Tegucigalpa, 2019. Lunes.
“It doesn’t matter that it rains,” a man on the radio says, “if it’s not raining in the right place.”
His voice is familiar to everyone in the taxi: the older woman with acrylic nails almost as long as her fingers and as red as her lipstick, the man in tight dark jeans pulled down to his crotch, leaving his plaid boxers purposefully exposed, and Evelyn, sitting between them, with her green plastic basin on her lap. Whenever the car breaks, every few seconds, the mango seeds and skins inside the basin move around, hitting the plastic walls around them and the large metal knife that was used to dismember them and now drips with the pulp of their transformation.
Evelyn wants to bury her face inside the tub. She doesn’t care for the smell of mango, no. Not after three years of selling sliced mango verde with salt and pepper at almost every stoplight in Tegucigalpa. But the smell of the man’s cologne is giving her one of those headaches that feel like there’s a balloon behind her eyes that keeps inflating, its rubber skin turning thin and translucent, but never popping. If her abuela Chayo was here, she’d say he’s wearing the infamous 7 Machos, “y el ultimo estaba muerto,” and the last of the machos was dead.
All the windows are already down. It is rare to find a car in Tegucigalpa that drives with its windows closed — except at stoplights, where everyone quickly rolls them up, in time to avoid people like Evelyn, trying to sell or ask for something.
“¿Todo bién, flaca?” the driver asks, looking at her through the rearview mirror.
She’s known Dario for years. They live in the same barrio, and he has played futbol with her brother for years. Most mornings, he gives them a ride to the city and sometimes he also brings them back. During these rides he mostly talks to Enrique about politics and soccer. She just listens. Although, sometimes she catches him looking at her through the mirror.
He is one of three taxistas she trusts enough to ride with even after sundown, even with other random passengers inside. If they were to get mugged by a marero posing as a passenger, something tells her Dario would protect her. He would give them his money without complaining, and ask them firmly to leave them alone. But if he was by himself, he could fight back, Evelyn thinks. He is a strong man with big hands.
“Todo bién,” she says, locking eyes with him briefly. His reflection is sliced in half by the wooden rosary that hangs from the mirror, swaying back and forth.
“Well, if you’re going to vomit, make sure to aim inside that paila. No water to clean that backseat, you know,” he says, winking at her.
She knows. Everyone in the country knows. She suspects the water shortage is the reason the man next to her decided to bathe in something other than water and the traffic is slower than usual. Everyone in the area is rushing home. There was a rumor that today at five the camion-cisterna would return to their barrio. The big truck that sells water to the areas outside of the city that don’t have a water system. Ever since the water shortage started, the trucks came to el barrio less and less, until eventually it was just once a week. They figured they could sell their water at a higher price to those with more money in the city.
“Dario, the time?” Evelyn says. She hasn’t cleaned in a week. She stinks like old sweat and dry period blood.
“Four forty-seven,” says the older woman, rolling her eyes. Evelyn notices she doesn’t have any hairs on her eyebrows, instead light-brown eyeliner arches over her eyes. On the middle of the left line, there’s a small hairy mole — the only hair on her eyebrows.
“We won’t make it. Walking would be faster.”
Evelyn agrees. She’s considered it a hundred times. Any other day, she would walk. But outside, the sky roars like a chorus of hungry bellies. Any minute now, it will pour down. She doesn’t mind getting wet, but the lightning terrifies her. In the last few days, she has noticed on the cover pages pasted on newspaper stands at least three mentions of someone getting struck. She knew someone from her barrio who died this way, two years ago. A boy, 16 or 17, who used to fix AC units with his father in the city. He was blasted into pieces, the people said. His father had to mop bits of his guts and brain from the walls of the rich people’s house.
Evelyn thinks of when she gets home, to the room she shares with her brother. Maybe he’s there now, maybe he has been able to buy some water from the truck, or get leftovers for free. Sometimes they get lucky like that. But she doubts it. Enrique is also a seller in Tegus, but instead of mango, he sells these plastic electric mosquito zappers. He too gets the product from a man in their barrio that lets them keep twenty-percent of what they sell. They sound zap-zap whenever anything hits the net. If she’s close when Enrique plays with them, the hair on her arms stands up. She hates them. They remind her of the lighting.
She doubts he’s made it home. They try to hit different stoplights and parks, in case a particular area is slow, the other can make up for it. This has been their survival-model for three years now, ever since she turned 16. Enrique has been a peddler even longer. He used to come with their mom to the city before she passed, maybe since he was nine or ten. He’s months away from turning 27 now.
If she’s not misremembering, he is even farther away from home today than her. If neither makes it home on time, they won’t have water for a week. They’ll stink even more. She already has to hold her breath whenever Enrique walks by her, which in a one-room space, is all the time.
“I’m walking,” announces the man next to her. “Tenga,” he says to Dario, handing him a crumpled bill of 50 Lempiras.
“Me too,” says the woman, paying her own fare. “¿You going anywhere near Los Pinos, mijo?”
They both get out, slamming the doors. Evelyn realizes she’s been holding her breath. Slowly, she allows her nostrils to relax and her body to take up more space of the sunbaked leather backseat.
“With them gone I can have you home in five or seven, flaca,” Dario says, holding her gaze through the mirror, “but you’re not gonna make me look like one of those fancy ass drivers all alone in the front, right? Get over here.”
She smiles and gets in the front seat. The smell of the cheap cologne isn’t as strong here. Dario’s scent overpowers it, deodorant that has been sweated through and car grease. The car moves a few meters, putting them right in front of a stoplight that blinks all three colors on and off. Looking at it too long, she feels the balloon behind her face expand.
“This one never works,” Dario says, “Nothing works en este país de mierda.”
In its place, a traffic officer in a yellow vest blows his whistle and points to cars, deciding who gets to go when. From all sides of the street, cars honk. Some do in beats, pa-pa, and some hold their note, paaaaa. Cars try to go and brake and try to go again and brake again. The traffic of Tegucigalpa is a poem about near misses. To Evelyn, it feels like her balloon has grown strings, five thousand of them, and they’re all being pulled from different sides.
“You look sick,” Dario says, “Do you still have any mango?”
“Nothing,” she says, “Besides, you ate two bags already today.”
Dario clicks his tongue and puts his arms behind his head. The traffic officer waves them over, and Dario moves the car forward, keeping the steering wheel straight with his knee.
“You know I love eating your mango, flaca.”
She blushes and says nothing. He does this from time to time, says things that can mean other things. Gives her free rides. Buys more mango bags than anyone actually eats. She likes his big fingers and how he struggles getting the mango slices out of the plastic bag. The truth is, she has wondered before if he has a wife or any children. She imagines he must have some child. Most men do.
The men on the radio keep talking about how it can rain for days, but if it’s not where the dams are, the water shortage will continue. Then they move on to talk about the president, and the water fountain he is inaugurating this Thursday in front of a church. A symbol of hope, they call it.
They get stuck in another long line of cars. She knows they won’t be there anytime soon, but in case she has any doubt, the sky opens and lets all the water the country doesn’t have fall on them. Dario keeps saying, “ya va pasar, ya va pasar,” but the rain doesn’t pass. The taxi’s windshield wipers haven’t worked in years. In seconds, they can’t see anything, only rain falling on rain falling on rain. Even the rear lights of the car in front of them disappear. Evelyn has never been underwater, but she imagines this is what it must look like. Dario has, once, when his cousins dared him to swim in el Rio Choluteca, the brown, murky, disgusting river that bisects Tegucigalpa, where the poor shit and the poorer bathe. He didn’t open his eyes.
“¡Puta!” he says, pulling over, leaning over the open window to see. “¡Puta, puta, puta!” His thick black hair is wet, raindrops sliding down it, holding on to the ends as if terrified to fall. They park next to a grey-brick wall with the words FUERA JOH in blue spray paint. It would be hard to find a wall that is not vandalized with demands for the current president to step out.
“We’ll wait it out,” she says, “Let’s just wait.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, rolling up his window, locking all the doors.
“Meh, this is how it is. Just change the station, please,” she says “If I have to hear about water or Juan Orlando one more time, I swear.”
“I know, I know,” he says, turning the radio dial to the right, and the volume to the left. He settles on a song she has heard before, the kind of song in which all the people in it say their names and countries at the end. Reggeaton. It doesn’t help the headache, but she prefers it to the men and their talk.
“You can lean the chair back if you want,” he says, “the lever is on the side. Just pull up.”
She does. They can hear voices and honks and thunder and yelling, but it’s all muffled by the rain and Daddy Yankee’s voice. They have never been this alone together. He leans back, too, and turns on his side so he’s facing her. She becomes aware of her stink, and tries to hold her arms as close to her body as possible.
“You think your brother made it home? Where was he today?” he asks.
“Maybe, I don’t know. I hope so. I hope he gets us water, if the trucks come.”
“They won’t. They can’t with the rain. All the major streets will be flooded by now. Maybe tomorrow.”
She says nothing, because there’s nothing to say. She looks at him instead. He has the longest eyelashes she has ever seen.
“He’s a good man, your brother. Takes care of you. Protective. Probably jealous.”
“We’re not like that,” she says. She wants to add: you don’t know us. But she doesn’t. She’s bothered by his statement, but she can’t tell why.
“What are you like, then?”
“He doesn’t mess with my business and I don’t mess with his.”
“What kind of business do you have?”
“None. Not like that. Not like what you mean. Look, if Enrique wants to get his dick wet, that’s his problem. And my business is none of yours.”
“Okay, okay, flaca” he says, “Disculpá. No te queria ofender.”
They stay quiet for a while, glancing at each other from time to time. And then, without thinking it, she says, “Do you have a woman?” And he’s surprised, so surprised it takes him a beat to respond, but then he’s firm. “No, I don’t. No woman, no kids.”
She doesn’t say anything, and after a few more beats, marked by the rain on the roof, he puts the tip of his index finger on her knee. He slides it down to her calf, and back up to her thigh. And then he puts his whole hand on her, and she’s not surprised to find it’s heavy, heavier that any hand should be, and she loves it. And his hand travels away from her leg, to her abdomen, to her arms, to her face, back to her abdomen, over her breasts. She knows where this is going, and she wants it.
But she thinks about her stink and her long armpit hair and how she got her blood two days ago and it passed fast but they haven’t had any water to clean their clothes or themselves and she doesn’t want it anymore, not right now. So she stops him.
“I thought you wanted it.”
“Another time,” she says, “Not in the taxi, on the street, in the middle of a storm.”
He believes her, even if none of those reasons are stuff she cares about.
They wait a few more minutes, in silence, and then the rain has slowed enough for them to try to get to el barrio. An hour later, he’s dropping her off, and says he can give her a ride to the city tomorrow morning if she’s ready at 4 in the morning.
Her brother isn’t home. And she thinks, for a minute, about asking Dario in. The thought makes her throb. But the real reasons why she stopped him are still there, and she knows inside is all of their dirty clothes spread around. The tub they use for shit and pee might still be dirty, because she can’t remember cleaning it out, and Enrique rarely does.
But she wants this. She has wanted this for some time. Quickly, she makes some calculations in her head. When will the water trucks come. When will Enrique be at the spots farthest from home, staying late in the city. When will she have time to clean and cut her armpit and leg hair.
“Dario,” she calls. He has already started the taxi.
“¿Si?” he says
“El Jueves, that’s when. That’s later.”
It takes him a second to understand. Then his eyes open wide and he smiles and nods.
“Ok. El Jueves.”
* * *
The trucks don’t come on Tuesday or Wednesday. They just don’t come at all.
It’s three in the morning. She wakes up at this time to get ready to go to the city, but there’s nothing to get ready with. Enrique brought two bolsas con agua home last night, but it’s drinking water. She can’t conceive using hers to clean. She feels her dry throat and imagines it a few hours from now, when she’s under the sun. Her eyes squinting, sweat pooling under her breasts and sliding in individual cold drops from her armpits to her waist.
But then there’s Dario, and today is Thursday. She hasn’t seen him since Monday. Enrique found them a ride that left earlier for both days. He hasn’t been around her usual spots, which isn’t weird, necessarily, just sad. But today they will meet. The mayor and the president are inaugurating a fountain at the Iglesia los Dolores, in the center of the city. Hundreds of street sellers will be there. The taxistas will try to give rides to people attending the ceremony. The park will be full. They’ll leave together and come to her house. Enrique will be out, out until midnight, at least.
The basin where Evelyn cuts her mango is lined with pulp that has hardened into a crust in the past two weeks. Some of it has begun to grow a white and grey sponge-like shell. The knife is sticky. The smell of rotten mango is similar to that of a child’s vomit. It overpowers the other odors in the room. Their noses have become accustomed though, so she’s only taken aback by it when it has been several hours since she last smelled it. Enrique is sleeping. He’ll be up in the next twenty minutes or so, but right now, his snores are steady. The room is dark. It’s still at least two hours before the sun rises.
Evelyn takes off her shirt. Pained, she rips a corner of the water bag with her teeth, spitting out a bit of plastic.The hole is small, as small as she could make it in order to control the water coming out. She takes the smallest of gulps and then she pours some over her right armpit. She takes the knife, and with her left hand pulls an assemblage of her armpit hair as straight as she can, and with the other she cuts them. They’re long enough that they curl and curl. She has used the knife for this before, but she has had water to clean it after. She cuts as much of it as she can, and then does her other armpit, and then her legs, and then she finds she can’t stop, and she cuts some of her pubic hair too. By the time she’s done, all the water is gone, and her sticky knife is full of dark, thick, curled body hair.
Evelyn tries to wipe it with her shirt and a rag. It’s not ideal, it’s not what she wanted, but she feels ready. She feels like she can be with Dario like this. She knows she still smells, but less. And she’s not hairy. And she’s a woman and he is kind.
She gets dressed. Enrique wakes up, gets fresh mangos and more mosquito zappers from Don Rafael, and finds them a ride with Don Julio, another taxista in el barrio. An hour later, they’re in the city.
“I’ll be by the stadium until noon, and then I think I’ll move to el Bulevar Morazán,” he says. “Good luck at the park. I heard Juan Robando would be there. Be careful with the police.” That’s what Enrique always calls him, Robando instead of Orlando. Stealing.
“Si, Kike,” she says, “I’m riding back with Dario.”
And with that, he leaves, carrying his T-shaped pole. From the sides of the T hang the zappers, dangling with his movement.
Evelyn makes her way to the park and finds a spot under a palm tree. As usual, el centro is flooded with people trying to sell or buy something. She likes this area of the city. During the day, it’s alive with peddlers and tourists. The streets are narrow, too narrow for three cars to drive besides each other. Every structure is old, but she can tell that unlike the rest of the city, downtown wasn’t a random buildup of structure upon structure. The churches and museums are all painted the same peach color, and all other buildings sport graffiti. Graffiti of the faces of people who have been murdered, messages against the government, insults against politicians.
“Cacahuates, cacahuates a diez,” a woman nearby yells. Another one is selling bananas and plantains. The men sell futbol t-shirts, zappers, phone cords, and pirated movies with low-quality images printed on them. It smells like feet and fried food. A bachata song plays through low-quality speakers. She starts peeling and chopping mango, and then putting slices on the small, see-through plastic bags. She keeps the salt and pepper in even smaller plastic bags, with holes in a corner, so she can pour a little over the mango before selling it.
The ceremony will begin in a few minutes. Hundreds of black and grey pigeons with greenish necks hang around the church, eating whatever has been dropped, and then flying to the church’s windows and bell towers. Stray dogs sleep under the shadow of trees, scratching and turning. Some are chased out by sellers, but most return after the initial scare.
There’s no new fountain, she notices. Not the kind she expected, anyway. It’s not a ceramic structure, but instead, it’s a circle formed by 12 holes on the ground. She knows water will shoot up from them when the president or the mayor get here.
In a few minutes, there are TV reporters all around. Men carry heavy, long cameras on their shoulders and women smile at them, holding microphones to their chest.
A few tents have been set up, and inside, there are long tables with merchandise. The sellers working them are different from Evelyn and her brother and those that, like her, are selling out of a basin or a bag. Those are government-sponsored sellers. They sell jam in glass bottles and hand-made jewelry.
La plaza gets more and more crowded. There’s a lot of military police walking around, and then at least six of them accompanying a man who gets out of a black car. He’s the president. She has seen his face on newspaper stands and graffiti enough to know it. He walks slow, shaking people’s hands, smiling to cameras. Evelyn knows many people hate him, but she doesn’t really know why. He’s a bad person, that’s what Enrique says all the time. He is involved with something about drugs. It seems to her that that’s what they say about everyone all the time, though. He’s a narco. He’s cousins or brothers of a narco. He is friends with narcos. He is married to a narco. Whatever, she thinks, all the same.
A girl and a boy approach her. “Cuanto la bolsita?” they say. She sells them for 10 Lempiras each bag. They take three. She puts the money in the space between her breasts.
She’s not yelling Mango, mango, mango a diez like she usually does. Today she can’t concentrate on selling. And she doesn’t want to sweat. She keeps scanning the plaza for Dario. She imagines he would be leaning against his taxi, watching all of this. She wants to find him and leave as soon as possible. For one day, she does not want to think about selling. She can do that tomorrow. But she can’t find him. He’s not standing with the other taxistas by the left corner of the park.
Juan Orlando makes his way to the center of the circle. It’s easy to follow him because he’s surrounded by people and police. There’s a woman who stands by him the whole time, so Evelyn figures she must be the first lady. They hold hands every so often. He answers questions, holds microphones, laughs. And after a while, people retreat from the circle, and it’s only the president and his wife in the middle. The water jets are turned on, and big, thick springs fly through the air, reaching even taller than the president. He laughs, and his wife laughs, and then they’re out of the circle, drying with towels, talking to more people, answering more questions.
A kid who has been standing by Evelyn, asking for money with a McDonalds cup full of coins, runs to the water. He lifts his shirt and stretches it over the spray, so that the water goes in from below his shirt and comes out over his neckline. More kids join him, and soon all the waterjets are taken by children.
Evelyn spaces out, staring at the scene. She wonders if the water is clean, clean enough to bathe. Maybe she can find a cup or bottle in the trash and fill it up. She’s looking for a trash can nearby and doesn’t notice when men in military gear and black boots start surrounding her. The flashlight of a camera hurts her eyes. The noise gets loud around her, and someone is shoving a foam sponge gigantic microphone to her face.
“Si, si … el presidente Hernandez loves mango! He’s buying some right now from a woman in la plaza central, ladies and gentleman,” a voice says.
“Juan Orlando Hernandez, a man of the people! Buying some mango verde from a vendora ambulante!” says another. “The president used to have his own mango tree when he lived in Gracias!”
And then he’s right in front of her, stretching out his hand. It strikes her how normal he seems. He’s not wearing a suit or a tie, just a white, button-down shirt tucked in to his jeans. He smells good, not like the man in the taxi on Monday or Dario. His cologne is strong and clean.
“Señorita,” he says, “How much for a bag of manguito verde with salt and pepper?”
There are so many faces staring at her. They all wait for her to speak.
“Ah … eh …” she mumbles, “es …”
“It’s okay,” he says, “Tenga.”
He hands her a 500 Lempiras bill. She has never touched one before. The bill is crisp, so crisp that for a moment, she thinks it might be fake.
“I don’t have enough mango or change for this,” she says.
“No, no,” he says, “just one bag. Just one bag of manguito verde, por favor.”
She gets a bag and adds the salt and pepper right there. The light is still blinding her. Her movements feel slow and clumsy. The president has a hand on her shoulder and is smiling so widely, she can see all of his teeth. His hands are cold on her. Once she’s done preparing it, she hands him his mango.
“Mil gracias, señorita, mil gracias.”
She hopes he walks away right then. He doesn’t. He starts eating the mango in front of her, his delicate fingers fishing into the bag. The cameras and people are still surrounding them.
“¿Quiere?” he asks her, offering a slice. She declines with her head.
He eats more and licks his fingers after each slice. That’s when Evelyn sees it: two small but thick curled hairs stuck to his lower lip. He licks the area around his mouth, the hairs disappearing with it. And Evelyn can’t stop staring. There’s another by his cheek, and several in his fingers.
The cameras are all on him and her. She wonders if they can see it, too. No one says anything. She expects someone to slap the bag out of his hand or whisper something in his ear, but no one does anything. Finally, when he’s done, someone hands him a wet towel. He wipes his hands and shakes hers again. They all walk away.
And then he is there. Dario. After all those people move away, he’s right there in front of her, smiling.
“You sold mango to the president?” he says, laughing. “You’re gonna be on TV, flaca!”
“Shut up,” she says, shaking her head and slapping his arm playfully. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Let’s,” he says, reaching for her basin and knife.
“No, no,” she says, “leave it.”
“¿Que?” he says, still holding on to it, “¿Segura?”
“Leave it,” she says, “I don’t want it.”
He drops them, confused. The knife clanks against the concrete floor, and the paila topples over.
“Vamonos,” she says, stretching her hand. “¡Apurate!”
And he’s so moved by her rush, by her need of him, that he doesn’t care about the basin or the knife or the stupid mango or tomorrow.
“Vamos,” he says, taking her hand. She runs, leading them through the water springs.
—Bessie Flores Zaldívar (from On The Seawall)