The sign announcing the sale was placed in the window of the room he had shared with his brother. Ricaño took a small piece of paper from his jacket pocket to jot down the phone number of the agency and then took a few steps backward in order to better study the five-story building where he’d been born. Compared with the new properties on the street, it was striking how outdated it looked. He crossed the street to the opposite sidewalk, stepped into a café—a space occupied by a vegetable shop when he was child—and walked up to the telephone. He dialed the number he had just written down and a woman’s voice answered. Ricaño explained he was interested in viewing the apartment for sale, and the woman gave him a cursory description before telling him the price. He confirmed he wanted to see it and she warned him, “The renters are still living there. I’m letting you know because some people don’t like to view an apartment with people inside.” Ricaño told her it was better that way because it would give him a better idea of the space, with furniture inside. The woman said she’d speak with the tenants, to warn them of his visit, and they agreed to meet at four that afternoon at the front door of the building. She asked him his name and he answered, “Santibáñez.”
After hanging up, he ordered coffee at the bar and gave himself 20 minutes to drink it. He figured it was enough time for the agent to call the renters, warning them of his visit in the afternoon. He ordered a second coffee and glanced at the sports paper someone had left on a table. After checking his watch, he paid and crossed the street. He rang the intercom button and a girl answered. He said he was the person interested in buying the apartment. A noise came from the speaker and a few seconds later a woman’s voice asked him who he was.
“I’m Mr. Santibáñez, the guy interested in buying the apartment,” Ricaño repeated.
“Weren’t you coming in the afternoon?”
“Yes, but now that I’m here, it’d be more convenient for me to see it now, if that’s not a bother.”
The woman told him to wait a moment, and he heard the scratchy sound that’s made when a hand covers a microphone. He pressed his face against the glass to peer into the building and saw that everything was still the same: a strip of linoleum crossed the lobby, leading to the elevator and stairs. A few minutes passed and he was about to ring the button again when he spotted a girl at the end of the hall walking toward him. The girl observed Ricaño through the glass and opened the front door.
“Mr. Santibáñez?” she asked.
She invited him in. Following her, he estimated she was around 16. They walked up the five steps that led to the ground floor apartments, and the girl knocked with her knuckles on the door three times. He read the last name on the small plaque by the bell: Del Valle. A woman, 40-something, opened the door, her features leaving no doubt she was the girl’s mother.
“Come in, and please excuse the mess,” she said, without offering him her hand.
“No, please excuse me,” Ricaño said, and it was enough to simply stand in the entryway to feel the traumatic certitude of having been a child between those walls. It shook him to see again the lintels, door handles, and above all, the floor tiles. He was frozen in place, and the woman, upon seeing his evident discomfort, told him, “Come in through here, please.” But instead of following her, he pinched the bridge of his nose to contain his feelings. She asked him if he was feeling well. “Excuse me,” Ricaño told her, having covered his face with a hand. At that moment a four- or five-year-old girl appeared.
“Why is that man crying, Mama?” she asked in a soft voice.
Ricaño looked off to the side so the child couldn’t see him. He turned around and tried to open the door to leave, but it was fastened with a chain lock; he struggled to unhook it, and the older girl came to his aide, removing the chain and opening the door. Ricaño stepped outside and paused in the landing.
“Do you feel ill, Mr. Santibáñez?” the mother asked again. He took a few tissues from his jacket pocket and dried his eyes.
“Forgive me,” he said. “This house brings back many memories.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“I lived here my whole childhood.” He pinched the bridge of his nose a second time and smiled weakly. “I moved abroad 40 years ago. Every time I return, I come here. Three years ago I got up the nerve to ring the bell, and an elderly man answered; I asked permission to come inside, but he refused. People are suspicious now. Because of that, when I saw the “for sale” sign, I thought it was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.”
“In other words, you’re not interested in buying it,” the older girl said.
“No, the truth is I’m not. I only wanted to come inside. Please forgive me.”
“He lied to us!” the girl exclaimed, looking at her mother. Ricaño put the tissues in his pocket and made a gesture to take his leave.
“Wait,” the mother said. “Now that you’re here, have a look around the apartment, if you wish.”
The girl, upset, grabbed her little sister’s hand, told her, “Come!” and pulled her into one of the bedrooms, slamming the door shut.
The woman looked at Ricaño.
“This way, Mr. Santibáñez.”
“My name is not Santibáñez,” he said. “I gave the name of a friend of mine to the woman at the agency, I’m not sure why. My last name is Ricaño, see?” He took out his wallet, removed an ID and showed it to the woman who glanced at it and said, “Don’t mind my daughter. You showed up on a bad day. My husband died exactly three months ago.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. I chose a bad time to bother you all.”
“Come, here’s the kitchen.”
“I know, and this is the bathroom door. I lived here 11 years.”
The woman showed him the apartment, and in each room Ricaño peered through the window. All of the windows overlooked the same street, and he paused a moment at each one, as if the different views brought back different memories. When they stepped into the girls’ bedroom, the older sister led the younger one into the next room. At last, they entered the bathroom. The first thing Ricaño observed was the floor tiles; he sat down on he edge of the tub to study them, and he said to the woman, “I remember every one of the stains on these tiles. Take a look at this one: it’s like the head of a dragon, and this one’s an old man with a cane…. Do you see it?”
The woman bent over to better observe the stain, and he said, “Look at this other one…. What does it bring to mind?”
“I don’t know…a sailboat, perhaps.”
“Exactly! You don’t know how many arguments my brother and I had because of this stain! He insisted it was a shark, because of this line right here, but it was clear to me from the beginning it was a sailboat.”
“It could also be a shark.”
“And the fin? I always told my brother that in order to be a shark, it needed a fin.”
“Here it is,” she said, pointing to a tiny excrescence on the tile.
“Too small!” he laughed. “You’re worse than my brother.”
At that moment, the younger girl poked her head in but didn’t dare enter.
“Come in,” Ricaño told her. “Tell me what you see here.”
The little girl came closer and observed the stain he was pointing to.
“I don’t know,” she said and started to giggle.
“Doesn’t it look like an animal?” her mother asked.
“Don’t spin this to your advantage,” Ricaño protested. The older daughter also stood in the doorway now, watching them.
“Rosario,” said her mother, “look at this stain.”
The girl, without glancing at Ricaño, stepped closer to study the tile.
“What do you see?”
“It looks like a sailboat.”
“You see?” Ricaño exclaimed.
“But it also looks like a shark,” her mother said.
The older girl examined the stain again and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “It’s missing the fin, so it doesn’t look like a shark.”
“What did I tell you?” Ricaño burst out, and stroked the younger girl, who immediately grasped her mother’s skirt and asked to be carried. Her mother obliged, and with her daughter in her arms she asked Ricaño, “Where do you live?”
“In Australia. In Melbourne.”
“Where the Olympics were held?”
“Well, they were in Sydney, but there were also Olympics in Melbourne. In 1956.”
The woman nodded and then asked:
“Would you like a coffee?”
Ricaño glanced at the older daughter and took her distracted expression to mean that he had permission to stay.
“I’d love one, but I’ve already taken up too much of your time.”
“It will only take me a minute,” the woman said.
They moved into the kitchen, Ricaño sat in a chair, and the woman got the stove-top espresso maker ready, set it on a burner, and lit the flame. The older girl scolded the younger one for being too close to the stove. Ricaño asked the woman how long they’d been renting the apartment, and she answered two years.
He nodded and said, “We had a table that was similar to this one, you know, but in that corner over there, not here.”
“I’ve told her that so many times,” the girl exclaimed, “but she won’t listen to me! She says there’s too little light in the corner.”
“To tell you the truth, you’d gain space, and you’d be surprised that there’s more than enough light.”
“What’s the point of making changes now?” asked the woman.
“Ma, the sign’s been up for six months!” the girl replied. “It could be another six before it gets sold.” And, turning to Ricaño, she asked, “Would you help me, sir?”
“To do what?”
“To move the table.”
“If it doesn’t bother your mother….”
“Do whatever you want,” her mother said, and she turned off the flame under the coffee pot. The daughter approached the table, Ricaño stood up and they cleared it together, removed the tablecloth, and carried it to the furthest corner from the window.
“See how much space you gain?” Ricaño said to the mother.
“Yes, but now the table’s in the dark,” she replied.
“Because of the refrigerator, but if we move it here, where we had the table, then the table will get enough light.”
He and the girl struggled to move the fridge while her mother poured the coffee into two mugs. In effect, the table without the refrigerator in the way received enough light.
“It looks so much better!” said the daughter.
“That’s how it used to be! Just like it is now!” Ricaño exclaimed, admiring the new layout of the kitchen. He took the cup of coffee the woman offered him and sat down again. He was sweating from moving the fridge. The girl wanted to know which room had been his, and when Ricaño answered that it was the same one where she and her sister slept, she asked if the beds were arranged the way they used to be.
“No, we had them at an angle. If you want, I’ll show you.”
They moved into the girls’ room. Ricaño showed them how his bed and his brother’s had formed a right angle against the two walls.
“How odd! And you slept well like that?” asked the daughter.
“If you notice, this is the best way to place them. If you did it like this, you’d gain enough room for a desk.”
“Here,” said Ricaño, extending his arms to indicate the size. The girl visualized the room’s new setup right away, and she looked at her mother:
“Ma, we won’t lose anything by trying, now that this man is here and can lend us a hand. If we don’t like it, we’ll put everything back the way it was.”
“Do whatever you want, I’m going to get more coffee,” her mother repeated and returned to the kitchen. Ricaño and the girl removed the books from the bookcase in order to carry it more easily, and then they moved the two beds. When they finished, the woman came back from the kitchen and sat down on one of them. She had not brought more coffee. Ricaño breathed wearily; shifting the bookcase and the beds around had been tougher than moving the refrigerator. The girl was the most upbeat.
“There’s even room for a small bookshelf,” she said. “We could put it here.”
“Better here,” Ricaño suggested, pointing to the corner near the window.
“That’s enough!” exclaimed the mother, irritated, and stood up. Her daughter paled and asked what was wrong, to which the mother stared at her in anger: “What’s the point in moving the furniture around, if we’re going to leave? And you, Mr. Santibáñez….”
“Ricaño,” he corrected.
“Ricaño, or whatever your name is…. You show up and start moving our things around, because when you were a kid the table was over there, the bookcase over here, the bed this way…. You and your memories!”
“You only came to stir everything up!” and she turned and left the room.
Ricaño looked at the girl who sat down on the other bed and seemed to have lost all of her enthusiasm.
“My mom’s sensitive,” she told him. “My dad died three months ago today.”
“Yes, she told me.”
“She’s right. Why change everything around if we’re going to move? It’d be better if you left.”
Ricaño stood up, walked over to the window and gazed at the street, fogging the glass as he exhaled. He was still breathing heavily from all the exertion. He turned toward the girl: “Ask your mom if she wants me to put things back where they were.”
The girl went to the kitchen. He heard them argue. When the daughter reappeared, she said curtly, “Leave things the way they are.”
He left the room, walked to the apartment door and tried to open it, but it was locked with the little chain. The daughter unfastened it, opened the door, and Ricaño walked out onto the landing. The girl slammed the door behind him and he remained motionless, his back to the door that he had opened and closed countless times; he started toward the five steps that led to the lobby, descended them, went to the front door, opened it and stepped out onto the street; he crossed to the café on the other side, approached the bar and ordered an espresso. From the bar, he glanced once more at the windows of his former apartment. He imagined the mother and daughter arguing, doubting if they should leave the things as they were or move them back to their former places. He’d done them a favor and they’d kicked him out. At least he would have liked to know if they were going to heed his suggestions. Perhaps they were not going to move anything now, but the following day, in the morning. Seeing things with fresh eyes, they would return everything to its place, and all of his efforts would be for nothing.
He drank the espresso in two gulps, walked over to the telephone that was next to the bathroom, and dialed the number of the agency. The woman he had spoken to an hour earlier answered.
“Santibáñez calling,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Santibáñez, how can I help you?”
“I just visited the apartment,” he said. “After speaking with you, I remembered an appointment I have this afternoon, and since I was already here, I decided to see it right away. I rang Mrs. Del Valle and she did the favor of showing me it.”
“And what did you think?”
Ricaño cleared his throat.
“I liked it very much,” he said.
“I’m glad,” the woman answered.
“But, you know, it’s difficult to get a sense of a place if you only see it once.”
“I understand. You’d like to take a second look. How about tomorrow afternoon, at four?”
“Until tomorrow, then, in front of the main door.”
“See you tomorrow,” Ricaño said and hung up. He returned to the bar and ordered another espresso.