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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 62-64
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Hilario, El Carretero del Barrio
Arroyo Naranjo, Cuba, Circa 1969
He rang a bell he rigged by the wooden slat of his cart, where the cracks came together with wire and rusty nails. Twice he rang it, then his voice boomed down the street: "Maní tostado, maní. Se afilan cuchillos, tijeras, achas." He sold roasted peanuts. He also sharpened scissors, knives, axes. "Pan dulce, pan dulce y caliente." Sweet, hot bread.
The boys in the neighborhood snuck up and rode on the back of his cart as he wound up and down the street, around the corner. Hilario knew we were back there, dangling our legs from the back, giggling. It was fine with him as long as we didn't steal a cucurucho de maní, his peanuts, or a piece of his bread. The bread looked like the arms of angels under the pieces of wax paper held down with clothespins and rocks so that the wind wouldn't blow them off or flies get on the bread.
When our parents gave us money, we bought the bread, such sticky, sweet, caramel-scented bread, which we ate with great gusto in the shade of the plantain trees by the sidewalk.When Hilario sharpened knives and scissors, orange sparks kicked up over his arms and his face. Each time, he'd stop, lick his finger, then run it over the edge to check the sharpness. His fingertips were maps of cut skin, never healing, growing into calluses.
Our fathers said he was the best machete sharpener anywhere, leaving a shiny sliver of sharp on the edge of the blade.
Our parents felt sorry for Hilario and his cart, the way he had to make a living, so they gave us money to buy things from him. He was a skinny man with very dark, burnt-sugar skin. His deep-set eyes never looked at you straight. Drunk, or else there was something wrong with the way he looked up to people, was the story we always heard.
Then there was the missing leg, which, no matter how bad we treated him, we never dared bring up. We learned early never to mention the leg because it could cost us a couple of teeth. Or, we were afraid Hilario would, in one swift swoop, cut off one of our ears with the sharpened dagger he kept tucked between his rope belt and his tattered pants.
On his arms were faded, green-inked numbers that everyone knew were [End Page 62] from the years he'd spent at La Cabana, Cuba's worst prison for political prisoners. Our parents said Hilario had spent twenty years there, starting with the Machado regime, then Bautista's, and then Fidel's.
Everything that could be wrong with a person was wrong with him. He stuttered and gasped as he tried to speak. Because he was missing his right leg, whenever he climbed down from the cart to sharpen the knives, scissors, or axes we brought him, his pant leg came loose and dangled there like the trunk of an elephant. Two of his fingers were missing, the stumps wiggling as he moved his hands. He chain-smoked, so his fingers were dirty yellow, with half moons of grime and grease under his long nails.
When we made fun of him, calling him El cojo, he told us to go fuck our mothers.We loved to hear him say this, so we called him names all the time. And when we got him riled up, he'd start coughing and have to stop to catch his breath. "Cabrones!" he'd shout back at us."Algun día se van acordar de mi!" Once he told us the story of how he'd been a fighting-cock trainer in LasVillas, where his father gambled at the fights. He said he loved the way a rooster's feather caught the light, held its iridescence for one brief moment in a flash of silver and gold.
He dreamt of one day owning the best fighting cocks...