Blue Island Gods

By

Gregory Ashe

 

 

Part I – Kike

 

“No.” La Incarnación shook her head once, sending her long hair skittering across her back like the legs of a very old, very tired spider. “Burn that candle I gave you. Say a prayer. Forget it.”

 

I slammed the screen door on my out.

 

Outside, the air whipped past me, hot and dry, like standing inside an exhaust pipe. No rain. July. Chicago. And not the nice side of Chicago either. Not Lincoln Park. Not the Gold Coast. Not Evanston. God, if I took my van up there, I’d probably be in cuffs before I had time to shift into park. Evanston people were the scary kind of white people. The rich kind.

 

I walked to the van where I had parked it, a block north, on Cullerton. Traffic on Ashland was busy—Ashland was always busy. I climbed in the van, glad that I’d left the windows down. Hot. God, it was hot. The torn fabric seat was hot. The duct tape was hot. The steering wheel—ouch. Hot.

 

Tapping a cigarette loose from the pack, I lit up, pulled the van into the street, and took a puff. A quick cough, and I rolled my shoulders, shaking some of the tension and none of the anger loose.

 

Go see La Incarnación, Mamá said. Go ask her to help you.

 

So I had. Three times.

 

And the bruja did everything but spit in my face every time. I mean, a candle? That was her solution? An honest-to-God candle, one of those velas in glass with the picture of the saint on the front. Someone I didn’t recognize.

 

Timo said that La Incarnación had fixed his thing with the police. One day, they had him on possession. Timo paid La Incarnación, did whatever she told him to do, and suddenly the pot disappeared and the cops weren’t following Timo around anymore.

 

And Willi. Willi said that his sister María, the fat one, María Blanca, not María Alma, who I took to prom, and—well, that’s another story. But Willi said María Blanca paid the old hag, walked right into the botánica with a stack of tens, and the next month María Blanca was pregnant. Twins. They’re three, now. I mean, you can’t deny that she had those kids—not after I watched one of them pee on Willi when he was changing him.

 

Even Bego believed it. Bego, who didn’t buy into any of that nonsense. Bego, who went to church, and who had made me go to church, and that, let me tell you, was a big surprise even for God I’m pretty sure. But at New Year’s, Bego took a plate of tamales over to La Incarnación. Insurance. That’s all she had said when she came back and I teased her about it. Insurance.

 

Even Bego believed.

 

I slammed on the horn as I turned onto Ashland. Some moron in a souped-up car sped up and swerved into my lane, ignoring my warning. My foot dropped onto the gas.

 

Chug, chug, chug.

 

The van had no guts. Pretty soon the kid and the souped-up car were two blocks gone. I lost them before I reached the next light.

 

Mamá said go see La Incarnación. Mamá said remember Tía Pilar, who had a cyst, and the doctors didn’t want to operate because it was complicated. And she said remember Tía Pilar, when sepsis set in after the surgery, and Tío Paco, who only had one eye and wore his hat really low on the left to try and cover for this, she said remember Tío Paco, and I said, yes, I remember him. And she said Tío Paco went to see La Incarnación, and Tía Pilar got well the next day and walked—walked, on her own two feet—right out of that hospital, and the doctors said it was a miracle.

 

But when I asked for one thing, La Incarnación said no.

 

I laid on the horn again and slammed on the brake. The light was green, but no one was moving and I had to stop or run into one of those tiny plastic imports. The boxes in the back of the van groaned, the cardboard towers rocking back and forth. I spat out the window; my throat was even worse now, scratchy after the cigarette, and I was so hot that I turned on the vents. The A/C had been busted for years, and all I got was more hot air pouring over me.

 

There was a Jarrito, lukewarm, fruit punch, behind the seat. It was better than nothing.

 

Finally the traffic started to move. I turned right on 18th Street, then south on Halsted. My cellphone was on my lap the whole time, bouncing as the van grumbled over potholes and the cheap-as-shit asphalt. I reached down. Picked it up. Flipped it open.

 

Put it back down.

 

Then I picked it up again.

 

When I hit 31st, I made myself hit call and pressed the thing to my ear.

 

Almost immediately: “You’ve reached the voicemail of—”

 

Shut.

 

Either her phone was off, or she’d finally blocked me. A man probably has a limited number of drunk dials he can make in his life, and I’d used up all of mine on Bego. And they weren’t the cute kind, either.

 

Her parents’ house was an actual house, not an apartment or a townhouse. It was separate from the buildings on either side of it with a patch of overgrown grass in front. Narrow, tall, and with siding that was cheap and, for the most part, split and splintering. A chain link fence wrapped the tiny lot. Old-fashioned white curtains hung inside, blocking me out.

 

I lifted the latch, petted Nelly when she came storming around the side of the house, and knocked on the door. Nelly hugged my side, alternately pawing at my leg and standing on my foot. Old friends.

 

I knocked. And then again.

 

No one came to the door, even though I knew María Teresa was home, because the old woman probably didn’t own anything except a nightgown and slippers and I’d never seen her leave the house except once. Not when I was going out with Bego. Not when I was living with Bego. Once.

 

But I guess everyone loves weddings.

 

María Teresa didn’t come to the door. Neither did Bego. I glanced back at the van full of boxes. I could leave them on the porch. I wouldn’t have to come back here. I wouldn’t have to call Bego again. We’d be done with each other, each of us wiped clean from the other’s life.

 

I ran my arm across my face, catching sweat with the sleeve of my t-shirt.

 

“We need rain,” I told Nelly.

 

Nelly grinned that dog-grin that most people like and a few people find creepy. I liked it.

 

Kids were playing next door, even in this heat. From the porch, I could see them in the backyard, just a sliver of what was happening. They were laughing. The sprinkler arced water lazily across the grass. Watching them was like swallowing ground-up glass.

 

How could Bego stand it?

 

So I got back in my van and left the boxes where they were. Damned kids would probably steal the stuff anyway, not that it was worth stealing.

 

Back home, I spent the rest of the afternoon unloading the van, putting all those boxes into that forbidden room at the top of the stairs. It was a Thursday, and it was one of those summer days that lasted forever. The sun was too bright for too long. Even for July, it was too hot. The kind of hot that wrings every last drop of sweat from you. The kind of hot that shimmers gleefully a few inches above the asphalt. The kind when you should go to the pool.

 

Instead I sat on the porch and smoked a few more cigarettes. My throat dried out, and I was kind of sick to my stomach. It felt good to grind the butts out on the bench, really grind them out, as though I were rubbing out a stain.

 

They say you should have a routine when you’re grieving. At least, someone said that. So here’s my routine:

 

I walk into the kitchen, and it’s still too bright outside. The stack of tests sits on the microwave, little black eyes tracking me. The machine at school is broken, so I have to grade them by hand, but I ignore them. It’s summer school. And besides, it’s part of my routine.

 

Half a sandwich sits in the fridge from when Mamá came over the other day. I grab the plate, three bottles of Tecate. No. Five, juggling them between my hand and my armpit. Go upstairs to my room, turn on the tiny window A/C unit, and then flick on the fan and let it blow some of the tepid air across my back. A few bites of the sandwich are enough; I’m not really hungry.

 

The beer is never enough.

 

This was my routine.

 

Somewhere in the fourth beer my phone rang, and it was Mamá, so I picked it up. In part because I was drunk and wanted someone to talk to. In part because I knew she would just keep calling.

 

“Hey Mamá,” I said.

 

“Kike,” was how she began, and then a torrent of words. I was too drunk to pick all of them out. An update about Rosa, who was on her third kid and her second husband and lived in Texas and wanted to move back to Chicago desperately. I wanted to say that’s what she deserved for always thinking she was better than me, for going to college first, even though I was older, and for, more generally, being the favorite child. And then an update about Juan, hijo, who, like my father, was a functioning alcoholic and a mechanic. He probably resented me as much as I resented Rosa, because I had gone to college too, and, as both Juan, padre, and Juan, hijo, had told me on different occasions, I had gotten a big head because I was a schoolteacher.

 

“Are you drinking?” she finally asked.

 

I realized I had missed something. “I’m just having a beer.”

 

Silence.

 

“It helps me sleep,” I added.

 

“You should go see La Incarnación,” Mamá said. “Remember when my foot was bad, and the doctor kept telling me they might have to cut it off, because the infection was so bad—”

 

“It wasn’t an infection,” I started to say.

 

“—and I went right down to La Incarnación, first thing, and I took her some of those nuts she likes, and a case of Sol, and the money we’d saved for Juan hijo’s band camp, and do you remember, Kike, she set me right as rain.”

 

I realized I didn’t want to talk after all. I wanted more beer. I wanted the fan to be louder. I wanted the air conditioner to be colder. I wanted that rumbling buzz of machinery to take up residence inside my head, right behind my eyes. And what I really, really wanted, was never to hear about La Incarnación. Ever again.

 

“Bye, Mamá,” I said and I flipped the phone shut.

 

She was still talking.

 

Under the bed, a half-empty bottle of tequila sang to me. I crawled to it. The glass was still warm from the heat of the day trapped in this little room. It was stupid to drink beer before tequila. I drank it anyway.

 

I didn’t dream. Not anymore. I didn’t really sleep, either. I hung there, in and out of myself. And sometime after I’d rolled the bottle of tequila back under the bed, I curled up on the floor, because the bed was too high. I cursed Bego for leaving, and Mamá for being stupid, because her foot was never in any danger, and she just had the gout and took ibuprofen every morning, and most of all I cursed La Incarnación, because my daughter was dead and the bruja wouldn’t bring her back.

 

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