The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 13, No. 1


by Alejandro Zambra

Translated by Carolina De Robertis

It was in 1996, four or five months after my father's death. Perhaps it's better to begin with that death, with that ending. I don't know. At that time my father was my enemy. I was twenty years old and I hated him. Now I think that hating him was unfair. My father didn't deserve that hatred. I don't know whether he deserved love, but I'm sure he didn't deserve that hatred.
     He had just bought a truck, with the last of his savings, a white 1988 Ford in good condition. The day it was delivered he parked it two blocks from home, but the next morning he died—he died of a heart attack, just like his father and his father's father—so the truck stayed there for several weeks, exposed to the elements, obstructing traffic. After the funeral, my mother decided to head south; she returned south, in reality, as if obeying a long-premeditated plan. She didn't want to tell me she was leaving for good. She didn't ask me to accompany her. So I ended up with the house and the truck, which one morning, emboldened by loneliness, I drove carefully through outlying streets until I found a place to leave it.
     I spent the days half-drunk, watching movies in the big bed and sullenly receiving the neighbors' condolences. I was, at last, free. That this freedom was so similar to abandonment seemed like nothing more than a detail. I dropped out of the university, without giving it much thought, since I couldn't see myself studying for the Calculus I exam again, for the third time. My mother sent me enough money to get by on, so I forgot about the truck until Luis Miguel came to ask me for it. I remember that I opened the door with fear, but Luis Miguel's kindness immediately eased my suspicions. After introducing himself and apologizing for the late hour, he said he'd heard I had a truck and he wanted to propose I rent it to him.
     I could drive it and pay you a monthly fee, he said. I responded that I had little or no interest in the truck, that it would be better for me to sell it. He said he didn't have money, that we could at least give it a try for a while, that he himself could be in charge of finding a buyer. He seemed desperate, though I later understood that he wasn't, that in his case desperation was more of a habit, an attitude, a way of being. I invited him in; I offered him French fries and beer, and we drank so many beers that the next day I woke up beside him, my body sore and filled with a strong desire to cry. Luis Miguel embraced me with caution, almost with affection, and he made a joke I don't recall, some triviality that assuaged the sadness and I thanked him for it, or thought I thanked him, with a glance. Then we cooked noodles and improvised a bland sauce, and this time we drank two cartons of wine.
     He had promised his wife that he would no longer go to bed with men. She didn't care if he got involved with other women, but she was very concerned about him going to bed with men. By that time I was already sure that I didn't like women; at first, I had gone to bed with women my age but soon after only with men, who were almost always older, though never so much older as Luis Miguel, who was forty-four years old, had two children, and was unemployed.
     I'll hire you by the screw, I said, and we laughed for a long time, already back in bed.
     Luis Miguel's arms were two or three times thicker than mine.
     And his cock was five centimeters longer than mine.
     And his skin was darker and softer than mine.
     A month later Luis Miguel invited me to La Calera, and after that to Antofagasta, and from that point on invitations were no longer necessary; for a year and a half we worked together, in partnership, sharing the profits. We transported anything: rubble, vegetables, wood, blankets, fireworks, suspicious unmarked boxes. I wouldn't say those long hours flew by; we had a good time, we lightened the load of our trips by laughing, telling each other the stories of our lives; but little by little the freeway managed to wear away our words, and we bore the last kilometers in a perturbed state of rest. On our return, we'd spend a whole day sleeping and then make love until we were sated or until his guilt reared up, something that happened often, almost daily; he would suddenly interrupt our caresses to call his wife and tell her that he was near Santiago, and I accepted that comedy without complaint because I knew it was not, in fact, a comedy.
     One of my children is your age, he told me one night, his eyes blazing, not with fire or rage, as they say, but with a black and bottomless shame that I didn't understand then, nor do I understand now, nor will I ever understand.

He's a friend, I said to Nadia.
     Luis Miguel greeted her with embarrassment; he walked by naked, he had just woken up; it was ten or eleven in the morning, and Nadia smiled or gave a hint of a smile. She had come to ask me to help her move.
     I can't stand my parents anymore, she told me, and I didn't ask her for details, but she started to talk with her usual nervous warmth. All three of us went to get the truck, and then to Nadia's house, where we worked with my friend's sobs and her mother's wails as background noise. Later, on the road, Nadia didn't cry anymore, but rather laughed with gusto, with a kind of vertigo. We rode from Maipú to a small apartment on Diagonal Paraguay where she planned to live with a friend. It was on the sixth floor, without an elevator, but the move was simple: nothing more than a mattress, two suitcases, and six boxes of books. On the way back Luis Miguel asked me about Nadia, and I told him that I'd known her for years, since childhood, that she was my best friend, or at least that she had been, at one point, my best friend.
     Two weeks later we had to repeat the trip. We had just returned from Valparaíso when Nadia called and begged me to save her from her friend: A crazy person, she said, an idiot who thinks I'm her nanny. Only at the end of the journey did I understand that Nadia was not going back to her house, but to mine.
     I talked it over with your mom, she said, it made her happy to know we'd be living together. Contrary to my expectations, the idea was not displeasing to Luis Miguel.
     We have to come up with a fantasy name, Nadia said that very night, as we played
     Scrabble. What for? For our moving company, she said with glad solemnity. No more long trips, no more highways, she said, and we agreed, and devoted what was left of the night to choosing the fantasy name; and at the end we chose that one, Fantasy, as suggested by Nadia, naturally: The best name is Fantasy, Fantasy Movers, she said, and we happily accepted.
     The next day Nadia made signs and bought overalls for the three of us. Two weeks later we had our first client, a lawyer who was about to get married and was moving into a large house in Ñuñoa; and from then on we didn't stop.
     In this neighborhood people move a lot, it's like a virus, Nadia said every time we were asked how the business was going. We painted the truck with images that Luis Miguel found very strange, and he was right, but we liked to break up that plain landscape of semidetached houses with the outrageous moving truck. We liked our new semi-entrepreneurial life; we spent hours making plans and fixing up the house with the many donations left by clients. The living room filled with lamps, wobbly chairs, and broken trunks.
     One morning my mother arrived out of the blue. By then, almost three years after my father's death, we barely talked on the phone. But she did send me letters, long and affectionate letters, written in a light handwriting, with an astonishing number of ellipses: The south . . . is the loveliest place in the universe . . . Osorno is a tranquil city . . . where I've gotten back in contact with . . . my sisters. It was my birthday, but I certainly wasn't expecting her to visit, much less for her to open the door with her own old key and enter what had been her bedroom to see me sleeping in Luis Miguel's arms. My mother burst into tears or began to moan; I tried to calm her but she screamed more. Nadia and her anchor-friend—her term for the type of boyfriend she went to bed with every once in a while—at last appeared. The anchor-friend left, and Nadia quickly made a couple of Nescafés and locked herself up with my mother all day. Luis Miguel wanted to stay, to accompany me, to listen with me to the wails and shouts and mysterious parentheses of silence that came from the bedroom. Just after nightfall, they emerged. My mother embraced me and reached her hand out to Luis Miguel, and we ate the cheese and pastries and enguindado she had brought until my mother got so drunk she insisted on our singing "Happy Birthday." It's not your birthday every day, my mother said before starting to sing and wave her hands.
     Luis Miguel almost never saw his family anymore, but this time he was obliged to leave at midnight. I slept in Nadia's room, with Nadia beside me on a rusty sofa bed that had been given to us recently. My mother slept in the big bed and left very early. She left a note and twenty thousand pesos on the table.
     The note said only: Take care of yourselves . . .

We had a lot of work, but we liked it. We even thought about buying another truck and maybe hiring someone else. But the story ended a different way:
     Luis Miguel returned very nervous, with a bottle of whiskey in hand. It's a gift, he said, you're my friends, we have to celebrate, you have to be happy about this news.
     I feared the worst. And I was right: after several years of applying, Luis Miguel and his wife had obtained a subsidy from the government to buy their own house, so at the end of the month they would move far away (but that won't be a problem, we'll keep working together, he said), to Puente Alto, to a slightly bigger house. I received his words with anger and sadness. I didn't want to cry, but I cried. Nadia also cried, though this wasn't hers to cry about. Luis Miguel raised his voice, as if stepping into a scene he had perhaps rehearsed in front of a mirror; he appeared to be outside himself, but it was just that, an appearance: He shouted and slammed the table with false emphasis. He spoke of the future, of dreams, of children, of opportunities, of a real world we knew nothing about. Most of all he spoke of that, of a real world we knew nothing about. Nadia answered for both of us: She told him that on October 31, at nine in the morning, we'd be at his house, that he should write down the address, that he'd better pack the furniture with care. Fantasy Movers will give you this trip for free, you dickwad, but now get out of here once and for all and start looking for another job.

The following days were horrible. Horrible and unnecessary.
     On the morning of the thirty-first we arrived fifteen minutes late. Luis Miguel lived in an interior unit, in an old house for tenants who rent for very little money. The door was opened by one of his sons, the eldest, the one who was my age, though he looked older; he closely resembled his father: the same bushy eyebrows, extremely bushy, the black eyes, the invariable dark slant of his cheeks, the large and beautiful body. His younger son was a very dark boy of six or seven who was wandering back and forth, reading a magazine. His wife was kind. The roughness of her features stood in contrast to her alert gaze; it was hard not to answer that expression with a blushing greeting. She offered us tea and we didn't accept, she offered us bread with blackberry jam but we politely declined; we didn't want to sit down with them at the table. It should have been a quick job; we should have looked very little, just enough. But Luis Miguel sought me out, with that dry desperation I had glimpsed a few times and that now revealed itself in all its fullness.
     We traveled in the cab of the truck, the three of us, in silence. The wife and children would go later; so there was time to say good-bye.
     We won't see each other again, I said, and he assented. Nadia embraced him with affection. I did not embrace him: I got out and waited for her outside, for two or ten interminable minutes. We hadn't discussed it, but Nadia and I knew that we wanted to, that we should, leave him the truck.
     We walked many blocks in search of a bus. After an extremely long trip we arrived home, holding hands.

A couple of weeks ago Nadia started working as a secretary. She goes out early in the morning, leaving me books and cigarettes, and when she returns we drink long cups of tea.
     Maybe you should write down this story, she said to me this morning, before heading out.
     OK, Nadia. I've already written it.

To read this story in its original Spanish and other stories from the Spring 2009 issue, please purchase a copy from our online store.