The call came late. I hadn’t heard from Detective “Van” Snyder in months.
“Yo, Filgirl! What you been up to? Puke in anybody’s van lately?”
“I made it to the sidewalk.”
“Not completely, baby.”
“Sorry. That was a long, long time ago.”
“Yeah. In dog years, maybe. So what are you up to?”
“Job hunting and trying to be a better parent than mine were.”
“Another job search? Jeezus, you’re all over the place,
“Listen, Van, it’s late. Why are you calling?”
“Late? It’s not even 11:30. I even know where my children are!”
“Well, mine’s in bed, which is where I should be because she’s going to get up in about six hours.”
“Jeezus, Fil, why do you put up with that shit?”
“Because she’s there.”
“Yeah: her and Mount Everest both. Kids sure tie you down–“
“So what’s up?”
“Remember your old friend Mr. Samuel Morse?”
“Every time I have to spray for roaches. Even a whiff of
secondhand cigarette smoke still makes me feel like I’m gagging on a spiny sea urchin.”
“Sounds bad, Fil. Anyway, I suppose you heard Morse has contracts in the works to add Kim Tungsten to that financial empire he’s building out on the Island.”
“I don’t need this kind of torment, Van.”
“Just thought you’d be interested.”
“If I want to see two vipers fucking I’ll watch National
Geographic, okay? Speaking of reptiles, how’s the lieutenant?”
“He’s still the lieutenant. But hey, every year he stays a lieutenant is another year we don’t gotta deal with him as a fuckin’ captain! You don’t know him like I do, Fil. You see, underneath that rough exterior, lies a heart of pure shit.”
That makes me laugh. Good. If a detective sergeant can still make me laugh there’s hope for me yet.
“Why don’t you come around some time?” he asks me.
I tell him sure.
I don’t think much more about it until one morning three weeks later when I start coughing up blood.
And three months without a decent job or a health plan that considers my eyes and teeth to be part of my body. But it was better than nothing. Now I’m pulling in $6.75 an hour–no benefits–for extracting clogged data from the jaws of aging computers with red-hot pliers. And now this.
I decide I’d better not let it wait. For about $40 in U.S. currency I can get a “free” checkup at this Medicaid mill across the Harlem River and deep into the darkest Bronx.
Antonia asks me, “What’s the matter, Mommy?” I tell her I’m coughing. She says, “Did you take that medicine to make you cough?”
“You mean ‘cough medicine,’ Tonia?”
“Yes. Because every time you take it you always coughing after.”
I’m trying to tie a bow in her shoes and I start laughing.
“That’s great,” I tell her. She always sees me coughing when I take the medicine. Therefore, I must be taking medicine that makes me cough. Some detective she’d make. “Do you have to make pee-pee before we go?”
Of course she does. Now I have to undo everything I just did and put her on the toilet. Turns out she has a great deal of business to attend to. When she’s finished, she insists on flushing the toilet. She once had a fit when I absentmindedly flushed it myself.
“Bye-bye, caca,” she says, as it starts to go down. I shake my head at the kid things I would never think of (I sure didn’t teach her this stuff), the natural Dadaist wonderland kids inhabit, like when she finds the stairs up to the library more interesting than anything in the library. “Daddy calls it ‘shit,'” she tells me.
And I’m going to have to talk to Daddy, a.k.a. Raúl (that bum). Only sees her three hours a week but still manages to fuck up the kid’s speech. (See? He’s even got me doing it.) So we walk down four flights with me explaining how Mommy calls it “caca” because “shit” is a bad word and that we’re not supposed to use bad words. Fine. Then we get outside, walk over to West 207th and Broadway just in time to hear two angry young dudes heat the air with swears:
“So the motherfucker tells me the fucking place won’t haul without thirty-five porciento deposit after the twenty they’ve already done me for–“
“I told ’em I don’t take that shit.”
And before I can stop her Antonia jerks herself loose and turns to one of the guys, who towers over her, big and dark against the sky: “Ooh, you said a bad word!” she says. I’ve already thought up five different ways of saving my child’s life when the big guy cracks a smile and starts laughing like a kid himself. “Your mama teach you that?” he says, eyeing me from top to bottom. “That’s good. Your mama’s all right. You listen to her.”
Like I said: Kid things. We get to the corner and the light’s against us. I lean out to see if the bus is coming and Antonia tells me, “Be careful,” with the exact same intonation I use on her. I don’t know which is more jarring: When she comes up with something completely original, which proves she’s already a thinking individual, or when she says something that is such a perfect replica of my words that the implications are frightening. And only three. What’s it going to be like when she’s thirteen?
I give some change to the homeless panhandler standing on the corner like the messenger of some dark anonymous gods. Given our mission today, I need to appease them with some sacrifice.
The lights change and we cross the street, and suddenly the crosswalk is transformed into a glittering runway as I hear some guy singing, “There she goes, Miss America” at me, which I think is kind of cute until I see he’s waiting at the bus stop. So now Tonia and I have to stand for ten minutes next to a guy who doesn’t just imagine he’s hosting the Miss America Pageant- -no, that would be normal–he imagines he’s rehearsing the Miss America Pageant: He keeps raising an arm to women crossing the street to C Town and singing and re-singing, “There she goes – – There – – There she goes, Miss A-mer-ica” as if he’s testing the acoustics of the hall. Tonia thinks it’s funny. I thinkhe should be coming with us.
Halfway through the swimsuit competition the bus finally comes and I have to hold the kerchief that I keep in my pocket at all times to my nose and mouth because it’s an old diesel that spews more smoke than a coal-burning Andean bus using mashed bananas for motor oil. We sit down by a window so Antonia can point out every third object all the way to Fordham Road. And she does, too. Then we transfer and wait for the long ride south.
Somebody’s filming a movie two blocks down. We get to see a stuntman earn his pay by doing a one-and-a-half gainer headfirst out a six-storey window into the Grand Concourse with nothing but an “invisible” bungee cord tied to his ankle. Then they set up an “after” shot and drag a dummy corpse out onto the spot. Like there aren’t enough real ones around.
“What’s he doing?” asks Antonia.
I tell her they’re making a movie.
“But why is he jumping?”
I tell her they’re making a stupid movie.
Try explaining that to a kid.
I do the best I can before the bus comes and we grab seat with today’s paper left on it. After I install her by thewindow with an apple and a cracker she lets me open the paperand I learn that a 3-mile oil slick with Day-Glo orange clumps floating in it was stopped with glorified sponges just one-anda-half miles upriver from Manitock Inlet, a major fishing ground, source of maybe 30,000 year-round jobs, half of the tourist dollars for Eastern Suffolk County and food for a few million people up and down the eastern seaboard. No one knows who dumped the stuff.
But I have my own problems. I get a sudden cough attackand I’m not quick enough with the kerchief. Blood comes up. Antonia asks what’s wrong and I tell her that’s why we’re going to the doctor. She wants to know if the doctor is going to hurt me. I tell her no, as if I know anything.
The elderly black woman sitting across from us takes a sandwich wrapped in wax paper out of a brown paper bag, lays it across her knee and says silent grace over it. She may not know it, but I join her in it.
The glycerin suppositories feel like depth charges on the way in, then I’ve got to waddle to a seat around a guy in sandals and a Yankees jacket who seems to think he’s directing helicopter traffic in the outpatient waiting area.
The medical staff think it’s an ulcer or something digestive, so they ask me about a million questions about my diet even though I tried to tell them I think it’s my lungs. They ignore me. So now I’ve got to dance and cringe on line for the one working bathroom on the floor because the depth charges have gone off without warning. It’s actually enlightening how painful this is.
A test tube brush dipped in lye would have been smoother, but not as thorough. In the wink of an eye (or about four hours in real time) they take me into a four-person examination room so they can ram me with an anoscope–or whatever the hell they call it–which feels like a cheese grater going in and an ocean liner backing out. Antonia is getting very upset because I can’t hide my pain.
Forty-five minutes later the kid has begun to split into three personalities on me and they come back to report that everything’s fine with me. Now will they look at my lungs?
“X ray’s closed. Come back tomorrow,” I am told. I look at them like they’re not getting rid of me that easy. “Unless you want to go to Emergency.”
Fortunately the E.R. has enough rubber gloves that can be blown up into five-fingered balloons, tongue depressors and other toys for the amusement of tots that Antonia adjusts to another two hours’ worth of waiting a lot better than I do. I’m thinking, three months since I’ve had a decent job and all my pay goes to daycare. I might as well be back in Ecuador. I mean, I’ve been thinking about heading back sometime ever since I came here more than a dozen years ago. I’d have a hard time surviving there, too, but at least I’d be with family. Warmth, love: These are good things. Tonia would love it, and besides, I think I’ve been away long enough to put up with the pain of trying to patch up and reorder the mess I left behind nearly half a lifetime ago. It can’t be worse than this.
By the time someone comes to see me and I see that he’s a first-year intern I’m too deep-fried into submission to ask for someone with more experience. I tell him the whole story: Heavy ex-smoker, ex-beat cop breathing in truck exhaust for five years, but the kicker is the time a man named Morse tried to kill me by locking me in a room with enough methyl isocyanate to take out a city of a hundred thousand.
He looks at me like that’s only the third weirdest thing he’s heard today. I told you this was a tough neighborhood. He decides to take a peek down my throat, makes me cough, then signs me up for an X ray. There’s only a three-hour wait. If drama is real life with the dull parts cut out, then this must be where they send all the dull parts they don’t use; so let’s just say it’s almost midnight when the intern comes back and tells me that the lung damage I suffered in an attempt on my life years before has developed into cancer, and that when it spreads to the rest of my body, I will die.
I know it’s a cliché, but I’m under a lot of pressure here: I ask him how much time I’ve got.
He says, “Not much. Three to four months.”
“Maybe six to eight.”
I guess I go a little nuts. I grab the X ray. It’s got my name on it, all right. Shit.
“No, wait,” I begin to say, and he cuts me off.
“Look, pictures don’t lie. I got twenty-seven more people waiting.”
I feel it. Burning in my chest. Hot, deep in the heart of me, eating its way out.
DAMMIT! NO! NO! NO!
“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”
So that’s it. Sickness. Loneliness. Death. Only good deeds will get you through it, or so they tell me. And then, gaseous expansion and decomposition. I shudder. A cold shudder. Not one of those nice ones like your lover’s caress, partway between a tickle and a shiver. Not like that. A real nasty one.
And yet there is continuing. My child, long and lanky, full of energy, full of life, full of questions, with her dark canela coloring, kinky raven hair and headstrong disposition. I’d better make sure Antonia doesn’t get left with nothing, that there’s something for her… not to follow–I mean, why should she follow me or anyone else’s flawed example? But something… to guide her on… I shake my head. I don’t know… This isn’t happening.
I hug her to me.
I pick up the phone and dial Van Snyder. He’s not at the precinct house but they give me his beeper number without the usual sniggers. Maybe it’s something in my voice.
I’m really glad when the phone rings. I’d open my soul to a direct mail solicitor right now.
It’s Van. I tell him I want a warrant issued for Samuel Morse’s arrest.
“Great! What’s the charge?”
“That was fast: Who’s he killed?”
“Fil, I’m on a short break, here–“
“I know you’ve got a stack of violations on him that are
stickier than the floor of a porno theatre.”
“Oh, those. It’ll take years to bring charges.”
“I don’t have years.”
“Well, maybe. I’m getting a second opinion.”
“Fil… What’s wrong now?”
I tell him pretty much everything. For some reason I’ve always been that way with him. I even ask him how his wife is, who hated me so much.
“Fine,” he says. Then: “Jeezus, Fil, I didn’t expect–“
“I didn’t expect either. Now will you help me?”
“Help you what? You want to go digging, go ahead. You want me to bail your ass out when you get caught, it’s not my jurisdiction.”
“Didn’t I tell you Morse is on the Island? You know, that ‘hospitable economic climate’ they got out there?”
“He’s got two big plants out in Carthage. What are you thinking of doing?”
“I like the first part. Keep it that way, will ya?”
“And Fil–Shit, I don’t know what to say to you. If there’s anything I can do…”
I think about that bastard Morse. What he did to me and what he’s doing to others. Hundreds, probably thousands of workers dying a slow death from carcinogenic chemicals, insufficient workplace safety and his squash-anything-thatgets- in-my-way personality. It got him controlling interest in nine companies worth between $55 million and $2.3 billion each.
But this all happened so long ago that if it weren’t for the scarred lung tissue, it would have long since faded into memory. Then last year he had the balls to threaten my kid.
Sometimes, I really wish I hadn’t dropped my gun down that hole in the ice…
Antonia wants to play but my mind’s too bent out of shape to stay at it for more than 15 minutes. So I turn on the TV and hug her to me. I bury my nose in her hair. They’ve got a rerun of Spartacus on channel 9. Now there’s a guy withproblems. And I get a kick out of seeing how he deals withthem, too. No “It’ll take years to bring charges” for him.
And you know, even in ghosting black and white, that scenewhere the trainer paints Kirk Douglas’s bare, glistening torsojust makes me melt. I’m not really happy about Antonia watching this, but she won’t go to bed and I really want to seewhat happens. Try explaining Imperial Rome and slavery to athree-and-a-half-year-old sometime! Finally the first rebellion comes; guards get knifed, throttled–I’ll never eat tomato soup again–and when they fall into a pool, Tonia says to me, “They’re going to get wet.”
I laugh. Such innocence. I almost wish she’d never lose it. But of course she will–she must–to survive. Oh,
I read her to sleep, then pick up the phone to call – who? Jen? Beto? Betty’s on vacation. I even think of calling Mr. Wang, for Christ’s sake! I’ve got to try to sort this out. This isn’t happening… Okay, Antonia’s got to come first. So I think of Rowena and George: She teaches Africana Studies at Bronx Community College, he’s a jet-black cricketeer from Trinidad who plays hardball gloveless. We’ve cared for each other’s kids through the babysitting co-op–and that’s about as close a relationship as I’ve got in the ‘hood and, yes, I really do have their phone number on the inside of a matchbook.
And of course it’s too late at night to call someone with kids. I get about as much sleep as any infantrywoman gets the night before battle, so I’m fresh as a sun-dried Dumpster daisy when I get George on the phone and arrange to meet at the playground. I try to put Antonia in a T-shirt and jeans since she always wants to design cities in the sandbox, but she insists on a dress. Where does she get this urge for femininity from? Must be TV. Not from me.
It’s one of those spring days that’s sunny enough to foolyou until a cloud passes and the temperature drops twentydegrees. Antonia runs free to join the kids on the jungle gym.George is cleaning up some trash from last night’s adultplayground users.
“Hey, Trini-dude-man, what’s up?”
“They say people are drinking less hard alcohol,” he says,dropping an armful of cans and bottles into the recycling pail.
“Obviously not around here.”
We spend about fifteen minutes shooting the shit because neither of our cultures considers it polite to get directly to an issue. Also, how do you ask someone if he’s willing to make sure your kid gets back to your family safely just in case you happen to die in the next couple of weeks? Stumped you? Well, 0keep thinking. Turns out he’s got bad news of his own. The coffee plant, jewel of Hoboken and biggest employer on the Jersey-side waterfront, is closing. We agree that the local economy is becoming indistinguishable from those “Third World” economies we both fled to come here. Eventually I get around to telling him that I need a couple to act as godparents, just in case.
He says, “How ’bout Raúl?”
“He is Toni’s father.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“You’ve gotta stop being such a lone wolf, Filomena. You can’t take on something like this alone. Think of Antonia.”
“I am: Her father sold all our stuff to pay the rent on that cocaine castle in the air he was living in and you want me to go to him for help?”
“That was three years ago.”
“Okay, last year he stole my tax refund check, forged my endorsement and bought himself a new car stereo with it.”
“Yeah, well this is different. He’s the girl’s father, and you need him. You might as well admit it.”
This is not what I wanted to hear.
I watch Antonia, swinging upside down, her dress falling down over her face, laughing.
And agree with him.
“Yo, where’s the party at?”
“Why do you always answer the phone like that?” I thought
it was cute, once.
“Filomena! ¡Mamita¡ ¿Como vás muchachita?”
“Like shit, Raúl. I need your help.”
“¡Que milagro! You must be doing like shit if you want my help.”
“Don’t make this any harder. Can I come over?”
“Ah, por fín te recuerdas que nadie te lo da como yo–“
“Make me heave, all right? I’ve got a problem. A real one.”
“Baby, if it’s your problem–“
“Raúl, never be indifferent when people need you.”
“Yes, ma’am. What’s in it for me?”
“No jail time and you can keep the car stereo, too.”
“You still pissed off about that? Because let me tell you, chiquitína–“
“Raúl, will you shut the fuck up and listen to me?! I’m–
“So take a aspirin.”
“No, I mean – – Boy it all comes back so quick with you. We always had real communication problems.”
“Funny, you never said anything about it to me…”
“Could you turn the music down for a second? This is serious. It’s about Antonia.” That gets him.
“My little sugarplum? What about her?”
“I’m worried. I don’t think she should stay in the barrio any longer.”
“It’s not healthy for her. I have to tell her never to touch the needles she sees in front of the building.”
“Hmm. ¿Y qué entonces?”
I realize that we have switched to Spanish without me noticing it. That’s not like me. I mean, my survival usually depends on me noticing things. “I’m thinking of maybe taking her back to Ecuador with me. But I don’t have the money.
These last three months have really scraped me to the bone.”
“Back to Ecuador? With my kid? Fuck that. She can come
live with me!”
“You just agreed she should move out of the city.”
“Oh, yeah. Well she can stay with my sister.”
“Oh, terrific. This is the woman who has never seen her
niece? No thanks.”
“Hey: You’ve never seen her kids neither. Least they’ve
got a back yard.”
You can just about hear me go DING! “Is that anywhere near Carthage?”
“How the fuck should I know? Get a fuckin’ map! No, wait–now that you mention it, yeah–I think it’s like about five, maybe ten miles west of there: The big steel-and-glass place, right?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s the place. Yeah, five miles, tops.”
“What’s her number?”
“Hey, great! Does this mean we–?”
“Make me heave, all right?”
Raúl gives me his sister Colomba’s number and I scramble for a map of Long Island. Antonia wants to see where all her friends live, which I’m usually more than willing to show her– maps are supposed to be educational, right?–but I’m trying to dial someone who hates me, look up Minoa and Carthage on a map of Suffolk County and Antonia keeps wanting to turn back to the page with New York City on it.
“Not now, dear. Mommy has to kill someone.”