It is the mid 1960's thru the mid 1970's. The place is NYC. The atmosphere is thick with overhanging clouds of cultural upheaval and racial confrontation.
Into this world are dragged brother and sister Julio and Rosa Marino, pawns in a child-welfare scam. Plucked from a rural Puerto Rico orphanage administered by care giving nuns, the are relocated to a treeless concrete jungle surrounded by predators or every ilk.
But this isn't just Julio and Rosa's story. It is also the story of a generation caught up in civil rights upheaval, immigration influx and anti Viet Nam war protesters. It is the story of ethnic urbanites and escapee suburbanites trying to preserve their post war development... their schools ... their corner candy stores and the shopping malls that exemplify their new-found middle class.
It is the story of Eddie Palmer, a Black detective trying to resolve making it in the White world without targeting his contemporaries in the Black ghetto. Benny Valdez, a chosen exemplar in the quest to bring more of the swelling Latino population into the uniformed services, but ends up with personal baggage that outweighs what the system can absorb. And Police Captain Nino Angolotti, Precinct Commander and designated integrator of political hiring pressures, who is determined to keep his shrinking ethnic neighborhood intact... notwithstanding the increased crime and poverty plus an invasive foreign language encroaching its boundaries.
'Life In and Off the Beat' is a smorgasbord of loves, lives and gut-wrenching circumstantial encounters for an array of characters finding themselves in the same melting pot ready to boil over.
|6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Read an Excerpt
Life On and Off the Beat
By Barry E. Roth
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Barry E. Roth
All rights reserved.
Tap.... Tap ... Tap ...
It was the first time Julio had seen The Mother's walking stick up close. It looked like a broom-handle that cost a lot of money. It had a rubber tip on one end, but it was the other end that he couldn't take his eyes off.
Tap ... Tap ... Tap ...
It was that end The Mother kept hitting against the table even when nobody was talking. But it wasn't the hitting that made him nervous, it was the shape of that end of the walking stick. It was like a hook, big enough to grab him around the neck. All The Mother had to do was reach across the table and she could grab him or Rosa and pull their heads off. This was the first time he ever saw The Mother up close and he didn't like what he saw. A few times he saw her walking around the church going from one building to another building. The first time he saw her he thought she had three legs, until he realized that one of her legs was the walking stick. Now, up close, he could only think of a pumpkin. That's what her face looked like under her Nun's hat, a cabeza with the face of a dead fish just before they cut its head off. Her cheeks were so puffy he thought any minute they would explode.
His sister Rosa was next to him and she was wearing long pants, too. She also had on a white blouse he had never seen before this morning when Sister Regina gave them these new clothes. Rosa held his hand. Each time he tried to take it away she pulled it back. He knew Rosa was mad and scared. All he had to do was look at her lips.
Tap ... Tap ... Tap ...
Julio had never before been in The Mother's office. He was sure Rosa had never been there either. You went to The Mother's office if you were caught stealing or talked fresh to a nun. He never did those things. He and Rosa stayed pretty much to themselves. They had only a few friends.
It was a big room with a big wooden table in the center. There was a lamp at each end of the table and a big rug nobody would step on. There were two chairs on the floor in front of the rug that faced The Mother's table. It was where he and Rosa sat. Everybody else stood in back of the rug. He only recognized Sister Regina and Sister Margaret. He didn't know anybody else. All of them walked around the sides to get to the back. A big cross hung on the wall behind The Mother. Stacks of red folders in neat piles were on either side of her. Each red folder had a different kid's name on it. If The Mother decided to sit behind the folders you couldn't see her. Julio wondered what would happen if all those folders fell to the floor.
If that happened, I wouldn't want to be in the same room with The Mother, he was thinking. She'd probably kill somebody with her walking stick. He also couldn't remember ever seeing The Mother smile.
Tap ... Tap ... Tap ...
Every so often Julio would turn his head and look at Sister Regina who kept rubbing her eyes, still red from crying. The Mother, stiffly seated behind the table, stared at Sister Regina. If he didn't know better, he'd think The Mother wasn't breathing. He couldn't remember seeing her eyes blink or her lips move, only her cheeks went in and out. Nobody talked. He wished somebody would say something.
He didn't know how long they had been in The Mother's office.
"We don't want to go. We want to stay here. We ..." Rosa was yelling, "We never did ..." and suddenly the walking stick came cracking down across the table, the hook part almost hitting Rosa. Julio jumped and grabbed it away from The Mother and was about to swing it at her when he was pushed to the ground and the walking stick pulled out of his hands.
"Let me go, let me go," he was screaming. "Nobody, nobody hit my sister. I kill anybody that try to hurt Rosa."
"Julio, stop, calm down. Nobody try to hurt Rosa." He recognized Sister Regina's voice. She was sitting on him so he couldn't move. "I can't let you up unless you promise to sit in the chair and be still. Promise me."
"I kill anybody that try to hurt Rosa. I don't care if it The Mother or a priest or anybody. Nobody try to hurt Rosa." Julio could actually feel his heart jumping in his chest.
"Nobody try to hurt Rosa. The Mother just banged the table," Sister Regina brought her face up close so he could see her. "She was not trying to hurt Rosa." Both her hands were on his cheeks. "Now calm down so I can let you go. Promise me you'll just sit in the chair and be good."
"Why they sending us away?"
Sister Regina didn't answer him, but after, he didn't know how long, she let him up and put him back in the chair. Rosa grabbed his hand and he could see the look on her face that said we better just do what they want.
* * *
Today he was eleven. He thought nobody remembered, not even his sister, Rosa. Two months ago, when she was fourteen, he wished her happy birthday. About an hour ago, maybe even more, Sister Regina suddenly appeared in the doorway of their room. She was holding something folded in her arms.
"This is for you, Julio. Happy Birthday," she said.
It was a pair of long pants. He never had a pair of long pants. On TV he watched sheriffs, farmers, big people wear long pants. In his town, rich people wore long pants when they went to church. In the city, Blancos wore long pants when they went to work. They even wore jackets that looked just like the long pants. They all looked like the old people in his village the day they bury them. In his village, the only time anybody wore a jacket that was the same as the long pants was the day they put them in the ground.
He suddenly remembered what Sister Regina told him a long time ago. "Someday, when you go to San Juan, we buy you long pants." When he looked up at her, she wasn't smiling. He start to think he wasn't going to like this birthday present.
In the mountains of Puerto Rico, where he lived, picking coffee beans and bananas, doing his jobs at the orphanage, going to school, he didn't need long pants. Going to church didn't mean you dressed up. The Sisters only made you take a bath and put on clean clothes.
"Today you and Rosa go to San Juan, then New York," Sister Regina said and then also handed him a new white shirt with a long pointed collar. "You go live with relatives in New York," she continued.
"I don't want to go to New York. I don't want to go to San Juan. I like it here," Julio screamed.
"No, No. Calm down," She put her hand on his head like the priest when he give you abso something. "Here no good for you and Rosa. In New York you in a big city. You go to big schools. You live in a big house. Everything is big in New York. It will be better, you will see."
He looked at Rosa. She said nothing, but her lips were squeezed together and her eyes so wide open that her whole head was out of shape. Rosa always looked like that when she was mad or scared. He started to say something to Sister Regina, but stopped, when he saw she was crying. If everything so good, so big in New York, why she crying when she give me these long pants and new shirt? Besides, he didn't like the idea of living with somebody he didn't know. He liked living here with Sister Regina and most of the other nuns. A long time ago, before he could walk, Sister Regina told Rosa their mother and father were killed in an accident. She told Rosa they had no relatives and that is why they live here with the nuns.
"How come all of a sudden we got relatives?" he asked Sister Regina.
"You get dressed now in your new pants and shirt. The Mother is waiting," Sister Regina said, at the same time wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. She didn't answer his question as she walked out of the room.
* * *
"I'm sorry I'm late, Mother Magdalene." A man's voice came from behind them. "A donkey cart overturned on the mountain road and we had to wait for them to clear it. There was no room for the van to pass."
"Will you make the airplane?" The Mother asked.
It was the first words Julio heard The Mother speak.
"If we leave right away," he answered.
The man walked around the rug and handed the Mother an envelope. Julio saw he was wearing long pants and a jacket that matched—like those Blancos who work in the city. He wore a white shirt with a collar like his. A pink necktie hung down the front. It looked like a donkey's tongue. At least he didn't have to wear something that looked like a donkey's tongue.
This guy look like he is ready to be buried in the cemetery," Julio thought.
The Mother nodded her head.
"Follow me," the man said.
Sister Regina grabbed both of them and buried their heads under the folds of her uniform.
"Come. Come. Or we miss the airplane," the man said as he took them from Sister Regina.
Julio quickly glanced back to where The Mother was sitting behind her desk. He would always remember her cabeza de calabaza, but a least she wasn't tapping the desk with her walking stick.
* * *
Julio never felt so uncomfortable. The afternoon sun burned bright and fiery. It hung low almost touching the hills on either side of the airport. Where he lived in the mountains, the sun was smaller and more far away. He could see wavy lines of heat coming off the runway. The thick air hung over him like when he helped in the laundry room at the orphanage. Out on the runway the sun bounced off the airplane door. It hurt his eyes to look at it.
Maybe this is what Sister Regina meant when she told him, so many times, that if he was bad he would walk through the door to hell.
Where he lived in the mountains he could always find shade and a cool breeze. The sun was warming hot, not sticky hot like here in the valley. He strained his eyes to see all of the big airplane. A metal bird—that's what it was. Bigger than anything he had ever seen. He wasn't scared, but he did feel funny. He didn't like not knowing what was going to happen to him. Until today, when he wake up every morning, he know pretty much how his day would be.
How will they get this metal bird up in the air? Its wings don't flap.
Rosa motioned him to grab one end of the suitcase while she held the other. From the time they left the orphanage, Rosa did not let go his hand. Now she needed help to get the suitcase on the airplane. There were no good-byes. No hugs. Nobody kissing anybody like on TV. Nobody telling he and Rosa anything. Two nuns, he hardly knew, handed them over to a blanco lady dressed in 'blue'. He was mad Sister Regina didn't come to say good-bye. The 'blue' lady signed some papers. He didn't understand why she was always smiling. He couldn't see anything funny. And she smelled bad, too. A funny, sweet smell. It wasn't flowers or candy. Her smell made the thick air more sticky.
The 'blue' lady tried to help Rosa with the suitcase, but Rosa wouldn't let her. Rosa pushed aside the 'blue' lady's hand and stared at her. The same stare she gave Julio when she was mad. The same lips held tight together with all those lines. But his smile was always stronger than her stare. She never stayed mad at him long. The suitcase held everything they owned. She would trust it to nobody, especially this funny smelling blanco lady who just keeps smiling.
The big airplane grew even bigger as he and Rosa walked under its wing. Under the hot sun, his eyes hurt when he tried to open them wider. The airplane got so big, he couldn't see it all. He still wasn't afraid, and even if he was, he couldn't let Rosa know. Many times, from the top of his favorite hill, he looked up at these metal birds with wings that didn't flap—watched them fly over his mountains until they disappeared. He never thought he would ever go in one and look down from where God lived. As he and Rosa climbed the stairs to the airplane, a sudden gust of cool air blew across his face. For the first time he smiled. For the first time since he left the orphanage he felt maybe it won't be so bad.
"My hill come down to say good-bye," he thought to himself. The 'blue' lady showed them two seats near where the pilot flew the airplane. She pinned a big card covered in plastic on his shirt, careful not to stick the pin into his skin. He could make out his name, Julio Marino and another name, Carmen something or other, followed by numbers. Rosa's card had the same writing on it. The 'blue' lady went away, but came right back. This time she leaned over Rosa and pinned some metal wings on his long pointed shirt collar. She kissed him on the cheek while running her hand through his messy hair. As she backed away, still smiling, she also kissed Rosa and proceeded to snap belts around their waists. This scared him. The belt made him feel like in jail. He didn't like anybody taking away his freedom to move around. Even on the orphanage bus, he would open the seat belt as soon as the nun finished inspecting them. But, like the nuns at the orphanage, the 'blue' lady wore a uniform. He trusted ladies in uniforms. Besides, in the cooler airplane, the sweet smell from the 'blue' lady wasn't so bad.
Julio didn't know what to expect as the airplane started down the runway. Faster and faster the ground went past. Louder and louder the engine noise made his ears hurt. He was scared again, but Rosa's tight grip on his hand told him he had to be brave. He knew Rosa was scared, too. He couldn't remember if she ever let go his hand since they come on the airplane.
Julio turned to his sister. "Rosa, don't be scared." He put his hand over hers and brought them both up to his cheek. "I see these airplanes fly over my hill all the time. I never see one fall to the ground."
Rosa didn't turn to look at him. Suddenly they were in the air. He couldn't figure out how the airplane left the ground without flapping its wings.
"Look Rosa. The ocean. We fly over the ocean. We see the ocean like a bird sees the ocean. Oh look. Look at those waves rolling into the beach."
And then he couldn't believe what happened. Everything got still. He was sitting—not moving—just sitting on white clouds. Nothing moved. He couldn't figure out how he was supposed to be going so fast when outside his window everything was still. The clouds. The air. The sky. Nothing moved. Those big clouds just sat there like white balls of steam he use to see come out of the power plant chimney on the other side of the mountain.
"Rosa. Rosa. I swear ..." he finally broke his hands from hers. "Rosa, I swear—I think I just see God in that cloud."
The 'blue' lady brought them food to eat, Coca Cola to drink and some book with games. He didn't know how to read English so he put the book in the pocket of the back of the seat in front of him. Rosa grabbed his hand again, but she didn't say anything. She was just looking straight ahead. He decided to leave her alone. He was happy just to look out the window.
* * *
Suddenly a pain in his ears made everything real again. The airplane changed position and pointed down. Rosa squeezed his hand so hard it hurt. His ears also hurt. Rosa's ears must hurt, too, he thought, so he didn't tell her she was hurting his hand.
How much easier it would be if the metal bird could flap its wings, then it wouldn't have to come down so fast.
Julio felt the wheels hit the ground. He turned to Rosa and gave her a big smile. She smiled back. For the first time since they got on the airplane, Rosa's lips relaxed. They had no lines. When the airplane stopped, the people flying with them stood up and opened doors above their heads. They put on coats with big fur collars. The 'blue' lady told him and Rosa to stay where they were. She pointed to their seats and gently held them down. Rosa still held his hand though she held it less tight. Julio knew she was still scared. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it. He thought maybe she would smile. She didn't. Her lips had those lines again.
Excerpted from Life On and Off the Beat by Barry E. Roth. Copyright © 2013 Barry E. Roth. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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