Soft and Tender
In January of the previous year, on an unusually cold night in Barcelona, Mario, the well-known chatarrista from São Paulo, Brazil, decided to walk home from his meager job of collecting TVs and breaking down wardrobes all day. Rather than take the subway he crossed Bac de Roda Bridge and was hoping to catch the last number nineteen bus on the other side of the train tracks. With his head in the cloudless night sky, he got to the middle of the overpass when suddenly he noticed a man sitting on the rail facing outwards. Gesturing expressively to no one but himself, the man was clearly distraught and mumbling incoherently. By how spastic his body language, he had to constantly readjust his backside on the rail when not drawing locks of his dark and unruly hair behind his ears. His few possessions—a Flamenco guitar, a small bowling ball bag, a potted plant, and a pair of football cleats—were placed neatly in a row next to the protective barrier.
Mario slowed his pace and stopped pretending to have his head in the cosmos. He lit up a cigarette and leaned against the rail no more than a few meters from the man. He looked down and ran his eyes along the crisscross of northbound tracks, watching a train wagon full of new Audis fade into the distance to be offloaded in Paris. After drinking a bit too much Don Simon wine with some other scrappers, the last freight wagon’s red brake light trailed off in his mind even when it was already out of sight and beyond the industrial complex.
“So,” Mario said in Spanish with a Portuguese accent.
“So what?” the man said rudely, looking over at Mario with a contemptuous look.
“Are you gonna do it?” Mario asked insensitively, taking a puff of his cigarette.
“I’ll do it when you get out of here, pal,” the suicidal man said. “I don’t need an audience right now.”
“I mean, what could you possibly say to the Man at the front gates of heaven? ‘Thanks, big guy, it was an awesome ride but I just couldn’t take it anymore…my wife left me for my better-looking neighbor and my kid is...’”
“Fuck off, buddy, you don’t even know!”
“I don’t know…and I don’t believe you’ll jump anyways. Will you really do it? You don’t seem the type to back out of life without putting up a fight to understand it.”
Mario exhaled cigarette smoke with an indifferent demeanor, concealing the botched pitch as to why the man’s life was special and why he deserved to live it. With all the movies he had watched in his lifetime, on one of the many TVs he kept at his small apartment stacked up and ready to be pawned, it didn’t seem to go as well as how it usually went in Hollywood, when special-trained coppers succeed in convincing the mentally unstable to get down from apartment building ledges.
“You don’t believe me?!” the man repeated, wiping the tears from his eyes. “You don’t fuckin believe me?! Well, I’ll do it,” he said, striking out against the crisp air with one hand while holding the rail with the other. “I swear, I’ll do it!” The man suddenly let fall one foot onto the edge unsticking one butt cheek from the hard steel rail, committing himself to standing up and thereby to one step closer to his grave.
“At least time the jump so you don’t land on one of the Audis passing under us,” Mario said, bad at feigning concern. “I wouldn’t want to be the guy to hear that my sedan was suddenly converted into a cabriolet along the way.”
Mario did a pushup off the rail and threw down his cigarette. “Suit yourself,” he muttered, and continued on his path when suddenly the man called him back and asked for what Mario was smoking. Mario put on a surprised look.
Did it work?
He turned around, walked back, and pulled out his pack. He offered one at a certain distance so that the man would have to turn his body and get off the rail in order to take it. The man, however, didn’t fall for the cunning ruse thinking that it was Mario’s idea to yank him off the rail in order to save his life. Mario complied with his unwillingness to cede a bit of territory so he took a step closer instead and let the man pull it out with his lips straight from the pack. Mario then pulled out his lighter from his coat pocket but the man refused his offer of fire by gently pushing Mario’s hand down. On the brink of death and the jumper was choosy as to how he was to light up his last fateful cigarette.
The man then put his hand inside his jacket pocket, pulled out a shiny zippo lighter, and quickly lit the cigarette while holding his gaze on Mario suspiciously, as if the stranger standing there was not his rescuer but perhaps the one who’d bring him closer to his death. Mario shrugged his shoulders ‘too bad’ and used his own lighter on his own cigarette. He then leaned up against the rail once more, looked up into the sky, and started telling the man a story.
“Her towering over me…red heels,” Mario mumbled, without any sort of preface.
“The kind of footwear that should be prohibited on transatlantic flights.”
“What?” The suicidal man asked looking up into the bespectacled sky. “What was that?”
“I met a girl from Norway last year,” Mario began, unsure of himself, “and the thought of her just popped into my head.” He paused, took a puff of his cigarette, and exhaled thoughtfully. “It’s Orion in the sky, reminds me of the diamond-encrusted belt she wore that night.” He then looked down and started staring at another train full of cars riding off to Paris. “A solid ten she was…blond and curly hair with a handful that you could not not hold onto the whole night…tender and soft to the touch. So beautiful she was that there is no way I’ll ever forget the way she looked at me. Even when I’m old, white-haired and ugly, with my head on the pillow next to whoever my wife will be…I’ll remember that cute little ass in that tight black dress…that revealing neckline and her supple collarbone…the thought of her will give me that last natural breath to happily recall that pleasant moment.”
“Where did you meet her?” asked the man on the rail.
“It’s funny you ask. I was chatting with her at a metal bar, real smooth-talking my way into her knickers.” Mario glanced over at him. The man was subdued by the story and wasn’t fretting nervously anymore, completely distracted from his original plan of taking his life. Mario pulled from his cigarette and looked up into the star-filled and blackened sky.
“We were standing at the bar and talking when suddenly she got on my case for lighting a cigarette in a candle that stood right in front of us, telling me that every time somebody does that a Norse mariner dies tragically in a severe rainstorm. We were, in fact, talking about losing people close to us.
“That’s heavy,” the man said.
“It is. Now listen to this. Back when she was in high school, she and five of her classmates went camping for the weekend. After a whole day fishing and walking through the forest, she decides to pick mushrooms like her grandmother used to before World War II. She picks these large mushrooms with nice white stalks—,” Mario gestured with his hands the size of the mushroom with the cigarette still wedged between his fingers. “So she’s picking mushrooms and saving more than a batch for later cause she had plans of cooking up a soup on the campfire. But after she makes soup in the evening, and serves it to her friends, they all die in their tents later that night.”
“They all died?”
“Yes, they all died. But get this—she didn’t eat the soup! Can you believe it?! I mean, they were found purple and stiff as boards in their sleeping bags inside their tents. She told the courts later on during trial that she didn’t eat the soup just because, no reason at all!”
“That’s bizarre,” the man said, kicking his legs up and over the rail, turning around to face Mario.
“It is. And so, as she’s telling the story, I’m slowly inching to bursting out in laughter. I mean, I had tears in my eyes, not out of sadness, of course—that’s how funny it was. She on the other hand was so offended by the way I reacted that it looked like she wanted to take the candleholder and smash me in the face with it.
“When she finally calmed down and asked me why I was laughing I told her that where I’m from people die every second from drugs and murders and gang violence—I mean, every day! Hundreds! Innocent or guilty, doesn’t matter! I tried to explain to her that it was so ridiculous to die in such a stupid manner that the only thing you could do is laugh and wonder how absurd life is.
“You know,” Mario stood up, applied himself, and got serious, “I don’t know what your problems are in life, buddy, or the reason why you want to cause so many people around you so much grief, including the guy who’d get a roofless car should you choose to jump in the path of a train…but people in my favela in Brazil don’t even have enough time to think about that ‘survival of the fittest’ bullshit as they’re just trying to survive, forget being the fittest.”
Mario punctuated the story’s ending by throwing down his cigarette and putting it out with his heavy boot, a pair he had found in the garbage. There was a long silence which he figured was deep contemplation and reflection.
“My name’s Paco,” the man said, reaching out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Paco.” Mario reached out and gripped it firmly. “How about a caña for good night? Maybe some dinner?” Paco nodded his head and started gathering his belongings. Mario could now see that he was of average height and well-built. He had a discerning yet sad look in his dark, gypsy eyes but a face that wasn’t as artful as one would think. Even though he seemed much better in temperament, his previous state of mind still lingered, as though it were a permanent part of his aspect.
“I know a good Italian place that serves real good ravioli,” Paco said, cradling the potted plant and holding the bowling ball bag in the other hand. Mario helped him by grabbing the guitar and cleats, looking over both items—as he was accustomed to doing when in possession of sellable goods—to ascertain their value at a pawnshop. And as they walked away, you could hear Paco ask: “So what happened after? Did you manage to take her home?”
“I already told you how she felt, right?” Mario asked with a proud smile on his face.
“Yeah,” Paco answered with a tinge of renewed enthusiasm, “soft and tender.”