Michelle Sierra Laffitte
Art by Alex Paulus
It’s not like I was looking for new business, but that lady Herta, she was so persistent. She would come up behind me as I was putting away the salad bar cart and whisper in my ear, “You are so sexy. You make me wet,” pronouncing the “w” like a “v,” rolling the “r” like a mariachi. Last night, she approached me as I was closing the kitchen. “Room 1317, after midnight. I can pay.” She sounded more like a sergeant than the busted old lady who works as Parkside’s cafeteria hostess. Compared to her, a dog barking was pure ear candy.
I finished the dishes and headed for the basement. I removed my white apron with barbecue rib stains and dumped it in my locker. Mariano, who supervised the kitchen last night, asked if he should wait for me to take the 6 to the Bronx.
“Anda Francisco, let’s go.”
“No mi pana, go home. I have a hot date.” I lied.
“Tu estás loco, mi hermano.” He laughed. “It’s freezing cold outside.”
“Shorty will keep me warm.”
“¡Tiguerazo!” He joked.
Mariano e’ bacano, a real cool dude. I’ve known him for twenty years, or since we were eight — just chamaquito’ really. He my oldest friend, the one Dominicano who always believes what I say. He never rats on me to Felipe when I do shit. Like last week when I drew cartoons of Giraffe, Goat Tits, Midnight, La Tia, Herta Faust and Mrs. Pierce, all the Parkside vieja’, and stuck them in the back by the cleaning supplies. Felipe went ape shit. He told us we’d all get fired if Major Adams saw we were making fun of the building’s geezers.
It was Mariano who, three years ago, brought me to Parkside.
“Mi pana, come work with me. Job’s easy, pays good cuarto’.”
“No way, bro.” I wouldn’t be caught dead serving dinner to a bunch of dinosaurs.
Then he told me that there were old residents, but it was mostly young chicks living there. “The building’s a pussy palace. Some are even models!”
A month later I landed a job there, and confirmed Parkside’s reputation was no bullshit. It was full of pretty muchachas, all bonitas, some even gorgeous since Elite, the model agency on 23rd, used to put the rookies here before they made the big bucks. If Felipe would pay me to serve the hotties breakfast and dinner, I could watch some cripples come and go as well.
As I headed to the elevators I thought how good I had it. Go up, fuck, cash the cuarto’, go home. Maybe mañana a different room. No word of it to nadie, no one, and no witness. Mariano says all the other Salvation Army residences for women in the city have cameras. The bosses want to make sure men don’t sneak past the first floor. But Major Adams, he too cheap for that.
When the elevator door opened, I saw the lobby button light up and thought some girls were coming back from a bar, a club or God knows where. I let the elevator go and waited for it to come back empty. The air smelled clean, warm, and heavy with steam from the laundry room. It reminded me of the times when my mother would take me with her to the laundromat to wash our neighbors’ clothes. We were still living with my father in Washington Heights in that dark basement apartment. I couldn’t have been older than six or seven. I hated that she woke me up in the wee hours of the morning to go do the neighbors’ laundry, but she wanted to hide her swollen face. Her hair was too curly to wear down, and use it to shield her eye. She tried anyway. I’ve never asked her where my father’s beatings hurt the most, body or pride. But I know mom, she a proud one then and now. If she’d known what I was about to do, she would whack me with her slipper until my skin stung. She’d say I’m a sanky- panky, one of those Dominican guys who whore themselves out to old gringa tourists in Punta Cana.
The elevator came back and gracia’ a Dio’ this time it was empty. On the 13th floor, it opened to a full-length mirror where I checked myself. I looked at the goatee that neither Felipe nor the Major ever succeeded in making me shave. I lifted my yellow V-neck to lower my jeans, made sure they showed the right amount of underwear. I wear a long rosary around my neck for style, not religious reasons. The beads had looped together so I untangled them. I removed my Knicks snapback to straighten the red bandana I tie around my head instead of the ugly white Lawrence of Arabia turbans that the other cooks and utility boys wear. Not that I cared to impress old Herta but here at Parkside, I’m known as El Tolete and I have to set the standard.
I was nervous, heart pumping. Would I run into Teddy, from maintenance? Had one of the girls called him to help her zap a mouse? Snow fell outside as I passed the window, the cold contrasting with the heat of my neck. 1311, 1313, 1315. The hallway seemed to be shrinking, closing over me. I dried my hands against my underwear. Someone was smoking weed, the smell reaching me through the stuffy air. A buzzing, either from a dildo or an electronic toothbrush, a quiet weeping, a dry cough, an old rock song on bad speakers, the click-clack-click-clack—bing of a typewriter… This place always gives me the creeps. Who uses a typewriter these days?
The typing stopped, and before I knew, a vision across the hallway: a woman, staring at me like a scared rabbit. It was that fifty-something Brit who sat alone in the dining room. I recognized her long nose and face from the kitchen line. She always said “Good day” when I served her oatmeal, and once brushed her finger against my hand in a wannabe-sexy way when I handed her her plate. Nasty. She had a long blue dress on and a flower hat. Black streaks dripped from her eyes from crying or allergies, red paint spread around her lips. I opened my mouth to say something, a lie that would excuse me being there, but she talked first. “Good day,” she said, and disappeared into a different door.
What the fuck just happened? I took a second to recover, wondering whether I should just take off, the loca Brit bitch too much of a bad omen. But I’d made it all the way there, and it looked like she had bigger problems.
At 1317, I removed my rosary and put it in my front pocket. I pushed open the door and walked inside. It was a corner room. The place looked exactly like that crib on the fifth floor of the sixty-something Russian choreographer from last summer—the small bed, the crappy wall-to-wall carpeting—same as the other eight or nine Parkside shoeboxes I had visited. Herta’s nurse-like uniform hung from a wooden chair, a pair of white sneakers placed neatly beneath. Five twenty-dollar bills sat on the desk. The peach air freshener didn’t hide the room’s sweet and stale old-lady smell.
In one of the old pictures on Herta’s wall there was a short young blond in a white leotard. She had Herta’s jumpy eyes and thin lips that curled down even as the rest of her face smiled. She was in a stadium or arena, lifting her arms in front of two uneven bars like the one them shorties use to swing in the Olympics. When I heard a toilet flush, the noise of a running sink, I turned my eyes towards the bathroom and there she was, a fucking NyQuil nightmare: seventy at least, wrapped in a white muslin nightgown that fell to her thick, yellow toenails. I had the sudden urge to disappear as I saw her needy swampy eyes, the ribs you could count up to her collarbones, the tendons of her rail-thin neck, like stretched rubber bands.
Tolete ain’t never said no to easy cash, so I removed my shirt, unzipped my pants. Next thing I’m climbing on top of the bed in front of her open window, with thin curtains. I touched her small, weak body, her deflated tits marbles inside empty socks. I shut my eyes, had to, and went through the cock pep-talk I repeated every time I had to get it up for these dinosaurs: think of Renata, the Brazilian redhead from the third floor, who has never looked at me twice. I imagined Renata’s endless legs, her perfectly round culito, her perky tits, her young, warm cunt, wanting me, begging me, bringing me in.
“I waited so long for this moment, lover boy,” Herta said, her thick accent back on her crusty lips.
I climbed on top, her chapped, cold hands on my chest. I closed my eyes and it was Renata touching me, lining her hips up to meet mine, holding on to my ass, pulling me toward her.
“I want you inside me,” Herta ordered.
I rolled on an extra-lubricated condom, held my breath and quickly sank my tallo inside her bald, juiceless sex. Clenched fists, pressed lips. Back, forth, back, forth and again, eyes shut, a matter-of-fact face that would not give away my disgust. I counted uno, do’, tre’, cuatro, fighting to maintain my erection. I hate the rubber, but with Herta I made a point of buying some. Even though these old women cannot get pregnant like my ex, Yadira, it's no secret that Herta used to be a frequent client of the West Side highway motels with some of the other cooks that have worked here. Who knows what lives inside her dino-vag.
In my head Renata was moaning, her low syrupy voice asking me to push harder, go deeper, suck her tits, bite her neck. I was thrusting like a toro when a loud and sharp “Jesus Christ!” snapped me from the Brazilian’s imaginary arms. I opened my eyes to find Herta staring horrified at the nothingness behind me. I swear to fucking Dio’ I thought she was having a heart attack, a seizure like the one that paralyzed the right side of my Aunt Altagracia’s body. I thought, Coño, I’m killing her! Herta cried again, this time a woman’s name, “Miranda!” and pushed me aside. I sprang up, covering my dick with my hands, all freaked out and shit. That’s it, that’s it, I thought. This broad is kicking the bucket. I’m fucked. I felt Herta’s nails sink in my forearm. “Look!” she shouted. And I saw, about fifteen or twenty feet in front of us, at the window across from Herta’s, that woman with the crazy clothes I’d run into minutes ago sitting on her windowsill. She was diagonal to us on the north building, still in her long blue dress, looking into the street, her legs hanging in the air. I nearly shit my pants. I tried to yell but Herta covered my mouth with her hand. “Shh!” she said. “The others, they will know you are here.” Instead, we went to the open window and tried whispering her name, “Miranda, Miranda,” to get her attention. She didn’t even glance at us.
“Miranda, don’t jump,” I said, louder this time. She finally looked at me. As her empty blue eyes fixed on mine, I felt her sadness run through my chest, my legs, my arms. I stood still, my mouth open, her pain gripping my guts like Voodoo. And there, she was no longer one of the annoying vieja’ loca’ who have lived at Parkside since the Ice Age and complain every day in the cafeteria; she wasn’t one of the stupid old hens I made fun of in the cartoons I drew during my breaks; or the nut job who talked to herself looking over her shoulder while she waited in the kitchen line. She was a woman who, like me, had lived and hurt and loved, and her sadness became mine. She extended her arms and jumped into the void. She didn’t yell during the short dive. We only heard the loud, wet bomb of her body on the Irving Place sidewalk.
Herta and I leaned out her window to look into the street. Miranda was lying on the sidewalk. Quarter-sized snowflakes landed on her. Herta stared at me, waiting for me to act. Her eyes had softened and she looked both sad and scared. I hugged her and rested my head on hers and, when she hugged me back, I wasn’t disgusted. I too needed a body to hold. For seconds we stayed like that.
Soon lights flickered on the lower floors. Someone in the room below Miranda’s was opening her shutters. Corre, I thought. Run. Now! I put on my T-shirt, grabbed my Jordans and my snapback and opened the door. A second before leaving I hesitated, looked back at Herta. She’d gone back to the window, and was standing looking down, holding her nightgown over her bony chest. She looked tiny, almost invisible, her tits and ass hanging as if her body were melting, a white birthday-cake candle. I almost sat there and cried, wondering what in the world I’d been thinking, but had to snap out of it, and ran barefoot to the elevator bank.
I pushed the down button. Why the fuck was it taking so long? Soon the women would be rushing out of their rooms to figure out what was going on. When the elevator finally arrived, empty—Gracia’ a Dio’— I jumped inside. I pushed my body to the side, pulled on my shoes, my belt in my hands, my sweaty back against the fake wood wall. I feared the door would open and someone would enter, or see my reflection in the hallway mirror. But no one saw me. In the basement, I grabbed my leather jacket and my backpack from my locker, hurried out of the building onto Irving Place.
I closed the service door and there was Miranda, her twisted neck, her lifeless blue eyes, her bicolor black hair with grey roots. A warm pool of blood under her head was already melting the snow. I sprinted like a thief.
As I headed to the Union Square subway an ice-cold chill ran down my back. I reached into my pocket for my bandana to wipe off the sweat. It wasn’t there.
I had also forgotten Herta’s money.
On the subway platform I put on my headphones, and rolled up the volume on my iPod. I leaned my head against the iron columns. My T-shirt was soaked, even though the platform was cold enough that I could see my breath. When the 6 finally arrived, I sat on a bench all by myself and lowered my hat over my face. I looked around, searching for cops, but I only saw two fat dudes with biker jackets and a couple of young Mexicans sucking face. I reached down to grab my rosary, and remembered the prayers my mother forced me to repeat before bed each night.
Way to go. I had just had the most disgusting sex of my life for fucking nothing. I thought of how much more it would suck if I were to get fired and lose the bonus that the Salvation Army pays every February, of how I promised Yadira that I would give it to her because none of this mess was her fault. “Ten cuidado,” she’d warned. “I’m not on the pill.” I was the one who didn’t want to wear the love glove. I thought I could pull out in time but I got caught up looking at her tits, big as cantaloupes, and I came a little inside her. She got pregnant with just that, thanks to the all-mighty and super powerful Tolete roe. The following week she kicked me out after finding out about my fling with Rosmery, the bori who worked at the juice store by PS46.
“Vamos pa’ la mierda,” she yelled, while I swore the bird ain’t mean nothin’. “I never want to see you again.”
She disappeared for a year or two. The panas in the neighborhood said she’d taken off to DR. Then, a year ago, I saw her pushing a stroller on East 167th by the billiards. She was walking with a chamaquito attached to her hip, a tiny, slim body, a couple of white teeth pushing from his gums, his skin leche with a little bit of coffee. He looked like one of those faded pictures of me my mother keeps in the living room by the paper saints. Perhaps a new nanny gig, I thought.
“Yo, mi negra! ¿Y ese tiguerito? Whose is it?”
“He ain’t no tiguerito! His name Elmer. Whose child you think he is, baboso?” She lifted her arm and tossed it backward, her very own go-fuck-yourself sign.
Shit. I didn’t want to believe he was mine so I ran home to confirm the resemblance.
“That’s me, right, Mami?” I asked, and I pointed at the skinny kid with the big fro in the picture my mother keeps over the cupboard.
“What a question, hijo. Of course it’s you.”
“When they called me in what would I say? Sorry, detective, I stood frozen like a pussy and watched her jump? I pissed on the one rule in my contract that says I shouldn’t go past the first floor or fuck any Parkside chicken head? I could explain that Yadira had been busting my balls, going to social services to complain about me. She needs money to put Elmer in daycare while she works at the beauty salon. She has no other choice. Yadira won’t let me see my kid otherwise.”
I arrived at Parkside at five, earlier than my usual six thirty. There were still some police, detectives and reporters lounging about. Clumps of snow fell here and there from branches bowing under the weight. The sun was not yet up, but Miranda’s body was already gone. Cops had scooped the bloody snow and circled the area with yellow tape. The street was quiet, as if aware of her death.
At my spot in the kitchen’s chopping station, I adjusted my apron and my old dark blue bandana, the only other one I found, which wasn’t red. My fingers felt dry inside the chalky latex gloves I wore to ready onions and bell peppers for the $.75 extra western omelet Friday special. I made the sign of the cross behind the silver pots and pans that hang above the tables hoping the day would go quickly.
On a regular morning at Parkside, “Obsesión” or some new song from Aventura would be playing in the background. Rooster would sing while he beat the eggs, oiled the griddle for the pancakes, heated up pork sausages. Mariano would hum as he seasoned the omelet mix or the oatmeal. Carlito’, the other utility boy besides me, would do his Colombiano salsa moves as he poured liquid crap into the juice machine. Felipe would watch with a proud smile as we added just enough water to the cream of wheat, put the dairy back in the fridge, set the jam containers in the right places, and kept our fingers out of our noses and crotches.
The mood, however, was different today. There was no bachata music, no salsa songs. Carlito was quiet, looking down at his task, hooking two plastic bread bag clips with his girly hands. Mariano wasn’t humming while he cut oranges and bananas for the fruit salad. Rooster scraped—almost angrily—sausage and bacon fat from the griddle. Felipe was out speaking with the Major and the admins from the building. No one there was looking forward to talk to the police. Some guys here were on probation. Others, they just thought cops sucked. Perhaps they were just sad. Even the smells of disinfectant and kitchen grease seemed thicker than other days. Death, so in your face. I tightened my bandana, and wondered where I’d lost my red one.
At Parkside we all have our nicknames but it was Mariano who started calling me Tolete, which the dictionary says it means tholepin, but in Dominican means The Shit. He says I always think I’m better than all of the other guys in the kitchen. I just smile, and though I have never admitted it to him, I know I am.
I have always refused to be like the other guys in the kitchen. If nothing else, I’m the only one who reads. Every morning I steal the New York Times from the building next to Parkside and read the Arts section on the train home. Whenever I get time off and extra cash I like going to the MoMa or sneaking into exhibitions at the SVA next door. Sometimes during lunch when I can’t take the ugliness at Parkside no more, I go to Barnes & Noble on Union Square to check out drawing and painting books.
Carlito’ arrives at 5:00 everyday just to kiss up to Felipe. He wants to become a cook like Mariano, Felipe’s favorite. I’m not jealous; the truth is Mariano works harder than all of us. Felipe likes me enough. He says I’m his problem child. Almost every week he tells me with his preachy voice, “Francisco, you gotta get it together. Son, you smart. Think what you want to do with your life.” When he learned about Elmer, instead of lecturing me, he asked if I wanted to add Sundays to my schedule. “Me?” I said, “Naaah, thanks.”
I like Felipe alright. He a decent guy. He frowns his bushy upside down V-shaped eyebrows and says I should take classes, learn computers or numbers, even mouth cleaning at those schools from the ads on the subway. “At least get an associate degree,” he says as if his life depended on it. He even brought some lame-ass brochures the other day. I told him, “Felipe, no me venga’ con putada’. Esa vaina, no e’ p’a mi. I ain’t gonna lock myself in a calabozo studying for two years to end up wiping mouths, or asses.” He said I’m making a mistake, that it’s dumb to think I’m the big caca. The next week he brought a new brochure, some sound engineer shit, but I ain’t no low-level musician. I’m on to bigger, better things, cosa’ mejore’, though if someone were to ask me what better things I have in mind I doubt I’d be able to say with precision. I never told Felipe I like drawing or showed him my sketches. I kept to myself how much I like pretty things. Say: it ain’t because I’m gay or vain, but beauty is the only place where I feel at ease. He’d laugh at me, slap me on the back of the head, say “Those are mariconada’.”
But Parkside? I’ve really never cared much about. This job easy and pays the bills. Unlike the other brothers in the kitchen, I know I won’t work at a Salvation Army kitchen all my life. I just want to get by, get paid my bonus in February and give it to Yadira, maybe start saving so that when my boy Elmer grows up he won’t have to work in a place like this. Perhaps I could take a few art courses. I could put together a portfolio of sketches; apply to Cooper Union, even though at 28 I would be the abuelo of the class.
Right before we started serving, Felipe came in and pulled me aside. “Follow me,” he said and walked to his office past the storage room, where two years ago I used to hook up with that grey-haired nurse from Beth Israel. I started shaking, thinking how little money I’d saved.
I sat in front of Felipe, on the other side of his desk. Looked at his pile of old football trophies, the round brown stains that darkened the palm trees on his “Varadero” coffee mug, the mountains of food and kitchen supplies around him.
“¿Qué pasó?” I asked Felipe. I pretended I was confused about all the extra bodies that day.
“Didn’t you hear?” Felipe stood tall with his white chef jacket, his mushroom hat. “A woman jumped from the 13th floor during the night.”
“Miranda Davies, the Brit with the weird clothes. Remember her?”
“Not really.” I could still see her blue eyes.
“She snapped last year and stood on one of the tables in the cafeteria wrapped in a white sheet. She was the one who recited poetry at the Thanksgiving brunch, remember?”
“Uh, huh. Paramedics removed the body last night.”
“Shit.” And the blood under her head, I thought.
“Me and Major Adams will be dealing with the police today. Mariano is in charge of dinner so you’ll supervise the deliveries. I’m counting on you. Okay, son?”
Gracia’ a Dio’, I thought, and exhaled, relieved.
Once I agreed to take care of business, Felipe warned that the police were going to call in everyone who worked yesterday’s night shift. What did they expect to hear? That Miranda was nice, that she never talked, that she looked down after she asked for her food at the kitchen line as if she were embarrassed to even ask, that she always ate alone? Felipe said the police found a bottle of multicolor uppers and a note on her desk. He said Miranda had tied ten-pound weights to her wrists and ankles to make sure death wouldn’t miss her. The detectives thought it was suicide, but they wanted to be sure none of the crazy old biddies pushed her. Like Mrs. Lieberman, the one we call La Tia, who wears hats and gloves that go up to her elbows to dinner. She once followed Felipe all the way to the train and, lifting her cane, threatened to kill him the next time he used Chef Boyardee instead of Campbell’s tomato soup.
When they called me in what would I say? Sorry, detective, I stood frozen like a pussy and watched her jump? I pissed on the one rule in my contract that says I shouldn’t go past the first floor or fuck any Parkside chicken head? I could explain that Yadira had been busting my balls, going to social services to complain about me. She needs money to put Elmer in daycare while she works at the beauty salon. She has no other choice. Yadira won’t let me see my kid otherwise. She said she’d even marry that mamagüevo truck driver in Santo Domingo and take my boy with her. She a tough one, sir. You have a Dominican baby mama yourself?
When I came out of Felipe’s office, Rooster, Carlito’ and the rest were serving breakfast. The women were walking into the kitchen with their trays. Herta sat at her desk by the exit counting the contents of every food tray. She seemed less bitchy than usual, not giving a damn if a resident tried to steal a boiled egg or pack of grape jelly. When she glanced at me, it was too late to look away. She removed her aviator glasses, spread her lips, and, still holding my gaze, mouthed the words. I have your money. I felt sick and understood how chicks who pole dance for nasty, old men should feel.
Parkside, meanwhile, was business as usual. So when the truck came to deliver our kitchen produce for the week, I was thinking of all this and how fucking short life is and shit, and how one day my mother will die, and I will die and Yadira and even the baby will die and I was getting all ridiculous and sentimental. But this time around, the hot girl was taking care of the inventory, so I adjusted my bandana and told her her hair was pretty and that she had a beautiful smile. She laughed, got all red, and I felt real proud of my game as I signed the receipt without checking.
We served rib sandwiches for lunch made of leftovers from yesterday’s dinner. The ribs ain’t the best item on the menu and I felt sorry that those soggy and tasteless pieces of greasy pig were likely the last meal of Miranda’s life. Maybe if I’d yelled louder Miranda would have been alive to eat the mustard-crusted salmon we had on the menu for tonight. Or maybe she would have jumped regardless of our cries, the ribs, the salmon, or whatever other fancy dish Felipe had come up with.
One by one, the younger residents joined their friends for lunch in the cafeteria. Unlike other days, there was no hen pen chatter. I felt bad for all the food that we would throw away tonight. What a waste.
Everyone in the kitchen queue seemed more nervous, less patient. “I said no pickle. No pickle. No pickle!” Midnight, the hoarder from the seventh floor, repeated as Carlito’ handed her her complimentary sides. She was clasping her tray, veins popping on her black fingers of blood-red nails. Mrs. Pierce didn’t touch her food, which was unheard of. Goat Tits was looking gloomily at her sandwich from over the slides of her droopy chest. I wondered who among them wasn’t thinking who’d go next.
During my lunch break I sat at my favorite table, the one by the painting of Lori Angelica Moore, the Quaker chick with the baby hat. The table is always empty because no one wants to eat or talk under the watch of the Salvation Army mosquita muerta, the prude, who opened all these hotels for women. I pressed the button on the retractable pen I grabbed from Herta’s desk and listened to its clicking sound until it annoyed me. I unfolded the paper napkin.
First, I drew a pair of eyes with crow’s feet, thick dark circles, and only a few eyelashes. Then a long nose and high cheekbones, a bigger chin like a man’s, deep cheeks, a tiny mouth of thin lips. The woman in the drawing looked a lot like Miranda, but her eyes weren’t sad enough. I crumbled the napkin and started a new one.
On my second try, I focused on the eyes. Bigger crow’s feet, deep dark circles, I added a thin neck and collarbones that stuck out like a man’s shirt collar, lines along her lips. I made the nose longer, the lips fuller; put more and less pressure on the pen to create shade, a sense of doom and gloom. I felt I’ve done much better.
Felipe walked over. I pushed myself forward and put my forearms on the table to hide the drawing.
“The detectives are speaking with Mariano. You go next, son.”
I waited for Felipe to disappear before I looked back at my drawing. The other guys in the kitchen had told me that Miranda was a poet who used to publish under a secret name. I wish I had asked Miranda what that name was so I could check out her stuff. I’d show her my sketches too, and watch her blue eyes flicker with respect. An artist-to-artist comprehension kind of thing.
I have always been good at drawing. My mother would call me “El Artista.” She was so proud she saved all my drawings, she even hid them from my father. She said he wouldn’t understand, especially my cartoons where the bully always got his ass kicked. That was before I started deflating tires in the neighborhood, hanging out with the wrong crowd and finally dropped out of school. It was before I started doing little jobs for my cousin Celso; selling some pot, stealing hubcaps. Back then I still wanted to work at Ink, the tattoo store on Creston, and even looked into some illustration courses at CUNY. But once I became part of the neighborhood’s big cheeses, my drawings seemed the type of thing that only fairies did.
I crumpled the drawing of Miranda and threw it on my plate. I hadn’t touched my food. My twenty minutes were over. Time for my interview with the cops.
I was all knots as I entered Felipe’s office. There was only one man in the room.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Reyes.” The cop had a mustache. He looked like he’d had his share of Whoppers. “I am Detective Trujillo.”
This will be easy, I thought as heard him pronounce his Spanish last name and watched his shaky hands. The dude was too young for Parkinson’s, he was probably just pussed out. Never wanted to be a detective, just a traffic cop who got promoted for doing a good job. Something he fell into, just like me and my shit Parkside job.
I sat down, my legs spread, slouching my back. The room’s fluorescent lights hurt my eyes.
“Where were you last night between 9:00 p.m. and midnight?”
I reached out and grabbed one of the lose paperclips on Felipe’s desk, put the thing in my mouth and flicked it side to side with my tongue. Already bored with the interrogation, which felt like a waste of time.
I started cleaning my teeth with the paperclip.
“Sit properly, Mr. Reyes. This ain’t no public park.” This surprised me. I straightened up, startled by this new voice. Felipe’s door closed and in front of it I saw a big moreno in a grey suit. He too had a paunch, but he looked so much like my father that my butthole tightened.
“I’m Detective Brown. I am sure you and Detective Trujillo here are old acquaintances by now. Your colleague Mr. Mariano Rodríguez told us that every day you take the train together but that yesterday you stayed behind. You were—quote, unquote—‘having a hot date.’”
“It got cancelled. I went home.” My voice came out like a whimper.
He frowned his unibrow. He had frizzy hair cut close to the head, shiny skin on his double chin, man tits. He was sitting on the corner of Felipe’s desk, his right cheek on the table and the rest of his leg hanging in the air, like my father when he talked about his day on the nights he came home, somewhere between his third beer or the Yankees losing a homerun for missing a base.
“So, how did you cancel? Did you call? Text?”
“Nope,” I snapped. “Just went home when she didn’t show.”
Calm down, I ordered my racing heart.
“Did you know Miss Davies?”
“Just from the kitchen. I served her meals.”
“Did you notice anything out of the ordinary last night?”
“Did you know Miss Davies on a personal level?”
“We’re not allowed to get friendly with the residents.”
“Please answer the question.”
“Did you stay in the building last night after closing the kitchen?”
“No sir.” I avoided his gaze.
Chill, I thought.
“Have you ever been upstairs in any of those rooms?”
“Have you ever been in an intimate relationship with her or any of the residents?”
“Am I a suspect?” I asked.
“Yes or no, Mr. Reyes.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Mr. Reyes, you should be aware that holding back or giving misleading information that could derail the investigation is a misdemeanor.”
“That will be all for now, Mr. Reyes. Here’s my card in case you remember something. Have a nice evening.”
As I walked outside the office my jeans stuck to my behind. Herta was waiting to speak with the detectives. She gave me a strange glance, which worried me that she might confess what we’d done.
I watched them disappear behind Felipe’s door. I went straight to the bathroom to wash my hands to start getting the salmon ready.
At my station, for the next couple of hours, I chopped onion and yellow squash thinking of my convo with the five-ohs. Did they know I lied? Even if they did, I had nothing to do with Miranda’s death. Maybe a little. Not a lot. Not directly, no. It’s not like I didn’t feel guilty. If Herta and I weren’t such chicken shit we would’ve run out of the room to stop her. Then again her door was probably locked from the inside so maybe even if I’d given myself away, I’d now be fired and Miranda still dead. Dead, for that chick wanted nothing less when she sat on that windowsill. Perhaps I wasn’t a massive pussy, just a little smart.
And what was I so scared of anyway? I had an alibey, a story backing me up like they do in the movies. It ain’t illegal to fuck a vieja. Parkside illegal, maybe, but not New York. I would make Herta sing even if she didn’t want to. I wasn’t going to no gutter to preserve no old bitch dignity.
A hand grabbed my arm and pulled me from my thoughts. I turned around and found Felipe standing behind me.
“Francisco, please follow me.”
Coño, now what?
He guided me into his office and closed the door. His face was dark and serious and my heart started beating fast again. To my surprise, when I thought I’d been discovered and the mundo was gonna end he only said he'd run the inventory this afternoon and that forty pounds of salmon had been charged but not delivered.
There was a Dio’ after all.
“Francisco, tienes la cabeza en las nubes. You are a mess.”
“I’m sorry, Felipe, mira, I have problems. It won’t happen again.”
Felipe glanced away. I thought we were done. Some more scolding tomorrow, then his cara de culo for a few days, nothing more. I turned around to head out, when he said.
“I’m not finished.” He’d removed his hat. His face changed when he pulled a red cloth from his top drawer. I never saw that face before. It was empty, cold like a muerto, a dead person. Then came the bomb. “Teddy, from maintenance, found this last night.”
It was my bandana. Fucking Teddy, man.
“In the hallway, on the 13th floor,” Felipe said. “It looks like that ridiculous mamaracho wrap you wear on your head.”
“Felipe, I don’t know who took it.”
“Shut it, kid.”
He stared into my eye. “I’m going to ask you a straight-up question and you’re giving me a straight-up answer before I go to the cops. Nada de mentiras. No lies.”
His face had moved from ice to fire in seconds and was now red from the neck to the oreja’, a thick popped-up blue vein split his forehead in two. I looked down at my feet, put my hands inside my pockets, bracing myself for what I knew he’d say.
“Did you push her?”
I stood quiet, listening to him call me Francisco, not son or kid. The fact he asked made me sad. All those talks, and brochures, and still asking. I had done my share of shady things, but a vieja’ killer? No way. No. De ninguna manera.
How to get out of this vaina? Tell la verdad and say “These women, papi, they pay me to fuck them?” As my boss, he was just as knee deep in shit as I was. He on another level. Anyway you looked at it I was toasted. The cops would frown and be grossed out. But Felipe? For Felipe there were no greys, no happy endings when it came to disappointments. Just black and white.
“You go talk to the cops or will I?”
He was getting nasty so I told him the truth.
“No, Felipe. Mira, I was in Herta’s room.”
He seemed to think a little, then he asked. “With Herta Faust? Yeah, right. Doing what? Was she reading you a bedside story?”
“What do you think I was doing? Estaba singando. I was fucking her.”
Felipe was quiet for a few seconds, then spoke. “I don’t get it. Herta is what? Seventysomething?”
“She offered me money.”
Felipe leaned against his desk, his head bowed in his brown hands, fingernails scratching his scalp. I felt sad for him, for his confusion.
“Don’t move.” He grabbed the phone. Dialed an extension, which I assumed was the cafeteria.
“Herta, would you come to my office, please?”
Herta came and left after fifteen minutes tops. She explained to Felipe she and I had been together. It was a one-off situation, first time, and she’d paid me to visit her. She talked about Miranda sitting on the window on the north building and how we tried to stop her. She spoke with a straight face. She wasn’t embarrassed. No vergüenza, shame, or apologies. Nada. Just A to B to C. Felipe was within his rights to discuss the violation with the Mayor. She would face the consequences. Yet to speak with the police about the incident would bring no good to no one.
When Herta left, Felipe’s face looked different. A fear was gone from his eyes, but also something else. He looked away from me when he asked.
“Herta didn’t pop your cherry, verdad?”
I waited to answer but we were beyond the games. “No.”
Felipe scratched his head as if he was expecting me to deny it.
“How many before Herta?”
“I don’t know, six or seven.” Felipe’s hand was cupping his chin and mouth.
“And all senior residents?” A few seconds went by then he spoke. “So you their sanky-panky. They also buy you those fancy clothes, Romeo? How long have you been taking advantage of them?”
“I don’t take advantage of them, Felipe. They all just dig Tolete’s love.”
I meant it as a joke between guys.
“You gonna live your whole life acting like a clown? You think your child be proud to learn his father is an old lady’s tramp?”
His words were angry, but there was hope in his voice when he asked:
“Is this really all you want to do with your life?”
I took a second to think about my answer, knowing deep down he was offering another chance. I wanted to say “No. I’m better than this.” I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, I will stop.” I wanted to beg. And make promises, many promises, about how I would try harder and be more careful and go back to school. I wanted to tell him about Yadira’s douche in Santo Domingo, about how Miranda’s sadness stuck inside me. And finally tell him no man in this world has believed in me the way he does.
But I just said.
“I ain’t no sanky-panky, Felipe. I think of it as my service to the community.”
He just shook his head. And I saw his good face, and his huge black eyes that glistened and I knew this time I hadn’t just fucked around. This time I’d gone too far.