canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Bringing Us Down

by Ruth Taylor

These two wooden blocks here, these are what I use to get around. Leather straps go across the back to keep my hands in place, as snug a fit as a horseshoe on a horse. My own two black shoes I wear tacked to my butt, stitched right to the trouser seat so they won't fall off. I wear them mostly for show but also to protect my ass from blisters and the muck of the street. To complete the picture, a clean pressed hankie, folded down to a small square, sits in the right-hand pocket of my mended and re-mended Arrow shirt.

Geared up like this, I'm a three-footed animal, loping — one metre, two metres, three metres, more-all along these Guatemala City streets. One metre, up the overpass — it's hard work this rise but I keep the pace. Two metres, taking it easy on the slow curve down the other side, like a swimmer wading into dangerous waters. I stick to the gutter for speed and safety, making my way past the procession of battered steel and hot-headed drivers who blast their horns and tweeters, bellow at each other like cattle, belch black smoke. I'm out here, caught in the cadence of days that fall one after another without a ripple of difference to mark them out. On my way to work.

Today, the May sun is glaring; the tarmac's a cauldron. As I near the corner of Sixteenth, I spy a pack of street kids stumbling towards me, leaning into each other, lurching as they walk. Each of them presses a clenched fist to his mouth, lodged there below vacant eyes. The tallest, a gangly thing with a sunken chest, almost knocks me over as he passes. Swaying slightly, he blinks, as if shaken from sleep, scratches at his ear and sticks out a skeletal claw. "Spare some, monkey-man?"

Monkey-man, half-man, chimp. Because I am legless, complete from the butt up, and, down below, nothing, swinging on my two strong arms along the dusty streets.

The boy peers down at me and elbows one of his pals, who buckles a little at the impact. I don't say a word. I keep on going, my shadow an inky pool bobbing along beside me. The group moves off again, giggling and coughing, like the rubbish in the gutter sprouted legs. Children carrying their souls around in tiny bags of glue. Throw-away people.

Just ahead is my workplace, that spot on the sidewalk where every day I set out my bit of cardboard, a fistful of coins spread carelessly over it and one hand, free of its block now, converted from the paw that trots to the paw that begs. It's not much of a living, but ten hours of this every day does for a pound of black beans and two of rice a week, the occasional egg and coffee mixed with ground corn and sugar at night and in the morning.

But today, a Monday, a good working day, my spot is occupied. A tangle of limbs, doubled up like a folding chair, lies there surrounded by a black puddle of piss that reaches halfway into the road. The head isn't visible from the street, but as I climb up on the curb I make out a dark mop huddled in among them. The back, protected by a green T-shirt, slick with grime, is turned towards Mildred's stand.


A plump woman with glowing mahogany skin, she sits perched above me on a stool, fanning herself with one of the newspapers she sells.

"Don't worry, I already told the cops. They'll have him out of here by next week." Twin gold stars shine dully from her front teeth.

Keeping an eye on the inert body, I move a couple of metres upwind. Then I hover one hand, palm up, in the sweaty air. Mildred starts reading her paper. Neither of us pushes our wares. Candy and newspapers sell themselves. So does deformity.

"Papaya, mangoes, bananas! Tomatoes at two quetzales a bag!" We're stationed outside the local market, mounds of fruit and vegetables, dotted with flies, that spread like a quilt over sidewalk and street. Market women shout their gossip back and forth, trade their wares and advice, sell what they can. The younger vendors flog pirated tapes and CD's and cheap electronic toys instead of food. Blue shadows blink down on them from a translucent plastic tarp strung overhead between the street posts and the branch of a lonely urban tree.

Along the curb opposite stand the neighbourhood's institutions — bank, bakery, pharmacy, police station. Of them, only the bank gleams forth with chrome and polish.

"God bless you," I mumble as a pair of pinstriped pants drops a large yellow coin into my hand. I stretch out my right hand now, to give the left a break. Mildred whistles at something in the paper while I start watching a couple of kids smooching up against the corner of the police station. The boy makes like he's counting the nubs of her spine as he moves his fingers down her back. His eyes are on her face but his head is calculating how to get into her pants. She rises on her toes, makes it easier for him, makes sure he feels her moving into him.

I could lose myself in their hot embrace, feel the young flesh pushing against me, tongues working over me. Invisible hands slip down my neck, across my withered chest, into my lifeless crotch.

I can be as horny as I like sitting here. No one will suspect.

Now I turn my eyes on Mildred, ready to sink them into her sweaty bosom, nudge my nose under one breast and breathe in the talcum powder she rubs over them every morning, but she catches me fast. "What are you doing? You dirty old turd!" She rattles a folded newspaper at me like I was a naughty dog.

"You know you want it, if not from me then from someone else. From one of those comic-book romances you're always soaked up in. Don't tell me you don't wish the pictures had hands that could reach out and work you up a bit."

"You're a toad."

"I know what's on your mind."

Mildred flips a page of her newspaper. "Look at this. There's been a breakout at Los Caņales. Sixty-two murderers walked right out the front door! And you know who's to blame? The guards let them out! Two hundred grand each to leave them the key." She shakes her head from side to side, rolling it around on her thick neck. "Maybe I should sign up for a job like that."

"As a guard or a felon?"

"Not much difference, is there."

Another coin falls. Lucky day. I start watching the strangers who pass, how they duck into the street to avoid me, how their thieving looks glance off me like flat stones skipping over still water.

Children's eyes are different. Round and honest, they plunge into me like they've fallen into a well, deeper and deeper, hungry for the question mark of my two gone legs, until some parent hauls them out again with the tug of an arm, an ear, a braid. They never get a chance to ask me what's on their minds. This boy, here, if he weren't unconscious, would probably stare at me like that, just like I'm staring at him now.

A puff of wind washes me with the stench of urine.

"Mildred, I'm never going to make any money with him stretched out here like that."

"You want to move him, go ahead. I'd rather help a corpse."

I cast around for a solution, and, barring that, a distraction. Just up the street there's a prostitute, so primly dressed you wouldn't know. A long, full skirt, like a school teacher's. But there she is with her cigarette, pacing up and down the sidewalk, pushing long streams of smoke through thin lips. A man pats her bum as he walks by and she smiles a bit crooked and blows him a kiss. Another man is talking with her, negotiating maybe. He rubs his fingers back and forth along the thick black belt that cradles his bulging gut. His eyes creep down her figure. My schoolmarm looks him straight in the face, like she's seen his type a hundred times. Pay up buddy if you want any of this.

Ay, it's a slow day today, for her and for me. I look down at my coin collection and try to read the pattern it makes. Do they spell failure or misfortune? Bad luck or bad blood?

"Mildred, nobody's buying. Every day it gets worse."

"Worse is the way of the world. If I wanted to whore around like that slut you been gawking at I could maybe make a decent living. But I got an honest business. Scum like that" — she juts her chin at the prostitute and then at the unconscious boy — "that's what's bringing us down."

So Mildred thinks it's bad blood. I look at the prostitute again. She doesn't look like scum. She looks like a school teacher.

What do I look like, I wonder? A broken circle? A smudge? Something halfway erased, caught between life and after-life. I wonder, does Mildred sneer at me, too, when she's back home with her family of full-bodied people?

I look now at the boy conked out on the pavement beside me, bringing me down, as Mildred would say. I peer into the black limbs settled there in my spot like a pile of tarred bones. The feet are long and bare, soles leathery, cracked. One hand is gripped around a small plastic bag encasing a white gel. Glue. A sour mix of petroleum, piss and old sweat rises from the heap.

I was a boy like him once. I lived thirty healthy years before that accident cut me down to half my size. This boy, how old might he be? Fourteen maybe. Fourteen and already with one foot in the grave.

I had a boy like him once, a boy healthy like me back then, curly headed, skin like bronze, shiny fresh face beaming at me up in the cab of my truck, imitating my every gesture like that would help him better learn the trade. I'd take him with me on deliveries. We ran everything from avocados to electric fans. We'd bring them in across the border from Mexico and down to the capital. Eight hours of rough gravel roads that twisted and turned through the dry heat like a snake. I gunned it all the way. Time was money. But on one of those mountain hairpins I left my legs behind. On one of those gravel shoulders that drop into nothing, I left behind my sixteen-year-old boy.

This here kid looks nothing like my boy. All dark and dirty and stinking to high heaven. He's beginning to groan now, falls back face up, thin arms stretched out on either side like the Black Christ of Esquipulas. This boy has no one, no father in heaven and none on earth, that's for sure.

"He's just a boy," I say to Mildred, who is busy ordering her selection of lollipops by colour. She makes a face like she's going to spit. Mildred, so upright always in her low-down way.

He's opening his eyes now, two grey balls staring straight up. A smile starts to form on his lips. I move closer despite the smell.

He has a long scrape down one side of his jaw, probably from where he hit the curb. The tip of his nose shows red beneath the dirt and the lips are swollen and slack. Still, I tell myself, he was probably a good-looking kid once. Back when he had a father or mother to love him and keep him safe.

Suddenly, he starts to jerk, a shudder comes up from his gut, mouth goes wide like he's about to scream, arms pull in to his sides. White foam erupts from his lips. He sucks it in again, but more is coming out.

"Oh God, he's puking! Mildred, help me turn him! He's going to choke!" But when I look back to Mildred on her stool, she just glares at me.

The boy keeps gagging. He can't get air. Foam streams like sour milk down his cheeks, pooling in the mat of black hair. His grey eyes look wild, his chest is heaving, head jerks back. I can't take my eyes off him. A thin sweat breaks across my forehead, down my back. The heat closes in, fogs my brain, stops up the air, blots out all sound. I'm having trouble breathing myself. The world shrinks down to a pinpoint in time and space. This one. Now.

I move in close, press my trunk against his and stretch my strongest arm across his chest. I grab his shoulder and pull. Dead weight, he barely shifts. Both arms now. I pull and, inch by inch, the far side of the boy's trunk turns to face my own. Then, he flips right over on top of me, and I'm trapped.

Vomit spills down my neck, pure liquid like he's never touched solid food in his life. The stench is numbing. I wait. What else can I do? I can't even reach a hand around and slap him on the back. Then a ragged cough explodes from his lips. He gulps the air.

"That's my boy," I whisper into the tears and snot that smear his face.

But I'm still pinned underneath him, between his burning stink and the piss of the street. Soaked in it, same as the boy himself. His chest weighs heavy against my own, the sandbags of a medieval torture. I don't have to try to look to know that Mildred hasn't budged from her stool. But the boy is breathing. He's breathing.

So here I am with this body heaped on top of me, trying to keep calm, my chest against his in a strange kind of embrace, like I'm his long lost mama taking him in her arms before she sends him off to his future. I wait.

Before long I hear the take-charge shouts of a couple of cops ricochet around me. Mildred's complaint this morning must have finally registered. They pull the boy from off me and scoop him into a patrol car. And they're gone. I don't think they even saw me here. For a moment I can still feel the boy's imprint across my face and chest, the body heat lingering. I lie here in his vomit, the pavement hard against the back of my head, and let the chill creep over me. My breathing slows and my heart settles back into a steady beat. I hardly notice the smell anymore. I lie here, just like the boy did before me, staring straight up into a perfect blue sky.

Ruth Taylor has recently returned to Canada after working for ten years as a journalist in Guatemala. She now lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and three kids. Her first published story appeared in the summer 2006 issue of Kiss Machine.







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