So, you got locked up? No wonder you look like shit,” said Paul.
“I better fix that,” said Bimbo. “Don’t want folks thinking I’m related to you.”
The crew was back together, and so was the banter.
We were sitting under some red paper lights and an AC vent that had been collecting dust for a decade.
El Paraíso Asia was Bimbo’s favorite restaurant. A Chinese joint that was somehow the best place for Chinese food and also the best place if you were in the mood for Puerto Rican fare like tostones al ajillo. The joint had been in business for generations, and everything they made was great. I was digging in to my plate of fried chicken with fried rice and a side of tostones al ajillo (also fried) when Paul finally asked Bimbo how he’d gotten locked up.
“Baby mama drama, papi,” said Bimbo, his lips glistening from the oil of the tostones.
“The hell does that mean?” asked Paul.
“Remember Jessica?” asked Bimbo.
“The woman you had a baby with and then she told you you’d never see your kid again and took you to court and you wanted to murder everyone while the whole thing was going down and we couldn’t even talk to you? Nah, I forgot about her,” said Paul.
“You talk so much shit you should call your mouth your asshole, P,” said Bimbo with no meanness in his voice. “Well, after they killed my mom, I kinda forgot about Jessica, the baby, and that whole child support thing. I worked with the construction folks Gabe hooked me up with for a week or so, but then I stopped going. It was too fucking hot and humid out there, and all I wanted to do was stay home and get high until my mom’s face stopped floating in front of me, you know?”
We all stayed quiet.
Bimbo took a deep breath and went on. “Anyway, I stopped paying and the bitch came at me through El Departamento de la Familia instead of reminding me with a text or something. The usual sh —”
“You got locked up for not paying child support?” asked Tavo. “My cousin Rubén has half a dozen kids with different women, and the son of a bitch doesn’t pay any of them. Getting thrown in jail for that in this country is next to impossible, man.”
“Well, not exactly,” said Bimbo. “I mean, they don’t arrest you and take you to jail. They sent me letters, you know. I went to court. Tried to explain the whole thing. I thought the judge would cut me some slack with my mom getting killed, but…you know, I was really sad and nervous and wanted something to calm me down, so…I showed up high and drunk. I don’t remember what happened, but apparently, I told Jessica to go fuck herself and then told the judge to go fuck himself. A guard grabbed me to kick me out and I swung at him. That’s how I ended up in jail. Oso Blanco. They can only keep you for six months for shit like that, but when my sis found out, she…somehow convinced my uncle Pedro to put up the bail money, so they let me out and here I am.”
“So, you just got out?” I asked.
“Nah, got out a week ago, but—”
“And you’re only letting us know now, you fat fuck?” asked Paul. “No…well, yes — but listen,” said Bimbo. “I had to take care of some stuff first. Plus, I got no phone. It got cut off when I got locked up and stopped paying it. Point is, I met a dude inside. José Luis. A Dominican. Good guy. We shared a cell and talked a lot. He got caught writing bogus checks for ghost employees for a company that didn’t exist, but he has all kinds of things going on. One of them is hooking up Dominican women with single boricua guys, yeah? They hook up, live together for a while so they can get to know each other, and then get married so the woman can get citizenship. Then, a quick divorce. It pays twenty keys, man.”
We looked at each other.
“You’re really gonna do that?” asked Tavo. Bimbo smiled slightly. I didn’t think citizenship was that easy to get, especially if you got divorced right after, but said nothing.
“¿Te vas a casar con una dominicana?” said Paul. Paul was always sliding back into Spanish whenever he was scared, drunk, angry, or surprised. In other words, often.
Since Tavo’s family hadn’t moved to Puerto Rico until he was ten, he’d never really picked up Spanish, and we mostly talked in English for his sake. We had all picked up English skills elsewhere, and we loved that it made our conversations feel private at school, but we still switched back and forth. Paul did it more than the rest of us. Luckily, Tavo had gotten used to it and almost always got the gist of things.
“I’m already living with her,” said Bimbo. “That’s part of the stuff I had to get squared away.”
“Where are you living now?” I asked.
“Same place,” said Bimbo. “My sis is living with her new boyfriend. I have the house to mys —”
“What’s her name?” asked Tavo.
We looked at each other again. Altagracia was the name of a Dominican house cleaner who had appeared in a comedy show on local TV when we were kids. She was always the butt of the joke in every skit. Puerto Ricans always make fun of Dominicans, which is stupid because we’re all in the same brown boat, but some boricuas feel superior to them even though we’re second-class citizens from a colony where we can’t vote in US elections. At least our colonizers hand us a blue passport when we’re born. That gives us a chance to get off the fucking island, which leaves more space for the Dominicans who come in yolas to our shores, looking for the same better life we seek in the US. Las gallinas de arriba se cagan en las de abajo, pero todas son gallinas, my abuela used to say. The chickens on the top branch shit on the chickens at the bottom, but they’re all chickens. “¿En serio, cabrón?” asked Paul.
“I’m serious. She’s not bad looking, either,” said Bimbo. “We have to talk to each other a lot, you know? So we have a story to tell when they ask us, because if they think we’re faking it, they won’t give her the papers and they’ll send her ass back to la República Dominicana and probably throw me in jail for trying to fool Uncle Sam. So, we’re practicing our story. You know, where we met and what we like and all that shit. I think she likes me. We’ll see how it goes.”
“Tu estás loco pa’l carajo, Bimbo,” said Paul. Tavo laughed and spat rice. Even he could understand that. Bimbo just nodded.
“You’ve always known I’m crazy, papi,” said Bimbo with a smile. “Tú sabes cómo nosotros lo hacemos. Now, if you fucking pigs are done with your food and asking me questions about my love life, how about we get down to business?”
“What do you need, man?” asked Tavo.
“Not here,” said Bimbo. “Let’s get into Gabe’s car.”
We picked up our plates, threw away our trash, and waved to the woman who worked as a cashier and translator at El Paraíso Asia, although she mostly used her hands and we had never heard her say a single word in Mandarin or Cantonese, not that we’d know the difference.
Excerpt continues below cover reveal.
We walked to the parking lot and got into my car. Bimbo climbed in the front with me, and Tavo and Paul got in the back. I turned the car on and started the AC because late summer in the Caribbean gives you two choices: AC on full blast or death.
“So, what’s this serious business you wanted to tell us about?”
The red neon letters that hung above El Paraíso Asia reflected on his eyes and made him look sick and strong at the same time. Bimbo didn’t reply straightaway, just looked at each of us. He had something in mind, something I was sure had to do with his mom, but I was also pretty sure none of us wanted to hear it. You can fool yourself into thinking bad things will stay away if you don’t talk about them, and we were all experts at doing just that. Hablar del diablo lo hace venir porque decir las cosas las hace nacer. Talking about the Devil makes him come because saying things brings them to life.
Bimbo cleared his throat and started talking.
“I drove by Lazer the day after they let me out. There was a skinny motherfucker working the door. He was standing right where my mom used to stand. It was…weird. Anyway, I’d never seen that dude in my life, so I know he’s new there. I wanna talk to him.”
“You wanna talk to him because you think he knows something about your…about what happened?” asked Paul.
“About my mom,” said Bimbo, anger creeping into his voice. “About the motherfuckers who killed my mom. Yes. And y’all can talk about her, say her name. Maria. I say it a million times every fucking day. Maria. Maria. Maria. I’m gonna hold on to her until the day I die. Not talking about her murder does nothing to bring her back.”
“What do you have in mind, man?” I asked Bimbo.
“Easy,” he said. “We show up late and wait around until Lazer closes. Then we follow this guy to his car or his house or whatever and have a talk with him.”
“Will this talk involve violence?” asked Tavo. “You know I don’t like violence. It…it brings bad karma, man.”
“I don’t fucking know, man,” said Bimbo. “I guess it depends on what he says.”
“I don’t think we should waste our time following some dude just because you —”
“I don’t give a fuck what you think, Paul,” interrupted Bimbo. “I don’t give a fuck what any of you think. You either come with me or you don’t. It’s that simple.”
Leave it to Paul and his fucking mood swings to be the first to be all in at Maria’s wake and then the first one to step back when it was time to get to work.
“Tranquilízate, cabrón,” said Paul. “En este carro, tú no tienes enemigos. I know you’re angry as hell. I’m angry too. We all are. Thing is, following that dude and asking him questions can get you — us — in a lot of trouble. We don’t know who he is. Cynthia says I should stop —”
“Ah, now it all makes sense,” said Bimbo. “Cynthia says. Well, I told you, I don’t give a fuck about what Cynthia says and I don’t give a fuck about whatever trouble I can get into for asking questions. Trouble is waking up and not having my mom there. Trouble is worrying about my sister day and night because my mom was the only one who could keep her happy and under control. Whatever ‘trouble’ this motherfucker wants to bring my way is fine by me: he either doesn’t know a thing or he knows exactly what I want to know.”
“Fuck you, man.” “Nah, fuck you, P.”
“There are ways to go about revenge,” said Tavo, jumping in the middle. “We need a bit more info, Bimbo. That’s all.”
“I was locked up, so don’t pretend you motherfuckers have spent more time thinking about this than I have. If you came to me and told me someone shot your mom in the face, I’d be down for whatever you want to do. I’m not gonna sit here and beg your asses to back me up,” said Bimbo. “We’ve never done that, remember? We don’t have to.
We stick together no matter what. Every time someone has come at you for being gay, Tavo, what have we done?”
The silence that followed Bimbo’s question hung around us like a thing everyone disliked and no one wanted to touch. Finally, Tavo spoke.
“You’ve beaten their asses.”
“We’ve beaten their asses,” echoed Bimbo. “And do you know why we — and that includes you — have beaten their asses, Paul?”
“Because Tavo is one of us, and if someone fucks with one of us —” “They fuck with all of us,” Tavo and I finished like choirboys recit-
ing a prayer.
“Exactly,” said Bimbo. “And what did we do when that guy with the nose ring put his hands on my sis?”
“We beat him so bad he spent two days in the hospital,” I said, remembering the way his face had looked after we were done. I had an image of the guy turning to the side because he was gagging and then spitting out a bunch of bloody teeth.
“And why the hell did we do that, Gabe?” asked Bimbo. “Why did we almost kill that motherfucker?”
“We did it because if someone fucks with one of us —”
“They fuck with all of us,” said Bimbo.
He was right. I thought about it and I couldn’t let him go alone. I could help keep him focused. I could keep him from doing something dangerously stupid. I could be the voice of reason, especially if Tavo didn’t want to go.
“I get what you’re saying, man, but this—”
“Hold your horses, T,” said Bimbo. “I’m not done. I’m only getting started. We never go looking for trouble and you know it. We don’t go out looking for violence or whatever. Those things find us. They always have. And we have never backed down. It’s what we do, right? Think about it. What did we do when those huge motherfuckers pulled a gun on Gabe at the beach when he was selling jewelry? What did we do when we were at that bar that looks like a boat from the outside and those six guys got into it with Paul? What did we do that time I got caught shoplifting and the two security goons wanted to teach me a lesson? What did we do when we were partying at Babylon and four guys from some cruise decided to pull a knife on you and called you a faggot?
“I could spend three hours asking you questions like that and you would have to reply with the same thing again and again because you fucking know what we did. You know we did what family does. This is no different. You fuckers come with me or you don’t, but I’m not asking you twice.”
“I’ll come with you, man,” I said. I said it not because I wanted to but because I knew it was the right thing to say, the only thing to do after Bimbo had spoken his piece. Spoken the truth. I did it because I knew Bimbo would’ve done the same for me and because Maria had given me a place to hide from the ghost of my father and set a plate of food in front of me without even asking. I said it because no one else had said it, and their silence was starting to hurt.
“I’m with you, brother,” said Tavo. Paul stayed quiet, but he looked at Bimbo and nodded. That was all he needed to say.