Chuck Teixeira grew up amid the anthracite collieries of northeastern Pennsylvania. Early on, Chuck earned four university degrees, including an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For many years, Chuck worked as a tax attorney in San Francisco, California. Now, he teaches English in Bogota, Colombia and San Francisco, California. Chuck identifies as gay, and his children and their mother have made peace with that. Chuck’s writing has appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review, Two Thirds North and Jonathan. Collections of his published work are available at Amazon.com.
“Yes, Alvaro, you should get as close as possible to the entrance of the Sanctuary,” Armando told his brother-in-law. “But that’s only part of the guidance I gave you. You have to get a good spot without causing trouble with other vendors. Understood? Or Jaclyn and I are not taking you with us tomorrow.”
“Understood,” Alvaro said, but he did not remember Armando’s having advised against irritating other vendors. Armando had the habit of not remembering things he had said and of remembering having said things he had not. Armando was fat but a hard worker and usually cheerful. He was the gentle, youngish marido of Alvaro’s oldest sister Jaclyn, definitely better than the abusers Alvaro’s other sisters sometimes lived with off and on. Even at age 14, Alvaro discerned differences between the men who passed through the house, and not just because he heard the things that slipped from Alvaro’s mother’s mouth.
“Tomorrow, I will get to the Sanctuary before any of the other vendors,” Alvaro said, “and I will claim one of the best spaces for Jaclyn and you.”
“Yes, thank you,” Armando said, “and ordinarily nothing else should make a difference. But some of the seasoned vendors feel entitled to particular spots; and, still being new, we have to respect them.”
“Maybe.” Selling religious articles at the Sanctuary of the Divine Child in Portal 20 de Julio was more trouble than other ways Alvaro had made money. During the apagon earlier that year, when no one had electricity, it had been easy to find a good place to sell candles. If a competing vendor was at a prime location on one of the main streets, there was another important intersection just a few blocks away. And there were fewer vendors during the blackout because candles were heavier than scapulars and holy cards. “How far away do I have to move to show respect,” Alvaro said, “not that I feel any?”
“The less respect you feel, the farther away you should be willing to move,” Armando said, “but some of the vendors can be unreasonable, especially for the morning masses when the crowds are big.”
“What’s unreasonable?” Alvaro said.
“If one of the vendors tells you to move from a small space he has been holding for the delivery of more merchandise and you’ve seen that vendor before, it’s probably wise to move a little.”
“How little?” Alvaro asked.
“As little as possible to stop his complaining,” Armando said, “but if he tells you to move farther away because his cousin is arriving momentarily, you can invoke the principle of first-come, first-served.”
First-come, first-served applied to most vendors at the Sanctuary of the Divine Child and at other churches near stations on Bogota’s Transmilenio system. “Why wasn’t that enough last week?” Alvaro said.
“I already told
you,” Armando said, “in the pilgrimage circuit, we have to respect the seasoned vendors, at least until we establish ourselves.”
“And if first-come, first-served doesn’t suffice to displace the tardy cousin, then what?” Alvaro said.
“You can offer to share a part of your first sales.”
“Absolutely not,” Alvaro said, “I’m not waking up before dawn to put money in someone else’s pocket.”
“Then you’ll have to rely on the other vendor’s reluctance to get into a shoving match on the church steps.”
“I’m not afraid to fight,” Alvaro said.
“Neither am I,” Armando said, “but the sacristan will take photos again, and, this time for sure, we’ll have to move to a plaza that’s farther away from home and maybe even more crowded with vendors.”
“Your sister is near term,” Armando said. “It’s her first with me, and my first with anyone. That’s so what. And it’s already hard to get her to the Sanctuary before the wives of other vendors plant themselves and dare anyone to ask them to move.”
“There probably are more tourists at Plaza Bolivar.”
“But there also are more cops because the Cardinal doesn’t like street vendors siphoning sales from the Cathedral shop. Neither does the Bishop at the Sanctuary, but, unlike the sacristan, clergy there remember being poor.”
“We’re not selling big items, like rosaries or crucifixes,” Alvaro said. “Jaclyn and you are offering holy goods that church stores don’t even carry like sahumerios to remove suffering and implant joy.”
“Careful,” Armando said. “We can’t describe sahumerios that way.”
“Then what do you tell people to get them to buy your twigs?”
“Sahumerios purify the air more effectively than incense. That’s what we say.”
“How pure can air be? Alvaro said.
“A lot purer, “Armando said, “if a home is polluted with resentment or recrimination.”
“So, your target market is misery,” Alvaro said.
“A preemptive whiff can prevent exactly that,” Armando clarified. “We say that sahumerios purify the air. People already know what purifying the air means. If we explain what people already know, the church calls it superstition.”
“Only if you believe it,” Alvaro said.
“Do you believe it?” Armando said.
“I don’t know,” Alvaro said. “I haven’t put sahumerios to the test.”
“Find an opportunity,” Armando said, “and let me know what happens.”
An opportunity arose the next morning, but against an annoyance worse than other vendors. During the first mass, the cry of camion arose in the plaza: the police were arresting unlicensed vendors, hauling them to San Cristobal Station, and holding them in the patio until nightfall. When Alvaro heard the cry, he grabbed a sahumerios from Jaclyn’s bag, ignited the bundle of twigs, and dispersed the smoke around the folding chair where she had been dozing. He did not want to risk her arriving among a crowd on the patio, exposed to leers or rain. And he feared that, if she went into labor, the police might dismiss her request for mercy because, just a few weeks earlier, she had made a similar plea. Surely the sahumerios would protect a pregnant woman and save a rookie father from misery.
At that moment an Army officer in uniform, a Llieutenant named Victor, emerged from the Sanctuary to investigate the tumult caused by the camion. He had the rugged features and salt-and-pepper hair that stirred up confidence and desire in Alvaro . Pausing in front of Jaclyn, the Lieutenant said “I don’t know what power saved me from capture by the drug lords in Cucuta, but I have to show gratitude by saving someone else from unwelcome confinement. Are you available for saving?”
“Of course, she is,” Alvaro said.
“Let the lady speak for herself,” the Lieutenant rebuked.
Jaclyn, still groggy, nodded.
“Is that yes?” the Lieutenant said.
“Jaclyn,” Alvaro said, “we don’t have all morning to arrange a rescue, understand?”
“Okay,” Jaclyn groaned as the Lieutenant pulled her by both arms out of the chair and guided her up the stairs to the Sanctuary. Alvaro looked longingly in their direction until Armando poked him awake to finish gathering merchandise and flee the plaza. But the sacristan, who had rushed out to help the police, identified Alvaro as a troublemaker from the week before.
At San Cristobal, the Sergeant on Duty was a thin young man with a pimply face. When most of the vendors were settled out on the patio, Alvaro went back into the station to wash sahumerios ash from his eyes. Armando hauled his merchandise in front of the Sergeant at the desk.
“Excuse me, sir,” Armando said, “I should get back to the Sanctuary because my wife is near-term with our first child and might go into labor at any moment.”
Without looking up from his papers, Sergeant Pimples said, “You should have considered that possibility before you broke the law.”
“You’re right, and I’m sorry,” Armando said, “but I’m afraid we’ll lose the baby if I’m not there to help.”
“No one forced you to take that risk,” the Sergeant said.
“Poverty did,” Armando said. “Anyway, unlicensed vending should not cost a child’s life.”
“Don’t school me in the law,” the Sergeant said. “As long as she remains in the Sanctuary, someone will take her to the hospital if she needs to go.”
Alvaro was rinsing his face and hands when Armando reported the pimply Sergeant’s denial of leave. Alvaro offered some consolation. “Wasting an entire day here would have been even worse had we paid part of our first sales to another vendor.” As things stood, however, because the raid had occurred early, neither Alvaro nor Armando had money enough to bribe the Sergeant to let them go. “Maybe we can offer him something else,” Alvaro said.
“Like what?” Armando said, “an Archangel card?”
“I think the Sergeant’s gay,” Alvaro said, “I’ve seen him around.”
“Around where?” Armando said.
“Never mind where,” Alvaro said. “Maybe he’d like you.”
“Absolutely not!” Armando said.
“Well, probably not,” Alvaro gestured to Armando’s midriff, almost as broad as Jaclyn’s.
Raising his hand, Armando threatened to bat away the insult if it sallied from Alvaro’s mouth.
“Then maybe the Sergeant would like me,” Alvaro said.
“That’s even worse. Your sister would never forgive me,” Armando said. “And I could never forgive myself.”
“You could make it up by naming the baby after me,” Alvaro said. “Not the first name, of course, but one of the middle names, just in case I never have kids of my own.”
“Do you like Sergeant Pimples?”
Alvaro shook his head, “I don’t like young guys, but if he gets you back to Jaclyn, I might avoid barfing.”
“Okay,” Armando said, then reached into his bag of merchandise and pulled out the most expensive sahumerios, a large bundle of twigs from rare Orinoco shrubs. It was called saca-saca because it offered total protection from every possible ill. “I’m going to burn this now and immerse you in whatever powers it may have.”
“No,” Alvaro said. “You need to sell that to buy things for the baby.”
“The baby will be okay,” Armando said.
“Me too,” Alvaro said.
“I’m less sure of that,” Armando said. When he lit the sahumerios, a cloud of smoke billowed from the still-green twigs. “Yikes,” Armando said, “we’ll be in even more trouble if we trigger the fire alarm.”
“No,” Alvaro grabbed the burning bunch and, jumping up and down, waved it directly at the alarm until the siren began to shriek. By the time Sergeant Pimples rushed into the bathroom, Alvaro had already climbed onto the sink and was scrambling through the narrow window. Armando was too fat to escape that way. Apologizing to the Sergeant, Armando picked up his own case and Alvaro’s too, then walked calmly through the station house and back to the patio. Vendors there were exploiting the confusion in the station house and hurling their merchandise and their bodies over the wall that dropped onto the street. Thanks to lots of pushing from behind, Armando made it over too, with the family wares intact. Puffing bravely, he reached the Sanctuary before Jaclyn’s water broke.
Jaclyn had an easy delivery, but Armando did not remember agreeing to include Alvaro among the baby’s names. Jaclyn wanted to name it Victor after the Lieutenant who had rescued her, even though he had declined to sponsor the child’s baptism. So, she asked Alvaro to be godfather and offered him the chance to hold the baby.
Alvaro was disappointed that the shriveled ball of flesh would not have his name and even more disappointed that the magisterial Lieutenant would not become part of the family. “What does a godfather do,” Alvaro asked.
“If mom, Armando, and I die while Victor’s still a child,” Jaclyn said, “and our sisters still can’t be trusted to raise him Catholic, you make sure he goes to church every Sunday.”
“Well,” Alvaro said, “maybe on Sundays if I don’t have things to sell.”
“That’s a start,” Jaclyn said.
“And make sure he finishes school,” Armando said.
“None of us ever finishes school,” Alvaro said.
“And make sure you have enough money forbribes if he gets into trouble,” Armando said.
“We never have enough money,” Alvaro said. “But I can keep a spare sahumerios on hand to protect him in the first place.”
“And while you’re at it,” Armando said “maybe we can interest you in a rosary or crucifix.”