A LIFE PRESERVER
The knock at the door was loud and peremptory. Eight decisive blows, one after another, warning that someone expected to be admitted immediately. The sort of insistence you’d never hear from an invited guest, a worker, or a delivery driver. He would remember it later with the bleak reflection, typical behavior of police demanding to be let in.
He stared for a couple of seconds at the cursor blinking at the end of the last sentence. This had been a good morning for work, the best of the last three weeks. Though he hated to admit it to himself, he especially enjoyed writing when he was alone at home with nothing else to do, free of the usual interruptions, so he could go with the flow. That’s what happened when he got to this point in a novel. He was expecting to finish The Sun of Tebas in a couple of weeks. Maybe earlier if all went well. And until then the story would take over and obsess him every minute of the day. He’d have no time for anything else. Each of his novels had brought him to this intense pitch and this sensation, at once intimate and destructive. He loved it and feared it. He knew it made him hard to live with.
He glanced toward the hall that led to the apartment’s front door. The blinking cursor seemed about to burst with the pressure of all the words still behind it. In the moment of deceptive stillness he began to hope the untimely visitor had given up. But no; he sensed the silent presence out there of the intruder’s demanding energy. Determined to finish one more sentence, he put his fingers to the keyboard. The insistent pounding resumed and echoed in the narrow hallway. He tried to ignore it but had to give up.
Irritated less by the interruption than by the arrogant insistence, he got up and muttered a curse at the guard at the front gate. He’d told the man more than once to make sure he wasn’t interrupted at work. He angrily yanked the door open.
A man and a woman in police uniforms took a step back when he glared out at them.
“Good morning,” the male officer said, glancing at a little card barely visible in his big hand. “Is this the residence of Álvaro Muñiz de Dávila?”
“It is,” answered Manuel, surprise overcoming his exasperation.
“Are you a family member?”
“I’m his husband.”
The policeman glanced at his companion. Manuel saw his expression, but by this point his natural paranoia had already kicked in. He didn’t care whether they were surprised.
“Has something happened?”
“I’m Corporal Castro, and this is Sergeant Acosta. May we come in? It would be better if we spoke inside.”
This was a scenario familiar to any writer: Two uniformed police officers wanted to come inside for a private talk. They must have bad news.This was a scenario familiar to any writer: Two uniformed police officers wanted to come inside for a private talk. They must have bad news.
Manuel stepped aside. In the cramped hallway the two troopers looked immense in their green uniforms and military boots. Their soles squeaked against the varnish of the dark parquet floor like those of drunken sailors balancing on the deck of a tiny boat. He led them to the living room where he’d been working. He started to escort them to the sitting area but stopped so suddenly they almost bumped into him. He stubbornly repeated himself. “Has something happened?”
It was no longer a question. Between the front door and the living room the inquiry had vanished and now it was almost a prayer, an echo of the voice in his mind pleading, Please, no; please, no; please, no. He prayed, even though he knew all pleading was useless. Prayer hadn’t stopped cancer from devouring his sister in nine short months. Feverish and exhausted, she’d still been determined to buck him up, console him, and take care of him; she’d joked even as death became visible in her face as she lay back against a pillow, as if already in her coffin. “Looks like I’ll take just about as long to leave the world as I did to get here.” In the humiliation of his weakness he kept praying to some inept superior power as he trudged like a humble servant to the doctor’s cramped, overheated office to be informed his sister wouldn’t survive the night.
He’d known prayer was useless, but he’d made one last desperate attempt. He’d folded his hands in mute supplication even as he heard those words, that sentence, the final judgment from which there would be no last-minute reprieve.
The corporal stood surveying the magnificent collection of books filling shelves that completely occupied two walls. He took a look at the desk and then his eyes turned to Manuel again. He gestured toward the sofa. “Maybe you should sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit. Go ahead and tell me.” He realized he sounded curt, so to take the edge off his comment he added, “Please.”
The policeman hesitated, clearly ill at ease. He looked off somewhere beyond Manuel’s shoulder and bit his upper lip. “It’s about . . . your . . .”
“It’s about your husband,” the woman intervened, taking charge. She didn’t look at her colleague but couldn’t have missed his ill-concealed relief. “Unfortunately we have bad news. We’re sorry to have to inform you that señor Álvaro Muñiz de Dávila was in a serious traffic accident this morning. He was already deceased by the time the ambulance got there. I’m very sorry, señor.”
The sergeant’s face was a perfect oval. She’d combed her hair to frame that shape and had gathered it into a bun at her neck. A few wisps had begun to work free. He’d heard her perfectly clearly: Álvaro was dead. But for a few moments he was surprised to find himself intrigued by the serene beauty of this woman. The impression was so strong that he almost mentioned it. She was extremely beautiful but apparently not conscious of that fact. Her sympathetic attitude and the astonishing symmetry of her features made her even more gorgeous. Later he would recall that impression and marvel at the trick his brain had played in an effort to preserve his sanity. He would remember time stopping as he took refuge in the exquisite lines of that feminine face, a drowning man flailing after a life preserver, even though he didn’t know it then. That eternity lasted only one precious instant and didn’t block the avalanche of questions already surging into his mind. But he said only one word. “Álvaro?”
The sergeant took him by the arm—later it would occur to him that she must have used the same practiced maneuver to detain suspects—and escorted him unresisting to the sofa. She gave him a gentle push on the shoulder, and when he was seated she settled beside him.
“The accident happened in the early morning. The car ran off the highway, it appears, along a stretch of straight road with good visibility. There doesn’t seem to have been another vehicle involved. According to our Monforte colleagues, he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.”“The accident happened in the early morning. The car ran off the highway, it appears, along a stretch of straight road with good visibility.”
He listened with careful attention, trying to grasp and retain the details, trying to ignore the chorus shouting louder and louder in his mind: Álvaro is dead, Álvaro is dead, Álvaro is dead!
The woman’s beautiful face no longer overrode the catastrophe. From the corner of his eye he saw the corporal absorbed in examining the various objects on his desk. A glass with coffee dregs still holding the little spoon, the invitation to a prestigious literary award ceremony he’d used as a coaster, the cell phone he’d used to talk to Álvaro just hours before, and that blinking cursor awaiting the completion of the last line of prose he’d written as he, poor idiot, had told himself things were going so well. But that was no longer important. Nothing mattered if Álvaro was dead. It had to be true because that sergeant had told him so, and the Greek chorus in his head kept chanting it in deafening crescendo. That’s when he grasped the sergeant as if grabbing a life preserver.
“Did you say Monforte? But he’s in—”
“Monforte, in Lugo province. They called us from there, although in fact the accident occurred in a small town in the Chantada area.”
“It’s not Álvaro.”
His emphatic reply drew the attention of the corporal, who forgot the things on the desk and turned a disconcerted face toward him. “What?”
“It can’t be Álvaro. My husband went to Barcelona yesterday afternoon to see a client. He’s in marketing and public relations. He’s been working for weeks on a project for a Cataluña hotel group. They set up several promotional events, and this morning he had a presentation to make. So he couldn’t possibly have been in Lugo. There must be some mistake. I spoke to him last night, and the only reason we didn’t talk this morning was, as I said, his meeting was very early and I don’t get up early, but I’ll call him right now.”
He brushed past the corporal on his way to the desk, ignoring the officers’ exchange of knowing looks. He fumbled through the mess on the desktop. The spoon rattled against the glass; the rim was indelibly stained with coffee. He located the cell phone, tapped a couple of keys, and listened, his eyes fixed on the sergeant. She watched him with a pained expression.
Manuel stayed on the line until it stopped ringing. “He must be in his meeting,” he explained. “That’s why he didn’t pick up.”
The sergeant rose. “Your name is Manuel. That’s right, isn’t it?”
He nodded as if accepting a formal accusation.
“Manuel, come here. Have a seat next to me, please.”
He went back to the sofa, the phone in his hands, and did as he was told.“I know from experience, especially because of my profession, that we’re never entirely sure what our partners are doing.”
“Manuel, I’m married too.” She looked down briefly at the muted gleam of his wedding ring. “And I know from experience, especially because of my profession, that we’re never entirely sure what our partners are doing. It’s something a person has to learn to accept. There’s no use being tormented by uncertainty. Surely your husband must have had a reason for not telling you. We’re certain it’s him. No one answered because our colleagues in Monforte have his phone in custody. They’ve had your husband’s body transported to the medical examiner’s office at Lugo Hospital. And we have positive identification by a relative. There is no doubt whatsoever. We’re talking about Álvaro Muñiz de Dávila, age forty-four.”
He’d kept shaking his head as Sergeant Acosta spoke, attributing her incorrect assumptions about Álvaro to the tarnished brilliance of his wedding ring that afforded her the opportunity to pontificate about marriage. He’d spoken to Álvaro just a few hours ago. Álvaro was in Barcelona, not in Lugo. Why in hell would Álvaro be six hundred miles away, all the way across the country, in Lugo? Manuel knew his husband, he knew where Álvaro was, and there was no way Álvaro was on some damned road in Lugo. He hated pronouncements about couples, he hated absolutes more than anything, and he was starting to hate this smart-ass little sergeant.
“Álvaro doesn’t have any family,” he countered.
“Manuel . . .”
“Okay, I suppose he comes from a family just like everybody else, but he hasn’t been in contact with them for a long time. Nothing at all, zero. It’s been like that forever, since long before Álvaro and I met. He’s been completely independent since he was very young. You’re all mistaken.”
She was patient with him. “Manuel, your name and phone number are on the Aa speed dial on your husband’s phone.”
“Aa speed dial?” he repeated in confusion.So this whole parade of Sit down and keep calm wasn’t real. It was standard operating procedure for the delivery of the worst possible news.
He remembered now. They’d set it up years ago. Aa was the key combination the public safety authorities had invented. It linked to the name and number of the person to be informed in case of an accident. He checked the contact list of his own phone and there it was: Aa linked to Álvaro. He stood there for a time examining carefully each of the letters of that name. His vision blurred with the weight of his unshed tears. He flailed about, seeking some other life preserver.
“But no one called me . . . They’d have had to phone me, wouldn’t they?”
The corporal seemed almost pleased at the opportunity to explain. “They used to do it like that, until a couple of years ago. They telephoned the indicated person, and if there wasn’t anyone specified they called the number marked ‘home’ or ‘parents’ and informed them. But it was very traumatic for the recipients. More than once those calls provoked heart attacks, accidents, or . . . unintended consequences. We’re trying to do it better. Now the standard procedure requires a positive ID; you notify the post closest to the residence of the deceased, and we always come as a pair. One is always an experienced officer, as in this case, and we deliver the information personally or escort the individual to identify the body.”
So this whole parade of Sit down and keep calm wasn’t real. It was standard operating procedure for the delivery of the worst possible news. The officers were merely following a protocol. His protests were pointless, because there’d never been any possibility of appeal.
For a few moments they sat motionless and silent as statues. At last the corporal gestured to the sergeant, who said, “Maybe you’d like to call some relative or friend to go with you.”
Manuel looked at her, confused by the suggestion. The idea seemed as foreign as if she were speaking underwater or from another dimension.
“What do I do now?” he asked.
From All This I Will Give to You. Text copyright © 2016 by Dolores Redondo Meira and Editorial Planeta, S. A. Excerpted by Agreement with Pontas Literary & Film Agency. Translation copyright © 2018 by Michael Meigs. All rights reserved.