He’s not technically an orphan, but the word ‘technically’ almost always means less than donkey spit. It’s basically a lawyer’s word and it never tells the real human story. There are many kinds of orphans in these times that we live in that are not simply kids whose parents are both dead. It would be easy to describe those other kinds: in the hundreds of thousands they exist in the nice pleasant towns and suburbs everywhere in North America; but they don’t belong in this Mexican story.
He’s a Zapotic Indio kid from Tlacolula: ten years old, from a large poor family, mother, five brothers and sisters, no father because he left years ago. Last September one of his big sisters got a job as a maid at Arnel’s Casa and his mother said take Alejandro with you, find a better life for him in Oaxaca than I can give him here in our village. Arnel agreed to take him in, to feed him, give him a place to sleep, to enroll him in school, but he also made it clear that he would be expected to earn his keep by helping the maids to clean rooms, carry buckets of water for the terraza plants, sweep the courtyard, open the door when the buzzer rings after school for three hours. Saturdays Sundays most of the day.
Well, as it happened, the sister only lasted a month; either the work was too hard, the hours too many, the days too long and the nights too short, the money too little or she got lucky and found a better job or someone to love and who promised to protect her. I don’t know. But, I do know that she told Arnel that she couldn’t take Ali with her when she departed and so he phoned the mother and between them they agreed that it would be better if he stayed on at the casa. In this sudden twist of events he became, in a modern Mexican way, an orphan boy.
Not all ten year old boys are sweet; most ten year old boys are a cute, but dedicated small pain in the ass. With glee they will pull the wings off a butterfly; stab a frog in its belly with a jackknife. Without giving a damn, will piss on a toilet seat; tease girls into tears during school recess. Joyfully destroy a well made sand castle when no one is looking; straight-faced lie thru their teeth giving a teacher an excuse why their homework wasn’t done. Whine, pulling at their mother’s skirt, when she is busy helping a sister with a science project; mercilessly bug a father when he is dog-tired and stretched out on the sofa reading a newspaper. Drop a cat upside down from high on a branch in an apple tree to test the theory that cats always land on their four feet. The list goes on…..
Everybody also knows that here exists a certain rare category of ten year old boy, who while capable of all kinds of naughtiness, also have within their spirit, their character, an extra dimension of pure sweetness. They are boys born with a Sugar Mountain in their hearts. They search like Peter Pan in spring meadows and sun-lit forests looking for wild flowers to pick and bring home to Mum. Holding the failing wrinkled hand of a grandmother, they help her cross a busy street on the way to market.
And, returning, carry the heavy bag full of vegetables and a chicken for the family dinner. They stay at the side of a father patiently helping him to do the tough jobs that have to be done sometimes on a family camping trip late in the evening in the mud and rain: raising the heavy wet tent, stringing up the huge blue tarp flapping wildly in the wind, finding enough dry twigs and pine cones to light the campfire. Sweet boys spend time with a baby sister talking playing reading opening up her tiny new world into one as large as her imagination can bear.
Three other things set sweet boys like Alejando apart from all the others: special smiles which brighten their faces like sunshine brightens a pond and all its water-flowers; the kind of smile which pulls one into its giving unexpectively like a gift out of the blue. And, they are deep-down baked-bean funny, always making jokes, always taking the piss out of the adult world’s sense of uber-seriousness. They instinctively seem to recognize the elemental absurdness of human life and give to it a precocious sense of respect. Finally, sweet boys are invariably smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, quick to catch on to the big idea, eager to learn from their emotions and people and nature. Mississippi River Tom Sawyer was like this and so was the Texan prairie boy in the movie Shane; the disturbed young guy walking around Manhattan in The Catcher in the Rye when he was a kid, the Santa Monica suburban boy who befriended E.T. and lots more famous ones that I can’t right now remember, but maybe you can.
Ali accepts his suffering, this living apart from his family. Keeps it hidden submerged below his zestfulness as he learns how to fit in and please his new benefactors. Learning to sleep in a new bedroom, make new friends at a new school, obey Arnel’s and Alfreda’s rules of work and behavior. Only once did I see his pain out in the open exposed and raw. One evening Heindrik and I were sitting chatting in the casa’s lounge. He’s in his early 70’s: tall, gaunt; born in Germany, family moved to South Africa after the war, bought a big farm, hired Zulu servants and laborers, lived under Apartheid; he graduated from a white-only university and moved to Canada in 1975, found a job teaching history in Blind River. Overall, not a bad guy. Maybe a little too Saxon/Afrikaner. I’ve known him for three winters, know that he finds me too out-spoken/blunt, but, as a pair of elder Canadians far from home, we relate well enough on the dry safe surface of ordinary everyday conversations.
Ali was hanging around us as he often did. He seemed restless. Then, I noticed him go over to the payphone, pick up the hand-piece, pretend to dial some numbers, then silently begin to speak to someone he imagined, he hoped, was listening to him at the far end of the line. Heindrik noticed me notice, laughed and called over to Ali: trying to phone your mother, eh? Chuckled and looked at me offering to share his mirth. Ali instantly became limp, blushed, quickly hung up the phone and walked hanging his head past us to the safety of his bedroom. I stood up and started towards the door. Jeeze.
Around about three o’clock is my siesta time; it’s also the time when Ali, home from school, begins to clean the four economica rooms, one of which is mine and he always cleans it first. I had just floated onto the first cloud of dreamland when Ali burst open the door like he owns the place, hung his new red Chinese transistor radio blaring Mex hip-hop on the doorknob and began mopping the floor. Ali, turn the music down! Lo siento, no intiendo. Yes, you do! Turn it down, I repeated, hand-motioning downwards. Ah, la musica es muy duro por su and he turned the dial from 10 down to about 9.5. Returned to mopping. Ali, more than that! Then 9.5 to about 9.2. I gave up, got up. He’s proud of that radio that he got for Christmas. Olivier has repeatedly told him that he kills the batteries more quickly by playing it so loud, but he doesn’t care. Besides, he knows (from recent experience) that Olivier or I will buy him a pair of new ones at the drop of a Mex sombrero.
So, I go outside while he mops, makes the bed, dusts the two tables, empties the garbage can, then, after checking out what I’ve been doing on my laptop, comes to where I’m sitting at the top of the stairs and says: soy finito, Senor Spencer and thus begins our drama. Every Sunday I give him a 50 peso tip. Cleared it with Arnel. It’s for his schooling, I explained: supplies, uniform, field-trips, the odd candy treat – you decide. And if he leaves in June, please give him what’s left to take back to his mother. Good idea, he replied. But, I want it to be serious for Ali, the idea of money equals quality work, so we play our game. First he does the work and then I check it out. Usually it’s good, but sometimes I say: Ali, you didn’t mop under the bed or Ali, you forgot the garbage or Ali, the sheet isn’t tucked in very well. Then he does it as I watch. Good, I say, but don’t let it happen again. No intiendo, he says smiling. Yes, you do, stupido. Then he belly-laughs and makes a motion to punch me in the stomach. End of drama. Sometimes, I think he makes a mistake on purpose; boys like making men pay attention to them. Olivier also has started the work/tip game, so the kid is doing okay money-wise. Plus, he’s sorta of got us both dangling on a string like a couple of gringo marionettes. Sweet kid, smart kid, money kid.
Oaxaca has six historic Indio markets: Le 20th de Novembre, Benito Juarez, De Artesanias, De Abastos, Sanchez Pascuas and my favorite, Democratica. It is the oldest (1911), has a powerful authentic Indio ambience and no foreigners ever go there to shop so it is pure Mex experience. I’ve gotten to know it well, especially the egg-woman, the bread-crone, the veg-she-and-he. One day I needed some fruit and a walkabout, so I asked Alfreda if Ali could come with me for company and a new experience for him. She said yes and asked me por favor to buy her two heads of lettuce, a cabbage, a kilo of potatoes and a handful of limes. All I needed was bananas; in fact, the walkabout was more important than they were.
Later, walking back along the shady side of Avenida de la Republica, Ali carrying the groceries as he’d insisted, him babbling on in Spanish telling me something he’d just seen on the street which he figured I’d not noticed, or maybe about something funny that had happened at school, or maybe a little story he remembered about his village. I couldn’t understand a word, but I enjoyed the sound of his young enthusiastic voice amid the growling sound of the traffic. At one point I felt him take my hand in his, small, strong and trusting and my body was instantly transported on a soft shot of electricity back twenty years remembering walking hand in hand with my own son. By the way, don’t tell Alfreda about the super-sized bag of potato chips and bottle of Coke I bought you because she will say that it was bad for your appetite, I told him. He didn’t care, he wasn’t listening, his flow of Spanish never stopped.
At the corner of Calle Del 5th de Mayo where Blason Café sits, we turned and began the final uphill walk on
cobblestones to the casa just past Iglesia San Matias. I was thinking: tomorrow evening Los Guerreos (The Warriors) baseball team play an exhibition game against Puebla and I should ask Arnel for permission to take Ali to watch it. I know that he’s never been inside the modern stadium, never seen a baseball game, never eaten a real gringo hot dog. That he knew nada about a double-play, a sacrifice bunt or a line-drive home run. Has never seen the Mex chick cheerleaders kicking up their heels, flicking their long black hair side to side, shaking those red white and blue pom-poms encouraging the fans between the innings to rally round the Oaxaca boys of summer.
Yes, I decided, I’d better ask soon and not in the weeks ahead because I can feel my time here coming to an end. In this hot place where tropical flowers and trees bloom all year around and where everybody smiles all day long; where birds sing the mornings awake and the sound of lizards scampering across courtyards announces the evenings. Ali, my friend, I have something important to tell you. I know you don’t understand a word I’m saying, but listen to the sound of my voice. The first thing to know, is that baseball is a hundred and fifty years old and is a serious game and must never be taken lightly. It all began when America was a young country inventing itself; during those times when farm boys from a thousand small towns needed something to do to fill up the long hot summer evenings. Later, young men started to play this new game they called baseball. They hoped that some pretty girls from the next town would be curious and interested enough to drive over in their daddy’s cars and watch them.
Do you understand me so far? Am I talking too fast? No intiendo, Senor Spencer. Yes, I know that, but believe me, one day you will.