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Goodness from strangers

In different times and places, two stories (or just the same truth) to restore a little faith in mankind

Today I'll tell two stories. The first happens in a shop in Calle de Gràcia in Barcelona, not far from my office. My son asked me to go there and exchange some video games for new ones. The shop assistant was a tall, spindly teenager. I told him to put it onto our family account. He told me shyly that he had a problem and, sales tickets in hand, haltingly explained. Finally I understood that, in a previous exchange, a girl had paid us 18 euros more than we had coming. I reached for my wallet, saying, So the problem is, we owe you 18 euros? He seemed perplexed, stammered that no, the mistake had been the girl's, and that if I didn't want to pay I didn't have to. But let's see, I said. If she made a mistake, those 18 euros are yours, not mine, yes or no?

He assented without much conviction and, returning the change, muttered something. Excuse me? I said. Nothing, he replied. There are still good people out there. I laughed, pointed at him in mock warning and barked: Yes, but not many! Going out to the street, I was furious. I was embarrassed at having behaved like a gullible 50-year-old geek: telling myself I had done it out of instinct not goodness and that, if goodness consists in not keeping what isn't yours, the concept of goodness has been much devaluated.

Time passed; I forgot the incident. I returned weeks later to buy another game that had just come out on sale. The queue to buy it was long, and I joined it. I asked a girl how much it cost. 74 euros, she replied, and asked me if I had reserved one. No, I said, do you have to? Of course, she said, If you haven't, then you'll have to come back for it in a couple of days.

Having lost touch with his platoon, he wanders, freezing and hungry, over the steppe. He sees a light. It's a small cabin. He arrives, knocks. A woman opens...

I thought of going away and buying something else, but then I saw the tall spindly clerk and thought, well, if I did him a favor he could now do me one, selling me the game that same afternoon. So when I came to the counter I asked him, You remember me? Of course, he replied. I explained but before I could finish, he went over to a man who seemed to be his boss. Pointing at me I heard him whisper: the guy from the other day. I thought: Idiot, you're making a fool of yourself again. I thought of running out, but before I could do this, he returned with the game in his hand. I thanked him and gave him 74 euros; he gave me 22 back. Now the surprise was mine. Doesn't it cost 74? I asked. He winked and said: Not for you.

The second story is more simple. The protagonist is Mario Rigoni, an Italian soldier who fought in World War II and, in The Sergeant in the Snow, recounted the campaign in Russia. The book was published in 1953. That year Borges read it and was much impressed by a certain anecdote that he told to Bioy Casares, who tells it like this: Rigoni has "lost touch with his platoon; wanders, freezing and hungry, over the steppe. He sees a light. It's a small cabin. He arrives, knocks. A woman opens. Inside, seated at the table, are three Russian soldiers with submachine guns. He has no time to attack them with his own weapon; thinking that if he runs or enters the cabin, they'll kill him. He stands there motionless. The woman gestures for him to come in. He enters. Without moving away from him, the woman gives him something to eat and drink. Then she accompanies him to the door. He kisses her hand, and goes."

I'm not sure I quite understand these two stories. It might be said that they are parallel stories, united by a secret link; I wonder whether they are not (however different) the same story.

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