“Hardback Walls”

(Submission for the 2015 Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Competition)

      On his sixteenth birthday Pedro Martín nearly drowned. It happened at the height of the drought that struck Spain in the 1940s, on his family’s finca (estate) in Andalusia, a region of the country known as the “frying pan of Europe.” And the suffocating event was both literal and figurative.
      Pedro’s mother had seen it coming, as early as the book-loving boy’s fourteenth birthday, with his hollow “gracias” upon receiving a matador’s cape from his father—the don of the estate and a retired torero. And though the family had grown fat on the sport of bullfighting when most Andalusians were penniless, who was she to insist that her only child follow in his father’s footsteps when she detested the blood sport? So when gentle Pedro balked at his father’s training, she quietly consoled the boy or simply wiped his tears with a hand-knit kerchief.
      Her husband reacted quite differently.
      White saliva gathered on the corners of Sr. Martín’s mouth whenever his son was late for his sessions, merely went through the motions, or petulantly refused to train altogether. “Discussions” about the embarrassment caused by Pedro’s behavior were just as lathered, and they occurred far too often for the boy’s liking. But he took the rebukes with knowing smiles and always acceded to his father’s fiery nature, which conflicted with his manner in the bullring: a calm and elegant fighting style known as templado.
      But on the day that Pedro turned sixteen, the old bullfighter’s manner was far from templado; Pedro could have drowned in the foam that poured from his father’s lips.
      The frothy moment didn’t take place in private, but at the sandy testing ring on the finca, to which Sr. Martín had invited his friends to watch a boy become a man and kill his first choto (calf).
      Pedro had other ideas.
      After testing the scrawny bull’s ferocity with the torero’s large, yellow-and-magenta cape, Pedro shuffled to the side of the ring, changed capes, and took his sword. Broadening the smaller, red muleta with the blade, he attracted the choto to a series of successful passes, and then promptly threw down his weapons. As he stood defenseless in the center of the ring, Pedro stared at his father, who watched the animal he had purchased bound toward his son and lower its head.
      The impact came instinctively a few hoofbeats later, and knocked Pedro down. The choto’s tiny horns dug harmlessly into Pedro’s side as he lay on the sand.
      Responding to flashes of the cape from across the ring, the young bull disengaged and trotted away from Pedro.
      Dirty but unhurt, the unwilling novice got to his feet and stared again at his father. “I love you, Papá,” he yelled, “but this is your dream, not mine.”
      “Do as you are told,” his father yelled back as he strutted into the ring. “You have shown skill with the cape; now kill that bicho (insect).”
      Eying the choto, Pedro shook his head. “My birthday present will kill me before I kill it.”
      Sr. Martín’s pace quickened. “You will kill that choto,” he declared.
      “I will not.”
      “You will do as I say,” his father commanded, his dark eyes burning into his son’s.
      “I will not,” Pedro repeated.
      “You will kill that bicho, or you and your books will sleep with it in the corral until you do.” The words burst through the sticky saliva on Sr. Martín’s lips.
      Pedro dared to smile. “I would rather sleep the rest of my days under the stars.”
      With a hint of apology, Sr. Martín glanced at his friends as he turned his back on Pedro. “Is that your decision, then?” he asked his son.
      Pedro watched the choto engage the man who was distracting it.
      “Is that your decision?” Sr. Martín shouted, his back still turned.
      Without another moment’s hesitation Pedro answered: “Sí, Papá.”
      “Then go,” his father snorted, but do not come running when that bicho soils your bed.
      Pedro scampered into the main house and locked himself in his room, a well-appointed chamber with bookcases floor to ceiling. Later that night (it took him hours to hand-carry several hundred books to the corral) he walled off an area of clean sand with shoulder-high stacks of hardbacks and fell into a fitful sleep with his head on a paperback pillow.
      For the next four days, he busied himself with chores around the estate, and spent the nights tidying his hardback walls whenever the increasingly bored choto prodded them. During the fifth night, lightning flashed and thunder rolled impotently in the distance, but Pedro would have been awake regardless. A growing maturity had been sparked inside him, and by the following morning he found the strength to do what his smiles during Sr. Martín’s rebukes had only hinted at.
      At midday, Pedro wolfed down the plate of lentils and slices of melón left for him on the kitchen windowsill, and waited for the siesta. As his father beat the July heat dozing in the parlor, Pedro slipped inside the main house and quietly made preparations.
      After a light dinner from the windowsill, he helped himself to a snack from the smokehouse and then called on the house as if he were an invited guest. A servant led him into the parlor, where he kissed his mother goodnight and shook his father’s hand, a strong shake that showed that a boy could become a man without shedding a drop of blood. Sometime later, while bullfrogs serenaded the moon, he stood outside the kitchen window, watching his mother wash a handful of dishes. It was servant’s work, but she enjoyed doing it, and it helped her stay grounded.
      Pedro blew her a kiss and then turned his back on a life paid for by the sacrifice of countless bulls. He didn’t run away, but strode into the countryside with a healthy dose of anxiety and a backpack he had often stuffed and unstuffed. Inside it were bottles of water, a kilo of dry-cured Spanish ham, a loaf of baguette bread, a pocketknife, a changes of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, 13 small jars (all were empty but one), Cervantes’ Don Quijote de la Mancha, Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir (Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr), a good dictionary, and a thesaurus. His underwear was stuffed with paper money.
      Over the next sixty years, his life twisted and turned in ways that took him through continental Europe, around the British Isles, and to America. Along the way he was educated, both inside and outside the classroom, and taught Spanish at two prestigious universities. At the University of Delaware, he met his wife Margaret, a geology professor with a gray head as hard as the rocks she lectured on. And she wasn’t short on insights, opinions, or spot-on intuition.
      After retiring simultaneously, they moved to Rehoboth Beach and spent their winters traveling. Pedro’s sunspotted scalp was testimony to their love of spending the day on exotic beaches. For Margaret, the basis of that love was sand. Always the professor, she spent hours studying the size and type of the rock and mineral particles that wedged between her crooked toes as she and Pedro shuffled hand in hand along the shore.
      Pedro’s love for the beach had nothing to do with geology. Although it was a clichéd sentiment, for him the obliterating nature of crashing waves epitomized the fleetingness of life. And when he saw the water from those waves channel into rip currents as it returned to the sea, he warned beachgoers with his fading voice of the danger.
      One blustery afternoon in Rehoboth Beach, he watched a swimmer ignore the posted warnings, get caught in the foaming rip, and survive it. Pedro elbowed Margaret, who was slumbering in the beach chair beside his. “I’m sorry to wake you, my beautiful professor,” he began and then told her what he had seen.
      Margaret’s tired eyes studied the choppy waters. A moment later she took Pedro by the hand. “There’s a life lesson in that,” she said.
      “I thought so, too, but I wanted a second opinion.”
      “Even you,” Margaret chuckled, “can see that to escape some of life’s situations you must remain calm and not fight against it or you will exhaust yourself and drown.”
      Pedro smiled.
      “If all else fails,” Margaret continued, “float along on the current until it subsides and then swim back to shore. And if the current doesn’t subside, choose a different path….”


      The path of least resistance for Pedro was the one his father had laid out for him. Now that leukemia had stolen Margaret from him, the older version of Pedro often meditated on the teenage decision that had ultimately led him to her. And when he wasn’t focusing on those seminal nights he spent inside hardback walls, he was musing upon the joy that Margaret had brought to his life. At home, in thought, and with a knowing smile on his face was how Pedro spent most of his days now.
      Today, he was marveling at the view offshore—a world of contrasts as sunrise melted into morning behind a deck of lumpy, slate blue clouds that stretched across the horizon. The disk of the sun was hiding, but its rays were showing themselves, radiating downward as orange beams that streaked the clouds’ shadows before warming distant whitecaps. Margaret loved to capture those stunning rays of sunlight on film, and the photographs hanging in the den made Pedro think of her.
      After a late breakfast of imported Spanish ham on toasted baguette bread and a cup of milk-stained S&D Coffee, he decided to give the house the dusting it hadn’t gotten in weeks.
      Using Margaret’s rainbow-colored duster, he wiped off the unused place setting on the placemat next to his and then moved on to the rest of the kitchen. He saved the den for last, and when the July sun was in firm control of the sky, he lifted himself off the couch.
      A tiny spider had taken up residence in the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, and Pedro wiped away the bicho’s home without harming the bicho. Once the spider had scurried away, the old man dusted the books. He was as gentle with them as he was with the spider, yet made quick work of six of the seven shelves.
      The middle shelf took Pedro a bit longer to clean. He slowly ran the duster over Don Quijote de la Mancha, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, a good dictionary, a thesaurus, a Brazilian agate bookend, and 25 small jars arranged left to right by the dates on their handwritten labels. Each one was full of sand.
      The oldest one simply read 16º CUMPLEAÑOS (16th BIRTHDAY). The next twelve dated to the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and bore the names of well-known beaches, including France’s Cap Ferret, Sicily’s Scopello, Ireland’s Barleycove, and Maine’s Ogunquit. All but one of the remaining jars were memories from Pedro and Margaret’s travels. The oddball contained Rehoboth Beach sand they had collected on the day Margaret was diagnosed.
      It was the last jar either of them ever filled.
      As Pedro sat back down, he remembered a conversation that had taken place on that very couch. Margaret’s leukemia had returned (after a brief and partial remission), and she had decided not to pursue treatment. “Why isn’t she going to take the chemo?” the neighbor had asked Pedro.
      “The pain, the nausea, the weight loss…I could go on, but she refuses to put herself through that again. At her age, I can understand not wanting to live like that.”
      “I strongly disagree, but I can understand why both of you feel as you do. It’s the wrong way to feel, but I can see it.”
      Pedro had bristled slightly, but remained calm. “And what exactly do you see?”
      “I see a collection of jars that could have grown, but you two decided to stop living then…when she got sick, and you’ve decided to stop living now. You’ve both given up.”
      A slight smile had come on Pedro’s face. “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it, but when the type of leukemia that Margaret has comes back, there’s really nothing that can be done.”
      “So as I said, you’re giving up. Doesn’t she want to live? Don’t you want her to live?”
      Pedro had thought of the swimmer who survived the rip. “Margaret is living…She’s just taking a different path back to shore.”
      “Back to shore? What shore? If you’re talking about the places where the sand in those jars came from, I don’t think the doctors in the Caribbean…or Belize have the answers.”
      “I’m speaking metaphorically, of course,” Pedro had said, “and if the path that we have chosen turns out to be the wrong one, at least we have all that sand in those jars. It’s more than anyone could ever ask for.”
      “I don’t think I understand.”
      “I’m sure you don’t.”