The house was an eyesore even among the set of crumbling pueblos and thoroughly de-modernized apartment blocks that lined the quiet street. None of the white pickets in its fence were straight, as though each piece of whitewashed wood had an argument of its own, with no point clearly winning. Long ago someone had started painting the exposed brick of its facade in flat black, but it seemed the painter had given up a third of the way in, leaving a tentative malignancy inching towards the entrance. Flanked by unruly rectangles of dirt in which not even the weeds had cared to venture, the door did in fact close but otherwise showed little resemblance to the item that was ostensibly intended.
And it was from this door that Senor Flocop emerged one autumn’s dusk, his arms swathed in an old dander-smothered sweater, his torso still testing the air in a stained franchise uniform polo. Flocop scuffed down the dusty, broken concrete of the pathway, past a worktable covered loosely in a tarp –a decaying monument to some project long since forgotten, but never thrown out. He paused at the threshold of the sidewalk on Calle Alcachofa and peered into the semi-darkness of the intersection at the corner. A few old women walked their yipping cotton-coated mutts; a pair of ancient mopeds droned out what must’ve been, what had to be, but what Flocop knew really weren’t their last drawls down the asphalt, the noise clearing, or rather, eradicating, his thoughts.
A gust of wind sent a cloud of yellowed leaves tumbling from the old oak outside the fence. Flocop started as a few brushed his head, and he shot a hurt look at the tree as he pulled the rest of his sweater over his temples and obfuscated his protruding belly in the indistinct sack of fuzz and warmth. He was nearing his fiftieth year, though he told anyone who inquired (which was, so far as he could recall, only the one, the doctor he’d seen a few months prior) he was approaching forty. His mother had taught him from a young age to subtract always a decade, a lesson that worked better now that he’d grown beyond twenty, even if it didn’t work very well at all.
Flocop slowly came to terms with the increasingly undeniable fact that he couldn’t remember why he’d left the house. The cold was beginning to bite, but then, he reasoned inwardly, he’d gone ahead and fully put on the sweater. After a minute’s worth of resting his eyes on the contemptibly familiar features of the street in front of him, he conceeded the fight and marked putting on the sweater as the height of his conceivable accomplishment. As he turned to walk back inside, he noted that he hadn’t closed the front door behind him when he’d left, and in the modest crack of light the meagre sillhouette of Bombonella, his own vague Bichon-frisee of markedly impure breeding, quivered and shook with excitement. Flocop walked briskly back towards the door, sending the dog skittering noisily inside, where it sought out some other, lesser, vantage point from which to watch the street. The moment before Flocop’s meaty hand reached the peeling plate of the door handle, an unfamiliar voice just behind him growled “Stop!”.
Flocop wanted to freeze where he stood, but his customary reaction of surprised victimhood overrode what his bowels told him was right. So he turned around, and looked mournfully at the young man in the greasy, tilted mini-mohawk, and opened his mouth to ask why he’d said it so unkindly. Then he saw the newspaper folded over the young man’s forearm, which was pointed at the apex of Flocop’s belly.
“You’re coming with me,” said the mini-mohawk, unconvincing to anyone but those he chose to say it to –which, in these parts, constituted just about the whole.
“Please don’t hurt me.” Flocop managed to mumble, feeling his skin shrink somewhere beneath the worn old sweater.
“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”
The young man motioned back down the pathway, towards the intersection, and started walking. Flocop followed him, scrambling to keep up with the young man’s gait. “I’m only forty, well actually thirty-nine, you wouldn’t hurt me, I’m young like you, we can get along, I have many projects–”
“Shut up. Jesus christ.”
At this invocation Flocop pictured El Senor and attendant saints in miniature, their idols swirling around in his fantasy field of vision, offering their protection if only he could sort them all out and put them in the correct order. He began muttering their names in sequence, stopping every few seconds to re-arrange the lineup.
“Jesucristo, Santa Eva, San Francisco de Asís–”
“Jesucristo, San Adria, Santa Eva, San Cornelio Papa, Santo Tomás de Villanueva, San Fructuoso de Tarragona–”
The young man stopped and turned around, looking at Flocop quizically. When the latter saw that folded newspaper again, he quickly spat out a new list:
“Jesucristo! Jesucristo, San Ateo! San Clemente Ignacio Delgado Cebrián! San Serafín de Monte Granario de Nicola! Santa María Josefa del Corazón de Jesús Sancho de Guerra! Santa Potenciana! San Severino recluso!”
“Don’t you ever shut the fuck up?” the young man managed in between saintly outbursts.
“San Telmo Confesor!”
“I said can it already!” The newspaper-covered hand rose from hip to heart. “The fuck you think you’re going, church? Save it, shut up, gaiete, keep quiet. You’ll have the rest of your natural life to disappoint the big man upstairs if you keep me from gettin’ disappointed first.”
Flocop gathered after a few slack-jawed moments that he oughtn’t name any more saints, though he wasn’t sure why and in truth he felt far more wronged by the injunction than the threat of what was under the newspaper. Flocop nodded, and started following the young man again down the sidewalk. He saw Senora Almendrada coming down the street on the opposite side, peering at the pair while her old hound shuffled mournfully a few steps ahead. Flocop felt certain she’d help him escape.
The young man stopped cold and crossed his arms, tucking the newspaper into his elbow.
“Hola Senor Flocop.” The woman shouted back.
“Como estas? Todo bien? Como esta su familia?” Flocop could feel a mystical wave of help and safety honing in on him from somewhere distant off the coast of his predicament. The dog straddled his owner’s boot and commenced extruding the day’s malnourishment.
“Bien, bien, pero, entonces, sabes que mi primo fue en la hospital para su una encarnada, si? Y esta ahora de vuelta a casa, pero la clima es tan fria y el necesito medias mas gruesas. Es la verdad que la clima actualmente es mas fria de lo que era la semana pasada, no? Ah, si, tenes un sueter! Yo tengo un sueter tambien pero yo no lo puse a cambiar con mi pe–”
“Wrap it up, we’re leaving.” The young man whispered at Flocop’s side.
“Ah! Mil disculpes Senora, necesito ir con mi amigo aqui, perdon, perdon, buenas noches!”
“Buenas noches Senor Flocop, suerte!”
The woman and her dog and its shit walked away, leaving Flocop devastated at the receeding hope of her assistance, and moreover deeply embarrassed at having had to cut her off so very quickly.
Flocop plopped himself into the passenger’s side seat of the car at the young man’s prompting. It was a nicer vehicle than he’d ever been in, one of those European makes, but which actually looked and felt as good inside as its outward appearance suggested. He imagined it must’ve cost the young man a great deal of money, which is what he asked him about the second he got in and closed the driver’s side door.
“Your mother bought it for me.”
The answer was too unexpected and confusing for Flocop to digest, so he just pretended to understand and nodded his head as if considering some sage bit of wisdom.
The young man drove quickly, and Flocop spent more time watching the spedometer and admiring the burled wood finish of the interior than contemplating where they were going; after all, he’d seen the streets around his house thousands of times, but he’d only been in such a car this once. He watched the minutes go by on the softly glowing digits of the clock, appreciating each new number as it appeared. It was nine thirty when the young man stopped the car and turned it off. Flocop had seen the clock at seven forty-five when they’d left, but he couldn’t figure how long they’d been driving. It felt like thirty minutes or so, which must’ve meant they were still somewhere in the city proper.
But Flocop recognized nothing about the street they were on as he got out with the driver.
“I don’t know this neighborhood,” Flocop said.
“So where are we?”
The young man didn’t answer, but walked on towards a wrought-iron gate topped with polished copper finials.
“Come on, I’ll show you the guest house.”
Flocop liked the sound of “guest house”, especially from someone with such a nice car. But he wondered why the young man had been so rude when picking him up if all he wanted was to show him his place. There was no newspaper over the arm anymore, and the enormous, souped-up gun Flocop envisioned beneath it didn’t seem to exist. He felt at ease as he followed along, through the gate, down a cobblestone path to a small, warmly-lit house sitting in an immense garden. The young man unlocked the door and let him inside, coming in after him and locking the door again.
The television was the first thing to draw Flocop’s attention. It was huge –the largest he’d ever seen, and with a soccer match already playing. He eagerly walked towards it until he was only a foot or two away, barely able to take in the whole picture.
The young man poured himself a vermouth at the minibar and put the soccer match on mute, which sent Flocop spinning around.
“Why don’t you come have a seat over here.” The young man motioned next to him on the plush leather couch. Flocop wasn’t particularly interested in anything but the game now, but he wanted to make a good impression on the young man. He sat.
Flocop divided himself between the silent match and the immaculate cleanliness of the room as the young man talked. Everything looked new and expensive; the furniture bore no cigarette burns, he saw no matted pills of dog fur, and all the lamps not only had working, burning bulbs, but were even covered in shades. He wondered if he could get a few pictures on his cellphone without the young man noticing, so he could show his friends. He gazed at the ruddy vermouth in the young man’s highball and wondered if there was any beer. The cameras at the soccer match panned over the stadium’s crowd on screen, and Flocop watched them jumping up and down with mouths wide open, the action suddenly centered on the field again, but he couldn’t tell what was really happening without the sound on.
“…will tell them the meeting is tommorow evening at eight. Hey!”
Startled, Flocop looked over at the young man, without the faintest idea of what he’d been saying.
“Pay attention, I’m trying to work with you here.”
Flocop apologized and moved closer to signify his dedication to his host’s trabajo.
“I was saying: in twenty minutes, you’re going to call your family and tell them you’ve been kidnapped–”
“Kidnapped. You will tell them your price is thirty thousand pesos, to be delivered in cash at the Burger King by the Obelisk, tomorrow at 8pm. That means eight, not eight-thirty, not nine, you will tell them the meeting is tomorrow evening at eight.”
Flocop’s world seemed to abandon him as the urgency of numbers beat upon his brow for the first time. Thirty thousand, eight o’clock, it was all too much, too precise, too lacking in jerseys and Quilmes wrappers and that heretofore unassailable guarantee, as if from Heaven itself, that tomorrow would merely be a permutation of today, gloriously indistinguishable and void of change.
“My…we don’t have thirty thousand pesos!”
“Sure you do.”
“But we don’t! We don’t have a thousand to give you once, but thirty times? I’ve never…the most I’ve ever had was five thousand, Senor, please.”
The young man frowned into his glass for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and said, “Five thousand.”
“No, oh, I mean, I had, but that was years ago.” Flocop’s rate of speech was several times faster than that of his thought, a feat he’d never before achieved without the aid of alcohol.
“And I bought a LG 552CC-X.” He knew the name as though it were his own, with the exception that he’d never misspelled the phone’s moniker.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Oh, it was a very very good smartphone, all-new, better than ayphone–”
“Yes, it was.” Flocop looked at the young man blankly.
“So where is it?”
Flocop wrung his hands in his lap. “I…dropped it in the toilet.”
The young man tapped his fingers against his glass.
“And it broke.” The tears began to well up in Flocop’s eyes.
“Listen, I want you to think about what your family could sell tomorrow to get some money together.”
Flocop sniffled. “There’s nothing! Ask anyone, we are hit very hard by los buitres, there is not enough even to pay the rent many months.”
The young man sighed. “You rent that piece of shit on Alcachofa?”
“Our house! Yes! But always the rent goes up fifteen percent, always, each three months. It is hard in Argentina.”
“For fuck’s sake.” The young man stood up and grabbed something off a desk behind the couch.
“I want you to write down everything you’ve spent money on in the past month,” the young man said, tossing a small pad of paper and a pen at Flocop’s lap and turning off the television. “Think carefully, make sure you get everything on there. And by you I mean you and your family.”
“My whole family?” Flocop’s eyes widened.
“The ones you live with.”
“Yes, but I live with my mother.”
“And my father.”
“And my tia, and her five children, and her ex-husband, his two sisters, my brother and his girlfriend, and there are her two children and her brother in law, and–”
“I get it, I get it. Look, write down everything you know about that money was spent on. Okay?”
Flocop hoped he hadn’t offended the young man, who, by the looks of things, was bereft of the particular joys of living with one’s entire extended family and assorted hangers-on. He promised himself to be nicer, and made the sign of the cross to seal it.
“Hey. You understand me?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do it very well, good and fast.” Flocop wriggled in his seat, paper and pen in hand.
“Alright. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Don’t let me down.”
“Yes sir, no sir, todo bien, just like you want.”
The young man walked out, and Flocop heard the door locking behind him. He immediately went to work, scribbling down everything he could remember their money being spent on lately. A few items in, he realized his handwriting was a little sloppy, and tore off the page, crumpling it into a ball and throwing it on the carpet in front of him. Suddenly full of horror at this messing of an otherwise well-kept room, he jumped up and retrieved the ball of paper, stuffing it clumsily into his pocket. He started a new list, carefully printing each entry, but trying not to take too long.
He had run out of ideas five minutes before the young man returned, but he spent the rest of the time wracking his brain, making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He perked up when he heard the door opening, and sat up straight as the young man entered the room again.
“Are you finished?”
“Yes sir, everything is there.”
The young man took the list from Flocop’s outstretched hand and looked it over.
“You sure this is everything?”
“Nothing missing.” Flocop beamed.
He watched his host as he paced the room and pored over the list. La casa, of course. Los gastos, almacenes, celular…
“What’s this celular? I thought you broke your phone in the pisser.”
“That is for my other phone.” Flocop said, retrieving the battered old Nokia out of his pocket. “The first smartphone I ever have, but we say it’s so-so-phone, not so smart anymore.” He laughed heartily, slapping his knee, waiting for agreement. The young man didn’t laugh.
“This says 1200 pesos. Why’s your shit phone so expensive?”
“Well, it is not my phone, it is my plan, yes? And the plan for my mother. And my father. And my tia, and her oldest–”
“Okay, okay, fuck. Listen to me, you all spend way too much on your celulares, eh? You can’t figure out how to get five thousand pesos, you shouldn’t be spending twelve hundred every month, no way everyone in that goddamned clown car house needs a fuckin’ phone.”
Flocop was stunned. He hoped the young man wasn’t going to take his cell phone away –how else would he call into the sports radio show each day to play their trivia game? It was less expensive to play with his subscription than by using the house phone. But before he could make this very important point, the young man continued reading out the items on the list.
“Subte, collectivos, cines, restaurantes –wait, you’re going to dinner an’ a fuckin’ movie here? Six thousand pesos? How many times last month?”
Flocop stared at the carpet, horrified at the idea of having to remember the number of times. The number of times that anything.
“How many times?!”
The answer came after a full two minutes of what looked like profound meditation: “Twelve.”
“Twelve?! In a month?”
Flocop felt a flash of anger at his mother and sister for having pressed him to go out to dinner so often in the past couple of weeks. If only they hadn’t burned the meat and let the vegetables spoil, maybe the young man would like him better, wouldn’t be looking at him as he was.
“It was only three times to the cines, but yes sir, twelve restaurants.”
“I don’t even eat out that often, you know? You ever heard of disposable income?! It’s what you don’t have, and you’re spending it. How the fuck are you even spending it, there’s what, twenty thousand pesos on this list. How much you all bringing in?”
Overjoyed at finally having a ready answer to a question, Flocop immediately belted out “nine thousand pesos, sir!”. His smile was immense.
Flocop continued to smile. When the young man didn’t reply, he thought it best to stand up, salute him with hand to forehead, and sit down again.
“You don’t see the problem here?”
“What problem. I don’t want to make any problems!”
“You’re short eleven thousand pesos. Where’s it coming from?”
“But not everything we pay is from what we make! How could that be?”
“So where’s it from, you telling me you’re getting eleven thousand pesos a month in aid?”
“Las ganancias, si, claro!”
“You said the vultures hit you bad, and you’re getting more than half your monthly expenses paid for?”
“Los buitres are no good, sir, no good at all. They come in, they destroy the community, they ruin the businesses, we cannot live in progress.”
“Eh why the fuck am I trying, you don’t have the first clue what you’re talking about.” The young man muttered, rubbing his hand over an aching forehead. He looked at the list again disinterestedly, and noticed an item towards the end he’d skipped over on the first pass. Blanqueador.
“Hey, what’s 200 pesos worth of bleach doing on here, you get yourself into some sort of mess?”
“Ah, si, the bleach, for Bombonella.”
“Your maid moonlight as a stripper or something? What kind of name is that?”
“No sir, Bombonella is my dog!”
“…why’d you spend two hundred pesos on bleach for a dog?”
“Well it is in the first place my sister’s dog, and since it is always walking around the house and picking up dust on its fur, which gets dirty and brown, she has decided she will dunk Bombonella in the bleach once a week to keep her pretty.”
The young man squeezed his eyes shut and exhaled.
“Listen. New plan. You call your folks, your tia, whatever, you tell them to get all the money they have right now, and the dog, bring it to the fucking Burger King at 8pm tomorrow, and they can have you back.”
“You want me to go?” Flocop was genuinely hurt.
“Yes I want you to go, and I don’t want you getting another dog, either. Or any other pet. Got that?”
Flocop thought it was an odd demand. But he was sure some answer or other he’d given had been very wrong, because apparently the young man didn’t want to stay friends.
But there was no more soccer, no hope for the beer he’d been thinking might come at the end of his diligent listmaking, the hardest he’d worked since junior high. There was only the telephone, the old, corded kind, handed to him by the young man. So Flocop dialed.
“Listen, Silvia, I have to talk to you–”
“You son of a bitch!” His aunt screamed at him through the heavy apparatus. Flocop held the receiver a few inches further from his ear and wished he hadn’t fucked up his good phone, so he could ignore her and look at the girls from Page 6 instead as she barked.
“Going out for parilla by yourself, you leave the whole house without any dinner, and I suppose also you’re drunk? Where are you?! At the corner? We are coming, you’d better be ready to pay for all of us!”
“Silvia, hold on a moment, listen–”
“Carmilla wants papas con cheddar, and Antonio will have choripan, and–”
“Silvia! I must talk to you about a serious situation, please listen to m–”
“Oh! And you left the door open when you went, and nobody can find Bombonella!”
Flocop felt a new sensation somewhere in his midsection, innovatively uncoddled as it was by the very empanadas and fists of meat his aunt suspected him of gorging upon, as per his usual habit. It was hollow, unsafe, capable somehow of understanding dread more readily than the rest of him.
Bombonella padded tentatively past the few blocks native to her nightly piss-and-shit routine, eager for new trees and breaks in the concrete where old rats’ tales might whisper, though she was somewhat unnerved by the lack of monosyllabic imperatives, shouted over her head. But the weather was pleasant, and her grid of interest promised to stretch on beyond the few steps she’d known, and so she went, sniffing, searching, for something better, which in this land was anything and nothing at all.