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[3 of 5] Bodega Dreams, Book II, Rounds 1-4, by Ernesto Quiñonez (2000)

Author: Ernesto Quiñonez

Quiñonez Ernesto. “Book II, Rounds 1-4.” Vintage Contemporaries Original: Bodega Dreams, Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 2000.

These dreams
These empty dreams
from the make-believe bedrooms
their parents left them

PEDRO PIETRI—“Puerto Rican Obituary”

ROUND 1
My Growing Up and All That Piri Thomas Kinda Crap

SAPO was different.

Sapo was always Sapo, and no one messed with him because he had a reputation for biting. “When I’m in a fight,” Sapo would spit, “whass close to my mouth is mine by right and my teeth ain’t no fucken pawnshop.”

I loved Sapo. I loved Sapo because he loved himself. But by now you know it was never about Sapo. It was always about Bodega. And to this day it continues to be about Bodega. Bodega had an unforgettable blend of nobility and street, as if God never made up his mind whether to have Bodega be born a leader or a hood. Bodega did something to the neighborhood, something with staying power, like a song that no one could possibly like but you, because you heard it at a time when your heart was breaking.

But after Alberto Salazar was found dead no songs were played. No one thought of love or anything. The neighborhood became a tomb. Mute as an Egyptian. Every member of the street wire from the pimp to the junkie to the hooker talked like an Italian: “I ain’t see not’en’.”

Blanca had seen the news on TV. My guess is that at first Blanca thought that what had happened was a terrible thing. Then later, when things were going around about Salazar knowing things he shouldn’t about some drug king, I figured she must have felt even worse, that Salazar was a good man, God be with him. At some point she no doubt heard that Salazar was investigating Spanish Harlem. I figure it was then she really got suspicious. And when the newscasters mentioned the chunk of flesh missing from Salazar’s shoulder, memories must have rained down on Blanca like parachutes. She’d been an eyewitness to one of Sapo’s bites. It had been a gruesome display of hate and anger and Sapo, as only Sapo could, presented it with showmanship.

BACK IN Julia de Burgos Junior High, back in the days of my growing up and all that Piri Thomas kinda crap that I will spare you from, there was the English teacher, Mr. Blessington. He kept telling us boys we were all going to end up in jail and that all the girls were going to end up hooking. He would say these things right out loud and the administration wouldn’t do anything. I hated Blessington and he knew it. He looked at Blanca with the eyes of a repressed rapist. He thought he was smooth but what he came out looking was creepy. He’d come to school in a suit and tell us that a man with a suit is a man that is valuable and that a man without a suit has no worth. He always did Robert Frost poems with us, which were all right, but after a while we started to hate Robert Frost. Blessington thought he was doing us a service, and that was his error. He was one of those upper-middle-class people who think highly of themselves because they could be making money or something, but no, they have taken the high road and have chosen to “help” poor kids from the ghetto.

On the other hand the science teacher, Jose Tapia, was always lecturing us on how fortunate we were because we were young and Latin. His speeches were at times so fiery and full of passion that every year the principal would try to make Tapia the gym teacher, in hopes of cutting down Tapia’s influence over us. But as a science teacher Tapia was state certified and was appointed to our school so there was no way for the principal to get rid of him.

And he didn’t want to be called Mr. Tapia, simply Tapia.

One day when Sapo and me were in the eighth grade, Tapia told us, “You speak two languages, you are worth two people.” Sapo retorted, “What about the pope? He speaks like a hundred languages, but he ain’t worth jack.” The class was rolled.

“Sapo, do you think the pope would be the pope if he didn’t know his hundred languages?” Tapia asked after the laughter died down.

“Nah, if he didn’t speak a hundred languages he’d still be pope, because he’s white. All popes are white. I ain’t never seen no black pope. I ain’t seen a Spanish pope, either.”

“Hey, Tapia,” I said, “I never even seen a black nun.” Of course we were just stalling. The truth was we hadn’t done our homework and wanted to kill time.

“Or a Chinese nun. All I’ve ever seen are white nuns,” Edwin jumped in, so I figured he hadn’t done his homework either. “You can’t have a black pope if there are no black nuns.” I hated Edwin. When he borrowed a pencil he never gave it back and when school was almost over, he always borrowed loose-leaf paper because he didn’t see the point of buying a new notebook.

“Yeah, a black nun!” Sapo shouted in agreement.

“Julio, can you shut him up?” Blanca whispered to me. I always sat next to Blanca. I would leave my science book at home on purpose so I could use the excuse of sharing hers. Tapia understood this and, even though we had assigned seats, would always let me move.

“No,” I whispered back at Blanca. “Sapo has a point.”

“The point is Sapo hasn’t done his homework.”

“I haven’t done mine, either,” I said.

“Then this book”—she pulled the science text we were sharing toward her side of the desk—“does you no good.”

“Look, forget about the pope,” Tapia continued. “I don’t care about the pope. The pope is not one of my students. The pope has a good job and there are black nuns and Chinese nuns, too, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you. I care about you. And I played the same games when I was your age. If you haven’t done your homework just tell me.” Hands shot up.

Tapia sighed loudly. “Edwin, you didn’t do your homework?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Well?”

“Well, I did it, I just didn’t bring it.” The class laughed and Tapia looked at his roll book.

“All right, Edwin, you live on 102nd and Third. That’s three blocks from here. You better get your homework at lunchtime or you’d better have it done by then.” Edwin nodded his head.

“Sapo, your homework?”

“I didn’t do it.”

“Why didn’t you do it?”

“Because Mr. Blessington told me I was going to end up in jail, so why waste my time doing homework?” We all laughed.

“Sapo, don’t you want to prove Blessington wrong?”

“Nah, I’d rather not do my homework.”

Tapia got upset. He threw down the roll book and began to yell at us. “I don’t care what Blessington’s been telling you! If you are here it is because you want to be, right? Otherwise don’t even come to school, just stay on the street. You can make more money selling pot on the stairwells than coming to my classroom, but if you come—and I want you to come, I like having you here—all I ask is that you make an effort! That’s all I ask. Don’t give me this nonsense about what Mr. Blessington is telling you. You guys are smart enough to know that it’s up to you to become what you want to be. So why even listen to him? I’ve heard what he says. It’s all nonsense.” Tapia pointed at one of the girls. “Rita Moreno, she was once like you, is Rita Moreno hooking?” Tapia then pointed at one of the guys. “Reggie Jackson, he was once as young as you, he’s half Puerto Rican, is Reggie in jail? They worked hard. That’s what you have to do. Just do your work and don’t pay attention to Blessington.”

So we all quieted down and did our work, even Sapo, although he copied off me. Sapo always copied me but it was no big deal. The next period was English and we hated it because it was Blessington. I was in no mood for Robert Frost, that white-assed crusty old man from some cow state. But I couldn’t say that to Blessington. Instead, as politely as I could, I asked, “Mr. Blessington, why do we always do Robert Frost, why can’t we do someone else?”

“Because Robert Frost,” he said, slowly shaking his head in disbelief as if I was asking something real stupid, “is a major American poet.”

“Well, I heard that Julia de Burgos was a poet; why don’t we do some of her poems?” I said, and the class jumped in with me.

“That’s right,” Lucy, Blanca’s Pentecostal friend whom we used to call Chewbacca, chimed in, “why did they name the school after her? She must have been important.”

“Yeah, they didn’t name the school Robert Frost Junior High, why we always reading him?” someone else asked. Truth was, I was happy we were killing time. I wanted those forty-five minutes in his class to fly. I wanted to keep this discussion going for as long as possible.

“If any of you have noticed since September,” Blessington pointed out, “this is English class, not Spanish. Julia-day-Burgos”—he pronounced her name with a thick accent—“wrote only in Spanish.”

“But maybe she wrote in English too. I write in Spanish and in English sometimes,” Blanca said to him. Every time Blanca spoke Blessington would leer. It was one of those cartoon monster smiles, where the monster rubs his hands as he thinks of something dastardly.

“Listen, you people”—he always called us you people—“Julia-day-Burgos is so obscure it would be hard to find a single poem of hers. In any language.” I turned to Blanca and, whispering, asked what obscure meant. Sapo was quietly drawing all this time. He drew terribly, but it never stopped him. He mostly did it because he was bored. But I knew he was listening and could jump in any minute.

“But if she is so unknown,” I said confidently, emphasizing the word Blanca had provided to let Blessington know that I knew what obscure meant, “then I agree with Lucy, why did they name an entire school after her? Why not after someone famous?”

“Finally, a good question,” Blessington said, adjusting his tie and buttoning up his blazer. “I’ll tell you why: because the people in this district are simpletons, that’s why. District Four has no idea what it’s doing. The name they chose for this school was probably the worst name they could choose. Why, we teachers didn’t even know who she was when they renamed this place.”

“Mr. Tapia did,” Sapo piped up, leaving his drawing for a minute. We all knew what Blessington was saying was that none of the white teachers knew who she was, and they were the only teachers that mattered.

“Oh, him,” Blessington said in a tired voice. “Him again. Well, I heard he’s a good science teacher,” he said with a smirk, “but we’re in English now. You people need to get on with today’s work.” And it was all right with me because we had chopped off at least fifteen minutes of the period. Blessington then went to the board and wrote, “Analogies Between Frost’s Poems and New York City.” I turned around and asked Blanca what analogies meant. She told me. I laughed.

“What similarities?” I called out. Blessington was upset now.

“End of discussion,” he said. “Get out your homework.” Blessington walked over to Sapo’s desk.

“Enrique, where’s your homework?” Blessington asked.

“I’m going to jail, so why bother, right?” Sapo kept drawing. “Yo’r the smart guy here, right, can’t you figure that out yo’self?” The class went “Oooooh,” which Blessington took as a challenge.

“You’ll be lucky to even make jail,” he said to Sapo.

“Why you snapping at me? I said you were right.”

“I know I’m right. I’m doing all you people a favor. I say these things to you so you can maybe prove me wrong. Now, it’s sad to say, but I’ve yet to see one of my Puerto Rican students, just one, prove me wrong. And I know it’s not going to be Sapo here.” Blessington then leaned over and took Sapo’s drawing from him and crumpled it in his hands. Sapo got so mad, he shot straight up from his seat and thrust himself at Blessington so they were face to face.

“Thass right, I won’t prove you wrong b’cause I’m going to jail for jamming your wife.” The class was silent because that wasn’t a snap any longer but an insult. They stared each other down for a second or two before Sapo turned around and headed for the door. “Where do you think you’re going?” Blessington yelled, and went after Sapo, grabbing him by the shoulder.

“Don’t touch me, man!” Sapo yelled, but Blessington didn’t listen. I got up from my seat and went over to Sapo.

“Yo, take a chill pill,” I said to Sapo. Blessington yelled at me, “I can handle this. Sit back down!” He didn’t let go of Sapo. Sapo started to pull himself away and that’s when Blessington made the mistake of putting Sapo in a headlock.

“Yo, you choking him!” I yelled, but Blessington kept at it, all the while cursing at Sapo. Blanca and her friend Lucy started to run out of the room to get the teacher next door. Blessington released Sapo and went after Blanca. And that’s when Sapo jumped him from behind. Sapo crawled on Blessington as if Blessington were going to give him a piggyback ride. Before Blessington could shake Sapo free, Sapo dug his teeth into the base of the teacher’s neck. Blessington screamed; the blood spurted out, running down his back and staining his white shirt collar crimson. Sapo scrambled off Blessington’s back as Blessington fell to his knees, pressing the wound with his hands. Then Sapo came around and grabbed Blessington’s face in his hands and pulled it toward his own. Sapo spat out a chunk of Blessington’s flesh, bouncing it off Blessington’s left cheekbone. Covered in blood and saliva, Blessington’s eyes were frozen in disbelief. He wasn’t screaming. He was in shock. It was only when he saw a piece of his own flesh on the floor that he registered what had happened, and passed out.

Standing in front of the classroom Sapo smiled as only Sapo could; he slowly turned to the class, showing us his shining red teeth. He then calmly walked out of the room. Everyone was stunned. Blanca was the first one to shake herself and ran out of the room. “Help us, help us, Blessington’s dying!” she kept yelling down the hall. A minute later the school nurse arrived. When she saw all that blood on the floor she took off her smock and put pressure on Blessington’s neck. Meanwhile I went looking for Sapo. He had stopped by the bathroom to rinse his mouth and when he saw me he laughed.

“The nigga had that shit coming.” He spat water.

“Sapo, bro, what you gonna do?”

“I could give two fucks,” he said. “I never felt better. It’s as if I let some fucken courier pigeon go free.” At that minute Tapia walked into the bathroom, his face red with fury. It was the same anger he would show us when we let him down by not behaving, by not doing work or getting in trouble.

“Did he really have you in a headlock?” Tapia asked Sapo.

“Yeah, I saw it all, Ta—”

“Shut up! I’m asking Sapo!” I quieted down and backed away. Sapo nodded and Tapia paced the bathroom. He sighed loudly. He stopped in front of Sapo and placed both arms on top of Sapo’s shoulders.

“Look at me,” Tapia said. “Don’t say that he had you in a headlock—”

I jumped in. “But he did, Tapia—”

“Shut up, Chino! Coño, just shut up!” This time I did for good. Tapia breathed hard. His eyes were watery. “Sapo, look at me. If you say he had you in a headlock, when he recovers he will deny it. And it won’t matter which of your friends backs you up, they will believe Blessington. Now, you listen to me and you listen good because I don’t want you to go to Juvie. The police are on their way. When they ask you why you bit Blessington, you tell them you heard voices. You got that?” Sapo nodded. “You tell them the voices said to bite Blessington. You don’t say Blessington said all this bullshit to you or that he had you in a headlock, you just say you heard voices. You got that?” Sapo understood and a slow smirk began to form on his big lips as he nodded. When he had completely registered what Tapia had told him, that smirk became a full-blown smile.

That whole year Sapo saw a shrink and thus avoided juvenile detention. He must have lied, and I bet for a while he loved the opportunity to have an audience for those stories he was so good at making up. It was like getting away with biting Blessington’s neck all over again. But then he got tired of it, started blowing off sessions, and ultimately he dropped out of school and moved out on his own. That year something happened to Sapo. He had always been Sapo but that year, after biting Blessington, he started turning into someone who wasn’t afraid to die. It was the beginning of the adult Sapo. His was the sneaker you wouldn’t want to step on because “sorry” wouldn’t cut it. He became that person you wouldn’t want to cut off in traffic because he’d pull a knife and slice you. He became that person you wanted on your side so you could unleash him on your enemies. Like the rest of us, Sapo was still a kid, but he was already turning into something else. He had reached that point in existence where he wasn’t afraid to hurt anyone who threatened his only source of meaning, his love for himself.

I figure it was around the time he left school that he met up with someone who knew someone who knew Willie Bodega.

SEEING SOMEONE bite a chunk out of someone’s neck and then spit it at their face isn’t something you forget. That incident stayed with Blanca, as it did with all of us. And as El Diario kept publishing more facts about Salazar, Blanca couldn’t help herself.

“Julio, you heard about that reporter, Salazar, Alberto Salazar?” I was cooking dinner and she was sitting at the table reading El Diario. Blanca would usually read the Times but El Diario was the only newspaper that bothered to cover the story about Salazar.

“Nah. What about him? You want more beans?” Blanca’s religion didn’t allow her to eat meat, so she had to get her protein elsewhere.

“That’s enough,” she said when I showed her the plate. “He was killed.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, I know, Julio. They say that he was bitten before he was shot. They also say that he was—thanks,” she said as I placed her plate on the table and sat down. I had served her real fast because I knew she had to pray and I was hoping that she would pray a long time and forget about Salazar. But Blanca prayed real quick, so I guess she just thanked God for the food and said Amen. “So they said that he was working on a story around here. He was investigating a possible drug lord and then they found him dead.”

“Wow, that’s too bad,” I answered, and then Blanca told me something that somehow had escaped me.

“Have you noticed that this block doesn’t have dealers on the corner? All four corners of this block are quiet. Have you noticed that, Julio?”

“No, I haven’t,” I answered honestly. Apparently, Bodega didn’t litter in his own house.

“Julio, who owns these buildings? It’s just amazing that somehow dealers steer clear from here. At times—”

“Blanca, count your blessings and eat up, all right?”

She smiled and felt a little embarrassed because she was talking with her mouth full. “Just tell me one thing, Julio.” She swallowed and looked straight at me.

“Wha’?” I said with a mouth full of rice and beans.

“Tell me that you know for a fact that Sapo is not involved in that reporter’s death. A piece of the man’s shoulder was missing.”

“So?”

“So we know who sells drugs and we both know who bites like that.”

“Man, Blanca, you got some imagination. Sapo is this nickel-and-dime dealer. You knew him when we were kids. He wasn’t the smartest of people. A good dealer at least could count what’s coming in and what’s going out. Sapo couldn’t even do that.” I was lying. Sapo was very smart. Blanca wasn’t buying it. She stopped chewing and looked at me.

“Sapo is smart, Sapo was always smart. Those teachers never knew how to reach him. Well, maybe Tapia did. But he was always smart. He has to be, otherwise he wouldn’t have that big car he drives.”

“Maybe he got lucky.”

“No, Julio, there is something else here. I don’t know what. Sapo makes me nervous. And what really makes me nervous is that you are his friend.” Blanca’s voice was a bit desperate.

“All I know, Blanca,” I said flatly, “is that you know he’s my friend. A guy growing up in this neighborhood can get beat up. Sapo was always there for me. That’s why I let him keep his stuff here. I know you hate it but I owe that much to him. Remember Mario DePuma? He broke my nose. If Sapo wouldn’t have jumped in that Italian would have killed me, you know that.” Blanca shrugged. She knew Mario DePuma. He’d always been making passes at her. That was the reason him and me had that fight. Then Blanca got up to get more water. She sat back down and continued to think about the possibilities.

“How is it, Julio, that as crazy as it seems you know nothing. I mean as crazy as it seems, you have no idea about this reporter getting killed.”

“Why would I?”

“I don’t know. Where’s Enrique anyway? He hasn’t shown his face in days.”

“What a miracle, you of all people asking for Sapo.” But that worried me: Where was Sapo?

“I hope that he stays lost, but it’s too good to be true,” she said.

“You know Sapo, he’ll show up when he needs a favor.”

“Fine, you’re right. I shouldn’t care.” I was happy that was over with. But then she said something equally unnerving.

“Julio, I’ve invited Pastor Vasquez and Claudia over for dinner next week—”

“That’s great,” I said, dropping my spoon on the plate. “I hope the three of you have a good dinner. What did you do that for, Blanca? You know I don’t like to be preached to—”

“They’ll only be here for dinner. No one is going to preach to you, all right. You think that just because he’s a pastor he has to always be preaching or something? I just want him around before the baby arrives. At least once.”

“Well, when are they coming?” I grumbled.

“Next Friday. And you better be here.”

“Blanca …”

“You better be here, Julio. I want you here when they visit,” Blanca said firmly. I knew it was important to her so I just nodded, part in agreement and part in disgust.

“How’s the husband-hunting for Claudia going?” I asked to shift the subject.

“Not too good.” She pushed her food away, then rested her face in her palms, her elbows on the table. “But Roberto Vega—the seventeen-year-old anointed—is visiting our congregation and will give a speech.” Just thinking about that, Blanca became animated again.

“You really believe he’s anointed?” I was relieved to talk about anything, anything that didn’t have to do with that reporter’s death.

“Yes. I believe he is.” She smiled and placed her hand on mine. “Come to church with me, Julio. You can see for yourself.”

“Have you seen him?” I asked, turning my hand over to hold hers.

“No, but I’ve heard of him. They say he can lift an entire church. Please come. You can also meet Claudia.”

Then the phone rang. I got up from the table and went over to answer it.

“You don’t know me but I’m your brother.” I got the Doobie Brothers’ lyrics and knew it was Nene.

“How you been, I have the notes for you. Yeah, yeah, tell your cousin I have the notes for him.” I hoped Blanca would think it was some guy from class and Nene would think it was from a song.

“Wait, don’t tell me, the Grass Roots? Right? The Grass Roots?”

“Yeah, how you guess?” I couldn’t care less. Why wasn’t Sapo doing the calling?

“I knew it, I knew it. So, mira, Chino, my cousin wants ta see you tomorrow. Nazario will meet with you. He said he had to meet you. Some girl is comin’.”

“Cool, tell him I will.” And I hung up.

That was all I was going to do for Bodega. I had decided then and there that as soon as Bodega met Vera, I owed him nothing more.

When Blanca finished eating she asked me if I could go out and get her a Hershey bar with almonds, she had a craving. I was putting on my shoes to go out when Blanca switched on the TV to Spanish CNN. Like me, she studied with the TV on. She sat there with her nose already in a book, waiting for me to bring her chocolate. Then Alberto Salazar’s death was mentioned. Her body stiffened and her head shot up as if she had been stabbed in the back.

ROUND 2
Everyone’s a Thief

THE day Vera was to arrive back in New York City I was walking out of our new building to go to work. As I stepped out I spotted a tall man in an Italian suit, standing in the bright spring sun glowing like an apparition. Some tenants were gathered around him as if he was manna from heaven sent by the Most High. Mothers kissed his cheek, fathers were bowing to him and introducing their kids to him and making them greet him. It was as if I’d woken up in a village on the mother island and on my way to get water I’d met fellow villagers acting with that modesty and politeness you only find in places so poor that all you can offer is your kindness.

“Julio, right?” Nazario walked over to me, extended his hand, and we shook. I knew I was to be the link between Bodega and Vera. I was determined to fulfill my part of the deal; once Bodega and Vera met I was completely free. I would sever all ties to Bodega. Now more than ever, I wanted nothing to do with Bodega because I was sure he was connected to Salazar’s death. I hated to know that that would include Sapo too, but I had begun to wonder if Salazar was the first man Sapo had killed. If Sapo killed that reporter then he deserved to go to jail. I thought that, but I knew I didn’t mean it. I felt bad for Sapo.

I also knew I would never rat out Sapo or Bodega. I wasn’t going to say a word. It wasn’t my job or my style. All I needed was to keep my part of the deal and get free of Bodega and free of my own conscience, which would nag me and call me names if I backed out.

“So Nene called you last night to tell you I was coming to meet you,” he said smoothly, as if he and I had been friends for years.

“Nene called me,” I said.

“Great.” I could already see that Nazario was a chameleon. He had the uncanny ability to be stoically cold under pressure and extremely warm with the people. But from the day I’d met him at the Taino Towers I knew it was Nazario who went around carrying out the favors for Bodega. Like Bodega had told me, he needed people to represent him in his absence. Who better than Nazario to visit the people and give them help in the name of Bodega? It was Nazario who, by blending his education with politeness, had made himself be looked upon with love, respect, and a little fear throughout the neighborhood. His smile could be magically disarming but his head was crowded with practicality and genius. Unlike Bodega’s eyes, which were pools of ghosts and sadness, Nazario’s were black holes, nothing could escape them, not even light, as if he could read your mind. He inspired and at the same time intimidated me.

“I was thinking of telling Bodega to meet me in some restaurant and then taking my wife and her sister, Negra, and Vera to dinner. A family thing, you know, and Bodega could walk right in. With people around them that should diffuse some of the tension. That sound good?”

“That’s brilliant, Julio,” Nazario said, smiling. Then someone who had just stepped out of the building walked over to us. She gave Nazario a small packet of food wrapped in tinfoil. “For your lunch,” she said. He refused to take it, gently suggesting she needed it more than he did. The single mother of two, who lived in 5E, told him it was last night’s pasteles, which should still taste good, all he had to do was heat them up. He finally accepted, telling her in Spanish, “Who am I to take from you the gift of giving?” After that she kissed his cheek, then left to take her kids to school.

“Are you late for work?” he asked me when we resumed.

“I’m going to be.”

“Then I’ll walk with you.”

“No, it’s all right. It’s just three blocks from here.”

“Exactly, three blocks. What’s three blocks? Some people have to take eight-hour flights in the company of uncomfortable people.” He knew he made me nervous and he was smiling faintly. “You, Julio, just have to walk three uncomfortable blocks, with me.”

Unlike Bodega, Nazario spoke cleanly and used his slang only when it suited him. Nazario’s and Bodega’s speeches were as different as a glass of tap water and a glass of wine. And unlike Bodega, who said exactly what was on his mind, Nazario would tell you only what he felt was necessary. Later on, as I sank deeper into all this mud, I would realize how much of his success Bodega owed to Nazario and his connections at City Hall. It was something about knowing who the important little people were, the forgotten ones who don’t wear suits, the mailroom clerk, the secretaries, the custodial staffs. They would hide letters, delay them, too, steal files, copy disks, shred documents, all for Nazario. These workers who sympathized with Nazario knew that they had a union, so it would be difficult for them to lose their jobs. What Nazario offered them in return was something their union didn’t cover, that if their sons and daughters needed legal help one day, he would be there. And so would Bodega’s financial backing.

“That’s a great idea, Chino. The restaurant. That way Willie can just walk in casually as if he didn’t know anything. He’ll see you, your wife, her sister, and Vera. Brilliant.”

“Well, I hope it works,” I shrugged.

“In theory, it works like a socialist peasant but in real life”—he stopped walking and placed his arm around my shoulder—“in real life we have to do what Willie says. He wants you to accompany him to the school this morning and see Vera.”

“Wha’!” I was angry. “Hey, man, Bodega has waited more than twenty years. A few hours won’t kill him. I gotta go to work. You know, it’s bad enough I was going to miss a class tonight so he can see this woman. Now work, I can’t miss work.” Truth was I was angry because I was in the dark. I could tell something else was happening. Something big. Something that worried Nazario enough that he wanted to do anything he could to keep Bodega calm and happy. I didn’t want to get more involved, but not knowing what was really happening might hurt me. With Salazar dead, I didn’t want the cops coming to my house asking questions because Blanca would kill me, maybe even leave me. I couldn’t chance that. Right then I wanted Nazario to level with me. But I decided to wait and ask Bodega himself, because if I asked Nazario anything, he would only do that lawyer thing on me, say a million things while telling me nothing.

“I understand.” His voice was like small waves, like the swells at Coney Island. “I know exactly where you’re coming from. You can’t miss work.” As Nazario said this an old man who was about to open his barbershop on 110th and Lexington crossed the street to greet him.

“Don Tunito, bueno verlo.”

“Bueno verte a ti, mijo. ¿Y cómo va todo?”

“Bien. Este es Julio.” The old man shook my hand and said I could get free haircuts at his shop. Their conversation was purely small talk. It was a silent agreement in which each party knew what proper respects to pay, a polite farce created to ease the strain of acknowledging who owed who and what.

Looking back, I figured Bodega must have taken a lot of pride in these favors he handed out through Nazario. It made Bodega feel like some kid with a lot of toys who is happy to share them with the kid next door who owns a broken tricycle. Bodega took pride in helping someone who had just arrived from Puerto Rico or Nicaragua or Mexico or any other Latin American country. He’d get them jobs, legal jobs that didn’t pay a lot but got them started on their new life here in America. His buildings were run by good, hardworking men from Puerto Rico who just wanted to work. Bodega would make them supers or plumbers or dishwasheros at his pizzerias or anything. As long as they had some way of feeding their family and could hope to someday find something better they were happy. No wonder Bodega’s name had spread like a good smell from a Latin woman’s kitchen.

So, if someone wanted to set up a small business, be it a bodega or a fruit stand, but only had half the money and couldn’t get a bank loan, that person would get in touch with someone who knew someone who knew this Willie Bodega. Bodega would then dispatch Nazario to talk with this person’s neighbors and, depending on what he heard (whether this person was “good people” being honorable and trustworthy or some cheap-ass who would rip off the neighborhood), Bodega would offer or deny him support. All Bodega asked in return was loyalty. For them never to forget that it was Bodega who got them on their way. Nothing dramatic would happen if they’d forget. Nothing would be broken. Nothing would be thrown. But usually they’d remember. Usually that small business Bodega had loaned money to, that just-graduated kid whose tuition had been taken care of, that person who’d just passed the bar and whose prep course fees had been paid for, or that family just arrived from Puerto Rico who had been set up in an apartment, never forgot who had helped them in their time of need. They were loyal to Bodega without ever having seen his face.

Sapo had told me one day, when he was drunk on his fifth forty-ouncer, that Bodega had met Nazario after the Young Lords broke up. Bodega was selling dope and Nazario was just getting out of Brooklyn Law School. Nazario had told Bodega to get himself a hot-dog vendor’s license, place the dope inside a frankfurter cart with real franks in it and, before taking the money, to tell the customers that the heroin was free and that they were really paying for the hot dog. That way if an undercover cop bought from Bodega, he couldn’t bust him for selling heroin. A year later Bodega did get busted. Nazario represented him and used the frankfurter cart as Bodega’s defense. He told the judge that Bodega, as an American citizen in business for himself, could set any price he desired on hot dogs, since hot dogs were not controlled substances. That his client specifically let the undercover officer know, before taking his money and giving him the dope, that the officer was really buying the hot dog for five dollars and that the substance was free. The transaction did occur, which meant that the officer had agreed to the terms. It was brilliant.

The entire courtroom knew Bodega was guilty, but the officer had agreed that he was buying the hot dog and that the heroin was free. Nazario had found a loophole, though it was closed right after that case. But Nazario was always one step ahead. So instead of Bodega getting fifteen to twenty for selling drugs, he only got five for possession, then got paroled in three for good behavior. And now, years later, Bodega and Nazario were running an entire neighborhood.

“Where do you work?” Nazario asked me after the old man left.

“Right there, the supermarket. Only till I graduate and then I don’t know. I have to find a real job; besides, I have no choice. I got a kid coming.”

“The A & P? The one on the same block where the Aguilar public library is? No kidding?”

“Yeah, it’s convenient. During lunchtime, I go there to read or study. It’s the best library in the city.”

“Hey, I should know,” Nazario said, “I practically grew up inside that building. My adopted family were librarians and books.”

We reached the supermarket. I told Nazario that I could meet Vera either later that day or some other time but I couldn’t miss work. Nazario said that was okay and that he would like to talk “bookshop,” as he called it, with me maybe even at the Aguilar branch, since he hadn’t been inside that building in years.

A few minutes later I punched the clock and checked the schedule. I was penciled in at meat packing. I went to my locker and brought out my green apron along with a stained heavy sweater. I hated meat packing, it smells like what it is, a bunch of frozen dead animal corpses. Your hands get cold even if you wear gloves, and after your day is done you come out with a cold. But I had put on my gloves, sweater, and apron and was ready to get all bloody and smelly when I was called to the manager’s office.

“Julio, you’re sick, go home,” he told me in front of the other employees.

“I’m not sick,” I answered.

“Yes. Yes you are.” He gave me this meaningful look that told me he didn’t want the other employees to think I was getting special treatment. “You’re sick. No shape to be in the freezer packing meat.”

I got it. I coughed loudly and played it to the fullest.

“With pay, right? I get today off with pay?” I asked.

“No, you know we”—he looked at the other employees’ faces—“we don’t pay you for sick days.”

“Well then, I can hack it. I mean, I’m sick but I can hack it, just put me shelving or something away from the freez—”

“Okay, but just this once,” the manager said over the other employees’ protests. “New policy. What do you want me to do? I can’t have Julio give everyone the flu. Knock this place right out of business,” he said to save face.

I ditched my apron and punched out again.

Outside, when I crossed the street, there was Nazario. Standing straight, hands at his sides and stone cold, he told me, “The manager owes Bodega. We’re going to your place. You have to change clothes.”

On the way home Nazario asked me what I was studying. I told him. He nodded. Then he asked me, “You ever thought of going to law school when you graduate?”

“Nah, I hate lawyers. No offense.”

“That’s fine, but consider it. We’ll take care of the expenses. We will need people like you in the near future. We will need as many as we can get.” It was obvious by now who he meant by we. “A single lawyer,” Nazario continued, “can steal more money than a hundred men with guns.”

“I’m not a thief.”

“Everyone’s a thief. Crime is a matter of access. The only reason the mugger robs you is because he doesn’t have access to the books. If he did, he’d be a lawyer. I’m not sure what you have access to”—he gave me a look as if I was guilty of something I myself was too afraid to say out loud—“but whatever it is that you have access to, that is what you will steal. What you are already stealing, Julio.”

“If you see it that way it’s cool,” I said. “But like my father always said, ‘El dinero robado tú te lo gastas con miedo.’ I’d rather make five bucks honestly and spend it knowing it’s all mine than fifty and worry about my back.”

“Then you don’t understand, Julio. See, what Willie and I are trying to do is make sure that you, the future of the neighborhood, doesn’t break its back. That this neighborhood isn’t lost. Sure, some people are going to get hurt, but that’s just the law of averages. Listen to me, Julio.” He stopped walking.

“You guys,” I said, laughing, continuing to walk, “are crazy, man.”

He yelled at me and grabbed my arm, stopping me. “You, Julio, think small! You live small and you’ll die small! Always paying rent because you never thought big. Like most of the people in this neighborhood you think that things are impossible!”

“So what? You puttin’ down your own people now!” I shouted back and he calmed down and took a deep breath.

“Don’t you see that it’s always been only about our people,” he said calmly. “All I ask is that you walk with me four more blocks north—”

“I thought you said Bodega was meeting me,” I protested, preferring to be in Bodega’s company than Nazario’s. At least with Bodega you knew where you stood.

“Humor me. We don’t even have to speak to each other,” he said, laughing a bit. “I just want to show you something.”

I nodded. The rest of the way neither of us said a word. Those four silent blocks with Nazario lasted an eternity, one of those moments in which you live a lifetime. I tried to think of other things, but all I could think about was why Nazario didn’t just leave me alone. He must have something else to tell or show me; he was too practical to take pointless walks.

We stopped at 116th and Third Avenue, in front of what looked like a bodega. It wasn’t. Inside that small space were framed gold records and instruments hanging from the walls and the ceiling. It was jam-packed with salsa memorabilia. There were the drumsticks Tito Puente used when he played Carnegie Hall in ’72. There were album covers, Joe Cuba’s congas, guitar picks, ticket stubs, all from salsa’s golden days in the sixties and seventies.

“It’s the salsa museum, Julio. The only one in the country,” Nazario told me. I was in awe, because I didn’t even know it existed. I had lived here all my life and didn’t know we had this. I started to read labels of the gold records on the wall: Willie Colón, Hector Lavo, Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, the Fania All Stars—all were represented. It was the history of salsa. Nazario pointed. “See that ticket stub? I went to that show. It was at Madison Square Garden, the old one. Great show. I danced salsa all the way home.”

“This is awesome, man,” I said, and for a moment I forgot about everything and wrapped myself in the glory days of salsa. Back then it was a different dance music than the one in my time. The salsa music was new and always evolving into something else, but it always returned to its afro-jíbaro-antillano roots. This place had a deep association with my parents’ time, when the neighborhood was still young and full of people and not projects. It was a symbol of past glory, of early migration to the United States and the dreams that people brought over along with the music.

“That conga there belonged to Ray Barretto. Hearing Ray play was like watching Changó, the thunder god who suffered the consequences of playing with fire and became lightning itself—that was Barretto in his heyday. Night after night.” Nazario went over to the drum and circled his finger over the skin. For the first time I thought I had seen in his eyes some sort of nostalgic sentiment, a weakness maybe.

“Hey, no toque!” the curator of the museum said, joking. Nazario quickly turned around. The two men embraced as if they had known each other for years. The owner was a kind man in his fifties. When Nazario introduced me, he proudly declared, “See, Chino, there’s two museums in Spanish Harlem.”

“Your daughter,” Nazario asked him out of the blue, “did she get in?”

“Sí, sí.” They embraced again. They kept talking about the man’s daughter, who would soon start med school. The man was thanking Nazario and telling him to thank Bodega for him. Nazario said he would do just that and then told the man he had to go. I shook the man’s hand again and followed Nazario. The salsa museum was free, but upon exiting, Nazario put a twenty in the donation box. I had only three dollars and wished I could give more.

“I’ll walk you home now,” Nazario said, looking straight ahead.

“Sounds good,” I said. Somehow that experience had made me like him. A little bit. I still wanted Nazario to go away but I knew he wouldn’t, not just yet. I knew he hadn’t taken me to the museum just because he’d wanted to show it to me. He’d wanted me to see something else. For me to understand something that escaped me. I tried to think, but I couldn’t see what it was. The music of our people? No. Bygone times? Then it hit me. It was the man’s daughter.

“The girl who got into med school,” I asked Nazario, “she’s in Bodega’s program?”

“That’s right. I was hoping she was around. I wanted her to talk to you.”

“About what?” I asked, because I was just catching on that with Nazario and Bodega you had to see the big picture. Their minds were not nineteen-inch screens but those of the big drive-in movies. They were so ahead in their visions and dreams that they left you behind, with your mouth open, trying to piece it all together.

“Don’t you see what we’re trying to do?” he said, and this time it was me who stopped walking. I wanted to hear it. “Willie likes financing Latinos who are going to college to study law, medicine, education, business, political science, anything useful. He plans on building a professional class, slated to become his movers and shakers of the future.”

I wanted to tell him it was crazy. But then I thought, why not? Why not us? Others have dreams, why not us? It was from that moment on that I realized all these hopes were bigger than me, more important than any one person. If these dreams of theirs would take off, El Barrio would burn like a roman candle, bright and proud for decades. If Spanish Harlem moved up, we would all move up with it.

“Willie plans on building a professional class. One born and bred in Spanish Harlem.” So now I knew why he was renovating all those buildings. He planned on housing his people there. “But it goes deeper than that, Julio. It’s about upward mobility. It’s about education and making yourself better. It’s about sacrifice.” We started to walk again. He would lecture like he always did, steely but committed. “If someone is a janitor, that’s noble, it’s a respectable job. But they should make sure their kids grow up to own a cleaning business.” It was really an old idea, but never before had I thought that it was possible. With Nazario leading the fight for political, social, and economic power, anything was possible. It was going to be fought by intellect and cunning. Bodega and Nazario had seen what guns could do. They knew you could not attack the Anglo like that. You had to play by his rules and, like him, steal by signing the right papers. Nazario would lead, leaving Bodega to take all the hits, absorb the stigma, because of what he was. It would be Bodega and the likes of Sapo who would have the skeletons in the closet, all so Nazario could help create new hope for the neighborhood.

“This neighborhood will be lost unless we make it ours. Look at Loisaida, that’s gone,” Nazario said. “All those white yuppies want to live in Manhattan, and they think Spanish Harlem is next for the taking. When they start moving in, we won’t be able to compete when it comes to rents, and we’ll be left out in the cold. But if we build a strong professional class and accumulate property, we can counter that effect.” We were two blocks away from my building. I could see what Nazario was really after. “This is not the sixties. The government isn’t pouring any money in here anymore. It’ll take some time. But one day we might be strong enough, with enough political clout”—and he pointed at the Johnson Houses—“to knock those projects down.” Then he smiled at me as if he had just seen the sunrise for the first time in his life. “And we’ll free our island, without bloodshed.”

ROUND 3
The Fish of Loisaida

I WAS happy when Nazario and I reached my building and even happier when he shook my hand, indicating he was ready to leave.

“Put on your best suit and wait for Willie, okay, Julio?” Nazario said as we stood in front of the entrance. “And I still want to talk. Maybe even meet you in the library.” He shook my hand again and crossed the street. I stared at his back as he walked away. A tall gray suit, walking with pride and confidence all around El Barrio. A suit that could stand out and yet blend in with the neighborhood. He was like no one I had ever met. Even Bodega with his street smarts and cunning lacked what Nazario had. The presence that tells the people this man can lead. He was what we all wanted to be like, the Latin professional whom the Anglos feared because he was just as treacherous, just as devious, and he understood power. This was not some docile Latino you could push around. You knew he held aces up his sleeve. The neighborhood might not have trusted Nazario completely, maybe even been a bit afraid of him, but people were more than grateful that he was on their side.

I went inside the building and was a bit nervous about the whole Vera-meeting-Bodega thing, but then again I was also glad it would finally be over. Besides, it beat working, any day.

When the elevator reached my floor and I stepped out, there was Bodega in the hallway. He was dressed in a white suit, looking as immaculate and pure as if he had made an offering to Santa Clara to wear white for her, just for her. But his eyes were bloodshot and he was pacing like a man whose wife is in labor.

“Man, I’m glad yo’r here. Where you been?” He rushed toward me, his face a knot of worry. “You don’t think I look too, you know, like I’m tryin’ too hard to look fine?” he asked.

“Nah, you look good.” We walked inside. Then he looked at me and began to curse.

Coño! Coño, I should have brought a suit for you.”

“Hey, I have suits, all right?” I said, a bit insulted. “I came here to change. Your lawyer hit man, Nazario, sprung me out of work and gave me no choice.”

“But you do have a good suit? Man, I should’ve had Nazario get you one.” He kept sucking his teeth and saying, coño, coño.

“I told you I have good suits, cotton ones,” I said, but he began to complain.

“No, no, no, you’ll throw her off. See, feel this, feel this.” It felt like silk; it was silk.

“Nice.” I shrugged.

“See, how’s that gonna look, you in cotton and me in silk? She’ll think I’m cheap. That I can’t buy you, her niece’s husband, a suit like mine or worse, that I don’t have enough—”

“Relax! Look, you say Vera loves you, right? Not me, right? I can go in shorts and it won’t matter.” He calmed down a bit, and I went to the bedroom to change. He asked if he could get a drink of water.

“You own the building,” I called out. But as I heard the water faucet I had an image, clear as day, of Sapo killing Salazar. I figured that now was a bad time to ask about it. I figured that if Bodega was right and Vera was still in love with him, nothing could ruin his day, so today would be a good time to ask him anything—but if he was wrong about Vera I was going to save the asking for another day. Then I smelled something.

“Wan’ a toke?”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, bro. You’re gonna go see someone you haven’t seen in more than twenty years and you’re gonna smoke a joint before you see her?”

“I’m nervous, what the fuck you want me to do?”

“Relax, all right? And you should put that out because the smell stays in your clothes.” Bodega promptly threw the joint on the floor and killed it with his shiny shoe.

I went to the bathroom and combed my hair. When I came out Bodega was looking out the window. He was staring absently, as if he was seeing beyond what was there, as if he was back in some other place and time.

I shook him a little bit. He smiled, a bit embarrassed, as if he had been thinking about something sentimental, something weak. Something your friends might make fun of at your expense.

“Ready to go?” He cleared his throat and wiped his eye.

“Yeah, let’s go,” I said, making believe I had no idea what was in his head.

Outside it was a clear and warm day, one of those days that makes you happy you woke up early and hadn’t wasted the morning with sleep and weren’t going to kill the day with work. Walking with Bodega toward P.S. 72 on 104th and Lexington was like walking with a ghost that only I could see. Unlike walking with Nazario, when everyone came up and greeted you, saw you in a different light because of the company, with Bodega it was as casual as if you were walking with groceries. Only one man stopped us, and it wasn’t because of Bodega.

Qué pasa. My name is Ebarito, I saw you with Mr. Nazario this morning,” he said to me. Si me haces el favor de decirle gracias por el seguro que me dió. I want you to know that you are welcome at my social club anytime.”

I thanked him.

“And tell Mr. Nazario I owe Willie Bodega.” Bodega quickly motioned to me not to say a word. Not to introduce him as Willie Bodega. Ebarito shook my hand, then Bodega’s. I gave Ebarito my name and introduced Bodega as Jose Tapia. Ebarito said that my friend Jose was also welcome to drop by his social club. Then he complimented us on our suits, told us we looked like la aristocracia puertorriqueña. Bodega found this funny and asked Ebarito for his name again. Bodega made a mental note of it. He was going to reward Ebarito in the near future, I could tell. We kept walking.

“I know what you’re thinkin’,” Bodega said, “but if you see God he won’t seem that powerful anymore.” He then licked his lips as he had been doing all morning, shoved his hands in his pockets, and then took them out again. He walked fast and I had to tell him again and again to calm down.

P.S. 72 loomed just ahead, the American flag on its roof wagging in the blue sky. A pompous pigeon, his arrogant chest stuck out like a banker’s, sat on top of the flagpole. Then Bodega turned around and said “I’m going back.” He said that this was all bullshit and that he had a neighborhood to run and had to create a new future. That he was sorry for putting me through all this bullshit.

“No way, man!” I went after him as he was practically running away from the school. “No, bro, stop!” I caught up to him and held him by the arm. He gave little resistance. He took out a cigarette.

“You’ve been waiting a long time for this, bro. If anything, at least let’s go and meet Vera so you can show her what a mistake she made.”

He lit his cigarette and took only one drag before he ground it out.

“Nah, bro, eso no se queda así. She made a mistake and she has to know it.” He took out another cigarette.

“At least that way you’ll get something out of this, bro, b’cause she married that guy for his money.”

He lit up and took one drag. Then another. “Thass right. You’re right, Chino.” He looked at me with bravado, took a third drag, put out the cigarette. “You’re right. Let’s go see this bitch and show her what a fucken mistake she made. That bitch! That fucken, fucken bitch. Why’d she leave in the first place? She never wanted him, she always wanted me. And now she can’t have me. Now she’ll fly back to Miami and cry as if the plane was going down.”

“Thass right, bro. You’re goin’ to walk right in there and show her that you had vision.” He nodded rapidly.

We started walking toward the school again, like sour-grapes drunks. Bodega was ripping away at Vera, then at women in general, then at Vera’s mother, then he was ripping Vera again.

I pretended to agree with everything as if this was new and enlightening.

“I hear you, I hear you.”

“Cuz there ain’t no difference between a whore who sleeps for money and one that marries for it! Shit!” He then went on about something else, something that only makes sense when you are afraid of death or desperately in love and will say anything to alleviate the terror.

“I hear you, bro.”

We got to the school and the guard told us to go to the general office and get visitors’ passes. We asked for directions to the auditorium, and when we got there the assembly had already started. The place was full of children and flowers. Kids whispered to one another, fidgeting in those uncomfortable auditorium chairs, kicking the chairs in front of them and rocking back and forth. Up on the small stage, the guests were sitting on yellow school chairs, waiting for their moment to speak. One was a tall woman in a blue dress who could easily have been Blanca twenty years older. I looked at Bodega. His gaze was fixed on her with an intensity that indicated nothing else mattered or existed. If I’d wanted to pick his wallet, I could have. He stared at her as if he was reeling back years, each year a ton of hate mixed with a love that never had had an opportunity to reenter the atmosphere and burn itself out. It was as if Bodega had hit rewind on an ugly romantic scene that should have been shot differently, a scene that, after all these years, after he had played it in his head every day, he was now going to shoot with the ending he had always wanted.

I elbowed him hard.

“Which one’s Vera?” I knew but asked anyway. It had to be the woman he was staring at, the one waiting patiently, not showing any discomfort in the delay.

“The one with the blue dress. The one crossing her legs. Still has the legs, the legs never left her,” he answered, continuing to gaze at her.

And then from behind the curtains came a figure looking like he wasn’t just sorry he was late but also as if he hadn’t done his homework. Nazario sat down and took his place among the guests.

That’s when it hit me. All this time, I had been set up.

It had been Bodega who had donated the money to Vera’s old school so they could call her up from Miami and invite her as their guest. I’m not sure he even knew they were going to name the auditorium after her but it didn’t matter because it got him the results he wanted. Nazario had probably handled all the paperwork and concealed where the money really came from. Nazario must have made some sort of dizzy razzmatazz nonsense about the donation being an anonymous gift but I’m sure he gave the school enough information to know it was Vera. Or maybe Nazario just skipped all that shit and went straight to the superintendent of District 4 with an offer he couldn’t refuse. One thing was sure, I was there for one reason and one reason only, so Bodega could have one of Vera’s relatives there next to him. Bodega probably had no clue how to reach Blanca or Negra and so he reached me. He reached me and he could now pass himself off as family.

The fact was that Bodega could have easily found Vera. He could have gotten Nazario to hire the best private investigator in the city and traced her all the way to Florida. But then what? Blood was thicker than water and that’s what he wanted, blood. Family is family for Latinos: a cousin, no matter if it’s third or fourth or seventh, is still a cousin, and nothing can cut that—regardless of how far away the family member is; he or she is part of that family. With me and Blanca he had an ace in the hole. He had helped himself and along the way had also helped Vera’s family by giving her pregnant niece and her husband a nice apartment. And I had walked right into it.

At that moment I didn’t like him. He used people and used his money to move them by remote control. He had used Blanca without Blanca even knowing it and I had been the one that had gotten us involved in all this. I was going to go home and tell her everything that I knew—except for the stuff about Sapo, because I knew Blanca would want me to go to the police.

Of course, once Blanca knew who owned the building, and how he got the money to buy and fix it up, she’d want to move out. I didn’t want to move. It was the best living situation we had ever had and it was more than affordable, it was downright cheap. Besides, the baby was due to arrive by late summer and we needed that extra space, that extra room. Also, regardless of Bodega’s activities, he was fixing up the neighborhood. For the first time in my life I had seen scaffolding all over Spanish Harlem. In almost every part of the neighborhood, some building was being renovated. And he was creating this professional class of his. Paying people’s tuition in hopes of building a better future. No, I thought, with Bodega all you could hope for is that the good would outweigh the bad. I decided not to tell Blanca and just leave Bodega stranded in a school auditorium.

So as Bodega and I were standing against the back of P.S. 72’s auditorium, I pointed at Vera.

“Well, there she is. That’s her, right? So I did my part. I’m out.” I opened the large door of the auditorium and walked into the hallway. Bodega broke away from wherever he was at in his mind, peeled his eyes off Vera, and chased after me.

“Where you going?” He sounded surprised, as if I had agreed beforehand to stay. As if my staying was part of the deal.

“Hey, man, you said for me to find Vera, and I did. She’s right there and now I’m gone and we’re even, right? I’m your tenant, you’ll have my rent on time, and thass it.” I began to walk away. Bodega followed me.

“Chino, you can’t leave. You have to be there with me, bro. Come on, don’t be like that.” I was taken back to the time when I first met Bodega. When he had talked all that tough stuff and I had turned him down, his face had collapsed. This was the same face. Just like that first time, Bodega needed something from me and didn’t know how to ask.

“Nah, I got you what you wanted. If you want me to stay with you,” I said, “you got to level with me.”

He looked at my face carefully. He understood everything. Bodega gestured for us to go outside, and I silently followed him to the playground. The assembly was going to go on for at least another half hour. He picked an isolated but open space under a bent basketball rim, beside a broken water fountain. He faced the school doors.

“If those doors open we have to go back inside, all right?” he said.

“Where’s Sapo?” I dodged the question because I wasn’t planning on going back in.

“Sapito is hidin’.” It wasn’t a surprise.

“Why’d you have Salazar killed?”

“Because Salazar was crooked.”

“But a few weeks ago I heard Nazario tell you he didn’t take your money when you offered it to him.”

“Thass right, he didn’t, because he already belonged to someone else.”

“Sapo is my pana. If he’s in trouble—”

“Wha’? You think I’m gonna let Sapo fry? Let me tell you, Salazar was a worthless piece of shit who didn’t even make a deal with his own people. He got what was comin’.”

“Shit, bro, just like that?”

“Yeah, just like that. Just when I’m almost there, Chino, just when … this Salazar fuck has to make static.”

“You killed that guy, bro.” I looked at the sun as if I wanted to punish my eyes. “I mean, when you sell that stuff and someone buys it and dies, that’s one thing. I mean, it was his choice to go and buy it, but actually killing someone—”

“Yeah, I did.” Bodega looked at the doors. “It wasn’t the first. And let me tell you cuz I feel I owe it to you. Let me tell you why. B’cause Salazar belonged to Aaron Fischman.”

“Who?”

“He is this fucken guy they call the Fish of Loisaida. I been dealin’ with that bastard for years now and I always do whass right. I’ve told him, ‘This is my neighborhood and the Lower East Side is yours.’ There’s enough junkies and gamblers to go around, right? And the mutherfuckah agrees. I say, ‘No one wants a war.’ With a war everyone loses money and things get sloppy. So I back away and he backs away. Then out of the blue comes this reporter. This Alberto Salazar. I think I got problems because he’s a good man. Then Nazario finds out Salazar made a deal with Fischman. He’s gonna get all this shit together on me, ignore Fischman. Salazar was almost there, too. He only needed a few more pieces, and he would have called all this attention to me.”

“No way. You think the cops don’t already know what you’re doing?”

“They might be sniffin’, they ain’t that stupid. They got a little piece of it too. But everything is still layin’ low. No noise, and as long as there’s no noise, cops don’t care. But if the media makes a big deal out of it then the cops look bad. They’ll have ta come after me. That’s what Salazar was planning on, exposing me for buying buildings with so-called dirty money. I couldn’t let that happen.” He kicked the ground as if it were dirt and not concrete. “Thass the way it works, Chino. Then I have to deal with the police and that would weaken me. And with me out of the way Fischman would move in on my neighborhood. I got tired of that bastard. Salazar wanted to be the hero around here. Well, I sent Sapito to make calcium of him and I’ll deal with Fischman later.”

“Shit, you gonna kill that other guy too?” Most practical people would have cut the cord right there, would have broken away from Bodega like a rancher shoots a horse with a broken leg. But I didn’t. I didn’t want Sapo in jail, that was part of it. And though I didn’t want to admit it, secretly I was rooting for Bodega. I had been all along.

“I don’t know yet,” Bodega said. “I don’t wanna to do anythin’ hasty. Maybe Nazario can still talk. Find another solution. That fuck Fischman did some work with this big Italian in Queens, can’t just get rid of him like that. But I’m not going to worry about that right now,” he said, glancing at the school doors.

“Right now, Chino, all I’m askin’ is for you to help me find some sort of happiness. Remember when I told you at the museum that when Vera arrived I was going to ask somethin’ else from you?”

I nodded.

“Well, I’m askin’, all right. I don’t like people to think I’m weak, because I’m not. Never been. But you, Chino, if yo’r as smart as I think you are, if you’ve studied your history, you would know that the most powerful men have turned to garbage, basura, when they have fallen in love. All of them.” He got defensive. And because his everyday speech didn’t have any diplomacy, he defended his case the way he always did.

“Chino, bro, last week I saw a special on channel thirteen about Napoleon. And when that nigga was about to lose Egypt, you know what he was really afraid of? Losing Josephine.” He looked at my face, hoping I wasn’t going to make fun of him. “See, Chino, he was far away and Josephine was rumored to be two-timing him with some other guy. While he was fighting to expand her empire she was like … like … you know what I’m sayin’?”

“What’re you gonna do about Sapo?” I hadn’t seen the special and didn’t care much about Napoleon.

The school doors opened. Bodega shot me a desperate look.

“You gonna get Sapo off somehow, right?”

“I’ll help Sapo. Nazario is workin’ on it. Wha’? You think this Vera situation has clouded my mind? Nah, you wrong. I love that woman but it was me who sent Sapo. It will be me who will bring him out.”

“So, you gonna get Sapo off?”

“Of course. I don’t know how, but you have my word.”

“I have your word, then?”

“My word is bond.”

“All right. So tell me what it is you want me to do.” Now Bodega smiled as if he had swallowed the canary, but there was still something childlike in his look.

“I owe you, Chino, I owe you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Just tell me what you want me to say to Vera.”

“See that limo parked over there?” He pointed. I didn’t turn my head but could see it out of the corner of my eye. “I want you to go over and tell—” He caught himself. If he and I were now family, he shouldn’t give me orders anymore. “Could you please, my main-mellow-man.” He laughed and put out his hand for me to give him five. I skinned it but I didn’t feel like laughing. “Just go tell Vera you are married to her niece Nancy, and that your landlord, William Irizarry, Izzy to her, is waiting for her inside that big, black, very expensive car ovah there.”

ROUND 4
A Diamond as Big as the Palladium

BLANCA’S aunt Vera seemed born to money. Her gestures, her voice, her social graces had been so well studied and cultivated that she could have fooled anyone who wasn’t familiar with her past. With her light skin, semiblond hair, pale seagull blue eyes, she could easily pass herself off as something other than a woman born and raised in East Harlem. She spoke as if she had spent her formative years in some boarding school, walking around with a big-lettered sweater tied around her shoulders.

Actually, Vera had barely graduated from Norman Thomas High School and hadn’t set foot in a building of higher education since. Yet she had successfully sold the notion to her circle in Miami that she was a Barnard girl. Although she had told her Florida friends she was coming to New York City because she had done the “trendy” thing of donating money to an inner-city school, she really didn’t know how the donation had been made. She assumed that her accountant must have done it to get her a tax break. What did she care? But she had to come alone, otherwise her friends would discover her true origins.

She was returning to her old neighborhood to gloat, to show her family what she had made of herself. Yes, Vera had reinvented herself. But unlike William Carlos Irizarry, now Willie Bodega, Veronica Linda Saldivia didn’t want to be considered Puerto Rican. Hence the name Vera.

The rich Cuban family Vera had married into still kept the pink slips of their nationalized lands in Cuba, along with high hopes of reclaiming them once Castro was ousted or finally, finally died. Vera was no longer a Saldivia but a Vidal, and with that misleading last name she could fool anyone into thinking she was some middle-aged Anglo woman who had a taste for shopping on Fifth Avenue, threw dinner parties, and loved expensive jewelry.

I’m not a person who likes to judge why people fall madly in love with some types of people because I don’t believe such things can be explained. It’s like chemistry, some elements are attracted to each other and it doesn’t matter that they can explode. It’s just the way it works.

SO THAT day, I did as Bodega pleaded. I walked over to Vera, who was outside talking with some teacher. Her posture was ramrod straight; her back at a perfect right angle with the ground. When she talked, it was in the prim and proper voice of someone who understands flower shows and country homes. And when she’d say something she thought clever, she would laugh this phony laugh like she was doing you a favor.

“Julio?” Nazario said, surprised to see me. He appeared out of nowhere and stopped me just as I was about to introduce myself to Vera. He saved me the bother.

“This is Julio Mercado. He’s in college now and I’m hoping he will continue on to law school,” Nazario informed Vera. Closer, I could see that Vera’s face had the resonance of a former highly prized beauty. Years ago the entire neighborhood must have gone mad for her. I thought of Blanca; I had always believed she’d become even more beautiful when she got older, that her features—eyes, hair, cheekbones, her entire body—having traveled for years would settle down like some quiet, transparent stream. I would still be there with her and, no matter what pictures of her when young would remind me of, I’d still love her and never trade the history we had together.

“It’s a pleasure,” I said. “Actually, we’re related.” She responded like someone who instead of saying thanks when being served by a waiter only lowers her eyes.

“Are we?” Her delicate voice sounded like crystal.

“Yes, I’m married to Marisol’s daughter Nancy.”

“Isn’t that wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Marisol’s daughter all grown up and married.” She drew near me and gave me a weak hug.

“Actually, there is someone—” but I was interrupted by a teacher who wanted to shake Vera’s hand. It was recess, and the children had started pouring out to go play in the schoolyard. I saw Nazario leave to speak with a heavyset woman who looked like the principal. Then Nazario broke off his conversation and walked back to join us. After excusing himself, he asked Vera if she needed a cab back to her hotel. I knew this was my cue to usher Vera to the limo where Bodega waited.

“Actually, there is someone here that will drive you,” I said.

“Oh no, no, I’ll just find a cab. Don’t bother yourself on—” and then her face went white and I turned around to see what had scared her.

“William?” she whispered. Bodega had gotten out of the car and was walking straight toward us.

“Veronica.” He looked miserable. His hands were in his pockets, his shirt collar soaked with sweat. His face looked as if he were dying. Vera swallowed hard then drew herself up to her full height and regained her composure.

“Well, it’s absolutely wonderful to see you, William. How … how … how … are the Lords?” I was happy to see her stumble. Nazario had vanished and the three of us were left there, standing among the schoolchildren.

“The wha’?” Bodega got closer to her, cupping his ear.

“Your friends, the Lords,” she said artificially as if she had gone back to the data banks of her memory and could only come up with that reference. Bodega jerked his head back.

“Oh, yeah, the Lords, yes, yes,” he said without really answering her. For a few seconds no one said anything.

“Let’s take a ride,” I said to break the horrible tension.

“Yes, yes, let’s go around the city,” Bodega quickly agreed, and to my surprise, Vera just followed him. When she saw the car her eyebrows shot up.

“It’s not rented,” Bodega blurted out. “I … I don’t use it much, you know. I still walk almost everywhere.”

“Is this really your automobile, William?” Vera seemed impressed and Bodega took this as a triumph. His chest was a peacock’s. Vera turned her face toward me. “We haven’t seen each other for over twenty years.”

“Twenty-one years, three months, fourteen days,” Bodega said. And then Vera laughed. And with that laugh, Bodega was happy. The driver ushered us all into the car. When the doors were shut, the coolness of the air-conditioned limo was a relief but the stillness and silence made it possible for me to imagine I could hear Bodega’s heartbeat.

“I have something to show you.” His voice shook.

“I’m more than happy to see it,” she said.

“It’s not Miami, Veronica, but—”

She laughed that laugh again. “I really hate Miami, William. Despise it with a passion. Everything is so pink and blue.”

Bodega smiled as if he had won another small battle. He must have believed that if he kept winning these tiny skirmishes, victory would eventually be his. After that there was a long silence, so I thought I’d fill it in.

“I didn’t like Miami either,” I said. “I went to visit friends of mine, Ariel and Naomi, and man, that place was a mall wasteland. There was nothing to do.” That wasn’t true. I had actually had a good time in Miami.

The car pulled up in front of my apartment building on 111th between Lexington and Park. Bodega pressed a button and the tinted window slid robotically down to frame the five newly renovated tenements.

“I own those and others like those, all around the neighborhood.” Her eyes told him she didn’t understand what he meant. “I’m in real estate.”

“Are those really yours?” She leaned her body toward the window to take in the entire view. Her face glowed. “And you have others, you say?” She drew her body back and looked at me for confirmation.

“He’s my landlord.” I began. “He owns—”

“No, they are not mine,” Bodega interrupted. “Veronica, they are for you. They’ve always been for you. I knew you’d come back some day and I wanted you to come back to something different.” She stared at him blankly as the chauffeur opened the door. He extended his hand to Vera, who had to take her eyes off Bodega’s eyes long enough to get out of the car. She stepped out and we followed. Bodega looked around and took a deep breath as if he were smelling a rose rather than Spanish Harlem air.

“I have something else to show you.” Bodega led us to a newly renovated brownstone. There was an art gallery on the first floor, and the three of us stepped inside.

“You like art, right, Veronica?”

“Yes.”

“I saw a special on channel thirteen about that big museum in Moscow.”

“You still watch public television, William?” She laughed and reached her hand to Bodega, who clasped it like a drowning man would a life raft.

“Well, I remember you watched some of those shows too,” he said, smiling and pointing a finger at her as if he knew something she had forgotten.

“Yes, I’m afraid I did,” she confessed, nodding.

“Anyway, I saw a special on that big museum in Moscow.”

“Which one?” Vera asked.

“The big one,” he said.

“You mean the Hermitage?”

“Yeah, that one,” he said, and snapped his fingers because he was embarrassed about his pronunciation and didn’t want to repeat the name. “Yeah, the same exact one. Anyway, I learned that during the Russian Revolution, Lenin sent soldiers to look after the museum so that looters wouldn’t rob the place. That was something. He didn’t care about the czar’s palace. Looters were like all over the palace stealing silverware and stuff but he didn’t want the Russian people to lose their art. Wasn’t that something?” he asked her. She just nodded her head and looked dutifully impressed.

“The second, third, and fourth floors are where the artists live,” he said.

“William, you, a patron? That’s … That’s …” She couldn’t find the words to describe her disbelief.

“That’s right,” he said, liking the sound of it. “I’m a patron. This gallery is for painters from the neighborhood. It’s the neighborhood’s art. I got the idea from Taller Boricua,” he said proudly.

“You’re still the same, William. Still the idealist, eh?” Holding hands, they began to swing them together, slowly, not saying anything.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” I said, thinking it was better to leave them alone. “I’ll tell Nancy that you’re in town. Maybe the two of you could see each other before you leave.”

“Yes, I would like that very much. I held her once when she was a child.” She extended her free hand toward me and gave me a limp handshake. Her blue eyes held mine for a second. Then I extended my hand to Bodega, who all of a sudden looked worried. I knew he wanted to tell me something, but when he didn’t utter a sound, I walked out.

“Wait, I have to speak with you!” He let go of Vera’s hand with no apologies and followed me outside. For the first time since encountering Vera, Bodega acknowledged my existence. All this time he hadn’t taken his eyes off her and had treated me like I was a dust particle. I hadn’t really cared much about that, though it was bad manners.

“Where you going?” he whispered as if he didn’t want Vera to hear him, which was impossible because she was still inside.

“I live right there,” I said, pointing.

“You can’t just leave me, that’s not cool.” He was sweating again, like a guilty suspect in a lineup.

“What’s not cool is you leaving Vera all alone in the art gallery. That’s what’s not cool, and you know wha’—”

“Don’t talk so loud,” he interrupted.

“Look, man, Vera is as nervous as you. I could hear her heart beat inside the car,” I lied.

“Her heartbeat? You heard her heartbeat? You sure?”

“Yeah, pana, she’s just as nervous as you. So go back inside there and tell her exactly what you always wanted to.”

He didn’t say anything to me, just looked down at the pavement, nodded, and walked back to the gallery, back to Vera.

I went inside my building and took the elevator up. When I got to my apartment, I took off my suit and fell asleep. I don’t know when it happened, how long I was out, but a loud knock interrupted my sleep. At first I thought I was dreaming. But when my eyes opened and I saw the ceiling, I knew for sure I was awake. I went to open the door.

“Happy New Year, Julio!” Vera yelled, all silly and sloppy. There was a champagne bottle in her hand.

“You’re being drafted. Here.” Bodega pushed another Dom Pérignon to my chest. “It’s a new year. It’s a new life.”

“Oh, let’s go to Central Park, Izzy. I miss Central Park. You will join us, won’t you, Julio?”

“Well, I have a class later tonight and was hoping to get some sleep—”

“Nah, you coming with us,” Bodega interrupted. “You’ll get enough sleep when yo’r dead.”

“I guess things went well,” I muttered to myself.

“Is my niece home? I would like to see her. Besides, there’s enough champagne for all the Saldivias, isn’t there, Izzy?” She gulped it down so fast that some came streaming out of the side of her mouth. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t a Saldivia, I was a Mercado, and that Blanca was now a Mercado too, but then I thought that was just stupid pride, so I stayed quiet.

“Champagne for all the Saldivias, right, Izzy?” she repeated, laughing. Bodega laughed with her.

“A warehouseful, Veronica.” Then to me, “Pana, when you going to open that bottle?”

“I don’t know,” I said, tilting the bottle a bit, pretending to study the label. Not that I would know what I was reading, all bottles of champagne are the same to me.

“Urn, Nancy is at work and she’s pregnant so I—”

“Pregnant! My niece is pregnant! Now that calls for more champagne. You tell her I must see her. I’m dying to see her.” She leaned against the hallway and rocked her head back, lifted her bottle, and served herself a few streams. “Dying to see her,” she gasped, like an actor who doesn’t know a subtle emotion.

“Come on, Chino,” Bodega urged. His tie was loose and his shirt was wrinkled. Vera’s dress was in worse shape. And her mascara had smeared completely, as if she had been crying.

“Chino?” She laughed that laugh again. “They call you Chino? My niece is married to a Chino? Que bonito y pronto van a tener un chinito.” She laughed, a little hysterically. Un chinito, qué Undo, get it?” It was the first time I heard her speak Spanish. It sounded as natural as her English. Like she was two people.

“Come with us, bro!” Bodega wrapped an arm around my shoulder.

“Yes, do come,” Vera interjected.

“Where you guys going again, Central Park?” I didn’t want to go but had no way of getting rid of them. I wanted to ask them how old they were, just out of spite. But then I thought that people in love should act however they want. Especially Bodega and Vera, who I realized just then were from a different time.

I pictured Bodega back in those days so young, flying with invisible wings. Thinking that freeing an island from U.S. control could be done with passion and intellect. I pictured Bodega gazing into the eyes of the teenaged Veronica and telling her that nothing could be better than the two of them just lying in the Central Park grass, holding each other and merely existing. I pictured Veronica going home to meet her friends on the stoop to talk about her liberator, this Izzy. Her liberator who was first going to free her from her mother, then free Puerto Rico, and later they would both sail back to America like conquistadors in reverse. They would arrive in New York Harbor and Latinos from all five boroughs would be there to greet them. I pictured her telling all this to her friends until they were so sick and tired of it that Veronica herself began to question her liberator until finally the day arrived when she gave Bodega the ultimatum, the Young Lords or her.

“Yes, Central Park sounds good, and then maybe to the Palladium later tonight, Izzy?” She whispered the last part.

“Wherever you want to go,” Bodega told her, and then took a swig. “Just imagine it and I will take you there.”

Vera was right. Bodega was still the same, believing he could recapture what had been lost, stolen, or denied to him and his people. As if the past was recyclable and all he had to do was collect enough cans to make a fortune and make another start. When they arrived at my place plastered, I felt happy for them. Especially for Bodega. His cellular phone, which must have been tucked somewhere in his blazer, kept ringing but he never heard it. He was living in a universe of two, feeling invulnerable.

“I hope you guys know that the Palladium doesn’t exist anymore. They tore it down.” I had no idea why I said that to them. It was the stupidest thing to have said, and considering I was the only sober one I should have been the one with insight.

“Oh, pooh,” Vera pouted, and then got happy again. “Let’s just go, go, go anywhere and do silly things and drink a little more and I want you to teach me how to smoke a joint. You never taught me how to smoke a joint, Izzy. You said you were going to teach me how to roll and smoke but you always put it off.”

“I’m sorry, I was stupid back then, I thought that women shouldn’t smoke joints.” When he said this her eyes lit up.

“Do you have guns, Izzy?” A spark of mischievousness appeared in her eyes.

“Guns?” Bodega was lost. “What about guns?”

“I want to learn how to fire a gun,” she said.

“Why?”

“I always wanted to. Like wanting to roll a joint.”

Bodega smiled as if this was a part of Vera’s street education that had been denied her. A piece of her being that had been dormant all these years and it would be he who would revive it.

“I always wanted to,” she repeated. “And now I’m back.”

“Yes, now you’re back,” he said, and for the first time they stopped talking and just stared at each other.

“Yes, now I’m back,” she said softly, and then took off her engagement ring. A big beautiful rock that you needed to wear shades to look at. A glare that blinded you and brought visions of sunsets and golden sands. “Keep it,” she said, handing it to me. My heart jumped.

“I can’t take this,” I said to her, knowing full well I could. The ring was still warm from the heat of her hand. All I knew was I had never held anything that expensive in my life.

“I don’t want it. I never did,” she said, her eyes still on Bodega.

“Take it!” Bodega said to me. “I’ll buy her one bigger than that. One with a diamond as big as the Palladium.”

They stood there facing each other and for a second I thought they had reached that stage of intoxication where silliness gives way to melancholy and self-pity. When everything and nothing brings you sadness. They embraced and I thought the weeping would start. But then they broke apart and started to walk away from me as if I had never been there. They walked down the stairs holding hands, taking gulps of champagne, and singing, “En mi casa toman Bustelo! En mi casa toman Bustelo!” They sang, drank, laughed, and sang some more.

DMU Timestamp: November 08, 2021 21:20

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