Liesel and Her Tiger

Over the years, most of my Spanish friends have pointed out that I’m an odd Norteamericano. Aren’t you supposed to be ignorant of history, Miguel, like your compatriots, and care only about the future? Here in Spain you seem to feel right at home in rundown, backward places where nobody goes and everyone has forgotten. What’s so attractive about our ruins, anyway?

I’ve never found an answer. But sometimes a special memory comes to mind from years ago, in Madrid, when I used to explore Malasaña, a decrepit old barrio where nobody went and the 20th century seemed to have left behind. This was before trendy bars and restaurants arrived, before tattoo parlors, beauty salons and chic art galleries transformed the neighborhood. To my foreign eyes and ears, Malasaña seemed quiet. (I mean relatively quiet, in the sense that nowhere in Spain ever seems truly quiet.) During those October afternoons, I loved to wander the streets and to draw. A few trees were beginning to turn color and shed their leaves. The days were getting shorter and colder. Birds of the barrio were preparing for their winter flights to the warmth of Africa, and I was making my own plans to fly back to a winter on the other side of the world.

In the days that remained before leaving Spain, I was trying—and mostly failing—to paint twilight with my watercolors. Almost every afternoon, as daylight dozed off to sleep and streetlights began to wake up, an elderly lady and her little black dog would appear. I made two pencil sketches of them in my book. Then a few days later, I was painting on la Calle Espíritu Santo and heard a croaky voice from the street behind me calling, “Tigre, Tigre, vamos Tigre.” In a moment, the elderly woman hobbled around the corner, her dog following. They stopped at my side. The dog sniffed my boots and sketchbook and allowed me to pet it as the woman examined my watercolor. “His name is Tigre?” I asked. “No. Her name is Tigre,” she replied.

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Phone Call From a Stranger

A male voice said he was calling from San Diego: ” My name is Thomas Aguilar and I’m trying to find an artist named John Michael Keating. I am hoping you might be him.”

“That is my name and I am a painter. Years ago I used to live in San Diego. Why are you trying to find this person?”

He explained that he was a volunteer worker in a thrift store and that he had discovered an unusual painting. “We get a lot of amateur stuff donated here, paintings of mountains and sunsets and paintings of dogs and cats, but never artwork of such high quality as this one. So I was curious. I found the name of the artist written on the back.” Then he added, “the painting shows the reflection of a man in a blue sweater looking into a store window.” Then I knew Mr. Aguilar had found the artist he was looking for.

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