“I don’t have 500 pesos,” I say in my best Spanish.
“Then give me 400 pesos,” the boy says. He has a knife pointed at my heart.
I look at the knife and shake my head. “I don’t have that either.”
“Well, how much do you have?” the boy says, raising his voice.
“Three pesos. Just enough for the Metro.”
I pull out my pockets, one at a time, to show him that I don’t have anything. The pockets hang like white tongues from the sides of my pants. I take three coins from the last tongue and hand them to him. He snatches the pesos and, without counting them, tosses them away in a single fluid motion. The coins bounce in separate directions against the sidewalk and disappear somewhere along the gutter. A dog, lying in the shade of a broken-down car, lifts its head and notes the clanging.
The boy has red eyes and a bloodless face. Too much booze and not enough food. He pokes his knife into one of my out-turned pockets and cuts it open with a quick flick. A cold shiver runs up my neck and over my scalp. Pure animal fear kicks in.
The boy points the knife again at my heart and says, “Take off your shoes.”
I raise my hands above my head and try to say something to calm him down. But all I can do is choke on the sudden dryness of my mouth.
“Take off your shoes,” he says again, almost shouting.
I notice an old woman on the other side of the street. One of those half-dead peasants who sells trinkets and candy on the sidewalk. She covers her head now with a dark shawl and hobbles around the first available corner.
“I can’t hide any money in my shoes,” I explain to the kid. “They’re full of holes.” I slip off each one without untying them and stand on the sidewalk in my socks. The boy kicks at each shoe the way you’d kick at a dead animal.
Everything’s wet and sad looking from last night’s rain. I shiver involuntarily. The moisture from the sidewalk begins to penetrate my socks.
The boy squats down to grab one of the shoes, the whole time keeping the blade firmly against my chest. I feel the point of the blade cut into my shirt and push against my skin, less than an inch from my left nipple. The boy shakes the shoe several times and, when he’s finally convinced that it’s empty, he tosses it away and grabs the other one.
The taste of adrenaline fills my mouth. A kind of acidic fear. I’m convinced he’s going to knife me once he realizes that I’ve got nothing, that I’m completely disposable. Just an expat loser in the Federal District.
The boy stands back up now, holds the second shoe at eye level and, with a quick nod, invites me to inspect it with him. Most of the stitching has come undone, and the heel hangs open like an old mouth. The boy looks at the shoe for a long time, his eyes redder and brighter than before and yet somehow expressionless.
The blade is still against my chest; my hands are still raised above my head.
“Your feet must get wet when it rains,” the boy says after a while.
I nod and wait for the knife to slide in. Maybe I won’t feel the point of entry. Maybe the adrenaline will act as a painkiller.
The boy drops the shoe into an oily puddle; cold water splashes across my already-wet socks.
“What’s your shoe size?” the boy asks.
The question seems to come out of nowhere. I don’t know how to respond.
“What’s your shoe size?” he asks again.
“I’m a twenty-eight,” I tell him.
The boy smiles. “The same size as my grandfather.”
I want to smile back, but all I can do is show him my teeth.
“My grandfather just died,” the boy says.
I try to give him a sympathetic look. “Was he very old?”
“About your age. He had cancer.”
The boy looks up at the sky for no apparent reason and lets his eyes turn glassy, out of focus. For the first time he exudes something other than hate.
I step away from the knife, just an inch or two, but enough so that the blade no longer rests beside my nipple. The boy doesn’t seem to notice. I decide it’s probably safe to lower my arms.
“I was just thinking,” the boy says, snapping back to reality. “Your shoes are in really bad shape. And my grandfather bought a brand new pair just before he died. And I was just thinking, because nobody’s using them anyway, that maybe you’d want to have them.”
It takes me a second to respond. “You mean the shoes?”
“They’re brand new,” the boy says. “He barely wore them. And they don’t fit anyone at home.”
“Well, I do need a pair. But I don’t have any money on me.”
“You can have them for free.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ay, pinche gringo.” The boy waves his knife at me. “Just look at you.”
He then tells me to wait while he goes down the street to get the shoes from his mother’s place. As he runs off, I consider bolting in the opposite direction. My rodent brain is screaming high-pitched survival commands. But it’s pointless to run. My knees are useless, arthritic. And without money for the subway, I’d have to walk four or five hours through bad neighborhoods to get home.
There are pay phones at the Metro station. And I could possibly beg someone to lend me a calling card. Maybe even a cell phone. But who would I call? I’ve burned too many bridges.
But if I stand around here and wait for the kid to come back, I might find myself in even deeper shit. The promise of shoes could be just a ploy to keep me here while he collects some inbred nacos and organizes a proper lynching. The fun of brutalizing a hapless gringo.
I wiggle my toes, wet and cold, and reconsider every life choice that has brought me to this desperate, stupid moment. Hippie delusions and Kerouac novels.
I’m embarrassed and panicked. And my rat brain is telling me to forget about my precious knees. Just run like an asshole and worry about getting home later.
But the kid’s already back in sight when I decide, finally, to make an escape. He’s alone, thank God, and seems to be carrying something. I can’t tell what. But when he gets closer, I can see the grin on his face and a pair of black leather shoes in his hands. The shoes are dusty but in good condition and they look about my size. He wipes them clean with his T-shirt before handing them to me.
“Do they fit?” he asks as I slip them on.
“They’re perfect, “I say. “Very comfortable.” I’m not lying either.
“Good, then keep them. They’re yours.”
“Gracias,” I say, “muchas gracias.”
The boy pats me on the back and shakes my hand and makes a few joking comments. And I laugh and thank him many more times for the shoes. Neither one of us knows how to end this.
Probably the boy’s waiting for me to leave first. It’s his barrio, after all. But I have no way of getting home. It’s too far to walk.
The boy can sense my uneasiness and asks me what’s wrong. “Are the shoes no good? Don’t they fit?” I see the muscles in his face tightening.
“No, no, the shoes are fine.” All I can think about is his knife coming out again.
“Then what is it? What’s the problem?”
“I, I…” My rat brain’s telling me to shut up and run. “I don’t have any money for the Metro. You threw away my last pesos.”
The boy looks at me with his bright red eyes. Whatever kindness was in them before is instantly gone.
I’m about to tell him that there’s nothing to worry about. That I can walk across town, no problem. That I need the exercise. And I’m about to turn and leave, but the boy bursts out laughing and punches me in the shoulder before I can step off the sidewalk to cross the street.
I wonder what the hell’s so funny. And I stand there for a moment, straight-faced and frozen, bracing for some lunatic outburst.
But I start to laugh, too, when the boy reaches into his pocket and hands me a crumpled twenty peso bill.