From The Crimes of Hector Tomás:The Crimes of Hector Tomas cover

The Tomás family occupied a roomy flat on the fifth floor of the apartment building at 53 Rua Santa Maria in the provincial capital of B____. The flat belonged to Enrique Tomás, whose family had moved there when he was a young man.

Enrique Tomás had been a solitary child, a precocious scholar who, as he grew into adulthood, developed an abiding interest in philosophical conundrums that had puzzled the ancients, questions such as, Where do our words go after we have spoken them? and How do we decide to make a decision? He read thick tomes devoted to these questions and wrote papers, which nobody would publish. In his late teens his everyday attire consisted of a heavy black flannel suit with a vest and dark jacket and a black hat. He grew a beard and carried a watch on a chain and wore glasses even though his eyesight was perfect, and he looked so much like the Hasidim who inhabited the Jewish quarter that he was often mis­taken for one.

There was no question he was eccentric, but he was their only child and his liberal-minded parents indulged him, much to the detriment of his character. They allowed him to remain at home throughout his twen­ties and into his thirties, where he secluded himself in a spare bedroom he had converted into an office and scribbled his unfathomable dissec­tions of the reality that the rest of us take for granted.

When his parents died, his mother quite suddenly, his father after a lengthy stay in an expensive nursing facility, he was shocked to learn that the income from the estate was hardly adequate to support the style of life to which he had grown accustomed, and that if he continued as he was, he would run out of money in no more than two or three years.

In order to avoid selling the flat he had to take a job, and he was very fortunate that the archivist at the university was about to retire, because when the time came he was able to convince the Dean of Arts and Sci­ences, a family acquaintance, that his research into spiritual regeneration and Gnostic rituals was perfect training for this sort of position. He was given the job of archivist and held it until shortly before his death nearly forty years later.

For his entire life his mother had retained the services of a house­keeper and a cook, but it was not long after his parents were laid to rest that the cook, who was very old, suffered a stroke. Enrique had already decided he could no longer afford the housekeeper, so he let her go, and for those long and painful months that he spent searching for a means to support himself, he lived completely alone, cooking his own meals, doing his own laundry, cleaning the flat when the need grew so urgent that he could no longer reasonably avoid it.

After being employed by the university he decided that the income gave him the flexibility to once again hire a housekeeper. He composed an anonymous but detailed advertisement and posted copies of it around the campus. The wage he was offering seemed fair to him, but he had no way of knowing that it was almost five times the customary wage offered to the girls and young women who normally took on this kind of work. As a result, his mailbox was bursting with letters of application when he returned home from the library on the second day after the advertise­ment had been posted. He spent an entire evening going through them. He did not know about the agencies one consults when one desires the services of a housekeeper; he did not know that these agencies bring girls into the city from the provinces, illiterate and ignorant country girls who are only too happy to give their sweat for a wage that is barely enough to keep them alive. The applications that Enrique Tomás sorted through on that fateful evening had been, without exception, prepared by articu­late and intelligent people, not all of them young, not all of them female. There were students on the verge of graduation, several grade school teachers, sales clerks, an actor, an unemployed lawyer, even a librarian. He shook his head as he set aside these applications, which he regarded as misguided and inappropriate, unaware that the fault was his, not theirs.

He settled on two applicants and notified the young women, by letter post, of his decision to grant each of them an interview at the flat at an appointed day and time. On the day in question, he put on his best suit and waited. He resisted the impulse to tidy the place, to dust his mother’s collection of miniature Chinese warriors and Portuguese dancing figures, to take out soap and water and have another go at the wine stain under the coffee table, to finally discard the newspapers that had accumulated on his father’s desk in the months he had spent waiting for the old man to regain his health and return home. These were tasks, after all, that the girl would be expected to perform.

But as he waited for the first stranger to arrive, the flat seemed to expand before his eyes and grow huge and cluttered. It occurred to him — not for the first time — that the wage he’d offered was insufficient to make the job attractive, and he worried that neither of the applicants would accept the position after being in the apartment and seeing what she would be up against. His office would pose a particular challenge, because his papers now filled ten shelves and had overflowed into piles on the floor. He had books that he hadn’t touched for twenty years. He sometimes ate while he worked, and he was often coming across bits of petrified food that he didn’t recognize and couldn’t recall ever having cooked. In fact, the whole notion of allowing another person into the flat after all this time left him feeling vaguely imperilled — as if he were plotting his own demise — and he was suddenly conscious of a sweetly cloying taste rolling off the edges of his tongue. By the time the buzzer rang, promptly at the appointed hour, he had convinced himself that he didn’t need a housekeeper after all but decided that he had to go through with the interviews, if only to be polite. Once they were concluded he would inform both applicants that, regretfully, he had hired someone else.

He opened the door and let the first girl into the flat.

She was taller than he expected, almost as tall as he was. And pretty, rather than beautiful, in the winsome, pasty complexioned manner of some aristocrats. Her dark hair fell in soft curls and rested on her shoul­ders. For the interview she had chosen practicality over sparkle and was dressed in a white blouse and grey skirt cinched at her tiny waistline. But her smile was dazzling. She met his eyes and smiled broadly as she held out her hand for him to shake and introduced herself as Lucinda Machado.

“I’ve come about the position of housekeeper?” The question in her voice, which was mirrored in her eyes, brought him back to himself.

“Please,” he said, falsely calm, indicating the parlour where he had been waiting. The roaring in his chest resounded so clearly in his ears that he thought he would not be able to make himself heard above the ruckus.

When they were seated, he on the antique divan, she in the slender wingback chair preferred by his mother in her later years, it occurred to him that he had given no thought to the questions he would ask. He had never really had any exposure to young women, having spent most of his youth in his room with his books. At the archives, his two assistants were men, one of them grey-haired and older than himself. He glanced at the smooth skin of her neck, which still bore traces of the glow it had acquired with the exertion of quickly mounting five flights of stairs, and then at her eyes, which gazed at him with the naive eagerness of youth.

He could think of nothing to say.

When he was growing up all his friends had been boys, some his own age, some older, some younger. They ventured to the outskirts of the city where they played in the remains of buildings damaged by earthquakes or destroyed in the uprisings and conflicts of the previous decades, enjoyed alliances that crumbled as quickly as they were formed, used sticks to torment the dogs that ran wild in the streets. With the onset of puberty he joined a closely knit group of boys who, though it was unstated, preferred each other’s companionship over anyone else’s. Together they shoplifted and raided the clotheslines in the back yards of houses in the exclusive river district. Later on, avoiding the girls in the neighbourhood, he and his friends went swimming in a secret water hole in the hills outside the city, and here they explored each other’s bodies and learned to sodomize and masturbate each other. For a while he thought this was love and that it was all he would ever need. But the group dispersed as they grew older; he retreated into his books, where he had remained ever since. These had been his first, and only, sexual encounters, and looking at Lucinda perched like a child-queen on his mother’s chair, he blushed ferociously.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked, making a sweeping yet strangely indecisive motion with one arm.

“Would you like me to get it for you?” She stood quickly and bustled away, instinctively it seemed, in the direction of the kitchen. He realized she’d taken his query as the beginning of the interview, as a test of sorts.

Unable to relax in her presence, he now felt the tension lift from his shoulders as he listened to the clatter she made opening cupboards and searching for the tea tin and the cups and saucers. And surprisingly he found himself growing comfortable with the idea that someone else was in the flat doing something that needed to be done. The novelty of inter­acting on a meaningful level with another human being struck him with its freshness, and for the first time in his life he suffered the vaguest twinge of regret over all the weeks and months and years he’d spent alone with his books.

When she returned with the tray he noticed that she’d brought tea for him — as well as milk, sugar, biscuits — but none for herself.

“You’re not having any?” he asked.

She set the tray on the table and stood before him, still wearing her coat. A small imitation-leather purse, grey to match her skirt, hung by its strap from her shoulder.

“I didn’t want to presume,” she said, and she opened her hands in a gesture of helplessness.

Aware, finally, of his obligations as host, he removed her coat from her shoulders and hung it in the closet and asked her to bring another cup and saucer from the cabinet in the kitchen. He served her tea and they talked. He asked how old she was.

“Seventeen,” she said.

“How did you find out about the job? It was only advertised at the university.”

“My brother brought home a copy of the advertisement.” This seemed to cause her some embarrassment and she lowered her eyes. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” he said.

Her brother was taking biology classes in preparation for medical school. Her father was a dentist. Enrique told her a few things about him­self, about the various projects he was working on. She sighed and gazed wistfully around the room.

“It’s so cozy here,” she said, her eyes darting from side to side, and he found himself trying to catch a glimpse of her small tongue as it moved about in her small mouth.

When the apartment buzzer sounded again he leapt to his feet and almost cried out in alarm. Never before had he suffered such a lapse of memory or intellect. He had allowed this Lucinda, with her flawless skin and her haughty allure, to distract him from the scheduled second interview.

“Is that another applicant?” Lucinda asked calmly.

“Yes, yes,” he muttered, looking this way and that. It was plain to them both that he didn’t know what to do.

He steadied himself, one hand gripping the divan, while Lucinda went to the door and found the button on the panel that activated the front door release. Soon he heard a series of timid knocks, and Lucinda opened the door and admitted the girl into the flat. When Lucinda intro­duced herself as his niece and explained that she was helping with the interviews, he seated himself and wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. His breathing slowed to its normal pace as she showed the girl around the flat, which he had neglected to do with her. Finally they came into the parlour.

“Uncle, this is Dominique Rodriguez.”

He smiled and inclined his head though he disliked this girl instantly because she was short and fat and had a snub nose.

Enrique said nothing while Lucinda conducted the interview her­self, making notes on a scrap of paper with a pen that she had found in another room. As he watched her flex her slender wrist and listened to the soft music of her voice, his heart turned over, not once, not twice, but three times.

Copyright © Ian Colford, 2012.