Mario sells cotton candy in the streets of El Centro, Cuenca, just like his father had. The business had been one for poor men with poor families even then.
Lately, things seemed to get even harder as the days and weeks wore on to months and years. No one in Mario’s family was wearing shoes without holes in them. He had seen Maria’s tears when she stuffed folded sections of last weeks El Mercurio into Carmella’s and Bermeo’s shoes to keep their feet from touching the rocky dirt roads and hard pavement.
Mario was a man who understood the hardness of a life in the streets selling cotton candy. But still, these days, his heart wept even when his eyes didn’t. He knew that Maria had been taking their children begging for coins lately. She wouldn’t tell him. That would be unbearable for him to hear. He knew that’s what she thought anyway. It was hard to face but what was he to do, they weren’t quite starving. There was a fine line between no food at all and never quite enough and Mario was afraid that his family was all too familiar with that line. So, when the men came, it seemed a Godsend to Mario.
At first he was afraid, not only for his own life but the life of his family. Mario had never really known any men just like these before so he couldn’t say what they might do. They seemed to exude danger throwing off a scent of, what was it…death? He couldn’t really be sure. But, what could be wrong with helping them out? They were certainly offering to help Mario, or so it seemed anyway. And they were clear in their communications with him, they needed his help, and right away.
Mario knew better than to get involved with these men. Isn’t this the way that trouble started? His friend Julio had been jailed last year for helping men similar to these. These were probably the same ones he thought. All Julio had done was take some packages to a boat in Esmeraldas for the men. It seemed like nothing at all but it must have been “something” to the police. He heard Julio’s children would be grown up, married and moved away before Julio saw them again. Mario winced, thinking of his decision, but it was too late to turn back now. Already, he dreamed of the shoes and jackets that he would buy for his wife and children.
They told him when and where to go with his cart by buzzing him on the cheap flip phone they had given him. In the mornings, he never knew where he was going to receive what they called “the product”. He would get a text that would only contain an address in north El Centro. On the streets, a guy with a surgical mask over his face delivered the product to Mario. The men were smart. People wore the masks to protect from germs and bus fumes so it didn’t look out of place yet effectively disguised the face of the delivery guy. If Mario was low on the product, he sent a text that contained only a single word: more. The same man would come, bringing more product packaged in small matchboxes.
Mario had been selling the matchboxes for a couple of months. And, he had been paid well for his efforts. The extra hundred dollars a week that he received from the delivery man on Mondays was putting food on his family’s table and clothes on their backs. Maria didn’t ask questions but he could see the fear in her eyes when he began to buy them the things they had long needed. Before, she was afraid of them starving and not having a regular place to stay. He didn’t know what she was thinking now. She didn’t look happy even though she was warm and had a full belly.
His customers, or should he think of them as the men’s customers, were numerous and came many times a day. At first, he figured he wouldn’t know them from any other customers except for what the men called, “la señal.” It was the signal that the customers who wanted the matchboxes had to give along with their money. Everyone had to buy cotton candy. That was the rule, according to the men, so nothing seemed out of place. And they kept Mario moving around so local businesses didn’t get used to seeing him in the same place all the time.
But some of the customers were coming more and more often. They seemed jittery, shaky almost. Some snatched at the matchboxes and hurried away, many almost running. Others nervously chewed their lips or picked at imaginary sores as they dug their money out of pockets and purses. They were always swallowing their own spit and grinding their teeth. It made Mario nervous, he had become sure he was selling drugs for the men. But what kind? The matchboxes were sealed and he had never opened one. Nor did he know any of the people who bought the matchboxes. It seemed unwise to ask the customers what they were buying. Now, some of the customers were snarling at Mario just like wild animals. It scared him but the money was just too important to his family.
Several weeks later, during a rainy El Centro afternoon, Mario saw a photograph of one of the matchboxes alongside a story in El Mercurio. The matchbox was open and there was some type of pink powder inside in a small cellophane wrapper. The headline read, “Adrenachrome, The World’s Newest And Most Deadly Designer Drug”. He scanned the article and sure enough, all his fears were confirmed. He was selling a drug produced when synthetic adrenalin and cocaine are bonded together in clandestine laboratories. They were being operated by an even more militant offshoot of FARC. The article went on to explain the immediate dependency created by using the drug. Apparently, it was worse than PCP or MDA, causing overdoses that manifested as fits of extreme rage with animal like behaviors of clawing and biting accompanied by guttural screaming as users attacked people for no reason.
Mario set the paper down. He was really worried. There were at least ten or twelve customers who had started running up to him and screaming, with spittle flying, words that were almost unintelligible. He knew a scene was coming but he wasn’t sure how it would unfold. He was texting for additional product many times a day now. If he was waiting to be restocked with the product when the matchbox customers came, they were furious and threatened him, sometimes even tearing at his cart and cotton candy supplies.
Night time business was always the scariest and the people seemed even wilder and more animal like than when lit by the light of day. Then finally one night it happened. He had again run out of product and had texted for more. It was taking the delivery man longer than usual to arrive. Some customers had been by twice, eager for the product. The trouble-making pair Fausto and Cesareo had already been by once and they were not in good shape, obviously exhibiting symptoms of withdrawal. They had threatened to hurt Mario even though he told them he was waiting for more.
Mario spotted the deliveryman. He had turned the corner and started up Tarqui and was almost to Mario’s cart. Praise God he thought. Mario was finishing preparing two cotton candies for a boy and his father who waited nearby, looking in a shop window. In an instant, Fausto and Cesareo ran from the darkness screaming their guttural words with knife and broken bottle in hand.
The father and son ran. The deliveryman was only steps away. The pulsing glow of the green and pink bulbs from the cotton candy machine danced across Mario’s startled face, lighting it for the last time as death loitered carelessly at his elbow.