S H O R T S T O R Y
THE BLOOD CAKE VENDOR
b y j. l. n a v a r r o ~ s a n d i e g o , c a l i f o r n i a
"A CAT can feel you looking at it, did you know that?"
The doctor's bathroom smelled like hell in the first place, and in the second place, I felt I shouldn't have been there. My wife had insisted that I come.
"Yes," the doctor continued. "A cat can feel you looking at him. He can sense your intentions."
What died in there?
"And they know how you will react to them in the long term."
Why doesn't he shut up?
"Open wide." The doctor poked with a flat, round wooden stick and flattened out my tongue. He held a thin small flashlight in the other hand and shone it down my throat. "Looks inflamed."
"Something died in the bathroom," I told him. "Shut the door. It stinks in here."
"It's in your mind. It's all in your mind."
"It's in my nose."
"The smell of death is everywhere. My bathroom has nothing to do with it."
When he was done, he said, "Gargle with salt and water and take these pills. One every six hours."
"What's wrong with me?"
"Germs. There are germs everywhere."
"Shouldn't you give me a shot?"
"It will do no good. All you need are the pills."
Outside, the soldiers walked among the crowd of civilians. There seemed to be more and more soldiers everyday, more military equipment. It was no longer evident whether they were friend or foe. I stopped thinking about it long ago. It no longer mattered. They began coming into the city ever since I was a young boy; they came to keep the peace they said. They came to keep us safe. But we were not safe before they came and we were not safe after they came.
My shop is on a wide street, wedged between a bakery and a vendor of prosthetic limbs. Though the street is wide, it is crowded with vehicles and a sea of people, undulating over the asphalt and concrete like erect finless fish. People come to the city to feel safe, but we are as vulnerable here as anywhere else in the countryside. The newspapers keep referring to "the war," but it has become a way of life. Wars end, but the deep-seated hatreds that drive this beast require a huge amount of victims. I see no end to it and have long since stopped hoping for days of peace to return to our land. Even before the soldiers came, I did not know what peace was anymore than I know it today.
My shop allows us a comfortable living. Our home is above the shop where I live with my wife and her sister's ghost. I like to think that I provide a sense of security to the people who shop at my place of business. We sell religious trinkets, good luck charms, religious books of any faith, as well as hand grenades, hand guns, automatic rifles and, of course, ammunition. It is a modest business but we manage to survive.
There is a newspaper rack outside my shop. Today's headline reads: Who Is The Enemy?
What a stupid question. I no longer read the papers because I no longer know if I am reading the truth. Their editorials are more baiting, more one-sided rants designed to incite rather than to remedy. They may not be the enemy but they are certainly part of the problem.
The bell above the front door jingled and a lone man came in and looked around the shop. He seemed pleased, signaling that he had arrived at his correct destination.
"They told me I could find hand grenades here," he said. He spoke in a foreign accent.
"Yes, we have an assortment," I said. "What type are you looking for?"
"I was hoping to try out a few. I need to feel them."
He stepped toward the display case where I housed grenades and small handguns. He bent down and looked at the half dozen varieties displayed on purple velvet cloth.
"I think I'll try those," he said, pointing to the stubby "green pineapples," a favorite among the locals.
"Excellent choice. Are you going fishing?"
"No. I'm a juggler with the Allegro Brother's Circus."
"I don't think I've ever heard of them."
"I'll have to go and see you perform."
"I'll give you some passes. You and your wife can come."
"We would enjoy that very much, thank you."
He picked up three grenades and began to toss them in a circle. It seemed rather mundane to me. I was not impressed.
"I incorporate flaming knives in this part of the act, so it is much more dramatic than this," he said, as if reading my mind. The grenades continued spinning as he stood and looked at me.
"I see you have a third eye." It had not been there before, or maybe it had been shut.
"Yes," he said. "Not many people are aware of it."
How could people not be aware of it, I thought, when it was there in plain sight at the center of his forehead?
"Is that women over there dead?" he questioned.
I turned to look. "Yes," I said. "She has been dead for over twenty years now."
"She was a rather good looking woman, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she was."
"How did she die?"
"She was blown up by a bomber who took out an entire theater at a Saturday matinee."
"Yes, it was."
"Is she related to you?"
"She's my sister-in-law."
"I see," he said.
He bought a total of five grenades and a Swiss Army knife.
When he left, I locked the front door and turned the sign to Closed. I always took a few hours off in the afternoon. It made no difference if it was a peaceful day or a day filled with chaos. Life is too short to have your nose to the grindstone all of the time.
My wife had a bowl of lentil soup and hot bread sticks on the table for my lunch.
"What did the doctor tell you?"
"He said I had germs."
"What kind of germs?"
"He didn't specify."
"Are you going to be alright?"
"He gave me some pills and told me to gargle with salt water."
"Then it must not be serious," my wife said.
"I suppose not."
My wife's dead sister was sitting at the table with me.
"Why doesn't she ever say anything?" I said.
"What is there to say?"
I did not mind her ghost living with us. She was always quiet and did not strain our resources in the least.
"Eat your soup before it gets cold," my wife said. "She is not going to say anything to you no matter how much you stare at her."
In the late afternoon, we heard the gun ships passing over the city. They were on their way somewhere to lob missiles and spray bullets on our enemy.
Later in the day, a young woman came into the shop to buy a handgun. She said she wanted protection. After she made her selection, I placed the gun in her hand and ushered her to the long oval mirror in the corner so she could see herself aiming the weapon. In this case, it was a German-made .25 semi-automatic. Definitely a woman's gun, but powerful enough to give her the security she sought.
"Aim the gun at yourself," I told her. "Aim at the mirror and see for yourself what the intruder will see. Imagine the fear you will instill in him."
The young woman took aim, arms at length. She held it in her right hand, gripping her wrist with her left hand to steady it. She had obviously taken lessons.
"Will it take a man's head off?" she wanted to know.
"If I give you the right bullets, yes."
"I'll take it," she said.
Few other customers came in. In the evening, I closed the shop and waited for the blood cake vendor to take his place on the corner. Every so often, I would take a few of his cakes so that my wife and I could enjoy them in the late evening. They were a treat I had grown accustomed to since I was a child when my mother introduced me to them. They are an acquired taste. Some people refuse to eat them on religious grounds.
On certain days, when you are downwind, the smell of decomposition is pronounced in the air. No one seems to know where it comes from. This evening the smell of rotting flesh was there but is was tolerable. There were occasions when you would have to shut your windows and put on a gas mask to keep breathing without losing your stomach. Some say dead animals are to blame. But the source has never been found.
When the vendor showed up on his corner, the early evening had arrived and the city lights came on. People gathered around his cart and placed their orders. When he opened the hatch to the cart, a red glow shot forth like bright neon. I watched the people standing about, eating their blood cakes and then watching them glow like vivid sanguine blobs in the evening light. I stood patiently waiting my turn.
When the vendor saw me, he said, "Two?"
"Yes," I said. "The usual."
He put the two cakes that looked like blood flan onto some paper plates.
"What is the recipe?" someone wanted to know.
"I will tell you when the wars are over," the vendor said. "In which case, I will not be able to sell them anymore. The required ingredients will no longer be available."
The crowd standing around the vendor's cart continued eating and glowing red in the night as we all heard the explosion some blocks away. The ample flash of sudden light indicated it had been a rather large bomb.
"There will be plenty of cakes tomorrow," the vendor said to us.
I went back home and invited my wife to join me at the kitchen table. Her dead sister sat with us in the dark while we ate our blood cakes. We sat in the dim night, glowing red, listening to the gun ships passing over the city.
This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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