119. The Typewriter

THIS STORY HAS BEEN typed on an Olivetti typewriter that previously belonged to the great Julio Salinas. The great Julio Salinas sold me this typewriter from the driveway of his home in an Adelaide suburb on a sunny Friday morning in April. This was at a time when I had just moved back to Adelaide, after several years away, and was, as usual, trying to write poems, without any luck. Everything I wrote was stillborn. I procrastinated endlessly. Finally the notion entered my head that I should try writing with a typewriter rather than the computer.

I found an Olivetti for sale online without a price. Instead, the seller invited interested buyers to name their price. I suggested $40, and soon enough received an email in my inbox. Not even close, it read, and was signed, Salinas. Who is this Salinas?, I wondered, imagining one of these suburban types who scrounge a living by sifting through second-hand stores and selling what they find online. After a quick search of the Internet to see what others were paying for Olivetti typewriters, I replied with an offer of $80. Salinas replied, See my Ebay ad. So I went onto Ebay and found the typewriter advertised for $300, although no one had made a bid. As this was more than I could afford, I let the matter drop.

A fortnight later I found another email from Salinas, describing how he had been in ill health, and that he would take $100 for the typewriter if I could come by his house on Friday. So the following Friday I drove out to the suburb where Salinas lived, getting lost once or twice along the way (I have no sense of direction and it was in a godforsaken part of town I didn't know), which brought to mind the immense isolation of this city, and the secrets it keeps so tightly. I drove past a hospital and occasional clumps of deserted shopping strips, through streets that seemed to have been preserved in formaldehyde, the only sign of life an elderly lady shuffling along the sidewalk towards a 7/11, dragging a trolley behind her.

One wrong turn more and I found myself, by accident, at the correct address, parked outside a little, coffee-coloured brick bungalow with a fastidiously maintained garden. I knocked at the door but Salinas came round from the back of the house, walking slowly, as if every movement caused him discomfort. He was short, very short, bald and roundfaced, button-nosed. He wore square, thick-rimmed glasses and walked with the aid of a walking stick. He introduced himself as Julio and led me slowly to the back of the house, where the typwriter awaited me in its case on a little table in the back garden. There was someone else inside the house, a woman who, from what I could hear, was washing dishes and maintaining a long, angry soliloquy.

'This typewriter', said Salinas, 'is a work of art.' He spoke with a thick accent, although as picking accents isn't my forte I couldn't tell which. I asked him where he was from. He told me he was from Argentina.

'Julio Salinas,' I said, 'I know the name.'

'Yes,' he said, 'Julio Salinas was a famous Spanish football player in the 1970s. But alas it was not my fate to be that Julio Salinas, I was one of the other Julio Salinas, one of the less fortunate ones.'

By now I remembered how I knew the name Julio Salinas. I told him I knew nothing about football, that I was a poet, that I had studied Latin American poetry at university. Almost reluctantly, he replied that he too had once been a poet. Slightly breathlessly, I asked him if he was the same Julio Salinas who had composed such poems as 'Lichen Skin' and 'Passage to Surawak'. He replied he was the very same Julio Salinas. I could scarcely contain my excitement. I told him it was a great honour, that I had read his collections, Identical Emergencies (Las Emergencias Identicas, Buenos Aires, 1971) and The Electricity of Solitude (La Electricidad de la Soledad, Buenos Aires, 1974). He smiled modestly and said that all of that belonged to another life. I told him I considered him one of the best Argentinian poets of the 1970s, perhaps in the top three, but he disagreed, and listed half a dozen of his contemporaries whom he considered superior (I must say, on reflection, he was right).

I asked him how he came to be here. I told him we had been taught at college that he was one of the desaparecidos, that he was thought to have been murdered by the junta, but Julio Salinas replied this was evidently untrue, as here he was, standing in front of me, well and truly alive. 'But it is true,' he said, 'that we left Argentina quietly, covertly even, under cover of night, as they say, because there were rumours circulating, and we considered it prudent to act quickly.'

As he spoke, the angry mutterings of the woman’s voice grew louder and angrier. They seemed to have a waking effect on him. 'What about this typewriter,' he said, bringing us back to the present tense, 'shall we examine it?' He opened the case and lifted the cover. It was an Olivetti Studio 46 from the early 80s, in mint condition, sturdy, fully manual. It truly was a work of art.

'Here it is,' he said, running his fingers over the keys affectionately. 'I bought it soon after we arrived in Australia. I had to leave my old Olivetti behind, he said, as we had to pack quickly and travel light.' I asked him if he had written much since coming to Australia, but he shook his head. 'I bought this,' he said, gently pressing the shift key with his index finger, 'because I wanted to keep writing, but the poems...' – he searched for the word – 'the poems just stopped.' He made a clicking noise with his mouth. 'I never understood why.'

At that moment the kitchen window opened and the angry woman’s voice said something in an angry Spanish I couldn’t make out. He replied in equally untranslatable Spanish and the kitchen window slammed shut again. He sighed and asked me if I was married. I said no and he said, 'You are lucky.' Sensing it was time to close this transaction. I took my wallet out of my pocket and looked inside it. There were eight twenties in it and I gave them all to him. He sighed as he folded the bills into his pocket, saying he had hoped for more, that he had thought there was a thriving market for antique typewriters, but I had been the only person to reply to the post online. He told me he needed the money as lately he had been in poor health on account of his kidneys.

Julio Salinas followed me as I carried the typewriter case to the car. I wanted to talk to him some more, to tell him how fondly I remembered that famous line from the poem 'Cargo Cult' - our nights betrayed the innocence of our days, while our days shot neon bullets through the night. But I regret to say I didn’t. There was something almost turtleish about him. I feared such gushing might make him disappear altogether, and a plan was already hatching in my mind.

'Listen,' I stammered, feeling myself blushing, 'a poet of your stature, here in Adelaide... What if I organized something, like a reading or something, nothing grandiose, just for poets and poetry aficionados, somewhere downtown, maybe invite some magazine editors, even some publishers?'

The proposal didn't seem to please him. 'Perhaps,' he said, pretending to be toying with the idea in his mind.

'It's a remarkable story,' I continued '- the great poet, presumed dead, but alive all this time and living in suburban Adelaide.'

Julio Salinas crossed his arms and looked back to the house. 'I don’t know,' he said.

'I’ll do all the organizing,' I pleaded, 'all you have to do is be there, read some of your poems, maybe answer some questions - but only if you feel up to it.' I gave him an imploring look, waiting for a response. Finally, he shrugged. The great Julio Salinas shrugged.

'It's possible,' he said, looking square at me as if that was the end of the matter. I held my gaze, hoping he would budge some more. 'I'll think about it.'

'Thank you,' I smiled, shaking his hand. 'I'll call you again soon.'

I got into the car. 'Thanks for the Olivetti, I said through the open window.

Julio Salinas standing by his mailbox, waiting for me to leave. 'I hope it brings you better luck than it brought me,' he said, 'from a poetry point of view, of course.'

I turned on the engine and then turned it off again. 'Do you have any advice for a young poet?,' I asked.

He thought about it a moment and finally replied, 'Yes – don’t have the same name as a famous football player.'

As I drove away, I watched Julio Salinas shuffle back towards the house in the rear vision mirror. In the next few weeks, I called him many times, and emailed him too, but he never returned my calls nor did he reply to my emails. When I told my poet friends what had happened, most were indifferent. The few who had heard of him refused to believe me. They told me it was impossible, that the real Julio Salinas had definitely been murdered by the regime, that a judicial investigation had established this beyond dispute. They told me I'd been hustled by a false Julio Salinas. So, a couple of months later, I drove two of the disbelievers across town to the little coffee-coloured brick house where I had bought the typewriter, although not without once again losing my way a couple of times.

When we finally arrived, we found a ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard. I knocked but no one opened the door. I was crestfallen, although fortunately my friends were kind enough to hide their annoyance that half their day had been wasted.

I never spoke of Julio Salinas again. Ever since, the typewriter has sat there on my writing desk, waiting for me to open it and use it, which I have done, precisely once, although, it must be said, without much success.