Claudio had been searching for work at the docks all morning and most of the afternoon without success. Other times, he earned 100 or 200 pesos for doing a short errand — an offer of a better job would never be given to a boy his age. But although that was little money, it helped. Any amount was something. His last job had been for a gas station where he first acquired a desire to repair cars. He did all the chores there — bringing ruined tires and parts to the dump, draining oil from crankcases, and bringing coffee to the mechanics. Now he sat idle, holding in his hand the little model of a Ford Mustang he carried in his pocket for good luck. Next to the benedicción that his mother had given him, touching his head whenever he left the house, he felt that the model car was his most powerful source of good fortune. But as he looked at it, he felt merely like an idler, with not even one centavo in his pocket to bring home.
As he sat among the abandoned cargo pallets, the shiny metal chimney of the chicken roaster’s shack in front of him was wafting long curves of smoke from roasting chicken into the air. While he watched the rising white curls and absentmindedly scratched the new scab on his leg, a car drove up and stopped. A man wearing sunglasses appeared to be shouting at someone sitting in the back seat. The rear door opened and a woman stepped out, slammed the door behind her, and walked away from the car. She was dressed in a white bridal-looking dress, but walked unsteadily, as if she had been drinking. She went toward a telephone booth from which the telephone had been ripped out. Seeing Claudio, she stopped, smiled like the woman in the billboard advertisement for Bavaria beer, and came toward him, hips slowly swinging.
“What are you doing here, joven?” she asked. She called him “young man” and not “boy,” which pleased him more than it put him on his guard.
“Looking for work,” he said.
“It’s too late today, isn’t it?”
“Yes, señora.” He was close to tears, thinking that the day was gone and he would have nothing comforting to tell his mother.
“What’s your name?”
“Claudio Botero,” Adding his last name was what a well-bred boy would do, but his hoarseness embarrassed him.
The woman spoke warmly, telling him he looked thin and that it was important to eat so that he would grow up to have a long and happy life outside of the impoverished shacks. Then she crouched close to his ear and said he was handsome — did he know that? — and that she would like to take him with her to a beautiful house. Her lips and perfume worked on him, making him dizzy.
“You would like to come with me… for a little while, wouldn’t you, Claudiosito?”
“Yes,” he said, finding it hard to be honest. “But my mother is sick and we need food. We don’t have any.”
She grasped his wrist and he felt the stab of her fingernails.
“Look, this shack is roasting chickens — the same ones they sell on ritzy Plaza Caycedo. Be brave — show me that you can be — and grab us a couple of them. I’ll bet you’re fast. Nobody will even see you.”
“But the police, señora — ”
“Don’t be silly. You’ll be gone from there in a second. And if you get enough, you can sell some on Plaza Caycedo for good money. Money, Claudiosito. Money.
As she spoke, the door of the shack opened and a tanned, wrinkled man with a limp came out pushing a two-wheeled barrow full with steaming, fresh roasted chickens tied to poles and the poles lying in layers over plantain leaves.
“Look at them. Don’t they make your mouth water?” the woman whispered while squeezing his shoulder. “Go quick.”
Claudio rose and carefully followed the man, the woman close behind. He turned every twenty stops or so to see if she was still there. After a block the man stopped. Claudio ran behind a chained forklift and watched. The man carefully propped the barrow against the lift and sat down on the ground, his back against it in the shade of an overhanging tin roof, chin on his chest. In a few seconds he was snoring. Bees and wasps were landing on the piles of chicken.
Claudio crouched and ran toward the barrow, his knife ready. With quick strokes, he cut the strings on two poles, each of which held three chickens. He gathered up the six chickens and ran in the direction of the derrick further down the docks. He thought he heard a shot, but in a moment, he and the chickens were around a corner.
He looked around for the woman in the white dress. She was nowhere in sight. He huddled in the doorway of a boarded building and waited for what seemed to be a long time, holding the warm chickens against his side. He wondered if he felt their heat so keenly because his body was so thin. He never saw the woman again and often recalled her TV novella actress voice and face, but he never told anyone about her or their adventure. Now, from time to time, he remembered her face and dress with lace like his mother sewed at the throat and the wrists. He wondered why she had disappeared without taking any chicken from him. He named her Our Lady of the Chickens.
David Schultz is a longtime writer who has happily received a nice share of publication of stories and poems both online and
in small mags. He says: “Thanks for reading me.”
This story is sponsored by
Clarion West Writers Workshop — Apply now through March 1 for 2014’s six-week workshop with Paul Park, Kij Johnson, Ian McDonald, Hiromi Goto, Charlie Jane Anders, and John Crowley, June 22 – August 1 in Seattle.