by Kevin Carrel Footer
It had been a night of camping in the rain in the countryside and I had promised the women a hot cup of coffee in the morning. I had not counted on it being so difficult to fulfill my promise. But country towns on the Pampa have more in common with the country than with a town. We exhausted the main streets of several without luck, all the while our craving for what we couldn’t get increasing. At last we thought we had found a corner café – this one looked promising, there were even several people gathered in the doorway – but it turned out to be a tire repair shop instead.
Apparently, finding a good cup of coffee in the countryside meant making it yourself.
When we reached General Rojo, a larger town with an arch over the access from the highway, we were sure we would find a hot cup of coffee, just not in the way that we did. In front of the bakery, we asked Pepe Pavan where we could go. He thought for a moment, then shook his head. No place here in General Rojo, but if that’s all we wanted, why he’d be glad to make us coffee back at his home. The deal was done. We went into the bakery to buy some provisions for breakfast, while Pepe hurried home to put the water on to boil.
Pepe kept an immaculate house the way old bachelors and widowers do: everything dusted, everything sparkling, everything in its place. The Holy Bible lay on a doily on a special ledge in the kitchen, while in the garden there were birds in cages that sang and two splendid pheasants with clipped wings walking delicately in the grass.
“My wife died – let’s see – ten years… three months and… fourteen days ago,” said Pepe as he poured out the coffee. They had not had children together. Sometimes he went to see a sister who was still alive and that very day he would have gone to visit a lady friend in San Nicolas if it weren’t raining so hard.
He showed us the fine furniture of his bedroom, strong furniture made lovingly by a prisoner at the local jail, for Pepe had been in charge of the workshop there. (At first he didn’t want to tell us where he had spent nearly all of his working years. “It’s something ugly,” he said.) He read us a letter from a prisoner he had helped and who had written a rhyming poem to thank him.
There were pictures of Pepe as a young man going out dancing with a hat tipped low. He loved to dance tango and with his dapper, charming ways he was quite a hit with the ladies, he told us with a wink. But that had been a long time ago and now his wife was gone and his relatives except for that one sister were all gone too. He recited a poem he knew by heart, but broke off mid-way in tears, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I like living too much.”
The women hugged him while I looked on from across the table. Some songs were sung, but they seemed double-edged swords, both cheering him and leaving him more melancholy than before.
When it was time to leave, Pepe stood in his doorway while we ducked under the rain and into the car.
“We love you, Pepe” the women shouted. I extended my hand to him.
“Okay. Okay,” he said, “but you’ll leave and then I’ll be alone all over again.”
We looked away awkwardly. It was not an easy parting and Pepe wasn’t making it any easier. We waved goodbye in the rain and kept waving through rain-splattered windows while we drove off. When we turned the corner, we were all relieved, though we went a long time before anyone said anything. And in the silence we hoped that Pepe would realize that we would remember his kindness and, in our remembering, he was not quite so alone as before.