Conte, a journal of narrative writing.

The Numbers Vendor

When Nelson el Raro walked out of his house, the morning heat had settled on the cobblestone. Breakfast was sitting nicely in his belly now, and his second day without sleep was but a faint unpleasantness under his skin. Most of all he felt lucky today, an altogether unfamiliar sensation for him.

The Emboque plaza and the launch docks were bustling with people and buses in the warming sun. Even the sky was full of activity with red and yellow kites swooping in the salty breeze and all the bird life around Havana harbor -- sparrows, gulls, and the high-hovering buzzards above them, up near the clouds.

He stopped a moment to watch a frutero building a pyramid of oranges on his cart, while he listened to the other vendors hawk their produce for the people coming and going on and off the harbor launches. Each vendor had his own distinctive personal rhyme. His favorites were those of the tamaleros and the peanut vendors because theirs were the most musical.

Nelson would always know precisely what others meant when speaking of their hometown, their homeland, by simply focusing his thoughts on El Emboque docks on a windswept morning such as this one.

He browsed his way out of the busy plaza to see Cheo Calandro, the old blind man who had been selling lottery bills at the same spot ever since he could remember. Nelson had always thought the old man was fond of him because whenever he stopped by for a casual greeting the ancient lottery vendor would become very talkative and engage him in long, preposterous conversations on subjects that, although interesting, he could not take seriously coming from an illiterate son of African slaves.

But Cheo Calandro was not just anybody. He was considered one of the town's landmarks, respected by all and worshipped by many, because of the countless winning lottery bills he had sold to people who had become rich overnight with the prizes. And yet, despite all the good fortune his lottery bills had brought to so many, the old man was back there every day, sitting with his colorful rack of bills at his side in his nook in the rocky wall where the church stands.

As Nelson started across the plaza, he decided that if the old lottery vendor sold him a winning ticket that he would give him half the prize.

Cheo Calandro was sitting on a wooden Coca-Cola crate, his sinewy forearms resting on his knees.

"Who's there?" he asked, straightening up his back.

"Nelson Vargas. Remember me?"

The blind man's cloudy eyes wandered. "Ah yes! The son of Raul El Bolitero. How is he these days?"

"Good. He's fine. Working," said Nelson unnecessarily loud.

¡Muchacho!" let out the blind man, covering one ear. "I'm blind, not deaf."

His eyes again moved awkwardly. "Tell me one thing: are you anything like your father? I ask because your father told me he doesn't believe in luck anymore. How am I going to make a living if people don't believe in luck?"

"That's a good question, but I've come to buy the thirteen."

"You?" The blind man nodded his head approvingly.

"Yes. Today is the thirteenth," Nelson explained. "I've decided to make it my lucky number from now on."

"That's a very important decision," said Cheo Calandro with a scowl. "Not a trivial thing like people say."

"No, of course not," Nelson said to humor the man.

"The thirteen ha?" Cheo Calandro scratched his sweaty brown head. "You do know this number is very popular among my regular buyers, don't you?"

"It doesn't surprise me."

Cheo Calandro reflected on it a moment. "But you know what?" he said. "After a lifetime of selling lottery bills, I know this much: this numeral is not a lucky one by itself."

"What? Do I have to buy something else?"

The blind man slapped his thigh and laughed. "No, nothing like that."

"I don't get it."

"It's simple, chico. The numeral thirteen, on its own, brings luck to no one."