Fiction | The Old Men Who Row Boats by David Joseph

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In Madrid, not far from the great museums that line the streets, old men row boats in the morning hours at Retiro Park. These are old men, but these are small boats. There is no vast sea here, just a man made body of water surrounded by tourists and a stone monument flooded with birds. With the morning light emerging, these men set out in rowboats, leaning back as far as their ageing spines will allow. Across calm waters, the men manoeurvre the oars. They manoeuvre the oars with poise, letting them enter the surface almost silently, propelling the boats backwards without words.

Here, they rent boats by the hour. There are no destinations, just patterned ripples in the water, with the sun rising gently and the early morning joggers circling like vultures. They are old men with the bodies of old men, and rowing offers them physical activity. It allows for their limbs move the way they did years before, and it requires a measure of coordination and strength. It provides the men with just enough work to make them feel as if they are still men, with the virility of men, capable of doing manly things. Alone in a boat, with nothing but their thoughts, oars, perhaps a wind jacket on mornings when the gusts blow stronger, the old men don’t need to rely on anyone else. They are out of the way of the joggers and strollers, and they move unimpeded to their own rhythms, their independence temporarily restored, with knees bent and legs stretched out before them. Javier was one of those men who rowed boats.

Javier lived in a small apartment near the Reina Sofia Museum. The Reina Sofia was a glorious monument to Modern Art, perched just across the way from the Atocha train station in the heart of Madrid. Although there was nothing modern about Javier, he liked to go to the museum, and he liked to go there very often. He liked to go there and ride the modern glass elevator up and walk down the sterile halls until he stood squarely in front of Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

Javier felt an unspoken bond with Picasso and with Guernica. They shared a lot of time together at the Reina Sofia, but it was more than that. They shared a history of compassion, of understanding. Picasso wasn’t a soldier, but he knew war and he knew pain. Guernica captured the horrors of battle and destruction, and Javier liked to stand in front of the painting, letting the images wash over him, into him. Javier wasn’t a painter, but he had been a soldier, and he knew what it was like to feel the despair that one can only feel in the presence of death, the presence of unnatural death. There was nothing glamorous or glorious about it, and soldiers weren’t so much brave as dutiful in his opinion. He had done his duty and he had seen great loss. Standing in front of Guernica reminded him that Picasso had too, that he wasn’t alone, and that even the greatest atrocities could be beautiful when depicted in art. They were hauntingly beautiful for the manner in which they conveyed a moment in time, and they summoned powerful feelings in those who gazed upon their canvases. Guernica was such a painting, and people young and old, from all over the world, came to the museum to see it.

One of the things Javier liked about the Guernica exhibit was that small replications of Picasso’s drafts of the painting were lined up on the opposite wall. Here, Javier had the chance to see the sketches and analyze them. Javier thought it was fascinating to consider what Picasso had included in his early drawings, what he chose to omit, and what he decided to add later on. These alterations had fundamentally changed the complexion of the painting. They altered the narrative. Most people only see the finished product, he thought. Few ever obtain a real sense of what it took for the artist to arrive here, on the precipice of greatness. This was the case in nearly every profession. We love or despise the shell, the veneer, the facade, with very little knowledge of what sits beneath, the underbelly, where the substantive quality often lies.

Most people walked into the room at the Reina Sofia unaware of the drawings on the opposite wall. They walked in and were, understandably, overwhelmed by the massive canvas sweeping across the wall before their eyes. The size and scope of the piece are truly astounding, and it wasn’t unusual to hear people gasp upon seeing it for the first time. The painting literally took their breath away. It was that magnificent, a remarkable tour de force of emotion and power and possibility, and Javier always enjoyed being in the same room as the great painting.

And yet, he often found himself standing with his back to the canvas and to the crowds, as he gazed upon the sequence of drawings that had brought Guernica to its eventual conclusion, its inevitable conclusion. He was curious about Picasso’s thought process, his experiments with different images, and what ultimately brought him to this most terrifying conclusion that would be the finished piece. It seemed unfathomable that Picasso could draw in a manner that was both childlike and spare and still find ways to illuminate the absolute terror that people felt, innocent people, who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The painting captured an element of fate, but the drawings revealed that this piece was, although well conceived, born from raw emotion, from reaction, and only later did it become a more appropriately detached response to the day the village was bombed. Javier was continually struck by the distance between the first sketch and the original, and he envied Picasso’s ability to go back, remove things, and reshape the narrative. War didn’t allow you to do that. It was final and unforgiving and there were no second drafts or revisions.

Javier had been in the Navy. He liked the water, and he enjoyed working on ships. Being on the water made him feel like the world was endless, adrift in the vast, blue sea, completely aware of his infinitesimal place in the universe. This was where Javier felt most comfortable. He didn’t fear the sea, the way it could rear its head at any moment. He embraced it. Whenever he was caught in a storm, he felt an uncommon sense of calm. The boat wasn’t likely to sink. You just needed to ride it out and move through the ups and downs. Sometimes, you were tossed clear across the deck and other times you just rolled gently over modest undulations. Either way, you were a passenger of sorts. The only choice was to accept it, to lean in, and to find a way to let nature know you weren’t ever going to fight her–come what may. Javier could make peace the elements regardless of the consequences. The actions of men were harder to accept.

In the mornings, Javier would leave his small apartment and head for the park. He would stop briefly for a cup of coffee and a tostada with olive oil and fresh, blended tomato. He always stopped at the same place, and they knew his order. He sat calmly and drank his coffee. He liked to drink coffee before he headed for the boat. It warmed the insides of his body, and it reminded him of those days when he needed to be prepared for a brisk wind out on the open seas. The coffee was good here, and the people who worked there were always agreeable. He sat near the window, looking out at the busy street and dreaming of the open seas while cars rushed by.

From there, Javier would walk past the elegant Palace Hotel, where many great dignitaries had stayed, and head past the Ritz and up towards Retiro Park. It was only a slight incline, but he felt it more than he had in his youth. The ground wasn’t like the water, he thought. Although it didn’t move, it provided an element of resistance that he felt in his spine, in the base joints of his knees, and he longed to get inside the boat. Inside the boat, things were easier. The world was less complicated, and even his body responded in a way that seemed to forget how old it was.

These rowboats were primarily rented by tourists, usually later in the day, perhaps with their children, when the sun was high in the sky and a warm glow eased over the water. Javier liked to arrive before the day took flight, and he was always the first man through the turnstile. He was the first man through the turnstile, and he was always alone. He had spent years on boats with men, many of who were now dead. He had liked the camaraderie then, but now he liked to be alone in the boat. He was nearly always alone, and this was comfortable for him. He never married, and he had no children. He was alone, but he wasn’t lonely. They weren’t the same at all, he thought, and he liked to take to the water with only himself in the boat. There would be nobody else to take care of or instruct. There would be nobody who required he make idle conversation, and Javier could simply sit down in the boat, grab the oars, take a deep breath, and propel his small craft backwards across the man-made body of water.

On his way home from the park, he would often eat lunch near the museum and stop in to see Guernica in the early afternoon. This was a nice time of day to see the painting, and Javier liked to go to the Reina Sofia when fewer tourists were there. He liked that it was near his apartment, and he liked that it was bright and clean. Most off all, Javier liked that Picasso’s Guernica was there. It was an added benefit that he liked one of the docents.

She was slightly younger than Javier, in her early seventies he estimated. She was tall and lean and had let her hair grow grey. Perhaps grey wasn’t the best description. It was silver, after all, with a fresh sheen, and she wore it magnificently. The lines on her face magnified her age, but she carried herself with an elegance that was uncommon. It was uncommon, and her poise was unmistakable. This was only the case in women who had lived to the point where there was nothing left to prove. Javier had searched the world over for a woman like that only to come up empty.

The docent had an air of nobility about her, but it was nobility void of ego and arrogance. She was old enough to have seen her beauty fade, but she was young enough to remember before it had. Still, she glided through the museum halls with a contentment, a knowingness of the past and acceptance of the present that seemed to allow her to age with unusual ease, to smile more willingly, and to say hello with an affection that illustrated how terribly unaffected she was by the passage of time. This quality was incredibly attractive to Javier, and he always looked forward to crossing paths with her on his stops to see Guernica. Javier tried to visit the museum multiple times a week.

In fact, Javier visited the museum so often that it almost seemed as if he was coming by to check on Guernica, to make sure it was still hanging on the wall, that it hadn’t been touched or damaged or moved without his permission. The painting meant a great deal to him, and he felt a sort of ownership over the canvas. He counted on it, needed it, and so he felt compelled to look in on Guernica on a regular basis.

Now that Spain had moved beyond the era of Franco, Guernica served as an important reminder of the past for Javier. He watched the young people in Madrid, and he knew they couldn’t really fathom the Spain of Franco and that the civil war was merely something the learned about in school. They lived with freedoms in the wake of the unimaginable horrors that befell the people of Guernica, who were bombed so savagely and cowardly by Hitler in 1937.

But, to Javier, Guernica wasn’t simply a painting about war or even the Spanish Civil War or even Franco for that matter. It was a painting about the innocent. It was a painting about children who deserve to be safe and protected, about mothers who bring them into the world, and it reflected their vulnerability amidst the savageness of warfare, cold and soulless and without a moral code. It was about pain and fear and unexpected death and destruction. And it was about Spain–the bull and the horse forever linked, intertwined both in the bullring and outside of it, evoking pride and pain in the hearts of Spaniards the country over. Yes. This was his Guernica, his Spain, and stopping by the Reina Sofia made him feel good that he had taken the time to remember these feelings. Spain’s history was important to him, and stopping by the museum allowed Javier to pay his respects to the past.

When Javier climbed into the boat each morning at Retiro Park, the calm of the small body of water astounded him. The stillness of the surrounding trees on all sides. The frozen stone sculptures and steps looming quietly. The day before it became a day, before loss and fear and worry could possibly descend upon it. As he propelled his small boat across the water, a feeling of endless tranquillity poured into his body underneath the rising sun with the air still cool and birds just waking up in the trees. It was a feeling so perfect, so completely in harmony with the universe, that he couldn’t possibly imagine anything in the day ahead that could change it. He couldn’t imagine that the world could ever grow dark, and he thought this must have been how the people of Guernica felt before their village was destroyed. Their little town had no reason to be a target. There was no military base in Guernica, no advantage to be gained by opposing forces except fear and shock and intimidation. Guernica was merely a terrifying message, sent from those in power by way of the dismemberment of the innocent, the limbs of mothers and children blown to bits beneath the endless skies of Basque Country in the north of Spain. Alone in his boat each morning, feeling the beauty of life course through his veins, Javier was not so different from the people of Guernica before the bombings–trusting in his surroundings, comfortable with the beauty his eyes digested, and wholly unaware of what the future held.

When Javier looked at the sketches of Guernica, he couldn’t stop thinking about how the most subtle changes impacted the entire composition. He thought Picasso was a brilliant painter, and he enjoyed contemplating what Picasso might have been thinking as he evolved the piece of art over time. It was a statement, but it was also art, and it seemed the more Picasso detached himself from his first emotions upon hearing the news of the bombing, the more powerful the piece of art became. It offered a more objective viewpoint, and it illustrated some of the cold, hard truths of the worst of humanity–illuminating the impersonal disregard humans could have for one another when they felt justified. Javier liked to look at these small panels. He liked to look at the panels and imagine Picasso in his apartment in Paris when he received the news. He liked to think of the rage and the tears and the transformation of emotion into art, of a moment into the momentous, of helplessness into hope. This is what he saw when he looked at the progression. He saw hope that the artist can only summon through great suffering. Hope that rises, like an arm from the ashes, protruding from the rubble, reaching out as the world crumbles all around. Guernica was, after all, about the prospect of hope, somehow, some way, deep in the future.

Now that Javier was an old man, his future was not nearly as long as his past. He knew this, and he thought about this as he rowed across the serene waters. He thought about this as he watched the sun rise from his boat. And he thought about it each time he said hello to the docent at the Reina Sofia.

It was a crisp fall day. He woke early and rowed as he did each day. On the way back from Retiro Park, Javier walked past the Prado Museum on the way to the Reina Sofia, past the statues of Velázquez and Goya, thinking of the 3rd of May even though it was only October. The Spanish painters knew death, understood death, he thought. Like Velázquez and Goya so many years before him, Picasso knew what it meant to experience fear, to be at the very end, and face the firing squad. He understood the terror one felt when there was nowhere left to run, when your luck had run out, and the wheel was about to stop. Yes, Spanish painters knew this better than anyone he thought, and this was always apparent in their art.

At the Reina Sofia, Javier made his way towards Guernica. When he arrived in the room, there was a crowd of students there, who stood somewhat patiently while the elegant docent spoke to them about the painting. Javier watched as she pointed towards the canvas, the graceful curve of her arm still attractive, and her eyes filled with wonder as she shared her enthusiasm for the work with the students.

When she was finished speaking, she asked the students to take fifteen minutes in the room without saying a word and without glancing at their phones. Fifteen minutes to look and see and hear and feel Guernica, to smell the smoke wafting through the village after the attacks and hear the cries of mothers at the sight of their dead children. The students gazed forward at the wall, as she stepped behind them only to see Javier with his back to the canvas, his eyes travelling across the small sketches of Guernica on the opposite wall.

He just stood there plainly, with his back to the crowd of people, staring at the sketches, in a room with no windows, with the rain now streaming down the glass of the exposed elevators that flanked the building. He just stood there, arms behind his back, bent slightly at the waist, leaning his head closer to try and get a better look. It was then he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that he wasn’t the only one with his back to the painting. The docent was looking in his direction, with her back to the students and also the painting. For a moment they were the only two people in the room, along with Picasso that is, who would likely have approved. It was nothing more than a coy, knowing smile that a woman can only give when she is older than 70 and knows that time is running out. Javier knew this, and he liked to think he was a man who was always prepared. But he was not prepared for this. He was prepared to row his boat in the mornings alongside other old men, and he was prepared to walk to the Reina Sofia and look at Guernica in the afternoons. But he was not prepared for this. He was not prepared to hope, really hope, not now, at his age. Hope, for a man his age, could only place him on the brink of despair. Even death didn’t summon fear so much as inevitability. Hope was different, and Javier didn’t dare hope, not even here at the Reina Sofia before Guernica where Picasso had spilled his hopes so powerfully across the canvas.

He had been in wars and seen the faces of death and stared blindly into sunsets, but her gaze felt like a hundred pairs of eyes levelling themselves at him, knowing and devastatingly beautiful. He had seen her so many times before and been fine. Although her smile was disarming, it was sweet and he had never been intimidated by it. Moreover, he had always been ready for it, coveted it like the stars or the moon or the sea. Only now it felt different. And he wasn’t sure if it was the painting or the room or the thought that only hours before he had been rowing in the most tranquil waters. Oh those tranquil waters, quiet, where old men in boats set out each morning completely at home and unafraid.

He had no choice but to meet her eyes and stare back into them. There was no averting her glance. They were there, alone in a crowded room, with the students facing Guernica. They were there, just the two of them, with only their thoughts, their considerable years, and days gone by that hung like the cracked, worn edges of his mouth–dry and sick with worry. All he could do in the moment was bow respectfully in her presence, doff his cap, and saunter out of the room, breaking the silence of the students by whistling a tune so old that only the two of them had ever heard it before.

BY DAVID JOSEPH

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