by Carlos Bortoni
translated by Toshiya Kamei
One morning he found a hole.
Every day he strolled around the building where he lived. Wandering aimlessly, he never repeated the previous day’s route. He walked for the sake of it whenever he liked. When he got tired, he went home to his apartment. After breakfast, he sat in the living room to watch TV and fell asleep without fail. When he woke up, he had something to eat and watched TV again to lull himself to sleep. If for some reason he woke up in the middle of the night, he would go to his room and lie down on the bed, taking up only one side, even though he now slept alone. Every day he followed the same routine – it made no difference whether it was Sunday or Thursday, Tuesday or Friday.
The hole was exactly two and a half blocks from his building. Going to the right, he reached the manhole cover, broken at one corner, which left the grille exposed. Your foot can get caught in there, he thought.
Interrupting his stroll, he turned around right away and went back to his apartment. After looking for a plastic bag in vain, he ended up calling his daughter. Where do you keep grocery bags? he asked as soon as she picked up the phone. After his retirement, she did his shopping for him, and after all, she took care of what needed to be done in his apartment. She would tell him, in a tone that sounded like a complaint, his retirement had affected him more than her mother’s death. And he would answer that her mother never made herself indispensable. This bothered her greatly. And when he didn’t make her cry, he made her storm out of the apartment, leaving things halfway and slamming the door shut. Where do you keep grocery bags? he asked again. Papá? You don’t throw them away, do you? he insisted. Papá, what do you need? I’ll buy it and bring it with me this afternoon. After your grandchildren’s English class, she answered. No, Victoria. No. I just want a plastic bag. Maybe two, he added. What do you need, Pápa? I’ll bring it. For God’s sake, Victoria, you’re just like your mother. If I miss her someday, I’ll just need to call you and forget that she’s been dead for fifteen years. Look under the sink. Under the sink? he repeated, annoyed that he hadn’t thought of it before. But instead of an answer he heard a busy signal.
He took out a plastic bag, undid the triangle his daughter made when she put it away, and blew some air into the bag to make sure it had no holes. After doing the same with another bag, he left his apartment.
Before reaching the hole, he placed one bag inside the other to reinforce it. In a garden he picked up a few large lumps of dirt and a couple of stones and put them in the bags. When he stood again before the broken manhole cover, he took out the stones and placed them in the hole, holding them with rods that had been exposed. He threw dirt over them and then stepped on it to flatten the ground and cover the hole completely. A temporary fix, he thought. But I’m not the one who should be doing this.
The following morning, he decided to break the habit of not walking the same walk two days in a row, suspecting his plaster dirt had not survived overnight. He grabbed plastic bags and went out to look for the hole. On his way there he filled the bags with dirt and stones, and when he reached the manhole, he filled the hole. He stuffed the empty bags into his pants pocket and resumed his stroll. On his way back, he stopped at the café on the first floor of his building. He went inside, asked for café americano and a chocolate muffin, and sat down to read the newspaper a waiter handed him. When he finished skimming the classified ads, he left there and went up to his apartment.
Every day he did the same – it didn’t matter if it was Monday, Wednesday, or Saturday. He left the building, filled his bags in the garden, and covered the hole, always complaining he had to do it – if you don’t do it, nobody else will. And he always stopped at the café before going home.
Some mornings his plaster contained more dirt than stones. Other mornings he needed many small stones because he couldn’t find large ones. And at other times he had to walk back to the garden to get more stones and dirt after he threw all of them into the hole. But he never missed the date with the manhole cover until he found it fixed, or rather, replaced by a new one. During the first hours of the morning, a team of workers from the Department of Public Works had replaced the broken cover. The clean cement and the new logo on it showed the age difference between the new cover and the rest of the sidewalk. Damn sons of bitches, he mumbled, holding his bags in his clenched fist. He went to another garden, emptied the bags, shoved them into his pocket, and kept walking.
At the end of the block he turned left, shaking his head and mumbling nonsense, and then made a right turn two streets away. At the corner he found a city utility truck and three men working on the sidewalk, cleaning sewers. Without a doubt, those three had replaced the manhole cover. He walked up to them and said, fucking assholes. You old son of a bitch. What’s your problem? answered one of them, looking up without stopping his work. Your mother’s a whore, he said and left without checking to see if they had heard him.
He turned right at the corner and then took the second turning on the left. He walked on the new manhole cover and went back to his building. Passing in front of the door of the café, he went up to his apartment. After a breakfast of fruit, he sat in front of the TV, turned it on, and soon fell asleep.
Carlos Bortoni was born in Mexico City in 1979 and still lives there today. He studied history at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. His books include El imperio soy yo (2007) and Perro viejo y cansado(2007). English translations of his fiction have appeared in The 22 Magazine and Johnny America.
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations include Liliana Blum’s The Curse of Eve and Other Stories (2008), Naoko Awa’s The Fox’s Window and Other Stories(2010), Espido Freire’s Irlanda (2011), and Selfa Chew’s Silent Herons (2012).
photo by Angela M Campbell