In the hillside neighborhood of San Mamés, the afternoons are often announced by a brief thunderstorm which runs for only thirty minutes but brings a week’s worth of rain. There is no forewarning to the storms, no announcement fifteen minutes ahead of time, and as buckets of water pound the winding streets, cafe owners rush to move tables indoors. Men and women run in their flip flops on the cracked sidewalks, eager to find a doorway for cover. An older couple sits underneath awnings with an afternoon beer in hand, relaxing to the recurring sounds of thunder.
The Hotel San Mamés closes its doors during the storms. A guard sits outside under an umbrella to allow guests entry and exit, and in the lobby of the boarding house old men both local and expatriate play cards waiting for the rain to clear. The boarding house was once quite fashionable, part of a shaded, bohemian neighborhood which housed many of the city’s most promising artists. But years of neglect have left it wanting, and now the house is weathered – its wooden panels cracking and sunbleached, the furniture and decor dated, its boarders dull, plain, and pedestrian.
Among the long-term guests of the boarding house are Leandro and Fred, two surly men in their sixties, both unshaven and sporting short sleeve polos and light chino pants. In the midst of yet another card game, they sit staring at their cards with an underwhelming level of intensity. They’ve no idea what day of the week it is – that information is strictly need to know, and they’ve certainly no need. Thunder rumbles in the background as the gradual give and take of the card game spills into another day.
As they play, the waiter, a local teenager, stops at their table and picks up a few plates. He stares at a pile of change. “Is this for me?”
“Yes,” Lenadro replies, not looking up from his cards.
The waiter rolls his eyes before picking up the change. “Thanks.”
As the waiter walks away, Fred leans over and whispers to Leandro. “You’ve insulted the man.”
“It was a reasonable tip. Besides, it’s all I had.”
“I would have at least thrown in another bill had I known you were trying to cheap on him.”
Leandro finally takes his attention away from the cards. “Do you know that the waiter is recovering from a gambling problem? What would you have me do? Hand him all of my money? It would be akin to handing an alcoholic a drink. Stop stalling and play.”
They continue the game, and amongst the thoughtful placement of cards on the table a fashionably dressed young man walks down the stairs, through the lobby, and out of the hotel. Fred watches the man with curiosity. The man is handsome and distinguished, wearing a fashionable dress shirt and polished brown shoes, his coat cinched at the waist. As he steps out of the hotel he pulls an old-fashioned umbrella from his bag. The security guard tips his head to the man as he exits.
“He’s always so well-dressed,” Fred says.
“That man who just left, from the third floor I believe.”
“Ah yes,” Leandro says, waving his arm. “I believe he’s British. You know how they are.”
“I’ve heard a rumor about him though.”
Leandro isn’t listening. He reorganizes the cards in his hand, looking at what’s currently on the table.
“It’s a good rumor,” Fred repeats.
“Rumor about whom?” Leandro replies, still shuffling the cards in his hand.
“About that man, the smartly dressed one with the defined jaw and the sultry smile.”
Leandro continues to play without acknowledging Fred’s remark.
“I’ve heard,” Fred continues, “that he doesn’t… pay any rent.”
Leandro, now interested, removes his glasses. “How do you mean?”
“How do you think I mean? I mean he doesn’t pay any rent to stay at this boarding house.”
“No, but how do you know this? Who said that to you?”
“Well, no one said it to me.”
Leandro returns his attention to his cards. “So then you don’t know. You’re just talking out of your ass again.”
“Joao asked me to look at the books for him, and while I was helping him I noticed he’s never paid a dime in rent.”
To understand Leandro and Fred’s cynical curiosity is to understand the worst of each of them. Many patrons at the boarding house don’t know each other by name, but rather through a series of nicknames which characterize the most agitating elements of each other’s personality. For Leandro, the “cheap old man” has become a biting characterization among the other guests (and among the staff that serve him as well). For Fred, well, most just call him “the gossip.”
“Perhaps he’s on credit,” Leandro says.
Fred shakes his head. “For eight years? I doubt it.”
“Perhaps he’s related to Joao. Being related to the owner can get you some privileges.”
“No. No chance.”
“Joao is a man of … generous features. He’s handsome in his own right, but this British character, he’s distinguished. He has grace, gravitas. I’m certain they’re not related. In fact, I would bet money on it.”
“Shall we make it interesting?” Leandro asks.
They shake, and Leandro walks over to the doorway and into the library behind the front desk – Joao’s office. He shouts Joao’s name through the doorway and then returns to the table. “He’ll join us momentarily.”
As they wait, Fred reaches over and looks at Leandro’s cards. He chuckles to himself.
Joao emerges from the library and walks over to the table. He is the same age as Fred and Leandro. Like the hotel he is distinguished but poorly maintained, dressed in a wrinkled but well-intentioned suit and tie and of the aforementioned generous proportions.
Leandro begins talking before Joao has an opportunity to address the table. “Settle a dispute for us, Joao. The British man on the third floor, the uh … sultry one.”
“With the cultivated jaw,” Fred interjects.
“Yes, right – he is related to you, no?”
“No,” Joao says, “he is not.”
Fred celebrates in silence and grabs a few bills from the table where they were playing cards. A solid day’s winnings.
“That is all?” Joao asks, confused by the interruption.
“Well, not really,” Leandro replies. “You see, my friend here has informed me that this man with the jaw has not paid rent in eight years.”
“That is correct.”
“How is that possible?”
Joao sighs as he pulls a chair up to the table. “It has never come up, the issue of rent.” He reaches for the bottle of wine and pours himself a drink using a clean glass poached from an adjacent table.
“Well there must be an explanation,” Leandro continues. “You must’ve known him before?”
“You owe him a favor?”
Leandro is despondent. “He is a figure from your past. You owe him a great debt. He is a time traveler and his futuristic credit is no good here. He’s out to kill your family. He’s out to do something.”
Joao grins. “Well certainly he’s out to do something. But taking the life of my extended family? I should only be so lucky.”
“I’ve got it,” Fred says with a wry smile. “You’re in love with him.”
“That is certainly not the case.”
“Admit it! You’re in love with his dashing looks – his stubble and his manicured hair.”
Joao protests. “Need I remind you that I’m married?”
“But you must love him. There’s no other explanation.”
“Maybe you love him. Have you considered that?”
“OK, maybe you don’t love him,” concedes Fred.
At this point, the sound of the argument has carried across the small lobby of the boarding house, attracting the attention of another nearby tenant. Oscar is in his mid-30’s, an aspiring umbrella salesman whose workday has been cut short by the torrential rain. After all, an umbrella does little good for someone who is already drenched.
He moves towards the table, pointing at the bottle of wine. “May I?”
“Please,” says Joao before Leandro can deny him.
Oscar pours a small amount of wine into a glass and takes a single swig. “I’ve seen this man before, the man you speak of from the third floor. I imagine he is charming, sweet, carefree? He’s a relic of a bygone era who knows the art of conversation, isn’t he? When you speak with him, you feel the easing of your troubles. You will do anything for him.”
“You are in love with him.” Fred suggests to Joao. “As I already said.”
Oscar shrugs. “In a way he is. I heard a mention of gravitas – that is exactly it. Through his demeanor, he places you at ease. He turns to Joao. “To broach the subject of rent would run the risk of letting the money soil the relationship. What you have and what you hold dear. It’s a risk you are unwilling to take.
Joao leans back in his chair. “It’s an interesting theory.”
“But?” Oscar asks.
“But it fails at a key test. I have hardly spoken to this man in the decade he’s stayed here. In fact, as I consider our personal history, I’ve hardly spoken to him at all. I know that he’s British, and that as such he enjoys Earl Gray Tea. And I know that he takes the newspaper each Sunday morning. But beyond that I know very little about him.”
Leandro slams his hand on the table. “Can I interject on this point? I have returned to my room to find that junk yard boarding house cat has peed in my bed and you roll your eyes at me. And yet, I have never left my room on a Sunday morning without looking over to see a fresh copy of the morning paper at the doorstep of that – that – freeloader’s doorstep, rolled neatly with a hot cup of tea next to it. How do you explain that? What kind of business is this?”
“You’re free to leave whenever you’d like,” Joao replies.
“Don’t change the subject!” Leandro yells.
“The subject is parasitic behavior. You, master of pissing on the walls of the communal bathroom, should be well familiar!”
The men stand and begin to shout at one another, yelling incoherently and shattering the lethargic air of the lobby.
“Excuse me!” A new voice rises up over the argument. “I apologize for eavesdropping.”
All four men – Oscar, Joao, Leandro, and Fred – look over at the man sitting at a corner table who has just placed his dog-eared paperback down next to his glasses. Abe North is in his 40’s, dressed in a khaki jacket with a white shirt and brown tie. He has been staying at this boarding house since the close of the communist revolt in the adjacent town. Those who know him intimately claim he’s met Che Guavara. Those who don’t claim he’s a kook.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your spirited discussion.” He points to the bottle of wine on the table. “May I?”
Joao nods and Abe North gives himself a generous pour, drinking it in a single gulp. “I’m conscious of my own arrogance. But I believe that I’ve cracked this case.”
“Please, tell us,” says Oscar.
“Joao I’ve known you for many years. You are a man of ideals, a man of the highest calibre.”
Leandro grunts and the group stares at him for a moment before Abe continues. “A man comes to you in dire need eight years ago, perhaps with a hole in his sock, a stained collar, and you provide for him. And in your truest, most genuine manner, you provide for him the best of any guest you’ve ever had. A modern day Christ you are Joao – a good Samaritan – raised in a world of community and goodwill towards your fellow man. You believe in the ideal of the community. We are all fortunate to count you among our friends. As I wipe a tear from my eye I can almost hear the sound of church bells.”
Abe raises his glass to toast, and at his suggestion they all do, Leandro reluctantly, except Joao who stares at the floor.
“Drink up,” Abe says.
“What a rousing speech from one of my closest friends,” Joao says as he places his hand on Abe’s shoulder, “ I only wish I could meet your glass with my own, the sound of them touching mirroring the sound of those church bells as we toast to a rare example of civility in this savage world. But my conscious won’t allow it. The man in question is not poor. I’m certain of it. Though still unsure of my loyalty to him, I can tell you one thing: he is not one of the less fortunate.”
They all mumble and lower their glasses slowly. Leandro has continued to steam quietly and in this dead moment he yet again finds himself pushing Joao’s policies rather than intentions. “Well I will tell you this: rich or poor, I will get the rent. I will collect it on your behalf Joao and right this injustice.”
“You will not!” Joao replies.
“I will, or I will not pay another cent to this boarding house, crooked as it is. I will not support an owner who looks more favorable on the best dressed border. I’m sorry I cannot afford cufflinks or some fashionable jacket.”
“You could simply start by replacing your shoes – we can smell you from three rooms away.”
Leandro looks at Fred who shrugs, and at that insult he stands, eager for reprisal, “You will apologize for that!”
Joao stands as well. “I will not.”
All five men jump back to their feet and argue, yet again yelling incomprehensible insults at one another. As the afternoon game of cards devolves further into chaos, the sound of a man clearing his throat distracts from the growing tension. Carlo is the final man who has been sitting in the lobby listening to the debate. He is in his 80’s, so old and so long a border at this hotel that many consider him one of the fixtures. A cat, the previously mentioned “junkyard cat” sits in the plush chair next to him, lazily sprawled out across the cushion. After clearing his throat, Carlo approaches the table with great difficulty as Joao drags another chair to the table. The old man points to the wine. “May I?”
“Please,” Joao replies.
Carlo fills a glass to the very top and downs the booze with a series of slow, deliberate gulps.He pauses for a moment, then begins. “As you are clearly stumped, and the racket from this debate having a debilitating effect on Hugo’s afternoon nap…”
The cat meows, agitated.
Carlo continues. “I will settle this once and for all. Joao, you allow Hugo to saunter around the nooks and crannies of this place. You feed him, and what’s more, you provide him with a plush bed in which to sleep, more comfortable than even the ones we sleep in. And he pays no rent. Am I wrong about this?”
“And yet, what value does this cat bring to the house?”
Joao considers for a moment, “None.”
“None, indeed. And yet he is given free roam of the house, much more than the previous cat who stayed here, who you kicked on the street after scratching the sofa in the front room.”
Carlo leans back now as he begins to spin his theory. “Hugo and the British national, maybe even you as well Joao, are one, perhaps the same soul, perhaps different souls conjoined by the passage of time. But that matters little to you. What matters, however, is that you have found yourself like many among the annals of history – captivated by something despite not understanding why. It is not love, it is not lust, it is not even morbid curiosity. It is a simple predisposition no more complex than the one I have towards the bedskirt in my room. I do not love it or hate it, but its presence impacts me such that I do not dare to change it. It’s no more complicated than that. And so, if you would please, I would like to return to my book in quiet.”
After a brief pause, Fred speaks. “That’s it?”
Carlo nods as the others sit in silence, contemplating his theory.
“Can we just consider for one more moment that maybe he’s in love with this man?” Fred asks.
With that final strike of the match, they again stand to argue. Above the fray Leandro can be heard yelling, “I will get the money!” Joao sticks his finger on Leandro’s chest. The situation verges on escalating to physical violence, only to be derailed one final time, this time by the sound of the front door opening.
The British National, still with the dress and demeanor with which he left the Hotel San Mamés only thirty minutes prior, closes the door and walks through the lobby, his polished shoes clicking against the marble floors of the hotel. The men are silent now, frozen in their combative positions.
The British National is about to walk past the table when he sees the wine bottle almost empty. He stops, looks at it, and asks, “Joao, is that the last bottle? Do you mind if I finish you off? I never did get to taste it.”
Joao shakes his head, and they all watch, even Leandro, as he takes the last sip directly from the bottle.
“Incredible stuff, yet again Joao. Is that local?”
“Well, then cheers.”
“Cheers,” Fred responds.
The man smiles and continues up the stairs. At the table below, the belligerents wait for the audible signal of their subject closing his bedroom door before moving back to their original positions throughout the lobby. Each wonders why they did not broach the topic with the man while he was right in front of them, why his presence alters the universe in such small proportions that they were rendered useless in his presence. They do not resume arguing this time, as in some infinitesimal way the cosmos are balanced. As Carlo sinks back into his chair, and Hugo puts his head down to rest.