Authors: Carlos Castán
Some days I see this mentally handicapped guy stroll by. He must be almost twenty, and he’s always accompanied by a woman who looks like she’s his grandmother and buys him an edition of AS sports magazine, soccer sticker-album packs, and superhero comics. The two of them are pretty fat, and the kid is always dressed in an outdated Real Zaragoza tracksuit, the official design from four or five seasons back, beaming with pride. I figure that the boy is in his grandmother’s care and that he barely sees his parents—it’s been a long time since his father was in the mood to take any crap, and the man now spends his afternoons playing cards in a gloomy corner of some bar in the neighborhood of Las Fuentes, a tumbler of cognac and anisette on the next table, for his own table is taken up entirely by the baize playmat; meanwhile, she—the mother—who met a gentleman that seemed like an upstanding sort, runs a roadside bar three provinces further south where they also sell cheese,
shortbreads, and melons. No doubt the kid attended school for a while, until they gave up on him as a hopeless case. He’d have had no one to play with in the recess yard, but would sometimes take refuge in his cell phone so as not to appear so forlorn. He’d pretend to receive messages, and though his classmates suspected he was making it all up, they’d have to prove it, because if you don’t lose heart and you keep checking the screen again and again as if you hadn’t a care in the world, a slight lingering doubt always remains. Though I know the situation would be as foolish and as far-fetched as can be, I can’t help thinking for a moment that I might be happy if I could be that kid’s older brother or something, as ill-equipped as he is for life’s struggles, also in the care of his grandmother, who would cook us hearty, humble stews every day, pots of macaroni and ground beef, and huge bacon sandwiches whenever snack time rolled around. We could share a room, which would be filled with posters of athletes and a smell of sweat that would, in time, cease to turn my stomach. He would show me his collections, the dog-eared albums in which no one until now had ever shown the slightest interest, his magazines, his badges, and we would stay up all hours chatting about signing rumors and zombies.
And if so much time hadn’t gone by, if I had a little more energy and a youthful set of white teeth, I’d also like to be the boyfriend of some neighborhood hairdresser—let’s call her Puri. Or Nati, Nati would do. I’d pick her up from work on afternoons of heavy rain, lingering awhile to chat with the other girls who are always chewing gum and discussing the articles in their magazines while they finish tidying everything to close up the shop, forming piles of hair of every color with their brooms. Perhaps one of them wouldn’t mind giving me a quick shampoo while I wait. I’d like, moving the dream on a little, to have gotten married to her, to Nati, that is, to have acquitted myself well in the waltz in a restaurant in some industrial estate, filled with decorations and flowers and red drapes, and for the whole thing to have been caught on videotape, which we’d watch from time to time, when nothing on TV took our fancy—me cutting the cake, me teasing my new mother-in-law, fat and happy in her dress festooned with ribbons, the waiters refilling our glasses, Nati looking like a princess, her cleavage covered in glitter, or rather a fairy who’s made all sorrow vanish without a trace, and the chanting crowd calling on me to kiss her, on the two of us to climb onto the table, to kiss each other again. Right now, this very afternoon, I’d get home, flake out on the couch, and rub my eyes so that she might ask me if I’m tired. Today, I think I’d tell her I’ve had a tough day. Yes, I’d tell her I’ve had a real tough day.
The police called to tell me that Jacobo had been murdered. That night, his neighbors had heard strange cries and noises, and the next morning his buzzer and phone had gone unanswered. When the locksmith accompanying the police officers opened his door, they discovered his body lying prone in the hallway—in his underwear, which is the way he liked to wander around his apartment both summer and winter—riddled with knife wounds. When I hung up, I screwed my eyes tight to summon the tears, but it was no use. In the darkness of my heart, however, at that very moment, Celan again leapt into the river with a deafening noise, and everything was drenched by the water of the night. I thought back to the axes Jacobo had hidden next to the door the last night I went to keep him company, and I confirmed the suspicions I had harbored at the time that he was not then afraid simply of memories or nightmares but rather that he truly feared that a flesh-and-blood human being might attack him, as had sadly come to pass. This was not some worsening of the panicked state he had recently been struggling to keep at bay. Rather, as had now become clear, he had had more than sound reason to fear that a murderer might break into his apartment. According to the statements from the handful of witnesses who thought they had heard something odd, all this must have happened around about dinner time, at nine in the evening or thereabouts.
It would seem that my name took pride of place in the address book on his cell phone, next to those familiar words
in case of emergency
, which explains why the police called me ahead of anyone closer to him (on paper at least) so that I might put them in contact with his family, while gleaning the first clues as to his identity. I was touched by this tribute of sorts that Jacobo had paid me, now from the other side, by choosing me as the person to be notified should anything happen to him. On the one hand, he saw me as a guy who had his wits about him, someone capable, when the time came, of making decisions that might have been of a clinical nature and of vital importance, as if by singling me out he were announcing to the world,
This guy will know, when the chips are down, what has to be done
. At the same time, I couldn’t help but take it as a humble, secret declaration of friendship, something along the lines of
I know that
. Yet I felt somehow guilty, for no sooner had I heard the news, right at that very instant, my thoughts were not for him, but rather for myself. Something like
great, just what I needed
needed. I don’t know how far it’s possible to mourn someone’s death from any perspective other than one’s own, by which I mean, the perspective of the gap left behind in my life and among my things. I’d have liked to have been able to mourn him, above all else, for his own sake, for the days he would now miss out on rather than for his absence from my days. I wanted to believe that he had lived his life to the full, that dreams, much like books, also count for something, and that fear itself, when all is said and done, is also life, that there is no need to travel down all the world’s roads, to cram your life story full of incident and travel and love and persecution when the abyss forms part of your blood and your heart has been buffeted by every storm.
I believe they made the call from his apartment, their eyes perhaps on the corpse as they spoke to me, but I was not summoned to the precinct downtown until that evening. It’s awkward having to field questions when your gaze has been obliterated, and it’s all but impossible to keep a sufficiently clear head to be of any use to a detective at such times, when your hatred is directed at the whole world, indiscriminately, and at the turn events have taken—at that whole intricate, tangled mess of cause and effect that, to cut a long story short, we call fate. They wanted to know if he might have any debts. I didn’t think so, I said. No, for sure, I said, and much less to the point of having to turn to some low-life loan shark or anything like that. They wanted to know if he might have any enemies. I told them that this struck me as impossible, for I was at that moment incapable of remembering anything other than his compassion, his home as if it were my home, that way he had of taking you in and hearing you out. On hearing the word
, my thoughts turned to those intangible creatures that inhabited the furrows of his brain’s circumvolutions, the ghosts that ruthlessly hunted him down in packs, night after night, and against which he had so often sought the assistance of my mere presence. But an enemy of that sort does not plunge a knife though the thorax. It does not kill like this. They wanted to hear about his way of life. Or
, perhaps they said
. You know, sir: customs, hobbies, habits, any detail might help. They looked at me as if I’d lost my senses when I told them he was a big fan of Samuel Beckett. I had no wish to make light of things at such a time, but my thoughts weren’t flowing with any normality, either. Tripping over my tongue, I sketched a skin-deep, rough portrait of how I saw his life at that point: a retired man who devours books and DVD movies, something of a homebody, though he shops for his own groceries and goes out for strolls every now and then, as well as for the occasional evening meal, albeit much less since the ban on smoking in restaurants and bars had come in, forcing him to seek refuge in his apartment more often than not. He liked to complain that the disappearance of the smell of smoke in bars had only served to bring the smell of sweat, humanity, and armpits to the fore, and ever since, he had preferred to hole himself up with his wounded freedom beneath the reading lamp or in front of the plasma screen on which he liked to watch classic American movies from the forties and fifties, smoking to his heart’s content, drinking whisky, going to bed when the mood took him, and getting up as and when he pleased. He would appear in the living room, yawning and stretching his limbs, rubbing his eyes but with a book already beneath one arm. A woman came by to help clean his apartment three mornings a week. I don’t know if she had a key. Enemies? No idea. As for what he was up to, he told me plenty, but I don’t know if he told me everything. I don’t believe there’s a person alive who doesn’t keep a few things to themselves. Perhaps he was more apt to recount memories from long ago or events that took place only in his thoughts and less of what happened to him in the outside world or over the course of his day, but the fact is he was one of those people who live more in their memories than their own apartments. I know he had his sorrows, and also that he sometimes roared with laughter, that he was content dining on eggs and fried pork sausage and wine aplenty, or over post-prandial drinks with friends at the dinner parties they still throw once in a blue moon, wolfing down the cream on his Irish coffee by the spoonful; I know that he never entirely lost interest in the world or in women, though he was mindful that he was now surviving in the margins, off the path, albeit next to the path. The window next to his writing desk was like a watchtower from which to observe time as it set about grinding down the world, the passing of life, the clouds, the tedium. In a way, he was a little like old Cioran, whose adolescent readers took their own lives year after year while he, deep down a secret, shameful lover of life, jogged through the parks of Paris in his shiny track suit.
Back home, I couldn’t help wondering how an outside observer might describe
lifestyle, or how
might come across to a police officer seated on the other side of a gray metallic table. Would what he heard make him envious? Would he feel sorry for me? No doubt it all comes down to who is doing the telling and how the tale is told, to the words chosen for the portrait. There are those who might say that I’m like a shadow roaming certain streets, always at the same hour, give or take, his hair unkempt, a scarf slung carelessly around his neck, slipping into bars and ordering coffee, barely speaking a word to a soul, and sometimes scribbling things down in a notebook or on any old napkin, on the bar itself, scowling and looking downcast in general, as if hauling a great weight from some ancient place, and whose apartment is no doubt gloomy and whose phone probably hardly ever rings. But from the outside, from a distance, I could also look like a man strolling at his leisure, his evenings free and the city all to himself, sometimes in the company of women who are by no means hard on the eyes, who hang on his every word and giggle foolishly at his wisecracks, who work together to make sure he doesn’t let himself go altogether, forcing him out on the town and sitting him down in cafés, right in amongst them all, for a sort of therapy session, so they say half-jokingly. And, also half-jokingly, they chide him if they suspect he has returned to his old ways, shutting himself up in his apartment with his dreary books, without speaking to a soul even though the loneliness is killing him. “If I find out . . .” they say. “You’ll have me to answer to . . .” And the odd one among them even appears to dream now and then of rescuing him once and for all from the helplessness he seems hell-bent on drawing attention to, almost as if unintentionally, with his three-day stubble, that constant look of not having gotten a proper night’s sleep (if, that is, he ever actually made it to bed, which is taking a lot for granted), and his threadbare shirts, his long coats, and that way of walking of his, with a quick stride, just as soon gazing at the ground as at the tops of the plane trees, coming to an unexpected halt all of a sudden, absent-mindedly, in front of some store window, above all the windows of second-hand book stores, auction houses, and antique dealers, but also before the displays of furniture stores that project out onto the chilly street scenes of the life of warmth he always seems to be craving—lamps and pianos, porcelain dolls, toy racing cars, Japanese bedroom sets, reading corners with the light turned on, faded leather wing chairs that make you think of long winters, cups of coffee, trays of pastries, and piles of slightly dull books on the mantelpiece, next to the silver-framed portraits of ancestors. But all of that not just yet but rather thinking ahead to some vague future time, on the far side of the storm, after having lived just a little bit more, when he’s given up for good and has finished doing battle with the tempests that now swirl through his thoughts and his heart says, “Here and no further,” and he feels so weary, so sapped of strength, that he no longer wishes to hear of strolls or dingy dives or sneaking into buildings to probe the lives of others and dream awhile of other people’s stories and hideouts and wives. That seems to be what he’s playing at sometimes, at manufacturing that image of neglect and helplessness that leads—whether by design or otherwise, who knows?—the occasional female friend to be seized by the urge to take him out shopping on an afternoon of sales and to give him a few tips on styles and sizes, what suits him and what doesn’t, what’s still in and what’s out, and, in passing, to rearrange his closet a little, and even, while she’s at it, to teach him three or four easy-to-cook recipes, dishes that give proper nourishment and can be whipped up in a moment and barely cost a dime, so that he doesn’t carry on feeding himself any old way, as is his habit, with all that coffee, all that fried and refried bar fare, his routine in disarray. The neighbors would chip in with remarks along the lines of
you never know with him, sometimes three or four days will go by when you can’t hear yourself think what with all the coming and going from his apartment at all hours, and other times a month will pass without hearing so much as a pin drop; sometimes you see him heading out, all dressed up in his blazer and expensive colognes, then that same evening you run into him on his way back in such a state that if you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was one of those bums who sneak into the building to go begging for change from door to door
. More witnesses would then say their piece. The guy from the bar
He’d been looking down in the dumps recently. Before, not so long ago, he’d turn up with two or three books he’d just bought, tearing the cellophane off with something bordering on delight, as if his mouth were watering. Then he’d leaf through them slowly, the index, the prologue, all that stuff, reading out random paragraphs here and there, scribbling something on the opening pages, the date and his signature, no doubt. He looked sad, true enough, but it wasn’t the sort of sadness that debilitates you, rather it was as if he were somehow content there in his own world, immersed in his thoughts and those new books. A world away from the shadow that began to drop by later, his visits much fewer and further between, subdued and jittery at the same time, with a certain air of bitterness in his gestures
. Meanwhile, when questioned, my colleagues would no doubt point to my attitude of “not giving a shit.”
Not rude, mind you, never altogether unpleasant, it’s just that often you didn’t dare talk to him, because it was as if you were about to wrench him violently back from some place deep down where he was happily submerged. But if you did have something to tell him and you finally plucked up the courage to do so, you soon realized it was no big deal. He’d even try to smile and pay attention to you, more or less
. One of them, the lovely Araceli, might have more to add:
I don’t think he was as antisocial as he might seem, there were times when I even thought he was about to come on to me at any moment, to ask me to join him for happy hour, as they call it these days, to grab a coffee one evening or suggest we catch a movie or whatever other excuse. I saw how he looked at my legs, I caught him several times looking at me longingly, you can tell these things, as if inwardly weighing up the goods and the cost, in other words, the meat and the price tag: on one side of the scales, the desire to rip my panties clean off, I think that was obvious, although maybe it went beyond that to include daydreams of another sort, more romantically inclined, so to speak, going for a stroll and not always being so alone and being able to tell me things; and, on the other side, myself as a millstone for then on, a more or less unavoidable date almost every evening, forcing him to emerge from his cave on weekends, the idea of his cell phone coming to life and my name on the little screen, of me as a deadweight hanging from his arm on Sundays in line at some movie theater or, worse still, in bars with music where there is nothing to look for because supposedly he’s already found me. Though maybe this is all in my head, because the truth is he never actually said a word to me. It was just that way he had of looking at my legs, like I said, how he’d all of a sudden become lost in thought, and all those times he looked all set to say something only to bite his tongue