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Issue 20, Prosa | April 2017

     

Saturno: Avenida González Suárez, Lote 101, Quito, Ecuador

The fog descends at seven. In Saturno, from apartment 14C, Pablo’s family can see the Andean mist take over their González Suárez neighborhood: with goosebumps on their skin, the volleyball team from the all-girls escuela católica waits for their after-school bus outside as traffic becomes imperceptible, the tainted palm trees that align the street disappear, the corner store MARÍA FLORES bars up its windows but still accepts cash in exchange for hard liquor, and the Argentine choripanes restaurant runs out of beer. In their apartment, Pablo’s mother pulls the shades down. “I don’t like people seeing in,” Alma says. Even as a child, Pablo knew the only being observing him was Pichincha, the volcano with two peaks that watched him grow up. Every sunset, Pablo would stick his nose in between the blinds and feel the cold air of Quito through his nostrils. It was a salute to the volcano that oversees all of Quito. Pablo was still here, behind closed curtains, awaiting a response from Wawa or Rucu Pichincha. The cold air forever lived between glass.

Two days before the army airplane hit their apartment building, Pablo’s mother decided the clothes she kept in her bedroom’s closet should finally go. Alma’s mother had died years ago, and the clothes that she wore were stored in the back of her closet, next to the ash masks the family began wearing on October 7th, 1999, the day Rucu Pichincha bathed Quito in ash. A mushroom cloud of grey and white and brown connected Pichincha to the blue sky above them, stopping all traffic and scaring all birds, and this moment was encapsulated on postcards sold to tourists for a dollar. As she sorted through the clothes, she forgot to cook dinner for her and Pablo, her seventeen-year-old son, that evening. She forgot that the extra rice stuck on the bottom of the boiling pot and the onion-bathed meat with too much fat on it always feeds Benito –Saturno’s janitor– every night. She forgot how her lipstick had stained the white ash masks red, how Pablo’s mask was a bit chewed up, how her mother had written her name outside of hers. “A mi nadie me la va a robar,” Gabriela explained. Pablo’s grandmother believed the volcano’s explosion would unleash waves of crime in the city. The secuestro expresses would emigrate from Venezuela to Ecuador, cocaine violence from Colombia, another border war with Peru. Vandalism would devour the capital and spit out graffiti messages of love, pickpockets, and teenage maids who specialized in stealing pearl earrings from wealthy homes. Yet the only thing missing from their home after the final bits of volcano ash were swept up out in the streets was Pablo’s father. And nobody stole Pedro.

Pedro left them for Spain, where he worked as a construction manager. He bought a two-way ticket but never flew back. Pablo remembers watching Iberia red and yellow planes fight the Andean fog and dodge tall buildings as they landed at the Aeropuerto Mariscal Sucre. He remembers the ache he felt with every landing, with every take off, with every plane that disappeared beyond the mountain range that defines Quito. Pedro adapted the Madrid accent too quickly, sometimes Pablo couldn’t understand him on the phone–“it’s the s, Mami, I don’t understand his s.” And Pedro never wanted to fully explain his job. “Construyo casas para otros,” he uttered on the phone. Pablo’s father builds houses for European men and women and sleeps in an apartment built after the Spanish civil war. Alma defended her husband. “He sounds happy.”

As his mother coughed at the ash imprinted on the masks, Pablo’s school bus neared their apartment building. While staring out the bus window, he counted the number of stories he could tell his mother tonight at dinner: one, how a drop of white pigeon poop landed his friend Matías’s forehead during recess. What were the chances? And does this fecal act mean good luck? Two, how Pablo’s study group tragically failed the physics assignment: to drop an egg safely from the school’s rooftop. The egg shattered and the yolk fried with the noonday sun. And three, a broken narrative he heard while waiting in line for nachos and cheese at the cafeteria: the pilots who land airplanes in Quito need extra practice. Is our hometown truly that impenetrable? He went up the elevator, said “Qué más?” to the girl from the Catholic school that always rides the elevator with him at 3:30, and later found his mother Alma in her bedroom, crying next to a pile of dead grandmother clothes.

That night Pablo’s mother did not want to eat dinner. No dishes were used in the kitchen. Pablo made a mustard and cheese sandwich–Alma never taught him how to cook–swept up the bread crumbs that fell on the ceramic floor, and went to bed. Nobody pulled down the shades that night.

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Benito —the building’s janitor— keeps four types of flowers up on the roof: white roses, red carnations, yellow roses, and a single sunflower. This is a tradition he hopes the future janitor maintains. Men have been hanging flowers on balconies since the foundation of Quito, and because the apartment he’s in charge of doesn’t have any terraces, Benito thinks the rooftop carries the same amount of cultural weight. It is a ritual to spot a blooming flower in the terrace of a woman who is also blooming. To slap the bees that come nearby with a rolled up newspaper but hope they stop again sometime soon, but not when someone’s reading out in the balcony. To spot the man who yelled out the time every hour when nobody owned clocks and throw him a petal. To create a medicine for children who believe anything: place the petal of a wet rose on your canker sores. It will make them disappear.

Benito’s father, Agosto, worked as a janitor in this same building. He even helped name the building, or so Benito tells the children as they wait for their school buses: “It used to be named Júpiter. My father changed it to Saturno.” An eight-year-old Pablo nodding along, always shaking Benito’s hand as he got on the bus. “Chao, mijito.” Benito’s father helped construct the edifice. Agosto’s bloodline is entrenched within the cement walls, wooden floors, and big glass windows. Agosto is the soil and sun growing Benito’s flowers and the exhale from Pablo’s breath fogging up Alma’s windows. Other buildings in González Suárez feature armed guards. Big shiny shotguns strapped across their chests. Benito carries a knife in his sock. And he’s never had to use it.

Mothers and wives yell for Benito through the intercom and sometimes even through their windows. They’ve run out of hot water. A pigeon has entered their apartment. They’ve lost their keys. The toilet overflowed, the pressure cooker exploded, the clouds are lining up: “Will it rain, Benito?” They need someone to accompany their adolescent son to buy food for dinner at the nearby market, the one where Benito’s grandmother once sold her potatoes. She used to carry her produce all the way from Puembo to Quito on a giant green bus. She told Benito that the greatest thrill of her forty-minute bus ride was seeing the mountains and hills go up and down as the road coiled around the Andes. She now delved further into Quito, all the way to colonial Quito, where cobbled streets still carry the putrid scent of 1650’s San Francisco de Quito, where micro markets don’t sell produce, only stolen items, where churches were built on top of indigenous sites of worship.

The owner of Saturno doesn’t live in the penthouse anymore. He moved down to Cumbayá, the gentrified version of Puembo. As Benito helped the movers pack the penthouse, the owner spotted four gray hairs on Benito’s head. The janitor who will soon replace Benito is not related to Benito because Benito never had children.

At sunrise, the ghost fog that settled at night disappears. The four flowers that sit quietly on the rooftop are wet and blossoming. Benito touches them with the back of his hand. He wasn’t there that afternoon the army airplane hit Saturno; he had taken the 5 P.M. bus to Puembo with his abuelita, the woman who could no longer carry all of her unsold potatoes alone. White and yellow petals decorated the newspaper’s front page the next day, alongside a plane that was painted in different shades of gray as if it was meant to camouflage between tall city buildings.

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The airplane flew from the Amazonian city of Coca to the capital with five men on board, all sons of lower class men who fought to defend their land from Peru in the War of 41. On March 20th, 2009, the army airplane –colored white, black, and grey– grazed the Linda Vista apartment complex and stole the floating clothesline of the Buendia family. The airplane dragged their clothes–jeans, bras, and button-up shirts–to Saturno, where it crashed into the fourteenth floor of the building. The motor of the plane ended up in Pablo’s bedroom.

Hours earlier, Pablo gathered Gabriela’s clothes and tossed them in a black trash bag. His mother stood next to him, watching over. “No, not this one,” she would say, grabbing an item of clothing that embodied her mother, a woman who was scared of what Quito had to offer. When she was forced to ride the metrobus, because Alma or Pedro was unavailable and because taxis take advantage of senior women –“I really can’t read the fare,” she’d say– Gabriela would take out her cherry chapstick and snort its scent. “Huele a indio,” she’d complain. In this bus, it smells like indigenous men and women who transport carrots, potatoes, and aguacates from Puembo to the city. For Gabriela, it smells like Benito y Agosto y Benito’s abuela, like brown skin and farming, like a colonial history that never left Quito. But her daughter, Alma, didn’t want to remember her mother that way. The way she alienated all those who could not afford to live in González Suárez and all of those who built the avenue facing Guapulo. Gabriela, in Alma’s heart, was the woman who taught her how to make colada morada and guaguas de pan, how to properly decorate the Christmas tree, how to find a husband like Pedro –a twenty-year-old universitario with dreams of becoming a soccer player for La Liga or Barcelona, but would end up a failed architect, and later emigrate to Spain, where he’d witness the Othering of brown Ecuadorians by white Spaniards. In the end, Pablo packed the trash bag with only three items: a swimsuit, a short scarf, and Gabriela’s ash mask, her name in permanent marker untouched.

The airplane meant to land in the airport Mariscal Sucre, right on the giant petroleum-based strip of land that interrupts an ocean of cement and faux brick buildings. It didn’t. The plane departed from Coca at five, and by the time it reached the capital–a city in the Andes, a colonial town made of mountain skirts and valleys–the fog began to descend.

After school that day, Pablo had bought Marlboro cigarettes and El Sol matches to impress the girl who lives two floors below him– the brown-haired but green-eyed Catholic school girl who never responded to Pablo’s loud sighs in the elevator but who did once, just once, smell like cigarette smoke. As he grabbed the almost empty bag of his grandmother clothes and headed to the basement’s trashcan, he realized that that moment was his chance to try out smoking on the roof. He needed to practice, and Alma wouldn’t follow him. He can’t make a fool of himself in front of his crush. What’s her name, again? And so Pablo headed to the roof.

Once outside, he dropped Gabriela’s belongings in front of the metal door labeled TECHO and squatted next to Benito’s flowers. The red and white roses ached for the descending fog. It hadn’t rained in Quito for months. The ethereal sky had disappeared; it was ephemeral in nature, an array of pink and orange pastels that turned every Quiteño’s skin yellow for a couple of minutes. Pablo looked up at Pichincha. The volcano with two peaks looked back at his son– how Pablo had grown with no Pedro, how a seventeen boy had never kissed a girl, how Pablo still poked his nose through closed blinds to salute his father, the one who always cared for him, the one Pablo never forgot. The fog reached Saturno’s roof. Benito’s sunflower turned towards Pablo as if this upper-middle class boy was the sun. Three pimples spread across his forehead like a broken constellation, a mustache that refused to grow, a throat that coughed up the smoke of American cigarettes. The carnations were the first to tremble. Pablo believed an earthquake was striking Quito. Did he have time to run downstairs and save Alma? But then he heard it. The sound of the Iberia airplanes that roam the capital’s sky every couple of hours, the apparatus that carries fathers away from sons, makes citizens into immigrants, Ecuadorians into Spaniards. The army airplane rose against Linda Vista, Saturno’s next door building, and promptly hit Pablo’s home, cigarette ash sprinkled around Agosto’s soil and Pichincha’s fog.

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At night, as Quito’s police force barricaded González Suárez avenue and prevented maids from leaving their workplace and men from entering their penthouses, Benito returned home. This is what he saw as he walked up to his workplace, his father’s old workplace, his home. Saturno falling apart. He looked up and spotted Pablo watching Quiteños forming a crowd from the roof. Mis flores, Benito wondered.

For Benito, this scene ignited a memory: twenty years ago, an Ecuadorian Air Force plane struck Saturno for the very first time. It struck Saturno before it was even named Saturno. The airplane managed to hit no other buildings but Jupiter. It landed on its roof, completely destroying a cement shack Agosto had built for his wife and son. Jupiter faced the great valley of Guapulo, and some of the passengers, as they walked around Jupiter’s roof, admired the church: it shined in spite of all the fog drowning the valley, in spite of the smoke coming out of the airplane’s left engine. Like museum visitors, they asked Agosto and little Benito where they were, what was happening, where they should head next.

“You’ve crashed into us,” Agosto uttered. A postcard featuring a green Armed Force airplane and Jupiter’s rooftop was sold to tourists for 20,000 sucres, or eighty American cents shortly after. Benito’s first home within Saturno erased. He thought of his taita Agosto in between petals of roses and carnations, in between a sunflower that refused to look at the equatorial sun.

The night of the second airplane accident, the owner of MARÍA FLORES didn’t bar up its windows. MARÍA FLORES sold more popcorn and plantain chips than any day of the week. The Argentinian restaurant experienced a slow evening. They did not run out of beer that night. González Suárez had come to a halt. Old women from neighboring buildings, during their first walk out alone in months, conferred next to the police officers. “El edificio is cursed,” they said, trembling. Quito’s temperature dropped substantially. But the cold didn’t put out Saturno’s fires.

Benito helped every resident of Saturno escape the building. Pablo’s bedroom was impenetrable. Alma’s television had fallen over. Quito’s firemen–the brave children of soldiers who put out forest fires–were under too much pressure. They put out as many fires as they could, and came back the next day to sweep up the ash. Las cenizas del Lote 101 inundated Quito the way Pichincha once did: a tragedy in the form of a spectacle.

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Benito still lives in the basement of Saturno. Next to the residential storing rooms filled with unused golf clubs and forgotten television sets from the nineties. He still doesn’t have children, but he has yet to be fired. Residents of Saturno–during one of their post-airplane crash meetings–talked about the disappearance of Saturno’s owner. His kidnapping was all over the news. Man with sombrero de Panama found dead in Tumbaco, a neighboring valley of Cumbaya. He never came back to check on Benito’s forced retirement.

Benito helps families remove unwanted vermin and fowl from their apartments; he takes out their trash and recycles their clothes; he eats what they left behind, paints over chipped walls, changes light bulbs, silences smoke alarms; he plants new flowers up on the roof, remembering the ones that died during the colonization of the Andes, the seeds brought by the Spanish, the flowers that decorated balconies and Saturno’s rooftop, his father embodied in soil.

Pablo and Alma moved uptown to an apartment complex in Eloy Alfaro avenue, where the fog doesn’t kill. Pablo, with less acne but with a Marlboro addiction, is now enrolled in Universidad de las Americas; he lives with his mother, still, because Alma can’t forget the crash, and Pedro never came back, and Gabriela still haunts her closet. They left all of Gabriela’s belongings behind in Saturno, even the mask she wore when Pichincha punished Quito with ash.

Saturno:  Avenida González Suárez, Lote 101, Quito, Ecuador