My sister and I sitting in front of them: my father and his roommate. Manolo and Clemente.
The two of them sitting stiff in the pleather hospital chairs with the little attached tray like a school desk, waiting for dinner. The image, too, has an air of school days about it, despite the two men’s old age and the oxygen tanks they’re breathing through. My father’s hair is carefully combed—I’ve never seen him like this before except in photos from his youth, sent to my mother with romantic devotion. A nurse has taken a liking to him, even if he misbehaves, and she combs him and sprinkles cologne on his scalp every morning. His now quite sparse curls are flattened down with pomade on the back of his neck and they look like tiny snails. Somehow they add weight to his already stern features, which have the frightened look of a terrified animal. And he is terrified. He knows death is lurking around the corner, and there’s nothing he can do to avoid it. When they let him out, he’ll go back to smoking and drinking, and one of these days, he’ll stop being able to breathe and he’ll die. He’s more anxious about dying alone than dying as such; that’s why he’s latched on to his roommate, Clemente, and the two of them have developed a strange camaraderie.
Clemente is cheerful, fat, and old. He wears his hair in bangs like a rocker from the seventies, or a musketeer gone to seed. He lives in a shelter. According to him, his kitchen-supply business went under, and when—to use his words—King Midas lost his shirt, his wife and daughters abandoned him. For a while he lived with his girlfriend, whom he affectionately calls my little Polack on account of her origins, but they were evicted, and she hasn’t shown her face in the three days we’ve been visiting my father. Clemente has integrated perfectly into our family thanks to my father, who got us used to accepting acquaintances of unknown provenance, whether we liked them or not, back when we were kids. He’s always been devoted to his bar mates, to the fleeting friends you meet on a roadside bench, to waiters, pharmacists, salesmen, road workers, doormen, distant cousins, anyone you can have a glib conversation with to fill the silence. He’s never cared about origins or status, and he’s never needed his chums to be interesting. What my father looks for is company, for that immediate relief he feels when he’s got someone to talk to and can indulge his innate expansiveness. This is the strongest image I have of my father filed away in my memories: leaning on a bar, veiled in smoke, drink and cigarette in one hand, the other free and gesticulating, erupting in brusque, broken laughter or else in rage if his chosen stranger has unexpectedly back-talked and become his enemy.
A lack of oxygen keeps my father from speaking in long sentences, and for the first time in his life, he has to let the other person talk more than him. My sister and I listen, as we always have, disconnecting. That was our family life: him delivering monologues, and us four children cultivating our inner worlds, and that must be why we all have a tendency to get distracted that makes us seem a bit clueless. Clemente met Manolo at his lowest, and he has taken the reins: he can talk a blue streak with two oxygen tubes running up his nostrils, and tells us, as if it were a prank, how both of them woke up hungry last night, and both of them rang their bell and called the nurse, who’s had it up to here with both of them, brought yogurt, cookies, and a little chocolate. When he wants to refer to my father, Clemente often says our friend here or the very same man you see before you, and as he tells us what he did last night, we nod with wonder at his use of this fusty expression of familiarity to describe the old authoritarian Manolo Lindo. I doubt anyone’s ever called him our friend here before, and his face looks annoyed, as though it didn’t please him in the least to be diminished this way in front of his daughters. But our friend here, as his roommate calls him, hardly has a voice left, and in a way, Clemente makes up for his tactlessness by protecting my father, placing himself at his service, and that’s something my father’s always been a pro at: finding others who put themselves at his service.
In this ersatz couple, Clemente plays the role of secretary. He tells us what the doctor says if she comes to visit while we’re away, and he keeps my father’s cell phone in easy reach on the nightstand to call us in case our friend decides he needs us to bring him something. My sister is used to it by now: if the phone rings at 9:00 a.m., it’s Clemente calling to say my father wants us to bring him another checkbook from Santander Bank. We don’t know what he wants a checkbook for at the hospital, but we do know if he doesn’t get one, he’ll throw a tantrum like a little brat. Clemente called the other night because my father needed his denture cream. That was how we found out my father has two false teeth. He’s always boasted of his full set of teeth, pristine, unlike those of almost every other member of that malnourished generation that grew up during the war. Oh, and Manolito’s notebook. Clemente called back, telling us not to forget Manolito’s notebook, please, he needs it. What he’s referring to is a day planner for schoolkids published in 1996, based on the hero of my book Manolito Four-Eyes. In it he has written down in no discernible order all the addresses and phone numbers that matter to him. My sister’s, mine, and all those people—friends, employers, coworkers—who might help him to locate us if we don’t pick up our phones. We’ve given him others, but he refuses to let go of that child’s day planner, with the letters of the alphabet written in his own handwriting on the corners of its pages.
For three days now, Clemente has been a part of our lives, and whether we like it or not, we have to accept him, just as so many times in the past we accepted the vapid barflies my father glommed onto, or the women he established some unspecified relationship with, much to our discomfort.
Yes, there’s something about this scene that reminds you of school. The two men’s hospital gowns look like schoolboys’ smocks. Neither of them has underwear on. They rest their fists on their trays, impatient for dinner to arrive, and when they hear the cart approaching down the hall, they instinctively open their legs in excitement. My sister and I have both been startled by the perturbing sight of the men’s squished red genitals on display before us. Ill at ease, abashed, we’ve leapt up and remained standing the rest of the time, smiling nervously and doing anything possible to avoid another encounter with that sight one would prefer to forget. My father never had a sense of shame: when we used to go to the beach, his behind was inevitably stuck halfway out of his swimsuit. You could always see his underwear sticking up out of his pants—the way you see young people’s now, jutting from their low waistlines—and it almost seemed he wished they would fall down so he could make everyone uncomfortable. Time worsened his eccentricities, and nowadays he wears his tie like a scarf and buttons his jacket up wrong. It’s defiance—he wants you to draw his attention to it so he can ignore your advice, with the double pleasure of rule breaking and driving you up the wall. He has the soul of an unruly child. These past few months, I’ve learned that if I avoid correcting his willful negligence and instead go over to him and carefully button his buttons or tie his tie, he gives in, goes soft, feels cared for, and stops rebelling.
Dinner arrives, and the two men eat voraciously, panting through it because they can’t breathe. They suck the bones with canine impatience and leave their plates clean like boys during the postwar period.
Clemente is the joker, the wag, the pest on this wing of the hospital: he has a worldly wisdom you don’t find in everyone. He tells us the chicken at Gregorio Marañón Hospital is far and away the best hospital chicken in Madrid. My father, suffocating, but not yet resigned to withholding his opinion, chimes in: “Not even close.” And Clemente adds, “La Beata is excellent too, but it can’t hold a candle to this one. Top-notch.” My father nods and tells him very faintly that the eating is also good at Rosario Clinic. This extraordinary gastronomical tourism unites the flush retiree and the vagrant.
Clemente remembers then when he was a traveling salesman and made a tour of the highway restaurants between Madrid and La Coruña. My father, who criss-crossed Spain doing the books for Dragados y Construcciones, the largest public works company in the country in those days, knows more than a few of these himself. Listing not only their names, but also their house specialties, they remind me of a couple on an old game show, Un, dos, tres, where the clock ticked down in the background to make the excitement even more exciting.
My father, who came from nothing and climbed the ladder at his company thanks to stubbornness and a head for numbers, used to take his briefcase along on audits of big construction projects all over Spain, and when I would travel with him to keep him company after my mother died, I saw how imposing his presence was. When he arrived at a hotel’s reception with his overnight bag, the construction managers were always there waiting for him. More than an auditor, my father had the air of a detective showing up in some one-horse town to investigate a possible crime and out the villain. And often that’s more or less what happened. He was ruthless, and could stretch a meeting on until dawn to wring a confession out of someone who’d had his hand in the kitty. Then they’d have to figure out what to do. Later, when I read Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels, I saw similarities in the ways my father and Maigret went about their interrogations. Both detective and auditor felt sympathy for the man who had given in to temptation; it was as if my father, overseeing the accounts of a huge company for so many years, had also been prey to inner turmoil. “I never took a red cent!” he used to say. And I’d answer that this was nothing to brag about, because most people don’t steal. He would go to great lengths to prove that honesty was indeed the exception to the rule in a country eaten up with corruption. He knew what he was talking about.
Some of his strange sense of pity for thieves rubbed off on me. My father used to tell my mother softly, because the cases he dealt with were a serious matter, how he’d reached an agreement with some penitent employee, who would pay the company back before resigning in exchange for a letter of recommendation that would get him hired elsewhere. My father held on to some of his files his entire life, as if they were proof of his professional merits. In his last years, when corruption cases were cropping up all over Spain, he liked to say: “Not enough people kill themselves these days.” In his opinion, many politicians should have chosen suicide to avoid disgracing their families. According to his peculiar morality, the worst punishment for a wrongdoer was not prison, but shame, and as a man with a certain inclination to violence and coarse utterances, he often praised the decisions of those Japanese who, getting caught in a lie, decided to throw themselves in front of the subway. Hearing these opinions aired so frequently must have affected me, because now, when I see someone in the defendants’ bench and think of how ashamed they must be, it makes me shiver; and when people clamor for justice, I can’t help feeling a pity not everyone understands in this vengeful society of ours. I imagine if I were facing a prison sentence, I, too, might consider suicide. I’d die, but I wouldn’t lose my honor.