“Hershey’s bar” made a person want to eat
one. That made this giving up of things more
difficult, as everybody suddenly hungered for
The sighs of what the town was giving up put
a small breeze into the air the first days of Lent.
People walked around as if hungover, unable to
believe what they had done the night before.
But what had they done? — not dance on top
of the bar while everyone clapped. Restraint,
not abandon, caused this hangover.
As things heated up, people gave up more:
perfumes and baths and outings and music and
sex and everything else, a piece at a time. Pretty
soon, if it was in that town, someone gave it up.
The schoolchildren, too, thought of new
things to renounce beyond food — stuffed animals, toys, games — but it was too late. Kids
knew that once you said something you couldn’t
take it back, unless a grownup said to. But when
the schoolchildren finally imagined the idea of
giving up laughter, the very suggestion made
them giggle, defeating the purpose.
And relieving Ulises, the comical sixth grader.
Sort of. His father, Sr. Torres, the garbage man,
told him to stop fooling around — nobody can
give up eating for Lent! — so Ulises switched to
joke-telling, but with a caveat: joke-telling during
class. That would be all right.
Finally, everything was heard to be
given up, until the last person — the
town’s lawyer, Ubaldo Dos Santos — had
no choice but to give up sin itself.
Everyone applauded. But they also were envious. Not only did he find something really great
to give up, but he got famous among them too.
Some people have all the luck, they would say.
This giving up of things was especially hard
on the merchants. “Giving up” is the opposite
of “I’m buying this,” and even sales were seen
only as temptations. People would walk quickly
past spools of threads and fabrics at the Marisol
and the boot sign in front of the narrow Hermanos Celaya shoemaker’s shop.
Don Noé, the butcher, was hardest hit, and
could only throw up his hands. “Candy,” he
would say. “That’s something to give up. It rots
All this might explain the strange story of Sr.
Oswaldo Calderón Segundo.
Or Sr. O, as people called him almost immediately after his birth. His mouth kept opening
in what looked like wonderment, like surprise,
so that he seemed to be saying “oh” to everything and everybody. In elementary school he
became the teacher’s pet because of this, the instructors feeling flattered, and in middle school
bullies and clowns alike preferred him to witness
their mischief because the automatic “oh”
equaled something like applause.
He was “Segundo” not from his father, Hora-
cio, the bookkeeper, but from an almost brother,
“I will give up fotonovelas for Lent next year,”
she said afterward to Padre Nacho. “I’m so
sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. I just couldn’t be-
lieve it. He seemed to know his name, right then
Her laughter had been contagious to others,
but disheartening to Oswaldo’s parents, who
tried to be stoic. After a few moments, however,
Oswaldo’s parents ended up with slightly bent
faces themselves and then laughed.
“What should we do, then, to repent?” asked
Flora, as the family walked home, Oswaldo in
her arms. She suggested that perhaps this boy
was doing the work of two, and that
everyone saw it, including the boy himself.
“Nothing. It’s too late,” said his father,
While reading his name led one to understand
what was being communicated, only hearing his
name led to confusion. Some people thought his
name was “Señoro,” a cross between señorito and
señora, and a curious new word worth discussing,
but they didn’t want to make trouble and refrained.
That’s how it was with Oswaldo — perplexing no
matter which way he turned.
After finishing high school, Oswaldo worked
through the years at one thing and another, all
basic, and was good at most but not great. This
adequacy explained his living arrangements —
he made enough money to live on his own,
which he began to do with his parents’ blessing
after turning 21, but only could afford to rent a
one-room afterthought of a house around the
corner from them.
Even when he was young, and certainly when
Oswaldo got older, he could be depended on
when there was a house to build or furniture to
move. When a strong wind knocked things down,
he helped to pick them up. It was not uncommon
to see the middle-aged everyman almost anywhere, doing something that had no exact name.
People realized pretty fast that “laborer” wasn’t
right because sometimes he didn’t, in fact, labor
at a task. A few observers floated “handyman,”
but that suggested Sr. O was dexterous, and while
sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn’t, so that
got nixed too, not so much because of the logic,
since they didn’t know exactly what “dexterous”
meant, but because of the person who conveyed
it: Ubaldo Dos Santos, the lawyer. Not to see Os-
waldo on any given day was stranger than seeing
him. One supposed him equal in this sense to the
town’s trees or buildings: invariably there, even if
only in the background.
In this way, and after so many years, Sr. O be-
came invisible for several hours a day. Nobody
was unkind or inhumane — he was a regular
person in church and in the evenings and when
he shopped. And women, when they noticed
him, always offered a smile, but as if toward a
puppy or a harmless stranger just passing
through, so Oswaldo never courted or married,
though he would have liked to. If there was
something special, a wedding or a parade or a
funeral, he had a job to do, so people saw but
didn’t see him. Still, the townspeople were good-
hearted, and did their best to say something to
him, like “Good day,” or give a nice nod of the
head. But when Oswaldo was at work, and
when the town was at work, people easily
looked right through him. After many years of
this, even his parents, who later both passed
away peacefully of old age, one within months
of the other, did not necessarily see him. They
loved him, but they didn’t always look up.
Dogs, too, let him by without raising their
Lent lasts for 40 days and 40 nights, which
is how people always say it: “Forty days and
40 nights.” But as even little Ernesto, the second
grader, said, all those numbers sounded like they
needed to be added together. Forty of this and 40
of that made 80 separate things, totaled Lichita,
the fourth grader, doing the math for Ernesto. So
Lent, especially in the middle, seemed like forever
to give up things, for kids and grownups alike, and
something like hell happened to time. There may
have been a lesson in that, but it got as lost in the
middle as did everything else.
Then the townspeople found out something else
they didn’t like. At Sunday mass about one-quarter
through Lent, quite nonchalantly, as if everybody
knew this already — which they did, but always
forgot — the priest told them that, well, Sundays
don’t count in those 40 days and 40 nights.
The word “lent” means “lengthen,” Padre
Nacho reminded them, and stands for that time
in spring when the days grow longer.
“The original period of Lent was 40 hours, as
hours were measured then. It was spent fasting
to commemorate the suffering of Christ and the
40 hours He spent in the tomb.
“In the early third century,” Padre Nacho fin-
ished, “Lent was lengthened to six days. About
800 A.D. it was changed to 40 days.”
He did not elucidate even though it seemed to
everyone that someone had some explaining to do.
Oswaldo’s countenance — “Oh!” — spoke
for the congregation, himself included.
Nobody said anything. And everyone went
around smiling. But that’s not how they felt, es-
pecially at home, where they spoke their minds.
Even the goodhearted people, which was most-
ly everyone, got short-tempered and unsure. But