The town itself was interesting enough, with crumbling houses and narrow streets full of people who seemed not to know how to hurry. I learned to walk slowly and so this pace was not difficult for me. That day was absurdly sunny. In the afternoon I rode the one of the funiculars to the top of a hill, an outcropping of rock high above the sea where the wind blew so hard it forced my eyes shut and dusted my face with a fine film. From there, between gusts, I could see the port, its gleaming metal claws, its workers scurrying between acres of containers stacked one on top of the other. Beyond it was the ocean, a beautiful, roiling sheet of silver.
Of course the real work of the day was pretending I wasn’t lonely. By late afternoon I had given up, so I went to a bar down in the flats, a place that looked and smelled like the inside of a ship: the air was sooty and humid, the walls were held up by wooden beams curved like ribs. At any moment I thought they would give and the ocean would leak through, slowly at first, then with a deafening crash, and drown us all. There were five or six men at the bar. None sat together.
Nearly every inch of the place was covered with photographs: of politicians and starlets, soccer players and singers. The wall behind the bar was reserved for portraits of garlanded racehorses and their jockeys. I read for a bit, but the light was dim and I could barely make out the words. There was no music and very little conversation. The men nodded at the bartender, and drinks appeared before them in almost soundless transactions. I was there an hour before anyone said a word to me. It was an older gentleman in a worn navy sport coat. He said: “You read so beautifully.”
The way I felt in those days, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest to discover that I’d been reading aloud. I blanched. “How do you know?”
“You’re so still.”
Which struck me as funny. I’d been traveling at that point for eight weeks and already the town was fading. The next day I would be heading south, relentlessly southward, and in ten days I would be home again for the first time in two years. But I suppose everything about me gave the impression of a wounded man, determined not to move. I had not spoken to my wife in many months. The effort it took not to think of her was so great that in the evenings my bones ached.
“Cheers,” I said.
He told me his name was Marcial. “I’m retired,” he said. “It’s wonderful.” He paused, as if expecting me to respond, but I didn’t. I must have glanced down at my book again. “May I?” he asked.
He was unshaven and had a tired look to him. His hair was completely, shockingly white. I passed him the book. It was all so tactile: he felt its texture, fanned its pages roughly, and smiled at the satisfying sound they made. He commented on the novel’s weight. There was a woman on the cover, a stern, dark-haired beauty, looking down a Paris street. Or something like that. He ran his index finger over her face. “She’s pretty,” he said.
We clinked glasses. “I want you to understand my story,” Marcial said. “When my wife died, I told our children that I would drink for a year and then find a new woman.”
It was difficult to tell in the low light if he was a man at the beginning or the end of a yearlong bender. “How is that working out?”
His beard was growing in white. He scratched the stubble. “Very well,” he said. “I have three months to go.”
Eventually a television came on, and I pretended to read while Marcial followed a soccer match with muted enthusiasm. There was a red team and a blue team. When pressed, I sided with red, and this was met with approval. A few more people came in, some others left, but the real story I want to tell here is about how this man followed me home. It was late when I finally left, but it seemed much later. It seemed, in fact, like it should already be morning. It was a short walk to the hotel. As I gathered myself to go, Marcial pulled a few bills from his coat pocket and dropped them on the bar.
“No tip?” the bartender said. He was a dour man in his fifties, thin and balding, who had watched the entire soccer match without a sound, his hands folded neatly in his lap.
Marcial turned to me. “This man is the owner. I can’t tip him because it would be an insult. Tips are for workers.”
“What logic,” the owner said. “There are other bars in town.”
“But this one is special,” Marcial said. He winked at me.
I paid and said my goodbyes. Marcial must have walked out right behind me, but a low, heavy fog had blown in, so I didn’t notice him until I had reached the door of the hotel. He was ten paces back, shuffling up the hill. When he saw that I had seen him, he shrugged and, with great slowness, sat down on the curb, stretching his legs into the empty street. “I’m not following you,” he said. “Just so you know. I’ve come to look at the park.”
Across the street, bathed in fog, there was indeed a tiny, manicured park, with regal stone benches and neatly trimmed rosebushes. Somehow I hadn’t noticed it that morning. It seemed to have been dropped in from another country, an imitation of a postcard sent from far, far away.
“There was a building there,” Marcial said. “It wasn’t a nice building. It was a dump. Full of Czechs and Russians, and the whole world knows they’re slovenly people. But in the alley behind it—can you picture this?—where the wooden fence is now.” He pointed. “There! I kissed my wife in that spot when we were seventeen. We scratched our names in the bricks with my switchblade. Of course, you had to carry a knife in those days, not like now.” He said this last line in a tone of great disappointment. “For example, you don’t carry a knife, do you?”
“No,” I said.
Marcial took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one without offering. His white hair seemed to glow. “I like your country,” he said, though I hadn’t told him where I was from. He blew smoke and stared into the street. “Fine contraband. Interesting climate. Lovely, generous women.”
This entire time I’d been standing at the door of the hotel. I had the key in my hand and I could have left him at any moment.
“You’re from the capital?” he asked.
“Born and raised.”
Marcial sighed. “There’s not a sadder, more detestable city in the world.”
“You may be right,” I said.
“Of course I am. Won’t you sit?”
It was, in spite of the damp, a warm night.
“Why sugarcoat it?” Marcial said, once I had joined him on the curb. “I need money.”
“I don’t have money.”
“Don’t you?” He flicked what was left of his cigarette into the street. “The port works all night, you know, twenty-four hours a day. It never closes. Everything brought into this cursed country comes through there. Have you read the papers? These are the good times! So much work, and still they won’t have me. Do you think I’m old?”
I shook my head.
My grandfather was the oldest person I’ve ever known. By the time I met Marcial he’d been dead for three years. I told Marcial how my grandfather had kept a girlie calendar in his workshop, hidden from my grandmother behind a more respectable one with pictures of our country’s various tourist attractions: those ruins with which we tempt the world. When I was a boy, he had me pencil in my birthday on the hidden calendar. Even then his memory was fading. “It’s in May,” he said, “isn’t it?” He held the calendar in his trembling hands and admired the woman. She was dark-skinned and leggy. My grandfather, I recall, held the calendar very close to his face; his eyes were no good. Then he passed it to me. “Go ahead, write it. And your name too.”
“The problem is that my birthday is in March,” I told Marcial.
He smiled. “But I forget things too.”
A scruffy red-haired mutt appeared from under a park bench, padding lazily through the fog. He came right up to us, not growling, not afraid. Marcial took a wine cork from his pocket and held it out. The dog ventured closer, and licked the reddish end of the cork happily, like a lollipop. Marcial petted the dog with his other hand.
“You really must see the port at night. It’s something else,” Marcial said. “With all the lights, it looks like noon there. I can take you. I know the way.”
“No, thank you,” I said. Of course every road in town led to the port, but it didn’t seem right to tell him that.
He scowled. “You people have no appreciation. It’s why you’re so backward.”
And with that, it was time to go. I was about to stand when Marcial stopped me. “Wait,” he said, and I did. He shooed the dog away, as if he suddenly wanted privacy. He gave it a soft push, and when it resisted, he tossed the red wine cork down the street. The dog went off after it. He put his left hand on my shoulder, smiled, then showed me his right: it was a fist, and in it Marcial held a knife. It wasn’t a long blade. He frowned. “You see, I was hoping to rob you this evening.”
That night I dreamed of her and woke in a panic. The next night I was in a different hotel, in a different town farther down the coast—the same dream. By the fourth night, I had come to distrust myself, and was barely sleeping. I was thirsty all the time. I finished the book I’d been reading and left it on the table at a coffee shop at a border town. I was halfway down the block when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the pretty waitress from the café. She was out of breath and there was a wonderful pink to her cheeks. “You forgot your book,” she said.
“I left it on purpose.”
She bit her lip. Somehow I’d made her nervous. “But you can’t do that,” she said.
And so I took it with me. Five days later, I was home. I still hadn’t slept, and it took the last of my strength to open the windows of the shuttered apartment. These were the abandoned rooms where I had been raised. The entire family had filtered north, then my wife and I came back to live out the last days of our marriage. There was hardly any furniture left—little by little our neighbors had raided the place. When my father first complained, we had attributed it to his dementia, but it turned out he was right. Now it had gotten out of control. The creaky chair where my wife and I had made love was gone. The sofa too had disappeared, and the wall clock, and the leather table in the foyer. I made a quick inventory: the china was missing, my mother’s nice flatware, a silver picture frame, half the books. My grandfather’s old tube radio was nowhere to be found and there was an dish towel moldering where the television had once sat.
But what did I care? I emptied my bag on the floor of the living room, shook its contents out, and observed with some satisfaction the accumulated mound of wrinkled clothes and paper and trinkets: train tickets, matchbooks, the knife I had taken from Marcial that night. The book was there too, adorned with its photograph of a Parisian woman with dark hair and dark eyes. It was summer and the setting sun poured in and stained the walls red. I could smell the ocean. Everyone knew I was back. I had sent postcards at every stop along the way, keeping the family apprised of my southern progress, and so I waited, watching the daylight fade, for someone to call. They were about to call; I was certain of it. There were, I assumed, still friends and family in this city of mine. I fell asleep on the wooden floor, waiting. When I awoke it was night, the apartment was dark and cool, and the phone hadn’t disturbed my rest. I turned on every light in the old apartment and spent a furious half hour looking for it, tearing through what remained of our things, opening every drawer, every closet. The phone, the phone—our neighbors had taken it too. ●
Daniel Alarcón is the author of The King Is Always Above the People, which was longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award, At Night We Walk in Circles, a finalist for the 2014 Pen-Faulkner Award, as well as the story collection War by Candlelight, the novel Lost City Radio, and the graphic novel City of Clowns. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Granta, n+1, and Harpers, and he was named one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” He is Executive Producer of “Radio Ambulante,” distributed by NPR, and is an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York.
To learn more about The King Is Always Above the People, click here.