DESTINO

r86-0-600x420

Gerardo and I pried the door open with a crowbar and found Destino on the floor by the side of his bed over a pillow and a black blanket tangled around his purple, swollen legs. He lived in an efficiency apartment. Abigail, the property manager, summoned us into the office after picking up trash from the apartments’ property that morning. She said that Destino was six days late on his rent. It was unusual. No one had seen him all week.

     He borrowed twenty dollars from me once a month when he ran out of money to buy lottery tickets, but he paid me on the first when he received his government check. Some mornings we picked up to ten scratch-off losing tickets that flew off his balcony onto the lawn. He sat on the balcony in the afternoons and when he saw us, he laughed and said that he came close to winning ten thousand dollars. We drank with him after work when we weren’t too tired by the side of the resaca river behind the apartments and we laughed at his beer belly jokes. Nobody had been inside of his apartment. He would not let anyone in, including us. And he was never in a bad mood. Residents often complained because he walked on the property shirtless and his shorts hung low to collect his mail. He was in his late sixties, bald, and ten years a widow.

   We took one step in and like an unexpected punch to the gut, the awful stench forced us to take the same step back. The apartment stank of old cigar smoke and shit. We stood by the door for a couple of minutes and then we lifted the neck of our shirts over our noses. We looked like a couple of bandits. We made it to the end of his bed. A bed, a nightstand, and a lamp were all his furniture. Destino’s left arm was under the side of his head. He died in shorts, walking socks, and shirtless. He had rolled to the right and onto the floor, clutching the lamp’s power cord. A streak of dry drool was caked onto his left cheek.

   “This will be the first time he won’t pay me back,” I said. “I lent him the twenty dollars two weeks ago. That was my beer money for this week. I was counting on that money. Shit!”

     “You think he shit himself?” Gerardo said.

     “Smells like it,” I said. “Are you going to check his pulse? Or his shorts?”

     From under the bed came a whimper.

     “What the hell?” Gerardo said. “It came from under the bed. What if the murderer is under there? You look under it.”

     “The bed is like six inches off the floor,” I said. “I doubt a person will fit under there.”

     The whimper came again. I knelt and stretched my left arm out under the bed. I felt a small, hairy ball, and then it clawed and bit my forearm. I leaped. “There is a fucking giant rat under there!” I put my arm under my shirt and started hopping. “I’m going to get sick! Look at all the blood! I’m going to die! I’m going to die! Tell my wife I never meant to cheat on her!”

     Gerardo lifted the end of the bed with both hands over his head and a brown Chihuahua scurried out and hid underneath Destino’s legs.

     “It’s a fucking dog,” Gerardo said, laughing. “You’re not going to get sick unless he has rabies. And who did you cheat on her with?”

     “Never mind. I didn’t know he had a fucking dog,” I said, rubbing my wounds and feeling the heat of embarrassment recede from my face.

     “Neither did I. I doubt he paid the dog fee. This guy hid that dog all this time and nobody saw it when they fumigated the apartment? This is going to upset the people at the office. There is shit and piss stains all over the carpet.” Gerardo knelt to check Destino’s pulse. “Call an ambulance,” he said. “And tell them to send a hearse, too.”

     I dialed 911. They would arrive shortly.

     “What’s with all the pizza boxes?” I said.

     Ten stacks of twenty empty pizza boxes covered the wall on the other side of his bed. The sheetrock behind the boxes was torn down in random parts as if Destino had punched through them.

     “I don’t care about the boxes. What I want to know is why he ruined the wall,” Gerardo said. “This place is a fucking mess. Abigail is going to be pissed. His deposit won’t pay a quarter of this. And look at the carpet! It still feels wet from all that dog piss. He could have at least bought a kitty litter box. This might fall on us because we hung out with him. I hope we don’t get fired. How am I going to pay for the child support? Goddammit. I don’t want to go to jail again.”

     “I didn’t know you paid child support,” I said. “No wonder you’re broke half of the time.”

     “Shut the hell up, man.”

     “Are you going to close his eyes?” I said.

     “Close his eyes?”

     “They do it in the movies. Out of respect, you know. Plus, he was our friend.”

     “This isn’t a movie and fuck him,” Gerardo said. “I’m not touching him again. He wasn’t that close of a friend. Throw a pillow over his face. His open eyes scare me. I feel as if he is listening to what we’re saying and he is getting upset. I sleep alone at night, you know.”

     I tossed a pillow and missed. It landed on his stomach. Two paramedics and the apartments’ security guard Lorenzo entered the room.

     “Goddam,” said the older bearded paramedic, grimacing. “Which one of you farted?”

     “No one farted,” I said. “That is dog shit.”

“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.

The young paramedic with a stethoscope around his neck knelt by Destino’s side.

Everyone had the neck of the shirts over their noses.

“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo repeated.

“Can someone please explain to this man waz su matta,” Gerardo said.

Lorenzo spoke no English. I spoke terrible Spanish and so did Gerardo.

“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo yelled.

“Is this motherfucker high?” Gerardo said. “He keeps repeating the same shit over and over.”

“Just answer his question,” I said. “He smells like weed. Doesn’t he get drug tested every six months like the rest of us?”

“Not when you’re fucking the property manager,” Gerardo said.“

“Are you serious?” I said. “This fat frog-eyed, potato head motherfucker is…”

“You don’t pay attention, do you?” Gerardo interrupted me. “You would have to be blind not to notice, man. Who do you think messes up the bed sheets in the models? Do you think it’s coincidence that they’re seen in the property office on the weekends when they’re off? Wake up.”

“That whore. Just last week in the shop Abigail sucked my….”

“I want to meet Abigail,” the older paramedic said. “She seems like a very nice lady.”

We couldn’t tell if he was serious or smiling because he was covering half of his face like the rest of us.

There were stories about Lorenzo smoking weed in the mornings by the resaca. The Sergeant confirmed the rumor one afternoon as we drank whiskey and beer in his living room. He was a tall, skinny retired old cop who lived alone above Destino and whose first name we never learned. There was a beautiful lion mount on his wall and a buffalo hide rug on the floor. He was often seen standing by his balcony looking out with his binoculars. He said he was a Sergeant for thirty-five years. He showed us a disposable camera photo of Lorenzo, lying on the grass near the water, smoking a joint, and surrounded by five ducks, whom he fed bread crumbs from a plastic bag. Abigail hired him because he was her brother-in-law and he illegally resided in the United States.

“This man has been dead for about three days,” said the young paramedic. “I’m glad he didn’t shit in his shorts. I’d have one of you clean him up. Don’t you check up on your residents? Who’s responsible for this?”

“This is not a nursing home, man,” Gerardo said. “I never got paid a penny from his government check to babysit him, unless he owed me.”

“He owed me twenty dollars,” I said. “Who’s going to pay me? I have no beer money now.”

Gerardo picked up the dog and shoved it into my hands. “Here! Take that as payment. You can sell that dog for fifty bucks, easy.”

“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.

“He’s dead!” Gerardo yelled on Lorenzo’s face. “Esta morido! Look! Mira!” He tapped Destino’s arm with the tip of his boot. “Morido! Mira el room! Yo lose mi job! That’s waz su matta!”

Lorenzo crossed himself and kissed the crucifix on his keychain. He started to pray in Spanish. The funeral director and his assistant walked in. We could see the hearse parked backwards through the sliding door glass.

“What a mess,” the funeral director said. He stared and laughed at our covered faces. “Couldn’t anyone open the windows to let the smell out? Is he related to anyone here?” He looked around.

We shook our heads.

“Does anyone know of any relatives that we may call?” the assistant said. “Has anyone looked at his application to see his references? Has anyone made any phone calls other than to us?”

We shook our heads again.

“Then what are you doing here?” the director said. “Were you taking turns in performing CPR on this man with your shirts over your mouths? You can’t stand a little shit smell?”

“You guys need to get out,” the older paramedic said. “We need to put this man away.”

“Waz su matta?” Lorenzo said.

I pushed Lorenzo out and we stood outside by the door. A police patrol car parked in front of us and then two officers walked by us and into the apartment. A few minutes later Destino was pushed out in a shroud on a gurney. The dog started to bark in my arm and tried to squeeze itself out of my grip.

“Oh poor baby,” Destino’s young neighbor cried out. He stood by his opened door. “What are you going to do with that precious?”

“You can have him if you want,” I said. “Destino passed away and I don’t need a dog. I need one favor though. Please make sure you pay the dog fee today.

“I see.” He rushed toward me with his arms out and took the dog. “I need a little dog like I need a big dog.” He and his hidden partner, whom we didn’t know lived there too, took the dog inside.

The hearse, the ambulance, and the patrol car drove away. Many residents glimpsed and judged Destino from behind the crack of their Christmas decorated doors, a religious group from behind their partially opened bibles and on their way to church, and the in-debt educated from behind their expensive knowledge and vehicles. They projected better lives on the world screen by hiding behind their fake truths.

“It was only a matter of time before that man died,” The Sergeant said from above, holding the binoculars over his eyes. “There he goes in the inevitable vehicle of death. Too fat, too lonely, too depressed, too angry, too many dirty secrets. That man did not love himself. But, what man does?”

“We need the trash cans and some bags to clean up the mess,” Gerardo said, ignoring The Sergeant. “Especially the pizza boxes.”

“What about the wall?”

“We can’t do anything about the wall or the carpet,” Gerardo said, discouraged. “Not enough time to cover it all up. Everything eventually comes out to light. Abigail is walking this way.”

Lorenzo kissed his crucifix. And then we spread to our own destiny.

Advertisements

WAVES OF WHITE HORSES

  dream-of-white-horses-9

The sun was rising and there was a cool steady breeze emerging from the dissipating fog where a cargo ship glided down the channel and the waves from the wake fanned out toward the jetties near two young men fishing accompanied by two girls. Their stepfather gave them the rods they held. They were brothers and were born two years apart. Lorenzo was the oldest. The women wore beach hats and sat on the edge of a rock as they ate egg sandwiches. They arrived before dawn and called in sick to their jobs. Gloria, the younger of the two, put her sandwich aside. She felt ill. Ernesto had beaten her a week ago and she was pregnant. Nobody knew of her pregnancy. Stephanie suspected it but was horrified of how Ernesto would regress if he found out. He drove Gloria to Mexico every month to buy birth control pills and when he got drunk he shouted at her not get pregnant because he would mandate an abortion and file for divorce. Stephanie believed him. They knew each other since grade school. Ernesto was intimidating and Gloria was a studious, sweet girl. They astounded their group of friends when they announced that they were getting married. No one was aware that they were a couple. He coaxed Gloria into quitting college to find a job and help him pay the rent for their apartment. Gloria and Ernesto were celebrating their one-year anniversary. It was the fourth time that month they missed work because Ernesto wanted to spend the day at the beach. Gloria knew she was losing her job the next day. She was terrified to tell Ernesto about the three written warnings for unexcused absenteeism and the denied unemployment benefits she foresaw due to the misconduct. The last warning stated that she would be fired for one more excused or unexcused absence. All she asked for was a pleasant dinner at their modest apartment but Ernesto insisted. He acted like a child and became enraged and aggressive when opposed. Gloria wished it were last year today; she would have not married Ernesto. The brothers originated from a violent family. Their mother divorced their father for alcoholism and domestic violence and Ernesto, at twenty-one years of age, was on the same path.

Gloria hunched over to vomit in the water as Stephanie rubbed her back. Ernesto craned his neck in an attempt to see what was happening. Lorenzo drew near the girls. “Is she alright?” he said. “We can leave if she is too sick.”

“No!” Ernesto yelled. “She should have told me that she was feeling sick last night. We have been planning this for months. She will be okay. She’s not going to die.”

“Will you be fine?” he asked.

Gloria nodded, wiped her mouth, and then Lorenzo left. She sat down and imagined herself inside the abandoned lighthouse behind them for no reason. She saw a child’s chalk drawings along the spiral staircase’s walls leading to the lantern room and all the way up to the cupola: colorful butterflies, a family of three standing in front of their house next to a tree and a dog, flowers, and many presents in cellophane wrapping paper. She wondered when the beacon had burnt out and if there was anyone available to replace it. She wished the lighthouse repaired to guide the boats to safety and perhaps even her.

“How long are you going to hide it?” Stephanie said.

“How do you know?” Gloria said.

“I have four married sisters with kids, Gloria. That’s not a virus in your tummy.”

“I don’t know what to do.” Gloria forced her tears back.

Stephanie touched her face. “You did a decent job hiding that bruise behind all that makeup.”

“I fell off the bed.”

“Yes, I know. You fall off the bed all of the time. This is what…the fifth time in the last six months? When did he hit you?”

“Last week.”

“Didn’t your coworkers notice it? I have known for a long time. I notice that you go into isolation when the bruises are fresh and then you hide it behind the heavy makeup. You need to take care of yourself. Run away if you have to. I have a little money saved if you need some.”

“I have nowhere to go, Stephanie. My mother passed away five months ago and I have no brothers or sisters. I broke my mother’s heart when I married him. My only relatives live on the other side of the country and I haven’t spoken to them in years.”

“You can come home with me. My parents love you.”

“But for how long? I have no money or job. Ernesto pawned all of my mother’s jewelry. They were the only things I had of any value. I am under academic suspension for dropping school. Ernesto is right, I am useless. I feel so sorry for this baby. He will find me and I am so scared.” She hugged Stephanie and cried.

There were seashells and sand dollars over the tidemark. Two old men, whom were lifelong friends, sat near the tideline in slippers. They had foldable chairs and a small, wooden table. There was a warm can of soda and a coffee mug on the table. They watched the men fish and one of the women vomiting in the water. Julian lifted the can and drank while Samuel rubbed his cold hands together. At their age, they felt cold all of the time. They drove with the air conditioner off and carried sweaters and jackets wherever they went, including in the summer days. Their wives were asleep in the RV. They rented a spot in the park for the weekend. Samuel was the owner of the RV and the prosperous of the two. He was the owner of a nationwide real estate brokerage and Julian was the manager of a franchise bar and grill. Two months ago, they planned to spend the New Year’s weekend by the beach. During the course of the year, Julian had spent countless days at the doctor’s office for a developing pain in his stomach. They could not diagnose the problem and he was going broke. His two sons volunteered to pay for some of the tests but every test got more expensive. They called him last week to tell him that they could no longer afford to pay for the tests. He still had in his wallet a blank check they mailed him to cover the last exam. He never enrolled in any type of Medical insurance when he felt healthy; it was too expensive. His Medicare enrollment was denied because the diagnosis did not meet medical necessity guidelines. He kept the shortage of money part and that he cancelled all future doctor appointments a secret from Samuel and his wife until he appealed the Medicare ruling. There were ten days left in the deadline. He was on the approach of a home equity loan but was hesitant. What if his condition had no remedy? How would he repay the loan if he worsened? He supposed it was better to let himself die and die knowing his wife will have a house to live in.

“That poor girl is pregnant,” Julian said. “And the boy beats her.”

“Do you know them?”

“I don’t have to. Over the years, I have learned to read my employees at the bar. These girls do not know how to hide it. They invent the lamest excuses to protect these guys.”

“How are you feeling, Julian?” Samuel said, slightly touching his knee. “You are thinner and I have not seen you eat a full meal since yesterday. What were the results of your exams?”

“I am in good health,” Julian said. If there was anything in the world that shredded his pride, it was to lie to someone close, especially to his friend whom had always demonstrated concern and offered support. “Everything came back negative. The pain is gone.”

The pain had worsened and he had lost his entire appetite about a month ago. He was taking painkillers, which he kept hidden from his wife and he forced himself to eat whenever his wife was present, otherwise he would have probably starved to death. He drank his coffee slowly and restrained a gag.

“I know those exams are not cheap, but if you need any help, you can count on me.”

“We have enough money, Samuel,” Julian said, thinking of the low number in his checking account. “We might take a vacation to Europe this summer, maybe for a week or two. How does Italy sound to you?”

What Julian did not know was that Samuel had been talking to his sons over the last two months. He knew of his financial situation and his depleting health.

“Italy sounds great. You deserve it.”

Julian thought of the coming summer. He visualized a golden beach heavily populated during a noon sun surrounded by warm dark-blue water and anglers casting along the length of the two-mile jetties until dusk. He doubted that he would make it that far in time. He wished that he had spent more time in a place like this. If only he had practiced managing personal time better than focusing predominantly on the bar that would never eulogize him for the years spent profiting and servicing it unconditionally.

Twenty minutes later, a white new truck with two boys riding in the bed pulled up in the parking lot behind the two young men. The headlights were on and the windscreen was foggy. Peter wiped the glass with his bare hand. They got off the truck and set the beach chairs next to the vehicle. Then Ashley helped the two kids off the bed and handed them two boogie boards. They ran laughing past the old men and into the cold water. When they sat on their chairs, there was silence. A permanent silence that bred intimately inside two unhappy people brewing in guilt and situated between them like an invisible iron wall. They were mindful of this weekend being the last they would spend together as a family before the divorce hearing. Peter allowed Ashley to have full custody of the kids. The boys were oblivious of the divorce. They would tell them the day Peter collected his baggage. Looking dreary and sad, Ashley watched her boys play in the water while thinking about a year ago. Peter committed adultery, she retaliated, and she was six months pregnant. They had not slept together during the last nine months of the marriage counseling sessions. When Peter felt assured that Ashley had forgiven him, he drove past the hotel on the corner of 5th and Melody St after work and discovered her vehicle parked in the area. He waited across the street until she and her ex-boss opened the door. They left and he remained across the street inside his car for a period of time he could not remember. Somehow, he felt at fault. He could not blame her. Peter drank his coffee but did not look at Ashley or the boys. His mind was blank and his green eyes fixed tensely on the disintegrating mist over the ocean.

“It wasn’t supposed to end this way,” Peter finally said.

He saw the waves creep over the seashells on the beach and disappeared in the spume. His last teardrop fell and hit the soft white sand between his bare sand-crusted feet.

“We’ve been over this, Peter,” Ashley said. “I forgive you. I hope you can forgive me too.”

She felt resentment even though she stopped loving him. As the days passed and the divorce neared, she quietly put her clothes in the trunk of her car during the wee hours of the morning and delivered them to her new home on her way to her job. They had agreed on Ashley keeping the house but she felt the need to leave her entire past behind, including the boys. She wanted to start a brand new life with her ex-boss and their baby. Peter listened to her in the dark removing her clothes from the hangers as he lay in bed and pretended to be asleep. He closed his eyes and listened, lacking the valor to stop her, but discovering a firm desire to hold her tight as he did in the past. He loved her more than when he first fell in love with her ten years ago and he felt regret for once believing deep down that she was not worthy enough to be loved by another. He was to carry that weight. In three days, her side of the closet would be emptied and it stayed that way forever.

“I wrote you a letter,” he said, pulling the paper out of his pocket. “I want you to have this.”

“Peter, I am convinced about I want to do,” she said. She observed the sobbing girl in front of them isolate herself from her group and caress her stomach and the man on a chair at the beach grimace in pain when his friend walked away to the restroom.

“Please take it.” He took her wrist and placed it on her opened hand. “Do this last thing for me. Do not read it if you do not want to. My heart is on that paper.”

She closed her hand around it. “Take good care of the boys, Peter. Do not let them hate me. Be honest for me.”

“Yes.”

Then he moved his chair next to hers and put his arm around her for the last time in his life. “Don’t ever let me go,” he whispered in her ear. She turned her head, he kissed her hand, and then she lay her head on his shoulder and together watched their boys run in the water and the fog disappear.

A big black drum floated upside down on the waves’ crest and the troughs joining the shore like white horses. It went unnoticed by everyone except Gloria, Julian, and Ashley. Gloria got off the jetties, Julian got off his chair, and Ashley let go of Peter’s hand. The fish gasped for oxygen and flapped its tail in slow motions. It lay on its side on the sand and in the sunlight, its scales projected rainbows over the three of them. They stood around the fish, formed a circle holding hands, and let it die.

MY OLD TRUCK

8f46ec4fe7ebd7c7157a873621be412e

When I saw the world through a full mug, it turned into gold. I had been at the bar for an hour holding a beer mug with both hands over the counter next to the window facing an empty parking lot. I parked my truck in the alley. I knew a tow truck would take it if I kept it there long enough. Sometimes I asked my neighbors to help me push it down the road to get it cranked up because it would not start. I did not care to fix it after the mechanic said that his labor fee was higher than the truck’s value. He was the only mechanic within twenty-four miles and famed for fucking people over with lies and outrageous labor fees.

“Looks like it’s the alternator again. And that timing belt is about to snap. Sell it to me, boss,” he said, wiping the grease off his hands. He was chewing tobacco. “I can sell it in parts. I can offer you two hundred dollars to take it off your hands. I am a generous man. I want to help you.”

“And how am I going to get around?” I said. “If I had enough money I wouldn’t bother to fix it. I would buy another car. I am broke, man. Help me out.”

He spit. “I can easily make about eight hundred dollars in profit,” he said. “Heck, I’ll throw Fergus in there too for that piece of shit, boss.”

Fergus was a mangy old mutt laying under a jacked up car next to my truck. He spent most of the time licking his balls and scratching his face. The excessive eye mucus made him blind.

“That dog looks like he’s about to die,” I said. “What would I do with him?”

“You can get one hundred dollars for that dog,” he spit, “easy. He has all his shots. He can make a great watchdog if you teach him right. He is potty trained and he does not bite. Fergus is wonderful with children. He is playful. Look at him wagging his tail. He loves you already. He’s a good dog, aren’t you, Fergus?”

Fergus whimpered.

“That’s not wagging his tail, that’s scratching his head. Besides, I can’t,” I said. “I need my truck.”

“Tell you what, boss,” he said. He spit. “How ‘bout we trade? I will give you that blue Grand Am over there for your piece of shit. Is that a deal?”

“The car is on cinder blocks. Where are the tires?”

“Look, boss, you are upsetting me. That car is fifteen years younger than your piece of shit. I am letting you take advantage of me this time. All you need are some tires and fix the cracked cylinder heads. I can fix them for you at my special rate of two thousand dollars. It is what I like to call ‘A Friend Special’. You buy the parts. And Fergus is emotionally attached to that car. That was the first car he rode and he would love to ride with you.”

“Looks like Fergus has stopped breathing.”

He spit and knelt next to him. “Shit, now I have to dig a hole. Why today, Fergus? Why in the middle of a business deal? Look, boss, I have a cat…”

I grabbed my keys and left.

The bar opened at seven in the morning. I was hungover. The sun rose and cast an auburn light over my drink. I was there because I could not sleep. I was alone in a world that felt too large and too cruel. I had not slept or showered in two days. My clothes had splatters of white paint from my last paint job and it smelled of old sweat. I went unpaid for that job because the check bounced and the contractor left town.

“You couldn’t wait to come in, didn’t you?” said the bartender. “You’re hungover.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw you pacing back and forth in front of the bar when I passed by. Look at your eyes. You are in pain. You have been whimpering since I served you that beer. And your breath reeks.” He waved his hand in front of his face. “You have been drinking for days. Brush your teeth. Your clothes smell like cat piss. And your hands…”

“Ok, enough. I get it. You’re an asshole.”

“You’re contemplating suicide.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Who drinks at a bar this early in the morning? These premature hours are reserved. Within an hour the bar will be packed. Analyze the people. They are depressed. They are fading, slowly.”

“If you say so.” I chugged the beer. “Give me another one.”

“I need you gone before my regulars come in.”

“Why? I’m a paying customer.”

“You smell like a corpse. Go take a shower and then return. I would not want to sit next to you. I think I need a shower simply by standing in front of you. Don’t you have a home?”

“No. I live in my truck.”

“The piece of shit that’s in the middle of the alley? I had to park a block away because it was in my way. The garbage truck will come by in less than an hour and you parked in front of the dumpster. He’s going to call a tow truck.”

“You have an empty parking lot in front. Why didn’t you park there?”

“That’s not our property. It belongs to the hotel. Are you going to reimburse me the five dollars I deposited in the meter because I could not get to my parking lot? I should have called the tow truck myself.”

“My beer?”

The front door opened and a couple walked in.

“The first regulars are here and you need to leave.”

I looked through the empty mug and everyone’s faces were unveiled.

“Forget it. I will buy a beer at the liquor store.”

I walked to the alley and found a kid of about seven nailing two boards together in front of my truck. There were eight more boards against the brick wall. The dumpster lids were open and it was half-full of wood.

“Hey, you need to move out of the way,” I said. “I need to leave.”

“Can’t you leave in reverse?” he said. “I’m working here.”

“I can’t see the coming cars. You want me to have an accident. Where are your parents?”

“Inside that place. That’s one ugly truck,” he said. “You need a new truck. I would wear a mask if I had to be seen driving that junk.”

“Am I some asshole magnet or what?” I said, raising my arms. “By the way, you are doing a terrible job. The boards are not even and the nails are rusted and crooked. What are you building?”

“A ladder. These people need a way to get to heaven. There is a reset button at the top.”

“What people?”

He pointed at the bar. “I want my parents to go to heaven and come back to love me. Can you help me? I will let you be the first to use it.”

“I am not going to heaven.”

“You don’t understand.”

I got in my truck. I turned the ignition and nothing happened. The kid approached me by the window and handed me his hammer. We spent the next hour building the ladder. I opened a gallon of white paint and two brushes I had in the bed. We painted it. I allowed the wrecker to tow my truck and then I placed the ladder against the wall and climbed it to the very top where I could see my truck go and say goodbye. I never recovered it and I made it to heaven. I found refuge from the world.

 

MY BURIAL

b333242cc1da923f40593229c4459ca2

I was wearing a black suit and tie. The burial that morning depressed me, especially the hypocrites. You know, the individuals that want to hurdle onto the casket as it is lowered, screaming, “Take me instead! Take me instead! Oh, God, not them! Take me!! Mom! Dad! Sister! Brother! Aunt!” Or whatever the fuck. I’m sure they know there is that someone to restrain them from committing a stupidity. They are precise; they are held back at the exact moment they get to the edge of the grave and about to plunge in. It felt staged, timed. The struggle was brief. In this case, two men carried the woman away into a car. She had half-fainted after all the screaming and crying and from her valiant effort to be buried alive with the casket. If my memory is accurate, I believe I wanted to yawn, but I felt obliged to cry because other people mourned and I acted as if the defunct was a relative or a close friend. Some people looked at me, trying to identify me, but they dismissed it after I hugged the obese woman next to me and she hugged me back.

“She hated him,” the woman whispered in my ear. “Everyone knows she wanted him dead.”

“Who?”

“The stepmother,” she said.

“Why would she want him dead?”

“He had Down syndrome and she had to care for him,” she said. “But if you’re here I’m sure you know the entire family.”

“I don’t know anyone,” I said.

“I know you don’t,” she said. “I saw you gawking from the other side of the fence.”

I had stopped at the burial because I was tired and thirsty and I had seen a man handing out bottles of water near the fence of the cemetery. I was a vacuum cleaner salesman and I had walked over ten miles without making a sale. The two people I made the vacuum presentation to that day had terrible credit and my next two appointments had not answered the phone. The man passed bottles of water again and everyone settled. I took three bottles. I drank one and put two in my bag.

“I didn’t mean to…”

“No worries,” she said. “Everyone cares about the deceased as much as you do.”

“How do you know them?”

“I’m related to the father in some way,” she said. “That isolated man over there standing by the angel statue, whose tears are sincere. Are you going to the buffet? I heard there will be free beer and seafood. I have four doggie bags in my purse. I love after-burial buffets.”

“After-burial buffets?” I laughed. “I don’t think so.”

“If there are any questions about who you are, I’ll tell them you’re with me,” she said, rubbing her breasts against my arm. “You know, I’m single. I’m divorced. I’ve been single for…”

“Thanks but I have to make a sale,” I said. “I sell vacuums. I haven’t made a sale in two months. I’ve been without electricity for two weeks.”

“And where is the vacuum?” she said.

“In my car,” I replied.

“Where is your car?” she said.

“At home,” I said. “Broken.”

“How do you expect to make a sale without the vacuum?” she said. “You need to carry it with you!”

“I do the presentations using the pamphlets,” I said. “They have many pictures. You have no idea how heavy that box is.”

“I think you’re trying to screw people over,” she said. “I think there is no car and no vacuum. You’re like those people that try to sell you bogus charity food tickets to raise money for a person with cancer and when the people show up to pick up their food the place is empty. Don’t sell me that shit. ”

“I’m not,” I said.

“I’m messing with you,” she said. “Good luck selling a vacuum with that strategy. I’d buy you one but the divorces left me with bad credit and I have no cash. I’ve been divorced three times. I don’t know if the third one counts because he was common-law. We never went through the divorce process. We only separated. All three claimed that I took advantage of them. I need a real man.”

“And the kids?”

“No kids,” she said. “Are you married?”

“No wife, no girlfriend, no kids, no nothing,” I said. “I’m better alone right now. I can barely take care of myself.”

“Let me help you,” she said. “Give me your pamphlets. I’ll look over them and if the vacuum interests me I’ll buy one from you. I’ll make a sacrifice. If I have to pawn my jewelry to buy one from you I’ll do it.” She took the briefcase from my hand.

The jewelry she was wearing had color discoloration and her brand-named purse was a replica. When she smiled her dentures became exposed.

“No,” I said, “I need that. I don’t know your address. I don’t even know your name.”

“Write it down, silly,” she said. “Take your pen and write it on the palm of your hand. Don’t wash your hands until you write it on a piece of paper. For a salesman you’re pretty weak. I’ll show you a trick or two. I’ll give you the briefcase when you go to my house. Don’t worry, I like you.”

She gave me her address and her name.

“Please don’t lose it,” I said. “That’s my source of income until I fix my car. I may never fix my car.”

“A source of income generates money,” she said. “This is not a source of income. You’re broke. See this as an opportunity. Take this tissue to wipe your tears. Lets cry a little more.”

I cried a little more, wiped my eyes, and drank my water. It was a small casket. It was a child. I cried a bit more in the end. I got in line to toss a handful of dirt into the grave as everyone was leaving. I said goodbye. I would have shed more tears but the bottles were a cheap brand and it tasted like tap water. I felt ripped off. I dried my eyes, stared at the obese woman leave with my briefcase, and walked to the bar a block away with her address on the palm of my hand. I did not drink because my wallet was in the briefcase. I walked to her house later that day. Nobody lived there. She had sold herself and I bought it.

PAPER BAGS

Paper-Bag-It-400x300.jpg

It was dead. The cook and I were standing by the Wait to be Seated stand in front of thirty empty tables and two televisions tuned to snowy screens. The waitress and the last customer had left two hours ago.

“What do we do?” asked the cook.

“Clean,” I said.

“Everything is clean.”

“Are you sure? I see hand prints on the glass of the front door.”

“Not everything can be perfect. You’re not working either. You’ve been standing there for the last hour. That wall is not going to fall. Stop holding it with your ass.” He finger quoted. “Aren’t you supposed to be ‘managing’?”

“Look, buddy, don’t start with your shit cause I’ll send you home.”

“You’re going to cut my hours again? Last week you scheduled me for thirty hours and I worked ten. I think you have something personal against me. I might just go to human resources and file a complaint against you.”

“Keep giving me shit and I will send you home.”

“I hate working with you. I hate everything about this place, the customers, the food, the schedule, and the other employees whom you favor. I’ve never been invited to the Christmas parties. You put me to work to cover for everyone during the holidays. I’ve never had a weekend off because nobody wants to work those days. I have put multiple requests for a vacation and I have been denied every time. When was the last time you gave me a raise?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I forgot.”

“Never. You’ve given all of the other employees a raise while I’m still earning minimum wage after I make countless efforts and submit opinions on how to better the business. When someone calls in sick you call me and I always help you out. Look at this place. It’s empty! You and your favoritism have sunk this ship. I regret wasting five years of my life in this pile of shit.”

“Distributing gossip and negative judgments toward the workplace is not a good method to improve a business,” I said.

“The staff in this place sucks, especially you!”

“Then quit.”

“I have a family. And you take advantage of that. You know it’s not easy to find another job in this shit city. You, Brownsville, and the rest of your crew can go fuck yourselves.”

A hobo walked in. He was sweating. “May I have a cup of water?” he asked. He smelled like a garbage truck.

“Yes, but we sell it,” I said.

“Are you from Brownsville?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Everybody is from Brownsville.”

“If you say so,” I said.

“How much is the water?”

“Five dollars.”

“For water?”

“We don’t sell the water. We sell the cups and the ice. It’s four dollars and fifty cents if I don’t put ice in your cup.”

“That’s an expensive cup. The competition across the street never sells me the cup and I get free water and ice.”

“Then you need to cross the street and get your water over there.”

“And they’re very polite and happy all of the time. If you look that way the place is always packed. There aren’t any empty parking spaces. You’re a bitter man.”

“Keep giving me shit, hobo, and I’ll kick your ass across the street.”

“What if I cup my hands under the faucet and drink from my hands?”

“That’s free.”

“Can I wash my hands first?”

“Then I’d have to sell you the hand soap and the paper towels, if you use any.”

“I’ll only rinse my hands and dry my hands on my clothes.”

“Alright, but don’t spill any water on the floor. There is a clean mop head fee, too.

The hobo slurped from the faucet.

“I know that guy,” said the cook. “I never learned his name, but he was my neighbor two years ago at the apartments across the college. He’s not okay from the head. At least once every other week at midnight he would knock on everyone’s door and said he had lost his soul. He asked if someone had found it. When he banged on our door I had an empty paper bag ready on the table. I’d say yes and handed him the bag. ‘Here, your soul is in the bag. You left it in the trunk of my car. And stop waking people up. The manager wants you out of the apartment complex.’ I heard he was homeless since he was a teenager. People tried to help him but the man never changed. He panhandled for drugs under the overpass by the church. He never slept in his apartment. I found that strange. He spent some nights under the street lamp, high on crack, by the office. That’s where he slept and the manager at times wound up calling the cops. He was never arrested and it pissed the manager off. Sometimes he attracted stray dogs and they followed him to his apartment where they barked at anyone that got close to the door. He was not home the day he was evicted and the only things that were removed from his place were the paper bags. I heard he had them pinned to the walls with people’s names written on them. I counted about twenty. I was tempted to take them out of the dumpster, but someone had already put toilet paper over them.”

“Tempted? What the hell were you going to do with them?“ I said. “You’re as crazy as he is for giving him all those bags,” I finger quoted, “with his ‘soul’.”

“The bags were all he owned in the world,” said the cook. “And I was curious to know if my name was written on one of them.”

“Lily Livered!” the hobo called the cook. “How are you?”

“Fine,” said the cook.

The cook laughed. Then I laughed.

“What the hell did he call you?” I said.

“I don’t know, but it’s funny.”

“We’re all from Brownsville,” said the hobo.

“Yes, sir,” said the cook.

“And you’re Day By Day,” he said to me. “May I use the restroom?”

“Are you going to take a shit or a piss?”

“Both. When I shit I piss, Day By Day.”

“That’s two dollars for the toilet paper.”

The hobo searched his pockets and gave me two nickels. “That’s all I’ve collected today on the streets.”

I put the coins in my pocket. “Just use the goddam toilet. And don’t make a mess. I know you fuckers like to shower in the public restrooms.”

He left.

“The hobo is right, you’re one bitter man,” said the cook to me.

“This is the last warning. I’m going to send you home. All you do is complain. You talk more than you work. The other employees keep the store clean, they get along amongst each other, and they don’t gossip. They mind their own business. You honestly want to know why they never invite you to the holiday parties? You’re a nuisance. Besides, I’ve started searching for another job. I’m underpaid here, especially when I have to put up with you.”

“You’ve been saying that for the last six months. I like it here. And I’m not a bad employee.”

“Then I don’t know what to call you because you’re not a good one. But it’s not your fault. It’s mine. I was the idiot that hired you. You’ve probably been a nuisance and lazy all your life, but how the hell was I suppose to see that?” I finger quoted again. “First you ‘hate it here’ and now you ‘like it’? Sure you do, Lily Livered. You’re never going to leave. You’re a lifer.”

“Just because you can’t see me means that I’m gone,” said the hobo. “We’re all from Brownsville.” He sat on the bench by the glass doors. “Do you have any leftovers, Day By Day?”

“Yes,” I said, “they’re all in the dumpster.”

“Here,” said the cook and handed him a paper bag, “you can have my sandwich. The food here is terrible.”

“You’re the cook!” I yelled. “Get the hell out!”

The cook left.

The hobo went outside and sat on a bumper on the empty parking lot. He ate quietly. I sat next to him. He offered me the half of the sandwich and handed me the folded paper bag.

“It’s empty,” I said. “There is no sandwich.”

He had written Day by Day on the bag.

“I know,” he said.

THE VIXEN AND ITS TAIL

6a00e54fcf73858834019affbb4325970d-580wi.jpg

Melquiades spat out his beer. “You’re shitting me!”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “It happens often.”

Gonzalo, Melquiades, and I started drinking early that Saturday morning. It was Melquiades’s idea to cook out at the beach that day when we saw we were all off on our work schedule. We were refinery welders. Our families were close friends. Gonzalo had been our coworker for three years. I drank with him often at the bars after work. It was his first time socializing with Melquiades. Gonzalo tried to quit drinking a couple of times. In two years he had entered rehab twice. He was a terrible drinker but a good soul. I could have called him my brother.

Melquiades was holding a bible in his right arm. “He pissed himself! He is standing in a puddle of his own piss!”

Piss streamed down his calves and into his socks and shoes.

“Ignore him. It won’t be the last time. He is having a good time. Let him be.”

“His shoes are all wet.”

“He is wearing shorts. He will be dry by the time we leave.”

“Did you bring a towel?

“No. What for? I had no plans of swimming.”

“So he can sit on it when we leave! He is not sitting in my car like that. I don’t care if he is dry. He will smell and my car seats are made of leather!”

“Don’t worry about it, man.”

“He shouldn’t drink that much.”

“He was drinking more six months ago, but he found God.”

“How much more? He drank whiskey, beer, and tequila today. Look at him. He’s all fucked up.”

Gonzalo pissed himself again. This time he farted.

“Six months ago he was drinking rum, too.”

“This isn’t funny. We need to find a towel.”

Gonzalo was leaning against a bench, holding a plastic cup full of whiskey. He was wearing sunglasses but I could tell he was trailing with his sight the two girls in bikini walking on the beach. He pursued them, staggering from side to side as he tugged his feet against the sand and spilling some of the drink. He stopped at a trashcan and puked. He wiped his teary eyes, paused to regain his equilibrium, and then he continued.

“You need to go get him,” said Melquiades. “He is going to scare the poor girls.”

“I can’t. I need to flip the food on the grill.”

“You’re an asshole.”

Melquiades ran after him and guided him back by the arm. Gonzalo was a heavyset man over six feet tall and Melquiades was a mere five feet and no more than one hundred and twenty pounds. Gonzalo inclined on Melquiade’s shoulder. Melquiades could not support his weight and they fell onto the sand. They finally made it back and Gonzalo sat on the bench as Melquiades shook sand off his clothes. Gonzalo started to snore.

“Fucking drunk,” said Melquiades, looking at Gonzalo. “I regret bringing him. I need to take that man to my church. My pastor will straighten him up. I could read to him from the Bible but he will not remember. He is too drunk.”

“What for? He says he’s found God already.”

“His soul needs saving. He needs the lord. He’s an alcoholic. Pass me a bag of chips.”

“We’re out.”

“We bought two bags.”

“Gonzalo ate them.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Melquiades. “That’s it. I’m taking this man to church tomorrow.”

“No need. He’s already found God and he is going to rehab again next week. I think this time he will quit drinking for good. I have faith in him.”

“What good does it do him?” said Melquidades. “He will drink again. It’s a waste of time. He needs to join a gym. He looks ridiculous. I can see his dirty belly button and his disgusting nipples through that tight shirt. This fat fuck should be wearing a blanket.”

A black car pulled over on the side of the street and the passenger side window rolled down.

The driver signaled for Melquiades.

“Who is that woman?” I asked him.

“My mistress. Why do you think I came all the way over here? To babysit this fucking drunk? I can’t be seen with her in town. A lot of people know me. What will the congregation think of me if they found out?”

“Oh. There is a toddler in the back seat.”

“That’s our son. The pastor covers up for me. My wife doesn’t know that he mails our tithe to her every month. Her sister is my pastor’s mistress. I can’t be on child support. You don’t mind if they hang with us, right? Can this be our little secret?”

“It’s your choice, but I will feel strange around your wife and kids now. We’ve been friends for many years.”

“Don’t bullshit me. You’re telling me that you’ve never cheated on your wife?”

“No. But I am not perfect. Again, I will feel strange around your wife and kids now, man.”

“Don’t worry about it. Besides, tomorrow is church day and God will forgive me. Sundays are cleansing days and Mondays are new beginnings.”

“If you say so.”

“What’s that smell?”

“What smell?”

We both turned around.

“He shit himself!” Melquiades yelled. He covered his face with his Bible. “And he got it all over his shoes, too! That motherfucker! You better call his wife! Who is going to clean him? There is shit everywhere! There is shit everywhere!”

The toddler came out of the car in a sagging diaper.

SHADES

IMG_4410

I had not seen her in twenty years. She lay on the hospital bed next to the living room window shaded by the fig tree she planted when my parents purchased the home. She spent her last days looking out the window. She offered me her hand and I took it. There were red spots on her skin and her nails were overgrown and filthy. She was wearing shades.

“My favorite daughter,” she said. “You have been away so long.”

“I’m your only daughter, mom. “

“How do I look?” she asked, adjusting the wig.

“Beautiful.“

“Can you hold the mirror to my face?”

There was a hand mirror on the nightstand by the oxygen tank. The roses in the vase had withered.

“Yes.”

“The bags under my eyes make me look older. Can you apply a little make-up? I want to look beautiful when he comes.”

“Who, mom?”

“Death.”

“Let me get your kit.”

I rolled my wheelchair into her room. The sewn stiletto swung from my empty pant leg. I could see her from the door.

She was a bag of bones wearing a wig and an oxygen mask. A nurse had injected the last morphine in the morning. She said that she was in her last hours. She refused to die in hospice. We couldn’t see eye to eye and she knew it. She had been expecting me.

“Can you brew some coffee?” she asked.

“No problem.”

I prepared the kettle.

“How can I be dying?” she asked. “I don’t feel any pain.”

I lifted myself and sat on the edge of the bed and applied the make-up. “You will get better. But you have to start eating your meals. I’ve been told that you merely nibble your food. How do you expect to recuperate?”

I tried to lift her shades.

“No,” she said. “Leave them on. I can’t look you in the eye. Please tell me about your life.””

“Want to know how I lost my leg?”

“Tell me.”

“It was a train.”

“Did you try to commit suicide? You always wanted to commit suicide.”

“No, dad did it. He put my leg over the rail one morning…and then the train passed.”

“Why?”

“I was a whore.”

“You should understand. His father cut two of his fingers when he was accused of being a thief. Did that lifestyle go away?”

“It’s not like the flu, mom. It never goes away. You left me to die in the hospital. You forgot about me.”

“I am so sorry.”

“I forgive dad.”

“I know you do,” she said. “I hate the food. It has no salt and it’s Gerber, the carrot flavor. It’s not real carrot. I choke on it, too. Sometimes I puke.” She adjusted the wig. “This wig makes me look like a cheap prostitute.”

“No, mom. You look beautiful.”

“My dark hair was beautiful.”

I kissed her cheek. “I always loved you, mom.”

“I miss my hair.”

“I missed you, mom.”

“Are you married?”

“No. I could never marry. But I’ve had many lovers.”

“Do you miss your father?”

“No.”

“He loved you. Perhaps more than me.”

“Please stop, mom. You knew. He wasn’t my father. He taught me to be a whore and when I didn’t want to learn anymore he drove me to the train station. My true father died before I was born. I had to learn that on my own. You denied me happiness. You stole my childhood.”

“I am sorry. I know.”

“He was paying you to use me. You let him. I will hire someone to cut that tree.”

“Try not to cut my fig tree. It has our names engraved on the bark. If you do cut it, please take that part of the tree and burn it if it makes you happy. And don’t put me in a box.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I dreamt that I was in a dark box.”

I held her scrawny hand. The last peels of red polish clung to her nails. “It was only a dream.“

I looked at the tree and there was a black owl standing on a branch. To me, it was grinning.

“Can you do my nails?”

“Where do you have the polish remover?”

“It was next to the make-up kit in the chest.”

I found my two favorite porcelain dolls in the drawer. They were wrapped in newspaper and in new condition. They were what remained of my innocence; rosy cheeks, heart-shaped lips, big round eyes. I pressed them over my heart.

“Did you find it?” asked my mom.

“Yes. I was looking for the cotton swaps.”

I set a small folding table by the bed and on it the bottle of polish remover and the plastic bag of cotton balls.

The kettle started to whistle.

“Can we have the cup of coffee first?”

“In what cabinet are the mugs?”

“In the one next to the refrigerator. Two sugars and two creams for me.”

I stood on my one leg to reach the cabinet. It was the first time in my life I managed to keep my balance.

“Yes, mom. I am going to add two ice cubes to your coffee. It is very hot.”

She looked at the tree. “Do you see that black owl?”

I nodded.

“It has visited me every morning since I’ve been bedridden and it stays there for hours. When the sun is rising its dark shadow is cast all the way to my bed and by noon it recedes. It leaves when I take my afternoon nap. Put me in an urn and place it on the windowsill. That way it will visit me. Except for the nurse, it was the only other thing that kept me company during the last six months. The owl grins all the time. That’s my only request. He is here.”

“Who, mom?”

“Death.”

“What do you want? I came at your request.”

“Forgive me.”

I didn’t reply. I sighed on her face and fogged her shades. She squeezed my hand and then she passed. I drank the coffee and washed her filthy hands in the washtub basin.