Published Rockhurst Review, 2003.
The church bells had rung long ago, and now it was late, nearly midnight, though still hot and humid. In the zócalo the small girl, Juana, stood in the shadow of the laurel trees and studied the crowd of people seated in the outdoor cafés under the portales. Over her arm hung a basket of fresh gardenias, wired together in clusters of four. Half a dozen prostitutes, forbidden at the cafes, lounged in the trees behind Juana.
Behind her also, Juana knew, he was waiting, seated on one of the white wrought iron benches, as always. Wearing his one good white shirt. Watching Juana.
Juana approached two tourists at the Café Regis. The woman, wearing big silver earrings, was eating a shrimp cocktail; the man, in a black and green flowered shirt, was drinking a beer. Juana held her basket out to the man, but he took a long drag off his cigarette, ignoring her. When the woman glanced over, Juana smiled.
"Look, Miles," the woman said in English.
"She should be in bed," the man said, without looking.
"Ask her how much."
Juana knew the words how much, even though she was only six. "Cinco pesos," Juana said.
The woman gave the man a look.
The man shrugged and fingered a five-peso coin in a pile of change, sliding it across the table toward Juana. She picked up the coin and put it in the pocket of her cotton dress, then selected a quartet of gardenias and set them on the table, careful to avoid the circle of moisture from the man's beer glass. She walked away quickly, stationing herself once again in the shadowy zócalo, where she could keep watch on the Hotel Imperial.
Once again she felt his eyes on her, from the white bench where he waited.
Juana observed the woman he had pointed out to her, sitting alone in the realm of café light. Juana would not go to her now. She would wait until the vigilant fat waiter was busy at one of his tables. The woman at the Imperial had a cup in front of her, and the fat one was just now refilling it with coffee. There would be time.
Just down from where Juana stood, in a prominent spot on the walkway between the portales and the zócalo, two old men played María Bonita on the marimba. A third member of their group strolled between the tables, scratching the ridges of a güiro with a marimba stick and shaking its hollow cone over the café tables. Here and there, people would drop in a coin.
The beautiful dwarf, Adelaida, in a red satin dress that emphasized her hunchback, clicked along in her high heels, selling lottery tickets. A toothless anciano offered playing cards with pictures of women desnudas, and several boys Juana's age hawked chicle. Everywhere vendors strolled, selling roses, cigars, clothing, cassettes, cigarettes, candy, carved wooden dolphins and straw hats with colorful hatbands printed VERACRUZ. One man carried a wooden box with two batteries, offering tourists the opportunity to receive an electric shock. Besides the marimba band, there were half a dozen trios, and three mariachi ensembles in tight-fitting short jackets and trousers, wearing massive gold-trimmed hats. One man played alto saxophone, another the violin. Pompeyo, the black man from Aruba, danced an impromptu jig.
The fat waiter came from the back of the Imperial with three plates along his right arm, set them down where a group of sailors were drinking and laughing loudly, then returned to the kitchen.
Juana took this opportunity to approach the woman at the Imperial, who was blonde and wore a white sleeveless dress. As she drew closer, Juana saw la rubia also wore a small gold cross on a chain. This had to be a good sign.
As usual with foreigners, Juana made herself understood without words. She chose her most perfect gardenia cluster and laid it in front of the woman.
"¿Cuánto?" the woman asked, looking at Juana.
"Es un regalo." A gift. Juana turned to point to the white bench, where he waited expectantly.
The woman's brow furrowed slightly as she looked over Juana's head toward the man who had sent her the flowers. He raised his hand in a friendly salute, smiling broadly. If he were closer, the señora would see his beautiful white teeth.
The woman took a sip from a small goblet, set it down, then sipped her coffee. She looked again over Juana's head at the man on the bench.
"¿Quién es?" the woman asked.
Juana shrugged. "Un señor."
At the next table, a small boy was setting up his shoeshine box in front of a young businessman in a white suit. He positioned the customer's foot on the box, and squatted in front of it. The boy himself had no shoes.
The woman shook her head and dropped the flowers back into Juana's basket.
"Por favor," Juana implored. She planted the little bouquet firmly in front of the blonde lady. "Es un regalo. Usted no tiene que pagar." It's a gift. You don't have to pay.
The woman laughed and said something in English which Juana could not understand. She put the gardenias back in Juana's basket. She pulled a blue twenty-peso note from the pocket of her skirt and handed it to Juana. "Para ti, Chica. Es hora de dormir." She put her hand on Juana's head and let it rest there a moment. Juana knew it was finished. Nor was there any other woman for him here at the portales tonight: the women had to be of a certain age and from another country and alone.
Juana was in no hurry to get back to the park bench, where she knew she would have to face him. She sold gardenias at two more tables, taking her time.
Statuesque figures in glittering low-cut gowns and spike heels -- Juana knew all of them to be men -- weaved between the tables, passing out big smiles and handbills for the midnight show.
When Juana looked up, he motioned to her from the park bench. Obediently, she went to him.
"Ella no quería," Juana explained. The woman had refused the flowers.
The man slapped Juana once, sharply, across the cheek.
She deserved this; she had failed him. Juana handed him the few coins from her sales and he pocketed them without looking.
"¿Y en dónde piensas pasar la noche, m’ija?" And just where were you thinking of sleeping tonight?
Juana knew they would sleep where they had slept the night before, on a piece of cardboard in front of the parroquia, with the others.
She pulled the twenty-peso note from the pocket of her dress. "Toma, papá," she said. "Es un regalo para ti."
Her father looked at the money for a brief second. He took the note, folded it carefully and put it in his shirt pocket. He pulled Juana toward him. “Ven, he said, his voice gentle again. She stood with her back to him, between his knees.
The old marimba players began to play the popular song Veracruz. At the Hotel Imperial, the woman finished her brandy and coffee and stood to leave. Above her, mahogany propeller fans stirred the tropical night air.