A Federale helicopter beat through the bleach-blue sky above their heads making the old man's words impossible to hear. The back of his chair ground against the weathered limestone brick. As they waited, the old man looked up to the sky, shrugged, and smiled at the boy. To fill the time.
The draped cafe table could hold just two plates. The boy's chair legs danced on the edge of the steep curb. Cafe El Amarillo was settled where the sidewalk widened to make room for a manhole cover over the sewer drain. And theirs was the only table on it. It was something the meseros liked to do for el Patroncito. They were proud of him.
"Do you know where that helicopter goes?" the old man asked as the whine disappeared over a pale white wall. "They are going to the Jungle."
The boy finished the swallow of sweet milk from the Lala carton. He looked down to his plate and saw two more bites of enchiladas rojas and dinner beans. He chose the sweet bun.
The old man lifted his eyebrow, still smiling. "Chocolate? It goes well with the bread, as you know."
The boy let the corners of his own mouth turn up. He nodded politely with his mouth full of bun.
El Patroncito's coffee steamed into the southern Mexican morning. "Animals hide in the jungle. Did you know that? Sure." The boy thought of Mexico as a place that was always hot, but San Cristobal got cold overnight. In his scratchy navy blue uniform he was colder now then he ever had been in Chicago or Washington DC. He would find sun on the way to school.
The mug of chocolate arrived in moments. As he straightened upward, the mesero with a raised pink scar on his face locked eyes with the boy and winked. He had waited on them when the boy first came to Mexico and to the cafe. It seemed he, too, could see the old man finally was warming to the boy.
"Don't burn your mouth," the old man barked. "You'll ruin the whole day if you burn your goddamned mouth. Let it cool."
El Patroncito put the boy's spoon into the mug and adjusted the angle. Same angle as the spoon in his own coffee cup. "There. Eat."
White clouds towered over the mountains that looked down on the raised valley that held the colonial city. The sun light was carved by the thick, slowly boiling clouds. It would rain soon. Not long after, it would be sunny again. He knew the pattern. It wasn't like rain in the States. San Cristobal wasn't like anything.
He was nervous to start Sixth Year at La Preparatoria. Coming to Mexico only months before the end of the final term last year, the boy had struggled. He didn't like sports, although he had played his share of field hockey and soccer at St Parmenides's chain-linked fields on the Lake. He spoke some Spanish, but with an accent that made his new classmates laugh. He hated punching, and he was beaten every day. Once, until he urinated in his uniform shorts and socks. It had been almost a year since he was forced to leave St P.
The old man dabbed the newspaper ink from his hands onto his napkin. He folded El Orbe like a map as he read. When he reached the end, scanning the obituaries and folding the paper into its original newsstand rectangle, the meal was over. Breakfast always ended this way. The man with the scar brought steaming white toallas folded flat on a silver tray and handed one to el Patroncito with short tongs.
"Shall we walk around the square on our way home?" the old man asked.
The first towel was for el Patroncito's hands, taking off the excess ink. It would be ruined and discarded like all the others. The second towel was for the old man's face. This towel had been sterilized so that el Patroncito would smell neither mildew nor chlorine. He smelled it from a distance and then applied the towel to his face as if he were lowering himself into a warm tub. The old man looked up to the mesero and swiped at his mustache. Bowing, the waiter's thick hands touched the corner of the boy's mouth with the cooling gray towel.
The boy had never had a grandfather, but el Patroncito was not his grandfather.
"If I were, you wouldn't be in this situation."
There were no relatives left. His mother and father were dead.
When he arrived in San Cristobal he was taken straight to Cafe El Amarillo where they knew--even at night--they would find el Patrón. The taxi driver took his bags to the large, walled house where the muchacha Rosalia took care of the old man. The bags were waiting for him near the front door when he and the old man got there after four hours of being at the cafe. After the two hour ride from Tuxtla Gutierrez by bus. After nine hours of waiting in Mexico City Airport. After the late start in Chicago. El Patroncito had been talking with an old friend.
"You've been through a lot," the old man said as he handed Rosalia his white hat. "Put your bags upstairs and we'll eat something that the muchacha has cooked us. It won't be good, but in your state I don't think you'll care."
"He's white like you," Rosalia said.
She hurried him up the iron rail staircase, past a deep red cabinet of books, pointed to his dark bedroom, then returned downstairs. He opened the heavy door to his room to find ghostlike split logs crackling white in the small fireplace. He left his bags on the flat blanket. The wooden bed shifted with his weight.
El Patroncito yelled to him loudly from the front of the house. He must have closed his eyes.
"What did I ask you to do?"
"Why do you keep me waiting?"
When the boy appeared at the thick wooden table, el Patroncito's eyes did not meet his. Rosalia laughed in her cocina. They ate stringy stewed pork and cold tortillas in silence broken only by the old man's knife cutting into his wooden plate. He had ruined everything from the start by not listening.
After being sent to bed that first night, he left his room to peer into the glowing cabinet of books that took up the entire length of the upper hall. He put his hand on the old cabinet's rippled glass and found it warm. Inside, the lamps flickered orange, showing dust and the segmented worms that coated the book tops and made their homes in the yellowing pages. Each of the blood red leather books he opened looked like the previous: swirled green-gold insides, flimsy transparent sheets that covered pictures, thick black and white drawings of goats and swans, and edges cut even and covered in gold cool to the touch.
Most of the rough wooden drawers below the bookshelves opened quietly, but one required a sharp yank. As it squeaked open, el Patroncito's toilet flushed and the water shrieked through the ceiling overhead. The boy closed his eyes and froze until the pipes became quiet. In the drawer was a gigantic pair of chrome scissors and a thin paperback book in a box. "From Sun to Sound". The box contained bits of wire, diodes, a small black plate, and a twisted wire earphone the color of artificial limbs. The book was about electricity. The boy liked projects.
After leaving the cafe, they walked through the square on their way home. It was still early and the Indians slept by their textiles, cheap silver jewelry, and wrapped wood dolls. The old man told the boy what the city used to look like when he was young. He told the boy about how los indios used to have respect for ladinos who owned land like him.
The two passed under the flat roofs that lined the square. The Indians, leaning against the walls, gave their 'buenas tardes' and tight-cheeked smiles to the old man, but they kept their black eyes on the boy. Their red cheeks and tense, blank faces made them look wild or drunk. He couldn't tell precisely if they were smiling or if they hated him. Maybe in this place, no one could tell the difference.
"Where is your land, Patroncito?"
"Not so far in an automobile."
"Why don't you live there, Patroncito?"
"Don't call me that. Not in front of los indios."
From the first day to this, he had felt that el Patroncito wanted to be rid of him; this morning was a turning point. He would be a better student. He would listen when the old man spoke. He would build on the old man's warmth. He would make things better.