By Dave Hangman
He walked with a gash on his head. Dried blood caked a lock of his hair over the wound. A thin purple thread ran withered down his temple. The pain was intense, but it was not in the flesh, it was inside. His eyes, weary from the sorrows of life, gazed dazedly at the symphony of autumn colors: reds, ochers, greens and yellows. Even in his bitterness he had to give in to so much beauty.
He had spent the night in the cemetery watching over the grave of his son, who had died eleven years before. It tore his soul apart and shattered his insipid life. He took refuge in a bottle, in gambling, in pills and tobacco. In everything that allowed him to divert his attention even for a moment from his misfortune. He forgot about his work, his family and even himself and lost himself with no possibility of return in the unfathomable caverns of suffering.
He was never a cheerful man. On his wedding day he told himself scared that he was not a good catch. He did not understand what the woman who was to be his wife could have seen in him. He remained crestfallen and distant all that day as if he feared that at any moment the spell of his ephemeral happiness would be undone. During the wedding night he was unable to express the slightest affection. He had unwittingly destroyed their marriage before it had even been consummated.
As a child his father had abandoned them. He did not keep a single image of him in his memory. His mother became an abusive alcoholic whom he and his sister had to suffer for years. Hundreds of faceless men paraded through his house, the expired boyfriends of the one who gave birth to him. They seemed to live in a perennial autumn, sordid, ocher and sad. Yes, autumn had always been the only season of his life, wilted, leafless and withered. The continuous bitterness, like sudden gusts of cold winds, had mercilessly shaped his personality for years making him languid, moody and dejected.
Last night, like many others, he had committed a stupidity. Another one. He had spent it alone sitting on the cold stone eating a sad sandwich on his son’s grave. Three wild boys had mistaken him for a drunkard and, for pure amusement, had beaten him up.
Semi-conscious, they had taken his watch, his wallet and the bag with the money that, like the tourists, he always wore around his neck under his shirt. Since his wife had kicked him out of the house, he carried all his meager possessions with him at all times.
He had been robbed a thousand times and he dared not leave anything in the dingy room rented to him by the Moorish woman who was now his landlady. He no longer had anything to pay her with. Autumn would once again be his home and the dry leaves his bed.
Shortly before, when he saw his wife in his old house surrounded by friends, he understood that she had turned over a new page, that she had rebuilt her life and that he no longer had any place in it. Without a word, without even a glance, he felt all her contempt. He decided to seek refuge that night in the only place in the world where he would not feel rejection, the grave of his son.
He remembered his sad little face as a child, with his crooked squinting eye staring haphazardly. The other children teased him mercilessly at school and his son, as if looking at two different places at the same time, seemed to implore “why, why, daddy?”
It was at that instant that the only true display of affection in his whole worn-out life came out of him.
“Son, you have such a beautiful eye that the other one can’t stop looking at it.”
His son returned a radiant smile that swept away the autumn of his life and, for the first time, made him feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. That little boy with the lost look had won him over forever.
However, the day he crashed his motorcycle, fleeing just as he did from himself, he understood that he was as stupid as his father. The impact of his death was such that it left him dumbfounded. He felt guilty for having transmitted his own ills to him. He went into a trance that had lasted eleven years in which he had lost his life and the lives of all those around him. The cold winds of autumn were blowing more impetuous than ever.
Now his days were rushing down the abyss of indolence. He would get up very late, wrenched from sleep by the unbearable mixture of smells from the Arabian food that his Moorish landlady prepared at all hours. He would tidy up his room and go out into the street. He wandered through parks, bars and gambling houses. He always lost. He picked up still smoking cigarette butts that he devoured with eagerness. He rummaged through garbage cans without finding anything useful. He would go to the supermarket and buy a little bread and some cold meat to prepare his only meal, a perennial sandwich. He would visit his son three or even four times a week until the cold of the tombstone stiffened his bones. He would sit in the park and rarely conversed with anyone. At night, sleepless, lying in his bed, he would hear his Moorish landlady’s headboard banging against his wall and her moans and gasps as the Moor, who was not her husband, penetrated her. They reminded him of her mother and he hated them.
His legs were no longer able to support him. He collapsed on a bench in exhaustion. He placidly contemplated the intense red of the maples, the yellow of the poplars, the dark green of the pines and the multitude of shades of the oaks, from gold to vermilion, passing through shades of saffron, brown and ochre. For the first time in his life the autumn in which he had always lived seemed to him the most beautiful season of the year. And he wished he could stay there forever.
He was flooded with memories. Now he understood that to receive love he had to give it first, and he had never given it nor received it. That lesson was taught to him by the smile of a child with a lost look, although he had not grasped it until eleven years after his death and already, he said to himself, it was too late.
He felt he had nothing left, not even the cold comfort of a tombstone. He remembered his dismay, when he woke up dazed by the blows of his robbers, to see his son’s grave splattered with the crimson drops of his own blood. That vision produced in him a last and intimate communion with his ill-fated offspring.
He opened his hand and an empty canister rolled down the bench. He had consumed it completely without ingesting a single drop of water. His mouth was dry and pasty. Still, he wanted to stand there forever contemplating the incredible beauty of autumn, of what could have been his life but wasn’t and never would be. He had just made that autumn eternal.
Dejected, he looked down. At his feet only a single withered leaf remained. A gust of wind blew and it flew away, just like his soul.
* * *
David Verdugo is a Spanish writer who is trying to break into the English language market under the pseudonym Dave Hangman. In Spanish he has been a finalist in a dozen literary contests. He has compiled four books of short stories in which very different genres coexist and even intermingle, magical realism, detective, horror, epic fantasy and science fiction. He has also written half a dozen short novels. He has just finished his first full-length novel, a story of love, or rather its absence, in a fictional world.