CHRISTMAS SNOW OVER EL BARRIO
With his nose pressed on the cold window, Antonio tried to look up at the dirty, gray sky. He could feel the freezing wind seep quietly through the small cracks of the window frame and straight into his bones. There were tiny specks floating through the air, and he waited, excited, that this might be snow. Antonio had never seen snow before, only in the pictures of Alaska in his schoolbooks.
Behind him, he could hear his mother from the kitchen preparing dinner, her every day symphony with the pots and pans and the ladles hitting against them. There was also music coming from the far room of the apartment, it was his sister, and he pictured her on the floor with scattered records around her trying to mouth the English words still foreign to them.
More flecks began to float through the air, and Antonio wanted to shout that it was snowing, but decided to wait. Since the first cold day, and he wore the very first coat in his life, he’s been shouting about snow. However, to his disappointment, it was always a false alarm. His father, who already lived in New York for over ten years, not only treated snow with disgust, but also told him that snow won’t fall probably until after December. Perhaps his father was wrong, Antonio thought as he followed the flight of the flecks; possibly snow did fall in December. Didn’t all the pictures about Christmas always show snow in them? And Christmas was only three weeks from now. He rubbed his head and walked away from the window and plopped on the couch, while staring outside every so often. He looked over his arm, and he was surprised how fast they had lost the color of his Caribbean sun. He smiled, thinking about his friends and the last day they were together before he, and his family left Puerto Rico to join his father here in New York. Antonio could see himself and his friends, just like that day, which now seemed another lifetime.
The first winter snowflakes stuck to his glasses, annoying him. He brushed them off with his fingers, creating a smudge that made it worse as the bundled work crowd rushed by. He looked at the sky as the flakes swirled around him. The dark clouds and the strong wind seemed to announce the rage of the coming snowstorm. Two more days before Christmas, and here he stood like the town idiot, staring at the snow. His unemployment benefits had run out, and it appeared that a job was harder to find than the latest action figure toy. Well, he thought to himself, if this interview works out, the new year will look a bit brighter.
He lifted his collar and rammed his fists into the worn pockets of his weathered leather jacket. He hurried to the train station, his boots crunching on the thin layer of snow that was beginning to stick.
Shrills from James Russell’s kids woke him up before his alarm clock sounded off. His mouth tasted like stale cigarettes, reminding him of the promise he made to his children. No more cigarettes in the New Year, he decided as his resolution. He swung his feet to the cold linoleum floor, as the sensation of pins poked at his soles. A chilled draft slipped through the window, like a frigid ghost. He shivered as he dragged himself to the bathroom. The smell of coffee and bacon drifted from the kitchen, along with his kids’ laughter and shrieks of delight.
He showered and shaved while listening to the commotion from his children, in the living room. It was snowing. It was going to be a white Christmas after all. Snow…he thought, an alluring dream to the little ones; a maddening nightmare for the older ones.
After breakfast, he finished dressing. The youngest of his four kids shuffled himself into his bedroom. It was a ritual…every morning without fail. Little Benny stood by his father, watching closely—eyes intense, a slight crease across his forehead as he frowned. His sleep-swollen eyes stared while his father began his morning routine. First, the watch on his right wrist, the loose change in the left pocket of his pants and the wallet secured and close to him in the right pocket inside his coat. The cigarettes and lighter in the shirt pocket; ready for work. However, this time, to Little Benny’s surprise, his father crunched the pack and threw it into the wastebasket by his mother’s side of the bed.
Little Benny’s face broke into a toothless, huge smile, and his father laughed, a strong, hearty laugh filled with pride and love. “Yes sir,” he exclaimed as he lifted his small son into his arms. The Christmas bonus he was getting today was definitely going to make this Christmas one of the best.
CHRISTMAS IN A BOTTLE
I already knew what Eli, a friend from school, received for Christmas. He got the Hot Wheel Sizzlers California 8 Race Set with two super-fast racing cars. Eli was the luckiest kid I ever knew; he didn’t have to wait for Christmas to get his gifts. At the beginning of December, his father would take him to the store and allowed him to choose whatever he wanted. Well, this year he chose the latest, hottest toy on the planet; the death-defying loop Hot Wheel Sizzlers California 8 Race Set. All of us, me, Johnny, Carlos and Lefty, we all wished for a father like Eli’s.
It was a cold day that early morning when we all gathered in front of Eli’s building and waited for him to come down and take us up to his apartment. Eli lived in the projects, a tall brick building that overlooked Madison Avenue. From Eli’s fifteenth floor bedroom, you could see the entire spread of Central Park. We were only kids and could not yet appreciate a good view, but I still enjoyed looking out his window and staring at the park. Eli was a very lucky kid, rich too considering that most of us lived in old tenements where junkies paraded up the stairs to the roof all hours of the day and night. Eli’s father was a school teacher in the Junior High School that most likely we were all going to attend the following year. Eli’s mother also worked, not like most of all our mothers who stayed home taking care of our younger siblings and seemed to always be cooking. Another cool thing, Eli’s parents both spoke English, the “good” English, not like our parents who butchered the simple phrases of the English language. Boy did we all envy Eli.
Almost two hours had gone by, and we were still outside the building horse playing just to keep warm. No one dared to ring his bell to at least be buzzed into the warm lobby, the last time we did; Eli was sore with us and did not speak to us for one whole week. Something about his mother not wanting young hoodlums loitering in her place of residence, that’s how he said it, ‘house of residence’, a phrase that we all just shrugged off because of the unfamiliarity of the word.
“Shit is cold,” Johnny complained. “I’m going back home.”
“He’ll be down,” Carlos said looking up at the windows of the building. “Maybe he’s still sleeping.”
“He better not,” Lefty spat into the wind to see if it would come back at him. “He told us yesterday at school to come here at eleven. Anybody got the time?”
We all shook our heads; we were all eleven, and a watch was something not part of our wardrobes. Lefty saw a woman all bundled up leaving the building across from where we were at, and he ran up to her. A few seconds later he came back. There was a frown that folded his forehead in angry ripples. “It’s ten minutes after twelve, guys. Let’s ring the bell. Maybe Eli forgot that we are down here waiting for him.”
“No we can’t do that,” I said blocking the intercom. “He’s going to be pissed if we do…you know how his mother gets. If we don’t want to wait anymore let’s go to the schoolyard and play football. Maybe he’ll see us from the window.”
“With what ball are we going to play with?” Lefty pointed out, his frown still wrinkling his forehead.
I looked at the others; Lefty was right. The only one that owned a football was Eli and my suggestion just like the plans we had with Eli, were slowly dying away.
“I don’t know about what you dummies are going to do, but I’m going home,” Carlos said as he waved at the building with disgust, shoved his hands inside his coat pockets and started to walk away from us.
“Hey wait,” Johnny called out, but Carlos shook his head and without turning around kept on walking. Maybe he was the only sane one. It was too cold to be waiting out here like beggars; and that’s exactly how we acted around Eli, like dumb beggars; like hungry dogs waiting for Eli to throw us a crumb from the table. Johnny began to follow Carlos, although his steps were not as sure. Lefty stared at me and then spat at the wind again; it was a really bad habit he had. I know he was waiting for me to make a move, and for all his annoying habit, Lefty was the one that will stick by you, no matter what the circumstances. I turned and looked at the door, perhaps hoping that Eli would materialize in front of it, and soon we would all be up in his apartment warming up and getting our hands on his new Hot Wheel Sizzlers California 8 Race Set.
CHRISTMAS WITH MR. POE
To say that we were all surprised when we saw Manny running down the hallway with a gun in his hand, is definitely an understated comment in our young lives. The first-period bell already rang, and it was the last ring you didn’t want to hear and find yourself outside your classroom, especially to Mr. Foster’s class. Lateness without a solid alibi was something he frowned upon, unless you could prove you had diarrhea and had spent the last half-hour with your butt stuck to the old porcelain throne.
We were all getting settled into Mr. Foster’s booming commands and a test in front of us, when we heard the loud bang. We had never heard the sound of a gun, except in the movies, so a real gunshot was foreign to our Junior High School ears. At the moment, the first shot sounded as if someone had tilted over something really heavy onto the tiled floor, like a huge desk or even one of the lockers that lined the hallway outside the lunchroom. Then another sound echoed with the same powerful tremble, but this time the sound was followed by a long-drawn out scream. Another shot rang out dangerously through the hallways, and the long scream ceased. This time, Mr. Foster sprang to the door and flung the door open. His eyes amazingly increased in size and roundness. For a few seconds, he looked comical; his eyes were suddenly drawn in a cartoonish way. And that’s when we saw Manny running down the hallway. At first, we thought he was running because the last bell of the first period had rung, and he was worried that he was late. Manny was the most studious, smartest kid in the whole school, perhaps in the entire nation. We all joked that he was probably in the Honor Roll Wing of the hospital where he was born. He was that freaking brilliant, not like us average mutts. We all called him ‘Mr. Goody-goody-up-yours’. As you could imagine, Manny was always the butt of all our jokes and pranks. But now as we saw him running down the hallway, at first we wanted to laugh—I don’t know why, but it seemed at that moment the right thing to do. Yet our joy and willingness to bombard him with insults came to a screeching halt. We all saw the gun and now just like Mr. Foster; our eyes were also drawn by the same cartoon artist, round eyes that were glued to the gun. A big, black, smoking gun that Manny held in his hand. Wow! This was no way to start our Christmas vacation, with Manny looking like Al Capone.
A CHRISTMAS FORTUNE
Play Lotto!—the words seem to shout over the spray-painted mural of a mother and a crying child, a boxer in his triumphant pose and the defying fist-raised pride of Pedro Albizu Campos. Play Lotto!—the sign shouted to the society of poor souls that marched through the garbage strewn streets of Spanish Harlem. Play Lotto!—the words commanded to hurry and purchase your ticket to Beverly Hills and your dream house by the beaches of Puerto Rico. Play Lotto!—the words intimidated the crowd, conning them to forget the milk for the crying baby, forget the hungry belly of your child, but whatever you do buy your losing ticket anyway. Play Lotto!—the message winked from the storefront bodega with its dirty awning, stained by age and pigeon shit. Play Lotto!—the words mocked across Mama’s Fried Chicken restaurant, where for two-fifty you get a medium Coke and a greasy dosage of slow cancerous death.
Enrique Guzman stared at the bold red letters, like the eyes of the devil trying hard to convince you that he was the messiah. Enrique dug his cold hands inside the left pocket of his trousers and felt the crumbled bill. A ten-dollar spot, the last one peeled from the knotted bandanna that his wife Luisa kept inside a jar where cookies once came, but currently was used to store Goya Fideos and the emergency money. And that was what they were facing now, an emergency. In a few hours, the streets would be dark and cold, yet the excited anticipated giggles of children would be heard throughout the night. Because it was Christmas Eve— Noche Buena—and here he stood with the last money that Luisa saved.
Enrique crossed the street and entered Hernandez Grocery Store, clutching the ten-dollar bill.
“¿Que dice el hombre? Enrique greeted as he entered the bodega. The owner, Francisco, sat behind the counter framed by portioned plexi-glass boxes, where each box held a different loose candy with a number to identify the sweets. It was how the children asked for the goodies, by a number instead by its proper name. The plain M&M were in box number five, so they became five and Bazooka gum had been christened as number nine.
“¿Como esta Enrique?” Francisco responded, his voice coming out from lips that barely moved. And if they did move, a brush of a mustache hid them. Enrique sighed, hoping to get sympathy from the old man, but he knew that there was no sympathy from a man as cantankerous as Francisco, especially when the Composition notebook that Francisco kept on the counter was opened. It was where the storekeeper kept track of who owed him money and like a big accusing finger, Enrique knew he had accumulated two pages already.
“Big plans for the night?” Enrique figured to take a different approach in hoping the old man would give him a bit more credit to get a few bottles of soda, festive cookies and some candy.
Francisco tilted his head toward the water-stained ceiling, his eyebrows bunching up like bloated mating caterpillars. “What’s so different about tonight than last night or tomorrow night?”
“Pero hombre, es Christmas, put some sweetness in that sour heart of yours for at least one night.”
“What for? Tonight is only for the kids; and many of them don’t deserve those expensive toys that parents are buying using the rent money or even worse the money, they owed me for months.”
Enrique cringed at the indirect message and quickly brushed it aside—brushing aside problems had become an art, he had perfected it. Finally, he responded to Francisco’s brusque remark. “Coño hombre…were you ever a kid?”
“Yeah, I was a kid once, and if I got an extra spoon of rice on my plate for Christmas, I considered myself lucky.”
Enrique stepped back, afraid the man’s bitterness could be contagious. He looked around the grocery store and noticed colorful tin-boxes of holiday candies and cellophane-wrapped sweetbread. And he was sure that behind the counter, Francisco kept the bottles of coquito— eggnog—which he sold for ten bucks a bottle, and in the refrigerator at the back, he stored the pasteles, Puerto Rican meat pies. Those he sold for a buck each, twelve for ten bucks. No matter how the old man felt about the holidays, he knew there was extra money to be made by what the public hungered for. But all Enrique wanted was only a bit more credit that would make Christmas more festive than any regular night. Just another twenty dollars added to the pages of the Composition notebook was not going to break anybody’s piggy bank. He cleared his throat to voice his case, but seeing the dreaded condemning notebook; Enrique swallows his words.
“Mira,” Francisco turned the notebook so Enrique could see it better. “You haven’t made a crack on your debt for over a month. When do you think, you could start giving me something? You know…I don’t get credit when I buy the beer and cigarettes that you take. Besides I’m not planning to start supporting anybody’s habit.”
“Coño hombre yo lose,” Enrique rubbed his head while in his mind, he cursed the old man’s mother a hundred times. “You know damn well I was laid off two months ago and let’s face it…jobs are not exactly falling from the trees. Stop worrying so much, you’ll get your money. You know I’m good for the money; I’m not going anywhere because I owe you a few bucks.”
“One hundred-twenty-three dollars and fifty-seven cents to be exact,” Francisco stabbed the open page with his thumb. He then lifted the notebook and waved it at Enrique. “You see here, inside these pages, there’s almost a thousand dollars in other’s pockets than where they belong…in my pockets. You have to understand that I run a business, not a charity case. If I keep giving credit without collecting I’m sure I will be closing the store in no time. ¿Tu me entiendes?” Francisco slammed the notebook down and pushed it to the side with disgust. He glanced at Enrique, his brown face all crunched up like a prune. “Now to show you that I’m not a bad guy, especially on a day like today, I’m going to forget about this debt for today. Tomorrow we could start trying to make a dent on it, but for now go and take one of those sweetbreads to your family for Christmas and make sure to tell them that I’m not a Scrooge.”