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The Askers


[clock] 7-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2009

Seven years after the dictators left, their luggage stuffed with whorls of clothes and cash, we found out what Mateo Musco really was. We’d all seen him, walking his dogs around the neighborhood, smoking his cigar, letting ash scatter at his feet. Musco only walked the dogs at night. He had a maid who walked them in the morning, though God knows what happens in that house now in the morning, or, for that matter, at any time of day.

His demeanor was impeccable, as was his hair. At fifty or so, he was still handsome, though we didn’t say so; once men pass a certain line of beauty, women (especially married women) would rather not acknowledge what they see. If the man is proud, the effect is even stronger. Mateo Musco was both handsome and proud. We could tell the latter from his swagger, and also from the speed of his smile. He always smiled at those he passed on Calle De León. He would not stop to talk, but he flicked a grin at neighbors drinking mate in their doorways, and somehow this was enough, back then, for him to avoid our censure, especially considering the dogs. They yelped and pulled him on, enthusiastic, barking brightly, refusing to let him stop, obliging him to gloss over cordiality. One was black, one spotted, and the third the color of sand. They were the kinds of dogs that spent their whole lives looking like puppies. They were well-groomed and had huge, wet eyes.

Mateo Musco’s house was simple, the color of sad sky, not the prettiest house on the block by any means. But it was clean. Perfectly clean. There was no garden in the little plot in front of his door: just grass—a square of green grass, tidy, all the same length. No flowers. No wife either. His wife had left sometime in the cold years, before Musco had come to live on our street.

He owned two pharmacies in the city, which explained the house but not the maid. The maid was a mysterious extravagance. These, after all, were the years of empty pots on stoves, of boiling hopeful water in case a chicken came along. They were the years of sons coming of age and boarding airplanes with one-way tickets—to another South American country or, more likely, off the continent altogether. They were not years for well-groomed dogs and grass, not in our neighborhood anyway. Not for ordinary men, not for pharmacists. But Mateo Musco, as fate would have it, was neither.

It was his maid who opened the secret, the day she ran from their house with lipstick smeared, and small white apron askew. No one asked about makeup and apron, and she did not volunteer that story. We gathered—all the women of our street—in one single kitchen to listen to what she said. It was a hot January day, and the room smelled of mixing sweat, perfume, and fresh-poured coffee. Mateo Musco’s maid drank four slow sips before she spoke. We waited. Spoons clinked.

“He was one of them,” she said.

“One of who?”

“The askers.”

A sigh of horror and satisfaction through the kitchen.

“He was good at it,” she continued. “He still has some of the supplies.”

“You’ve seen them?”

“I dust them.” She sat quietly for a moment, contemplating the crowded kitchen, her coffee cup, her fingers flexing into empty air. “I used to dust them.”

The maid, whose name was Gloria Linda and who was really still quite young, disappeared the next day, presumably to the village she came from, or to the city’s edge where her two brothers lived in a shack made of corrugated iron and damp cardboard. Her message did not disappear. It was remembered. It stuck to Mateo Musco as he walked down the street, in the dark, forked leash in hand. We could see it on him now, an invisible film, a kind of slime that reached through the slats across our windows. You have to understand how it was for us, then. All of us had someone who had been with the askers. Most of those someones were lost, from one day to the next, the way you lose a glove or slip of paper or a rare skeleton key. We kept their photographs on mantles and in drawers and on placards, and looking at them brought a very strange sort of vertigo. Two decades ago who’d have imagined that people could simply disappear? Before the cold years, people had substance: they’d had flesh, and gravity spoke to them every second of every day. If they went to work—or to the market, or to school, or to buy a pack of cigarettes—they’d come home, and if they didn’t there would be some explanation. A body would be found, a drunk driver would gnash his teeth with guilt; a mistress would mail home the wedding ring; a postcard would arrive from the Andes. Something. But in the cold years it was not like that. People disappeared and left no trace. All the laws of nature became suspect. Then the dictators flew away and we discovered that we’d only been breathing with the top halves of our lungs. We breathed more fully. With more breath there was more news in the papers. A NEW NATION, the headlines read. We learned about the askers six months later.

But we never thought we’d met one. Or that we’d watched one walk his dogs.

Within a month, Mateo Musco had a new maid to take his dogs on morning walks. It was hard to sleep, now, on Calle De León. Mateo Musco appeared in our dreams, with his supplies, as Gloria Linda had put it. We woke up sweating to the buzz and clack and slice of those supplies. Our lost people, they were also in those dreams, which made us wish we’d never prayed to see them again.

He wasn’t only in our bad dreams. He also entered our best ones. We’d be at a beach crowded with angels and fashion models, or swimming in a sea of pure white petals, or maybe we’d be eating empanadas in a foreign country with our sons, and suddenly Mateo Musco would appear. He’d open his mouth and something would stream out: semen, medals, mosquitoes, fishhooks, bones.

We still gathered to drink coffee or to share the mate gourd, but life on Calle De León was not the same. We were restless and everybody knew it. Every night, when he passed our windows on his night walk, we would be there, peering through the shutters or the curtains, needing to see him clearly in order to go to bed.

Only a few know exactly what happened, and they will never tell. The rest of us were in our own homes, behind closed curtains. We heard voices, women’s voices, rising into a muffled question. Then a man’s voice. The muffled rising again. Then the dog-sounds and the man-sounds, together. These sounds were sharp and clawed at each other. It lasted a long time, and no one came out of their home to help, no one called the police, no one moved from their veiled window or made a sound, until, finally, we saw the shadow of Mateo Musco stumbling home.

The police report the next day revealed a lot of things: the height of the attackers, their covered faces, the forty-seven knife wounds in the dogs. There were a lot of other things, of course, that the report did not reveal, and if you really want the truth, it didn’t matter. Those of us who had not been there knew everything we had to know, except the question that would never be answered, the one we turned over in the noise beneath the silence of our minds: what Mateo Musco, held at knifepoint, had been asked.

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