An Excerpt from “The Hot Mix” by Ray Salazar

Boleros

After a night of quiet rain, when the air smells like clean water, when sunlight starts to soak away the darkness of the summer night, Don Pablo the fruit vendor pushes his cart to its corner so he can work.  His umbrella opens in a yawn as cars begin to honk. Brakes squeak. Engines tremble.  Speakers pour frequencies out windows onto sidewalks busy with feet.  Behind his cart, under the umbrella, Don Pablo pushes “play” on the small radio / cassette player.  In seconds, high-pitched guitars plink rhythms like coins falling into an empty glass jar. Deeper strings sweep the melody forward.  Harmony in the bolero rises like the scent bees sense from the old man’s fruit cart.

Don Pablo's optimism for a good day swells.  Hastily, he prepares to make a living.  The watermelon cubes, jícama slices, and cucumber spears remain cold in cups comforted by ice.  He smiles at his first customer with a dollar.  This old man grabs his knife and thinks:

I slice

cucumbers slow.

Shake chili powder on

fruit cups as if it were luck on

my life.

“’Morning, Don Pablo,” says Lucky.  Many mornings when he takes the bus to work at the auto repair shop, he stops to buy some fruit.  “I tell my boss you’re the hardest working businessman on 26th Street.”  He takes out a few folded dollars from the pants pocket of his navy blue work pants and picks out two singles to hand the old man.  The old man wipes his hands on his red apron and accepts the money with a nod.  He opens a cigar box where he keeps his profits.

“I never get tired of working for a good life, Lucky,” quips Don Pablo and hands his customer fifty cents in change, both brand-new quarters.  “You know the value of working.  That car—is it ready?”

“Almost,” Lucky says as he reaches out to grab the plastic cup of cold cucumber slices.  “The engine’s in.  Just a few more pay days and I can take it for a ride.”

“You’ll have to let me drive it.  See if I can remember.  I used to drive trucks full of chickens in my town.  Through mud and rain—I never got stuck,” Don Pablo says with a smile that almost becomes a laugh.

Lucky smiles back, “You’ll get through these streets in no time with the engine I put in.  It’ll feel like it’s floating on calm water,” Lucky says lifting the brown-bag lunch and leaning back so it looks like he’s driving.

“Don’t forget to put in a radio,” Don Pablo says patting his radio / cassette player.  “You need good music.”

Lucky tilts his head toward the cup of cucumbers he brings up to mouth.  He takes a bite of the crisp spear.  The lime stings his tongue; the salt makes him lick the corner of his mouth.  He crunches down on the piece of cucumber as the guitars on the cassette begin their instrumental part, the notes falling in a quick rhythm, quick like the drops of juice from a freshly sliced lime. Lucky swallows the cucumber pieces and speaks up, “I’ve been working on this car so long; I’m almost tired of waiting to drive it. Almost two years.  I’m embarrassed to talk about it.”

Don Pablo wipes his sharp knife with a clean, wet towel.  “The only shame in life is theft,” the old man says.  He rests his clean knife on the cutting board.  “Here comes your bus,” Don Pablo points, making Lucky turn to see the green CTA bus surging closer to the nearby bus stop.  

“Don’t get left behind.”

Lucky nods in gratitude as he picks up his stride, brown paper bag lunch in one hand, his cup of cold cucumbers in the other.  Slowly jogging, he’s able to reach into his blue shirt pocket below the patch with his nickname to pull out his bus fare.  He slows down once he gets to the small crowd of people stepping toward the curb as the bus arrives.  Luciano steps back to let everyone else on first.  He munches on more cucumber slices.  He wipes his mouth on the long sleeve of his sky blue mechanic’s shirt before he steps on the bus with his black leather work boots.  The bus’s doors close behind him hastily, and the bus drives off weighted like a bumble bee in the sun.

Around Don Pablo’s fruit cart, people gather more quickly than hungry wasps on sunny mornings.  The fruit attracts the insects; Don Pablo’s red apron, red as a mango skin, monogrammed with his name in yellow letters, attracts the hungry.  His baseball cap, the same color as his apron, stands out against the brick wall of the grocery store he works next to.  Even though he wears his cap, his graying hair is neatly combed with brilliantine.  The little black comb he uses leaves long, even lines like the rows of crops he harvested over thirty years ago.  His eyes, if customers look closely, have some swirls the color of light green from a watermelon rind mixed with other swirls brown as sunglasses.  In his forties, Don Pablo looked taller with his strong build.

Now, he looks more round than lean in his white undershirt, old jeans, and flat leather sandals. Some disappointments, along with time, pulled down on his eyes lids, his cheeks, his posture. He has a belly.  He can push back his shoulders, straighten his back.  But, now, unlike other decades, he has to think about doing it—and he does it—to show off his pride.

Under the sun and the umbrella, Don Pablo consciously takes orders: a cup of watermelon cubes that dissolve on a young girl’s lips like a first kiss; a cup of crisp cucumber spears as refreshing as cold water; a mango on its wooden stick brighter than a sunburst at first, then shaded with an eclipse of chili powder; two cups of corn kernels with creamy butter and spicy cheese.  He accepts money with a smile.  He gives back change with good wishes.  In between clients, he wipes his cutting board with a clean, wet cloth.  He rinses off his knife.  He listens to his collection of cassettes, watching everyone who passes by:

Woman,

forty, wants honks

from a boyfriend’s car but

she won’t unwrinkle her face with

a smile.

Drunk kid

hugs a pole like

missing-person flyers.

After nights with beer, he pukes in

sewers.

Sixteen.

Pink lipstick in

diaper bag.  She has half

a broken heart.

“Hey.  Gimme a mango,” commands the kid whose face is smeared.  His dirty undershirt stretches out like a garbage bag.  His hair is frozen from some past scare.  “I’ll pay you tomorrow.”

“You get outta here!  You don’t pay nothing.”

“C’mon old man.”

“Who you calling old!  Get outta here—you lazy ass.  Huevón!” Don Pablo swipes his knife.  The kid jumps back, glares angry, unafraid.

"Fuck you, Old Fart.” The kid punctuates with a spit then swoops away with a middle finger aimed at the old man.

“Stupid kid bothers me every day.  But never has money,” Don Pablo complains to the woman now buying watermelon slices.

"He’s dangerous,” adds the woman with a white scarf around her neck quietly.  “He tried to steal my neighbor’s purse at the bus stop the other day.  She screamed so loud.  No one helped her but enough people stared to scare him off.”

"He should find a job with all that courage,” Don Pablo concludes.

The woman nods and walks away.

On the counter underneath the umbrella, the little cassette player plays Don Pablo’s music: boleros.  Usually, it’s Eydie Gormé with Trio Los Panchos.  Each time Eydie sings, Don Pablo likes the way her voice flirts through bumps in her accented Spanish when, perhaps, something is hard for her to pronounce.  Eydie’s voice pours out clearly at the end of each line in that song about cinnamon skin, clear as the new water Don Pablo pours from a gallon to rinse his hands so he can work.

As Don Pablo prepares his cups, he remembers the time he saw Eydie on the black-and-white TV.  She walked effortlessly down the stage in that snug glittering dress, smoothly as his knife gliding into the fruit he slices.  Eydie’s undergarments held her torso in the glimmering dress tightly, the same way Don Pablo holds his fruit cups while he assembles them to make sure they do not fall.  He packs the display cups in ice that will sparkle in the sun, just like Eydie’s dress did on black-and-white TV.

Don Pablo covers the display cups with plastic wrap to keep flies away.  When Edyie hits that long high note, Don Pablo remembers the guitarists all around her on that stage.  The last step for him is to place the small garbage can near his feet.  Now, with Edyie singing “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” Don Pablo is prepared to work all day.

Don Pablo glances at the bus stop in between customers.  He watches the women with dark lashes look down the street for the next bus.  They stretch one leg behind them, emphasizing a calf, and lift themselves on their toes, hoping the bus will not let them down.  The double-parked trucks delivering their goods, however, make the women hard to see sometimes.  But when they walk by, Don Pablo quietly inhales.

Scented.

Women’s heels click

like empty guns.  Damp hair.

Short skirt.  Unshy thighs for pinching

with lips.

A man hunched as if he were carrying buckets of water cuts through the cluster of the people waiting for the bus.  When the man crosses the street, Don Pablo shouts, “What happened, Maistro?  No work today?”

The man shakes his head.  “They sent me home again,” he explains, his eyes red from staying awake all night at the day-labor agency.  “I sat awake in that dirty lobby all night waiting.  And this morning, I hear, ‘No work.  Go home.’”

“Take it easy today so—tonight—you can go back,” Don Pablo advises, preparing to slice a mango.

“The problem is I can’t find work,” the man snaps back.  His mouth is tired from explaining how much he needs a job.  “And when I do work, they take three weeks to pay me.  Or they take away half for the cheap work shirts we have to wear.  Who can get ahead like that?”

“Look,” Don Pablo responds, “have a fresh mango and get some rest.  You can’t complain on a sunny day.”

The man lowers his head.  Don Pablo notices the dusty baseball cap held together in the back with a safety pin.  Don Pablo slices off the mango’s skin and stabs it with a wooden stick.  He takes his knife and, with the twist of his left hand and a few chops from his right, makes wedges to separate the meaty fruit from the flat seed.  The wedges help hold fresh lime juice, lots of chili powder, and a few grains of salt sprinkled over like magic.  He hands it to the man who shakes his head.

“No, Don Pablo. . . thank you . . . but . . .”

“. . . No worries,” Don Pablo interjects.  “You buy two when you get paid.”

The man stretches out his hand slowly still embarrassed to accept something without paying. But his hunger that morning is as strong as his motivation to work.  Waiting in the smoky day-labor agency all night in a plastic chair drained him.  His stomach is growling.

“Go home.  Take a shower.  Sleep.  Start over,” Don Pablo encourages quietly holding the mango before the tired man.

The tired man tightens his lips to hold down the knot in his throat.  He wants to say he how much he appreciates the gesture.  Instead, he tilts his head right and touches his chin to his chest.  He steps aside to bite into the tender fruit.  The potent chili powder makes the man sneeze out the day-labor agency’s stench of cigarettes and sweat in his nostrils.  He savors the small piece of mango as his jaw relaxes while the juices dissolve on his tongue.  The day laborer, too grateful to speak, raises the mango in a quick toast to the fruit vendor.  Then he continues his walk home down 26th Street, holding up the orange mango on a stick as if it were a torch.

Don Pablo grabs his moist rag to wipe down his cutting board when, at the intersection, he sees the neighborhood politician’s luxurious, dark car make a rolling stop.  The dark sedan reflects the sunshine off the long trunk as if the rays were not good enough to shine on it.  Don Pablo lifts the hand holding the rag and waves it side to side.  From the back seat, the stoic Chicago politician looks at Don Pablo.  From inside his air-conditioned car that he does not drive but is driven in, the city leader squints at the old man as if he were jealous. He does not return the old man’s wave.  Don Pablo does not expect him to.  Don Pablo glares back at the moving car wishing he could wipe away the politician with his rag and throw it in a garbage can.

“He’s useless,” mumbles Don Pablo loud enough for a customer to hear.  “Why don’t you like him?” asks the woman who manages the dry cleaners now waiting for her fruit.  “He tries to make this neighborhood look better.”

Don Pablo chops off the ends of the cucumber with quick knife swipes.  “New sidewalks and fancy light posts aren’t going to make this place safer.  It’ll just be easier to see the trash. What’s the point of fancy designs on the concrete at every crosswalk if people don’t feel safe walking around at night?”

“It’s not his fault people don’t raise their kids right,” the woman shoots back raising one eyebrow.

Don Pablo concentrates on the fruit cup he was assembling.  He feels unsure of what to say. He and his wife never had children. Don Pablo arranges the last cucumber spear in the cup.  “All we need is more garbage cans so people put the trash where it belongs.  And another park. And more playgrounds on empty lots.”

But the woman sees it differently:  “Look at the kids.  Every time they buy a Popsicle, the wrapper ends up by the curb.  Drunks throw the empty bottles on everyone’s front lawn when they drive by, honking their horns or slamming their brakes.  People don’t care about living in clean spaces.”

Don Pablo decides to cut up another cucumber for this customer’s cup to keep the conversation going.  “Every morning,” he adds, “I see at least one grandmother on every block sweeping away puddles on the street.  All the way to this corner, I hear the swish, swish of old brooms in the hands of old women.  They pick up trash, even if it’s not on their grass.  They make sure the rosebushes are untangled and all their flowerpots are watered.  They mind their front gates like heaven.”

“I didn’t ask for that,” the woman interrupts to make sure Don Pablo does not think she’s going to pay for more than she ordered.

"It’s a little extra from me to you today,” Don Pablo clarifies.

“There’s still only a few people who clean up,” the woman continues.  “That’s why my husband and I are selling our house.”  She hands Don Pablo a ten dollar bill for a one dollar cup. From his back pocket, Don Pablo takes out the small stash of bills.  He puts her money behind the two twenties he has from exchanging singles yesterday.  He finds four singles and gives them to the woman with a smile, thinking of a way to end this conversation.

“I’ve lived here for over thirty years, Señora.  And I’ll live here as long as God lets me live.  May you find what you are looking for somewhere else.”  Don Pablo rests his hands on his cart.

The woman turns and walks away without saying thanks.

“Get all that crap off the sidewalk!” the owner of the grocery store yells out to Don Pablo.  

“Yesterday you left crap all over.”

Don Pablo throws his shoulders back and huffs, “I clean up every day.”

“No you don’t,” the balding business man argues approaching Don Pablo almost waving his index finger in the street vendor’s face.  “Pretend it’s change,” the business man blurts out. “Then you’ll make sure to pick up everything off the sidewalk.” The insult hums like the silence at the end of Side B.

Don Pablo lets the comment go.  For the last couple of years, he’s made himself comfortable on this corner.  His cart is close to a school, the dry cleaners with the laundromat, two bus stops, and a bar.  People recognize him now.  Besides, sales are good this sunny day.  And Don Pablo enjoys nothing better than hauling home a fruitless cart.

* * * * *

By early evening, the wind doesn’t motivate Don Pablo to work like the morning breeze does. He begins to feel the push toward home.  The sky is fading into a darker blue.  Businesses begin to turn on their signs and kids on bikes are becoming difficult to see.  The tavern windows glow like a pirate’s chest.  A beer to end the workday is tempting.  But Don Pablo decides to head home before Edyie begins another song.

With all the corn on the cob sold, Don Pablo can dump the cloudy water from the red cooler in the sewer.  He rescues one cucumber and two mangoes from the cold water in the blue cooler before he dumps that.  He stores the condiments and cups.  Then, he puts away his clean cutting board and knife.  Finally, he takes down his umbrella, holding it briefly like a rifle across his chest, before laying it to rest and tying it to his cart.  With the dust pan and brush in hand, Don Pablo crouches to get all the watermelon seeds and any other trash that fell throughout his busy day.  He thinks about his profit and pats the money in his pocket.

Quarters

rattle in the

cigar box.  I put bills

in my pocket.  Keep twenties from

my wife.

He begins to push.  He turns down Hamlin and crosses the alley.  The dumpsters are full and flies rest on top from their day of slurping trash.

“Hey, Fucker.” Don Pablo hears and turns to see the kid who wanted fruit for free earlier.  The dirty kid continues crawling out from behind a dumpster.  His eyes are red even in the dimming daylight.  Don Pablo focuses on the kid’s stained T-shirt.

“Gimme the bills,” the kid commands.

Don Pablo knows he can’t run away.  His knife is packed away.  In a blink, the sky goes from dark blue to light black.  Don Pablo looks side to side.  No more kids on bikes.  No one sits outside.

“I know you got money, Fucker.”

The dirty kid jumps on Don Pablo and pulls him in the alley.  The cart begins to roll away.  Don Pablo swings his arms but can’t hit the kid hard enough for it to hurt.  The old man’s right sandal slips off.  His balance is lost.  Easily, the kid pushes him down.  The cart bangs against a pole with a light too dim for anyone to notice the attack.  Don Pablo hits the pavement.  The kid drops on top.  With his arms flailing for survival, Don Pablo feels like he is drowning.

“Where’s your money, Fucker.”

Don Pablo tries to push the kid off him.  He ends up face down on the gravel.  His mouth presses into the ground.  Sharp bits of broken glass cut into his lips and nose.  From the dumpster, Don Pablo gets a whiff of rotten fruit.

The kid pats his dirty hands on the side of Don Pablo’s pants, searching for the wad of dollars. Don Pablo reaches behind.  His fingers feel the shirt.  The kid, now grunting and exhaling hard, grasps Don Pablo’s wrist.  He twists the old man’s hand into his back.  With his other hand, the kid grabs Don Pablo’s back pocket and feels the pad of bills.  With one yank, he picks the pocket like a harvest.  The old man hears the tear.

“He’s robbing me!  Police!”  Don Pablo tries to yell more but his screams become muffled by the concrete.

“Shut the fuck up,” the kid orders and slaps off Don Pablo’s cap to grab him by his hair.  He pushes the old man’s face hard into the ground.  The old man can no longer yell.  The concrete cuts his cheek as he feels the kid’s weight lift off him.  He hears the pounding of the kid’s sneakers echo in the empty alley.  The kid runs in a straight line then jumps over a fence.  He disappears.  Not too far away, a few single dollar bills flutter on the ground. The old man flutters, too, struggling to get himself up.

Don Pablo eventually sits up and reaches for his baseball cap and left sandal.  His elbow bleeds and his cheek tingles with the pain from being punched.  He scrapes gravel from his burning palms.  His hands tremble.  He breathes deeply and pushes himself up slowly feeling the pain of every cut on his arm.  Looking down, he sees a drop of blood fall from his face onto the concrete.  He does not want to cry.

He reaches back to feel his pocket.  It is ripped.  His underwear is visible.  Looking up, he sees some stars a million miles away.  At that moment, the few vague stars in the dark sky are closer than his pride.

Don Pablo tries to push his shoulders back.  They hurt.  He wobbles toward the other sandal that lies upside down.  He smells a baby’s dirty diaper and rotten beans.  Still, no one is around. Even the flies on the dumpsters have flown away. Don Pablo rubs his shoulder while he thinks that he’ll slice that kid open next time he sees him.  He knows to keep his knife handy from now on.

He shuffles over to the crooked cart against the lamp post.  The cassette player fell of the cart with the bump.  The plastic cracked.  Pieces from it landed by the curb.  Don Pablo picks it up.

“It won’t work,” he thinks and rests it on the counter.

Don Pablo grabs the cart’s handle but struggles to start pushing the heavy cart.  Slowly, slower than he’s ever walked, he heads home.  His limbs tremble as the cart quivers over many broken sidewalks.  All the way home, everyone’s front door is closed.

When he arrives, Don Pablo parks the cart on the side of his apartment building, right outside the door of his basement home.  The blue plastic tarp, folded and placed there by his wife, is leaning by the entrance. He unlatches the cart’s doors, ignores the cassettes, and takes out the cigar box.  With one sore arm, Don Pablo shakes open the folded tarp.  Carelessly, he covers up his cart.  He doesn’t bother tying it down tonight. Holding the cigar box of coins in his left hand, Don Pablo stands before his front door.  He barely raises his right feeble fist:

Weak knock.

I have not seen

my face.  How can I not

feel ashamed when I show my wife

the change?