Ma called it ñoñería. We all caught a case of it. She wanted to snuff it out of our lives because to her, complaining and tears never changed things.
It started with Mueca and Coco, two pit bull mutts that barked and bit into anything that moved. Ma got it in her that two satos would be the cure. She gifted them to us and said it was our responsibility to care for them and find them food. Guess she thought the accountability would help out Yamil. She said Yamil needed to grow up.
“Ma, Yamil’s still recién nacido. He can’t even put his underwear on straight.”
“He’s almost thirteen. Make sure you help him take care of them.”
“Come on, Ma—”
“Enough, Paqo! Go out and get them food. They haven’t eaten and they’ll start acting up if they don’t eat.”
I left her in the yard managing the dogs and went inside. Yamil was being bullied at Santa Ana by a tubby classmate of his, and I had planned to distract him with a night adventure. After the conflict with Luis at school got worse, and after the death of Tío Raul, so much around us started changing. I figured the least I could do was offer an adventure with no strings attached. It was what Yamil needed. I opened my bedroom door and walked up to him. Told him to grab a hold of his baseball cleats. They were buried so far back in our closet, he had to swim in old bed sheets, unattended laundry, and my boxing gear just to unearth them.
“What for?” Yamil asked.
“You’ll see, mano. Just get them. We are going for a little walk.”
“But it’s getting late.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just get them. Grab the flashlight too. Next to my wraps.”
“Cabrón, next to my gloves.”
We skated past Ma. She didn’t bother saying a word, just watched us go out into the night.
After a couple of miles, we reached the river. It drained into Lago Carraízo. Giant reeds swayed like brown cotton swabs pinched into the mud at the water’s edge. They loomed over calcified boulders painted with green moss. If you followed along the riverbank, the land opened into a deep pasture where Casa Brumpi stood: an old plantation house eaten away by wildlife.
“Remember Brumpi?” I said to Yamil. I had his cleats knotted at their laces and draped over my neck.
“They say that’s where dreams take flight. That’s where you go and get into brujería. You call your ancestors and they do shit for you. Like a séance.”
“Paqo,” Yamil stopped. He started shaking his head. “No, Paqo.”
“Yes, Yamil. Yes. It’s time you get into it all clandestino. Ma won’t have to know. Or Pa. We need to pump some fortune into your future, you get me?”
He started pacing backwards. I beamed the flashlight into his eyes. He shrugged and squinted, trying to see through the white light.
“OK. Yamil. Listen.” I kneeled in front of him and put the flashlight on the dirt. Moths began hording the flashlight’s beam. “There’s a rumor going around in Santa Ana. You take your kicks and sling them on the old power lines of Casa Brumpi. They say if you do this, the old Taíno gods, Yukiyú himself, will never let you go hungry. Our ancestors, Agüeybaná will endow you. He will grant you special powers. It’s foolproof.”
“Chico. On lock.”
“Paqo, cállate. That’s all bullshit.”
“It’s true, Yamil. I didn’t want to tell you this until you got older. Well, you’re older.” I started putting my best acting forward, years of professional hustle on the line.
“You remember Tío Raul, right?”
“A little. From pictures.”
“It doesn’t matter if you remember the man. You know about his reputation?”
“Ok yes. But more.”
“Ok yes. But. MORE.”
“His big pinga?”
“No, cabrón! I’m talking about ‘La Danza.’” I put my hands on his shoulders. “Tío Raul, before he died, was all clandestino. He got into lighting candles with Virgin Mary carved into the wax. Took to Casa Brumpi. That’s where he first did it.”
I turned away for a dramatic pause.
I stayed fixated on the moths barreling the flashlight.
“Did what?” Yamil repeated.
“There he took his shoes. He painted two red lips on each one and detailed them with his smallest pincel. He did this until the last rays of sun fell behind the mountain. And then he swung them into the power lines.”
Yamil wouldn’t budge. His brow was shriveling in dissatisfaction.
“You aren’t going to take me for pendejo, Paqo.”
“I’m telling you, mano. It worked. Soon after that, Walter Nuñez, the biggest art promoter in the Caribbean, came across Tío’s magnum opus. Tío’s fan mail grew three baskets after that. And the only way he was able to paint ‘La Danza,’ the only way he would have showed up en el Arte Colectivo in Old San Juan, on that day, at that specific booth where Walter was sipping on his usual mojito, was because of Casa Brumpi and those strung-up shoes. Fate led him to that spot.”
As I rambled, I almost started believing the lie myself.
“No. He painted way before that,” Yamil said. “Ma said so. Ma said that was inherited. That we all have art talent. He was born to end up in that spot.”
“No, Yamil. He would have never ended up there if he hadn’t asked our ancestors that night in Casa Brumpi. Just like that.”
“You’re out of it, Paqo. Raul’s locura is getting to you.”
“Come on, Yamilito. It will pay off. When you started baseball, you told me you wanted a stadium named after you. Like Roberto Clemente. One of the Gigantes de Carolina. Momen himself. They’ll come up with one for you too after this. You’ll see. Estadio Benítez.”
I passed my hand over him and surveyed the darkness with it, taking it all into my palm for believability.
“Yamil ‘el gallo’ de Trujillo. It sounds nice, don’t it?”
“Like a rock star, cabrón. Come on.” I got up from the dirt and tried tugging him along. “Let’s go make your dreams come true.”
“No,” he snapped and held back.
“Fuck you then.”
I picked up the flashlight and started pushing some of the reeds out of the way to walk back.
I drew the light into his face. He covered his eyes.
“You think it’ll really work, Paqo?”
I turned back and kneeled in front of him.
“You think that’ll give me some luck?”
“Mano, it’s worth a shot. I think the Benítezes are like an untapped well. We just need a little charm. And a long enough rope to draw the water out.”
“I’m really tired, Paqo. Really tired.” He started tearing up. His eyes were heavy and somber but he wasn’t sopping in a perreta. He didn’t have one of Ma’s speculative ñoñerias. He was much more than a boy in that moment. The river nearby seemed to amplify his sorrow. His frustrations went beyond the schoolyard and seemed to pull on every frustration that came out of Ma and Pa and the unspoken way Tío Raul died. The beautiful thing about Yamil, in that moment, he was vulnerable, and his vulnerability only met with certain uncertainty. He became vulnerable to the locura, the legacy, our family legacy, to hope. That it would actually work. An absurd lie I was knotting together just to turn his hope into faith. In my charade, the preacher in a pulpit budded by a lie, Yamil was beautiful.
“I’m tired of all the bad luck, Paqo. Tired of people hurting me and Luis hurting me and—.” He started bawling. He shook his head, and I could only grab him and pull him toward me.
“Shh. Yamil. Easy, mano. That’s not necessary. Let’s try and see. I believe it’ll work. It has to. Raul had it good while it lasted. He had income. Hell, he even had women.”
“But look at how it ended for him? Don’t think that was the plan—”
“Forget that cabrón,” I interrupted. “Ma and Pa don’t have it that bad. Listen. We’ll start a new line. You’re our future, papito. It starts with you.”
“What about you, Paqo? You also have to throw your shoes up.”
“Forget me. It starts with you.”
I lifted him onto my back.
“You getting fat, motherfucker.”
He didn’t respond. He stared at the night sky. It was spotted with birds, we could hear their light flutters, a plague of changos blotting the starry sheet above. They chirped against one another until they disappeared into the forest behind us.