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Things We Lost in the Fire, The Dirty Kid (2)

The Dirty Kid (2)

“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 piece of concrete.

“OK,” I told him. “Come on.”

He was barefoot. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been wearing 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 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 muggings 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, and I saw that 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 on 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 confidently and seemed used to going barefoot. 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. The place where he had bled to death became a shrine that still exists today, and thousands of people visit it 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. People make pilgrimages to the Mercedes sanctuary in Corrientes in 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 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 was worried about 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? There was a number to call in winter to report someone living on 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 enormous belly was bare, her shirt too short to 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 made. 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 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, but 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 kinds of friends she had in the neighborhood. I didn't know anything about her. After a while, I went up to the second floor and looked out from the balcony. She was lying there faceup, smoking a cigarette. The dirty kid was next to her and 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 turned up 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.



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The Dirty Kid (2)

“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 piece of concrete.

“OK,” I told him. “Come on.”

He was barefoot. The last time I'd seen him, he'd been wearing 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 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 muggings 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, and I saw that 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 on 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 confidently and seemed used to going barefoot. 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. The place where he had bled to death became a shrine that still exists today, and thousands of people visit it 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. People make pilgrimages to the Mercedes sanctuary in Corrientes in 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 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 was worried about 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? There was a number to call in winter to report someone living on 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 enormous belly was bare, her shirt too short to 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 made. 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 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, but 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 kinds of friends she had in the neighborhood. I didn't know anything about her. After a while, I went up to the second floor and looked out from the balcony. She was lying there faceup, smoking a cigarette. The dirty kid was next to her and 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 turned up 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.

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