Old Mate Man

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“How are you doing today?”

This question comes from a short, pudgy old man standing in his yard by the sidewalk, his final tufts of hair thinning as he speaks. He wears ordinary clothes, sandals that have seen better days, and only a few good teeth. His german shepherd, the size of a small bear, lays on the ground, dropping off into a deep slumber.

“Fine, thanks.”

“You live on this street? We’re neighbors. It’s a wonderful street isn’t it, we have a great neighborhood.”

“Yes.”

“Would you like some mate? I’m having mate.”

“Umm, sure, thanks.”

I have taken to accepting mate from strangers since living in this small Argentine town for several months. At home, in a city, I would ignore my neighbors with distaste to savor my anonymity, but that would be reprehensible in this community. Neighbors are to be welcomed, not shunned, and everyone drinks mate. Everyone; just accept it.

I walk into his yard and have a seat on a wooden chair next to the napping dog, or rather an enormous tree stump used for sitting. The man’s gray cement house is short and modest, though the yard is vibrantly green, and he puts a kettle on a rusty, dirt-encrusted stove. I notice that the house doesn’t appear to have a door really, just a cloth curtain, and the inside looks dark compared to the bright sunny day it is outside. He stays by the stove cleaning some things up and I am just sitting on the severed tree trunk with the dog. This is awkward. I thought the mate was ready and he was already drinking it. And he lives alone, obviously. I see no wife and kids running around, which is odd, because this town is brimming with old married couples and children. Hmm… I wonder what the dog thinks. He or she is out cold.

The man comes out and sits in a fading pink lawn chair with a permanent butt-indentation, opposite my tree stump. He asks where I’m from, what I do here, where I’m headed. Fairly superficial, but the general vibe is creepy, increasingly so. I have only been here for about 140 seconds, but I think I’d like to leave.

“Come inside and have the mate.”

“Ahh, umm, I think I’ll stay here, thanks.”

He walks in to get the kettle and I peer in to see his living room and bedrooms beyond that. I wonder if it’s rude to just disappear right now.

“I have an extra bedroom, for tourists. You should live there for a while.”

I need to make my exit, immediately. It’s a trap. He’s a creepy old man, not a helpful neighbor.

“No thanks, I have a house.”

“Come see it, it’s a very nice room.”

His stubby index finger beckons me to follow him inside, the nail caked with dirt and grime from several decades ago. His vaguely sallow eyes are a bit gross but somewhat well-meaning, maybe. I peer in from the outside.

“Very nice. Thank you, I need to leave.”

“I make great empanadas. When are you coming back to have empanadas?”

“Never. Thanks very much.”

“Do you like motorcycles?”

Oh Lord, I can’t leave fast enough. Uh oh, he is reaching for my hand… I suppose to physically detain me. I am having horrific visions of Silence of the Lambs. I could go in the house and never come out. I’d die in a dank, moldy pit in the basement, my fingers torn off, hair pulled out, teeth smashed in, and just dead overall, soon to become fresh dog food. I move quickly out of his depraved reach, putting my hands in my pockets, swiftly moving toward the front gate to leave.

“No, OK, bye bye.”

He stares at me as I walk down the street, and I can feel those eyes burning into my back. I feel slightly violated, like I need a shower and to scrub myself down with hydrogen peroxide, after taking a day to re-sharpen my survival skills and resuscitate my cynicism.