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This short story was one of the finalists in the 23rd annual «Hucha de Oro» Competition (FUNCAS).

Problem Solved

Fernando Sorrentino
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink MapBuenos Aires, calle Costa Rica

Who hasn’t heard of the Insignia Financial Group, a lending institution that underwrites vehicles, agricultural and industrial machinery and, generally, all types of manufacturing products?

I spent three years working at the branch office over in the Parque Patricios neighborhood located on Avenida Caseros. After I was promoted to a higher position, the company transferred me to the Palermo branch on Avenida Santa Fe. Since I already lived over on Calle Costa Rica, just six blocks away, the change worked out very well for me.

Although prohibited by regulations, every now and then we were visited by a few vendors and sales representatives who peddled a variety of articles. Our bosses tended to be lenient and let them in, and so it had become routine practice for the employees to buy things from these people.

This is how I met Boitus, an exceptionally odd person. He was thin as a wire and balding, wore antique-style glasses, and always dressed in the same grimy, threadbare gray suit, all of which gave him the air of a man who had escaped from a silent film era movie. He had a speech defect, causing his “r” to sound like “d”.

He sold encyclopedias and dictionaries in installments and took cash payments for other less costly books. I became one of Boitus’ clients because it proved to be a convenient arrangement: I would ask him for a certain book by a certain author and a few days later Boitus would show up, always reliable, with the book in question and at the same price as at the local book store.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that Boitus was not only extravagant in the way he looked, but also in the way he moved and talked. The vocabulary he used was both peculiar and exclusive: when speaking of Juan Pérez, our nation’s president, he referred to Chief What’s-His-Name. He didn’t use the sidewalk, but rather the public walkway. He didn’t ride on the underground rail, microbuses or trains; instead he traveled on the public passenger transportation system. He never said, “I don’t know”; it was always, I’m unaware.

One day, as I listened to a certain exchange, I could hardly believe my ears. While at my desk, concentrating on some work related matters, I heard Lucy, one of our most veteran employees on the verge of retiring, ask him, “Tell me, Boitus, have you ever thought about getting married?”

My curiosity forced me to look up and glance over at Boitus. He broke into a smile that was considerate, perhaps even indulgent.

“Why, my dear Ms. Lucy, there’s a simple answer to your question.” He paused for effect. “I can’t marry for three reasons: in the first place, I’m not in an economic position to do so; secondly, I lack the funds; and thirdly, I’m broke.”

Boitus’ answer and, especially, the bewildered look on Lucy’s face caused me to burst out laughing, although I tried my best to contain it. “Well, well,” I told myself, “this Boitus guy is quite the comedian.”

I got used to Boitus’ periodic visits, during which, besides finalizing book purchases, I was entertained by his eccentricities, paradoxes, logic and outlandish ideas.

He always showed up carrying a brown leather briefcase, so worn that it had become gray, in which he kept invoices, receipts, brochures on encyclopedias, business cards... anyway, a collection of business related papers which, God knows why, he generically termed his judgment tools. But besides the briefcase, he always carried five or six packages with him: cardboard boxes filled with books to be delivered.

The day came when our branch manager, Mr. Gatti—an easy going and understanding guy—was promoted and transferred to the head office. His replacement, Mr. Linares, wasn’t really a bad person; however he had a baroque way of speaking, loved circumlocution and was a stickler for rules and regulations. The moment he took over, he laid down the law and from them on, neither Boitus nor any of the other salesmen were allowed over the threshold of the Palermo branch of the Insignia Financial Group.

It was a minor problem, quickly resolved. Boitus and I exchanged phone numbers and thus, my purchases and his sales could continue, but with one difference: instead of delivering books to the office, Boitus brought them to my house.

At some point I realized that I’d now been working at the Palermo branch office a full year and that, consequently, I’d known Boitus for a year and that I bought books from him at fairly regular intervals. But at no point did he ever refer to himself as a “bookseller”. He called himself a cultural disseminator.

The cultural disseminator would arrive at my apartment weighted down by his dilapidated briefcase, packages and cardboard boxes to deliver my books, after which he would usually rattle off a string of surprising sophisms and, after about 15 minutes, would leave.

I remember well his final visit. Boitus had unleashed an especially strange and extended monologue aimed at instructing me in the use of an absurd taxonomy of his own invention. According to his schema, coffee was a brew, tea was an infusion and boiled mate leaves, a tonic. However, I couldn’t get him to explain the grounds for these classifications.

Then something weird happened: his ideas, which had seemed funny to me at first, suddenly started to irritate me, undoubtedly because of the visceral rejection I feel toward irrationality and error. And, despite suppressing my aggravation, I watched happily as Boitus finally departed with his shabby briefcase and his boxes and packages.

Being that the ground level entrance was permanently locked, I had to follow him down and let him out of the building. Returning to my apartment, I realized Boitus had forgotten one of his parcels on a chair.

It was a round cardboard container, very similar to the ones used to store men’s hats. Two green ribbons, originating along its edges but now fallen against each side, functioned as a way to carry the box comfortably.

I removed the lid and, although he couldn’t possibly have arrived home yet, I immediately called to inform him of the forgotten merchandise. The phone rang five times before the answering machine picked up. I left a message, the tone of which—polite, yet urgent—left no room for doubt.

That night, Boitus did not return my call. The next day, either. I tried calling and leaving messages for several days at different times.

When I called a week later the phone rang I don’t know how many times but neither Boitus nor his answering machine picked up. “The phone must be disconnected,” I told myself.

A few hours later my calls were answered by a female voice that recited: “The number you have dialed does not belong to any client within the Telecom network.” A while later, dialing Boitus’ number produced nothing but silence, as though both the number and the phone itself had disappeared.

At the office, I mentioned all this to Rossi, whose desk adjoins mine, and he offered to come over to my place.

“As long as it isn’t a bother,” he added.

“Quite the opposite,” I said, “I’d appreciate your help.”

And so it happened that, having finished our workday, Rossi visited my apartment for the first and last time. Opening the box he drew back with a distasteful look on his face.

“Oh man. Looks like this is going to be complicated.”

“Definitely. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Then Rossi completely lost interest in the box and became distracted as he looked around. In a matter of seconds he had me feeling nervous. He’s a restless guy and started walking the length of the apartment offering different criticisms or suggestions which I had never asked for, such as, “This would be a good place to hang a mirror,” or “Aren’t your doors sealed against draughts? There seems to be air getting in.”

He stopped in front of a framed picture of Cecilia Capelli, picked it up for a moment, put it back down in a slightly different location and then commented, “So this is your girlfriend? Cute girl, congratulations.”

I told myself that he could have dispensed with both his remark and the congratulations: my love affair with Cecilia was in a state of deterioration and several times I had been tempted to get rid of the picture since its presence only served to upset me.

He then inspected my library and seized the opportunity to ask to borrow A History of Argentinean Soccer. I detest lending books (or borrowing them, for that matter) but as he had been so kind as to come over and help me, I couldn’t say no.

I had ascertained that Rossi was restless. A few days later I found out that, in addition, he tended to talk too much. Consequently, on Friday, Mr. Linares called me to his office and closed the door after I’d entered. Through the intercom he commanded, “Flavia, no calls until further notice.”

He had me sit facing him over his desk and then, with a smile that was intended to look congenial but was obviously forced, he told me, “My dear Sainz, it’s not that I want to involve myself in something that’s none of my business, but in a certain way, you being a young man of 28, relatively new to the company, and seeing how...”

“I’m about to be heaved down into the labyrinth of his meandering prose,” I thought.

“... I’m somewhat older, with more years under my belt, and your manager on top of that, a kind of father figure within the company you could say, I have a kind of—how should I put it?—moral obligation to help you. Am I right?”

Since Mr. Linares was waiting for an answer, I immediately agreed, motivated by the desire to get him to stop talking as soon as humanly possible.

“Well then,” he continued, “if it is acceptable to you, tomorrow, which is Saturday and will give us some free time, I’ll take a little jaunt over to your house to see what we can do...”

I had no choice but to accept his offer. Back at my desk, Rossi avoided eye contact. However, a few minutes later he approached me and muttered in my ear, “Don’t think I’m the one who told him about it. He already knew. It’s hard to hide these things.”

I wondered how Rossi knew that Linares had found out.

On Saturday I had to get up early. I couldn’t have Mr. Linares over to a typical bachelor’s apartment that hadn’t been cleaned in at least two weeks. I spent most of my morning on detestable chores: vacuuming the floor, dusting the furniture, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen... Finally by 11 my house was in a presentable state for receiving Mr. Linares.

When he showed up he wasn’t alone. With him were Araujo, our office errand boy who was fond of gambling, and another gentleman I had never met who wore a suit, tie and spectacles.

“Dr. Venancio,” said Linares, introducing him. “He’s a legal representative, or, if you prefer, an attorney, who will certify the affidavit. As for Araujo,” he added affably, “he needs no introduction. Who doesn’t owe Araujo a favor or two, right?”

Araujo, dressed in his office uniform, smiled shyly.

“Araujo is only here as a witness, so that Dr. Venancio can get his signature on the affidavit.”

“Fine,” I said. “Sounds good.”

Mr. Linares took the lid off the box and, holding the lid in his right hand, carefully examined the contents. Dr. Venancio and Araujo immediately did the same.

“Everything in order, Araujo?” Mr. Linares asked.

“Yes, Sir, no problem.”

Dr. Venancio spread the affidavit out on the dinning room table. It was three pages long. He signed his name in the margins of the first two and at the bottom of the third. Then he turned to Araujo and indicated he should do the same. Araujo signed slowly; it was obvious he was not very seasoned at working with papers and documents.

“Should I sign?” I asked.

“It’s not necessary,” replied the notary public, “but it isn’t prohibited, either. It’s up to you.”

“I’m going to sign just in case.”

I took a moment to read the affidavit and confirmed that it rigorously conformed to the truth. Then I signed it.

“And you, Mr. Linares? Would you like to sign?”

“No, Doctor, it doesn’t appear to be necessary. Or even prudent.”

After exchanging a few platitudes about the weather, my visitors left.

I had planned to go to the movies that night with Cecilia but around six in the evening she called to cancel the date.

“The problem is my father,” she explained. “Well, that is, if you want to call it a problem. I don’t think there’s any reason for concern, but he does. He thinks that your situation might affect his chances of getting elected mayor.”

I felt like telling her to go to hell, along with her distinguished father, a power hungry political schemer, but I held back and only said, “Fine, sounds good.”

I thought, “It’s just as well, I’m fed up with her.”

I looked up Boitus’ telephone number using a directory on the Internet and found out he lived on Calle Fraga, in the Chacarita neighborhood. Sunday morning I headed over to the house in question. There, I found a wooden barrier around the building with a sign that read: NOTICE: BUILDING TO BE COMPLETELY DEMOLISHED. NEW CONSTRUCTION OF ONE AND TWO BEDROOM APARTMENTS.

With the exception of a few unexpected events, my life continued its normal path.

It wasn’t long before I was given another promotion that entailed one advantage and one drawback. The former involved a substantial salary raise: suddenly I was earning practically double what I had been up to now (which already was no small sum). The drawback resided in that I had to carry out my new duties in the suburb of Béccar, quite a distance from my place on Calle Costa Rica.

I added up the pros and cons and, after finally accepting the promotion, resigned myself to a long commute between Palermo and my new destination. The ideal situation would have been to buy a place in Béccar or in San Isidro, but to come up with the money I first would have had to sell the apartment on Calle Costa Rica.

Without meaning to I had also gained a certain notoriety and I discovered that having it wasn’t all that bad. Photographers and feature writers showed up from the newspapers La Nación and Clarín and from the magazines Caras and Gente. I was subjected to interviews and was photographed—now smiling, now solemn—next to the round box. I was also invited to talk on television news programs, something I did with some degree of vanity. I didn’t even turn down invitations to appear on frivolous talk shows filled with gossip and tabloid stories.

In the end, “Doctor” Ignacio Capelli didn’t succeed in being elected mayor of Tres de Febrero County, a fact that pleased me to no end. At this point I had had it with Cecilia, so a few days later I found a random excuse to break up with her.

On the other hand, something wonderful had happened. I had gotten into the habit of having an afternoon snack after work at a café near Béccar station. At the same time of day, several teachers from a nearby school would come by after finishing with their classes. They were lovely girls who spoke loudly and always roared with laughter.

I was attracted to one of them (I already knew her name, Guillermina) and, more than once, our eyes—hers a crystal blue—met across the tables. One day as I was leaving, I arranged for an “accidental” meeting out on the sidewalk and was able to strike up a conversation. Straight away I accompanied her home, first by train until we reached the Belgrano neighborhood, then by foot a few blocks. She was 25 years old, her name was Guillermina Grotz and she still lived with her parents.

Things went well and it didn’t take me long to become her boyfriend and, a few weeks later, begin intimate relations.

One afternoon, as we lay on a hotel bed, she asked me, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper for you to invite me to your apartment?”

Surprised, I looked her in the eyes. “Aren’t you aware of the problem I have...?”

“How could I not know? Everybody knows about it. But it can’t be all that bad.”

The generosity I saw in her eyes moved me. I felt a tear welling up, but quickly wiped it away.

The following Saturday I took Guillermina out to a movie in Belgrano. Afterward, I treated her to dinner at a restaurant on Avenida Cabildo.

“Well,” I told her, “now we’re going back to my place to end the night on a dignified note.”

As we entered the apartment and I turned on the light, Guillermina cried out, “At last, I get to see Mr. Sainz’s mysterious bunker!”

But before she had a chance to get to know the place, she stopped in front of the round box. She hesitated for a moment, and then lifted the lid. The expression on her face didn’t change one bit, but she said, “You were right. We should go back to what we were doing before...”

I wanted her to define her terms, so I asked, “Should we go to the bedroom or do you want to leave?”

“I hope I don’t offend you, but I prefer to leave.”

“Why should I be offended? You’re completely within your rights...”

Guillermina lived near the corner of Cuba and Mendoza. I stopped a taxi coming down the street and bid her farewell.

But not for good. There was no reason we should break up. On the contrary—the experience had drawn us closer together.

Three months later we were married and went to live in a tiny apartment we had rented outside the city, in San Isidro, a place that was soon crammed with all the belongings Guillermina and I had brought from our respective former homes. My dinning room set consisted of a table and four chairs, but I could only bring three of the four to San Isidro.

At my workplace I was subjected to questions that were as naïve as they were predictable, and, as well, faced some slightly troublesome bureaucratic snags, none of which kept me from continuing to rise in the company.

In fact, I’d say that in this regard I couldn’t complain. Each new success brought me a higher position and I continued to climb the hierarchical ladder and earn more money.

One Friday afternoon (the best moment of the week) I was summoned to the head office. No less than the senior director himself offered congratulations and assured me that, without a shadow of a doubt, within the year I would be named manager of the Mar del Plata branch office.

“So, Mr. Sainz, it would be best for you to begin getting your affairs in order ahead of time.”

Mar del Plata is a magnificent assignment, although being so far down the coast, it will mean Guillermina has to resign her teaching position and the two of us will have to move. Once there, it won’t be hard for my wife to get a job at another school.

Guillermina and I have become frugal to the point of greediness. We want to have enough money to buy a relatively spacious apartment in Mar del Plata, and I believe we will. The only possible way is to save and save and save, since we can’t count on the money we would get from the impossible sale of my former residence on Calle Costa Rica, which—by the way—had all its utilities cut off: electricity, telephone, gas, water... I also stopped paying the building maintenance fees and the municipal taxes.

“They’re going to take you to court and foreclose on the apartment,” Guillermina often comments.

Without fail I answer, “But they’ll never find a buyer.”

“That’s true,” Guillermina always replies in turn, “but it’s not our problem.”

Translation: Jonathan Cole
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Copyright ©Fernando Sorrentino, 2005
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationApril 2007
Collection RSSThe Fictile Word
Permalinkhttp://badosa.com/n277-en
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