The General’s Right Hand Man



Jerome Turken

The idea was in his head even before he opened his eyes.  School.  Fuck school.  He took enough shit from mountain‑tits Thompson yesterday to last a million years.  Calling on him a hundred times just to make him look like a dumb cluck cockroach.  With those eyes.  Jesus, those crazy‑eyes of hers, they can put a hole in your head just by looking at you.  And then Rafael and Jaime making fun of his back and calling him Wart, and teacher’s pet Maria chiming in: What president was Thomas Jefferson?  See?  You don’t even know.  He was the third!  You’re going to get left back, dumbbell.  Nya nya nya.  Double fuck school.  Right now what he had to do was swipe some of Emilio’s cigarettes before he wakes up.

Mami was already messing in the kitchen.  He heard the clanking of pots and the running water and her bare feet stamping around.  Man, was she in good form this morning.  Talking to herself, mumbling her whole collection of curses.  A pot was a sonofabitch for dropping, a match was a bastard for not lighting, Emilio was a drunken, whoring pig.  And those kids—what did she do that God should give her three busy little snotnoses to yell at all day long.  And at him, especially at him, her ugly little stump.  For giving her all kinds of school trouble, for his papa not paying support money, for being born broken.  Felix this and Felix that and Felix, Felix, Felix.  Always Felix.

“Aiii, the devil is on my scent!” came her voice.

Maybe Emilio was too tired to screw her last night.  Or too drunk.  Or maybe he didn’t have anything left for her after screwing that whore, Alicia again.  If that idea was in mami’s head there was going to be big, big trouble today. Because once mami gets her steam up she can give even God a run for his money.  That’s what Gelo used to say.  She’s an iron loca-motor, especially loca.  With that smile on his face that never failed to charm the anger out of mami’s bones and a smile into her face too.  That big round smile of Gelo’s could charm the anger out of even the devil’s bones.  He was a good guy, that Gelo.  That’s why Felix liked Rosita best, because Gelo was her papa.

He eased himself to the ladder and climbed down slow and careful not to wake Eduardo, who slept in the same bed the other way with his feet in Felix’s face.  Because if Eduardo woke up he’d start bouncing around and making those crazy sounds of his and then the other two would wake up and the three of them would make a racket that even a bear like Emilio couldn’t sleep through.  And even if Emilio didn’t waken he could still forget swiping his cigarettes, because Eduardo and Rosita, they follow him around like a shadow with two snotty noses and four eyes, watching every move he makes, just waiting for him to do something so they could run to mami and squeal like puppies.  Mami, Felix is taking more bread.  Mami, look how much toilet paper Felix is using.  Mami this, mami that.  He became famous for a few hours.  Even little Orlandito was starting to crawl all over the house after him, the three of them sticking to him like chewing gum.  So he had to be extra quiet or else he’d have to go around searching the sidewalks all day for good cigarette butts.

He climbed down the ladder and looked out the shadeless window next to Rosita, who was fast asleep on the lower bed.  He did this every morning to observe General Manuel Rojas, towering in the morning sun above the roof of the high house with white brick and rounded corners on the other side of 96th Street.  A giant general on the lookout for the enemy, standing there erect with his legs apart and his hand ready to draw his sword.  Felix was his right hand man.  Maybe today he’d finally remember how he got up that roof the first time and pay the general another visit.  Maybe the general will come alive and show his real self again, and maybe this time talk to him and give him some advice on how to fight Flocco, the ape man of 99th Street. Maybe one of these days the general will take him to the hospital and order the main doctor to fix him for free.

He put on his shirt and pants and went to the threshold and watched mami from behind the wall.  Was she moving around that kitchen!  He waited for her to get busy enough someplace out of view so he could quickly sneak into her and Emilio’s bedroom without her noticing.  He was in luck; she went into the toilet. He felt like going over and monkeying with her, but it was too important to get his day’s supply of cigarettes.  He took a step out and listened.  That dumb ox makes the craziest sounds sleeping, groaning and moaning like he’s being tortured by demons of his dreams.  He pushed the door open a crack to take a peek.  Emilio had his pillow gripped to one side of his face with his open mouth and nose twisted into it like they were made of rubber.  As he edged inside he glanced at grandma Ludivinia’s crucifixion on the wall over the bed. It wasn’t one of those cheap plaster ones where Jesus is a smiling doll.  This Jesus, he was carved by a true artist of the church.  You could see every detail in his skinny body, especially his face with that mysterious mixture of joy and pain, and you could see the nails in his hands and feet, and the dark red blood dripping onto the cross itself.  It was made of thick, hard wood and was tall, taller than little Eduardo. He found that out one day when he picked Eduardo up and held him up against Jesus.  He couldn’t stop laughing.  Eduardo’s face with his eyes popping and his nose running, crying and laughing at the same time, next to Jesus dying on the cross like he’s in pain and joy at the same time.  What a sight.

The floor croaked like a frog with each step he took as he crossed the room to the other side of the bed where Emilio’s cigarettes were laying on his end table,.  He stood quiet for a few seconds to give the noises a chance to die out.  Emilio stirred and groaned and grunted but quieted down and started to snore again.  The pack was almost full.  He took two cigarettes and put them in the pocket of his shirt, then on second thought took one more.  Before sneaking out again he regarded Emilio a moment with his mouth wide open right under Jesus.  What if Jesus took a piss right into that gaping mouth.  He had to hold back an urge to laugh.  He thought of the time he used chicken blood to make Jesus bleed right on to Emilio’s head.  That was some joke.  He was proud of that joke.  When the idea for it first came to him he got Juan from Soto’s chicken market to fill a small bottle of chicken blood for him and waited for the right moment.  His chance came one night when mami had to bring Orlandito to the hospital emergency because of a high fever and left him home watching Eduardo and Rosita.  That night Emilio came home so drunk he could hardly stand.  He didn’t even realize mami was gone.  He went straight to the bedroom and plopped into bed without even getting undressed and began to talk to himself, as if he were in an argument with some drunken phantom.  When he started to snore Felix went in and poured some chicken blood down the wall from where Jesus’ own blood ended and on to the pillow next to Emilio’s head, then a few drops right on his forehead.  Looking at Emilio now he had another thought: how easy it would be to empty a bottle of poison into that open mouth right down his throat.

Out of the room, he went to the threshold of the kitchen.  Mami was still in the toilet.  He felt that tingling inside of him—the idea of mami sitting there peeing with her panties down around her knees, her big soft thighs apart, flattened on he seat, with the top of her pussy hairs showing.  Whenever he monkeyed with her she’d go crazy, yelling at him to get out, calling him a dirty pig, but sometimes a smile would come through her anger. But she was strict about making him close his eyes when she wiped herself, but he always peeked through his eyelids.  But he cut that out after Emilio caught him that last time and threw a fork at him and the points got him right in the head and made him bleed.  Mami yelled:

“Maniac!  What are you doing!  A fork!  He’s only a kid!”

“Kid!” Emilio said, the pressure of his anger swelling in his face.  “Tell me, you ugly little wart, are you a kid?  I don’t think he’s such a kid.  Does a kid go around hunting ass, especially his mother’s?  I think he’s forty years old, not ten.  And you.  How old are you?  Maybe you’re the one who’s a kid!” his voice now a breathless squeal.  “Why don’t you close the door with the hook?  Maybe you want him to come in to see you pissing!  Maybe you enjoy it!  Maybe next time you’ll let him wipe your pussy!”  Then he turned to him and threw a real punch that got him so hard on the shoulder he thought it was surely broken.  “And don’t think I forgot that terrible thing you did with the blood, such a terrible thing to do to me and poor Jesus dying on the cross!  You ugly toad!  You wart!  That’s what they call you!  They’re right!  That’s what you look like!  A Wart!  You’re a wart!  You’re an ugly wart!”  He almost threw another punch but mami grabbed his arm.  He pushed her away but calmed down enough to only grab him by the hair and throw him out of the house.  And mami yelling “Ox!  Ox! You’re nothing but a dumb ox!”

A terrible thing to do.  He enjoyed thinking about that terrible thing.  Mami went around telling everyone of this miracle that took place.  What did it mean?  He must be a saint, at least an angel.  Things will change.  Maybe we’ll get rich.  But Emilio himself wasn’t so sure.  He suspected that he was the one who performed the miracle and kept giving him suspicious eyes.

“Was it you who did it?” he kept asking him.

“Who, me?  I didn’t do it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure”

“Tell me the truth.  I won’t do anything.”

“How many times can I tell you the truth?  It wasn’t me.”

He more than suspected; he knew it was him.  But he didn’t want to take any chances.  He became Jesus’ angel.  He came home right from work every day, and went to church for three Sundays and gave donations and acted as through his arms were wings and his hair was a halo.  Then one night the angel-saint didn’t show up for supper.  After everyone was sleeping he came home drunk and stumbled, bumped and cursed around the kitchen like he was doing some drunken dance.  Then he went into the bedroom.

“Don’t touch me!” came mami’s voice.

“Hey, sweet, hey, pretty, what’s the matter?  Why are you so angry at me?  Don’t be angry, my flower.”

And mami: “You better shut up and go to sleep, angel, before I scratch the eyeballs out of your head!”

And the next morning mami didn’t speak to him until he asked her: “Why do you have to put on the face of gall in the morning, eh, woman?”

Mami exploded. “Face of gall!  In one minute it’s going to be a face of fire!  He goes out and spends our food and rent money on drink!  Jesus’ angel!  You want to know what that blood was saying!  Not angel!  Murderer!   You’re Jesus’ murderer, not his angel!”

Emilio ran out of the house.  Mami went to the door after him and yelled downstairs: “Jesus’ murderer!  You’re Jesus’ murderer, you sonofabitch!”

For a few days Emilio got good again.  He came home straight from work and after eating supper in silence, sat on the couch in the living room watching TV in silence.  And mami put the kids to bed in silence and cleaned up in silence and sat down on the other end of the couch in silence.  Then they went to bed in silence.  Then one night there was the rocking and creaking of the bed and the mumblings of Emilio about the ecstasy of seventh heaven and mami’s little moaning and squealing, and that was the end of the silence.

The toilet flushed and he scooted back to his crowded room and crawled under the bed to get the book of matches he had hidden behind the post in the corner.

“Emilio, get up!” Mami yelled from the kitchen.  “It’s late!  It’s after seven!”  She knew he would get up to go to work today because it was Wednesday pay day, but she went to the bedroom to wake him to make double sure.  “Come on, get up!  Get up, stupid, it’s late!”

Felix put on his shoes and socks then took the three cigarettes from his pocket just to look at them.  Three.  Jesus, that was a lot, maybe too many.  Maybe the angel‑saint would miss them.  Maybe he should make a little more excitement.  He backed into the room and gave Orlandito’s little patch of black hair a little pull.  Aai that Orlandito could scream.  He must be all lung.  He shook Rosita awake then climbed up the ladder and slapped the mattress to wake Eduardo.  Orlandito was crying so hard now that after each scream there was a little crisis of catching his breath.  What noise!  It sent the roaches

scrambling across the walls searching for cracks to crawl into.

Mami came into the room.  “Why is Orlandito crying?”

“I don’t know,” Felix said.  “He just started to cry when he woke up.  Maybe he had a bad dream.”

Mami gave Felix a dirty look.  “Bad dream.  If you don’t watch out you’ll get a bad dream in the head.”  She turned to Eduardo.  “Get down and start getting dressed for school.”  She picked Orlandito out of his crib and went to the kitchen.  Felix followed her.  Cocoa and a bun were on the table waiting for him.  Cigarette smoke wafted into the kitchen from Emilio’s usual morning cigarette.  He sat down and finished his breakfast as fast as he could; he wanted to get out of the house before Emilio came to the kitchen to wash and comb his hair.  But he couldn’t find his books.  They were not on the little table in the living room where he always left them, nor did he see them anywhere else.  He started to leave without them.

“Where are you going!” mami said.  “Where are your books?”

“I don’t need them today,” Felix said.

“Since when don’t you need books for school?”

“There are a lot of tests today,” Felix said.  “So Mrs. Thompson said we could leave our books home.”

“You’re lying,” mami said.  “Who ever heard of tests all day for kids in public school?  Why do you give me such trouble with school?  I can’t stand it anymore.  Do you want me to send you to reform school where they know how to deal with pain in the asses like you?  You are not going to school without your books, you hear me!”  She went into the living room and started searching—under and behind the chairs and couch, and under the children’s playthings scattered around.  Rosita appeared at the threshold of the small bedroom with the books. She put them on the floor and jumped back into her bed, covering herself entirely with her blanket.  Mami went in and gave the bulge of her behind a hard whack.

“There are your books,” she said.  “Take them.  And you’d better not play hooky, you hear me?  You better not play hooky or else.”

Emilio came from the bedroom in his underwear.  “Why does a hurricane blow through this house every morning?”

Felix picked his books up and started out, avoiding looking at Emilio.

“Wait,” mami said.  “There is something you have to do.  I want you to go to your papa when he comes home from work and get the support money.  That louse hasn’t given me a penny for four weeks.  And if he doesn’t give you anything don’t even come home.  You hear me?  You can stay there and live with him.”

In the ground floor vestibule he went through the back door and down a stairway into a narrow yard above which a crisscross of clotheslines ascended the five stories of the building, and into a narrow underpass beneath it, where old refrigerator stood beside the cellar door.  He put his books inside.  Back in the vestibule he waited under the stairs for Lillian to come down.  He could always tell her footsteps by the sound of her shoe taps.  When he heard them he pressed his cheek to the banister bars and looked up.  But she was wise to him by now.  He knew it, but it was fun anyway.  She came down the last flight close to the wall opposite the banister, her free hand holding her pretty pink skirt tight against her thigh.  As she crossed the vestibule in a half run he called to her:

“I saw your panties!  I saw your panties!”

“No you didn’t!” she called back.

“Yes I did!  I saw your panties!”

Outside he watched her recede holding her books under her arm in that

girl way, her shoes tapping the pavement, still in a half run.  He went the other way, walking backwards, watching her recede with her pretty pink skirt and her white knee socks, tapping the pavement with her dainty girl walk, until she turned the corner.  It was a relief not to go to school.  The sky was blue and the sun was out and he felt just right, not too warm and not too chilly.  And in the morning there was always that nice smell in the air too.  And in the park it would smell even nicer, with the grass and the trees and the sun and the smell of the river and all.  It was a terrific day for not going to school.  Sooner or later mami would find out from the school but he wasn’t too worried about that.  He knew how to handle her smacks and yelling and cursing and her dirty looks.  He knew how to put on suffering to make her feel sorry for him.

In the park he went to old Frederico’s favorite place, the big tree behind a clump of bushes.  From there he had a clear view of the other side of The General in his disguise rising in the sun above the high white brick building.  Frederico wasn’t there yet.  He lit a cigarette and sat down against the trunk of the tree to wait for him, remembering how The General looked when he came alive that time, dressed in his uniform with all those medals on his chest and a sword hanging at his side. It was at this same place that Frederico first told him about the general, General Manuel Rojas, Commander in Chief of the Puerto Rican Liberation Army, hero of Grito de Lares, when he defeated the whole Spanish army.  Frederico said, this General Rojas, when the time came he grew and grew until he became a giant taller than the Cathedral of Our Lady Guadalupe, taller than that water tank on the roof of that building, and just as erect.  Of course a water tank is only a construction, something created high by men.  General Rojas, ohoh, General Rojas, he was created high by God.  By God.  Because with a force of only fifty men with only machetes he defeated the whole Spanish army consisting of one hundred thousand soldiers armed with rifles, cannons and rockets.  And from that time they called him The Superman of Puerto Rico.  He was the original Superman, you know,  The one in the comic book was named after him.

He gazed up at the general in his disguise again.  He distinctly remembered standing right next to him and looking up at him in his uniform, but how did he get up there?  He didn’t remember going up stairs or going up in an elevator.  He was on his own roof and then like magic he found himself on the roof of that tall building looking up at the structure, and then the structure turned into the real general, looking down at him, smiling with

his kind eyes.  He was sure of that, even though as hard as he tried he couldn’t think back up his exact face except he resembled George Washington in battle. And he knew the general would help him and protect him and take care of him.  He said so.  He’d draw his sword and hold off all enemies.  What was his voice like?  He couldn’t remember that either, but he surely said so.  It was just like magic.  He went up to his roof how many times after that but that magic never happened again, leaving him to wonder, did he say a magic word? Have some lucky charm?  Did he pray?  How did it happen that one time?

He heard someone approach and although still half hidden by the bushes he could tell by the rocking walk, dipping down sideways with each step of his crippled short leg it was Frederico.  He quickly scraped the flame off the cigarette in the dirt and put the remaining half in his shirt pocket.  Through the bushes he could see Frederico’s shopping cart on the walk with a clear plastic bag already containing some deposits.  In the cart also was his cane and the baseball bat he used for protection.

“Dz, dz, dz.  Don’t tell me you didn’t go to school again,”  Frederico said, shaking his head as he approached holding his usual morning container of coffee.  “What’s to be done with you?”  A growth of gray hair curled under the brim of his beaten old gray fedora and his lips were pursed and his eyes goggled in his grizzled face in an expression of outrage, that nevertheless did not seem to undo a certain gentleness in his attitude.  He sat down on the ground beside Felix and took a few sips of his coffee.  Felix lowered his head in guilt and waited him out.  “This is terrible! Absolutely terrible!  How many times must I tell you, it is impossible to become the president of the United States unless you have at least a high school diploma.  And please tell me how you expect to even get into a high school to get a diploma if you keep playing hooky in elementary school?  Impossible absolutely.”  He took a few more sips of coffee and shook his head.  “I can’t understand you.  Don’t ask me to understand you.  A golden  opportunity to become president of the United States and you throw it away as if it were nothing but a peanut shell.  Dz dz dz.  Shameful, absolutely shameful.”  He finished his coffee and crushed the paper cup.  “Well!  There’s nothing to be done.  You didn’t go to school today and that’s that.  You may as well come and look for deposits with me.  We’ll do the park first as usual.  Come, we have to hurry before the garbage collectors come to empty the baskets.”  Felix followed as he rose and hobbled back to his cart.  “Now remember what I told you.  Look for evidence.  It’s important to look for evidence.  Where there’s garbage on the ground there’s likely to be a can or two nearby.”

They found eleven deposits in the park,

“Not bad for a Wednesday,” Frederico said.  “Not bad at all.”

Then they walked up to 105th Street and started on Frederico’s usual crisscross search system that covered both sides of every block down to 97th Street and across to Park Avenue, scanning the streets and open lots for deposits, going through alleys into back yards and even looking through garbage cans.  But deposits were not the only things Felix was looking for; he also had to keep an eye out for people who knew him, who’d surely start yapping to his mother about his not being in school.

When they finished with 101st Street the plastic bag was more than half full.  It was almost two o’clock and it had gotten a lot warmer and more humid.  The fresh air of the morning was now altogether replaced by the stale odors of the streets, released and held stagnant by the heat.  And not only from the garbage cans.  Exhaust from cars and buses hung low and they encountered plenty of sour and putrid smells from spills and discarded food and corners of stale piss and the occasional stink of dog or cat shit. On the corner of Third Avenue Frederico stopped at Nestor’s food cart.

“We have to eat,” he said.  He ordered two papa rellenas and two tamarind drinks.

“Show me your money,” Nestor said.  He was a big plump man with a jet black bushy mustache wearing a Yankee baseball cap and a dark blue apron with a money dispenser belted around his waist.

Frederico responded by just standing there and looking him down.

“All right,” Nestor said.  “But you better have money.”  He tonged and wrapped the rellenas and put them on a shelf behind the counter and got the drinks from the ice bin and put them and the rellenas on the counter.  “A dollar and eighty cents,” he said.  He was blocking the food with one hand and holding out the other for the money.

Frederico took two dollar bills from his pocket and put them on the counter.  Nestor took the bills and unblocked the food and handed Frederico two dimes that he clicked from his dispenser.

“Where are the benches?” Frederico said.

“They were stolen,” Nestor said.

Frederico shook his head and sat down on the sidewalk against the wall of the house on the corner.  “Come, sit,” he said to Felix.

Felix sat down next to him and they ate in silence.  Frederico finished first and his eyes started to close as usual.  Felix was anxious to find out more about the general, so before Frederico fell asleep altogether he asked him:

“Is the general still alive?”

“What general?” Frederico said.

“General Rojas, the superman of Puerto Rico.”

“Ah yes, General Rojas.”  Frederico’s eyes were closed.  “Of course General Rojas is still alive.  Generals like that never die.  They’re immortal.”

“What’s immortal?”

“He never dies.  He always lives.”

“Where is he now?”

“He must be somewhere.”

“But where?”

“Anywhere,” Frederico said.  “Everywhere.  You might meet him in the street when you turn a corner.  You might look up at the sky and see him looking down at you.”  He was mumbling now, his eyes closed, his head dropped with his chin touching his chest.  “He could turn up in your school at any moment and discover you played hooky and find you and give you bawling out.  He might even give you a good kick in the ass. He could …”  He began snoring softly.

Nestor now had a cluster of customers gathered around his cart, dispatching them with expertise, tonging the food into wrappers and pulling cans of soda out of the ice bin and taking cash and giving change, all the while shooting glares at the two of them sitting opposite him on the sidewalk.  Finally he yelled:

“Frederico, you’re falling asleep!  Hey, Frederico, don’t fall asleep on me there!  It’s bad for business, how many times I tell you!”  His eyes shifted to Felix.  “Look where he falls asleep.  How many times I tell him laying there like a bum is bad for business.  Wake him up.”

Felix got up and gave Frederico’s shoulder a nudge.  “I can’t,” he said.

Nestor looked up at the man he was serving. “Look at him.  I have to deal with all kinds of elements.  Come on, Frederico, wake up!  I’m running a business here!”

Frederico opened his eyes.  “You better be careful, Nestor,” he said.  “This business of yours, this gran amor de tu vida you think is so important is a mad dog.  You better beware.  One of these days this mad dog going to turn on you and take a bite out of your heart.”

Nestor looked at the man he was serving.  “You hear what he’s saying?”  He freed his forefinger from his tongs and twirled it at his temple.

Frederico put a hand on Felix’s shoulder.  “Come, let’s get started.”

They started on their way back to 101st Street where they had left off.  As they passed The Ortiz Travel Agency Felix took a look at the big clock on the wall inside. Twenty after two; in another forty minutes he would be half out of danger—only half because there’d still be a chance that someone in his class would catch sight of him and go blabbing to Mrs. Thompson that he saw him in the street and her crazy eyes would pop out of her face and she’d surely call his mother up to school again and then he’d spend a week in mami’s shithouse with her screams and silences and throwing things at him, and Mrs. Thompson will treat him like a criminal, and the kids will make fun of him and call him Wart and all.

Frederico wheeled the cart into the entry of a boarded up store on 99th Street.  “We should get into the shade for a while,” he said.  He closed the plastic bag, which was already full with a bag tie, then opened another and rolled open the top to make it easier to throw deposits in.  “We had a good harvest today,” he said, patting the full bag.  “People are thirsty today.”  He sat down on floor and let out a big breath and with his forearm wiped his sweat-wet face, removing his hat with his other hand, and with it fanned his face.  Felix sat down next to him.

After resting for fifteen minutes they continued working their way downtown.  Felix had been seeing kids walking home from school for the past half hour and was now feeling a little easier.  But he was tired and sweaty and his face felt hot.  Frederico was tired too, he could tell by the way he was handling the cart, putting more effort into turns and lifting to the sidewalk, and by the way he walked, slower and dipping more on his bad leg, sometimes even stumbling.  He was glad when Frederico said:

“We did enough today, my little friend.  Just the machine company then we go cash in.”

They had just crossed First Avenue and were approaching The J. Robbins Machine Company where every day Miguel the shipping clerk left a carton of empties for Frederico behind the dumpster in front of the loading dock, when Frederico stopped short and took hold of his baseball bat.  Following his eyes, Felix’s chest sprang in fright.  About twenty yards in front of them, he saw Flocco and Cebulla approaching.  Both had red head bands and were wearing black vests with no buttons on bare skin and had arms full of tattoos.  Cebulla was even more violent than Flocco.  He was named for his ability to make kids cry just by staring at them.

Get away!  He turned and ran, his mind racing with the memory the two of them last winter taping his mouth and hanging him by his jacket on a spike of the high yard gate of St. Lucy’s and everyone laughing at him and Father Mike couldn’t get him down and they had to call the fire engines and a fireman climbed a ladder and got him down and mami got angry because of the hole in his jacket and had to buy him a new one.

He ran twenty yards up the block, then, still running, looked back.  He felt a wave of relief.  They weren’t after him, they hardly even looked at him, as if he were a little bug out of their sights.  He walked backwards a few more feet then stopped and watched.  They were close upon the cart now, with Frederico standing in front of it with his forearm across the bags and the bat in his other hand ready to swing.

“Look, Cebulla,” Flocco said, “the old man is having a very good day.  He must have at least two hundred deposits there.”

“Easy,” Cebulla said.

“Take your arm away,” Flocco said. “Let’s see.”  He made a motion to move Frederico’s arm.  Frederico brandished the bat.

“Hey old man, take it easy,” Flocco said, withdrawing his hand.  “What do you think?”

“He’s suspicious we’re going to do something,” Cebulla said, walking behind Frederico, who changed his position to stand at the side of the cart to keep both in sight.

“Boy, you got a lot of deposits there,” Flocco said, putting a hand on the full bag.  Frederico immediately swung at him with the bat and lost his balance with the momentum of the follow-through and went scrambling to the ground.  Flocco pulled the bat out of his hand. and with it started to jab at his body, changing his targets as Frederico flailed his arms and legs to protect himself.

“What do you think, you fuckin cripple!” Flocco yelled, a vicious smile on his face.  “See this bat?  I’m gonna break your other leg with it.  I’m gonna break your head too.”  He started to jab the bat at Frederico’s body, changing his targets as Frederico jerked and angled his arms and legs for protection. Cebulla sniggered then Flocco started sniggering, all the while circling Frederico, jabbing his body, then Cebulla put his foot on his face, both sniggering with bad smiles on their faces.  They were enjoying  themselves, taunting and prodding at the old man, two comedians putting on a show.  They wouldn’t stop.

Watching, Wart felt his heart thumping in his chest.  He could hardly breathe.  Words kept running in his head.  Coward!  Coward!  I’m a coward!  He needs help!  He needs help!  Help him!  But he couldn’t move.  He was gripped in fear.  His breath came in spasms.  He was crying, standing there watching Frederico get tortured by these two matons through his tears.

A few people passing had stopped to watch.  Just watch, no one went to help Frederico.  A woman’s voice behind him screamed, “They’ll kill him!”

Wart turned.  She was an elderly woman holding a full shopping bag, the other hand grasping her head.  “Stop them, somebody!”  Beyond her exactly in line with her head in the distant sky, Felix saw through the blur of his tears the face and shoulders of the general, looking down at him.  The blurry sight lasted only a second or two then changed to the top of the structure.

“Stop them! Stop them!” the woman screamed.

Felix felt something happening to him, as if something inside of him were emptying out.  Then he felt nothing.  No danger, no fear.  Nothing.  He didn’t even feel himself, as if he were bodiless.  Then he was running hardly aware that he was moving, screaming at the top of his lungs, watching through his tears the two of them abusing Frederico as if he were watching a scene in a movie getting closer and closer.  Then he was there, jumping on the back of Cebulla, who was now prodding Frederico’s face with the tip of his sneaker.  A pair of hands took hold of him and flung him to the ground.  He scrabbled up and attacked the one nearest him, not even knowing which, his arms swinging wildly.

“Where did this little mothefucker come from!” Flocco yelled.

“It’s that fuckin little hunchback, Wart,” Cebulla said.  He lunged at Felix grabbing hold of his shirt and lifted him off his feet and gave him five or six hard slaps on the head, then threw him off with a terrific thrust forward.  Felix flew eight feet through the air, feeling the impact when he hit the ground but no pain, scrabbling up and whirling already in pursuit, screaming, watching through still tear-blurred eyes the two of them receding in full flight with the cart and its contents.  A hand gripped his arm and held him back.

“That’s right,” Frederico said.  “Go catch them and beat them both up with one hand behind your back.”

“They messed you up,” Felix cried, his face full of tears.  “They hurt you.

“Look at me,” Frederico said.  “Do I look like I have to go to the hospital?  And you?  Let me see if you have to go to the hospital.  Stand still.”

“They stole our deposits.”

“So?  You think people will stop drinking Coca Cola because our deposits were stolen?  There will be more deposits tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.  Stop moving.”

“You don’t have a cart.”

“I think you were born worrying,” Frederico said, squeezing and pressing around Felix’s body.  “Can’t you stand still a minute?  Does anything hurt?”

“No,” Felix said.  “And they stole your cane.”

“I have five others,” Frederico said.  “Your pants are torn.  Pull it up, let me see.”

Felix pulled the pants leg up.  “You have a nice scrape there,” Frederico said.  “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“A little,” Felix said.

“Let me see,” Frederico said.  “Now stand still, let me look.”  He sat himself on the ground in his practiced awkwardness.  “Will you stand still?  How am I supposed to see if you keep moving?”  He examined the scrape a few moments.  “When you get home wash it good with soap.”  He extended his hand.  “Help me get up and we’ll at least get the deposits from the machine company.”

Wart gave his hand a yank to help him up.

They walked past the sparse gathering of people still gaping at them and continued up to the street the machine company.  Behind a dumpster beside the loading dock was a carton containing about a dozen deposits.

“That’s not heavy but it will be hard to carry,” Frederico said.  “Wait.”  He went into a small side door and a few minutes later came out with a cloth  sack.  “Put them in here and carry it over your shoulder,” he said.  “We’ll go cash them in.”

The ejected coins rattled in the well of the machine in front of the Food Fair on Second Avenue.

“Take the money,” Frederico said.

Felix looked at him.

“Well?  Take it.”

Felix gathered the coins and looked up again.

“Put it in your pocket.”  Frederico rubbed Felix’s head.  “You know what?  I need a tree by the river.  Walk with me back to the park.”  He put a hand on Felix’s shoulder and leaned on him lightly as they walked.  “You can buy an ice cup there then go home and wash your scrape.”

From the vendor just outside the park he bought two scraped ice cups dashed with cherry syrup and brought them back to the same tree behind the bushes where he had met Frederico in the morning.  Frederico, sitting against the trunk with his eyes closed, seemed to be asleep.  He sat down next to him and gave him a nudge.  Frederico opened his eyes, smiled and took the cup Felix handed him.  They ate the ices in silence.  When Frederico finished he closed his eyes again.   “Go home now,” he said.  “School ended two hours ago.  Your mother must be wondering what happened to you.”

He didn’t go home.  He went to his father’s house on 103rd Street.  On the way he looked into the Ponce Barber Shop on Second Avenue for the time. The clock on the wall said ten to five.  He had time; his father never came home from work before half past five.  He went to the candy store down the street and bought an O’Henry and while eating it watched a guy play the pinball machine. The machine tilted.

“Hey enano!,” the guy said, “get atta here, you’re jinxing me!”

Meche, the janitor’s wife, was sitting on the stoop, talking to a woman he had never seen before.  He sat down on a step of the next stoop to wait.  Meche, a short, round woman with huge breasts and muscular legs, was the block chismosa.  She knew everything about everybody. And she was tough, always yelling with the mouth of a bugle.  She didn’t allow kids to hang out on the stoop, but that wasn’t the main reason he never waited for his father there.

He felt uncomfortable with those people, the special way they looked at him because they knew who he was.  With what a pity! or like a bad taste in their mouths, or Thanks Jesus none of my kids came out like that, and dz, dz, dz.  Right now Meche kept glancing at him as she talked, and then the other woman turned to look at him.  He knew what Meche was saying. That’s Beni’s son with that whore Haydee Bermudez.  Look at that poor little bastardo sitting there waiting for his papa to come home.  She sends him here for support money, every Wednesday blah blah blah.

Roberto, one of his half brothers passed him by with a “Hello,” and went into his house.  Meche watched him enter, then looked at him and said something to the other woman.  The other woman made some remark then she turned to give him another glance.  Blah blah blah again.  That’s his brother.  They’re exactly the same age, would you believe it?  Born only three weeks apart.  No!  And what a difference.  A radish and a mango.  That Beni, he got finished playing in one bed then walked three blocks to continue playing in another bed.

He must have been waiting for almost an hour.  Either his father was working overtime or he stopped off for drink after work.  He hoped it was overtime because his father gets gruñòn when he’s with drink.  Except that one time when he started to cry talking about Felix’s mother, ‘ … such a beautiful woman, such a pleasure when she let loose her spirit … to sleep with.  A feast!  An absolute feast!  Tell me, Felix, how is she?  Is she happy?’ Tears rolling down his face.  ‘When I go to church, which all right, isn’t too often …’ he looked up at the sky … ‘forgive me, Jesus … I pray she is happy.  You have no idea how difficult it was to … you know … ‘ and he put his palms together and flung them outward … ‘But we had to.  You see, Felix, when you were born, you know, that way, it was a sure sign we were a bad combination.  Felix, I’ll tell you something.  A curse was put upon us.  Undoubtedly a curse was put upon us by someone. Yes, that’s what I believe, someone put a curse upon us.  And I have an idea who it was.  I’m sure it was your grandmother, Ludivinia. Yes, that’s what I think.  She never liked me and that’s why she put a curse upon us.’

He was on the verge of going home when he saw his strong, stocky form walking down the block.  He was walking straight with a quick step so it was all right.  When Felix stood up and faced him his father caught sight of him immediately and his pace slowed with a little hitch as if suddenly reminded what Felix was there for.  Felix could almost hear him saying,  Ai, Wednesday, there he is again.  But when he came up to him he smiled and put a hand on his head and patted it gently.

“How are you, boy?  Is school all right?”  He had a mustache bushier and blacker than Nestor’s even, with huge muscles from making heavy pots on the hydraulic press machine.  He was smiling his mouth smile.  “You like your teacher?  That’s good.  And home?  Everything is all right at home?  Emilio, he is still there, no?”

Felix answered by nodding, until his father asked: “How is your mama?  Is she all right?”

“She needs the support money,” Felix said.

“You know, Felix, I have to tell you something,” his father said.  “Your mama, she is a little selfish and unreasonable.  Not a bad woman, I don’t say a bad woman, just a little selfish and little unreasonable, that’s all.  She doesn’t understand, you know?  She has no idea how difficult things are with me.”  He emphasized his difficulty by closing his eyes, crimping his face and shaking his head.  “You know …”  And as he went on with his gentle bass voice and such kind eyes, though Felix was hardly listening to his words, he could predict almost exactly what his father was going to say next.

“ … you know, and two months behind rent … and the landlord threatens … and six mouths …Blasina always nagging for more … and Feli and Kati … school clothes for Roberto … and Blanca, you know a sixteen years girl needs … You understand?”

Felix stood there silent, looking at him, waiting.

“Tell your mama she will have to wait until things get better for me,” his father said.  “Maybe next week if I have overtime I give her something.  All right, Blasina is waiting supper for me.  She is angry if … Did you have supper?”

Felix shook his head.

“So maybe you better go home for supper too, eh?” his father said.  “You know, I would ask you for supper with us, but Blasina … you know women.  They never forget.”  He patted Felix’s head again, this time with a definite nudge, and started to his house.

Felix followed him.  “Mami needs the support money,” he said.

His father stopped and turned.  “You heard nothing I told you?”  He continued to the top of the stoop.

“Mami needs the support money,” Felix said.

His father turned and glared at him a moment, then withdrew from his pocket a small wad of bills and peeled one off and came down again.  “All right, here’s something,” he said.  “That’s all.”  He went quickly up the stoop and into the house.  It was a five dollar bill.  Felix folded it and put it inside his shoe.

He retrieved his books from the old refrigerator in the alley before going upstairs.  Mami was still in bad temper.  She was clearing the floor, throwing stuff the kids had scattered around the house into corners.  Pork and rice was stewing on the stove and Emilio wasn’t home yet.  Felix knew what was on mami’s mind.  The rent has to be paid and the kids need new clothes and Emilio is in Angel’s spending half his pay on drink.

“How much did your papa give you?” she said.  “Did he give you anything?”

Felix took the folded bill from his shoe and handed it her.

She unfolded it.  “Five dollars!” she screamed.  “Five stinking dollars!”  She grabbed Felix’s wrist and thrust the bill back into his hand.  “Here!  Take it back to that bastard and tell him to stick it up his ass!”  She turned, stamped to the living room and back.  “Give it to me!”  She snatched it from his hand.  She set the table and dished out the servings.  “Let’s eat.”.

“Felix didn’t wash his hands,” Rosita said.

“Shut up.” mami said.

They ate in the silence of mami’s anger.  While doing the dishes after supper she turned to him and said: “Go get him.”

Felix hated that job.  Mami knew it.  “What are you waiting for?” she said.  “Your chauffer to call for you?  Go now.”

On his way to Angel’s on Lexington Avenue he paused at a bench in the projects that gave him a good view of the general in his disguise standing on

top of the tall white brick building with the rounded corners.  A haze had formed in the sky.  He stared at the structure, dimly visible in the low sun, standing high and alone.  He imagined it was giving orders to the rest of the city.  Don’t retreat!  Stand your ground!  Charge!  He goggled at it and clenched his teeth, as if to will it to come to life again.  Were there magic words?  Pssch!  Vlllnn!  Kshoo!  Seven is a lucky number; he clapped his hands seven times.  Twenty-one wins in blackjack; he clapped his hands twenty-one times, all the while staring at the dim, silent structure looming in the hazy sky.  Then he remembered what his father said about himself and mami.  Someone put a curse upon them.  Maybe one of his enemies put a curse upon him.  Then he remembered what Frederico said, the exact words; he could hear Frederico’s voice saying them: ‘The General could discover you played hooky and find you and give you bawling out.  He might even give you a good kick in the ass.’  Is that it?  That must be it.  The General must be angry at him for playing hooky.

He stood at the curb outside Angel’s looking at the SEÑORAS BENVENIDAS sign on the door, thinking:  I know what will happen when I go in.  I will see Emilio sitting at the bar in back laughing and joking with the usual men and women, and I will go over and tap his arm, then go back and stand by the door and wait.  Emilio will give me that look, that rum-filled look full of anger and disgust, then turn back to the others with the fake little smile he uses to hide his shame.  Everyone will stop talking and their eyes will go back and forth between me and Emilio and each other, and they will be amused with little smiles, real smiles, waiting to see what Emilio will do. Emilio with his fake little smile will say, ‘What a surprise.  I’m expected home.’  Then he will raise his little glass and say, ‘Here’s to home sweet home.’  He will quickly take down the rum left in his glass and order another.  Angel, as he serves it, will lean over and whisper something to him.  Emilio will raise his hand and close his eyes as if to say, ‘Oh, it is nothing.’ and quickly drink again.  Then he will say, ‘See how important I am?  My woman has sent her little toad to escort me home,’ still with that fake smile, that mask for anger and shame.  I will wait by the door until Emilio gets off his stool to leave, then I will go out leaving the door open and wait for him by the curb.  Emilio’s smile mask will already be gone when he comes out.  He will stand wobbly in front of the door looking at me fiercely and say, What are you looking at, you ugly little bastard, you crooked little stump.  Speak.  What are you looking at?  What do you see?  Well?  Is your tongue broken too?  Then he will make a drunken lunge toward me and I will retreat a short distance in the direction of home and wait.  Another lunge, retreat another short distance and wait.  I will wait, wait, wait, until Emilio gets tired of lunging and follows me, mumbling curses—at  me, at mami, at the kids, at his boss, at the sidewalk, at the whole world.  He will even curse his own life, pausing every half a block to steady himself, with all the while me glancing back to pace my movement to Emilio’s.  When I get to the house I will stand near the stoop until Emilio gets close, then I will go upstairs, watching that Emilio is behind me .  I will open the apartment door but I won’t go in.  I will go half way up the next flight of stairs and sit on a step and wait.  Emilio will go into the apartment and leave the door open.  I will close it without going in and sit down on the stairs in the hall again, listening to mami scream and curse, and Emilio mumble and yell back answers with a sob in his voice.  When it gets quiet I will go in and watch television with the other kids.

SEÑORAS BENVENIDAS.   He hated that door.  He mouthed without sound, “I’m not going in.”  He started walking downtown.  The view of his destination was blocked by the buildings along the streets, but that didn’t matter.  He knew where it was.  When he got to 96th Street where the rich people lived he thought he’d gone far enough down and he turned west toward Central Park.  These rich people, they look at you different.  The glances they were giving him were making him nervous, like he was a freak already in the circus.  A woman coming out of a dress store actually stopped when she caught sight of him and stood there watching him as he walked up the block.  But that didn’t matter either.  This mission was too important.

In the open space of Park Avenue he was able to see the top of the tall white brick building, although he was now too close to see the general above.  He figured the house was on Fifth Avenue right next to the park, at about 91st Street.

That’s exactly where it was, with a green canopy extended from the entrance right out to the curb.  He went across Fifth Avenue and sat down on a bench opposite the entrance.  The doorman, a tall skinny guy with glasses in a dark green uniform, was standing just inside the huge glass door entrance looking out.  Felix looked up at the building.  It was high!  It must have fifty floors.  The general was somewhere on that roof.

After a while the doorman opened the door for a man and woman all dressed up and followed them out.  The man and woman stood under the canopy while the doorman stepped out on the street to get them a taxi.  When a taxi stopped he opened the door for the couple and closed it after they got in, then went back into the entrance and stood there looking out again.  The whole thing took about a minute, which would give him time, but he wanted to watch it again to make sure.

The next three times he held the door for people who didn’t need a taxi; they just walked.  Then a woman came out, all dressed up too, and stood under the canopy waiting for the doorman to get her a taxi.  This time he had a little trouble; it took about five minutes for a taxi to pull up.  When the doorman went inside again Felix went to the corner and crossed the street and stood there watching the entrance.  Some more people came out and walked, then a crowd of four people came out and stood under the canopy.  As soon as the doorman walked out to the avenue Felix dashed across the street and into the entrance of the building.  He was in a vestibule.  There were no stairs.  Elevators were behind another glass door  He pulled and pulled but he couldn’t open it; it was locked.  He saw a polished metal panel with numbered black buttons.  He pressed one; nothing happened.  Then another, and another.  Nothing.

“Hey! where the hell did you come from!”

Felix backed into a corner.  The doorman lunged and grabbed his arm and pulled him outside, but didn’t seem to know what to do next.

“You are not allowed in here, you understand?” he said.  But he didn’t release him.  He pulled him a few yards from the entrance and gave him a weak shove as he released him.  “Now don’t come back here or I’ll have you arrested,” he said.  “Understand?  It’s against the law.  What’ll your father say?  Now go on home.”

But he didn’t go home.  He crossed the avenue and sat down on the same bench.  The doorman was standing behind the glass door of the building watching him.  He lifted his eyes to the ledge at the top of the building and the hazy dark glow in the sky beyond.  He felt all used up.  He had to widen his eyes and stare hard to keep his eyes open, then wider and harder every time they started to close.  Were there stars in the sky?  You can hardly ever see them.

He was trying to think of what to do next.  He once saw a squirrel climb right up the front of a building.  Spiderman can do it.  Superman can just leap up and … If only he was Superman for a minute.  If only … Something was happening to the ledge of the roof.  It was getting soft and wavy, and then suddenly the head of the general rose above it and looked down at him for no more than a second or two then vanished in an instant as if a light were switched off, he could almost hear the click, and he felt a little shock go through him.  He kept he stare steady at the top of the building, waiting for the general to appear again, his heart thumping against his chest.  He stared so long that his eyes got tired again.  “General, come down,” he whispered to himself.  “Please.  Come down and get me fixed.  Please.  I’ll follow you wherever you go.  I’ll shine your shoes and polish your sword and carry your ammunition.  I’ll be your right hand man.”