Although I Don’t Know Your Name by Jesús Fernández Santos

I was behind the unopened record boxes, not knowing how the morning would go, at that time when everyone is unloading goods from vans and trunks, from suitcases where no one could imagine so much could fit in them, and yet, more and more materializes like a magic trick on TV. I was drinking my usual nine a.m. coffee and brandy, a necessary pick-me-up after taking it easy all Saturday, as the policeman arrived to check my license, dead exhausted also, walking around with heavy rings under his eyes like always.

Later, when the black coffee makes your head spin, it’s time to visit your friends just in case something comes up, before they put up the “Sold Out” sign at ten if there’s no soccer match or one of those demonstrations that start with a flag hanging from the statue of Cascorro and end with people destroying picture frames, china, braziers, and old greasy furniture. If one finds a rare album, one sets it aside, and if it’s cheap, it is put between the expensive ones. By that time in the morning, the storefronts are still closed (some sleep till Sunday afternoon) and the old man that trades silver and gold relics still has not emptied the suitcases onto his table. The square takes a while to fill. Below, where the slope ends with the book stands, records are also for sale. Everything is traded: singles, LPs, apartments and young girls who end up here who, like me, no one knows where they come from, looking like they haven’t eaten or slept all week, happy to have a bed to sleep in, wine to drink, and something to smoke if the budget allows or if they have a friend who comes and goes to Morocco.

This one carried herself as if she saw no one; but she did not walk, she sat on the curb between the trading card stand and the table where Rodri’s partner, before Rodri comes down, starts arranging his records.

“Do you guys have something?”

And he answered no, with drunken eyes, staring at the girl, seated below in between two guys, listening to the same old story: they had an apartment nearby, they were three and two more like her, they needed someone else, where had she come from, they were still broke, and a little help would be enough and the thing was done.

Then Rodri’s partner grew tired and politely asked them if they were there to help or to sight-see.

“OK,” responded the one who talked more. He got up he pointed at me and said to the girl, “He can arrange it.”

“Me? Arrange what?”

The girl looked at me, I didn’t know if convinced or not, but definitely tired of the guys.

“A thing she wants to sell.”

“If it’s what I imagine, I pass.”

“Just ask him.”

I didn’t listen and walked up the slope. I removed the lids of the boxes and waited with a noon beer in hand, watching how the cluster of people selling, trading, and fidgeting with watches formed in the middle of the street. It’s that hour in which the stands are ready and waiting even when the public trickles in and the Arabs come down with hair that looks like it is glued to their heads, the hand-me-down shoes that lost their shape after two generations, and those paper-thin trench coats that they must find in the piles of old clothes, which they love to go through.

Now she too was in the middle of the street. Even though the sidewalk was packed one could recognize her and see that she wasn’t going anywhere. There, standing, she seemed short looking at the stands as she was pushed along by the crowd.

“So? Any luck?”

She acted as if she didn’t know what he was talking about, but she could well remember.

“What is it you want to sell?”

Instead of answering, she opened wide the collar of her blouse and pulled out a small gold heart, one of those that all fifteen year-olds wear now.

“It’s gold?”

She nodded and for the first time lifted her head, leaving the records alone and closing the neckline where there sailed a pair of sad breasts.

“Come with me; let’s take a look.”

I told the partner to attend to the sales and I took the girl with the heart to the corner where the old man traded silver.

“He’s eating breakfast,” explained the woman. “He’ll be right back.”

She looked for a space on the sidewalk where the Chinese paint portraits for dumb fools and closing her eyes she sat down to sleep. She looked like she could use a cartload of sleep and just as much food, getting by smoking hash and taking pills, the other kind.

“OK, now you know where it is,” I was going to say to her, but when I turned I bumped into the old man, who was coming towards us wiping his lips.

Nothing. A waste of time. The only thing she did was get up to take off the heart, and once she was standing, I took her with me to drink one of those coal-black coffees that almost made her vomit. I asked her how long she had gone without eating and she replied that she’d been having a little milk every day because her stomach was upset.

We went later to see that gypsy (serious business, open on Sundays, no credit) who sometimes does favors, who doesn’t put on airs, who doesn’t insist if someone asks but doesn’t make an offer. But the price she was asking for was too high for him too.

“I’m sorry, young lady,” he excused himself in his friendly and natural tone, without lifting his chin from the cane, less anxious to sell than the girl.

“And those friends of yours?” I asked her, seeing Rodri coming up.

“What friends? I don’t know anyone.”

Now she walked behind me like those who neither buy nor sell and are satisfied to look and follow the crowd.

So in the end, we wasted two hours. I returned to the stand with her and I hinted that she could stick around if she wanted. Now her eyes were closing like before, as she was leaning on the wall. In an instant, she looked as if she could be dead. She probably didn’t even hear the raffle speakers, or the commotion around the watches, nor the saturated voices coming out of the radios. But she must have heard something, something that wasn’t there, not in the air, but within her because, all of a sudden, she opened her eyes, frightened, rushing her hands to the heart which she would never sell.

“What? Were you dreaming?”

“Bad dreams,” she replied. “It always happens when I sleep during the day.”

Scared, she changed. She seemed friendlier and, helping me behind the boxes, time flew by that morning.

“OK,” I said as I started to pack them, “let’s go eat. It’s on me.”

“Why? Because I helped you?”

“Because if you don’t eat, you will die soon.”

“Who cares?”

“Don’t start. I’ve heard this before.”

Carefully, she grabbed her purse, trying not to spill the things inside and came with me.

“What did you say your name was?”

She made up a fake-sounding name, but damn if that mattered. They all say the same names, always similar; none of them likes their own, maybe because they remind them of their family.

We ate at Rodri’s. His wife cooks well and always has a plate of food for me and a glass of wine for friends. She works in the theater and her husband in a bank until three, so they take turns with the kid and when they don’t have anywhere to leave him, they put him in the basket and take him to rehearsals, which sometimes last until very late into the night.

After eating we went up to my place, which is a small apartment, full to the brim with reels, records and cords pushed into the gaps left by the recording equipment.

“If you press here you record; pressing here you delete.”

But she was only interested in the posters and that guitar in the corner over there from the good old times with Rodri, from when we just arrived in Madrid and I was thinking about other things, about becoming famous and all that stuff.

She picked the guitar up and after some chords, she entertained herself singing. It didn’t sound bad. At least not like all the others: the annoying Joan Baez, or the ballads of the college dorm, which always work among friends. I encouraged her to continue and later, with the mic, we spent half the afternoon recording. At the end, when she heard herself, her enthusiasm collapsed in an instant.

“Worthless.”

And she was right. Her eyes were closing again. I offered her the sofa, and her legs must have been dead because she fell flat on it. I saw then patches between yellow and purple on the nape of her neck.

“That looks pretty bad!”

“It’s a fungus. From bathing in the sea.”

“It must be some special fungus.”

“First it is red, and then it turns yellow.”

“Just like bruises.”

 

Around that time my old man was walking the final stretch through his neighborhood, that stretch that ends on the other side of the river where the new cemetery was and still is. I had to go many times and put up with my brother being a pain, asking me when I was going to stop wasting my time in Madrid, and when I was coming back, and who was going to be in charge of the store when our father died. I never knew what my father thought, if he believed he would make it, but just seeing him with eyes closed holding on for dear life and forgetting about the store and my brother, time escaped me and so did a few of those clients who come to me so I can do some recording for their meetings.

“If you want I can take over,” she said. “Just give me the addresses.”

Now I worked at night, and she took care of the delivery during the day. Those were also good times, although not for the old man who, already in the hospital, would hear me come and would not turn his head. On Sundays we would eat with Rodri, then we would go to one of those new movies, hang out for a bit at some bar and then to bed. Between the sheets, that tiny body seemed to fill the darkness, it chased the hours and bad dreams away, and that fear that occasionally returned, ruthless, like stains that can never be washed away.

Those were calm days. When there wasn’t any work to deliver, she didn’t come for a whole week until one day I would find her again in the doorway, waiting. Now March was beginning, the nights were cold and I decided to leave the key with Rodri’s wife, so the girl wouldn’t have to wait outside, shivering.

“You’re too confident,” Rodri’s wife said putting it away, struggling as always with the boy.

“Well, you know me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

And she stayed with her little monster, trying to keep him quiet with one of those stories she used to make up, half threatening and half lovely.

It’s a bad thing to die of old age. Besides, my father had it rough until he became ill, living off of his retirement, with his bench in the sun and his transistor radio, alone because he wouldn’t put up with people his age. He’d rather be in the club for old and lonely hearts slamming the domino tiles as if trying to break the marble table top. We took him across the river, but we had to take him further, because there wasn’t a spot for him on the embankment. We ended up in one of those villages in the outskirts and now that women go to burials, we had to put up with my sister in law, who was worrying about the strikes the whole time. I didn’t even eat dinner when I got back; I got on the train and reached Madrid and went straight to the square at midnight. The green light from the streetlamp flickered above the esplanade, desolate now and there, in our half-open doorway, she was kissing goodbye in the dark.

I waited a little bit, and when that long and tight kiss was over, I crossed the square to reach her on the steps.

“Is it you? I didn’t see you coming.”

“I saw you.”

She hesitated for an instant, looked at me and stopped.

“I was saying goodbye to a friend.”

I hadn’t asked for an explanation and I had also grown tired with the old man’s niche in the back of my mind, that narrow brick tunnel where I would have also put his transistor, as I read they do in some places, so that the dead can kill time.

 

And now it’s summer, that summer that weighs on Madrid like a bad dream, at least for me, without work. With only three or four shrewd clients and everything closed, Rodri urged me to work at the record company.

“Eight hours will fly by when there’s some money to be made. If this is what you want, of course.”

“But he won’t like it,” his wife responded for me. No one could pull him out of the square.

That night, in bed, we talked about the issue because like it or not, I was tempted, even more than Rodri thought.

“You can always give it a try,” she advised me, looking beyond the open balcony, with her back on the pillow. “If you get tired of it, you can always quit. What difference does it make, here or there?”

“If I leave the apartment…what will you do?”

She gave me an odd look, as if I was trying to hit on her or something.

“Don’t worry about me. Anyway, some day I will have to leave.”

I didn’t want to know where. The thing is that a few days later she started putting her things in her bag, like she did the first day in the square. And seeing how much space she left, I realized for the first time what a small little thing she was, with such sad breasts and such dead eyes. She would most likely fit in that round, torn, and used sack that was just like her body.

“Come on,” she murmured, “it’s not a big deal. It’s not the end of the world.”

“Nobody said it was.”

“Then what’s with that face?”

The face wasn’t for me, but for her eagerness to protect me, for the pride with which she hid what she felt from me.

She took off the gold heart and put it in my hand with the chain.

“Keep it,” I told her. “You will have to sell it eventually.”

And since I refused to take it, she explained, “It’s not gold. It’s fake.”

It took me by surprise and I had to accept it, but I didn’t put it on, I put it in my pocket for the moment. Then she reluctantly put her head through the poncho that I bought her one month when business was good and, with a kiss, she disappeared down the stairs.

 

Like ever since she appeared, of course, this too had to happen when I got back. I went with Rodri to the record company and we were there all afternoon, at the mixing console: fifteen or twenty tracks; a whole orchestra squeezed in there, just as we saw them behind the glass. When I returned, the room, the entire apartment was upside down, records, cassettes, and recording equipment, the posters were ripped, and the bed overturned. You couldn’t tell if they were looking for something or if it was destruction for the sake of destruction. It could be both, but there was something special, a smell of revenge that I hadn’t noticed any of the other times my apartment was broken into. The key was still in the keyhole and the next day I went down to ask Rodri’s wife.

“Yes, I gave it to her,” Rodri’s wife answered focused on the kid’s diaper. “She came with a girl I’ve seen her with before. Well, not so much a girl than almost a woman who wore pants and had short hair. I gave them the key but only the older one went up. I told you that you were too confident.”

“And what does that matter?”

“Well, they would spend the day arguing. And then they would make peace with each other. One night they were kissing.”

She went back to tending to the baby and concluded in a low voice, “If you’re sorry, then I’m sorry. If not, go find another girl; there are lots out there.”

 

Now we are deep into August, the square is empty in the morning, but not at night, its windows and balconies open, and the TV in the bar shows reruns until almost midnight. In the fall, when the holidays are over, I will start the job. My brother won’t be able to give me that look anymore and the old man, over there in his niche, will remember me while following his radio serials. Now I only need to move out so I don’t have to get up so early and sell off all the records with Rodri or let him sell them himself.  Let’s see how that goes, and if it’s true that one can grow to like it without losing all feeling.

Sometimes, when the heat begins to hit, I open the balcony and play the cassette salvaged from the deluge. It’s a common voice, as I said, who knows where it is now, the one from the long kisses in the doorway and the destruction that put an end to the apartment. After all that there was something to be grateful for. Most likely, I would have stayed here for another two centuries because neither Rodri nor his wife would have convinced me otherwise.

The song ends now and so does the music from the bar, but the gypsies are still clapping hands and a few couples continue to laugh and a motorcycle approaches at full speed and heads out toward the country from which there is no return. The gold heart that wasn’t really gold, the one they were looking for, I don’t even know where it is now. I don’t know if I lost it or if it will still be here when I move for good in the fall and I leave the square and the records behind, and this voice that plays again and the hands clapping eternally below, never tiring—entire families of friends and gypsies.

 

 

 

Translated from the Spanish by Conor Broughan & Juan Meneses

 

Jesus Fernandez Santos (1926 – 1988) was an important voice in Spanish literature for over three decades, publishing ten novels and three collections of short stories. Over the course of his long and prolific career, his fiction documented and mirrored the struggles of a post Civil War Spain, criticized social life under Franco’s rule, and documented the country’s return to democracy.  “Although I Don’t Know Your Name” focuses on the struggles of two young people in post-Franco Madrid, living a marginal existence in a capital city defined by chance encounters. Santos won the Gabriel Miro Award, the Critics Award, the Nadal Prize , the Planeta Prize, and the National Prize for Literature. His novel Extramuras was translated into English and published by Columbia University Press. His short fiction has never been translated into English.

Juan Meneses is a Ph.D. candidate in twentieth and twenty-first century British and postcolonial literature at Purdue University, and a freelance translator. Juan is currently working on his doctoral dissertation titled “The Neoliberal Imagination: Illusory Dialogue and the Colonization of Dissent in the Anglophone Novel”

Conor Broughan is an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University where he serves as the Fiction Editor at Sycamore Review. He is currently at work on a novel.

 

 

 

Leave a Reply