The Occupant

Translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude

The dream, that he had traveled to some far-off place to verify whether a man did indeed bear a striking resemblance to his father, didn’t come as a surprise. Amadeo Soto was used to veiled nightmares featuring his father in which his real-life death was either repeated or confounded by his apparent survival. This time, however, he woke up with the clear impression that his father was not an agonizing soul but a flower rotting inside of him. A malevolent flower that needed to be removed before it was absorbed and became a permanent feature of his existence.

He spent the entire day worried that he’d always be haunted by the distinctive memory of his charismatic father, but that evening, once he had gotten back home to his wife, the fear subsided. Something in Lucia’s expression gave him the impression that the recurring dream wouldn’t come again. It was as though she had negotiated a truce with the god of sleep, or had simply exterminated the flower in secret.

After dinner, Amadeo Soto found out why. She asked him if he was prepared to hear something extraordinary. He smiled: he’d never have imagined his wife challenging him like that. He replied in the affirmative and was treated to an absurd story. Two blocks away, in front of the building where his father had lived out his final years, was a man who had studied him for a long time and now dressed exactly like him, imitated the way he walked and passed himself off as Amadeo Soto’s father. Lucia hadn’t seen him, but Ramón, who ran the newspaper kiosk, alarmed by the man’s strange movements, had confronted him one day and asked him what he thought he was doing. The answer was simple: “Being Ernesto Soto, can’t you tell?”

Amadeo Soto couldn’t believe his wife’s words. That night he treated her coldly. The anecdote sounded like a macabre fable: he couldn’t understand why the woman who claimed to love him would bring up such a delicate subject that way, trusting a newspaper man who could easily be a psychopath, or a maniac. In her place, he would have made sure to check the veracity of the information before sharing it.

He barely slept a wink. At seven in the morning he fell into a deep sleep and when he woke up his wife had gone. He called into work and told them that he was sick. Then he drank a couple of flavorless, tepid mates, carefully chose his clothes, finished his grooming in the mirror in the lift and went out, intending to go straight to the newspaper kiosk.

Everything he had been planning to say to Ramón disappeared from his mind in an instant. Right next to the kiosk, in a thin strip of sunlight that shone between a pair of buildings, he saw a man walking exactly like his father. He wore the same gray and black pinstripe trousers, white shirt, heeled tango shoes, and silk scarf around the neck. He had the same irreversible pattern baldness and gray hair at the back of the head. And yet he lacked his father’s aplomb. He was nothing like the self-consciously dapper man his father had been. In spite of all the practice demonstrated by his careful footsteps, a supernatural weight seemed to weigh down on this man’s shoulders.

Amadeo Soto, accelerating, thought that the man must not have a soul. He passed by the newspaper kiosk without stopping or saying hello. He was still a little wary of the newspaper man, perhaps because he had chosen to speak to his wife rather than him.

As he got closer, he got the impression that the imposter was on parade. What did he do with his time other than usurping other people’s identities? When he was just a meter away, even though he couldn’t see the man’s face, he realized that the impersonation of his father’s movements was faultless. The man stopped to look up at the trees in exactly the same way, bringing a hand to his temple, then paused at the entrance to a building and plunged his hand into his pocket, looking for his keys. Amadeo Soto saw with amazement that he also did this in exactly the same way that his father had. He saw the imposter’s face in the lobby mirror: it was round, with a small nose and pinched lips and from the body and sunken shoulders it was obvious that he had once been quite rotund. He wore round-framed spectacles identical to the ones his father had worn, and from what Amadeo Soto could tell from a brief glimpse, he’d perfected an expression that he would have thought was impossible to imitate: an absent-minded, innocent, and yet perverse gaze, with each quality in exactly the right proportion. The imposter gave him a casual glance just before he got into the lift. It was an extremely sinister experience for Amadeo Soto to see his father’s distinctiveness transferred into that abominable body, but he thought that it would have been even more sinister still to be recognized by that gaze and feel his father calling to him from within that flaccid body. He decided that he had to act. By taking charge of the situation, he might be able to rescue the memory of his progenitor.

He spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to decide what to do. He discarded any measure that involved taking vengeance. He had no reason to take justice into his own hands and punish the imposter. At the end of the day the man must have his own story and was free to do what he wanted. He must have his reasons. That was what most intrigued him: the reasons. Maybe it was just a therapeutic hobby and when he got back to his flat he’d return to being the man he had been before, an empty man. However, there was something he still didn’t understand: how had he managed to identify and isolate his father’s distinctive qualities and apply them to himself? There was certainly nothing therapeutic about that, it was more likely to be the result of cold calculation. The man must have stalked and studied his father for a long time. At that thought, it occurred to him that he did have a right to vengeance. He tried to convince himself that the imitation could be an homage rather than a crime but this just made him angrier. It faced him with a painful, inexpressible truth. His father had been cheap and selfish and had mortgaged all his possessions before he died, leaving him, his only son, with reams of debt. Behind that sheen of courtesy and made-to-measure clothes, there was nothing to pay homage to.

That night at dinner he told his wife that the newspaper man was right, but he tried to seem indifferent and made jokes about the imitator’s body. He employed several adjectives, including pathetic, podgy, and maggot-like. He only lost his composure when she asked him if he was curious to talk to this man and find out what was going on. Amadeo Soto gave an irritable reply, saying that all he was interested in was telling the man who his father had really been to make it clear that all that elegance he had imitated bore no relation to the actual dignity of the man.

He lay down thinking that he wouldn’t go to work the next day either. By the time he woke up a plan to attack the imposter had formed. He had dreamed that he had recognized him on a bus but this time he wasn’t disguised as his father. He approached him. At first the man had been afraid and retreated to the back of the bus. Cornered there, he swore that he’d never imitate anyone again. Then Amadeo Soto had answered that he didn’t care about the imitation, the important thing was that he should know who his model really was: if he wanted to compensate for his own mediocrity, he was wasting his time. The man he was trying to ape did not exist.

When the time came, he went down to the street and took the same route as he had the day before. The imposter didn’t appear and Amadeo Soto, in spite of his reticence, had to content himself with interrogating Ramón. It was immediately obvious that the gossipy newspaper man would spread the word that Amadeo Soto had been alerted and was taking action around the neighborhood. However, the information he was able to glean from a brief conversation was vital for his investigation. Perhaps because he was so talkative, Ramón didn’t hesitate to share information he had obtained from his own informant, the building’s porter. Until not long before, the imitator had wandered around the neighbourhood in a tracksuit and gone by the name of Lucio Rosales. No one knew anything about his past or profession except that every month he took his mother—with whom he lived—to collect a pension at the Banco Nación. However, ever since he had started passing himself off as Ernesto Soto, he didn’t go out with his mother or dress in that slovenly manner anymore. Thanks to the privileged view provided by the newspaper stand, Ramón also knew that he walked straight along Calle Las Heras and, like the previous Ernesto Soto, went into the shoe shop, the dry cleaner’s, and the tailor’s, every now and again coming out with a bag. When and how he had memorized Ernesto Soto’s behavior neither he nor the porter could say, but as the situation seemed so offen- sive to them that even reporting him to the police felt inadequate, they had set up a network of informants to determine the causes that had driven Rosales to undertake such a scheme. The porter had squeezed important information out of the cobbler: Rosales had commissioned him to make tailor-made shoes, working from photos he had taken of Ernesto. Although he hadn’t managed to break down the tailor’s wall of discretion, he had presumably done the same with the clothes.

Amadeo Soto left the newspaper stand stunned and a little annoyed: Ramón’s involvement seemed excessive and made him look ridiculous. The meticulous routine that Rosales had engineered to make himself into Ernesto Soto was far more elaborate than he had expected. This wasn’t just the performance of an admirer. An insane psychology lay behind it and perhaps his choice of model had nothing to do with devotion but mere chance or opportunism. There was something he could now be sure of: Rosales didn’t want to pass himself as someone else, but simply to be someone else. If he met him on a bus like in his dream, a sermon about mediocrity wouldn’t work. He was faced with a true artist and must address him as such: adulate him, give him his due, and win his trust so as to get under his skin.

 

That night he told Lucia how serious the case really was, although he didn’t reveal the plan that was forming in his mind. She hadn’t brought up the subject again and after listening to her husband she lifted his spirits. She told him that he was about to wage a crucial battle for his father and that she was proud of him. She agreed that it made no sense to report or threaten Rosales. Someone who had assumed the identity of a dead man was capable of doing anything to keep their pretense intact.

The next morning, Amadeo Soto called into work again and this time asked for two weeks off. He said that he had family problems, an explanation that he didn’t regard as an excuse but rather an exact description of his situation. He couldn’t remember having had any prescient dreams, but the alibi he had come up with the day before upon waking had come to fit instantly, as though it were a variation of the kind of resentment that grows more refined as the days go on and leads to vengeance.

In contrast to the previous day, he met Rosales almost immediately. He was returning from the dry cleaner’s, carrying an overcoat in a transparent plastic bag. He held the coat from the end of a hanger and seemed engrossed in his new acquisition. Amadeo Soto looked at the cloth with its pattern of small gray and black squares. It was a crude copy of a heavy overcoat that his father wore on the coldest days of winter, i.e.: just two or three days a year. He was surprised that Rosales had found out about and reproduced this seldom used item of clothing, and that he was bringing it back from the dry cleaner’s rather than the tailor’s.

He speculated for several blocks, but as Rosales approached the building and took out his key ring with his father’s characteristic movements—stopping in a meditative pose, rummaging around in his pocket as though it were a hole in the ground, taking out the keys and looking at them so as to incorporate them into his world—he set his plan into action. This false father wasn’t about to get away from him.

“Dad, how are you?”

Rosales turned around. He didn’t have time to avoid Amadeo Soto’s embrace.

“It’s been a while, Dad.” He waited for Rosales, who was standing stock still, to react. “Don’t you recognize me, Dad? Let me help you.” He took the overcoat by the hanger. “Shall we go up? Or would you like to go for a coffee?”

Rosales was still disconcerted. He gulped, and the sound that came from his throat was like the rustling of soft fabric. He was rigid, but contrary to Amadeo Soto’s expectations, he didn’t shrink back or panic and say, “This is a misunderstanding” or “You’re confusing me with someone else,“ and slip off into the building.

Amadeo Soto was convinced that Rosales didn’t know how Ernesto behaved toward his son and that now he was in a bind. He may not even have known that he had a son. He had no idea that realizing his dream required more than just reproducing manners, movements, and clothing, but also incorporating all the associated consequences of his life story.

“Dad, are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“Well then?”

“It’s just that I didn’t know that you’d come back.”

Amadeo smiled. The trap was sprung and Rosales was trying to wriggle free. He might be Ernesto Soto, but he would never be able to play a father. So he landed another blow:

“Dad, I didn’t go anywhere. You’re the one who left. You’re the one who returned. Shall we celebrate?”

Rosales’ breathing returned to normal. He stopped gulping.

“Of course, Amadeo. But I think you’re wrong. I was always here. You’re the one who never comes to see me.”

Amadeo Soto opened his eyes, unnerved. The imposter knew his name.

“But don’t start to make excuses, today is a new day. Let’s start from scratch.” He grabbed him in a tight hug that Amadeo tried to avoid. Rosales’ soft flesh felt horrible against his chest. But he was even more horrified to feel his father stroking him with the tips of those stubby fingers.

As the shock wave from the hug faded, he let the overcoat fall to the ground and quickly strode away. He saw that Ramón was looking at him with an inquisitive expression from the kiosk as though he was aware of his failure and wanted to evaluate the results so as to determine what further action to take in association with the porter. For a moment, Amadeo Soto thought of crossing the road and taking succor from Ramón’s sentimental reassurance. Then it occurred to him that the newspaper man was Rosales’ natural ally, an audience that only enhanced him. The only person he could trust at that moment was his wife, so he quickly went up to his flat. Lucia wasn’t there. He felt abandoned. All the confidence he had had that morning had disappeared. He had the feeling that he wouldn’t ever be able to get it back.

He went out onto the balcony and looked at the bare tree-tops. Through the skeletal branches, he saw Rosales standing on the pavement opposite with the overcoat in his hand. From above, in two dimensions, he looked exactly like his father. Amadeo Soto took a deep breath of fresh air and wondered if he was capable of leaping into the void. Maybe this was the only way to block the course of the incarnation. He stepped back, as though to give himself room for a run up, but then heard someone coming into the flat. From the dining room, Lucia asked him what he was doing.

“Autumn’s here,” he answered.

The sound of a car braking sharply and the subsequent noise of a body bouncing against the asphalt brought him back out onto the balcony. As he leaned over the bannister, a buzzing in his head blocked out every other sound. A crowd of curious bystanders had gathered around the victim. Someone picked up the overcoat from the asphalt and covered the bleeding body. Then, on the horizon, the threatening sound of a siren started to make itself heard.

“Another accident?” Lucia asked, coming out onto the balcony.

###

Oliverio Coelho was born in Buenos Aires in 1977. His most recent novels are Un hombre llamado lobo and Bien de frontera. He has also published two short story collections, Parte doméstico and Hacia la extinción. He writes regularly for the cultural supplements of La Nación, El País, Clarín, and Perfil, and is often named as one of the best young authors in Latin America today.

Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He occasionally writes reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Otra Parte, and Perfil.

“The Occupant” originally appeared in Heaven (TLR Fall 2016)