But no one dies in the right place
Or in the right hour
And everyone dies sooner than his time
And before he reaches home.
When Ben sensed they were getting close, he signaled the taxi
driver to let him off. Calle Isaac Peral, a strange name for a street in Madrid,
but for some reason names were important to him, and he wanted to get them
right. He paid the driver and tipped him fifty pesetas. Deliberately, as though
stepping off terrain, he continued on foot, passing a travel agency, a photocopy
center, a cafeteria with pastries in the window, a fitness center and a book
store. Across a narrow side street was a large gray hospital, Hospital Militar
Generalisimo Franco, that occupied much of the next block. Then a pharmacy, a
bar advertising comidas caseras, and a marblefaced apartment building.
If hed been back in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lived, he would not have been able to identify the neighborhood he was in by the foot traffic he saw along the street. He saw plenty of student-aged people, some of whom might have been Americans. But this was a mainly middle-class street, filled with office workers or technicians of some sort, midrange businessmen and civil servants. Older women rolled shopping bags behind them, on their way to or from a market he neither saw, heard nor smelled.
He came to Plaza de Cristo Rey, where two other streets intersected. The first he crossed without incident. The second was broader, and he stood with the crowd, waiting for the light. The streets were full of small flashing cars, driven bumper to bumper. Threading their way among them were kids on unmuffled motorbikes, which made a drilling din. He smelled the motor exhaust, and he smelled again and again the same soap or cologne scent some combination of lavender and lemon, with a chemical edge.
He was on the outskirts of the city, before it gave way to the university. Beyond lay the sierra, the mountain range that bounded the table land; the sky was a bright, scoured blue.
The light changed.
On Paseo San Francisco de Sales Ben saw a boutique, Miss Jotas, and a childrens clothing store with an English name, Neck and Neck. Beyond them he could make out a string of banks. But peering up the street he must have veered to the side, for he jostled a passerby, a young man, perhaps thirty, whose eyes, in the instant he fixed on them, were of a brown so light they appeared golden. There was no anger in them, no irritation, just an aged and alien luster. Every other time in his life Ben might have apologizedlo siento, the Spanish saidbut he felt no need.
He allowed the young man to step around him. By the time he got where he was going he had made contact with two others, brushes, really, but solid enough to feel flesh on flesh. He was not sorry. The Spanish sounded like a chorus of well-trained, shrill and heckling jungle birds. When an American boy and girl passed they sounded like puppy dogs in comparison, yapping with a sunny fair boding. It was all in the voices.
He was not here to make fanciful comparisons.
Before he entered the buildingbrick and concrete and relatively nondescript for a country not averse to making a display of itselfhe stood facing the street and allowed his weightand the weight of his emotionsto settle over his knees. He was forty-eight. He was blond and balding and too fair-complexioned for this sun. His traveling had taken him as far west as Hawaii and as far east as London, where hed spent a week. Hed felt at home in both places, where all foreignness was kept behind glass.
He had inherited wealth. People had died so that he might be standing here without a financial care in the world.
From House of the Deaf by Lamar Herrin, the complete text of chapter 1, pages 1-15. Copyright 2005 Lamar Herrin. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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