My father is not well-liked in the neighbourhood. The police come by every Monday or Tuesday and watch him drink beer in the miniscule concrete square which used to be our garden. Our neighbours have no fence to protect themselves, but we do. My father drinks while perched on a bench that faces the street, a crime punished with the severity reserved only to the worst offenses around here. However, the police cannot pass the fence and arrest him: they have to make do with watching him drink.
Our relationship is not very good, either. My mother is dead and I have to take care of the household. He was taught to never touch a broom, while I was born with one in my hand. When I’m done swiping, dusting, mopping, and cleaning bathroom and kitchen (laundry on Thursdays and Mondays), I have to get into my tracksuit and walk to the factory.
I was so good a student that I got a job as soon as I applied for it, not good enough to get a scholarship and continue my studies. I work in an assembly line from three in the afternoon to ten at night, together with another twenty women, all indistinguishable. From the window above, the supervision office, we must look tireless, all of us, the two or three hundred women forming the fifteen synchronised lines of the factory during the various shifts.
One of my fortunes (I don’t like to complain; I let the newspapers do that) is that my way home is quite simple. Eleven straight streets run between my home and the factory. Some of my colleagues need to change as many as two or three busses and walk muddy pathways before they can consider themselves free.
The streets around the factory were once very dark, but know they are lighted with municipal lampposts. The surveillance is all-constant; in the eleven streets to my doorstep one can count up to six pick-ups with policemen, two sitting in the front seats and four in the back, squeezed in the cargo bed, their legs dangling and their rifles on their shoulders.
The newspapers complain. They say that the neighbourhood is a shame and compare it to the sweet urbanisation on the other side of the city. It’s true: there are neither brick fences nor gardens here. We used to have one, a tiny one, which is now covered with concrete and which my father uses as a surveillance post as he drinks. He looks at the passers-by during the day and waits for me to come home at night. Or at least that’s what I think. Sometimes he’s not there when I arrive and shows up only later, a bottle in his hand.
It’s true, there are dangers. And not all of them are made up by the press, as someone claims. Many of my colleagues, it wasn’t possible to know precisely how many, do not come back to the factory. Some of them get tired of the meagre wage or the hard work, we think. Others get kidnapped in the streets around here. This sounds like those newspaper articles which lament the discovery of one corpse after the other. The articles usually feature pictures in which the dead women look like toys. And that’s how we all shall see us: assembled dolls, equipped with a safety mask. Sometimes with play at assembling dolls (head and arms her, legs and cloths there) and, sometimes, we get dismantled. No: the truth is that we assemble circuits and the dolls line was closed years ago for lack of market. However, I cut an article which confirmed it, because I liked the way it lied. As if what’s happening made any sense, as if we were something that could be described.
The article was published one year and a half ago, in the period in which the surveillance was tighter and the disappearing (and reappearing) of bodies more frequent. Now they’ve decreased, though not entirely stopped. Like those old couples that sometimes still want each other, when he’s drunk and she’s bored. I read this in another article, in a section that, instead of showing dead corpse, showed alive bodies of beautiful women. What I can’t stand is crossword puzzles. I couldn’t solve them anyway, because my father jumps on every newspaper delivered to us. He completes them in a few minutes, without erasures or doubts., as if he had designed them, as if he could put his words in the little squares without even bothering to check if they correspond or not to the true ones. I’ve never bothered to check them myself.
I’m not used to walking slow, quite the opposite; I walk fast and without getting distracted. I never turn if one of the policemen, on their pick-ups, calls me. Some women from the factory become their friends or girlfriends (that is, they hide in the hallways with them and let their penis slide into their mouth), looking security and protection, but I don’t intend to fuck anyone, nor do I need anyone to walk me to the door. My father would like to see me coming with a policeman.
Newspapers complain about everything but, sometimes, as it is often the case with big mouths, they also manage to say useful things. For example, I have here an article that says that the factory is going so bad that it’s a mystery why the owner still keeps it open. It hasn’t made any profit in the last eight years and is in the red in all balance sheets. Even tax collectors have gone soft on them with their controls, because the owner is friends with a deputy and the government knows that the factory isn’t making any money. They let him be.
Another problem of this neighbourhood “in desperate conditions”, I read, is the death of five policemen in one year. The newspaper reports the words of the city council and implies that officers are done in by the same people that kidnap and then get rid of the corpses of my colleagues. But how can we trust a newspaper that, after revealing such information, obliges the fantasy of the person in charge of the horoscope without blinking an eye. Mine says todays: You’ll feel unusually in tune with your partner, take advantage of it to talk about the things that bother you.
My partner, who does not exist, should be very patient: I work form Monday to Saturday and I’m never done with the housework. And my father would get mad if he saw me coming holding hands with someone. Especially, I think, if that someone was a policeman and I had to hide with him in an hallway and blow him.
I realise now that I ended up telling this to no one in particular, and this really does bother me. Another hit for the horoscope.
At night, I get out with another fifty colleagues. Another fifty took over form us, all identical. We recognise only few of them, because we have to wear on our hair and safety masks, and it’s not very convenient to keep taking them off and putting them on again every time, so we usually leave them on, obstructing our sight.
For the past three days an officer has been wishing me goodnight, standing in the farthest corner from the door, where my way home begins. He’s very ugly, even among those like him, but he acts as to appear lovable. I smile at him without answering; I know that this little hope I give him makes him come back.
His colleagues laugh at him, sitting on the cargo bed, their legs dangling. «You can’t even nail the worst of those whores» they told him the second day. Don’t think, officer, that calling me whore will offend me. The pick-up follows me on my way home but stops before the last turn. The ugly officer, standing on the bed, recognise me as the daughter of the drunkard of the fence. They mock him again. He must have suffered worse humiliations: he’s really ugly.
A new girl, a bit older than the others, arrives at the factory. She says she knows me. She lives in one of the houses squeezed next to each other on the other side of my street: she has seen my father drinking on his bench since she was little. She reads the newspapers as much as I do, but avoids news on the neighbourhood and focuses on those which provided solutions to sex problems to men, women and whores. I can’t believe those dick heads called me whore without even blinking an eye.
We walk home together, inevitably, as if she had been assigned to my shift to force me to become friends with her. The ugly officer seems interested in my neighbour when he sees her at my side. They smile at each other. I encourage her to hold his gaze and talk to him, during the long hours at the assembly line. I hope they like one another.
It’s a success: I manage to get rid of my walking mate as soon as she resolves to talk to the ugly guy. She is beautiful, curiously so, and now the officer’s colleagues mumble, resentful, instead of mocking him. I don’t pay attention to them, but only to the streets that I walk every day and every night. I’m not worried about them. I will never creep in a hallway to blow a protector, grateful.
The horoscope says that I should beware rumours. And it adds, the newspaper, another piece of news: since the number of crimes in the neighbourhoods has decreased by fifty-nine point two percent, the surveillance will be proportionally reduced. They should explain me how they will reduce the decimal place. If I could have calculated that, maybe, I think to myself, I would have got the scholarship. And now I would write the horoscope on the newspaper.
My neighbour takes advantage of the hours we spent side by side at the assembly line to tell me about her fondling and blowing with the policeman. His ugliness seems to excite her. She feels charming. Even the newspaper gave her whims its blessing, as in the section with all the pictures of the beautiful naked women readers are advised to get engaged with hideous but passionate men.
What happened next should never have happened. She could have remained with her man, letting me walk home alone, instead she fixed a date with him later that night, at her home, to introduce him to her family, and walked with me on the way home. Everything was perfect, they would be happy, she would ask to be assigned to a mall and move away from the dangers. So he doesn’t like the neighbourhood, I said. No one does, neighbour, no one. The whore sure does, I think.
But the pick-up comes out from behind a well-lit corner, and stops right there, at the end of the street. It’s black, no license plate nor signs, the windows up. We stop, its headlights wait for us. She must already see herself torn to pieces, in a trench, separated forever from her ugly lover, her work tracksuit, even me. No one likes to imagine those things. She grabs my arm, shakes. I wouldn’t have been so scared, had I been alone. I’ll never walk home with this idiot again, I think to myself. A flashing light saves us from our paralysis. A patrol down the road is approaching. The pick-up, as slow as a cloud, moves away.
I avoid answering the next day, in the factory, when she mentions the event. I recommend she relies on her boyfriend, let me walk home alone, as I can do, as I like to do. She insists. She says, I don’t know on what ground you can say that, we are safer together. I have to send her away. Your fucking boyfriend called me a whore and wanted me to blow him. Go fuck yourself, the two of you. Don’t even talk to me, you idiot. I scare her enough to send her away. Finally.
Some days later I see from afar that she gets delivered a basket of balloons. Hugs follow, and some clapping. She moves in with the ugly guy, she leaves the factory. My knees tremble for the relief and my tights sweat, as if childhood urine was running down on them.
The newspaper, perceptively, points out that the reduction of the number of policemen in the neighbourhood might not come as a consequence for the decrease of crimes, quite the opposite: crimes decreased as the number of policemen did. I realise that, surprisingly enough, my father hasn’t finished his crosswords this time. The recipe of the day: chicken salad with sweet sauce. Seems delicious.
The pick-up moves slowly towards me. It’s the best possible place for an assault, half way through the way between my house and the factory, at a street crossing where no one lives and only few shops resist, all closed at this time. It overtakes me but then stops, waiting for me. Since I don’t walk on (why rushing), two men come out. They’re in civilian clothes. They are the ugly guy and his colleague, maybe one who laughed harder than the others at this despicable whore. Their faces are perfectly straight. No fun here.
Their knees make me bend and the kick makes me fall. I can’t fight, nothing in the pockets of my tracksuit or my backpack can be used for self-defence. They drag me to the pick-up and I must be excessively heavy, because the whole movement is not graceful, but rather pitiful and clumsy. I manage to get hold of a lamppost and stop them. Clearly, they have no idea how to do this.
But, of course, the expert is here. They don’t see him, they don’t expect him, but the creaking I hear while they pull my feet and kick my ribs it’s his boots and his gun. I close my eyes for the sorrow, because what I see doesn’t give me any pleasure, nor I’m amused by what’s happening. The shots don’t make to much noise; mere echoes, silenced by flesh. I’m sweating. My stomach hurts, my mouth opens and breaths in air, all the air it can hold. I drag myself to the lamppost and, leaning on it, I manage to stand up. Nausea. They really hurt me.
The chest of the ugly guy is destroyed and there’s a hole as big as a hand in his groin. His colleague has a black opening where once was an eye and his guts pour out from his stomach. I still have enough strength to spit on both of them, and give back the kicks. The pain in the ribs will haut me for months. I hear a rattle. The ugly one is still alive and tries to escape.
Look at the despicable whore now, I tell him, look at her.
He gets shot again.
I close my eyes.
A hand grabs my shoulder, forces me to turn.
Let’s go, quick, he says.
He looks at me, harshly.
The patrols will come back.
I follow him down the streets.
Ortuño’s El buscador de cabezas (2006) was published in Italy by Neri Pozzi in 2008 with the title Risorse Umane (Human Resources), and his La fila india (2013) will be soon available in Italian.
translated by Irene Brighenti