Johan Alexander was born in Medellin, Colombia. The recipient of an Ashley Bryan Fellowship from the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance in 2021, he is a member of the 2022 Periplus Collective cohort, as well as a Maine Lit Fest Fellow for 2022. A musician and community organizer, he lives in Portland, Maine.
My Little Lola
Slap, trip, slap go those little feet and she is in his arms. As they do every day, father and daughter squeeze each other and make a horrible love-racket in the middle of Calle 62. People look over and smile. Little Lola jumps for joy and Stiven’s heart is full. His hands squeeze her shoulders and Lola looks up at her father with a giant smile on her face and an adorable gap in her front teeth: she speaks in lispy sounds and giggles. He smiles and nods but doesn’t really hear what she is saying, merely crouches next to the sidewalk beaming and gazing at his daughter while her pudgy mouth moves. She blinks methodically, asking all the questions, punctuating her sentences Papá this Papá that, and he gazes, transfixed, dreaming, drowning in her clear, bright green ojitos.
They sit on the sidewalk. The shadow of Café Oma’s balcony hovers over their whispers. Stiven reaches into his mochila, takes out the lollipop. Lola’s eyes widen. The candy is unwrapped and handed over and Lola squeaks with delight. Her father then takes out his lemon-flavored corn chips and, with a different squeak, the bag opens.
Sitting together, snacking, munching, slurping, crunching: green-eyed Papá and little Lolalu, loving every messy noise the other one makes. They blink and taste, lick their fingers, giggle away.
After a while, he takes her hand. They rise. He folds the corn chip bag and tucks it into his mochila; his little girl licks her lollipop in between exclamations.
Turning, they continue uphill, passing the tall shadows of the Kandinsky buildings. The architectural cylinders rise high at the back end of Chapinero Alto and many lights are on; hundreds of tiny yellow and white rectangles float over the bustling little barrio of Juan Veintitres.
As they walk, Stiven and his daughter play a game of questions and answers. He asks a question, she repeats the question, then he answers her little question. The game goes something like this:
“Did you have lunch?”
“Did YOU have lunch?”
“Yes, I did!” And she smiles and laughs and claps her hands and does a happy dance on the sidewalk.
Papá is completely wrapped up in her charms.
“What did you eat?”
“What did YOU eat?”
“I had spaghetti and lemonade. My friends had chicken.” And laughter and high-fives and glorious shrieks flung around the neighborhood.
She swings her petite body over the rails of the highway, pushing Papá’s hands out of the way. Stiven blushes with pride.
“Where did YOU have lunch?”
“With Melba Inéz.” Lola claps her hand to her cheek and gasps at her error in the game. Stiven swoops down and she holds out her arms. He tucks his hands into her armpits and picks her up and the lollipop goes flying; they laugh their heads off in the knot of highways above barrio Juan Veintitres.
Cars honk and screech down one avenue from South to North, heading far into the Metropolis. Another highway zooms under the first, from North to South. A third highway drops in and out of Chapinero Alto, over and through the barrio, branching off now and then, crushed with smoking vehicles, police on horses, cars, busetas.
Warm rushes of exhaust snap at their ankles as they pass through a standstill. A pace or two past the highway, the crooked bus stop rusts away. Stiven pauses, holding his daughter’s hand, blinking at his morning memory of the few stragglers waiting at dawn: the woman with the shawl, the man with the hat. Now, people cram themselves between the bent poles, anxious for a bus to carry them onward. Father and daughter climb past the bus stop and the trees immediately become denser, the path a small rut in the gusty sierra.
“Did you kiss Mami this morning?”
“Did YOU kiss Mami this morning?”
“Of course, mi amor.”
The cement knot is behind; the trail is dirt. As they do every night, they pause before allowing the forest to swallow their shadows. Lolalu pulls Papá’s arm, and they turn and look out over Daydream City. In front of them, the plateau lights up. Streets and main arteries are illuminated and Stiven points to a blinking light moving across the sky before it dips down, slicing through a distant glimmer on the horizon. “The airport is over there,” whispers Papá. Lola gasps, widens her eyes, and covers her mouth with her hand.
So many lights, so many people, so many birthdays. Past this last avenue there are no more streetlights. The wind wraps around father and daughter like a grand shawl in the dark.
Stiven hugs his daughter. They turn and head up into the woods.
He whispers to Lola to button her jacket as they stumble through the dense patch of trees. Winds swish as they trudge and tread over heavy soil. Papá instinctively moves closer in case his daughter falls in the dark, roots are rampant. A shadow approaches and Stiven tenses momentarily, relaxing only when the person shuffles past.
An opening in the woods and a gust of noise squirms: rush hour is in full effect below. Little Lolalu covers her ears and grimaces playfully.
“Can you stop all that noise?” he says to her.
“Can YOU stop all that noise?”
“No, mi amor, I’m sorry, I cannot.”
They step out of the forest and pass the first row of gray-brown dwellings. The buildings crumble forward. Shadows wander between the homes and the feral wind bursts over eyelids.
A cough echoes down the lane. Stiven and his daughter pause; shoulders freeze, hands squeeze. The soft strumming of a guitar is heard. Humble chords trip over the path, they flutter in the air, lingering about Stiven’s ears. Lola’s foot is raised in mid-step. She turns toward Papá, her eyes ask if they can go over to the music. Her father listens to her gaze, smiles sympathetically.
“Not today, mi amor. We don’t know them.”
They pass more and more rows of dwellings crushed between the cliffs. The houses try to lean away, the roofs grimace at a severe angle. Everything is creased and dim; everything tumbles upon itself. The dirt trail finishes at the crumbling cement steps, marking the end of this barrio. Two pairs of green eyes move up, up, up as two pairs of feet step further away from any notion of the metropolis below. The streetlight glow is no longer visible, and all final views of the city are blocked by the scratchy roofs of the dwellings and the trees beyond. Little Lola is tired: she complains as hunger takes over. They pass more and more rows of dwellings, and her sneakers start dragging in the dust covering the cracked steps.
The raw air carries thermal pockets of cigarette and mariguana smoke. Voices sometimes stagger by, and shadows continue creeping around. Every now and then Lola and Papá must make room for someone stumbling down the fractured trail, down into the metropolis below.
After the last steepest hill, they turn the corner and are finally confronted by their patch of open space. Stiven stops for a breath at the door. Lola tugs his arm, kicking at the colorful plastic embedded in the ground, jumping up and down with a quick burst of energy. Stiven reaches into his mochila, clutches the key. Papá swings his arm, and they step through the door.
A stale scent scratches their nostrils. Little Lolalu reaches out, feeling the dingy air. She turns to the right and disappears into the shadows, and soon Stiven hears her fidgeting in the corner. “Papá. Turn on the light,” her voice commands.
He steps gently, skirting the mattresses in the center of the space. Around the bed, the floor’s soil is packed hard and cold. He reaches toward the petite lamp next to the mattresses and it starts awake: clikkkk and a flash.
White light brushes his face before settling onto the walls in a fuzzy orange. The lightbulb hums and shadows flicker across Lola’s eyes but she pays no attention; perched on a plastic chair against the table in the corner, she concentrates on bashing together the faces of two plastic dolls. Her tiny feet swing; her sneakers are smudged pink. Her voice moves between humming a made-up melody and conversing from one doll to the other. Stiven chuckles as the argument grows louder.
“I’m hungry.” Lola has set her dolls down and is staring directly at Papá. Without taking her eyes off him, she slides off her chair and heads to the bathroom in the corner.
Stiven smiles and turns obediently, sets his phone on the counter, reaches up. He leans over and taps the dented radio at the end of the stove.
A clappy melody starts bumping its way around the room.
Behind him, the toilet flushes and little feet scamper outside. Papá reaches over and turns up the radio: ¡Tropicana la más bacana: la la la!
He turns to the small icebox, extracts a metal bowl filled with white rice. Places it on the stove, grabs a small frying pan and a tiny plastic bottle of oil from above. Two eggs appear from the right. Every now and then Lola’s little shadow passes the open doorway, bouncing around, searching for treasures in the ground in front of the house. Sometimes a friendly neighbor stops to stick their head inside and say hello. But tonight, nobody passes, and Lola plays and laughs with herself.
The rice is heated, the eggs are fried. A can of tuna appears from the left. Stiven grabs two mugs, fills them with Coca-Cola. He reaches again, finds two plastic bowls. He drops the tuna onto the rice, mixes it all up, spoons it into the bowls, adds a fried egg to each pile. He turns and calls his daughter inside.
They sit and eat in silence. Lola gazes at her rice, grasps her mug with two little fists and slurps her Coca-Cola, mumbles cute nothings into the vapors in front of her. Papá chews, adds a little salt and hot sauce to his bowl, smiles.
The door is left open, and the cold mountain air reaches in and tries to snatch some hot food. Stiven turns and glares at the night. As música tropicana vibrates in the background the night withdraws and slinks back out the door. Once again, the air is moist with the scent of tuna and eggs over rice.
A simple melody, steady and luscious like waves on Playa Blanca, tumbles around bent spoons clinking against plastic bowls. Rhythms flutter from the radio to the table. A long note lingers, floats over the percussion and hovers above the dinner table and then the little girl slaps her spoon to the side with a satisfied PLONK. She bounces off her chair and runs back outside to continue her search for treasures in the dirt. Stiven reaches over, picks up his daughter’s bowl.
Tambourines push through the night as Stiven daydreams. He finishes dinner as Lola’s silhouette stoops to collect more plastic outside.
Papá wanders to the sink with the dishes, claps them down. He picks up his phone and wanders outside, leans against the front door. Staring down at the pebbles, he dials Ana Lu. His daughter pauses in front of him and holds out the plastic she has collected in her hand, her green ojitos shining.
Today’s color: blue, light blue, heavenly blue, like the clear skies which used to shine over the Metropolis before the explosion of population and pollution, blue like the skies over the beaches of the coast. Those different shades and hues mottle together like a rainbow of plastic blue, a heavenly puddle in her little hand.
Papá smiles. “Time to get ready for bed, amor.” She makes a face, closes her fist around the hints of broken heaven, and stomps inside.
He chuckles, raises his phone to his ear. No answer. He pauses, then dials again.
“Hola. Home already? ¿Todo bien? ¿Y la nena contenta?”
Home already? Everything OK? Everything melts together in the night: hills, toes, trees, shadows, memories. Up here, 2600 meters closer to the heavens, life moves back and forth in the trails of Bosque Calderon, high above the Metropolis.
“Sí, amor. Está muy contenta. Getting ready for bed. We already ate.”
“Well, we are finishing up here. We almost sold out.”
“I’ll bring home the rest. You can eat them later.”
“Lots of people today, but not much cash.”
“Oye, Mariana said she will stop over for on Friday.”
“¡Ah, qué bien!”
“Sí. She’ll bring her daughter, too. So, Lola can have an actual birthday party this year. Anyway, I need to pack up. Chao, un beso.”
“Okey; un besito. Chao.”
“¡Papá! Come here,” commands the little voice from inside. He looks over his shoulder and sees his daughter bouncing up and down on the bed, grinning from ear to ear. He already knows the next words to come. Cracking his knees, first the left one, then the right, he stretches, turns, steps inside. Lola’s eyes glow in the buzzy light. Papá sits at the table in the corner. His daughter clasps her hands and brings them up to her mouth. Her dark little eyebrows rise, and in the sweetest voice, she speaks in a recited singsong:
“But only if I promise to fall right to sleep…”
“Only if you promise.”
“So, tell me a story!”
-I see him now, my little Lola, on the beach at Playa Blanca, away from Cartagena and the smells of the tourists, near dusty Barú town. His name is Efrain, and he goes to the beach every day, todos los días, mi amor. Every day he wakes and has breakfast, usually a delicious sancocho de pescao. The eyes of the fish are the best part and if you get the entire head in your bowl that’s good luck, too. I know a place downtown that has the best sancocho. We will go sometime, or, even better, when we return home to Cartagena, to Playa Blanca and Barú town, we will have the best sancocho de pescao on the coast, for sure, yes, we will.
-Efrain wakes very early, earlier than I do, mijita. He bathes in cold water, like we do here, but the water on the coast is refreshing, happy, and cool. Here in the city, it’s just cold. So cold. Everything in this city is cold. But you know that already, don’t you, niña?
-He walks outside into the hot morning air. He grabs his black shorts and a shirt from a wire. A shirt with stars. Maybe it used to be white; now it’s a light rust color. Small stars, dark blue like the night sky inside out, my Lolalulita, like the night worn on his back all through the day.
-He has a small bicycle. Squashy black tires and a warped basket up front. He rides from Barú to the beach on the hot dusty roads and everyone waves from the streets. Lovely people, quiet people, humble people, the most beautiful people. My people. Dust covers their ears and sand sticks in their hair, but they stand there smiling and whispering and waving. Let me tell you something, Lola: your grandmother was born in Barú. She is from this town. And today she is in the crowd. She stands in the shadows over there blowing kisses to Efrain as he passes by on his bicycle. Everybody smiles, everybody waves, everybody laughs. They yell their saludos and your grandmother is there smiling and waving. She is there, Lola, every morning she is there…
-Efrain rides his bike, passing his friends in town and the soldiers on the back roads, who motion him through with a big thumbs up.
-He arrives at the same moment as those double story buses from Cartagena which drag all the foreigners to the beach. argentinos, peruanos, caribeños, europeos, brasileros, dominicanos, cubanos, gringos galore. You could say that, from times before, the beach has grown a bit in popularity.
-Playa Blanca fills up quickly. Los turistas are tired from the bus ride. They are parched and thirsty, and Efrain must start working. But first he goes to the fires, the big pyramid fires on the southern side of the beach, to see someone special. You see, niña, Efrain’s mother wakes hours before he does—todos los días—and walks to Playa Blanca from Barú with her friends. They start the pyramid fires and begin preparations to cook lunch for every single turista on the beach. Oh, my little Lolita, my little Lolalu, lunch on the sands of Playa Blanca, it is something you could never imagine and will simply never forget!
-Efrain walks up to the women. They whisper and circle their bonfires, eyes glimmering, poking and prodding the coals, gossiping, whispering, singing. They scoop things into clay pots and hiss at the flames. His mother stands away from the group. She leans against a wooden pole, fanning her face with a giant banana leaf, a mesh bag of oranges in her other hand waiting to be juiced. As the oranges bounce against her legs and the leaf passes her face, she gazes over the water, her eyes lost in a lazy smile. She is such a daydreamer. Green eyes, like yours, niña. Efrain recognizes her by the long braid down her back; her braid, pure white, moves in time with the wind and the waves of the beach.
-Every morning, before the beach, for an hour she braids her hair, una hora no más. Can you imagine an hour of braiding your hair? Every morning, mi amor! He goes to her. They embrace, whisper a few words, nothing more, unas palabras nada más. She smiles, leans over, touches one cheek, kisses the other. He leaves her to her thoughts, her daydreams, her bonfire, and returns to Playa Blanca, heading toward the farthest end of the beach. The sun burns and the sand burns, but he wears his straw hat, and his feet are hard and rough from an entire lifetime of walking over the beach and dipping his toes in the salty sea.
-Some friends are chatting at the end of the beach, killing time, lingering and loitering before thinking about maybe beginning to consider worrying about starting to work. They stand around gossiping like the women around the bonfires at the other end of the beach. But today, my little Lola, there is another man standing off to the side: a very tall man with short dreadlocks. He wears a blue sleeveless shirt and has thick biceps covered in beautiful tattoos: una geisha, some Indian symbols, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, Bomba Estereo, and look: ¡Totó la Momposina!
-Over there, a cracked gramophone sits under a cabana, switched on. Reggae music flows around the tall man’s dreadlocks. He smiles. He has a nice smile, but rarely smiles. He laughs. He has a soft voice, but rarely speaks. He wears small circular sunglasses. He reaches out and shakes Efrain’s hand, reaches up and takes off the sunglasses. Lola: an eye patch shines over his left eye, amor. Can you imagine! Those dreadlocks, the eyepatch: he is a reggae pirate! But don’t worry, my darling, this pirate isn’t here to hurt you. He is, in fact, here to groove to the music from the busted gramophone as he plays a game of chess with you, my little one, and only you…
-Reggae Pirate moves his shoulders from side to side, swinging to the beats on the white sands of Playa Blanca. He holds a wooden box. He walks over to the busted gramophone and kicks a cooler between some chairs under the cabana, grooving all the way. He opens the wooden box. Chess pieces fall all through the sand; Efrain helps Reggae Pirate pick them up. Reggae Pirate motions to the chessboard, asking for a friendly game. Okey, Efrain says. They sit and play a speedy game of chess. Music swirls. Their friends laugh and drink beer and lemonade and Reggae Pirate wins in the end…
-Efrain must work. He shakes Reggae Pirate’s hand again and then grabs a wheelbarrow from under a palm tree: a yellow wheelbarrow with red letters painted on the side. Efrain pushes the wheelbarrow to another corner of the beach where some men drink beer—sí niña, even this early in the morning, in this heat—and look over many colorful thermoses in Styrofoam boxes. He pays a fee: the men fill the wheelbarrow. Then, Efrain returns to Reggae Pirate. The wheelbarrow waits as they play another quick game. Efrain loses, of course. He returns to the amarillo wheelbarrow and starts pushing it down the beach, moving along the edge of the water. Small waves patter rhythmically to shore and the sun whips at those waves. Toes run into and out of the blue. Bikinis cover patches of skin. Whispers construct castles made of sand and couples wander hand in hand. Crispy hair, lazy sunglasses, and Efrain marches with his wheelbarrow, arms straight and strong and proud, a red menu of drinks painted on the side: caipiriña, mojito, cuba libre, coco loco, and every now and then he stops and sells a cool refreshing drink.
-Moving along Playa Blanca, stopping at cabanas in the shade and beach chairs in the sun, selling chilled drinks and sodas, he chats, kicks a ball, bops to electronica or reggaetón coming from a boombox. Finally, he reaches the other end of the beach. He takes off his hat, wipes his brow, and goes to say hello to the ladies fanning the fires. They shoo him away: they don’t have time and lunch is drawing closer. He turns away from the women and to the men sitting near the fires, pays his fee, replenishes his wheelbarrow, replaces every thermos, adds more soda, Gatorade, chunks of ice. Hangs bags of chips off the side. He retraces his steps back across the beach, stopping frequently as lunch nears and hunger and thirst rise and, amor, Efrain makes double the money than his first run.
-The ice has melted. The other vendors stand around and Reggae Pirate sits under a palm drinking a beer, sunglasses on. Efrain walks to Reggae Pirate and sits with a determined smile. They play an intense game: Reggae Pirate wins again. Efrain is upset. He moves to refill his wheelbarrow and Reggae Pirate promises to wait for one more game, smiling under his sunglasses…
-Efrain moves quickly along the beach, assaulting the crowd by the water, bargaining two for one, extra pushy, harassing previous customers, flashing eyes, güevón. He reaches the other side. He doesn’t stop to visit the cooks because, mi amor, he has other things on his mind. He refills his wheelbarrow quickly. The men remark on his haste, but he ignores them and lunges down the beach toward that chessboard. He reaches Reggae Pirate and sits. This time he concentrates. Thinks ahead. Maintains pressure but is still beaten. Efrain rises to continue working and strides down the beach full of enthusiasm, his wheelbarrow light, plotting moves and attacks. He sells his drinks and snacks, mojito, cuba libre, papas fritas, mango con limón, Coca-Cola, coco loco, caipiriña, Doritos, botellas de agua, frío con hielo. He imagines ambushes and sneaky charges on that chessboard and works up quite an appetite. His mother awaits and he is the first to try lunch, el almuerzo de Playa Blanca, el famoso almuerzo de la playa, el famosísimo: fried fish, soup, avocado, coconut rice, salad. ¡Qué rico! The best. He chews with his eyes closed as his mother daydreams beside him under the palms.
-He opens his eyes and wipes his hands, returns to his wheelbarrow, and continues work. Meets with his friend Reggae Pirate. Another game, another loss, but closer still, better still, smarter still. He passes the afternoon back and forth on Playa Blanca yelling and selling mojito, caipiriña, coco loco, etcetera. The final trip ends with one more game and, this last time, Reggae Pirate sneakily lets him win. Efrain laughs out loud, and everyone is satisfied. Reggae Pirate gathers his chessboard, grooving and moving to the sound of the busted gramophone. One last handshake, the gramophone is switched off, and Reggae Pirate leaves Playa Blanca: he is gone forever, my little Lolalulita, my little Lolalu…
-Efrain leaves the wheelbarrow. He takes one last dramatic walk to see his mother, to help clean up from lunch. She kisses him and everyone goes home. The afternoon is complete, and Efrain can finally jump into the cool waters of the beach.
-At home, his mother spends more time in the kitchen. She happily fries meat and cooks beans in the dusk of Barú town. Efrain arrives from the beach. He visits with his friends and they drink beer and soda, joke and relax, and, after a while, Efrain and his mother invite everyone inside. Food always tastes better when eaten in company; don’t you agree, amor? Soon after, stomachs are full, and everyone’s soul is satisfied.
-Some off duty soldiers, new to the area, are impatient, bored, and restless. Banned from the beach. Instead of making the trip back to Cartagena, they stop at Barú town to drink aguardiente in the plaza. Some abuelos are relaxing nearby playing dominos. Someone gets too drunk, someone says something, someone starts a dreadful noise, and the dominos are knocked to the ground.
-Efrain and his friends arrive at the plaza after dinner to meet their posse. His mother invites her friends to her house to cook, chat, and prepare for tomorrow morning’s recipes. The noise in the plaza grows: the argument continues. Someone raises a fist. A fight breaks out. Word reaches the barrio. Efrain’s name is mentioned. His mother runs from the house to the plaza, a big plastic bowl of dough in her arms. The noise grows. Townspeople shout at the soldiers; the soldiers’ egos erupt. The fight explodes: more shouts, more fists. A military truck, passing by, pulls into Barú and a Big Man in steps down, raising his arms and voice. The fight dies but dust continues to rise. Fingers point. Arrests are made. Efrain’s name is mentioned. His wrist is grabbed and his mother yells. Someone grabs at her and the bowl of dough flies up and then falls onto the cracked tiles of the plaza. Efrain and his mother are pushed into the back of the truck with many others. The Big Man steps up. The truck drives off.
-There is silence, mijita. Barú is in shock. People sob and the plaza weeps. Efrain and his mother disappear forever, leaving the doorway of their house empty, the kitchen empty, her space at the fires of Playa Blanca empty, his wheelbarrow empty, and trampled scraps of dough drying up and disappearing into the tiles of the plaza.
-And so, niña, they painted the mural. You can see it today as you enter Barú. The woman with the long white braid leaning against a wooden pole. Her green eyes look up and she fans her face with a banana leaf. And in the background a young man pushes his yellow wheelbarrow across the sands of Playa Blanca, red letters on the side: caipiriña, mojito, cuba libre, coco loco. His face is shaded by a straw hat and his shirt is full of stars. And at the mark of midnight, little Lola, in the low morning hours, at the heat of noon, in the salty afternoon, and through the cool evening he keeps pushing that wheelbarrow. And far in the distance, my Lolalulita, stars are scattered across the painted sky like dried bits of golden dough over the tiles of the plaza and, sometimes, mi amor, in the middle of the night, over the town and over the mural, a real star appears in the sky and travels from Barú town to Playa Blanca and out, out, out, into the sea…
The walls move closer: they lean over the bed in the center of the dwelling. Lola’s snores glide over the mattress and fall away. Stiven sits, chin over elbow, looking up at the insides of the cracked roof. Totó la Momposina looks down upon him, winking from the watermarked poster, singing her silent songs, her tambourines chanting in the chill.
He stretches his arms, then clasps his hands. Images circle about: street artists and chessboards, yellow wheelbarrows, bonfires, and crowded beaches. The images then fade away and Stiven is left in the dark. His wife will be home soon. His daughter sleeps. Her birthday is Friday and tomorrow he should get his money. His head falls into his arms. He reaches for his phone and his fingers fumble earbuds, lifting them through a yawn. Heat vibrates from the little plastic bulbs and a faint voice, tingling, flits above a diagonal salsa beat: the tempo swerves and smashes through his fingertips and a clear tenor shines, and those horns; a trombone battles a xylophone and he sets the earbuds firmly into his ears and his eyelids begin to close as the disc jockey thrusts his face from behind that rhythm curtain, moves his mouth down upon the studio mic, and boasts:
¡Bienvenidos todos a Canal Tropicana, la más bacana!
¡La más bacana por la noche es Tropicana, la la la!