The Man From Argentina
THE MAN FROM ARGENTINA
A Short Story
The old man sat across from Mindy and Sal with his legs crossed. He wore an expensive looking tan suit, matching the magnificent fedora that sat on his lap. His silver hair was slicked back. Shiny caverns stared out of his wrinkled brown face. Beneath his nose was a tightly trimmed mustache.
Standing at the doorway was the old man’s chauffeur. He also wore a fine suit, with expensive sunglasses to match. In his hand was a black briefcase.
The old man was perched on a plastic rolling chair from Wal-Mart, which was directly in front of Sal’s massive Compaq monitor, sitting on the wobbly IKEA desk.
Sal and Mindy sat on their stained green sofa. Earlier, Mindy was working in the backyard, so she wore an old t-shirt Sal once purchased as a joke. A cartoon nerd and a big breasted woman promoted “Big Johnson Casino.” The shirt was dusted with dirt. Sal still wore his ill-fitting Best Buy blue polo shirt.
Upstairs, their seven year-old daughter, Isabel, was hidden away in her room, where she had been sent as soon as Mindy saw the old man and his chauffeur walking towards the house.
The three sat silent for a few more moments. Finally, the old man cleared his throat.
“This will be strange for you.” He spoke English perfectly, a harsh, gravely accent scratching beneath his words. “I understand if you do not believe what I’m about to say. Truly, to me it seemed too fantastical for words, at the very beginning.”
Mindy shoved away a lock of red hair hanging in front of her eyes. “Why don’t you just skip the introduction and get to the part where you explain what you’re doing in my house.” Next to her, Sal cleared his throat and looked down at the carpet. Then his eyes popped back up to the window, through which he could see the old man’s limousine, sunlight shinning off the flawless black paint.
“Please,” the old man said. “Let me tell you my story. My name is Gabriel Vargas Diaz. I own a cattle ranch, in Argentina. I was here, visiting the United States, when I drove past an elementary school. It is only three blocks away.”
“What were you doing at Sunny Side?” asked Mindy. Her teeth were set tightly.
“I was driving to see a friend, and our route took us past. I looked out the window, and I saw children, in the playground. There was a girl on the swings in a white dress covered in tiny roses. She had the darkest hair, the brownest eyes…”
Sal shifted in his seat. “You can’t mean Isabel…”
“Get the hell out of my house!” Mindy rose to her feet.
Sal stood beside his wife and put his hands on her shoulders. “Mindy, calm down!”
“Please,” said Gabriel again. “If you let me tell my story, I have no doubt that you will understand.”
Sal pleaded to Mindy with big eyes. She held his gaze for a moment and then sighed and returned to her seat.
Gabriel dragged his finger across the top of his hat. “The ranch has been in the family for years. My great-grandfather started with very little, and over time he built one of the largest cattle distribution networks in all of Argentina. Really, it was more of an empire. We were practically royalty. The Peróns would visit us. As a boy, I can remember bouncing on Eva’s knee.
“My father died when I was only twenty, and since I was the eldest, the role of patriarch fell to me. I acted…” The man paused for a moment, his coffee colored eyes dropping to the faded carpet. “I acted as my father acted, and he acted as his father before him. We showed no kindness to our workers.”
At this, Mindy gave a sharp look to Sal. Sal ignored her; his eyes were still scanning Gabriel’s elegant suit.
“We treated them more like livestock than people,” said Gabriel. “We gave them no time off. Their housing could barely have been considered shelter, their wages were terribly low, and punishments were severe, no matter how minor the crime.”
Mindy coughed, her searing gaze still locked on Sal. Sal’s eyes had moved back to the window and the limo.
“I knew no better. I was a young man with an entire kingdom, one I had not earned. But I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the luckiest man in all of South America. Contributing to this feeling was my discovery of God’s most beautiful creation. Her name was Maria.”
As he spoke her name, Gabriel’s eyes glazed over. “Her name was Maria, and I loved her with all my heart. We married quickly and made love every single night, without exception.”
“That sounds awesome,” said Sal wistfully.
“Afterwards, we’d always look at each other, and I’d say, “Mi corazón, mi amor, no te vayas nunca,” and she’d say “Mi corazón, mi amor, siempre me quedo.”
“What does that mean?” asked Mindy.
Gabriel turned to her and gave a wide smile. “It meant everything in the world, to hear her say it.” The smile left his face. “But as I mentioned before, I was a cruel man. One night, there came a cold storm, and the next day a boy claimed he could not work because he had fallen ill. His name was Pablo. Little Pablo. He couldn’t have been more than eleven years-old.
“Despite his pallor and his extreme coughs, I didn’t believe him. I told him he had to work, or he wasn’t going to get any money and his family wouldn’t get to eat. He complied, shoveling cow dung in unseasonably cold weather. It turned out the boy had pneumonia. It was so bad, he didn’t even make it to the next morning.”
“Wait a fucking minute,” said Mindy, standing up. “You’re coming into my house, talking about my daughter and then telling a fucking story about killing kids?!”
“Please, hear me out,” pleaded Gabriel. He motioned to the chauffeur, who brought the black briefcase over to the brown coffee table, faint rings lining it’s surface. The chauffeur popped the gold locks and the suitcase opened. Inside, Mindy and Sal saw stacks of money.
“What the fuck is this?” asked Mindy, backing away.
“For hearing the rest of my story, for sitting and letting me tell you where this goes, I will give you ten thousand dollars. There it is, on your table. After you hear me out, I leave, and the briefcase stays.”
Sal stood up and put his hand on Mindy’s elbow. “Babe, that’s ten thousand dollars. That’s all of our credit card debt, sitting right there.”
“But he wants something, people who offer you money want something…” said Mindy, although she too was staring at the money.
Gabriel re-crossed his legs. “Yes, I do want something. I want you to listen to my story. It is of the utmost importance to me, and to demonstrate the importance, I offer this compensation. Understand, too, that though I am a very rich man, I am not so extravagant that I throw around thousands of dollars anytime I seek an audience. Please, let me finish my story.”
Mindy looked at Sal, who nodded his head enthusiastically. Together, they sat down on the tattered green couch and looked at the old man.
“A week later, Pablo’s grandmother approached me,” Gabriel continued. “She cursed me for what I had done. She told me that as she lost that which was most precious to her, so too would I lose my corazón. However, if I changed my wicked ways, if I atoned for my family’s evil, then in this lifetime I would meet my love again.
“The next day, Maria was struck by the same sickness that killed Pablo, even though her living arrangements were warm, clean and dry. The sickness was swift, and while we waited for the doctor, she died. I went to find the old lady, ready to take my revenge, but she had fled, disappeared, and no one had any idea where she was.
“I entered a hateful period, then. I whipped and branded our workers if they disobeyed. I tore through a series of concubines with brutal abandon. Desperately, I tried to exorcise my sadness with rage.
“It did not work. The inferno died down to embers, and all I had was despair. Then, one morning, after an evening of excessive drinking, I woke with a splitting headache. For some reason, maybe the angle of the sun’s rays in my bedroom, the sounds of the workers through my window, perhaps some mysterious factor I could not know, I thought of what the old lady said. ‘If you change your wicked ways, you will meet your love again.’ Undoubtably, it was a fool’s hope, but it brought me back to life. I would change everything about myself, and maybe that would enable me to see my Maria.
“First, I remedied the living conditions of my workers. Luxurious housing was constructed. Money was spent on doctors, medicine, healthy food, anything it took to keep them happy. We started paying a wage that enabled them to save for their own families’ future.
“The rest of my family disagreed with my policies. Our vast savings diminished, and yearly profits were lessened by all the new overhead. I told them if they were not interested in my methods, then they were welcome to leave the ranch.
“In the end, my new ideas paid off. The workers worked much harder, knowing that their employer actually cared about them. After the initial hit, profits rocketed. I began working at various charitable organizations, often time serving on the board because of my massive donations. I ran those organizations as well as I ran my ranch, and the charities did tremendous amounts of good.
“My work eventually took me into government. Certain friends felt strongly that I represented everything best about our nation, so forty years after my Maria died, I became Argentina’s UN representative. I’ve spent the last decade working with many others to try and find peace in this violent world of ours.
“A few days ago, I was here, visiting an old friend I’d worked with in the Red Cross. Remarkably enough, he lives only seven miles away, over in the part of town with all the mansions. Driving to his house, we went past Sunny Side elementary school, where children were playing.
“I looked at the children and I thought about what I missed in not having a family. Then suddenly, without warning, my heart nearly stopped. On one of the swings was a beautiful young girl in a pink dress, her face, hair and body all the same… all the same as my Maria. By giving one of the school’s teachers a remarkable bribe, I found out she lives here, in this house. Don’t you see?
Mindy’s eyes stretched back in terrible comprehension. “Oh no…”
“Don’t you see? I was told if I atoned for my ways, I was told if I fixed what my family had done, I would see my Maria again in this lifetime.”
Mindy appeared as if she was about to vomit. “No, no…”
“And Maria’s middle name, Maria’s middle name…”
“No!” Mindy jumped to her feet.
“You get out!” she screamed. “You get the fuck out of my house!”
“Honey, honey.” Sal stood and held his arms out towards his wife.
“Don’t you see what he wants?! Don’t you see what this sick fuck is going to ask?”
“I want to buy your daughter,” said Gabriel.
“See! See, you stupid son-of-a-bitch!” Mindy shouted, slapping Sal. “And you, you old fucking freak! You get out now, or I’m calling the cops!”
“I will pay you as much money as you want. I have millions of dollars.”
Sal’s eyes went wide. “Millions… of…”
“You’re considering this?”
“Honey, she’s… she’s only seven…” said Sal. “We could have another, and we’d be able to give her such a better life! I mean, it wasn’t like she was planned…”
“You get the fuck out too!” Mindy swung brutally at Sal’s face. From the side table, she grabbed a Harry Potter book, and then she threw it at the man from Argentina. It struck his face, and he grunted and fell off the rolling chair. The chauffeur immediately ran to his employer’s aid.
“I swear to Christ if I had a gun I would shoot both of you! She’s just a child! She’s just a little girl, you disgusting…”
“Mommy?” Her daughter’s voice yanked Mindy from her rage, and she turned around. The child stood on the staircase. She wore a cotton white dress, which was covered with miniature roses. Mindy ran up and grabbed Isabel’s shoulders. “Honey, you have to listen to me. You have to go back upstairs and…”
“Maria!” called Gabriel from the other side of the room. His hand was pressed against his broken nose, which gushed blood all over his tan suit.
“Shut up!” Mindy yelled over her shoulder.
“I won’t wait for the fucking police, I’ll kill you myself if you keep…”
“Mi corazón, mi amor, no te vayas nunca!” Tears streamed from the old man’s eyes.
“Mi corazón, mi amor, siempre me quedo!” Isabel replied in a tiny voice. Her Spanish was crystal clear.
Mindy slowly turned back to her daughter, who stared at her mother with a blank face. “Isabel…”
“It’s okay, Mommy,” said Isabel. “I didn’t know before, and now I do. He will always be the love of my life.”
She kissed her mom on the forehead, and then she walked over to Gabriel. Mindy and Sal were too shocked to move. Isabel looked up at her long lost love and smiled. Gabriel took her hand, and the tears increased. The old man and the little girl walked out of the house. The chauffeur followed, leaving the two parents alone, in the small, cluttered living room.