My Uncle Pepe
Everyday at five o'clock, the sunset time in Madrid, Uncle Pepe used to take me for a walk at El Retiro park. He walked by a shady avenue, so upright and circumpect with his belly ahead like a prow. Sometimes, as a Spanish custom, he paid compliments to any woman who passed by us. This compliment was limited to a warm "Hi, charming", although usually with dignity and propriety. After all, Uncle was a real gentleman.
Another times, we visited the El Prado Museum. Uncle searched for Goya's works and stopped in front of the Naked Maja, the hands on his back and slightly swinging on his heels. It always seemed that after these walks Uncle Pepe was so calm and placid. In our way back, among the sunset crowds, Uncle surely would whisper his admiration to any woman.
I was twelve and maybe I paid more attention on women, so I realized that in Uncle's custom was something strange. Certain day, after hearing him call, "Gorgeous!" a woman that passed quickly us by , I looked back her.
"Uncle Pepe!", I said surprised. "That woman wasn't gorgeous at all!".
I looked back her again. Certainly, she wasn't pretty- quite the opposite.
Uncle stared at me and snorted slightly on his mustache, but he didn't make any comment. So, I understood the truth- none of the women which Uncle Pepe had paid compliments was pretty! All of them were really boring, not an exception.
That disappointed me so much. If Uncle was a so poor judge for female beauty, how could I trust him on another things?
We continued our walk silent till a little coffeeshop. Uncle has got some brandy, and me, chocolate with whipped cream.
The brandy seemed to give some peace to Uncle Pepe.
"My son", said to me leaving his brandy glass on the table, "did you know that once I was a painter?"
Certainly I didn't. In fact, it seemed amazing for me. I always had a mental image of him with his big house in King Philip II Street, his flourishing soap business that took up too much of his time and the magnificent car in which he sometimes went to country for a day of hunting.
"Maybe I exaggerate when I say I was a painter", Uncle confessed all reflective. "I could say better that there was a period of three years in which I turned my back on my family and their soaps, hired a certain kind of shelter in a district that you don't know and spent my time painting enthusiastically- and with an empty belly. Would you believe that there was a moment that I considered seriously stealing a roll from the cart of a deliverer?"
Smoothing his mustache, under which broke a hazy smile, he continued.
"Speaking frankly, my son, I don't have nasty memories from those times. I have got a female friend which was a dancer- La Florencia. Maybe you've heard about her."
While he said that, he glanced me with expectation. Then his expression clouded over and he continued.
"Of course not... You're so young! Nevertheless, I'll say to you that once her name was famous through Madrid. She was a woman full of grace and beauty. She has got that graceful line of back and hips exclusive of Spaniard woman and a big pair of eyes which glance could disturb any heart... Oh, what a fire!"
His talking was really enthusiastic. But he shrugged and continued.
"Well, that's something that a woman has got or not. I tried feverishly of capturing that fire and that beauty on the canvas. Feverishly- and finally desperately. Because I needed genius, my son. I realized it gradually. My drawing was fair. Colouring was good. But that spiritually uplifting thing that we can't understand and call beauty- it escaped me.
"Florencia didn't realize that. Of course she didn't know so much about painting. All her art was in dancing, the rhythm of the blood. If I painted her with a beautiful face and a rose between her teeth she exclaimed, "Excellent!"
"But I really realized it. Finally, in a moment of solitude with myself, in the most sncere moment in my life, I destroyed all my works. I teared them off from their frames and threw them into the stove.
"Florencia got furious with me and shouted, "That's it! You'll come back with your family! You'll choke yourself with soap and get married with any woman which they will search for you!"
Again, Uncle Pepe shrugged.
"Things were exactly Florencia predicted. I came back home, where I was received readily. The family searched for a job in the soap business for me- and indeed, I got married with an fully acceptable woman for them."
He hesitated for a moment and continued.
"Do you remember Aunt Teresa? An admirable woman- and besides beautiful... We prospered, as you know. But something strange happened wih me; I couldn't come back to El Prado Museum again. I couldn't face up the lack of my own spirit, which I was struck by there, among those walls plenty of beauty with the works of the great masters. I couldn't see a Goya, my son, and feel any self-respect at all. All those canvases showed too much clearly to me how much I needed.
"I lost track of Florencia. I heard that she was in South America. And I didn't know more about her til after many years. She had been too sick. She was again in Madrid just passing through her northern birthplace.
"It was clear that I should visit her as a homage to our past memories. I understood that my friend should be different- she had suffered a terrible illness, the years had gone. But I plucked up courage and went to her hotel with a bunch of her favourite yellow Seville roses.
"That I saw was worse that I expected. Poor Florencia!
"You shouldn't have coming here!", she said to me when I came in- her hands shook as she was hiding her damaged face. "I don't want you remember me like that!"
"What should a gentleman (and a Spaniard) do in that situation?
"Florencia", I said, "you're more beautiful than ever for me!"
"And as my words arose from the very mercy of my heart, the Mother of Mercy gave them the accent of sincerity. That which happened then was a real miracle. For a moment, Florencia shone in all her old beauty again like magic. And I was moved, wordless, in front of that stunning beauty. That was the most memorable event in my life.
"Florencia came back to her birthplace. I haven't heard about her again; but since then my life changed.
"Now, I go daily to El Retiro for a walk and sometimes, when a woman is passing by, I know that's the time. When I cross by her- maybe a gawky young girl, any poor ugly, hopeless woman, maybe an old lady, which angular face evokes a past beauty... So, I speak. And (rare, of course, but really unforgettable), when I whisper in an ear, "How beautiful you are!", I see to rise that indescribable charm on a face again. It takes just a moment, but it gets an incredible shine during that moment.
"I go to El Prado Museum again. I stop with confidence among the spirits of the masters- and I don't feel embarrased anymore. There, among those glorious paintings, Goya and I are peers. Because I'm a beauty maker, too!"