Burgess: DOGFIGHT, A LOVE STORY
Little Round Pills
In the middle of Alfredo Batista’s brain there is a tall gray filing cabinet, frequently opened. The drawers are deep, the folders fattened with a lifetime of regrettable moments. There is, tucked away toward the back, a list of women whose phone numbers he never asked for. There are the debts accrued. In the bottom drawer, in separate folders, there are the things he never learned to do: drive an automobile, throw a knuckleball, tie a knot in a cherry stem using only his tongue. What else? In the top drawer, there is a file recounting the evening he left the Mets game early, thinking the run deficit insurmountable. There is the why-didn’t-I-wear-a-condom folder. There is—this one’s surprisingly thin—the crimes-against-my-brother folder. Alfredo is only nineteen years old, and already his cabinet overflows with files, none of them collecting dust, each one routinely inspected. All it takes is a random word, a face in passing, and a memory blooms, a cabinet drawer slides open. An intracranial research librarian—Alfredo imagines him bespectacled, with frayed pant cuffs and dandruff on his shoulders—waddles over to the open drawer, plucks out the appropriate file, and passes it on to the brain’s well-staffed and efficiently run Department of Regret. Here, unable to help himself, Alfredo scrutinizes the folder. He re-creates the event’s sensory details. He goes over, with sick and meticulous precision, exactly what was said and, of course, what was not said. He relinks the chain of events.
A new folder is to be added. It will be labeled with today’s date, June 14, 2002, and above that, in blocky capital letters, a name: SHIFRIN, VLADIMIR.
“Who’s Vladimir Shifrin?” Alfredo says.
Winston—a dark-skinned Haitian with long, delicate fingers—pulls down on the brim of his Spider-Man hat. He looks over his shoulder. Drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “From what I understand,” he says, “Vladimir is a drug dealer.”
“This is why you call me?” Alfredo says. “Why you wake me up? Drag me over here?”
They sit close together on a wood-slatted bench in Jackson Heights’ Travers Park. There are other parks in Queens—like Astoria Park or Flushing Meadows—where you can snooze under a tree or stick your nose in trumpet-shaped flowers. These parks are pastoral, as the guidebooks might say. They’ve got grass you can yank right out of the ground. But here in Jackson Heights, the parks, like Travers, are asphalt parks, blacktop playgrounds. There aren’t any flowers or butterflies, and that keeps exactly nobody away.
It’s two o’clock in the afternoon right now—it’s a nice, unseasonably cool, late-spring Friday—and Travers is packed. Everyone is out. Everyone and their mother is out. There are games of soccer, handball, freeze tag, skilo, and skully. Look around. Shirtless men play netless basketball. A father snaps pictures of his little girl, while a Chinese woman dances to the water-like rhythms of tai chi, while teenagers bum cigarettes off the neighborhood schizo, while bees, drunk with pleasure, swarm the bottoms of trash cans. The swings squeak. An old Jewish man—Max Marshmallow, Alfredo’s friend—checkmates another old Jewish man whose body deflates like a popped bag of potato chips. A little white boy, oddly calm, has his head stuck between the vertical bars of a fence, and Alfredo can’t help but think of his own brother, the newly named Tariq, spending his last hours up at the Fishkill Correctional Facility. On Travers’s softball field, Pakistanis play cricket. On a bench in the sun, the Mexicans who didn’t get picked up by this morning’s work truck take swigs from their brown paper bags. And in the middle of the park, over by the sprinklers, squats a giant and inexplicable stone tortoise, as if for thousands of years he’s been making the trip north from the Galápagos, and he’s decided to stop here, in the middle of a park in western Queens, so much does he favor the company of little children and the intermittent splash of sprinkler water. Alfredo understands. He likes it here too. He feels a particular affinity for the father snapping pictures of his daughter. But, all things considered, Alfredo would rather be home, asleep, his face in a pillow.
“Vladimir’s a drug dealer,” he says. “That’s great. Good for him. But hey, sorry, why do I give two shits?”
“Wow,” Winston says. He scoots over on the bench, puts some extra space between them. “I guess you give two shits because you told me to go find a drug dealer who—”
“I asked you to find a dog, actually.” Well, to be fair, Alfredo asked Winston to find both, a dog and a new neighborhood drug dealer, maybe even a two-for-one, a new neighborhood drug dealer walking a dog. But Alfredo is going to outlay some shit here anyway because he’s tired, because his feet are blistered, because—most of all—Winston is wearing that red and blue Spider-Man hat. Alfredo keeps looking at it, his eyes narrowing. “But instead of a dog, you’re talking about—”
“You’re talking about Vladimir. Any chance he’s a drug-dealing dog?”
“He is a drug-dealing fifteen-year-old boy. Slinging outside the Catholic school on Thirty-first Ave—”
“Please. Don’t get too interested. He slings outside McClancy’s. He attends McClancy’s. Him being a fifteen-year-old boy and all. And maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package we need to pick up for Jose.”
“Tariq,” Alfredo corrects.
“Sorry. Maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package we need to pick up for Tariq. Oops. I’m sorry. Maybe he’s holding down exactly the kind of package you need to pick up for Tariq.”
“God damn, you’re in a bitchy mood. Maybe I should just go over to Gianni’s.” Winston stays right where he’s at. He’s about to walk away like that stone tortoise is about to hop over the fence. “Do you have any idea how rude you’re being right now?” he asks. “I’m telling a story here, and you’re not even trying to listen. You’re looking all over the park. At God knows what. And I can’t get into a good storytelling rhythm, you know what I mean?”
“Where’s your Mets hat?” Alfredo says.
Winston looks away. “Oh.”
Either due to stress or drug abuse, Winston suffers from alopecia, a condition that causes his hair to fall out in clumps. Coils on his pillowcase. A nest in the drain. Alfredo feels bad for him, genuinely sorry, and he makes all the requisite clucking noises of sympathetic friendship, but he does not downplay the problem, does not tell Winston that it ain’t that bad or that it’s nothing to worry about. Business is business, and Alfredo considers Winston’s quilt-like scalp to be a professional liability. The poor guy—overweight, bulging eyeballs, ashy skin—is already eminently punkable, and the alopecia just makes it worse. Shave your dome, Alfredo argues. You’re a big black Haitian. This is a post-Jordan era. But Winston says nah. He thinks he has dents in his skull. He thinks he got dropped too many times as a baby and he’d look ridiculous now with a completely bald head. He thinks he maybe doesn’t have alopecia at all, and the patches will grow back starting tomorrow, or possibly the next day. In the meantime, he wears his red and blue web-speckled Spider-Man hat. The only problem, however, is that the superhero endorsement makes Winston no less vulnerable. The red antagonizes the Crips; the blue, the Bloods. (Winston’s skin—black—does him no favors with the Latin Kings or the Vice Lords or the Netas or MS-13.) So Alfredo buys him new, more imposing, and yet more color-neutral hats. Wool knits in the winter. Baseball caps when it’s warm. But within days these hats get misplaced, left behind on a rooftop somewhere, or lost under the cushions of a customer’s couch. On Monday, Alfredo gave Winston one of the new black Mets hats, and now, on Friday, Spidey’s back.
“I think maybe I left it on the subway last night.”
“On the subway,” Alfredo says. “Let me ask you something—”
“I don’t know,” Winston says. He picks at the splintered wood of the bench. “You buy these hats for me, and I appreciate them. Seriously. And I swear to God I’m not trying to lose them. It’s just, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
On the lam from the handball courts, a Sky Bounce blue ball skips past their bench. Alfredo bends over, scoops it up. Doesn’t even bobble it. He feels tempted to bring it up to his nose—he loves the sharp, summery, rubbery smell—but that might look awfully strange, and so he tosses it back toward the courts unsniffed. The ball sails over the heads of the players, but park etiquette demands that they shout out thanks anyway.
“It was a cool hat, too,” Winston says.
“It’s okay,” Alfredo says. “Tell me about Vladimir.”
“All he sells is Ecstasy. Nothing else. No pot, no coke, no heroin. Just E. Just a straight-up E pusher. Like this is 1997 or something.” “Is that the end of the story?”
“You’re mad about the hat still? Ask me how much he sells the E for.”
“Ten dollars,” Winston says. He leans back on the bench, stretches his legs out in front of him. “Ten dollars for an entire pill. That, my friend, is what he’s selling it for.”
“Terrible,” Alfredo says. “You can’t even get crack for ten dollars anymore. Me and Isabel wanna go see a movie, it costs us twice that. A movie.”
“Ask me who his connect is. His brother. That’s who. I don’t know his name, but let’s call him Boris.” Winston’s feet tap out a happy rhythm as he talks. “This so-called Boris? He’s a chemist. Boris the Chemist. You can’t make this shit up. The two of them are fresh off the boat, Boris and Vladimir. Been here like three weeks. Maybe more—I don’t know. Boris, from what I understand, makes the X right in the apartment. The kitchen, I guess. That’s not factual, though. That’s just us speculating. The rumor is that he gets in his lab coat, rocks out with his beakers, and however many hours later he’s brewed up some X. Doesn’t even know he’s supposed to stamp it, so the pills go out logoless.”
Alfredo shakes his head. He says, “They’re not branding their product.”
“They don’t know what they’re doing. So then Boris gives the pills to Vladimir, and little bro stands outside the school gates at three sharp every day. And he undersells the whole fucking neighborhood. Because what do they care?” Winston’s ass is now hovering above the bench. “There’s no middleman. From the kitchen to the street. Ten-dollar Ecstasy.”
“You’ve tried this Ecstasy? It’s good shits?”
Winston grimaces. “I haven’t done E in a serious minute. You hear about those lab monkeys? Going brain-dead?” He picks at the cuticle around his thumb. “Matter of fact—not that I want to make a big deal or anything—but I am quitting all drugs. Including weed. Starting tomorrow.”
“Starting tomorrow,” Alfredo says. He watches two little Indian girls march past the bench. With their shoulders hunched forward, they clutch dollar bills in their little brown fists.
“But the preppies,” Winston says, elbowing Alfredo. “Over at that Catholic school? They’re buying Vladimir out. Rolling on X five, six, seven days a week.”
“Those poor nuns,” Alfredo says. He hears a familiar jingle coming from around the corner: the patented, crazy-making doo-doo-dee-doo of Mister Softee, the ice cream man. Kids run into one another, grab at their parents’ wallets, snap their heads back and forth in a lactose frenzy. The ice cream truck pulls up in front of the park’s entrance. The jingle is louder, the children palsied. Alfredo takes off his glasses and breathes fog onto the lenses. When he puts them back on, he grins—pleased to see those two little Indian girls at the front of the ice cream line.
“You got any of that money you owe me?” Winston says. “I could really go for a cone.”
“How much of this is fact?” Alfredo says. “You know what I mean? This Vladimir kid. The kitchen. The ten-dollar E. Boris. How much do we know for sure?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Never even seen the kid. These are things I’ve heard over at Gianni’s. A couple of times. From different people. But still.” He puts his hands in the air, exposes for inspection the cool whites of his palms. “This is just shit I’ve heard.”
Alfredo turns away and looks around the park for his favorites. The picture-snapping father is gone. And the little boy—where’d he go?—has somehow slipped his head free from the metal bars. At least the tortoise is still here. And Max Marshmallow over by the stone chess tables, harrumphing and kvetching toward another checkmate. He’ll be here as long as I will, Alfredo thinks—forever. And ah, here come the numero supremo favorites, the little Indian girls, walking past Alfredo’s bench now. They hold their ice cream cones high, the first children to return with bounty.
“How’d you know Mister Softee was coming?” he calls out to them. “You got his schedule memorized?”
They hasten their steps. Don’t talk to strangers, their mothers have warned. Don’t go into vans, or pet somebody’s dog, or accept candy from an outstretched hand, or discuss ice cream with strange men sitting on park benches. It disturbs Alfredo to see himself through their eyes: a menace. He fingers his mustache, wondering if it makes him look like a child molester. His jeans begin to vibrate. It’s his phone, humming inside his pocket—it’s either Baka, his drug connect, looking for the money he’s owed, or it’s Isabel, his girlfriend, calling to confirm that Alfredo will have his Boricuan ass home by four o’clock, so they can walk over to Elmhurst Hospital together. She may cap this reminder with a threat—If you’re late, expect a frying pan upside the head—or she might hang up with some sweetness, sing him a snatch of whatever Spanish love song she just heard on Mega 97.9. Could go either way. Isabel is seven months swollen with the tentatively named Christian Louis Batista, and Alfredo, while trying to be a sensitive guy about the whole thing, is having some migraine-inducing difficulties negotiating the minefield of her moods. Pregnant! Third trimester! Alfredo wants to chase those Indian girls down and shove his phone in their faces. You see this? This is my girlfriend calling. My baby’s mama. A woman who loves me. See? I’m not some scary chester. I am a Puerto Rican, an American citizen, a father-to-be. But Alfredo also understands that chasing two little girls in a city park is not the best way to prove one’s own innocent intentions. He stays on his bench and lets the phone vibrate. If Isabel needs him home by four, then he doesn’t have time to be taking calls. He doesn’t have time to hear about frying pans or Enrique’s “Experiencia Religiosa” or little Christian karate kicking the walls of her uterus or the latest shit Alfredo’s mother pulled. Alfredo’s got work to do.
“Look at you,” Winston says. “You’re deliberating on this Vladimir situation. You’re saying, ‘Hey—hey.’ You’re going, ‘My man came through with some info that’s not too shabby this time.’ ”
“This kid. He’s going to have much drugs on him?”
“You know what today is? Today is the last day of school for all the private-school kids. Get out a week early so they can beat the traffic out to the Poconos. Remember when we was in high school? Last day before summer vacation? Kids lining up for drugs. Dealers coming correct.”
“And our man Vladimir is gonna have his pockets full of pills. Make his money for the long summer ahead. Know what I mean?”