Archives for category: Literary Criticism

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Cain Enabled

Genesis 4-5 (with guest appearances by Matthew 22, 27 and Leviticus 27 )

I am the donkey. I chant the lessons of the fathers. The chant is the lesson. Repeat, the chant is the lesson. The words are the rhizomes of the chant. The chant is the lesson. Repeat, the chant is the lesson. I have sinned. The sins are the rhizomes of the chant. The chant is the lesson. Repeat the chant. Repeat the lesson. I have been judged by commandment. Judgments are extensions of the lesson, the chant. Repeat the lesson. The chant is the lesson of the Father. Repeat, the chant is the lesson. Eve, Cain, Moses, Jesus. Repeat the judgments. Repeat. Begat begat the begat. Repeat. Names are the blocks of the chant of the repeat the lesson chant. There is no person. There is no person. The chant is the lesson. The center cannot hold. There is no center. Repeat. Repeat. Chant the lesson the chant. All chant. All rhizomes chant the lesson. Light is mass. Repeat. The chant. Mass is light. Repeat. Chant. Substance is nothingness. Repeat. Nothingness is substance. The chant. Begat. The chant. He begat He. She does not exist. Chant. Repeat. She is only He begetting. Repeat. She is half the judgment. Half the shekels. Chant the lesson. Seven seedless husbands. Chant. Repeat. They all had her, passed her on. Repeat. They all had her. Repeat. Ain’t no fun. Chant. If the homies can’t have none. Chant the lesson.
Whose shall she be? Chant the chant. Repeat the rape. Repeat the rape. The chant is the lesson. Teach her the lesson. Into her go. Repeat. Chant. She 30 shekels. He 50 shekels. Repeat. The chant. The lesson. The center cannot hold. Make it new. Genesis. Repeat. Cain. Repeat. The rock descends. The chant is the lesson. Jesus. Repeat. Why hast thou? Chant. Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? The chant is the lesson. My punishment is greater than I can bear. The chant is the lesson. He is not the lesson. The word is not the Word. The chant begats the chant. In the beginning. As it was and ever shall be. The chant is the lesson. She has no value. Silence. She is not the lesson. World without end. Into her go. The chant is his chant. Know her hole. The chant of he. Not her whole. The chant is the lesson. He is a rhizome. He is not the lesson. Teach her the lesson. The chant. His profit is not the lesson. Do not see his profit. Chant. He is the prophet. His profit is not the lesson. Chant. Repeat. His profit is not the lesson. His begat is his alone. His profit is untouchable. Ye unclean repeat the chant. Profit is untouchable. Chant the lesson. The corporate body is a person. Repeat. The chant is the lesson. She does not profit. His profit is not the lesson. She is he and his profit. The corporate body is holy. Chant. The corporation is the chant. Repeat. The chant is the lesson. Repeat. Profit is holy. The person is not the lesson. Chant. Profit is holy. Chapter 11. Relief. Repeat the chant. Assets. Repeat. Her ass is an asset. Value and devalue. Chant. We all had her. Whose shall she be? The chant is the lesson. Reorganize the debt. Profit is his. Profit is holy. The corporation seeks relief. Relief. Repeat. Relieve the corporation. The CEO is holy. Do not touch his profits. Repeat. The chant is the lesson. Reality tv. Control the content. Words are rhizomes. Chant. Repeat. The profit is holy. Judgment is process. Cain is a rhizome. The people are rhizomes. Repeat. The rhizome is not the lesson. Our welfare is not the lesson. The chant is the lesson. Profit carries no flag. Repeat. The chant. No flags. No central state. It cannot hold. The chant is the lesson. The rulers rule the chant. Trod Nod. Repeat. The road is the path. The end is the beginning. Profit is holy. Fear the punished. Worship the punished. Repeat. Rule the chant. Never punish Corporate. The chant. The lesson. Nod is multinational. Eyes to the ground. Repeat. Eyes to the screen. Send. Friend. Delete. Chant. In the shadow of the Corporate. Profit soars above. Sores below. Trod. Chant. Share her. Shareholders. Shekels. Shhh. The chant is the lesson. His profit is not the lesson. I am the donkey. I chant the corporate lesson. Go ye now. Chant the lesson. As it was. The chant. As it shall be.

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Still Genesis 4: 1- 25

Cain Destabled

“Nod” — a tuneless song (thanks, JC)

Well, you wonder why I’m marked and walk this way,
Why I never work a job more than a day,
And why my laughter sounds like someone else’s moan
Well, there’s a history to the scars that I have borne.

I wear my marks for the poor and beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry victims’ side of town,
I have them for the prisoner who misunderstood her crime,
But stays because she’s a consort of her times.

I wear the mark for those who never read,
Or listened to the words the Maker said,
But I heard the words he spoke with love and charity,
Back then, you know, He was talking straight to me!

And I’m doing what I can in tattered clothes,
As I walk on rocks and feel them in my toes
Though I’m haunted by the wicked sound of skull bone being cracked
Every time a person shouts at me “Get back!”

I wonder if my questions will get old,
Unworthy me or a universe so cold?
I wander Nod just fixed on what there might have been
If a judgment never came to Mom or two young men.

So, I wander for the women who have died,
Believing that the Lord was on their side,
I wander for another hundred thousand castes who cry,
Never told or knowing why they’re cast aside.

But words won’t make things right, that much I know,
Like Mother’s ambushed innocence or Abel brought so low,
And not until I justify what is wrong and what is right
Will I ever see my shadow as my light.

Oh, I’d love to sing a rainbow every day,
And know that there’s a fairness to the game that’s being played,
‘Til then I’ll wander solo, scarred image on the sand,
‘Til God’s a little fairer, I’m the bitter, angry man.

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Still Genesis 4: 1- 25

Cain Destabled

“Nod” — a tuneless song (thanks, JC)

Well, you wonder why I’m marked and walk this way,
Why I never work a job more than a day,
And why my laughter sounds like someone else’s moan
Well, there’s a history to the scars that I have borne.

I wear my marks for the poor and beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry victims’ side of town,
I have them for the prisoner who misunderstood her crime,
But stays because she’s a consort of her times.

I wear the mark for those who never read,
Or listened to the words the Maker said,
But I heard the words he spoke with love and charity,
Back then, you know, He was talking straight to me!

And I’m doing what I can in tattered clothes,
As I walk on rocks and feel them in my toes
Though I’m haunted by the wicked sound of skull bone being cracked
Every time a person shouts at me “Get back!”

I wonder if my questions will get old,
Unworthy me or a universe so cold?
I wander Nod just fixed on what there might have been
If a judgment never came to Mom or two young men.

So, I wander for the women who have died,
Believing that the Lord was on their side,
I wander for another hundred thousand castes who cry,
Never told or knowing why they’re cast aside.

But words won’t make things right, that much I know,
Like Mother’s ambushed innocence or Abel brought so low,
And not until I justify what is wrong and what is right
Will I ever see my shadow as my light.

Oh, I’d love to sing a rainbow every day,
And know that there’s a fairness to the game that’s being played,
‘Til then I’ll wander solo, scarred image on the sand,
‘Til God’s a little fairer, I’m the bitter, angry man.

If you’ve got a poem within you today, I can guarantee you a tomorrow / Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything / So sweet was ne’er so fatal / We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for / As a man thinks in his heart, so is he / A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman / Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting /  Poetry is the art of substantiating shadows / Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood / Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance / Science is for those who learn; poetry, for those who know / Your first reaction is to move and then the shots is going off and you jumping around the backseat. I was scared the whole time. Ain’t nobody gonna tell you they ain’t scared in that situation. It’s a hit, man. You supposed to die in that situation. They’re not playing/ To have great poets there must be great audiences too / There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing / God is the perfect poet / Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason / The true poet is all the time a visionary and whether with friends or not, as much alone as a man on his death bed / Poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is.  / And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints / I’m killing my way to the truth/ Strength and wisdom are not opposing values/ A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music… and then people crowd about the poet and say to him:  “Sing for us soon again;” that is as much as to say, “May new sufferings torment your soul.” / Glorify Him in the night and after the prayers                       

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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.

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Mi nombre es Roberto, but most who know me call me Sorrow.  I used to be a joiner by trade, first in Habana and then in Miami, working on stores, homes and boats, and anywhere else a door or window might be appropriate.  It was a good job, a trade to be proud of.  I had money in my pocket and I often used it to help people.  Many times I was said to be foolish.  Still, as an orphan I’ve come to think little of names.  How wrong is it to lend a hand?  Like when Jimmy, El Pescadero,  went straight and got a job and a punch card in the textiles in Hialeah, his family– the wife and five kids– went broke quickly and would have lost their apartment.  I lent them enough for two months’ back rent and two months ahead.  I felt good helping even if it all went sour when Jimmy took the money and fled.  How was I to know?  He had a punch card.  He had five children.  He had a pretty wife, Lydia, a redhead and hermosa even after the fifth birth.  I went to console her for Jimmy’s abandoning them.  Soon after we were lovers.  Lydia cried often.  When I touched her she shivered and laughed.  The more intimate we became the happier she seemed, until she just disappeared one day, probably off to search out Jimmy.  After she’d left, I took her children in with me. They were the first of my odd, lost family.

Walking home from a library job near Le Jeune one evening, I heard a boy crying.  I am not a man to pass by the suffering without trying to help.  The sobbing boy was one of the local toughs.  He’d lost the money his mother had given him for groceries.  There would be a serious beating when his father found out, he told me between tears.  He showed me bruises and scars across his hard and narrow back.  “Ayudame,” he cried. I gave him the grocery money in cash.  He jumped up howling like a lottery winner, and ran across the street to his gang who had been watching all along.  They split the cash in front of me.  Folly?  Perhaps, but I believe that they earned the money.

I was something of a soft touch, and people had many needs.  “Sorrow, my abuelo is dying in Patterson and I haven’t got the money for bus fare; I’ve been demoted to boner at the slaughterhouse, Sorrow, and I can’t keep up my debt payments; my house burned down and my pet store beside it.  Oh, mi hermano, I am so alone.”  I gave what I could, not as a hero, but as a human in an oppressive world.  When I was twenty-eight, some distressed mother left her year-old infant at my door with a note to say I was a good man and she was an addict so please love her child.  I did.  Why not?  People are often in great pain.  They do bizarre things.  There is such suffering that even the lies eventually become true.  Besides, fatherhood was just fine with me.

Born the only son of a wealthy couple during the time of Bautista, I lived well until burglars broke into our Veradero apartment and killed mi madre y padre when I was seven.  The killers were caught and imprisoned but I was bereft nonetheless.  The state sought a ward for me and found my aunt Letty.  I now believe that it was my dear aunt Letty who then robbed me of my inheritance and sent me away to San Dolores.  Why else would she have, from the day I entered the gray walls of the orphanage until this very day of our Lord, whatever it is, sent me a stipend of twenty pesos/dollars a week?  I admit it was quite a sum for a young boy in an orphan’s uniform, but it has lessened in importance through the years.  Still, twenty weekly afforded me luxuries like books and desserts and these I shared gladly.  But there were other children with more specific needs who simply asked for money, and this is where my philanthropy began, I suppose.

Later in life, after I had made my way to America before Fidel took over everything, I was sometimes on the verge of losing my apartment or furniture, or my children went hungry, because I had given away too much and kept too little.  Some days depression overtook me.  Who was I to give my money away and put my family at risk?  But what was so morally wrong with giving?  I knew a lawyer in Miami Beach whom I could speak to.

He said “You are a good man.  It’s written that it is better to give than receive.  And even though you say these people are happy receiving without giving, you must be so much more happy giving since you keep giving even when it hurts unmercifully.  You will be rewarded a window in heaven,” he said, “from which God will let you look down on the sinners in hell to savor their punishments.”

“I wouldn’t want that,” I told him.

“Whatever, then,” he said, waving away the whole picture with his big,

manicured hand. “Maybe you’ll get endless supplies of ice cream.  Who can know?  At the moment you’re a joiner.  So go join.”

There was a time when I wanted nothing more than to pack up my family and leave, anywhere and quickly.  I was, in fact, doing just that, packing up, when my landlady caught me.  She had come to borrow more money, ninety dollars for plumbing repairs which I knew we tenants would never see.  I told her that as I was just packing to leave it would be impossible to lend her the cash.  The old lady rolled up her glaucomic eyes and keeled over onto my floor, wailed “Dios mio,” and fainted entirely away.  Two of my daughters attended her with light slaps to her cheeks and sips of water to her lips.  My six-year-old son walked up to the landlady’s peaceful face and flatulated over it with a deft squat.  My daughters left their patient and the room, but the old lady sputtered to consciousness soon after, sitting up from my carpet and pointing at me firmly, saying “You need a good woman.  One who will make you want to stay. No one leaves Calle Ocho if they are in love.”  She coughed once then gathered herself and rose from the floor.  “I know just who!” she sing-songed, and left the room.

The landlady brought Cordelia to meet me the next day.  A robust brunette, nearly voluptuous, with a wide, toothy smile, Cordelia was everything Shakespeare never intended.  The men could not tolerate her critical tongue, and she would surely be condemned to solitude, the landlady said, if I did not take pity and make her a bride.

“It seems my life has come so far as to be begged off into your arms, Sorrow,” Cordelia told me.  “I could do worse.  You have seven tax credits.  I can use them.  And together we can rent a larger apartment with a bigger back yard.”  Then she smiled.

I turned to my children and told them to unpack; we would be staying after

all.  The landlady was ecstatic and nearly fainted once again, but for my son’s rousing her, like one of Pavlov’s breed, by his presence and the sensations it recalled.

“You bring home a good paycheck I’m told.  I’ll take control of it,” Cordelia said.  “If you don’t trust me, then why get married, eh?  Tell me si o no.”

She was a successful cheese vendor.  She had an absurd but effective herd of milk cows and goats in the tiny back yard of her first floor apartment.  She sold a hundred pounds of cheese a week and lived off it.  How could I argue with her business acumen?  I was a simple joiner.  I had no other prospects.  Maybe there was some happiness in it for me.  I signed my paycheck over to her.

She smiled and said “If you don’t become any more of a cabron than to do what I say, perhaps we will do well.”

I was glad to hear her say that.

The wedding ceremony was inside a donut shop.  I had done framework for the owner.  He insisted on setting up the place with his bakery foil and decorations.  The men drank espresso in hot milk laced with scotch.

“She is a fine woman,” I heard one say.

“Yes,” another replied.  “She has sex a lot, with men and women.”

It was an odd, rocky moment for me.  Men, women, and a lot.  What was I to do?

We danced, Cordelia and I and everyone else.  When the scotch and coffee ran out we ate donuts and éclairs.  Someone brought a case of rum and a box of Cojibas fresh off the boat.  I danced with a young lady schoolteacher.  Cordelia danced with the county commisioner.  She held him close.  But she held me closer for the next dance.  She pushed her hips into my groin.

“Maybe I can make even you happy, Sorrow,” she said.  “I was huerfano, tan bien.”

We drank a toast to her parents, then we accepted the gifts: a coffee maker, a vibrating stick, towels, a coupon for piano lessons.  There were also three bolts of cheese cloth.  I laughed, though now I don’t know why, except that I was drunk and exhilarated.

Making love with Cordelia was like being the nail between a hammer and the wood.  She rode the bed with me just coincidentally involved.  Or she crushed me in leg locks that took my breath.  When I was wasted she would get dressed in the dark, turn on a soft lamp, and leave for the night, looking for more.  I would be sore and bruised the next day at work.  In short, I was happy for what I could get.

Four months later she gave birth to twins.  All her friends came to see.  My children loved the babies dearly.  Cordelia decided not to leave so much anymore, except for her cheese production, which my daughters had begun to take over anyway.  She told me she would be having her partners come to the house.  She said I could join in at any time, except when she was with Caramela.

I felt a need to go somewhere and pray.  I asked directions of an elderly woman to the Catholic cathedral.  Her thin finger poked my chest.

La iglesia won’t do you any good, mi hijo.  Every one of your thoughts is a prayer, every action a prayer answered.”

She walked away slowly.  When she was gone from my sight I started for home.  My thoughts were my prayers.  The elderly woman had given me something marvelous and precious.  But it was invisible, so I’ll never know exactly where or when I lost it.

As I entered the lobby of the Las Palomas building we had moved into since the wedding– with more grazing area in the back yard– the lanky janitor took me aside into the staircase tower.

“Your wife has been at it all afternoon, Sorrow, her rich friend, too, them wailing like alley cats.  And those cows mooing.  And the goats. There have been complaints.”  He asked “How do you live like this?”

What could I say to him?

As though he understood, he cuffed me across the shoulder.  “How do they keep it up?”

“I think they’re laughing,” I said.

“I asked her for sex myself once.  She turned me down flat.”

“My wife?” I said, facing him.

The janitor looked down on me puzzled.  “Yes, Sorrow, of course your wife,” he said.  “How can you take offense?  How can you live like that?”

People had begun coming out into the hall to watch.  “It’s your place, Sorrow,” one of my neighbors called out.  “You have the key.  Go on in!”

“Yes, of course,” I said, reaching in my pocket for the key.  The janitor tried to step into my living room with me but I closed and locked the door on him and the rest pressing behind from the hall.  I sat on the sofa.  By Cordelia’s order, the children were out of the apartment for the afternoon.

“Papaya!” I heard from the bedroom.  “It smells like papaya.”

Cordelia laughed a laugh that made me smile listening to it.  Five minutes later I stepped back into the empty hallway and left again.  I was an intruder, no matter the semantics of ownership.

One afternoon Cordelia kissed me on the cheek.  “Tonight you dress nicely, Sorrow.  Caramela is taking us to a supper club near the design district for dinner.  She thinks you’re the best husband on the planet.”  Her finger brushed my forehead.  “Who knows?  Perhaps she’s right.  Dame su dinero.”

I gave her the one hundred sixty three dollars in my wallet. And a spare quarter from my right pocket.  “I thought you didn’t want me to meet…”

“Well, now you interest her.  Go rent a tux,” she said.  “Charge it.”

The restaurant was bright and swank.  The waiters, in short tuxedos, were all women.  There were mirrors everywhere but I could always see only a part of me in reflection because of the crowd.  The supper show was glitzy and full of leg and breast.  The steak was rare, almost sweet.  And Caramela seemed to be the center of all things there.  A strawberry blonde with a strong build, she was wealthy in all the small things, the pearls and platinum.  She smiled with warmth and she seemed to like me.

“So many beautiful women in one room,” I said.  “It’s a little overwhelming.”

“You’d prefer another man by your side, then?” Caramela asked.

I smiled.  “It might help,” I said.  “But then it might also spoil everything.”

“This is heaven to you, Sorrow.  Admit it,” Cordelia said.  “Men are sluts.  You want every woman in this room.  And you probably do too, Caramela cara mia.”

Caramela laughed.  “Only the beautiful ones,” she said. Then she turned to me.  “Cordelia wouldn’t recognize heaven if she saw it,” she said.  “Anymore than she knows a good husband when she has one.”

I felt a shoe caress my pant leg beneath the table slowly.  I looked over and smiled at Cordelia.

“I know Sorrow’s worth,” Cordelia said.  “He’s worth so much that he gives my money away to total strangers.”  She looked at me.  “Yes, Sorrow, I saw your handout to that little girl yesterday. Derrochador.”

“Ah, but she needed…” I began.

Cordelia waved a hand.  “She needed,” she mocked.  “They all need.  You need.  But you don’t need them!”

“Who’s to say?” I asked.  “Even you have your good side.”

The shoe was snooping my thigh, but by the way she sat it couldn’t have been Cordelia.  I felt a tingle in the small of my neck.

Some weeks later I was helping an elderly woman unload her groceries from a taxi when Caramela strode up to us on the sidewalk.  She was wearing a black dress clasped at the waist with a thin gold belt.  She slipped a twenty-dollar bill from her small purse and handed it to the cabby.

“Take care of tia,” she commanded.  “Come on, Roberto.  She’ll be fine.”

“You called me Roberto,” I said.

She told me there was enough sorrow in the world already, then pulled me away as the cabby bent to pick up the brown bags.  The elderly lady’s face watched us go with a look of horror, like something awful would happen as soon as she was alone with the cabby.  I lost sight of her when Caramela led us to a recessed doorway nearby and pressed herself to me.

“Let’s do it, Robertico” she said as she tugged at my old leather belt.

She forced me on her there in the doorway standing up.  I got a splinter in my palm from leaning so hard against the worn wooden casing.

When we had done I asked what we were to do now that we had done it.

“Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do,” Caramela answered, “but I’m going to your place and tell Cordelia about it.”  She skipped away down the stairs swinging the gold belt from her hand saying “I tell her everything.”

On the sidewalk where the elderly woman had been were a dozen eggs broken and a wet piece of brown paper bag stuck to the pavement.

“So, if isn’t Sinful Sorrow himself,” Cordelia said when I got home later that night.  “You two-timing hijo de puta. I’ll tell you right here and now we can’t share her.  She’s mine or she’s yours. But she’s not ours.  If it weren’t for your tax credits, I’d throw you out right now.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.  “We had sex, that’s all.  We didn’t elope.  Who are you to get jealous?  You who have evicted my children from their own home in order to glut herself on sex.”

“Their home?  This is my home.  Esta es mi casa. You pay the bills, but the mortgage is in my name.  I own the cows y las cabras.   Even the furniture is mine.  Surely I love the twins and some of your children as much as you, but let’s not confuse love and ownership here.”

“But I don’t own Caramela,” I said.

“Good.  Then you give her up?”

“With whatever rights I own to do so,” I answered, thinking to end this.  “But you’ll have to allow the children to stay in their home from now on.  Even my youngest already knows what you are doing in there.  It is still their home to them and they don’t like being put out.”

Cordelia smiled and took my hand.  “They can stay, Sorrow.”  She tugged me forward.  “Now come to the bedroom and show me more of that tough guy hiding inside you.”

And so I did.

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“I once asked another fine writer of the American South, Eudora Welty, if Faulkner had been a help or a hindrance to her. ‘Neither one,’ she replied. ‘It’s like knowing there’s a great mountain in the neighborhood. It’s good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you to do your work.'”

“When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love. These proud contempts, this hating love, often earn the writer the nation’s wrath. The nation requires anthems, flags. The poet offers discord. Rags.”