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[5 of 5] Bodega Dreams, Book II, Rounds 9-12 and Book III "Eulogy" by Ernesto Quiñonez (2000)

Author: Ernesto Quiñonez

Quiñonez Ernesto. “Book II, Rounds 9-12 and Book III Eulogy.” Vintage Contemporaries Original: Bodega Dreams, Vintage Contemporaries, New York, 2000.

I Liked the Way You
Stood Up for Us

THE next day when I got home from work, our apartment was still a mess. We’d be living out of boxes for at least another week or two. Somehow, though, a sofa had been installed in a corner and there, drinking coffee, were Blanca and Pastor Miguel Vasquez. After greeting me in Spanish, Pastor Vasquez suggested I join Blanca to hear Roberto’s sermon later that week. I politely declined, saying I had other things going on.

Blanca jumped on that. “With your friends? He has bad associations, Hermano Vasquez. He won’t tell me what he does with them but I know it’s things that Christians don’t do.” I was relieved when the pastor politely explained that since I wasn’t baptized in the Truth he wasn’t going to impose the ethics of a Christian on me. Of course, if I wanted some Bible guidance that was another matter entirely.

“He needs it, Hermano Vasquez,” Blanca implored. “He associates with that man Bodega.” Pastor Vasquez’s eyes grew big and he laughed nervously. He tried to change the subject, told me how the Lord had saved him at a time when he was one of the biggest junkies in the neighborhood, injecting anything and everything, even gasolina, he joked. I was enjoying hearing his saga of being thrown out of his home, living on the streets, and doing short stints in jail for petty theft. But then the Lord appeared to him and I lost interest. Yes, he informed me, he was a lost sheep and the Lord had saved him, gracias a Dios, and who knew, I was probably a lost sheep too. Blanca hung on his every word, nodding her head and taking sneak peeks at me as if to say, “Listen to this, this is for you.”

He was reaching into his fat briefcase, to retrieve his Bible so he could read me a text, when the doorbell rang. I excused myself to answer it, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Who is it?”


When I opened the door two detectives were standing with their badges out.

“Does a Julio Mercado live here?” one asked.

“Julio?” Blanca stood up and walked over to the door. “What do these gentlemen need to see you for?” she asked with artificial formality. Pastor Vasquez was right behind her.

“I’m Detective DeJesus and this is Detective Ortiz. We would like to ask you a few questions.” Both were tall and heavy, so heavy that if either were two inches shorter he’d have been considered fat.

“Concerning?” I said, as my stomach knotted.

“May we come in?”

Now, I know that cops love to get you to invite them in because then they won’t need a warrant and anything you have that’s illegal and in plain view they can arrest you for. It’s a trick they like to pull when they suspect someone but don’t have enough evidence. They invite themselves in and then look around. If you have so much as a half-smoked joint in an ashtray, they’ll haul your ass down for booking. Never let cops inside your house unless they got a warrant, that’s my philosophy.

“Of course!” Blanca said, because she didn’t know any better. To her, authority figures were always good. But I knew that it didn’t matter that these two cops were Hispanic, cops are a race unto themselves. It’s blue first, brown second.

“Would you like some coffee?” Blanca asked them.

They declined, and then looked at me. “Are you Julio Mercado?” It was more a statement than a question.

“That’s me,” I said.

“It looks as if you just moved in,” DeJesus said, stepping over a small box.

“We did,” I said.

“Do you know an Enrique Guzman, goes by the name of Sapo?” That right there told me that although they were Hispanic they weren’t homegrown. They knew as much about East Harlem as Oscar Lewis. Only Blanca referred to Sapo as Enrique. Sapo was always Sapo. Just Sapo. Nothing else.

“We went to junior high together.”

The detective that wasn’t asking the questions started looking around. His head rotated like an owl’s. Blanca and Pastor Vasquez were whispering nervously to each other. At that moment all I wished was for Blanca not to be there. If I could only send her to buy groceries or something, because I intended to say as little as possible to avoid digging myself a hole.

“Do you still keep company?”

“It’s a small neighborhood,” I said. My distrust was palpable.

“Mr. Mercado, we are just here to ask you some questions about the murder of Alberto Salazar. Heard about it?” Another question disguised as a statement. Like welfare caseworkers, the ones that stare at you and your children and know full well what the answers to the questions are but still ask, “What is your sex? Do you have any children?”

“It was all over El Diario,” I answered, stealing a peek at Blanca, whose nostrils were flaring.

“Anything you can tell us would be beneficial.”

“Other than what I’ve read, I don’t know anything.”

“The woman at the botanica, Doña Ramonita, said you were Enrique Guzman’s best friend.”

Even when you’re bleeding you should cover up your wounds. Detectives are good at getting things from you. Like a friendly machete they clear a path through the grasslands for you and then lead you into a pit.

“Exactly, I was. Back in junior high.” I saw angry tears form in Blanca’s eyes.

“We have reports that you’ve been seen riding in Enrique Guzman’s car.”

“He gave me a lift to school once or twice.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Hunter College.”

“Is that your girlfriend?” He motioned with his head toward Blanca.

“No,” I said, lifting my hand in a fist and showing him my wedding ring. “That’s my wife.” I could see that this upset DeJesus a bit, so in my most respectful voice I said, “Look, detective, that’s my wife and that’s Pastor Miguel Vasquez. We were having Bible study. So unless you need something else from me, could you excuse us?” They looked at each other for a second.

“Would you mind coming with us? We have a few pictures and documents we’d like to show you at the station. Take your time. We’ll wait in the car until your meeting with the pastor is over. You’re not under arrest or anything.”

Of course they wanted me to come down to the station; they could have brought those documents and pictures with them. But I couldn’t point that out to them.

Instead I said, “Sure, anything to help.”

“Pleasure.” They both nodded to Blanca and the pastor as they made their way out the door. I now had to look Blanca in the face and explain myself. I wasn’t ready, I had no idea what to say to her. In fact I was shaking with nerves. I had promised to let her know the truth but I had kept things from her.

“I’ll be at my mother’s,” she said, standing. “I need to study. I have an exam tomorrow and I think I’ll stay at my mother’s. Please excuse me, Pastor.” She was crying, and moving around the room with a heavy grace, collecting her books.

I followed her around the living room as she started putting her things in her bag. “It’s nothing. You heard them, no one is arresting anyone.”

“That’s good, because when I see you tomorrow, we’ll need to talk.”

“Blanca, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing! It might be nothing to you, but do you know what just happened? The police were in my house! What do you think you’re doing?” She turned and headed into the bedroom.

I heard her ripping open boxes. She gathered her vitamins, her schoolbooks, and a few items of clothing. She returned to the living room with a duffel bag. Pastor Vasquez obviously felt uncomfortable. He didn’t say anything, just looked down at the floor as if he had mistakenly opened a women’s bathroom door while someone was in the stall.

Blanca was embarrassed too. She knew the congregation would hear about this. “Bueno. Que Cristo te proteja,” Pastor Vasquez said to me as he took Blanca’s bag. Blanca didn’t say anything. They just walked out. I knew they’d talk about me as they walked to Blanca’s mother’s house.

I didn’t know which I dreaded more, dealing with Blanca later or with the police now. I waited a minute before going down to meet the detectives.

They weren’t waiting for me inside the car like they had said. DeJesus was in the lobby, but the other one was missing.

“Where’s your partner?”

“He went to get some coffee,” DeJesus said. We headed out to the car.

A minute later, Ortiz walked out of the building and joined us. He must have been on the roof, looking down. They had made sure I wasn’t going to escape by going out the window and down the fire escape.

The last thing I wanted to do was let on that I had caught them in a lie, so I didn’t ask Ortiz what happened to his coffee.

“This won’t take long, Mr. Mercado.” Ortiz drove.

“Where you from?” I asked them but neither answered. I didn’t bother to ask again, and we rode the rest of the way in silence.

At the 23rd Precinct on 102nd between Lexington and Third, they ushered me inside. It was hot and dimly lit. Hanging from the ceiling were those yellow energy-saving lights from the seventies. It also smelled musty, like old papers, old books, old newspapers with pale brown edges and little bugs crawling everywhere.

They sat me down on a bench and told me to wait. DeJesus and Ortiz went over to a desk across the hall and started to joke around with the cop that sat there. It was busy, cops typing reports, taking complaints, talking on the phone, and I sat there totally unnoticed until DeJesus and Ortiz came back and waited with me.

“The captain has a few things to run by you.”

“What’s the captain’s name?” I asked. They didn’t answer me.

After about ten minutes being sandwiched by the two, I asked, “Will he be long?” Again they didn’t answer me.

“Look,” I said, standing up. “I am here on my own time. If you want me to cooperate with you, then answer my question. Out of common courtesy, one Latino to another.”

DeJesus, the shorter and therefore fatter of the two, showed his nails.

“You and me have nothing in common,” he sneered. “I’m Cuban, you’re Puerto Rican.” I decided not to point out that I was only half Puerto Rican.

“Take it easy,” Ortiz told his partner.

“Well, this ain’t Miami,” I said. “You’re in my backyard, so don’t disrespect me.”

“You better watch your back, Mercado,” DeJesus muttered, sneering.

“Take it easy, DeJesus,” Ortiz repeated.

“You’re so into it you smell like Boricua!” DeJesus didn’t seem to have heard his partner. “If it was up to me I’d send you all back to that monkey island of yours.” That did it, I had to say something.

“You’re from a monkey island yourself. At least Puerto Ricans leave of their own free will. Castro kicked your ass out!”

“What did you say!” DeJesus rose and got up in my face.

Ortiz stepped between us and sat me down. He didn’t say anything to his partner. Just then a door a few feet in front of the bench opened and DeJesus shut his trap.

The detectives led me into the office, where the captain sat behind a desk. I was seated in front of him and the two detectives sat on a little couch by the window. I thought about the first time I had met Bodega. It had been a similar set-up, Bodega sitting behind a desk and me sitting in front on some cheap-ass chair. Somehow even then I knew that meeting would lead me here, to the precinct. But the damage was already done. I was here and all I could do now was try never to come back. The hard part was doing that without ratting on anyone.

“Mr. Mercaydo, I’m Captain Leary,” he said, mispronouncing my name. He was a tall man with white hair and a ruddy complexion. He looked like he had been around a long time just getting ready to retire.

“You need something from me, Captain?”

“Funny, isn’t it?” he said, sliding a crime-scene picture across the desk. “A piece of his shoulder was just chewed right out.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ve seen funnier things,” I said calmly. But inside I was on fire. At that minute I was mad as hell. I was mad at myself for getting into this and I was mad at that Cuban detective for being a pig. And I was mostly mad at the fact that I could do nothing about it.

“Oh yes, I’ve seen much funnier.” The captain talked as if he were bored; it was all a formality, something he had done too many times and could do in his sleep. He then opened an envelope and handed me some documents.

The Harry Goldstein Real Estate Agency. There were copies of all the building’s leases, showing ownership by that company.

“Do you recognize that agency?”

“Sure. My wife and I write them a rent check every month.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw DeJesus squirm in his chair. Ortiz just sat on the couch quietly.

“Does the name William Irizarry mean anything to you?”


“What about the name Willie Bodega. Mean anything?”

“No.” I was in America and in America you can say that rain falls dry and you let the jury decide if it’s true or not.

“Look, son.” He folded his hands and said in a paternal tone, “I know you’re a good kid. You go to school and work hard. Your wife is expecting, you’re going to be a father. That’s great. We checked you out, you’re clean. You hopped a few turnstiles when you were fifteen, but that’s about it.” He leaned back in his chair. “You have nothing to worry about. But at times good people are led astray. They don’t know any better because they think that these people are their friends. If Bodega has got something on you, you can tell us.” Right then I knew they may have known a lot about Bodega but they had very little on him. They needed evidence, testimony, something concrete.

“I’ve no idea about this Bodega, sir. And I’m not your son.” And then, with a more respectful tone, “Sir.”

The captain leaned forward, smiling slightly. “Let me give you a scenario. You have a reporter that gets in over his head. He gets killed and then you find out that reporter was dirty. He belonged to another drug lord. He was killed by that drug lord’s rival. It’s only a matter of time before the other guy fights back, and then what do you have?” He wanted me to say a war.

“Sounds like trouble.”

“He’s jerking us around,” DeJesus said. “He’s been seen with Enrique Guzman. If you know Enrique Guzman you know Willie Bodega.”

“Hey.” I faced DeJesus. “When Frank Sinatra was alive he’d be dining with a bunch of mafiosos every night, but you guys never brought him in for questioning.”

“Sit down, please sit down,” Leary said to me calmly. Ortiz patted the air near his friend, telling him to calm down.

“Look,” I said, “I’ve got things to do. Now, I told you what I know and, like you, I have a job to do. So if you are going to arrest me for something, you tell me what it is and let me call a lawyer. Otherwise don’t waste my time and yours.” I bluffed, because if they were to detain me, Nazario was the only lawyer I knew and that might lead right to Bodega.

“Bullshit.” DeJesus spat. Leary sighed. Ortiz just shook his head.

“You’re free to go,” Leary said. Sounded like salsa to me.

“What! Leary, come on!” DeJesus said, getting up from the couch.

“I’ll walk you out, Mr. Mercado,” Ortiz said to me. I thanked both him and the captain. I had nothing to say to DeJesus.

“Just one thing, son.” This time Leary emphasized the word, patronizingly. “If I see you as much as jaywalking, I’ll have you right back here, and next time I won’t be as understanding.” As if he had been. But it was all right. He had nothing and was just trying to scare me.

Ortiz was silent as we walked out of the precinct and onto the street. I was ready to walk away, but Ortiz wasn’t through.

Mira, Mercado, I was raised in Jersey, but I’m originally from San Juan. I hope you understand,” he said, “that DeJesus is my partner. I didn’t like what he said about us. But, right or wrong, I have to back my partner.”

“Sure.” I understood.

“Good. Now, I really hope you told the truth. I really hope you’re clean, Mercado,” Ortiz said. “Cuz I liked the way you stood up for us.”

The Saddest Part Is
Turning Off the Lights

I was still shaking when I got home at about eight-thirty. I wondered if I really was clean, or if I was somehow involved in all of this more than I wanted to think. But what worried me more was that Blanca might not come back. I should have bought a machine so I could check messages, but I had never gotten around to it. So I called her mother’s right away.


“Yes, it’s me.” She knew I’d call.

“Everything’s all right, see? I’m home.”

“I wish I was one of those people that stays mad, Julio. I wish I was one of those people who hates forever; you deserve it. You’ve been lying to me all this time—”

“I’m sorry, Nancy.”

“You could’ve told me the truth from the beginning and still counted on me.”

“Nancy, from now on, I swear I’ll never hide anything from you. I’ll tell you the complete truth—”

“I don’t want to know the truth,” she said. “It’s too late for it and I don’t want to hear it. Let’s not say anything right now, okay? I’m going to be staying at Mami’s for a while. At least until the baby is born. I think that’s best. Best for both of us.”

“All right,” I said sadly. “Just promise you’ll come back.”

“I’ll be back,” she whispered. Then, after a pause, “Just not, not right now.”

“All right. But you know I love you.”

“Please!” Her voice sailed a notch. “Just let me stay at my mother’s for a while, all right?”

“All right. Whatever you want.”

“I’ll be there tomorrow with la Hermana Santiago to pick up some things. And Julio …” She paused. “I don’t know how to say this, but I hope you aren’t home when we get there.”

“Okay.” I was in no position to bargain. When your wife says she’s leaving you, whether it’s for a few days or months or forever, you don’t object. You just let her go. You might want to ask her if she needs money, but in our case Blanca always had more money than me.

“Do you need money?” I asked anyway.

“Do you need money?” she quickly replied.

“No … I’m okay,” I said, knowing I was broke. “Call me when you can.”

“Take care of yourself.” She hung up. I looked around the apartment. It was a mess, so many things out of place. All of a sudden the place seemed empty and dark. The boxes that were stacked up against the wall would remain unopened. There was no need to make this place feel like home.

The phone rang. I jumped at it.


“Nah, it’s Negra.”

“Negra, I’ve no time for you, okay?”

“Well, you better make some time, Chino—”

“Blanca just left me.” I wanted anyone’s sympathy all of a sudden.

“You serious? Don’t play with me, play lotto. You serious?”

“Walked out.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“So listen, she might call back. Can you leave the line free, please?”

“All right. I’m sorry to hear that, but you do owe me, Chino. Just remember that.”

“Negra! Get off the line!” I yelled.

“Dag, it’s not my fault my sister left you—” I hung up on her and went to wash my face. The phone rang again.


“Chino, you owe me big.” It was Negra again. I sighed and let her talk. “You owe me big.” I sort of knew what she wanted. Blanca had told me.

“Negra, what makes you think I can have your husband beat up?”

“Don’t insult me. I know who your friends are.”

“Even if I could, Negra, I ain’t having Victor beat up, all right? That’s all.”

“Come on, Chino. He won’t even know you had something to do with it.”

“You solve your own marital problems, Negra.”

“Chino, just a little bit. Get Nene to knock him around some or Sapo to bite him. Like the way they tag-teamed that reporter.” I was silent after that. How did she know?

“What are you talking—”

“Come on, Julio, don’t take me for a fool.”

“All right, all right. The cops were here, that’s why Blanca left.”

“No shit. They’ve been talking to a lot of people. But no one’s saying anything.”

“Have they talked to you?”

“Not me. But you ain’t getting out of this one. Victor. What are you going to do about Victor? I want him hurt. You owe me.”

“All right. I’ll see what I can do,” I said, even though I didn’t mean it. I just wanted her off the phone.

“You serious, Chino?”

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“Now, I don’t want him dead,” she said carefully. “Or broken, you know, because I want him back. I just want to teach him a lesson, thass all.”

“Of course.”

“I like his nose. Don’t let anyone break his nose.”

“Is that all?”

“Actually, leave his face the way it is, I always thought he was cute. Go for the body.”

“Of course. Look, I have to go.”

“Leave his balls alone. Like I said, I’m planning on taking him back.”

“Negra, I have to go!” I shouted.

“All right, all right.” And then, Negra allowed herself to become a bit human again. “Chino, I’m sorry about Blanca, okay. You two will patch it up.”

“Thanks,” I whispered, and Negra hung up.

I had gone to bed hoping that Blanca would call, but after two hours of tossing and turning I gave up hope. The hardest thing was falling asleep. It was as if I had snorted all the coke in the world and my eyes hurt but my brain couldn’t shut itself off. Thoughts of Blanca, the pastor, the cops, Bodega raced through my mind like the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. I began to think at what point in time I could have done things differently. Where were those interesting lines that I could have avoided?

I tried to empty my mind, but I still couldn’t sleep. The refrigerator hummed loudly, like a Buddhist on crack. I could hear every noise in the building. A pot fell in 4F, a baby was crying in 3B, they were watching television in 2A. Every sound was magnified. I realized I hadn’t made love to Blanca in over a month.

So I got up. I turned on the television but the reception was bad. I made myself a sandwich. I opened a box where some of my books were and found The Stranger. Maybe I could get lost in someone else’s misfortunes for a change. I fixed up my pillow and began to read. It was a book I had once loved and carried around with me, but I knew the real reason I was reading The Stranger wasn’t because I wanted to drift back into the past. It was simpler than that. I was afraid and missed Blanca. And when you’ve been with someone for a long time and they leave you, the saddest part is turning off the lights.

Worth All the Souls in Hell

THE next day I went to work. It felt good to go, because it took my mind off things. It felt good to be busy and not have to think about my own troubles. I wanted to see Bodega like I wanted to see a leper, so I avoided the places I knew Sapo might be driving around collecting. Besides, I had Detectives DeJesus and Ortiz to worry about. As for Blanca, I didn’t want to think too much about her, for I might have broken down and started crying in public, embarrassing the hell out of myself. I kept telling myself that she was safe and that she would return to me once she’d had the baby, maybe sooner. I kept telling myself that Blanca believed strongly that all kids should have a father and a mother. With that in mind, I tried to let it go.

After work, I had class, so I went home to pick up my books. As soon as I entered I knew that Blanca had been there. I saw that some of the boxes in which she had packed her clothes had been emptied and some were even missing. It made me feel sad. I gathered up the books I needed and got out of the apartment as quickly as I could.

After a few blocks, I bought a piragua from the old man dressed like a sailor who walked around the neighborhood pushing his piragua cart, which had fake sails. On the side of his cart read, “Aquí me quedo”—here I stay. He made the best piraguas in the neighborhood. I was asking for a tamarindo piragua when someone called my name.

“Chino. So, like, I hear you were asked to dinnah?” It was Sapo. His car was right next to the curb.

“Look, man,” I said, checking for DeJesus and Ortiz, just in case, “they want your boss. Now I told them nothin’, but from now on he’s on his own.”

“Thass cool. I heard you were a fucken rock. Like they brought in the nuns and even them bitches couldn’t make you talk.”

“I have a class,” I said, tired of Sapo and all the rest.

“I hear that. So, mira, Chino, I know your alleluia wife booked—”

“What the fuck—? Who the fuck told you that?”

“Negra, thass who. Somethin’ about gettin’ Victor beat up? Anyway, don’t sweat Negra, cuz—”

“Look, I have to go. Wan’ a piragua, tell me now,” I said to him.

“You. I wan’ you, bro. I was sent to get you, homey.”

“I ain’t going nowhere with you.”

“Yes you are, cuz Vera’s husband is waiting for you at Ponce de Leon Restaurant, you know that restaurant, doncha? That place by 116th and Lex?”

“I ain’t goin’.”

“You told Bodega you was gonna go.”

“Not anymore.”

“Well, this might change your mind. Afterward Bodega and Vera are gonna pay a visit to her sistah. Thass right, your alleluia wife’s mother.” I perked up. “Thought that’d get you horny.” Sapo smiled his Sapo smile and the old man finished scraping his big block of ice and packed the tiny icicles in a paper cup.

“See, Chino, this will make you mad happy. Bodega and Vera plan to stick up for you. Vera plans on convincing her sistah to convince her daughter to return to you. I mean, it’s not like you been dickin’ other women. Thass all the bochinche I have for you now. Still goin’ ta class?”

The old man colored the tiny icicles a light orange-brown by dripping a homemade tamarindo syrup all over my piragua. He wrapped a napkin around the paper cup and offered it to me. I paid, thanked him, and got in Sapo’s car.

“You know those two detectives, Ortiz and DeJesus?” I asked Sapo.

“Yeah, they sorry niggas.”

“This is serious, bro.”

“I know. They been sniffin’ at Bodega fo’ evah. They been like askin’ Bodega’s tenants questions and shit. Thass how they got to you, some fucken person in da buildin’ pointed your way. We’ll find out who and make the nigga homeless.”

“Sapo,” I said, “I know you didn’t exactly kill Salazar.” He didn’t answer me and I left it at that. Sapo then made a left turn and we were on 116th and Third.

“ ‘Memba the Cosmo useta be here?” Sapo pointed at a department store that was once a theater.

“Yeah, they showed the worst movies in all the nine planets.”

“You got good weed, though, and the movies were mad cheap.”

We reached the restaurant, which was down the block, just opposite where the Cosmo used to be. I got out of the car. I finished off my piragua and threw the paper cup in the trash.

“Inside, go to the back, Chino. All the way to the back. Behind the kitchen. You’ll see him back there. Can’t miss ’im. Nigga is old. I don’t know where the fuck Bodega dug up that fossil.” And then Sapo took off.

I walked inside to great smells. Arroz asopado, pasteles, lechón asado, empanadas, camarones fritos. A waiter saw me and seemed to recognize immediately that I was not there to eat. He ushered me all the way to the back of the restaurant and into a small room behind the kitchen. I could hear the sounds of dishes hitting against one another as they were washed by hand.

In the room was a small table with a candle and an old man sitting with a suitcase at his feet. He was well dressed. His suit looked expensive and he wore cufflinks. He smelled of good aftershave and his shoes were polished to a high shine. His watch was expensive too. But his face was a wasteland, as if his best years had been spent working in a coal mine. It made me want to trade in the watch and the suit in return for him not having worked as hard as he obviously had to get those things. I went over to him and introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Julio Mercado.” I extended my hand and he got up from his chair to shake it.

“John Vidal,” he said in a tired, old voice. “Could you please tell me what this is all about?” I didn’t say anything. “My wife called me a day ago hysterically crying, and told me to come up to New York.” He sounded worried. “I asked her why. Why she didn’t just return. She continued to cry, so I agreed to come. On the phone she gave me this address. I thought this was a hotel.” He sat down. I felt a little bad for him; he was lost and Miami was far away.

“I met your wife, she’s my wife’s aunt.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. He jumped to his feet again.

“Then you must know where my wife is. Vera is not like this at all. She wanders … but always comes back to me.”

“She’ll be here,” I said.

“The waiter said the same thing. But I’ve been waiting for hours.”

“Have you eaten?” I was desperate for something to say.

“No, I’m not hungry. I just want my wife.” He sat back down defiantly. “I’ve got things, important things to do back in Miami. Vera, you better have a good reason for doing this,” he said even though she wasn’t there. When the waiter walked through the door and brought us coffee, placing the cups carefully on the table as if they were live grenades, Vidal didn’t even bother to look up.

“Who are you really?” he asked.

“I’m Vera’s niece’s husband. My wife, Nancy, is her—”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, and waved away the rest of my response. “Yes, yes, you’ve told me. Now, look here, young man.” I would never have guessed he was Latin. He was more American than Mickey Mouse and just as old. “I’m going to go to the police. I get the feeling my wife is being held against her will.”

“Your wife will be here.” Bodega was punishing him. I was too tired to feel bad for Vidal or anybody; I had my own problems. I started to get hungry. The good smells were overpowering. I asked him if he was hungry again but he didn’t answer me. It felt uncomfortable to be in that room with him, but I had to stay. If what Sapo had told me was true, I knew that Vera’s talk with her sister would influence Blanca. I needed allies to get Blanca to return. What better ally than Blanca’s mother?

The time dragged. So I thought about Blanca and the early days. All the places we went to and the things we had done. Like the day she told me she was pregnant. How she had wrapped a present for me and, smiling, said happy birthday. I told her it wasn’t my birthday and she punched my shoulder and said she knew. When I unwrapped it, there was a baby rattle. She hugged me, telling me that unplanned babies are the most loved. I got nervous because we were still in school and didn’t have real jobs, but I was happy. God, that was only a couple months ago. When did things start going bad? I needed to get this all fixed up. I wanted my wife back.

Finally Bodega and Vera walked in. Bodega was wearing a new suit. It wasn’t all white like the one I had last seen him wear. This was a very fine dark blue suit, probably Italian, with a satin red handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket. His shirt, tie, and shoes were color-coordinated, evidence that Vera had dressed him for the occasion.

When Vidal saw Vera, he shot up from his seat and headed over to her, but Bodega stopped him. I could see he didn’t want the old man to touch her. Vera was silent. Her head hung low. She looked like she had been crying.

“Vera, is everything all right?” Vidal asked.

“Everything is fine,” Bodega answered him.

“And may I ask who you are?” he inquired politely.

“William Irizarry,” Bodega barked. Vidal looked at Bodega for only a second. He was trying to figure it all out but couldn’t. He didn’t have a clue. He then looked back at his wife.

“Do you owe this gentleman something?” he asked her kindly. “Money? Anything? Vera, please, speak to me.” He was going to touch her hair, to comfort her, but Bodega knocked his hand aside. Vera was silent.

“Listen, Mr. Irizarry. I’m not sure what this is all about—”

“Stop it! Stop it!” Vera cried. “John, I’m … I’m … I’m leaving you.” She forced it out of herself.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your wife, she never loved you,” Bodega blurted as Vera buried her face in Bodega’s shoulder. “She always loved me.” His chest swelled up. Vidal stayed silent for a few seconds. Bodega stared at him like a cobra waiting to bite. Vidal looked at Bodega for a moment before his eyes returned to his wife.

“Vera, please, let me help you. Tell me what is this all about.” Like Vera, he was almost in tears. He looked tired and hurt. Bodega then cradled her face in his hands.

“Tell him,” Bodega almost whispered. “Tell him you never loved him. Tell him you’re staying with me.”

Vera looked at Bodega as if the suggestion was inappropriate. As if affairs were all right just as long as they were kept in the dark.

“William,” she cried. “I’m leaving him, isn’t that enough?”

“Yes, but tell him you never loved him,” he said gently, letting go of her face. She then looked at her husband, whose head shook in disbelief.

“John.” She sniffled. “John, I cared for you once because—”

“It’s okay, Vera,” he said tenderly. “Just come back with me.”

“Don’t you see?”—Bodega got closer to the old man—“She’s leaving you.” Vera’s husband seemed intimidated. Bodega was the block bully. Bodega took a step back and stood behind Vera, placing his hands on her shoulders. She looked at the floor. Her tears dropped onto the wood, leaving little clear dots on the floor.

“I’m sorry, John. But I still feel young,” she said, lifting her head and wiping her tears away.

“When I met you I was just a teenager and you were this, this man, from a world that was foreign to me.” She swallowed hard and Bodega squeezed her shoulders, urging her on. “I liked your life. My parents knew, I knew, I needed to get out of this place.”

“It’s all right, Vera. It’s all in the past,” Vidal said. “From now on, we’ll do things—”

“Don’t you see, John? I don’t need you anymore. You are an old man!” He staggered back. Her words were like daggers. “You are useless. You can’t even make love anymore.”

“I see,” he said calmly. But Vera wouldn’t stop.

“You are just an old man who can only find comfort in how much money he makes.” Bodega seemed proud of her. He watched with the assurance of a parent who is in the audience watching his daughter perform. I could tell by Vera’s hesitation in telling her husband those horrible things that it was Bodega who was really talking, through her. Maybe it was something that he had practiced with her, had her recite until she got it right. Vera might have been in love with Bodega all along but somehow I didn’t think she meant to say all those cruel things to her husband.

“I see,” Vidal repeated. He then gathered himself up, adjusted his tie, and brushed his blazer. He cleared his throat. “And may I ask,” he said to her, “may I ask who was there when you needed money? For your salons? Your new clothes that remain untouched in your closets? Your health foods and yoga classes?” He paused when Bodega let go of Vera’s shoulders and clenched his fists. “The day I took you to the Met. Remember? You had been living in this city all your life and had never been there. Remember that day—”

“Stop it! Stop it!”

“You wanted to see everything and know everything.”

Bodega dug in his pockets. He took the ring and held it up to the old man’s face. He then let it fall slowly from his hand, like a drop of water. Vidal recognized the ring. He knelt down and silently picked it up, then held it in front of him for a moment before putting it in his pocket. His face was serene.

His eyes left Vera and looked at Bodega. “You want her? Then I must tell you things about my wife.”

“I don’t need to hear anything from you. I know everything about Veronica—”

“Veronica?” Vidal laughed, his eyes mocking Vera. “Veronica. I haven’t heard you called that since our wedding day.”

“Shut up, John.” She seemed desperate for him to be quiet.

The old man’s eyes returned to Bodega. “But you see, I must warn you about my wife. About her affairs. There have been so many. I personally never cared. She always came back to me. You see, her body is an international hotel, it has taken in men from all over the world.”

“Say one more fucken word and I break your face.”

“Ah,” the old man said, looking at Bodega more closely, “now I know who you are, you are that old boyfriend.” He started to laugh. “Now I know what this is about.” His eyes left Bodega and went back to Vera. “How long has this one been going on, Vera?”

“Just shut up! Shut up!”

“Did you get tired of the ones in Miami? Did you come here for this ex-thug who—”

Bodega lost it. He grabbed the old man by the blazer and shoved him against the wall. I tried to pull Bodega off. Bodega let go of the blazer. Vidal laughed even harder.

“What are you going to do, kill me? Pah!”

Bodega gritted his teeth. “I’m not a nobody.”

“I spotted your kind as soon as you walked in the door with my wife. You’re one of those nickel-and-dime drug people. It figures, that’s all you people in this neighborhood can do. You couldn’t make an honest buck if the work was given to you. My wife isn’t going anywhere with you and this nonsense is over.” He grabbed Vera by the hand and pulled her over. Bodega slapped him and pulled Vera back. After the old man regained his balance he reached inside his blazer and took out a cellular phone.

But before he could finish dialing, Vera shot him.

She shot him only once but it was enough. The sound of the bullet didn’t disturb anyone. It was a dull pop, a sound drowned out by the dishes being washed next door. For a second Vidal stared blankly at Vera, lost in a fog of shock and disbelief. He spat, coughed, and then fell flat on the floor, his hand still clutching the phone. Bodega quickly went over to Vidal, propped his head up, and looked for a pulse. Bodega looked hard into the old man’s eyes as if he wanted them to look back at him and share his strength, come back to life. But the old man’s blood was running backward in his veins and God wouldn’t reconsider.

I looked at Vera, who had let the gun drop and was backing up against the wall. She slid all the way down to the floor until her legs bent and her knees pressed against her chest. She hid her face with her hands.

I had done nothing but watch in a sweat.

“Jam the door, Chino!” Bodega said to me, as he pulled the tablecloth off the table. Everything that was on top fell to the floor, like the old magic trick done wrong.

“Don’t let anyone come in.” He laid the cloth on the floor and rolled the old man in it. I didn’t know what else to do so I did as I was told. Then Bodega began to curse.

Coño! Fuck! Carajo, what the fuck was that shit for?” He stormed over to Vera. “Shit, Vera, who the fuck told you to shoot him!” he yelled.

“I’m sorry!” she yelled back, still hiding her face with her hands.

“Ave Maria, coño, me cago en la madre.”

“I’m sorry, William,” she said, still crouching on the floor. “I’m sorry.”

Bodega then knelt down beside her. “Vera?”

“Oh my God, I’ve killed him. Oh my God, I’m sorry, William. You can’t let me go to prison, please, William.”

Bodega moved her hands away, uncovering her face. “It’s all right, mami, you won’t go to prison,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry.”

“Chino, help me get her up.”

Vera’s legs were weak; like a calf that is learning to walk, she was wobbly and disoriented. We sat her down and she placed her head on the table, hiding her face in her hands again. Bodega knelt down beside the old man’s body, now wrapped in the tablecloth. Bodega took the phone out of Vidal’s clutch. He made a quick call. He spoke very quietly, making sure I didn’t hear. Not that it mattered. I knew that Nazario was on the other end of the line. Then he hung up.

“Listen.” He placed his hand on my shoulder. “You were the only one here.” He looked straight in my eyes and whispered, “You were the only one who saw me shoot.”

I froze. “What?”

“I shot him,” Bodega said, making sure Vera didn’t hear anything. “You understand me, Chino?”

I nodded, but right then I knew Bodega was lost. His dreams about the neighborhood had been too close to his love for Vera, incestuous cousins that had no right getting involved. When he looked at me that night, his face still had that radiant look, that well-focused beam that couldn’t miss its target. But miss it, it would.

“It was my gun.”

“What was she doing with it?”

“We’d gone shooting by the East River,” he said.

To this day, I think that in a weird way Bodega was actually happy that Vera’s husband was dead. His bloodstained suit didn’t put out that spark in his conscience that told him Vera was all his. Her vows had been severed for sure. Now, as in the past, he and Nazario would clean up the mess and he could continue dreaming. Only this time, Vera would be by his side.

“Do you understand?”

“I hear you.” I didn’t understand and had nothing else to add.

“I’m sorry about your wife,” he said sadly, and then looked back at Vera, who had lit up a cigarette and was nervously smoking it.

“I’ll deal with it,” I said, looking at Vera.

“I’ll help you,” Bodega said, as if I was the one that needed help. As if a dead man was not lying on the floor.

No te apure, we’ll get her back.” He smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll see what we can do about it.”


What else was I supposed to say? Bodega went back to Vera, sat next to her, placed his arms around her. Her face looked absent, as if she were slowly going mad.

“Hey, Willie,” I said as I was about to walk out the door, “I think you’re worth all the souls in hell. Thass thousands of more souls than there are in heaven. So you’re worth a lot, pana.” He laughed a short laugh; his eyes met mine very deeply, then shifted away. And he just sat there next to Vera as he waited for Nazario.

I left them alone with that dead guy on the floor, who meant nothing to me. Wasn’t family or anything. I left them there in that room sitting next to each other like two birds on a branch.

WHEN I got home, I realized that telling Bodega that he was worth all the souls in hell was the only compliment, if it was a compliment, I had ever given him or would ever give him. The next day, Bodega was dead.

“The Way a Hero Sandwich Dies
in the Garment District at Twelve O’Clock
in the Afternoon”

THE following day El Barrio resembled a country under martial law. It was a battleground full of squad cars, reporters, and camera crews.

Earlier that morning I had been awakened by loud pounding on the door.

“Who is it?”

“Mr. Mercado? Open up, we need you to come with us.” It was Ortiz and DeJesus. I opened the door.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked.

“No. Not at all.” Ortiz made it a point to be straight with me.

“Then I can’t go. I have to go to—”

“William Irizarry is dead,” Ortiz said. My empty stomach began making dying-animal sounds.


“Last night. He was shot.”

“Who shot him?” I asked.

“Come with us,” DeJesus growled. I didn’t really care. It was too early to worry about his dirty looks.

I got dressed and went with them.

Outside, the streets were dark blue in the early morning light. There was a lot of brass commanding teams of policemen; sending them by fours and at times by sixes, all combing the neighborhood for something or maybe as a show of force. It was cruel arithmetic. Four men with guns to a single corner. Other than cops, the streets were pretty much empty of people. Only cops roamed the streets, if not on foot, then patrolling in squad cars, slowly driving up and down the avenues, from First to Fifth, from 125th to 96th, circling Spanish Harlem like sharks. Instead of salsa music, police walkie-talkies were on full blast, bombarding the streets with what sounded like a nest of hissing snakes.

But I wasn’t thinking of anything but Bodega. Bodega was dead. The last time I’d seen him, he was going to take the rap for his love. I kept picturing him reassuring Vera that everything was going to be all right. Reassuring her so often and in such a heartfelt way that she probably believed him. I wondered if Vera was dead too.

As soon as I entered the 23rd, with Ortiz and DeJesus, I saw Nazario. At first I thought he was under arrest, but when I saw Vera sitting next to him on the wooden bench, I knew he had been waiting for me.

“This man is also my client,” he said to DeJesus and Ortiz. Vera was very much alive and seemed more composed than when I’d last seen her. But she also seemed exhausted. Her makeup was smudged and her clothes rumpled. It reminded me of the day when she and Bodega had arrived at my place all drunk and happy.

“He is not under arrest,” Ortiz said.

“Then let him go home.”

“The captain wants to ask him—”

“But it’s all already there,” Nazario said calmly. “All the reports have been signed. All accounts taken, all eyewitnesses questioned. It’s all there.” Nazario must have been at the 23rd a lot longer than I thought. I knew he knew everything: who had killed Bodega and why. I was wondering how much of the whole truth, if any, Nazario had told the police. And how much of the truth would he tell me?

“No! It’s not all there,” DeJesus barked. “We have reports that Mercado was a witness.” I stayed quiet. Nazario coldly gazed at DeJesus, like a snake studying a mouse.

“Can I have a minute alone with my client?”

“Sure. He’s not under arrest,” Ortiz said. They backed away a few steps and Nazario and I turned our backs to them. Vera stayed seated.

“Just say you weren’t there when John Vidal was shot,” was all he said.

“What happened to Willie?” I whispered back, but he ignored the question.

“Don’t worry.” Nazario rubbed his eyes as if he needed sleep. “Just say you weren’t at the restaurant, and we’ll all go home.” He released a deep, tired sigh.

We faced Ortiz and DeJesus. Nazario went over to where Vera was sitting, and told her that he’d be coming back. She nodded and dug in her purse for her compact. She had cried a lot and needed to check the damage. DeJesus and Ortiz led us to Leary’s crowded office. Leary was being mobbed by people who didn’t look like cops, but I couldn’t have cared less. When he spotted DeJesus, Ortiz, Nazario, and me, Leary excused himself and met us outside his office. Leary looked at me. He pursed his lips and shook his head. Leary’s eyes were as tired as Nazario’s.

“So, let’s keep it simple. Mr. Mercaydo, were you at Ponce de Leon Restaurant at any time yesterday?”


“Fine.” He gestured for Ortiz and DeJesus to take us away. To him, this was all a formality, as if he knew what I was going to say beforehand, as if he was happy that I’d said this because it would cut his paperwork in half and he could wrap things up.

“Shouldn’t he sign a statement, Captain?” DeJesus protested.

“My client doesn’t have to sign anything,” Nazario interjected.

Leary agreed. He had all he wanted. It didn’t matter that he might have a few loose ends here or there. The most important part, two of three homicides—Alberto Salazar, John Vidal, and William Irizarry—had been solved in one day. William Irizarry was being held responsible for the murders of both Alberto Salazar and John Vidal. I didn’t yet know for sure who had killed Bodega, but like Leary I had an idea.

Without saying anything to Leary, Nazario and I walked out. Leary went back into his office, braced for the mob inside. Nazario and I went over to get Vera, who sat silently at the bench. The three of us exited the precinct, Vera’s heels clacking in the early morning.

Outside a car was waiting for Nazario. He opened the door for Vera. She hadn’t spoken a word to me and I didn’t really care. I had nothing to say to her. Nothing.

Vera got in the car. Nazario told the driver to wait for a moment.

“Willie is dead.” He looked at the concrete. “It was Fischman.”


“He shot him. Listen,” he said coldly, “we had to lay all the blame on Willie, because Willie was already dead. Understand?”

“I understand. When was he shot?”

“On his way to give himself up.”

“For Vera?”


“Then you know it was Vera who shot John Vidal,” I said.

He didn’t answer me.

“Why didn’t Nene or you go with him when he went to turn himself in?”

“He wanted to go alone.”

“And you let him?”

“It’s late.” That’s all he said. His eyes pressed shut as tight as a lizard’s. I didn’t bother to press him because Nazario would never tell me everything. I would have to ask Sapo. Nazario just got in the car.

I understood Nazario. Bodega was already dead. Why have other people locked up? Nazario was cutting everything loose, even if it meant letting the cops deal with Fischman. Too many people were dead already, and why have others die by going after Fischman? Without Bodega, there was no point in continuing. Nazario was too practical for vengeance. He had cut everyone’s losses and just wanted to get home with whatever it was he could salvage. It was all he could do because it was all over. Bodega’s dreams were dead. They died quickly, “the way a hero sandwich dies in the garment district at twelve o’clock in the afternoon,” as the poet Piñero put it. All he could do now was protect Bodega’s friends, Sapo, me, Nene, and of course Vera. It was what Bodega would have wanted Nazario to do.

That’s how I thought the pieces fell. It was all over.

Then, later that day, Negra paid me a visit.

SHE KEPT banging on the door, harder and harder, saying, “I know you’re in there, Chino, open up!” I was lying on the sofa with those unopened boxes all around me, staring at the ceiling. I was in no mood to see her. My life seemed too sad for me to talk to anyone. “Chino! I know you’re in there!” Blanca was gone and Bodega was dead. The neighborhood was all in blue. Cops were all over the place and I didn’t want to go to work because I didn’t want to go back out and see the streets that way.

Negra kept pounding at the door, but there was no way I could get up. I was defeated and wallowing in self-pity. Then the pounding stopped. I thought Negra had gone home. Maybe now I could get some sleep. Maybe I’d wake up and feel a bit better. Maybe even visit Blanca after she got out of work. If she’d see me. Would she see me? Yeah, she might.

I kept thinking all these useless things and by the time I realized that the window to the fire escape was open, it was too late. I leaped off the sofa and headed toward the bedroom, where the fire escape was, but when I got there Negra was already climbing through the window and into my house.

“I knew you were in here!” she yelled at me.

“Aw, Negra, what do you want?” I said, and returned to the living room and lay down on the sofa.

She stood over me. “Chino, Victor’s still okay.”

“Amazing,” I said, “the streets are crawling with cops and you break into my house. Amazing. New York’s Finest.” I sighed, thinking that my fire escape faced the street and yet no one spotted her. Or maybe nobody cared.

“I don’t give a fuck about what’s happened. I want Victor hurt.”

“I thought you took him back. Why you still want him hurt? Besides,” I said, lifting my head a bit to look at her, “how do you s’pose I’m going to do that now, when Bodega is dead?” Just saying his name out loud made me feel sad. It was somehow tied in with Blanca leaving as well. There was too much absence in my life all at once. The events were compound words that could never be ripped apart.

“You know Sapo.”

“Yeah, but Sapo won’t do anything for you, Negra.”

“Yeah, but he’d do it for you. He must owe you. Ask him for a solid.”

“Negra, I’ve no time for this, all right? Do you know what just happened? Do you know?”

“Yeah, I know, so what. Bodega was killed by some guy from Loisaida.” She took out a cigarette. “He never did anything for me. The neighborhood talked about him like he was God, but he ain’t never did shit for me.”

The doorbell rang. I didn’t bother to get up.

“Go away!” I yelled, but nosy Negra went over to open the door.

It was Blanca.

I got up, whispered “Hi,” surprised and happy to see her.

“Don’t you kiss your wife, Chino? Dag,” Negra said, but I felt so useless and stupid that I didn’t want to disturb the universe or Blanca anymore. Maybe she would pull back and I would be very hurt. But Blanca walked over to me and placed her hands on my face.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said nonchalantly, as if I was Mr. Cool, because I didn’t want Blanca to feel bad for me.

“Your friend is dead,” she said, her voice sad. Sad for me because she hadn’t really known him. “I came by to see if you were all right.”

“He was never my friend,” I said to her, but quickly realized that I shouldn’t lie to Blanca anymore. “No,” I said, “he was a good friend. I think he would have built up the neighborhood. I don’t know if you can understand.”

“I do understand,” Blanca said. “For me, it was always about you thinking I wouldn’t understand.”

“Are you fine, the baby fine?”

“Yes, we’re both fine—”

“How long will you two torture me!” Negra pretended to gag. “Blanca, tell him what you came here to tell him.” Blanca let go of me. She sat on the couch and I sat next to her. She began.

“You told me that my aunt Veronica was in love with your friend.” She looked me in the eye.

Tía Veronica? Tía Veronica?” Negra laughed and lit another cigarette. Tía Veronica was in love with half of El Barrio. She was the biggest puta, my mother told us. They should have a plaque for her in the Boys Club at 112th and Second.”

That’s when it hit me. My blood ran cold just thinking about what had really happened. And as Negra kept talking, not letting Blanca say anything, it was all falling into place. Could it really be? It seemed too sad and cruel. So cruel you’d never think that people could do such a thing.

Esa mujer es como un carro rentao. Si tú tienes el dinero te da las llaves. My God, Mami says that, growing up Veronica gave head to anyone with a credit card.”

“Shut up, Negra!” Blanca snapped, and Negra wrapped her lips tight around her cigarette. “My mother tells me that years ago her sister went out with a lot of guys, but that the guy she supposedly was in love with, Julio … his name wasn’t William Irizarry.” The worst had been confirmed. I closed my eyes in disbelief, leaning back against the couch. I didn’t want to hear it but Blanca told me anyway. “The guy she really loved, his name was Edwin Nazario. You, Julio,” she said, talking like her sister, “have been played.”

dreamt i was this poeta
words glitterin’ brite & bold
in las bodegas
where our poets’ words & songs
are sung

MIGUEL PIÑERO—“La Bodega Sold Dreams”

Pa’lante, Siempre Pa’lante

HER mother didn’t know for sure when or where Nazario and Vera first met, but Bodega never knew about it. Now everything fell into place: Nazario and Vera had been planning this for some time. I figured that Bodega remained in the dark right up until Nazario reached for his gun to shoot him. His eyes must have bulged in pain, his mind must have spun in disbelief. In those few seconds, his heart must have broken. Again. I wasn’t there, but sometimes you just know.

Vera just wanted her husband dead. That’s why the day they arrived at my door, all silly and drunk, she asked Bodega to teach her how to fire a gun. She had planned on killing her husband with Bodega’s gun. She knew Bodega would do anything for her, even take the rap for killing her husband.

And Bodega would, too, confident that Nazario would get him acquitted or at least a light sentence. Bodega was more than ready to go to prison for Vera. Vera and Nazario knew Bodega could still run things from his cell. That’s why he had to be killed.

That day when I first met Bodega he had said, “Should something happen to me, people will take to the streets.” But it never happened. When he was killed, no cars were overturned. No fires were set. No cops were conked. Nothing. The people in Spanish Harlem had to go to work. They had families to feed, night schools to attend, businesses to run, and other things to do to improve their lives and themselves. No, no one took to the streets.

The day of Bodega’s funeral, which came the day after Negra and Blanca visited me, I went looking for Sapo. He was easy to find. Not because of his big, shiny BMW but because of the sky. See, when something really bad happens, Sapo still likes to fly kites. So I woke up early that morning, left the house, and looked at the sky. I saw a kite flying nearby and tracked it. I took the dirty, pissed-up elevator to the fourteenth floor, then up the stairs to the roof, not worrying about the alarm because I knew it had been broken since we were kids. I stepped out onto the roof and circled around, looking for Sapo. Then I saw him looking at me, his kite string tied to a pole.

“I knew you’d come.”

“Negra call you?” I asked.

“Yeah, that bitch called me.”

“So you know, then.”

“I know.”

“So what should we do?”

“I can’t do shit. Man, I got my car someplace in the Bronx. Cuz right now, I got to lay low. I got to walk through the streets as if I’m a second-class citizen. I got to go out and get groceries and come right home. Right now, I can’t do shit.”

“And later?”

“Later, Chino, when this shit all dies down, I still can’t do shit. Cuz Bodega might be dead but his empire is out there for the takin’. And this time I plan on bein’ the Man. Maybe, later, I’ll go after that mothafuckah.”

Sapo untied the string and started to fly the kite again.

“Are you at least goin’ to the funeral?”

“Crazy? I got to lay low.”

“Good luck, bro.” I was about to leave him.

“Hey, Chino! ’Pera, no corra.

“Wha’ you want?”

“Why don’cha paint anymore, Chino? ’Membah back in school when you painted a lot? Good pictures, too. You did a lot of cool R.I.P.s, and at school all the teachers would, like, ask you for somethin’.”

“I don’t know, it’s just one of those things that ends.”

“You evah gonna paint again?”

“Sure,” I said, but I knew I didn’t mean it.

“Thass good. You should do one last R.I.P.—for Bodega, you know?”

“Later, bro.” I started to walk away, wondering why Sapo wanted to know why I didn’t paint anymore.

“Whass your rush, bee? ’Membah when we would do Kid Comets up on this roof. ’Membah that?”

“Yeah. It was cruel, but fun.”

Kid Comets was catching a pigeon, spilling gasoline over it, then lighting the bird with a match, just as you let it go. The bird would fly for a few seconds and then turn into a fireball and come crashing down. We would do this at night. On the roof. We would see the bird fry extra-crispy in midair and laugh.

“They’re rats with wings, anyway. Plenty of them to go around,” Sapo said.

“I gotta go, man.” I knew he didn’t want me to go and I wanted to stick around remembering things and laughing with Sapo, but I had things to take care of.

“Chino,” he said when he saw me start to walk toward the roof’s door again. “I just wanted to know if you remembah, cuz you my only friend.” In his own way Sapo was telling me that his childhood memories were important to him. And a large part of them were made up of times with me.

“I remembah,” I said. I left him up there on the roof and walked back downstairs and took the elevator to the lobby.

Like many others, Sapo didn’t want to be seen at the funeral. Sapo was right, Bodega was gone and his dreams had dissolved like a wafer in water; his buildings would be reclaimed by the city, which would raise our rents. But his underground empire was still there for the taking. It was a game of chicken, and after the smoke cleared, all the cocks would fight for Bodega’s spoils. My money was on Sapo. Because Sapo was different.

I went back home and fixed myself some breakfast and read a little. I wasn’t going to go to work because I planned on attending Bodega’s funeral later on that day. What I dreaded was making that phone call. I was never one to rat on people. But the neighborhood had been betrayed. Knowing Nazario fairly well, I knew it was only a matter of time before Nazario would erase me from the picture. I mean, I was the only one who had been there, I knew the truth. I wasn’t afraid; I was angry. I just hated going to the cops. I wished it could be people from the neighborhood that would punish him and Vera. Hang them from a lamppost like old sneakers.

But I had no choice, so I called Ortiz and DeJesus, met them at the precinct, and afterward went to the funeral.

THE PEOPLE from the neighborhood might not have taken to the streets like Bodega thought they would, but that didn’t mean they had forgotten him. At the funeral the entire barrio was there. It seemed as if everyone had set aside everything and had gone to pay Bodega their humble respects and show their appreciation. The service was held at the redbrick Methodist church on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue—the same church the Young Lords had stormed and taken over, and from which they had launched their great offensives: clothing drives, free breakfast, door-to-door clinics, free lunches; they even picked up the trash the Sanitation Department always neglected. The church was jam-packed and outside people crowded the streets as if for a parade.

After the service, Bodega’s sister had asked the managers of a minimarket on the corner of 109th and Madison to let the public view Bodega’s body there. The three Dominicans, a husband and wife and their business partner, agreed because Bodega had twice helped them make their rent. The place was cleared for the wake.

Everyone knew Bodega had loved that minimarket because it had once been the Gonzalez Funeral Home. It had been where the wake for the Young Lord Julio Roldan was held after the cops had arrested him, killed him, and then claimed he hanged himself in his cell. Bodega had attended that funeral, decades back, when he was a teenager and death was too far away to scare him. Back when his street name was still Izzy. In those days he was a small-time thief whose heart was stolen by Veronica Saldivia. He thought Veronica was as madly in love with him as he was with her, and as ardent as he to advance the status of Puerto Ricans. Bodega had attended Roldan’s funeral with Veronica at his side, before Vera Vidal and Willie Bodega had been invented. The young Izzy had stood guard under the funeral home’s clock, which freely gave the time to Madison Avenue, alongside his fellow Lords with their berets and empty rifles. They were watching the neighborhood’s back. It was a time when hope for El Barrio seemed fertile, and love at last seemed attainable.

And so the wake was held at that spot. Puerto Ricans and Latinos from all five boroughs came to pay their respects. The line snaked across 109th to Fifth where it turned downtown, all the way past El Museo del Barrio, the International Center of Photography, the Jewish Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt, and ended by the Guggenheim. For three days Fifth Avenue was colored like a parrot. The Rainbow Race, Latinos from the blackest of black to the bluest eyes and blondest hair, all splashing their multihued complexion at the edge of Central Park. The entire Latin continent was represented, including the thin waist of Central America and all the islands that decorated it like a string of pearls. Everyone was there like in some pageant for a dying monarch. And to pass the hours on line, Bodega tales began winding around the avenue. Almost everyone had one, and those that didn’t added to the tales by retelling them.

“He once helped me with my rent.”

“He helped put my daughter through school.”

“He helped me and my sister get jobs.”

“He once bought me a case of Miller beer.”

AFTER THE three-day wake, a hearse, long, black, shiny, and sleek like Ray-Ban Wayfarers, took Bodega’s body to a Queens cemetery. Lines of cars, with their lights on, clogged Third Avenue. Clogged 125th Street. Clogged the FDR Drive. And all along the endless convoy as it made its way out of the neighborhood and onto the highway, you’d hear a passerby ask, “Who they burying?”

“Bodega,” someone would answer.

“Who was this Bodega?”

“A Young Lord. William Carlos Irizarry. Man, where you’ve been? It was all over El Diario.” And as usual it was the only paper that covered the story.

The passerby would cross himself. “Bendito, que Dios lo cuide.”

And those that didn’t come out to the street would stare out of their windows. Young women would holler and scream. Older women would bring out pots and pans, and bang on them with wooden spoons. It was to let the world know this wasn’t just any empty body inside that hearse. It once held the soul of Willie Bodega. So the people had taken to the streets, but in honor, not anger.

AT THE cemetery, the crowds gathered like moss around the plot, where a Jesuit from San Cecilia, with the sign of the cross, scattered earth over the coffin. There were a lot of young people, too many for me to count. I knew these were the students whose college tuition Bodega had been paying. His great society, as he had explained it to me that day I first met him. They held hands and began to sing a song I couldn’t make out. I was too busy staring at Vera. Her elegant black dress and perfect posture, her matching black handkerchief to wipe her tears, her shoes with heels that punched holes in the grass. It was Veronica Saldivia–become-Vera at her best.

A few minutes later Nazario helped lower the coffin with Nene. Nene stood there, dignified, but cried and cried, inconsolable. The rest of Bodega’s pallbearers were ex–Young Lords: Pablo Guzman, Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, Denise Oliver, Iris Morales. Standing near them were some artists from Taller Boricua: Fernando Salicrup, Marcos Dimas, Irma Ayala, Jorge Soto, Gilbert Hernandez, and Sandra Maria Esteves, along with some ex-cons and poets. Miguel Algarin, Reverend Pedro Pietri, Martin Espada, Lucky Cienfuegos, and even Miguel Piñero cried their eyes out next to Piri Thomas, Edward Rivera, and Jack Agueros. Nearly the entire East Harlem aristocracy.

Afterward everyone lowered their heads for an interminable moment of silence. When the silence was broken, the people scattered like crows. Everyone headed for the buses that would take them to the subway. Those who had cars gave lifts to those who hadn’t, and a growl of motors drowned out the chirping birds.

As the cemetery was emptying, I waited until Nazario and Vera had embraced the Jesuit and whomever else they were continuing to fool. Then I made my way over to Nazario. Vera, along with Nene, was waiting for him in a car.

“I know everything,” I said to Nazario. His eyes narrowed. He got closer to me, turning his back to the car where Vera was. “You killed Willie.” He got even closer, his face almost next to mine.

“This works for all of us. For all the people. We all had to cleanse ourselves. Only by killing Willie and laying all the blame on him could that be accomplished. Everyone is clean, Julio. The neighborhood is better off.” Always the practical one. To Nazario, what he and Vera had done was justified.

“No, the only one better off is you. You keep Vera, she keeps her husband’s money, and you keep Willie’s power.”

“Just go home, Julio.” Nazario was a reptile, his veins as cold as a razor in the morning.

“You betrayed all those beautiful things.”

He looked at me as if he wanted to kill me. He didn’t notice Ortiz and DeJesus behind him until they tapped his shoulder and arrested him. Nazario went peacefully. He smirked as if embarrassed that he’d been caught, and then smiled lightly at the detectives and brought up his hands for them to cuff. Vera and Nene had already been brought out of the car, handcuffed, and placed in separate squad cars. I saw Vera resisting, kicking the car door from inside, screaming and cursing like Negra.

Another squad car waited for Nazario. Ortiz and DeJesus guided him toward it. As Nazario walked, sandwiched by the detectives, he stopped for a second, turned around, and yelled, “Tell Sapo, when he gets it all, he’s going to need me.” I didn’t answer. I only felt for Nene. He kept crying because his cousin was dead. I felt sad for him and knew he had no idea what had happened. Nene had just done what he had been told. All he wanted was his cousin back. I promised myself to visit him in jail and take him a ghetto blaster and oldies CDs. Like all of us, he had had no idea. Nazario had kept everyone in the dark.

At the cemetery, after the cops left with Vera, Nazario, and Nene, I sat down near Bodega’s grave. I wished that I was a smoker; that way I’d have something else to do. I stopped thinking and just looked around. The cemetery really wasn’t a bad place. It was spring and the sun was kind, the grass was green and freshly cut. There were weeping willows and rows of apple trees leading up a hill. There was a feeling of ozone in the air and a hawk soaring in the sky. There were little sounds of insects. A couple of crows flew by and landed on a tombstone not far away. There was a lot of life in that cemetery. I stayed right until the last bus was about to depart.

On my way back to Spanish Harlem, I figured that it wasn’t Fischman that had set that fire in retaliation for Salazar’s death. Nazario must have set that fire himself. That’s why he was at the scene so quickly, presenting himself to the tenants as if he were Christ. I realized that those Italians in Queens weren’t who he made them out to be. It was all a farce. I knew something was wrong when Bodega told me that Nazario had handpicked me to go with him. It was because Nazario knew he could fool me and thus fool Bodega as well. Nazario could report back to Bodega that he had met with that big Italian and been told it was okay to kill Fischman. Nazario had taken me along as evidence that the meeting had actually taken place.

So Vera killed her husband with Bodega’s gun. Nazario killed Bodega. And since everyone thought there was trouble between Bodega and Fischman, the latter would have taken the rap for Bodega’s death. It would have left Nazario and Vera with everything.

When I got back to Spanish Harlem, the sun had set. It had set for the first time on the remains of William Carlos Irizarry.

As I walked home the neighborhood was silent. Like the anthem in Bodega’s new country. There was no salsa in the streets and the people looked as if they had just arrived home after a long day’s work.

An old man and a young boy carrying suitcases approached me.

“Do you know where we can find Willie Bodega?” the old man asked in slow Spanish. “My grandson and I just arrived from Puerto Rico and my cousin told us that this man would find us a place to live and work. My cousin was a super for one of his buildings.”

I stared at them. They had missed the party.

“Willie Bodega doesn’t exist,” I said to him. “I’m sorry.”

“No, my cousin would never lie to me. He said a man named Willie Bodega would help me. I have to find him.” The old man gripped his grandson’s hand tighter, picked up his suitcase, and walked away. A few steps on, he asked someone else. Someone who would hopefully know where Willie Bodega was and wouldn’t disappoint him. But the person just laughed at the old man and continued walking.

“ ’Pera!” I yelled at him to wait. He kept on walking, so I went after him.

“You can stay with me. I have an extra room. My wife left for a few weeks.”

He was grateful. Told me his name was Geran and his grandson was Hipolito, and then he made me all sorts of promises that I knew to be true. He had come to work and start a new life and would get out of my hair as soon as possible. I told him there was no rush.

When we got home, I saw all those unopened boxes on the floor and I missed Blanca. I wanted to call her but I knew she was at school. Just then I remembered papers that were overdue; I had missed a lot of classes. There was no way I would catch up. My semester at Hunter was shot.

“Are you Willie Bodega?” Geran respectfully asked, looking at all the unopened boxes. “You must be rich,” he said, thinking the boxes held valuable things. I looked at the boy. He was tired and silent.

“No. I’m not Bodega and I’m not rich,” I said, and tousled the kid’s hair. I didn’t think the old man believed me. I showed them to their room, which Blanca and I had hoped would belong to the baby. He thanked me repeatedly. Both were exhausted. They didn’t want anything to eat, just sleep. I moved the sofa bed into their room and said we would talk in the morning.

THAT NIGHT, I dreamed I heard a loud knock. In the dream I elbowed Blanca, who was there, next to me. I was happy.

“Mami, there’s someone at the door.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” she mumbled, moving slowly, catlike, and then settling back to sleep.

“Blanca, someone is knocking,” I said, and this time she didn’t even move. So I kissed her and got up from the bed, walked to the door, looked through the peephole, and instantly recognized who it was. I opened the door. He was dressed as a Young Lord and had on his beret and pin, a copy of Pa’lante under his arm.

He walked in and looked around and then asked me, “Do me a little solid, Chino, and open the fire escape for me. I have to show you something.”

I opened the window and we climbed out onto the fire escape. East Harlem loomed below and ahead of us. He stretched out his arms and took a deep breath, like he had done when he showed Vera his renovated tenements.

“See, it’s alive,” he said, and right that minute, at a window next door to us, a woman yelled to her son down on the street. Mira, Junito, go buy un mapo, un contén de leche, and tell el bodeguero yo le pago next Friday. And I don’t want to see you in el rufo!

We both laughed.

“You know what is happening here, don’t you? Don’t you? What we just heard was a poem, Chino. It’s a beautiful new language. Don’t you see what’s happening? A new language means a new race. Spanglish is the future. It’s a new language being born out of the ashes of two cultures clashing with each other. You will use a new language. Words they might not teach you in that college. Words that aren’t English or Spanish but at the same time are both. Now that’s where it’s at. Our people are evolving into something completely new.” He winked at me. “Just like what I was trying to do, this new language is not completely correct; but then, few things are.” He started to walk up the fire escape. He walked up and up until there was no fire escape left and he was lost in the night sky.

In my dream I felt sad. But the new language Bodega had spoken about seemed promising.

Alone on the fire escape, I looked out to the neighborhood below. Bodega was right, it was alive. Its music and people had taken off their mourning clothes. The neighborhood had turned into a maraca, with the men and women transformed into seeds, shaking with love and desire for one another. Children had opened fire hydrants, and danced, laughing and splashing water on themselves. Old men were sitting on milk crates and playing dominoes. Young men left their car doors wide open, stereos playing at full blast. Young girls strutted their stuff, shaking it like Jell-O, proud to be voluptuous and not some bony Ford models. Old women gossiped and laughed as they sat on project benches or by tenement stoops, where they once played as children with no backyards—yes, they were happy too. Murals had been painted in memory of Bodega. The entire graffiti hall of fame was covered with tributes. Some had him as a Young Lord, beret, rifle, Pa’lante, and all. Others had painted him as Christ, with a halo and glowing with the Holy Spirit, sharing his divine power and good deeds all over the neighborhood. Others had painted him among the greats: Zapata, Albizu Campos, Sandino, Martí, and Malcolm, along with a million Adelitas. But they were all saying the same thing: “Here once walked Bodega; these were the things he left for us.”

The way a picture that’s been hanging on a wall for years leaves a shadow of light behind, Bodega had kicked the door down and left a green light of hope for everyone. He had represented the limitless possibilities in us all by living his life, striving for those dreams that seemed to elude the neighborhood year after year. But in that transitory moment when at last the pearl was about to be handed to him, like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, he had to look back to find Vera.

No matter.

Tomorrow Spanish Harlem would run faster, fly higher, stretch out its arms farther, and one day those dreams would carry its people to new beginnings. The neighborhood sensed this, and in my dream the people were jumping, shaking, and jamming as if the rent weren’t due for six months. Like Iris Chacón inside a washing machine during an earthquake, Richter scale 8.9. There was salsa and beer for all. The neighborhood might have been down, but it was far from out. Its people far from defeat. They had been bounced all over the place but they were still jamming.

It seemed like a good place to start.

Para Leonor y Silvio Quiñonez


I would like to thank my agent, Gloria Loomis, and my editor, Robin “Max” Desser, for their endless labor and unwavering confidence. I am indebted to Frederic Tuten for his aesthetics and passion; Walter Mosley, whose work is always teaching me new tricks; and Professor Ed Rivera, another product of Spanish Harlem, for his insight and sound advice. I will always remember Juanita Lorenzo and Cesar Rosado’s generosity and kindness, and their couch. I am grateful to Darnell Martin for “getting it” from the very beginning. Finally, Jeanne Flavin has been a good friend as well as a significant influence on how I view issues of crime and justice. I like to think this book would have happened even without all her help. But I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

DMU Timestamp: November 24, 2021 06:21