© Nicholas 2004-06
A milliseconds glance, he saw the small gray pile, drifting into black, not bright and pink or soft and tan like once it might have been. A used and well chewed piece of gum spat on the sidewalk. Feet made an arc, avoidance well attuned, he didn't want to have the slightest string of ooze and goo upon his soul. He walked by me without a moment's hesitation.
A crinkled nose, this one smelled the rotten stench, the steaming pile of dog shit lying there. His feet took his whole body well away without even looking down.
He thought, "A Walmart sack with something left inside." I seen the eyes take a tiny gleam, a thought that maybe they had found a prize. They looked at the package quickly from askance, then jaded reality quickly glazed them over. "Nothing more than a rolled up used and dirty diaper," I could almost read them say. Stepping across, he was already scanning for the next glimmering spot of treasure when he passed me by.
It was the first time I had worked this crowded corner, but not the first time that I knew what they all saw, or maybe better put, what they managed not to see at all. Used gum, dog shit, soiled diapers, just a few of the images my presence seemed to conjure from the air.
I didn't need much more. A couple of quarters yet, maybe a dollar or two might drop my way and then I'd try for smokes. Just a little more and I could eat tonight. Well eat what I wanted anyway. The shelter food was sometimes pretty good, sometimes crap, depended on which church was cooking that night I guess. So if I made enough, I'd slip into El Chapultepec and get a burrito first. God that place was a real dive, but Manuel made the greatest hot burritos and he didn't mind me hanging in the kitchen for a bit before the shelter opened. Then I'd meet Mom in line and we'd get mac and cheese - more sand colored than yellow, or some kind of something they called stew where even celery and carrots took on deep and total brownness.
I hated standing in that line. God how stinky people got. It was like they couldn't smell themselves, so they didn't smell each other. The one great thing about this shelter was the family room, where kids could get a shower without being scared that they would get a lot more than they wanted. Mom laughed when I wore my undies and socks into the shower, she thought I was being shy. Shit, I just wanted to wash them too. I'd hang them under the bed on the springs and they'd be almost dry in the morning. The family room also had a room of kid's clothes, where I could trade a T shirt every other day and sometimes get new jeans. I liked the clothing room lady. She would look for things my size and seemed to know I didn't want no Care Bear shirts, she even found a Billabong T for me once.
Just a few more quarters. Another half an hour, maybe less. This corner was really busy. Lot's of people walking by. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Wonder what they hurried too, or from? Maybe they were running, just like me. There really was no going to, just going from; going from the cold at night, going from the ache inside my hungry stomach, going from the cops when they would look my way, going from yesterday to today. Going from one person to the next, "Hey mister, I just need another quarter to catch the bus home, can you help me out?"
He looked somewhere at my chest and shoved a hand down in his pocket, yeap a quarter, shit no! Three! Damn, that was enough today. "Hey thanks, Mister." I smiled at him, he hurried on as if I was a dark, disfigured Lincoln portrait on a penny not worth the effort to see, let alone pick up.
Behind him, catching my smile like the pound guy jumps on dogs, I seen a sickly whale sneer a flickering of interest. I sniffed him as he raked me with his eyes; seeing something, almost like he'd found a rock of crack, perhaps a hit of snow? Then a shuddered realization that the foil had probably been unwrapped and lain there for a week. The look he gave me now said I was surely nothing more than a used and fouled, diseased syringe with nothing left inside but pestilence and death. He oozed sickly sweat and flopped along the sidewalk looking for another place to beach his massive blubber.
A chill ran through me head to toe. The money in my pocket flamed and froze against my thigh making me cry out. One of the younger older guys in the shelter had explained to me what some people looked for on the street. I'd never had to. I still had Mom and nights in the shelter were at least out of the rain, out of the pain I'd seen on Jimmy's face. He'd come in with his Dad, but the shelter made them stay in the men's wing; no family room without a mom I guess. He came to breakfast looking like he hadn't slept and said his Dad had him in the toilet all night long. I asked him if he was sick and wanted me to get the nurse. He kind of groaned a laugh and said his Dad had paid the nurse to let the others in. But then he almost smiled and said at least his Dad had enough now for the tickets. He'd sleep on the bus until his Dad wanted him, or someone else decided they needed a rolling fuck, then back to work. He ate everything on his plate and mine. I couldn't eat, I shook so with fear.
"Does it hurt?" I whispered across the scrambled gray of what they must have thought were eggs.
"Not half as much as when you try to tell them no." He stuffed a piece of toast into his mouth and winced.
The whale had flopped on by and I shuddered once again to glance up and see a suit. I seen him look. A long eyeball's assessment appraising size and form, a slowing of his pace. A shifty look around. A furtive tug within his pants. A lengthening bulge against the pocket's seam. An almost step towards me, then a "Hey Eric!" A startled look. A fearful glance beyond me, he waved to someone else. A guilty longing touch of his eyes into mine. A step away, a greeting to his friend, an over shoulder look directly back and right into my head.
God, what was that? I wanted to follow him. I wanted to say, "Hey Eric!" too. I wanted to die when his eyes met mine. I wanted to touch his hand. I'd never wanted to know their names! I'd never wanted to see them the first time, let alone again. I wanted to know who he was.
I ran down the street the other way, pushing them aside. I couldn't see. Shit, my eyes were leaking. I was blubbering like an idiot. I felt myself a child's gayly colored picture, not destined for the refrigerator door, but blown loose from inside a laughing bus and waiting still for one more mark of tire's tread, or footprint's spread to blot me from the page.
I stepped inside Chapultepec's greasy, cracked and noisy kitchen door. The squeak made Manuel look up from the range where he was frying something in a pan. He nodded, then stared, then set the pan away from fire, he wiped his hands on his apron's front and stepped the three steps to the door. Before I knew it, he had me in a bear's hug, my cheek against his chest. I burst out crying again as he said, "Que pasa, Paulito? Who hurts you? I kill him!"
I can't believe I'm blubbering into his apron, but I am. "No, Manuel. No one hurts me. I just got scared."
"Bueno," he says, hugging me even tighter if that's possible. Then he pushes me toward the big kitchen sink. "Wash, I make you supper."
He strides back to the grill smoothing his apron and muttering something under his breath. I take a deep breath and splash water on my face and grab a dish towel from underneath to dry myself. Manuel points to a small stool by the grill and grunts, "Asiente." I guess that means I'm supposed to sit.
I watch as his huge hands turn and open a drawer that must be refrigerated, it contains piles and piles of meat. He grabs one hunk and slaps it on the table. He grabs a giant knife and blam-blam-blam, he pounds the meat with the flat side, then blam-blam-blam again, he chops it into pieces. I don't think I've ever seen a piece of meat this size. It must be the whole side of a cow! He scoops the pieces up on the knife and turns and flops them on the grill. They flame up and sizzle instantly and my nose is smashed with all the wonderful smells. I think my mouth opens and I begin to drool. I can't image who this feast is for, but if he won't give me a burrito soon I'll famish! I dig in my pocket for the money, but as I hold it out and start to ask for one, he waves my hand away and turns and grabs a bottle and squirts the meat. Hissing flames almost drown out his muttered, "Mañana, Paulito, I feed you today especial."
His attention swings back to the pan he moved aside earlier and grunting again, he flips whatever is inside and puts it back above the flame. He quickly adds some sauce and turning back to the table slides it on a plate and shoves it into the window. "Carlota!" He yells and then turns back to me. He grins a grin that lights up the kitchen and ruffles my hair and says again, "Bueno, Paulito, Bueno!" Somehow that makes me feel all warm inside. I stuff the money back into my pocket and grin back. I hope he finds me that burrito soon!
Taking up another larger plate he scoops up beans, then rice, then sets it right out on the grill. He flips the meat, then tosses three tortillas on the range. They quickly heat and as they do he lifts the meat up on the plate. My mouth is watering like a urinal, the smells are so delicious. He flips the tortillas on top and takes the plate and smacks it on the table across from me. "Caliente, Paulo. Semejante tu."
My god! He made this just for me! I grab a tortilla, tear off a piece and use it to hold the hot meat. He is laughing as I am stuffing this wondrous food into my mouth. He ruffles my hair again as he puts a fork beside me and yells, "Carlota! Coca-Cola por favor!"
I see she is smiling through the window at him and nodding as he hands the Coke across to me.
I never knew they liked me. I always thought I was just a kid with a couple of bucks that bought a burrito and hung around a bit. But both of them were smiling like I was one of their best customers. Not that a dive had best customers, but El Chapultepec seemed always to be half full at least, and Manuel sweated over the grill when I stood near and ate my burritos.
I knew he had bands at night, I sometimes heard them through the shelter windows. Not rock or anything like I had ever heard before. I don't know what it was, but it sounded sometimes kind of happy and sometimes kind of sad. I often heard lots of people clapping, even in the middle of a song, so they must have liked it too.
I knew I liked this meal! Geesh, I don't think I had ever eaten anything as good.
Manuel was sweating back over the grill and Carlota was calling orders as I finally finished everything on the plate. Manuel had magically supplied more tortillas right when I had been almost out. I used the last piece to wipe the plate. He took the plate and laughed as he pretended to put it back on the stack of clean ones. I giggled too and pushed his arm and grabbed the plate and took it to the sink. Looking up I saw the clock and realized I better run, Mom would be looking for me, the line was already forming. I rushed across and hugged Manuel and whispered "Thanks,"and then dashed out of the door.
I heard it screech and slam behind me as he yelled his familiar, " Buenas noches, Paulito!"
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