Juan Carlos Martinez sits high atop a newly bulldozed trash mountain, in Dump City Guatemala, shading his eyes from the muggy stench of summer. He hates work and will tell Mamá and Araceli once he descends. Until then, he uses a rusty screwdriver, pops the lid from the shoe glue tin, puts his hand in a plastic bag as if it is a glove, pours rubbery snot-colored content onto his hand, and turns the bag inside out. Damn bags. He must always find one without holes, unlike when he wants discretion and huffs paint thinner, for which toilet paper or any rag will do. One hand squeezes the bag tight against his lip rash with the thumb and the forefinger, back bent somewhat, blowing like a balloon until it’s as big as his seventeen-year-old head. His left-hand squeezes the bag toward his face, lungs expanding to their satisfied fullest, alucinógeno fumes going straight to his brain. He holds in the vapor until his eyes want to pop. With the screwdriver handle, he hammers the can shut, keeping the glue from spoiling. For a time, he feels no heat, no discomfort, and hardly notices when clouds of smoke from underground fires leave the air heavy. Thousands of guajiro, trash pickers, move like ghosts in el basurero, the dump; some jump on arriving dump trucks in search of food. Like Juan Carlos, many were born in el basurero.
Mamá had reminded him at sunrise, as her copper brown face showed fatigue wrinkles, exasperation in her Spanish-speaking voice, “You’re not making the weight, Juan Carlos. The cemetery people will dig up Papa and throw his bones in the basurero. We must pay twenty-five Quetzals every month to keep him. You know this.”
Juan Carlos sucks from the bag again.
Nag, nag, nag. That’s all she does, and Juan Carlos has grown weary and doesn’t want to collect plastic, metal, and old magazines from mounds of trash selling the booty to recyclers based on weight. They buzz around in their trucks like parasitic wasps outside steel gates of the city dump; they wait for loot from guajiro like Juan Carlos and his family.
Far below him; Araceli, his sickly thirteen-year-old sister whose skin fits tight against her sucked-in face, tugs at an American Flyer wagon loaded with a full five-gallon water bottle she’s filled from a fire hydrant. One wooden wheel is more significant than the others and causes the cart to squeak and lean. Pussyfoot is all she’s able to do these days; they have no vehicle and a doctor with medicines she needs, lives in lowlands on the other side of the volcano.
She leaves the Flyer in direct sunlight at their lean-to door just outside the basurero gates, even though he’s asked her time and again to park in the shade. The water sits halfway to boil there until Juan moves the heavy bottle indoors. They have no running water, and the container will last them several days before repeat after cooling. He feels a growing pressure to scavenge the dump for her as well as for his Mamá and himself.
Juan twists his neck, spying Papa’s gravesite in the cemetery perched above the dump. He draws from the bag again, helping kill his appetite for food, which, to him, is his sacrifice for Papa’s grave, and, coupled with provisions found in the dump, offsets meal expenses. However, his sacrifice isn’t enough, according to Mamá, and she has summoned Castaneda, the spiritual guide to silence the volcano, and help Juan make some money, or at least, find direction.
Juan Carlos uses his lips and tongue, suctioning more glue vapor. A kettle of vultures tears at a dead rat halfway down the dump mound where he sits. The rat reassembles, grows as big as a mangy basurero dog, and plunges its teeth into a vulture’s neck. His companions fly toward the graveyard above Juan’s perch. He strains his neck, following them to where Papa stands on his headstone, shouting something towards him. Juan cups his ears to hear his Papa’s voice once again. You can do better, my son. Go into real estate.
Juan inhales deeply from fume remnants; sweat soaks his grimy-white Carlos Ruiz soccer jersey. Juan Carlos stands and holds the inflated bag in a fist above his head. He defies the squalid basurero, which multiplies the misery of guajiro below. Guajiro Juan’s in no hurry to join. He feels the corners of his lips turn up. “Ola Papa—— yes, we can.”
That evening Juan Carlos, Mamá, and Araceli hole up inside their unusually cold shack of corrugated metal and old tarpaulins within a warren of garbage choked alleyways. Casteneda’s dressed in his evening clothes, an ordinary white shirt with brilliantly colored Pantalones and a chaqueta. The last time Juan saw him, Mamá invited Casteneda to say a few words to aid Papa’s canoe journey to the Underworld. Juan Carlos has bandaged his hand covering a fake injury sustained in the basurero on which he’s sprinkled low odor paint thinner. From the grimy gauze and his jersey collar, he’ll sniff as needed.
Casteneda sits on an inverted bucket, a long machete in hand, and mumbles gibberish Juan Carlos can’t quite make out. Alberobello? Maybe it’s Maya Ki’che’ language.
“Not enough to live the day,” Mamá says as she sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their one-room shanty, her bare feet crusted charcoal black. “I received Papa’s eviction notice from the cemetery.” Her huipil, with colorful cross-stripping and angular designs woven into the cloth and heavily soiled, a brocaded wraparound corte reaches her dirt-caked ankles. “If I pay the cemetery bill, we can’t afford tortillas—what say you, Juan Carlos?”
“Um, uh—uh,” is his best explanation.
“It concerns me your eyes always look bloodshot, son. You look more and more like Resistoleros—sniffers. Have you no hope?”
“Nag Mamá——that’s all you do.”
“Qué” Are you sassing me, Juan Carlos?” Posture stiff, broom in hand, she steps toward him. “I birthed you in el basurero, and I’ll take you out here also.”
Juan Carlos raises his bandaged hand to his collar, bends his head slightly, sniffs, and glances over to Araceli curled into a ball and wasting away on a mat. She drags up her head and gazes at Juan Carlos. “I’m hungry, brother. I need medicine, but you bring snotty glue.” She slumps back onto the floor mat, raising a dust cloud. “You insult me, dear brother.”
Her words penetrate his fog partly, “Don’t worry, Araceli, everything will work out.”
Sloe-eyed, she drools onto the floor. Her lips fall in and out of synch with the sound of her words. “Help me, Juan Carlos.”
Slowly, he processes Araceli’s words. He throws a sideways glance at Mamá, sniffs at his collar and bandaged hand, which helps his body lessen the pain from family problems, and basurero nails, splinters, and other sharps which pierce. He didn’t want to think or feel anymore anyway.
“To help us, you must leave us, Juan Carlos. Casteneda will ask our Lord Maximom to help you,” Mamá says. “He’ll chant and pray to silence the volcanoes for your journey.”
Juan Carlos makes odd noises in his throat. “No. I don’t want to leave.” He swipes the bandage under his nose, chest tightens. “I’ll change Mamá—I will.”
“Upon your return, you will have answers, my boy. Things will get better. Maximom will guide your moccasins,” she says. “Our survival depends on you. Have courage.” She turns to Casteneda.
Casteneda rises on cue from the bucket on which he quietly sits. His quickness surprises Juan Carlos. Machete in hand, he scuffs to a corner shrine that’s half surrounded by sandstone pebbles and waves the sharp blade furiously above his head. He chants to invoke the spirit of the Maya God Santiago Atitlan Maximom.
“Oh, Great Grandfather Maximon, we ask you to protect Juan Carlos from witches and evil beings, guide him to work—for money.” Casteneda points the machete at Juan Carlos, stabs the dirt, and prostrates himself before the deity, which wears a sand-colored cowboy hat. He crawls close to its carved ebony wooded face, removes the sacred Cuban cigar from its wooden lips, and places his right ear against them. He closes his eyes and nods his head as if receiving instruction from Maximom. “Gracias, gracias, Oh Mighty One.”
Jesus! Juan Carlos wants to run out into the night. Instead, he raises his collar and sniffs fading thinner. The ceremony is way too complicated.
After several minutes with his ear pressed to the deity’s wooden lips, Casteneda pinches up his face, then smoothes out the many colorful scarves placed around Maximom’s wooden neck. He sits and slides on his butt back and away. He faces Juan Carlos, who shivers in the cold. Three candles on the wooden crate illuminate the space next to a windup clock—the stink from rotting things ever-present.
“He says you must seek Him yourself to receive guidance that will clear you, find work for gravesite payment, medicine for Araceli, and protect and bring you back safely.”
Juan Carlos stutters, “B…B…But where will I go?” So far, he was quivering in the evening’s cold, but the direction of Casteneda’s conversation heats him. “Maybe I’ll leave next week?”
Casteneda raises his eyebrows and glances at the candles, and then the clock. “Maximom says you must leave now — head west around the volcano toward the city.” Casteneda winks at Mamá, who manages a sly grin. The scent of melting wax is stable. “Your answers will come to you once you find HIM.” Casteneda points to the door flap.
“Prisa Juan Carlos,” says Araceli.
Juan Carlos’s empty stomach feels rock hard, water forms behind his eyelids. He’d only imagined what dangers could exist beyond the boundary of Dump City even though dead bodies turn up in the basurero quite frequently, and drug gangs provide the only rule of law within its gates. He seldom leaves Dump City; garbage truck drivers and recyclers being his primary contact with the outside world. On rare occasions, a trucker rolls down his tinted window and glares at Juan Carlos. Less often, one will toss him a Quetzal or two as payment for sweeping out his dumpster. And now he’s getting kicked out into that world of complexity and madness.
Casteneda resumes his chant.
“But what meaning have your words, Casteneda?” Juan Carlos asks.
“Oh—those. Possible vacation spots I saw in National Geographic. I might visit—buy a parcel or two.”
“You don’t say?” In Juan Carlos’ mind, the spiritual guide business must be good.
“Hold him safe, Mighty Grandfather,” Casteneda says and places his hand on Juan’s shoulder. He lobs Juan Carlos an unopened can of sardines. No doubt scavenged from the dump. He raises his tone to a level which startles Juan Carlos. “Now, GO!——FIND HIM. Know that Maximom has the power to shape change.”
Juan rolls his eyes up to the rusty tin ceiling.
Mamá, who has been a silent witness, suddenly breaks and sobs, and Araceli follows. Araceli forces herself to her feet, huddles together with Mamá and Juan Carlos, and the three of them weep, “boooo hooooo.” Casteneda drops to his knees, exhausted.
“GO!” Casteneda says again, even more firmly.
Juan Carlos breathes faster, and there’s a pain in the back of his throat. He doesn’t want to leave but leave he must. He’ll seek the fate Maximom holds for him and his family.
He pockets a new glue tube and wears a red bandana exiting the hut into the dark alley. He’ll follow the trail around the volcano.
The night’s incredibly dull and much blacker than he had experienced before, even when he scavenged without moonlight. Juan’s stomach growls to remind him of how he hasn’t eaten in some time. He walks for a few hours until he reaches narrow, dimly lit streets, a place with buildings, big ones like he’d heard recyclers describe. No one was out at night, but he heard voices from inside buildings made of bricks, like bricks discarded in the basurero. A rat scurries by, dogs tethered to stakes growl and bark at him. He keys back the lid and drinks the juice before scarfing down four of the ten sardines. He inverts the glue tube cap and pierces the foil membrane. His heart pounds faster when he unties and lays his head bandana on the cobblestone walkway. He squeezes the tube and, while spreading the glue into semicircles, massages the cloth, holds it before his mouth with a closed fist, and sucks.
At daybreak, Juan Carlos happens upon a woman in a corte intricately woven with birds, clouds, and sun designs. Her huipil has bright yellow and blue horizontal and vertical stripes. She balances a basket of avocados on her head, but several falls and Juan Carlos kicks them away.
Juan Carlos tells her about Dump City, his Papa’s grave, Araceli’s sickness, everything. “Can you tell me where to find Maximom, Donã?”
“Maximom may be closer than you think. But no, my job is to procure avocados for my family, not to help lost boys find God.”
Juan Carlos scrunches up his face and curses the woman, “bitch.”
Juan then tramps through the small village into the rainforest, his clothes soaked from the heat and humidity, and his mouth grows dry. He wrestles through dense sun-blocking vegetation, and he jumps when monkeys whoop and roar in the trees.
He sees an older man in a small clearing struggling to pick berries from bushes and off the ground. Juan squashes them with his soles.
“Where can I find Mamimom sénior?” Again Juan Carlos explains his dilemma, how he hates scavenging in the basurero, how he’s always hungry, how his Mamá kicked him out. He sniffs the rag, but the fumes are faint, hardly enough to get a fly high. He’s almost out of glue—his hand trembles.
“I do not discuss religion with lost boys. Besides, my job is to pick berries falling from the bush, take them home so I might eat later, and no, not to help young boys find God.” The monkey howls grow louder, and Juan’s head begins to hurt. Turkeys cloaked in iridescent bronze-green feathers scamper in the brush. He offers the man sardines as a bribe, but the older man waves him off.
Juan Carlos curses, “old bastard.”
Parrots feathered in brilliant blue and yellow group noisily high in the trees. He is deep into the rainforest. Vapors are gone, his glue tube empty.
He eats half the remaining sardines leaving him with three. His sweating becomes excessive even for the humid rainforest, muscles cramping, he flashes back to Mamá, and Castenada is sending him away, which causes him to grind his teeth. He fantasizes about Araceli dying on the floor mat, and he has difficulty seeing what’s real before him when he comes upon a young woman about his age.
She appears to crack open nuts with rocks under a sign which she stops and points to. “Chukox Aq’oom is my village. I, Izabella.” She returns to work, and her two long black braids bounce with each blow to the nuts, her corte clings to her lithe body soaked with sweat. Her name means pledged to God, and with new knowledge, Juan Carlos believes he’s in the right place.
He explains his quest to which the girl instantly replies, “Yes, yes, I know where you can find Maximom.”
This brightens Juan, and he offers Izabella the last of his sardines. They sit on the ground, knees touching. “Eat.” She shares some nuts which, at first glance, look like macadamia but upon closer inspection remind him of coffee beans. “Drink.” He shows his palms and shrugs. “It is atol, a corn drink with secret ingredients, Juan Carlos.” She smiles, and so does he.
They talked for a long time; him about life in Dump City, about the thousands and thousands of people living off the basurero, about how they compete with buzzards for food, about glue to help curb his appetite. After all, that’s all he knows. She, about life in the rainforest, howler monkeys, jaguars, and leaf-cutter ants. She knows a lot. She touches his leg, and Juan Carlos believes the girl is in love with him. His stomach flutters, he’s hard.
He ducks away from a large butterfly with bright blue wings edged in black, shadows loom in the overgrowth. Another monkey howls, Juan’s body shakes, and his heart beats faster. His mind sees Araceli curled up on the floor mat, remembers why he’s in the forest, and clears his throat. “Dearest Izabella, tell me the location of Maximom.”
Izabella goes silent for a long time. Has she been putting him on? Maybe she’s a witch, a shapeshifter like Castaneda had warned.
Nauseous, Juan Carlos stands, bends over, and grabs his stomach. He retches as if half his gut is ready to take leave of his body. Up come nuts floating in gray bile.
Izabella gives a quick shoulder shrug. “Your glue habit caused your body imbalance.”
“What’s the shit you gave me, witch? I’m dying!” Juan Carlos retches again but only emits a greenish puss. He falls writhing in the dirt, the pain sharp like tiny knives.
“No, Juan Carlos. Your glue is the poison—herbs and seed will help your body equalize itself. Devil mushroom prepares your mind for your journey home. It’s what I do. I’m the curandera, the Person of Wisdom for my people.”
His body purges stored glue to rebalance itself. He sits up and presses his palms into his eye sockets before he stands in his moccasins.
Izabella shapeshifts into Castenada.“Dandara—Alberobello—Cueta,” she says in her female voice. She seems to float from the ground into a standing position in front of him. “Make-believe Juan Carlos, my hand is a mirror.”
In her palm, he sees a familiar reflection he’s seen in broken mirror shards his mother and sister collected in the dump, his shoulder-length hair greased back with pomade he’d found. His wispy mustache, medium brown pitted skin, dark, sullen eyes, mouth rash, blistered lips, and off-white teeth.
His reflection in the girl’s dirty hand is Maximom. The avocados woman was right. Maximom was all along closer to him than he’d thought. His mood boosts, and his thoughts turn to a new situation, considering how he can best move forward. Juan Carlo’s world now extends beyond the limits of Dump City. Inside, his body feels lighter, his mind somewhat brighter. He’s seen the face of Maximom, his own.
The image of Castaneda changes back to Izabella. “To help yourself and your family, it is up to you to create the opportunity to do so.”
“But how? What should I do for money? Sell drugs in the basurero?”
Izabella touches her slender fingers to his forehead, flattens her lips before the corners turn up, “Have you thought about real estate?”
Juan opens his mouth, but nothing comes out at first. “Are you sure?”
“Psyche!” Izabella whoops loudly. “First, get a truck, Juan Carlos.” She gives him plantains and a bag of cornmeal for his journey. “I’ll pray for you.”
Juan Carlos Martinez will try to get back home.
Juan Carlos is nearly out of the rainforest when he happens upon the berry picker. The older man struggles with several full bags of berries and winces when he sees Juan Carlos.
“I found God, sénor.”
“Humph,” the old man sputters. Sweat rains off his face .
“Let me help your load.” Juan Carlos throws bags over his shoulder and hoists one atop his head.
“God is great. I thank her every day for blessings, for sending me help like you, Juan Carlos.”
They reach the older man’s home, a shack with palm leaved walls and a thatch roof. The old man is so grateful that he gives Juan Carlos a large bag of berries. “For your family,” he says.
Juan Carlos travels onward, losing track of how often the morning star rises; he hardly notices the heat, the weight from plantains, cornmeal, and berries.
He happens across the avocado woman again, laboring with a basket on her head and the four bags she drags behind her. She sees him coming and turns away from him, but he catches up.
“I found God, Donã.”
“Psshh,” the woman sucks her teeth, her huipil drenched with sweat.
“You were right, Donã. Maximom was close to me. Let me help you with your load.”
Juan Carlos balances two avocado bags on top of the berries and plantains and drags the other two with his cornmeal to the woman’s tiny home.
“Thank you, my son. I’ll pray for your safe journey home.” She hands Juan Carlos two bags of avocados. “For your family,” she says.
Juan Carlos walks all night, and at daybreak, he’s in the small city with narrow streets, dim lamps, and brick buildings. He trades some avocados and berries for medicine, granulated antibiotics to mix with herbs, which Araceli will need.
By twilight, Juan Carlos is on the trail leading around the volcano to his village. He feels more energetic, better than he has in some time. He can’t recall a time he’d felt better. Halfway around, the volcano spews dark gray clouds of smoke high into the air; the earth rumbles below him but does not erupt. Juan Carlos answers Castaneda’s prayers when he reaches their corrugated metal and old tarpaulins shack sitting across the street from the basurero. He drops his booty of plantains, berries, avocados, cornmeal, and antibiotics inside the door flap.
Mamá sweeps around the wood crate placed in the middle of their hut. Castaneda prostrates himself in front of the deity. Candles flicker on the floor mat, where he left Araceli. His eyes meet Mamá’s.
“Dead.” She drops her broom, stares at empty hands, and walks toward Juan Carlos. “Waiting for three months was too long for her, Juan Carlos. Araceli’s death meant less for food and more to pay for Papa’s coffin. I buried them together, and the cost does not change.”
Arceli can’t be dead, oh, fuck. Juan Carlos bites his lip and recalls the wooden wheel wagon, Araceli’s out of sync words, her telling him to hurry. He cups his mouth. Castaneda places a hand on his shoulder, but Juan Carlos’ jerks it away. Please, God.
Several days later, Juan Carlos sweats atop a newly formed basurero trash mountain, shades his eyes, and tries to focus on Papa and Araceli’s gravesite in the cemetery above him. He sold avocados, berries, antibiotics, and plantains for a small truck parked at the base of his trash mound. He’ll recycle, cut out the middleman. Below him, thousands of guajiro mill about dancing in ghostly repetition.
He sucks a deep fume-filled breath from snot-colored glue at the bottom of a plastic bag.
Ron L. Dowell holds two Master’s degrees from California State University Long Beach. In June 2017, he received the UCLA Certificate in Fiction Writing. His short stories or poems have appeared in Oyster Rivers Pages, Rain on Rooftops Review, Writers Resist, Stories Through The Ages Baby Boomers Plus 2018, and in The Poeming Pidgeon. He is a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow. Ron resides in Los Angeles California, USA, and is African (American).