Present Ghost

Telling stories



Él Quiere Pintar


When I volunteered to play with little kids in an orphanage in Mexico, I expected to be affected by poverty or loneliness, the disproportionate ratio of children to caretakers, or the lack of resources in the orphanage. I was not expecting to be reminded by one little boy how an appreciation of beauty and a desire to create lives in all places.

After disembarking from the bus that took our group to the orphanage, we were told to go play soccer with the kids, and if we wanted to play with babies, then we could follow a woman to the nursery.

I watched several girls head for the nursery, and as they disappeared, I noticed a little boy who wasn’t playing soccer and who wasn’t swinging on the swings. He was sitting on a little wooden step looking at the ground and poking it with a stick. We introduced ourselves when I sat down next to him. He had milk-rotted teeth and his name was Juan. I invited him to play soccer with me. He played for a few minutes, and then decided that he would rather fight for a spot on the swing set in the shade. I pushed him fast and then faster, but soon he wanted to return to his stoop.

He became sad and pushed the dirt with his sneaker. Scooting closer to me, he told me wanted to paint. I looked around. The only color that interrupted the clay tan of the place was the greenery God had put there.

Quiero pintarcon Crayolas.

I told him to wait on the step, and approached a woman who seemed to be in charge. I asked her if she had any crayons and paper we could use, and she told me it wasn’t that time: it was playtime. Also, no one in the orphanage had crayons. She had no idea where the boy had even seen them.

It would have been better not to ask if I could bring him some, because then I could have at least sneaked in the contraband and given them to my little boy, but because I asked, she told me I’d have to buy them for every child if I brought some for Juan.

Upon returning to the boy, I told him I couldn’t get any from the lady, but that I had a pen. I tore a page from my journal and gave him the blue pen I had. He took it, but told me that it was not what he’d asked for. After scrawling for a few minutes, he gave me the pen and told me again that he wanted to paint.

In desperation, I told him we could get some water and paint with mud on the concrete. At this latest suggestion, he began to cry.

I told this child he could paint with mud. God, what was wrong with me? I almost cried too. It’s fun to paint with mud when that’s not all you have to paint with and you are getting dirty, or when you don’t know that there’s color out there that you can’t have.

As our group left for the day, I promised myself to look for crayons for the whole orphanage. I thought it would be easy. We were staying in a big city, we had a MEGA, so of course there would be crayons there. I scoured outdoor markets and drugstores, but I couldn’t find a single crayon. I was told that people didn’t keep them because they melted too often. Colored pencils were preferred by school teachers in the area.

The next time we went to the orphanage, Juan introduced me to his older brother who had been playing soccer. The three of us played together, but after a short while, Juan told me he wanted to paint and I had to tell him that I couldn’t find any Crayolas for him. His brother rolled his eyes and returned to the pickup game.

Often I think of Juan, and how a child in a safe home can throw a fit and make demands. The child is either disciplined or mollified momentarily with the fulfillment of their wishes. Juan may have been doing what all children do, but he struck me because he knew he was being cheated. He had lived in the orphanage for most of his five years, and he already knew he didn’t want to be told to play soccer and that he would rather make art but couldn’t.



Ruta Dieciséis.  Estoy perdida.

“Perdida,” I think, in my second tongue.

“No hay más rutas hoy,” they say.

Today my legs sweat beads of rolling wet American sweat.  The heaving heavy garrafón on my lap jiggles my thighs and I try not to look panicked. The sun is beginning to settle into the western blanket of stucco-studded hillside rising on the outside of the city we are leaving behind. Only tres personas están aquí, but they know I am white by my freckles and green-gris eyes and only gently tanned skin.  My Spanish is good “for a gringa” they say.

An old woman calls to her gorgeous daughter who towers in her espadrilles and her dangling golden hoops so they can get off the bus.  Andale, she says. This was the woman who had told me I had only three more stops until the end of the line, and the end of the day’s shuttles to and from the city because then it will be too dark and too dangerous to drive.

While we await a few straggling newcomers, I hug my big dumb waterweight, trying to hide the glaring whiteness of my thighs sprawling so brazenly from my athletic shorts.

Outside, a young man stands with soot from some degenerate fire smeared across his face and torso that are tight with muscles defined by hunger and hard labor.  He juggles two batons and a leans forward, jabbing them into a nearby trashcan. Stealing fire from the god of los valles, his sticks flash with flame. Lunging toward the bus, he twirls these twigs alight and aloft, impressing the gutter children with his fantastical toys.  With a smile so sinister, he undulates a call for attention in no language at all.

I cannot help turning around to see the lone tribesman juggle his hellish sticks and light himself afire. I do not hear even a Dios mío from the mother to my side as the man juggles and burns.

Whitewashed Latina models half dressed holding cocktails grin, looming from the billboards littering the skyline framed by power lines and busted highway lamps.

“¿Señorita? ¿Estás perdida ?”

“Sí, pero estoy bien.  Gracias. ”

But I am not good.  With only fifty pesos in my wallet, I cannot answer her honestly. I am a stupid American who forgot to get off the bus at the right stop, and I am now headed for Temixco, the fourth largest city in Morelos, twenty miles away from my host family’s home, and I do not have my cell phone or even their home phone number or address with me.

Distracted by a flash of tawny skin that catches my eye, a prematurely exhausted breast peeps out from a hole in a draped acrylic knit blanket. The suckling child half asleep from heat and travel presses against the mother’s flesh, camouflaged.

The girl looks about my age, and I imagine that she’s ingrained in a routine of a commute to see the father of that resting thing, that taking thing.

My eyes go back to the breast.  Its youthful roundness slumps down her chest just a little outside her untied floral print bodice.  The baby sighs a half sob in its mommy-muffled slumber, shuddering and stretching its little feet out the edge of the blanket.

At the next stop, the mother gathers her rattan purse, brushes her dark bangs backward, juggling the weight of the child, a day’s groceries, and an overnight bag. The child squirms, now situated farther north on its mother.  Instead of crying, it begins to search for sustenance by gumming at her collarbone.

She and the child amble into the street outside some crumbling church filled with penitents and hungry men wanting bread.  It is pink sandstone and oro.  Oro por todas partes.  It shines in a permanent sunset, the colors of an ever-after pre-dark.  She doesn’t go in, but walks on, past the church and down a side street toward a lighted adobe.

 A woman across the slowly emptying bus calls to me, “¿Señorita? ¿Estás perdida? ”

As I survey the ruta, I can answer truthfully now.

“Sí. Estoy perdida—y sola.” 

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