The sharp iron cold of the Pamplona winter air nipped at her face like myriad flying needles as she stood shivering on tiptoe and rummaging the waste bin with one hand and holding up the automatic closing lid with the other. In the dim-lit starless night she could see only vague outlines inside the bin, the junk and jetsam reduced to featureless nothings, she now discerning not by sight but by what remained of touch, her hand freezing and bloodless and numbed almost beyond feeling.
Her baby started to cry behind her and she turned to it without stopping the sweeping, probing movement of her arm. Ephemeral clouds of mist, phantom and faint as though with each suspiration and weep the soul decanted breath by breath into that brittle air, wisped up from the baby carriage that she’d found a week ago abandoned in a junk heap, shabby and one wheel twisted out of its axis.
“Shh,” she said. “I know, I know. It’s cold. Mama will find something soon, okay? Just — Aha.” Her eyes widened. Her arm stopped moving side to side now and she started to pull. When she brought it to the dim streetlight she let out a sigh of exasperation, materialized in white curls just as soon expiring. It was no blanket. It was a ragged blue tarpaulin sheet.
She stood shivering as she looked at the crying baby. She spread out the tarpaulin and used it to cover the carriage, exposing just the baby’s head, to which she drew her own face closer. “Here, this might do for now,” she said. Either from recognition of that maternal visage or perhaps just the gush of warm breath it now felt on its infant face the baby had stopped crying. When she went back to the bins and continued rummaging she felt the sudden rush of the winter wind on her face and heard the light scraping sound of the tarpaulin on the ground and the recommenced crying of the baby. She let out an exasperated moan, not turning back to look, not needing to.
“Shh,” she said. “Please — “
“Qué estás haciendo aquí.”
She turned. A burly man in a bulky coat, ragged and filthy. His bristly beard salted with glistening white as though serving as hiding place for those stars that had disappeared in the void night sky. The exposed face radiating the soft, lipid sheen of one who hadn’t bathed in days. He was walking closer to her now.
“Qué pasa aquí,” he said. “Tú quién eres. Qué buscas.”
His Spanish seemed to float in a languid, ponderous drawl, as though the tongue made just the minimum movement necessary to slide the consonants out, sounding as if he spoke not coherent phrases but one long concatenated highfalutin word. His breath had that cloying sickly-sweet odor of overripe fruit left behind by the accumulated cross-fermentation of human saliva and one too many drinks, a smell that seemed to trigger in her some primal maternal instinct to reach into the carriage and hold the baby to her chest as she backed away.
“Espera,” he said. “Espera. Wait. Wait.”
She stopped, standing stooped and cautious, keeping her distance.
“You speak English,” he said. She nodded her head, barely, just enough to be distinguished from her cold-induced quivering.
“What are you doing in the trash?” he said.
She did not answer.
“I give you fear?” he said.
She did not answer. She had started shivering violently now, almost epileptic. As though the body’s primordial reaction to the combined fear and cold was the crude doubling of fury and magnitude made manifest in corporal tremor. He sighed and muttered some choice words in Spanish that cannot be printed here. He moved to the garbage bins and started to rummage inside as she had done before him. “Pues nada,” he said. “I am drinking man. But not am rapist.”
She stood watching him, still shivering. “What are you looking for,” she said.
He stopped rummaging and turned to look at her. “Vaya vaya,” he said. “You can talk.”
“What are you looking for.”
“Pues … papers old. Metals. Bottles. So I sell them in the shop of junks.”
“Are you the garbage collector?”
“No, basurero, no. No. I am vagabundo. Vagabond.” He flashed a proud yellowed grin. “I beg sometimes. But is not enough if I want…” He popped his pinky and thumb out of a clenched fist and made a motion as if to drink from this haptic beverage. “So I have to do this.” He gestured to the bins.
“I am looking for a blanket,” she said. “For my son.”
“For your son? To me looks like he’s not the only one who needs. You look like dancing.” He laughed, his yellow drunkard’s teeth wet and gleaming in the faint light but he’d soon closed his mouth as he realized the other was not only not laughing, but looking at him with a dark stonelike face, a face not of anger nor even of repulsion, but of a resigned and damned solemnity.
“Can you help me look for a blanket?” she said.
“Sure,” he said. “We find something. I am lucky almost always.”
He was this time too. Not long after he’d started to scrounge through the bin he pulled out a mottled wool blanket and handed it to her. She took it and dusted it off and folded it into many layers and tucked the baby under it inside the bed of the carriage. The baby breathed more peacefully now. Soon it fell asleep.
She turned to the man. “Thank you,” she said.
He smiled at this but didn’t answer. His eyes seemed to be looking past her now, or even not looking despite open, as though they’d now turned inward and searched in his very soul the forgotten meaning of those two long unheard words which recognized and celebrated the inherent goodness of human existence.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Gracias.”
“Where you come from?”
“Anda. Is far country. And why you come here to Pamplona?”
“I had no other choice. No other place would have me.”
“Our government threw out all the immigrants. I’m a refugee.”
“Vaya por Dios. Pobrecilla. Now I understand. But … but what kind of refuge is this? They not even give you shelter.”
“They do. Did. I left.”
She looked away from him now.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “There many other shelters here.”
“I don’t like how they looked at me,” she said, keeping her head bowed.
They two stood unspeaking, the girl shivering and the man only watching her. After a moment he unzipped his coat and took out a small metal flask from his inside pocket and unstoppered it and held it out to her.
“Take,” he said. “Is whiskey. To warm yourself a little.” He rubbed his belly in a circular motion, his face grave as though he spoke from profound and deeply meditated experience.
She shook her head.
“I insist,” he said. He gestured his flask to her again. She hesitated and looked up at him and at last took it. She looked into the hole and then sipped. When she brought the flask down and even after she’d swallowed her face was crumpled in disgust.
“Is a bit strong,” he said. “But better, no?”
“Me alegro.” He put the stopper back on the flask and put it in his pocket but before he’d taken his hand out he took the flask out of the pocket and pulled out the stopper again and swigged. She watched as he looked into the flask meditatively. He looked like a kind of grimy though nonetheless efficacious diviner peeping into the futures and destinies projected by the alcoholic auguries laying within that tawdry metallic contrivance. He took another swig and stoppered the bottle and put it in his pocket.
He looked up at her, his gaze neutral. “What happened with him?” he said.
He motioned his chin to the baby.
“My son?” she said.
“No. The father.”
She did not answer. She averted her gaze.
“He left you,” he said. “Is truth?”
“No,” she said, jerking her face toward him almost agressively, her features now agitated. “No.”
He held his hands up. “Tranquila,” he said. “Tranquila.”
“My husband didn’t leave me. He got left behind. He had a problem with his papers. They wouldn’t let him pass. And he told me …” She paused, she blinked rapidly. She cleared her throat. “He told me he will look for me here as soon as he arrives.”
“Ah. Claro. Pamplona is small. I’m sure he will probably find you easy.”
“I’m sure he will.”
He smiled at her. It was not at all unpleasant. His eyes seemed to lose the distant, alcoholic sheen, revealing now a jolly paternal warmth that perhaps had not been exposed in years. “You know,” he said. “I had a daughter once. She has the same years as you now. Perhaps a little less.” He wiped the corners of his eyes.
“She still lives with you?” she said.
“No. No. My wife and my daughter … they decided they wanted to replace me.”
“Yes. Hijo de puta. Le voy a … No. No. They did the correct. How can a man take care of the family when he cannot take care of the own self. And, bueno, I was using all the money just for alcohol. Even the shelters couldn’t keep me because of my drinking. How can a normal home with a normal family? Pues … They did the correct.”
“No. Don’t. The fault is my. I am old and made errors. And you, you are still young. You learn from me. Family is most important. We forget this. Until we lose it. Learn from me.”
The man stood watching her again. “Here,” he said. He took off his coat, exposing a jutting belly and breasts through a thin cotton jersey as though months pregnant with some beer-conceived offspring, and held it out to her. “Take. Is yours.”
She demurred, waving her hand. “No no,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“No, it’s yours.”
“I do not necessitate it. Already I’m acostumbrated to the cold. You not are.” He motioned the coat to her again. She took it.
“Venga,” he said. “Put you it. Before you die for the cold.”
“Gracias,” she said. He grinned at her.
“If only I could offer you house as well,” he said. “For you and for the baby. But I don’t have it.”
He looked up at the sky. “Pues,” he said. “I have to go now.”
“To where?” she said.
“I don’t know. And you?”
“I don’t know.”
They both smiled at each other. Before he knew it the girl had embraced her. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Venga,” he said. “Hasta luego.”
As she pushed the baby carriage to go back home, she felt something cold and wet touch her on the back of her neck. She looked up. Falling flakes of snow. She caught one on her hand and watched it melt. She looked behind her. The man was gone, disappeared into the darkness. She continued pushing the carriage.
A story I wrote for Weekly Knob but wasn’t able to submit in time. The prompt was “blanket”. The story was inspired by something I saw walking home from class in the university one night: a woman scavenging inside a bin for jackets and blankets (I supposed, as the Pamplona winter was just starting then) with her baby in a carriage behind her. I regret not having been able to do anything for her. I myself was broke that time. Anyway hope you liked the story.