Wings, Two for One

Truth is I finish the day tired. No wonder. Business is going from bad to worse. In decline, as they say. People don't dispose of as much money as before, or as much faith. In these wicked times people aren't interested in wings. Even at two for the price of one.

For my grandfather, who passed down the business to us, it went amazingly, so they say. He had three houses and a horse. Times were different. He wore a big, florid, crumbcatching mustache and the boots of a war general, all captured in sepia by the photographs in the trunk. I never got to know him. With my father, though he dedicated himself to the drink, the business still flourished. He drank away the three houses and the horse. Mother abandoned us. Left us all alone. In the trunk, which I opened only after Father's death, I didn't find a single photograph of her. She was pretty and very cheerful. She liked musicians. Gossips say a bolero singer snatched her by the heart and dragged her down a bitter road.

Now people laugh at the business. Who wants to fly around with some crappy wings when there are airplanes on hand? Comfortable, warm, efficient airplanes. Who could deny them? Some buy wings for Halloween or for costume parties during the holidays. Just two occasions all year. And the rest? As though the other months I didn't eat.

I've covered a ten-kilometer route through the city on foot. I don't take the bus because it bothers the other passengers, what if all of a sudden I poke out their eyes, and the taxi's expensive. Now I leave the house with only one pair of wings. If I manage to sell them the day's a success and I don't try for more. Today I couldn't.

I was about to. Just before noon, in La Castellana, which is a rich neighborhood, I saw a boy in the window of a white house. His air of helplessness attracted me. I started asking him questions. At first he didn't even look at me. Then I made him laugh. He looked like he wanted to play with a beautiful pair of wings. Often I keep up tedious conversations, there's lots of layabouts in the city who want to kill time with a guy who insists on selling wings, but the boy had a gift. He had grace. Only the wings were missing. He confessed his wish to jump from tree to tree, like the squirrels, to escape the monster who swallows the night by the mouthful. We were having fun when his mother came and scolded him for talking to strangers. I never even got to offer a price for the wings. I like to talk with customers. They should feel happy with their purchase. In the end, you don't buy wings every day. I say I was about to but who knows. With women it's just as unlikely. Either they ask for a discount or they assume their kids aren't interested in wings.

To rest my swollen feet I go into El Limonar and ask for a black coffee. I stretch my hand under the table, secretly loosen my laces and sense the bearable lightness of being. The owner serves me the coffee without a word. He's probably tired of customers only asking for coffee. At the back table an old guy nods off in front of an empty cup. The owner doesn't show any interest in the wings. He's fat. So fat that without a doubt his pants could hold three wing salesmen. I forgot my book of poems. I could have edited a verse during this delicious hour. Maybe a new poem would have come to me, it's been months since I had a visit from the Graces. At home less-than-poetic work is waiting for me. I have a room near the square in the oldest neighborhood in the city, refuge for poets and frauds, crazies who sell necklaces and art critics who praise the beatific and starve to death. And thieves. There's a handful of scary thieves. When it gets late we pass each other. "Don't mess with that guy," says one, "He sells wings." And they leave me be. As they say, I'm more screwed than the thieves themselves. Rough work. Or what if suddenly they need a pair of wings. How else will they get to Heaven? My window faces the square, where a tree shelters the birds. A window to air out the soul. Whoever climbs the tree can see the cemetery. You quickly get used to the nearness of the dead who, among other things, don't cause any trouble at all. They don't rob. I should brush the wings when I get home, dust them. People touch but they don't buy. Fondlers. Sometimes I have to clean them, with infinite care, with lady fingers. They can't look secondhand or the business won't profit. I dream of wing paste, of women doused with honey rolling around in feather beds, of bloodstained wings. I stretch my hand under the table and scratch with gusto.

When I make a sale I go to the cinema. The movie doesn't matter. If I've seen them ten times I like them the same. What matters is that in the warm darkness of the theater I can take my shoes off. A while back I met my girlfriend at the Teatro Almirante Padilla. Carmencita Garay, native of San Juan de Río Seco, really pretty, with thin legs, and she loved gum. She thought she was the reason I went to see Gone With the Wind so much. Women are that delusional. I think it's a record: she'd seen the movie thirty seven times in ten years. Our love affair didn't last long. She fell for a bookseller. The other day I saw them eating popsicles in the Parque de los Cerezos. Totally pregnant, dressed in pink and blue, she said so long with a wave. I saw the bookseller ask her who that guy was. I saw laughter fly from her mouth and a piece of popsicle after. Oh, Carmencita Garay, gone with the wind. My beloved, what a sweet word.

I still think about her. If I'd shown her my book of poems she might have married me. I have a picture of her in my wallet. She gave it to me when I proposed. She didn't answer. Only blew a lock from her forehead. Saying good-bye, with one foot in the bus, she gave me the picture. Afterward she met the bookseller and they got married in a hurry.

I'm not in a rush but the subject of marriage worries me. If I don't get married I won't have kids. And if I don't have kids, I won't know who to pass the trunk down to or the wing business. It's not a trunk with many treasures: only photos, an antique camera, tops, a revolver that no longer works, a woman's ring. Veils and shrouds fall from the clouds, they say, and it's true because unless she falls from the sky I don't know how another woman could love me. I'm a tired man. No one's going to marry an old pilgrim. I'm all suffering. Life has passed me by, selling wings and writing a book. My voice has changed in the past few years.

I'm still thinking about Carmencita Garay when a miracle happens. A girl showered in tears enters El Limonar, sits down at the next table and lets people look. The owner approaches to take her order. Maybe the woman will choose a dessert and a delicious cappuccino. I'd like to see her with a milk mustache. But I don't think that with those tears she'll choose something so cheerful.

—A glass of water, please.

I thought so. The owner makes a gesture of disillusion, of disgust. Why open a business for this. Water and coffee, the clients don't ask for more. Tears don't interest the owner.

The woman drinks the water slowly. It comes out her eyes in a hurry. Hypnotized, I approach, study the shape of her neck and offer the wings.

—Fly away, I tell her.

She stands, puts on the wings and takes off. At the door she turns to look at me and I guess blows me a kiss with the tips of her fingers. The owner runs after. I get up. The woman forgot to pay for the glass of water. I count my coins again and again: only enough to cancel the coffee. I go as far as the door. The girl has disappeared into the seven o'clock sky.

—Just what I needed, says the owner. —Customers flying off.

Translation of "Alas A Mitad de Precio." Copyright Triunfo Arciniegas. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 Steve Dolph. All rights reserved.