BASS 2020: Alejandro Puyana, “The Hands of Dirty Children” from American Short Fiction #68

African elephant sculpture in Parque Los Caobos in Caracas, Venezuela
…I turned my gaze to what was happening in Venezuela: polarization, totalitarianism, fear-mongering, social upheaval….From then on writing began as a way to deal with my isolation from the country I loved and my family, who still lived the Venezuelan crisis in the flesh.
…This story came from those things I couldn’t get out of my head and I couldn’t understand. I wrote the first draft in a couple of sittings, which is extremely fast for me. The voice came first, never changed or faltered, and then I just followed it. It took me to two places that I loved as a kid: the Children’s Museum and the Plaza los Museos – but from a perspective I had never had. For me those are places of happiness; for the kids in the story they are places of longing. They are excluded from the joy other children take for granted (that I took for granted). But what surprised me most about the story was that joy could still be found for them, that there were still moments of tenderness and loyalty and levity. If a child is still a child, even in the midst of despair and injustice, maybe my country can still the country I love, even when it’s broken.

Alejandro Puyana, Contributor Note

Often when I read an author’s contributor note, I feel like I read a different story, or at least took something different away from my reading. Missed the point, you might say. But in this case, I can clearly see that Puyana did exactly what he set out to do: bring the world of the homeless children of Caracas, with all its pain, shame, and, yes, humor and love and joy, to a set of readers who might not otherwise encounter it. Sure, he could have written an essay, but a story with a character you can, if not identify with, then cheer for, has a greater chance of finding the reader’s heart.

We follow a seven-year-old member of an informal group of abandoned children called the Crazy 9 through the course of one day. From the start, we’re not optimistic about his friend Ramoncito’s chances of surviving the story. But it’s not all grimdark: he lists what they love: their name (even though they’re only eight now, and will probably only be seven shortly, they’re still the Crazy 9); a knife he found in a purse he stole; a fried chicken restaurant they sometimes beg at, if they can avoid the guard chasing them away; going to protests, again to beg, or maybe steal; mangos; and each other. That’s a pretty broad swathe of the necessities of life: identity, self-defense, food, community.

The story starts out as a trek to the best dumpster in Caracas. Most of the kids want to leave Ramoncito behind as he’ll slow them down, but our narrator won’t hear of it; he helps him up and supports him. They fall behind anyway, and are soon out of sight.

Hands show up in subtle ways throughout the story. Bystanders pat their pockets and purses to see if they’ve been picked when the Crazy 9 go by. At the Children’s Museum, we get a comparison of the two kinds of children in this world, via hands:

…The teachers never got mad, they just gently pushed her back in line and placed her hands on the shoulders of the boy in front of her. Her eyes still followed the pigeon, but she held on to those shoulders. The teacher was so gentle. Her hands must have felt so soft and clean.
I looked at my own hand. The one that wasn’t holding up Ramoncito. My nails were long, the tips of them as black as wet dirt,. My palms were covered in stains, a landscape of Brown and black. When I opened my hand and pulled my fingers apart as much as they would go, the landscape cracked and revealed the cleaner tone of my own skin, hiding underneath.

From Dickens to today, within every street urchin is still a child.

Given my penchant for research, I looked up the Children’s Museum in Caracas to see their “huge logo of a boy riding on a rainbow,” as well as the golden elephant statue, pictured above, that becomes a focus for one of the most emotional moments of the story: a policeman chases the two kids, they fall in the pond, and he starts to beat them until a bystander intervenes:

“Stop!” She demanded. and the man did. He stopped and looked around as if he had awakened from a dream. His chest rose and fell quickly, but his eyes had moved from me and Ramoncito and scanned the faces around us, especially the woman’s. “Have you no shame?” she asked him softly, and I could see the man affected by her words. She knelt by me and held the back of my head. “They are just children,” she said to him. And the man finally lowered his club and let it hang from his side, the leather band clinging to his strong wrist. And I could see something happening to his face. Some transformation. Like he felt sorry for us all of a sudden, or sorry for himself, or sad at himself, rather. I didn’t have a word for it, but it felt like that one time I stole a box of leftovers from an old homeless man, and he didn’t even have the strength to yell at me. When I sat down to eat the food all I could see were his milky eyes looking at me. I ate the food, but felt really bad eating it.

The kids are no angels. But they get a stranger’s compassion anyway. I don’t quite buy the cop’s recognition of his own inhumanity, but this is fiction.

The end of the story is as heartbreaking as you’d expect it to be. For those of us grounded in American literature, it might seem like a bleak version of a Huck Finn story, but it also calls to mind South Asian traditions. The feelings are universal: honoring a friend, human connection, grief.

And now I’m going to sound like a stone cold heartless bitch: I wish this heart-wrenching, well-paced story had been about something in addition to the horrible life of street kids.  I wish it had a plot that allowed their story to be told, even foregrounded, but within a context of a bigger picture, like maybe the cop’s life, or the teacher from the museum. It’s not because I don’t want to hear about the desperate poverty and lack of social supports; at least, I don’t think it is. I had the same feeling when I read last Cristina Henriquez’ “Everything is Far From Here” in 2018; somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids. Let me emphasize again, although I have every confidence in Puyana’s motivations from his Note, I feel manipulated.

This happens once in a while, and I notice now it’s maybe because young children are involved; neither Manuel Muñoz’ “Anyone Can Do It” from 2019, nor “Garments” by Tahmima Anam from 2016, both of which examined the lives of those we depend on and at the same time let live in poverty so we can eat cheap fruit and wear cheap clothes, bothered me this way. Am I being protective of kids, or of myself? Am I hypersensitive, or seeking insensitivity? Maybe it’s the discomfort of feeling such outrage, and not knowing what to do about it.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Some writing, you do just to bear witness, to say ‘this is the world as I see it.’ You do it because you feel like every day someone doesn’t call it out, you’re being gaslit into thinking the world is different from what you believe it is. ”

Story available online at Electric Lit with introduction by Curtis Sittenfeld: “Puyana balances the boys’ bleak circumstances with their specific individual humanity, depicting them as they see themselves. The hardships of their lives make its intermittent tenderness all the more striking, and the tenderness extends to the larger narrative.”

2 responses to “BASS 2020: Alejandro Puyana, “The Hands of Dirty Children” from American Short Fiction #68

  1. Wow, great insight there. You and I had similar feelings about not just this story, but “Everything is Far from Here,” and I think you’re right that the foregrounding of children has a lot to do with that. Not that they’re wrong to do it, but how does a reader get to the end of a story about the world shitting on children and say, “Oh, I love that story”?

  2. Pingback: Guest Post by Jonathan Duelfer: Review of “The Wind” by Lauren Groff, from The New Yorker, February 1, 2021 | A Just Recompense

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