Become a Fan
Christmas Snow Over El Barrio
By Manuel A. Meléndez
Monday, July 23, 2007
Rated "PG" by the Author.
The magic of Christmas seen through the eyes of a ten year old boy in his first Christmas in New York.
CHRISTMAS SNOW OVER ‘EL BARRIO’
BY MANUEL A. MELÉNDEZ
With his nose pressed on the cold window, Antonio tried to look up at the dirty, gray sky. He could feel the freezing wind seep quietly through the small cracks of the window frame and straight into his bones. There were tiny specks floating through the air and he waited, excited, that this might be snow. Antonio had never seen snow before, only in the pictures of Alaska in his schoolbooks.
Behind him he could hear his mother in the kitchen preparing dinner, her every day symphony with the pots and pans and the ladles hitting against them. There was also music coming from the far room of the apartment, it was his sister and he pictured her on the floor with scattered records around her trying to mouth the English words still foreign to her.
More flecks began to float in the air and Antonio wanted to shout that it was snowing, but decided to wait. Since the first cold day, and he wore the very first coat in his life, he’s been shouting about snow. But to his disappointment it was always a false alarm. His father, who already lived in New York for over ten years, not only treated snow with disgust, but also told him that snow won’t fall probably till after December. Maybe his father was wrong, Antonio thought as he followed the flight of the flecks; maybe snow did fall in December. Didn’t all the pictures about Christmas always show snow in them? And Christmas was only three weeks from now. He rubbed his head and walked away from the window and plopped on the couch, while staring outside every so often. He looked at his arm and he was surprised how fast they had lost the color of his Caribbean sun. He smiled, thinking about his friends and the last day they were together before he and his family left Puerto Rico to joined his father here in New York. Antonio could see himself and his friends, just like that day, which now seemed another lifetime.
“You’re going to look like a grain of rice… pale with no color,” he remembered Jaime saying in his scratchy voice. “There’s no sun over there and it’s always cold… brrrrrr,” he wrapped his arms around his skinny body to emphasize his words. Jaime was born in New York and his parents moved back to Puerto Rico when he was only two, but he still felt like an authority on living in New York. Antonio recalled they were sitting against the wall of Robles’ house, his best friend, escaping the scorching sun that according to Jaime did not exist in New York.
“Ay, what do you know about New York? You were still sucking your mother’s tit when you came to Puerto Rico,” Robles said, it annoyed him whenever Jaime became a mister-know-it-all. ‘El pendejo sabio’, ‘the smart-ass’, the way Robles called him when he grew frustrated with Jaime.
“Hey, what are you talking about? He’s ten and he’s still sucking his mother’s tit,” Asuncion joke, he was the jester of the group and the best fighter in the entire school. Having five mean older bothers made him fearless and tough.
Antonio chuckled a bit at Asuncion’s comment, yet not too comfortable when people made remarks about other people’s mothers… especially when it dealt about a taboo subject… like tits. They were still too young, too ignorant for their minds to talk about parts of a woman’s body. Their minds were more occupied with playing soldiers, cowboys and Indians and running to their homes every Wednesday and Friday to watch the latest Batman episodes.
“You guys don’t believe me, but you’ll see… when he comes back he’s going to be as white as Casper the ghost,” Jaime again brought the conversation about how white and pale Antonio was going to become. The problem was that regardless of the hot Caribbean sun, Antonio was one of those kids born with blonde hair, freckles and fair skin. He hardly ever tan, but that did not matter to Jaime.
“Now who’s to say he’s coming back to Puerto Rico, he might not ever come back,” Asuncion said waving Jaime’s comment dismissing it as just foolishness coming out of his mouth.
“My parents came back,” Jaime protested.
“Que carajo, they came back because they didn’t have money to live there, that’s why you live like sardines with your grandparents and your two crazy uncles,” Asuncion pointed out viciously.
Jaime looked at Antonio and he could see Asuncion’s statement hurt him, yet Antonio was not surprised, Asuncion was like that; he spoke before thinking. Antonio looked back at Jaime not really knowing how to help him out he just dropped his eyes to the ground where he was busy drawing the Batman symbol with a stick on the hard, brown dirt. Antonio did that a lot, draw… it was a passion that started even before he knew how to write.
It was a lazy hot day, the last few days of their summer vacation before school started, but this year Antonio was not returning with his friends. He was moving to New York. It was 1967 and there was an excitement about leaving Puerto Rico, and Antonio saw how the other kids began to look at him… with a different attitude. Antonio did not know if it was curiosity, jealousy or both rolled into one little nasty ball. It did not matter to him; he was having enough trouble with his own emotions. There was an enthusiasm about it, about flying on a plane to a place, which according to Jaime, was cold and sunless. But there was also a sadness that seemed to increase in him the closer the day became a reality. His mother already bought him a suit and a fancy pink dress with ruffles for his sister. She also bought for herself a new black dress, which she found in a store that Antonio only thought the rich folks that lived in the pueblo, went to. They were already four brand new large suitcases in a corner of the living room. There were still pretty empty, but not for long, his mother was in the process of going through their clothes to see what they were taking with them and what they were leaving. Already two of his mother’s sisters and two lady friends from her job had rummaged through old clothes and left Antonio’s house with shopping bags filled with their old garments.
Antonio begged to take his toys, but that was something his mother also insisted in leaving behind. “I’m sure your friends will love to have some of your toys,” his mother told him one Saturday morning while Antonio was having cold chocolate milk with buttered crackers. After his argument was lost to his mother’s strict decision, he did as she said, he told his friends about his toys. What Antonio did not tell his mother was that instead of giving them out, he was selling them when she was at work. For the first three days the porch of his house became an open market. He lined up all his toys on the dining room table he dragged with Robles outside and while Robles made sure no one left with a toy without paying, Antonio haggled with the kids that salivated over his toys. Antonio loved his toys, but not as much as he loved the pennies, quarters, nickels and dimes he was receiving for them. He end up making six bucks and forty-five cents, which Antonio quickly slipped inside one of the shoes already packed in one of the suitcases. He gave Robles his prize possession, a yellow Tonka truck for his help.
The four of them were quiet now; the only sound was the whistling of the wind going through the cane fields not far from them. Antonio knew they wanted to do something, but the sun was so hot that just walking to the store and back left them gasping for air and their brows dripping with sweat.
“Hey lets go down to the Indian’s caves,” Jaime stood up brushing the seat of his pants. “It should be cool and it rained last night, the valley must be full with water.”
They all looked up at Jaime and nodded their approvals. The Indian’s cave was a place they stumbled on one day, while running away from a pack of dogs and a crazy man named Mario el Loco. It was a spot where three large rocks stood like a secret wall. On each rock there was an opening, with large edges that easily resemble caves. They could easily climb inside them and even if it rained, they could stay nice and dry. A few feet away from the caves was a deep ditch, maybe three feet deep and six feet in length and when it rain it filled up. It was the perfect pool and because of the rocks and the vegetation that surrounded it, they all agreed that it was a valley. Not that either one of them have seen a valley, but they all knew that it was a valley nevertheless.
Asuncion jumped to his feet and helped Antonio get to his. The three of them were standing up now as they looked down at Robles who was still sitting.
“Come on,” Asuncion grabbed Robles shirt collar and tried pulling him up.
“I can’t go,” Robles mumbled sheepishly. “I’m not allowed to leave the house, remember?”
They looked at each other remembering why they were all there in the first place. Robles’ mother heard him curse at his little sister the night before and he was punished for the entire day. It had taken him a lot to convince his mother to at least let his friends come to his house and play. At first she expected him to kneel all day long in front of a framed pictured of Jesus Christ as his punishment. That was every common punishment among their parents, Antonio remembered a few times kneeling in front of a picture his mother had in the living room. It was the picture of St. Michael with sword in hand as a scary dark Devil fell into the fires of hell. Antonio sometimes did not know which was the worst punishment, kneeling down for a few hours or staring at that awful picture. He remembered that he kept his eyes closed most of the time.
“Ay, puñeta,” Asuncion cursed and plopped into the ground. He yanked a bunch of grass and flung it to the side. Hearing Asuncion curse they all realized that was why their vocabulary was slowly laced with curses, Asuncion was a cursing machine. He had been suspended five times from school last year, twice for fighting and three times for cursing at his teachers and classmates.
“Hey stop cursing, my mom could hear you,” Robles shouted at Asuncion.
“So, she’s not my mother. I could curse if I want to,” Asuncion was getting antsy and that was not a good sign. When he got like that it was not long before he became just plain nasty.
“Take it easy,” Antonio grabbed Asuncion’s shoulder and shook it a bit. “She’s not your mother and this is not your house either. She could tell all of us to leave.”
“So, it’s not like I’m having the best of time… anyway,” Asuncion yanked another bunch of grass and threw it over his shoulder. “I could go home and curse as much as I want.”
“Okay, go home then,” Antonio confronted him, for some reason he was the only one Asuncion did not try to bully. It was not because Antonio could beat him up, it was not that, Asuncion could easily smack Antonio if he ever wanted. Antonio thought it was because he was the first one to befriend Asuncion and shared his snacks with him at school. All of them did not have much money, but at least their parents were able to afford a dime every day for a snack during recess, with the exemption of Asuncion. He was always broke and by the way he dressed and sometimes smell; they all knew that compared to Asuncion, they were as rich as the rich kids from town.
“Why don’t you ask your mom if you could come,” Jaime said. From the group, he was the planner, the thinker. “Maybe if you tell her that we all want to have a good time with Antonio, before he goes to Nueva York, she’ll let you go.”
They all looked at Jaime and smiled. The kid was a genius. For sure Robles’ mother could not refuse. How cruel could she be when her son’s best friend was leaving in a few days, perhaps never to come back? They stared at Robles as he stood up and brushed his hands against the legs of his pants. He peeked around the side of the house where across the front yard they could see his mother hanging clothes on the clothesline. His little sister was handing her the wooden cloth pins and looking back once in a while and sticking her tongue at them. The three of them, shading their eyes watched Robles walk slowly to his mother; he looked as if he was walking to his death. They saw him stop and then they saw his mother turned her neck slowly, without stopping her chore. His sister looked back and stuck her tongue at them again. She could be a little snot-nosed sometimes. They could hear Robles’ voice, but the words were incoherent by the time the wind carry them to their ears. But by what they could see, Robles was doing all the talking, while his mother listened and every once in a while they could see her head bopping up and down. They did not know if that was a sign of agreeing or just a way to scold him in that parent’s silent way. They all have seen that nod from their own parent to be able to read it. Now it was Robles’ mother turn to speak and Robles’ turned to nod, but it was a different nod… the obedient type. She turned all the way around and holding the wet clothes away from her she looked at them. She was a nice lady, with sharp eyes, which she now shielded from the sun and stared at the boys. She turned back at Robles and said something and they could not help seeing the big smile in Robles' face. He nodded again and began walking towards them, this time his walk had a cheerful step to it and for a second Antonio could have sworn Robles was going to skip. He was so glad he did not.
To get to the Indian’s caves they had to walk on the main road that lead to the town, it was the only paved road and cars zoomed by sending small pebbles at them. There was a gas station that had been closed for as long as Antonio could remember and across from it there was an open field already scraped clean from trees and rocks ready to be built upon. There where two huge tractors parked on the adobe-colored dirt resembling two yellow, rusted robots. Long concrete cylinders were scattered around and some you could see were already placed inside the giant ditches excavated by the tractors. Antonio heard from his mother that they were building a caserío, a complex of new homes and sadly he knew that he would never see them when finished. It seemed that throughout the small town, new things were beginning to be built and part of Antonio hated the fact that he was not going to be part of such vibrant new life.
They ran through the mountains of red dirt in the construction site, tumbling and climbing the giant man-made hills. Laughing, running and jumping, just acting like delirious fools and Antonio wondered if his three best friends were feeling the same sadness as he. Antonio pretended that something went in his eye, must be dirt or a pebble, he volunteered to his friends, little did they know that he was using that as an excuse. There was nothing in his eyes, but the sad tears from knowing that all this would soon come to an end.
They slid down the mountains of freshly, dug dirt and ran to the cylinders. The concrete cylinders were tall and they were able to easily go inside them without having to bend down. It was a magical place for the wild imagination of a ten-year old brain; the possibilities were endless. After playing tag along the cylinders they rested inside of them, feeling the coolness of the concrete surface on their butts and backs. There was a sweet smell that came from the dirt. An earthworm wiggled from underneath the rocks and mischievously, Asuncion cut it in half. It was fun and amazing to see the two cut bodies still wiggling. Little boys could be such destructive forces sometimes.
They came out from the cylinders and crossed the street, following a dirt road that snaked around the gas station and entered the forest where thick bushes and tall mango and avocado trees enclosed them. The thickness in the opening resembled an impregnable wall of steel-like cables made of twisting roots of the trees and the bushes. For the first few feet the path was narrow and only one person was able to walk through, so they walked in one single line avoiding the thorny branches that threatened to slice their faces with razor, sharp cuts.
Magnificent tall trees crowded the area and their branches were heavy with leaves and fruits keeping the sunrays away. For a while they walked in green darkness until they reached a point where the narrow path opened into a field surrounded by smaller trees and wild vegetation. Antonio could smell the aroma of fallen fruits that were slowly devoured by the earthworms and nature itself. Butterflies fluttered in silky sweet colors and dragonflies hover above like miniature helicopters.
They kept walking, pretending to be soldiers marching through enemy lines. The four of them carried sticks; their make-believe rifles were their protection in case they came across the wild pack of dogs that frequented the wooded area. One time they stumbled onto a pack of stray dogs. The dogs were shading themselves underneath a mango tree, panting with their tongues dripping with saliva. The boys froze at the sight of the dogs that were beginning to stand up. There were at least five or six of them, their eyes bright and attentive and slowly their lips pulled back revealing their sharp white teeth. A white and brown mutt came forward, snarling his teeth and growling. He must have been the leader. The four friends stood there, bunched up together, frightened. Antonio swore he heard their hearts pounding within their trembling chests. He remembered Asuncion’s lips quivering and a foul smell was coming out from Jaime’s stuttered breathing. Antonio’s knees were shaking and he wanted so bad to take a piss. Two more dogs joined the white and brown one; positioning themselves at each side. Antonio believes Asuncion was the first one to start running, but he was not sure. It happened so fast; Antonio did not even have time to breath. In a mad dash they were running and behind them, they could hear the angry barks of the dogs. Antonio could hear the quick bodies of the dogs crashing against the bushes that thank God, acted like a fence between them. They were yelling, desperate screams from fear-induced throats. Antonio was never the fastest runner, only Carlos; a kid from their class was slower than him. But it was not much of a consolation to Antonio’s lack of speed; Carlos had one leg longer than the other and wore a shoe that the kids called the Frankenstein shoe. Yet on that day, chased by wild dogs, Antonio flew; the fear that he had for dogs gave him blinding speed. He was ahead of everyone and didn’t even bother to look back to see how far ahead he was. In front of him there was a fence, right in the middle of all this growth and without thinking Antonio leaped curling his fingers around the links of the fence. How he ended up on top of the fence so fast was just a blur in his mind. Antonio did not bother to climb down; he just jumped down. He landed on his feet as an electrical vibration surge through his skinny legs and then he fell on his ass. He leaped back to his feet, tasting the saltiness of blood in his mouth. Antonio must have bit his lip or tongue when he fell, but he did not care; this was no time to assess his bruises. Now was not the time. Antonio continued running, his fists pumping wildly trying to get every ounce of energy for his legs to move faster. He could hear his friends behind him laughing, the type of laughter that makes you scream and bends you over with stomach pains. Antonio stopped running and gasping for air he looked at his friends. They were on the other side of another fence, pointing at him and laughing hysterically. Robles was holding on to the fence while his face was tilted towards the blue sky. He was roaring with laughter. He reminded Antonio of a werewolf howling at the moon. Asuncion was on top of the fence, his feet dangling and he was hitting his thigh with his open hand. Any second he could topple onto the ground and Antonio was pretty sure he would have continued his crazy laughter. Jaime was next to Robles, laying on his back while kicking his legs upward and holding his stomach and laughing harder than the rest. Antonio looked around, confused at their uncontrollable laughter and he scratched his head wondering what the hell happened to the dogs. To his left he could see the fence he climbed and standing behind it were the pack of dogs, their tongues hanging out of their mouths. They looked like they were laughing too. Antonio frowned and turning around his eyes fell on a shack that stood in front of him. He looked back at the fence were the dogs were and back to the fence where his friends were still chuckling and pointing at him. Antonio then realized that when he jumped off the fence he got his bearings all twisted and instead of running on a straight path he took a turn sideways. He was actually running towards the direction of an old broken down shack and suddenly Antonio realized whose shack it was. Mario el Loco lives there, his mind shouted. Mario was a crazy man rumored that he killed his entire family one night during a storm and then buried them right here where Antonio was standing. He could hear the squeak of a door open from the shack. A small black dog came out at first barking and bouncing from his hind legs to his front ones. He looked like a puppet with tangled strings. Then a man came out and stood on the lopsided porch, his hair was wild and long and when a breeze passed it lifted it off his head. Mario was shouting at Antonio, his fist rose above, which he shook in an agitating way. He came down and standing by the steps he whistled at the dog, but the dog was now barking at the other dogs that looked at Antonio with questionable eyes. Mario came down the steps; he was wearing one red sock and a black one. He was not wearing any shoes. He glanced at his dog and then shouting incoherently he began to come after Antonio and when he raised his other arm Antonio saw the glistening blade of a machete. For a second Antonio panicked and then he turned around and began screaming while running towards the fence where his friends were. Their laughter was no longer in the air, just their yells encouraging Antonio to hurry up and jump on the fence. Antonio was scared, expecting any second to feel the machete slicing his back in half. Antonio saw the fence in front of him and he closed his eyes and jumped with all his might. He slammed his face against the metal links and he felt his nose pressed sideways. Desperately he began to grab the fence with his fingers, the toes in his sneakers frantically searching for footage to lift him up. His eyes were still closed and he could hear the screams that roared out of his mouth. Antonio had never been so frightened in his life. He made it to the top and jumped onto the other side, buckling one knee and scraping the other knee against a tree trunk. He kept on running ignoring the pains and the crazy shout of a mad man that now he believed really did murder his entire family. Antonio ran until he could not run anymore and when he finally succumbed to fatigue, he dropped down onto the cool grass. With half-closed eyes and his lungs gasping for air he saw his friends walking towards him, their hysterical laughter once again bombarding the air with raucous roars.
Each one came to Antonio, rubbing his head and punching him playfully on his arms. Antonio could still see Mario standing in front of the fence, waving the machete and cursing with threats, something about next time he will kill each and one of them. His small dog frolicked on the tall grass. Antonio stood up slowly, his knee was throbbing and looking down he could see dots of blood beginning to fill the huge scrape.
“Coño, where did you get that speed from?” Asuncion shook his head, Antonio could tell he was impressed and that made the bruises worthwhile.
“Did you see him?” Jaime exclaimed between giggles. “Shit I have never seen anyone run as fast as you. You were faster than Flash from the comics.”
Robles nodded agreeing with Jaime, a grin on his face.
That was the day they came across the Indian caves and now as they walked towards them it felt very sad that this would be the last time Antonio would see those caves. They saw the top of the rocks twenty feet before they got to them. Sunrays shone on each top and they resembled silver, erected structures. Around them the grass was barely visible. There was smooth sandy-like dirt instead. Not far from the rocks, the pool of water, their little valley, was overflowing with rainwater. The water had a brownish color to it, not because it was dirty, but it was reflecting the shadows around it. If you stood at a certain angle the water looked as silver as the top of the rocks. Jaime took off his shirt and jumped inside the pool, water splashing and darkening the dirt. Antonio climbed one of the rocks until he was sitting inside the cave, surrounded by cool and darkness. There were scribbles on the stoned walls from some forgotten era that was fading and all you could see was the colors. They all agreed that those were writings by real Taino Indians during the time when Columbus came to the shores of Puerto Rico. Later in Antonio’s life he wondered how accurate that was, maybe those were writings by other kids like them that found the caves many years ago. But back in those days of innocence and adventures, what they saw was Taino’s symbols, perhaps telling their side of their story about what really happened when the Spanish Conquistadores came to their homes and conquered them for the crown of Spain.
Antonio passed his hands through the surface of the cave and leaned back, pressing his body to the rock’s embrace. He closed his eyes and again sadness threatened to fill his eyes with tears. Antonio was glad that Robles, Asuncion and himself were sitting in their own caves so he let the tears roll down his face. The tears cooled his face and made his eyes see more clearly. He wondered what New York was going to be like. Do they have hidden caves where little boys could imagine about Indians? Do they have people like Mario el Loco that chased little boys? Do pack of stray dogs roam waiting to scare the pants off of boys playing soldiers? Antonio did not want to leave his friends. He wished his mother would change her mind and abandon such crazy idea. Let his father come back to Puerto Rico, rather than them move to New York. Antonio shook his head and with the front of his shirt he dried his eyes, sniffing hard at the mucous that gathered in his nose. He spat on the cave floor and he felt shamefully that he was desecrating a holy place and feeling bad he rubbed the spot where he spat. Antonio felt better and leaning forward he watched as Jaime submerged his head under the water and came back up again. He could see Robles’ legs and Asuncion dangling from the edge of the caves and Antonio wondered what they were thinking. Everyone was quiet and that was very rare and it suddenly dawned on him, perhaps he was not the only one that saw this day like a mourning. They were all actually burying something here, among the ghosts of brave Indians. Maybe they all felt that they were burying a friendship. A friendship that Antonio wondered if it could be rekindle again, somewhere in the future.
After a few minutes Robles and Asuncion joined Jaime, each one jumping into the pool, splashing water and trying to dunk each other. They held a contest to see who could stay under water longer and both Robles and Jaime jumped out of the pool when Asuncion decided to make smelly bubbles by farting under the water. Antonio swore he was able to smell the disgusting odor from where he sat looking down at his best friends that soon would become old stained snapshots in his heart.
At dusk they started to walk back home in silence and again Antonio could not help thinking about a funeral procession. He slowed down and soon he was at the back of their march and as Antonio watched his friends walk in front of him, he stopped and looked around. One last time Antonio stared at the dark shadows on the top of the caves, still mesmerized by the musky scent and the coolness of its rocky walls. He inhaled the sweet aroma of fruits that littered the bottom of tree trunks. He admired an orange sun slowly descending into purple hills. For one last time he took a long look at his Puerto Rico that he knew he would never see like this again. Antonio continued walking, now a few feet behind the long shadows of his three friends, and for the last time he cried for a friendship and a life that would come abruptly to an end.
Antonio’s mother called out from the kitchen, breaking his thoughts. She called out again and getting up he walked slowly to the kitchen. The kitchen was warm and the aroma seeping from the covered pots made his stomach rumble.
“Where’s your sister?” Antonio’s mother asked; her hair pulled back with a hairpin and her upper lip dotted with perspiration. It seemed that lately this was the only room you could actually sweat, for the rest of the apartment was cold and the later it got the colder it became. “Well dinner is almost ready… and where’s your father… that man is going to be late to his own funeral,” his mother rambled; it was something she often did when dinner was about to be served. She always demanded that the entire family eat together at the same time.
Antonio shrugged his shoulders at her questions. “I think it’s going to snow tonight,” he said trying to peek through the kitchen window, but finding it impossible. The window were fogged with the steam from the stove.
His mother stopped and turning off the stove, she looked at him. There was a frown on her face, the type of a frown you see on someone thinking very hard. “You’re still talking about snow? Ay muchacho, don’t worry so much about it… very soon you’ll be sick of it.”
“No I won’t,” Antonio said, wondering why everyone seemed to hate snow. “I’m going to build a snowman the second it snows.”
His mother laughed and shook her head at him. “A snowman? And where do you think you’re going to build a snowman here in this neighborhood? Your father said that the snow turns into puddles of mud the second it falls on the streets. Unless you’re planning to build a mudman, I don’t think you’ll be doing any building. Besides, you are not going to be outside with the rest of the hoodlums out there.”
“Oh mom…” Antonio began to protest.
“Now go on and tell your sister to come here,” Antonio’s mother interrupted him. “That loud music she started listening to is going to make her deaf.”
Antonio turned around and followed the music coming from his sister’s room. He could not wait until it snowed, he’ll show his mother that you could build a snowman here in El Barrio. Why not? He entered Amanda’s room, where she lay on her stomach across the bed with her head hanging over the edge. Her long hair touched the floor and she sang along with the record. “Mami wants you,” Antonio shouted over the music. He waited and after shouting again he walked up to her and tapped her shoulder. Maybe his mother was right; his sister was going deaf.
“Don’t bother me,” Amanda waved her hand at him.
“Mami wants you in the kitchen… dinner is ready.”
“Coño,” Amanda cursed under her breath. Now that she was approaching her teen years she was more moody and rebellious. She lifted her head and through strands of hair she stared at Antonio. “Why can’t I eat when I’m hungry, not when mami wants?”
Antonio ignored her question, he knew when Amanda asked him a question she really did not want an answer. He walked out of her bedroom and back to the kitchen. He heard the front door opening and his father’s footsteps scraping the floor.
“¡Carajo! Turn that music off! I could hear that racket the second I came out of the subway,” Antonio’s father shouted and by his tone of voice, Antonio knew he was in a foul mood.
“Mira, did you tell your sister that I want her here?” His mother asked as she stirred something inside a pot and then fanned herself with the potholder. “You kids are becoming too lazy and I don’t like it one bit.”
Antonio took the plates from the cabinet and placed them on the dining table, hoping that his mother would stop putting him in the same category as his sister. Together he and his mother set the table and like always Amanda appeared asking what she could do. He was beginning to believe that it was her little trick to avoid helping in the kitchen. His father came in, bringing with him the smell of New York City streets as he plopped on the chair and swallowed a glass of water in one gulp. “Negra, I’m hungry so send the kids to bed now ‘cause I’m eating everything by myself,” Antonio’s father said, it was his way of joking and by calling his mother ‘Negra’, his pet name for her, it seemed he was not in such a foul mood after all.
It was Friday evening, and usually Antonio’s mother cooked a scrumptious dinner. This time the table was crowded with large portions of biztec, cubed steak; cooked in tomato sauce. There was a bowl filled with yellow rice and a smaller bowl with red beans in a garlic-spiced sauce and next to it a platter with a salad of sliced tomatoes, lettuce and avocado.
“Papi,” Amanda brushed her hair away from her face as she peeled the skin off a slice of avocado. “My class is having a Christmas party and everyone needs to bring two dollars to buy the stuff.”
Antonio’s father cut a piece of steak, smeared it with sauce and began to chew. He kept his eyes on Amanda for a second and then looked at his wife. “Oye Negra, are we sending our kids to school to learn or to waste money in parties? Do they know how hard I need to work for two dollars?”
“Mira, Ernesto, Christmas happens only once a year, besides those two dollars that she needs are two less dollars you’ll be wasting in drinking beers with your buddies,” Antonio’s mother said with a smile, she always had a way to defuse her husband’s complains.
“Oye mas respeto, in front of the kids,” Ernesto said trying to be angry but then laughed. “Y tu,” he pointed at Antonio. “Do you also need two dollars for a Christmas party?”
Antonio shook his head as he piled some beans in the hole he excavated in the middle of his rice, before mixing the rice and beans together. As far as he knew there was no mention about any party in his class, but it would be fun if there were. He contemplated telling his father that there was just in case, but decided not to lie. His parents began to talk about their everyday struggles, his father complaining about his back and wishing he could find a better paying job that required less back-breaking work. He pushed a heavy cart packed with coats from factories to showrooms on Seventh Avenue, the garment center. His mother worked at home, sewing clothes that were brought and picked-up every Wednesday by a man with long curls for sideburns and always wore black pants and a white shirt with a long black coat and a black hat. Un Judio, a Jew, which for a reason Antonio did not know, his father dislike the man and blame everything that happened in his life to everyone in the man’s race. Many times after his father’s tirade about them, his mother would scold his father to remind him that the man was very good to her and to the kids and to remember that Jesus Christ was a Jew Himself. You could not judge everyone the same; every race had their good and bad apples mixed together. It was true ; the Jewish man always brought Antonio and his sister a lollipop every time he came around. He even spoke Spanish, with a strange and funny accent that sometimes it was hard to understand.
Antonio looked out the window, now that the stove was off and the heat of the kitchen was not as hot as before, he could see out. It was now pitch black and Antonio wondered if the flecks that were falling before had stopped.
“Do you think it’s going to snow today?” Antonio asked his father, interrupting his parents’ chitchat.
“Nene, eventually you’re going to see snow, but not for a while… it’s not that cold yet,” his father answered.
Not cold yet? Antonio frowned, puzzled by the comment. To him it was cold, colder than inside the freezer. Going to school in the morning he wore a heavy coat with a hood and a scarf around his neck and big clumsy gloves. Even his breath came out in big puffs of white smoke. The first time he experienced it, he walked around feeling like a train, blowing out and enjoying the smoke that seemed to encircle his entire face.
“How much colder is it going to get before it’ll snow?” Antonio scooped a piece of meat and began chewing it on the right side of his mouth, while trying to stuff some rice on the left.
“I don’t know,” he father scraped more rice from the bowl and topped it with beans; it was already his second helping. “Do I look like the weatherman? Don’t worry so much about snow… you’ll know when it comes down.”
“Antonio wants to build a snowman when it does,” his mother said with a small laugh.
“A snowman?” Ernesto stopped for a second, his fork inches from his mouth with a big piece of meat dripping sauce. “¿Tu estas loco? Where do you think you’re going to build it? You’re watching too much television. Where do you think we live… in one of those big houses where white people lived? Look around, nene… this is El Barrio, a tenement neighborhood with no room to even fart in peace. You need a big yard surrounded with a fence in order to build a snowman.”
“There’s a backyard behind the building,” Antonio reasoned. “Why can’t I build it there?”
Ernesto exhaled hard at his son’s naively. “You can’t go out there. That’s where the super let those two wild dogs of his to shit. I don’t think you want to build a snowman covered with dog shit and did you forget that you are afraid of dogs?”
Antonio thought for a while. It was true he was afraid of dogs, ever since he was chased by the wild pack of dogs in Puerto Rico with his friends. “What about the fire escape?” Antonio exclaimed. Yes, the fire escape was the perfect place to build a snowman. He will make the snowman six… seven feet tall. It will be a giant snowman, where people below the street will pass by and point and marvel at the fine snowman. They will talk about the snowman for days and nights. It will be the topic of everyone’s’ dinner table… they might even talk about it all the way into summer about how a boy from Puerto Rico created a fine, round, tall snowman. They will talk about it from generation to generation, the first Puerto Rican snowman in New York.
“Stop talking nonsense and finish eating,” Amanda rolled her eyes at him. “The snow will slip through the bars of the fire escape.”
“How do you know?” Antonio glanced at his sister, annoyed at her cynicism. “You have never seen snow… you don’t know how it comes down or how thick it is.”
“Bobo, maybe I have never seen snow, but all I know is that you won’t be able to make anything out there. Besides mami won’t let you… you’ll slip and fall off into the street.”
“I’m not going to fall,” Antonio hated his sister when she acted like his second mother. “You’re just jealous.”
“Jealous? Why should I be jealous of... of coming out with stupid ideas? Stop acting like an idiot and close your mouth when you are chewing… nobody wants to see what you are eating.”
“Hey, how about ending this name calling,” Antonio’s mother slapped her hands together. “If you two don’t have anything good to say while we are eating like a civilized people, then keep your mouths shut.”
Antonio mocked Amanda as he opened his mouth wide, giving her a good view of the mess of rice, beans and meat inside his mouth. She in return squashed a bean in his forehead and for that they both received a stern look from their father. For the rest of the dinner they sat as they listened their parents continue their conversations of bills, jobs and the coming holidays.
The coming holidays… now that was one subject Antonio was very excited about. When Thanksgiving came around, and as they watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade, his father explained to him and his sister about Christmas. Unlike Puerto Rico, where the Three Wise Kings delivered gifts on January 6th, here it was the job of a fellow named Santa Claus and that was celebrated on December 25th. While Antonio and his sister were old enough to know that no such thing really existed; Three Wise Kings or Santa Claus, it was nice to know that they will be expecting their gift much earlier than in Puerto Rico. But one thing Antonio did not understand, now that they moved to New York, did that mean that The Three Wise Kings was something to be forgotten, replaced by Santa Claus? It was weird that all his life he believed in something, the second they cross a body of water in a plane, different customs and ideas had to be altered for others. Almost like their language and way of living and dressing were changing. There were a lot of things that he was discovering; wonderful and magical things and he loved every single one of them. He was fascinated by the way his mouth twisted in different ways as he learned the pronunciation of alien words that little by little were becoming as familiar as his own Spanish language. He even liked the heavy coat and boots he wore to go outside and especially the gloves, which made him feel like Batman. But now the thing he was more enthused about was the holidays. Christmas was special here in New York. He was taken aback with the beautiful lights and the festive decorations in the stores, especially the fancy stores that his father took them one lovely Saturday night.
He could still remember that evening and the rumbling of the bus that roared through the streets of New York. He was excited, consumed by everything that was new to him. There were no public buses in Puerto Rico to his recollection, just carros publicos or what here in New York are known as livery cabs. The only buses he ever rode in Puerto Rico were the school buses, but they were nothing compare to this. Antonio stared out the window, fascinated at how by the pull of a string, which hung in a loop above the seats, the driver knew when to pull over to the curb and let the passengers off and how other passengers waited outside along the sidewalks on line to get on. He loved the jingle sounds the coins made when passengers deposited them in the box next to the driver. Around him, he could hear conversations, foreign words entering his mind. He could hear the pronounced sounds of fine spoken syllables and the way the Americans emphasized the sound of the letter ‘S’. It was like hearing air escape from deflating balloons. As the bus traveled through the wide street of Fifth Avenue, on one side there were magnificent tall buildings where Antonio saw men in great looking uniforms and hats. Most of the uniforms had yellow tassels that dangled off their shoulders and big gold buttons adorned the front of their jackets and their sleeves’ cuffs. On the other side there were trees lots of huge trees with branches arching above the sky and dark brick walls that reminded him of fairy-tale castles that he read about in school. He could see people on bikes zigzagging through ladies pushing baby carriages and well-dressed couples enjoying a lovely winter evening. To his delight he saw a man walking and trying desperately to control at least ten dogs on leashes. They passed by a colorful carriage hauled by a massive brown horse and its driver wearing a top hat trying to convince a young couple to take a ride.
His eyes ricocheted from scene to scene; his mind became a movie camera trying to capture everything around him and to store it forever. Antonio was beginning to like New York, for there was a sense of antiquity in its air and a new rising passion for the future all rolled into a unique powerful rush. When they got off the bus they walked through the Christmas lit up streets, their eyes wide in wonderment and their shrieks laced with excitement. They stopped and ogled the magnificent decorated windows of department stores that his father claimed a pair of underwear cost as much as fifty bucks and only the riquitos blancos, the rich white people shopped there. They walked through the crowded streets were it seemed everyone wore expensive clothes and spoke the type of English he only heard in television or from his teachers. From almost every corner of the lively streets he saw vendors selling, out of metal-wheeled carts, pretzels, knishes, frankfurters and chestnuts, which the latter sent a rich, intoxicating smell that Antonio would forever associate with Christmas. They stood in front of Rockefeller Plaza staring in awe at the gigantic lit up Christmas tree that dwarf the entire plaza as ice skaters glided to the sound of Christmas carols. He loved the way the holidays seemed to add radiant, alive colors to a usually dark, gray city. Antonio smiled as he saw horse carriages stroll in a mesmerizing gallop and he wondered how it must feel to be inside one of those coaches. But the one thing he wanted to experience the most; was snow. He wanted to be bathed in its white, frozen showers. He wanted to stick out his tongue and taste the magic flavor of snowflakes descending from the dark winter sky.
It was December 20th and still no snow and Antonio wondered that probably his father was right, no snow would ever come down until after December. He felt disappointed and looking at the sky through his bedroom window for one last look, he stepped away and went to the kitchen. His mother, along with his sister were preparing pasteles, a Puerto Rican meat pie usually prepared for Christmas. He sat on a chair looking at the various vegetables used to make them. There were green bananas, green plantains, potatoes, yautia and a large piece of pumpkin. His mother was busy cooking the pork, which was to be used as the filling for the pasteles, while his sister peeled the skin from the green bananas.
“Antonio, start helping your sister peel those plantains,” his mother said as she added spices to the pork sending a rich aroma into the ceiling. “You might as well do something. It won’t hurt for you to start learning how to cook.”
“But I’m a boy… men do not have to learn how to cook,” Antonio said realizing he made a mistake coming to the kitchen.
His mother stopped and turned to face him. “No me digas… and who told you that nonsense?”
Antonio shrugged his shoulders as Amanda placed a green plantain and a knife in front of him. “Papi never cooks,” Antonio tried to talk his way out of the chores that he felt was only for women.
“We are not talking about your father, we are talking about you. Now start peeling. Its not going to kill you, besides what do you have to do that it’s so important?”
“He’s keeping a watch for snow,” Amanda said and then laughed, mocking him.
His mother also laughed and stirring the pork she put down the ladle on the spoon rest and joined them at the table. She picked a large piece of yautia, which to Antonio it always reminded him of a piece of a tree bark, and began scraping the skin with a knife. “They said that the most prettiest thing about Christmas in America is when it snows.”
“But papi said that no snow ever falls in December,” Antonio said as he struggled to removed the skin of the plantain, it felt that the pulp was glued to it. He removed some chunks of the plantain with the skin still stuck to it. His fingernails were hurting.
“That’s not what I heard,” his mother said grabbing the plantain from Antonio and showing him the easy way to peel the skin. “El Señor Friedman last Wednesday was telling me about one December that snowed over twenty inches in one night. He said that there were mountains of snow, some as high as these buildings, and there was so much snow it shut down the entire city.”
“What do you mean shut down?” Antonio asked, interested in the conversation. Of all people to know about snow and winters in New York City, it was Mr. Friedman.
“Every car, bus and train is not able to move because of all the snow. People had to stay home from work and schools were closed.”
“Wow, that must be great,” Antonio exclaimed as he imagined all that snow falling tonight.
“Well, according to Señor Friedman, it was not good for business. I know for sure if that happens I won’t get pay from him if he’s not able to bring me the fabric to sew. And your father would also lose money… imagine with all that snow, he won’t be able to push those clothes racks down the streets.”
Antonio heard those words and suddenly the idea of snow was not as glamorous or magical as before. He concentrated in removing the thick skin from the plantain and he wanted to know, if snow was so terrible, then why there were so many pictures and songs that made snow to be a desirable and welcoming thing? Even the English radio station played songs about wishes for a white Christmas.
Most of the vegetables were peeled and as Amanda and his mother began to grate them, Antonio quietly slipped away from the kitchen and strolled to his room. How selfish can he be? All he kept wishing since the first day of winter was for snow… lot of snow. Why didn’t someone tell him about the dangers of snow? He wished he was back in Puerto Rico, where the holidays were full of happiness and not worries about people losing jobs because of snow.
He laid down on the bed, keeping the curtain over the window. The desire to keep the vigil was no longer necessary. Maybe if it snows only a little bit, everything would be fine. His father will still be able to push the clothing racks out on the streets and Mr. Friedman would be able to bring his mother the fabric and pay her for her work. And most of all, he would be able to build a snowman on the fire escape, maybe not so big. With renewed joy growing in his heart, he leaped to his feet and pulled the curtain aside and stared at the sky. It was cloudy and by the movements of the bared branches on the trees, he knew it was very windy. He could hear the howling through the building and the rattling windows.
That night as they finished eating while watching television, the discussion between his parents was centered on the plans for Noche Buena, Christmas Eve. There were lots of family members coming to their home for a great Fiesta de Navidad. Families from the Bronx and other parts of El Barrio, which he only knew either by snapshots in his mother’s photo album or by vague meetings since they arrived from Puerto Rico less than seven months ago. The pasteles his mother and Amanda prepared this afternoon were already stuffed in the freezer. An aunt from the Bronx was preparing two perniles, pork shoulders. Another aunt was bringing potato salad and two of his uncles were supposed to supply the sodas for the kids and the beer and rum for the grown ups, mostly the men. His mother was also making arroz con gandules and a few flans for deserts. His sister volunteered that she to play music on the record player, which was quickly turned down by his father. He beat his chest saying he was the one to play the music, Puerto Rican music, not that American junk that sounds like animals screaming. “No, yo voy a poner la musica y va’ ser musica Puertorriqueña, no esa porqueria de Americanos gritando como animales.”
It was going to be a celebration, a family reunion, and a joyful Christmas party all rolled into one. For Antonio, it was going to be the first time he would be part of something this big. He smiled, so this was Navidad in Nueva York; a festive gathering unlike anything he ever experience in Puerto Rico. Christmas finally arriving and he was in the center of many things so new to him. From the rows and rows of blinking lights decorating the windows and the fake snow that came in a spray can, which they wrote in big letters for everyone to see; “MERRY X-MAS!” His heart beat with excitement and anticipation that made his stomach warm and nervous. But in order for the Christmas celebration to be complete, Antonio felt that it had to snow. Now that would be the exclamation point to the sweet madness of Christmas. He wanted to see snow falling and dancing from the depth of a dark winter night. Antonio could imagine a shower of white sparkling snow overcrowding the sky. And that’s when the magnificent idea popped into his head. Instead of wishing so much for snow… why not pray for it and like that he could go straight to the source of such a lovely creation, God. He could start praying every morning, every night and in between morning and afternoon. He would recite as many “Our Father’s” and “Hail Mary’s” as he could squeeze in one entire day. He could repeat those prayers more than the old ladies at church reciting the Rosary. So at that moment, as Antonio’s parents make plans and Amanda pleaded why could they not alternate between Puerto Rican aquinaldos to Beatles’ tunes, Antonio started to pray in silence. “Padre nuestro que estas en el cielo,” he began to chant inside his head and “Santa Maria, madre de Dios.”
That night as he lay in bed and the apartment was dark and his father’s snores reached all the way to his room, Antonio mumbled the last word of a “Hail Mary”. Yet to his disappointment, not even a tiny speck of snow came down to assure him that the rest of the snow was on its way. Maybe I should promise something to God, Antonio felt that thought go through his mind. Isn’t it always a big plus when you want something from
God, to make a commitment to Him? Like making a deal with God. He gives you snow and all Antonio has to do is come up with something good to give back. It must be something great, Antonio calculated, a sacrifice that would show God that he was real. Too bad he did not live on a farm, Antonio shook his head with disappointment, otherwise he could kill a goat or a cow as a sacrifice to God… just like they did in the days of the Bible. He turned to his side and he felt his eyes flutter, weighted down by sleep. The last thing he remembered was the beginning of another “Our Father”, as he dreamt of snow beginning to fall.
Antonio woke up to the sound of Amanda’s whining about how the Beatles were not a band of yelling bozos, but rather a band of great musicians with great songs. Plus, she added, they were all cute, especially Paul. Obviously the latter information did not resonate well with their father. The mention of boys and cute in the same sentence uttered by Amanda always sent him into a foul, grouchy mood. Trying to ignore them, Antonio reached out from his bed, parted the curtains and looked outside. The sky was white with hints of gray, but no snow. How does the sky look before it snows? Antonio wished he knew. Well, there were two more days before Christmas; Antonio tried to pacify his impatience. There’s still time for the snow to come down. Hey, another thought jumped into his mind, if it snowed now, maybe by the time Christmas arrived, it would be gone or turn into brown mud like his father claims snow becomes the second it hits the street. Antonio smiled as he slapped his thigh with happiness… that’s it, God knows what He’s doing; He is waiting for the right time to let the snow come down. Happy with that thought, Antonio sat down on the edge of the bed looking for his slippers. He needed a good promise to give God in order to seal the deal. It had to be something special that Antonio figured would go perfect with the prayers he was bombarding God with. Today he was going to occupy his entire day conjuring up the greatest promise, the greatest sacrifice that God has ever heard or seen. He stood up, listening to his mother’s chatting on the telephone and his father’s grunting. When he stepped into the living room, the doorway was blocked by the loveseat and in the middle of the floor his father was trying to lift and slide the couch across the room. His face was red and there were white spots on his forehead. “Coño, ayudame,” he shouted at Amanda. His father’s favorite curse word was ‘coño’, and many times he argue that it was not a curse; but the equivalent to the Americanos’ ‘damn’.
Antonio climbed over the loveseat and began to push the couch with his father and a revelation suddenly washed over him. That will be his promise to God; he will help everyone that needed help, even before he was asked. He would help his father push this sofa to anywhere in the world he wanted to push it. Then he was going to help his mother in the kitchen with whatever was needed. Wash the dishes, sweep the floor, go outside to the store, anything without the slightest complain of why him and not Amanda. He would even help his sister if the occasion arises. He felt himself smiling as he pushed the sofa, while in his mind he spoke to God. “Well Papa Dios, hope You keep up Your end of the bargain because as You could see, I’m keeping mine.”
The day of December 24th, Antonio peeked through his window as it stretched itself away from a foggy dark night into a foggy gray morning. There was a cold wind howling and swirling behind his building. It sounded more like a haunted Halloween than the early dawn of Christmas Eve. Antonio was up since three in the morning, waiting patiently for the first sign of snow. The night before, he along with his family, saw a movie on television that left him wanting even more to see snow come down from the sky. It was a Christmas movie and even though most of the movie’s dialogue was a complete puzzle to his English-lacking mind, he found joy in it. One of the scenes that enthralled him was of a man running and sliding through snow covered streets. The man jumped and ran with unabashed joy as snow fell upon him. He was screaming “Merry Christmas”, and seeing such delight in the man’s voice Antonio could not wait to be able to also feel such pleasure. He also wanted to run in the falling snow and to be able to build his snowman. Antonio began another “Our Father”, already developing distaste for the prayer. He hoped God did not get upset with that, but ever since he made the deal with God, Antonio swore he already recited more “Our Fathers” and more “Hail Mary’s” than the Pope himself. Yet not even a drop of snow fell on his windowsill to encourage him in continuing his pact.
He could already smell the cooking from the kitchen and the phone has been ringing non-stop since seven o’clock. There was music coming from Amanda’s room, probably his sister decided to play her Beatles song now, before their father took control of the record player. The night before, his father removed from a shopping bag a collection of record albums he borrowed from friends at work. There was a pile on the corner next to the record player, which his father spent hours rearranging and writing the order of songs that he most likely was going to play. There was ‘El Gallito de Manati’, a Puerto Rican singer that was fond of singing Mexican songs. There were a few albums of ‘Chuito’ the essence of Puerto Rican Christmas songs, aquinaldos, which the singer sang in a very distinctive whining voice. There were some records of Tito Rodriguez, the smooth romantic singer with a silky-velvety voice that made women melt, and the hot dancing music of El Gran Combo. Yes indeed, Antonio smiled, his father was ready for the celebration… their first Christmas celebration in New York.
“You think it’s going to snow today?” Antonio asked his father when he came out from his room and found his father in the living room. His father was again rearranging the pile of records and Antonio wondered if he heard the question and after getting a grunt as an answer he left his father to attend to his prized loot. Antonio looked around and he saw that the living room seemed bigger and more spacious. The couch, which he had helped his father move, was against the far wall from the front door. Next to it was the loveseat with a small table covered in red crepe paper and when Antonio stared closely he realized it was one of his parents’ night tables. The four chairs from the dining room were positioned by the wall across from the couch. Around the top moldings of all the walls, silver and gold garland with Christmas lights wrapped around them hung in loops. The lights were already on as they blinked on and off highlighting the festive room. By the window that overlooks the courtyard, a small table where his mother usually kept a vase filled with plastic flowers was neatly positioned. Like the night table, it was also covered in red crepe paper with an empty crystal bowl displayed in the center. Antonio was sure that by the time the party started it would be filled with finger food. Antonio could feel the excitement slowly building and even his father was softly whistling at the Beatles’ oohh, oohh and yeah, yeah that filtered from Amanda’s room.
It was Christmas Eve, Noche Buena and the apartment was slowly filling with relatives carrying platters covered with aluminum foil or paper bags with potato chips and soda bottles sticking out of them. There was already laughter and introductions to aunts, uncles and cousins. Older ladies pinched Antonio’s cheeks, telling him over and over that the last time they saw him; he was walking with shit in his diapers. And to Antonio’s puzzlement they all wanted to know if he still remembered them. A few uncles, walking around with beer cans in their hands eyed him and asked him if he was a good ballplayer like Roberto Clemente. And that the last time they saw him he was this high; which was something like two inches from the floor and they also wanted to know if he remembered them.
His mother, helped by Amanda and some of his aunts, began to bring finger food out from the kitchen. There were platters filled with Ritz crackers topped with swirls of Cheez-Whiz. There were small pieces of white cheese and guava paste held together with colorful toothpicks. There were bowls of potato chips and hazel nuts and walnuts; the hazel nuts were mostly ignored because it took effort and strength to crack the shell with a nutcracker that always slipped off the small, slippery nut. The best way to crack those suckers was with a hammer, but Antonio knew his mother would be mortified if he brought a hammer to the glowing Christmas festivities.
His father’s music selections came resonated from the record player’s speakers loud and scratchy as more and more voices got louder overpowering Tito Puente’s timbales rips. The laughter, like the music, grew in volume and Antonio imagined that it was heard all the way into the streets. Little kids, with new shoes and new pants with their hems rolled up, ran and bounced off each other. Teenagers followed each other, brooding at anyone under twelve or over twenty, snickering at the music and hoping that very soon they could hear better sounds; like The Beatles, The Temptation, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and definitely Smokey Robinson and The Miracles.
A few men grabbed their wives and began to dance and soon as they swayed their hips in unison, a circle gathered around them as others joined in. A hot Dominican merengue shouted out from the speakers beckoning the guest and, and almost everyone began pulling each other from the dining room chairs and couch and started to spin and twist joyfully to the tempo of the hot, Caribbean song.
Plates of rice and beans and roasted pork began to appear, distributed by the ladies as most men shook their heads no, for they would rather drink another beer, another rum and coke, before putting any solid hot food into their stomachs. A large platter filled with pasteles, still wrapped in banana leaves, made the rounds throughout the room as mothers screamed at their kids to stop stuffing their mouths with potato chips and come sit here this minute and eat some real food. A teenage boy with pimpled cheeks and forehead and a Beatles haircut hid two beer cans inside his pants pocket and rushed into the back room were everyone his age claimed their turf.
A sad bolero started to play as the singer, almost in tears and full of self-pity, lamented that this Christmas he had nobody to be with and most of all he was not going to have his children asking him for his blessing… “no tendre quien me diga, bendicion papito y a quien contestar, Dios te bendiga,”. Sad, pathetic lyrics that made grown, drunk men sob like fools, probably remembering long-distance families, and then to be consoled by someone giving them a stiff shot of rum or whisky.
It was a fantastic display of Christmas joy and Antonio keeping his promise to God, ran from the kitchen to the living room performing every good deed possible. He helped out by walking around the guests carrying a garbage bag and picking up discarded plastic plates, beer cans and paper cups that littered the tables and windowsills. He brought paper towels to a mother whose toddler made a mess of a half-eaten pastel left unattended. He sliced more white cheese and guava paste and after stabbing them with toothpicks, he brought them out to the living room. He filled empty bowls with potato chips and delivered more ice to the group of men that gathered around the table that held the bottles of rum and whisky.
Antonio felt good. With every other trip from the kitchen to the living room he peeked at the night sky through the window. To his anguish, just a pitch, dark night peeked back at him. He went to the window and stood there. Across the courtyard that separated his building and another he saw silhouettes looking out their windows while others were having their own celebration. There were people dancing and having a grand ol’ time and it was a mirror image of his own celebration at home. He could see faces; staring out and Antonio wondered if they all had the same hopes in their minds… snow.
Through the darkened window, Antonio glanced at his mother’s reflection walking towards his direction. She was wearing the black dress she wore when they came from Puerto Rico. This was the second time she wore it, just like he wore his suit also for the second time. Amanda refused to wear her pink dress. The few months in America was making Amanda more aware of her looks and more in tune with the latest fashion. Antonio smelled his mother’s perfume as she put her arms around him. Her hug filled him with warmth.
“Still waiting for snow?” she asked, but it was a question that needed no answer. Antonio raised his head and looked at her. In a year or two from now, he knew he would be taller than her, but for now he was able to feel his mother’s chin on top of his head. “You’ve been very helpful… it was very thoughtful of you to help out so much,” she added as she slowly rocked him back and forth at the beat of El Gran Combo singing about a baseball-playing horse.
Antonio shrugged his shoulders feeling a bit guilty for the real reason he was suddenly so helpful. Behind them they could feel the vibration from the music and the dancing steps keeping up with the rhythm. It felt so wonderful to be surrounded by his newfound family having a great time. Antonio felt his mother’s closeness and it reminded him of their last morning in Puerto Rico before embarking to New York.
It was one of those mornings when he was up early to watch the darkness of the night slowly beginning to disperse while streaks slashed the sky with vivid colors. The chill of the dawn was turning gradually into the warmth of a Caribbean day, which in mere hours it would become a scorching heat. He could hear his mother waking up and somewhere in the tall trees birds began to sing. A rooster started to croak and was quickly joined by a barking dog. His mother walked towards him and he could hear her whispering, soft slippers on the hard floor.
“Bendicion,” he asked for her blessing as she placed her hand on his head and scratched his scalp.
“Dios te acompañe,” she blessed him as she lowered her face and kissed his cheek.
She stood with her arms around him looking at the sky. A bird flew by followed by another and another until it looked like a game of tag up in the sky. Above the mountains, far into the horizon, a bright yellow sun began to slowly ascend, glowing the mountaintops with golden colors. Before them colors of blue, orange and pink streaked the sky with magical strokes, surely God’s hand painted them.
“Que dia precioso,” his mother said admiring the precious scene that framed them.
“Is New York like this?” Antonio asked.
“No se… I don’t know. We’ll both find out together… won’t we?” his mother answered, but there seemed to be more in her words than what she said. “If you see the day precious and beautiful in your heart… see it as a gift from God, then it doesn’t really matter where you. All over the world you see the same sky, the same moon, the same sun, because it all comes from God’s Heaven.”
He looked at his mother and then back at the sky. She was probably right, but he never has come across another day, another morning as lovely and as precious as the one that expanded before them on that peaceful sunrise. Yet now, looking out at a cold dark night in New York, there were certain similarities, but he could not put a finger on it. He wondered how the sky above Puerto Rico was like now. Was it as dark as New York’s sky or brighter? A light shade of navy blue, perhaps. Was the sky above Puerto Rico the same sky as here in New York as his mother claimed on that Puerto Rican morning? Were his wonderful friends back home listening to music played by a happy father enjoying the family in their first Christmas in New York? Or instead of recorded music seeping through scratchy sounding speakers, his friends were serenaded by the sweet sounds of the coquis.
Antonio stared at the dark sky expecting, just like that morning in Puerto Rico, for the sky to be highlighted with dawn’s stunning colors. As he gazed out, something landed on the window without making a sound. He looked intently as it slowly dissolved into a small dot of moisture. Then in a scattered attack, more white dots splashed softly onto the window and Antonio held his breath. He felt his mother’s hand squeeze his arms hard and his heart began to beat fast. There were now hundreds and hundreds of white flakes dancing wildly in the sky, climbing up and around, surfing the winter air. Then they began to grow in size and quantity. “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” Antonio shouted, while big and small snowflakes fell and swirled, illuminating the night. It was a glorious sight to behold, like witnessing the arrival of diminutive angels falling swiftly from the Heaven’s sky. The snowflakes sparkled in a shower of diamonds, swaying and sashaying in heavenly glory. There were shouts around them as children and adults alike ran to all the windows, overcrowding, rushing and shoving, for everyone wanted to see the first Christmas snow over El Barrio. Antonio felt his father’s weight on his left and the softness of Amanda’s sweater on his right. It was snowing and he stared at the snowflakes, mesmerized by the white beauty before him. This was a breathtaking, exciting dream.
Across from their building, Antonio could also see many faces of people with their noses pressed to the windows sharing the same moment of Christmas joy. Around Antonio his family began to disperse in a controlled frenzy as they ran to the bedrooms where their coats were piled high to the ceiling. They grabbed coats, hats and scarves; putting them on, on their way to the front door and down the stairs. Grown men and grown women, surly teenagers forgetting that they were trying to grow up too fast, they all ran down the stairs as the children ran after them, yelling to wait for them. They ran into the street, the first snow of Christmas makes us all children again.
The moon seemed to glow a bit brighter, almost as bright as the brilliant star that guided the Three Wise Kings and humble shepherds to the barn were Jesus was born. The menacing streets of Spanish Harlem were no longer dark and spooky, but dazzling in whiteness. Antonio opened his arms and let the snow hug him like an old friend and he felt the sweet coldness cascading on his face. Flaky, loose snowballs zipped by him in clumsy, excited throws as he also made them and threw them back. And the snow fell in frozen chunks. The clouds of Heaven were falling in tiny pieces upon them.
Then Antonio saw his father using the top of a garbage can gathering snow, scraping it off the sidewalk. “¿Que tu esperas?” he shouted at Antonio. “What are you waiting for? Wasn’t this what you were waiting for? Don’t you want to build your snowman?”
Antonio laughed hard and he ran to his father falling to his knees and he grabbed as much snow as his hands could seize. They packed the snow, patting it with their hands and the more they jam-packed, the bigger the ball became. Soon Amanda saw what was going on and she also knelt on the sidewalk adding more snow to the growing ball. Antonio’s mother with her Puerto Rican black dress showing through her open coat, stood next to them, smiling as she watched them frantically gathering the snow around them. Little by little one ball on the ground became two and then there were three perfect snowballs on top of each other. Antonio stood up and with his gloved hands he began to smooth the snow, tightening the area where all three balls joined each other. His father also stood up and the snowman almost reached his neck. Amanda ran to the garbage cans alongside the building and found an old broom. She placed it on the round belly of the snowman. Antonio’s mother found two discarded wire hangers, which she quickly straightened as much as she could and they became two skinny arms. Two soda bottles caps were pushed all the way inside the face of the snowman and soon they became two shiny new eyes. One of Antonio’s uncles stuck a piece of yautia and that became the snowman’s nose and for his smile someone’s strawberry licorice was sacrificed to create a great, smiling mouth. Another uncle stuck an unlit Winston cigarette instead. A neighbor from the second floor crowned the snowman with a straw hat, a typical pava worn by the sugarcane cutters from the hills of their island. Everyone stepped back. The street lamp shone upon their creation, and it became the snowman’s spotlight, the first Puerto Rican snowman in the streets of a snowy El Barrio.
Passersby looked at the snowman and they laughed and gave and wished each other cordial Christmas greetings. Antonio looked up to the sky, inviting the snowflakes into his mouth and it was the most delicious taste. So this was it, Christmas snow, and the very first snow of his life. It was what he had waited for, which it seemed to have taken such a long time. As the snow tumbled into his hair he realized it was worth the wait, every single second. He felt Amanda’s cold hand around his neck and then he felt his mother’s warmth and behind them he felt his father’s strength. They gazed happily at the snowman, which stared at them with his frozen, strawberry licorice smile and his Puerto Rican jibaro hat.
Since then, every first snow of the season, regardless if it is before or after Christmas, it’s always special, sacred and genuine as the hugs he felt on that white Christmas Eve. Antonio would forever see the joy in their hearts, the excitement in their voices, and the sensation of the cold snow falling and touching their souls. And now, with every crunchy step on new settled snow, in every tight little snowball ready to be thrown, Antonio would always see that Christmas from the time of his youth. He would always remember the taste of the first snowflake that melted in his mouth. He would forever cherish the sweetest, fondest memories of that first Christmas in New York. Those are memories that can never be replaced, but always revisited with that very first snowflake, descending from above.
CHRISTMAS SNOW OVER EL BARRIO
MANUEL A. MELÉNDEZ
DECEMBER 25TH, 2004
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|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|Beautiful story, Manuel; very well penned! BRAVO!
(((HUGS))) and much love, your Tx. friend, Karen Lynn. :D
Saving this beauty!
|Reviewed by Gracie McKeever
|This story has a wonderful sense of nostalgia and atmosphere, highlighted by the descriptive narrative. Engaging characterizations too in Antonio and his family.