THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
by John Garcia
He sits at an empty table in Leon Cafe in downtown Guatemala City. Looking up, he watches the uneven, twirling blades of a dust-covered ceiling fan, and slides over two stools. He removes a folded copy of El Heraldo from beneath his right arm, orders a cafe negro and opens the newspaper.
He read most of it this morning. Well, not most of it. Who does? He’ll reread a few stories now, probably skip again the ones he passed over earlier. He recognizes the paper for what it is: a prop. When he walks down Avenida Barahona to Leon Cafe he’d rather have the Heraldo open to the few things that interest him than have nothing in his hands and be seen sitting by himself staring absently at one of three TVs like the two older men to his left by the door. Their thinning gray hair cut evenly above the collars of their shirts, their folded hands, their feet tapping the foot rail. Near them, a shelf holds a hovel of abandoned, battered paperbacks. On a wall, curling photographs of baseball players and movie posters of films he can’t recall. Through a dusty window, he notices a man seated at a table on the sidewalk reading tarot cards. CONSIGUE TU FUTURO DIJO a sign on his table reads, get your future told. No one stops.
He observes the old men watching the TVs for no reason other than nothing in the Heraldo has caught his interest. People in a booth behind him talk in loud voices and he listens to the sound of their laughter and wonders what’s so funny, and he thinks of turning around to look but doesn’t. He sits instead in a mesmerized limbo staring at the TV. The mouths of fútbol announcers move without sound, volume off so as not to interfere with the tinny noise of 1970s disco music playing from an overhead speaker.
La Botella, he thinks.
You’re right, a voice in his head agrees.
The voice belongs to another part of himself that has no physical shape at least none he can envision. It is him but not him. A kind of guardian-angel-alter-ego-sounding-board. It responds to his thoughts and actions providing comfort and assurance, a presence that never leaves him except when much to his surprise he finds himself talking to someone.
A waiter refills his coffee and puts it on a napkin. Coffee slops onto the table and the waiter wipes it away with a towel and brings him a fresh napkin. The man nods. Bored observing the two men watching TV, he studies the front page of the Heraldo although he has already scrutinized it he doesn’t know how many times. He notices one item he had not read earlier about a gang shooting. Three people died. The news doesn’t surprise him. This is Guatemala. It is common enough for him to see masked police officers patrolling the streets in dust-covered body armor, their fingers on the trigger of their weapon. He navigates streets feeling little concern about getting caught in the crossfire. He doesn’t have a family. If he loses his life, he will leave no one behind. He only worries that he might die slowly. What would be the point of an agonizing death when he has no family, no one who would hold his hand one last time, no one to gasp words of love before he lost consciousness, no one to leave a lingering kiss, no one to write his obituary?
He turns to the sports page just as a young woman sits beside him.
Where’d she come from?
I have no idea.
The woman props her elbows on the table and rests her chin in her hands. She stares at a TV but he can tell she isn’t paying attention. He notices her loose, revealing blue blouse and tight jeans and how her blond hair falls down her back. She has a ring. He can’t tell if it’s a regular ring or a wedding ring.
Wedding ring, I bet.
He guesses the woman is a good thirty years younger than him. He wonders why she sat at his table when there were plenty of empty ones and then decides not to think about it. Who cares? Just one of those things. He has his spot. He sits at this table every time he comes in. Other people tend to sit near the center of the cafe where sunlight streaming through the open door settles like a shore beacon pointing the way to a shelf of plastic wrapped sandwiches. He turns back to his paper. But the woman disturbs him. Of all the places she chose to sit, she sat with him. Her perfume fills his head and a kind of yearning overtakes him. He repeatedly glances at her until her presence, like the unsteady fan above his head, no longer throws him and after a few more seconds, he no longer notices her, no longer allows his imagination to meander toward fantastical expectations. Then for no good reason he can think of, she speaks.
–Do you come here often? she asks.
He puts the paper aside. She looks directly at him and then turns away and then faces him again and waits.
–Yes and no, he says. Sometimes. I guess I do, come to think of it, yes.
–It’s been a while for me, she says. Do you live nearby?
They look at one another without speaking. He turns back to his paper slowly like someone trying not to make a sound. She resumes looking at the TV. He assumes that’s it, conversation done. He already misses her.
He stares at a mirror behind the coffee bar but can’t see his reflection through the stacked cups and glasses but he knows well enough what he looks like: The receding hairline, large nose, stick-thin body. Years ago, some women told him they liked his blue eyes.
Do you think she likes me?
I think so, yes.
I do, too.
Some nights, a friend might call him and suggest they see a movie. He has lived alone so long now that the very notion of doing something in the evening exhausts him. But then the melancholy feeling passes replaced by a surge of energy and he says, Yes, let’s see a movie! with the enthusiasm of a child too long cooped up. The idea of going out and breaking his solitary routine has him rushing about his apartment as if he were late for an appointment. He becomes almost giddy and unable to focus, unable to sit down until he dashes out of his apartment to meet his friend.
Afterward, when he returns home, he can’t sleep. Possibilities fill his mind of other things he might do, should do, and of other people he might call, but as he eventually settles between sleep and wakefulness, he knows he will return to his routine once more and without interruption for some time, a routine that by its very nature allows him the certainty of certainty. His good feelings about the evening turning into a simmering resentment of the interruption that disrupted his life and opened his eyes to what had been missing from his life until enough days pass that he can view his outing as an aberration. He might even ask himself if he had left his apartment at all or only imagined this excursion.
Although she has stopped talking to him, the woman has had a similar effect as the friend who had suggested they see a movie. His heart races. She has brought back memories of Mariana. All these years later (what, at least twenty?), he misses her. The feeling rising up from a great depth like a once-dormant volcano. Mariana. Engaged and then they weren’t. When they attempted to reconcile, they sat silently in a couple counselor’s office, beside one another but apart. He had felt like a member of a movie audience viewing their life together on the screen of his memory, transfixed like a witness to a car wreck, marveling at the velocity of their unraveling. The years they had spent together vanished just like that as if they had never existed as a couple. Even after they broke up, he litigated in his mind all the ways he believed she had wronged him, until he had successfully prosecuted his point of view. He became obsessed with his arguments, muttering and repeating them daily until enough time passed he thought Mariana no longer mattered and his loss became a kind of companion in its own right, replacing her and accompanying him through the ensuing years as any spouse.
–We wanted kids, the woman says breaking the silence.
–Sorry? he says startled. What’s that?
–We wanted kids, or my husband did, and I did too, of course, and he wanted them to go to a private school away from the gangs and Guatemala City has good private schools.
–I said, ‘Well, OK.’ I wasn’t excited, you know, but I got pregnant and I’m so glad I did. I mean its amazing. He’s a wonderful little boy.
–A handful, no?
–Yes. My husband is very happy. And so am I of course.
–Congratulations, he says.
She doesn’t respond. The silence drifts between them again until he could almost convince himself she was not sitting beside him, that they had never exchanged a word, their chance encounter a figment of his imagination. Then she speaks again.
–And I get to stay at home, she says. I had a job but now I have to stay at home. Fernando doesn’t want his son taken to daycare. Strangers taking care of his kid, he said no way. So, I stopped working and, well, I stay at home. I think he’s right. About daycare, I mean.
–What did you do?
–Oh, she says. Like a janitor.
–Yes. I don’t call it that.
–Of course not. Maintenance. It’s more professional.
–You have to know what you’re doing. It’s more than pushing a broom.
At one time, he enjoyed his work. Maybe because he saw the results so fast. Mop the floor and it’s clean and shiny in a matter of seconds. He liked that. Liked the pride of rubbing his floors with a cotton ball to show his supervisor how spotless he kept them. But it did not take long for him to realize his was a profession that enjoyed little respect. You need to do something else, Mariana would tell him, and his friends, too. You can’t just be mop floors the rest of your life.
After he and Mariana ended their engagement, he applied the word “just” to about everything he did. I’m just going to work. I’m just getting the mail. I’m just going to the store. The number of insignificant tasks that had made up his days and had once given him pleasure left him amazed by their blandness as critiqued by his friends. He adopted an attitude of indifference to what he had once enjoyed doing until he felt as indifferent about them as everyone else. He woke up each morning without joy or expectations and felt his life ease into a kind of inertia absent of all ambition doing things for no other reason than they had to be done.
–It’s a job, he tells her.
He returns to his paper. The woman and pulls it from his hands, folds it and puts it on the table.
–Hey, I’m still here, she says.
–Of course you are, he says. I’m sorry. I thought. . .I don’t know. You got quiet.
–No. You got quiet.
–I was thinking. I just wanted to ask, do you have children?
She raises her eyebrows and leans closer to him and places a hand on his arm.
–Well? she says. What? Boy, girl? Names.
–Camila. I like that. Did you like being a parent? I mean did you have any doubts?
He feels the ceiling fan brush a light whirl of air over the spot where she had placed her hand on his arm. He wishes she had not withdrawn her hand. He liked the warm, light pressure of it on his arm. He liked the idea of her hand remaining on his arm. He imagines gripping her fingers. He imagines walking out with her. These thoughts linger until he can no longer conjure the feeling of her hand.
–No, I had no doubts at all, he says. I was grateful.
It was not him but Mariana who had a daughter. She married someone else and had three children one of whom she named Camila. A mutual friend told him the news. He said OK hiding his annoyance.She should have married him and had children. Camila was his daughter. Or, at least should have been.
–And your son?
–My son what?
–Sorry. His name.
Fernando. Like his father.
–Of course. A strong name.
–My husband thinks so. He wants another baby. And so do I, of course.
She bites her lower lip, thinking.
–How old is Camila?
How old would she be had she been his daughter? He does the math. He and Mariana were twenty-eight at the time of their engagement. Give or take a couple of years, they probably would have started having kids at thirty or so. He’s sixty now.
–Thirty, he says.
–Does she have kids?
–Not yet, he says.
He thinks he would have been a fine father, a fine husband. No better and no worse than most men. He would never know so he has no reason to think otherwise.
–My mother is watching him.
–Yes. Little Fernando. She’s watching him today.
–Oh, I see. Well, that’s nice. A bit of a break for you.
–She’ll have him for two days. I think its important he has a chance to bond with her.
–And you have a chance to be alone with your husband.
–I’m here with friends, she says. Fernando works a lot.
–Well, that’s nice, too. I mean that you’re here with friends.
She forces a tight smile. He considers reaching for her hands. He would hold them and say, It’s going to be all right. It’s going to be fine. Whatever it is, for whatever reason you’re talking to me, it’ll work itself out. We’ll be together. I know, she’ll say. Thank you. You’re so sweet, so good to me.
He waits. All these years later, he can recall each argument, each disagreement with Mariana almost word for word except now he realizes they weren’t quarrels so much as declarations. They had approached their differences by expecting each other to concede to their point of view. Neither would. They pummeled each other with their anger until they were left gasping and so exhausted that at night they went to bed and held one another without passion but rather with the comfort of two people who despite their differences knew each other too well to let go. He tries to remember when they did let go. He can’t. Not a specific moment. One day it seemed the shouting had stopped because she had gone.
–I have to leave, the woman says.
She glances at a table behind her where two men and a woman sit and points at one of the men.
–He’s an ex-boyfriend. We haven’t seen each other in years. It was nice to meet you.
–And you, he says.
–I feel we still have so much to talk about.
He sticks out his hand and she takes it.
–Nice to meet you, he says again and she smiles and pulls her hand away and he feels the retreat of her fingers drag across his palm. She walks to her friends. He hears all of them talking excitedly.
The woman and her friends run to the back of the cafe, laughing and shoving, stampeding on the worn wood floor and overwhelming him in a wave of noise and more laughter until they reach a cigarette machine.
Something. He doesn’t know what or who. He opens the Heraldo, scans its pages without reading. He notices the two old men who had been watching fútbol have left. The tarot card reader sits slumped in his chair perhaps asleep, the cards having spilled out of his hand and onto the sidewalk.
The early evening light has faded and long shadows penetrate the cafe’s open door. The man feels he should leave. It’s not safe to walk home in the dark but he doesn’t move. He wants to think she likes him. Just like him. That would be enough. He could see having coffee with her and doing all sorts of other things he doesn’t do now but might have had he and Mariana married.
Someone taps his shoulder. He shudders in surprise and then his mind fills with possibilities. He has no words for the wonder and joy he feels.
It’s her, yes. Turn around.
Smiling, he opens his arms to embrace her but it is the waiter he sees before him holding an empty tray in the palm of one hand.
–Another coffee? the waiter asks, before we close?
About the Author:
John M. Garcia lives in San Diego, California.