by Fred Miller
Middle-aged and solitary in nature, he was one of those odd little characters who appear in the shadows of our lives, in cafes, in bars, and by bookstalls along the rivers, only to vanish from our memories from one day to the next. And though he answered to the name Umberto, his identity mattered little to anyone. Clerks in the Spanish ministry were widespread and as common as mice.
Over the years his individuality had been obscured by the countless routines required of a government clerk, and no doubt when he died, his presence would fade like morning mists over the river nearby. Even so, in overlooked souls such as his, hidden reveries are free to roam the vast expanses of the imagination and often provide worth and consequence those who dare to dream. In Umberto’s private world he lived large and garnered immense respect from all in his fanciful path. Yet he knew better than to risk exposure of his colorful imagination to those in the village where he lived.
Our hero resided in a simple room in a simple house owned by a stern-faced woman who matched him in the meticulous routines he’d come to appreciate. She expected the rent to be paid by sundown on the first of the month and not one moment later. And he’d remit this pittance for a room with a bed and a chair and a wash basin, but not one moment before the deadline would loom. And both appeared satisfied with this expected routine.
A short walk across the plaza from where he sat perched on a government stool under dust-laden lamps, the allure of a small café awaited his daily arrival. Every evening he’d listen for the bells in the cathedral to strike the hour that would allow him to conclude the precise procedures of the day. At once he’d arrange his paperwork in a neat stack and shuffle down the stairs and cross the cobblestone plaza to a table by the window of the café and weave the fantasies that sustained his ordinary life.
In fairness, it’d be good to know the café opened its doors each day when the first morose face peered through the door in hopes of a grappa to gird for the coming day and closed when the last patron ran out of money or was too drunk to order more.
Today as he approached the café on what would become a seminal day in his simple life, Umberto could hear the music from the cantina down the lane toward the river. Across the province this bar was known to welcome all with cheap whiskey and loud music as well as some late-night debauchery that often included two whores who frequented the place nightly except Sundays, their consecrated day of rest.
A visiting poet had once described this place as a mecca for tongues that paint portraits of cheap love and worries that fade behind masks of merriment. Yet not once had our beloved clerk darkened the door of this establishment of sin. He’d long ago settled on the dignity of the café where, in the peace of his corner, he could build fresh images of self-esteem.
“Ah, Senor Umberto, your usual? said a waiter. He nodded and made his way to his customary table where he’d sip sherry and await the small crowd that gathered here each day.
“Tapas, Senior?” the waiter said. After a simple nonverbal assent, Umberto paused to savor the aroma of ham tidbits wafting from the kitchen. While he watched the late afternoon sun sketch shadows across the plaza, a mangy dog emerged from a blind alley, his tongue leading the hunt for basic sustenance in the empty marketplace nearby.
And through the broad leaves over the window, he spotted two men in frumpy suits moving toward the café, their faces lost in serious debate, their cigars stirring like fireflies in the early evening gloom. Ah, the buyers of bulls for the rings of Seville, he thought.
Once they were seated, curled expressions of doubt filled their countenances and at once he knew. Our sage observer could be of great service to them in their negotiations if asked. But only if asked, he sighed.
In another life, he could see himself as a great rancher where he alone had the knowledge and foresight to place values on his bulls, the finest in all of Andalusia. His shrewdness now legend, he’d await the buyers who’d gasp when informed of the prices. Later, they’d bow to his wishes at the end of heated deliberations, a mere trice in his busy schedule, Umberto thought. And instinctively he flicked his wrist.
While the staff hurried about seating new arrivals, Umberto noticed a torpid smile in the doorway behind deep-seated eyes that blinked like spent candles and darted about in desperate hope of gestures of welcome. Pinned across her faded dress were rows of lottery tickets while others lay clutched in her tiny hands. In a flash, a waiter spotted her and shoved her back into the street as if he’d encountered a stray biddy along a dusty path nearby.
Umberto recalled her raspy voice hawking fantasies and false hopes along the streets of the village, her chin wet from her toothless cries. And he wondered if she’d cast spells on a rival and when discovered, had been abandoned to the shadowed doorways and alleys of this unforgiving environment. He imagined her in a past life, barefoot in a bright dress spinning to the fiddles under bright stars and the cheers and mysteries of those who’d left her behind.
An ancient couple appeared in the fading light and were soon hustled to an obscure table near the back of the café. Our friend watched with care these faces of yesterday’s youth, both soon nibbling tapas in silence, and each offering gestures of assurance to the other. And time-to-time holding hands in memory of a tacit bond still honored as if recently made. Umberto mused on his own circumstance and wondered what might have been if not for the fates.
Interrupted by flashes of brass and color, he saw the local constable march by, his destination the warm companionship of a whiskey at the bar. A lonely man, Umberto thought, a career steeped in perceived glory. How could he have been marooned in this small village? Some say his ambitions were crushed by jealous tongues. Others pointed to petty quarrels with people of importance. Yet our champion knew better. Lack of grit, he reasoned and nodded to himself. If he’d been blessed with this man’s connections, he thought, he’d now be the captain of the Civil Guard in Seville, his exploitations the talk of the great city. Sad, he mused, no mettle to the man.
From the window, he heard laughter from a cluster of sweet voices moving down the lane toward the cantina. There, he’d heard whispered, simple hopes were destined to die in the eddies of concession and defeat.
Nearby a young couple with hands entwined whispered promises Umberto knew she’d cherish forever and he’d soon forget. Once differences between the families could be resolved, he was confident they’d be married by the local priest, and she would bear his children, and her body would settle. Yet her man would pretend not to notice.
Later, after strands of grey appeared and promised expectations he’d so boldly made had waned, they’d reside in a modest dwelling where together they’d gracefully age. And in idle moments she’d wonder what could have been only to be interrupted by the sharp cry of a child.
But in this moment of bliss they shared tonight, it was as it should be, Umberto thought. And though his time for such opportunities had long since passed, the future, he reasoned, belonged to them, the dreamers.
More free tapas were placed on his table, another reason he preferred the café. He nodded to the waiter and gazed about the room now alive with chatter.
In the dim evening light, he could see the approach of the man with the limp and a cane, his broad shoulders back and his head high, a reflection of his place in society. Yet our hero could never fathom why a great matador would choose this forgotten village for his retirement. Could it be that he was born here? Perhaps he trained at one of the famed ranches in the valley. Better still, maybe he’d come to realize that in the great cities he’d have become lost in a sea of retired matadors. Here he was recognized for untold acts of bravery in the ring.
The wait staff saw him too and jockeyed to see who’d be lucky enough to seat this man of dignity. Once determined, the loser would scurry to the bar for his favorite sherry and hurry back to meet him at his table.
Umberto recalled once having the good fortune of making eye contact with the matador here in the café. Nods had been exchanged and Umberto’s heart had leaped before he’d shyly looked away. Still, he longed to approach this great man and introduce himself and discuss the fine art of the fights. Perhaps the matador would ask our man to join him for a drink. Perhaps. But who could say? Over time they might have become best of friends. But in his heart, he knew better. He was but a lowly clerk in the ministry, and once his station in life was revealed, he’d surely be dismissed from the social sphere of this august figure of the village.
At that moment a graceful silhouette passed his table under escort of the wait staff. In concert they moved effortlessly to a preferred table leaving a slipstream of lilac in the air. Even in the soft lights, he could envision those dark eyes and sparkling features that he’d held in cherished moments of fancy.
She was a countess, he’d concluded, one widowed and left destitute by the late count’s wicked indulgences. Umberto pictured her once moving about in the great cities, a grand doyenne and patron of the arts.
With rapt attention, he watched her laugh at a jest offered by the waiter who’d seated her. To be by her side, Umberto thought. But he knew this might risk a derisive laugh. No, he reasoned, a woman of her station and presence must remain hidden away among his treasured fantasies. With a melancholy smile, he eyed her until he became aware of eyes around him watching his gaze.
From the window, he could see more revelers moving toward the lane down to the cantina by the river. Even from here the distant echoes of the music had become clear. Emerging from the far side of the plaza, he espied three young women en route to join the growing crowd. One caught his eye and waved. And then burst into laughter with the others. The countenance of our noble clerk flushed as he sunk down in his chair. Children, he mused. Mere girls. No refinement. But tucked away in his mind he could see himself as part of this troupe arriving arm-in-arm to shouts of his name from several quarters of the smoke-filled bar. But no, he reminded himself, the music was too loud, and brawls were apt to erupt without notice. And the food, he’d been told, was not so good.
A lazy river mist eased through the doorway and curled around soft tongues and gestures. And at a table near the bar two faceless women gazed about the room in tacit games of pretense.
Umberto peered in the direction of the matador and studied his shiny boots and the sparkle of a cuff link. Many times he’d imagined himself in the ring, his hat raised to an adoring crowd, the shimmer of a sleeve in the late afternoon sun. And the bull, hundreds of kilos of madness spurred by the smell of fear in his nostrils. Taunting the animal our beloved matador was resolved to meet this foe on his own terms. And with a whirling cape in perfect veronicas, he’d ignore razor sharp horns just inches away. Again and again, he’d tease the beast with the crowd in uproarious wonder.
Unaware of his own posture he found his eyes locked on the matador, the stoic figure returning the look. Flustered by his own miscalculation he lowered his reddening face. But from the corner of his eye, he could see the matador rise and walk in his direction. The embarrassment, he thought, the humiliation to come. What have I done?
Umberto looked up and rose unsteadily to the towering figure before him. “Yes, el Matador?”
“My names is Juan Carlos Diaz, and since we both come here often, I thought we should become acquainted.”
"Yes, el Matador, yes,” he said. “I know who you are and I’m…I’m Umberto Rivera, at your service.” After a small bow, he motioned for his guest to be seated. Umberto prayed the man could not hear the pounding of his heart.
Without notice two waiters appeared to take fresh orders. Senior Diaz politely waved them away.
“You are interested in the bull fights, Senor Rivera?”
“Yes, el Matador, oh yes, I love the fights.” Umberto’s mind raced for something clever to say. “Um, the young matador who is the talk of all Spain, is he… is he as good as they say?”
“Ah, it is Juli you speak of?”
“Yes, el Juli. Have you seen him in the ring, el Matador?”
“Yes, Senor Rivera, I have seen him fight. His passes are excellent, a brave young man indeed.”
“As good as Manolete, el Matador?” They both smiled at Umberto’s reference to this legend of the ring.
“Ah, it is early yet, Senor Rivera. We shall see. Now, my friend, I must be going.” Leaning on his cane, he stood. Umberto rose as well.
“We will meet again, Senor Rivera, and perhaps discuss the young matadors, yes?”
“Yes, el Matador, we will indeed, yes, we should.” Our diminutive clerk could feel the eyes of everyone in the café on the two of them.
The matador’s cane struck the tile floor as he moved toward the entrance and out into the night. Umberto could feel cool perspiration on his neck and forehead as he thought to himself, yes, we must meet again and discuss the fine points of the young matadors and the bulls. He nodded to himself and paused to look out into the plaza, his guest now a ghost in an ethereal mist.
“Check,” he said to a nearby waiter with the click of his fingers.
“Check, Senor, so soon? The night is still young.” And for our protagonist it truly was, his custom to tarry until nothing but idle stares and coughs filled the remainder of the evening.
“Yes,” he said with verve, “I have places to go and people to meet.” Umberto dropped the requisite coins on the table and realized his legs were trembling. With care he shuffled across the café and out into the evening air, his head high.
For a moment he paused and looked up the street toward home and down toward the echoes of trumpets that ricocheted off moon-washed walls in the lane below. He hesitated, filled his chest with moist river air, and started down the cobblestone path toward the music. This will be a new day he told himself, a turning point toward renewed successes for el matador Rivera, the recent sensation in the great rings of Spain.
About the author
Fred Miller is a California writer. Fifty of his stories have appeared in various publications around the world. Some may be seen on his blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com.
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