So she is NOT going back there. Uh-uh, ain’t no way. They out their minds if they thinking my sister’s goin anywhere near Robert E. Lee. Not for a new dress or another dog, not for a million Menudo records. Nunca jamás. But mamita, our abuela tells her, What are you going to do without an education? Delia don’t care. I’ll go live on the beach, she says. Fuck it, they got showers on the beach and there ain’t no negras there to call you cracker and yank on your hair wit their curly nails and bring you down over one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, POW! stairs, smacking their tongues against their lips when they tell you, White trash, don’t you ever come back here. Pero we don’t have money to send you to a private school, mi amor. So don’t send me to school, she says. I’ll stay here wit you all day. I’ll take care a you.
Ay yai yai. La vieja’s saggy cheeks are shakin and her fingers are all mushy like the boiled chicken floatin in her soup. She just finished cookin and she’s got her wheelchair parked in front a the TV wit this look on her face like she ain’t never goin nowhere but from that chair to her bed to her grave. She’s got her fingers on her forehead like Ay mamá.
But not our mamá. Cuz our mamá’s not there, she’s off in Nueva York wit my pops doin God-knows-what while no one’s lookin, smokin her cigars in the kitchen like she Changó, waitin till she fuck up so pops can kick her ass out again. She’ll ride the bus all the way back home and have us feed her fat ass all the meat in the freezer like she doin us a favor. But that won’t be for another three to five spot.
So la vieja says, Wait till your abuelo gets home. But our cousin Cisco gets home first. He used to limp around in this red tracksuit. Who knows where the jit got the money for that one. Wa’n’t but five years older’n me, but to me he was Lord in the highest. All us boys, all us wanted to be cool cats like Cisco. Don’t try’n ask me why neither, cause he ain’t ever do nothing too special. Was ugly wit some busted teeth no one was bout to pay to fix and skinny like Slim James over in Commissary, cept he wasn’t no athlete. What Cisco did do when he did anything worth talkin bout was dance. Looked like a wave going up and down on the floor, like he came out the womb groovin to The Sugarhill Gang.
So he comes in beatboxin across the living room like some lanky-ass noodle, and he tells Delia to sing so he can show her his moves cuz at school when he dances they all get up in a circle round im and sing, Go white boy, go white boy, GO! and then all the girls run up to im, snappin their gum till he throws em a bone. But Delia sure as Judas ain’t one a them girls, and she is NOT feeling it. We only just got back from Nueva York, but Cisco been livin in Allapattah since his own mamá left im there when the little huevón could barely blink. He’s practically a nigger, tú sabe, don’t know no better. Ain’t never had to go back and forth from Allapattah to Nueva York like Delia and me did. We was like army brats, cept wasn’t no military that would hire either one a our pops. And for sure, Delia is NOT going back to Robert E. Lee, trust. She’s sittin there pattin her hair at the spot where las negras yanked it out, and now that la vieja cleaned it up for her, it’s all white in the back a her head, a spot like the size and shape a that little bird from the Charlie Brown cartoons?
Yeah, tú sabe, Woodstock, that one. That’s all I keep thinkin, that it looks like that Woodstock bird. But I don’t say nothing bout it cuz I know Shorty would straight pulverize my ass. To this day I ain’t mentioned it, e’en though the hair never really grew back in. But Cisco sees her messin wit it, and he walks over all Daaaaaaamn, whut happened to you? and she says, Lee’me alone, Cisco, and tries to turn around, but he’s got his fingers all up in the spot, investigatin and squeezin that shit, and he tells her, It’s so white, it looks like my jizz. You ever seen jizz, Delia? He laughs and I’m all Ha-ha-ha e’en though I’m just a little punk and I ain’t never seen jizz neither. She slaps his hand away and moves the other hairs o’er the spot all casual-like. She tries to cross her legs, but you know her ham hocks are too sweaty and stuck to the plastic covering on the couch. So instead she just crosses her ankles and looks away like how la vieja taught her to do when Cisco’s fucking wit her. Like a lady.
Then the dogs start barkin in the back and here come Ari, Cisco’s dad, strollin on in sideways wit his hands in his pockets like nigger’s got a legit W-2 filed away somewhere. He’s the meanest a the two comemierdas la vieja spat out and prolly the reason her bones went all pulp. Homeboy’s like Darth Vader—chances are he is your father and ain’t nobody happy bout it. So he looks at la vieja and rubs his basketball panza wit his long fingers all What’s there to eat? and she rolls on into the kitchen like a wheel down a hill.
Univision’s on the TV cuz it’s always on. Some novela wit the same green eye-shadowed hoe pullin on a guy’s arm, crying, Por favor! like she been doin since the dawn a television. La vieja watched that shit like it was Sunday mass. But Ari always got to change the channel when he came home, so he flips the switch on the remote box till he finds Alf and sits down and starts laughin, spittin all o’er the place. Cisco’s still fuckin wit Delia’s bald spot, and she’s tryin, she is tryin real hard to ignore im, shakin her head away from im like he a song she can’t help but dance to, all [gesticulates, moving head from side to side in a swooping, snake-like manner], but anyone watchin her knows inside Shorty is raging.
Cuz Shorty, she keeps it all inside all the time, never really acts out. Cept for sometimes wit me. This one time she wacked me cross the head wit her spiked heel. Shit hurt like a bitch, meng. That’s how I got this hole in my eyebrow right here, see?
I don’t know, was prolly fucking wit her or stole some a her shit. Prolly deserved it, trust. Anyway so a course when our abuelo walks in the TV turns to those color stripes and BEEEEEEEEEEEP. La vieja rolls her chair out the way and puts her fingers in her ears, but the old man don’t e’en notice cuz he don’t walk in but more like fucking charges in, stompin those big-ass orthopedic shoes all BOOM BOOM BOOM headin straight for Cisco’s ass. Dude on the TV’s like THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM and Cisco starts bookin it for the back. He makes it out the house and into the yard and yo, that yard’s the land fertilization forgot, lemme tell you, the ground ain’t regurgitated shit since the old people moved in. Cisco’s runnin in the weeds like a little bitch, hidin behind the blankets hangin from the clothes wire. And years later, when we’re bookin it from the Five-O and he’s jumpin rooftops wit those rubber legs, I’ll be thinkin, Damn, how’d a nigger get so fast? And I’ll remember this shit.
But our abuelo’s not chasin after the little cabrón. No, he’s at the wall pullin on la manguera. That’s right, he’s gonna beat homeboy wit the motherfuckin hose, what! And he’s screamin somethin bout Cisco skippin school, heapin that bright green tube in his hand like he bout to whip a horse in el campo. He misses the first couple a times cuz Cisco’s fakin im out all o’er the place and, come on, pobrecito, el viejo’s fucking old. But when he hits im, it’s like WHAM and he gets im good across the back. And then another one, like SMACK, WHACK, whenever the old man can put enough juice into it to make it count. He’s prolly thinkin that bruja in 15A better not ask im to fix her faucet again tomorrow cuz his hands are gonna be sore, tú sabe. And Ari’s just standin there watchin his son get beat, tryin a hold down the dogs. Cisco had this one pit he was always trainin to attack. He’d put an iron rod in its mouth and make it clamp down till you couldn’t e’en see the rod no more. And now the dog’s watchin Cisco get beat and it wants in, right? But el viejo’s oldest dog Blackie’s snarlin at the pit, and Blackie’s e’rybody’s dog. He the first mutt the old man brought home from the building he supers, and ain’t no one fucking wit any a its peeps.
So Delia sees this and she’s smart enough to take me and her ass inside to watch from behind the screen. Ari’s still wedgin himself between the two dogs like he’s gonna stop shit. The dogs go at it, roarin, fucking eating each other, and Ari’s hand gets all bit up tryin to pull Blackie away from the pit. That shit echoes into the neighbors’ house, wakin up Ari’s not-so-secret illegitimate daughter from her nap. The kid starts BAW-ling and e’ryone hears e’rything cuz it’s too damn hot to close the windows, but it ain’t never hot enough to turn on the A/C. So it gets real loud, and in me and Delia’s ears, e’rything’s turnin into the BEEEEEEEEEEEP from the Emergency Broadcast System, and well, claro que, this is when la vieja decides to roll out onto the patio wit a silver tray in her hands like the fucking Cuban Mrs. Belvedere. She holds up the tray and asks, Who wants croquetas? like she ain’t e’en heard the barkin and the whippin and all that madness, and she looks around all calm, like No? No one? and goes back inside.
Yo. Swear to fucking Christ on a crucifix, that poor vieja was always servin harder’n any a us. Anyway so when the old man’s done wit his beatin, he comes o’er and pulls the pit up by the neck and throws im at Cisco. The pit don’t e’en try to bite im. Tie that animal up, he says. El viejo’s got a lot a blood in im, meng. They say he was a philosopher in La Habana, but I don’t know what happened cuz here he was always a fuckin tiguere.
So now Ari’s holdin Blackie in the corner wit his bloody hand. Cisco ties up the pit cuz what else is he gonna do? And Ari walks up to im and bitch slaps im across the face wit his other hand. Look whatchyour crazy-ass dog did to Blackie, he says. But Cisco don’t e’en look at Blackie’s bloody face. He just checks the pockets a his tracksuit for his Newports and tells im, Man, fuck all y’all, and walks out.
Cisco was in and out the house after that. Got locked up some time later. Now he’s down at Starke for a ten spot. Yeah, I guess you can say all us boys got our wish, endin up like im. Real cool cats in our cool cat cages now, eh? Ha!
After that, la vieja calls us for dinner like ain’t nothing just happened. Delia and me go sit by our abuelo at the table. He’s gulpin down a glass a water wit a shaky hand while la vieja’s settin e’rything up for his steak dinner. The man eats meat e’ry night. Never eats nothin that flew. Delia’s lookin at his tired eyes like she might finally stop try’n to be tough and break down. And I feel her, too. Cuz our abuelo looks like e’rybody else’s, wit the guayaberas and the puffy skin on his face, cept he smells a little more like sweat, and he’s got these blue eyes that damn near break your heart. Same blue as Ari’s but el viejo’s ain’t never looked mean. More like fish drownin in water.
La vieja yells from the kitchen, La niña has something she needs to tell you! and he looks back at Shorty like What now, but softer, tú sabe, cuz she’s the only girl, and let’s be real, the only one a us worth a fuckin dime. Delia squeezes her face together like she don’t wanna say, so he’s like What is it my little piece of sky? and she just says, I’m not going back to school. La vieja shouts, Check her head. Look at what those animales did to her! And he gets up and looks o’er the top a her head like he’s inspectin one a the busted pipes at work. Then he sits back down and he don’t say nothing, right? Just starts cutting up the palomilla la vieja puts in front a im, lookin out into space while he chews real slow, like that shit’s bubblegum, cuz he knows he prolly won’t be eating too much steak after this.
Shorty never goes back to Robert E. Lee. I go to Robert E. Lee eventually, but not la niña. El viejo gets a job drivin a school bus in the mornings before work. The private school costs some serious loot, but they make up for it by givin her soda crackers and cans a Vienna sausages to take for lunch e’ryday. We switch from steak dinners to picadillo. Shorty goes to school, keeps her buckteeth in her mouth, comes home, does her homework, sits by la vieja’s chair, and watches novelas e’ry night. Basically she don’t bother nobody, right? Some months pass, maybe years, I don’t know, and she grows titties, real titties, and she grows into her teeth, and cuz a her new broke-ass diet plan, tú sabe, she sheds the pounds and fills out in the right spots and then all a sudden e’rybody’s on my sister’s jock like Oye mami, pero tú si eres linda. But it don’t matter none cuz it’s not like the viejos are lettin her out on the streets without them. The old man was her date for the junior prom, pobrecita.
Pero sometimes it’s not just the people in the streets you gotta watch out for. What’s it, like 50 percent a all rapes happen inside the home or some shit like that? Sick. Ari. Fuckin coked-up Cuban-link Ari. Couldn’t find nobody else to fuck his ass. In the middle a the fucking day. Cojones like this, meng. Delia said the whole time she could hear the neighbors arguing outside her window o’er a quarter. What, ju don’t think a quauta’s money? Ju yust leave it on the floor like dat? Peek it up! And when Ari rolled his dirty ass off a her, he grunted and flicked a quarter on the floor before he left. Like I said, balls like this, meng [indicating pelvis area with two hands].
But Shorty didn’t tell nobody bout Ari. Said she tried to tell la vieja but she didn’t wanna hear it and who can blame her. That’s her son, right? Then she waits to tell me when I’m already locked up in here wit no key. Writes it to me in a letter like a scene from a fuckin movie and makes me promise I won’t start no shit. Situation ate me up inside, meng. Cuz you know me and my boys woulda thrown his ass to the gators in the Everglades, trust. But Shorty said she didn’t e’er wanna talk about it again. Said she wants closure, one a them words she pulled out her psychology books. But I’m thinkin maybe she did want me to feel bad. Why else would she tell me? She’s gotta know I’m just sittin up in here thinkin bout the past. Ain’t no pot a gold at the end a this road to dream about, ha!
I mean I gave that poor girl fucking grief, meng. Used to steal her shit, throw shit at her, make the dogs chase after her. I’d watch Cisco give her titty twisters like hers was the last titties on earth, and I didn’t do nothing, just laughed. But I guess we made her stronger, tú sabe, cuz she’s the one on the outside. And she had it worse than any a us. Our moms was Cuckoo’s Nest crazy, yo. In and out the hospital all the time. She showed up right bout when Ari did his business. She’d done fucked up real bad. Got caught creepin wit her babalawo. Pops said he wouldn’t a been so mad to find out she was sleepin wit dude, but her crazy ass was cuttin checks for his Santería like them spells was legit. ¡Y pa que fue eso! She was OUT.
Her big ole mouth got off that long bus ride from Nueva York like it was bout to swallow us up whole. Was all Poor me, feed me, makin Shorty run back and forth wit a little silver tray full a moms’s pills and voodoo shit. She wanted coco and rum and cigars for Changó. She was deep into that Santería madness. Delia’d buzz around like the fuckin roadrunner to please her, cuz when she wasn’t Changó, moms was whoopin her ass. If Shorty was even one minute late off that bus after school, she’d be raging, beatin her out in front a the house. Used to smack her up wit whatever she found, slap her wit her slipper like FWAKATAH!
Bout then I was back n forth tween there and livin it up in the Heights wit my pops, so I was barely around. But whenever I saw Shorty, I could tell shit was, you know, different. She got skinny, and I mean skinny. She was always a fuckin butterball, but round that time she was straight skeletal. Had these big ole rings under eyes. I’d tell her, Ey Shorty, you gonna check those bags in on your trip? Ha!
So smart little Delia, she decides to get herself a job and get her ass out the house. Ain’t nobody arguin bout it neither cuz ain’t nobody workin but el viejo, and it’s not like moms was open to starvation. That woman can eat, yo. Stuff her face wit bout three pounds a chuleta if you let her. So Shorty starts workin at Mervyns after school, foldin clothes and ringin up all the little old Jewish ladies for their scarves and hats. I ain’t never seen her so happy. Musta been employee a the year, workin so many hours. Wouldn’t e’en come home after school no more. She’d go straight there and work till closing. Come to find out she was catchin feelings for the manager. A Cubanaso in a shirt and tie. Pedro. P. Good people but bout six years older, a grown-ass man. When she finally brought im o’er the house, it was like the lineup after a raid, meng. Nigger had to deal wit the old man, Ari, Cisco, and me. Worse a’all, he had to deal wit moms. Was one a the last times we was all together in that house, come to think of it.
La vieja made a big ole pot a boliche. Meng, we didn’t never eat that good. She took the plastic covering off the table, had some silverware out I ain’t never seen. I remember lookin at my fork thinkin bout how much loot I could get for it, tú sabe. We didn’t e’en use Bounty that night. La vieja had her some special napkins wit country flowers and hearts on em. Now you know shit’s serious when you ain’t wiping your hands on some Bounty.
So we all sit down to eat and e’ryone, even el viejo, is sizin up the poor Cubanaso. El viejo wanted to know what part a Cuba he was from and when he said La Habana the old man sat up all stiff. Pues claro que you’re from La Habana. Then he asks him who his father is, and I guess he don’t like the answer cuz it gets real quiet and nobody says nothing. Till moms bust out wit, So I hope you don’t plan on popping my daughter’s cherry. Just like that.
Crazy, right? What’s crazier is Ari was sittin cross from im and he just bout bust a nut. Spit his Pepsi out his nose. Shit musta hurt too, cuz you know, guy did mad coke. But nobody knew what he done to Shorty. I’da pulled his fat ass up by his ears and fed im to the dogs in the back. Pero like I said, nobody fuckin knew. So we all thought he was just laughin and we laughed too. But Shorty had her head down like she was bout to cry, and I could see P squeezin her hand on his lap. She musta tole him bout it cuz he was lookin at Ari like he was gonna shank im right there, meng. He got up and his face was the color a the pimentón on his plate and I thought, Oh, this is gonna be in-ter-est-ing. But instead he just gets down on both knees—not just one, P was too good for that—and he looks up at her and says, I want to marry ju, just like that, wit his little accent and e’rything.
You’d think Shorty’d be cryin by then if she wasn’t before, or e’en smilin, but really she just looked… tired, you know? Had those big-ass circles under her eyes, and her face was all small. She was only bout nineteen. She looked at la vieja, and right when moms was bout to scream somethin stupid down the table, la vieja raised her neck and shook out all her saggy skin at her like Don’t you even think about opening your pito, and moms just shoveled some food into her mouth and started chewin all fast. Only time I e’er seen anyone shut that woman up witout slappin her first.
They got married real soon after, in the backyard a somebody’s house. P didn’t have much family cuz all his peeps was still back in the motherland, tú sabe, so we was the stars a the show. We rented us some corny-ass blue tuxedos from Hialeah, all a us men lined up behind Shorty like some cloudless sky. Moms decided she was Changó that day, sat in the front row blowin rings out a cigar wit her arms crossed o’er her fat stomach. La vieja cried so hard I thought she might die and leave her bones behind in that wheelchair. El viejo gave Shorty away cuz who else was gonna do it?
P got his friend to play photographer, and dude was lovin it, puttin our hands all up on each other’s arms and pushin our chins back at these crazy unnatural angles like some Sears Portrait Studio shit. But la vieja was still cryin and moms wouldn’t take the cigar out her mouth no matter how much el viejo yelled at her. Cisco, number one stunna, had smoked a blunt in the bathroom bout a minute before and was crackin up, hawkin his rum and Coke all o’er his tux. And me, I’m standin there cheezin ear to ear cuz I just made some nice fuckin loot throwin three-card monte wit a bunch a viejos in the street out front. Some fuckin wedding portrait, eh? Ha!
Then my pager starts goin off, and I am fuckin itchin to be over wit it and send Shorty and her Cubanaso away on their honeymoon to Disney World or where’er, but I stick around for long enough to see Ari tumble on in through the door, fucking wrecked. Nigger could barely stand. Had on these big-ass Blublocker sunglasses wit his bowtie hangin sideways, his hair lookin like a rat’s nest, and he steps to P and slaps im hard on the back like Oye meng, take care a her. Shorty tries to pull Ari away, but P’s cool bout it. He just shakes Ari’s hand and puts his other arm round Delia, posin for a picture like he some kinda diplomat.
Pretty classy motherfucker. God knows any one a us woulda pulled a concealed weapon on a nigger, tú sabe. Then Ari’s like Where’s the bar? And one a P’s friends lies and tells im there is no bar, so Ari gets tight. Later he gets his ass kicked out for startin a fight wit the priest cuz he thinks he cut in fronta im in the food line. Yo, there is a VIP spot for that nigger in Dante’s inferno, lemme tell you.
At the time I just thought shit was funny, like what can you do but laugh? But maybe if I woulda known bout what he done, I coulda stopped it for Shorty. Coulda stepped up and stopped thinkin bout my own scams and taken his ass out, made sure he didn’t ruin her wedding or nobody else’s. Back then I woulda prolly enjoyed it, wouldn’t a cared what happened to me after. Woulda ended up back here anyways, but maybe it woulda been for somethin better than a little loot. Shorty coulda gotten that closure she been needin all this time and well, me too. Cuz really what’s more closed than this?