by L. Vocem
First Published in The Tulane Review
Tulane University, Fall 2020
There was something funny about the piece of arepa with mystery meat that Elisa thrust into his face as if she had hit the jackpot. Oscar took one whiff, and then a second one. The smell of putrefaction no longer bothered him, but he said no, it was too far gone. Elisa looked disappointed, hunger written in her eyes, in her expression, in her savoring lips. But she trusted him. He never let her down. Many times in the past she had left the food back into the garbage and another kid had gotten it, only for hours later to be rolling in the dirt sick, puking, feverish, shitting in their pants – only to not see that kid again.
Elisa placed the food back in the garbage, while another kid quickly snatched it and took off. Elisa looked back at Oscar, with desperation. What if he was wrong. They kept moving through bags, fanning the flies away. Oscar noticed a car stuck in traffic with a girl about his age in the back seat looking at him with horror.
“Vamonos,” let’s go, Oscar said to the other kids that hanged out with him. It was time to go by Don Juan’s fruteria. He didn’t treat them like some vermin, or some stray dogs. He understood that they all lived in the streets and had nothing to eat. They ran several blocks down to his street stall. It was already cleaned.
“Llegaron tarde,” Don Juan told them, piling some boxes on the back of his old beat up Toyota pick-up truck. Oscar and the rest of the kids helped him finish loading the truck. He opened one of the crates and pulled out a couple of mangoes and handed it to them.
“Remember, stay out of the barrio at night. Go find places to sleep in the besindarios, it’s safer over there.”
They all came from the barrio themselves. They knew the small alleys and steps that went down the mountain into the main avenues, into the city of tall buildings – a city that a few years back was opulent and rich. Now there was no food in the abastos and supermarkets and panaderias. People starved. Only the people that worked for companies that gave them bonuses in dollars or worked for the government were able to buy food.
“Let’s go to Abasto el Rosario,” Elisa said. They walked a few blocks to the edge of the slum, where the shanty met the street and there were stores. They looked around in their garbage and found several empty sardine cans. They were fresh and still had flavor and oils and a speck of food in them. Elisa ran her finger along the inside, then passed it to Oscar.
A couple of older kids came by and bullied them. They were cocky and boisterous since now they worked for one of the local gang leaders. One of them teased Elisa, that she was a cute mamasita, that maybe she needed protection. They laughed and stuck their tongue out and threw her kisses.
Oscar and his group ran down the street and across the rush hour traffic into the green grass of the medium, to the other side, where the tall buildings began. Whenever they stopped around a particular building a security guard would come outside and tell them to scram. So they kept moving.
They stopped in front of a bakery. It was time for their cachitos to come out and a group of people gathered to buy them. Cachitos were crescent-shaped bread baked with ham inside, sometimes they would fill it with Diablito, deviled ham. Oscar could tell the difference just by the smell. They stood in the distance. They had no money. They couldn’t buy any of them. A man took a bite of his cachito and steam came out. The man closed his eyes as he took another bite. He opened them and noticed all the kids looking at him.
“Que miran carajitos? What you looking at little shits,” he said, bouncing his eyes from each one of them, noticing their dirty faces, muddied clothes. He took another bite and chewed slowly. “I can’t even enjoy this.”
“Here,” the man said, extending his hand out with what was left of his cachito. Oscar came forward with open hands. The man placed the cachito on them. Oscar wanted to devour the thing and felt the temptation to ravage it, instead, he broke it into pieces and gave it to his friends.
“Este gobierno de mierda nos ha reducido a esto,” this shitty government has reduced us to this, the man said, sticking his hand in his pocket and pulling out some money, going back to the counter, where he ordered another cachito.
“We’ve sold out,” the baker said. “we only get enough flour to make one batch. Tomorrow, same time.”
“Gracias señor,” Elisa said.
They moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, stopping by the back of restaurants and bakeries, hoping to find something. Dusk began to set in and a golden glow permeated throughout the buildings. To the north, they could see, even above the buildings the great lush green mountain – Naiguatá. Suddenly the sky was filled with loros, guacamayas, and all kinds of parrots, screeching, hocking, flying in a cloud of colors, and as quickly as it started, they disappeared. Many of the guacamayas landed on the clothes-hanging lines outside the windows of the buildings.
The night was cold. They went down to a main avenue. In the old days, it would be filled with people sitting on sidewalk cafes eating, talking, drinking. Instead, a mass of stoic people walked up and down towards their destinations. Traffic moved slow, fumes, honking, buses, motorcycles, more honking. Like flies, the motorcycles moved between cars, buzzing, accelerating, stopping, popping, accelerating again.
As they walked, they checked the garbage cans in front of restaurants, but nothing. There was nothing. So they went up towards the big mountain, in an area of tall buildings surrounded by equally tall trees – samanes, caobas – as wide as a car. Sometimes the road went around a tree and cars parked on the space in the middle. They arrived at the building. Behind some decorative plants, they had set up some cardboard so they would be protected from the weather and the cold. As they gathered inside their little area they noticed that the cardboard was gone.
“El guachiman nos boto las cajas,” the guard threw away our boxes, Elisa said.
“We don’t know that, he’s usually nice to us,” Oscar said.
“Are we going to have to go to a park?” One of the kids asked.
“No. We stay here, tomorrow we find another place,” Oscar said. He didn’t need to explain that if they went to a park, they could be harassed half the night by the Chulos, pimps, trying to recruit girls and boys; or the other adult homeless, who could be vicious if you had taken their spots; or later on the Metropolitan Police, who would try to extract money or valuables from them. They would kick them and threaten to take them to jail, but they never did, the jails were already packed and had no room.
They huddled next to each other in a circle to stay warm.
“Did you go see your mom?” Oscar asked Elisa.
“Si fui,” I went, she said, frowning. “She wasn’t there. One of the neighbors told me that they left.”
“Left? Without you?”
“She’s the one that kicked me out. She’s the one that said I was a putica trying to seduce her boyfriend. I didn’t care about him. He’s the one that constantly tried to get in my bed. I bet it was all his doing.”
“Where did they go?”
“Don’t know. The neighbor said, Colombia. They were trying to make it to Peru, like everyone else.”
“How about your two little brothers?”
“I guess they took them.”
“What’s your story?” One of the kids asked Oscar.
“Coñasa. My dad beat the crap out of me because, he said, I stole my brother’s food. That I should be protecting them…He beat me all the time. I had enough.”
The roaring sounds of the city subsided as the sing-song of chirping frogs with their crisp whistles filled the air. On occasion, they would hear gunshots, or some truck having a hard time switching gears.
Dew covered all the vegetation when they woke up in the morning. Oscar felt the hunger in his empty stomach. They went down to the avenues and observed the cafes, what people threw away. A fruteria was starting to set up their stall. They asked if they could help.
“Scram,” the man told them. “Last time I let you kids help, you stole from me. So no. Vajanse para el carajo.”
“It wasn’t us,” Elisa said.
Mid-morning, they arrived at a park with kids running around in school uniforms. They were in recess. The adults looked at them with suspicion so the kids kept at the fringes. A girl with black long hair sat on a bench looking at her phone. She pulled out of a bag a tequeño and took a bite. Oscar remembered his mother, how she made the dough and cut it in long strings and wrapped it around the white cheese and then fried them. For a while when they could make ends meet, she would go down to the city and sell them. But they couldn’t even bribe people to buy more flour.
Some of the older kids arrived at the park. One of them ran into the girl with long hair and knocked her down. Her tequeño flew in one direction, her phone into another. Another kid picked the phone and they all ran away. Some of the teachers came running and grabbed Oscar and his friends. Elisa picked the tequeño and gave it back to the woman.
“Ladrones, carajitos de mierda,” A man said. “Let’s call the police.”
The man screamed at Oscar and his friends and blamed them and the government, and the dictadura, the corrupt police, the useless military, the impotent politicians, and the lack of food, medicines.
“It was not them,” the girl interjected.
The man held a fist to the kids, then flicked his index finger out and screamed, “You, all of you…should be in school.”
He turned around and went to where the uniformed kids were, now all gathered around one of the teachers.
“What is your name?” the girl with long black hair asked.
“You soy Alejandra,” she said.
They practically followed her in the distance half the morning, until she disappeared into a fifteen-story building. There was a thicket of woods next to the building and Oscar thought it would make a great pad for them.
They went to the edge of the barrio, where there were a lot of street stalls, selling whatever trinkets were available. They went to Don Juan’s fruteria and helped him unload his truck.
“Hey, kids, what’s your favorite fruit?” A man asked them.
“I like apples, but you can’t find any apples anymore,” Elisa said.
“I like nisperos,” Oscar said, looking at what Don Juan had available.
“Go grab whatever you want,” the man said as he pulled out a wad of money and paid Don Juan.
“What’s your name little girl?” he asked Elisa. Don Juan stood between the man and Elisa, counting his money, but looking at him with suspicion.
“Tranquilo viejo,” Easy, old man. “When was the last time you kids had a whole meal?”
They chewed their fruit. Elisa lifted her shoulders but did not respond.
“How about a place to sleep? If you come with me, I can get you all that.”
“Nada es gratis,” Nothing is free, Oscar said.
“All you have to do is make people happy, that’s all.”
“I think you need to leave the kids alone,” Don Juan said.
The man smiled, looked to the side of the road and motioned with his head. A SUB drove up to where he stood and a door opened. He got in.
“Remember, you don’t have to live like this,” he said, primarily looking at Elisa.
The door closed and the SUV took off.
The kids continued to eat their fruit as if nothing had transpired, but Oscar and Don Juan kept looking in the distance at where the vehicle had disappeared into.
“Escuchenme carajitos,” Don Juan said. “I want you guys to disappear from this area. Don’t come around anymore. Men like him, offer only once, the next time they take. Do you understand what I’m saying, carajo.”
They went back into the city, along the big avenues, up to the neighborhoods with the tall trees around the high rises and followed their usual routines trying to find food with very little luck. They decided to try the new building as their lair. Along the way, Oscar noticed something behind one of the markets, not food, empty boxes. He told the other kids to disassemble them and take them for shelter. They passed the building where the girl with black hair, Alejandra, Oscar remembered, lived. They laid down the boxes around an area and settled down.
Before sunset they noticed the girl with back hair come towards the thicket holding a brown paper bag. She stood in front of all of them.
“I saw you kids come in from my apartment balcony. Look, if you want to stay here, you have to keep this area super clean and neat. I will talk to our guards to watch out for you. The moment this looks like squatters, the guards will kick you out. You understand?”
“Si,” they all nodded their heads.
“Here, have some tequeños my mother made.”
She opened the brown paper bag.
Oscar took one whiff and the smell brought memories of home, of her mother cooking, of helping her take the large metal pot to the plaza. He took one bite and his mouth salivated, the flavors were heaven. The cheese was no longer hot and stringy, but that was okay, this was the best thing he’d had in his mouth in a long, long time.
It would do.