From Things We Lost in the Fire
“In any major city, minding your own business is a science.” So says hardened, cynical Detective William Somerset to newcomer David Mills in Se7en, David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker’s poison pen letter to modern urban anomie. What Somerset means is that one essential element driving the survival instinct in an urban context is willful blindness, a feigned ignorance regarding the misery of others. Read the daily news in any big city and you’re bound to come across stories of good Samaritans who have been injured or killed when they tried to intervene in an altercation or assault. Stories of women being harassed – or worse – on public transit while fellow passengers stare stonily down at their phones or out the window.
There exists a pervasive sense that the social contract binding human beings together in self-sustaining and supportive communities is frayed, perhaps beyond repair. Self-interest and self-preservation have become the dominant traits among many city dwellers who would rather support governments that will provide them with tax breaks and benefits, often at the expense of the neediest and most marginalized. The only time those people register at all is when the powerful are forced to step over them in the street.
What duty do reasonably well-off people have to care for those around them? That is the question that runs throughout Mariana Enriquez’s difficult and acidic story “The Dirty Kid.” The eponymous character is a boy in Buenos Aires’s Constitución neighbourhood. Constitución is something of a paradox – home to some of the most impressive historical architecture in Buenos Aires, but also overrun with drugs, prostitution, and poverty. The protagonist of “The Dirty Kid” is a middle-class office worker who has chosen to live in her grandparents’ sprawling home in the barrio. Her family thinks she is crazy and there is a certain element of poverty tourism to her fascination with the neighbourhood denizens. Two in particular capture her attention: a heavily pregnant crack addict and her son – a boy perhaps five years old – who squat on dirty mattresses on the corner outside the narrator’s house.
The dirty kid spends his days begging on trains that service the Constitución station, a transportation hub for people travelling to and from the wealthier southern part of the country. He sells prayer cards and finagles people to shake hands with him, despite the fact that he is filthy and smells. “I never saw anyone compassionate enough to take him out of the subway, bring him home, give him a bath, call social services,” the narrator says. “People shake his hand, buy his prayer cards.”
One night, the dirty kid appears, agitated and hungry, on the narrator’s doorstep. His mother has disappeared and the narrator takes him to a 24-hour ice cream shop. When they return, the boy’s mother has rematerialized and is furious with the narrator for supposedly kidnapping her son. The child does not speak up and the narrator, affronted, abandons the pair and takes refuge inside her house. The next morning, she notices the mother, her son, and their mattresses are gone; a week later, news breaks that a boy approximating the dirty kid’s age has been found decapitated.
“Why didn’t I take care of him,” the narrator wonders, “why didn’t I figure out how to take him away from his mother, why didn’t I at least give him a bath? I have a big old beautiful tub and I barely ever use it, I just take quick showers, and only ever once in a while do I enjoy an actual bath … why didn’t I at least wash the dirt off him?” The narrator’s dismay flows from a recognition of the extent to which she is insulated from the degradation that befalls the street people of Constitución and the innate suspicion that her relatively affluent means also bestow upon her a responsibility to care for the least fortunate in her midst. It is notable, however, that this empathy only occurs to her after she hears the news about the murdered child. Her remorse is in contrast to the earlier instinct she feels to close her ears to the stories her neighbours tell, “which are all unthinkable and plausible at the same time.” At the ice cream parlour, she has an epiphany of sorts: “I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.”
The idea that their indigent lives are “natural” is interrogated over the course of the story, which contains anti-realistic and supernatural elements. These include a reference to Gauchito Gil, a 19th-century deserter who was executed by being hung from a tree and having his throat cut. According to the legend, before the gaucho died, he told his executioner, who had a sick child at home, to pray for his soul. The man did so and his child miraculously recovered.
The narrator relates this fabulous tale to the dirty kid, who is visibly uneasy. When she asks him what’s wrong, he responds with a reference to skeletons “back there”: “Around the neighbourhood, ‘back there’ always means the other side of the station, past the platforms, where the tracks and the embankment disappear southward. Back there, you often see shrines to saints a little less friendly than Gauchito Gil.” Even in the realm of the fantastical, the narrator’s touchstones are safer and less malevolent than those of the dirty kid, who can’t conceive of a story that ends in a young boy’s recovery or rescue, but finds recourse instead in imagery of death and decay. The dirty kid’s fears prove well founded; when his ultimate fate is finally revealed, it proves more terrifying than even the narrator might have considered. In part, because it illustrates how alone he really was, how little his life mattered to anyone – even those who should have been responsible for his care.
Though they inhabit the same small patch of urban concrete, the story implies, the narrator and the dirty kid live in two different worlds. The narrator shrugs off her relatives’ concern over her welfare and their questions about the wisdom of her choice to live in the barrio rather than somewhere more upscale and safer: “[I]f you know how to move around the neighbourhood, if you understand its dynamics, its schedules, it isn’t dangerous,” she insists. “Or it’s less dangerous.” There are galaxies of divergence in the small, seemingly innocuous word “less.” The dirty kid understands how the neighbourhood works all too well, but that understanding can’t inoculate him from the threat of violence that infects those without a support system or the financial means to protect themselves.
In the closing moments, we realize that the author has pulled a generic bait-and-switch; what we thought was a work of urban naturalism is actually a horror story. The broader suggestion, of course, is that even if its anti-realistic aspects were removed altogether, “The Dirty Kid” would remain every bit as horrific.