"I felt as though everything were real and unreal at the same time," says the narrator of this story. Although it sounds offhand, it’s a declaration of intent: Valeria Correa knows how to create a waking nightmare (perhaps that’s why her main character walks around like an 'armed sleepwalker'). In just a few lines, the Argentine writer is able to place us right in the middle of a hurricane in Florida, in a house threatened by the Mad Queen – a great character – and her followers. "A House in the Burbs" is, in its way, a Gothic story with all the traditional paraphernalia of the genre updated to the present day: the abandoned mansion, the 'outside' threat that really lurks inside and terrifying ghosts haunting the characters. A cat may be tortured, but the 'Animal Condition', the title of Valeria's book, is in fact something else in this story of one-person couples with no future, a story that offers an interesting counterpoint to "The Feather Pillow" by Horacio Quiroga.
In February 2001 we found exactly what we were looking for: a wooden house in the suburbs of Miami with large windows overlooking a canal with green water that flowed into the Atlantic. We considered ourselves lucky. It was a house at a good price in a peaceful spot far from the city. We didn’t have neighbors, except for the cats. We didn’t have bugs either. We painted it yellow, just like the metal mailbox we placed beside the front walk, and we replaced the glass in all the windows: some were broken; others just scratched. The wiring and the pipes were in perfect condition as were the hardwood floors; actually the place needed very little work. I polished and varnished the secondhand furniture we’d bought, made the curtains and valances and embroidered the pillows. We lived there about seven months until Philip’s death.
My Philip, it all happened so fast. Still, when I think back on it, I can see the sharpness of the cuts, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh. It all comes back to me with startling vividness.
I wasn’t happy but my days back then were calm.
My husband left early in the mornings and I spent hours sitting on the porch watching the cats with a book open on my lap. They wandered around indifferently with their feet always muddy from the swampy terrain. Maybe it’s a silly way to describe it, but I thought of them as little men strolling in the sunshine. Their curiosity and laziness entertained me. There were about seven of them (sometimes fewer) and I always took care of them.
When we moved in, I planted flowers in the ground and tried to grow a small vegetable garden, but nothing would take root in that wet clay soil. Everything immediately turned to rot in our small plot on the Florida peninsula. Our garden was a muddy and infertile uterus with a yellow metal mailbox full of flyers and coupons. Skittles: taste the rainbow. Only $0.99 with this coupon. Valid until 04.01.2001.
“No wonder it was so affordable, Jaime,” I said lifting a bag of topsoil: I was determined to fill our garden with plants, even if I had to put them in pots. “I mean, if you compare it to other houses in the area, the price was really good.”
Jaime was the owner of the shop. He was Cuban, with golden skin and long hair, still attractive at almost sixty. He liked to introduce himself by saying he’d escaped the heart of the fucking devil to live in the ass of his succubus.
“Now I know why, Jaime; no one wanted to live in that spot, with that ground that’s pure clay.”
My words might’ve sounded like a complaint but they weren’t. I just talked out of desire to converse with someone.
“Listen, put up a hammock and a wrought iron patio set,” he suggested. “Then you’ll see how much better and more cheerful. The garden I mean.”
I smiled weakly.
“And get a few citronella torches for the evenings.”
“We don’t have mosquitoes.”
“Damn, we’ve got all the bugs here, the mosquitos and those kids.”
Jaime and I spoke in Spanish, except when he said something vulgar. He only said curse words or insults in English. It was his way of distancing himself from what he felt didn’t fit his character or social position. He considered himself a gentleman, even when he shouted and ranted about Fidel and my shameless compatriot, El Che.
“It’s just that when I get started about the Cuban Revolution… Excuse my temper but I’m from Cienfuegos, Miss.”
“I’m from Cienfuegos” was his excuse, monolithic, unwavering. I have to look up the history of Cienfuegos to understand what this man is talking about, I told myself.
Jaime, the cats, and a group of teenagers—a fixture in the store parking lot—were the only living beings in the landscape of my days. There were seven cats; nine or ten teenagers. I’d made out two females in the group of animals; in the group of teenagers there was only one. I named the cats: Nevermore, who was all black, and Gondoliere, who had striped fur. I also remember Phileas Fogg, a perfect English gentleman who always waited patiently for the bowl of milk, and Franky “Frankenstein,” the oldest of them all. He had a cleft lip and arthritis. And, of course, Philip. My Philip. I never learned the names of even one of the boys. I didn’t know the name of the girl either: a bleached blonde with big eyes that always stared at me. Her stare was almost a battle cry. I know it’s not easy to understand what I’m saying. But I can’t, I could never have explained the girl better. They, on the other hand, the boys, were—or at least I thought at the time—easier to read. They looked just like the troubled teens in the movies: dirty, ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, terrible smell; always chewing gum and drinking beer at all hours. They got around on motorcycles; the one I thought was the leader had an impeccable Harley Davidson that glittered under the midday sun. I had a red Focus with beige leather seats which I drove to Jaime’s shop. It was the first automatic car I’d ever had. I liked being able to drive to Jaime’s without thinking too much, listening to country music. I felt as American as anyone; even more so as I loaded the car with the brown paper sacks full of things I’d bought for us and the cats. The car had a white license plate, LUK 620, with “Florida, a sunny state” inscribed in green letters. This is only partially true because in the south of Florida it rains a lot. In fact, that Monday morning the National Weather Service had issued an emergency alert about an approaching tropical storm that had the potential to turn into a hurricane.
Out of fear of the hurricane I went to the store and bought a week’s worth of provisions. While Jaime scanned the bar codes of all the items, I estimated I’d need at least three trips to get it all to the trunk of my car. The Cuban man worked alone, he was in a terrible mood, and he wouldn’t have wanted to help me anyway. I handed him my credit card.
“I once offered to pay those fucking kids to help with my customers’ purchases,” Jaime pulled the bags out from under the cash register. “But do you think trash like that has any desire to work, Miss?”
I’d told him a dozen times that I was married and I’d reminded him of my name another twenty times. But Jaime continued stubbornly with his “Miss.”
“Assholes, that’s what they are; the girl is the worst one of all, Miss.”
I wouldn’t correct him again. Not that Monday morning or ever. I was also in a terrible mood. My husband was going to be out of town the whole week. A business convention in las Vegas for him and a hurricane in the south of the sunny Florida peninsula for me.
“Couldn’t they hold it in Tampa or Orlando?” I’d asked him that morning.
“Headquarters makes the decision.”
My husband gave me a kiss, loaded his suitcase into the trunk of his car and left. That was it. He’d go straight from the office to the airport. A week in Nevada and me in the yellow house with the cats, an unopened book on the porch and the stuff I’d have to get from Jaime’s shop. And hear all about Castro and, about my compatriot, El Che. Exile, the sad Cuban exiled in Miami, Miss. Every time, as if he were the only Latin American exile in all of the United States. Every single time I went to his store, whether it was for fertilizer or cat food, it was the same. I had the impression that Jaime talked—a lot and badly—about the Cuban Revolution and, of course, about the teenagers, in order to hide something. All this that Monday morning as he rang up my purchase.
They’re criminals in training. I must’ve been crazy the day I tried to hire one of them, because . . .” He bit his lip and looked out the window: one of the kids was walking toward the store. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, Miss.”
He then repeated not only the Miss but also the price, even though I’d already paid. I bagged my items without saying anything else. I could feel the boy’s stare on the back of my neck, Jaime’s suspicious silence. I took a couple of bags to my car.
“Hey, Miss; look what you forgot here.” I’d left a can of tuna and a can of hake for my little men next to the cash register. “You’re kind of distracted today. Be careful, because that’s not good.”
I went back home to feed my cats.
I’d done the shopping, I’d put everything away. I’d filled two bowls with milk and another two with cat food. Everything was done and it was only eleven o’clock on Monday morning.
I sat with the closed book on my lap. I didn’t have any plans, except to lie on the sofa and watch, after dinner, a documentary about hunting or fishing on the Wild Life Channel.
But the rain came ahead of schedule. The forecast had predicted the tropical storm would make landfall sometime after five in the evening; it started to rain around noon. All afternoon water crashed above, around, and up against our wooden house. There was something strange and intimate in the sound, almost a groan, as if the wood were remembering the forest from which it had come. The TV wasn’t working. It turned on but cable and cell phone service were out. Our yellow metal mailbox had also been knocked down by the wind sometime that afternoon, and dozens of flyers lay in the mud. Taste the rainbow and all that. What further destruction would the storm cause? Nothing worried me more than the cats—I don’t think I even thought of my husband’s flight to Las Vegas that was scheduled for around midnight. Where had my poor babies taken refuge? And my Philip? He was the fattest and smartest. His yellowish fur, his bluish eyes, and his theatrical personality had reminded me immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where were you that night, my Philip? Where did they find you? When we moved in, I wanted to bring him to live in the house with us. I bought a basket and embroidered a yellow pillow with his initials—PSH—but my husband said no, cats outside. Philip never lived with us. I thought about my Philip and about Nevermore and Gondoliere on that stormy night, and also about the two female cats that I’d never named, but mostly I thought about Philip.
The monotony of the rain made night come soon.
Gusts of wind blew invisibly through the darkness. For me it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. As if my head had been covered in a veil and through the tulle I could hear the raindrops and wind. So this was a tropical storm, I thought from my bed with a book—always the same one—unopened on my lap. The air around me whispered like a bunch of elderly ladies saying horrible things to each other. I thought all this without really understanding why. And outside, the wind, at eighty miles an hour, caused even the blood in my veins to accelerate.
Around ten at night it seemed like the storm was calming down. The wind blew weakly, a sound like playing cards being thrown in the air. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination somehow strangely linked to my husband, to his convention in Las Vegas—a whole week away from home talking sales strategies for fiberglass used to build slot machines and gaming tables. I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Outside everything was dark and darkness was everything until a bolt of lightning—like a long shiny fang gleaming in the mouth of the night—lit up the monotony of rain hitting mud. I opened the kitchen window a crack. The air carried the salty smell of the sea, of wet grass, hibiscus flowers. The air brought in life, stirred up and crushed into large refreshing gusts.
And then I saw them.
First just her. She’d picked up our yellow metal mailbox off the ground and she had it in her hand, like someone holding a scepter. She was walking toward the porch dressed in white. Her feet and the bottom of her dress were muddy. She looked like a priestess ready to carry out some ritual sacrifice. Also like a crazed queen. Then he appeared behind her. It was a new boy and he wore a huge backpack. I’d never seen him in Jaime’s parking lot. He was decidedly different from the others. Not only because he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of the same bad-boy movie, but because there was something in the way he walked, in the way he wore the backpack, that softened him. He, without a doubt, didn’t match the casting call for the crazy, dirty, bad guy. Finally, bringing up the ranks, were the rest—the grimy ones from the parking lot, with their baseball caps and their stench. They broke into two groups and posted themselves on either side of my house, in front of the kitchen windows. To look on dumbly in silence.
I quickly closed the window.
In an instant, I checked that all the windows and doors were locked. I turned off the lights. I ran to my room. My cell phone still didn’t have service. If I could’ve just made it to the car and fled. I was contemplating escaping out the back window when she said:
“We know you’re there, Miss.”
Fear pumped through my body like blood. I didn’t respond. I stayed still for a few seconds until she spoke again.
“The thing is, this house is ours. Isn’t it?”
The “isn’t it” wasn’t for me but for the boy with the backpack and the rest of the boys; at least, that’s what I think now. I went back to the kitchen and looked for the biggest knife we had. Then I remembered—they’d said it in a documentary about skinning prey on the Wild Life Channel—that a smaller and sharper knife can be more effective and is, without a doubt, easier to handle. I changed weapons.
Silence again. The only sound was my heavy breathing.
It wasn’t raining anymore, the dim starlight allowed me to make out the boys on both sides of the house in front of my windows: their white faces, their mouths hanging open, their noses pressed against the glass. Their breath fogging up the windows. Their wet puppy dog eyes. I wondered how much of the inside of the house they could see from that outside darkness. And then, the unexpected blow that made the glass of the kitchen window shatter.
The Crazed Queen, framed in my yellow wooden window. The water had made her mascara run and her eyes were even bigger and more deathlike. Her long hair was loose and her bangs were tucked behind her ears.
She gathered up her dress like a southern belle as she climbed through the window into my house, as if it had always been hers. Behind her came the new guy, her faithful choirboy with the mountain-climbing backpack.
I grabbed the big knife I’d previously discarded. Now I had two knives and I was barricaded behind a chair. It was obvious, although in the moment I refused to think about it, that if they all decided to come in and attack me there was no knife or barricade that would stop them. I wished more than ever, me who’d always been a gentle lamb, for a pistol.
Everything happened so fast.
But when I think about it now, I can still see the sharpness of the cut, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh, the entrails slipping from their membranes, the spindly bones. It all creeps back to my memory. Also the car lights, the screams. I always end up vomiting or with my stomach in knots at the memory of that night. My nerves are shot whenever I think about Miami, about those kids, about my husband, about everything that happened.
Now inside the house, the girl turned on the lights. She knew where the switches were; she could get around my house with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, the new boy opened his backpack. He took out: two large knives, a pair of disposable gloves, two trash bags, a hook like the ones butchers use to hang sides of beef in the freezer. And, inside a third bag, Philip. He set everything out neatly on the table. I thought that the cat was dead. I would’ve covered my mouth—I mean to say that’s the impulse I had—but I had my hands full with the knives. Anyway Philip wasn’t dead. He was drugged, I suppose, like the rest of those idiot kids. The half-open mouths of the cat and the kids with their noses pressed against my windows breathed almost in unison. Why didn’t they all come into the house together? Why did they stay outside? How many times had they repeated that identical ceremony? She, the Crazed Queen, inside with the initiate, and the rest, outside, watching the scene with their bovine eyes.
“Put the hook through his foot and hang him from that rail,” the girl ordered. From her accent, I could tell she was from the South.
I wanted to shout: “don’t do it,” but the words didn’t come to my mouth. I only took a few steps holding the knives out in front of me, like some armed sleepwalker. I didn’t dare do more than that, I wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. The Crazed Queen decided to preempt any possible surprises. She gave the sign to the boys outside and, a few seconds later, they were all inside the house.
“Put down the knives, Miss, and we’ll have a peaceful night.”
Two of the boys took me by the wrists and a third took the knives away.
“That’s better. Isn’t it, Miss?” the girl said (she called me “Miss” too, how ridiculous).
She petted met. Her hands were rough and cold; they smelled like rain, but her breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
I wanted to insult her or spit in her face. I couldn’t do that either.
“Now, let’s do our thing; get to work,” she ordered the new boy. “We don’t want to be here all night. Do we, boys?”
The new one’s hands trembled a little. Could I count on him? Would he repent at the last minute? Did my Philip have any chance of getting away? The new one’s hands shook even more now. They were normal hands. Not fat or skinny, not bald or hairy. But you could tell—it was obvious—that they were soft hands, like a student’s, unaccustomed to manual labor. How much did Philp weigh? Around seven or eight kilos, maybe ten—he’d gained weight recently. For the new kid he seemed to weigh more than a deer. He didn’t dare to pick him up. Wounding or killing—an animal or a man, it’s the same—with your own hands isn’t the same as doing it with a gunshot, like those somber hunters on the Wild Life Channel. Now I know: the flesh tries to resist, it fights you. Muscles are strong and flexible. He had to find a way to insert a hook in the live furry flesh of the cat. Avoiding the bone, find the muscle under the fur. The blond fur of my Philip.
It wasn’t such an easy job.
Philip fought upside down, as much as the effects of the drug would allow him to, as the new boy battled his fear and disgust. I must’ve struggled against the boys who held me, because later, when everything was over, I noticed that I had bruises on my wrists. The new one, after several tries, through suppressed gagging, and Philip’s whimpering, managed to puncture the cat’s flesh. His left thigh. Philip hung by a leg and a thread of blood slowly stained his fur. Like an inverted Spanish flag: yellow, red, yellow.
The worst part wasn’t the helplessness. The worst part wasn’t being in an isolated house with some deranged teens who, who knows why, were practicing some initiation right using my favorite cat. The worst part was the uncertainty, the fear of knowing I was at the mercy of the Crazed Queen and who knows what drugs and how much alcohol she had in her bloodstream. Why did they want me to witness it? Why, out of all the places in the world, did they have to choose my house? Is that what Jaime knew, that my house had been these kids’ permanent base of operations? So many questions came to me and none of them had answers.
The Crazed Queen ordered the new one to lick a little of the blood that dripped from the animal. She even put her finger in the cat’s wound and brought it to her mouth. She painted her lips with the blood. Then she twirled several times, rolled her eyes back in her head and all the foul-smelling boys cheered for her with a strange chant and applause.
I’ll never know what other trials the complete initiation ceremony entailed.
Deep down, I was certain that the new one wouldn’t pass them all. I sensed it because his eyes didn’t have that wet gleam I saw in the eyes of the rest of her minions, nor did they have the fury of the Crazed Queen. I wanted to believe that, despite his desperate need to belong, he still had a spark of good in his eyes. The new one was the only one of the group that was capable of hesitation—out of fear, disgust, or whatever reason—and hesitation is what helps us conserve a glimmer of humanity. No, the new one would not pass the trials. I confirmed my suspicions when I saw that he was the first to run away.
The headlights of a car shone into the kitchen.
It was my husband coming home. He’d left his ID. Leaving behind his ID was his unconscious way of leaving behind his identity. He hadn’t been who he said he was for a long time now. Obviously, he wasn’t going on a business trip; obviously, he wasn’t going alone. The only truth was that he was going to Las Vegas for a week and that without his ID he couldn’t start the trip. And he came back home with her—bleached blonde, with big eyes, almost an aged replica of the Crazed Queen—seated brazenly in the passenger’s seat of his car. I don’t know why life sometimes plays this game of funhouse mirrors. But none of that pertains to this story. Or almost. The only thing that matters here is that the headlights were enough to scare them away. They all fled quickly, they scattered like nighttime birds at the first light of day; and the new one was first to go. All that was left behind was Philip, half-dead in our kitchen, and the backpack.
I unhooked Philip’s leg and put him on our table. There was nothing left of his theatricality, of the vivacity in his bluish eyes. His entire body was bloody. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper, poor thing. My husband came into the house with murky eyes and his feet covered in mud. What could we say to each other that we didn’t both already know?
I picked up the knife, the small sharp one like they recommended in the hunting documentary. My husband didn’t get the chance to ask any questions. Not who the kids were that he’s surely seen running away, not what they were doing there, not what had happened to the cat. He couldn’t even ask about the damn backpack as he tripped over it. I took two steps forward and he took four steps back. Without uttering a single word and without taking my eyes off his and with a single swipe, I cut the cat’s stomach wide open. I did it with such force that I also scratched the wood of the table.
In addition to the guts and blood, three wet fetuses with squinted eyes fell out. Philip wasn’t who I thought he was either. No one is.
My husband held back a gag. Then he collapsed onto a chair. The woman who was waiting for him in the car honked the horn two times. Somehow, she’d stopped mattering. It was like the cat’s blood had hypnotized us: it continued dripping from the wound to the edge of the table and from there to the floor. How many minutes would it take for Philip to become a flattened hide? How long did it take for the cat and her fetuses to lose their lives? I looked at my bloody hands and at the knife—it wasn’t raining anymore, I don’t know what smells the wind was carrying, or how many trees or plants the storm had pulled up by the roots. The blonde kept honking the horn rhythmically and with increasing urgency. My marriage was the exact opposite of what I thought it was. And I thought to myself that the only thing fertile and alive in that house had been destroyed by my own hands.