She said the money was not for her but for her hija, a little baby wrapped in a yellow blanket she cradled to her breast. She pulled back the blanket so I could see the child's face. I checked my pocket and shook my head. I had nothing small enough to give her. "No me importa," she said. She didn't care. She took my hand and led me to a patch of green grass. She told me to sit down. I smiled. Okay, I thought, here comes the pitch. This was not uncommon. Every day people panhandled in front of the art gallery, juggling or flipping tarot cards or reading palms for a few extra pesos. What the hell.
I sat crosslegged on the warm grass. It was winter in Santiago but the sun was shining. She said her name was Carolina. "Hablas castellano, verdad?"
I said I spoke only a little, but I could more or less understand her. I told her I was from the United States, and she said she was from Spain. "Claro," I said. I'd heard there were many Spanish people in Chile, people seeking work who couldn't find it in their own country.
"Abre tu mano," she said. "Tengo un regalo." A gift. I opened my hand.
She took it in hers and pointed at a line and said something about love that I didn't understand. Then she pointed at my heart and said that I had love in my heart. That I was not a bad person. I thanked her. She pulled down her shirt and put the baby to her breast. The child shut its eyes and wrapped its lips around her elongated nipple. I felt my face turn hot and looked away. "Cierra tu mano," she said. I closed my hand and she wrapped it in her own.
She said again I had love in my heart and told me to think of a wish. After a moment she asked if I had the wish and I said I did although I did not—I was only trying to keep up with her Spanish. "Sopla en tu mano," she said, and I said I did not understand. "Sopla," she said. "Así." She blew on our entwined hands. I did the same.
Next she asked me my name and wrote it on a piece of paper she tore from an old notepad she carried. "Cierra tu mano y sopla," she said. I closed my hand and blew on it. She pointed at my pocket, told me to empty it. I took out my keys and my wallet, holding them tightly.
"Qué es más importante, dinero o felicidad?" She asked. I said that happiness was more important than money. She held up the piece of paper and said "Abre tu billetera." I understood she wanted to place the paper in my wallet so she could see the bills I had there and call me a liar for saying I had nothing. I opened the wallet. There were two 10.000 peso bills, about 40 dollars American. Enough to eat on for a while.
Before I could stop her she took the bills and poured water on them from the dusty bottle at her side. Then she began to rub them vigorously between her hands as her child sucked at her tit. "Felicidad es más importante," she said, and she stopped the motion of her hands. "Abre tu mano." I opened my hand and she placed there a blue ball of wet shredded paper, ugly and unusable. "Cierra tu mano," she said. I didn't move.
"Felicidad es más importante, me entiendes?" she said. "Está destruido."
I said yes, I understood.
"Está destruido," she repeated.
I stood up, letting the money fall to the grass, and said I was going to be late for work.
I saw her again on the way back home, many hours later. It was nighttime then and she sat on a bench under the dull yellow light of the streetlamp. Around her were people bedding down on the benches or the steps of the gallery and at the corner up the sidewalk were trash bags of all color and size piled high. A group of stray dogs were rustling through them with their snouts and forepaws searching hungrily. Carolina smiled and blew me a kiss like an old friend. I smiled back faintly like I didn't know her, and when the next person on the street tried to stop me I only walked faster. "No entiendo," I said, "No entiendo." I don't understand.
BIO: Bruce Johnson is an MFA candidate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In conjunction with his program's international component, he is currently living in Santiago, Chile, while he completes his thesis. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cutthroat, Eunoia Review, eFiction, and Muddy River Poetry Review.