The afternoon before the kickback, they were on their stomachs poolside at the Carmichaels’ drinking Nestequilas and strategizing. Liz was scrutinizing Riley’s playlist. “No one is going to dance to this emo crap,” she said, groaning as she scrolled through the list.
“What emo crap?” said Riley.
“Bright Eyes. The Cure. Fall Out Boy. We need sexy.”
Riley bristled, her hands forming into fists at her sides. When Liz spoke to her like this, she wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her.
“You’re not taking this seriously.” Liz sat up and stared down at Riley through mirrored aviators. “I need you to take this seriously. This is a big night for me and Frank.”
A little over a year ago, Frank had been a frail, sickly-looking drama nerd in ill-fitting polo shirts with an unrequited crush on Liz. AIDS, Liz would call him to her friends behind his back. He graduated and was forgotten, then Liz had seen him at a party, back from Tisch for the summer. He wore tight jeans and a threadbare tee with a scarf draped loosely around his neck. He had stubble. “AIDS changed,” she’d told Riley. “Do you think he still likes me?” Riley had no idea. “Just invite Frank over to use the pool,” Riley, who refused to use his nickname, had said practically a thousand times. She was leaving the Valley for NYU in the fall, and wouldn’t have minded meeting a familiar face. But no. Liz said that this would be too obvious. Plus, Frank’s parents, who lived in Woodland Hills, had a pool—why would he need to come over to swim? The kickback needed to happen; it was happening; it was happening that night.
Riley turned over on her back. The pool shimmered violently as gust of hot wind knocked over her mostly empty can of Nestea and tequila.
When Riley projected herself outside the situation, like her mother was always telling her to do, the kickback was an unwise decision. Riley was getting paid $90 a week to feed and clean the litterbox of Wheezy, their temperamental Siamese, for the new neighbors while they were vacationing in Costa Rica. Yes, she had pool privileges. Yes, she could have friends over. “Just no giant orgy parties,” Jake Carmichael had said in an email. It wasn’t a giant orgy party, though, it was just a bunch of people hanging out. A kickback, as Liz kept insisting. A kickback that two hundred people had been invited to, and 96 had RSVP’d.
And Liz, whom Riley had known since first grade when their families had moved in next door to each other in the gated community of Fairweather, had always been able to make people, particularly Riley, say yes to things they wouldn’t normally say yes to. Liz’s father was another victim of his daughter’s persuasive abilities: he’d agreed to let her defer her admission to Pepperdine and take a gap year, rendering her jobless for the summer until she started an internship at his entertainment law firm in September.
Logistically, Liz had argued, a party at the Carmichaels made sense. The house was isolated, first off, since families on either side had moved out, and the Walshes, who lived across the street, were also on vacation—Liz was Facebook friends with Casey Walsh and was monitoring their trip closely. Basically all they had to worry about was Fairweather Neighborhood Safety driving by and it was doubtful they would drive up into that part of the neighborhood that late at night.
The workman returned from his lunch break and resumed power-sanding the new deck that the Carmichaels were having built, the roar eliminating any chance of conversation.
“Let’s get out of here. I cannot handle this noise.” Liz pulled on cut-offs and a Woodlake Prep Class of ’08 tee that she’d altered with scissors so that it revealed her tanned shoulder. With the glinting silver flask that she kept in her purse, she refilled both of their cans with tequila. Riley slid on her summer dress, a flouncy floral print once belonging to Liz that barely covered her swimsuit. Raising her arms, she felt the stiff heat on her shoulders and legs that would later bloom in to a sunburn. She followed Liz down the driveway.
The girls wandered through the Fairweather streets. It was hot, the kind of hot you felt through your flip-flops. The kind of hot that was meant for whipping down the freeway to the beach in the AC, which was what she would have been doing last summer, with Erin and Samantha. Liz was definitely not her first choice of spend-your-last-summer-before-college-with friend. They had drifted apart in high school. Liz started hanging out with the super-rich cokehead girls until all but Liz headed to rehab. They’d been in Drama together the second semester of senior year and both been in Chicago—Riley was a lighting tech and Liz played one of the Merry Murderesses (the “Pop” one, who also happened to be named Liz).
But Riley had no car, Erin and Samantha had jobs and boyfriends this summer and were really good at making excuses not to drive out to Fairweather to pick her up, and Liz had totaled her dad’s Infiniti back in April and had lost summer car privileges. So here they were, walking, sipping from their cans.
Green, green, brown, brown, green. The browns were the lawns of the abandoned houses. More and more families were leaving. Riley’s own home was filled with boxes. They would be moving next month to a condo in Tarzana where she’d have to share a room with her sister for a month before leaving for NYU at the end of August.
Liz lobbed her can over the decrepit wood fence of what used to be Danny Judson’s house. Then she paused. Riley already knew what Liz was going to say before she said it.
“Let’s check out Danny’s,” she whispered, grabbing Riley by the elbow.
“We can’t,” said Riley.
“Come on,” Liz said, her nails grabbing digging into Riley’s flesh, “You’re leaving in a month. When else are you going to be able to do this?”
Riley flinched and pulled her arm away. “It’s like a thousand degrees out and I have to feed Wheezy.”
“This is your last chance to see it,” said Liz. “By the time you get back for Thanksgiving Break, it could be leveled. You really never know.” Her face became stoic.
Riley stared at her own reflection in Liz’s glasses. She was not even sure they’d let her in to Fairweather after she and her family moved. Her own neighborhood. “Fine.”
With the exception of the dandelion and foxtail poking through dead leaves, Bea Judson’s old garden was a brown tangle of skeletal bushes and shriveled succulents. She would often be out front gardening in her giant straw sunhat—one of the few residents of Fairweather who opted to tend her own garden rather than hire landscapers—and wave to Riley as she walked by. She hoped Bea would never see her former front yard.
Riley helped Liz over the fence and then scrambled over herself, scraping her knee on the rough wood. The Judson backyard, once a lush green with vines and bushes that they used to play in as kids, was tan and dead-looking like the front, save for the flashy pink bougainvillea that had taken over part of the fence. The empty pool was filled with dried leaves and the carcass of a sparrow. A torn lawn chair sagged on the termite-eaten deck.
“Remember Danny Judson’s party?” Liz asked, twisting a cluster of bougainvillea blossoms from the vine and sticking them behind her ear.
A breeze swept the dust and leaves into tiny tornadoes. “I think, maybe.” Riley nudged a protruding rock from the dry dirt. The party had been in seventh grade. She let her mind wander back to the truth-or-dare circle in the back yard, Danny Judson’s chapped lips on her own. She told him he had bad breath, and he pulled a tin of Altoids out from his pocket, put a handful into his mouth, swished them around, and spit them out. He breathed into her face and asked if it was better.
“Oh man. That was the time Danny and I read your diary. So fucked up.”
Riley took a final sip of her Nestequila, now more tequila than Nestea, before throwing the can into the pool, where it clattered in the debris. Another gust of hot air tinkled distant wind chimes and rustled the sparrow’s feathers. “Yeah,” she said.
Liz continued, staring into the empty pool. “But you didn’t do anything. You just grabbed it away. I swear I thought you were going to sock me.”
That evening still made Riley wince. It was true. She hadn’t done anything. She’d been on her way back from the bathroom and heard voices from Danny’s room. Hoping to catch someone making out and report it back to the group, she opened the door. Liz and Danny were on the floor flipping through the pages. She’d snatched the cloth-bound notebook, a Christmas gift from her father which she brought with her everywhere, out of Liz’s hands, then told Danny’s mom she felt sick and asked if it was ok to walk home. In an act of kindness that humiliated Riley, Bea Judson had given her a ride for the six long blocks. That night Riley had thought of all the ways she could have gotten revenge on Liz, all the things she could have said.
Instead, she’d waited until her mother went to sleep, taken the emergency matches from the drawer in the kitchen, and set her diary aflame on the barbecue grill in the backyard. Sobbing over the open flame, she’d vowed never to speak to Liz again. Then Monday rolled around and Liz passed her a note in homeroom saying that Danny had a HUGE crush on her. Riley had written her back.
“I think the reason we’ve stayed friends so long is because I would always be such an asshole to you and you just pretended like nothing happened,” said Liz, pulling the bougainvillea blossom from behind her ear and tossing it into the dried-out pool.
Riley could feel Liz’s eyes move to her, gauging her response, like this was an improv exercise. Always say “yes, and,” Mrs. McKnight, the drama teacher, had told them. Yes, and, yes, and, yes, and. Riley reached down to pick up the rock, which was now dislodged from the dirt. She held the black stone, hot from the sun, in her hand. It was smooth, not native to the landscape, likely from the gardening department of Home Depot. She’d been pitcher on the softball team in middle school. Across the pool and the concrete patio stood Danny’s sliding glass door. It needed to shatter. But she tossed the black rock into the pool, next to the Nestea can and Liz’s pink blossom and the sparrow carcass.
“Okay, I really have to feed the cat now.”
“No way. We’re going in.”
What was the worst that could happen? An arrest? Would that jeopardize her NYU admission? Riley tried to remember the conditions, but couldn’t. The tequila was making her mind fuzzy.
“Liz…” she said. But Liz was already scouting the perimeter of the house.
“Look for an open window,” she shouted.
The dry weeds scraped Riley’s sunburned shins as she walked through the hot breeze to the side of the house, peering through the dusty windows. She saw Danny’s old room and felt herself begin to choke up—the slats of sunlight on the floor, the blank walls. What was a house without people? Without the peeling paint on the windowsill of your room that you distractedly chipped away at while on the phone with your friends? The stucco ceiling that rippled with shapes and figures like an ocean above your bed as you drifted to sleep? The secret place on the wall behind your bedframe where you’d written FUCK YOU in sharpie after your mother screamed at you for yelling at your sister? The smell of pancakes on hungry Sunday mornings? Without all this a house was just a container—walls, floorboards, windowsills, doorways. Riley began to weep, snot running down her face. She wiped it off.
“Riley?” she heard Liz say behind her, “are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, hoping her sunglasses would conceal her tears.
“Did you find one?”
“What?” said Riley.
“An open window.”
“No,” she said.
“Me neither. But it looks boring inside anyway.”
Riley saw the neighborhood safety SUV driving up the block moments after she lofted herself over the Judsons’ fence and onto the sidewalk. It slowed to a stop.
“Fuck,” muttered Liz.
“Don’t you ladies have something better to do besides break into abandoned houses?” Raul called through the window.
“Namaste, Raul,” said Liz, her voice turning to syrup. Raul was young, newish, ex-military. Liz had seen him leaving a yoga class at the studio by the Walgreen’s a few months ago and had not shut up about it since. He squinted at her from under his ADT branded baseball cap.
“Elizabeth. Riley. You are both too old to be pulling this crap.”
“Sorry,” was all Riley could muster. She felt nauseous, dizzy. Liz elbowed her.
“Maybe I should give your parents a call.”
“We’re looking for the Carmichaels’ cat,” lied Liz. “Have you seen it? Siamese?”
Raul let out a sigh, and adjusted his cap. “No.”
Riley stared at his toned arm, where curls of inked script looped out from under the sleeve of his company-issued t-shirt.
“Well, can you call us if you do? Riley here is going to be in deep shit if she loses the cat. Considering she’s cat-sitting for them and all.”
“Next time you need to get into one of the empty houses, you call me, okay?”
“Sure,” said Liz. “We’ll totally call. Stay cool, Raul.”
Raul rolled up his window, smirking, and drove away.
“I’d like to see him in downward dog,” said Liz.
“That gross. He’s like 30.”
When they returned to the Carmichaels’ the workman was gone and the house blissfully quiet and cool. Liz and Riley walked through the entryway into the kitchen.
“Ew!” Liz called out.
A stream of black ants trickled from the sliding glass door to the cat food and water bowl by the fridge.
What was it her mother had said about ants? Were you supposed to spray them with Windex, or did that just repel them and make them change their route? Liz was already looking it up on her phone.
“It says you’re supposed to mix together sugar water and baking soda into a paste and put it in in the lid of a jar and…oh this is gross.”
“They’ll eat it and explode.”
After digging through the drawers and cabinets of the kitchen, the girls found baking soda and a bag of sugar. Liz mixed in in a glass and dumped it on the floor in the path of the ants. Most of the trail scattered over the tiles. Some investigated.
“That’s right, guys,” said Liz, “eat it up.”
“So messed up,” said Riley.
“It’s the circle of life, or whatever,” Liz said, opening the fridge.
She sniffed a milk container and scrunched up her nose. She took out a bag of cold cuts and shoved one into her mouth.
“That stuff is so bad for you,” said Riley. Her mother was constantly preaching the dangers of processed meat.
“I haven’t eaten all day,” said Liz, “I’m allowed.”
Riley rinsed out the cat bowls and refilled them as Liz watched her, sipping from a tequila-less can of Nestea.
“They have so much freaking stuff and they don’t even have kids,” said Liz.
“When you don’t have kids you can afford more stuff.” Another thing her mother was always saying. Like she and her sister were nothing but numbers on a bank statement.
“That’s why,” said Liz, hefting herself onto the kitchen counter, “I’m never having kids. Who wants to bring up babies in this shit show?”
“Use protection tonight,” said Riley. She left Liz and walked to the bathroom where the litter box was kept.
After emptying the dirty litter into the trashcans under the deck, Riley surveyed the backyard. It was what she imagined a backyard looked like when she thought of a backyard. Actual living grass. Weathered clay pots overflowing with succulents. A leafless blue pool. Not her family’s sad little patch of dying sod with a defunct vegetable garden. Somewhere, something shattered, someone yelped.
Liz was in the living room, chunks of porcelain at her feet.
“Oops,” she said, trying to retain a giggle.
“What was it?” snapped Riley.
“One of those,” she said, gesturing to the mantle.
The mantle was cluttered with an assortment of bric-a-brac. A taxidermied alligator head. Shot glasses from various locales. Eighties action-figures. A model airplane. Photos of Jake and Jennifer grinning atop dromedaries, mountaintops, waterfalls. In one corner was a small cluster of porcelain figurines, each a different breed of cat.
“The Siamese,” Liz said. Do you think they’ll notice?”
“If they do, you’re paying for it,” said Riley. “How many people RSVP’d for tonight?”
The two of them plopped down on the sofa, ignoring the broken pieces.
Liz checked her phone. “We’re at one hundred and two.”
“But only half will show, right?”
“I’ll get in so much trouble if they find out we threw a party.”
“How many times do I need to tell you that it’s not a party,” said Liz, typing something on her phone, “it’s a kickback. There’s a difference. Kickbacks are smaller.”
“I know,” said Riley.
“Then just chill, girl!”
Wheezy came into the room, jumped up on the sofa, and started purring.
“Hello!” Liz squealed. She tried to pull the cat onto her lap but it hissed and clawed at her before leaping off the couch and out of the living room. Liz put her hand to her wrist.
“Asshole!” she said, looking at Riley. “Can you believe that?”
Riley bit her tongue to keep from laughing. I like you, Wheezy, she thought. “You need to give it time to get to know you.”
Liz held out her wrist, where tiny beads of red were glistening. “I look like a fucking cutter. Frank is going to think I’m a cutter. I need some medicine.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a lighter, a glass pipe, and a bag of weed. She packed it.
“Greens?” she offered the pipe to Riley, who lit it, inhaled, and handed it back to Liz.
Liz took a hit and collapsed on the couch. “Can I go over my game plan with you?”
The one, if not the only subject on which Liz deferred to Riley was sex, because, according to what Riley had told Liz, Riley was not a virgin.
It was unlike Riley to lie, but when Liz had asked her about her paltry hookup history, it seemed like the right thing to do if she didn’t want to get teased mercilessly. So she’d told her about Vlad.
Vlad had been two years ahead of them at Woodlake Prep. He was tall, with long black curls that he was constantly sweeping out of his face. He went to college at UC Santa Barbara. Riley had chatted with him briefly at a party in Venice last winter break. They’d talked about bands, and told her how easy it was to have sex in college. That Riley shouldn’t worry. Then he opened up to her about his parents. His father was a drunk. His tyrant of a mother was a classically-trained pianist from Russia, and had forced him to take piano lessons until the age of eighteen. Now he played keyboard in an indie rock band. Riley had leaned in and kissed him, just like that. She’d been surprised at how easy it was. But then Vlad had gone to get a drink and disappeared. She hadn’t heard from him since.
But that wasn’t what she told Liz. Instead, she’d told her that he brought her into the master bedroom of the Venice house and they made out—he was a really good kisser. He’d told her, in Russian, that she was beautiful. He went down on her and she came and then he put on a condom and got on top of her and they’d done it and it only hurt a little bit. She didn’t bleed or anything. They cuddled and fell asleep and went to IHOP the next day. He’d gone back up to UCSB. He wrote her emails. Riley found herself fantasizing about him from time to time.
The problem was that Liz had invited him, and he had RSVP’d as attending. Riley’s only hope was that Liz would be too wrapped up in her own loss-of-virginity scheme to figure out that Riley and Vlad didn’t know each other as well as Riley claimed they did.
Liz began her game plan.
“So,” she said, “I’m going to wear the black pushup bra with the pink bows and the black lace see through panties, because thongs are gross. And I’m just going to wear skinny jeans and a tank top so that I don’t look desperate. But I’ll put my hair up and do my eyes all smoky.”
“Great,” said Riley, “hot.”
“Then I’ll start talking to him about NYU. I’ll tell him you’re going there, and ask if he has any pointers to pass along.”
Liz kept talking. Riley took another hit and projected herself into the future. Tomorrow, the kickback would be over and Liz would no longer be a virgin. In three weeks Riley would be living in Tarzana. In two months she’d be living in a dorm in New York City, on East 12th Street by Union Square. She’d get around with a Metrocard. She’d tell uptown from downtown by looking for the Empire State Building. Her mouth began to go dry and her heart beat faster. She realized that she’d been scratching at the wale of the corduroy sofa arm and had created a tiny tear. She wedged her nail in deeper, into the batting, as Liz kept going on about how they would dance, what they would do. The taxidermied alligator’s eye gleamed at her. Liz would not shut up.
“How does that sound?” said Liz.
Riley walked to the mantle and inspected the alligator head. “You’re right,” she said, “how can people just have all this crap?”
“I don’t know. It’s their stuff.”
“Like, why do you need this alligator head?” Liz looked puzzled, unsure whether or not she was being tricked.
“It’s their house.”
“But I mean why?”
“I don’t know!” said Liz. “Maybe it’s a souvenir from a trip or something.”
Liz was right — why did she care so much? Why was she about to cry?
She set the alligator head down next to the other artifacts on the mantle. The room was filled with the yellow light of magic hour, Riley’s favorite time to get high. She sat back down on the sofa, next to her tiny rip. The wind roared again, swaying the Japanese maple outside the window. “We should go to my place and start getting ready,” she said.
Devin Park and his skater friends were the first to show up, which was good, because Liz and Riley had given Devin $100 for his older brother to buy beer and liquor for the kickback. They shared a bowl with the girls out by the pool. Riley put on the playlist she’d created, which had gone unchanged by Liz. She sat on the couch, checking her phone, as Liz ranted to Devin and his friends about how fucked up it was that the Carmichaels were building a new deck when everyone else in Fairweather was practically broke. Then came Samantha and Erin, who hugged Riley before disappearing to smoke cigarettes by the pool. Then the rocker kids showed up and promptly unplugged her iPod, replacing it with their own un-danceable music. Riley pretended not to notice. She walked from room to room, trying to look busy, not knowing what to say to anyone, belly wrecked with nerves. Three girls in matching blue wigs walked in with another rack of beer, which everyone started popping open. Samantha finally broke away from Erin to talk to Riley, and shared some of her Bacardi. Riley drank more beer, shoved more chips into her mouth, the salt mingling with the bitterness of the beer on her tongue. She smoked cigarettes with Samantha and Erin on the deck. They ashed into an empty beer bottle and laughed about last summer, Erin talked about how she was going to give the long-distance relationship thing a shot with her boyfriend when she went off to college. Samantha said that she and her own boyfriend were going to have to break up at the end of the summer, because there was no way she was abstaining from hot college guys for him. Their conversation lulled as they watched Liz, in a circle of boys adjacent to them, stick her entire fist in her mouth. The boys hooted and cheered. Liz took a swig from one of their flasks, wiping her hand on her jeans.
“How can you stand her?” hissed Samantha.
“Honestly, that’s why I’ve been staying away all summer,” said Erin, “no offense. She’s way intense.”
“Yeah,” said Riley, “but, you know, we go way back.”
Erin and Samantha nodded solemnly in unison.
The wind kept knocking over the ash bottle, so Samantha threw it into the pool. Riley watched it bob and sink to the bottom, trying not to think about cleanup.
Back inside, people were grinding to some rap song Riley had never heard. Somehow an hour had disappeared. Danny and his public school friends were squished into the sofa, passing a blunt. Riley swooped in and took a hit, the stoners nodded at her, grinning stupidly. She was about to tell Danny about sneaking into his house when she felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around. It was Frank.
“Hey.” He was wearing black-framed glasses and had the beginnings of a moustache on his upper lip. She offered him the blunt, but he declined.
“Have you seen Liz?” shouted Riley, over the music.
“Liz. She’s looking for you.”
“Let’s go somewhere quieter where I can hear you talk,” he shouted back.
Riley picked up her beer bottle and followed him out to the deck, where they stood and watched a couple ferociously make out on the grass by the pool.
“I hear you’re going to NYU,” said Frank.
“Yeah.” Riley picked at the label of her beer.
“You’ll like it. New York is a million times better than this shithole.”
Riley looked over her shoulder. Sure, she was bored in Fairweather, but she’d never thought of it as a shithole.
“So does Liz know you’re here?” She tried not to stare at Frank’s moustache.
Frank lit a cigarette. “I’m not here to see Liz. I texted her saying I couldn’t come, actually. But then a buddy of mine told me I should check out the scene.”
“Oh. Well…” she trailed off, unsure of how to respond to his confession.
“She was a total bitch to me in Drama, you know.”
“I know,” said Riley. She’s a bitch to everyone, she wanted to say.
“She’s just another spoiled brat like most of the Woodlake girls.” He exhaled dramatically, emitting smoke from the side of his mouth to avoid blowing it in Riley’s face. When she was a junior, he’d smoked fake cigarettes on stage as Tony in a production of West Side Story. She’d followed him with her spotlight as he spoke his monologue in an Italian mobster accent. He was always screwing up his blocking, causing her to miss her cues.
“Why do you even hang out with her anyway? I thought you of all people would know better.”
Riley shrugged, peeled off the beer label entirely and dropped it on the deck.
“Hey,” He grabbed her hand and inspected her nails, which Liz had painted fuchsia with black flowers a few hours ago. “Nice mani.” He ran a finger up her arm, staring into her eyes. She looked down at her sandals and held her breath. She knew that if she looked up they would kiss and that would be that. She pulled her arm away.
“You’ll do just fine in New York,” he said. Then he laughed, chugged the rest of his cup, and tossed it over the deck railing. “Have fun with your psycho bitch friend. I’m out of here. This scene is lame.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the unfinished pine.
Riley watched him through the glass door as he wound his way around dancing couples to the front door. She should have kissed him. Should have done something. She walked into the kitchen where she stood, taking in the boom and sweat of the kickback, now its own animal. The baking soda and sugar mixture had been tracked all over the kitchen tiles.
She stumbled up the stairs to the Carmichaels’ bedroom. She at least needed to tell Liz what had happened. To see the look on her face.
It was quieter up there, away from the revelers. She knocked gently on the door, then opened it. Liz was on the bed, her back to her. She looked frail, vulnerable.
“He’s not coming,” said Liz.
Riley sat down next to her.
The eye makeup that Liz had labored over for three quarters of an hour was smeared in smoky streaks down her face.
“You’re so lucky you have Vlad.” She leaned her head on Riley’s shoulder. Her hair smelled like the almond oil they’d conditioned with before the party.
Riley squeezed Liz’s arm and turned to face her. “Frank was here.”
Her heart beat faster and she suppressed a smile as Liz’s makeup-stained face twisted into a horrified expression.
“He stopped by. He was being a total dick. He’s gone now, though.” Riley was impressed by her own nonchalance.
Liz snatched her phone, scrolling through her messages.
“He lied to you,” Riley said in a soft whisper. “He hit on me, sort of.”
“He what?” Liz snapped her head around and looked at Riley, cheeks pink, nostrils flaring. Normally this behavior would have made Riley cower, but not tonight. Tonight was Riley’s night.
“He basically tried to kiss me. I’m sorry.” But Riley wasn’t. She wished she’d done more with Frank—second base, third base. She imagined Liz walking in on the two of them and screaming. The thought made her quiver with excitement.
“Oh!” Liz cried. Riley braced herself for a slap, a punch, a scream, but instead Liz threw herself face first onto the bed, heaving with sobs. Riley rubbed her back in small circles. Finally, Liz sat up, shaky and red-faced.
“Fuck it. Fuck him. Or, not. I’m not going to fuck him. I’ll never fuck anyone. No one will ever fuck me,” Liz sniffled and began to giggle at her own joke. “We should go downstairs and have shots or something, since I’m going to be a virgin for the rest of my life.”
“That’s not true,” Riley cooed. “You’ll find someone, eventually.”
“Thanks, Ri.” Liz wiped black streaks from her face with her hand. “God this bedroom is fucking ugly.” She tossed a frilled throw pillow at the window. Riley thought about picking it up but left it where it was. Liz was right. The bedroom was ugly, tidily devoid of personality. It looked like the bedrooms in the Pottery Barn catalogs her mother never read and Riley used for collages. She imagined slicing out objects from the Carmichaels’ house with her Exacto knife, taking them out of context. The corduroy sofa would get a human arm. The throw pillow would replace a child’s torso.
The living room smelled of pot, cigarettes, and vomit. The bassline from the music vibrated in the back of her throat. The hardcore punks in their creepers, all of whom Riley was irrationally intimidated by, had materialized, and were congregated in a corner, sharing god-knows-what substance. Riley felt a weightlessness, like she could float right down those stairs and hover above the dancers, inhaling the fumes of the party like a Delphic oracle. Then the lights went out with a snap and all anyone could hear was the whooshing of the wind.
The crowd’s faces were illuminated by the lights of cellphones. It was the wind, they were saying, that had knocked out a power line. Lights out in the whole neighborhood. Then they began to cheer, and Riley began to cheer with them. She jumped and swayed with the crowd, letting out wild yelps. There was shattering. The mantle was empty; Riley had emptied the mantle. Swept her arm across it, feeling the cold pokes of the ridiculous figurines against her bare wrist for a moment before they crashed to the bricks around the fireplace. The girl who’d been checking her phone next to her stopped and gasped. Riley didn’t fucking care, she decided, panting through her grimace. It was a shithole, all of it, a shithole with rent-a-cops, a shithole the Carmichaels didn’t deserve, a shithole she was leaving soon. All of a sudden Liz was there, laughing with her in the flashlights of the phones, her tongue black-purple from wine. She grabbed her by the wrist and the two of them started dancing together on the coffee table. Some of Danny’s friends jumped up and tried to grind on them, but the coffee table gave way with a crack, and everyone tumbled over, giggling and howling.
There were splashes outside and through the sliding glass door she saw shadows in in the pool. She was being shoved, then, and a sharp elbow jutted into her sternum. Two guys were wrestling on the floor. More and more joined, kicking and punching, the crowd shouting. Riley could see the whites of teeth and T-shirts, but not much else.
She left the wrestlers and shoved her way into the kitchen, where a rail-thin boy with a pompadour was puking into the sink. He looked up, muttered “sorry,” and went back to heaving. She grabbed a can of beer from the fridge and slipped upstairs. The sounds of creaking bedsprings and giggling were coming from the master bedroom. She opened the door and saw a girl and a boy she did not know jumping on the bed, laughing, clutching their phones in flashlight mode.
The only thing Riley could do was get on there with them, so they jumped and jumped until a leg of the frame broke and the boy fell off, his entire body shaking with laughter. She and the girl kept jumping until all four legs were broken. The boy picked up a tube of lipstick from Jennifer Carmichael’s vanity and scrawled something on it before running away. She stopped to read it before following him:
In Jake Carmichael’s office across the hall the three of them began tearing books off the shelves, watching them flutter to the floor like dying birds. They flipped the desk over and began kicking it. Riley beat it with a lampstand. A locked cabinet swung open, revealing a stack of bills. The girl picked them up and, with a wink at Riley, pulled out a lighter and began lighting each one on fire. “Shit,” said the boy. He grinned at Riley and she realized that she did know him: Vlad. He’d cut his hair. She was about to say something but stopped when she saw the look of fascination on his face as he watched the money-burning girl. She left them there. There were moans of pleasure coming from the bedroom now, and with the door half open Riley saw the sheen of limbs in the darkness.
Downstairs, the punks were taking turns trying to kick holes in the drywall. More people kept pouring in. Liz was in the kitchen holding a bottle of wine, which she passed to Riley. Riley swallowed for a long time, then went to the cabinet and started smashing glasses on the floor and singing the chorus to “Cell Block Tango” at the top of her lungs. Liz joined her, pirouetting around the kitchen. He had it coming SMASH, He had it coming SMASH… With all the glasses shattered, the two girls went out onto the deck, which still smelled like fresh pine even though it was littered with cigarette butts.
They used the ladder that the workmen had left behind to climb onto the roof, where they sat, panting and cackling like witches. Riley ran a hand through Liz’s beer-slick hair, shaking out glass and drywall. “Ohmygod,” Liz kept saying. “Ohmygod.”
The smoky wind licked at their faces. The burns and scrapes she’d incurred throughout the day began to nag her now—her sunburned legs and shoulders, her bruised tailbone, her scabbing knee. Underneath her were the rhythmic thuds of the punks and their kicks, a heartbeat. “Woah,” said Liz, pointing to the line where the blackout ended and the golden lights began again. The electricity was out in half the valley—a dark ocean below them. It was what Riley imagined the land must have looked like long ago back when it was all chaparral and orange groves.
The headlights of a neighborhood safety SUV illuminated the house. It parked, and Riley could just make out Raul’s outline. He was holding a squirming furry blob in his arms: Wheezy. He rang the doorbell once, twice. “Fuck,” muttered Liz, looking at Riley, “what do we do?”
Riley projected herself outside the situation.
“Nothing.” She lay back on the roof and stared into the hazy black sky.
Cristobal, the caretaker of Porta Coeli, was about to sweep the steps to the entrance of the church, when he saw the bundled baby at the doorstep. The baby was sleeping in an expensive rattan basket, his big head protruding from the beautifully embroidered blanket in which he was tightly wrapped. Cristobal shook his head as to say, “another one.” It was not uncommon for babies to show up at the door of the church. Whenever a woman had a baby she did not want, it appeared here so the Sisters could take it in the orphanage. Most mothers of these children, unable to care for them, took them personally to the convent or the orphanage. From many other similar drops, Cristobal knew that the fine basket, the blanket and the coloring of this little boy meant that a wealthy woman had had relations with a dark-skinned man, perhaps a servant, and the well-to-do family had deposited their shame on the doorstep of the church.
As he did with the others, Cristobal gathered the baby and took it to the Dominican Sisters. The Mother Superior did not even wince or comment anymore; she did not even take her eyes off her work. She rang a bell summoning Sister Evangeline who promptly took the baby to the nursery. Undressing the baby and changing him, the Sister noticed the boy’s unusually big head and forehead, the shorter limbs, but she did not make much of it at the time. Pinned to his diaper was a note, standard practice in these cases. The note almost always apologized for abandoning the child, asking the nuns to pray for the wayward mother, and to please take care of the baby who under other circumstances they would have loved and raised.
This missive only stated, “Sorry. We can’t. His name is Pedro Rico.” Its curtness stunned and bothered the nun. She found these notes offensive in their defense of the mothers’ reckless and irresponsible sinfulness, but at least they asked for God’s mercy. There was always an attempt at contrition, however mangled and insincere. She tried to recall if any young female parishioners had been absent from services to pinpoint the heartless family involved, but she could not. Most likely the family lived in another diocese. As she rocked the sleeping baby, she looked at his bronze skin and tiny broad nose, and concurred with Cristobal’s assessment. Without a doubt, the poor child was being punished for his mother’s lustful indiscretion. She shivered with disgust and placed baby Pedro in a crib; later, she took him to the wet nurse when he woke up hungry.
As Pedro matured, it became evident that he was a dwarf. This painful realization cast doubt and concern about his future in the convent and beyond its walls. He was now their charge in body and soul, and they could not abandon him like his mother and family. They never had to take care of such a child. They worried that his deformity was Satan’s punishment for the mixing of races and would corrupt the other children. The Mother Superior came to the conclusion that God was testing them and they had to accept His will. This affirmation, however, did not help Pedro’s situation. In fact, it worsened it. The nuns, even Sister Evangeline, an early ally and protector, distanced themselves from him. They gave him food, the same miserable portions of breadfruit and starchy roots, coupled with an occasional piece of meat or codfish. They provided him shelter, clothed him with tattered rags and gave him a cot to sleep like the other orphans. But they did not show him the same interest or even the smattering of care and love bestowed on others. Neither did they offer him the same education as the others. They assumed that his physical deformity meant an inability to learn and a lifetime of menial work, so the young dwarf was relegated to doing more chores than the others.
The nuns became adept at finding work suited to his diminutive stature. Pedro became an expert at dusting the convent’s crannies; weeding in between thorny bushes; cleaning inside the fireplace ovens; and any other tedious task involving tight space. Pedro’s God-given gift became a valuable asset for the Sisters, who did not hesitate to loan him to wealthy members of the congregation in return for contributions to the convent and church. The Dominican priests gave the nuns wine and produce from their garden in exchange for Pedro’s services. He was also always in demand for theatrical productions that required dressing as a jester. During Christmas, he was loved as baby Jesus. A gentleman from the diocese who reproduced famous paintings of dwarfs kept Pedro busy. The painter had already transformed Pedro into Callot’s Drunken Dwarf, Molenaer’s Dancing Dwarf, Bronzino’s Morgante (both sides), and the most humiliating for Macho, Maria Barbola, the dwarf in Las Meninas.
The Sisters were also quick to hit Pedro. He would get into fights with other boys who bullied him. A day did not pass without Pedro having to defend himself from pushing or shoving or having his food taken from him. Three boys in particular, Morgan Thatch, Roberto Henrick, and Justo Cofresi, took turns roughing him up. Besides forcing Pedro to give up some of his food, they made him run errands for them, and took any money he made on chores. When he no longer could stand their torture and abuse, he decided he had to do something. In a furious fit of rebellious anger, he beat Thatch, the biggest of the trio, with a broom handle and bit him on the thigh. After that day, Thatch and the other two backed off, but the nuns were horrified at this outburst of violence. Mother Superior called him Macho as a derisive taunt, and soon it became his nickname. From then on, they felt compelled to check his anger and violence by beating him at any sign of rebellion or protest. They hit him with rulers and switches, slapped him without warning, pulled him by the ears and hair, and sent his bruised body to bed without supper.
The nuns’ treatment was unbearable, but it made him stronger. Their beatings only made him more resolved to escape. He led their contempt slide off him like rain off a leaf. He followed his daily routine, the years blending with the seamless summer that is life on a tropical island. He waited for an opportunity. He waited past until his voice deepened and his body had reached its maximum, limited size. He waited until a farmer on the way to the capital stopped to rest by the road passing the convent. The jibaro parked his ox cart by a ceiba tree, where he now leaned to eat lunch. Macho was in the garden, up a tree limb picking avocados, and he knew this was his one chance. He climbed down and ran with the canvas bag of avocados toward the ox cart. While the farmer relieved himself against the tree, Macho ran behind the ox cart and jumped in, wedging his body between two thick bundles of sugar cane. Soon, he was rolling on the ox cart toward the capital, smiling and crying. The swaying of the cart and the jibaro’s sad songs sent him into a deep sleep.
The trip took days and he slept most of the way. He was sleeping when the jibaro woke him up, screaming at him to get off his cart, beating him with a cane stalk. Macho blocked the blows with his little legs, rolled off the cart, and ran down the road, hugging the bag of avocados. The jibaro had dropped him in the center of Rio Piedras by the market. The dusty streets were full of merchants and buyers; stalls loaded with sugar cane, rum, tobacco, hides, meats and sausages, fruits, roots and vegetables. On the trip, he had eaten a few of the avocados and sugar cane. He became aware of how hungry he was and decided to sell the remaining avocados to get some money. The sight of a dwarf juggling avocados as he hawked them drew attention and within minutes he had sold the entire bag. The last one he sold to a man with a large brim hat, a head band covering his well-shaped head underneath. By his clothes, Macho knew he had money but the dirt on his disheveled clothing, the beaten hat, the unpolished boots, told him that this man lived hard and didn’t care much about appearances. The man was amused by Macho’s tenacity; how he bargained for the best price. How he used his stature to advantage, making people laugh, bringing them in, making them feel good to buy another avocado when they probably only wanted one.
“You’re a good salesman,” he told him.
“I’m hungry,” responded Macho, shrugging. At this, the man smiled, nodding.
“How about you work for me,” he said. “That way you won’t have to be hungry.”
“Making people happy.”
Macho looked at him suspiciously, but he was alone in a city he didn’t know, and he felt it couldn’t be worse than the convent.
His boss, Miguel Henriquez, had various businesses, all focusing on what he claimed was “getting people things that are hard to get.” He started Macho on the ginger run; distributing the spice to local brothels, some that he owned. Ginger was in demand as an aphrodisiac by the hookers and johns. Sometimes he brought in the weekly supply of rum using the city’s underground tunnels, which his size allowed to navigate quickly. It was easy work, as long as he did not get caught with the merchandise. As a bonus, he was allowed to sample the women who grew to like him because he was always happy and they knew he would never hurt them. One brothel, La Casa Blanca, became his home. After a hard day, he welcomed its shadowy warmth and velvety decor. The laughter and smiles. The shots of rum burning his throat. At the convent, he always fell asleep to stark, damp silence. Here, it was rhythmic creaking of old mattresses, moaning and the nearby waves that put him to sleep.
Soon, Macho became Henriquez’s companion on his travels. His boss sailed around the Caribbean, and he wanted the dwarf by his side on every transaction. During a tobacco deal, Henriquez’s counterpart, a lanky Frenchman with a crooked scar running down his nose and between his eyes, kept looking at Macho. Even as he spoke, he would look at Macho. When the negotiation turned heated, the Frenchman slammed the table.
“This damn dwarf displeases me. Tell him to leave,” he yelled.
Henriquez stared at him, smiled. “He’s my traveling companion and most trusted confidant. You insult me with your request.”
The Frenchmen narrowed his gaze at Macho, gulped a shot of rum and slapped the cup against the table. “Fine, fine. Let’s settle this business and be done with it.”
Henriquez quoted a higher price for the tobacco he was selling and the Frenchmen agreed. Later that night, celebrating at La Casa Blanca, Henriquez tossed Macho a gold coin. “Go ahead, Machito,” he said. “Go celebrate your God given gift.” And he toasted to Macho the Dwarf and laughed. All the others laughed and sang “Mi Vino Tan Querido.” Macho went to bed.
In Cartagena, a Spanish trader wanted to include Macho in the deal. He persisted, raising the price, but Henriquez refused. A few days later, while delivering ginger and rum, two men grabbed Macho and threw him in a burlap sack. He found himself in the trader’s home.
“Your master seems very fond of you, little man. Let’s see how much,” the Spaniard said, smiling and displaying rotten teeth.
The ransom was a considerable amount. After paying it, Henriquez assigned a bodyguard to accompany the dwarf everywhere he went.
“You’re very valuable to me, Machito. I paid a lot for your freedom, so now it belongs to me.”
Macho’s life continued as before. When he wasn’t traveling with Don Miguel, he supplied ginger and rum to the brothels and delivered special goods such as cigars or brandy to preferred clients, who felt privileged to have Henriquez’s lucky dwarf service them. He still had a room at La Casa Blanca and enjoyed the company of the ladies there. But now he had Barajas, the bodyguard, accompanying him everywhere. He could not even relieve himself without the tall, fat criollo watching him. Barajas had studied in Spain, felt himself superior to the majority of illiterate islanders. To him, having to guard a dwarf was disgraceful and he intended to make the most of the insulting situation. On the first outing, he punched Macho and took money from what Macho had collected. “If you don’t want a beating next time, you know what you have to do,” he said. So every time out, Macho had to find a way to make up the deficit with his commissions or savings. After a long period together, Barajas grew to like Macho, and even felt pity for him.
“You’re a criollo like me,” he told him. “We should work together. Henriquez has so much money he won’t miss a few gold coins, anyway.” He looked around and leaned into Macho. “Friends tell me his operations are falling apart,” he whispered. Macho nodded as if he had a choice. From that moment on, the criollo and the dwarf would go to a tavern and spend their booty. They spent most nights there getting drunk, gambling and dancing with prostitutes.
This working relationship did not escape Henriquez’s network of informants. On their next trip, Henriquez had Barajas thrown overboard in shark-filled waters. After the men watched the sharks fighting over the last piece of Barajas’ corpulent leg, Henriquez turned to Macho.
“You ungrateful little bastard,” he said. “If it wasn’t for me you’d be begging in the streets.” Macho stood before him in tears. “You can’t even make a decent meal for sharks. I have other plans for you.” He snapped his fingers and the first mate took Macho down to the brig and there he stayed until they reached port.
Early in the morning, they dragged him from the cell and injected him with something. Before he fell asleep, Macho looked up at the bright daylight and heard Henriquez’s laughter. When he awoke, he was strapped to a beach chair, one among many lined in rows inside an old, retrofitted Army transport plane. The men occupying the chairs were snoring, others talking in Spanish. His stomach rumbled; his throat and tongue, dry. Through blurry eyes, he saw a large balding man with a pencil mustache wearing a straw hat walk toward the back of the plane. His frown was the last thing he saw before slipping back to sleep.
Someone nudged him to get up and he dragged himself out of the chair and marched down the aircraft stairs with the others. Macho looked around and saw that the other men had brought suitcases or personal bundles and he had nothing. They gathered the men in waiting trucks that took them to a combine with several white blocky buildings. The balding man in white spoke to them with a bull horn; told them to follow the rules and they would be all right. Call me “Moscoso,” he said. And there was snickering because his name sounded like mocoso, meaning snotty, or a bratty child. He glared at them with narrowed eyes. His thin lips kept smirking, sneering, making his mustache wiggle like a worm.
“I’m your crew leader,” he added. “And from now on, your life is in my hands. You do not get paid without me. You do not eat without me. You do not shit or piss without my permission. You cannot get laid without me. If you’re sick, I will find a doctor for you. You will be charged for food, lodging and incidentals. Any problems you come directly to me. Understand?” Everyone nodded. “If you give me any problems, I will send you back to your wretched lives and make sure you never work around here again.”
They started work that same day, picking mushrooms from hundreds of stacked tiers. These tiers contained four soil beds six feet apart and ran yards across the massive plant. Macho’s height allowed him to access the mushrooms between the cramped tiers easier. While other workers had to stretch across to get the farthest mushrooms, Macho crept closer and managed to pick them quickly. At the higher tiers, the task became harder since it required balancing on the narrow two-plank catwalk feet above the ground. This catwalk was two feet away from the tier and a worker could fall through the space. Falling or stumbling was always a possibility because inside the building it was always dark and humid. That’s what happened to Porfirio, an undocumented worker from Mexico, a few days after they started. Porfirio slipped and broke his leg and Moscoso did not take him to the hospital because he hadn’t earned enough to pay a trip to the doctor. When the leg worsened, the crew leader drove him to see a doctor only after making Porfirio sign a promissory note. At the hospital they had to amputate the leg. The company sent him back to Mexico.
After a fifteen hour shift, Macho and the others retired to the barracks, where they slept on iron bunk beds jammed into a small dark room. Since their salaries were not enough to pay for local housing, the company provided workers with lodging and deducted the rent from their pay, along with food, mattresses and sheets, cigarettes and bottles of overpriced liquor and the occasional escort. Macho’s room, like many, had broken windows and heaters with frayed wiring. They shared one bathroom that had a toilet with no seat and a blackened bowl that often clogged and overflowed for weeks before getting cleaned. The stinging odor of urine assaulted their noses daily.
During any season, several men would become sick. They coughed, spit up globs of bloody mucus, became emaciated or developed nagging back pain. Impetigo was always a risk; nosebleeds, normal. They had allergic reactions to pesticides and chemicals they inhaled because they did not have masks. But no one wanted to complain because a trip to the clinic or hospital would cost hours of pay or worse, a trip back home. So, they coughed and endured.
On the first payday, Moscoso pulled Macho out of the line and informed him he was not receiving a check. “After paying for your room and other incidentals, the remainder of what you earned goes to Henriquez.”
Macho stared at Moscoso, shocked. “That’s not fair,” he said.
“Not my problem,” the crew leader said. “That was the deal.”
“How long before I pay him back?”
Moscoso laughed. “Freedom is an expensive commodity, little man.”
“I refuse to work, then,” he said.
“You don’t work, I send you back to Henriquez. And you know if you’re no use to him, he’ll find a way to end your contract to his liking.” He dismissed him with a snap of his head and a curt “go.”
That night when the other workers celebrated with liquor, Macho lay on his sinking, moldy mattress. He cursed the day he met Henriquez. He wondered what his life would have been like if he had stayed at the convent. Perhaps he could have taken over Cristobal’s job. That seemed so long ago, and the island so far way, that returning to the Sisters was a futile thought. He had to find a way to escape. But how could he without money?
As he thought about his sad situation, Marín, another Puerto Rican worker, came with a paper cup filled halfway with whiskey. The others all knew about his getting stiffed by Moscoso and felt bad. They raised a few bucks for him and he was very happy. “Drink up, ‘mano. Don’t let those cabrones get to you.” Macho toasted to his words and took a sip. Marín took a wrapper out of his shirt pocket and unraveled it. “Mushrooms,” he said. He had found
them on one of his walks into the countryside. That was how Marin escaped, by talking long walks around the surrounding forest areas, reciting poetry to the wind. Macho made a face. The last thing he wanted to see were mushrooms. Marin laughed. “These are not like the ones we kill ourselves picking, oh no. These are magic mushrooms.”
“Here,” he said, offering a piece of the straw-colored shroom. “Eat it.”
“Like this, raw?”
“Yes,” Marin, laughed. “It will make you see marvelous things.”
Curious, and a bit tipsy from the whiskey, he popped the piece into his mouth.
His trip began in a forest, green and lush with vegetation. Marín walked with him but soon he wandered off reciting poetry to the trees and they separated. Macho came across an enormous mushroom. He suddenly craved more mushrooms and decided to climb the stem to reach the cap. At the top, he saw a massive, white mansion. It seemed like an inviting house, so he decided to see who lived there. As he walked toward the mansion, he noticed that he wasn’t a dwarf any longer. He stopped to touch his arms and legs, his head, to marvel in the transformation. He was taller and could walk normally. On a whim, he darted and ran fast toward the mansion, crying from the joy. Closer to the mansion, he saw cannons protruding from every window. The door was open and he let himself in.
What a beautiful house, he thought, as he ran his fingers through the fine woodwork and peeked at the paintings of white, somber men staring at him. It was a house full of expensive collectibles, each one, on closer inspection, containing the faint smell of blood and grounded bones. He startled to see a giant sleeping across a huge bed, his snoring rattling the windows. A slender, somewhat wiry man, he had thick white hair and a little wispy gray beard. His frown and curling lip gave Macho the impression that he was in the middle of a bad dream.
Scanning the room, three shiny, gold objects caught his attention: a small chest overrunning with gold coins; a statuette of a calf; and an electric guitar. He had never seen anything like these objects before and their glitter hypnotized him. The giant stirred from his slumber and shot up from the bed. Sniffing, he yelled, “Mongrel blood.” Macho grabbed the chestful of coins and ran out the door, running until he reached the mushroom and climbed down. He laughed and rejoiced in his newly found treasure. When he grabbed the coins, they were soft and pliable. He bit into one and his teeth went through the gold tin foil to the chocolate underneath. Hungry, he tore the rest of the tinfoil wrapping and gorged on the chocolate. He fell asleep, content at his new long body and full stomach, but later woke and he needed to eat again, so he decided to steal the golden calf. Up he went again, and the giant was now watching a football game on television. He was so absorbed by the game he didn’t notice Macho walking behind him to the bedroom. There, Macho grabbed the golden calf and tip-toed back to the door and outside.
No sooner had he descended and placed the golden calf on the ground, a cloud surrounded it. When the smoke subsided, the statuette had transformed into a real calf and just as quickly it took a dump right in front of Macho’s feet. The calf’s droppings glittered and as Macho looked closer he realized they were gold nuggets. Amazed, he picked them up. “Easily, 14 karats,” he thought. He sat to contemplate the possibilities; how rich he would become. The many things he could buy. A certain blissful feeling took over his body. But his stomach growled and that feeling turned into despair at not knowing when his next meal would come. The gold was useless in this forest, he thought. His hunger intensified and with a large rock he killed the calf. He skinned the calf, marinated it with an adobe made from the surrounding herbs and spices. Built a fire and roasted the meat on a handmade rotating pit. Sated from the tender and tasty meat, he fell asleep only to wake up feeling a profound boredom bordering on sadness. He decided music would get him out of his funk. So, he climbed the mushroom again, this time to steal the guitar.
The giant was drinking bourbon and counting gold coins. He stacked them up in tall columns then as he cackled with glee, slapped them down. Macho had never seen so much money in one place before. Every inch of the floor covered with coins and piled stacks of Benjamins. Macho moved closer, and the giant was rolling naked on the money, snorting with laughter, humping the stacks of bills. The golden Gibson Les Paul leaned against the wall closest to the door, a few feet from his reach.
In a dash, he grabbed it. The giant jumped up, sniffing. “Mongrel blood,” he yelled. Macho took off, through the door, and toward the mushroom, the giant in pursuit. “With those long legs he’ll catch me in no time,” he thought, now fearful for his life. “You son of a bitch,” the giant yelled. “You stole my money and calf, but I’ll be damn if you take my Les Paul.” Macho had never run faster in his life. He slung the guitar strap around his neck and descended.
At the bottom, he saw two woodsmen carrying their axes. He yelled to them to lend him an axe to cut the mushroom stem. He blurted his predicament and the two men started arguing whether it was wise to do it. One of them, Barbosa, kept saying Macho was at fault for stealing from the giant who had done him no wrong.
“You should ask forgiveness from the giant and seek friendship and together you can help each other.”
The other woodsman, Concepción, looked at his companion as if he were mad. “Are you serious? That giant has terrorized everyone down here for centuries. He didn’t steal anything from the giant that didn’t belong to us in the first place. Here take my axe and let’s rid ourselves of that bastard once and for all.”
They continued arguing and at that moment the giant, drunk as he was, lost his grip and fell to the ground, landing on all three of them.
When Macho’s head cleared, it was early morning. He could not sleep thinking about the vision he had witnessed. It kept replaying in his mind. Outside, fat raindrops plopped against the concrete walkways and splattered the cracked windows held together with duct tape. The wind rushed in as they prepared for another day of work. The coughing began amid the other morning bodily sounds. Macho covered his head with the worn blanket and tried to erase the vision from his head. But he kept seeing the giant falling on him, squashing him, and remembered the sensation of suffocation as he gasped for air. It seemed too real. During work, flashbacks from his trip slowed his work. He listlessly picked mushrooms. Moscoso kept telling him he was falling behind quota. He didn’t care about work anymore. He didn’t care about anything. What difference did it make, anyway? He was not getting paid and so what if Moscoso send him back to the island. Maybe it was for the best if they fed him to the sharks.
Being in this frame of mind for months, Macho drifted into the union meetings. There had been talk about organizing the mushroom workers into a union despite strict threats from Moscoso and the owners not to attempt it. He thought being around other people would break him out of the doldrums. But at the meetings the fiery organizer, Campos, electrified them with his words, and Macho, like the others, began to believe their condition could improve. Campos was saying things all of them knew and felt but could not express as well.
The workers decided to strike. They had pooled money to buy food and supplies to last a few months. Then on a bright March day, they locked themselves in their barracks and refused to work. Campos sent their demands to Moscoso to take to the owners but he didn’t even read them. “This is what the owners think of your demands,” he said as he ripped up the paper. “Be back at work tomorrow morning or we will drag you out. You lost a day’s wages, cabrones.”
“We’ve received their answer, compañeros,” Campos told them with weariness and concern in his dark, piercing eyes. “They will force us out. They will not reason with us. Be assured that they will send those who are undocumented back. That’s what they do. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to work in this stinking shithole anymore. And neither is anyone else.”
With that, he took a can of gasoline and starting splashing everything in the rooms. “Get out, run,” Campos yelled before he threw the lighted match. The workers rushed out the door. The few who knew they would have to find new jobs found this liberating. Along with others, Macho went into the harvesting area and started tearing down the tiers, throwing the mushrooms to the ground, smashing them with their boots. Soon smoke spiraled from there and everywhere else, and they ran out coughing into the summer sun. Running to the main gate, they saw Moscoso cradling a shotgun in front of dozens of armed men. The workers circled, looking for another escape route, but there was no time. The bullets and buckshot flew. They ran for cover or towards the fences to climb them and make a run for it. Macho ran and slid under the stilts of the raised supplies warehouse.
From there, he saw Moscoso’s men beat and shoot down his fellow workers. He saw them drag bodies and throw them into wagons that drove away at night. Others were handcuffed and taken by local police who turned them over to the INS. In pitch blackness, he crawled from under his hideout. The air was thick with fumes of burned gasoline, wood, and mushrooms mixed with the metallic smell of blood. He ran past the blackened barracks and stacked debris toward the back of the combine where he climbed a fence and jumped to freedom.
He found the highway to the city. Drivers will usually stop for a dwarf looking for a ride, Macho soon realized. On the way, Macho met up with Ela’s Circus, a small traveling troupe owned by a Polish woman from Posnan, and they gave him a job. His past training as a juggler and jester came in handy, but mostly he cleaned up after the elephants and other animals. When the circus went bankrupt, Macho decided to stay in the big city, where they played their last venue. He took up a job bussing and cleaning at the Shining Star, a bar owned by a pockmarked, heavy set Puerto Rican named Romero. Romero felt sorry for his countryman and led him work doing menial tasks. Macho received minimum wage, tips, and free meals and drinks. Way better than either Henriquez or the mushroom farm. Then, Romero read an article on dwarf tossing and convinced Macho to participate as a way to bring in business. “You’ll make more tips,” he said, in that excited, breathless way he talked. Macho agreed. What else could he do? He had reached a point in his life when choices were limited and the future seemed full of the same: tiring work and decisions made by others.
He became the most popular dwarf on the circuit. People came down to the Shining Star to enjoy themselves watching Macho (they loved the name) in his jogging suit and helmet being tossed across padded mats. He was proud co-owner of the record at the bar, 10 feet 6 inches. On nights not being tossed, he worked at the bowling competitions. The bowling was a bit harder. Being thrown on a skateboard down a bowling alley to hit wooden pins was not as much fun as flying across the room. What made Macho so popular was his lightness and his amiability while being tossed around. Nothing seemed to bother him. He just went along with it, whatever it was. And he was a born entertainer, always down to have a good time. He became the poster boy of dwarf tossing and bowling. He even granted interviews defending his status as a “missile” for these “sports.” Whenever another petition to place a referendum outlawing these activities circulated, the bar owners asked him to speak against them. And he did. What business was it to others if dwarfs wanted to be tossed and bowled? He made a decent living from entertaining folks. “It’s all about having a good time,” Macho would tell reporters. More seriously he would say, “There aren’t exactly many jobs for us little people out here, you know what I mean? We’re small and we need to deal with that reality.”
With his popularity came an increase in award money and tips, and Macho was finally able to rent his own apartment in El Barrio. Life was as best can be for a little person in a world of giants. But as the Hector Lavoe song went, “Todo tiene su final.” With more money came more spending. Macho believed in working to live, and he lived hard and reckless. When the popularity of those activities that fueled his livelihood fizzled, he found himself again in debt. He owed so much that he couldn’t pay rent and was evicted. He roamed the streets of El Barrio begging for food and drinks. The tragedy that had been his life was not enough compensation for those who held his IOU’s. One day while rummaging through a McDonald’s dumpster, some men picked him up and tossed him into a van. He was drugged and hours later found himself buried in a desert up to his neck. Above, vultures circled, casting shadows with thunderous wings, while screeching and cawing, and waiting.