Coffee Break August 25, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in Coffee Break, Fiction.
Tags: short story coffee, short story fair trade, short story latin america, short story Nestle's
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© 2008 Roger Hollander
I never knew when I would receive a visit from Juan Carlos. I didn’t see him often around that time, ever since he sold his small finca and began to take occasional work in the fields. I remember the day he told me why he had to sell the small coffee plantation that had been in his family for generations. He lowered his head and spoke in a sad and embarrassed tone: “I made a big mistake, Don Roberto,” he said to me, “when that agente from Nestlé’s came around last year and told me they would buy my whole crop and give me a thousand dollars right away, how could I say no? I had debts. I had no money for food for my family, my mule had just got sick and died, and I didn’t know how I was going to get through the year.
“So I signed a contract with the agente to sell all my coffee that year to Nestlé’s at twenty dollars a quintal. The little that was left over from the thousand dollars I got, after paying debts and buying food I used it to buy a mule and some new tools. When harvest time came, Don Roberto, everyone was selling at thirty dollars. How could I know that the prices would go up to the clouds? But so did all my expenses. The agente, he came to collect the coffee. I pleaded with him to pay me what all the others were getting. How else could I pay off my debts? He was very kind and sympathetic. He told me that he would go speak to his big boss for me, the one who lives somewhere in town here. But the big boss only told him to tell me that a contract is a contract. So when the bank came for my debts I didn’t have enough to pay them off. I tried to sell my finca so the bank wouldn’t take it for nothing, but no one wanted to buy it. Then the agente from Nestlé’s he comes and says they would buy it, but they offered me much less than it was worth. I was desperate, Don Roberto, I had no choice. So I sold it to them, and I had just enough left over after paying the bank to buy the little shack where I now live with Esperanza and the children. I have six mouths to feed, Don Roberto. Only one is old enough to work, and that one is María Teresa, a muchacha, so what good is a girl when it comes to finding work in the fields?”
I had come to know Juan Carlos maybe five years ago, when he would come to town to for supplies. We met at the cantina one night and became friends right away. Black cropped hair, dark eyes, skin the color of the coffee he grew, short and sinewy, your typical Mestizo, a mixture of two, maybe three races. A man of forty some odd years, so weathered as to be able to pass for sixty. He would come to town once a month for supplies, and he would always stop by my house to drop off a couple of pounds of his best beans, which he knew that I loved. I was careful never to let on that my cupboard was already stocked full with gourmet coffee. Why spoil the pleasure he got from bringing me his little gift? At first he refused to accept payment. Finally, I convinced him that it would make me very happy to know that with the few dollars I would pay him, he could buy a little something extra for Esperanza and the kids.
Since he lost his finca I had seen him only a couple of times. About three months ago, he came by while I was out on business, and when I returned home, I found him sitting hunched on my front steps. When he stood up and took off his broad-brimmed straw peasant sombrero, I could see both sadness and desperation in his face. “What’s wrong, Juan Carlos,” I asked, “is Esperanza all right, the kids? How long have you been sitting here waiting for me?”
“Everything is fine, Don Roberto,” he responded, “It hasn’t been too long. Just a few hours. I wonder if I could ask you for a glass of water. The sun is very hot today, don’t you think? My throat is so dry that it must be cracking.” He tried to smile, but wasn’t quite able to pull it off. Knowing Juan Carlos, I was aware that it would take some time before I could get him to tell me what is bothering him, so I invited him inside and we sat down at my dining room table over a couple of beers. After about an hour of small talk, I tried to gently bring the conversation around to what might be troubling him.
“Nothing, Don Roberto, I assure you. Now I think I had better go. Esperanza will be waiting for me and you know how she worries to death if I am not back before the sun falls out of the sky. I thank you for the cerveza. You are very kind, Don Roberto.”
Juan Carlos is as proud a man as he is honest and hard working. He never had asked me for anything before. I knew, however, that he would not have spent half the afternoon waiting for me to come home just to chew the fat over a couple of beers. I knew that he needed me to pull out of him what he had come for and was unable to ask. “It’s all right, Juan Carlos,” I told him, “you can tell me. Take your time. I want to help if I can.”
I could see the tears beginning to well up in his eyes and then slowly making little rivulets through the lamina of dust that powdered his face. He sat there in silence for about five minutes. I said nothing. He finally pulled out his huge red bandanna with the white dots and wiped his cheeks. “You will have to excuse me, Don Roberto,” he said in something just a bit more than a whisper, “you see, this is hard for me. I am a proud man; I have never in all my life had to beg anyone for anything. But I don’t know what else to do. My Manuelita, she is the next to last one. God has blessed me with two beautiful hijas, María Teresa and Manuelita. Manuelita, she has always been the delicate one. When she was born she was so small we wanted to put her back in the oven to bake a few more weeks so she could grow. Now she has the bichos so bad that she is with diarrhea all day and all night. The médico, he comes and says if we do not give her the medicine against the parasites she will die. I had no money to pay him so I gave him one of our chickens. He is a good man, the médico|, but he needs money more than he needs chickens, so he gave me a bad look. But I had no other choice.”
“But the medicine, Juan Carlos,” I asked, perhaps with a hint of impatience in my voice, “how much will it cost?
“It is not that much, Don Roberto, only about eight dollars. But right now I have only two dollars and some monedas, and I have to buy rice, beans and coffee or we will starve, and there is no work until the cosecha, and that is not for three or four weeks. I only want to borrow the money, Don Roberto. When the harvest comes surely they will need extra hands, and I will be able to pay you back.”
Buy coffee, I thought to myself, the irony of it. How many thousands of tons have you planted, harvested and sold in your day, Juan Carlos? But, of course I didn’t say this to him. I just told him that eight dollars was no problem for me, and that I would like to be able to contribute it for the health of his dear Manuelita.
“No, Don Roberto, you will pardon me, but it must be a préstamos. I promise I will pay you back. Maybe I will not be able to do it all in one single blow, but little by little, I promise you.”
I lied and told Juan Carlos that I only had a billete of twenty dollars. “Oh, that is no problem, Don Roberto,” he answered quickly, “I will run to the tienda and get cambio. That is not a problem. I will get change at the store and take only eight dollars, and when the harvest comes I will work and I will be able to pay you back, every centavo, you will see.”
“No, no, Juan Carlos, take the twenty dollars. You will need the extra money for food to hold you over until you have work. Don’t worry, I can afford it,” and thinking to myself, after buying the medication, twelve dollars will have to last a family of eight for three or four weeks. I knew he would not accept more from me, but I also know these people, somehow they manage to live on next to nothing. I will never figure out how. In any case, they will get by, and I will look in on them once in a while to see how they are doing.
If, before he left that afternoon, each time he promised that he would pay me back were worth a dime, then the debt would already have been cancelled several times over. I felt shitty being cow-towed to this way, but I knew that his gratitude was sincere and motivated by his deep concern for his family, and paid in the coin of humility that cost his pride an amount that is beyond calculation.
I was only able to make one visit to Juan Carlos’ family shack before rains came that made the dirt road to his place impassible. This was about a week following his visit, and everything seemed O.K. Little Manuelita was up and flying around the small dirt-floor bamboo hovel like an uncaged bird. Perhaps for the first time in her young four years she was entirely free of intestinal parasites. They were living, it seemed, mostly on eggs from the chickens, milk from the cow, rice and dried beans. And coffee, of course, the one “luxury” allowed. Everyone seemed happy and healthy, and I left thinking so far so good.
About a week after the rains stopped, the road was still chancy, so I was going to wait another day or two before putting my SUV to the test and pray to God that I didn’t end up stuck in the mud. Knowing that the buses were not yet running, I was therefore surprised early that afternoon, to see Juan Carlos approaching my house, his faded coveralls splattered and his old worn out running shoes completely covered in mud. He had walked the entire fifteen miles into town from his shack at the base of the foothills.
There was a bit of an awkward moment for me. On the one hand, I could see that he was filthy and exhausted, and I wanted to invite him inside to clean up and rest. On the other hand, Alicia, my Mestizo maid, had just finished washing the floors, and I didn’t want to see poor Juan Carlos traipsing mud all over them. In that instant of my hesitation, Juan Carlos understood, “Don’t worry, Don Roberto, I do not wish to come in. I only came to tell you that things have not been so good for me. Now my little one, Luchito, he has the bichos real bad, too, and I had to spend most of what I made on the harvest so far to get him some more of that medicine. But I do have something for you.”
Juan Carlos wiped his right hand on perhaps the only ten square inches of his coveralls that were not covered with mud, he stuck it into his back pocket and pulled out a handful of change. “This is only eighty centavos, Don Roberto; it is all I can spare at the moment. I hope you will not be mad at me. I wanted to bring more.”
I stood there aghast for a second, stunned with amazement at this man’s fortitude. “Juan Carlos,” I finally managed to spit out, “this is not necessary. You can pay me back when things are going better for you. There is no hurry. If you wish, we can forget the whole matter. I would be happy to contribute twenty dollars to your beautiful family.”
“No, no, you don’t understand, Don Roberto. I had to come into town to buy some supplies. This is not the only money I have. It is just that when I buy my rice and beans and coffee, and a little flour so that Esperanza can bake us some bread, this is all that is left over. Take it, please, I promise you I will do better the next time.” And with that, he pushed several coins into my hand. “I must go now, Don Roberto. You have been very kind. I hope to see you again soon, and I will bring more.”
Over the next several months, Juan Carlos would drop by from time to time, and yes, he was as good as his word. Each time, he was able to pay down a little more of the debt, and each time my heart shuddered a little, thinking how unnecessary it was for him to pay me back in the first place, that for me twenty dollars was something I could easily write off, and how much his pride was costing not only him, but his family as well.
Then, there was a hiatus of several months when I didn’t see him. I had stopped going out to his place to see how things were going, because each time, no matter how vehemently I denied it, he thought I was coming to collect on the debt, and these occasions had been very uncomfortable for him.
Now almost a year had past, and, according to the little notebook I keep, he had paid back a total of thirteen dollars and twenty five cents, leaving a balance of six dollars and seventy five cents. In the back of my mind I was wondering how Juan Carlos was doing, when late one Friday evening I heard a tapping on my door, and I opened it to see him standing there, hat in hand, in his spic and span Sunday-go-to-Meeting (if threadbare) clothing.
“Juan Carlos,” I said, in a surprised voice, “good to see you, but what are you doing out so late? Is everything O.K.?”
“May I come in he said,” in a bold and forceful voice. Not “may I come in, Don Roberto?” but rather a brusque “may I come in?” I could see fire in his eyes, and I smelled alcohol on his breath. There was a nervous energy about him that was frightening. I had never once seen him this way. I was not only taken aback, I admit I was a little afraid. Juan Carlos is not a huge man, maybe a bit smaller than I am, but he is all muscle; and I have seen my share of liquor inspired violence here over the years. In the back of my mind I was starting to ask myself where I had put that damned pistol.
With some hesitation I asked him into my dining room, where we sat, as we always did, around the dining room table. I offered him a coffee, but he declined. With a smile on my face, wanting to keep things light, I asked him, “have you been out celebrating, Juan Carlos, I hear there has been a good harvest this year. You must have had lots of work.”
“Hah!” he snapped back at me, with an ugly sneer on his face. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out some crumpled bills and a few coins, and he threw them on the table. Here is your money, Señor Johnson [Señor!]. We are squared now. I owe you nothing.”
“Tranquilo,” I said to him, keeping a smile on my face and in as calm a voice as I could muster while starting to sort and count the bills and coins, “Juan Carlos, there is no need to be angry. I was pleased to be able to loan you the money. And I am thrilled to see that you have done so well this year that you are able to pay me back. But I told you from the beginning, I was willing to make you a gift of the money, or, at the very least, there was no hurry to pay me back. So don’t be angry. We are still good friends, are we not, Juan Carlos?”
“I spit in your face, Señor Johnson,” was his reply, and thank God it was only a figure of speech. With that, he got up and headed straight for the door. He opened it with a jerk, but before leaving, he turned back to look at me. “The men at the cantina, they told me who you are.” He slammed the door shut and disappeared into the dark Andean night. That was the last I ever saw of Juan Carlos Moreno.
It took me quite some time to recover that evening. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I had not idea what had got into him. My adrenalin was pumped up with nowhere to go. I paced back and forth for awhile, but that didn’t help. Juan Carlos. Why? Why? Jesus, man, what did I do to deserve that? Was that really you, Juan Carlos, the humble and gentle man I have known for these past years, or was it just the liquor speaking? But why? Why?
I knew that without it I would not be able to get to sleep, so I went to the cupboard, took out a bottle of my single malt Glenlivet and poured myself a double. Neat. And then another. Finally, drowsiness began to set in, so I got into bed and lay there under the covers thinking, trying to make sense out of what had just taken place. Had I somehow insulted the man? Wounded his pride? Trod upon his dignity? But I had tried to be so careful. I had leaned over backwards to be sensitive to the man. I wanted to help him, a man so simple, yet so honorable, a man in such deep straits, six children, lost his land, hardly any work available, sick children. God, I had done my best to be a Good Samaritan, while at the same time making sure not to trespass on the man’s self-esteem. I thought and I thought, and when all is said and done, there simply was no way I could make neither heads nor tails of his behavior, and certainly not justify it. It was totally inexplicable.
I felt my mood starting to change from one of incomprehension to one of irritation. I felt an anger slowly rising within myself. I had done nothing wrong, dammit. I only tried to do what any friend would do in such a situation. Do I deserve this kind of treatment? Hell, no. I though you were different, Juan Carlos, but, no, it seems you are no different than all the rest of the ones I deal with around here. The anger continued to rise within me.
“Damn these people,” I finally said to myself just before drifting off to sleep, “you try to help them, and look what you get in return. In the end, instead of a simple thank you, a slap in the face. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.”
Finally, at last, sleep began to overtake me. The last thing I remember saying to myself before nodding off completely into a deep and relaxing sleep:
“Nestlé’s doesn’t pay me enough to put up with this shit.”