Read an Excerpt
June 7, 2116
"¿Ocho pesos, Señor?" the young girl asked over the counter. Her face was deeply tanned and stark, with lips that were thin and outlined a mouth that had seen little variety of food over her eleven years. Her moist brown eyes, made larger than normal because of her lean face, looked longingly at a brightly decorated piñata. Made of tissue paper, it was red, yellow, green, blue, orange, white and purple. It had every color possible except brown. That it did not have even a trace of brown - the brown of dusty streets, stale bread crusts and leering eyes - only made it more desirable. Shaped like a llama, it seemed to be from a wondrous dream, a joyful fragment of unimagined happiness that hung from the cart's mesquite wood rafters, tantalizingly close, yet impossibly out of Juanita's grasp.
"Eight pesos, Señor?" Juanita repeated hopefully, offering a price far below the piñata's marked price of ninety pesos. She fidgeted nervously, knowing she had no right to offer such a laughable sum, but she was going to try. Clasped firmly in her delicate hand were twelve pesos. She needed at least three to purchase the day's meal for her and her mother, but the remaining nine were hers to spend.
The cart vendor, having finished his transaction with a tourist, turned toward Juanita, prepared to chase her away. She had badgered him with the same eight pesos for several days now and each day he had rudely cursed her, not even honoring such a poor amount with a counteroffer that would indicate bartering had begun. Eight pesos! Didn't this street imp know that she must at least try to offera reasonable...
He looked down at Juanita, and his anger faded. She stood close to the counter that nearly came up to her painfully thin shoulders. She looked as she had every day he'd seen her. She had long, black hair, some of it tied back with a slice of faded orange ribbon, and wore a loose, oversized tan sack dress that came down to her knees. She had a rope tied around her skinny waist. She was barefoot, but a pair of sandals - worn out and used only when necessary - hung from her rope belt. Always emaciated, the child today seemed to have an extra measure of desperation. She held her petite, underdeveloped frame proudly, as she always did, but today it seemed as though a harsh word from him would shatter her. He was a hard bargainer, and he held off poverty for his own family only by shrewdly bartering with - some might say battering - those who could afford to be generous, or who knew nothing about challenging a price. But staring into the girl's large, hopeful eyes ruined his business acumen, and for this single transaction, the loving father in him took precedence.
"Eight pesos?!" he said loudly in poorly feigned shock. He gestured both hands at the piñata, as though presenting the rarest of earthly treasures. "How could you offer only eight pesos for such art?" He shook his head sadly. "I fear, child, that the sun has burned your brain away."
Juanita smiled slightly, and she felt her heart pound the smallest bit harder. Today, and maybe only today, she had a chance to possess this tiny morsel of paradise.
"But, sir! This has been hanging in your cart for weeks. I know, because I pass it every day on my way to the Square of Mercy." She cautiously opened her hand and stole a glance at the sweaty, warm coins, not allowing the vendor to see her wealth. She closed her hand again and looked up. "Eight pesos, Señor."
"Eight pesos! Again with the eight pesos!" he proclaimed, his pretended blustering losing what little bark it had. He found himself admiring her good trading technique of not raising her offer until he at least countered. He leaned forward and put his weight on the counter, causing it to creak in protest. A large man, he seemed twice again his size beside the slight Juanita, but she lifted her chin and stood her ground, though her legs were weaker than they had been a moment earlier. He considered her thoughtfully.
"Though my family will starve because of my foolishness, I will sell you this beautiful piñata, which my children slaved many hours to make, for only..." he paused, gauging his small customer, "fifteen pesos."
Fifteen! Juanita thought wildly, at once depressed and excited. The marked price was ninety! This was very generous, and she wished with desperation that she had the fifteen. But she didn't. She had twelve, and at least three was needed to purchase rice and beans - and perhaps bread - in Mercy Square.
She did not show any fear, though. Or tried not to. Instead, she set her mouth firmly, hoping he didn't see the tiny quiver in them.
"Fifteen pesos for so small a thing, sir?" she said in surprise and a hint of indignation. In truth, she was thrilled at having the rare chance to debate the price of something. "How grand you and your family must live! You make so much money with a toy that cost no more than a peso to make." She briefly thought about raising her offer, but knew she had little room for that option. "I will pay you eight pesos."
Her offer, improperly unchanged, all but shattered the man's heart. He knew that she dearly wanted the piñata, but had little or no money beyond the eight pesos. He nearly reached up and gave her the treasure for nothing, but couldn't. Her pride would force her to refuse it. He wanted her to have it now as much as she did, but had to do this the proper way.
"Is eight the only number you know? Ah!" he threw his hands up, then folded his arms and frowned at her menacingly. It was a frown that neither believed. "I shall teach you a new number today, girl! You ruin me, but I will sell it to you for twelve pesos."
Twelve! Now her prize became a thing of torture as well. Her insides twisted and churned, and had she any food in her stomach, she might have thrown up from eagerness and agony. She had twelve pesos! But she needed three, which left only nine.
She hurriedly tried to calculate how she might save some money at the Square. Mother could not earn any money. And while her mother had eaten yesterday, it had been very little, since Juanita had been detained overly long at the city gates by the Hidalgo police who were looking for a young thief about Juanita's size. They had forced her to take them to her mother, to prove she was not an orphan, and then wasted more time while they took her mother's finger and eye prints to verify she was properly listed with the Demented Persons Registry.
Finally satisfied, they left Juanita and her mother in peace, but the Square was closed by then, and Juanita could only afford food elsewhere if she used her precious eight pesos, which she had vowed to spend on herself. So she had fed her mother the little bread that had been tossed her during her impromptu dances that day. She herself went hungry. It was not an unusual event, so Juanita didn't concern herself with it. She was young and able to earn money. Her mother was addled and unable to work, so her mother had to come first.
She knew that she could not buy enough food for the both of them for less than three pesos. She must use the one extra peso that remained.
"You have insulted me, Señor!" Juanita snapped, stamping her foot on the dusty street, stirring a small cloud. "I know many numbers! I also know that the number twelve is not a good number for that piñata. If it were three piñatas, or perhaps one piñata as large as me, then twelve would be almost fair. But I only wish to purchase one small piñata. Very well then, Señor," she said, mustering as stately a voice as possible, "I shall crumble to your bullying by offering you nine pesos."
"Nine!" he stared at her in disbelief and horror. Inside, he was overjoyed that the child had the one extra peso to conclude the trading. He would sell it to her for nine. But it still wasn't quite time. Both child and man were very much excited and delighted with this exchange; a moment of happiness the child was basking in and the man was gladly giving her.
"Nine!" he repeated, putting a tone in his voice that sounded as the bells of doom might. "Why don't you steal a knife from me and rob me, girl? I see now that you are not a beautiful child but rather a glassmac man disguised as a lovely young woman. Nine! It is you who are bullying me!" He sighed heavily. Juanita's eyes were sparkling and her efforts to maintain a righteously indignant face were failing miserably as a smile forced her face to light up. "You leave me no choice, then. You have bested me, glassmac man. Ten pesos."
Copyright © 2006 Peter Prellwitz