Clouds

 

To Ariadna and Alicia

and to her godfather Federico

 

The little girl climbs up the shelves between the bottles of alcohol and peroxide. She’s less than two years old. One year and eight months according to her tata, who’s adding up a lady’s purchases on the cash register. She has seemed to mistake the drugstore for a supermarket, her purchases including shampoo, disposable razors, diet sodas, a bag of pre-cooked rice, chips, headache medicine, chewable antacids, and numerous types of cold cuts, whose name tata learned the day he started this job several years ago.

While he’s ringing up these items and assorted others, the little girl has reached the third shelf. The lady complains that it’s so irritating to have to shop where so many of the products are not price marked.

“Thank you for your feedback. I’ll inform the manager of your complaint.”

“You always say the same thing.”

Tata smiles, revealing a hint of wrinkles, but only a few, under his salt-and-pepper hair. The little girl places a knee in front of the bandages, next to the bags of cotton balls (“They’re clouds, chamaca,” her tata told her the other day. “There are men on very tall ladders who climb up to the sky and bring them down in tiny pieces just for us.”). The little girl stretches up but then hesitates; something detains her. Her sea green shorts are caught under her knee. She lowers the knee and replaces it with the other to brace herself. She’s younger than two, but her motor skills are accelerated enough to propel her up stairs, display cases, and all kinds of constructions within reach. Her hair is curly and fine, and she’s wearing a onesie with a pink elephant on the front.

“…And then you tell me you’re definitely going to label all your products, and I come back in two days and nothing…nothing has changed…and four days later, it’s the same story…I don’t know if you think your customers are idiots, but believe me, we are on to you, boy…not marking the merchandise is a scam so that you can charge the customer whatever you see fit….”

Tata looks her in the eye. This is a mistake: one should never so much as glance at continuously disgruntled customers. But the lady called him “boy”. He hadn’t seen that coming. He also hadn’t foreseen becoming a grandpa at 42 and having to bring his granddaughter to his job at the drugstore, placing her behind the counter in cardboard boxes to play with her stuffed cat and little-girl dishes. Tata looks at the lady and smiles because she indeed seems to be younger than he is.

“And don’t bother telling me it’s not true, boy. You might not realize that I’m a regular customer, everything’s getting more and more expensive, and it’s getting to where I can’t afford it. Or do you think money grows on trees?”

Tata thinks this kind of woman shops here because she lives close by, because she has nothing better to do, and because, in all frankness, money is the least of her worries. Everything in the store costs double or triple, except for cigarettes and other price-regulated articles. He chuckles to himself. “Could it be that some people really are that clueless?” he ponders. He would have continued this reverie had it not been for the little girl’s voice.

“Clouds, tata, clouds.”

The little girl is poised tippy-toe on the shelf, holding on by one hand. Barely. The other leg is hanging loose, twirling in the air. She grabs the bag of cotton balls with the other hand.

“Clouds, tata.”

“Oh my Lord! What is that little girl doing up there?!”

Tata leaves the register and runs to the child. He takes her into the folds of his white uniform, against the crucifix under the fabric. The bag of cotton balls is perched half on, half off the shelf.

“You could have fallen, chamaca. No more climbing up without my help.”

“Clouds, tata, clouds.”

Tata goes back to the register to ring up the last items while holding the little girl. The lady remains silent, but he knows that won’t last long. She’ll ask if she’s his daughter, she’ll be amazed that she’s really his granddaughter, but she’ll proceed to say what she had in mind: that the little girl shouldn’t be in the drugstore, that she should be with her mother, that children have a right to play and grow up in a safe environment. “That’s the way these ladies who have nothing else better to do think,” tata thinks after the lady has had her say and leaves. “They take advantage of every opportunity to feel holier-than-thou, but they’re far from being holy.” The lady didn’t hesitate to show him the “frowny face” on the customer service comment card before leaving.

“Clouds, tata, clouds.”

“Let’s get you those clouds, chamaca.”

Tata takes down the bag of cotton balls, and the little girl extends her tiny arms and squeals, “Clouds clouds clouds!” She moves her fingers, as though propelling herself on air, and opens her eyes wide. She bounces in her grandpa’s arms and her curls bounce with her. It’s not that tata doesn’t know how to make ponytails. They come loose quickly, and before he knows it, she’s pulled out the hair bands. But he doesn’t desist: it’s only a matter of her getting used to them, so she can start school as a neat little girl. “She’ll be the little girl without parents, but adding a ragamuffin appearance to boot won’t do,” tata thinks. Then he takes it back, reproaches himself, and angrily squeezes his eyes shut to the possibilities, the awful ones. No, not those. He fondles the crucifix and hands the little girl the bag of cotton balls.

“Cloooouuuud,” she coos, hugging the bag to her chest.

Tata, in turn, grasps the crucifix tight.

He walks back to his station behind the counter. He places the little girl on top of one of the boxes next to the stuffed cat and tells her to stay still and not wander while he’s working. The lady was right about one thing: each item should have a price label on the shelf below it. And that’s his obligation. The problem is that the suppliers show up without schedule and stock the shelves themselves, only occasionally after cross-checking the products with whoever is at the register. On other occasions, the delivery consists of products in a plastic bag and a poster with a picture of how to display them. “But if there was some sort of schedule or if only one person was in charge of inventory and displays, everything would run smooth,” tata thinks. And it would be a lot easier if they had those little digital screens some supermarkets use to just type in the price of each item then and there, instead of typing and printing labels. But the way things are, it’s unthinkable: between charging customers and labelling, some products get overlooked.

Even more so, now that he’s had to bring the little girl to work.

“So? Wouldn’t you do that old lady, pinche Tomás? I would do her in a heartbeat, specially with those tight pants and that thong right there. I don’t care if she’s a nag.”

Brayan Ezequiel, the pharmacist, doesn’t understand why Tomás bugs his eyes at him and then glances at his granddaughter, the universal gesture meaning “don’t say that in front of the child.” His understanding is delayed, but he gets it. The topic of conversation changes.

“Sorry, pinche Tomás. Sometimes I get carried away. What was the old lady complaining about this time?”

“Open clouds, tata?”

Pinche Tata Tomás smiles in resignation. He wishes his granddaughter’s environment were perfect, safe. Yes, just like the woman said. He relaxes a little, just a bit, because he doesn’t dare touch the crucifix in front of the boy and say “in Thee I trust” to implore that it might be so. So, instead:

“She said that not all the products are labelled and she’s right.”

“Damn! I’m here to shoot the breeze and you’re gonna get on my ass?” says Brayan Ezequiel and looks out at a girl passing by in a tailored suit. “When are you gonna come in for some stress injections, baby?”

“Open clouds open.”

Tata Tomás laughs.

Tomás is not tata to Brayan Ezequiel. He can’t be. He knows he’s old, but he can’t see him the same way he sees his own grandparents. He’s missing the cane and the solid white hair. He’s missing the sunken eyes and shaky voice. He’s just Tomás, or pinche Tomás. A man he’s not sure how to address and tries to do it the way he did with his ex-co-workers at the gas station. Sometimes he’d like to talk about other things, set the dirty jokes and work complaints aside, and tell him about how he’s dreamed about the entire city being destroyed the last few nights. How soldiers cover everything like clouds. But he doesn’t dare. He suspects his co-worker would call him crazy just like everyone else he’s tried to talk to about his dreams. Or would he? He looks at the newspaper beside the register, the one Tomás leafs through every day. But he knows that’s a topic he shouldn’t press any further than his usual “Any news?” and then a sympathetic nod to the reply. So, the topic of women is off the table because of the little girl, even though he realizes he just made that mistake again. He looks away. Complaining about work is out because pinche Tomás appears to have hopped on the company bandwagon today as if his life depended on it. “Think of a joke,” he tells himself. But before this happens, another part of him speaks.

He says, “Hey, pinche Tomás, I had a fucking messed-up dream…”

Just then the little girl wails, sick of being ignored. Both men turn to look at her, the one with his head dazed by armies and clouds, and the other typing in the prices of newly arrived merchandise from memory.

“What’s the matter, chamaca?”

More crying.

“Is she hungry?” Brayan Ezequiel asks.

Howling.

“No, she just had her bottle.”

“Sleepy?”

She cries harder and pulls at the bag of cotton balls.

“No. She doesn’t take afternoon naps anymore.”

The ex-gas pumper character of Brayan Ezequiel runs out of ideas, and the pharmacist persona takes a turn:

“Think something hurts? The damned old ladies always ask for paracetamol. Want me to get some?”

“That’s for a fever,” tata answers, picking up the little girl. The bag of cotton balls falls to the floor and the little girl cries louder.

“Want a thermometer? Alcohol?”

“A mouse!”

“What?!”

The little girl breaks off and opens her eyes.

“Did you see it, chamaca? A mouse just ran by,” says tata and points down the deodorant aisle. Brayan Ezequiel automatically turns to look. Then he understands.

“A mouse, tata?”

“Yep. He went that way. Didn’t you see it?”

“Damn, pinche Tomás. Raising a kid is a full-throttle job. No one’s given you hell for bringing the little girl to work with you?”

“No.”

Regular customers came in the rest of the afternoon. The bank security guard for his Coke and a couple of aspirin. The pizza guy for his rash cream. The hypochondriac manager who always buys ten or so types of medicine and pesters Brayan Ezequiel to inform him of each one’s side effects, and of course, the ex-gas pumper turned pharmacist by the grace of new legislation spouts off the first the one that comes to mind so as to give him a little peace of mind: “your armpits will just feel a little itchy, but this Tiger Balm will fix that right up for you.” The nurse who does the little old man’s dialysis around the corner. And the usual strangers who are, in reality, regular customers since everyone’s suffering is the same: mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, all desperately looking for something that will restore order in the world. That’s something else the pharmacist would like to talk to the cashier about: “Don’t you think sometimes that everything should have a reason, pinche Tomás? Because of course some things have a simple explanation, like eating tacos that give you salmonella and diarrhea,” he thinks. He learned that from reading articles on his cell phone. But other things aren’t so easy. Between customers, Brayan Ezequiel’s afternoon consisted of looking for new diseases on the internet, where they come from and why they start. Meanwhile, Tomás’ consisted of tending the register and trying to label the unlabeled merchandise. His afternoon was about trying to work and find ways to keep the girl from crying so much. Making up games and distractions. Holding her. Cooing to her. Singing to her quietly while scanning merchandise for labelling. Perching her on the counter. Asking for her help with the customers. All of the tricks he’s come up with since his daughter disappeared two weeks ago. That’s all the police tell him. “She’s disappeared.” As if he didn’t know. As if his granddaughter wasn’t a reminder of that. “Mamá.” “Carry, mamá?” “Mamá work, tata?” And tata says the first thing that pops into his head to change the subject; he tells her about God and clouds. And he tells her every night that there’s an angel who takes care of her, who will take care of her forever. And he waits for the little girl to fall asleep to go cry at the kitchen table. He drinks tila tea to be able to sleep, then vitamins for exhaustion, knowing that he can’t afford to be exhausted. He thought about stealing some pills from the pharmacy yesterday. The energy-boosting ones. But then he thought against it since the solution could turn out worse than the problem: if he was caught, what would happen to the little girl, to Gabriela, to Gabi.

“Open cloud, tata?”

Tata opens the bag, and the little girl scatters the cotton balls up and down the work station behind the register.

When the shift is over, the streets are crowded with people. A breeze carries away the afternoon stupor, yet it’s not cool enough for the little girl to wear a sweater. It will be later, though, when it gets dark and they take the bus home. That’s what Tomás has done the last few days: walk from one place to another so that Gabi can play in the park (she’s finally going down the slide by herself) or to the town square, in hopes that some event will serve as a distraction for her—for both of them—until night falls. In hopes that she’ll wander around and jump over benches and luckily, fall asleep on the way home. The first week wasn’t like this. The first week was going home immediately after work to see if his daughter had come back, if she had left a note, if someone had asked for a ransom or had left some trace, whatever it were. Asking neighbors and inquiring at corner stores. “Excuse me, Don Genaro. You mortgaged your house, right? How much did you get?” But the problem was getting the chamaca to sleep; she needed her mother’s smell, her lullabies. That’s when tata Tomás thought up the angels and clouds, and now the little girl is hugging her grandfather and the bag of cotton balls, where they put away all the strewn cotton balls—and bought them—before changing her diaper and leaving the drugstore to find a street full of people and vendors.

“Look, chamaca. That man is selling tuba water. Want to try it?”

“No.”

The tuba vendor laughs and pours a little into a plastic cup for free.

“Look. It has some bits of apple. You don’t want some?”

“No,” the little girl repeats, clutching her bag.

“And it’s pink like your elephant.”

“No no no.”

“Can I have it?”

“Yes, you drink it, tata.”

Tomás thanks the vendor and continues walking with the backpack/diaper bag on his back and the little girl in his arms, pointing out everything on the way, explaining—the items in store windows, cathedral buttresses, sewer grate inscriptions. It’s like being a father who shows the world to his child; he names it, says what it’s made of. It’s like being the father he wasn’t to any of his three children, but when his six-month-pregnant first-born came home to his empty house, Tomás felt that God’s forgiveness was infinite. And now he’s desperately trying to believe it. Or think it. Or at least repeat it silently every time he holds his crucifix between his fingers. “Justified by faith, we have peace.” Because he knows that any other thought is a dead end. His daughter went to work two weeks ago and has never come back. When the daycare center called, Tomás had to leave the drugstore early and make up an excuse: “I’m sorry for being late, señorita. My daughter asked me to pick up the chamaca.” And then the excuses wore thin.

“They changed my daughter’s schedule at the packing plant. It’s just temporary.”

That was day three.

“I believe you, don Tomás, but the girl’s mother has to let us know personally, and she needs to bring a notarized letter specifying who will be picking the girl up. It’s for security reasons. You know how bad things have gotten.”

But tata Tomás doesn’t see how things have gotten. He sees a wooden giraffe in a storefront window and says to the little girl:

“Look, chamaca. That’s a giraffe.”

“Aff?”

“Yes, it’s a great big animal that lives in Africa.”

“Donkey.”

“Yes, chamaca. giraffes look like donkeys. Do you like it?”

Tomás looks at the giraffe, the candlesticks. He sees the cherubs hanging from nylon strings because there’s no other way to see it. Last week was asking around the neighborhood and hearing stories he hadn’t wanted to hear. “Esthercita’s cousin, Saúl’s daughter, was kidnapped by some bad men and her body, all slashed up, was found in the dump a month later.” “The glass worker, Jeremías’ brother-in-law’s brother, disappeared on his way to Tomatlán three months ago, his truck was later found in the middle of the highway, and no one’s heard from him since.” “Remember Pepe Gómez, Urbano’s son, who lived around El Trapiche? He received an anonymous note saying he had to turn over his house, so he didn’t wait around to argue and took his middle son to Oxnard.” “Things have gotten really bad, Tomás. Remember how they found Pancho Ramírez in a ditch with a bullet in the back of his head.” “Don’t take my word for it, but Gato Espinoza told me that his uncle swears that the story about the dead bodies in Tamazula is true. This uncle of his works there and says when the workers set fire to the sugar cane crop during harvest, he started smelling them.” “We’ve all got to be careful. Did I tell you about how my grandkids have just been messing around at school, no classes whatsoever since the first of the year, because the elementary teacher up and disappeared? They told my daughter-in-law that she went to participate in the Mexico City protests, but who knows, the way things have been and all.”

But he doesn’t see the way things have been. He can’t. What kind of father imagines his daughter alive when she’s dead? What kind of father images his daughter dead when she’s alive? So he calls the relatives.

“Hey there, tía. How are things?”

And then he waits a while, to see what comes up in conversations with each one, slowly working his way through the whole family slowly, without stirring up a fuss. Asks all the aunts, everyone, his other daughter.

“Nah, it’s nothing. She’s just seemed distracted lately.”

Ay, papá, you know how weird Telle is. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Calls all the numbers on hand and investigates another two—his ex-wife’s and his daughter’s husband’s—although he knows he won’t locate the husband. “He’s the one who calls us, papá.” “He calls us, don Tomás, when he gets hold of some money and finds a phone booth.” He stared at the number a long while before dialing: who abandons his daughter to go back to live with his mother? But he called anyway. All the other options that came to mind were far worse. “Justified by faith, we have peace.”

“Song, tata.”

Tata feels the girl slide through his arms. She wants to get down. And he hears the music coming from the town square and sets her down to run through the crowd to the gazebo, where the university orchestra is playing a huapango, the one by Moncayo.

“Song!”

Then the little girl stops her running and dances, turning round and round, still holding the bag of cotton balls in one hand. She claps. She claps with the bag in one hand and then gives it to her tata to continue whirling. “Tomás’ granddaughter sure is a lively little thing.” The crowd who’s come to hear the orchestra watches the little girl. They smile at the grandfather. The revelry continues all around in the palms and parota trees above, among the birds returning for their nightly rest. The first stars appear in the sky between the clouds. And the little girl dances. She extends her little hands and twirls every which way. Tomás looks at the spectators again and returns their smiles—genuinely, instinctively—and takes a second glance at the trees, at the jubilant turtledoves and crows, and finally at the sky, at what’s left of the few scattered clouds, now turned orange and violet. Up there are the stars and the sky. Down below, his granddaughter, who stops spinning only to jump in the air, arms outstretched. In front, the musicians have noticed the child and wave hello during their alternate rests: the chubby girl on the clarinet, carnation perched in her hair, is watching her, and the first violin has even turned in his chair to face the little girl. And he is her grandfather. Tomás is the little girl’s grandfather, the little girl who is now pure joy, keeping time with the swelling music and bird chirping. “Your kiddo is quite the dancer, señor,” someone says. “It’s wonderful to see such a happy little girl,” another says. And Tomás, just for a moment, thinks it’s so, that Gabriela is a happy little girl. He instantly squeezes his eyes shut, then even tighter, until he feels a hand on his shoulder and hears a voice: “She’s something else, huh? She’s gonna make you pay for all the stunts you pulled as a kid,” says the bank security guard, who makes a daily trip the drugstore for his Coke and two aspirin. It takes a minute for Tomás to recognize him out of uniform and accompanied by his wife. “Let me introduce my wife.” Tomás releases the crucifix he hadn’t realized he’d been grasping and shakes her hand, the bag of cotton balls in the other.

“Pleased to meet you. Tomás González Barba.”

The conversation is a relief. Especially since it’s not about the birds or the clouds, the town square, where the guard came to buy mangos with chile for his children, or the future. It’s a fleeting relief. The song ends and the little girl applauds and yells, “Bravo! Bravo!”

“What a festive little girl you’ve got there! I’m sure you got that from your mommy, right, sweetie?” says the security guard’s wife. And Tomás is in his living room dancing tambora with Telle. There’s no music, but it doesn’t matter. She, the future mother, is four years old and he’s holding her in one arm, swaying back and forth, back and forth, humming and laughing, bouncing among Tomasito’s dinosaurs. Tomasito, who’s asleep in the crib that will be his sister Pilar’s in a few months.

Señor?”

Tomás tries to come back.

Señor?

Come back and leave his daughter dancing.

Señor?”

He sees that it’s the chubby clarinet girl, who was wearing the carnation in her hair, who’s now on her knees trying to pass him the carnation through the gazebo handrail for Gabriela, who is on tip-toe and stretching out to reach it, missing it by half a meter. Tomás takes a few steps closer and lifts the little girl. She takes the flower in both hands. She says, “Other song.”

“Yes, we’re going to play another song.”

“Thank you, but we’re about to leave.”

“No no no. Not leave. No no no.”

The little girl squirms, waving the carnation this way and that. She tries to get down.

“Not go, tata, not go.”

Tata Tomás looks at the chubby girl, then at the security and his wife. He looks at his granddaughter.

“All right, chamaca,” he says while putting her down. “But one more song and then we’re going home.”

They stayed for several more songs. The little girl danced and danced until the music officially ended and the director thanked the audience and said goodnight. And the security guard said that it was better to finish early, given how bad things have gotten: anyone could be next. Gabriela cried when she saw that her air-blown kisses weren’t enough to make the musicians stay. Tomás wrapped her in her sweater and carried her. And before they got to the bus stop, the little girl was asleep, cuddled with her bag of cotton balls and the squashed carnation.

That night, Tomás drinks tila tea and cries for two hours. He prays. “Justified by faith, we have peace.” Then he dreams of armies that come and cover everything like clouds.

Then dawn.

Tomás changes her diaper. He dresses her. He fixes her less than two years old hair in ponytails. He decided not to bathe her—nor himself—because the little one woke up with a runny nose. He gives her a breakfast consisting of bean tacos, meanwhile looking at the clock on his cell phone: “Hurry up and eat, chamaca. We’ve got to go.” But the little girl refuses to eat and asks about her mother.

“Your mamá is at work, chamaca.”

Mamá work, tata?”

“Yes,” he replies while filling the backpack with diapers, wipes, baby bottles, extra changes and other equipment that he’s found indispensable. “Finish your tortilla, ándele.”

“No no no. Mamá not work, tata. Not work.”

Tata Tomás carries her; he’s tired. He tries to get her to eat, but to no avail. He wipes her nose with his finger and wipes it under his uniform smock. He does manage to get her to take her vitamin drops and then takes his own, forgotten since last night. Then, little girl in arm, picks up the backpack, and looks in the mirror before leaving: the unkempt beard that he’s only been able to shave once since his daughter disappeared, the circles under his eyes. And they’re off. But before half a block down, the little girl starts to cry for her cloud. So they run back and tata Tomás grabs the bag of cotton balls from the crib.

“Are we ready now, chamaca?”

“Yes. Chamaca walks”.

“Forget about walking, we’re running so late.”

When they get to the drugstore, they say good morning to Brayan Ezequiel, and tata lets the little girl wander down the aisles since there aren’t any customers; meanwhile, he places the cardboard boxes behind the register and takes the stuffed cat and little-girl dishes out of the drawer. He puts them next to the bag of cotton balls.

“There we are. Come play over here, chamaca.”

Tata run?”

He looks one way and then the other as if a customer were about to appear out of nowhere. Then he looks at Brayan Ezequiel.

“Go run, pinche Tomás. I’ll keep an eye out, you son of a bitch.”

And they run, giggling and whooping. The little girl running ahead. Down the first-aid aisle. Down the deodorant and personal hygiene aisle. Next to the soda refrigerators. Past the snack stands. They run. Down the canned goods aisle. Past the stacked notebooks and notepads. Laughing all the way. Next to the cheese and cold-cut refrigerator. They run. Past the newspaper and magazine stand where tata decides it’s time to catch up with her, pitch her into the air as if she were going to fly, and catch her. Two. Three times, before taking her to the work station.

“I love you, tata.”

“And I love you, little lady.”

He sets her down to play with her dishes and goes back to read the newspaper front pages, the police news. He picks up the newspaper that he considers has the best coverage and places it next to the register.

“Any news?” Brayan asks, making sure to omit any foul language.

“Nothing.”

(The closest thing is a story about finding two young women with a bullet in the back of their heads close to Tecomán, but they have already been identified, though their names are omitted.)

He thanks Brayan for taking the register before his arrival and spends the morning with the usual customers. With Brayan Ezequiel wondering if everything happens for a reason, if the reasons he’s thought up for diseases also apply to men’s actions. With Tomás wondering how we can follow the path of God if we don’t know what it is, wondering how we can be temperate and certain. With the little girl not eating and her grandfather running out of ideas to entertain her. He looks at the girl among the cotton balls she’s removed from the bag again and involuntarily wonders how much longer he’ll be able to bring her to work, what he’ll do with her in the next couple of years. He wonders this unwillingly because he doesn’t want to ask, because thinking about this means thinking that his daughter is alive when she’s dead, or worse, thinking that his daughter is dead when she’s alive.

So then around midday, Tomás decides to take Gabi out to eat. Maybe this way she’ll clear her mind and have a bite of something.

“I’m leaving you in charge.”

“Hell yeah, pinche Tomás. That’s what I’m here for.”

They go for a walk, and Tomás tries to get her to taste a slice of pizza, tacos tuxpeños, a mango, but no luck: Gabi just cries and hugs her bag of cotton balls. So they start walking back, the little girl walking beside her grandfather, looking at the sewer grate inscriptions, and he thinks that she looks just like her mother, just as stubborn, but he can’t remember if Telle was that way when she was little. He only remembers her sleeping or fighting with her mother since she could talk. He’s remembering her when he sees the drugstore owner arrive with the disgruntled old lady from yesterday and a rich young woman, one of those blondes who like to wear indigenous crafted clothing.

“Fuck.”

He didn’t put away the cardboard boxes or the girl’s toys.

“Fuck tata?”

He sees Brayan Ezequiel come out to greet the retinue, the old lady waving her hands exaggeratedly and the other lady nodding her head. The owner remains minimally calm, or that’s what Tomás wants to think while holding the girl and crossing the street to hide behind the newspaper stand and continue watching.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” repeats the little one, almost content. It’s the first time she’s heard her tata say that word, and she’ll repeat it until someone listens. But Tomás doesn’t pay attention. He hides and observes.  He sees the retinue enter the drugstore. And, since no one listens, the little girl begins to squirm and say it louder to see if he’ll at least put her down.

“Sit tight, chamaca.”

Chamaca fuck put down.”

And she flings the bag of cotton balls to make it more convincing.

“Cloud cloud fuck.”

So the grandfather has to give in. He’d like to reprimand her, but he stops himself and takes her over to pick up the bag. It’s not enough; Gabriela is about to cry. “Think, pinche Tomás, think.” Maybe they just came in to talk about the prices. The little girl starts to tremble. Tomás scans the reading material suspended on the wires by clothespins and finds a coloring book with a lion cartoon on the cover.

“Look, chamaca, a lion. Do you like it?”

“Fuck yes.”

He buys the coloring book.

“Now, let’s look at the animals,” he says, trading her the coloring book for the bag of cotton balls.

The little girl finally quiets down. Tomás peeks from behind the newspapers and sees the drugstore owner saying goodbye to the disgruntled old lady and the blond in indigenous crafted clothes. Very civil gestures. Brayan Ezequiel doesn’t come out to see them off.

“And now what are we going to do, chamaca?”

“Aff!” the little girls exclaims, pointing at one of the coloring book pages.

“That’s an aff, all right. Isn’t it neat?”

Tomás breathes deeply. He touches the crucifix and then caresses the little girl’s tousled, fly-away curls. He didn’t realize it when she tugged the hair bands loose. He smiles. He kisses the top of her head. The women have left, and the drugstore owner is standing on the sidewalk, hands on his hips.

“Let’s see what the boss says and then we’ll go pray for your mami. What do you say?”

“Aff.”

Grandfather and granddaughter cross the street. The tuba water vendor says hello. Tomás is sweating like a pig. “We’ll come by later to see if the chamaca wants to try it,” he says. As soon as he says this, he turns to find the boss right in front of him.

“Good afternoon.”

“Afternoon to you. How’s our future pharmacist today?”

Tomás doesn’t know what to say in reply. He remains silent. Gabriela smiles at the man and then bashfully hides her face against her grandfather’s chest.

“They can go to hell.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“You have nothing to worry about, Tomás. Those damned old ladies can just go to hell. Brayan had already filled me in. We’ll see what we can do.”

Tata fuck?”

“No, my little one, your tata is not fucked.”

When they leave the drugstore that afternoon, they go directly to the church. The little girl still hasn’t tasted a bite and is hugging the bag of cotton balls tight—the coloring book quickly lost its charm. They walk down the left aisle. The little girl looks at the Sacred Heart statue. She points at it with her little hand.

“He have ladder?”

“Yes,” the grandfather replies, noticing that the Sacred Heart stands on top of a cloud.

Mamá cloud?”

 

Translated by Katherine Sutton