Cover Joel Filipe
No Weapon Forged Against You Will Prevail
Martine Fournier Watson
At the Light on 17 and King
Bend This Page
If God Were a Woman
I Need to Know If You Have the Mask
Shannon L. Bowring
Shoshana Razel Gordon-Guedalia
It is late in the evening in Quito. The city lights climb skyward in all directions before disappearing into the clouds. Frigid air tumbles down the surrounding mountains. A five-year-old boy is walking down Amazonas Avenue toward the heart of the city. His feet hurt. His name is Paco, but his friends call him Paquito. His mom used to call him that, too. The man he is walking with calls him Paquete.
He passes the bullfighting arena coated with a fresh layer of orange paint. In a few weeks, in celebration of the founding of Quito, the gates will open and the matadors will arrive with great fanfare, wearing vests with sparkling trim. Everyone will converge on this normally quiet street corner: hat vendors, musicians, drunks, tourists, drunk tourists. There will be either raucous cheers when the bull, already dying, is finished off after putting up a courageous fight, or gasps from the audience when a bullfighter is impaled by a thrashing horn. Paco is looking forward to this week-long celebration. He won’t have to walk so far.
The streets are treacherous at night. They can also be dangerous during the day as overfilled buses weave through jammed lanes, scouring the crumbling curbs for the stranded, but this danger is obvious and the crowds of people ambling about on the sidewalks know better than to stray into the streets. At night, the barren roads are as duplicitous as a river that’s calm on the surface but hides dangerous undertows below. Cars can appear out of nowhere, swerving wildly about the lanes. If a collision appears imminent, drivers don’t slow down but instead tap their horns in fair warning. Paco worries because he is invisible.
Of course, he knows this is not completely true. The man he is walking with sees him and watches closely to make sure he doesn’t wander away. And the people in the cars can probably see him; they are just not aware of him. Paco blends into the landscape, no more significant than a lamppost. He walks among other invisibles: emaciated dogs, waifish old ladies, men with missing limbs. Paco can see them all and he smiles as he passes them, because though he is invisible, he is much luckier than they are.
“Paquete!” his companion snaps. “Remember your mother.”
At the next corner a pair of teenage boys races out into the middle of the street when a few obedient cars stop at a red light. One boy juggles three grey tennis balls while the other somersaults between the juggler’s legs and then jumps to his feet smiling and clapping his hands between the flying balls in a comic attempt to distract his partner. The acrobat climbs atop the juggler’s shoulders, and one by one intercepts the balls until he is now the juggler, though he lacks the control of his partner. A ball falls to the ground before the light turns green, and the boy leaps off his partner’s shoulders and scrambles to fetch it. Despite the error, the boys still grin and take a bow. A lady in a fuming Mazda lets a wrinkled bill flutter out her window, and the boys pounce on the money before it floats away.
While jugglers and acrobats are entertaining, Paco dreams one day of pouring gasoline in his mouth and spitting it over a lighter’s flame, producing a glamorous fireball. These teenage fire-spitters are magnificent like dragons and inspire the most awe—and tips—from spectators. There are other performers Paco admires, like this toothless man sitting on the bench playing his rondador. He blows out a familiar tune—El Chulla Quiteño. It’s the only song he ever plays, but people don’t seem to notice or care. A few golden and silver coins lie scattered in the warped hat at his side. Paco wishes he could produce these peculiar, birdlike sounds, but he has no rondador. He pauses to listen and smiles at the performer before being slapped by the man he’s been walking with. His face stings. He is not supposed to smile. The rondador player notices none of this because Paco is invisible to him, too.
Nearby, a woman wearing a dark felt hat over her long, braided black hair stoops over a garbage can, poking through trash with a snapped piece of rebar. She is invisible. Paco can tell because of the indigenous disguise she wears. She murmurs a song in a voice that he finds familiar, and he pauses mid-step to catch another view of her face. Her coarse, craquelured skin, imperceptible lips, and toothless mouth are ultimately foreign to him, and he’s disappointed.
The woman, not finding anything worthwhile, moves on with a tortured limp to fish through the next can. She seems ancient, but a man once revealed to Paco that working the streets adds ten years to one’s age. This idea excites Paco. If it is true, his days of spitting fire are not so distant.
Paco’s feet are swelling, and now he is thirsty. The man tugs at his arm, pulling him to continue as they approach Carolina Park. In a vast city of lights, it is two kilometers of terrifying darkness. Paco has heard stories of children walking into the park and never appearing again. They pass the vivarium with the fat, fanged snake painted on the wall. He imagines the snakes escaping their cages at night to roam the park, and he worries an anaconda will slither by, crush his bones, and devour him. Mysterious noises scatter then converge, and he hears rustling in the grass and overhead. He races ahead of his companion, eager to return to the light. In the near distance he sees the pyramidal hotel with blocks of light stepping down from its point and casting a glow on the palm trees lined below in an orderly row. The grass is manicured and the sidewalks smooth, and after ten kilometers of walking, Paco knows he is close.
A blister opens up between his toes, but the pain is distant. The churning in his stomach is all he notices. His lips are dry and crusty. The aroma of roasted chicken, pizza, shawarmas, and other foreign smells are ripe in the air. He licks his lips.
They approach La Mariscal, an area filled with swank restaurants, active bars, nightclubs, and drunken revelers. The man points at a young couple seated at a table outside an Arabian hookah bar. He stuffs two packets of gum and a package of cigarettes in Paco’s coat pocket and pushes the boy in their direction.
Paco nears the couple’s table. They’re speaking a language he doesn’t understand, but he expects this. At this time of night, everyone in La Mariscal is a foreigner. The young woman has glossy brown hair and a trimmed rose tucked behind her ear, but the man transfixes Paco. He has never seen a man with such orange hair, and it seems as if fire pours out of the man’s nose and drips from his ears and mouth down his chin and neck. Paco straightens his posture, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and approaches. The man sees him and nods. Paco pounds the pack into the palm of his hand, flips the lid open and partially lifts out a single cigarette. The man takes it and puts it in his mouth, letting it bounce about his lips. Paco offers a lighter, holding it out like a gentleman, and cups his hand around the flame, waiting for the man to draw in the fire and puff out a ball of smoke.
“Cincuenta centavos,” Paco says, holding out his hand.
The fiery man gives him a dollar, and Paco fights back a smile. He pulls out the pack of gum and places it on the table. The foreigners shake their heads and divert their attention away from him. They’re silent while they wait for him to disappear. He doesn’t leave but instead takes a small step backwards, clasps his hands behind his back, and stands attentively until someone finds his eyes again. Finally, the woman glances at Paco but mumbles something to the fiery man. Paco listens, scavenging for familiar words.
“Okay,” the man says. His fingers dance over the gum, and he contorts his face and twitches his bushy eyebrows.
“Don’t tease him,” the woman says.
“I’m not teasing him. I’m deciding.” He scratches his flaming chin and curls the tips of his mustache. He makes his ears dance up and down.
Paco can’t hold the giggle back and it fizzes from his lips like soda from a shaken bottle. He covers his mouth, hoping his companion watching him from the street corner does not see his laughter.
The fiery man searches his wallet. “All I have is a twenty. You have a dollar?” he asks the woman who shakes her head. He puts his wallet away.
Paco slumps his shoulders. He wonders if a careless remnant of a smile still lingers on his face, and he pushes his lower lip upward to exaggerate a frown. He tries to remember his mother, but the thoughts are dry.
The woman removes an apple from her purse and offers it. Paco tentatively accepts it but doesn’t know whether to eat it there or wait. He decides it’s safer to put it in his pocket.
“He’s still there,” the woman says a few moments later. She sucks in a puff of the hookah’s smoke and sighs as a halo of vapor swarms around her head. She passes the hose to the fiery man, who sets aside his cigarette and takes a puff. He closes his eyes while the flavorful smoke inhabits his body.
The woman presses her fingers to her scalp, stretching the skin on her forehead. She looks to Paco, whose legs are now shaking. “My God, look at his foot. It’s bleeding through his shoe!”
“What do you want to do about it?” the man asks. “Do you have a spare shoe?”
“Just give him something,” the woman says as she pushes her chair away from the table. She grabs her purse and disappears inside the bar.
A mouth and teeth appear between the flames as the man smiles warmly at Paco. “Niño, no más. I’m sorry. No más. Tus manos, por favor.”
Paco holds out his hands and squeezes his eyes, hoping to force something out of them. The fiery man returns the package of gum into Paco’s hands.
Feeling empty and betrayed by the indispositions of his heart, Paco leaves the patio of the hookah bar and returns to the street corner where his companion has been spying him. He gives the man the dollar but can’t keep his other hand from crawling about his pocket. Paco’s fingernails dig into the apple until they’re moist with juice. When he pulls out his hand and lifts it to his mouth to lick his fingers, the man grabs Paco’s wrist and stops him. The man snatches the apple from the coat pocket and turns it over in his hand, inspecting it. He holds it out, but only to tease the boy, because when Paco reaches for it, the man yanks it away and hurls it against the wall. The mushy remains slide to the ground. Paco begins to cry. Before the tears dry, the man pushes his little package to the next location, the patio of a ritzy restaurant at the edge of the main plaza.
Paco stumbles over his feet as he shuffles towards the restaurant. He can’t stop the tears. The apple was his. He simply wanted a taste. Now, he may never know how the fruit of a wealthy foreigner compares to the fruit he normally eats. Perhaps the young woman’s apple held luxurious, exotic flavors. He rubs his eyes with his forearm, smearing the grimy tears across his face.
The two giant windows of the restaurant offer a glittering view of the kings and queens inside. Even the waiters wear fancy white jackets and black bow ties. Everything inside sparkles: the silverware, the wineglasses, the teeth, the eyes. The faces of the women gleam and their ears and necks twinkle in the candlelight. Outside the door, armed security guards stand at attention to stop unapproved people from entering. No one is invisible to these men. Nevertheless, they seem uninterested in protecting the guests who sit at the tables on the restaurant’s patio.
Even though the patio is crowded—every table and seat is taken—Paco knows exactly where to go. He’ll sell to anyone who beckons him over, but it’s the smiling couples he approaches first.
The woman has a ghostly white, doughy face and a plump nose. Her lips are achiote red and her auburn hair spirals down the side of her face like rusty coils. The tears are still flowing as he pulls out his tiny package from his coat pocket. He’s trying to do his job, to be professional, but his arm trembles as he holds his hand out to offer a cigarette. The doughy-faced woman’s expression flutters briefly to shock before returning to her smile. She looks into her purse, opens her wallet and removes a bill. Paco fumbles through his coat pocket for his lighter while she places the bill in his other hand, closing his fingers around both the bill and cigarette. She wraps both of her hands around his tiny fist and holds them there for a while. Finally, she lets go, smiles, and taps his hand twice more before returning to her conversation with the silver-haired man. The woman doesn’t tell him how much change she expects. She doesn’t seem to expect change at all.
Paco opens his hand and looks at the bill. He knows his numbers, both one and five, and understands he’s received a lot of money. The bearded man pictured on the five-dollar bill looks like no man he’s ever known or seen, but he seems to be looking proudly back at Paco.
In an instant, Paco feels like he is expanding from his chest, growing to twice his size. He sprints back toward the man to show off his earnings but comes to a sudden stop midway when he realizes something important. He forgot to give the woman her cigarette. They are neither thieves nor beggars, the man has reminded him many times. They are workers. Paco hurries back toward the plaza, his eyes wide with panic. The woman is watching him with squinted eyes. Her smile is gone. He’s cheated her, he knows.
He reaches the table, bows meekly, and offers the cigarette. She laughs and shakes her head. He insists. Doesn’t she remember she just made this purchase? He holds it out again and puts it on the table. Finally, she nods and takes it. He notices her red-stained wine glass and the empty bottle on the table and wonders if her mind is dancing with angels. That would explain her forgetfulness.
He nods politely before spinning around and running back to the man. The five-dollar bill is in his coat pocket, his fingers wrapped firmly around it. Feeling like a king holding such a large bill, he presents it to his companion who buys him a stick of roasted corn and gives him twenty-five cents from his pocket. It’s the first time Paco has been able to keep money for himself. Now, he’s a true worker. He smiles briefly before returning to his normal face. Deep down, though, he is happy.
The flood of affluent locals and foreigners into La Mariscal begins. The clubs awaken, pulsating with bass tones and flashing lights, enticing throngs of partiers to swarm to the sound. Sweeping over the streets in waves, they arrive from the homes and apartments surrounding the Catholic University to the north and Central University to the south. They weave between taxicabs, which wade through the streets waiting to rescue the older tourists looking to escape. For over an hour, people continuously flow down from the hills, flushed from the quiet, surrounding streets and emptied into the estuary of Amazonas Avenue. Paco goes back to work, selling single cigarettes to people escaping the sweltering heat of the clubs. But tonight, these sweaty people are stingy and pay no more than fifty cents per cigarette. They love to bargain.
The man decides to give up just after midnight. His little cloth sack is full of Sacagawea dollar coins and dollar bills so worn and infinitely crumpled they feel soft and smooth like silk.
“We’re going to the palace,” he says, handing Paco the bag of money. “You carry this. It’s safer with you.”
Paco is tired and limps to avoid putting pressure on his throbbing right foot. His left foot has been hurting, too, but another thing the man has taught him is that greater pain erases lesser pain. Paco is happy to be going to the palace. It’s closer than walking home.
From a distance, the rough, cobblestone road leading up to the palace looks like an avalanche of rocks spilled from the mountain, slicing through the neighborhood. The road is so narrow and steep the buses don’t dare to climb it, and sometimes, even taxis drop their customers off at the base of the hill rather than attempt the ascent. Tonight, Paco’s legs are fighting him and he takes the man’s hand. As they near the summit he sees men with untucked shirts and unzipped pants dancing with their angels, singing songs of devotion, and twirling their invisible beauties up and down the steep slope of the cobbled road until they finally collapse.
The palace is three stories high and still growing according to Jesús, the fat, mustached man who manages the flow of guests. Strands of rebar sprout upward from the corners of the palace’s roof like rusty flower stems. Light bleeds through the thin, carmine curtains of several rooms on the second and third floor of the palace. Ghostly silhouettes duck and lurch in and out of view. No matter the time of day or night, there is always someone awake inside.
“A busy night,” the man says to the palace guard who stands at attention in front of the heavily dented metal door. The guard’s uniform is a large bomber jacket and baggy fatigue pants. The loose clothes disguise his slender physique, and he looks otherworldly under the violet neon light framing the doorway. The light casts a mystic glow against the lime green concrete walls.
The guard smiles at the man and says, “Three dollars for a bed. Three to Jesús. Three for the girl. Maybe some extra for me.”
The man pulls out his empty pockets and shows them.
The guard laughs. He touches his forefinger to his chin. “Of course, if you’re only visiting your sister, then it’s free.” The guard steps forward and hugs the man. Then he steps aside and permits them to enter.
Inside the palace, Jesús sits on the tan, punctured sofa that smells of smoke. He’s watching the grainy black-and-white screen of a tiny television resting atop a flimsy wooden table. He stands when he sees the man. Jesús lifts his shirt and pulls out the handgun tucked into his pants. He points it at the doorway and says, “Pow, pow!” Laughing mischievously, he gives the gun to the man. “Don’t worry. No problems tonight.”
“Can you watch my Paquete while I go upstairs to see my sister? Five minutes.”
“You’re eating into my break,” Jesús says.
“Five minutes,” the man says. He leans toward Paco as if about to hug him, but instead, he reaches into Paco’s coat and takes the bag of money. He tousles Paco’s sticky hair and smiles before disappearing down the hall and up the rickety staircase.
Jesús collapses onto the sofa. He taps the cushion. “Come here, Paco.”
Paco pulls himself onto the sofa and leans his head into Jesús’s soft belly. Together they watch the television. Paco tries to concentrate on the moving images and the frantic squeals of the gray woman as she races back and forth across the screen, her hands to her head. Paco finds the colorless world boring. His eyelids tremble before surrendering completely under the weight of exhaustion.
When he reopens his eyes, he’s alone on the sofa. He’s worried the man has forgotten him. And Jesús? There’s no one in the lobby. If someone comes in, how will he know where to send them? Who will collect the money? Since there is no one else, the responsibility has become his.
A long counter, the last vestige of the palace’s days as a hotel, hides in the shadows at the opposite end of the room. Above the counter, frayed wires poke through the ceiling like wilted vines, a reminder of where the light fixtures used to be. The counter’s face is missing several of its ivory-colored tiles, and many of the remaining tiles are either cracked or stained. No one ever stands behind the counter anymore. Not even Jesús. Its only function seems to be to hide the crates of Pilsener beer, but even then, all the visitors know of the stash. Perhaps because they can’t see it, they aren’t tempted to swipe any.
Paco goes over to the counter and prepares to assume his duty by standing behind it. It’s the only way someone his age can demonstrate authority. Strolling about the lobby, he’s just a lost kid. Behind the counter, he will be somebody. There’s only one problem, he quickly discovers. He can’t see over the counter and won’t know when people arrive. He returns to the front of the counter and leans suavely against the tiles, his legs crossed and his hands tucked in his pockets. He must look authoritative. He glances at his feet and the little toes peeking out through the canvas of his shoe. This doesn’t look professional. He quickly hides again behind the counter, but this time he formulates a plan.
He carefully empties one of the yellow crates of its beer bottles and tips it over. The plastic crate makes a perfect stool, and when he stands atop it, he can just barely see over the counter. If he nudges his head up slightly his chin can rest on the grainy surface. Now, he appears officious, and he surveys his lobby awaiting a visitor from the outside or from the upper floors. His expression is necessarily serious.
After a few minutes, he decides standing on the crate is not comfortable. His legs are wanting to dance. He has to pee. He has to move. But he can’t leave his lobby unattended. He hops off the crate and dances. This helps a little. He mimics the dance with the angels that he’s seen the man perform many times. As he cavorts about the small area behind the counter, he accidentally taps one of the beer bottles resting on the floor. It falls over, clanks, and rolls harmlessly a few feet from the other bottles. Fortunately, it does not break.
The accident proves to be inspiring. Grabbing two bottles, one in each hand, Paco climbs the stool and hoists the heavy bottles onto the countertop. He arranges them carefully before hopping down to fetch two more. In La Mariscal, he has seen men behind counters serving beer to customers and receiving money for it. The man will be so proud of him. He continues to retrieve the bottles, arranging them in a neat row on the counter but leaving an opening for him to peer through. He takes the last two bottles, but when he climbs his stool, a woman is standing on the other side of the counter. Her hair is in a bun and two giant, golden loops hang from each ear.
“Un dolar,” Paco says. “Cerveza es un dolar.”
“Paquito, mi amor,” the woman says, reaching over the counter to pinch Paco’s cheek. “One dollar for each of these big bottles? You’ll sell out so quickly. Are you the little bartender?”
How does she know his name, he wonders. Paco pushes one of the beers forward, but the woman pushes it back.
“I’ve smelled enough beer today,” she says. “Are you here by yourself?”
Paco nods. He suddenly becomes very hot and sweaty all over. He’s doing a poor job. The woman joins Paco behind the counter. She puts her hands on her meaty hips and looks at Paco disapprovingly. “Do you remember me?” she asks.
He shakes his head. He’s so worried, even his ankles are sweating. There’s nothing he can do to stop this woman.
She undoes her bun and lets her hair fall to her shoulders. “Now?” she asks.
Maybe she looks familiar. He’s not sure.
She comes over to him and lifts him by his underarms off the crate. She sets him down and looks him over again. “We have to get you out of those pants,” she says.
Paco drops his eyes and is immediately aware of the problem. He nods. She takes him by the hand and leads him away from the counter. He knows she’ll take him to her room and embarrass him. He’s ashamed.
At this moment, the man enters the lobby from the hallway. The first thing he notices is the line of beer bottles on the countertop. Then he looks at Paco. Then at Paco’s pants and the long, dark streak of urine running down the fabric.
“He had a little accident,” the woman says.
“And so you offer to get him out of his pants. Haven’t you done that enough tonight?” the man says.
“Qué bárbaro!” she says. “You leave this poor boy alone when he needed to use the bathroom.”
“Then he should have used the bathroom. Where’s Jesús?” he asks, looking around the lobby.
“Jesús? You want to blame Jesús? This is not Jesús’s responsibility.”
“I’m not the boy’s father. Do I have to show him how to piss? He can go outside. There are a hundred walls to piss on out there. Even a dog has better sense.”
She tugs at Paco’s hand. “Come on, Paquito.”
There is one bathroom on each floor of the palace, but the one on the ground level no longer functions, and like all the other rooms on first floor, is padlocked shut. The woman leads Paco into the cramped stairwell. The man is close behind, his hand on Paco’s back. The wooden steps vary in height, and the three of them stumble up the stairs.
On the second floor, Paco hears the familiar, scattered moans and groans of men and women in devout prayer behind their closed doors. The bathroom, which services all the rooms on the floor, is at the end of the hall. Its door hangs loosely on its hinges and has no lock. Regular visitors to the palace know to hum or sing softly while on the toilet to let others know the bathroom is occupied. Sometimes that works.
Tonight, it’s unoccupied and the woman pushes open the door. The bathroom has a large pedestal sink, a shower head dangling precariously from the wall, and a toilet with a cracked and chipped seat cover. The wastebasket is overflowing with used toilet paper, and the smell of feces overwhelms the vanilla scent of a fragrant candle atop the sink.
“Take off your pants,” the man says.
Paco refuses and he thrusts his hands into his pockets, searching for his coin.
“Paquito, mi amor, you have to let me wash your pants,” the woman says. She holds a thin bar of grimy soap.
The man grabs Paco’s right arm and forces the closed fist out of the pocket. Not wanting to lose his coin, Paco refuses to help. The man violently unbuttons the single button and pulls the zipper. He yanks the pants down. Paco lifts his leg one at a time to help the man slip the pants off.
“The boy is stupid sometimes,” the man says. “Why do I have to undress you? You’re a worker. You should know how to do such a simple thing.”
“He’s embarrassed,” the woman says.
The man stares at Paco’s face, and Paco can feel him reading his eyes.
“He’s not embarrassed. He’s greedy.” He lifts Paco so they see eye-to-eye. “You don’t want to give up your coin, do you? We’re going to have to pay to dry your pants. How much, sister? Twenty-five cents?”
“More or less.” The woman is already running cold water over the pants—there’s no hot water in the palace—and she scrubs the bar of soap furiously on both the inside and outside of the pant legs.
“Whose pants are those?” the man asks Paco.
“Who should pay to dry them?”
Paco drops his head.
The woman rinses the pants of the soap and turns off the water. “I had a man tonight,” she says. “He’s famous. Anita took a photo of him . . . and me. He’s a politician, I think. A rich one.”
“Paquete, are you going to give me your coin now?” the man asks.
“I think this man will pay to keep his secret.”
The man spins and charges toward the woman with a clenched fist. “You’re going to blackmail him? Not only are you a whore, but you are a filthy thief. How dare you!”
“It’s an opportunity.”
The man pulls his gun from his waist and presses the barrel against the woman’s head. “And I have an opportunity to pull this trigger and take every dollar you have. Is that what it has come to? Brother stealing from sister? We are that greedy?”
“We both know that gun has no bullets.”
The man’s face turns red, and the veins on his neck pulsate. He pulls the trigger. A harmless click.
He turns back to Paco and seizes the boy’s arm.
Paco opens his fist and gladly surrenders the coin.
Dan Timoskevich is a graduate of Trinity University. He is a freelance writer, playwright, and musician. In 2012 he received the fiction award in The Thing Itself. He lives with his wife in San Antonio, Texas.