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Doing Your Duty

Ariel Magnus | from: Spanish

Translated by : Kit Maude

The moment he heard the scream – he hadn’t heard the gunshot, or hadn’t interpreted it as such, because once you’ve got used to the endless cascade of noise from an internal patio you stop trying to filter out individual sounds, making the public space, counter-intuitively, the best place for a murder to go unnoticed – the moment he heard the scream and retrospectively identified the gunshot that preceded it and was thus primed to interpret the thud that came later as that of a body falling to the ground, Lichi got up from the sofa and stuck his head out of the only window of his one-room flat. The silence was so complete that it scared him. For the first time since he had moved into the flat with his father in Once, Buenos Aires, not a single radio was playing, none of the dogs was barking, no crockery was clattering and no one was arguing with their ex on the telephone. Such a flood of quiet could only occur following a terrible tragedy.

It was 3 p.m. on a grey Sunday afternoon. Every day in the tower block was grey; the building had no real façade, just a couple of internal patios not much bigger than light-wells, pockets of smells and shadows filled with air currents flowing out from the worst kind of urban housing unit. The easiest thing to do would be to pretend that nothing had happened – the most popular sport in the country after another played with a ball – but Lichi had not chosen to be a policeman to shy away from a responsibility that would have applied even if he were a civilian, here or anywhere else in the world. Dressed just as he was, not even as a civilian but for bumming around the house, he left his flat and rang the bell of the flat across the hall. Whether he was hoping to earn himself some glory, to solve a crime all on his own and leap up the career ladder, the fantasy of a first-rate idiot, not even he knew. 

The door was answered by a small woman almost as young as he was, who was holding a baby in one hand and a revolver in the other. If he’d been standing in his underwear Lichi couldn’t have felt as naked as he did now without his uniform. What scared him most was that it was a very old revolver, almost a museum piece, the kind that people inherit already loaded and don’t know how to use. 

“I’m sorry, I thought it was my ex-husband,” the woman said, putting the gun into her pocket. “Come in.” 

In the half a year he’d been in the building, Lichi had never done more than exchange a casual greeting with this woman, heading out or coming back from work, so he was forced to conclude that he inspired more trust dressed as he was than in his police uniform, one of the most disliked of its kind in a country where all uniforms were regarded with distrust – except perhaps white coats, and then only the variety worn by primary-school teachers (in rural schools).

He accepted the invitation not so much to further his improvised investigation as out of sheer curiosity. More children seemed to run in and out of this flat than there could possibly be room for, and he wanted to know just how many there actually were.

He counted seven, each of whom was a couple of centimetres or so taller than the next one, like Russian dolls, but so still and quiet that they all seemed part of a single body, and not an Argentinian one at that. And they weren’t; they were from Peru, to judge by the flag hanging above the television, which was tuned to a music channel from that country. The explanation as to why they made no noise, even though there were so many of them, what most surprised Lichi about his neighbour, was the fact that the flat, in addition to being very small, was full of merchandise. Even the most determined scamp would find it pretty difficult to run around in this place. Bundles and bundles of all manner of products were piled up against the walls, so much so that they blocked out the only window. Depending on their size and shape, the different packages took the place of the non-existent furniture, tables and chairs, shelves, armchairs and even beds. The smell of clingfilm overwhelmed that of chilli pepper and a meal for eight. 

“I was just thinking that I needed some toothpicks,” said Lichi, knocking up against a package that prevented the door from opening fully, as he tried to work out not whether the merchandise was legal or illegal but what manner of illegality it should be classified as; whether those who thieve from thieves deserved to be forgiven or sent back to prison.

“Can you help me to put it up there?” the woman asked, pointing to a gap between the ceiling and twin towers of dishcloths.

Lichi didn’t mind; it was, in fact, more of a relief that his neighbour was taking so long to explain what had happened. Gentleman that he was, he bent down and puffed out his chest like a weightlifter, winking at the largest of the little dwarves, who couldn’t have been older than six, as if to ask him for help. And he could have used some help; the combined bulk of the apparently weightless elements was surprisingly heavy, almost impossible to lift. Getting it into its allotted place took more effort than dragging his drunken father into bed the night before, skinny as he was.  

“Did you hear anything anomalous a moment ago?” he asked, his voice strained after the exertion. 

“I heard a scream,” nodded this dusky Snow White after a moment’s hesitation, perhaps thrown by the anomalous word he had used to indicate a strange or odd noise. “It must have been that moron on the second floor. It sounded as though she was being killed. That’s why I thought it might be my ex-husband. I thought maybe he’d got the wrong floor.” 

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Lichi excused himself with a tip of the cap he wasn’t wearing and went up the stairs to the next floor. Three flats opened on to the scene of the crime (acoustically speaking) and he didn’t know which one to start with. Only once the timer on the hall lights had switched off did he see the light himself: if the Peruvian woman thought that her husband had got the wrong floor, it had to be the flat directly above hers. He rang the bell.   

He immediately heard a squeak that was drowned out by things being moved around. A dog started to bark in the flat next door. He rang the bell again, instinctively moving towards the peephole, as though he could see through it and into the flat. Perhaps that was why he wasn’t surprised to find that he could indeed: it had been put in the wrong way round (or maybe the door was the wrong way round?). Even so, he couldn’t see much, just a hall, at the end of which were the legs of a person in a wheelchair. The legs disappeared, and in their stead a bald man with a thick beard was coming to the door. 

By the time it finally opened the hall light had gone off again (instead of a timer they’d installed an old man’s prostate, he thought, thinking of his father who was probably right at that moment getting up to take a piss – if he wasn’t too drunk). The light from the other end of the flat was dim, and he couldn’t see his neighbour’s expression when he said that he’d heard screams and had come to make sure that nothing unpleasant (the right word would have been untoward, but he found it hard to pronounce) had happened. It would have been useful to see the man’s face because he didn’t answer. 

“May I come in?” Lichi asked, forgetting that he wasn’t in uniform, not to mention the fact he hadn’t been ordered to search the house and didn’t have a warrant (not that there would have been much point in trying to get one). 

It took him a few more seconds to realize that the bald man didn’t understand Spanish and so gave him his first lesson in the language and the country’s idiosyncrasies by barging his way inside. In contrast to the flat downstairs this one was almost empty, just some fabric hanging on the wall and a couple of rugs under flimsy, matchstick furniture. The atmosphere was far more oppressive, however, almost unbearable. Lichi felt it in his chest and stomach even before he walked into the kitchen and saw the wheelchair, now stuck between the refrigerator and a decrepit fold-out Formica table. The skinny legs, bare up to thighs which had aroused a flash of erotic fantasy (the kind that Lichi would never admit to, not even to himself) belonged to a girl whose limbs and face were afflicted by a horrible disease that Lichi congratulated himself on not even knowing the name of. Her hair was cut haphazardly, she was staring at the ceiling, drooling from her mouth, and the only sign of life was a green earring dangling from a grotesquely swollen ear lobe. What had at first looked like a belt at chest height across a squalid green tunic turned out to be there to strap her to her rickety public-health wheelchair. In contrast, there was no doubt at all that the thing covering her mouth was a homemade gag. 

“She wanted it,” said a woman who you would have known was the girl’s mother even if she were wearing a veil. 

Struck by the idea that a family likeness could survive such marked deformities, it took Lichi a few moments to realize that she did know the language, unlike her husband, and that she was providing an explanation before he’d even asked. He was tempted to ask what the girl had wanted, to be tied up or gagged or both, but the question revived the flicker of dark, perverted titillation within him, and he didn’t say a word.

“She wanted it,” the mother repeated like a mantra, or whatever they called repetitive prayers in her country. “She insisted.” 

As she untied the piece of cloth in her daughter’s mouth, slowly, as though trying to judge whether the girl understood that she needed to behave in front of guests, the father offered him tea in a little cup that he appeared to have taken out his pocket, like waiters who bring you your plate of gnocchi or milanesa and chips before you’ve even finished ordering. They appeared to be so guilty about their daughter’s plight that Lichi began to feel the same way just for having come into the flat and witnessing it. He would have fled immediately if the courteous tea hadn’t kept him there more firmly in its subtle way than the restraints on the screaming girl’s weak, twisted arms.  

“Did you hear a sound like a gunshot a few moments ago?” he asked his potential witnesses. 

“It’s the crazy woman below who has a gun,” said the mother, almost as disdainfully as the other woman had spoken about her daughter. 

Just then a shot rang out again, much louder than the previous one, so Lichi realized that it must have come from the floor above (even though sound rises). 

He downed his tea (leaving such a small glass half drunk seemed as though it might have been an unforgivable affront in these people’s culture) and said goodbye to the family. His certainty that he would find several neighbours out in the hall wondering what had happened, or even standing around a body, made it seem even darker and emptier when he got out into it. In the stairwell he considered forgetting about the whole thing and going back to his flat, if only to make sure that his father had got to the bathroom and hadn’t wet the bed. 

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The order to keep climbing and get to the heart of the matter came more from his legs than his brain, but the most nonsensical thing about all this was that he was doing it at all. Who, apart from rural schoolteachers, ever acted out of a sense of duty any more? The closest thing that Lichi knew to doing what you were supposed to do without anyone asking you to or complaining if you didn’t was what they called going by the book, which is what the drivers’ union did when they were campaigning for a pay rise. Fulfilling your obligations was a paradoxical way of going on strike in this country.     

On the third floor the light in the hall didn’t even work by the book. The only light came through the peepholes; maybe they had all been put in the wrong way round. All except one, Lichi noticed, and not because it was in the right way round but because the door itself was half open. He went over and pushed it so he could enter, but when he looked down he saw a trail of blood on the floor. Following the trail outside, he saw that it trailed off until it was just a trickle of dots and concluded that this must be the direction that the victim had gone after patching up their wound. 

The path led back to the stairs, the flight that went to the higher levels. Terra incognita to Lichi, who had never gone above the first floor, which was why he’d taken the stairs rather than the lift like a normal person (at least one who lived above the second floor). That was also why when he got to the roof terrace and didn’t see anything except dripping clothes that had recently been hung out to dry he was surprised not to have passed anyone on the stairs. Following the impulse that had made him climb three flights of stairs in a row, he searched the entire terrace, from one end to the other, which wasn’t saying much given that the size of the six flats plus the hall wasn’t any greater than a normal family apartment in a better neighbourhood – i.e., any of the other neighbourhoods in the city.   

He leaned on the railing to take a rest, took out a cigarette and looked for his lighter. He couldn’t find it but still put the cigarette to his lips, dragging on it as a reflex action. He even felt the smoke enter his lungs. It was the epitome of suggestion, just as he had looked for the owner of the clothes, as though hanging clothes on a roof terrace was a crime (in a way it was, or at least the possibility of banning it had been discussed several times at tenants’ meetings because the residents went up in high heels or other footwear that broke through the roof’s protective membrane, but that didn’t fall under his remit, even when he was doing his duty). And he couldn’t put it down to the blood, because in the light of day it had proved just to be dark water, as if from a piece of wet clothing whose dye was running.

Pretending to smoke, Lichi stood a moment longer looking down at the street in front of his building, which was desolate and grey on a Sunday, even more so than the building. In the week it was a colourful riot of traffic, street vendors and customers. The daily bustle was such that it seemed to be reflected in the graffiti on the metal grilles protecting the shop fronts, the shrill signs blaring out at the asphalt and the dirty pavements, broken with use. On second thoughts, the street wasn’t empty but full of emptiness, noisily solitary, like a theatre hours before or after a show. The street was an unlit cigarette! Or a knock-off electronic cigarette, the kind they sold in those shops.  

Amid this portentous silence, Lichi was witness to an armed robbery. A girl walking along the street was suddenly surprised by two criminals who appeared out of nowhere (even though in this country there are plenty of similarities between the police and their foes, they did differ in that sense, Lichi thought, because the law announces itself from afar with police cars, as though to ward off danger, and then never really arrives). While one of the boys pointed a .22 that looked, even from a distance, like the plastic kind they sold behind the metal grille, the other took her mobile phone and handbag, which he looked through with the speed of a lacklustre customs agent but immediately found what he was looking for. Fifteen seconds later they were gone, and the girl, whose mouth was still open in a scream that never materialized, tripped on a loose paving stone and almost fell over. Not even her stumble spurred Lichi to go to her aid, perhaps because it had occurred in utter silence, like a film with the volume turned down. He saw the victim walk off as though nothing had interrupted her walk and threw the cigarette over the side of the terrace as though he’d actually smoked it.   

He went down the stairs, growing more amazed with each step at how passive he had been when confronted with an actual crime right before his eyes compared with his nonsensical investigation into an illusory one he had only heard. The actuality of what he had just seen at least influenced his reaction to the third shot he heard that Sunday afternoon, just as he was making the turn around the staircase on the fifth floor. He rang the bell of the flat on that floor knowing that the noise wasn’t coming from a weapon but more likely from someone trying to imitate the sound. It opened immediately, as though he’d been expected.  

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“Are you here because of the gunshots?” a young man wearing a Colombia football shirt several sizes too big for him asked enthusiastically. “You don’t know how happy you make me! I’m filming a series of tutorials for YouTube on how to do homemade sound effects. Really homemade ones, only using things everyone has at home. I’ve done rain, thunder, traffic, screeching tyres and a spaceship whoosh, but I couldn’t work out how to do a gunshot. Because popping a balloon or banging a plank of wood on a table doesn’t work. And Zippos and staplers aren’t right for cocking machine guns either. Anyway, who has a balloon at home, you know? After looking for a long time I found an excellent recipe. But I wasn’t going to be happy until a neighbour got scared and came to see whether someone was being murdered.” 

Lichi, whose ears were ringing from the Caribbean man’s chatter (he believed that the Caribbean began in Rio), put on his best moronic expression (his usual one, people said) and, taking out his packet of cigarettes, said that he hadn’t come about any noise but for a light. 

“When I was on the landing I realized that I needed a light,” he said, enjoying the minor triumph of making someone feel even stupider than he did.        

Surprised, but not doubting for a second that Lichi was telling the truth, the YouTube sound man stuck his hand in his shorts and took out a Zippo. He clicked it a couple of times before it lit, and they both realized that the sound was exactly the same as the cocking of a gun. Weren’t they the kind of lighter used by the Americans in Vietnam? Lichi remembered. Under the pretext of making a wind-resistant lighter they’d created a sound weapon that must have made prisoners of war pretty nervous during torture sessions. He thought about sharing this with his dark-skinned friend but decided to replace it with a titbit more in keeping with his interests. 

“The closest thing to the sound of a gun is the sound of a gun, and here everyone has one at home,” he said, thanking the man with another lesson in Argentine civility, hardly the best guy to do so, but perhaps he was exactly the right person. Everyone gets the teacher they deserve.

He decided not to go back up to the terrace and walked down deliberately slowly to take full advantage of the tobacco before arriving at his flat, where his father wouldn’t let him smoke. He wouldn’t let him do anything, in fact. Except, of course, the filial duty of taking care of him, and he didn’t make that easy either; quite the contrary. That was why Lichi had let him get drunk again; he’d grown tired of digging around for and throwing out the bottles of sake the old man snuck into the house.  

The slow descent also gave him time to think about the case of the patio and solve it once and for all. As he passed the floor the Arabs were on he realized that what the girl had wanted was the adornment he’d seen dangling from her ear, and it had made her ear lobe swell up like a tomato. Lichi decided not to speculate on what they used to make the piercing; in any case, it must have been the cause of the scream that had been punished with the gag. And when he got to the floor with Snow White and her seven Peruvian dwarves he realized that the box must have fallen down after the scream and the gunshot. That was how the crime must have happened, the scene of which was the interior patio of his mind. He was the detective, the guilty party and, come to think of it, the victim.  

When he got to the door of his flat he remembered to look through the peephole, not so much to see whether his was inverted, too, but to finish the cigarette. What he saw was horrifying. His father had fallen off the bed, and his head appeared to have knocked against the iron chair he used as a nightstand. In any case, he was bleeding profusely and the blood was staining the carpet. From the position his arm was in it was obvious that he’d used up the last of his strength reaching for his son’s mobile phone. Who he was planning to call was a mystery.

Lichi, who had been about to throw the cigarette away and tread on it, used it to light another one and continued out into the street. Suddenly he’d remembered that he needed to get some things, and he thought the supermarket on the corner would be open (his compatriots were the only people who did any work in this country). Then he thought he’d better go to the police station and offer to be a witness to the robbery he’d seen from the terrace. Then he could tell the story of the internal patio; his colleagues would enjoy it for sure even if they teased him about it afterwards (they already called him Lychee, like the fruit, so he didn’t care). The important thing was to delay his return home as long as possible so that everyone knew that if he’d been away it was only because he had been doing his duty.


*Image: William Eggelston, “Red Rug and Gun” (1981 – 1982)

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