To Lilia Lardone
Summer was ending. The air already smelled like smoke, but it still looked clear, sunny. The women swept their sidewalks and burned the first dry leaves on the corners. When classes began, so did the girls’ fifteenth birthday parties. It hadn’t been long since I’d seen my first dead body. Tolchi Pereno threw herself under the train because she was pregnant. We sat at the same desk, and during geography class she burst out crying, though no one had said anything to her. Blanquita Calzolari had called on Tano Buriolo to present his homework, and Tano tried to explain that thing about meridians and parallels.
They say that meridians are lines that divide the world into halves, Tano said, and Blanquita Calzolari agreed.
They say that the two halves are equal and the dividing line is a very fine line, so fine that you can’t see it, Tano said, and Blanquita Calzolari agreed. They say that the parallels are the same lines, but in reverse. They say that if you change hemispheres and you pass over a meridian or parallel, it sends shivers down your back. Blanquita Calzolari lifted her gaze, her eyes suddenly alert.
Who says that? she asked.
Tano Buriolo retorted immediately, The wise say so.
No, that’s wrong, Blanquita Calzolari declared. Return to your seat. Then Tolchi Pereno burst out crying. Blanquita looked at her and asked what happened.
Nothing happened, Tolchi said. I’m having a nervous attack, that’s all, she said, and started to scream and took my hand, which was next to hers, and rested my hand on her chest.
Feel this, feel this, she said. Feel how my nerves are turning over inside.
I noticed the edge of her bra under her knit sweater and something like termites over Tolchi’s heart. I blushed.
Go drink a glass of water and come back, Blanquita Calzolari said.
Tolchi let my hand go and kept hiccupping in silence, sitting on her bench. We looked at her. She got up and left and returned after a while with red eyes and a swollen face. Early that evening, she threw herself under the train. Not many trains pass through here. Tolchi must have waited, crouched next to the tracks, until a train came and she could throw herself under. The engineer swears he didn’t see her. He was distracted, if he hadn’t been distracted, he always scares suicides with the train whistle. Sometimes I think about Tolchi, how fervently she must have wished for the train to come, for it to come, for it to come, having already decided to kill herself. At first no one knew it was her. The firefighters’ siren went off; we were at Serasio’s bar, playing pinball. We ran out after the fire engine. Before we got there, a policeman stopped us, but we paid no mind and continued. The Tambu twins’ father, who was a fireman, told us that, by far, gathering up Tolchi had been the worst thing he had to do in his life. He wouldn’t wish it on anyone. We were about ten metres away; they didn’t let us get any closer. All the same, we saw. At first no one knew who it was; then after a while they began to say that it was Tolchi, that she had thrown herself under the train because she was pregnant. They came and asked us, we told them that we knew nothing. It was true, we knew nothing; still, people talked and someone said that earlier in the afternoon Tolchi had burst out crying while Tano Buriolo explained the meridians and parallels, and she made me touch her tits. They gossiped, saying Tano was the father or I was. Even now they say it. It was a Tuesday. On Wednesday Stella Maris de Manccini, the acting vice-principal, came to visit our class. She gave us a talk about the value of life and the morality and responsibility of being alive. She wrote it on the chalkboard: the responsibility of being alive. While she talked, she sweated under her armpits and stained her blouse. The words wouldn’t come out. The Ministry had sent her, she didn’t want to have to explain all this to us. A few people tried to give us the day off for the wake, but the Parents’ Association opposed it. They were afraid of a contagious effect, they thought that if they lent too much importance to Tolchi, suicide might seem attractive to us. So we didn’t get the day off. They brought in an educational psychologist who gave a talk for the parents at the high school one night, and they say a lot of people went. That same night Father Porto also talked. We never really found out what they told our parents, but from then on they began to treat us more carefully. Papa came back from the talk and hid his hunting rifle. He used to always keep it in a wardrobe in the shed, and after the talk it disappeared.
I remember Martín Besone saying that it was impossible to pick up all of her, that in the end they had to clean the tracks with a hose, and the last little pieces of Tolchi remained in the rocks between the ties, and the street dogs in the neighbourhood went to lick her up. We told him not to talk anymore, and he immediately went quiet. Tolchi’s mother made a wooden cross and put it on the edge of the tracks, right where it happened. Each month, on the day, she brought fresh flowers.
Afterward, Blanquita Calzolari forgot about meridians and parallels and made us do a group project about the five continents. My group was assigned Africa. We had to research the tribes and areas of the planet where man had never yet set foot. Fernandito Giraudo had a subscription to Very Interesting; we took a tonne of things out of there and made the rest up. I invented a tribe of hunters that left the jungle once a year and walked thousands of kilometres, until they arrived at the edge of a city. Then they waited for night to fall, and under the cloak of shadows they entered, carrying a chosen child, and they left him as a sacrifice in the parking lot of a mall. I liked to imagine that boy there, alone in the middle of the big steel and glass buildings. Blanquita Calzolari believed it; she was very interested in the topic and gave us an A+. She was tired already, at that time, Blanquita Calzolari, and she was the only one, besides Stella Maris de Manccini, who talked with us about Tolchi. One day Blanquita Calzolari was explaining something to us and her dentures came unglued. She didn’t even give us time to laugh; she sat down at her desk, took them out, applied Corega glue and put them back in no time. She held her face between her hands and rubbed her eyes. I’ve never seen a woman so tired. She was old enough to retire, but the government paperwork hadn’t arrived, and it was all the same to her. Fifteen or twenty days had passed since everything with Tolchi; we never guessed Blanquita Calzolari would come out with that. She started to talk. At the beginning it seemed like she was talking about anything, that she’d lost her mind. She told us about the time when she was a little girl. She woke up at four in the morning to go to the pasture to find the cows to milk. She had a younger brother who was a sleepwalker. She found him walking around the farm, and she was scared, she thought her brother was a ghost. Blanquita let out a scream from the shock and it woke up her brother, who was left disturbed ever since. She had to take care of her brother herself until he died young from heart failure. But it was never a burden. She loved him, he was her brother, how could it have ever been a burden? She told us about her alcoholic father who beat the animals. She’d been given a puppy, but her father lashed its back with a whip, the dog bit him and escaped the farm. It went to live with a neighbour’s dogs; they went wild, attacked as a pack and had to be killed with a rifle. She told us about her marriage. After two months she realised she wasn’t in love with her husband; she had only gotten married to run away from her family. She told us how she would have liked to get out, travel, see and understand the world, but she didn’t have enough money, so she had to resign herself to being a History and Geography teacher. In the mornings she worked as a checker at the Co-operative supermarket, and in the afternoons she went to Villa María to the community college to study to become a teacher, but even with that, she had three boys and raised them and they turned out to be good boys. She told us how cold it was in the shelter on the side of the road where she waited for the bus, and about how she fell in love with a classmate at the college. They would meet at a hotel near the Villa María Terminal, when classes got out. She stayed with her husband, he was a good man, she felt bad, but one day her husband died from thrombosis, because he ate a lot of salami and had uric acid and high cholesterol. Blanquita thought that God was just and things had worked themselves out. During her husband’s wake, Blanquita went to the phone booth, placed a call and talked with her classmate and he told her, there, on the phone, that he only wanted her in the hotel, in front of the Terminal, but he didn’t want anything else with her. That’s life, Blanquita Calzolari said, and yet she hadn’t thrown herself under any train, no, she had not. Just then we realised that she was talking about Tolchi Pereno. Afterward, though there was still time before recess, Blanquita Calzolari told us to go, to leave her alone, she was giving us the hour free. We went out to the schoolyard without saying a word, and she remained sitting at her desk. I saw her fix her hair, and with a finger, make sure the denture was in her palate.
Soon after, the good times came. Tolchi brought us closer together as a group. Before, the girls wouldn’t look at us, they hung out with the guys in fourth year, fifth year. They had cookouts at the Ezquinos’ house and didn’t invite us, only the girls went with the older guys. Neto Paladizini started dating Belkys Ezquino and old Ezquino paid him to go sleep with a hooker instead and keep his hands off Belkys. But as for Tolchi Pereno, the people said that Tano Buriolo or I had gotten her pregnant. It didn’t matter which of the two, it was one of us. And we were the ones who had gone up to the train tracks to see the body. The guys from fourth and fifth year didn’t go. And Stella Maris de Manccini and Blanquita Calzolari had talked to us. They began to look at us with different eyes. Bichín Peirano was still perfecting his secret plan with the cow hormones and suddenly it was ready. We tried it a couple of times. Bichín learned from his father, who was a veterinarian and injected the cows so they’d all be in heat at the same time. We put it in Carinita Plaza’s maté water while we were studying Language and Literature that summer. It had no effect. She broke out in a rash, but it didn’t turn her on. Bichín thought we were short on hormones, that’s what happened. We got a hold of Telesita Currido, who was old and wasn’t pretty, but was sort of an idiot, and every time one of us asked her to show us her panties she opened her robe and showed us. We gave her a bottle of pure hormones to drink. We took her to a construction site, made a circle, and started to applaud. Telesita showed us her panties a couple times and fell asleep. They say that the next day they found her rubbing up against the netting of a henhouse, we never knew if it had been our concoction or just craziness. After Tolchi, we didn’t need the hormone. Instead, we bore a tragic burden. The guys from fourth and fifth year didn’t have this advantage. Tano Buriolo slept with Noemí Orozco, they were the first, in the athletic courts, behind the school, under the stairs. They lay down some cardboard and jackets. Noemí bled a lot; she stained the cardboard; she stained the jackets. They were scared but they kept going. That day, at recess, we all talked about the blood. The girls asked how it felt. Noemí said it felt fine, she wasn’t nauseous or anything. To get the blood out of the jacket we used hydrogen peroxide from the first aid kit; we asked the janitor for it. Belkys invited me to her house and we started to try. Belkys thought that I knew how to do it, that I had gotten Tolchi pregnant. I didn’t know how but I didn’t tell her anything; she could think what she wanted. I found out immediately that Belkys was an expert. She taught me. She was the first girl I saw; I was shocked by so much hair. I didn’t know there could be so much. She told me not to be stupid, how could it shock me, it was so soft, and she showed me. That time I didn’t last, I came right away. The next time Belkys said that we were doing well, she was about to come, too. She let me know right before. I’m coming, she whispered in my ear, but all the same I was frightened by how it came out of her. She hugged her shoulders and started to cry. A lot. I thought I did something wrong, I held still. Don’t stop, don’t stop, it’s not you, she said without stopping crying. After a while she calmed down and lay at my side. I asked if she was ok. She said yes. She told me that when she was a little girl, a farmhand had gotten hold of her, and she cried when she remembered. It wasn’t my fault; I shouldn’t let it bother me. Belkys. She always cries when she finishes, because she remembers the farmhand. Poor thing. It frightened me and we didn’t try again for a week. But we kept going. Behind the doors and in the little map room and in the lab. The walls of the lab were lined with entomological boxes, and in the closets and above the closets there were embalmed foxes and owls and herons and a Styrofoam box with a dried toad cut open and pinned down and a skeleton whose jawbone had been stolen and a hand and a foetus in formaldehyde. We opened the jar; the foetus floated and the tip of its little head protruded like a football that had fallen in a water tank. We touched it with our fingers. Although it looked soft like a baby’s little head, it was hard because the formaldehyde had dried it out.
Within a month, Belkys was pregnant. We talked about it a lot and she promised me she wouldn’t throw herself under a train. I trusted her, but the others didn’t, so they kept vigil over her, and her father went and talked with the engineer and told him never to drive through town distracted again, because it was dangerous. The engineer promised he’d be careful. Stella Maris de Manccini clarified that nothing against the law had happened but she talked about being a bad example. They wrote Belkys up and didn’t excuse her absences. In the end they neither threw her out of school nor let her off the hook. The Parents’ Association said something had to be done, but they didn’t do anything. They took us to talk with Father Porto. He said while it was still a sin, it would be best to live together, since getting married so young would ruin our lives. He made us confess and absolved us. At that time a fund drive to build a new church had begun and Belkys’ father donated a lot of money. One day a crane came with a team of engineers, and they dynamited the bell tower and the old part of the church. It was an implosion, not an explosion. At school they explained the difference to us. We went to see, each one with their group, Belkys with the girls in her class and I with my friends. A dust cloud rose and rained dirt for four blocks around. They say that from far away, it looked like an atom bomb, but a really small one. The dust settled and little by little the sky appeared again between the bricks and dry mortar. Then it started to rain little papers. They glided in the wind; they landed as if they were leaves when autumn gets hold of the trees. But they were little yellow papers, barely folded, with writing. Papa ran and caught a few that were still in the air. He read them and burst out laughing. Papa’s friends hunted for papers in the air, too. They climbed the ruins to reach them, they traded them among themselves. Their faces turned grey from the falling talc. Their eyes stood out, the edges of them, pink. The little papers were left from the time the church was built, when Papa and his friends were seven or eight years old. During their lunch break, the bricklayers slept, and just to cause trouble, Papa and his friends lifted the fresh bricks, and between the bricks and mortar hid little messages for God, things that they asked him for. Papa found some of his messages and found some from others. He recognised their handwriting, he went to look for the others and said: this must be yours. Three or four were from friends who had already died. Papa burned them. I asked him what the little papers said and he refused to tell me.
The Cabrera church had to be torn down because it was sinking. The foundation was poorly made; it didn’t support the building’s weight. The tiles were splitting, dirt was embedded in the baseboards, and you could see the sky through the cracks in the roof. The sunbeams entered through the cracks and lit the inside. From noon to one the sun shone just above the altar, and it seemed like an angel was descending. There was no way to save the church. So the archbishop’s office decided to demolish it and build a new one.
Belkys’ father lent us a little house, and we went to live together. At the time that we moved in, I met up with my father at Mass. He waited for me at the doors. We have to talk, he said. We went out for a drive in his pick-up truck. Papa said I was grown up now, I had a baby on the way, I had to be able to feed it. He proposed that I go work with him at his business in the afternoons, after school. He would give me a salary. I said I didn’t know, since I didn’t like to deal with customers and I didn’t want to sell hardware all my life.
Think about it, Papa said. You don’t have to decide right now, there’s still time.
We got quiet and kept driving. Every time we saw a new car, Papa told me who it belonged to.
That’s the Gugliermis’, they sold the Renault, they traded it in for a Peugeot.
That’s the Espinas’, it’s imported, zero kilometres on it. You can’t get the parts; if it breaks they’ll have to send it back, to the henhouse.
That’s the widow Lamónica’s, she bought it with her insurance payment.
Papa talked, and all of a sudden, I realised he’d grown old. His hair was grey and so was the hair that stuck out through his collar. I remembered one weekend when we went to the mountains, to Santa Rosa. We were at the river, a car stopped, one of the Cabreras got out and went up to my father. He asked if he already knew about Mustín Puchino. Papa said no. The man told us that a tank of solvent exploded near Mustín, that ninety per cent of his body was burned and he was in intensive care, they were waiting for him to die. We carried the folding chairs to the truck, got our bags and left. That was the first time I saw Papa cry. He drove and the tears fell. Mustín was his best friend. He had been a bank teller, but they fired him, and Mustín started doing experiments to manufacture peanut oil. He set up a laboratory in his living room. Three or four tanks painted silver, connected by pipes. At some point he did something wrong. He died after two days. His little papers were among those that Papa burned when they imploded the church.
Now that I’m grown up, will you lend me the truck? I asked Papa then.
He didn’t even blink.
No, I already told you no. Until you have your licence, I won’t lend it to you, he said.
We might need it in an emergency. For Belkys, I insisted.
Call me and I’ll come get you.
Tano’s father lends him the car.
I don’t give a damn what the Buriolos do, Papa said and parked in front of the house.
I got out without saying goodbye.
The year I started high school I made friends with Fata Buriolo, Tano’s cousin. Fata was big and tall, and the guys said he was retarded. He didn’t seem that stupid when I looked at him. Fata did poorly in school, he hardly ever passed his classes. Our classmates started saying Fata’s father had to teach him to jerk off; he was too retarded to do it himself. I asked him and he said it wasn’t true, and to prove it we started to touch ourselves and show each other how, to be sure of what to do when we were with a girl for real. Fata had a dog named Flecha, and Fata had the habit of rolling over, with the cum still in his hand, and calling Flecha over and letting him eat it. Flecha licked it right up. Fata said you could give a dog candy and he wouldn’t like it so much. I tried giving my cum to other dogs to eat, but they just came over, smelled my hand and left. Only Flecha had this preference. Fata and I did this for a while. We didn’t tell anyone since we realised people wouldn’t understand. At school we acted like we weren’t such good friends. We saw each other outside school, I went to his house or he came to mine. Fata was my best friend when I was in first year. Then he repeated the grade and he himself began to say he was retarded, that school wasn’t for him, that he should quit and go work in the fields. My mother asked me to go talk with him, to talk him into continuing. His mother asked my mother. I went, and Fata confessed to me that as a boy he believed that the doves in the cemetery were Holy Spirits, and he went to hunt them with a slingshot; he filled a bag with dead Holy Spirits and threw them in the priest’s yard. He made me promise I’d never tell anyone. It was going to be our secret. I swore I wouldn’t.
But I don’t understand what the Holy Spirit has to do with leaving high school, I said.
Can’t you see I’ve always been dumb, Fata answered. How could I have thought doves were Holy Spirits? There’s something wrong with my head, it won’t let me finish high school.
Fata went to work in the fields. His father bought him a harvester. He threshed the whole day; he slept alone in a little trailer in the middle of the field, and we stopped seeing each other. One afternoon, Belkys wasn’t home, and there was a knock at the door. I went to open the door; it was Fata. I let him in and offered him wine, vermouth, Gancia. He took the wine. He sat down, gripped the glass with one hand and emptied it. The other hand hung limp; he had to prop it on the table. I noticed the hand didn’t look right. It was fat, purple. I asked him what happened, and he said it got caught in an angle grinder. They saved it, but it wound up just like that, half lame, it wasn’t good for much. Then he asked if I was home alone. I said yes, and he burst out crying. At first I thought he was crying because of his hand, he talked and I didn’t understand the words, until I understood and realised he was crying because of Belkys. He said how could I do this to him, cheat on him with Belkys, he was so in love with me and not a night passed when he didn’t think of me, alone in his little trailer, in the middle of the fields. I told him I was sorry, I gave him a little more wine, just a little, because I noticed he was almost drunk. When he calmed down, I asked him to leave and never come back.
Belkys was sad; I was worried. Her belly showed; her feet were swollen; we went to the doctor and the doctor said that was normal. Her birthday came and she didn’t want to celebrate. Ever since she’d reached the age of reason, she’d dreamed of it, her fifteenth birthday. She never imagined that before she turned 15 I would get her pregnant. Since she was 12 she’d been planning the dress and the decorations for the hall. She showed me the drawings she made in a notebook. Belkys’ father was going to ask the Belgrano Club to lend them the basketball court. Instead of using the club’s tables, they were going to rent round tables with white tablecloths from Villa María. They were going to cover the chairs with white fabric, too. So the fabric wouldn’t slide off, they’d have to tie it with pink ribbons in the back. Belkys planned to use the basketball hoops as plant holders and place two big ferns inside that would hang and cover the hoops. The dance floor would be in the middle, with a rented mirror ball, and in the invitations they would require the men to wear jackets and ties. First would come the dinner, for the relatives, friends of her father, and acquaintances they had to invite. She planned to invite us, her classmates, afterward, for the toast and dance. At dinner they would serve antipasti with vittel tonè, beef tongue, salami, and potato salad, baked chicken as the main dish, and ice cream for dessert. For the toast there would be a table of sweets, with cakes, pies, and little treats that her mother and aunts would cook. They would turn off the lights and she and her father would dance the waltz in the middle of the dance floor, alone, illuminated by a spotlight. Just before the waltz ended, fifteen of her best friends would come in from the sides, each one with a white rose in her hand. Then the DJ would put on the Trío San Javier song, ‘Fifteen Springs’, the one that goes, You have to live through fifteen springs, Fifteen fresh flowers to bring you joy, and one by one her friends would hand her the roses. Belkys told me all of this at night. We turned out the light and talked. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she forgot that she wouldn’t be able to have the party, she talked like she still had to get things ready, like she still had a year or more left. But she didn’t. The day arrived. Belkys didn’t want to go to school. I understood, she stayed home, sprawled on the bed. In the afternoon her closest friends came to comfort her a little. The Farmers’ Co-operative sent a bouquet of flowers, since her father was president of the assembly. The boys in the class all agreed, each one put in a little and bought her a pink wool hat and a pair of gloves to match. Fernandito Giraudo was in charge of collecting the money and buying the gift. He had good taste and knew what people wore, since he read a lot of magazines and always kept up with the latest fashions. He checked with me first, he said: hat and gloves, the latest style. It was a practical gift, Belkys could use it while she was pregnant, and once the baby was born, she could still use it. That night the doorbell rang. They gave her the present wrapped in a lot of paper. Belkys thanked them and set it aside. I invited them to drink a Gancia with soda. They drank it and left right away. We weren’t used to this. We couldn’t talk about men’s things in front of Belkys.
When would I wear a hat in this hot, shitty town! Belkys said right after they left.
She kept the hat and gloves in the closet, I never saw them again. I bought her cowboy boots. They were also in style, I knew she’d like them. They made her happy, and though she said I shouldn’t have spent so much since we needed to save up for the baby, she wore them a lot to school. She didn’t want to go out with her belly, so people wouldn’t talk, so she wore them in the house, too.
Every time a girl turned 15, she requested a Mass and carried up the offering. After the Mass, she had a photo taken in front of the church, sitting next to a statue of the Virgin on a little grassy hill. For the photos they called Red, the only photographer as well as the only communist in town. The seamstress came, too, so the girl’s dress turned out right, and the hairdresser came in case her hair needed touching up. After the picture, the party happened. But the year we turned 15 was the year that Father Porto had the church demolished. They saved the statue of the Virgin in a deposit along with Saint Roch and his dog and the Sacred Heart and covered all of them with nylon. The Masses were held in the municipal warehouse. It wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to take a picture in front of the warehouse. Since the girls didn’t have anywhere to take the picture, the Parents’ Association from the school made an agreement and constructed a monument in the corner of the plaza with their own funds. Father Porto handed over the Virgin, and they installed her there. It was the monument for the fifteenth birthday photos. It was only used for that. Belkys didn’t throw a party and she hadn’t asked for a Mass, but to me it seemed unfair that she should go without a photo. I asked my mother to lend me the camera. We waited until late one night and went to the plaza. We wasted the first photo, I forgot the flash. The second came out well. Since it was cold, Belkys put on her winter jacket, and she almost doesn’t look pregnant. She’s wearing a long skirt in the photo, the cowboy boots, and she’s standing next to the Virgin in the middle of the monument.
When I moved in with Belkys, Papa started coming by the house when Mass let out. He honked the horn without getting out of the truck and invited me to drink a glass of wine at the Italian Society. He always goes to Mass on Sunday mornings. According to him, the Saturday evening Mass doesn’t count. He never sits. He stands in the back, and every now and then he steps out to smoke a cigarette. When I was little, Papa went with his gang to a bar, El Moderno, after Mass. There were about seven or eight of them, they argued, they shot the breeze. The harvest, the weather, the prices, new cars and the champion bull that the Aguirrezurretas bought at the Fair and that broke its leg as soon as they took it off the trailer. They pounded the table, they laughed, they added soda to their drinks to stretch them further, and if they ran out of peanuts they gestured to the waiter so he’d bring them more. Over the years they began to thin out, little by little. First Mustín died. Enrique Oncalvo followed, from prostate cancer. Michelo Tiempini, lung cancer, it went into his bones and during his last week he screamed like a pig until Dr Karakachoff took pity and gave him morphine. Oscarcito Kunsel, who was a singer, from a heart attack in his sleep. The Farmers’ Co-operative transferred Coquito Molinero to the Vicuña Mackena plant. And Pancho Miranda was left blind by diabetes; his wife took care of him and some Sundays she let him go to the bar but most Sundays she didn’t. In the end there were three of them left in the gang, Jorgito Piazza, Osvaldo Fava, and Papa. Their bar, El Moderno, was sold. Since it was by the highway they put a gas station there. People began to go to the bar at the Terminal or the Italian Society. Papa went, too, but less, just every once in a while. Sometimes he got together with Jorgito and Osvaldo; they parked the truck at the service station and talked for a while by the gas pumps. Otherwise, he came by the house and honked the horn.
Let’s go have a glass of wine, he called from the window.
We went to the Italian Society and drove around town a few times. We went up and down the boulevard, we passed by the house that Tuti Ponti was building. Papa knew the watchman and said hello. One day he invited us to come in and see the work. We wandered through the labyrinth of bricks and scaffolding.
Why does Tuti want so many rooms, if it’s only him and his wife, Papa said.
He has to spend his money on something, the watchman answered.
We said goodbye, Papa started the truck and set off as if to take me home. Before we got there, he asked if I didn’t want to invite Belkys to have lunch with them, Mama had made baked chicken. Since I hadn’t mentioned anything at home, I told him not that day, but any other Sunday, we would go.
We didn’t sleep well. Belkys tossed and turned, she complained, her back hurt, she couldn’t find a comfortable position. Springtime arrived, and with it, the second big wave of fifteenth birthdays came. Most girls in our class had birthdays in September, there weren’t enough weekends to throw parties. Belkys didn’t want to go to any, and I had to stay home with her. Mondays, at school, the boys told me. Noemí Orozco’s party was the biggest of all. Her father was the bank manager, they came from out of town, from Rosario, they had other customs. Noemí was an only child, so they went all out. They rented a tent and put it up in the soccer field. The tent was white, and inside they decorated it with pink tulle and lilac crepe paper. Noemí attended Mass in a more or less normal dress, she took the photo with this dress by the fifteenth birthday monument. But afterward she changed. She went to the party in other clothes, white jeans that showed her panties and a red bra with nothing else on top. Around her neck she hung a chain with a big iron key. When the waltz came, Noemí danced the first half with her father, stopped the music, then called Tano Buriolo, who was now her official boyfriend, and danced the other half with him. They didn’t play the fifteen springs song, they played other music, rock, because Noemí liked rock. At three in the morning they turned down the lights and something like twenty waiters came in holding raised kebabs. On the tip of each skewer was an apple filled with alcohol, lit on fire. They set the skewers on a table, put out the apples, and the people went and served themselves meat directly from the skewers. When it was time for the cake, they formed a circle and Noemí and Tano kissed in the middle of the dance floor. Noemí took off the chain with the iron key and hung it on Tano’s neck. The next day the town was boiling with commentaries. The women were scandalised by the bra. Most scandalised of all was Tano Buriolo’s mother, who forbade her son from setting foot in the Orozcos’ house again. Red hung a few photos from the party in the windows of his shop. The boys came out of the primary school, walked by the shop and stopped to look at Noemí Orozco’s red bra. Someone drew a penis on the glass with white-out. Red erased it right away, but people still found out. Red erased it right away, but people still found out.
Belkys thought that Noemí was begging for attention and trying to win points for the fifteenth birthday dance. Between Christmas and New Year’s, the Belgrano Club organised the dance. The girls who turned fifteen during the year present themselves with their best dresses, parade in on their fathers’ arms and dance the waltz, and then they elect the queen. It’s turned into a benefit also. The money from the tickets and the cantina goes to the hospital. The queen is selected by a jury of men. There’s the mayor and the secretary of public works, Father Porto, Belkys’ father, because he’s the president of the assembly of the Farmers’ Co-operative, Padilla the hair stylist, Dr Karakachoff, and Noemí’s father, for being the bank manager. If the harvest has been good, they invite some entertainment personality to preside. Someone from Córdoba, a radio announcer. If it hasn’t been a good year, it stays how it is and the president is chosen by rotation. Belkys’ theory was that, with a little luck, Noemí would get her father chosen president. The president has a double vote. If you added to this the good impression that the red bra made on the men, she would be queen. Belkys explained these things to me at night with the lights out. Sometimes I dozed off, she elbowed me and continued with Noemí Orozco’s plotting and schemes. So as not to get bored, I rested my head on Belkys’ belly. I tried to hear the baby’s heartbeats or if it kicked. Every time it seemed the baby moved, I told Belkys. There, it just moved! I said. Sometimes Belkys answered yes, it moved, and sometimes she answered no, it was only her, she had gas. Sometimes she burst out crying because she’d wound up pregnant and wouldn’t be able to present herself at the dance.
Tano Buriolo’s father was a mechanic, he’d liked working with tools since he was a boy. At one time he had a little coupé; he fixed it up to race, and he did well, but he was cheated on once. He got angry and didn’t want to race anymore. He’d lent Tano the car since he was 12 years old. Tano used it on the weekends, mostly. We went to dance at the Ruinas Disco in Perdices, or at The Rancho in Deheza. Sometimes Tano got tipsy and someone drove back for him. Other times he drove. Every time he crashed, he did the same thing. He stopped someone on the road, asked them to take him home, wrote a note to his father telling him where he left the car and disappeared for a couple days. He’d hide out at a friend’s house until his father’s mood had passed. Then he came home. The time we went with him and the car flipped over, Tano went to Pamela Caudana’s house, since she was alone; her family had gone on vacation. Our classmates knew he was there, and we went to visit him secretly. I still don’t understand how the car flipped. There were nine of us in Tano’s father’s Falcon. We came up the road slowly. Tano was wasted and we told him, slow, Tano, slow. Even with that, we all flipped over on the curve in front of the Cavigliasos’ farm. Tonito Mazzuco ended up on top of me, crushing me.
What do I do? What do I do? I screamed. We couldn’t get out because the doors were stuck.
Should I break the window? Tonito asked.
We could hear Tano’s voice from the front:
Break it and I’ll kick the shit out of you. Open it with the handle.
Tonito turned the handle until the window was down, and we climbed out. Tano stopped a car and told us to wait for him there, that he was going to get help and he’d be right back, but we knew what he had planned. He went home, left a note for his father and hid at Pamela Caudana’s house. Oscar Manfioti, who had gone out hunting, picked us up. The police came, and no one was left. There was only the Falcon, with its four wheels facing up and its windows intact.
In October, Tano got into an accident with the Insquieta boy and came to hide at our house. He rang the doorbell early in the morning. We were the only ones who didn’t live with our parents, and Belkys thought it would be alright to put him up for a few days. We threw a mattress in the living room and explained how to use the bathroom faucet, which was tricky, it stuck. By ten in the morning our classmates already knew he was with us. Little by little they came over, discreetly. Tano hadn’t really told us how the accident happened, but when they came and told us the Insquieta boy was interned at the clinic, I took Tano into the bedroom and asked him to explain. He sat at the end of the bed, he took his head in his hands. Why did I pick him up! Why did I pick him up! he said over and over. The Insquieta boy wasn’t our friend, he was in first year. Tano said he left the dance early and came back only because he fought with Noemí and felt insulted. He went out to the car. While he waited for it to warm up, the Insquieta boy came up to him and asked if he was going to Cabrera. Tano said yes and the Insquieta boy asked if he could take him. After that, Tano didn’t remember very well. They drove along the highway, they didn’t talk because they weren’t friends. He must have fallen asleep. He crashed into a couple of trees near the dump. They spun around twice and ended up in the gorge, with the car lying on its side. Tano got up right away, he wasn’t hurt, but the Insquieta boy was covered with blood. Tano left him there, stopped a car, went home, wrote a note to his father and came to hide with Belkys and me. I asked him if the Insquieta boy’s situation was serious. He said he didn’t know. He said the Insquieta boy looked like he was sleeping.
It looked like he was sleeping, except for the blood and the cut on his forehead, he said.
The Tambu twins came, their father was among those who removed the Insquieta boy from the car. They told Tano that the Insquieta boy’s father was looking to beat him to a pulp, that he wouldn’t get away from this. The first year students, the Insquieta boy’s classmates, had gotten together in front of the May Clinic. They waited to see if Dr Karakachoff would say something. The girls prayed the rosary, sitting on the fence of the house next door. We decided that we’d have to hide Tano well. We told our classmates not to even think about setting foot in our house. We didn’t want to call attention to ourselves. Belkys took the folding chair out to the sidewalk and sat in the sun, reading magazines, as if nothing had happened. We shut Tano up in the bedroom. If someone came he could escape through the window. And we waited.
Around two in the afternoon Noemí Orozco came and shut herself up with Tano in the bedroom. She came out after a while; her face was full of tears. She told us that the Insquieta boy was brain dead. It was a matter of hours. Old Insquieta was going around with a revolver, searching for Tano. The first year students wanted to scare him shitless. Belkys gave her a glass of water, calmed her down, and asked what she was going to do. Noemí said her place was at Tano’s side. He was the love of her life, in good times and bad. She went back to the bedroom and we listened to them talk and cry. Tano’s steps went from one side to another and the bed frame made a noise every time he fell on it. After a while Papa came by in the truck, parked in front of the house and honked the horn. I went outside quickly; I didn’t want him to come in.
Look at what this friend of yours has done, he said. That’s why we can’t give you cars, you little brats. Ruined these people’s lives.
I didn’t know how to answer. I leaned on the door of the truck and said nothing.
They say somewhere around here, Papa continued, he’s gone into hiding, at a house in town, in one of his friends’ houses. You wouldn’t have him here, would you?
I looked at him.
No, Papa, how could you think that, the house is too small, I said.
Of course, of course, that’s what I thought, where would you put him, when the house is so small. Well, I’ll let you go, he said and started the truck again. Say hi to Belkys.
Bye, Papa, bye, I said and went back inside. Noemí was looking out the bedroom door. She asked me what Papa had said, and I told her he said nothing. There was no news.
The four of us were shut inside all afternoon. Tano and Noemí in the bedroom, Belkys and I in the kitchen. Belkys decided to make a cake. We didn’t talk, we listened to Tano and Noemí in the bedroom. At one point they went to bed together. I turned the radio up loud, to cover it up.
Night fell. There was a knock on the door. It was Fata Buriolo. I hadn’t seen him since the time he said he was in love with me. I opened the door a crack and didn’t let him in.
Is my cousin here? he asked. He still had the lame hand and it hung from his side. I didn’t answer.
Open up, I already know he’s here, he told me.
The five of us sat around the table. Fata at the head. He seemed bigger than us, more sure of himself.
The Insquieta boy died, he said. And his father is looking for Tano, and so are the Insquietas and the police. I’m sure he’ll go to jail for this. He didn’t even try to help the boy.
Noemí burst out crying. Belkys passed her a handkerchief and rubbed her back.
It’s dangerous for you to hide him here, Fata continued. A lot of people already know, they’re keeping the secret for now but I think by the end of the night, one of them will crack. They really have it in for you, Tano. The Insquieta boy was a good boy, he played football well, he could have been a star. Next month he was going to try out in Córdoba.
Tano lowered his head and acknowledged that yes, that the Insquieta boy played football better than all of us.
The only solution is for you to disappear, Fata said. I have the trailer in the field to the south, near the stream. If it’s alright with you, I can come get you in an hour and you can stay there for a few days. After that, maybe you’ll have to take off for Buenos Aires, change your name, leave for where no one knows you.
Tano looked hard at the formica on the table. Noemí cried. Belkys had forgotten about the maté. The four of us agreed that Fata’s plan was for the best. For me, it wouldn’t be a problem putting Tano up for a few more days, if only his father or the Insquietas were after him, but the police were another story. I had to think about my child, about Belkys, I couldn’t get into trouble. Fata came by with the truck very late, around two in the morning. I lent Tano a change of clothes, so he wouldn’t leave with what he had on. They were making arrangements for the wake at the funeral parlour. They had already sent the Insquieta boy to Villa María for the autopsy, but in just a little while he’d be coming back. Noemí cried like crazy before Tano got into the truck. We had to pull her off of him. She grabbed his sweatshirt, she hung off his legs, she didn’t let him go. Fata said goodbye from a distance. Before he left, Tano gave me a hug that still hurts. I never saw him again. In town they say that he threw himself under a train from guilt, like Tolchi Pereno, but that’s pure gossip. Just a little while ago, Fata told me that he’s living in Florencio Varela, that he opened an auto parts shop, that like his father, he has a good hand for cars. He’s doing well.
Belkys reached her seventh month in the middle of November; it was already hot outside. We fought about everything. About the baby’s name, the dirty clothes, food, money. We lived on what Belkys’ father gave us. It wasn’t much. I didn’t want to work with Papa at the hardware store. Every now and then Belkys’ mother came and changed our things, bustled around, scolded me for getting her daughter pregnant. One day Noemí Orozco came by the house, she wanted to see Belkys, and Belkys wasn’t home just then. She had gone with her mother to buy new pants, because her old ones didn’t fit anymore. I offered Noemí a maté. She said maté, no, she preferred wine, or whisky, if I had it. I don’t drink whisky, so there wasn’t any in the house. I offered her Gancia and she took wine. She drank two glasses without talking, sitting at the table, leafing through the pages of a magazine, Being Parents Today, which a girl at the pharmacy had lent us.
Who got Tolchi pregnant? Noemí asked suddenly. Was it you or was it Tano?
I guessed her intentions, I tried to change the subject and take her mind somewhere else. But she insisted. I had to tell her that it hadn’t been me, and I guessed it wasn’t Tano, either.
Maybe it was Tano, she told me. He never wanted to tell me, there must have been a reason he was hiding it.
Maybe he didn’t want to tell you, so you wouldn’t know how stupid we were. I don’t think either Tano or I had anything to do with it.
I always asked Tano, and he said that if he had to choose between Tolchi Pereno and me, he’d spend his life with me. What do you think? Am I prettier than Tolchi?
I told her yes, of course, but please not to tell Belkys I said that, because she would get upset. She smiled. She promised she wouldn’t tell.
If Tolchi hadn’t thrown herself under the train, at least one of Tano’s sons would be here today. I could go see him, I could visit him, like a godmother.
If you ask me, it wasn’t his, I answered. Who knows what trouble Tolchi had gotten herself into. She didn’t hang out with us a lot.
It’s not easy, Noemí said. It’s not easy being here. My boyfriend left, people know I slept with him, no one else will want me. Tano’s mother turned her back on me. She says I led him down the wrong path. Even worse is running into the Insquietas, I don’t have the eyes to look at them. If I hadn’t fought with Tano that night, none of this would have happened. Do you know why we fought?
I told her no, I didn’t know, and she should stop thinking about it, it wasn’t worth it. She looked at me.
About something stupid, she said and asked if I had more wine. I told her I didn’t have any more, but she went to the fridge, looked for a bottle and poured herself another glass.
Now I’ll either be a nun or a whore, I have no other choice, Noemí said.
You can go to Rosario. You have family there; you can transfer and finish high school there.
She shook her head. I can still see her. She was leaning on the kitchen counter and made a sour face, because the wine was strong and scratched her throat.
I don’t want to go, she said. What I want is for Tano to come back, to be the queen of the fifteenth birthdays, to marry him, to have a pretty house and three children, two boys and a girl. We were going to name the boys Alfonso and Miguel. We hadn’t yet decided if the girl should be Elisa or María Elisa, or Juliana. Tano liked Juliana, but I didn’t. What time does Belkys come back?
She should be coming home any minute now; it’s been a while since she left. They were going to the Co-op to look for pants and then coming right back.
Then I’m going, Noemí said and got up and left without giving me a chance to say anything else. The truth is, I thought of it then. I saw that she looked bad, and I thought of it. But I knew the engineer already had been warned to watch the tracks, to drive through town slowly. All the same, it didn’t happen that afternoon, it was two days later. She hanged herself from a tree in her backyard. Her mother had travelled to Río Cuarto to conduct some studies, and her father was at the bank. Noemí acted like she was leaving for school, came back, and hanged herself with her uniform on.
This affected Belkys a lot. It hadn’t been that way with Tolchi, since we were only classmates. But Noemí was her best friend. She didn’t want to go to the wake or the burial, so people wouldn’t see her all swollen by the pregnancy and from crying.I did go. Again at school they didn’t give us the day off. As a group we skipped class and all went together. Father Porto didn’t give speeches or anything, he blessed the coffin and read the usual. At first they said her parents would take her to be buried in Rosario, but in the end they left her here. The Italian Society gave them a niche in their cemetery. When I got home Belkys asked me how it went. I told her well, it went well. She burst out crying and told me I was insensitive, how could I say it went well. I tried to explain that it was just a way of saying things, but she didn’t understand. We went to sleep without talking. At three in the morning her screaming woke me up. Belkys was in the bathroom, she was having contractions. It was too soon, we weren’t even in the eighth month yet. It’s impossible, I told her, but she told me yes,that’s what it was. I ran to the Astronaves’ house around the corner to ask them to lend me their phone, and I called Belkys’ father. They came right away and took her to the clinic. The Astronaves had already let Karakachoff know, he was there in five minutes. It was as if I were in a dream and the only thing I said was it’s impossible, it’s too early, it’s impossible, it’s too early, it’s impossible, it’s too early. I sat in the waiting room, in one of the fake leather chairs. Belkys’ father smoked outside, and her mother was in the hallway, trying to see what was going on. The people in town were asleep, the only thing you could hear were Belkys’ screams. Karakachoff appeared, he took off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief. Then I noticed that it had gone silent. Belkys didn’t scream anymore. Karakachoff called me inside. Belkys was sleeping on a gurney, covered with a green sheet. They had sedated her.
It’s a girl, Karakachoff told me, but she’s very ill. It could be anything. We can only wait now. It’s already a miracle that she was born.
After two hours, they let me see her. She looked like the foetus in formaldehyde from the lab at school. She was missing something. She was tiny, with a huge head. She was quiet, her eyes were covered with gauze. Belkys wanted to name her Milagros Noemí. I agreed. Belkys spent her days next to the incubator. Her mother came to take her place, my mother came to take her place, but she didn’t want to leave. Karakachoff took me aside every now and then and told me things. Most likely she wasn’t a normal baby, she was going to have some handicap. He couldn’t tell what yet. We’d have to wait. It could be anything, Karakachoff told me. He gave me a pat on the back and left. Father Porto had already started building the new church, so one day during the lunch hour, while the bricklayers slept, I went into the construction site and wrote a little note to God. I folded it well, lifted a brick and encrusted it in thefresh mortar and stood there, not really knowing what to do. I left before anyone saw me. In the end, Milagros Noemí lasted a week, no more. We buried her in Belkys’ family’s vault. After the burial Belkys told me that she wanted to go sleep at her mother’s house. It sounded good to me. I didn’t go back to our house, either, I went to Mama and Papa’s and slept there. Belkys missed class an entire week. On Sunday I packed our things, I separated what her mother and my mother had bought us. I went to give the key back to Belkys’ father. I asked if I could see her, if I could talk to her, and he said it would be better not to, what for? I didn’t insist, because I agreed. What would I say? Afterward we saw each other at school, and we didn’t talk there either, even though we could have, at recess.
My fifteenth birthday fell on a Tuesday. It was drizzling when I woke up. It was cold, especially for December. Boys didn’t have fifteenth birthday parties. We used the occasion to have a cookout with our friends. I didn’t even tell anyone it was my birthday. A few people remembered and congratulated me at school. The day went by like any other. It rained and it was cold, that was the only difference. The town left the streetlights on all day because with the drizzle you couldn’t see anything. It was such a fine drizzle it seemed like mist. But it got you wet. In the morning, Mama offered to make me a cake. I told her no. Papa took me out driving and gave me an envelope. Inside there was money, a lot.
Buy what you want, he said.
I thanked him. Late at night the doorbell rang. It was Fata Buriolo, Mama got the door, I recognised his voice. Mama came to the bedroom to let me know he was looking for me, but I pretended I was asleep, I didn’t want to get up. Fata left. We hadn’t seen each other since Noemí’s wake. In the cemetery I wanted to go up to him and ask about Tano, but he made a gesture from a distance, as if we’d talk later. It wouldn’t look good to be seen together. When the burial was through, I couldn’t find him anywhere. He disappeared in the crowd. The night of my birthday Mama entered my bedroom and gave me a box wrapped in newspapers.
The Buriolo boy left this for you, she said.
Inside, between wads of paper, were two little white ceramic doves. They were a coffee table decoration, I had already seen them in the shop window at Constantin’s hardware store. On one side was a letter folded in quarters, written by hand. Fata told me a few things about Tano. He’d already left for Buenos Aires. A truck driver took him there, hidden in an empty trailer. He had an appointment to get new documents, to change his name. Fata had lent him money. He had also decided not to tell Tano anything about Noemí, and he asked me not to say anything, either, if by some chance Tano got in touch with me. Why tell him? Fata said, he already has enough to worry about. With time, Fata’s handwriting had gotten better. It wasn’t so disastrous anymore, you could read it. At the end he asked me to burn the letter, so no sign or proof of Tano’s whereabouts would remain. Then he wished me a happy birthday and explained that the little ceramic doves were a joke. So that the Holy Spirit may always be with you, he wrote in quotation marks. To see if you remember me every once in a while. I burned the letter, like he’d asked.
For a long time I thought about what to buy with the money that Papa had given me. I finally decided. I wanted a car. I went to the Petitos’ dealership, at the bend in the road. I asked one of them to show me the used cars. The cheapest, I told him. There was a Renault that looked nice. If you take care of them, Renaults last. It was green. The body and the motor were good. It needed new upholstery. Here and there it needed new chrome on the fenders, but it wasn’t bad for a start. I asked the price. I still needed half.
Ask your father; I’m sure the old man will help you out, one of the Petitos told me, the youngest.
I went to look at it a few afternoons. I got in the Renault at the back of the showroom and sat there. The Petitos didn’t say anything. I wasn’t doing anyone any harm. Every now and then they brought me a maté, otherwise, they left me alone. I closed my eyes and imagined I was driving through the streets in town. The shops on Nueve de Julio Street, the sports club, the bank, they all paraded past on either side of me. I drove around the plaza, took Santa Fe Street and drove by the old mill. I came back down the boulevard. I drove up the highway, past Cervio’s butcher shop; I drove slowly. I had to stop at the light by the bus terminal. I kept going, hugging the pines of the cemetery; I crossed the bridge over the creek, by the smoke cloud from the smouldering dump. After that it was pure highway and I sped up and the town fell back. Then I opened my eyes and I was at the back of the Petitos’ showroom again, between the polished, neatly-parked cars, and I saw the youngest Petito buff the Chevy that they had in front.
I could have asked Papa for the other half. He probably would have given it to me. But I didn’t want to.
The end of the year came. Belkys was still 15 years old, she wasn’t pregnant anymore, and she’d gotten thin again, so her father signed her up for the fifteenth birthday dance. I’m guessing she didn’t want to go, and they signed her up all the same, as if to cover up the pregnancy or to give her a change of scenery, to get her out of the house and finish recovering. Mama came in one day to tell me before I woke up. She sat on the edge of the bed. She handed me my coffee with milk. She had a dish towel in her hand and smelled like bleach.
Now I can tell you, she said. That girl wasn’t right for you. Thank goodness. You would have ruined your life.
God knows what He’s doing, she said as she got up.
Belkys entered the dance on her father’s arm. They made her the dress she wanted. It looked just like the one in the fashion magazine that she’d shown me a thousand times. The same fabric, the same colour. They say she was one of the most applauded. She came out as the queen. Her father was the president of the Farmers’ Co-operative, he was on the jury, he pulled some strings. Even Father Porto voted for her. Red put the photos on his storefront windows. Belkys comes out sitting on a throne covered with paper flowers. She barely smiles. She raises her arm, waves. In her hand she holds the golden sceptre, and the crown sits over her long hair, straight, with a few curls.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Janet Hendrickson translated The Future Is Not Ours (ed. Diego Trelles Paz), an anthology of fiction by young Latin American writers, and has published translations of fiction and essays in Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, n+1, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and is a PhD student in Hispanic Literature at Cornell.