The first thing you notice are his eyes.
Such fiery pupils—your immediate reaction is to avoid them. But the old man knows it, and he keeps looking at you until you have no other choice but to return his look, even when the fire in his eyes forces you to recognize his existence, which is exactly what it’s all about.
Even before actually entering the cafeteria, the old man starts seeking eye contact with the other people. First with the customers on his right, who had paid no attention to him, since they’re busy eating or chatting. Then with the servers on his left who, dressed in white, are handling the plates and whetting appetites by pleasantly asking, What would you like with your roast beef, chicken, or pork: rice, potatoes, or spaghetti—then serving tiny portions that emphasize the swindle and also stress the futility of any protest: I’d just like to see you go home for lunch in this heavy traffic and see if you’d get back to work on time for the afternoon shift.
So pay a lot, eat a little, and put up with it. What would you like with the roast beef?
But not this old man.
As soon as he appears at the door, the servers lose their good mood, feeling the pressure as they serve, and each one prays that he won’t have to wait on the old man. His clothes are plain but clean. There is something in the way he carries himself, something in his slender body that indicates that he’s ready for any confrontation—in fact, that he’s hankering for one.
The old man notices how the servers recognize his existence by the way their shoulders stiffen and by their sudden loss of rhythm, by their lack of coordination in handling the plates, the serving spoons, and the food. The old man then picks up his tray and takes his place in the line. He stands erect, in command of his territory, while he surveys the cafeteria, the servers, the bulletin board with the menu, and the list of prices.
Then, walking slowly, deliberately, step by step, the old man positions himself in front of the servers. His stare becomes more fiery, and he gives his order brusquely by pointing his right index finger at the roast beef. Held captive by that look, the poor devil of a server steps forward to attend him with a plate in his left hand and a large spoon in his right hand. At this precise moment, a great silence falls over the line while the other servers, now relieved, wait on their customers.
The server who is taking care of the old man dips the large spoon into the pan with the roast beef. With the utmost care, he takes out two slivers of roast beef;one. . . two.
Not one more.
Two slivers: thin and transparent.
His stare becomes more fiery, and he gives his order brusquely by pointing his right index finger at the roast beef.
From every pound of roast beef, they get one hundred slivers and at four dollars a pound, and at four dollars a dish, the cafeteria’s profit is one million percent in this superb example of savage capitalism.
But when the server steps forward to dip the slivers in the gravy, his hand trembles because he realizes that his time has come.
Total silence. The entire cafeteria: customers, servers, and cashiers respond to the silence that comes from the line. Gone is the noise of the plates and the settings; gone is the noise of the chatter, of the orders for roast beef, chicken, or pork. Each and every fork, spoon, and knife stops in mid-air while all looks are directed at the old man and the motionless line.
Then everyone recognizes the existence of the old man and nobody can say that he does not see him, that he is only a shadow one brushes by. When the old man’s fiery eyes cede the floor to his voice—a voice that is not old at all, but rather a voice belonging to the young man he once was, who formerly dominated the room upon entering—that young man inside of an old body breaks the silence of the cafeteria with the question nobody before him had dared formulate:
—Four bucks for these two fuckin’ slivers of meat?
The silence grows heavier in what seems to be a film that has suddenly stopped: at every table, a knife stops cutting a piece of meat, a chewed bite is not swallowed, or a sip of water or coffee does not make it past the lips. The only thing that moves are the customers’ hundred eyes that go back and forth from the old man to the server, and from the server to the old man, waiting for the reply to the question that each of them had formulated ever since the cafeteria opened, but through fear or shame, had been unable to express.
He, in that line, with the tray in his hand, is no longer the old man disdained by everyone—the man they pass by as if he were a nuisance, almost criticizing him for the air he breathes, for the space he occupies, almost inviting him to die, once and for all, so that the young can take his place.
But the server doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even dare to look up; he just continues dipping the two slivers of roast beef in the gravy. Then, in an attempt to save himself, as a last desperate resort to regain his normal life, and his getting along with his fellow human beings, he raises his head and looks squarely at the old man’s eyes as he croaks out an answer to the question with another question that he thinks will save himself:
—What would you like, sir, with the roast beef: rice, potatoes, or spaghetti?
But the old man is well prepared for any stalling tactic, especially one as childish as this one, and there is no way, given the complete attention of the cafeteria, the silence that he has provoked, and with everyone’s looking at him and recognizing his existence—there is no way that he’s going to let this opportunity go by with the server’s pathetic tactic.
His voice resounds invincible in every ear, at every table, at every chair, and in every corner of the cafeteria when he exclaims:
—I asked you a question, you freak: two fuckin’ slivers of meat for four bucks?
The server gives up. And totally accepting his defeat, he throws the plate with the slivers of roast beef on a table and flees the battlefield in tears. The old man maintains his spot in line, erect, with the tray in his hand, awaiting his next opponent—the one who will reveal to him the secret of the two slivers of roast beef for four dollars—with the whole weight of the cafeteria on his shoulders, with all the other servers frozen in their tracks until the cook himself comes running out of the kitchen to wait on him.
Picking up the old man’s plate, the cook adds one more sliver of roast beef.
—And with lots of gravy on my rice—are the old man’s parting words as the line moves forward and the rhythm of plates and settings, of people who cut, chew, swallow, and chat fills the restaurant again.
From that day on, the cafeteria serves three slivers of roast beef.
And from that day on, also, all the customers await the moment when the old man orders chicken.
Panamanian Justo Arroyo has published ten novels and six volumes of short stories. “The Question” is the lead story in Héroes a medio tiempo (‘Part-time Heroes’), which was awarded the 1998 Rogelio Sinán Central American Prize for Literature. He has been his country’s ambassador to Colombia, and has represented Panama in conferences in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Seymour Menton is an internationally known historian and critic of Latin American fiction. He has published seventeen books, the most famous of which is El cuento hispanoamericano. He has translated several stories and three novels by Cepeda Samudio, Monteforte Toledo, and Severo Sarduy. He has been teaching at the University of California, Irvine since 1965.