He was washing the windows when I came in: a brown stick with big eyes and a ’fro on a ladder, wiping the glass with one hand and continually hiking his pants up with the other. I stood on the sidewalk beneath him for a moment, both of us under the Café Americano awning, which promised “Tropical Food.” I looked up at him and he looked at me, dripping sponge in hand. “Hi,” I said. He worried his lower lip with his upper teeth a bit, and blinked. “Doing the windows,” I said. He blinked again. We stared at each other a moment longer and then I said, “Well, carry on,” and went in.
Eva and Tony, co-owners and newly wed, were at the bar, deliberating over a catalogue. They looked up and sang out hello when I came in.
“Hey,” I said, instead of hi, because that was my style. “You hired somebody to do the windows?”
“He just showed up,” Eva said. “His name’s Max.”
“Asked if there was anything he could do.”
“We thought the windows could use a wash.” Tony looked to Eva and she nodded to support his assessment.
“Sure,” I said. “Clean windows are good.”
“We borrowed the ladder from next door.” Next door was a ‘Rent-All’ place that seemed to carry only ladders and cement mixers.
Max left the windows streaky with soap residue. Later, he knocked back a pitcher of cold water, demolished two bowls of soup and a sandwich while sitting by the windows considering his handiwork. He ate fast, putting a lot of salt in his soup, gathering crumbs off the plate and tablecloth with a wet fingertip, and smiled at the windows. Maybe he liked the way the smeared soap cut down the afternoon glare or softened the edges of the city outside. Maybe he saw something in the splodges and streaks: a pattern, a picture.
After Max left, Tony sent me out to rinse the glass clean. Max came back the following day and Eva got him to clear some crap out of the kitchen. The third day there was nothing much for him to do but we fed him anyway. He was wearing the same clothes.
Pobrecito, my mother would have said.
Eva and Tony took him on as a bar boy/dishwasher/person Friday for weekends. I didn’t know quite what to make of him at first. Actually, I knew exactly what to make of him: he was the dishwasher/bar boy guy. There’s a fairly obvious hierarchy in restaurants—anyone who has worked in one will tell you this. Dishwashing is truly a dead end; it offers no opportunities for advancement. Waitering, on the other hand—well, a waiter can go on to become a bartender, or a host (or hostess), or an assistant manager. And from there, well . . . Looking at Max when he first started, his body lost in the baggy orange t-shirt, brown corduroy pants with the cuffs rolled up three or four times, and yellow dishwashing gloves, I thought at least I’m not a dishwasher.
I had started a couple of months ago, just as the cafe opened, and I’d had high hopes for the place and my prospects then. But my hopes were fading. Though we strove mightily, circumstances were against us. We were on one of the uglier stretches of Dundas (a charmless enough street), the cement mixer and ladder bazaar on one side and on the other Capri Internationale Unisexe Hair, with its faded posters of “modern” hairstyles in the windows, and which had to be a front for something because nobody ever went in there. It was simply not an auspicious location for a restaurant. But Max didn’t seem to notice.
“How’s it going, Max?”
“¿Qué tal? ¿Como va? How’s it going?”
“Bien. I hab work. I eat good food. Life is good.” Pretty simple. He tapped his fist on the bar to emphasize his point, then laughed silently, his head bobbing and his mouth wide open, like he thought thumping the bar was funny.
I was curious about him in an actor-research-anthropological way but Max didn’t talk much at first. He didn’t do much at first either. He stood around a lot, looking stunned, out of place, and needed to be told almost everything. The coffee goes in the paper filters. If they’re finished eating, you can take the plates. The white wine and the beer have to go in the fridges. We should put the chairs on the tables when we sweep the floor. That sort of thing. Tony and Eva didn’t know much about him. He was a refugee but they weren’t sure how long he’d been here. He seemed very proud of his apron and took great care folding it over and tying it. He wiped his wet hands on it with extravagant gestures and would stand for minutes at a time at the mirror we had at the waiter station, making minute adjustments, studying himself.
I found him drawing in a notebook one day: fast and passable likenesses of the people at the corner table.
“Soy artista,” he told me. “I teach little kids en un daycare.” That struck me as unlikely, but maybe he was a volunteer or something.
“Oh yeah? What daycare?” Not that I actually knew any daycares.
“Doan remember how is called.”
“Where is it?”
“Un daycare cerca de mi.” Close to where he lived.
More to the north he told me, cross-hatching a cheek.
Any day my agent would call with an audition, an offer, a deal. I was about to leave all this behind absolutely, definitely, for good, forever.
Jesuits had taught him to draw. He said he had studied with them, but I couldn’t figure out if that meant he was going to be a priest or if he was just a student in some school they ran. Later he told me he had worked for the Jesuits. He also said that he’d worked in a mechanic’s shop and that he’d been with the guerrillas. Sometimes I thought he was contradicting himself or even making things up, but we spoke such different kinds of Spanish that I assumed I had misunderstood at least half of what he said.
I told him that actually I was an actor and that I was only here as a temporary thing, a blip, as it were, in the growth curve; my presence here was, in terms of the trajectory of my career, a statistical anomaly barely worth mentioning. Me, I was a shooting star, a burst of fireworks over the hills. Any day my agent would call with an audition, an offer, a deal. I was about to leave all this behind absolutely, definitely, for good, forever. Any day.
The tips of his ears were papery thin. He had stepped so close to me I could see them perfectly. “Compañero artista,” he said, taking me by the shoulders and fixing me with a mock solemn look. He, like Tony and Eva, seemed impressed that I was an actor, an artist, and wanted to know more—drama o comedia? Chakespeare o Marlon Brando? He never asked what the hell I was doing in that sad little café if I was as gifted a thespian as I claimed. I suppose he saw us as colleagues in some way, compañeros in the struggle for beauty and truth (to say nothing of financial solvency).
He started greeting me that way, taking me by the shoulders, looking sternly at me, “compañero artista,” then laughing. I’d always shake him off gently, but afterwards I’d have reproachful mental conversations with myself. Like I should just relax, just laugh with him.
Max got better. He put on some weight. His eyes didn’t bug out of his head anymore. Eva took him to get a haircut and some new clothes, including a new jean jacket. He paraded around the restaurant with it, imitating fashion models. “Max de la Renta,” he said, wiggling between the tables and plucking a fake poppy from a vase to tuck behind his ear. We all laughed, even Tony and Eva.
He’d been with us a couple of weeks when he started showing up on weekdays and just hanging out. I was out back, on another break, when Max came up the alley.
“You’re early,” I said. “It’s only Wednesday.”
“No, vengo de visita no mas.” Just visiting.
I reached into my shirt pocket for my cigarettes but Max got his out faster and held his deck out to me.
“No, gracias,” I said. “I have some.”
We repeated this little routine practically every time we took a break. He offered me his cigarettes like I didn’t have my own and I’d say, “No gracias, ya tengo,” and flash my pack of Camels to prove that I had some. After all, smokes were expensive and he couldn’t be making much money as a dishwasher. I certainly wasn’t making much.
As much as I wanted to, it was difficult to hold the disastrous state of the restaurant against Eva and Tony; they were so sweet and obviously unprepared. Neither had any experience running a restaurant. But they “liked food and wine and people,” and “thought it would be fun.” But it wasn’t just fun. Eva—a poli-sci major and passionate daughter of Chilean exiles—had told me, over the course of several slow afternoons, that the restaurant was also a kind of political project. The name she said was a reference to a poem by Neruda and a nod to the idea that “America is not a country, a passport, or an economy; it’s a continent, a possibility, una esperanza.”
“You know, she said, “Latinos are so . . . racist and nationalist and . . .” The thought was too depressing to finish. “I’m generalizing, but you know, maybe this could be a way to say to each other and all the anglos too that we’re all here, nobody’s going away, we better learn, we better make it happen. We have a great opportunity here, in this town, this big, empty country.” The thing was, she explained, her eyes flashing with enthusiasm and optimism, that America, the continent, was “still waiting to be invented,” and we had to start somewhere, even if it was just a café.
So, apart from cooking, waiting tables and running the bar, she and Tony were forever rushing around, ordering things, putting ads in floundering ethnic publications, swinging deals, getting stuff (ice cream scoops, table cloths, blackboards, bottle openers, pour spouts, fancy screwdrivers, extension cords, you name it). Sometimes they rushed around independent of one another and came back with two (or two hundred) of everything.
“Tony, I said I’d get the pepper mills/napkin rings/big ashtrays/potted plants/toilet seat covers.”
“I thought I was getting the pepper mills/napkin rings/big ashtrays/potted plants/toilet seat covers. Should I take these back?”
“No, we can probably use them. I want you to look at some tablecloths.”
“Don’t we have tablecloths?”
“Yeah, but these are new. I think we should have different ones for dinner.”
Having some significant experience in the hospitality trade, I was able to bring some focus to their efforts. I suggested we start with some basics. A good broom to sweep up with. A couple of coffee carafes. Bus trays. “You know . . . grey, industrial rubber plastic, squarish, bucket-type things for stacking up dirty dishes.” They started asking my opinion about almost everything from the menu to the kind of ashtrays and beer we should get, and I was happy to help. “Definitely, the lomito sandwich and the Algonquin beer and we could really use some regular waiter’s trays, you know, the round ones, and I wouldn’t mind an apron. The little nylon ones with the pockets to keep change and bills and stuff?”
They obliged, returning with a variety of trays and a gross of cloth aprons, enormous pocket-less things that a butcher or pastry chef might wear, but they were so sweet about it and so pleased, that it was impossible to say, “No. NO. A simple little polyester apron-belt thingie. With pockets. So you can keep your change and pens and bills right there and matches and ashtrays. You understand? Pocket? Bolsillo?” I couldn’t say that because they were too nice and they didn’t know any better and they were obviously caught up in some vicious linen extortion racket. So I put the big white apron on, folding the top half of it down and tying it off in a sort of flashy knot above my right hip, and pretended it was perfect.
I told Max the apron story, thinking, I don’t know, that he’d find it amusing but he didn’t. “Son gente muy buena,” he said. I agreed, sure, Tony and Eva were good people, but they really couldn’t run a restaurant.
“En Mexico,” he said, “I work en un restauran muy pequeño,” he indicated just how small this restaurant had been. “This is better.”
“The Café Americano?”
He nodded vigorously.
“It’s better? How?”
“Mas grande, mas bonito.”
“But it doesn’t matter how big it is, if no one comes.”
“Only on weekends. When Orlando plays.”
Orlando Estribillo with his smoking jackets, his warm voice and his nine-piece Conjunto Colombiano (Orlando was the only Colombian, the others were a mongrel assortment of Latino and anglo musicians), played on Fridays and Saturdays and then the place filled up with people who came to dance to the cumbias, boleros, sones, guarachas, mambos and plenas: music that our anglo clientele variously termed Spanish, Mexican, Cuban or, simply, Orlando’s stuff.
“During the week, the place is almost always deserted. Nadie viene.”
“Eva and Tony is very good to me.”
They should be good to me, I thought. So should you. I’m the one keeping this joint together. If it weren’t for me, we’d always be out of beer. Tony can’t keep track of it. And I’m the one who showed them how to set up the espresso machine. I’m the one who corrected the spelling on the menu . . .
But one Friday night, about six weeks after Max had started, he didn’t show up. He’d been kicking around the day before, “just visiting,” and he usually arrived early, but it was already seven o’clock and he wasn’t there. All night, I kept expecting to see him: dodging between dancers to scoop up empty beer bottles and swab spills, hoisting cases of beer onto the bar and wiping his forehead with his apron, delighted by the success of the party he’d thrown. When he didn’t show up Saturday either I called the number that we had for him but the person who answered said she didn’t know any Max. Eva and Tony didn’t know what to make of it and kept asking me what I thought had happened.
I had no idea, but I’d certainly walked off jobs before and, well, maybe Max had too, though that didn’t strike me as something he’d do. Anyway, where was he going to get another job? Eva and Tony had many whispered conferences that weekend and repeatedly tried the number we had for Max but never got a satisfactory answer. Tony called a “cousin” to help out on Saturday, but he wasn’t nearly as good as Max.
When he missed the following weekend too, I figured he had found another gig, something else, and just hadn’t bothered or was too scattered to let us know. But then he showed up the next Tuesday, as if nothing had happened. Eva had a long conversation with him at the back of the kitchen. I was scooping some ice cream and saw them talking close and quietly together. Then I saw her give him a hug. She put an arm around his waist and with the other pulled his head into her and held him close. His arms hung at his sides at first but then he wrapped them around her and the two of them stood there, swaying a little, and then Max started to dance with her and they both laughed. I pretended to tie my shoe during this little performance, and then dashed back into the restaurant with the ice cream. A little while later, I stepped outside to have a butt before things got busy and found Max there in the alley, putting out scraps and water for the stray cats he’d befriended.
“I wouldn’t get too close to them. They’re probably crawling with fleas and—”
As soon as he saw me, he started for the cigarette pack in his shirt pocket but I pre-empted him by offering him mine. When he actually took one, I realized that I had completely misunderstood all this cigarette offering. It wasn’t about scarcity at all. The proffered package didn’t mean “Do you need a cigarette? I will give you one of mine” but rather, “What great good fortune: there are cigarettes about. Let us enjoy them together.”
“We missed you last weekend,” I said. Max pulled a corner of his apron. “And the weekend before too.”
“Di’ you mees me?” He put his hands on his heart in a Del Sarte melodramatic romantic pose. He laughed through his overlapping front teeth, his head nodding quickly.
“Sure I missed you. What happened?”
“Enh . . .” he smoothed a wrinkle in his apron. “No . . . me olvidé.”
“You forgot?” I asked, narrowing my eyes to express my doubt.
“But you always work on weekends.”
“Sí . . . pero . . . I had to go.”
“You have another job?”
“You have another job? Where?”
“Here.” He gave a big laugh.
“No. . . . Why didn’t you come in last week? We were worried about you.”
“Eh . . . no . . . me tuve que mudar.” He’d had to move.
“From your place?”
“Sí. I had to go.” He repeated it again, as if to himself in Spanish: “Tuve que irme.” Then he said he’d had to go see someone, an emergency, and I couldn’t understand what he was telling me at all. I followed him around the kitchen and into the restaurant asking what happened? where did you go? what people? But his answers were confused, like he didn’t know what had happened. “Is okay now,” he said, but I didn’t know what that meant either. I asked Eva what she though had happened and she said she thought Max had been living on the street.
“Holy shit, you think so?”
The following week, it seemed like Max was around every day. Tony and Eva had him hauling all kinds of crap out of the basement. I’d never been down there, but from the quantity of stuff they shifted, it must have been jammed with years and years of accumulated junk. “What are you doing down there?” I asked Max.
“I am cleaning.” I figured it was more busy work. Max had one of those little paper masks on and he Frankensteined towards me, arms outstretched.
“Must be very dusty down there,” I said, dodging him. He said there was no atmosphere and pretended to asphyxiate. We laughed. He returned below to continue the renovations or whatever he was up to. I went to sort and wrap cutlery.
That Thursday was payday. Tony slid my paycheque along the bar to me and, looking steadily at the cheque under his fingers, told me not to cash it “just yet.” It took me a moment to understand what he meant. “Oh, okay. So . . . when can I cash it?”
He took his eyes off the cheque, looked up at me and worked his face into a smile. A too broad, please-don’t-hate-me sort of smile. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “We just have a cash-flow thing.” I had a cash-flow thing too—rent—but I told him it was okay, that I’d made enough in tips to get by, which was not exactly true. He mumbled “thanks” and assured me that by early next week it would clear and apologized again.
Complaining to Max about the time-delay cheques we’d been given yielded little satisfaction. He didn’t seem to understand.
“No me pagan asì,” he said.
“What, they pay you cash? ¿En efectivo?”
“No,” he insisted, he didn’t get paid “like that” and I finally understood. He wasn’t paid. “Me dan de comer . . . y me ayudan.” They paid him in food. I couldn’t believe it. I made him tell me again. They don’t pay you? They feed you? And they help me out, he said. Helped him out? What was that? They took him shopping for a jean jacket? All this time, weeks and weeks, that he’d been coming in, washing dishes, scooping ice cream, humping cases of beer and bags of ice from downstairs, wiping counters, topping up salt shakers, fixing wobbly tables with match books, sweeping floors, dragging ripe garbage to the curb—he hadn’t been paid for any of it.
“But that’s illegal. That’s wrong. Te están explotando.” There were laws, he had rights, there was a labour board. Why did he put up with it? I asked. I said he should file a complaint but Max insisted it was fine, it didn’t matter, Eva and Tony were good people. He didn’t want me to say anything or tell anyone, he liked being here, he’d agreed to it and so on.
I thought about it later, in my airless apartment, but couldn’t resolve anything. I couldn’t believe that Eva and Tony, helpless little Eva and Tony, could take advantage of somebody like that. So the glorious new American continent the café was supposed to be the start of, where we could all live in lefty peace and harmony, was going to be built on the backs of unpaid illegal aliens? I felt like some kind of sucker, like I’d been had, duped. But it wasn’t possible. They weren’t manipulative like that. And, in fact, there was no money to pay Max with. I had my useless cheque to attest to that, and he really didn’t seem to object to the arrangement, so I shouldn’t stick my nose in. I was wondering how the hell Max could get by—what was his life like?—when my agent came through.
She had an audition for me, an episode of Fear Street, one of those U. S. cop shows that shot up here. I was up for the part of Pancho, a small-time criminal and dealer who ends up on the wrong side of Nacho, the big-time criminal and dealer because Nacho believes Pancho sold “rock” to Nacho’s little brother. It was only one scene but it was a good one for me. I was good with the nervous, street rat thing.
Lunch was, as we say in the hospitality trade, slow. I’d made four dollars and twenty-three cents, which meant I’d be taking the streetcar and not a taxi to the audition, but I wasn’t too bothered. I was already out of there; I was nailing that audition; I was shooting that scene; I was at the bottom of a steeply rising curve that represented the electrifying ascent of my career. I reviewed my lines.
NACHO: Where you going, hombre?
PANCHO: Nacho. I didn’t see you . . .
NACHO: Look to me like you did see me.
PANCHO: It did?
In the back of the café I tried the “It did?” several different ways. I was looking for the precise measure of off-handedness. I couldn’t betray too much fear, too much guilt because there had to be a fair degree of ambiguity because it wasn’t—The café shuddered as a jet, rehearsing for an air show or something, screamed overhead. I was finding it a little difficult to zone in on the truth of these moments with those Snowbirds or whatever they were blasting over us, rattling the crockery and my brain every few minutes.
“You can lock up, eh, Memo?”
Eva and Tony were leaving.
“Yeah, we’re closing for the afternoon. We’ve got a meeting.”
“Just lock up the front door, you know, and go out the back.”
“Sure. Yeah.” I’d lock up as soon as table nine finished. “Good luck. I mean—I hope it’s a good meeting. Productive. You know.”
They gave me brittle smiles and stepped out, blinking bravely in the afternoon glare.
I had cleaned up after table nine left, pulled the blinds down, locked the door and was thinking about going home to shower, masturbate (or maybe not—it might be important to conserve my vital male energy for the audition), dress, run my lines some more and begin the trip across town for the audition when I heard shouting and something falling, one of the big pots, in the kitchen. A moment later, Max banged through the swinging kitchen doors. He looked different, distorted. His arms seemed longer, disconnected from him as they reached out pointlessly, and his eyes were huge again, wide with panic or something. He staggered across the café, bashing into tables, knocking sugar bowls, and calling me Alfonso in a weird voice, all high pitched. He grabbed my arm. “It’s me, Max, Memo,” I said. “It’s Memo.” I tried to pull my arm away but his grip was ferocious. He kept dragging on my arm and calling Alfonso and I was going, “What’s wrong Max? What is it?”
But now he was half-screaming at me to go—“¡vámonos! ¡vamonos!” He wasn’t seeing me even though his eyes were bugging out, he was seeing something else, and I felt afraid like something very bad had happened or was going to happen. He was shouting that we had to go, we had to hide, and I said okay okay sure sure, anything to calm him down, and he yanked the basement door open and pushed me down the stairs. He was unbelievably strong. For a second I thought he’s nuts he’s going to kill me and I tried to push back, but I was turned around below him on the stairs. He stopped for less than half a second to listen to one of those jets approach and then, with a strangled scream, he slammed the door shut and half-fell half-ran down the stairs, pushing and trampling me at the same time.
We landed at the bottom of the stairs and he scrambled over me. The smell of cold earth and mould hit me and I got up quickly and staggered around in the dark, my pulse hammering in my head, looking for a light. I pulled the string on a bulb in the middle of the room and it threw a feeble light across the unfinished basement. There was a kind of office at one end: a lamp, a desk and chair, papers and stuff scattered over the desktop, a poster of Compañero Salvador Allende tacked to the wood framing on the concrete. There was a bed, a mattress with sheets and a pillow. I didn’t really take it in at the time, the bed. It was just another thing in the basement like the empty cases of beer, the tool box and the water heater.
Max was sitting on the floor against a pile of beer cases, his eyes wide and white. He wasn’t saying anything, just wheezing with each exhalation.
“Max? What’s wrong? What happened? Max.” He didn’t answer. “¿Qué pasó? ¿Qué sucedió? ¿Qué pasa? ¿Qué es, Max?”
“Ana Maria.” He called the name like she was across a busy intersection. He stood up and called again, louder, and stared so fixedly that I actually turned to look. I took his shirt in my hands and barked “Max! Max! Max!” at him to try to get him to look me in the eye.
“No la veo, no la veo mas.” He couldn’t see her anymore. “¿Donde se fue? ¿Donde se fue?” He kept asking over and over, in a maddening, whiny voice.
“Stop it. Basta, Max. Shut up shut up shuttttuupp, there’s nobody there, callate!” I said she’s gone, she’s fine she’s fine, don’t worry she’ll be okay, but he wouldn’t hear me or maybe didn’t believe me or maybe he knew better, because he slumped back down to the ground and his head dropped into his hands and he moaned quietly to himself.
“Max.” I planted myself in front of him. “Come on. Talk to me. ¿Qué mierda te pasa? I can’t sit around down here all day. Jesus Max, por favor, háblame. What’s wrong?” I stood there, stupidly stamping my foot and flapping my arms, half-shouting, half-pleading. “MAX!” I shouted right in his face and when he didn’t respond I took him by the shoulders and shook him. I shook him and shook him, rattling him, and still he stayed mute. I grabbed his skinny arms—he was wearing a thin t-shirt—and squeezed down to the bone. It was like a cold burning that shot up my arms—the feeling in his skin—and my head swam and I saw before me underground rooms like this one all over the world where electric currents meet nipples and testicles and tongues and heard shrieking planes and voices and smelled the reek of piss and fear.
I dropped his arms and retreated away from him. I looked at Max, his legs splayed out in front of him, and tried to think. But all that came to me was that this was insane. I noticed that he was bleeding from a gash high on his forehead. It must have happened when we fell down the stairs. Looking for something that might help, I found bags of ice in the freezer and ripped one open. I took a chunk of ice—it felt good in my hand—and ran it over the cut. His eyes weren’t all crazy anymore, but he still seemed far away. I ran that ice over his forehead, around his eyes, on his cheeks, over his lips. I didn’t know what else to do. Drops of water ran down his nose. He made a bubbling noise.
“What? What is it? ¿Qué?”
His eyes weren’t all crazy anymore, but he still seemed far away. “F-f-f-f.”
“What? ¿Frió? ¿Frió?”
He blinked at me.
“Sì, es frió. It’s cold.” I put the ice cube in his hand and held it there. “Frió.” He took it and traced his lips with it. Slowly, as if he were trying to work something out.
A streetcar rumbled along the street above us and Max started. I touched his back gingerly. “No, no te preocupas. It’s okay. Un streetcar.”
He turned to look at me. His eyes were dark and I couldn’t read what was there. He slipped the piece of ice into his mouth and then pulled his scraggy shoulders up to his ears, held them there a few moments, and shivered. He got up and shuffled over to the office and sat on the bed.
I sat down beside him. I was trembling. He fished an unfinished cigarette out of the ashtray on the crate beside the bed, offered it to me, and I thanked him—“muchas gracias”—as he held a match to light it for me. He shrugged, and then scratched his head as if trying to remember what we had come downstairs for.
I blew the audition completely and not just because I was late. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t make the given circumstances of the scene real. I kept thinking about Max, wondering what the hell had happened in El Salvador, what he’d seen, what they’d done to him, why he was freaked.
Two days later, Tony and Eva sat down with me and Max to tell us that they had to close the restaurant. The bank, Tony explained, didn’t think they were a good risk. The three of us looked at the table and our hands and our laps, but Max got up and walked around the empty restaurant, studying the tables and the floor and the ceiling.
“No puede ser,” Max said. “Dis is soch a good place.” He pointed to the peeling linoleum. “El marmol,” he said. Then, “la araña de luces de cristal,” the crystal chandelier, indicating the ghastly lighting fixture overhead. “La orquesta sinfónica,” the empty band stand. He turned a slow circle, gesturing to the walls. “We can show paintins and drawins. Put a fountain. Fish in. Musica. Jazz. Rockanroll. La gente bailando. On Thoorsdays is movies. Teatro. Cabaret.”
Tony tried to smile. Eva nodded her head.
Max moved to the far corner. “In here, we have a bird. Un canario, singing.” Max whistled and fluttered his hands. “Plantas verdes.” He moved along the floor indicating where these green plants would go. “El bar mas grande. To here.” He indicated the length of the bar he had in mind. “Dark, shiny. And lleno de botellas que brillan, un espejo detrás. “El barman con white jacket. Me.” Then, “el techo,” he indicated the ceiling, “un fresco, Michelangelo!” Or a map of the new world or green fields or the sea swollen with waves and fishes and beasts. He had options. Fans to keep the place cool. He saw big, roll-up windows out to the patio, more plants and a fridge “with ice creans and refrescos for kids.” And sometimes, he said, we could block off the street and have a party with grills along the sidewalk and music playing and everyone dancing on the street, and in the winter we would go skating. He found this funny and laughed while he told us that he would stay inside where it was warm, making coffee and chocolate and something sweet to eat for people who wanted to get warm and everybody would come, “todos, todos,” and everybody would know us and feel at home.
“What if I donate my paycheque?” I said.
“What?” Tony’s voice, very small.
“Well . . . don’t pay me. I’ll work for food and tips.”
“No, we can’t do that—”
The place was packed, the band was tight, and Eva, Tony, Max and I danced together, a goofy quadrille to Lagrimas Negras.
“Max doesn’t get a paycheque. I’m saying let’s be like a co-operative or something. Things aren’t good now, so we all have to you know do our part and make sacrifices and then when things turn around, we can share the profit or whatever. Or just pay us our salaries. But for now, why don’t we do that?”
Neither Eva nor Tony said anything.
Eva shook her head. “That’s very . . . generous of you.”
Tony looked at me, his mouth tight and pinched and his breath held. “It’s just—it wouldn’t be enough. We owe a lot of money and—but thanks. That’s—” His voice was all choked, so he just nodded his head at me quickly.
“What will happen to us?” Max asked. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that there were no guarantees, that anything could happen to us, that none of us was entitled to anything. I didn’t say that, of course. I just looked at Tony, who looked down at his hands and then at Eva, who looked at Max and gave him her brave smile, which wavered after a moment and she had to look back at Tony and then at the table.
That Saturday Orlando and his Conjunto played their last gig for us. The place was packed, the band was tight, and Eva, Tony, Max and I danced together, a goofy quadrille to Lagrimas Negras.
“Doan know if you all know but tonigh’ is our las’ night here. The Café Americano is closing,” Orlando announced. A big No!—a collective (and surprisingly touching) cry of disappointment—went up from the crowd. “And we wanna say muchas gracias a Eva y Tony who ran dis great place, and all de waiters and errybody. We wanna wish them a lotta luck, mucha suerte.”
There was a big burst of applause, the band played Dile Catalina, lots of people came up to shake our hands, wish us well, thank us for all the fun they’d had, offer advice and then it was over. We closed.
We each had a beer as we cleaned up. I folded my apron up and left it on the bar, then stood at the window and looked at the dark street. Max came and stood beside me, still wearing his apron. What did I see, he asked me, looking at our reflections and draining his beer. “Nothing,” I said. “The empty street. It’s nice. Quiet.”
I went to shake hands with Tony and Eva, but they hugged me instead. I turned back to Max who was still standing at the window and went to hug him, but he gave me his hand. “Compañero artista,” he said. We shook hands kind of theatrically but Max didn’t laugh and I left him there, staring out the windows at the dark, empty street. As I walked home, it didn’t feel like something had ended. The music was still ticking along in my brain and I felt optimistic. I wasn’t worried about being unemployed. I remembered the round of applause from the crowd and felt that something had actually started tonight. I had the feeling that things were going to work out, that we were going to get together again soon. I thought, I felt, I knew that there was something right, about the café, about us. I knew Eva and Tony would start something else up and that for sure they’d call me to work with them and Max.
• • •
I saw Max once more after that closing night at the Café Americano. Seven months later. Winter, not too late in the afternoon, but already growing dark and colder, with more snow coming down. He was standing on the road, by Honest Ed’s, like he’d just stepped off the curb and stopped for something, wearing his Max de la Renta jean jacket. Pedestrians snaked around him as he looked off into the distance, way down Bathurst, at what I don’t know, shielding his eyes with one hand. I was in a taxi and in a hurry so I couldn’t stop.