Mild Fate (Fortuna Lleu)
From Gent de l’Alta Vall
By Pere Calders
At the entrance to a hut underneath a large metal structure, Trinidad Romero lets the hours slowly pass. He is wrapped in a blanket which covers half his face and the only thing left visible are his eyes, darting in the gap between the hat and the blanket.
He hears someone knock at the door and rises calmly, walks slowly over and asks who’s there.
“It’s me, brother. Let me in.”
A fog of tequila surrounds the visitor. He’s heavily, crassly drunk.
Trinidad returns to his seat indifferently and asks:
“What’s the word?”
The other is slurring his speech, can’t string together his words, and with effort manages to say that he is ready to kill anyone who’s had dealings with the gringos.
“Sit down, man, sit down.”
Trinidad ignores him. With a piece of wood he stirs the embers of the fire by which he’s warming himself and stares off blankly, as if alone. The drunkard grabs his arm violently.
“I don’t know why, but seems to me even you’ve been dealing with them!”
He gets rid of him with a shove and his friend falls on his back, grotesquely.
“Come on, get out of here. Let me be. I don’t want to hurt you.”
But the friend stumbles to his feet, and grabs onto him. In the struggle, Trinidad brushes the fire and burns his ankle. Pain blinds him, and without thinking, he grabs an iron pipe and smashes it with all his strength onto the head of his friend, who collapses face down with open eyes.
Trinidad stands upright and silent for a good while. Finally, he takes off his straw hat and scratches his wrist.
“Ah, what a man!” he says, amicably addressing the motionless body. “Always looking for trouble…”
He crouches and shakes him: “Hey Lalo! You hear me?” He seems to stir a little and with the same pipe, he gives him two more blows.
“Poor guy! That way he won’t suffer.”
Then, he gives himself over to meditation. He paces from one side to the other and stops now and then in front of a ditch half-filled with cement. When he reaches a decision, he kneels by Lalo’s corpse and rifles through his pockets; he takes out a couple of copper coins, a knife, his military booklet and a small bottle of tequila, with a little bit of liquor left in it. He raises it against the light to see how much liquid it contains, and with an ample smile begins to drink by sips, without haste, savoring it and running his tongue over his lips.
When he’s done, he heaves a sigh of well-being and returns to his task. He grabs Lalo’s feet to drag him, and then realizes that his shoes are almost new. He sits down and places the sole of his foot against the dead man’s sole, to verify the size, and sees with dismay that they would be a little loose on him.
He finishes with the distractions and tosses his friend’s body into one of the trenches, covering him with cement. He uses a shovel to carefully flatten the surface, and when he is satisfied with his work, he takes of his hat, reverently joins his hands and prays for the soul of the departed. A vague melancholy cuts his breath; in a short time, he’s lost two of his closest companions, both in tragic circumstances. And now this one, so jovial when he was in a good mood and so handy with a guitar…
Nothing else occurs to him and with that, he ends the funeral rites. He immediately gets to shaping an idea which makes his heart race: he’s gonna have to tell Lupe, Lalo’s lover, and, if she agrees, and things work out, provide for her.
He abandons his work without nervousness; no one ever enters and, most likely, when he gets back, everything will be the same.
It’s a cold night, with the gusts so characteristic of the Valley of Mexico. At ten P.M., San Juan de Letrán Avenue starts to decline and the few people who travel down it do so silently; the screeching of the wheels of a tram and the muffled sound of mechanical music accompany Trinidad’s thoughts. Lupe lives in the neighborhood of Portales and he walks to the bus stop that will take him there. And he reflects in the clumsy way he can; he closes his eyes and imagines Lupe’s figure, who always seems to walk around half-dressed, with that characteristic motion of pulling up her clothes so her breasts don’t fall out.
On the way, the lurching bus helps him sink into a pleasant doze. The minor torment of not being able to formulate the idea floating through his brain makes him worry, but in a dim, distant way.
He gets off the bus, crosses two streets and enters Lupe’s building; he crosses the yard, parting the damp, hanging clothing and has to crouch twice because the wires knock his hat off. On the landing he steps on a dog, which surprises and irritates him so much that he slams him into a washbasin with a kick.
He gives three knocks on the door, so weak that no one hears them. He waits, he patiently waits, and after a couple of minutes he knocks again, with the same timidity. The third time he strikes with more force and a light turns on inside. The doors is cracked ajar and he says:
“It’s Trinidad Romero.”
The woman lets him in. She’s wearing a tight dress that she threw on, and nothing underneath. Trinidad looks at her, following her slowly with his eyes; she lifts her arms to fix her hair and the man gazes at her armpits admiringly. Lupe smiles:
“What a miracle!”
“So, I came to say that Lalo died…”
She drops a safety pin she was holding between her teeth and her eyes widen. She is silent for a good while and then asks:
“But how? What happened?”
“It was his time. He fell into the trap.”
That explains everything, and Lupe collapses onto a chair, grabbing her head between her hands. “We were going to get married by both laws…” she says, between sobs. And he, who wants to answer her, holds himself back so as not to taint the memory of the deceased. While he respects the – now silent – woman’s pain, Trinidad stares at a portrait of Lalo hanging on the wall. “Pretty soon, you’ll have another one just like it made.” The idea makes him smile, but he covers his face with his hat out of a vague feeling of delicacy.
“Where do they have him? The Red Cross or the Green?” asks Lupe.
“But where is he?”
“Well we have to hold a wake. We’re decent people. Someone must know where he is.”
“Nope. No one knows. You already know how reserved he was and how hard to understand, sometimes.”
“But is it certain he died?”
“Sure as can be. Look…”
He hands her Lalo’s military booklet,, and the presence of an official document, even though it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it, dispelled her doubts.
Trinidad, crumpling his hat between his hands, says with an impersonal air:
“I was saying that someone has to come live here…”
“Yes, of course. A poor woman, all alone… And the rent too…”
“What does it come to?”
“Four pesos a day.”
He lowers his eyes and thinks for a good while. Then he looks at Lupe and tries to make out her strong, brown body under the scanty clothing.
“I could do it…” he finally says.
“But look, Lalo looked after me, we were gonna get married by both laws…”
“Later on, if we decide to, we could get a civil marriage. Not in the church, because my wife is still alive. You know that when I kicked her out she went to Querétaro, with one of her sisters.
“Yes, of course.”
Trinidad gets more and more impatient and the longer the conversation drags out, the less he can wait. Now he can take it no longer: he goes up close to Lupe and, with one jerk, rips off her dress. They struggle briefly and he forces her to the ground. He gives her one strong blow to the face with his fist, and she gives in.
The next day, early in the morning, Trinidad steps out into the street. He has been thinking; he won’t give her four pesos a day; three and a half, or better yet a round three, seems more reasonable.
He gets to the site before the other workers and sees that no one has entered in his absence. He glances into the trench, and slowly, he is overpowered by a feeling of self-importance. He’s astute and brave. He smiles with just half of his mouth, because he has a deep, ancestral instinct to hide his emotions.
People start arriving, and one of the foremen asks:
“Who touched that trench?”
The foreman doesn’t ask anything else and the brigades get to work. After a while, the little scene has undergone a fairly large transformation, because when the architect arrives, he can’t suspect a thing. While formulating that thought, Trinidad has a spark of tenderness for Lalo: “He’ll rest easy here, poor guy.” And since the foundations were blessed, it appears he won’t be lacking anything.
Normally, as men get to the site, Trinidad leaves. But on paydays, like today, he has to wait for the architect with the money, and the hours seem especially long. Now he distracts himself by thinking of Lupe and he mulls over their shared intimacy. He smiles again lightly.
And now the architect doesn’t show up, but in his place the assistant comes, with a black briefcase under his arm. He sits in front of a table and starts to organize the envelopes that contain the money. Trinidad walks up unhurriedly, takes off his hat and reminds them that, since he already finished his work, they always pay him before everyone else. The assistant doesn’t know how things work very well, but he wants to seem like he gets it and fakes great aplomb. He separates a bag from the others and reads:
Trinidad doesn’t affirm or deny it. His respectful silence could equally well mean one thing or the other, and he’s always ready for an advantage that requires no effort. The assistant gives him the envelope and he scrawls an illegible signature in the booklet they hand him.
Armida Morales guards the materials and in the envelope there are twenty pesos more than what Trinidad earns. He already knows that the error will soon be discovered and they will ask him for an explanation. But who knows! He’ll say he doesn’t know a thing and he’ll defend himself behind his ignorance. What he has to do is spend the money right away, so that when they ask about it there won’t be anything to be done about it. Let them take it out of his pay in two weeks, if they want!…
The idea to get Lupe a present occurs him and he heads to a jewelry store that he passes often. The owner of the store, from behind the counter, is arguing with a tax inspector and is visibly agitated. Almost without seeing him, he deals with Trinidad, who chooses a bracelet with coins hanging on it and pays with a fifty peso bill. The shopkeeper gives him his change in such haste that he gives him ten extra pesos. Trinidad sees in but doesn’t bat an eyelid: he takes the money and puts them in the envelope completely casually.
Outside, he congratulates himself again for his shrewdness. And he suddenly thinks of something that seems appropriate: if things keep going so well for him, he’ll bring a candle to the Virgin of Acatitlan.
Before he continues on his way, with his short steps and humble appearance, Trinidad reaffirms the promise, taking off his straw hat and crossing himself reverently with the envelope.