Pedro Gets a Dog
“Papi!” It’s real windy out, and the waves crash. But they’re little crashes, like when I make my Hot Wheels crash. I do the sound effects in my throat like the movies do. I make my voice spin through all that noise. I have friends who don’t live at the beach. But I don’t know why. But anyway, they don’t know how to make their words twirl on the wind.
Here he comes. He walks like he has two sticks ‘stead of legs. Mami always tells him he has to eat more. “You’ll get sick again.” She always says it like a mami. And he’s a papi! That scares me. I don’t want Papi being sick like the other time. But I don’t say. ‘Cause then I won’t be his man. He’s coughing. I have to pretend I don’t notice.
Papi has gray hair, real curly. Sometimes when I take a bath, I find his little curls. They stick to the white tub. Friendly with the scratches and stains. It’s old, our tub. Papi’s bathroom upstairs has a shower. But he likes to lie down and read in the tub. I run to him. He picks me up. But it isn’t easy for him. ‘Cause it takes a second. And his face sorta squinches shut when he does it. I want to laugh. He makes a sound like a seal on Discovery Channel. But I don’t laugh. ‘Cause he’s Papi. And I love him like my chest is on fire. Instead, my head touches the clouds over his head. He brings me down so I can look in his face. I pull a little on his beard. Not hard. He likes it. ‘Cause he smiles. I trace the lines. He lets me. “Papi,” I ask after a minute, “how do you fold your face like that?” My pointy finger follows a line all the way across his forehead.
Papi laughs. “Lots of practice,” he says. “You have to smile every day and laugh as much as you can. Can you do that?”
I lift my shoulders. “Sure.” I tilt my head down. Smile, to show him that I can.
He laughs. “Great!”
I lift my head. I can see over the top of the terrace roof. The bamboo sticks rattle. The wind. It’s strong. Out on the water, black clouds. Like one of the gangs of big boys at school.
I hug Papi’s head. His nose is in my stomach. “I love you too much, Papi.”
“I love you, too, Pedro.” His voice makes my tummy warm. He leans back his head to look up at my eyes. “Like the sky loves the sun.”
When he talks, I smell the yucky cigarette-smell. “Papi…” I start to scold. Like mami when I forget to put softy cream on my knees and elbows.
“Jose, Pedro, time to eat.”
Mami’s voice doesn’t dance like me and Papi’s. No. It sounds like the girl in the Olympics. It jumps and spins and flips. By the time it gets to my ears, it’s breathing hard. It makes me dizzy just to hear it.
Papi drops me. But not like drops. Only that I go down real fast. My stomach goes whoopsy. I bounce on my feet when I land. He leans on the old picnic table for a second. He puts one hand on his chest. Breathes.
Then he looks at me. Smiling. “C’mon sportle.” He pulls my shoulder. He rubs his palm on my head. He coughs. I see his yellow teeth before he hides them behind his hand.
I run up the little beach, onto the porch of the house. The kitchen door is open. I smell good stuff. Rice and beans, I hope. And tostones. And mayoketchup with a little bit of garlic. Not too much. Mami blocks the doorway. I try to get past her, so I can get to the table faster. She throws her hip right in the way, and I bounce off. Like I ran into a pillowpole. “Sandals, Pedrito.”
I nod. I always forget. Papi passes me when I back up. So, I take off the sandals. Put them on the plastic next to the bucket. I like bare feet better, anyway. Just that mami gets nervous when I don’t wear something outside.
“Let me see.” Mami bends at the waist and makes her spoon go “lift ‘em up.” I show her the bottoms of my feet.
“Pedro Jose, how do your feet get so black? And with your sandals on!” She puts her fists on her hips. But I know she’s not mad. ‘Cause her smile looks like a peeled lady-finger banana.
I shrug my shoulders ‘cause I don’t know. I just play.
She points at the bucket. It’s always there, next to the kitchen door. Every morning I have to go down to the water to fill it up. I step in and slide my foot. The water sloshes. It almost jumps all the way up the blue plastic and out. But I know how to be careful. So mami doesn’t have to mop. Done. I rub my clean foot on the old towel next to the bucket. I put my other foot in the water and do the swishy. Dry again. Ya.
I nod. Papi coughs. I don’t look, but mami does. Her face goes worried. Like when I have a cold.
She turns away and asks me, “Hungry?” She bends down and pinches my nose. It doesn’t hurt. I kind of like it. Or my tummy does. ‘Cause it feels full, but not food full. And my heart thumps.
I nod again.
She pushes me by my bottom. “Go ahead. Your food’ll get cold.”
I wait for a second and ask. “Tostones?” I feel my eyebrows jump all the way up my forehead. They can shake hands with my hair.
Mami laughs and rubs her palm in my hair. She doesn’t do it like Papi. I mean, she rubs my hair, he rubs my hair. But Papi does it a little hard, like he wants to scratch my brain. Mami feels…mami is more like petting Ornette, Papi’s dog.
“Yes, Plantain-Boy, I made tostones. Now go!”
It’s dark inside. And hot. Sr. León’s son, Víktor, put the woods on the windows yesterday, for when the hurricane comes. He’s Papi’s friend who sometimes works around the house. Some stuff, Papi can’t do. The news talkers said the hurricane is coming. I never remembered a hurricane. It sounds interesting. Hurricane Ronald. I guess hurricanes are people. To have a name and everything.
Papi is sitting in the papi-chair. His hands, I can’t see ‘em, no, but I know they’re in his lap, folded. He always waits for mami to take the first bite. I can hear her slapping my sandals together outside. To get the sand off. Papi says it’s the most polite, waiting like he does. That means I have to wait, too. “Where’s Christine?” I sure like it that Christine lives with us. She’s real funny and stuff and I like her like a whole sister ‘stead of half. She rubs my head, too. But like I’m Winnie the Pooh. But she just came one day. A long years ago when I was only little. Three, maybe. Or four. I think she fought a lot with her mami who isn’t my mami.
“Oh, Jose, I forgot to tell you.” Mami brings a plate to the table. It has the smell-good chicken that means mami isn’t doing her diet today. She says she and Papi have to have healthy hearts. I’m happy that she made the smell-good today. It shines when she plunks it on the table. My fingers almost itch to pick up a hot drumstick. But what about their healthy hearts? Papi coughs. Is it ‘cause he doesn’t have a healthy heart?
“It’s Christine. She called while you were out with Pedro; she’s working a second shift today.”
Papi picks up the napkin. The fork clatters on the table. “So she’s taking me seriously.” A little smile, then a little frown. Then a little smile again that seems like it’s part frown. He puts the napkin on his lap. Like always, he pulls the corner up so it covers his tummy. I wait for Papi to take his favorite piece from the top of the pile. The neck! Yuch!
It’s so hot! The woods on the windows make it dark, sure. But the nice breeze that always blows across the table is blocked, too. My face is already wet. I don’t mind the sweat. Not like mami. She always hates being sweaty. I rub my finger on my thumbnail. It’s a little slippery. That always happens when the air is real press-inny and sorta like a invisible shower. Like now.
Mami drinks from her water glass before sitting, before answering. But not… Because Papi didn’t really ask her anything. Still, his words are like the big engine of the Thomas the Tank Engine show. And mami’s words’re supposed to be the cars. The ice cubes dance in the clear water. They sound like little bells made of dice. She puts her glass on the table. Pulls back her chair and sits. The chair is straight and wooden. It has this cloth thing hanging on the back. It looks like a washcloth. Thinner. She sort of sweeps her dress under her lap when she sits. Her napkin goes on top. More water. She looks over the glass at Papi. “You don’t have to make her pay rent, Jose; we don’t need it.” Uh-oh, her, “you shouldn’t-a done it, Pedro” voice, but talking to Papi! Mami digs her fork into the little pile of rice on her plate. My eyes grab the rice and won’t let go. Spit starts to fill my mouth. Go on mami, eat.
Papi opens his mouth to take a bite. Then he stops the curvy piece before it gets to his yellowy teeth. He looks across the table at mami for a second. I want to laugh, ‘cause he looks kinda funny with the chicken hanging in the air in front of his open mouth. A fly lands on the chicken on the plate. Mami puts down her fork. Darn it! My fork walks away from my hand, Nyah, nyah. She waves at the fly. She doesn’t need to move her eyes from Papi’s. The fly twists up and away. Papi covers his mouth with his other hand and coughs. But a buncha times. Like 11. Mami’s face is real small. I think she’s scared of papi’s cough ‘cause it sounds real mean.
The coughing stops. Papi puts the chicken on his plate next to his pile of rice. Like he just remembered it was in his hand. But he doesn’t say anything for a minute. He moves his fork from the table to the side of his plate. He drinks some water.
I didn’t know I was holding my breath. When it whooshes out, rice blows off my plate. I look up at mami. But she didn’t notice. She’s still staring at Papi. And he has a funny face on. Only not funny. I hurry to pick up the little rices that are on the table. I hope mami doesn’t notice.
Christine once told me that Papi had a real bad temper, a long years ago.
“What’s that? A ‘temper’?”
“He used to get very angry, very easily. He yelled a great deal, mostly at my mom, but at me too, sometimes. Mostly when he’d been drinking too much.”
I tried to hear a yell coming out of Papi’s mouth. I tried to see his eyes dark and his mouth all down like a upside-down teacup. I tried to put a smelly bottle in his mouth, like Uncle Pete likes. I shook my head.
Mami looks down at her plate. Her hand picks up her fork. Like it’s stealing something from Wal-Mart. Stick the fork in the rice. Lift up a little bit. Balance on her fork. Just that, no beans. The little bit of rice disappears into her mouth.
I can eat now.
I take a tostón from my stack. I drop it. ‘Cause it’s too hot. Before I can blow it not-hot, Papi talks. Something in his voice makes me look up. I think about Christine saying Papi had a temper. Maybe the temper is talking, not Papi. He doesn’t sound like Mister Silvana, my physical education teacher. He yells if you drop the baseball. And he doesn’t like it when Missy Pérez walks across the play area. He follows her the whole way with his eyes. And frowns. But sorta, yes. It’s different. Mister Silvana’s voice flies like a rocket. All hot and fast across the play area. You can hear it even when you hide under the bleachers. Well, I don’t think I could hear Papi’s voice if I went outside. The wind maybe is too loud. But it’s the same, too. ‘Cause when Mister Silvana starts to yell, it sounds like there’s a monster inside his neck. Maybe it’s a temper. Papi has the temper in his neck, too. But quiet.
“Linda, she’s 31 years old. She’s smarter than anyone in that plant and only needs three credits to graduate with her Masters in engineering.” He picks up his fork. He doesn’t eat. He puts down his fork. His face looks like he wants mami to say, “Yes dear.” She says that sometimes. She doesn’t say it now. He talks some more. “She’s secretary to an engineer who doesn’t know half what she does, for god’s sake. If I make it a little harder for her, maybe she’ll see how easy it could be to make it easier for herself.” Papi’s really asking with his face. His eyes are all looking and round.
The tostón is not-hot. My fingers don’t burn when I pick it up and glop on some mayoketchup.
Mami breathes in to talk. But Papi isn’t waiting for “Yes dear.” He lifts up his hand and pushes the air, like saying “stop” with it. Like the guard at school when the mamis drive in to pick us up. He talks a little louder. The temper is getting excited. It says, “Damnit.”
I breathe in so fast and almost choke on my mouthful of tostón and mayoketchup. Papi says that bad words are for dumb people who can’t think of the right words. The temper must be dumb.
Mami’s eyes are, I don’t know, nighttime. But not like she’s sleeping. Like she has a temper, too. But hers is in her eyes, ‘stead of her neck. It’s awake already and getting ready to turn on the light. I don’t know who to look at. I stare at my plate and try to chew faster. The rice is still steaming. And the beans, too. Their smokes twist around invisible straws and disappear when they’re a little up.
I wish Christine was here.
Papi coughs. Once only. Behind his hand again. I don’t see it ‘cause I’m looking at the smokes from my rice. But I hear the way his big hand like blocks the cough. Go back inside! The cough doesn’t listen.
Then it’s quiet for a long time. I look away from the smokes floating up. Papi’s got his eyes right on top of me. He looks away. At the wall, at the table, at mami. At the pile of rice and beans on his plate. They have a smoke like mine. But just one big one. ‘Cause he puts his together. The beans on top of the rice. He says that they’re gonna get mixed up in his tummy anyway, so they may as well be mixed up on his plate, too. That Papi!
When Papi talks again, the temper is not so much. Not like a minute ago. Maybe mami’s scared it. “The doctor said a year. Maybe two.” Why won’t he look at mami? “You’ll have the insurance, so living won’t be a problem. But Pedro is smart; he has to go to a private school, and she’ll have to help.”
Hey! “Really, Papi? I’m smart?” Like the full in my tummy when mami rubs my head. And my heart thumps again.
“Of course you are.” He reaches across the table. My cheek sorta falls into his hand. His eyes are shiny. The smokes from his chicken and rice and beans, I guess. Like when he does a barbecue outside. “You’re the smartest guy on the beach.”
Papi holds my face like that for a whole long time. Two minutes or 11, maybe. Then he turns back to mami, and his eyes aren’t shiny anymore. He looks like he’s going to tell her she has to go to school tomorrow…on Sunday!
“If Christine would only…”
I interrupt, like I’m not supposed to. “Papi, can you teach me the chess?” Papi likes to play with Víktor’s papi, Sr. León, who lives next door. Not the shooting guy. He lives in the other next door. I don’t know his name. He only stays there at Christmas and New Year’s and shoots his stupid ol’ gun. And, anyway, he’s rich. Sr. León is Papi’s friend, too. I think Papi could have lots of friends, if he wanted. Everybody likes him all the time. But he’s always here.
“Sure, Pedro. I’ll teach you.” He coughs. He almost doesn’t get his hand up in time. ‘Cause the cough surprised him. Even his eyes go wide. Papi coughs again. Like before—maybe more than 11 times. He sounds like his chest is a paper bag full of water. Like it’s gonna ‘splode.
He doesn’t stop. I watch his eyes. Right before it died, a dog that got killed on the fast road looked up at the sky like that. The fast road in front of our house is called Bypass Number 2. It’s too big and too fast so mami makes Papi lock the big gate all the days. She’s afraid that I might run out there like the dog. I won’t. I’m not a stupid. But when I told her I wouldn’t do such a dummy thing, her face got shiny and red. And her eyes sorta emptied out. Like when all the sand runs out of a bucket. So I don’t tell her anymore. Anyway, I don’t really care if the big gate is open or closed.
He coughs just a whole bunch of times. His face is more white than ever. Except two red circles on his cheeks. He presses his napkin against his open mouth.
“Jose?” Mami’s eyes are big holes cut in a sheet. Like Casper on the TV at Tití’s house.
Some kind of voice comes out from under the napkin. But I don’t know what Papi says. ‘cause it sounds like he’s running. And far away. And tired. The wet paper bag sounds like it’s tearing up.
Mami stands up from her chair. She pushes it back so hard that it hits the wall. The washcloth falls off the back. Mami doesn’t pick it up. Uh oh. Now Papi is waving his hand. Not the one with the napkin, the other one. Like, It’s okay, get back. I’m okay.
He doesn’t look okay.
Mami pulls on the back of Papi’s chair. It scrapes on the floor. Loud, so that the wind outside gets small for a second.
It’s more windy outside. More than before. Yeah. I didn’t notice. Is that the hurricane? Sometimes the wind in Ponce turns way up. Like upping the sound on the television. The Hot Wheels crashes of the waves change. They turn into the big car crashes that happen on the fast road all the time.
I want to stand up. I want to help Papi. I see him choking and I hear it. But I don’t know what to do. Mami leans down and gets her shoulder into Papi’s pit. I can’t help it, I giggle when I hear the word in my head. Pit. I’m lucky mami didn’t hear me. She grunts when she stands up straight. He kind of hangs off her shoulder. Like the TV drunk people. But I know he isn’t drunk. That’s the Uncle Pete thing. Papi gets mad at Uncle Pete. He tells me to leave whenever the smelly bottle comes out. I like Uncle Pete a lot, but when he isn’t playing his saxophone he’s too sad.
“Pedro—” I can’t hear her. A big thunder stops all the other sounds. Even the big car crashes are Hot Wheels again.
“What?” I ask. I look at Papi, and I think, God, if you make Papi okay, I’ll even eat tomatoes.
Mami’s face is tight. Like when I fell off the roof and broke my arm. Papi’s is white. Red cheeks. But she has the big ghost holes. The coughs take over the world. I can’t hear anything more. Not the big wind that I know is slamming the house. Not the car-crashing waves. Mami’s voice shoots me in the ears. “Call your sister!” She’s trying to get Papi up the stairs. “You know the number?”
I try to say “yes,” but a funny kind of frog sound comes out of my mouth. I run to the phone. I knock over the little wooden horse and soldier that guard the phone table. But mami doesn’t even notice. So now I feel a scaredy empty feeling in my chest.
Mami’s and Papi’s feet thump/slide as they go up the stairs. The coughing stops, and that scares me, too.
“Ai!” Someone’s feet thumpa-thump. Maybe they’re gonna fall down the stairs.
“Mami!” But, nothing. I want to run up the steps and make sure she’s okay. No. I shake my head. Haveta call Christine. I bend over the phone. With the woods on the windows, I can’t see the numbers. If I squint a little and put my eyes real close. 7,8,7,8,4,6,3,5,#,#. All this summer, I called Christine at lunchtime. She’s fun to talk to. She knows lots of jokes. She calls them elephant jokes, and they’re real silly. But laughy silly, not stupid silly. And she likes to listen to my day. I like her just a whole lot. But I can’t get my fingers to punch the buttons in the right way. I do the 7,8,7 okay, and the 8,4,6, but then the 3,5 turns into 3,8. I punch the plastic hang-up button before the ring rings. My finger shakes when I try again. It’s like watching a movie. Like it isn’t really my finger. It’s that dumb hero who can’t move fast enough and someone’s gonna get in real trouble. Maybe die.
“Christine!” My voice starts before the ring.
I forgot. The recording starts. In English first, then it’ll change to Spanish. “ME, Inc., Villalba—” I punch Christine’s extension, 2,2,0,1. I used to wait for the whole thing. Christine laughed when I told her. She said that if I know the extension, I can punch it as soon as the call is answered.
Christine doesn’t like the phone. No. Even I know how dumb that is, a secretary that doesn’t like the phone. But she likes to talk to me, she said, ‘cause I’m her cute as a bug’s butt baby brother. I’m not a baby. I told her. And I know that the b thing’s a bad word. Not a lot bad, but yes, some. And I know what it is, the b thing. I don’t know about the bugs in New York where Christine used to live. The only ones I ever saw are pretty ugly. Their b s, too.
“ME, Inc., how can I—”
“Christine, you gotta come home—Papi’s all coughing and stuff and he couldn’t stop for about 11 hours but now he did and mami took him up the stairs and I think she almost fell but Papi’s quiet and mami told me to call you right away.” My stomach keeps pushing, but no more words come out. Then I can’t see the numbers on the phone, even though I’m looking right at them. They’re hiding at the bottom of the ocean that’s in my eyes. It’s a good thing I already called Christine.
She doesn’t ask any questions. And I have this idea, a big person idea, that she was waiting for this call. “My boss already said I could leave because of the hurricane. I’ll be there in 10 minutes. If I don’t hit anybody on the way. Call 9-1-1. You know how?”
“Hurry Christine, I’m—” But the funny frog is in my neck again. He won’t let me say “scared.” I’m too scared to say I’m scared. Then it might be really real. “Hurry.” I hang up the phone and pick it up again. The buzz inside changes to beep, beep, beep when I punch 9-1-1.
“Pedro!” Mami, wait, please, I gotta…
I open my mouth to say “What?” And I really say it, but a big thunder shakes the house, like saying, no you don’t! At the same time, God opens the shower all the way up. A million and billion buckets of water hit the roof. If I had a microphone like Daddy Yankee, mami still couldn’t hear me.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
The voice is tiny. The thunder is big. Mami is calling again, “Pedro!” I look in the mirror across the room. My eyes are as big as the silver dollars Papi keeps in his collecting box. My heart is running fast enough to jump out of my chest.
“Mami!” What am I supposed to tell you mami? That everything is okay?
The voice in the phone, all tiny, asks about my ‘mergency again. I remember. I put the phone against my ear. The plastic is hot.
I take a big breath. Papi taught me that when he showed me how to hit a baseball. He would throw the ball. When I swung the bat, I always missed. I cried or shouted. Sometimes angry, sometimes something else that made my brain feel like it was full of hot water.
“Okay, my man, take a deep breath and count to ten.”
I hear the voice. I take a deep breath.
“One, two, three, four…”
A woman, “Are you okay? What is—”
All the loud is there. Like, inside my head. The 911 lady is there. Mami is there. Shouting. The wind. A silence that is because Papi isn’t shouting or talking or coughing or anything. Like all of that outside stuff is trying to cram inside my brain.
The wind puts a fist on the wall next to my ear. I don’t jump, ‘cause I’m counting. Like, thinking real hard about making my brain clear up and my heart walk ‘stead of run.
“…seven, eight, nine…”
What if Papi—? No! Count!
“…ten …eleven.” And I take another big breath. Just in case the first one didn’t work. In, nose, out, mouth. But I can already feel that my heart is walking. The noise outside is outside again.
I speak Spanish, all the way. Mami and Mayra and most of my friends at school talk Spanglish. All the Missys tell us not to. But it’s easier when you can use all the words you know without having to choose. But for the 911 lady, I choose. “My name is Pedro Jose Rodrigo Rodríguez. I live in Las Cucharas, Bypass, number 15, Ponce. My Papi is real sick. He needs to go to the hospital. Right now!”
“Can you tell me what his problem is?”
I look through the ceiling and all the way to the sky and thank my good God. The 911 lady doesn’t ask questions, like Are you telling the truth? Are you just playing?
“I don’t know what’s wrong. Just that he’s coughing, only now he isn’t. Mami took him upstairs under his armpit.” I use the real Spanish word, axila. Mami always tells me not to say sobaco, ‘cause it’s a ugly word. Like pit, I guess. Anyway, I don’t laugh, ‘cause the funny isn’t in me right now.
“Do you need an ambulance?” Now she’s being not so smart. But mami says that you use flies to catch honey. Which I don’t get it, ‘cause who wants flies? But I keep my voice real nice like a whole spoon of honey, “Yes, ma’am. It’s a ‘mergency.”
I like it that her voice doesn’t tell me how little I am. “Don’t hang up. I’m dispatching the closest unit.” I hear a “click” and then nothing. A empty space opens up in my ear. Like listening to the sky. After a minute, she talks to me again. And this time, yes, her voice asks me, but just a little, Can your mami come to the phone? It’s like big people sometimes have to remind you that you aren’t…big, I mean.
“No, ma’am. She’s up with Papi, and there’s no phone upstairs. Papi doesn’t like the cellulars.”
“Well, as soon as she can, tell her she needs to come to the phone.”
I know that I have to be relaxed, because the 911 lady is gonna help Papi. But I want to scream. You know, shout at her, Don’t be a stupid! Mami can’t talk to you. She’s with Papi so he can be all okay. “I will.”
The 911 lady stops talking. The wind is too loud again, but I can hear sounds leaking out of the phone. Rings and people talking sorta hurry-up.
A siren starts to cry. Far away, but already getting closer. And I want to cry, too. The ocean comes back to my eyes. But it’s hotter and bigger than before. We went to the Baños de Coamo, once. The water was kinda stinky, but it was real neat, the hot of it. My eyes are swimming there. I think the frog will kiss the 911 lady on the cheek if I let him.
I breathe. One, two…better.
Real fast, the ambulance is so close. It’s almost as big as the wind. It starts to honk honk honk.
Why? Is someone in the way?
I jump. For a second, I guess I was hypnotized.
“Pedro! Are you okay? The driver says that the gate is locked.”
Oh! But Papi—
“I haveta get the keys. Can I put the phone down for a minute?”
Even after the horse and soldier fell off, there isn’t enough room on the little table for the handle and the other part together. I drop the phone on the arm of the sofa. My feet almost slip out from under me, I spin so fast.
Mami and Papi and Christine all hang their keys on some hooks on the kitchen wall, next to the door. I’m big enough to reach them, now. When Papi wants to go to the CD store, he asks me to get his keys and open the car for him. I grab the fat bunch. With all the keys of the whole house, two cars, and a bunch I don’t know. I start to throw the door open. The wind pushes it out of my hands and crashes it against the wall. I jump. Rain starts to pour in. I’m wet so fast it’s like jumping in a swimming pool. One ear listens for mami to not-mad shout: Pedro, don’t slam the door, please! My tummy turns upside down that she doesn’t. Should I close the door? The wind decides for me and throws the door closed. Forget about it. I have to open the gate.
The siren isn’t going, but the honks, yes. There, on top of the hill that goes up to the fast road. Over at the water, the waves are mad. White and crashing. Our little boat bounces like my submarine in the bathtub. I know I should go bring it up on the sand. But Papi. I run up the hill. Mami’s laundry snatches my head. A wet shirt slaps me and holds on like a octopus. My feet slip when I try to dodge. The dirt is already mud. I fall. The shirt gets pulled into the mud. I hit my cheek. My mouth is open, and I taste dirt. The sleeve tries to tie me down. But I rip it off my eyes. Now it holds my hand like Aunty Charlotte, all tight and like it’ll never let go even to go to the bathroom. It hurts, my cheek. I want to go in the house already. The rain is hard but not cold. Christine loves the rain in Puerto Rico. She says that in New York, when it rains, it’s like standing in the refrigerator and pouring the water jug on your head. But it’s hard, so I can’t see very much. My cheek hurts. The honk doesn’t stop. I shake my hand like shaking off a spider web. Ahead, a man is waving and like with a shout on his face. What are you mad about, I want to ask, I bet your Papi’s home watching baseball on TV. But, like the 911 lady, he’s gonna help Papi. My bare feet squish through mud to the gate. Now, I tell me, stay quiet and find the right key. One of the three little ones. Papi bought all three locks on the same day. One for the front gate, one for the sliding glass door, and one for the back door. All the keys look the same—shiny gold that Papi said isn’t really gold. I remember that the right one has a little scratch on it.
“See?” said Papi, holding it close to my eyes so I could see. He showed me a tiny little goldy scratch in the handle part of the key.
I look for it, but the rain and the clouds don’t let me see the scratch.
“Hurry up, son.” I look up at the shoutface man. Which one? I want to throw the whole bunch on the ground. I want to sit in the rain and let my tears get lost. I remember the bat, the ball, the breath. I can do it. I scratch the surface of the first key with my thumbnail. Nothing. I scratch the second. My nail gets stuck in a little ditch.
The key fits. Turn. The gate swings open by itself. So fast I have to jump out of the way. The ambulance drives in. Goes careful down the slippery hill. Slow, but fast enough that mud splatters mami’s laundry. The back tire runs over the shirt that tried to trap me. Nyah!
The two front doors open, and the two ‘mergency guys jump out.
Two men, shoutface and a shorty guy who has a real skinny mustache.
“Where is the patient?” Shortyguy.
I know what a patient is. I see TV. I want to shout that Papi isn’t a patient, he’s still Papi.
They throw open the ambulance’s back door. The thunder swallows the crash of it. And my answer, too. Shoutface grabs something metal inside.
Shortyguy looks at me, like, waiting for something. Where. Right. “Papi. He’s inside.” I shout and point at the closed back door. “Upstairs. In the bedroom.” Only mami and Papi have a bedroom on the second floor; it is the second floor. Big. Christine’s room is the corner one where Misha lived. Before she died. I didn’t know her. I was a little squirt, Papi says. She was my little sister, but she got sidded. I don’t know what that is. Mami just cries when I ask. My room is the best. ‘Cause the ocean is right outside my window. I can watch it when I wake up early. Or when I can’t sleep. I usually sleep okay. Mami says I have to sleep in the living room tonight. Even with the woods. She says it isn’t safe in my room during a hurricane.
The wind picks up a coconut tree branch and throws it at my face. I duck, but one of the sharp edges cuts me across the forehead. And my cheek hurts. And the rain in my nose. And Papi.
The ‘mergency men unfold some wheels and the metal thing turns into a rolling bed. Shortyguy shouts, “Can you get the door? And show us where to go.”
I run, slipping in the mud and falling on my b. The crying is waiting behind my eyes. Ready to jump out and make me look like a baby. I stand up, clamp down on the tears. Run, again, to the door. My hand grabs the door knob. Almost, I’m falling. I hold myself up and pull open the door. The wind is mad. It wants that door closed. But I put my heels on the edge of the cement and lean back. I can keep it open so the two guys can get inside. I have to.
Mami is shouting some more. It isn’t her be careful shout. It isn’t her darn it shout. It isn’t the one she only a couple of times used about mad at me. Almost.
Shoutface throws the rolling bed into mami’s kitchen. I open my mouth to tell him to clean his feet in the bucket. Stupid. By itself, like it knows before I do, my mouth closes. Mud and rain slop onto mami’s floor. Shortyguy looks a question at me. I point at the stairs that go up from the kitchen. “Up there.” When he runs by me, pushing the bed, one wheel smashes over my bare foot.
The wind hits the door and grabs it out of my hand. The slam is so hard that the glass breaks. The woods cover the outside, so all the glass falls into the kitchen, I guess. I can’t see it from the outside.
No pain in my foot. I can’t believe it!
Honk honk honk, again. Another ambulance?
No. Christine. ‘Cause her little car sounds almost like a toy. The ambulance honked like a man.
Then. Pain. Like my foot is cut off. I scream.
Christine’s lights are on. They shine on the gate. It looks like a cemetery gate in a scary movie. It’s closed, the gate. Now it’s open. The wind is playing. One way, then the other, then the other again. I want to say something: “Hey!” or “C’mon!” The wind prob’ly won’t listen.
I scream. It’s like my scared and my pain and the ocean behind my eyes all at once.
The car door opens. Christine’s big blonde hair comes out first. She never worries about a umbrella or a newspaper or anything. “It’s just water, right? Nothing more than an extra shower to clean up your day.” She always says that.
“Christine!” I’m screaming. I can’t stop. I know the breath and the bat and the baseball. But the scream knows the hurt in my foot, in my head, in my cheek. The scream knows Papi is upstairs. Not coughing.
She leaves the car. Door open, lights on. The gate listens to her arms when she tells it to open up or else. But revenge: it slams shut before she gets through. I guess it hits her in the b, ‘cause she falls.
On a day when we don’t have anything to do, maybe, only go to the little beach next to the house, maybe I would laugh. Christine falls. It’s raining. She gets dirty. But she laughs and I laugh and we run into the water. She’s tall and like a witch. The good one in the Wizard of Oz. Maybe we hold hands.
I don’t laugh. The rain runs down my cheeks. Somewhere in all that water, my tears.
And then. I don’t know. And then, my scared turns right and climbs the big tree in the yard.
I stop. Everything stops. I mean, no. The rain falls. Christine runs/slips down the hill. The ‘mergency guys make a big clatter climbing the stairs. I hurt. In and out. But at the same time, everything stops. And then, what? No rain, no sound.
Like when you take a picture. Everything keeps going after the click, rrrr. But the picture, it’s frozen.
This is what I know. I know that Papi is gonna be dead. Now. Soon. I can hear his voice. He talks to me with that smile. I see his dirty, yellow teeth. I smell his breath like a old ashtray. The most beautiful, wonderful of my Papi. “Don’t you worry, my boy, my man, I’ll take care of you. Forever.” A big space is in my chest. It’s kinda like empty. But too, Papi is in there. I hear him. Like when someone whispers in your ear. “I love you like the sky loves the sun.” A shiver goes from my heels to my head. Not cold or scared, a little good. Something. I guess like right after you go to the bathroom. Everywhere. My wrists, my tummy, my knees. Everywhere.
Cold drops splat on my face.
A hand touches my shoulder and I jump.
Christine. Everything stops stopping. She goes down in front of me till her eyes are the same tall as mine. “Where is he? Is he okay?”
I don’t tell her he is or isn’t. She knows, too, like me. I see Papi in her eyes. I guess he’s in mine, too, ‘cause she sees. She asks. But she knows. Always, big people do that. I don’t know why. Then they don’t believe what they can see with their very eyes.
She stands up, like she already forgot. Like she can run in and do a police thing with guns and save Papi. She puts one hand on the doorknob. She pets my head with the other one. Not like Winnie the Pooh, this time. If Christine has a son, she’ll do like now. Almost a mami thing.
“Be careful,” I tell her, “the window broke. All the glass is on the floor, prob’ly.”
Our little rowboat crashes against the dock. I feel Christine jump in her hand. Papi made it. The dock. We both turn to look at it. It’s little. But it sticks out far enough so that I can jump in the water, and mami doesn’t have to be scared that I’ll hit my head on the bottom and break my neck. The boat pulls hard on the rope. Like Ornette when we go walking. Papi’s dog! Is he okay? I look around. In the daytime, he likes to sleep under the pileta, mami’s big laundry sink. I don’t know where he likes to sleep when there’s a hurricane.
Christine opens the door. Her first step crackles on broken glass. She’s wearing her tall shoes. Her boss hates those shoes. Christine says she “towers over the little scuz,” and he doesn’t like it.
“Why do you wear ‘em, ‘f he doesn’t like ‘em?” We were eating piononos. Sometimes Christine brings them from a kiosco on the fast road.
“The minuscule martinet hates feeling inferior. Though how he can avoid it when he’s such an idiot, I don’t know.”
You can’t always understand Christine. Her tongue flicked out and wiped away a shine of grease in the corner of her mouth.
I bit into my treat. It burned my bottom lip, but I didn’t care. The soft, hot plátano wrapped around the spicy hamburger, yummy!
Christine touches my shoulder. Oh. Here. Now. The ghost of a pionono haunts my tongue. She shouts so that her words can run faster than the wind. “Pedro, go over to Víktor’s place. He’s out of work again, right? He should be home.”
My head starts to shake. I don’t think I’m telling it to, it just does. Then, quiet, my mouth says, “No. No… no.” I don’t understand, ‘cause my brain tells me to go on. Find a place. Lie down. Covers, pillow, lights off. Sleep, like Ornette.
She opens her mouth. But I don’t let her words touch the hot, blowy air. Now I push mine out to fight against the wind. “I gotta stay, Christine. I gotta stay for…” I pick up my shoulders like the soldier guys on the TV. “I gotta stay for mami.”
For a second, I know she’s gonna say, go on. With her mouth in a hard line and her eyes all squinty. Then I see her shoulders fall, and her mouth, too, gets all soft. But the only thing that comes out is, “Oh.” Low, so I can’t hear it, only see it. The ocean is in her eyes now. “Here.” She bends over and picks up my sandals. They’re next to the bucket. I take them and slide them on my wet feet.
I hope mami won’t mind that we’re wearing shoes, but the glass. Anyway, the tracks the ‘mergency guys left will swallow up anything we bring inside. Anyway, mami brushed off my sandals. I remember.
We hear sounds from upstairs. No coughing. Someone is shouting something that I can’t understand. I hear the sshhh of a radio. A whoosh, fump noise that I don’t know what it is.
“What?” Christine pulls me closer to the stairs. I don’t dig in my heels, like Ornette does when he doesn’t want to go outside for the night. I want to, but I don’t. I take Christine’s hand, I guess. But maybe she takes mine. But we’re holding hands. We take the first step. Our hands are sweaty already. The door slams behind us. We both jump. In real life, we would look at each other and laugh. Like in the movies. This isn’t real life.
We move closer to the stairs. And I wish they would back up like movie special effects, so I don’t have to go up ‘em.
I won’t, I think. It’s too late, I think. The thought makes the breath suck out of me, and I for just a second can’t breathe.
Once, Papi asked me to call him “daddy,” ‘stead of Papi. He said that in Puerto Rico, all the ladies call any old guy papi. He said the word was “devalued.” I remember. I don’t know what “devalued” means. But I always forgot to say it. It’s like, when I think “Papi,” I think all the love that’s in the world. When I think “daddy,” it’s just a sound.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I whisper.
The wind outside stops. Just…stops. We can hear now that after the fump, there’s a metal sort of clack. “Clear!” from one of the ‘mergency guys. Shoutface, I think, but he’s not shouting. Shouldn’t he be shouting? Like the movies? The “whoosh” is the bottom part of a mosquitoey whine. Fump.
Something’s going wheet wheet wheet. Fast. I look around. The phone. I forgot about it.
Mami isn’t crying, and it sounds the same as Shoutface not shouting.
Christine hangs up the phone. Clack. She tries to move me to the stairs. Like, c’mon, ya gotta.
No I don’t.
I pull Christine’s hand. Come down. “I’m not.” I understand: I gotta stay for mami. But I don’t have to go upstairs. That’s a lot too much.
She bends over, her eyes right there as tall as mine again. Christine has the greenest eyes ever. Green like mami’s fern. Green like the beer bottles that the stupid guys throw out of their windows on the fast road. They look at me. And they ask questions, sure. But I guess she heard that I’m not going up. She heard. Like big people never do.
“What?” But she knows. I’m not going up. I just shake my head. The questions are still in her eyes, like the fishtails that sometimes flick the top of the water.
Her brain puts another question in her mouth. I don’t know why, ‘cause she knows already. “Why?”
“Papi. He’s dead.”
She shakes her head. The wind is gone, and I can hear the swishy sound of her long hair.
“He can’t be. They’re still working on him.”
Why does she say that? She knows. I just don’t understand big people.
Anyway, everything stops upstairs. Right then. The radio talks. Quiet, like it doesn’t want to bother anyone. One of the ‘mergency guys answers. Shortyguy. He has a soft voice. Like he’s nice at home.
My tummy makes a sound. Grumbly. I remember. I didn’t finish eating. I look over. The food is still on the table. It seems like dinner was a long years ago. But it still smells real good. I’m hungry.
Upstairs, mami starts to cry again, all soft and like she’s gonna barf.
Christine looks up. Her face gets frozen. Her eyes don’t even have time to let in the ocean. But there’s a, it’s like a light goes out behind her face. Not just her eyes. Like, if you look at the thing that covers the lamp, all bright from the bulb inside. If you turn off the lamp, the light goes away so much it seems like the cover thing isn’t there anymore.
I pull my hand out of Christine’s. The food talks to me. Calls me. So I go.
I eat. Chicken, still warm. Tostones, mostly cold. But who cares. A little mayoketchup and they’re good to go. The rice and beans, I don’t eat. I don’t like cold rice. It tastes like paste. Even with the bean sauce all dripping down. I used to eat paste a long years ago when I was a little fella, but not now.
The ‘mergency guys start to bring Papi down the stairs. Shoutface’s foot slips. He shouts, but doesn’t fall. Why is he mad at the stairs? He looks at them like he’ll hack ‘em up with an axe if he can. The mad on his face forgot about Papi.
They get to the bottom of the stairs. Shortyguy moves around the rolling bed and pokes Shoutface with his elbow. Now I think Shoutface is gonna shout at Shortyguy. But I guess he remembers. Like twins, they put their heads and eyes down together at the same time. They look at the floor, like saying Sorry. Ornette always does that, too. When he goes pipi on mami’s floor.
Heads down. Door opens. Talk to mami about taking Papi. I don’t know what. It’s like I forgot my Spanish. The words sound like mashed potatoes. The ‘mergency guys leave with Papi. Rain drips off the top of the door. The kitchen looks like a little ocean. They have to fight the mud all the way to the ambulance. How did I get to the doorway? I look at the food sitting on my plate sitting on the table. I turn my eyes outside and watch from the doorway. Good thing Papi is like Christine. He doesn’t mind the rain. The ambulance guys look like they aren’t. Like Christine, I mean, or Papi. Shortyguy growls kinda soft, but no wind, right? “Maldita lluvia!” Cursed rain. My eyes open wide. I think what I think Papi would think: Too dumb to find the right words. Papi is in my throat, getting ready to ‘splode out like a skyrocket. No, that’s some tostón. I swallow—goodbye tostón. I watch. When the rolling bed almost falls, I back up until the half-open door blocks the view. I can’t watch. Goodbye Papi, my brain says. With the door open, the kitchen isn’t so hot now. The ambulance roars like a hungry monster.
Going to her car, mami cries. Coming to the house, Christine cries. I guess I’ll cry. Later. But I’m hungry now. So I eat.
So much, my tummy feels like a voldyball under my shirt. I guess I won’t eat again for 11 days.
It’s tonight now. Mami got back a little ago. When she put her car in its spot, she almost hit the side of the house. And the rain got her hair. She hates that.
When it was almost over, the hurricane blew out the lights. Candles are turned on all over the house.
Downstairs, not up. No one wants to go up. We still have water. Por lo menos .
Mami is with Christine. They’re crying and talking. The wind is less. Still louder than the waves. You can smell the wet. The rain falls like a million and billion macaronis. I like macaroni and cheese. Mami lets me make it sometimes.
The kitchen is hot again. The same as when mami makes chocolate chip cookies. The door is closed. The woods are on the windows, still. But I feel safe here. My foot hurts a little. Not too much. It has a fat sorta line on it. But it doesn’t hurt too much. Or my cheek. Or my forehead. The wind is outside, the rain, the thunders. I’m safe here in a small, closed place. Some hurts and some scary, but not too much. I watch a DVD on my little player. I charge the battery all the time. It’ll last pretty long.
Sometimes, the little sounds of the TV people are big enough. ‘Cause I have this empty hole. Not the same one as before, when Papi talked to me. This one is too big and too empty. And if it stays empty, I’ll disappear inside. Calling and pulling even though I don’t want to go. But it’s scary in another way, ‘cause sometimes I want to. Like the empty wants to be my friend. C’mon Pedro, my boy my man. Like Papi, but not. So, sometimes the voices on the little TV fill the hole. A little.
The door opens behind me. Mami comes into the kitchen. She passes on my right. And her feet don’t always pick up off the ground, like she’s too tired. She pulls out her chair. The one she always sits in. With the washcloth or whatever on the back. I mopped the kitchen. It’s not anymore a ocean. When she went with Papi, I did it. I wouldn’t let Christine. And mami is sitting. In the chair. I even put back the washcloth, ‘cause it fell on the floor. It’s maybe still wet. Her eyes feel like fingers on my neck. I want to watch the colors on the screen. I want to fill the hole and stay safe. But I know mami. She wants to talk. I put “pause” and wait. The hole waits, too. Like a big mouth. Hungry and cold. Not Papi. I shiver. But only a little so mami won’t see. It doesn’t feel good like after you go to the bathroom.
Her eyes go to the scratches on my face. A little light, then it goes away. Like if you flick a switch. Click. “Your papi is dead.” The candle dances on the table. Its flame goes up and down, like a man taking off his hat and putting it back on again. The flicker-flash shows me a mami who’s a ghost.
I nod. “I know.” If I breathe, the ocean stays back. I breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Papi showed me.
She looks at me. “Do you understand?” Her eyes, red all around and in. With another question inside, like, Who are you right now?
I nod. A angry voice wants to shout. Like when I miss the baseball. I’m not a stupid!
I breathe. The voice hides behind a hill in my head. Still there, but hiding.
I’m hungry. Christine put away the food and washed the dishes. But I’m not big food hungry. My chair screams when I push it back. Mami’s face goes ow. “Sorry.”
She smiles. I think her sad forgot. For just a little second.
I go to the big food closet and get the peanuts. I eat two hands. My lips burn ‘cause of the salt.
I’m putting the plastic top on the can of peanuts. “I know what dead is. I watch TV. And the dogs all the time on the fast road.” The door is still open. I’m talking to a box of macaroni and cheese. My tummy says “hello.” Tummies never know they’re supposed to be sad.
The door won’t close all the way. You try and it just sneaks open again.
It sneaks open.
Again. I push. It opens. I push. It opens. It’s good when you know what’ll happen.
I try. It opens.
It’s that I don’t want to sit down. Mami will look at me. She wants to cry again. She needs to, I guess. And she wants me to. Like it’s something I have to do to make it real. But I don’t want to cry. It’s hard to breathe and my nose hurts. And my heart. And I don’t feel like it right now. And anyway, it’s real. Just like the movies. But her eyes will pull the ocean into my head if I have to see them.
When you push it just right, slow, a little soft, but with a heavy hand, it stays closed. So… Now I’m done. I can’t pretend that it’s important anymore.
So I go to the table. I sit. But I look at the yellow placemat ‘stead of mami. I’m sorry, mami. I don’t want to.
A tree falls. What a crash! I can’t see it. I think it must be from Sr. León’s house. It’s behind me. We don’t have big big trees on that side. Mami’s garden, and she hangs the wet clothes there.
I won’t look up. I don’t want the ocean in my eyes.
It’s tonight some more. I’m sleeping. I’m dreaming. I know it’s a dream. But not.
Papi says, “Ornette didn’t make it.”
“What happened to him, Papi?”
Papi takes a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. The one that has a picture of a saxophone on it. The other pocket has a picture of a piano. He always wears long sleeves ‘cause he’s ‘shamed of his tattoos.
“He ran out onto the Bypass. Some drunk trying not to get killed in the hurricane ran him over.” Papi’s eyes light up like a match. “Son of a—”
I hold my breath, but he doesn’t say it.
Papi pats his pockets. He’s looking for his lighter. The cigarette is already on. I can’t smell it. I can see the smoke twisting up. There’s no wind where Papi is. The smoke walks up the air in a curling line. Like the spiral stairs you sometimes see on TV. And I can see the bright orange tip. Papi jumps when he notices that it’s on already. Then he smiles. His fingers make it dance.
I always hate cigarettes, but I like it when Papi makes the glowing tip dance.
I like this shirt that Papi’s wearing now. I remember it’s soft like a kitty cat’s fur. I try to touch it, but it’s like Papi’s arm is in a different room. Even though I can see him easy as I can see my Winnie the Pooh bear.
I go back to sleep. I’m sorry about Papi’s dog. Really and truly. But the smile on my face is so big it covers the scary hole. Thanks for coming, Papi. I wonder if I have to eat tomatoes. Papi isn’t alive, but he’s sort of okay. I’ll think about it.
It’s tomorrow now. Mami cried all day. She’s crying now. She’ll cry all night. When it’s night.
I’m playing outside. Tree branches are all over our beach. All over the yard. The terrace roof blew off. Only bamboo sticks. Not strong or anything. Wet sand covers the terrace’s cement floor. Not too bad. I can broom it for mami. I don’t mind. The sand comes almost to the benches of the picnic table. Not too bad, either. But the dock, Papi built it. It’s gone. The space that Papi filled with wood and work, empty. I fight the ocean. My eyes are busy. Leave ‘em alone . And the rowboat. Gone.
The space that Papi filled is empty, too.
Somewhere else. Don’t look.
I let my feet take me to the other side of the house. Uh oh. Mami’s garden. It must be under all the sand. I can’t see it. All the pretty flowers. The pileta is tilted to the side. Like some big hand pushed it. The strings mami uses to hang the clothes are gone. I go to the trees that line up along the fence. They go all the way down into the water. Soldiers guarding the house. They’re no good for climbing. They aren’t real tall, but the bottom branches are still too high for me to reach. ‘Til I’m big. Soon. I think about Papi and the soldier trees that I can’t climb. I guess they aren’t very good guards, either. Then I see. No, the lines aren’t gone. There they are, all tied to the first four trees in line. Broken, but not gone. That’s nice.
I remember the crash from last night and look through the fence to check Sr. León’s yard. Yep, a big manglillo tree fell down. Right on the garage. Part of the roof is smashed in. Víktor comes out of the big double front door that looks like it should open into a mansion. I almost don’t recognize him. He isn’t smiling. Víktor always smiles.
“Good afternoon, Pedro. What a day, eh?” He looks at me sorta careful. Like he’s afraid that his eyes will punch me in the face if he doesn’t watch out.
I shrug. Víktor is easy to talk to. But today his eyebrows don’t waggle. His cheeks are flat instead of stretched up. He has red circles around his eyes. He liked Papi a lot.
The mud pulls my feet. I don’t have my sandals. Mami wasn’t looking. I like it, the mud. Squishy and warm. Better than oatmeal in the morning. My stomach grumbles. I wonder what mami will make for lunch.
“Your mother told me that Ornette died.” Víktor’s words come out to feel the air. Is it safe? A little, maybe. So more slip out, “I’m real sorry to hear that. I know you loved that dog.”
I nod. “Yeah. Papi’s dog. We couldn’t find him, but Papi told me.”
Víktor pulls his forehead down. His head goes to the side a little, like a bird looking at a pretend worm. Papi sometimes fishes. He says it relaxes him. He showed me the pretend worm. I don’t know, if I was a fish, it wouldn’t fool me.
“He told you?” The tilt, but more. And he squinches his mouth in the corner.
I nod. I know what it is. Supposed to be that you can’t talk to dead people. “But he was smoking.” I add.
Víktor nods. His eyes, red, remember? get the ocean shine to them. Soft, like he thinks I won’t hear, he says, “You poor kid.” I can see his mouth move. I recognize the round-mouth o of pobrecito. He doesn’t know.
“Is Kody okay?” Kody is the dog of Viktor’s papi. She’s very pretty. Long hair that’s real soft and different colors of brown, with some black thrown in for variety. Papi says that: “thrown in for variety.” Everybody in Las Cucharas has a dog, ‘cause a the píos, the thieves. Sometimes they all start barking, and you can’t hear the TV. Mami says they’re talking. But Papi’s face gets red, and he holds the arm of his chair ‘til his hands get white.
Víktor, I like Víktor. He’s nice. He doesn’t talk too loud like his papi. He doesn’t talk cold like the stupid ol’ shooting neighbor I don’t know. But he doesn’t know. I see him look at the roof. It’s all broken. He’s worried. Maybe it’ll rain some more. What’ll he do? The tree might move and break something else. It’s a small house, and if too much more breaks it’ll be all broken. One branch already tap-taps on the big sliding glass door.
A long time, then he remembers my question, “Yeah, Kody’s fine. As stupid as ever.” But he smiles. I guess her stupid isn’t a bad thing. “She barked like a madwoman during the storm. Even my dad couldn’t sleep.” Sr. León never hears me unless I shout. Kody musta barked real loud.
I look at him. I stand right there. Looking. One hand holds the fence. The other one rubs my tummy, but not like I’m hungry. Am I hungry? Maybe. The thin strings of metal hurt my other hand. Not cutting, but digging. Hard. He moves his feet. He looks down. The mud licks his white tennies. A wave crashes and his eyes go there. Víktor doesn’t have even a little beach like we do. But the water goes all the way to a wall of cement. It protects his house from the big hurricane waves. It works. His house is still here.
Too bad he doesn’t have a tree wall to protect him from the trees.
I know I can’t laugh or smile right now. I hold onto it. For later. When I really need it.
Víktor doesn’t want to see me. But he doesn’t know where to put his eyes. They have the ocean in them, but a little one. Not like mine when I let it come. Mine’ll be the ocean of oceans. You can put the moon in it. With some room still for a castle and the mean, fat lady who lives next to Mayra. It won’t go away for a long time so my eyes better be good swimmers. Mami’s ocean is big, too. But I think her ocean will never go away. I hope her eyes don’t drown.
The wind talks about yesterday, sounding sorta happy. Like, well, what a lot of fun that was.
After just a little, Víktor tells me, “The dog of my younger sister just had puppies. If you want one—”
My eyes look at me. From out of a mirror that isn’t there. They’re real, but they’re old. The brown circles look like mami’s jewel box. Old wood and polished, like the dining room table. The black spots in the middle of the polished circles are deep. Like digging a hole to China, my eyes. But I want it, the puppy. Already. Squirming and wiggly and licky. It can take the place of Ornette. But mine, not Papi’s. I never had a dog. I played with Ornette, sure. But he was Papi’s dog, not mine.
“I haveta ask mami.” But I already know. She’ll let me have a dog. To take the place of Ornette.
To take the place of Papi.
“Of course.” He smiles. Nice. A little sunshine that has curving lips around it. He isn’t remembering to be sad. That’s good. I like Víktor to smile. It stretches all the way from one ear to the other. It sorta drains some of the ocean out of his eyes. Everything will be okay, it says.
Yeah, it will. I nod, but real tiny. My mouth moves. My own little talking-to-me smile.
“Well,” he starts. He looks at his shoes again. The mud. He scrapes the edges. The corner of the cement driveway turns brown. He looks up at the sky. The clouds aren’t so mad anymore, they’re only gray. “Well, I need to make lunch. It’s just the two of us today.”
Sr. León’s wife, Viktor’s mami, works at the hospital sometimes. Maybe the one where Papi went. I don’t know. She says she helps the old people. She is a old people, so who is she helping? She makes brownies sometimes. That helps me. I love brownies. Soft and warm and gooey with chocolate. She won’t let me call her Sra. Martínez. “That’s my mother,” she always says, “I’m Carla.”
“Okay,” I say. “Buen provecho.”
“Gracias.” He turns . The rain starts again, before he gets to the edge of the house. He puts his two hands over his head. He has small hands, so not much help. “¡Que jodienda!”
He sneaks a look at me, like, Did you hear? I pretend to watch the rain pok pok in a puddle next to my feet.
I get wet. I don’t put up my hands. I hear Christine in my head, Nothing more than an extra shower to clean up your day. The talking-to-me smile comes back and asks to be big. I tell it no. No one wants me to smile right now. I turn to look at the sky. The drops hit my eyeballs. I blink. Up there in those gray clouds, the raindrops are born. If you can see where the rain comes from, you’ll know the secret of everything.
“C’mere P—” I stop the word. It falls down on the middle of my tongue. It tries to get up and run out of my mouth. Mami’s right there. She’ll be sad. I hold my teeth together. Trapped. Then I smile my cheeks and finish “… ipi.” He runs to me. Falls down. Gets up. Licks my fingers like pink candies. Víktor brought him yesterday. Mami didn’t see at first. She didn’t see me. She was crying. Christine told me to keep the puppy outside for now. Christine was crying, too. But she saw me.
Mami sees me now. And the falling down doggy. She’s hanging up my Mickey Mouse sheet. Víktor fixed the clothes lines when he brought the dog. They were still broken, but he tied them together. Her smile says, Maybe I’ll come out for a while. “You named him Pipi?” she asks. She has the what in the heck? look. Like I’m a goofy. That’s okay. She’s smiling. Mostly. Even if I’m a goofy, I don’t mind.
But I didn’t really name my puppy Pipi. I can’t tell her that.
“Yeah. He goes all the time.”
He helps me out by peeing on the laundry basket. The yellow sprays the sky-colored sheet. The one Papi died on. I think she should throw it away. Maybe she will, now. Good dog.
“Oh no! Bad dog!” Her hands lift up in the air. One corner of my sheet falls.
Splash. Bad dog!
Pipi’s in trouble. So I’m in trouble. That’s alright. Mami isn’t crying. The trouble will end. And maybe mami still won’t be crying. That’s good.
Bob Ritchie lives in Puerto Rico. He has a wife, some kids. Editing, yeah, teaching, sure, some translating. Ritchie (as his wife calls him) is a musician whose greatest claim to fame (so far) is that he has collaborated with Jon Anderson. Perhaps one should mention that Bob (as he calls himself) is also a writer of stories and has written a novel that might even be good.
© 2011 prickofthespindle.com