This is a short story that came to me, all in one piece, in a dream. It is surely one of the most bizarre Christmas stories ever, though the holiday plays only a small role. Or does it? I welcome anyone whose inclined to suggest why I had such a bizarre dream and what it might possibly mean.
I will be away until the new year. I wish all of my readers a happy holiday season and look forward to doing many more awkward poses in the new year.
Benito Salazar laid the last knife across the linen napkin. He brushed his forefinger against the heavy curlicue handle, ran his fingertip over the embossed letter ‘P’ and let it ride up the blunt, elegant edge. Silver knives don’t need to be sharp; they don’t encounter bristle. Benito pressed his thumb hard against the napkin, generating friction, his crease razor sharp. He stepped back and reviewed the table; each setting contained three nested china plates, all with the same signature ‘P’, two knives, three forks, a trio of spoons, a water goblet, and a pair of wine glasses; replicated eight times around the table’s centerpiece of glittered driftwood and bleached holly. Thirty-two identical tables floating in three concentric rings around the empty banquet hall of The Pierre Hotel. A towering floral arrangement commanded the center. Hundreds of roses wired together to form the loose shape of a tree, any color they once held now blanched away, leaving mossy taupe petals, two shades grayer than the sooty snow that fell outside the grand windows facing Fifth Avenue.
“These Americans,” Benito eyed the heap of ashen flowers but his eyes clouded over with visions of giant bougainvillea and hibiscus, the riot of pure saturated color that grew in abandon back home. “They take such trouble to die the world gray,” he wiped his hands on his black slacks and smoothed his waiter’s vest, “just to show that they can.”
Benito hated waiting tables. He hated the patrons condescending glances. He hated second-generation ethnic weddings in VFW halls where he had to stand quiet while the father of the bride sputtered drunken toasts about being true Americans. He hated serving Rotarians in walnut and red leather function rooms where they bestowed five hundred dollar scholarships on deserving Asians. “You won’t like The Pierre.” Francesco had warned Benito. “You’ll be invisible, less important than the satin pumps the old ladies dye to match their gowns only to throw away the next day.” Francesco knew the game; he placed Mexican waiters all over New York City. “But at one hundred dollars a night, The Pierre is the best gig in town. Hold your temper, be invisible, and your looks can make you a regular.”
“If I am invisible, why do my looks matter?” Benito raised a half lip to the only person in America who’d ever helped him. It was as close as Benito ever got to a smile.
“Looks matter.” Francesco’s face remained stern. “Not so much as money, but …do me a favor friend; pocket your desprecio of Gringos, wait the tables and collect your hundred dollars, okay? It’s Christmas, they may even top the regular rate with a twenty”
The kitchen steamed with brewing consommé and roasting goose, metal on metal friction and every colliding dialect from the Rio Grande down to Patagonia and back up the Caribbean. At the prep table Benito hoisted a silver tray of salmon canapés. He paused to review his posture before entering the cocktail parlor adjacent to the banquet hall; his elbows tight to his side, his forearms at right angles, the edge of the tray two inches off his chest, centered on the row of tiny vest buttons. He held his back upright, his feet tray width apart, his knees imperceptivity bent, his bum firm to counter the hors d’oeuvre weight. The outline of his wallet, flush with cash after so many lean months, hugged his taut posterior. He looked good. A hundred bucks worth of good, and he knew it. Despite what Francesco had said Benito was too striking to be invisible. Even Gringos noticed him. But if his jet black hair or his caramel skin, his droopy eyes or his swirling lashes, his small lithe frame or his perfectly kernelled teeth failed to please, it would take only one frown from a paunchy man in a black tuxedo or his helmet haired wife to land Benito back in the kitchen, chopping and sweating for forty bucks a night along with the other immigrants whose journey north had left them too scarred to parade before New York money.
Bearing set, Benito strode towards the parlor. A large, dark man in a kitchen jacket with the serrated mouth of botched harelip surgery stalled in front of him. Benito paused. It was customary for kitchen staff to yield to waiters, but the man did not move. He stared at Benito, intent, his mouth forming peculiar shapes as if trying to speak, though nothing came out. Benito did not recognize the man, though the man’s expression harbored recognition. “Excuse me.” The waiter said in English, dismissing his ‘cousin’ from beyond the border. The man did not get out of the way. He shifted left, tight to Benito’s side, threw out a calloused palm and landed it on Benito’s hip. Benito despised being groped, by men or women, though given his size and beauty it happened often enough on both sides of the fence. Rage ignited, but Benito held it back. For the sake of one hundred dollars he suffered the insult. The hand continued to slip along the ridge of Benito’s butt, its long fingers slid into his left pocket, hooked the base of his billfold and yanked the wallet out. Benito rammed his tray at the lout but the man backed away, flashed a vicious smile, held the wallet up for the waiter to see, and darted for the exit.
Benito sped after the robber. His tray crashed to the floor. He collided with cooks and dishwashers; angry curses fell in his wake. The thief pushed through the exit. Benito reached the door just as it latched again. He slammed against the crash bar and into the stairway. Footsteps resounded below. Benito bound down the stairs, two at a time. His hands grabbed the rails and he catapulted over the landings. Down he went. One flight, two, three. He was gaining. He saw the man’s broad back at the basement door, jumped from the fourth step and landed on him, but the brute shook, pushed through the opening, and Benito slipped to the floor. The door slammed against his shoulder. Benito rose, plowed through the door, ran past the laundry and through a supply room. He closed in on the man at the receiving dock and this time, when the robber reached for the door, Benito jumped up and dug his hands deep into the man’s back.
“Give me my wallet!” the waiter shouted before he sunk his teeth into the thick dark neck. The man lumbered half circle around with Benito on his back, positioned himself in front of a concrete wall, and then rammed backwards, crushing Benito against the rigid mass. Benito’s lungs collapsed; he loosened his teeth, gasped for air, and unclenched his grip. The man moved forward, no more than an inch, and Benito slid down the narrow space between this evil creature and the hard wall. His satin vest tore against the rough surface. Benito’s legs spread to either side, his head wedged between the man’s thighs. He struggled to escape, but the man’s iron legs imprisoned the diminutive waiter. After a few moments Benito relaxed his struggle. Blind rage collapsed into frustrated anger.
Benito had one hundred and eighty dollars in that wallet. He was due a hundred more tonight. He needed the money to send back home. When he left Tlacalula, his Oaxacan village deep in Mexico, Benito swore to send his mother money every month. At first he maintained his vow. When he traveled with a group of crop workers the migrant padre sieved his mother’s share off the top, a service the man of God provided to all single migrants. But there was no future in farming. At 5’-2”, 104 pounds, and fragile as the breeze, Benito received only child wages. He would never be able to run machinery or tow a full sack of beans. At summer’s end the padre gave Benito a bus ticket to New York and a cousin’s address, but Benito was wary of relations; he arrived in Mott Haven, The Bronx, alone and wound up barking tamales on 138th Street. The money was better than farm work, but living was steep. In one group apartment he got stiffed two months rent, in another he footed the oil bills in the winter and this past summer he was rolled in St. Mary’s Park. Small and dark, Benito was an easy victim, and though he understood that there were no consequences in robbing an illegal that the police neither knew nor cared about, it tarnished his native pride that Benito’s own countrymen thwarted his immigrant pledge to support those he left behind, especially when there were so many Gringos deserving of torment. Francesco found Benito after the St. Mary’s theft, took him home, cleaned him up, and realized his waiter potential. Ten gigs in three months. Each event chafed against Benito’s pride even as it fattened his wallet.
The man eased the muscles in his calves, shifted forward and turned around to face the waiter. Benito sprang at him; all energy resurrected at the sight of that gnarly face. “Give me my wallet!” He lunged at the man, swung his legs at the immovable trunk, banged his fists on the rigid forearms, kicked at the unflinchable groin. Discoordinated rage failed to conquer the demon. Benito backed off, lowered his haunches, eyed the predator with intent. He still did not recognize anything about the man. Benito rushed a full assault, but as he flew at the man, the lout simply stuck out a stiff arm, spread his palm over the waiter’s head, and held the little guy at bay. Benito swung and writhed but he made no contact. “Give me my wallet”, he screamed. “Give me my wallet.” He shouted loud, hoping to attract attention. “Give me my wallet,” his voice implored justice. “Give… me…my…wallet.” He whimpered, defeated. The man forced the tiny immigrant to his knees. Benito lifted defiant eyes into the cold, dull face of his captor.
The thief looked at Benito with neither malice nor scorn nor pity in his ugly face. He didn’t say a word. Benito realized, that the man had not uttered a sound. Perhaps his grotesque mouth made him mute. The man let go of Benito, turned towards the receiving room door, opened it and walked out. Benito scurried to his feet and followed. What else could he do? He couldn’t return to the catering job dirty and torn. He wasn’t due back at the tamale stand until eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. The wallet still held enough to send a respectable Christmas present to his mother; the only way to get it back was to stay with it.
The thief jumped off the loading dock and tracked across the scrim of snow accumulating in the alley. He took a right on Fifth Avenue and headed north. For a few blocks Benito tagged beside and punched at the man’s arm without effect. At 68th Street Benito slipped back. He followed at a distance, studying the man, his irregular gait, the awkward tilt of his too large head. Benito must know this man; the man clearly knew him. The blocks ticked by as Benito tried to reconcile the thief among the lunchtime crowd at the tamale stand, or maybe as one of Francesco’s compadres. It was possible that they had met, even spoken before, but Benito had no specific recall. Benito was so attuned to abuse from anyone large and loutish he would have dismissed any interaction with the ungainly thief. By 77th street Benito gave up trying to place the man; he sprang in surprise. He slapped all over the legs and torso trying to locate the wallet, but he never felt anything that resembled his fortune, and his exertions didn’t even alter the man’s step. Pedestrians trekking Fifth Avenue, dark lumps of motion, their heads bowed against the advancing snow, gave no heed to the little fly in his tattered vest gnatting about the bulky man in the kitchen coat.
When the pair reached the 80’s, Benito hung back again and observed the man from a broader angle. His flat face and rounded shoulders appeared Mexican, though not Oaxacan, where ancient rivers of Indian blood ran through the people, condemning them to be small and wiry. This man must be from the north, Monterrey perhaps, where Mexicans had heft. They were walking towards Mott Haven. If Benito could figure out where the thief lived, maybe he could find someone to help him retrieve his wallet.
The snow grew thick. When they reached West 116th Street the man turned left. This was not the way to Mott Haven. Still Benito followed. The man turned north on Lenox, east on 145th Street. He neither acknowledged Benito nor tried to lose him. Benito had never been on these streets; he didn’t recognize anything. He was tired; the snags of his vest snapped against the cold wind and stung his back. The man turned right on Saint Nicholas then left on 151st Street. They walked right by the 30th Precinct Station. Benito wanted to run inside, report the crime, warm his back and achieve justice. But even as the idea enthused him, he realized how futile it would be. A police station offered no safety for Benito.
The streets were sparse now, though it was barely nine o’clock. The temperature dropped. The snow fell in fine particles, fierce, brilliant points against the black tenement faces. They turned north again on Amsterdam and trudged until Benito heard the sounds of highway traffic. The thief turned left onto West 177th, climbed the stoop of a mid-block building, unlocked the door and walked in. The man did not hold the door for Benito, nor did he prevent him from entering. Benito followed through the vestibule, up three flights of stairs, down a narrow corridor, and when the man unlocked the door to a rear apartment, Benito entered without a thought. The man threw the deadbolt behind them.
It was a spare, hot room with a sofa, a table, and two chairs. The sole window faced a gap between the buildings across the alley, exposing a slice of the highway below, throbbing light and noise. A radiator stood in front of the window. Steam rose, thick as a drape; smudging the crystalline points of snow beyond into a slurry of congealed illumination, a flat uniform glow. Benito’s frigid body thawed in an instant, his rage enflamed by the radiator’s heat. Shards of ice dripped off of him and puddled at his feet.
To the left was a galley kitchen, the right a bathroom. A persistent faucet drip provided a beat against which to measure the undifferentiated highway roar and the silence of the two men shifting about the space. The thief went into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. Benito sat on one of the hard chairs. He heard water running, a nose blown, the rustling of belts and zippers. The toilet flushed twice. When the man emerged, he wore only boxers. He dropped his heavy body face up on the sofa without a word and shut his eyes against the feeble light. Within moments his breathing fell into the regular cadence of sleep.
Benito slipped into the bathroom to search for his wallet. The man’s clothes hung on a hook next to the door. He rifled the pockets. Nothing. He caught a glimpse of his face, glistening through fragments of melted snow. Handsomeness was a curse. He opened the mirror to investigate the medicine cabinet. Two bars of soap, a safety razor, adhesive tape, toothpaste and a toothbrush, with another still in its package. Benito picked up the razor, studied its worth as a weapon but doubted its capacity to inflict damage. Below the sink was a trash can with the toilet paper remains of a runny nose. Beneath the phlegm Benito found his wallet. He grabbed it, opened it. Empty. The robber must have taped the money to his skin, beneath the boxers. Benito was repulsed by the thought of having to poke around the man’s groin for his cash, but there was no doubt that we would. He slipped the wallet into one pocket, the razor in the other, tiptoed out of the bathroom and into the kitchen, shifting through drawers in search of something sharp. A few plastic utensils, a stack of Styrofoam cups and a dirty pile of paper napkins. The razor was the best he could do.
Benito crept towards the sofa, crouched low, held the razor high in his left hand, and studied the thief. The distant headlamps and relentless snowflakes obfuscated by the billowing heat cast a murky gloom over the sleeping hulk. Benito analyzed each wrinkle in the boxers for clues to his money. The body was wide, a 40-inch waist or more, its belly smooth, taut as a drum, but the boxers were all pleats and gathers. If the money was taped to the right hip, it would be an easy grab, but more likely it was on the left side, against the back of the couch or, worse still, stuck to his ass. Benito had no idea how to roll the man over. He tried first for the easiest spot. He extended his right hand along the thigh, beneath the boxer. The man’s legs were hairy, and though Benito was careful not to touch them, he felt their heat. When his palm disappeared completely beneath the cloth he lowered a tentative finger towards the skin. He met the dull intersection of belly and leg, no sign of money. He inched down, away from the fly, towards the sofa cushion. He touched a frayed edge of adhesive tape. His money was close. He lowered his hand another inch and dropped a second finger to get a good grip.
Benito yanked at the tape. The man rolled towards him, shifting his weight over his hip, pressing against the money and pulling Benito’s hand with it. Benito stayed with the cash, wedged between the man and the sofa. He would not withdraw without his wealth. He took a hard breath, shoved his fingers deep, grabbed the wad of green and pulled at it. His hand came free; the money in his grip.
Beyond Benito’s view the man’s fist arched up. The handsome waiter turned his face and rose to flee, but his cheek ran right into the shiny steel edge of a switchblade descending like a guillotine. Benito shrieked, fell back and pulled his hands to his bleeding cheek, an instinct more primal than currency. The money fell to the floor. The slash was small, no more than an inch, but it stung like the devil. The broad sweep of the switchblade hand continued downward and in one motion the man scooped the bills off the floor and nestled them into his crotch. The switchblade lay clutched in his hand, blade out, guarding the booty. The man fell back into his regular breathing. Benito glared at the heavy body smothering his money; the glint of the switchblade the only sharp light in the gray fog of that torpid room. Benito’s blood, merging with his sweat, ran fast and thin. He tasted it along the cusp of his lip.
Benito returned to the bathroom and studied himself in the mirror. His skin, that milk chocolate dreamscape that so many dinner patrons and eager young girls and wanton old men had lusted after like a cream filled delight, spurted blood. He packed it with toilet paper, layer upon layer, until he staunched the mess. He made a web of adhesive tape, pasted paper to it, and then pressed it against his slashed cheek. When the blood flow ceased, Benito stripped out of his wet and bloody uniform, wrapped himself in a bath towel, crept into the sweltering room, and huddled on the floor in defeat.
The next morning Benito woke bent and stiff under the towel. He eyed the thief, sitting at the table drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup and eating crackers off a napkin. After the man got up and went into the bathroom Benito unfolded himself. Another cup of coffee and napkin of crackers sat on the table. Benito drank and ate. When the man returned he went to a chest of drawers and withdrew a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, underwear, and socks. He tossed them at Benito and flicked his thumb towards the bathroom. Benito avoided looking at his damaged face in the mirror. He took a quick shower and put on the new clothes. He wondered why the man owned clothes his size. The new toothbrush from the night before was sitting on the sink. Benito opened it, brushed; set it on an empty shelf in the medicine cabinet. When Benito emerged the man was dressed and held out a parka for Benito, size men’s small, along with hat and gloves. Benito could not comprehend why the man had lured him here, assaulted him, yet was so well prepared for his arrival. He despised being the thief’s pawn almost as much as he despised the thief.
The man went out; Benito followed. The Sunday streets were quiet; last nights snow drifted against the buildings. They walked two blocks, then up the stoop of another tenement. The man rang a bell and the first floor door opened.
“What you bring me now?” The woman was stout with so many dark freckles she was almost black. Her Spanish was Caribbean. The man said nothing; he motioned towards Benito‘s face. “Oh my goodness,” the women raised shaky, venous hands in front of Benito. “What kind of trouble you boys get into on Saturday night?” She placed a finger on Benito’s bandage. The moment she touched his face she stopped shaking. “Let me take a look.”
She put a kettle of hot water on the stove, took out clean white towels, a cushion stuck with needles and a spool of white thread. She sat Benito down, removed the bandage, put her finger to her lip and touched it to the wound. “My God, what a beautiful boy. I clean and I sew. You will have scar, but maybe we be lucky and it prove to be mark of distinction.” She swabbed the wound with alcohol, boiled the needles, threaded them, and hovered over Benito so close he could scarcely breathe. She made many, many stitches. “The smaller the stitches, the less scar.” She hummed while she worked. The man remained mute. Benito gritted his teeth against the pain.
When she finished a bill passed from the man to the woman. She told Benito to return in five days to have the stitches removed. It was after noon now. The man walked to the Check Casher on Broadway, gave Benito a ‘stay here’ look and went inside. Benito watched the man make out Money Orders and hand cash across the counter. His mother’s money given away to someone else. As he watched the money disappear Benito realized he was late for his tamale job. He didn’t know how to get back to Mott Haven. He was woozy with hunger. He began to sway, dizzy in the stone cold gray of an unknown New York neighborhood. He leaned against the glass, closed his eyes, and began to slip to the ground. Just before he fell an arm grabbed under his shoulder and pulled him back. The man half carried him across the street to a diner. Ordered eggs and beans, tortillas and coffee. Everyone spoke Spanish but no one was Mexican. They ate until they were full, then the man put ten dollars on the table, got up and walked back to the apartment. Benito followed. He had nothing now, no money, no job, no way to get back to the Mexicans in Mott Haven. Not that anyone would miss him there. When they got indoors, the apartment was warm. The man motioned for Benito to lay on the couch, where the beautiful young man with a lacerated face fell into a deep, turbulent sleep.
When Benito woke it was morning again. A pile of clothes sat on the table, jeans and shirts, a pair of shoes and a pair of sneakers. In the corner of the room was a narrow cot with three cardboard boxes beneath it. On the kitchen counter sat a bag of doughnuts. While Benito put the clothes in the boxes the man poured coffee. When they finished breakfast they bundled into their parkas and returned to the diner where they had eaten yesterday except this time, instead of sitting to a table, the man strode into the back, returned with a white apron and order pad and motioned Benito towards the old man at the cash register.
“We’re going to start you in easy.” Spit collected in the corners of the old man’s lips when he spoke. His Spanish was slow and scratchy, robbed of any grace. “Monday is our slow day. Study the menu and the prices.” Benito snarled at the old man, his rage renewed by a long sleep and three doughnuts. “Go ahead and look at it,” the old man motioned to the chalkboard listing tacos, quesadillas, Chicharrones de Pollo and Bombas de Camarones y Papas. Benito glanced at the board, but then returned his defiant stare to the cashier who continued. “What isn’t Mexican is Dominican, but it’s all good.” Benito opened his mouth, about to protest, but the man persisted in his annoying drawl. “We serve it up plain and fast. This isn’t The Pierre, you know.” The old man cracked a flat smile, revealing two missing teeth. Then he turned his back and started to set the tables for lunch.
For seven years Benito worked at ‘Manuel’s Tortilla Factory and Dominican Eatery’. No one ever abbreviated the long name, and most people laughed when they said it, though Benito did not know why. He waited tables six days a week, sometimes seven. He slept on the cot in the man’s apartment where the sounds of the trucks never ceased and the sun’s rays never penetrated and the moon’s beams were too feeble to eclipse the headlight glow of Cross Bronx traffic. He wore the clothes the man gave him, ate his food, drank his coffee, and spent every moment of wakefulness and dream despising the thief who had robbed his fortune and slashed his beauty. Existence was monotonous. Seven years of drudgery without interruption. The only relief to the tedium was the fury in his breast. Each morning he woke resolved to leave, but by the time he had washed and dressed and had a cup of java and a doughnut or an egg in his belly, his resolve wavered until eventually he could not retrace the snowy path that had brought him to the precipice where Interstate 95 slices across the tip of Manhattan. Mott Haven was lost to him, as far away as Tlacalula, and though it remained in his mind a place where an illegal Mexican could live in relative freedom, he knew that even if he returned, he could not start fresh. He had disappeared from the tamale stand; abandoned Francesco’s opportunities, and he bore a switchblade scar that would frighten any Gringo dame in evening attire. He would never cater to white folks again. Every morning when they descended the stoop Benito took a step or two to the left, towards Amsterdam Avenue and escape, but the excitement that originally propelled him away from his home village had hardened into regret and squelched his fantasy of freedom. After a few false steps Benito righted himself and followed the man to the diner, muttering that this would be his last day. Benito was never hungry or cold living in this Dominican neighborhood. He was never solicited or mugged. He was safe. But he possessed nothing of his own except his wallet, empty as his soul. He seethed to break out of the chains of the man, yet he was utterly dependent upon them.
Manuel’s Tortilla Factory and Dominican Eatery became Benito’s home; he spent many more hours there than in the room above the highway. The elaborate name wasn’t displayed anywhere. A ‘Diner’ sign hung outside, a remnant of a whiter neighborhood, and the menu was an untitled blackboard whose items changed according to Manuel’s whims, whoever he was. The cashier was Ricardo; Benito always wanted to swipe his face to remove the spittle, so great was his anger against the man who held the money. Beatrice, the waitress, was a matron who stroked Benito’s scar as if it were precious and spent the hours between meals trying to cajole a smile from the scowling waiter. She did not succeed. Emile, the cook, was gruff and smelly but he worked like a horse, which was good because he drove off any other kitchen help.
The man lurked in the back all day and night. It was not clear what he did, but Benito heard remote grumblings and guttural laughter eek out of the kitchen. The man could speak. It was months before the man ever addressed Benito directly and even then the low grunts that accompanied his gestures lacked shape or form. Benito always understood the man’s intent, but his words remained course and muddy as if anything passing through that ugly harelip was contaminated.
On Fridays, in the lull between lunch and dinner, Ricardo handed cash to everyone except Benito. “Where is my money?” Benito stormed at the cashier the first time he was slighted, but Ricardo only laughed and shut the till.
The worst part of the week was Sunday morning when the man went to the Check Cashers and handed over piles of bills to be wired away. The man always made Benito accompany him and then bade him stand outside and watch the transaction. All that money being sent home and none going to his mother. Some Sunday mornings Benito stared in dismay, other times he banged against the security grilles that protected the store’s glass door, occasionally he wept, the fugitive son who abandoned his heritage, the shame of his family.
One summer Saturday night, after the restaurant had closed, the man handed Benito a twenty-dollar bill. Benito took it without thanks. He looked across to the Check Cashers, wanting to send it to his mother, but the place was closed. He considered heading south, to find Mott Haven again. The man nudged his shoulder and pointed out a bar down the street, then the man walked the opposite direction, leaving Benito alone on Broadway. Escape was possible. Providing for his mother was possible. For a man who’d had nothing for so long, twenty dollars made anything possible. Benito opened his wallet and slipped the bill into the slot like the first morning worm slivering into a young bird’s beak – so hungry was that leather for a greenback. Benito decided to take some time, to consider his options. He strolled to the bar. While he deliberated, Benito would have a drink.
The joint was muggy but the beer was cool. He sat alone at the end of the bar in a patch of darkness blacker than the headlamp filled apartment could ever achieve. With his second beer Benito’s mind slipped away to better days, teenage years of tending the grinding machine at Angelo’s chocolate store. The store commanded a central position on Tlacolula’s main street, diagonally across from the Zocalo and cathedral. There were four grinding machines, manned by Benito and his three buddies, Juan, Julio, and Hernando. Each boy stood proud behind his grinder, a tall funnel shaped barrel with a rotating blade at its narrow end that led to a galvanized chute. Young girls from the village, always with a fresh flower in their hair, carried wide buckets filled with sugar, cocoa and cinnamon into the store. Each family’s mixture of raw ingredients was a closely held secret, as it determined the distinctive flavor of their molé. Each girl handed her bucket to one of the boys, who climbed a ladder to the top of the grinder, poured her ingredients and pummeled them into the grinding port with a long stick. Girls queued up to cute boys; Benito always had the longest line. He smiled at the girls in their colorful skirts and made a dramatic show of hoisting their clanging bucket up the ladder on his thin shoulders. Then he beat down the ingredients with exaggerated virility. As the gooey paste emerged from the grinder he flirted with the pretty ones, explaining how the rich chocolate paste was thick as their wild hair or dark as their black, piercing eyes. For a few special girls, the one’s whose lips were full or whose blouses betrayed the buds of sweet womanhood; Benito would brush his tender brown hand along their arm as he placed the bucket full of ground chocolate by their side.
It was these casual touches that proved Benito’s downfall, for one night three different fathers arrived at his mother’s door asserting that her son’s frisky behavior amounted to a declaration of love. Each demanded Benito be betrothed to their daughter. He couldn’t marry all three, of course, and he didn’t want to marry any. His mother made him walk to each family’s home and apologize to each girl’s father and brothers. “You are a proud and dangerous boy, tempting girls with your looks and your smile.” Each father scolded him with the exact same words. Benito scorned the dimwitted village men, incapable of unique expression.
Benito was also forced to apologize to Angelo, the storeowner, but Angelo just laughed at the coy young man’s attempt at contrition. The businessman had no quarrel with the handsome youth whose looks contributed well to the business. “I am sorry that you must suffer for your innocent play,” Angelo said. “Beyond this village your flirtations would be valued as charm.”
Once the shopkeeper planted allusions of a wider world in Benito’s head, the rutted dirt road and narrow people that defined Tlacolula grew shabby in his eyes. He decided to escape his apologetic existence, to go where he could laugh and flirt without repercussion, to seek his fortune up North, like so many Mexicans before him.
“Oh, my little one, my child!” His mother fell upon him when he delivered the news in the front room of the mud shack they called home. “You are my only son, my keeper in my old age. Your father is dead, your sister is married, I need you here to sustain me.” Her tears smeared all over his unblemished cheek, a soupy mix of too much sugar with not enough beans.
“I can support you better from the United States, mother.” Benito said. “I will make more there in a week than I can make at Angelo’s in a year. I will send you money every month, I swear by Saint Jude, the patron saint of debtors. I will send you money.”
“I knew it would happen,” his mother let go of him and fell back into a rickety wooden chair, “what have we to offer here but hard dirt to till and tortillas to trade amongst ourselves. There is nothing to keep our young.”
Benito left the next day with a knapsack stuffed with fresh tamales, forty pesos and the directions to his mother’s sister, who lived in Juarez. “Amelia has been there twenty years or more now. Life is good for her, and safer than in the United States. She will help you – either to stay in Juarez or go to the United States if you must.”
Benito bowed to his mother and kissed her shawl, put a peso in Saint Jude’s shrine in the Cathedral, made extravagant goodbyes to Angelo (good for another ten pesos) and walked down the dusty main street to the second-class bus stop at the bottom of the hill. As he boarded Benito clipped his shoes against the hard metal step and whispered a prayer never to traipse those dusty streets again.
It took Benito five days to arrive in Juarez. He was out of tamales by the time he found the squat aqua house with jalousie windows and a family of chickens where his aunt lived. “Welcome, welcome,” the big busted women smothered him in the folds of her print dress and shrouded him in a cloud of garlic breath. She was much bigger than his mother, and her husband Enrico Cruz larger still, a corpulent man grown fat on Juarez’s proximity to the Golden Land. “Everything is wonderful in Juarez,” Amelia sang rather then spoke, “we have running water and meat on the table and no fear of immigration. Those people who go north, whee,” she made a dismissive sweep of her hand, “they take such risks, and for what?”
Benito remained in Juarez six weeks. He sold newspapers on the corner, sent his mother more money than he’d made at Alfredo’s, and bunked with the Cruz’. “Stay with us, please,” Amelia pleaded when Benito had saved enough to pay his smuggling fee to a gaunt hombre with a twitching moustache, an old truck, and a scheme. But her pleading held no force. Amelia had three children of her own, each of whom had succumbed to the magnetic pull of the north, so strong a force when there is a mere river of separation. “If you must go, take these, your cousins’ addresses. They are all big and strong, like their father. They send us money, like you will send to your mother. They can protect over you if you come to trouble.” Benito took the paper and stuffed it in his pocket without looking. Late that night, beneath the false bottom of the truck that would take him to Waco, he stuffed the paper through a small hole and let it fall onto the dirt of Mexico. He despised every big and strong being ever foisted on him for protection; he denounced every apology he ever made for his own talents. He would make his own way, and though he would never be big or strong, someday he would be recognized for talents he alone possessed.
“Closing time, bud,” the bartender shook Benito, “You can handle liquor pretty good for a small fellow.” Benito looked at his hand. Eighty cents. He put it on the counter and walked out of the bar. His money had disappeared reliving memory. He trod to the apartment on 177th Street. The man had left the door unlocked for Benito’s return.
Even though every day seemed exactly the same, change occurred over seven years, albeit slow and methodical as an old churchwoman unbowing her black veiled head to greet the cross and behold her resurrection. One day the man came in after work with a boom box, a stack of tapes and paperback workbooks. “We learn English.” It seemed the first complete sentence the man ever said, and from that night on the apartment resounded with the vowel and consonant sounds of a woman with a flat accent. Benito imagined her blonde and wholesome. Learning English was hard because, aside from the woman on the tape, no one in their world ever spoke the language. In time they listened to English radio, bought an old TV to watch, even went to a few movies. Benito and the thief made an odd pair at the dollar double feature rerun of American Graffiti and The Buddy Holly Story. Next came books and tapes on how to read, and one night each week they went over to 174th Street and sat around a table with six other men stumbling over the adventures of Dick, Jane and Spot. They couldn’t go to regular night school of course, they were too afraid.
After more than a year of study the man announced. “Amnesty is here. We apply.” On a bright June morning the two of them put on their only pair of slacks and collared shirts and took the subway downtown. Benito marveled at how the man knew where to go. He was astonished when he saw the man address a Gringo for the first time. “This is Benito Salvador. My name is Pedro Cruz.” The words were halting, the pronunciation thick as his ill-formed lips. “We have lived at 114 West 177th Street for five years. We work at Manuel’s Tortilla Factory and Dominican Eatery on Broadway in Washington Heights. Here are our pay stubs for the past five years. We have no criminal record. We are illegal immigrants. We have learned English. We are literate. We request amnesty.”
Benito’s English was not so good as the man’s; Benito did not study as hard. Still he could not help but understand that the man’s name was Pedro Cruz – the same surname as his Aunt Amelia. He watched the man, Pedro, with great care. How he spoke to the Gringo with respect but not anger. How the shape of his nose was similar to Uncle Enrico’s. But Benito dismissed the connection as impossible. Pedro could not be his cousin. The man was a thief. He had slashed Benito’s face. No cousin would do that. Benito studied the man again. Pedro was wider than his uncle, his hair was thicker; no one in his family had a harelip.
They received amnesty. Green cards followed. Benito finally had something to put in his wallet. But nothing changed. They were free to work anywhere, but every day they went to Manual’s Tortilla Factory and Dominican Eatery. They were free to go home to Mexico, but they never left Washington Heights. One day a thought passed through Benito’s head, fast as a 3:00 am semi on the Cross-Bronx on a clear spring night. Pedro had been good to him. The thought didn’t linger, the moment it entered it was chased by the reality that Pedro was a thief, a slasher, and worst of all, had shamed Benito by preventing him from supporting his mother back home. Benito hated Pedro for all of that. No Green Card could ever compensate for the damage.
One night in January, after just more than seven years together, the two of them were walking back to the apartment when Pedro stepped off the curb as a delivery truck skidded on ice and slammed into him. The truck stopped, a crowd drew, sirens flashed, Pedro’s body lay still on the filthy snow, a stream of blood running out of his right eye. Benito watched in wonder, trying to decide if the accident was a dream finally come true, or if he had actually pushed the man.
When Benito stepped off the bus in Tlacolula, he was relieved that nothing had changed. The same dusty main street, the same woman selling squares of paper for three pesos in front of the public toilets, the same grimy faced children chasing a skinny chicken. If nothing had changed, he might still be able to make a difference, to redeem himself.
Benito was rich. An attorney had come by Manuel’s Tortilla Factory and Dominican Eatery three days after Pedro’s funeral and handed him a check for $50,000, half of Pedro’s estate, the rest being distributed to dozens of people around Washington Heights who had dealings with him. Benito didn’t spend a minute considering where Pedro had gotten such money or what the man had done all those years in the back of the restaurant, people coming in and out of the alley door all hours of the day and night. Benito took his check and walked right out of the restaurant; he didn’t even finish waiting on the people whose food was up let alone attend to those aching stomachs still waiting to order. He cashed the check across the street, bought a suitcase at the Family Dollar, made a reservation for a one way flight to Mexico City from a pay phone, packed up his few things, taped the money to his belly and asked the subway agent how to get to Kennedy Airport. He was surprised that the customs agents didn’t ask to see his green card or investigate the bulge under his shirt. Benito did not understand that America rarely questions its exports; it only fears what comes in.
Benito rode the second-class bus from Mexico City to Oaxaca, then on to Tlacolula. He didn’t want the conspicuous affluence of a first class ride. He liked jostling with the farmers on their way to market, the odor of cooked chicken lingering in lunch baskets, and the mountains of honeysuckle that grew along the narrow roads. He also appreciated the slow route to sort through how to approach his mother. He hoped that the sight of his prodigal return and the gash on his face that bespoke emigrant trials would soften her heart to him. He prayed that the magnitude of his gift would erase his shame.
As he walked by Angelo’s Benito peeked into the chocolate shop. The boys and girls carried on the same as always, though Benito was nearly thirty now and so all of their faces were unknown. He dipped into the Cathedral and dropped ten pesos in Saint Jude’s shrine. His return was awkward and inauspicious, but despite shaking toe dirt off at his departure, he was glad to be back. He veered off the grey main street and up the crooked road lined with bougainvillea and hibiscus.
When he reached the site of their old shack his heart crumpled, for the sheets of tin and the plastic tarp windows of his youth were gone. In its place stood a four square concrete block structure painted yellow, with a deep green wood front door, jalousie windows and a red tile roof. The sort of house that people build when money comes to them from America. Tears formed in Benito’s eyes at the realization that his mother had died, that her property, with no one to inherit it, had fallen to someone else, someone whose children had sent them money for a proper house. Benito’s tiny shoulder’s fell. Chickens from the yard scuttled towards him, squawking their heads off, as if to say, “Go away, go away. This house needs nothing from you.” Of all the possibilities Benito had considered on his long bus ride home; his mother’s death was not one of them.
The front door opened. A pair of arms fluttered out, waving wild in the breeze. “Benito!” “Benito!” It was his mother! “Bentio, welcome home!” Her tiny frame fell into his arms. He hitched her up at the waist and pulled her face towards his. Her eyes were pools of tear. “I knew you would return to me.”
They shuffled into the house, leaning against one another. She fluttered around the rooms, unable to decide if they should sit in the living room or the kitchen. Whenever she got more than a few steps away from him she rushed back to his side, as if trying to staple herself to her son.
“The kitchen is fine, mother.” Benito guided her to a sturdy chair in the clean room with a sink and a refrigerator, a stove and a pantry cupboard. “How did this all happen?” He sat across the table from her and threw his arms towards her affluence.
“It’s all from you, my son. You gave it all to me.” She reached out to cup his hand.
“Yes, you did. Your Cousin Pedro…”
“Pedro Cruz was my cousin?” Benito slipped his hands away from his mother. He clutched the side of the table.
“Of course he’s your cousin. You have lived with him for years, no? You work together at the restaurant, no? You both send money back home, no?”
“How do you know this?” The bad taste of Ricardo, the cashier, taunting Benito’s work at The Pierre flashed across his mind.
“Pedro sends me the money, he sends me letters, he calls me on the telephone.”
“Yes, dear, I have a telephone.”
Benito was too astonished to speak.
“Pedro says that you do not like to write, that you are too shy to speak on the telephone. He says you would rather work extra hours, and send me more money, than spend time writing me notes.”
“Is that what he says?” Benito’s words were sharp. They triggered a wounded animal look in his mother; a look he despised.
“He tells me you are the most devoted son. Look around, Benito. Other mother’s in Tlacolula receive money from their children in United States. But none like me. No one else has built such a fine house or has so many fine things in only seven years. I know it was hard at the beginning, but since you found Pedro…”
“I found Pedro?”
“Oh, son, don’t be shy with me.” She reached out to take his hand again, but he did not accept it. “Pedro told me how you met at a fancy hotel, how happy you were to find your cousin, to have family in New York.”
“How did he know me?” Benito’s eyes grew sharp. Since the scar, Benito had learned the value of looking fierce, an option unavailable when he was merely beautiful.
His mother released a sigh. “A mother looks after her son, even when he is up North.” She rolled her eyes up towards the heavens, or the United States; one of them. “I know it was hard for you. The padre from the migrant camp wrote to me and told me you went to New York. I worried about you in the city. I worried that your pride would keep you from your cousins. When the money stopped coming, I knew you were in trouble. You’re a good boy, Benito, named after our greatest hero. I know that you wanted to help your poor mother. I just thought you needed a guide.”
“So you found Pedro?”
“No, my dear, how could a stupid old woman like me find Pedro? I just wrote to my sister and told her you needed someone to protect you, that’s all. It’s what any mother would do. Amelia, she did the rest. Pedro is a smart man. He knows people who know people so he was able to…”
To rob me and cut me and kidnap me, Benito thought, though he said not a word.
“…help.” She put her palms face up and pushed them towards her son, a gesture of contrition. He toyed with the idea of spitting on them.
Benito wondered if he should tell his mother that Pedro was dead or that Benito might have killed him and that even if he didn’t, Benito certainly wished he had. Rage, his only friend, stirred in him. The rage that he thought had leaked away like the blood from Pedro’s eye. Rage strong as any he ever felt for rich Gringos or Mexican thieves. His mother was a stupid woman, swayed by the ornaments around her, a garish plot of Americana transported to a poor Mexican village. But she was his mother, and in deference to his elders he spared her verbal wrath.
Benito rose. He took in a deep breath. He let it out. He strolled around the kitchen, observing the plates his labor had bought, the basket of avocados, the kerosene stove, the heavy pots. He felt her eyes watch him, wary of this son whose return was supposed to be a celebration. Next to the stove was an ornamental shelf; an altar where peasants set objects to welcome blessings or ward off demons. A single knife sat on the shelf. Benito reached out and fingered it. A heavy handle, full of ornamentation, with a raised letter ‘P’ attached to an elegant but inconsequential blade.
“Pedro sent me that,” the little woman’s voice cracked. “He said it was a souvenir of the night you two met. He said it would bring me good luck always.”
“And so it will, mother, and so it will.” Benito’s voice flat and even, emerging from a source beyond anger or pain. He set the knife back down. It wasn’t sharp enough to kill his mother. “How old are you, mother?” He began unbuttoning his shirt.
“Fifty-eight.” Her words trembled, betraying fear.
“How old is the oldest woman in this village?” He pulled his shirttail from his trousers.
“Madam Perez is seventy-one. That is very old for this village.”
“You’ll be seventy-one in thirteen years, mother, but you look healthy. Let’s say you live for fifteen.” He exposed the adhesive tape on his belly. He reached over to the knife on the ledge and held the blade along his torso. With a swift downward motion he cut the tape free. Wads of bills fell out on the table. His mother shrieked and shied away, but she stared at the avalanche of green.
“How much did Pedro send you every week?” Benito held the knife lightly in one hand. He balanced it on a single finger. The center of gravity was directly over the letter ‘P’.
“Twenty-five dollars.” She whimpered, cowering, tears rolling down her dark brown cheeks, as if the falling bills landed on her like strokes from a whip, not understanding why she was being punished. “But the money was from you, Benito. From you. Pedro just sent it to me, that’s all. It was your money.”
Benito scooped up a handful of bills. He calculated the tab in his head and started to count out loud. “One hundred, two hundred,” he snapped each bill crisp as he called out the denomination. “Three hundred, four hundred,” it was still Pedro’s money after all, alive or dead. “Five hundred, six hundred,” no one believed that Benito could survive on his own, “Seven hundred, eight hundred,” No one believed in Benito, so they had Pedro rob him of the chance. “Nine hundred, one thousand.”
He placed a thousand dollar pile on the kitchen table. Picked up other bills and arranged them the same. He repeated the process twenty times. There was no sound except the ringing of his counting voice, the heaving of her breast and the billowing of the careless hibiscus outside the window. Twenty thousand dollars. When he was finished, Benito gathered up the remaining bills, several thousand more, took his wallet out of his pocket and crammed them in until the wallet bulged with his wealth. He stuffed the wallet back in his pocket, patted his pants, and looked down at his mother.
“That’s enough to keep you for fifteen years, and a few more. Pedro’s last donation.” He turned his back.
“Don’t go, Benito, I want you here with me.”
He spun round, steel in his eyes. “But I don’t want to be here with you. I have paid my debt; you are set for old age. Now I can leave.”
“Where are you going?” Her hands roamed aimless over the table, toppling the piles, grasping at the bills, doubting how the meager slips of paper could provide what she really needed.
Benito smiled. A full, radiant smile. “I am returning to the United States.” His spread mouth raised his cheek so that his scar arched in a distinctive line. “They are nasty and vulgar people, boldfaced and brazen. Still, I prefer their duplicity to yours.”