By Antonio di Benedetto (1922–86), from Nest in the Bones, a collection of his stories that was published this month by Archipelago Books. Di Benedetto was an Argentine journalist and the author of Zama (New York Review Books). Translated from the Spanish by Martina Broner.
On my regular route, from the office to my room, from my room to the office, I go through the pedestrian tunnel that opens up at Goya, sneaks under Calle Doctor Esquerdo, and emerges in front of the honey shop. Around the corner, on the street lined with what once were gaslights, is where I live.
Where the tunnel flattens under the avenue and the buses, where the sound goes dead, was the dog. In winter I would see him wrapped in a blanket.
His owner most often lay dozing on the ground. He didn’t parade the dog; nor did he play the violin or accordion, as so many do; nor did he display a sign asking for public charity: “I am unemployed, my wife is dead, I have six children, my shack burned down.” His hat, upside down on the ground, did all the work.
I found his understated style interesting, and I admired the patience of the dog, who was probably fed only occasionally with food bought from the daily gathering of pesetas.
But I didn’t care enough to give them anything.
One day, things were going well — I wasn’t getting laid off, not yet — and I wanted to show that I was grateful, but I didn’t know how or to whom. I let a coin drop into the upside-down hat.
Later I regretted having done so, because whenever the man saw me advance through the tunnel with my respectable beard, he discreetly fixed his gaze on me. I didn’t repeat my compassionate gesture, though once I weakened and stopped to speak to him.
I asked: “What did you do before, what were you?”
He replied: “Not what was I, what am I.”
“What is it you do, then?”
“I am an inventor.”
“What kinds of things can an inventor invent?”
“I can’t imagine.”
“I am an inventor of things that do not exist.”
“Oh . . . and what is your latest invention?”
I let it go.
Dog and man disappeared. They’d changed posts, I assumed with relief, and I wished them a more prosperous location.
Then the dog returned, alone. No man, no blanket. I couldn’t ask him about his master.
From then on, always the same: the dog alone, although not stretched out, as was formerly his habit, but sitting on his hindquarters, expectant. I thought: the man is ill, or he is busy, and he has left the dog to guard the spot in case another beggar tries to occupy it.
Under the impression that his owner would soon be back, and considering that the dog had to eat, I placed a few pesetas by his feet — or, rather, his paws.
A woman behind me did the same, though without much conviction, given that handing money to a dog seemed somewhat stupid.
That Wednesday, the same — except that the coins from the previous day had disappeared. I imagined something magical might have occurred, to either the money or the dog. But there is no room for the magical in my life; not the slightest fantasy has ever embellished it. Nothing extraordinary will ever happen to me, nothing unusual will ever even graze me.
Thursday: dog and coins intact, even a few duros. I concluded that the dog had spent the night there in the tunnel, that the owner had not returned, and that if someone had given change to the dog, fine, he was used to it, but if someone had tried to take it away, a little growling and showing of teeth was enough to dissuade them.
I became convinced that the man had died, and so I went to the butcher shop and brought back some oxtail and feet for the poor dog, something solid to help him endure the wait that was pointless, now, but from which I could not dissuade him. I suppose he was thankful for what I gave him. Either way, he bit into it. Not with excessive voracity; he preserved his good manners.
I don’t work on Sundays, and this past Sunday I stayed in my room. At one point a sound rose from the alley that leads to the playground . . . it was a dog. It barked energetically, commandingly.
I looked down from the balcony and there he was. He must have seen or smelled me, and after I quickly shut myself inside, like a coward, he started to whimper in a pitiful tone.
One of the tenants lost his patience and shouted at him; a neighbor expressed sympathy for him; a few other dogs showed their support with deafening and ominous howls.
The lapdogs seemed to be sobbing. When night fell, a lone wail rose up, and through the walls of the building I heard the accusatory murmur of the families around me.
Monday at daybreak I listened for more sorrowful harmonies. Not a note in the air. Feeling safer, I went to the balcony to look, peeking from behind the potted geraniums. Nothing.
It occurred to me that the dog might be searching the streets for discarded food, and that he would soon return to his post in the tunnel. So I walked to the metro via the overground route.
At the office I got laid off.
I’ve been unemployed for a few weeks now, for more than a month, taking care of the dog, whom I usually meet at the square — the park, they call it — in front of the Temple of la Sagrada Familia. That’s where the dog cheers up and feels better. He’s young, and he makes it clear that he would like to romp around, but I can’t keep up with his games.
As we get along so well, and I remain unemployed, and his owner has not returned, I’ve taken over the old post at the pedestrian tunnel under Calle Doctor Esquerdo.
With the dog by my side, without pleading, without a handwritten sign — we keep up appearances — I stand and wait. My face, I suppose, does the begging for me: it is pale, wounded, weakened.
In case that is not persuasive enough, I reach out with my arm to the good people who walk by, pretending that I am not extending my hand to receive charity.
A competitor comes by every two or three days, presumably whenever his funds have run dry, equipped with a guitar that he holds under his arm and a harmonica strapped to his chin. He attracts more attention than I do.
I envy the young couple at the Goya stop, the man with his flute like Manuel de Falla and the woman with the long gauze skirts and black braids that make her look like a Gypsy.
I envy even the man on the sidewalk in front of the Corte Inglés, showing off his stumps, a leg and an arm, who doesn’t bother to explain whether a train mowed him down while he was drunk or whether he is a wounded veteran who never got compensation.
All I have is my hunger, my cup, and my face. A woman slows down, hesitates, considers whether or not I am a genuine beggar, and now, with a challenging look, asks, “Aren’t you ashamed to use a poor dog to get sympathy?”
The harshness of her reprimand, delivered with rage, fails to unnerve me.
“He’s my Seeing Eye dog, ma’am, don’t you understand? What do you want from me, should I tear out my eyes? Is your pocket change worth that much?”
I turn to leave. The dog is slow to react, but ultimately he seems to perceive the humiliation this woman has put me through and follows me, his head down, his legs shaking.
Halfway to who knows where — my confusion has actually blinded me — my head clears. I begin to whistle. I look to see if the dog is paying attention, and yes, he’s noticed my lifted spirits.
I stop suddenly, struck by an idea.
I retrace my steps back down the tunnel. The witch is gone. No matter, I’ll set up the demonstration for myself.
When he gets to his spot, the dog looks at me inquisitively and, not getting a response, lies down as he usually does. I command him to stand. He stands. Then I move into his place. I fall to the ground and start barking.