In Spite of the Devil

Can Nelson help Xiomara choose between her family and her future?

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Nelson would just as soon have gone for a slice and a Coke after school, but Xiomara wanted to walk to Inwood Park. Although it was in Manhattan, Inwood Park was so close to where they were standing in the Bronx that Nelson thought he could hit a baseball across the river and watch it land; but it was a long, roundabout walk by way of the Broadway Bridge. Still, he thought, it’s nice out and it’s something to do that doesn’t cost money, so he shrugged and said, “I’m amenable.”

Amenable was yesterday’s Word of the Day, and it was a good one. Nelson used to slip out his phone to clandestinely check the sports news as soon as the crackling homeroom speakers signaled the principal’s morning greeting. She began with announcements, “Today we have visitors from the Department of Health who will be talking to you about dental care”; followed by reminders, “You must sign up for metro cards by Friday”; and ended with the Word of the Day, which she first defined, “Perseverance: to try, try, and try again in spite of obstacles,” then used in a sentence: “If you don’t have perseverance, you will not amount to much.” She closed with the mission statement, “to educate and elevate the students of Marble Hill High.” That sign-off phrase used to signal Nelson to close his phone; however, since meeting Xiomara, who was in double honors, he suddenly saw the value of vocabulary.

He took Xiomara’s book bag, swung it over his shoulder, and they joined the crowd of students jostling out the front gates and spilling onto the automotive row of gas stations, car washes, and tire shops that led to Broadway.

Xiomara had a reputation for being serious, but she was smiling now, luxuriating in the small joy of walking freed of her book bag. Before she met Nelson, what she called her “small joys” had been random, like when the bus pulled up just as she got to the stop, but Nelson was creating small joys for her. Xiomara liked these new joys that weren’t accidental. She was beginning to rely on them.

“I went to Inwood Park almost every day over the summer,” she said conversationally. “It’s so nice on the riverbanks. There’s a cool river breeze, and the marsh has ducks and swans and other birds. The view is, well, it’s really…” — she skirted the word romantic — “… it’s beautiful.”

“Sounds copacetic,” Nelson replied happily, congratulating himself on scoring another Word of the Day. He put his arm around her. “Listen, I got a car for the weekend. How about we go look at those colleges in Boston?”

“Boston? Oh. Well. I was thinking — you know, maybe it’s better to wait. I mean, it’s only September. We don’t even start applications until December.”

Mamita! Who wants to go to Boston in December? It’s even colder there than it is here! Let’s go now.”

“Well, I was thinking … maybe I’ll just go to City.”

Nelson stopped in his tracks. “To City! Haven’t you had enough of the city?”

Xiomara could not say no, and she did not want to go where “yes, but” would lead, so she turned her face aside and became very interested in the El Panadería bakery store window.

Nelson persisted. “Xia! Are you kidding me? You have a chance to get out — grab it! The farther away you are from this place, the better. Why do you think I’m applying to Prescott instead of York?”

“Because Prescott gives a degree and York doesn’t?” Xiomara asked the wedding cake toppers.

“I don’t need a degree to fly, Mami; I just need a license. The degree is just icing on the cake.”

For a moment, Xiomara thought he was talking about the wedding cake, and, confused, she turned to face him. Reorienting herself, she asked, “You’re only choosing Prescott because it’s in Arizona?”

“Yeah! Well, that, and the Prescott degree gets me better money, so it pays for itself.”

“Well, Miss Olitsky said if I want to stay in the city, I have the grades for Columbia … on a scholarship.” Xiomara looked back at the wedding cake. She was proud of her straight A’s, but it made her an outsider at Marble Hill, and she wanted Nelson to think she fit in. He was her first boyfriend. She didn’t know how she got him. One day, he was just there. Another day he might just be not there. If that happened, what would she do? Life would not just go back as it was before — she was not who she was before, she was no longer a loner; high grades wouldn’t mean much anymore without someone to celebrate with.

“Columbia? Let me tell you something about Columbia,” Nelson said, hitting his stride. “My aunt works there — in admissions.” He paused for this to take effect, saw that it did, and continued. “She says they use all their scholarship money on guys for their pitiful sports teams. Plus, Columbia’s here, Xia. You’ll be riding the same subway, eating the same government cheese. What happened to Boston?”

Xiomara had been expecting Nelson to ask that question. Just yesterday, he had seen her practically dance out of her college counseling session; he knew about the two colleges in Boston; he had run up to the library with her to scroll through student life pages and had admired each page with her as more fabulous than the one before. Here, students were seated on sculpted stone benches, reading beneath enormous, stately trees, bright red and orange leaves strewn about their penny-loafered feet. There, barefoot students were sitting on lawns outside a sunlit neoclassical library, listening in rapt attention to their earnest professors’ lectures. Then it was snowing, and students raced out of the evergreen-wreathed, stone dining hall, clasping lunch trays to serve as sleds on the hill outside.

Next, there was Boston itself: college town nonpareil. Students jogged along the Charles River, strolled on the Boston Common, emerged from boutiques carrying boxes of handcrafted chocolates and bags of freshly roasted coffee beans.

Conspicuously absent were any photos of worn-out people in threadbare coats, pushing wire shopping carts past supermarkets with storefront signs reading “Special! Buy one, get one half-price. While Supplies Last!”

Xiomara had decided then and there that she would major in anything that got her a seat on a lunch tray. Nelson, delighted to have an academic reason to ask her to spend a weekend with him, had offered, “Let’s go check it out. Take a look, walk around, make sure you like it before you apply. Those applications cost money. Nonrefundable money. Plus, it’ll give me a reason to go to Fenway Park.” He’d answered her blank look by explaining, “It’s a ballpark. Home of the Boston Red Sox. Don’t worry, I’ll pick a day they’re playing the Yankees: It’ll be game over in twenty minutes.”

Xiomara had laughed.

“You got a nice laugh, Xia. You should do it more often.”

He’s right, she thought. I should.

When they had parted company, Xiomara walked home feeling her opportunities were limitless. She could take classes barefoot; she could buy chocolate in any flavor she pleased; she could be free. However, by the time she reached her building, her spirits had sunk. There was her father, sitting outside, as usual, playing dominoes and drinking beer. He had greeted her as usual by laughing, “Hola, Genio!” She’d ignored him, as usual, which made him and his friends laugh more, as usual.

Her mother was equally predictable. She made her morning rounds, on which Xiomara had accompanied her before she was school age. First, her mother went to early morning mass, where she met her friends who also had trouble at home. After mass, they stayed and prayed together, and then lingered to talk outside on the church steps. Next, she went to the greengrocer for fresh produce, the bakery for pan de Manteca, then to the butcher or fishmonger. Along the way, she would run into neighbors and exchange the news from the block. Once she was back home, she peeled, seeded, washed, sliced, and diced the produce, then steamed, fried, broiled, or baked the meat, seasoned everything, and combined it with rice. Around this time, her husband would wake up, and she would set out a plate for him, which he consumed hungrily, praising her cooking, making small talk, and occasionally apologizing for coming in late. As long as neither of them mentioned his drinking, this would be a pleasant if insubstantial interaction. Then, while he showered, she cleaned the kitchen. At dinnertime, he would be gone, and the table would be set for her mother, her sisters, and herself.

Xiomara and her sisters were not unsympathetic to either of their parents, but one by one, as her sisters finished high school they had moved out — and kept their distance. Xiomara’s mother’s world teetered and tottered with each departure. Xiomara was the last child left. And then there was one. She did her best to keep her mother company, and she’d come home yesterday evening intending to tell her mother the good news about Boston, but when she had sat down at the dinner table set for the two of them, she thought, If I go away to college … and then there were none. She won’t be able to take it. Her teeter-totter world will finally topple over. I can’t do that to her. It would be a mortal sin.

That was what happened to Boston.

It had all seemed crystal clear last night, but now, to her surprise, when Xiomara said it out loud to Nelson — “I do want to go to Boston, but Mami won’t be able to handle Papi by herself. I can’t just leave her.” — it sounded less like a noble sacrifice and more like a loco mistake which Nelson articulated:

“What — so you’re going to give up the chance of a lifetime so you can stay home and babysit your mother?”

“But I’m all she has,” Xiomara answered uncertainly, as though reciting words from a script someone else had written.

“No! See — that’s the trap! You can’t live your life being all someone else has!” Nelson burned now with the righteous fire of a sidewalk preacher. “Dios mio! No la salvarás, y te destruirá a ti. You won’t save her! She’ll just drag you down with her. I’ve seen it a hundred times. You don’t let no one destroy you, Xia, not even your own family. No one. Not even your own mother!”

Nelson had just swept aside all her rationalizations, religious and intellectual. I am nothing but a struggling fly tangled up in my family’s loco web, and he knows it. She expected Nelson to give her a pitying look, turn around, and walk away shaking his head. She felt sick.

Nelson saw her blanch, wondered if he had gone too far, decided he had, and dialed it back. “Look, Xia, Boston’s not that far. It’s not like you’re going to California. If something happens, you can be back home in four hours. Hell, three if I’m driving.” He chuckled at his joke, laughing away the tension, inviting her to do the same.

Xiomara’s inner voice was so loud, so ringingly clear, so unabashedly truthful, that she wondered if it was actually hers, or whether Mother Mary was paying her a visit. He’s not trying to extricate himself from me — he’s trying to extricate me from my family, and I want to be extricated, and I want him to do it.

All she could say, though, was, “Okay! You might be right.”

Claro que si, I’m right!” He put his arm around her and steered her to Broadway where, to both Nelson and Xiomara’s relief, further conversation was impossible.

Elevated trains screeched into the station overhead, then rumbled out. Sidewalk hawkers waved merchandise, beckoning, “One dollar! One dollar!” Salsa music blared from discount stores’ open doors. Two drivers jumped out of their cars, stopping traffic, to contest a parking space — drivers behind them leaned on their horns. Nelson and Xiomara continued walking in silence.

The din subsided as soon as they stepped onto the Broadway Bridge pedestrian walkway. The Harlem River sparkled to their left, the Hudson River glittered to their right; the creek connecting these two rivers flowed under their feet. When they reached the middle of the bridge, Nelson paused, rested his arms on the railing, and took in the panoramic view. “So, this is what Mr. G was talking about. All the times I walked over this bridge, I never noticed it before.” He gestured at the Bronx rock cliffs behind them and the Manhattan rock cliffs ahead. “You can see exactly where the Army Corps of Engineers broke the rock. Man, those must have been some monster explosions. See the matching striations? If you pushed those cliffs back together, they would fit back into place.”

Xiomara, grappling in the back of her mind with going away to college, said, more to herself than to Nelson, “But that rock was blasted apart. A waterway runs through it now. It could never go back together.”

“No, of course not! I’m just saying the striations mark where it was blasted apart.”

They leaned on the railing a while, conversing casually about Mr. G and his lessons. They marveled that Marble Hill was once part of Manhattan, bemoaned that it had been blasted off just to make a ship passageway, wondered at its having been left as an island for nineteen years, and shared their Marble Hill forefathers’ outrage that it was attached to the Bronx.

“Mr. G said they never intended to reattach it to Manhattan, or they wouldn’t have blown it off in the first place,” Nelson said. “Making it up by putting Marble Hill legally in Manhattan is just ridiculous. Who cares where you vote? We got a Bronx area code, a Bronx zip code, the average household income is food stamps, and we’re on the other side of a river. Other than that, we’re in Manhattan.”

“Well, that’s what Mr. G said. ‘The city succeeded in legislating Marble Hill permanently neither here nor there.’”

Nelson looked at her. “Tell me something, Xia. Do you tape these classes, or do you just naturally memorize every word a teacher says?”

Xiomara smiled. “Still, it must have been fabulous when Marble Hill was an island, just floating, surrounded by water, under a big sky.”

“Yeah, if you were a mermaid! What about in the winter, freezing your tail off, waiting for the cheeseboat to school? And this is treacherous water, Xia. Look — see all those fast little whirlpools? That means wild cross-currents.”

“It must have been like that when the trumpeter jumped in,” Xiomara said.

“Trumpeter? What trumpeter?”

​ “What trumpeter?” Xiomara stared at him, nonplussed. Then it clicked. “You cut out on Mr. G to check on the Yankees.”

“No! Xia! What, are you kidding? He must have said it when I was in the bathroom! Hey — don’t look at me like that! I had a bad stomach! Come on, tell me about the trumpeter.”

Xiomara hesitated. She didn’t like helping Nelson get away with leaving class, but it seemed prissy to refuse, and besides, it was a good story and she wanted to retell it. She compromised by giving him a stern look and saying severely, “Fine. Just this once,” before launching into the tale. “It was during the Revolution. The British were coming.”

“So, Paul Revere,” Nelson interjected.

“No, not Paul Revere — that was Boston. This was here, right in this water we’re walking over. Peter Stuyvesant sent his trumpeter here to play the call to arms to mobilize the Bronx revolutionaries. The trumpeter couldn’t get a boat to take him across Spuyten Duyvil. They were all out, so he said he’d just swim across.”

“He said he’d swim across this?! Was he nuts?”

“Well, this wasn’t that, then. It was a little creek. Everyone walked through it at low tide, but the Devil lived in the creek, and at high tide he stirred it up. That’s why all the boats were in use when he got there, and they told him that. But the trumpeter’s mission was to relay the message fast, so he said he’d swim across, in spite of the Devil. He said it in Dutch, Spuyten Duyvil.”

“Did he make it across?” Nelson asked.

Xiomara looked out over the creek. First, I let him see me as a tangled-up fly in my family’s loco web, now I’m standing on a bridge talking about death by drowning. He’s never going to go out with me again. She tried to spin the history of New York City into normal dating conversation. “Well, he made it to the middle of the creek, and when he got there, he did play the call to arms and the Bronx revolutionaries heard it in time to assemble,” Xiomara said in what she hoped was a perky voice.

“And then what?”

Xiomara got it over with. “The Devil dragged him under and he drowned.”

Nelson nodded and looked down into the glittering water. “Poor guy. Probably saved a lot of lives though; that’s something. His bones are probably still down there. Bones last forever.”

Xiomara looked down to pay her respects to the trumpeter’s watery grave and crossed herself. To her astonishment, a long, sleek, silver canoe appeared. In it sat a row of young women, all with blond hair austerely tied back, all wearing all white, sitting straight, looking straight ahead, all faces set in silent determination. Xiomara stood transfixed. Suddenly, as though they were all part of one heavenly body, the powerful arms of these angels who had been sent forth all rowed in perfect unison. The canoe sped out, skimmed over the Devil’s creek, and in a flash, vanished around the bend to the Hudson.

Staring at the vanishing point, Xiomara crossed herself. She heard Nelson’s voice, as though from another dimension: “There goes the girls’ crew team.”

“The what?”

“The Columbia girls’ crew team.”

“Columbia … girls …” Xiomara stammered.

“Xia, are you okay? Let’s get off this bridge. I’m starting to think maybe the devil does live in these waters. Come on.” He took hold of her hand, and a minute later they were in Manhattan. “Yeah, that was the girls’ crew team. You never saw them before?”

“No. No, I never saw them before.” Her religious vision dissolved into sea spray. But maybe, she thought, maybe there had been a message after all. “The crew team? Is that … a sports team?”

“Of course it’s a sports team. What did it look like, a book club? It’s the only Columbia sports team that isn’t pathetic. See that gigantic C painted on the cliff? Columbia painted that for their crew teams. They call it the C Rock. Like they own it.”

“Maybe I could row and get a sports scholarship.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Why?”

“Because, for one thing, you have no upper body strength. For another thing, you can’t swim!”

“I can do arm exercises; and why do I have to swim? I’ll be in the boat.”

“There’s more to it than just doing some arm exercises. Besides, you assume you’ll be in the boat. You assume. It’s only an assumption,” Nelson said, pleased to use another Word of the Day. “Common sense tells you, if you can’t swim, you shouldn’t be in a boat in treacherous waters.”

Xiomara laughed. Sometimes she did rely more on book learning than common sense, a lapse in judgment Nelson never exhibited. They resumed walking. She put her arm around his waist. Nelson raised an eyebrow and put his arm around her shoulder.

When they reached Inwood Park, they took a bench on the Hudson riverbank. “This breeze does feel good,” Nelson said. He stretched out his legs, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. This is the rich man’s river. The Harlem River is my river; I can smell that water even now, from around the bend. This is the rich man’s air. He inhaled deeply again, as though to breathe the success in. Good things happen here, and we’re here. We don’t belong here, but we are here. He went over his “lucky list.” It’s senior year, I have the grades for aviation programs, I have a very fine-looking girlfriend, with brains, and we’re in a good place. This is the life. He opened his eyes and gazed at the Henry Hudson Bridge. “That bridge is high enough so I could fly under it and over it.”

Xia laughed. “Oh, si, I can just imagine people looking out of their windows and seeing you flying cartwheels across their piece of the sky.”

“Are you kidding? They’ll love it. I’ll drop cards on the lawn, and they’ll hire me to entertain for their kids’ birthday parties. Hey, did you bring any seconds?”

Xiomara retrieved two school sandwiches, bags of chips, juice boxes, and mayonnaise packets from her bookbag.

Half an hour later, Xiomara went into a building across from the park to babysit, Nelson cut through the baseball field to get to his job. He passed a group of men sitting on the bleachers in their undershirts, laughing uproariously and drinking from paper bags. One of them was Xiomara’s father. Nelson’s temper flared. My father had plenty of obstacles, but he acted like a father. Why can’t he?

Nelson arrived at Uptown Cleaners and Tailoring in a bad mood. The owner, Ohan, an elderly man, greeted him with a robust “Hello, Nelson!” Nelson found this irritatingly cheerful. Disregarding Nelson’s unresponsive silence, Ohan continued, “Your favorite customer just called. First stop, Weston!”

“Cre-zap! Not NeverTips!” Nelson muttered. He stomped over to the stationary racks lining the back of the store and picked through the handwritten yellow tickets tied to the hangers. This would be so much easier if Ohan would just get a computer, print tickets, and install a rotating rack like everybody else. But it would never happen. Ohan used a fountain pen for tickets and a pencil to record mathematical entries in a ledger book so old it looked biblical. His rotary phone was a collectible. He did not accept credit cards, which he dismissed as “plastic.” He did not trust ATMs. His business was cash or checks only, which he or Nelson then had to walk over to a physical bank, wait on a physical line, and hand to a physical teller. Like working in a Museum Village.

“Weston is a headachy customer,” Ohan conceded, interrupting Nelson’s internal rant, “but she has her problems.”

Nelson whirled around. “I want her problems! Ketchup problems!” He intoned dramatically, “Do you suffer from the heartbreak of ketchup stains? Is the agony of alterations keeping you from living your best life?”

Ohan laughed heartily at this. He was still chuckling as he pulled the car key off the hook and handed it to Nelson, whose arms were full of clothes. Nelson backed the screen door open. “Try not to get any parking tickets,” Ohan called after him.

Nelson loaded the clothes into Ohan’s car and drove to Weston’s building. He parked in front of a fire hydrant which was buried under a mountain of garbage bags. He clicked a picture without considering how he would explain to a Parking Violations Bureau judge why he’d taken a picture of a hydrant he didn’t know was there. He grabbed Weston’s clothes, strode up the canopied path muttering “ketchup problems,” and pressed the buzzer to Weston’s apartment.

When Nelson emerged from the elevator, Arlene Weston was waiting for him at the end of the long hallway. Her foot propped her door open. She took the shirts and dresses from him, one by one, and turned them this way and that, like a wren gleaning through foliage. When she was satisfied nothing was amiss, she said “thanks” and was about to close the door when a sudden motion caught Nelson’s eye.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Weston, but that is one big roach.”

Arlene jumped and the door swung shut.

Nelson heard her screaming, “Mike! Kill it, kill it, kill it!” all the way down the hall and he grinned broadly. Now that’s what you call job satisfaction. His mood greatly improved. Next stop, Marilyn. She doesn’t tip either, but at least whatever I tell her, it’s okay. “We couldn’t get the stain out” — “okay”; “the other shirt isn’t ready” — “okay.” Mrs. Okay.

Nelson drove back to Uptown Cleaners daydreaming. In four years, I’ll have my pilot’s license. I’ll be making good money. I’ll bring my uniform to Uptown Cleaners, and I’ll tip the delivery boy good. Nelson double parked outside the store, handed the checks and cash to Ohan, and collected the clothes for his second route. As he was leaving, he asked casually, “Ohan, how old were you when you got married?”

Ohan looked up from the ledger, curiously. “I was thirty-two. An old man.”

“That is old,” Nelson said, missing the irony. “Did you already own the store?”

“When I first met my wife, I was a bishop.”

“You were a what?”

“I was a bishop,” Ohan repeated. He opened the counter drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope, and handed it to Nelson. “Be careful. They are the originals.”

Nelson pulled out large, glossy, black-and-white photographs and found himself facing a young Ohan, in full bishop’s vestments, complete with mitre and crosier. “Ohan! You were so young!” He wondered at each photograph. “What a looker! No wonder your wife fell for you! How did you go from being a bishop to tailoring?” He tactfully refrained from asking how Ohan had gone from being a young, strong, robed priest, to a frail, elderly man wearing a maroon woolen vest.

Ohan laughed. “Oh, I had a lot of disagreements with that church. The prayers, the thinking — it was all from an ancient time. I thought that once I was a bishop, I could make changes, but after a while, I realized that there was no tolerance for modern thinking, so I left. And then, I was looking for something to do, and a friend of mine was selling this store, so I bought the business. It was happenstance. That was all thirty-six years ago.”

“That’s a long time. How did you know it would work out with your wife?”

Ohan leaned back in his chair. “I used to think you could predict these things by certain measurements — a common background, common interests, shared beliefs,” he said philosophically, “but I don’t think that anymore. Now, I think it’s just luck. Just dumb luck.”

“Dumb luck?”

“Yes. Dumb luck.” He eyed Nelson shrewdly. “Why do you ask — are you thinking of getting married?”

Nelson dodged. “I’m only seventeen.”

“Seventeen is old enough if you find the right girl. One who will be a good wife, a good mother for your children.”

“But everybody thinks that and a lot of them end up sorry. Look at Weston,” Nelson said.

Ohan nodded. “I’ve known Mike and Arlene a long time. Arlene doesn’t like being a mother. I don’t think Mike could have predicted that. I don’t think Arlene could have predicted that. Maybe kids aren’t what she imagined kids would be, who knows. But she can’t send them back.”

“She can send the clothes back.”

Ohan nodded. “What can you do?” He took the photographs back from Nelson and began entering the payments into the ledger.

Nelson left intending to go on his second route, but he found himself parking by Inwood Park. I need some fresh air. He rolled down the windows and closed his eyes. Let me get this straight. Ohan, the tailor with the last rotary phone in the United States, used to be a champion of modern thinking. His happy marriage, wife, and kids — that’s thirty-six years of dumb luck. I’m old enough to marry Xia if I think she’ll be a good wife, a good mother. I do think that. But first, she has to go to Boston. If she can do that, I’ll marry her. If I’m lucky, it’ll work out. He looked at the C rock. I feel about ten years older than I was this morning. I need to listen to some music. I need, he thought, feeling himself to be a man of the world, to take my mind off women.

He turned the radio to a salsa station and let the music wash over him. He laid back and closed his eyes for about ten minutes before Xiomara tapped on the passenger window. Nelson sighed. I forgot she was babysitting here. Well, there goes my peace of mind. He pushed open the door for her. As she got in, a voice hollered, “Turn that damn thing down!”

They looked up at the brick building, at rows of faceless windows.

“Turn that damn thing down,” came the voice again.

“Can you see who it is?” Nelson asked.

“No.”

“Go back to Washington Heights!” came the voice.

Nelson turned up the volume.

“Just turn it off,” Xiomara urged. She reached for the dial.

“No, Xia, no,” Nelson said, pushing her hand back. “No. I want it on.” Two loud thumps on the windshield sent Nelson leaping from the car. “Eggs!”

He looked up and yelled, “Next time, send them scrambled!”

He got back in the car, parked around the corner, and cleaned the windshield. When he re-entered, Xiomara burst out laughing.

“Next time send them scrambled! That’s a good one. Where did you get that from?”

Nelson laughed too. “I don’t know. It just came to me.” He waited a moment, then he asked, “Xia, what did you decide about going to Boston this weekend?”

She stopped laughing. She looked straight at him. “Yes. I will go.”

“Good.” Nelson nodded and put the key in the ignition.

Featured image: Nigel Jarvis / Shutterstock

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