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Hello From Veracruz

Sun light hit each glass, illuminating them to show various shades depending on what each one held. Cars sputtered by noisily with the faint murmur of their rubber wheels underway. A woman at the back sat alone, reading a newspaper and squinting as each word phased into view. The patio had many patrons, but the most noted were the businessmen who expediently drank their magenta wine and rambled on, combatant, about politics and finance. Their neatly pressed shirts hid beneath clean and de-frayed suits. They seemed a sea of grey among the greens and tans of the patio atmosphere.

Clattering of plates and glasses clinked and clanged as busboys scurried like angered ants to clear vacant tables. They wore black attire with red aprons bound about their waist, a trademark of their profession and closely resembling the abstractness of a bullfighter. Most of them were dark-skinned indios, the true working class of the Mexican states. Their hands rough and nimble, eyes always lowered and constantly shifting.

From the interior of the café, constant whispering and chatter carried as it often does in small spaces. The fans above wafted cool air down and escalated the warm, dry air upward.  A soft hum emitted from their motors, hardly audible to anyone except the hostess, to whom it was a constant complaint. “These fans are too noisy, we must buy new ones”, she would remark, her brown eyes intense and devout. The manager ignored her request, but always politely listened and nodded approvingly.

Francisco was a good manager. He never worked the staff beyond their ability and gave them most holidays, when he could. Often times he would even take the half-empty, forgotten bottles from tables and ferry them to the back to share. His battle with alcohol was a fierce one. In truth, it was the half-empty bottles that got him through the day, until he got home and quietly meandered to his balcony. Dressed in only his undershirt and boxers, he would watch the sun fall below the rooftops with brilliant oranges and pinks and sip bacanora until his eyes refused to open. There he rested for the night, bottle emptied and head slumped in snoring approval.  Once, Francisco had a wife that lived with him, but she had gone long ago after his ambition ran dry and their childless marriage grew unbearable.  Lolita was pretty, young, and full of life. She loved to dance into the night, when Francisco’s feet could no longer keep pace. Her smile was the envy of all the women and the light in her eyes once filled Francisco’s heart with joy. In the end, her smile faded and the light dimmed ever so slightly, replaced by disdain.

During the daytime, the business men came in droves, followed by similar company but at night, they walked in with young women draped around their arms. Their high pitched giggles could be heard from down the street and would attract the admiration of the young street-urchins who played guitar for tourists or anyone who would lend their ear and sympathy.  Benny, or Benito as his mother called him, was a virile young buck. Bravery and boldness suited him well, but scorn often veiled them both. He would posture up on the wall across from the café every evening and play Son Huasteco from his native land. His fingers would pluck out the parts that were normally reserved for the fiddle.  The strings resonated harmoniously as Benny’s slender fingers strummed and brushed against the creamy wood grain of the ancient guitar. Four years ago he traveled from Zacatecas to Veracruz in search of money and escaping a prison of farming, which his father wished to force upon him. Then, only sixteen, he traveled on poultry trucks and buses until he reached his destination. Veracruz was meant to be his salvation, but it proved to be only a stumbling block as unemployment was rampant and his lack of experience forced him to do the only thing he knew; play music.

The state of Veracruz was full of tourists, its many shoreline hotels hosting various travelers, whom Benny relied on for his meals. Night life was glamorous and lights from the cities sparkled in the darkness like prosthetic stars. The Pico De Orizaba rose above the foliage below and wore a cap of white snow year round. It was the tallest mountain in all of Mexico and many travelers ventured to its peak, hoping to get a rare glimpse of the stratovolcano’s activity. At its summit sprang forth numerous rivers and tributaries which also attracted gawkers and acted as a route for merchants to pedal their wares. The boats, seemingly barely afloat, were loaded with trinkets, meats, and colorful knick-knacks that piled upon the floor and hung from loosely braided ropes. Vultures of commerce would paddle up to potential buyers, yelling out their stock and showing them off as if they were trophies. It was not uncommon to see a merchant who had lost his paddle using a shoe or a piece of broken driftwood to navigate the channels.  Sometimes, they would spot prey at the same time and it was a race to get there first. The loser would turn his boat around, looking on sadly, and the winner would shout joyfully as he, no doubt, sold recycled items at inflated prices.

Francisco took the position at the café because it was one of historical importance. Once, Manuel Avila Camacho had sat at a table on the patio and declared war on the Axis powers after German submarines sunk oil boats off of the coast. He would frequent that spot long after his presidency and became a local attraction. Francisco was too young to have seen President Camacho, but his grandfather would tell him about, as a young man, sitting on the floor near his table and listening to the stories of his time in the military. At times, Francisco imagined the president sitting out on the patio, cigar in one hand, brandy in the other, staring off into the distance at the great country he had helped build. There were problems, of course, but the difference from before the revolution was institutionalized was great.

Benny now sat with his hands folded over his guitar, hat lowered to cover his eyes from the menacing sun. In a few hours his guitar would sing for the citizens of wealth, but now was a time of rest. Looking across, he spotted Francisco, whose name was unknown to him, helping a busboy carry a large tub of dishes. He also noticed a man cleaning his suit with a napkin and looking upward in disgust. Perched safely above was a seagull, resting on the trellis, sun-bathing and not seeming to notice the angered businessman below.  A few seconds later, a car pulled up and a young woman stepped out onto the curb from a taxi. A man of about the same age held the door open and escorted her into the café. The woman wore a pale yellow dress that clung tightly to her form and contrasted against the long black hair that hung strait down her back. Benny couldn’t see her face, but if the rest of her was any indication, she must be of some remarkable beauty. He watched as the man held the door to the café and Rose, the hostess, greeted them warmly then proceeded to show them outside to the patio. Seated at a table, Benny finally glimpsed her beauty. It was even more than he had imagined. Each feature was carefully carved out of marble, the color added from the flowers of the Earth, and her eyes stolen from the heavens. With this, Benny was inspired. He sat up a little and began to move his fingers over his guitar strings, his voice carrying just enough so that the woman could make out the sound, but not every word. She and her mate looked over admiringly to Benny, not realizing the reason behind his singing, and then quickly glanced back toward each other.

The night approached and a soft wind arose from the west. The air was still filled with heat, but the wind helped it to migrate so that it felt more pleasant. Benny was still singing, his hat filled with assorted pesos and dollars. The patio now buzzed with patrons, all rejoicing merrily and toasting to the day. Francisco was in the kitchen talking to the few cooks and Rose stood guard at the front door, ushering in guests patiently as more room appeared. Busboys worked like rats in a maze, weaving in and out of the crowd, taking glasses here, filling glasses there. Fans whirled repetitively above. In the background the city lights gleamed and twinkled, illuminating streets and buildings that stood as watchers of a great festival. Pico De Orizaba loomed in the distance. Quietly, the silhouette spread its vast rocky embattlements and guarded the inhabitants below. All was well in Veracruz tonight.

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