Bitter Candy / Miriam Celaya

Orlando Luís photograph

Old Rubén is over 80 years old, but he is one of those whose “suckling pigs will not die in his belly,” so, since he retired more than a decade ago, he has always sought ways to round out his meager pension and increase his income. So old and already infirm, he must spend a fortune on his meds every month, but he won’t complain or veg out in a rocking chair, so every day around noon and in the afternoon he leaves his house and walks toward some school’s entrance so he can sell candy.

Rubén has thus found a way to stay active and, at the same time, make some extra money, though a few times he has had to run away as fast as his tired legs will allow because the police harasses all “illegal activity”, even the small escapade of an old man struggling to survive this shipwreck. At times, they have caught Rubén and he has lost his profits and his “merchandise”; on more than one occasion they have “warned him” that if he continues the activity, they will apply “other stronger measures”, but it would not be honest of me to deny that on several occasions the agents have let him go with his candy and his few little pesos… “Old man, behave yourself and stay put at home!” “I don’t want to see you with candy or anything, OK?” But, after a few days, when the wallet starts to wane, Rubén once again fetches the candy and peers cautiously around the school. One has to make a living!

However, these days Rubén has received bad news. Lalo, his candy supplier, as old and worn as Rubén, has decided to submit the license application to manufacture the goodies. Police and inspectors will have declared war on him, and he feels a constant watch on his home, making it difficult to work; sugar is difficult to obtain, and has greatly increased in price… He already has a tired heart and is not up to these sudden shocks. The problem is that we now Lalo will have to do twice the work: cook up the candy and go out and sell them, because – according to the “new reforms” implemented by General Raúl (a little old man who doesn’t have to sell candy) — if Lalo contracted with Rubén and other sellers of his products, he would have to pay social security taxes for each “employee,” which would reduce to a minimum his own profits and make his efforts completely inoperative.

Now Rubén is scheming to see what new market to explore. He might accept the proposal of a numbers bookie in his neighborhood and may become one of his runners. Rubén has always been good with numbers, knows thousands of tricks, and the old man is very lucid. On the other hand, he has the air of a semi-orphan which could serve to dispel the suspicions of distrustful neighbors. He would have preferred not to get into this mess, but he knows that he “cannot stop” because his legs feel more awkward with every passing day; the day may come when he is confined to a wheel chair, and “by then, I must have saved my pennies.” Besides – and this is what I admire most in Rubén — “One has to make a living!!”

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 10, 2010