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Fiction by Juan José Millás
Translated from the Spanish by
Peter Robertson
 
Music by Guthrie Lowe
 
'mute knows how' © 2007 Peter Schwartz
A Poor Excuse for a Widow

In the supermarket, she bought a small duck, a large bunch of grapes and two candles. She was hopeful that, by making these purchases, she might delude not only the girl at the checkout, but even herself, into believing that this New Year's Eve she would not be dining alone. But when she got home, and took out the shopping, the duck's carcass struck her as one corpse too many. For a few minutes, she prodded it tentatively with a fork, trying to guess its nutritional value. She then picked up the wretched thing and, still clinging to its tinfoil, she flung it into the trash can. Later, as if
galvanized by the din of the evening's first firecrackers, now being ignited in the street below, she went about the house touching those objects that had belonged to her husband. She could not understand why she felt compelled to do this given that, while he had been alive, he had filled her with scorn.

After lunch, she lay down on the living-room sofa and, and lulled by the radio's soporific voices, drifted off to asleep. At seven in the evening she awoke to hear a panel of experts discussing the scourge of psoriasis. They were urging all those afflicted to steer clear of dark suits—otherwise an ideal garment for seeing out the year— concurring that flaky skin, cascading all over the shoulders, was unsightly. In a fit of claustrophobia, she lunged for the balcony. As midnight encroached, the street heaved with anticipation. Standing there she recalled how, exactly a year ago, as she
and her husband, abiding by the Spanish custom, had laid out twelve grapes for each of them—to be bolted down at midnight as each hour struck—she had wished him dead. She burst into tears, forced at last to acknowledge the litany of failure that had dogged her life: her childhood, her days at University, even her marriage. And now, shorn of all illusion, she saw that being a widow was every bit as bad.

"I am a widow", she repeated to herself over and over again, willing the word to excite the same frisson as before her husband's demise. But now the word was as stale as produce palmed off long after its sell-by date. Conceiving of herself as a coffin that housed her husband's cadaver, she felt that she would never be able to rid herself of him once and for all."When I die, and an autopsy is performed, he will be found inside me, dressed in that ill-advised dark suit that only served to point up his dandruff, arms crossed on his chest." Slamming the balcony door, she wondered how she could have failed to have been invited to that yearned-for rendezvous with the allure of widowhood, blazoned by sexologists. Recalling that, in one of his rum asides, her husband had termed the dictionary a refrigerator for words, as it kept them all so fresh, she looked up the Spanish word for widow, alighting on one definition: "Attractive biennial plant, of the dipsaceae family, with dark purple flowers on the axillae".

Exasperated, she thudded the dictionary shut, then hurled it at the sideboard mirror. Miraculously, it did not break. The thin walls failed to muffle the din from neighboring apartments, a cacophony heightened by the clatter of cutlery and plates being removed from kitchen cabinets. In a paroxysm of rage, she refused to resign herself to being a biennial plant, no matter how exotic the species, and marched imperiously back to the kitchen. Once there, she removed the duck from the trash can, divested it of its tinfoil shroud, and placed it in the oven. After its flesh had turned golden brown, she placed the bird on the living-room table and, with due ceremony, lit two candles, placing one on either side. She had reckoned on devouring the entire creature, right down to the bones, and wolfing down all twenty-four grapes on the stroke of midnight, as if to beguile some imaginary spectator into the mistaken impression that two people had dined there together. But when she returned from the kitchen, with the bottle of wine in her hand, and saw the fowl's remains bathed in sepulchral light, she realized that she was face to face not with a New Year's Dinner--rather, she was an involuntary guest at a funeral wake.

The scene was so lugubrious that it bore down on her the deadweight of the truth. No matter what pains she devoted to her lingerie collection, she would always be a poor excuse for a widow, light years away from those icons glamorized in self-help manuals. And yet, as she reflected upon her life with her husband, she realized that she had protested too much in her disgust; and that, as in every complex relationship, this sense of loathing had been a necessary counterpart to her love. She seized the grapes, drove as quickly as she could to the crematorium that bordered the M-30, entered one of the chapels just before midnight, and saw in New Year surrounded by the dead.

The next day, with dawn breaking, she made her way home. As she got into bed she felt a sudden onrush of joy. She sensed that, for the first time in her life, she was truly alive.

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last update: June 25, 2007