In the Night of Time(145)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    I remembered all this as if I were reliving it when I unexpectedly ran into Mateo Zapatón in Chueca Plaza ... and something else that until that moment I hadn’t known was in my memory. Once, as I was waiting my turn and reading a comic book my father had just bought for me, I felt thirsty and asked Pepe Morillo’s permission to get a drink. He pointed to a small, dark interior patio at the rear of the barbershop, through a glass door and down a dark corridor. When you’re a boy, the farthest places can be reached in only a few steps. As I pushed open the door, I think I was a little dizzy; maybe I was getting a fever and that was why I was so thirsty. The paving tiles were white and gray, with reddish flowers in the center, and they echoed as I walked across them. In a corner of the tiny patio, where a number of plants with large leaves added to the humidity, there was a pitcher on a shelf covered with a crocheted cloth, one of those clay water pitchers they had back then, a brightly colored, glazed jug in the shape of a rooster, made, I remember precisely, by potters on Calle Valencia. I took a drink, and the water had the consistency of broth and the taste of fever. I went back down the hallway, and suddenly I was lost. I wasn’t at the barbershop but in a place it took some time to identify as the cobbler’s shop, and the person I saw was the flesh-and-blood apostle Saint Matthew, although he was wearing a leather apron and not the tunic of a saint or a member of the brotherhood, and he was beardless, with the stub of an unlit cigarette in one corner of his mouth and a tack in the other. “Mercy, Sacristan, what in the world are you doing here? You gave me quite a turn.”

    JUST AS I HAD THEN, I looked at Mateo and didn’t know what to say. Up close he seemed much older, he no longer resembled the eternal Saint Matthew of the Last Supper. Neither his gaze nor his smile was directed at me: they stayed absolutely the same when I spoke his name and held out my hand to greet him, and when I clumsily and hastily told him who I was and tried to remind him of my parents’ names and the nickname my family had back then. Limply holding my hand, he nodded and looked at me, although he didn’t give the impression that he was focusing his eyes, which until a moment before had seemed observant and lively. His hat, more than tilted to one side, was skewed on his head, as if he had jammed it on at the last moment as he left the house or put it on with the carelessness of someone who can’t see himself well in the mirror. I reminded him that my mother had always been a customer in his shop—then shops had patrons, not customers—and that my father, who like him was also a great fan of the bulls, had often been present at his gatherings, and at those in Pepe Morillo’s barbershop next door, which communicated with his via an interior patio. Mateo listened to those names of persons and places with the look of one who doesn’t completely connect with things so far in the past. He bowed his head and smiled, although I also thought I noticed an expression of suspicion or alarm or disbelief in his face. Maybe he was afraid that I was going to cheat him, or assault him, like many of the thugs who hung around that area—you saw them all the time, kneeling in clusters beside the entrance to the metro and dealing in God knows what. I had to go, I was very late for an appointment that was probably futile in the first place, I hadn’t had breakfast, my car was double-parked, and Mateo Zapatón was still holding my hand with distracted cordiality and smiling, his mouth half-open, his lower jaw dropped a little, with the gleam of saliva at the corners of his lips.

    “You don’t remember, maestro?” I asked him. “You always called me Sacristan.”

    “Of course I do, man, yes,” he winked and stepped a little closer, and it was then I realized that now I was the taller. He put his other hand on my shoulder, as if in a benevolent attempt not to disappoint me. “Sacristan.”

    But the word didn’t seem to mean anything to him, though he kept repeating it, still holding the hand that now I wanted to get free, feeling trapped and nervous about continuing on my way. I pulled back but he didn’t move, the hand with the soft, moist palm that had clutched mine still slightly raised, the hat with the tiny green feather twisted around on his forehead, standing there alone like a blind man, in the middle of the plaza, supported on the great pedestal of his large black shoes.About the AuthorANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA is the author of more than a dozen novels, among them Sepharad, A Manuscript of Ashes, and In Her Absence. He has also been awarded the Jerusalem Prize and the Príncipe de Asturias Prize, among many others. He lives in Madrid and New York City.

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