A Fresh Start in a City Ruled by History

An excerpt from THE HOLY DAYS OF GREGORIO PASOS by Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya, recommended by Tariq Shah

Introduction by Tariq Shah

Well, what now? This is the dreadful, unspoken question that drives Gregorio, the protagonist of Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya’s novel The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos, who finds himself in that strange liminal zone between high school and adulthood, where meaning is scarce and worth more than anything. From Bogotá to Washington, DC and into the past, he weathers death, divorce, and history as he attempts to answer this question for himself. 

In lesser hands, such material could easily sour—turn saturnine, maudlin, or theatrical—but Restrepo Montoya’s clean and demotic prose style, with its injections of wry, black humor, rescues it from that fate. In his characters, he amalgamates Gerald Murnane’s exquisite tenderness, his cathecting of the mundane, and pairs it with succinct, often disaffected subtextual vibrations reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño. What’s more, Restrepo Montoya does it all while sparing readers the weight of those authors’ artifice, their at times guileful hocus-pocus (I love those guys, please don’t kill me). There is something cleansing about these pages, anyway.

When we meet Magdalena, the widow first introduced in this excerpt, she is presented as something of a double-vision, a Gemini about whom nearly everything is twinned: she “speaks, it seemed with the voices of two people” in English and Spanish, presumptuously orders two glasses of ice upon first meeting Gregorio (which takes two hours), shakes his hand with both of hers, customarily kisses both his cheeks, and is named after another Magdalena, one who perished in the World War II-era bombing of Guernica. She even has a miniature double of the home she opens up to Gregorio on her mantle. Such details elevate the characters and the situations they encounter; quotidian scenes become tableaus for deeper explorations of meaning, and gesture to the eminence of Restrepo Montoya’s craft.

All of that said, it is Restrepo Montoya’s approach to loss–cloth-cap, earnest–that makes this work a palliative, one that alchemizes into something heartrending and true—and lends everyone involved what they need: a bit of grace. Soft-spoken, rational, and with nowhere in particular to be, Gregorio Pasos is perhaps everything we are not when facing down the twin furnaces of tragedy and loss. If the question in Pasos’ heart is what now, then perhaps his answer, which undergirds all he does upon his arrival in DC, is the real miracle: begin again.

– Tariq Shah
Author of Whiteout Conditions

A Fresh Start in a City Ruled by History

Excerpt from The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos by Rodrigo Restrepo Montoya

I stayed in a hostel for a week, in Adams Morgan, by all the bars and clubs and hookah lounges. The hostel was quite nice. The desk people were kind enough to let me pay night by night while I looked for a more permanent living situation. I received a keycard, a sleep mask, shampoo, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a towel, and a lock and key for my valuables. I was assigned a bottom bunk on the second floor, across the hall from the men’s bathroom. The quarters were tight, but clean. The room was empty when I arrived. Some bunks were a mess, littered with clothes, chargers, maps, and pamphlets. Others were a bit tidier. I took my spot in the back corner, by the window, slid my luggage under my bunk, and slept through the evening, through the night, and into the weekday morning. I woke up as the more serious types buttoned up for work. I watched them fasten their belts, tie the laces of their leather shoes, and march into the swamp that was DC in September. I followed them downstairs into the communal kitchen and a complimentary continental breakfast. I reminded myself that I was lucky and returned to my bed for more sleep.

In the afternoon I walked, but not far. I walked through Columbia Heights, Shaw, and Dupont. This was especially true in the evenings, when people were winding down from their busy days: There were essentially two groups, tourists and work people. The tourists wore backpacks and the workers wore name tags. They were easy to tell apart on weekdays. On the weekends, they blurred together. They drank. They talked. They laughed. They fought. And so on.

Every day, and most nights, I ate at a small empanada restaurant in Adams Morgan, about a block away from my lodging. The empanadas weren’t the best I’d ever had. They weren’t the worst, either. The woman at the counter was very nice. One night, I asked her if she was the one who made all the empanadas. She laughed and pointed to the name on the door. “Julia makes them.” I took my time eating. Every now and then the woman at the counter would run back into the kitchen or out for a quick errand. She would ask me if I would look after the counter while she was gone, which I did. It felt good to be trusted. I sat at the table by the window while I waited for her to return. And I basked in the feeling, however slight, of being welcome.

One night, a Saturday, I was having a hard time sleeping. I was in and out of dreams for hours. Despite my earplugs, I could hear some guests singing downstairs. Later on in the night, I woke to a couple having sex on the other side of the dark room. I remember wishing I were both of them. It must’ve been three or four in the morning when I was woken up for the last time. The woman on the bunk above me was praying.

The morning after, I waited around for someone in the lobby to leave their Sunday paper behind, then brought the news back to bed with me. Trump. The wall, et cetera.

I came across an article about an unlikely, yet practical, living arrangement that was becoming more and more common. Many older folks needed younger people to help them with the tasks of daily living, and many young people needed affordable rent.

I was almost finished with the article when two workers walked into my room. One mopped the floors while the other replaced the sheets in each empty bed, mine being the only one still occupied. I pretended to read while I listened to them speak in Spanish. They both agreed that their children were growing up too fast, especially their daughters. The women worked quickly. They were breathing heavily.

“I’m thirsty,” said the woman mopping.

The woman responsible for bedding was on the top bunk, above me. She spoke as if she were speaking to no one, or God.

“What year is it?” she joked.

Using a computer at the hostel, I found a listing for a basement apartment in Georgetown. It’d been posted two days prior by a recently widowed Spanish woman who needed help keeping up with her house. The listing called for a young male Spanish speaker with a clean background and, preferably, experience with home maintenance and yardwork. I didn’t exactly qualify but called the listed number anyway. The woman’s name was Magdalena.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Gregorio,” I said.

Magdalena spoke in perfect English and perfect Spanish, though she never mixed the two. Her Spanish was a harsh Spanish, from Spain, and therefore foreign to me. Her English was much milder. I couldn’t detect any accent at all. Magdalena sounded like any American mother in the town where I’d been raised. She spoke, it seemed, with the voices of two people.

Over the phone, Magdalena gave me a very brief history of her life. She’d been born in a small city in the north of Spain. She’d recently lost her husband to, as she put it, old age. She needed some help around the house. She didn’t like to be alone.

“Don’t you have family?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“What exactly is the job?”

“Your job would be to make my life a little easier,” Magdalena said. “That’s all.”

“What does it pay?”

“A room of your own.”

“I can help,” I said. Magdalena asked me to tell her a little bit more about myself over the phone before we met for a formal interview. I told her the truth. I told her that I was new in town and that I was far from home.

I told her the truth. I told her that I was new in town and that I was far from home.

I was early for my interview. Magdalena was late. I sat waiting at a small table on the shaded patio of the specialty market in Georgetown. I was surrounded by expensive dogs and their owners. When asked what I would like, I ordered two cups of coffee and a small loaf of bread.

Magdalena arrived wearing a gray cashmere sweater to match her silver hair. She was contained, yet warm. She said hello as if we’d already met and shook my hand with both of hers. She was as attractive as anyone I’d ever talked to. Magdalena took one sip of her coffee, put the mug down, and asked the waiter for two glasses with ice.

She removed a notebook and pen from her tote bag. “Where is home?” she asked.

“Danbury,” I said.

“Danbury?” she asked, unsatisfied.

“Danbury, Connecticut,” I repeated.

“And your parents?”


“Ah,” Magdalena said, nodding. She set her notebook down and poured the lukewarm coffee into the cup with ice. I did the same. I noticed that there was no writing in her notebook, only scribbles of cubes across the page.

“I’ve never been to Colombia,” Magdalena said.

“There’s a river there with your name,” I said.

“I didn’t know,” she said, smiling. “Have you been?”

“To Colombia? Yes. To the river? No.”

Magdalena asked about my family’s history. I told Magdalena about my recent trip and Nico’s death. She nodded as I spoke. My family’s reasons for leaving Colombia were not simple, but they were obvious. Their story was a common story.

Magdalena’s story was not as common. She managed, though, to tell it simply and calmly. She was from Guernica, born without grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins. They had all been lost in the famous bombing of the town in 1937, at the beginning of the Civil War, when Franco let Hitler test his warplanes on their Basque rivals. Both Magdalena’s mother and father were orphaned following the bombing. Both were teenagers. They were taken in and cared for by the same woman, Magdalena, who had tragically lost her own husband and children in the same bombing. Eventually, Magdalena passed. The two orphans kept her house. Years later, they had a daughter of their own. They named her Magdalena.

“How did you end up here?” I asked.

“I went to university in Madrid. I met an American studying abroad there. We ended up together. Then we moved here and married. Thirty-five or so years ago, now.”

“The husband who died?”

“That one.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She laughed politely. “For what? You’ve done nothing wrong.”

The interview lasted about two hours. Because of my age, nineteen, Magdalena was under the impression I was a university student. I explained that I wasn’t and didn’t exactly plan on becoming one. She suggested I sit in on some classes anyway.

“Take your backpack with you and find a seat,” she said.

“You’ll fit right in.”

The only direct question Magdalena asked me was whether I had any experience with maintenance. I lied and said that I did, that I’d helped my uncle out with landscaping and some other work around the house.

She shrugged. “There isn’t really much to do. The yard is small and the house is in good shape.”

“Perfect,” I said.

Before showing me the house, Magdalena needed to do a background check. Once that was clear, I could move in. I handed her my license. While Magdalena photographed it, I wrote my Social Security number in her notebook. I drew a few cubes of my own next to hers. Magdalena shook my hand once more. “See you soon,” she said.

A basset hound tied with its leash to a patio table stared up at me as I stood to leave. The dog was unattended. It cried a little. I gave it half of my loaf of bread. It swallowed the loaf in seconds, then continued crying. I gave the dog the other half and left.

I spent more time at the tourist spots than I should’ve. I like to think it was a necessary, or at least inevitable, mistake. It made me sad, or mad, or both, when I saw tourists taking pictures of themselves smiling beside war memorials, or in front of giant marble statues of slave-owning presidents. The Washington Monument was, as my father had joked many times, an erection. I realized that most monuments were erections, one way or another. And it became clear to me, after the sun had gone down and the tourists had dispersed, that someday the monuments would be ruins.

I sat at the World War II memorial and smoked. I sat with my back against a marble pillar and listened to the water from the fountain. I grew tired and began to dread my walk back to the hostel. A man walked up to the fountain. He looked around, looked at me, and decided I wasn’t a threat to whatever he was about to do. He began to undress. He stood in the fountain and bathed.

And it became clear to me, after the sun had gone down and the tourists had dispersed, that someday the monuments would be ruins.

My background check was completed within a couple of days. Magdalena sent me an email confirming our arrangement. I was there the next morning. When I arrived, she was on the front steps of her red brick townhouse. She stood to greet me. “Welcome home,” she said, and gave me a customary kiss on both cheeks.

Magdalena quickly showed me the small shed where she kept the standing mower, the bush clippers, and the trash bins, then took me into the house. The front door opened into a long, dark hallway. There was a tearoom that seemed to have been untouched for years. There were no photos either, only paintings of open fields and empty oceans. The chairs looked uncomfortable and weak. When I dusted the house a few days later, I could see that the seats were made of leather, each depicting an engraved image of a bullfight.

The dining room was not much different, though a bit brighter. At the head of the long wooden table, where Magdalena’s husband once sat, was an empty linen placemat. Magdalena’s placemat lay next to it. On it was a silver tray, a silver plate, and silver utensils. On the mantel by the window there was a miniature house statuette. The house looked familiar. I bent down to look closely. I realized it was the very house I was standing in. I liked it. I asked Magdalena who’d made it.

“I did,” she said.

The living room consisted of a set of matching leather sofas, a rocking chair, and a huge television. “Do you enjoy watching television?” I asked.

“Who doesn’t?”

There were several paintings, drawings, and sketches hanging from the living room walls, all without color, each one seemingly incomplete and cut off from some larger whole. There was a horse’s head screaming and crying, its eyes looking up at the sky. Another drawing presented a clenched fist around a broken sword. There was a lost bull, a crying man with outstretched arms, a light bulb, a ghost coming in through an open window, and a wailing mother holding a dead child. I must’ve been staring, because Magdalena spoke as if to answer a question she could read on my face.

“Guernica,” she said.

Magdalena didn’t show me to her bedroom, but she did walk me through the rest of the upstairs. Her office was small and littered with jewelry. I saw silver. I saw gold. Emeralds, too. There was a desk at the window facing the quiet Georgetown street. Velvet displays of her most important pieces were hung up on the walls. Magdalena had more gold than the Vatican. I asked her if she was related to the queen.

“This is where I work,” she said.

Magdalena’s late husband’s office displayed various degrees. There was a brick of gold on the corner of his black wooden desk.

“He was a gold analyst,” she said.

The basement apartment had everything I needed except its own entrance. There was a small kitchen with a refrigerator, a small table for two people, a full bathroom, a desk, and a pullout couch. Magdalena was sorry that it didn’t have any windows. I told her it was a good thing, that I would sleep well no matter what the weather was like.

“Get settled,” Magdalena said. “If you need anything, let me know.”

“Likewise,” I said.

I tacked old pictures of my family on the bathroom mirror. I placed Nico’s letter, my mother’s purple stone, and my father’s money in the nightstand drawer. I got in bed, tried to sleep, and couldn’t. I went for groceries. I bought bananas, cereal, eggs, pasta, rice, and beans. My cooking was limited. I would only make food when I was especially hungry. But I was rarely hungry.

That night I drank too much rum and vomited in the toilet. The next morning, Magdalena invited me up for breakfast. Eggs and bacon. She told me she’d heard me getting sick and asked if I was okay. I apologized.

“For what?” she asked.

She told me to eat slowly. The food helped, but it was the broth she’d boiled that really saved me. Magdalena reminded me to go to class. It was the beginning of September and the universities were starting up that week. I told her I’d go. I had nothing better to do. I did the dishes. I took out the trash.

The first class I attended was an economics class at Georgetown University. There must’ve been at least two hundred people in the lecture hall. The professor read the syllabus aloud. “The course,” he said, “will introduce you all to the principles and policies affecting the economy, as well as to economic ethics.” The professor emphasized that his goal was to teach us the language of economics so that we could speak it for the rest of our lives, and eventually, become more fluent than he.

The next class I attended was Biology 101. The professor was more relaxed and more interesting. She had bright red hair and wore blue jeans and an oversized button-down shirt. The first thing she said about biology changed my life. She said that all species were destined to become extinct. With that, I’d learned everything I ever needed to know about biology. I also learned what to expect.

The last class I ever attended was an introductory chemistry class, taught by a tall Argentinian guy with a thick accent. I understood him perfectly. The class, he explained, was for non-majors, and therefore would not focus on the intricacies of chemistry but instead on the realities of the global climate disaster. “Many of you will go on to have big careers in business and politics. Most of you will have children. The future is coming, quickly, and it is crucial that you understand the circumstances that will dictate everything. In short, the objective of this course is for you to understand that the world is ending. Climate change is real and irreversible. It is already too late.” The lecture hall was quiet. The professor proceeded to pull up the syllabus on the projector. He said that the class would be easy so long as students attended regularly. He assigned one textbook. He’d written it himself.

Outside the lecture hall, by the bathroom, there was a bulletin board with fliers advertising different opportunities to make money. I took a couple of them with me. The first was for smokers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. The second was a family dynamics survey. The third was a sleep surveillance study.

First, I showed up to the smoking study. They assumed I was a student and asked what class I wanted credit toward. I told them that I wasn’t a student. When they asked me why I was interested in participating, I told them I wanted to make myself useful, and that I wanted to make money. There was more paperwork than I expected. The woman in charge of carrying out the study asked me a series of questions. She asked me how often I smoked, why I smoked, and whether I was trying to quit or not. I told her I smoked half a pack a day, that I smoked because I enjoyed smoking, and that I did not plan to quit. She explained that the study was designed to measure the extent to which cigarette packaging affected young smokers. She asked to see my pack, which had one warning: Smokers Die Younger. My job was to transfer my cigarettes into the packs the study provided and keep a tally of how many cigarettes I smoked each day. The pack she gave me was plain cardboard with warnings on both sides. One side had a picture of an aging smoker hooked up to an oxygen tank, surrounded by what appeared to be his devastated family. The other side had a picture of a stillborn baby. I was required to report back once a month over the course of the study, where I would be asked a series of questions about my experience. I would get paid each time I reported back.

The Family Dynamics Survey people weren’t interested in my participation. They asked me if I had a child with a partner I was living with. I said I didn’t, but that I was willing to contribute to the study anyway. They said that I was useless to them. When I asked why and told them I had a lot to say about family dynamics, they told me that the study was designed to see if there was a correlation between the amount of sleep a child gets and the parents’ satisfaction with their relationship. I asked them how they planned to measure satisfaction.

The sleep surveillance people were very excited to see me. They weren’t as excited when I told them I wasn’t a student. I’m not sure why. I assume it’s because they’d have to pay me, or because they thought I wouldn’t be as reliable. Probably both. Still, they had me fill out all their paperwork. They were concerned that I hadn’t been to a doctor in years.

I was required to wear a home sleep tester every night for two weeks. The device was impressive. There was a nose tube to measure my breathing, a belt that I had to wrap around my chest to measure more breathing, a finger clip to measure the oxygen in my blood, and a position sensor to record when I was asleep on my back, side, or stomach. I didn’t ask too many questions, only why they were studying people’s sleep. They said that sleep problems helped cause heart disease, depression, and poor work performance. I wondered if heart disease, depression, and poor work performance caused sleep problems, but I didn’t say anything. I was to be paid at the end of the study, after I’d reported back with the sleep machine and completed an exit interview with the staff.

When Magdalena asked me how class had gone, I told her I’d gotten three jobs instead. I showed her the pack from the smoke study and the sleep machine. When I told her how much I was getting paid, she said she was going to sign up, too.

“I should start smoking again,” Magdalena said.

“It’s never too late,” I said.

That night I made pasta for the two of us. It wasn’t good, but Magdalena said it was. The best part of the dinner was the wine. The conversation was nice, too. Magdalena asked what I was planning on doing for work, if anything. I told her I’d been thinking about working at one of the museums, as a janitor maybe. I explained that my uncle Nico had done the same when he was my age at a Botero museum in Medellín.

“Which museum do you want to work at?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Which one do you recommend?”

“None of them,” Magdalena said. “What you should do is go to school.”

“I should,” I said. “You’re right.” “I am right,” she said.

“Will you pay?” I asked. Magdalena laughed. We opened a second bottle of wine. Magdalena stole a cigarette from my pack.

“What would you study?” she asked.

I made a point to look around at the house. “Gold,” I said, laughing. I asked Magdalena what she studied at university. She grew a little sad. “General courses. I never finished. I only studied a year.”

“If you go to school, I’ll go to school,” I said.

“Deal,” she said.

That night we watched a television documentary about prohibition. Magdalena and I fell asleep next to one another on the couch. I woke up, turned everything off, and went downstairs to my apartment. I wrote down that I’d smoked fifteen cigarettes, then hooked myself up to the sleep tester and went to bed. That night I dreamed that Nico and Magdalena were young. They sat across from one another in a small room without windows. They talked for hours. When I woke up, I couldn’t remember what they’d said.

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