By Sindo Pacheco
Berto Meciar was rocking in his armchair, as he had been doing every night for the last twenty years, when he saw the drunkard who turned in front of his house, lurching from one side to the other. Only then did he remember the hole. That piece of the rarely traveled road had had a hole for some time. The drain cover had disappeared in the last flood, leaving its gaping mouth lying in wait for its prey, camouflaged by poor lighting.
Initially Berto wanted to warn him of the danger, but then he started to think about the fall of the man, the desired outcome, with that special aversion one feels for drunkards, until he saw him disappear, swallowed by the earth.
Berto waited a while, thinking to seem him rise from the blackness, spouting oaths and curses; but a reasonable time passed and the man showed no signs of life.
So he took to his room, asked his wife for a pill for the stress, and lay on the bed while listening to the violins on some Sunday program. Although he didn’t care for the television either. He had lived surrounded by silence, almost regardless of electronics, and the television seemed too boisterous. He only saw Reading and Writing, whose content for the first time had introduced him to a vast and unknown world of innumerable geographies and famous people, or some musical consigned to oblivion which would surprise him on the screen. The man who had just fallen down the hole was one of the few things that had happened to him in a long time.
He had been married at thirty-five to his only girlfriend and in twenty years of marriage they hadn’t managed to conceive any descendants. At first, this absence wasn’t noticed much: the house was full of nephews and nieces who came to check out everything, poke their heads in the bedrooms, and commit all the atrocities in their aunt and uncle’s house that were forbidden to them in their own, abusing those childless and tolerant parents; but over time the nieces and nephews moved away and married in other towns, generating more nieces and nephews, forgetful of the past, and the house turned into a kind of sanitarium where nothing happened outside their own memory.
Berto took his pill with half a glass of water, and slept deeply without waking through the night.
He got up at five in the morning to sell milk in the shop, had coffee, dressed, and then having gone a fair way, he had to return in search of his keys.
When he was leaving again he looked in the direction of the hole and made out the head of the drunk, darker in the early morning shadows. This time he didn’t even feel the impulse to help him and entrusted that disagreeable task to the future. He was in a terrible mood which he blamed on Monday. Mondays always put him in a bad mood until the day got underway and the town began to come to life. Tranquility was for the house, in the shop he preferred physical activity and hustle and bustle. But while he was selling the milk he broke two liters; then he took care of the paperwork, sold some flour, and at eleven, when he closed to return home, he was still in a bad mood.
Julia, his wife, had lunch ready and seeing him, she set the table.
“Are you ill?” She was surprised to see him go straight to bed.
He always helped her. He was an exemplary husband, sharing in the cooking and housework, and really gave her no cause for complaint. Berto was faithful to her even though she could never give him a child. They lived in a comfortable house, got along well, and each secretly felt solidarity with the other’s childless state.
“I think I’m coming down with the flu.”
She squeezed two lemons into a glass of water and reached for an aspirin.
“Lunch is ready.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Berto tried to take a nap to see if it would knock him out of his depression, but he couldn’t get to sleep. He was sure that when he came home his wife would tell him about the drunk who fell in the hole, that same hole that he had worked so hard to cover; but before opening the door, he thought he saw the man’s head poking up just above the level of the street. In fact there was almost no traffic in the area. On one side of the road there was a tobacco factory, and on the other a ditch that ran parallel to the street. The hole the drunk had fallen into opened onto the ditch. He knew that the kids liked to float paper boats there on rainy days. During the rest of the year it was rare to see someone in the lane, but still, it seemed unreal and absurd that the guy would stay in the hole.
The entire afternoon he felt dizzy and weak. He spent the day in the clouds, wandering among the beans and sacks of rice, and tripping over his colleagues.
When he returned home at seven, he took a look and couldn’t see anything. He stopped, cleaned his glasses and looked again, and felt that a great weight had lifted. He entered the house cheerfully, shoulders back, convinced that this time Julia would tell the story with all the detail and embellishments it deserved, but she offered no such consolation. What in the devil had gotten into this woman, that a drunk, right in front of their noses, could spend an entire day stuck in a hole and she didn’t see or hear anything… A thing so unusual in such a quiet neighborhood, almost a scandal, and she didn’t even notice it… Although it could be, also, that the man had just sneaked away, in silence, out of shame, or perhaps someone had rescued him without his wife noticing, if she’d been busy with something, sweeping the patio, preparing the meal, she was a housewife, a good woman and not someone who gossiped or aired dirty laundry.
His bath was a little more peaceful and the food seemed better seasoned. Then he returned to his post in the armchair. Everything was in order. It was clear the nightmare was over; but who had gotten the drunk out of the hole, without falling in deeper, under his own weight. Maybe he didn’t have any strength and had bent his knees. And what if he’d died? What if he were in agony and he hadn’t gone to his aid…? Could he be prosecuted: denial of aid, off to jail for the death of a poor man, father of a family, totally helpless and inebriated. Because this was now the question: a poor man in a state of inebriation…
Desperate, he began to sway while looking for a way out. Almost his whole life behind a counter, depending on the oscillation of a balance, he’d developed a conservative attitude, meditating every step and weighing each decision. But now there wasn’t much to meditate. He heard Julia working at the sewing machine and calculated that this was the opportune moment. He got up and left in the direction of the hole. He needed to verify, to make sure, to be convinced that the drunk was gone once and for all, to escape from his uncertainty. He approached the opening that offered its dark square mouth and didn’t see anything. It was clear he had disappeared. However he bent down and extended his hand into the darkness, and an intense chill, an electric shock, ran through his whole body. He’d felt a human head, cold and rigid, and his eyes, adapting to the darkness, distinguished a half-crooked face, with its eyes open and a stupid vacant look. He wanted to retreat but he was nailed to the ground. His legs did not obey him. His body was a chaotic mass and he felt his chest tighten and convulse. Finally he managed to slowly pull himself together and he started walking, dragging his legs like a sick person, like an bull fatally stabbed, and made it back to collapse into his chair. He didn’t know how long he sat there, his mind blank, but it must have been a fairly long time because Julia saw him through the door, surprised that he hadn’t yet gone to bed.
“Berto… it’s almost twelve!”
Berto didn’t reply. He felt the need to confess, to share the secret. It had all happened without thinking, he would say, without realizing it, without imagining things could get to this point, he would swear. He was a good person, honest, sacrificing, a man who served others… But if Julia didn’t understand, how was it possible, how had he been capable of abandoning the poor man, and to lie there and snore quietly, how had she lived so many years at the side of someone so apathetic that he didn’t feel compassion for the life of his fellow…
So he said nothing. He took a pill and went to bed, but he didn’t sleep a wink all night. That cold impassive face appeared before him, with its unfocused unseeing eyes. He got up several times trying not to wake Julia, he took two Valium and a Librium and sat on the edge of the bed leafing through publications from the forties, illustrated with beautiful blondes and sudsy soaps and olive oils, but he couldn’t banish that image. He thought the night might be measured in years, decades, he felt like it was an eternity. Now another element began to torture him: his footprints were next to the hole, the trail led up to his house. Sooner or later they would find them. They would come to investigate, the police, the dogs: and everything would point to his house, him, to Berto Martín Gallego, however quiet people had thought him to be he had killed, he had taken the drunk and pushed him into the hole. He’d always had an obsession with this hole, the Director would say. He’s a maniac, a criminal, an agent of the CIA. Up against the wall. Council of War. The Military Court asking for the wall, the firing squad. The prosecutor asking for the wall… But he was innocent, he didn’t understand why. He was very confused and all of a sudden he said yes, he was guilty, a murderer, they killed him, hung him, shot at him, he disappeared.
In the morning Berto went to the shop without coffee. He had no concentration. He started to decant oil and the liquid spilled everywhere; he tried with rice and the same thing occurred; at noon he didn’t have lunch and spent the afternoon organizing the warehouse, gathering and packing jute sacks and cases of soft drinks. But he worked in the dark, vacant, with his body in the shop and his mind up against the wall with the firing squad. Never before had he conceived of his end in this way. He’d never thought about it. Death used to be a item in the news, an accident that could happen to others. When he finally admitted that he, too, was eligible, he imagined himself in his room, surrounded by his nieces and nephews and the solidarity of the doctors and nurses, with Julia at his bedside; but he’d never thought of death like this, among thick walls, up against a grey wall splattered with blood, before half a dozen soldiers pointing their rifles at him, who would open his skin and his flesh and then go drink and party without the slightest remorse.
Berto arrived home like a shadow. He bathed and jumped into bed, leaving the food untouched on the table. Julia wanted to take him to the doctor but he flatly refused and she didn’t insist. She knew it was useless. She knew something was changing the direction of things and for the first time she stopped seeing the garden her husband would plant in his retirement. She no longer saw herself with a watering can, overseeing a paradise of green tomatoes and lettuce stretching to the horizon…
At midnight it started to rain, announcing an abundant and generous spring. At six it was still raining cats and dogs. Berto put on his old coat and walked out into the road. He hadn’t yet noticed what the blessed rain meant. How had he not thought of it before… The rain would carry the man from the ditch, and then continue up the creek, to the river, at least as far as the coast, floating like a drifting log. He would be drowned, one among many, and no one would suspect that the tragedy had begun with the hole.
The entire morning he was more lively, though clearly he was getting worse. In the afternoon he fainted for the first time. It was a slight dizziness, blurry vision, and he felt like the world was abandoning him.
He missed work the next day and continued to deteriorate. As he didn’t dare go near the hole, he roamed around the whole town picking up newspapers and magazines and other publications in search of any indication, any information about a missing person who left his house one day, wearing certain clothes, presumably in a state of inebriation; or of an unidentified drowned person in the Caribbean, chewed by freshwater fish and all fish, with algae in his hair and tilapia eggs in his outer ear. But little by little he was letting go of his hopes before the imperturbable press that only talked about recycling and sugarcane cutters who cut millions and billions of…
He died on Defense Sunday, along with the sound of the air raid sirens and the first explosions. It was if he was alive, with the same look as ever, but it was enough for Julia to see that her husband was still in bed at half past seven in the morning to know that he was dead.
During the wake at her house, someone found the body of the drunk, tackled in the hole, spouting threats in his indecipherable language. He was taken to the hospital and after several days was roaming around again, with a bottle in hand, shadow dancing an old tango by Gardel. The neighbors, for their part, didn’t take much time to get used to the absence of Berto, demonstrating the power of recovery. Only the widow cursed her fate, swearing that only a week before the deceased was strong and healthy… As for the hole, finally…