One of Many Potential Shortcuts

Venezuelan author JM Soto.

Editor's Note:
Bogotá39 is a project by the Hay Festival and Bogotá: UNESCO World Book Capital City to name 39 of the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39. The first list was assembled in 2007, and a new list appeared in 2017. Beginning in the current issue, Latin American Literature Today will feature works by the young authors selected for this prestigious recognition. View the full 2017 list here.

Fifteen years have gone by and I’m still living in that same apartment, surrounded by the same furniture, bar a piece or two, by the same smells and textures that remain despite the coats of paint, dust and grime covering the walls, like how the stories—however few or many of them—pile up, comprising what we have become and what we have left behind. In terms of the building you could say it’s looking tired, covered in cracks that like wrinkles groove its surface, and I could almost venture—though it’s best not to—that a little hump is beginning to form on its concrete back. The garden, once populated by invisible crickets and slow-moving spiders is nothing more than a small piece of land peppered with discoloured beer bottles and the burnt carcasses of barbecue coals. 

Despite the time that’s lapsed, I still can’t bring myself to put the rubbish down the chute in the corridor. I’d rather let it pile up, sometimes for as much as three weeks, until I have five full large bin liners and only then do I carry them down the stairs and drop them by the containers on the road. Though Dayana knows the story, or part of the story, or the version of the story I told her, she always complains about my bad habit of storing the rubbish in the flat instead of using the chute like everyone else.

Sometimes, though less and less, I wake up to the voice of Julio calling us; he doesn’t call a specific name but we know he’s calling us. It’s neither a scream nor a whisper, but rather his peaceful voice, as if he were asking a stranger for the time.

What I remember about Julio is that his parents were always fighting for any old reason; the most common one was that his dad spent most of his salary on ‘cows’. At the time I didn’t understand what cows were, even though Gustavo, the oldest of us all, would explain that ‘cows’ were the sort of whores you could find in some buildings of the Avenida Urdaneta; and though Julio’s mum called them cows alluding to their large udders and their four stomachs, Gustavo assured us that they weren’t all like that.

I have this image of Julio’s mum as the most beautiful woman in the building, so we didn’t understand why Julio’s dad would prefer to go for a ride with some flabby cow. She wasn’t like the other adult women (the ones from the parish committee, the ones from the neighbourhood watch or the group of friends from church); she was twenty-five at the time and to us, children between nine and eleven years old, she seemed unapproachable. What I remember most distinctly is her mouth, painted bright red, and her curly hair, almost always damp. She smoked so much that I can’t but recall her shrouded in a thin grey cloud. I loved to see her wearing sandals, although I don’t know what it was that I liked so much about her feet, or if I even liked them; perhaps it was the fulfilled desire of eyeing some more of her naked flesh. Once, in her home, I secretly stole the butt of a cigarette she’d smoked. It was drenched in red from her lipstick and it gave off this strange scent, halfway between air freshener and sour beans. I hid the cigarette butt under my mattress and every night, for several months, I would search for it and press it lightly, smell it, pretend I was smoking it, and contemplate how lucky Julio was, or rather, how lucky Julio’s father was; I would again fail to understand why he would visit the cows, which remained a mystery even years later, when I started to spend my own first few salaries in the busy Avenida Urdaneta, without ever finding a woman who could compare with Julio’s mother.

I could not attest to him being physically abused, but he (and once or twice even the rest of us) would sometimes suffer collateral damage. His parents would throw things at each other during these heated fights, and Julio was caught in the crossfire of some disputes, as various kitchen tools and appliances flew from side to side. The most memorable day of these battles was when the TV broke right at the end of the baseball season, which for Julio was the equivalent of several months of mourning.

The fights got to be so violent that we stopped meeting in his apartment. Somehow we felt, though not in so many words, of course, that we had violated his intimacy, or rather, that his intimacy had violated us. So we only got together to play outside of his home. To me, the most regretful aspect of this was no longer being able to see, at least in close proximity, the sandalled feet of Julio’s mum.

 Julio was the fastest, most skilful and most daring member of our gang. In all likelihood I secretly hated him a little, especially because I was angered by the fact that, though a few months younger than me, he kept beating me and most of the other guys at almost every game. Nevertheless, I never openly displayed the least sign of antagonism towards him. When he won, I played the role of admirer unreservedly and with the distance that befits a good loser.

Sometimes I told myself that he had made the play facing away from the basket or lined the walk-off hit simply by luck; but one day I understood it was more than luck, or maybe that word simply stopped meaning what it had meant for me up to that point and blended with other more powerful terms, like magic or miracle.

That day we had climbed to the flat rooftop. Though the barred gate that led to it on the top floor was padlocked, we were so small that we were able to squeeze between the bars and thwart the concierge’s efforts to keep us out of there. While I wasn’t too fond of the place, and just the sound of the wind made me dizzy, I used to pretend I liked it; what’s more, I used to propose an excursion to the rooftop when I knew the rest were too tired, in the knowledge that my idea wouldn’t be seconded. Except when Julio was around, because no matter the time of the day he was always up for climbing up there.

Our building is only a scant few metres away from the next, such that all you need to do is take a little big leap from the rooftop to reach the other side. The idea was Marlon’s, but Julio was the only one who put it to practice. Without even thinking whether or not the rest of us would follow him, he simply said: ‘I’ll go first.’ He rolled up the bottom of his trousers, undid the laces of his shoes and tied them again, real tight; he flipped his cap backwards, fitted it as if he were looking for some sort of aerodynamic effect, and crouched into the position of a sprinter about to start a hundred metres race. To me it seemed (it still does) like an impossible leap, not so much because of the distance between the two buildings but because of the ledge on either side, which meant you had to climb a small step before taking the leap, thus neutralising whatever momentum you had been able to gain in the run-up. But no one said anything, not even a single word of support. Except for Omar, who to disguise his fear mumbled optimistically: ‘The wind is blowing in that direction, that’s good.’

I later learnt that I wasn’t the only one gripped by fear, and that, as a matter of fact, others forced themselves to hold it together, not to crumble in tears or pee themselves, as they longed for an adult to walk through the gate and call off this circus act before sentencing us to eternal punishment in our respective bedrooms.

But none of that happened. What took place after Omar’s intervention was Julio’s speedy run-up, not in slow motion but rather fast-forward, so much so that I can only recall it like that, in three or five seconds at the most, I would say. He took fifteen steps before reaching the ledge and then he took one more long jump, so strong that his cap flew out of his head and tumbled through the sky on a freefall while his feet landed on the other building, before he fell on his palms and knees on the rooftop. 

Though we claimed (and today I’m ashamed of it) that it wasn’t as far as we’d thought before his jump, no one even thought about emulating him. We simply cheered and congratulated him as we peered from the edge of the rooftop. Oscar, the tallest of us, reached out with his arm and managed to brush the tip of Julio’s fingers. The rest of us were reduced to publicly acknowledging that we wouldn’t be able to do it, that it was so fucking amazing no one would believe it. At that moment I thought that no game would ever make sense again, that unless we played Russian roulette or something similar no game would ever prove anything at all.

I felt stupid for having attributed Julio’s past achievements to luck: in other words, I acknowledged that everything about him was above us, a thousand times above, as far above as bright red lipstick on a pair of lips shrouded in smoke. I thought all this, in a different order and using other words, as Julio walked towards the gate into the other building and tried to force it open. It seemed to be locked from the inside with a padlock, Julio explained, as he pulled the handle, pushing one of his legs against the wall. Once he realised all his efforts were in vain, he headed back towards the edge of the rooftop, where we waited for him with increased anxiety and fear.

It didn’t occur to any of us that the most logical course of action would have been to climb down to the ground floor, to look for the concierge of the other building and to explain the situation to her: that a boy was locked out on the rooftop terrace of her building and that he couldn’t get back in because the door was locked with a padlock, and if the concierge didn’t believe us we would make her come out and look up and we’d tell Julio to wave his hand, but since the sun was out and made it difficult to see eight floors up into the sky we would have to convince the concierge to climb with us onto the rooftop of our building so that she could see that there really was a boy trapped on her building, but that would have meant asking the concierge of our building to open the gate through which we could easily squeeze but which the other concierge would be unable to get past, unless it were open already, etc.

In any case, the fact is that we decided not to go fetch anyone, and the solution I came up with, and I voiced, and no one found ridiculous, was that the fire department or the military would have to come get Julio in a helicopter and that they would deploy a rope ladder in order to take him from the rooftop of the other building to ours. 

Another idea which was equally lauded and even put to the test was Marlon’s. He proposed using a wooden board to bridge the space between the two rooftops and have Julio come back that way. His idea was discarded, however, once we were able to place two narrow strips of wood between the two buildings, only to see them tumble down and disappear as soon as we tried to make certain they were sturdy enough.

It was Julio who took the simplest and most logical decision: he’d get back in the same way he’d gone, so without giving it too much thought he took a few steps back; this time his run-up wasn’t so long, perhaps because he realised he didn’t need so much speed as strength when he leaped from the ledge. Someone noted that Julio no longer had his cap. Almost as if responding—though I’m certain Julio didn’t hear this comment, because it was spoken in such a soft voice, almost a bashful whisper—Julio crossed himself. He did it wrong, he didn’t make a cross, it was more like a triangle or some irregular polygon, not because he didn’t care but because his hands must have been experiencing the same vigorous shaking that afflicted our whole bodies, our tongues, our arms, our legs, our sphincters. Quicker than the first time, and even more gracefully, Julio jumped and was already with us. He was greeted by our applause and we lifted him on our shoulders and paraded him around the rooftop, though we stayed well clear of the edge, of course.

Not only had he done it once but twice, and I’m certain he would have done it a hundred time more, a thousand times, had the rest of us not agreed to the tacit pact of keeping away from there. As a matter of fact, I never again went to that place, not even years later when wire fences were fitted all around the edge of the rooftop, which was transformed into a washhouse.

There was nothing tacit about our agreement not to tell anyone about what had happened on the rooftop, not least because we would have been punished for a pile of centuries, and Julio would suffer more that the rest of us because the TV in his house wasn’t working; although in all likelihood he would have escaped punishment, since his parents were so busy with other matters.

And though we carried on playing the same games as ever, at the same times and with the same rules, nothing was ever really—at least in my view—the way it had been before. The only bonus was that our admiration for Julio grew by one thousand percent and that he had the final word on everything, from choosing the members of a team to ending a game that had been tied for too long. No one questioned his authority, although truth be told he was not pretentious about it at all, nor did he feel superior to the rest for having achieved such heroic deed. The pleasure of the adrenaline rush was the only reward he sought every time he met a challenge. And if he were still with us and still the age he was then, the wire fences would be nothing but yet another challenge, and he would climb them to jump from one building to the next. 

One day Julio’s father left the apartment, or rather, one day we heard that Julio’s father had left the apartment some days earlier. Perhaps they’d run out of things to break or throw at each other. On the one hand I was happy because I thought we’d go back to meeting in Julio’s place and I would again be able to see his mum wearing sandals, smoking one cigarette after the next watching soap operas, oblivious of what we were or weren’t doing. But my wish went unfulfilled because a square-faced guy started frequenting Julio’s home. We called him The Mechanic, because he always wore blue dungarees covered in grease.

Julio told us that once he spat in The Mechanic’s face because he caught him rummaging through his mum’s purse. He was ready to land a blow from the guy but instead The Mechanic twisted his face into a grimace that made him look like a hungry hyena to scare away Julio, who dashed out of the apartment, defeated but holding his enemy’s stare. I think Julio had just been crying that day, and that was unusual because we had convinced ourselves that he never cried.

Though The Mechanic wouldn’t stay overnight at Julio’s, bar the rare weekend, there was always some trouble brewing between the two; they couldn’t stand each other, and Julio’s one desire was to run away to his aunt’s place, which was far away but not so much if you took a bus, and come back in five years’ time to smash The Mechanic’s face in.

One day the character even had the temerity of trying to play the father role. It happened one afternoon when he saw Julio and me playing in the corridor, outside the apartment, with two toy tractors that carried moderate loads of mud and stones.

The Mechanic dragged himself towards us sluggishly, clearly in a mood, and started shouting that we had spattered shit all over, when in fact it had been him who stepped on our play area and spread mud in the living room of the apartment. He threatened Julio, warning him that if he didn’t clean up the mess he wouldn’t let him go out to play for a full month, assuring him that he would stay at home all that time just to make certain that he received his punishment. Julio stood up to him but The Mechanic, with his blackened hands and nails, stopped him in his tracks placing his outstretched arm on his chest. Just with that simple gesture, Julio understood he was beaten again.

To make sure Julio wasn’t breaking the rules, The Mechanic placed his welding equipment before the stairs. He started to repair some spare part from a motorcycle, and while he couldn’t see us playing in the corridor from his vantage point he did have all exits covered, both the stairs and the elevator.

Julio said that he had to escape, even if it meant climbing through the window, that he would not be taking any more of this; but we were on the seventh floor, and no matter how brave Julio was trying to evade the prison guard that way was simply too risky.

So I came up with the idea (I did, not the ingenious Omar, or even the courageous Julio) of having him escape through the rubbish chute in the hallway; there was an opening to it on every floor, and The Mechanic wouldn’t be able to spot it from where he was. The shaft of the chute was neither too wide nor too narrow, so with a bit of patience Julio would be able to make his way down, sliding his back little by little and helping himself with the soles of his feet.

Julio approved of my idea as if it had been the greatest ever conceived of and his confidence made me partake in a portion of his greatness, which made me feel like I was second-in-command. Since entering the shaft was easier than getting out of it the plan wasn’t to climb down to the sixth floor and then to run down the stairs but rather to go all the way down to the ground floor in order to complete the escape though the garbage room, the doors to which we were sure could be opened from the inside since once we had been there spying on the concierge.

That’s where the plan ended. Neither of us knew whether his escape had as its final purpose the possibility of him joining us to play in the playground or whether it entailed a journey to a more distant place. The fact is that Julio told me to stay in the hallway pretending to be cleaning up and putting the tractors away in order to keep The Mechanic from suspecting anything unusual was taking place. So I stayed there for about twenty minutes, giving Julio enough time to make it all the way down. After this period had lapsed I made my way to the stairs and when I walked past The Mechanic I told him that Julio was tidying up everything and that he should forgive him, but the guy didn’t even flinch, he just carried on repairing his spare part.

Julio didn’t come to the playground all afternoon and all evening; I thought that perhaps The Mechanic has figured out our plan and pulled Julio out of the shaft, making his punishment three times worse.

My sleep was disturbed when I heard Julio’s voice, which seemed to be speaking (not screaming, not whispering, but speaking in the same tone you’d ask a stranger for the time) my name or that of one of us, and I thought I could hear some noise coming from inside the walls in the precise moment when the door to my room was swung open with some alarm. The lights came on and my mum’s face came alive as she asked me if I knew anything of Julio. She told me that his mum had been asking for her son, that she didn’t know where he was.

They’d looked for him in the playground, in the car park, on the rooftop and in each of the apartments of the building. Such uproar in the middle of the night filled me with panic but then I was overwhelmed by a sudden joy: I sensed that Julio had again been a hero, he had escaped and had headed for his aunt’s and he would be back in a few years to exact revenge, with our help of course.

Since in theory I’d been the last person to see him they questioned me time and time again over the following hours. I said a thousand times that I’d left Julio at his place because he’d been punished and had not been allowed out. In fact, not without maliciousness I insisted that in all likelihood the last person to have seen Julio was The Mechanic, given that he had been the one who had barred Julio from leaving the flat and he had stationed himself near the stairs, the only escape route. I won’t deny I felt joy when Julio’s mother started hitting The Mechanic on the chest while she blamed him for what had happened to her son. 

To Omar, who had also been woken up by his parents, I only confided the secret, upon his solemn promise not to tell, that Julio had run away to his aunt’s. I gave him no details of how he had escaped, so he assumed it was through the window, which he didn’t find particularly surprising. 

The following day, roundabout noon, my conscience started pricking me for not telling Julio’s mum the truth. So I knocked on her door and I told her that he had gone to his aunt’s, that she should phone her and look for him there; she answered, her sorrow sheltered in a veil of listlessness, that if he were there his sister would already have called her and brought him back, and that, besides, his aunt’s home was not near at all, that he was too small to make it there on his own. Nevertheless, she obliged, I don’t know whether just to please me, I doubt it, but she called her sister and confirmed that she had no news of her nephew. I approached and hugged her. I wanted to comfort her in some sort of virile way but I ended up sobbing on her shoulder; she hugged me and I guess she closed her eyes and imagined I was her son. 

It wasn’t until the third day when some of the neighbours started to complain about the rubbish chute being blocked, and the waste that was accumulating between the fourth and eighth floors. At first the concierge tried to clear it up with a broomstick, then came the people from the management company and finally some men in white robes.

As soon as I heard the news I ran to my room, looked under my mattress for the cigarette butt, by now almost in shreds, and flushed it down the toilet. The spiral of water didn’t make it disappear until the third flush.

To this day I’d rather let the rubbish pile up in bin liners inside my apartment and then take them down in bunches of five straight to the containers by the road. I do it slowly, drowsily, like just about anything else I’ve done for quite some time. 

 

Translated by Montague Kobbé

Languages

LALT No. 3
Number 3

The third issue of LALT features the debut of our permanent section devoted to Indigenous Literature with writing in languages from Mapudungun to Tzotzil, as well as remarkable short stories from Cristina Rivera Garza and Yoss, the rising star of Cuban science fiction.

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