Hamburger

By Zofia Barisas

 

Two traffic lights close one after the other. I go through green and then the next light is turning orange and I drive through it. The policia vial pickup truck is right there on my right. I see its nose sticking out behind the raised island with the bushy tree in it. I see it too late. Maybe the light is red by the time I get to it and drive through. A matter of seconds from one to the other. Hard to judge.

They pull in behind me. No siren. I keep on driving. I figure they just got on the road on the way to somewhere. Nothing to do with me. Not for an orange light. They flash their headlights on and off.

In the US they would have had their sirens screaming, a loud voice would have told me on a bullhorn to pull over. Their bullet proof truck would have cut me off diagonally. Two men in full war regalia would have approached me in a crouch, weapons drawn – while the sirens of five more vehicles approaching shrieked, the re-enforcements called for – the two men would have shot me through the head so many times it would look like a sieve. “She looked like she was reaching for a weapon.” It would have been reported as ‘an incident’. So I’m in the right country. Fear doesn’t come up.

I’m not being fair. I was pulled over decades ago, when I lived in Houston. I drove a new Honda Accord in those days. This was before the police had turned into a replica of Hollywood movies. “Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?” “No.” “Do you know how fast you were going?” “No.” “Don’t you ever look at your speedometer?” “Sometimes.”

“I’ve been following you for the last ten blocks. You were way over the speed limit.” He waited ten blocks before stopping me? Slow day. “Where are you going?” “An AA meeting.” “Where is it?” “Spring Branch.” I like driving fast but I didn’t think telling him that would help my case. He went back to his car. I waited for him to bring me the ticket. But he just drove away.

My gardener asked me recently: “Do you ever get pulled over by the police?” “No, not in at least ten years. Old woman, could pass for Mexican, old car, Mexican plates, poor pickings.” I shouldn’t have been so sure of myself.

They overtake me and signal to me to follow. They pull into the gas station area. The younger one comes over to my window and shows me a hard plastic card with his name on it in big black letters: Luis Gonzalez Anaya (not his real name). That’s new. They never had those in the days when I used to get stopped. It must be for the semi-blind old foreigners who fill this village by the lake and who still drive, so they can read the name. And complain, if they wish to, about police harassment. Not that it will make any difference. They usually have committed the offense they were stopped for.

I forget to pretend I don’t speak Spanish – this has worked before but more and more policemen now speak English -- and the conversation follows in Spanish.

“Do you know you went through a red light?”

“Well, no, it was actually orange.”

“There are two traffic lights there and the second changes to red a bit later than the first.”

“Yes, I know that. But to get to red it first has to go through orange. It was orange when I crossed. I didn’t want to put the brakes on suddenly. And at my age the reflexes are not as fast.”

He’s very nice, very friendly. Likeable.

“When you pass your driving test they check your reflexes before issuing you your driving permit.”

I like that comeback. He’s making it up as he goes along the same as I’m doing. I’ve never had a driving test in the 33 years I’ve been driving in Mexico with a Mexican chofer’s license. I can drive buses and trucks if I want to.

“Yes, I know that. The reason I didn’t stop was because the light was orange and I didn’t want to put the brakes on suddenly in case someone was behind me and by the time I looked in the mirror I was already half way through.”

“We both know it was red. I have to give you a ticket”

“Well no, as I said before, it was actually orange.”

“Do you have identification?”

“Yes.” I hand him my passport. It expired a month ago but he doesn’t notice.

“Zofia Barisas. You’re from Montreal, Canada?”

“Yes.”

“Zofia,” he says. I like that. I like people who use first names. So from then on I switch from the more formal usted to the familiar tu and call him Luis. “I’d like to see your documents.”

“Ah, there I have a problem, Luis. I have the documents but they’re on my dining room table. You can check that I’ve renewed them on the computer in your truck.”

“We don’t have a computer in the truck. We’re not that advanced yet. You need to have your documents with you when you’re driving.”

“Tell me where your station is and I’ll go home and bring them back to you.”

“You can’t do that, Zofia. Do you have your sticker for smoke?” This is the pollution sticker that I paid three mechanic brothers in Tizapan to drive my car to Guadalajara to get for 300 pesos, because they have a friend there who will provide a sticker for a car that would not get one any other way. I drive a 1992 Volkswagon. Luis walks around the car.

“This smoke sticker is for 2012. You have to renew it every year. Did you renew it this year?”

“No, I didn’t. Nobody renews it every year.”

“No, but it’s the law. And you’re missing the regular car stickers for 2013 and 2014 and you don’t have the 2015 one.” I find the first two later in the glove compartment, yellowed and dusty and curling up at the edges. The 2015 one really is on the dining room table. It’s been there since January and we are now in June. I can debate the orange/red light but he’s got me on the missing documents.

“I’m really not good with paperwork,” I say.

“I’ll write you a ticket for the missing documents.” He walks to his truck, opens the door and leans in to get the ticket pad. I follow him, lean next to him and put my hand flat on the pad.

“No, no Luis. I don’t want a ticket. Do you have a mother or a grandmother?” Flirting with him would be ridiculous at my age but family ties between sons and mothers and grandmothers go deep in this country. It’s one of the many things I like about living here, the family closeness of the people.

“Yes.”

“Think of them. You wouldn’t want someone to be giving them a ticket, would you?”

We’re standing up again. I put my hand lightly on his chest but it doesn’t work because he’s wearing a bullet proof vest and there is no contact.

“I’ll give you a ticket just for the missing stickers and not for the red light. It’s not a lot of money.”

“How much is it?”

“180 pesos.”

“Luis, I don’t have 180 pesos to spare. The roofer is coming on Tuesday and that will be a few thousand pesos. I’m not a wealthy person. Look at the car I’m driving, a 1992 Volkswagon.”

“The best car there is,” he says.

I look at him, left speechless for a moment. I didn’t expect that. Am I to believe I’ve been driving the best car there is without knowing it?

“Best car,” he repeats. “I was talking to a man just yesterday, whose car had broken down. A brand new Mercedes. A half a million it cost him.”

“You didn’t give him a ticket.”

“No, his car had broken down.”

As we’re talking I’ve taken out from my wallet the pile of bank machine receipts and other papers – car ownership is there – and it all comes out with the 2000 pesos I just took out before they stopped me to cover the roof repairs. I pull out a crisp fifty peso bill low down in front of me, so he won’t see there’s a good deal more money, which I’m sure he’s seen already, and press it to his bullet proofed chest.

“Zofia, I can’t take that, I could lose my job.” I guess it’s not enough. But the repairs , not only roof but the peeling house paint on the exterior that needs repainting, the plumbing and the electrical repairs that I’ve put off, the passport that needs to be renewed and other small repairs all loom.

“I won’t tell anybody,” I say.

“There are cameras all around the gas station.”

I put the fifty pesos away and look around.

“I don’t see any cameras.”

“Look at the roofline of the building in the corner.”

“Oh, yes. I see it.”

“I’m in a position of authority and I have to be loyal to that. I have to do my job.”

“Someone in a position of authority can afford to be compassionate to a poor woman.” I pat him on his left ribs to give emphasis to what I’m saying but I hit the vest again. Not once does he object. Maybe he’s thinking of his grandmother. And all the while, we’re talking eye to eye. I pat him on the hip and my hand lands on a gun. He’s surprisingly well protected for a traffic policeman. Sharp looking and fit. The other one who has been standing further away at the back of the truck is obviously a subordinate in the old navy blue uniform, with no protective gear.

Luis moves again towards the pad. I move with him and put my hand flat on the pad again.

“No, don’t do that. If you write me a ticket I will suffer. You don’t want to do that to me.”

“Zofia, let me show you this,” he says. “We stopped a woman the other day because she wasn’t wearing her seat belt. By the time I’d walked to her car she’d put it on, but I’d already seen she didn’t have it on when we stopped her. This is the copy of the ticket I gave her. As you can see it’s for 650 pesos. She didn’t want a ticket. She offered to give my wife a beauty treatment instead but I couldn’t accept. It’s against the law. Here, see, she gave me her card.”

“It sounds like a good deal. Your wife would have liked it.”

“But I couldn’t accept that.”

He puts the copy of the woman’s ticket aside and prepares to write mine.

“No, Luis.” My hand is down on the pad again.

“What you’re asking is wrong. I could lose my job.”

Could it be that he’s serious? I rub his upper arm lightly and actually feel his warm flesh through the thin fabric. There’s something good about touching him. A connection. A comfort.

“It’s a very small sin, Luis. God will forgive you. A small act of kindness. You can give me a ticket next time you see me.”

There’s a pause. He’s looking at his ticket pad. I wait.

“I’ll take the hamburger,” he finally says.

“The hamburger?”

“The fifty.” His back is to the camera. I’m in front of him. I give him the bill.

“And one for my companero.”

“He’s not been part of this, Luis. Just one hamburger. And thank you.”

 

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