The naval officer returns to the neighborhood, as he does every evening, but this time with a metal cone under his arm. He walks slowly so they can see him, as if he were taking a war trophy for a walk. The local children stop their game of street soccer to ask what it is. The officer eagerly holds out the artillery piece he’s taken from the Armed Forces Materials and Armaments Service. The children gape, open-mouthed. An unexploded anti-personnel fragmentation shell, he tells them. At home, his mother and aunt are watching the latest telenovela. His mother nervously asks what he’s carrying. He responds that it’s a souvenir and puts it on the living room table, next to the two women. Ten minutes later, while the officer is having a shower, an explosion is heard throughout the whole block. The children interrupt their game again. Everyone comes out to see what’s going on. Shards of glass and pieces of concrete are scattered along one side of the street. The explosion leaves a section of the roof hanging from a beam that will finally fall in the early morning, startling many people in the neighborhood awake with the memory of what they saw the previous evening: two charred women, ambulances, fire.
Eve told me all the stories about our neighborhood. And when they ran out, she invented others. She preferred accumulation to repetition because when things are repeated something strange happens to them, ‘like when you see yourself in photos from different times wearing the same tracksuit, or when you go to someone’s house and find they have a tablecloth identical to your grandmother’s’. Her aim was to nourish my sense of having arrived late, when the events had already happened. The day we moved into the neighborhood, the house next door was in ruins, it was an inaccessible, absent place.
I’d seen her several times around our block and we were in the same high-school biology class. She was a keen participant when we came to study the anatomy of fish, which didn’t fit with the image I’d formed from watching her jump between the roofs of houses, losing herself in the depths of our block or rummaging among the rubble in search of something I didn’t immediately recognize. One day, following a collective foray into the park by the afternoon students to smoke weed, we walked home together. Her house faced onto one street and mine onto another, but from our roofs we could see each other’s yards and, between them, what had once been a house. The walls were still standing, but since most of the roof was missing, there was a perfect view into the bedrooms, the bathroom and living room, and you could even see some moldering pieces of furniture. There was rubble in the yard, a barbecue area almost completely overgrown with the tall grass in which the ovenbirds had built a nest that my father liked to keep watch on through his binoculars. If you passed by the front door, it was like just another of the bricked-up houses to be found on any block, with nothing to indicate that behind those bricks everything was rubble.
On the way home, she told me the story of the naval officer. I watched her hands moving around as she spoke. She wore a number of bright nickel-silver rings, the sort they sell at the market on Saturdays. The effects of the weed made me think that her movements were leaving trails of light in the air. And that gave an added grace to her story. Occasionally I would wander away from the conversation, stroll through forgotten places, along dirt roads, among tin shacks and low concrete walls. Places that always return.
This morning, I woke to the sound of the lock in the house where I lived in those days. The grating of a metal key in the cylinder, the echo down the hallway, the bolts being pulled back. Sounds I heard thousands of times, imprinted in my memory. Fragments of that period are all around me in different forms, as if I had to reassemble them in order to know something. For a few seconds, in those early hours, I believed I was back in our childhood neighborhood.
Soon after we moved there, my father built a wall to block the view of the filthy mess left by the explosion in the yard of the house next door; to stop rats and insects getting in. As a young teenager, looking for somewhere to be alone, I began going up to the roof, from where I could gaze in fascination over that forbidden wasteland. I could also see the back of Eve’s house, which looked more like a continuation of the ruins than a place to peg out laundry or have a barbecue at the weekends. After I started going to the roof, I was able to see what lay behind our neighborhood facades, and those early months of exploration were strange, as though someone had turned the lining of everything inside out, a sense of vertigo that wasn’t coming from within me but from the spaces we inhabited.
Tacuabé, who we all called Tacua for short, spent practically the whole day hanging around the block. He used to beg for spare change and if you gave him a few coins, he’d hurl them back in your face. Local people, who knew him from before, gave him twenty-peso bills and he’d look at them as if the exchange were incomplete. I was scared of him at first because his scars were so repulsive, but then I got so used to him being there that his presence made me feel safe. Eve told me that the people from Pastor Jorge’s church had bricked up the house because they said that it was haunted by the spirit of his dead mother, who had died in the explosion, and that she’d driven him mad, which was why he’d been thrown out of the navy and ended in the street, outside his house, outside everything. Pastor Jorge said that only his followers would be saved from the economic and spiritual crisis. Many people listened to him and started attending the temple – in fact just his house – where he’d be waiting for them with a buff envelope into which they could deposit their cash.
One day Eve asked me to help carry some things from the yard behind the house to the garbage can. There were piles of what I suspected to be her canvases, covered in shade netting and stinking unbearably of cat pee. Curious, I moved closer. I knew she painted because of the colors staining her hands and the smell of thinner that I initially found unpleasant but later identified as one of her characteristic scents: paint thinner, abandoned houses, cigarette butts, candlewax, earth and cats in the sun.
Can I see them first?
Fine, carry them yourself, then.
Go to hell, then.
When I asked why her yard was such a mess, she told me that her mother had left when she was ten and her father had let all the plants die. The autumn rains had turned the flowerbeds and planters into dark swimming pools where strange organisms flourished. I’d even seen some tiny fish there, occasionally coming up to the surface.
I’m behind the house, facing the wall my father built, kicking a football and receiving the pass as though there were two of me. My brother had drawn a circle on the wall and said that if I practiced getting the ball into the center, I’d be a good player when I grew up. My mother seems healthy, cheerful, she watches me play as she smokes a cigarette, the ashtray in one palm. With each kick, the ball comes a little nearer to the circle, the cigarette burns down, leaving a long tail of ash, always at the point of falling. One shot a little too lobbed sends the ball sailing over the wall and into the house on the other side. I turn my head to look at my mother and she’s furious, she walks toward me, still holding the cigarette, and shakes my shoulders.
I saw Eve further up the neighborhood several times, walking almost as far as the local church, an impressive building that had to be viewed from the opposite sidewalk because the facade was in danger of collapsing. Mildew had eaten away at the walls like some strange fungal infection, producing a yellow powder not unlike pollen, which then settled on the sidewalk and the leaves of the lime trees in that block. The only things that functioned in the church were the regular Narcotics Anonymous meetings Eve’s father and my mother attended. That building was where they ended up, trembling, watching the various structures crumble, braving the cold seeping in through the stained-glass windows broken by stones; it was the consolation of many local kids to watch the colored glass fall and shatter, sending a loud, mysterious echo through the old church.
I later learned that Eve used to walk around that part of the neighborhood two or three times a week on her way back from her visits to Estela, an art teacher who lived a block away. At first the idea was to watch her at work, because when you passed by outside, you could see the woman with her splattered shirt, layering paints onto a canvas that was always changing color. Eve was one of those people who liked to stare into windows as they pass, and so she gradually edged a little closer, driven by that urge of hers, which all of us in the neighborhood knew, to enter unknown places. One day Estela invited her inside. She showed Eve her latest work and asked what she saw. Eve answered: My mother. After that day, she began to visit regularly. Estela taught her the basic techniques of color and composition, loaned her books on art that Eve studied without understanding the first thing because the explanations came later. Estela had taken a liking to her and set her exercises. She once asked Eve to go to the registry office so she could see what it meant to fuse your body with a space: almost transparent office workers who formed a single unit with the green walls, the yellowing posters and artificial plants with dusty leaves. When she entered, wearing her red jacket, like a trail of blood in all that aridity, she understood why everyone there wore dull tones. Bodies blend into their environment. In Estela’s house, Eve took her shoes off and walked on the floor to feel the grain of the wood on her feet, she stroked the flowers on the wallpaper, moved close to feel the heat of a red-hot wood-burning stove. Estela would watch her, lighting one cigarette from the butt of the last, blowing the smoke into the backlight to see what shapes it formed, toxic clouds, like the ones we saw from our windows, drifting over the neighborhood: Tacua in the middle of the street, looking up at the sky, the dark fish disappearing beneath the surface of the water in a planter. Once, before she left, Eve asked me to go to the hospital with her. I’ll wait outside, I said. She stood at the foot of the bed, like someone passing by who stops to watch her house burning. Estela asked for a few drops more of her pain medication. This isn’t me, she said, so you can stop coming.
During those days I didn’t see her on the roof as I used to. She told me she was spending the nights in uninhabited houses.