the next stop
There’s nothing worse than an extraordinary story coming out of the mouth of a mediocre narrator, and that was Eduviges, Señor Ramiro’s assistant, who came to fix my water heater because Señor Ramiro was sick. While he struggled with the igniting mechanism, he told me about his boss’s trip to London the previous summer. “Tell” is one way of putting it, because he interrupted himself off and on to explain something about the thermostat and the boiler’s temperature-regulating device, and I was on the verge of giving up completely several times, pretending to pay attention, but then he’d relay some episode or make a comment that pulled me into the story again, and I, irritated with him and with myself, would ask about some detail I hadn’t understood.
From his story’s confusing collection of fragments, I was able to conclude that Señor Ramiro had borrowed money from friends and relatives to buy a plane ticket to London. His wife’s funeral expenses—she’d died a few months before—had left him without savings, and part of the reason for traveling to London to look for his daughter, Esperanza, was to give her the news of her mother’s death. He hadn’t seen her for three years, and during the previous year he hadn’t heard any news from her at all, so it seemed that the parents’ relationship with their daughter had never been great. That, at least, was what I deduced from Eduviges’s rambling discourse. Esperanza had studied English with a fastidious perfectionism, her sights set on leaving Mexico and her home, where she felt suffocated by an overbearing father and perpetually ill mother.
Lacking the most basic knowledge of the English language, Señor Ramiro stayed in one of the many small hotels in the immediate vicinity of King’s Cross train station, where now and then he’d count his money, because it was the first time he had handled foreign currency. He was suspicious of everything and everyone. He had been misinformed that London was cold; in July it was hotter than Mexico City. He’d bought a wool-lined leather jacket for the trip, and because he was afraid it would be stolen if he left it in his hotel, he wore it everywhere he went. In the parks he saw that the British sat on the grass, but he always chose a bench, and there, at noon, he’d take two cheese sandwiches out of his plastic bag embossed with the crest of the Atlante Soccer Club, the only lunch he ate, and even then he didn’t take off his jacket.
The Mexican embassy provided him with the only information they had about his daughter: She had been hired two years earlier as a cleaning supervisor for the TFL, the city’s public transportation system. They discovered, however, that the name Esperanza Gutiérrez did not appear on the company’s payroll, indicating that she was no longer working there, and they advised him to go in person to the various TFL agencies scattered across the metropolitan area. He was given a list of all of them, and they gave him a map of London and an Oyster card, which he could use to ride the buses and the Tube, and they told him how to use it. He opted to walk from one agency to another, so I suppose that was how he thought of his short stay in London: a long walk in search of his daughter. I can see him wearing his wool-lined jacket, indifferent to the heat, not allowing himself the slightest comfort, as if that would mean some concession that the city could later charge him for, and, for the same reason, perhaps he didn’t cry when he finally found the TFL office where Esperanza had worked, first as a cleaning supervisor and then as a receptionist, and he learned that she had died the year before, run over when crossing the street. I don’t know how he was given the news, in which language they told him, if they brought him a chair or gave him a glass of water, and if he understood what had happened right away or if they had to explain it to him several times. When I asked Eduviges about those things, he didn’t know how to answer me. I assumed the story was over, uttered a few words to express my condolences for that unfortunate outcome, and was about to leave the kitchen when he said, “Subsequently, the next day, a guy went to his hotel looking for him.” I turned around, because Eduviges had not, to that point, used the word “subsequently,” and that little narrative sparkle stopped me in my tracks. “What guy?” I asked, but he, instead of answering me, asked if I had a Phillips screwdriver because he’d forgotten to bring his. I went to find the screwdriver, gave it to him, and, unable to hide the interest his phrase had awakened in me, asked again, “What guy went looking for him?” He took his time to answer: “You see, he was one of Esperanza’s colleagues.” He gave the screwdriver a few turns until he removed the screw, appraised the thread, and after informing me that it had to be replaced, threw it into the trash can and asked me, “Where was I?” I refused to answer, and he must have realized that he wasn’t being funny because he said, “Ah, right! One of his daughter’s colleagues went to his hotel to see him, as I told you.” But he got distracted again showing me a screw that he’d pulled out of his toolbox, identical to the one he’d just thrown away. “It’s the last one this size I have,” he said, and I loathed him, and I realized that it is possible to hate someone for not knowing how to tell a story properly. We exchanged a look draped with the mutual dislike that had fallen between us. Finally, he picked up the thread again and told me that the colleague of Señor Ramiro’s daughter didn’t speak Spanish, so the communication between the two was arduous. He put it that way, “arduous,” showing me that his lexicon wasn’t so rickety. The man explained to Señor Ramiro that the TFL office wasn’t obliged to pay for his daughter’s funeral, so they had cremated her, and her ashes had gone to one of the city’s municipal cemeteries, the address of which he brought with him. But that wasn’t the only reason he’d gone to look for him; he also wanted to let him know that he could hear his daughter’s voice on most of the buses in London. Eduviges fell silent at that point and patted his vest pockets, as if looking for something he’d dropped. He was being ornery again, seeing that I was hanging on his every word. I asked as calmly as I could what he meant by “he could hear his daughter’s voice on most of the buses in London.” In response he asked if I had ever been to that city. I told him I had. “And did you ride a bus?” I answered in the affirmative. Then I understood. I remembered a woman’s voice announcing the names of each bus stop, along with the final destination. You could hear a message like this: “This is a number five bus to King’s Cross. The next stop: Euston.” I connected the dots. Señor Ramiro’s daughter had worked in one of the TFL offices. The voice that could be heard on some bus routes was hers. She probably had a beautiful voice, tinged with a soft Latino accent, and that’s why they’d chosen her to record the names of the stops. Esperanza’s colleague asked Señor Ramiro to leave the hotel with him, and they walked to the nearest bus stop together, Eduviges explained. I imagined the two of them sitting together on the upper deck of the bus. As soon as they heard the recorded voice announcing the next stop, the man must have pointed at the speakers in the ceiling for Señor Ramiro, exclaiming, “Her voice, her voice! Your hija! Escuchar, it’s your hija’s voice!”
How long did it take Señor Ramiro to recognize her? Immediately, or did he need to hear it several times to be certain? It would have been futile to ask Eduviges, because that’s the kind of detail a bad narrator overlooks. And I wonder how Señor Ramiro reacted when he no longer had the slightest doubt that it was Esperanza’s voice. I don’t think he felt gratitude, or astonishment, or joy; instead, acute pain. I see him squeezing the top of the seat in front of him so he won’t break down and cry, asking himself if that’s why he’d come to London, to listen to his dead daughter pronounce the names of the bus stops of that incomprehensible city.
He rode the buses every day, all day, Eduviges told me. He always chose the upper deck, where it was easier to find an empty seat. Not satisfied with hearing his daughter’s voice on only one route, he began to listen for it on others. He wound up wanting to hear all the names of the bus stops recorded in her voice, Eduviges said in the only narrative ostentation I heard him use that afternoon. “And did he learn any?” I asked. “He could have learned all of them,” he answered, and explained that he rode each route from the first to the last station stop, and if he boarded a bus on a new route and the female voice was not Esperanza’s, he got off right away. Then I asked how he paid for all those bus trips, and he replied that he was a fare-beater. But I remembered that transportation inspectors boarded London buses from time to time, and I told him so. “Word of what happened had spread and they left him alone,” he said without looking at me.
I looked at him skeptically. London is huge, and no matter how much Señor Ramiro spent his days riding buses and taking different routes, it was almost impossible that all the drivers and inspectors had heard about him. But I thought of his wool-lined jacket, which he took off only when he went to sleep in his hotel, and I imagined that the story of the Mexican plumber who rode buses to hear the voice of his dead daughter could very well have traveled from mouth to mouth among the various TFL offices, even reaching the ears of the transportation inspectors, who turned a blind eye when they recognized his unusual leather jacket. Who would have dared ask him to get off the bus? It was one of those eccentric stories that fascinate the English and that can only happen in London.
I was hardly listening to Eduviges now, who once again had interrupted his story to explain who knows what about the pilot light on the boiler, and while he was talking, I imagined Señor Ramiro living in London for the rest of his life, exploring the length and breadth of it from the top deck of its buses, seized by that voice that now, his wife dead, was all he had left in the world. I saw him wearing a windbreaker someone had given him, more appropriate for London winters than his heavy wool-lined leather jacket. He had learned some English and he got by doing odd plumbing and painting jobs, mainly for the Mexican embassy and some Mexicans residing in London; he knew all the bus routes and had traveled around London more than anyone, but between him and the city there was always the top deck of the buses, with that litany of names that he’d possibly sworn to learn by heart for the eternal salvation of his daughter’s soul. And he would have done so, were it not for the fact that one morning, perhaps at the beginning of spring, taking his first bus of the day, he heard the name of the next stop and felt something like a dagger pierce his chest. It wasn’t Esperanza’s voice. It was lower and more guttural, perhaps a Black woman’s, another “beautiful foreign voice.” He got to his feet and hurried down the stairs, proceeded to the driver’s area, but when he arrived he didn’t know what to say and stood there speechless. His English was too elementary to express his surprise or make a complaint. He’d managed to remain silent the whole time he’d been in London, awaiting his daughter’s voice and blocking out all the other voices around him.
“All set!” Eduviges said, pulling me out of my reverie, and he showed me the water heater’s ignition-mechanism wheel, which had gotten stuck and was now working again. I asked him how much I owed him, he told me the price, I went for the money, paid him, and walked him to the door.
Elena and the children wouldn’t be back from my mother-in-law’s house for another day, and I kept walking around my house, unable to get Eduviges’s story out of my head. I repeated “This is a number five bus to King’s Cross. The next stop: Euston” out loud several times, like someone uttering a magic spell. Perhaps the very mediocrity of the narrator had benefited the story, compelling me to take control of its shortcomings to complete it in my own way. Was Esperanza’s voice still heard in the famous red double-decker buses or, as I had guessed, had it been replaced by another, since everything changes in this world, even the voice that announces the names of the bus stops in London?
The ignition-mechanism wheel got stuck again two weeks later, something that didn’t surprise me after observing that Eduviges the plumber was just as careless as Eduviges the storyteller. I called Señor Ramiro’s shop, determined not to pay one penny more for that botched repair. Señor Ramiro answered, I told him why I was calling, and he exclaimed, “That kid’s given me nothing but headaches. I’ll be right over.”
I would have preferred to have Eduviges come back, even though I didn’t like him, and I was nervous when I opened the door for Señor Ramiro. He didn’t look old or beaten down; he was carrying his enormous toolbox, and since he’s familiar with my house, he went straight to the kitchen, where the hot water heater is.
He turned the ignition-mechanism wheel a couple of times and said without looking at me, “I had to fire him. That kid lives on the moon.”
He removed the wheel and put two tiny screws in my hand. “Hold these a minute, please, this won’t take long.”
While he put the mechanism back together he started to whistle.
“You seem happy,” I ventured to say.
“As of yesterday, I’m a grandfather,” he replied smiling. “My daughter, Esperanza, had a beautiful baby girl.”
I thought I misheard him and I cleared my throat. “Your daughter, the one who lives in London?”
“The only one I have. She came back when she found out she was pregnant because she wanted the girl to be born in Mexico.”
I looked for some sign of crazy in his eyes. I let a few seconds pass and said, “Eduviges told me that you went to London to . . . visit her.” (I was going to say “look for” but I stopped myself in time.)
He turned to me and said with a look of pity, “I tell you, there’s something wrong with that kid’s head! I’ve never left Mexico in my life . . . Now, if you could, give me those two screws, please.”