It was a few minutes past one in the afternoon and the sun hadn’t come out to play and the dark clouds were moving faster now as the wind picked up, blowing a light rain right at me as I snatched a few deep steadying breaths.The burner rang.I let it shake to a stop.Then it shook off the hook.
So, I relented and picked up the call, because the reality was that it didn’t matter if Monica was a double or triple agent or if I was being double-crossed because the knowledge I had amassed along the way had put me in the big game --- the rules of which were not apparent, the rewards from which were uncertain but might run to money, power and self-respect --- playing players hiding in the shadows.
Heady stuff.Monica’s whisper had an urgency I had not heard before. I needed to destroy the burner. I should watch my back. Were her stories backed up and safe?I assured her they were; that I had sent them to my attorney for safekeeping.And she rang-off without a kind word leaving me none the wiser and sore.So, I changed course.I texted Jay-B to pick me up at John’s Boxing Gym a few blocks to the north at 3:30 PM, dunked the burner into the rear-loader of a passing Mack LR low-cab forward garbage truck, and jaywalked across 167th Street daring drivers to run me over, which is as good a way to navigate a loud, agitated Bronx street as any.
At Gerard Avenue I hung right, brushing past P.S. 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School, which creams off the brightest or at least the more privileged kids in the South Bronx, leaving District-9 (which is already one of the poorest, least literate congressional districts in God Blessed America (where a quarter of students have experienced homelessness in the last five years because one-percenter won’t pay a dime more in taxes) even more impoverished and even less literate than before. [i]I crossed 168th, blowing by the Pauria Ny Deli Grocery, a tawdry bodega that made a killing selling kids Cool Mint, Creme-Brulee, “Rich Mango with hints of tropical fruits” and other designed-to-be-addictive flavor pods for there Juul e-cigarettes.[ii]My pace quickened, but I was still walking as the new red brick 44th Precinct station house, which had patrol cars littered around it, came and went on the other side of the street.)
I met the junction with Jerome Avenue at the same time as a southbound 4-train, which clattered above me mixing it up with wailing sirens, honking horns, and snippets of bachata, merengue, reggaetón, and hip-hop hustling in and out of passing cars. A few paces along Jerome, just before Marcy Place, I stopped at the Botanica San Elias, a one stop shop for religious candles, oils, incense and almost everything you need to practice Santería, the “worship of saints,” a native religion Cuban slaves seditiously built and practiced behind Catholic saints and in parallel with Catholicism. [iii]
The shop window was lined with statues of Catholic Saints and behind them the native gods or Orisha of the Santerían’s and fronting all the gods a reflection of me aged five or six, in blue.Shortly after Abraham left us to graze in more orthodox pastures, my grandaunt, abuela María, came over from Cuba, to help mami out.María’s skin was smooth as molasses and charcoal black. The whites of her dark eyes were marbled with pink and all the trouble she had seen. And when she spoke she sang.In the evenings she’d tell tales of the Orisha’s without end to cajole me to sleep.One fine fall day María dressed me up in an off-white polyester suit and a necklace of red and white beads and took us to a Toque de Santo in honor of the most powerful of Orisha’s.Shangó, has voice like thunder and a mouth that spews fire when he speaks. He is worshiped as both a God and an unstoppable natural force. Religions, cults and street-gangs have all adopted his mark, the Oshe, a double-headed battle-ax, and applied it to heroin baggies, meth Smarties and party-packs and who, like Shangó, wear red.
Gang ink often depicts the Oshe protruding from the top of Shangó’s head because war and the slaying of enemies are shared brand properties.The ceremony was an essential part of my Asiento, a ritual I had to endure to become a Santero, which was a big deal to mami and María, but a frightening prospect for me.The small apartment where the Tambor was being held, was lit by scores of flickering candles, and packed with spinning red dresses billowing like sails.
In a corner of the room sat three weathered old men, each behind a large batá, double-headed conga-like drum shaped like an hourglass with one end larger than the other that are hung horizontally from the strong neck of drummers who have washed themselves in Omiero, a cleansing water.Grandaunt María whispered that the drums’ names were Iyá, Itótele, and Okónkolo and marveled that the drummers had abstained from sex for the week before the ceremony, which hadn’t seemed at all impressive to me at the time.The drummers started to pound out my song on regulation hide from non-castrated male deer or goat hide, accompanied by a singer or Akpwon who shrieked ‘Cabio Sile pá Shangó!’ at the Oshira’s and then waited on the rump-shakers” Cabio Sile”, ’response.[iv]A scary old bird in a bright red taffeta trimmed with white lace trim was perched on a stool in the center of the congregation. A red handkerchief hid her hair, and chains of red and white wooden beads dangled from her neck, wrists, and ankles.She was an omo-Shangó, a daughter of Shangó, and María dragged me over to meet her. And then she pushed me down until I lay face-down on the floor in reverence to the old bird, who I had decided looked a lot like a parrot.The old bird put her hands on my shoulders and muttered Yoruba graces. Then she stood me up, crossed my hands over my chest, hugged me, inspecting me like I was a rare uncut stone and therefore full of promise.“Little omo not abikú,” she rasped at mami, “Eyes-bright, skin-clear, breath- sweet, didún. daradara, lalafia – no sign of abikú,’ she added approvingly.Mami thanked the old bird for declaring me possession-free and pulled me to the edge of the dancers. The dusky claustrophobic room was foggy now from rising perspiration and loud, as the big polyrhythmic batá beat accelerated, lifting the dancers in unison a few inches off the floor to the balls of their feet where their” Cabio Sile” chants spun out of control like a cluster of wailed hallelujahs at a Black Baptist church, which was frightening to me.‘Can we go now?’ I asked hopefully.Mami shook her head and joined the twirling dancers, thrusting her pelvis at the drummers to the beat of their drums.A tall ebony baldheaded man dressed in a white robe with a red sash tied around his waist, stumbled to the center of the room, where he rocked as if in a trance unsteadily from side to side.Suddenly he froze, stretching his lips around a horrendous smirk.I put my hands over my eyes and peeped in-between my fingers as old bird handed the baldheaded man a matching pair of double-edged axes, which he took and swirled above his head, as he performed Aluyá, Shangó’s wild boogie — the swishing sound of the axe-blades as they cut the heavy moist air becoming a part of the percussion.
Suddenly and ominously the dance ended, and in that same instant the drumming stopped and for a moment there was silence.The baldhead man spun his axes then returned them to the red sash around his waist in a single move like a gunslinger as old bird rushed forward to fling herself at his feet.His next move was to lift her up with one hand and hold her over a sea of astonished faces — none more astonished than me.He spun the old bird around above us like a ceiling fan and brought her back to earth gently, chanting. ‘Omo-mi. Shangó happy, lalafia.’‘Omo-mi. Do you love Shangó?’ he asked the old bird as she fluttered about, exhilarated by all the attention she’d received. ‘Oh yes, my father, babi-mi,’. ‘Baba-mi, Shangó,’ she kept repeating, crying over laughter or was it the other way around?‘Then why not feed me àmàlà and pour me chekéte?’ He said, referring to a famously repulsive mix of okra and cornmeal, that happens to be Shangó’s favorite, one bite and you’re big-time blessed, dish.So, the old bird was passed the jícara — a hollow gourd — and she passed it to the baldheaded man who wolfed down a serving before passing the gourd, his eyes, alive with saintly fire, to me!‘Omo-mi, Elia he said like a magician who had divinely learned my name Shangó asks that you eat àmàlà with us,’ he sold softly, before dipping his left hand into the gourd to grab me a fistful of the shit brown okra and corn-meal blend,And I puked — over the baldheaded man.And the cacao eyes that had looked so balmy and kind only seconds before got stormy in a hurry, and I was carried away, before the baldheaded man had time to confirm the sighting of a pint-sized devil.I pulled away from my reflection and finally it disappeared which was fine by me as I’d tired of it. And I continued my journey.I rumbled past the Dollar Tree, a windowless outpost of a chain of discount variety stores that sells food you should never eat and products you barely need for $1 or less. Next up was Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, and then a poultry slaughterhouse of which I’d say the same.
As I crossed 170th an unlikely shaft of sunlight slanted down and dispersed onto the street below the tracks, which was lined by an untidy row of low-rise auto body repair shops, rim-emporiums, tire-bazaars, and two adjacent auto-sound marts, like venetian blinds in a Film Noir classic. The auto-sound marts were owned by two brothers who both fell for the same girl.She couldn’t decide between them, and so ran off with their old man.He died in the saddle a couple of years later leaving everything to his widow, who employed the two forever-estranged brothers she’d spurned to battle for her good graces from opposite facing stores on either side of the street, which they did daily by playing music on giant audio systems made of salvaged car audio parts SO LOUD it drowned out the sound of the elevated train!At Clifford Place, a small pedestrian-only stair-street connecting Jerome with Davidson Avenue almost 50 feet above it, I made a sharp left and crossed Broadway under the elevated tracks scaling the steps two a time. At the mid-point landing, I spun right and breezed into the second-floor entrance of John’s Gym, bumped fists with Ismael Villareal, a ripped, granite jawed, super welterweight bull that had won two Golden Gloves championships as an amateur and each of his three pro-fights.I changed in John’s dark and dank locker room and steadied myself by pounding out a double-time Trap-beat with my 16-oz. Everlast® Pro Style Elite Gloves on a tattered heavy bag that thumped like 808 kick-drum, while speed bags bounced like snare rolls all around me and jump ropes whisked through the air like open hi-hats at 148 BPM.
I pounded the bag until I was breathless and senseless from the recoil and recovered watching an 8-10 year old kid tickle a speed-bag as tentatively as I had when mami first dragged me into a boxing gymto ensure that the depression that had consumed her when Abraham bailed on us, which I now attributed to her rape, wasn’t shared and didn’t become my excuse to stagnate. I’d been taking out my frustrations on a heavy bag regularly ever since.
Ten minutes later I stepped into the ring to face Eagle-eye, a forty-something middleweight, from San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic, who’d won a Golden Gloves in 1996 but lost his left-eye to a thumb-poke in the first minute of the first round of his first pro fight.He sported a glass eye now, protected by a patch made of the Dominican Flag that encroached the left-slope of a nose flattened by countless blows, and framed by a pair of clotted cauliflower ears that had been kneaded by three decades of punches to double their original size. Outside the ring Eagle-eye was a quick-witted charmer whose seven kids, by four ladies who were kids when he conceived them, was his only other occupation. Inside the ring he was wily, cunning and fast, and, on the many occasions when his misfortune resurfaced, resentful, vindictive, mean and punishing. We touched gloves, prowled around each other for a short minute like circumspect panthers comparing dick size; occasionally patting each other’s arms to measure firing range. The baroque double-axe tattoo on his upper-right arm forewarned that he joined the club.I ended the phony war with an unconvincing right jab, which he leaned away from wearing a contemptuous king-sneer, letting me know I’d made a poor first impression.He cuddle-turned towards me and slapped a left and then a right jab against my ribs; ducked my counter effortlessly and danced away, shuffling his feet like Bob Fosse’s Little Prince, before sliding a right across my chin at a playful fraction of full-power.Then he walked deliberately into a flailing right-hook, half-pivoted his body to face me, faked a clinch, and charged his shoulder at full force into my ribs.
And then he let me know that Monica was spoken for, growling: “Aléjate de Mónica Rivera, ella es propiedad de otro hijo de puta,” from a place so deep he had to borrow an extra breath to complete the short sentence.“How are you related to Monica Grillo?” I growled back, pulling away from a left-right-left combination.“I’m not!” He said growling harder, while twisting a right-hook into my jaw at full strength, which caused my vision to pixelate through gray-scale to dancing black spots. “She’s a friend of a friend.”My knees trembled. My legs wobbled under me. I tottered. But, I did not fall.“I was told by some dirty cops that she doesn’t have any friends?” I said, wrapping my arms around his biceps, clinching on to him for dear life, tucking my head deep into his left shoulder to make it harder for him to land another shot. I gazed over his shoulder at a spinning world in which all activity had paused as have-been, has-been, wanna-be, and contending fighters and their mothers, brothers, lovers, trainers and owners gathered around my ring to witness my execution.“She’s Shango’s special friend and he’s connected,” he whispered into my right ear so close I could feel his breath and taste his threat.My eyes got stuck on a yellow on black poster of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali promoting their Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire, for the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship in 1994.It gave me an idea that didn’t involve total capitulation.I pushed off his chest and pivoted out of the clinch throwing wild combinations to disguise my intent and then raised my arms to protect my chest and face as Eagle-eye pummeled me back towards the ropes with a succession of jabs and uppercuts.A gong sounded signaling the end of the round but failed to stop the beat down as he was now over-committed to my destruction and that first flurry was quickly followed by more brutal combinations, though their force was mostly absorbed by the ropes.“Is that the best you got Eagle-eye?” I teased through a red rag of a smile that provoked the dope who rolled jabs over my solar plexus that doubled me up and left us both gasping for air.My legs were heavy now and beginning to cramp. One well timed grim reaper would have ended it all.It never came. Instead, he staged a moonwalking, stutter-stepping, fist-pumping cabaret show, celebrating victory prematurely, which pissed me off. So, I called him on it.I leaned back on the ropes and catapulted forward with both arms outstretched and at his neck and used my momentum to push him to the center of the ring, where I made my last stand.I planted my right leg on the canvas and crouched back on it dodging the incoming flak and blind-sided him with a crushing right-cross that snapped the right-side of his jaw with a loud crack and popped his glass eye like a champagne cork, which fell to the canvas and rolled around moments before he did.
Exhausted and exhilarated, I sagged and swayed on tired legs as my gaze ran from stunned face to stunned face and then to the glass eye had settled a few feet south of his crumpled body, which lay next to his mouth guard at the center of the ring.And then came the blow that felled me from behind. A blow I could not feel or see.I came to in fits and starts and in the short gaps between them heard broken Spanish, Russian and Portuguese, and after a shot of adrenaline that sent warm blood rushing from my heart, gradually the locker room came into focus.Still, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light, and when they did I was somewhere approximate to the gates of hell staring and a devil in the guise of a prophet was flanked by a pair of liberally tattooed, white-masked, bare chested, aging, goons, with darker goon a few paces behind. guarding the door.
The goons in the foreground spoke Russian and a little broken Spanish and were inked top to tail with the mark of a Vor –– a foot-soldier with the Russian mafia. The knife in chains tattoo on the left side of their right forearms commemorated violent assaults behind bars.The one on the left was missing teeth and two of his knuckles wore inked crosses, one for each prison sentence served. The leaping stag peeking through the open shirt of the goon to my right, memorialized time spent in a labor camp. He bragged 3 knuckle crosses from three prison sentences served and an anchor on his upper arm, to which a barbed wire surround had clearly been added later. He was a navy veteran of countless wars, who had been sentenced to prison for a crime committed while in service.[v].The goon at the door wore a white cap with PCC written in blood, spoke Portuguese, street-Spanish and enough Russian to make himself heard.The linguist among them was the prophet, who was causally-attired in a long flowing off-white robe with blood-red trim, English, Spanish, Russian and Portuguese, and looked every bit the leader of men he purported to be.
He swept his mane back with his left hand and offered me his right hand to pull me off the mat like it was made of a precious metal
I let the hand flail.He spread a smile. It was a bland thing that tugged his lips apart unevenly.I recognized him as the leader-of-men type right away by the arrogance lurking behind his sneer. It expressed itself in the dramatic James Deanesque upward curl of the left side of his thin lips that exposed a neat set of over-bleached predatory teeth, and a relentless blue-eyed stare.His skin was a couple of shades paler, and his bleach-blond mane a few shades lighter, than his chestnut lashes would have led one to believe. His nursery-slope nose had been finely crafted, and his cheeks had been stretched tight under his chin, and then neatly tucked in. Apparently, Loverboy had a made-up face to go with his made-up name, because the sum of his parts did not add up to the ageless, raceless, but handsome whole.“Shangó!” He offered up; in a smooth tone that had kept him up nights perfecting.“Elia Degas,” I said, looking around the room, “but you knew that already.”“Degas, I plucked Monica off the street where she was trading her oral and anal orifices for crack cocaine. I took her in out of pity, como si fuese un pájaro con un ala rota — Yes. like you might a bird with a broken wing!“ He said marveling at his home-run ball, “And I worked to restore her physical and her spiritual self. With Olofi’s help she healed quickly and gratefully. Her love was an all-consuming and sexually enlightening force.
He stood there leaning on his muckrake --- victorious. I supposed that his exposé of Monica’s used, and abused sexuality was intended to turn me off, but I’ve found soiled attractive on a consistent basis, so its design was faulty. Anyway, the whole Pygmalion thing was wearing thin and getting neither of us anywhere.
So, I struggled to my knees and found the wrong words, “Me alegra que hayas acabado, realmente me alegra. I hope it made a man of you,” I spat, polishing the sarcasm until I could see my distaste reflected in it. “But it doesn’t mean anything to me, because I don’t care if Monica’s a saint or a sinner, I only care that she’s my client.”“Ex-client,” he poured, decanting the obvious — smoothly.
“Nahhh, Loverboy, I ‘ve just begun. Monica came to me with a fucking Bronx fairy tale --- it had a villain, Kunt. It had a victim, me. And the guide to the yellow brick road I’m guessing you’re after. I think she was trying to keep it nice and tidy in the hope that Christmas would come early, and I’d get my shit back without having to dig too deep. She’s probably afraid that once I start excavating she’ll start to stink too.”
There was a deep rage in his eyes, an ugly repressed anger that he was impatient to unleash. “I was told you were hard headed, but I was also told that you were bright. I think that your intelligence was over-estimated” Loverboy said without warmth.
“Acaba con el,” and then, “Finish the Motherfucker.” he said at the Russian goons, licking his lower-lip stubble as he walked over to the door, where Jay-B stood with one Ruger LCP II pistol attached to the PCC Cap and another pointing at the Prophet, who shrugged and kept walking, figuring correctly on stale mate.