Luis and Pepe


Luis was the strange case of a man who looked like a leader but was not one. Everyone who came to the shop for the first time walked straight to him. They thought he was the boss. Yet he knew no more than the rest, was duller than several of them, and had nothing but ordinary power over others. There was a moment while talking to him the first time when you realized he was not your man, that you were mistaken. Then you turned and looked around the shop again for a sign of authority in someone else.

I saw this happen dozens of times. Sculptors, other customers, even the man with the light-bill, hesitated for a moment after coming through the gate to understand the workshop, which was nearly unintelligible. Then they would walk right past Jacinto and Angel even though they had put down their hammers and showed their disposition to help. They walked up to Luis and spoke their business. Luis listened with a frown that anyone would take for discretion and judgment. But then he spoke and let them see not understanding but confusion and a kind of withdrawal. If you were watching those visitors then you saw them suddenly look at him, look into his eyes, with an expression of doubt and defensiveness. Sometimes they used a different voice—a louder voice—and asked, “Pero, ¿Vd. no es el encargado?” ”Aren’t you in charge here?”

“I thought you were the foreman when I came here the first time,” I told Luis.

“You and everybody,” he said, looking very wise. “Except the boss. I get exactly the same pay as everybody else.”

“It’s true,” said Angel in one of his rare interventions. “It’s the same everywhere. In the Valle de los Caídos they had him over ten of us.”

“But there they paid you more, didn’t they?” I asked Luis.

He huffed. “They paid me with a kick in the ass. But somebody ought to tell Fernando a foreman gets more.”

Unwilling Leader

This looking like a leader had had its effect on him. He was forced into leading, though like the rest he wanted to follow. Some men obeyed him on the strength of that look alone and, like other superiors Luis had had during his life, Fernando relied on him to see that the work got done right—that the others did their job. He explained to Luis the projects as a whole and the task of each of the others. It became impossible for Luis to mind his own business. Looking up from his own work he would see Pepe thoughtlessly chipping away too much stone, or Angel’s block listing oddly.

His knowledge of the plan as a whole made him responsible for seeing that it was carried out in all its parts. This responsibility, which Luis was not up to, made him irritable and deepened the frown on his face, which had caused the misunderstanding in the first place. But under the frown his little blue eyes were confused and shy.

The men got used to consulting him when Fernando was absent. They thought of him as second-in-command. Having an officer in the shop was comforting. At the least trouble they put down their hammer, disengaged their mind, and called him over. Man doesn’t really want to be Man. Being his own governor is too hard.

Fernando explained to each man no more than his job. They often did not understand what would become of their block, why it should have the shape that they were giving it. Only Luis got a more comprehensive explanation; he alone was allowed to see the Big Picture—a privilege he did not want any more than the others did. These global explanations took from Luis his freedom. The others, happy in their little assignments (shaving off to this line, chipping down to this point) could sing and daydream. It was left to Luis to watch their work and worry: to rush over to Pepe when he saw him pounding on the T-square; to Nicanor when he noticed him whipping up some glue; to Angel when he saw he had reached a delicate phase of the work and was reckless after a swig of brandy.


Pepe was a brilliant shirker, a flatterer, a whiner. But he was also good-humored, which made him liked in spite of all his considerable defects. He didn’t mind being the butt of jokes. He laughed at himself along with the rest.

His great enemies were discipline, seriousness, anger. These he constantly tried to undermine. Between horrible-to-hear blasphemies after someone had hurt his hand or broken a block, Pepe fit in a little remark like, “Oh that smarts, doggone it!” (For some reason his language was free of profanity. He was one of those people who use substitutes for all the bad words), wincing and chuckling with a kind of paternal or avuncular sympathy, as though the incident were not taking place at that moment but were rather being recalled over a beer. In this way with his humor he called the man back to the healthier world of frivolity.

When he saw you in bad humor from heat or cold he would shout over, “What, is it hot enough for you?” When you looked up through the sweat you saw Pepe chuckling with raised eyebrows and a wag of his head.

No one took him seriously. He would make terrible mistakes. “Look what happened to me,” he would say with mock pity, showing a broken piece of casing.

In Spain there is great understanding for error, for weakness, even for crime. Spaniards smile on them as adults smile on the antics of children. When anything goes wrong a thousand shouts of censure and indignation go up. They work themselves up to a pitch with gestures and rhetoric. But nothing genuinely surprises. Too much goes wrong too often and for the same well-known reasons. Some workman somewhere who sees that through glaring carelessness he has destroyed the piece he is responsible for, might feel ashamed of himself. Pepe, to whom this happened frequently, would call Luis and whine, “Mira, Luis, que me he colado,” in the tone of self-pity a beggar uses.

Once or twice when his guard was down Pepe let show signs of real intelligence. For a long time I wondered whether it was all an act; whether he played the clown and effaced his own personality as an extreme resort of laziness. I am still not sure. For a grown man there was too little initiative in him to be believable. He was like those men nearing retirement who go slowly and good-naturedly through the workday as they have for years: they keep a detached cheerfulness because they are only playing at duty. They will soon be free and they don’t give a damn anymore.

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1 Response to Luis and Pepe

  1. Pingback: My Poor Teachers | Fernando's Stoneyard

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