The Glass of Milk
Leaning on the starboard rail, the sailor seemed to be waiting for someone. In his left hand he held a white paper wrapping, with grease stains in several places. In his other hand he held his pipe.
A young, slim man appeared from between some coaches. He halted a moment, looked to the sea and then moved on, walking along the edge of the pier with his hands in his pockets, distracted or lost in thought.
When he passed in front of the ship, the sailor yelled in English:
—I say, look here!
The young man raised his head and, without stopping, answered in the same language:
—Are you hungry?
There was a brief silence, during which the young man seemed to ponder and even shortened his step, as if to stop; but in the end, he said as he offered the sailor a sad smile:
—No, I am not hungry! Thank you, sailor.
The sailor took his pipe from his mouth, spat, and then, placing it again between his lips, looked away. The young man, ashamed that his appearance was prompting feelings of pity, seemed to walk faster, as if afraid he'd regret his decision.
Not a moment later, a real vagabond, dressed in unbelievable rags, with big broken shoes, a long blond beard and blue eyes, passed in front of the sailor, who, without calling him before, yelled:
—Are you hungry?
He hadn't finished his question when the vagabond, looking with a pair of bright eyes the package the sailor had in his hands, hastily replied:
—Yes, sir, I am very much hungry!
The sailor smiled. The package flew through the air into the eager hands of the hungry man. Without even thanking him, he opened the still-hot wrapping and sat on the ground happily rubbing his hands while looking at its content. A port beggar may not know English, but he would never forgive himself for not knowing enough of it to ask for food to a person who speaks that language.
The young man who had passed minutes before was still standing a short distance from the place, witnessing the scene.
He, too, was hungry. It had been exactly three days since he had eaten, three long days. Shyness and shame, rather than pride, prevented him from standing in front of the ships' stairs at lunch time, awaiting, from a generous sailor, a parcel with some leftover stew and pieces of meat. He couldn't do it, he could never do it. And when, as it had just happened, one of them did offer his leftovers, he rejected them heroically, feeling that such refusal increased his appetite.
For six days he had been wandering around the streets and docks of that port. He had been left there by a British steamboat traveling from Punta Arenas. There he had abandoned a steamer in which he had served as cabin boy. He had stayed in that ship for one month, helping an Austrian crab fisherman, and on the first northbound ship he stealthily got aboard.
He was found one day after setting sail, and forced to work in the boiler room. In the first big port he was discharged. And there he was now, like a parcel with no address nor addressee, with no one he knew, no coins in his pockets, nor a trade to offer.
While the steamer had been there, he'd been able to eat, but after... The big city, which beyond those streets was full of cheap taverns and lodgings, did not attract him. It seemed to him a place of slavery, airless, dark, lacking the expanse of the sea, and where in between high walls and straight streets people lived and died dazed by an anguished toil.
He was possessed by his obsession for the sea, which bends even the smoothest and most defined lives as a strong arm would a thin rod. Although he was very young, he had already travelled extensively around the coasts of South America on different ships, doing various jobs and chores—chores and jobs that on land were almost pointless.
After the steamer left, he wandered around, waiting for fate to give him something that would let him live somehow as he returned to his familiar fields, but he didn't find anything. There was not much going on in the port, and the few steamers which had work did not take him.
There was an infinitude of professional vagabonds: unemployed sailors, like him, thrown off from a steamer or fugitives who had committed some crime; drifters given in to leisure, who earn their bread who knows how, begging or stealing, living day to day as the beads of a filthy rosary, awaiting who knows what peculiar events. Or waiting for nothing, individuals from the most exotic and strange races and peoples, even those whose existence is not believed until one has seen a living specimen.
The next day, with the conviction that he could not resist much longer, he decided to use any means to get himself some food.
Walking around, he came before a steamer that had arrived the previous night and where wheat was being loaded. A line of men was marching, turning, with heavy sacks on their shoulders, from the wagons, crossing a landing dock towards the porthole of the storehouse, where the longshoremen received the load.
He stood there looking for a while until he finally dared talking to the foreman. He was accepted and he cheerfully became part of the long row of dockers.
During the shift, he worked well; however, later he started feeling tired and suffering dizzy spells, staggering in the landing dock when he was marching with the load on his shoulder, looking under his feet at the opening formed by the side of the steamer and the wall of the port, below which the sea, stained with oil and covered with litter, deafly bubbled and fizzed.
At lunch time there was a brief break, and while some men went to eat to nearby restaurants and others ate what they had brought, he lied down to rest, hiding his hunger.
He finished the shift completely exhausted, covered in sweat, running on fumes. While the workers were retiring, he sat over some bags looking at the foreman, and when the last had left, he came forward and, confused and hesitant, although without revealing what was happening to him, asked the foreman if he could pay him immediately or if it was possible to get an advance of what he had earned.
The foreman replied that usually payment was given at the end of the job, and that, to finish loading the steamer, work had to be done the next day. One more day! On the other hand, there was no advance.
—But—, he said, —if you need it, I could lend you some forty cents... I don't have any more.
He thanked his offer with an anguished smile and left.
Then, an acute desperation took over him. He felt hunger, hunger, hunger! A hunger that subdued him like a whipping: he saw everything through a blue mist, and he walked like a drunkard. However, he could not moan nor yell, because his suffering was obscure and exhausting; it was not pain but a deaf anguish, a sense of ending; he felt as if he were being crushed by a big load.
Suddenly, he felt a fire in his loins, and he stopped. He started leaning, leaning, forcibly bending over and he felt about to fall. In that moment, as if a window had opened in front of him, he saw his house, the landscape that could be seen from it, the face of his mother and those of his siblings, everything he cared about and loved appeared and disappeared in front of his eyes, which exhaustion kept shut... Then, little by little, the fainting fit stopped, and he began straightening while the burning slowly cooled. At last, he stood upright, breathing deeply. One more hour and he would fall to the ground.
He started walking faster, as if running away from a new dizzy spell, and, as he walked, he decided to eat anywhere, without paying, willing to be shamed, to be hit, to be sent to jail, to do anything: the only thing that mattered was eating, eating, eating. He repeated that word a hundred times: eating, eating, eating, until it lost its meaning, leaving the feeling of a hot vacuum in his head.
He wasn't thinking of running away. He would tell the owner: —Sir, I was hungry, hungry, hungry, and I don't have any money... do as you like.
He reached the first streets of the city and in one of them he found a dairy. It was a very bright and clean place, full of little tables with marble covers. There was a blonde lady with a very white apron behind the counter.
This was the place he chose. There were few people on the street. He could have eaten in one of the restaurants along the wharf, but they were full of people playing and drinking.
There was only one customer in the dairy. It was an old man with glasses, who, with his nose stuck in between the pages of a newspaper, was reading without moving, as if glued to the chair. Over the little table there was a half-drunk glass of milk.
While he waited for the man to leave, he walked by the sidewalk, feeling that little by little the flame in his stomach started to burn again, and he waited five, ten, even fifteen minutes. He got tired and stood next to the door, from where he threw the old man glances that seemed like stones.
What the hell was he reading with so much attention! He imagined that he was one of his enemies, who, aware of his intentions, had set to hamper them. He wanted to come in and tell him something harsh that would force him to leave, a coarse word or phrase that would let him know that he had no right to sit there for one hour reading for such a small expense.
At last the customer finished his reading, or interrupted it at least. He drank down the rest of the milk in one gulp. Then, he slowly stood up, paid and walked towards the door. He came out. He was a crooked old man, with traces of the carpenter or the varnisher.
Once the old man was in the street, he fixed his glasses, once again stuck his nose in between the sheets of the paper, and started walking very slowly, and stopping every ten steps to read more closely.
He waited for him to go away and then came in. For a moment, he stood right next to the entrance, undecided, not knowing where to sit; finally, he settled on a table and went toward it; midway through, though, he changed his mind, came back and stumbled upon a chair, and finally went to sit in a corner.
The lady came to him, wiped the table and with a soft voice, which had a hint of Spanish accent, asked him:
—What would you have?
Without looking at her, he replied:
—A glass of milk.
—A big one?
—Yes, a big one.
—Do you have any pastries?
—No. Just cookies.
When the lady came back, he rubbed his hands on his knees, cheerful, like a person who is cold and is about to drink something hot.
The lady came back and put in front of him a big glass of milk and a little plate of cookies, and then went back to her spot behind the counter.
His first impulse was to drink the milk in one gulp and then to eat all the cookies, but he changed his mind immediately. He felt the eyes of the woman looking at him with curiosity. He did not dare look at her. It seemed to him that, by doing so, she would see his shameful mood and purposes, and he would have to stand up and leave, without even tasting what he had ordered.
Very slowly, he took a cookie and dipped it in the milk. Then, he took a bite, sipped some milk and felt that the burning, already churning in his stomach, waned and faded. Yet right away the reality of his desperate situation appeared before him, and something tight and hot surged from his heart up through his throat. He realized he was going to start sobbing, and even though he knew the lady was looking at him, he could not reject nor untie that hot knot that was becoming tighter and tighter. He fought back, and as he did so, he ate fast, fearful, afraid that his tears would prevent him from eating. When he finished the milk and the cookies, his eyes turned misty and something warm rolled over his nose and fell into the glass. A terrible cry shook him to his core.
He held his head in his hands and for a long time he sobbed, sobbed with grief, with anger, with a desire to weep, as if he had never done it before.
He was leaning down crying when he felt a hand caressing his tired head, and heard the voice of a woman, with a sweet accent, who was saying:
—Cry, son, cry...
A new wave of crying took over his eyes, and he cried with the same intensity as the first time, but this time without anguish, rather joyfully, feeling a great freshness penetrating him, extinguishing that hotness which had been strangling him. While he cried, it seemed to him that his life and his feelings were being cleansed as a dirty glass under a stream of water, recovering the clarity and strength of days gone by.
When the crying fit ended, he cleaned his eyes and face with his handkerchief—he was calmed now. He raised his head and looked at the lady, but she was not looking at him anymore. She was looking at the street, at a distant point, and her face was sad.
In the small table in front of him there was a new glass of milk and another small dish full of cookies. He ate them slowly, not thinking, as if nothing had happened, as if he were at home and his mother were that woman behind the counter.
When he finished eating it was already the evening, and the store was illuminated by a light bulb. He stayed there a while, thinking of what to say before going away, but nothing useful came to his mind.
Finally, he stood up and just said:
—Thank you, lady. Goodbye...
—Goodbye, son— was her reply.
He went out. The wind coming from the sea refreshed his face, still burning from the crying. He wandered around for a while, until he took a street that went down to the docks. It was a beautiful night, and big stars were shining in the summer sky.
He thought of the blonde lady, who had acted so generously, and he made plans to pay and reward her in a dignified manner once he got some money. However, these thoughts of gratitude faded away along with the heat on his face, until both disappeared, and the recent event receded and got lost amid memories from his past.
Suddenly, he found himself singing something quietly. He straightened up cheerfully, treading firmly and decisively.
He got to the seashore and wandered around freely, feeling as if he were being made again, feeling his past energies, which had been scattered, coming together and solidly blending.
Yet after a while the toil of the day started to go up his leg as if ants were crawling slowly, and he sat on some bags.
He looked at the sea. The lights of the dock and of the ships projected on the water in a trail of red and gold, trembling softly. He lay on his back looking at the sky for a long time. He didn't want to think, nor sing, nor talk. He felt himself alive, that was it.
Eventually he fell asleep with his face turned to the sea.
Translated by Rosa María Lazo and Pablo Saavedra Silva
Edited by María José Navia
Manuel Rojas was one of the most important Chilean and Latin American storytellers of the 20th century. Born in Argentina in 1896 to Chilean parents, Rojas settled down definitively in Chile in 1912, where he autodidactically worked on and developed his literary art. After stints in several different jobs—as a painter, electrician and tailor’s apprentice among others—Rojas ultimately chose the art of literature. His first forays into writing came in the form of chronicles about politics and education in anarchist newspapers. Afterwards, he began writing stories and novels. His most famous novel, and perhaps most famous work, is titled Hijo de Ladrón (Son of a Thief). Among his short stories, perhaps the most well-known is “El Vaso de leche” (The Glass of Milk). Based on a simple and mundane plot, the story faithfully reflects the predominant feeling dwelling in the Chilean consciousness: frustration with one’s personal state of affairs, especially regarding one’s relationship to money. As the critic Mario Rodriguez states in his anthology Cuentos Hispoanoamericanos (Hispanic-American Short Stories), Rojas’s narrative centers around “individuals who are helpless, defenseless, and abandoned within a hostile world and who painfully experience their own inner selves. Rojas died on March 11th, 1973 in Santiago, Chile, just months before the military coup.
Rosa María Lazo is a full-time associate professor and Vice Dean at the Faculty of Literature and Linguistics of the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile. She is also a professional English-French-Spanish translator.
Pablo Saavedra Silva is a full-time professor at the Faculty of Literature and Linguistics of the Pontificia Universidad Católica of Chile. He is also a professional and literary translator.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.