The moment he realized he was trapped in the elevator, Luis started banging his hands and feet against the steel door. Maybe someone would hear him; and in fact, someone did. Though it was three in the morning, Ferdinando was sleeping lightly as ever; it didn’t take much for the noise to overspill his subconscious. He made his way to the landing just as he was, in his striped pajamas, and approached the elevator, asking who was stuck in there.
“My name is Luis Maldonado,” the man inside responded; “could you call someone to free me from this mousetrap?”
“Well, at this hour I don’t know who could help you, Mr. Maldonado,” Ferdinando replied in his usual phlegmatic manner, “but please remain calm, it’s just a question of time…”
“How much time?” the other man shouted back. “I can’t just wait here, tomorrow at seven I have to catch a flight for Copacabana.”
“Alright, I’ll see what I can do… but please, refrain from making those sounds you were making a bit before…”
Having said this, Ferdinando returned to bed; for some minutes he made an effort to focus on the problem, and then, defeated by sudden vexation, he fell fast asleep.
✻ ✻ ✻
As time went on and no one came to help him, Luis Maldonado, the famous cabaret artist, felt increasing anxiety. Was it possible that the idiot he’d spoken with hadn’t budged yet? Was it so difficult to call the police? On top of everything else, the air was becoming much too warm in there, it was suffocating, almost unbreathable…
Luis, however, was not without resources; the hypnotist’s art required steady nerves and a steel will. Fixing his gaze on himself in the mirror that took up an entire side of the elevator, the man decided to exercise his hypnotic power on himself in order to instill calm.
He had no sooner begun to stare into his own eyes, however, than the strange impression came over him that it was not his own face looking back, but the face of someone else: an unfamiliar, scowling man. Luis went on looking intently because he knew that only anxiety could distort the precision of his sight; if he were successful in applying the usual power of his gaze, “the other” would weaken and fall under his influence: and at that same instant, his own mind would be set free, at peace, relaxed. In reality the other man seemed to have no interest at all in conceding: the more the artist persisted in his effort to dominate him, the more the other seemed to become practically ferocious, and certainly more powerful than him.
Suddenly a subtle sense of foreboding started to trickle through the hypnotist’s veins. He would not dare look at the other man, yet he felt that, in absolute silence and purely through the force of his gaze, he was giving him a clear order: “It is you who must loosen your hold. The world you’re living in is entirely false. Leave it, and come with me, to this side of the mirror.” Luis knew very well that this order made no sense, and yet he was unsettled by the impudence with which the other man issued it from the depths of his eyes. He had to resist at all costs: the shameless one must be brought down to size, returned to obedience. Calling up all his remaining resources of energy, Luis exponentially intensified his gaze. Only one movement betrayed his anxiety, his fear of losing his confrontation with the other: a trembling in his right hand, which had taken hold of his yellow pocket handkerchief, and with which he was wiping his perspiring brow, not for an instant taking his eyes off the mirror.
✻ ✻ ✻
Some hours later, near dawn, Ferdinando woke with a start, and the thought of the man imprisoned in the elevator struck him like a blow. Straight away he ran to the phone and called the porter. At that hour, he knew, Signora Teresa was already at her post, starting off her day as usual with blows from the brush and broom, so seriously did she take the spotlessness of the atrium. In brief, thanks to the efficiency of this woman, an elevator repairman soon reached the landing and busied himself trying to open the stuck door. Teresa and Ferdinando both watched the operation with passionate interest. The strange thing, for all of them, was that from inside the elevator cabin emanated not even the faintest sound. Could Maldonado have fallen asleep? Could he have passed out? Could he have even… At this most pessimistic thought, Teresa and Ferdinando both felt a shiver pass through them, and for the latter, the feeling was compounded by an awful sense of guilt.
After an interminable half hour, the elevator door surrendered. Opening it slowly, the repairman was the first to peer inside. Immediately he recoiled, leaving the man and woman to take turns looking within: no one was inside. On the floor there was only a little yellow pocket handkerchief.
[originally published as “La verità nello specchio,” in Nessuna telefonata sfugge al cielo. Piccole storie notturne. Torino: Aragno, 2011. Translated from the Italian by Nicholas Benson. photo of Paolo Lagazzi by Daniela Tomerini.]
Paolo Lagazzi (Parma, 1949) is the author of several books of literary criticism and the editor of the collected poetry of Attilio Bertolucci and Maria Luisa Spaziani for Mondadori’s prestigious series I Meridiani. His most recent book, from which the story above is taken, is a collection of short stories: Nessuna telefonata sfugge al cielo (No call unanswered in heaven. Torino: Aragno, 2011), a slim volume of twenty-five nocturnal fables with an introduction in the voice of Hermes. A contemporary Hermes explains that he is presenting these pithy tales of mortal mishaps so that those convinced they’re about to enter “the realm of perpetual darkness” will have “some examples of how various human beings, each in their own way, have confronted the spirit of the night.” This Hermes is a compassionate, mirthful guardian of transgressors, inventors, tricksters and thieves. “Some people think I’ve been dead a long time; most, though, just think I never existed, if not between the covers of a book or in a museum, or in the form of a story, legend, or statue. The unvarnished truth is not just that I have existed for a long time, but that I always will exist.” As Lagazzi explains in a brief afterword, all the tales were invented at his daughter’s request, to entertain her during monotonous commutes by train. Lagazzi’s work appears in many journals and newspapers, and has been well-reviewed, recently by Pietro Citati in Corriere della sera (17 July 2011).
Nicholas Benson’s translation of Attilio Bertolucci’s Winter Journey was published in 2005 by Free Verse Editions of Parlor Press. He was awarded a 2008 NEA Fellowship for his translation of Aldo Palazzeschi’s L’Incendiario (The Arsonist, 1910), which was recently published by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions.