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Things We Lost in the Fire, The Dirty Kid (4)

The Dirty Kid (4)

It was hard to walk around the neighborhood with the same confidence I'd had before the crime. Nachito's murder had an almost narcotic effect on that area of Constitución. At night you didn't hear fighting anymore, and the dealers had moved a few blocks south. There were too many cops watching the place where they'd found the body. Which, said the newspapers and the investigators, had not been the scene of the crime. Someone had dumped him there in the old parking lot, already dead.

On the corner where the dirty kid and his mom used to sleep, the neighbors set up a shrine to the Headless Boy, as they now called him. And they put up a photo with a caption that said Justice for Nachito. In spite of the seemingly good intentions, the detectives didn't entirely believe the consternation around the neighborhood. Quite the opposite: they thought people were covering for someone. And so the district attorney had ordered many of the neighbors to be questioned.

I was one of the people they called in to give a statement. I didn't tell Lala, so she wouldn't worry. She hadn't been summoned. It was a very short interview and I didn't say anything that could help them.

I'd slept soundly that night.

No, I hadn't heard anything.

There are street kids in the neighborhood, yes.

The DA showed me the photo of Nachito. I told her I'd never seen him. I wasn't lying. He was completely different from the boys in the neighborhood: a round little boy with dimples and neatly combed hair. I had never seen a boy like that (and smiling!) around Constitución.

No, I never saw black-magic altars in the street or in any of the houses. Only shrines to Gauchito Gil. On Calle Ceballos.

Did I know that Gauchito Gil had practically been decapitated himself, his throat slit? Yes, the whole country knew the legend. I don't think this has to do with Gauchito, do you?

No, of course, you don't have to answer my questions. Well, anyway, I don't think they're related, but I don't know anything about those rituals.

I work as a graphic designer. For a newspaper. For the supplement “Fashion & Woman.” Why do I live in Constitución? It's my family's house and it's a beautiful house; you can see it if you go to the neighborhood.

Of course I'll let you know if I hear anything, sure. Yes, I have trouble sleeping, like everyone. We're very scared.

It was clear I wasn't a suspect, they just had to talk to people in the neighborhood. I went home by bus to avoid the five blocks I'd have to walk if I took the subway. Since the murder I'd avoided the subway because I didn't want to run into the dirty kid. And at the same time, my desire to see him again was obsessive, feverish. In spite of the photos, in spite of the evidence—even the pictures of the corpse, which one newspaper had published to the false outrage and horror of a public that bought up every copy of several editions with the decapitated boy on the front page—I still believed it was the dirty kid who had died.

Or who would be the next to die. It wasn't a rational idea. I told it to Lala at her hair salon the afternoon I went back to dye my tips pink again, a job that took hours. Now no one was flipping through magazines or painting their nails or sending text messages while they waited their turn in Lala's chair. Now they did nothing but talk about the Headless Boy. The time of prudent silence had passed, but I still hadn't heard anyone name a suspect in anything but the most general way. Sarita was telling how once, in Chaco, where she was from, a similar thing had happened, only to a little girl.

“They found her with her head off to one side, too, and very raped, poor little soul. She'd shit all over herself.”

“Sarita, please, I'm begging you,” said Lala.

“But that's how it was, what do you want me to say? We're talking witches, here.”

“The police think they're narcos,” I said.

“Witch-narcos are everywhere,” said Sarita. “You can't even imagine what it's like out in Chaco. They perform rites to ask for protection. That's why they cut off the head and put it to the left of the body. They think if they make those offerings the police won't catch them, because the heads have power. They're not just narcos, they also traffic women.”

“But, you think they're around here, in Constitución?”

“They're everywhere,” said Sarita.

I dreamed about the dirty kid. I went out onto the balcony and he was in the middle of the street. I waved my arms at him, trying to get him to move because a truck was barreling toward him. But the dirty kid kept looking up, looking at me and the balcony, smiling, his teeth scummy and small. And the truck ran him over and I couldn't help seeing how the wheel burst his belly open like a soccer ball and then dragged his intestines as far as the corner. In the middle of the street was the dirty kid's head, still smiling, his eyes open.

I woke up sweating and shaking. From the street came the sound of a sleepy cumbia rhythm. Little by little, some of the neighborhood's noises were coming back: the drunk fighting, the music, the motorcycles with their rattling exhaust pipes—the local kids liked to loosen them so they'd make a lot of noise. There was a gag order on the investigation, which is to say the confusion was absolute. I visited my mother several times and when she asked me to go live with her, for a while at least, I said no. She called me crazy and we argued, yelling at each other like we never had before.

One night I came home late because, after the office, I'd gone to a colleague's birthday party. It was one of the last days of summer. I took the bus home and got off before my stop so I could take a walk through the neighborhood, alone. By then I knew how to handle myself again. If you know what you're doing, Constitución is easy. I was smoking as I walked. Then I saw her.

The dirty kid's mother was thin; she'd always been thin, even when she was pregnant. From behind, no one would have guessed at the belly she'd had. It's the usual build of addicts: the hips stay narrow like they're refusing to make room for the baby, the body doesn't produce fat, the thighs don't expand. At nine months, the legs are two rickety sticks holding up a basketball, a woman who swallowed a basketball. Now, without her belly, the dirty kid's mother looked more than ever like a teenager as she leaned against a tree, trying to light her crack pipe under the streetlight, unconcerned about the police—who'd been patrolling the neighborhood much more frequently since the Headless Boy's murder—or about other addicts or anything else.

I approached her slowly, and when she saw me, there was immediate recognition in her eyes. Immediate! Her eyes narrowed, squinted: she wanted to run away, but something stopped her. Maybe she was dizzy. Those seconds of doubt were enough for me to block her escape, to stop in front of her, force her to talk. I pushed her against the tree and held her there. She wasn't strong enough to fight back.

“Where is your son?”

“What son? Let me go.”

We both spoke quietly.

“Your son. You know very well who I'm talking about.”

The dirty kid's mother opened her mouth and it nauseated me to smell her hungry breath, sweet and rotten like fruit left out in the sun, mixed with the medicinal smell of the drug and that burned stench. Addicts smell of burned rubber, of toxic factories, polluted water, chemical death.

“I don't have any kids.”

I pressed her harder against the tree, I grabbed her neck. I don't know if she felt pain, but I drove my nails into her. She wouldn't remember me in a few hours anyway. I wasn't afraid of the police either. I knew they wouldn't get too worried over a fight between two women.

“You're going to tell me the truth. You were pregnant until recently.”

The dirty kid's mom tried to burn me with her lighter, but I saw her coming, the thin hand that tried to hold the flame to my hair. The bitch wanted to set me on fire. I squeezed her wrist so hard that the lighter fell to the sidewalk. She stopped fighting.

“I DON'T HAVE ANY KIDS!” she yelled at me, and the sound of her voice, too thick, ill, woke me up. What was I doing? Strangling a dying teenager in front of my house? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I did need to move. Maybe, as everyone had said, I was fixated on that house because it allowed me to isolate myself, because no one visited me there, because I was depressed and I made up romantic stories about a neighborhood that really was just shit, shit, shit. That was what my mother had shouted at me and I swore never to speak to her again, but now, with my hands around the young addict's neck, I thought maybe she wasn't entirely wrong.

Maybe I wasn't the princess in her castle; maybe I was a madwoman locked in her tower.

The junkie girl wiggled out of my hands and started to run, slowly, still choking. But when she got halfway down the block, right where the streetlight shone directly on her, she turned around. She was laughing and in the light you could see her bleeding gums.

“I gave them to him!” she shouted.

The words were for me. She was looking me right in the eyes with that horrible recognition. And then she caressed her belly with both hands and said, clearly, loudly:

“This one too. I promised him them both.”

I ran toward her, but she was fast. Or she'd suddenly become fast, I don't know. She crossed Plaza Garay like a cat and I went after her, but when the traffic started moving on the avenue, she managed to dodge the cars and make it across and I didn't. I couldn't breathe. My legs were shaking. Someone came up to me and asked if the girl had robbed me and I said yes, hoping they'd chase her. But no. They only asked me if I was OK, if I wanted a taxi, what had she stolen from me.

A taxi, yes, I said. I stopped one and asked the driver to take me to my house, only five blocks away. The driver didn't complain. He was used to that kind of short trip in this neighborhood. Or maybe he just didn't feel like arguing. It was late. It must have been his last fare before heading home.

When I closed the door I didn't feel the relief of the cool rooms, the wooden staircase, the walled garden, the old mosaics and high ceilings. I turned on the light and the lamp flickered: it's going to go out, I thought, I'll be left in the dark. It steadied, though the light it gave off was yellowish, old, dim. I sat down on the floor with my back against the door. I was waiting to hear the soft taps from the dirty kid's sticky hand, or the sound of his head rolling down the stairs. I was waiting for the dirty kid to ask me, again, to let him in.



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The Dirty Kid (4)

It was hard to walk around the neighborhood with the same confidence I'd had before the crime. Nachito's murder had an almost narcotic effect on that area of Constitución. At night you didn't hear fighting anymore, and the dealers had moved a few blocks south. There were too many cops watching the place where they'd found the body. Which, said the newspapers and the investigators, had not been the scene of the crime. Someone had dumped him there in the old parking lot, already dead.

On the corner where the dirty kid and his mom used to sleep, the neighbors set up a shrine to the Headless Boy, as they now called him. And they put up a photo with a caption that said Justice for Nachito. In spite of the seemingly good intentions, the detectives didn't entirely believe the consternation around the neighborhood. Quite the opposite: they thought people were covering for someone. And so the district attorney had ordered many of the neighbors to be questioned.

I was one of the people they called in to give a statement. I didn't tell Lala, so she wouldn't worry. She hadn't been summoned. It was a very short interview and I didn't say anything that could help them.

I'd slept soundly that night.

No, I hadn't heard anything.

There are street kids in the neighborhood, yes.

The DA showed me the photo of Nachito. I told her I'd never seen him. I wasn't lying. He was completely different from the boys in the neighborhood: a round little boy with dimples and neatly combed hair. I had never seen a boy like that (and smiling!) around Constitución.

No, I never saw black-magic altars in the street or in any of the houses. Only shrines to Gauchito Gil. On Calle Ceballos.

Did I know that Gauchito Gil had practically been decapitated himself, his throat slit? Yes, the whole country knew the legend. I don't think this has to do with Gauchito, do you?

No, of course, you don't have to answer my questions. Well, anyway, I don't think they're related, but I don't know anything about those rituals.

I work as a graphic designer. For a newspaper. For the supplement “Fashion & Woman.” Why do I live in Constitución? It's my family's house and it's a beautiful house; you can see it if you go to the neighborhood.

Of course I'll let you know if I hear anything, sure. Yes, I have trouble sleeping, like everyone. We're very scared.

It was clear I wasn't a suspect, they just had to talk to people in the neighborhood. I went home by bus to avoid the five blocks I'd have to walk if I took the subway. Since the murder I'd avoided the subway because I didn't want to run into the dirty kid. And at the same time, my desire to see him again was obsessive, feverish. In spite of the photos, in spite of the evidence—even the pictures of the corpse, which one newspaper had published to the false outrage and horror of a public that bought up every copy of several editions with the decapitated boy on the front page—I still believed it was the dirty kid who had died.

Or who would be the next to die. It wasn't a rational idea. I told it to Lala at her hair salon the afternoon I went back to dye my tips pink again, a job that took hours. Now no one was flipping through magazines or painting their nails or sending text messages while they waited their turn in Lala's chair. Now they did nothing but talk about the Headless Boy. The time of prudent silence had passed, but I still hadn't heard anyone name a suspect in anything but the most general way. Sarita was telling how once, in Chaco, where she was from, a similar thing had happened, only to a little girl.

“They found her with her head off to one side, too, and very raped, poor little soul. She'd shit all over herself.”

“Sarita, please, I'm begging you,” said Lala.

“But that's how it was, what do you want me to say? We're talking witches, here.”

“The police think they're narcos,” I said.

“Witch-narcos are everywhere,” said Sarita. “You can't even imagine what it's like out in Chaco. They perform rites to ask for protection. That's why they cut off the head and put it to the left of the body. They think if they make those offerings the police won't catch them, because the heads have power. They're not just narcos, they also traffic women.”

“But, you think they're around here, in Constitución?”

“They're everywhere,” said Sarita.

I dreamed about the dirty kid. I went out onto the balcony and he was in the middle of the street. I waved my arms at him, trying to get him to move because a truck was barreling toward him. But the dirty kid kept looking up, looking at me and the balcony, smiling, his teeth scummy and small. And the truck ran him over and I couldn't help seeing how the wheel burst his belly open like a soccer ball and then dragged his intestines as far as the corner. In the middle of the street was the dirty kid's head, still smiling, his eyes open.

I woke up sweating and shaking. From the street came the sound of a sleepy cumbia rhythm. Little by little, some of the neighborhood's noises were coming back: the drunk fighting, the music, the motorcycles with their rattling exhaust pipes—the local kids liked to loosen them so they'd make a lot of noise. There was a gag order on the investigation, which is to say the confusion was absolute. I visited my mother several times and when she asked me to go live with her, for a while at least, I said no. She called me crazy and we argued, yelling at each other like we never had before.

One night I came home late because, after the office, I'd gone to a colleague's birthday party. It was one of the last days of summer. I took the bus home and got off before my stop so I could take a walk through the neighborhood, alone. By then I knew how to handle myself again. If you know what you're doing, Constitución is easy. I was smoking as I walked. Then I saw her.

The dirty kid's mother was thin; she'd always been thin, even when she was pregnant. From behind, no one would have guessed at the belly she'd had. It's the usual build of addicts: the hips stay narrow like they're refusing to make room for the baby, the body doesn't produce fat, the thighs don't expand. At nine months, the legs are two rickety sticks holding up a basketball, a woman who swallowed a basketball. Now, without her belly, the dirty kid's mother looked more than ever like a teenager as she leaned against a tree, trying to light her crack pipe under the streetlight, unconcerned about the police—who'd been patrolling the neighborhood much more frequently since the Headless Boy's murder—or about other addicts or anything else.

I approached her slowly, and when she saw me, there was immediate recognition in her eyes. Immediate! Her eyes narrowed, squinted: she wanted to run away, but something stopped her. Maybe she was dizzy. Those seconds of doubt were enough for me to block her escape, to stop in front of her, force her to talk. I pushed her against the tree and held her there. She wasn't strong enough to fight back.

“Where is your son?”

“What son? Let me go.”

We both spoke quietly.

“Your son. You know very well who I'm talking about.”

The dirty kid's mother opened her mouth and it nauseated me to smell her hungry breath, sweet and rotten like fruit left out in the sun, mixed with the medicinal smell of the drug and that burned stench. Addicts smell of burned rubber, of toxic factories, polluted water, chemical death.

“I don't have any kids.”

I pressed her harder against the tree, I grabbed her neck. I don't know if she felt pain, but I drove my nails into her. She wouldn't remember me in a few hours anyway. I wasn't afraid of the police either. I knew they wouldn't get too worried over a fight between two women.

“You're going to tell me the truth. You were pregnant until recently.”

The dirty kid's mom tried to burn me with her lighter, but I saw her coming, the thin hand that tried to hold the flame to my hair. The bitch wanted to set me on fire. I squeezed her wrist so hard that the lighter fell to the sidewalk. She stopped fighting.

“I DON'T HAVE ANY KIDS!” she yelled at me, and the sound of her voice, too thick, ill, woke me up. What was I doing? Strangling a dying teenager in front of my house? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I did need to move. Maybe, as everyone had said, I was fixated on that house because it allowed me to isolate myself, because no one visited me there, because I was depressed and I made up romantic stories about a neighborhood that really was just shit, shit, shit. That was what my mother had shouted at me and I swore never to speak to her again, but now, with my hands around the young addict's neck, I thought maybe she wasn't entirely wrong.

Maybe I wasn't the princess in her castle; maybe I was a madwoman locked in her tower.

The junkie girl wiggled out of my hands and started to run, slowly, still choking. But when she got halfway down the block, right where the streetlight shone directly on her, she turned around. She was laughing and in the light you could see her bleeding gums.

“I gave them to him!” she shouted.

The words were for me. She was looking me right in the eyes with that horrible recognition. And then she caressed her belly with both hands and said, clearly, loudly:

“This one too. I promised him them both.”

I ran toward her, but she was fast. Or she'd suddenly become fast, I don't know. She crossed Plaza Garay like a cat and I went after her, but when the traffic started moving on the avenue, she managed to dodge the cars and make it across and I didn't. I couldn't breathe. My legs were shaking. Someone came up to me and asked if the girl had robbed me and I said yes, hoping they'd chase her. But no. They only asked me if I was OK, if I wanted a taxi, what had she stolen from me.

A taxi, yes, I said. I stopped one and asked the driver to take me to my house, only five blocks away. The driver didn't complain. He was used to that kind of short trip in this neighborhood. Or maybe he just didn't feel like arguing. It was late. It must have been his last fare before heading home.

When I closed the door I didn't feel the relief of the cool rooms, the wooden staircase, the walled garden, the old mosaics and high ceilings. I turned on the light and the lamp flickered: it's going to go out, I thought, I'll be left in the dark. It steadied, though the light it gave off was yellowish, old, dim. I sat down on the floor with my back against the door. I was waiting to hear the soft taps from the dirty kid's sticky hand, or the sound of his head rolling down the stairs. I was waiting for the dirty kid to ask me, again, to let him in.

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