Cold Pamplona night. Predictions of snow but it has not come yet. The air is sharp and brittle, tense as though in anxious anticipation of its incipient thickening into bitter frost.
In the dimlit sidewalk the lone churros cart stands out — luminous and gaudy with its white and red striped façade on which bold red letters proudly proclaim SAN MIGUEL ÁNGEL CHURRERRÍA Y POSTRERÍA chocolate con churros €2,5 — and emanates the soft heat and sizzle of deep-fried golden-brown dough and that unmistakable, pervasive chocolate and cinnamon smell…a white aromatic sanctuary floating out there in that harsh sea of nocturnal black. Behind the glass display lie twisted, chocolate-coated churros lined in a row, stacks of waffles honey-glazed, a plastic tub of salted potato crisps, and a vat of boiling oil with the yet raw dough floating and crackling on the surface.
Paco the dueño stands inertly behind the counter, his paunch jutting out and his shoulders drooping, his eyes lifeless, his wry wrinkled mouth traced out in a perfectly horizontal line. Behind him the radio bleats out the latest on Basque politics but he is only half listening. He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing but nonetheless when a man finally approaches the cart rubbing his arms with gloved hands and shivering, Paco gives a dull grunt of displeasure at his having been interrupted.
“Yes,” says Paco.
The man continues looking at the display and shivering and says nothing.
“Yes,” Paco says, louder.
“Something hot, please,” says the man. As he speaks his breath sprouts out in ephemeral mists.
“Man,” says Paco. “Just pick anything. Everything here is hot.” He doesn’t make any gesture as he talks. He just stands there, only his mouth moves.
“Pues,” says the man. “A coffee please. Cortado.”
Paco screws one eye and scratches his head, perfectly bald now save for some few fine hairs.
“No coffee here,” he says.
“Man. This is a churrería. We sell churros. Snacks.”
Paco mutters some unpleasant words under his breath and then, waving his fingertips pressed together and palm upturned in a gesture of lethargic incredulity, says, “Man, there’s a bar there across the street. Go there.”
“Pues,” says the man. He leaves.
Paco shakes his head and mumbles something about stupidity in the general populace and yet again enters into his languid and contentless ruminations, that virtual vegetable state of senseless mental lassitude whereby the ticking of seconds, human sense and immanence, and the auditory backdrop of monotone Spanish radio seem to commingle and self-suspend in a sort of purgatorial and lukewarm and intemporal existence.
“Hombre, Paco,” someone calls out.
He cannot see far into that winter darkness. At last a feminine face fades into that abysmal panorama. It’s Sofía, his neighbor.
“I don’t believe it,” she says.
He doesn’t say anything. And if he’d heard he didn’t show it.
“Working,” she says. “On the very night of our Lord and Savior’s birth.”
Paco grunts. “It’s all the same,” he says. “Every night is the same.”
“And the girls? Andrea and María?”
She beckons with her head. “Come,” she says. “You have dinner at my house. We have plenty of food to spare. And I’m sure the kids wouldn’t mind having a visitor over.”
“I’m all right.”
“This is the one night of the year when no one should be alone.”
“It is all the same.”
“Come, Paco. Don’t keep me standing here for it is very cold. Come.”
“I said I’m all right.”
She looks at him. Her face contorts in an expression of not disgust at such lack of human courtesy, nor even curiosity at this hitherto unthinkable imperviousness to the ubiquitous and palpable yuletide joy, but just pity, helpless pity.
She says, “Well you take care of yourself, Paquito. Enjoy the holidays.”
He doesn’t reply.
8:17 pm, it’s almost the end of his shift. He sighs heavily and he starts to clear up his few possessions.
A pair of soft infantile hands presses against the glass display. A small girl draped in a clumsy ragged coat, not more than three years old, standing on her baby carriage. A young woman stands behind, holding onto the handle.
“Churros,” the woman says. “They are called churros.”
“Chos,” the girl says.
“Chos,” the girl says. She turns behind to look at her mother and giggles.
Paco clears his throat and wipes his hands on his apron. “Here,” he says. He grabs a sheet of wax paper and rolls it into a cone and tapes it securely.
“Wait,” says the mother. “Don’t mind my daughter, sir. I don’t have much change to spare, see.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was … They’re extra anyway.”
He grabs a few churros from the counter with a pair of tongs and places them into the paper cone and he grabs a small plastic container of chocolate and places it in as well and he hands the cone to the little girl over the glass. The girl holds it to herself. The woman smiles at him.
“What do you say to the nice man?” she says to the girl.
“Thank you,” the girl says. She looks up at him with shy eyes.
The corners of his lips turn up into a subdued smile.
“Merry Christmas,” the woman says.
She takes the small child into her arms and holds her close. The small, round, infantile face is of a striking likeness to its mother, a likeness not only physical — of features and expressions — but something almost impalpable and unnameable, fleeting, as though a subtle glint to be seen only from the corner of your eye, the direct vision of which would cause the very phenomenon to vanish like a slippery smoke. Contemplating her daughter, the mother seems to glow, rejuvenate, her cheeks growing red in that cold air. Paco sighs. They walk away and slowly vanish into the icy darkness.
One night, not many days later, as he was cleaning up his churrería like all other nights, he sensed that it was already going to happen. He didn’t know how he knew; he might not have exactly known that he knew, either.
Perhaps it was the fact that that very night, upon getting home, he’d sat by the phone and almost picked it up and dialed, he not knowing any number except those of each of his two daughters, whom he’d never called not long after they’d left and settled with their own families, they never having called him either, not even a letter nor message about how they were doing. That day when she died they never even showed up for the funeral, he not knowing if they even knew.
Perhaps it was the fact that that very night, before going to sleep, he’d brought out of the drawer the threadbare sheet of paper that he hadn’t looked at in years, upon which was scrawled in her sharp Catholic schoolgirl handwriting the secret family churros recipe that she’d learned from her father, she having written it down, she said, so that he too would know it, just in case something happened, he not paying attention at the time, never entertaining the possibility that it could happen, for they were young then, newly-married, blood warm with naïve love and juvenile ambition of what their small business would soon grow to be. That was fifty-eight years ago. He looked at the recipe now in his hands and studied it, not because he needed to be reminded of what the recipe was, for he’d already learned it by heart. His brushed his fingertips on the long dried up and fading ink.
And perhaps it was the very fact that that very night, as he lay in bed with his eyes open in the darkness, for once he reflected on it all — not just the remembrance of his past, for he’d done that on other nights, but the meaning of it. What had in his youth seemed to him to be a future full of sense, a sort of providential and meaningful pattern of dots which when traced out form a stunning and vivid image of his entire life’s work, a grand masterpiece for all the world to see, seemed in this very moment of aged hindsight to be a senseless chaos, a manic scatterplot thrown and splattered at the whim of some capricious force. Not that he’d achieved nothing, no. But it was exactly that he’d achieved it, only to find out that the satisfaction is fleeting and only goes telescoping and telescoping on to reveal a dizzying panorama of unaccomplished dreams — and more: that the very loves he’d sacrificed and relinquished in the pursuit of his ambition, in this desire to impose meaning on everything, were perhaps the only things he’d had that were worthwhile.
He closed his eyes and pressed the warm palms of his hands into his eyelids. At once the little explored shadows of his heart was filled with the bitter and dreadful pang of contrition, accompanied by a sudden thirst for something more, much like the dying survivor only encounters in the saltwater of the vast sea surrounding him not the slaking of his thirst but the stoking of it. He didn’t know what it was, but he at least he knew that it was — somewhere, out there.
“Somewhere,” he whispered to himself. He breathed deeply. He fell asleep.
One evening a man stood by the San Miguel churros stand. It was half-past seven and still it hadn’t opened. The streetsweeper passed by cleaning up the sidewalk.
“Excuse me,” said the man.
“Do you know when this will open?”
“This churrería here. When will it open. I know that the old man is open every day.”
“Ah. It’s been closed for a week now, sir.”
“A week, sir.”
“What happened to the old man?”
“I’m sorry but I have no idea sir. Frankly, I don’t know of many people who ever spoke to him much.”
“Ah. It’s a pity. I’ve been craving for some good churros all day.”
“Oh if your really want some churros, they make some very fine ones over there. Down the street.”
“Over there. About a three-minute walk from here. Just walk straight. Eugi is the name of the place. You won’t miss it. They make them pretty good down there.”
“Hey, thanks. I think I’ll give it a try.”
“Don’t mention it, sir.”
First short story I’ve worked on since my exams. It’s been a while, almost five weeks. I know, I know, the rust shows. Hopefully in the coming days I can work myself up to a steadier writing pace.
This story was inspired by seeing in Pamplona a churros stand — all bright and cheerful and aromatic — and standing inside of it was a morose looking old man with a perpetual frown. It was a very striking contrast. Fact and fiction separate here, however, because I decided to have a conversation with him and he turned out to be a nice and jolly old chap; his face was merely a façade. I know my story can be compared to one of Hemingway, “A Clean and Well-Lighted Place”, though I didn’t do that on purpose. And I reckon such a comparison would be an insult to Hemingway.