Obligations

My friend the newspaperman—he’s more of a distant acquaintance—asked me gently, or was it meekly, whether he could borrow….

“What?” I asked. It wasn’t clear.

“…a hundred pesos,” he repeated, speaking a little more firmly.

He stands behind his rack of magazines and newspapers. He folds the daily newspaper and hands it over the rack. You take it with one hand and give him eight pesos with the other. Behind him, there is a green metal box that houses more magazines, even some used books. He stores the rack and everything else in the box and locks it up like the Paris book stalls along the Seine.

I might have been sitting in the small restaurant opposite his stand, and he may have entered and asked for money there. I don’t remember exactly.

“It’s a loan,” I said, just to get that straight right at the beginning.

“Yes, yes,” he said, but with a voice that was less distinct. Maybe almost inaudible.

“When are you going to pay me?” I asked.

He took the 100-peso note out of my hand. I didn’t understand his reply. He tends to mumble in his natural state. I think he said tomorrow. But I could have been wrong.

I may have passed by two days later. I had given the 100 pesos readily; I expected an equally rapid and cordial repayment.

I leaned forward to hear him better. His two front teeth are missing. I thought that was perhaps why I missed what he said.

There was a problem. I listened for what it was. His dog ran away, his wife was sick, a Zeppelin crashed. I wasn’t sure which of those it was—or perhaps something entirely different. Whatever it was, you could tell by his expression that it was bad news and we would have to be patient.

The bad news lasted for a week. Each time I asked, his answers were equally indistinct, mumbled, filtered by the bland look on his face, as if he no longer knew me and wasn’t sure why I was talking to him.

One day, suddenly, he handed me fifty pesos, and I thanked him.

I asked him when I might expect the other fifty. I’m not sure what he replied other than that it had to do with time that would come, not with time that had passed.

Every few days, when I thought to or had to pass his stand, I would ask him if he had my money. I used precisely that possessive adjective – my, trying to keep the original ownership clear. Each day he became less interested in having to give me a reason for not repaying me; and each day I grew less friendly—which I think offended him, since he grew more unreachable, less diffident and felt, I think, that his financial responsibility had less standing, in fact may have ceased to exist at all.

Yesterday, I came upon a plan. I asked him whether he had a political magazine I read, politically on the left, but more importantly costing forty pesos. He could hand me the magazine over the rack, bless me with his bland face, and I would say thank you and walk away, satisfied with my trick. And he would owe me only ten pesos more.

But he said, “I’m sold out of those.”

In Spanish, it’s an impersonal construction – “Se acabó” – It has sold out.

I had no easy way of checking. I asked him for the most expensive national newspaper, La Jornada – also on the left side of the spectrum.

“Se acabó,” he said.

Whether that was true or not, my trick was not working as planned. I took the daily off his rack. Each one costs eight pesos.

“I’ll take one of these every day,” I said.

His face was pained. He was not happy. I am not sure why. Bad manners on my part? Perhaps something else. Perhaps his newspapers represented real value, whereas the fifty pesos he owed me had lost theirs.

My valued Mexican friend later told me I was behaving aggressively. He said I was more mature and more reasonable than the newspaperman; therefore it was my moral obligation to come to some sort of agreement with him that honored the poor fellow’s dignity. My friend has conducted the same kinds of negotiations with him over loans for years. I agreed with my friend. And also regretted my failing.

Today, I asked for another daily. He handed it over the rack. I took it with one hand and offered nothing with the other.

“I get four more,” I said, and started to walk away.’’

He came out from behind his rack, as if he was going to stop me.

“No,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s sixteen pesos in all. I get four more after this, at eight pesos apiece. That will make forty-eight pesos. You can keep the last two.”

“No,” he said. “The Sunday paper alone costs ten pesos.”

“Okay,” I said. “Eighteen pesos are returned.”

Whereupon he nodded halfway cordially, having found an opportunity to correct my math.

Epilog: Yesterday I passed his stand, he saw me coming, her reached for my newspaper, the AM out of León. I took it in my left hand and gave him my right, smiled and said, “Trato hecho!”—which isn’t quite the right expression, meaning more “a deal!” than “deal concluded!” Didn’t matter, he gave me a half smile, and we are back to normal.

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