By Samanta Schweblin, from Mouthful of Birds, a collection of short stories that will be published next year by Riverhead. Schweblin’s first novel to appear in English, Fever Dream, was published last January. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Oliver was driving. I was so thirsty I was starting to feel dizzy. The truck stop we found was empty. The restaurant was big, like everything else in this country, and the tables were littered with crumbs and bottles, as if a battalion had just eaten lunch and there hadn’t been time to clean up. We chose a spot by the window. There was a pedestal fan whirring on the counter that didn’t move a hair on our heads. I desperately needed to drink something. Oliver grabbed a menu from another table and started reading aloud the options he found interesting. A man appeared from behind the plastic curtain. He was very short. He had an apron tied around his waist and a grimy kitchen rag draped over his arm. Although he seemed to be the waiter, he looked disoriented, as if someone had plopped him down there all of a sudden and he didn’t really know what he was supposed to do next. He walked toward us. We said hello; he barely nodded. Oliver ordered drinks and made a joke about the heat, but he couldn’t get the guy to open his mouth. I got the feeling we’d be doing him a favor if we kept our order simple, so I asked whether there was a daily special, something fresh and quick, and he said yes and walked away, as though “something fresh and quick” were an option on the menu and there was nothing more to say. He went back to the kitchen, and we saw his head bobbing in the windows above the counter. I looked at Oliver and he was smiling; I was too thirsty to laugh. We sat there for a while, much longer than it should take to choose two cold bottles of whatever and bring them to the table, and finally the man appeared again. He wasn’t carrying anything, not even a glass. I felt awful. I thought that if I didn’t drink something right away I was going to go crazy. What was wrong with this guy, anyway? What question could he possibly have? He stopped at the table. There were drops on his forehead and his shirt was stained under the arms. He made a confused motion with his hand as if he were going to give some kind of explanation, but then stopped short. I asked what was going on, and I guess my tone of voice was somewhat violent. He turned toward the kitchen, and then, evasively, he said: “It’s just, I can’t reach the fridge.”
I looked at Oliver. He couldn’t hold back his laughter, and that put me in an even worse mood.
“What do you mean you can’t reach the fridge? How the hell do you wait on customers?”
“It’s just . . . ” He wiped his forehead with the rag. The guy was a disaster. “My wife is the one who gets things from the fridge,” he said.
“And . . . ” I felt like punching him.
“She’s on the floor. She fell and she’s . . . ”
“What do you mean, on the floor?” interrupted Oliver.
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t know . . . ” he repeated, shrugging his shoulders, the palms of his hands turned upward.
“Where is she?” asked Oliver.
The guy pointed to the kitchen. The only thing I wanted was to drink something cool, and when I saw Oliver stand up all of my hopes were dashed.
“Where?” Oliver asked again.
The guy pointed to the kitchen once more and Oliver walked toward it, turning back to look at us again and again, as though distrustful. It was strange when he disappeared behind the curtain and left me alone, face-to-face with that idiot.
I had to sidestep around him when Oliver called me into the kitchen. I walked slowly because I could tell something was wrong. I opened the curtain and peeked in. The kitchen was small and overflowing with casserole dishes, saucepans, plates, and things piled up on shelves or hanging from hooks. Lying on the floor a few meters from the wall, the woman looked like a marine beast washed up by the tide. She was clutching a big plastic spoon in her left hand. The fridge was hung high up, flush with the cupboards. It was one of those kiosk refrigerators with transparent lids, the kind that stand on the floor and slide open on top, only this one had ridiculously been tacked to the wall with brackets, following the line of the cupboards, and with the doors facing outward. Oliver looked at me.
“Well,” I told him, “you came back here, now do something.”
I heard the plastic curtain move, and the man came and stood next to me. He was much shorter than he’d looked before. I think I had almost three heads on him. Oliver knelt down next to the fat woman, but couldn’t seem to bring himself to touch her. I thought she could wake up at any moment and start shouting. He brushed the hair from her face. Her eyes were closed.
“Help me turn her over,” said Oliver.
The guy didn’t move. I went over and knelt down on the other side, but we could barely move her.
“Aren’t you going to help?” I asked the guy.
“I’m . . . ahhh . . . suspect,” babbled the moron. “She’s dead.”
We immediately let go of the fat woman and sat there looking at her.
“What do you mean, dead? Why didn’t you say she was dead?”
“I’m not sure, it’s just a suspicion.”
“He said he’s a suspect,” said Oliver, “not that he suspects.”
“I also suspect my suspicion.”
Oliver looked at me; his face was saying something like Any second now and I’ll beat the shit out of this guy.
I lifted the hand with the spoon to check for a pulse. When Oliver got tired of waiting for me he put two fingers under the woman’s nose and mouth and said: “She’s a goner, let’s get out of here.”
And then, only then, the damned guy woke up.
“What do you mean, get out of here? No, please. I can’t deal with her alone.”
Oliver opened the fridge, took out two sodas, and handed one to me. Then he walked out of the kitchen, cursing. I followed him. I opened my bottle, and it seemed its mouth would never meet mine. I had forgotten how thirsty I was.
“So? What do you think?” asked Oliver. I breathed in relief. Suddenly I felt ten years younger and in a much better mood. “Did she fall or did he take her out?” he asked. We were still near the kitchen and Oliver didn’t lower his voice.
“I don’t think it was him,” I said in a quiet voice. “He needs her to reach the fridge, doesn’t he?”
“He could reach it . . . ”
“You really think he killed her?”
“He could use a ladder, get up on the table, he’s got fifty barstools . . . ” he said, motioning around us. It seemed to me he was talking loudly on purpose, so I lowered my voice even more.
“Maybe he really is just a poor guy. Maybe he really is stupid and now we’re leaving him all alone with his fat wife dead in the kitchen.”
“You want to adopt him? We’ll put him in the back seat and set him free when we get there.”
I took a few more sips and stood looking toward the kitchen. The idiot was standing over the fat woman and holding a stool in the air, seeming not to know where to put it. Oliver signaled to me, and we went closer again. We saw him put the stool aside, take hold of the fat woman’s arm, and start to pull. He couldn’t move her an inch. He rested a few seconds and tried again. He tried putting the stool over her, one of its legs against her knee. He clambered up onto it and reached as far as he could toward the fridge, but now that he had the height, the stool was too far away. When he turned toward us to get down, we ducked and hid, sitting on the floor, with our backs to the wall. I was surprised to see there was nothing under the counter. There were things up on the shelves, and above those the cupboards and racks were also full, but there was nothing down at our level. We heard him move the stool. Sigh. There was silence and we waited. Suddenly he burst out from behind the curtain brandishing a knife. When he saw us, though, he seemed relieved, and he sighed again.
“I can’t reach the fridge,” he said.
We didn’t even stand up.
“You can’t reach anything,” said Oliver.
The guy stood looking at him as if God himself had come down to earth and told him the meaning of life. He dropped the knife and his eyes took in the empty expanse underneath the counter. Oliver was satisfied: The guy seemed to go beyond any horizon of stupidity.
“Let’s see, make us an omelet,” said Oliver.
The man turned back toward the kitchen. His imbecilic face took in the utensils, the casserole dishes, almost the entire kitchen hanging from the walls or the shelves. He looked astonished.
“Okay, so not that,” said Oliver. “Make some simple sandwiches, surely you can do that.”
“No,” said the guy. “I can’t reach the sandwich maker.”
“Don’t toast it. Clearly I can’t ask that much. Just bring ham, cheese, and some bread.”
“No,” he said. “No,” he repeated, shaking his head; he seemed ashamed.
“Okay. Bring a glass of water, then.”
He shook his head.
“And how the hell did you serve this regiment?” asked Oliver, indicating the tables.
“I need to think.”
“You don’t need to think, what you need is another meter.”
“I can’t do it without her . . . ”
I thought about getting down a cool drink for him, I thought it could do him good, but when I started to get up Oliver stopped me.
“He has to do it on his own,” he said. “He has to learn.”
“Oliver . . . ”
“Tell me something that you can do, one thing, anything.”
“I carry the food she gives me, I clean the tables . . . ”
“Doesn’t look like it,” said Oliver.
“I can mix the salads and dress them if she leaves everything for me on the counter. I wash the dishes, clean the floor, shake out the . . . ”
“Okay, okay. I get it.”
Then the guy stood looking at Oliver, as if surprised:
“You . . . ” he said. “You can reach the fridge. You could cook, hand me things . . . ”
“What’s that? No one’s handing you anything.”
“But you could work, you’re tall enough,” he took a shy step toward Oliver, which to me didn’t seem very wise. “I’d pay you,” he said.
Oliver turned to me: “This guy’s fucking with me, he’s fucking with me.”
“I have money. Four hundred a week? I can pay you. Five hundred?”
“You pay five hundred a week? Why don’t you have a palace in the back yard? This asshole . . . ”
I got up and stood behind Oliver: He was going to hit the guy any second. I think the only thing stopping him was his height.
We saw the man close his little fists as though squeezing an invisible mass between his fingers, compressing it smaller and smaller. His arms started to tremble, and he turned purple.
“My money is none of your business,” he said.
Oliver was still looking at me every time the other man spoke to him, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He almost seemed to be enjoying it, but I know him better than anyone: No one tells Oliver what to do.
“And judging by the truck you have,” said the guy as he looked out toward the road, “judging by your truck, one might say I manage money better than you.”
“Son of a bitch,” said Oliver, and he lunged at the guy. I managed to restrain him. The guy took a step back, without fear and with a dignity that added a meter of height. He waited until Oliver was calm and I’d let go of him.
“Okay,” said Oliver. “Okay.”
He stood looking at the guy; he was furious, but there was something else underneath his composure. Then he said:
“Where’s the money?”
I looked at Oliver without understanding.
“Are you going to rob me?”
“I’m going to do whatever the fuck I feel like, you piece of shit.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Oliver took a step, grabbed the guy by the front of his shirt, and lifted him into the air.
“Where’s your money? Let’s have it.”
The force with which Oliver had picked him up left him swinging a little side to side. But the guy looked Oliver directly in the eyes and didn’t open his mouth.
Oliver let go of him. The guy fell, then adjusted his shirt.
“Okay,” said Oliver. “Either you bring the money, or I’ll break your face.”
He raised a tightly closed fist and held it a centimeter from the guy’s nose.
“All right,” the little guy said. He took a slow step back, crossed the bar, and went in the opposite direction from the kitchen, disappearing through a door.
“Piece of shit.”
I went closer to Oliver so the guy couldn’t hear us.
“What are you doing? He’s got his wife dead in the kitchen, let’s go.”
“Did you hear what he said about my truck? The asshole wants to hire me. He wants to be my boss, get it?”
Oliver started looking through the shelves over the bar, rifling through bottles, boxes, papers.
“This fucker’s money must be around here somewhere.”
“Oliver, let’s go. You’ve gone crazy.”
He picked up a wooden box. It was old and had the word habanos hand-carved on the lid.
“Here we are,” said Oliver.
“Get out of here right now,” we heard a voice say.
The guy was standing in the middle of the room, and he was holding a double-barreled shotgun aimed right at Oliver’s head. Oliver hid the box behind his back. The guy took off the gun’s safety and said:
“We’re going,” I said, and I took Oliver by the arm and started to walk. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. And I’m sorry about your wife too, I . . . ”
I had to use all my strength to get Oliver to follow me, the way mothers pull on stubborn children.
We passed right by him, the shotgun a meter away from Oliver’s head.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
We were close to the door. I had Oliver go out first so the guy wouldn’t see that he was carrying the box.
I let go of Oliver and ran to the truck. I don’t know if he was afraid or not, but he didn’t run. He got into the truck, placed the box on the seat, started the engine, and we went back out the way we’d come in.
“Open it,” he said.
“Oliver . . . ”
“Open it, you faggot.”
I picked up the box. It was light and too small to contain a fortune. It had a fake lock to make it look like a treasure chest. I opened it.
“What’s in it? How much? How much?”
“You just drive,” I said. “I think it’s only papers.”
Oliver turned every once in a while to look at what I’d found. There was a name embossed on the underside of the lid; it said irman, and beneath it was a photo of the guy when he was very young, sitting on some suitcases in a terminal. He looked happy. I wondered who had taken the photo. There were also letters headed with his name: “Dear Irman,” “Irman, my love,” and poems he had signed, a mint candy turned to dust, and a plastic medal for the best poet of the year, with the logo of a social club.
“Is there money or not?”
“They’re letters,” I said.
Oliver knocked the box out of my hands and tossed everything out the window.
“What are you doing?” I turned around for a second to see the things scattered over the asphalt, some papers still flying through the air.
“They’re letters,” he said.
And a while later:
“Look. … We should have stopped here. ‘Wild suckling pig,’ did you see the sign? How much was it?” And he shifted restlessly in his seat, as if he did really regret it.