February 14, 2014: Saint Valentine’s Day. I walked over to the flower shop next to the town cemetery this morning to buy flowers for my special lady. I cut through el Parque Los Cachones and as I was exiting the park I spotted M – or as everybody in town calls him: El Pichichi. (El Pichichi was the nickname of Spanish footballer Rafael Moreno Aranzadi who played for Athletic Bilbao in the 1910s and 1920s. The sports newspaper Marca gives out an annual award called El Pichichi for the highest goalscorer.)
M was leaning over the railing of one of the foot bridges. He was smoking (as always) and watching the water from a recent storm as it raged past below. I crept up behind him and said, “Que pasa, viejo?!” (“What’s up, old man?!”) He turned around cautiously and when he realized it was me, “Eh! Americano!” We shook hands. He jumped right in and started asking me about work. We had done a handful of jobs together over the years (putting in drywall, installing laminate floors, odd construction jobs), but now he´s retired. It was obvious he missed working. He enjoyed being around the guys all day, telling jokes and stories, etc.
M can fix anything – badly. I´ve watched him pull live electrical wires out of a hole in a wall with a pair of pliers making everyone around him run for cover. “No pasa nada!” he yelled. I remember watching him try to fix an old generator one time. He was down on his knees pouring gasoline into the tank with a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth 6 inches from the open tank. Everybody stepped back and told him to be careful. “No pasa nada!” M is famous for two things: pissing anywhere except in a toilet and hiding empty beer cans and bottles in the walls he is building.
A typical day working with M went as follows: There had to be beer. Lots of beer. He had built up a clientele over the years and everybody knew that you had to have beer in the fridge for M. If there wasn’t any beer in the fridge M wouldn’t get much work done. Part of the reason for this is that as soon as he saw there was no beer in the place he would go out in search of it. If he arrived at 8 am and there was no beer, he would go to the supermarket. Of course, the supermarkets don’t open until 9 am so he would have to stop at a bar to kill time until they were open.
M also chain smokes all day. He always arrived at a job with two packs of Ducados Negro – Spanish black tobacco. At the end of the day there would be roughly half a pack of cigarettes left. (That’s about 30 smokes in an 8 hour day.) There would be a cigarette hanging from his lips all day long. First thing in the morning, as he was changing into his work clothes, he would let out these horrible, nasty, hacking coughs that would make you think, This guy is going to be dead within a week. Once he was in his work clothes he would light the first cigarette of the day. Everybody who ever worked with M knows his signature phrase, “¡Bueno va!” (“It’s going well!”) which he would yell dozens of times throughout the day.
The last job I did with M was installing a laminate floor. At 9 am on the dot every day he’d say, “Bueno. Es la hora, no?” (“Well, I suppose it’s that time, no?”) This was my cue to go to the fridge and grab M’s first beer. For the rest of the day it was a steady one-can-per-hour until 4 pm. I wouldn’t even attempt to keep up. I’d have a beer at lunch and then another at the end of the day. Another thing M is known for among the guys who worked with him: his farting. It was hard to believe at first sight that such a tiny, little man was capable of handling such quantities of alcohol and tobacco and releasing such loud and terrifying belches and farts at such a steady pace. On one jobsite he found this filthy length of rope lying in the dirt. He picked it up and used it as his belt for the duration of the job (about 3 weeks).
His knees were pretty bad during the last couple of jobs we did together. So this meant that if he was standing up and needed something – a tool, for example – that was lying on the floor right next to him, you would be called over to pick it up and hand it to him. Then, if he got down on his knees to work on something, that is the position he would stay in for at least the next half hour. During this time you would be expected to bring him whatever he needed and you’d be sent off to cut, hammer, sand, measure, etc, things because he was in no condition to move for a while. His lunches consisted of nothing more than a tin of something disgusting – usually sardines in olive oil – which he would tear open and dump into a baguette. This he would wash down with a couple of beers and 2 or 3 cigarettes. One day he couldn’t find a tin of nastiness anywhere in the post-apocalyptic nightmare that was the inside of his car so somebody gave him a banana. He peeled the banana and placed it between two slices of bread. Voilà! A banana sandwich!
At break time when the young guys were telling stories about how shitty things were going in Spain, M would always remind them that things used to be a lot worse. As a young man he had spent several years in Germany during Franco’s años de hambre (years of hunger) working on building sites. 1,000s of extremeñans left Spain at that time to look for a better life elsewhere. (Extremeñan: someone from the region of Extremadura)
Back in the park, M lights a cigarette off the butt of the one he’s currently smoking and I ask him what he thinks about the crazy police chase the previous week. “Buf! La gente está fatal de la cabeza!” (“People are sick in the head!”)
On January 22nd the local police got a call from a young father who claimed that a man walked into his garage and attempted to kidnap him and his baby. He forced them into the family car and drove them to the outskirts of Plasencia. Somehow the father managed to escape when the man got out of the car (maybe for a piss?) and drive off. The tail end of the car had a couple of bullet holes to corroborate his story. Then on February 6th a body was found with a bullet wound to the neck near the Guadiana River in Badajoz (170 km south of Plasencia). The victim’s car was missing. The police connected this with another recent murder in Toledo (200 km east of Plasencia). That victim’s car had been found in Badajoz. Two days later I was walking along the Jerte River around noon, hoping to spot the family of otters. I heard a lot of police sirens in the distance and I thought maybe there had been a bad car accident or something of that nature. The sirens were going off for ages. Half an hour later I was back at home getting lunch ready when Lola called me from her office.
“Donde estás?!” (“Where are you?!”)
“En casa. Por qué?” (“At home. Why?”)
“La policía está buscando al loco que mató a una persona en Badajoz el otro día. Dicen que está en Plasencia!” (“The police are looking for the crazy guy who killed a person in Badajoz the other day. They say he’s in Plasencia!”)
I turned on the local radio station to see if I could find out any information.
“No salgas de casa. Deja a las nutrias en paz por un día.” (“Stay inside. Leave the otters alone for one day.”)
Less than two hours later the attempted kidnapper / car thief / murderer was dead on a hillside on the outskirts of Plasencia. The first reports were that he had died of a heart attack while running from the police after abandoning a stolen car. The following day the police released an updated report stating the victim had also been shot. It turns out the victim was a 53 year old man from Plasencia named Rafael Robles. He was in prison serving a sentence for various crimes including drug dealing, but while out on a pass for good behavior he decided not to return. His wife (now widow) and two sons are also in prison for various offenses related to drugs and theft.
But M is more interested in other topics.
“Qué tal está el tejado en la parcela? Ha entrado agua en el salón este año?” (“How are the roofing tiles holding up at the cottage? Is there any water damage in the living room this year?”)
M had fixed the roof at my in-laws’ place in the country last year. Almost 70 and he’s desperate to get up on a roof, tear stuff apart, and get his hands dirty again.
“El tejado está bien.” (“The roof is fine.”)
He looked unhappy about this. It was as if he was thinking, I didn’t do a very good job… it shouldn’t have lasted this long.
In all honesty, the roof was leaking again, but the family doesn’t want him back up there on top of the house at his age, swilling beer, pissing in the gutters, leaving cigarette butts all over the garden. If something were to happen…