Stonecutters in winter
Angel, Luis, and Pepe were my best teachers.
Ángel was one of the estrellados. What I knew about him came from his pal Luis. Angel hardly spoke. Though once I heard him talk with deep hate of General Franco. And now and then during the day, usually after his drink of brandy, there were a few sarcasms and remarks in a wry, backward humor I could never get. But otherwise Angel was like a mute.
He was no bigger than a boy and as lively as a gremlin. Coming back to his stone after drink he would jump and skip around and crack the joke that was too fast for me to understand and almost to hear. But the others picked it up above the compressor chugging and would look up from their work with an alert, ready-to-smile look on their faces.
Angel talked with his eyes—his mouth just did not move and even seemed sad even when his eyes were alive and happy.
His childhood and youth—all his life till now, and he was over forty—must have been miserable. Once it came out that Luis knew about cats, about eating cats, and when he saw my disbelief, kept calling over to Angel to corroborate what he said. Angel would nod and say “yes” very clearly with his eyes. He and Luis must have been nearly starved at times. Before work, in spring, they came early and, after an old habit, combed the field outside the workshop for mushrooms. I would meet them coming in with a bagful each. At other times Luis reminisced on frog hunting and told me I should get over my prejudice against snails, snakes, and other pond food.
“Eugenio says he wouldn’t care for frogs,” Luis called over to Angel. After understanding, he gave the chef’s gesture for “excellent”.
He was full of scars. Part of an ear was gone. He had a scar with an unprofessional sewing job between his eyes and down his nose. A finger was missing. And as with an animal that shows up one day bleeding, there is no way to find out what fight there had been and where, because it doesn’t speak.
Like the others, Angel was alcoholic. But he was weaker than they, drank more, and suffered more after the bottle was empty. He lifted the bottle and let the brandy go straight down into his stomach. Then, after a drink, he got as happy as he ever was, he danced across the shop and threw off a joke. He attacked his stone and got done prodigies of work until the alcohol was burned up. Then he put down his hammer and started paying visits around the shop, offering everyone a smoke.
Angel was one of the men roving the shop when I saw it the first time. He was wearing a newspaper ship on his head. His impish appearance and quick little eye movements made me think the ship was a joke. It looked as though I had caught the men partying. They actually were partying, though not in the way I thought. They partied every day.
His Newspaper Cap
His ship was no good as a cap. It missed half his head. It was protection against nothing. How could even he take it seriously? He didn’t. He knew it was a parody of a cap. He liked precisely the way it stuck its tongue out at caps and at the need for caps. He was damned if he was going to buy a cap only because it was necessary. Did they pay you to buy a cap? He would rather let the stone dust come down on him as it liked. Angel would not give his boss or the others the satisfaction of seeing him take his work so seriously—a question of pride. You think a cap would be in order? Here’s a cap, he said, folding the newspaper.
Just as someone caught in the rain gives up the fight to stay dry and simply lets the rain drench him—“the hell with it!”—so Angel and his friends had renounced solving any of the problems that bothered them every day.
The whole lot were alcoholics. Each man made a dozen or more trips a day to the brandy bottle, which was a present from one of them to the others. You could say they did this by turns but it was not so strictly organized. No man wanted the others to believe he was stingy, and so pride made each man regularly bring along a bottle.
Yet some days there were two bottles on the flat stone shelf, and other days there were…none. One of their most remarkable traits—why not call it a virtue?—was their ability to go without. I know an alcoholic must have his daily ration. But there were days when there was no bottle on that stone shelf, and no one got a drink. There was no complaining and no suffering you could see. I wondered whether I had been wrong about their dependency.
The same happened with cigarettes. You have to be generous. No one simply pulls a cigarette out of his pocket and lights up. You must first pass the pack around to everyone; and when it comes back to you it feels very loose. More than half the cigarettes any man smoked were gifts.
So just as with the brandy there were days when only one man or none took the trouble to pick up cigarettes on his way to work. They were days without smoking, and the men got through them without a whimper. Well, maybe a joke. There was deep instant resignation and disdain even for themselves in these men, not just long familiarity with want. They never complained. They either protested (a bark and a growl) or kept their mouths very tightly closed.
Next: Luis and Pepe