I was sitting by the little pool in the back garden paging through a new book, taking pleasure in the prospect, when I heard the old metal gate next door squeak open, as it has for years, squeaking then scraping on the worn concrete.
Through the gap in the wall, I saw an old man walking into my neighbor’s garden.
The dry heat had been oppressive these last weeks. No one seemed to be sleeping well. Basements were the only tolerable places, there with the spiders, unused fishing equipment, forgotten boxes of files, and empty suitcases waiting for another, final journey. But now for the first time the sun was not all powerful in midafternoon. I hoped for a thunderstorm, a little death of relief, but these were not rain clouds advancing. A dust storm was approaching from the west, a stately progression of dark annoyance. Soon it would be too difficult to be outside.
In the brown hills surrounding this forgotten town even the streams had struggled through the season. Such birds as remained sounded harsh and tired, too lethargic to feed their young. From the town, I had followed one such stream, seeing everywhere the absence of water. Ripples that worked pleasingly in spring were small, morose and wan. At one pool, where birds and deer had once come delicately to drink, nothing remained but cracked mud, puzzled etchings, and hard tracks.
The preening young men who customarily spent their days crisscrossing the foothills on their special bicycles, helmeted, hearty, and earnest, were gone, leaving dust and dry weeds.
The old man walked as if every step was an experiment; as if each new footfall might reveal unexpected mysteries of life. He’d always walked this way, I thought, even as a young man, delighted with the hand he’d been given to play. Some days he felt that all the cards were aces — on bad days maybe a jack or a ten, but nothing less. He’d played a dumb hand or two, of course, realizing losses, but he had been the one in the front of the class, going toward the answers, seeking truth, moving forward, eager for knowledge. And then a university student, away in the capital for the first time, hungry and curious always, exploring women with the same fervor that he explored his science. How did things work?
Slightly balding, with an overdone skin, a white man’s skin too long indoors perhaps curled over a microscope. And yet a vitality to the step. A man to know.
I knew that the neighbors had gone away for the summer months. From our conversation, I had the impression that they had taken a place near the endless immensity of ocean, the mere presence of water having a soothing quality on their lives. Left alone, their house was silent, dark, the polished wood untouched, the clocks chiming themselves into final stillness, dust quietly accumulating on family portraits and unread books.
He paused, called again, and I heard the gate scrape once more. The storm came.
In what passes for a central square in our sordid little city, I saw the old man some days later. He was standing on the south side, there in the deep shade of the abandoned building talking with animation to a much younger man.
The men who make such decisions, the leaders of our town, swept up in what they imagined to be a post-war optimism, anxious to bring us closer to the sophistication of the thriving cities by the coast, had invited architects from far off places to submit their designs for a new building. I no longer remember what occupied that place before. Only in dark obscure archives could one find photographs of what had stood there, swept out of sight by this municipal improvement. Nor do I know what comfortable arrangements were made, which man found himself in possession of a fine automobile, which one spent some weeks traveling but, in their wisdom, the leaders built for us a building unpleasant to the eye, sheer walls of shameless concrete climbing floor after floor unbroken by character or window.
In the shade given by this empty offense, the old man’s gestures took in the building and seemed to me to imply a kind of scientific precision and rigor. The young man would nod and make occasional scratches in his notebook.
I meant to go over, to engage them in conversation but my tram had been delayed (as explanation, the company offered some foolishness about electrical current fluctuations) and I was anxious to meet a client on time. On my return, the day rawly hot again, sensible citizens well sheltered inside, the square was empty.
I had a friend once, a strange and driven friend, Augustino. Women found him darkly beautiful. Men drew back. In the harsh and lazy world in which we live, people said easily of him that he had come from a mixed marriage. This excused any judgment they were about to make. And indeed they did make judgment. After many years, he left our town and moved still further away from the ocean, back into the vast abandoned plains of our fading country where cattle stand stupidly surrounded by grasses and dense low shrubs. There, in the provincial capital, he found a place he thought he might work, a famous bookstore, for he was a literate man. He telephoned the owner for an interview and an appointment was duly set; when Augustino presented himself, a striking tall man with shining strong black hair brushing his shoulders, the job had vanished. Oh, no, the owner declared with a businessman’s eye for truth, there is no vacancy here.
But it is of his exuberance that I think now. How, when rejected in his job seeking, turned away by the shameless bibliopole, he purchased by way of compensation a tuxedo. I am telling you – a tuxedo.
Upon his return to our miserable apology for a city, in a sad bar next to the loud highway to the south, beer always sticky on the floor, Augustino found himself encountering a group of men from an ancient culture who with gestures of amicable insistence made him sit down and surrounded him with drinks. After some time, one by one, they sang their tribal songs, calmly, heavyheartedly, a lost joy whispering vaguely above their heads. At last there was no one but Augustino to sing, he of no tribe at all.
Some days later, another appointment took me through that part of town where men sit out under the trees talking in groups, sturdy women sit on the porches of the houses looking out, and children run back and forth, heedless in the street, all so unlike my part of town where everything is turned in upon itself, cautious, trembling at what might pass by.
The road meets the railroad line that carries away the crude materials our benighted region produces, in return bringing the exotica all humans desire. That day the crossing was closed as a train went by. Some of the cars carried rudimentary graffiti, pale efforts at mimicking the menace of our big cities, others seemed merely to grime. A line of graceless turtles, the cars moved slower and slower. Finally, with a grinding sigh, they came to a halt blocking the road, as if the work was too much.
In the heat, people began to gather, waiting. Men with bicycles leaned them against a chain link fence and walked over to the railing where someone had scrawled muera yo, pero viva mi fama. The lights flashed as they stood looking up and down the track and talking amongst themselves.
I was in my automobile, waiting, and waiting without patience. The heat pushed through my open window, an unpleasant embrace. I was not on time for my appointment. For that reason, when at long last the grimy turtles snarled in the iron heat, grumbled, and resumed their journey, when the men waiting at the railing had satisfied themselves that this motion was real, that this train would now pass, when the bicyclists were remounted, right foot on pedal, poised, when the railing was raised up, I, first in line, started my car and crossed the tracks with such intent that I barely noticed a workable, faded green automobile crossing in the other direction. The old man was driving. Perhaps he was talking to a companion. I did not see clearly.
As I went on, however, the image of the old man’s automobile came more distinctly to my mind. It was a car beloved by sophisticated automotive tinkerers, an International Travelall. On a day like this, I imagined the old man joyfully and carefully explaining to his companion the precise mechanics for overcoming the Travelall’s greatest challenge, its uncanny ability to stall in hot weather like ours.
Years ago, when I first began in business, I would occasionally deal with a man called Mathias. He would stop at my office and in the shadows of the room we would talk. I never determined what impetus drew him to our dusty town where his courteous tones and distant accent made him stand out, for he was not a man anxious to be noticed. He stooped, perhaps from shyness, and his clothing was habitually sober, in shades of gray or muted green.
Our conversations over time were sufficiently intriguing to me that I invited him to my house for a party during the season in our town when parties are given and grown men profess good will toward one another. On his arrival, the house was crowded with guests, some friends, some relatives, some business acquaintances, and as is my custom on such occasions, I stood in the front hall to greet each newcomer. The most recent arrivals were still in the hallway, chatting easily, as men can do. Augustino, joyfully tuxedo-clad, was among them. Mathias stepped through the door and we greeted each other. While we exchanged our pleasantries, he removed his gray top coat, shook it out, and handed it calmly off to Augustino.
After that encounter, I saw Mathias rarely. Perhaps this was because he owed me a small amount of money, I do not know. When confronted, he asserted more than once that if I knew what had happened to him, I would not be so demanding. Such small losses are the tiresome lot of everyday business, so I thought no more of the matter. Nor indeed did I think particularly of the man himself, knowing from renewed and wearisome experience that to casually blend business and acquaintance in our difficult town is not always a guarantee of satisfaction. He faded from my mind.
As the summer’s heat continued, I had occasion one morning to visit the market. I was seeking a particular product, a great favorite in my household, one which I had been unable to obtain elsewhere. As always, upon reaching the fringes of the market, I passed the area where the destitute sit and haphazardly beg and passed further on, by the stalls where earnest women with poor teeth offer fraudulent charms and ugly new-age peasantries. It is only when one has passed the beautiful sad-faced woman from the south playing her violin for pennies, when one has passed the earnest young men with their high-flown pamphlets and pathetic appeals that one can find the full market, where anxious farmers attempt to sell the food surrendered by the tenuous possibilities of our region. The crowds, as they always are, were slow moving, lugubrious.
There was a politician there in the market, a man campaigning for public office, with whom I had some small acquaintance (though what motivates men like that will always remain obscure to me). Exploiting our acquaintance, he approached me as he approached others and offered his opinions on various matters he believed might be of some significance to me. His supporters stood about smiling encouragingly, brochures in their clammy hands. During our pleasantries, tall as I am, I saw over the shoulder of the politician the old man far off at the end of the row of stalls.
He was juggling.
From such a distance, my attention interrupted as it was by the blandishments of the politician, it seemed to me that the old man was using different sized fruits, perhaps a cantaloupe melon, a tomato and something else I could not identify.
I made my escape from the politician with what I hoped was sufficient grace so that should I need his assistance at some point in the future he will not deny me. Making my way as urgently as I reasonably could through the crowd, I arrived at the stall in question to find merely a group of shoppers and a stallkeeper far less interested in my enquiries than in the more lucrative prospects around me.
Soon after his disconcerting meeting with Mathias, Augustino, once more driven by his restless nature, had moved far, far into the depths of our sad country, to a region where men’s greed has made a mockery of mountains, where forests once grew thick and abundant, where rivers now run foul and red. From time to time, I would receive a letter briefly recounting his travails. At last, such communication came but once a year; we would exchange short notes and perhaps a photograph would come of a smiling man in company.
Over the years, the company changed. At first he smiled with a wife and a young son, then he smiled alone, then with a darkly handsome teenage boy, then finally came the time when he smiled shoulder to close shoulder with a bespectacled white man about his age.
The seamless drift of the seasons brought back the smooth young men to bicycle in the foothills above our blasted town, heads down, earnestly ignoring the palettes of color in the leaves around them, brought a thin increase in the waters of our dying streams while the appropriate experts expressed appropriate concerns on the matter, brought the stallkeepers in the market to a season-end desperation harvesting grimly before true ripeness. Even in my own introspective neighborhood, people began to pass back and forth, students and stern parents anxiously walking their carefully dressed children to the school where the bell rang crisply every morning.
Many years after I had forgotten the debt and indeed forgotten the very name, on one Sunday morning I saw someone standing on the corner opposite the church close to my house who, despite the years, I knew at once; the same slight stoop, the same taste for quiet clothing, the same courteous stance. But what I saw was a middle-aged woman waiting for a companion to cross the street. I knew this person but no name would come to mind and in my surprise I moved by without comment. Perhaps a month or two later our daily newspaper, in the hushed and strangely reverent tones our curious backward town demands of it, reported that my acquaintance had ceased to be Mathias. After enormous struggles he had become another.
With the change of season, my neighbors returned recounting disjointed tales of their travels. A series of confounding errors on their journey back from the pleasures of ocean had kept them stranded for several days in a small village a long journey from anywhere. Upon their return they immediately indulged themselves in the domestic dramas that must inevitably consume us all from time to time and most especially when we feel ourselves somehow deprived of our allotted hours on this darkening earth.
What with one tiresome piece of business or another, the opportunity to talk further with them thus did not present itself for some long weeks. In fact merely describing the hot afternoon on which I first saw the old man seemed improbable and unachievable as the season turned itself further and further toward freezing. Finally, standing at their front door at dusk, shivering slightly in the wind, I described their visitor, the enthusiastic old scientist, how he was a juggler, how he appreciated the internal mysteries of complicated automobiles, how he understood building dynamics. They knew of no such man.
It began to snow.