One day the next week, the dark-skinned Nicaraguan neighbor woman from down the hall stopped me on my way to work.

Senor Sorrow,” she said.  “My hija Mita cannot obtain an entry visa into the country.  I must bring her here.  In my country she will surely die.”

“Do you need money?” I said, reaching into my pocket.  “I’ve got some on me now.  And if you’ll give me an idea of how much…”

She smiled and put her brown hand on my wrist.  “You are a saint, Senor Sorrow.  No, I need no money.  My sister needs an American husband to gain entry, residency.  I need you to marry her.”

Now I smiled and almost laughed, except that I saw she was serious.  “But I’m a husband already,” I said.

“Yes, you have a lot of experience.  That’s what told me to come to you.  You have already got two wives, so why can’t you be a husband twice as well?”

Here was another of those simple truths as subtle as a flying mallet.

“But the government,” was all I could think to mumble at the moment.

“All they want is the name of an American citizen,” she said.  “In Florida, Immigration don’t spend much time on prosecuting bigamy.  That’s another agency.”

By the gods, she was serious!  And she knew how to get it done.

Within three weeks my new bride Mita was living with her sister down the hall.  She acquired a job somewhere quickly and gave me half her earnings bi-weekly, not that I asked for it, but her sister insisted.  I lived with Cordelia and the children.  Caramela and I were still meeting in unusual public places.  I don’t know what drove Caramela to surprise me in elevators and hallways.  Perhaps I was so willing.  Perhaps she was too wealthy and crazy with it.  Sometimes it seemed she was the man and I was the woman being chased; but I didn’t complain.  And Mita, though not a beauty, was ardent as any blushing bride.  We used her room in her sister’s apartment.  She would strip naked slowly before me with the most excruciating look of shyness on her face.  She took my breath away.  Sex was a feast of gluttony and spent energy.  Cordelia didn’t know about Caramela; she thought we had broken off completely.  And I hadn’t told either about Mita.  They were accustomed to my visiting neighbors.  I was content with the women’s ignorance.  Looking back I realize I was something of a predator in those days, disguising it as benevolence.  But can you blame a man for gorging?  Especially a man never too good looking at any stage in his life.

The next April Caramela caught Mita and me in the stairwell petting Mita’s swollen belly.  Caramela was haughty and indignant.  Mita kept her hand on mine on her firm round pregnancy.  She smiled at Caramela.  It was awkward and I felt a shiver for the future.

The following week I was out in the courtyard with my nine-year-old son.  He was taking in the wash.  He would unclip each piece of clothing and bring it to his nose and take a deep breath.

“Seagulls,” he would say, or “Geese,” naming the birds that had flown past overhead by their scent that had come down to settle on the fresh wash.

I was always astounded by his ability, though I secretly worried that this kind of talent could make no money.

“Bobwhite,” he said.  “Sparrow, Cordelia.”

I looked into the sky for this last bird.

“Look out for Cordelia, Dad!”

The stick end of a heavy broom caught the side of my neck and dropped me on the spot.  Cordelia stood over me waving the weapon.

“I just talked with the tax man, you cretin.  You stupid, lazy bastard come mierda.  He told me that your children aren’t yours.  You never filed for them.  They’re nobody’s tax credits!  What am I going to do if they audit me these last couple of years?  You son of a bitch,” she said in a sort of horrified whisper.  “You were supposed to be different.  But Caramela and that Nicaraguan puta.  You cheating, lying, lazy cara culo.  If I had a knife.  You were supposed to be good.”  She hurled the broom down at me and left the apartment, taking the twins with her, but leaving the cows and goats behind.

Mita’s baby was a boy, very dark, with pronounced almond-shaped eyes unlike both mine and Mita’s.  I asked her sister what Mita had done for a living back in their homeland.

“She was a prostitute,” her sister said.  “She still is.  You didn’t know, Senor Sorrow?  Oh, my, yes.  I taught her about you Americans, how you want power and you like subservience.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She makes good money,” she said.  “She makes a good wife.”

“But the baby isn’t mine,” I said.

“Practically none of your children are yours, are they, Senor Sorrow?” she said.  “Why don’t you ever see the obvious?”

“What do you mean by Americans?”

She smiled and walked back to her apartment.  I felt dizzy.  What my neighbor had said was true; most of my children weren’t mine.  No, none was.  What I think I had wanted was for my wife, one of them at least, to be mine.  The children would be then simply an inevitable consequence.  But, no.  My children were Oriental, dark, light, Latin, perhaps Australian, and more than I could have ever sired on my clumsy own.  Yet we all seemed the better for our family.  How does a person judge these things?  Where does one start and stop?

When she arrived home the next day, I told Mita not to give me any more of her money.

“But it is your money,” she said in English.  “You use it to do good.”

She handed me the Oriental baby.  It was small and squirmed in my arms and I loved it without questioning.

“You are my husband, Sorrow,” she said.  “You only I do not charge.  You only I care for.”

I took the baby to Cordelia’s abandoned apartment and my children.

When I got home from work a few days later there was a government notice on my door.  My children had been taken into custody of the State.  The paper declared me to have neither natural nor legal claim to half my children, and the heritages of several of the other half were undocumented enough to warrant an empowerment over the entire group under suspicion of my having broken some law or other.  It was true, as Cordelia had discovered, that I had never been able to complete all the legal paperwork involving my family.  There was just so much of it and it didn’t seem at all relevant to reality.  I pulled the notice from the door and stepped into the empty apartment.  One of Cordelia’s cows had broken into the patio door and was standing in the middle of the living room switching its long tail.  I sat in a chair and reread the government’s declaration.

“Mita was arrested,” my neighbor told me from the open doorway.  “She will be deported soon.”

I was stunned.  The children were gone in a new and brutal way.  I cringed that they were living beneath bureaucratic regulations.  They had become orphans right under my nose.  And Mita, who was not so different a wife than Cordelia after all, was now so much the worse for having known me.  I picked up the phone and called Caramela.

“It’s been quite a while, Sorrow.  You’ve changed,” my lawyer friend said the next day as Caramela and I settled in chairs before the big desk.  “You used to be giving all the time.  That was your trouble.”  He waved his big hand in front of his face like at a buzzing fly.  “But now you’ve changed.  Now you want things, eh?  What are you here for?” he asked.

“I want to get my children back,” I told him.

“You see?” he said.

Caramela rose from her chair and pulled on my shoulder.  “We can find a different counsel, Roberto.  You don’t have to take this.”

He pointed a finger like a gun at Caramela.  “This your wife?”

“No,” I said.  “Caramela, please sit.”  She settled into the chair again.  “My wife left me.”

“Yeah, I heard,” he said.  “She left you clobbered on the ground when she found out your kids weren’t legal deductions.  Nice parenting, Sorrow.  Broom fights and tax fraud don’t go over well in custody court.”

“But he has another wife he could use,” Caramela said.

The lawyer laughed loudly.  “That Mita woman?  I believe she’s already begun the outbound journey.  The INS is a vengeful group.”

“Please,” I said.  “I come to you for help.”

The lawyer stopped laughing.  His eyes rested on Caramela’s legs beneath her short suit skirt.  “Nice thighs,” he said.  Caramela shifted her position in the chair.  “Look, Sorrow, it’s like I already said.  You’ve changed.  You never asked nobody for no help or nothing.  People came to you for help.  That’s how you got those children.  You are like that children’s fairy tale character. He was a fool too. A big fool. But you, you are that guy cubed. What’s there to do about it?  That’s the world today. That’s your life.  You’ve already lived it.  You can’t get out of it all now.  Forget the children.  They’re gone into the system.  You took them as far as you could.  By the time a bigamist won a custody case in court those kids would be too old for college.”

Simple truths were falling all around me like light hammer taps.  I stood up with Caramela.

“We’ll contact another attorney,” she said.

“No,” I said quietly.  “He’s right.  There’s no use.”

The big man walked us to the door.  “That’s the spirit,” he said, smiling.  “Stop asking, Sorrow.  You’re a natural giver.  It’s not in you to take.”

“Forget him,” Caramela said as she tugged me out the office door.

Every day I went home to that empty apartment.  I milked the cows and goats and poured the milk down the toilet.  The ghosts of my children, of my wives, the ghosts of a family that would never again be together haunted the whole building.  The ghosts smothered me. To say nothing of the livestock.  It seemed I had hurt people my entire life, despite good intentions.  And there was no making any of it better.  I soon became desolate and depressed.

On the last night of June that year Caramela rolled over to face me after one of our lovemaking sessions.  She kissed me strong on the lips and said “Roberto, I’m a man, un macho.  I have wanted to tell you for a while now but I couldn’t.  Still, there it is.  I was a man.  I had myself surgically altered to be a woman.  But now I want to go back.  I want to take care of you as a man.”

“You’re a man?” I repeated.

“Yes, but I was altered into a woman.”

“But you’re beautiful,” I insisted.

“Thank you,” Caramela said.  “I was a handsome man as well.”

“You’re a man?” I repeated.

“You have been through a lot lately.  I can be stronger for both of us,” Caramela said, sitting up in bed.

The sheet fell from her, exposing her breasts.  She had beautiful breasts.  I told her as much.

“I could keep them for you if you’d like,” Caramela said.  “And just have the rest changed.  Would you like that, Robertico?”

I sat up and said “I’ve lost my children, and two wives.  And you want to be a man.  It was always my policy to build things on the square.  Build things to last.”  I flopped back as if I’d been smacked with a spanner.  “Join at right angles.”

In October, Caramela flew out of Ft. Lauderdale to Copenhagen to get strong.  I packed my things, left the animals, and moved into an unfurnished apartment.  I slept badly on a cot.  In the days I worked badly.  Frames didn’t plumb with doors.  Windows sat akimbo.  I didn’t care anymore about the perpendicular nature of my work.  All angles grew obtuse and acute at the same time.

One night a couple of weeks later as I lay on the wood floor, there came a knock on my door.

“Sorrow, what are you doing flat on your back?” a man’s voice called out.

“What should I be doing?  Somersaults?  How did you know I was on my back?”

“What other positions can you be in in an apartment with no furniture?”

“Standing.  Sitting.  I’ve lost my job,” I told him.  It was true.  I did bad work and the construction industry doesn’t lament the loss of a bad joiner.  “The door is open.”

It was the giant man, a constant drunk, who lived and raved upstairs.  He was holding a bottle.  “You’re a good man,” he said, “and you get nothing back.  Here, have a drink with me.  You should get back something, even if just once, as a symbol,” he said.  He raised the bottle to his mouth and swallowed until the liquid was all gone.  Then he dropped the empty bottle.  “After all, a moment and a life are not so distant cousins.  Doing a thing once isn’t so different from having done it all your life.  Go rob a shop.  It must be a large thing you do to cover a lifetime of charity and waste.”

“But what good would it be?”

“You need more drink,” he said, then turned on his giant heel and left.

My money went quickly on small favors to anyone who asked, and within three months I found myself in the street downtown near Bayside.  I had the clothes on my back and most of the week’s twenty dollars in my pocket.  I was not happy.

A voice from the alley called me over.

“Could you spare a dime?” the ragged man asked.

I was in no mood to give.  I pulled the money from my pocket and showed it to him.

“Get a job,” I told him, and pocketed the cash again.

“Give it up,” he said.

A shiver ran through me.  This shadow man had stabbed me with a knife.  I was stabbed twice in the chest but was still standing as though nothing had happened.  The man was staring into my eyes.  He was quiet a moment, frozen, the knife dripping with my blood.  Pain grew like a scream inside my chest.

“Here, take it,” I said, dropping the money at his feet.

He bent to snatch up the bills, then fled.  I took a few steps, and collapsed into a garbage can, pulling the contents down on me.  I fell asleep or unconscious and immediately saw Cordelia and Caramela standing over me.

“You dumb bastard. Bobo loco,” Cordelia said.  “The man asks for ten cents and you show him veinte pesos.  In Miami. It’s no wonder he has taken your life.”

“I got some bad advice from my neighbor,” I told her.

“You tried, Robertico.  At least you tried,” Caramela said, looking very mannish in a blue three-piece suit and tie.  Her blonde hair was now short and brushed to the side.  “You will be rewarded in heaven,” she added.

“It’s nice to hear you speak of heaven.  Is it good there?”

“How would we know?” Cordelia said.  “We’re still alive.”

“Am I really going to die now?  Here?  Talking to you two like this?  Am I going to become an angel with garbage all over me?”

Escuchame,” Cordelia said.  “When you die, now or later, the only thing you’re sure to become is a memory.”

“Your children will always remember you fondly,” Caramela said.

“Wherever they are,” Cordelia added.  “I guarantee I’ll never forget you.”

I felt like smiling but there was no physical sensation of muscles moving in my face.  “Am I dead already?” I asked.  “Is the suffering really over?”

“Suffering?” Cordelia repeated, her voice rising as when she has taken offense at a remark.  “You don’t know suffering, Sorrow.  Only a woman truly suffers.  You men bring misfortune on yourselves, then call it suffering. We women suffer your mistakes.  We’re not as big as you.  We menstruate.  We drag ourselves around pregnant for nine months after lovemaking you men consider no more than a good rut.  We give birth, bleeding screaming childbirth, only to see our children grow into their own private hell of suffering.  You men watch. . .”

Cordelia kept speaking but her words faded with her image.  They were gone.

A deep pain gripped my chest.  Way up in the buildings’ corridor of sky there were angels circling.  I believe that almost every soul becomes an angel.  So much is twisted and diseased on this earth and the pressure of corruption is so insistent that it would take a miracle to pass through life unscathed.  In this wicked place a miracle like that appearing in public would be beaten quickly and nailed high to something as a warning to other miracles.  There are plenty of nails, nine inches long and three quarters thick, and a hammer on hand to drive them true.

People stepped past me on a sidewalk nearby.  They could see me prostrate there, but they couldn’t see themselves helping.  Why should they?  What kind of awful universe would demand that they go around helping the suffering?  They didn’t invent this pain.  How could they believe they could make it better?  More likely they would just be bringing horror upon themselves.

As it turned out, I survived the day on my own.  That night a fire truck nearly ran me over on its way to a three alarm blaze.  It was a long time before the stab wounds in my chest healed.  I spoke with a nurse who attended me, and told her my life story.  I saw her speaking with the head nurse later, looking my way, her index finger orbiting her right temple, the head nurse nodding sternly.  I was in the Jackson Memorial psych ward the next day, as much for my indigence as for my odd life.  I was an inmate for years.  I got to know the attendants well.  I did rounds with them, changing bed sheets and cleaning cells.  That’s how I found Caramela one day, strapped in, locked up, and alone.  Through the window I watched her, pale and shrunken, her eyes glassy and wild.

“What is she in for?” I asked the attendant.

“It doesn’t recognize itself,” he said.  “But then, what’s to recognize?  It’s a freak of science.  Tits and a cock.  I’d be confused too, feeling myself up all the time.  Does it fuck itself do you think?”

“No,” I said, walking away.

One day the head nurse came to me with the finance clerk beside her.  It seemed that I had accumulated at twenty dollars a week a sum exceeding several thousand dollars since entering the institution.  I was no longer indigent.  I was released.  I could go.

But I couldn’t go.  Not with Caramela inside.  I was hired as an attendant.  After many months I managed to work Caramela into my routine.

The first time I entered her cell she looked up at me and smiled, her eyes focused and not so blasted.

“Roberto,” she said.  “Por fin.  I’ve been waiting.  I knew you’d come.  I knew you wouldn’t abandon me.”

I sat down beside her and we talked.  I unbuckled and bathed her.  I combed her short hair.  I shaved a patch of her left cheek that grew whiskers.  Yes, she was a man again, with breasts.  Yet I continued to think of her as a she.

“I’m going to get you released,” I promised her.

“Good,” she said.  “I would like that.”

The next day as I entered her cell she looked up at me and smiled.

“Roberto,” she said.  “Por fin.  I’ve been waiting.”

“My rounds took a little longer today,” I said.

“I knew you’d come,” she continued.

My heart sank.

“I knew you wouldn’t abandon me.”

I unbuckled and bathed her.  I cried openly as she spoke from her delusions the same words as yesterday.  We were to have our happy reunion over and over and over again.

It had never occurred to me that I had abandoned her.  I hadn’t thought she could miss me.  Caramela’s did what she thought was best; but her plans wouldn’t have worked for me. I felt responsible for her condition nevertheless.  What was I to do but continue to care for her and the others locked behind those hard walls? Some did not respond any more than a plant responds to light.  Others, like Caramela, responded with hopeless enthusiasm.  All, including me, were lost.  I tried to make the time remaining something more than total desolation for each of us.  How do you judge the quality of people’s lives?  How does one gain such perspective to judge?

I lie on a bed beside an open window in the employees’ dormitory.  It is late afternoon.  A hot city wind passes by filled with the smell of concrete, the nearby river, and the coming rain.  I am bone tired.  All the years are behind me now.  They have hammered me down.  Caramela died of a virus last spring.  A young, yellow-skinned woman, her eyes large, restless and sorrowful, occupies Caramela’s cell.  The young woman makes no sound whatsoever except a soft mewling when she sleeps.

Outside, an autumn coolness rushes along the ground and into my window.  Water falls.  Like breathing, like a heartbeat, this rain is part of a progress that starts at birth.  We writhe, we twitch and laugh and bleed throughout the raw and savage unraveling.  In the end, having done what we thought best, orando por el momento siguiente and hoping forgiveness is near, we stiffen, losing our mass and gravity in the space of a blink and a sigh.