Gutter 23 I Knick-Knacks

March 16, 2021



Gutter 23, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 21-25,

Félix Calvino


A few days after Carlo’s birthday a knick-knacks vendor arrives in the village. His kind, along with tinkers, are regular visitors during the spring and summer months. They supply practical items, and fantasy ones such as figurines of meigas. They break the village tedium: children drop their games and are the first to gather around the visitor. Girls and young women pause in their chores, consult the mirror, and after a few strokes of the comb, they too are on their way.

The collective reaction is no different this time, but the knick-knacks vendor is: he gives sweets to the first children he meets on his arrival and promises them more after they spread the news of the great bargains on offer. He wears a pale green corduroy suit, and a General Franco moustache. He exudes trust and rectitude as opposed to the charlatans the villagers are used too. Even his mule has a shiny coat and its apparel is of quality leather.

He settles in the village square. On a low trestle, covered with dark green velvet cloth, the display of rings, bracelets, sunglasses, gold and silver chains, glitter in the afternoon sun and stir the fantasies of young and the old alike. In the religious section, a painted sign affirms the crucifix and rosaries as made of timber from the Holy Land and blessed by the Holy Father in Rome. On display is also black silk fabric to make women’s scarves, a wide range of sewing thread in various colours and thickness, lace edging, needles and thimbles, together with a roll of light blue cloth for men’s suits. ‘Cashmere of the highest quality’ reads the sign, in italic letters.

Carlos gazes over the merchandise. The roll of blue cloth catches his attention. In it he sees the opportunity for his most wanted first long, going-out trousers and he hurries back home.

His mother who is in the kitchen about to make cottage cheese listens to him, then says,

‘There is nothing to be gained in dealing with knick-knacks vendors.’

‘You promised I would have it for my 15th birthday.’

‘And you will. I never break a promise. I wish you did the same.’

‘You could at least have a look at it.’

She gazes at him for a long moment, shakes her head, and takes off her ash coloured apron.


At the square she touches and feels the cloth between her thumb and index twice, and a third time.

‘And the price?’ she asks.

‘Two thousand pesetas,’ the vendor replies.

She smiles and starts for home. Carlos follows her.

‘Mum I like it,’ he implores.

‘The man will not leave for a while, please calm down,’ she says.

Back at the house she searches for her husband, finds him in the barn and speaks to him close and quietly. Carlos waits outside the barn door. When he hears his father say ‘the best price you can,’ he hurries to the square just in case the knick-knacks vendor decides to leave or someone else buys the material. Although the chances of this happening are remote, there is nowhere else he wishes to be.

She takes her time. Carlos begins to doubt that he heard his father’s consent back in the barn. On her return she buys some coloured threads and safety pins, and then she joins some neighbours a short distance away talking about lettuce seeding and the right moon cycles for planting turnips. From her market days in town, Carlos is familiar with her buying and selling techniques in which time and indifference play a part, and he knows he has just to wait.


‘About the cloth,’ she says to the knick-knacks vendor a short time later.

‘Cashmere of the highest quality, Señora.’

They haggle. They come to an impasse. She extracts a Pope’s blessed crucifix and the deal is completed.

The following day, Vidal, the village tailor, takes Carlos’ measurements. A week passes before the first fitting. The second fitting takes place almost overnight.


One Sunday afternoon in early May, Carlos sets out with five other single neighbours for an evening dance at a village about two hours’ walking distance from theirs. He wears the new suit. Shirt, socks, shoes, tie and belt are also new.

It is a perfect late spring with clear blue sky, but for a mountain of dark and motionless clouds in the far west. There is birdsong in the trees and excitement in the men’s hearts. This fiesta is a popular one and women are plentiful, according to the older man in the group. But they are astute, cunning, hard-headed ones, he reminds them. Carlos’ heart throbs with excitement. Or maybe it is anxiety.

By the time they arrive at the large meadow where the dance is to be held the sun is fast retreating behind the Faro Mountain. They head for one of the tent bars surrounding the field. The sacristan’s son orders beer for everyone.

‘Carlos must pay for the first round,’ says Ovidio, the apprentice shoemaker.

Carlos is happy to do so. A small price to pay to join the adults’ world, he thinks.

Someone buys another round. The muffled compressor has started and the electric lights, timid at first, come into full life. In the middle of the field, on the stage erected for the occasion, the 7-piece orchestra begins to tune-up.

‘Time for action,’ says one of the men as he finishes his drink.

‘I agree,’ says another, rubbing his hands.

A third discreetly pulls up his trousers, tightens his belt.

Alfredo, Carlos’ mentor in the way of women, gestures to him to stay and orders two cognacs. ‘Beer makes you pee, cognac sharpens both courage and intellect when needed,’ he says to Carlos after the waiter places two glasses of Fundador on the counter mats advertising Estrella de Galicia beer. ‘Besides, there is plenty of time. Sensible women will not settle for the first monkey that comes around waving his tale.’

Carlos is caught between his heart’s wishes and the clarity of Alfredo’s logic. He nods. After a while they leave the tent bar. It is then, walking along the promenade area surrounding the dancers that Alfredo mentions a long-time friend of his who is now coming towards them. Her name is Laura. Her companion is called Antonia, she is twenty-one and wearing a green and white summer dress.

Carlos instantly likes Antonia’s slender neck and large grey eyes. The introductions over, Laura says she feels like dancing, takes Alfredo by the arm and they join the dozens of couples on the dancing area. Carlos and Antonia follow.

Carlos has always suspected that adult dancing will be different from the dancing in short pants with his cousins and their friends, as they learned the steps to match the tunes. But he never anticipated the pleasure and the illusion of heat stealing through his arms and legs.

Minutes seem to be passing. Or perhaps it is hours. Yet their conversation has gone not much further than revealing the names of the villages they come from or commenting on the large number of people that turned up for the night dance. When their eyes meet, Antonia smiles or looks at him intently, both clearly an invitation to talk. But in his flurry of erotic embarrassment his mentor’s lines to assist in the early courting stages have slipped from his memory and he just smiles back.

During the fireworks display at midnight they meet with Alfredo and Laura in one of the tents for a glass of wine, cheese, bread and olives. Laura and Alfredo have been longer at the bars than at the dancing and talk and laugh a lot. They are both thirty—four. She tells Carlos that Alfredo is a good man but romantically unreliable. ‘Please don’t let him influence you,’ she says to Carlos, and places her hand on his.

A new orchestra is on the stage when they return. It plays mostly slow dance tunes. Antonia fits perfectly in Carlos’ arms and he in hers. At two o’clock the orchestra leader wishes everyone good night before playing one last tune. Carlos and Antonia walk to the village square where her friends are gathering for their walk home.

‘Will I see you again?’ Carlos manages to ask.

‘Perhaps,’ she replies. She then encloses his face in her hands and kisses him on the lips.


Carlos joins his neighbours at the local tavern and after one last drink they head for home. They talk of this and that: of the musicians, the two guardia civiles and their good-looking horses, of the fireworks. It seems they talk of nothing until the sacristan’s son announces he has got a date for the forthcoming dance at the village of Santa Fe. Another man curses his luck. A third feels cheated because his dance partner of the early evening decided to go back to her boyfriend. Alfredo tells him that, ‘When the cravings of the body and of the heart come together there is nothing you can do.’

Carlos does not take part in the group’s deliberations. Slowly he is going through the night’s emotions from the moment he saw Antonia’s large grey eyes and hears her soft voice, the warmth of her hand in his as they dance, her scent, her nearness, and he hasn’t got a thought for anything else.

In their various states of emotional and physical tiredness, they are not conscious of the stillness in the air until the pale light of the moon is hidden by dark clouds rapidly advancing upon them. Sparse and thick drops of rain begin to fall as they enter the path running through the village cornfields. For a moment they consider retreating and sheltering in a water mill nearby. They decide to hurry ahead.

The downpour catches them halfway through the corn fields. Soon the soft earth under their feet turns to mud. They trudge ahead in silence and near darkness. In the bluish flashes of lightning someone points out their resemblance to the scarecrows protecting the corn from birds and they all laugh. When they get to the village, the rain has stopped.

Dripping water on the flagstones of the kitchen, Carlos removes his mud-clogged shoes and soaked clothes. After fetching a towel and pyjamas from his bedroom, he hangs his new suit from the hooks in a ceiling beam used for hanging the hams to dry after two weeks immersed in salt. On the elevated hearth he stirs the embers to life although the kitchen is still warm from his father’s regular Sunday cards game with neighbours. In a saucepan near the fire, his mother has left beef stew from the Sunday dinner as she said she would. He eats some of it and goes to bed. For a long while he lies staring at the darkness, thinking of Antonia and their physical intimacies just hours before. He feels the taste of her lips on his is ebbing. Other emotions are bubbling in his mind that, apart from sex, he doesn’t recognise.

Some hours later, the cashmere of highest quality suit will be dry but unrecognisable: patches of grey, green and yellow have replaced the original blue. Arms and legs have shrunk unevenly. One of the coat’s lapels has all but disappeared.

In the morning, when Carlos comes down for breakfast, the crippled garments have been removed. His mother is putting away the dishes from the night before. Her face is sombre. Every now and then she sighs so loudly that Marisa the cat, in the wicker basket, stops grooming her kittens. But he feels just fine. For now anyway.

Issue 23, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 21-25,