Ketchup on the Sidewalk

Submitted into Contest #99 in response to: Begin your story with somebody watching the sunrise, or sunset.... view prompt

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Drama Fiction

At one point, the rising sun had meant something. The thin amber blade slicing out of a dark horizon signalled the dawn of a new day. A definitive end to yesterday. An end to a night plagued by danger and mystery. A new beginning.


Once, it had meant those things.


Now, amid the streetlamps flickering down over a slew of noisy traffic, the sun seemed nothing more than a late arriving guest to a day already in progress. Few passersby even seemed to notice the burgeoning hill of light, just now barely visible at the end of the narrow corridor of skyscrapers that lined the streets of a city that didn't sleep. But for Emilio, who sat patiently, resting his feet against the wheels of the family’s red and yellow cart as his father smoked his breakfast cigarette, he felt some wordless connection to that sunrise, one that harkened back to that once felt wonder.


"Hey, you sleeping 'milio? Don’t tell me you’d rather be in school? Listen, you know why I stopped here?"


Emilio broke from his daze at the sound of his father's ash and gravel voice. Papa must have caught him daydreaming, even though he'd never wavered from the solemn stare he maintained down the busy street ahead of them. Sometimes Emilio thought that his father saw better out of the corners of his eyes than the middle.


"To remind me that cigarettes are bad for your health?"


Emilio lurched forward as his father clapped him on the back of the head, sending cigarette ash raining down over Emilio's hair and face. Mr. Aguilar followed through with his arm, bringing the cigarette to his lips as though that was his goal all along.


"What'd I say about being smart?"


"Sorry," Emilio said, rocking the cart forward and back a little with his toes, watching the ketchup and mustard bottles wobble and threaten to tip over. "Why did we stop here?"


Mr. Aguilar took a long pull of his cigarette, pausing long enough before exhaling that Emilio thought his father maybe hadn't heard him. This wasn't the case. The truth was that Mr. Aguilar, like any good smoker, knew how to convey that when they had a cigarette, nothing could be more important. That everything else could wait. Cigarettes were as close to sacred as it got for Mr. Aguilar. Emilio's mother had told him that when Emilio was born, the nurses had found his father out in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette, and that he only came up five minutes after they'd told him "it's a boy!"


Finally, Mr. Aguilar blew the smoke out over his left shoulder and gave an almost imperceptible nod to the sun that had risen a few degrees higher in the distance before them. 


"Why do we look at the sunrise, but not the sun?"


Emilio sat without responding, recognizing this didactic riddle as another of his father's lessons. He knew not to make a joke this time, and instead shifted his weight in a familial signal that he was listening. When his father got in these moods, of imparting wisdom, his questions always became rhetorical. Responding now would only disrupt his flow.


Mr. Aguilar took another purposeful drag of his cigarette, exhaling directly forward now, letting the smoke blur and haze the scene before them.


"Yeah I saw you looking. I stopped here because some things are beautiful in a dangerous way, eh? See, we want to look at the sun at its peak, at noon we want to look, but we don't, because we know it would burn our eyes. So instead, we take peeks. In the early morning, yeah? Or when it sets late in the evening. Even though we know that means we can't see the whole thing, we still take these little peeks. Because we want to see the beauty of it, even if it's just a sliver. And that's the only time it's safe, right? At the beginning and the end. You remember that."


With that he stood, clearly having made his point. To Emilio, he looked like a leaf, or a blade of grass, weakly unfurling in the morning light, and for the first time he realized how old his father looked. His back was gnarled and hunched from years bent over the grill. Mr. Aguilar took a final pull from his cigarette, blew the smoke to the heavens, and crushed the butt under the toe of his weathered white sneaker.


"What are you waiting for, 'milio? Let's go. We got work to do."


*****


The corner where Mr. Aguilar always set up his cart was already busy, a chaotic blend of cars and pedestrians, rushing through the street and into the buildings towering nearby. A car honked at a pedestrian crossing the street, who threw back a defiant finger, suggesting that the driver watch where the fuck they were going. The world was angry at itself. And yet, as Emilio pushed their little red and yellow cart, the sea of people parted before them, and no one protested as they parked themselves on the corner. Although at first Emilio thought that this meant that they were venerated, that perhaps his father's little hotdog cart really was a fixture of the city, he soon realized that in fact it was because they were invisible. People flowed around the cart like water around a stone. 


As he watched the people flow around their little cart, he spotted a man in a beautiful grey suit walking briskly through the river of people. Emilio had never seen such a nice suit in his life. It was a dark grey colour, like freshly poured asphalt, and from his breast pocket poked a bright splash of green fabric. He wore a white shirt and a tie that matched the fabric in his pocket. The man checked his watch, which lit like an incandescent gold, reflecting light in all directions. 


Emilio imagined what it would feel like to wear a suit like that. Invincible, not invisible. It looked to him like a suit of armor. The man must be a banker. Or a stock broker, Papa was always talking about how much money stock brokers made. Emilio wanted to ask what kind of work the man did that let him wear a suit like that, but as their eyes met, the man immediately shook his head, averting his eyes and raising his palm to Emilio as he rushed past. No, The hand said. I don't want a hotdog.


"Quit messing around, 'milio," his father called out from where he crouched, rooting around in the cabinets under the cart. He tossed Emilio a greasy, red apron that smelled vaguely of meat. 


"Every minute you stand around wasting is a customer we miss. Every customer we miss is a dollar we lose. Put out the sign and the umbrella while I turn on the grill."


Emilio acquiesced, pausing to watch as the man in the suit crossed the street and spun quickly through the revolving door of one of the massive buildings there, before taking to work. Emilio cranked open the gaudy red and yellow pinstripe umbrella and placed it in its stand, where it wobbled in the wind from passing traffic.


He didn’t understand the point of setting up so early, but it turned out there was a decent appetite for hotdogs on the city streets, even this early in the morning. Mostly men, approaching with an intimidating urgency, would approach the cart for a hasty pre-work meal. Mr. Aguilar would greet them all the same, with a smile and a, "Hello, what can I get you?" to which the response was almost always a sharply uttered "hotdog," often spoken around a phone call in progress and with almost an annoyance that there could even be any uncertainty as to why they were there.


When there was a lull in customers, Mr. Aguilar had Emilio take control of the cart, coaching him through the steps he needed to do to prepare for the coming lunch rush. 


"These people are rude." Emilio said as he scraped the grease and burnt bits off of the grill. His father sat squat on the curb beside him, rubbing sweat into the already damp rag he left slung over his shoulder. When Emilio spoke, his father whipped the rag forward, snapping it on his son's shins.


"What do you think, you are here to make friends? This isn’t like your school, Emilio. We are here because we sell food. That is it. Maybe they would care back home, but not here. Here, we sell hotdogs. No one wants to hear what you have to say about their business, okay? We come here, we sell hotdogs to the people who work in these buildings, and we go home to your mother. Don’t make it more complicated than that.”


Mr. Aguilar put his wrinkled hands on his knees and pushed himself up into a standing position.


“Now get out of the way, you’re not scraping it right.”



*****



By midday, the corner where they had set up their cart was sweltering, and Emilio had to constantly wipe his face on his sleeves and apron to rid himself of the sweat. Every inch of him smelled like propane and meat, and there had been a constant line of 5-6 people in front of the cart for the last half hour. Everyone seemed to be universally in a terrible mood, but Mr. Aguilar served them all quickly and gracefully. Emilio had long since been kicked off the grill, as he couldn’t keep up with the flow of customers. Instead he was relegated to side tasks. At the back of the grill was a small metal tin, filled with a lukewarm water that was used to keep the hotdogs ready, thawing them from their frozen state so that they could be quickly thrown on the grill when ordered. Emilio hated that tin, and the slippery, oily feeling the water had by midday, and his father chastised him for taking too long, taking notice of the way his son made great effort to avoid getting his hand wet.


“Quicker, Emilio, it is just water.”


“If it’s just water, would you drink it?” He said, dropping another handful of wieners into the tin, jumping out of the way to avoid his father’s kick.


“Again with the smarts,” Mr. Aguilar muttered as he turned back to the next customer in line. 


Emilio stood back and wiped more sweat from his brow, realizing too late that he’d forgotten to wipe his hands as the hotdog water mingled with the sweat, running down his face and around his eyes. He felt filthy. Using his apron to clear his face, he looked around at the intersection. The sun was at its peak now, although from their position, flanked by these looming towers of glass, it seemed as though there was not one sun but thousands. Harsh circles of light reflected off the windows of the buildings, all seemingly bouncing to point down to where Emilio stood, squinting. Looking up, he imagined that the buildings must be aggressively air-conditioned. He’d been in buildings like that, where the air conditioning was so cold that it made your teeth chatter. He thought about how in those offices there were probably balconies, where people would take their refrigerated drinks, and this heat, the same heat that cooked him, would be their reprieve. 


“Emilio! Get your head back on the ground. The ketchup is empty.” Mr. Aguilar clacked his tongs in the direction of the condiment tray. 


Emilio grabbed the large container of ketchup from under the cart and began to refill the empty bottle, but his hands were slick and the container slipped, knocking the bottle onto the ground and sending a splattering of red across the sidewalk, nearly splashing onto the shoes of the next customer in line. 


“I’m sorry sir, my son is new to this. ‘Milio, be more careful, clean that up before someone steps in it.”


Emilio grabbed a handful of napkins and began trying to dab up globs of ketchup off the sidewalk, mostly succeeding in just smearing it across the hot pavement. As he worked, he heard his father turn back to the customer.


“Sorry sir, here you go. And what is it you were saying, that this would be the last time you would be coming here? Was something wrong with the food?”


The man laughed, but when Emilio looked up at his face he saw that the laughter didn’t reach the man’s eyes. His face was contorted in a perverse way, as though he was laughing through a great amount of pain.


“Oh what, you didn’t hear?” The man said, his voice far too loud. “The market crashed. There’s nothing left.”


Emilio stood and watched as the man held out a shaky hand, clumsily dropping an assortment of coins onto the top of the cart before stumbling away, walking a few feet in one direction before abruptly making an about-face, turning and walking in the opposite direction. Looking around now, Emilio could see people trickling out of the nearby buildings, spilling out onto the harshly lit sidewalk with confused, pained expressions. Many of them were crying, and Emilio saw one man lurch out of a revolving door, stumbling across the sidewalk to lean on a lamppost and vomit in the street.


A woman in line screamed, her one hand rushing to cover her mouth as the other flung in the air in a desperate point. Emilio turned, following the line of her hand, as the murmurs of people around the cart began to grow louder, and people’s movements became more frantic. 


The woman had pointed to the top of the building across the street. Emilio’s eyes took a moment to adjust to a flurry of movement at a highrise window before his vision clarified, and he saw a figure tumbling out. The man from before, the flaps of his grey suit fluttering in the wind as his arms stretched out like the wings of an infant bird, too feeble and unfeathered to fly. He fell from the nest, his hands grasping at an ever-faster moving nothing, and for one brief moment his frame was silhouetted by the sun. Not the true sun, but one of its many imitators, reflected off the uncompromising mirrored windows of the tower he’d just left, and in that moment, silhouetted as he was by the brightness of the sun, the flaps of his cloak looked to Emilio like true wings. 


The moment passed and the bird was once again made man, tumbling pathetically through the air as people around Emilio began to cry out and run, jostling into him as they tried to escape bearing witness to what was to come. Emilio began to turn to follow the stream of people, but a hand clasped his shoulder and held him firmly in place. From over his shoulder, he heard the rasp of his father’s lighter, followed by a long, wavering inhale.


“Remember what I told you,” his father said, his voice old and full of pain. “We watch, at the beginning and the end.”





June 25, 2021 19:00

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1 comment

Lynda Ann Singh
20:11 Jul 01, 2021

Excellent story telling

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