Angela Alvarez Velez

Writer/Maker

272

4

Pachito got a dog

I really appreciate all the feedback I got from my first draft.

So I took the idea from One block/one hour and tried to develop a story. I focused on Pacho, who really does have a dog named Toby, and went from there. Hope you enjoy and all feedback is welcome and greatly appreciated. 

Pachito got a dog

I know what you’re thinking. You see me in rags, missing most of my teeth, smelling like piss and glue and you’re like “Why on Earth would this guy want a dog? He can barely feed himself, let alone a puppy.”

And I gotta level with you, you’ve got a point. I mean, yeah, I live on the streets. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I live on one street: Calle 17. That’s mine, between 5th and 6th. It’s not as bad as it sounds, honestly. The weather is unbeatable for a roofless life, and there’s enough people who want to cleanse their souls with some charity, so food and shelter aren’t real hard to come by.

Respect is, though. Respect and companionship are tougher. Respect, companionship and affection, those are nearly impossible to find on this street. On any street.

I mean, sure, people give me the odd coin or piece of bread, but nobody looks me in the eye when they do it.

It bothered me at first, the impersonal nature of giving, but now I just take the coins and move on.

But I’ll admit, it gets kind of lonely when nobody knows who you are. Or cares.

I miss that, being known. Not that I miss being who I was. Before, I mean, when I was somebody. A regular guy with a family and a pay check and a mortgage back in Cartago. You’d think I’d be more nostalgic about the kids or the house or the car or even the wife, but not really. I do miss warm food, though. I don’t think I appreciated the importance of temperature when it comes to taste. Maybe no one does until they have to eat cold, greasy meat. It does not go down easy, let me tell you. And I miss knowing where stuff is, being able to find something. Unless I have it on me, chances are I won’t find whatever I’m looking for. I have some stashes, you know, in trees and sidewalk cracks and loose bricks, but I’m not that clever. Besides, trying to keep up with stuff and obsessing about the stuff I didn't have is what landed me on the street in the first place. No sense in getting caught up in the past, though. I made my bed and now I have to lie in it, even it if is a cardboard box on the doorstep of an abandoned building.

But at least I’ve got Toby now. And no, I didn’t steal him either. I found him under the Cesar Gaviria bridge. I’d gone there because I heard another guy in a suit had jumped off and the cops hadn’t gotten there yet. I know, picking corpse pockets isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Most guys I know are scared stiff of stiffs, but I know ghosts don’t care about what happens to their stuff. They’ve got other things on their mind.

Ghosts are real, just so you know. Toby sees ‘em, too. I used to think I was going nuts but then Toby came along and he barks like a sonofabitch when they come around to check in on the almost-dead. I don’t know, maybe they get lonely too and try to find new recruits. Doesn’t matter, I never look at them. Best not to get too chummy with death, if you know what I mean.

I’m just glad I have Toby to keep me sane, to keep me grounded. If he barks, I know it’s real. If he barks at them and not at me, I know I’m still on this side of things, you know what I mean?

And Toby, man, Toby gets me. He doesn't judge me. He listens to me talk. Like, really listens. I miss talking. I miss words, man. Nobody knows how much you miss words when you have no use for them. Or they have no use for you. Here on the street nobody has time to talk, to listen to my words, to notice how carefully I chose them. They see me and think I can’t talk for shit, that I can’t read but they don’t know a goddam thing about me. I’ve probably outread most of these punk kids with their headphones and their pierced noses and their dumb tattoos. They think everything you ever needed to know is on those stupid screens. It’s in the books, man. That’s where words live. I miss books. I can get them, but I can’t read more than a few lines at a time now. I don’t know if it’s my eyes or my head but something keeps the words from getting in and staying in.

 

And even if I could read, I’d have no one to talk to about what I read. I tried, at first, to educate some of these poor bastards but that didn’t go over well. I got beat up real good and understood that it was up to me to blend in, to accept that I was like them and not try to make them like me. Once I saw a kid sitting on the steps of the old chamber of commerce building on 17th with a book in his hands. 1984 by George Orwell, it was. I went up to him, eager to discuss it with him, tell him I too thought about having a diary and ask him if he thought Winston was a coward but as soon as he saw me he packed up his things and ran. Like, really ran. I wasn’t chasing him. He didn’t need to run. I kind of hung around the steps for a while, maybe hoping to catch him again, to explain that I just wanted to talk, maybe share some insights with him. Things didn’t quite turn out that way, and I got used to the stairs and stayed on this block and sort of forgot to leave until it felt like home, as much as any street can feel homey.

Anyway, that was years ago. That kid is a man now, with kids of his own, and he still doesn't look at me. Guess the book didn’t make much of an impression on him.

 

It doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I’ve got Toby now. You’d think a dog wouldn’t know the difference between an articulate disposable -that’s what the cops call us- and an ignorant one, but Toby can. I talk to him in a different voice, and I know he understands. Not the words, mind you. I’m not crazy. He recognizes some words like come and sit and food and cops. I taught him those. But most words don’t matter to him. It’s the tone. You can shake your head all you want but I never had to tie him down to keep him with me. Quite the contrary, I have to tie him up to keep him from following me. Now, don’t look at me like that, I have to go take a dump sometime. It’s not my fault I have to go all the way to the empty lot behind the hospital, and I am not taking him there. There’s needles and bloody gauze and body parts all over the place. OK, I haven’t exactly seen the body parts but some guy I know once told me that he picked through the trash and one time he found an arm and the arm still had a watch on it and that’s how he got his watch and I’ve seen the watch so it must be true. Who would lie about something like that? And I always make sure to give him a chicken leg when I come back, and he always licks me hello when I get back. Other street dwellers have tried to take him away, even offered him bones or bread, but he’s never left my side. Some say it’s because I’ve got him rezado, but I don’t believe in witchcraft. No, wait, I do believe in witchcraft, it’s real; I just don’t believe in using cemetery bones to tie an animal’s spirit to me. It’s not magic, I swear. It’s the words; the voice. I recite poetry to him with the nuances of a lover, and he tilts his little spotted head and lifts up his good ear and stays completely still until I’m finished. Neruda is his favorite, but I mix it up with some Arciniegas and Florez, and enough Becquer just to keep it interesting.

 

In fact, I’m in the middle of a particularly passionate rendition of Rima XV when something blocks the out the light. My back is to turned but Toby’s growl tells me who it is.

Careniño, that smug baby- faced traffic cop. He stands before me like he expects me to kiss his ring or something. I hate traffic cops, and this one is a dirty crook even by traffic cop standards.

“Good morning, officer,” I stand and pretend to clap the dirt off, “how are you this fine morning.”

He’s nursing a coffee and damn it smells good. For a minute I consider asking for a sip, asking for a leftover, but I hold my tongue. I may be indigent, but I’m not stupid.

“Still got that dog, I see. Are you fattening him up? Huh? Gonna eat him? You probably would. You’re no better than an animal yourself.”

I manage a laugh.

“You do have a sense of humor, officer.”

“He looks sick. Maybe I’ll call Animal Welfare and tell them to take him to the pound. Of course, an ugly rat like him won’t get adopted. Won’t last a week, that mutt.”

One of the great ironies of this city is that there are more people outraged by the conditions of my dog than my own. That’s activists for you.

“Now, why would you do that? He’s well taken care of, as you can see. I bought him special dog food, like you told me to.”

“Got no leash, though. He could get run over just like that.”

He snaps, and the sound ripples through my brain like a firecracker.

“I do have a leash! Look, see?” I pull a dingy piece of cabuya string and hold it up for him to inspect. “I use it to tie him up to the this nail here.”

“You leave him tied up? Alone? He could choke to death.”

Damn. I should have seen that snare a mile away but I walked right into it and now he had me by the balls.

“Well, I don’t leave him alone for long, and I only do it to protect him, because he’s still a puppy and he’s not fully trained, although I have taught him a few commands and I’ll even show you what we’ve been working on lately, a sort of rollover trick, really funny—”

 “You talk too much, Pacho,” he sips is coffee and looks away. “You have a weakness in the mouth. Words are cheap.”

I see where this is going.

“And if I have something more valuable than words?”

“Do not presume to have anything I need.”

“How can I know if you don't tell me what it is that you do need?”

“I need nothing.”

“I see.”

Another sip. I feel like a mouse waiting to see if the cat wants to play or hunt.

“However, I might know someone who needs something.”

“I would be happy to help any friend of yours.”

“I did not say it was for a friend, did I? Don’t get fresh with me, disposable.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, officer, sir. So, an acquaintance of yours needs something?”

“An alleged acquaintance of mine might maybe, possibly, perhaps, need a few sticks of paco.”

My jaw tightens.

“I’m no dealer.”

“Did I say you were a dealer? No, I did not. Did I ask if you were a dealer? No, I did not. Do I care if you’re a dealer? No. I do not. What did I say?”

“That you, sorry, that an alleged acquaintance of yours needs a stick. Of course, I could get one for you. They cost a bill a piece.”

I didn’t see his hand reach for the truncheon on his belt. I only saw a black streak coming towards me, but it was too late to duck.

“Disposable piece of shit! How dare you suggest that I would pay for that crap. I’m not a lowlife like you. Show some respect or I’ll beat a lesson into your head that you will never forget.”

“I’m sorry, officer. Of course, I would get you one at my own cost. I can have one for you tomorrow.”

“Stupid piece of trash, I’m not waiting until tomorrow. I want what I want right now. Now and I don't call Animal Welfare. Now and you get to keep your stupid dog for another day.”

I open my mouth, ready to bargain, but he raises his hand, leans in and smiles. God, it’s creepy when mean cops smile.

“And don’t even bother to say you don’t have any. I can smell basuco all over you.”

I swallow. Hard. I resist the urge to finger the joint in my pocket. It’s 9:44 and I was just about to smoke my morning medicine so I moved one from my shoe to my pocket. The other one is safe, next to my big toe. Shoes a couple of sizes too big are better than banks on the street. I have two, my daily dose, at ten and ten, to get me through the day and the night. They’re not the good stuff, just combi’s I got from Chepe in exchange for helping him get rid of a dirty knife. He mixes the basuco with weed to make it last longer. Not my favorite but still, it’s been a rough week and I was lucky to even score that much. Chepe was not happy to part with two of his babies, but when you’re missing an arm and you need help lifting a sewer lid you’re not in a position to barter.  

Basuco, coke for scum, death smokes, fuckitols, the one friend you can count on in these streets. See, most people think that I got here because of drugs but it was actually an overdose of booze, hatred and envy combined with a whorish wife and greedy kids that keeled me over. Drugs came after.

I found their sweet embrace a few months after I told the family to leave me alone, stop looking for me in Pereira, stop begging me to come back, sign papers, get help. I told them was going to go out in style, a la Leaving Las Vegas.  It never occurred to me that leaving would take this long. Anyway, when I couldn’t find anything to do, when I had no books and no TV and no radio and no friends and huge gaping pits of time threatening to swallow me up, that’s when I started smoking. At first it was the cigarette butts that people threw on the sidewalk, and then one happy lucky magical night one of the cigarette butts wasn’t a cigarette butt. It was a pitillo, a yuppie-level dose of crack and marihuana, a baby rattle for upper-crust kiddies to feel like they did something wild. But for me, it was the opposite of wild. It was peace, the end of anguish and despair, the that I could do anything. I felt like I could fly. I may or may not have tried to fly off the Mosquera Bridge and woken up the next day in the slammer, head shaved and skin rubbed pink with lye soap. 

After that, pitillo butts were my greatest joy. I learned which night clubs to stake out and stood under window sills for hours waiting for one of those babies to light up the night and come crashing down like a roman candle. The thrill of seeing one fly out, the red tip calling my name, was almost as wonderful as taking a drag.

And then, a drag wasn't enough. I needed more, and not just a tiny dose but a good mix of paco. I had to buy my own, take money I was using for food or cots, but I didn’t care. If the weather was good I didn’t need a bed or a roof, just a puff and I was better than in heaven. Heaven is for pussies. This shit is for gods.

I don’t dare run out. Once, after a teamster strike when supplies ran low and the price of coke shot up, I tried oxi. Vengeance of the Amazon, I call it. I hated it, the smell of kerosene and battery fluid made my eyes sting. I had to use a can to smoke it, which made me feel like a junkie. No, oxi wasn’t an option. Neither was running out of stupid sticks. Two a day, ten-and-ten, one high bleeding into the other to make the day bearable, to make my existence tolerable, to lead me from one endless hour into the next without suffocating from the weight of the everything that was not: words unsaid, knowledge untested, pain unrecognized, names unneeded, prayers unuttered.

“What if…what if I refuse?”

“I confiscate that rat, leash and all.”

Why couldn’t he have waited ten minutes? Ten more minutes and I’d be flying and my mouth wouldn’t taste like rubber. But it’s 9:45 and I feel like there’s lead in my veins and snow in my lungs and I can’t stand the smell of fresh bread that I’ll never get to eat coming from the bakery I can never go into in and I need a smoke. Just one. One in the morning. One.  

“Just one”

“What?”

I spoke out loud and I didn’t mean to. I feel panic shooting through my veins, faster even than any drug.

“I said I only have one one me now. One stick. That’s all I’ve got.”

“I heard you had two.”

Damn that Chepe.

“You heard wrong.”

That costs me another wallop, this time on the shoulder.

“I never hear wrong. And I will not be lied to, by you or any other disposable.”

“Of course not officer. What I meant to say was that you were misinformed by a source that did not have an updated version of the facts.”

“Is that so?”

“It is, sir. I had two, but I already smoked one.”

“When?”

“Earlier this morning, right after Che-, um, my friend gave me one for helping him get rid of a kni-, um, some trash.”

“You’re a terribly liar, you know that?”

“I’m not lying about having only one in my pocket.”

He looks at me, pondering my words.

“You can search me if you’d like.”

Another strike.

“Filth. You think I would enjoy seeing your disgusting naked body? You think I like men? Huh? Dirty men?”

So I’ve heard, I want to say. Miraculously, I hold my tongue. I pull my shoulders back and strand as straight as I can and breathe as quietly as possible.

“I’ve heard your dog is a four-legged lie detector. How about we ask him?”

I am going to kill Chepe. That’s my secret weapon, Toby’s bark. I don’t even know how he does it. Something in the pitch or the cadence, something in the words makes him bark and growl when he hears a lie, and he can hear one a mountain away. But I’m not lying. Not really. I pray the dog can contemplate the subtleties of half-truths. I lift my chin.

“Go ahead. Ask him.”

“What do you say, disposable puppy? Is your daddy here telling the truth?”

Silence enfolds us, heavy as the rainclouds that gather every afternoon over the valley. Silence that I know won’t last.

I try to level my breath as best I can.

 “Perhaps you can consider an installment-type arrangement? One today and one tomorrow.”

His eyes are back on me now. I breathe a little easier. Toby looked like he was about to bark up a storm.

“Do I look like a fucking bank to you?”

“Of course not officer.”

“Well that’s too bad because I feel like a banker right now. I’ll take your down payment. Give me what you have now.”

I let the heavy air out of my lungs slowly and smile as I let my fingers feel around for the stick.

“And tomorrow, you give me three.”

My hand turns to stone in my pocket.

“Three! How am I going to get three by tomorrow?”

“That is not my problem.”

My eyes dart from the nightstick to Toby and back while my hand refuses to move.

Careniño pulls out his phone, a new model way above his pay grade.

“I just have to press a button and the dog is history.”

For a second, for less than that, for a thousandth of a thousandth of a second I think of running, leaving everything, taking my stash and holing up in the mango grove outside of town. But right then Toby whimpers and I know I can’t do it, can’t leave him.

I put my trembling hand in my pocket and pull out the paco. I reach out to hand it to Careniño, but got another rap on the head.

“Fool! Idiot! Disposable bastard! Do not dare touch me. I will take nothing out of your filthy hand. Here,” he placed the now empty Styrofoam cup on the floor and walks away, pretends to inspect a food cart a few feet from me. I consider running for a moment but where would I go?  I am slow to move. The ringing in my ears courtesy of the nightstick’s caress makes it hard to focus, but I drop the stick in the cup and shuffle my feet a mere inches before collapsing on the cardboard. Careniño takes the cup without looking at me.

 

My heart beats like mad. I look around, make sure the cop is gone, make double sure he isn’t coming back before I dig my finger in my shoe and pull out the other stick. Smugness spreads across my face like a bolt of lightning. Three for tomorrow won’t be a problem, not after one drag, one smoke. This smoke. This one. This. One.

I lift the cardboard and feel around for the matches. I settle in, lean back against the crumbling wall and lip my licks in blissful anticipation.

And then I see Toby.

He sits near my feet, head cocked to one side, eyes full of wounded pride. I could fool Careniño but I can’t fool him. He knows I hesitated. He knows.

“Come on boy, you understand. I knew Careniño wouldn’t really call the pound. He was bluffing, I knew it the whole time. It was a calculated risk, boy,” I hold out my hand.

He growls. For the first time ever, ever in his whole life, that mangy dog growls at me.

“Hey, there’s no need for that, boy. Here, look, I got a treat for you,” I say in my sweetest voice. I pull out the chicken leg I’ve was saving for my mid-afternoon trip to the empty lot. He doesn’t move closer, so I do.

This time, he snaps at me.

I cannot move. I can barely breath. My mouth is hot, suddenly full of sand. My voice comes out broken and flat.

“Please, boy. I didn’t do it to hurt you. You know I love you. I would never let him take you away. If I had thought he meant it I would have given him both sticks. Honest. I would’ve.”

The words come out hollow, carrying no truth in them. We both hear the emptiness and I know it’s over.

He doesn’t even lick me goodbye.

 

First draft. 

I see a boy inside a big cardboard box. He’s about four or five, wiry black hair cropped short, his neck bulging with chocolate colored flesh. There’s a bowl of soup in the box with him but he’s ignoring it. Instead, he looks at me and offers me some of the merchandise on his mother´s booth. I say booth but really it’s little more than a wooden box with an umbrella screwed on its side and a stool that defies every law of physics by not collapsing under the weight of its charge. She’s darker than her son, not chocolate but ebony, her hair piled up high and tucked into a turban as colorful as the dresses she offers. She doesn’t bother with me. We both know I’m not her demographic. Still, she smiles and I smile back. She turns and pushes a mouthful of soup, long gone cold, into the boy’s mouth. He makes a face at me and spits down his shirt. I smother a laugh and move on.  

There are five other booths spread out along this sidewalk and three more on the other side, all selling identical dresses. This is the jewelry supply block where most stores cater to the stylishly crafty or desperately cheap who buy rolled gold plated chains, clasps, jump rings and stone and metal beads. Dresses like the ones she offers- imported from China in bulk with bold patterns but flimsy fabric- do well here. Hers are mostly slinky little numbers with spaghetti straps, bare shoulders and a lot of cleavage, prime real estate for the necklaces and bracelets, charms and earrings the store’s patrons plan to make.

In Pereira, everything, even the street vendors, are clumped together by trade. We are one block up from the hotels, where my mother has hers, a small downtownish hotel for businessmen to spend a couple of nights or locals to spend a couple of hours. Go one block the other way and you’ve hit the the fabric and sewing supply stores. There is a saying here: “everybody sells shoes on shoe street, and on shoe street, everybody sells shoes”.

There’s safety in numbers, I guess.

But back to the block at foot. This being the fine bistoury block, it’s a peaceful one. Some friendly banter, a bit of innocent cheating, a little harmless pocket-picking here and there. There’s a fruit cart and a churro fryer side by side, naturally, and across the street the potato chip guy parked his cart in front of the drug store. They’re not allowed to stay on the sidewalk because they use gas to heat the oil, so the park in the street. Cars are not revered in downtown Pereira. They are intruders and are stared down by old ladies, beggars and horses. They know better than to honk.

I’m waiting for my mother to finish her shopping in the big bijouterie store. I was with her for a while but I had to get out. It’s hot out here, but it’s stuffy in there. Hot wins. She wants a pearl that looks real enough to look nice but not so real that she’d get mugged for it. There’s an unspoken agreement in this city: you don’t wear anything pricey to go downtown.

A fancy cake place opened recently and sticks out like a sore thumb. I see the girl in the window, who looks nervous when a beggar walks by. I know him. It’s Pachito, once a well-to-do salesman from Cartago, now homeless, always singing. We share a fist pump. I’ve known him for ages. He looks after my mother’s hotel, makes sure that the other beggars on the street don’t bother her patrons. Well, at least not in the street in front of the hotel. After that, they’re fair game. I look over at the girl from the cake shop and she shakes her head at me, like she can’t believe I actually talked to a beggar on purpose. She wrinkles her nose and pretendes to be busy but she’s not. That store is mostly for deliveries. Nobody buys cake on bijouterie street.

I hear the unmistakable cadence of bargaining and I see the boy’s mother has a live one. I recognize her. She’s a salesgirl in one of the trendier shops, three blocks down, near the hotels. She buys a dress from, hides it in a bag from her own shop, and sees me. I think she recognizes me because she looks down, ashamed. I realize the purchase is not for her but for her shop. She will resell the dress for five, ten, twenty times what she paid for, and whomever buys it will look at the boy’s mother and pity her sad imitations and her cheap clients. I laugh, and this time it’s loud. The boy’s mother looks at me and cracks a grin.

My own mother is ready. She has spent nearly an hour picking out exactly the right genuine imitation pearl for her necklace. She assures me this is the best shop in the block, costlier than the others but well worth it for the exclusivity. They don’t have pearls like this anywhere else in the city, she says.

But of course they do. There’s one in the shop next door at half price, but my mother doesn’t see it. And I know better than to point it out.

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