The Key to Happiness
One of a short fiction series.*
“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who borrow and those who lend.”
My father, who said this, was a teacher, but even before he was a teacher he spoke in aphorisms. Most boys my age in Puerto Rico — I was 13 — called their father papá or papito, but I always called him Don Manuel. All his students called him that and the other teachers called him that and even my mother, when she was alive, called him that. It was hard to call a man who spoke in aphorisms anything less formal.
Spanish makes it easy to be formal. The “Don” makes any name sound important. When someone is called Don Manuel instead of just Manuel or even Señor Manuel, you know that person is old, or educated, or rich. “Don” tells you that person deserves respect, like using the formal word for “you,” usted, instead of the everyday word, tu. My father once explained to me — and to the rest of the class — that usted comes from vuestra merced which means “your grace.” We may not remember that, but we still go around saying “usted — your grace” to people who deserve, or think they deserve, our respect.
Most people in the modest neighborhood in San Juan where we lived were not particularly aware of or concerned about the origin of words, but they would always treat Don Manuel with respect, so it was a shock when our neighbor, Pepito Molina accosted Don Manuel as we were leaving for school one morning.
“Dónde está la llave?,” he demanded. “Where is the wrench?”
My father considered this for a moment. He was several steps above Pepito on the porch stairs and a good foot taller, so he had no choice but to look down on him. I was right next to Don Manuel and I could sense him calculating how to handle this unusual situation.
“La llave?” he asked.
“Sí. No me la han devuelto,” Pepito said. For your convenience — and to show off my linguistic skills learned by living alone with an English teacher for more than a decade, I will translate as much of the interaction as I am able. “My wrench was never returned,” our neighbor said.
I have to admit, my father was not good with social interaction. Part of it, I think, is the…