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NO-TELL MOTEL, published by Reservoir Books in 2013



Portada de la novela El telo de papá de Florencia Werchowsky, diseñada por Jorge Alderete


Translated by Heather Cleary

The bell rang at the end of recess and everyone ran back to class. Everyone but Diego and me. We’d spent the break under the jungle gym, fumbling through a kiss surrounded by our insatiable classmates, who egged us on and offered advice: move your lips this way, touch each other like this, put your hand there. One girl scolded me for not tilting my head right. I was tortured by the shouts and laughter of kids less powerful than me, though it’s true I was also their slave: part of being a leader is making others happy. It’s a terrible burden, and no one—not even a presidential candidate—knows the pressures of being a pretty girl in a small-town school.

    Diego and I had been a couple since kindergarten, but we never would have kissed that day if the fourth graders hadn’t gone around bragging about how they made out in dark rooms, and teasing us for being sexually immature. As the most stable couple in the third grade, it was our responsibility to publicly diffuse the situation and shut the fourth graders up: eight-year-olds can make out, too. 

    The fifteen minutes of recess felt like hours under that jungle gym as I closed my eyes, tried to feel as little as possible, and listened to the other kids tease us. I knew the kiss would change my relationship with the boys in my grade, who—attracted by my willingness to break the rules—would look at me the way they looked at the older girls. It was also going to complicate my relationship with the girls in my class, since many of them were little snitches and against kissing in general, which always made me think they were going to turn me over to the authorities (the teacher, my mother, etc.). All this was going through my head as Diego’s cold, limp lips bumped up against mine. 

    The bell rang and everyone went back to class, leaving me and my boyfriend suddenly exposed as the curtain of school uniforms was drawn back, revealing us to the grades that had not taken part in our war of precocity. Had it been worth it?

    I opened my eyes and we looked at each other, neither one of us thinking anything epic, I’m sure. I, at least, thought that I’d never look him in the eyes again, because nothing could possibly be worse than the shame I was feeling as I separated my lips from his in front of everyone, making history. The relief that comes at the end of torture, which is not to be confused with satisfaction, lasted only as long as it took protagonists and witnesses to break formation. A second later, I was ambushed by a public indictment. An unknown, animalistic voice buried me alive when a boy shouted, loud enough so everyone could hear, “Go to your father’s motel, you slut!”

I went to my father’s motel every day. He’d say to me, “I have to go to the inn to get somethinn,” and I would laugh. I’d sit in the passenger seat, and when we got there one of the maids would bring me a Coke. Kissing Diego in front of everyone to prove that third graders could break the rules probably did make me a little bit of a slut, but that had nothing to do with going to the motel. I had never associated those two worlds until that vulgar boy opened my eyes in the cruelest, most despicable way. Until then, I had never needed to put into words the business that put food on our table. I knew, but I also didn’t know. I understood without being able to articulate it. At home they taught me that if anyone asked what my father did, I should say that he “ran a business,” and that would be enough. The town was so small that anyone who would ask the child of the owner of the only no-tell motel around what her father did for a living would seem like an asshole, anyway. Keep the kids out of it, and all that. Of course, the answer didn’t satisfy me. It seemed a little vague, but I was in no position to do anything about it, since I needed something to say, and my parents were my only source of euphemisms. 

    So for a long time I told people that my dad “ran a business,” until he got a job as the Secretary of Public Works for the municipality, a political assignment that guaranteed me four years of better answers to the question. “Functionary,” I’d reply. It felt great. Sometimes I’d even leave it a little ambiguous at the beginning, saying, “My dad works for the municipality,” only to immediately correct my interlocutor: “No, he’s not a municipal employee, he’s a functionary.” I must have been an obnoxious child. 

    At school, each grade would go on field trips to see where the parents of our classmates worked. We went to Marcos’ father’s bakery, Esteban’s father’s clinic, Cecilia’s mother’s store, and a few of the farms run by the other kids’ parents. On these excursions, the parent we were there to visit would lead us through the facilities, explaining what he or she did, and eventually let us participate in some part of the process appropriate for children, like kneading bread, watering plants, making bows, digging, or collecting eggs. 

    I knew we were never going to go to my father’s motel. I didn’t even bother raising my hand when the teacher asked what our next trip should be, because the restrictive nature of the place had always been clear to me. But I went all the time, so I didn’t understand that the restriction was for children. I was under the impression that there was some sort of moral issue about the place, even though I still didn’t really know what “moral” meant. 

    I began connecting the dots between what I knew and what I suspected with the same distaste I had for those stupid magazine puzzles, which annoyed me, but I did them just the same. Why do the dots have numbers on them? Going from one number to the next is too easy. It would be much better if the dots were just there and you were the one that had to create an image from the chaos. Now that’s a challenge. How was I supposed to know what a “no-tell motel” was? What did I care about the social consequences of what happened, or didn’t happen, there? It was the others—the adults, the teachers, whoever—who got uncomfortable or whispered among themselves when I passed by. They usually talked about my dad, not about me. But they forced me to think about something that didn’t matter to me, over and over, until one day it did matter. Until one day someone yelled, “Go to your father’s motel, you slut,” at me when I was eight years old. 

There was an antique sideboard in our dining room that we had inherited from my mother’s grandmother; it was where we kept our crystal and the nice silverware we used when we had guests. I spent my afternoons between the dining room and the living room, where there was a library that reached the ceiling, reading and making paths between the furniture and opening the little doors of the sideboard to touch the delicate engraved wine glasses. All the doors opened but one, which was always locked. I never knew what was behind it, until one day I was spying and saw my father open it and then leave it unattended to take care of an urgent phone call or visit. Stacked on top of some papers I could see piles of VHS tapes, like the ones at the video club, with brightly colored covers. I approached in a single, swift movement and managed to make out the words “Anal Passion” and “Parisian Sluts” before I heard Ñanco coming back to finish going through the papers he kept in his not suitable for minors niche. I ran back to my room with my heart in my throat. I wasn’t worried about being yelled at; I knew he wouldn’t punish me for having read the labels on the videos. What bothered me was the thought that he might want to explain to me what the movies were about, or why they were there, or who watched them. I already had my own answers to those questions, and they were much more comfortable than any truth he could tell me. I knew, but I didn’t know. “No-tell motel” + “slut” + “Anal Passion”… I was beginning to connect the dots. 

    The lock on the sideboard was a clear message: it was there for me, the youngest in the household. The adults had free rein to their secrets, but the girl had access only to the official information handed down to her by her elders. It never would have occurred to me to dig around in those private files if it hadn’t been for that phrase shouted at me during recess, that chink in the armor of euphemisms and ambiguous remarks my parents had constructed to protect me from society’s complex ideas about sexuality. They knew this protection was fragile and that, sooner or later, they were going to have to sit me down and give me the whole story. Ironically, this talk came absurdly late, years after I was stigmatized on the playground as the daughter of the owner of a no-tell motel, when the perception and social consequences of my family’s business were already laid out for me and digested, and there was no need to clarify anything. I must have been in the sixth grade, the same year the seventh graders started asking me for discounts on our hourly rate. They made a joke of it at recess as a way of bragging that they were informed, as though they were practicing to be adolescents so they’d be ready when they finally were. Part of this performance was presenting the loss of their virginity as an event not to be missed; just like their older siblings, everyone was going to have their first time in my father’s motel. Everyone except me, of course. 

    Which is why, the afternoon that Ñanco tried to explain to me the difference between our hotel and all the other hotels, I let him tangle himself up in concepts and didn’t ask any questions or brag about knowing things because I felt bad that he still thought I had no idea, and also a little ashamed that I hadn’t been honest with him before, hadn’t shared with him the discoveries I had already made. We drove along, on our way to the motel. He concluded his monologue by saying that, now that I knew what kind of business we ran, all I had to do was calmly tell anyone who asked about it the truth. 

    “This doesn’t change anything, sweetheart. We’re going to pull up now, like always, and you’re going to get your Coke. You see? Just like always,” he said, probably thinking that I was upset. I didn’t know how to respond, so, avoiding any actual content, I answered: “That’s great, dad.”

I’d walk up and down the hallway between rooms four and twelve, touching the sheets and towels folded on the shelves, stealing candies, smelling the waves of room freshener from the recently cleaned rooms, the coffee in the kitchen, the maids’ perfume. Dad and I had come to get somethinn at the inn and he was talking quietly with the manager on duty. They whispered and looked over room charges and my father drank some sweet mate that was passed to him, though when he got home he said he didn’t touch the stuff. 

    It was a pleasant world and I was its queen. I wanted Coke, I wanted ice cream, I wanted sandwiches; I took home the disposable packages of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and combs; I took the little empty bottles of Tía María and Fernet—“minis”—a notepad, and a manual credit card imprinter. Sooner or later, all these souvenirs ended up as furniture for my Barbies in a Babylonian construction full of unattractive but functional items. 

    The halls of the motel—my domain, since the daughter of the boss is also a boss—were like that, too. They looked nothing like the hallways of the hotels where we’d stay on our vacations: they were dark, austere labyrinths with white walls covered in papers with instructions on them left there by my father to make sure the maids didn’t forget to wear rubber gloves when they cleaned the rooms or emptied the trash. There were also signs inside the rooms, for the guests. Appeals, like: “Please pay when you enter, so as not to be disturbed,” and “Please call the front desk when you leave, so we can open the gate,” and informative notes, like: “This week, two complimentary alfajores and a soda of your choice.”

    The doors onto the hallway were left open if the rooms were empty; they were either clean and ready to go or recently vacated and still dirty. I had always been told not to go into the rooms until they had been cleaned. The guests would leave the televisions on and in my rounds I would sometimes catch sight of an ass making repetitive motions that sent a chill through me. The dirty rooms smelled bad, but those were the ones that still had tips in them, either in the drop box on the door or on the nightstand. If the tip was in the door, I had my father’s permission to keep it, as long as the maids didn’t find out. It was our little secret, and when I showed him my haul in the car on the way home, we’d promise not to tell anyone, not even mom. If the money was on the nightstand, though, I was forced to mount a commando-style operation. I would stealthily approach the forbidden room, not touching anything or leaving any trace, slip in and grab the cash quickly, then run away, hurdling nasty obstacles like condoms, wet towels, and stains. 

    The sanctioned theft of tips lasted until some Alejandra girl caught me snatching one from room five. She was skinny and not a maid, but was in the bathroom of five that day anyway, fixing her hair. I hadn’t seen her. We could have been accomplices, friends forever, but she betrayed me. She had stayed to take a shower after her client went on his way. The door to five was open, and I was on the hunt for tips, confident in my maneuvers thanks to a new pair of slippers that made my movements quieter and more dynamic. I was a girl ninja. I saw the cash on the nightstand from the hallway and didn’t hesitate; I knew there were no adults around, and that the maid hadn’t yet seen my prey. I made it into the room in two leaps, keeping my body as close to the wall as I could, and crossed to the nightstand without any trouble, but as I grabbed the money I heard a reproachful voice that made my knees go weak: “What are you doing, little girl?”

    A woman stepped out of the bathroom, fully dressed with a towel wrapped around her head. I froze. There was no escape. Anyway, escape didn’t make any sense; what I needed to do was negotiate. “I’m the owner’s daughter,” I said, letting her know how powerful I was. 

    “Oh, Ñanco’s daughter,” she responded. “What a doll.”

    “I’m going to go see my dad,” I interrupted, dropping the money.

    “What’s your name?” she asked.

    “Susan,” I answered. It was my artistic name at the time.

    “I’m Alejandra.”

    “Well, bye,” I said, walking nonchalantly out of the room, as though I were used to that kind of encounter. 

    “Bye, Susan.”

    Putting on my most innocent face I went to the front desk, where my father was, and sat quietly on a bench, praying to leave right away. The news broke two days later, and at home there was screaming and crying. My father didn’t bring me to the motel with him for a few months after that. 

In a lock-box at the front desk there was a tape recorder that was activated every time the main line rang, when a guest buzzed at the gate, or whenever someone called up from one of the rooms. It was a system my father had come up with to keep the maids from stealing. When the number of calls didn’t match the number of services entered in the register, someone lost their job. The cassettes were kept in the dining room sideboard, along with the VHS tapes and a few loose sheets of paper with messy writing on them. But the system was not infallible, and I always had a cassette or two on hand to listen to in my room, before I recorded over them with my radio show, which was conceived, developed, and produced by its announcer. The segments were superimposed over these conversations, which were of no interest to me but were, after all, exclusive material. 

    “And now,” I would say on my show, Mornings with Florencia, “we’re going to listen to a secret conversation between two adults,” and would let the tape run for a minute while the guest asked a maid for more whiskey and a towel. Then I would step in again to reflect on this exclusive audio, inventing a story full of danger and extortion that didn’t end up going anywhere. Then it was time for the break and my favorite part, the commercials. I made up jingles for nonexistent sponsors, most of which were toy stores that sold Barbie’s Dream House at a reasonable price. 

    Diego was an excellent co-host of Mornings with Florencia, even though when he was involved he insisted that we call the show Mornings with Florencia and Diego. I gave in because he contributed a lot, especially when he brought in his older brother’s Rick Astley cassettes and played DJ. We agreed on the programming: we both liked recipes and interviewing each other, pretending we were celebrities, famous musicians, the inventors of complex systems that would change humanity forever, or sometimes tennis players. But we also fought, mostly because he seemed more interested in the conversations between the maids and the motel guests than he was in our scripts, and preferred listening to the tapes to recording the show.

    We were a couple until seventh grade, when I moved to Buenos Aires. Ours was a love affair without ups and downs, a beautiful relationship driven mostly by me, the romantic one. He was more distant and didn’t keep the letters I wrote him, which ended up floating around his house and being used by his mother as scrap paper. I thought we were going to be together forever, but things cooled off when I moved away and two years later, when we were in high school, he lost his virginity to Carla in my father’s motel.  

    We had gone back to the town for a funeral. Another summer had gone by and I still had the body of a twelve-year-old: flat as a board, with no hips or any sense of fashion. My friends, who all had breasts and had been getting their period for a while already, told me about it in a serious tone while we drank mate at one of their houses. 

    “He can have all the first times he wants,” said one, “but not at your father’s motel. What a lack of respect!” The words didn’t seem to be hers, as though she had stolen them from some adult, which made them even more authoritative. There was a question of morals in there somewhere, but none of us wondered whether it had something to do with our being fourteen and sexually active. We left those small-minded notions to our parents.  

    “Where else could they go?” I defended him. “This whole fucking town lost its virginity in my father’s motel.” That phrase wasn’t mine, either. 

    “Well, at least he’s putting food on the table,” one of them said. 

    “God sends nuts to those who have no teeth,” added another, and everyone thought that was pretty funny. 

    “Besides,” continued the first, “who knows? Maybe because of Diego’s little fling you were able to buy yourself something nice in Buenos Aires. Like a pair of those ballerina slippers you wear.”

    I was a stick, a toothy little mouse with big ears, and Carla was an adolescent bombshell who put on a bikini and became all the rage at the club that summer. I couldn’t really expect Diego to wait for me for something so important, but… in my father’s motel? My friends felt sorry for me, and I couldn’t find any way to turn the whole thing into a teen epic. I wanted to die. 

    The whole town knew: one afternoon he stole his brother’s car—his brother was already eighteen—and took his busty prize to the motel. He must have made himself sound older when he rang from the gate, or else he’d been lucky enough to get some particularly dense maid on the other end of the line. For a long time, I wondered what it was like. She was as stupid as she was beautiful, and probably would have done anything to shed her virgin status, which seemed to be the only thing that mattered to her. They probably booked the room for two hours, and after doing it they probably showered, but not together, and then went back to their friends with their hair still wet, each one eager to share the news. What torture it was for me; how cruel my reproductive system was, for being so slow to make me ready for all that when it counted. I would have been as good at losing my virginity as I was at kissing Diego in front of everyone—dedicated to the cause, focused, and ready to face the consequences of my actions. But I was also a little grateful, I thought, contradicting myself, because if it had been me, I wouldn’t have known where to go. We would have been limited to a few unglamorous alternatives like oily-smelling bed of an adolescent friend or the floral sheets of someone’s parents. I didn’t have Carla’s good luck; I couldn’t go to the motel of someone else’s father. 



The construction workers and painters hired to build the motel were Chilean. They had spent an icy winter on the job, working days that started and ended at night, eating asados of meat roasted on stakes dug into the ground. On mornings when the road was frozen over, several of them wouldn’t show up because they didn’t want to ride their bicycles on it and Ñanco had to go get them in his car, house by house, offering them more money to go to work. 

    The grand opening of the hotel was planned for September 18, the Chilean day of independence, as part of a well-intentioned but often ineffectual strategy to motivate the team.

    The future maids were also Chilean, all but one. They were so excited that they were going to be employed by the first hotel in the town that, when the weather got nicer, they all went over to the construction site and flirted a little with the workers. Ñanco took them on a tour of the rooms being built and the hallways, indicating where the towels and clean sheets would be kept while he told dirty jokes and they laughed, a few of them covering their mouths because they were missing teeth.

    The motel was hidden behind a copse of pine trees; from the highway you could only see the beginning of a zigzagging dirt path with poplars on either side. The upper branches of the trees were tied together to create a tunnel, which was very impressive in the summer when the trees were lush, but became something of a liability in the winter, because you could see the sloppily tied cords holding the bare branches together. At the end of the path there was a gate, an intercom, and a sign with the instructions, “Lift the receiver and wait to be served,” which was hung next to another sign that read, “We have a security guard for your safety.” 

    The twelve rooms had entrances leading in from private garages, so that the guests never had to pass by the front desk or interact with the staff. Another set of doors, which opened on to the central hallway, would stay locked while the room was in use, and had drop boxes built into them for passing drinks and such through from the outside. Inside, the floor and walls were covered in red, green, yellow, blue, orange, and brown striped textiles. Each room was a different color, down to the tiles in the bathroom and other details, like the curtains and bedspreads. But the ambience of erotic fantasy was only fully achieved by turning on the lights, which glowed and faded out sensually, automatically, in different shades of amber and were reflected in the mirrors hung on the walls and the ceiling. As construction progressed and these attractions began to take shape, the workers and maids described them to their relatives, who told their friends, who told their friends, and soon word was spreading on its own in versions reshaped by imagination. 

    The fact that a motel was being built along the highway was already a hot topic: the devout met up with the conservatives on street corners to express their horror at the idea, while the jealous and the skeptics predicted the failure of the business, and the curious and the unemployed got excited about the new opportunity.

    Ñanco understood that all publicity was good publicity, even when it was negative, because he thought long term. Rumor had it that the motel was financed with gambling money, that there were prostitutes on staff to speed the recovery of the initial investment, that Ñanco had two wives and bastard children, that he was Jewish, that he wasn’t Jewish, and that he was a Peronist. 


Our town, a little black dot on the map of Patagonia, was experiencing its first years of sustained growth thanks to the recent paving of provincial Route 6, the previously impassable road that connected us with the most important cities in the valley. It was an agricultural road that stretched between the rural and the commercial, which for a long time had only been used by farmers making slow progress on their tractors, in beat-up trucks, or on horseback, and the day laborers who worked the fields, riding their bicycles along its bumpy surface, trying to avoid the stones. Before the road was paved, transportation between farms and towns depended on the weather and on an irrigation truck that would wet its surface on summer afternoons to control the dust storms kicked up by passing vehicles. 

    The town had originally grown inward from the now-defunct railroad, with a main avenue—Libertad, which ended in the only traffic light—and a large plaza named after General San Martín at its center. There were two schools downtown and two at the outskirts, a hospital, an industrial center, a weather station, an airfield that was used for drug trafficking—rumor had it—warehouses, and cold storage facilities. It was the Pear Capital of the nation and a sign was posted at the city limits that said, “Welcome” and was adorned with a giant, ostensibly pear-shaped, fiberglass ball about the size of a car, raised up so you could see what kind of fruit it was. It was such a monstrosity, though, that visitors could easily have thought they were entering the Kumquat, Banana, or Tennis Capital of the nation.

    In addition to commercial growth, the recent improvements to the highway had given the town a new identity. The road wasn’t just for internal transportation anymore; it became a connection with the outside world and a route for long-distance trucking and all kinds of vehicles that used it to move between cities. 

    Over the years, this exposure to the rest of Patagonia turned the town’s residents into more relaxed, communicative people open to change and interested in the new and unfamiliar. They started opening restaurants and private kindergartens; all social and commercial life was organized around the highway. 

    During the spring and summer, the farms were like new, with a fresh coat of paint on the houses and new braces on the trees. The purple leaves of the plum trees formed a line as you passed by in your car, a line that was broken by the rows of pear and apple trees. Little stalls that sold cherries, watermelons, and cured sausages cropped up along the side of the road. Their main clients were the truckers, who also fostered the growth of another informal roadside industry: prostitution. Every year there were more girls working Route 6 day and night, standing there alone in their tight jeans under the lamps that lit the entrances to the farms and the storage facilities. The light was weaker in autumn, but the place retained something of its cheer, thanks to the poplars turning yellow and the pines, which faced the cold without surrendering their green. At six o’clock every day, the fruit workers, still wearing their blue coveralls, would bleakly wheel their bicycles out to the side of the road. They would ride away in unison without saying goodbye, merging onto the highway to begin their dangerous journey along the asphalt, which took several lives each season. It took them generations to be able to share the road with vehicles moving at high speeds. The victims were most often older, the ones who had spent their whole lives pedaling along that same road without having to worry, who were used to nodding at the farmers as they passed by in their Falcons going twenty-five miles per hour. Drivers unaccustomed to checking the sides of the road also caused terrible accidents. Cyclists were always being hit, children were run over as they crossed; drunks stumbled along at night, into the path of the cars. Then there were the little piles of fur, insects, and blood that once were dogs. 

    The sites of these tragedies began to take on horrific but descriptive names that circulated orally and were, ultimately, useful information about the road. The intersection of Route 6 with one of the streets leading into town was called “Death’s Crossing,” and a stretch where it passed above a little stream and alongside a school was known as “Angel’s Bridge.” The sides of the road filled with altars, crosses, and flowers—monuments to the collateral damage of progress. 

    The fruit trees didn’t survive the winter frosts; during those months, the main topic of conversation was how much fruit this or that farmer had lost. The frost ruined the harvest and dampened the spirits of the townspeople, who were left pale and listless, unable to make a lucid appraisal of anything around them. The workers on their bicycles seemed like totems along the road; they rode moving nothing but their knees, pedaling slowly as though their bodies had never quite warmed up. 

    The landscape was changing. New machines appeared on the highway: pavers, combine harvesters, backhoes. Professionals moved in. The farmers started using state-of-the-art technology, financed by international companies that offered them long-term contracts for the sale of their entire crop. The highway was a dark strip of silk along which progress traveled, unforgiving toward those who did not adapt to its rules, its velocity, its new business models. At the same time, it drew in locals and visitors alike, promising to make their agricultural dreams a reality. It had almost everything. The only thing missing was a motel. 

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