Framed in my bedroom door, Diogo was the epitome of sixteen-year-old cool: black mane slicked back with gel, baggy white jeans with matching hightops, left earlobe with a diamond stud. He and his older brother João shared bunk beds in the room above mine, creating a stack of Portuguese boys in our four-story apartment building in New Jersey.
“Can’t you even play with GI Joes like a normal kid? They’re supposed to kick the shit out of each other,” he said, ramming together my usually mild-mannered soldiers.
It was February, 1989. The previous night’s blizzard had shuttered the schools, and Mãe decided Diogo would be my impromptu babysitter. With a day off from third grade, I was eager to cocoon myself in blankets, watching Thundercats for endless hours on the color TV my parents had given me two weeks earlier for my ninth birthday.
“Come on, let’s go,” Diogo peeled my covers off. “Aww, how cute—Superman tighty whities.”
I’d been lying on my stomach and raised my butt. I screeched in a teakettle pitch—the hope was that he’d just call me a retard and leave. Head buried in a pillow, still the scent of his Old Spice.
“Okay, enough. I told your mom I’d check up on your sorry ass and if I’m bouncing so are you.” A fingernail scraped through my crack as he yanked my briefs down.
“I told you, that’s not funny,” I bolted out of bed, and charged at him. He pushed me away with a clammy palm, and laughed while I flailed at the air.
“I knew that’d get you up,” he said. “Stop being a baby. I’ll get you back before your mommy gets home.”
“You know I’m not supposed to leave.”
“You have two minutes,” Diogo announced.
The outfit Mãe had picked out lay like a chalked victim. I slipped into prickly polyester pants, turned a poodle-embroidered sweater inside out, and secured my feet within unevenly soled Velcro sneakers. I snatched my freaky freezer gloves from underneath pork chops defrosting for dinner.
Although the Ironbound section of Newark was less dangerous than other parts, I kissed the gold crucifix strung around my neck, then tucked the cold chain under my sweater. I blew out Mãe’s circle of votive candles with sulfur tickling my nose. One forever flickered for her father, my avô, who continued to clutch his Marlboros while teetering on the brink of death.
Diogo was already at the bottom of the stairwell, foot propped against the storm door, allowing costly heat to escape.
Outside, the snowstorm had passed but flurries muffled the city clatter to a hushed order. Floury snow blanketed a layer of Sumol bottles, Bazooka Joe wrappers, and Cheez Doodle bags. The sycamore trees lining Wilson Avenue, raised their branches in protest that their roots ran below this city. Shop owners breathed frosted clouds shoveling storefronts.
“Hey, you comin’ or what?” Diogo wasn’t one for scenery.
I had no sense of direction, so I stuck close to him. The train tracks that gripped the neighborhood had become my barbed wire after Mãe’s electrocution warning; I imagined my x-rayed skeleton flashing cartoonlike if I dared step over the rails. I avoided eye contact with walkers on the street, convinced that any suspicious movement would stir her network of stashed sleeper spies. We passed the corner store where we’d buy super pinky balls, the pizzeria where we’d play Pac-Man, and turned onto Ann Street where my gray-stoned school stood stoically against an onslaught of snowballs.
The playground gates were locked, but we slipped inside through an uprooted part of the fence. I checked each corner for the usual bullies. The “temporary” trailer classrooms—offloaded from a flatbed truck two years earlier—looked stapled together and were caked in grime. Diogo’s sidekick, Sergio, was using a Sharpie to tag “ACE” in block letters on the door of my reading class.
“Yo, bitch, gimme your wallet.” Slinking up from behind, Diogo prodded Sergio’s ribs with a finger gun.
“Bro, you almost made me piss my pants. Can’t you see the master is at work?” Sergio glissaded backward, Jackson style, and touched his thumb tips together to aerially frame his creation.
“That’s right, I wanted to see your ass fuck up,” Diogo said.
They greeted each other with tangled handshakes and backhanded high fives.
“I see you brought your little bitch out for a walk today.” Sergio snickered and punted a piece of ice in my direction.
“Nah, chill, he’s cool.” Diogo pulled me to his side.
“You’re the bitch,” I said quivery-voiced, and retreated behind Diogo.
Sergio unclipped a vibrating pager from his belt. “Aww yeah, it’s our girl Adri. That shit must be Chinese-fingertrap tight. Everyone says she’s a virgin, bro.”
“She has to be,” Diogo said, “she’s Portuguese.”
“Yeah, right, my bad,” Sergio said.
“I mean, that’s before you Boricua bitches get to them.” Sergio was Puerto Rican, which meant—according to Mãe—that he was a drogado, leaving no question why he needed a pager or how he bought his car. After they’d been caught playing hooky for the fifth time, Diogo promised his parents they wouldn’t hang out anymore. I recalled Mãe’s mandate delivered before she headed to work that morning: Francisco, juras que não sais de aqui. Francisco, swear that you will not leave here. I’m not pedaling my knees to dust on that machine for my son to be stolen and plastered onto the side of a milk carton. Mãe seized every opportunity to remind me that sewing zippers onto pants at 29 cents apiece at the factory was a sacrificío for me. It always sounded like she was calling it “piss work,” and I’d agree; only years later realizing she had been saying “piecework.” She was always on the edge; I blamed it on the three daily thermoses of Café Bustelo and the melodramatic reporting on Univision—life became a series of perigos, or dangers, that the family could avoid only if we tuned in during dinner each night. Commercial breaks incited her monologues. Pai would nod in agreement while peering around my large head at the blaring television. He sliced and packaged blood-soaked meat for $3.00 an hour. Every other month, it seemed, he’d come home with a mummified thumb, a chunk neatly severed.
“Aight, aight. I’ll roll up to the park after I pick up Adri. How about you drop the wise guy off at home?”
“Nah, he’s with me today. You know we need to show him how we do before everyone gets around to using him as a punching bag,” Diogo patted my head.
I crossed my arms and nodded at Sergio in my best bad-ass imitation. I thought I could’ve taken him out if it ever came down to that.
“I’m not sure if this little shit is ready,” Sergio punched my shoulder.
I held my breath and counted to ten to keep from crying.
“Not bad, taking it like a real man,” Sergio said.
“When you pick up Adri, tell her ‘wassup’ for me,” Diogo said. “Play it smooth though.”
“Shit, smooth is what Ace is all about, bro’.” Sergio slid his baseball cap around, and
licked his lips.
Mãe never let me cross the street without my hand in hers, so I reveled in it now. I stayed within the shadow cast by Diogo’s loose saunter because I had no idea where we were headed. With each block, I fell farther behind until I caught up and pounded on his side like a bus whose doors had just closed in my face. He had the assured air of someone flaunting a backstage pass that granted access to Dumpstered alleyways and vacant lots. We cut across expanses of cracked concrete. Then, stopping on a dime, we hopped a small gate that opened up to yet another unfamiliar vista. I began to panic, thinking we couldn’t still be in the Ironbound, but then spotted the orange-brick Igreja Nossa Senhora da Fatima.
I crossed myself out of habit: In the name of the father and the son and the—
“Shit, do you have to do that?”
Blood rose to my face. I tucked chin to chest and finished the blessing.
“We should get going home, right?”
I got no answer. A few people perched along the church steps. Everyone resembled a distant relative or friend of the family. I feared it was only a matter of time before I was caught. I had already missed hours of television. I was hungry. How was it already getting dark? What if Mãe called to check in on me?
“Chill the fuck out. If you don’t want to get picked on, you need to stop with this baby shit.” Diogo crouched to face me. “And wipe your damn nose.”
I rubbed my raw nose on a sleeve.
“If you want to hang with me, you gotta be like a big kid. You know what I mean?”
“Can you keep secrets?” he asked.
He fished a flattened pack of cigarettes from his jacket. “Good, because if you tell anyone I smoke, I’ll rip your balls off.”
“Can I try?” My words leaped like flames.
“Now we’re talking.” Diogo rolled a cigarette into the cradle of my hand.
I looked around me to make sure no one was watching.
“Newports are the best, little man—cool menthol flavor. Just do like I do.” The flame lit the twitchy edges of his mouth. “See, nice and smooth. Now you try.”
I fitted the cigarette between my lips.
“Wrong way.” Diogo turned the cigarette around, and plugged my mouth with the filter. “Breathe in nice and slow.”
The flame sparked the tip, and I sucked in like I’d seen Avô do countless times. The minty smoke carved into my lungs, and I exhaled before a cough could escape. My eyes watered, my throat scorched. Soon I was lightheaded and giggling.
“Little man’s a born pro.” Diogo bounced back into a purposeful stride, his trail of smoke a personal exhaust pipe. I tried to walk like him, but probably looked like a marionette. I took another drag. If only the bullies could see me now, I thought.
“Catch up, Sergio is probably already at the park.”
“Independence Park! What other park is there?”
I sped up, excited to reach this mysterious place.
Car headlights appeared to flash on in unison. As we walked into the deepening twilight, I blinked and missed the single instant when daylight turned to nightfall.
The park, it turns out, was that same old parque dos mosquitoes Mãe often took me through as a shortcut to Avô’s apartment. I had never noticed the faded entrance sign or thought to question what we called it in Portuguese.
Diogo circled the middle of the park, where Mãe would grip my hand and warn me never to venture because I wasn’t a vagabundo like those kids.
East Side High School, the only high school in the Ironbound, was to our left with “safety bars” on each of its windows. Although it was dark, the park swarmed with italianos, polacos, portuguêses, and espanhóis bouncing, tossing, or rolling assorted balls, and reminiscing about times back home.
“Watch your back, little man,” Diogo snapped up his hood, and shot right into the nucleus of the park, a defunct bandstand.
“I can’t go in there!” I anchored my feet. A hoard of huddled teenagers peered up from their smoking.
“Stop being a little bitch and get over here,” Diogo’s face reddened, and he patted the side of his leg.
I inched along a muddy patch of grass and plopped down on the ground next to his feet.
“Was that so hard?”
Above me, sneakers were laced together and spun like a weather vane.
“Little man, you don’t get it now, but you’re gonna wanna bust out of all this, and you will, once you know what’s up for real. Me, I just need to get myself a ride. And this fucking school!” Diogo flipped off his high school before continuing. “Such a waste. You can hear the guards chaining the doors before the first bell is done ringing. No one coming or going. So, better to be gone.” He lit a cigarette within his cupped hand and exhaled a fluffy smoke ring.
A shrill car horn made me shudder. Sergio pulled up to the park’s periphery in a Volkswagen with tinted windows and a lowered chassis, purple neon lights glowing underneath. The bass from within the car trembled its windows and set off a nearby car alarm.
“Time to go little man. That’s our ticket.”
I glued my feet to the ground. “No way, Diogo. My parents are probably home.”
“Won’t we get there faster in a car?” Sergio asked.
Diogo’s flicked cigarette punctured the night. The horn shrieked again.
A forest’s worth of pine trees hung from Sergio’s rearview mirror. The heat was on, and soon my nose was drippy; I yanked a tissue from a crushed Kleenex box. It was thrilling to stick out my tongue or give walkers the finger—I felt invincible behind the tinted windows.
“What happened to Adri?” Diogo scrutinized the empty back seat next to me.
“Her strict-ass dad happened,” Sergio said. “He came at my car swinging a bat and foaming out the mouth like some crazy pit bull and shit.”
Diogo punched the door. “Fuck, that sucks.”
Sergio opened the glove compartment, and it banged onto Diogo’s knees.
“Check this shit out,” he shimmied a magazine from a plastic sleeve. “I found it, brand new behind the Dumpster in the playground.”
Diogo flipped through the pages. A naked woman—a rose clenched between her teeth, leather boots, and enormous brown nipples—accordioned out of the magazine. She rested over the handbrake that ran between Diogo and Sergio. I had never seen a naked woman and acted like it wasn’t a big deal.
“We should get going,” I said.
“Have you ever seen tits this big?” Diogo turned to ask me.
I blushed, fidgeting with foam jutting from my seat, remembering catching sight of Mãe’s small eraser nipple once.
“Why don’t you answer him, little man? You probably never even spanked your own monkey, have you?”
“Yes, I did!” I shouted, having no idea what Sergio was talking about.
They clapped and laughed. They wound down to catch their breath.
“Okay, let’s see you do it then, big guy,” Sergio said, and stared at me.
“Come on, just leave him alone, man,” Diogo said.
I pretended to be interested in what was on the other side of the tinted windows even though the streets were deserted. I heard zippers. A moment later, a musky odor drifted back with the heat.
“This is how you spank it, little man.” Sergio said, and stroked his dick.
Although I couldn’t see into Diogo’s seat, its back struck repeatedly against my knees. I held my breath. Outside, it began to snow and the wind frisbeed a trash can lid across the street. I imagined the scene at home. Pai finally has an unobstructed view of the television—not having to deal with my big head—and a Univision reporter declares that if it isn’t bad enough that Newark is the car-theft capital of the country, now there’s been a rash of kidnappings. He rubs Mãe’s shoulders during commercials, and promises to go back out and search for me if the polícia don’t call soon with an update. Mãe nods wearily, and lights a candle near the window to guide me home.
Diogo and Sergio reached into each other’s laps, their arms forming an x over the glossy nude between them. The jerking started again with more vigor. Before long, they whimpered. I was in a trance that broke only after they unclasped from each other, deflated.
“Where are the tissues, bro’?” Sergio asked.
I flung the Kleenex cube into the front, and sprang out the back door.
“Oh shit, get back inside!” Diogo’s eyes were wide, and he appeared to fiddle with his zipper. He continued to call out my name from the window. I ran as fast as I could. Sergio reversed the car, but was forced to stop when he reached the intersection.
I fixed on a point straight ahead, and wiped snow from my eyes as I moved from streetlight to streetlight in the dark. I sifted through passing faces—Mãe’s spies were nowhere to be found. Not being able to clearly distinguish any figures, my mind’s eye projected a fine horror show. The gnarled sycamores creaked as they stretched; a stray dog leaped and draped itself on an iron fence; puddles swirled into viscous bottomless pools. Each time my legs were about to collapse, I conjured up Sergio’s car gaining on me. I turned at each corner until nothing around me was familiar.
Out of breath, I stopped when a brilliant-eyed train rumbled the ground. Its iron claws screeched through the cables above it, sending sparks over its windowed sides. I cupped my ears, praying that I’d escape its electric wrath. The railroad’s striped gates lifted with a ding to reveal a clearing. I bounded over rails into unknown land.
Born and raised in the Ironbound, Carlos J. Queirós is currently at work on a novel and collection of short stories; he can be found online at www.carlosjqueiros.com. Posted July 2009.