The Dirty Kid

by Mariana Enriquez, recommended by McSweeney’s

EDITOR’S NOTE BY DANIEL GUMBINER

For McSweeney’s 46, we reached out to thirteen writers across Latin America and asked them to send us a crime story set in their home country. We encouraged them to stretch their definition of the genre as far as they felt like stretching it, and ultimately, almost none of our writers came back with something straightforward. This was, we came to realize, the most delightful of all possible results. Jorge Enrique Lage sent in a story about a Cuban transvestite named Amy Winehouse; Joca Reiners Terron delivered one about a befuddled Polish insurance broker visiting Sao Paolo. And we received this gem from the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez: “The Dirty Kid.”

image

I first read this story while taking the train home from work, and I was so engrossed that I missed my stop — I know this is a terrible cliché, missing a stop because you’re so engrossed in something, but like a lot of clichés, it’s true, it happened. In any case, this is sort of relevant, because it’s the type of detail that Mariana would be unafraid to include in a story. Her fictional universe feels unabashed, unmediated, and unafraid; her writing is so honest and observant that it’s able to evoke a reality that somehow seems more vivid than my own. Certainly more vivid than whatever was passing by outside my train. This is, of course, is the result of painstaking craftsmanship, and evidence of a first-rate writer.

But Enriquez’s work, I think, stands out for more than just its style. The story you are about to read explores the relationship between an upper-class graphic designer and a homeless child. Drawing on rural mythology and the texture of everyday life in Buenos Aires, Enriquez brings two distinct Porteño social classes into direct contact with each other, illuminating both the absurdity and the logic of the divisions that exist between them. It’s an enchanting, heartrending story — and also a remarkable meditation on the nature of violence and suspicion. Enriquez is a true storyteller, and through her work, you can sense the presence of a remarkably generous spirit.

I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

You can read interviews with all the McSweeney’s 46 authors here.

Daniel Gumbiner
Managing Editor, McSweeney’s

The Dirty Kid

Click to purchase the Kindle edition

The Dirty Kid

by Mariana Enriquez, recommended by McSweeney’s

Translated by Joel Streicker

1
My family thinks I’m crazy because I choose to live in the family house in Constitución, my paternal grandparents’ house, a hulk of stone and green-painted iron doors on Virreyes Street, with Art Deco details and old mosaics on the floor so worn out that, had it occurred to me to wax them, I could have set up a skating rink. But I had always been in love with that house, and, as a girl, when they first rented it to a law firm, I remember how much it upset me, how much I missed those rooms with tall windows and the interior patio that seemed like a secret garden, how frustrated I was when I went by the door and could no longer freely enter. I didn’t miss my grandfather much, a quiet man who scarcely smiled and never played. I didn’t even cry much when he died. I cried a lot more when, after his death, we lost the house.

After the lawyers a dental office took over. Then, finally, it was rented to a travel magazine, which closed in less than two years. The house was beautiful and comfortable, and in notably good condition for its age; but now no one, or very few people, wanted to move to the neighborhood. The travel magazine had only set up shop because the rent, back then, had been very cheap. Not even that had saved them from bankruptcy, although it certainly didn’t help that their offices were robbed a few months after they moved in. The thieves took all the computers, a microwave, even a heavy photocopier.

Constitución is where the trains from the south enter the city. It was the neighborhood where the Buenos Aires aristocracy lived in the nineteenth century — that’s why these houses, like my family’s, exist. In 1887, the aristocrats fled to the north of the city, trying to escape an epidemic of yellow fever raging in the south. Few, almost none, returned. Some of the mansions were converted into hotels or old-age homes; over time, rich merchants like my grandfather were able to buy up the unoccupied ones, with their gargoyles and bronze doorknockers. But the neighborhood has been marked by flight, abandonment, undesirability. On the other side of the station, in Barracas, the old houses have been reduced to rubble.

And it’s worse all the time.

But if you know how to handle yourself, if you understand the dynamics, the schedules, it’s not that dangerous. Or not as dangerous. It’s a question of not being afraid, of making a few key friends, of greeting the neighbors even though they’re criminals — especially if they’re criminals. Of walking with your head up, paying attention. I know that Friday nights, if I approach Plaza Garay, I may get trapped in a fight between various combatants: the small-time drug dealers of Ceballos Street, the brain-dead addicts who attack one another with bottles, the drunken transvestites determined to defend their stretch of pavement. I also know that if I come home on the avenue, I’m more exposed to a mugging than if I return down Solís Street, despite the fact that the avenue is very well lit. You have to know the neighborhood to learn such strategies. I was mugged twice on the avenue; both times kids came running by and snatched my bag and threw me to the ground. The first time I filed a report with the police. The second time I knew it was useless, because I had learned that the police had given them permission. The kids were allowed to claim victims on the avenue as far as the freeway overpass — three liberated blocks — in exchange for certain favors.

I like the neighborhood. No one understands why. But it makes me feel precise, daring, sharp. There aren’t many places like Constitución left in the city, which, except for the slums on the outskirts, has grown far richer and friendlier — it’s intense and enormous, still, but easy to live in. Constitución isn’t easy or friendly, but it’s beautiful, with all its old buildings that stand, now, like abandoned temples, occupied by infidels who don’t know that praises to the gods were once heard within those walls.

A lot of people live in the street here. Not as many as in Plaza Congreso, which is a couple of kilometers from my door; that’s a real encampment, right in front of the legislative buildings, neatly ignored but at the same time so visible that, each night, squads of volunteers flock in to give the people food, check the kids’ health, and hand out blankets in the winter and cold water in the summer. In Constitución the street people are left on their own — organized help seldom reaches them. In front of my house, on a corner alongside the boarded-up grocery store, its doors and windows blocked with bricks, live a young woman and her son. She’s pregnant, a few months along, although you never know with the addicted mothers in the neighborhood, skinny as they are. The son must be about five years old. He doesn’t go to school and spends the day on the subway, asking for money in exchange for prayer cards of San Expedito. I know this because, one night, when I was coming back from downtown, I saw him in my subway car. He has a very unsettling method: after offering the prayer cards to the passengers, he forces them to shake his hand, a brief and filthy clasp, and sometimes he gives them a kiss on the cheek. The passengers contain their shame and disgust: the kid is dirty and he stinks. No one was compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call a social worker. People shook his hand, kissed him, and bought the prayer cards. He was scowling. When he talks, his voice is hoarse; he usually has a cold, and sometimes he smokes with the other kids in the subway station.

That night we walked together from the subway station to my house. He didn’t talk to me, but we walked together. I asked him a few silly questions, his age, his name, but he didn’t answer me. He wasn’t a sweet or affectionate kid. When I got to the door of my house, though, he said good-bye.

“Good-bye, neighbor,” he said to me.

“Good-bye, neighbor,” I replied.

The dirty kid and his mother sleep on three mattresses that are so worn-out that, stacked up, they’re the same height as a single box spring. The mother keeps their few clothes in black garbage bags and has a backpack full of other things that I can never make out. She never leaves the corner, where she begs for money in a mournful and monotonous voice. I don’t like the mother. Not just because she smokes crack and the ashes burn her pregnant belly, or because I never saw her treat her son, the dirty kid, with any kindness. It’s something else.

I was telling this to my friend Lala while she cut my hair in her house — it was Monday, during a three-day weekend. Lala is a hairdresser, but she hasn’t worked in a salon in a long time; she doesn’t like bosses, she says. She earns more money and has more peace of mind in her apartment. She has less hot water, however, because the water heater works terribly. Sometimes, when she’s washing my hair after dyeing it, I get a stream of cold water on my head that makes me shout in surprise. Then she rolls her eyes and explains that all the plumbers cheat her — they overcharge her, they never come back. I believe her.

“That woman is a monster, girl,” she yells, while almost burning my scalp with her ancient hair dryer and smoothing my hair with her thick fingers. Lala decided to be a woman, and Brazilian, many years ago; she was born a man, in Uruguay. Now she’s the best transvestite hairdresser in the neighborhood. She no longer works as a prostitute; just the same, she’s so used to faking a Portuguese accent (very useful for seducing men on the street) that sometimes she speaks Portuguese on the phone or, when she’s upset, raises her arms toward the ceiling and demands vengeance or pity from Pomba Gira, her personal exú, for whom she has a small altar set up in the corner of her living room, right next to the computer, which is always on and perpetually set up for instant messaging.

“A monster?” I say. “Really?”

“She gives me the shivers, mami. She’s, like, I don’t know, damned.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I’m not saying anything. But here in the neighborhood, they say she’ll do anything for money — that she goes to witches’ covens, even.”

“Ay, Lala, what are you talking about? There aren’t any witches here.”

She gave my hair a pull that seemed intentional, but then said she was sorry. It was intentional.

“What do you know about what really happens around here, mamita? You live here, but you’re from another world.”

She’s a little bit right, but it bothers me to hear it like that. It bothers me that she, so directly, puts me in my place — the middle-class woman who thinks she’s defiant because she decided to live in the most dangerous neighborhood in Buenos Aires. I sigh.

“You’re right, Lala. But I mean, she lives in front of my house. She’s always there, on the mattress. She doesn’t even move.”

“You work a lot. You don’t know what she does, and you don’t monitor her at night either. The people in this neighborhood, mami, are really… How would you say… Before you know it, they attack you?”

“Stealthy?”

“Yes. You’ve got a great vocabulary — doesn’t she, Sarita? She’s classy.”

Sarita has been waiting for Lala to finish with my hair for about fifteen minutes, but waiting doesn’t bother her. She flips through a magazine. Sarita is a young transvestite who works as a prostitute on Solís Street. She’s very beautiful.

“Tell her, Sarita. Tell her what you told me.”

But Sarita puckers her lips like a silent-movie diva and has no desire to tell me anything. So much the better. I don’t want to listen to neighborhood horror stories anyway. They’re all far-fetched and credible at the same time, but for the most part they don’t scare me, at least during the day. At night, when I try to finish up the work I’m behind on, sometimes I’ll remember one of them. Then I check to make sure the door to the street is well locked and also the one to the balcony, and sometimes I go to the window to watch the corner where the dirty kid and his mother are totally quiet, like the nameless dead.

2
One night, after dinner, the doorbell rang. Strange: almost no one visits me at that hour. Except Lala, on nights when she feels lonely, and we stay up together listening to sad rancheras and drinking whiskey. When I looked out the window to see who it was — no one opens the door straight off in this neighborhood if the bell rings around midnight — I saw that it was the dirty kid. I ran to look for the keys and I let him in. He had been crying; you could tell by the clear tracks that the tears had made on his filthy face. He came in running, but he stopped before he got to the dining room door, as if he needed my permission. Or as if he was scared to keep going forward.

“What happened to you?” I asked him.

“My mom didn’t come back,” he said. His voice was less harsh, but it still didn’t sound like a five-year-old’s.

“She left you alone?”

Yes, he nodded.

“Are you scared?”

“I’m hungry,” he answered. He was also scared, but he was already hardened enough not to acknowledge that to a stranger, much less one who had a house, a beautiful and enormous house, right in front of the piece of ground where he lived.

“All right,” I told him. “Come in.”

He was barefoot. The last time I had seen him, he’d had on some pretty new gym shoes. Had he taken them off because of the heat? Or had someone stolen them during the night? I didn’t want to ask. I had him sit in a chair in the kitchen and I popped some rice and chicken into the oven. While he waited, I spread cheese on a slice of sourdough bread. He ate while looking me in the eye, very serious and calm. He was hungry but not starving.

“Where did your mom go?”

He shrugged.

“Does she go off a lot?”

He shrugged again. I wanted to shake him; immediately, I was ashamed of myself. He needed me to help him. He had no reason to satiate my morbid curiosity, but something about his silence angered me. I wanted him to be a friendly and enchanting little boy, not this sullen and dirty kid who ate his rice and chicken slowly, savoring each mouthful, and belched after finishing his glass of Coca-Cola. I had nothing to give him for dessert, but I knew that the ice cream shop on the avenue would be open; in summer, it stayed open 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; one of them, a lower tooth, was about to fall out.

I was a little scared to go out so late, especially on the avenue, but the ice cream shop was neutral territory, muggings and fights seldom took place there. Instead of bringing my purse, I put a little money in my pants pocket. In the street, the dirty kid gave me his hand. We crossed the street, and I noticed that the mattress he slept on with his mother was still empty. The backpack wasn’t there, either.

We had to walk three blocks to the ice cream shop and I chose Ceballos Street, which could be quiet and peaceful on some nights. Certain transvestites — the least statuesque, the plumpest, the oldest — chose Ceballos Street to work on. I regretted not having gym shoes to put on the dirty kid: there were usually pieces of glass and broken bottles on the sidewalk, and I didn’t want him to get hurt. But he walked barefoot with great assurance; he was used to it.

That night, the three blocks were almost devoid of transvestites, but they were full of altars. They were celebrating the Eighth of January, the day of Gauchito Gil: a saint mainly popular in Corrientes province, but venerated throughout the country, especially in poor neighborhoods. Antonio Gil, it is said, was murdered for being an army deserter at the end of the nineteenth century. A policeman tortured him, hung him from a tree by his feet, and was about to cut off his head when the deserting gauchito said, “If you want your son to be cured, you have to pray to me.” Then the policeman decapitated him.

As it happened, the policeman’s son was very sick. The man learned this when he returned home; when he prayed to Gil, the child was cured. So the policeman returned to the body and took Antonio Gil down from the tree, buried him, and, in the place where he’d been killed, erected a sanctuary, which still exists today, and which, every summer, receives almost a million visitors. I found myself telling the story of the miraculous gauchito to the dirty kid, and we stopped in front of one of the altars. There was the plaster saint, with his sky-blue shirt and his red handkerchief around his neck — a red headband, too — and a cross on his back, also red. There were several red cloths and a small red flag: the color of blood, a reminder of injustice. But somehow it wasn’t morbid or sinister. The gauchito brings luck, cures, he helps and doesn’t ask much in return, just that people pay homage to him and sometimes offer a bit of alcohol, or make the pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Mercedes, in Corrientes, with its 120-degree heat. Devotees arrive there on foot, by bus, on horseback, from everywhere, even Patagonia. The candles all around made the dirty kid blink in the half darkness. I lit one that had gone out and then used the flame to light a cigarette.

The dirty kid seemed uneasy. “Let’s go to the ice cream shop,” I said to him. But that wasn’t it.

“The gauchito is good,” he said. “But the other one isn’t.”

He said it in a low voice, looking at the candles. “What other one?”

I asked.

“The skeleton,” he told me. “There are skeletons back there.”

Back there. In the neighborhood, “back there” was a reference to the southern side of the station, beyond the platforms, where the rails and their embankments fade into the distance. Altars for saints less benevolent than Gauchito Gil turn up there. I know that Lala takes her offerings to Pomba Gira — her colorful dishes and her supermarket-bought chickens, because she can’t bring herself to kill a hen — to the embankments. She does this during the day, because it can be dangerous at night. She’s told me that there are altars for San La Muerte, Death, back there, the little skeleton saint with his red and black candles.

But even Death’s not a bad saint, I said to the dirty kid, who looked at me with wide eyes, as if I were telling him something completely nuts. He’s a saint who can do bad things if people ask him to, but most people don’t ask for awful things — they ask for protection.

“Your mom takes you back there?” I asked him.

“Yes, but sometimes I go by myself,” he answered. And then he tugged on my arm so that we would keep going to the ice cream shop. It was very hot. The sidewalk in front of the ice cream shop was sticky — so many cones that had dripped. I thought about the dirty kid’s bare feet, now with all this new filth. He ran inside and ordered, with his old person’s voice, a large cone with custard crème and chocolate chips. I didn’t order anything. The heat had taken away my appetite, and I didn’t know what I should do with the kid if his mother didn’t appear. Take him to the police station? To a hospital? Make him stay at my house until she returned? Was there something like Social Services in this city? There was a number to call during the winter, if someone who lived in the street was getting too cold, but I didn’t know of much more. I realized, while the dirty kid licked the ice cream off his fingers, how little other people mattered to me, how natural these sad lives seemed. When he finished the ice cream, the dirty kid got up from the stool and walked toward the corner where he lived with his mother. I followed him. The street was very dark, the lights had gone out, which often happened on very hot nights. I was able to make him out by the lights of passing cars; every few feet he was also lit up, he and his now completely black feet, by the candles of the improvised altars. We got to the corner without him giving me his hand.

His mother was on the mattress. Like all addicts, she had no notion of the temperature and was wearing a thick sweatshirt with the hood on, as if it were raining. Her belly, enormous, was naked — her too-short shirt couldn’t cover it. The dirty kid said hello and sat down on the mattress. She didn’t say anything.

She was furious. She approached me growling, there’s no other way to describe the sound. It reminded me of my dog when it broke its hip and was crazy with the pain.

“Where’d you take him, bitch? What do you want to do to him, huh? Huh? Don’t even think about touching my son!”

She was so close that I could see each one of her teeth, how her gums bled, her lips burned by the pipe, the smell of tar on her breath.

“I bought him an ice cream cone!” I shouted, and then I backed up when I saw she had a broken bottle in her hand.

“Get out of here or I’ll slice you up, bitch!” The dirty kid looked at the ground, as if he weren’t thinking about anything, as if he didn’t know us, neither his mother nor me. I was angry with him, then. The ungrateful little snot, I thought, and I took off running. I went into my house as fast as I could, although my hands were shaking and it was difficult for me to find the key. I turned on all the lights; the electricity hadn’t gone off on my block, luckily. I was afraid the mother would send someone after me. I didn’t know what might be going through her head. I didn’t know what friends she had on the block. I didn’t know anything about her. After a while I went up to the second floor and spied on her from the balcony. She was lying down, face up, smoking a cigarette. The dirty kid seemed to be asleep next to her. I went to bed with a book and a glass of water, but I couldn’t manage to read or even watch TV. The heat seemed more intense with the fan on, just stirring the hot air and muting the noise from the street.

In the morning I forced myself to eat breakfast before going to work. The heat was now suffocating, and the sun had just barely come up. When I closed the door the first thing I noted was the absence of the mattress on the corner in front. There was nothing left of the dirty kid and his mother. They hadn’t even left behind a bag or a stain or a cigarette butt. Nothing. As if they had never been there.

The body appeared a week after they vanished. When I came home from work, with my feet swollen from the heat, dreaming about the coolness of my house with its high ceilings and large rooms that not even the most hellish summer heat could spoil completely, I found the block in a frenzy, with three patrol cars in the middle of the street and crime-scene tape holding back a crowd. I recognized Lala easily, with her white-heeled shoes and golden bun; she was so nervous that she had forgotten to put the fake eyelashes on her left eye.

“What happened?”

“They found a child.”

“Dead?”

“Get this: decapitated! Do you have cable, honey?”

Lala’s connection had been cut months ago because she hadn’t paid the bill. We went to my house and lay down on the bed to watch the news, the ceiling fan spinning dangerously and the balcony window open in case we heard something noteworthy from the street. I brought in a pitcher of cold orange juice and Lala ruled over the remote. It was strange to see our neighborhood on TV, but we both knew the dynamic well: no one was going to talk during the first days, not about the truth, at least. First, silence, in case someone involved in the crime deserved loyalty. Even if it was a horrible crime against a kid. First, closed mouths. The stories would begin in a few weeks. For now it was TV’s moment.

Around eight, Lala and I shifted over to pizza and beer, and then to whiskey — I opened a bottle my father had given me. Information was sparse: a dead kid had appeared in an unused parking lot on Solís Street. Decapitated. The head had been placed next to the body.

At ten, it was reported that the top of the head had been scraped clean to the bone and that no hair had been found in the area. Also, the eyelids had been sewn shut and the tongue chewed on, perhaps by the dead kid himself or perhaps — and this caused Lala to scream — by the teeth of another person.

The news programs continued giving information far into the night, rotating journalists with live coverage from the street. The police, as usual, weren’t saying anything on camera, but they constantly supplied information to the press.

By midnight, no one had claimed the body. It was also known that the boy had been tortured: the torso was covered with cigarette burns. A sexual assault was suspected, and was confirmed around two in the morning, when a preliminary report from the forensics experts was leaked.

And still, at that hour, no one had claimed the body. Not a family member. Not the mother or father or brothers or aunts and uncles or cousins or neighbors or acquaintances. No one.

The decapitated kid, the TV said, was between five and seven years old. It was difficult to determine because, when alive, he had been malnourished.

“I’d like to see him,” I said to Lala.

“Don’t be crazy, no one’s going to show you a decapitated kid! What do you want to see him for? You’re so morbid. You were always a little monster, the morbid countess of the palace on Virreyes Street.”

“It’s just… Lala, I think I know him.”

I told her yes and started to cry. I was drunk but I was also certain that the dirty kid was now the decapitated kid. I told Lala about my encounter with him that night when he rang my doorbell. Why didn’t I take care of him? Why didn’t I find 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 bathtub that I hardly use. Why didn’t I at least wash off his filth? And, I don’t know, buy him a rubber duckie and those little wands to make bubbles? I could have easily done it. Yes, it was late, but there are little stores in the city that never close, that sell gym shoes, even; I could have bought him a pair. How could I have let him walk around barefoot, at night, on these dark streets? I shouldn’t have let him go back to his mother. When she threatened me with the bottle, I should have called the police. They could have put her in jail and I could have kept the kid, or helped him get adopted by a family that would love him. But no. I got angry at him because he was ungrateful, because he didn’t defend me from his mother! I got angry at a terrified kid, the son of an addict, a five-year-old kid who lives in the street! Who lived in the street, because now he was dead, decapitated!

Lala helped me vomit in the toilet, and then went to buy some pills for my headache. I was drunk and scared but I was also sure it was him, the dirty kid, raped and decapitated in a parking lot.

“Why did they do this to him, Lala?” I asked, curled up in her strong arms, once again in bed, the two of us slowly smoking our early-morning cigarettes.

“Princess, I don’t know if it’s your kid they killed, but when it opens, let’s go to the district attorney’s office so you can get some peace of mind.”

“You’ll go with me.”

“Of course.”

“But why, Lala, why did they do something like this?”

Lala put out her cigarette on a plate beside the bed and served herself another glass of whiskey. She mixed it with Coca-Cola, and stirred the ice with her finger.

“I don’t think it’s your kid. The one they killed… They were merciless. It was a message for someone.”

“A narco’s revenge.”

“Only big-time drug dealers kill like that.”

We fell silent. I was afraid. Were there narcos in Constitución? Like the ones who shocked me when I read about Mexico — ten headless bodies hanging from a bridge, six heads tossed from a car onto the steps of the legislature, a common grave with seventy-three bodies, some decapitated, others without arms? Lala smoked in silence and set the alarm. I decided to skip work in order to go straight to the district attorney’s office.

In the morning, with a headache still, I made coffee. Lala asked to use the bathroom, and a minute later I heard the shower and knew that she was going to be in there for at least an hour. I turned on the TV again. The newspaper didn’t have any new information, and the Internet, in times like this, was a roiling pot of rumors and madness.

The morning newscast was saying that a woman had appeared to claim the decapitated kid. A woman named Nora, who had come to the morgue with a newborn baby in her arms and several family members. When I heard “newborn baby” my heart leapt in my chest. It was definitely the dirty kid, then. The mother hadn’t gone to look for the body before because — what a frightening coincidence — the night of the crime had been the night of the birth. It made sense. The dirty kid had stayed alone while the mother was giving birth and then… Then what? If it were a message, if it were revenge, it couldn’t be directed at that poor woman who slept in front of my house so many nights, that addicted girl who probably wasn’t much older than twenty. Maybe the father: that’s it, the father. Who could the dirty kid’s father be? But then the cameras went berserk, the journalists were running in, they all threw themselves on the woman who was leaving the district attorney’s office and shouted, “Nora, Nora, who do you think did this to Nachito?”

“His name was Nacho,” I whispered.

And suddenly there was Nora on the screen, a close-up of her grief and her screams, and it wasn’t the dirty boy’s mother. It was a completely different woman. A woman about thirty years old, already gray-haired, dark-skinned, and very fat, surely the kilos she’d gained during the pregnancy. Almost the opposite of the dirty boy’s mother.

You couldn’t understand what she was screaming. She was falling. Someone was holding her up from behind, a sister, for sure. I changed the channel, but they all had on this screaming woman, until a policeman stepped in between the microphones and the mother and a patrol car arrived to take her away. There were a lot of new details. I sat on the toilet lid and related them to Lala while she shaved, fixed her makeup, gathered her hair in a tidy bun.

“His name is Ignacio. Nachito. 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 kid, Nachito, disappeared in Castelar. They’re from Castelar.”

“But that’s so far away, how did he wind up here! Ay, Princess, this is all so frightening. I’m canceling all my appointments, I’ve already decided. You can’t cut hair after all this.”

“His belly button is also sewed up.”

“Who, the child’s?”

“Yes. It seems they tore off his ears.”

“Sweetie, in this neighborhood no one is ever going to sleep again, I’m telling you. We might be criminals here, 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.”

“Pomba Gira, save us! María Padhila, save us!”

“Last night I told you that the kid told me about San La Muerte. It’s not him, Lala, but he knew.”

Lala kneeled in front of me and fixed her enormous dark eyes on my face. “You, Princess, are not going to say anything about this. Nothing. Not to the district attorney or anyone else. Last night I was anxious to let you go talk to the judge. Now, nothing, no way — we’re silent as the grave, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

I listened to her. She was right. I had nothing to say, nothing to tell. Just a nighttime walk with a street kid who had disappeared, as street kids commonly do. Their parents move out of the neighborhood and take them along. They join a band of child thieves or windshield cleaners on the avenues, or find work as drug mules; the mules have to change neighborhoods constantly. They make a camp in a subway station. The street kids never stay in one place; they may last for a while, but they always leave. They escape from their parents, or a distant uncle takes pity on them and brings them to the south, to a house on a dirt street, to share a room with five siblings — but at least they have a roof over their heads. It’s not unusual, not at all, for a mother and son to disappear like that. The parking lot where the decapitated kid had appeared wasn’t on the route that the dirty kid and I had taken that night. And all that about San La Muerte? Coincidence. Lala was saying that the neighborhood was full of devotees of San La Muerte, all the Paraguayan immigrants and the people from Corrientes were loyal to the little saint, but that didn’t make them killers. Lala was a devotee of Pomba Gira, who has the look of a demon woman, with horns and a trident — did that make her a satanic murderer?

Of course not.

“I want you to stay with me for a few days, Lala.”

“Obviously, Princess. I’ll prepare my bedchamber myself.”

Lala loved my house. She liked to put music on real loud and go down the steps slowly, with her turban and her cigarette, a black femme fatale. “I am Josephine Baker,” she would say, and then lament being the only transvestite in Constitución who had the slightest idea who Josephine Baker was. “You can’t imagine how stupid these new girls are, ignorant and empty as tubes. It gets worse all the time. Everything’s lost.”

It was difficult for me to walk around the neighborhood after that. Nachito’s murder had produced a narcotic-like effect on that part of Constitución; fights weren’t heard at night, and the dealers moved a few blocks south. There were too many police guarding the place where they had found the body. Which, the newspapers and investigators were now saying, hadn’t been the scene of the crime at all. Someone had simply deposited him, already dead, in the old parking lot.

On the corner where the dirty kid and his mother used to sleep, the neighbors made an altar to the Little Decapitated Boy, as they called him. And they put up a photo, which said JUSTICE FOR NACHITO on it. Despite these apparent good intentions, the investigators didn’t entirely believe in the neighborhood’s shock. On the contrary, they thought that, maybe, they were covering for someone. That’s why the district attorney had insisted that so many neighbors be questioned.

I was among those called in to give a statement. I didn’t tell Lala, so she wouldn’t agonize over it. She hadn’t received the notification. It was a very short interview, and I didn’t say anything that could be of value to them.

“That night I slept deeply.”

“No, I didn’t hear anything.”

“There are several street kids in the neighborhood, yes.”

They showed me Nachito’s photo. I denied ever having seen him. I wasn’t lying. He was completely different from the neighborhood kids: a little fat boy with dimples and well-combed hair. I had never seen a kid like that in Constitución — he was smiling!

“No, I never saw black-magic altars in the street or in any house. Just for Gauchito Gil. On Ceballos Street.”

Did I know that Gauchito Gil had been decapitated? “Yes, the whole country knows that. I don’t think this has anything to do with Gauchito, do you?”

“No, of course, you don’t have to answer anything I ask you. Well, anyway, I don’t think so, but I don’t know anything about rituals.”

“I work as a graphic designer. For a newspaper. For the Women and Fashion supplement. Why do I live in Constitución? It’s my family’s house, a beautiful old building — you can see it when you come by the neighborhood.”

“Of course I’ll let you know if I hear anything. Of course, you’re welcome. Yes, it’s difficult for me to sleep, just like everybody else. We’re all really afraid.”

They clearly didn’t suspect me, but they had to talk with all the neighbors. I took the bus home to avoid the five blocks I would’ve had to walk had I taken the subway.

Since the crime, I preferred not to use the subway. I didn’t want to run into the dirty kid. At the same time, I wanted, in an obsessive, sick way, to see him again. Despite the evidence — including photos of the cadaver, which a newspaper had published on the front page, selling out several editions as a result — I kept believing that the dirty kid was the one who was dead.

Or who would be the next to die. It wasn’t a rational idea. I explained it to Lala in the beauty shop the afternoon I decided to dye the ends of my hair pink, a job that took hours. No one flipped through magazines or painted nails or sent text messages while waiting their turn now. No one talked about anything except the Little Decapitated Boy. The time for prudent silence had ended, but I still hadn’t heard anyone name a suspect in anything more than a general way. That day Sarita said that, in her town, in Chaco, something similar had happened, but with a girl.

“They found her with her head by her side, also, and totally raped, poor little soul. She was all covered in shit.”

“Sarita, please, I beg you,” said Lala.

“But that’s how it was, what do you want me to say? This was done by witches.”

“The police think it’s narcos,” I said.

“The country’s full of witch-narcos,” said Sarita. “You don’t know what it’s like there in Chaco. They have rituals to ask for protection. That’s why they cut off the head and put it on the left side. They believe that if they make these offerings, the police won’t catch them, because the heads have power. They’re not just narcos, they also sell women.”

“But do you think there are any here in Constitución?”

“They’re everywhere,” said Sarita.

That night I dreamed about the dirty kid. I was going out on the balcony and he was in the middle of the street. I waved at him to move, because a truck was coming, and fast. But the dirty kid kept looking up, watching me on the balcony, smiling, his teeth dirty and tiny. Then the truck ran him over and I couldn’t avoid seeing how the wheels ripped open his stomach like it was a soccer ball and dragged his intestines down the street, as far as the corner. Nonetheless, the dirty kid’s head remained in the middle of the street, still smiling and with its eyes open. I woke up sweating, trembling. From the street a drowsy cumbia was sounding. Little by little, the sounds of the neighborhood returned: the fights of drunks, the music, the motorcycles with disengaged mufflers, a favorite trick of teenagers. Secrecy had been imposed on the investigation, which suggested that the authorities were totally disoriented. I visited my mother several times. When she asked me to move in with her, at least for a while, I said no. She accused me of being crazy, and we got into a shouting match the likes of which we’d never had before.

That night I got home late because, after work, I went to a birthday party for a coworker. It was one of the last nights of summer. I returned on the bus and got out before it reached my stop so that I could walk around the neighborhood by myself. I felt like I knew how to handle myself again. If you know how to handle yourself, Constitución is pretty easy. I was smoking. Then I saw her.

The dirty kid’s mother had always been skinny, even when she was pregnant. From behind, no one would have guessed she had a belly. It’s a typical build for addicts: the hips remain narrow as if refusing to cede space to the baby, the body doesn’t produce fat, the thighs don’t widen. At nine months the legs are two weak little sticks supporting a basketball. Now, without the belly, the woman seemed more like a teenager than ever. She was leaning against a tree, trying to light her crack pipe under a street lamp. She seemed unconcerned with the police — who were still circulating through the neighborhood — or the other addicts or anything else.

I approached her slowly; when she saw me, there was immediate recognition in her eyes. Immediate! Her eyes narrowed to slits: she wanted to run away, but something stopped her. A weariness, perhaps. Those seconds of doubt were enough for me to block her way, step in front of her, oblige her to speak. I pushed her against the tree and I held her there. She didn’t have enough strength to resist.

“Where is your son?”

“What son? Let me go.”

“Your son. You know what I’m talking about.”

The mother of the dirty kid opened her mouth and her breath — smelling of hunger, sweet and rotten like a piece of fruit left out in the sun, mixed with the medicinal odor of the drug and that permanent stink of burning — nauseated me; addicts smell like burning rubber, toxic factories, polluted water, chemical death.

“I don’t have any children.”

I pressed her harder against the tree, I grabbed her neck. I don’t know if she felt pain, but I dug my fingernails into her. It didn’t matter, she wasn’t going to remember anything within a few hours. I wasn’t afraid of the police, either. They weren’t going to bother too much over a fight between women.

“You’re going to tell me the truth. Until a little while ago you were pregnant.”

The mother of the dirty kid tried to burn me with the lighter, the thin hand moving the flame near my hair. The bitch wanted to burn me. I squeezed her wrist so hard that the lighter fell on the sidewalk. She stopped resisting.

“I DON’T HAVE ANY CHILDREN!” she shouted at me, and her voice, so sick and coarse, woke me up. What was I doing? Strangling a dying teenager in front of my house? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe I had to move. Maybe, as she’d told me, I had a fixation with the house because it let me live in isolation, because no one visited me here, because I was depressed and had made up romantic stories about a neighborhood that, in truth, was a piece of shit, a piece of shit, a piece of shit. That’s what my mother had shouted and I’d sworn I would never talk to her again but now, with the neck of the young addict in my hands, I thought that she might have a point.

I wasn’t the princess in the castle, but rather a crazy woman locked in the tower.

The addicted kid tore herself out of my hands and began to run, slowly: she was half choking. But when she reached the middle of the block, just where the main street lamp illuminated her, she turned around. She was laughing and the light revealed her bleeding gums.

“I gave him to them!” she shouted at me. The shout was for me, she was looking into my eyes, with that horrible recognition.

And then she stroked her empty belly with both hands and said, loudly and clearly: “And I also gave this one to them. I promised them both.”

I ran after her, but she was fast. Or she had suddenly become fast, I don’t know. She crossed Plaza Garay like a cat and I managed to follow her, but when the traffic took off down the avenue she succeeded in crossing back over among the cars and I didn’t. I could no longer breathe. My legs were shaking. Someone approached and asked me if the girl had robbed me and I said yes, in the hope that they would pursue her. But no: they only asked me if I was all right, if I wanted to take a taxi, if I could tell them what had been stolen.

A taxi, yes, I said. I stopped one and I asked him to take me to my house, only five blocks away. The driver didn’t complain; he was used to short trips in this neighborhood. Or maybe he didn’t want to grumble. It was late. It must have been his last fare before returning home.

Inside, I didn’t feel the relief of the house’s cool rooms, its wooden staircase, its interior patio, its old tiles, its high ceilings. I turned on the light and the lamp blinked: it’s going to go out, I thought, I’m going to remain in the dark. But finally it stabilized, giving off its yellowish, old, low-watt light. I sat on the floor with my back against the front door. I was waiting for the soft knocking of the dirty kid’s sticky hand, or the noise of his head rolling down the stairs. I was waiting for the dirty kid who was going to ask me, again, to let him in.

End

About the Author

Mariana Enriquez was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1973. She has a degree in Journalism and Social Communication from Universidad Nacional de La Plata, and she is the editor of Radar, the arts and culture supplement for Pagina/12. She has published two novels, Bajar es lo peor and Cómo desaparecer completamente, a collection of short stories, Los peligros de fumar en la cama, a novella, Chicos que vuelven, and a collection of travel narratives.

About the Translator

Joel Streicker’s translations of Latin American authors have appeared in A Public Space, Subtropics, Words Without Borders, Zyzzyva, and Epiphany. He received a 2011 PEN American Center Translation Fund Grant to translate Samanta Schweblin’s collection of short stories, Pájaros en la boca. Streicker holds a B.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Michigan and a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University.

About the Author

More Like This

The Real-Life “Nickel Boys” Speak Out About Their Abuse

Hear testimony from the White House Boys, the survivors of the reform school that inspired Colson Whitehead's novel

Aug 13 - Avery Kleinman

These Middle-Grade Novels Are Some of the Most Formally Innovative Works of Our Time

Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is the true spiritual successor to Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy"

Jul 24 - Elyse Martin

From Homesteader Wolf to Public School Boy

An excerpt from 'Stay and Fight' by Madeline ffitch, recommended by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Jul 10 - Madeline ffitch