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Without a Big One



You've thought about jumping.

It's a cold winter night. You sit next to Queeny on your fire escape. The cars on the freeway come and go like waves. The lights from the George Washington Bridge reflect off the Hudson River like the shine in glassy eyes. The river is a giant bathtub without a ship or boat to save anyone who might be drowning.

Your babysitter, Nilda, says suicide is like killing someone, and if you were to survive jumping off the fire escape, the police would arrest you for attempted murder. If you do try killing yourself, you plan to live through it because suicide only works if you survive. Nilda laughed when you told her the attempt is meant to get people's attention. She laughed because it's true.

You feel the cold wind. Look at the buildings across the river in New Jersey. They are far apart with too much space in between. There's no space between you and Queeny because you both need the warmth.

They used to call you Minene, and before that, Chungo, even though your birth certificate says another name. Your stepfather, who's been away at school for three months, calls you Son. Son, get me the TV controller. Son, listen to your mother. Son, stop talking about your heart.

Your stepfather can draw you and your extra small heart. Queeny asleep at your feet. He can draw anything and anybody. He knows everything about sports, anime, video games, comic books and toys. He's the strongest man you've met and the only man who has ever kissed you. He has never lied. When he turned himself in to school you felt like crying, but didn't, because you've never seen him cry.

Mary gave birth to you. She calls you Minene or Ray and sometimes your stepfather's name by mistake. Mary doesn't hear it when you call her mom. She calls you Raymond when Queeny plays with her shoes or does poo in the house. Mary doesn't love Queeny like your stepfather. Mary is younger than all of your friends' mothers. Mary looks young like your babysitter, but you know Nilda's younger because she's happier than your mother.

Sometimes you sleep with Mary in the bedroom. You like rubbing her hair on your nose. Sometimes the smell of shampoo and cigarettes makes you sleepy. Sometimes the mix keeps you up at night. You usually sleep on the sofa bed in the living room because of your bladder disease. Recently it's been hard to hold your piss at night.

Your new doctor says konnichiwa all the time. He said kids who drink soda wet the bed and Mary believed him. You don't trust this doctor because when you asked if he was Chinese, he pointed to a red circle at the center of a white rectangle and said, Japanese. Then he smiled at Mary.

One night you fell asleep with Mary in the bedroom and her snoring woke you around midnight. The TV showed old men talking about bladder disease. The next morning at the kitchen table, you told Mary about bladder disease. She was shuffling mail, knife in hand. She stopped, looked at the bowl in front of you, and said, Mentiroso, before cutting open a red envelope in one try. She usually doesn't speak Spanish so you didn't understand her. The way Mary pronounced that word made her a stranger.

That morning you realize the Chinese doctor was flirting with her. You make a mental note to tell your stepfather when he calls from school. He's only called a couple of times since he left because the apartment phone is always being cut off and there are never minutes on Mary's prepaid cell phone.

Your babysitter, Nilda, calls you Ray Ray. She loves Queeny. Nilda is taller than Mary and has a fat ass. Whenever you hug her, you touch it and she doesn't say anything. Nilda is in love with you. You don't tell her you know because she has a boyfriend. Every time Nilda sees you she laughs, but not at you, it's just she's embarrassed of being in love with someone your age. At night in bed you imagine kissing Nilda and licking her lips.

Nilda is smart and Nilda is beautiful and Nilda reads you stories with curse words and words you don't understand. She says you're mature. She says you should draw your own drawings instead of tracing. One day, Nilda told her friend with the huge boobs you'll be a heartbreaker. Her friend asked, Would you be my boyfriend? It took a while before you answered because you didn't want to hurt Nilda's feelings. You blurted out, It depends, and Nilda's friend laughed. Nilda barely giggled because she was jealous. That day you knew you had to make it up to her. So when Nilda asked for a drink you put ice in her ginger ale. And when you gave her the soda you saw her face through the glass and Nilda looked like she was made out of gold.

Nilda reminds you of your homeroom teacher Mrs. Vicioso because she doesn't paternize. Paternize is a word Nilda taught you. When she caught you tracing your stepfather's sketches Mrs. Vicioso said, You can do better.

Your stepfather did a sketch of Big Ralph, the supermarket owner from New Jersey who is always eating. Anytime Ralph tells you something he ends it with, Know what I mean, Jellybean? Ralph is scary because he's bigger than that gorilla you saw in the zoo. His breathing sounds like he just climbed up the stairs even if he's been sitting in a chair. Sometimes while standing he nods off. It looks like he's gonna fall on his ass and never get up.

Nilda called Ralph a Glue-Ton once. She says the word comes from the Latinos in Greece and it means "to swallow." Nilda says Latino is a language that's dead because it killed itself or someone killed it. You're not sure how Latinos made it to Greece, but Mrs. Vicioso says they live all over the world because of Spain. You know the word means more than "to swallow." It has to do with someone who can't get enough of something, but you can't remember what Nilda said.

Ralph used to bring shopping bags full of food from his supermarket before your stepfather left for school. The fridge has been empty since then, and you haven't seen Ralph. You have seen Nilda's secret friend, Gregorio. You almost forget about him because Nilda said not to tell anyone he comes around. You don't like Gregorio because when he visited he only paid attention to Nilda. You went to trace your stepfather's drawings and fell asleep on the sofa.


Today you wake up to the smell of piss and alcohol. Not the type the Chinese-Japanese wannabe doctor rubbed on you, but the one Mary smells like. Did you wet the bed? Feel your underwear. Take them off. The faded Superman looks normal. Dry. Put your clothes on for school. Mary is not awake to make you shower.

Today is different. You won't walk the long way through boring Riverside Drive or climb up a mountain-hill to Fort Washington Avenue. Today you'll take the shortcut with your best-friend Frankie even though your stepfather told you not to take the short way without him.

Frankie calls you Ray Ray like the rest of your classmates. When the two of you walk to school he talks nastier than a cockroach filled radio. You two always take the long way because the shortcut takes you under the George Washington Bridge through a pathway of broken glass and needles. Where zombies live. Frankie says zombies smoke crack. He knows all this because he has two older brothers. One is away at college, like your stepfather, and the other is in jail for having weed.

Frankie decides to wait after school to take the shortcut. After school you meet Frankie and follow him through Fort Washington Park. He ignores the other kids on the monkey bars and swings. You notice two empty swings, but Frankie doesn't stop. Ask yourself if you're scared. Are you scared? The thought of taking the shortcut without your stepfather makes you wanna pee. You pass the dog pen and wonder what Queeny's doing. Some dogs bark, others sniff around and the rest run in circles.

Frankie sits on a bench that faces New Jersey when you reach the back entrance of the Park. He starts talking about two airplanes crashing into the George Washington Bridge and ends up talking about his brother calling from Rikers.

"Is he scared of jail?" you ask.

"Nope. It's only the skinny guys who get raped."

"Are you scared of taking the shortcut?"

Frankie doesn't answer. He kicks a diaper down the stairs.

You remember your house phone might be back on so you stand and exit the park. You rush down the stairs that lead to the freeway. Shattered glass crunch like cornflakes with each step. You almost slip on frozen garbage. You make it to the sidewalk next to the freeway and see a large brown box under the scaffolding between the George Washington Bridge and the buildings on Riverside Drive.

"There's a shoe coming out the box over there," says Frankie.

Pick up a plastic bottle. Throw it. The bottle bounces off and rolls down the cracked pavement. The shoe doesn't move.

"Shit Ray Ray, he's dead," says Frankie.

Frankie and you collect whatever bottles and rocks aren't smeared with shit. Wait. 1…2…3… Attack! Bottles shatter and rocks dent the box. Stop. The laughing ends and the hum of speeding vehicles on the freeway and the bridge return. The box stands still.

Walk on the sidewalk by the freeway. There's a path that diverges into the street that leads to your building on Riverside Drive. The cars pass fast and close to this narrow path so you walk under the scaffolds where the zombies live. The scaffolds are part of an abandoned construction next to the bridge. There are broken handrails, burnt benches and dirt with cracked pavement. A zombie folds a garbage bag big enough for two bodies. He smiles at you.

"That crack head keeps looking at us," says Frankie. The two of you turn around before walking any closer to the zombie with the giant garbage bag. You walk back the long way home. When you reach the stairs that lead to Fort Washington Park you notice there's no shoe coming out the brown box.

"He's not there cause he's alive," says Frankie.

"Let's see what's inside."

Pick up a bottle. Frankie is behind you. Glance at the stairs that lead to Fort Washington Park and the dog pen and your school and everything that's safe. Touch the cold cardboard. Listen. Meowing. Look through a hole while holding your nose. No cats. Turn around and a few feet away a zombie in a ripped black sweater has a rock in his hand. You freeze. Frankie runs up the stairs. The zombie throws the rock. You duck.

Frankie shouts from the top of the stairs. "He's got a knife!"

Worry. Hold the dirty glass bottle with both hands. The zombie walks like he's on a tightrope about to fall. The closer he gets the more it smells like piss and the more you want to pee. You hear someone calling your name. Look up the stairs. Frankie's gone. Look over your shoulder. Feel the cold wind from the passing vehicles. Imagine your stepfather is watching, waiting to yell at you for taking the shortcut without him. Throw the bottle. It bounces off the zombie's chest. Run up the stairs and take the long way home.

A breeze of shit and piss blows out of the apartment when you push open the door. Mary whips Queeny with your stepfather's belt. Queeny runs to you whimpering with a trail of blood behind her. Every seven months she bleeds. Mary's eyes are swollen like she just woke up or finished crying. She isn't wearing any make up. The darkness under her eyes look like shadows. As Queeny trembles between your legs, you realize how ugly Mary's become.

"This dog is gone," yells Mary. "We're getting rid of it today."

Nausea. Hold your nose. All this could be easily cleaned: the drops of blood, the pieces of shoes, the chewed corners on the sofa, the rubbles of shit and the puddles of piss.

"Just clean it," you say.

Mary throws a shoe at you.

You duck and shout, "I hate you."

After hours of crying and threats of running away, you find yourself on Pinehurst Avenue close to where Olivia, a friend of your stepfather, lives. Queeny is on a leash ahead of you and Mary.

"Rich people live around here," says Mary. "They'll adopt her."

Drop the leash. Hope Olivia finds her. Follow Mary. Don't look back. Queeny follows you, dragging her metal leash over the concrete. So you end up in Fort Washington Park and leave Queeny in the dog pen where she forgets about you and chases after the other dogs.

That night Mary asks if you want to sleep with her.

You say, "I hate you," and lick your lips, tasting the salt from tears and boogers.

"We can't afford that dog. She was starving," says Mary, slamming the bedroom door.


Three days have passed and you haven't killed yourself. Your stepfather hasn't called. Frankie hasn't been to school since the day you attacked the zombie. Mrs. Vicioso says he's sick. You've asked the dog owners in Fort Washington Park about Queeny, but no one has seen a reddish-brown dog with hazel eyes that looks like a bulldog but is really a mutt.

This morning Mary woke you up for school by caressing your face because she knows you're mad about Queeny. She caressed your face at the hospital after almost drowning in the bathtub. You saved her that day by pulling her head out the water and holding on tight to her hair.

After school you find Nilda sweeping the kitchen. Pass her and go to the living room. Sit on the sofa. Wait for her to say something. She says something. Ignore her. She drags the broom into the living room and stands under the lamp like an angel-witch with a glow over her head.

"I'm sorry about Queeny," she says.

"Queeny's dead."

"You're wrong, Ray. They adopt dogs like Queeny."

"Don't paternize me."


"Don't paternize me."

"You mean patronize. Do you think I'm patronizing you?"


You go and sit at the kitchen table and look out the window. Think about jumping out. Nilda throws words at you while cooking spaghetti because it's the only food left.

"Stroke," yells Nilda.

"It's like to strike, but only harder like a punch."

Stirring the pot, Nilda says, "Nope, it's a gentle touch like petting a cat."

"Didn't you say it was a heart attack?"

"Nope," she says with her back to you. "It's a soft touch. Next word… Independent."

"Being single and happy—"

There's a knock on the door. Think about your stepfather. Think about Queeny. Think about Nilda's secret friend, Gregorio. Nilda checks her cell. She turns a knob on the stove and walks out the kitchen. Think about jumping out the window and breaking one leg.

"Come on, baby, she ain't gonna say shit," says the man in the hallway.

"I can't. It's my job," says Nilda.

"Come on, love."

"Only for a few minutes."

The door closes. Locks click. A man in a Yankee baseball hat extends his hand. Stare at it. He wears a leather jacket, jeans and black boots. He's younger than your stepfather.

"Hi, Mr. Rodriguez," says the man.

"This is my friend, Nino," says Nilda.

"Yes, her boyfriend," says the man.

Your chest feels funny. Think about your heart murmur. Cavity. Nilda says anything can have a cavity, not only teeth.

"Daydreaming, Mr. Rodriguez?" asks the man with his hand out.

"Stop calling him that," says Nilda. "He's not in the mood."

Her friend, Nino, says he's seen you around. He says most stray dogs are adopted. Ignore him. Walk out of the kitchen with your plate.

You hear loud whispering in the kitchen.

"Are you seriously thinking of going?" asks Nino.

"I'm going," says Nilda. "It has nothing to do with Greg."

"What is it with you and this Greg-guy?"

"Some of my friends are going to be male."

"I ain't bring Gregorio up. Why travel so far?"

"Because I want to," says Nilda in five hard whispers.

Dishes slam in the sink.

Wake up after falling asleep on the sofa. Water runs in the bathtub. Nino sits on the other end. A picture book and a jackknife rest on his lap.

"Mr. Rodriguez," says Nino fixing his belt. "You think keeping a secret is important if it could get someone in trouble?"

Rub your eyes. Don't say anything.

"Would you get me in trouble Mr. Rodriguez?"

You don't understand. Stay shut. He's a stranger.

"Have you ever gone under the bridge?" asks Nino.


"You sure you haven't gone under the scaffolds?"

"Yea… But with my stepfather. I can't go alone."

"If you snitch, Mr. Rodriguez—"

"Why you call me that?"

"Respect," says Nino. "Nilda says you hate being patronized… I'll get to the point… You ain't tell Nilda you saw me under the scaffolds because you ain't a snitch. If Nilda found out you saw me she'll think I was doing something wrong. And if I tell your mom I saw you throwing bottles at bums you'll get in trouble. But I ain't a snitch."

Nod because you almost understand. He thinks you saw him taking the shortcut under the bridge.

"You kept a secret. I trust you, Mr. Rodriguez."

Nino flips through the pages of Where the Wild Things Are. "Lonely boy surrounded by monsters. Sounds like Beasts of No Nation."

Nino doesn't look like someone who likes books. His hat is now to the back. He's like those guys with red eyes that lean with one foot against the wall and sit on milk crates by the corner. Guys like Frankie's drug dealing brother.

"His mom sends him to bed without supper," says Nino.

"That book is for little kids," you tell him. "You know about heart murmurs?"

"Heart problem?" says Nino, scratching the few hairs on his chin.

"I have one. Mary says I was born with an extra small heart."

"Who's Mary?"

"My mother."

"You look healthy. Nilda said you wanna run away."


"Me too," says Nino, "but I wanna run back to my parent's place."


"I got kicked out for selling… for… taking the shortcut."

"I haven't talked to my stepfather in mad long," you say.

"Reading helps you not think about people you miss. You gotta read a lot to be with a girl like Nilda."

Don't believe that Nino reads. He's not like Nilda.

"Imagine you had a girlfriend with a new friend named Gregorio," says Nino. "Now imagine this girlfriend mentions this new friend lent her a boring book called School Days by Patrick-something. And your girlfriend says it's better than the book that you like, Beasts of No Nation."

"She thinks that other school-book is better than the beast book?" you ask and try not to think about Nilda's secret friend.

"Yup, that's what Nilda thinks. She's never finished Beasts of No Nation cause it's too violent. I read it and loved it and I don't even like reading. I never finished School Days because it's boring. I wonder why she likes that boring book, School Days, so much."

"Because it's not violent?"

"No, no, wrong, Mr. Rodriguez. Remember this Gregorio-friend told her about the School Days book." He starts cleaning his nails with the jackknife. "How would you feel if you finally read a book to impress your girl and she doesn't even read the book you read?"

"Jealous because she likes Gregorio's book better."

"Shit, you're smart… Has Nilda talked to you about Gregorio?"

"Nope," you say, rubbing your chest because your heart hurts when you lie but would hurt even more if you snitch. "Is Nilda your girlfriend or your friend?"

"My girlfriend," he mumbles.

"Are you scared that Gregorio is bigger than you?"

Nino laughs. "I'm never scared. He might be taller but not bigger—"

Nilda comes out of the bathroom with her hair messed up. She asks for clean blankets. Nino puts one finger over his lips. You tell her they're dirty. Go to the bedroom. Nilda makes the bed over with the same dirty sheet even though Mary had already made the bed that morning. When she's done you fall on the bed. Underneath one of the pillows is a moist spot that smells like Clorox. Fall asleep.

Fall with Mary. She holds your hand tight. There's a bridge in the sky above. The wind feels like a cold shower. Steam comes out of Mary's mouth because of the cold outside or something deep inside. The fall isn't so bad and it feels like a rollercoaster ride. As you plummet notice two objects falling below. The two objects grow closer until you drop pass them. Look up. See your stepfather and Queeny floating in the air. Both bodies disappear. You can't find Mary. Try flying. Feels like you're swimming. You're drowning. Swim.

Wake up and smell Queeny. The lamp reflects on the TV screen, where the only clean spot is your handprint in a thick layer of dust. The hamper teems with dirty clothes and a puddle of jeans around it. Shades cover the two fire escape windows. Stretch your legs. It's not Queeny you smell but your own piss. Mary will go mad when she finds out.

Nilda could dry the bed with a blow-dryer. Ever since Nilda surprised Mary with a visit she fixes everything. Nilda was dressed in black slacks and a grey shirt. She wore makeup, her hair was blow-dried and an ID hung around her neck. Nilda wrote in a black notebook and asked about you dialing 911 and saving Mary's life when she almost drowned in the bathtub. At first Mary told you not to tell Nilda anything because she was going to try to take you away. But Nilda helped Mary get food stamps and a sofa bed and babysits whenever Mary goes out.

If Nilda doesn't dry the bed Mary will go mad. Your jeans stick to your legs. You almost shower but change jeans instead. The living room is dim with the kitchen light. Nilda's gone. Mary snores on the sofa like always. She probably forgot parent-teacher conference is tomorrow. Scratch your tear ducts. The crust goes in your nails. The floor creaks. Bite your nails. Run away because she went crazy the last time you wet the bed. Put your coat on. Look at Mary dreaming before you leave. Grab her by the wrist and touch your face with her hand. Her watch says 11:30 PM. There's a hole in between her nostrils. She coughs and gasps for air. Press on her heart like the ambulance man. She coughs. She doesn't open her eyes like when you pulled her out the bathtub.

Mary says, "Chris?" but doesn't wake up.

It's nighttime but Riverside Drive is not scary. It's not like morning when there are no parked cars. The yellow in the apartment windows tell you who's awake. Sometimes you can see the shadows of families on walls and ceilings. You cross the empty streets in the dark cold. The winds are angry on Pinehurst Avenue. Stop coughing. You can't. Keep coughing. Boogers run down your stuffy nose. Wish you had a hole between your nostrils like Mary.

Surprise! Ralph is in front of Olivia's building. The fat guy from New Jersey who used to bring food to your house, but disappeared when your stepfather left to school, sits on the stoop with shopping bags. He is nodding off like a zombie. But Ralph is too fat to be a zombie. If Ralph sees you he'll snitch and tell your stepfather. Run back home.

Run up your building's stairs. Hope your stepfather hasn't called.

Mary blocks the door to the apartment. "Where have you been?"


"Want me to tell Chris you ran away because you wet the bed?"

The cuticles on your middle finger bother you. Bite them off. It burns. "I saw Ralph taking food to Olivia's building."

"What?" asks Mary. "Big Ralph?"


"Let's go," she says.

When you and Mary get to Pinehurst Avenue she tells you to stay across the street from Olivia's building. She leaves you her cell phone and tells you to call the cops if anything happens. Mary enters Olivia's building. Wish Ralph was taking food to your house. Think about how the light posts glow the color of pee. Look at the moon. It doesn't look like it's made out of cheese.

Mary runs out of Olivia's building with two shopping bags. "Let's go," she says. "Let me get the phone."

Keep up with Mary as she talks on the cell.

"Answering machine, Ralph? You fat piece of shit. If I find you in the Heights buying from that cutthroat, Olivia, I'm gonna make Chris cut your balls off when he comes out. I could've gotten you what you needed like Chris used to but you go behind my back to Olivia…"

"Why you mad at Ralph?"

"He's a drug addict," she says. "I don't want you around junkies."

The next morning you wake up alone in the bedroom. Mary didn't wake you up for school but she never does. You hear a man in the living room. Think about your stepfather.

Nino is on the sofa, talking on his cell. "… I won't throw it in your face. I'm doing the boy a favor not you… Studying abroad ain't about studying. People travel to fuck." Nino sees you, puts one finger on his lips and hangs up.

"Is Mary in the hospital?"

"No, your mom's running errands and Nilda's at work."

"I'm late for school."

"You won't miss nothing it's half day today. Don't tell Nilda I let you stay home… Hungry? I ordered Chinese for breakfast."

"It's half a day because it's parent-teacher conference today."

"I know," he says. "Nilda and your mom won't be back until later so I'm gonna take you."

Around dusk you and Nino take the shortcut to school. One of the zombies yells from under the scaffolds, "Arturo!"

Nino throws a hand in the air and says, "Dry."

When you reach the foot of the stairs that lead to Fort Washington Park, you ask Nino, "Why does Nilda help my family?"

"It's her job. Plus, you remind her of her cousin Juan."

"Does Juan have a dog?"


"Did Juan get left back?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Community college is like being left back."

"Was Juan born with a heart murmur?"

"I'm not sure, Mr. Rodriguez."

"Did Juan's mother try to suicide herself?"

"Juan's mother died from taking drugs," says Nino, cleaning his nails with the jackknife.

The moon is out when you reach an empty Fort Washington Park. No runaway kids on the playground or runaway dogs in the dog pen. The swings are so still they look frozen. You can see right through the monkey bars. There's no line for the big slide. Nino and you sit on a bench by the water fountain because you're early. There are no stars just an airplane's red light in sky.

"Nilda said she's going to Spain."

"I know." Nino opens his eyes wide like they need air.

"You sell drugs?"

"I know people in jail for selling drugs," says Nino.

"That bum called you Arturo. You got different names for different people?"

"Yup and different secrets," says Nino. "Mr. Rodriguez, if you knew Nilda had another boyfriend would you tell me?"


When you enter the school Nino leaves to talk to Mrs. Vicioso and drops you off in the gym where there are no adults. There are big kids throwing basketballs at smaller kids and boys and girls under the bleachers. A girl in a pink coat chokes a girl in a blue coat. A boy runs up to you, screams and then runs away leaving a sneaker behind. Two boys howl at the ceiling lights.

You sit on the bleachers ignoring the kissing sounds below you and watching everyone's parents drop them off. Frankie enters the gym with his father. His father looks old and stupid because he doesn't know English. Frankie is a liar who abandoned you. Your stepfather would kill Frankie's father in a fight. Frankie's father doesn't care about Frankie because he leaves him behind with all these crazy kids in the gym. Frankie runs across the gym and the closer he gets the more he looks like his father.

"I spoke to my brother," says Frankie. "He's not in Rikers. He's in the S.H.O.C.K. program. Like a bootcamp jail. He saw your father. There's this drill sergeant with a tattoo on his arm of a black baby hanging on a rope that makes them do push ups—"

"He ain't my father. He's my stepfather and he's in college."

"It's not a real college like my other brother is in. They just let them take a test for a diploma."

"Stop lying."

You punch Frankie in the face. He walks backward, crying like a little bitch. Frankie covers his nose with blood dripping between his fingers. He might bleed to death. A crowd forms around the two of you. Run to the backdoor exit. Hurry!

Run across the street to an empty Fort Washington Park. The police will arrest you. Think about drowning in the Hudson River. Run downstairs to the freeway. Pause at the foot of the stairs. On the other side of the eight lanes of freeway is another park and after that is the Hudson River. Think before crossing. Feel the wind of the cars speeding by like they're racing.

Someone grabs your arm. Scream.

"Give me money."

"I don't got nothing."

The zombie puts you in a headlock and presses a cold metal on your throat. He searches your pockets. "I'll rip your heart out."

"I was born with a heart murmur."

Close your eyes. Pray to your stepfather. The zombie flies off you. Nino slams the zombie on the ground. He jumps on the zombie, chokes him with one hand and holds his jackknife with the other.

"Don't stab the zombie, Nino."

Nino looks at you. He looks at the zombie before letting him go.

While on your way home Nino's cell rings.

"Yes, he was in the park," he says. "His mother will call you."

Nino doesn't ask why you punched Frankie.

"Let's make a deal, Mr. Rodriguez. If you don't let Nilda leave to Spain I promise not to tell anyone about tonight. Deal?"

"OK, but tell me… Is my stepfather in jail for selling drugs?"

"Yeah, Raymond," says Nino and pats your head. "I'm sorry."

Believe Nino. Your stepfather is in jail. You don't want to snitch on Nilda but you rather be a snitch than hide something from Nino. So you tell him about Gregorio.

"Mr. Rodriguez, you don't gotta pretend you know Nilda's friend. I won't tell anyone about tonight regardless."

Don't tell Nino anything else about Gregorio because it hurts his feelings. He doesn't believe you because he doesn't want to believe.

The next morning Mary's snoring wakes you in the bedroom. It's Saturday but you don't feel like watching cartoons. On one window the shade is halfway down so you see the dust the sun brings. On the other window the shade is fully drawn so there's no dust. It's better to keep the blinds down because the dust makes you sneeze.

Mary's cell phone vibrates on the floor.


"Will you accept the collect call from Christian Ruiz?" asks a robotic voice.


"Hello," says a raspy voice.

It sounds like your stepfather is crying. Stay shut. Listen.

"I'm sorry I haven't called," he says. "I didn't want to—"

"Nilda says men cry… You know Queeny is gone?"

"I heard. Is Nilda that Children Services woman?"

"Yeah. She helped Mary get a job but Mary got sick and lost it."

Your stepfather coughs. "If she's sleeping give her a kiss."

Rub your nose against Mary's and smell cigarettes. Love the smell. Remember how she used to laugh with a cigarette in her mouth, one eye squinting because of the smoke. Touch her lips. The dryness feels like torn plastic. Lick your mother's lips.

"Are you drawing?" he asks.

"Yeah, tracing yours."

"You can't trace my drawings or take the shortcut."

"Are you in jail for selling drugs?"

He clears his throat. "Son, I told you I'm in school."

And even though Frankie, Nino, and the voice inside you all say that your stepfather is in jail, you decide to believe your stepfather.

First appeared in Kweli Journal, May 2018.