IN THE PAINTER’S HOUSE by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams

for Sully

 

In the painter’s house, we begin

with bourbon, our hair glued with bits of paper.

 

Orion hangs from every ceiling.

We bang our heads on clotheslines of drying stars.

 

The painter is making art from toilet paper

rolls and singing The Ways of Man. I am

 

smacking mosquitoes from my forehead

and announcing that in Ancient Egypt

 

the stars of Orion were the god Sah.

With some violence, the painter says,

 

Did you know I have a thing about holes. Tiny

holes. Things are not going the way we planned.

 

The painter’s two pigs sleep side by side

under the desk. The cat, who has walked

 

across the palette, snores with rainbow

feet. Upstairs the bunnies are mating.

 

Our ideas have run out and must be cut

with exacto knives from catalogues and taped

 

to our legs. The floor is littered now

with everything we hate, which is more and more,

 

and no one we love calls back, which is truer and truer.

Let me tell you, sometimes tiredness feels like despair,

 

and other times it can feel like gladdening.

In this endless night, we are bourbon-ing,

 

now taller than the sky, its watercolor stars,

its sheaves of gold hunters. Ink on our feet, ink in our teeth.

 

I once had a dream that when I wrote, my hair would grow

and grow. Two small children stood behind me

 

with giant scissors to chop it short

while I typed. That is was tonight feels like.

 

Like our hair is growing long. In the painter’s house,

we begin and stay and stay without ending.

 

All the animals are awake and cheering.

The painter calls, Give me an image

THE SANTERA IN #4209 by Beverly Tan Murray

by Beverly Tan Murray

 

Yossi’s keys clanged as we trudged down the stairs. He said that back in the 60’s, this building was filled with Jews.

“You couldn’t take a shit without looking up and seeing a mezuzah,” he said. “Then the Cubans moved in. Nu? So here we are.”

When we got outside, the smells of ropa vieja drifted over from Puerto Sagua. Yossi lit a cigarette. “Look,” he began. “I don’t even want to be a landlord. This is a favor for my sister, understand? $550 a month furnished, on South Beach? This is best deal.” I nodded and took in Washington Avenue at dusk, an adult Legoland burnished in amber brushstrokes. Then, carajo! A man sped past on his bicycle, narrowly missing Yossi by inches. Yossi swore. The man shook his fist, ass muscles flexing as he rode off in his tiny pink thong with a South African parrot on his shoulder.

“Ben zonah!” screamed Yossi.

“I’ll take the apartment,” I said.

It was March 16th, 2004. My third day in Miami.

On move-in day, La Gorda came over with a case of Mountain Dew. “For when you thirsty,” she said, and told me that she lived two doors down in #4209, that my hair reminded her of her abuelita who was chinita too, and to please call her La Gorda because you know, and slapped her belly mirthfully. I stuck my hand out, and La Gorda laughed.

“Mija, you’re in Miami now, you gotta learn how to kiss hello. Like this, mwah-mwah.”

On that Sunday morning when it rained so hard that the water sloshed up over the sidewalk, I went downstairs to do my laundry. La Gorda called down the stairwell as I staggered back up, still buzzed from the vodka Red Bulls I had swilled the night before. “La Chinita linda!” she yelled. “You busy?” I said no, I had no plans apart from re-hydrating and folding laundry. La Gorda took one look at my bloodshot eyes and laughed. “Come in,” she said. “I give you cafe con leche and psychic reading. I do for you free. Porque your energy – is que amazing.”

La Gorda’s apartment looked as though it was furnished by someone who was rushing to get to her destination, but got lost and set up camp along the way. She had lived in her unit for nine years, yet there was a palpable feeling of impermanence. One fold-up card table, four foldable chairs, a futon in the corner. The walls were completely bare, save for a small picture of San Lázaro taped up above the transistor radio. For some reason, I felt like I was nine again, watching a movie that I was told not to watch. La Gorda shuffled out of the kitchen with a steaming cafe con leche and two slices of Cuban toast. “Sit. Eat,” she said. “You eat, I do reading.”

I sipped my cafe con leche as La Gorda reached into the bookcase behind her. She pulled out a drawstring purse, and emptied out its contents onto the table. They were small, round pebbles, the kind one would find at Home Depot. La Gorda explained that they were from Peru and had special powers, piedras mágicas, some extra strong juju from the old shamans whom you do not want to fuck with. She said that the stones could see everything – past, present, and future. They could foretell your destiny, divine the unique arc of your fate, no matter if you had glittering riches, or were a desamparado on the street. The stones, she wagged her finger. The stones always know.

As she mixed the stones with her hands, a low, guttural noise rose up inside of her. La Gorda rocked back and forth in her chair. Slowly, rhythmically at first. Then, faster and faster, picking up speed, until even the card table was thrumming an accompanying tune. “Convoco a los santos!” she yelled, throwing up her hands each time. “Convoco a los santos!”

I was no stranger to psychic readings. But my past experiences were limited to benign tarot card sessions with Irvine housewives in designer hippie gear. This was intense. When La Gorda’s eyeballs rolled back and she started sputtering in tongues, face flushing bright red as if running from a mob, I panicked. I briefly considered: Clearing my throat (she wouldn’t hear me), asking politely if she was communing with anyone in particular (she’d ignore me), and sitting quietly until she finished.

I chose the latter.

So we sat, La Gorda rocking and moaning and crying and pleading, arms raised to los santos for their ethereal wisdom, me eating Cuban toast in quiet horror. I watched as she invoked all manner of saints, her voice switching between a man’s bassy timbre, and a child’s soft whimper. You’re bugging out, I scolded myself. She’s being nice.

Chill.

The rocking slowed to a few quiet creaks, then stopped. I looked up. La Gorda was glaring right at me, breath rising and falling in ragged gasps, beads of sweat dotting her upper lip. Scattered on the floor were the magic pebbles, which La Gorda pointed to with a snort.

“You know what this say?”

“No.”

“You no have fe. You no believe in Jesus. You think you boss, yes?”

“I’m agnostic…” I began to say, but La Gorda cut me off. The stones had spoken, the spirits had rendered their verdict. It was clear that all my woes were caused by a terrible lack of faith. But today was my lucky day, she said. For $40, she, La Gorda, would intercede on my behalf. She alone could plead with los santos to seek forgiveness from Jesus, the better to free my blackened soul, Dios mio.

My cynical side thought her pitch was pretty funny, but my instincts screamed bullshit. “Uh, I think I’m good, La Gorda,” I said. “But thank you for your time. This was fun.” La Gorda pressed on. “$40 es nada. For $40, I make you free.” From certain misery, heartache from men, demonic possession. “San Lázaro talk to Jesus. Pero me, La Gorda – I talk to San Lázaro. Comprende?” I nodded yes, and started toward the door. One thing about living in Miami – you learn quickly when shit’s about to get real.

La Gorda stood up. “You pay me now,” she said. “For all my time.”

“You said it was free!” I protested.

She waved her hands irritably. The reading was free, the bargaining with San Lázaro was extra.

I made it out of the living room, and halfway to the front door when I heard a blood curdling shriek.

“Puta!” she screamed. I turned to see the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen. A Barbie doll, painted black, with her eyes gouged out. “You will die four years from now! Exactly four years! Maldicion hacia tu! Puta!” A spitball flew at me and missed by inches. I sprinted to the front door and flung it open, La Gorda hot on my heels.

Before escaping, I did something completely out of character. I turned to face La Gorda, who was now half-singing a stream of curses with her eyes rolled back, whipping Demon Barbie back and forth in a furious interpretive dance.

“Fuck you, La Gorda,” I said. “Those pebbles are bullshit.” Then I shot her the bird, slammed the door, and ran out.
A new case of Mountain Dew appeared on my doorstep three days later. An olive branch. By then, I had made friends with Carolina, the Colombian print model in #4310. Carolina had shrieked with laughter when I told her about my La Gorda episode. She told me that La Gorda had tried to fleece just about every newcomer to the building. That I had nothing to worry about, because La Gorda wasn’t a real santera. Just a hustler from Matanzas, getting by on quips and folksy charm, surviving the only way she knew how.

“But what do I do with this Mountain Dew?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t drink it,” said Carolina. “Just in case.”

The possibly-cursed Mountain Dew stayed unmolested in my pantry for the rest of the year. Meanwhile, La Gorda and I settled into an uneasy truce. I’d wave hello, and she’d give me the what’s up nod. From time to time, we’d make small talk about the carpet stains in the hallway, or the humidity outside. Gone were the offers of cafe con leche and Cuban toast, of prayers to save my mortal soul. On move-out day, La Gorda held the elevator door open as I trundled in a dolly of boxes. She wished me good luck, told me to call home more, and to light a candle to San Lázaro every night.

On April 16th, 2008, I did not die. That night, I went out with my girlfriends and pounded shot after shot of Jägerbombs, not caring that I would upchuck them later in a torrent of vomit. The date had been circled in red ink on my calendar, a ticking psychological time bomb courtesy of La Gorda. Carolina was right. She was just a hustler, nothing more. Still, I stopped by the corner bodega to buy a candle to light for San Lázaro when I got home.

Just in case.

 

Beverly Tan Murray is a Chinese-American author who was born in Singapore and immigrated to California at age 16. She now resides in Miami with her husband and a terrier-mutt named Larry David. Beverly is a VONA/Voices alumnus, and has been published in the Huffington Post, AWAY Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Lime Hawk. She writes short stories about life in liminal spaces, and has yet to find the perfect carne asada taco.

AMERICAN GENERAL by Ernest White II

Diego flicked on the bathroom light as he let the door slam behind him. His mother probably didn’t hear. Not with Mongo Santamaría’s syncopated percussion dancing a loud mambo from the record player in the living room out of the house through the open Plexiglas slats of the hurricane windows. The night was breezy, typical of late October, and the faint smell of oranges from the Valencia tree next door mingled with the dying aroma of garlic from the kitchen. While ferns danced in white, plastic pots suspended from the ceiling, his mother’s feet danced while she was busy working on a charcoal sketch of Cousin Laura. Mami wouldn’t notice anything, especially since the gang of trick-or-treaters tapered off after nightfall, distracting her less often from the easel. Behind her, the glass case holding Diego’s trophies vibrated with Mongo’s horns. The sweaty lifeguard t-shirt and gym shorts Diego had played basketball in earlier that afternoon hung languidly on his body. The sweat dried, making the cotton of the shirt feel papery against his skin. His mother had been bugging him about taking a shower all evening, but gave up after a half-hour of near-silence at dinner. She had cooked a pan of lasagna she bought at the Sam’s out by 95 and baked a pumpkin cheesecake decorated with sixteen candy-striped candles. Diego had blown them out with a quiet thanks, slowly eating a section of lasagna that would have ordinarily taken him a few minutes to devour.

“What’s wrong, mi vida? Tired?”

“A little. I’m really not that hungry, Ma.”

“You have to eat something. You know how you love some lasagna.”

“I’ll eat it later.”

“Well, what about your birthday cake?”

“Más tarde, Mami.”

Teena-Marie had serenaded them earlier and Marvin Gaye before that. Now it was Mongo and his bongos. Mongo peppering the entire street with his bongos. His mother always played her music loud, a habit Diego was quickly acquiring as his own music collection grew. “Loud-ass Puerto Ricans,” Diego knew the neighbors were mumbling under their breaths. They always did.

The fluorescent light showed moonlike in the clear water of the toilet bowl. Diego leaned over it, the curly shadow of his hair eclipsing the light’s reflection. Dried urine stained the rim of the bowl, usually left a few days until his mother got tired of waiting for Diego to clean the bathroom only he and houseguests used. The stream of urine sputtered to a milky start, breaking through the film of dried semen from earlier in the afternoon and sprinkling clear droplets on the rim and floor. Diego sighed as he relieved himself, the light rippling in the bowl, the smell of the urine rising warmly from the stream. Once done, he stared as the ripples quickly became smaller, then stopped. Diego moved his hand from the shaft of his penis to the base, then ran his three middle fingers down the backside of his testicles along the warm, moist skin, slightly parting them. He raised his fingers to his nose and inhaled. It wasn’t the first time he’d smelled himself. But it was the first time he smelled like someone else, like another boy at least. Diego realized this male commonality, earlier in the afternoon. Like a humid day at the beach—heady, sticky, salty, strong. Jennifer and Erica and Melanie and Jolene were…different. A different part of the beach.

“Yo, D,” Ron had shouted. “I know your punk-ass ain’t ready to take it to the court after school.”

“Ah, nigga, you can’t take me.”

“That’s wussup, dog. Gym. Three o’clock,” Ron had challenged. “You better have your high yellow ass out there, too.”

Three o’clock came.

“I jayed that shit right in your face, fool. And you supposed to be the center of the basketball team. You ain’t shit.”

“Oh yeah?” Ron spun around under Diego’s left arm, then shot the lay-up off the backboard. “Bim, muthafucka! Stick yo ass to the football field, bitch!”

The ball thwacked rhythmically against the painted wood, interspersed by squeaking rubber soles for a long while. Grunts. Sighs. Shit-talking. Elbows. Feet. A tripped body crashing into the floor, Diego wincing from the impact. Ron pinning him down. Grunts. Shit-talking. Ball bouncing, less and less high. Elbows. Ball rolling. Struggle. Knees. Sweat. Hands. Grunts. Knees. Shit-talking. Less. Resistance. Grunts. Breath. Awkwardness. Skin. Grunts. Hands. Lips. Grinding. Hips. Stiffness. Sweat. Breath. Wetness.

Rectangular, dark green tiles edged half-way up the bathroom wall, followed by white, fleur-de-lis-etched wallpaper that was beginning to curl slightly at the ceiling. The cold water was on, sounding like television static. A cartoon coqui grinned goofily from the bottom right corner of the bathroom mirror, holding a Puerto Rican flag. Diego stuck it to the mirror soon after he and his mother first moved into the house. He got a spanking for it, but she never peeled the sticker off. Diego looked at the dark, thickening hair underneath his nose. He looked at his lips, pinkish-beige, soft. Lips just touched by Ron’s lips. Ron’s lips which were fuller, browner, under darker, thicker hair. Lips like Seth’s. It wasn’t right. Not right, to enjoy it so much. To enjoy stiffness over softness, angles over curves. Jolene, now that was right. A stallion. Fine, stacked, brick house. Track team. Thick thighs, hips, lips. Put her mouth anywhere. He could go over to her house right now and have her tongue all over…where Ron just had his. He’d be sucking all on her chest, her breasts. Wasn’t fucking right. Fuck. Fucked. He’s fucked. They fucked. On the fucking gym floor. On the fucking pirate in the middle of the fucking gym floor. Where the fucking custodian could have caught them fucking in the middle of the fucking gym floor. That fuckin’ Ron and that fuckin’ Diego fuckin’ in the got-damn gym.

Tylenol and Campho-Phenique and Q-Tips and Speed Stick and Band-Aids and Dimetapp and Pepto-Bismol and Aqua Fresh and Plax and Vaseline and Reach Floss and 70% Isopropyl Alcohol Rubbing Compound and nail clippers and tweezers and African Royale Hot 6 Oil and Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Lotion and Luster’s Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion and a container of double-edged American General razors. The light flashed in the mirror as Diego closed the medicine cabinet. Mongo’s bongosflutessaxophones still thumpedblewsang, muted, through the bathroom door. Through Diego’s head. Loud-ass Puerto Ricans. Erica, she gave the best head. Loud, crazy-ass Puerto Ricans. Best head he ever had before today. Faggot-ass Puerto Rican. He rotated the plastic razor container slowly in his right hand a couple of times, then slipped one of the thin strips of metal out of the package with his thumb. The box fell into the sink, sliding to the bottom and resting on the stopper, doused under the running faucet. STEEL RAZOR read the shiny silver thing between his right thumb and index finger. It felt cold, wet. But it was dry. “Have your high yellow ass out there.” High yellow. He wasn’t high yellow now like he would be in January, when the season was over and he wouldn’t be outside as much. He was low yellow. He was almost red. He even had to look hard to see his veins. He wasn’t yellow, he was red. Taíno. Fuck it, he was black. Strong black man. Mandingo warrior. Uncut, baby! Shit, ask Jennifer. Erica. Ron. Fuck.

Diego stared, engrossed at the bluish channels of life beneath his skin. He traced the blade flatly against the dermis, scratching white streaks of dead cells. He wondered if he should slit across, matching the creases just below his palm. Or should he trace downward, following the vein south like a road map. Bracial, basilic, bronchial, one of them muthafuckas. Who the hell pays attention in class anymore? Right? No. Not fucking right. The steel traveled slowly, determinedly, leaving an expanding trail of crimson staining the road map of his left arm. Jacksonville to Miami. He only got just beyond Titusville, and barely half that distance on the right arm before the blade fell into the sanguine lake already forming on the tile.

Sitting under the sink, life coursing rhythmically from his body, Diego didn’t know if he made any noise when it happened. Mongo didn’t stop bongoing. Mami didn’t shout, “Diego, que fue?” The earth didn’t stop spinning. Crazy Puerto Rican. The bathroom light didn’t go out. Letting another boy touch you like that. The water in the sink didn’t stop running. Do stuff to you. The red on the floor looked black, reflected in the green tiles of the wall. That shit ain’t right. Loud-ass Puerto Rican. You ain’t right. Loud, crazy, faggot-ass Puerto Rican. What the fuck were y’all doing? Ron? Ron, what the fuck you doin’, man? Ron’s tongue entered Diego’s mouth, silencing his protests, their kisses echoing in the deserted gymnasium.

 


Ernest White II is a storyteller and explorer. He is the creator of multicultural travel portal Fly Brother, a contributing writer at literary travel journal Panorama, a former assistant editor at Time Out São Paulo, and founding editor of digital men’s magazine Abernathy. A Florida native, Ernest’s obsessions include Indian curry, São Paulo, and Rita Hayworth.

VENUS DE MILO WITH HER LOVER by Caroline Barr

by Caroline Barr

You can open me. Unwrap

these sheets and pull—just

slowly, though, and lick your

fingers first—pull my left

breast out and find the note

you wrote to your kindergarten

love. All x’s and o’s and crayon

devotion. Reach further, the tube

of lipstick your babysitter forgot

in the couch cushions has rolled

to the back. Remember how she

taught you spin-the-bottle?

With those dark berry lips. Now,

move your hand to my knee, spilling

over with the coarse-ground grits

you knelt on for ten whole minutes

when your mother caught you

watching porn. You couldn’t even pull

up your boxers first. Scoop them out

and find the broken condom. The back-seat

night that almost made you a man

too soon. This is what built you, these

wide-eyed nights stinging red like a fresh

tattoo only I can see. Here, kiss me.

Rest your head on my ribs. I am not afraid

of knowing you.


Caroline Barr is a native of Huntsville, Alabama currently pursuing a MFA in Poetry at The University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is a contributing writer for ANNA Magazine, LLC, freelance blogger and editor, and has been previously published in Two Hawks Quarterly.