their upset was not noticeable in public, unless
one went to Don Chuy, the barber, in which
case the honesty of his shaking hand drew a little blood now and then.
This was why people painted their walls and
cleaned their houses and washed the dogs during
Lent — as elaborate ruses to divert attention and
make good things stand out. The louder and shinier and bigger that good thing, the better.
This worked well except for Oswaldo. Sr. O
started to see things, even as he himself was not
seen. Oswaldo had always seen things, of
course, but these things were different. Sr. O
started to see people breaking their promises.
Catching one person is not so much and doesn’t
amount to a great deal. But what about three,
seven, or 10? Sra. Dos Santos, who ran the
boarding house and was the sister-in-law of
Ubaldo the lawyer, for example, ordered an agua
de manzana because how could something called
“agua” be soda, after all? And Sr. Jaramillo, the
mortician, went back on his word not to complain because exposing bad manners is simply
After a week or so of moving around invisible
like a ghost, Sr. O had seen, as far as he could
tell, everyone do something to the left or right of
what they had promised. Including the priest,
who, when hungry, was not always patient or
forgiving when listening to long confessions.
Each night Oswaldo fell asleep by reciting this
extensive and still-growing list.
Sr. O thought to assure everyone by giving a
little smile, or shrugging his shoulders, but no-
body saw him. As was their habit, they saw
through him. Sr. O figured that nobody was
worried, since his knowing didn’t seem to have
any effect on them. Doing whatever they had
done — breaking whatever promise they had
made — didn’t matter, he surmised. So Oswaldo
learned a great lesson. And with this knowledge,
he changed the town.
His idea was simple. It was almost scientific
in its deductive reasoning, something that could
have come from the records of the Forward Science Society, or from Dr. Narciso Bartolomeo
himself, who was not only the town’s doctor but
philosopher as well, and who cut back on pontificating with his index finger for Lent, though he
did so quietly as a nod to his dead mother, not
science. No one had asked Oswaldo what he
gave up for Lent, as they had not seen him. But
he had given something up, all right. He decided
to give up the giving up of things.
Rather than taking away, he concluded that
his must be a route of excess. At first this
seemed like a trick, but the logic was clear
enough. When people found out, they thought
about it, and talked about it, and finally shook
their heads yes, like it or not. Giving up the
giving up of things: That was something, and
so it counted.
Because Sr. O’s charge was to indulge where
others could not, he gained a sort of authority,
though people were slow to realize it. Ghosts
have power after all, whether one believes in
them or not.
“They do too — ghosts count,” insisted Gabriela, the high school senior class president, to
her little brother Ulises, the primary school
clown, when walking the sixth grader home
from school one day, forgetting that she wasn’t
going to be a know-it-all for Lent. Since she was
a straight-A student, that put an end to that, especially after their father, Sr. Torres, the garbage
man, told them no fighting at the dinner table.
Fighting, he nudged them, dishonored their be-
loved dead mother, Fernanda, who went to
heaven much too early because of the cancer,
and the townspeople always agreed, but this was
too sad for them to talk about, except to praise
Dr. Bartolomeo for his bedside manner, Sr. Jara-
millo, the mortician, for his handiwork, and
Padre Nacho for the eulogy.
At first what Oswaldo tried was small enough
to sort of ignore. The tongue tore off one of his
work boots, and he did not have it repaired,
much to the bafflement of the Hermanos Celaya
shoemaker’s shop. Sr. O put on cologne to work
the odd jobs he found. Oswaldo stretched the
four or five rubber bands that he would use later
in the day around his right ear, instead of putting them in his pocket.
Then he ate dessert for lunch. He ate this
meal at Don Lázaro’s bakery, which Oswaldo
had all to himself — no waiting — on a Thursday almost midway through Lent.
On Friday, he had breakfast for lunch there,
but since townsfolk were all in their houses, at
work or school, or at Rosa Laura’s, the town
restaurant, nobody saw him. On Saturday, when
Sr. O continued to upend culinary traditions,
some people noticed. They noticed, however, because the proprietor had told them, even though
Don Lázaro had promised to give up gossiping
but didn’t in this case because it was for the
town’s own good, he said.
Padre Nacho, who eventually found out just
about everything because of confessions, shook
his head, not just at Don Lázaro but at the
whole town. And at Oswaldo most of all.
Oswaldo became a regular at the bakery for
lunch, and even a few times for dinner. After the
late afternoon crowd, the bakery was again
empty for dinner, and the place was his. People
who didn’t give up sweets for Lent started dropping in for dessert later in the evening, as Oswaldo lounged with a full belly, and thought at first
that he frequented it to make a virtuous point
because Sr. O always left without seeming to
order anything. They nodded their heads, and
looked down, a little embarrassed at themselves.
After some days of this, Don Lázaro and Oswaldo became friends, more than they had been.
As Oswaldo ate one thing, then another, Don
Lázaro began to bake savories especially for
him, like giant empanadas with several portions
of pineapple filling. This saved Oswaldo time, as
the wiry fellow could eat just one for his meal
instead of many small servings, which is how
empanadas normally came.
When Don Lázaro baked him an enormous
pretzel, however, things changed — not on account of the treat, which Oswaldo found much
to his liking, but because of something Don
Lázaro mentioned casually.
“Pretzels,” Don Lázaro said with a nod of his
head, “they’re perfect for Lent. Did you know
that? The Germans made them like they are. The
crossed arms of the dough were intended by German bakers to look like a Christian at prayer, with
palms on opposite shoulders, making a crisscross
of the forearms.” Don Lázaro nodded again.
Oswaldo had not seen it before, but he saw it
now. He even said, “Oh!” Suddenly, the bakery