A Writer Writes

    At First Light

    by Finn Honore’ (Colombia 1967–69)

    WATER FROM THE FOUNTAIN in the park across from the hotel creates a fine mist that is carried upward into the trees by the wind. Children gather on the grass near the fountain and dance in the spray, their brown bodies glistening with the wet, their laughter breaking the mid-day stillness. I stand on the sidewalk watching them, their faces tilted upward, eyes shut, spinning, holding their arms close to their chests.

    I had been in Cartagena only two days and already I was enchanted by its beauty, stunned by its poverty, a place of startling and unsettling contrasts.
    Early in the morning of my third day, eyes gritty, sleep elusive, I left the hotel at first light and made my way along the narrow streets toward the ocean to a cafe I had noticed the day before. I carried a tattered copy of Time magazine under one arm and a paperback novel pushed down in my back pocket, my shields against an abiding sense of isolation and loneliness.
         The cafe was a small place, wood frame, painted green, its tin roof rust-stained, and canvas window coverings rolled up and tied. Inside were a few tables and chairs. A bright yellow and green sign hung above the doorway.
         Entering, I noticed two women in the back, each wearing a light blue bib apron, ironing what looked to be white table cloths. They both glanced up when I entered. I sat at the table nearest the front, looking out the large open windows at the empty street. It was still early and there were few people and little traffic. I listened to the muted sounds of the women ironing and talking, their irons hitting the cloth with muffled thuds, their words spoken softly, none of which I understood.
         I sat for a time, my magazine open, waiting, anticipating strong coffee, warm bread, eggs mixed with onions and sausage. I was famished.
         The morning light grew sharper, the sun now well above the horizon, already dominating the day. Across the street a dog came around a corner, moving slowly, pausing to stretch first one hind leg then the other, then walked stiffly over to a small bush and sniffed. Finally, unsteadily, the dog lifted its hind leg.
         Looking around the cafe, I noticed there were no menus, no napkins or flatware. But this was Colombia and since I had arrived, nothing had been as expected, nothing as it seemed.
         The day before I had gone to a bank and stood in a line that wasn’t a line but a cordial shoving match. I bought a few things at a small grocery store near the hotel and struggled to make myself understood when I asked for shaving cream. I couldn’t think of the verb, to shave. An older woman, soon joined by her husband, stood behind the counter looking at me intently, curious, as I shook a pretend can, squeezed white foam into the palm of my hand, and mimicked shaving. Finally, the woman threw her hands up in the air, saying “Si! Si! Jabon. Para lavar su cara. El hombre quiere jabon.” Soap to wash his face. The man wants soap, she said, beaming at me.
         Her husband raised both hands, shrugging, “Naturalmente. Jabon. Claro.” Naturally, soap. And he, too, shook an imaginary can, rubbing his hands together. “Jabon,” he said smiling. “Jabon,” the woman said, nodding her head, seeming happy and relieved.
    Encouraged, believing we were making progress, I said, “Si, jabon. Tienen jabon?” Do you have soap?
    The senora looked at me and smiled. “No. No jabon.”
         Later, I passed the long afternoon sitting at a small table in an open-air cafe, surrounded by men in dark suits, many drinking strong coffee in diminutive cups with water chasers, all talking emphatically as the sun dropped toward the horizon. In the dim light I stared at a local newspaper, the headlines and paragraphs enigmatic, elusive, and beyond my three hundred hours of Spanish training.
         That evening, in the hotel dining room, I ordered the catch of the day and was brought a plate of beef and tubular vegetables and the waiter stood next to me waiting until I took my first bite. When I did, he smiled at me and I smiled back, nodding my head in approval. Satisfied, he walked away toward the kitchen, a damp towel over his shoulder.
         After my meal I sat in the lobby of the hotel looking out at the park, a corner streetlamp casting a faint nimbus of light on the sidewalk, the fountain all but obscured. Feeling spent, I went up to my room and lay on the bed in the darkness watching the ceiling fan turn, distant voices on the street reaching me, the heavy night air resistant, unmoving. I tried to sleep.

    Turning in my chair, I glanced back at the two women who were intent on their ironing, hoping to catch their eye, to say with my expression that I was ready to order. It would be the order I had practiced earlier in my room: huevos rancheros, cafe’y pan, por Favor. I would say the words cleanly, clearly.
         The two women continued to iron, one pushing her hair back behind her ears, occasionally dipping her hand in a tin of water, sprinkling the table cloth, water falling from her fingertips. The taller one looked across the room at me and said something to the other and they both glanced at me, smiling.
         I pulled out my paperback, Franny and Zooey, and tried to read, waiting for the coffee.
         After a time, the woman returned carrying a large porcelain cup of steaming coffee, setting it on the table first, then a plate of eggs and bread. In her apron pocket she had a knife and fork wrapped in a cloth napkin and a shaker of salt. She placed all in front of me and left.
         The eggs were tender, the portion generous, the bread warm, the steaming coffee strong and very good. People passed on the sidewalk now, but no one entered the cafe and I sat alone at my table, taking my time with the meal, watching the street gradually fill with early morning traffic. On a corner, a man in a white tropical suit stood fanning himself with a folded newspaper, turning to look up at the sun. His suit was deeply creased at the arms and across his lap and his narrow black tie was already loosened.
         Drinking the last of my coffee, I looked around for the women, but they were gone, the cafe empty. I waited and when they didn’t reappear, I stood, uncertain, then walked to the back of the café noticing piles of folded laundry stacked neatly on a long wooden table. An old sewing machine, the name Singer written in ornate gold script, stood against one wall. Behind a curtain of beads I could make out a small room with two narrow cots and in one corner a sink and pan for washing dishes. Spools of thread and remnants of material were piled neatly on a chair. “Senoras,” I called out. No one answered.
         Walking back to my table, I left twenty pesos under the coffee cup, hoping it was enough. Out on the street I looked back at the cafe and the sign above the door. Vista Del Mar, it said. View of the Sea. Indeed.
         I returned to my hotel and walked across the lobby. Already it was warm, the heat gauze-like, the sun throwing shafts of bright light through the high arching windows. The concierge, standing at the front desk, asked me if I had enjoyed my breakfast.
         “Very well,” I said. “The food was excellent and the coffee especially good.”
         “Indeed. Where did you take your breakfast?” he asked, looking at me with interest.
         “Just down the street. A small place, the cafe with the yellow and green sign,” I said, hesitating, searching for the Spanish word for sign.
         “Yellow and green…” said the concierge. “Ah, yes. Did the sign say, ‘Vista Del Mar’?”
         “Si. Si, senor.”
         “Really. And you took your breakfast there?”
         “Yes. A place very agreeable.”
         The concierge looked at me for a moment, then asked, “And who served you your breakfast?”
         “A young woman, tall, one of two.”
         “Very good, sir,” he said, a smile working at the corners of his mouth, pressing the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb, “but before you return for another breakfast, you should know that this is a place where one takes ones laundry to be washed and ironed. The two women are the owners and they live in the back. They also sew and mend.”
         I stared at the concierge for a long moment, thinking back on the morning, the two women ironing, the meal brought to me, spools of thread and squares of folded cloth on the table and chairs, and, of course, the sewing machine.
         Over the concierge’s shoulder I noticed four old men sitting in large chairs in the lobby, one reading a newspaper, smoking a cigar, the others sipping coffee from small white cups, saying little, and in the park the fountain sent up a shimmering, luminescent spray.
         The park was empty except for a small boy and a girl. They walked to a bench and sat down. The boy had a toy airplane in his hand and he sat quietly on the bench, apart from the girl. He held the plane by the fuselage at eye level, flying it back and forth in tight circles, pausing in flight to spin its propeller.
         I looked at the concierge, weighing carefully what he had told me, finally saying that it was a great lastima, a great shame, for I had never had a better cup of coffee.
         When I glanced back toward the park, I saw that the girl and boy were gone and for a brief moment a rainbow appeared in the fountain’s rising mist, then disappeared.

    Finn Honore’ lives in Asland, Oregon where he works as a free lance journalist.