Traffic and the Dead & Are We Happy? & The Cell Phone

By Juan José Millás
Translated from the Spanish by Gabriella Martin

Traffic and the Dead

I was coming home from lunch with friends when the taxi driver and I saw some Civil guards directing traffic on Avenida de la Hispanidad. Something’s happened here, I thought.
“Something’s happened here,” said the taxi driver.

A few feet further, there was a little lump wrapped in aluminum on the side of the highway. It was too big to be a baguette, but seemed too small to be a cadaver. I think that’s what struck me the most—even knowing full well that it was a body, the first image that came to mind was of a bologna baguette.

“It looks like a bologna baguette,” the taxi driver commented.

“Slow down a little, please.”

Standing next to the aluminum lump was a rather young civil guard signaling to drivers to stay back, to not tread over the baguette. Without exception, a curious, greedy look flickered across the faces of every vehicle’s occupants: they were contemplating this death as if it were a preview of their own. The police gestured to the drivers to keep moving. It seems like the only thing they care about is that traffic doesn’t slow down, I thought.

“What kind of world is this? The only thing they care about is that traffic doesn’t slow down,” the taxi driver noted, an echo.

Next to the cadaver was a wrinkled jacket, and a black shoe with a square toe: it looked like a little coffin.

“Check out the shoe, it looks like a coffin,” said the taxi driver.

A civil guard approached our vehicle to tell us to speed up. At once, we returned to a zone of normality, but I felt bad, as if I had left unfinished something I should, as it turns out, have done, although I didn’t know what. I thought that if I had been religious, I would have whispered a prayer, and if I had been a photographer, I would have snapped a picture.

“I should keep a camera in the car with me,” said the taxi driver. “You always see something strange when you’re in the streets all day. A friend of mine who just retired always carried a camera, and now he’s going to have an exposition at the senior center, with all of the pictures he’s ever taken. They used to put blankets over the dead.”

“A blanket is warmer,” I said.

“That was on the tip of my tongue! That’s exactly what I was going to say just now—that the aluminum is more hygienic, but colder, right?”

I was uneasy. I was about to tell the taxi driver to turn around and drive by the cadaver again to say a prayer, although it would be an atheist prayer, but I felt ashamed of what he’d think of me.

“Should we turn around, sir?” he asked.

“Why would we turn around?” I grunted, frankly bothered by this continuous invasion of my privacy.

“To say a prayer,” he said. “I’m not a believer, but it makes me feel…I don’t know what…to pass by a dead body like this.”

“Fine,” I agreed, thinking a despicable thought when I saw the taxi meter ticking. I tried to block the thought so the taxi driver wouldn’t hear it. In any case, he must have heard me, because just then he stuck his arm out and disconnected the meter. I then felt very stingy, and I started to cry right as we passed by the cold cut. That night I slept for a long stretch, as if at my crying in the taxi, an ancient knot inside me had grown loose, then had untied between the taxi driver and the dead.

Are We Happy?

I left my wife in bed—we’ve stopped eating breakfast together since she’s been unemployed—and went running down to the street. I waited at the stop for ten minutes, but not a single bus came, so I caught a taxi and started to bite my nails, thinking about how I’ve already been late a handful of times this month. As I bite them, I hear through the taxi’s radio transmitter a request for a car to pick up a passenger on Calle Elfo and I think to myself, what a coincidence: a lifelong friend of mine lives there– Federico. We went to school together, and he got highest honors thanks to me– I passed him all of my notes. After school we did our military service together, though he had connections there and was given an overnight pass without ever understanding what life was like in the barracks. We were at the university together, too, although I couldn’t finish my studies. My father was disabled—he had trouble with nerves—and since we couldn’t get by on a disability check, I had to get to work right away. It was Federico’s father, in fact, who found me my first job. He had a warehouse that manufactured wood in Hermanos de Pablo. We lived in Concepción. My mother said that Federico and his father took advantage of me, but I had always valued his friendship highly, and didn’t listen to her.

While I think about these things, the woman on the transmitter goes ahead and says that the passenger needs to be picked up at 56 Calle Elfo, and I go ahead and smile to myself. That’s also a coincidence: that’s Federico’s address. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, but it doesn’t matter– he’s like a brother to me. If I need something from him tomorrow, all I’d have to do is call him. That’s how you know what friendship is– when you can call someone after not seeing them for two years and you know they’ll still be there for you if you need anything. Whenever Federico has called me, I’ve dropped everything to give him a hand. I’ve helped him out more than he’s helped me, but I don’t like to have these thoughts. They seem petty. I take them back and continue listening to the lady on the transmitter.

It seemed unreal, but after giving the complete address she says that the man who needs to be picked up is named Federico Vara. I do a little dance in my seat and shout:
“My lifelong friend! We were in the military together!”

The taxi driver wasn’t that nice and didn’t say anything in response. I was thrilled. I would call Federico that afternoon and ask, “Where were you going today in a taxi?”. I was getting worked up in anticipation of the conversation when the woman from the transmitter goes and says that they need to take the man from Calle Elfo to 77 Calle María Moliner, which is where I live. Another coincidence: my street and my apartment number. I started to laugh to myself, and when I noticed the taxi driver had turned around in his seat, I told him, “It’s just that I live at 77 María Moliner.”

“And you’re married, sir?”
“Yes.”

“And that guy Federico is a friend of yours?”

“We’re like brothers.”

“Sure,” he added, and lapsed into silence.

In that instant I realized what was happening and started to cry. The taxi driver, who wasn’t so bad after all, took me to a bar and forced me to drink a glass of anise. I hadn’t ever had anise for breakfast, but I remember that I liked it– I’m quite sure that was the day I started to become an alcoholic. My wife, who’s still unemployed, continues to see Federico first thing in the morning, when I leave the house for my first bottle of the day. The two of us (or should I say, three of us?) have, well, a reason to wake up. But are we happy?

The Cell Phone

The guy who ate breakfast next to me at the bar forgot his cell phone. I ran out after him, but by the time I reached the street, he had already disappeared. I went around the block a few times with the phone in my hand, but finally put it in my pocket and hopped on the bus. At the top of Calle Cartagena it started to ring. I didn’t want to pick it up, but the other passengers were looking at me so I acted natural– I took it out and answered it. A woman’s voice on the other line asked, “Where are you?” “On the bus,” I said. “On the bus? And what are you doing on the bus?” “I’m going to the office.” The woman started to cry, as if I had said something horrible to her, and hung up.

I returned the device to my jacket pocket and gazed out the window. At the corner of María de Molina and Velázquez, it rang again. It was the woman once more, and she was still crying. “You’re still on the bus, aren’t you?” she asked, incredulous. “Yes,” I responded. I imagined that she was calling from a bed of black silk sheets, that she was wearing a white lace nightgown, and when she wiped away her tears, the right strap slid down around her shoulder, and I got very excited, though no one could tell. A woman coughed next to me. “Who are you with?” she asked with anguish. “Nobody,” I said. “What about that cough?” “It was a passenger on the bus.” After a few seconds, she added in a firm voice, “I’m going to kill myself; if you don’t give me some hope I’m going to kill myself right now.” I looked around me; everyone was staring at me, and I didn’t know what to do. “I love you,” I said, and hung up.

Two streets along it rang again: “Are you the idiot who’s going around playing with my cell phone?” asked a masculine voice. “Yes,” I said, swallowing saliva. “Are you going to give it back to me?” “No,” I responded. The line went dead shortly after, but I always carry the phone in my pocket, just in case she calls again.

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