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Pink Concrete

SHORT STORIES

SUCIA

Published in:

REED MAGAZINE

 

"A Literary Mosaic Since 1867"

THE COFFEE ARTIST

Published in:

COMMONLIT 

"A comprehensive literacy program with thousands of reading lessons, full-year ELA curriculum, benchmark assessments, and standards-based data for teachers."

CANON IN D WITH A SIDE OF TOMATO SOUP

Published in:

EVERY DAY FICTION

 

"Bite Sized Stories for a Busy World"

THE COFFEE ARTIST

Claire had soaked through her thickest pair of boots after stepping onto what she’d thought was a pile of packed snow but turned out to be the kind of slush you sink into. High winds blew and the nearby bodega’s awning flapped violently. She’d adjusted her headscarf more than once, worried that it might get carried away in the wind. The past few months made all her previous NYC winters seem mild. She sighed in relief as the crosstown bus pulled up and took a few careful steps toward the street, thankful that the warm breath contained in her facemask at least provided some measure of protection from the cold. The M86 came to a full stop with a hiss, and the doors clattered open.

 

Claire waited her turn to climb aboard, and by the time she filed in, there was not a single open seat. This evening she’d have to stand during the ride home across Central Park. She grabbed the center aisle stanchion and recoiled at its sticky residue as she pictured thousands of microscopic germs scuttling onto her fingers, marching their way up her arms and scurrying over every nook and cranny of her body. She shuddered but forced herself to keep a tight grip as the bus lurched back into 86 th Street traffic. Bodies pressed in all around her. Everyone was silent, save for the strident cries of an infant emanating from the back.

 

“Excuse me, miss.” Beside her, a white-haired gentleman wearing an oversized suit stood up, worn leather briefcase in hand. “Please, take my seat.”

 

Their eyes met for a moment before his darted away. She read the pity in them. “Thank you,” she mumbled. She slid into the seat while instinctively reaching for her head scarf to make sure it was still in place. It wasn’t.

 

The passenger beside her looked familiar. He was tall, with thick curly hair and a jagged scar across his left cheek. She realized he was the loquacious guy with a tendency to strike up conversations with passengers around him. Conversations she usually tuned out, too tired to listen.

 

He turned to look at her and broke into a lopsided smile as he stuck out his tattooed hand. Claire noted the black skull on his middle finger. “Hi there, name’s Miguel.” She guessed he was at least a decade her junior, perhaps in his early twenties.

 

She hesitated to shake his hand. What would Dr. Blisko say, especially with this damn virus circulating?

 

She did it anyway. “Claire.”

 

“You look tired.”

 

“The dark circles are a giveaway, huh?”

 

He laughed. “Did you have your coffee today?”

 

She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the seat. “Not enough.”

 

Miguel was undeterred. “Well, then, that’s the problem. Next time you need to drop by the café I work at behind the Columbus bus stop. I’ll hook you up. What do you normally order?”

 

She paused before answering. “I drink my coffee black. I’m not a cream and sugar girl.” Not anymore.

 

A few seconds passed without a response. She opened her eyes. He was gazing at her masked face, and his eyes seemed to hold a question. “I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.”

 

She shrugged. “Maybe last year you’d be right. But things change. What about you?”

 

He turned forward and settled further back into his seat before replying. “Chicory. Definitely chicory.”

 

She’d never heard of it, and her curiosity got the better of her. “What is that?”

 

He turned to look at her again. “It tastes so good! You gotta try it, I’m telling you. Technically not coffee though. They bake the root of the chicory plant and then grind it up. Got real popular during the Great Depression and World War II when the price of coffee was insane.” His speech had become more rapid, and she detected the faint hint of a Dominican accent now.

 

“Only thing is, doesn’t have any caffeine. So you can blend it with espresso beans. That’s how I like it.”

 

“You sure know a lot about coffee.”

 

“Been working around it for a while now. The best part is when somebody orders a specialty drink with steamed milk. Cappuccino, latte, café au lait. Then I get to create all kinds of designs.”

 

Claire felt a small sense of guilt for having sidestepped the truth and chosen black coffee for her answer. She used to adore cappuccinos. But that was before the chemo took away her taste.

 

Miguel whipped out his phone, tapped the screen a few times, and handed it to her. At first glance she saw one of those basic leaf designs etched into the white foam. But as she enlarged the photo and brought it closer, she noticed how ornate the illustration really was. Every rib of the leaf distinct, every swirling vine delicately rendered. It reminded her of a Japanese painting that used to hang on the wall at her grandmother’s house. She remembered trying to draw it as a little girl. “Gorgeous,” she whispered, pulling herself from the haze of memory.

 

Miguel reached over and swiped his finger across the screen. The following design was of an old man’s face mid-laugh, his chubby cheeks and squinting eyes radiating joy. Swipe left. Now there was a partial galaxy: four planets swirling around each other in the white foam.

 

“I redid that, next one’s better,” Miguel said, reaching down to touch the screen again. He was blushing.

 

“Saturn’s ring was lopsided.”

 

She hadn’t noticed, but the next image was even more impressive. He’d added tiny stars to the design.

 

“Incredible. I can’t believe you’re able to show so much detail on such a small canvas.”

 

He shrugged. “My boss sent me to a couple workshops.”

 

Claire nodded, but she knew talent like that couldn’t be taught.

 

He swiped again, revealing a T. rex, complete with long claws and a snarling mouth.

 

“Did that one for a dad whose kiddo was on crutches. His little boy was super pumped about the dino movie they’d just seen, couldn’t stop talking about it, ya know? Can still hear them laughing over it.” Claire pictured the child’s grin and couldn’t help but smile too.

 

“You got any kids?”

 

The question stung. She always thought she would, but now… she shook her head. “You?”

 

“One. And she’s a handful, let me tell ya.” He retrieved the phone and searched through the photo gallery. “But she changed my life. I used to run with the wrong people, know what I’m saying? Made money selling stuff I had no place selling. But the minute I held her in my arms, I promised her I’d be the kind of dad she’d be proud of.”

 

When he passed his device back to her, there was a video playing of a young girl dancing ballet. She was quite the picture: shiny black hair pulled into a bun, pink frilly tutu, arms held out in a semicircle, face in serious concentration as she performed a series of pliés.

 

A lump had formed in her throat. “She’s beautiful. How old?”

 

“Six next week. Her mom and I are going to throw her a birthday fiesta at the dance school. We’re surprising her with some ballet shoes she’s been eyeing. Those tiny little things cost a fortune, and she outgrows them every single year, but it’s worth it.”

 

She passed him back the phone. “It is.”

 

“So, you work on the west side, too?” Miguel asked.

 

She hated talking about her diagnosis but decided to be honest with him. “I used to work for an art gallery in Chelsea, but now the only reason I travel over is to get my chemo infusions. I have leukemia.”

 

Miguel’s brows furrowed together, a new understanding in his eyes. “Is it helping?”

 

She thought back to her conversation earlier that day with Dr. Blisko. Your white blood cell count is still too high.

 

“I’ve done three rounds so far, and it looks like I’ll have to do another soon. But you know what they say, fourth time’s the charm.” She winked.

 

Miguel replied with the warm, lopsided smile she’d become familiar with, and she was thankful that he didn’t always need to fill the space with words.

 

The bus slowed to a halt. “Lexington,” the driver announced.

 

“This is my stop,” Claire said.

 

“I get off here too. Still have another couple trains to catch to get back to Queens though. You live around here?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Upper East Side girl, lucky you.” Claire shrugged. “The neighborhood’s all right.” But not a single one of her doorman-building neighbors had taken the time to engage with her as much as he had during their short ride. “Was nice to meet you, Miguel. I’ll try to swing by your coffee shop early next week. Might even order one of those fancy drinks just to see more of your artwork.”

 

He laughed. “See you then.”

 

***

 

Later that evening, as Claire washed her dinner dishes, the sensation of the warm water bathing her hands submerged her in an old memory. She pictured the stream flowing various shades of purple, green, orange. Like it used to when she would clean her brushes in the sink after a long afternoon of painting. She turned off the water, dried her hands on the dishcloth, and headed over to the hallway closet.

 

After a minute of searching, she found the old bottles and brushes tucked away on the top shelf. Was the paint she’d kept still any good? She unfolded a stepladder and climbed onto it to reach the items she’d need, including a blank canvas wrapped in plastic and coated in a thick layer of dust. Years ago, she’d moved to New York to become an artist. But after all the local galleries had rejected her work, she pursued a career in art sales instead. Most of those old paintings had ended up down her building’s trash chute.

 

Her heart pounded as she set everything up in the middle of her living room. For the first time in a long time, the old excitement was back, and she knew exactly what she would paint. Using the tip of her brush, she added dashes of red to the pile of white beside it on the tray and mixed them together until she created the precise shade. She dabbed the soft rose color onto the canvas, and with a few subsequent strokes, the tiny dancer’s ballet shoes took shape.

 

Maybe she could make one little girl smile. Maybe that was enough.

THE COFFEE ARTIST
SUCIA

SUCIA

I walk behind her. Or rather, I walk behind the two large bags that trail her, the cans and bottles inside them clunking along the sidewalk. They make too much noise for conversation, so we stay silent. My mother is not much of a talker, anyway. Some mornings though, as she sits me on her lap to brush out my tangled hair, I can convince her to tell me stories about her childhood growing up with mi Abuelo and Ita back in Mexico. But not today. Today, we have work to do.

I see yet another trash pile up ahead, one of the many in our barrio. We’ve been to this one every Saturday since we arrived in New York City three months ago, sorting through it with our thick purple gloves, finding the waste that we can turn into dimes and quarters before the Monday trash collectors come. Mama tells me at five cents per a can, this will help pay for my school clothes when I start the third grade this fall. Right now all I have are the few pieces we were able to stuff into my backpack when we left Mexico.

I wonder if she’s heard my nickname, the one the neighborhood kids snicker under their breath as they pass by the fruit stand we set up on our corner each afternoon. Sucia, they call me – the dirty one.

“Things will be different soon niña, hold your head high,” she whispers to me on the days my shoulders slump and I crouch down behind our cart to hide. When we return from the recycling plant this afternoon, she will make a big show of putting the money we collect into the pink piggy bank she bought me. She says by summer’s end, there should be enough to buy me plenty of pretty dresses.

But I hate getting up before the sun to collect cans with her, and this morning she almost had to drag me out of bed. I was right in the middle of a beautiful dream: my father was reading me a bedtime story, and I lay curled up next to him. My belly was full from Ita’s dinner of tamales with rice and beans, and tucked around my feet, so soft and snug, was my favorite blanket – the one that I had to leave behind in Mexico. Papa smelled of the cigarillos he would sometimes sneak outside to smoke…

And then my mother’s face was floating over me as she jostled me from my slumber. The dream slipped away, along with any trace of happiness I’d had. I’d tried my best to hold onto it, but like fingers intent on grasping at rays of sunshine, it couldn’t be done. The warmth of it was replaced by the cold reality of a now-dead father. Tears escaped from the corners of my eyes, betraying me, but I refused to tell Mama why. I knew it would only make her sad too. Finally she just sighed and left the room to gather up our days’ supplies, warning me that I had ten minutes to get ready.

So here I am again, spending yet another Saturday morning digging through other people’s waste. I stare down at my shoes as we continue down the sidewalk. My toes are squished together at the points, but I ignore the pain. Soon I’ll get some new ones. I am deciding what color I want them to be when the sound of a boy’s laughter off to my left grabs my attention. My head turns towards a park there where I see some kids my age playing on a merry-go-round. My steps hesitate, and then slow to a stop. Mama doesn’t notice as I walk over to the fence that separates us from them. I rest my forehead against the cool metal and slip my fingers through the holes. What would it be like to get to play with them for once? Their faces are flushed with joy and exertion as they whirl around together. I watch for a few seconds, waiting for the scolding that I know is coming since I no longer hear the scraping of the trailing cans. When I finally glance at her though, I’m surprised to see her eyes moistening too.

“I’m sorry hija, but not today.”

We continue on towards a pile of basura up ahead. The crazy neighborhood borracho is passed out next to the trash bags. Beside him lay several empty beer cans, and I can see that underneath him the sidewalk is wet. The smell of urine carries through the hot, sticky summer air, causing me to gag. Even though I know he’ll be asleep for a while, I don’t want to get too close. My mother motions me forward with her hand, but I’m frozen in place. Despite the sun beating down, chill bumps erupt on my arms. I’ve seen the way he’s looked at her before, his sickening grin full of decay. Even though I can’t understand what he says in his slurred English, I don’t think it’s very nice. Nothing will deter my mother though. She’s already ripped open the first bag and found several plastic bottles that we can turn in for cash. The odor of rotten food fills my nose, causing a renewed wave of nausea.

Her shiny, black hair is pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. When Papa was around, she wore it down. I think back to Chiapas again, to my favorite part of the day when Papa came home from his job at the tire factory. I’d wait for him at the kitchen window so that I could be the first to run up to him as the puerta opened. He’d scoop me up in his arms, then tickle me until I could no longer breathe. Afterwards he’d go to Mama, wrap his arms around her waist and lean in for a long kiss. She’d be cooking dinner over the stove and so he’d hang around to sneak bites of food. Grinning, she’d slap away his hand. Her eyes would sparkle as she told Papa about all her bartering triumphs from market shopping that day. Or she’d recount how one of the chickens had escaped again, her shoulders shaking with laughter as she described chasing it all up and down the calle. Nobody else could make her shine like that, not even me. I look at her deep, brown eyes now and long to see the light in them again.

The night before Papa died was the last time I’d seen her really alive. We were his princesas. When he told us that Nueva York was where we needed to be for all of our dreams to come true, we listened. Ita and Abuelo had both already passed by then, and there was no longer any reason to stay in Mexico. So we made the trip here last May, knowing that we had him to help us navigate this strange new world.

That is, until we didn’t.

One evening he was out biking, making a routine food delivery for his night job at the neighborhood pizza shop, when two men attacked him. The police caught them a couple days later, and I overheard one of the officers telling Mama that my father had died over thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents.


After Papa was gone I was sure we would head back to Chiapas, to our farm and our crazy chickens. But Mama told me our home was here now, that our casa in Mexico had been sold a few days before our move to the States. “This is your future now, hija. You must work hard in school, so that one day you can go to la universidad, and you won’t have to sell cantaloupe and mangos on the street, like me,” she said.

I watch her a moment as she works, trying to salvage the used bottles and cans, trying to salvage our dreams. I stare at the stained T-shirt which hangs loosely over pants that are two sizes too big for her, and I wonder if she feels sucia too. I walk over and bend down to tear open one of the bags beside her. I pray that what she says is true: maybe one day things will be different.

Maybe one day, we will both get to smile again.

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