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In Self-Defense

Fernando Sorrentino
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink MapLisandro de la Torre station, Buenos Aires

It was about ten o’clock on a Saturday morning. My eldest son, who’s the devil incarnate, thoughtlessly scrawled a curlicue on the door of the neighboring apartment with a piece of wire. Nothing alarming or catastrophic, just a quick little flourish, most likely unnoticeable to anyone who wasn’t on the lookout for it.

I confess this with embarrassment: at first I thought about keeping quiet (who hasn’t had such moments of weakness?). But then I realized that the right thing was to apologize to my neighbor and offer to pay for the damages. This decision in favor of honesty was supported by my confidence that the costs would be slight.

I gave a quick rap on their door. About my neighbors I knew only that they were new in the building, that there were three of them, and that they were blond. When they spoke, I found out they were foreign. When they spoke a bit more, I assumed them to be German, Austrian, or Swiss.

They laughed good-naturedly and gave no importance whatsoever to the scrawl; it was so insignificant that they even pretended to strain to be able to see it with a magnifying glass.

They firmly and cheerfully rejected my apologies, said that “boys will be boys,” and, in short, refused to let me pay for the repair costs.

We took leave of one another with hearty handshakes amidst resounding laughter.

When I returned to my apartment, my wife—who had been watching through the peephole—anxiously asked me: “Will the painting be expensive?”

I calmed her: “They won’t take a cent.”

“Lucky break,” she replied, and squeezed her purse slightly.

No sooner did I turn around when I saw a tiny white envelope by the door. Inside was a calling card. Two names printed in small square letters: WILHELM HOFFER AND BRÜNNEHILDE H. KORNFELD HOFFER. Then, in minute blue handwriting, there was added: “and little Wilhelm Gustav Hoffer send cordial greetings to Mr. and Mrs. Sorrentino and ask a thousand pardons for the unpleasant time they may have had over the supposed mischief—which was no such thing—of little Juan Manuel Sorrentino when he adorned our old door with a cute little sketch.”

“Good heavens!” I exclaimed. “Such genteel people. They not only don’t get angry, but they offer apologies to boot.”

To repay such kindliness in some way, I took a new children’s book that I was keeping as a gift for Juan Manuel and asked him to present it to little Wilhelm Gustav Hoffer.

That was my lucky day; Juan Manuel obeyed without imposing any humiliating conditions on me, and he returned bearing the sincerest thanks of the Hoffers and their offspring.

It was about twelve o’clock noon. On Saturdays I usually attempt, unsuccessfully, to get in some reading. I sat down, opened the book, read two words, and the doorbell rang. On these occasions, I’m always the only one at home and I have to get up. I let out a grunt of annoyance and went to open the door. There I found a young man with a mustache, dressed in the uniform of a little tin soldier, eclipsed behind a huge bouquet of roses.

I signed a paper, handed him a tip, received a kind of military salute, counted two dozen roses, and read an ocher-colored card: “Wilhelm Hoffer and Brünnehilde H. Kornfeld Hoffer send cordial greetings to Mr. and Mrs. Sorrentino and to little Juan Manuel Sorrentino, and thank them for the lovely book of children’s stories—nourishment for the spirit—with which they have honored little Wilhelm Gustav.”

Just at that moment, my wife returned from the market, burdened with shopping bags and stress: “What beautiful roses! Do I ever love flowers! How did it ever occur to you to buy them, you who never think of anything?”

I had to confess they were a gift from the Hoffers.

“We’ve got to show our appreciation for this,” she said, distributing the roses in vases. “We’ll invite them to tea.”

I had other plans for that Saturday. Weakly, I ventured: “This afternoon?”

“Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

It was about six p.m. Gleaming chinaware and a snow-white tablecloth covered the dining room table. A short time before, obeying orders from my wife—who was seeking a Viennese touch—I had to put in an appearance at a delicatessen on Cabildo Avenue to buy some little tea sandwiches, tiny pastries, sweets, and other dainties. Everything first rate, of course, and the package tied up with a little red-and-white ribbon, so that it all really whet the appetite. As I passed by a hardware store, a mean stinginess drove me to compare the amount of my recent purchases with the price of the most gigantic can of the best paint. I experienced a slight feeling of distress.

The Hoffers didn’t come empty-handed. They were encumbered by an enormous cake—white, creamy, baroque—that would have sufficed for a whole regiment of soldiers. My wife was overwhelmed by the excessive generosity of the present. I was, too, but I was now feeling slightly uncomfortable. The Hoffers, whose chatter consisted mainly of apologies and flattery, did not succeed in capturing my interest. Juan Manuel and little Willie, whose games consisted mainly of running, fighting, shouting, and wreaking havoc, did succeed in alarming me.

At eight o’clock it would have seemed to me commendable of them to leave. But in the kitchen my wife whispered in my ear: “They’ve been so nice. That cake! We’ve got to invite them to dinner.”

“To eat what? There’s nothing to eat. Why have dinner when we’re not hungry?”

“If there’s no food here, there will be at the dell. As far as not being hungry is concerned, who said we have to eat? The important thing is to share a table and spend an enjoyable time together.”

Despite the fact that the important thing was not the food, around ten in the evening, loaded down like a mule, I again transported huge, fragrant packages from the delicatessen. Once again, the Hoffers demonstrated that they were not the kind of people who show up empty-handed; they brought thirty bottles of Italian wine and five of French cognac in a chest made of iron and bronze.

It was about two o’clock in the morning. Exhausted by my treks, gorged with an excess of food, intoxicated on the wine and cognac, and giddy with the emotion of friendship, I fell asleep immediately. It was a lucky thing; at six o’clock, the Hoffers, dressed in casual clothes and with their eyes protected by dark glasses, rang the doorbell. We were driving with them to their country house in the neighboring town of Ingeniero Maschwitz.

Anyone who says this town is right near Buenos Aires would be lying. In the car I thought nostalgically about my maté, my newspaper, my leisure time. If I kept my eyes open, they burned; if I closed them, I fell asleep. The Hoffers, mysteriously rested, chattered and laughed during the whole trip.

At their country place, which was very pretty, they treated us like kings. We basked in the sun, swam in the pool, had a delicious cookout, and I even took a nap under a tree full of ants. When I woke up, it dawned on me that we had come empty-handed.

“Don’t be boorish,” my wife whispered. “At least buy something for the kid.”

I took Willie for a walk through the town. In front of a toyshop window, I asked him: “What would you like me to buy you?”

“A horse.”

I thought he was referring to a little toy horse, but I was mistaken; I returned to the country house on the rump of a spirited bay, holding on to little Wilhelm’s waist and without even a small cushion for my aching behind.

Thus passed Sunday.

On Monday, when I got home from work, I found Mr. Hoffer teaching Juan Manuel to ride a motorcycle. “How’s it going?” he asked me. “Do you like what I gave the lad?”

“But he’s too young to ride a motorcycle,” I objected.

“Then I’ll give it to you.”

Would that he had never said that. Seeing himself stripped of his recent gift, Juan Manuel burst into an ear-splitting conniption fit.

“Poor little guy,” Mr. Hoffer sympathized. “Kids are like that. Come on, little fellow, I’ve got something nice for you.”

I got on the motorcycle, and, since I don’t know how to ride one, I began to make motorcycle sounds with my mouth.

“Halt, right there, or I’ll shoot you!” Juan Manuel was aiming an air rifle at me.

“Never aim at the eyes,” Mr. Hoffer advised him.

I made the sound of a motorcycle braking, and Juan Manuel stopped pointing the gun at me. We both went upstairs to our apartment, rather pleased.

“Oh sure, it’s all fine and dandy to receive gifts,” my wife pointed out. “But you have to know how to reciprocate. Let’s see what you can do in that department.”

I grasped her meaning. On Tuesday I acquired an imported automobile and a carbine. Mr. Hoffer asked me why I had gone to the trouble; with his first shot, little Willie broke a street light.

On Wednesday there were three gifts. For me, a massive bus used for international travel, equipped with air conditioning, a bathroom, sauna, restaurant, and ballroom. For Juan Manuel, a bazooka manufactured in Asia. For my wife, a luxurious white evening gown.

“Where am I going to wear that gown?” she commented, disappointed. “On the bus? It’s your fault for never giving his wife anything. That’s why I’m getting handouts now.”

A horrendous explosion almost deafened me. To test his bazooka, Juan Manuel had just demolished, with a single shot, the house on the corner, which has fortunately been uninhabited for some time.

But my wife was still going on with her complaints: “Oh, sure, for the gentleman, a bus big enough to travel in as far as Brazil. For the young master of the house, a weapon powerful enough to defend himself against the cannibals of Mato Grosso. But for the maid, a little party dress. Those Hoffers, like the good Europeans they are, are a bunch of cheapskates.”

I climbed up into my bus and started the engine. At a solitary spot near the river, I stopped and parked. Lost in the huge seat, enjoying the cool half-light that the drawn window shades afforded me, I there gave myself over to serene meditation.

When I knew exactly what I had to do, I headed for the government ministry to see Pérez. Like all Argentines, I have a friend in a ministry, and this friend’s name is Pérez. Now, although I’m quite enterprising, in this case I needed Pérez to intercede with his influence.

And I succeeded.

I live in the district of Las Cañitas, which is now called San Benito de Palermo. To build a railroad from the Lisandro de la Torre station to the door-way of my house, the silent, resourceful, and uninterrupted labor of a multitudinous army of engineers, technicians, and workmen was called for. Using the most specialized and up-to-date international machinery, and after expropriating and demolishing the four blocks of sumptuous buildings that formerly extended along Libertador Avenue between Olleros and Matienzo Streets, they crowned such an intrepid undertaking with resounding success. It’s superfluous to point out that the buildings’ owners received fair, instantaneous compensation. The fact is that, with a Pérez in a ministry, there’s no such word as impossible.

This time I wanted to surprise Mr. Hoffer. When he came out at eight o’clock Thursday morning, he found a shiny red-and-yellow diesel locomotive hitched to six railroad cars. Over the door of the locomotive, a little sign read: WELCOME TO YOUR TRAIN, MR. HOFFER.

“A train!” he cried. “A whole train, just for me! It’s the dream of my life come true! I’ve wanted to drive a train ever since I was a little boy!” Mad with joy and without even thanking me, he climbed up into his engine, where a simple instruction manual awaited him to explain how to run it.

“Hey, wait,” I said, “don’t be so rambunctious. Look what I bought for little Wilhelm.” A powerful tank was destroying the sidewalk pavement with its caterpillar treads.

“Neat-o!” shouted little Wilhelm. “And how I’ve been wanting to blow away the obelisk.”

“I didn’t forget your wife either,” I added. And I handed him the very finest, softest mink coat, recently received from France.

Since the Hoffers were so eager and playful, they wanted to try out their presents at that very instant.

But in each gift I had placed a little trap.

The mink was coated on the inside with a magic evaporating emulsion that a witch doctor from the Congo had given me, so that, scarcely did she wrap herself in it, Madam Brünnehilde was first scorched and then turned into a gossamery little white cloud, which disappeared up into the sky.

No sooner did little Willie take his first cannon shot at the obelisk, when the tank turret, actuated by a special device, was shot off into space, and it deposited the little fellow, safe and sound, on one of the ten moons of the planet Saturn.

When Mr. Hoffer set his train in motion, it swiftly and uncontrollably hurtled along an atomic viaduct, the route of which, after crossing the Atlantic, northwest Africa, and the Strait of Sicily, suddenly ended in the crater of the Mount Etna volcano, which, at that time, was erupting.

So it was that Friday came around, and we received no gifts from the Hoffers. In the evening, as she was preparing dinner, my wife said: “Yeah, that’s the way it goes. Be kind to your neighbors. Spend money. A train, a tank, a mink coat. And what do they do? Not even a little thank-you card.”

Translation: Thomas C. Meehan
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Copyright ©Fernando Sorrentino, 1982
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Date of publicationSeptember 2000
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