I did it again.
This time around, with a little more skill, a little more insanity in my eyes.
I ripped open a small packet of table sugar with high intention and traced out thin white sugar streaks with an ATM card. Thin, white textbook lines. If you had walked into the diner, you would have thought I was doing lines of what would appear to be sweet blow on a dry wood table.
Even though I looked nothing of the sort.
I had never had the remarkable pleasure of enjoying the actual poison.
You name it.
Perhaps not for my moral rigor, I prefer the company of a nice quiet lunch on occasion to funding crazy troglodytes who ran around in my cranium telling me how to smile. This was what I heard cocaine did to a benefactor. I heard that the actual white powder could undo a grown man. You know, make a man run around the neighborhood in cycles at 3AM, or find him sleeping half-naked and frozen to death in the middle of the city park. That sort of thing made the local news around here.
There were stories here and about.
There was the story of a divorcee history professor from the University who decided to do his laundry while perishing under the influence of the mind-altering dust. Only stacked loads and loads of his university books into the washer instead. And the rest, as they say, was history. Cocaine was important in my stories. Anytime I told them, I spoke as man who had a one-time fluency with gangster coke heads and albino junkies and terrible nose bleeds. Yes, the nosebleeds were vital flourishes to my stories. And let’s not forget the miniature glass vials stuck between my butt cheeks in airport lounges, and so forth.
In my many tales, I was the scum of the earth. This private gloom excited my audience, it fetched a perverse respect; even though in reality I could not, to save my sweet Nana’s neck, visibly tell coke from baby talcum powder.
But my imagination was as ripe as it gets.
And so every Friday evening, I met with a posse of misfits, boiler room writers, pavement professors and hungry poets. We came there for the wine and dine.
It had become the blight of my evenings, this fabrication of make-shift, autobiographical stories. These people loved me for it. Especially Gracie, but she was too neurotic to show. A different kind of animal — that Gracie. You should know now that she secretly coveted a strong black Nubian man from an unknowable jungle — a man much like myself. She did not say this of course. But I knew it. And it was not the kind of thing an honest university professor like Gracie would openly admit to. I fit her description, anyhow — an African standard issue. I had seen her undress and molest me with her wicked blue eyes from across the diner table. The other fools loved me for this too, my storied immorality tickled.
Indeed, as novelists looking for blood and inspiration, they fed off my misery, they held on to every single white lie and did not let go. These things they would later fondle, grapple with, massage, until my lies became their lies, until it made its way into their NYT bestsellers and published short stories and very horrible poems. Somehow those nightly tales of my once repugnant past were gravely soothing to my listeners. I could relate with this, the comfort that came with noticing in another soul, a particular rottenness, much unlike the brand we buried in our chests; something unsafe and unhealthy and just okay. It gave the illusion of being just within god’s reach, and that was a good thing, to not be more rotten than the next man.
I was to them, a comfortable evil.
Even though the soulless special effects of cocaine were as unknown to me as were the glowing dials of an airplane cockpit, I still attempted to engross their nightly caprices with my stories. Because I was a better liar than they were writers. In a way, this may have been my brilliant scheme, to break my back and gain some modicum of respect in the eyes of folks who had amassed a decent sum of respect for themselves from surviving well at creative-fiction writing by night and from publishing powerful research papers by day.
But I digress.
“Was it more of a strong smell, a nasal sting? One could never be too sure,” I would begin.
“As with all special narcotics, there is a little burn from using the first time,” my fingers pinched my oily nose and smacked my forehead as I revealed the secrets of sniffing coke to my writer friends.
“Then came the numbing. Ah yes! — the numbing. It was painful. But it made snorting much smoother.”
“Gentlemen — and lady (I smiled to Gracie), you haven’t lived!” I proclaimed, gesturing to the others with open arms. That was my go-to line. You haven’t lived. It was the way I opened and closed my amazing fabrications. And it pleased me to see in Gracie’s eyes, a newer shadow of respect with each new despicable revelation, each painted-in lie. But she was always so quick to quench whatever light I ignited in her eyes. Still, I liked that she played hard ball. It was our little ritual. Granted, one that had gone on without harvest for several months now.
“And you are one to talk?” Gracie said, looking away, flicking her cigarette.
She loved me.
“The trick was holding it in your nose,” I continued, unruffled. “for better absorption and not sniffing into the back of your throat where it becomes a painful waste. Expensive. You don’t want to waste it”
From a distance, it would appear to an observer as though I had done this severally in profane episodes. Cutting and sniffing my own powdery death with talented fingers, on marvelous congenial nights spent in the midst of a gaggle of other psychoactive spawns of the devil, appreciating with my nostrils this energizing narcotic through hollowed out Bic pens or rolled dollar bills; as Patti LaBelle screamed a song of love to me in the background and what not.
Big words. I was all talk.
They were all hungry writers, for the most part, and so my far-off stories added some clarity to their lives, a little bit of culture by the Nigerian man. They would agree with themselves as I cooked up more and more tragedies.
“I have seen it all, it’s an African thing. I once went three days snorting coke, smoking cigarettes and eating unripe mangoes in a mildewed basement, while a tribal war cooked to a boil above my head. Three days! It was hell.” I watched a light come on in their eyes, their lips quivered with festering demands. There was a trickery to telling such tales, too much colors painted into a lie and everything went up in shameful flames. Too little of it, and they saw right through you.
And so, in this manner, this treacherous gift of the gab paid for my membership among the misfits of writers and professors and poets that came to the diner on Fridays to munch on nachos and swig dilute beer and argue about creative abstractions till our intellectual bladders started to leak; till we spilled our intellectual guts, and till we abandoned decorum or she abandoned us. Whichever came first. As novelist and poets, we seldom talked about our work, our muse, perhaps for fear of censure, perhaps for fear of revealing too much. “Just you wait and see,” was what we always replied with when asked how the novel was coming along. Of all of my writer friends, I was the only one who had not yet published a novel, a few short stories here and there, for good reason of course, creativity cooked slowly, and so for this temporary inadequacy I was regarded with little esteem.
And so my nightly cliffhangers helped — perhaps a little too much.
We came to the diner to pretend in some ways, and to some degree, that we were in control of our own lives. It was a beautiful lie. And we never saw the need to be truthful. And like every other decent fellow out there, once in a while the thought crossed our minds, to take a blade to a wrist and watch the life run into a clean tub, this life and the summerous Midwestern heat made damn sure our deadly passions were rife and rotten. But why spoil a perfectly good night with the things that drove us to madness in the morning?
I was a minority at the table. A handsomely black man with an African accent. An Igbo accent, but nobody cared about such linguistic technicalities. I was the only non-American black at the table with powerful stories to tell. The others were bleeding racial salads with a touch of Czech here and a dab of Cherokee there, but all of them sufficiently Caucasian, with just the right sprinkle of scholarly arrogance to make it through life with only the littlest of headaches. They all held jobs at the University, as lecturers, as womanizers, as researchers, it was all one and the same to these clowns.
Nothing had changed in the past few months, since I joined these second-rate literati.
That evening, I had wandered into the diner a little early, a little sweaty, and having lost my job, a little unemployed. When I still had a job: I beseeched shoppers at the entrance of a grocery store to part with a miserly dollar for the needy autistic kids of St. Luke’s, while I wore a bright purple shirt that read: ‘Be the Change You Want to see in the World’. Go figure. People cared very little for that St. Luke dump. Heck, autism may just as well have been a skin rash to these Philistines.
I fell on hard times following the loss of that job, so that these days, I designed new ways to fight the hunger, unemployment made me an astute officer of my wealth. Deciding now to use this unexpected occasion of divine fuckery to shed some weight and bring my book to a tremendous conclusion, I haunted the diner a little too much these days, a little too early.
When I still had a job, I like to think I was a model employee, the boss man knew my first name correctly, I was up for a promotion to Counter Clerk One too many times as was the general gossip. I didn’t give or get any trouble. Kept my head down, with that unmistakable humility of an immigrant, and that sort of thing. But Mr. Lee, my supervisor, said I had to be let go.
Creative differences, he cited in the letter.
Big words even for a man like Mr. Lee.
A verbal affront that he employed to further confuse the ignorant.
One day, Mr. Lee, a flirtatious and slavish figurine of a man was furious with me, seeing absolutely nothing wrong with the girl who wanted to hijack a powered cart at the store entrance. Her attitude was concerning, I thought. Well aware of her penny-pinching antics, I watched her. Closely. She was a regular at the store. Every other day at noon, she drove a red station wagon, came into the store to pinch and nibble at grapes and soak up the air-conditioning. And when she was done frowning at the nutrition label of an item, she left it on the ground in the aisle and went her merry way, rolling around aisles in a powered cart.
But that day, all that was about to change.
“I’m sorry ma’am, this is reserved for the people with disabilities and the elderly.” I muttered through a rehearsed smile as she grabbed the other handle bar of the only remaining cart and pulled. I pointed to the blue ADA sign. This was personal. She flushed and swelled and asked to see the manager. A few minutes later, Mr. Lee came around, consoling her, touching her, making a joke.
“We shall talk in my office yes Kamara,” he said. His head slanted in the direction of his office.
His office smelled of garlic and disinfectant, a dark opening in the backroom, with an overhead fan that wined and two American flags on both ends of his desk that danced.
“I will keep head down, if I am you,” he said as I cleared the invoices on an available chair to get comfy.
“America good good place, if you do good.”
Fifteen years in the US without his papers, and several fallouts with the Immigration Service, had made him an expert ass-kisser, a below-the-radar yes-man. And so, because I took my pay in cash, he pulled out a drawer and counted out what would be my final wage for the week. He handed me a tired looking compress of $10 bills, twelve of them to be precise. He asked me to drop my work uniform in the restroom and never show my face around.
“Have a good rest of the day,” he said bowing and smiling.
“Fuck you very much, ewu.” My reply.
“The Immigrations will find you and send your tiny ass back to wherever it is you were banished from” I said, banging his door hard to make a point.
Two weeks later, a letter came in the mail. My official termination notice. For reasons bothering around creative differences and recurrent insubordination.
And that was that.
Four weeks had passed since. The town and gown city was quieter. The college students had all but vanished for summer break, save the incidental outbreak of octogenarians that shuffled to the diner. And so every Friday at 8pm, the rest of us, vagrants and rolling stones, ruined the unspoiled sanctity of the diner with our rambunctious wisdoms.
We were a disgrace. My writer friends and I. but we paid for drinks and tipped okay and sang our merry way home possibly a bit more damaged and mortified than we would like to concede. And the imagined cryptic midnight fog and black alley cats escaping our unsure feet, were things that came certainly to drunken wordsmiths, making their way home. Tomorrow we would be better behaved, we pledged as we grumbled our goodnights, one to another, and vanished into tight dark bungalows.
The diner, was the preferred watering hole. It lay ambush on the corner of 9th and Langston, on the Lower East Side of Downtown. And when described to visitors, was mentioned as a humble eating place where a suicide-by-death desperado was gunned down for freely unveiling his pendulous manhood. Right there, across from the lethargic police department duplex. Down the street, a large Methodist cathedral festered with a red crucifix wrapped in fake flames. It was there I went occasionally to cry for my sins and for a new way of life, if death was too much to ask for. And between the Cathedral and the police department, lay a long hoard of original coffee shops and harassed boutiques and bookstores. That evening, the hostile arrangement of the diner’s wide glass panes with large green alphabets on the outside, mocked the blonde evening glare of the sun even more.
I sat in my usual arena, tracing white sugar lines on the table, observing the social affairs of wonderful creatures that walked the streets. The fascinating stares of newcomer tourists sneaking quick looks into the bowels of the diner was especially upsetting too for its convenient patrons. Sometimes they walked in, these curious animals smelling blood, pretending to be dying from a heat stroke or seeking directions to somewhere special. But these meddlesome eyewitnesses – in straw hats and shirts with umbrellas and flowers – were here to find out if the rumors were true. The news had spread like a terrible flu. Some passerby tourists pressed their sweaty noses and foreheads between cupped hands against the panes to steal fantastic glances from between those hideous green alphabets that stood proud and loud, proclaiming the words: La Cocina de Esmeralda – Esmeralda’s Kitchen.
This place once belonged to Esme.
These days, Esme was just the old woman in the portrait on the wall, the primordial zaftig materfamilias with hard dark eyes and a Mona Lisa smirk – the face of a dying plant. It was more like a sneer, her smile, as though she was privy to critical things. She had small white flowers trapped behind her sturdy ear in the sepia photograph hanging by the portico. The timelines of her life strewn all over her wrinkly face, around her hawk mouth and eagle eyes. At night, candles were lit beneath her frame in memorial, and a trickery of the twirling flames made it seem as though she smiled. I could see why every Tom, Dick, and Harry thought she did. Sometimes when we were tanked-up on cheap beer, miracles happened at the diner.
The music was symphonious.
The food was flavorsome.
And Esme wore a stupid grin.
This was the reason the journalists and TV reporters had come from far and wide, to see her smile for themselves. The milk-and-water local stations had aired a news story, they called her The Smiling Abuela.
The smiling portrait was the thing everybody came to see. And once they saw it for what it was, they never came back.
At first it was a homegrown legend, now people flew in on Summer weekends to take pictures and smile outside the diner with the green alphabets in the background. But soon weird things began to happen. Silverware vanished from the tables, people saw dead presidents, a woman felt the cold corrupt fingers of a ghost feeling up her skirt underneath the tablecloths and one time an octogenarian found a green sea turtle in his gumbo, he rolled over and died from a heart attack.
And then there was that Listeria scare of ‘98.
The diner had seen better day. Nobody came anymore, at least not for the moving feast. The thriving local gossipery had polished the eeriness of the diner, so that only the trusting tourists, the intrepid and clinically insane — as in our cases, those seeking out miracle encounters with underworld literary inspirations — came there to whine and dine. It had become our safe haven, the tap beer, a bubbly travesty that it was.
Esme was Senor De La Fuentes’ grandmother, chef and kismet before she died from a sudden attack of rabies, about a millennium ago. She couldn’t be flown back to Mexico for a decent burial, because rabies was a viral mess. These days it was believed her ghost roamed the diner tormenting the hungry.
Senor De La Fuentes was a mama’s boy and so once in a while, it became our bad luck to share in his colorful recants of the magnificent days when his abuela single-handedly fed the entire town with her renowned seafood chimichangas with savory cream sauce and guacamole. And during the festivities, her Mexican street tacos were a symphony in the mouth, or so he would claim. Those were the good old days, when the food was good, for there yet remained many things Senor De La Fuentes did not learn from his grandmother, it would appear as though the talent had skipped a generation or two.
Between you and me, I could smell his delicious lies. It was a depressing thing. But I fancied a special consecration in this mysterious dim room with my deepest creative animal, so that I had decided to obey this invitation every Friday at 7pm, to untangle my thoughts amidst the smell of bad cooking, a smile was on my face that mocked Esme each time I walked past her to the restroom, daring her to smile for me. Smile for me you rickety old thing, smile!
It had become common knowledge that this diner was to close shop soon, we just waited patiently for the day it would happen without festivity. It was sure to become the stuff of bar-table gossip. ‘I saw it coming,’ the town gossip would go. But the local riff-raffs full of alleyway talent had other plans. They had tried on several occasions to improve upon the spelling of Cocina on the diner windows as ‘Cocaina’ sounded better — it appealed to the young at heart. And so Marco, the dimwit boy of Senor De La Fuentes had once devised a remarkable plan. He laid in wait for the hoodlums one special night, a bucket of pebbles beside his head as he crouched silently behind the large signpost above the diner entrance. Tonight was the night; he told himself. His mission was clear: empty a bucket of anguish on the heads of the perps. But he lost his balance and fell off the slippery gable, breaking his face and dignity in ungodly places. Nowadays in the corner of the diner, he fiddles with a slimy figurine and drools onto a bib tucked in his neck.
This dim-lit diner of wood tables and too-low metal chairs was the only Mexican Grill in town that the Mexicans never came to. Whenever the doorbell chimed and a tickled face walked in from the sunlight, it was to ask for directions to other fantastic places – for good reason. The unlawful shades of yellow paint dabbed all about its premises killed the mojo, every blessed surface was the color of Esme’s regret in her inadequate grandson. A throbbing knock-off was how the local gossipery described this esoteric shit-hole. To save face, Senor De La Fuentes had started firing servers for giving him the stink eye, then he fired them for wearing too much perfume and finally he fired them for revealing his <em>secret</em> recipe to the competition– it was the making of a lunatic, I tell you.
That Friday evening, a cult of authors roamed into the diner, one damp soul at a time, all of them I had known now for over nine months and change. I pretended like I had not been sitting there all day, and that like every other decent fellow, I had spent daylight making an honest living with my bare hands. My unemployment was a backbreaking untruth; it was not something I could share with my employed friends without remarkable effort. My coke-head stories took center stage, and when we were settled in, they turned to me for a new story or a repeat of an older one with high ratings. You see, keeping a secret required some effort, but cooking up a lie on the fly, relating this new lie with an old one, making something special of myself with heavy words and passionate gesticulations required some special talent.
“Hola, hola mis viejos amigos. Today we close quick no?” Senor Del La Fuentes came hugging and touching as we reeled back in laughter to something funny that was said, I cannot remember what. He hovered around my Gracie, perhaps a little too long.
There was a ritual to this place, to these diner meetings. The perspiring jug came first, whitish beer froth spilling down its sides like a science project going terribly wrong, then came the nachos and a 3-cheese dip that tasted like guilt and then more golden beer, and so forth. A sweaty Senor De La Fuentes beamed and disappeared to the kitchen for an hour and half and emerged smelling of strong spices to ask if we were okay, if we could tell he was trying out a new recipe, if the handmade nachos had enough magic in them. He was a pain in the arse, but the kind you didn’t want to tend in public.
“Oh, did I mention? I met a 48-year old woman today who has never been on an airplane,” Gracie opened with her ego, cutting off Senor De La Fuentes in the middle of his interrogation. It was all she was, a skinny beautiful bottle of ego. And she spilled all over our lives, all over the pages of her latest book, a sexist oeuvre in which men suffered terribly for her ex-husband’s sins.
“Can you imagine her whole damn life spent here in this boiling cesspit, such a bleeding waste,” she added. Balkan accent and all.
“The very things people do to fit the mold.”
“I have always said that borders around countries are a useless construction, why anyone would want to limit ones cultural appetite in that manner is a bleeding mystery,” I gave my own two-cents.
“It’s a conservative values thing –respect for habit, I suppose. It comes with the political landscape, it’s all in your head, I guess.” Dr. Richard said, unbuttoning his shirt.
He liked to show off that hairy chest without provocation. A novelist and a lady’s man simmering in regret for marrying too soon; his missus, was a fanatical born and raised Presbyterian farm girl with a short fuse. Once in a while she would walk past the diner briskly to make sure her husband was not making sweet love with a loose girl inside on top of the tables. Love was a silly wicked Presbyterian thing with time on her hands. He was a renowned novelist around here and a free-spirit hippie-type of man.
“Either that or the humility of poverty. Its symptom is a certain small-mindedness; it’d be a shame to die where you were born.” Gracie said.
“It’s not such a special situation. How many Americans actually know jack about the rest of the world?” I said, a pencil in my mouth.
“I have had to answer questions about Africa that would make your head spin.”
“Well good thing we are all small-d’s at this table, a little more booze and we become something else entirely aye,” Dr. Nick said inspecting a bite-sized opening in his nacho.
He was one of those dark skinned African-American Adonises, burnt a little from his sins. A few shades darker than myself. A propensity to sound white. His penile hubris fetched him fame, and boasting about the size of his cockery from time to time gave us splitting headaches. During the day, he taught a few graduate school classes, and at night we called him ‘The Method Man’. The origins of this name remains a carefully guarded secret.
“Emphasis on small-d people,” Gracie said.
“Well there’s nothing small to see here Gracie.” The king of cockery motioned to his resting totem.
“Issh, good god!” Gracie sizzled.
This gladdened my heart.
Her virtuous inability to bear the thought of another man’s adjunct member was highly admirable.
“Remember the Pan-Africanist here,” I hollered, raising a spewing tankard.
“Now that’s a whole different cake, ma niggah,” Nick said, giving me a fist bump and tapping his chest twice. A knowing brotherly look on his face with creased brows, as though we both knew of something special, something not to be shared with these white folks. Calling me the N-word always made America feel a little stranger, a little itchier. It had never fully germinated in my soul. For we were all blacks, a kindred spirit, only baked on different days of the week. His black was different from my black, at face value, and at some unfortunate point in time, our histories parted ways, as though we had sprung from different primordial soups, or so we are now made to believe — this technical difference of a monochromatic nature was palpable, but of course, why not? Tonight, I was his niggah. No harm done. God Bless America.
“Here we go again Mr. Africa, perhaps if only this diasporic concerns of yours were voiced from the hot tropical underbellies of Africa itself – hubris Kamara, hubris. I have a Nigerian in my Ethno class, brilliant chap.” Professor Grace Brehnik said, a puff of cigarette smoke escaping her thin Balkan nostrils. I was happy with the way she said the words ‘Hubris’ and ‘Nigerian’. I was happy the Nigerian in her class was a wonderful ambassador too.
Ten years ago, Gracie abandoned Romania with her American husband, nursing a new-fangled love with a beautiful husband who realized later in life an appetite for other men. That particular brand of shittery would mess up anyone’s wiring. She spent the better part of her talent writing about the failings of small fictitious husbands.
“What better hubris, than to bring the message of unity to the corridors of power? America is Big Brother remember?” I countered, letting her have this one, for I had a thing for Gracie, she was a bitter soul. I loved bitter souls.
“You know what’s funny? The world does not revolve around your narrow Americanism, Gracie darling. Pack a bag and get on a plane, go and see life,” I added.
“Can’t say the same about you Kam, you are now what? — even more American than Brad here? And he is a gaddam redneck!” Dr. McKinley said punching Brad a little on the arm.
“I grew up on a farm in France you old piece of shit!” Brad replied, food in his mouth.
“Oh boy, here we go again—Monsieur French Farm.”
“Yes, blame the French, shall we Bradford?” Gracie chimed, eyes dimmed from all that smoke.
“Tell me again who the president of Nigeria is? If you would be so nice.” Dr. McKinley asked, punching me too, giggling.
“His name is Alhaji Barack Obama!” I chimed to the delight of my non-sober audience, a little offended, a little guilty.
General laughter pervaded the empty near-empty diner.
“I can’t say I blame you Kamara,” you’ve been here what? Nine years? Nick said
“No eight, –heck nine, it feels like a goddamn lifetime.”
“Ever plan to go back –and maybe run for president?” Dr. McKinley asked.
“Ever plan to win a Pulitzer, Dr. McKinley?” Gracie asked.
“Hell yeah, with this long legged thing of course, I will go back with Gracie.” I said pulling my chair closer to her, my black hands around her white back. Even though she was in her early fifties, as were all these other educated winebibbers, I cherished that marvelous union of our ill-fitting souls. That special connection with a woman seventeen years older than I was –-was something to die for.
“Oh, I couldn’t dare take advantage of your youth and money, my dear Kam.” Gracie said sarcastically. Her fingers rubbing the tip of my nose.
This gladdened me.
“One way or another beautiful woman, one way or another.”
“Kamara, what about your novel on the schizophrenic preacher’s kid?” Asked Brad.
“Almost done with that one, been a little tied up with work. That’s my problem—work.”
The story of my life.
Two more golden jugs followed, and then came the tequila shot to hasten the decline into calming stupor. The lights in the diner had dimmed, and the music was solemn and in painful Spanish. Senor De La Fuentes shot glances our way.
It was time to call it a night.
“Well in other news, guess who sure as hell can smile differently after making tenure,” Dr. McKinley said, raising his mug above his head and doing a little dance in his chair. Turns out he passed his probationary stretch and made tenure at the University’s Rural Sociology department in flying colors, the news had come on his cellphone. We all screamed with half joys, banging the table, patting him on the back, secretly wishing for our own happy endings too.
“Well to a lifetime of sponsored servitude.” Nick toasted.
“And to making 21 bucks an hour.” Gracie added.
“Rounds on you then.”
And so, because it was a mortal sin to waste a good tequila, we toasted to other accidental successes including my upcoming promotion to store manager. It never hurt to hope, I realize I was pushing my luck at this point. There was after all a silent grace to lying through ones teeth.
“To a little less bullshit in a man’s life.” I said.
“Senor De La Fuentes!”
“Garcon De La Fuentes!”
“Shut it, old hag.”
“More tequila, my man, it’s a party now.”
“Oy es el momento de cerrar que viejos tontos”
“Whatever my man, one more and we are gone from this dump Fuentes, gone!”
At 1am, the nightly routine had come to a powerful close.
A tired Senor De La Fuentes had started by killing the lights, one after the other, then the music and then the air.
The old bastard was smooth and heartless and old.
We helped each other up, searching for our personal effects under the table, on the ground. It was the beginning of a long struggle down the shiny adobe cobbled streets to our respective dumps full of books and framed pictures and loving pets and small window-sill plants.
But something marvelous happened.
Gracie pushed herself into my arms, as I lifted her limply warm person from her chair. She froze and pointed to the blackness, towards The Smiling Abuela. Then I saw it, Esme had finally smiled, a quick one, a troubling countenance –the face of a living plant. With quick chaos, everyone else had seen and made for the back door exit. In a shameful instant, Nick had toppled some tables and chairs and hurt his ankle, Brad forgot his car keys and straw hat. Outside the hell hole, Gracie held my hands tight, fossilized and affectionate, an opportunity presenting itself here, I was her champion tonight. Senor De La Fuentes was nowhere to be found. We wormed our way through a dim back alley and then to the brightly lit curb on 6th & Lewis, as we struggled to stay alive, to not die from exhaustion and glee and disbelieve. Dr McKinley dry heaved and began to shed happy tears, tittering like a demented primate, grabbing his stomach in pure joy as he doubled over in laughter. We all fell to the ground laughing and kicking for what seemed like minutes.
Then the world took a nose dive.
Nick got up and whispered something in Gracie’s ear and grabbed her hands, planted a kiss on her cheek and hauled her away to his apartment without respect for her, and she, without shame followed.
And that was that.
She was indeed, a foolish old hag, but I loved foolish old hags.