Pedro Jiménez and his Dog
One night in the autumntime, there was an earthquake in the Coyoacán area of Mexico City. It was early in the hours of the morning, and many houses were destroyed and many of the roads cracked or warped and many people lost their lives. All night the sky was red like cigarette butts and the sound of sirens kept me from my slumber.
In the grey light of the morning the people came out from their houses if their houses remained and walked along the streets to see what damage had been done. They walked in a daze of grief too numb to be felt yet as well as shock and trepidation for what horrors they may yet find as they went.
Mothers sat in the dust on the roads weeping and clutched their children to their chests as tight as they could lest another quake come and snatch them away. Little boys wandered here and there calling out loud the names of dogs lost during the night and not returned in the morning. Men stood in front of collapsed shops and stared at them, too overwhelmed to do anything else.
The old oak tree in the school had fallen and the roof of the school building had caved in beneath it. The façade had flopped off from the front of the post office like a sheet of wallpaper peeled down. Half an apartment building stood intact while the other half slid like a mudslide out onto the street, and it looked as if the building had had a stroke. A car was crushed under a slab of concrete fallen from on high in the night. The air was thick and bitter with dust.
Firemen and policemen and busy little men with clipboards and formal shoes zipped like ants here and there among the people and the rubble, and it was difficult to tell which of the two – the dazed or the crazed – was achieving more of any value. Nuns walked gently among the people with food and cups of tea and coffee, composed and coherent as if they had been warned by God ahead of time and had been preparing themselves steadily.
One woman’s wails turned into shrieks for a reason we cannot know, and the people wandered here and there among the ruins of the houses of their neighbours, inspecting them like an auction or a museum, and they felt very sad inside to see that the world had come to this.
The sun rose slowly and heated the day, and it heated up the sadness in people’s chests into something warmer and more fluid – into an early form of love. Silently and gently more and more of them lent themselves to the rubble, digging out heirlooms, searching for animals or friends or products, retrieving people stuck in the mess or stranded in rooms from which they could not get out.
By midday almost all the people were working in this way, silently and gently, held up together on a sheet of tenderness and common feeling, even the loners and the misers and the greedy rich and the beggars came down to help, and they were all accepted as friends. Nuns walked among them with sandwiches and cups of tea. And for a day at least the city was a city of humans, miserable humans but somehow true humans, their masks and titles had slipped off them like the post office façade, run off their faces like make-up in a flood of tears, and they were transparent and genuine and sincere.
Even the Pedro Jiménez came to help. He stumped in across the uneven ground on his crutches, and he stood at the end of the street by the grocery store and watched the people moving about him. He was not strong and he was not dexterous and he could not pick him way through the rubble and he could not climb walls or fix telephone wires or run errands, but he was kind and he was gentle – these, his mother said often, were the talents of Jesus Christ also – so he stood at the end of the street by the grocery store wearing a simple T-shirt which in Spanish said ‘free hugs’.
But no one came to Pedro Jiménez to retrieve their free hugs. Many people wanted to hug someone, wanted to be held and felt, wanted to feel the warmth of someone else alive holding them, but they did not want to hug the quiet boy with polio who was a stranger to them or perhaps had been a laughing stock in the past. So they avoided him and did not catch his eye, and they went about their work stoically with pain and grief in their hearts.
Pedro did not impose himself upon them. He stood at the end of the street by the grocery store, balancing on his crutches and watching them all silently, and as time went on and it became clear that no one wished to be held by him, he drew his face into the shape of puzzling and appeared to retreat into deep thought.
The day was hot now, and soon everyone stopped off from work and rested in the shade, fanning their faces with their hats and drinking the cold water and juice which the nuns brought. Many of them had not drunk anything all morning and had not realised either until the nuns came, and they accepted the little bottles of juice and the cups of water and took their sandwiches and sat in the shade and in silence they cooled themselves and rested.
Here and there someone spoke something quietly to his friend or his wife, but there were no conversations and for the most part all of them were silent. Pedro Jiménez stumped off down the street to go back to his home, for his mother always expected him to lunch.
It was almost 3 o’clock when Pedro Jiménez returned to the street and stood once again out the front of the grocery store. His house was not so far from the store, but it took a great deal from him to move all that way all at once, and already he could feel hot blisters bubbling up in the sweat under his armpits and in the fleshy parts of his hands. He was no longer wearing his Free Hugs T-shirt – his mother changed him into a fresh white T-shirt when she bathed him after his lunch – but there was a leash tied to one of his crutches now and on it he led a great big furry golden retriever with smiling eyes and a happy tongue, and that dog named Benito was now wearing the T-shirt which said Free Hugs.
Some of the people noticed Pedro when he returned to the street, and they smiled sadly to themselves when they saw his dog with him, and they spoke among themselves and pointed him out to one another, and it warmed them a little on this sad day to see Pedro Jiménez standing there with his dog.
At first no one went to him, but he stayed gentle and unmoving outside the grocery store, and after a little time a small boy who had lost his dog in the night walked up nervously to Pedro and Benito, sat down in the gutter, wrapped his arms around Benito’s neck (Benito smiling and licking the boy’s face) and broke out into sobs. And a little girl came and hugged the boy and then hugged Benito too, and Benito raised his paw up in the air and the little boy took it and held it, and soon the boy’s mother came over to retrieve him and she too ended up hugging the dog.
And then other little boys and girls came from among the fallen buildings and the broken shops in the street, and they wrapped their arms around Benito’s neck and body and without knowing why or how they found themselves crying deeply and uncontrollably, and Benito sat still through all their tears, sympathetically, neither crying with them nor recoiling from them, and the little boys and girls went away feeling wretched but somehow lighter than they had before, as though a great cloud sitting on their chests had condensed into tears and in this way washed away from them.
Soon it was not just little boys and girls who were coming to Benito, but old women and young women and some sensitive teenaged boys. And then a respected old man who owned a boxing gym came and sat beside Benito and although he did not cry he ran his hands through Benito’s hair behind his neck and played with the loose skin on his face and mouth.
Then other men came among the women and children, and some of them cried and some of them did not, and some of them hugged Benito and some of them just took up their children in their arms or embraced their wives, and all these people who had been dazed and silent during the day suddenly found now that they were sad, very, very sad, and it felt good somehow to be sad and just numb anymore.
It was dark by the time the people finished with Pedro Jiménez’ dog. He stood patiently and silently until they were finished, and by now there were raw blisters in his armpits and his fingers burnt like hot stoves, but he did not move or go away and nor did he even want to until all the people were done. And when they had all left he waited a few minutes before he himself went away to make sure that none wanted to come back, and when he turned to leave he whispered Benito’s name and together they went away very slowly along the street.
An old woman heard Pedro Jiménez’ crutches on the stone street, and she appeared from inside the grocery store now with a shawl wrapped around her head and tears in the corners of her eyes, and she said “bravo, young man,” and she began to clap her hands together. Across the road the butcher heard her clapping and he came out onto his balcony and when he saw what was the cause he too began to applaud. Others joined in too in the same way, and soon the whole street was outside on their verandas and balconies and standing in the street, all clapping Pedro Jímenez as he went home together with his dog.
Cover by Eric Ward