January 2, 2013 Getsemaní, Cartagena – Two dogs loll and swagger around us. Sad dogs. Dogs whose ribs show through their tired skin. Behind us meat smokes on a rickety charcoal fire that sits on the sidewalk. Chicken, yucca, potatoes, pork and slabs of raw meat, whose dignity fell prey to flies and ignorance a long time ago, sit and melt on the sidewalk chef’s modest altar on Calle de la Media Luna. Three men sit in the street lawn chairs. The chef hacks away at the meat with a dull blade. His three men watch the hacking. If they are praying for anything right now, they stay away from putting their faith into plain words. A bottle touches one man’s lips. He sips.

Gustavo sits next to me, chicken grease taking his hands prisoner. He wears a clean white collared-shirt and plaid shorts. The curb underneath him, however, is black from the street and the smoke and the dirt. Ripping through our chicken, Cartagena unwinds around us. You can hear the two dogs’ soft panting now. That oppressed sound, crushed by the noise of stronger machines, fades into the sadness of the cracked pavement on which they snooze. Some old men shuffle by. The chef with the knife finally has nothing to do, so he stands.

Then a young tall guy suddenly crosses the street and starts to walk directly toward us. A young girl walks next to him. He sets his eyes on mine. He holds a tough stare. His arm reaches out. His palm is open, as if ready to shake mine. But instead of a friendly greeting, his hand seems more like an intruder, and I am suddenly vulnerable here, planted on the curb, covered in gobs of chicken fat. Sweating.

The hand swoops down and touches my chest just above my breast pocket, which holds my cellphone. I say something involuntarily. Probably something loud and threatening, but I don’t register the words. A memory that forgets is precious in an instance like this one. The man and his girl are walking again. This time they are on the other side of the me. I pat my hands over my chest. The cellphone is still in my pocket. But that hand and the arm and the stare and their quiet machinations felt more like a vulture than a man. The sad dogs are happy to wait until we are done with our chicken. They lick the bones, but only after we have decided to feed them. Something closer to civil. Not like vultures.

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