They came to the house (before the house was demolished, etc.) one afternoon in late March 1990.
“I’ll get it,” I offered as usual. As a nine-year-old-kid, I was always bored, especially in the evenings after school, but it was also true that my strategy for gaining people’s favour consisted in doing precisely the things they didn’t want to.
It was almost always beggars who came knocking, and I knew my mom’s reply by heart, so I repeated it without going to ask her first.
“We’ll dig out some jumpers for next week,” I would tell them, almost believing it myself. Or: “No one’s home just now. Come back tomorrow.” Or: “We’ve already given everything away.”
But these two, the woman and the girl, despite their sorry appearance, hadn’t come to beg.
“I’d like to speak to the lady of the house,” the woman said.
“Who’s asking?” I asked.
“Tell her it’s Rosario.”
Her gaze, and the way she clutched onto the girl the second she spoke her own name, it all felt a little peculiar, as if suddenly something were out of place—the two of them, or the house, or the city itself.
“She’s not in,” I said, “But I’ll tell her you came by.”
“I used to work for Mrs. Berta, God rest her soul,” she hastily added. She was referring to my grandmother, who’d been dead for a couple of years. “So what time might I find your mom at home, young man?”
“Late afternoon,” I said, feeling unnerved by her persistence, and I turned on my heels and went back inside.
“Who was it?” Mom asked.
“Beggars,” I said.
World Cup Italia was fast approaching, and my trading card album was filling up nicely. Baggio was one of the hardest to get hold of, and I had Baggio. Rijkaard was one of the hardest to get hold of, and I had Rijkaard. I was missing nineteen players, among them Maradona and Cannigia, although, the truth was, I didn’t care one bit about the Argentinian squad. But none of this is really relevant. What matters are the woman and the girl. They came back at five the next day.
“This is going from bad to worse,” my mom muttered.
“I’ll go,” I said, and I stood up from the sofa where we were watching the telly (where I would sit waiting for the doorbell to ring, etc.), and ran out of the house and across the garden to where the woman and the girl were.
“Hello, young man,” the woman said.
For some reason I’d taken my mission to heart—a dubious mission that I didn’t really understand, but which was mine alone to accomplish.
“She’s not in,” was the first thing I said.
The woman stood there in silence, clearly disappointed.
“What have you come for anyway?”
“And your dad’s not in either?”
“My dad’s at work.”
“Does he still have the shop?”
I took a better look at the girl. She was pretty.
“What’s it to you?” I could have said. Or I could have told her the shop no longer existed, although of course it did. A couple of seconds later, just as I was about to tell them to go away and not come back, I felt Mom’s hand on my head.
“Rosario,” I heard her say from behind me, and I felt so embarrassed that there was nothing left for it but to run to my room.
Once there, I watched them from the window. They stood talking with the gate between them.
Mom didn’t bring any of it up over dinner, not even when I asked her straight out.
“Rosario?” Dad piped up, suddenly interested.
“Yes, she came over this afternoon.”
“What’s she doing with herself these days?”
“She’s a seamstress, I think,” Mom said.
They quickly changed the subject, probably to something to do with my brother’s problems in school. Dad asked me how my day had been. I filled him in on the math problem that no one in my class had understood, but which I’d solved in a matter of seconds. “Even the teacher said well done. In front of everyone,” I said, and I looked at Dad, who was smiling, and I felt pleased with myself.
Later on, when they went to their room, I stood by the door to listen to the conversation they’d chosen not to have at the dinner table.
“The girl’s the spitting image of Cachito,” I heard my mom say. “Same mouth, same eyes.”
Dad said something I couldn’t make out.
“Of course, what else?” Mom replied.
Cachito was my Uncle Cachito—that much I understood. The only information I’d ever been able to find out about him was that he was the most serious of all Mom’s brothers and that he’d been about to graduate as a doctor when, one Saturday, on his way to the hospital in the provinces where he was a resident junior, he’d run over a man.
He could have just driven off like everyone does, but instead he stopped and got out to help him. Three of the man’s friends, on seeing that he wasn’t responding (he would later, too late, etc.), beat the life out of Uncle Cachito, who was found three days later in a ditch.
This story floated about at home, and occasionally I’d heard people say that Grandma had never gotten over it. I did know that she sometimes spoke aloud to her dead son, and that she was permanently miserable—because of her loss, or what, I don’t know. I also knew that she never stopped smoking, and that’s why she came to the end she did.
What I now discovered about Uncle Cachito was that he’d knocked up the housemaid before he died, which meant that the girl who was the spitting image of him was my first cousin, which made that woman my aunt. An aunt and a cousin who came to the door like a pair of miserable beggars.
They came back the following afternoon and my mom let them in.
“Go and play in the garden,” she told me.
The girl wouldn’t stop staring at me.
“What do you want to do?” I asked her once we were outside.
“Nothing,” she answered. “I don’t want to do anything.”
She sat down on the grass and I sat next to her.
“Let’s play something,” I proposed after a while. It didn’t make any sense just sitting there. “We can play tag if you want,” I said, and I got up and touched her shoulder before sprinting off, in vain it turned out, because she didn’t move from her spot.
“Who’d you think’s gonna win the World Cup: Holland or Brazil?” I asked a minute later, sitting back down next to her.
She was digging around in her nose with her finger. I took the opportunity to study her closer and to see if there was any of me in her.
“My dad was a bastard,” she said out of nowhere. We were just getting to know each other and she was already coming out with things like that.
“And what would you know?” I said.
“Because I know,” she said. “He was a bastard and a drunk.”
I didn’t even know what a bastard was, but I wasn’t going to let her get one over me so easily.
“Don’t be a pig,” I counterattacked, “They didn’t invent tissues for nothing you know.”
We both fell silent.
The girl lay down and I went off to climb trees.
“Bet you can’t do this,” I shouted down to her from the top of a guava tree. She came over and stared at me. That was the only thing she knew how to do—stare and say hurtful things, and be pretty.
“Get down from there!” my mom shouted. She was standing by the kitchen door next to the woman.
“Come along, Vanesa,” the woman said.
The next day I played dumb and asked my mom who they were.
“Rosario used to work in the house years ago, and now her daughter needs help.”
“Vanesa?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, in that tone of voice she used whenever she didn’t want me to ask any more questions. Then she told me to take off my school uniform because we were going out.
“I don’t want to go out,” I said, knowing that she’d make me go with her anyway. To my surprise, she agreed to let me stay at home.
It was my first ever afternoon left alone in the house and I headed straight to my brother’s room to rifle through his bedside table. I read his letters, most of which were from Anna, and sniffed his cigarettes and browsed his cassette collection, although the truth is I couldn’t stop thinking about Vanesa.
“Why does she need help?” I asked my mom that night.
Eventually she explained to me that the girl had leukaemia (some kind of infection of the blood, etc.) with very poor chances of surviving. So the girl was dying, even if you couldn’t tell from the outside. Or was the whole thing just a trick to get money?
I didn’t ask Mom any of this—they were questions I asked myself.
“We helped her this afternoon,” she added.
But nor did I know whether to believe her.
From then on, nobody ever mentioned the housemaid Uncle Cachito had or hadn’t abused, the housemaid he had or hadn’t been in love with, the housemaid he might or might not have abandoned, had he lived.
“Get out of here, you filthy Indian,” I imagined Grandma saying to her when she confessed she was pregnant. “Get out of here at once!—that’s what you get for lying, and for being a whore.”
Did Uncle Cachito already know he was going to be a dad as those men smashed his head in? Did he think about his daughter’s future as he drowned in the ditch where they threw him?
No one ever mentioned the girl again either—my sick, phantom cousin—although for years, whenever I was out walking on the streets, I would keep one eye out for her, and wonder about what kind of woman she might be if she was still alive.
To my knowledge, I never saw her again.