It had been a long night in Madrid, but I didn’t anticipate seeing the sun so soon. I had no watch and had thought that while I knew I had been out late, it couldn’t have been sunrise. I danced with friends at a club, a number of clubs, but I left after a meaningless lover’s quarrel with my girlfriend at the time, the kind that occurs after couples are separated from each other for a length of time, yet remain still in the same place.
Outside, a soft breeze made everything around me seem lighter, more fragile. I felt like I could topple over city blocks by just leaning on one of their buildings. Passing Madrid’s Arc de Triomphe, I thought about how much smaller it looked than the one in Paris. Was it actually bigger, or was it some trick of product placement on Napoleon’s part? I was happy to be outside the pulsing and suffocating atmosphere of the dance club. Next to the Arc de Triomphe was a small park with pear trees. I had never eaten a fruit right off of the tree and thought I might try it, but the idea of biting into a worm disgusted me. I wasn’t sure if pears were ever possessed of worms, but I knew that apples sometimes were, from those images in picture books you see as a child. I decided against eating a pear and instead sat under one of the pear trees for a while, smoking, aware of everything important and thinking of nothing.
The sun began to rise and I felt a touch of anxiety that comes with knowing you have so much day in front of you. I have always hated taking in the sunrise, because I know I am either up too early, or out too late. I began to walk back to my apartment building near the Cuatro Caminos, a part of town mostly inhabited by students and younger families. I wasn’t tired yet and it was a pleasant walk, for the most part. Occasionally a group of drunken teenagers would set upon me like harmless ghouls, asking for money or making fun of me for being a foreigner. I laughed awkwardly at myself with them and nodded in agreement when they would persistently ask if I knew Michael Jordan or The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I came to a crosswalk and noticed a man with a cane standing toward the side of the street he intended, I thought, to cross. The sign indicating it was okay to pass flashed and still the man had yet to cross the street. I arrived at the crosswalk as the light had just turned to red and although there were no cars at any of the intersecting streets, I stopped anyway. I stood next to the man at the corner a few moments before I realized he was blind. The man turned toward me; he had no sunglasses on and I could barely see the outline of his iris or pupil through the gauze of his cataracts. His eyes were two small pebbles drowned in saucers filled with milk.
“Did I just miss the light?” he asked. He dressed nicely, as all old Spanish men do. He wore a blue pinstriped suit with a somber black tie over a starched white shirt. His face had succumbed to gravity, but there was youthfulness to it.
“I’m sorry?” I said. I had, and still have a hard time understanding questions in Spanish, when I’m not sure they’re coming.
“I missed the light, didn’t I?” he asked again, patiently.
“Oh, yes, I think you just missed it. I missed it too,” I assured him.
“We’ll get the next one,” he said, smiling.
“Yes, we will. Besides, you can never be too careful.” The man looked perplexed. I’m sure I had translated myself poorly. “It’s good to be careful,” I tried again.
“Yes, it is.” He smiled at me again. “You’re up early.”
“No,” I admitted. “I’m out late.”
“Ahh-yahh. You sound young. Where are you from?”
“I’m American.” He coughed, covering his mouth and gave a nod. We waited a few moments and the light flashed again.
“Let me help you,” I said, putting my arm in his and leading him gingerly out onto the crosswalk. Another pack of teenagers bounded by next us shouting something either at him or me or both of us. We reached the other side of the street and I unlocked my arm from his.
“Thank you, son,” he said.
“You’re very welcome.” The man gently put his hand on my shoulder and asked,
“What is your name?”
“Is that an American name?.”
“I think so.
“Sr. Ignacio Galban,” he said, extending a withered blue hand. His flesh had thinned and a geometry of veins overwhelmed it. “It’s a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is mine,” I said. “Take care.” Such exchanges are not uncommon in Spain. The simplest interaction often results in a formal exchange of names, geography, how the day is going and almost always, the soccer scores from the previous day. I felt a sense of satisfaction in helping an old, blind man across the street—the iconography is as familiar to me as the worm in the apple.
Should I keep walking toward my apartment to resume the argument with my girlfriend, or continue up Cuatro Caminos to nearby Retiro Park? While I stood debating my next move, the old man turned in my direction and seemed to say, “Tyler, do you believe in God?” I was sure I had heard this incorrectly.
“Do you believe in God?” he asked in the exact tone as before.
“Yes,” I lied.
“That’s good. I do too.” I dreaded the inevitable offer of a “Jesus Saves” pamphlet, the lecture on the patience of Job, or a warning on the impending end of the world. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” the old man offered, cracking the corners of his dry mouth with a smile. I panicked. I recalled going to breakfast once with someone to whom I confessed my lack of faith, and receiving an excruciating, interminable sermon.
There are times when a person does something that they wouldn’t normally do. But then if you accept an invitation to do anything, at that moment it creeps into the category of something you would normally do.
“Do you like churros con chocolate?” he asked.
“Yes, yes I do.” I was hungry, but I don’t think that’s why I replied what I did.
“Have churros with me, then.”
“Alright,” I said. There was a small café just up the street and the old man led us to it. I mean that. He led us to it, although I did hold him by the arm as I had when we crossed the street. It could not have been later than 6:30 in the morning, but the café was heaving with people. We stood at the entrance to the café for an awkward moment until the old man instructed me to find us a table. I imagined how we must have looked walking into the café together, and I felt guilty because I was embarrassed, even more guilty because I had no reason to be. I found a table looking out toward the intersection and we sat down. The old man deftly placed his cane against the windowed glass of the café, hung his coat from his chair and slipped into his seat. When he was settled, I made my way up to the counter to order. In Spain, they have waitresses, but they never come. I ordered two cups of hot chocolate and a plate of churros to split. I should have gone back to the table, but I waited at the counter a few minutes until our food was ready. I carried two cups of hot, thick chocolate to our table, and a waitress followed languidly with the churros.
“Don’t eat all my churros, American!” the old man said with a laugh, pawing at the table. I set the plate of churros in front of him alongside his hot chocolate. He felt both items and smiled.
“I’ve never been here,” I said, trying desperately to avoid discomfort, hoping the old man would say something.
“It’s good,” he said, wiping a moustache of hot chocolate from his mouth. I dipped a long churro into my cup of hot chocolate and agreed with a nod. Embarrassed again, I agreed aloud, “It is good.” We ate and drank in silence for a minute or two until the old man looked up, rather, raised his head and said, “I’ve made you uncomfortable.” I felt horrible before and after I said it but I did. “A little.”
“I know,” he said, wiping another moustache of chocolate from his mouth. “I’m sorry I asked you if you believed in God.”
“It’s okay,” I said.” It’s just an odd question—only because it’s a dangerous one.”
He gave an odd smirk, “Why is that, you think?”
“What if I had said no,” I asked.
“I would have still invited you to have churros with me.”
“Do you ask everybody if they believe in God?”
“No, just today, I think.” His face grew somber and a tear welled up from one of those clouded eyes. “My wife died the other day, two days ago.” I felt horrible.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“She was old.”
“How long were you married?”
“Thank you for not asking me how she died.”
“You’re welcome.” He grabbed for his cane, made a frantic motion to get up, and stumbled over his chair. I caught his arm and helped him right himself.
“Will you do something with me,” he asked, picking up his jacket from the back of the chair. I stood up, nervous and without a clue what to say.
I led him out of the café, maneuvering through the customers who paid no attention to us. We stood silent on the street corner. The old man turned his head from side to side, I imagine just a pedestrian reflex we all get, whether we can see or not.
“Do you really believe in God?” he asked again.
“Yes,” I lied again.
“I don’t,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked, certain I had again mistranslated.
“I don’t believe in God. I never have.” He secured one arm under mine. “I feel like I should now.” The morning was coming along in swing; cars began to honk their horns, going somewhere.
“Why now, because of your wife’s death?” I couldn’t think of the way to say “your wife’s passing,” as I wanted to.
“Yes, I suppose. Even if I could still believe in her, it doesn’t help me. It fills me with more sadness.” I was more uncomfortable than I have ever been in my entire life.
“Do you want to know something?” he asked.
“They say that if you inhale forty breaths and then exhale them at the same pace you drew them, you will know death, you will know God You liberate the soul.”
“I don’t understand.” I said.
“Because you’re an American, or just because you don’t understand?”
“Maybe both.” He repeated what he had just said about the forty breaths and stopped his gait.
“No, no I understand what you said.”
“I can’t do it,” he said, defeated.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Draw the breath, the last one.”
“Maybe you don’t want to yet.” I wished I had gone directly back to my apartment. I might be in her good graces by now, making love, watching the day begin through a window.
“It seems I don’t,” he answered.
“Are you from Spain?” I asked, desperate to change the subject.
“Yes and no.”
“How is that?
“I fought in the war, the civil war. The one we lost. Franco’s stupid war—a stupid war filled with stupid hate. I fought for Spain, I fought like a dog for Spain. My parents, though, they were gypsies. From nowhere. Morocco. That is why I am not a Catholic.” He stared me in the face, he did, with those languid, baleful eyes. “You came from where tonight, Moncloa?”
“Along the street Isaac Perál?”
“You can still see the bullet-holes in the buildings. My friends died there. They had the luxury of God.”
“The luxury?” I asked.
“Somewhere to go. I have nowhere to go.”
“Everyone has somewhere to go,” I ventured, aching for the right word or words.
“Will you take me to confession?” the old man asked. As we walked along I drew breaths and exhaled them at what I thought to be equal intervals. I felt silly doing it, but I have found that whatever superstition is the most relevant or immediate, I, or almost anyone, will embrace it. I would stop at around thirty breaths, arresting the deadly cadence the old man had described. This is obscene and idiotic, I thought. But I did it.
“Confession?” I asked, knowing I had heard the old man correctly.
“Yes, doesn’t it help? Help with something?” I had never been to confession in my life, but I answered,
“Yes,” I said. “It ought to.”
“Will you take me to a church?” he asked. I stood scanning the streets, as aimlessly and as fruitlessly as he had earlier.
“Sure, let’s go to confession.” There are points of no return—this was one of them—and the prospect frightened me.
“Will you show me how?”
“I’ve never done it in Spanish.”
“You speak Spanish pretty well,” he said.
“I don’t know la liturgia,” I guessed at the word.
“I’ll tell them what we’re there for,” he said. I remembered there was a church a few blocks north of my apartment, next to a veterinary clinic. We walked in silence, our arms intertwined. The whole time I repeated the breathing exercise that led to death, to God, stopping just short of thirty-five this time around. I wondered if he did, too. His breathing was heavy and disconcerting. I didn’t feel like counting anymore. We passed the veterinary clinic and turned up a small side street, I can’t remember the name. As we approached the church, I smelled shit.
“I smell shit,” the old man said.
“I do too.” I looked at my shoe and I had stepped in a pile of it, it was all over my shoe. “It’s me,” I admitted.
“That I stepped in shit?” I asked.
“Yes, that’s good. That’s good luck. Here in Spain.” The church was open and we walked in. While I hadn’t ever been to confession, I was familiar with the protocols of entering a Catholic church. I dipped my hand in the holy water and crossed the old man with my index and middle fingers. He seemed pleased. I dropped 100 pesetas in the donation box and had the old man hold up a candle that I lit with my lighter. I craved a cigarette all of a sudden, as I realized (and felt) I’d been without one for almost two hours. I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to enlist a priest for confession, so I led the old man to the very back pew, took his cane, and helped him out of his jacket. We knelt without bowing. I didn’t pray and he didn’t know how. A priest appeared out of the dimness to light candles in front of a mural depicting the Gift of the Magi. I told the old man to wait and he nodded in silence, kneeling devoutly the whole time, his head still facing forward. I approached the priest and asked him if we could make confession. “Both of you, correct?” the priest asked.
“I guess so. I mean, yes.” I felt disrespectful. It seemed that in a sacred place, “I guess so” is a ridiculous thing to say. The priest motioned for me to escort the old man to the confessional. I confessed first; the old man insisted. I began in Spanish, but I didn’t know how to begin in Spanish or English.
“Say it in English, I speak English,” The priest said. This was worse. I knew to say, ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned . . . but then what?’
“Just talk to me,” the priest said. So, I confessed everything in recent memory that had offended me about myself, which I assumed would have also offended God. The priest listened well. I felt comfortable. Contrary to what I had seen in movies and read in books, I wasn’t instructed to say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. The priest, I thought rather strangely, thanked me. I waited for a moment, but he said nothing else, so I left the confessional and sat back down. The priest then spoke with the old man, and lead him to another confessional. I wonder how much the priest listened to me. I’d like to think he took it in.
While I waited for the old man to finish his confession, I walked around the church, admiring the stained glass. The Virgin has always fascinated me, and I stood looking at a window depicting her with the dead Christ, “La Pieta,” is the only expression I know for that image. I was still standing there, when the old man, led by the stone-faced priest, touched my shoulder gently.
“We can go,” the old man said. I nodded to the priest and he nodded back. I led the old man out of the church and out the door into the light of day. I was very close to home and I didn’t know what exactly to say to the old man.
“That was interesting,” he said.
“It was,” I agreed. “Very.”
“You don’t believe in God,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“I don’t either.” He smiled toward me and swiveled his blind eyes, again, about the neighborhood, the city, the world. The jowls rose on his face and I saw a smile appear.
“I hope that was comforting, or helpful,” I said.
“It was,” he said. “Now I can go home to breathe.” I tensed up and again, felt uncomfortable.
“Breathe as I do.” I asked the old man if I could pay for his taxi fare, flag him a taxi. He agreed and I saw one right away and hailed it. The taxi stopped and I led the old man, my arm intertwined with his, into the backseat. I gave the driver 2000 pesetas and asked for his car number, just in case. The old man crumpled into the backseat and let out a sigh. He turned his head in my direction and nodded politely. I nodded back at him and closed the door. The taxi left around the corner of the side street and down Cuatro Caminos. I walked back in full daylight toward my apartment, smoking.