EL PALETERO

Sharon Diane King is both an author and an actress, whose movies include Lovesick and DisOrientation. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

 ***

In the swirling depths of the paletero’s ice-cream cart: coconut helados, pineapple ices, ruby-red watermelon and grape-purple popsicles. Frozen bananas and cubes of papaya, laced onto long bamboo skewers. Coffee and chocolate drumsticks in crisp shells, their tops crunchy with chopped peanuts. Tamarind sherbet that nips at the tongue as it chills. Scarlet-and-yellow-hued missiles, psychedelically-twisted DNA on ice. Dreamy, creamy paletas of chunky black walnut, caramelly cajeta, lime-green avocado, golden-pink mamey.

And down at the very bottom, from where dry ice sends up feeble white wisps, things you should think twice about, before you ask for them.

The paletero’s cart does not impress. Years of navigating the sprawling city streets, even while stirring joy into young hearts, has churned its cream color into a dingy yellow, has scarred and dented and scuffed its sides. Only the wheels still carry a trace of its former glory. They are indigo blue, dotted with silver stars. The word “universo” is faintly visible when the cart is at rest. When the wheels turn and the universe whirls, the stars can be seen sparkling from far, far away.

Ding, ding, says the paletero as he makes his way down the sidewalk, inching the cart’s wheels over the uneven places where the jacaranda trees, flouncing their purple blossoms, have had their way with the concrete. The bell went bust ages before; he never bothered to replace it.

A dark-eyed girl of seven, long blue-black hair coursing back from a widow’s peak, runs up to him. Her hands dig deep into the back pockets of her saffron-colored trousers. “Me gustaría una paleta de fresa,” she tells the paletero shyly.

“One dollar, mija.”

“No tengo un dólar, hay sólo…ochenta centavos.” The girl hands over the eighty cents, peering up anxiously into the old man’s wrinkled face.

“Basta, mija.” The old man dumps the coins into his worn change bag and bends over his cart, fishing out a wedge-shaped strawberry cream popsicle. He hands it to the girl with a smile.

“Gracias, señor.”

“De nada, mija.”

The little girl peels back the wrapper, takes her first lick. Her face brightens at the cool touch on her tongue. She squeezes her eyes closed, savoring the moment.

The paletero wends down the walk, passing tiny houses with half-wheel wrought-iron gates, their yards burgeoning with black and gold and green succulent plants. He strolls past the laundromat burping steam with each swing of its door, past the barber shop with its cracked pole and squeaking chairs that, despite a constant flurry of people in and out, always seem empty. He nears the flower shop, its worn black-and white-checked flooring hidden by bucket upon bucket of splaying gladiolas, deathsweet carnations, blowsy marigolds, mute declawed roses. He slows, glancing far down the street at a group of youths with close-cropped hair standing idle near a lamppost, from which dangles a pair of tennis shoes. Their gaze fastens on him and grows hard, like the calluses on the old man’s hands.

The paletero’s eyes shift to a slender, dark-skinned youth of twelve or thirteen lingering near the flower shop’s doorway. The boy is careful to look anywhere but at the young men circling the lamp pole.

The paletero pushes his cart forward.

“Care for a popsicle, my son?”

Startled, the boy looks into the man’s weathered face, the sloping forehead and long earlobes of a Mayan priest. He stares for a moment into the fathomless black eyes, eyes that see far beyond, into the despair that thrums within every nerve of his body.

The boy’s gaze shifts to the ground, and he slowly shakes his head.

The paletero nods and rolls his cart past. The sun beats down on the worn straw hat, the faded jeans, the wine-red cotton shirt with flowers embroidered lavishly on collar and cuffs. At the crossroads, where the road starts down the hill at a breakneck pace, he stops, sets the wheel-brakes, dabs at his brow with a clean handkerchief from his back pocket.

“Ding ding! Paletas, helados, a quién le gustarían?”

Children swarm from every direction. For a while the paletero’s cart disappears in a tangle of eager arms and dancing legs. His money bag fills, his hands grow red, then pale, from repeated descents into the cart’s frosty depths. But he never stops smiling.

Sated, the children scatter. A single person remains standing beside him, a fortyish woman dressed in blue summer capris and a full white blouse. Her face is broad and flat, her wavy hair a dingy blonde. She smiles as she fumbles for her change purse.

“Excuse me, sir—” she says, and stops. She stares into his face, and her lips tremble. “Buenos días.”

Muy buenos, señora. Do you know what it is you would like?” His voice resounds like a bell in her ears.

“Oh, yes, I do—”

“And you believe I have it in here?”

“Yes. Nana told me to—see you. The woman from the botánico.”

Nodding, the paletero leans down and takes the brake off one of the wheels.

“How—how much does it cost?” Her voice is starting to catch. The paletero leans down, releases the brake from the other wheel. He straightens up.

“You can pay me later. I always come back to this spot.”

She ducks her head and slips the purse back into a pocket in her trousers.

With a nudge of his foot, the paletero sends the cart flying down the hill.

The woman stares at him for a second, then dashes after the cart, blonde hair streaming behind her.

The old man whistles sharply. With a whoosh, first the cart, then the woman goes sailing up into the sky. She tries to catch up with the hurtling cart as it careens through the air, its wheels spinning uselessly back and forth. Her legs pump and her big face curves into a big smile. She narrows the gap, not seeming to notice they are no longer wedded to the bounds of earth. She catches the push bar of the cart with her left hand, seizes it with her right. The cart soars even higher as she clings to it for dear life.

In her grasp, the cart becomes a pram.

The pram and the woman rise higher, higher. The wind tugs at her blouse, courses through her blonde hair. Laughter, woman’s laughter, rains down from above.

There is a tiny cry from the buggy. Someone is hungry.

The paletero watches until the woman and the pram become lost among scoops of creamy white clouds. He smiles.

He takes a step or two, then stops abruptly. Just in front of him, a single, perfect yellow flower rises from between two jagged slabs of pavement. The paletero watches the tall, thin stem sway slightly in the breeze: a ballerina on tiptoe in the midst of a construction zone.

After a long moment, he steps carefully around the flower, moves a few steps away. There he digs out his money bag, sifts through dollars and quarters, nickels and dimes. He scatters a few shiny pennies onto the sidewalk.

“For you, amigos,” he says with a chuckle. After a moment, the duendes emerge from the cracks in the pavement and scamper around the coins, singing their noiseless songs of joy. They carry on, in the way of unseen little folk, for many moments.

In the fitful sunlight, the pennies glitter on the ground.

The paletero walks on. On his right, a creek bed emerges from a large culvert: an offshoot of the city’s tamed river, once mud-licious and puddle-wonderful. Now the flow of water has nearly dried up. On the edge, upon the pallid, cracked earth, a small spotted toad sits next to the lifeless body of her companion.

“Sana, sana,” the paletero whispers, stooping to pick up a dirty paper cup from the sidewalk. He draws near the toad and squats down. He sits with her for some minutes. The toad blinks but does not move. At last he bends over and gently pushes the creature into the cup; she does not resist. “Sana, sana, colita de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana,” he croons. It is a toad, not a frog, and it has no tail, but the toad does not seem to mind the imprecision. With infinite care he tucks the cup into his ample right shirt pocket and buttons it over her. He glides back toward the sidewalk.

There is a bumping, thumping sound behind him. He whirls.

The paletero’s battered cart has returned to the ground, a new scrape on its side, bouncing a little on ever-shakier wheels. Slowly, creakingly, it rolls down the sidewalk toward him. Behind it, the broad-faced woman smooths down her windblown hair and walks away as if still soaring on air.

The paletero grasps the push bar and turns left down the street. He walks for many blocks. Here the trees are handsomer, shadier, the houses larger, the cars finer. The air smells wetter, and there is a heavy scent of magnolias in bloom. Here the paletero does not call out the notes of his silenced bell, does not hawk the icy treats he has to sell. In stillness he passes down the long, stately street with his pushcart, pausing at last in front of a grand house on the corner.

There, in the imposing front yard, bougainvillea winds around a latticed arbor, doffing tri-corned blossoms of white and violet and magenta at passersby. Inside the arbor, a tall man stands facing the street. His face is drawn, his hair thin; his body sags as if tugged down by countless hands. His hairline is strangely cowlicked on the left side, and a long, faded scar runs down his neck, disappearing into his jacket.

His gaze rests on the paletero standing before him on the walkway. His eyes are pools of gray loss.

“You’ve come back.”

The paletero nods.

“Does that mean—I can have what I want?”

“Are you sure you want it, my son?” The paletero’s question is measured, grave. The man stares at the ground.

“How much will it cost, again?”

“Maybe more than you have to give.”

“I would give anything.”

“What about everything?”

The man is silent for a long moment. He nods.

“You are sure?”

“I am.”

The paletero reaches deep into his left shirt pocket, pulls out a folded pair of black felt shoes.

“Put these on, and come.”

The man stumbles through the garden gate. Wordless, he ties on the shoes the paletero hands him and follows the old man down the street. They reach a corner, cross it when the stream of cars allows their passage. Once on the other side, underneath a soaring palm tree, the paletero motions them to stop. With the care of a spider shuttling its web-weft, the paletero pivots, bringing the cart circling around him. He takes a single step backward.

“Now, you must do as I do, step for step. Do not gaze behind you, not once. Look only upon what we will be passing by.”

The man stares blankly at the old man’s wind burnt face, his dark sun swept eyes. “But how—”

The paletero shakes his head. “I will see you there, every step of the way.”

They move backward, haltingly at first, down the sidewalk. With every step, the younger man’s gaunt face changes, fills, grows ruddy. His eyes brighten, his clothes hang more loosely; his hair thickens, darkens. His pace alters, becomes faster, more confident. As they walk, the sun rises and sets, shadows lengthen, then dwindle in bright sun. Houses shed floors, change color. Gardens rearrange themselves, trees shoot up, then disappear; flowers flame, then flame out. Street lamps grow shorter, statelier; mail boxes humbler, automobiles shrink, then grow longer, heavier. Rain, sometimes hail, falls in quick bursts. A cold wind blows in fierce gusts. Smoke towers in the distance, then clears. Fog sweeps in, then dissipates. More than once the earth trembles under their feet. Slate stones forming a garden wall next to them tilt drunkenly into an ungainly pile, then shoot up again in neat used-brick columns. Apartments slide away, leaving quaint bungalows. A russet-color tram crowded with people rushes by. The air grows thicker, quieter, cooler.

At last the two reach a lush park adjoining a schoolyard. Calves aching, they backtrack into a cluster of tall pines. Long brown needles crunch fragrantly under their heels.

The paletero stops, opens the cart, and steps back, motioning with his hand. His companion, now a rosy-cheeked youth, leans down, peering past the ice crystal-coated cardboard popsicle boxes, past the gel packs and the dry ice pellets. He stares, catches his breath.

“Willy—”

He bends over the side of the cart. It shakes with the sobs of a lost little boy.

“My son,” the paletero says to the weeping figure after a long moment. “It is time to make your choice. The ice will run out, and I still have paletas to sell.”

The boy looks up, tears coursing down his cheeks. He struggles to regain his voice.

“Please tell me what to do—”

“I cannot.”

The boy sobs again.

“You can tell your mother and father what you want. Tell the doctors, the nurses,” the paletero says gently.

“What if they won’t listen?”

“They might not, mijo.”

A silence. Time melts around them.

“I—I don’t know.”

“You must decide if the risk is worth it.”

A hummingbird chitters overhead as it makes for a bank of honeysuckle ruching over a chain-link fence. The boy’s eyes follow the sound. He wipes his nose on his jacket sleeve, now oversize. He stares pleadingly into the old man’s face.

“If they do not pay you heed, mijo, you will lose him once more, but you will live your life.”

“And if they do listen—might I—what if I—”

The paletero passes his hand over his eyes. “My son, did I not say what it might cost?”

The boy is silent.

Chasing off a rival with angry chirps, the hummingbird darts from flower to flower, probing the pale tongues full of nectar.

Inside the cup-lined pocket of the paletero’s shirt, the toad shifts. She has grown heavier, her belly now full of eggs. The paletero takes a deep breath.

Mijo, stay here for a moment. Don’t leave. I will come back for you.”

The paletero swiftly strides toward a large pond in the park, edged with greenery and fed year-round by a creek from the mountains. At one of its shallows, he squats, unbuttoning his shirt pocket. He removes the cup with its precious contents, gently sets it down, unfurls it.

Ven, amiga mía; come out, little one. It is time to find a new home.”

There is no movement in the cup for a moment. Then the toad, sensing the water before her, takes one small hop forward. She takes another, then two more. With a splash, she leaps into the pond.

The toad swims away amidst a shower of sun rays dappling through the trees.

The paletero’s ruddy hands suddenly tingle. He rises to his feet, hastens back to his cart.

The boy has vanished.

Face darkening, the paletero whirls, scanning in every direction. Nothing.

He takes a few quick strides around the park, scrutinizing the honeysuckle vine–covered fence, scanning the trees. No structures stand near, not even picnic tables and benches. The municipal council that will buy them has not been formed yet.

Turning, the old man spots a small black shoe on the other side of his cart. His shoulders sag.

The paletero gazes down, far down, into the icy vapors of the still-open cart. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.

Headfirst he plunges into the cart, neck, arms and legs quivering. He passes down through the false bottom, past the dry ice, into something far colder. A blast charged with guilt that stuns, a loss that weighs. And infinite regret, so sharp that for a long moment it takes his breath away.

A rush of places and moments surge through him in swaths of tastecolor, in scents of soundmotion.

He stretches out quicksilvered fingers and gropes after the boy in an inky darkness shot through with flashes of light, arching with waves of cold.

He could not be far. Surely he had not been that long away, tending to the hapless toad….

Had he?

The paletero slips through the iridescence of days cherished, the pallor of days wasted. He passes among whirls of textures, some throbbing like living velvet, some hissing as if bubbling with venom. Songs echoing with sweetness and sorrow well up inside him. He flies forward, falls back, rises, sags, drifting through chutes of done, undone, never done. He closes his eyes, searching inside himself. The child will be found. The wish will be made.

Won’t it?

Deep within the old man a shuddering begins, one he cannot control. He has not wandered inside his cart for many years, has not thought of the pangs of nausea, the dizziness, hollowness at his very core. He casts about him, desperate.

The little girl in the yellow pants, her look of joy.

In the swirling, shrieking darkness, the twisting taffy-pulls of the abyss, the paletero’s fingers brush against something. They fumble, grasp an edge. It is the tip of a sweatshirt drawstring.

He pulls slowly, tugs sharply.

The little boy, eyes wide with fear, tumbles into the paletero’s arms. He buries his face in the old man’s shirtfront, leaving behind the ghost of tearstains.

“I—I chose—”

The paletero holds him tightly, his body shaking with the boy’s sobs.

“Softly, my son. Come.”

They drift toward warmth, a place in the lingering before, a turtle slowly finding footing on familiar shoals. Solid ground creeps under their feet, sturdy walls clamber behind them. Before their gaze, a tiled room filled with beeping machines and shiny instruments blazes with harsh light. Doors open and close; masked and uniformed people hurry impersonally from one task to another. Above the room in a glassed-in balcony stand a man and a woman, also clad in masks and suits. They lean on each other. A long narrow table rises in the middle of the room, but what is on it is shielded from view by the machines.

No one takes notice of the pair looking on.

It is too bright. The boy’s eyes pinch closed. The paletero moves forward, toward the surgical table now visible in the middle of the room.

“Go in now, my son. The man who makes you sleep has not come in yet. You can tell them.”

“And if they don’t listen?”

“Find a way to make them hear you.”

The boy opens his eyes, stares fearfully over the old man’s shoulder.

“If it’s what you really want, mijo.”

The child hesitates, nods, surrenders. His body shimmers into the air like myriad ice crystals.

The paletero waits, his dark eyes fixed on the table. A nurse with a tray steps away, and a starfish-creature appears: eight limbs barely visible under gauzy covers. At the top of the table, two heads face away from each other. One of the faces is more twisted than the other, with a blind eye and misshapen jaw. They weep silently.

Another masked figure enters, a tall, commanding man in white. There is a stir from the table, and a voice cries out.

“Please, doctor, please, don’t do this! Don’t take Willy away!”

There is a commotion; doctors and nurses turn, aghast. The creature on the table beats with hands and feet.

“Don’t take him away from me! Mommy, Daddy, please!”

The parents in the balcony above are surrounded by nurses and aides trying to keep them from descending.

Let me speak to them—

“It’s best if you stay here.”

No, no, let me see them. They’re my sons—

They’re our sons, we need to—

“You’ll contaminate the operatory, you can’t go down—”

“We’ll handle them, don’t worry—”

Please! PLEASE—

“Mommy! Mommy! Don’t take Willy away! Daddy, please! Let him stay with me!” The spotless cloths draping the table are flung about; there is shrieking and flailing. A man steps briskly toward them, nodding to his assistant. She brings out two masks with tubes attached. They hover over both small heads.

The tall man in white looks down at the table, motions with his hand. The room falls silent and still.

The paletero’s dark eyes flash.

***

Ding ding, says the paletero as he makes his way down the jigsaw-patched sidewalk. The smell of hot asphalt rises from the street; waves of heat sheet in front of him like an ever-shifting mirage. He stops in the shade of an ancient coral tree and mops his brow. Paletas, helados, a quién le gustarían?

His voice is a little more weary, but he still smiles at the children who gather around his cart, paused in front of a mural of starry crimson poinsettias. The children clamor for popsicles of tangy, sweet-sour guanabana, chewy ice-cream sandwiches, helados of spicy eggnog, heady black zapote, rich peaches-and-cream. Eager fingers tear off wrappers for the first few seconds of purest bliss.

The grind-and-squeal of sirens sound behind them. A long fire engine, then another, and another, careen down the broad street, hurtling past them with a rush of dust and scattered leaves. The paletero motions to the children to stay where they are. They stand grimacing; those who can, hold their ears.

The paletero follows the engines with his eyes.

He sees the dark smoke rising, billowing higher and higher. He thinks of the neighborhood so close to this one, yet in a different world. He thinks of the broken man in the big handsome house, the love for a lost brother, the severing that made a life by taking another away.

More sirens, more honks pierce the air. The paletero looks at the smoke for a long moment, as if parsing a sign. At length he shakes his head, moves on down the street.

As he rounds a corner, he sees the same dark-skinned young man hovering close to the flower-shop window. The paletero nears the doorway and smiles at the boy, whose gaze shifts to the gum-stained sidewalk

“Mijo,” the paletero says. “Would you help me out?”

The boy looks up, doubt in his dark eyes.

“I put in too many this morning. They won’t stay cold in this heat, they’ll just go to waste. Could you take one?”

A short silence. “Okay.”

The boy peers down into the cart.

“Is that a fudgsicle?”

The old man brings out the popsicle, ice crystals stippling its paper.

“Are you heading that way home? I must go back, I made a promise. You can keep me company.”

The two amble off down the street. The boys idling under the lamppost watch them pass. The old man sees the boy to the steps of the stately, crumbling apartment building where he lives.

“Maybe I will see you tomorrow after school, mijo. I am changing my route, I will be passing that way.”

The boy nods, disappears behind the door.

With swift steps the old man retraces his path back to the wealthy neighborhood. One by one, the fire engines slowly pass him, heading the other way. He turns down the street, his stomach lurching, and for a moment, loses his grip on the handle of the cart.

The house is gone. There are piles of scorched stonework, blackened walls from which puffs of smoke rise, a ruined garden. The noble building has been consumed, along with all its memories. As if it had never been there.

The paletero fumbles for the cart handle, secures it. It is warm to the touch.

“May you find peace with your brother, mijo.”

***

In the swirling depths of the paletero’s ice-cream cart: sweetness that beckons to young and to old. Ices that cool on the warmest day. Confections with colors that dazzle, textures that tease, flavors that explode in the mouth. The stuff of dreams.

And down at the very bottom, from where dry ice sends up feeble white wisps, things you should think twice about, before you ask for them.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Sharon Diane King