Home > Fiction > Dichosofui
Published: Mon Apr 15 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destruccion por un remolino del aire Xocomeel del Lago Atitlán / Destruction from a Vortex of the Xocomil Winds around Lake Atitlán (detail), 2014, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
AGNI 99 Ethnicity Family Crime


Manuel now lived off a switchback path near the old coffee fincas, a place where radio signals got lost between the mountains. Handwritten and misspelled signs offered “tortiyas,” little stores were bannered with Coke ads, and chipped turquoise paint trimmed the houses. Spray-painted gang symbols dripped over political party colors, and dogs snoozed in the middle of the road.

From the bus into town, Manuel watched the landscape scroll by, mountains giving way to Santa Tecla’s squat adobe houses and then into the haze of Merliot’s strip malls. At each stop more people piled in—a jigsaw of bodies pressed together, women with their purses strapped across their chests, men looking leery or guilty beneath their hats—as trumpets of salsa urging the bus forward, on and on through the winding streets. The traffic danced two steps forward, merged to a single lane on the left. Men rode on pickup beds unharnessed, gripping the railings of custom-built cages meant for cattle. Beyond, the peak of the San Salvador volcano watched over the capital, its face unequivocal and hard against the sun.

Manuel remembered that morning one month ago when he’d awakened on his mother’s doorstep with a sandalia slap to the head. Good for nothing! she screamed. Just like your father! Last night at El Chivo’s sister’s quinces they’d winced their way through a bottle of Muñeco. He and El Chivo in their scratchy suits, rosette boutonnieres bobbing up and down to the rattling beat. Riding up on the satin trains of the quinceañeras, all that sweet flesh bursting from their starched bustiers, one shot, two, twelve, the glinting tiaras and gloved hands of the girls. Sweat-soaked and slumped over a table, Manuel stared at the two-tiered buttercream cake with its display of tiny girls in tulle skirts. Fresh out of Zacatraz—six months: A jumpstart course on new business tactics, ha! with the gothic points of a new tattoo peeking from his bowtied neck—El Chivo boasted about his new crew, how Manuel would like them. Parties, drugs, girls. But Manuel thought of his neighbor Marta and her honey-colored eyes, how she had been missing for days and was then found strangled in a ditch, the fifth girl that month. Cops zigzagged through the rathole maze of La Campanera, handcuffed and hauled off all the marosos, no questions asked. Manuel’s mom moved him out of their matchbox house and sent him to live on the town’s outskirts with his grandmother.

Good to finally be able to quit the farce of going to school, though his mom had insisted he get a job, and the owner of the house she cleaned had set him up with an interview. Wouldn’t he like to be a supermarket security guard? All he had to do was present a clean police record and pass a lie-detector test. In two weeks they taught him the basics, and now he wore his gray uniform, number 33, and carried a shotgun over his shoulder.

It was his job to stand sentry at the supermarket. The smell of raw meat and detergent blasted out every time the sliding doors sliced open. Years ago he’d witnessed a man in a butcher’s jacket haul a side of beef through the front door of a supermarket, and, struck by the pink muscles and bone, Manuel had followed the blood trail down the cleaning-products aisle. Day in, day out, he took in currents of cold air, death, and the quick cover-up of antiseptic.

During breaks he chatted with the cashiers. He liked to watch their red-fingernailed hands grasp and release as they swiped packages across the scanner. The bag boys with their greased-back hair and tight jeans teased the young clerks, poked them in the waist, and broke into donkey laughs. They hustled to help the housewives with full baskets, the only customers who tipped. Manuel watched them carry the bags out, all those nice cars gleaming in the lot. Sometimes he wished they were his, but other times, gripping the barrel of his shotgun, he felt content to do nothing more than stare off into the lanes of traffic, beyond the food stalls that offered “hoc dogs” or “burguers.” On the sidewalk outside the market, lottery vendors unspooled coils of tickets and barefoot kids sold braids of garlic.

It was nearly noon and through the store windows Manuel watched one of the barefoot boys waiting in the cereal aisle. In her cart, a woman wheeled a blond child, rosy-cheeked as the apples imported from the U.S. The barefoot boy didn’t tug at sleeves; he just waited for the housewife to notice him, his arms wrapped around an extra-large box of corn flakes and a bag of powdered milk. Manuel had seen other mothers buy him saltines and cream cheese, a toothbrush and mint paste. The woman nodded and gestured for the boy to put the milk and cereal into her cart. Then they turned into Home Goods, where the boy picked out a pair of blue flip-flops. He knew all the right moves. Everybody deserves shoes, a good breakfast. Manuel had seen the boy steal more than once but he’d kept his mouth shut. He’d kept walking when El Chivo pulled a knife on a secretary on the overpass and stole her cell phone. Why would he start tattling now?

In the checkout line, the mother unstrapped her daughter from the cart and placed her next to the barefoot boy. The little girl smiled and swiveled her head to whip her blond braids while her mother laid out asparagus, a bottle of wine, pears, and cold cuts on the advancing belt. Without meeting her mother’s eyes, the girl slid two chocolate eggs onto the conveyer. The woman opened her mouth but then just shook her head, smiled at the boy, and took out her credit card and handed it to the clerk. After she’d paid, the boy took the items, looked her right in the eyes, said, Thanks, and ran for the door, the little girl following. Stop! Stop! the mother called out, and Manuel reached over to the girl before she stepped off the sidewalk. Cupping her shoulders, he directed her back to her mother, who gripped her daughter’s arm, gritting angry words in English, while snatching one of the chocolate eggs from the girl’s palm and—Gracias, Gracias—handing it to Manuel. The boy dodged across six lanes of traffic, new rubber sandals slapping his heels, to the roadside shanties, a patchwork of plywood and corrugated zinc.

The highway marked a dark seam across two worlds, the concrete and the lean-to. It spanned endlessly in opposite directions. Manuel didn’t like the feeling of boundlessness; he liked to have his back to something, even if it was the hulking store. He’d grown up like the boy, certain only of what was behind him, putting one foot in front of the other, counting how many paces it took to get to that next place. It was something he liked to do, quietly count his footsteps. Sometimes he’d find he was repeating a phrase: Please, God, please. Other days, a word would break into two syllables, Mar-ta, Mar-ta, incantations that surprised him. He had not, until the moment the words tumbled from his lips, realized there was something he prayed for, something he wanted.

When the sky stripped to pink, the red welt of the sun hung over the San Salvador volcano. To Manuel, it looked like a lowering eye, the clouds a hooded lid. At the bus stop a man railed at a woman while she stood immutable, her eyebrows pencil-drawn in arched surprise, her arms crossed. Manuel knew his mother merited another visit; he hadn’t seen her in a month, and then, when he had, he’d confirmed her worst fears. All those times his dad had romanced her back, telling her this time would be different and smashing a bottle against the curb to show her how serious he was. Manuel practiced a solemn apology, half believing his best hound-dog look might do the trick. Maybe she’d fry him some empanadas so fat they’d weep sweet milk all over his plate. Manuel took a bus into the crosshatched hills of Soyapango and the heart of his old neighborhood in La Campanera.

Walking through the alleyways, Manuel sought a different route to his mom’s house, one that wouldn’t take him past El Chivo’s. But what he found was a cordoned-off section, more homes swallowed by the growing sinkhole. Like all the other abandoned structures on the edge, these had been gutted, the zinc roofs, jalousie windows, even the cement tiles pried off. The houses stared back at him like blind-socketed skulls. The rapid-fire beat of reggaetón throbbed from one of them, the only one still boasting a corrugated roof. Manuel lowered his head and picked up his stride. Keep going, keep going, he thought. But as he passed the open doorway of that last house, someone whistled the three clear notes, drawn out, of diCHO-so-FUI, El Chivo’s whistle-warble of birdsong. Manuel whipped around and there he was, El Chivo half hidden in smoke and shadow, sitting on the arm of a flower-print couch, the air heavy with the smell of weed. Dichosofui, How happy I was, sang the bird. El Chivo smiled and crooked his finger at Manuel. DiCHO-so-FUI, El Chivo had called every morning on the way to their so-called school. Teachers so happy just not to get capped that they gave out passing grades, not caring if kids could make it beyond the Memo mima a su mamá bullshit books.

Manuel edged closer, held on to a sill, and peered inside. Three guys huddled around a table, rolling joints, counting money. One’s entire back was tattooed—the knife-points of “MS-13” stretched across his shoulders and bled fat green drops down his back. El Chivo passed Manuel the joint and he took it. Better to say yes than to explain why not.

Like my new chosa? El Chivo said, and winged his hand around in a slow arc. Free as a bird. I can see that, brother, Manuel said. Why would El Chivo choose this over his mom’s place? Month by month she’d saved money from her job as a maid in the Yunias, in Nueva Yersey or some other city, Nueva for sure. Month by month and brick by brick, the second story assumed its shape, and the house rose above the others now with a white balustrade balcony, arched windows, and, on the corner, a cement eagle caught mid-flight. But instead, El Chivo and his buddies preferred to perch at this abandoned house on the edge of nothing, their backs to the gaping hole.

El Chivo’s music quieted and from the back room a sleepy-eyed girl wandered out, blinking and smiling. She slinked up and eased her slender arm around the shoulders of the gun-toting man and cocked her hips. If she had a tail, she’d have wrapped it around him. El Chivo grinned when he saw Manuel admiring her. Meet Estefany, he said. She likes all of us. Plumes of smoke curled around her fingers as she inhaled deeply. Manuel fell asleep that night on a bare mattress, stroking the limbs of the naked girl, her quiet breaths on his neck—whoosh, silence, whoosh, silence. He thought of his house just one block over, his mother probably hosing down the small square of their backyard—back, forth, back, forth—looking at the scraggly rosebush that grew in a rusted paint can, its fallen petals sailing on the runoff, little red boats into the gutter.

Days later, at the peak of the dry season when the afternoons stretched tight as cellophane, Manuel was conducting traffic in front of the supermarket. Making room for a Land Rover to enter the busy intersection, Manuel stood on the median. He glanced over his shoulder at the cars churning toward him down the lanes. They swept past in waves, blowing his hair in circles, his shirt and pants pressing against his body. There was a lull and he waved for the Land Rover to go. It lurched forward, turned abruptly, bounced off the raised median, and the back wheel ran over his foot. Spikes of pain. He bent down, but the Land Rover sped off unaware. Manuel balanced on the uneven curb as cars whirred by, until finally a pickup came to a rolling stop so he could cross to the parking lot. The driver honked and waved; there was a family reclining in the back, their arms draped over the metal sides as if they were lounging in a hot tub. Manuel limped to the curb. The tire’s tread was clearly marked on the toe of his boot.

Stationed in a pocket of shade beneath the awning, Yamileth, who sold lotería tickets, had seen it all. She said the driver was some big shot’s bodyguard. Manuel spat over his shoulder and watched her lips moving, dark red outlining a shiny pink gloss, saying he should go to the hospital. But Manuel wanted to tough it out. That hijueputa, who does he think he is? Like I’m some fucking aguacatero mutt. His foot throbbed, and a wave of hot pain climbed his leg, until finally he accepted pills from the supermarket manager. Fuck this fucking stupid-ass job, he thought. El Chivo was probably watching some fifteen-year-old rub her tits while he high-fived his buddies and swigged the good stuff. Maybe they could put a hit on this guy, show him what’s what.

When the sun slanted behind the maquilishuats, Manuel limped the three blocks to the bus stop. Please, drag of boot, hip swing, soon. Soon, heel scrape, fang of pain, please, his beat broken. From the bus window he studied the eye of the volcano. He imagined all his anger balanced on that tip, and as the bus drove farther and farther from where it had happened, he felt his body loosen. The voices around him shredded into the background, and the engine hummed to him as he nodded off. Standing on that pinnacle, or flying like a bird to some faraway roost, then merging into a kind of dusk. Manuel flew parallel to the roadside houses where a bare lightbulb let him peer in their windows. A family sitting on a couch, the blue aura of a television, a baby sleeping in the pocket of a hammock, a woman hunched over a table.

When he arrived at his stop, it was dusk. Insects shrilled and his grandmother was waiting at the door. Bad things pass, good things pass, she would tell him. He kissed her cheek, breathed her aroma of rosemary and smoke; she’d spent the afternoon preparing bouquets of dried herbs. Abuela headed back to the smoke-darkened kitchen, where she stirred the roiling pot of frijoles. He picked up a tortilla hot from the comal and tore off small sections, savoring the singed edges. Lining her walls were puffed seedpods, fragrant leaves tied in bunches, vials of amber-colored liquid. She made teas for lactation, pregnancy, spontaneous abortion; salves for bruises, cuts, and burns. Women came to her daily, heads bowed, muttering thanks, and dropped coins and bills into a glass jar. Candles burned around statuettes; the Virgin surveyed all, expectant, forgiving, hands extended beneath her sky-blue veil. Abuela served two plates and Manuel told her about the day’s events as they ate. There, she said to him, a sick man who eats surely won’t die.

When the fire turned to ash and he’d drained his coffee, Manuel retired to his cot behind the curtain in the far corner of the house. Lying down, he gazed through the rafters at the clay tiles of the roof. Many were cracked, others were shrouded in the webs of spiders, some sprouted weeds. Each tile held the imprint of its maker. He’d seen his grandfather take the fresh clay slab and mold it over his thigh. Our bodies leave marks, Manuel thought. Our bodies are marked. Abuela moved in the candlelight, gathering the ingredients to heal him.

Manuel knew this ritual. To be rid of the evil eye, you must first chew mint and tobacco leaves steeped in cane liquor. Bathe in this mixture and then rub it over your entire body, especially hands and feet. Pass an egg over your head, and all that is bad will be contained in that egg. When you put it in a glass of water, the egg will become red. Lying on his side, Manuel regarded the floating red egg while Abuela rubbed his foot with coconut oil. Every now and then, she whispered something to him. The way to overcome pain is to soar through it. Don’t hover. Her strong hands massaged away his anger. He faded to sleep as she recited the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.

Hours later, a thud on the door. He heard his grandmother shushing, pleading with a man’s slurred voice. Manuel shot up, pulled the string to the bare bulb overhead, and took eleven long steps from his cot to her thin figure straining to keep the door shut. Her hair, loosened from its long braid, hung like a white mantle over her shoulders. Hijo, go. You are not doing good to yourself or anybody in this state. His father again, stumbling in at the witching hour. And just as Manuel realized that he had not locked the iron grating, his father burst in, reeking and surveying the room as he wavered between plunging backwards onto the sill and plowing forward. Manuel stood as still as a pane of glass when his father approached him, rubbing his eyes with his fists. Was it a moan, an accusation? There was no understanding his father’s words—Mark this place, erase this place, he said, and sat in a slump at the table, lowering his head beside Manuel’s empty dinner plate.

Had Abuela reached over to soothe his back, perhaps he would have fallen asleep and, in the morning’s light, might have been Sorry, sorry. But she stood in the frame of the open door, still as a statue in a shrine. His father stood and began hurling plates on the floor, glass votives against the wall. Abuela stepped closer to the wood-burning stove, and just as his father started toward her, Manuel charged him, forcing him through the open doorway, onto the street.

In the quiet afterward, the shards swept away and the grate locked, Abuela touched the feet of Jesus, passed her hands over the holy cards taped to the wall, and lit a candle. Manuel slept soundly. At dawn, the roof creaked and the walls groaned. A tremor—three quick jolts, the earth pulling tight at the end of the dry season. The statue of the Virgin knocked against the wall and fell from her ledge. Abuela’s hands flew up like startled birds, and to soothe her, Manuel said he would fix it, not to worry. His foot was still tender, swirled yellow and blue, swollen like a ripe mango. He left his boot unlaced and walked outside, where he passed his father asleep on the curb, a scruffy dog sniffing at his shoes. Manuel grinned, thinking, It will be a fine day.

At the tiendita he bought pega loca, the kind the street kids huff in plastic bags, crazy eyes glazed beneath nests of matted hair. Sad boys always made him want to turn away. You can’t will them to survive, you can’t will someone to fly away, he thought. You can’t even will someone to let you help. Back home, he tore the package open and mended the statue of the Virgin, gluing her bare feet and crescent moon onto the upraised arms of the angel. He handed it to his grandmother with a kiss and headed to the bus stop roundabout.

Halfway into his shift, Manuel saw the Land Rover turn into the lot. The door opened and the driver got out, gold chain and sunglasses glinting as he opened the back door for a blond woman. Manuel spat. The gringa of the chocolate eggs. As she walked into the store and smiled, he gripped the shotgun’s strap, watching the spinning wheels of her cart. Would one of the checkout girls tell the gringa about his foot?

Leaning against the maquilishuat, he stared at the fallen blossoms, the pale open-mouthed blooms, the glistening splotches of those ground into the cement. He closed his eyes, heard her heels clicking, and raised his head. She was addressing him in Spanish, but the words sounded squashed and pulled. PerDON, she said. PerDON. The driver would apologize, she told him, and the man moved to stand in front of him, blocking Manuel’s gaze. Manuel was surprised to hear his name; the driver had removed his sunglasses and was regarding him steadily. Army background for sure, the kind of hardcore military-trained bodyguard who looked down on him, a mere cardboard cutout of a guard. Manuel turned his face. Hombre, sorry, I didn’t realize, the man said, and reached out, gripped Manuel’s shoulder. Hey, sorry, okay? La Miss, she wants to take you to the hospital to get your foot checked. They insisted until finally the gringa asked the manager and he said yes, go because it is lunch.

Manuel got into the front. In the back the woman was speaking English on the phone and paused for a moment to smile and say, Hola, okay, gracias, and to the driver, Vamos. Blacktop, piano music, and air conditioning—Manuel imagined this is what outer space must be like. He was dozing when a small gasp came from the back. Please, despacio! Slow! the gringa called out to the driver. The gringa was photographing a family riding on a motorcycle, a toddler braced against the handlebars, the father steering and, behind him, a boy gripped onto his waist, the mother sidesaddle, her shiny black hair wild in the wind. Helmets not even an afterthought, a family traveling happily along the Salvadoran highway. This was pure fairy tale, an image anyone would like to keep. Manuel closed his eyes and felt the car float over the asphalt.

In the doctor’s office he observed the linoleum, the woodpaneled walls the color of cucaracha wings. The place wore a smile like a false promise. At first the gringa had done all the talking but she didn’t know his full name, so he had to stand next to her as the secretary called out questions he was thankful he knew the answers to. Across from him, a watery-eyed man in a neck brace watched a TV hanging in the corner. Little girls asked questions in squeaky cartoon voices. A boy with an arm cast batted at the plastic flowers in a vase; a woman with a huge pregnant belly called over, Cht, cht, cht, and told him to stop. The stuffing was coming out of the broken plastic seat, and Manuel willed his hands not to pick at it. They were waiting for an X-ray but he didn’t know what an X-ray was, and was too embarrassed to ask.

The gringa sat cross-legged, her huge purse on her lap, smiling, as if everything she ever needed she had right there, clasped in her hands. Manuel studied the lady sitting next to him, her flower-print shirt pulled tight against her pregnant belly, her nails painted red, her feet clean and smooth in her sandals. The boy kept fidgeting and the mom kept shushing him. And finally they called Manuel’s name. He looked at the gringa’s eyes and felt a flash in his chest. She nodded, waved her hands, Go, go, go, and he followed the nurse inside.

A technician led him to another room. He asked Manuel to lie on a table and covered him with a heavy blanket. A sharp square of light shone down on his leg and the technician lowered the giant eye of a machine. He said, Don’t move, stay just like that, then disappeared. Manuel braced himself, clenched his eyes shut. What would happen? Silence of Judgment Day, the moment before lightning strikes? He heard a beep and the technician’s voice came through a speaker, telling him to move his leg flat. Another beep, and the voice said he could see the doctor now.

The doctor reached out from his large wooden desk to greet Manuel. Above him the Virgin watched over a crowd of children, her face full of love and patience. Framed documents with gold lettering, seals, and signatures penned the Virgin in, and fluorescent light illuminated every inch. It lit up the gringa’s blond hair, too, as she sat watching from an angled chair. It seemed to Manuel that everybody was perched on their own shelves.

When the doctor handed him a bottle of pills from a glass cabinet and explained that they were for pain, Manuel ran his finger over the words, a file of smashed ants. He would never take the pills. The pain he’d already soared through. Now he was standing on the lip of something, an open space spread out before him. He looked at his lap, his limp brown hands.

The doctor swept a giant white envelope from his desk, took out a black sheet, and clipped it to a board on the wall. It came alive with the flip of a switch. Manuel had seen a skeleton before. One day in grade school El Chivo was fooling around with a slingshot; high above the banana leaves, the outline of a large bird preened on a wire. Taunted by El Chivo, Manuel swore he could hit it. The rock whipped across the treetops, the bird fell, and El Chivo hooted and yipped. The stunned hawk lay on a humus of dried leaves, its eye bloodied and feathers matted. Leave that shit to die, El Chivo said. But Manuel picked up the bird with his bare hands, perched it on a low branch, and watched as it stared back at him with its one good eye. A week later Manuel returned to find the hawk picked clean into neat sections of feather and bone. He thought then of his neighbor’s body dragged from the ditch, a limp doll, dogs smeared on the highways like old rags, but his bones were nothing like that. In the shining box Manuel saw the proof—glowing, alive, his foot a white, haloed wing.

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Alexandra Lytton Regalado is a Salvadoran-American writer, editor, translator, and educator. Her books include the poetry collections Relinquenda (Beacon Press, 2022), winner of the National Poetry Series, and Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). She cofounded the press Kalina and is assistant editor at swwim.org. (updated 4/2024)

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