A Bundle On The Staircase

by Almudena Grandes, June 15, 2016

(Translated by Louis S. Bedrock)

The janitor thought it was a drunk.

He was curled up on the landing of the second floor with his head resting against the wall, his eyes closed, the legs in a strange position—as if he had fallen asleep with his knees tucked into his body and sleep had relaxed his legs without quite completely stretching them out.

It was 7:00 on a Saturday morning and no one in the building seemed to have gotten out of bed yet. The patio was dark, not a whistle of a single coffeemaker was heard, and no children were running around the hallways. The janitor was anticipating this when the alarm clock went off. I'll make my rounds now, he said to himself, I'll sweep the stairs and get away to the village to enjoy myself. With that in mind, he took the elevator up to the top floor and had no other company than that of the broom and the dustpan until he encountered that bundle.

What an outrage! The same nonsense every weekend! Who opened the door for him? How did he get in? What fun--to sleep it off in here, as one can see; when they're not pissing in the vestibule, they wind up sleeping on our stairway; just what we need...

“Hey you! Get up, let's go.”

He looked very young. He was wearing worn blue jeans, new running shoes, and a quilted aviator's jacket with dark stains around the area of the stomach on both the outside and inside of the jacket. The janitor thought that he had vomited on himself and a second later that his thinking was wrong.

Hey, what's wrong? Don't you hear me?

He didn't hear him. The sound of the janitor's voice didn't produce any response: not a blink, not a groan, nor a change in the rhythm of his breathing. When he realized this, the janitor, standing, supported by the broom, felt himself submerged by an implacable clammy wave. Sweat soaked his shirt, rolled down his face, rolled down his hands, coursed through the grooves in his legs, turned his knees into frail joints of sugar-coated gelatin, as he realized that the boy was dead.

He looked down and saw a string of dark round stains that ascended from the second floor. He hadn't noticed them before because the bulk of the body occupied so much space and the body was not lying in a thick, red, sticky puddle as bodies do in movies. Perhaps because he had his hands crossed over his stomach and he had stopped up the wound with them until the end. Perhaps the cadaver was covering the puddle. The janitor knew nothing about death but he watched television a lot. He didn't touch anything but pushed the body a bit with the broom and managed to move it over until at last he saw the blood and also saw the boy's face. And for a time, he could not see anything else.

He was a boy, a kid of about sixteen or seventeen perhaps—no older. The contour of his face had not yet lost the softness of childhood: delicately-edged cheekbones covered by smooth skin, a rounded chin, the pimples that covered the bottom of his nose and ran around the border of his lips. He was a boy and he was dead because someone had stabbed him with a knife, he thought, or a razor. Someone, almost certainly, a kid not much older than he was.

The janitor didn't consider himself especially sensitive; he never had described himself as sentimental, but that morning. before he realized it, he was crying. He was crying for the kid that was dead and he was crying for the murderer; he was crying for the parents, for the two mothers, for their grief and for their guilt, for their inconsolable suffering that would continue until their deaths and until his own death as well.

The janitor thought about his two children: the boy, his older child, who was a good student, who never had done anything wrong until he abandoned his pregnant fiancé and ruined his career; his daughter, who was a disaster, who always talked back, was rebellious, allergic to going to classes, until she straightened herself out at the same time her older brother was falling apart.

Both of them were well. Both were alive.

Neither one of them ever understood why he called them on their cell phones one Saturday at seven-thirty in the morning to tell them that he loved them very much, but only after he heard their astonished, sleep-dazed voices did their father have the strength to call the police.

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