One of the greatest privileges - and challenges - of my life has been to teach students at an inner-city high school. More often than not, I end up learning more from them than I fear that they learn from me. When I write, I try to keep my students' spirit in mind - their resourcefulness and wit as well as their ability to regularly confront devastating losses. The National Endowment for the Arts has paid me a great honor and offered me the incredible opportunity to devote more time to my fiction and characters who, like my students, continue to enlighten and surprise me.
Excerpt from the short story "Casualidades"
Payday at the factories and fincas was not for two more days--most villagers were down to bus fare and enough for bread and a few eggs. She thought the ladrones must be desperate, drunk or high on sniffing glue bought at the shoemaker's shop. Berta looked in her bag: two onions and a vial of medicine. She swept her hand beneath them, found a single quetzal note. She handed it to one of the ladrones as he passed down the aisle, scraping his machete along the floor. The bus driver slouched in his seat, holding his face in his hands.
Nobody had much more to offer than Berta: single quetzal notes were pressed into the ladrones' hands, some loose change. Even the schoolchildren with the nice uniforms only had enough for another bus fare or two: they had spent most of it on candy.
The ladrones counted the money at the front of the bus, cursing every time a handful of loose change appeared. Berta estimated that at most they would have enough for an evening or two of beer, the regular kind with the rooster's head on the label. They counted the money again, then the green-eyed one muttered something. They talked back and forth a little, conferring, and spitting in the aisle. Berta could not see the globules of spit, but she imagined them with white centers, like the albumin in the eggs she collected on her mother's roof.
Outside the bus, people from the neighborhood were beginning to gather. Berta thought she saw Esperanza from the cooperative, the woman she had scared with her scissors. She did not see her mother or sisters. Nobody ever called the police in their village, because the police were scared of the ladrones, too. It was hard to enforce law in their village, and revenge only came rarely, usually in the form of a midnight beating in the garbage dump.
The ladrones stared at them and paced, walking up and down the aisles and panning the passengers with their too-wide pupils. Finally the green-eyed ladrón turned to the passengers and said, "Pass up your shoes."
Nobody spoke. Many of them had been robbed before, of bus fare, jewelry and even food, but Berta had never heard of this. She looked down at her own, orange vinyl shoes. Until she was 12 she had gone barefoot, like most of the other young women in the village. After that she had worn plastic beach thongs, the cheapest kind at the market. But a month ago, she had treated herself to these beautiful durable shoes, after finishing a shipment of 35 purses, 10 vests, and 25 barrettes. She still knew the numbers. The ladrones began with the schoolchildren, urging them to hurry as they passed up their dark-soled loafers. One child even passed up his socks.
Berta looked around. The adults who hadn't worn shoes in the first place looked the most frightened. One woman had pulled several mangoes out of her bag as if to offer them in compensation. The others with shoes were taking them off, slipping their feet from plastic beach thongs, and unlacing boots in clumsy hurried movements.
The muscular ladrón paced the aisles. His machete looked like it had once been used on a plantation.
Berta removed her shoes, stroking the smooth orange vinyl. The muscular ladrón hissed at everyone to hurry up. In the front of the bus the green-eyed ladrón was piling shoes into the t-shirts he and the other one had stripped off, makeshift knapsacks. Berta held her shoes for a moment longer in her lap, cradling them, then she slipped one into her bag. The other she slid beneath her shirt, hoping that in the commotion she wouldn't be noticed. The vinyl felt warm against her chest, and she crossed her arms to camouflage.
The bare-chested ladrones now had full knapsacks. Outside the bus more villagers lined up, talking and wringing their hands. Berta thought she saw the priest, a friend of her mother's. She hated her town, herself, for always backing away from danger.
"Casualidades" first appeared in TriQuarterly Review.
Carolyn Alessio's fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, TriQuarterly, Boulevard and elsewhere. She is prose editor at Crab Orchard Review as well as the editor of a bilingual anthology of Guatemalan children's writing, The Voices of Hope/Las Voces de la Esperanza (Southern Illinois University Press). A former lecturer in creative writing at Emory University as well as editor at the Chicago Tribune, she currently teaches high school on Chicago's southwest side. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeremy Manier, and their two young children.
Photo by Jeremy Manier