Elizabeth, Liz to everyone but her Uncle Rodrigo, clutches her father’s hand tightly.
Consumed by boundless curiosity, her eyes dart all around town as they progress through her daddy’s errands. The air is hot, stale, and as always, dusty. There aren’t any paved roads in town, although she has seen a few in her short life further north, when her daddy had to bring the family along for work that lasted a few weeks. Liz hates the dust, orange and encompassing, it gets into every seam, every crevice. There is nothing worse than biting into her dinner, (when there was dinner) and feeling the grating crunch of grains of dirt in her food, between her teeth, up her nose as she sniffles.
Still, their last errand of the day gives her cause to put up with and look past the dust. Her daddy had a good week of wages, having helped put up sheetrock in the new school two towns over. Tonight’s dinner was going to be a celebration, so her mommy had sent him with an order in hand to stop at the bakery on their way home. It is Liz’s favorite place in the ramshackle town they call home. As they near the store, the smell of the baking bread overcomes that of the town’s air, always smelling of motor oil, burning trash, and the occasional decomposing dog.
They walk up the three wooden steps and her daddy let’s her open the screen door, as only she is allowed to open the doors, wherever they go. They step inside, and the first thing that she notices is that Pablo, the baker, looks very pale and nervous. Normally, on the few occasions that they have been able to afford bread, he has always greeted her with a beaming smile and after a bit of banter, (which she felt she was growing too old for but still humored the man) he gave her a sesame cookie. Her daddy seems to take notice as well, for he tightens his grasp on her hand and stops her progress into the store to stand still next to him. Pablo exchanges a glance with her daddy, and then the baker’s eyes dart past the customer at his counter to his right, their left. They both see it.
That’s when Liz notices the acrid smell of smoke intermixed with the scents of baking bread and tortas. It isn’t strong enough to overpower the store completely, but neither will it be denied. Liz follows the curling trail of smoke back to the larger clouds, off to their left, her eyes finally coming to rest on the long, slim cigaretta clutched in a gnarled, spotted hand. Two people, a man and a woman, sit in the only chairs at the only table in the shop, pressed against the wall. The woman smoking the cigaretta is old and impeccably dressed, a pair of black slacks pressed to perfection covering her legs crossed in front of her. She wears a white, silk blouse, her black suit jacket hung on the back of her chair. A long strand of pearls hangs down around her wrinkled and saggy neck. Even inside, a thick pair of round sunglasses covers her eyes. Her hair sits high and is combed back, a striking silver in contrast to the grey smoke of her tobacco. She pays no mind to Liz and her daddy, her gaze apparently fixed on Pablo. The woman takes another long drag, holding her mouth open a bit. Liz can see the smoke swirling around in the cavity before she sucks it down and blows it back out in a prolonged trail.
The man is much younger. He wears all black, his muscled arms and neck sprouting from his tank top covered in all manner of tattoos. Liz thinks he looks strong, although not as strong as her daddy. His face is long and drawn, and his skin looks like it is pulled too tight against his head. His eyes also appear to be too small for his face, like beads when they should be marbles. His hair is slicked back and jet black, like he plucked some of the motor oil out of the air and combed his head with it. Unlike the old woman he stares at them both, and when her eyes meet his he flashes her a gold tooth smile that at once makes her feel uneasy. Liz grabs her daddy’s hand in reaction with both of hers and looks away from the man. She hears him cackle in response.
The customer in front of them finishes his business and goes to leave, looking at her daddy with dismay and then casting his eyes downward. Liz doesn’t watch him go, afraid to see the man at the table again, but she does hear the customer rush down the wooden steps outside. Before her daddy can step up to the counter the old woman speaks in a raspy, deep voice. “Tito, the door please.”
Tito is her daddy’s name. The baker looks at her daddy, his eyes searching for some sort of assistance. All her father can do is turn around and reply. “Yes, Abuela.”
As they go to leave the woman stops them. “Wait” and then to the baker, “Give her a biscuit.”
Her father guides her back around and pries her hands loose. Liz steps up to the counter where Pablo lifts the hinged portion, kneeling before her and handing her the prescribed biscuit. “Thank you Sir” she says as she accepts it.
“You’re welcome little Liz” he replies, his voice wavering. She cannot be sure but she thinks she smells tequila on his breath. “You do well and listen to your father, okay? And make sure you remember your old friend Pablo.” As he says this last tears begin to stream from his eyes and course down his cheeks.
Confused, Liz can only nod solemnly and proffer, “I will. Bye.” He smiles as she turns away.
Her daddy puts his arm around her and with his hand on her shoulder, guides her out the screen door. Rather than leaving completely they stand on the top wooden step, putting their backs to the screen. Her daddy’s friend from work, Enrique is coming up the path, but when he starts to head inside, her daddy puts a hand on his chest to stop him. “The Abuela is inside.”
Enrique’s usually sunny face goes grim. “Oh.” A moment later he asks, “She have you watching the door then?”
Her daddy nods in affirmation. Enrique doesn’t say anything further, but like the friend he is he stands next to her father, shoulder to shoulder. Other residents of their town come but each time either her daddy or his friend deters them with a single sentence. “The Abuela is inside.” The townsfolk don’t protest. In fact they turn and leave much quicker than they arrived.
She isn’t sure how long they stand there, long enough for her to finish her biscuit and then some, that much is certain. Just when she is growing impatient she hears a series of screams from inside. It’s Pablo. “No Abuela! Please! Please!” and then there is a thunderclap followed by an immediate thud on the wooden floor. It only takes a second for another smell of smoke to waft out the door, this one reminding her distinctly of the fireworks at Cinco de Mayo, only bolder.
“See you tomorrow then?” Enrique says to her daddy.
“Yeah, tomorrow” and then they all step off the stairs and go their separate ways. Whatever the signal was that they could leave, Liz isn’t sure, although she suspects the thunder was it. Of one thing she could be certain, there would be no bread at dinner tonight. She doesn’t understand it all, but she is old enough to understand not to question why.