Balancing the World on His Chin The posters advertising movies or dances were not the only ones that occasionally clamored for our attention from Olleros’ walls and tree trunks. Sometimes, too, a traveling circus would stop there or a family troupe of puppeteers with a tiny cast (I remember one in particular, in which the man not only sold the tickets on the door and played the parts of lion, devil and monk in the play, he also, still wearing his lion costume, organized the drawing of raffle tickets in the interval) and, for a few days, they would pitch their tents and park their trucks in the square and fill the village streets with posters.
They usually arrived around the fifteenth of each month, which was el día del pago in Olleros, when the company paid its employees. On that day, which people waited for all month (some with a certain degree of anxiety since prudent household management was not the most common of virtues), Olleros woke in a state of great agitation. The miners let off rockets and exploded dynamite charges, the women crowded into the shops (some to buy and others to settle accumulated debts) and, from noon onwards, when we children would be coming out of school and the miners returning from the first shift, the day became a holiday, regardless of whether it was a Sunday or a weekday. All afternoon and late into the night or, indeed, depending on the weather and the circumstances, into the early hours, people would fill the bars, stroll along the road or rush to visit the many stalls set up around the square since the previous day. There were tombolas, carousels, rifle ranges and try-your-strength machines, fairground barkers, photographers, stands selling sweet fritters, itinerant salesmen and bands, and, from time to time, a special attraction that would be announced with much fanfare several days in advance. I remember, for example, The Great Guzzler, a bald, but otherwise extremely hairy man who devoured coins and lengths of metal pipe and who could, he said, corrode a whole motorbike with his own saliva and eat it bit by bit (this was never actually put to the test because no one in the crowd dared take the risk); or Muscle Woman, who claimed to be the strongest woman in the world and who was capable of bearing the weight of nine men on her body and of dragging a truck several yards with just her teeth; or the Pita Brothers, who performed on a tightrope strung between a chimney and the pithead tower and walked along it many feet above the ground, lit from below by a spotlight; but over and above all of them—even Fu Manchu the Chinaman who could trace the outline of his wife’s body with knives which he threw at her from a distance while she stood there against a wooden board, breathing fire—I remember the man who was depicted on all the posters with the globe of the world balanced on his chin, the man who, having first balanced a large lamp post, held me and the chair I sat in poised in the air, as this photo of Barbachey the Seal-Man unequivocally shows and records.
He was a burly, fair-haired man who performed before the public naked from the waist up and whose sideburns formed part of his moustache. He traveled in a van with a woman who acted as his assistant and who was in charge of collecting the money at the end of each performance. For me it proved an unforgettable night. Having balanced the lamp post on his chin and held it there for a while, Barbachey dried his sweat, rested for a moment, and then, addressing the audience in his strange, accented Spanish (for Barbachey was French, as was the woman who accompanied him), he called for a volunteer. Several of us offered, but he chose me, perhaps because I was the tallest. Barbachey gave me his hand—a hand, I remember, as rough and hard as the root of a tree—and told me to sit on the chair which his assistant had placed there for the purpose. A silence fell, the woman stood to one side, and Barbachey, after first flexing his muscles, made the sign of the cross, looked up at the sky, planted his feet wide apart, and then, to the astonishment of all, suddenly lifted up the chair, and me with it, and placed it carefully on his chin, on just one of its legs; then he began to turn, keeping his balance with his arms. I don’t know how long I was up there, not daring to move or even breathe—still less look down—but I do know that when he lowered me to the ground again, I could no longer hear the audience’s shouts and applause or Barbachey’s voice congratulating me. I was still up there, suspended in the air, floating, holding time stopped in my hands just like the globe he balanced on his chin in the posters. It was the most remarkable night of my life and my most vivid memory from those years.
But life keeps turning. Life turns and turns just as the world did on Barbachey’s chin while I was up in the air, and as it turns, it sometimes surprises us, the way old photographs do, unexpectedly lobbing remnants of the past in our direction. Some time ago, in a village in Soria, I came across an abandoned van. It had lost its wheels, was covered in rust and almost entirely overgrown by brambles, but, despite this, I could still just make out the red lettering which continued to announce from amid the rust and dust: Barbachey the Seal-Man. Traveling Show. Someone from the village told me it had been there several years, precisely the same number of years that had passed since its owner was found hanging from a rope slung over the oak tree beside it. It seems that Barbachey, who had for some time been wandering the villages of Castile performing his show alone (the woman who used to accompany him must have either left him or died), had, with the passing of time, lost his strength and, one day, doubtless no longer able to bear the weight of the world on his old chin, had decided to take his own life. He was buried there, in the village’s small cemetery, in the nettle-infested corner reserved for suicides and those who die in mortal sin.
I chose not to go there. I left without saying good-bye and without visiting his grave. I did not even turn round when I was some way off, to look back for the last time at the place where he lay buried. Before I left, though, I went over to the van and, unseen by anyone, removed the torn poster that was still stuck to it like a photograph of the past, but from which the sun and the rain had almost completely erased the image, and I took it with me as a souvenir of the man who had unwittingly taught me that sometimes it is more difficult to bear the passage of time than it is to balance the world on your chin, even though the world turns out to be as hard and difficult as the one balanced by all of them, by Barbachey the Seal-Man and by the miners of Olleros, who are still watching us in this photograph.
The truth is that “Judas” was not the first dead man I had seen. Nor even the most tragic. There was Celino, there was Miguel Ángel, who was still trapped in the cabin of his father’s truck when the company machines finally managed to right it, and there were all the miners who were killed during those years, many of whom I saw when they were brought out; and there was Tango. In fact, I was both the first person to see him dead and the last to see him alive before he crashed into a tree.
It was a Sunday in February, at about three o’clock in the afternoon. I know this because I had already eaten lunch and was hanging about in the street until it was time for the movies to begin, because that day—how odd that I can still remember this, but not what I did yesterday—they were showing The Titans, a mythological movie I liked so much that I saw it four times (although this may well have been simply because they showed it four Sundays running, a not uncommon occurrence). I was standing outside the Bar Diabla, I can remember it still, watching the main road, which, at that hour, was as deserted as all the other streets. Apart from in my house, where we had lunch at one o’clock, regardless of whether it was a Monday or a Sunday and regardless of whatever else might happen (my father set the time and he gave the orders), most people were either having lunch, or, if they too were early diners, drinking coffee in the bars. Suddenly I saw him driving past the stores on that Guzzi motorbike I liked so much. It all happened very fast, in a matter of ten seconds, which is about how long it took him to cross the screen. He came closer, passed in front of me (he wasn’t going very fast; there was snow on the road), continued on for twenty or thirty yards and then, just as he was about to disappear out of the frame, shot off to one side, like a rocket, and went straight into a tree. What I saw next was a chain flying through the air, a wheel spinning, and him, for he had fallen back onto the road and lay stretched out just as he continues to do in the photo, but with no one by his side.
What came next happened even faster. I was still standing frozen to the spot when a man, alerted by the noise, appeared at the door of the bar, and seeing Tango lying in the road, shouted to those inside and ran toward him. In less than a minute several men were gathered round Tango’s body. For he was still there on the road, and no one had attempted to move him. Perhaps they realized there was nothing to be done: he lay there limp as a doll and there was far too large a pool of blood in the snow. Then more people arrived and someone went to fetch the doctor—who took a while to appear because he was, as usual, drunk—and from that moment on, I was relegated to the background. They didn’t even ask me what I had seen, even though I had been the sole witness to the crash. As usual, no one took the slightest notice of me. Not that I cared. It was enough to be able to be there, without the men shooing me away, and to know that I had been the last to see Tango alive.
He was one of the men I have admired most in my life. The very first time I saw him, one Sunday in Bar Los Pelayos, with his silk shirt, Cuban-heeled boots and long sideburns, I was fascinated. He had just arrived in Olleros and everyone was talking about him, especially the women, who gave him sideways glances and said how handsome he was. The young women in particular were all aflutter. He looked to me like a cowboy, with his sideburns, his boots and the way he drank beer, straight from the bottle and leaning with his back against the bar, and that was enough to ensure my instant admiration: I had seen plenty of men like him in the movies, but never in the street. That’s why I was so grateful to him for the gesture he made as he left the bar: for as he walked past me, he winked and tweaked my ear as if I were a cow.
He achieved instant fame in the village, especially among the girls, who did nothing but talk about him and stroll up and down the main street in the hope of meeting him; and he became the king of the dance floor. People said he’d come from Argentina, where he’d been living up until then, and that he drove the women wild with the way he danced the tango: he held them close, pushing his knee between their legs (so that they wouldn’t escape, Balboa said) and, at the end of each dance, he bent them over backward. That was the origin of his nickname: Tango. Well, that and his habit of singing passionately into his partner’s ear and even, sometimes, into a microphone, accompanied by Martiniano. He would stand side on, head slightly cocked, and he pronounced the words with a foreign drawl, even though he’d been born and bred in Olleros, in a big house up in the hills, where his mother still lived. He came down from there every day to play poker for money in Bar Los Pelayos (which was how he made his living) or, on Sundays, to the dance, on that red Guzzi I liked so much.
He always had some girl riding pillion. He would drive through the village with his silk shirt and his sideburns, and people would look at him half-admiringly, half-enviously, depending on whether they were male or female and depending on their relationship with him. I, of course, was among his admirers. Ever since he had playfully tweaked my ear that day in Bar Los Pelayos, something which he continued to do whenever he saw me (he’d obviously taken a shine to me), I became his number one admirer and I thanked him for each tweak of the ear in the only way one can at that age: by being always ready to serve him and by imitating his every gesture and his way of walking (as far as the sideburns and silk shirts were concerned, I could, of course, only dream). But he never asked me for anything, not even a favor (to take a message to a girlfriend, to help clean his motorbike, to go to the bar and buy him some cigarettes), as other men did in exchange for a tip or, sometimes, for nothing at all, even though I was ready to do anything he asked of me and without expecting so much as a thank you. Of course, if I’m honest, I was hoping deep down that he would take me for a ride on his Guzzi motorbike and teach me how to dance the tango, because I too wanted to drive the girls wild, the way he did, even though I did not as yet even have a beard.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to do anything. One day, as I was walking along the road, not knowing perhaps what to do or possibly waiting for my friends or for my mother to return from the company store, Tango appeared on his bike and, when he saw me, drew up alongside. I thought that he was, as always, going to tweak my ear, and I was prepared for that, but I was wrong, at least in part. He did tweak my ear and said what he always said: “How’s it going, Blondie?”—which always seemed to amuse him greatly; but then he asked if I’d like to go for a spin on the Guzzi with him, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I didn’t think twice. I got up behind him, in front of the luggage carrier, and my one regret was that my friends weren’t there to see me. We drove through the whole village and up as far as Sotillos; there we turned round and drove back to the cinema; from the cinema we went up to Quemadas, which was where he lived, and from Quemadas back down to Olleros where we drove round and round the square until he finally dropped me off at my house. It was at least five miles, not counting the circuits round the square, but the time flew by so fast, it seemed no distance at all to me. I was so excited, I could have gone on riding all afternoon and evening.
Tango did take me for another spin too. He drove me up to the old mine, along the La Salera road, and back by way of the company store. He stopped en route to have a smoke (he asked if I wanted one too, but I didn’t dare accept, even though I already had the occasional secret cigarette with my friends). While he was smoking, he talked to me about the tango. And about women. And about Argentina, a country I idealized because an uncle of mine lived there, an uncle I’d never seen because he had gone there during the Civil War and never returned (apparently Franco wouldn’t let him), but who sent me presents now and then (the last was a leather wallet which I probably still have knocking around somewhere). Tango said it was a very beautiful country and very big, and that the women there were as pretty as they were in pictures. He said that women were like tangos: you had to know how to dance them. He also said that the world was like a roulette wheel on which we all gambled our lives every day and in which only the smartest people won. I listened to him, entranced. I’d never known anyone who knew so much about life and who had traveled so widely. Someone who, above all, knew how to drive women wild just by looking at them. That’s why, on the day he was killed, on that same Guzzi bike and wearing the same shirt he had worn on that other afternoon, I remembered his words as I stood looking at his body all covered in snow and blood. I remembered that other afternoon and what he had said and I forgot what my father had told me meanwhile: that Tango had never been to Argentina, that he’d never even left Spain, that he was, in fact, a good-for-nothing who was always getting into fights, was cruel to his mother and had spent the last eight years, the time he had been absent from Olleros, in prison for stabbing a man in Bar Los Pelayos. In fact, I suspect my father may have been lying to me, for when I did finally go to Argentina, many years later, everything, absolutely everything—the country, the women, the tango music, the men’s sideburns and even the motorbikes I saw in the streets—reminded me of Tango.
From Escenas de cine mudo (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1994). Copyright 1994 by Julio Llamazares. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Margaret Jull Costa. All rights reserved.