Pablo grips a bottle of booze he managed not to drink last night. A block away Miguel and Niña trail pre-school kids who are joined by a tether and are blocking the sidewalk. The children are noisy and joyful. Their smiles glitter under cloudy skies. This is Pablo’s favorite time of day, a modest slice of time when he’s drunk from the night before, but not drunk enough. Bright sun breaks over the Verranzo Bridge, southeast light making its way toward Pablo’s world—a park bench situated along a curved road that faces Piers 88 and 90 on the Manhattan side of the Hudson River. The weight of the bottle in his hand is like a golden chalice of nectar. Unable to wait for Miguel and Niña to close the gap, he twists the bottle top off, gulping sweetness until his throat closes and swallows. His friends see him drink. Alarmed, they slip between parked cars and break into a trot, lest Pablo consume the whole bottle.
“Hombre, can’t you wait?” Miguel says breathless, taking the liquor from Pablo and drinking a healthy dose. “Damn that’s good.”
“Good morning, chacho,” Pablo says with a pound on Miguel’s back.
Niña catches her breath and the men pass the bottle to her, remembering their childhood manners that girls come first. Niña sips, tipping the bottle half-a-dozen times before Pablo gently retrieves it from her. The children go by, a teacher directing their progress with her back facing the group of drunks who pass the bottle and drain its contents. Pablo tosses the empty and it tumbles downhill with a musical sound. Feeling good and feeling free, they sit on the bench, glad for the approaching sunshine while making fun of morning commuters bunched at bus stops along Boulevard East.
Less than an half-hour later, Pablo squirms, the morning drink has worn off. Where’s Hector? To occupy his mind, he tells a story, acting out all the parts, kicking his legs, and moving around the sidewalk, occasionally stepping out of the way for a bicyclist or a dog walker. Niña props her head with one hand having heard this one before. The booze has made her sleepy. A passerby would say she looks old and fleshy in dirty clothes; a light blue t-shirt creased by her plump backside and protruding stomach with collected filth in the seams. But Pablo sees none of these details. Niña is the same twelve-year old girl from the neighboring stoop who taught him his first words of English. Their parents had settled in the Union City enclave, off the boat from Cuba, immigrants from Castro’s nation. She laughs at his story because he is her friend.
Pablo waves to Hector who’s approaching from Forty-eighth Street. Hector lifts a paper bag over his head and shouts in Spanish, “As you can see, I always come.” Last night was Hector’s turn to collect coins along Bergenline Avenue and secure provisions for the group. Tomorrow Niña will collect, the next day Miguel, and Friday it’ll be Pablo. Pressing the pedestrian pushbutton, willing the light to turn red, Pablo embraces Hector after he crosses. Hector, who is triumphant and starry eyed, holds the bottle over his head like a trophy won by athletes. The group devours the booze, allowing Pablo to lick the last drops inside the bottle’s neck with his long tongue, as is his morning custom. Once the jubilee of drink wears off the group shuffles to its feet and heads north. The sun is high in the sky, at their backs. The warmth is good, the morning drink was too, but one more bottle before siesta would do the group good. They venture past the day care center, the pavilion, basketball courts, and the veterans memorial fountain, all the while laughing about what happened the day before: hiding from Officer Hernandez who patrols Palisades Avenue (he lectured them about giving back to the community what was so freely given to them after leaving Cuba—democracy, liberty, and first amendment rights) and swiping fruit from the bodega, eating it greedily, the three of them struck silly by diarrhea, and taking turns to watch out while each person relieved him/herself in the bushes. How funny, they had laughed, fruit was supposed to be nutritious for the soul.
Rounding the corner of Sixtieth Street, a line of parents and children wait to enter the town pool. Pablo remembers last week when a mother had called him el diablo. He had checked his appearance since then and understood why the mother had called him the devil. His head is twice the size it used to be, his skin red, brown and leathery. He hopes the lady isn’t in line today. He doesn’t want to see the disgust in her eyes as he and his friends walk by. Avoiding inquisitive glances, the group descends the stairs leading to the grotto underneath the pool. In the shadow of the overhang, they see how lucky they are today. There are several bottles left by late night teen lovers with enough swigs leftover to please all of them. Satisfied and in a stupor, the friends rest against a girder, or one another, and pass out.
Pablo wakes. His eyes droop at half-mast as he adjusts to the darkness. Pablo stands and stretches and kicks Hector’s leg. Niña and Miguel are gone. The sun has arched over the hill and the Hudson River extends gloriously in the diminishing daylight. The men continue toward the waterfront, careful to avoid moneyed dwellers from new construction built along the shoreline. At the old site of the Manhattan ferry crossing, they douse their faces with river water, and lay on an old pier. A tugboat guides a barge of city trash. They follow its course down river.
About the Author
Darlyne Baugh lives in New Jersey