Carlos López Andrade sat at a rickety red table, bathing in the sea of glowing colors that was Times Square. The luminous ads and billboards high into the night sky – ads of phones that ensured happiness and apps that promised love – trickled down white and blue and red colors that danced across his dusty brown skin. It was the texture of a ripe avocado, his skin, and the lights highlighted every ridge and crevice, every memory held within the rind. Even the ones that he didn’t want illuminated. He sighed.
He shifted uncomfortably, deflated by the sigh. He barely fit his long legs and gaunt body on the small table that smelled of spilled soda and was appropriately sticky. He wore a tweed suit – made more of patches than wool – that stuck to the table every time he put his arms down, and a navy beret sat on his head, hiding thin gray hair. His twirling thumbs lay restless on his cane while he grinned playfully at people rushing past. People rarely looked back at him, even more rarely smiled back, and it was never without a look of pity in their eyes. Most people assumed he was homeless or demented or both.
¡Que crean lo que crean! he would chime.
Carlos – affectionately known as Carlitos by his remaining friends – looked upwards at the flat, plastic suns illuminating the sky as brightly as a sunrise. His neck popped and cramped. He winced. He squeezed his eyes closed, squeezed away the pain, and imagined he could fly, zipping around the silent fireworks. No feeling of pain, no feeling at all except the wind. One with the sky, free. It was a nice daydream, at least. He opened his eyes, back in the syrupy humidity of the ground. He looked at the light reflected on his crinky hands, tracing sparks of lighting and power. Some people say Times Square is commercialized light pollution. His mom used to call Times Square her “abrazo de luz”. A memory fogged his eyes, he shook it away and tried to smile. He was missing three teeth.
Still smiling, Carlitos looked around, his gaze landing on people’s faces. He was looking for something specific. Something like tha-
Not that. He kept looking. He wiggled his fingers and toes in excitement. And to keep his circulation going. It was hard being 83 years old.
Carlitos spent most evenings in the middle of the tourist rush of Times Square, sitting at his small table. Or, my oficina, as he called it. Ever since he retired, he had made people watching his main profession.
Carlitos looked around, craning his neck. Families and lovers and kids and friends. He could see their eyes and their ears and their noses. He could sense their stories, memories hidden or forgotten, years showing as wrinkles on their skin. He heard their mouths moving and their bellies tumbling, he imagined the sound of their laughter. The glow of the ads above, like stars, illuminated them – currently green from an ad of an oil company promising to recycle. Carlitos rolled his eyes at that one. People surrounded him, enjoying each other’s company. Some happy, some not. But all trying to immortalize the moment. He remembered his own friends and their quest to capture moments. The stories they had created through laughter and song and trips and celebrations. The fog landed on his eyes again, brimming them with tears. It had only been a week since he had grie-
Immortalize the moment!
Carlitos sprang up – slowly, painfully, determinedly. Bones popping and cane in hand, he started shuffling forward, as quickly as his joint allowed him. Swarms of tourists swimmed past him, threatening to bump into him, ultimately diverting their gaze and avoiding him. He would’ve felt better if they actually bumped into him.
“Escuse me,” he said as two people with linked arms passed, almost crashing into him. Carlitos could see the family – mom and dad and cute baby in a blue dress and teen on his phone and a smiling grandma – in the distance, still struggling to capture the moment. They were rotating family members so everyone could be included, even if not together.
Carlitos’ sight was blocked as another wave of people with matching neon pink hats swirled through him. He tensed his arms, trying to fight off the pushing elbows.
“¡Estoy aquí!” he squeaked at them so they wouldn’t step on him. “I’m here!”
The group passed. Carlitos’s face glowed blue from a billboard ad of a hand cream that claimed to stop aging. He tried standing on his tippy toes to see. He found the family again; they were about to give up, their arms weren’t long enough for a selfie of all of them together. The mom started putting away the phone and-
Carlitos arrived. He reached out with a surprisingly steady hand and tapped the mom on the shoulder.
“I can take your picture for you,” he said. He was grinning from ear to ear.
The mom looked at Carlitos and smiled and nodded with vigor and waved her arms at her family to get back into position. The teen rolled his eyes, the grandma clapped, the baby giggled, and the dad threw his arms in the air, the teen rolled his eyes some more.
The mom gave Carlitos her phone and explained all the buttons. He nodded and said “mhm, mhm, mhm”, pretending to absorb all the information. His eyes shone with mischievous glee. She didn’t know he was a professional.
“Thank you,” she mouthed almost inaudibly as she sprinted back to her pack and tackle-hugged the teen who rolled his eyes again.
“¡Sonrían! Smile!” shouted Carlitos as he lifted his arms wide, his cane hanging on his elbow. He clicked the button furiously, angling this way and that – pictures of their full body, half body, with the bright billboards in the background, with tourists blocking the way, just their faces, “now a silly one!”, with tourists hunched over while power walking to not block the way, horizontal, “¡con los brazos arriba!”, vertical, a few more of their full body.
“¡Se ven guapisimos!” shouted Carlitos, as he bent down, as far as his knees allowed him, to get the towering buildings behind the family in the picture. “You all look verry hansome!” he shouted.
And then. And then he brought the phone closer to his eyes. He peered at it. He pretended to struggle with it. Fingers pressed and pinched the screen.
The mom shouted, asking if he needed help.
Carlitos waved his hand. He pretended to figure the phone out, lifted his arms, brought the phone back up.
“Juan more, just juan more!” he shouted. He smiled his best smile and clicked once. He beamed at the family and said, “Biutiful, biutiful!”, while pressing and pinching the screen again.
Carlitos took a few more pictures for good measure, brought the phone down, and hobbled over to them. The mom ran to meet him. She took the phone and gently grabbed his arm.
Thank you for your time, of course, you’re so kind, happy to help, thank you so much, you’re very welcome. She smiled one last time and walked back to her family with small hops of excitement, queueing an eye roll from the teen. The family huddled together to look at the pictures as Carlitos walked back slowly to his table.
He had almost reached his table again, having survived the treacherous journey full of pushy tourists, when he heard it. A joyful melody made up of laughter and “aww’s”. He stopped for a second and tried to contain his grin. He didn’t look back at the source of the sound. He didn’t need to, he knew what it was.
The family had found the little surprise he left for them. A selfie of himself amongst all the pictures he took. Just one picture of Carlitos, smiling and with twinkling eyes, looking happy and full of playful mischief – and handsome as all hell, if you had asked him. A picture of himself that shouted:
“I’m here! I’m alive!”
Carlitos sat down at his table, his face a smile. He looked up into the lights and the sky and the stars above. At the endless everything that expanded above him and made him feel so small. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes. He focused on his breath, pushing away the pain he felt in his body, the grief that he held in his heart. He had felt it again and again and again as his friends reached the end of their life. Grief for them and for himself. And fear, so much fear it made his hands shake with cold. Fear of what came after, or what didn’t. Fear of not existing. He wiped away a tear with the back of a shaking hand. He tried focusing on the peace mixed in with the fear. He tried breathing. Both were hard at the moment.
Carlitos knew he would be gone soon. But not yet.
He lifted his arms up and let his body yawn and shake and wiggle, like the tired engine of an old car. A wiggle that passed through his whole body and said:
“I’m here, I’m alive!”
He opened his eyes and looked around for the next family trying to immortalize the moment. He smiled as he found another.
He wouldn’t be gone, not really. He would continue existing as a smiling surprise in the phones of families all over the world.