By Miguel Ángel Mendo
José María was my best friend. I loved being with him because he was a very special lad. Good person, a bit timid, but with an incredible imagination. The interesting thing, and the bad part, was that, although he lived in the same building as me, we barely saw each other. Not only did he go to another school, the priest's school, the expensive one, but he had very strict parents who barely allowed him to go outside to play, or to come down to my apartment. Well, in reality the ogre was his father, José María Senior, because his mother, the poor woman, Ms. Matilda, seemed a good person but was something of a nobody. The one who called the shots in that family was the father. And he called them with a heavy hand.
José María had three siblings, all older than he was, much older. Elvira, the oldest, was even married already. Of course, it occurs to me now, she was in a rush to escape her family. The other two, Mariano and Carlos, worked from the time they were very young and brought money home. They were serious and formal and rarely spoke to anyone.
José María was also somewhat unsocial. Except with me, he was a boy of few words. He didn't have any other friends, because he always went straight home after school. Nonetheless, he and I, in those days, had a very curious type of communication, each of us from our own home. Each night, after dinner, began for us a secret and marvelous game.
He lived on the first floor, and I on the ground floor, and the windows of our bedrooms, which faced a courtyard, were one above the other. This is how I was able to talk to him. Not him. He couldn't say a word because, also at this time of the night, he was supposed to be studying. The truth is that he spent the day studying. His father wanted him to be an engineer, at least. And all because, it seemed, a math teacher years ago had told him that José María was very clever but a bit lazy —anyway, what teachers always say—, and the father developed many illusions with respect to the boy. Also, I suppose that, being the youngest, the responsibility had fallen upon the poor boy to be the most brilliant, with a university career and all. The one who has to achieve in life what none of the others could, including the father, for lack of financial means. On top of that, during the previous school year he had failed four subjects, and had to repeat them. That, it seemed, was a real drama in the apartment upstairs. Something that, by no means, would be allowed happen again. Thus, José María spent most of his time in front of a book, in his room.
The boredom of a situation like this could be deadly, as we all know. So, one night when I had also set myself to study because I had a test the next day (I wasn't overly controlled in my house and, maybe because of this, I was passing) I saw something out the window that left me impressed. An enormous shadow projected on the large wall opposite my window, on the other side of the courtyard. A shadow in the shape of a woman's head, with her nose, her hair, her chin, her lips moving... José María was doing this with his hands, projecting it with the light of his desk lamp. I remember I stuck my head out the window, excited.
—Is that you, Jose? —I asked in a low voice.
The woman's head moved up and down.
—Do you know how to make other things?
The woman on the wall again said yes with her head. Then she faded, leaving the wall white and a little later a wolf appeared with brilliant eyes moving its mouth and ears.
—Is it a wolf?
The animal also said yes, just like the woman.
—And what is it doing?
The wolf raised its snout up and kept it there, fluttering a bit.
—Is it howling?
It said yes.
—And isn't the woman scared?
The wolf disappeared and the woman came back into view. She seemed to be shivering. With fear.
—Of course, the poor woman is defenseless. If she had something to defender herself with....
Right away the same woman appeared with a type of club coming out from below. It was a jagged piece of cut paper. And it shook menacingly.
We did this for about three quarters of an hour, I suggesting things and he creating them for me giant sized on the opposite wall. The ease with which he, in seconds, only with his hands, paper and scissors, produced anything I asked for was incredible. Dragons breathing fire, a hunter with his rifle, a princess with her veils, an old man smoking a pipe, a sheep... Everything. Everything could be dramatized in shadow plays. The spectacle of that night ended with the first woman who had appeared. She shook a handkerchief in farewell. He had to go to bed. The lamp went back to its normal position, illuminating the desk, and the courtyard wall was once again dark. I said to him:
—Goodbye, Jose. Until tomorrow at the same time.
Naturally I failed the French test the next day. But I didn't care much. I knew I would pass it in the end. I liked the teacher, Mr. Narciso. And he liked me. And that's always the most important thing.
And that was how the strange game began, which was repeated each night. Well, that's not quite the right word. It was far from repeating: each day it was completely different. Between the two of us we told great stories, sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, sometimes a bit spicy, just for us. He as director, silent actor, director of photography. I as narrator and screenwriter, and of course musician (we boys always knew how to retell movies making with our mouths the music that improves a scene of intrigue, a love scene, a pursuit... And all the necessary sound effects: gunshots, falls, earthquakes, fires, punches...). We had a great time. So much so that I preferred to shut myself up in my room each night saying that I was going to study, to watching the television, in black and white, that, even though at that time there were only two channels, monopolized even more than today the attention of every home in Spain. This was my television. The one that I myself, with my friend, created. And I loved it.
My parents, naturally, were impressed that I studied so much without having to be told. Not that I was getting better grades because of it, as they were seeing throughout what remained of the school year, but I suppose they thought that I had to apply myself more because each exam was more difficult than the last. We of that generation thought we had this advantage, that the great majority of parents, with so much war, had not studied more than the three Rs and the content of each of our books sounded like Chinese to them. Sad advantages.
So, secretly, José María and I played almost every day in those months of spring. Until one night, just as we were about to begin our play, they called at the door of my room.
—Just a minute, they're calling me —I told José María.
The light of the desk lamp immediately stopped illuminating the wall. Jose had very fast reflexes for these things. He was very used to pretending, of this I am sure. With such a controlling father, and so hard, one learns quickly to cover one's back.
It was my mother. She asked if I could go down to the courtyard to pick up a skirt that had fallen while she was hanging the laundry. She needed it for the next day. And, while I was there, a napkin that had been there for a few weeks. Normally, entering the courtyard was a problem because one had to go through the caretakers' apartment, which had not been used for quite some time. They had moved to another nearby apartment, on Tesoro Street, where they were also caretakers', because this one was too damp. Basically, it was pretty complicated. I, naturally, said yes to my mother. I had gone down there before and I was skinny. From the verandah where the laundry was hung one had to slide down as far as the edge of a stone wall and, once there, jump down into the courtyard. The slivers of glass that had been on top of the wall had already been crushed up with a rock years ago, and it was no problem. I was also a pretty agile kid, and I loved this type of "heroic" task.
—No problem, Mom —I said.
—But you have to be careful, don't go breaking a leg.
—What are you talking about? It's a cinch.
Said and done. I went to the verandah, which one entered through the living room where my father and sister were at that moment watching tv, and I started to climb down. Everyone came to watch me. My father wanted to light the way for me with a flashlight but I, acting macho, told him nothing would happen, it wasn't necessary. And, in effect, this was immediately confirmed as I slid down the railing and over the wall with absolute assurance, as if I had done nothing else for my whole life, and they returned to what they were watching, as it surely would have been very interesting.
The truth is that I had never been in the courtyard at night. I knew there were rats near the drain, because sometimes I had seen them from my window. I had even made a bow and arrow out of metal rods from an old umbrella, that was magnificent and occasionally I had been on the verge of shooting it at one. Unfortunately, in spite of having spent hours and hours keeping watch with my bow ready, particularly on those boring Sunday afternoons, they didn't come into view very often. But at that moment I was not afraid. That night, the moon, high in the sky, shone brightly, and I felt like the champion of explorers. I heard them, ghostly, multiplied by distant echoes, the conversations and background music of the television show. But I couldn't understand anything they said: only the voices of the characters reached me, their intonation. I felt like a privileged being, alone in the world. A solitary astronaut stepping on the surface of an unknown planet.
There, under the verandah, was the skirt, and also the napkin, now full of dust, together with the large number of pins from all over the neighborhood, but I left them there, for the moment. I wanted to surprise my friend.
—Hey! Jose, come to the window! —I called in a low voice.
José María's face appeared in the window. He stuck his head out to see me there. But he immediately put his index finger to his mouth. To not cry out.
Then I gestured with a shrug of my shoulders and extending my hands: (what was I doing down here?)
—I came down to get a skirt that my mother dropped —I whispered.
Ah, he said just opening his mouth. And then, with both hands, he gave me the international signal of "Wait a moment"… Whereupon I was dazzled by a bright light. It was the desk lamp. I turned to see our wall illuminated. I moved closer to the big screen, enchanted, and before me appeared a crocodile with very sharp teeth, ready to eat me. It was marvelous. He must have made it with scissors, or with a razor blade, that afternoon. And suddenly there I was with my legs trapped in a marsh of shifting sands, theatrically contorting myself to keep the terrible animal from grabbing me in his jaws, which opened and closed horrifyingly. Then, suddenly free from the mire, I jumped on top of him, straddling his back, and held onto his upper jaw, from behind, with my powerful arms. I wanted to pull it apart and, with a massive muscular effort, to the limits of my energy, little by little I was able to open its mouth. The crocodile struggled furiously beneath my legs, lashing at me with tremendous whips of its tail. One single blow with that powerful extremity and I would have been killed. I, crouching down to avoid the terrible lashes of the tail, tried to resist the jolts of the body trying to hurl me to the ground, where, defenseless, it would crush me between its teeth. But always concentrating my now exhausted efforts toward subduing its weak spot: the jaw. I believed I was winning. A little more, a little more, and... Finally, the jaw loosely fell back, torn from its body, and I fell to the ground exhausted. The crocodile twitched dramatically in the final death rattle. I had defeated it.
Then before me appeared an incredibly beautiful woman three stories tall, with an enormous sun hat, a type of fox fur around her shoulders and marvelous curves. She was like an immense Marilyn Monroe, watching me seductively in profile from above, smoking through a long cigarette holder. I was hypnotized, stretched out on the ground, still trying to recover my breath after the struggle with the crocodile. Suddenly a great black hand removed her shawl, leaving her breasts shining in profile on the big screen. The image, then, bent impossibly until her head was beside mine. Slowly, lovingly, she leaned over me. I could have hugged the head of that goddess, kissed her glorious mouth...
Then it all faded. All that remained was an empty wall, illuminated. I looked to the window at Jose, disconcerted, and annoyed at the joke that had awoken me in the midst of such a marvelous dream. But suddenly I understood that this was no joke. No. It was his father, who had come into his room unexpectedly and caught him with his hand in the cookie jar. I heard his voice, his wicked voice whispering, always so nervous and so unpleasant. I also heard the poor and broken excuses of Jose, and several hard slaps. The light from the desk lamp went out. Then I heard nothing more than a door slamming and the fuzzy background noise of the unbearable and ubiquitous television show.
I stayed there alone and sad in the abandonment of the night. Before the great and desolate mass of windows, closed or faintly flashed and uniformly pulsing with the light of the images on the televisions. Never had the black sky, there, over my head, felt so dense, so compact. I felt so small and so sad that, unable to stop, my eyes filled with tears.
But... One moment... Was I really alone? Some slight movements in that great framework of windows made me realize there were other partially hidden spectators in the semi-darkness. I saw, for example, a man looking out the window of the fourth floor, smoking in silence with the lights out. And, there, to the side, someone was just lowering a blind. And a young man, on the third floor, was still there leaning on the railing of his verandah, watching me. In his silent gaze I sensed a sadness much like mine. An unnamed weakness. A pain of the soul, without tears and without sobs that embraced the entire courtyard, the neighborhood, the city, the fields... That crossed all borders and stained the world with a timeless grief, eternal.
No, it wasn't just me each night watching out the window enjoying the spectacle of the shadow plays. There had been other anonymous and silent spectators, an undoubtedly faithful audience to our poor and ingenious nocturnal theater.
After that day there were no more sessions. Sometimes José María and I crossed in the stairway of the building, but he was always accompanied, and we could only look at each other. It was clear that he had been forbidden to speak with me. I knew that he had again failed too many subjects in June and that, during the summer, he had been placed in a boarding school. Later they moved out of the neighborhood and I never saw him again. Surely now he is an engineer, or a professor. And would have, as I do, children. And he would want them to apply themselves, to not waste their time and to study like him, for a career.
Many years have passed, but sometimes I go to the movies and I think of him. I like to imagine that it is José María, from there above, from the booth, who is projecting the movie, excited. And that we, the few spectators on a weekday, scattered throughout the courtyard of seats, have furtively escaped this night the problems of daily life to enter a magical world in which all is grand, beautiful, and resplendent. Even in the most miserable stories.
(Originally published in Spanish in Cuentos de la calle del Pez (2004) and translated by Elizabeth Novetsky.)QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010