Yalitza Ferreras, 2020 BLR Fiction Prize Winner
Aunt #1’s plastic toilet lid shifts under Manolo’s weight as he balances his left ankle on his right knee, careful so his leg doesn’t slide off his sweatpants. He presses the pad of his thumb into a clear spot on his ankle, watching the indentation fill up with fluid, like water seeping back into a fresh muddy footprint. He calls this checking his water levels, which could be a cool party trick, but Manolo is not at a party.
There is no time to waste, so he places his leg down to get started. He closes his eyes to avoid seeing himself limp in his own hand. There is a clear image of Dinora’s breasts bouncing in front of his face in time with the merengue music thumping from the upstairs neighbor despite it being morning, but the chatter and the clanging of plates and utensils coming from the other side of the door is difficult to ignore. The steady beat fragments. Aunt #1 says, “It’s been at least fifteen minutes,” and his mother asks, “Did he take anything with him?” Aunt #4 says, “I don’t know how you put up with this.” The sisters are gathered together in Aunt #1’s apartment in Queens to shut down his broken, horny, male body. He is forty-five years old and knows he is going to die soon, either where he is now—at Aunt #1’s apartment in Queens, or back at his mother’s house in Santo Domingo.
He opens his eyes and takes off his glasses, looks down at his legs so that his skin looks blurry, still mottled, but almost smooth as if his shins weren’t covered in diabetic ulcers. Dinora’s face fades from the inside of his eyelids as a painful numbness overtakes his lower legs. How can there be any feeling in numb?
About a year ago, Dinora stopped by on her way to work and handed Manolo’s mother a foil covered plate over the fence, as they both peered at each other around his mother’s housedress. Manolo, who when back home in Santo Domingo spent most days propped up on the sofa in plain view through the open front door, watched as his mother grabbed the plate from Dinora and said, “I’ll pass by and thank your mami for lightening my burden.” She then walked to the back past Manolo, trailing a pungent, oily smell into the kitchen. She was shaking her head and said, “The pasteles are so fried they are transparent. You’ll have another heart attack. And what does that woman think? That I can’t manage?”
He had been too weak to get up and pluck them out of the garbage and spent the next few moments trying to inhale whatever greasy scent was left behind. A week later, while his mother was out running errands, Dinora had sauntered in and set some more pasteles down on the coffee table in front of the TV by bending over a breath’s space away from his face.
He thinks about that moment now as a portal to another life where he isn’t sick. He can almost feel the pastele grease coating his lips as he grasps Dinora’s hips, but the image isn’t enough with all the ceaseless cackling here, as if the apartment is full of crows. He shifts on the toilet seat, and hears Aunt #4 say, “He’s probably taking a shit. That they take their time with, the other thing, not so much.” Aunt #2/3 says, “They don’t realize how much they hurt us after we sacrifice everything for them.”
Manolo lifts the elastic of his sweatpants and lets himself flop back in. He picks up his glasses, and the edges of the pink bathroom tiles crystallize in front of him. He bunches up some toilet paper with one hand and grabs on to the bathroom sink with the other. He moistens the paper until weighty enough, just before the wad comes apart. He limps out of the bathroom into the hallway and up to the kitchen, which has become quiet. He stands in the doorway shifting his weight to his right foot which hurts less than the left. They all look away except #4. He has begun feeling numbness on the fingertips of his left hand and he realizes it hurts to hold toilet paper, the super soft, quilted kind that clings to your ass because it is made of clouds. He has learned a few useful things in American high school bathrooms, but he lacks the strength to hurl the toilet paper up to the ceiling, so he lobs the wad at them and it hits the edge of the kitchen table, then falls to the floor.
He hobbles away holding on to overflowing cabinets and shelves that cover every wall space as one of the aunts screams, “What is that?” and another, “Is it dirty?” He can’t tell which one is screaming what and he doesn’t care. He recognizes Aunt #1’s laughter booming among them. He holds on to the walls of the hallway, making his way back to the bedroom. He wishes he’d had the energy to make a good pitch back there. He’d been known as the Blind Bat when he was a kid playing in his neighborhood baseball field in Ensanche Duarte, and then on a team in his one year of middle school in Queens, where he had felt supremely American playing this supremely Dominican game, learning to communicate in English as baseballs whizzed all around him. He thinks he could’ve had a chance at the majors if his eyes had slowed down their deterioration and let him.
He has not ranked the aunts by age (his mother is the oldest at 67 and Aunt #2 or #3 is the youngest at around 61 or 62)—they are ranked according to level of tolerability; his mother would be #5 had she been an aunt. The sisters are exactly alike in demeanor and appearance, colored and shaped like large brown eggs wearing voluminous house dresses, an image he once saw in a children’s book. After Aunt #2/3 was born, his grandfather gave up trying for a son and left with another woman who bore him four more daughters and then, finally, a son. (Yes, it was inconceivable that he had four more aunts out there. He was grateful that the betrayal had kept both sets of aunts away from each other.) He had only met his baby uncle once at his grandfather’s funeral.
His mother has always been nicer to his siblings, a brother and a sister who never visit anymore because they claim Manolo scared their children. He once pressed his niece’s and nephew’s small fingers against a fistula on his arm so they could feel the gushing sensation, which he’d had the good sense not to mention was his blood coursing through his body, and told them to close their eyes and pretend they were running their hands along a river. Isn’t that cool? They had bolted out of the room screaming, although he had never meant to hurt them. His body was like an amusement park of horrors, and he wanted to entertain them in the only way available to him. Weren’t children delighted by disgusting things?
Aunts #2 and #3 are basically the same. He has never had that much meaningful contact with either of them—those were simply their numbers because they were not Aunt #4 whom he had lived with for a short time in her big house on the outskirts in El Trece (she’d done better than the other sisters). When he was a little boy, she killed Pablo, his pet chicken, and he remembers that she laughed and said, “Shut up, she’s food,” after she had grabbed Pablo’s neck and yanked. And, maybe she had not killed Pablo with as much glee as the passage of time had conferred on the chicken’s death, but Aunt #4 had been an easy-to-cast villain with her big, smug, satisfied face because her two sons were the best amongst all the cousins: one a doctor, the other a lawyer, both married to currently pregnant white women.
Aunt #1 is the best because she had chosen him, crossing the Rio Ozama with Manolo on her back when the Americans invaded in 1965 to reinstall an American-friendly government after the dictator’s death. Everyone in the family old enough grabbed a kid and ran. She sometimes detailed all the horrors: the dead body that had floated by, and the danger of being swept away, how she held on to him no matter what, and how to this day she never submerges herself in bodies of water, and only takes showers. All he remembers is the wind on his face, opening his mouth and sticking out his tongue, tasting the rain, as he held on tight around his aunt’s neck, and digging his bony heels into her sides.
He adjusts himself on the bed now so that he is sitting upright with his elbows sunken into pillows before he calls Dinora again. She has a different schedule every day so he doesn’t know if she’ll pick up. His has been the same for the past ten years: wake up, turn on the TV, eat breakfast, watch TV, eat lunch, watch TV, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to sleep. Repeat the next day. He’d had a few jobs, enough to get some disability benefits, the last one as a taxi dispatcher for a car service owned by a family friend, from which he was fired for screaming at customers when they spoke too fast or complained about delays. Throughout the years, he has whittled his interactions with his mother and the aunts down to telling them to close the door behind them when they bring him his meals.
He dials the access code of the calling card emblazoned with the Dominican flag and El Dominicano Feliz that he had asked one of his cousins to buy for him, carefully punching the twenty digits the cousin had faithfully reproduced in large handwriting. When Manolo had thanked him, he said, “Whatever keeps you going, dude,” and tugged on his pierced septum, one of the many piercings he’d had to protect from his father, even in his sleep.
When Dinora answers the phone, he feels like he stepped into a warm bath. He pictures her cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder, her pillowy lips brushing against the receiver. She says, “I’m on my way to work. I can’t stay on the phone.”
He glances behind him before he speaks to make sure the aunts didn’t get nosy. “I wanted to hear your voice.”
“Did you get the money?”
“Yes.” She pauses then adds, “Thank you, my love. Do you know when you are coming home?”
“No. But soon I think.”
“I have to go. Call me next week, okay, papi?”
He wanted to make sure she had received the monthly gift he sent her from his small disability check. Really, he called to remind her that he was coming home eventually and expected to see her again. He feared that the two month break in their routine was long enough to disengage her from whatever he had lucked into. He hangs up the phone telling himself that the conversation was fine, besides, their thing was no talking, just fucking. In and out. Dinora would ease his sweatpants down then get on top of him so he didn’t have to exert himself too much. He had been able to get it up the first time they’d tried, and she’d said, “I knew there was a man in there,” and he filled with pride. Sometimes she leaned forward, and he would try to kiss her, but she would guide her body so her breasts filled his mouth instead. It was the easiest thing, the best thing in his life. She looked like a lava lamp one of his cousins bought when he was a teenager, a lamp Manolo’s mother had called demonic. Dinora was like the globules of whatever was in there bouncing and floating in the liquid; breasts, elbows, shoulders, everything rounded and flowing and beautiful as far as he could make out without his glasses. Afterwards, Dinora would wipe down his penis with a wet washcloth so tenderly that it was almost his favorite part of the transaction. After she washed out the cloth, she hung it out to dry under the sun in the clothesline in the backyard before leaving. And then his mother would get home. And he supposed she would take the washcloth in because he never did.
Dinora worked six shifts at a fruit-canning factory so there wasn’t much time for anything else. Her mother took care of her five-year-old son, whose father, another neighbor, had started a new family when he moved to the States, which everyone knew about because he was their neighbor here, too, living a few blocks away from Aunt #4 in Queens. He’d said that things just happened, that because he was undocumented and lacked papers, his inability to return home had prompted him to put down roots—a man had to have a family. Dinora never brought her son over, and Manolo never asked about him. He suspected that she didn’t want the boy to get attached in case Manolo died. Manolo felt the same way.
Later that night, when Aunt #1’s husband comes home from work, Manolo is forced out of the living room with its large TV into the kitchen to watch a tiny ancient set on the kitchen table. His strained eyes can barely make out the amorphous little forms running around the baseball diamond, so he uses a magnifying glass in front of his glasses. His eyes never worked properly, even before diabetes. His eyeballs have every single problem an eyeball could have—they are too small, dry, irregularly shaped.
His mother is having dinner with Aunts #2-4 at #4’s house, after they spent the day at a flea market buying things they don’t need to stock up in their closets (or everywhere inside the apartment in Aunt #1’s case)—because you never know—and a suitcase or two full of things for his mother to sell back home. Visiting her sisters gave his mother a break from all the cooking, she said. And he wasn’t sure, but in the months preceding their trip, he thought the food portions had become smaller, simpler. He thought it was possible that his mother had been slowly trying to starve him so she could be free. Aunt #1 rinses rice in the sink as Manolo yells at the TV. “You’re supposed to throw it to second base!” He slams his fist on the table.
Aunt #1 starts talking with her back to him. “Manolito. We’ve been discussing things.” She turns to face him and clasps her hands together as she lets them fall in front of her apron. “We think you should see a specialist for your problem when you get back.”
“That fucking guy was safe! What? What do you mean? You know I have three million specialists. It’s all I do.”
“We mean a psychologist or some sort of counselor to help with your problems. You’ve had a lot to deal with. It’s understandable.”
He picks up his magnifying glass again. They are both silent for a moment.
He turns to look towards her and asks, “Since when do we go to psychologists? What are we American now? Are we going to start talking about feelings?” He turns back to the TV and yells, “Look at the replay. I got some fucking feelings about that damned run! Look at the fucking replay! It was out! Out!”
Aunt #1 turns back around to face the sink and finishes rinsing the rice. She takes a few steps over to the stove and puts the rice in a pot on top of the burner. Manolo presses his face against the magnifying glass, which is about two inches from the TV. She remains facing the stove as she speaks. “Your mother bought your tickets. You leave next week on Friday.”
He knows that Aunt #1’s husband has been complaining about their ever-extending vacation. As he slams down the magnifying glass, he thinks of demoting her to Aunt #2. The handle of the magnifying glass comes off so he pops the lens out of the frame and holds up the lens to the TV. “That’s it! Make a fucking decision! Get him out of the fucking game! Get him out!”
When it is time to leave Queens, Aunt #1 holds him close and whispers in his ear, “I’m sorry if I said something that upset you. Never forget that I picked you. You are still my favorite.” He says nothing to her as he struggles out of her embrace. On the plane back to Santo Domingo, Manolo’s mother reaches over to buckle his seatbelt. After she fastens it, he jabs his elbow into her side and tells her not to touch him. When they are up in the air, he looks out the window at the grid of the city giving way to the smooth dark blue ocean and fantasizes Dinora’s hips undulating like the waves of El Malecon, and that she is waiting for him on top of his bed when he gets home.
Manolo sits on the sofa with his legs propped up on the coffee table hoping to catch a glimpse of Dinora if she happens to walk by. She has not answered the phone in the week since they returned. The platanero had just sold his mother some platanos and then reached into a pouch tied to his cart and produced a little vial, the contents of which he said his mother had told him would knock out whatever is wrong with your son, and Manolo’s mother had done the sign of the cross with her right hand and clasped the platanero’s hands with her left. Manolo shakes his head and tells her to stop with the theatrics and hurry up and cook the damned platanos.
The round of doctor’s visits start immediately. His mother keeps mumbling that she can’t wait to tell the doctor all the ways in which Manolo hasn’t been following their orders. Today, the doctor is wearing a white button-down shirt, top button open to a gold chain with a medallion whose details Manolo can’t discern, except it glistened the way a stethoscope might have if he had been wearing one. The nurse is molded into light pink scrubs which make her look like Easter candy, a shapely marshmallow, an erotic Peep. He savors the feel of her touch around his wrist as she takes his vitals. He wonders if he has been going about this all wrong. He should find a woman who’s around. He was busy making plans with the nurse in his head, when she asks when was the last time he had a bowel movement, and that was the end of that. His mother answers for him.
The doctor takes notes, shuffles some papers within a manila folder, suggests an enema. Manolo refuses.
The nurse says, “You better poop before that hurricane gets here,” and walks out.
In the taxi on the way back from the hospital, his mother starts laughing to herself. Maybe she is laughing at the man with about twenty stacked plastic chairs strapped to the back of his moto, but they’ve all seen more impressive things propped on motorcycles: water heaters, full-length mirrors, and even a cow. After a little while, she says to the taxi driver, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this child,” and points at Manolo with her chin.
The taxi driver says, “Child?” towards his rearview mirror and starts laughing, too. “You mean that grown man sitting next to you?”
The man with the chairs swerves into the taxi’s lane, and the taxi driver flicks a switch under the steering wheel to sound a car alarm, his makeshift horn. The chairs bounce as the man adjusts himself on the seat of the moto and speeds off ahead of them.
“My son is very sick. He won’t do what the doctor says. He wouldn’t let them give him an enema.”
Manolo grabs the door handle, but it is limp. He would have to reach through the window and pull up on the outside handle but knows he lacks the strength to do it. “Stop the car.”
“Ay, Manolo. I don’t mean anything. You know it’s a little bit funny.”
“Why does a total stranger have to know that I have to put something up my ass?”
“Don’t be vulgar!”
He flicks the handle over and over the rest of the way home.
While his mother is out buying extra supplies before the storm, he scoots the two blocks over to Dinora’s house using his cane even though he hadn’t wanted her to see him that way. He is wearing his best shirt, a structured, light knit version of a button down shirt, but the sun has already squeezed his sweat out in a current down the sides of his torso. He would have waited until dusk to make his journey, but his mother would never have allowed him to go out alone then without assistance so he took advantage of her absence. Neighbors yell things at him like walking like a champ and look at you, like a regular macho.
When he reaches her house he can see Dinora’s mother through the open door as she stands folding clothes onto their couch, watching TV at the same time. How can she not see him as his free hand shifts to hold onto every fence post around their galeria? There is no sign of Dinora. Her son is splayed out on the floor of the galeria, playing with a rocket and small action figures. He ceremoniously lands the rocket on each of their heads, toppling the miniature figures as the rocket comes down for repeated landings.
Dinora’s son yells out, “Abuela, there’s a robot going by with a mechanical leg. Do you think he is a bad monster?”
Her mother peeks her head out the door, nods at Manolo, and says to her grandson, “Come inside, muchachito. You have to help me close up the house.”
Dinora’s son points an action figure at Manolo and says, “I will defeat you robot man!” and flies his spaceship inside and hurls himself into his grandmother’s legs. She folds over and kisses the top of his head and closes the door behind him. A neighbor yells at Manolo from across that street that he’s going to blow over on his ass if he doesn’t get home soon, but Manolo doesn’t acknowledge him. He’s not sure if his bones hurt more from the walk or the pressure drop.
By the afternoon, pieces of palm trees and roofs are whirling in the wind and the streets are starting to flood. Nobody is selling anything. Their house is built like a fortress, on a slight hill, elevated from the street on a concrete foundation. With the money Manolo’s parents had made in the States, they made sure to reinforce the house as best they could to withstand anything. His father has been long dead of a heart attack at fifty-two years old. Worked himself to death, the aunts always said, but everyone was proud that his years as a steel steamfitter left gleaming towers pronging the Manhattan skyline forever.
The house is dark, and Manolo is alone with his mother. Tonight is the start of a Subway Series, which hadn’t happened since the Dodgers were the Brooklyn Dodgers. Aunt #1’s apartment was so close to Shea Stadium that you could hear the cheers of the crowd mixed in with the cheers of the people in their apartments and in the streets. He almost wishes he was back in Queens, and he doesn’t care how many of the aunts would be around. But Dinora is here. She is his home now.
Then Manolo smells it: boiled chicken. He shuffles into the kitchen. “I’m not eating that.”
“Well, you’re going to have to eat it. We won’t have electricity,” his mother says as she lights a match and holds it to a kerosene lamp.
“But, you knew that and you made me something I don’t like.”
“I’m not going to fry things for you. I’m not going to kill you, Manolo. I will not do it.”
He leans his pelvis on the counter and opens and slams shut the cabinets, looking for something else to eat.
“Why don’t you call Dinora over to cook for you?” his mother says.
Her words slide over him like the numbness that often creeps up his legs. He grabs the plate and throws it on the floor. The plastic plate bounces up a few times, and his mother doesn’t flinch. She shakes her head then gathers her apron against the skirt of her housedress, gathers it all between her thighs before she bends down, holding on to a cabinet handle before placing each knee down on the floor. She moves so slowly, slower as the years go by. She sighs and says, “Mamá would know what to do about you.”
He’d be dead if his grandmother were still alive. He misses the pineapple-filled Dominican-style cakes she baked him in the hours when she thought the electricity wouldn’t go out, and the bottles of Fanta the soda guy dropped off, exchanging the empties with full ones every couple of days, you know, to wash down the cake. He had never felt so loved—he asked and he received.
His mother looks up at him for an instant, and he detects a moment of longing, as if she thinks he has inched his way towards her to offer help. She looks back down. He wants to touch her but doesn’t know how. He has only ever been affectionate with his grandmother, whose daughters sponsored each other and their husbands as they moved to New York at one time or another, birthing children along the way, sending them back to Santo Domingo while they worked, sending for them when they could. But Manolo always needed more help than the others and stood out among all the children with his glasses too big and thick for his face, which he focused on his mother like a pair of binoculars, and he clung to her like he’d clung to Aunt #1, crossing the river. His mother always left him anyway, said it was for their betterment—which means nothing to children. Manolo has always felt like she had given up on him a long time ago. He wonders if Dinora is a better mother to her son. He wonders whether her son plays quietly with small toys in a corner of the house or if he screams and kicks chair legs and doors, like the things Manolo did to soothe himself. Manolo wants to have the strength to topple everything in this kitchen, claw the cabinets off, burst his way out.
He inches closer to his mother and looks down at the crown of her head to the spot where Aunt #4 had pointed out his mother’s hair was thinning. He drops his cane on the floor and when he bends down to pick it up, he presses his hand on her head. He doesn’t know why but he felt like he needed to touch her. She doesn’t scream, she moans. She is on the floor, making low moaning sounds as he presses down on her. She begins wailing.
He looks at his mother, at the blurry form of her crumpled on the floor. They both know there is no reason to fear him, that he lacks the strength to really harm her, but still, she cries, and the sound unites with the wind outside, and he can’t take it. He staggers up and holds on to the walls all the way to the front door. As soon as he undoes the last lock, the door bursts open and pushes him over as the wind comes in. His mother rushes out past him. Her housedress clings to her. Manolo sits on the floor as he watches the neighbor across the street open his front door with his wife behind him. She’s holding a big towel or a sheet, Manolo can’t tell which even though the houses are so close you can smell their meals in good weather. The neighbor makes his way across the porch and unlatches the front gate and holds on to it while he reaches out his hand for Manolo’s mother. His mother points back at the house.
Manolo withstands the force of the wind and crawls out into the galeria, where he is submerged in water covering his hands a few inches up his wrists, when he feels as if something heavy strikes his chest, knocking his glasses off, slamming him to the ground. He feels for debris but wonders if it is possible his chest has exploded from inside. He rolls onto his back and remembers being little and all the cousins huddled in the galeria, waiting for the rain to build up, his sliding around, skinning his knees on the rough edges in between the tiles. Wet, blurry and carefree. He looks up now at what seems like swirling arms of water reaching around him. He thinks of numbers but there are too many, and they are not making any sense—numbers of what? He opens his mouth to taste the raindrops on his tongue. He sees all the women hovering over him like a myriad of suns and for a moment he thinks the moaning sounds of the hurricane are coming out from their wide-open mouths.