Things We Lost in the Fire
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Mariana Enriquez
The Dirty Kid
My family thinks I’m crazy, and all because I choose to live in our old family home in Constitución, the house that once belonged to my paternal grandparents. It’s an imposing stone building on Calle Virreyes, with iron doors painted green, art deco details, and old mosaics on a floor so worn out that if I ever got the urge to wax it I could open up a roller rink. But I was always in love with this house. I remember when I was little and my family rented it out to a law firm and I got so upset; I missed those rooms with their tall windows, and the walled patio that was like a secret garden. I hated not being able to just go in anytime I passed by. I never really missed my grandfather, a silent man who hardly smiled and never played—I didn’t cry when he died. I cried a lot, though, when after he died we lost the house for several years.
After the lawyers a team of dentists moved in, and then the house was rented to a travel magazine that folded in under two years. The house was beautiful and comfortable and in remark- ably good condition considering how old it was, but by then no one, or very few people, wanted to settle in that neighborhood. The travel magazine went for it only because the rent was very low for the time. But not even that could save them from quickly going bankrupt, and it certainly didn’t help that their offices were robbed: all their computers were stolen, plus a microwave oven and even a heavy photocopier.
The station in Constitución is where trains coming from the south of the country enter the city. In the nineteenth century it was the area where the port’s aristocracy lived; that’s why houses like my family’s exist, and there are plenty of others that have been converted into hotels or old folks’ homes, or are crumbling to the ground on the other side of the station, in Barracas. In 1887, the aristocratic families fled to the northern part of the city to escape the yellow fever. Few of them came back, almost none. Over the years, families of rich businessmen like my grandfather were able to buy those stone houses with their gargoyles and bronze door knockers. But the neighborhood was marked by that flight, the abandonment, the condition of being unwanted.
And it’s only getting worse.
But if you know how to move around the neighborhood, if you understand its dynamics, its schedules, it isn’t dangerous. Or it’s less dangerous. I know that on Friday nights, if I go down to Plaza Garay, I might end up caught in a fight between several possible adversaries: the mininarcos from Calle Ceballos who defend their territory from other occupants and chase down the endless people who owe them money; the addicts who, brain- dead as they are, get offended at anything and react violently, lashing out with broken bottles; the drunk and tired transvestites who have their own patches of pavement to defend. I also know that if I walk home along the avenue I’m more exposed to a robbery than if I take Solís, even though the avenue is well lit and Solís is dark; most of the few streetlights it has are broken. You have to know the neighborhood to learn these strategies. I’ve been robbed twice on the avenue, both times by kids who ran past and grabbed my bag and pushed me to the ground. The first time, I filed a police report; by the second I knew it was pointless. The police let teenage muggers rob on the avenue as far as the highway bridge—three free blocks—in exchange for favors. There are certain tricks to being able to move easily in this neighborhood and I’ve mastered them perfectly, though sure, something unexpected can always happen. It’s a question of not being afraid, of making a few necessary friends, saying hi to the neighbors even if they’re criminals—especially if they’re criminals—of walking with your head high, paying attention.
I like the neighborhood. No one understands why, but I do: it makes me feel sharp and audacious, on my toes. There aren’t many places like Constitución left in the city; except for the slums on its outskirts, the rest of the city is richer and friendlier—huge and intense but easy to live in. Constitución isn’t easy, and it’s beautiful: all those once-luxurious chambers, like abandoned temples now occupied by unbelievers, who don’t even know that inside those walls hymns to old gods once rang out.
There are also a lot of people who live on the street. Not as many as in Plaza Congreso, two kilometers from my front door; over there it’s a regular encampment, right in front of the government buildings, scrupulously ignored but also so visible that every night squads of volunteers come to hand out food to the people, check the children’s health, distribute blankets in winter and fresh water in summer. The homeless in Constitución are more neglected, and help rarely comes to them. Across from my house is a corner with a shuttered convenience store, whose doors and windows are bricked up to keep occupiers out; a young woman lives in front of it with her son. She’s pregnant, maybe a few months along, although you never know with the junkie mothers in the neighborhood because they’re so thin. The son must be around five years old. He doesn’t go to school and he spends his days on the subway, begging for money in exchange for prayer cards of Saint Expeditus. I know because I’ve seen him at night, on the train, on my way home from the city center. He has a very disturbing method: after offering the prayer cards to the passengers, he obliges them to shake hands, a brief and very grimy squeeze. The passengers have to contain their pity and disgust: the kid is very dirty and he stinks. Any- way, I never saw anyone compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call social services. People take his hand, buy the prayer cards. His forehead is always wrinkled into a frown, and when he talks, his voice is shot; he tends to have a cold, and sometimes he smokes with other kids from the subway or around Constitución.
One night, we walked together from the subway station to my house. He didn’t talk to me, but we kept each other company. I asked him some dumb questions, his age, his name; he didn’t answer. He wasn’t a sweet or innocent child. When I reached the door of my house, though, he said good-bye.
“Bye, neighbor,” he said. “Bye, neighbor,” I replied.
The dirty kid and his mother sleep on three mattresses so worn out that, piled up, they’re the same height as a normal box spring. The mother keeps the little clothing she has in several black garbage bags, and she has a backpack full of other things; I couldn’t say what they are. She doesn’t move from the corner; she stays there and begs for money in a gloomy and monotonous voice. I don’t like the mother. Not just because she’s irresponsible, or because she smokes crack and the ash burns her pregnant belly, or because I never once saw her treat her son, the dirty kid, with kindness. There’s something else I don’t like. I told my friend Lala while she was cutting my hair in her house last Monday, which was a holiday. Lala is a hairdresser, but she hasn’t worked in a salon for a long time; she doesn’t like to have bosses, she says. She earns more money and is more at ease in her apartment. As a salon, Lala’s apartment has a few issues. The hot water, for example, only flows intermittently because the heater works badly, and sometimes, when she’s washing my hair after dyeing it, I get a shock of cold water over my head that makes me cry out. She rolls her eyes then and explains that all the plumbers cheat her, they charge her too much, they never come back. I believe her.
“Girl, that woman is a monster,” she exclaims while she’s burning my scalp with her ancient hair dryer. It also hurts a little when her thick fingers smooth my hair. Lala decided to be a Brazilian woman years ago, but she was born a Uruguayan man. Now she’s the best transvestite stylist in the neighborhood and she doesn’t work the streets anymore; faking a Brazilian ac- cent was useful in seducing men when she was hooking, but it doesn’t really make sense now. Still, she’s so used to it that sometimes she talks on the phone in Portuguese, or, when she gets mad, she raises her arms to the sky and begs for vengeance or mercy from Pomba Gira, her personal spirit, to whom she has a small altar set up in the corner of the room where she cuts hair. It’s right next to her computer, which is always lit up in a perpetual chat.
“So you think she’s a monster too.”
“She gives me the chills, mami. It’s like she’s cursed or some- thing, I don’t know.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m not saying anything. But around here the word is she’ll do anything for money. She even goes to witches’ sabbats.”
“Oh, Lala, what witches? There are no witches around here. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”
She gives my hair a yank that seemed intentional, but then she apologizes. It was intentional.
“What do you know about what really goes on around here, mamita? You live here, but you’re from a different world.”
She’s right, even though I don’t like to hear it. Nor do I like that she can so candidly put me right in my place: the middle- class woman who thinks she’s a rebel because she chose to live in the most dangerous neighborhood in Buenos Aires. I sigh.
“You’re right, Lala. But I mean, she lives in front of my house and she’s always there, on the mattresses. She never moves.”
“You work long hours, you don’t know what she does. You don’t watch her at night, either. The people in this neighbor- hood, mami, are really . . . what’s the word? You don’t even realize and they attack you.”
“There you go. You’ve sure got a vocabulary on you. Doesn’t she, Sarita? Real high class, this one.”
Sarita has been waiting around fifteen minutes for Lala to finish my hair, but she doesn’t mind waiting. She’s leafing through magazines. Sarita is a very young transvestite who works the streets above Solís, and she’s beautiful.
“Tell her, Sarita, tell her what you told me.”
But Sarita pouts her lips like a silent-movie diva; she doesn’t feel like telling me anything. It’s better that way. I don’t want to hear the neighborhood horror stories, which are all unthinkable and plausible at the same time and don’t scare me a bit. At least not during the day. At night, when I’m trying to finish overdue projects and I stay awake and in silence so I can concentrate, sometimes I recall the stories they tell in low voices. And I check to be sure the front door is good and locked, and the door to the balcony, too. And sometimes I stand there looking out to the street, especially toward the corner where the dirty kid is sleeping beside his mom, completely still, like nameless dead.
One night after dinner, the doorbell rang. Strange: almost no one comes to see me at that hour. Only Lala, on some night when she feels lonely and we stay up together listening to sad rancheras and drinking whiskey. When I looked out the window to see who it was—no one opens the door right away in this neighborhood, especially when it’s nearly midnight—I saw the dirty kid standing there. I ran to get the keys and I let him in. He’d been crying; you could tell from the clean streaks down his grimy face. He came running in, but he stopped before he got to the dining room door, as if he needed my permission. Or as if he was afraid to keep going.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My mom didn’t come back,” he said.
His voice was less hoarse now, but he didn’t sound like a five- year-old child.
“She left you alone?” He nodded.
“Are you scared?”
“I’m hungry,” he replied. He was scared, too, but he was already hardened and wouldn’t acknowledge it in front of a stranger. One who, moreover, had a house, a beautiful and enormous house right there beside his little patch of concrete.
“Ok,” I told him. “Come on.”
He was barefoot. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been wear- ing some fairly new running shoes. Had he taken them off in the heat? Or had someone stolen them in the night? I didn’t want to ask. I sat him down on a kitchen chair and I put a little chicken and rice into the oven. While we waited, I spread cheese on some delicious homemade bread. He ate while looking me in the eyes, very seriously, calmly. He was hungry but not starved.
“Where did your mom go?” He shrugged.
“Does she leave you alone a lot?”
He shrugged again. I felt like shaking him, and right away I was ashamed. He needed my help; there was no reason for him to satisfy my morbid curiosity. And even so, something about his silence made me angry. I wanted him to be a friendly, charming boy, not this sullen, dirty kid who ate his chicken and rice slowly, savoring every bite, and belched after finishing his glass of Coca-Cola. This he did drink greedily, and then he asked for more. I didn’t have anything to give him for dessert, but I knew the ice cream parlor over on the avenue would be open; in summer they served until after midnight. I asked him if he wanted to go, and he said yes with a smile that changed his face completely; he had small teeth, and one on the bottom was about to fall out. I was a little scared to go out so late, and to the avenue, no less. But the ice cream shop tended to be neutral territory; you almost never heard of robberies or fights there.
I didn’t bring my purse. Instead I stuffed a little money in the pocket of my jeans. In the street, the dirty kid gave me his hand, and not with the indifference he had when he greeted the people on the subway who bought his prayer cards. He held on tight; maybe he was still scared. We crossed the street; the mattress where he slept beside his mother was still empty. The backpack wasn’t there, either; she had taken it, or someone had stolen it when they found it there without its owner.
We had to walk three blocks to the ice cream parlor and I decided to take Ceballos, a strange street that could be silent and calm some nights. The less-chiseled transvestites worked there, the chubbiest and oldest ones. I was sorry not to have any shoes to put on the dirty kid’s feet; the sidewalks often had shards of glass from broken bottles, and I didn’t want him to get hurt. But he walked barefoot with assurance; he was used to it. That night the three blocks were almost empty of transvestites, but they were full of altars. I remembered what they were celebrating; it was January 8, the day of Gauchito Gil, a popular saint from the provinces of Corrientes who has devotees all over the country. He’s especially beloved in poor neighborhoods, though you’ll see altars all over the city, even in cemeteries. Antonio Gil, it’s said, was murdered at the end of the nineteenth century for being a deserter. A policeman killed him, hanged him from a tree and slit his throat. But before he died, the outlaw gaucho told the policeman: “If you want your son to get better, you must pray for me.” The policeman did, because his son was very sick. And the boy got better. Then the policeman went back, took Antonio Gil down from the tree, and gave him a proper burial, and the place where he had bled to death became a shrine that still exists today; it gets thousands of visitors every summer.
I found myself telling the dirty kid the story of the miraculous gaucho, and we stopped in front of one of the altars. There was the plaster saint, with his blue shirt and the red bandanna around his neck—a red headband, too—and a cross on his back, also red. There were many red cloths and a small red flag: the color of blood, in memory of the injustice and the slit throat. But there was nothing macabre or sinister about it. The gaucho brings luck, he cures people, he helps them and doesn’t ask them for much in return, just these tributes and sometimes a little alcohol. They make pilgrimages to the Mercedes sanctuary in Corrientes, with its fifty-degree heat; the pilgrims come on foot, by bus, on horseback, and from all over, even Patagonia. The candles around him made him wink in the half-dark. I lit one that had gone out and then used the flame to light a cigarette. The dirty kid seemed uneasy.
“We’re going to the ice cream shop now,” I told him. But that wasn’t it.
“The gaucho is good,” he said. “But the other one isn’t.” He said it in a quiet voice, looking at the candles.
“What other one?” I asked.
“The skeleton,” he said. “There are skeletons back there.” Around the neighborhood, “back there” always means the other side of the station, past the platforms, where the tracks and the embankment disappear southward. Back there, you often see shrines to saints a little less friendly than Gauchito Gil. I know that Lala goes there to bring offerings to Pomba Gira, colored plates and chickens she buys at the supermarket because she can’t get up the nerve to kill one herself. She only goes as far as the embankment, and only during the day, because it can be dangerous. And she told me that “back there” she’s seen a lot of shrines to San la Muerte, the skeleton saint of death with his red and black candles.
“But death’s not a bad saint, either,” I told the dirty kid, who looked at me with widened eyes as if I were saying something crazy. “He’s a saint that can do bad things if people ask him to, but most people don’t ask him for evil things; they ask for protection. Does your mother bring you back there?” I asked him.
“Yes. But sometimes I go alone,” he replied. And then he tugged at my arm to urge me on toward the ice cream shop.
It was really hot. The sidewalk in front of the shop was sticky from so many ice cream cones dripping onto it; I thought about the dirty kid’s bare feet, now with all this new grime. He went running in and his old-man’s voice asked for a large ice cream with two scoops, chocolate and dulce de leche with chocolate chips. I didn’t order anything. The heat took away my appetite, and I didn’t know what I should do with the boy if his mother didn’t turn up. Bring him to the police station? To a hospital? Let him stay at my house until she came back? Did this city even have anything like social services? I knew there was a number to call in winter to report someone living in the street who was suffering too much from the cold. But that was pretty much all I knew. I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.
When the ice cream was gone, the dirty kid got up from the bench we’d been sitting on and went walking toward the corner where he lived with his mother, practically ignoring me. I followed him. The street was very dark; the electricity had gone out, as often happened on very hot nights. But I could see him clearly in the headlights of the cars; he was also lit, him and his now completely black feet, by the candles in the makeshift shrines. We reached the corner without him taking my hand again or saying a word to me.
His mother was on the mattress. Like all addicts she had no notion of temperature, and she was wearing a thick coat with the hood up, as if it were raining. Her belly, which was enormous, was bare; her too-short shirt couldn’t cover it. The dirty kid greeted her and sat down on the mattress. She said nothing to him.
When she saw me, she was rabid. She ran at me snarling, there’s no other way to describe the sound. She reminded me of my dog when it broke its hip and went mad with the pain, when it stopped whining and would only growl.
“Where did you take him, you fucking bitch? What do you want with him, huh? Huh? Don’t you even think about touching my son!”
She was so close that I could see every one of her teeth. I could see that her gums were bleeding, her lips burned by the pipe, and I could smell the tar on her breath.
“I bought him an ice cream,” I shouted at her, and I retreated when I saw she had a broken bottle in her hand and was ready to attack me with it.
“Get out of here or I’ll cut you, you fucking bitch!”
The dirty kid was staring at the ground as if nothing were happening, as if he didn’t know us, not his mother or me. I was furious with him. Ungrateful little brat, I thought, and I took off running. I went into my house as fast as I could, though my hands were shaking and I had trouble finding the key. I turned on all the lights—luckily the electricity hadn’t gone out on my block. I was afraid the mother might send someone after me to beat me up. Who knew what could be going through her head, or what friends she had on the block. I didn’t know any- thing about her. After a while, I went up to the second floor and looked out from the balcony. She was lying there face up, smoking a cigarette. The dirty kid was next to her; it looked like he was sleeping. I went to bed with a book and a glass of water, but I couldn’t read or pay attention to the TV. The heat seemed more intense with the fan on; it only stirred the hot air and drowned out the noise from outside.
In the morning, I forced myself to have breakfast before I went to work. The heat was already suffocating and the sun was barely up. When I closed the door, the first thing I noticed was the absence of the mattress on the corner in front of my house. There was nothing left of the dirty kid or his mother, not a bag or a stain on the pavement or even a cigarette butt. Nothing. Like they’d never even been there.
The body appeared a week after the dirty kid and his mother disappeared. When I came back from work, my feet swollen from the heat, dreaming only of the coolness of my house with its high ceilings and large rooms that not even the most hellish summer could heat up entirely, I found the whole block gone crazy. Three police cars, yellow tape cordoning off a crime scene, and a lot of people crowded just outside its perimeter. It wasn’t hard to pick Lala out from the crowd, with her white high heels and gold bun. She was so agitated she’d forgotten to put the false lashes on her right eye and her face looked asymmetrical, almost paralyzed on one side.
“They found a little one.” “Dead?”
“Worse. Decapitated! Do you have cable, sweets?”
Lala’s cable had been cut off months ago because she hadn’t paid the bill. We went into my house and lay on the bed to watch TV, with the ceiling fan spinning dangerously fast and the balcony window open so we could hear if anything interesting happened out on the street. I set a tray on the bed with a pitcher of cold orange juice, and Lala commandeered the remote control. It was strange to see our neighborhood on the screen, to hear the journalists out the window as they dashed back and forth, to look out and see the vans from all the different stations. It was strange to decide to wait for the TV to give us details about the crime, but we knew the neighborhood’s dynamics well: no one was going to talk, they wouldn’t tell the truth, at least not for the first few days. Silence first, in case any of the people involved in the crime deserved loyalty. Even if it was a horrible child murder. First, mouths shut. In a few weeks the stories would start. Not yet. Now it was the TV’s moment.
Early on, around eight o’clock, when Lala and I were at the start of a long night that began with orange juice, continued with pizza and beer, and ended with whiskey—I opened a bottle my father had given me—information was scarce. In a deserted parking lot on Calle Solís, a dead child had turned up. Decapitated. They’d found the head to one side of the body.
By ten o’clock, we knew that the head was skinned to the bone and that the scalp hadn’t been found on the scene. Also, the eyelids had been sewn shut and the tongue bitten, though they didn’t know whether by the dead boy himself or—and this brought a shriek from Lala—by someone else’s teeth.
The news programs continued with information all night long, journalists working in shifts, reporting live from the street. The police, as usual, didn’t say anything in front of the cameras, but they supplied constant information to the press.
At midnight, no one had claimed the body. It was also known by then that the boy had been tortured: the torso was covered in cigarette burns. They suspected a sexual assault, which was confirmed around two in the morning, when the first forensics report was leaked.
And at that hour, still, no one was claiming the body. No family members. Not a mother or a father or brothers or sisters or uncles or cousins or neighbors or acquaintances. No one.
The decapitated boy, said the TV, was between five and seven years old; it was difficult to calculate because when he was alive he’d been undernourished.
“I want to see him,” I told Lala.
“You’re crazy, how could they show a decapitated boy! Why would you want to see him? You’re morbid. You’ve always been a little freak, the morbid countess in her palace on Virreyes.”
“Lala, I think I know him.” “You know who, the child?”
I said yes and started to cry. I was drunk, but I was also sure that the dirty kid was now the decapitated kid. I told Lala about our encounter the night he’d rung my doorbell. Why didn’t I take care of him, why didn’t I figure out how to take him away from his mother, why didn’t I at least give him a bath? I have a big old beautiful tub and I barely ever use it, I just take quick showers, and only every once in a while do I enjoy an actual bath . . . why didn’t I at least wash the dirt off him? And, I don’t know, buy him a rubber duck and one of those wands to blow bubbles and let him play? I could easily have bathed him, and then we could have gone for ice cream. Yes, it was late, but there are big supermarkets in the city that never close and they sell tennis shoes, and I could have bought him a pair. How could I have let him walk around barefoot, at night, on these dark streets? I should never have let him go back to his mother. When she threatened me with the bottle I should have called the po- lice, and they’d have thrown her in jail and I’d have kept the boy or helped him get adopted by a family who’d love him. But no. I got mad at him for being ungrateful, for not defending me from his mother! I got mad at a terrified child, son of an addict mother, a five-year-old boy who lives on the street!
Who lived on the street because now he’s dead, decapitated! Lala helped me throw up in the toilet, and then she went out to buy pills for my headache. I vomited from drunkenness and fear and also because I was sure it was him, the dirty kid, raped and decapitated in a parking lot, who knows why.
“Why did they do this to him, Lala?” I asked, curled up in her strong arms, back in bed again, both of us slowly smoking early-morning cigarettes.
“Princess, I don’t know if it’s really your kid they killed, but we’ll go to the DA’s office once it’s open, so you can get some peace.”
“You’ll go with me?” “Of course.”
“But why, Lala, why would they do such a thing?”
Lala crushed out her cigarette on a plate next to the bed and poured herself another glass of whiskey. She mixed it with Coca- Cola and stirred it with a finger.
“I don’t think it’s your boy. The one they killed . . . They had no pity. It’s a message for someone.”
“A narco’s revenge?”
“Only the narcos kill like that.”
We were silent. I was scared. There were narcos in Consti- tución? Like the ones that shocked me when I read about Mexico, ten headless bodies hanging from a bridge, six heads thrown from a car onto the steps of the parliament building, a common grave with seventy-three bodies, some decapitated, others missing arms? Lala smoked in silence and set the alarm. I decided to skip work so I could go straight to the DA and report everything I knew about the dirty kid.
In the morning, my head still pounding, I made coffee for us both, Lala and me. She asked to use the bathroom. I heard her turn on the shower and I knew she’d be in there at least an hour. I turned on the TV again. The newspaper had no new information. I wasn’t going to find anything online, either—the web would only be a boiling cauldron of rumors and insanity.
The morning news said that a woman had come in to claim the decapitated boy. A woman named Nora, who had come to the morgue with a newborn baby in her arms and accompanied by some other family members. When I heard that, about the “newborn baby,” my heart pounded in my chest. It was definitely the dirty kid, then. The mother hadn’t gone sooner for the body because—what a terrible coincidence—the night of the crime had been the night she gave birth. It made sense. The dirty kid had been left alone while his mother delivered and then . . .
Then what? If it was a message, if it was revenge, it couldn’t be directed at that poor woman who had slept in front of my house so many nights, that addict girl who couldn’t be much older than twenty. Maybe at his father: that’s it, his father. Who could the dirty kid’s father be?
But then the cameras went crazy, the cameramen ran, the journalists were left breathless; everyone hurled themselves at the woman coming out of the DA’s office and shouted “Nora, Nora, who do you think did this to Nachito?”
“His name is Nacho,” I whispered.
And then there she was on the screen, Nora, a close-up of her sobbing and wailing. And it wasn’t the dirty kid’s mother. It was a completely different woman. A woman around thirty years old, already graying, dark-skinned and very fat, the kilos she’d put on with the pregnancy, surely. Almost the opposite of the dirty kid’s mother.
It was impossible to make out what she was shouting. She was falling down. Someone held her up from behind; a sister, surely. I changed channels, but they were all showing that shouting woman, until a policeman got between the micro- phones and the shouts, and a patrol car appeared to take her away. There was a lot of news. I told it all to Lala, sitting on the toilet while she shaved, fixed her makeup, pulled her hair into a neat bun.
“His name is Ignacio. Nachito. And the family had reported him missing on Sunday, but when they saw what was happening on TV, they didn’t think it was their son because this boy, Nachito, disappeared in Castelar. They’re from Castelar.”
“But that’s so far away! How did he end up here? Ay, princess, what a fright this all is. I’m canceling all my appointments, it’s decided. You can’t cut hair after this.”
“His belly button was sewn shut, too.” “Whose, the child’s?”
“Yes. It seems they tore off his ears, too.”
“Princess, no one’s ever getting to sleep again around here, I’m telling you. We may be criminals, but this is satanic.”
“That’s what they’re saying. That it’s satanic. No, not satanic. They say it was a sacrifice, an offering to San la Muerte.”
“Save us, Pomba Gira; save us, Maria Padilha!”
“Last night I told you the boy talked to me about San la Muerte. It’s not him, Lala, but he knew.” Lala kneeled in front of me and stared at me with her big dark eyes.
“You, my dear, aren’t going to say a word about this. Nothing. Not to the police or anyone. I was crazy last night to think of letting you talk to the judge. Not a word about any of it; we’re silent as a grave, pardon the expression.”
I listened to her. She was right. I didn’t have anything to say, nothing to report. Just a nighttime walk with a boy from the street who disappeared, as street kids often do. Their parents change neighborhoods and take them along. They join groups of child thieves or windshield washers on the avenue, or they become drug mules; when they’re being used to sell drugs, they have to change neighborhoods often. Or they set up camp in subway stations. Street kids never stay in one place long; they can stay for a while, but they always leave. They also run away from their parents. Or they vanish because some distant uncle turns up and takes pity on them and takes them home with him, far away in the south, to live in a house on a dirt road and share a room with five other kids, but at least there’s a roof over their heads. It wasn’t strange, not at all, that the mother and child had disappeared from one day to the next. The parking lot where the decapitated boy had appeared was not on the route the dirty kid and I had taken that night. And the part about San la Muerte? Coincidence. Lala said the neighborhood was full of people who worshipped San la Muerte; all the Paraguayan immigrants and transplants from Corrientes were followers of the saint, but that didn’t make them murderers. Lala worshipped Pomba Gira, who looks like a demonic woman, with horns and trident. Did that make her a satanic killer?
It did not.
“I want you to stay with for me a few days, Lala.” “But of course, princess. I’ll ready my chambers.”
Lala loved my house. She liked to put on music very loud and come slowly down the stairs wearing a turban and holding a cigarette, a black femme fatale. “I’m Josephine Baker,” she’d say, and then she would complain about being the only transvestite in Constitución who had the faintest idea who Josephine Baker was. “You can’t imagine how rough these new girls are, ignorant and empty as a drainpipe. They get worse and worse. It’s hopeless.”
It was hard to walk around the neighborhood with the same confidence I’d had before the crime. Nachito’s murder had an almost narcotic effect on that area of Constitución. At night you didn’t hear fighting anymore, and the dealers had moved a few blocks south. There were too many cops watching the place where they’d found the body. Which, said the newspapers and the investigators, had not been the scene of the crime. Someone had dumped him there in the old parking lot, already dead.
On the corner where the dirty kid and his mom used to sleep, the neighbors set up a shrine to the Headless Boy, as they called him. And they put up a photo that said Justice for Nachito. In spite of the apparent good intentions, the detectives didn’t entirely believe the consternation around the neighborhood. Quite the opposite: they thought people were covering for someone. And so the district attorney had ordered many of the neighbors to be questioned.
I was one of the people they called in to give a statement. I didn’t tell Lala, so she wouldn’t worry. She hadn’t been summoned. It was a very short interview and I didn’t say anything that could help them.
I’d slept soundly that night. No, I hadn’t heard anything.
There are street kids in the neighborhood, yes.
The DA showed me the photo of Nachito. I told her I’d never seen him. I wasn’t lying. He was completely different from the boys in the neighborhood: a round little boy with dimples and neatly combed hair. I had never seen a boy like that (and smiling!) around Constitución.
No, I never saw black-magic altars in the street or in any of the houses. Only shrines to Gauchito Gil. On Calle Ceballos.
Did I know that Gauchito Gil had been decapitated? Yes, the whole country knew the legend. I don’t think this has to do with Gauchito, do you?
No, of course, you don’t have to answer my questions. Well, anyway, I don’t think they’re related, but I don’t know anything about those rituals.
I work as a graphic designer. For a newspaper. For the supplement “Fashion & Woman.” Why do I live in Constitución? It’s my family’s house and it’s a beautiful house; you can see it if you go to the neighborhood.
Of course I’ll let you know if I hear anything, sure. Yes, I have trouble sleeping, like everyone. We’re very scared.
It was clear I wasn’t a suspect, they just had to talk to people around in the neighborhood. I went home by bus to avoid the five blocks I’d have to walk if I took the subway. Since the murder I’d avoided the subway because I didn’t want to run into the dirty kid. And at the same time, my desire to see him again was obsessive, feverish. In spite of the photos, in spite of the evidence—even the pictures of the corpse, which one newspaper had published to the false outrage and horror of a public that bought up all the copies of several editions with the decapitated boy on the front page—I still believed it was the dirty kid who had died.
Or who would be the next to die. It wasn’t a rational idea. I told it to Lala at the hair salon the afternoon I went back to dye my tips pink again, a job that took hours. Now no one was flip- ping through magazines or painting their nails or sending text messages while they waited their turn in Lala’s chair. Now they did nothing but talk about the Headless Boy. The time of prudent silence had passed, but I still hadn’t heard anyone name a suspect in anything but the most general way. Sarita was telling how once, in Chaco, where she was from, a similar thing had happened, only with a little girl.
“They found her with her head off to one side, too, and very raped, poor little soul. She’d shit all over herself.”
“Sarita, please, I’m begging you,” said Lala.
“But that’s how it was, what do you want me to say? We’re talking witches, here.”
“The police think they’re narcos,” I said.
“Witch-narcos are everywhere,” said Sarita. “You can’t even imagine what it’s like out in Chaco. They perform rites to ask for protection. That’s why they cut off the head and put it to the left of the body. They think if they make those offerings the police won’t catch them, because the heads have power. They’re not just narcos, they also traffic women.”
“But, you think they’re around here, in Constitución?” “They’re everywhere,” said Sarita.
I dreamed about the dirty kid. I went out onto the balcony and he was in the middle of the street. I waved my arms at him, trying to get him to move because a truck was barreling toward him. But the dirty kid kept looking up, looking at me and the balcony, smiling, his teeth scummy and small. And the truck ran him over and I couldn’t help seeing how the wheel burst his belly open like a soccer ball and then dragged his intestines as far as the corner. In the middle of the street was the dirty kid’s head, still smiling, his eyes open.
I woke up sweating and shaking. From the street came the sound of a sleepy cumbia rhythm. Little by little, some of the neighborhood’s sounds were coming back: the drunk fighting, the music, the motorcycles with their rattling exhaust pipes— the local kids liked to loosen them so they’d make a lot of noise.
There was a gag order on the investigation, which is to say the confusion was absolute. I visited my mother several times and when she asked me to go live with her, for a while at least, I said no. She called me crazy and we argued, yelling at each other like we never had before.
That night I came home late because, after the office, I’d gone to a colleague’s birthday party. It was one of the last days of summer. I took the bus home and got off before my stop so I could take a walk through the neighborhood, alone. By then I knew how to handle myself again. If you know what you’re doing, Constitución is easy. I was smoking as I walked. Then I saw her.
The dirty kid’s mother was thin; she’d always been thin, even when she was pregnant. From behind, no one would have guessed at the belly she’d had. It’s the usual build of addicts: the hips stay narrow like they’re refusing to give the baby room, the body doesn’t produce fat, the thighs don’t expand; at nine months, the legs are two rickety sticks holding up a basketball, a woman who swallowed a basketball. Now, without her belly, the dirty kid’s mother looked more than ever like a teenager, as she leaned against a tree, trying to light her crack pipe under the streetlight, unconcerned about the police—who’d been patrol- ling the neighborhood much more frequently since the Headless Boy’s murder—or about other addicts or anything else.
I approached her slowly, and when she saw me, there was im- mediate recognition in her eyes. Immediate! Her eyes narrowed, squinted: she wanted to run away, but something stopped her. Maybe she was dizzy. Those seconds of doubt were enough for me to block her escape, to stop in front of her, force her to talk. I pushed her against the tree and held her there. She wasn’t strong enough to fight back.
“Where is your son?”
“What son? Let me go.”
We both spoke quietly.
“Your son. You know very well who I’m talking about.”
The dirty kid’s mother opened her mouth and it made me nauseated to smell her hungry breath, sweet and rotten like fruit left out in the sun, mixed with the medicinal smell of the drug and that burned stench; addicts smell of burned rubber, of toxic factories, polluted water, chemical death.
“I don’t have any kids.”
I pressed her harder against the tree, I grabbed her neck. I don’t know if she felt pain, but I drove my nails into her. She wouldn’t remember me in a few hours anyway. I wasn’t afraid of the police either. Plus, I knew they wouldn’t get too worried over a fight between women.
“You’re going to tell me the truth. You were pregnant until recently.”
The dirty kid’s mom tried to burn me with her lighter, but I saw her coming, the thin hand that tried to hold the flame to my hair. The bitch wanted to set me on fire. I squeezed her wrist so hard that the lighter fell to the sidewalk. She stopped fighting.
“I DON’T HAVE ANY KIDS!” she yelled at me, and the sound of her voice, too thick, ill, woke me up. What was I doing? Strangling a dying teenager in front of my house? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I did need to move. Maybe, as every- one had said, I was fixated on that house because it allowed me to isolate myself, because no one visited me there, because I was depressed and I made up romantic stories about a neighborhood that really was just shit, shit, shit. That was what my mother had shouted at me and I swore never to speak to her again, but now, with my hands around the young addict’s neck, I thought maybe she wasn’t entirely wrong.
Maybe I wasn’t the princess in her castle; maybe I was a mad- woman locked in her tower.
The junkie girl wiggled out of my hands and started to run, slowly; she was still choking. But when she got halfway down the block, right where the main light shone on her, she turned around. She was laughing and in the light you could see her gums were bleeding.
“I gave them to him!” she shouted.
The words were for me; she was looking me right in the eyes with that horrible recognition. And then she caressed her belly with both hands and said, clearly, loudly:
“This one too. I promised him them both.”
I ran toward her, but she was fast. Or she’d suddenly become fast, I don’t know. She crossed Plaza Garay like a cat and I went after her, but when the traffic started moving on the avenue, she managed to dodge the cars and make it across and I didn’t. I couldn’t breathe. My legs were shaking. Someone came up to me and asked if the girl had robbed me and I said yes, hoping they’d chase her. But no; they only asked me if I was OK, if I wanted a taxi, what she had stolen from me.
A taxi, yes, I said. I stopped one and asked the driver to take me to my house, only five blocks away. The driver didn’t complain. He was used to that kind of short trip in this neighborhood. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like arguing. It was late. It must have been his last fare before heading home.
When I closed the door I didn’t feel the relief of the cool rooms, the wooden staircase, the walled garden, the old mosaics and high ceilings. I turned on the light and the lamp flickered: it’s going to go out, I thought, I’ll be left in the dark. It steadied, though the light it gave off was yellowish, old, dim. I sat down on the floor with my back against the door. I was waiting to hear the soft taps from the dirty kid’s sticky hand, or the sound of his head rolling down the stairs. I was waiting for the dirty kid to ask me, again, to let him in.