Finalist – Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
‘…garbage, garbage…’ was the cry of one of the three men who manned the garbage truck, #1 in fact, el alcoholico, who walked in front crying his all-too-familiar cry and ringing his relentless bell.
The others were #2, the man on top, who sorted the bags thrown up to him by the hands of #1, el alcoholico, by a system known only to him, #2, among whose distinctions were the well-known activities of his wife that contributed so substantially to the family income, and #3, who drove the truck with a beam of contentment, perhaps because he had no other duties.
But the three more or less permanent occupants of the corner, la esquina, were Fabiola, who had been sizzling discount tacos in her little stand for 30 years; Afinado, who played for backed-up cars till they began to move, played for pesos handed or even dropped out windows; and Angelina, 12, who wore a short skirt, carried a light bag that said “Chivas” on both sides and hopped in with drivers who leaned to open the door, whether they rooted for her team or not.
The fourth occupant of the corner, who would understand if he weren’t counted, was Feo, Afinado’s mongrel with grease so deep in what remained of his mortality that he was nearly indistinguishable from asphalt, and a wound that never seemed to heal. The attached smell was reason enough for keeping his distance from his master, as well as from Fabiola and Angelina, for he knew it was not good for business.
Feo warmed his scrap of concrete at the end of a carefully paced out space, witnessed much of what came to pass on his corner, la esquina, and noted the progression of Afinado’s repertory…for Feo knew not only every composition the man could draw from his instrument, he knew the order in which they were likely to be played.
Time was Feo had gone from car to car with a little basket under his neck, but he was so dirty that drivers failed to associate him with whatever harmonies they might be hearing or maybe he looked a little dangerous for the dog met whosever eyes met his and few windows were lowered, not even low enough to toss out a coin. But the mongrel, and Afinado too, knew the game was definitely up when the wound that would never heal deepened, spread…
And added its unambiguous bouquet to the smells of the city.
The dog would stay where he was on the sidewalk; the man would fiddle between the cars by himself.
Life on la esquina was unremarkable in comparison with that on other corners in the city. Occasionally los contaminantes left many unable to see a block though, on a cold morning in February, a man or woman might witness his or her breath blending with the haze. Buses were often at a standstill, minor mishaps would block traffic either way; even then, there might be so much annoyance, so much antagonism, in the air that no one had time for a taco, a tune or even love.
Afinado, el músico, had not begun life on his corner.
He had started it somewhere else or it would have never occurred to him to take up his chosen instrument and play where he now found himself. Once he had even aspired to first or second chair in the youth orchestra of the metropolis. But youth was gone, perhaps the orchestra too. The day had come, with a father disappeared, a mother sick in her bones and six hermanos, brothers and sisters, to feed, that Afinado simply abandoned his studies, picked up his violin and stepped into the street.
Surprisingly–at the beginning it must have been his charm or his youth–the move had proved instantly rewarding. At the end of the day he could put tacos on the table. Sometimes he could even bring a chicken home for his hermanita to cook. At first, of course, he had not found his niche, the corner he was likely to finish his life on. Afinado wandered the streets, played wherever he could gather a semblance of a crowd, while his younger brothers and sisters went to school and, in the end, just went.
But the day, or night, came when, having paused long enough to sustain himself on one of Fabiola’s cut rate tacos, he found himself reluctant to travel on. The lady noted his continued presence and engaged him in conversation.
“From the other side?” she asked…for Fabi knew her accents and the other side meant the other side of the city. Afinado, thoughtfully chewing, nodded. Fabiola nodded at the instrument held tenderly to his side. “Why not give us a melody, viejito, my clients might well appreciate what you have to offer.”
‘Little old man’ was not Afinado’s chosen form of address but, he supposed, the years had passed and he responded willingly enough.
It turned out that Afinado’s classical repertory was not entirely inappropriate for Fabi or her clients or for the cars that backed up on her corner during the hours of his recital, as Afinado liked to term them, and so nights followed days and days followed nights. At moments of gridlock, the best of his solos could be heard a block in either direction.
Sometimes of a night, though more often of a day, as happens anywhere, dead spots fell upon the threesome, or foursome. Then Fabiola threw no tacos in the fat, Afinado stepped not into the street, Angelina’s winsome gazes stopped no cars and Feo, his isolation unrequired, relocated himself measurably nearer to his friends who, with a box or a crate to sit on in tow, had already moved closer to each other.
These were the trio’s, or the quartet’s, moments of reflection and each and all treasured them.
“Tell me, Angelina,” said Fabiola, though she had her reservations about raising the subject, “what will you be doing in ten years?”
But Angelina was unfazed, she feared the future no more than she did the present. She hesitated contemplatively, long enough for Fabi to picture the girl covered with babies, worn out with childbearing and child raising, still walking those legs of hers, or what remained of them, to their corner each night, if only part time.
“Maybe I’ll be a teacher,” said Angelina, as if she had just thought of it.
“Only if you’ve gone to school yourself,” said Afinado, though he had spent enough years getting himself educated to know it might not lead anywhere at all.
For a time, Fabiola and Afinado just looked at the girl who appeared to be considering what Afinado had said, for both had just remembered that Angelina had never given any indication that she could read, much less write. And both knew there were some things it was better not to know or, in any event, to put into words.
But Angelina appeared to be considering Afinado’s statement, the dead spot continued a bit longer than most, and Fabiola continued.
“If I ever save enough, I’m going to travel.”
“Where will you travel to, Fabi?” asked Afinado who, if it hadn’t been for a houseful of hunger, would have seen the world as a young man.
“The Yucatán,” answered Fabi, “and Chiapas. I want to walk in the jungle and climb the pyramids of the lost civilizations.”
“What’s a pyramid?” asked Angelina, who didn’t want to reveal total ignorance by asking what a lost civilization was.
“Pyramids are what they made in Egypt,” said Afinado, making a pyramid in the air; “it’s what they buried the pharaohs under.”
Angelina knew she wasn’t going to ask what a pharaoh was, though she knew all about burying.
With her parents she’d visited the resting place of her abuelita, her mother’s mother, who’d worked herself to death before Angelina had had a chance to meet her. And she knew from the news that her father watched when he was feeling well enough that there were fosas clandestinas all over the country, hidden graves that, when discovered, coughed up dead young men who had been killed in the drug wars: machine gunned at the gravesite with a cuernos de chiva or executed with a bullet to the back of the head, el tiro de gracia.
These were the kinds of things that Angelina being, if a creature of her times, not quite one of those angelitas who depart this earth as children, couldn’t help knowing though there were times when she knew her knowledge might not be worth very much. But Fabiola, having opened a little, opened a little more.
“Some say our pyramids are better than theirs,” she said, though she couldn’t remember where she’d read that and she wondered how, when she got there, she’d know if the pyramids of her country were any better than those of Egypt. Maybe a tour guide could tell her and she knew it was cheaper to go in a group, but Fabi had had enough of groups, of crowds, even of living in a civilization that might not be entirely lost.
What she did when she could do what she wanted to, she’d do alone.
“And you, Fabi?” asked Afinado, “in ten years, after you’ve climbed the pyramids of Chichén Itzá and Palenque and maybe even been to Egypt to see for sure whose pyramids are better, what will you do then?”
Fabi may have been surprised by the question, but she knew the answer.
“I’ll come back here, Afinado, to see how you two are getting along, if by then our Angelina can fry tacos as well as I can.”
The thought of an overweight Angelina sweating tacos had them all in fits; it was as irresistible a cartoon as one of Fabiola working the corner in a short skirt with a weightless Chivas bag half full of secrets. At this moment of shared delight, though none might have said it quite like that, Fabiola and Afinado and Angelina were not life’s throwaways, not to each other anyway: they were family.
Then the dead spot that had given them all a breather, as well as a breath of life, passed and each returned, as chance beckoned, to his or her chosen or not so chosen task.
Life, as any one of three, or four, might be able to tell you, was not easy on la esquina. Weeks followed weeks and months months and, as was becoming clear to almost everyone, one day years might follow years.
Afinado’s hands began to tighten and twist so that some days he found it almost impossible to play, one day Angelina had stumbled back to her corner with a swollen cheek and a little streak of blood in one eye and just last week the police had come through and knocked down, trashed and taken away all the stands of the street vendors, los comerciantes ambulantes, including Fabiola’s, even though it was a nice metal set-up and her only joy.
“Why? Why?” screamed Fabiola.
One policeman deigned to answer.
“Because it’s bad for business.”
“Whose business?” screamed Fabiola.
The policeman, after throwing the last of Fabi’s wrecked stand on the truck–she had managed to save her cooker by placing her body before it with a hot spatula in hand–indicated the established businesses with a thumb over his shoulder, businesses with glass windows and doors you could lock, businesses that did not require the total commitment of an old man, a young girl or a woman who had turned tacos for thirty years.
“Do they play nocturnes for nothing?? Do they wink and wave at cars?? Do they fry tacos day and night and sell them for a song???” screamed Fabiola.
“Am I in competition with them?” she added as the truck, the police and a tortured crowd of comerciantes groaned like a living thing and moved on.
Fabi knew in her heart that every level of business sneered at the level beneath it–especially those who had to walk their merchandise home at night–and did everything they could to get them out of the way. She knew it like she knew the facts of life, but it was not enough to stop her.
“I will never be beaten,” said Fabi, though no one heard her.
When young, Fabi had believed in curanderas, gone to them for every ill and sent her clients too. But time had taught her that curanderas did not cure, that exhaled cigarette smoke and the sign of the cross did not take pimples off a teenager or fungus from between the toes of those who subsisted in situación de calle, street persons who could not afford her tacos when day was done and she was very nearly giving them away.
It was only a short step from there–a step that took about ten years to take–to seeing that the Virgin herself took no count of your bloodied knees as you labored towards her, that even the recently sanctified sister of their fair city had performed no miracles that merited beatification. The testimonials of those she cured had been, however sincerely, fudged. They were fabricado, which was almost Fabiola’s name, if not quite, and so, only a little late, she reached her conclusion.
In this life, you were on your own. Maybe you could help a man or a woman out now and then with a free taco, but that was about it.
But Fabi had saved her money. There might be no trips to Egypt or even Chiapas, but she would never be in the street–period–the way some people were. Una soltera, she lived alone in a rented room, slept on a narrow bed and, with help, had managed to get her cooker home before someone stole it.
Within a week she was back on la esquina watching her new puesto put together out of sheets of white metal. Not all comerciantes were as fortunate. Some, their goods gone with their stands, goods not yet paid for, could hardly think of starting over until they had accumulated the necessary capital–by whatever means–which brought Angelina to Fabi’s mind, as well as to Afinado’s. Angelina and her parents. Sus padres.
Angelina’s mother was also a sexservidora, though she worked a different territory, and her father was dying of el sida, a deadly disease which wasted him daily.
This Afinado knew for, when he was not playing between the cars, and Angelina was not off in one of them, the two sat on boxes about equidistant from the rebuilt puesto of the reborn Fabiola–for her humiliating “defeat” and thus far successful counterattack had given her new energy–and Feo, who lay comfortably downwind on his scrap of sidewalk. And sometimes old man and young girl found they had some things to say to each other.
“What do you carry in your little bag, Angelina?” asked Afinado.
“Do you really want to know, Afinado?” asked Angelina.
“I do,” said Afinado, for he was at least five times her age and, at that grandfatherly distance, might substitute for the father who didn’t seem able to see through his sickness, at least not well enough to see her.
“Well…” began Angelina.
Afinado made a note of the fact, as he often did, that Angelina’s voice was musical, soft as a child’s–because she was, in the end, still a child–and he hoped her voice would never suffer the loss of its musicality.
“Well,” said Angelina, “this is what I have, this is what I carry in my little bag…”
Here Angelina opened her Chivas bag in a way the contents could not be seen by anyone driving by. Afinado, whose eyes had never been as good as his ears, leaned close. Angelina raised her bag to make it easier for him, then opened it further for him to fumble in.
The bag was half empty. Afinado was unable to make sense of stuff he could half make out, get-ups men liked to see their little angel pull on. One piece, which an old hand singled out, was notable: a pink satiny heart, probably cardboard, cheap and shiny and fitted with a couple of elastics to hold it in place. Afinado held it this way and that until he figured out what it was and where it went.
Angelina had smiled as Afinado chose it–life, in some way she didn’t fully understand, was already a comedy to her–but her expression changed when she saw the look on Afinado’s face.
“Oh, my poor Angelina,” muttered Afinado, whose words were never as clear as his notes, “my poor, poor Angelina.”
It seemed Afinado had nothing more to say and no further interest in the little bag Angelina was holding out to him, so she replaced her heart of hearts and closed it. This was when Afinado, though there were no cars backed up on their corner, stood and stepped into the street, tucked his instrument under his chin and played.
Afinado had always understood that a musician plays, not for himself, but for others. He had never approved of músicos who fiddled so that their own tears ran down their own faces, tears that caught the light and thus became part of the performance.
Afinado played for Angelina and as he played, it was her features that changed. The old man could not claim to see all the ages of child and woman, of the less than immaculate conception that preceded them, much less the dirty death that might well follow, playing across them, but he did see that, to Angelina, life was not always funny.
Sometimes it was something else too.
Angelina knew Afinado was playing for her and the music reached so deep inside that she forgot to watch for cars that might be slowing.
“Oh, my dear Afinado,” she said, though he may not have heard, and nearly echoing his words, met his eyes and added “my dear, dear Afinado.”
This, she knew, he heard.
Afinado knew he was playing better than he usually played for he saw the girl’s heart beating deep within her and hoped he was doing the right thing in disclosing the other side, the side he now knew she knew all too well. He also, at that moment, heard a cough from Fabiola that indicated that, though beauty was beauty and she too knew it when she saw it, or heard it, enough was enough. Even Feo lifted his ugly old head from the sidewalk and, launching his stench upon the air, added his two centavos in a most unmusical howl, a cacophony that was all too clear, but he repeated it anyway.
The cars however had backed up–which was, after all, the reason for more than one soul to have chosen this corner–and Afinado–since survival was survival–pulled a livelier piece out of the air and turned to them.
A door swung open for Angelina and she was gone.
Business, always an unpredictable and highly variable detail, suddenly swelled at Fabiola’s puesto and she sent the good fat sizzling around a horde of hungry customers and perhaps even several meters into an unclean sky.
Angelina was soon back and soon gone–whatever she did didn’t take long–and day progressed into livelier night. Always, perhaps for good public relations, Angelina gave a perfunctory kiss to the man before her timely exit, flashing legs that might one day make her fortune as she slid to the street.
The man, sometimes pleased, always surprised at that parting kiss, drove on. Though one, Afinado noted, just sat there, his hands on the wheel, apparently having been brought to a stop by that kiss until the cars unblocked before him, the horns leapt to life behind him and he was gone.
“Death on wheels,” mumbled Fabiola, who had seen it all and seen it all before and, as usual, days flowed into days, nights into nights.
Afinado’s hands managed, thanks to the greasing of Fabiola’s good fats, to loosen and uncurl at least long enough to give him several hours a night at gainful employment. The police did not return to knock down Fabiola’s new puesto. They were saving that for later when it would be more of a surprise. Angelina was in and out, in and out and, one day, she got in a car and did not return.
“We know all we need to know about her parents,” said Fabiola, “we just don’t know where they are.”
But sus padres, her parents, knew where Angelina was, or where she was supposed to be, and sometime after midnight, suddenly there they were. Angelina’s mother was an overweight woman in a scanty dress, her father was a walking ghost. Both were in agony. The foreseeable had become the inevitable. It had happened.
Angelina was gone.
Inquiries proved fruitless. The police said Angelina had probably had enough of Fabiola’s fats, of Afinado’s oeuvre, of the part she played on la esquina and run off with some fast talker in a fast car who promised better. Without a body–an injured one was best–there couldn’t be a crime.
Life was not easy. Even the police had families, were lowly paid, and only got by on graft. They listened to the story of Angelina as told by her parents, by Fabiola and Afinado, and had no more time to listen.
La patrulla, lights no longer flashing, drove off. Onlookers and bystanders resumed their characters as walk-ons, underfed shadows who relished their roles as Fabiola’s loyal clientele edging forever closer to her refabricated enterprise.
But life was no longer the same on la esquina. Fabi and Afinado both were always expecting Angelina to slide those legs from the next car. Perhaps such incomparable discount tacos never lost their tang, but Afinado’s art was going downhill.
Afinado had to ask himself: had he been playing for Angelina all along? He’d lost his parents, he’d lost his brothers and sisters, one after the other, and now he’d lost… What? The child that he and that enduring soltera in her narrow bed, Fabi the fabulous, would never have?
Though, for a while, he would be the first to admit, after Angelina had joined the disappeared, if not the machine gunned or the executed, Afinado’s art got not worse, but better, as if he were calling, calling to her, and his notes had a plaintive note that was not abominable self-pity, but only loss, loss itself and, hearing it, people for meters in every direction–not all, but some–would stop, stand still, look up, or down, and even, sometimes, place a hand upon the beating heart.
It was as if Afinado had discovered his first aria, if one could play an aria on an aging, even breakable instrument, and it began “oh my dear Angelina, my dear, dear Angelina,” but only he knew that.
Strangely, their loss did not draw Afinado and Fabiola closer, but further apart, as if, as the ages called him–maybe well before Fabiola, but not so long after Angelina–Afinado was suddenly five times the enduring woman’s age as well as the lost girl’s. But they too, the aging couple who would never couple, were on the way out. And, in time, the man’s aria too flew, flew away from him. There was no longer any angelita to call out to, not even a thousand meters up; far, far above the befouled air.
Afinado’s art had left him, everyone knew it and, to add to his misfortune, it wasn’t long before Feo–after an extended period of strangely regarding Afinado as if he, the dog, knew something he, the man, didn’t–died.
With help Afinado got the reeking old body up into the truck and three men returned to their routine, #1, el alcoholico, in front, ringing his relentless bell and crying his all-too-familiar cry…
McGuire’s stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review (x2), Hudson Review, New Directions in Prose & Poetry (x2), etc. His plays have been done by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles, and many other theatres, and are published by Broadway Play Publishing. One, La frontera, set in the same world as the stories, won the $10,000. International Prism Competition. The Scott Fitzgerald Play, University of Missouri Press, a Breakthrough Book chosen by Joy Williams, is now available as an Author’s Guild Backinprint edition. Both playbooks are also available on Kindle. His collections have been finalists in the Drue Heinz and Flannery O’Connor competitions. He is a member of the Authors Guild, the Dramatists Guild and Pen America.