We spent our honeymoon in Bariloche and returned to Buenos Aires on a Saturday at dusk, eager to spend our first night together in our cozy one-bedroom apartment.
We found a cage in our bedroom.
It looked just like a parrot cage, only larger. It had a round base, nearly 3 yards in diameter, and vertical bars that came together at the top like meridians, forming a pointed dome that touched the ceiling.
To make room for the cage in the bedroom, our bed and our nightstands had been moved into the dining room, where the dining table and its four chairs had been pushed against the wall. It would be hard to open the cabinets, blocked as they were by the bed. Furniture, floors, and walls were badly scratched.
In the cage, there was a pale man with reddish hair. He seemed to be very clean and a bit anachronistic. He was wearing a black, double-breasted suit with gray pinstripes, a white, starched shirt, a dark tie, and well-shined black shoes. He held a gray hat on his knees; it was as clean, old-fashioned, and new as the rest of his person. Those period pieces, which looked newly-made, gave the odd impression of being props, a disguise, or some archaeological reconstruction.
We noticed all this a bit later. At first, Susana and I were shocked. The man waited for us to calm down, then said in a monotone:
"I wasn't expecting you today. According to my information (he consulted a booklet) you were supposed to return tomorrow night. The time line is quite clear: 'Friday the Twelfth, induction of the mentees; Saturday the Thirteenth, physical and mental adaptation; Sunday the Fourteenth, arrival of mentors.' And today, if I'm not mistaken, is Saturday the Thirteenth."
"You're right," I said, "We came back a day early. It's not very pleasant to be back to work just a few hours after returning home."
"What's even less pleasant is receiving guests early. Mr. Rocchi will not be happy about this breach of etiquette, which, by the way, will also upset my plans for the night."
"Mr. Rocchi? The owner of the real estate firm?"
"Who else? He, personally, made all the necessary arrangements, and they weren't quick or easy. But Mr. Rocchi believes that all citizens should be extremely zealous about observing the laws and making sure they're observed by others."
I decided to set him straight.
"Laws? Which laws are those? And since when does that so-called Mr. Rocchi, a mere businessman, have any right to enforce the law?"
The man continued, still in a monotone:
"You, obviously, are someone who has not yet learned about life. Furthermore, your wedding celebration has prevented you from learning about certain changes introduced in real estate legislation. For example, Mr. Rocchi is now a magistrate. You're a magistrate, too, within certain limits."
"Me, a magistrate?" I gave an incredulous chuckle.
"Not quite: more of a magistrate's assistant."
"An assistant to Mr. Rocchi, then?"
"It would be unwise of me to get ahead of the official decision. However (and here he lowered his voice) I trust you to keep this information in strictest confidence."
"And why are you telling me this confidential information?"
"My golden rule, sir, is knowing how to get along. Since we'll be spending a lot of time under the same roof …."
"A lot of time under the same roof?!"
"That's right, sir. I'm older than you by at least 30 years. I have made very little progress; I'm at the lowest rung of the ladder of incarceration: I'm only an inmate. On the other hand, you are a free man who has already achieved the first promotion on the ladder of incarceration: the rank of assistant."
Susana then exploded:
"I have never heard so much nonsense in my whole life! Simply put, the problem is this, 'What the hell is this man doing here with his horrible cage in our bedroom?!' Furthermore, who and why have they taken the bed and nightstands to the dining room, and who will pay for the damage caused by the movers?"
"My dear lady, I cannot condone the abrasive tone of your complaint. There are practical issues here. The bed had to be moved because, otherwise, the cell could not have been installed according to regulations. As for who will pay for the damages, the authorities plan to gather a team of laborers of various trades who will, for a small sum, return your furniture and walls to their original condition. But you asked, what the hell I am doing with my horrible cage here in your room. In turn, I would ask you, do you think I'm here of my own free will? Do you think I like being a prisoner?"
"I don't care whether you are a prisoner of your own will or someone else's. All I know is that I want your cage out of our bedroom!"
"It is not a cage. That term carries the disagreeable connotation of captive animals, which is just the opposite of the humanitarian spirit that guides our governmental authorities. Nor is it a cell or a dungeon. Its technical name is re-entry receptacle."
This correction irritated Susana even more.
"Why should it be in our bedroom? Why in our bedroom? Why in our bedroom? Why? Why? Why?"
"Our Argentinian representatives and senators are very intelligent, educated, industrious, honest, austere, and altruistic people. In light of these virtues, they have ratified new laws that are jointly known as the Social Re-Entry Regulations and that .…"
"Do you expect me to believe," I interrupted, "that you're in our bedroom because of some new regulations?"
He placed his hat on his left index finger and, grasping the brim with his right hand, gave it a twirl as he shook his head.
"I am only an inmate. Within the system of incarceration, I fulfill the smallest of rolls. You enjoy a rank one notch higher than mine and, in theory, should be better informed about such matters than I. Yet, in practice, it never works that way, as I have been in the system for many years, whereas you have just been admitted. You should be glad for your admittance, but you're not. This phenomenon is not, by any means, initially present in the majority of people, but it always comes. When you have read the new regulations, you will feel not only joy, but also pride."
Susana's hands were balled into fists.
"If you will allow me," the man added, "I could share some information about the Social Re-Entry Regulations …."
"I'm anxious to hear them" — his leisurely manner was hard to take.
"The authorities, after examining the old system, found that it did not meet the needs of modern society. Therefore, they did not delay in replacing it with another one based on a consensus of ideas. Are you following ...?"
"Yes, yes, go on," I said, waving my hand impatiently.
"The Social Re-Entry Regulation is based on two interrelated principles: A and B. The purpose of A is the progressive re-entry of the prisoner into society. The purpose of B is to replace the old system of collective incarceration units with individual incarceration units. Real estate firms distribute the prisoners among new domiciles and, thanks to this policy, the old jails are demolished and replaced by parks and plazas."
"But why in new domiciles?"
"Old domiciles don't always have a pleasant appearance and can negatively influence the prisoner's psyche. On the other hand, a modern prison environment has a very positive effect on his or her re-entry into society. Besides, housing a prisoner brings great joy to the homeowners. It's as if .…"
"Hang on a second: Susana and I are supposed to be your guards and you're our prisoner?"
He shook his head in disappointment.
"The authorities no longer use the terms guards and prisoners. They use mentors and mentees, which are words better suited to Principle A of the system: the progressive re-entry of the prisoner into society. Don't you agree?"
"But I see that both you and the authorities use the term prisoner."
"Only as a poetic metaphor so the mentors will understand their obligations."
"Or shall we say, duties. These are simple and few. You need only provide me with food, clothing, medical and psychological assistance, exercise, toiletries, etc., of appropriate quality and quantity. In short, the material accouterments a human being as such deserves. The mentee's spiritual rehabilitation is also provided for through recreation and information. I'm entitled to newspapers, magazines, books, television, and audio equipment .… Two nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, friends of a certain age visit me. These gentlemen enjoy playing cards and dice, and it is expected that you shall offer them an assortment of snacks and beverages."
"How many people would that be?"
"Never more than eight or ten. Likewise, I have not given up my sex life: on Saturday nights I am visited by Miss Cuqui, a pretty, charming, and educated young woman. A young woman of such merit naturally could never fall in love with me, so you must compensate her for her favors. I'm unaware of the exact fee, as I detest handling anything so banal as money. Instead, I enjoy art and, three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), I take drum lessons from a young rock musician who enjoys soft music and whose fees are not very high."
"But," Susana interrupted, "How are we supposed to manage so many expenses?"
"That's just my luck," he said, shaking his head. "My other colleagues were housed in homes with good financial backing …. Alas, life can be so unfair …. I would suggest that you document the situation in an official letter, attaching a separate sheet in annex, in original and four copies, on official, sealed paper, which must be signed by a public accountant and a notary. The annex should bear a detailed account of income and expenses so that the mentors can prove financial hardship. The authorities take great pains to resolve any otherwise irremediable problems sustained by the mentors, and they may even be able to give you a mentoring grant."
He suddenly fell silent, making it clear that he had gone too far by revealing this benefit. I had to ask:
"What does the mentoring grant entail?"
"It entails rights and responsibilities. As to the former, the authorities will try to find you both night jobs. For example, the gentleman could be a railroad employee at one of the suburban commuter railway stations. As for the lady, I don't think Miss Cuqui would be opposed to initiating her in the art of her ministry. In exchange for these privileges, you will have to attend Comprehensive Mentor Improvement Training. The cost of this training is very low and is offered in the city of Luján."
"Luján?!" I stammered stupidly. "It's so far!"
"You are not required to request the grant," he recovered. Then, with a yawn, he added, "It's almost dinner time. I don't have any special preferences; I will eat any kind of food, as long as it is abundant, varied, appropriately spiced, and accompanied by a red wine of excellent quality."
Susana ran to the kitchen.
"I always take a bath before dinner. Here is the key to the cell."
He handed me the key through the bars. I opened the door and he emerged. He was carrying a small duffel bag, in marked contrast to his formal dress. And now a paradoxical sense of health, strength, and well-being burst forth from this walking anachronism.
"You needn't hold on to the key. I keep it to come and go, as I wouldn't want to be a bother to anyone. Madam!" he called out, "Would you kindly turn up the heater a bit for me, please?"
"And you," he said as he turned to me, "bring me a clean towel and, in preparation for tomorrow's activities, don't forget to buy me a large bottle of shampoo formulated expressly for dyed or tinted hair."
I did as he said. He draped the towel around his neck. We left the bedroom and stopped in front of the bathroom.
"I would like to remind you that today, Saturday, is the day that Miss Cuqui comes. As shy as she is, it would be unsettling for her to meet with strangers. So, if you please, you and your wife should retire no later than eleven-thirty."
Resting his hand on the doorknob, he added, "I shall be using the full-size bed. The authorities have failed to notice how very uncomfortable the regulation cot is. Oh, and clean sheets, if you please."
"Um … and how long will all this … take?"
"You may return between three-thirty and four in the morning. Ring the doorbell once; if there's no answer, do not ring again. Miss Cuqui is very energetic and, when she finishes her work, I usually fall into a deep and well-deserved sleep. In that case, check back in the morning at ten o'clock sharp – not before because I will still be resting and not after ten, as I usually take my breakfast at ten-fifteen."
As he entered the bathroom, I managed to ask him:
"How long is your sentence?"
"It's a life sentence," he answered, as his words were drowned out by the sound of running bath water.
In memory of my beloved K.