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The Spirit of Emulation

Among the inhabitants of the apartment building on Paraguay Street, where I live, the spirit of emulation is quite intense.

It's true that for a long time they limited themselves to rivaling one another in dogs, cats, canaries or parrots. The most exotic among them never went beyond little squirrels or a turtle. I myself had a beautiful German shepherd named Joey that was just slightly smaller than our apartment. However, besides Joey - and this was something completely unknown -, there lived with my wife and me a lovely spider of the species Lycosa pampeana.

One morning, at nine o'clock, while I was feeding my pet, the neighbor from 7-C - whom I had never even seen before - came by to borrow my newspaper for a moment, for who knows what confused reason. Afterwards, without managing to leave, he just stood there for a long time with the newspaper in his hand. He was staring, fascinated, at Gertrude, and in his stare there was something that made me shudder. It was the spirit of emulation.

The next day he came by to show me the scorpion he had just bought. In the hallway, the maid of the people who live in 7-D overheard our dialogue on the life, habits and feeding of spiders, scorpions and ticks. That very afternoon her employers acquired a crab.

Then, for a week, there was nothing new of note. Until one evening when I happened to be on the elevator with one of the neighbor women on the third floor: a languid, young blonde with one of those vacant stares in her eyes. She was carrying a big, yellow purse, the zipper of which was partially broken: every little while, through one of the breaks, there would poke out the tiny head of a golden yellow lizard.

The following noon, as I was returning from the grocery store, the bags almost flipped out of my hands when I bumped headlong into the large ant bear (or anteater) which was being lowered from a truck, en route to the doorman's office. One of the many onlookers who had congregated there mumbled - in a voice loud enough to be heard - that in truth the ant bear was not a real bear. The attorney's wife looked startled at this, and ran, trembling, to take refuge in her apartment. I didn't see her reappear until a few days later when, with a radiant and disdainful face, she came out to sign the receipt for the freight delivery men who had just brought her an American brown bear.

My situation was now becoming untenable. The neighbors denied me their greetings, the butcher refused me credit, and I was receiving insulting anonymous letters every day. Finally, when my wife threatened me with separation, I realized I could no longer endure an insignificant Lycosa pampeana a single day more. I then entered upon an unprecedented round of activities. I borrowed money from several friends, I became indescribably frugal, I stopped smoking... In this way I was able to purchase the most marvelous leopard you can imagine. Immediately, the fellow in 7-C, who always followed right in my footsteps, tried to outdo me with a jaguar. And, although it may seem illogical, he succeeded.

What hurts me most is dealing with people who lack aesthetic sensitivity, people who don't perceive quality, people who are merely quantitative. There wasn't a single neighbor who bowed before the superior beauty of my leopard; their understanding had been blinded by the greater size of the jaguar. At once, all the neighbors, spurred on by the boastful air of the jaguar's owner, gave themselves over to renewing their animals. I had to recognize that my humble leopard no longer provided me with my former status.

In the face of stealthy telephone conversations my wife was having with some anonymous gentleman, I saw that my only alternative was ironclad. With no remorse whatsoever, I sold the furniture, the refrigerator, the washing machine and the floor-waxer. I even sold the television. In short, I sold everything that could be sold, and I bought an enormous anaconda boa constrictor.

A poor man's life is hard: for only three days was I the hero of the building.

My anaconda boa broke every dike, it destroyed every sense of moderation, it brought down the most respected conventions. In all the apartments there now multiplied lions, tigers, gorillas, crocodiles ... Some even had black panthers, those panthers they don't even have in the municipal zoo. The whole building resounded with roaring, howling and chattering. We spent the nights awake; it was impossible to sleep. The intermingled odors of felines, quadrumanes, reptiles and ruminants turned the atmosphere unbreathable. Huge trucks brought tons of meat, fish and vegetables. Life in the building on Paraguay street became a little dangerous.

After a very long time, I had a disturbing experience when I once again shared the elevator with the languid, young neighbor woman on the third floor, who was now taking her Bengal tiger out for a walk around the block to go pee-pee. I recalled her lizard that stuck its tiny head out through an opening in the zipper. I felt moved to tenderness. How far behind we had left those first, difficult and quixotic days of scorpions and crabs!

Finally there came a moment when nobody could be trusted. The doorman, under the tense surveillance of several of the apartment owners, washed his two-horned rhinoceros with soap and water out on the sidewalk, and then - as if nothing had happened - he herded it into his apartment. This was more than the man in 5-A was accustomed to putting up with; a few hours later he triumphantly ascended the stairs, leading his hippopotamus by its bridle.

The building is now flooded and semi-destroyed. I am composing this report on the roof, in unfavorable conditions. Every so often, I'm startled by the plaintive trumpeting of the elephant that lives with the people in 7-A. I'm writing with my watch in view, since, at eight-minute intervals, I must take shelter amidst the ruins of the stairway so that the jet stream of vapor ejected by the blue whale in 7-C does not ruin these pages. And I write with a certain uneasiness, being, as I am, under the imploring gaze of the giraffe in 7-D, which, by sticking its head up over the wall, never ceases, for even one second, begging crackers from me.

[From Imperios y servidumbres, Barcelona: Editorial Seix Barral, 1972.]

Argentine writer known for his engaging stories with satire and elements of the fantastical.