By: Erin F. Robinson
It was his last night playing guitar at the tango salon as a bachelor. His band mates lined up at the bar, and as Flor poured them each a glass of gin, she raised the last glass and said, “To Fernando. I don’t know how I will find another guitarist. Together, your music is magical. Chin-chin!” And the men raised their glasses, clinking them together , “Chin-chin! Chin-chin!” Flor leaned forward, her breasts almost spilling over the bar, and took the lipstick-stained cigarette out of her mouth. “Be a good boy, Ferna,” and kissed him on the cheek, leaving red lips on his skin, “and play me one more tango.”
The band mates took their positions in the corner of the smoky salon. At the signal of Ferna’s fourth foot tap, the sextet began to play. The piano wove in its sharp staccato to accentuate the fluid notes of the clarinet. As the music slithered through the smoke and into the ears of the patrons, their feet tapped on the 2/4, the men putting a wing-tipped shoe forward on the dance floor and sliding across the room to hold their hands out to a partner. The ladies, with their black stockings, dark hair pulled back in chignons, puckered lips, accepted the hands and followed the men into a slightly open embrace, faces turned away from each other, elbows pointed up, and began their dance. The dance lanes formed, and the traffic smoothed out to a perfectly timed rhythm. When each couple reached the wall, they whipped around and began again, the cavernous room becoming a fog of sensual pleasure. Fernando’s guitar solo slipped in, and the partners embraced their women tighter, breathed heavier, their primal desires just short of spilling over. Their music was magical, mystical, a sheer force that incited untamed passions.
* * *
The morning after Fernando and Sara’s wedding, the family helped them clear the remnants of the celebration. Never was there a more beautiful sight than half-empty glasses decorating tables, crumpled cloth napkins, a flower here, a ribbon there, all reminders that this day their new life began. As the couple walked from table to table, they discussed their plans for the future. They would live on her father’s vineyard in Mendoza, where he would work as the resident agronomist, in exchange for room, board, and a small salary. The ranch house would be their home. It was little more than laborers’ quarters, with a simple kitchen, one bathroom, and a wooden porch overlooking the vineyard.
Fernando reflected on his good fortune, that Jose Luis found him at the Department of Agriculture, having asked for the best agronomist to work on his vineyard. Who knew that the daughter of Jose Luis would be the love of his life? Second, of course, to his guitar. He was an excellent agronomist, but his passion was music. Fernando had dreams of becoming one of the greats, like Carlos Gardel. Tango dancers in smoky salons all over the country would ask to hear his music. All he needed was to be discovered, and how would he do that as an agronomist in Mendoza? But he was truly happy, truly in love, feeling truly fortunate to have steady work in a time when work was so difficult to come by, in a time when most could barely feed themselves. Yes, he was very lucky.
No time was wasted, and work began the week after his wedding. He worked side by side with his brother-in-law, Jorge, learning the trade. Rows of green vines rolled along the hills for what seemed eternity, all belonging to Jose Luis, one of the best wine makers in all of Argentina. They grew Malbec grapes for their wine. Together they studied the plants, rubbed dirt between their fingers, cared for the grapes with delicacy. Weeks passed before Fernando even noticed that he had not touched his guitar. One evening after the family meal, he pulled the guitar out of its case, sat on their ranch house porch, and serenaded his wife with a melancholy love song. A tear rolled down Sara’s cheek as she watched her young husband under the moonlight, strumming his guitar.
They were awoken that evening by a torrential rainstorm, so unusual for this season. As they watched the rain fall out of their window, Sara was concerned that the vines would be flooded. Fernando sleepily said, “Just come back to bed. There is nothing we can do about the rain, and it will most likely stop soon.” But the rain persisted. It rained so consistently through the night that when they walked onto their porch the next morning, a large puddle of muddy water wrapped around their entire house. This is so strange, Fernando thought. The almanac did not warn us. He would have to wade through the muddy rows of vines and make do. Sara made him his yerba mate and handed him a thick slice of buttered bread as he carefully sipped his hot tea through the metal straw.
And so it happened that each night after working in the vineyard with Jorge, Fernando would finish his meal and sing a song to his wife while playing the guitar. Some songs were romantic. Some were terribly tragic tales of lost loves. But as drowsiness pulled them to their bed, the skies were inspired, overjoyed, saddened by the music that floated from Fernando’s guitar. His melancholy ballads were so powerful that the skies cried with nostalgia and bittersweet longing, flooding the vineyard until finally the sunrise appeared.
His uplifting, sweet songs were so contagious that the sun shone with all its brightness, and birds from far-away provinces made their way to the vineyard to partake of the growing fruits on the vines. The sun’s rays were so strong, they burned the fruit, and the birds ruined the fruit by pecking their beaks into the juicy grapes and taking their fill. It seemed that Fernando was cursed, for as much care he put into the vines, the weather always had another plan. Night after night, his vines were ravaged by the emotions of the skies, and his only comfort was his music, which was the very thing that was destroying all of his hard work. But he was not aware of this strong hold he had on the sky’s heartstrings. He thought that he was failing as an agronomist, and that he had very bad fortune.
By this point, Jose Luis was angry, confused, and wanted answers. Why were his vines dying? Why was he paying an agronomist such a generous salary, only to lose all of his fruit? Never mind Fernando was family now. He demanded to know! Of course, Fernando wished to tell his father-in-law that he could not control the weather, but he did not dare contradict Jose Luis. He could be a harsh, cruel man, despite his generosity. The days wore on, Fernando’s music became more somber as his morale decreased, and the rains came gushing down.
Depressed and weary, Fernando needed to go to town. It had been months since he had seen his friends and played in his band. They called themselves “Los Encantadores.” He drove his truck into town and parked it across the street from the tango salon in which they always used to play, and he found himself amongst friends.
“Well, look who finally decides to show up! Flor has been asking about you. Her business has suffered since you got married,” Pepito called out from the corner of the smoky salon.
Fernando hugged each band mate, patting them on the back, hiding his desperation and sadness. “Do you have room for another guitarist?”
And so they played like never before, the band reunited after many months, as if only a day had gone by, their instruments weaving their music in and out of each other’s notes, creating an intoxicating tango which no one in the salon could resist. This was Flor’s salon. An American expatriate named Charlie helped her run the bar. On the side, Flor offered other services to lonely men. She had a dozen of the most beautiful women in Mendoza under her employ, who could dance the tango with any man and have them begging for company by the end of the night. But Flor always told Fernando that it was their music that created the passion in her customers. When Fernando picked up his guitar, it was as if every pulse in the room waited for his first note. And when he played, the women on one side of the salon became magnets to the men on the other side, drawn to each other with such fierceness, dancing with such grace in perfectly timed rows along the room, mesmerized by his lyrical magic.
As Fernando plucked at his strings, he remembered how it felt to live. To him, it was all about this music. He remembered so many evenings in his Abuela Patricia’s living room, listening to records of Carlos Gardel, practicing along on his guitar. A pang of longing coursed through him as he thought of his Abuela, and as the last song finished, he made up his mind to go see her. Of course, Abuela would be awake. It was but a few miles to his grandmother Patricia’s house, the home in which he grew up.
The lights were on in the house, and as he let himself in her door, he saw a half-dozen men seated around her dining room table playing cards, with Patricia at the head of the table, smoking a cigar. Just as Fernando pulled a chair to take a seat, Patricia put out her cigar and laid her cards on the table, “Royal Flush! Ha-ha! What do you have to say about that?”
The men groaned and threw their cards down, some in a disgraced silence, some in a fit of rage, “You cheat! You cheat! This is why I don’t like to play with you!” They pulled crumpled bills out of their pockets and placed their hats on their head, moping out the front door. One man called out from the porch, “See you next week, Patti.”
Patricia collected her loot and cleared the table, gloating to Fernando that these men were amateurs. Playing against them was like taking a toy from a baby, she sighed.
“Abuela, I need to talk to you,” Fernando followed her into the kitchen.
“Can you believe that one of my guests tried to bring a Nazi to my Poker game? What do I look like, a Peronista? I said no, of course, and threw him out. That is why there were only six. They all thought I was too harsh, saying, Oh, Patti, it’s just Poker. You’re not Jewish. What do you care? And I so you know what I told them? I said I didn’t want to keep him detained in my house all evening. What if they needed him at the Nuremberg trials tomorrow?” She slapped her thigh and let out a roaring laugh.
Fernando observed his grandmother Patricia. What had made this woman so hard, he thought? But she had been his savior as a child. His own father had also been a hard, cruel man, often beating him and his mother. A push down a staircase from his father had put Fernando in the hospital with a broken leg. After his operation, Patricia was the one to pick him up, and he lived with her ever since that day. His parents rarely visited him, his limp a painful reminder to them of the family secret no one was willing to address. His Abuela was the one who sent him to university to study agronomy. He owed everything to this woman, and yet, she was so distant, as guarded as a fortress, leery of even letting trusted visitors enter her heart.
“Abuela, I’m serious. Something has been bothering me.”
“Well, I’m surprised. I thought you were in bliss, since I haven’t seen you since your wedding. How is Sara?” she leaned over the sink, emptying glasses.
“Sara is fine. She is such a blessing. But I wanted to tell you about something else, something I just can’t seem to figure out.” And so he explained to her the happenings of the past few months, the storms, the blistering sunshine, the flocks of birds eating the grapes. He was so confused and thought it might have something to do with his music.
“You’ve always been able to move people with your music, Ferna.”
“But this is different, Abuela. It’s the sky, the atmosphere. It’s metaphysical!” he raised his hands up above his head, holding a towel.
“Well, Borges always says…..”
“Borges, Borges. All you ever do is quote Borges. Can’t you tell me about something real, something that doesn’t come out of one of your stories? What do you think is happening?”
She took the towel from him and wiped her hands. “Sometimes there is no explanation. Sometimes things are just a mystery,” she said, making the sign of the cross on her chest.
“Abuela, you don’t even believe in God!”
“Maybe not. But I’m still a Catholic. You shouldn’t question things so much. It probably is your music, but then what are you supposed to do, never play again? That is your passion, Ferna. Look, you shouldn’t take advice from me. I have driven away everyone I ever loved because of my gambling,” pointing to the bottles and cards strewn about the table. She sighed and placed her hands on his cheeks, “It’s getting late, and you should be there for your bride when she wakes up.” She pulled him towards her round, soft body and embraced him. “Just don’t be a stranger. I miss you, my Ferna.”
And with her words in his echoing through his mind, Fernando drove home to his beloved bride. Yes, it was a mystery. But he always somehow knew that his music had this power. Even that night as he watched the couples dancing their tangos, he knew it was his guitar that was bringing men and women to fall in love. How could he never make music in his house? What a sad future that seemed, to not be able to share his gift with his wife and children. But how could he play music there and keep the vines alive? He wished he could run away. He wished he had followed his heart all along and gone to Buenos Aires to follow his dreams of becoming a musician instead of trying to please everyone and finding himself so unhappy.
He returned home that night and woke Sara, telling her he needed to talk. They lay in their dark, warm bedroom embracing each other as he told her what he and his Abuela had decided was responsible for the damage to the vines. She listened attentively and nodded, as if she understood and believed him. After a long while, when they were almost asleep, she broke the silence of their room and whispered to him, “I fell in love with you because of your music, but that is not why I love you now. I love you because you are a good man, Ferna. And that’s all that matters to me.”
Fernando snuck out of bed after Sara had fallen asleep, and testing his luck, he sat on the porch and sang a slow song full of agony and longing, a story of lost lovers, who may never be reunited. He sang softly with a quiet passion and then waited. A rumble traveled towards him from across the field, and in moments his quadrant of the vineyard received a downpour of rain and hail. Setting his guitar down, he walked through the storm, weaving his way in and out of the rows of vines, lamenting his misfortune, but reveling in the mystical power of his music.
Preparing for the end of the season with Jorge working by his side, he realized how much he loved his friend. In a way, he had fallen in as much love with Jorge as he had with Sara. Their family was good. They sacrificed for each other, for the sake of the whole. The vineyard and winery was a family pride, one that was meant to stay in the hands of their children and grandchildren, for years to come. It was their land, their toils, their sacrifices that would be passed down from generation to generation. At times he felt like an outsider, never having experienced this kind of love before. But Jose Luis was a macho, overbearing man, expecting total allegiance from his children. Most days he felt Jose Luis was spying on him, watching him with untrusting eyes. His love for his family sometimes stifled Fernando.
And of course, Fernando loved his wife. She was a perfectly adequate woman. But did real passion exist between them? He was an ordinary man with her. He couldn’t move mountains without his guitar, he couldn’t incite the sky to rain, the birds to chirp, the late-night lovers to quarrel and reconcile. He would just be a farmer with her, for there was no room for his guitar in their life. Perhaps it would be better this way, he thought? She would bear him children. They would raise their family. He would tend to the vines and grow old. Or he could pack his suitcase and leave tonight, following his dreams and never looking back.
That night Fernando climbed into bed, curled up next to Sara and cupped her breast, kissing her neck. “Not now, Ferna. It’s so late. Please go to bed,” Sara mumbled, half asleep.
He would wait until morning and wake her with a soft serenade. Until then, Fernando watched his beautiful wife’s shallow breaths drifting from her lips, feeling a sense of appreciation for her, and slipping into sleep.
But when he awoke, he searched for his guitar in every room of the house, and it was nowhere to be found. Every room was turned upside down, under every blanket, every piece of furniture, above the dresser, but he could not find it. Sara sat up in bed when he rushed into their bedroom. “Where is my guitar?” he asked, out of breath.
She rubbed her eyes and said nothing.
“Sara, where is my guitar?”
“Don’t be angry,” she said, her eyes averted.
“Don’t be angry? Why would you say that unless you were sure that I was going to be angry? Where is my guitar?” he insisted, limping closer to the bed. He hadn’t slept well.
“My father took it yesterday while you were working in the vineyard.” She covered her face with her hands, peeking through her fingers.
“But no one was home. How did he get in the house?”
“This is his house, Ferna. He has the keys.”
“Well, tell him I want it back. He had no right to take it!” Fernando looked out the window and searched the vines for his father-in-law.
“You see, he sold it. You can’t get it back. I am so sorry,” she said.
Fernando demanded, “Why would he do that?”
“I might have told him that your guitar was causing the rains, and the hot weather, and the birds.” Sara pulled the sheets up to her nose to hide her fear.
“Why would you do that? Do you have any idea how much that guitar meant to me?”
“Look, can’t you just be happy with our life, being an agronomist, being married to me? Isn’t that enough? Aren’t I enough? You are never going to be a musician. You are not Carlos Gardel! I’m not asking you to choose…but maybe I am.”
“If this is how you feel, then you don’t know me at all, Sara.”
“I’m so sorry, Ferna,” her voice trailed as he marched out the house and slammed the front door.
He drove down the two-lane roads that connected the neighboring Malbec vineyards, each belonging to different families, growing dizzy from watching row after row of vines pass by. I could die out here, he thought. I could really suffocate. After spending most of the day driving and contemplating whether or not to confront Jose Luis and give him a piece of his mind, he turned the wheel and drove in the direction of Flor and Charlie’s salon, proceeding to spend most of the afternoon and evening drinking gin at their bar. When his Los Encantadores walked in, they said, “Hey! Our prodigal son is back! Are you going to play with us tonight?”
“I didn’t bring a guitar,” he fumbled with the napkin under his glass, not wanting to tell them that his father-in-law had sold it.
“No worries at all! We have an extra one in the truck.” And so they played their music, Fernando burning with anger and resentment, strumming the guitar with such force that his fingers felt like they might tear open. The air in the salon was dense and stifling, with a layer of smoke floating just above the patrons’ heads, something sinister looming. Glances were stolen, jealousies arose, arguments ensued, punches thrown. The whole bar was a mess of antagonism, and Fernando had a horrible feeling that it was from his music. He placed the borrowed guitar on his chair and snuck out the back door, not noticed by his band mates in the commotion.
Abuela Patricia sat alone at her kitchen table when Fernando reached her house. He had walked the distance from the salon to her home, stumbling and limping, cursing the skies for his misfortune. “Can’t you love my music in silent appreciation?” he begged the stars. “Can’t you just give a light sprinkle when you are moved, and not cry all over the vineyard like a big baby?” he taunted the sky, jerking his hands up in the air. What was the use reasoning with the atmosphere? It was like insisting that God answer a prayer in the exact moment that the prayer is supplicated. God didn’t work that way. He knew this well. Hadn’t he wished for a family so many years ago? His prayer had finally been answered, but did God somehow misunderstand him in the prayer’s transmission?
“Abuela?” he said, when he found her staring at the table, holding a mate gourd.
“Oh, Ferna! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home with Sara?”
“Abuela, we had a horrible fight. Jose Luis sold my guitar. I think my marriage might be over. And the funny thing is, I don’t even care. I want to pack a bag and leave town, go to Buenos Aires. I’m young still. I’m only twenty-three!”
Patricia sat quietly for a moment, in meditation. At last she spoke, “Ferna, I feel like I’ve failed you. I tried to give you a better life, but I think I was ill equipped to teach you about love. And here I am, sitting alone, the only friends I have are the men I gamble with. Are they friends, really, though? They didn’t want to come over tonight because I wouldn’t let the German into my house. But that is how I chose to live my life. I am happy, but in my own strange way. I have my books, my cards, and that’s all I need.”
“But you are happy! Abuela, all I want to do is play music. It is my one true passion. It is the one thing that sets me apart from anyone else.”
“Well, Borges says that individualism is an old Argentine virtue. I know, you don’t want to hear about Borges. But it is true. You have to follow your heart, your passions, what makes you unique from the rest of the world, whatever you decide those passions may be. But only you can decide what is right for you.”
They stayed up, filling and refilling the mate, sipping the hot tea while they talked about their lives, indulging his grandmother and letting her talk about Borges. After spending the night sleeping in his old room, he walked the long walk back to his ranch house with the warm morning sun on his back to find Sara up, preparing breakfast, brewing a cup of mate for him, slathering a piece of buttered toast with dulce de leche. On his walk he had seen Jorge working on the vines, laughing with the other laborers and talking with Jose Luis.
And now he saw Sara’s sweet face, looking to him humbly, in search of forgiveness. She was a beautiful woman, with the greyest eyes he had ever seen. She had a beautiful family, and she was inviting him into it. He couldn’t bear to talk, and so he walked past her down the hall. On the top shelf of their closet was a box of his old things, which he pulled down dusting it off and laying it on the trunk in front of him. Opening it, he saw his old drawings, letters his parents had written him, things he barely ever looked at and had almost forgotten. He began to pack his sheet music, his guitar picks, his extra guitar strings, and the hat he liked to wear at Flor’s salon when he played. He ran a hand over the sheets one last time, and when he was finished, he placed the lid on the box and pushed it back as far as it would reach on the shelf in the closet.
When he entered the kitchen, Fernando bit a bite from the warm toast, took a careful sip of hot mate, and gave Sara’s forehead a soft kiss. He walked out the door into the morning to tend to his vines, whistling a quiet tune under his breath.