Some Call It Sadnessby Nicole Rivas
The television in Lorenzo's Market is showing a novella and there are flies buzzing everywhere. They're going crazy it's so hot, zipping head on into display cases and wrestling each other against sticky paper traps. On the screen, a woman with bee-stung wine lips is crying on the shoulder of a middle-aged man wearing a suit and hair plugs. She keeps saying, perdonadme, padre, perdonadme.
"You kids need help finding something?" Lorenzo asks from the seat of a barstool.
Frankie is standing near my waist and hugging a bag of greasy tortilla chips to his bare chest. Louisa rubs her thumb over the "ripe when soft" sticker on a Haas before punching a hole through its black, bumpy skin. Her thumb comes out bright green and gunky. Lorenzo coughs from behind the cash register.
"Just looking around," I say.
Louisa sucks the avocado from her thumb.
Lorenzo nods, leans back against the cigarette cabinet, and resumes watching television.
"Liar," Louisa whispers, loud.
"Shut the hell up, " I say. "Or I'll string you up like a piñata and beat the shit out of you. Stupid-ass snitch, Louisa."
Louisa rolls her eyes and reaches for another avocado.
"Hey," Frankie whines, "Alex cussed. I'm telling."
"Telling who?" I laugh. "The paleta man I send you home with? Hear him ringing the bell, coming down the street? You can just go live with him and sell ice cream for two pennies a day. Then you can tell him all your stupid secrets."
"Yeah," Frankie clutches the chips tighter into his pouty torso "at least I'll get ice cream every day."
The way we'll get away with it is to buy some groceries, the cheaper ones, and steal the rest. So Frankie holds the tortilla chips to his chest but doesn't let Lorenzo see the single red onion and tomato crunched between the bag and his little body. That way, when I go to the counter to pay and Lorenzo sees Frankie, he'll just point to the bag and say "Okay, two dollars for the chips." and punch the numbers into the register.
It's even easier with Louisa because she's a prissy-ass twelve-year-old with glittery nail polish and pink lip-gloss so she carries a heart-shaped quilted purse all the time anyway. It's small and uneconomically shaped but usually roomy enough to fit in a few avocadoes and a lemon or two. No one would ever think she'd have stolen fruits bobbling around in her bag next to the compact mirror and nail file.
I, on the other hand, don't dress pretty like Louisa or wear makeup, but tend to just sling a backpack over my shoulder to haul my junk around in. Lorenzo doesn't let the school kids bring their backpacks inside his store though. Because of that, I don't really score anything that won't fit securely in my blue jeans, which isn't much. Frankie and Louisa do most of the hands on work- I'm more of the look out, a kind of behind-the-scenes maestro. It sounds kind of cool to say that, which is dumb in reality because I never feel cool and never have been cool. In fact, stealing from Lorenzo's Market is the only thing I've ever been good at, though I know it's nothing to be proud about. And I tell myself that we're only getting the ingredients for chips and guacamole, anyway. It's not like I'm snagging fur coats from Neiman Marcus to sell in the black market. Still, if my father found out what I was making my brother and sister do, he'd probably skin me alive. He'd simply sling my pelt over the telephone lines like the gang members do with the shoes of people they've jumped.
I wonder if he'd tear the skin off a little more gently if he knew this was all for him though.
Louisa helps me pick out the avocadoes while Frankie hops around impatiently and kicks the bottom of the splintery wooden fruit stand.
"Alex," Frankie cries, stamping his foot. "I'm bored. I'm hungry. I'm thirsty, and I have to go pee. Really, really bad, Alex."
"You got everything," I whisper to my sister, "the lemons?"
"Stop ignoring me, Alex," Frankie says, "or I'll ignore you too."
Louisa nods. "But you're taking us for burgers after, right?"
"Yeah," I reply, as we head over to the counter. "But you guys better order off the dollar menu. I only have a few bucks. And don't even ask about getting a soda."
Lorenzo is silent as he rings up the chips and chilies, the latter of which I have placed on the counter in their plastic bag. As predicted, he only looks up to note the tortilla chips before entering their price into the register.
"Okay, niños. $3.78 is your total," Lorenzo says.
I am groping for the five-dollar bill inside my pocket when I hear a cry, a crinkle, and two thuds. I look back and it's Frankie. He has dropped the bag of tortilla chips, the tomato, the onion, and his cargo shorts are soaked with piss. There's a little yellow puddle gathered around his flip-flops.
"Frankie," I say, "what-"
"What's this, niños?" Lorenzo asks, leaning over the counter. "Why is your brother hiding these things?"
The lady with a wine mouth on the television set is still crying over something she did wrong to the man with hair plugs. His face is stony, like a block of clay with a mustache and two eyes hollowed out with a charcoal stick. I'm not sure why I think the lady with the wine mouth is crying- I guess because her face is all scrunched up, her eyebrows are at a weird angle, and her forehead is in her hand. Her eyes aren't bloodshot though, there's no moisture on her powdered cheeks, her plum lips aren't quivering uncontrollably, there isn't even any snot coming out of her noise. Who cries like this?
"I don't know, Frankie-," I say. Everything in Lorenzo's market feels like it's closing in around me. The international calling cards, the garlands of garlic hanging from a hook, the cigarettes in the case behind Lorenzo that have ignited themselves in the heat of the afternoon and are pressing a fire into my face. Lorenzo looks like he just stubbed his toe, or like he has to sneeze. His face is very red, and the thin line of his mouth rumples under his gray mustache. He rests his brown forearms on the counter and leans forward. The fan oscillates over and the curly black hairs on his wrists flutter wildly.
"Do you have anything in your purse, niña? Open it for me," Lorenzo asks Louisa.
"No," Louisa replies, putting her hands on her narrow hips as flies buzz around her shiny lips. "You can't make me."
"Fuck, Louisa. Just show him," I whisper, crumpling under Lorenzo's glare.
"Open your purse, niña. I'd like to see if you are carrying anything like your brother."
"Oh, what, like this?" Louisa asks, before snapping open her heart purse, pulling out three Kotex tampons from a side pocket, and throwing them on the counter. "Is this what you mean? You want to see what a teenage girl carries around in purse, Lorenzo? You're sick. I'm telling my father ."
Before Lorenzo has time to respond, we run to the jingly bell door, but not before grabbing the spilt groceries from around Frankie's pissy feet. We are engulfed in yellow light as we bolt out the door and onto Paloma Street, sprinting up the hill toward home.
Frankie is really heavy for a three-and-half-year-old. I discover this while carrying him to our apartment after he pissed his pants and let the stolen onion and tomato slip out of his grasp. He is throwing a temper tantrum and using his heels to kick my kneecaps as I hold him in front of me as firmly as a sagging bag of tortilla chips.
"Calm down, Frankie, fuck," I say, struggling to subdue the squirming kid in my arms while rushing up Paloma Street. I'm too scared to look back, just in case Lorenzo is chasing after us swinging a bag of limes or a pointing a shotgun at my back.
"That was really crazy," Louisa blurts, jogging alongside me. She looks elated, her cheeks flushed red with the excitement of getting away with it, wild strands of hair sticking to her lip gloss, the heart-shaped purse thudding at her side. "Are we still going for burgers?"
Frankie is sitting bare-chested on the countertop in a clean pair of underwear, having refused to put any additional clothing after the show at Lorenzo's Market. All the windows in our little apartment are open because it's still hot as hell, even at 6 p.m. My father will be home soon, so I tell Louisa to stop watching MTV and help smash the avocados while I season a simmering pot of pinto beans.
My father has been working as a steward at Linda Vista Hospital for four years. I don't know what a steward is and have looked the word up several times in the dictionary at the school library, but I am still not completely sure what it actually means. It's a word almost as vague as the word like, which coincidentally is one of Louisa's favorites. Sometimes I think my father doesn't even know what he does, because anytime I've asked him he says something in Spanish that I have found can roughly be translated into "shoveling shit".
Today is my father's first day as a supervisor though, so I decided that we should make him a special celebration dinner. So what if it's half way stolen, it's the thought that counts.
"Stop," I say to Louisa, "the guacamole should be a little chunky still. Now add the onion, tomato, and I'll finish it with the rest."
Louisa sprinkles in the diced tomato over the smashed avocadoes. Frankie holds his arms out in front of him like he's caught a spider, only it's the pieces of onion and he drops them into the mortar. I squeeze lemon juice into the guacamole, then salt and pepper. The pinto beans will be done in ten minutes and the rice is fluffy and orange. I've even cut up radishes for crisp garnish.
We wait for our father.
At 7:30 Frankie starts crying again that he's hungry, so he and Louisa share a buttered tortilla. At 7:39 I eat a tortilla out of the bag. At 8:02 we take the tortilla chips and the guacamole into the living room and watch a dumb cartoon where the main character is a block of cheese. At 8:15 Louisa's boyfriend calls the house and she takes the phone into the bathroom to talk to him. At 8:43 Frankie falls asleep on the couch. At 9:15 Louisa comes out of the bathroom and goes into the bedroom. At 9:30 I change the channel to a show about a man who dresses as a woman, lets a man fall in love with her, and gets murdered in a corn field by his friends when they find out she's a he. At 10:04 I shut my eyes.
My father doesn't come home until 3 o'clock in the morning. I pretend to still be asleep when he slowly shuts the door behind him, making his way to his bedroom. He smells strongly of cigars. He is wearing a white button-down shirt hanging loose from brown slacks. I am watching him through slit eyes from the living room. He stops at the kitchen and walks up to the pot of rice. He lifts the lid and shakes the condensation off, scoops into the rice with his bare hands, and eats it over the stove. Single grains fall all over the range. He puts the lid back on, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, goes to his bedroom, and shuts the door.
I think of Lorenzo that night. Or am I dreaming of him? I'm not sure, because it's nothing unusual. I imagine him sitting on his barstool behind the cash register, next to the lighter display, saladitos, and tall Virgin Mary candles. I wonder how he felt when we ran out of his grocery store, and if he even said anything under his breath when the door closed behind us. I imagine Lorenzo mopping up Frankie's piss under the shaky fluorescent lighting with flies buzzing all around his head, while another regular customer comes in, a man wearing tight blue jeans, tan leather boots and asks "¿ Que paso?"
What happened. The tortilla chips, the onion, the tomato, the piss-soaked cargo shorts- the facts are all there. But then it occurs to me that what happened is sometimes only defined by what didn't happen, or what should have happened. Why would a small child steal an onion? Why did that young girl throw her tampons at my face? Why did the taller one, the teenage boy, look like he had small breasts? Why have I not installed surveillance cameras around the store?
The guacamole is turning brown and mushy on the kitchen counter. The sight of it makes my knees itch and my chest feel like a mortar. I guess some call it sadness. I'd like to knock on my father's bedroom door. I'd like to throw the guacamole at his face. I'd also like to hug him, ask him if he still loves us. I'd like to ask, "Lo que paso?" but I suck at Spanish and I'd already know his answer, anyway.