Tuesday's Tertulia

by Lilvia Soto

For Fernando Arrojo-Ramos

Beware the Ides of March
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

They had heard of each other; some had even exchanged a few words at different events around town, but when they met the third Tuesday in March at the Antonio Machado Book Store for the presentation of Federico's book, they realized they were all suffering from the same malaise, the same malestar—the proverbial writer's loneliness. Alejandro, a city bureaucrat whose job was to write reviews of the others' work, suggested they meet once a week for lunch, literary discussions, and exchange of ideas and information. Mario, a South American who was in charge of a foundation dedicated to the promotion of local color, was excited by the idea. He told them he was a narrator and had published some non-fiction pieces in his country. The others had a feeling that he was not a serious writer, but they accepted him because they knew his wife's family and because of the growing influence of his foundation. Benjamín said Tuesdays were the only days he could leave the Instituto early enough to make it for lunch. As the youngest, he had not known the others during their university days, but he was the only one whose poetry had been anthologized, and they were anxious to have him in the group. They agreed to meet on Tuesdays. Tomás said, "We will call it La tertulia del martes," Tuesday's Tertulia.1 Federico, a writer at an ad agency, whose third collection of Cortazarian stories they were celebrating, said, "I hope it is not La tertulia de Marte," Mars's Tertulia. Tomás, the eldest and already retired, was the only one, besides Federico and Benjamín, who had published a book. Actually, it was three chapbooks, but they had made his name known in Sevillian cultural circles. He was also the only one who had read Federico's first two books, and he said, "I should have known that you would have that kind of humor, Federico." Benjamín smiled and said, "And today is the 15th of March. Imagine!" The others did not get the references and were too proud to ask.

They decided that in order to be accessible to all, they would hold their meetings in some restaurant in the old quarter of the city. "In the shadow of La Giralda," said Daniel. He was in charge of the cultural section of one of the Sevillian papers and well aware that the others did not consider his journalistic endeavors art, but he was flattered to be invited. He had met Alejandro and Federico at the University, but they were two years ahead of him. The others knew that Daniel had the last word on which reviews would be published each week and could even arrange for an interview or two.

The following Tuesday the six tertulianos met at La Taberna del Alabardero. Alejandro had suggested it for its proximity to Don Tomás's house. Either because of his age or because of his crutches, Tomás was the only one the others addressed with the formal "usted," and Alejandro made it clear from the beginning that for him the old man's opinions carried more weight than those of his own contemporaries. He insisted on sitting next to him and was attentive to his every word and gesture. The food at La Taberna was good, the wine, passable, and their waitress, una buena moza. But in spite of this, Tomás complained about the service and the fact that only a couple of glasses of vino tinto were included in the prix fixe. With his first objection, Alejandro insisted that they move the tertulia. Federico said he knew a good place in Triana, but Alejandro thought it would be too far for Don Tomás and offered to find a place and let the others know. As they were leaving, the waitress arrived, and, explaining someone had left it with the doorman, handed Alejandro a red envelope. He opened it and took out a red card with a golden crest depicting the head of a wolf embossed in the middle. He read out loud: "There are too many. Reduce the number. The Editor." A look of incomprehension went around the room. Tomás exclaimed, "What the fuck...?" Federico interrupted, "It's late; we'll discuss it next time," as he ushered them out the door.

The following Tuesday, Benjamín arrived at La Taberna half an hour late and found that his friends were not there. He did not understand. He had not received the promised call about the new meeting place, and he had assumed they had not chosen one yet. The maitre d' explained that someone, no, he didn't know who, had called that morning to cancel the reservation. No, he hadn't made another one. Yes, he was sorry too, but his friends would probably call the señor, and if he wished, he could always call next Tuesday to find out if they had made a reservation.

At that very moment, on Calle Pajaritos, in El Bar Estrella, the others were drinking a bottle of tinto with a shrimp tortilla. Alejandro, with his customary joviality, celebrated his own jokes and rambled on and on about his wife, his daughter, his brother-in-law, his latest weekend excursion. Mario bragged about the thirty million pesetas his foundation had just received from a wealthy Texan he had met the previous summer. The others made an effort to appear jolly and talked about Matute's new book, the review published in Helva's paper, the manuscript La Revista had received. Nobody mentioned Benjamín. When it came time to pay, the waiter handed Tomás a red envelope they recognized. He opened the note inside and read: "Too many. Reduce. The Editor." They looked at each other with bewilderment, and again it was Federico who said they had to go; they would discuss it the following week.

The following Tuesday at three o'clock, Daniel arrived at El Bar Estrella and found that his friends were not there. The waiter said no one had made a reservation. Daniel muttered to himself as he walked out into the sunny street, "A mistake. A misunderstanding. Has to be."

At that hour the others were toasting with a bottle of tinto in El Restaurante Robles, on Calle Placentines. They opted for tapas instead of the menu of the day. In spite of Alejandro's incessant chattering and his off-color jokes, the conversation languished. Even Federico, always attentive, seemed distracted. Not even the review of his new book that Alejandro had just handed him lifted his spirits. Then, in a low voice, he asked if anybody had seen Kind Hearts and Coronets on the tele Sunday night. No one had. As they were leaving, the waiter approached with a red envelope in his hand. They looked at each other with dread, for they knew what it contained. With a slight tremor in his hand, Federico read: "Still too many. You know. The Editor."

The following week Mario didn't bother going to El Restaurante Robles. They had not called to inform him of a new meeting place, and he knew they would never choose Tomás, Alejandro, or Federico. No South American could ever compete with the three sevillanos. He was certain his turn had come.

Federico, Tomás, and Alejandro met at Restaurante Becerra. It was within a stone's throw of La Giralda, and they didn't mind spending a little more; they tacitly agreed they deserved it. Federico and Alejandro had known each other since their university days, and they both had a lot of respect for Don Tomás. They all felt they had no reason to distrust each other. Without daring to broach the subject, each hoped the affair had reached its conclusion. After the third glass of tinto, Federico did say wistfully, "I hope we have reached the end of the sacred Spring." "Ah, la primavera sagrada, ver sacrum," said Tomás. Alejandro did not ask what they meant. After lunch, when the waiter approached with a tray of espresso and a red envelope in his hand, Tomás shouted "¡Coño!" and the three looked at each other with rancour. Each suspected the other two and didn't know whether to withdraw or play the game to its bitter end. They parted without deciding on a meeting place for the following Tuesday.

Tomás and Alejandro met at the Egaña Oriza. It was the most expensive restaurant in the city, but, fearing this might be their last meeting, they thought it was appropriate. Both looked gaunt. They greeted each other with reserve. In the bar, Tomás drank a double Jack Daniels and asked for another. Alejandro finished half a bottle of fino. They ordered a bottle of Marqués de Riscal Tempranillo y Graciano with lunch. They ate in silence. Finally, unable to contain himself, Alejandro looked into Tomás's eyes and said, "Don Tomás, you know of my high regard for you. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I deserve to know. Why did you do it? Was it envy? Jealousy? Do you want to be the only writer left in Sevilla? Are you planning to eliminate me too?"

Incredulous, Tomás stammered, "What? But I thought you... I thought you did it as a practical joke, or that you wanted me all to yourself. Damn you with your zalamerías and your sticky, obsequious attentions. What the fuck were you trying to accomplish? ¿Qué coño? And if it wasn't you, then who? Coño, Alejandro, the joke is over. I insist you tell me the truth."

The maitre d' approached with a small silver tray in his hand—in the tray, a red envelope someone had left with the doorman.

 

1A tertulia is a Spanish institution. It is a group of people who gather at the same place, usually a café, at the same time every day or every week to discuss literature or politics. In the nineteenth century there were famous tertulias in Madrid that gathered around Benito Pérez Galdós, or some of the other well-known writers of the time.



Lilvia Soto was born in Mexico, has lived in several countries, and is now a resident of Tucson, Arizona. She holds a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature, and has taught in several American universities. She writes in both English and Spanish, and has published poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and literary translations in the United States, Spain, Canada, Mexico, and other Latin American Countries.