By Chuck Teixeira
“Yes, Alvaro, you should get as close as possible to the entrance of the Sanctuary,” Armando told his brother-in-law. “But that’s only part of the guidance I gave you. You have to get a good spot without causing trouble with other vendors. Understood? Or Jaclyn and I are not taking you with us tomorrow.”
“Understood,” Alvaro said, but he did not remember Armando’s having advised against irritating other vendors. Armando had the habit of not remembering things he had said and of remembering having said things he had not. Armando was fat but a hard worker and usually cheerful. He was the gentle, long-time marido of Alvaro’s oldest sister Jaclyn, definitely better than the abusers Alvaro’s other sisters lived with off and on. Even at age 14, Alvaro could discern differences among the men who passed through the house, and not just because of things that slipped from Alvaro’s mother’s mouth.
“Tomorrow, I will get to the Sanctuary before any of the other vendors,” Alvaro said, “and I will claim one of the best spaces for Jaclyn and you.”
“Yes, thank you,” Armando said, “and ordinarily nothing else should make a difference. But some of the seasoned vendors feel entitled to particular spots; and, still being new, you have to respect them.”
“Maybe,” Alvaro said. Selling religious articles at the Sanctuary of the Divine Child in Portal 20 de Julio was more trouble than other ways he had made money. During the apagon earlier that year, when no one had electricity, it had been easy to find a good place to sell candles. If a competing vendor was at an intersection on one of the main streets, there was another intersection just a few blocks away. And there were fewer vendors during the blackout because candles were heavier than scapulars and holy cards. “How far away do I have to move to show respect,” Alvaro said, “not that I feel any?”
“The less respect you feel, the farther away you should be willing to move,” Armando said, “but some of the vendors can be unreasonable, especially for the morning masses when the crowds are big.”
“What’s unreasonable?” Alvaro said.
“If one of the vendors tells you to move from a small space he has been holding for the delivery of more merchandise and you’ve seen that vendor before, it’s probably wise to move a little.”
“How little?” Alvaro asked.
“As little as possible to stop his complaining,” Armando said, “but if he tells you to move farther away because his cousin is arriving momentarily, you can invoke the principle of first-come, first-served.”
First-come, first-served applied among most vendors at the Sanctuary of the Divine Child and at other churches near stations on Bogota’s Transmilenio system. “Why wasn’t that enough last week?” Alvaro said.
“I already told you,” Armando said, “in the pilgrimage circuit, we have to respect the seasoned vendors, at least until we establish ourselves.”
“And if first-come, first-served doesn’t suffice to displace the tardy cousin, then what?” Alvaro said.
“You can offer to share a part of your first sales.”
“Absolutely not,” Alvaro said, “I’m not waking up before dawn to put money in someone else’s pocket.”
“Then you’ll have to rely on the other vendor’s reluctance to get into a shoving match on the church steps.”
“I’m not afraid to fight,” Alvaro said.
“Neither am I,” Armando said, “but the sacristan will take photos again, and, this time for sure, we’ll have to move to a plaza that’s farther away from home and maybe even more crowded with vendors.”
“Your sister is near term with our first child,” Armando said. “That’s so what. And it’s already hard to get her to the Sanctuary before the wives of other vendors plant themselves and dare anyone to ask them to move.”
“There probably are more tourists at Plaza Bolivar.”
“But there also are more cops because the Cardinal doesn’t like street vendors siphoning sales from the Cathedral shop. Neither does the Bishop at the Sanctuary, but a few of the other priests at 20 de Julio remember being poor.”
“We’re not selling big items, like rosaries or crucifixes,” Alvaro said. “Jaclyn and you are offering stuff the church store doesn’t even carry, like sahumerios to remove suffering and implant joy.”
“Careful,” Armando said. “We can’t describe sahumerios that way.”
“Then what do you tell people to get them to buy your twigs?”
“Sahumerios purify the air more effectively than incense. That’s what we say.”
“How pure can air be if home is a joyless pit of suffering?”
“We say that sahumerios purify the air. People already know what purifying the air means. If we explain what people already know, the church calls it superstition.”
“Only if you really believe it,” Alvaro said.
“Do you believe it?” Armando said.
“I don’t know,” Alvaro said. “I haven’t put sahumerios to the test.”
“Find an opportunity,” Armando said, “and let me know what happens.”
An opportunity arose the next morning, but against an annoyance worse than the demands of other vendors. During the first mass, the cry of camion arose in the plaza: the police were arresting unlicensed vendors, hauling them to San Cristobal Station and holding them in the patio until nightfall. When Alvaro heard the cry, he grabbed a sahumerio from Jaclyn’s bag, ignited the bundle of twigs and dispersed the smoke around the folding chair where she had been dozing. He could not risk her time arriving among a crowd on the patio, exposed to leers or rain. And he feared that, if she went into labor, the police might dismiss her request for mercy because, just a few weeks earlier, she had made a similar plea. Surely the sahumerio would protect a woman near term.
At that moment an Army officer in uniform emerged from the Sanctuary to investigate the tumult caused by the camion. He had the rugged features and salt-and-pepper hair that inspired confidence and more. Pausing in front of Jaclyn, the soldier said “I don’t know what power saved me from capture in the Amazon, but I have to show gratitude by saving someone else from unwelcome confinement. Are you available for saving?”
“Of course, she is,” Alvaro said.
“Let the lady speak for herself,” the soldier rebuked.
Jaclyn, still groggy, nodded.
“Is that yes?” the soldier said.
“Jaclyn,” Alvaro said, “we don’t have all morning to arrange a rescue, understand?”
“Okay,” Jaclyn groaned as the soldier pulled her by both arms out of the chair and guided her up the stairs to the Sanctuary. Alvaro looked longingly in their direction until Armando poked him awake to finish gathering merchandise and flee the plaza. But the sacristan, who had rushed out to help the police, identified Alvaro as a trouble-maker from the week before.
At San Cristobal, the Sergeant on Duty was a thin young man with a soft face. When most of the vendors were settled out on the patio, Alvaro went back into the station to wash the ash from the sahumerio from his eyes. Armando hauled his merchandise in front of the Sergeant at the desk.
“Excuse me, sir,” Armando said, “I should get back to the Sanctuary because my wife is near term with our first child and might go into labor at any moment.”
Without looking up from his papers, the Sergeant said, “You should have considered that possibility before you broke the law.”
“You’re right, and I’m sorry,” Armando said, “but I’m afraid we’ll lose the baby if I’m not there to help.”
“No one forced you to take that risk,” the Sergeant said.
“Poverty did,” Armando said. “Anyway, unlicensed vending should not cost a child’s life.”
“Don’t school me in the law,” the Sergeant said. “As long as she remains in the Sanctuary, someone will take her to the hospital if she needs to go.”
Alvaro was washing his hands when Armando reported the Sergeant’s denial of leave. Alvaro offered some consolation. “Wasting an entire day here would have been even worse had we paid part of our first sales to another vendor.” As things stood, however, because the raid had occurred early, neither Alvaro nor Armando had money enough to bribe the Sergeant to let them go. “Maybe we can offer him something else,” Alvaro said.
“Like what?” Armando said, “a Michael the Archangel card?”
“I think the Sergeant’s gay,” Alvaro said, “I’ve seen him around.”
“Around where?” Armando said.
“Never mind where,” Alvaro said. “Maybe he’d like you.”
“Absolutely not!” Armando said.
“Well, probably not,” Alvaro gestured to Armando’s midriff almost as broad as Jaclyn’s.
Raising his hand, Armando threatened to bat away the insult if it sallied from Alvaro’s mouth.
“Then maybe the Sergeant would like me,” Alvaro said.
“That’s even worse. Your sister would never forgive me,” Armando said. “And I could never forgive myself.”
“You could make it up by naming the baby after me,” Alvaro said. “Not the first name, of course, but the middle name, just in case I never have kids of my own.”
“Do you like the Sergeant?”
Alvaro shook his head, “I barf at young guys, but if he gets you back to Jaclyn, I might hold it in.”
Armando reached into his bag of merchandise and pulled out the most expensive sahumerio, a large bundle of twigs from rare Orinoco shrubs. It was called saca-saca because it offered total protection from every possible ill. “I’m going to burn this now and immerse you in whatever powers it may have.”
“No,” Alvaro said. “You need to sell that to buy things for the baby.”
“The baby will be okay,” Armando said.
“I will too,” Alvaro said.
“I’m less sure of that,” Armando said then lit the sahumerio. Still green, the twigs made enough pungent smoke to trigger a fire alarm. And in the ensuing confusion, Armando and Alvaro escaped through the bathroom window, with most of their merchandise and time enough to reach the Sanctuary before Jaclyn’s water broke.
Jaclyn had an easy delivery, but Armando did not remember agreeing to name the baby after Alvaro. Jaclyn wanted to name it Victor after the Army officer who had rescued her, even though he had declined to sponsor the child’s baptism. So, she asked Alvaro to be godfather and offered him the chance to hold the baby.
Alvaro was disappointed that the shriveled ball of flesh would not have his name and even more disappointed that the magisterial soldier would not become part of the family. “What does a godfather do,” he asked.
“If mom, Armando and I die while Victor’s still a child,” Jaclyn said, “and our sisters still can’t be trusted to raise him Catholic, you make sure he goes to church every Sunday.”
“Well,” Alvaro said, “at least every Sunday when we have things to sell.”
“That’s a start,” Jaclyn said.
“And make sure he finishes school,” Armando said.
“None of us ever finishes school,” Alvaro said.
“And have enough money to bribe him out of jail,” Armando said.
“We never have enough money,” Alvaro said.
“Maybe even better,” Armando said, “always have sahumerios to protect him in the first place.”