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The Bystander by Gina Berriault
Someone shouted at me to grab a blanket or a coat or something for crissakes, the narrator of The Bystander says, and wrap your old man up, because after assaulting the woman the narrator’s father liked best, and after running out with nothing on but the soap from the bath he’d been taking with her, the narrator’s father is standing on the street, shouting imprecations at her, and although Antonio never remembers the exact phrases that describe what happens next (The Bystander by Gina Berriault first appeared in Antonio’s life as a reading assignment during a retrograde narrative workshop, almost twelve years ago, before his sister began to ununderstand her life (what had drawn him to The Bystander and other fictions of ununderstanding if no such condition had afflicted anyone he knew back then? If Antonio were a conspiracy theorist, which he isn’t, he would suspect that someone had been planting these fictions near him to warn him or prepare him for his sister’s misfortunes – I am not a conspiracy theorist, Antonio writes, and fiction doesn’t prepare you for anything –)), he hasn’t forgotten the terrifying image of people watching the narrator’s father from windows and balconies, of people at a bar nearby, laughing at the narrator’s father, and perhaps Antonio hasn’t forgotten this terrifying image because of its familiar dream logic, all of a sudden you find yourself on the street late at night, without clothes, and people are laughing at you (and here Antonio searches for his copy of The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which does not yield any associative threads of interest – the dream logic of The Unconsoled is calibrated to be logical and illogical at the same time, Antonio writes –), but to the narrator of The Bystander, who tries to cover his father with a blanket – he struck me away with his elbow, Antonio reads, sharp in my ribs as a crowbar – the dream doesn’t end with the people laughing at his father or with his father being taken away by the police, no, he, the son, still has to visit his father at a mental institute, I brought his suitcase, the narrator of The Bystander says, as the young man social worker had told me in some huge loft of hundreds of desks and social workers in an agency building that was probably not unlike the agency building where a year ago Antonio and his mother filled out the forms required to process their request for an involuntary inpatient treatment for his sister, announcing his and his mother’s dark purpose at the designated window, sitting apart from each other in the waiting room, a young man leading them to a bare room where he explained to Antonio and his mother the procedure, one form for his mother, one form for Antonio because in the state of Georgia two written testimonies were required to commit his sister to a mental institute, his mother objecting to her son’s use of the word schizophrenia in his testimony, him and his mother wavering at the question on whether the person they were trying to commit to a mental institute was at risk of self-harm, Antonio reading his mother’s lengthy testimony – her words, Antonio writes, completely erased from me – nodding his head, trying to appear reasonable – I was leaning my elbow on the counter, the narrator of The Bystander says, smoking a cigarette, demonstrating with that pose my reasonable nature – and if at that moment, when Antonio and his mother were done filling out the forms required to commit his sister to a mental institute, a butterfly would have landed on him or his mother, they would have burst out of grief, but no butterfly came so Antonio and his mother continued as before, containing their organs inside their bodies, waiting for the young man social worker in silence, a silence they maintained throughout the morning and afternoon, as if afraid the most innocuous word might weaken their resolve to commit his sister to a mental institute – butterfly – let’s not do this anymore – a resolve that originated mostly from Antonio, who, because he thought he needed to be a man of action, had decided they should take control of his sister’s circumstances – her dangerous isolation, Antonio writes, which could have aggravated her legal situation – and since his mother had been too exhausted to object, here they were, waiting for the young man social worker, who returned to the bare room and apologetically explained what would happen next, don’t worry, he said, she won’t be able to read what you’ve written on the forms and the police will inform you before they’re on their way to her house (but of course later the police didn’t inform them and they did show his sister what they’d written on the forms), and so they exited the agency building as quietly as they’d entered it, searching for his compact rental car, heads down, focusing on their steps so as to avoid falling flat against the asphalt – over my arm I carried his raincoat and in my pocket his wallet, the narrator of The Bystander says, containing, under celluloid, a snapshot of my mother taken the year before she died and a snapshot of myself at the age of five – and as Antonio rereads The Bystander in the living room of the apartment where his daughters live, his former wife asks him what’s wrong, Antonio, any news about your sister, and instead of telling his former wife that while performing his database analyst tasks at Bank of America earlier in the day his sister’s attorney had called him to inform him that at last his sister had been found in Chicago and soon she was to be transferred to Cobb County jail and then to the mental health wing of the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she would remain until she was deemed fit to continue her trial proceedings (his sister had been arrested for threatening to shoot her neighbors, and after the involuntary treatment had failed to quiet the conspirative voices his sister was hearing, she fled from her trial in Georgia), he asks his former wife to please read The Bystander out loud to him, no, she says, I need to prepare your daughters’ school lunch for tomorrow, okay, he says, but she takes pity on him and reads to him in the kitchen about Arty, the son, who’s visiting his father at the mental institute, the impact of his presence in this alien place made my throat swell, his former wife reads, and I went up to him quickly and laid my hand on his back, the smell of oranges was on his breath, his former wife reads, and that was good, I thought, his former wife reads, if he had eaten an orange then he was comparatively content, what are they going to do to me, Arty, his former wife reads, Tata, Antonio’s youngest daughter says, numbers, Eva go back to bed it’s late, his former wife says, I’ll be there in a second, Antonio says, you tell them in the psycho ward they give your father hot chocolate and a little cookie, his former wife reads, why are you reading this, his former wife doesn’t say, and perhaps because his former wife is crying he says I’ll go do numbers before it’s too late, me first, Eva says, that’s not fair, Ada says, I’ll flip a coin heads or tails, head, no, tails, here it goes, let me see turn on the light, Ada says, head wins so Eva goes first, fifty numbers today, Tata, just ten, twenty-one, can you sing cuando vuelva a tu lado, cuando vuelva a tu lado / y este solo contigo, and once Antonio is done drawing numbers on both of his daughters’ backs and singing a song from Edyie Gorme y Los Panchos, he returns to the kitchen, I’m going to bed, his former wife says, so she turns off the light in the kitchen and living room and goes to bed, but Antonio remains in the living room, trying not to think about butterflies, agency buildings, forms filled with tenebrous words, let’s drive to your sister’s house to make sure she didn’t forget to lock up, Antonio’s mother said after his sister had been apprehended, I don’t want to I’m scared she might still be there, Antonio didn’t say to his mother (on the second day of his unannounced visit to his sister in Atlanta, she’d stormed into the guest room where he’d been updating his mother on his sister’s condition over the phone and his sister screamed at him to get the hell out of her house (after he switched on his compact rental car and the air conditioner started running, he couldn’t hear his sister anymore but she was there, guarding her driveway and screaming at him, her new imaginary enemy, her last family connection)), and so after Antonio called the police department and someone informed him that yes, the deed authorized by him and his mother had been done, his mother insisted they drive to his sister’s house, and so they did, parking in his sister’s driveway, where the motion detection light clarified the existence of his sister’s house for them, but Antonio did not want to roll down the windows or step out to check if all the doors of his sister’s house were locked because what if his sister was still there, waiting to hurl herself at them like the undead, and so the motion detection light, registering no further motion, expired, and so they remained inside his compact rental car in her sister’s driveway, terrified, and so Antonio switches on the lamp in the living room of the apartment where his daughters live and searches for his copy of A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims, which he doesn’t find on the bookshelves nearby so he switches off the lamp and powers the flashlight on his phone and searches for A Questionable Shape in the bookshelves in the bedroom where his former wife is already asleep, nothing, so he searches in his daughters’ room and finds A Questionable Shape on Ada’s bookshelves, yes, he’d forgotten that, during a long holiday weekend, they’d played the game of Can Ada Read the First Page of Whatever Book Tata Picks, A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims being one of the books Antonio had picked – what we know about the undead so far is this, Ada had read, they return to familiar places – they’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, Antonio reads, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found her before – and Ada and Antonio had both laughed as Ada tried to read the word mnemocartography – this book contains so many beautiful words, Antonio said – what are you doing Tata don’t take my platypus again, Ada says, bookie expedition go back to sleep bunny town, Antonio says, returning to the living room and thinking that instead of that horrible word his mother had objected to he should invent beautiful words to describe his sister’s illness, even though there was nothing beautiful about his sister’s illness – from your point of view, bobito – yes, look at these beautiful words from A Questionable Shape, which he’d penciled on its title page, apophatic, for instance, which means to describe something by stating characteristics it does not have – my sister’s house did not have a television in her living room with four split screens tracking the perimeter of her house – yes it did – aphasia, for instance, which means inability to comprehend and form language because of a dysfunction in specific brain regions, and which, incidentally, is also the name of a piece of invented nonsense sign language by Mark Applebaum – dear Mark Applebaum, Antonio jots down on the back of A Questionable Shape, I want to omit myself from the surface of this world by learning to perform Aphasia – Aphasia is a metaphor for expressive paralysis, Mark Applebaum said – when I was in high school I was possessed by an unexplainable fury, Antonio had written months ago on the title page of A Questionable Shape, and it is all coming back to me now – it started around the time my sister was arrested for the first time, Antonio thinks as he angles the flashlight of his phone on the last page of The Bystander by Gina Berriault, the son turning around and seeing his father standing by the window of the mental institute, watching his son go, and I knew then that I was guilty of something and he was accusing me of it, Antonio reads, and it was the guilt of sight, for he was the father who breaks down under the eyes of his son, the father in his last years when all the circumstances of his life have got him trussed and dying, while the son stands and watches the end of the struggle and then walks away to catch a streetcar.

Mauro Javier Cárdenas is the author of the novels The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House) and Aphasia (FSG). The Hay Festival included him in Bogotá39, a selection of the best young Latin American novelists.