Thursday, July 6
I’m sitting down to write because I finally have something to tell you. The boy from the newsstand didn’t bring me the paper today. I went to complain. On the way there I had the idea to tell him to bring me a copy of every newspaper. How many are there? He doesn’t even know, so we counted them. Bring me all the newspapers, all of them. Poor boy, you should’ve seen his face.
Saturday, July 15
It’s exhausting. I start at eight in the morning. I stop for lunch and then keep going until around seven at night. I read the newspapers like you’d read a book, in exact order, from the first page till the last. I have to read like this so as not to miss anything. I tried other methods. For example, reading the politics section of each newspaper first, then the sports section, then entertainment, then international news. But no, the way I’m doing it now is much better.
Sunday, August 20
I’m sorry but I had to throw out your clothes. It’s strange, I didn’t even feel that guilty. I know I told you I was going to donate them, but I don’t have time. I just threw them away. There are days that this job with the newspapers takes me twelve hours and leaves me completely worn out, especially on weekends. So I have to leave some to finish on Monday. Usually by Tuesday I’m all caught up and I can take some time to clean. Since I got rid of your clothes, I have room in your wardrobe to keep the papers I’ve already read. Every time she comes to visit, Ana says I have to throw away the newspapers. Why are you saving them, Mom. Now your smell is mixed with the smell of the ink, but it’s not a new smell, it’s a battle of competing smells.
Friday, September 1
I read what no one else does in the newspapers. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the only person that has read such and such news, in some forgotten corner of the paper. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the reason they publish these insignificant news items that don’t change anything in the world at all. You should see me. I compare the stories. I copy the strangest ones into a notebook. Sometimes Ana comes over and I ask her to help me move the stacks of old papers into your wardrobe.
Monday, September 11
I don’t trust the stories that are printed in only one paper. I don’t trust the stories that are exactly the same in all the papers. I only trust the stories that are different in all the papers. Yesterday Ana came over, I showed her the notebook and I read her the story of the man who got a second head implanted. It was published in just one paper, so I guess the best stories are the ones I don’t trust. Ana tells me that it’s all lies, that there are papers that make things up. Of course. Then I ask her to stay and I read her my favorite story from the past month. In Holland, a movie director was found guilty of murdering four actors who’d worked for him years prior. The murderer had never been able to accept that his actors continued to appear in other movies made by other directors. When I finished reading it, Ana started laughing; she laughed so hard that she ended up crying and she looked sad. Then I told her that I miss you, that I’d love to be able to read you the things I copy into the notebook. I have other stories that sometimes, at night, I pretend to read to you. Ana got mad and didn’t want to listen anymore.
Sunday, October 29
Ana hasn’t been here in a while. The last time she came over I asked her not to drop by on weekends anymore because those are the days I work the most. It would be very convenient for her to come on Wednesdays after six o’clock in the evening, but I don’t know what’s wrong with her, she won’t listen to reason.
Monday, November 6
Yesterday Ana told me that a new paper started coming out last month. I didn’t know and I got really mad. Honestly, I don’t know if I was angry about what she told me or because yesterday was Sunday and I don’t want anyone bothering me on weekends. Today I went to the newsstand and I gave them a piece of my mind. In the end, they admitted I was right. Yes, ma’am, starting tomorrow we’ll send you the new paper too.
Friday, November 10
You should see how easy it is. I look up the phone number. I call. I find a section name and the name of whatever reporter and I ask for them. It almost never fails. Sometimes they tell me no, that they’re freelance, so I cross their name off the list. But the reporters they call editors are there all day. They’re on call like doctors or police. It’s required of them. I ask them any old dumb questions just so they they’ll have someone to talk to, someone to entertain them. They have to be nice because they know a reader could always complain to their boss. At this point I already know many of their voices. The ones who write about politics are mostly men and they sound like smokers. With entertainment it’s the opposite, all women with voices like secretaries. Lately, when I read the articles by the reporters I talk to regularly, I feel like I’m hearing them.
Thursday, November 16
I don’t know if I should tell you this. I met Sergio yesterday. Ana talked so much about Sergio. Do you remember? Then she stopped talking about him and I didn’t know if I should ask. Then she started talking about him again, I don’t remember if you were still here, but she’d mention him casually like they were friends. Last night Ana brought him over. The boy doesn’t talk much. He seems polite, but I don’t think you’d like him.
Tuesday, November 28
Now there’s another new paper. This makes things more complicated because the other newspapers are thicker and thicker. I was getting behind and that’s why I didn’t write you, but this weekend I didn’t sleep and I finally got caught up.
Wednesday, November 29
I forgot: Ana went on a trip without Sergio. It’s strange because she didn’t go on vacation, she went to pick up a shipment of I don’t know what for his business. I think she went to Brazil. Just in case I’ll read the news from Brazil more carefully tomorrow.
Monday, December 11
Ana already came back and then left again. With the excuse that she has to travel she hardly comes over now, we just talk on the phone. Last week I went to the ophthalmologist because my eyes have been bothering me for a few months. I didn’t say anything before so as not to worry you. The problem isn’t that I read too much, but that my hands get stained with ink and then I rub my eyes. That’s what the eye doctor says and he’s right. Sometimes my fingertips turn black. The day before yesterday I had the idea to start using a wet cloth to wipe my fingers every once in a while and my eyes are much better.
Thursday, December 21
I can’t believe it. Our Ana did something terrible. I read it in the papers. They say that Sergio is free, that he’s innocent and has nothing to do with it. Sergio could’ve at least called to let me know. Maybe he doesn’t have my number. Maybe he’ll stop by the house to explain what happened. Just in case I’m not going to leave, so he’ll be able to find me. Now Ana’s in all the papers. But all the papers say the same thing, so I shouldn’t believe them. I’m going to call and you’ll see, Ana will pick up and tell us that it was all a misunderstanding, that it’s someone else with her same name. But what if Sergio answers? I’ll just hang up.
Saturday, December 23
Ana was in all the papers again today, but this time they don’t all say the same thing. I’m hearing more about her now than I have in recent weeks, since she stopped visiting. Finally, I can catch up on Ana’s life without interrupting my reading.
Thursday, January 4
In a village in China a woman gave birth to a dog. What I don’t understand is how they could put such an important story on a back page. Yesterday I argued with several editors about it. The thing is I waste the whole afternoon talking on the phone and then I have to make up for lost time. But they keep doing things so badly that I have to call more often. This didn’t happen so much before. And the worst part is that they refuse to listen. For example, one of the ones that writes about Ana won’t take my calls anymore. We used to talk regularly. Now they always tell me he’s not there. I shouldn’t have told him who I am. At first he didn’t believe me, you know, and he treated me like a prank caller. Listen to me, I told him. Listen to me carefully. And I told him the story of Ana and Sergio, and I gave him their phone number so he’d believe me. What’s that number, he asked. And he made me repeat it.
Friday, January 12
I’m going to have to ask the boy from the newsstand to help me organize the papers in your wardrobe. I was doing some calculations and in three months from now there isn’t going to be any room left. I might have to throw out some of my own clothes. There are things I don’t wear.
Wednesday, January 24
Today I woke up to Ana’s voice on the phone. What time is it? It’s eleven in the morning, she tells me, were you asleep? I didn’t argue with her because the poor thing’s in a bad state but on my watch, it was ten to seven. It seems Ana is back home now. But she gave me another phone number and told me to forget the old one. What about Sergio? We have to forget about Sergio too. You haven’t been in the papers for a while, I told her. Then Ana started to cry and said I need to see you, I want to tell you what happened. Luckily, I was able to convince her not to come, it’s not necessary, what for if I already know everything from the papers. I hung up on her.
Monday, January 29
Ana keeps calling. Now she says Sergio was guilty, that he sent her on those trips and then later pretended he knew nothing about it. I don’t know what to think. For the past four days I’ve been calling the guy who used to write about Ana to tell him this story, so they’ll tell me the truth. Today, if they say he’s not there again, I’m calling another paper.
Tuesday, February 13
In Hungary, during a concert, someone in the audience shot the violinist. The police arrested the man and discovered he was deaf. Here, the newspapers are getting fatter and my health is getting thinner. I was already a week behind, but the past few days I’ve had pains in my chest and legs, so now I’m two weeks behind. I don’t even turn on the TV or the radio so that I won’t find out about anything I haven’t read yet. You’re going to laugh: yesterday I made my order from the market and I told them not to wrap the eggs in any paper newer than January 20.
Tuesday, February 27
I can tell Ana is better because she hardly calls me anymore and she no longer insists on visiting during weekends. Yesterday she came over for a little while and, surprisingly, she wanted to help me organize the newspapers. I told her that there was no more room left in your wardrobe and it didn’t smell like you anymore. Then I tripped and I almost fell. Poor Ana was scared. Did you get dizzy? No, I told her. I’m used to that happening a lot now.
Monday, March 5
It’s getting worse. I’m still behind. I’m having eye problems again. Yesterday, to top it off, I started reading a newspaper I’d already read. I don’t know how I could’ve mixed them up. And I lost a whole hour because I didn’t realize it right away. When I got to the news about the Siamese quadruplets, all four conjoined at the head like a good-luck clover, that’s when I said I’ve already read this, because the truth is, except for the stories like that, the rest is always pretty much the same. That was yesterday because today my head hurt so bad that I lowered the blinds and sat in the dark, I didn’t read anything. I’m writing you in a rush. Sorry.
Sunday, March 11
Can you believe my bad luck that yesterday I got dizzy right as I was opening my wardrobe, I fell against the door, the whole thing shook, and the last three months of newspapers spilled out all over the floor. Now I don’t know what I’ve read and what I haven’t. I’m afraid I’ll skip a whole day by accident. The thing is I’ve lost count, I don’t know what date I was on, I just know that at this point I’m very behind. If I keep it up I’m going to be reading the papers a year after they come out. I still read the horoscopes and the weather forecast as if it were the right day.
Tuesday, March 20
I must’ve skipped several days because all of a sudden I don’t understand the news. Strange things are happening in Spain. I don’t know where I read about it. When my head hurts a lot I can only read the headlines. I don’t know if I told you about something that’s happened a few times now. I’ll be following a story day after day, like a soap opera, and then one day the story disappears. I tell myself it’ll be back. But the days go by and nothing. What happens to all those people when they’re not news anymore? No one at any of the papers can tell me what happened with the quadruplets. I don’t even have the energy to complain anymore.
Thursday, March 29
A boy was born in India with his hands on backwards, the fingernails on the inside and palms on the outside. For a second I thought it was you in the paper. The photo was blurry but the boy looked so much like you that I got out a magnifying glass to check. The thing I told you about in Spain has gone from bad to worse. Now Ana says she has a plan to solve my backlog. A friend of hers, a nurse, can’t find work, so she suggested I hire her to help me with the papers. The two of us together will be able to make some headway.
Saturday, April 7
I’ve never met anyone more useless than Violeta. If she keeps it up I’ll have to fire her. Ana asked me to be patient with her, because she’s out of work and has a five-year-old son. Since she’s no help at all with the papers, yesterday I sent her to the kitchen to make me something to eat.
Sunday, April 15
You looked better yesterday than you did the other day. What I don’t understand is why they print such tiny pictures of you. I have to spend all day with the magnifying glass so I can see you. I had to fire Violeta. Ana comes by sometimes.
Monday, April 30
They both begged me so I told Violeta okay, that she could come back, but with the condition that she can’t touch the papers. Just in case I lock the wardrobes with a key. I already caught her trying to open yours once. I shouted at her and she took off running. But if I shout too loud I get dizzy.
Thursday, May 17
I’m still dizzy. I even get dizzy sitting down, like I’m on a boat day and night.
Wednesday, June 20
This morning when I woke up I noticed a sour smell coming from the wardrobe. Everything stinks. The old newspapers are rotting. I won’t give up, but I’ve never smelled anything like it. Sometimes at night I start to howl.
Wednesday, July 4
Now the newspapers are coming in strange shapes: circles, rhombuses, ovals. The other day one of the papers had only one story: the same story told a hundred different ways. I’m so backlogged there’s no way I’ll be able to catch up. But I won’t stop trying. If I look very carefully, if I use the magnifying glass, there are very strange things going on behind you in the pictures. Some of the photos make me gag. Yesterday I fainted. Things in Spain are more and more worrying. I’m going to have to spray some perfume.
Monday, August 20
Dear Dad, it’s Ana. I just found this diary yesterday. As you already know, Mom died two Thursdays ago. I imagine she’d like to close out this journal with the clipping I’m pasting below. To think I was about to tell the funeral home not to run an obituary. But then I felt bad about it. I thought that maybe this way some old friend of hers might get the news. As far as I know, it’s the only time Mom has ever been in the paper.
She called you two weeks ago. Just like that. Out of the blue. Today is Mother’s Day, and you’re going to see her again. You wanted to make as good a start to the day as possible, but on Saturday night you went to bed late and drunk and she wakes you with another phone call at twenty past eleven the next morning. She’s called to ask if you’re coming to lunch as you agreed. You say that you are. She asks if Fernanda is coming, too. You say that she isn’t; you already told her that. She asks you, please, not to be late, and you hang up. Over the past few days a voice in your head has been telling you that it’s your fault that you haven’t seen her in all this time, and you’ve begun to think about how that might have made her feel. Being with her is a trick you learned when you were a boy, but since you’ve grown up you haven’t been able to do it so well. Also, whenever you make an effort to be nice you lose patience. But for some reason you think things will work themselves out at the lunch. On Friday afternoon you got her a gift. You can’t remember the last time you did that. And you have something to say to her, a few phrases that will make everything right.
It’s midday on the third Sunday of October in a year that doesn’t and will never have a decade. You step into the bath and slip into cloudy, impeccable nothingness, like in an advert for cream or salt. You’re shrouded in silence. You’re swimming in a pool on the roof of a tower of thirty dark floors. No one else is there. You lean your back against the tiles and look up: no light or noise. The water is so clear that you don’t notice when it’s gone. The floor is grass, and you walk like Kwai Chang Caine, like Johnnie Walker in a Scottish meadow; there are white sheep that turn into a white cloud, and you open your eyes, cough and spit out a little cold water. You have no idea what time it is because in the bath it’s always late at night. Then you hear the noise of the traffic and, on the other side of the wall, a neighbour flushing the toilet before washing their hands and closing the door behind them.
Something on that corner of the avenue seems familiar. Almost without thinking you walk the blocks that separate your flat from the area where you lived with your mum and sister a few years ago. Only now, going back, do you realize that you never went very far. You can’t remember what used to be on the avenue. It definitely wasn’t a pair of internet cafés.
To pass by the door, acting on a somewhat morbid urge to see how things have changed, you’d just have to turn the corner and carry on for half a block, but you don’t move. Your phone tells you that it’s ten past two. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls off you search your pockets for money. When you arrive you have to explain to the doorman who you are. He doesn’t believe you’re her son; he’s never seen you before. He makes you ring the bell. Fourteenth floor. He asks you if you were away travelling. You smile and look away. On the desk from which he presides over the lobby is an expensive mobile phone. Finally, a strange man’s voice tells you that you can come up. In the lift you tidy your hair and clothes in the mirror. You stare at your face and think about your sister. Somehow you feel that you abandoned her. For a long time, during those early years in Buenos Aires, you two were the only things that didn’t fall apart. Your mum’s big hair and your skinny dad with his moustache. You were both trapped on their merry-go-round like a fare fought over by a pair of taxi drivers on a slow night.
But all that’s over now. It’s simpler. You just have to share a few meals a year with the two women, plus a guy and his family, in a fourteenth-floor flat with a landing, open door and, behind it, a window that looks out onto a balcony, the nature reserve and the river behind it. You go inside, but no one’s around. You come back out, ring the bell and wait, but nothing happens. You wander around the living-room and bend over to read the spines of books and inspect the smiling faces in the picture frames. Your movements are tense and cautious, as though the decorations might disintegrate at the slightest touch. Or as though you were burgling the house of a family that has gone out to spend the day in the countryside.
Naked except for a towel, a blonde girl who isn’t your sister comes down the hall. Before closing the door to the bedroom she turns to look at you for an interminable second. Then your mother appears by her side and gives you a hug. She hasn’t changed – a little thinner, the hair blonder and in a different style, new, less-crumpled clothes, but the same. She steps back, rests her hands on your shoulders, looks at you and hugs you again. Then she steps back again. She’s crying. She says that she’s crying from joy. You put your hand in your jacket pocket and feel the package inside. You hug and kiss again. You’re about to open your mouth when she steps back again. Her eyes are red. She tells you to follow her. She wants to show you the flat. But all the doors to the bedrooms are locked. She says that they must be getting changed and shows you the bathrooms; one of them is still full of steam, foam, and there is a wet pair of burgundy-coloured panties hanging from the tap. You sneeze once, and again. She says that it must be the carpet. You’d better go into the kitchen. You keep on sneezing; it’s almost as if you were doing it on purpose, as though for some reason you were trying to make a show of being uncomfortable.
As you blow your nose she asks if you can do her a favour. “What?” Everyone’s busy getting ready and she still has to take a shower, but she miscalculated and needs more cream for the sauce and also there’s no wine, and Gustavo doesn’t like to eat without wine. A door opens, and a man’s voice, the same voice you heard distorted through the intercom, asks where something is. Who cares if he doesn’t like to eat without wine? He can get it himself. You’re alone together, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. But at the same time you suddenly feel shy, and you agree to go out. She asks you to take Lucky with you. The dog comes out from the laundry room, stretching.
It’s a new neighbourhood built on land reclaimed from the river, a country club of towers. All the buildings are enormous, spaced out as though the ground wouldn’t be able to hold them if they were any closer together. They’re surrounded by well-kept squares with recently planted trees and new benches. In another life your best ideas came when you walked this same dog through run-down plazas, smoking for blocks along streets that you no longer dare to go back to. From the outside the only supermarket in the area looks like a designer boutique. You tie the dog up and walk towards the sliding doors, which open on their own. A guard grabs your arm and tells you that you can’t leave a dog tied up on the pavement. You try to argue, but he just points at a sign that declares it is prohibited and then to the dog’s lead tied up to the lamp-post.
You walk a further six blocks along the avenue to a Korean supermarket. You go straight to the refrigerator with the dairy products. The smell of floor cleaner tickles your nose. You compare several different kinds of wines and pick a couple of the more expensive bottles. At the till the lady in front drops all her things on the belt and walks forward so she’s standing opposite the cashier. The cashier can barely see her over the till. On the black rubber belt are a lettuce, paper napkins, bread, a cut of beef you’ve never eaten and two cartons of wine. She asks the cashier to let her know when the bill comes to twenty pesos. The cashier says that they’re at nineteen pesos forty, and one of the wine cartons stays where it is. She has everything else in two bags. You don’t see what happened to the other wine carton – if she has bought it or not – because as she opens her purse she tells the cashier that food is very expensive. How can food be so expensive? She takes out a wrinkled twenty-peso note, the kind of note you’d see in the hands of a child going shopping for the first time, a note that spent years rolled up in the trunk of a ceramic elephant studded with glass jewels. As she smooths it out before giving it to the cashier, she asks her if she has a mother. Then she asks if she minds working on Mother’s Day. They should change what Mother’s Day is, she says.
She’s wearing dark glasses and shorts that reach down to her white knees, making her look a little out of place. You can sometimes tell what people are about to say from their postures. Her mummy lost her mummy – she says “mummy” twice – when she was very little, and she always felt bad on Mother’s Day.
The cashier is looking blankly at the special offers at the butcher’s counter. By now she must not see words, just exclamation marks and numbers all along the aisle. Numbers and exclamation marks at every imaginable angle on the signs and labels, with bleach-scented light shining down from the ceiling. The woman goes on talking. She says that there was a time when it was called the Day of the Family, and she thinks that’s better. You put the cream on the belt. The wine carton isn’t there. It cost a tenth of the wine you’re going to buy. While you pay you peer outside worriedly to make sure that the dog’s still there. You walk back quickly, almost without moving your arms, as though the cream will go bad if shaken outdoors.
They’re all sitting around the table. You kiss your sister, shake hands with Gustavo, kiss each of their daughters and the youngest son, although you can’t believe that he’s wearing one of your T-shirts. You don’t say anything. She’s the one who mentions it, as if it will somehow bring you closer. He must be sixteen or seventeen. He’s one of those teenagers who’s done his growing already. He’s tall, skinny, wears his hair slightly long, and you don’t know whether he shaves or if his beard hasn’t come out yet. He barely says anything at the table. You wonder whether you have anything else in common; he must be using a lot of your things. You tell her that she should have asked. She glares at you for a second and grabs your hand. Then she gives you an exaggerated, slightly absurd compliment that you find more annoying than embarrassing. You don’t say anything, and she tries to kiss you in front of everyone, but you move so she just brushes you. You snatch your hand away. You can’t help it. It’s as though something physical has got lost along the way.
And she’s living with another man. It’s not that you mind – in fact, you liked Gustavo right from the start, after he said “So you paint?” After a couple of glasses of wine you rediscover the layer of genuine empathy that has always made your interactions with other people easier. You like how he treats her, how he speaks to her and the jokes he makes to cheer her up after what you say. And the story he tells. The week before he went on a trip and got caught up in a road block. But it’s his tone more than anything. By now you’re guaranteed to like him whatever he says about the incident.
It seems that ahead of him was a minibus carrying a band that was supposed to be playing a gig in another city that night. They were late, and some of the musicians and a few others who didn’t look very musical got out to see what was going on. After a while a couple of band members started to play with the protesters’ drums, and everyone sang and chanted. Almost all of them were children, teenagers or women, he says. Of all ages, thirty-something and up. They had turned five bicycles upside down, with the seats resting on the asphalt, and a couple of kilometres of cars and trucks had backed up on either side. Then the musicians took pictures of themselves in front of the protestors’ flag, all of them smiling. Make sure that the organization’s crest is in there, shouted one of the women. And another said, This is all very well, but the roadblock stays.
They were from a town a couple of miles away and were protesting against plans for a refinery to be built in the area. The musicians had to keep going; they weren’t going to get there in time, and the organizer of the gig went over to plead with the protestors. He said that they supported the cause, they supported every cause. In fact, the worn-out green army jacket he was wearing had been given to him by El Perro a couple of weeks ago. Gustavo made a face to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. They supported the cause, the organizer said again, and he offered to read out the protestors’ petition on stage that night. Then he gave them several copies of the band’s first album and a few of their second, too.
His two daughters are there as well. You know that one is called Delfina and the other Belén, but you can’t remember which is which. They told you when you were introduced – you stared at the one who’d been wearing the towel – but you didn’t say their names out loud; you weren’t paying attention. The tablecloth is getting dirtier and dirtier. They’re both blonde. One is twenty-six, the other twenty-three. One of them says something about the musicians, something like all women like musicians but then end up marrying someone with money. It could have been worse; she might have said “painters” or “artists”. Gustavo answers, Only the stupid ones. He says it nicely, as though he’s still trying to teach her things.
The twenty-three-year-old seems like the eldest, your mother told you over the phone in an amused voice. You’re a little annoyed that she’s acting so familiarly, but, then again, if you lived there you’d be meeting her in the middle of the night in the kitchen, in a nightshirt, sitting on the counter, stretching out her pale legs next to you, her burgundy-coloured panties bunched to one side in the light of the open refrigerator and the green numbers of the clock on the microwave reflected in the window. And then they tell you that they’ve changed the dog’s name. Now its name is Eliot because “they like it better”. You have nothing against T.S. Eliot, Eliot Ness, Billy Elliot, Elliott Smith, Elliott Murphy or Missy Elliott, but people can’t go about changing a dog’s name, so you start calling him. “Lakiii…! Lakiii!” you shout, louder and louder.
Then you stop because everyone is staring at you except for your sister. Belén and Delfina make faces, and you see the resemblance even if you can’t tell which is which. For a second you think that family is something you catch. Then you realize that your sister is closer to them than you, and you feel that somehow you weren’t a good older brother. But it’s too late now. For another second you think that your relationship with her is like the plant the previous owners left behind in your flat. The plant you don’t water, not even in summer, but which still survives and sometimes even flowers.
The only moment you get alone with her, you don’t know what it is, but you can’t give her the gift. You feel as though the package were broken or the product faulty when you had it all planned out perfectly in your head. You start to cough and sneeze, and Gustavo sticks his head around the door to see what’s going on. He asks you if you’re all right, and she rubs a cloth in your face, a paper napkin. She tells you that you need to quit smoking. It’s not good for you. That’s it, you want to leave. She says “please”. You think that she’s going to say something more, but she just says “please” again and looks at you. It’s raining hard, and Gustavo offers to give you a lift. If you say no you’ll end up ruining the day, and it really didn’t go all that badly. Much as you try not to you can’t help feeling a kind of twisted regret; every time you leave you feel like you should have stayed, and whenever you stay a little longer you feel as though you should have left.
The only sound inside the car is the muffled noise made by the windscreen wipers. When he stops for a traffic light Gustavo sees the bag in your hand and asks you what it is. You say that it’s a gift from someone that you don’t want. “Thanks for reminding me.” You forgot that you were planning to exchange it. If you don’t go now you never will. He says that on Sundays shops don’t usually accept exchanges or returns, but you just want to get out of the car without offending him. You say that now that the rain is letting up you’ll give it a try. He can just drop you off on the avenue. Before getting out you shake hands and hug briefly.
There’s a queue of cars at the petrol station. People are inflating their tyres and filling up their tanks before getting locked back into their routines on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon still has that fixed sense of melancholy that comes with the knowledge that you’ll have to go to school the next day, especially on an afternoon like this when you have lots to do and no time to think. You’re going to tidy up a little and finish a bottle of wine that’s waiting to be finished, and as you’re thinking about that you see the woman who lives on the sixth floor sitting in the lobby. She’s using the chair the caretaker sits on when he has nothing to do.
You pass by her in silence because ever since you got out of the car you’ve been feeling a little slow. She’s lived in the building with her two children – a boy and a girl, about six or seven, who always shout when they get out of the lift – since before you moved in. She’s from Brazil, but her ex is Argentinian. You once exchanged a few words with him at the door of the building as he was waiting for his children to come down. From her expression it looks as though she’s waiting for him to bring them back. Your dad was always late when he had to come to pick you up – an hour or two. You drop your keys, and she turns to look at you. She looks at you without seeing anything, a little slow herself. You say “Hello” as you push the button to call the lift, but she doesn’t answer, and you say that someone must not have closed the lift doors properly. You peer into the gap between the frame and the door and say, “Someone must be unloading a whole floor full of shopping.” But she still doesn’t answer and continues to stare blankly out into the street. Suddenly she leans towards you and says, as though she were completing a sentence she’d started in her head, or was saying just before you arrived, that fortunately her ex-husband has taken the kids to his house. The boy is getting impossible; he hit her this morning.
There’s something about her annoyance with her son and the exhaustion in her voice and face that make you look her up and down for the first time, noticing the body under the tights and T-shirt. You tell her that your grandmother, your “mum’s mum”, used to say, “There’s nothing worse in the world than hitting your mother.” She laughs. You think that you might be able make yourself attractive to her by adopting an air of gentle empathy and youthful vigour. You’re sure that’s the right approach, but you can’t think what to say, so you start to shake the package. The sound of the metal door opening makes you jump. It’s the elderly couple who live on the fifth floor. They always take a couple of minutes to leave the building.
You get into the lift together, and only when you get to the fourth floor do you say, “So you’re on your own…” You feel strange knowing that another flat in the building in which you live is both identical and different from your own. Maybe you’re a little frightened at the prospect of glancing into the children’s room and seeing their still unmade beds, clothes on the floor and the black arm of an articulated toy figure. “Until tomorrow afternoon, thank goodness, when they come back from school,” she says before opening the door, getting out and looking at you from the hallway. The nightshirt you were going to give your mother would suit her. Maybe it would be a little tight and a little short. You’d like to say something about tonight, about how it’s better to spend Sunday nights with someone, to tell her that you have an almost full bottle of wine that needs finishing, but you don’t say a word, and she says, even though it’s only six in the evening, “Sleep well,” and closes the lift door.
The living-room in your flat is an empty mess, and you left the lights on. On the table are three open books, a full ashtray, a jumble of photographs, the mobile phone and a glass with dregs of wine. On a chair is a crumpled shirt and on another a teabag on which you can still see the impression left by a pair of nervous fingers. There’s no wind outside, no cars, no noise, just a few lights that come on and off in a mysterious pattern. From the seventh floor this part of the city looks like a stage set after the closing night.
On the side of the bath is a bottle of ordinary shampoo, shower gel, a book with a flowery border, toothpaste for sensitive teeth, a cup of coffee and a toothbrush. There’s limescale in between some of the tiles, and the shower curtain is mouldy along the edges. It’s cold, and you can never get the window to shut completely. You’re in the bath, warmed by the steam and a second serving of hot water. Sometimes you spend all day in there, running the hot water tap every now and again with one foot, while the other deals with the plug. It creates an amniotic atmosphere.
You think that it would be nice if it rained. Just then, as if your wish had been granted by a merciful power, you see a flash of lightning and a few drops of water hit the misted glass of the window. You think about the Brazilian woman, about how she’s actually not too daunting at all and that you’ll be better prepared the next time you meet. Maybe you could get her to let you into her flat when the kids aren’t there under the pretext of checking to see whether your bath is leaking. Meanwhile, for the moment, you could invite someone to the movies. But you have no idea what’s on. Not even a title or an actor’s name.
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.
The door of the bus opened. From her seat, Elena watched the passengers climb in.
“Where does he think all those people are going to go?” she asked her daughter, who was sitting next to the window.
Jesi was nodding her head, her black hair with blue highlights bouncing along with the music on her Walkman. Elena sighed and looked through the glass at some unspecified point in the street.
“Does the driver think he’s got cattle back here?” someone said. The shrill voice attracted Elena’s attention. She had been thinking about how much money Jesi spent on cassettes. Looking up, she saw a pregnant woman getting on. She elbowed her daughter.
“Jesi, get up.”
Jesi pulled the earphones out of her ears.
Elena nodded at the pregnant woman. “Give the lady your seat.”
Jesi stared at her mother, her eyes wide.
“Are you crazy, ma? You want me squashed up against all those people in this skirt?”
Elena sized up her discreet pleated trousers, comparing them to Jesi’s mini-skirt. With a sigh of defeat, she reached for the handrail to pull herself up.
“You’ve always got some excuse, haven’t you?” she said.
“That’s just how it is, ma,” Jesi replied. “They don’t pay attention to old women,” she added in a bright, friendly tone.
Elena looked at Jesi. She saw her put the earphones back in her ears, immediately forgetting what she’d said, before turning back to the window.
Elena looked forward. She saw the pregnant woman trying to squeeze up next to the rail. She waved for her to come over. As the woman tried to make her way through the mass of people, she cursed the general opprobrium that would have resulted had she given Jesi’s tanned cheek a hearty slap.
“Thank you,” said the pregnant woman.
“You’re welcome,” Elena answered with a smile that concealed her discomfort at finding herself pinned back by an eight-month belly. The pregnant woman sat down in the seat with a sigh. Jesi didn’t even notice. Elena tried to spread her feet a little so she could get better balance during the bus’s lurching movements.
“Spoilt brat,” said a woman to her left.
Elena recognized the shrill voice she’d heard before and pretended not to hear. Someone questioning my parenting skills; that’s all I need, she thought. She looked at Jesi angrily. From above, her daughter’s breasts looked larger and perkier. She wondered where that body had come from. No wonder those morons are fighting over her, she thought, remembering the persistent phone calls from two of Jesi’s schoolmates. She thought she was a goddess. What that girl needed was to be put in her place. She was only fourteen after all. When she was her age, Elena had been pretty too, and not just pretty. Most of all she had been rebellious. She had been a thinker. A big thinker. But she put up with the slaps without complaint. It was hardly another century. The sixties to the nineties. It wasn’t even… she interrupted herself. Thirty years? Had it really been thirty years since she was fourteen? She remembered Jagger’s wrinkled skin on TV last month. She felt bad. Was it the heat, the stink of all those people pressed together, or was she about to faint? How old was Jagger now? As she used her sandal to block the advance of the person next to her (the woman with the shrill voice, probably) she tried to do sums. Jagger must have been about twenty when they took the photo of him kissing the microphone for the poster in Pelo magazine. She saw herself sticking up the poster with pins thrust into the shiny wood of her new wardrobe. Keith Richards in his tight velvet trousers. She loved the way they rucked up around his groin. But that was nothing compared to Jagger’s huge mouth. What a wonderful time. Paint it Black playing loudly on the record player and her bedroom door opening. Her mother grabbing hold of her head in front of the wardrobe. Waving her arms like a crazy woman. Poor old woman. Jesi needed to feel a heavy hand like that on her cheek. But had it really been thirty years? Her thoughts were interrupted by firm pressure on her back. Either she had to move a little to the side to make way for this importunate body apparently trying to make more room for itself, or she had to squeeze up against the pregnant woman. She decided to push against the woman to her left. She had no choice but to look at her. The first thing she saw was the damp little moustache, with runnels of sweat running down on either side. The woman was older than her and gave her a nasty look. Elena didn’t want to know how much older she was exactly. Certainly not thirty years. While she tried to accept that thirty years had passed since she was fourteen, since that camp in Gessell, she pushed against the woman to ease the pressure on her back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m being pushed.”
“The kid should have got up,” said the woman.
Elena tried to smile to show she didn’t mind, but then she thought that it might seem apologetic. Or ashamed, to be more accurate. She tried to remember her pride at having slept under the pine trees in Gessell. Fourteen years old, so brave. She looked behind her, angry now, determined to reclaim her tiny space.
A boy with long, dyed-blonde hair smiled at her. You have lovely eyes, Elena thought.
“You’re pushing me,” she said, noticing that her voice didn’t quite sound plaintive. It was gentle, almost intimate.
“So sorry. I’m being pushed as well.”
Elena turned her back on him. She was stunned. The guy had been almost flirtatious. So sorry, he’d said. What a gentle voice had emerged from that half-open mouth. A dark complexion with honey eyes. So sorry. The thought of his lips turned her on. She closed her eyes. An insistent elbow at her left hip brought her back to reality. She looked at the old woman. Now she saw that the age gap between them was, in fact, quite significant. The woman had a quizzical expression on her face.
“Is he bothering you?”
“Who?” Elena asked.
“The guy behind you.”
Elena shook her head in amusement. “No.” She looked back over her shoulder.
The guy winked at her.
God he was sexy. She gave the old woman a quick smile. She was blushing and it wasn’t from the heat. A second later she felt something gently brushing against her trousers, as though looking for a response. She couldn’t avoid it. Or she didn’t want to. Feeling suffocated, she looked at Jesi. Now her head movements, entirely oblivious to reality, seemed utterly innocent. She thought with delight about a hypothetical, impossible conversation once they’d got off the bus: Jesi, amazed, open-mouthed, unable to believe her ears: So they don’t pay attention to old women? she was saying. But no. Better to make the whole thing a secret. The pines here will keep our secret forever, her first love had written in Gessell. Forty-something and you’ve still got it, Elenita, she told herself proudly as she leaned back a little to increase the pressure on her buttocks. She thought she could feel the guy’s hot breath on her neck. She was sighing. Her nipples hardened. She sensed an annoying gaze to her left. The old woman knew what was going on. It was her fault for poking her nose where it wasn’t wanted. The pregnant woman started to fan herself with her hand. Elena was sweating, but it wasn’t just because of the heat. She thought that if she fainted, she’d collapse into the guy’s arms. A movement from Jesi put her on guard. She was flipping the cassette. She saw Jesi adjust the volume and look at her. What did that expression with the raised eyebrows mean? Jesi tilted her head, asking if she was OK. Elena wondered if her face was redolent with the wellbeing she saw in the mirror on Sundays when she looked at herself naked after a snatched moment of romance. She smiled to reassure her, trying to show that she was still there. Jesi looked back out the window. Elena concentrated on what was going on behind her. Was it possible that a young guy was pleasuring himself with her like this? She just had to conceal the enjoyment and the surreptitious movements against each other. She’d never, ever tell Jesi what they really do with old women. She raised both arms to grab the handle dangling from the ceiling, wrists together in a submissive pose just for him, closed her eyes and heard Jagger’s voice in Brown Sugar…
When she heard cursing from the back of the bus, she opened her eyes. The pressure against her body was gone and the old woman’s elbow was digging into her ribs. Elena heard murmuring all around her. She looked towards the door. He was getting off the bus.
“Check your handbag, madam,” the old woman said.
“The zip is open,” the pregnant women pointed out.
Elena shoved her hand in her bag. Her wallet was gone.
The shrill voice grew louder in its satisfaction:
“See? What did I tell you? They take advantage…”
Elena looked at the old woman. She gently closed her bag.
“To do what?” she said firmly. “I’m not missing a thing.”
The house was falling down around us, but once you reach a certain age you just let it happen. The dirty plates were piled up in the kitchen, there was no one to make my bed, and the closet was beginning to run low on shirts. I think we were saved from the ants only because we lived on an upper floor. Eight days in, Mom asked me to go with her to see if something had happened. She was worried. I’d see her cross the hall or stop in the middle of her bedroom in her nightdress, like she’d forgotten where her slippers were and this was something terrifying. She hadn’t done anything about it up to now, not because she didn’t care, it was more like a case of wait and see.
“How is it possible that you don’t have her phone number?”
“I never needed it.”
That’s how Mom is. She takes everything for granted. Elda had never missed work without letting us know at least a day in advance. In the twenty-two years she’d worked in our house she’d never failed to call.
“All right, let’s go,” I said. I didn’t want her to go alone.
This was my lot for being the last one to move out. First we went to the service room and looked through her things. It seemed like everything was there: the pink uniform that Mom had told her to stop using, a notebook with notes and figures, a few bottles of perfume—and possibly the last black-and-white television set on earth. When I got out of the shower, the car keys were on my bed. I couldn’t figure out if she was rushing me or she was afraid I’d back out. As we went down in the elevator I ran through all the memories I had of Elda. I was surprised that there were so few. I couldn’t picture her on the day I graduated, for example, but I knew she’d set the table and cooked for my friends who showed up that night to celebrate. And afterward, when everyone had left and we went to bed, she’d silently cleaned and straightened the house. Or when I had meningitis while Mom and Dad were on vacation (another of their attempts to fix the unfixable). That memory is nothing more than a succession of days and nights of fever, of the television turned on nonstop, of hands that warm me and feed me but without any distinguishable face.
Mom had a piece of paper with the address on it. It was crumpled, and some of the letters and numbers were almost rubbed out. The only thing we knew for sure was the name of her neighborhood.
“Don’t worry. We’ll ask, and someone will tell us how to get there.”
Ever since Dad had left, I’d learned the litany of encouraging phrases I needed to recite. Mom looked at me out of the corner of her eye, smiling, and I thought that if I held her gaze a second longer she’d be able to see all my secrets, one after the other. Although it was her car, I was the only one who ever drove it except for maybe one of my siblings. But the two of us had a tacit agreement that I had to ask every time I wanted to use it.
“You paid her, didn’t you?”
We turned onto the avenue. She didn’t look at me.
“Why wouldn’t I have paid her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you forgot. I could happen…” But she didn’t respond. “Could she have been offended by something? Something you said?”
Mom and Elda could spend an entire day together without speaking, but they always knew what the other was thinking. Elda served tea or dinner at the time Mom felt was the appropriate hour. She went into the bedrooms to straighten up and clean when she was sure she wouldn’t be bothering anyone. They divided up the house into shifts.
“What do you know about Elda?”
“What do you mean, what do I know about Elda?”
“I mean, what do you know about her life?”
We drove through an industrial area near the river. The columns of smoke from the chimneys twisted southward. We heard the foghorn of a ship, but we couldn’t tell whether it was coming or going.
“Not much,” she said. She was silent for several kilometers. The sun was beside us, and shadows stretched across her face. “I know she was born in Paraguay, in a little town on the river… the name means High Sun or something like that, but I don’t know how they say it in Guaraní,” she paused and looked at me enthusiastically before continuing. “I know she has four kids and several grandkids. Nine, I think. She’s been divorced for many years. He was a carpenter or a plumber, I don’t really remember. Her birthday is in February,” she counted on her fingers. “Fifty-eight?”
She didn’t seem sure. From around a bend, before exiting the highway, we saw a building lot under construction. In the center, they’d dug a gigantic hole that looked more like a crater left by a bomb. I estimated that the future building would have at least fifteen, twenty floors.
“Apparently he hit her.”
When we got off the highway, we were only halfway there. And the next stretch was the part we were unsure about. As we moved farther from the city, signage was increasingly sporadic and the roads unpaved. We stopped at a bakery to buy some pastries.
“We can’t show up empty-handed.”
I agreed. “Get some with dulce de leche.”
“Do you think something’s happened to her?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
But then I had the image of a terrible accident; two cars crashing and bouncing off each other from the violence of the impact. They came to a stop at the side of the road, fender to fender. No one moved inside either vehicle. Then smoke began to pour from within, slowly. And a few minutes later, fire. None of the other cars driving by stopped.
“If she comes back, I’m going to pay more attention to her.”
We passed a neighborhood where the houses all looked the same, with water tanks on the roofs imitating chimneys. Some appeared to have people living in them even though they didn’t look completed. We reached a very narrow street, and the cars coming the other way forced us to pull over. From their seats, with the windshields between us and their hands gripping the steering wheels, the drivers looked at us. It was clear that we didn’t know where we were. Every two or three blocks Mom got out of the car to try to see the street numbers because we couldn’t read the signs from the car or the houses weren’t numbered in order. I pulled over at a corner and asked a boy on a bike if he knew where Elda Rubatto’s house was. It couldn’t be too far. He came over to the window, looked back at the houses behind him, and took all the time in the world before answering.
“It’s that one.”
The girl who opened the door was probably around twenty, no older. Her hair was black, straight, and it reached down to her elbows. I’d never seen her before in my life, but she’d just said my name. She called my mom “ma’am” and made excessive gestures with her hands, inviting us inside. She closed the door behind us, and the room, which was already dark, became even darker. Elda appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a dishtowel. She didn’t seem surprised to see us, and I had the impression she’d been expecting our visit.
“How’s it going, ma’am?”
“Elda… what happened to you?” Mom said with exaggerated worry. “It’s been over a week—”
But Elda didn’t let her finish. She quickly kissed us hello and introduced us to Romina, her daughter, the girl who had let us in. Then she called in her grandkids one by one. They appeared immediately, out of breath like they’d come running from an impossible distance. Their names went in one ear and out the other, but they all resembled their grandmother in some way. They stood there, impatient, until she gave them permission to leave.
Once we were alone, Elda said that she wanted to show us the house. She seemed so excited by the idea of hosting us that it was impossible to say no. She led the way through several rooms. We’d go into a room. Mom would make a comment—how pretty or look how spacious—or she’d simply nod her head in approval at everything she saw. Then we’d leave the room. We’d go into another. The ceilings were of varying heights and the floors were covered with diverse materials, as if the house had been built in stages over a long period of time.
Mom, as ever, realized it before me. In her expression, her way of moving her hands, I knew there was something wrong. I took another look at the room we were in, seeing it as if for the first time, trying to see what she was seeing. That’s when I began to notice things I’d seen before, at home. Decorations, small objects. At first, a few here and there. Nothing valuable or important. But when I started to look closer, as we moved through the house, I saw a lot more, everywhere. They lit up in my mind; they organized themselves as if on a map, with dates and references. A glass ashtray. A pair of wooden boxes Mom had brought home from a trip. A horrible painting of a lake landscape that some aunt or uncle of mine—I can’t remember which one—had painted. A chair I could’ve sworn I’d seen in the closet just a few days before. I tried to estimate how many of these things Mom might’ve gotten rid of voluntarily and how many had just disappeared over the years without our noticing. At this point, I closed my eyes. Why keep counting? But I had the feeling that the tour wasn’t over. When I opened my eyes again we were in another room. I’d walked there blindly. And then I understood the other thing that Mom had already figured out: the entire house was an exact replica of our apartment. That’s why it had all seemed so natural, and I’d been able to walk through automatically as if it were my own house. It was impressive how in spaces so small they’d been able to arrange the furniture in the same position or how a mirror was placed on the same wall, facing the same direction, in two different houses.
I wanted to move faster, to get ahead of them, because I thought I knew what was coming. We walked through a few more doors and out onto a patio. At the far end of the yard, under the afternoon sun, several men were working on the construction of a new house. They were bathed in sweat. They looked exhausted, but their arms didn’t stop, as if they were determined to finish the job before night sprung up on them.
“My sons,” said Elda.
We waved with one hand as we used the other to block the sun. At that hour the rays were hitting us head on. They stopped for barely a second to return the wave and then got back to work.
We retraced the route through the house in silence.
“Romina, we’re going to have tea, please.” She talked to her daughter the way Mom had talked to her. Always with respect and even affection but also with authority. The rest of the afternoon we made small talk. At one point I asked where the bathroom was, just to be polite, because I already knew where it was.
On some shelves I saw photos of my family among the pictures of her children. I saw myself at my first communion. When I graduated the seventh grade. My brother skiing with friends. The five of us at a prehistoric Christmas dinner before my dad left. Some of the photos were so close to others that they gave the impression we all knew each other, that we were part of the same big family.
When I came out of the bathroom, Romina appeared in a doorway and grabbed me by the hand. We walked down a hallway to what looked like a porch leading to a patio that was smaller than the one we’d seen before. We hadn’t been in this part of the house. Three clotheslines crossed over our heads, draped with laundry. I recognized a sweater I’d worn many years ago.
“You don’t remember me,” she said.
I made an effort. I searched for her face among all the faces I’d ever met.
“Yes,” I told her. “How could I forget?”
“Liar… When you were a little boy, this tall, my mom took me to your house. She didn’t have anyone to leave me with and Mrs. gave her permission. I remember we played in your room the whole afternoon. You let me use your toys, but only if I stayed close by; you never let me take one out of your sight.”
What could I say? There was a silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The wind whipped through the hanging sheets for several seconds, and then everything went still. I could have given her a kiss. She wasn’t ugly. It would have been the perfect scene in a soap opera, I thought with a cynicism I haven’t felt again since. But I didn’t do it, and we went back inside without looking at each other.
Mom was standing, waiting for me. By her face I could tell that they’d run out of topics of conversation or that it didn’t make sense to stay there any longer. Romina kept walking and, without saying goodbye, gathered the teacups, and then I heard the water in the kitchen.
“Ready to go?”
We were about to leave, and I was surprised by our ability to play along, our family talent for sustaining a charade. Before we left, Elda stopped under the cone of light thrown by a bulb.
“You know, ma’am, I’ve always wanted to invite you over. To have a meal together. Back there, in the yard, there’s room for…”
We turned our heads simultaneously toward the window, looking for signs of the scene Elda had imagined, but there was no longer anyone outside, and the glass just reflected us. We smiled and nodded.
It was nighttime. With large swaths thrown into darkness, the neighborhood didn’t seem so ugly now. There was a smell of oranges or tangerines—some kind of citrus, for sure. Someone was having a barbeque a few houses over. Elda walked with us down the path to the sidewalk. Some of her grandkids had climbed in the window and were looking out at us. I turned around to wave to them. Their eyes shone like eyes shine before a photo is taken. I saw two heads I hadn’t seen before, and I remembered the little house at the end of the yard. I had the feeling that all the houses in the neighborhood were connected, that the doors and hallways never ended. Drawing the route with a finger, Elda indicated the best way home, down safe, well-lit streets. But we weren’t afraid. We said goodbye, exchanged hugs and promises to see each other again.
“Thanks, thanks for everything,” she said.
When we got in the car we saw an ambulance pass by with its siren off. At the corner, it slammed on its brakes and backed up a hundred meters, retracing its route.
We didn’t speak the whole way home. I thought about turning on the radio at one point, but I decided not to. I didn’t want to listen to music. As we moved closer to the city, the landscape through the windows became more developed. The houses and buildings grew taller. Gardens and businesses sprung up around us. Not until we’d pulled into our garage did it seem like Mom wanted to say something. I noticed it in the twitching of her lips. Our parking bay was in the third underground level, and that night, as we moved down the spiral of ramps, the air seemed to become darker and denser. The tires squealed around every curve until we parked in the spot allocated to our apartment.
“We’re here,” I said.
I turned off the engine and put the stereo in the glove box.
“You’re big now,” she said unexpectedly. “It won’t be long before you go. I know. And the house doesn’t get that dirty. I think that… I think that for now I can handle it on my own… For a while. At least until we find someone.”
I looked her in the eyes so that she’d know I was listening, but I didn’t say anything. I just stretched out my arms to lock the two rear doors.
My name is Tomás. I’m thirty years old. I live with my father. We’re two bachelors in a big house who run into each other at odd hours and treat one another with respect, but we often go days without seeing each other. On Thursdays a lady comes to sweep the floors, wash the dishes that have piled up, and polish the furniture. I have an older brother, a software engineer, who lives in the hills with his family, and we go visit him sometimes. We take turns driving, because my father’s eyes get tired. We set out early on a Saturday and come back on Sunday after lunch to avoid the traffic.
But the story I want to tell is a different one. Something I’ve never told anyone.
My brother, the one who lives in the hills, isn’t my original brother. He’s something in the body of my brother, something that replaced him. Many years ago my brother disappeared in the woods and never returned—what I mean is, he returned, but it wasn’t him. It’s not that he was different or changed. It was someone else entirely. Someone else who came into our family and devoured it from the inside.
It was 13 April. I remember the date perfectly because it was my mother’s birthday. It was a Sunday that year, and we went for a barbeque at a little place on Route 9, the road to Zenón Pereyra. On Sundays the barbeque joints fill up with people who park under the trees and spend the whole day there, listening to the football game with their car doors open, but on that particular Sunday there was hardly anyone. Just one couple, who ate and left early.
Well, behind the grills, on the other side of a fence, there were some woods. It was a cluster of those trees they call evergreens, which had sprung up at the mouth of the canal, and their dropped needles carpeted the ground. If you walked just a hundred meters in it was a really ugly place, with broken glass sticking out of the mud, rusted sheet metal, bloated, decomposing dead dogs, and rats the size of cats scurrying among the rubble. That’s where the one who took over my brother’s body came from.
There’s a photo of that afternoon. I have it here as I’m writing because it marks the exact moment that everything began to fall apart. There we are, the four of us, in front of the trees, the blue trunk of the Dodge to one side. My mother, still young, has one eye closed because the sun was in her face. A cigarette smolders between my father’s fingers. My brother is smiling, with the headphones of his Walkman around his neck. It’s a huge smile, a smile that says: look at me, I’m seventeen, I’m new to the world, I’m on fire! His smile is forever frozen in that photo. It’s the last time we’ll see it.
After that picture was taken we had cake, and then my parents unfolded their lounge chairs and fell asleep. I sat against a tree and started reading a comic book. I wasn’t paying attention to my brother. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes went by, then my mother opened her eyes and asked me where he was, her eyebrows scrunched up with worry. She must’ve had a nightmare, one of her “premonitions.” I shrugged. I didn’t know. My mother walked over to the fence and called for him. She shouted his name several times. She woke my father up, and the three of us called for him. Then we heard the snap of a branch breaking, and my brother came out from the trees with his headphones on. He just stared at us. I get chills remembering his expression.
“Do us all a favor and take those out of your ears,” my mother scolded him.
My brother took a minute to react. When he did, he moved his hand to remove the headphones with a gesture that was not his own. That’s when I first suspected that something wasn’t right, something hard to put your finger on. But I didn’t say anything. What could I say? We got in the car and drove home.
A month later they took him to the doctor, the first one, Dr. Ferro. He X-rayed his head and ran some tests, then he talked to my parents. Physically, he said, my brother was fine, that maybe the problem had to do with adolescence, the typical excess of hormones, rejection of the world, even depression. Who isn’t depressed at seventeen?
So he gave us the number of a psychologist, who talked to my brother and gave my parents the same diagnosis as Ferro, that their son was healthy, perfectly healthy. A bit quiet, a bit withdrawn, but healthy.
“Doctor, you don’t understand,” my mother said. “The boy is a different person. He’s not my son.”
The psychologist shrugged. “Your son is suffering from mood swings because of his age. You’re just going to have to accept it.”
But my mother did not accept it. She took him to more doctors, a homeopathic specialist, a parapsychologist, traditional healers. She was obsessed. She eventually lost control of her life, smoking excessively, neglecting her appearance, suffering long periods of insomnia in which one single idea bounced frantically around in her head like a pinball. My brother was a different person, and she couldn’t be around him. She couldn’t stand his presence. Before, she had been annoyingly affectionate, always mussing up his hair and telling him he was more handsome every day—things moms say to their sons—but ever since that afternoon in the woods she couldn’t touch him. She had trouble even being near him. His presence made her nervous. The same thing happened to my father and I. It was like some part of your body felt an instinctive revulsion toward him. You felt like going far away and never coming back.
We didn’t talk too much about it. I remember speaking to my dad about it only once. We were sitting in the car, outside the sports pavilion where I had my gym class. He’d insisted on driving me, even though I always walked or rode my bike, and when I was about to get out of the car he said he wanted to ask me something. He thought for a second. “Have you noticed it?”
I nodded my head. “He breathes different,” I said.
I shared a room with him, and I heard him at night.
“Different, weird. He breathes like he’s another person. And sometimes I turn on the light and he’s sitting up in bed with his eyes open. He scares me.”
My father was silent for a minute and then he finally said, “Your mother is depressed. Help her out. Don’t cause any trouble. Behave, OK?”
I was about to tell him about the dreams. About the dream I’d had the night before. But I decided not to.
“Yeah,” I said, and I got out of the car.
The dreams were all more or less the same. My brother was walking through the house without turning on any lights or making any noise. He walked over to the photos hanging on the wall, and he looked at them. He stood over my bed, or over my parents’ bed, looking at us. His eyes were completely black. Then he lay back down.
My mother had dreams, too, but I didn’t know about them until much later. She dreamed about—as she said—“your real brother.” My real brother, she said, was at the bottom of a well, underground. The well was very deep. The opening at the top looked to him like a little coin of light way up high, and he’d ripped off all his nails trying to climb up to it. He was skinny; you could see his ribs. He screamed and screamed.
“I wake up panicking, and I pray to God that I’ll never have that dream again,” my mother told me. “And God listens, but only sometimes.”
One day my mother looked at my brother and said, “Why don’t you just leave?”
“Calm down,” my father said.
We were having lunch with the television on. It was a Saturday or a Sunday. My brother stabbed a raviolo, brought it to his mouth, and chewed without taking his eyes off the television.
“I know who you are. I know perfectly well,” said my mother, nodding her head.
“Calm down,” my father repeated.
My mother got up and went out onto the patio to smoke.
By that point the house was a lonely place. A few months after the incident in the woods my brother’s friends stopped coming over. They didn’t offer any explanations. Later on, my mother ran into one of them on the street, and he told her that being alone with my brother gave him goose bumps, and he showed her his arms; even just thinking about my brother gave him goose bumps. The same thing happened with our relatives and even some neighbors that had always stopped by before. My brother made them uncomfortable. So they stopped coming over.
I’d wake up screaming in the night, and my father would come in and turn on the light.
“Did you do something to him?” he asked my brother aggressively, sounding like he wanted to punch him.
My brother would just turn over and pretend to be asleep.
I don’t know how long things went on like that. Months probably. Months of tense meals, months of my mother crying in the laundry room, months in which we all preferred to be anywhere but home. One morning the secretary came into my classroom and started whispering to my teacher, glancing over at me. Then the teacher told me to put away my things. My father was waiting in the office. His face said that something had happened, something bad.
“Your mom had a nervous breakdown,” he explained in the car, shaking his head. “She attacked your brother with a knife.”
I found out later that my mother had made the mistake of telling first the police and then a psychologist her theory about the change in my brother. She explained that he’d been replaced by a spirit that lives in the trees, something she’d read about in a magazine. The spirit would live in his body until it had used it up, and then it would jump into another body, and then another, and another. It was like a parasite. And all she’d done was try to free it. That’s what she told them.
They took her to a psychiatric hospital, and they wouldn’t let us see her for fifteen days. She needed to be stabilized, the psychiatrist told my father. We went to see her for the first time on a Sunday afternoon. My brother still had bandages on his face and arms because he had needed stitches for some of the knife wounds. We sat at a concrete table on the patio, watching the other patients who had visitors. After a while my mother was brought out by a nurse, a fat woman, who led her by the arm. My mother shuffled toward us wearing a blue tracksuit and holding out her hands in front of her as if she were blind. When she recognized my brother, from a distance, she started shouting and struggling against the nurse’s grip. Another nurse had to come over, and between them they restrained her and gave her an injection.
Since then, only my father and I go to visit.
We go every Sunday, and we’ve been repeating the ritual for over twenty years now. We bring her cigarettes, chocolate, magazines. My mother is increasingly absent, lost. When she leans in to whisper in my ear I can smell the rottenness of her breath, a dense, heavy smell. She always says the same thing, “Don’t let yourself be left alone with him. He’s bad; he’s full of hate. He hates all three of us. He hates us because we’re different. Do you understand, my love?”
I say that I do. That I understand.
Every family has their own song, the song they sing every day. A song made up of expressions that allow them to live together, pass the time, not think. As long as they keep singing this song the hearth will remain lit. And when the song goes silent the family explodes like a huge bomb, and its members are blasted like shards in every direction. That’s why we all sing the same song every day, to stay together, to keep the hearth alight.
A few months ago I had to take a trip on one of those buses that stops in every little town along the way. It was a horrible trip: the reading lights were broken, the seats wouldn’t recline, the heating was on way too high. At one point in the night I woke up, disoriented. The bus had stopped in a tiny town. The bus station had three platforms, and it was dark. There was a dog sleeping on the oily ground, and leaning against a column was a man with a big Adidas duffle bag on his shoulder. I remember thinking how depressing it would be to live in a town like this. And then I looked at the man, and I saw it was my brother. I felt an ice-cold knife stab into my spine: it was my brother. It was my brother, the real one. He had a few strands of gray in his hair and had put on a few extra kilos, but it was him, by God and the Virgin Mother. I should have stood up, stopped the bus, shouted like a madman, but the truth is I remained glued to my seat. The bus started to pull away, and I didn’t do anything. I covered my face and sat like that for a long while until the lights of the town disappeared and we were once again submerged in the monstrous darkness of the open road.
Now we’re sitting in the backyard of his house in the hills, my brother and I.
It’s just an ordinary Sunday, a warm Sunday that says summer is near. My father, my brother’s wife, and their son are napping inside. But he and I stayed here, under the trees, looking out at the mountains and listening to the murmur of the creek that runs nearby. Enjoying the tranquility. We haven’t said a word in twenty minutes.
I look at my brother. He looks at me.
Who are you? I want to ask him. What are you?
But I decide it’s better not to know. After all, he’s family.
Before going to bed I would count the hours: one, two, three, four, five, six… seven. I looked at the clock. It was four in the morning, so four plus seven was eleven and eleven minus seven was four. I would get seven hours’ sleep, or rather six hours and fifteen minutes if I subtracted the forty-five minutes it would take me to find the right position in bed and block out the noise made by my employer. Six hours – not even six hours and fifteen minutes – is enough for someone who doesn’t work or hate. A worker, in contrast, needs at least seven hours’ sleep. A worker who hates – his boss, for instance – needs a full eight hours: eight hours, no more, no less. Eight hours calculated from the moment one actually gets to sleep not from when you go to bed, try to find the right position and block out the noise.
My personal circumstances had fluctuated over the years according to my finances. I started out as a feckless idler who slept for six hours a day, then I became an idler tormented by desire, thus adding fifteen minutes to my daily sleep. After my father was murdered I was forced to find work. It took me months to recover from the loss. The case against the criminal eventually came to a conclusion. The guilty man, a retired dentist who had apparently confused my father with the intended victim and thus declared his innocence – he was innocent of the crime he had wanted to commit – paid for his deed: life imprisonment. Only then could I truly cry and unburden myself of my grief. After that I set about looking for work. My appearance, as one or two malicious people told me while queuing to apply for jobs, left something to be desired. To tell the truth, I had never paid much attention to how I looked before or after my father’s death. And, in fact, I still don’t. I still have big bags under my eyes and a ghostly pallor. I had looked that way before my father died as well… but this has nothing to do with anything. I’m talking about my father when I might just as well be talking about my mother, of whom I have only vague memories. The fact of the matter is that I found just one person willing to give me a job with no questions asked.
It happened like this. One Monday, about a year ago, I read the following advertisement in the newspaper:
Wanted: Young man. Experience not required. Good walker. Excellent vision. Calm. Few prejudices. Artists need not apply.
The first thing that struck me about the advertisement was the lack of abbreviations. I read it again and thought that the “Artists need not apply” part seemed a good sign. At the time the last thing that I could be described as was an artist. So I went to the address given. I was chosen from among a large number of applicants and that same day started work at the home of Adolfo and Antonieta Voisin.
After I was given my first task, to take Antonieta out for a walk, the building’s porter took me into a corner and got straight to the point. “So you’re the new employee… I hope you have more luck than the others. No one lasts more than a week.” He touched his temple with his finger. “If something strange happens, call me. They all call me. Now go, before Antonieta sees us. Here she comes.”
Antonieta joined me and asked who I had been talking to. Over the next few days I found that it was one of her favourite questions. She always thought that when I wasn’t with her I was talking to someone.
“Don’t even think of discussing us… Be discreet,” she said once. “How would you feel if we discussed your private life? Please, be discreet. In this neighbourhood rumours spread terribly fast… Look at how they talk about Adolfo and I. They say that we’re holding our son captive.”
On numerous occasions I tried to reassure her that I very rarely spoke to anyone, and when I did I would never dare to reveal anything about my employers’ private lives, not under any pretext. Antonieta pretended not to hear me and changed the subject to address another of her recurring worries, that her husband was trying to poison her, a suspicion that was as ridiculous as it was beneficial because she secretly slipped me a little more money to taste her food before every meal.
My work for the Voisin family didn’t just consist of taking Señora Antonieta down Avenida de Mayo. There was more to it than that. Antonieta was blind but refused to acknowledge it in public, making my role as guide more difficult. Her original approach to her disability was such that if she stumbled or knocked against a wall it was my fault. She’d immediately ask if someone had seen us, and the more I tried to convince her that no one had noticed the more she thought I was lying to her. She’d lose her composure, grab hold of my arm and beg me to tell her that no one had seen her. I agreed to everything she said, but she wouldn’t have it. She’d call me a wastrel, a huckster. “If my husband were to find out about the money you get from me… if he knew that you extort me with the excuse that he wants to poison me. You’re a monster. Please, take me back home.”
That was how it always went. For months the same scene was repeated, with the odd omission or addition. When we got back to her building she’d forget that I was a monster and ask me whether her husband seemed suspicious to me. I was so afraid of lying to her that I always told her the opposite of what she wanted to hear, and she put my disappointing answers down to an impure character polluted by the Communism she sensed was rife in the building and generally across the neighbourhood.
Señor Adolfo, on the other hand, always seemed happy with the work I did. I had earned his trust, and when I brought his wife back he’d flatter me by taking me into his confidence. He’d take me into the dining-room, while Antonieta rested her legs in her bedroom, and tell me tales about his past as an athlete, his trips to Europe and his many infidelities. Then, as though he had been trying to soften me up, he’d ask me to tell him about the walk in detail. At first I took this as a benign indiscretion; he was trying to look out for his wife. Little by little Adolfo’s questions grew more specific; because – as he told me and as I had observed – they never spoke to one another, he wanted me to tell him exactly what she had said during the latest walk. He offered me a healthy tip to jog my memory, and I, who felt more loyalty to him than her – Adolfo seemed the saner of the two – told him everything, including the suspicions of poisoning, while he kept repeating, “My poor Antonieta. What’s wrong with her? What do you think?” So as not to offend my generous patron, I would tell him that I didn’t know. “Perhaps she’s getting senile?” he’d ask, and I was more than happy to agree with this diagnosis.
On one occasion, as we walked down Calle Florida, Señora Antonieta declared that she sensed that her husband and I were in cahoots; we were spending too much time together after her walks. I tried to convince her of my loyalty, but that only made her more angry. “As of this moment, you will stop tasting my food,” she spat and tried to run off. Fortunately she ran into a newspaper kiosk, lost her balance, and I was able to catch up with her before she tried to cross the street. She swore so quickly and with so much fury that she choked on her own rage. That day – so long ago; so much has changed – we came back in a taxi. On seeing his wife come home in that state Adolfo took me aside to question me, and, when he found out that she’d hit her head against a kiosk, admonished me for the first time.
The incident had consequences. For some time Antonieta lay in bed with her head bound, and my only tasks in the flat were to feed her and wash her body, as her husband instructed, with a wet cloth, a sponge and a soft-bristled brush. When she had recovered she told me that she wanted to bring the walks to an end. She would never leave her room again. I conveyed this decision to Adolfo, and he approved of it enthusiastically, confiding quietly, with a malicious subtlety that I’d never seen in him before, that he’d been waiting for this for some time.
As if to make up for her immobility Antonieta never stopped talking. Adolfo, who listened to everything she said from behind the door, told me once that he was worried that Antonieta would go mad if he let her go on talking to herself. “It’s essential”, he used these exact words, “that you move in with us.” I thanked him and made up several reasons that prevented me from accepting his offer. Adolfo insisted and offered to double my salary. I told him that I didn’t care about money – thus far I’d saved the six months’ wages he’d been paying me punctually because I had nothing to spend them on. Then he lost his composure, his face went red and he shouted that he didn’t want to hear my excuses; I’d be sleeping there that very night. I would set up a bed in the library, next to Antonieta’s bedroom. I stepped back in fright, and Señor Voisin, seeing that this approach was counterproductive, took hold of my shoulders and started to snivel. His hands were cold, bones wrapped in leather. He told me that I was like a son to him… “I’m very lonely. Soon I’ll be needing someone to listen to me… Please don’t be like that. Look at me. Ever since I was a boy, when we went to the countryside and my mother sat me on her knee, I have been terrified of dying alone, of dying alone talking to myself. And my fears are not unfounded. My parents died talking with no one to listen to them – my father in an insane asylum; my mother in the countryside, alone and, even worse, talking as though someone were listening to her. What do you say? I’ve surprised you, haven’t I? Now you’ll stay, won’t you? Or will you allow us to go . . . I don’t like that word, so, let’s say, take leave of our senses, because I could never go mad, no. I could only take leave of my senses, don’t you think?”
The next day I moved my few possessions into Adolfo’s home. Only then did I realize how large it was. There were several empty rooms, locked windows and shadowy corridors down which no one had been for years. My room, the closest to Antonieta’s bedroom, was a large library/living-room with an oval oak table and a sofa bed.
It took me some time to get used to the solitude one feels in large rooms. At night, when the street had gone absolutely quiet, I heard Antonieta’s screams and Adolfo walking in the corridor. He would stop and put his ear to the door or the walls of his wife’s room. “Come. Listen,” he said to me once when he saw me come out into the hall. I was forced to do so and, frankly, I never heard more than wailing. “What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Come on, you’re young, you must be able to understand,” Adolfo urged me, and although I never meant to lie, after the scene had been repeated on several occasions I pretended that I could hear her saying a name over and over again. He was terribly intrigued and unsettled by this. “Tell me who she’s calling for, please. It’s too late for jealousy. I’m an old man. Tell me.” I told him that she was saying his name, and he, rather than mistrusting me, decided that the Adolfo she referred to was someone else, a lover from another time, one of his precursors.
The next day Señor Voisin began to linger in front of my room as well. I heard him carefully place his ear against the door. Was I talking to myself as well? The worst thing about talking to oneself, I thought, must be that you don’t realize it. Maybe I did talk to myself, and I’d never know it. Or was I thinking out loud? Just as I thought this I froze and looked around the room, which, in the dark, looked like the plains that Adolfo was always talking about. The objects around me seemed utterly mysterious. The most oppressive aspect was the presence of books. There were so many that sometimes I thought they were human and felt as though I was being watched. Once again I got the impression that I was talking to myself and ran to a mirror to look. Only when Adolfo went to bed at midnight was I able to calm down and get to sleep. This was also the hour that Antonieta would stop talking so loudly and subside into a sleepy murmur.
The days weren’t so strange. Sometimes I did chores, paid bills or cleaned the house with a broom and duster. The rest of the time I spent with Señora Voisin, listening to her or washing her. I soon reached the conclusion that her stories may have had an internal logic but that they contradicted each other. Her different versions of the past were irreconcilable with one another. A single lifetime isn’t enough for a person to have been a top dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet and in the cabarets of Paris, a mountain climber, a tennis teacher, a polo instructor, an actress, an avid knitter and a manicurist. Every afternoon she claimed a different profession for herself, and after a while, after all that nonsense, I started to be intrigued by her true past: I was bitten by a need to discover the truth. Never before had I wondered who my employers really were, but from the moment I asked myself the question my ignorance began to seem very suggestive and worrisome. I had the feeling that their anonymity made them more dangerous. I had to be careful. I had no idea what Adolfo was capable of. After all, it was because of him that Antonieta was living as an invalid. And just as he had got into the habit of spying on me as well as his wife, he could have a similar fate in mind. I imagined myself trapped in the library, crippled and talking to a young man hired by Adolfo, whom he would tell I was his poor demented son and who would, logically, be obliged to stay in the next room. No, I refused to be a part of Adolfo’s scheme any longer. I couldn’t let someone replace me. Wasn’t it obvious that he was sacrificing us every night to reaffirm the fragile thread that tied him to existence? Perhaps my suspicions weren’t overblown. Perhaps I bear some responsibility for what happened later. Certain events are irreparable. And when something is irreparable it becomes inevitable. Thinking this way eases my bewilderment and the horrific situation in which I find myself.
I took precautions to protect myself from Adolfo’s suspicious behaviour. At dinner time he always called me into his bedroom – a large, gloomy space with gleaming dark furniture – to talk to me about his wife. I had to tell him everything she had said that afternoon. He listened with his head tilted and damp, staring eyes, hugging himself and repeating “My poor Antonieta”. When I had finished my account he asked me for an opinion, which was always brief because he would interrupt me and start to talk about himself, telling me about his past on a ranch and other, less crude frivolities. Before I went to bed he asked his favourite question: “Do you think that Antonieta will die talking to herself?” Once, instead of saying no, she’d die with me at her side, I decided to ask him about something I’d never been able to understand. Why did they avoid each other? He drew back. I saw that questions weakened him; the fact that he couldn’t control them seemed to humiliate him in a way that he couldn’t quite admit to. From then on, every day when I left my room, I would ask him indiscreet or plainly malicious questions, and he, caught between shame and fury, told me that I was being impertinent, ordered me away, said that it was the last time that he would tolerate such a lack of respect. But the fact that I lived in that gloomy house gave me the right to ask questions, to take liberties with my employer. As a fellow inhabitant, didn’t I suffer, too? Didn’t I have just as much right to spy on the other inhabitants if I breathed the same cold air in the corridors and endured the same enclosed spaces?
My behaviour changed radically. Awareness of my position gave me an invincible power over my employers. At night, after Adolfo had finished with his machinations behind the doors, I would insolently come out into the corridor and, once he had shut himself in his bedroom, lean on his door to spy on him in turn. The first few times it was enough just to listen to him. He walked from one end of the room to the other, his steps muffled by the carpet, coughing hoarsely every now and again. He knew that I was spying on him; ever since I had arrived, he had been waiting for me to take such an obvious liberty. What else could he want but to present me with an intimate vision of himself? What else was left to him at the end of his life but the pleasure of being spied on? At the prospect that he was, in fact, using me to satisfy some perverse, senile need, I gave into the temptation to peep through the keyhole. And I found that knowing that he was being spied on did indeed comfort him. He walked around the room naked, and what I had taken for a cough was, in fact, a filthy chuckle he indulged in, his lips wobbling, every time he stopped to look at his flaccid, worm-length member swinging between his legs.
Night after night, in spite of my emotional suffering during the day, I couldn’t resist the urge to peer through the keyhole once more. Why did I do it? I struggled to resist, but I was no longer satisfied by listening to him. Seeing him walk through the large room and witnessing the instant when the smile came over his face as he swung his strange penis with a slight shake of the hips became a need that gave meaning to my life. And the harder I tried to control myself the more important the nocturnal incursion became. I lived for the night.
During the day I waited with Antonieta for the moment to arrive. I counted the hours. My time with the old woman grew more and more difficult to bear. I started to hate her. I also thought that her presence accentuated my anxiety: while she existed the whole charade seemed impossible. I suffered from an increasing need to torture her. And only when this unexpected temptation overwhelmed me did I start to take my little revenge… I had every right to take revenge for her presence, I told myself, to have my revenge upon the fate that brought me here, the fate that had turned my daily life into a mixture of noise and desperation. When she asked me about her husband I told her that he was acting somewhat suspiciously. He wandered the house all day – which was true – as though he were waiting for something to interrupt this anguished routine, and every night he would offer me money to poison her. Every night in exactly the same way.
“You see? You see? Didn’t I tell you? I knew it. He’s a monster,” she’d respond. “I have money, too. I’ll live to make him suffer… He won’t get rid of me so easily. Just you wait. He’ll die first; he’ll explode. I’ll show him. I’ll give you money so you can do what you want and be free… Soon now. Don’t make that face. I’m not afraid of him. You don’t have the class or the skill to kill someone who has dined with Ingrid Bergman.”
Of course, I disregarded the old woman’s prattling and told her, to scare her even more, that Adolfo had promised to make a will in my favour if I poisoned her. I advised her, to avoid an awful scene and preserve her dignity, to die soon. Nobody wanted more intensely than I to get rid of her and stay there alone, once and for all, with my employer. I was determined to defeat Antonieta. As she spoke, my hatred for her grew, as did my impatience to lay claim to the sense of wellbeing that Adolfo represented for me.
A month ago, I think, maybe two, events precipitated towards a climax. Even though I had been expecting a monstrous ending, I was stunned. One night, when Adolfo was as per usual lurking behind our doors, I heard strange noises and movements. I knew that my employer had given up on his spying routine and had decided to go into his wife’s room. I heard screams. I listened, leaning on the door, paralysed in horror at something that I had known was imminent but that at that moment seemed too much, excessive… and I was just listening… He knew it. I was alone, the only witness, and he knew it. Driven by morbid curiosity I went out and looked into the corridor as Adolfo, who was naked except for his slippers, dragged Antonieta by the arm. She barely had the strength to whimper quietly. She only began to resist when he opened the door at the end of the hall and tried to shove her into a room to which I had never had access. Then my employer, who seemed calm in spite of the situation, pushed her with a cane I’d never seen before and locked her in.
Soon afterwards Adolfo moved into the room next to mine. Everything changed… I don’t know how to explain it, how to accept it. During the day he walked through the house, nude, leaning on his cane, talking, talking to himself, and sometimes, I think, he would order me to do something but then contradict himself and start to laugh and swing his penis. I didn’t know what to do. I could no longer spy on him. I wondered what the point was of having a master any more. Until recently, every night he used to go back to the room to which he had condemned his wife. I think he took her something to eat. Several times, always careful, always during the day, I went to the door at the back. I heard murmuring and footsteps: yes, I enjoyed her slow, pronounced footsteps; they sounded like the ticking of the clock, and I was thrilled to think that these noises were all that was left of Antonieta.
About two weeks ago, I think, I stopped hearing the footsteps, and Adolfo continued walking from one end of the flat to the other. Every time he passed me he laughed out loud and said something unintelligible. When he got into bed in the afternoon he ordered me to sit next to him. Then I would feed him lovingly. I’d cut up his favourite food, meat and fruit… He also asked me to shave him and to cut his hair and nails. As he laughed and his smooth stomach swelled, his eyes grew so bright that they became frightening. He had deprived me of everything, even Antonieta, whom I then realized I had appreciated more than I knew. She could have saved me, I thought… Yes, she could have. Not him. Faced with the realization of the mistake I had made, I couldn’t even take possession of Adolfo and had to limit myself to a simulacrum of domestic routines: he hardly had any hair or nails left, and his beard had stopped growing.
The most terrible part was the fact that I couldn’t spy on him. During the day he was free to wander the house and at night he paced around his room, which had previously been Antonieta’s room, and rapped on the walls with his cane. I decided that I hated him deeply and would do anything to be rid of him and his noises.
Sometimes he came out into the hall, and I heard his laboured breathing, his cough-like laugh. He scratched my door with the end of his cane, I don’t know for how long. I couldn’t get to sleep. I counted the hours of sleep I had left – one, two, three, four, five, six – and made calculations. I needed to sleep for eight hours, but at dawn Adolfo came into my room and woke me up with his laugh. Then I thought that I must flee… But it was too late. Something was about to happen. Two days ago my wait came to an end. Something happened. I couldn’t hear Adolfo any more. The last time I heard his wheezing it was early and he didn’t come into my room. I heard him walk along the corridor, stop at the end and open and close a door. I searched for him for hours to relieve my suffering: his absence hurt me more than I might have supposed. I would rather have had him by my side, putting up with his eccentricities, cutting his nails.
I went to the door at the end of the hall several times. The first time I heard the dragging of feet, as though he were scratching the floor. After that, I heard nothing more. I spied through the keyhole: it was dark, very dark, and quiet. I wondered what was in there. I tried to get in, but the door was locked.
I suppose that sooner or later I’ll have to force the door open or flee. Meanwhile, the house is empty. I walk from one end to the other, and the enormous rooms are like mirrors reflected in mirrors. Suddenly I suspect that someone is hiding somewhere and scour every corner to make sure that I am alone.
“Everyone’s gone,” I tell myself, biting my nails.
I start walking again. Now what?
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
The Christmas that Father Christmas came to spend the night at my house was the last time we were all together. After that night Mummy and Daddy stopped fighting, but I don’t think Father Christmas had anything to do with it. Daddy had sold his car a few months before because he’d lost his job, and, although Mummy didn’t agree, he said that a good Christmas tree was important this year so got one anyway. It came in a long, flat cardboard box and had a sheet of instructions explaining how to fit it together in three sections and how to spread its branches so that it looked natural. Once it was assembled, it was bigger than Daddy – it was huge – and I think that that was why Father Christmas spent the night at our house. I’d asked for a remote-control car. It didn’t matter which; any would do. All the other boys had them, and when we played in the playground the kids with remote-control cars crashed them into the regular cars like mine. So I wrote my letter, and Daddy took me to the post office to mail it.
He said to the guy at the counter, “To go to Father Christmas,” and he passed him the envelope.
The guy at the counter didn’t even say hello – there were a lot of people there, and you could tell that he was tired from so much work. Christmas must be the worst season for them.
He took the letter, looked at it and said, “It doesn’t have a postcode.”
“But it’s for Father Christmas,” said Daddy with a wink. He was trying to make friends.
But the guy said, “I can’t take it without a postcode.”
“You know that Father Christmas’s address doesn’t have a postcode,” Daddy said.
“I can’t take it without a postcode,” the guy said again. Then he called out, “Next.”
Daddy leaned over the counter and grabbed the guy by the shirt. The man took the letter.
After that I started to worry because I wasn’t sure whether or not the letter would get to Father Christmas. Also, for about two months we hadn’t been able to count on Mummy, and I was worried about that, too, because she always did everything and was the only one who knew how to do things properly. Then one day she stopped caring; just like that, overnight. She went to see some doctors. Daddy always went with her, and I stayed at home with Marcela, our neighbour. But Mummy didn’t get better. There weren’t any clean clothes or milk and cereals in the morning. Daddy arrived late at the places where he had to take me, and then he’d be late again when he came to pick me up. When I asked him about it Daddy said that Mummy wasn’t sick, she didn’t have cancer and she wasn’t going to die. It could have been any of those things – no such luck. Marcela told me that Mummy had simply stopped believing in things, that that was what it meant to be “depressed”; it made you stop wanting to do anything and took a long time to go away. Mummy didn’t go to work or meet up with friends or talk on the telephone with Grandma any more. She sat in her dressing-gown in front of the television and flicked through the channels all morning, all afternoon and all night. I had to bring her things to eat. Marcela left frozen food in the freezer with the portions already marked out. You had to mix them up. You couldn’t give her all the potato casserole and then all the vegetable tart. I would defrost the food in the microwave and bring it to her on a tray with a glass of water and a knife and fork.
“Thank you, love. Stay warm,” Mummy said without looking at me, her eyes still on the television screen.
At the end of the school day, I held Augusto’s mummy’s hand. She was beautiful. That worked when Daddy came to pick me up, but later, when Marcela came, neither of the women seemed to like it, so I waited under the tree on the corner. Whoever came to collect me, they were always late.
Marcela and Daddy became very close friends, and some nights Daddy stayed at her house playing poker, and Mummy and me found it hard to get to sleep without him. When we met in the bathroom, Mummy would say, “Take care, love. Stay warm,” and go back to watching television.
Marcela spent a lot of afternoons at our house. Then she would cook for us and tidy up a little. I don’t know why she did it. I suppose that Daddy asked her for help, and she felt obliged because she was a friend. She really didn’t seem very happy. A couple of times she turned off the television, sat in front of Mummy and said, “Irene, we need to talk. Things can’t go on like this…” She said that she had to change her attitude; this wasn’t getting Mummy anywhere; she couldn’t go on taking care of everything. Mummy had to shake herself out of it and decide once and for all or she’d end up ruining all our lives. But Mummy never said anything. Marcela would storm out, slamming the door behind her, and on those nights, because there was nothing for dinner, Daddy would order pizza. I love pizza.
I had told Augusto that Mummy had stopped “believing in things” and that that meant she was “depressed”, and he wanted to come over to see. We did something very terrible, and sometimes I’m ashamed of it: we jumped in front of her for a while, but Mummy just looked away. Then we made her a hat out of newspaper, tried it on her in different ways and left it there all afternoon, but she didn’t even move. I took the hat off before Daddy got home. I knew that Mummy wouldn’t say anything, but I still felt bad.
Then Christmas came. Marcela made her special roast chicken with horrible vegetables, but because it was a special night she also made me chips. Daddy asked Mummy to get up from the sofa and eat dinner with us. He moved her carefully to the table – Marcela had set the table with a red tablecloth, green candles and the plates we used for visitors – sat her down at one end and stepped back a few paces, still looking at her. I suppose he thought that it might work, but when he’d moved far enough away she got up and went back to the sofa. So we moved the things to the coffee table in the living-room and ate in there with her. The television was on, of course, and the news was doing a piece about a lot of poor people who’d got loads of presents and food from richer people, so they were very happy. I was anxious. I kept looking at the Christmas tree because it was going to be midnight soon and I wanted my car. Then Mummy pointed at the television. It was like seeing a piece of furniture come to life. Daddy and Marcela looked at each other. On television Father Christmas was sitting in a living-room, hugging a boy on his knee with one arm while the other was draped around a woman who looked like Augusto’s mother. Then the woman bent down and kissed Father Christmas, and Father Christmas looked out and said, “And when I get back from work, all I want is to be with my family,” as a coffee logo appeared on the screen.
Mummy burst into tears. Marcela took my hand and told me to go up to my room, but I refused. She said it again, this time in the impatient tone she used to talk to Mummy, but nothing was going to keep me away from that Christmas tree. Daddy tried to switch off the television, but Mummy started to fight with him like a little girl.
The bell rang, and I said, “It’s Father Christmas.” Marcela slapped me, and then Daddy started to fight with Marcela and Mummy turned on the television again, but Father Christmas wasn’t on any of the channels.
The bell rang again, and Daddy said, “Who the hell is it?”
I hoped that it wasn’t the guy from the post office or else they’d fight again because Daddy was in such a bad mood.
The bell rang again, several times in a row, and Daddy got sick of it, went to the door and when he opened he saw that it was Father Christmas. He wasn’t as fat as on television, and he looked so tired he could barely stand. He leaned on one side of the door frame for a moment then swayed over to the other.
“What do you want?” Daddy asked.
“I’m Father Christmas,” said Father Christmas.
“And I’m Snow White,” Daddy said and closed the door.
Then Mummy got up and ran to the door. When she opened it Father Christmas was still there, trying to stay upright. She hugged him.
Daddy went crazy. “This is the guy, Irene?” he shouted at Mummy. Then he started to say bad words and tried to pull them apart.
Mummy said to Father Christmas, “Bruno, I can’t live without you. I’m dying.”
Daddy managed to get them away from each other and punched Father Christmas. Father Christmas fell backwards and lay flat on his back in the entrance. Mummy started to scream like crazy. I was sad about what was happening to Father Christmas and because all this business was preventing me from getting my car, but on the other hand I was pleased to see Mummy moving around again.
Daddy told Mummy that he was going to kill the both of them, and Mummy told him that if he was so happy with his friend, why couldn’t she be friends with Father Christmas? It sounded reasonable to me. Marcela went over to Father Christmas, who was starting to stir, and helped him up. Then Daddy started to say bad things to him and Mummy began to scream again. Marcela told them to calm down, pleading with them to come inside, but nobody was listening to her. Father Christmas put his hand to the back of his head and saw that he was bleeding.
He spat at Daddy, and Daddy said, “You fucking faggot.”
Mummy said to Daddy, “You’re the fucking faggot,” and she spat at him, too. She held out her hand to Father Christmas and led him inside. Then she took him to her room and closed the door.
Daddy stood absolutely still, as if he were frozen, and when he came back to his senses he realized that I was still there and furiously ordered me to bed. I knew that there was no point in arguing, so I went to bed without a Christmas and without a present. I waited in my room for things to calm down, watching the plastic fish in my nightlight swim on the ceiling. I wouldn’t be getting my remote-control car, that was clear, but Father Christmas was spending the night at our house, and that meant that next year would definitely go better.
I was in a bus, sitting by the window, looking out at the street. Suddenly a dog started barking very loudly nearby. I tried to see where it was. So did some other passengers. The bus wasn’t very full: the seats were all occupied, but there were just a few people standing up; they had the best chance of seeing the dog, because they were looking from higher up and could see out both sides. Even for someone sitting, as I was, buses provide an elevated view, as horses did for our ancestors: la perspective cavalière. That’s why I prefer buses to cars, which carry you so low, so close to the ground. The barks were coming from my side, the sidewalk side, which was logical. Even so, I couldn’t see the dog, and since we were going fast I figured it was too late; we would already have left him behind. He had provoked the mild curiosity that always surrounds an incident or an accident, but in this case, except for the volume of the barking, there was little to indicate that anything had happened: the dogs that people walk in the city rarely bark except at other dogs. So the attention of the passengers was already beginning to dissipate… when suddenly it was refocused: the barking started up again, louder than before. Then I saw the dog. He was running along the sidewalk and barking at the bus, following it, racing to keep up. This really was strange. In the old days, in country towns and on the outskirts of cities, dogs would run beside cars, barking at their wheels; it’s something I remember well from my childhood in Pringles. But you don’t see it anymore; it’s as if dogs had evolved and grown used to the presence of cars. And besides, this dog wasn’t barking at the wheels of the bus but at the whole vehicle, raising his head, staring at the windows. All the passengers were looking now. Had the owner got onto the bus, perhaps, forgetting the dog or abandoning him? Or maybe it was someone who’d attacked or robbed the dog’s owner? But no, the bus had been driving along Avenida Directorio without stopping for several blocks, and it was only in the current block that the dog had begun his chase. More elaborate hypotheses—for example, that the bus had run over the dog’s owner, or another dog—could be set aside, because there’d been nothing like that. It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were relatively empty: an accident could not have gone unnoticed.
The dog was quite big, and dark gray in color, with a pointed muzzle, halfway between a purebred and a street dog, though street dogs are a thing of the past in Buenos Aires, at least in the neighborhoods we were passing through. He wasn’t so big that the mere sight of him was scary, but he was big enough to be threatening if he got angry. And he seemed to be angry or, rather, desperate and distraught (for the moment, anyway). The impulse that was driving him was not (or not for the moment, at least) aggression but an urgent desire to catch up with the bus, or stop it, or… who knows?
The race continued, accompanied by barking. The bus, which had been held up by a red light at the previous corner, was accelerating. It was driving along close to the sidewalk, on which the dog was running, losing ground. We’d almost reached the next intersection, where it seemed the pursuit would come to an end. But, to our surprise, when we got there, the dog crossed to the next block and went on chasing us, accelerating too, and barking all the while. There weren’t many people on the sidewalk, otherwise he would have bowled them over, charging along like that, his gaze fixed on the windows of the bus. His barks became louder and louder; they were deafening, drowning out the noise of the motor, filling the world. Something that should have been obvious right from the start was finally sinking in: the dog had seen (or smelled) someone who was traveling on the bus, and he was after that person. A passenger, one of us… This explanation had evidently occurred to others; people started looking around with inquisitive expressions. Did someone know the dog? What was it about? An ex-owner, or someone the dog had once known… I was looking around too, and wondering, Who could it be? In a case like this, the last person you think of is yourself. It took me quite a while to realize. And the realization was indirect. Suddenly, moved by what was still a vague presentiment, I looked ahead, through the windscreen. I saw that the way was clear: ahead of us a row of green lights stretched off almost to the horizon, promising rapid, uninterrupted progress. But then, with anxiety rising inside me, I remembered that I wasn’t in a taxi: a bus has fixed stops every four or five blocks. It was true that if there was no one at the stop and if no one rang the bell to get off, the bus would keep going. No one had approached the back door, for the moment. And with a bit of luck there would be no one at the next stop. All these thoughts occurred to me at once. My anxiety continued to mount and was about to find the words with which to declare itself. But this was delayed by the very urgency of the situation. Would chance allow us to drive on without stopping until the dog abandoned his chase? Having averted my gaze for barely a fraction of a second, I looked at him again. He was still keeping up, still barking as if possessed… and he was looking back at me. Now I knew: I was the one he was barking at, the one he was chasing. I was seized by the terror that attends the most unexpected catastrophes. I had been recognized by that dog, and he was coming to get me. And although, in the heat of the moment, I was already resolving to deny it all, and not confess to anything, deep in my heart I knew that he was right and I was wrong. Because I had once mistreated that dog; what I’d done to him was truly, unspeakably disgraceful. I have to admit that I’ve never had very firm moral principles. I’m not going to try to justify myself, but the lack can be explained in part by the ceaseless battle that I’ve had to fight, from the tenderest age, simply to survive. It has gradually dulled my sense of rectitude. I’ve allowed myself to do things no decent man would ever do. Or would he? We all have our secrets. Besides, my misdeeds were never all that serious. I didn’t commit actual crimes. Nor did I forget what I had done, as a real scoundrel would have. I told myself I’d make amends, though I never really stopped to think about how. This was the last thing I was expecting: to be recognized in such a bizarre way, confronted with a past that had been buried so deeply it seemed forgotten. I realized that I had been counting on a certain impunity. I had assumed, as anyone in my place might have done, that a dog being first and foremost a dog, its individuality would be reabsorbed by the species and finally disappear. And with that disappearance my guilt would vanish too. My despicable betrayal had individualized the dog for a moment, but only for a moment. There was something supernatural and terrifying about the idea that the moment had lasted so many years. But, as I thought it over, a hope appeared, and I grasped at it: too much time had passed. Dogs don’t live that long. If I multiplied the years by seven… These thoughts were tumbling in my head, colliding with the muffled barks that kept getting louder and louder. No, it wasn’t true that too much time had gone by; doing the sums would just have been a way of prolonging my self-deception. My last hope was the classic psychological reaction of retreat into denial when faced with something that is too much to bear: “It can’t be, this can’t be happening, I’m dreaming, I must have misinterpreted the data.” This time it wasn’t a just psychological reaction; it was real. So real I couldn’t look at the dog; I was scared of what he might be expressing. But I was too nervous to pretend to be indifferent. I looked straight ahead. I must have been the only one; all the other passengers were following the race, including the driver, who kept turning his head to look, or using the rear-view mirror, and joking with the passengers at the front. I hated him for that: the distraction was making him slow down; otherwise how could the dog have kept pace all the way to the second intersection? But what did it matter if he was keeping up? What could he do, apart from bark? He wasn’t going to get onto the bus. After the initial shock, I began to assess the situation in a more rational way. I had already decided to deny that I knew the dog, and I held firmly to that decision. An attack, which I thought unlikely (“his bark is worse than his bite”), would cast me in the victim’s role and prompt onlookers, and the forces of order if necessary, to come to my aid. But, of course, I wouldn’t give him the opportunity. I wasn’t going to get out of the bus until he disappeared from sight, which was bound to happen sooner or later. The 126 goes right out to Retiro, along a route that twists and turns after it leaves Avenida San Juan, and it was inconceivable that a dog could follow it all that way. I dared to glance at him, but immediately looked away again. Our gazes met, and what I saw in his eyes was not the fury I’d been expecting but a limitless anguish, a pain that wasn’t human because it was more than a human could bear. Was the wrong I’d done him really so grave? It wasn’t the moment to embark on an analysis. And anyway, there could be only one conclusion. The bus went on accelerating. We crossed the second intersection, and the dog, who’d fallen back, crossed too, in front of a car that had stopped for the lights; but if the car had been moving, he would have crossed just the same, he was running so blindly. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was hoping he’d be killed. Such things have been known to happen: there’s a film in which a Jew in New York recognizes a kapo from a concentration camp forty years before, starts chasing him, and is run down and killed by a car. Remembering this depressed me, rather than affording some relief as precedents usually do, because it happened in fiction and made the reality of my situation all the more evident, by contrast. I didn’t want to look at the dog again, but the sound of his barking indicated that he was falling behind. The bus driver, no doubt tiring of the joke, had put his foot to the floor. I dared to turn around and look. There was no risk of drawing attention to myself because everyone else in the bus was doing the same; on the contrary, it might have seemed suspicious if I’d been the only one who wasn’t looking. I was also thinking it might be my last glimpse of him; a chance encounter like that wouldn’t occur again. Yes, he was definitely falling behind. He seemed smaller, more pitiful, almost ridiculous. The other passengers began to laugh. He was an old, worn-out dog, on the brink of death, perhaps. The years of resentment and bitterness that lay behind that outburst had left their mark. The race must have been killing him. But he’d waited so long for that moment to arrive, he wasn’t going to give up. And he didn’t. Even though he knew he’d lost, he kept on running and barking, barking and running. Perhaps, when he lost sight of the bus in the distance, he’d go on running and barking forever, because there would be nothing else he could do. I had a fleeting vision of the dog’s figure in an abstract landscape (infinity) and felt sad, but it was a calm, almost aesthetic feeling, as if the sorrow were seeing me in the far distance as I imagined I was seeing the dog. Why do people say the past doesn’t return? It had all happened so quickly, I’d had no time to think. I’d always lived in the present because simply taking it in and reacting to it used up practically all my physical and mental energy. I could manage the immediate, but only just. I always felt that too many things were happening at once and that I had to make a superhuman effort and summon more strength than I possessed simply to cope with the now. That’s why whenever an opportunity arose to free myself of a burden in any way at all, I didn’t bother with ethical scruples. I had to get rid of anything that wasn’t strictly necessary for my survival; I had to secure a bit of space, or peace, at any cost. How this might harm others didn’t trouble me because the consequences weren’t immediate, so I couldn’t see them. And once again the present was ridding me of a troublesome guest. The incident left a bittersweet taste in my mouth: on one hand, there was relief at having escaped so narrowly; on the other, an understandable remorse. How sad it was to be a dog. To live with death so close at hand, and so implacable. And sadder still to be that dog, who had thrown off resignation to the destiny of his kind, but only to show that the wound once inflicted on him had never healed. His silhouette against the light of a Buenos Aires Sunday, in a state of constant agitation, racing and barking, had played the role of a ghost, returning from the dead or, rather, from the pain of living, to demand… what? Reparation? An apology? A pat? What else could he have wanted? It can’t have been revenge, because he would surely have learned from experience that he was powerless against the unassailable world of humans. He could only express himself; he’d done that, and all it had achieved was to strain his weary old heart. He’d been defeated by the mute, metallic expression of a bus driving away, and a face watching him through the window. How had he recognized me? I must have changed a lot too. His memory of me was obviously vivid; perhaps it had been present in his mind all those years, never fading for a moment. No one really knows how a dog’s mind works. It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he’d recognized my smell; there are amazing stories about the olfactory powers of animals. For example, a male butterfly smelling a female miles away, through all the thousands of intervening smells. I was beginning to speculate in a detached, intellectual way. The barking was an echo, varying in pitch, now higher now lower, as if it were coming from another dimension. Suddenly I was jolted from my thoughts by a hunch that I could feel all through my body. I realized that I had been too quick to declare victory. The bus had been speeding up, but now it was slowing down again: it was what the drivers always did when the next stop came into sight. They accelerated, gauging the distance still to go, then lifted their foot, and let the bus glide to the stop. Yes, it was slowing down, pulling over to the sidewalk. I sat up straight and looked out. An old lady and a child were waiting to catch the bus. The barking was getting louder again. Could the dog have kept running? Hadn’t he given up? I didn’t look, but he must have been very close. The bus had already stopped. The child jumped in, but the woman was taking her time; that high step was difficult for a lady of her age. I was silently shouting, Come on, old bag! and anxiously watching her movements. I don’t normally speak or think like that; it was because of the stress I was under, but I got a grip on myself immediately. There was really no need to worry. Maybe the dog would make up some lost ground, but then he would lose it again. In the worst case, he’d come and bark right in front of my window in a very obvious way, and the other passengers would see that I was the one he was chasing. But all I had to do was deny any knowledge of the animal, and no one would contradict me. I gave thanks for words and their superiority over barks. The old woman was lifting her other foot onto the step; she was almost in. A burst of barking deafened me. I looked out to the side. He was coming, quick as a shot, fur flying, loud as ever. His stamina was incredible. Surely he must have had arthritis, at his age, like all old dogs. Maybe he was firing his last rounds. Why keep anything in reserve if he was closing the circle of his fate by venting his resentment, having found me after all those years? At first (this all happened in a crazy shattering of seconds), I didn’t understand what was going on, I only knew it was strange. But then I realized: he hadn’t stopped in front of my window, he’d kept going. What was he doing? Could he be…? He’d already drawn level with the front door and, agile as an eel, he turned, leaped and dodged. He was getting onto the bus! No, he was on the bus already, and without having to bowl the old lady over—she just felt something brush against her legs—he turned again and, barely slowing down, still barking, ran down the aisle… Neither the driver nor the passengers had time to react; the cries were rising in their throats but hadn’t yet come out. I should have said to them: Don’t be afraid, it’s not about you, it’s me he’s after… but I didn’t have time to react either, except to freeze and stiffen with fear. I did have time to see him rushing at me, and I could see nothing else. Close up, face on, he looked different. It was as if when I’d seen him before, through the window, my vision had been filtered by memory or my idea of the harm I’d done to him, but there in the bus, within arm’s reach, I saw him as he really was. He looked young, vigorous, supple: younger than me and more alive (the life had been leaking out of me all those years, like water from a bathtub), his barks resounding inside the bus with undiminished force, his jaws with their dazzling white teeth already closing on my flesh, his shining eyes that had not, for one moment, stopped staring into mine.
*This story is taken from “The Musical Brain and Other Stories”. Used with permission of New Directions.
*Copyright © 2013 by César Aira. Translation copyright © 2014 by Chris Andrews.
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