Petrone liked the Hotel Cervantes for reasons that would have displeased others. It was gloomy, quiet and almost deserted. As he was crossing the river amidst the steam coming off the roadway, a passing acquaintance recommended it to him, adding that the hotel was in downtown Montevideo. Petrone took a room with a bath on the second floor that looked out directly on reception. He knew from the board of keys at the porter's station that there were few guests at the hotel; the keys were attached to heavy bronze discs with the room number inscribed, an innocent measure on management's part to prevent guests from tossing them into their pockets.
The elevator stopped right in front of the reception desk lined with the dailies and a telephone panel. He only had to walk a few meters to get to his room. The water from the tap was scathingly hot, which made up for the lack of sunlight and air. The room had a small window which looked out onto the roof of the neighboring cinema; now and then a pigeon would fly by. The bathroom had a bigger window which sadly looked out onto a wall and a distant piece of sky, almost useless. The furniture was good, with extra drawers and shelves. And there were a lot of hangers, a rarity.
The manager turned out to be a tall, thin man who was completely bald. He sported gold-rimmed glasses and spoke with the strong, sonorous voice typical of Uruguayans. He told Petrone that the second floor was very quiet, and that in the only room contiguous to his own there lived a solitary woman, employed someplace or other, who would return to the hotel at nightfall. Petrone met her the next day in the elevator. He realized that this was the woman by the number of the key in the palm of her hand, as if she were offering him an enormous gold coin. The porter took this key as well as Petrone's and placed them on the board, then remained talking to her about some letters. Petrone had enough time to notice that she was still young, if feckless, and that she was poorly dressed like all eastern women.
The contract with the mosaic manufacturers would take about a week. In the evening Petrone placed his clothes in the wardrobe and arranged his papers on the desk. After his bath he went out towards downtown just as he was supposed to appear at his colleagues' office. The day was spent in conversation, interrupted only by a round of drinks in Pocitas and a dinner at the house of the senior manager. When they left him at his hotel it was past one. Tired, he went to bed and fell asleep immediately. It was almost nine when he awoke, and in those first minutes when the remains of the night and of sleep persist, he thought that at some point he had been bothered by the cry of an infant.
Before he left that morning he had a chat with an employee with a German accent working reception. As he was informed about bus lines and street names, he gazed distractedly at the enormous room at whose end stood the door to his room and that to the solitary woman. Between the two doors was a pedestal with an ill-fated replica of the Venus de Milo. The other door, in the side wall, led to an exit with its inevitable chairs and magazines. Whenever the employee and Petrone fell quiet, the hotel's silence seemed to coagulate and fall like ashes over the furniture and floor tiles. The elevator turned out to be almost noisy; as much could be said about the rustling of newspaper pages or the scraping of a match.
The meeting ended at nightfall and Petrone turned onto Street of the 18th of July before he dined in one of the smaller, family-run restaurants on Independence Square. All went well and perhaps he would be able to return to Buenos Aires earlier than he thought. He purchased an Argentine daily, a pack of black cigarettes, and walked slowly back to the hotel. In the neighboring cinema two movies were showing which he had already seen, and, as it were, he didn't really feel like going anywhere. The manager greeted him as he walked in and asked whether he needed more bedding. Puffing on their smokes, they chatted for a moment then bade each other good night.
Before going to bed, Petrone put in order the papers which he had used during the day then read the daily without much interest. The silence of the hotel was almost excessive, and the sound of one or another streetcar heading down Soriano Street did nothing more than pause the silence, reinforcing it for a new interval. Unworried yet with a certain amount of impatience, he tossed the newspaper into the wastebasket and got undressed as he looked at himself distractedly in the wardrobe mirror. It was quite an old wardrobe, and it had been placed against a door that let into the adjoining room. Petrone was surprised to discover that the door had escaped his initial inspection of the room. In the beginning he had assumed that the building was designed to be a hotel; but now he realized that it was like many modest hotels installed in old houses or office buildings. Now that he thought about it, in almost all the hotels he had known in his life – and there were many – the rooms had some kind of condemned door, sometimes visible, but almost invariably with a wardrobe, table or coat stand in front of it which lent it, as in this case, a certain ambiguity, an embarrassed desire to conceal its existence like a woman who thinks herself covered by placing her hands over her abdomen or her breasts. The door was there, in any case, protruding above the height of the wardrobe. Once upon a time people had entered and exited through it, striking it, turning it, imbuing it with a life still present in its wood, which was so distinct from the walls. Petrone imagined that on the other side stood likewise a wardrobe, and the woman in the room thought precisely the same thing about this door.
He was not tired but he slept with relish. It may have been about three or four hours later when he was awoken by a sensation of discomfort, as if something had occurred, something annoying and irritating. He turned on the bedside lamp and saw that it was two-thirty, and turned it off again. Then from the neighboring room he heard a child's cry.
That very first moment he did not quite know what was happening. His first movement was one of satisfaction: now he was sure that the night before a child had indeed not allowed him to rest. With everything explained, it became much easier to go back to sleep. But then he thought about it again and sat up slowly in his bed, without turning on the light, and listened. He was not mistaken: the crying was coming from the neighboring room. The sound could be heard through the condemned door, and was localized in that part of the room that corresponded to the foot of the bed. And yet there could be no child in the neighboring room: the manager had said quite clearly that the woman lived alone and that she spent most of her day at work. For a second it occurred to Petrone that perhaps tonight she was looking after a child of a relative or friend. Then he thought about the night before. Now he was sure that he had already heard the crying because it was not a cry that was easy to mistake, rather an irregular series of very faint moans, followed by plaintive hiccups of imminent sobbing, all of it inconsistent, minimal, as if the child were very ill. It had to be a child no more than a few months old, although it did not cry with the stridency or sudden clucking and breathlessness of a newborn. Petrone imagined a child – a boy, he did not know why he thought so – weak and sick, with a consumptive face and dull movements. It was this child who spent his night in chaste and plaintive tears, without calling too much attention to himself. Had the condemned door not been there, the crying would not have conquered the wall's thickness, and no one would have known that there was a child crying in the neighboring room.