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Things We Lost in the Fire, The Dirty Kid (3)

The Dirty Kid (3)

“What happened?”

“They found a little kid.”

“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. 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 police, 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, 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. And for what?

“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 Constitución? 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 running, the journalists out of breath, everyone surging toward the woman coming out of the DA's office. “Nora, Nora,” they yelled. “Who could have done 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—surely the kilos she'd put on with the pregnancy. Almost the opposite of the dirty kid's mother.

It was impossible to make out what she was shouting. She was falling down. Someone, probably a sister, supported her from behind. I changed channels, but they were all showing that wailing woman, until a policeman got between the microphones and her sobs, 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 are never in one place for long; they can stay for a while, but they always leave. Sometimes they run away from their parents. Or they vanish because some distant uncle turns up and takes pity on them and brings 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 slowly descend the stairs wearing a turban and holding a cigarette: a 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.”



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The Dirty Kid (3)

“What happened?”

“They found a little kid.”

“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. 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 police, 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, 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. And for what?

“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 Constitución? 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 running, the journalists out of breath, everyone surging toward the woman coming out of the DA's office. “Nora, Nora,” they yelled. “Who could have done 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—surely the kilos she'd put on with the pregnancy. Almost the opposite of the dirty kid's mother.

It was impossible to make out what she was shouting. She was falling down. Someone, probably a sister, supported her from behind. I changed channels, but they were all showing that wailing woman, until a policeman got between the microphones and her sobs, 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 are never in one place for long; they can stay for a while, but they always leave. Sometimes they run away from their parents. Or they vanish because some distant uncle turns up and takes pity on them and brings 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 slowly descend the stairs wearing a turban and holding a cigarette: a 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.”

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