Fifty Pesos

By Antonio Ramblés

 

beggar2014She looked like so many other street beggars that he wouldn’t have given her a second glance except to kill time until the next Chapala bus departed.  From his seat at the far end of the concourse, he distracted himself by marking her progress as she snaked among the Central Vieja stalls decked out in snacks and newspapers and loteria tickets.  Her sparse frame poked through stained and threadbare clothing, and her black hair was hopelessly tangled.  She seemed oblivious to the screeches and roars of busses constantly arriving and departing, or to the air grown heavy with their exhaust.  He watched her make her pitch to waiting passengers as her hands darted about in a pantomime that ended always with outstretched palms. 

She was like so many others here, living from meal to meal, but the few remaining coins in his pocket reminded him that he’d already given away a fistful of change on the streets of Guadalajara that day.  A glance at his watch told him that she would reach him before his bus departed.  He told himself that there was only so much that one man could do, and he steeled himself to turn her down. 

Her face gave no hint of disappointment or anger as each passenger brushed her off.  Soon she was near enough that he could hear the loose soles of her battered sneakers flapping against the pavement as she walked.  She caught his eye before he could avert his glance, and in moments her shuffling shoes came to rest on the pavement in front of his downcast gaze.  Her Spanish was too rapid for him to follow, but in her soft and earnest tone was neither a pitiful plea nor indifferent insistence.  Her voice brought to mind instead a pilgrim soliciting alms.

The Chapala bus arrived and passengers began queuing up.  He stood unthinkingly and took a step toward it, dropping his last few pesos into her palm.  Her face lit up in delighted surprise, and her lips struggled to form the words “thank... you” in English.

He couldn’t resist looking back over his shoulder as he walked toward his bus.  Halfway to the exit she stood before a man with an infant cradled in his arms, looking into the baby’s wide eyes and grasping a tiny hand.  Her face softened in baby-talk and then blossomed into a broken-toothed smile.  At that moment, he saw in her a childlike innocence that denied her life on the street.

He was suddenly ashamed that he had been so miserly.  He pulled out his billfold to find that he had nothing smaller than a fifty peso note.  He reminded himself that it was hardly more than the price of a Starbucks latte.  He looked up to find her now nearly to the exit, and he took only a few steps in her direction before she vanished.  It crossed his mind to pursue her while there was yet time for him to redeem himself, but the doors of the Chapala bus opened and passengers began to board.  He settled into his seat, idly folding the fifty peso note into a tight square before tucking it into a pocket of his billfold.

He never again passed through the Central Vieja without looking for her, and although he never saw her again, he kept the folded fifty peso note to remind himself that when she had been in need, he was the one who had been found wanting.

 

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