The Minstrel

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Hardship was something that Carmen Manuel Sanchez was no stranger to. She’d spent her whole life in the projects, first in Brooklyn, then in Jamaica, and finally, Spanish Harlem, where she lived now. Even with her nursing license, the inner city was her destiny. There were too many bills to pay, and she was the only one to do it. Her husband had been laid off for years since his heart attack, and his disability barely covered his medicine and their food. They had six children together, and two of them were in college; Joseph and Paul ,two were at home, Luisa and Carmen and the other two, were grown and had their own families, and tried to help out when they could, but it was still tight for her, especially with her husband Carlos’ medical bills. She’d worked her whole life, since she was twelve. Her first job was at a clerk in an all night deli by the ghetto; she’d taken the job with its lousy hours because they gave her cash. She could still remember the sound of gunshots when she was walking home, and the hobos as she passed as she made her way home. Images of TV commercials of young girls playing with Barbie dolls punctuated her world of violence and poverty. It seemed far away from where she lived.

She’d had a best friend, two if you counted the girl who suddenly disappeared with her family when Carmen was nine, but the one that was her sister for life was Lupe. They met when Carmen moved to Spanish Harlem with her family at the age of nine. Lupe Rosario loved in the projects across the street. The fist time they met had been in the streets. There had been a game of stickball going on. Carmen had just been standing by and watching the boys playing, the role that she always played. But not Lupe. Lupe was a wild child, one of the boys. Lupe went where the boys went, whether it was to smoke cigarettes in the corner of the schoolyard, play basketball in the streets or climbing trees in the park by St. Mary’s Church. Carmen had seen her around, but was intimidated by her tomboy ways. She’d seemed so tough with her jeans and her baseball cap. She was big and scary looking; Carmen was afraid that Lupe would beat her up. She had a feeling that it would be a good idea to be on Lupe’s good side. She was someone that could be leaned on, a protector. Carmen was always afraid on the streets, and she wanted to have as much protection as possible.

She’d figured that she would impress Lupe by playing the stickball like she did, but all she did was miss the ball and trip over her saddle shoes, and she was mortified, especially when the boys laughed at her. But not Lupe. She told the boys to cut it out, and amazingly, they listened. Carmen decided then and there that Lupe was her best friend for life.

So that was the beginning of their friendship, and it had been a lasting one, all through the years. Through all the hardships, violence, indigence, and terror, their friendship came second only to her relationship with the Lord as the sustaining force in her life. Together they stood strong in the times that might have destroyed them if they were alone. They leaned on each other when no one else was there in a cold, dark world. Not that when she was growing up was Carmen ever mistreated. It was just that her family was too concerned with survival to tend to the insecurities of a young girl. It was through Lupe that she found laughter in her soul. They shared everything in their hearts: their secrets, pain, their dreams. Carmen was the youngest of six sisters, always being the brunt of their jokes. With Lupe, Carmen knew she would never be laughed at. Her secrets would not get around the whole neighborhood like it did with the other girls. The other girls were good for sharing clothes and costume jewelry. It took a long time for Carmen to learn that it wasn’t the same as sharing her heart. That was what Lupe was for.

Carmen became interested in boys first. Lupe was still playing basketball with the boys when Carmen excitedly came to her with the news that she’d received her first kiss from the head of the bike gang, Jose. Lupe reacted with disgust, the first time she overtly showed disapproval for anything Carmen did. Kissing was gross, was twelve year old Lupe’s opinion, sharing spit and tongue touching. At first Carmen felt the shame that she always did when her mother called her a worthless wench and when her sisters and brothers made fun of her. She began to cry, even more to her shame. Lupe came over to her and tried to make a joke out f the whole thing, which made Carmen feel better. Lupe never apologized. To some, that made her seem arrogant, but Carmen knew she wasn’t. She acted sorry, which was better than her family, who said they were sorry but then did the same things over and over. Carmen had accepted this about Lupe as a young child, understanding more deeply as she matured into an adult. She knew that Lupe was sorry as she took her hand and led Carmen to a stack of women’s magazines that her mom stashed away. They looked at the fashion section so Carmen could get pointers so she could attract more boys to get more gross kisses; what else were friends for but to help each other? Lupe reasoned to Carmen, with her indifferent shrug.

Lupe didn’t get involved with boys until two years later, but when she did it was with such intensity that even flirtatious Carmen was terrified that Lupe would run away and get married. She didn’t date a lot of boys the way Carmen and the other girls did. There was only one man for her, and he was the envy of all the girls. An older man, not a high school boy. He was nineteen, the most gorgeous man that Carmen ever saw. A boy with a motorcycle and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, but not a gangster. He was a man onto his own, dark and mysterious, a Latino James Dean. He was so smart that he went to the university, where he was a junior. It was nearly unheard of for a Latino to go to college; it was lucky that any finished high school; so many had to drop out to help support their families, or had to get married at ages that Carmen found ridiculously young now. But Raul Valesquez had no family; and he was not from the neighborhood. Lupe said that his family had been killed when he was fifteen in a shooting incident in Puerto Rico. Then he moved to the States, and he traveled for a year around the country, searching for a home, until he settled in New York, where he found his cousins, the Sanchezes. He was very patriotic; had a great love for the Puerto Rican community. He was going to school to be a counselor to help gangsters to get off the streets because of what happened to his family. Carmen was impressed, as well as everyone else. Raul Valesquez escaped the trap that had been laid out for him. Instead of falling into the violence, he fought it. That bought nothing but admiration from the community he settled into.

Raul had always been a devout Catholic. He went to church almost every day, bringing his guitar with him . No one dared comment about his gangster apparel as he went into the sacristy and as he led the folk group in song. Carmen would spy on him when he thought no one else was looking, when he knelt in the vestibule. He would seem almost regal in his pose; a core of inner peace emanating from him that was awesome to behold. It seemed as though nothing could destroy him. He seemed invincible.

When she was eighteen, Carmen married one of the Sanchezes, Carlos. Carlos was Raul’s sidekick, and wherever Raul and Lupe were, Carmen found herself with Carlos, and they were drawn to each other, mostly, Carmen recalled, out of convenience. They spent countless nights on the backseat of a Buick while Lupe and Raul sat and talked, the two intellectuals. Carmen remembered the first time she actually felt jealous of Lupe- jealous of her mind, for being able to attract a man for her mind; Carlos never talked to her about anything; he just wanted to get her clothes off. It was one of those times in the backseat that she felt the pang and actually slapped Carlos to keep him off of her. Raul and Lupe were talking about Vietnam. Raul was saying that he was glad that he was in college, to avoid the draft. He would rather better his mind than fight a cause that wasn’t his. Now Carlos–he regarded flippantly with his hand– was too thick to get into college. He would have to get married if he wanted to keep his precious balls intact. A week later Carmen got a marriage proposal, two weeks before graduation. Carmen swore, looking back, that Raul intended to save her honor. He thought men who slept with women who weren’t their wives were pigs. Carmen didn’t know whether to be comforted or ashamed by that realization.

So while Lupe was getting ready to go to secretarial school, Carmen was preparing to get married. Carmen had to admit that to some extent she was relieved; for the last tow months, she’d missed her period, though no one but Lupe knew, and she had her first child exactly seven months later, in January of 1964. Lupe and Raul didn’t marry until three years later, in a big June wedding. Lupe had just graduated from secretarial school, which she’d attended nights while working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. By the time they got married, Carmen was pregnant with her fourth child, and going to work in a bodega while her husband slept after his night shift as a janitor in the airport. With their busy schedules, they saw much less of each other; their outing restricted to the holiday get-togethers and the occasional phone call. For a while they recaptured their high school camaraderie as they prepared for Lupe’s wedding, with Carmen being matron of honor, but after Lupe got married, the rush of everyday life returned, and they went days without speaking to one another. Sometimes, the loss hit Carmen, when she was dealing with unpleasant things such as her husband’s drinking or the endless mess of seven children with not enough money to feed them, and she would remember the bond they shared, and wondered why life impeded on something as special as her sisterhood with Lupe. She hardly had time to be sad about it, and in a way, that itself was even sadder.

Raulita was Lupe’s first child; she was named after her father because she looked just like him, from birth to her early years. She had the same intense, piercing, black eyes and raven black hair. Later on, when she reached school age, her face softened into delicate slopes that more resembled Lupe. She was a beautiful girl, with a smile that could light up the room, but her innocence was not of naivetÉ. It was a marvel to have her watch you, made you wonder how much of that innocence was a mask to cover her inner thoughts, and how deep did they run.

Then both women got pregnant again at the exact same time; their due dates were in mid-March. They were so excited for each other, so bonded by their mutual experience that when Carlos was laid off from his job, Carmen was strangely undaunted. Raul and Lupe generously opened their home to the Sanchezes, and the women were back together, bonded as though they were back in high school together. They went shopping for their future children together, each understood the other one’s fears and hopes, because the other had the same thoughts. For six blissful months, Carmen felt like the families had been blessed once more. Carlos even began to stop drinking and stay home more; Carmen’s children accepted Raulita as though she was their sister. The five room apartment was crowded, money was still tight, but amidst all the love in the family, Carmen barely noticed these things.

It was at the Valesquez home that Carmen learned the true meaning of God in her life. She learned from watching Raul. He spent much of his free time writing songs about his love for God, and the family spent many nights singing the songs he had written. Raul worked at a youth project trying to get young people off the streets, off drugs and out of the gangs. He opened his home to them, and many nights they listened to Raul talking about how wonderful and loving God was if you only sought him out; he was always looking for you to rely on Him. Instead of reciting meaningless prayers over and over again, Carmen began going to churches when there was no service and sit in the presence of quiet. In this stillness, she began to find God. She felt Him within her, a steady, quiet presence. She accepted him just in time, for she would need His power sooner than she could ever imagine.

It began three days before Christmas, in 1972; Raulita was five years old then, still believing in Santa Claus. still believing in magic. Lupe had been standing on a ladder, decorating the tree with Raulita putting homemade popcorn garland on it, trying to reach the higher branches when she suddenly collapsed. At first the family thought she fell, and Carmen chastised herself for not being firmer with her about working so strenuously; Lupe had always been stubborn. But in the hospital, the doctors said that something had gone horribly wrong with her pregnancy; they were forced to do a premature Cesarean just to save Lupe; she nearly bled to death getting to the hospital, and after the operation, remained unconscious for days. Little Pablo Valesquez came into the world two and a half months too early; totally ill-equipped to handle the challenge of life outside of his mother. He spent the duration of his brief life in an incubator; never knowing the touch of his mother’s arms, never seeing her face. Raul watched as his baby son kicked and scream, collapse from lack of oxygen; he anguished at the inevitable fact that this blue-faced baby would soon die, and his mother would not be able to be there for him. The screaming and kicking trickled away into whimpers and fidgets that soon became silence. Pablo died in his sleep, sucking his fingers in a last ditch effort to regain his mother’s security. He died four days after he came into the world.

Lupe wasn’t quite the same feisty woman after that. It was as though a part of her died with Pablo, some part had to be with the son that she never met. In the last six year’s of Lupe’s life, there seemed to be little joy in her heart. Nothing seemed to bring her to life- not Carmen, not Raul, not Carmen’s children, not her work, not the songs of joy she used to sing, not even Raulita. She would just sit on her fire escape looking out into nowhere, as though somehow in the fog that surrounded her, she found a secret world which gave her comfort. She no longer slept with her husband at night, preferring to sleep in a chair by the window. Raul had Carmen and Carlos move to his bedroom so he could stay on the couch and keep watch over his wife. And Raulita would watch her parents. Carmen caught her once at night, feeling those dark eyes turn upon her, full of fear, fear so intense that Carmen could still feel it now in her memory. Carmen hugged the child, wishing to take the pain from her, but not knowing how. She wept with Raulita in her helplessness.

Raul, Carlos and she spent much of the time they had been singing in silent prayer now. Raulita was the most silent of them all. Carmen was heartbroken at the child who once used to spend her days laughing and singing. Instead of playing with her little girlfriends here, she spent more and more of her days solitary, preferring instead to spend her time alone reading, playing with her dolls, or staring into space. She would even shy away from her cousins when they tried to play with her or share their dolls. At the tender age of seven Raulita had become a recluse. The atmosphere became so dark that Carlos insisted on moving their family elsewhere. Their children were getting depressed, and as far as Carlos was concerned, they would get enough of their share later on. They moved in with an uncle who lived in the South Bronx. Raul understood, but as Carmen walked out the door and saw Raulita watching her, she knew the child had been hurt all the more, and it killed her to this day when she remembered that face in tears.

They still kept in touch with Raul. He convinced Carmen to go back to school to become a nurse. Carmen had always wanted to go to college, but she never though she was intelligent enough, or had enough drive to finish; besides she had kids so young and there had been bills to pay. But her oldest child was nearly thirteen now; the kids would soon be gone, and she would have her whole life in front of her. Raul told her she was intelligent, that in the long run, she would be better off with a career than running into the dead end jobs she had. Five years later, she had her career, the best move she ever made. It was too bad Lupe never saw her at her best. If she only knew how. There was little encouragement from anyone to leave her husband and start a career. She was a Catholic and a housewife; the domestic role was sacred; she should be grateful for the role that God gave her and not spit in his face by trying to destroy what He made in the first place in the Garden of Eden. Besides, she was a Latina, and one nearing thirty at that. What kind of career could she start? In that way, Carmen found herself knocked down before she even started. She couldn’t even answer the questions. She felt shame for even asking them and put them away in a remote place in her mind where she hoped she’d misplace them.

But Raul didn’t let her forget. He would ask about her plans every so often, just enough not to let her forget. It irritated her more than anything else, though she found herself going to Raul even more for guidance, despite the fact that her drunken husband began vehemently accusing her of having an affair by going over there all the time. His accusations would propel her more to go where she was accepted. Sometimes she cursed t he existence of her children, much as she loved them; because without them she could have just walked out, Catholic or no Catholic. She couldn’t say she felt shame when she thought like that, especially when her quiet lovely children developed into free-thinking teenagers. Adolescence appeared to early in her children. When her oldest turned nine, she found cigarette butts in her room. She started smelling alcohol on the twins’ breath when they were twelve. Carmen found herself discontinuing cleaning their rooms, afraid of what she would find there. She berated herself for her weakness and at her lack of strength to fight for the lives of her children, which were slowly being ebbed away into a world of violence and mayhem, where to be straightlaced could cost them their lives, but so could being on the dark side of the street as well. She would see the pushers on the corners of the streets, ;lurking, waiting. These were the people her children faced when they walked the streets. And she felt powerless to do anything to stop them.

Many times when she visited Raul, there were people from his church there. They encouraged her to come to their church every time she visited. Even though she’d long ago put her trust in God, Carmen had not set foot in a church since her youngest’s baptism. She always felt lesser than and judged in the presence of churchgoers, including to some extent, Raul, because he seemed holy in times when all she could do was rage; he seemed purer than humanly possible. Her life, even now, was less than reputable. She felt judged for not being joyous enough, pious enough, for being angry at all. Even here in the inner city, they expected people to be absolutely pure, after all, Jesus and Mary remained pure in violent times. The priests seemed just as macho as the lay men in the real world, but everyone knew that the nuns were in charge. The women, they knew better how to take care of things, and how to hide in meekness when the source of power was with them.

So the first few times when Carmen saw the church men over, she ignored them, especially those that sported gold chains like trophies around their necks; she knew those types. They reminded her of her husbandthere would be hardly enough money for food, yet he had to buy his gold chains to look like a real stud to all the muchachas that he wanted to seduce. If she came over and they were there, she all but ignored Raul and went to Lupe on the fire escape. Machismo was what she escaped when she came over here. She didn’t need it in her haven.

Lupe hardly ever talked now. Gone was the wild child free spirit, gone was the tomboy who would take on the world. Raulita herself was equally quiet, sitting on Carmen’s lap, her big oval eyes always on her mother. Lupe only spoke when spoken to, with as little words as possible to answer the question. Even when Raul came over to give her affection, she would hardly respond. Carmen had to admire Raul—if Carlos spent day after day sitting on a fire escape, ignoring her, not taking care of the children, she wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t have had an affair herself. At least Carlos was a good father, actually what that meant was, he was no worse than she was. How good parents could they have been if their oldest boy was in a gang? But he tried as hard as she did; trying to instill religion, discipline, lecturing them when they were wrong. When they were younger, they used to both hit the kids, like the time when she caught David with drugs. But the oldest ones were bigger than she now, and their anger scared her. They could easily hurt her if they wanted to, even though at their worst, they never had the audacity to hit their mother. She couldn’t take the chances Carlos could still afford to take. Yes, as a father, he still was not the worst.

Sometimes in the silences among the female Velasquezes she would sit and think of this, dreaming of times better than these. Sometimes she would listen to the noise coming from the streets seventeen below, a world of violence that seemed closed within on itself. Sometimes she would listen to the male voices from inside the dwelling, and the laughter she would soak into like a hot bath, indulging in the sound of a rare jewel that hardly could be found anymore. Mostly, in these silences, she would find herself there, in the men’s prayers. All of the men, she came to know over time; they were ex-gangsters, coming together weekly to support their transition from a life of crime to a life with some semblance of hope. They prayed for those they had left behind in the gang, that they would find the light of God in their lives. Their conversations were about their pain and suffering rather than litanies in which they lamented over the damnation of all the other misbegotten souls who refused to see the light that they had seen and which had made them oh-so-perfect. They sounded like sinners who loved Jesus in not so perfect ways, much like herself. Gradually, Carmen found herself warming to the group, first managing to say hello to them, then eventually sitting down and “rapping” with them, as they put it. Raul had already mentioned Carlos to them; he was worried about his prodigal cousin. One of the men, Pedro Santiago, informed her of another group they had for their wives and girlfriends, the one who were choosing to stick it out with them, which in her better days, had been a brainchild of Lupe’s. They supported each other while their men tried to get out of a street lifestyle. They needed each other; often their men went back to the streets out of pressure, habit or boredom; sometimes, the women were alone in their journey to freedom, because most of their men never got out in the first place. So they met together in secret, to evade the threats that were lobbed their way; threats were common, the gangs didn’t like anything that threatened their solidarity, and it was a threat for some of the women to go, Raul said. Carmen marveled at how Raul could get along with these thugs, given their reputation. But he was not afraid to speak, he was not afraid to care.

Eventually, after some time, Carmen got up the nerve to go to the women’s group. Unlike the men’s group, which was mostly Latino, there were a mix of all races there: Caucasian, Black, Latina, Native America and Asian. She heard of the death threats to these women, making her life with philandering Carlos seem tame. They laughed off any comment on their courage. To them, this was survival, and courage was beyond the point when basic survival was on the line. Besides, one African woman pointed out, it was just as much a threat to stay home idly hoping that the drive-by or house raid or revenge killing could happen. If they were going to be in danger no matter where they went, they may as well get killed trying to get stronger.

Carmen found herself becoming close with one woman. Her name was Abdullah MacNamara, a black women who had briefly become a Black Muslim around the time of her daughter’s birth and soon after discovered the hidden wonders of Haitian voodoo. Abdullah had been exposed to many cultures with her mother’s varying interests. It was like going to school without dealing with white oppression, she explained.

She was about six months pregnant at the time Carmen met her, a beautiful ebony woman with high cheek bones and a tall graceful figure; her pregnancy only enhanced her beauty. Abdullah hoped for a girl, then she would call her Epiphany, because once she knew she was pregnant, she knew that she had to start over, end her life of sin, and she said she had come to know Jesus through the conception of her baby. The baby’s father was a drug lord who had just gotten out of jail for possession, and even though she knew it was wrong, they lived together; she felt safer with him there than not, she said as she played with a garnet ring on her left finger. She never said why she stayed with him, and Carmen somehow felt as she saw the eyes drift into a lost world she couldn’t enter, it would be better if she didn’t ask. Carmen presumed pregnancy was the reason, the reason why many women she knew relied on the unreliable, including herself. Where else would an unwed Black woman go? The homes were all for white people and rich blacks like the Supremes. The sixties had brought liberation for white women and black men, but black women were far behind.

Apparently Abdullah’s man had been an upstanding citizen for the briefest of times. He had stopped drugs and even begun an outreach program for youths on the streets. He’d gone back to get his GED so he could become a youth counselor. There had been times when their apartment had been littered with runaways who had sought refuge with them, eerily similar to Raul, and she felt a chill go up her spine when Abdullah said that, she didn’t know why at the time. Abdullah remembered this experience as exhausting and defeating, the tone which marked their first five years together. They even planned to get married; Abdullah finally found herself comfortable enough not to be terrified of himhe’d never hit her, at least, Abdullah denied it, but the hashish, heroin, and everything else had turned him into another person. Abdullah never knew what she was coming to. But for tow years, there had been peace. Abdullah said it was the first time in her life that she had been truly happy. Carmen looked at this young beautiful, intelligent creature and felt a stab of anger. How could society allow a person like her to be oppressed and suppressed? Carmen was angered by the injustice. And this was a free country?

Her anger motivated herself personally. Her long ago dream of going to school uprooted itself with full force. She saw the women, the pain they were in, and the contempt that they were regarded with. She had been so involved with Lupe and Raul and her own family’s needs to see the pain of those about her. The women in the group reminded her of the pain that surrounded her, that there was a world that didn’t worry about survival and who enjoyed all who enjoyed all the simple luxuries of life. She forgot about the times when medical care was denied, she realized the one time a black pregnant women named Jackie came in bruised and battered with a broken arm from a gang bang. She’d been thrown out of the emergency room an hour after she’d been admitted, after being ignored for nearly five hours while she waited, while all the rich boys and girls with Blue Cross were waved right through. Her contractions had been a half-hour apart, which abated into an hour, Abdullah said, she was with Jackie There had been no reason to kick out a pregnant woman like that. She’d tried to raise protest in her friend’s behalf, to no avail. She had heard one of the orderlies calling them stupid niggers to another black orderly, who concurred. There was always an Uncle Tom around to kiss ass, Abdullah had yelled. After that, Carmen knew what direction her career would be taking, though it would be a good three years before she got the financial backing she needed. She didn’t care. Nothing would sway her now. In the meantime, she could prepare herself for her defiant choice. No married woman had ever sought a career on her own, and all the women had been married, except some poor souls on her mother’s side who were the brunt of most of the jokes when they thought they couldn’t hear. Eventually she would surpass the man who was supposed to protect her, she who was supposed to be dependent on him, and now, she was the one who protected him, he the one dependent on her. She knew then that she needed strength for what lay ahead. She would never have dreamed how much.

Lupe’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. She sunk in her cheeks, bearing no resemblance to the husky girl playing stickball twenty-five years earlier. She was a shell, a pale colored shadow, very much like the ghost that had attacked her many years ago; the spirits had finally done their work. No longer did she speak, no longer did she travel the road of the living, through her heart betrayed her by continuing to beat without her consent. Carmen tried to get into a tough love mode, telling her she was a baby, that she was evil for allowing her daughter, husband and friends to suffer with her in her morbidity; every trick she could think of that she used on her stubborn, drug using kids, oh yes, she could handle a soul sister that would cry with her every pain, she was convinced; surely she was softer than those that were destined to grow to defy her, but she sat stone silent, she never heard- that was what hurt the most, that she would never care. Finally one day, Carmen told the vacant eyes in hollow sockets that Raul and Raulita were too good to deserve a loca mala bitch like her. The eyes, they never moved, they were the eyes of a dead ghost. Carmen walked out, mustering every fiber of righteous anger within her, convinced that she had made the right choice, but haunted nonetheless, her demons pushing her so hard that she drove off for days, not calling anyone; hoping that the long drive would expel her demons. Because of that costly decision, she never saw Lupe or Raulita alive again. For Lupe died the next day, and she was not even home to take the phone call. They were holding over the funeral for her, but only four days after Lupe died, a gunman attacked Raul and Raulita as they came home from dinner together. Raul himself was in a coma. He was not expected to survive. He’d sustained two shots to his head, one in which the bullet couldn’t be removed. Raulita had also been shot. Carmen saw Lupe briefly at the hospital, despite all protests from the staff. She wished she hadn’t. Lupe didn’t look like Lupe; Carmen longed for even the ghost that she had seen only a week earlier. Lupe was nothing more than a bluish purple pulp. Carmen’s mind would be forever seared, the final image of her soul sister that of brutality than the towering rock she was. After that, Carmen didn’t even want to see Raulita; if Lupe was so badly marred even after all that happened to her in life, what had become of the quiet beauty of her goddaughter?

The funeral, and the waiting at the hospital; all these things she waited for and went through like a zombie. She was surrounded, as she always was, by her aunts, Carlos’ family, her one uncle from Puerto Rico. Even Lupe’s family had always surrounded her and influenced her in the loss of their only daughter and sister. But Carmen felt nothing. She remembered her last words to Lupe and wondered in some superstitious way if she was responsible for sending Lupe and her daughter to her death. All she could feel for the duration of the services was intense guilt. There was nothing to appease it. In some way she felt as evil as the killers themselves. Lupe was her best friend, her soul sister, they were spiritually related through Raulita. Lupe must have connected with her words in some way. She wondered if somehow through her words, she made Lupe lose her last ounce of hope. The doctors, they had almost saved her, thought she was going to live, but somehow, she slipped through their hands like gold disappearing into the depths of the sea, maybe like the death of hope which she callously slammed into Lupe’s face.

The hospital seemed like an eerie scene that could only be in movies. The Valesquezes, Rosarios, and Sanchezes all spent their time by Raul’s side now, praying for the last thread that remained from the glorious quilt that once was. She remembered old Tia Anna rocking herself in the corner of the room over and over like some bewitched apparition, her rosary beads clutched in one hand as she repeated the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary over and over. Most times, she was the only voice that spoke. All were locked in their own silent prayer, fears unspoken but shouting in the air so loud it did not have to speak to be known. Carmen remained as they did. She felt unworthy to say any words of comfort, for she had cursed her only friend as parting words, incarnating the devil to curse the only friends she ever had. She was responsible for shattering the shield that had protected Lupe for so long, to cause her death.

Pedro Santiago came to visit Raul very often, almost every day. All of the group that had been at Raul’s house sat by his bedside at some point, but Pedro was the most frequent visitor by far. She and Pedro would talk sometimes out in the corridor, where the silence seemed less ominous and where it was out of the range of Carlos’ jealous eye (he thought all men just wanted to ball her, maybe if he kept his pants zipped up he’d think a little more with the small brain he had left). Pedro had heard a rumor that the murders were vigilante, something to do with a Hispanic gang stealing drug money from a Black gang and the Black guy taking out the wrong manobviously. Pedro knew for a fact that the Blacks’ target had moved to Miami. In her numbness, Carmen did not want to know how Pedro had come up with this information. Rage, a desire for revenge were her reactions to his announcement. She wanted to find whoever it was and give them a Colombian necktie. Pedro must have suspected as much, because he wouldn’t tell her who his source was, even when Carmen screamed at him full force in his face. She wound up belting him across his head before Carlos and his brother managed to answer her screaming. The rage she felt was tremendousat the system, at the men who had destroyed who in turn destroyed those even more helpless than them. She sat rocking, twitching for days afterward as she went through the days, sitting by Raul’s bedside and going to work and trying to control her children. No one spoke to her then. At work, where they were used to harassing her and abusing her, they said nothing. Even her delinquent children dared not cross her. She said nothing, yet she was molten fire ready to explode. If it ever happened to bet that she found Lupe’s murderer, she would kill, slowly so that there was much pain inflicted. There would be no turning the cheek on this one. Forgiveness was forgotten, not the crime this time.

She had been in her angry contemplation when she woke up from a nap sitting by Raul’s bedside. Lupe’s brother and Carlos’ aunt Anna had been with her too, but were still asleep. Something about the room was different, she psychologically observed in her physical haze. It took her awhile for her to realize what the change was. When she did, shock waves rumbled through her with a force greater than even her venom possessed.

Raul was missing.

No one seemed to know what happened, not the nurses, none of the family, anybody. One minutes he was lying comatose by death’s door, the next, he was gone. Vanished. Raul’s cousin Pablo went storming up and down the corridor, insistent that someone kidnapped Raul and the hospital was covering up. You couldn’t blame him, given all the insanity that had gone on in the last two weeks, but Pablo, he was getting insane himself. He sauntered in and out of every closet and cranny in the hospital, accusing anyone that got in his path of kidnapping his cousin, the only cousin that ever listened to him. He did this until security was forced to remove him, family tragedy or no family tragedy. But he only expressed what the rest of them wanted to but couldn’t. They had experienced too much destruction to know what sanity meant anymore.

Raul remained gone. An exhaustive search was conducted throughout the hospital to no avail. He was gone, as though he had never existed. Lupe and Raulita dying so young made her enraged. Raul’s death, which is what it seemed like, even though there was no body, left her hollow. Lupe and Raulita were a stormy seascape painted in dark shadows, while Raul’s ending was merely a skeleton of a sketch. He would be an apparition which would haunt her from that moment on till the present day.

Carmen, the present Carmen, thought of this as she rode the subway home to cook for her invalid Carlos, the Carlos that she swore to leave, but the one whom she could only die for, and the three teenagers, the last of them. The twins, who both went to Pace University, might also be there, but she wasn’t sure. The reality of the life she was heading towards on the speeding train seemed remote as she thought of the past. Many times she brooded upon it, but today the memories were stronger. She couldn’t quite explain why. An image of the homeless man that had left the hospital flashed through her mind. It was awhile before it left.

When she got of the subway, she passed the usual bums in the station, all ready to sleep the night. Many others were afraid of them. Carmen was not. They seemed no more dangerous than the random shooting done by faceless enemies in the dead of the night or the drug dealers willing to rob just to get money to pay off their debts. Some of the bums made their makeshift homes here, but most didn’t. Those who lived here were relatively benign alcoholics, maybe a schizophrenic or two in the bunchnothing that could be worse than a psycho with a gun. Sometimes Carmen would gives them extra change if she had it. She didn’t care if they spent it on booze or drugs. If it gave them some peace of mind, Carmen had no objection.

She wondered if the man from the hospital was among the transients. She found herself staring at them a little harder than usual amongst them to get a good look at their faces. Old, young, black white, male female, female with children, andshe had to look away, the ones who were only children. A microcosm of society, a microcosm of throwaways. It humbled her, made her feel vulnerable at the realization that any of those there could have been her. She walked away feeling lucky even though she hadn’t found who she was looking for. She felt lucky every time she passed through here. IF she ever forgot, she could comer here and remember that she had much indeed.

But the image of the nameless man in the hospital remained. He would be searching for his wife and daughter tonight. Carmen hoped that he found them.

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