Painting by Carsten ten Brink(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Republica and Grau
The blind man lived in a single room above a bodega, on a street not so far from Maico’s house. It was up a slight hill, as was everything in the neighborhood. There was nothing on the walls of the blind man’s room, nor was there anywhere to sit, and so Maico stood. He was ten years old. There was a single bed, a nightstand with a radio wrapped in duct tape, a washbasin. The blind man had graying hair and was much older than Maico’s father. The boy looked at his feet, and kicked together a small mound of dust on the cement floor while his father and the blind man spoke. The boy didn’t listen, but then no one expected him to. He was not surprised when a tiny black spider emerged from the insignificant pile he had made. It skittered across the floor and disappeared beneath the bed. Maico raised his eyes. A cobweb glittered in an upper corner. It was the room’s only decoration.
His father reached out and shook the blind man’s hand. “So it’s agreed,” Maico’s father said, and the blind man nodded, and this was all.
A week later, Maico and the blind man were in the city, at the noisy intersection of República and Grau. They had risen early on a winter morning of low, leaden skies, and made their way to the center, to this place of snarling, bleating traffic, in the shadow of a great hotel. The blind man carried a red-tipped cane, and he knew the route well, but once they arrived he folded the cane and left it in the grassy median. His steps became tentative, and Maico understood that the pretending had begun. The blind man’s smile disappeared, and his jaw went slack.
Everything there was to know Maico learned in that first hour. The lights were timed: there were three minutes of work, followed by three minutes of waiting. When the traffic stopped, the blind man put one hand on the boy’s shoulder and with the other held out his tin, and together they walked up the row of idling cars. Maico led him toward the cars with windows rolled down, and the blind man muttered helplessly as he approached each one. Maico’s only job was to steer him toward those who were likely to give, and make sure that he did not waste time on those who would not. Women driving alone were, according to the blind man, preëmptively generous, hoping, in this way, to avoid being robbed. They kept small coins in their ashtrays for just such transactions. Taxi-drivers could be counted on as well, because they were working people, and men with women always wanted to impress and might let slip a few coins to show their sensitive side. Men driving alone rarely gave, and not a moment should be squandered beside a car with tinted windows. “If they know you can’t see them,” the blind man said, “they don’t feel shame.”
“But they know you can’t see them,” Maico said.
“And that’s why you’re here.”
Maico’s mother hadn’t wanted him to work in the city, had said so the night before, but his father had bellowed and slammed a fist on the table. Of course, these gestures were hardly necessary; in truth, Maico didn’t mind the work. He even liked the pace, especially those moments when there was nothing to do but watch the endless traffic, soak in its dull roar. “Grau is the road people take to connect to the northern districts,” the blind man explained. He had the city mapped clearly in his mind. There was money to be made in the north: it was a region of people trying to better themselves. Not like the southern rich, who had forgotten where they’d come from. “It’s a generous intersection, this one,” the blind man said. “These people recognize me and love me because they have known me their entire lives. They give.”
Maico listened as well as he could above the din. Me me me—that was what he heard. The cars and the engines and the blind man; it was all one sound. Acrid fumes hung over the intersection, so toxic that after only an hour Maico could feel a bubble in his chest, and then, in his throat, something tickling.
He coughed and spat. He apologized, as his mother had taught him.
The blind man laughed. “You’ll do much worse here, boy. You’ll cough and piss and shit and it will all be the same.”
The clouds thinned out by noon, but that morning was cool and damp. The blind man kept all the money, periodically announcing how much they’d collected. It wasn’t much. Each time a coin was dropped into the tin, the blind man bowed humbly, and though he hadn’t been asked to, Maico did the same. The blind man emptied the tin into his pocket when the light changed, and warned Maico to watch out for thieves, but the boy saw only men hawking newspapers and chalkboards, women with baskets of bread or flowers or fruit, and the very density of people in the area made it seem safe. Everyone had been kind to him so far. A woman his mother’s age gave him a piece of bread with sweet potato because it was his first day. She tended to a few toddlers on the median. They were playing with a stuffed animal, taking turns tearing it to pieces. The stuffing spread across the grass in white clumps, and, when a truck rolled by, these were blown into the street.
When the blind man found out that Maico had gone to school, he bought a newspaper and had the boy read it to him. He nodded or clucked his tongue while Maico read, and the stories were so absorbing that they even missed a few lights so that he could finish them. A judge had been murdered the previous day, in broad daylight, at a restaurant not far from where they sat. An editorial defended the life of a guard dog the authorities wanted put down for having killed a thief. There would be a new President soon, and protests were planned to welcome her. Music leaked from the windows of passing cars, and Maico could hear voices at each light singing along to a dozen different melodies. When he could, he studied the blind man’s face. Unshaven and olive-skinned, with puffy cheeks. His nose was crooked and squat. He didn’t wear dark glasses as some of the blind did, and Maico guessed that the sullen sheen of the man’s useless gray eyes was part of his value as a beggar. It was a competitive area, after all, and there were others working that morning whose qualifications for the position were clearly beyond question.
Maico’s father was waiting at the door of the blind man’s room when they got back that afternoon. He winked at Maico, and then greeted the blind man gruffly, surprising him. “The money,” he said, with no warmth in his voice. “Let’s see it.”
The blind man pulled out his key and patted the door for the lock. “Not here. Inside is better. You people with eyes are always so impatient.”
Maico stood by while they divided the take. The counting went slowly. The blind man felt each coin carefully, then announced its worth out loud. When no one contradicted him, he continued, his hands moving with elegant assurance, organizing the money into piles on the bed. A few times, he misidentified a coin, but Maico felt certain that this was by design. The third time it happened, Maico’s father sighed. “I’ll count,” he said, but the blind man would have none of it.
“That wouldn’t be fair, now, would it?”
When the counting was done, Maico and his father walked home in silence. It had taken longer than they’d expected, and Maico’s father was in a hurry. When his mother asked how it had gone, his father sneered and said that there was no money. Or none worth mentioning. He prepared for his night shift while the boy and his mother ate dinner.
The second day, it was the same, but on the third, when they walked down the hill, Maico’s father took the boy to the market and bought sodas for them both. An old gentleman with thick, calloused hands served them. Maico drank his soda through a straw. His father asked him how the work was, whether he liked it. By now, Maico was old enough to know that he should not say too much. He’d learned this from his mother.
Did he like downtown?
And was he enjoying the work?
What was it like?
Here, Maico chose his words carefully, explaining what he had absorbed in those few days. About charity, about traffic, about the relative generosity of cars headed north versus those headed south.
Maico’s father listened calmly. He finished his soda, ordered a beer, then thought better of it. He looked at his watch, then scattered a few coins on the counter, and the old man swept them into his palm with a frown. “We’re being robbed,” Maico’s father said. “Do you hear me, boy? You’ve got to keep track of the money. You’ve got to add it up in your head.”
Maico was quiet.
“Are you listening to me? The blind man gets half. We get half.”
The blind man had bought Maico a bag of popcorn that morning. After Maico had read him the paper, he had told stories about how the city had been when the air there was still sweet, when there was no traffic. The place he described seemed fantastical. “Even the intersection where we work was quiet once,” the blind man had said, smiling, because he knew this would be hard to believe.
Now the boy looked up at his father.
“You can’t let a blind man hustle you, son,” his father said. “It’s an embarrassment.”
Maico did his best to keep an accurate count the next day, but by lunchtime the exhaust made him swoon. When he asked how much there was, the blind man said that he couldn’t know for sure. “I’ll count it later,” he said.
“Count it now,” Maico said. The words came out with a certain snap that the boy liked.
But the blind man just smiled. “Cute,” he said. “Now read the next story.”
A horn blew, and then another, and soon there was a chorus. When the street was quiet enough, Maico opened the paper again. An entire village in the mountains had been poisoned during a festival. Bad meat. The Minister of Health was airlifting in medicine and doctors. Then the light changed, and it was time to work.
Every afternoon, Maico’s father was there to meet them at the door of the blind man’s room. The money was never enough, and his father could not, or would not, hide his displeasure. Maico could sense it, knew with such certainty that it was coming, that when on the eighth day his father knocked the radio off the nightstand and said, “You stealing blind fuck!,” he felt that he had willed it to happen. His father, angry, was a sight to behold: that great red face, eyes open to the whites, fists like mallets. Maico wondered if the blind man could truly appreciate the spectacle. Was his father’s voice, the sharp edge of it, enough?
If nothing else, the blind man understood the seriousness of the moment. He seemed neither surprised nor afraid when his pockets were emptied.
The radio sputtered and died.
Until it stopped, Maico hadn’t even noticed that it was on.
They were back at work a few days later, with a new agreement. The boy would hold the money now. The coins weighed heavily in his pocket, so that the money felt like a lot more than it was. Just small, old, thin coins, worthless, worn-down coins, and when the work was done that day the blind man asked the boy to point him toward the hotel. It was sunny, and in the slanting afternoon light the hotel’s glowing glass exterior seemed to be made of gold. “Now let’s walk to it,” the blind man said. He knew the way, and he had collected his cane, but here, in front of their regular clientele, it was understood that the boy should continue to lead him. They crossed Grau together, the blind man’s hand on Maico’s shoulder.
“On the far side of the hotel is a street. Read me the sign,” the blind man said.
It was a narrow street. “Palomares,” Maico said.
“Let’s walk down this one, boy. Away from Grau.”
When they had crossed the second intersection, the blind man asked what was on each corner. Maico went clockwise: a bakery, a man selling roasted corn from a cart, an Internet café, a butcher shop.
The blind man smiled. “Behind the cart, what is there?”
“This bar—what’s it called?”
“Let’s go in.”
It was quiet in the bar, and the blind man asked Maico to choose the best table. The boy picked one by a window. El Moíses was just below street level, and the windows allowed a view of people’s legs as they passed. The smell of roasted corn on the cob filled the bar, and they hadn’t been there long before the blind man gave in and asked for two. He’d already finished his first beer by then. He gave one ear of corn to Maico and washed the other down with a second cold glass of beer. He spoke wistfully of the fights that had exploded before him in this very same space: of chairs thrown, of bottles broken and brandished as weapons, of the beautiful noise of conflict. You could hear it in the breathing of those around you—panic, fear, adrenaline. There were a dozen names for that extraordinary sensation.
“What do you do when it happens?” Maico asked.
“Well, you fight, of course.”
“But what do you do?”
“Ah, that’s what you mean. How does a blind man fight? I’ll tell you.” He spoke nearly in a whisper. “Recklessly. With whatever implement is at hand. Swinging wildly and searching desperately for an exit.” The blind man sighed. “I suppose it’s not so different for those who can see. More desperate, perhaps, or more reckless.”
The waiter had turned on a radio, a low humming melody that Maico could not quite make out. They were the only people in the bar.
“Tell me,” the blind man said after a while, “what do you look like? I should have asked sooner. Describe yourself.”
No one had ever asked Maico such a thing. In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to him that a question like that could even be asked. Describe himself. He thought for a moment, but nothing came to mind. “I’m a boy,” he managed. “I’m ten years old.”
“More than that,” the blind man said. He took a swig from his beer. “I need more than that.”
Maico squirmed in his chair.
“What does your face look like? I know you’re small for your age. How are you dressed?”
“Normal” was all the boy could say. “I’m dressed normal. I look normal.”
“Your clothes, for example, your shirt—what material is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can I touch it?” the blind man said. Without waiting for an answer, he had already reached out and was testing the fabric of Maico’s shirt between his thumb and forefinger. “Is the color very faded?”
“No,” Maico said.
“Does your shirt have a collar?”
“Are there holes in the knees of your pants?”
“And are the pants hemmed?”
The blind man grunted. “Your shirt is tucked in?”
Maico looked down. It was.
“And you’re wearing a belt, I assume. It’s leather?”
The blind man sighed. He called for another beer, and when the glass was placed on the table he asked the waiter to stay for a moment. “Sir, excuse me,” he said, raising his right hand. He told Maico to stand, and then addressed the waiter again. “How would you describe the general appearance of this child?”
The waiter was a serious, unsmiling man. He looked Maico over, from head to toe. “He’s dressed neatly. He looks clean.”
“His hair—is it combed?”
The blind man thanked him and told Maico to sit down. He drank his beer, and for a moment Maico thought that he wouldn’t speak again. On the radio, a new song started up, a voice accompanied by a bright, ringing guitar, and the blind man smiled and tapped his fingers against the table. He sang along, tra-la-la-ed for a moment when he didn’t know the words, and then fell silent altogether.
“Your old man thinks he’s a tough guy,” he said finally, after the song had finished and the waiter had brought him another beer. “Here’s the problem. He goes off to work every night, and he doesn’t see you in the morning, and, meanwhile, your mother dresses you. She must be a nice woman. Very correct. But you’re a mama’s boy. Pardon me, son, but I must speak plainly. That’s why we don’t make money. You can’t beg looking like this.”
Maico was silent.
The blind man laughed. “Are you taking this hard?”
“No,” Maico said.
“Good. Very well.” The blind man nodded, and whistled for the waiter, who appeared at the table and announced what was owed.
“Thank you, sir,” the blind man said, smiling in every direction. “A receipt, please. The boy will be paying.”
That night, Maico’s father went into a rage. “Where’s the money? Where’s the money, you lazy little shit?” And what could he say except this: “I spent it,” the sentence escaping on its own, and his fear arriving as soon as those three words and the half-truth they expressed were audible. Fear spread outward from his chest, so that his arms felt light and useless, his stomach watery, and then his legs would not hold him up any longer. His mother, when she tried to intervene, was beaten as well, and there was a moment in that short, furious episode—an instant—when Maico felt certain that he would not survive. His mother’s screams told him that this was not like the other times, although if he had dared to open his eyes he would have known it for himself, from the savage look on his father’s face. Then there was noise and there was light, and Maico peeked and the room itself seemed to move. He was pushed and he stood, and he was shoved and he surprised himself by standing again, and this continued until he no longer could.
All was quiet. Maico didn’t know how much time had passed, only that his father had gone. He opened his eyes. The glass door of the cabinet had been shattered, a chair leg snapped. There had been a storm, and now it had passed; inexplicably, there was no blood. His mother leaned against the far wall, not sobbing, just breathing, and Maico crawled toward her, and then he slept.
Maico didn’t dream that night. The few hours of sleep he managed were blank and dark. He woke at dawn in his bed. His mother must have moved him.
The blind man arrived the next morning, as if nothing had happened. Maico saw him and realized that he’d expected the man to be dead; he’d imagined that the fury his father had unleashed on him would be doubled or tripled for the blind man. Instead, the blind man wore the same contented look he’d had the afternoon before, when he left the boy at the bus stop, saying that he would make his own way home. There had been a softness to his words; he wasn’t drunk, Maico knew, but happy, as happy as Maico was humiliated, as happy as Maico was angry.
“Go,” his mother said. “Go. We need the money,” and so Maico swallowed, and stretched his sore, wounded body. He stared angrily at the blind man, and then, with his mother sighing softly, he went.
Maico knew the way by then. Knew it well. Knew the names of the streets they passed on their descent to the center, the turns they took, the intersections where the road was rutted and the bus shook. All the sights along the way, the determined faces of the men and women who got off and on, and the collective breath the bus took as they crossed the bridge just before the old center. In the rainy season, the thin, dirty stream beneath them would come to life—or a kind of life—but for now it was just an anemic trickle that would not make it to the sea. Boys his age ran along the riverbed; Maico could see them from the bus, tending to their oily fires. If he’d been asked, he could have described it all for the blind man, this city of dirt and smoke, but Maico supposed that the blind man knew this place better than he ever would.
He didn’t read the paper that day, didn’t listen to the blind man’s stories as the avenue filled and emptied according to its own sombre rhythms. He waited for the blind man to apologize, though he knew that he wouldn’t. He didn’t bother to count the money before it disappeared into his pocket, and it was only when the skies began to clear, when the sun poured through a gaping hole in the clouds, that he realized that there had never been so much. Maico touched his face. His sore jaw, his bruised cheek, his right eye, not swollen shut but pinched so that he had to strain to keep it open. The blind man couldn’t know. Describe yourself. What do you look like?
He was surrounded by them, could see them now, this itinerant army of supplicants, waiting for a stroke of good luck, for some generous act to redeem the day or the week or the month. Counting, hour after hour, the careful arithmetic of survival: this much for food, this much if I walk home, this much for the children, for the house, for the soup, for the drink, for the roof over my head, this much to keep the cold at bay. Maico’s father spent his waking hours in another part of the city, engaged in much the same calculus, and if he had succeeded at anything it was in shielding the boy from this.
“We’re doing well today, no?” the blind man said. He didn’t wait for an answer, just smiled dumbly and hummed a tune.
Then the light changed, and the boy gathered himself and led the blind man again through the idling rows of traffic. The air was sweet with exhaust. A man driving alone dropped money into the tin. Maico stopped short. He turned to the blind man, faced him.
“What are you doing?” the blind man asked.
It wasn’t a question that Maico could have answered, even if he’d tried. There was no question of trying. Maico reached into his pocket, pulled out the money they’d earned that morning, the money they’d been given, and dropped a handful into the blind man’s tin, where it rattled wonderfully, heavily, falling with such abrupt weight that the blind man nearly let go. He said, “What’s wrong with you, boy?” But Maico was not listening, could hear nothing but the sound of the revving motors, and he watched in the glare for the light to change; another handful of coins, little ten-cent pieces, the bigger silver coins that really meant something—all of it Maico dropped into the tin. He read the confusion on the blind man’s face. The money was all gone now; he had none of it, and he began to step back and away from the blind man.
“Where are you going? Where are you?” the blind man said, not pleading but not unconcerned.
Maico steeled himself, and with a swift slap he upended the blind man’s tin, knocking it and the coins from the beggar’s hands and into the street. Some rolled under the idling cars, others nestled into the cracks in the pavement, and a few caught a glint of sun and shone and shone. But only for the boy.
A moment later, the light had changed, and the traffic had resumed its northward progress. But even if it had not, even if every car in the city had waited patiently for the blind man to drop to his knees and pick up each of the coins, Maico would have seen something that made it all worthwhile. It was what the boy would remember, what he would replay in his mind as he walked away, across the bridge, and up the long hill toward home. The blind man, suddenly helpless—for a moment, he was not pretending.
First published on 30 October, 2006 by THE NEW YORKER
Daniel Alarcón is a Peruvian writer born in 1977. He writes stories both in English and Spanish, and published two novels in English so far: Lost City Radio and At Night We Walk in Circles. And The King Is Always Above the People, a story collection was published in 2017.
Daniel Alarcón in 2018, photo by Rodrigo Fernández
(CC BY-SA 4.0)