The thick pale neck of the foreigner gleamed wetly under the tropical sun. He’d been long looking for shade in this ghetto neighborhood but it seemed there was none ample enough to accommodate his corpulence. Dark blossoms of sweat under his armpits and breasts stuck out on his starched blue shirt for he’d now removed his blazer and left it folded lengthwise and hanging on his shoulder. He’d loosened his necktie too but not long after he thought against it and tightened it back up. His sleeves he left buttoned at the wrists.
He now settled for a crude and unfinished hollowblock wall that cast but a narrow shadow against the early afternoon sunlight and he leaned against the wall, keeping his feet within that slender pencil of shade like some obese mountain climber on the edge of a cliff holding on for dear life. He placed the Bible he’d been holding in between his thighs and clipped it there and took out a wad of glossy, gaudy pamphlets from the pocket of his blazer and started to fan himself. With the other hand he took out his handkerchief and started to wipe his forehead but so sweat-saturated it was, that handkerchief, that he was no longer wiping off perspiration so much as merely displacing it all over his fleshy face.
“They don’t pay enough,” he said to himself. “No sir. That congregation just won’t pay enough to proselytize in this hellhole. Even the son of Man could at least lay his head in a better climate.”
“Excuse me, po.”
“Who said that?” The foreigner turned toward the direction of the voice and as though he judged a reply superfluous the scrawny man who now shared that shade merely smiled a gaptooth grin. He wore a grubby black shirt and his skin was suntoasted to a deep dark brown such that he seemed almost as if to blur into the shadow cast by the wall.
“Ah,” the foreigner said. “Good afternoon to you, sir.”
“Good afternoon, po,” said the man.
“Po? My name is not ‘Po’. Call me Joe. That’s short for Joseph, my Christian name.”
The foreigner held out his hand to the man and the man stared at it for a while. At last he grasped it lightly and the foreigner shook his hand. The man grinned with a slight frown as though he now evaluated some strange new sensation. When the foreigner had let go the man looked up at him. “You are very hot,” he said, fanning his face with his hand. “Very very hot.”
“What. Why. Well thank you. I — ”
“Do you want…” The man curled his fingers as if holding an imaginary cup and held it up to his mouth in a gesture of drinking, his head now cocked back. When he finished drinking this make-believe beverage he let out a loud exhalation of intense satisfaction. “Do you want,” the man said.
“What,” the foreigner said. “Oh. Ah. Water. Yes. A drink. You’re offering me a drink.”
“Yes. Yes. Drink.”
“Well look here.” The foreigner took out his Bible from where he’d gripped it between his legs and started to flip through the pages. “You’d be surprised, sir” he said. “I’ve come to offer you the same. Lo, I bring to you the living waters. The waters of eternal life. Drink and you shall never thirst again.”
The man stood beside the foreigner and looked at those words printed on the soft pages and listened to him read off of the Bible strange words and names that rang but a dim bell, he fascinated more by the foreigner’s grandiloquence and dramatic construing than any meaning literal or spiritual inherent to the words themselves but this did not last very long for soon he stood scratching his head, not listening. He waited with feigned interest for the foreigner to finish his scriptural orations and when at last he did the man said, “Sir Joe. I have for you buko juice. For hire.”
“What did you say?”
“Book of what?”
“What?” The foreigner leered at him with furrowed brows as though he contemplated not man but some baffling spectacle. A moment later his eyes lighted up as though he’d at last worked out the enigma. “Ah,” he said. “Ah. I see. Yes, the Book of the Jews. So you recognize it. I see the Spirit has already worked his marvels within you in the past. I am glad.”
It was the man’s turn to enter a state of confusion. “Buko juice?” he said. “Do you want, Sir Joe?”
“I already have my own here,” the foreigner said as he held up his holy book. “Though I must say I’d call it by a different name. ‘The Bible’ will do perhaps. For this book was not meant only for the Jews but for all men of goodwill in search of the truth.”
The man’s face blanked out for a moment and then he turned around and gestured to the foreigner with a wave of his hand, saying, “Go. Go. Go. Look I show you, Sir Joe.” The foreigner stuck his head out of the shade and looked up at the sun hesitatingly for he’d have preferred his sweatblooms to dry out first but the man had stopped walking and turned back to the foreigner and with clenched teeth flapped his hand in a gesture urgent and vigorous as though it were he and not the foreigner who lay claim to the fount of spiritual salvation. The foreigner at last nodded and left the shadowy security of his cement wall and followed the man.
As they walked the network of grimy routes the foreigner carefully jumped the puddles of water and deposits of muck scattered around their path, his folds of flesh billowing softly through his shirt as he did so. Meanwhile the man — rendered puny and almost pathetic in comparison to the great mass that loomed behind him — walked in his thinning flipflops with a carefree agility.
Within a minute the man stopped at a large wooden pushcart piled on top of which were coconuts green and fresh and around the cart brown hacked husks lay strewn about. In the corner of the cart stood precariously a perspiring translucent plastic jug filled with a cloudy liquid at the bottom of which settled a deposit of white strings of coconut meat. With his face beaming with pride the man looked at the foreigner and pointed at his supposed wares and said, “Buko juice, Sir Joe. Do you want? You are very hot. And buko juice very cold.”
“What,” the foreigner said.
The man took a coconut in one arm and buried his other hand in his cart and took out a large bolo knife and held these two up to the foreigner and then put them back in the cart. He buried his hand again into the cart and got a plastic cup and made a gesture as of ladling some of the liquid and looked up at the foreigner with a wide grin, holding up the still empty cup, his eyebrows bobbing up and down.
“Ah,” the foreigner said. “Ah.” He put his hands on his jutting belly and let out a hearty laugh, the belly expanding and contracting rapidly like a balloon from some curious science experiment. “Now I understand. Oh, the Spirit does work in ways ever mysterious. Juice. Coconut juice.” He laughed yet more.
When at last he’d finished he wiped the tears from his eyes and said, “So you wanted me to buy some of your goods? Your coconut juice. Or better said, your buko juice.”
At those last two words the man’s eyes flitted in recognition. “Yes, sir Joe,” he said. “Buko juice for hire. You are very hot.”
“Indeed. Indeed. I’ll tell you what. Let me first instruct you in the ways of the faith. And then I’ll buy from you.”
Before awaiting any response from the man the foreigner took the Bible and opened it to pages he’d already marked and launched into readings from select fragments and passages interspersed with discursive homiletic and theatrical gesticulation of hands, there and again pausing in profound silence with eyes wide open and head slightly nodding as though he himself were struck by an idea or spiritual consideration he’d just said. He wouldn’t have made a bad thespian.
The man listened patient and obsequious. He felt now much like a fisherman who’d long waited and at last been rewarded for his persistence for now he felt a nibble of a fish on his line and only had to wait for it to swim just a few meters more, the fish unknowing that that moment of freedom was its last, before the line would grow taut, the triumphant fisherman simply having to reel in his rightful reward.
When at last the foreigner had finished he said, “Do you believe in the truth of these words, this preaching?” He looked at the man with eyes twinkling in expectation. This made the man uncomfortable. He nodded his head to appease the foreigner. The foreigner clapped his hands together. “Welcome, sir,” he said. “Welcome to the flock. Oh, how the angels in the holy firmament must now be rejoicing at another soul added to the sheepfold. Allow me to say a blessing over you.” He placed one hand over his chest and with the other he traced out a cross in the air above the man’s head, mumbling some words that held no meaning to the man, he unaware and consequently indifferent to the repercussions spiritual or ontological implicit to that improvised benediction.
“Do you want, Sir Joe?” the man said. “Buko juice for hire.”
“Oh yes,” the foreigner said, holding up a finger. “One please. A humble celebration, but it will do.” The man ladled buko juice into a plastic cup and wrapped around it a small cutout rectangle of old newspaper to absorb the moisture and gave it to the foreigner.
“How much?” the foreigner said.
“How much? For the juice.”
“Ah. Ten pesos.”
The foreigner took out a hundred peso bill from his wallet and handed it to the man. The man started to fish around his cart for spare coins but the foreigner held up a hand and said, “Keep the change, my good man. You do deserve it. The good Lord did say that blessings come to those who first seek the Kingdom.” The man stood holding the bill in both hands and staring at it with his mouth slightly open, as though he were holding not a mundane currency but some divine scroll fallen from the heavens.
The foreigner looked at his watch. “I have to go,” he said. “It is much past lunchtime.” He gave to the man one of the pamphlets he’d earlier used to fan himself. “Take this,” he said. “It will tell you all you need to know to get started on this path to a new life. It gives me pain to think it but this may be our last meeting. Considering that I must tend to others as well. The harvest is plenty, the laborers few.”
The man browsed through the pamphlet. Glossy smiles and fakewhite teeth and edited faces of men and women with skin as pale as the foreigner’s, hair as blonde, noses as pointed. Unnatural postures of piety. Meaningless words that only served as background to the pictures. The man tossed the pamphlet into his cart.
Meanwhile the foreigner had already left. He walked now with a spring in his step and likewise in his paunch. He whistled some popular church hymn of praise. He pranced and skipped as if oblivious now to the filthy alleys, the wrinkled beggars holding out their hands, the pitiful hobbling animals that looked more skeleton than dog. He might as well have been strolling the garden paths of Eden, such was the zealous euphoria that gushed forth within him.
Evening arrives. The man packs up his chattels and cleans his surroundings with an unconscious smile traced on his face. It’s been a good day for the buko juice business. It’d been very hot and he’d had many customers. He finished up all his cutup newspaper rectangles and even ended up having to take apart and use the pages of the pamphlet he remembered he had in his cart. It has been one of his best days. As he walks home it occurs to him he might pass by a store on the way and buy some cake or sweet for his wife and kids to celebrate the occasion.
This story came out when I juxtaposed in my mind an aloof foreigner with a poor, humble native. The result was quite interesting. I hope you agree.
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