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Beneath the Freeway

The snot that had run into Black Malfatti’s mustache was completely frozen. He rubbed his hands and stuck them under his armpits, looking to conserve a bit of heat. He had his whole hoard of garbage in a shopping cart, which he guarded with a nervous temper. In the cart he had a few bags of clothes, some ruined brooms, incomprehensible pieces of metal and two black, dented pots. It would be impossible to try to figure out what those metal bits were originally part of. There was no end to the black trash bags that bulged from the inside of the cart. Black Malfatti wore a dark coat, threadbare with travel and time, and a pair of checkered pants rolled up to his calves. He kept his ankles covered with some moth-eaten cotton socks, and on his feet he wore black leather moccasins.

Above the cart, the freeway; and at Black Malfatti’s side, a puppy with mange around its tail, trembling like the yellowed leaves of trees. A little more patience, Chatito, patience, and I will light a fire and you won’t be so damn cold.

In a little tin, Malfatti tossed some bits of cloth that he took from one of the garbage bags, doused them with alcohol, and threw in the butt of the cigar he was smoking. The tin shone. He took a swig of the pure alcohol and his innards were heated at once. Fire. The puppy huddled close to the little flame and stopped shivering.

Over this tiny, almost nonexistent fire, Malfatti heated a portion of canned lentils that he ate with blind appetite and from time to time shared with the puppy, who licked the teaspoon with eagerness.

He brought his frozen hands near the last embers, which were flickering orange but quickly dying, and at that instant he heard, up on the freeway, the screech of car tires. For ages, as long as he had lived on the street, he had been analyzing these sounds, and he knew that after such violent braking there would be even darker sounds.

He knew, even before it happened, that the beige car would try to avoid the crash but would not be able to, that it would rear-end a Ford fresh from the dealer’s lot. And he knew that the driver of a third car, a white family sedan, would swerve in an attempt to avoid the collision. What Malfatti never suspected was that this third car would break through the guardrail of the freeway, would fly over his bewildered head and would fall just 15 meters from the place where he was gobbling those few beans and dying of cold.

The impact of that projectile on the paving-stones of Calle Venticuatro de Noviembre was strident and grating. The metal pieces of the car bent like the junk Malfatti collected in his shopping cart. The car did a bouncing roll, smashing against the hard ground several times, and ended its airborne path against the wall of a convent school with its wheels still spinning in the air. A couple of nuts and bolts flew near him and he put them in one of his pockets. Chatito barked ceaselessly, kept trembling and ran nervously between the worn-out leather moccasins. The wind finally quenched the embers of the little fire in the tin.

In a few seconds, a huge black puddle of hot oil formed on the ground. Malfatti squatted and tried to look through the window of the car, but inside there was a cloud of white smoke and steam that obscured everything. He only managed to verify that there was blood, not so much, he thought, as he had believed there would be in this type of accident. And a jumble of bodies and joints that swung slowly between the roof and the headrest. Black Malfatti made a mathematical calculation and estimated the force of the impact: the velocity of the flying car, the angle of the fall, the consequences of the impact against the wall. The consequence of that fall could only be the death of the passengers in the vehicle. There was a spark. And then another. And the puddle of oil ignited. Enzo Malfatti stood there motionless, just a few meters from the incandescent scrap metal, watching the fire, contemplating the tongues of flame the color of the sun – just a few meters away, no more. Somehow, Malfatti felt protected. He felt paralyzed and incapable of getting close to help those poor people who were being incinerated. He asked himself again and again who these people might be, twisting among the hot iron, the smoke and the smell of oil. And the answer surprised him every time: it was them, the same people who passed by him every morning, who peered at him with that superficial regard with he asked them for the money he needed to eat. How could it be, he asked himself, that they did not see him dying of hunger, that they did not notice his ribs or the way his flesh stuck to his bones. They were in the fire and Enzo mimicked the same sightless regard that they always gave to him, every day, on the curb of the sidewalk. While he contemplated the flickering instability of the orange colors, heating his cheeks on such a cold winter night, he whispered to Chatito that hell was not so far away. He saw them suffer and nevertheless he was not able to go to their aid. He sharpened his vision, squinting, trying to focus on the window, and he saw them fight, bang on the glass, and kick at the doors. Nothing gave way. Least of all the fire, which with each drop of oil became more incandescent.

He took a few steps toward that shapeless ball of flames, and the heat that hit his chest surprised him. Chatito moved a bit further away from his moccasins, chewed on some little pieces of metal, and left them at his feet full of slobber. Black Malfatti picked them up and estimated their weight; later he would bite them and test their chemical composition, that is if his teeth could manage it. They were good ones, he thought, and stuffed them in his pocket. For the first time, he noticed that thousands of metal scraps were scattered across the pavement of Calle Venticuatro de Noviembre. While the fire burned, Black Malfatti filled his pockets with tin and lead and, when no more would fit there, he went to look for one of his many black garbage bags in the junk cart. And he started to dump all the pieces from his pocket, along with the wet ones that the dog was dropping at his feet, into the bag. He would get seven pesos for these kilos of metal, and imagined the bit of wine he would drink, white, sweet, and in a cardboard container. And some deli sandwiches.

He pulled from the left breast pocket of his dirty coat a cigar butt that still bore the mark of the shoe-sole that had trampled it. He crept close and lit it from the embers of the smashed car, and exhaling the smoke he sang with his voice hoarse, pay attention when you find yourself near a fuse, with so much smoke, the beautiful savage fire will sneak up… And as he went away, pushing his shopping cart with one more bag of metal to exchange, Chatito running between his feet, he heard the siren of the fire trucks speeding closer. Or maybe it was the police, he thought. Or maybe the morgue.

Yair Magrino, Argentina © 2008

Click here to see this story in Spanish [AQUI]

Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009

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