Jan/Feb 2018 Nonfiction

Back There, Back Then

by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

There were six of us that evening. I was the youngest at nine, and the oldest was a tall, rangy boy of 14 who I remember liked to be called Big Man, which is probably as slangy and mean as nicknames got in the 50s. There were two girls who believed they were as tough as the four boys, three of whose names I forget, all of us running wild over a construction site shut down for the night. Parents had fruitlessly complained time and again about the carelessness with which the site was abandoned nightly, and kids climbed through the ripped fence like ants at a picnic.

The other five were Big Man's usual comrades, and I was surprised—and uncertain of why—he invited me to join them. Maybe it was because two others were in lock-up waiting to go to family court, or maybe he wanted an even number, or maybe the girl, Bonnie, didn't want to be the only female, a sometimes treacherous position. I was the lucky recipient of the maybes, an undersized, kinky-haired girl in weird shoes supposed to correct a slightly malformed foot (they didn't, and I still suffer with it). In truth I was probably included because I was the only kid out on the street, and when Big Man asked, "Hey girl, wanna get some shit with us to make a gun?" it was all I could do to be the nine-year old equivalent of cool. I'd never been invited to join any group before, and I said, "Yeah," in my too-soft voice, which I hoped sounded more like a James Cagney low growl than a childlike whisper.

It was 5:30 with the kind of solid, pervasive, August heat I imagine as exclusively New York's, a city I'll always think of in extremes. Once the site was deserted, we slipped through the ripped fence and wandered over enormous heaps of debris like small mountains glittering with slivered glass, broken booze bottles, splintered plastic, and reeking of animal feces in the still blisteringly hot sun. We were as determined as any garbage pickers to get what we came for: old linoleum and blocks of wood, especially those with nails, which would be augmented with our own personal rubber bands scavenged from kitchen drawers. We were making weapons, zip guns of a sort, and even as we ran over the cracked asphalt and rusty pipes and deteriorating remains of tenements, even as we waved raw materials too dilapidated to be sold as scrap, even as we tripped and skinned our knees, we were filled with a rare feeling of power.

I was the sole go-to-the-library-everyday kid of this group, and I remarked on the heat by announcing "It's like being in the desert." Big Man turned to look at me like I was crazy, then at something he saw on my face, maybe a kind of pleading, a desire to just this once belong, and from some gentle spot inside him he couldn't quite eradicate, he shouted, "Yeah, the desert and the camels ran away. Now grab your shit and follow me out of here." He was a good-looking Puerto-Rican boy with short-cropped hair and curiously green eyes from some point back in the ancestry. And we did follow him because he was the boss, the king, the man in charge.

We spilled out onto the sidewalks we pretended to own... and for that moment we did. We ran from the construction site, echoing Big Man's shouts of, "We're an army, man, we're a bad army!" We ran past the small garage where three oil-stained mechanics examined cars up on lifts while dented, rusty trucks, and cars in a bid for further life waited their turn in the streets. The mechanics turned at our shouts and looked at us with good-natured amusement. One yelled, "Beat their asses, soldiers!"

We ran past the clubhouse with the neon sign blinking "BEER" above eternally lowered blinds. Men in worn suits wandered in and out at all hours, acknowledging only each other, though I saw a suited man bump into an old guy with a cane once, knock him over and stare down at him as if deciding if it was something more than an accident. He finally leaned over and pulled the old man up with one yank.

We ran past the tenements where house-coated, nosy women my mother called yentas hung out of windows, shook their heads, and yelled, "What the hell are you kids doing now?"

We ran until we reached a gravelly lot. Big Man motioned us all to sit in a circle by the stunted maple tree, where he demonstrated how to make a zip gun, yanking out the nails (he helped me) and hammering the wood together just so, then attaching the rubber bands. He used an old Exacto knife to cut the linoleum into pointed "bullets."

We chased each other around, acquiring skill and dexterity, picking up each other's bullets, and got amazingly good. We hit the soup cans Big Man put up for target practice, the resulting ping our reward. We shot at cats who, with sharp meows and lowered tails, ran off. A rat came out of hiding, and Big Man narrowed his eyes and got him with one perfect shot. The rat limped away. There were bullets flying everywhere, and then Big Man turned, aimed for a bird taking to the sky, and hit me below my eye. For a moment I felt nothing, and then there was the hot wet response to the assaultive bullet of blood dripping down my cheek, my chin, across my old tee-shirt and shorts, forming a mosaic of scarlet and dusty brown on the ground. There was silence, motionlessness, five stares, Big Man's whispered "Shit," then four kids scattered. He waited, maybe to see if I would fall down dead, then mumbled, "Sorry kid," and vanished in a blur of long legs and yellow T-shirt.

I wanted to call him back, to say I was okay, to offer to continue the game, but I was alone, a single child in a large ghetto lot. I headed home. The yentas, watching me pass, yelled their cacophony of warning and concern with great satisfaction that my youth couldn't protect me just as their adulthood couldn't ultimately protect them. Their continued admonishments went unheard as I closed my building's door behind me and walked up the steps, a trail of blood spatter marking my trail. In our apartment I stopped the bleeding with a hot washcloth and a lot of pressure—injuries were nothing new or foreign. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I'd been invited to a party and doubted I'd be invited again, but it was okay—I had this time to treasure. I couldn't know at nine, when so much seem immutable, there would eventually be other parties, other groups, other people who were outsiders, and we would form groups that erased that distinction, that gave us a place to belong while still inhabiting the pride of being outsiders.

The next week, when I was in the library with my kid brother, Big Man and his group, restored to its rightful number, along with ten other neighborhood kids, invaded the site again in a hunt for buried treasure that would never reveal itself. In a growling few seconds of the unexpected, and as if in revenge for the search for something better, they were buried by an avalanche of garbage, the remains of dead buildings and new construction materials, an early claim to the coming gentrification and the dispossessing of the working class.

It all happened a long time ago. My life is different now, better, unexpected, although the feeling of not quite fitting in never recedes. I dream often about those streets—falling into the "back there, back then"—into the darkness, still shrouded in the shadows of the tenements, the scent of poverty, the sounds of defiance a battle cry of escape. Sometimes I'll awaken from a dream or a nightmare, heart pounding, breath ragged, flooded with panic and mysterious regret and a lingering wisp of lost green eyes. I can't go back to sleep then. I toss restlessly while I wonder about the meaning of being spared—whether it is finally all just serendipity, and the only meaning it owns is what we ourselves assign to it.


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