It is late in the evening…late at least for Quito, a city not known for its nightlife. The city lights climb skyward in all directions before disappearing into the clouds. Frigid air tumbles down the surrounding mountains. There is a five-year-old boy walking down Amazonas Avenue toward the heart of the city. His feet hurt. His name is Paco, but his friends call him Paquito. His mom used to call him that, too. The man he is walking with calls him Paquete.
He passes the bullfighting arena coated with a fresh layer of orange paint. In a few weeks, in celebration of the founding of Quito, the gates will open and the matadors will arrive with great fanfare, wearing vests with sparkling trim. Everyone will converge on this normally quiet street corner: hat vendors, musicians, drunks, tourists, drunk tourists. There will be either raucous cheers when the bull, already dying, is finished off after putting up a courageous fight, or gasps from the audience when a bullfighter is impaled by a thrashing horn. Paco is looking forward to this weeklong celebration. He won’t have to walk so far.
The streets are treacherous at night. They can also be dangerous during the day as overfilled buses weave through jammed lanes, scouring the crumbling curbs for the stranded, but this danger is obvious and the crowds of people ambling about on the sidewalks know better than to stray into the streets. At night, the barren roads are as duplicitous as a river that’s calm on the surface but hides dangerous undertows below. Cars can appear out of nowhere, swerving wildly about the lanes. Traffic lights and stop signs are interpreted as recommendations rather than rules, and if a collision appears imminent, drivers don’t slow down but instead tap their horns in fair warning. Paco worries because he is invisible.
Of course he knows this is not completely true. The man he is walking with sees him and watches closely to make sure he doesn’t wander away. And of course the people in the cars can probably see him; they are just not aware of him. Paco blends into the landscape, no more significant than a lamppost. He walks among other invisibles: emaciated dogs, waifish old ladies, and men with missing limbs. Paco can see them all and he smiles as he passes them, because though he is invisible, he is not as unlucky as they are.
“Paquete!” his companion snaps. “Recuerda a tu mamá.”
At the next corner a pair of teenage boys races out into the middle of the street when a few obedient cars stop at a red light. One boy juggles three grey tennis balls while the other somersaults between the juggler’s legs and then jumps to his feet smiling and clapping his hands between the flying balls in a comic attempt to distract his partner. The acrobat climbs atop the juggler’s shoulders, and one by one intercepts the balls until he is now the juggler, though he lacks the control of his partner. A ball falls to the ground before the light turns green, and the boy leaps off his partner’s shoulders and scrambles to fetch it. Despite the error, the boys still grin and take a melodramatic bow. A lady in a fuming Mazda lets a wrinkled bill flutter out her window, and the boys pounce on the money before it floats away.
While jugglers and acrobats are entertaining, Paco dreams one day of pouring gasoline in his mouth and spitting it over a lighter’s flame, producing a glamorous fireball. These teenage performers are magnificent like dragons and inspire the most awe—and tips—from spectators. There are other performers Paco admires, like this toothless man sitting on the bench playing his rondador. He blows out a familiar tune—El Chulla Quiteño. It’s the only song he ever plays, but people don’t seem to notice or care. A few golden and silver coins lie scattered in the warped hat at his side. Paco wishes he could produce these peculiar, birdlike sounds, but he has no rondador. He pauses to listen and smiles at the performer before being slapped by the man he’s been walking with. His face stings. He is not supposed to smile. The rondador player notices none of this because Paco is invisible to him, too.
Nearby, a woman wearing a dark felt hat over her long, braided black hair stoops over a garbage can, poking through trash with a snapped piece of rebar. She is invisible. Paco can tell because of the indigenous disguise she wears. She murmurs a song in a voice that he finds familiar, and he pauses mid-step to catch another view of her face. Her coarse, craquelured skin, imperceptible lips, and toothless mouth are ultimately foreign to him and he’s disappointed.
The woman, not finding anything worthwhile, moves on with a tortured limp to fish through the next can. She seems ancient, but a man once revealed to Paco that working the streets adds ten years to one’s age. This idea excites Paco. If it is true, his days of spitting fire are not so distant.
Paco’s feet hurt, and now he is thirsty. The man tugs at his arm, pulling him to continue as they approach Carolina Park. In a vast city of lights, it is two kilometers of terrifying darkness. Paco has heard stories of children walking into the park and never appearing again, as if they were swallowed by the blackness. They pass the vivarium with the fat, fanged snake painted on the wall. He imagines the snakes escaping their cages at night to roam the park, and he worries an anaconda will slither by, crush his bones, and devour him. Mysterious noises scatter then converge, and he hears rustling in the grass and overhead. He races ahead of his companion, eager to return to the light. In the near distance he sees the pyramidal hotel with blocks of light stepping down from its point and casting a glow on the palm trees lined below in an orderly row. The grass is manicured and the sidewalks smooth, and after ten kilometers of walking, Paco knows he is close.
A blister opens up between his toes, but the pain is distant. The churning in his stomach is all he notices. His lips are dry and crusty. The aroma of roasted chicken, pizza, shawarmas, and other foreign smells are ripe in the air. He licks his lips.
They approach La Mariscal, an area filled with swank restaurants, active bars, nightclubs, and drunken revelers. The man points at a light-skinned couple seated at a table outside an Arabian hookah bar. He puts two packets of gum and a package of cigarettes in Paco’s coat pocket and pushes the boy in the direction of the bar.
Paco nears the couple’s table. They’re speaking a language he doesn’t understand, but he expects this. Everyone in La Mariscal is a foreigner. He hesitates. The young woman has glossy brown hair and a trimmed rose tucked behind her ear, but the man transfixes Paco. He has never seen a man with such orange hair, and it seems as if fire pours out of the man’s nose and drips from his ears and mouth down his chin and neck. Paco straightens, pulls out a pack of cigarettes and approaches. The man sees him and nods. Paco pounds the pack into the palm of his hand, flips the lid open and partially lifts out a cigarette. The man takes it and puts it in his mouth, letting it bounce about his lips. Paco offers a lighter, holding it out like a gentleman, and cups his hand around the flame waiting for the man to draw in the heat and puff out the first ball of smoke.
“Cincuenta centavos,” Paco says, holding out his hand.
The man gives him a dollar, and Paco fights back a smile. He pulls out the pack of gum and places it on the table. The foreigners shake their heads and divert their attention away from him, but they’re silent while they wait for him to disappear. He doesn’t leave but instead takes a small step backwards, clasps his hands behind his back and stares attentively until someone finds his eyes again. Finally, the woman glances at Paco but speaks to the red-headed man seated across from her. Paco listens, scavenging for familiar words.
“He’s still there, Matt. Did you pay him enough?”
“Yeah. I gave him a dollar. He only asked for fifty cents.” He turns to Paco and says gracias as he waves him away.
“Don’t shoo him like he’s a mosquito. Buy some gum from him. He did such a good job.”
“And what about that little girl over there?” he mutters. “Are you going to make me buy you another rose?”
“We already bought from her.”
“No. It’s a different girl.”
“Just buy it.”
Matt’s fingers dance over the gum, and he contorts his face and twitches his bushy eyebrows.
“Don’t tease him.”
“I’m not teasing him, Jessica. I’m deciding.” Matt scratches his chin and curls the tips of his mustache. He makes his ears dance up and down.
Paco can’t hold the giggle back and it fizzes from his lips like soda from a shaken bottle. He covers his mouth, hoping his companion watching him from the street corner did not see.
Matt searches his wallet. “All I have is a twenty. You have a dollar?” he asks Jessica.
“No. My host family told me I shouldn’t carry money on me if I can avoid it.”
“Then what’s the purse for?”
“Stuff. My phone, my keys…just stuff. Ask him for change.”
“I’m not asking him for change.” He puts his wallet away.
Paco slumps his shoulders. He wonders if a careless remnant of a smile still lingers on his face, and he pushes his lower lip upward to exaggerate a frown. He tries to remember his mother, but the thoughts are dry.
Jessica removes an apple from her purse and looks to Matt. “Can I at least give him this?”
Matt shrugs and stamps out his cigarette.
Paco tentatively accepts the apple but doesn’t know whether to eat it there or wait. He decides it’s safer to put it in his pocket.
“He’s still there,” Jessica says.
“Just ignore him. Don’t look at him. Eventually he’ll go away.”
Jessica sucks in a puff of the hookah’s flavorful smoke and sighs. She passes the hose to Matt.
Matt closes his eyes and lets the smoke inhabit his body before speaking. “Have you talked to your boyfriend lately?”
“I just…I can’t tell him right now.” Jessica fidgets in her seat. “He’s still watching me.”
“How? He’s in freakin’ Oregon!”
“I’m talking about the kid. Why won’t he leave?”
“I’m sensing you have trouble getting boys out of your life. Just don’t pay attention to him. Trust me, eventually he will go away.”
Jessica places her hands together as if to pray, then opens her palms toward her face, and presses her fingers to her scalp, stretching the skin on her forehead. She looks to Paco, whose legs are now shivering. “My God, look at his foot! It’s bleeding through his shoe!”
“What do you want to do about it? Do you have a spare shoe?”
“Just give him something,” Jessica says as she pushes her chair away from the table. She grabs her purse and disappears inside the hookah bar.
Matt smiles at Paco. “Niño, no mas. Lo siento. No mas. Dame tus manos.” Paco holds out his hands and squeezes his eyes, hoping to force something out of them. Matt returns the package of gum into Paco’s hands and closes the tiny fingers around it.
Feeling empty and betrayed by the indispositions of his heart, Paco leaves the patio of the hookah bar and returns to the street corner where his companion has been spying him. He gives the man the dollar but can’t keep his hand from crawling about his pocket. His fingers dig into the apple until they’re moist with juice. When he pulls out his hand and lifts it to his mouth to lick his fingers, the man grabs Paco’s wrist and stops him. He surrenders the apple, and the man takes it and turns it over in his hand as if inspecting it. He holds it out, but only to tease the boy, because when Paco reaches for it, the man yanks it away and then hurls it against the wall. The mushy remains slide to the ground. Paco begins to cry. The man smiles and before the tears dry, pushes his little package to the next mark.
This time Paco comes back with five dollars. The bearded man pictured on the bill looks like no man he’s ever known or seen, but he seems to be looking proudly back at Paco. Feeling like a king holding such a large bill, he presents it to his companion who buys him a stick of roasted corn and gives him twenty-five cents from his pocket. It’s the first time Paco has received money for his efforts. Now, he’s a worker. He smiles briefly before returning to his normal face. Deep down, though, he is happy.