She stopped in front of a shop window full of umbrellas, and her friend, who was walking ahead of her, suddenly turned around: “Carme, we'll get separated!” Her name was Carme. He had followed them all the way from Travessera de Gràcia—the street where he had worked for eleven years—to Pàdua.
Now, as he leaned over the railing on the balcony off the gallery, he could still see the sheer, pearl-gray dress with the very pale pink—almost mauve—flowers printed on it. A cool, sweet dress. “Carme, Carme.” She stopped at all the shop windows that had pretty things, and her friend had pulled her by the arm, trying to steer her clear of so many temptations. On Pàdua, close to Saragossa, they went inside an ironing shop: “We offer top-quality pressing.” The sun shone directly on the shop window, making it impossible for him to see inside. And that was how he lost her: because it was late and a little boy who was playing ball had stopped to look at him with curiosity and distrust. Now he couldn't get her out of his mind. Nor could he forget the dress, the legs, the . . . Her skin was tight, dark, smooth. With each step, the hem of her skirt swayed. With each step. With the slightest movement.
He stood there, hands in his trouser pockets, shirt unbuttoned at the neck, gazing at the darkening sky as it slowly became dotted with stars.
“Why don't you help clear the table instead of playing the gentleman?”
A swallow squawked as it flew in. They had had a nest on the balcony for three years, and every spring they brought a bit more mud.
“My work is never done, but you . . . Did you remember the clothesline broke and the mosquito net on the boy's bed needs to be changed? Of course not. You never think about anything. Why don't we just look at the scenery? Sen-yor is looking at the scenery; don't disturb him. Instead of daydreaming, you should be looking for your son. At this rate, he'll turn into a street urchin.”
“He's old enough. He knows the way home.”
“We'll see how you feel when a car runs over him.”
How the devil could she think that a car would run over him if there weren't even any carriages on their street? She must have guessed what he was thinking.
“The other day he walked by himself all the way to Wagner, without asking you for permission, as far as I know. If you're not careful, any day now he'll be killed by a truck in Plaça Bonanova.”
“Well, we can't tie him up with a rope, can we?” he shouted.
The scent of flowers reached him from the gardens below. He could see them all from the balcony. The palm tree at the Codinas' spread its dusty fans in the thick air. The darkest tree of all was a medlar, old and tall, with a smooth, knotless trunk and leaves so stiff they looked like cardboard. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and neck. A mosquito buzzed furiously around him. What if by magic he suddenly found himself in the woods . . . If he could only spend the night in the woods . . . Life, after all . . . This is the only good thing there is in life. Just this. The night. A girl. Just this. And even then it's so terrible, as if you were suffering or dying. For a girl like that you could do anything. “Carme, Carme.” Why does a beautiful girl always have an ugly girlfriend? Her friend was carrying a package. Clothes to be pressed, no doubt. “We offer top-quality pressing.” The letters on the sign were black, except the capitals, which were red. Carme. He would utter the name in a low voice until finally, by virtue of repetition, she would belong to him.
“Will you empty the bucket? It's too heavy for me.”
“Are you asleep? I said, will you empty the bucket into the sink for me; I'm not strong enough to lift it.”
“What's up with you?”
“I'm hot and sleepy. That's all.”
He emptied the bucket. Half the water spilled onto the floor, and a faint smell of bleach filled the kitchen.
“I would've been shocked if you did it right.”
He lit a cigarette and returned to the balcony. A moment later, his wife told him from the dining room:
“I've had about enough. Do you hear? I'm going to bed. If the boy's not back by ten, please go get him.”
“Would you just leave me alone,” he said turning abruptly, his eyes full of anger.
“Go ahead and shout. Maybe the Puig family invited the boy to dinner—that would save us a bit. None of us are overweight.”
“Why don't you just go to sleep? You're in a terrible mood.”
His wife had never been as pretty as the girl this afternoon. She'd never worn a dress that becoming. Where could she have found the material? For eleven years, he had sold silk and wool, wool and silk, and his fingers had never come across a gray crepe with pink flowers and vines as perfect as hers. Never had he felt such a precise desire as that night, the desire to seize her and take her away to the woods, woods smelling of pine trees filled with moonlight. Perhaps the years had changed him, but not the way other people changed. Perhaps his youth was now, when he was almost forty. Or perhaps youth lasted longer than they say, true youth, with this taste of fire and earth rising from his heart.
Someone kicked the door violently. He opened it, and his son rushed in, just like the swallow, heading straight for the dining room.
“We caught a cricket!” He was sweaty and red, a strand of hair stuck to his forehead.
“How many times have I told you I don't want you to bang at the door like that?”
“Give me a big box. He's going to suffocate in here.”
“Time for bed, and make it snappy. Your mother went to sleep a while ago, tired of waiting on you. And wash your face; you look like a gypsy. Your hands too.”
The boy obeyed, his eyes gleaming with excitement. When he came back from the kitchen with a clean face, he picked up the matchbox where he was keeping the cricket and took it to his room.
When he and his wife were old, dead even, his son would feel the same thing. When he is married and has children, one summer day, all of a sudden, on his way home from work, he will hunger for a silk skirt over bare legs.
He went out on the balcony once more. Night had fallen now. He wiped his forehead and neck. Thirty-eight in the shade. Thirty-eight degrees in the shade. Same as his age. He felt a sting on the back of his hand. The mosquito had bitten him while he was looking at the gardens. He realized the carnations were dying of thirst. The basil was yellow; it had always been scrawny. But he didn't feel like watering, or doing anything.
“Son! Come water the carnations.”
The boy came out of his bedroom, his shirt hanging out of his pants.
“Did you find me a box for the cricket?”
“No. Tomorrow's another day.”
The boy went back to his room. He felt like going after him and slapping him to make him water the carnations. He was sure the boy had heard him. “It doesn't matter.” He didn't feel like doing anything either. If it was less hot, he could have gone to the cinema. Gone out. Dropped everything and left.
The boy came back to the dining room and went up to him.
“Good night, Papà.”
He knew both of them were thinking about the carnations. He would go to bed too, and if he couldn't sleep because of the heat, he would go out on the balcony and lie on the floor till morning. He took off his shirt, his trousers, all his clothes, and slipped into bed gently, to avoid waking his wife. Perhaps he would see her again tomorrow. His wife turned over. She was small and weak. She had been very sick three or four years ago and looked the worst for it. She tired easily and coughed all winter. The doctor said it wasn't anything serious. All of a sudden, she sighed. A brief sigh, just enough to show she was alive. He was filled with grief. Yes, a deep grief, without really knowing why.