Natalia Cortes-Chaffin
The baby who won’t stop crying has a head full of dark curly hair. It is much like Tonito’s own mane, except it is thin and soft and smells of soap rather than ox manure because the baby, presumably, has not just come from tilling soil on his grandfather’s ranch. Tonito would like to cry, too. Standing under the hot Havana sun for two hours without a drink is good cause to well up, but he figures the folks around him aren’t so willing to excuse the constant wailing of a nineteen-year-old man, even if they might share his despair.
He needs to buy a pair of shoes. So he’s been waiting in this interminable line, slumped against the pink stucco wall of an abandoned jewelry shop, sweat burning his eyes. In 1969 Cuba, there is a ration on shoes. Many say Castro’s Revolution and the U.S. Embargo are to blame. At this moment, Tonito doesn’t care about the why. He just wants something to slip between the cracked soles of his feet and the pavement that scorches like he’s walking on the ceiling of hell. A man has a right to that much. 
He looks behind him. The line snakes around the block: scrawny fathers with pit-stained shirts, kids dressed in clothes that are too big or too small, older folks in outdated but meticulously preserved threads that are rarely washed but always ironed stiff to hold up their bones. Around them, lime green shutters hang from windows. Chips of paint rain from once bright walls. Tonito, in his usual uniform of cutoff shorts and ill-fitting tees with pilled cotton, taps his foot, whistles a bit of this and that, and listens to the baby cry. 
“I’ll fix it,” Tonito said when he first came home with his torn sandal strap. He’d stepped off the bus and into a street fight between a flea-infested mutt and a half-starved terrier. Each had sunk his incisors into a dirty ham sandwich. Their tug-of-war had drawn quite the crowd of boys and men shouting bets. Tonito’s foot came down right on the terrier’s tail. The dog yelped, lost his grip on the juicy meal. He barked at Tonito. Tonito did not think to leap out of reach. The damn terrier chewed the shit out of Tonito’s shoe. No matter how hard Tonito shook his leg, the dog would not let go until he made off with a piece of leather strap.  
“How are you going to fix that?” his mother had said, looking at the shredded shoe still soaked in canine saliva. She was seated at the kitchen table. It was blanketed with pinto beans. She’d been hunting for runts. 
“I’ll sew it.” He spoke with the confidence of a sweatshop seamstress, though he’d never threaded a needle.
“I don’t have the right thread.”
“I’ll buy some.”
“You should buy new shoes.”
“Carajo. I’d have better luck shopping for a unicorn.” 
His mother frowned.
“We haven’t used up our quota.” She threw a rotten bean across the kitchen into the sink. It landed with a ding.
“That only means we may buy shoes. Doesn’t mean we can.” With that he left the room to rummage through the toolbox.

The baby has lost interest in screaming. Instead it sniffles, sucks its thumb. The mother is a slender woman with dainty crow’s feet accenting her swampy eyes. She’s searching for something. Her long chestnut hair swings like a curtain off her shoulders with every twist of her head. In another time, another place, perhaps with a touch more flesh wrapped around her bones, Tonito thinks she might have been a movie star. The baby reaches for her breast; she yanks the hand away. It occurs to him that the mother needs a place to nurse, probably didn’t count on the baby getting hungry. If she leaves the line, she’ll lose her shoes, and the paper thin sandals on her feet won’t last another mile. If she doesn’t leave, her baby will continue to cry. 
“I’ll hold your spot,” he says to the woman. “So you can feed him.”
“Can you do that?” 
“Why not?” She quickly asks the surrounding folks if they’ll mind. They shrug and mutter no.
“Go on. The line might move soon,” Tonito says. She laughs. The others don’t find his joke funny. He’s sure at least one vieja poisoned his soul with an evil eye.  
	While the mother’s gone, Tonito preoccupies himself with further mending his sandal, since it is highly likely the shop will be out of shoes by the time he reaches the store. As a temporary fix, he’d threaded some twine through the toe loop of the shoe, then wrapped and tied the ends around his ankle. Where the twine meets leg, the skin is raw. He thinks a piece of satin might be better. Satin is as strong as a bull and as soft as a bunny. Sure, he might look like a ballerina with the ribbon wrapped around his ankle, but as long as he avoids pink and uses a knot instead of a bow, he should be able to retain most of his dignity.
	Unlike the time when he became a ballet dancer, even wore black tights, so he could be the object of a ballerina’s fluttering heart. He was twelve. Her name was Katerina. She’d moved to Havana from Moscow for the summer with her diplomat father and his ascots. Tonito first spotted her walking along the Malecón, the wall that separates land from sea. Her raven locks were tucked into a bun, pink leotard peeked out from underneath the thin shoulder straps of her yellow sundress. He’d noticed right away that she walked with her toes pointed outward. He mimicked her gait.
	“Need some help?” he’d said. He gestured to the small navy bag swinging on her shoulder. She shook her head. “Where are you going? I’ll escort you. It is dangerous for a señorita to walk alone.” He could tell she was not Cuban.
	“Not at three in the afternoon. On a Saturday,” she said. Her Spanish was excellent. This brought him much relief.
	“Still. I insist.”   
	“I’m going to ballet class.” He smiled. His mother was the teacher.
For the next three months he pirouetted and pliéd. His mother, her once svelte dancer’s figure draped in black tent dresses, clapped gleefully over his grand jetés. She called him “My Little Nureyev.” His friends dubbed him “The Twirling Tonito.” His enemies threw rocks at his feet. Yet the ridicule he endured was worth its weight in kisses. Particularly the lengthy peck he received from Katerina. When at last it came time for her to exchange Cuban palm trees for Russian evergreens, she pulled him into an alley and pressed her puckered mouth against his lips. Her lips tasted salty. Then the tip of her tongue brushed past his teeth. At that point, he was pretty sure the kiss he was engaged in was what people referred to as the French variety. 
Tonito wonders whether he should leave the shoe line and find a satin line. For all he knows, the satin line might be one and the same with the shoe one. If it’s not, he might waste several days trying to find a fabric store with actual inventory. If it is, he might as well buy new shoes. He looks to the heavens. A cloud offers its services and intercepts the sun, casting a long shadow over the various desperados hoping to walk away with new footwear. He takes this as a sign from above that he should stay put. If he had a chair, this might be the perfect spot for an afternoon nap, a chance to dream about a home where cockroaches don’t scurry across the floors at night. He snuggles back up to the pink stucco wall. Lets his eyelids fall.
The mother returns with her baby, resumes her place between a set of twin mechanics in blue overalls. Her boy is asleep with a full belly. Tonito’s stomach has also stopped grumbling, but for lack of response not sweet milk.
“I see we have not moved,” she says.
“Yes, we have,” Tonito says. “A whole three inches.” 
The mother smiles weakly. “They never have baby shoes.” She squeezes her child’s tiny foot.
 “If not, I’ll make him some.” He finds himself oozing with sunshine. He hopes it overrides the musky scent under his armpits. 
“You are a cobbler?”
“I can cobble.” A lie, but not the biggest he’s told.
The shopkeeper exits his store and cools tensions like a rainbow. He’s a short man with a Fidel-esque beard. The line cheers and whistles. All this commotion wakes the baby. He picks his head up from his mother’s bare shoulder, looks up and down the street. The shopkeeper puts a finger to his lips. The noise dissolves. He tells them he’ll let them in two at a time, then ducks back into the store. The line soon begins to inch past the empty deli and boarded-up bakery. Those who’ve been waiting since sunrise disappear through the door first. Tonito figures there won’t be enough shoes for everyone, so he looks up the line and estimates sizes. So far, no one appears to share his nine-and-a-half. The shopkeeper then opens the door for a man with two watches. Watch Man clasps his hands together and says: “Gracias a Díos.” 
The mother is next. She is letting her baby walk, using her body to section off a small stretch of sidewalk where he can teeter. Tonito contorts his face to draw a laugh. The boy guffaws so hard he falls on his backside. The thump startles him. He holds up his arms. Before he can cry, his mother swoops him up.
“Sorry,” Tonito says.
“It’s okay. He likes you.” The boy is indeed smiling at Tonito. Tonito sticks out his pinky so the baby can grip his finger. “You look like father and son,” she says. “But, of course, you are too young to be a father.”
“I am old enough.” 
“Of course you are,” she says. She presses the baby’s curly-haired head against her sun burnt shoulder. Tonito wonders what she knows.
“Please come in.” It’s the shopkeeper, assuming the threesome of Tonito, mother and child are a family. Tonito sees no reason to disabuse him. 
“Something for the boy?” The shopkeeper tickles the baby’s cheek, pushes a “cuchy coo” through pillow lips. 
“And me,” the mother says.
The shopkeeper disappears into a storeroom. Tonito picks up a display moccasin. Bends and pulls the shoe to check flexibility. Next to it on the stand is a pink satin pump. In his hand the heeled shoe is light and delicate. He looks at the mother’s slender feet, imagines her wearing the pink shoes, wishes he could buy them for her, wonders when was the last time she slipped her pretty toes into something that wasn’t functional. He brushes the satin shoe against his cheek, notices the mother is staring at him. He blushes.
“I’m afraid you can’t have those,” the shopkeeper says. Tonito drops the shoe onto the stand. “But I have these.” 
The mother lets out a breath, picks up the cardboard box, lifts the lid. Inside are two camel-colored sandals. She shows them to Tonito, then floats into a chair to try them on. Tonito watches her put on the left shoe. She lifts her leg to get a better look at her foot. “Beautiful,” Tonito says, eyeing the curve of her calf.  She picks up the second shoe. The glow that’s been illuminating her olive skin dims. 
“I think there’s a mistake,” she says. She hands the box to the owner.
“No mistake. I only have shoes for left feet.” He hands the box back to her. “You’ll have to wear a left shoe on your right foot.” He looks at his watch and the line outside. “It’s really not that bad.”
“Who wears two left shoes?” Tonito says. But the storeowner just shrugs, hands the mother two left sandals for her boy.
“A pair for you as well?” He leaves before Tonito answers. The mother starts to cry. Tonito hands her a kerchief, for once glad his mother is always stuffing them in his pockets. He reassures her the boy will be fine, though in his mind he’s already picturing the kid with a smashed big toe and overgrown pinky. 
	The storeowner returns with Tonito’s sandals. 
	“I’m sure they’ll be a perfect fit,” he says. Tonito snatches the box. If only the terrier would have been prescient enough to go after the left one. Or maybe the damn dog was part of Fidel’s left shoe conspiracy. 
“Someone must have right shoes,” Tonito says.
“I’m sure someone does,” the shopkeeper says. He taps his right foot. Tonito gets an eyeful of his brand new leather wingtips. These, coupled with the new shirt, are all Tonito needs to convict him as a government informant, someone who exchanges flimsy details about his neighbors for hard-to-get goods. 
“We’ll take them,” he says. They hand the man their ration slips. Tonito grabs the mother’s hand. “Let’s go corazón.” He hurries her and her son through the shop door. The little bell rings.
 Outside the sun is down. Tonito escorts the mother home. She tells him her name is Dalia. The boy is Alex. She is a widow. Her husband died during the Bay of Pigs, caught a bullet in the thigh. It tore through an artery. She says she’s happy. So many of his friends are imprisoned in Castro’s gulag, living the life of unsanitary water and no fingernails. Better to play harps in heaven than suffer blows on earth. 
“My condolences,” Tonito says. “And your current husband?” He gestures towards Alex.
“No husband.” Her voice thins. “He has no father.”
“My condolences.” 
She shakes her head. 
“He is the one who does without.” She rubs the boy’s back. He curls up against her shoulder. Tonito looks at his moon face with black stone eyes, his little fists tucked up under his chin. He is barely one and already down on his luck. Tonito thinks back to his own childhood. Recalls guava spread paper thin on crackers, a green toy truck with a missing wheel. There was that day, at the corner market, he’d asked for licorice. His mother told him they didn’t have any, but on the other side of the counter he could see the large jar filled with red ropes. Those were not for him. “I’m a good boy, mama,” he’d cried. She’d opened her purse and flipped though slip after slip, offering the clerk a week’s worth of sugar in exchange for one rope. “No,” The clerk had said. “Not in your quota.” “He doesn’t understand quotas,” his mother had said. The clerk snickered. “Good time to learn.”
The boy whimpers. The cool evening air is nipping at his toes. Dalia doesn’t have a blanket. Tonito takes off his shirt, covers Alex. He decides, as long as he’s blessed with air to breathe, he’ll make sure the boy never wants for the things great childhood dreams are made of: toy cars and red licorice. 

The next morning, Tonito wakes in a sweat. His heart ran ahead of his brain. Now his brain must crank to catch up with the thumping in his chest. He must find a way to help Dalia and her son. He turns on the radio, a bit of music to fire his idle neurons. Across his bedroom floor sit the two left sandals, stiff from newness. Some would believe this to be a sign that God has forsaken them, but Tonito is overcome by giddiness.  
“Mama.” He waltzes into the kitchen where she is mending his underwear. “I’m joining the Party,” he says. 
She squints her eyes. “What have you cooked up?”
“I’m supporting Fidel.” 
“Not in this house.”
“I’ll just pretend. We need things.”
“You can’t pretend to turn people in.”
“Harmless lies. We need to eat.” He opens the refrigerator, shows her it’s empty. “I’m going to go work on my beard.” He rubs his chin.
“Who is she?” she says, but he has disappeared down the hall.

To convince the party his motives are genuine, he’ll have to do some spying on his neighbors. He also decides to grow a beard like Fidel. While he waits for his hair follicles to sprout, he keeps himself hidden, letting only his eyes peek out from behind painted doors and heavy curtains. Soon he learns he has a clear view of the Allende’s back porch from the bathroom window. With binoculars, he can see Mrs. Morales frying eggs in her kitchen. He makes sure to spy when his mother’s not home. 
At last, when he strokes his chin, his beard fills the space between his fingers. He stands before a mirror, takes in his transformation, chuckles at the scraggly ends of his curly facial hair. He is a changed man, on the outside. He salutes his contraband glossy of Marilyn Monroe, pats the porcelain tortoise on his nightstand, slips on his two left shoes. He passes through the kitchen on his way out into the world, hears his mother whisper, “Díos.”
It is nice to feel the sun on his face after so much time spent as a recluse. Tonito hops the bus. Several passengers stand and offer their seats. Others avert their eyes and hide their hands in pockets. One middle-aged man in dirty overalls glares. Tonito slides into a seat up front, folds his hands in his lap.
A few blocks from the shoe store, Tonito pulls the overhead wire. The bus slows and he steps off, walks past a row of Spanish columns, several faded blue and pink buildings with tiny windows. He reaches the Center for the Defense of the Party. Outside the office looms a large mural, red paint serving as a backdrop to the faces of Cuba’s old revolutionary leaders. Fidel and his cohorts are absent. He ducks inside before anyone sees him.
There’s a gray-bunned woman sitting at a plain desk topped with pamphlets. The covers all showcase Castro’s profile. The tip of his nose touches the edge of the cover as if he might sniff Tonito’s fingers while he turns the pages.
“I’d like to help,” Tonito says. The woman raises an eyebrow. A man walks through a small brown door in the back of the room. 
“Who are you?” he says.
“Tonito.” He hesitates, then gives a false last name, making sure it’s a popular one so that it’ll take months to perform the proper background checks.
“Help how?” the man says.
“Offer information.”
“We don’t spy on people.”
“Sure you do.”
“Why are you so eager to monitor counterrevolutionary activity?”
“Better me than my neighbors.” Tonito rubs his beard. “And I support Fidel.” 
“There’s a meeting next week.” The man escorts Tonito out. “You might want to shave.” Tonito races home, locks himself in the bathroom. He has no soap for lather, scrapes a dull blade along his cheeks, nicks his chin. The blood falls like teardrops into the sink.
The meeting is forty-five minutes of propaganda, or indoctrination. Nothing he hadn’t already endured in high school. They’re in a windowless yellow room. The only décor is a poster of Fidel. The attendees sit in chairs arranged in a semicircle. Everyone has a view of everyone else. The speaker is a stumpy man in his forties. He wears oversized round-rimmed glasses and a flower print shirt. Tonito follows along, whenever appropriate inserting a spirited “Viva Fidel.” He is surrounded by women in scarves and men who peer at him. The speaker concludes by asking for volunteers to organize neighborhood birthday parties in honor of Fidel. Several people nod. The meeting is ended. Tonito would have expected loud cheers, instead the small group shuffles out the door. 
Tonito feels a hand land on his shoulder. It’s the speaker. Tonito is taken to a back room with a couple of wooden chairs and a desk covered by stacks of memos.
 “You’re young and you’re up to something.” The speaker says. He smoothes his flower print shirt. The other three men in the room study him,. 
“Just want to make something of myself,” Tonito says. For ten minutes, they leave him staring at bare yellow walls. Then Flower Print and another man in a pink collared shirt return. 	“What can you tell us about the Moraleses? They are your neighbors?”  Flower Print says. Tonito realizes the false name was stupid. Of course they followed him home, turned one of their hound dogs onto his scent. He’d better come through now.  
“Mrs. Morales is keeping a pig,” Tonito says.
“Where’d she get it?”
“Don’t know.”
“What else?”
“Mr. Pilar is cheating on his wife with the black woman down the block. Don’t know her name.” How easy the secrets spill from his lips. Yet they are only small infractions. Shouldn’t rain much misery on his neighbors. He has to play along, can’t risk whatever danger might befall him.
“Very well. Here’s something for your troubles.” Flower Print man hands him slips for full rations of meat and cheese. “We’ll find you. In the mean time, keep your eyes open.” 
Tonito thanks them. He suspects Flower Print’s generosity is only a ploy to extract more information, to make him owe Fidel, force him to commit dastardly acts against innocent people, but he can’t help himself. He shoves the slips into his shirt pocket, sprints to the bus.
After a month of existing on rice and eggs, Tonito could stand to chew on some ham. He heads straight to the market. It lacks the aromas one often finds in a deli: cut meats, chicken soup, freshly baked rolls. Perhaps because these items are also lacking. Inside the glass display is a single wedge of gouda and a plate of sausage links. Along the back wall where loaves of bread once vied for space on the shelves, are three very comfy baguettes. 
Tonito presses his face against the glass case to better examine the links, he reaches up and rings the small silver bell.
“The sausages are not for sale,” the manager says. He brushes through the curtain dividing the shop from his tiny office. He crouches down to peer at Tonito through the glass. Tonito pulls out the ration slips and presses them against the display case. The manager grabs the plate and leaps up. “Except for you, of course,” the manager says. Tonito looks at his slips, notices they bear a tiny eye-shaped stamp. He’s never seen this stamp before.
“Do you have any ham?” Tonito says. 
“Only half a pound I’m afraid.”
“I’ll take it.” Tonito licks his lips.
The manager wraps the thin slices of ham and three pounds of sausage in brown paper, places the packages inside a woven tote bag. “Take it, por favor,” he says, his words sweet as sugar cane. Tonito thanks him.
Into the tote also go the three baguettes, a pound of butter, and the manager’s own lunch: his wife’s arroz con pollo. Tonito did not want to take the latter, but the manager insisted. Tonito tells him he’ll be remembered, but as he leaves, he feels the distinct sting of a raised middle finger. He can’t really blame the deli man.
Tonito makes a few more stops, then hauls his loot to Dalia’s. This time when he boards the bus, all the passengers glare. He is the one averting his eyes. No one gives up a seat. He wonders if the offer of a baguette might double as a white flag, but all the squinty eyes and bared teeth suggest any word or gesture on his part will lead to severe bruising. When he concocted his little scheme to win over Dalia and her son, he’d failed to decide at what point he would draw the line. He touches his nose. It might very well be at cracked skull.
He arrives at Dalia’s without incident, unless he counts the bus driver spitting on his two left shoes. He wipes the saliva off his toes with the sleeve of his shirt. 
Dalia lives in a four-room bungalow with a porch. To the left of the front door there is a swing that creaks; to the right there’s a ceramic toad with a large protruding tongue. The tongue doubles as a small pot. Whatever flower had graced it has since wilted. Tonito taps on the door. Dalia appears dressed in rolled up pastel blue slacks and a white halter. Her hair is loosely pinned back from her face. 
“It’s Tonito. From the shoe store.” He pulls out half a dozen roses from his bag. 
 “Is that ham I smell?” she opens the door. He hands her the flowers. “How?”
“I made some connections,” he says. He follows her to the kitchen. She giggles over the ham. She throws the diapers in the air and lets them fall around her like snow. When he places a slice of guava in her palm, their fingers touch. His tingle. He is twelve again. She is his ballerina girl. The sneers and snickers are wiped from his memory. Let the bus riders scowl, treat him like a pariah. He only pretends to be one of Castro’s henchmen. They’ve all told white lies to survive. Everyone knows they are harmless. He is still Tonito. He still wishes for fire to rain on Castro’s head. Even Dalia sees there’s another man inside.
Tonito creeps through the back door of his house. He doesn’t want to wake his mother, but she is already up sitting at the kitchen table in a rose-patterned robe. The moonlight makes the buds glow bright pink. He remembers he saved her a flower. He reaches into his tote.
“Don’t,” she says. “I don’t want anything you got like that.” 
“You need to eat.”
“I eat.”
“Something other than rice.” 
She glances at his new tote.
“Those things do not belong to you.”
“If not to me, then who do they belong to? Fidel? It’s okay to steal from Fidel.”
“It’s not okay to be a liar.” Tonito turns on the light, notices a small cut on her forehead. She touches her hand to the injury. “It’s nothing.”
“It’s something,” Tonito says.
“It’s what happens when folks think you have an informant for a son.” She rises, shuffles off, pulls her robe tight around her. It reveals bulges created by her bra strap. 
“Well I’m hungry.” Tonito throws open a drawer and fishes for the butcher knife. There’s a bit of rust on the blade. He decides it’ll do and slices the baguette in one thrust. He snatches the ham, tears off the brown paper wrapping and slams down the knife. He shoves the ham between two baguette halves. He worked hard for this sandwich. He adopted the lifestyle of the one man he wishes would spontaneously combust. How many times has he envisioned Fidel’s face engulfed in flames, even wished to sniff the unpleasant odor of burning beard. He gnaws, gulps down the first bite with barely a chew. 
Over the next week, he fills his mother’s kitchen with a new toaster, a pound of flour and several juicy pork chops. He trots bags inside when no one is looking, but he knows the neighbors still see everything. Bits of trash begin to appear in Tonito’s yard. Every morning he picks up empty bottles, old newspapers, even used toilet paper. He considers this a minor nuisance. His mother’s head has not come in contact with another rock. He did, however, sacrifice a dozen grapefruit to a gang of hoodlums, a few of whom he remembered as former schoolmates. His old pals now shadow him like vigilantes, whispers of “It’s old Twirling Tonito” hiss by his ears. The turned pals poke at his ribs with sharp sticks. “Now you dance for Castro, don’t you?” They fling feces from second story windows. Tonito leaps from side to side to avoid avalanches of shit.
Yet for every foul curse, there’s silent acknowledgement from others. One morning Tonito’s neighbor salutes him, and Tonito concludes that this balding father of two, pleasant in his primary-colored shirts, was the one who snitched when Marta stepped off the bus with two extra liters of milk. The next day, both milk and Marta were escorted out through her garden at gunpoint, in open view of every window. Only Marta was eventually returned, in a pair of man’s slacks and with a bandaged ear. When he received his neighbor’s greeting, Tonito suppressed the urge to spit. Instead, he returned the gesture. At the time he was carrying a sack of potatoes.
Two weeks later, Tonito bumps into Flower Print at the bus stop. Tonito is returning home from his grandfather’s ranch. If not for the flower print shirt, he wouldn’t have recognized the devil.
“You look fatter,” the man says. “I hope you can repay my generosity.” He motions for Tonito to walk with him.
“My neighbors are good people.”
“Good people do bad things.” Sweat beads explode across Tonito’s forehead. 
“I don’t know anything.”
“Sure you do.” He forces him against the window of an old dress shop, his large belly pushes Tonito’s thin waist.
“Susanna Mendez stole a bag of flour from the old woman next door.”
“What else?”
“Hector Goya is raising chickens in his house.” Tonito tries to squeeze past him. Flower Print leans into Tonito. Behind him are two other men Tonito hadn’t noticed earlier.
“I heard your mother has a sewing business.” 
“What else?”
“I think Mr. Morales is planning to escape to America.” Crouched underneath the Morales’s kitchen window, he’d overheard them arguing about whether the raft would work. He thinks they said raft. 
“That’s good. That’s very good.” Flower Print pushes more slips into Tonito’s pocket. He turns, tells Tonito not to follow, strolls into a cigar shop. Once he’s out of sight, Tonito pulls out the papers, sees slips for a new refrigerator and two pairs of shoes. He thinks about Mr. Morales watering his azaleas. Mr. Morales helping his mother fix the hinge on their door. Mr. Morales bringing over eggs when Tonito and his mother had none. Tonito starts to tear the slips, but instead pictures Dalia in those pink satin heels. If Mr. Morales is trying to escape, he brings this on himself. He puts the slips in his pocket.
The next evening, a delivery truck pulls up in front of Tonito’s house. He has the men unload the new refrigerator and carry the old one away. As they load the old one into their truck, the broken hinges give way and the refrigerator door drops onto the street. A bald man runs over and heaves it onto his shoulder, scurries back to his house hobbling like a hunchback under its weight. 
 Tonito joins his mother in the kitchen. She is staring at her new appliance. 
 “The police took Mrs. Morales today,” she says. “Mr. Morales is half crazed.”
“I’m sorry.” 
“No, you’re not.” She lifts the yellow curtain from the kitchen window. There’s cardboard where there should be glass.
“I want to give you the things you deserve,” Tonito says.
“Do I deserve to get beaten?” Her eyes don’t flinch. Tonito knows she cannot see he’s only trying to help. He is only playing a game, and he is winning. At least Dalia appreciates the sacrifices he’s made. He packs his few good clothes into the tote from the deli. He leaves. 
Tonito arrives at Dalia’s feeling like a dented can. He doesn’t explain to her why he’s been crying. He just hands her a block of cheese. For safekeeping, she stuffs it into an old scuffed boot. They sit on the edge of her bed, underneath a portrait of her husband. The former Bay of Pigs rebel—a young black-haired man dressed in a white linen shirt—hangs in a plain silver frame. Tonito swears his eyes move, watch every exchange of goods with a sneer. The husband seems to murmur: “I died for freedom and you dupe for food.”  When Dalia leaves the room to check on Alex, Tonito stands on the bed to get eye to eye with the husband’s pupils. “I may be a coward. But if I go to hell, it’s so your son can live in heaven,” he says. 
Tonito takes up residence on Dalia’s couch. It is old and the springs push like spikes into his back, but it’ll do until they get married. For now, out of respect, he keeps his distance from Dalia whenever they’re in the bedroom, looks at the ceiling when she bends over lest he get a peek of bosom. Seems only right, especially with her dead husband’s portrait leering at him. Still, when he finds himself with her in the kitchen, or sharing the tiny loveseat in the living room, he’s flooded with the urge to touch the small of her back or place a hand on her knee. To keep from running his fingers over her soft skin, he grips her tiny blue espresso cups. Then one day, she removes the cup from his hand, teases him till he chases her into the sewing room. 
“My husband never came in here,” she says. She pushes him to the ground. He lands on a small plush tomato pricked with needles. He doesn’t flinch, instead pulls the scarf around her waist till her dress falls open and she tumbles on top of him. Just before he presses his lips to her nipple, he wonders if she’ll taste salty.
Dalia’s son conspires in the making of this tryst by taking a long nap. Tonito and Dalia lie quiet, legs entwined underneath an orange afghan. They listen to the baby breathe in the next room. Between the boy’s nasally intakes of air, Tonito asks Dalia to marry him. 
“I’ll get you a new house. I know the Alverezes are up to something.”
“I don’t want to profit from the misery of others.”
“You already do.”
“I do what I have to do to feed my son.” They hear Alex wake with a cry. She goes to fetch him. 
	“I’ll stop. After I get Alex new shoes,” he says, but she is already gone. She is singing softly. She doesn’t answer him.

The line at the shoe store extends two blocks. Tonito waits, makes small talk with others. When his turn is up, he struts right in, shows the manager his slip with the tiny eye stamp.
“You don’t look familiar,” the shop owner says. He peers over his glasses. 
“Neither do you.” Tonito holds his breath.
The owner leaves the woman shoving her fat right foot into a narrow left sandal. “Comrade, how can I help you?” Tonito requests small booties for Alex and the pink satin pumps for Dalia. “Lefts and rights.” The owner quickly retrieves them from the back. The woman’s jaw drops. Others, holding their left shoes, mouth obscenities, but no words are vocalized. Tonito salutes the owner. “Perhaps I do remember you,” the owner says. He lifts his glasses, squints. Tonito exits.
It takes four blocks for Tonito to be sure someone is following him. When he turns his head, he can feel the shadow ducking into storefronts. He moves faster without running, checks over his shoulder at every intersection. He squats behind a newsstand. Cuts through an empty café, asks the waiter if he sees anyone tailing him. The waiter nods. Tonito doesn’t know if the follower is friend or foe, or friend who thinks he’s a foe, or foe who knows he’s not really a friend. He takes quick, short steps, like a mouse or a rat, except he can’t disappear into a crack in the wall. He looks for one anyway, some place where the assumed assailant’s paw can’t swing out and claw him. There’s a bus about to pull from the curb. He runs, waves to the driver. The driver is the same one who spit at him weeks before. He spits again in Tonito’s direction. His saliva splats across his windshield. 
Tonito runs, drops the shoes. A pink pump lands in the gutter. Muck splatters the satin.
Tonito never really thought he’d lose his life. He’s not as brave as Dalia’s dead husband, storming through the front door of rebellion, welcoming death with a bright green mat. Tonito sneaks past trouble through the back door. Now out in the open, he flees down the middle of the street, swerving around honking cars. 
He drops the rest of his slips as an offering, white paper floats to the ground. His follower stops to pick them up. Tonito turns and sees Mr. Morales, bigger and more virulent than he’d remembered the old man to be. Tonito pushes his legs to go faster. Behind him Mr. Morales’s thin sandals skid against the pavement. Tonito wonders if these gasps of air will be his last. He thinks of his mother refusing to store food in the new refrigerator, leaving eggs to incubate in the sunlight. She will not forgive.
Tonito brushes past a palm tree, snags his shirt. It tears. He realizes he’s headed straight for Dalia’s house. It’s too late to turn around. All he can do is run past her small yard. Draw no attention to the little home, double back later if he should escape whatever torment is in store for those who snitch on their neighbors. He thinks this will work, lets the hope lift his legs. He doesn’t count on Dalia sitting on the swing. He doesn’t count on Alex lying on the porch, rolling a blue toy truck, making vroom vroom sounds. 
Alex sees him racing, waves the truck in the air. Tonito shakes his head, but the boy does not understand danger. Alex slides off the porch before Dalia can whisk him into her arms. He’s toddling toward the street. Tonito continues past the house, hoping Morales will follow.
“What do you want?” It is Dalia who is yelling, shrieking the phrase over his head to the crazed Morales. Morales stops running. Down the street, doors slam and windows shut. 
Morales flings open the front gate and starts toward the porch. He pulls out a knife. He wants to know the boy’s name. He wants to know if he likes his blue truck, the blue truck that landed his wife a life of torture in prison. Dalia runs toward Alex, but Tonito has already doubled back. He’s already hopped the fence and tossed Alex over his shoulder. He is already flying.
“Go, go!” Dalia says. 
Tonito hears the distinct sound of knuckles against cheekbone, of a body hitting wood planks. He does not turn around to see Dalia lying prone on the porch. He does not see Mr. Morales’s spit land on the breast he caressed only the day before. Tonito runs, clutching Alex. Raisins spill from the boy’s hand. Raisins Tonito gave him. They leave a trail as Tonito tears down the street, a line of cockroaches on the sidewalk.
Fiction:  Ration

Natalia Cortes Chaffin grew up on Long Island, the daughter of Cuban and Argentine immigrants.  She has a B.A. in American Studies from Cornell and an MA in U.S. Cultural History from SUNY Binghamton. She’s currently pursuing an MFA from UC Riverside at Palm Desert. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Stone Canoe, The Potomac Review, The Coachella Review and others. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband, three daughters and a neurotic mutt.