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01 – Of Friends and Lovers

In front of me on the altar lies my best friend Arturo, cold, grey, and dead in a box.  Arturo’s mother cries throughout the service, silently soaking her dainty handkerchief with tears and snot.  Beside her, his father holds the sans-handkerchief hand, looking stoic and strong, but the heavy lines of his face reveal the war this tragedy has caused inside his head.  Oh, poor babies.  Is it wrong to feel so little when so many people are mourning?

His sister Eva—god, she looks tight today in that black dress—speaks after the priest gives his eulogy, generic but comforting to those who would have it.  She is so sincere.  I am impressed.  She says they all miss Arturo, his bright smile, his laugh, his winning attitude.  That it is such a tragedy to have one so young taken from them before he had the chance to affect the world.  Cut down in the spring time of his life.  Strong and handsome, Arturo was a man who loved his family, his friends, his country, his God.  

I zone out.  

I imagine the taste of her lip gloss on my lips, something fruity, sparkles smeared on my face.  I try and imagine the color of her panties.  I stare at her tits gently jiggling in her dress as she gesticulates meaningfully during her speech, adding appropriate emphasis to the most poignant, heart-felt moments, when his auntie who is sitting next to me grabs my hand and looks deeply into my eyes.  Hers are filled with tears, red, swollen.  I do my best to play it like I have been captivated by Eva’s words rather than staring at her amazing rack, but the woman is so lost in her sadness that I could have been screaming and cursing and throwing things across the church pews and she still would have thought I was displaying a sensible expression of grief over Arturo, my sweet lost best friend.

Eva finishes and sits and some cousin who I have never met comes up and plays some sad sounding song on the piano I don’t know but which really opens the water works in the crowd.  I hide my face in my hands to avoid any more sincere exchanges of misery.  I close my eyes, enjoying the darkness, and press my palms hard into my eye sockets.  Hopefully the redness the pressure causes will be enough to convince people I have been suffering silently, tears barely held back in this moment of extreme loss.  

Oh, poor Arturo.  If only you were here to see how hot your sister looks today.

With my head swimming, full of Eva, I notice myself coming to half-mast—probably best not to stand up from the pew with a boner—I fill my head with all the unsexy thoughts I can muster: my sixth grade homeroom teacher, the homeless man who used to pee on my window and then shit himself while napping on my block, taxes, the rotten fish smell of the wharf on a hot summer day.  I focus so hard on not getting hard that I barely notice when the funeral procession begins.  Arturo’s dad passes me, misinterprets my attempts to thwart my erection as grief-induced detachment, and places his hand on my shoulder in a show of support.  

“Come, David,” he says, “let’s pay our final respects.”

I look up at him, my eyes still glazed and red from the pressure of my palms, and nod silently.  As one of the pallbearers—it’s me, his father, three of his male cousins, and some ridiculous curly haired guy he went to college with—I take my place at the head of casket opposite his father, good old Gus, and cast my eyes across the solemn, expectant crowd.  They are all miserable.  I hope that none of them can tell that I feel nothing for Arturo right now.  It is the living sibling I am more concerned with at this point.

I catch Eva’s eyes and think I read the briefest glimmer of a message there.  Hope for later?  A promise?  Is she thinking about me as much as I am thinking about her?  I shudder and close my eyes, my lips pursed, and swallow hard.  I conjure unsexy thoughts at a heretofore unreached pinnacle of torturousness.  I grimace at the choice scenes playing across my mind’s eye.

Gus catches my revealing facial expression and says to me, “It’s ok.  You can let it out, son.  It’s ok to let go.”  Gus, if I let go of the careful mental balancing act happening inside my head right now, I would bear your son’s coffin down this aisle with my cock like diamond, laughing at how stupid you all look.

I decide against letting go.

The casket lifts slightly and I take the cue and we start leading it down the aisle of the Roman Catholic church holding the service, with its idols and stations of the cross and blood sacrifice.  Roman Catholics are a strange bunch.  I do not and will never fully understand their mysteries.  Gus is a believer though, and Arturo’s mom, Adoracion, well, just look at her name.  I feign it for them, if only so they don’t suspect.

We make it halfway down the aisle when a woman wails and throws herself on the coffin.  Her weight makes my arm hurt.  I turn and place my other hand on her and realize that it is Adoracion in the flesh.  She grabs my lapels, tears streaming down her cheeks, and collapses into me.  Eva grabs her mother and I hand her off, but not before Eva lightly brushes my hand with her own.  I nod to them both with as much gravitas as I can muster and continue down the aisle, my hand still tingling from the electricity in Eva’s touch.

A hearse waits for us at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the entrance of the church.  Much of the audience, if you want to call them that, lines the stairs on either side of the path to the hearse.  The rest of the onlookers file out behind us.  Solemnly, with tremendous weight and importance, we lead the wood and metal box containing the sad, empty flesh of poor, sweet Arturo into the back of the hearse and shut the rear door.  Tears erupt in the crowd when the latch connects, signaling the very last car ride Arturo will ever take.  I am tempted to call shotgun.

01 – Of Friends and Lovers

In front of me on the altar lies my best friend Arturo, cold, grey, and dead in a box.  Arturo’s mother cries throughout the service, silently soaking her dainty handkerchief with tears and snot.  Beside her, his father holds the sans-handkerchief hand, looking stoic and strong, but the heavy lines of his face reveal the war this tragedy has caused inside his head.  Oh, poor babies.  Is it wrong to feel so little when so many people are mourning?

His sister Eva—god, she looks tight today in that black dress—speaks after the priest gives his eulogy, generic but comforting to those who would have it.  She is so sincere.  I am impressed.  She says they all miss Arturo, his bright smile, his laugh, his winning attitude.  That it is such a tragedy to have one so young taken from them before he had the chance to affect the world.  Cut down in the spring time of his life.  Strong and handsome, Arturo was a man who loved his family, his friends, his country, his God.  

I zone out.  

I imagine the taste of her lip gloss on my lips, something fruity, sparkles smeared on my face.  I try and imagine the color of her panties.  I stare at her tits gently jiggling in her dress as she gesticulates meaningfully during her speech, adding appropriate emphasis to the most poignant, heart-felt moments, when his auntie who is sitting next to me grabs my hand and looks deeply into my eyes.  Hers are filled with tears, red, swollen.  I do my best to play it like I have been captivated by Eva’s words rather than staring at her amazing rack, but the woman is so lost in her sadness that I could have been screaming and cursing and throwing things across the church pews and she still would have thought I was displaying a sensible expression of grief over Arturo, my sweet lost best friend.

Eva finishes and sits and some cousin who I have never met comes up and plays some sad sounding song on the piano I don’t know but which really opens the water works in the crowd.  I hide my face in my hands to avoid any more sincere exchanges of misery.  I close my eyes, enjoying the darkness, and press my palms hard into my eye sockets.  Hopefully the redness the pressure causes will be enough to convince people I have been suffering silently, tears barely held back in this moment of extreme loss.  

Oh, poor Arturo.  If only you were here to see how hot your sister looks today.

With my head swimming, full of Eva, I notice myself coming to half-mast—probably best not to stand up from the pew with a boner—I fill my head with all the unsexy thoughts I can muster: my sixth grade homeroom teacher, the homeless man who used to pee on my window and then shit himself while napping on my block, taxes, the rotten fish smell of the wharf on a hot summer day.  I focus so hard on not getting hard that I barely notice when the funeral procession begins.  Arturo’s dad passes me, misinterprets my attempts to thwart my erection as grief-induced detachment, and places his hand on my shoulder in a show of support.  

“Come, David,” he says, “let’s pay our final respects.”

I look up at him, my eyes still glazed and red from the pressure of my palms, and nod silently.  As one of the pallbearers—it’s me, his father, three of his male cousins, and some ridiculous curly haired guy he went to college with—I take my place at the head of casket opposite his father, good old Gus, and cast my eyes across the solemn, expectant crowd.  They are all miserable.  I hope that none of them can tell that I feel nothing for Arturo right now.  It is the living sibling I am more concerned with at this point.

I catch Eva’s eyes and think I read the briefest glimmer of a message there.  Hope for later?  A promise?  Is she thinking about me as much as I am thinking about her?  I shudder and close my eyes, my lips pursed, and swallow hard.  I conjure unsexy thoughts at a heretofore unreached pinnacle of torturousness.  I grimace at the choice scenes playing across my mind’s eye.

Gus catches my revealing facial expression and says to me, “It’s ok.  You can let it out, son.  It’s ok to let go.”  Gus, if I let go of the careful mental balancing act happening inside my head right now, I would bear your son’s coffin down this aisle with my cock like diamond, laughing at how stupid you all look.

I decide against letting go.

The casket lifts slightly and I take the cue and we start leading it down the aisle of the Roman Catholic church holding the service, with its idols and stations of the cross and blood sacrifice.  Roman Catholics are a strange bunch.  I do not and will never fully understand their mysteries.  Gus is a believer though, and Arturo’s mom, Adoracion, well, just look at her name.  I feign it for them, if only so they don’t suspect.

We make it halfway down the aisle when a woman wails and throws herself on the coffin.  Her weight makes my arm hurt.  I turn and place my other hand on her and realize that it is Adoracion in the flesh.  She grabs my lapels, tears streaming down her cheeks, and collapses into me.  Eva grabs her mother and I hand her off, but not before Eva lightly brushes my hand with her own.  I nod to them both with as much gravitas as I can muster and continue down the aisle, my hand still tingling from the electricity in Eva’s touch.

A hearse waits for us at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the entrance of the church.  Much of the audience, if you want to call them that, lines the stairs on either side of the path to the hearse.  The rest of the onlookers file out behind us.  Solemnly, with tremendous weight and importance, we lead the wood and metal box containing the sad, empty flesh of poor, sweet Arturo into the back of the hearse and shut the rear door.  Tears erupt in the crowd when the latch connects, signaling the very last car ride Arturo will ever take.  I am tempted to call shotgun.

We met the same way most little kids do—with me on the ground balling my eyes out over a skinned knee I sustained after he had tripped me on the playground and him standing, pointing, and laughing at me.  Later that day, we reconciled over our afternoon snack of graham crackers and apple juice.  But the true bond didn’t form until recess the next morning when we discovered we both had a fondness for digging tunnels in the sandbox.  From there it was playing Star Wars or avoiding the cooler kids playing ball games at recess in middle school or the first time we got stoned our freshman year of high school.  Arturo and I just clicked.  Where he was impetuous and fiery, I was reserved and shy.  For every time he was sent to the front of the class for talking over the teacher, I was ignored or brushed aside for being too quiet.  He was wild and brash and unrestrained, and I was withheld and contemplative and serious.  

We balanced each other.  It was a good arrangement.  He and I had both found a brother in the other, and for me, by extension, siblings.  Arturo came from a huge family with sisters and aunties and cousins and uncles and second cousins and people we thought were cousins and people we saw once and never again but who we suspected were family and so many strays that family events for him were manic things, filled with laughter and drinking and different languages and color and attitude.  I, however, was an only child to straight laced intellectual parents who had elected to only reproduce once, responsible, civil, restrained.  Our holidays were quiet affairs with the occasional cousin or grandparent, but they never even approached a shadow of the full bore insanity that seemed to be the calling card of Arturo’s family.  

I loved to be engaged at his house and he loved to escape to mine.  When I got bored or lonely as I often did at home with parents more concerned for their careers than watching The Dark Crystal or throwing a frisbee, I would ride my bike over to Arturo’s and we would eat spicy food and drink Mexican hot chocolate and play with his sisters and run around.  When he needed to escape the consistently high energy level of his family, he would come to my house and we would do puzzles or watch movies or have some quiet time and just hang out.  Like I said, we balanced each other out.  Not just personally, but our whole lives found balance when combined with the other’s life.

I remember one time, between the junior and senior years of high school, neither of us had done very well the previous academic year.  Mired in the sludge of summer school, I studied Chemistry, he studied American History.  Our other friends were off on vacations or getting tan by the pool or finding some other fun ways to avoid their summer reading while we poor saps showed up at our school every day at 7:45 AM so we could try and rectify the academic holes on our transcripts by the graces of our teachers, the school, the board of education, the saints, Jesus, God, the Pope, and whoever else oversaw the educational development of Catholic school students.

One weekend about halfway through the summer session, Arturo got it in his head that he wanted to drive up to the mountains and break into our friend’s parents’ summer house.  We knew they were all in Hawaii for most of the month, so the house would just be sitting there empty, ripe for the using.  If we were careful, we could get in with the hidden key and use the house to party for a few days without them ever knowing.  I rejected the idea outright.  We had enough trouble with school, the last thing we needed to do was to disappear for days into the mountains without any way for our parents to reach us.  We didn’t know the phone number at the house, and we sure as hell didn’t have cell phones back then, so if we vanished, that was it.  No thanks, I told him.

After a particularly hot and gruesome day, we walked out to the car and decided to go for a burger and see if we could convince someone at the grocery store to buy us a 30-pack of Natty Light.  Next thing I knew, we had driven 5 and a half hours into the mountains and Arturo was pulling the key out of the fake rock they kept beneath the porch on the back of the house.  I put the now warm 30 pack into the fridge—there was ample space, only condiments and the sorts of things you don’t really worry about spoiling—and we got back into the car and drove up the road a bit to the little tavern/restaurant that served as the town’s only watering hole, dining establishment, and meeting place for working locals.  We met a couple of older ladies we told we were in our twenties, got them to buy a bottle of whiskey, and then took them back to the house to party once the bar closed.  It rained the whole weekend.  I’ve never had more fun in my life.

A light rain falls though the sun is still out.  I am not prepared for it.  Accumulated water weighs down my hair and drips gently down my face, a suitable replacement for the tears that should be there but are not.  This way no one is able to tell if I am crying or just being typically stoic in the face of adversity.  Thanks, Nature.  I owe you one.

A few of the others in the funeral party have umbrellas with them which makes me regret not having checked the weather forecast this morning because, clearly, rain was called for.  And here it is.  I wipe my face with the handkerchief I had in my pocket.  It is the only really dry thing I have.  

Everyone else stares down at the casket holding the remains of Arturo.  I take a quick look around at the people dressed in black, swollen red eyes, umbrellas and see people staring down at their own fear of death.  I don’t get it.  When you die, you’re dead.  That’s it.  Even in the most pessimistic of world views, death is nothing but the absence of being.  One moment you’re there, doing whatever it is you do to fill up your time, the next you lose consciousness and you just never get it back.  And, boom! right back into the nitrogen cycle.  You will help make a tree strong.  For the Catholics surrounding me, death most likely means Heaven, and that’s no so bad, is it?  Jesus and St. Peter and your dead bunny and Grandpa all there, waiting for you, ready to play games for the rest of eternity.  I hope they have Risk in Heaven.

Even the, “Wow, we will never sit around and hang out and bitch about girls again,” or the, “I will never know his kids,” or the, “Do I delete his phone number from my phone,” types of questions do not kick in for a little while.  The missing of the departed is not yet there.  How can you miss someone you haven’t seen for just three days, and who, by all logic, you just saw about 45 minutes ago at the church lying in a box?  There he is, shiny grey casket, flowers on top, a six foot hole in the ground beneath.  Everything that made Arturo Arturo is still there, except his heart is not beating and he is dead.

The real scary thing is dying.  But you can hope that is quick, at least.  I wonder if Arturo was afraid at the end.

I am sitting next to Gus along the coffin, with Adoracion and Eva past him.  I lean over to see if maybe Eva’s gotten wet in this annoying rain, hoping that maybe her delicate, black dress is sticking to her downright amazing pair of tits and that her nipples are poking through and that I can get a peek without sticking out.  Like a child shaking Christmas presents, I am powerless to keep myself from looking at her.  Compelled by something deep and vicious within me, I try not to appear obvious.  But she is shielded by her mother’s gigantic umbrella so my bit of fun is spoiled by a mother’s preparedness.

Gus catches my movement and places his hand on my shoulder as I quickly shift my gaze from Eva to the priest.  I grip his thigh as if to say, “Thanks for being there, Gus,” even though I don’t mean it.  Message received, he pats my back and puts his hand down.

A pipsqueak of an altar boy also holding up an umbrella shields the priest from the rain and I wonder if the priest has ever touched the boy and then I realize that I don’t really care at all.  The feeling is freeing.  The priest drones on about something I am not quite picking up, occasionally eliciting wild sobs from around the crowd.  I try to look appropriately downtrodden.  Being wet with rain helps.  The thing I care about while sitting next to the grave is not burying Arturo 6 feet in the ground, but burying myself 6 inches between Eva’s thighs.  I wonder if I am a bad person for this and then realize that I don’t care about that either.  The feeling is freeing.

We had only been home for a few weeks into the summer break from college when Arturo’s great uncle Emilio died.  No one was surprised.  Emilio had been 93 years old, lived a good long life, and had spent a few years in and out of the hospital with whatever illnesses a 93 year old man who has spent his entire life eating chicharrones gets.  Yet, his was the first death within the family that we had experienced.  And even though I was not technically blood family, I attended all the services and they included me in every aspect of the grieving, burial, and remembrance of good old great uncle Emilio.  I had only met the man once.  All I really remembered was that he had some of the largest ears I have ever seen, that he spent pretty much the entire time hitting on Adoracion, and that he had offered to show us his penis pump.  I declined as politely as I was able.  I have always prided myself on being open to a great many experiences, but seeing a then 91 year old man’s penis pump was something I felt confident I could live without.

For all the wildness we had experienced as kids at holidays, we were not prepared for the wake.  The family brought more food to Emilio’s wake at Arturo’s house than I have seen before.  We sat around, eating chiles rellenos, sipping mescal, drinking wine, telling stories about dirty Emilio, laughing, crying, hugging.  I was surprised at how close I felt to a lot of the people around me I had never met before just because we had shared some time with this crotchety old kook lying on his back on an embalmer’s table somewhere across town (God rest his soul).

When everyone had paid enough of their respects to the deceased and started to go home and the wine and mescal dried up, we decided to go a bar to finish off the night.  It was early enough yet that there were plenty of hours of drinking left to do and we all intended to do just that.

Eva, Arturo, a couple cousins, and I arrived at the fakey Irish bar in town called something like Paddy McGees or Donnegan’s or some totally bullshit Irish name.  At one end of the group at the bar, Arturo held the attention of the cousins with wild stories of his time in Amsterdam.  The bartender ignored us with practiced efficiency.  I knew the stories already, so I sat on the other end of the group, twirling my beer on the bar top, picking at the label, half paying attention to the muted sports highlights on the televisions.  Then I noticed that Eva, while still facing her brother, kept brushing up against my thigh.  

Eva. 

Oh, Eva.

This young girl only 16 months our junior had always been a playmate we had begrudgingly accepted—always on Gus’ orders—into our games as kids.  Though ever the annoying kid sister, an unspoken, unbreakable bond nevertheless existed between her and Arturo.  They had three other sisters, but the youngest of those was 11 years older than Arturo, so throughout their childhood Arturo and Eva had been a team, a pair, a friend for the other to play with when no one else was around.  Even when Arturo and I became friends, there was never any question where his loyalty ultimately lied.  Eva was his friend, his partner in crime, and nothing would come between them.  He guarded her vigilantly.

And so, she had been like a sister to me and I’d had no more sexual thoughts about her than you do a banana or an orchid or an oyster.  I always saw her as a brother sees his sister: younger than she really is, unprepared for the horrors of the grown-up world, chaste, holy, pure.  It was not that she was unattractive—she was, she is, very beautiful—it’s that in my mind she had always been completely asexual.  When she would come around with boyfriends Arturo deemed unacceptable, I stood by him in protecting her, in scaring off anyone who might harbor any ideas.  She didn’t need it, but he always wanted to keep her safe.  And so did I.

But here we were at the bar and she was touching my leg in a decidedly non-asexual way.  And it felt good.  Really good.  I was aroused.  I could feel my face flush, my pulse quicken.  I turned on my stool to face Arturo and the cousins and she coyly slid back until her ass was planted directly in my crotch.  It took all my strength in that moment not to let out an excited yelp as I felt her connect with me through our pants.

Arturo was drunk and did not notice that his sister was coming on to me or that I was letting her.  Rock hard in my underwear with her ass cheeks sitting on either side of my manhood, I gave her subtle push, invisible to the others, to gauge her intent, her seriousness.  When she pushed back, I could only think about how I was going to get her out of there, away from the rest of her family, and naked.  It didn’t even occur to me that until just a few moments earlier, I had never possessed a sexual thought about this girl in my life, and now I was ready to lay it into her right there on the bar.

I don’t know what it was—maybe a combination of the length of the day, the alcohol, the hormones rushing through my blood—but I was starting to lose my cool.  I tucked myself into my belt, scooted back from Eva a little, and ordered another drink.  And a glass of water.  It wouldn’t help but I told myself that it was worth a shot.  I pounded the cold glass of water back, feeling its coolness trace my esophagus, but it didn’t do a damn thing in cooling me off.

Then the cousins and Arturo announced that they were going outside for a cigarette.  As soon as they were out the door and out of sight, Eva turned, grabbed my face, and put her tongue into my mouth.  There was no fighting it.  The girl was on fire and she had picked me.  We stood there at the bar, dignity be damned, and made out with such vigor that I was later surprised I didn’t chip a tooth.  She pressed herself against me and I could feel her heart racing through her chest, her breath warm and sweet on my lips, her saliva on the edges of my mouth, her hands grasping at me.

And then the rocket exploded on the platform, killing the entire crew.

Recognizing the sensation and also understanding that it was entirely the wrong moment for it, I pushed back and told her I had to use the bathroom.  When I had wiped off and returned, Arturo and the cousins were back at the bar, meaning that my torrid affair with Eva was suddenly and violently over.

She surreptitiously threw me a knowing glance, as if to tell me that it was all cool and that she was not yet done with me.  My heart fluttered.

By this point, Arturo was totally trashed.  The drinks caught up with him while they smoked outside and he slumped over at the bar, swaying, his eyes moving independently, not focusing on anything.

I told the cousins to take him home, that Eva and I would stay to take care of the tab.  I would bring her home in a little bit.  They suspected nothing and took Arturo out.

I looked at her, she smiled, I ordered us each another drink, and then we went to a table at the dark end of the room.  Much later we left the bar.  The next morning I made her eggs and coffee and then took her home before anyone else woke.

Señora Silvia holds a plate full of beans and rice with chicken scattered across the top.  She wears all black, her plate in her wrinkled hands.  She looks at me, her half blind eyes struggling to focus, her vanity preventing her from putting her glasses on in front of a younger man.  She asks me questions about Arturo, about how I knew him.  She asks me my name and I tell her even though we have met a number of times before.  She reaches out and places her hand on mine and it reminds me of being touched by a cold leather sofa.

I excuse myself and wade through the sea of relatives who I recognize but whose names I’ve forgotten, relatives whose names I know but don’t want to talk to, and other people who might as well be background noise inside my head.

Two lonely, lovely syllables are booming through my head at a brisk Andante, pulsing couplets woven into the fabric of everything.  Eva.  

Eva.  

Eva.  

Eva.  

Eva, where are you?

Fuck.

Something seems wrong.

I feel droplets of sweat forming on my forehead, although the inside of the house is cool and calm, reverent.  I brush past all the faces and names, their eyes trying to make contact with mine, their sympathy oozing from them like blood from the eyes of some miraculous Madonna statue in South America.  I avoid them and head directly for the fresh air.

Rain swirls in fuzzy mists in the family’s absolutely normal suburban backyard.  It’s not heavy enough to require an umbrella, but persistent enough that I have to squint to see.  I plunge my hand into an icy cooler, glad for the coolness on my wrist, and grab a beer.  It requires an opener but I cannot imagine going back into the house until I’ve had a drink.  I recognize that I am stuck.  The flimsy white plastic lawn furniture is not sturdy enough for me to use as a bottle opener.

Rain drips down my head and I walk over to the old wooden bench swing with the green fabric shade.  It’s got holes, but it will be better than nothing.  It will have to do.  Finally dry after the burial, I am not anxious to get soaking wet again.  And it beats being inside.

I use the arm of the bench to open my beer and take a chunk out of the old wood.  Gus waves at me from the screen door to the house.  He asks me to come inside, but I just shake my head and point at the bottle in my hand.  He nods and sinks back into the darkness inside the house.

How much longer can I keep up this act?  Someone is bound to notice at some point.  I should feel something, shouldn’t I?  He was my friend, but I search myself and find nothing.  Well, not entirely nothing, just not sadness about Arturo’s death.  

Nothing about him at all.

My thoughts drift off to Eva.  This catastrophe should be enough to drive her right into my bed.  My heart races with the low level tenseness that comes with knowing you’re going to or have done something genuinely terrible.  Like too much caffeine spiked with moments of absolute horror at the monster you have allowed yourself to become.

Then again, where has moral superiority ever gotten anyone?

I slow my breathing to try and cut the edge from the twitchy tightness gripping my chest.  My beer hardly tastes like anything and as soon as I notice it’s going down like water, it’s empty.  Into the bushes it goes.

A cousin, Miguel, I think, comes through the screen door.  He grabs two beers and sits down next to me.  He opens them with a bottle opener from the inside of his jacket.  I am struck at how prepared he is.  And impressed.

“How’s it going, killer,” he says to me, more a statement than a question.  I wonder at his choice of title.

“Oh, just peachy, man.  My best friend’s dead, the beer’s doing nothing for me, and it’s fucking raining,” I say.

“Yeah, yeah, pretty fucked up, huh,” he says.

“Yeah, man, totally fucked up,” I say.

We sit in silence for a moment drinking our beers and swaying slightly on the bench swing, our eyes forward.

“Strange for a young dude to kick it like that, yeah?” he says.

“Yeah, pretty strange,” I say.

“He was pretty healthy, right?  I mean, you spent a lot of time with him, right?” he says and looks at me.

“Yeah, we were friends.  A lot of time,” I say and take a sip from my beer.  I hope he will go away soon.

“Strange,” he says and turns his face away from me.  “Strange as hell.”

“Yeah,” I say.

Miguel finishes his beer, puts the bottle on the ground, and places his hand on my thigh.  It makes me jump a little.

“Pretty strange,” he says.  He pats my leg, stands, and goes back into the house.  I am not sure if he is trying to imply something or comfort me.

I stand up and head around the side of the house before any other large male members of the family can engage me in another cryptic, awkward conversation.  Leaning against the side of the house in a little walkway between the guest house and the main house, I close my eyes and let the darkness and sound of rain shut everything else out.

Suddenly I feel a hand on my inner thigh slide its way into my crotch.  My eyes open and I see Eva biting her lip.  I notice how dilated her pupils are.  She kisses me fiercely, knowing we’re safely out of sight.

It feels like heaven.

She presses herself against me and I feel light headed.

“Fuck, you’re so hot,” she says.  “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”  She moans softly in my ear.  “Fuck, I need you.  You’re so.  Fucking.  Hot.”

Her intensity throws me off a little.  I spent all day looking forward to this moment and now that it’s here, I feel a little reserved, unsure of the whole thing, surprisingly timid toward this unbelievably sexy woman throwing herself at me in her parents’ backyard during the reception for her brother’s funeral.

“Hi, Eva,” is all I manage.  She kisses me again.  She licks my cheek and my ear.  She pushes me back against the wall and takes my beer from me and finishes it in one draw.

She pulls a folded piece of paper from her dress and puts it into my coat pocket.  I try to intercept, but she pushes my hand away.

“What is thi….” I start, but she shushes me.

“Later,” she says.  “Read it later.”  She walks off and I stay there, stunned.  And, for the first time since the beginning of all this mess I feel frightened.

What started as an enticing one-off revealed itself to be something deeper and, ultimately, more thrilling.  Satisfied with my one night with Eva, I wrote it off to booze and indiscretion.  When she quickly returned to behaving just as she had before the death of great uncle Emilio, I thought nothing of it.  I went back to college, to my studies, and a world without Eva.  In time, the night receded into my memory, like a half remembered dream softened by circumstance and hormone.  It was a nice dream, but still just a dream.

Between studying for finals I was packing for the trip home for Christmas when I got a phone call from Arturo.  Their grandmother had died and he wanted to know if I would be home in time for the funeral.

I told him that I would be home the morning of the service but that I could come straight to the church if he wanted.

He gave me the time and address and we shot the shit for a little while before hanging up the phone.

I had liked their grandmother, a round little woman who always smelled like cinnamon and Pall Malls.  Her death had come suddenly and was a little shocking to the family, in spite of her 50 year plus smoking habit.  But old people die; that’s what they do.  If nothing else, I thought it would be nice to see Arturo and his family before going back to my house to endure the tedium of the holidays.  My parents were going to be out of town for a few days on their customary winter ski trip anyway.  They would not miss me.

At the reception, Arturo, Eva, and I hung out in the backyard enjoying an exceptionally sunny, warm day for the middle of December.  Everything was fine and normal and expected.  Tears tears.  Story story.  Memories memories.  Drink drink.  Eat eat.  Completely normal grief processing kind of crap.

Then Arturo went inside.

As soon as he was through the screen door, Eva leaned over and whispered into my ear, “I need you.”

To say that I was startled by the comment would be like calling glaciers ice cubes.  I felt my heart rate quicken, the hairs on the back of neck stand.  All I could eek out was an incredibly pathetic, “Oh?”

That night at my parents’ house, she rode me on the sofa while Robocop played on the television.  What a great film.  She didn’t leave my house for days.  We defiled every room in the place, every piece of furniture, every flat surface.  After taking her home, our relationship went right back to normal.  She had gotten something out of her system and life could resume its regular pace.

Eight months later I had finished school and was living at home while trying to get my shit together and find a job when their cousin Chuy died in a car accident.  A miserable time for the family overall, somewhere deep inside I knew the whole thing would end up turning out all right for me.  I refused to let myself feel it, to acknowledge the thought as horrid as it was.  But the deepest part of my brain started to recognize the pattern.  She and I spent a month together.

A year later, her best friend growing up, Beth, suffered a freak stroke and dropped dead while they were out having lunch.  She and I didn’t separate for seven, maybe eight months.  

With each death, with the passing of each person that had been closer and closer to her, her lust grew.  Each time her grief became stronger, the strength with which she threw herself at me increased.  First great uncle Emilio, then their grandmother, Chuy, and finally Beth.  Then, just like a light, she switched back to normal “we’re just friends” Eva.  It freaked me out.  How do you spend eight months in a torrid, passionate affair with someone just to turn it off one day?  I needed more.  So much more.  I needed for it never to stop.

What we had been able to hide the first and second times became quickly impossible to ignore when she and I both started to disappear for longer and longer periods of time.  When she and I had been gone for a month, questions were raised.  How did we both disappear the same day for the same amount of time?  Where had we gone?  Why had we not called?  What was going on?

And Arturo, oh Arturo, protective Arturo, he smelled us out before anyone.  Maybe it was brotherly instinct or that he knew me or Eva so well, but he made the connection long before anyone else did.  When I dropped her off after the few days while my parents were on their ski trip, he confronted me.

He asked me where we’d been.  He wanted to know if I had been fucking his sister.  He threatened me.  He threw me on the ground.  He hit me.  We didn’t talk again for weeks.  When we finally did talk again, I apologized.  I told him that I meant no harm by it and that I hoped we could still be friends.  I wanted him to know that what we had done was born of sorrow and remorse lingering after the death of their grandmother.  And, most of all, I told him that it would never happen again.

I think that, somewhere, I knew I was lying.

When Chuy died and we disappeared for a month, it was basically off between me and Arturo.  We didn’t speak again until just before Beth died and even then it was strained.

It’s funny, you have this friend who is supposed to be like a brother to you and you do one little thing like fuck the brains out of his hotter-than-sin little sister who can’t help but throw herself at you when she experiences deep, resounding loss and suddenly your friendship ends.  And I was supposed to be the big man and not touch?  Well, I would touch her again, Arturo or not.

And then Beth died and Eva and I disappeared again.  Disappeared for a good long time.  When we finally showed up again, everyone forgave us.  Gus and Adoracion were glad to see me, Eva reverted to friend status, the family was mine, as if I had been on a trip the whole time I was sequestered.  Arturo, though, would have nothing of me at all.  To him, I was dead, a traitor.  I had forever crossed the boundaries of what a friend does and so he had written me off.

And all this time, with the weirdness between me and Arturo, the only thing I could think about was how to make those flash in the pan moments of passion I shared with Eva last forever.  But how to rekindle that fleeting fire born of anguish?  I tried to engage her in the standard courting rituals.  She would laugh and behave as if I were teasing her.  I tried to get her drunk, but that led headaches and an empty wallet.  I tried to be her friend and maybe weasel my way in over the long term, but that proved as fruitless as all my other tactics.  Nothing worked.  I knew that nothing I ever did would achieve the results I wanted, the results I needed.

Well, that’s not true.  I knew of one thing, but it was too horrible to entertain.

Street lights paint bright streaks against the dark grey afternoon sky.  Rain beats against my windshield as I speed through town.  My wipers whip back and forth at their highest setting and still I can barely see 15 feet in front of me.  Nothing makes sense.

I look for the street where her note told me to meet her.  I hold it in my right hand at 2 o’clock on the steering wheel.  I lean forward as if the 10 inch difference is really going to help my ability to see on this increasingly miserable day.  My windshield fogs but I do not think to turn on the air.  The radio is silent.

I find the street and the number and pull into the motel parking lot.  I recognize her car and park beside it.  I shut off the engine and sit for a moment afraid of what is about to happen.  I am no longer sure that this is right.  Fear grips me.  I fidget with my keys and read the note again.  Then I read it again.  And again.

930 Walter Ave.  Rm 1012, it says.  We need to talk.

I take a deep breath, fold the note, and place it back into my coat pocket.  Bracing myself, I step out of the car.  Within two steps I am drenched but it just does not seem to matter.  Nothing really matters.

I knock on the door of room 1012 and wait for an answer.

38 – Mr. Spider’s Gift

The very next day, my friend and I were sitting on the deck.  It was a very sunny day, very fine, and we were enjoying the weather.  I was sipping on a cold Coca-Cola Classic, one of my most favorite things in the whole world.  Nothing seemed like it could go wrong.  

I thought a little bit about Mr. Spider from the night before.  I wondered where he had gone and if he were ok.  I sincerely hoped he was doing just fine out there.  It could be a scary world sometimes.  I felt where he had bitten me.  It didn’t even hurt, just a tiny bump to remind me of the gift he had given me.

I stared out over the placid, rippling waters of the lake.  Suddenly my ribs started feeling very itchy.  I pulled my shirt up to scratch and make sure there no ticks trying to get a free meal off me when I felt a patch of short, very coarse hairs, almost like sandpaper.  Now, I have to tell you, I am not a very hairy person.  I have just a few hairs on my chest, and they are all very soft.  So these new bristly hairs were something of a surprise to me!  I was concerned, but wanted to take a closer look.

“I need to go to the bathroom.  I’ll be right back,” I told my friend.

In the bathroom, I looked and saw a patch, maybe the size of my hand, where there a number of these tiny, black hairs poking through my skin where there had been none the day before.  Strange!  I thought that, perhaps, all the good clean country air was making me develop in a more manly way.  Nature has many secrets.  

All the Coca-Cola in me had worked its way through, so I made use of the bathroom for its intended purpose.  Killing two birds with one stone, right?  But when I peed, what came out was not the usual stuff, but a silky white substance that was very stretchy.  I wiped as much of it off my fingers as I could and flushed it down the toilet, hoping it wouldn’t clog.  That would be too embarrassing.

Back on the porch I couldn’t get the thought of the white sticky stuff out of my mind.  I thought about telling my friend, but I was afraid he would get the wrong idea about it and I think I had done something immoral.  I decided to keep quiet.  Just to keep an eye on things to make sure nothing bad happened.

Another soda pop helped me feel better.

“What are we going to have for dinner?” my friend asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied to him.  “Pork chops?”

“Yeah.  That sounds good,” he said.

“I, uh….” I started but then stopped.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Oh.  Nothing.  Pork chops sound pretty good, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

Next door the neighbor’s dogs barked.  I found them to be pretty annoying while we were trying to relax, but what could you do about it?  Dogs had as much right to be dogs as I had a right to be me and as Mr. Spider had a right to be himself.

My jaw ached a little bit.  Maybe later I would go over and say hello to the dogs so they didn’t have to be scared anymore.  Yeah, that seemed like a pretty good idea.  It’s not fun to be scared.  

37 – Curtis Can’t Find His Phone

With the wind blowing snow into his eyes and freezing his ears, Curtis ducked quickly into the subway station.  Once down the stairs and in the lee of the wind, he sighed, releasing the tension brought on by severe cold.  Stepping through the turnstile, he reached into his inner coat pocket to feel for the chocolate bar he had hidden in there earlier, hoping that the cold had kept it nice and solid.  Unfortunately it was a big, melty mess, and instead of wrestling with it not to soil his fingers, he threw it into a trash can on the train platform.  Sometimes you had to sacrifice pleasures for the greater pursuit of virtue.  In this case, not to have filthy, sticky, chocolate-covered hands.  He hated dirty hands.

Absentmindedly he patted down his pockets to make sure he had not left anything at the diner while eating dinner.  Wallet: check.  Keys: check.  Chocolate bar shaped emptiness: check.  Cell phone.  Cell phone.  Cell phone?

Shit.

He doubled checked all his pockets, and then to be sure, checked a third time.  He definitely did not have his phone with him.

He could see where he had left it on the counter.  With his second bowl of soup in his stomach, he went to the bathroom to relieve himself before his long train ride home.  He left his coat and phone on the counter next to the check.  He didn’t want those guys to think he was skipping out on the meal, especially on Christmas Eve.  Curtis was many things, but a thief and a cheapskate he was not.  When he came back from the toilet, he put his coat on, dropped some cash with his customary 8.5% tip, and walked out the door.  He completely forgot to grab his phone.  

Shit.

He could go back now.  It’s only a few blocks between the subway and the diner, but the cold was nightmarish.  And, besides, he had paid his 2.25 fare.  Since losing his job, he no longer got the unlimited passes and each ride cost him.  He did not like to pay twice.  

The phone could wait.  No one was going to call him.  He had no family to speak of.  His only friends were the guys at the diner and he had already seen them tonight.  He knew he would be back there the next day for lunch.  He was sure they would just put it behind the counter for him.

But that did not stop him worrying about it.  A man in the station played the guitar.  Down the platform, another man was bent over looking through the gaps in the wall.  A pretty brunette read as obviously as she could, telling everyone to leave her alone.  And there was Curtis, a pathetic, sad sack, who had managed to worry so intensely about losing a 15 dollar pay as you go phone that he had broken a sweat on the coldest, bitterest day of the whole year.  And there was no one in the whole world to just give him a hug and tell him everything would be ok.

The train rolled up and he got on, feeling no closer to home.

Elsewhere, a lone cell phone, buried three feet deep in trash in a dumpster behind the only diner still open on Christmas Eve, rang.  When no one picked up, it went to voice mail.  She left a message, heartfelt, warm, caring, that Curtis would never hear.

36 – My Country for a Cookie

Samantha fought a losing war against her god damn, cheap ass, piece of shit stove that burnt everything she put on or in it no matter how vigilant she was with it.  Its temperature markings were wildly inaccurate, its range jumped from super high directly to medium-low with zero gradation between, its heat would be different at the same marking depending if she was raising or lowering it, its pilot light went out on a whim, and no matter how methodical she was with the nightmare it misbehaved.  These cookies weren’t just going to make themselves and this motherfucking stove was standing in her way.  Must it be so difficult to satisfy her craving for fucking chocolate chip cookies?  She worked hard.  Did she not deserve a chocolate chip cookie or fourteen once in a while?  Why must this stove stand in her way?  And it was new.  Her mind boggled at how bad the stoves in the apartments of the people who had lived in the building for 30 years must be.  Her landlord refused to do repairs on apartments people were only paying 150 dollars a month for, and she could understand that, but she paid market value and she thought it fucking sucked to be stuck with a bum stove.  Fuckers.  Can’t just buy a stove that isn’t a piece of trash.

Tonight, desperately needing cookies, the dough made, the first sheet dotted with mostly round balls of potential cookie, she wanted to kick the stove when it refused to heat.  The pilot was on, but it decided that, tonight, it was already too warm and did not really feel like getting hot.  

She opened a beer and contemplated just eating the whole bowl of dough.  She decided against it, though, not because of the raw egg, whatever, but because she would probably eat the whole thing and it would make her feel sick, completely defeating the purpose of cookies in the first place.  She considered putting the bowl in the fridge and trying again the next day, but she felt the urge too hard.  The need was too strong.  If she could not have cookies tonight, she would probably die.  Her life depended on eating at least 4 cookies with the milk she had picked up on the way home from work for expressly that purpose.  She hated when plans got derailed.  

Then she thought of that weirdo across the hall, what was his name, Jacob or something?  He would probably let her use his oven in exchange for a few cookies.  Giving away some of the cookies would be smart too since Yu Lee was God knows where tonight and if she had the whole batch, she would start tomorrow with no cookies.  Better to remove the temptation to gorge on delicious, buttery chocolate chip cookies up front where it can’t hurt her as much.  

Samantha knocked on the door across the hall, but got no answer.  Determined, she knocked again, more vigorously, after a moment.  

She heard heavy footsteps and grumbling approach from within the apartment and then the little spy window open.  Through it she saw a bloodshot eyeball that suddenly went wide.  The window shut again and she heard a chain being fiddled with and the deadbolt being thrown.  The door opened a sliver and Jacob poked his head into it.  

“Yeah?” he said.

“Uh, hi, I’m Samantha, from across the hall?”

“Yeah yeah, I remember you,” he said and opened the door all the way.  He was wearing paint spattered pants and a wife beater t-shirt that needed to be thrown out.  “What can old Jacob do for you, young lady?”

She hated being called young lady.  “My stove isn’t working and…”

“You want me to take a look at it for you?”

“No, it’s done this before.  It usually fixes itself after a while.  I’m over here to ask if I can use yours for a little while.”

“Oh sure, sure.  No problem.  Mine works just fine, I guess.  I ain’t used it in who knows, but it worked fine once right?”  He laughed at what she could not tell was a joke.  “What’re you making?”

“Cookies.  I’ll be glad to give you some.  For helping me out.”

“Cookies.  Wow.  We got a regular Mrs. Fields over there.  What kind of cookies?”

“Chocolate chip.”

“You got any milk?”

“Yup.”

“Well well, I’ll leave my door open then, and you can just come in and out as you want, ok?  I’m not doing a whole lot in there, just watchin’ a movie on the TV,” he said while adjusting his pants.  He needed a belt.

“Ah, yeah, ok.  I’ll be right back,” Samantha said and went back into her apartment.  She closed the door behind her and tried to shake off the skeeved out feeling she had.  God, his teeth were bad.  Then she looked at the cookie sheet waiting to be put into a 375 degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown at the edges.  She grit her teeth and sheet in hand, crossed the hall.

35 – Curtis Wonders

Curtis sat alone at the counter a diner hunched over a bowl of soup that was too salty.  Steam from his soup warmed his face, still half numb from the walk over.  He was not hungry, but he did not want to stand in the cold, so he had ordered the soup.  He had no intention of eating it.  His spoon had not left the counter.  Instead of staring at the chocolate cakes sweating under their glass domes and empty porcelain mugs waiting to be filled with coffee, his head was turned all the way to the right so he could gaze out the front window at the people passing in the street.  They all seemed so happy, laughing, holding hands, having animated discussions he could not make out.  Children scampered, playfully tossing hunks of newly fallen snow at each other, screaming joyfully upon impact, their parents taking all the mischief in good stride.  A man rushed by talking into his cell phone holding a brightly papered box under his arm.  A young couple passed with a Christmas tree.  Curtis wondered if it was their first.

Curtis stirred the onions from the bottom of his soup and made careful, slow whirlpools in the bowl.  He thought about the last Christmas tree he’d bought and about decorating it.  It felt like so long ago.  It was so long ago.  He loved the smell of a tree when it was first brought home.  Something about the contrast between his dismal inner city life and the rich green freshness of the tree made him feel as if everything was ok for the time being.  The smell of the tree was the smell of the holidays.  It was, for him, to the holidays what the smell of coffee was to the morning.  Just as his day could not begin until he had a cup of coffee, the holidays could not begin without the pleasantly overwhelming scent of tree in his house.  When he realized that his tree metric would mean that the holidays had not begun for him in nearly 15 years, he turned his face away from the crowds on the other side of the glass, living a life he had long since lost.

He pulled his old, barely functional phone from the one pocket in his jacket it wouldn’t fall out of and placed it beside his glass of water on the counter.  He flipped it open to see if he has missed any calls.  He had not.  No one ever called.  He thought about just getting rid of the phone all together, but while she was still out there, there was potential for her to call.  She wouldn’t, he knew, but something had to keep him alive from day to day.  Something had to make all the emptiness worth it.

After stirring his soup for two hours, he finally worked up enough hunger to actually eat it.  It was cold, but he felt like he deserved nothing better.  At least this diner was open, as he sat alone on yet another Christmas Eve.  There was a lot of night left.  He ordered another bowl of soup.

34 – Benny Rides The Train

Benny stood on the subway platform picking corn kernels from his teeth with his fingernail.  Unsuccessfully.  He sucked and he prodded, but the little bastards would not come out.  He regretted even more stopping at the street fair to get the corn on the cob, the delay of which had caused him to narrowly miss the previous train, leaving him to wait what felt like an eternity with something obnoxious stuck between his teeth.  He half thought about knocking one of his molars out on one of the steel girders sticking out of the platform.

The station housed only one train, but there was another side, lit, seemingly abandoned, unused, separated from the functional platform by a wall which had small openings he could see through if he ducked his head a little.  The tracks had been pulled up and there was no obvious way to enter, yet the city kept the lights on for some reason.  Stairs led to the other platform, but they were gated and locked off.  He tried to imagine where they led, but could not figure it out.  He had often wondered about the other side of the station.  It called to him.  He thought about exploring it every time he was down there, waiting for the train, typically on his way to do something bad to someone.  Its mysteries were attractive, wrought with potential magic, danger, and glory, but Benny had never summoned the dogged buttheadedness to jump the tracks and explore.

To his right, he heard the growing roar of the train hurtling up the tunnel toward him followed by the reflections of its lights on the tracks.  He looked back through the openings in the wall and only just caught a hint of movement on the other side.  Being a New Yorker he had seen his fair share of subway rats, and whatever just moved behind the wall was no rat.  His interest was piqued.  He looked back up the tunnel again to judge whether or not he had time to cross the tracks before the train pulled in.  When his eyes were blown shut by the rush of oncoming displaced tunnel air, he decided that it was best to wait.

The train he had been waiting for pulled into the station and everyone got on.  Everyone except Benny.  The Chink can wait, he thought.  A woman who had just boarded the train looked at him, surprise on her face, as if to say, “There’s only one train.  Why aren’t you getting on?” but she said nothing.  Benny, acknowledging the passing connection they had made tipped his hat to her.  The train doors closed and took her from Benny’s life forever.  

When the train was safely gone, he scanned both side of the platform for subway staff.  Satisfied that no one would see him cross, he hopped down onto the tracks and crossed through the not-quite-man-height gap, careful to avoid the third rail, into the abandoned half of the station.  

Disappointingly, it looked basically the same as the other half—central platform lined by tracks, stairs every so often, garbage cans, rats, trash, syringes.  Normal subway features and detritus.  The only real differences were the profusion of tags on the walls and the heavy layer of dust over everything.  Not the black grit from the train’s brakes that typically covers a subway station, but the more common greyish-brown dust that covers a dead, unused place.  He climbed up onto the platform to see if there was anything interesting on the opposite tracks.  He found only more of the same old nothing.  A train bed with the tracks ripped up.  He wondered what train used to run here.  

A sound on the edge of hearing echoed through the dead cathedral of transportation.  Benny stopped cold in his tracks, standing still, not even breathing, trying to get a better idea of what the sound was.  He could not make it out.  Ever cautious when dealing with other bad men, Benny ran and hid behind a dumpster on the far end of the platform.  He squatted there, listening.  The sound was becoming louder.  Footsteps.  Footsteps from down the tunnel, growing louder, more clear.  And not just one man.  Two, maybe three all walking together down the tunnel.  From his hiding spot, he could see clearly down the tunnel was coming from.  And suddenly, like the birth of a star in a distant galaxy poking a hole in the night sky, lights appeared in the tunnel, bobbing, weaving.  Flashlights.

Behind him he heard a new set of footsteps approach from another tunnel.  He shifted around the dumpster to be out of sight of whoever was coming through the tunnel.  Benny had spent enough of his life involved with nefarious sorts of characters to know that anyone meeting in an abandoned subway station was probably up to no good and that it would benefit Benny’s longevity to stay the hell out of their sight.  He thought about making a run for the passage way back to the other platform, but it was too far away now and he did not want to risk being seen by whoever these guys were.  He was in enough trouble already.  He didn’t want any more.

33 – Benny Makes Friends

Benny was not excited about what he knew he needed to do the Chink this afternoon.  He was a stand-up sort of fellow, most of the time, and Benny had no problem with him.  It really got his goat that Spiegelman had told him to do the Chink, but who was he to argue with the Jew?  Benny knew his place.  He was muscle, brawn.  He was the intimidation factor that would make certain business deals more amenable for the party he stood next to.  He knew that.  Mostly, he was happy with the situation.  It gave him a real rush to see how some people got the fear in their eyes when he stepped into a room.  Not weaklings either.  Real, hard men.  Benny would step into a room where a moment before those fellows had been the kings of the world, then they would see him and start quivering in their boots.  It made Benny feel powerful.  More powerful than just his physical stature.  Powerful in that abstract way people used when talking about mafia bosses.  The kind of power that made another man feel dread.  Not too bad for a kid from the South Bronx who could barely read and never finished the sixth grade.  And Benny took pride in his work.

But he liked the Chink.  Except that he liked to cheat at cards, he never bothered Benny.  He figured he’d only stab him in the throat three times.  Either it would kill him quickly, or he would survive.  A man who had been stabbed three times in the throat and lived deserved it.  Benny liked the idea of giving his friend a fighting chance.  But first he would have to find the greasy, yellow son of a bitch and that was not going to be a simple matter.  

He spent all afternoon wandering the sea of Chinamen downtown but never found the Chink.  They all looked more or less the same to him anyway, and all the spitting made him sick.  Their dried squid and starfish and octopus was the stuff of nightmares.  He didn’t know what they did with it.  They certainly didn’t eat that filth.  He towered over everyone in the whole neighborhood by a good two feet, but it didn’t stop the old ladies from bumping into him with their shopping bags and umbrellas.  The first time he got an umbrella spoke in the face he looked up to check for potential rain, saw only blue, and gave up searching for the day.  He knew he had a few days at least to take care of this business for Spiegelman, so he felt confident that this was a good time to call it quits for the day.  Besides, the Chink had a way of showing up in the damnedest of times and places and Benny’s nerves were a little frayed.  He needed a beer.  

Dodging a flock of brightly dressed Asian women, Benny ducked into a tavern.  Smokey fog enveloped him and pulled him into the dimly lit, lightly populated room.  He removed his hat and coat, hung them by the door, and took a seat at the bar, leaving a stool or two on either side between him and the other men at the bar at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday.  

The barman walked over to him, cigar in mouth, and nodded.

“Beer,” Benny said.

“Light or dark?”

“Light,” and the barman walked to the tap.  

A familiar voice popped up behind him and said, “I hear you’re looking for me?”

Benny spun around on his barstool to see his quarry standing there.  The barman set the beer in front of Benny on the bar.  He took it and drank.  “You’re right.  I am.”