Monday through Friday in their suburban neighborhood of Olival Basto, the child was known by their christened name, Ana Lucia, but on the weekends he spent in Lisbon working at his uncle’s chestnut stand, he was Tiago.
Ever since the first time Uncle Gonçalo corroborated the child’s preference, the weekend posturing had become routine. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Tiago would wake up at 7:00 AM, strip off his nightgown, and maneuver into his olive green corduroy slacks and black wool sweater. In the bathroom, he would drench his unruly hair in the sink, turning it from dark to darker, before palming an excessive glob of his brother’s pomade against the sides of his head. After tucking the more stubborn curls behind his ears, he would remove the silver earring on the right side but leave the left one in place.
Hearing the cartoonish horn honk of Uncle Gonçalo’s three-wheeled motorcycle, Tiago would call out from his room, “I’m leaving, Mom,” but avoid her inspection by slipping quickly down the hall and out their apartment door. After racing down three flights of stairs, he would jump the final half-set of stairs in the vestibule, force open the building’s heavy front door, and hurry across the marble threshold to the no-parking zone where his uncle sat, engine idling, amidst braided fumes of diesel exhaust and cigarette smoke.
This morning, as he shifted left to make room on the bench seat Uncle Gonçalo handed Tiago a box of chocolate milk and projected, “Tomorrow we’ll take the day off for the holiday but today we can expect to be very busy. It’s fortunate that you work hard… like a boy.”
“Uncle, I am a boy. Remember?”
“Yes, of course, little man.”
Tiago shook the milk box fiercely before stabbing the plastic straw through the foiled slot. Thrusting his jaw forward, he chugged the contents down, slurping the final dregs endlessly on and on until the gurgling diminished to a dry whistle. He pitched the empty box at a Passing Prohibited sign on his right and belched in contest with the roaring moto.
When they arrived in the Baixa, Uncle Gonçalo parked at their usual spot and then asked Tiago to keep an eye on the cart while he went to buy a pack of cigarettes. Tiago unfastened the fern green umbrella from the side of the cart, opened it up, and then stretched himself taller so he could reach high enough to slide the pole inside its sheath. Next, he tugged a heavy sack of coals out from the bottom shelf of the cart and began stacking the briquettes onto the roasting tray but stopped and made a base of wadded up newspapers first before heaping the coals on top. Feeling pleased with himself for remembering the correct way, he could hardly wait for Uncle Gonçalo to arrive and offer him the lighter.
They had a prime location, situated twenty meters south of the entrance to the underground Metro station at Baixa-Chiado. This morning they could hear Alfonso, the blind man, playing his accordion down in the tunnel. Tiago recognized him belting out Uma Casa Portuguesa, and sang along replacing the lyric, “um cheirinho á alecrim,” with, “um cheirinho á xixi.”
Uncle Gonçalo laughed, “A smell of pee-pee, indeed!”
Every twelve minutes, a wave of pedestrians would flood up from the underground tunnel spilling fast in every direction, though most were heading south towards the shops and street vendors at Praça do Comércio. To draw their attention, Gonçalo and Tiago would take turns chanting, “Hot chestnuts… only one hundred escudos!”
Tiago practiced imitating his uncle’s inflection, making his voice boom out from the center of his chest. As he honed in on the tone of his own voice, he heard a rivaling cry of one-hundred escudos echoing back from across the square. Glancing from one end of the street to the other, he spotted an old woman selling packets of tissues, rhythmically shaking the coins in her apron pocket. Her voice sounded raspy from age and fricative from missing teeth and yet retained a distinct femininity. Tiago compared this against Uncle Gonçalo’s husky voice, noting the way his Adam’s apple bobbed along to the cadence of his conversation. When he lit up one of his Lucky Strikes, entire sentences flowed out from his nostrils in thick curling designs that hung in the air, anchored by his body’s own gravity.
Pinching the cigarette in the corner of his mouth, Uncle Gonçalo grabbed the steel roaster by the wooden handles on either side and gave it four hard shakes. Squinting one eye down inside, he determined, “They’re ready.”
The sweet and smoky aroma had enticed a small crowd of bystanders who were eager to hold the steamy chestnuts in their cold hands, and to taste Lisbon winters passed long ago with Avó or Avô, who had taught them how to peel away the nutshell and be wary of worms in the flesh.
It was Tiago’s job to tear out pages from old newspapers and roll them into cones that Uncle Gonçalo would then fill with the freshly roasted nuts. Today’s stack of papers dated back to April’s headline, EuroDisney Opens in Paris, above a photo of Mickey Mouse standing gaily beside the Eiffel Tower. On the next page, he read Rosa Mota Retires, which reminded him of an argument he had with his mother some months ago.
She had insisted, “Ana Lucia, you don’t need to convince yourself you’re a boy – see? Rosa Mota is an exceptional athlete with a gold medal to show for it. You run fast; you can grow up to be like her.”
At last, the barista made eye contact and addressed the child, “Hello, Miss?” but quickly reconsidered, “Or, Mister?”
Tiago had tried to make her understand, “No, Mamã. I don’t want to be a maratonista like Rosa Mota; I want to be a futebolista, like João Pinto.”
T’ssssssst! Uncle Gonçalo’s toothy whistle rang the boy’s ears. Customers were waiting.
Recovering, Tiago moved quickly, rolling paper cones and boisterously hollering, “Hot chestnuts for a cold day, the best in the city!”
Today was the day to be out, whether for errands or leisure, as tomorrow stores would be closed in observance of All Saints’ Day. With constant foot traffic trailing through the Baixa, Uncle Gonçalo’s cart maintained a steady line of customers.
A particular pair of bodies waiting in line caught Tiago’s attention: a young man and woman in their twenties, arms laced around each other with hands tucked inside the back pockets of their lover’s skintight Levi’s, kissing actively with mouths and tongues. Tiago studied how the man’s jeans were slightly faded and creased around the bulge in his crotch whereas the woman’s jeans were smooth and unremarkable. Suddenly, her eyes were on him. Tiago blushed painfully and buried his sightline in the lower shelves of the vending cart. Uncle Gonçalo announced that he’d sold out of hot chestnuts and the next batch wouldn’t be ready for twenty minutes. The young couple shrugged and walked away.
Tidying up his station, Uncle Gonçalo handed Tiago a couple of stray chestnuts that were left over from the previous batch. After Tiago peeled and ate their contents, he made a game of tossing the empty half-shells into a gap in the street where a few cobblestones were missing.
“Look at that – two points for Tiago Fonseca!”
Uncle Gonçalo glanced side-eyed at him and spat right into the same gap, striking the chestnut shells.
“Now, little monkey, go on and buy me a copy of A Bola from the newsstand across the street. Quick, before we get busy again.”
Tiago accepted the handful of coins from his uncle and sprinted over to wait in line behind a few gentlemen speculating on today’s futebol game between Sporting and FC Porto. He found their conversation annoying as he was a proud fan of Benfica. Bored and fidgety, his eyes wandered about the newsstand until they spotted a glossy magazine cover flaunting a bare-chested woman squeezing her breasts together to exaggerate the cleavage, her cinnamon nipples bulging from pressure. Oh my god, he thought, please don’t ever let my body grow such balloons!
Frantic, his eyes darted quickly in every direction until they caught sight of A Bola. He tugged it out from its pocket in the front rack and gestured at the vendor until the man confirmed Tiago with a nod and took his coins.
The afternoon brought more waves of customers, mostly folks picking up a snack they could enjoy in-transit before making their way back down into the Metro tunnel. The last sack of chestnuts was roasted and sold by a quarter after four. Daylight was dwindling as clouds had blown over from the west, preemptively dimming the skyline and provoking the atmosphere.
Depending on business, Tiago’s uncle always paid him something at the end of each weekend, three or four coins totaling fifty or seventy escudos.
“Coins are a child’s earnings but today I’m paying you a man’s salary: a one-hundred escudo note. Now, go have a little fun while I pack up.”
Tiago examined the paper note. It was filthy and riddled with creases. Pessoa’s eyes had been rubbed out by thumbs. He felt proud to be holding his first paper money and yet disappointed that it wasn’t one of the new bimetallic hundred-escudo coins, nickel and brass fused together.
He walked south along the calçada to one of the nearby pastelarias, dreaming of the delicious fresh-baked bola con crème he would be able to afford. But when he entered the shop he was instantly distracted by the colorful box of plastic packaged Bollycaos and the promise of a Tartaruga Ninja temporary tattoo.
Café patrons shouted their excited conversations over the clinking spoons and ceramics while Tiago stood noiselessly in front of the counter waiting to be seen. His head was barely as tall as the glass pastry case which was topped with a plastic tree of Chupa-Chups and three boxes of Gorila gum: cola, tutti frutti, and banana. He tried to imagine these flavors though his nostrils were presently crowded by the thick aromas of frothy dark espresso and fresh-baked bread.
Losing patience, he shifted to his tip-toes and cleared his throat, “If you please...”
At last, the barista made eye contact and addressed the child, “Hello, Miss?” but quickly reconsidered, “Or, Mister?”
Voices stopped short. Heads turned.
“I’m a boy.”
“Excuse me, coitadinho, what would you like, eh?”
His cheeks still hot with embarrassment, Tiago left the stuffy café in a hurry and took his Bollycao further south to the Praça and sat on the steps beneath the statue of King José. He gripped the cellophane with both hands and squeezed until the package popped open at one end. Then he extracted the tiny square wrapper containing his tattoo and slipped it inside his pants pocket, knowing it was bad luck to look before the Bollycao itself had been eaten.
He broke it in half. The bread was dry. The chocolate was stiff. It smelled like stale grease. He tried one bite but couldn’t bring himself to eat the rest.
Tiago pulled apart small pieces and fed them to the grey pigeons clumsily bobbing across the beige cobblestones. He noticed one pigeon appeared to be eating the same piece over and over again. At a closer look, he saw that the bird had been injured, perhaps struck by a street trolley, and had a cavernous hole in the side of its neck that the crumb would fall through, tumbling like lint in a wind tunnel. Tiago thought, poor bird, the bread will never make it to your stomach, as the pigeon flinched and made another attempt.
When Tiago had disbursed the last piece of Bollycao, he wiped his sticky hands against the grain of his corduroys and then reached for the tattoo. He whispered a quick prayer, hoping for Leonardo or at least one of the ninjas. But when he unfolded the tiny square of cardboard, he found a villain instead.
Stomach gurgling, he cursed himself for not having chosen the bola con crème. He could feel the sugar crackle in his teeth, the smooth custard gliding against his tongue, the warm cakey dough sponging into the pockets of his mouth.
Worse still was his dismay that tomorrow there would be no selling chestnuts. No Tiago. Tomorrow Ana Lucia would be summoned to wear a dress, to go to church, to light candles, and to say prayers for the dead.
His introspection was interrupted by a sudden forceful ping against his hair. He was sure, with his bad luck, that a pigeon in flight had pooped on his head. But no, it was just rain. Great swollen figgy drops began pelting the cobblestones around him and soaking into his sweater where they reanimated the smoky fragrance of Lucky Strikes and char.
Tiago stood up and began traipsing towards the yellow and white archways of the Praça where others were huddled escaping the downpour. He stopped short before passing into dry cover. After peeling off the thin sheet of transparent film he stuck his tattoo against the base of the arch. Gripping the post with his left hand to steady himself against a forceful gust of wind, he cupped his right hand and reached out to collect water from the sky. Finally, the boy pressed his drenched hand back over the tattoo, counted thirty seconds, and then stripped away the soggy paper patch to unveil The Brain.
 A smell of rosemary.
 A smell of pee-pee.
 Poor little thing.
B. Ready is a Trans man, a Third Culture Kid, an earthling, a yogi, and a devoted fan of the WNBA. His writing has been published in UMSL Litmag and Bellerive. Along with his interests in channeling higher consciousness, punk rock drumming, and personal fitness, he is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Follow on Instagram at @b_ready_writer.