I watched Niqúen and Rosa move in, in 1965; the y made it the brightest three story brick building on the block. They painted the bricks fire engine red and the grout was painted white. It was the most colorful attached house on the tree-lined street; some people thought it was too loud, announcing its existence over everyone else’s natural colored brick homes. The sky was a crayon blue and if you looked up from under a tree, the contrast created an illusion of the tree’s deep green leaves being much closer to one’s touch than they really were. It was summer and the air was brisk, the tree’s leaves hissed a melodic tune, but you had to listen for it, otherwise it would pass you by.
There was a short black iron gate with three steps leading down to an open area before you reached the building’s entrance underneath the flight of stairs the tenants used. Each floor consisted of one apartment; in the attic was where the crazy man lived, and the basement was converted to a poolroom and an extra bedroom. The hallway from the front entrance of the house lead straight back into the kitchen and dining room and out to the back yard. There was a set of swings and a huge tree. During the summer, caterpillars would lose their balance and dropped into your food creating a colorful sight. At night, there were fireflies that lit up like little stars twinkling and the children followed them trying to see if the flies still existed when their lights went out.
I lived there all my life and no matter how much I try, I know I’ll never leave. It had too many memories and the people are my friends and family, like the Acosta family.
“Where are you going? ¡Isarel! ¡Isarel!”
“Me?! ¡Tu es el hijo de la gran puta! Answer me. Are you going to see her? Who the hell do you think you are that you can walk out whenever you please, and think I’ll still be here when you come back, ah? ¡Cabron!” Maria threw an ashtray at him and he turned away in time for the ashtray to hit the door next to him. She lunged forward trying to stop him from leaving, he slapped her, and the noise began.
Downstairs, Niquen walked in. “They’re at it again. Some day he’s going to kill her,” he says.
“Why she stays with him is beyond me.”
They both looked up at the ceiling and listened to the yelling and hard footsteps on the floor, and waited for the ceiling to come down on their heads. Niqúen sat at the kitchen table and added hot sauce to his already spicy plate of rice, beans, avocado and pork chops. Rosa prepared the plate for her granddaughter Evie, who sometimes spoke of crucifixion. Evie looked up at the ceiling and closed her eyes so tight that her cheeks turned red while she covered her ears with her small hands. Rosa and Niqúen’s ten-year old daughter Nelli looked down into her plate and continuously mixed her rice and beans on the plate, not eating, not looking at anyone. The noise got louder and Niqúen and Rosa looked at each other, both reading one another’s expression of enough.
Niqúen pushed his chair back and went up the flight of stairs to the second floor and opened the door that lead to the hallway of Israel’s apartment. He knocked and demanded entrance. All Niqúen could hear was silence and now Rosa stood behind him banging on the door. Isarel opened the door, he was trembling and his face was scratched drawing a small trickle of blood from its open skin. He walked out to the hallway and clung onto the banister. No one noticed Evie sneak her little face into the doorway as Rosa entered the apartment. Nellie ran downstairs to the basement and played solitaire.
Luz who was watching from the third floor hallway ran downstairs and followed Rosa, they both rushed to Maria who was lying on the bed while her lower half was falling toward the floor. She was half unconscious and moaning.
Rosa went and got some alcohol from the bathroom and opened Maria’s robe. Evie watched her grandmother pour alcohol on Maria’s chest, she had never seen such large breasts before, they were perfectly round, she stood there and stared at Rosa massage her chest while Luz used a wet towel to clean Maria’s face.
In the hallway, Isarel trembled.
“She’s the one that starts it, Niqúen, not me.”
“But you’re the man; you shouldn’t be hitting a woman. You’re my wife’s nephew and she loves you, but if you two keep on fighting like this Isarel, I’m going to have to ask you to move. Have you been drinking?”
“No. Maria’s jealous of everybody I know. She doesn’t want me seeing anyone; she wants to be with me all the time. I can’t stand it, I can’t breathe.”
“Why don’t you leave her? Everyone knows you’re seeing Marta, she drives by all the time, we’re not stupid Isarel, and neither is Maria. One day you’re gonna get arrested and then what?”
Luz entered the hallway and looked at Isarel with venom in her eyes. Isarel stared back at her, squinting his eyes as though he saw Maria all over again. Luz spat at him and ran upstairs. She called Rosa upstairs from the hallway. Rosa comes out and tells her she’ll be right up.
“Evie, go back downstairs and watch some TV.” Evie looked at Rosa, then at Niqúen who nodded in agreement with Rosa. Evie slowly started walking downstairs taking one step at a time, jerking her knee back at each bend slowing the process.
“Isarel, why don’t you go out and come back when you’ve calmed down. Maria is sleeping now and it’s a good idea if you leave for a while.”
“I’m sorry, Rosa.”
“It’s not me you should be saying I’m sorry to. Isarel, this has got to stop.”
“I know, but she drives me crazy.”
Rosa put her arms around Isarel and hugged him tightly, kissing him on the cheek. Isarel went downstairs with Niqúen behind him. Rosa went upstairs to Luz’s apartment. Her apartment was darkly lit with lace curtains covering the venetian blinds she kept slightly opened that overlooked the backyard. She was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, listening to a bolero from a Spanish station. Rosa came in and sat down on the chair and ran her hands through her thick black hair. Luz took out some coffee, heated up the milk and coffee. She poured a little of the rich black coffee into a cup and added a lot of hot milk.
Luz, was short and slender, some of the kids in the neighborhood laughed at her behind her back because she did not shave her legs. Her legs and arms had a lot of hair; she had never shaved her legs and men from the island found it alluring. Luz had lived in the building for four years and planned to move back to Puerto Rico. She did not like living in New York, it was too crowded and tense for her soul. When she saw violence like Isarel and Maria it broke her heart because her father had always taught her brothers that hitting a woman was wrong. But here, everyone acted like it was normal and accepted it and this disturbed her. Rosa sat smoking a cigarette, which was unusual for her, but tonight was an unusual night.
“Rosa, how can you let this violence go on in your own house and in front of Evie and Nellie?”
“Isarel is family and Evie doesn’t live here, she is only visiting for the weekend and Nellie always stays downstairs when these things happen so I can thank God that it’s not something they both see all the time. But, I already told him it’s got to stop. I don’t like women getting beaten and it will stop, believe me it will.”
“Well, I hope so. It’s enough with that man upstairs. One day he will go insane, all he does is go to work, come home, and walk back and forth in a tiny attic. What is wrong with him?”
“Carlos? He doesn’t hurt anyone. Ay, mira Luz.”
“¿A que? Ay dios mio.” Luz made the sign of the cross with her right hand and then kissed it when they saw a man’s dark shadow walk across their door.
All I could do was watch my friends. I liked Niqúen and Rosa Acosta, for fifteen years they have lived in this building. I’ve seen six women give birth to their children; breast-feed their babies from their pink-brown nipples. I watched a woman clasp the clip of her garter belt onto the edge of her seamed stockings. Ay, ay-ay, yes, that was New Years Eve 1957; I could still hear the deep vibrato laughter that came from Socorro’s slender throat. And Pedro, what a nice young man. In those days it was the rage to look like James Dean; Pedro danced with a little girl, picked her up and carried her over his left thigh then his right doing the Lindy. He wore tight blue jeans, a wide black belt, and a white tee shirt with a pack of Marlboro’s twisted in the short sleeve of his shirt. His blonde hair was combed down with Vitalis, which made it slick and shiny.
I remember watching the men playing dominoes betting on who would win the game. The man with the most bottles of beer signified the winner. The sound of novella’s on the radio with the women anguishing their sorrows with brilliant drama. The men going off to war and they’re women lamenting their tears with Puerto Rican Rum. In the early days it was the cousins and nephews coming in from Ireland to stay with their family, they went to the catholic school three blocks away. I have seen the paint on the walls change one after another when a new tenant moved in and the old one moved out. I listened to the wails of the mothers for their daughter’s early marriages to men that the family never approved of. Ay, la musica, the brilliance of Paco’s guitar when he got depressed over his girlfriend leaving him for a Cuban. How many times was my presence enriched by the lives of so many others, not knowing they have been the flowers for my grave?
It was not the first time they’ve seen me, but every time they do they cross themselves giving me their salutation of Christ’s love upon my soul. It is not often I allow people to see me, but these are special people and when they do see me, it made my existence more than a shadow. It made me visible, it made me whole and I was blessed with their prayers and acknowledgement of my presence.
“Rosa, what was that? Sometimes I feel like there is someone with me.”
“Do you feel scared? because I don’t. He’s been here for years and rare when someone sees him, and if they do, they don’t tell me.”
“You mean you know who it is?”
“Not really “know,” but once when I went to a spirirutista, she saw him in her visions.”
“What did she say?” Luz got very excited.
“She said that he was a young man who died in a fire in the house. He was trapped by a fire set by his wife when she caught him having sex with another woman.”
“Ah! He deserved it!”
“Well… I don’t know about that. His wife was having an affair too. After I visited with the spiritutista, I went to the library to see if I could find something about this building. In 1958, they found only one body in the fire. Yet, the wife said that she caught her husband cheating on her, but no one else was found inside the house except for Daniel. That was his name, Daniel. Nice looking young man. It was a sad story because he struggled so hard in his life. The neighbors and friends said that he was a nice man who gave a lot to others. He loved this building and I think that is why he stays,” said Rosa.
“Ay, Rosa, I don’t know. This is a strange house. A very strange house.”
They both started laughing, and then they laughed harder and harder. It was getting late and Rosa got up to leave, they held one another for a few seconds of comfort.
Outside, Niqúen was playing dominoes in front of his house with three other men from the neighborhood. It was after six o’clock and on Saturday nights the men liked to get together to play dominoes and drink beer. It was a hot humid night, when the leaves didn’t move and one was thankful for the shade of time so that it brought relief from the day’s sun. Everyone was out of their houses, sitting out on the stoops and talking with their neighbors. Everyone knew everyone on this block. The fire hydrant had been turned on and children were being dragged into the forceful surge of water screaming and laughing. Even the grown men picked up their wives and stood in front of the water while the woman squirreled and screamed as their bodies got wet. Isarel was sitting on the stoop with a can of beer talking to a young woman.
Nellie and Evie were in the back yard playing with other children and charging a quarter for each child’s chance to look at Cinderella’s crown. Rosa came up from behind. When Rosa asked them what they were doing, Nellie put her hands behind her back, clenching her fist.
“Nellie, what is that behind your back?”
“Oh? Okay, who’s going to tell me what’s going on here?”
“She found Cinderella’s crown!” says one of the kids.
“Cinderella’s crown? Nellie, show me.”
Nellie took her hand from behind her back and opened it. In her hand was a small gold metal round top.
“Nellie, this is the top of a lamp shade holder.” The kids all started hollering and Rosa told Nellie to give them back their money and apologize. Nellie did what she was told. Rosa nodded her head back and forth and went back inside. Nellie and Evie, now alone, laughed together even though Evie who was a year younger than Nellie believed her. They started chasing fireflies.
Evie threw herself onto the grass and spread her arms to her sides like she did when the backyard was full of snow and they made angels. Except she was not making angels, Evie was violently shaking her head back and forth. Nellie watched Evie frown her eyebrows tightly together.
“Evie, what are you doing?”
“No. Leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
“What, what — that’s what he does. That’s what he does. I’m on a cross. I’m on a cross.”
“Evie, stop it! You’re scaring me.”
“I’m sorry, Nellie. I didn’t mean to scare you. Honest, I didn’t.”
Evie ran inside the house and joined Rosa who was watching television. Nellie followed her inside and sat next to Evie; she looked at her and whispered in Evie’s ear. Evie nodded and put her arm around Nellie and watched TV. Nellie scratched the inside of her right palm with her three little fingernails.
Isarel came back inside and the girls did not acknowledge him because it was easier to pretend when the devil was not next to you. Isarel looked at Rosa, tried to talk to her but no words came out of his mouth except two that Rosa can hardly hear “I’m sorry, Doña Rosa.” He ran upstairs to Maria.
The next afternoon Rosa, Niqúen and the children sat in the living room looking out the window. Marta’s car was waiting outside the building; she tapped her fingers to some music. Isarel came down the stairs with two suitcases. Maria held back her tears and let him go. When she came back inside, she looked at the family with an expression of defeat. Rosa walked upstairs with her, Maria said a joke, which only both women could hear, and Maria started laughing. A good sign.
“When I grow up I’m never going to get married.”
“Oh, yes you will Evie.”
“Uh-uh. Not if all men are like cousin Isarel.”
“Papi’s not like him. Mami and Papi don’t hit each other. They fight a lot but they don’t mean it, I can tell when they mean it.”
“I’m still not getting married!”
Luz came down with a handful of catalogues, one for mail-order clothes, another for perfume with exotic names not of their maker, and another with alluring pictures of cruises from around the world. She joined Niqúen in the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Neither one said anything since they have very little in common. Niqúen left her alone with her catalogues.
Luz leafed through the cruise catalogue and looked at the prices for a cruise to Puerto Rico. The cruise ship showed women and men in bathing suits lying on the deck chairs absorbing the sun. What Luz hadn’t told Rosa last night was that she was ready to move back home. Although she had not saved as much as she would have liked to, she had enough to make her family proud, and to start life again in the surroundings she preferred. New York had not fared her well. She was lonely even though there were replicas of her in language and skin all around her. She missed the hot humid sun and the mountains in Rio Piedra where the bats could easily nudge your shoulder while you stood in the night breathing the fresh air. At the beach, she could see her feet through the clear ocean water unlike Orchard Beach where the water was dirty and full of waste. The streets are small and clean the white buildings crowded and quaint. New York was too busy, too crowded, too many people like her looking for roots in an America that says they own her island. Luz had something to take back; she finished school in America, had learned English, and had learned to compete.
Luz looked away from her cruise catalogue when she heard the commotion on the stairway. Evie had her hands spread out on the wooden balusters talking of crucifixion. Niqúen was yelling at her and Rosa came running down the stairs. Nellie hid behind the door of the bedroom that was between the dining room and living room. Evie, in spurts of Spanish and English explained what her stepfather did to her on certain nights of unwanted “gifts” to her body. Niqúen was upset and threatened to kill his son-in-law, but Rosa held him back. In a flashing moment Niqúen slapped Rosa across her face. She did not pull back and finally the torrent of emotions subsided with Evie crying and asking for forgiveness.
Nellie came out of the bedroom and pulled Evie with her and they went to the back yard under their makeshift house that Niqúen built for Nellie the year before. It all made sense now. Why Evie still wetted her bed, why she still sucked her thumb, the talk of crucifixion.
Niqúen went to the basement and returned with a machete. Luz ran upstairs to her apartment. Rosa fervently talked to him, tried to make sense of what to do next, but could not stop Niqúen from leaving. She called her daughter and argued the truth.
Inside the makeshift house Evie and Nellie were protected from the heat. They both lied on their back and looked up at the ceiling. The little house was only four pieces of lumber with eight more making a frame for the roof and floor. The floor was covered with a mattress, and the four sides and ceiling were covered with white sheets as their protective walls.
“Mami and Papi are real mad, Evie.”
“Do you think I’m lying?”
“No, no, but I don’t know what it means, I mean, what you say, what Uncle does, I don’t know.”
“Well, I don’t know either, Nellie, but I know I don’t want it anymore.”
Niqúen returned to Rosa putting the clean machete back into the basement where it belonged. Rosa sighed and sat next to him; both looked at the floor not saying anything to each other, until Rosa broke the silence.
“Evie is going to stay with us for a while.”
“What are we going to do, Rosa?”
“We have to think, Niqúen, we have to think. Lydia doesn’t believe me; she thinks Evie is lying to get attention.”
They both looked at each other with wet eyes.
Nothing moved when the weather was humid, the bark of the trees sweat outside the red brick house, the leaves gasp for air, and the people left their houses looking for moving air, only the air outside was the same inside. The crazy man in the attic was still the crazy man in the attic; he did not change seasonally as the people who live below did.
Luz packed her belongings and left for Puerto Rico last month, and now Rosa was looking for new tenants, perhaps someone like Luz, kind and quiet.
Maria was on the phone making dinner plans with her new boyfriend, even Isarel had come to visit a few times and the past seemed like it never happened. Isarel visited Maria on occasion and they talked and laughed like his hand never went across her body. He planned to marry Marta the following spring and Maria had been invited to the wedding. When he asked her, Maria’s eyes flinched at the news, but she shrugged her shoulders and said “why not?”
Nellie turned eleven and Evie gave her a birthday gift basket with a photograph of the both of them in a frame she made with lace. They both attended the same catholic school three blocks from their house, but soon they would be going to a new school in Queens. Rosa and Niqúen bought a new house and sold the building to a tenant with the same last name as theirs.
I miss Rosa, Niqúen and the girls. The new tenant has erected a shrine in the basement so she could talk to the dead. The brick altar holds many candles and flowers creating a garden for the spirits.
Written by Jo Ann Rodriquez
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