The car dropped him off at 404 of that street in the Northeast. It was not yet nine in the morning; the man surveyed approvingly the stained banana trees each surrounded by a square meter of land, the decent, cylindrical houses, the contiguous pharmacy, the faded diamonds of the paint and hardware stores. A large blind hospital wall sealed off the front sidewalk; in a few greenhouses farther away the sun shimmered. The man thought that these things (now arbitrary and casual in whatever order, like the things we see in dreams) in time would become, if God so desired, invariable, necessary, and familiar. In the pharmacy window one could read the letters of the cookware: Breslauer; the Jews were replacing the Italians who had replaced the creoles. It was better that way; the man preferred not to socialize with persons of his blood.
The driver helped him unload his luggage. The door was finally opened by a woman with a distracted and tired air about her. Perched in his seat the driver returned one of the coins, a Uruguayan twenty-piece which had been in his pocket since that night in the Hotel de Melo. The man handed him forty centavos, and as he did so, came to think the following: I have the burden of behaving in such a way that everyone forgets about me. I have committed two errors: I gave him a foreign coin and let him notice that I cared about such a mistake.
Preceded by the woman he crossed the hallway and the first courtyard. The room that they had reserved for him gave onto, happily enough, the second courtyard. The bed was iron, deformed by artifice into fantastic curves depicting figures and vines; around it were an old wardrobe made of pine, a bedside table, a bookshelf that reached the floor, two unmatched chairs, a sink and washbowl, as well as its pitcher, its soap dish, and a bottle of clouded glass. A map of the province of Buenos Aires and a crucifix adorned the walls; the wallpaper was crimson with countless large royal peacocks in perfect, almost military lines. The only door gave onto the courtyard. The chairs had to be rearranged to make room for the luggage. All of this was approved by the tenant. When the woman asked him his name, he responded Villari, not as a secret challenge, nor so as to mitigate the humiliation which, in truth, he did not feel; but because the name worked, because it was impossible to think of another. The literary error of imagining or assuming the name of the enemy certainly did not appeal to him as a potential ruse.
At first Mr. Villari did not leave the house; finally, after several weeks, he went out for a spell at dusk. One night he went into the cinema three blocks away. He never took a seat in the back row; he always got up a little before the end of the performance. He saw tragic tales of the underworld; these, undoubtedly, had their fair share of inaccuracies; these, undoubtedly, included images which had also figured in his previous life. Villari did not notice them because to him the notion of any coincidence between art and reality was quite alien. Tamely he tried to make himself like things; he so wanted to move ahead with the intentions they showed him. But in contrast to readers of novels, he could never see himself as a fictional character.
He never received a letter not even a circular, but would read with faded hope one of the sections of the daily paper. In the evening he would push one of the chairs against the door and drink maté ferociously, his eyes pinned to the creeper on the wall of the neighboring high-rise. Years of solitude had taught him that the days in his memory had to be equal; yet there was no day, not even in prison or a hospital, that would not bring unexpectedness, that against the light would not resolve into a web of small surprises. In other periods of confinement he had succumbed to the temptation of counting the days and hours, but this seclusion was different because it was endless – apart from one morning when the daily carried the story of the death of Alejandro Villari. It was also possible that Villari had died and that this life was but a dream. This possibility disquieted him because he had not made up his mind whether this fact was a relief or a misfortune; at length he dismissed it as absurd. In bygone days, less distant owing to the course of time than to two or three irrevocable acts, he had desired many things with unscrupulous lust; this powerful drive had provoked the hatred of men and the love of a certain woman. But now he no longer wanted anything in particular: he only wanted to persist and not to end. The smell of maté and black tobacco, the growing thread of shadow that had encroached upon the courtyard – these were stimulants enough.
In the house there was a wolf dog, already old. Villari befriended him. He spoke to him in Spanish, in Italian, in the few words he had retained of his childhood’s rustic dialect. Villari tried to live in the mere present without memories or predictions; the latter were of less import than the former. He obscurely believed himself to have intuited that the past was the substance of which time was made; for that reason did time immediately become the past. His fatigue on some days seemed to resemble happiness; at moments like these there was little more complex than the dog.
One night a flash of unshakeable pain in the back of his mouth left him scared and trembling. This horrible miracle recurred every few minutes until dawn. The following day Villari sent for a car to take him to a dentist in the Once district. Here they pulled his molars; in such a trance he was no calmer or more cowardly than anyone else.
Another night, coming back from the cinema, he felt like he was being pushed. In anger and indignation, as well as secret relief, he turned to face his offender. At him Villari spat a vulgar epithet; astonished, the other stammered in apology. He was a tall young man, dark-skinned, accompanied by a German-looking woman; that night Villari repeated to himself that he did not know them. Nevertheless four or five days would pass before he went out again.
Among the bookshelf's contents was a copy of The Divine Comedy with Andreoli's old commentary. Urged on less by curiosity than by a feeling of obligation, Villari threw himself into reading this masterpiece. Before eating he would read a canto and then, in rigorous order, the notes. He did not deem the infernal punishments implausible or excessive, nor did he think that Dante had condemned him to the last circle of hell where the teeth of Ugolino gnawed endlessly upon Ruggieri's neck.
The royal peacocks of the crimson wallpaper seemed destined to nourish pressing and tenacious nightmares, but Mr. Villari never dreamed of a monstrous roundabout made of inextricable living birds. At daybreak he would languish in a dream of constant depth but varying circumstances. Two men and Villari entered with revolvers into the room or attacked him as he left the cinema; or all three at once were the stranger who had pushed him; or they waited sadly in the courtyard and seemed not to know him at all. At the end of the dream, he pulled the revolver out of a drawer of the bedside table (where, as it were, there indeed lay a revolver) and fired it at the men. The weapon's resonance would wake him up; but it was always a dream. And in another dream the attack would be repeated and in another dream he would have to kill them all.
One gloomy July morning he was woken up by the presence of unknown people (not the noise of their opening the door). Tall in the room's shadows, curiously simplified in the semidarkness (they had always been so much clearer in those fearful dreams), vigilant, unmoving, and patient, their eyes lowered as if curved by the weight of their weapons, Alejandro Villari and a stranger had finally reached him. In a dream he begged them to wait and turned towards the wall as if he were going back to sleep. Did he do this so as to provoke mercy in his slayers? Or because it is easier to bear a horrific occurrence than to imagine and keep it until the end of time? Or – and this was perhaps the most plausible explanation – to make the assassins into a dream, as they had been so many times, at the same place and time?
He was afloat in such magic when the shot erased him.