(Note: due to formatting issues I couldn’t resolve, I strongly recommend reading on a laptop or tablet instead of a phone.)
The rain pounded.
Metallic staccato rhythms quickly gave way to a thunderous deluge as the sky fell upon the ridged aluminum sheet held up by overturned boxes. Huddled under the sheet, which sufficed to keep us relatively dry, my younger brothers and I watched streams of rainwater pour off the grooves in their makeshift roof, a waterfall veiling us from the outside world. In the sparse gaps in the watery veil, I could see sheets of rain, drops falling thick and heavy in puddles and rivulets that thrummed with the downpour.
“¡Mira!” Carlos, my youngest brother, tugged on my sleeve, pointing to the left wall of our hovel. Calling it a wall might have been an overstatement. We always had to crouch in our shed, even little Carlos; the two walls to either side of us were only three feet high and scrapped together from what useful garbage we could find in el dompe. Wooden boxes, stuffed with old newspapers, crumpled aluminum cans, and womens’ panties – all now sopping with rainwater – might have kept the wind at bay, but not the little trickles of water that pooled around the base of the walls, turning our dry dirt floor to mud as the pools seeped closer to us. The back wall was not our own construction; we simply built the rest of our house around the back, a heaping mound of garbage so dense that not even rats tried to make it a home. At least, none that we had seen.
“Las paredes no detienen la lluvia! Nos vamos a ahogar.” Carlos gripped my arm, and I enveloped him in a hug, pulling him back from the leaky wall.
“Estamos bien, Carlos,” I said. A sharp crack thunder overhead made him squeeze my arm harder, and I gently rocked him.
“The walls aren’t keeping the rain out! We’re gonna drown.“
“We’re fine, Carlos.”
The rain pounded.
“La tormenta va a pasar,” Eduardo said as he stared out through the rivulets to sheets upon sheets of pouring rain.
“¡O lleva nuestra casa y nos ahoga!” Jorge had a mischievous gleam in his eye when he spoke, and his threat on the storm’s behalf did nothing to calm Carlos.
“¡Ey! Basta ya, Jorge.” Eduardo gently backhanded him. Jorge, the youngest besides Carlos, loved nothing more than stirring up trouble. A trait I might have appreciated or shared if I hadn’t been the oldest in the family. That meant I was responsible for their safety, and that meant I needed them not to worry.
“Digo.” Jorge tucked his knees up under his chin and wrapped his arms around himself, his jeans and sweatshirt all muddy and dusty from months in el dompe. However, he didn’t make any more threatening suggestions. For a time, we were silent.
“The storm will move on.”
“Or sweep away our house and drown us all!”
“Hey! Knock it off, Jorge.”
The rain pounded.
Carlos whimpered in my side. It was clear my little brother needed comfort, and not from Jorge.
“Eduardo tiene razón,” I said at length. “La tormenta va a pasar. Siempre pasan. Y la lluvia es buena para las plantas.”
“¿Que plantas?” Carlos demanded. “Por acá las unicas cosas verdes son basura, basura, basura. Y las malas hierbas.”
“Eduardo is right. The storm is gonna pass. They always do. And the rain is good for the plants.”
“What plants? Around here the only green things are trash, trash, trash. And weeds.”
I couldn’t say he was wrong, but that was a dismal way of viewing the world. Not that I had any brighter ideas. We were living in a cramped hole under an aluminum sheet in the middle of a landfill. Our padre had vanished a few months ago, probably to drink without Mamá yelling at him. As for Mamá, she dropped us off on the streets just a month ago, as nearly as I could count without a calendar. She said to go buy some food from la tienda, but when we came back to the parking lot, she was gone. We waited there for hours, and by night we knew she wasn’t planning to return. We were on our own.
At least we had food, or we did until some toughs jumped us. They left me and Eduardo with black eyes, broken noses, bruised ribs, and no food. It didn’t help that Carlos had cried all night on his empty stomach, and Jorge was mad at us for losing the food. We wandered the streets for a week. We avoided feral dogs and thugs as best as we could, stole what food we dared, and me and Eduardo earned a few more beatings in the process.
Finally, we found our way to el dompe. Here, we found a people and a landscape so decrepit and miserable that not even vulturous thugs would frequent its stinking hills. Maybe it was because everyone was so desolate, but there was a strange sense of brotherhood in el dompe. In those first days we quickly learned who to stay away from and who to ask for spare food. Eduardo and I talked late one night while Jorge and Carlos slept under a discarded poncho sized for an obese American. I had hesitated, but Eduardo brought up good points. There was enough scrap food that we wouldn’t starve. We could scrounge the heaping mounds of trash for essentials. The people here weren’t hostile towards us, physically at least. We could make something of ourselves in el dompe.
So we settled down. We found a steep pile of trash and built two walls and a roof.
And now the rain pounded.
A sharp crack of lightning illuminated the world outside, the growl of thunder bringing me back to the present. And to Carlos sniffling in my arms. I could feel his tears damp on my shirtsleeve, and I knew that I couldn’t tell him that I shared his bleak outlook. He didn’t need me to agree with his fear. He needed me to point beyond it.
“Tienes razón, Carlos,” I said. “Por acá las cosas hay pura basura y malas hierbas. Pero con bastante lluvia, es posible que las flores crezcan.”
“You’re right, Carlos. The only things around here are trash and weeds. But with enough rain, maybe flowers can grow.”
Eduardo glanced over at me as he leaned back against one of the wooden crates, our eyes sharing silent agreement to play the optimists, regardless of our own views. God alone knew what Jorge would say, but at least I knew I could count on Eduardo to try to keep their spirits up.
Our dirt floor sopped with mud as dirty water kept trickling in, and in, and in. Eduardo adjusted his position leaning against the wall, but quickly gave up on remaining entirely dry. Jorge hugged his knees, and Carlos crawled into my lap. We were all wet, and would likely get wetter before it stopped. I used to enjoy the smell of fresh rain, but not in el dompe, where it was saturated with far less wholesome smells. Thunder rumbled lowly in the distance, and our aluminum roof rang with pattering drops. I rested my arms on Carlos’s compact figure, gazing through the deluge and into nothing.
The rain pounded.
* * *
I must have dozed off.
The constant drone of rain seemed to have that effect on me, but when I finally woke up, el dompe glistened wet before me in the lazy afternoon light, the sun glimmering on puddles and droplets of water that trickled off our aluminum roof.
“Finalmente,” I said. “Se está parando la lluvia. Voy a encontrar comida.”
“Sí, Chacho,” Eduardo said. “Vamos contigo.”
“Finally, the rain’s let up. I’m gonna go find food.”
“Okay, Chacho. We’ll come with you.”
I stifled a groan. Eduardo was eleven, four years younger than me. He could be helpful in el dompe, but Jorge and Carlos – seven and five, respectively – never failed to complicate things. If they came, I would have to spend more time keeping them out of trouble than I could afford. I wanted to find food as quickly as possible, not play baby-sitter. And if they came with me, it was possible that someone would steal our hovel before we got back.
At the same time, though… I looked down at Carlos, his fuzzy head resting on my leg. The younger ones could use some exercise.
“Bien,” I finally snapped. “Vámonos.”
“Voy a mirarlos,” Eduardo reassured me as the younger two rushed past us, one chasing the other through the yellow mud and over a pile of garbage.
“Bien. Voy a buscar comida,” I said. “No vayas lejos. Y ten cuidado por los perros salvajes.”
“Lo voy a hacer con cuidado,” Eduardo nodded, hefting a stick. It was too short to use as a staff, but it was sturdy wood, capable of fending off a feral dog. “Me voy a quedar cerca de ellos.”
“Fine. Let’s go.”
“I’ll watch them.”
“Fine. I’ll look for food. Don’t go far. And watch out for feral dogs.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“And I’ll stay close to the kids.”
Eduardo set off at a lope after our younger brothers.
I followed, scanning the heaps of garbage around us for a glimpse of anything useful or edible. I pulled my windbreaker tighter. The storm may have passed – I could see the dark thunderclouds off in the distance, still flickering with heat lightning and the faintest groan of thunder – but the wind whistled cold through el dompe. It stirred up hundreds of plastic bags and old food wrappers, each swirling on the wind and releasing showers of rainwater as they cascaded through the air.
I batted a plastic bag out of my face, grimacing at the stench the wind brought. El dompe had an odor I doubted I’d ever get used to: stale urine and sour manure; flea-infested mange-ridden dogs; rotten food past the point of being edible, let alone savory; and of course gull poop. I saw the gulls as we rounded a heap of trash. Thousands of them picking their way over the tallest mountain of rubbish in el dompe. The center of the landfill was some fifty feet tall, and if I believed everything I heard there were people who said the mound used to be a canyon a hundred feet deep, or deeper, before people started throwing their trash in it.
I’ve heard that mountains far away have snowy peaks in the winter, but this mountain of trash is the only one I’ve ever seen. Its crown was not snow, but a white-and-grey flurry of feathers, seagulls diving and soaring and fighting over scrap food and shrieking in their hollow, squeaking caws.
My tennis shoe squished in a mud puddle. I winced, mad at myself for having forgotten to watch my step. After the rain, most everything was wet, but there were troughs of water that swarms of mosquitoes had already taken to, and these could have been avoided if I’d only watched where I was walking. I could feel the lukewarm water seeping into my socks and soaking the cuff of my filthy jeans.
“¡Mira!” I heard Eduardo call. I jogged around another mound of garbage to find him pointing to two garbage trucks in the distance, plowing through mud and trash alike with engines bellowing louder than any bull. A cluster of boys ranging in age from little Carlos to Eduardo ran alongside the trucks, and every few moments one of the boys would break off from the knot to run up and leap at the truck, hands scrabbling along the iron chassis before the boy fell face-first in the mud. On rare occasion, a boy managed to latch on to some handhold, and the others’ insults would give way to cheers as the boy rode along the outside of the truck for a few yards before dropping off and trotting back to his admirers, his face flushed with thrill.
“¿Que crees, Chacho?” Eduardo looked up at me, his face shining with eagerness. Jorge and Carlos looked equally excited.
“¡Ey, no digas eso!” Eduardo persisted. “¡Será divertido! Sabes que lo harías mejor que todos.”
“¡No!” I said again, with a little more force. “Es peligroso. Concéntrate en encontrar comida.”
“What do you think, Chacho?”
“Oh, come on! It’d be fun! You know you’d do better than all of them.”
“No! It’s dangerous. Focus on finding food.”
Jorge and Carlos voiced their protests as well, but I tried to insist on staying focused on our task. However, Eduardo knew I was outvoted three to one. A devilish grin on his face, he led them down the muddy hill to the trucks. Sighing, I followed.
When they saw us, the other niños hurled insults and obscenities at us, for no discernable reason other than we weren’t part of them. I have to admit, once they talked to us that way I wanted to show them up, dangerous or not.
Eduardo took the lead, marching up to the boys. “Cállate, gacho, ¿no crees que yo pueda coger el próximo camión en mi primer intento?”
“Ni lo sueñes, cabrón,” the tallest boy answered.
“Shut up, idiot, you don’t think I can catch the truck on my first try?”
“In your dreams, dumbass.”
A garbage truck slogged around a heap of plastic bags and human waste, barrelling towards us with slow inevitability. Eduardo waved for the other boys to stand back, then, as the truck churned past us, he ran at the gigantic iron hull. The mud sucked at his shoes, but on he ran, pulling his feet high with each step, arms flailing in an almost comical gait as he sprinted. Finally, he leapt – my breath caught in my throat – Eduardo smashed into the truck, sliding along its surface for a moment before he grabbed a metal rung and hoisted himself up. One hand tight on the truck, he raised his other fist and whooped.
The boys ran after him, feet squishing in the mud as they called after him, shouting taunts and compliments equally. Finally, Eduardo hopped off the truck, splatting in the mud and showering some of the closest boys in the stuff.
“¿Ya ves? ¡Lo hice! ¿Cómo es esto para un cabrón?” Eduardo asked, shooting a smirk at the taller boy. Carlos and Jorge whooped and shouted, running up to stand defiant by Eduardo, feeling themselves important by association.
“Bien hecho, mano,” I said. I walked up to him, lowering my voice so the other dompe boys wouldn’t hear. “Te divertiste verdad, ahorita vámonos.”
Eduardo nodded, and looked past me to the gang. “Ya regreso,” he said. “Mejor que practiquen más si quieren alcanzarme.”
“See that? I did it! How’s that for a dumbass?”
“Good job, bro. You had your fun, now let’s go.”
“I’ll be back. You’d best practice more if you wanna keep up with me.”
We left the boys and pressed deeper into el dompe, the shadow of the seagull-crowned mountain engulfing us as the sun sank behind it. The wind hadn’t died down, and in the distance thunderclouds still rumbled, but the sunset painted the sky a dull pink-orange as we walked through the shadows cast by heaps of garbage.
We rounded the corner of a heap of wood and cardboard boxes, all soaked from rain. We were nearly upon the man when he moaned.
Carlos screamed, Jorge grabbed Eduardo in shock, and we all took a couple steps back as the man’s head lolled over and looked up at us. He was half-buried in mud; more than likely he hadn’t found shelter when the rains came. He had old clothes so faded and dirty that it was impossible to tell what color they had once been. His frizzy grey beard was caked with dried mud and blood and vomit, and when he opened his mouth he had only four visible teeth. His hair matched his beard, but he had a receding hairline that emphasized the many creases on his forehead. A deep gash ran across his forehead and over his temple. It was oozing pus, and he had a deep purple bruise under his left eye that made his saggy, wrinkled skin even uglier. His left eyelid kept sagging down over his eye, but the right one stared at us, unblinking.
He had a half-eaten dona in one hand, no doubt from those sketchy gringo missionaries, but he seemed not to notice that flies were now devouring what was left.
“¿Han pedido?” he finally asked us, his voice rasping like a sick frog. Before I could answer, his eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and he muttered, “No les hablo, no les hablo, les pegas como los otros.”
“¿Alguien te pega?” Jorge asked, still half-hiding behind Eduardo.
“Sí. Sí, sí. Sí. Alguien me pega. No arraga mi comida. No arraga mi comida.” As he talked, the man’s good eye drifted closed, but suddenly it snapped open again.
“Tengo hambre. ¿Tienes comida?”
“La estamos encontrando ahora,” I said, stepping between my brothers and the man. “Sin embargo, tienes una dona. No necesitas más comida.”
“Necesita más – necesito más – comida. Aguacates.” The man looked up at me, smiling at me with his four grotesque yellow teeth.
“Don’t talk to ’em, don’t talk to ’em, they’ll beat you up like the others.”
“Someone beat you up?”
“Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Someone beat me up. Didn’t even take my food. Didn’t take my food.”
“I’m hungry. Do you have food?”
“We’re looking for some now.”
“But you have a donut. You don’t need more food.”
“I need more – need more – food. Avocados.”
Carlos pushed past me and, before I realized what was happening, he had crouched down next to the man and was talking with him.
“¿Debe encontrar comida con nosotros?” he said.
“Why don’t you look for food with us?”
The man bobbed his head. I looked over at Eduardo. His face reflected my own: I didn’t want this man anywhere near the younger boys. Even if he helped us find food, how did we know he wouldn’t just take it later?
“Carlos, te replegas,” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder and steering him back towards our other brothers.
“Encuentro comida. Es que necesito, y un fuego para tener calor con los niñitos,” the man said, seeming only half-aware that I was standing there. I wanted to just leave him there, but Carlos seemed to like him, and the man had already taken to the thought of finding food with us.
“¿Nos ayudarás o no?” I demanded. “Si nos ayuda, te levantas y vámonos.”
“Carlos, move back.”
” I’ll find food. That’s what I need, and a fire to warm up with the little boys. “
“You gonna help us or not? If you’re gonna help, get up and let’s go.”
In the deepening shadows, the man struggled free of the mud and pushed himself up with his left arm. His right arm looked swollen and inflamed, brown flesh puffy and babyish.
I stepped back, and it took all my willpower not to gag. All the smells of el dompe seemed to pour from this one man: the human waste, rotten food, maggots, and dying animals all at once seemed to seep from his soiled clothes and his breath.
He stood with a stoop, but was still a bit taller than me. “¡Van a te doler! No, son amigos, voy a encontrar comida.” He looked at me. “¡Comemos!”
“They’re just gonna hurt you! No, they’re friends, you’re gonna find food. Let’s eat!”
* * *
We headed back towards our shack, a meager dinner with us. We found an unopened bag of bread thrown out from la tienda, three days expired and slightly moldy on the bottom but untouched by maggots. We also found a discarded tupperware container with some cooked chicken in it, a delicacy as far as I was concerned. Well, we didn’t exactly find it; one of the ladies living in el dompe found it while she was looking for food, and she gave it to us since she already found everything she needed.
El dompe was strange like that. On one hand, everyone looked out for themselves with a ferociously territorial aggression. On the other hand, because everyone was equally desolate, you could always find people who were willing to give out whatever excess they happened to have.
When we got home, I checked to be sure that an old tin I had turned up had collected enough rainwater for us to drink. We sat down in a circle and I doled out the food, giving the older man the moldier pieces of bread and less chicken. He didn’t complain vocally, but he muttered to himself a bit. The chicken was cold and tough, and the bread was stale, but it was better than anything we’d had in the past week.
After dinner, Eduardo looked around for dry wood for a fire while the man and I pulled some aluminum sheets together to make a bigger shelter. He only used his left arm, his right hanging uselessly at his side, but he was plenty strong even with only one arm. He kept talking to himself, and it was hard for me to figure out when he was trying to talk to me. I only caught bits and pieces; he seemed to keep saying the names of three women over and over, and once he nearly scared me out of my skin when he shrieked and batted at empty air, muttering something about un diablo. Eventually, though, he instructed me on how to prop the aluminum sheets up. He asked for some nails, and when Carlos came back with a handful, he drove them through weaker points in the aluminum and lashed the sheets together with rusty copper wire.
“¿Te gusta?” the man asked, grinning at me with that ugly smile of his.
“You like it?”
I nodded. We finished well after sundown, so I couldn’t admire our handiwork well in the near-darkness, but the aluminum walls and ceiling were tall enough for me to stand in without ducking, and though it creaked and wobbled at times, it didn’t fall over, held in place with some wooden boards stuck in the mud.
“Buen aspecto,” I told him. “Gracias.”
“It looks good. Thank you.”
He had already moved off into the trash heaps, looking for ponchos and blankets to mat the floor down and keep us warm.
Eduardo got a small campfire going just outside the entrance to our new shelter. Old newspapers smoked and sputtered, wet as they were, but Eduardo finally got weak flames to spread to some dry wood he had managed to find. The fire wasn’t as warm as I had hoped, but far better than the night air alone.
It wasn’t long before the man returned with a bundle of blankets and sleeping bags under his arm, a couple of them trailing in the mud. He set about arranging them under the roof, but couldn’t manage it very well as he only had one good arm. Jorge and Carlos helped him, laughing at his tendency to talk to himself.
“¿Que piensas?” Eduardo asked, sitting down next to me as I stared into the weak flames.
“Los hermanitos le gusta,” I said.
“What do you think?”
“The kids like him.”
“He’s a nutcase.”
“Sí,” I agreed. The man wasn’t all here, that much was obvious, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to leave. He’d done too much to help us. There was no way I could’ve made that shelter by myself, and even Eduardo wasn’t big enough to help me the way he did. Maybe having him around wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
I voiced my thoughts to Eduardo, who grunted a grudging agreement. We glanced into the dark aluminum shed, listening to our brothers laughing along with the grating, muddy cackle of the man.
“Sin embargo, atufa,” Eduardo said.
“Somos en el dompe, mano, nos atufamos también.”
“He stinks, though.”
“We’re in the dump, bro, we stink too.”
It was true, though; he stank. Badly. Far worse than any of us did. Still, if anyone ever tried to mess with us, they’d think twice purely from the man’s repulsive odor and appearance. And he hadn’t done anything to hurt any of us. He’d been nothing but helpful, if strange.
“Ahora, se queda,” I finally decided. “A menos que no haga que nos lo decimos.”
“¿Y si tratas lastimarnos?”
“Tú y yo podemos lucharlo,” I said. I was becoming more and more confident that the man wouldn’t try to hurt us, but if he did, he only had one good arm. Eduardo and I wouldn’t have any trouble with that.
“Bien. Voy a dormir.” Eduardo said. “Noche.”
“For now, he stays. Unless he doesn’t do what we tell him to.
“And if he tries to hurt us?”
“You and I can take him.”
“Fine. I’m gonna sleep. ‘Night.”
Eduardo got up and left me alone under the stars, staring into the dying fire.
* * *
Read Chacho: Part 2 (Available 6/28/19)
Read Chacho: Part 3 (Available 7/12/19)