Well, even if they say life can be shitty, you really don't know the half of it until you've dug up an outhouse. This was the fourth time in twelve months that I'd gotten down into the nitty-gritty and goop of it - and I'd had enough, for crying out loud. But I was doing it for my old neighborhood bro Gilberto, not just 'cause he'd have smacked me in the head if I didn't, but as a thank-you-man for letting me stay on his farm for so long. That's right, a farm.
Anyway, let me tell you about how this New York City kid ended up around the corner from where he lived, about a thousand miles away, in Wisconsin.
First of all, you've got to be hearing music just now - not with corny-assed violins and trumpets, but maybe some cool Motown - you know, something way better than the kind of diddly country or polka music you can go nuts trying to avoid on the radios out here. Then you got to imagine time going backwards, and everything slipping into reverse, not to when there were dinosaurs or medieval-assed knights trying to slay dragons, but just a few years.
Now picture me on my stoop, on a hot New York City summer afternoon, with two comic books - a Spider-Man and a Fantastic Four - rolled up in my back pocket and dying to be read. While some kids are playing stick-ball down the street, I'm fused to the stoop 'cause I'm supposed to be going to the A&P with my Moms, but she's been taking forever to get back from wherever she's been.
I'm on my former altar boy best behavior, despite the comics I've just "borrowed" from the stationery store, and I have a pious look on my face, the one I always put on while wishing I could be doing something really devious instead, like tossing water balloons or dumping out a full garbage can at unsuspecting strangers from the rooftop, stuff I never have the nerve to do.
So I was just sitting there when my pal Gilberto Flores, all six foot two of him, came bopping up the hill from Amsterdam Avenue, wearing the biggest grin I'd ever seen in my life.
No one else looked like Gilberto. He wore a giant Afro, had a scar down the side of his face, big ears, and smiled all the time.
I was always glad to see him.
"So, Gilberto, why you looking so happy?" I asked him.
He could barely contain himself. "Rico, my man," he said, a toothpick between his lips, and stroking his goatee the way he did whenever a girl with a nice butt went walking by, "I'm rich!"
"What do you mean, 'rich'?" I asked, used to hearing all kinds of BS from him.
He strode over to me and planted one of his size-twelve feet on the highest step. "You remember that lottery ticket I bought a few weeks back at Jack's stationery?"
"Sure, I was with you," I said, nodding.
"Well," he started, bending his lanky frame closer to me. "I hit that jackpot. And I do mean hit it!"
"No shit?" I said, jumping up. "You mean like a million?"
"Nah, man. I didn't get all the numbers," he said, shaking his head. "But enough of them to make me some beaucoup bucks!" And he slapped me five.
"Like how beaucoup?" I expected him to say maybe a couple of thousand.
"A lot!" he said. "Enough to get me the hell out of here!"
"Yeah? How much?" I asked again.
He looked around the street. Then he pulled a little pad out of his back pocket and wrote down a number.
"Say what?" I smacked my forehead. "Damn, Gilberto, are you being for real? Like seventy-five thousand bucks?"
"Hey, not so loud!" he said. "And keep it under your hat, all right?"
"But for real?" I could feel my face heating up.
"You best believe it," he said, his smile stretching from ear to ear. "Anyways, I got something for you, my little bro."
Reaching into another pocket, he pulled out some bills, his fist tight around them, like they were drugs, slipping them into my hand.
"That's two hundred, but don't let on that I gave this to you, all right?"
Two hundred dollars! I didn't even look at them, just stuffed those bills into my pocket.
"But why you giving me this?" I asked.
"Because you were with me when I bought the ticket! Remember how I rubbed your head? It worked, man! You brought me the luck!"
"Yeah?" I asked, feeling proud of my head.
"You most certainly did!" Then he grabbed me by my neck and started rubbing my head as if to relive the moment. I hated the lame-o, itchy-ball crew cut my Moms insisted I get every summer, but hey, didn't it turn out to be his lucky charm?
He spun me around a few times, then said, "Go buy your Moms a new dress, or whatever you want. Buy some of those sci-fi books you're so crazy about, all right?"
"Damn," I said. "Nobody's ever given me these kinds of bucks before." I felt like jumping up and down. "Thanks for the solid."
"Ah, it's nothing." He rapped me on my shoulder. "You're just my little bro, that's all."
Well, that was kind of true. At eighteen, and being three years older than me, Gilberto was like the big brother I never had. I mean, he was always teaching me things.
Like how to fly a kite from a tenement rooftop without tumbling off the edge.
And to tame pigeons with a broomstick and red handkerchief.
To carve toy cars from balsa wood, and to whistle really loud.
The way to sneak into the movie theater on 110th Street on Saturday afternoons.
How chicks trust guys who wear penny loafers.
And how to tell if a girl is wearing falsies. ("Their boobies get this crumply thing happening.")
Gilberto even tried to get me into ice skating once (sort of ), taking me down to Wollman Rink in Central Park, where he, an ace speed skater, used to meet his fancy, East-Sidey girlfriends. No matter how many times I wiped out, he was always there to help me up, telling me, "Try it again, Rico, 'cause the next time you'll nail it."
I mean if it wasn't for Gilberto, I probably wouldn't have ever gone anywhere outside the neighborhood, the guy always telling my Moms, who was forever watching my ass, that he would look after me. His eyes were so sincere and warm that she would cut me slack sometimes, as long as I was with him. So I guess we were like brothers, even if we didn't look that way, Gilberto being this dark-skinned Puerto Rican and me being, well, the palest cubano who ever existed on the planet. No joke.
In fact, Gilberto was one of the only guys in the neighborhood who didn't rag on me for looking like a whitey. Sometimes he got into the faces of dudes who'd call me a white "Wonder bread" MF, and he even whupped some butts on my behalf.
Now, we just hung out on my stoop, trying to stay cool. And I don't mean cool in the street way, but because it was just so freaking hot. As in pigeons looking dazed while they pecked around the sidewalk. As in sewers stinking like hell.
"My man, I got to be going now," he said, getting up. "Got me a date." And he did this thing with his hands, like he was drawing the shape of a really fly-looking girl in the air. "I'll catch you later, Rico, all right?"
"Sure. Have fun, man," I answered. "And thanks for the bucks, Gilberto," I added, feeling suddenly rich myself. As he went off whistling, all merrily, towards the avenue, I didn't envy his big win, like I might have with someone else. It was just one of those things - like it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.
For a while I watched that stickball game run its course down the hill, the guys playing it, with just broomsticks and thirty-five-cent pink Spaldings, really cursing up a
storm and smoking pot between innings: They didn't give a damn about anything or anybody, like they didn't have any respect. I mean, there was this skinny Puerto Rican kid, named Poppo, jumping up on a car hood to catch a fly ball and leaving his sneaker prints and dents on it, like who the hell cared! And you could even tell which of them was a junkie, like this guy named Bumpy. He just sort of took forever to get his act together at the plate (which was just a manhole cover). With an unlit cigarette dangling between his lips, he was moving real slow as if he were a scuba diver in the ocean, or one of those astronauts walking on the moon.
But waiting for my Moms was getting old, and like I said, it was hot. So freakin' hot that I was tempted to jump in front of the open fire hydrant on the other side of the hill - my stoop was just on top of the street - all these little kids running in and out of its gushing waters to escape the heat. And let me tell you: That spray looked inviting as hell. But I guess I believed I was getting a little too old for that, even if I really wanted to, so I just packed the stoop in and headed upstairs, figuring that my Moms would turn up sooner or later.
Copyright © 2008 by Oscar Hijuelos