Flash Fiction by Agustín Cadena, translated by Patricia Dubrava
He wasn’t Russian, of course, but that’s what they called him because he had nearly white blond hair and looked like Ivan Drago, the Russian giant who fought Rocky in the movie. A dozen years of lifting weights had given him an impressive physique.
He liked the nickname. Actually, he thought any nickname was preferable to his own name. Florentino. And the problem wasn’t the name itself, but its diminutive, which certainly wasn’t masculine. In school he’d had to beat to a pulp the few who dared call him “Flor.” That’s how he got used to fighting. Flower. He hated that name, even for women. So he always introduced himself: “They call me El Ruso.”
In the neighborhood everyone knew he worked for the secret police. That’s how things are in a small community: the secrets of one are the secrets of all. No one had a reason to betray him: he was a silent and solitary neighbor, but agreeable. He’d been seen helping some woman carry her groceries or scolding children who played on the block without watching for cars. The girl at the store found it endearing when he came to make his purchases, because, since he didn’t even have a girlfriend (only a cat, and who knows if it even had a name) he took one of each: a bread roll, a tomato, one beer, one apple. And of course, milk and a little bag of kibble for his cat. A wonder it didn’t occur to him to buy in bulk, which would be cheaper and more efficient. He always paid and thanked the girl without smiling. Perhaps he wanted to hide that he liked her, because with the other neighbors he became a little more expressive.
In his work he was different: there he couldn’t be nice. He knew that it was because of his physique, more than any other reason, that the other officers had made him a dark legend. They used him to terrify those they arrested, often without even needing his presence. “Leave him alone,” they would say, tired of beating some suspect. “If he doesn’t sing, we’ll let the Russian interrogate him.”
So it was. But this story is about when his cat died, not about any of that. No one knew what happened. Perhaps the cat was very old, that’s all. The fact is, one day the Russian appeared in the store with the face of a chastised child and didn’t buy one of each thing, but several of each, as if making provisions. Except kibble.
“And you’re not getting anything for the cat?” the girl asked him.
“The cat died,” he responded. He put money on the counter and left without waiting for his change.
He didn’t go out all day. The girl told the story of the cat to all the neighbors who came to buy something, and by nightfall, the Russian’s solitary grief was the main topic of gossip. The nosiest busybodies loitered at the door of his apartment and watched the light of his window in the night. The Russian didn’t appear. Nor did he go out the following day. Who knew what he did with the cat’s body: perhaps he was mourning over it. The trash truck guys said it didn’t come to them.
On the third day, curiosity had become a vague, undeclared anguish. The neighborhood felt unprotected without its guardian. Someone said they should knock on his door to ask if he was O.K., but no one wanted to risk making him angry. They drew straws. The dry cleaner guy lost, the biggest coward of all. Arming himself with courage was a waste of effort: the Russian didn’t open the door. At last, a schoolboy had the brainstorm needed: he began to shout “Flor! Florecita!” from the street.
Only then did the Russian come out. He came out angry, ready to pound the insolent idiot, whoever it was. It seemed to him that many pairs of eyes were watching him, hidden behind curtains, but he didn’t find the person who dared disturb his mourning. And his mourning ended there.
The life of the neighborhood returned to normal.
Agustín Cadena was born in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, México. He taught at UNAM; at Austin College, Texas; and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Cadena has won numerous national prizes, including those for short fiction in 2004 and 2005, and for poetry in 2011. He has published twenty-six books, among them collections of short fiction, essays and poetry, three novels, and four young adult novels, most recently La Sed de la Mariposa, 2014, and Fieras adentro, 2015. His work has been translated into English, Italian and Hungarian. The three short short stories submitted here are from a manuscript called Dibujos a Lápiz, (Penicl Sketches) to be published in 2016. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com
Patricia Dubrava chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts, where she also taught Spanish. She has two books of her own poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. Recent translation publications include stories by Agustín Cadena in Aldus, Winter 2013, and Café Irreal, August 2013, 2014 and 2015. One of her translations of a Cadena story is in New Border Voices: An Anthology, 2014. Her translation of a Mónica Lavín flash fiction appeared in Norton’s Flash Fiction International, 2015. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com
image courtesy of Henry Lornzatto, via unspalsh
Also published on Medium.