Miguel Gardel

Posted on May 2, 2011

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Five Days

… And then I could hear. I heard women’s voices. I wondered if they would come and help me get up from such a painful and embarrassing position. Then it seemed to me that that was far from their intention. They were complaining about how cruel men can be. And then I saw something in front of me. A hand, hopefully. It was trying to reach me. Everything was out of focus and it took me a while to make it out completely. There was a face behind the hand. For a few seconds I thought it was the face of Johnny Rey. But it was César’s face. And his hand was friendly and warm. And I held on tight to it and as I rose I said, “Your wife says your children need milk.”

*

He was glad to have me along. He entered the apartment and introduced me. His wife didn’t fight. She had dinner ready. They asked me to sit down. I sat on a sofa in the living room and he went for a shower. I was still stunned. But I knew they would ask me what mission was I on, what was I doing there in the street? What was I doing in the city? César knew that what had happened to me out there had been a case of mistaken identity. But I had to have a story.

*

I remembered on the first day saying to myself, “I’m back.” And, “It’s August.” And then I took a cab from the airport. I told the driver to take me to the Y on 34th Street. He yelled back, “Sloane House?” I had been there before and knew it had a name but I didn’t care. “I guess,” I said. I didn’t care. Any YMCA would be fine. Last time I had gone there it was that cab driver who had suggested it. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I had never taken a cab by myself before. That driver felt he had to give me a lecture on tipping. To avoid any embarrassment I was going to give this driver more than I thought he was worth.

Sloane House had changed. It was fancy now. They charged by the day only. It was going to be expensive for me. Very poor New York people took up most of the rooms last time I stayed. Now it was mostly tourists from other countries. There was a German couple asking me questions as I waited for my key. I checked in for four days. Daily rates. Four was all I could afford.

*

I didn’t know where to start. The want-ads were torture. So I walked down to the west side and saw the Hudson River. And then I walked down the east side and saw the Harlem River. On the second day, after a bit more torture with the want-ads, I hit on something. Cook helper. I went downstairs and called.

The lady had a thick Greek accent. She repeated the word “diner” several times before she gave me the address. She ended with, “14th Street, get off.” To save money I was thinking of walking but I thought it better to follow her directions. The place must be near the train station. And it was– on the other side of town. The walk was five times longer than the train ride. My undershirt could not absorb all the sweat. My cotton shirt was completely wet when I got to the line. A line inching slowly inside the Glamour Diner kitchen. “Is this for the cook helper job?” I asked the last man on line. He didn’t speak English. And he didn’t speak Spanish. I used my comb to rake some of the sweat out of my hair. A guy came up to me and asked, “Is this the line for the helper job?” After I said, “I’m not sure,” a blond, matronly woman came out of the kitchen and yelled at us, “No more! No more job! We have one helper! Enough for now! Everybody go home!”

*

On the third day I discovered City Hall Park. It was full of drugs, drug dealers and drug people. I hung out there and made some friends until I ran out of money. In the evening I had to do a lot of thinking.

*

I had a friend uptown. I had known him all my life. He had been like an older brother. Last time I was in the city I had gone up to see him. He had said to me, “Stop being a rolling stone, man.” He smiled. It was the big brother who knew better. But he didn’t know better. He was four years older than me and had spent a year at Belleview. He was taken to Belleview because he had lost his mind. No love and too much LSD. He couldn’t recognize his own mother. With time she was the first he recognized. As he sat at home in his mother’s apartment waiting for his hippie excesses to become history, I visited him. He was slow with his words and avoided my eyes. He said to me, “God is going to help me quit smoking cigarettes.” We smoked cigarettes together sitting in his room. We hardly spoke. He held a Bible in his hands. I stared at his hands. He had been born with la figura of three very small purple grapes held together in a bunch by three connected stems on the back of his right hand. As a child he had been special in the family. But not loved. Everyone said it was a sign from God. What did it mean? Three grapes. And why was he never loved?

I knew everything about him. But I hadn’t seen him in two years.

*

It was the fourth day and the Y expected me to check out at noon. I got up at eight, went downstairs and bought the paper; came back up and had my daily confrontation with the want-ads. There was something. Shipping clerk, no experience. Nine blocks away.

It was a small office with one man in it. He had on a brand new shirt, stripes, nice. The woman up front had said to just walk in. “Fill this out,” he said. He gave me an application and pointed to the chair next to his desk. I set the paper on the side of his desk and used my own pen. I filled it out and handed it to him. He took it and set it in front of him on his desk. “Let me see your driver’s license,” he said.

I handed it to him. He looked at it and said, “You look like Fidel Castro.”

I didn’t want to say anything. But I said, “Oh, yeah?” so that he could see I was alert. And then I added, “You really think so?”

“Yeah,” he said. “A young Fidel.”

I got up from the chair and stood in front of him and didn’t say anything. I wanted him to see that I was alert and nimble.

“I mean that you look like him,” he said. “Not that I think you’re a communist or a terrorist or anything. You kind of look like him. You know, the beard.” And then, as if to soften a possible misunderstanding, such as an insult, he tried to communicate to me that Fidel wasn’t all that bad. He said, “The man has a lot of money.”

I thought it was a stupid thing to say. And that the man was stupid. But of course I didn’t say anything.

Then he told me he’d call me this afternoon or tomorrow, “There are a few more applicants I want to see.”

I told him I didn’t have a phone. “Can I call you?”

“Yes, of course.”

*

I called him at noon before I had to check out of the Y. “It’s me, the guy who applied for the job this morning.”

“Who?”

“I was there this morning and you said I could call…”

“Who?”

“I applied for the shipping clerk job… I’m the guy who looks like Fidel Castro…”

“Who?”

“Fidel Castro… the fucking job, man… I want to work… Fuck you!”

I hung up.

I hurried upstairs and the guy putting a “stop” on my lock was Puerto Rican and I explained my situation and asked him to give me a break, “Un chancesito, hermano,” and he said, “If you’re not out by noon tomorrow, I’ll have to tell them and they’ll call security on you and put you out. Fridays are big business here.” I told him he was an angel and had just saved my life. “Get your act together, man,” he said, disappointed in me, and walked away.

*

It was the fifth day and it was hot after an early morning rain storm. I bought a newspaper and took it back upstairs. It was lonely and muggy in the room and I tortured myself with the want-ads and found nothing. I had to keep one step ahead of desperation so I packed my bag. I noticed how very gray the day was as I walked to the station and took the train uptown.

The apartment was on the fourth floor. The building was dark. No bulbs in the sockets in the hallway nor on the landings. I held on tight to my duffel bag and climbed up. The stairs were littered with garbage. On the second floor landing I had to maneuver around old discarded furniture. I kept climbing and on the 3rd floor landing a black beast suddenly jumped and snapped it’s great big jaws at me. Holy, Jesus! A very hungry German shepherd wanted to take a bite out of me. It’s snarls were ferocious. But it was tied to a leash and the leash was fastened to a doorknob. It was okay to continue. I made it to the apartment door and knocked and there was no one home.

I went down and stood on the stoop and waited. Then I got hungry. I knew I had less than five dollars in my pocket but I wanted to think I had more. If I went and got something to eat I’d have to pay and then I’d see I had almost nothing. I stood with the duffel next to me and waited. Hunger is treacherous. But I stayed put, thinking I had enough discipline to stand my grown. I lit a cigarette and relaxed looking over at the red firehouse across the street. The firemen in white t-shirts went about their business. One of them was doing what I was doing: standing by the gate looking in my direction while he smoked a cigarette.

I finished mine and the fire alarm suddenly went off. The firemen in the firehouse had to get busy. I watched the firemen as they jumped on the fire truck. Everything had been well prepared. The trucks sounded their sirens and then pulled out of the firehouse.

After the trucks couldn’t be heard anymore, I lit another cigarette. And I saw the grayness of the day dissolve and the sun slowly spread itself all over the street. A bare-chested teenage kid with his shirt dangling from his pants pocket came and stood on the other side of the stoop and asked me for a cigarette. I gave him one. The hunger was still with me. It was late afternoon. I was giving in to the hunger. I gave in. I asked the kid, “Do you know Johnny Rey, from 4D? Long hair guy…”

“Johnny Rey?” said the kid. “César’s brother?”

“That’s him.”

“He died.”

“No!” I said. “Johnny Rey!”

“Cesar’s brother? He jumped out the window last year.”

*

He knew César’s address. One block up.

“Will you watch my duffel bag while I go get something to eat?”

“I’m going in,” he said and flung the cigarette butt out onto the sidewalk. And he went inside the building.

These were the days when the war was not going well and, in fact, had just been lost and people still looked down on Veterans. I was a Veteran with a duffel bag. I didn’t know César that well so I wasn’t going to show up on his doorstep carrying a big heavy bag. I should have bought a suitcase when I had the money. There was a cafeteria near the subway station two blocks down. I could get something to eat there. I walked inside the building and walked up through the trash and the furniture and the dog and left the duffel near some bricks that had fallen off the old big chimney up on the roof.

After one block I turned back. I was very reluctant to use my last five dollars and told myself to hold on. I climbed back to the roof and the bag wasn’t there. I thought of the kid right away. Maybe he had been watching me from somewhere. I had clothes in it. And I had a music cassette of A Love Supreme. I was going to miss that. With the cassette, I’d hoped to impress my friend Johnny Rey.

*

“Who is it?” It was a woman’s voice.

“It’s me, Jesse.”

“Who?”

“Jesse.”

“I don’t know you.”

She was looking through the peephole. I introduced myself and asked if César was home.

“Home?!” she said. “That sonofabitch is never home! I’ll tell you where he is! He’s at the street corner that’s where he is! He has no time for me! He has no time for his children! He has time to stop at the liquor store after work and then stand around at the corner with those other good-for-nothings…”

I waited. Then I heard a jiggle and rattle. And she opened the door as much as the chain allowed. “I don’t know you,” she said again. “And I don’t know your business, but if you see that sonofabitch out there tell him I’m still waiting for money to buy milk for the kids. Tell him! Go tell him!” And she closed and locked the door.

*

I went out into the street. I was reluctant and unsure of myself, confused about my situation. What will my tomorrow be like? Will there be one? César was the brother of a good friend. It was something. I walked by the corner. There were many men there in the heat of the street– young and old. And they cooled themselves with laughter and drank cold beer from bottles. They smoked cigarettes and joints. I couldn’t make out César among the crowd. I walked by, just a stranger passing through.

I missed my duffel bag and I could see nothing up ahead. I walked one block, numb. I couldn’t feel anything.

“There he is!” someone behind me yelled. “¡Es él!” someone else screamed.

I had a little strength left and used it to turn around. Many more men, mostly young, had merged with those that were celebrating the heat at the street corner. The crowd was now a large mob. And suddenly they appeared to me to be coming my way. They carried sticks and metal tubes and thick metal chains and tire irons. I feared for my life.

“¿Tú eres Julio?” the leader among them asked me. “You fucked with my chick?” He had a big voice, a big face, a big head, everything about him was big.

I said “No,” very quickly.

“Hit him!” Someone in the mob shouted.

“Fuck him up!” another one shouted.

“Fuck him up, Frook!”

“¡Dale par de piñazos!”

“Frook, kick his ass!”

“¡Vaya, Fruco, dale un par de trompones! The guy felt your girl!”

Fruco became hesitant all of a sudden and the mob picked up on it and goaded him on. They wanted to see blood. Fruco must have thought his reputation was on the line here. He had to do something.

“You fucked with my chick?” he asked again. His gang was getting impatient, they wanted blood, and that was that. Now! And before I could answer, they began to shout:

“Fuck him up, Frook!”

“¡Dale par de piñazos!”

“Frook, kick his ass!”

I saw it in Fruco’s understanding eyes: It’s too late to think about anything now. Too late to reason it out. The guy could be innocent. I have doubts, but fuck it.

I saw it coming. And then, out of pure instinct, I said to him: “I don’t even know your–”

And that’s when it came, fast, furious, like a heavy iron mule kicking me in the face. My knees buckled and I wobbled. And that was, I have to say, the first time in my life I saw more stars on land than I had ever seen in the heavens. Stars turning on, getting brighter and then slowly dissolving and then on again, on and off and on… I was inside a tube and it was dark in there with only the little stars flickering around me. And I could hear screaming and cheering from afar as I went down. And then everything went completely dark.

***

Miguel Gardel lives in New York and attended the City College and has worked at many things from janitorial to journalism. His stories and essays have appeared in Bilingual Review, Best Fiction, Red Fez, Pemmican, and others.

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