I got to the bar to find the calendar waiting for me, suspended on April nineteenth, nineteen sixty. What did I do on that day three years ago? My literature professor insists that to write is to negotiate with memory. I have a good memory, it’s the forgetting I’m no good at. I remember those who’ve helped me, and I never forget those who’ve done me wrong. My mother thinks that only spiteful people hold a grudge. I’m not spiteful. I do forgive, but I don’t forget. I don’t like Don Mateo, for example, the high school teacher who threw me out of his class on April nineteenth, nineteen sixty, just because he didn’t like me. He expelled me five and a half times during the two classes I suffered through with him. The half was because one day he threw me out, then changed his mind and followed me out into the hallway to ask me to come back.
“Come on back, León, I don’t want to throw you out today. It’s your onomastic.”
I’m not sure if it was April nineteenth, nineteen fifty-nine, or April nineteenth, nineteen sixty. But he threw me out of class and then forgave me, because April nineteenth is my saint’s day, the feast of pope León IX, saint León, the same date that’s suspended forever on the wall of the Café Lepanto. Every day is my saint’s day, or my onomastic, as that pedant Don Mateo would say. I promise I won’t write the word onomastic again, ever. Farewell, onomastic, farewell. My saint’s day! Even if you don’t believe in miracles you have to admit that luck plays a mysterious part in our lives. Farewell, Don Mateo, may you remain, sir, forever entombed in your classroom, and you can keep your onomastic and your expulsions, because now I’ve successfully completed my first year at the University of Granada.
The barman said he became a widower on April nineteenth, nineteen sixty, the day his life lost all meaning. His wife died on my saint’s day. Strange coincidence. I prefer to think of death not as stillness but as absence of life. They’re not the same thing. The dead are in cemeteries, surrounded by flowers and forgetting. The absence of life walks the streets every day, it goes to work, to school, it has coffee in the bars, and it seeps into our bodies when we try to think or dream. I’m not a resentful person, I just don’t want anyone to force me to keep quiet. Sometimes no one can shut me up. I’m not domesticated like a mule, or like my father. I refuse to follow orders. My father curses the day he decided to call me León. He’s convinced that naming me for a wild animal shaped my character.
“So, you’re León Egea Extremera.”
“Yes, Don Vicente.”
“You can drop the ‘Don.’ I’m your colleague, not your boss. The boss is Don Alfonso, but you won’t see much of him in the office this summer. Would you like a coffee?”
Yes, and some toast. Vicente seems like a good person . . . too good. One of those guys who never gets into trouble.
Vicente knows my literature professor. They met when Universo published my professor’s book. That’s the connection that got me this summer job. It’s a great opportunity that I’m really excited about, and really need, and something else I owe to my professor’s classes and his way of thinking. I don’t think he and Vicente are actual friends, though, because their personalities are so different. Vicente’s got that respectful, solicitous manner of a salesman: he talks, he smiles, he clams up. He’s pleasant, he listens, he’s attentive, he tries to be friendly, but as soon as you start talking about your own life, tell some story or start to describe some event, he withdraws, and says he doesn’t need to know about that. Sharing confidences with someone he just met must make him uncomfortable, I guess.
I’m jotting down these memories of that meeting and my first conversation with him so I can develop a profile of my impressions. We sat at a table instead of standing at the bar so I could eat my breakfast comfortably. The widowed barman served me, on Vicente’s tab, a café con leche, toast with butter, and a glass of Lanjarón mineral water from our very own Sierra Nevada. Today the city drought managers turned off the tap water at eleven-thirty in the morning. A drought. Just what a city suspended in time needs. But I’m not complaining. I ate a good breakfast. Vicente is generous if a bit lacking in spirit. I started babbling out of sheer gratitude, content with the breakfast and my new job. When I shared some details about my life, my friendship with my literature professor, my run-ins with the priest who teaches Latin in my village, my father’s fears, the advantages of not going home to my village this summer and avoiding another argument with the mayor, Vicente said:
“I don’t need to know about that.”
His indifference put me off a bit, but then he smiled and began to tell me about my new job. Universo just published a three-volume encyclopedia set. The ad campaign they’re running in the newspapers around Granada province promotes the Universo Encyclopedia as “an essential learning tool for schoolchildren and a source of wisdom for all.” Well, I declared, in this country we’re all still children, even people over fifty. Nobody knows anything. Ignorance rules. Ok, Vicente said, I guess that’s one approach to pitching an encyclopedia sale. But you should be careful how you talk about these things. It doesn’t help to complain and to look down on others, insult them, criticize their illiteracy, as if you were the only wise man in a village of idiots. You’ll get better results displaying optimism, advocating for your passion to help our nation improve and advance, to help our children progress and to get all our families to contribute. You have to open a window to the world for them, to dazzle them with illuminating rays of knowledge. Ok, ok, I told him, I get it.
Then we went up to the office to continue the orientation. Vicente introduced me to Consuelo Astorga, the secretary, and we all went into the space we’re going to share. The calendar on Consuelo’s desk and the almanac on the wall are up to date. The office is not as lively as the bar, but at least up here no one has barricaded himself behind a suspended date. July welcomes me with open arms, as one who aspires to fill the towns and villages of this province with encyclopedias. Consuelo works in the small reception area, just big enough for the two armchairs, a shelf with Universo books on it, and a desk where she receives visitors and screens phone calls. The door to Don Alfonso’s office looks like it’ll be closed all summer. That’s better for me because I don’t do well with authority figures. The office I’m going to share with Vicente has a window that overlooks the interior patio. In winter, the aroma of simmering stew will seep through the windows, just like in the interior patio of my apartment building. But I’ll be gone by October, so that aroma won’t be making me hungry here.
Today, the only thing seeping through the windows is the sound of a radio. Our office has a meeting table, five chairs, another shelf full of books and three huge filing cabinets that organize this vast, parched, downcast world of Granada into three sections: A to G, H to O, P to Z. There’s a door to a bathroom with a mirror, a wash basin, and a toilet. Everything is clean but shabby. The mirror shows little interest in reflecting the image of any hand washer who stands before it. The obstinate stink of disinfectant competes with the murky odors drifting in from the building’s interior. Powers of observation: another essential quality in a writer and a must for someone who’s studying how he’s going to spend the next three months. This will be my kingdom until fall term.
The work is easy. It consists of answering the phone when some sap falls for our newspaper ads and calls in. We try to sell them encyclopedias. Once we set the hook, all we need to do is fill out the forms and thank you very much. If they hesitate, you have to pitch a personal visit to their homes to demonstrate the books. Arrive, observe, convince. Access to this compilation of knowledge about the universe benefits any home, school, library, office, or city hall. I have a hunch that travel will be the most interesting part of this job. According to my literature professor, anyone who aspires to be a writer must acquire knowledge of the human condition and of life in Spain’s villages. Experience feeds the ability to see. Learning to write is learning to see.
Everything’s in order. Everyone’s happy. I didn’t want to go home to my village during summer vacation and now, luckily, I have a job that lets me stay in the city instead. My father wanted to avoid any more problems with the mayor, and he was relieved to keep the danger, meaning me, far away. My landlady was happy to charge me half the normal rent during these months when students abandon the city and the apartment rental business collapses. With my salary, I’ll be able to save enough money for next semester’s books. And I’m going to take full advantage of this real-life experience to develop my skills as a writer. I’m going to learn how to see, develop my memory, cultivate my powers of observation, elaborate series of three adjectives and cultivate my use of humor. I think the intelligent humor bit is going to be easy for me, from what I’ve observed in the office and knowing that we have some trips to the provinces coming up. That’s where I’ll find interesting characters and their humble affairs suspended in time, calendars with no days and faucets with no water. I won’t need to be super smart to seem super smart and fill the pages of this journal with good humor. I’ll recount the adventures and adversities of a future writer during this hot, dry, prehistoric, and bewildering summer of nineteen sixty-three.
Originally published as Alguien dice tu nombre by Alfaguara (Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial). © 2014 Luis García Montero. From Someone Speaks Your Name. Translation © 2022 Katie King. Published 2022 by Swan Isle Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.