A Man of His Word
by Gustavo Valitutti
translation by Carmen Ruggero
Alfredo Gutiérrez dragged his feet the short distance from his home in Belgrano Street to his family business, a shoe store on Mayo Avenue near Florida Street. It wasn’t a big business, but it was a way to earn a living. He walked to work because he could do it in silence. Martha had died in childbirth and ever since, silence was all he wanted.
He was shattered by her absence, and in a short period of time he had let go of neighbor friends, and even many of his close relatives. He had fallen into a deep depression and in time had lost a lot of weight. His clothes no longer fit him well. They made him look like a walking scarecrow and that was not very good for a business owner.
He was alone.
It had been ten years since he had inherited the family business. There were some good years, some bad years, but he continued to run the business as he had promised his father, though closing it would have been the reasonable thing to do.
“Each person can be defined in two or three words,” his father had told him, “so let people know you as a man of his word.” At first, Alfredo thought his father’s statement to be a little stiff, but understood that a man is defined by his principles.
* * *
That morning he opened the business at 7:00 a.m. one hour earlier than usual. The establishment wasn’t very large but it was just yards away from a future subway station. “Just as in London,” said Ramiro, the barber who owned the building next door.
After opening the store, Alfredo looked out the door, wanting one last look at the avenue and its ornamented buildings and at the store windows loaded with the latest European novelties and the bars that began filling up at that time.
He let out a melancholy sigh. “This is a horrible day.” He spoke to Martha as if she were there. “I feel worse every time and I don’t know what to do.” He shook his head. But again, Martha didn’t answer.
He dragged himself across the establishment, briefly leaned against the dividing wall, and passed the partition that separated the workroom from the small kitchen and bathroom. He held in his hand a brown legal-size envelope he had taken from his bedroom closet that morning, pulled a revolver out of it, and checked to make sure there were bullets in the cylinder. He put the weapon down on the sink’s edge and raised his hands to his head. He was alone facing the mirror. He took off his shoes, his watch, and his shirt.
He felt the coldness from the tile floor penetrate his feet and travel up his legs. That sharp sensation brought to him incoherent images, like the exact color of the dining room walls in his grandfather’s house, what his brother had told him about the woman next door, his father standing by the front door pointing to the new car. Martha... the tree in the park... one image after another, and then another...
Alfredo raised his arm and pointed the revolver’s cold barrel to his right temple. His index finger trembled so hard he couldn’t squeeze the trigger and meanwhile his eyebrows, as of their own volition, raised almost to the hairline in the struggle to keep his eyes open.
The mirror bounced his way a distorted reflection of his face. He couldn’t help but cackle, which made him snort and spew snot on the mirror’s surface, and that seemed even funnier.
He dropped the gun in the bathroom sink and began to cry.
“Clerk!” A woman called from the storefront. “Clerk, quickly!”
Instinctively, Alfredo put on his shirt and began to button it up. From the other side of the partition the woman insistently pounded on the counter with a coin. Alfredo put his shoes on and as he reached to the faucet to wash this face, noticed that the gun was still there.
“Damn!” He yelled as he picked up and secured the weapon. His current activity would have to wait, though in retrospect, it seemed absurd that one contemplating suicide should have to wait for anything.
“What?” asked the young woman. And she was young, no more than maybe twenty-five years of age though fashionably dressed.
“Young lady...?” Alfredo said as he entered the store.
“Madam,” she corrected him and turned to look at the shoes on sale. Alfredo took a few steps towards her wanting to see her face, but she took one of the shoes and turned to sit to try it on.
“Would you like a shoehorn?” asked Alfredo, who privately regretted not having locked the front door.
“I’m fine,” she answered while untying one of her shoestrings. Her feet were well cared for, elegant, but at the moment, Alfredo didn’t notice. He was still trying to get a glimpse of her face.
“I want these, and the two next to them,” said the customer, and as soon as Alfredo turned around, she stood up and walked to the counter to pay for her purchase.
“Those are on sale.” Alfredo followed his business instinct.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the young woman in a tone half-amused and half-ironic.
“Women were buying those same shoes, two pairs at a time, last year. So I ordered more from the manufacturer.”
Alfredo took a few seconds to observe the woman’s familiar figure, then took the two pairs of shoes she had pointed out and headed for the counter. He stood right in front of her, but she had just bowed her head and was rummaging through her purse — something women carry everywhere — something totally incomprehensible to a man.
“I had it here,” said the young woman. Alfredo didn’t know how to respond. “Well... I forgot it... I don’t have my wallet with me.”
“Don’t worry ma’am. Take the shoes, and tomorrow when you come by...”
The woman took the shoes and placed them back on the same place they had been taken from. The salesman noticed the diamond ring on her finger. It looked just like the one he had given Martha.
“Seriously, you can take them,” he insisted. “It makes no difference to me.”
“No,” she said. “I just ask that you keep them until I come back for them.”
“That’s not a problem. You can be sure I will.” Alfredo had wanted to give them to her, but explaining the situation wouldn’t have made any sense. “What’s your name?”
“My name?” There was irony in her tone. Alfredo felt a chill. She had stopped by the door with her back to him. He took a few steps towards her.
“My name is Martha,” she said and turned her head slightly so that he could see her cheek and her chestnut color eyes. “Then... do you give me your word to wait for me until I come back to get my shoes?” Alfredo, standing behind her, froze in place at the sight her image reflected on the glass door.
He bowed in agreement. She smiled and left the store.
He stepped outside to follow her with his eyes, but he knew it was useless. She had disappeared into thin air, and the sound of her high-heels soon merged with the roar of the Buenos Aires traffic.