It’s hot and bright and there are two kids playing football on scrub-land. Since then that scrub-land has been built upon and already began its fall into ruin but they don’t know that. One kid, a tall thin kid in a sleeveless T-shirt stumbles but regains his balance and instantly shoots. The ball smacks off the wall not far from from another kid’s head. The way the kid who kicked ball aeroplanes away tells us he hit the wall within the area designated a goal but there’s so much graffiti on the wall it’s impossible for us to see where that area starts and stops. Those kids know – this is where they play.
Enrique’s on the pavement walking past the whooping kid. Another smack, another goal. This time the ball bounces towards the pavement. The tall boy chases it, only taking his eyes off it to nod at Enrique. Enrique smiles but the boy’s already done a skill. A turn. The boy has turned and is bearing down on goal again. He’s good. The goalkeeper, a much shorter boy, is determined to stop the shot.
“Come on!” Urges Enrique’s little sister, tugging at his hand. Enrique looks down at her and gets moving again. They’re going to the shops. Enrique’s got the list and Elsa’s getting a lollipop. Enrique is fourteen years old, his sister is nearly eight.
Inside the shop Enrique gives Elsa the list because Elsa enjoys reading. Enrique follows her with the basket and, if she can’t reach it, takes what she points at from the shelf and puts it in the basket. The basket is soon heavy and when they’re at the counter he struggles to lift it. The fat woman behind the counter smiles. Enrique smiles back. She adds up the shopping and Enrique hands over all the money his mother gave him and waits. The woman counts it. Her smile has gone, she looks concerned but Enrique isn’t. He does this every week and usually he’s been given enough. Today he’s been given enough because the woman’s smile has returned and she slides some coins back across the counter at him. He nods at Elsa who lets go of his hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, grabs the lollipop that she’d decided she would choose days ago. The moment’s hesitation was caused by a what looked like a new flavour, a purple. She’d try that one next week but this week she was sticking to a red one. Strawberry.
“She’s so big now!” Says the woman looking at Elsa with a smile that’s somehow different than the one she gives Enrique. Enrique looks at Elsa and nods. The woman is picking through the change that’s still on the counter. Enrique takes the two coins that are left, puts them in his purse and picks up his bags. He stands while his sister struggles to unwrap the lollipop. He feels the woman behind the counter looking at him but he’s smiling at his sister. She’s done it. The wrapper’s off.
The boys aren’t playing football but they’re still there, more are there but they’re chatting. Just standing around, some are smoking. The goalkeeper has the ball under his arm. It was his ball. Enrique looks down the road while listening to his sister extol the virtues of her lollipop.
“Has she been okay?” Enrique’s mother asks him but she’s distracted. She’s not been home for five minutes and is moving about the kitchen at speed. She’s in a rhythm. She looks, as she always does when she first gets in, harassed. Enrique tells her that his sister has been fine but his mother doesn’t respond, she’s standing still and thinking, but only for a moment. Soon she is moving again. She opens a cupboard and removes a pan. He wants to say something but can’t think of anything. He watches as his mother eyes the plantains he bought. They had looked fine to Enrique but he almost hopes his mother doesn’t agree. She’s very particular. He hopes she questions him on why he chose those particular plantains. “Out,” says his mother and Enrique leaves the kitchen. Elsa is hunched over the small desk and is writing and joking with herself.
He walks over to the window and looks down and across at the scrub-land. The kids are still there and so he watches them. He’s also watching the road that lies between his building and the dry dirt square.
Now! he says to himself but the next car isn’t even blue. Now!
Enrique turns away from the window and turns on the TV. The remote control is broken and so he hunkers down in front of it to change the channel. He finds something and then sits down but stands immediately when his mother shouts for him to turn the volume down. He turns the volume down. Since he’s in front of the TV again he flicks through some more channels. There’s nothing on and so he goes back three channels to some kind of car chase. The volume is at its lowest setting and so Enrique watches it from where he is. The cars are mostly large and black and swerving on a bridge. He sits back on his heels. He’s too close to the TV, he can see the honeycomb mesh behind the glass and the image is already starting to hurt his eyes. He blinks and looks around. Elsa is staring at him. She asks him what he’s watching. Enrique tells her that it’s nothing and she should do her homework. She laughs loudly at this and Enrique pulls a face but his mother is marching over to him and he freezes. She turns off the TV and returns to the kitchen without saying a word. Elsa pulls a face and Enrique glowers at her, but it’s his fake glower.
“What’s the biggest country in the world?” Asks Elsa.
“I’m not sure,” he replies. “America, I think.” Enrique tries to think about the globe at school. “Maybe Africa.”
“I don’t know,” he says and Elsa pulls another face. There’s the rattle of keys in the door. It’s Enrique’s father and he’s about to come in and ask if anybody ordered a taxi. Enrique smiles in anticipation and walks over to the door.
“Did anybody order a taxi?” Asks Enrique’s father, hanging his keys on the hook before taking off his jacket .
“No, sorry, you’ve got the wrong address,” says Enrique and his father laughs and ruffles his hair. His father goes in the kitchen and Enrique’s left standing there, smiling.
His mother is relaxed while they’re eating dinner. They’re all relaxed. They fire general knowledge questions at Elsa because they know if she doesn’t know the answer she lies. The lies are often very funny, made more-so by how serious her face is as she’s making them up. They laugh a lot.
After dinner his father gives him the nod and Enrique is up like a shot. They’re going to get petrol. That’s what the nod means. He waits at the door like a dog promised a walk while his father takes too long getting his coat and keys. Enrique can’t wait, he bounds down the steps two at a time and waits for his father in the underground car park. On the way to the depot Enrique’s father tells him about an unusual passenger he’d taken to the station but it’s dark now and Enrique is watching the brightly lit shop fronts zip past and only looks to his father when he hears him shout at another car. Enrique looks out of the windscreen but can’t tell who he was shouting at. His father tuts and shakes his head.
He waits in the car at the pumps while his father goes into the trailer. He’s in there a long time. Longer than normal and when he comes out his silhouette is marching. His father puts petrol in the car. Enrique watches him in the wing mirror. Sometimes he’s allowed to do it, not today though. He watches and waits for the click of the pump. It takes his father two attempts to replace the nozzle in its holder. His father climbs in and takes a deep breath.
“Okay?” He asks Enrique.
“Yeah.” His father swings the car around in the car park. The arc of headlights pick out the rear of a row of cars, one at a time. One of the cars is different from the others. It stands out. It’s large, black, square and polished. To Enrique it looks identical to one of the cars that were racing on the bridge. “That’s nice,” says Enrique now pointing to the darkness out of his side window and only approximately to where the black car stood.
“The Cadillac?” Asks his father. Enrique’s shakes his head with the sides of his mouth turned down. He doesn’t know what it’s called. “Bah, more trouble then they’re worth, you get a Japanese car.” Enrique nods.
The docks smell and they’re noisy but to Enrique it’s better than getting the bus to school. The bus is also noisy and smelly. The bus is also hot. Enrique prefers walking. It doesn’t take much longer because the bus goes uptown and he can leave earlier because on Wednesday he doesn’t have to look after his sister. He enjoys it when he’s there but Enrique is never in a hurry to get to school. Everyday he does go he feels a bit like it’s his first day. The school and the kids seem to move on without him so he’s always slightly anxious.
The one safe path through the docks – with the lorries, fork lifts and cranes and mayhem – is a three foot wide gap on top of the harbour wall. Enrique walks along this strip and looking down he can see, beneath a rainbow film, the silhouettes of the fish lazily swimming around between the boats. He scratches his lip and enjoys the fluff he can feel. He won’t be the first kid at school with a full moustache but neither will he be the last.
Enrique looks around but doesn’t break stride nor see anybody who might be addressing him. There’s a huge ship on the other side of the dock. He wonders what the words on the side of the big ship are, its name or the name of the country it came from? He wonders what’s on it. What’s in the containers.
Enrique stops this time and looks around.
Enrique looks down into the harbour and scans the smaller boats then sees movement from one of the mosaic of boats attached to a floating pontoon. The movement is a man’s arm. The man’s waving and Enrique looks around and then points to himself.
“Yeah!” The man shouts. “Come here!”
“I’m sorry, I have to go to school!” Enrique shouts, self-conscious. He looks around again.
“Look!” The man holds up a basket before Enrique can walk on. He assumes it’s filled with fish but It’s hard to be sure from this distance. “I’ve got too many!”
“You can have some! I’ll have to throw them away. Come get some, for your mum!” Enrique looks around again, his heart’s racing for some reason. “It’s Ricky, right?” The man shouts.
He knows my name, thinks Enrique. “I can’t, I’m late!” He shouts but he’s not sure. He can see the look on his mother’s face when she sees the fish in the fridge. Whatever the man shouts next will decide things.
“Okay!” The man shouts and he’s not even looking any more, he’s tidying the back of his small boat.
“What are they?” Shouts Enrique and the man stands straight.
“Cod!” The man’s looking up with his hands on his hips, like he’s stretching his back.
“Okay,” says Enrique even though the man could not possibly hear this, and walks to the top of the ladder he’ll have to descend to get to the pontoon. On his descent he’s careful not to drop his book bag and he doesn’t. The man is again moving things around in the back of his boat and doesn’t stand straight even as Enrique arrives. Enrique stands there for a moment, regretting everything.
Enrique is on the pontoon. The man is in the back of his boat. The boat is attached to the pontoon with a short length of rope and although the water on this side is dead calm the boat is still slowly drifting out until the rope becomes taut and then it glides back towards the pontoon that’s lined with buoys and then the man turns his smiling, weather-beaten face to him and points to the basket. Enrique’s sure he’s never seen the man before.
“How many do you want?” Asks the man, straightening. He again places his hands on the back of his hips and again seems to stretch.
“Yes please,” says Enrique. The man looks around and finds a carrier bag that was trapped under a large, white square bucket and shakes it and then looks inside it and shakes it again. Enrique is staring at the man and the man notices and smiles and picks his way over to the basket of fish.
“You don’t remember me?” Asks the man as he bends and looks through the fish. Enrique doesn’t reply. The man picks up a fish, looks into the fish’s face and places it in the bag. He does this three more times. “Get them in the fridge.”
“I will, I’ll go straight home.”
The man extends his arm that’s holding the bag. Enrique extends his and grabs the neck of the bag. The bag feels more like paper than plastic because, like the man holding it, it has been exposed to the elements for a long time. They were both holding the bag and Enrique grew frightened. The man’s smile and eyes were narrowing.
“What?” Asked Enrique, his mouth dry.
“What should you do now?” Asked the man and the man looked sly. Enrique thought about running but he could imagine his legs being grabbed as he tried to climb the ladder. He shook his head. He wanted to let go of the bag but couldn’t. “Thank you?” Said the man.
“Oh, thank you!” Said Enrique and the man released his grip on the bag with a laugh. The four fish were heavier than Enrique expected and they were halfway to the gap between boat and pontoon before he knew it. Tensing his arm and instantly altering his stance he stopped the bag’s fall.
“Fridge!” Said the man and Enrique thanked him again. Climbing the ladder was tricky. He held his book bag and fish bag in the same hand but the heavy bag bounced off the underside of his arm with every rung he scaled. He didn’t look back. He ran home cradling the fish bag like it was a baby. It seemed weakened and he wasn’t confident it wouldn’t break, either straight through the bottom or with the handle breaking off. So Enrique cuddled the bag and ran as best he could and soon he was moving things in the fridge to fit the bag in. He smiled as he closed the fridge door then looked at the clock.
“Sorry,” announces Enrique as he slinks across the class to his desk which is next to Paulo’s. Not really his best friend but Paulo is also one of the quieter boys and they get on well. He smiles at Paulo as he sits down and places his book bag in front of him. He puffs his cheeks out and wriggles in his chair to get comfortable.
“Urgh!” Enrique hears from the desk behind him and his heart-rate that had begun to drop increases. He doesn’t turn around. He’s looking ahead at the teacher, Miss Ferrari. “Urgh, you stink!” Hector hisses. Enrique swallows and smiles and looks across at Paulo but Paulo’s face is screwed up in disgust. Enrique turns back to the teacher and tries to listen to her.
Beige and black and blue geometric shapes formed by the buildings, shadow and sky filled Enrique’s vision. He was in a daze and on the way to the docks. It was the morning after the party. The party for Elsa who had been accepted.
Family Enrique had never heard of, let alone seen, had been around to the apartment all wanting to share in the good news. They’d brought food and presents for Elsa and smiles for Enrique. Many had commented on his moustache while elbowing him and he’d smiled but after an hour it began to get on top of him and he’d taken himself away to the bedroom for some peace and quiet.
The door opened and his mother’s head peaked through. Enrique hoped she would come in and sit on the bed and talk to him.
“Get out there, don’t spoil your sister’s big day, not today,” she warned and she was gone and so he went back out into the packed hall and was elbowed and complimented on his moustache and asked why he wasn’t as smart as his sister. It was all joking. Nobody expected him to be as smart as his sister but Enrique did have an answer.
“Hey, why didn’t you get in that college?” An uncle asked, rosy cheeked and smiling.
“I got the looks!” replied Enrique and the uncle howls with laughter and nudges another relative and points to him. Enrique’s smiling but he’s thinking, well, the reason I’m not as smart as her is because I had to sacrifice most of my schooling to look after her because my parents had to work very hard to make this possible, but I don’t mind.
And he didn’t mind. He honestly didn’t, not really. He’d hated school, the days he did go, for the last two years. Often he hadn’t gone even when he could have but that was all over. School was finished. Enrique had finished school two weeks earlier with nothing to show for it. The letter for Elsa had arrived the next day and his mother had cried.
There was a big cake and singing and clapping and afterwards another uncle Enrique had never previously met or seen or heard of had told Enrique he had a job for him, if he wanted. He was to come down to the shop the next day. Enrique thanked him as he watched Elsa opening presents and later, even though the party was still going strong – his mother was laughing in the kitchen with other women – Enrique once again took himself off to his bedroom. Nobody disturbed him this time and when he woke the next morning his mother was still in the kitchen. He didn’t know if she had even been to bed. She looked exhausted as she piled plates on the counter.
“I’ve got a job,” Enrique told her and she nodded. His father entered the kitchen and placed a hand on his wife’s shoulder. Enrique thought he’d done it just to steady himself.
“Good night,” he said, his voice croaky. Enrique nodded even though he hadn’t been addressed directly.
“I’ve got a job,” Enrique said and his father regarded him with his eyebrows raised.
“Good for you! Where?”
“In a shop.”
“That’s okay,” said his dad, “there’s nothing wrong with that.” His father thought about what he’d just said. “You can do that until I teach you to drive,” and Enrique smiled at this. “We’ll have a fleet of taxis,” and Enrique laughed. His father pulled out a chair with a squeal that made him wince and he almost fell into it while his mother clinked plates. “There’s a present there for you,” said his father pointing vaguely to the fridge. Enrique looked over to the fridge and then back to his father. With an effort his father pointed with more accuracy to a spot next to the fridge and Enrique saw the small box next the knife block. Keeping out of his mother’s way Enrique rounded the table and picked up the small wrapped cube.
“What is it?” He asked, shaking it.
“It’s amazing,” said his father. “If you can solve it then… well…”
Enrique turned the cube over in his hand. “Thanks.” He left the kitchen and then left the apartment and walked to the shop. Passing the building site opposite he briefly considered if he wanted to be a builder. He didn’t. It was loud and noisy. Inside the shop it was cool and quiet. He told the woman he was here for a job and she’d looked genuinely upset but still took him to a door and knocked on it. The uncle, a short man with a square head, was delighted to see him. The uncle was nodding appreciatively as Enrique stepped in. The uncle was asking Enrique to sit down. The uncle then said to Enrique that he could make his parents proud, how? It was a question. Enrique didn’t answer and the uncle explained the answer was only by making a lot of money. Enrique agreed. Enrique had planned to make a lot of money, to make his parents proud. The uncle explained that he was never going to be a doctor or a lawyer. Enrique agreed but with less conviction. The uncle was going to make sure Enrique made a lot of money because the uncle saw something in him.
“I see something in you,” said his uncle leaning back in his chair.
“Thank you,” Enrique replied.
“I see about…” the uncle considered Enrique for a moment and leant forward, “twelve condoms stuffed with heroin.”
“Not sure,” replied Enrique.
“You want to make your parents proud, yes?”
“Can you think of another way?” The uncle sat back and waited. Enrique thought for a while. The uncle produced a thick block of dollars from a drawer and placed them in front of Enrique. “How proud would they be if you went home with that?”
“Quite proud,” echoed his uncle and then he laughed.
“That’s right. You want to go to America?”
“You’ll be back in three days. It’s easy.”
Enrique stared at the money and an hour later he was eating condoms like Cool Hand Luke ate boiled eggs. He was given the name of a boat at the docks and an address in Jersey City. As he searched for the boat he heard a shout.
“Hey kid!” And Enrique was struck with a powerful sense of deja-vu. He was sweating because he was so full and mopped his forehead with his handkerchief as he looked around. “Kid!”
Enrique picked out a man waving at him. He nodded. “Wanna go on a boat trip?” The man shouted and Enrique looked around. He was expecting a bigger boat but climbed down the ladder and walked down the pontoon.
“You’re going to…?”
“Okay,” said Enrique.
Three weeks later Enrique still hadn’t seen sight of land and all the heroin had come out.
“Is it going to be much longer?” Asked Enrique to the boatman.
“Not much longer.”
“Thought it was only going to take three days.”
“Three days?” Snorted the captain. “Did you do geography?”
“No,” said Enrique, hurt. “Geography was on Monday and Wednesday. I looked after my sister on those days.”
“Three fucking days!” Said the boat driver like it was the funniest thing he’d even heard. And then he sang a dirty sea-shanty while Enrique wondered what heroin tasted like.
So that was in the box, written in unsteady lines on yellow legal paper. The box I found under Enrique’s couch while I was looking for his extension leads on the day of the Ice Cream Social. I can only assume the captain transcribed Enrique’s life story to pass the time during the long voyage in the little boat.