourd laced with silver shook as he filled it. The elevator gate slammed shut in the front hall. He set out the bottle of wine and washed the dust out of a red glass. The water began boiling and he took it off the flame as Luis came in.

Hola,” said the son as he sat down in front of the wine, unzipping his brown leather jacket. “Did you eat enough supper? How are you?” He frowned up at the old man.
“Yes, yes. I am all right,” the old man answered and waited for his son to talk.
Steam rose as the hot water tumbled into the round-bottomed gourd that rested on a little stand.
“Have some wine.” The old man replaced the kettle on the stove and turned to watch his son whisk a finger around inside the rim of the glass and pour out a dollop of red wine with one quick tipping of his arm. His hair was greased and combed back, his eyes under the kitchen light were in shadow. His cheeks were rough and his lower lip lay full and curving.

Papa, sit down and drink your maté. What’s the matter with you? Are you sick again? Tell me.”
The old man sat down and began to stir his drink with the long silver rod. His hands felt the warmth of the gourd, but his mind thought of other things. What was it Luis asked? His health.
“No, it goes a little better with me now.” The rod became warmer between his fingers as he tried to think of how to tell Luis to stay with him. If he told him the right way there was a chance of starting their life together peacefully. But his mind jumped nervously, watching Luis lower his lips to the wine, watching the light run down the creases of his jacket. He must think.

Luis was looking at him again. The old man watched him tighten his lips, watched him try to control his words. The younger man was nervous too, but with irritation, with wanting to be somewhere else.
Papa, stop stirring your maté. It will be too strong for you.”
The old man said nothing and stopped.
“I thought you didn’t like it strong.”
“Luis, I want you to live with me. I think that would be all right.”
Por fin.” Luis smiled tightly and shook his father by the shoulder. “Ah, bueno, Papa. Listen to me then.” He looked heavy and worried and reckless, zipping up his jacket.
Bueno. Tonight I am going to see some friends. Tomorrow I will see you. Tomorrow we will talk some more. Are you happy? Have you something to do?”
The old man nodded.
“Why are you so quiet? Why haven’t you more to say? We will lead our own lives, we will share the same roof. We won’t bother each other.” He frowned down at the table. As he stood his head was just under the light and his face in shadow.
“Well,” said the old man, “I did say enough. I said what you wanted me to say and it is all settled now, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Luis, and left.

The old man was breathing quickly. It exhausted him to be angry. His knees weakened and he leaned down over the table with his knuckles on the wood.

The wind rose after eleven and rattled the doors in all the apartments. The Southern Cross lay in the black sky. The crackle and blue light of the electric buses came from the street. The newspaper boy called the late night edition.