Roberto González Rivera


The Old Man and the Street 


Roberto González Rivera is an artist, author and teacher. He won a writing prize in the seventh grade and he has been writing ever since. He is the author of The Caribbean Chronicles, a series of historical fiction adventure novels based on historical characters and events in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Roberto was born in Puerto Rico, studied at NYU, and later lived in Europe and then in South America. He has taught at every level from Kindergarten to college in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, New York and Florida, where he now lives among alligators and snakes.

I was blocking the sidewalk when the old man came up behind me. My car was in the shop and it was going to take a while, so I was on my way to a nearby restaurant to have lunch. Only, I could not remember the name of the place. I was looking at the map on my phone, but the sun made the screen hard to read, and I had stopped in the shade of a pole, the black power lines tangled up above me. On the other side of me there was a tall metal fence, so there was no way to get around me without stepping out onto the street. When I turned around, I saw the old man standing a few feet away, waiting for me to step aside, baking in the heat of Miami’s Little Haiti.

I got out of his way and waved him through with a small bow and a smile. He returned the gesture and passed.

The man was slim, his skin burnt by the sun, with a halo of brilliant white hair. He was wearing a turtleneck under a flannel shirt and he carried a jacket over his arm, and I could see the straps of a backpack over his shoulders. I noticed this because it must have been eighty degrees outside. His indulgent smile and his regal posture seemed at odds with his clothes, which, though clean, seemed to have seen better days.

I gave up the search for the restaurant. After all, I knew I was walking in the right direction. I put my phone away and started walking again, which put me close behind the old man. He glanced over his shoulder and I felt I was too close for comfort. As I walked, I considered stopping to let him get ahead, so he would not think I was stalking him. It also occurred to me the man could be a Miami street nut, and I didn’t want to get pulled into another conversation about ancient aliens building the pyramids. But the idea of stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, doing nothing, while the man walked away, seemed creepy, so I took a deep breath and sped up, instead.

“It seems we are walking in the same direction,” I said.

He turned to me and smiled.

“It’s a beautiful day.”

Now we were walking side by side.

“It would be better if it were not so damn hot.”

He looked at me and tilted his head.

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, I was born in Puerto Rico, but I’m from all over.”

He stopped.

Ah! Puerto Rico! Encantado de conocerlo!

His accent was not bad. I smiled.

El placer es mío.The pleasure is mine.

We started walking again.

“And where are you from?” I asked.

“I’m from Croatia, part of what used to be called Yugoslavia. It doesn’t exist anymore.”

I nodded. He went on, counting with his fingers.

“It was a federation of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.”

“I visited Yugoslavia once, long ago. I stayed in Dubrovnik, a beautiful city.”

His face lit up.

“Dubrovnik! Yes, that’s in Croatia, where I come from.”

“That’s funny. Dubrovnik surprised me, I confess. It’s lovelier than I expected. I went there with a friend. We swam in the grottoes—a little island across the bay. I remember we took a small boat. The water was crystal clear, and we sunbathed in the boulders above, everyone nude and relaxed and beautiful.”

He was beaming. I could smell his sweat, but I was sweating, too, and I wondered if he could smell me.

“There was a place in the old town,” I said, “where there was a sort of stone step coming straight out of a wall, about a foot off the floor, but only a few inches deep.”

“The maskeron. It’s a gargoyle in the shape of an owl. On the Stradun, the main street, by the Pile Gate, next to the Franciscan monastery.”

“You know it.”

“The legend says if you stand on it and take your shirt off without falling, you will be lucky in love.”

“So that’s it. I remember that. Young men would stand there, facing the wall, and attempt to take their shirts off over their heads without falling off. It was so long ago…”

The old man nodded.

“After we watched a few young men try—some made it, some didn’t—my friend encouraged me to do it. I was younger and in pretty good shape, if I say so myself. Anyway, I stepped up and soon I realized it was not as easy as it looked. The wall was almost against my nose. I had to be careful to keep from falling, crossing my hands to the opposite sides, rolling up the bottom of my shirt and inching it up to my shoulders and over my head. It took forever, but I did it. The crowd clapped and my friend was delighted.”

“And have you been lucky in love?”

“Well, I can’t complain.”

I noticed the smile on the man’s face had turned rueful.

“I was very sorry to hear the news of the war,” I said.

“Yes, it was very sad, but I had seen war before. During the Second World War, I crossed over to Austria. I was a teenager. Since I already spoke German, I found work there, but I was working with others against the Nazis.”

“You were a teenager during World War II?”

He smiled.

“I’ve lived a long life. I’m almost a hundred years old. Lived in many places, too, and I learned to speak different languages. I speak Croatian, Serbian, German, Russian, Spanish and English.”

“Almost a century of life.”

I looked at him again. At first, I had imagined he might be homeless, but his hair was bright white and it moved in the warm breeze. It was not sticky or yellowed with skin oil. His skin was dark and wrinkled, but unblemished. His hands were clean. I guessed he was wearing dentures, because his teeth were perfect. And he expressed himself without hesitating or slurring his words. That made me think of something.

Isn’t Serbo-Croatian one language?”

“Mm, yes and no. In Croatia, we speak Croatian, and we write it in, what do you call it, the alphabet you use.”

“The Latin alphabet.”

“Yes, the Latin alphabet. We can write Serbian with a form of the Latin alphabet, but most people use the Cyrillic alphabet.”

He pronounced Cyrillic with a soft ch, like Chicago.

“Like Russian,” I said.

“Like they use in Russian, yes. Are you familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet?”

“I know it exists. That’s about it. I once had a girl from Yugoslavia. Her name was Mihailovic.”

The man smiled and nodded.

“Mihailovic, yes, that’s a Serbian name. Well, in Serbia, they use the Cyrillic alphabet to write all official documents. What they use in Russian, like you said. After the war, I joined the Russian army. I was already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet. Russian is different from Serbian, of course, but I learned.”

We crossed the street and passed a convenience store with hand-painted signs in English and Creole, old black men standing outside, under a narrow ledge, avoiding the sun and smoking.

“You were a young adventurer, joining the Red Army,” I said.

He shrugged.

“I was idealistic. After the army, I traveled all over the world. I’ve lived in eighteen different countries.”

“Lived in them.”

“Visited many more.”

“And at your age, you are so full of life, so happy.”

“It’s a choice, isn’t it? I could choose to be sad, after all I’ve seen in this world, but I choose to be happy, and to do good wherever I go. Treat others well, it comes back to you.”


“Karma, yes. You know about Karma? Let me tell you, a man once pointed a gun at me in the street. He said he was going to kill me. I said, ‘You can kill me, but are you ready for the consequences? Because Karma will pay you back.’ I talked to him, told him about Karma. I’m kind to everyone I meet, and Karma has paid me back.”

“And what happened? With the man with the gun, I mean.”

“Well, I’m still here, right?”

And he laughed, his ultra-bright teeth sparkling in the sun.

Who is this man?

“You know, I would have never guessed your age.”

“I’ve never been sick a day in my life—other than a cold, that sort of thing.”

“How is that possible?”

“It’s all in here,” he said, pointing at his heart. “Carry love and kindness in your heart. Be good to others. People who hurt others, who try to make others feel bad about themselves, they have their hearts full of garbage. They try to sell me that garbage, I tell them I don’t buy garbage. They can keep it.”

“I like that.”

“All that garbage, it makes them sick. You can see it. Look at them.”

I thought of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

We passed a row of small, one-family cement-block houses that looked like they might have been something one day, but had fallen on hard times. A man was washing a car with a garden hose, and steam rose from the sidewalk. Next to me, the old man looked me over.

“How old are you?” he asked.

I told him.

“Oh, you have many years ahead of you.”

“I hope I’m as healthy and happy as you when I reach your age. You’re my hero, now.”

“I plan to live another hundred years.”

“Another hundred?”

“Why not? In the past, people lived a lot less than they do now. Now, sometimes they live twice as long as they used to live. So who can say I won’t live another hundred years? I’m not sick. I feel fine.”

It’s impossible to live two hundred years. Isn’t it?

“I try to take good care of myself, but I don’t think I will last another hundred years. I don’t think I want to live that long.”

“If you’re healthy, and your mind is clear, why not?”

We came to another corner. There was a bus stop across the street. A young man was sitting there with headphones on, his eyes closed. We crossed the street and the old man stopped.

“Well,” he said, “this is where we part ways.”

I realized I did not want to say goodbye to this man I had just met, but there was nothing else to do. I drew myself up and bowed.

“Thank you, sir, for the pleasure of your company.”

He looked into my eyes for a second, smiling tenderly, and I wondered if he was trying to tell me something. In the back of my mind, I thought he was saying, don’t you know me? But when he bowed and spoke, he said something else.

We’ll meet again. I’ll see you in a hundred years.”

 Then he turned and walked away. To the bus stop? I can’t tell, because I did not dare look. I half expected to see him vanish in the air. Instead, I sighed, looked straight ahead and kept walking.

I crossed the tracks and passed a little industrial park and some bungalows that must have been quite the thing in their day. I saw a plaque that commemorated the Lemon City Cemetery, an African-American cemetery that had been there from 1911 until the community abandoned it in the thirties, as Miami grew and Jim Crow laws pushed black families out of the area.

This place must be full of ghosts.

 As I walked, I kept thinking of my brief conversation with the old man. We had not even told each other our names.

Up ahead, I saw a few small, round tables on the sidewalk, each with its own umbrella to shelter it from the sun.

What’s the name of that place?

The restaurant had not been as close as I had first thought, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even mind the idea of having to walk back to the garage after lunch. Despite the heat that made the buildings shimmer in the distance, I felt as if I were floating above the sidewalk.

As I drew closer, I saw the sign on the awning that overhung the windows of the building. The green fabric had thin black letters that spelled out the name of the restaurant.

Kafé Karma.




© The Acentos Review 2021