Most mornings, I stepped out into bright sunlight and walked one hour through the streets of Chilpancingo, Mexico. My destination was a school on the other side of the city where I taught English.
The scenery on my journey rarely changed. The buildings I passed along the way were brightly painted. Some with arched windows and doors looking out over small courtyards dotted with mango trees and flowering plants. As I strolled past the bustling market that thrived under the scorching Mexican sun, the mouth watering smell of roast chicken cooking over an open fire-pit filled the air.
Most days, I greeted the street vendors selling fruit and pottery from their makeshift carts; I knew most of the vendors by name. The local street kids called me Doña Julia (a term of respect and affection) and always welcomed me with wide smiles and excited chatter. Most of this chatter revolved around their improvised soccer games in the parking lot and dreams of becoming the next World Cup soccer stars. Dreams nourished by a new soccer ball that I had purchased for them weeks before.
After class, I embarked on the same one hour trek home. On one particular day, I came across a man sitting under a tree just across the street from my house. A tattered duffle bag filled with dirty clothes and a few precious possessions sat idly beside him. His smile was as bright as a Hollywood celebrity’s smile on a promotional tour.
But no celebrity was he.
The grungy, torn fabric of his once-upon-a-time clean clothes would draw stares from even the most considerate passers-by. The dusty streets of Chilpancingo are a tough landscape to endure for those tormented by poverty. The loneliness of abandonment, the pangs of hunger, the biting sting of scorn, the brutal despair of homelessness all feed this hungry degradation.
He smiled at me and I smiled back and greeted him with a “good day”. I stood a few steps away from him and waited for cars to pass so I could cross the street to get to my front door. As I waited, I heard a hushed sob and then a voice.
“Por favor, Dios, favor de mandar a mi mamá que venga a recogerme. Por favor, Dios.” (“Please, God, please send my mother to come and get me. Please, God.”)
The desperation and blunt sorrow in his voice were tangible. I glanced over at him. From his duffle bag, he had removed a tarnished and ancient looking candlestick and was holding it up against the side of his head like a telephone. Lonely tears trickled down his cheek, leaving a trail of moist, brown dust. The drops of silver dew on his dirty face turned out to be the messengers of unspeakable grief.
Again, he spoke into the end of the candlestick.
“Por favor, Mamá, ven a recogerme. Por favor, Mamá, tengo miedo. ¿Por qué me dejaste aquí solo?” (“Please, mom, come and get me. Please mom, I’m afraid. Why did you leave me here alone?”)
I felt my heart wrench with sorrow for the man under the tree.
After the cars passed, I quickly crossed the street and entered my house. About twenty minutes later I returned to the street, this time carrying two plates of food and a couple of juice boxes.
The man under the tree was still pleading into the candlestick. His voice was now barely a whisper.
Neither God nor his mother seemed to be listening.
With his permission, I sat down on the ground beside him. He quickly put the candlestick back into his shredded duffle bag. I offered him a plate of food and a juice box. His Hollywood smile returned and he gratefully accepted. I asked if it was alright if I joined him. He happily approved.
The man under the tree said his name was Augustine. “But not like Saint Augustine,” he quickly added with a smile.
Through many shared meals and conversations over time, my teacher under the tree spoke of heartaches and miseries that would have easily defeated the strongest members of humanity. I discovered that Augustine’s mother had died when he was a child. He had no family to speak of or home to call his own. He hadn’t a friend in the world. Poverty and isolation had wrapped their steel arms around Augustine and turned a life into a prison. But the prisoner remained kind-hearted and gracious in the face of his circumstances.
Augustine became a cherished friend. He wouldn’t accept the offer of a place to stay. He was content in his world under the tree or sometimes in an empty stairwell near the market. His tattered clothes had been replaced by a few of my husband’s shirts and pants.
As time passed, sometimes we would go days and even weeks without seeing Augustine. On occasion, he knocked on our door, knowing that if he was hungry, he’d get a home cooked meal and friendly conversation.
On one such occasion, I noticed that his duffle bag had become so worn that the contents came tumbling out. I went into the garage and dug around for a duffle bag. I found a nice canvas bag with leather pockets. It looked sturdy enough to weather the oncoming rainy season. I offered it to Augustine and he accepted. He disappeared from the house for awhile.
There was a knock on the door. It was Augustine. He was holding the new duffle bag in his hand. But it was empty. I asked him if everything was alright.
He nodded yes but then handed the bag back to me. He smiled sheepishly and said, “This bag is too nice to carry my humble possessions in.”
I glanced down and noticed that he had fixed his old, shredded duffle bag with a piece of frayed twine.
His eyes followed my gaze. “It will make do”, he said.
He thanked me for everything and explained that it was time for him to leave. The rainy season was coming and he always spent the rainy season in the small town of Chilapa, about eighty kilometres away on a serpentine, mountain road.
I insisted that my husband and I drive him there. Augustine declined the offer graciously, stating that even though it would take him a week to walk there, he preferred to make the trek on foot.
I packed him some food and water for his journey. I said farewell and wished him luck.
As I watched Augustine walk down the rutted street, past the knotted tree where he used to sleep, a thought ran through my mind. What if he were my child? My hope and prayer would be that someone would show him kindness on his journey, or offer a helping hand: even just a friendly smile to acknowledge a brief connection to the rest of the human race.
That was the last time I ever saw Augustine. I left Mexico shortly after. I miss him. I miss our conversations under the tree. I miss his soft-spoken voice that had only kind things to say. I will forever hold his lessons of grace and humbleness close to my heart.
Because that novel isn't going to delay itself
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