Connie got up from her kitchen table and walked slowly to the door. Either I saw him or I didn’t and I’m crazy for real this time, she thought.
“It’s me—Dolly!” Her niece was screaming in the hall. “Let me in! Hurry!”
“Momentito.” Connie fumbled with the bolt, the police lock, finally swinging the door wide. Dolly fell in past her, her face bloody. Connie clutched at Dolly, trying to see how badly she was hurt. “Qué pasa? Who did this?”
Blood was oozing from Dolly’s bruised mouth and she grasped a wad of matted paper handkerchiefs brown with old blood and spotted bright red with fresh. Her left eye was swollen shut. “Geraldo beat me.” Dolly let her peel off the blue winter coat trimmed with fur and press her broad hips in pink pants back into the kitchen chair. There Dolly collapsed and began to weep. Awkwardly Connie embraced her shoulders, her hands slipping on the satin of the blouse.
“The chair’s warm,” Dolly said after a few minutes. “Get me a handkerchief.”
Connie brought toilet paper from the hall bathroom—she had nothing else—and carefully locked the outside door again. Then she put some of the good Dominican coffee she saved for special into the drip pot and set water to boil in a kettle.
“It’s cold in here,” Dolly whimpered.
“I’ll make it warmer.” She lit the oven and turned on the burners. “Soon it’ll be like that hothouse of yours. . . . Geraldo beat you?”
Dolly opened her mouth wide, gaping. “Loo . . . Loo . . .”
As gently as she could she poked into Dolly’s bloody mouth. Her own flesh cringed.
Dolly jerked away. “He broke a tooth, didn’t he? That dirty rotten pimp! Will I lose a tooth?”
“I think you have one broken and maybe another loose. But who am I to say? I’m no dentist. You’re still bleeding!”
“He’s crazy, that pig! He wants to mess me up. Connie, how come you wouldn’t let me in? I was screaming in the hall forever.”
“It wasn’t five minutes. . . .”
“I thought I heard voices. Is somebody here?” Dolly looked toward the other room, the bedroom.
“Who would be here? I had the TV on.”
“It hurts so much. Give me something to kill the pain.”
“Oh, come on. It hurts!”
“Hija mía, how would I have anything?” Connie lifted her hands to show them empty, always empty.
“Those pills they made you take, from the State.”
“Let me give you ice.” Dolly had heard her talking with Luciente: therefore he existed. Or Dolly had heard her talking to herself. Dolly had said the chair was warm: she had been sitting in the other chair, in front of the plate from her supper of eggs and beans. She must not think about it now, with Dolly suffering. His story was unbelievable! No, don’t think about it. She wrapped ice cubes in a kitchen towel and brought them to Dolly. “That prescription ran out a year ago.” Not that she had taken the tranquilizers. She had sold the pills for a little extra money, for a piece of pork or chicken once a week, soap to wash with. She found it hard to believe anybody would take that poison intentionally, but you could peddle any kind of pill in El Barrio. Still, there had been the nuisance of going down to Bellevue, since she had been living near Dolly’s when she had been sent away and never could get her case transferred.
“Consuelo!” Dolly leaned her swollen cheek on Connie’s shoulder. “Everything hurts! I’m scared. He punched me in the belly, hard.”
“Why do you stay with him? What good is he? With your daughter, why have such a cabrón hanging around?”
Dolly gave her the mocking glance that would greet any comment she might make for the rest of her life on the subject of the welfare of children; or did she imagine it? “Consuelo, I feel so sick. I feel lousy through and through. I have to lie down. Oh, if he makes me lose this baby, I’ll kill him!”
As she supported her niece’s weight into the bedroom she felt a flash of fear or perhaps of hope that Luciente would still be there. But the tiny room held only her swaybacked bed, the chair with her alarm clock on it, the dresser, the wine jug full of dried flowers, the airshaft window incompletely covered with old curtains from better days. She undressed Dolly tenderly as a baby, but her niece groaned and cursed and wept more. The satin polka dot shirt was streaked with blood and blood had soaked through her black satin brassiere with the nipples cut out. “But it won’t show on your nice bra,” Connie promised as Dolly mourned her clothes, her body, her skin. Bruises had already clotted under the velvety skin of Dolly’s belly, her soft arms, her collarbone.
“Mira! Is there blood on my panties? See if he made me bleed there.”
“You aren’t bleeding there, I promise. Get under the covers. Oye, Dolly, it isn’t that easy to lose a baby! In the sixth month, if he beat you, maybe. But in the second month that baby is better protected than you are.” She put the alarm on the floor and sat in the straight chair beside the bed to hold Dolly’s limp hand. “Listen, I should take you to emergency. To Met.”
“Don’t make me go anyplace. I hurt too much.”
“They can give you something for the pain. I’ll get a gypsy cab to take us. It’s only fifteen blocks.”
“I’m ashamed. ‘What happened to you?’ ‘Oh, my pimp beat up on me.’ In the morning I’ll go to my own dentist. You take me down to him in the morning. Otera on Canal. You call him up at nine-thirty in the morning and tell him to take me right away. Now hold the ice against my cheek.”
“Dolly, how do you know Geraldo won’t come charging up here?”
“Consuelo!” Dolly drawled her name in a long wail of pain. “Be nice to me! Don’t push me around too! I hurt, I want to rest. Be sweet to me. Give me a little yerba—it’s in my purse. At the bottom of the cigarette pack.”
“Dolly! You’re crazy to run around with your face bleeding and dope in your purse! Suppose the cops pick you up?”
“I had a lot of time to sort my purse when I was leaving! Come on, get it for me!”
She was fumbling through Dolly’s big patent leather bag, clumsy prying in another woman’s purse, when she heard heavy steps climbing. Men in a hurry. She froze. Why? Men ran up and down the steps of the tenement all night. But she knew.
Geraldo pounded the door. She kept quiet. In the bedroom Dolly moaned and began to weep again.
Geraldo hit the door harder. “Open the door, you old bitch! Open or I’ll break it down. Bust your head in. Come on, open this fucking door!” He began kicking so hard the wood cracked and started to give way.
He would break it down. She yelled, “Wait! Wait! I’m coming!”
Not a door opened in the hallway. Nobody came to look out. She undid the locks and hopped back, before he could slam the door to the wall and crush her behind it. He strode in, thumping the door to the wall as she had known he would, followed by a scrawny older man in a buttoned-up gray overcoat and a hulking bato loco named Slick she had seen with Geraldo before. They all crowded into her kitchen and Geraldo slammed the door behind.
Geraldo was Dolly’s boyfriend. He had been a vendadero and done well enough, keeping Dolly and her little girl, Nita, from her marriage. But some squeeze in the drug trade had cut him off after he had been busted, although he had not ended up serving time. Now he made Dolly work as a prostitute, selling her body to all the dirty men in the city. He had three other girls that perhaps he had been running all the time on the side. Dolly made four.
Connie hated him. It flowed like electric syrup through her veins how she hated him. Her hatred gave her a flush in the nerves like speed coming on. Geraldo was a medium-tall grifo with fair skin, gray eyes, kinky hair—pelo alambre—that he wore in a symmetrical Afro. He was elegant. Every time her eyes grated upon him he was attired in some new costume of pimpish splendor. She dreamed of peeling off a sleekly polished antiqued lizard high-heeled boot and pounding it down his lying throat. She dreamed of yanking off his finger the large grayish diamond he boasted matched his scheming eyes and using it to slit his throat, so his bad poisoned blood would run out.
“Tía Consuelo,” he crooned. “Caca de puta. Old bitch. Get your fat and worthless ass out of my way. Move!”
“Get out of my house! You hurt her enough. Get out!”
“Not anything like I’m going to hurt that bitch if she doesn’t shape up.” The back of his arm striking like a rattlesnake, he shoved her into the sink. Then he strolled over to lounge blocking the bedroom door. Always he was playing in some cold deathshead mirror, watching himself, polishing his cool. “Hey, cunt, stop blubbering. I brought you a doctor.”
“What kind of doctor?” Connie shrieked. She had slid under his blow and caught only the edge of the sink. She cowered, half crouching. “A butcher! That’s what kind of doctor!”
“That bughouse taught you all about doctors, um?”
“You leave her alone, Geraldo! She wants to have your baby so bad, she can stay with me.”
“So you can cut it up, you nut? Now turn it off or Slick will bust your lip.” Geraldo leaned on the doorframe, lighting a cigarette and dropping the lit match on the floor, where it slowly burned out, making a black hole in the worn linoleum. “Time to rise and fly. I brought a doctor to fix you. Up now. Move!”
“No! I don’t want him to touch me! Geraldo honey, I want this baby!”
“What shits you pushing? You think I sweat bricks for the kid of some stupid trick with dragging balls? You don’t even know what color worm you got turning in the apple.”
“It’s your baby! It is. In Puerto Rico I didn’t take my pills.”
“Woman, so many men been into you, it could have a whole subway car of daddies.”
“In San Juan I never took my pills. I told you already!”
“You tell me? Not in this life, baby. How you pass the time while I was busy in La Perla, um?” He flicked lint from his vest.
“You wouldn’t take me to meet your family!”
Geraldo had taken Dolly with him on vacation. Connie felt pretty sure Dolly had tried to get pregnant, believing that Geraldo would let her quit whoring. Dolly wanted to have another baby and stay home. Like figures of paper, like a manger scene of pasteboard figures, a fantasy had shone in Connie since her conversation with Dolly that morning: she and Dolly and Dolly’s children would live together. She would have a family again, finally.
She would be ever so careful and good and she would do anything, anything at all to keep them together. She would never be jealous of her niece no matter how many boyfriends she had. Dolly could stay out all night and go off on weekends and to Florida even and she would stay with Nita and the baby. As if anyone would ever again leave her alone with a child. The dream was like those paper dolls, the only dolls she had had as a child, dolls with blond paper hair and Anglo features and big paper smiles. That she knew in her heart of ashes the dream was futile did not make it less precious. Every soul needs a little sweetness. She thought of the stalks of sugar cane the kids bought at the fruit and vegetable man. Sweet in the mouth as you chewed it, and then you spat out the husks and they lay in the street. Hollow, flimsy, for a moment sweet in the mouth. Cane with which her grandmother had sweetened the chocolate long ago in El Paso.
“Shut off that fucking kettle!” Geraldo shouted at her and she jumped to put out the flame. The coffee she had never finished making. The kettle had boiled almost dry. She shut off the oven and the burners because now her two small rooms felt stifling hot. How she had jumped to the stove when he rapped out that curt command. She resented obeying him automatically, instinctively jerking at the loud masculine order.
His beauty only made him more hateful. His face with the big gray eyes, the broad nose, the full cruel mouth, the hands like long talons, the proud bearing—he was the man who had pimped her favorite niece, her baby, the pimp who had beaten Dolly and sold her to pigs to empty themselves in. Who robbed Dolly and slapped her daughter Nita and took away the money squeezed out of the pollution of Dolly’s flesh to buy lizard boots and cocaine and other women. Geraldo was her father, who had beaten her every week of her childhood. Her second husband, who had sent her into emergency with blood running down her legs. He was El Muro, who had raped her and then beaten her because she would not lie and say she had enjoyed it. She had had the strength then to run, to cut her losses and run. On the evening bus the next day she had left her home in Chicago, her father and sisters, the graves of her mother and her first (her real) husband, Martín. Dolly lacked the coarse strength that had saved her that time.
But Dolly had Nita already and a baby in the oven. “Fíjate, Geraldo,” she screamed. “She’s carrying your child. She came back that way from San Juan. I told her she was carrying the first time I saw her back here. What kind of tailless wonder are you to have your own child butchered by that doctor of dogs?”
Pivoting, Geraldo cuffed her back into the stove. The hot metal seared her back in a broad line and she clamped her lips tight, unable to scream, unable to issue a sound from the suddenness of the pain. She sank to the floor and could not speak or move.
“Puta, get up and go with Dr. Medias, or I’ll have him do it on you right in that witch’s bed. Move!”
“No! No!” Dolly was thrashing around in bed, screaming and sobbing. Geraldo stepped into the bedroom, out of Connie’s line of sight. She tried to roll to her feet. The scrawny doctor sat on the edge of a kitchen chair. He was in his fifties. His clothes were new and conservative, his manner was tense, and his foot tapped, tapped. Slick was leaning against the outer door smoking a joint and grinning.
From the Trade Paperback edition.