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By Antonio Passarello
Traffic on the Guadalajara highway was crawling when Richard turned off toward Ocotlan and he felt his tension evaporate as he accelerated down the two-lane road. From time to time a heavily loaded truck slowed his pace until oncoming traffic cleared long enough for him to pass, but he held out hope of reaching San Miguel de Allende before nightfall. Three years retired from a Stateside college professorship, he’d jumped at the invitation to give a series of lectures to a group of American expats there.
Long before he saw the tope, he saw a lone figure in the middle of the road that grew into a man seated in a wheelchair astride the center stripe. Slowing to a crawl at the crossroad, he rolled down his window and dropped a few coins into the outstretched cup. The young cripple’s face was expressionless and his dark eyes unreadable. Not a word was exchanged. As the road continued to unfold, Richard wondered if the young beggar had been born with his affliction or had been a victim of injury. Had he no family to care for him?
When he returned by the same route dusk had already faded and the intersection was empty, but by his second lecture the young man was there again and Richard dropped coins into his cup. If the wheelchair-bound figure remembered him, there was no sign of recognition.
Richard got a late start on the way to his third lecture and daylight was fast fading as he approached the crossroad. He deposited his coins and as he pulled away looked into his rearview mirror for a last glimpse of the seated figure. His mouth dropped open in surprise as the young man stood and ably wheeled the chair off the road.
“Sonofabitch,” he thought to himself, feeling himself turned instantly from Good Samaritan to unwitting dupe.
There was plenty of daylight left as he returned home, but the intersection was empty. Richard slowed to crawl over the tope, his eyes searching the hamlet for the wheelchair sitter. As he pulled away, the reflected glint of sunlight tugged at the corner of his eye and he saw half-hidden in the roadside ditch a wheelchair’s twisted frame.
His last lecture approaching, Richard’s initial elation was giving way to highway fatigue. Nearing the crossroad for the last time, he saw a figure astride the highway center line. The man was standing, a crutch tucked under one arm and a leg missing from above the knee. As he crept toward the tope he recognized the young man’s face, now sadly drawn and seemingly aged by some ten years. The pain in the dark eyes peering into Richard’s open window was broken by the flash of recognition. They were quickly downcast as if in shame.
Richard hesitated before spilling the contents of his pocket onto the front seat. Passing over the loose change, he picked out a fifty-peso note and stuffed it into the cup.
“Muchas gracias, Senor,” spoke the young man for the very first time. “God will reward you,” he continued in Spanish as Richard pulled slowly away. It struck him that the young man could only believe his own parting words without as surely believing that the God he had so brazenly flaunted had finally exacted penance.