This is the second in a series of short stories I have translated from Spanish. Read the introductory post on Julio Ribeyro and this series.
Ramon left the office with the dossier under his arm and walked towards the Avenida Abancay. While he was waiting for the omnibus to Lince, he was contemplating the demolition of the old houses in Lima. Not a day passed without the demolition of a colonial-era house, a balcony of carved wood or simply one of the gentile republican villas, where in the years past, more than one revolution had been forged. At each site, haughty impersonal buildings, identical to the ones in hundreds of cities all over the world, rose up. Lima, the adorable Lima of adobe and wood, was becoming a kind of a barrack of reinforced concrete. The little poetry that remained sought refuge in the abandoned little plaza, a church and in the windows of the princely mansions, where old families languished between parchments and yellowing daguerreotype.
These reflections evidently had nothing to do with Ramon’s firm: a detector of hardened debtors. That very morning, his boss had ordered Ramon to undertake a thorough investigation in Lince to find Fausto Lopez, a dubious client who had signed a forged paper for 40 million soles.
When the omnibus dropped him in Lince, he felt depressed, like he did every time he went around such neighborhoods where the common people, without a history lived. These places were born 20 years ago through some speculative art, dead after filling the pockets of some ministers, poorly buried between the grand metropolis and the luxurious spas of the south. One could see the bedpan-like one storey houses, dirt roads, dusty tracks, straight misty streets where no tree grew, not even weed. Life in these lively neighborhoods throbbed inside the corner stores that were frequented by regular customers and drunkards.
Consulting his dossier, Ramon headed towards the house in the neighborhood and wandered around a long corridor dotted with doors and windows, until he arrived at one of the last houses. He knocked the door for a few minutes. Finally, it opened and a sleepy man, wearing a ragged shirt, showed his torso.
“Does Senor Fausto Lopez live here?”
“No, I live here, Juan Limayta, plumber”
“These invoices list this address”, Ramon claimed, stretching out his dossier.
“And what is it to me? I live here. Ask on the other side.” he said, shutting the door.
Ramon left the street. He wandered around some other houses, making random inquiries. No one appeared to know Fausto Lopez. So much ignorance made Ramon think that a vast conspiracy had been hatched at the district level to hide one of its residents. Only one person seemed to recollect him.
“Fausto Lopez? He lived here but it’s been a while that I haven’t seen him. Maybe he’s dead.”
Disheartened, Ramon entered a corner shop to get a cold drink. With his elbow on the counter, standing close to the putrid smell of urine, he slowly drank a Coca Cola. As he was getting ready to return to his office, he saw a little boy entering the shop, holding film listings in his hands. The association was instantaneous. He figured it out just in that one act.
“Where did you get those pamphlets from?”
“From my house. Which one do you want?”
“Is your dad a printer?”
“What is your dad’s name?”
Ramon breathed a sigh of relief.
“Let’s go there. I need to speak with him”
They talked on the way. Ramon learned that Fausto Lopez had a hand printing machine that he had shifted a few months ago from a few streets away and that he lived off by printing cinema pamphlets.
“Does he pay you to distribute these?”
“My Papa? Not a dime! The cinema owners let me enter free to watch the movies”
These poor neighborhoods had their own hierarchy. Ramon felt he was now in a suburb within a suburb. Those little houses had disappeared. One could only see small alleys, tall walls with their big wooden doors surrounding vacant land. The street lights diminished in number and the first aqueducts emerged, plagued with filth.
The boy stopped near the railway tracks.
“Here it is,” he said, pointing to a dark alley, “The third door. I have to go as I need to distribute all these pamphlets on Avenue Arenales.”
Ramon let go of the boy even as he wavered in his decision. A few boys were entertaining themselves by throwing pebbles into the aqueduct. A man emerged from an alley, whistling, and threw into the water the dubious contents of a chamber pot.
Ramon walked over to the third door and banged many times it with his fist. As he waited, he remembered the wise words of his boss: never threaten, show gentlemanly courtesies, a spirit of reconciliation and a contagious confidence. All this so as not to intimidate the debtor, so you could return later to the same address and initiate a judicial recovery.
The door did not open but, instead, a wooden window – tiny as a portrait frame, opened to reveal the face of a woman. Ramon was so unprepared to be suddenly faced with this apparition that he barely had any time to hide the dossier behind his back.
“What is it that you want? What’s it?” the woman asked insistently.
Ramon was unable to take his eyes off the woman’s face. There was something fascinating about it. Maybe the fact that it was framed in the little window, as if her head was inside a guillotine.
“What do you want?” continued the woman, “Who are you looking for?”
Ramon hesitated. He could not let go of the woman’s eyes. They were so close to his that for the first time, he was involuntarily introduced to a secret world of a stranger, as if he had inadvertently opened a letter meant for someone else.
“My husband’s not here.” insisted the woman. He is travelling, come back another day, I beg you.”
Their eyes remained fixed to each other’s. Ramon continued exploring this special world, pressed by a sudden curiosity but not as one contemplating the objects that were inside a glass window, but rather as one trying to reconstruct the dark mysteries hidden inside a number. Only when the woman continued with her protests, her voice getting fainter each time, did Ramon realize that this was a deserted world – of pain,a story marked by terror.
“I am a radio salesman,” he said rapidly, “Don’t you want to buy one? We are giving them away very cheap at this time.”
“No, no radios, we already have one, we don’t need any more,” sighed the woman, now almost suffocating. With that she violently closed the shutter.
For a moment, Ramon remained standing in front of the door. He felt an unbearable headache. Collecting the dossier under his arm, he left the alley and took the road back towards Lince, looking for a taxi. When he arrived at the corner, he took out the notebook, contemplated for a moment and under Fausto Lopez’s name, wrote: “Wrong address.” By doing so, however, he suspected he was not doing the right thing not so much for that suspicious virtue called charity, but only because that woman was somewhat pretty.