Isabel winced whenever anyone called Abuelito’s store a “junk shop.” Though Segundo Oportunidad sold its share of mongo—broken ACs and ironing boards, good just for scrap—the place offered nearly as many treasures: an old-fashioned bird cage, a tiny statue of a boy going fishing, glittery old-lady earrings. Like Isabel always told her abuelo, it all depends on what you choose to see.
That weekend at the shop, she was there arranging Spanish language romances in the shape of a hand fan, positioning cinderblocks on the floor to show off construction boots and the gently worn sling backs that were always a little too small or too big for her. She wheeled out a clothes rack, pushing aside the housecoats for a red party dress. Holding it up, she shook her butt to the merengue in her head, imagining herself out clubbing, her troubles at home a distant memory.
As she worked, she heard Abuelito in the back softening up a customer, the owner of Mi Casita, praising her for making the best empanadas this side of
The señora put down three hundred bucks for the mahogany dresser Abuelito had just refinished. As soon as the lady left, Abuelito clapped his hands together. “That’s it!” he cried, eyes wide.
“That’s what?” Isabel’s stomach clenched. Though everybody knew Abuelito was smart—he knew all there was to know about furniture: which wood was best, how to strip it down and make it look new—common sense was apparently hard for him. The week before, this friend of his who used to be homeless and now lived in the same men’s residence as Abuelito, came in with a rooster. Abuelito let him keep it at the store overnight but never got a cage, even when Isabel warned him. By the time she got there in the morning, the floor was covered with shit and colored confetti from ladies’ dresses. Isabel didn’t tell a soul but the story spread, even to her dinner table. “What a pendejo!” said her grandmother, who was on the other side of the family.
“I’ve got to start selling more of these big items,” Abuelito told Isabel now, his round eyes all serious. “Muebles. Good furniture. Cherry, walnut, mahogany. Antiques too. That’s where the money is. No more cheap stuff. A man can’t live.”
That night Isabel helped her grandfather clear out anything cheap, carrying cartons of goods to the Dumpster in the alley. He stood with his back against the opposite building, rubbing his bald head nervously, as if trying to decide if he wanted to go through with it. “Throw it in,” he commanded finally, his voice ringing out with sudden inspiration. He put his lips to the pisco bottle he was holding and, tipping his head back, took a long slug.
She tossed in the first carton of scratched up metal bookends, then turned to see if he wanted her to continue. He hefted in his carton of plastic picture frames, then motioned for her to throw the next. He pressed his thick lips together solemnly as if the whole thing was killing him.
Afterward, still sweaty, the two of them stayed late, cracking sunflower seeds. He reminisced about the store he’d had in
The whole time he spoke, Isabel worried he’d mention her mother, who had helped him in
Her grandfather passed her the bag of seeds. “Ay, you don’t know how I’ve dreamed of this day and now I’m finally doing it. Gracias, mi tesura linda.”
It felt good to be someone’s treasure. But more: it felt good to be of use, especially when she could do nothing for her mother. She watched her grandfather drink steadily from the pisco, then wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, smiling gratefully. His bad teeth made her heart go out to him.
“I’ll make flyers. Lucho’s Antiques, we’ll call it.”
He clapped her on the shoulder a little too hard. “Perfecto!”
The next day she helped Abuelito unfurl a Persian rug to show off the new look, arranging the store so the beautiful pieces he’d always had were right there to see: two mahogany end tables, a maple bookcase, a set of six cherry chairs to go with a dining room table, which they covered with a crème linen cloth with tasseled edges. On top they placed porcelain cake plates, a set of three cut glass candy dishes, a silver egg holder, a globe lamp of a woman with her back arched and a bead bracelet meant for someone fat. Later, while he painted LUCHO’S ANTIQUES AND FINE FURNISHINGS and put up the new signboard, she was off with a stack of flyers, a roll of tape dangling from her wrist, plastering the subway station, the bus shelters, the telephone poles, the bulletin boards at Our Lady of the Sacred Cross.
In two weeks Abuelito sold the lamp, plus the dining room table and chairs. “Look what luck you bring me,” he said, throwing his arms around her and leaving her breathless. He was happier than she’d ever seen him.
“I hope that fool’s paying you,” her grandmother Flor said, putting a bowl of watery yucca soup in front of Isabel. “We were glad to take you in, but it’s one more mouth to feed. If he’s paying, you need to put half toward the table.”
“He’s not paying me.”
“And there’s the twenty dollars Papi gives you every semana—it all adds up. It’s hard on your papi.”
Isabel cut her eyes at her grandmother. “You want me to give up my allowance too?”
Flor served Isabel’s stepmother, Nelia. Poor Papi, it was always poor Papi, Isabel thought, sick of what she’d been hearing since she moved in. Her thoughts were cut short by her father coming. He said grace, then picked up his spoon and, everyone else joined in, no one talking.
“Comé,” he said, noticing that Nelia had stopped after a couple of spoonfuls.
Isabel glanced at her. With her long dark hair and clear skin, you could imagine her the way he’d first seen her: in a princess gown atop a float in the Ecuadorian Day Parade. Nelia lowered her head.
“It’s salty,” she finally said.
“You’ll eat what mi madre made and you’ll eat it with grace.”
Isabel stole a look at him. He, too, was handsome—the wedding picture of him and Nelia even hung in the photographer’s store—but tonight his eyes stood out, and his blotchy, puffy skin looked like a Yukon potato. Obviously he’d been having trouble sleeping.
She’d had plenty of those nights herself and knew how hard it was, but her father had gone after Nelia too many times, the same way he’d gone after her mother when Isabel was too small to defend her. He deserves it, she thought. But then her heart began pounding. She’d never been much good at hiding her emotions. What if he knew how much she hated him? He’d kick her out. And then where would she go? Before she’d come here, she’d talked things over with Abuelito and he’d told her his residence was for single men, no family allowed. Willing herself not to think about it, she finished the last drop of soup and cleared her dishes, quickly setting them in the sink.
Flor came over with hers. By the way she was hurrying, Isabel could tell something had started up again between Papi and Nelia. Flor ran the water as hard as it would go, probably to cover the sound. Isabel recognized Nelia whimpering, a sound too awful to bear. She turned to face the table and saw Papi standing over Nelia’s seated figure, grasping a fistful of hair.
Isabel got to the phone in the other room and dialed before she could change her mind. She hoped the cops would come quick, lock him up. She breathed slowly in and out, trying to calm herself, her palms soaking with sweat as she gripped the phone. She tried not to worry for her own welfare, but what if they didn’t lock him up? What if they let him off? El Diario ran stories like that all the time, a photo of the murdered wife or daughter’s face staring out helplessly. He’s not going to kill you, she told herself. He’d never do that. But she could certainly picture him grabbing her by the shirt, dragging her out on the street. Flor would probably cheer him on.
Keep the peace, she told herself, just as the operator’s voice came on. Flor yanked the phone from her hand, and Isabel’s heart filled with guilty relief.
At first she thought the problem with Abuelito’s store was that she wasn’t going far enough. She found a box she’d spared from the Dumpster and wriggled into the red party dress, wearing it with ankle-high spiky heeled snakeskin boots. She slicked on hair gel and laid on more mascara than usual. She stood with one arm out, draped over the maple bookcase, which had been out there forever. Every few minutes, she rearranged her pose to show off her ass, which everybody said was what guys looked at first.
Customers smiled at her, some stopped by, but most walked out once they found the store no longer carried the slightly worn stuff they were used to—a child’s raincoat, tools, a bucket, a mousetrap. The same lady who bought the mahogony dresser asked the price of the bookcase, but when she heard the answer, her eyebrows shot straight up. It was no use telling her what Abuelito had taught Isabel about the quality of the maple.
“It’s hopeless,” Isabel told Abuelito one night after closing.
Abuelito had her wash her face, saying she looked better without so much paint.
“Oh things will pick up,” he said, but his eyes had new worry lines at the corners and his face looked haggard. The brothers fed him at the men’s residence, but she hadn’t seen the sunflower seeds and other snacks he usually kept in a long time.
“Abuelito, listen. They want the cheap stuff. Don’t you think you should sell some of it? Maybe in a separate section.”
“You’ve got some good sense, don’t you?” Abuelito said.
That night they loaded the back of the van with packing boxes ready to be filled with used things. Isabel climbed in next to Abuelito, curious to see where the stuff he sold came from. As he turned the key, Isabel crossed herself, praying it would start. It kept coughing like Abuelito’s buddy from the men’s residence who had to have TB, then the van lurched forward on the Grand Concourse. Isabel leaned toward her window, not wanting to miss anything. She’d been wanting to know more about the neighborhood, a feeling that had been growing ever since she moved there for good and saw that, despite weekend visits, she’d never really known the place. Now, they drove past Mi Casita, busy as usual on a Saturday; then her father’s shoe repair shop, shuttered for the night; then one-two-three blocks on the Concourse, past a building she’d never noticed. As they waited for the light to change, they saw mothers and kids outside, some carrying garbage bags; others watching shopping wagons, in one a phone, a TV, a child—someone’s sister or brother—sleeping, legs folded, back pressed against the metal.
“Me, I’ve just got my room with my bed and blanket,” Abuelito said. “Thank the Lord I’ve got that. These folks don’t have no home at all.”
The two of them went quiet, Isabel’s breath coming fast. What if she’d reached the cops? That could be her, out there now. She tented her hands over her face, trying hard not to think about it.
“You okay?” Abuelito said. “Don’t go getting yourself all worked up.”
Isabel swallowed. “Papi went after Nelly again.” She could sense her grandfather listening intently even as he drove. “I almost called the cops.” She squeezed her hands together. “But I’m glad I didn’t.”
“I told you before Isabel, keep the peace. Por favor! I can’t take you in.”
“But what if she ends up like Mami? It’ll be my fault. For not stopping him.”
“Callate. It’s not your problem. Just worry about yourself. Keeping four walls around you, steady meals and a bed.”
The silence between them was so uncomfortable she was relieved when they made a stop. They arrived at a store with a mispelled sign—“Liqor Heven”—a couple of aisles of groceries, and a Mr. Coffee up front. Isabel’s legs felt like jelly. She couldn’t get her mind off that kid folded into the shopping wagon like a thrown out appliance.
Abuelito got his coffee, then they drove to a building even taller than the one housing her father’s store, with the same curved corners and an even prettier entrance. She started to feel better. It looked grand enough to be a hotel. They got the empty boxes out. She followed Abuelito past a dimly lit mural of a fairy lying in the woods, and then down two long flights of steps. It kept getting colder, until her heart thudded. They were in the basement, in one section of a corridor that stunk. Not like a diaper or someone’s cooking—this was garbage. She tried not to breathe. She let her eyes adjust to the dark while they both put their boxes down. Abuelito smiled apologetically, thinking, she supposed, this was no place for a girl.
In a few minutes a small man with no neck, short arms and Latex gloves came to meet them. He looked like a mole.
“Johnny, how you doing?” Her grandfather’s voice had the too-cheery sound it got when he was trying to make a sale. “This is Isabel. My granddaughter. Don’t think you ever met. She’s going to give me a hand. Isabel, say hello to Señor Milagros. The super.”
“Hi.” Mr. Miracle, she thought. She wondered what miracles happened here.
The man turned to her grandfather. “You’re not looking for los muebles, are you?” he asked in Spanish.
“No, no. Just the small stuff,” Abuelito told the man, urging him to take the coffee, which the man had been eyeing with disdain. “Plenty of milk and sugar, the way you like it.”
The man took the coffee. He ripped off a piece of the lid and flicked the tab across the corridor, making Isabel jump back. After a few long slurps, taking his time, the sound loud in Isabel’s ears, his slow tongue licking the sugar on his lips, he took the key chain off his pants. Isabel figured he’d open the door they were in front of, but he just batted the keys up and down in his hand, studying her. She’d seen that look before, on her father’s face when he wanted to get some from Nelia. Before Isabel could grab Abuelito’s arm, Abuelito jumped between her and the man.
“Okay, okay,” the mole-man said.
Isabel pressed her hands to her face, filled with so much relief she almost didn’t notice the mole jerking his head at Abuelito, motioning for Abuelito to follow.
“But I’m not asking for no furniture.”
“I can change the rules. You don’t like the rules, see you later! And guess what, the next time one of the old-timers croaks—one of them rich Italian bitches—guess who won’t get all them nice tables and dressers.”
“Johnny, don’t talk like that,” Abuelito said, in a choked voice.
The mole jerked his head to follow again.
Abuelito turned toward her.
“Don’t do it,” she said.
He shook his head. “Wait right here.”
The two disappeared. Isabel’s heart beat loud enough to hear; she shifted back and forth to keep warm, blowing heat into her hands and rubbing her arms. When she’d agreed to help, she’d never imagined this. A thought flashed through her mind—she saw herself running up the stairs and out, away from this place. But she couldn’t get home by herself. She couldn’t stay on the street this late either, and Abuelito’s van was locked. She had a quarter in her pocket. She could call Flor, think of something to tell her. But could she really leave Abuelito? There were boxes to carry out and he could never manage alone. It was bad enough that she’d turned her back on Nelia; she wasn’t going to do the same to Abuelito.
Soon Isabel heard noises—the mole’s pained grunting. No, he was gurgling. Laughing.
“Sorry,” Abuelito said, rushing back after a while. His head was bent and he was wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, then spitting into the handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. Isabel didn’t meet his eyes, afraid she would embarrass him. The awkwardness between them was broken by the mole whistling happily as he joined them, standing taller, so he no longer looked like a mole. He jangled his keys playfully in front of Isabel, patted her butt, then opened the door.
The room they entered was so brightly lit Isabel’s eyes burned.
“Go on, don’t just stand there,” Abuelito said. “Start on a pile.”
He was already picking through the first pile of discarded things, and the huge room was filled with piles that towered over him. Some objects had to be pried from packing boxes; others, emptied from garbage bags, were already loose, either too big to fit in any container—like a kid’s mattress—or sprung free from previous scavengings.
“Oh lookie here! I already got me something.”
Isabel’s gut turned, as she watched him hold up a pair of hideous pink water shoes. “In perfect shape.” He carefully tossed them in a clean box at his feet and resumed his hunt.
A couple of minutes later, seeing her still standing there, he said, “Come on, mi niña. Help me out.”
The mole, who was watching from the side of the room, slapped his knees and laughed. “Look at you, muchacha. You should see your face. Too much for you, eh?”
Isabel narrowed her eyes at him and stepped up to the pile. Her hands were soon coated with dust and something filmy and her stomach twisted. She thought about all the objects—a change purse, a make up case—and the hands that had touched them, the memories attached to them. Now these objects were tossed into this room for a granddaughter and grandfather to pick through. For Abuelito’s store, she told herself, urged on by his cries of joy each time he uncovered a new treasure.
As she worked, the smell grew thicker. She realized it wasn’t coming from any of the junk piles. On the opposite side of the room was a Dumpster with a man inside—you could see his brown face pop up over the edge as he pulled from the raw trash plastic bottles and aluminum cans, which made a racket when they hit the cans already in his shopping wagon. He might’ve been a machine, with the pace he kept up, and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. At last, when one of the cans missed, he climbed out and for the first time reacted to Abuelito. He gave a start, his thin bones almost blown backward. He looked at the mole across the room. “Johnny, you know this guy?”
“He’s a friend.”
The bottle man looked at Abuelito. “Don’t get no ideas. These here bottles and cans are mine.” He blocked the top of the wagon.
Abuelito put up his hand in a sign of peace. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Just finding me a few things over here.”
The man thrust his head out like a rattlesnake, until the mole said, “He ain’t going to touch no bottles, Eddie! That’s your territory. Don’t worry. A deal’s a deal. I make the rules.”
Slowly the man pulled his jaw in and climbed back in the Dumpster, hauling his skinny limbs over the side. Much later, when he was done, and she and Abuelito were nearly finished, he pushed the filled wagon past them with his head bowed. At the door, he glanced back. “A nickel a pop,” he said, eyes flickering. “You know what I make? Three hundred a week.”
Abuelito let out a low whistle.
Isabel wondered if Abuelito was simply indulging him. Or was her grandfather genuinely impressed? She looked at Abuelito, wondering how well she knew him. Would he work it out with the mole to get Dumpster rights too? And if he did, would Isabel simply follow?
When they were done, one by one, they carried the cartons to the van. Spilling out from the last of hers was a Halloween costume of a princess in royal blue, complete with a tiara. Princesses, beauty queens—they always made her think of Nelia. Suddenly Isabel felt tired, as if she were older than any girl who had ever walked this street. The bottle man was in the far distance, pushing his shopping wagon. The mole man waved his Latex hand. “Ciao, Señor Sanchez! Visit me again!”
She and Abuelito started back to the store, the van loaded with goods.
“Made out pretty good. We’ll clean everything up in the morning.”
Isabel stared ahead. “He gives me the creeps.”
“Eddie? He’s got a good business going for himself. He’s one smart man.”
Isabel fought back her disgust for Abuelito. “Not him. Mr. Miracle.”
Abuelito chuckled. “That man, oh don’t let him ruffle your feathers. He’s nothing. He’s nobody. Just thinks he’s a hotshot because he’s got all those keys. And that’s no measure of a man. Don’t you put your mind to him.”
Outside her window cars swept by, everyone racing to get somewhere. Where would she wind up? Someday, when she was older, when she was her grandfather’s age, would she too be scavenging, would she too be as desperate as him? The thought made her legs shake.
“Why do you do it?” she said. “He’s gross. You just go along with anything, don’t you?”
Abuelito didn’t answer, but she knew from the sharp way he was breathing that he’d heard and didn’t like the way she was talking.
“He pulled her hair. I saw him.”
“Papi—he pulled Nelly’s hair. I should’ve called the cops.” She paused. “But this voice in me went keep the peace.”
The memory of Nelia whimpering, the sink water washing over the sound, filled the air in the van, surrounding Isabel, pressing against her. “Is that how you ended up where you are, just going along with everything?” She stopped, unable to believe she was talking like this to him. “It’s not going to happen to me. I won’t end up a scavenger.”
Abuelito laughed. “It’s not a bad life I live. Could be worse. And we got ourselves some nice things in the back. We got what some might call junk, but to other folks, you know what we got? We got treasures. Beautiful treasures, mi tesura linda.”
Isabel looked at him. Even in profile, she could tell he was smiling. She steadied her breathing. “We’ve got junk. This van’s filled with junk.”
“No. You’re wrong, Isabelita. You’re the one who told me it all depends on what you choose to see.”
Karen Regen-Tuero lives on Long Island with her husband and two children. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, North American Review, Kalliope, and other literary magazines. A graduate of Duke University and the MFA Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College, she teaches at Queens College/City University of New York, and freelances for TV and film projects. She is working on a novel about the Isabel character from this story.
“The front porch of my childhood was nothing more than cement steps and a landing that overlooked bright yellow daffodils. I remember I was standing on the porch with my best friend, holding a daffodil that I’d picked, when a bee landed on my flower. ‘He wants it. Drop it!’ Robin said, but I hung on tighter. I still remember the hot injustice I felt, almost as painful as the bee sting on my throat, because the bee got the flower. Robin said she’d told me so. I can’t say I’m any better at listening today.”