[excerpt]

From the time she was a little girl, Carmen Morales had the manual skills that characterized her for the rest of her life; in her hands any object was transformed from its original form. She made necklaces from soup beans, soldiers from toilet paper rolls, toys from spools and matchboxes. One day, playing with three apples, she discovered that she had no trouble at all keeping them in the air at the same time; soon she was juggling five eggs, and from that moved naturally to more exotic objects. “Shining shoes is a lot of sweat and not much cash, Greg. Learn some trick, and we'll work together,” Carmen suggested to her friend. “I need a partner.”

Dozens of eggs later, Gregory’s definitive clumsiness was established. He had no interesting talent to offer other than wiggling his ears and eating live flies, although he did have a good ear for the harmonica. Oliver was more gifted; they taught him to walk on his hind legs with a hat clamped in his jaws and how to select small slips of paper from a box. At first he swallowed them, but he eventually learned to deliver them delicately to the client. Carmen and Gregory assiduously perfected a routine for their show and to escape the scrutiny of friends and neighbors planned to perform as far from home as possible, since they knew that if Pedro or Inmaculada Morales knew what they were doing, nothing could save them; they had already earned one spanking for their idea of posing as beggars in their own barrio. Carmen made a skirt from brightly colored scarves and a bonnet trimmed with chicken feathers, and asked to borrow Olga’s yellow boots. Gregory sneaked out the top hat and bow tie his father had worn while preaching, items Nora had preserved as relics. They asked Olga to help them in drafting the slips with fortunes, telling her it was a game for the end-of-school party; she pierced them with one of her looks but without further questions sat down and wrote out a handful of prophecies in the style of Chinese fortune cookies. They rounded out their supplies with eggs, candles, and five kitchen knives, which they hid in a sack because they could not leave their houses carrying such things without raising suspicion. They washed Oliver down with a hose and tied a ribbon around his neck, hoping to make him look a little less like a cur. They chose a street corner far from the barrio, donned their minstrel outfits, and tried out their act. A small crowd soon gathered around the two children and the dog. Carmen, with her petite figure, her eye-catching clothes, and her extraordinary skill in tossing burning candles and sharp knives in the air, was an instant attraction; Gregory devoted himself to playing the harmonica. In pauses between the juggling, he put aside his mouth organ and invited the spectators to buy a fortune. For a small sum, the dog would select a folded slip and carry it to the client—slightly damp with slobber, it is true, but perfectly legible. In an hour or two the children earned as much as a laborer received for a full day’s work in any of the area factories. As it began to grow dark, they removed their costumes, packed up their equipment, divided their earnings, and returned home, after swearing that torture could not make them reveal what they had done. Carmen buried her money in a box in her patio, and Gregory doled his out at home, to avoid prying questions, keeping a small share to go to the movies.

If we earned that much here, imagine what we could do in Perishing Square. We'd be millionaires! Hundreds of people go there to listen to the hotheads, and there are all those rich people going in and out of hotels,” Carmen proposed.

Such a bold move would never have entered Gregory’s mind. He believed there was an invisible frontier that people of his status never crossed; the world was different on the other side: men strode along purposefully with work to do and urgent errands, gloved women strolled at a more leisurely pace, the stores were luxurious and the automobiles shiny. He had been there once or twice with his mother, when she had legal matters to attend to, but he would never in the world have thought of going there alone. In one instant, Carmen revealed the possibilities of the market: for three years he had been shining shoes for a dime among the poorest of the poor, without a glimmer of how only a few blocks away he could find customers more easily and charge triple the amount. The idea intimidated him, however, and he immediately rejected it.

“You're crazy.”

“Why are you so chicken, Gregory? I bet you don't even know the hotel.”

“The hotel? You've been in the hotel?”

“Of course. It’s like a palace. It has paintings on the ceilings and the doors; there are pom-poms on the curtains, and I can't even describe the lamps: they look like ships strung with lights. Your feet sink into the rugs like sand at the beach, and everyone looks elegant—and they serve tea and cakes.”

“You had tea in the hotel?”

“Well, not exactly, but I've seen the trays. You have to walk in without looking at anyone, as if your mama was waiting for you at a table, you understand?”

“And what if they catch you?”

“The first rule is, you never admit anything. If someone says something to you, you act like a rich kid, you turn up your nose and say something rude. I'll take you one day. At any rate, that’s the best place to work.”