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My Friend Luke
Translated by Gustavo Artiles and Alex Patterson

I have a friend who must be the sweetest, shyest person in the world. His name is brittle and ancient (Luke), his age modestly intermediate (forty). He is rather short and skinny, has a thin moustache and even thinner hair on his head. Since his vision is not perfect, he wears glasses: they are small, round and frame-less.

     In order not to inconvenience anyone, he always walks sideways. Instead of saying 'Excuse me', he prefers to glide by one side. If the gap is so narrow that it will not allow him to pass, Luke waits patiently until the obstruction -- be it animate or inanimate, rational or irrational -- moves by itself. Stray dogs and cats panic him, and in order to avoid them he constantly crosses from one side to of the road to another.

     He speaks with a very thin, subtle voice, so inaudible that it is hard to tell if he is speaking at all. He has never interrupted anybody. On the other hand, he can never manage more than two words without somebody interrupting him. This does not seem to irritate him; in fact, he actually appears happy to have been able to utter those two words.

     My friend Luke has been married for years. His wife is a thin, choleric, nervous woman who, as well as having an unbearably shrill voice, strong lungs, a finely drawn nose and a viperous tongue suffers from an uncontrollable temper and the personality of a lion tamer. Luke -- you have to wonder how -- has succeeded in producing a child named (by his mother) Juan Manuel. He is tall, blond, intelligent, distrustful, sarcastic and has a fringe. It is not entirely true that he only obeys his mother. However, the two of them have always agreed that Luke has little to offer the world and therefore choose to ignore his scarce and rarely expressed opinions.

     Luke is the oldest and the least important employee of a dismal company that imports cloth. It operates out of a very dark building with black-stained wooden floors situated in Alsina street. The owner -- I know him personally -- is called don Aqueróntido -- I don't know whether that is his first name or his surname -- and he has a ferocious moustache, is bald and has a thunderous voice. He is also violent and greedy. My friend Luke goes to work dressed all in black, wearing a very old suit that shines from age. He only owns one shirt -- the one he wore for the first time on the day of his marriage -- and it has an anachronistic plastic collar. He also only owns one tie, so frayed and greasy that it looks more like a shoelace. Unable to bear the disapproving looks of don Aqueróntido, Luke, unlike his colleagues, does not dare work without his jacket on and in order to keep this jacket in good condition he wears a pair of grey sleeve-protectors. His salary is ludicrously low, but he still stays behind in the office every day and works for another three or four hours: the tasks don Aqueróntido gives him are so huge that he has no chance of accomplishing them within normal hours. Now, just after the don Aqueróntido cut his salary yet again, his wife has decided that Juan Manuel must not do his secondary studies in a state school. She has chosen to put his name down for a very costly institution in the Belgrano area. In view of the extortionate outlay this involves, Luke has stopped buying his newspaper and (an even greater sacrifice) The Reader's Digest, his two favourite publications. The last article he managed to read in the Reader's Digest explained how husbands should repress their own overwhelming personality in order to make room for the actualisation of the rest of the family group.

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*

There is, however, one remarkable aspect to Luke: his behaviour as soon as he steps on a bus. Generally, this is what happens:

     He requests a ticket and begins to look for his money, slowly. He holds up one hand to ensure that the driver keeps waiting, unsure of what to do. Luke does not hurry. In fact, I would say that the driver's impatience gives him a certain amount of pleasure. Then he pays with the largest possible number of small coins, which he delivers a few at the time, in varying amounts and at irregular intervals. For some reason, this disturbs the driver, who, apart from having to pay attention to other cars, the traffic lights, other passengers getting on or off, and having to drive the bus itself, is forced to perform complicated arithmetic. Luke aggravates the problem by including in his payment an old Paraguayan coin that he keeps for the purpose and which is invariably returned to him. This way, mistakes are usually made in the accounts and an argument ensues. Then, in a serene but firm manner, Luke begins to defend his rights, employing arguments so contradictory that it is impossible to understand what point he is actually trying to make. Finally, the driver, at the end of the last tether of his sanity and in an act of final resignation, chooses to throw out the coins -- perhaps as a means of repressing his wish to throw out Luke or, indeed, himself.

     When winter comes, Luke always travels with the windows wide open. The first to suffer as a result of this is Luke himself: he has developed a chronic cough that often forces him to stay awake entire nights. During the summer, he closes his window and will not allow anyone to lower the shade that would protect him from the sun. More than once he has ended up with first-degree burns.

     Because of his weak lungs, Luke is not allowed to smoke and, in fact, he hates smoking. In spite of this, once inside the bus he cannot resist the temptation to light up a cheap, heavy cigar that clogs up his windpipe and makes him cough. After he gets off, he puts away his cigar in preparation for his next journey.

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     Luke is a tiny, sedentary, squalid person and has never been interested in sports. But come Saturday evening, he switches on his portable radio and turns the volume up full in order to follow the boxing match. Sundays he dedicates to football and tortures the rest of the passengers with the noisy broadcasts.

     The back seat is for five passengers. In spite of his very small size, Luke sits so as to allow room for only four or even three people on the seat. If four are already seated and Luke is standing up, he demands permission, in an indignant and reproachful tone, to sit down -- which he then does, managing to take up an excessive amount of space. To this end, he puts his hands in his pockets so that his elbows will remain firmly embedded in his neighbours' ribs.

     Luke's resources are plentiful and diverse.

     When he has to travel standing up, he always keeps his jacket unbuttoned, carefully adjusting his posture so that the lower edge of his jacket hits the face or the eyes of those sitting down.

     If anyone is reading, they are easy prey for Luke. Watching him or her closely, Luke places his head near the light so as to throw a shadow on the victim's book. Every now and then he withdraws his head as if by chance. The reader will anxiously devour one or two words before Luke moves back into position.

     My friend Luke knows the times when the bus will be fully packed. On those occasions, he consumes a salami sandwich and a glass of red wine. Then, with breadcrumbs and threads of salami still between his teeth and pointing his mouth towards the other passenger's noses, he walks along the vehicle shouting loudly, 'Excuse me'.

     If he manages to take the front seat, he never gives it up to anyone. But should he find himself in one of the last rows, the moment he sees a woman with a child in her arms or a weak, elderly person climb on board he immediately stands up and calls very loudly to the front passenger to offer them his seat. Later he usually makes some recriminatory remark against those that kept their seats. His eloquence is always effective, and some mortally ashamed passenger gets off at the next stop. Instantly, Luke takes his place.

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*

My friend Luke gets off the bus in a very good mood. Timidly, he walks home, staying out of the way of anyone he meets. He is not allowed a key, so he has to ring the bell. If anyone is home, they rarely refuse to open the door to him. But if neither his wife, his son nor don Aqueróntido are to be found, Luke sits on the doorstep until someone arrives.

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