The Austin Chronicle

La Machinista

Honorable mention

By Lisa Carroll-Lee, February 9, 2007, Books

In our part of Texas, the towns are small and similar, melting into each other, indistinguishable among the polite, repetitive hills. "Better that way," we say, "No one wants a competition." When you get to Perdita County, the harsh West Texas scrub gives way to modest oak and juniper. We are blessed with small creeks that twine together, mostly sweet, purified by ancient limestone, but not too deep or rapid. The Blanco, Medina, Sister Creek – a child could cross them safely.

Mostly stolid German farmers, Mexican workers, and a few Mexican ranchers, supporting their families on the rocky land with goats and sheep, a pig and some chickens, a few acres of grain in the valleys between the little hills. In town, a hardware and lumber store, a restaurant, a gas station, two grocery stores. Once in awhile, a newcomer, looking for a quaint rest or a place to reform, but they get bored, leave, and pretty soon we can't even remember their faces.

No change means no risk, no loss. Big dreams are for big fools, we say. Now and then you see some woman, sadly stroking a soft bit of cloth, or a sunburned German farmer staring, lost, at a National Geographic, but then they would start, embarrassed, and look around to see who caught them, and quickly, get back to work. Get back to work. We chant it like a prayer or a curse. It could be our town seal. Get back to work.

Yes, we had given ourselves over to anonymous and middling obscurity. Who would have guessed that Clara Morales, so homely and plain, would make Perdita County famous?

Oscar Bergman, with no real understanding of his own premonition, had often said that Clara's sad pockmarked face had the look of someone who was destined for strange endings. Of course, no one paid him any attention since he had always tended to wild statements and wholesale judgments, especially late in the evenings between swallows of Pearl beer.

Clara's father Benny was short and skinny, with handsome, lonely eyes. Graciella, Clara's grandmother, had warned her daughter not to marry Benny. She told her daughter, "See Tereza, how his eyes never focus on his work. You can tell he has the hollow bones of a daydreamer. Just last Sunday, I saw him, shrouded in some stupor, walk right into a fence post." But when Benny looked at Tereza with his diffuse eyes, she was sure he was seeing their future.

Soon after their marriage, he began slipping off, unnoticed, or with some thin excuse, and not returning for days. Once he told Tereza that he wouldn't be home for dinner and was gone for three weeks. Neighbors began to report his conspicuous behavior. "On the way to work," said Lulu Flores, " I saw him following the railroad tracks, muttering. He was floating, moving like a sleepwalker."

By the time Clara was five, Benny's bones had begun to get thin from so many hours of dreaming and walking and finally they were filled with hollow, echoing sounds. His absences became longer and his presences were only long enough for Tereza to become pregnant again. When he finally disappeared for good, he had become so transparent that it was weeks before anyone was sure that he was really gone.

So Tereza got a job at Deitz Bakery. Each morning she arrived while it was still dark, and went home when it became dark again. She swept flour and dust and chocolate sprinkles into immense piles; she staggered under fifty pound sacks of sugar; she leaned into fiery ovens to pull out trainloads of bread, searing her fingers and singing her hair.

It fell to poor sad Clara, now the oldest of six, to dress and feed the other children each morning. If one of the children had a cold, it was Clara who stayed home and fed him broth for strength and limes to clear the head. The third child, Xavier, was sickly, and between his frequent bouts of croup and bellyache, chicken pox and measles, flu, or any of the myriad of evils that are bound to strike six children, Clara missed more school than she attended.

For this Clara had her share of admiration. Graciella told anyone who would listen, "That girl doesn't have much of her father in her, you can see. The bones of her hands are knitted and strong."

Nor was Tereza excessively concerned about Clara's spotty education. Tereza said, "Clara's a good girl and she's needed at home."

So when Clara finally stopped attending school altogether, no one even noticed that she could neither read nor write, or that even her signature was as large and crooked as a child's.

The second child in the Morales family was named Linda and was so beautiful we called her La Linda, The Beautiful. Whenever there were a few dollars to spare, La Linda would get new hair ribbons or scented skin cream, or perhaps even a stiff new white blouse, which Clara would have to bleach and wash and starch. Clara found herself in the odd position of wearing her younger sister's cast-offs, which, as she told herself, was fine, since, "I'm so small and scrawny, and anyway, what would I do with new clothes."

But in fact, although Clara was skinny, she was several inches taller than La Linda, and her long boney wrists ended up sticking out of the frayed cuffs of her hand-me-down shirts. Her hair was always rough and tangled, since she never had time to fix it properly, and her hands were permanently chapped and peeling from the lye soap she used to do laundry. So in addition to the burden of illiteracy, Clara bore also the burden of hungry, raw-boned plainness.

It was on an errand to buy more lye soap at Bergman Mercantile that Clara made her first faltering steps towards her future. As she passed the nails and window putty, she noticed on a newly cleared area of counter, a machine so beautiful that she thought it must be a musical instrument. It was shiny and black and had rows of buttons stenciled with letters and numbers and few other symbols that to Clara were only vaguely familiar. It was a typewriter – a shiny, new, black Smith Corona. As fate would have it, there was a ribbon in it, and a sheet of blank white paper. Clara touched a key tentatively, with one red index finger. She asked, "Do you know how to play this machine, Oscar?" Relishing a rare chance to show off, he answered, "That's a typewriter, Clara. Don't you known what a typewriter is?"

But Clara was not listening. Now, keep in mind that Clara barely recognized the letters of the alphabet. Nevertheless, she was transfixed by the glossy gold and black pedals. She splayed her hands above the machine and placed her fingers on the keys in a way that mysteriously suited her sense of aesthetics. She touched each of the keys, lovingly and gently, one by one, soaking in each gold figure and fixing in her mind its location and relation to the others.

After a few minutes she looked up at the wall in front of her and saw a white card with red lettering. Eyes fixed softly on the sign overhead, she slowly typed those momentous words, letter for letter, space for space: Canned Peaches Five for a Dollar. She had no idea what she typed but in her soul she felt a bitter, driving need to reproduce each mysterious symbol.

And so every day, Clara made some small excuse to enter the mercantile and linger over the black keys of the typewriter. She copied phrase after phrase from the walls of the store: Ham 59 cents per pound. And: Cash and Carry. The rows of keys became her intimate friends and each day her fingers flew faster and with more assurance. She typed without error in spacing or punctuation and without the slightest knowledge or even interest in the meanings of the words.

Soon, the printed signs on the walls lost their challenge. She took to bringing a copy of the daily paper with her and propping it against the wall in front of the typewriter. The town was buzzing with the news of the strange talent that had bloomed in Clara, Graciella said, " She's blessed by God. He's taken a humble vessel and poured a mysterious talent into it."

Tereza answered, " If she doesn't stop spending so much time at the store, I'm going to give her a blessing all right."

La Linda, who was becoming known as Clara's sister, instead of the reverse, said nothing, but gritted her teeth.

As word of Clara's talent spread, the mercantile began to get crowded with spectators and pilgrims who came to watch the miracle of her speed. A newspaperman from San Antonio came and interviewed her mother. He used an egg timer to clock Clara's speed. He gasped, "One hundred and eighty words per minute."

Clara asked, "Is that fast?"

The newspaperman stared at her for a beat and said, "Young lady, it's unheard of. You may be the fastest typist in the world." And he wrote up a small article that appeared in the following week's paper. It was the newspaperman who gave Clara a new name, La Machinista, although he said it in English. Of course, since Clara could not read, La Linda had to read the article to her.

And so began La Machinista's career. Agents from all over the country were eager to book her. She appeared on a talk show to demonstrate her supernatural speed. But the harsh black and white tones of television were cruel to her sad appearance. When the urbane host asked her a question, she stuttered, tongue-tied and the northern audience laughed at her backward accent. No other television offers were forthcoming.

Another time, she was hired by the Royal typewriter company to sit in the window of the downtown Joske's in San Antonio. She typed away in ecstasy while the store manager peered anxiously over the stacked boxes of typewriters at her chapped skin and ill-fitting clothes. He was concerned that her knobby wrists would offend the sensibilities of his well-healed customers, who shopped happily beneath Joske's famous twin chandeliers. They were, after all, there to purchase fantasy and glamour, not to watch some big-footed girl do office work. As it turned out, Royal typewriter did not sell a single machine that day and never called for Clara again.

When Clara's unnatural talent proved to have little commercial value, interest began to fade. Soon, she was reduced to typing at county fairs, next to the pickle jars or the bearded lady. A mere six months after the fateful article was published, she stopped getting calls altogether. As she dressed the children for school, she found herself sighing over a new and intense loneliness. Before all the attention she had not thought her life was any particular burden. In fact, she was incapable of imagining any alternate life. But since her sudden fame, she had discovered a secret pleasure in hearing her own name, spoken with respect, and sometimes, even envy. Now, her only consolation was to walk over to the mercantile each afternoon and type deliriously, eyes half-closed and slightly glazed, as she communed with the nature of the machine.

One day, as she was copying the paper, alone in the dusty store except for Oscar, who was idling behind the counter, a man in a very dark suit came in. Oscar asked, "Can I help you Mister?" But the man ignored him. Something about the man made Oscar nervous. Perhaps it was the way he stood so still and upright, neither shifting, nor it seemed to Oscar, breathing perceptibly. His shoes were perfectly polished, not new and not old, showing just the right amount of genteel wear. Only very expensive shoes can wear like that, Oscar thought, becoming better and softer instead of cracked or broken.

"You lost, friend?" asked Oscar.

The man turned his head and said, "That woman is Clara Morales."

Even though it wasn't a question, Oscar treated it like one. "Yes Mister, she sure is. The one and only Clara Morales. Fastest typist in the county, maybe the world. She's been on the Tonight Show, you know. Maybe you saw it?" He realized he was babbling, but he couldn't stop. Spook, he decided, gotta be a Spook. Oscar had lately been reading a great number of detective novels, where the gumshoe got fouled up with the FBI or CIA or some other scary subversive group.

The man in the suit asked, "Is it true she can't read or write?"

Oscar answered, "No better than that cat in the window."

The man in the suit smacked his lips as if he were looking forward to a very tasty treat.

And so began the second phase of La Machinista's career. She began transcribing closeted agreements sprawled during shadowy meetings. Soon she was in such demand that her mother had a second telephone line installed. La Linda would stand by the phone all day long, taking messages and arranging Clara's schedule: Thursday the 12th, Dallas for a meeting at the Cattlemen's club; Wednesday the 30th, Atlanta for a Democratic Party Meeting.

More often, Clara would be called in for even more mysterious gatherings, to obscure hotels, to type at night for men called only Mr. Jones and groups called Our Organization. Clara was the perfect secretary – quiet, lightening fast, painfully humble. And since she could not read enough to get even the vaguest sense of the momentous and clandestine events she was recording, she was perfectly, almost ostentatiously ignorant.

And so, sad Clara, ignorant Clara, bucktoothed Clara, became the famous typist from Perdita County, famous with cartels and other necessarily discreet organizations. Within a few years, she left town for good. She still sends money to her mother, the children, and La Linda, who has by now, a number of children of her own. No one knows for sure where Clara is, since she can't write us letters. She doesn't care to call, the typewriter being the only machine with which her humble soul can commune. But the postmarks on the money envelopes are from all over the world – Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Sydney.

Before Graciella died, she said bitterly of her granddaughter, "Yes, I'm not surprised that she's not here to see me at my deathbed, one more time. You could tell by her flushed skin and yellow teeth that she was an inconstant girl."

And for the rest of us, well, we like our peace and quiet. Too many strangers hanging around and pretty soon you can't even recognize your own family. But still, sometimes it's nice, late at night, to sit outside in the cool and try to imagine her out there, somewhere outside of Perdita County. end story

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.