by Michael Zapata
A boy. I want to tell you his name, but I don’t know it. I’m ashamed of that. He was given a name, of course, a long time ago, by his mother Veronica, but she is not part of this story. Most everything that happened to the boy happened after Veronica. Suffice it to say (like many from her generation) that she was swallowed by this city, which is like an endless and ravenous maw. I fist saw the boy at the Eugenio Espejo bus stop, just two stops away from the high school where I taught biology. He was walking up and down the bus stop looking for customers with stained or smeared shoes to shine. Although I did not have shoes worth shining at the time, as they were nearly split along the sides and soles, I asked the boy to shine them. This happened nearly three or four times before we spoke to each other (at least anything worth mentioning here) and when we did he first asked me where I worked and I told him a high school and then I asked him where he was from and he said I’m from here. Over the course of a few weeks of short conversations, I gathered that the boy once had a mother named Veronica and had lived with her and an older brother in a two room apartment in the south of the city. Apparently, one day his mother had left him in Ejido Parque, which is a substantially sized park that divides the old city from the modern city, so, in a way, you could say that the boy had been abandoned between ages, or even epochs, but being nine, of course, he decided to head into the heart of the modern city. So, that’s where I met the boy, in the heart of the modern city (or rather near the heart, since the heart is Avenue Amazones, so really the ribcage, which protects the heart as much as it can). I forgot to mention that the boy always carried a long and black stick with him. A stick painted like a dark patch of sky, although that might be too severe to say. Anyway, with the stick, he slapped the shoes of potential customers, especially businessmen, and said, Dirty. Needs to be cleaned. He had good business, or as good as a shoe shine boy can get.
For a while, I didn’t see the boy. Then I had a dream the boy had stolen my shoes. When I told my wife about my dream, she said it meant I was probably ready to have a son of my own. In October, I went to an international teaching fair in Cuenca and interviewed with a high school in Barcelona and a high school in Chicago. I had been thinking of leaving Quito for some time. (I will always love Quito, but, at that point in my life, it had felt like a doomed city, or a city on the burning frontier of an apocalypse, maybe because of the volcanoes that surround it like an ancient army in waiting, or maybe because of the sense of claustrophobia that had been with me for a few years) Sometime in November, I saw the boy again. For some reason, I told him that when I was a boy I had been a street performer. I used to have a spot on the corner of Orellana and Diego de Alamagro, which is in the Petrocommerical neighborhood, further north from where we were, about six bus stops, a neighborhood full of oil executives assembled in charcoal and cobalt suits, a neighborhood full of the types of people who would not exist in one hundred years, maybe less, when the oil ran out. I told the boy I used to paint my face like a meteor and juggle. The oil executives, newly incorporated into the growing middle class, used to tip well enough so I could eat and save a little. The boy laughed. I had never even seen him smile, let alone laugh. I noticed that he had good teeth. He told me I was full of shit. For some reason, I don’t even know why now, I told the boy that we were full of multitudes and, if you looked close enough, we were each a thousand people. He looked at me like I was a lunatic, so I told him to give me his bottles of shine, which he did. Even though it had been years (how many? Twenty? Twenty five?), I juggled the bottles perfectly and the boy nodded his head and laughed and I closed my eyes and imagined myself at the corner of Orellana and Diego de Alamagro, which had once been the center of my universe, an incandescent but dying universe.
Months passed and I was sure that something had happened to the boy. Without anyone to speak to while I waited for the bus before and after work, I watched the sky. Before work, the sky was full and bright and the sun rose quickly and touched the edges of the earth above the city, and, after work, the sky was egg-blue and the sun retreated into the volcanoes at the same time, 6:35, each evening, without alteration. After which, it generally rained. When I did think of the boy, I thought of him as a victim of some logy but violent monster. All of my thoughts at that time were strained this way, as if I were watching a Latin American horror film, intently focusing on the screen, even after the film was over, even after the credits ended, which rolled by with names that seemed to be entirely made up.
Towards the middle of the school year, I saw the boy again. I was glad he was alive and able to work. He shined my shoes and told me that he was tired. He said he had not slept the night before. He said that he had thought someone had been chasing him the entire night. He kept away from ghosts and he didn’t believe in Duende, so it had probably just been someone looking for another boy, or a thief trying to rob him. Still, he had gotten into some trouble in the old city and had decided that he would now stay north of Ejido Park, which, he said, he should’ve done in the first place. The boys in the old city, he said, have rings under their eyes. I imagined that the city was, in fact, full of ghosts chasing people, and people chasing ghosts, and even ghosts chasing ghosts, and that cities had been this way since their beginnings. Since they had first risen like teeth from the grasslands and deserts of Africa. It had been such a long time since I had chased anyone or had been chased, and I wouldn’t have traded my life for anything, but still, when the boy told his story, when he laughed at how crazy it must have seemed, I was suddenly overcome with nostalgia, which, yes, is ridiculous and dangerous, but that’s what happened. And thinking about it now, I’m struck with the absurd and horrific thought that the best things in life are the ones we run from or give chase to.
Towards spring, things started to happen quickly, but I guess they always do. I was accepted to teach at a high school in Chicago, which seemed to be on the surface of another world, but, which also somehow seemed to be a subterranean place, a labyrinth of a city full of caverns and chambers and vaults. Maybe I felt this way because I had never lived in the Northern Hemisphere, which, as a boy, always seemed to me clandestine and in the process of being buried. Anyway, I thought it would be a place I would like, especially after a fellow co-worker, who had once visited Chicago, told me that parts of it were like Quito, parts of it were like Buenos Aires, and parts of it were so American as to be indescribable. I wanted, of course, to tell the boy all of this.
For a while, I stopped using the bus. My wife had a seasonal job at a computer center, so in the morning one of her co-workers picked us up and dropped me off at the school, which was on the way. We would pass the Eugenio Espejo bus stop and once I saw the boy standing in front counting change. On the corner of Orelllana and Diego De Alamagro, in another era it seems, a man once pulled over and gave me a small plastic bucket full of change. It must’ve been the equivalent of fifty American dollars. He might have been Italian or Spanish, but he smiled and said cuidate with an accent that suggested he was from across the Atlantic. For the life of me I can’t remember what I did with the money.
For the last two weeks of school, I went back to using the bus, hoping to see the boy for the last time. I had even planned to give him a large tip and an illustrated book about the solar system. The boy, though, had disappeared. No. I should be more truthful. The boy had not completely disappeared, since I was sure that if I looked for him, really looked for him, I could have found him. He might have been somewhere along the bus line, or even back in the old town, sitting on a bench in Plaza San Francisco or Plaza Santo Domingo, avoiding other boys, and looking for potential customers. I should’ve looked for him. I knew that when I moved, when I took my own life out of Quito, he was going to disappear. I was going to disappear as well. For each of us, there would be a disappearance of one. This was three years ago by the way. Eventually his memory of me will fade, and my memory of him will be replaced by another, maybe with a boy of my own, who will hopefully never understand what it is like to juggle or shine shoes or anything else like that, least of all in the streets of Quito, which, looking back now, seem to be both multiplying and vanishing at the same time, like planets that are discovered and then written in the annals of a celestial journal, only to be lost to extinction and time. Of course, there is nothing much to be done about all this but still, how stupid, how incredibly stupid to not have asked the boy’s name.
Michael Zapata is an educator and writer living in Chicago. He is a founding editor of MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine. He is also a 2008 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship Recipient for prose and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Currently, he works as managing editor at ANTIBOOKCLUB.