“They didn’t even choose an interesting battle to commemorate,” Víctor said. “My God, who cares about sinking some British merchant ships—it’s not like it helped them win the war.”
He’d removed the lid from the jar of candies we offer to children who come into the shop, and he was sucking on one furiously while the TV in the corner played a segment from an Italian broadcast network about a demonstration in Rome that morning. It was August, and aside from the influx of tourists glutting the alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, nothing was happening in Barcelona. Even our newscasters appeared to be on vacation.
“Listen,” he continued. “If they wanted to go out there and celebrate Mussolini’s birthday in the street, they could have it. That way we could at least have gotten a nice honest headline out of this whole episode: ‘Fascists Demonstrate in Memory of Beloved Leader.’ This is the thing about Italians: they all play demure, as though they’re ashamed of their history, but have you ever heard of any of those horrendous monuments getting demolished?” He paused to unwrap a new candy. “They love that stuff,” he said, answering himself. “They don’t want to see any of it disappear. I’ve always believed that.” He’d tipped the jar over and was now arranging the candies into some kind of pattern. “And frankly, it’s true no matter how you look at it: until they renounce their nationality, every Italian person, ultimately, is a Fascist.”
Víctor gave me a look.
“It’s just that that’s such an exaggeration,” I added, swiftly retreating. In the months since hiring Víctor I’d learned to hate that expression of his—a derision lurked there, so muted that to acknowledge it at all was to appear hypersensitive, neurotic.
“I had an Italian roommate once,” I continued, turning away as if to busy myself with something on a shelf. “When I was studying in Lisbon. There were five of us in the apartment, and every time we made dinner together he insisted on splitting the bread into perfectly equal pieces.” This felt like a ridiculous example, but it was true. “Have you ever tried to divide five ways by sight?” I asked, aware of the unease in my voice. I started to laugh, though I wasn’t sure if the laugh was part of my performance or an attempt to shake it off. “We joked that we should buy him a measuring tape …”
When I glanced over at Víctor again he was leaning on his elbows, smiling up at me. “That’s a lovely story, Inma,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “It sounds like you shared some wonderful dinner parties.” I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me.
The chimes sounded at the front of the shop, and Víctor shot up to attend to the customer, sending candies scattering across the counter. Outside, the street was swollen with light and afternoon heat. From where I stood behind the cash register, I watched Víctor’s silhouette sit the man down on the bench, remove his shoe, and gently extend the man’s foot out before him, nestling it inside the metal measuring device. The bar next door had also chosen to stay open that month, and the odor of cured meat had begun to seep through the wall and mix with the scent of fresh leather, so that the shop smelled, most simply, of flesh. The customer’s foot was still resting in Victor’s lap as I heard him say, “Science fiction? Yes, I’d consider myself an aficionado too …”
“Inma, Inma!” Marisol called as I boarded the bus. “We saved you your seat.” She looked particularly spritely that day, with her hair combed into a bun at the back of her head and a little flower tucked behind her ear. “Someone was sitting there and we thought he might get off in the center but he didn’t, so we actually had to ask him to move. He was a gentleman in the end. Very nice about it.”
She nodded to a man in a baseball cap sitting a few rows behind us. I waved to him before sitting down, and with my eyes did what I could to communicate an apology that might pass undetected by Marisol. You could call them arcane, and I wouldn’t disagree, but the rules of the bus cannot be helped: Marisol sits in the third row, and I sit in the fourth. That day, Isabel, who sits behind me, was balancing an ornate bouquet on her lap, which she would surely press up against the window once we began our tour throughout the graves.
As you know, there is only one city bus, the 206, that passes through the cemetery on its way up the hill. The occasional tourist who wanders on, noting the air saturated with self-pity and thick, sentimental perfume, often enters into a politely disguised state of panic. Sometimes they will even try to get off, though it can be a tricky endeavor, as the bus immediately transfers to a highway and departs the city center. No, they tend not to escape, those few who come aboard by mistake, and instead become trapped with us, additional participants in the daily grief parade.
But I live at the top of the hill. The 206 has always been my bus route. And while I’ll be the first to admit that I find catharsis in that ritual of mourning, it’s always incidental to my own daily ritual: returning to my house. Occasionally, after a long afternoon at the shop, when I board the bus and spot Marisol or Isabel in their mourner’s attire, with their handkerchief ready, a brief urge rises up in me to excoriate them.
Víctor I could sometimes do with scolding too. I hired him because, what can I say, he was young and handsome, and because he charmed me in the interview by asking about my parents, despite my age, and whether I had any hobbies. He’d worn a polo, a very clean-cut type, and as we finished signing the contract, which I’d offered him on the spot, he’d rolled a cigarette and then apologized profusely—too much—for having done so while still inside. “Forgive me, Inmaculada,” he said, using my full name. He claimed he hadn’t noticed he was doing it, and took the opportunity to repent for smoking too, a vice he knew one was supposed to resist.