Uriel was fourteen when he started begging. At fifteen, he had gotten pretty good at it. At sixteen, people stopped giving him change. His beard was too scraggly and his teeth were too foul for his boyish charm to work anymore.
Of course, it didn’t help that Janos, Mexico had been withering away over the last handful of years. Ignacio “Mil Muertes” Cardenas owns the one and only graveyard in Janos. When the people of Janos die, they get buried by their family, friends, and Mil Muertes. The more people that die, the more Mil Muertes’ graveyard grows. The more it grows, the fewer people there are alive to give Uriel any change.
Uriel stood outside of the local bakery with hands cupped, asking for any change, every single day. It used to be that he took twenty pesos home every night; more than enough for the next day’s meals which cost him ten pesos. The rest of the money, Uriel used to buy flowers and marzipan for his parents. He’d run to the candy store and buy two pieces of marzipan for two pesos. Then, he’d rush to the floristry and pay for two violets which were seven pesos. All his expenses for the day would add up to nineteen pesos, which means he had a single peso to take home with him every night.
After shopping, Uriel used to take his marzipan and violets and walk them to the Mil Muertes cemetery. He shuffled past countless crying mothers and rotten flowers to get to his parents. The two lay side by side with nameless tombstones standing over them. There was nothing to be said about Uriel’s parents more than what a gravestone implies: dead. Uriel hunched over and placed the marzipan on their dirt. Next, he placed the violets and picked up yesterday’s which had rotten. He kissed both of their stones and walked back to the bakery where he slept in its storage out back.
As Janos withered, Uriel only managed about twelve pesos a day. The money covered either food for the day or his parent’s gift. At first, Uriel could cover the remaining amount due to his daily peso income. However, after two weeks, Uriel was out of savings. He ate a light breakfast, lunch, and dinner to avoid spending so much; a mayonnaise burrito for all three. In the afternoon, Uriel went to the candy store for the marzipan.
“The usual?” the clerk asked.
“Yes, please,” Uriel responded. He knew he didn’t have enough.
“Dos pesos, Uriel.” She punched the amount into the machine. She had gotten used to him paying the exact amount in change. This time, however, Uriel pulled out his peso and placed it on the table. The two looked at each other. One in shock, the other in forgiveness. The clerk slid the change into her hands. Without saying a word, she opened the glass display case and pulled out two marzipan. She dropped them in Uriel’s cupped hands and crumpled the receipt that the machine spit out.
Uriel walked to the floristry with two marzipan the size of fifty cent pieces in his pockets. He didn’t bother stopping at the floristry. Instead, he kept walking to his parents. The clerk at the floristry saw Uriel walk by. He poked his head out of the shop and looked as Uriel dragged his feet into the cemetery. There, Uriel dropped his two marzipans on his parents. He left the old violets there to rot.
After some time, Uriel couldn’t afford to buy his parents even the marzipan. With the growth of the Mil Muertes cemetery came fewer and fewer people to donate their change. So, of course, with the change in the market, Uriel had to change what he was selling.
Uriel knew a beggar girl in Janos. Her name was Clementina. She was around the same age and had about the same level of experience. Two beggars are better than one.
“You want to team up?” she asked when Uriel explained his plan.
“Yes, I think it would be good for both of us if we did,” Uriel replied.
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Pretty much all of it.”
“What’s not to get?”
“That’s what businesses do. They team up.”
“I’m not a business.”
“We are.” Uriel begged, “begging is a business as much as prostitution is. We’re really just selling ourselves.”
“I really don’t want to be a prostitute.”
“The idea of ourselves. They’re donating to our future. We’re trying to be a corporation here, Clementina.”
“But isn’t that charity, not a business?”
“We’re asking for money. Isn’t that for profit?” Clementina asked.
“However you want to think of it, Clementina. Four hands are better than two,” said Uriel. The two laughed; their putrid teeth on full display.
And so the two begged away. Clementina took the North Janos and Uriel took the South end. At the end of the day, the two met to count their daily income. Clementina made twenty-one and a half pesos. Uriel made thirteen.
“How’d you get so much?” asked Uriel.
“What do you mean?” Clementina responded, “this is a slow day?”
The change was split in two. Clementina and Uriel counted seventeen pesos each for that night. However, there was the issue of an extra half peso that needed to be addressed.
“What do you mean you get the extra half peso? You made less money.” Clementina pleaded.
“Yeah, but I have more expenses as CEO of this enterprise.”
“You’re a bum, what expenses do you have?”
“I have family that counts on me.”
“You have a kid?” asked Clementina
“Parents,” replied Uriel.
Clementina stuffed the change into her pockets. “I should get the half peso. I made more. Plus, your parents can beg too. I’m all alone.”
“Dead?” asked Clementina
“Like the rest of Janos. Your parents dead, too?” asked.
“No. They disowned me.”
“So I guess I win,” Uriel said.
Uriel laughed. He reached for the lone half peso laying between the both of them. “Well, it’s settled. I need it more.” He stopped laughing. Never would it have occurred to him that he would need to beg a beggar. Clementina felt sorry for someone besides herself the first time in a long time.
Over time, Clementina and Uriel made enough money to sustain themselves. Most days Clementina made more than Uriel, but she was happy to split it evenly. On rare occasions, Uriel made more. He would rub it in her grimey face; the fact he was the better businessman. Uriel went back to buying violets and marzipan for his parents. He was having a blast.
The Mil Muertes cemetery continued its consumption of Janos. Ignacio had bought out homes and old buildings for more space for his cemetery. There was an impenetrable moat of gravestones around the city of Janos. The outside would soon rot the inside.
There was a older beggar man by the name of Joe. He came from America, but wasted all his money on hookers and gambling, so he couldn’t make it back to the states unless he walked. Eventually he heard about the two beggars that teamed up and asked to be in on the deal.
“What do you bring to the table, Joe?” asked Uriel.
“Oh we have plenty of that. What else?”
“Charisma,” Joe said.
“Privilege,” Clementina chimed in.
“Look at me. Do I look privileged?” asked Joe.
“You look white,” Clementine responded.
“I’m white,” Joe said to Uriel.
“Diversity. I like it,” Uriel replied.
“I like it too,” said Clementina.
Between the three of them, they all lived poorly. Other beggars started to catch wind of the business growing in the streets. More and more people were asking Uriel and Clementina to beg for them. Uriel would take a cut of Clementina’s nightly income. Clementina would take a cut of Joe’s nightly income as well as the income of the ten other beggars she recruited. Joe took a cut of the fifteen beggars he recruited.
Their nightly financial assessment was astonishing. At one point, everyone was taking home thirty pesos every night. Local kids started asking for work. Uriel let them in as long as they paid a percentage of all money collected every night to the person that recruited them to Uriel and Clementina. This really got the money pouring in. Hoards of people were asking for work. This person was recruited to by this person who was recruited to by that person… and so and so forth. Uriel and Clementina, who had countless recruitments and were at the top of the pyramid, were taking home seventy pesos at the very least.
It was a couple of months after their business venture when the entire city of Janos had joined Uriel’s venture. Everyone was a beggar, but no one was giving them money. The pyramid had collapsed. The tourism of the town had died over time. No one wants to visit a small town in Mexico where tombstones out populate the living.
People who had quit their jobs had nothing to go back to. Kids had nothing to eat. The nightly financial report was zero. Gravestones popped from the ground at an alarming rate. The beggars were withering away and dying. Joe, who used his shared money to buy prostitutes, died by an aggressive and severe case of chlamydia. He was buried somewhere in the Mil Muertes cemetery, which was the biggest plot of land in Janos at that point. And it only grew from there.
Clementina died days later of starvation. Uriel, who was the saveyest businessman of the entire beggar corporation had saved up enough money to last him at least another month and a bus ride to the next city. However, he had one more thing he needed to do before he left town.
He took his savings to the candy store. However, it had been bought out by Mil Muertes and replaced with tombstones. The florist turned to three freshly-dug holes that were going to be used for the most recent beggar deaths.
This was the case for the entire city of Janos. Uriel saw nothing but white, jagged tombstones around him. They stretched for what seemed to be miles. A sea of blank gravestones.
Which ones were his parents again? He searched for the graves with marzipan resting on top. The more he looked, the more his life crumbled to pieces.