by Linda Carela
The new year passed and a period of beautiful weather began. One day Francisco came home a bit later than usual. He had been looking for Isabel and hadn’t been able to find her when he saw a fat man standing in front of the corner house, the one in which the mysterious girl lived—a strange girl, perhaps nine or ten, always alone. Francisco had found her wandering far from home on a couple of occasions, and he had given her a ride on his motorbike, and she stared at him as if she knew him, although she barely spoke.
The man looked up and met Francisco’s gaze. He waved Francisco over. The man had a bruise under his right eye. “Do you live around here?” he asked Francisco.
It was a breezy late afternoon, and Francisco had just received his weekly pay. He wanted to find Isabel and go to a restaurant out on the Malecón, but the compulsion to be polite and the curiosity about this man’s connection to the girl forced Francisco to reply. He took a step back and then pointed his chin at his building. “Yes, over there.”
The man nodded gravely, as if his worst suspicion had been confirmed. The man took a step forward and grabbed Francisco’s arm. He pulled him to his side and, while clasping Francisco tightly with one hand, began waving his free arm. The man’s pants were pulled short at the ankles by his bulk. His shirt did not cover his large abdomen, and six inches of hairy flesh jutted over his belt.
Then the girl, the strange, quiet girl, came out of the house. She wore a woman’s black negligee ridiculously hanging from her bony shoulders, and she held a pair of broken sandals in one hand and a rag of yellow cloth in the other. As always, she kept her face down, but managed one furtive glance at Francisco.
The man released Francisco’s arm and stared at the girl. “You got away? How did you get away?” he asked.
The girl stepped away from the fat man and behind Francisco, so that Francisco couldn’t see her, but he felt she was close, too close.
Everything was silent then. Only the rasping breath of the fat man. “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you around,” Francisco said.
“Me? Seeing me?” The man took a step forward as if to clasp Francisco’s arm again.
“Oh, excuse me, let me introduce myself. My name is Francisco.” Francisco took a step away, but reached his hand out in greeting.
The man ignored the hand. “My name is Manuel Pormenores Pichardo. And that”—he stepped around Francisco, grabbed the girl’s arm, and pulled her to his side—“is mine.”
Francisco raised his hand to gesture goodbye, but the girl pulled away from the man and yelled, “No.” She pulled on Francisco’s arm, a strong, fast jerk that Francisco felt in his armpit. She took the yellow rag, which turned out to be a dirty dress, and pulled it over the negligee. She headed down the street, waving at Francisco to follow her.
And he did. He would often wonder why, because later he realized that was the moment when everything changed—the rides on the motorcycle would have meant nothing if he hadn’t followed her down the street that evening—but at that moment he had no such thought. They walked the three blocks into the center of town without saying a word to each other. Francisco kept on glancing up at the girl’s face, expecting an explanation, but she just bobbed along, sandals in hand, watching all the passersby and peeking in at the shops blaring music. It was Friday evening and everyone was bustling around and getting ready to go out for the night.
The girl didn’t answer any of his questions. She just kept walking and waving him on.
“No further.” Francisco stopped and stood with hands on hips.
The girl stopped and turned to look at him. Her face had a wide-eyed, frightened look, as if she didn’t recognize him, as if he were a stranger and not someone that she had insisted accompany her.
They stood silently in the street. The girl looked first to the left, the direction back home, and then to the right, farther into town. A taxi passed by, beeping, looking for a fare. The revelry of the evening had begun, and the voices in the street were higher pitched, with whoops and shouts rising above the general rumble. Francisco took the girl by the elbow and tried to steer her home. She pointed at a horse and cart at the end of the street and walked toward that quickly. She stopped in front of an emaciated animal, the shuddering of its ribcage and the twitching of its ears the only motions of which it seemed capable. She gently patted its mangy pelt, bending down to look closely at an open, oozing sore on its left haunch. She shooed the flies away from the wound.
Francisco looked around for the owner of the horse and tried to pull the girl away. She shook her head and moved to the front of the horse and stroked its neck, long, slow strokes with no hesitation. When the horse bent its head and nuzzled the girl’s shoulder, Francisco was afraid the animal was about to bite her.
“He knows me,” she explained, as if she had read Francisco’s mind. Francisco dropped his hand. When was the last time he had touched an animal—felt the heat of it, the blood coursing under the pelt? The girl turned toward him, as if again reading his mind. “He likes to be petted on his neck best.” She withdrew her hand, making space for Francisco to step forward.
And he did. He didn’t think he would, but it only took one step closer and a lift of his hand. “He used to be strong, a very strong horse,” he said as he felt the neck muscles taut under his hand.
“Get gone, this horse has work to do.” The owner, a man as feeble and broken as his animal, hobbled forward and waved Francisco and the girl away.
As they moved off, he asked, “Do you have any animals?” Perhaps there was a cat or a rooster in the backyard.
The girl stopped and turned to face him and looked up into his eyes. He smiled, not understanding, and fearing what was to come next.
“I used to have a pig, I think.” She bit her lip and looked down at the ground, her bare big toe prodding the dirt.
“A pig? Here in the city?” Francisco asked.
She shook her head fiercely. “No, not here. Another place. I used to live another place. And there was a pig, lots of pigs, I think, but one was mine.”
She walked slowly, with her head down, and didn’t bother looking in at shop doors anymore. Francisco saw that they were actually heading away from their neighborhood, and he put his arm around her shoulders to turn her back again. She looked up at him once, as if to accuse him of something, but then she sighed and let him turn them around. They passed one of the city’s squares, a park with benches and some trees. Drinks and snacks were being hawked. A young boy nudged them. “Cold drinks. Wanna cold drink?”
Francisco looked up at the darkening sky. Soon they would turn the lights on around the square, and couples would come out to walk on the cobblestones and sit on the benches.
“You want to go home,” the girl said.
Francisco nodded. He looked over the girl’s head and saw a couple sitting on the nearest bench. They were facing each other; the man held the woman by the upper arm, and the woman’s head was thrown back in laughter. The woman wore a low-cut dress of silky yellow fabric, and with her body arched, Francisco could see the shape of her breasts. He looked down at his companion. The girl’s hair was matted; everything below her ears was tangled into half a dozen flattened ropes, discolored at the tips from being in the sun too long, and she still held her broken sandals in her hand, never attempting to put them on.
The string of light bulbs strung between trees flickered on. Francisco sighed. It was now too late to find Isabel. She was not a woman who waited, and she certainly would have gone off with one of her sisters or a cousin, if not with another man, by now. It was Friday night, after all. Francisco moved his hand down to his pocket and felt the pad of bills carefully folded in half. There was a fried chicken place on the other side of the square; at least he could buy this child some food.
“Cold drinks. Cold, cold drinks.” The boy with the bottles of soda walked by again.
“Come on. Let’s go over there.” Francisco pointed across the square.
“Cold, cold drinks.” The boy continued to follow them.
Francisco thought about the money in his pocket. Perhaps the boy had noticed this. Perhaps he wanted to rob Francisco. “Get lost,” Francisco turned around and hissed.
“Cheapskate. You’re too cheap to buy your little sister a drink,” the boy sputtered back.
“He’s a mean boy,” the girl said. “He calls me ‘stinky girl, stinky girl.’” “Stinky girl, stinky girl, stinky girl,” she muttered, getting louder with each repetition of the words.
Francisco shushed the girl and hurried her across the park to the restaurant. The neon sign, BEST FRIED CHICKEN, lit up the sidewalk with red and yellow splotches.
Francisco held the door open and ushered the girl inside. The interior, too, was brightly lit, with buzzing overhead lights. With just one large, greasy fan blowing in the corner, the restaurant was stuffy, almost steamy, inside, and it smelled sweet and rancid, like the hair dressing his mother used to wear. The line to the counter snaked around back to the front door, and circles of noisy, happy guests crowded around every chipped Formica table, grabbing chicken legs and French fries and tilting their heads back to drink from sweating beer bottles. Three men came in after Francisco and pushed past them. They wore baseball caps pulled low over their faces.
Francisco felt angry at their aggressive intrusion and wanted to leave, but he was hungry, and there were more people crowded in behind them. It would take an effort to get back to the exit. He watched, mesmerized, as the three men continued to push their way to the front.
The girl pulled on Francisco’s arm.
Francisco sighed. “C’mon, let’s get some chicken.”
She pulled again on his shirtsleeve and looked up at him, her face open and teary and pleading. She turned and started pushing through the crowd back toward the front door.
Francisco let her go. What did it matter; she would just go home. He watched her as she made her way back to the front. When she got to the door, she swung her upper body around and looked at him for a full, long second, her teary-eyed face turned up. It was a look of such sadness that he almost gasped.
“Wait a minute. Wait,” Francisco called, and he wanted to say her name, but he realized that he didn’t know it. He pushed his way back to the exit.
Back outside, it was now almost full night, and he looked up and down the street. How far could she have gotten in just three minutes? Then he saw her, her halo of tangled hair remarkable even in the semi-darkness, on the other side of the road, at the entrance to the square. The soda-hawking boy was standing next to her, pulling at her dress.
“Hey,” Francisco called out.
Immediately the boy turned and saw Francisco crossing the street. He turned back to the girl and mocked, “Almita, Almita, Allllll-miiiii-ta.”
Francisco came up close to the boy. The boy said, “I know who she is. Her name is Alll-miiii-ta. She lives with some fat man. You have nothing to do with her. Why are you with her?” The boy raised his eyebrows at Francisco, a salacious leer.
“Get out of here, get the fuck out of here.” Francisco waved his arms.
The boy moved off into the night, but until he disappeared in the darkness, he kept swiveling his head around, mocking and jeering.
Francisco sighed and walked over to sit down on a bench. The girl followed and stood there, a few feet from him, and he was aware of her watching as he held his head in his hands. He looked up and saw her looking directly at him, her head slightly tilted, arms dangling at her sides, a curious animal. She immediately looked away, but still he had caught her, and he felt something shift inside him, a peg knocked into a rift that produced tiny hairline fractures radiating behind his sternum.
He looked back at the chicken restaurant. Even though the crowd suggested a delicious dinner, he had lost his appetite. He sighed again and looked toward the girl, wanting to pat the bench beside him to ask her to sit. But then he heard a rapid popping, which Francisco immediately knew was gunfire, and people began pouring out of Best Fried Chicken, running and tripping and shrieking.
“My God,” he said.
The girl sat beside him then and leaned into his side.
Francisco pointed. “There’s a shootout.”
The girl nodded and burrowed her head into his side. “You followed me?” she mumbled against his shirt.
“Yes,” Francisco admitted. Everyone now seemed to be running in some direction; only he and the girl continued to sit there.
“Come on, come on. We have to move.” Francisco stood up, pulling the girl with him.
He ran over to the monument in the middle of the square. He craned his neck back and looked toward the restaurant; no more people were coming out. Francisco reached out to grab the girl, but she wasn’t there. He turned around in a circle, but she wasn’t anywhere.
“She will be okay, she will be okay,” he mumbled to himself as he ran.
He reached the edge of the park and slowed his pace, although his heart still raced. He crossed the street diagonally until he reached the northeast corner, where he and the girl had started this evening, probably less than an hour ago.
And then suddenly she was there—sitting on the curb on the far side of the street—about twenty feet from him. At first in the darkness, Francisco thought that he was mistaken. Perhaps it was another girl who looked like the one called Almita. But then he noticed the torn dress with the black nightgown hanging out, the bare feet. It was she. When he saw her there on the curb, alone as always, Francisco felt a surge of something—pain and sadness, but also warmth, a flooding of his chest and limbs. He felt, for an instant, that it was him sitting there. He was the one waiting for himself to show up.
He approached her and she looked up, startled. “I couldn’t find you,” she said. “I looked for you, but I couldn’t find you.” Her voice cracked, as if she was about to cry.
“I am right here.” He slumped down to the curb next to her.
She buried her face between her knees and started shaking her head. He put his hands gently on the sides of her skull to stop its movement. And she quieted in his hands. He felt a pull, a squeeze in his chest.
“Do you want to go home, Almita?” he asked, with one hand still on her head. “Almita, that is your name?” She nodded and they rose and made their way through the almost empty streets.
They came to the top of their street. Almita’s house was in darkness. They stood for a moment in the road. Almita looked down and took a step toward Francisco, her body swaying, her forehead almost brushing against Francisco’s chest. “Help me,” she said in a low voice, eyes still glued to the ground.
“Okay,” he said, but immediately felt dizzy. He reached down and lifted her chin up. She pulled her eyes away from him and back down to the ground; she seemed crushed, tiny bits all aquiver, only held together by the snot she sucked down her throat. He placed the back of his hand on her forehead; she was feverish on top of everything else.
Francisco took Almita by the arm and moved her toward his building. As he neared his front door, he stopped and fumbled for his key. Almita pulled away and he thought that she would head over to her darkened house, but she only went to pat his motorcycle, which was leaning against the side of his building. He shook his head, no midnight rides, and held the building door open. She scooted inside and clambered up the stairs, using all four limbs just as an animal might. Francisco opened the door to his room. The smell of day-old coffee and musty linen was offensive compared to the fresh night air. He switched the light on, but the electricity was off, and he felt the nightstand for matches to light some candles.
He called her into the room and looked for the oranges he had bought yesterday. She entered and stood in the middle of the room, and it was so quiet that he could hear her breathing, heavy and raspy. He pulled out his only chair. “Please sit. You don’t feel good, do you?” She moved to the chair but simply held onto its back. He chided himself for not feeding her. There must have been something open besides the chicken place. Who knew when she last ate? He found the oranges and a glass. She seemed to be swaying slightly. He placed a hand on top of her hot head. “Listen,” he said. “I am going across the hallway to get you some water. I’ll be right back, okay?”
Francisco entered the room again. Almita stood at the window now, facing him. The shutters were still open, and the light coming from an open door across the way lit her from behind so that her whole outline was blurred. There was a soft glow around all her edges so that it appeared as if the very molecules of her were dissipating into the room. Francisco shut his eyes for a moment and then opened them again, but the child and her radiance were still there. He saw himself as a very old man, maybe in a tiny rented room just like this one, with only the comfort of his mind to while away the long hours of his days close to death, and he knew with certainty that the image of this strange girl ablaze in light would be a cherished recollection, the memory a source of comfort in a bleak and unhappy life.