from Neruda on the Park
Eusebia pushed the laundry cart out of the building. It was so heavy she had to use the strength of her entire body as she got it through to the sidewalk. The noise from the construction started at exactly 7 A.M., as she crossed the street into Nothar Park. It was deafening. There was hammering and yelling, and huge machines that amplified all the noise. The dust that covered the cars, sidewalk, swings, trees, made its way to her eyes, her nose. She inhaled it. It scraped her nostrils, then her throat when she swallowed. The dust was a force that tried to slow her down, attacked her body particle by particle. She sped up, cutting through the dirt and avoiding the paved concrete path. The grass was yellow and dry, but the volunteers had planted various beautiful tulips, already in bloom, with pastel colors like ice cream. Peach on the outside, pineapple up top, inside. She wanted to peel off a petal, eat it.
She had to admit it. The park looked great.
There was something sharp about this day. Like an optometrist’s lens machine had rotated right in front of Eusebia’s eyes. Click: it was clean and bright. Click: they’d even painted the garbage cans the deepest of blacks. Click: it couldn’t be good news, having white people over here, cleaning.
Two decades ago, when they’d arrived on a November day, she’d been shocked at the lack of color in the neighborhood. Every tree a dull brown. Every building a variation of that same color, though some tended toward a bit of red. All around, gray and brown—the colors of things on their way to death. Now Eusebia often found the muted colors soothing. This was the color palette that left her room to think. The tulips were a reminder that spring would grab full hold within weeks, maybe even days—fogging the clarity she so enjoyed.
She forced her cart over the roots that stuck out of the ground, bruising them as she went. A cold wind tunnel came from the direction of the construction and lifted her hair all around her face. She quickened her step.
The wrecking ball struck the building, and a gigantic piece of concrete collapsed. Eusebia’s distress grew. Months before, she sat next to an older Dominican woman who talked to the roof of the bus they traveled on, lamenting she had to move to Reading, Pennsylvania, with her cousin because she couldn’t afford her rent anymore. At one point, she looked directly at Eusebia. Have you heard of Reading, Pennsylvania? Eusebia shook her head. What should I do? I don’t want to leave my home, the old woman said. Eusebia held the strange woman’s hand in silence. That day, she’d been sure it would never happen to her. Why had she thought they were immune?
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe this construction wouldn’t yield displacement. Luz could get her fancy coffee, more options for dinner right by the park. But what else could they be building but luxury apartments? Fancy, expensive, and meant for people who didn’t look like any of them. Where would they all go, if they were pushed out of their homes?
How would she fix this mess?
She wasn’t paying attention as she pushed the cart. It stopped short at the root of a honey locust tree and toppled over, pulling her down. She let it go but not without a jerk toward her first. She thought for a moment that she might be able to reverse time, keep the cart and herself upright. Both hands went out instinctively to break her fall; one touched the trunk of the tree, the other slipped on the dirt. A loud thud as her head hit the ground. Then a stinging pain, and the weight of the cart on top of her, all that weight on her head. A gash opened. Eyes closed, she felt blood down her neck, soaking her shirt, the scarf, and the coat. Eyes opened, the blood spread not down like it was supposed to but out, right around her, dispersing into the air. As if the air were made of water. Back when she still had a period, this was the full expression on the third day of her flow: out of her body the brightest of reds spreading in the bowl of the toilet—unstoppable eggs, uselessly escaping her body—a reminder that the beginning of life and death were often inked the same. This red in the air just as vibrant, just as gorgeous, infused the brown of the dry earth, penetrated the root of that offensive tree, became the deepest red she’d seen. The hand that touched the trunk now touched the root. Mesmerized, she watched as that arm attached to the hand, then her entire body, went completely red. Then the park. Then the buildings. Then the sky. How had she never noticed the sky itself was an inverted bowl?
Her friends the Tongues appeared above her. All of them tainted red, too.
“Should we call an ambulance?” one of them asked, but their voices sounded far away.
She shook her head, then felt for the cut, searched for the wound, and tentatively, on finding it, put a fingertip inside the dampness. She had to pull away fast, because from the one hand that still touched the root of that tree and the fingertip inside the wound there was no difference in texture. Inside the gash, inside her skull, unmistakably, it felt like tree bark, growing.
“She don’t look too good,” the women said to each other. “We should call an ambulance.”
Calm down, she commanded herself silently. Then. She blinked hard to right the world. No change: all still red. Blinked harder still. Stop it, she told herself, as panic rose, as the world deepened to the heart of a beet root. No need to make a big fuss. At the third hard blink, the world went back to normal. Finally, all that red gone. Fingertips went on the side of her head and felt for a wound that wasn’t there. Not even a cut. Just a tender spot, swelling.
“Let’s go to your house,” Eusebia said to the women. Her voice thicker, deeper to her own ears. Could they hear the difference?
Her friends offered a hand, but she shooed them away. She stood up and wiped away the dirt from her bruised hand, wiped more dirt from the side of her hip. She offered the women a small smile so they would know she was fine. She touched the side of her head again, the part that pulsed, with cautious fingertips, pressing it to make sure. She was relieved—and confused—when she still found no blood.
She took a step. Stumbled. Two of the women reached for her, then held her by each arm, while the third righted the laundry cart, bending to pick up and put back all the clothing that fell out. Humiliated. Now they all knew her daughter didn’t wash her underwear by hand.
Halfway through the park, the women noticed a large moving truck parked in front of their building; on the side of the truck an English sign said BETTER MOVE in red bold letters. There were lines that made those letters seem as though the truck was already in motion, hightailing it out of Nothar Park faster than a Dominican lotto winner heading back home.
“Luz got fired yesterday?” one of the women said. Her tone a non-question.
Eusebia didn’t respond. Her daughter fired? It made no sense and it made complete sense. Fired over what?
They didn’t push. But all three stared at her, waiting. How did they find out? She shook her head at them. It could have meant no, she didn’t get fired. It could have meant, in the motherly resignation all of them knew so well, that kids ultimately were put on earth to shame, to disappoint. But then Eusebia firmed her mouth into a line so interpretation would be clear. The shake meant leave it alone.
It had gotten colder. Without gloves, Eusebia felt the cold accumulate around her nail beds, making her fingertips stiff. The bruise from the fall on her palm became a slight, throbbing pink.
As they crossed the street, a set of men made their way out of the building with a brilliant white couch, still covered in plastic, a true tell of who was moving out. Verónica García always trying to be upscale—but she’d put a plastic cover on her sofa just like they all did.
Eusebia had been wrong that morning, while making breakfast, when she imagined Verónica doing the same thing she’d been doing. While Eusebia prepared breakfast for her family, Verónica had been preparing hers to depart. Eusebia’s hip pinched, pulled, made the opposite knee give. Her shirt felt wet with invisible blood.
“Angélica heard the boss tell her it was going to happen yesterday,” one of them said to the white couch.
The Tongues were always right. The only source of news she’d never questioned. But where had Angélica been to overhear? At the new restaurant where she worked? Maybe when everyone left work early to get wine?
Why had Luz meant to deceive her?
“Verónica’s moving,” one of the women said, letting her silence win.
“Remember when,” another responded.
This was them being kind.
Eusebia remembered when. She wished the women would stop talking for a bit.
The Tongues sucked their teeth.
“Verónica is the queen of the crickets.” The women went on to distract, to make light.
It worked because it was true. Verónica, a member of a long tradition of women referred to as crickets in DR. Why would others call them sirens? These women who would drop their panties for men—single, engaged, married, these women didn’t care. These women were named crickets because their bodies created so much noise, so much distraction. And just like their insect namesake, with its strong hind legs, once they caught what they wanted, they consumed, devoured. Years ago, the Tongues saw Verónica put a hand on Vladimir’s shoulder, and that hand stayed there longer than was necessary. Such a simple gesture, such a clear invitation. But Vladimir took a step away, out of her reach.
“Good riddance, cricket,” one of the women said to the couch.
At the entrance of the building, the women were greeted by more cold as the drilling from across the way grew ever more insistent. The entire building being without heat made the dust that now lived inside weigh more, a sting to the eye that forced repeated blinks. A pile of envelopes had been delivered while they were gone. From the landlord. One of the women reached for Eusebia’s, handed it over. The Tongues’ envelope was at the very bottom of the pile.
The letter was in Spanish. Had the landlord ever bothered translating a single document for them before? Of course not. They knew it meant trouble.
The three women lifted their eyeglass chains and put their readers on.
The building was turning all apartments into condos. Each resident would be offered a generous buyout of the lease. Or, sure, they could buy the apartments. Either way, their days as renters were numbered. The noise across the park quieted. They didn’t know why the machines had been turned off. Each of the three women turned to Eusebia. The question hung between them delicate as a single string from a spider to the wall.
How to fix this mess?
Inside the Tongues’ apartment, it was warmer than the lobby but still cold. They didn’t take off their coats. They wheeled the cart and left it off to the side, outside their door. Their apartment was exactly like Eusebia’s, facing out toward the park. Except the Tongues’ home had too much furniture. A couch and a love seat and a single chair set of imitation French Louis XV tufted velvet in an olive green. There were too many cushions for a person to sit comfortably but Eusebia tried.
One sister rushed to the bathroom and got a wet cloth, wiped away the dirt from Eusebia’s forehead. Then tended her bruised hand. The water so hot it steamed.
“Can you check the back of my head?” Eusebia said, sounding childish to her own ears. “It feels like there’s a cut there.”
One of the women parted her long hair, searched and found nothing suspicious except a big tender bump. The throbbing on her palm crawled halfway up her forearm now, like the spider, climbing.
“We should take you to the hospital just to make sure,” the women said, then waited.
All four of them equally suspicious of doctors, trusted no medical establishment.
“I’m fine,” Eusebia said.
Relieved, one of the women was already on the way to the kitchen to make coffee, while another turned the television on. Moments later, coffee in hand, all the women stared at the whale with the baby on its back. The camera closed in on her. In the background, a scientist’s words, dubbed in Spanish, explained this was unprecedented footage. Do all whales experience grief as humans do?
“What are we going to do?” one of them finally said to the ceiling.
The throbbing in Eusebia’s hand had by then taken over her entire arm. She felt a slight numbness spreading to meet that side of her head, where she still felt the trickling of blood. She reached up, touched it, astonished to find it still dry.
On the television, when the whale’s baby slipped off her head, instead of dipping low into the water as before, the mother swam on. Instinctively, Eusebia stood up. It was her turn to put a hand to heart.
“She’ll go get him,” one of the women said. All of them stared at the television as the whale swam away.
They sat in silence for a very long time. The women’s question pulsed the air. Eusebia could taste salt in the air, could smell it as if she’d been standing at the foot of that mountain where she’d grown up, where it gave way to a beach. What were they going to do?
Then, as Eusebia stood waiting for the whale to dive into the water, the television’s image changed. Breaking news. The image of a young naked boy, no older than Luz when they’d first arrived in this country, flashed onto the screen with his name: José García. He’d been shot numerous times, the reporter said, left with a message carved into his back: Go Home. He was in the hospital, in critical condition.
Eusebia sat down. She felt light-headed. There wasn’t much more of this day she could take. On the screen, the whale was back, swimming on. Where had the calf gone? Where would the current take him? And this young boy, shot so many times? Who would do such a terrible thing?
The three women spoke to each other and to her, but she could no longer listen. From very far away she heard them say “1992.” They were speaking of a young Dominican man by the same name as this boy. That José García had been shot dead by a plainclothes policeman. They spoke of violence as rapture, how Dominicans spilled out in the streets in protest, arms outstretched in fervor. One closed fist ready to fight, the other closed over branches of palm trees.
One of the women left the room, returned with a folder, put frail newspaper clippings ready to disintegrate into Eusebia’s hands. Metro section of the New York Times. She stared at the words. Some so unfamiliar, others clearly the same as in Spanish with minor syllable differences.
“I have to go upstairs,” she said.
She picked up her manila envelope, gave the women one last look before she left.
“I’ll come back later. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to stop it.”
“Stop what?” one of them said, eyes on the screen. Viewer discretion was advised before a flash of horrible images of the boy’s back appeared. Is it a hate crime? the reporter said to the audience, then gave them a phone number to text their answer to. One of the women reached for her phone, responded to the flash survey. Yes.
Eusebia considered the word home, carved on the boy’s back. Who had the nerve to proclaim a young boy, born in this country, an outsider? When Eusebia first arrived in Nothar Park, she’d been an outsider. In every sense of the word. Now, facing this attack, she felt fiercely connected to the neighborhood, to her people.
“We’re going to stop all of it,” Eusebia said. “The building across the street, them trying to sell our apartments. Them trying to push us out of our homes. We’re going to find a way to stop it all.”
The women looked at her, incredulous.
“What do you mean ‘we’?” one asked.
“The four of us,” Eusebia said, “we’re going to stop it.”
The women were distracted by the past. They weren’t focused on what was most important. But Eusebia would help them. She felt certain she would find a way.
In the elevator, her phone rang. Vladimir was on his way upstate. She told him she could hardly hear him, that she would try him back. But he insisted she stay on the phone, walk to the kitchen, where he’d left her a surprise.
“I’ll be back tomorrow” is what she thought he said, before the line went dead.
She tried him. It went straight to voicemail.
Upstairs, in her apartment, Eusebia parked the laundry cart in the hallway. She went back to check on Luz, whose door remained locked. She considered grabbing a butter knife, jimmying the lock, and confronting her daughter about losing her job. But the throbbing in her head intensified. She decided to leave her daughter alone. Luz was being melodramatic. It would all work out. If there was one thing Eusebia was certain of, it was her daughter’s prospects in life.
She’d been to college, was a lawyer. Why did they fire her? Well, it didn’t really matter. Her daughter would find another job. Slowly, she made her way to the kitchen, where she found Vladimir’s surprise: a replacement mango. She’d told him about the mango, how it reminded her of home, how she’d given it to their daughter. She bit into it without washing it, skin and all. Her sweet Vladimir.
She went to her bedroom and lay down in unaccustomed light. Had she ever taken a nap during the day in this country? No, of course not. But today, her head found the sun-warmed pillow, and she drifted off to the sound of a wrecking ball striking that building yet again, replaying the memory of the entire world stained such a deep red, tasting in her mouth the flavor of home, and asking herself over and over again, “How?” How would she stop this mess?