A Short Story From:  Strangers And Graves
Peter Feibleman

     They sat at the table without speaking and he tried to remember what it had been like seven years ago the first time it had happened.
     Since the day before yesterday now they had had coffee made in thin faintly sour boiled milk with pieces of stale bread in it and nothing else. It had happened once before. Only once --not quite before his conscious memory began. It was seven years ago, and they had almost starved. He remembered it on the fringe, the frayed first edge of his waking mind, before the blank nothingness of infancy and before he could think of not remembering: there his mother's face as she set the white thick cups in front of him and his father, the milky thin steaming coffee the same color as his father's faded eyes in the white meaningless morning light and the bobbing stale chunks of white dry two-day-old bread drawing the brown coffee up, staying white and dry helplessly only at the top where the hard bread proudly bounced, glinted, stuck at last hysterically out of the liquid, like tiny castaway oysters in the coffee, shaped like the two clobbers of dry white covering the tips, the blinded pupils of his father's eyes.
     Seven years ago and his mother had stood over the coffee. "Eat," she had said, "A comer," using the infinitive in the sense of "Come to eat," in the mothering and fierce and fiercely hopeless way of the Andalusian who orders even when she does not order, protecting what she cannot protect. "Eat." As if they were not going to. As if they had not been sitting there waiting for it for twenty minutes, knowing the last of the coffee and the bread was all there was to eat in the house and all there would be until there was some money in the house to buy even more coffee with or more stale bread. "Eat," in the morning seven years ago. "Eat." And they had sat there. He, the boy, remembered:
     His father had sniffed at it, saying, "Es cafe con pan migado?" asking what it was but knowing the answer, knowing clearly and asking only so that he could think with the other part of his mind. And his mother with her hands on her frail long hips. His mother angrily saying, "Yes, it is coffee with soaked bread. Yes it is. No, it is not squab. No, it is not a biftec. No it is not fried eggs in the American style. No, it is not tender young veal kidneys in white wine. Yes, it is coffee with soaked bread. That is all it is. It is not roasted chicken. It is not chicken in any form. Thou hast ascertained it perfectly. Congratulations. Thy sensibilities are of a noble exactness. It is truly coffee with soaked bread. How didst thou guess it?" And his father not answering, paying no attention to the tirade he had brought on but groping, feeling in front of him on the table with his hands for the cup; then his mother, "What are thou doing now, blind man? What? It is where I always put it. Why fumble for it? I have never put it in any other place. For what dost thou feel around it with the hands? Dost thou hope to spill it like that?" Then his father saying, "I will not spill it, woman. I see with my hands. I have been given hands to see with; understand? Woman, I have something to tell thee. Woman, I am blind, woman." Then his mother, "I thank thee," and his mother, "I object to the milk that suckled thee. I already know that thou art blind. For fifteen years I have known that thou art blind. I object to the day I first knew of thy blindness. You were blind when I married you. How am I going to forget now that you are blind? "--but the two of them pretending to fight, talking only to talk; thinking, but not of what they were saying. Thinking only of no money and no food and a child in the house, of no work for a blind man. The lottery to sell--the official State Lottery of the Blind--and when there were no buyers, no food. But a child to feed. Him. His parents suddenly talking to keep themselves from thinking: he had heard that and he had been six then, the other time they had been without food or money and close to starvation. He remembered it now but not because he had been hungry. He had been, but he could not remember the hunger. He had forgotten that entirely. He only remembered the other thing. He remembered hearing them think.
     Now, seven years later, he tried to remember what they had done then and how they had got through it.
     It was his going to work with his father that had helped them through it. He had brought luck to the man. But how?
     His father was one of the blind men who sold lottery tickets on the streets of Malaga. He had a good corner assigned to him and this had been his father's corner since the boy himself was born. It was one of the best corners in Malaga, half a block from the Alameda, and his father stood there during the day with the white stamp-size lottery tickets hanging in strips from his shoulder and fastened there to the jacket with a safety pin --that, the pin, and the wooden tray of cigarettes he sometimes carried, the only two implements of his trade. The tickets hung in single and double and triple strips fluttering in the wet sea wind and his father stood in the same place all day, his legs apart from the thighs, stood tall and proud, called, "Hoy. Lo tengo hoy"--"I have it today"--the call of the blind. The lottery of the blind. Selling tickets for the weekly drawing of the cheaper of the two State lotteries and sometimes, rarely, when there was special luck, a few tickets for the other one also, the expensive monthly lottery, and selling cigarettes often singly and in packets, the Spanish black tobacco and the red American tobacco, and sometimes also a pair of stainless steel nail-clippers or plastic sunglasses smuggled off one of the boats in the Malaga port though that was not his true profession and it was not even real luck because when he had them to sell it meant there was a new shipload of them and they were all over the town and everyone had them to sell. And the boy stood next to him and took the money as people stopped to buy tickets and counted the correct change for those who wanted change; and while he was counting it the blind man reached for the strips pinned to his jacket and tore off the correct number of tickets. They worked together, the boy and the blind man. (At times there was a slight variation. Some customers preferred to tear off the lottery themselves from the man's jacket. It was thought to bring luck and one out of four buyers insisted on it. The boy watched them to be sure only the exact number of tickets was removed; he knew that no one would steal lottery from a blind man but he kept check all the same; it was one of his duties.) And they stood until the night began and this man, his father, was not like the blind men on the other corners of the town. Not stooping, not bowing his head; never obsequious when he wished the customer luck or when he said "Thank you" but saying it straight out; not servile or frightened or bent. He could not beg easily. He was proud. He was the only proud blind man in Malaga.
     So he himself had brought luck to his father and that was how they had got through it the last time seven years ago, although he did not know yet what the luck had been or how he had been fortunate enough to bring it. He had just gone to stand with the man on the street corner one day. They had worked together from that day on. In the first week of his joining his father they had made almost a hundred pesetas, enough to pay over a week and a half of back credit at the grocery store and enough so that Don Pedro, the grocer, would let them have more food on credit; enough to eat.
     Again: to eat. He had brought the luck and the luck had brought food. After that for seven years they had gone to the same corner and for seven consecutive years they had not starved. He and his father and mother. One Christmas they had had a large chicken to themselves. His mother had cooked it in oil and white wine with many small white onions and garlic and parsley and carrots and small green peas and it had lasted five days. The fifth day it was as good as it was the first day. The first day, Christmas day, when his father got up from the table he developed a jauntiness in his walk. The man went around the room picking his teeth with a certain air. It was not a swagger; it was only the walk of a man who gives a chicken for Christmas dinner to his family. During the night the boy had heard his mother sobbing, but not in a way that was like crying, in a grateful way. It began as a gentle urgent sound and then all the gentleness went out of it and it quickened and deepened until it went into her breathing, and then he could hear them both together, wildly breathing together in different rhythms and then in the same rhythm, faster and sharper until his mother gasped and stopped while his father went on and his mother said a weird outrageous thing. She said, "I see the sky." Just that, "Veo el cielo"---I see the sky--no more. But his father went on breathing.
     They lived in one room on the outskirts of the mountain side of the town. There were in the room two beds and a table and chairs and a wooden clothes rack and a small black coal stove and a colored photograph of a painting of God. His name was Jesus and his face was bleeding. The blood was tinted a bright strawberry color and each single drop would have looked edible if it had not been blood and if it had not been on God. The blood came from a halo of thick brown pointed thorns and each individual thorn was painted so minutely you could not help but admire the exactness of the thorns. Not many people came into the house but if anyone did he or she was likely to mention the painting of the thorns on God. There was a Sen6ra de Quico who came sometimes to collect for her husband, the butcher, and unless the bill was too high and she had lost her temper she always began by standing around looking innocent or polite, looking as if she were going to whistle, and before she mentioned the bill, before she even got around to the topic of money, she always complimented them on the realism of the painting of the individual thorns that produced the strawberry blood on the face of God. In the hand-tinted photograph of the painting of El Greco, God's eyes were turned up heavenward in a long-suffering way, as though He were patiently waiting for the Senora de Quico to get off His thorns and get on to the subject of the overdue butcher bill.
     After that Christmas they had been happy for a while. The Senora de Quico came from time to time but the bill was never large and she always had to keep her temper and remark on the thorns first. Once his father had paid her so promptly (and paid also for a week in advance, which was unheard of) that the Senora de Quico felt obliged to stay on a few moments and compliment them on other properties of the painting. She remarked on the color of the blood and on the shape of God's nose and on the translucent pink waxlike tinting of His skin. Then she commented on the beautiful expression in His eyes and when she spoke of it her own eyes became misty and softly sorry for themselves. She leaned her head to one side and stood contemplating the photograph of the painting. After that she asked for corroboration of her vision of the beauty of God's eyes. She asked all three people in the room--the boy and his mother and father. When she asked the boy he said yes it was a beautiful expression and when she asked his mother she said yes, and then she asked his father. His father said he didn't know. The Senora de Quico went on mooning soulfully at the photograph and asked what did he mean he didn't know. Didn't he perceive the glory of the expression in those eyes? Didn't he view the magnificence of the suffering in them? Didn't he see the holiness and the agony and the pitifulness of God's two eyes? His father said he didn't see anything, he was blind. The Senora de Quico turned and jumped slightly. She had forgotten in her sharp sentimental wave of religiousness to whom she was speaking. She knew the man was blind of course, everyone did. You only had to look at him. She knew it particularly; it was the reason she came to see them. Her husband, the butcher, was ashamed to go collecting small bills from a blind man. She wasn't; she insisted on doing it herself every week. But that day she backed out of the room. She left them without saying goodbye, which, in Andalucia, is comparable to not remembering the name of your husband's mother in public.
     So his father had triumphed over the Senora de Quico as he had triumphed over starvation and had triumphed too over the servility--the visible kowtowing that bent the backs of the other blind men who sold lottery tickets in Malaga. The ones who apologized for their blindness. The men who begged passersby to take their tickets in a pleading and humiliated way: who effaced themselves from the earth. The men who stooped with their minds. His father had triumphed over them for he had never stooped or begged but always stood with his shoulders thrown far back, a skeletal tall handsome man, the shadows thick under the bones in his face like shadows under rocks, his face made up of shelves and edges, itself wrinkled like a rock. The blind man stood a meter and most of another meter high and had to bend down to go in and out of his own front door. He had a full head of hair and it was graying from almost black to a narrow strip of white over the ears like the sea water at night when it broke against the shore and fell back white and sizzling; like the blindly moving beating sizzling sea-cold water always against the land.
     His father was the only proud blind man in Malaga.
     It was the fall after the Christmas day of the chicken and the night of wild breathing that his mother sat up in bed one night, straight up and gasped and then flipped back down flat like a fish inside the darkness and opened her lungs and screamed. She did it twice, two short horrible blasts that tore holes in the black air, and then she gasped again for air and filled her lungs and left her mouth open and went on making one long underwater sound until he thought, in his bed, that she was being ripped apart, pulled in two by something, and that all that would be left whole or alive of his mother when they turned on the light would be her screaming. And he waited. Then in the darkness he heard his father's low voice saying, "Don't be afraid," and knew, in the night, that it was not being said to his mother but only across the room to him: then waiting in the darkness with his mother's screams and his father's still presence and the loudness of his blood and thinking of his father, found that he was not afraid.
     The woman came from the house on the corner. His father dressed and took his hand and led him, then he leading his father, they, the man and the boy leading each other out of the house. They stumbled a block and a half up the street to the hillside beyond the town, the man moving much too fast in the moonless night, pulling him along. Then they waited together on the side of the hill in the dark, listening to the far-off hish of the sea and the crisp folding of the waves and the screams that came more often now, like a new pulse in the earth, more and more often now, faster now and shorter, like the rhythm of the breathing the Christmas before, quickening until there was no space between, until the night was all screams, full of nothing but sound, and then stopped completely from one second to the next and left nothing but silence (as his mother's breathing had stopped that night when she had said, "I see the sky," and his father had gone on breathing alone) and now his father said, "She has done it"--"Ya 1o ha hecho"--and he looked up and could not see the face in the darkness and realized singularly for the first time sharply then how night and day were the same thing to the man; that waiting there with him the man probably did not know whether it was light or black, dawn or midnight outside, and that this had been why they had stumbled too fast up the street away from the house, because his father did not know that it was a clouded moonless night or know that he, the boy, could not see either; and now his father said, "Ha dado luz"--"She has given light"--which is the plain way of saying that a woman has given birth (that light is all you can give when you do give birth; that there is nothing else you can give at that moment to the unborn child but light, nothing, because he must work to breathe even the air for himself, you cannot give him that) and he himself listening, he standing in the night that was black as a grave, and he, blind as his father, knew that there was another mouth to feed in the family.
     He was seven then.
     Now he was thirteen. His sister was six. Now his father's luck had changed back again and for the second time there was nothing to eat but coffee with soaked stale bread because there was no money to pay the Senora de Quico and she had stopped giving them credit. His mother could not find work. She had worked before, in the early years, had always found something to do to help make money house-cleaning in the city or in Suelo or one of the other tourist villages on the coast. But something had fallen inside her body when the second child was born and now she was no longer fit for real physical work. Their credit was no good anywhere and they owed almost four months at the grocer's too and at the milk store and at the other grocer's, the one they used in emergencies when the first grocery bill was too high. The Senora de Quico came daily now for the butcher bill, for a payment on it, for any part of the bill, and she no longer bothered to comment on the painting of the thorns on God. The last time she came she had suggested that he, the boy, be sent out alone to beg, and his father had stood up from the table so tall it looked as though he would go through the plaster of the roof. His father had said quietly that they did not beg. This was not a family of beggars, it was the family of a blind man who sold lottery tickets honorably. And the Senora de Quico had said, "Honorably?" She nodded and shut her eyes and smiled. "Bueno," she said, "do you cook this Honorably? Does it roast? Truly? It fries, this Honorably? Maybe you go out and get one big Honorably and you make it last five or six days, a week even, maybe for two weeks you don't eat anything but cold slices of this big Honorably. Then when you stuff yourself with it, when you get tired of eating the Honorably, then maybe you think about doing something to pay off part of the butcher bill. So you can change your diet and try something else, some other kind of meat with a little more sustenance to it than the thick slices of this preserved cold roast Honorably." She turned and started out, turning back once at the door to face him again, nodding in a new wise way as though the man could see her, and said, "I'll be back again tomorrow, you know. I'm sure you know. It would give me a great deal of pleasure to have a little of the money from you tomorrow. Think about that instead of the Honorably. Might it be possible?" And his father had said, "I hope so, Senora." And the Senora de Quico: "I also, si, Senor. I hope so. That tomorrow you take into account that you are a very poor man. That you pay your bills before you relax. I hope so. I hope so Honorably." And had gone away again without saying goodbye, this time on purpose.
     That was yesterday and now they were waiting at the table for her to come--the four of them, the boy and his sister and mother and father. His father had stood on the street corner for ten hours today until the blind man who had been assigned that corner at night came to take his place and his father had made in the whole day one peseta and twenty-five centimos. It was not quite enough for a loaf of fresh bread. It was now late November and getting close to Christmas. Few people generally bought the cheap lottery at Christmas time and this was a very bad year. This was one of the worst years that had ever been. If he did not make some money soon, it would be the worst. The boy had gone to stand with his father in the afternoon (it being one of the man's rules that he go to school in the mornings whatever else happened, so that once they had to go without meat for three weeks so that what tuition there was could be paid and so that the boy could buy a notebook and two pencils and a pair of shoes to go to school in). This morning he had been too hungry to sit in school and think about anything but eating but his father had insisted all the same: there was the word Honorably and it had to do with pride. You do not beg and you do not apologize for being blind and your son goes to school hungry or not. There are things that are done and there are other things that are not done, regardless of what is eaten. That is the way of things and the boy did not mind very much. He did not truly mind anything but fear very much. Hunger did not make him afraid any more than his mother's underwater screams had frightened him that night once his father's voice came out of the blackness. As long as he kept a reason to live, he had found, he could mind things a little and still not mind them very much. His father had given him a reason the way his mother had given him light and it was when he thought about being afraid that he remembered his father was the only proud blind man in Malaga.
     With the peseta and twenty-five centimos his father had bought bread, not really stale, only one-day-old bread, in the center of the town and there was nearly fresh milk for the coffee and a piece of fresh wet Burgos cheese for his sister. His sister was the age he himself had been when he had first gone to work with his father and the cheese had been put on her plate without discussion because she was the youngest. It was rightfully hers because she needed the sustenance and the rest of them sat and drank the steaming coffee and soaked bread and his mother prayed to the Virgin for a better day tomorrow. His father would not pray while he was eating. His sister made a sly face at the boy and held out a slice of the wet cheese under the table, knowing that their mother would not object even if she saw. The boy knew what his father would have said and he shook his head no. Then they sat together in silence eating under the single round bulb in the darkish clean room, hoping the bulb would last for the boy's and his mother's and the girl's sake, that those who had been given light might see by it. To amuse himself he thought about starving and wondered what it would feel like. He could not pretend to be hungrier than he was, so he did not know what starving would feel like. After that the quick knock came. They all knew who it was and his mother set her spoon with care into her coffee cup and began to cry instinctively and silently--instinctively so that the Senora de Quico would feel pity for them when she came in, and silently so that his father would not know.

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