One sunny May afternoon, a little man arrived in the city, and not just the city, but an office on the third floor of the Ministry of Education, in search of an official, a distant relation of his family, who would help him and get him work, was what he’d been told back home. Attired in his best clothes—a white shirt, clean pants, patent leather shoes, and a northerner’s straw hat—he waited in the secretary’s office. The next morning, he appeared in the same office and, in the same tranquil manner, after a long preamble, left his letter of recommendation, and still they didn’t respond. For several months, the little man, stubborn, impassive, arrived with the employees, went up to the third floor, stationed himself in front of the boss’s office, and stood immobile against the wall, the secretary never bothering to receive him.
And even after they told him No infinite times and stopped him from going past the staircase, the little man remained faithful to his obsessive daily passion. He sat on the cold steps, unperturbed, his quiet eyes fixed on the entrance to observe the throngs of noisy clerks, elevator operators, and teachers. Time went by. One lost, languid afternoon, a driver sent him to buy cigarettes so genially that he diligently fulfilled the request. From then on, the canny office boys gave him their own tasks: sweeping, cleaning, delivering messages.
Seeing how hardworking and humble the little man was, his embarrassed eyes incapable of complaint, the head of the Staff Administration division, third floor, ordered that he be received as a porter’s apprentice. The little man promised to fulfill his duties, and to prove it, that day, unasked, he waxed the floor from wall to wall and meticulously shook out the curtains over the big windows. All the same, the fifty employees laughed at the poor man, who was so dense instructions had to be shouted at him three times; they kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t make mistakes, and were unable to give him delicate tasks, since he received only a weekly tip, which ended up in the hands of his protectors, some countrymen of his who had him staying in the attic of a tenement house in Breña, and called him Cousin Berto.
Indeed, Cousin Berto got up at five in the morning, made breakfast for the whole clan (some twenty people), did the wash, swept the patio, cleaned the corral, fed the animals, and bought bread at the market. At the sound of the seven o’clock bells from the adjacent church, he hurried out in the same unchanging maroon sweater, cargo pants, and big crude shoes, and soon got lost in the damp, strange streets. His expression alarmed and his feet naive, he sidestepped cars, wound his way through Breña’s baroque streets, got lost on Alfonso Ugarte beneath the ashen sky, walked in the direction of Plaza San Martín, smiled at the people in doorways, bade farewell to the poster advertisements, and, without even realizing it, found himself in Parque Universitario, next to the Ministry of Education in the middle of Avenida Abancay.
He greeted the doormen, went up to the third floor, opened the little service room, changed his clothes, and began the day shaking out dust, tidying the offices of the director, the middle managers, and the lower-ranked employees, always with a perfect sense for bureaucracy’s hierarchy. During the ten o’clock slump he put himself, eyes apathetic and impersonal, at the orders of the head porter to carry out simpler assignments: taking messages to other floors, bringing materials from Supplies, picking up attendance registers, running errands for the secretaries, preparing coffee for the officials, assisting visitors, standing next to the elevator to monitor the unknown faces.
Such splendid willingness and commitment to the work brought him unexpected fame, and his name, Heriberto Vargas, began to echo across the floors. What meekness! The director of Primary Education wanted him on his staff, since he liked working with sturdy, obedient cholos. Arts Education sent him tantalizing offers, and Storage requested his services for hours at a time, such that on the third floor there was no choice but to hire him as permanent staff after two years of unrelenting misery. Upon learning the news, Berto cried like a child; he shut himself in his service closet, and grateful tears welled from his heart: he felt that the hand of God was rewarding his exertions. Meanwhile, in the corner, the bubbling pot of potatoes on a small stove brought him back to the inalterable reality of his daily sustenance.
With a fixed salary on the lowest rung of the ladder, Heriberto Vargas was able to free himself from his relatives in Breña, but not before ceding two months’ wages as a gesture of gratitude, despite the discriminatory treatment he’d received from the first day. Such that when he left, he felt very sorry, his eyes going damp; he dreamed of green-eared doves, and he couldn’t get used to his new quarters on Jirón Azángaro, that rambling old house with quincha walls, whose roof a distant relative and countryman had outfitted with a number of precarious rooms. In the middle of this Sunday sadness, when the sky was dark and the streets bustled with people, he went into the Orphans’ Church and, losing himself in one corner, wept over his bitter misfortune.
What’s clear is that he didn’t go to the canteens in the neighborhood, or get together with his fellow provincials who lived nearby, or make friends on that block of Azángaro, or have a social life, perhaps because Berto was entering a melancholy period, and his obsession with the office grew sharply. He labored beyond the regular workday, arriving at seven in the morning, working holidays and weekends just to help his friends, that troop of porters, eccentric plumbers, and fussy office boys always gossiping in the bathrooms, criticizing everything, dodging the bosses, and doing a poor job.
Nobody knows why he went to such great lengths, nor why he accepted tasks from other floors, if he wasn’t going to be compensated for them and nobody asked it of him. Perhaps the spirit of service and the secret longing to master other territories and Offices compelled him to redouble his efforts and help his neighbors. Wherever he went, the floors would be left clean, the furniture gleaming, the curtains dusted, the desks perfectly straightened, the filing cabinets tidied, the machines in their places. Always efficient, exacting, insatiable, equipped with limitless patience, he didn’t allow himself a single inactive minute—he even forgot to eat—and when the clock struck eleven at night, he would go home, sweaty, exhausted, and quietly happy.
He hardly ever thought of himself, and the fifty employees on the third floor could not understand his absolute passivity, his ability to deliver without the slightest complaint. Berto absorbed rebukes, insults, acts of vengeance; they would break the toilets on purpose, smear the walls, throw paper everywhere, trip him, and the women would give him their household chores. Accustomed as he was to adversity, his capacity for accepting humiliation increased with every experience: he smiled distantly, his eyes withdrawn, his reactions delayed, body hunched into itself. During Carnavales, for example, there was no lack of colleagues to splash him with paint, and on Christmas and New Year’s, amid the festivities and drunkenness, his friends tried to throw him out the window.
Berto withstood all the jokes with the natural goodness of his heart, just as he withstood the weight of the years, the changes in bosses, directors, and ministers; his face remained pointed, the harsh color of brown sugar, he remained in the same position of humble, ambitionless porter. On some nights, in the calm solitude of the office, standing before an old mechanical calculator, he fulfilled his dearest wish: he fiddled with the keys, the numbers magically appearing on the paper strip, and turned one of the cranks, but when he tried to do sums, the machine let out a colorless sound and didn’t respond, coming to a halt, crouched there motionless, awaiting the knowing hand that understood how to wrench out its secret. The poor man would be sad, contenting himself with listening to the incomprehensible clicks of the billets, accepting that his natural fate was to be the Ministry’s little mule. He said so to his friends the drivers, mechanics, elevator operators, porters, typists.
In twelve years of work, the most important event was when he moved from the boarding house on Azángaro to a little room in an alley near Hospital Archbishop Loayza. Such that he was seen near La Aurora market, Plaza Unión, and Dos de Mayo, looking for cheap joints where he could drink linden water and talk with his fellow provincials, joke around with the conscripts—when he didn’t take the tram to Chorrillos, on rainy Sunday afternoons, and walk around and around, looking at the spread of the sea.
It was October of ’47 or the beginning of ’48 when he went to live in an alley in Malambito. In any case the neighborhood was hostile toward him; things had always been difficult for him, but this time they reached a breaking point, for the zambos and assimilated cholos kicked at his door, stole clothes and sheets, insulted him when they saw him: he was a serrano, and serranos were looked down on for their grimy skin. Berto didn’t want to respond to the affronts; indifferent, his consciousness absented, the half-smile gone missing, he preferred not to think about anything, much less desire anything, he even compelled himself to leave his house early and return late at night, spending the whole day absorbed in work at the office, completing his tasks.
Around that time, two curious encounters took place. Amid the torpor of eleven in the morning, one tranquil day, in that moment when the air wasn’t so much air, and the walls weren’t walls, he discovered the illuminated weight of the crowd in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education. It felt like a dream: he had experienced eleven in the morning infinite times, without ever noticing all of that expectant humanity. Unruly, they occupied the treasuries, scuffling so forcefully to get to the elevator, shouting at the window of the advocates’ office. A feeling of fragility.
On another occasion, one dizzy night, made sluggish by fatigue, he went down to the basement, needled by a mysterious voice that called him by name. He burrowed in among unusable containers, lost rooms, mysterious nooks, and, at the end of a tunnel, was discharged into an enormous storage space: piles of paper formed dark alleys; files, receipts, time sheets were heaped against the walls; the shelves were falling apart. Behind a mound of memos, at a long table, was an ancient bearded clerk with a checked tie and motionless eyes, making his way with tranquil innocence through the classification of hundreds of records.
Sweetly, unhurriedly, he went from one stack of records to another of requests, lighting up at the signatures of officials, the names of appellants, the contents of the documents, the accession numbers, the dates. Without saying a word, the two of them began to tidy; Berto swept, dusted, opened packages, built small paths among the useless leaf-piles of folders, while the bony old man, encased in his glossy suit, murmured about paradise, that kingdom where everyone knew how to read and write, there was no humiliation or shortage of work, and everyone ate twice a day.
Day had broken without Berto’s realizing, and he was talking to himself, elated, praying, and almost by instinct he arrived at his service closet, found his sweater, sprawled across the chair, slept for a couple hours, and then, at seven in the morning, became the same Berto as always, the tireless little man of unassuming hands and silent step, incapable of complaint or tears, who, winter or summer, day or night, seemed to be on the third and fifth floors simultaneously, was seen in the most unexpected offices, and, according to some versions, walked through walls with ease and performed the miracle of eating not a single bite of food all day.
If someone came looking for him in the little service room, the first strange thing they noticed was the drawing at the front: Christ on the cross with seagull wings. It was colored with crude aniline ink, the cross surrounded by white clouds, the squinting eyes looking in no direction in particular, and near the floor a chorus of angels appeared to whisper among themselves. On the neighboring walls, from baseboard to ceiling, was a mix of almanacs, geometric designs, and photos of footballers, not a single blank space; centimeter by centimeter, chance and the passage of years had left behind a backdrop with no logic or balance, with no purpose other than dispelling the hours of boredom, hours of anguish, hours far from home.
Around 1951, fed up with being excluded from the alley, perhaps tired of his dream of turning into a bird and flying away, Berto, who was of indeterminate age, sought out the friendship of the children in the neighborhood; he appeared at odd hours to pass out candies, sweets, chocolates, and bonbons. A mob of wily children would follow him so happily, calling him Tío, pulling at his floppy sack, leaving him sobbing. A few months later, the housewives of Malambito stared, astonished, at the power cords; the patio looked better now, with new lightbulbs. On Sundays at five in the morning, Heriberto Vargas swept all the doorways, bought flowers, and cleaned the portrait of the Virgen del Carmen on the far wall.
And so the insults stopped and he won the respect of his neighbors, especially the women, whom he brought little packets of sugar, ounces of butter, and bags of sweet potatoes. He went to the parties he could make, they joked around with him, clapped him on the back, told him their woes; the drunks came up to ask for money, he soothed the unemployed, and when he arrived, exhausted, at his hovel, late at night, his only solace was being near his parrot, a bird whose multicolored chest would fluff out as soon as it saw him arrive.
He’d bought it one Sunday at the Mercado Central, captivated by the green of its feathers and the docility of its gaze, and from that first moment they loved each other and sought each other familiarly, such that Berto would tell it about his life, what had happened that day, his long meetings with the bony little old man in the basement of the Ministry, his fear of being alone, the destitution in the alley, and without realizing the sun was rising, he would fall asleep. As soon as he got up, early—he called the bird Hugo, curiously—he would stroke its neck, fix its unprincipled tail, parcel out its grains of choclo corn, change its water, and leave it in the room. At the office, he regretted being unable to give it his best hours, reproached himself for not being fond enough, and didn’t understand why every time he polished the banister of the stairs, he dreamed in silence of his parrot. He saw it cut out against the sky, wings spread, flying above the roofs, its bright colors shining: it was beautiful to see among the clouds, rising little by little, beak radiant, it completed the landscape as it straightened out its tail feathers and was lost to infinite space.
In moments of great weakness, he willfully put on the parrot’s mannerisms, and in front of his bosses, for example, he would move head-face-neck-body, just as the bird would have. When he felt lonely, unwittingly, in view of the other workers, he would walk around, wavering and balancing ridiculously, and for long hours, his gaze lost in space, nestled in a corner, he observed the concourse full of metal desks and endless typewriters; every year there were more employees, closets, administrative offices with their general managers and middle managers; the women increased in number; the young professionals even talked about politics; retirees lurked on different floors, and teachers from the provinces got lost in the elevators.
So then he closed his eyes, and sinking into atavism, fearful of doing nothing, he cleaned the director general’s carpet, dusted blinds, brought papers to the mimeograph, watched over the movement of the public, leaving the other floors’ irritating tasks for the evening, and, if there was time, went down to the inhospitable basement to converse with the ancient, hard-boned clerk with a livid gaze, who asked to work together for the rest of eternity, no going up to the world above. All the same, he arrived at Malambito sad, and if some tiresome neighbor didn’t stop him, he went into his room to play with his parrot, and, half-asleep, would tell it how he was no longer so quick at his job, there were a lot of people in the Ministry, he didn’t understand why things changed, the tasks multiplied, and he dreamed of flying, walking on air and going far away where no one knew him.
One afternoon, as he was carrying a television to General Storage, he suddenly lost consciousness, started bleeding, and they took him to the Medical Department, then transported him home, and he slept deeply; when he opened his eyes, his neighbors gathered around him, full of encouragements, as he got up, went to the cage, and stroked his crying parrot, which hadn’t eaten for three days.
He lost weight, becoming gaunt, burned with fever, and there were moments when his gaze became lost, he wouldn’t recognize anyone; between laughter and tears, wasted away, he would say he was flying like a parrot, when everyone could see he was lying on his old cot. There was no doubt about it, said the Ministry employees smiling, the cholo is crazy, he talks to himself, he wants to walk on air and breaks his head against the wall. It seemed impossible—a quiet person, unassuming, who’d spent over thirty years in the office, who worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day, sacrificing vacations, dedicated entirely to public service, reliable, honorable—that little man was crazy, he always had been, there was no other way. From floor to floor, elevator to elevator, in Regular Basic Education, the secretaries exclaimed: He’s soft in the head, Berto Vargas, we knew it. He received doctors’ visits, hospital check-ups, they did all the tests and confirmed, astonished, that he had no physical issues, except for mild anemia curable with proper nutrition.
The neighborhood kids of Malambito, we missed him, since Tío Berto no longer came at unexpected times, with his clenched smile, to give us loving candy, chocolate, cookies, or sweets. We would go visit him in his room and find him sitting on the bed with his parrot, looking tiny, skinny, wrinkled, as if the years weighed heavy all of a sudden, and tears always streaming, he would see us off with any old thing: an ancient jacket, a pot, a blanket, a worn suitcase. Nevertheless, thanks to the advice of friends, and the diligence of a distant cousin and a neighbor who made him special foods, he was able to recover after three months: the shine returned to his skin, he walked, if slowly, his temperature was normal, his appetite was good, and he looked to be in good spirits during conversations with the mechanics and elevator operators who came to say hello.
And so he returned once again to the office, but he could no longer be the porter he was before; his body was heavy, his reactions delayed and his movements slower, such that he could only run simple errands, bringing paperwork from one floor to another, assisting visitors at a desk, and collating records. He could no longer help his friends on the night shifts, nor did he go down to the basement to tell the bony old man about his dreams. When he got home as night fell, exhausted, his nerves frayed, he had the feeling that his body was made of glass, and putting his face close to the parrot, he said in a low voice: I’m a fragile mirror, I’m breaking into a million pieces, I can’t stand noise, I’m afraid I’m going to fall and crack like a vase. The bird paid him little mind, loosing a hoarse sound from its intestines, and, indifferent, moved its neck, gaze distant, perhaps it didn’t even realize Señor Berto was there.
After a while, lying in bed, he daydreamed that it was morning and, like always, he cleaned the Virgin’s altar, swept the patio of the alley, washed his face at the communal faucet, and left for work, following his tireless daily rhythm: he went over all the third-floor offices with his broom, he cleaned the filth off the bathrooms, he took care of commissions outside the Ministry, he fixed chairs, desk locks. Intensifying his efforts, he ascended to the upper floors, avidly cleaned the blinds, transferred packages, any flaw, the smallest detail, Berto Vargas could do it all, but he didn’t let anyone near him, they had to talk to him in low voices, he couldn’t abide noise, people brushing against him, curt conversations, since he could crack, break, explode into a million little pieces. The employees laughed, he was utterly crazy, he thought he was made of glass, incredible, you couldn’t look at him, light bothered him, what a fool serrano. One prankster of a driver threw rocks at him, and the poor porter screeched and cried on the floor, banging into the wall, and several people were needed to get control of him.
One Sunday morning, a group of us kids were playing in the patio of the alley when Señor Berto appeared with the parrot on his hand. Encased in an unassuming jacket, blue tie, and patent leather shoes, he looked calm, his skin restored and his eyes filled with peace. He stroked our heads, then his serene hands distributed cookies and candy, he smiled sweetly, waved goodbye with a handkerchief, and we watched as he ascended slowly into the sky, walked on air, and was lost to the distance.
“Corazón sencillo” © Augusto Higa Oshiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.