A unfamiliar child charges into the Volvo car – “a stout rectangle walled in by shining sheets of metal, which always seemed to float over the road” – and then into the life of Montes, the protagonist. The boy manages to bring down the defences built by the successful corporate manager and acquaint him, even if only for a moment, with himself and with the reality outside the sterile, protected space he had created for himself in the poverty-stricken and terrorized Lima of the eighties. Alonso Cueto with his short and precise prose and the tender touch of an angel manages to distill a moving observation concerning openness and compassion.
Sr. F.R. Montes came home at nine o’clock every night. He lived in a building on Armendáriz Street, in a spacious apartment with large windows and an infinite view of the ocean. Usually, after passing through the elevator door, Sr. Montes would leave his briefcase on a couch, enter his living room with the commanding demeanor of a general and stride over to the bar. Standing there, savoring the moment, he would drop three round ice cubes into a glass and pour out a long stream of whiskey, briefly stopping to look at his reflection in the liquid mirror. That was him: a flat face, shrunken eyes, the condensation from his breath fogging up the glass.
Then, with lips still wet, he would play the tape on his answering machine. He knew he would be greeted by some unremarkable female voice: “Hi… this is Mayra. I’ve missed you. I’m free on Saturday. Call me, handsome.”
Messages like this sprinkled the repeated series of nocturnal voices. There were others as well: queries from the office, appointment confirmations and, frequently, job requests. Sr. Montes was the president of the Micro World Corporation. His two principal duties were to reject job applications and to expand their network of stores. Despite the fact that it was 1989 and terrorism raged in Lima, business was going well. He was the company’s chief beneficiary. Broad windows, gleaming leather furniture, marble sculptures, a liquor cabinet brimming with bottles.
He enjoyed wandering aimlessly though his living room with a glass in his hand. He felt comforted by the scent of the air, the kaleidoscopic solidity of the rug, the towering paintings. The attacks of the Shining Path had ravaged Lima. All the same, he could still drink that glass of whiskey and look out at the evening sky. Someday he would go there.
That morning, Sr. Montes felt at ease. Violet furniture, polished wardrobes, the forest of crystal statuettes, long and luminous tables. A dark fog filled the immense frame of the window, seamlessly merging sea into sky, broken only by the crests of waves. The partly-open curtain billowed in an undulating dance. The tiny lights of the boats and the pulsations of a star sometimes quivered in the distance.
He kept an armchair in front of the window. At times he would sit there to gaze into the nothingness of air and water.
He thought he could not live without plenty of space around him. He felt at ease in gigantic rooms, preferably alone. Conversations generally provoked a visceral indifference in him or, at best, a feeling of annoyance. The elegant company of his cat Theo satisfied his modest need for affection. Theo was a delicate gray animal with long whiskers, dainty paws and bewitching eyes, who would slink out from behind the furniture when he was there alone or with a woman.
In his fifties he felt — and some old acquaintances said he looked — like someone in his thirties or forties. His most important feats in life had come early on, with lasting consequences. He had married Leticia, who had inherited both a vast fortune and the alcoholism that came along with it. He had gotten rid of her in a speedy divorce and had reinvested his ex-wife´s money in the importation and sale of computers. Then he had been hired by Micro World. The company controlled service stores in Lima and the provinces. He managed the company’s publicity, administration and human resources, all without leaving his desk, frequently delegating to the managers of each area. His tough skin was forged in the heat of a tumultuous childhood, a reminder of his father’s violent hand and gruff voice, the sound of the blows hitting his body. But now the elaborate revenge of his position protected him from those memories.
Sr. Montes drove a Volvo that he refused to hand over to a company driver. It was a luxurious castle on wheels, a stout rectangle walled in by shining sheets of metal, which always seemed to float over the road.
That night he was returning home after a normal workday. The people at the bus stop crossed his rearview mirror like a gallery of objects.
His bodyguard had the day off to celebrate his son’s birthday, and Sr. Montes looked forward to the discrete solitude that awaited him in his apartment.
He drove along the boulevard, observing the row of cars on Larco Avenue.
Suddenly, the numbers on his consol seemed brilliantly illuminated. He felt unexpectedly alone, in the darkness.
It was a blackout.
The street had melted away as if part of a massive and desolate magic trick. He was in a tunnel and in the open air at the same time. Something moved in the darkness. Sr. Montes caught a glimpse of people running along the sidewalk. They stopped next to a bus, the headlights sweeping across their silhouettes.
He heard explosions. He gave a start.
There was a cascade of footsteps and shadows.
Then he heard the noise. Someone was entering his car.
He saw a small, slight shadow.
Sr. Montes took his pistol out of the glove box and whirled around.
His gun was pointed at a pair of bright eyes on a dirty face crowned by a mop of hair. He brought his gun closer to the face.
“Get out,” he said.
The headlights from the bus spilled onto the seat. Sr. Montes saw the figure more clearly: it was a boy. The delicate features looked like they were molded from clay. The enormous eyes never stopped looking at him. They held a fear and, at the same time, a determination that surprised him.
At that moment, Sr. Montes noticed a police car nearby, rolling slowly forward. Maybe the police were watching him. The car could stop at any moment. He didn’t know what to do.
The kid huddled in his backseat could be a terrorist, left behind by his comrades. His buddies had just planted a bomb in some bank and were fleeing the scene. The boy had probably fallen behind. Should he make him get out? No. He shouldn’t let him out of the vehicle. If the cops saw a suspect in his car, he could be implicated. Maybe the child was a member of the Shining Path. Perhaps. The reasonable thing to do now was to keep driving.
“Keep quiet,” he ordered, putting away the pistol. “Don’t move. Come closer, where I can see you.”
The boy obeyed him.
Sr. Montes turned left onto La Paz Avenue.
In the mirror, he saw another police car approaching, as if following them.
“Damn it,” he said.
He drove a few blocks and turned. He was on Alcanfores. A shadow ran in the other direction. He headed toward Larco, thinking that it would be better to be on a crowded street. Other cars squeezed around him. The patrol car turned onto a side street. A black void took its place in the rearview mirror.
Sr. Montes arrived at the corner of San Martín. He abruptly stopped the car. Suddenly, the street seemed deserted.
He sighed heavily. Was he harboring a member of the world’s bloodiest terrorist group?
“Get out now,” he said, turning.
He pointed toward the door.
The boy stared at him.
Sr. Montes looked in the rearview mirror. A car drove up behind him, and then another behind it. They honked their horns. It was the night of the blackout and everyone wanted to get home.
The best thing was to go to his building, only a few blocks away. He would be safe there.
Without taking his eyes off the mirror, he began driving. Finally, he parked in front of his building. It was better than going around in circles. The doorman was there.
Sr. Montes thought that he could take the child out of the car by force, but maybe that would draw too much attention. Were there other Shining Path members hidden somewhere, behind a tree or a shrub, or pressed against a wall? Had they followed him?
He was going to get rid of the boy, but maybe it was better not to use force.
He looked straight at him and stopped short when he saw those immense, dewy eyes.
Was this boy really a terrorist? Now he had his doubts. He seemed like a helpless little kid.
Sr. Montes opened the door.
“Hey, why don’t you go home?”
The child continued staring at him.
Suddenly there was another explosion in the distance.
The boy jumped and looked back. The dark silhouettes of the buildings were still there, impassive against the night sky. Another bank or police station had been bombed.
Sr. Montes, his car door still open, leaned over the seat and insisted in a low voice.
“Look, I’ll give you a little something,” he said, taking a bill out of his wallet. “Buy some clothes with this. Now go.”
The boy didn’t move.
“What’s your name?” Sr. Montes asked at last.
“Gabriel,” he said in a tiny voice.
He put the bill into the boy’s hand.
“Look, Gabriel. I don’t know where you’re from. I’m giving you this money, so go home and that’s the end of it. I don’t want to hurt you; I only want you to get out of here, understand?”
“Yes,” the boy finally murmured.
He noticed a sudden brightness. A police car had illuminated the space around them and two officers were getting out of the car.
“Good evening,” Sr. Montes said, straightening up under the glare of the flashlight.
“Evening,” said the officer.
The officer had a thick mustache, unflinching eyes and a hooked nose.
“Your papers, sir.”
Sr. Montes took out his identification card.
“And the boy?” asked the other. “Who is he?”
Sr. Montes hesitated. If he told them that he was looking after the car, what was he doing sitting inside it? On the other hand, he couldn’t let them take him. It was too dangerous. Maybe he wasn’t a member of the Shining Path. But if he was and the police associated him with the boy, he didn’t want to think of the consequences. A terrorist in his car and he could kiss his reputation, his position and his business goodbye.
“He cleans my house, officer. I live here. I was going to take him to the bus stop, but the buses aren’t running… since the blackout.”
“Go home, sir,” the officer said. “The curfew starts in 10 minutes. There could be more bombings, it’s dangerous.”
The officer got back in his car, mumbled something into his police radio and pulled out.
Sr. Montes remained still, watching the police drive off. A malignant fury wracked his body. Why did he have to take care of some kid that had jumped in his car? He got out and opened the back door. He had already given the boy money. Now he was going to leave him here in the street and park the car in the garage. He took the boy in his arms.
The kid weighed more than he had expected. Suddenly, he took a step back.
The little guy threw his arms around his neck. Sr. Montes felt the warmth of his hands. Another car turned the corner.
The boy’s arms hung limply behind his back, submissive. With horror, Sr. Montes realized that his pant leg was wet.
“Shit,” he shouted.
He let go of Gabriel, who fell to the sidewalk below. Sr. Montes looked at his leg. It was soaked with blood and one, two, three drops fell on his shoe. Gabriel’s wide and fearful eyes remained fixed on his own.
Another police car passed close by and lit up the scene. Sr. Montes grabbed Gabriel’s hand. He felt like a stranger to himself, not because of the blood on his clothing or his fear of the police, but rather because of the slow smoldering pity in his chest. He couldn’t explain why the expression on that face made him hurt, too. Who was this boy? Sr. Montes felt that he recognized him, though he knew he had never seen him before.
He went into his building. Gabriel limped at his side. José, the doorman, waited for him.
“Good evening, Sr. Montes.”
The doorman looked at Gabriel.
“I found him,” Sr. Montes said. “He must have fallen. I’m going to clean him up.” After a pause, he added, “He’s a kid from the neighborhood.”
“Very good, sir.”
The doorman pressed the elevator button.
“I’ll take the stairs. There’s a bit of blood.”
Sr. Montes carried the boy as if he were part of him.
Holding the warm body tightly against his chest, Sr. Montes was relieved when he finally saw his door.
“We’re almost there,” he said.
In the bathroom, he helped Gabriel take off his pants. The red gash on his upper thigh still dripped blood.
Sr. Montes found a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. The bullet had grazed his skin. It seemed superficial, but he definitely needed a doctor.
He picked up the phone.
The next day, very early, he went into the living room. There, on the divan, Gabriel lay sleeping in enormous pajamas that enveloped him like a robe.
His clean face and tousled hair, Sr. Montes thought with a smile, reminded him of something. Of course, they reminded him of… a photo of himself as a child.
Sr. Montes’ friend — Pepe — was a doctor with a sly smile, who asked few questions and who had a curfew pass. The night before, he had cleaned the wound, applied antibiotic cream and bandaged it. Then he had given the child a pill for the pain.
Theo approached the divan, curious about the visitor. Next to him, Gabriel seemed immortalized by sleep.
Gabriel had told Sr. Montes that he sold sweets on the corner. The explosion had sounded very close so he had run. The bullets whistled through the air and suddenly he felt himself stumbling to the ground. The police ran after him. It was then that he saw Sr. Montes’ car. He didn’t want to go to the police station; they had beaten him there once before. I’m sorry, sir. Forgive me. You saved me.
It was nine o’clock. Sr. Montes thought about waking him. Would he be able to walk, to leave the house? Maybe he would let him sleep a bit longer. For an instant he was struck with a fear that he was dead.
But suddenly, miraculously, the boy opened his eyes.
“How do you feel?”
He took a moment to answer.
“It hurts…, but less.”
Gabriel sat upright. Sr. Montes sat down next to him.
“Come and have some breakfast.”
As he watched the boy get out of his makeshift bed, Sr. Montes thought that maybe he should buy him some clothes. His were dirty and torn.
With new clothes he could leave, Sr. Montes thought. The boy could leave. And then what? Go back to the street. Continue selling chocolates, barely sustaining his skinny body, in the noisy stillness of the street.
He sat Gabriel at the table and ordered Rosa to serve them. They would have breakfast together. Then he would go to work. The boy would leave. They would exchange a few words before returning to their rightful places. Pity had gotten a hold of him for a few hours, but the world kept turning.
“Have some more milk,” he said.
He stared at Gabriel as he drank his milk, slowly. Outside, the white sky advanced.