The Minstrel

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Carmen Sanchez drove home from work. Her car was another step in the direction of the Great American dream; there were two cars parked by her project now, when before there were none. There was a house on Rosedale Avenue that seemed perfect for her and Carlos; now that Jackie and her husband were having their second child there would be room for the four of them as well. She had called the real estate office representing the house and gotten an appointment next week to see it. A real house of her own. Somehow, even with all the college loans to pay off, the medical bills that Carlos had incurred over the last couple of hears, and the rent increase despite the rent control, they could eke out this house on a thirty year mortgage, literally until their dying day; perhaps with Jackie and Simon moving in, his salary could help pay for some of the bills. The twins Michael and James said they were willing to chip in, too. Being single, they could afford to worry about them, they said. Wonderful clowns, they had always been. Joseph and his wife, Althea, a pretty white girl with a Stanford degree, offered the use of their Locust Valley home while the elder Sanchezes prepared for their move. With Carlos’ health, Carmen was seriously considering taking up the offer.

Her head ached from a long, long day when she finally got a moment to sit down and collect her thoughts. The Velda hearing being today, there had been many casualties in the fighting that had taken place; but it had not been nearly as bad as Carmen had feared. She’d dreaded coming in today; knowing that she had the evening shift well in advance, she’d be long trying to pawn this day on someone else, the lease education, the least clout; so she’d gotten stuck with this day, wishing she could work even the night shift with its junkies than be there in the ominous daytime.

The day’s happenings had been an object for diversion; she had arrived at the hospital at two forty-five with every TV in every day room and nurses’ station was tuned to the nasty thing; most stations were only carrying commentary on the crisis because one of the rioters pulled the plug on the battlefield coverage . There was Reverend Aldafah, president of the Black Muslim League of New York City, saying that the faithful were planning a social jihad against the Christians in the community for allowing whites to abuse the African American Community. To turn the other cheek was a joke, he said. Look at the white boys who claim to follow Jesus; look at them today, how they behave; do you see any of them turning the other cheek? No, he continued, the white Christians abused the words of the prophet Jesus to keep the black down. The Reverend Casper Williams, media mogul that he was had to have his press release in there too, considering the pastor of his church had become a victim of this violence as well. Williams said that if it had been a white man charged with killing black men with the amount of limited evidence they had on Velda, the white man would have never been arrested. He also wished freedom for Velda, done with much emotion from his face, tears streaming down, the man with the love for his people, for forgiveness toward the man who supposedly assailed his pastor. Carmen noticed the audience dabbing tears from their eyes. Her eyes remained dry.

Most of the day, she thought not of Velda but of an old friend, the one for years she thought dead. The day was filled with casualties of war stitched up at the emergency room and sent here for their rest, two their final resting place. The phone call was made to the police and the coroner, the first to arrive being the New York Post gleaning information from anyone to give it, shaking their heads as Mark Timothy Haines, Jr. and Richard Elway, both from the Bronxville region were wheeled away to their first stop in the afterlife, the morgue. The public learned of the unfortunate youths’ deaths before their parents had, and when the elder Timothy Haines and Mrs. Timothy Haines arrived (though one could swear that she did not look like a Timothy) at the hospital, lawsuits were threatened against the hospital, the press and the city alike for breech of privacy. You see, Mr. Timothy Haines Sr. was a high-ranking partner in Manhattan, with the international law firm Haines, McManus, and Field, the corporation which had represented the US against a certain Japanese auto company for violation of tariff laws. Little did Great Haines know, that if his son had lived he would have been charged with three counts of assault and one of rape, laudable accomplishments for an heir to such a great legacy. Haines got a whiff of that from the renowned New York Post, and the charges were upgraded to defamation of character. Mrs. Timothy Haines fainted dead away and had to be wheeled away to the emergency room at once.

Carmen Sanchez watched an oversaw all the commotion with bemused skepticism. Sometimes when serving the rich white public that occasionally lauded itself in there, Carmen felt like she was dealing with overgrown, obnoxious schoolchildren , resembling children no bigger than the ones on the playground. They knew that they had to be dependent on someone they didn’t like, but they would do it kicking and screaming every inch of the way, trying in vain to keep the tone being me Great American Ideal, you Stupid Colored Servant to Serve My Every Babyish Whim. It made Carmen laugh that even in the face of a loved one, the great white way could still get like this, such as when the Great Haines grabbed her paperwork from her as she filled out the required death certificate documents, saying that his secretary would fill it out at her convenience. I’m sorry sir, but this has to be filled out by medical personnel, an inwardly fuming Carmen Sanchez replied in her most neutral voice, trying to remember that in her profession that compassion extended to even the lowest swine of the earth. Who’s your boss, Haines countered. I’m my boss, sir, a proud Carmen was glad to throw in his face. Where’s the doctor, a somewhat mollified Haines sputtered like a diesel that’s seen its best days. He is operating on a ruptured spleen, Carmen answered truthfully but somewhat disappointed, for she would have liked to have seen him shake hands with Dr. Jacque Latoure, a new medical resident recently recruited from the University of Haiti. She would have liked to have seen Haines’ reaction to the fact that a Black, and a non-American one at that, actually had his son’s life in his hands. But instead, a futile Thomas Haines threw the paperwork back in her face, cursing all the way. Carmen Sanchez took her time completing it, completely aware of his angry impatient waiting. She suggested to Haines that he visit his wife. After all, she was sure to need his vital support at this tense time, Carmen added without hiding the sarcasm in her voice. A woman needed support like that like she needed poison for breakfast. But it was, in any case, a good way to get rid of a major nuisance. She finished the rest of the paperwork in two minutes, called Dr. Brewer, the intern to Dr. Latoure, and had her pick up the paperwork. She spent the rest of the day yelling at her girls and taking up their slack as the new patients from downstairs filtered in. She had to buffer complaints from the girls that they were tired and that the patients were too demanding. She had to listen to the patients’ complaints and their families marching up to the desk expecting instant cures for their situations, indifferent to the fact that there were twenty-eight other patients on the floor. She had to deal with dirty looks from black to white, each ready to cry racism when the other was attended to first. There were priests to call, Buddhist monks to track down. And yet, there were no fistfights, no threats outside of Haines. The phone had miraculously stopped ringing at four o’clock, and the last emergency case from the riot rolled in at six-forty. After the last visitor was thrown out at eight-twenty, the rest of her shift went quietly.

Except for one pregnant Latina girl that came in with her boyfriend at nine o’clock. She walked in with Brewer, seemingly in perfect health; Carmen thought she was a medical student ready to start training the next semester. Except Brewer told Carmen that the girl needed a bed. A baffled Carmen complied, thinking the girl looked as healthy as everyone working there, maybe even more so. It was with genuine interest that Carmen inquired the nature of the illness. Brewer’s vague reply was only “observation” as she quickly skeddadled away, and Carmen found herself face to face with a girl the stature and looks of a beauty queen. Carmen could help but fell a mite jealous.

As Carmen was leaving, the girl, Lupe Corazon, was placed in the only available bed left on the unit, which only afterwards Carmen recalled being occupied by the strange ranting lunatic that brought memories of her lost cousin-in-law whom she started thinking of once again as she left the hospital. She recalled the memories of how her younger years were shared with Raul and Lupe, the people she’d most loved, and what good times they shared until Lupe’s unfortunate turn of mood. Times had been rough, but there had been a joy then that no good material fortune she’d received afterwards ever duplicated. It was as though through having nothing, they all relied on what they did haveeach other. Somehow, even though she’d pursued her childhood dream and in her middle years, achieved more than she’d ever imagined, she felt something irrevocably lost, a part of her soul deeply empty. The friendship she’d had for Lupe and the deep respect she’d had for Raul, she’d never found again, with anybody or anything. In essence, she was alone. There was no one’s shoulder to cry on, no one she could share her joys and troubles with. She was too busy, taking care of her job, her ailing husband, trying to fill in as leader to a family who had long lost one.

She’d wished that Carlos had stayed the way he had been for that too short period of time, the years after he’d stopped his partying and before the rash of heart attacks that had nearly killed him and succeeded in sucking out most if his life in its wake. For six short years, they had been a happy family, at least as happy as one could be with half of its vital members missing. Still, even with Lupe and Raul gone, they had managed to carve out their own path of happiness. Instead of the grudging submission they had initially accepted their living situation with, they actually acted as though they were in love. Sometimes Carmen would come home from nursing school to find the kids gone or in bed, the lights off, except for several candles lit, waiting on the modest dining room table along with what simple fare Carlos knew how to cook. The food was, usually, quite horrible, but somehow it did not matter, it tasted like the best food she ever ate. It was in those minutes that the fire that barely had a chance to spark in their youth between them now basked in an intimate glow, now a warm, gentle hearthfire. There were trips to the Poconos where they would lie and watch the stars, holding hands long into the night. And there was even moneynot enough to make them rich by any means, but more she had ever seen in one sitting. Carlos had finally found steady work as a foreman in the Foodtree Packaging Warehouse in White Plains, supervising the business of storing frozen vegetables to be shipped around the tri-state area. They talked of buying a house, not on Rosedale Avenue like they were struggling to do now, but in Westchester. Carmen had set her heart on a white two-story colonial with blue shutters set on a half acre with rosebushes in the front yard, and two-hundred year old oak trees marking their property line in the back; all on a dead end block. Carmen had never heard so many birds singing in one place; it was like living in a regal country house. The best thing was being able to afford it, albeit with much budgeting, but Carmen knew, after all these years, hard work, perseverance, even the tragedies she had suffered had prepared her for that, and finally, she was being rewarded. Finally.

But it was not to be. Just as they were ready to go to contract, just as their lives were ready to climb upward, Carlos suffered his first major heart attack, the second to follow only six weeks later. The two combined kept him bedridden for seven months, with Carmen barely leaving his side. No more money coming in, the half salary he did receive from his job went to pay off what the medical insurance company didn’t bother with, which were vast figures that gave Carmen a headache just to look at. The house, as she sat and watched her beloved husband become unrecognizable amidst a frightening array of lights, tubes and machines gasping for air, become little more than a faded memory, so distant that she had to question if she’d imagined the whole thing in the first place. In the wake of life and death, the whole past seven years seemed like a surreal, puzzling illusion. It was as though her dream had always been that, and achieving it had never been a reality.

Carlos survived the next three heart attacks. The kids getting older, began helping more and more, lightening a load that never quite got bearable for her even now. Her long delayed nursing career finally began when she was forty-four. Life had finally reached a point where she could declare it was as normal as it was going to ever get. She was grateful for this present time, trying as best as possible to put the past behind. And she had, with reasonable success, that is until last week when a mysterious stranger had thrown the past right back in her face.

Raul had gotten himself in trouble again. As she tended to Carlos and gave him his dinner which at midnight, resembled little more than a snack, she saw a composite of Raul’s image posted on the late night news. She hadn’t been paying attention to it at all; TV gave her no pleasure at this stage of her life, until Carlos’ sudden delirious explanation that his cousin Raul was on TV, they’d found him. And Carmen turned, and sure enough, she felt as though she were face to face with a crazy, dirty Raul. She felt her heart jump the way it had when she came face to face with him in the hospital. He was still looking for his wife and child.

He had been in a fight with Mark Timothy Haines, Jr., the last one to be seen fighting with the boy. He was needed for questioning, although no charges were willing to be filed against him yet, to which Carmen promptly screamed “Bullshit!” in her head. An ominous trickle passed through Carmen’s spine as she recalled tending to the dead Haines boy, how she had noticed in examination his private parts and underwear riddled with semen. All had looked at one another in speculated fear, as if to say to one another, this is a renowned lawyer’s son, you can’t possible think what I’m thinking, you can’t possibly believe he would do something like this. It was unspoken but heard throughout the room, the shock had a deafening sound of its own.

Carmen had an image of the boy, wondering what his last moments must have been like after perpetrating a violent crime like that. She wondered if right now he was burning for eternity in hell or if somehow God decided to forgive slime like that. She believed in an afterlife, one afterlife only; she couldn’t even quite grasp the Catholic concept of purgatory. As far as she was concerned, from her experiences and the pain she had suffered, she was convinced that if purgatory existed, she was living in it right now. She couldn’t see good people who loved God and who tried to do the right thing by the God they worshipped being sent to a place of fire and brimstone, however temporary. Sometimes it seemed the Catholic religion deliberately set out to be sadistic with its crazy philosophies. People suffered enough in the world.

But, staring at the dead boy, barely out of adolescence, yet his face twisted in a grotesque pain that looked unreal, she couldn’t accept the fact that his soul was resting in peace forever. Yet at just thinking that bitter thought, her conscience felt a sharp kick in its gut. She remembered the parable of the great master forgiving the enormous amount of debt of a servant and how in payment for the generous act, the servant showed nothing but contempt for the one who owed a small debt and couldn’t repay him. She was acting like the unmerciful servant right now. Who was she not to forgive the sins of one when the Almighty had chosen to forgive the entire world? The angels would rejoice at one soul repenting for forgiveness, even in the last hour. If he was in heaven, she should rejoice in the fact that Satan had been defeated once again, not bewail the fact that he had done nothing to deserve such a great reward. For that matter, neither had she.

She watched as Carlos munched away, lost in the TV program. IN her younger days, she would have been infuriated by what she imagined was Carlos’ deliberate rejection of her after a hard day’s work. But somehow, now she was not angry. It really did not matter to her that he said nothing to her. God had showed her what it could be like if she lost him; she was grateful just to have him here by her side.

She stayed awake long after Carlos once again was sound asleep, and the nurse’s aide that came twice a week left for the day. The apartment was still with the exception of the streets below and the occasional rumbling from the apartment above them, noise that was so commonplace that it was barley noticeable. The noise that had kept her awake was mental noise; noise which in the dead of night seemed louder than any commotion during the day could possibly be.

There was nothing that she actually thought of in that stillness. Her thoughts flew all through the night; if she were asked what was on her mind, she would not be able to give a specific answer. The grocery list, asking Julia if she would go to the laundromat, then after hearing what indistinctly sounded like a gunshot, whether the windows were secured, would anyone break in here tonight. She felt afraid to fall asleep, a part of her wanting to remain alert in case Carlos needed her and was unable to speak. Maybe another attack would come, maybe he wouldn’t survive through another day. That was when the empty hole that lay dormant inside her suddenly loomed larger. Her thoughts drifted to the past, and she thought to get up and find Lupe to talk about them, but then caught herself, realizing that she had done what she still sometimes did after all these years. She had forgotten that Lupe was not there to speak to her or comfort her. She had forgotten that Lupe was dead. That was when she sat down and let herself cry, something she hadn’t gotten much of a chance to do since Carlos had become ill and she had taken it upon herself to be his strength. She cried until her energy felt as though it could be spent no more, and she finally felt exhausted enough to collapse in her bed without tossing and turning.

It was with some alarm that when she blinked her eyes open to daylight. She must have slept some hours, it had been two-thirty just as she lay down on the bed once again and it was now six-forty. Her head felt groggy as though she hadn’t rested on minute. Carlos was still asleep in his postuerpedic bed. Her heart felt a longing for him, and she wished that right now, she could lie with him and hold him, sick or not. Perhaps there was not much time for them together–. She wanted to use that time well. Silently, she crept in with him. He made no noise with the exception of a small disturbed grumbling, then returned to his deep slumber. It was good for him to sleep

Carlos was demanding something. “Carmen! Carmen! Where are you! Aiyee!!” was his last exclamation as he realized his wife was barely two inches from him. “What are you doing? Do you want to give me another heart attack?”

A groggy Carmen smiled as she awoke to her beloved husband’s voice. The attacks may have robbed him physically, but even after all that, he was still his jaunty, crazy lovable self. “Good morning, love,” she replied, kissing him on the cheek and rolling out of bed.

“What is all this lounging around? Don’t you have work today?”

Instinctively, Carmen pulled out her wrist to see the time. It was eleven o’clock. “I have the evening shift this week,” she replied distractedly. She forgot something, she knew.

“Since when did this happen?”

“I switched with Maria. So I could get off for Christmas. Remember?”

“Oh,” was her husband’s reply as he lay back down on the pillows.

His medication. That was what she had forgotten. Since Carmen usually worked days, she lost track of the medication he got during those hours. She always remembered while at work, to call and remember the aide, but now, out of her routine, she was the cream of incompetence. He was supposed to get a pill at eight and then at noon. Being a registered nurse, she could tell anyone else what to do now, but as a wife, she felt flustered. She tried to forget she was a wife, and listened to the registered nurse brain that told her to split the eight o’clock pill in half, and take one part with the twelve, and tell the aide that the other half would go with his four o’clock. She just hoped it wouldn’t cause any problems. She had already had enough loss—

“So Raul made TV, huh?”

She was startled back to reality. “What?”

“Raul. Raul Valezquez. My cousin. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about him?”

“I think he was in the riots last night.”

“They want him for questioning in someone’s death,” Carlos nodded to the TV. “They don’t even know his name. They’re calling him the Minstrel because he sings a lot and disturbed the rich neighbors. Sounds like our Raul, eh? The eternal troublemaker.”

Carmen sat in silence, watching the screen silently. It was the same broadcast she’d seen yesterday. It looked so much like him. She wanted to reach out to hide him before it was too late. Raul would never hurt anyone without extreme provocation. He shouldn’t go to jail for something that was beyond his control, or for that matter, for annoying the rich neighbors with his singing. They were talking of the heinous blows that Mark Timothy Haines had suffered, how he died from a stab wound to the chest, just as the victims of the Preacher Killer had—

With that, Carmen jumped high. There had been no stab wound to that boy. He had been beaten to death, in a fight. They were lying.

“Sounds like Raul got himself in hot water for real this time, huh? No more small stuff for our boy now.”

Carmen smiled. Raul had gotten himself more than once for his peace demonstrations outside of the UN. During Vietnam, he had befriended many people from SDS, accompanying the students many times to Manhattan and even once to Washington. He’d gotten busted twice, luckily with no consequences. Raul the hero. Now, he was wanted as a criminal.

“the subject was seen twice at the murder scenes of the recent preacher killers, just hours after the killings”

Carmen bolted with horror. Accusing Raul of serial murder, of the preachers, no less. He was incapable. He was the most religious person she knew. He was the one who had led her to God. He couldn’t have done what they were accusing him of.

“was seen to be traveling with this woman, believed to be the missing wife of the late Robert Hughes, III. Mr. Hughes committed suicide last month, according to family members, distraught at the loss of his wife, Cindy Diesposito Hughes. The Hughes family is offering a reward for the arrest of this man on the charge of kidnapping their daughter-in-law. If you have any information, please call this number. All calls will be kept confidential.” Right, Carmen thought cynically as the 555-TIPS number popped up on the screen, right under Raul’s face.

“Boy, Raul really hit the big time on this one, eh?”

Carmen did not reply. Raul’s eyes stared at hers. They sent chills down her spine. Once more, her past was staring her right in the face.

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