Carlos Ignacio Julio Rodriguez de Soto ambled toward the popular Ajijic coffee shop. A cautious, self-consciousness permeated his gait. He spotted an unoccupied table amidst several tables of English-speaking customers and sat. In a smooth continuous move, he slung his backpack off his shoulder and onto the table. He unzipped it, reached in and pulled out a dog-eared, disintegrating Spanish-English dictionary. Then he tweezed from the back pocket of his skinny jeans his cellphone and readied its translation app. He scanned the jabbering Yanks, Canucks, and Brits around him.
Oh, I don’t stand out, he thought. No. Not at all. I’m not just the only teenager sitting here, but I’m the only Mexican, too. He chuckled to himself. These people are older than my mama and papa. Hell, they’re older than Mexico. But I’ve gotta do th…
His thoughts were interrupted by a voice speaking Spanish near his left ear. “What are you doing here, Carlos?” He turned to see a former schoolmate, Diego Sanchez, holding two dirty coffee cups with spoons protruding from them.
Carlos jumped up and hugged his friend. “I have to practice listening to English. Seňora Losada said we need to listen to gringos speak.” Carlos tilted his head. “You had Seňora Losada for English before you graduated, right?”
“Of course. And she’s right. You have to listen to other people besides her,” Diego explained. “You know she has never been to el norte. She learned English in school, like us.”
“Dude, I was shocked how poor my English comprehension was when I started working here.” Diego peeked over his shoulder at the barista. “My boss is watching, Carlos. Can I get you anything?”
Carlos looked at Diego. A mix of lack of confidence and terror screamed from his eyes. “Yes.” He paused, mentally forming the rest of his answer. “I will have normal coffee,” the teen replied in deliberate English. “No. I mean regular coffee. Thank you.” Diego nodded like a teacher commending a student for a job well-done and stepped away. Carlos smiled with satisfaction.
A man in a polo shirt sidled up to a table near Carlos. The two men and one woman occupying it looked up. “Where’s Debbie?” the woman asked.
“She’s a bit under the weather.”
Carlos looked at the sky. Hazy filtered clouds looked back. Under the weather? This Debbie, Carlos thought, is sitting below the clouds? But why she cannot be here?
Voices caught Carlos’ attention from his other side. He turned. Three women were talking with animation as they smoked. One of the women was looking at Carlos. She smiled and looked away. Another woman said, “You know that girl from California who moved into the casita behind me? Well, she’s not playing with a full deck.”
Fool deck? Carlos repeated to himself. What does that mean?
The woman continued. “She asked me to drive her to Guadalajara so she could go to Starbucks for some coffee. I told her we have coffee shops here. And if you insist on Starbucks, take the bus or Uber. Well, she looked at me like I had flipped my lid. ‘Madison,’ I told her, ‘if you think I’m going to drive you to Guadalajara for coffee, you’re barking up the wrong tree.’”
Carlos typed “fool deck” into his phone. “Cubierto tanto” the translation app typed back. This California Madison girl is not playing with a cubierto tanto ? Well, then what is she playing with? he asked himself. And what is ‘flipped her lid?’ He typed. His cell phone told him the woman had volteó su tapa. She has a tapa? Like my abuela’s Tupperware?
“The wrong tree,” the woman repeated emphasizing “wrong.” Can you imagine me doing that? Driving in Guadalajara? For coffee? Oh, hell, no.”
“Barking,” Carlos typed. Oh, ladrido. I know that. Like the dogs. He typed “wrong.” I know ‘wrong’ means incorrecto. But that does not make the sense. “Incorrecto” appeared on his screen. OK. It is incorrecto. But what tree is the correct tree to bark on? Why would people bark on a tree anyway? People climb trees.
“I don’t think that Madison girl is going to last long,” one of the woman’s companions said. “She’s not gonna cut the mustard.”
What? Carlos thought. How do you cut mustard? And did Madison actually say, “No. I will not cut your mustard?”
As Diego brought Carlos’ coffee, the woman at the table who had looked at Carlos studied the server. “That new waiter is really good. He’s fast. He notices details. He’s on the ball.”
Carlos peeked at Diego’s feet. “He is not on a ball. How could he work if he on is on a ball?” He looked up and noticed the woman looking at him again. Her gaze darted past him, an obvious ploy. Does that woman know me? Carlos thought. Or does she think she recognizes me? Why else would she be looking at me? Does she think I am someone famous?
The voice of under-the-weather Debbie’s husband lured Carlos’ attention back to the previous conversation. “You know, Gary and Janet bought that place they were looking at.”
“Really?” one of his companions asked. “What’s it like?”
“Well, it has a pool, tennis court, and two casitas. It’s got the whole nine yards.”
Nine yards? Carlos thought. Why do they need nine yards? Do they have horses? Are they farmers? Do they have many children? Nine yards? Isn’t one enough?
“How did they swing that deal?” the woman at the table asked.
“According to Bill Nelson,” the man answered, “and I take everything Bill says with a grain of salt, they inherited a good chunk of change from Janet’s brother. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by telling you he was a land developer and made some shady investments.”
Carlos looked confused. This Bill Nelson gives salt when he talks? Carlos grabbed his dictionary and looked up “chunk.” Oh, pedazo. So American coins melt and become chunk. He looked up as if he were thinking. A chunk for each of the coins? Or one big chunk for all of them together? Carlos looked at the feet of the man speaking. He saw a clear plastic bag containing fruit and vegetables. There is a cat in his bag? I do not see a cat.
Women’s laughter from Carlos’ other side grabbed his attention. He turned as one of the women lit another cigarette. “Did I tell you, she asked her tablemates. “Carolyn quit smoking? That’s why she won’t join us anymore.”
“How’d she do it?”
Carlos sat back. Their friend stopped smoking cigarettes and eats cold turkeys now instead? he thought. That is strange. A conversation from a third table interrupted his contemplation.
“So last night,” a deep male voice said,” I was about to hit the hay, when CNN ran an interview with some White House aide who began to cry in the middle of the interview.”
“Well, they’re all flying by the seat of their pants,” another voice commented.
I know ‘hit,’ but not ‘hit the hay,’ Carlos said to himself as he typed. Oh, he continued when the translation appeared, why would people hit hay? He laughed. Gringos are very violent. Why don’t they just shoot the hay with their guns? And what is this flying by the chairs of their pants?
“So,” the man went on, “I’m watching this middle-aged man break down on TV and it really upset me. I couldn’t handle it and went to bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I just couldn’t get over it.”
Carlos took his dictionary and thumbed to the “D” section. Oh, I didn’t know that. Down also means feathers. But how do you break feathers? And why could the man not get over his bed? How tall are American beds?
Confused by all he had heard, Carlos finished his coffee and packed his belongings. As he stood, the cell phone of the woman with the young Californian neighbor rang. “Hi, Honey,” she answered it. She paused, smiled, and said, “I knew it. Thanks for making my day. I’ll be home soon.”
“What happened?” another lady at the table asked.
“That crazy Madison is already moving out. Going back home. Jim says she hadn’t even completely unpacked. I’m so glad she’s gone.”
As Carlos stepped around the women’s table, the woman who had been peeking at him added with a laugh, “Well, Jeannie, you predicted a short stay. You were right. Elvis has left the building.”
Carlos stopped, a look of understanding washing over his face. He looked at the woman he had caught studying him. “Oh, no. I am not Elvis. My name is Carlos. And we are not in the building. We are outside under the weather,” he said as he turned and walked away.