Antonio Ortuño / The Horoscope Says

In the neighborhood, my father is not liked. The police show up at the house on Mondays or Tuesdays and watch him drink beer inside the tiny cement square that used to be a garden. The neighbors don’t have a chain-link fence to protect them, but we do. My father sits on top of a small stool and drinks outside, on the street itself, an offence punished here as severely as if it were a more serious crime. But the policemen can’t cross the fence and stop him: they settle for standing and watching him drink.

Our relationship isn’t that good either. My mother died and I have to do all the housework; he was raised never to touch a broom while I, it seems, was born to handle one. When I finish sweeping, dusting, mopping and scrubbing the kitchen and bathrooms (laundry, Thursdays and Mondays) I put on my overalls and walk to the factory.

I was such an outstanding student that I got a job as soon as I applied for one, but I wasn’t outstanding enough to get a scholarship and move on. I work in an assembly line from three in the afternoon to ten at night, alongside twenty indistinguishable others. Seen from above, through the small window of the supervisor’s office, we must seem tireless, the two or three hundred women that make up the fifteen simultaneous production lines during the different shifts.

I’m lucky too (I don’t like to complain: I leave that to the newspapers) in that my route home is simple. Eleven streets in a straight line separate the factory from my house. Some of my coworkers, by contrast, have to take two or three buses and cross various muddy ditches before they consider themselves free.

The streets around the factory used to be dark but now they are lit by long rows of municipal streetlamps. The patrols never stop: over the eleven streets to my door you can count up to six pickup trucks packed with officers, two in the front seats and four behind, clustered in the bed, legs dangling and rifles slung over their shoulders.

The newspapers complain. They say that the neighborhood is a disgrace and they compare it to the manicured housing estates on the other side of the city. It is true: here there are neither fences nor gardens. We used to have one, a tiny garden, but now it’s buried under cement and is used by my father as a watch-post while he drinks. He watches people go by during the day and during the night, when no one dares go out, he awaits my return. At least that’s what I think. Sometimes he’s not around when I get there, only appearing after a while, bottle in hand.

There are some dangers, it’s true. And not all of them are made up by the press, like some people say. A lot of my coworkers, no one knows exactly how many, never come back to the factory. Some of them because they get tired of the lousy wages or the hard labor, we guess. Others, because they get snatched from the streets nearby. Put like that, it sounds just like one of those newspaper articles where they whine about the discovery of yet another corpse. Accompanied by photographs in which the dead women look like toys. That’s what we all must look like: jointed dolls, with safety masks included. Sometimes we play at putting doll parts together (the head goes here, here the arms, the legs and the clothes) and sometimes, like dolls, we are taken apart. No: the truth is that we assemble circuits and the doll line was closed down years ago due to lack of demand. But I clipped out an article that put it that way because I liked the way it lied. As if what goes on made any sense, as if we were something that could be described.

The article was published a year and a half ago, when there were more patrols, and the disappearances (and discoveries of bodies) were more frequent. Now the number has gone down, without fully disappearing. Just like those couples that still grope each other occasionally when he’s drunk or she’s bored. That’s what I read in another article, in a section in which instead of dead bodies they show you live ones, the bodies of beautiful women. What I can’t stand are the crossword puzzles. I wouldn’t be able to solve them anyway, my father swoops down on every newspaper that gets delivered to our house. He consumes them in a few minutes, without crossings-out or indecision. It’s like he planned them, like he was able to make his words fit inside the little squares without worrying about their correspondence with the truth. I’ve never taken the time to go over them.

I tend not to stroll, rather I walk quickly and without distractions. I don’t turn around when a policeman calls to me from his pickup truck. Some women at the factory become their friends and girlfriends (that is, they go into an alleyway with them and slip their cocks into their mouths), looking for an escort or protector, but I have no intentions of wallowing around with one of them nor do I need them to follow me to my door. My father wouldn’t like to see me turn up with a cop.

The newspapers complain about everything but, just like it is with bigmouths, they sometimes end up mentioning something useful. For instance, I have this article in which they talk about how the factory is such a bad business that it is inexplicable how its owner keeps it running. It hasn’t turned a profit in eight years and it reports losses in all its audits. Even the tax collectors have become lax in their reviews, because the owner is a friend with a deputy and the government knows there’s no money in it for them. They leave him in peace.

Another problem in this neighborhood “in a dire situation”, I read, is that five officers have died this year. The newspaper, which parrots the statements of City Hall, suggests that the officers were shot down by the same people that kidnap and dump the bodies of my coworkers. But how can you trust a paper that, after hitting you with this information, regurgitates without blinking the imaginings of the horoscopes editor. Today, mine says: You will find yourself unusually in tune with your partner today, take this opportunity to talk to him about something that is making you feel uncomfortable.

My partner, who does not exist, would have to be patient: I work from Monday to Saturday, and at home my work is never done. And my father wouldn’t like to see me turn up holding someone’s hand. Specially, I think, if it was a cop and I had to go with him into the alleyways and suck him off.

I now realize that I ended up speaking of this to no one and this truly makes me feel uncomfortable. Another victory for the horoscope.

II

I leave, at night, alongside fifty others. We are relieved by fifty more, all identical. We only recognize the faces of a few, because we have to use hair-nets and safety masks and it’s uncomfortable to take them off and then put them back on each time, so we generally just leave them there, like blinkers.

Three days now the same cop, stood on the corner farthest from the door, right where my road home starts, has told me good night. He’s ugly, even by the standards of his species, but he tries to seem nice. I smile without answering; I know that he’ll be back through the narrow window I leave open.

His partners, legs dangling from the truck’s bed, laugh. “You can’t even score the cheapest skank of the lot”, they told him on the second day. Make no mistake, cop, skank does not offend me. The pickup truck follows me all the way up to the last corner and stops. The ugly cop, standing on the back of the truck, marks me as the daughter of the lush with the chain-link fence. They laugh at him again. He must have suffered far worse humiliations: he really is ugly.

A new girl, barely older than the rest, arrives at the factory. She says she knows me. She lives in one of the houses squeezed together on the other side of my street: she has seen my father sat drinking on his stool since she was little. She reads the newspapers as much as I do, but she avoids the news about the neighborhood and focuses on articles that offer advice on the bedroom problems of men, women and skanks. I can’t believe those pig fucks called me a skank to my face, they didn’t even blink.

We walk home together, inevitably, as if they had put her on my shift just to force me to bond with someone. The ugly policeman seems to take an interest in my neighbor when he spies her walking by my side. They smile at each other. I encourage her, on workdays, to hold his gaze and go near him. The idea they might like each other gives me hope.

Success: I manage to rid myself of my walking partner as soon as she decides to talk to Ugly. She’s cute, oddly cute, and now the other officers growl, resentful, instead of jeering at him. I pay no attention to them, only to the streets that I cross each day and night. They don’t worry me. I’ll never sneak into an alley to lick, grateful, my protector.

The horoscope says I should be wary of gossip. And it adds, the paper, another notice: in view of the fact that the crime rate in the area has fallen to 52.9%, police patrolling will be reduced proportionally. Tell me how you’re going to work out the decimal point, friends. If I could figure that out, I tell myself, I might have gotten that scholarship. And now I’d be the one writing horoscopes for the newspaper.

My neighbor takes advantage of our proximity in the assembly line to tell me about the gropings and lickings she shares with her cop. His ugliness seems to galvanize her. It makes her feel dazzling. Even the paper has given its blessing to their appetites, because in the section with the photographs of the lovely naked women, they recommend their female readers pick up a plug-ugly but passionate boyfriend.

What comes next shouldn’t have happened. She could have stayed with her man and let me walk by myself, but instead she made a date with him for later that evening, at her house, so she could introduce him to her family, and she walked me through the streets. Everything was perfect, they were going to be happy, he would request a transfer to a shopping mall, out of any danger. So he doesn’t like the neighborhood, I said. No one likes it, neighbor, nobody. Well the skank likes it, I think.

But the pickup truck comes round a brightly lit corner and stops there, at the end of the street. Black, without license plates or markings, windows rolled up. We stop and its lights wait for us.

She must be imagining herself broken, in a ditch, separated forever from her ugly lover, her factory overalls and even from me. Nobody likes to think that. She clutches my arm, trembles. I would not feel this fear if I were alone. I will never walk back with this dumb bitch again, I say to myself. We are saved from paralysis by the light of a turret. A patrol car rolls along the street. The pickup, slow as a cloud, drives off.

I avoid answering her the next day, at the factory, when she picks up the subject. I advise her to ask her boyfriend instead and to let me walk alone, the way I know how, the way I like. She resists. She says, based on I don’t know what, that we are safer together. I have to get rid of her. Your asshole boyfriend called me a skank and wanted me to blow him. You and him both can go fuck yourselves. Don’t even talk to me, you dumb cunt. All that scares her enough to drive her away. Finally.

A few days later, from a distance I see her receive a basket full of balloons. There are hugs and some applause. She’s moving in with Ugly, she’s quitting the factory. Relief makes my knees shake and my thighs sweat, as if the warm piss of childhood was trickling down them.

The newspaper, wily, speculates that the number of police officers in the neighborhood might not have diminished due to a decline in the crime rate, but that it was the other way around, that the number of crimes decreased in the same proportion that the number of cops went down. I realize that, amazingly, my father didn’t finish the crossword puzzle this time. Today’s recipe: chicken salad with sweet sauce. It looks delicious.

The pickup rolls, slowly, towards me. In the best possible spot for an assault, halfway between the house and the factory, in an intersection where no one lives and few stores survive, all closed at this time of night. It drives past but then stops, waiting for me. I don’t move forward (what’s the rush), so two men get out. They wear civilian clothes. It’s the ugly cop and one of his partners, perhaps one who laughed more than the others at this cheap skank. Their expressions are perfectly serious. This isn’t about fun, here.

The knee to my gut doubles me over and the kick floors me. I cannot stand up to them, there is nothing in the pockets of my overalls or in my little backpack I can use to defend myself. They pull me over to the truck and I must weigh too much for them, because it’s not a clean movement but pitiful and clumsy, what we are doing together. I manage to cling to a lamppost and stall them. It is obvious that they don’t know how to do this.

But, of course, the expert is here. They don’t see him, they don’t expect him, but the crunching I hear while they tug at my feet and kick my ribs are his boots and his gun. I close my eyes because it hurts, because I don’t enjoy it and I get no pleasure from it when it happens.

The shots don’t ring out; they’re barely echoes, muffled by flesh.

I sweat. My stomach burns, my mouth opens and sucks in air, all the air. I crawl to the lamppost and use it to get back on my feet. Nausea. They hurt me.

Ugly’s chest is torn apart and he has a hand-size hole in his groin. His partner has a gaping hole in his right eye and his guts are spilling from his belly.

I have enough strength to spit on them both, to give back some of their kicks. The pain in my ribs will follow me around for a month. I hear a gasp. Ugly is still alive, he’s trying to crawl away.

Look at the cheap skank, I tell him, look at her.

Another bullet hits him.

I close my eyes.

A hand takes me by the shoulder, spins me round.

Let’s get a fucking move on, then, he says.

Yes, dad.

He looks at me sternly.

The patrol cars will be back.

I follow him through empty streets.

 

(Translated by Eduardo Padilla)