LA CRUCE/THE CROSSROAD
By Antonio Ramblés
Traffic was creeping along the divided highway into Guadalajara when Richard turned off toward Ocotlan, and his traffic jam tension evaporated as he was at last able to press the accelerator to the floor. From time to time a heavily loaded truck slowed his pace, but he held out hope of reaching San Miguel de Allende well before nightfall.
He’d jumped at the invitation to give a series of lectures on Spanish colonial architecture to an expat art group in San Miguel. He’d taught it as a college course in college back in the States, and three years into retirement he sorely missed the teaching experience. It didn’t hurt that the lectures would also carry him to cooler altitudes just as dust and heat peaked along the lake ahead of the rainy season.
The route was marked by few traffic signals or policia, but there were plenty of Mexico’s legendary speed bumps. The topes inflicted untold damage to the cars of inattentive motorists, and Richard kept an eye peeled for them. Long before he saw the tope ahead of the crossroads he saw a lone figure that grew into a man seated in a wheelchair astride the center stripe, a beggar’s cup in his hand. Slowing to a crawl as he approached the intersection, Richard rolled down his window and dropped a few coins into the outstretched cup. The young cripple’s face was expressionless and his dark eyes unreadable. The young beggar spoke not a word. As the road unwound ahead, Richard wondered if the young beggar had been born crippled or injured. Has he no one to care for him? he wondered.
When Richard passed through on his return, the young man was again there and Richard again dropped coins into his cup. If the wheelchair-bound figure remembered him, there was no sign of recognition. Richard got a late start on the drive to his second lecture and daylight was fast fading as he approached the crossroad. He dropped coins automatically into the cup, glancing into his rearview mirror as he pulled away. His mouth dropped open in surprise as he watched the young man ably stand and wheel the chair off the road. “Sonofabitch,” he thought to himself, turned instantly from Good Samaritan to unwitting dupe.
There was plenty of daylight left when he returned, but the intersection was empty. Richard crept over the tope, his eyes searching the hamlet for the wheelchair sitter. A reflected glint of sunlight tugged at the corner of his eye and he turned to see the wheelchair’s frame half-hidden in the roadside ditch.
By the time Richard’s final lecture rolled around, the novelty of the drive had given way to road fatigue. Nearing the crossroad for the last time, he saw a figure standing astride the highway center line, a crutch tucked under one arm and a leg missing from above the knee. As he slowed ahead of the tope he recognized the young man’s face, now sadly drawn and suddenly aged. When he peered into Richard’s open window, the pain in his dark eyes was broken by a flash of recognition, and he averted his gaze.
Richard hesitated before spilling the contents of his pocket onto the front seat. Passing over the loose change he picked out a fifty peso note and stuffed it into the cup.
“Muchas gracias, Senor,” spoke the young man for the first time, crossing himself as if in reminder of the God who had exacted such an ironic penance for charity so brazenly abused.
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