Pablo Piñero Stillmann
VERSUS THE BROWN SOCKS
I spent the first few months of my parents’ divorce alone, mostly in front of the television. Whereas my father already lived with his new girlfriend, my mother was busy with work, visits to the psychiatrist (some of them emergencies), meetings with her lawyer, and coffee dates with friends to update them on the comings and goings of the legal process. Nieves, a robust and grumpy housekeeper, made me lunch every day and looked after me until my mother got home at night.
I spent those afternoons watching all sorts of kids’ shows. One was a Bulgarian series about a magician named Zslorya who saved children from dangerous situations. The rescue always involved a magic trick, and at the end of the episode the magician would explain the trick to the viewers. I also watched lots of baseball because Frecuencia 8, for some reason, showed all the Cleveland Indians’ home games. After all this time I still haven’t been able to forget some names from that mediocre squad: Carlos Baerga, Keith Hernandez, Sandy Alomar, Greg Swindell.
But my favorite show, the one I never missed, was Buenas tardes con Omar. Remembering that show is like remembering a dream: hazy, confusing, and saturated with emotions. When it came on, five or six p.m., I’d move from the upstairs television downstairs to my mother’s room. I shouted to Nieves that I was going to do my homework, but she didn’t care, she was watching her own programming on the kitchen set, an old contraption with knobs that used to belong to my great aunt. I watched Buenas tardes con Omar in my mother’s room, with the door locked, because, at nine years old, I was embarrassed to watch a show that was, in my opinion, aimed at little kids.
Omar, a bald man in a sky-blue sweater vest over a white shirt and black tie, sat behind a table covered with toys. I don’t really remember a lot of what he did. He sang, read viewer mail, maybe told riddles.
What kept me tuning in to that show religiously was “The Adventures of Débora and Gastón.” Débora was a white sock puppet on Omar’s right hand, and Gastón a red sock puppet on his left. Débora and Gastón were orphans. Or they were trying to find their parents. Something like that. The important thing was that these two socks traveled the world and had all sorts of adventures. The villains were represented by other hands that showed up from both sides of the screen wearing brown and tan socks, the type of socks only worn by adults who’ve given up on life. So every day, Débora and Gastón would be stuck atop the Eiffel Tower or have mistakenly boarded a boat headed for Senegal, or needed to deliver a package to the Japanese Emperor.
I can still feel the excitement of watching those socks come to life. There was a tingle in my hands, a knot in my stomach. As soon as the segment began, I was no longer in my sad existence, but was transported onto an inflatable kayak on Lake Peipus or a hot air balloon over Mount Kangchenjunga. Débora and Gastón felt to me more human than my parents, my teachers, or my classmates.
Besides being a peerless broadcaster, Omar was a phenomenal writer. While shows of that era—e.g. Zslorya’s—consisted of standalone episodes, “The Adventures…” was serialized. At the end of Monday’s segment, one had no idea how the siblings would escape their troubles until the start of Tuesday’s segment. Each adventure was a puzzle. During the twenty-four hours between Omar’s shows, or seventy-two from Friday to Monday, I, along with tens of thousands of other children, racked my brain thinking of how my favorite socks would wiggle out of their latest imbroglio. If a brown sock had trapped them under the Sphinx of Giza, then I’d spend a lot of my school day—at a corner desk, so my classmates and teacher wouldn’t catch on—writing the script of Gastón and Débora’s escape from the Sphinx of Giza. My solutions never held a candle to Omar’s.
“The Adventures…” really hit its stride in February of ’91. The structure of the episodes changed: instead of lasting one tight six-minute segment, sometimes the socks would eat up two or three segments of Buenas tardes con Omar. I became even more obsessed with these stories, though some of the time I had no idea what was happening. (I didn’t understand this as a boy, but “The Adventures…” had adopted the abstract quality of real life.) How was it that Gastón and Débora were in the Gunnuhver Hot Springs if we’d last seen them eating pupusas in Cuscatlán? In one episode, our protagonists stole a time machine from an independent scientist’s illegal laboratory. This allowed the socks to travel to Ancient Greece and also to witness the implementation of Christianity in the Roman Empire. They also attempted, without luck, to thwart Ivan the Terrible’s massacre at Novgorod. By then, Omar had forgotten about scripts—maybe also about the audience and the cameras—and would now solely improvise.
Without a doubt, the best plotline of “The Adventures…” came during this jazz age of the show. A tan sock stole a Vermeer painting, The Allegory of Faith, from a New York museum, sold it and, with the money, hired a group of mercenaries to time-travel with him to the Haitian revolution to quell the slave uprising. Gastón and Diana, of course, went after him.
Although Omar’s story was peppered with fantasy—Vermeer, for example, who died in the 1600s, showed up in 18th-century Haiti armed with knives to kill a landowner and burn his papaya farm—to this day I know more about the Haitian revolution than about the one that took place in my own country.
In one of the Haitian plotline’s many climaxes, Gastón and Débora were tied to the trunk of a palm tree while the mercenaries danced, sang, and doused them in gasoline. They couldn’t yet burn them alive because Captain Beaulieu, who was on his way by horse, had the matches.
Then there was a commercial break. Let’s say the first ad was for cookies. The next one was for powdered milk. After that, maybe, there was an ad for whole wheat bread, which was all the rage back then. Then came an ad for kids’ toothpaste. My love for television had turned me into a commercial break expert. I knew that during Buenas tardes con Omar the breaks were made up of three to four ads lasting thirty seconds each, with a fifteen-second station ID after the last ad. And just as expected, the toothpaste ad was followed by the station’s logo, accompanied by a deep voice that said, Telecapital: Honored to be in your home. But after that came another ad. I sat up. Then came a station ID in which Telecapital wished its viewers a merry Christmas. In March? And another, this one congratulating President Batoner on his successful fifth year in office. Then an ad for a doll that needed its diaper changed. Then one for instant coffee. Then, again, an ad for a doll that needed its diaper changed. Then another one for the instant coffee. Telecapital: Honored to be in your home. Then…
The commercials lasted until the beginning of the next show. I had one of those anxiety attacks I’d seen my mother get: dry mouth, brain reeling, body unable to stay put. For a moment I thought of asking Nieves what she thought had happened with Omar, but I hated her and, more importantly, I was certain she hated me, too. (Nieves and I rarely spoke, and sometimes I would catch her glaring at me.) I wasn’t actually worried about Omar, though. He was omnipotent. What terrified me was that I would never know how (or even if!) Gastón and Débora escaped from the Haitian palm tree.
My mother would get home at night, exhausted, and immediately run a bath. I remember that night as the only time I looked forward to her arrival. In complete hysterics, I’d already looked up Telecapital in the phone book and called to demand an explanation. The receptionist hung up on me. I hadn’t changed the channel, certain that Omar would eventually show up to assure us, his disciples, that all was well in his kingdom. But Omar never did, so I hoped that my mother would be able to explain the never-ending commercial break. Maybe it was something very common in television and I had nothing to worry about.
I heard the front door open and my mother exchanging a few words with Nieves, who then left. I would’ve run to her, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the screen. When my mother finally appeared, she looked haggard: disheveled hair and smeared makeup. She sat on the bed.
“Hug me,” she said. Then she began to cry.
I did as she said, all the while not taking my eyes off the screen, feeling the warm tears accumulate on my right shoulder.
Once she stopped crying, my mother went into the bathroom to run her bath. I stayed on her bed, waiting for Omar. The room filled with the smell of Marlboros. Every once in a while, I heard my mother’s sobs bouncing against the tile. I stayed that way, hooked to Telecapital, until I fell asleep from the exhaustion of so much anxiety.
The next day in school, not able to talk to my classmates about Omar’s mysterious disappearance, I spent all classes writing scripts in my notebook. Each one was crazier than the next, probably as a tribute to my hero. The math teacher called me up to the board, but I refused to obey. He insisted. I called him a tyrant—an insult I’d heard Débora hurl at Charles Leclerc—and ended up in the vice principal’s office.
Of course that afternoon, when it came time for Buenas tardes con Omar, I ran down to my mother’s room, locked the door, and turned on the television. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Instead of my favorite show, there was a cartoon starring a mermaid.
I never found out what happened to Omar. Things were very different back then. If a media company as powerful as Telecapital didn’t want people to know something—it could be as serious as the murder of a political activist or as banal as a reason for a show’s cancellation—then the people didn’t know and that was that. Sometimes I’ll bring his name up at dinner parties, just as a fishing expedition, but those who were fans of Omar usually just repeat the same old rumors, most violent or sexual in nature, none confirmed.
For weeks, every day at five or six p.m., I turned on the television, just in case. I’d never hated anyone like I hated that stupid mermaid. I now thought of Gastón and Débora more than ever.
Then came the apocalyptic rains of 1991, the ones people still talk about with a quivering voice. I was just a kid, had no sense of the meaning of either danger or loss. In fact, I celebrated the second deluge, the one in which more than fifty people lost their lives, because it led to schools being shut down for a week.
I spent the first two days of that impromptu vacation lying on the sofa watching television. I didn’t shower or brush my teeth and I peed on the potted tree next to the window from where I could continue watching Zslorya or the Cleveland Indians. I would’ve gladly stayed in my pajamas the whole week, but the judge in charge of my parents’ case, seizing on the school shutdowns, summoned me to testify on Wednesday.
That morning my mother dressed me in a corduroy jacket and a clip-on tie. She parted my hair down the middle, which was, according to Omar, how Captain Beaulieu did his hair. In the car ride over, my mother coached me on how to respond to the judge’s questions. Tell him we eat lunch together every day. Tell him I check your homework after dinner. Tell him I’m tough but fair. Tell him you love Nieves like a second mother. At stoplights, she’d apply her makeup.
My father was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs that led to the courthouse. As always, he had on a suit and bowtie, and held his briefcase in his left hand.
I hadn’t seen the man since he’d left and couldn’t bear to look him in the eye.
“You’re not going to say hello to me?” he said. It made me feel as if it were my fault that he’d been taken away from important things—meetings, conferences, long-distance calls—to go to the courthouse.
My parents left me in a drab waiting room along with the other children. Apparently, all the judges had called in the sons and daughters of broken homes during those days of no school.
There were no more free chairs, so I sat on the floor. From there I noticed that the men who worked at the courthouse all wore brown or tan socks, the women brown or tan stockings.
I was starting to get angry that my mother hadn’t thought of telling me to bring the sports section of the newspaper or something to keep me entertained, when I heard a high-pitched voice call my name. It was Danila, a girl from my class. Danila never spoke to me in school, she was pretty and popular, but that day she had no choice. There was, magically, an empty chair next to her, and she invited me to sit.
“Are your parents getting a divorce?” she said. She was wearing a red velvet dress and white ballet shoes.
“I already testified,” said Danila. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Why are you still here?”
She pointed to a teenager in a black sweatshirt playing with a handheld console. “Just waiting for my brother.”
Danila and I talked for a long time. She even laughed when I impersonated our English teacher, a hunchback with a conspicuous hearing aid. Danila and I played hangman using crayons and paper the courthouse placed on a table to accommodate the children. The crayons were all broken, and the paper was thick. Every once in a while, a woman with dyed auburn hair walked in to call a child. Lemmy Vila, Rogelio. Rojano Obregón, María.
I was so happy with Danila that I never wanted to be called. Sure, she’d been forced to hang out with me, but maybe now she saw how funny and smart I was and would also be my friend at school. Maybe she could even be my girlfriend.
After a round of hangman, Danila squinted toward the corner opposite us and smiled.
“Look,” she said. “Carlos is here, too.”
Carlos Gama was in our grade but not in our class. All I knew of him was that he’d been a finalist in a regional geography contest. The principal had called him up during a school assembly to congratulate him. Carlos had a sheaf of papers on his lap and drew with great concentration, switching crayons often.
I was disappointed when Danila suggested we go over to say hello as I wanted her all to myself, playing hangman until the end of time. Why had Carlos’s parents also decided to get a divorce?
“Be quiet when we go over,” said Danila. “I want to scare him.”
We left our things on the chairs and walked slowly to Carlos. He didn’t see us coming, and once we were a meter or so away I noticed what he was drawing: two oblong figures, one white and one red, both with googly eyes, who were crying because they were tied to a palm tree. Captain Beaulieu stood to the side holding a flaming torch.
Carlos became startled when he finally saw us and rushed to cover the drawing with both hands. “What are you doing here?” he said.
“Our parents are all getting divorced,” said Danila.
I asked Carlos what he was drawing.
“Nothing,” he said, crumpling the paper.
In the only telepathic experience I’ve had—probably the only one I will ever have—Danila’s brain linked to mine. The information wasn’t transmitted in words, but in images. I saw her hiding in her basement watching Omar on a small television. I’m sure I transmitted an image to her as well. The connection didn’t last more than a second.
“We’re over there playing hangman if you want to join us,” said Danila.
Carlos’s face turned beet red.
A few minutes later, the woman with the auburn hair yelled my name.
PABLO PIÑERO STILLMANN has had work appear in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Washington Square, and other journals. His novel Temblador was published in Mexico by Tierra Adentro.