Big old bracelets, Swiss makes, rings, cuff-links, a few smallish diamonds: Berel Birnbaum carried them in his suitcase when he drove through the dusty, cattle-trodden villages of the Pampas. His customers were always glad to see him. He’d sit for hours chatting about the price of beef or Sunday’s soccer match, sipping maté‚ sharing the saliva of a whole family. Then, at the right moment, never hurriedly, Berel would open the suitcase.
A watch for the father, a brooch for the mother, a golden chain for the son or the daughter. “In twelve installments it comes to 150 pesos a month. Don’t think you can afford it? No problem. In twenty-four installments you’d be only paying 100 pesos per month.” When Berel returned home to the city after a day of travel, business, and conviviality, he sat at his table, took out the best pieces, and considered them. With something like the awe of the theorist contemplating universal laws, he contemplated his watches.
The elegant bezel, the dignified numbers. He followed the hands in their appointed ways, and once it crossed his mind that it was in his power to stop them dead with one finger. But why on earth would he do that?
One evening, returning home, Berel stopped his car at the foot of the bridge leading into the city, walked to the top, and leaning over the rusty rail looked down on the stream. A breeze brought from nearby tanneries the stink of hides and sulfur alcohol; sewage drifted, hesitatingly awash. The full moon shone on lifeless waters.
That afternoon, Berel had sold two watches. One for cash; the second, more expensive, in long but lucrative installments. Not bad for one trip. He had drunk a few rounds of maté, eaten quince-jelly pastries and even a couple of confections called friar balls or nun sighs. Business bonuses, a jeweler’s little boons and bounties.
Mr. Ponce, an old customer, had hinted at the possibility of buying an anklet and an amulet for the fifteenth birthday of his daughter Merceditas. Next trip down to those parts, four moons hence—how the moon seemed within grasp from the bridge, how it seemed frittered in the wake of the tugboat!—he should carry in his suitcase a good array of little hearts of gold. All considered, not a wasted afternoon.
At one point, Berel had been left alone with Merceditas, and she had asked him for advice as an old, trusted friend of the family, an uncle for all practical purposes. They had talked about innocence and love. A woman is likely to get caught in whirls of lifelong torment, he had told her, unless right from the start she gets herself safely inside the white arum of chastity. The girl had stared at him silently, tears welling on her tame, gentle eyes. Then, sobbing, she had confided to him that she was pregnant.
The water lapped on the side of a coal barge at anchor. A bus, laden with night-shift workers, shrouded the bridge with a black cloud of exhaust. Berel lifted his hat and smoothed his hair, then put the hat back firmly on and slouched it over his eyes. He tried to reckon how much he could charge for an anklet and which amulets were more likely to please. But all he could think about was the girl’s face; all he could see before him were the tears on her eyes.
Down below, on the thick water, the moon’s reflection was like a shining wound. Berel opened his suitcase and pulled out his most precious timepiece. He held it up, and the gold caught a beam of moonlight. Then, as if by a will of its own, the jewel slipped his fingers, hit the water, and sank into the dark.