There lived an idiot on Calle Estrecha.
He’d walk by our house very early in the morning and back again in the evening, most times shouldering a bundle far too heavy for any human to bear.
He was an idiot, and ugly, and big.
And he reacted to his name being called and to a single command, Juancho, baile, hips swaying and lips stammering as if with a primal and animal joy:
Baile, baile, baile, he’d respond.
And dance he did.
And when he finished, he’d continue on his way, his face expressionless as usual, as if nothing, as if he had been trapped for a moment in another dimension and had already forgotten about it.
It was always pretty funny.
Íngrid and I would laugh at him from the sidewalk, and sometimes she was the one to yell Juancho, baile, and sometimes it was me, and sometimes it was the both of us at once who, like an involuntary chorus, yelled a Juancho, baile in dueling and unbridled voices, racing from the living room to the sidewalk, from the bathroom to the sidewalk, from the bedroom to the sidewalk, because all of a sudden we had sensed his arrival or we had picked up the signal of someone else’s call in the air – from Julio. From Topo. Or from Yainer. And the call was Juancho, baile, and then his response, baile, baile, baile, and of course the giggling that came right after, and sometimes during, and even before the dance itself, before the yell itself, before his grotesque silhouette, like an eclipse, appeared in the firmament that was our street corner.
Such was the size of our anticipation for the idiot to arrive.
And such the extent of our boredom, and the weight of those dead hours in the village.
We’d come back from school, change our uniforms, have lunch and stand by the door or the window to watch the day drift by, or better yet, to watch it in retreat hour after hour until our street – that is, the entire world – cooled to a temperature that Mamá judged reasonable. It was the same for all the other kids on the block – for Yainer, of course, dark as she was. And Julio. And Topo. Each one of our heads poking over the threshold of our own worlds, limited by the boundary of an incandescent line.
Crossing that line was not a good idea.
Not so much because of the sun but because of Mamá and her unyielding resolve never to deal with the complications that come with sunburnt kids:
Like taking us to the hospital.
Enduring the doctor’s scolding.
Rubbing us with lotions three times a day, two weeks straight.
Breaking our fevers with baths of matarratón leaves.
Coming to rescue us from our midnight delirium.
Excusing us from school.
Pushing us not to straggle behind after the missed classes and homework.
There was no way of knowing what kind of punishment was in store if Mamá found us playing under the sun’s scorching heat, say, placing bets on who could ride their bike around the block first – with Julio. With Yainer. With Topo. But Topo almost always won, so taking any risk on that bet was totally pointless. Not even Mamá’s mood was a reliable clue. She could be perfectly happy and still give us two or three lashes out of nowhere, on our legs, on our backs, on our asses, or she could be very furious or very sad, often both, and only give us the gentlest warning, harmless, almost a caress: Can’t you see, mijos, that your sweet little faces are gonna get sunburnt? And we were left feeling, I don’t know, a kind of emptiness or maybe heavy-heartedness, so we would go back inside in silence, hurting deep in our flesh, in our bones, in the very marrow of our souls, wishing for those three lashings on any part of us instead of seeing Mamá for the rest of the day in that gray mood, everything peye, as if on the edge of the abyss.
Juancho had no one to fuss over his sweet little face, no one to lash out at him with a belt when his skin was getting burnt. He lived with his grandmother and an aunt. The aunt looked after the old woman, and no one looked after Juancho. When you passed by their house you knew Juancho was inside because the voice of his aunt – like so many bright feathers poised mid-air – flitted around inside the walls, always clucking his name: Juancho this, Juancho that, she shouted, get over here, Juancho, you useless pedazo de atembao, help me lift Mamá, Juancho, where’s the cash, Juancho, you want us to live on shitty bananas alone, you damn retard? Juancho! Juancho! Juancho! If only I could work, you hear me, Juancho? What took you so long, you’re so slow, Juancho! Oh, Lord, when are you gonna take him? Juanchooooooo! Are you deaf or am I not making myself clear?
Nobody ever heard the grandma. If you didn’t know any better – say, if you hadn’t heard the adults talking about how, many years ago, the old woman could make the infertile fertile, dry up the impulses of the unfaithful and destroy rivals on request, by the sheer force of prayers and herbs brought from Chocó – you might’ve thought she’d been dead her entire life. She was a quiet, unmoving thing. You’d see her in her living room, on the sidewalk, in her backyard, when the door was open. But you never saw her move. She was here or she was there and that was it, no evidence of her ever having stirred. I imagine she was moved about depending on the whims of the aunt: a disheveled and enormous woman, not as enormous as Juancho, but a lot scarier. We – with Topo, with Yainer, with Julio – would tease the aunt, then dodge her like a bull on the nights we were most bored. We would, for instance, throw a ball at her house, which was always like agitating a mad dog. She’d come out armed with broomsticks, with stones, with boiling water and even with fresh shit, and we could feel her chasing after us at a speed that didn’t match her weight, which made it all the more fun, a genuine, high-risk game, and her shrill voice, always shrill, so hilarious, breathing right down our necks. Bastards, she’d say, bastards, ha! Go fuck your grandma’s pussy, ha ha ha! Scamps, you should all be thrown in jail or sent to hell. Oooh! we yelled back, so says the tough lady of the barrio. And then Juancho’s aunt would dig her heels into the ground, slippers and all, and charge with beastly might, but soon enough her fatness, her broken-down-old-hag energy betrayed her, and we’d leave her behind in the dust, safer and safer the farther we ran, our hearts rioting in our chests with the terror and the adrenaline rush of having once again escaped those jaws, those salivating chops, and we would turn back and see her panting, furious, frustrated because she hadn’t caught her prey, because she couldn’t wring our necks, I’ll get you, she said, ha! One of these days I’ll get you, you’ll see, pelaos malparidos.
That’s basically all we knew about Juancho’s family.
From Monday to Sunday, like the sun in the sky, out went the idiot in the mornings and back he came in the evenings, his skin glistening and vaporous after a hard day’s work. Skin blacker than Julio’s or Yainer’s. Blacker than his aunt’s or his grandma’s. Blacker than the blackest person we had ever seen. As black as a tree that has burned all night long in a fire.
Delirious with fever every night, I imagine.
No doctor’s reprimands.
No matarratón leaf baths.
Cured, each time, in the long hours of the night, by the sheer force of the scoldings of a sleepless aunt.
He had always been there, Juancho, like many other things in any other village, like the church, like the river, like the biggest tree in the park. When Mamá was our age, she’d run to the door of her house and yell, Juancho, baile, and she’d laugh like we did, and Juancho would reply baile, baile, baile, and he’d dance and then he’d continue on his way as if nothing had happened.
Always the same.
And so did all ten of Mamá’s siblings.
And her cousins.
And the people who had lived forever on Calle Estrecha and on every street where Juancho had any work. Don Jairo, the shopkeeper, did it when he was a boy. And so did Doña Brunilda, the Jehovah’s Witness. And Don Wilson, who drove the Coca-Cola truck. And the vendors in the marketplace where Juancho would go to load and unload things a few hours every day. And Julio’s parents and Yainer’s. But not Topo’s parents, of course, because they had moved from the city far too late and they, Topo’s parents, believed – and Topo did too, if truth be told – that they were better than all of us. Everything here seemed to them truly barbaric. The dusty streets. The noise. The weather. There were no lashes for Topo if he played under the scorching sun. Instead, standing in the doorway, his mother would call to him – or rather, purr – mi amor, come on inside now. My darling, you’ll wake up sick tomorrow. Please, my angel, think about what you’ve done wrong and then we’ll talk. How in the world could they understand the beauty of a good old, well-shouted Juancho, baile? Or the value of every little thing that came after. The fact that Juancho would stop in his tracks, for instance. His expression utterly dumb and vacant. And the fact that he’d respond with a baile, baile, baile. And that he’d dance. And that, afterward, he’d continue on his way. And it had been exactly the same all the way back, four generations roughly counted.
Juancho at forty: baile.
Juancho at thirty: baile.
Juancho at twenty-five: baile.
Juancho at sixteen: baile.
Baile, baile, baile.
Probably some village child had already been saying, Juancho, baile back when Juancho himself was a kid, but no one knows who said it first. Who activated that hidden mechanism, and under what circumstances. Who realized how it worked and then spread the discovery with others, little by little, passing it down from parent to child, parent to child, parent to child, until it came to us, until it painted this exact scene of Íngrid and me and Yainer and Julio and even Topo positioned on the sidewalk, eyes set on the slow course of the retreating sun.
Our house sat almost at the very beginning of the street, which meant that we could see Juancho coming before anyone else could, before Julio or Yainer or Topo, who said often and to a certain degree rightly, that his eyesight was better than anyone else’s, better than Íngrid’s, better than Julio’s, better than Yainer’s, better than mine, better than anyone else’s on our block, in our neighborhood, in our entire village, and that he ran faster than everyone too, and jumped higher, that even in Medellín he couldn’t be beat, and that one day he’d be stronger than even Juancho, but not to load and unload firewood or bananas or bundles, but to be an Olympic medalist and a famous soccer player.
We believed everything he said, Íngrid and I, except when it came to Juancho, of course.
There was no way anyone could outmatch the strength of the idiot. Every 31 December Juancho was asked to restrain the hog for the big dinner on the block. And he did it all by himself. Him alone against a white pig that had to be 350 pounds, give or take. He’d wrap the beast in the iron clutch of his gigantic arms and wouldn’t let go. Not when the animal was unloaded from the truck, and not when they stabbed the hog right through the heart, sending it into violent contortions, instinctively fighting for its life, and not during its last spasm, its final squeal. One night I said as much to Topo: That’s a lie, mijo. You’re a liar. Don’t you remember the December pig? You go do something like that and then I’ll believe you. Got it? Big mouth, I said. You hotshot. Go on, show some of that famous strength, I said. C’mon, let’s see it. And since Topo kept quiet, and I saw him poisoned with rage, and everyone, Íngrid, Yainer, Julio, looked about to burst into laughter, ready to grant me the victory, I went ahead and threw in that he was a big show-off, period, that he had always been one, that he showed off with everything, with his house, with his bike, with his Medellín, with his brand-new professional soccer ball, with his natural history album, with his new Nintendo, with his new games, and that all his stuff was no big deal, that he showed off with his stupid things and his lies, I said. And if life in Medellín was so good why’d you come here anyways? I said. C’mon, fess up. Or you think we’re dumb, right?
At this point, everyone was dying of laughter, and it took Topo a minute to answer: At least I don’t have a tar face like you, chilapo, and he pushed me and turned to go back to his house and, oof, it was like a fire had been ignited in me somewhere, who knows where, deep down, deep in a place I don’t understand yet, because even though Topo had barely turned his back, and even knowing there was nothing I had to do to save face, and even knowing Topo had been unquestionably defeated, that tone he used got deep under my skin, that I’m-better-than-you, I’m-smarter-than-you, I’m whiter-than-you tone, my-life-is-better-than-yours, and by the way, my-mamá-is-better-than-yours-too attitude.
And since nobody messes with Mamá, I grabbed a stone and hurled it right at Topo, and cracked his head open with a marksmanship I didn’t know I had; that is, with total beginner’s luck because, unlike Topo, becoming an athlete, or a soccer player, or anything too difficult, was not in the cards for me.
And then, of course, came the drama.
Topo screamed with the terror of someone who had never been hurt before.
Yainer and Julio too, and Íngrid, and even I could see myself in their screams, in the sharp reflection of their fear, screaming with the promise of punishment to come. With the freshly acquired duty to pay for a new Topo to give back to his parents.
Not as much as in the December slaughtering, but enough to wreak havoc.
His head, red all over, blood-soaked.
Their shameless hunger for something new.
Doña Brunilda: In the holy name of Jesús, Our Lord.
Topo’s mamá: What happened to you, my angel. Take a deep breath. Tell me. What have they done to you?
And my mamá. Her eyes half sad, half furious, glowing in the midst of the small crowd. Silent at the center of all the chaos.
Except for school, we didn’t leave the house for almost two weeks.
Nothing was forbidden, really.
But Mamá walked from the bed to the kitchen, and from the kitchen to the sewing machine, and from the machine to the bathroom, and never a single word for us.
Food was on the table.
Our school uniforms, clean and ironed every dawn.
But Mamá had annulled our presence in the house the way you remove a couple of traitors from your life.