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[2 of 5] Bodega Dreams, Book I, Rounds 5-9, by Ernesto Quiñonez (2000)

Author: Ernesto Quiñonez

Quiñonez Ernesto. “Book I, Rounds 5-9.” Vintage Contemporaries Original: Bodega Dreams, Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 2000.

We Needed More Space

THAT night, I decided I’d better walk for a while because I couldn’t go home to Blanca high. I walked down Fifth to Ninety-sixth Street, about half of the Museum Mile. I stopped in front of El Museo del Barrio on 104th Street and Fifth Avenue. Then I walked a block south and sat on the marble steps of the Museum of the City of New York. When Sapo and I were in the sixth grade we would play hooky by going there to play hide and seek, hang out. The museum was usually empty, especially during weekdays. Also, it could only afford one guard, and he was lazy. Once Sapo and I were running and we knocked a woman down. We laughed and kept running. When she complained to the guard we heard him say, “Were they touching any of the exhibits or something? No? Listen, lady, I’m not here to defend you. That’s not my job.”

After the museum got boring, Sapo and I would leave, cross the street, and spend the rest of the afternoon in Central Park. We knew Fifth Avenue was that part of El Barrio with rich people living in it. The buildings along Fifth were different from the project we lived in. Those buildings had doormen, huge glass doors, gargoyles on the walls, and air conditioners in almost every window. The people who lived on Fifth didn’t travel past Madison Avenue. They always took cabs and you’d only see them walking when they were past Ninety-sixth Street, where El Barrio ends. When I was a kid, some residents had taken petitions to City Hall. They wanted Mayor Beame to declare Fifth Avenue from 110th to Ninety-sixth to be its own little neighborhood, separate from East Harlem, called East Central Park.

My mother used to work cleaning the homes of some of those people. One day when I was in the second grade I was too sick to go to school, and since Mami didn’t want to miss work she took me with her. When I entered the apartment my mother was supposed to clean, I felt like I was inside the Museum of the City of New York. The place was huge. There were paintings and statues and mirrors and beautiful wooden things—nothing like where we lived. That was the first time I really saw the difference between those that had and those that didn’t.

That night, after Bodega, after the walk, after I had remembered a few things, I went home hoping that Blanca was already asleep. I turned my key as silently as possible, and entered slowly. I crept into the bedroom and quietly changed clothes. I got into bed and didn’t touch her because I knew she wouldn’t let me and because I didn’t want to fight. Blanca was in her second trimester and I found her incredibly sexy. I loved to make love to Blanca with her belly round as the moon. It was smooth and the feeling was of closeness. I wanted her to know she was still desirable and that I wasn’t out there screwing other women. I wanted her to know I loved making love to her and that her body still excited me. Her breasts were full and her belly was so round and sex was great and different and screw all those men who won’t make love to their wives while they are pregnant.

“Did you eat?”

Sí, mami. I though you were asleep.”

“You smell like marijuana.”

“Sapo’s always smoking that stuff, you know that, Blanca.”

“When you speak … your breath,” she mumbled.

I stayed quiet, moving my hand slowly over her stomach.

“Julio,” she whispered after a little pause of night silence.


“I never really liked your name, but now I kind of like it. What do you think about naming the baby Julio?”

“Whatever you want, Blanca.”

“I like it,” she said, turning around, placing her full stomach close to me.

“I’d like it to have your name if it’s a boy and my sister’s name if it’s a girl.”

“Why? I like your name, Nancy,” I said, and she giggled.

“Nope. I want something biblical, like my sister’s name, Deborah. She was a judge. The only woman judge in the Bible. I like her. I like that.”

“Well, what good was it for your sister to be named Deborah when she turned out so bad that everyone calls her Negra?”

“Julio, my sister is not that bad, is she?”

“Of course not,” I said, but I didn’t mean it.

“Where did you go with Enrique?”

“Nowhere,” I said, sliding my arm around her waist. She didn’t say anything after that and I was happy.

Then I remembered something. “What about the name Vera?” If Sapo had told me to ask Blanca about this Vera, it had to be because we both had something to gain from it. I felt bad asking Blanca about her aunt; it was like me quizzing her on some betrayal that had never happened. “Vera, if it’s a girl.”

“No. No, no, no,” Blanca said firmly.

“Isn’t there a Vera in the Saldivia clan? You mentioned her, way back before we got married.”

“Oh yeah, my aunt Veronica.”

“That’s her real name? Veronica. Oh, yeah, wait, I remember.” It was about two years ago, before we got married. Blanca and I had been talking about those Latinos who Anglonize their names, from Juan to Jack, or Patricia to Trish.

“Yes, that’s the one. We don’t see her much. She sends my mother money for her birthday. That’s the only time we hear from her. I gave my mother an extra wedding invitation for her to mail to her sister in case she wanted to make the trip, but she didn’t come.” Blanca yawned and stretched a bit.

“Is your aunt Veronica married?”

“That’s why we never see her. She married well. Some rich Cuban she met. They live in Miami.” That rang a faint bell.

Un cubano? Eso está heavy duty. For a Rican to marry a Cuban he better be rich,” I said, joking, because Cubans and Puerto Ricans never hit it off. The Arabs and Jews of the Caribbean. “But your aunt, didn’t she live in the neighborhood once?”

“Yeah, supposedly she was going to marry this guy she was in love with, some street activist or something, but her mother made her marry the Cuban, at least that’s what they told me.”

“A street activist? You mean a Young Lord?”

“Yeah, that’s what he was. I mean I was just being born, so I don’t really know. But I heard the story.” Nothing in Blanca’s voice or body language indicated the name Vera meant anything to her. As it came to me, bit by bit, I understood more clearly what Sapo had told me earlier. Sapo believed in Bodega because he knew other reasons why Bodega was renovating the neighborhood. I started to believe a bit myself. I could picture Bodega in an Armani suit, all legal and respectable, his renovated buildings in the background, his name no longer Bodega but something else, something politicians want on their side, a commodity of goodwill. I pictured him finding her: “I’ve always loved you, Vera. Look at me. I fixed up everything, just like it was before.”

I didn’t ask Blanca anything; I could tell she was already feeling talkative.

“My abuela was right in making my aunt do that. I mean, the Cuban guy was rich and the street activist she had been in love with ended up in jail.” In the dark I could feel Blanca smile. “You guys, we just turn our heads and you guys are in jail.” She kissed me.

“Oh yeah, what about you girls?” I laughed. “We just breathe on you and you get pregnant.”

“That’s cheap. Your humor,” Blanca said smiling, “sets Latin women back a hundred years.”

“Tell me more about Veronica and the street activist.”

“Who cares about her, I never even met her. Let’s talk about you coming to church with me. In two weeks we’ll be having a special guest speaker, an anointed.” Blanca propped herself up on her elbow and clearly didn’t feel sleepy anymore. She was done talking about her aunt, but it didn’t matter because I already knew enough.

“An anointed? What’s that?” I asked, letting her think I was interested.

“Someone who will one day, when he or she dies, rule with Christ in heaven for one thousand years,” she said, excitedly squeezing my arm. “And this anointed is only seventeen!”

“Seventeen, huh,” I answered, not caring the slightest bit. I just let Blanca continue talking about this seventeen-year-old anointed. I would throw in a well-timed “really” and “I hear you” and “yes, uh-huh.” My mind was really on Bodega and what he had said earlier that night. About Vera and what Bodega really wanted from me.

In the dark I looked around our tiny bedroom. Our living room was even smaller, with the kitchen set in the corner. The rent was high for this matchbox and Blanca and I’d had our tuition raised last semester because of the new governor. We didn’t want to take out loans and then have to pay off the government for twenty years. It was not a good way to start a professional career, in debt. So we were paying for all our studies at full tuition out of our own pockets. Then there was a baby on the way and we needed more space. And a way to save some money, too. Sitting there in the dark I saw some daylight. Bodega wanted something from me, so I would ask something in return. It was basic, simple street politics: you want something from me then you better have something I need.

Que Viva Changó

THE next day at work, I was pricing cans. I always liked pricing cans. It was better than straightening shelves because I got to use the sticker gun. When little kids were shopping with their moms, I would show off by pricing an entire box of cans real quick, and they got a kick out of that. Before I knew it they were asking me, “Yo, stick my hand.” And I priced their palms, two for a dollar.

After work I decided to get something to eat before I went to school. I had two classes that night and Blanca had one. On my way to get some food, I saw Sapo’s car parked in front of La Reyna Bakery. That bakery had been there forever. Half of El Barrio got its coffee every morning at La Reyna. Even though it was a small, dingy place, dark and crowded, people still went there because they made the best pastries, coffee, rolitos (flat oven bread with butter), empanadas, and sanwiches cubanos among other things.

Inside I saw Sapo, yelling his order just like the rest of the customers.

Dame un flan and three of those little cakes!” La Reyna was like those pits on Wall Street, everyone screaming what they wanted, things happening fast.

I walked up to Sapo. “You still angry at me, bro?”

“Nah, I ain’t angry at you. You still my pana. Dame un flan and three of those little cakes! So wha’ choo doin’ here, bro?” he asked.

“Same as you.”

“Better start yellin’ then, before they run out of cakes, bee.”

“Sapo, did Bodega want to see me because he wanted me to work with Nazario or because he wants me to get Blanca to invite her aunt to New York?” He turned and hustled me outside.

“Wha’ the fuck’s the mara wi’choo? You know how many people are in there? You don’t mention shit like that in public. These people may have a lot of hair, but they all think they’re Kojak and like to ask questions.” A guy came out of the bakery and handed Sapo his order. Sapo gave him five dollars and told him to keep the change.

“Take a ride with me, bro,” Sapo said.

“Yo, I got class tonight …”

“Class, class, you always have class. You got a lot of fucken class, you know that, Chino?”

“Fuck you.”

“So, mira.” Sapo took out his car keys and opened the door. “I drop you off at Hunta, cool?”

“Yeah, that’s cool. It’s better than paying a fare that ain’t fair.” I was happy to save myself a buck fifty and I decided to get something to eat later.

“Yeah, I knew you’d like that. You’re like the fucken Green Hornet, you like to be driven. But don’t get used to it, cuz I ain’t Kato and you the one that looks Chinese.”

“Yo, that show was wack,” I said. “The action scenes always took place in the dark. Bruce Lee looked dope in that chauffeur outfit, though.”

Sapo nodded in agreement. “This won’t take long, Chino, but I hafta pick up Nene.” Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, Sapo dug into the paper bag and pulled out one of his little cakes. He swallowed it whole and then dug for the second one.

“It’s cool if it doesn’t take too long. You know I—”

“Have class. I ain’t deaf. I heard you the first time. So, you want t’know about Bodega?”


“Why don’t you ask him yo’self.”

“You my pana, bro, and I wouldn’t know where to look for him anyway.”

“Yeah, thass true, Bodega only lets himself be seen when he wants ta be. Yeah, so check this out, Bodega did want you to get Blanca to ask her aunt to come to New York. That don’t mean he didn’t want you to work with Nazario, cuz he did.” The third little cake was downed just as quick.

“So why didn’t he just come out and say what he had to say.”

“What, you wanted him to get all romantic and shit? Cut the dude some slack. See, Chino, you got it all wrong. Bodega believes ever’thin’ he told you about. But he’s also in love with some bitch from his past. Or he’s still in love with the past. I don’t know which or both or what the fuck. All I know is I’m going to ride his dream like a magic carpet. Cuz, Chino, it don’t take a genius to figure out Bodega is where I want to be and he knows what the fuck he’s doing. Know wha I’m sayin’, papi?”

Then we spotted Nene sitting on the stoop. Sapo pulled over and I unlocked the door so Nene could get in.

“You know each other, so I’m goin’ to start on my flan.” Sapo took out a plastic spoon and began to eat his flan, which floated inside a white carton filled with sugary syrup.

“Yeah, I know you, Chino,” Nene said, recognizing me.

“How you been, Nene?”

“You know me, I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.

Sapo finished his flan real quick, his big Sapo mouth engulfing every spoonful. But when he started the car, Nene got nervous, and seeing him nervous made me nervous.

“Yo, Hunta is on Sixty-eighth Street, bro, you going uptown.”

“This won’t take long, Chino. Nene and me have to do somethin’ real quick.” I knew something was up. I wanted to tell him to let me out, but I stayed because I needed Sapo to set up a meeting with Bodega, so I could make a deal with him. I was hoping that it wasn’t too late. Maybe Bodega had found another way to contact Vera. I didn’t know, so I had to stick around and have Sapo talk to Bodega on my behalf as soon as possible or my chance at making a deal would be over.

Nene was sweating. “You sure about this, Sapo?”

“Yeah, I’m sure about this. Your cousin wants this done.”

“Yo, where we going?” I asked.

“Pa’ viejo.” Sapo laughed.

“Yo, I got class.”

“Why don’t you fucken put that shit in the news. I heard you the third time.”

And I didn’t bother to say it again.

Sapo stopped his car in front of the poultry house on 110th and Second where you could buy live chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. It smelled like a zoo and you could hear the fowl cries blocks away.

Sapo and Nene went inside while I stayed in the car. A few minutes later, they came out carrying a large box with holes punched in it. Carefully, they placed the box on the backseat and Nene slid in next to it.

“This fucken thing is going to stink up my car, man.” Sapo spat out the car window.

“What the fuck is that, bro,” I said, laughing. “I thought you ate your flan already. Like, if you still hungry I can spring for pizza.”

“Nah, this is for Doña Ramonita at the botanica,” Sapo answered, through gritted teeth.

“It’s watching me, Sapo. It’s watching me.” Nene was looking through the little holes. “It knows this is the end.”

“Of course it knows. You think it’s stupid enough to think we got him for a fucken pet?” Sapo took off.

When we reached the botanica on 116th between Park and Madison, San Lázaro y las Siete Vueltas, Sapo parked his car and asked me and Nene to carry the box. “I put in my time,” he said.

Doña Ramonita was a heavy woman with strong African roots from Puerto Rico’s Loiza Aldea. With her hair pulled back in a pink bandanna and her hands on her hips, she looked like Aunt Jemima from the pancake boxes. She was standing next to a life-sized statue of San Lázaro with all his boils and diseased skin. Incense was burning all around the botanica and the shelves were crowded with teas and potions and smaller saints. On the walls were cheap religious pictures depicting the Devil being slain by the angel Michael. In those pictures, the Devil is always painted completely black with horns and a tail; Michael is always rosy and winged with a sword he twirls like a baton.

The botanica also doubled as a pawnshop. It was a place that knew hunger and desperation. A place you could find things hocked out of a deep need for something good or bad. There were wedding rings, baby bracelets, radios, televisions, necklaces, engraved watches, old-fashioned spoons and knives, scarves, pins, coins, and other junk that was left behind for Doña Ramonita to resell. Popular items were the boxes on the floor filled with Spanish LPs from past decades, old mambo and salsa records, plena, bomba, Latin hits our parents would dance to. A few secondhand mint-condition musical instruments like trumpets, trombones, congas, and tambourines were on display inside a glass case, their price tags sticking out like a tag on a dead man’s toe.

“Doña Ramonita,” Sapo said, “Willie Bodega would like you to make an offering to Changó on his behalf. This is for him,” Sapo said, pointing at the box Nene and I had placed on the floor, “and this is for you. It is the favor you asked Willie Bodega for.” He gave her a wad of twenties. She didn’t count them or say anything, just took the money and stuffed it inside her bra. Nene stared at her and started singing softly, “I got a black magic woman. Got a black magic woman.” Like most of the neighborhood she knew Nene was slow and paid him no mind. When she went over to the box and opened it a goose flapped its way out and started to walk around nervously as a few customers looked on with admiration.

Mijo, this animal is perfect. It is important that the sacrifice be healthy. Changó will be very happy,” she said, and then went behind some curtains to the back of the botanica, leaving us with a scared bird wandering around.

“You know, Sapo, I can report you to the ASPCA.” I laughed.

“Shit, I could care less about this chicken, my car stinks now.” Sapo spat on the floor.

“It’s a goose, bro, not a chicken.”

“Who the fuck are you, Old MacDonald? The shit stunk up my car. If it was up ta me I’d wring its neck right here.”

Nene stopped singing and stared at the goose. I detected some pity on his solemn face. Then Doña Ramonita emerged dressed in white, with a rosary wrapped around her waist and some beads dangling down her side. She was carrying a leash and three small jars of lightly tinted water.

Díganle a Willie to wake up tomorrow at sunrise. Make sure that his window has a clear view of the sun, si no que vaya al rufo. He must take off all his clothes and then turn himself seven times to the right as he pours the water from this jar, the first jar, on himself. Then he must turn seven times to the left as he pours the second jar. The third jar I will keep and pour on the sacrifice, also at sunrise.”

“Wait. What if it’s cloudy?” Nene piped up, “I know it’s hot town summer in the city but it could rain tomorrow.”

“He must wait then, till the sun comes out. I will wait with him too.” Then with deft precision she cornered the goose, leashed its head, and dragged it to a corner where she tied it to a table. “I will pour the water at sunrise, turning the sacrifice seven times.” Doña Ramonita paused and looked at the three of us carefully, making sure that all of us heard what she had to say. “But I can tell you now,” she said, her eyes panning left to right, from Sapo to Nene to me, “I have seen the woman he is after. I have seen her in dreams. She is coming from a hot place. A warm climate, almost like Puerto Rico pero eso sí, the woman he is after is coming with a lot of trouble. As if she is the daughter of Changó himself.”

Doña Ramonita was right. Vera would arrive, fading in and fading out of the neighborhood as if in a film. A character so out of focus that it was hard to know when you had her just right, and when you did, the film ran out. It didn’t matter that the show was over and everyone was going home disappointed, only that you felt responsible for the movie being bad. You knew you weren’t the filmmaker, but you were the one who dragged everyone to see it. With Vera it would be the whole neighborhood that got cheated. Many were at fault, and I was among them.

As we walked out of the botanica and headed toward Sapo’s car, Doña Ramonita reappeared, shouting.

“And tell Willie he has to buy new clothes! All in white. Changó’s favorite color is white. Willie will need a lot of white!” she yelled. Sapo nodded to assure her he would relay the message. She then bowed her head ever so slightly and slowly went back inside her botanica.

Sapo opened the car door and a terrible odor rose from inside. “Fucken shit.” He opened all the doors and pressed a button to slide all the windows down. He took out a cigarette and the three of us waited outside the car for the smell to clear.

“I feel bad for that bird, you know,” Nene said, “but you know, at least he gets to meet the spirit in the sky. Thass where I want to go when I die. When I’m old and they lay me to rest I want to go to the place thass the best.

I felt this was as good a time as any. “Sapo, I have to speak with Bodega again.” Nene kept singing.

“ ’Bout wha’?”

“Tell him I can deliver Vera. That’s the woman he’s after, right? Blanca’s aunt?”

“Wha’? Now, Chino—” He took a long drag on his cigarette. I knew his loyalty was to Bodega but Sapo was still my friend.

“Tell him I know where she is and I can reach her. All I want from him is a two-bedroom apartment in one of his buildings. Tell him I got a kid coming and I need the extra room.”

“Fucken shit, Chino.” Sapo was mad. He flung his lit cigarette on the pavement with so much force, it made a stream of sparks. “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me this before I put the fucken chicken in my car!”

For Being a Cabrón

IF there was one person who was going to know where I could find this Vera, it was Blanca’s sister, Negra. Although I didn’t know yet if Bodega would agree to my deal, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to pay Negra a visit. We weren’t really friends but we were family.

Negra and her husband lived in the Metro North projects on 100th and First. These projects face the East River and have million-dollar views. On the Upper East Side an apartment facing the East River would be priceless, but this is Spanish Harlem, where most rents are subsidized by Section Eight. Regardless, the panoramic scenes are the same from any neighborhood: red-orange sunrises, blue-black moonlit nights. In the wintertime, when the East River freezes, the views are staggering. The ice acts like a mirror and the world seems to have two sunrises and at night two moons, one in the sky and one on the ice. During storms, you can see huge waves pound the FDR Drive, sometimes reaching all the way to the highway itself and washing up against the cars. Above the East River the cloud formations are ever-changing, and when a dying hurricane is about to hit the city you can see how the waves and the clouds synchronize their gyrating motions, like Jupiter’s red eye.

Negra was lucky. She lived on the twelfth floor facing the East River. I took the elevator, punched 12, and tried not to step in a puddle of piss where vials were floating. As soon as the elevator door opened, I could hear Negra yelling. I reached her door and knocked hard. Soon she peered through the peephole and opened the door.

Que me lleven. I don’t give a shit!” she yelled. She was smoking a cigarette, taking long, angry drags.

“What happened, Negy?” I asked, as she sank into the sofa and continued to smoke.

“Ayy … ayy … You’re crazy, Negy.” I heard a faint moaning coming from the kitchen, where I found Negra’s husband, Victor, sitting on a chair and holding his stomach with one hand. There was blood on his shirt and on the floor.

“That bitch is crazy, man. That bitch is crazy.”

“Victor, let me look at that shit.” I knelt down and gently moved his hand away.

It was a small but deep gash. “That shit is nasty, bro. How’d that happen?”

Negra rushed into the kitchen and began to yell. “That’s good for him, Chino! For being a cabrón!”

“She’s crazy, she’s … fucken crazy … Chino,” Victor responded weakly. He was leaking blood slowly but steadily.

“Look, Negra, we have to get him to Metropolitan.”

“He doesn’t want to go!” she yelled, and then lit another cigarette.

“Ayy … ayy … ayy … coño.” His moaning made Negra angrier and she erupted.

“Chino, I’m doing the laundry, right!”—she took a violent drag—“and I find in his pocket a movie ticket stub for Donnie Brasco”—she blows smoke—“I know, I know what he’s been up to. But to make sure I ask him while I’m cooking, does he want to go to the movies tonight after dinner?”

“Thass a lie, Chino, she’s lying, ayy … ayy … Dios Mío.

Negra yells at Victor to shut the fuck up and then continues. “So I asked him, ‘Papi, you want to go to the movies?’ He says, ‘Sure, why not.’ I say, ‘I want to see Donnie Brasco.’ He tells me, ‘All right, let’s see that.’ I say, ‘Unless you’ve seen it already with your buddies Mike and Nando.’ He says, ‘No, I haven’t.’ I say, ‘Are you sure you haven’t seen it?’ He smiles and tells me, ‘No, I haven’t gone to the movies since I went with you.’ ” She stopped and stared at Victor. “So I showed him the stub, Chino. I told him this was in his shirt pocket. Thass right, you didn’t see this with Mike or Nando or with me because this is a movie you took another woman to see!”

“She’s crazy. I … I always like Al Pacino … you know that, Chino. Right? Right? Tell her, tell her I always liked Pacino.” In pain, Victor was begging for help.

“I’ll tell her on the way to Metropolitan, man. We got to take you there quick, bro,” I said, and knelt down to check his wound again. He shrugged me away. I turned back to look at Negra.

“Negy, he needs to go—”

“He doesn’t want to go!” she shrieked.

“What about calling an ambulance, then!” I shouted back. Everyone was angry now and I wasn’t about to be left behind.

“Nah … nah … I don’t want anyone called,” Victor said.

Que me lleven. Die. Bleed to death then!” she said, lighting another cigarette and stomping back into the living room.

“Chino, come closer,” Victor said, “You got to … take me … to Mount Sinai,” he whispered.

“But Metropolitan is two blocks from here.” It made sense to go there, because Mount Sinai was all the way west on Fifth Avenue.

“Nah, cuz Negra might wanna come too … and … and … Negra can’t come to Metro … see … my girl … she … she works at Metropolitan … emergency room … an’ this is her shift.”


“Not so loud … ayy … man, I feel dizzy.” Right then Negra walked back in. Her face seemed less angry and I thought I even detected some remorse. She joined me, kneeling next to Victor, and started to coo, whispering that he should let us call the paramedics, brushing his hair back lightly. I knew that Victor would never agree to that because the ambulance would drive him to the nearest hospital, Metropolitan.

“Help me, Chino,” he pleaded. I knew it wasn’t just his health he was worried about.

“Negra, I’m taking Victor to the hospital. Get me a towel.” She jumped up and raced out to get me one.

“Vic, I’ll take you to the hospital but you got to let me put a towel around you, okay?” I knew he was reluctant to pull his hand away from his stomach, but he agreed, nodding his head and grimacing in pain. Negra ran back in with the towel.

“I’m coming too,” she said.

“You’re … crazy … I don’t want you near me!” Victor yelled at Negra, more out of pain than anger.

“I don’t want you … coming …” Victor glared at Negra. “Chino will take me.”

“Yes, I’ll take him,” I repeated, helping Victor to his feet.

“See … Chino … will take me,” he moaned.

Negra agreed and even seemed sorry. She touched her fingers to her mouth, mumbling worried words as she opened the door. I was holding Victor with one arm around his shoulder and one arm around his stomach as we made our way out of the apartment. Negra walked out too and called the elevator. She got in with us and caressed Victor’s face. She kept telling him she believed him and that she was sorry. Once outside the building, Negra flagged a gypsy cab. Victor and I got in. He collapsed in the taxi, moaning a bit. Negra tried to kiss him but Victor turned his face away from her, so she pulled back. We drove off, leaving Negra standing at the curb shouting to us, “Call. All right? Call me.”

“Metropolitan Hospital,” I said to the driver, but Victor summoned a bit of reserve energy.

“Nah, nah, Mount Sinai Hospital,” he said and the driver took off.

“Why, Victor? Negra’s not coming with us.”

“I know … but my girl at Metro would want to know how this happened … and she don’t know I’m … married.”

“Thass fucken great, bro. You dying and shit and you’re worried about some bimbo knowing you married. Thass great, man.” I looked out the window and thought, to each his own. Victor and Negra deserved each other. But Blanca and I were far from perfect either these days.

“When they ask me to fill out the form, what do you want me to put down, Victor?”

“I fell on it … write that I fell on it.”

WHILE VICTOR was being attended by an emergency-room doctor, I phoned Negra.

“When you filled out the form, what did you put?” was her first question.

“That he fell on the knife.”

“Thass good.” I heard a sigh of relief. “You know, Chino, I never meant to throw it at him, it just flew.” Like I believed that.

“Can you call Blanca and tell her where I’m at?” I didn’t really have to ask this of Negra, I could have called Blanca myself, but I needed some fill-ins for my next question.

“I’ll call Blanca for you, Chino.”

“And another thing, Negra, I need to find your aunt Veronica. The one who calls herself Vera.”

“Why?” There was a dip in the middle of that why, to let me know that she knew I had something to hide. I let her have it.

“I didn’t ask you why the knife flew out of your hands, right? I wrote on the form that Victor fell on it. Victor wanted to tell the truth. Victor wanted to tell the doctors that his wife threw it at him. You know what that means, right? The doctors would have to report the incident as a possible crime, right? But I convinced him not to. I said you know she still loves you, so why would you want to send the cops to your house? So, mira, you owe me. You owe me big.” I paused and waited for Negra to say something. She stayed quiet, so I continued, calmer and slower.

“All I’m asking, Negy, is if you have any information about some aunt of yours. That’s all I’m asking.”

“Why not ask Blanca?” She was too smart to fall for this. Negra could always see an opening where she could get back her leverage, regain the upper hand. She knew I was asking a really stupid question with an obvious answer.

“You know your sister, all she knows is school and church.” I was proud of my quick reply. I hoped Negra would buy it. There was no response for a little while and I could just picture Negra mulling this over as she lit a cigarette.

Tía Veronica?” She exhaled, and I could almost smell the smoke. “She lives in Miami.”

“I know that already. Where in Miami?”

“That shouldn’t be too hard to find out. I’ll ask around. I’ll find out. Okay?” Pause. “And Chino, thanks for taking Victor, all right?”

“Yeah, all right. Just get me her address. And listen, they’re going to keep Victor overnight for observation. So you can come and pick him up tomorrow, okay?” I was ready to hang up.

“Okay. Hey Chino!” she said loudly, bringing my ear back to the phone.

“I’m still here, but make it quick.”

“Does Victor really like Al Pacino?”

“He loves him.”

I DIDN’T want to alarm Blanca, so before I got home I buttoned up my denim jacket, which only had a bit of blood smudged on the sleeves. When I got to our building I walked up the stairs, took my keys out, and opened the door.

Blanca was waiting, furious. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded, waving a piece of paper in my face. “I had to find this under the door, Julio?” I looked at the paper in her hand. It was a lease. The Harry Goldstein Real Estate Agency, two bedrooms for half of what we were paying the City of New York to live in a one-bedroom in one of its projects.

“I wasn’t sure we’d get it. I didn’t want to get your hopes up.” Bodega hadn’t wasted any time.

“I’m so mad at you, Julio, keeping me in the dark! After all we’ve talked about, after I asked you to tell me everything you’re up to, you kept me in the dark.”

“I kept you in the dark? I get us a better place to live and I kept you in the dark?”

“You know that’s not what I mean. You do things as if you were still single. As if my two cents means nothing. As if you—” She stopped and took a deep breath. She lowered her head and asked the Lord for help. When she raised her head to look at me again her face was red and her eyes were wet from the hurt that dries your throat and hurts when you swallow.

“I’m happy that you got us this apartment, Julio. I’m actually very happy. It was a good thing. But you didn’t ask for my input. You just went and did it. Do you understand what I’m saying?” I nodded.

“Nancy”—I called her Nancy when I wanted her to know that I wanted to clear things up without fighting. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it was always worth a shot. “Nancy, I’m new at this married thing, all right? You know I love you but I’ve been used to doing things alone all my life without consulting anyone. But I’m trying, Nancy. All I know is that I try. At times I forget to tell you things and just play it by ear. If I’d asked Housing for a two-bedroom they would have just placed us on a five-year waiting list. After five years the rent for a two-bedroom would be even higher and we’d still be living in a project. So when the chance came around to get something better, I took it. You know how fast applications go, Nancy. So I just filled it out and hoped for the best.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“I’m not saying this wasn’t a good thing, Julio. Just tell me what you are planning, all right? If you filled out an application just tell me where.”

“Why? As long as it’s a better block—”

“Because I want to know!” Her face got angry again. “Besides, did you ever think that I might not want to live there? Did you ever think of that, Julio? What if I don’t like the block, the building? From here on out I better not get secondhand news, all right?”

“Yeah, all right,” I said.

“We’ll talk about moving tomorrow, okay?” Then she gently kissed me hello, since she hadn’t when I’d walked in. She thanked the Lord again and hugged me. Her eyes fell on the bloodstain on my sleeve.

“What’s this?”

“Ketchup. I was eating fries,” I lied. She bought it.

Then Blanca, placing her hands in the small of her back, slowly sat down on the couch. She took a pillow and positioned it behind her arched back. She pressed her hands against her swelling belly and focused her eyes straight ahead, on nothing in particular. I knew she wanted to ask me something and was debating whether to ask me now or later.

“Do you know anyone who wants to get married?” she finally asked.

“Why?” I went into the bedroom to change.

“Well, there’s this sister …” When Blanca said “sister” or “brother” that meant it had something to do with her church, which made me nervous and angry at the same time.

“… and she needs to get married.”

“Aren’t there any men in your church?”

“No, there aren’t. Most of them are married or teenage boys. And if they’re single and old enough they want a young sister who’s beautiful and a virgin. It’s the worst thing.”

“I like it when you knock your church.”

“No one is perfect, Julio.” She didn’t appreciate my comment. “The church is full of imperfect people. Noah was a drunk, but God gave him the ark. David committed adultery with Bathsheba but God made him king. Peter denied Christ, but God—”

“I get your point. So what you’re telling me is, because this sister is not that young and who knows if she’s a virgin, no brother will take a chance on her?”

“Yes. They say they want a wife that’s spiritual and wants to serve God. That’s all they say they want. But when a sister shows up who’s not that young or pretty it doesn’t matter how spiritual she is.”

I started laughing. I could hear Blanca laugh a little and get up from the couch.

“Yes, it’s funny,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “let her wait, a brother will come.”

“That’s the problem. She doesn’t have time, she’s illegal. She’s going to be deported.” Blanca joined me in the bedroom. Her face glowed by the light coming from the lamppost outside the window. I gave her a little kiss. She smiled a little.

“This girl,” I asked, “is she from some country where they persecute Pentecostals or something?”

“Of course not. What day and age do you think we’re living in? No one’s throwing us to the lions anymore. She’s from Colombia.”

“So let her go back to Colombia, then. You always say the most important thing is to serve Christ. If Christ is everywhere, He must be in Colombia, too.” I lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. It stared at me back. Enough of this, I was thinking about Vera and Bodega. Where could I find this woman and fulfill my part of the deal with Bodega? I hoped Negra could help.

“That’s not the point. She’s very nice. And she wants to do so many things. She wants to learn English and go to school. She wants to do things she could never do in Colombia. I know Immigration won’t come knocking at her door and drag her back to Colombia. They’ll just make it hard for her to ever better herself. Isn’t that what it’s all about, Julio? Isn’t that why we’re going to school and talking about buying a house someday?”

Of course it was. But those who travel the farthest are those who travel alone. And we had a kid coming, there was no time for this. It was bad enough I had to get mixed up with Bodega just so we could have a better place to live, a cheaper place, and save some money, too.

“Blanca, we have our own problems,” I said, making believe I was trying to go to sleep. Blanca sat carefully on the bed next to me. I knew she was thinking again. I wondered why she had so much interest in this girl from Colombia. I knew Blanca was kind, but getting someone a green card is tough. Especially since Blanca had cut herself off from the street. There was no way she could ask around, put the word out on the street wire, because the street was never her playground. Her only source was the church, and if that community lacked what she needed, she had no other options. All her life, her parents had kept her sheltered by religion. Sheltered by the fear of God. When Blanca grew up she never shook it but embraced God even more, and now she needed something her church couldn’t deliver—some sucker to marry a girl from Colombia. Blanca had probably already asked around dozens of congregations without any luck. Now she needed another outlet. And she didn’t want to get caught up in the petty politics of the streets. She didn’t want to owe anything to anyone. She wanted to help this girl on her own.

“Maybe I should ask Negra,” she whispered as if to herself.

“Blanca, why are you doing this?” Blanca knew as well as I did that once you asked Negra for a favor, you’d better be ready to pay up. Considering the magnitude of what Blanca would be asking, if Negra or anyone Negra knew could deliver, the payback wouldn’t just be a bitch but a house full of whores.

FROM THE time they were little, they had been polar opposites. Negra hated the church, couldn’t wait to leave her parents’ house and rip up her Pentecostal roots. Negra was the type who smoked joints at midnight in the bathroom, keeping the window open so her parents wouldn’t smell anything. The one who sneaked out of her house wearing tight jeans under a long skirt. She would leave the skirt at some friend’s house where she could get it later, then sneak back home, skirt and all. She loved boys. And it was no surprise to her parents when she met Victor at Corso, a dance club, and left their house, unmarried. Negra never looked back.

Negra’s reputation for information was made at the time of Popcorn’s murder. Popcorn was the neighborhood’s only openly gay man. He was great, always full of life. Always laughing and joking. He had a beautiful mane of long black hair and wore tight jeans, makeup, and Hawaiian shirts, and he carried a knife in his back pocket. When some guy would make fun of him he’d laugh and say, “The only difference between you and me is what we do in bed.” So now that guy had two choices, fight Popcorn or say something tough and funny and walk away. Everyone knew it was better to walk away because if Popcorn was for real and you lost the fight, the entire neighborhood would know you got your ass kicked by a homo, and if he was only bluffing, then there was no glory in it—anyone’s little sister could beat a homo. Popcorn played this card to the fullest, carrying his knife in his back pocket like a second bulge. So everyone laughed and left him alone and he didn’t care because everyone said cruel things to everyone in the neighborhood. The first rule of the street: “Not everything that snaps at you is trying to threaten your manhood.”

But then one day Popcorn was found stabbed to death on the roof of his apartment building. He used to climb up there to sunbathe. Nobody knew why he had been killed. The cops were lost. They asked questions for a week. That’s what they do when someone is killed in Spanish Harlem, they investigate for a week and if the media and the community don’t make a big deal of it, they leave it unsolved. They figure, who cares, we made an effort, we’ll keep our funding clearing important cases. But Negra knew who had killed Popcorn. She didn’t tell the cops. She just told the entire neighborhood and eventually someone must have tipped off the cops.

A girl named Inelda Andino had killed Popcorn. Negra’s explanation was simple: “She was always jealous of his hair. Popcorn had the best hair in the neighborhood and that girl was shallow. So shallow, I’ve stepped in deeper puddles.” Later, Negra was proven right when the knife was found in Inelda’s mother’s apartment with Popcorn’s credit cards and I.D. It had been one of those fights where one party is so enraged, so blind with anger they have to kill the other. In Popcorn and Inelda’s case, it had been a heated argument about who had better hair.

No one ever questioned Negra. The cops thought the person who had tipped them off deserved the credit, but the neighborhood knew better. The neighborhood knew Negra.

I RUBBED Blanca’s back. “Why would you want to owe Negra anything?”

“Because I want to help this girl,” she said.

“Blanca, even if you find this girl someone to marry, it’s not that easy. She might still get deported. You think Immigration is that stupid?”

“Yes, they can be. Trust me. All we have to do is find someone who will marry Claudia then—”

“Claudia? Is that her name?”

“Yes, Claudia,” she continued, “then have a lease signed with both their names on it. An apartment with pictures, maybe, because Immigration does send someone to inspect. But that doesn’t mean they really have to live together.”

“And how do you intend on getting all this? It’s hard finding a husband and a place. You don’t just add water.”

“That’s why I’m asking you. Look, it can be anybody. He can even live with his parents—”

“Oh, please, let’s go to sleep.”

“Just promise me you’ll ask around.” In other words, Blanca was telling me it was okay to ask my hood friends.

“Fine. I’ll ask around.” Blanca got up from the bed and bent over to kiss me. I kissed her back. As she went into the bathroom to brush her teeth, the phone rang.

“That’s your sister!” I yelled from the bedroom, knowing the only one who would call that late was Negra, wanting to tell Blanca about what had happened with Victor. Blanca went into the living room and picked up the phone. I could hear her voice, worried and excited at the same time as she asked about Victor’s condition. Blanca laughed and then preached to Negra about fidelity, which meant Negra was thinking of getting back at Victor in yet another way. I didn’t care, I was happy this thing with Blanca about this illegal girl hadn’t turned into a huge fight.

As she spoke with Negra, I listened to her sweet, earnest voice in the darkness of the bedroom and I felt happy. I didn’t know what I had done to deserve Blanca but I wasn’t about to ask. I was afraid fate would backtrack and look for errors and take Blanca away. I was just happy she was there with me. Her voice drifted from the living room to the bedroom, light and sweet, like she was still fourteen and at Julia de Burgos. I remembered those springs when she would wear thin cotton dresses to class and make me moan and ache in Spanish Harlem. Or wear her tight skirts while carrying her Bible. And when she sat in the library, she’d cross her legs and let her sandal dangle in midair as she read and played with her hair. I’d watch her from across the room and tell myself that she had no idea how beautiful she looked.

“Negra wants to talk to you,” Blanca yelled from the living room, yanking me back to the present.

“Me?” I yelled back.


I got up, went to the living room, and took the phone from Blanca.

“You’re in luck,” Negra said.

“You got something already?”

“She’s coming to New York, Mami told me. Her old elementary school is going to name the auditorium after her.” Negra was laughing.

“No, get out? They do that?”


“What if she doesn’t show up?”

“She’ll show up, all right. From what Mami tells me, that woman is so stuck up, one day she is going to wake up a mirror. Loves attention. I hate her already.”

“Listen, Negra,” I whispered, looking behind me to make sure that Blanca was nowhere in earshot, “don’t tell your sister any of this, okay?”


“Why nothing, I just don’t want her to know, thass all.”

“Why not, it’s her aunt too.”

“Just shut up and don’t tell her.”

“I don’t know, Chino.” I knew she wanted something. She had already paid me back by getting the information and now she wanted me to owe her.

“Trouble in paradise, Chino? Why don’t you want Blanca to—”

“Fine, I owe you.” I gave it to her. “What do you want?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Negra, I got to get some sleep, so think real quick or let me slide for another day.”

“All right, I’ll let you slide but you still owe me.”

“Fine,” I said, and hung up knowing I was going to regret that.

No Pets Allowed

THE following day Sapo gave me a call.

“Whass up, pana? Like, can you do me a solid? Like, you my main-mellow-man. Remember the day the entire CIA crew wanted to jump yo’ ass b’cause you were wearin’ a sweatshirt with their colors? Or like the other day when I got to Bodega to send someone to slide a lease undah yo’ door?”

“Sapo, mira, tell Bodega thanks. Tell him I have what he wants.”

“In a minute, in a minute. So, like, can you do me a solid?”

“What do you want? Do I have to kill anyone?”

“Bro, you can’t kill a fly. At times I think yo’r softer than yo’r alleluia wife. Like if they mug you, you’d ask the robbers if they need a ride home. So, Chino, like, I have a shitload of stuff, can I leave it wi’choo, Chino? You know you the only guy I can trust, right?”

“Of course.”

“Second thing.”


“Bodega wants ta see yah.”

SAPO MUST have arrived at around 10:30 that night. Blanca and I were walking back from the subway after our night classes at Hunter, commiserating about how much work we both had. I spotted Sapo’s BMW parked outside the building. Blanca stared at me a little while, then said, “Julio, why? Let’s just go to sleep.” That’s all she said, but I knew I couldn’t get out of it. I had to go. No matter what Blanca would say or how angry she would get, I had to do my part. Fortunately Blanca was in good spirits that night, and when I motioned my head toward the car she just sighed.

“You know, Julio,” she said, “the lease says no pets allowed. So when we move he can’t come over anymore.” She kissed me and told me to get something to eat. I gave her a hug and could smell the shampoo in her hair, something like peaches. I let go, watched her walk inside, and went over to Sapo.

“No fits? Whass the world coming to?” Sapo said as I started to get in his car. “Wait, Chino, can you like take this upstairs.” He handed me a nice fat eight-by-eleven envelope, all taped up. Sapo always taped them up really nice and tight, because that way he’d know if someone messed around with his stuff. I took no offense. I knew he trusted me. I ran the envelope upstairs, into the kitchen and slid it to the bottom of a giant-size half-empty Apple Jacks cereal box. Blanca saw me and just shook her head but didn’t say a word.

“Hey, who said that cereal prizes have gotten cheap?” I said, walking over to where Blanca sat on the sofa. “Junkie Flakes, they’re grrrrreat!” I even did the tiger imitation.

“It’s not funny, Julio.” She carefully got up, and walked into the bathroom. “Try not to be home too late,” she said, closing the bathroom door.

“All right, Blanca,” I said to the shut door. I put the box on top of the fridge and went back downstairs.

“Thanks, bro,” Sapo said, opening the car door for me. “You know, I got some girls comin’ and I can’t have that shit around. The girls I’m having ovah are born thieves. They can steal the nails from Jesus Christ and still leave ’im hangin’.”

“Where’s Bodega tonight?”

“Taino Towers. Fortieth floor. Got the best view in the neighborhood.” And we took off.

THE TAINO Towers on 124th and Third took up an entire city block. There were four towers, one on each corner. Four towers of cheap, ugly white concrete. Forty floors of cheap windows and a lobby with a guard who slept most of the night. At the base of each tower were businesses ranging from supermarkets to dental offices. I hate towers. The taller the building, the more people you place on top of one another, the higher the crime rate. They’re mammoth filing cabinets of human lives, like bees in a honeycomb, crowded and angry at paying rent for boxes that resemble prison cells.

Bodega rented an apartment on the top floor of the tower facing the East River, mostly for the view—he had enough other places to live in. When Sapo and I arrived downstairs the guard didn’t ask who we were visiting. “I’m not a doorman,” he sneered. We took the elevator up, and knocked on 40B. Nene opened the door.

“Hey, Sapo and Chino. Whass up, like I want to take you higher.” He let us in.

“Tell yo’r cus Chino is here,” Sapo said.

“Oh, man. Wait, like, Nazario is with him. They been talkin’ for a long time.”

“ ’Bout wha’?”

“I don’t know, Sapo. You can wait for him, but …”

“Anythin’ else you know?”

“They keep mentionin’ this guy Alberto Salazar.”

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know, Sapo. I just know it’s bad. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Just then Bodega and Nazario stepped into the living room.

And that’s when I first met Nazario, or better yet, when I realized who he was. I had never spoken to him or even known his name, but I’d seen Nazario’s face a few times around the neighborhood. He was a tall, confident man in his forties who walked the streets wearing expensive suits and alligator shoes but was never mugged. Now I knew why. It was Nazario who represented Bodega around the neighborhood. Nazario, with his clean-shaven face and the good looks of someone who never in his life has been in a street fight, went around spreading favors for Bodega.

“And he didn’t take the money?” Bodega was asking Nazario.

“No, he looks like a good man. Just doing his job. I don’t know, Willie, this could be bad.”

When Bodega saw me he started to smile. But then his lips froze when Nazario said, “Willie, esto está serio. This guy has something.” Bodega walked over and introduced me.

“This is Julio,” he said to Nazario. “He’s in college.”

“Under our program?” Nazario asked Bodega. Bodega shook his head no. I didn’t know what Nazario meant at the time, but later I would. Still, Nazario looked happy. “That’s great!” he said as if it was the best news he had heard all day. “When do you graduate?”

“Next year,” I said.

“Good. That’s one more professional in East Harlem. Soon,” he said, smiling at me, “we’ll have an army of them. An entire professional class in East Harlem and no one will be able to take this neighborhood away from us.”

“Sounds good,” I said, thinking to myself that these guys talked a lot of dreams. But soon enough, I’d start to believe in them too.

“Sapo,” Nazario said, walking past me but stopping a moment to pat my shoulder on the way as if to say, good job, “Sapo, we have to talk.” Nazario and Sapo walked out of the apartment and into the hallway. Bodega drew me into the kitchen.

“You drink beer, right?”


He opened the fridge and handed me one. “When you moving?”

“I haven’t talked it over with my wife yet, but soon.”

“That’s good. Listen, you have anythin’ for me?” He sounded embarrassed. “I don’t want you to think,” he said, looking at the floor, avoiding eye contact, “that I didn’t mean what I said a few days back. That I’m some weak fuck who—”

I cut him off. “Hey, it’s cool. Say no more. Look, Vera is coming to New York.”

His body quickly straightened up. “You spoke to her, Chino?” He was like a kid. He pulled up a chair and sat in front of me.

“I haven’t spoken to her, but I know she’s coming next week. Her old school. P.S. 72, you know, on 104th and Lex, is naming the auditorium after her. So you can speak to her then.”

“Will she be comin’ alone? Did she sound happy?”

“I didn’t speak to her, bro,” I said, but it was as if he hadn’t heard me at all. Bodega kept asking me questions and for a minute there I thought he was going to ask me what he should wear. Then Nazario walked back inside alone. He saw Bodega’s face, saw it wasn’t the same person.

“What’s with you?”

“Not’en’,” Bodega said.

“Sapo’s waiting.”

“Tell him to go home.”

“What! No, Willie, this is serious.”

“Tell Sapo to go home,” Bodega repeated.

“Willie, come to the other room.” Nazario beckoned with his hand for Bodega to join him so they could talk in private. Like usual, I took no offense. The less you know the less trouble you’ll get into.

“Nah, Chino is good people,” Bodega said, letting Nazario know that I could stay.

“It was good meeting you.” Nazario didn’t care. He extended his hand toward me and smiled that cold smile. “Can you excuse us?”

“Sure, and it was nice meeting you, too,” I said. “I got to go anyway.”

“I’ll speak wi’choo soon, all right, Chino? Sapo will get in touch wi’choo and let you know where to meet me, all right?” Bodega said, making triumphant fists in the air as if he had won some showdown fight. I nodded and walked to the door. Nene was sitting on the sofa listening to the radio. He got up and opened the door for me. I could hear Bodega and Nazario in the other room arguing and, sure enough, the name Alberto Salazar kept coming up.

Nene was waiting for me at the door.

“Man, you must be doing some serious work for my cus. He calls you a lot. Me, you know I’m just Nene. No one listens to me, you know, but I function anyway. And sometimes I say dumb things, you know, b’cause I’m Nene. Things that you know people don’t get, but I know you get them, right, Chino?”

“Yeah, I get them,” I said, because I didn’t want to leave him hanging.

“I know I ain’t all that bright. I don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, but Chino, I know my radio, you know. Ask me, ask me anything anythin’ ’bout my music.”

“All right,” I said as I walked to the door, “Who sang ‘Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting’?”

“Those cats were fast as lightning, huh! Here comes the big boss.” Nene sang a line and then answered me, “Thass kids’ stuff, Chino, that guy Carl Douglas. A one-hit-wonda type of guy.” Nene put out his palm and I gave him five and walked out the door. Out in the hallway I waited for the elevator and Nene stuck his babyface and body-of-a-bear out the door. “Chino, you all right, bro, you ain’t heavy, you’re my brother.” I smiled back at him again and took the elevator down.

I looked for Sapo’s car that night but didn’t see it. That was okay, because it was a hot spring night and El Barrio had turned into a maraca and all the people had come out transformed as seeds. Like all ghettos, Spanish Harlem looks better in the dark when everything broken and dirty is hidden by darkness and the moonlight makes everything else glow like pearls. That night the people were jamming, shaking, moving. Hydrants were opened, women were dancing to salsa blaring from a boom box on the cement. They danced with one eye on their partner and one eye on their children playing hopscotch, scullies with bottle caps, or skipping rope. Teenage girls in tight jeans flirted with guys who showed them their jewelry and tattoos. Old men played dominoes as they drank Budweisers wrapped in brown bags. I walked home happy. I even said hello to a rat that crossed my path, running from one garbage heap to another. “Hey, dusty guy. Where you going, eh?” I said when it poked its head from a plastic bag. I was happy. I was keeping my part of the deal. At the time, I didn’t care about this Salazar. It was almost over for me. All I had to do was take Bodega to Vera and I was gone. Once I’d done that, I could continue my life with Blanca in total clarity. We’d be living in a better place, clean and newly renovated. More important, I’d be able to talk to my wife again without hiding anything between parentheses.

Underground Economy

EARLY the following Saturday morning, Sapo knocked at my door.

“Yo, Chino, bro, like Bodega wants ta meet you at El Museo del Barrio.”

“Like, now?” I asked.

“Yeah, now, bro. Ahora. As we exist. As the planets are circlin’ the sun.”

“But El Museo hasn’t opened its doors yet.”

“They’ll open them for Bodega, don’t worry. He like gives them crazy cash. It’s a waste of money if you ask me, kid.” Then he spat. “But as long as it’s not my money.”

“Wait, you’re sayin’ Bodega gives money to the arts?”

“Bodega does with his money what he wants. I do with mine and you do with yours,” was all Sapo told me. I invited him inside.

“Come in. Let me wash up. Blanca’s asleep.”

Sapo was bemused. He walked in and started to look around. “Like I ain’t never been all the way in here and I haven’t exactly missed much.”

“Why does Bodega want to see me anyway, I already told him when Vera is coming. Like, I’ll be there when she arrives.” I headed toward the bathroom.

“Fuck should I know. I’m like the fucken I.R.A. I just follow orders.”

“Bullshit, pana, you know more than you let on.” I brushed my teeth real quick.

“Withholdin’ info is an advantage.”

“Yeah? So are you goin’ to tell me how Bodega got all this power or, like, you going to have an advantage?”

“No advantage there, Chino. Thass no secret. Anyone in El Barrio from the university of the street knows that the Italians controlled the neighborhood. They ran the numbahs, they ran the drugs.” I heard Sapo sit down on the couch and turn the TV on. I wasn’t worried about Blanca waking up, because she slept like a rock. “So like there were places you could burglarize and then there were places, Italian-owned, Chino, that you didn’t fuck with.”

“Yeah, thass right. There was that restaurant, that big fucken mafia joint?”

“Mario’s,” Sapo said.

“Yeah, that was it.”

“Yo, that fucken restaurant had a three-month waitin’ list cuz it took that long to screen its guests in case they were FBI-connected, know what I’m sayin’?” I heard him opening the fridge. When I came out of the bathroom, Sapo had a bowl of Coco Puffs and was sitting in front of the TV watching cartoons.

“Like this won’t ruin your rep.”

“Nah, cartoons are dope,” he said. I went to the bedroom to find some clothes and mull over what Sapo had told me. And he was right, it was nothing new. The Italians ran the show. When I was a little kid, Spanish Harlem was different. Many Italians were still around. There were Italians-only social clubs where you’d see pink limos parked in front of pumps. There were racially segregated tenements that never rented to blacks or Latinos. The Dime Savings Bank on 105th and Third always had a special window where Italian men wouldn’t have to wait on line like everybody else.

“So what happened with the Italians, bro?” I asked Sapo when I came out, dressed.

“Fat Tony Salerno, evah heard of him?”


“Nigga was this big don.”


“The nigga was indicted on charges of racketeerin’. The judge posted bail at two million and his boys ran down to court and paid it in cash. Now thass serious money.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now I remember. That was on the news. That nigga had to sell some of his tenements to pay for all his lawyers’ fees. But he still got sentenced to a hundred and seventy-five years.”

“Thass right, and after that the Italians weren’t so sacred. And with the big white shark outta da way, you had all these little guppies jockin’ for power.”

“And Bodega won?”

“With Nazario’s help. Yo, like, I took all your milk,” he said, getting up and placing the empty bowl in the sink.

“Thass wild, bro, Bodega won.”

“Yeah. Now, like, you ready? Cuz I got things to do and Bodega is waitin’ for you.”

As we walked out Sapo yelled toward the bedroom, loud enough to wake Blanca, “Bendición!” then he laughed.

“You crazy, bro. What the fuck, she ain’t your mother,” I said as I quickly locked the door and ran downstairs.

We got into Sapo’s car and rode down Fifth Avenue.

“Yo, Sapo, you know anyone who’s hard up to get married?”

“Girls? Plenty. Guys? None. Why you ask?”

“Blanca is trying to get some girl a green card.”

“Get the fuck.”

“Yeah, so if you know someone—”

“Well, I know this sad junkie. We can make him go cold turkey for a day or two. He’d do anythin’ for a fix.”

“No junkies, man, she’d be better off in Colombia.”

“Then what the fuck do you want? Where you think you livin’ at? You think you gonna find some gay mothafuckah who has to marry some bitch or his rich father will disown him? I don’t think so. If she wants to stay in the country, she bettah take the junkie.”

“Never mind I asked.” That was stupid. Why did I even try?

“Nazario might help, nigga knows everythin’,” Sapo advised. But I shook it off. I was already tangled up with Bodega. I didn’t want to get mixed up with Nazario, too.

SAPO STOPPED the car in front of El Museo Del Barrio and I got out.

“Yo, I’ll see you like layra, Chino.”

“See you, man.”

“One last thing,” Sapo said. “Like, I’m gonna ask you a fayvah.”

“So what else is new? I still got your shit in my house, you need that back?”

“Not yet, Chino. What I’ll need from ya is somethin’ small. Real small. Like the day you just wanted me to walk wi’choo cuz some niggas were eyein’ you bad, ’membah that?”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Well, it’ll be even smaller than that.”

And Sapo took off.

I walked to the side of the building where the entrance was that month because the front entrance was being renovated. It was locked. I pounded on the door and a guard walked over and stood by the glass doors that separated us.

“The museo is not open yet,” he yelled through the glass.

“Wait, I’m s’posed to meet someone here.”


“Willie Bodega,” I said, and he looked around. He went back inside to check on this. I looked across toward Central Park. It was a beautiful day, the blue jays were making noise, the trees were getting back their leaves. I was thinking of maybe later taking a walk in the park with Blanca, when the guard returned.

“Sorry about that.” He had a smile on his face and started to unlock the door. “You know that I shouldn’t let anyone inside yet. But since you’re a friend of Willie, I’ll let you in, okay.” He shook my hand, nearly pulling me inside. He pointed to where I could find Bodega.

I saw Bodega standing in front of a painting by Jorge Soto, a large canvas portraying a transparent Adam and Eve, with blood running through their bodies as if they were subjects in an anatomy textbook. I stood next to Bodega. Even though he knew I was there he kept studying the painting.

He didn’t greet me, just pointed at Adam. “This man right here, he had it all. Could even talk with God. But it meant nothin’ to him without her.”

“I hear you,” I said. “So, like, Bodega, I already told you Vera is going to be here next week. I’ll be there wi’choo when she arrives. So why you wanted to meet me here today?”

“B’cause, Chino, I’m going t’ ask you for somethin’ when Vera comes and I thought you should know me. Besides, I’m gonna marry her this time, and that means we’re gonna be related. And you’re good people.”

“Wha’? You gonna wha’?”

“Marry her, of course. What’d you think I went through all this for?”

“Look, man, what you want to do with Vera is your thing, I’m just keeping my part. But, like, Vera is already married.”

“I know that,” he said, and his mood changed. He gazed at me with the confidence of someone who has marked the deck.

“That doesn’t matter to you at all?” I asked. “What if she doesn’t want to leave her husband?”

“Of course she’ll leave that pendejo. She never wanted to marry him in the first place. It was her fucken mother who pushed her.” He slowly walked away from me to stand in front of another painting. It was titled Despierta Boricua and depicted a Taino Indian tied to a New York City fire hydrant.

“So much was promised to us when we left our island,” he said softly as he looked at the painting. “They gave us citizenship and then sent us to the garment district. I’m going to make sure they make good on their promises.”

“Did you ever meet Vera’s husband, Willie?” I asked.

“Meet him, no. But I knew his family was one of the people that escaped Castro in fifty-eight. No shame in that. But his family was rich ’cause they had supported Batista with a shitload of money they had siphoned off the people of Cuba.” His eyes left the painting and looked at the floor. The tiles were beautiful, new. El Museo del Barrio had just gotten a face-lift. The floors were shining, the walls a cool, soothing white, and the titles of the paintings were written in Spanish, with the English translation as a secondary thing. It felt good to be there. El Museo del Barrio was the only museum where I could look at the paintings without having a guard follow me from wing to wing. At the Met I got suspicious looks. First the guards checked my shoes to see if they were once alligators. When they saw my worn sneakers, they treated me like I might pull a knife from my back pocket and go slashing Goyas.

“See, Chino, back then, politics was all I knew. I tried to explain to Veronica who this guy she was gonna marry was, the reason he was rich. I was telling her he was not a friend of the people right up to the night before the wedding. Do you know what she said?”


“She said she loved me. She said that she didn’t care if I didn’t have any money. The problem was, she said, I didn’t have any vision of how to get it. She said she wouldn’t mind being poor for a few years, but since I only had a vision for political stuff, I was going to be poor for the rest of my life. And then her mother came out and yelled for her to get back inside. Her mother looked at me like I had leprosy. So I left thinking, Shit, that bitch don’t deserve me. I thought the Young Lords were gonna succeed and that she had missed her chance at history. But a couple hours later, Chino, I was in tears and not that much mattered.”

I didn’t say anything and silence overtook us. I guess if I had been old enough back then I would have felt the same way he did. Back then when Bodega was a teenager, the Young Lords were an urban guerrilla group that had its origins in Chicago, but they made all their noise in El Barrio. They wrote up a manifesto called the “Thirteen Point Program and Platform.” The first point was to free Puerto Rico from the United States. The second point was for all Latin countries to have self-determination. They wanted better neighborhood programs. They launched food drives, clothing drives, health-inspection drives, door-to-door clinics. They were many, they were young, they were educated, and they were armed. They took over a redbrick Methodist church at 111th and Lexington and made it a conference center by declaring it the People’s Church. The Young Lords party was also ahead of its time; point number five of the manifesto stated, “Down with Machismo and Male Chauvinism!” This was due in part to the fact that half of the central committee was composed of women who, along with the men, developed strategies and carried guns.

I listened as Bodega described how he would preach these points to Vera. Telling her that Latin women were undergoing a revolution and that this would force the Latin man to change his ways and reinvent himself. Bodega wouldn’t preach these points eloquently but he would speak of them with so much passion and street intellect that Vera fell madly in love with him. She liked his ideas, his conviction, his optimism. Bodega would invite her to rallies, to the Lords’ headquarters at 202 East 117th, to Marxist education classes, to urban military tactics classes, to food drives. Veronica would attend and at times even help out with breakfast programs and clothing drives, but what Veronica really wanted was for Bodega to find a real job and marry her.

“How old were you back then?” It was the only thing I could think of saying.

“I don’t know, let me think. Seventeen, I was seventeen.”

“So you left Veronica. You were angry at her and everybody. Then what happened?” We both began to walk around El Museo.

“Crazy shit. Some crazy shit. It was, like, three in the morning. I climbed up the fire escape to her room. I tried opening the window but there was a gate. So I tapped on the glass and Veronica woke up thinking it was a thief and I scared her half to death.”

“That was smart, bro. Couldn’t you wait till morning or something?”

“Nah, I couldn’t, b’cause she was getting married the next day and if her mother had woken up, you know, it would have been over. So I almost gave Veronica a heart attack until she realized it was me. She knew I could never hurt her. And she was a little scared, but it wasn’t because I was there, it was cuz she was marrying some guy she didn’t love.”

“You sure she didn’t at least like his money?”

“Didn’t I just tell you, she said she didn’t care that I didn’t have money, what bothered her was that I had no vision of how to get it.”

“Yeah, thass right, you told me she said she didn’t care that you didn’t have any money, but you didn’t say that she said she didn’t like the Cuban’s money. See the difference, bro?”

“Nah, I don’t,” he barked, “and what the fuck do you know anyway?”

“Look, bro, like you said, we are going to be related, right? So, like, do you want me to lie to you or do you want me to tell you what I really think?” My voice was respectful but loud. “All I’m telling you is that Veronica never said she didn’t want this guy’s money.”

Bodega left my words hanging and walked away toward a small wing that had an exhibition of wooden religious figures. The Three Kings on horseback on their way to meet El Niño, with everything and everyone made of wood and colored with house paint. The wood was old and the paint was cracking, giving the Nativity scene a poignant look of absolute poverty.

“You understand me?” I walked over to him and realized that all this time we had been talking, never had we looked each other in the eyes. All this time, when we’d spoken we’d looked at the artwork. It was a good way to relieve tension and just talk.

“When you moving?” Bodega asked me. I had hit a nerve. Veronica was something sacred.


“Thass good.”

“Look, Willie, you said you wanted to ask me something. What is it you want to ask me?”

“Not yet, Chino, not yet.” And Bodega finally faced me and looked in my eyes. “But it’s something good. Don’t worry.”

THE NEXT day Blanca and I rented a U-Haul van and got family and friends to help us move. Negra and Victor pitched in. Victor had recovered but was still weak so, like Blanca, helped only with the light stuff. During the move Negra and Victor were acting as if they were on their second honeymoon, all kissie-kissie and lovey-dovey.

“Victor, honey, watch it with that, don’t hurt yourself.”

“Negra, querida, be careful. Let me help you with that, baby.”

For two days Blanca and I lived out of boxes until we had the time to fix things up and put everything in order. Then, just two days before Vera would arrive in New York, I got home late and tired. The house was dark. I figured Blanca must be with Negra or one of her friends or still at church. I fried myself a burger and got a malta from the fridge. After I ate, I decided to study and flipped on the television for background noise. That’s when I heard about the dead body. The English news channels didn’t make a big deal out of it, to them Alberto Salazar was just a Latin reporter for a small newspaper. Just another dead Latino tonight. It only got a blurb. But I needed to find out more, in case Alberto Salazar was the same guy I had heard Bodega and Nazario talk about that night at the Taino Towers.

So I finished my drink and switched to channel 47, hoping they would give one of their own more news time. I wasn’t disappointed.

The report said Salazar’s body was found in the East River. He had been a reporter for El Diario/La Prensa working on an investigation of a drug lord in East Harlem. Salazar had been a big man, six feet two, 260 pounds. As the camera panned an empty pier, still wet from the afternoon rain, the Spanish newscaster reported that there was evidence of a struggle. In addition to the gunshot wound, Salazar had suffered a serious bite to the shoulder. That’s when I knew who had killed him.

DMU Timestamp: November 08, 2021 21:20