By Ricardo Segreda
October 30th, Quito, Avenida Amazonas. Gabriel Ulises Sanchez walked briskly and abruptly through the crowds of young gringo backpackers, professionals in ties carrying briefcases, musicians in ponchos melodically blowing through pan flutes, newspaper and magazine vendors, sleeping alcoholics, dirty stray dogs, and street urchins, some offering to shine his shoes (Gabriel only trusted one man to do that right), others selling chewing gum, and yet others with their little hands outstretched, begging for coins. The latter, in particular, was a sight that always irritated him.
It was a cool but bright sunlit day, uncommon for October in the late afternoon this time of year. He stopped at the Juan Valdez coffeehouse and paused for a moment, catching his breath and looking at the foreign tourists lining up for their cappuccinos, americanos and sugary frozen lattes. He recalled that Juan Valdez began small in Colombia and became international. Can anyone or anything hold him back from an equal level of success, he wondered?
His Blackberry rang.
“Transportation strike? And?", Gabriel screamed. "The Day of the Departed is upon us, and I promised the Holy Innocents Primary School an order of 2,000 guaguas. This is our biggest order yet, and if we pull it off, we'll open franchises in Cumbayá, Tumbaco and Los Chillos. So 100 kilos of flour at store in seven hours at the latest. Got it?”
Without saying goodbye, he turned the device off, walked towards his SUV (only three more payments to go), and wondered why he ever hired Raul to handle production. Raul’s references were solid, but Gabriel was becoming increasingly tired at what he regarded as Raul’s chronic whining. Now his Claro cell phone was ringing; Raul again.
“No more excuses," said Gabriel, "and frankly – what?! I don’t give a damn if you have to take your daughter to the doctor, your dog to the vet, or your mother to the morgue.”
Raul muttered a feeble “sí”, or “yes”, before ending the call. But the conversation wasn't over as far as Gabriel was concerned. Raul really managed to get under Gabriel's skin. Turning the key, adrenalin streamed through his body, his chest, his arms, and his hands. Gabriel began to go over what he wished he had said only 30 seconds ago to Raul, but didn't.
As he pulled out onto the street onto slow-moving traffic, which further quietly enraged Gabriel, he embarked on a mental rant against the man he hired to work long hours, daydreaming that he was telling Raul the following:
“Do I have to remind you, once again, of the high rate of unemployment in this country?! And that there are more than enough men out there to replace you?! And for less money! So tell your daughter that her trite medical needs will have to wait, and also tell her to pitch in and carry sack of flour to the business.”
Yes, Gabriel thought, he should have demanded that Raul put his whining teenage daughter -- like father, like daughter, it seems -- to work as well. That would teach them both a lesson about the real world.
After all, Gabriel grew up on the tough streets of Guayaquil, earning his keep and pulling his weight whether he wanted to or not, and whether he felt sick, or even was sick, or not. He had no choice in the matter. His soldier-father died in the jungle stepping on a landmine. Then when Gabriel was 14 his mother went fell into schizophrenia, screaming about seeing the ghost of Atahualpa, in full Incan uniform, proudly standing on the steps of the municipal building, exhorting the locals to overthrow the conquerors. Newspapers called her "la loca", though one group of young Marxists named their debate club after her. She was sent to a psychiatric hospital by order of a judge.
The next evening, Gabriel broke into the facility through its commissary, and ran to her once he saw her in the residential courtyard, sitting in a wheelchair, looking calm, reading a magazine. However, as he threw his arms around her, she claimed to not know him. A large hospital security guard, anxious about losing his job after he failed to prevent a sexual assault the month before, tossed him onto the street, into the rain, brandishing a gun and threatening to shoot him if he ever came back.
As heavy, fast, forceful raindrops hit Gabriel, he stood up and noticed the mural of Christ's crucifixion painted on the side of a new church. The painter presented the Son of God with His skin lacerated, blood trickling from the open wound near His heart, and His gaze fixed on the sky with an expression of acute agony. Gabriel's heart began to beat strongly and quickly, his hand's trembled, and then he let go. A cascade of tears fell from Gabriel's eyes, and he also howled. "What?," he thought, "What is my sin? Why must you do you this to me?"
It was the last time in his life that Gabriel would ever cry again. Nobody and nothing would ever hurt him. Going forward he was invincible.
Also at the time, he had two younger brothers and one sister to care for, and in order to support them it was either join a gang, which meant to steal, sell drugs, and risk death, or work and risk perpetual poverty. He chose work, despite the odds.
By 15 he was hired as a baker’s apprentice, and by twenty he had his own operation. Now at forty he was wealthy. But not wealthy enough.
So no, he was not going to put up with Raul’s whining, Raul's daughter’s whining, his accountant’s whining, his first ex-wife’s whining, his second ex-wife’s whining, or ANYBODY’S whining. He then mentally recycled what he wished he had told Raul, over and over again, in varying tones of anger, like an actor rehearsing for his first audition.
But Gabriel was so distracted by his thoughts that he almost forgot check the fuel gauge. His tank was nearly empty. However, he knew a Petroecuador station was coming up after the third light.
As he got out of his vehicle to buy some cigarettes, an oily-haired, dirty-faced boy of about eight years of age, wearing a Hello Kitty tee shirt, appeared at his side, seemingly out of nowhere, because Gabriel was certain he saw nobody but the station's clerk when he pulled up to the gas pump.
“Por favor, ayudame, tengo hambre” – “Please, help me, I’m hungry”.
More whining. Gabriel coldly walked into the service station convenience store and purchased two packs of Winstons, then stepped outside into the now crisp and chilly air. The sun having just set over the mountains, he took out his gold-plated lighter, and smoked while the clerk printed out a receipt.
The boy was gone. Good. As he got back into the driver’s seat, he recalled reading an exposé in the tabloid ¿Extra! which claimed most beggars, including children, earned a more substantial – as well as untaxed – income from begging than citizens in Ecuador who worked menial-labor jobs.
He took off in the direction of his newest bakery. A wealthy American, who had made millions drilling oil in Ecuador, had expressed interest in subsidizing Gabriel's business and even promoting it overseas.
Thoughts of Raul, ex-wives, street urchins in momentary recession, Gabriel indulged in visions of his glorious future – a condo in West Palm Beach, Florida, a yacht, the company of comely, curvaceous Cuban ladies…
Two beeps broke the mood. Text message. With one hand steering, and one eye on the road, Gabriel pulled out his Blackberry.
Flour production has ceased for the night, it said. “Well,” Gabriel thought, “If sawdust goes into the mix to get this done, so be it.”
Now it was his Claro cellular ringing. His brother Cesar, his literal and figurative partner in crime.
“How am I holding up under pressure? Overall, I say not bad. Hey, I just remind myself we are making money in Otavalo and Latacunga, and next year, if I grease some palms, we can get into the lucrative gringo market in Cuenca."
“Plus, we’re killing the ‘Para Pan’ operation, which closed two of its stores last week. Did I tell you we just hired their best bakers?”
They both laughed heartily before clicking off.
A pang of emotional pain welled up in Gabriel, something which he hated. Talking to Cesar always had that effect on him. He had fallen in love with his brother’s very beautiful wife, Isabel, the belle of Imbabura, and Isabel had equally fallen for Gabriel. Their affair, wild, tender, and ecstatic, lasted for two years, before Isabel abruptly, and without explanation, said “no more”. Gabriel was dumbstruck, since he really believed it could go on forever without Cesar knowing, especially since he felt that his brother was a total idiot. He coped as he always did, by throwing himself into his work.
The same child, with his greasy hair and dirty Hello Kitty shirt, was now standing the middle of the highway, five meters ahead of Gabriel’s oncoming vehicle, the boy's hands outstretched before the headlights like a pleading proletariat figure in an Oswaldo Guayasamín painting.
By the time Gabriel’s reflexes kicked in and he stepped on the brake, it was too late. A strongly felt and loudly heard “thump” promptly ensued as the car screeched. A dog, from somewhere, started barking. Gabriel moved the SUV into the shoulder and, with his heart beating away and feeling suddenly enfeebled, he stepped out and looked for the body.
There the boy was, on the road, face up, eyes open, not breathing. Fear surged though Gabriel Ulises Sanchez the likes of which he had never known before in his chaotic life. He even felt for a moment that he would defecate in his trousers before he had a chance to pull them down. A mildly wet fart ensued.
He could call the police, but once the press got word of this it would be over. A child’s death? A “guagua’s” death? Gabriel Ulises Sanchez? Owner and proprietor of the “La Canasta” bakery chain?
Only last week he was on the cover of “El Mercado”, a popular business weekly, lauded for his entrepreneurial brilliance and energy. If this boy has parents, not only would be sued for every cent he's ever earned, but his customer base and large clients, such as the Holy Innocents school, would abandon him.
Gabriel could hear another vehicle coming. He had to act quickly. So into the SUV and off he went, making a go of erasing what just happened from his memory. Nobody saw him, so…nothing happened? He made an effort to focus on anything else he that could possibly occupy his thoughts; Isabel, Para Pan, his last sexual fantasy, his last argument with his first ex-wife, his first argument with his second ex-wife, Raul’s endless worrying and whining, and how much that angered him…
He drove into the parking lot of his newest bakery. It was late, all the employees had gone home. With his electronic key card, Gabriel stepped into the kitchen. The smell of sugar and flavoring wafted through the air. He scanned the rows and rows of guagaus, and the refrigerated shelves full of colada morada, the thick brew made of berries, apple, sugar, and food coloring.
All was well. Gabriel almost felt something akin to an inner peace, however fleeting. He lit up another cigarette, slowly inhaled, then slowly exhaled, studying the streams of smoke leaving his nostrils, which evoked the elegant silk-dressed dancers that his last wife took him to see on his first date. Not wanting to come off as too sensitive before a woman, he was reluctant to admit to his girlfriend at the time that he was touched by their graceful gestures.
As he looked out the kitchen window facing east, he recalled that early in his childhood during a balmy summer evening, his mother confided to him while making soup that before she met his father, she had studied to be a dancer. Putting aside her wooden spoon, she turned the stove off, and taking Gabriel by the hand, gave him a brief, and basic lesson in ballroom dancing. This was one of Gabriel's few happy childhood memories.
The distinct sound of glass shattering broke his reverie. Then feet, the familiar sound of human footfalls. He dropped his cigarette and reached into his vest for his Glock, something he obtained through his old gang connections in Guayaquil. It was illegal, yes, but early on in his career one of his operations was burgled on the eve of a major delivery, and Gabriel decided that going forward, it would never happen again on his watch.
An aluminum canister rolled off the shelf behind him. Gabriel turned with both hands on his weapon. He was now in a cold sweat.
It was the boy again, standing, calmly looking at Gabriel.
“What do you want?! WHAT DO YOU WANT??!!”, Gabriel yelled.
Another boy appeared, similar in appearance: hungry, unwashed, with a recognizable smell of not having taken a shower or changed his clothing for a long period of time. Then another boy, Afro-Ecuadorian, perhaps from Chota or Esmeraldas. More boys soon followed, over thirty in number, all in unclean, worn, torn tee shirts, some without shoes, their hands dirty, some with scars or caked blood, mucous. And they all gazed, calmly, at Gabriel.
He made the decision that this would not faze him. Gabriel Ulises Sanchez was a rock star entrepreneur, someone who took pride in how men envied him, all of whom he detested despite his outward business diplomacy, and how women desired him in spite of the fact that he was not handsome. In fact, with his flat, wide nose and hairy eyebrows, he knew many thought of him as ugly. To be at once hated and desired -- that, in essence, is what life came down to for him, he liked it like that, and nothing would ever impede his right to exactly the life he wanted. Nothing.
He fired at the boys.
Nothing. The bullets passed through them as through vapor and bounced off the concrete walls. The children remained calm and patient, even peaceful. Then they approached Gabriel in quiet, small steps.
The next morning Katina Vayaz arrived for her shift, 6:00 AM, on-time as always, with a pride in being punctual she learned from her mother. But who got there first? She noticed that the kitchen door was already open, while a pungent odor of freshly baked meat met her even before she walked inside.
“Was there an emergency order for beef empanadas?” she wondered eagerly as she approached the source of the smell, which was making her a little bit hungry. Wanting to be on-time, as always, she skipped breakfast. Maybe she could sample a little.
The other employees, already in their uniforms, who normally showed up for work five or six minutes later, upon hearing Katina’s screams, assumed a theft or worse was in progress, and ran into the store. Then they screamed.
Their boss, Gabriel Ulises Sanchez, was laid out on a metal preparation table, covered in pastry dough, freshly baked, with only his expressionless but red face exposed, eyes open and glossy, looking like one giant “guagua”.