I saw the Corroded Man again today.
This was one of the things I had enjoyed the most since I was a child of nine summers. It was at my favorite festival here in Madrid. Mom said he was always there and he was legendary, in his way. I was fascinated by him. Such perfect stillness, like a statue but warm, approachable, almost human.
His body was motionless in the square and had been that way for almost ten years. No one could remember when he first started showing up but he was especially popular with the tourists, who came to marvel at his stillness. She would absently lecture me on the Corroded Man as we walked through the outdoor market. He appeared there during our hotest and stickiest of summers, fully dressed, coat, hat, boots, but as always, still and without complaint.
She told me he once had a personal guard who stood by and allowed people to approach one at a time to show them he was still alive. That was some time ago. No one knew what happened to the guard. One day he simply stopped showing up. The locals had taken to calling him the Corroded Man. His corrosion, the verdigris which covered him, clothing and all, was a perfect hue of a penny turned green, sitting in a moist place until the color was unevenly, naturally, perfectly hideous. The bold might have touched him and remarked how much like metal he appeared to be, rough, worn by weather.
He was a great tourist attraction. People came to Madrid, just to find him, some say. When they did, its was usually a woman, who would find a mirror, hold it under his nose and see his breath form, slowly, on the glass. They, of course, paid a nice tourist fee just to do so. It was fun to watch them approach and walk around him. He sat on the edge of a suitcase balanced on one corner with his leg extended a cane and cup in his right hand.
What made him so famous was not just his stillness. While he was by far the best of Madrid’s performance artists, if he could be said to be performing by not moving, he was famous for other reasons. Occasionally, he would attract birds who would sit on him in the manner of birds and statues. These became some of our most famous postcards ensuring visitors would seek him out on their trip to our warm climate and Old World Charm. He was to be found in the middle of a square where foot traffic was high and he appeared where he was always able to be best seen from a distance.
What made him most remarkable, legendary even, was the simple fact, no one ever saw him move.
He never got up to get a drink. Nor eat. Nor take a bathroom break. They never saw him pack up at the end of the day. Nor did they know for certain where he would be the next day. One of the most favored games of tourists was to find where the Corroded Man would move to next. People would watch him for days, sitting out in the square for as long as he did.
My father passed away when I was eleven. He died quietly from a sudden illness while I was away at school. My obsession with the Corroded Man only grew as I got older. I began to mark his habits when my schoolwork allowed. It took my mind off of my studies and the gap of my missing father.
The owners of small shops loved to see the Corroded Man appear near their establishments. He brought with him an entourage happy to spend with them and they quietly prayed he would stay for a while. As if he could hear them, some days he would. My mother was one of those shop owners who sought his favor.
My mother was an excellent cook and had quite a reputation among the locals, still she only managed to just make enough money to keep the doors open and me in a local private school. She said it was what my father wanted, his dying wish, in fact. So she struggled and I did my best in school.
She went to him one afternoon when I was still a child. She made me wait at the edge of his circle and walked to him. She crossed herself and spoke quietly for a few minutes. Then she turned, gathered me up. Her sad look back stayed with me, stoic, with a firm resolve. She returned to her shop.
Nothing seemed to change at first, but one day in the early summer, he blessed her by appearing in front of her store. Though his visits were brief, he would appear many times during the year and particularly around my father’s birthday. We celebrated Father’s birthday by leaving his favorite wine in front of the Corroded Man. The bottle disappeared only to reappear when he had moved on to a new location. Its contents were always gone.
I begged my mother as a teen to allow me one night to see if I could catch him in transit. My friends and I sat and watched. We laughed, told jokes, and hid from the well armed policemen who wandered by, stop and have a cigarette. They talked to him as if he were an old friend, someone who knew their secrets and had no judgment. Once they were done, they thanked him for listening and moved on.
We sat vigilantly at first. Never taking our eyes off of him. Then we ate from our basket, my mother had prepared cheese, wine, and bread, enough for even my friends. We sat behind a bench so he couldn’t see us and talked about school, our futures, planning for the day when we would leave Madrid and make our way in the world. I had ambitions of going to school in Los Angeles and becoming an engineer. I wanted to see the beautiful women of Hollywood and live in Beverly Hills. A tourist came through the shop one day and told me how wonderful it was there and I could never get it out of my mind.
Once it was dark we moved to the bench and continued our vigil. He sat in profile to us. Full of food and wine, it was inevitable we would fall asleep for a moment, that long moment when you are certain you are awake, but really aren’t.
He appeared the next morning across town in a different square, motionless as ever, with no one there managing to be sure when he arrived. I went off to school eventually. I had put the Corroded Man out of my mind while I was in college and only thought about him when I was on my way home to see my mother. A scholarship had paid for school so my mother was finally free of my educational burden. She finally spent some money on herself and the shop, which had expanded greatly.
I came up through a back alley doorway so I could come in through the kitchen to surprise my mother. There were new faces I had never seen but a couple of regulars who waved, smiled and kept on working. I was even more surprised when I walked out of the kitchen and saw the bustle of people having food, enjoying themselves with my mother coordinating the dance of employees and patrons from the front of the restaurant.
She smiled at me and pointed toward the front door. I ran to her and hugged her as hard as I could. As I hugged her, she told me, once I left for school, he appeared in front of the shop and has for all the time I was away, sat there, in vigil. I was sad that I had missed my Father’s birthday and our strange family tradition. I wanted to thank him personally. I had never spoken to the Corroded Man before, thinking it a strange thing to talk to someone who never answered.
I turned to look outside toward his favored spot in front of the store and he was gone, his vigil completed. All that was left to mark his passing was the empty bottle of my father’s favorite wine. He never came to us again. His legend in Madrid, however, continued mysteriously, as it ever had.
The Corroded Man © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Photograph © Emilio Morenatti, 2013, All Rights Reserved, used without permission