Winner - Fiction

Don Miguel shuffles dominoes like he dances salsa. His palms caress bone-colored tiles in exaggerated circles to the right and left. Beneath the table, his feet tap to basic steps “on two.” The old man’s rhythm is smooth. I’m in awe at how he balances a spiral notebook on his lap. A line divides the blank page into two columns. One side is marked N for nosotros and the other E for ellos.

He locks eyes with his partner who raises a plastic cup to salute the champ. Don Miguel acknowledges the toast with a wink and continues to shuffle. He’s the last landlord on our street who hasn’t left for something bigger and better of his own. He says he will die here, on Liberty Avenue, because he loves the neighborhood and all of us in it. Don Miguel looks to both opponents and greets each one with a nod.

He leans toward my father and squeezes his shoulder, “Ready? Remember what happened last time, Ángel?” and erupts in laughter.

Papi, ever confident, flicks his left wrist and ignores Don Miguel’s taunt. This must be a rematch. Papi does not play for fun. He plays to win.

“Go ahead, Old Man,” he responds, “We’re ready.”

Tickled by my father’s response, Don Miguel pulls back, pushes the tiles to the center, and slaps them one last time for good luck. The men reach forward for their best pick. The tiles they choose and how they play will determine who maintains credibility and who loses it.

I inch closer to Papi as he organizes his hand. I try hard not to wince but he’s stuck with a sorry selection. Not even one double. This round won’t be pretty. He and his partner, Pito, are in trouble.

“Nena, get me another one, please,” Pito calls out and waves an empty Heineken in my direction.

I am not a little girl. I’m 16. Why does everyone still call me “Nena?”

I head towards the cooler, but stop short when Papi extends his arm and blocks my path.

“Don’t ask my daughter to do that again!” grunts Papi.

I am afraid to move and wait for Papi’s release.

“C’mon, Ángel, I said please...There’s always something with you,” Pito shakes his head in disbelief as he returns the green bottle to the table’s cup holder.

“Who do you think you are...telling my daughter to get you a beer?”

My father’s tone, filled with fury, silences the table.

“¡Cógelo suave! Take it easy!” Pito says as he raises his hands to protect himself.

What a cop-out. Pito’s pathetic move only further irritates Papi.

“I should punch you in the face!” Papi growls, “Don’t tell me to take it easy!”

I flinch when Papi pulls his arm from in front of me and pounds the domino table with his fist.

Don Miguel interjects as Papi rises from his chair to pounce.

“What’s happening here?” asks Don Miguel with concern. However, a fight doesn’t interest Pito. He’s still in his chair and it doesn’t look like he’ll get up either. He knows what my father’s knuckles are capable of and no doubt wants to squash this beef.

“Ángel, quiet,” Don Miguel pleads with Papi.

Papi stares Pito down and points his index finger, “Don’t you ever look my daughter’s way again. If I catch you…”

Oh, boy. Papi is at his limit.

Pito mumbles an apology and keeps his eyes on his dominoes where they belong.

Before taking his seat, Papi pulls a handkerchief from the pocket of his paint-splattered Dickie’s. He is a man of few words. Papi has little tolerance for public display of emotion. He only says and does what is necessary. Despite his honorable discharge over 20 years ago, he still follows the military’s standard of conduct. I watch him pat his face dry with the handkerchief and tuck it back in his pants.

“Go check on your mother,” Papi tells me.

Oh, my God, again? I want to ask my father why I have to check on her, but know better.

“NOW!” he commands when I don’t move fast enough.

Papi is traditional. As a little girl, I’d sit on his lap and move the dominoes for him. He taught me how to play the game. Now, he doesn’t want me near the table, near the men, or on our front stoop.

As summer approaches, my independence evaporates with the heat and humidity. Unlike my friends who will vacation in la isla del encanto, the enchanted island of Puerto Rico, or Santo Domingo, I’ll be stuck babysitting, doing chores, and eating free breakfast and lunch at my old elementary school around the corner.

If I’m not outside and not looking out of our window, I won’t know what’s going on. There’s plenty to see and hear on our block, especially when Doña Milagros is outside. She has the scoop on everybody. However, when she dishes it, half of it is true and the other half is made up. That woman loves to start stuff.

As I pass her on my way upstairs, she murmurs: “Bendito, Nena, what pity...don’t go.”

There goes that “Nena” crap again. How can I drop that nickname if Papi continues to put me on blast? Furthermore, it doesn’t help that he puts everybody and their mother on notice that I’m his little girl!

Doña Milagros continues to whisper to me: “Mira...look...shhht!”

She pauses for my reaction before she asks, “Did you know the Riveras moved to Florida?”

When I shake my head no, Doña Milagros struggles to keep a straight face and says, “They finally left. Good for them. Once they realize there aren’t enough oranges to squeeze, they’ll be back here with us sipping morir soñando. We’re all going to die dreaming.”

And that’s just it. I don’t wanna die dreaming. I gotta find a way to convince Papi to let me go. I have an acceptance letter for a six-week writing program I applied to without his consent in my pocket and I need to respond soon. It’s tearing at the creases from all the times I fold and unfold it. I cannot pass this opportunity up. I don’t want to end up like Mami and be with someone like Papi. This program is the only way out and besides, the experience will look great on my college applications.

Doña Milagros’ raucous laughter follows me into the building and I let the front door slam behind me to keep it out.

I climb the rickety stairs with determination. They’re crumbling and in need of repair. Kinda like my life. As I approach the top of our landing, I hear abuela’s hoarse voice sing along to a bolero. I don’t get why she listens to that music. Why would anyone want to remember someone who scorns them? Our apartment door is wide open and fresh lavender penetrates my nostrils.

Once I reach the last step, I pause to watch Güela. She’s in the middle of our living room, in a floral-print housedress, doing the two-step with a mop. I admire her flamingo-like legs in white ankle-length socks and pink, open-toe slippers. She moves slower these days but she can still dance.

Güela turns toward the television and gasps when she feels my stare from the hall.

“Meralis, ¿qué tú haces? What are you doing? You scared me!”

“Papi told me to come up,” my voice drifts.

“Ah, Why?” she asks and pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose with the back of her hand.

“They’re playing dominos and Pito told me to get him a beer and so I … ”

Güela cuts me off, “What did your father say?”

“I thought Papi was going to kill Pito.”

Güela dips the mop into the bucket, wrings it, then shakes the mop head free.

“Él tiene razón. He has reason. A grown man should not ask you, a señorita, a young lady, to serve him; especially, alcohol.”

“Ugh, why do you always take his side?”

“Meralis, I don’t always agree with him. I know my son is not perfect. But he loves you. Tú eres la nena de Papi. You are daddy’s little girl. Don’t you ever forget that!”

She points the mop at me the same way Papi pointed his finger at Pito.

“Well, are you going to stand there and stare? Don’t you want to come in?”

Lord knows how much I love this woman. She’s petite and full of feistiness.

“Where’s Mami?” I ask as I cross the threshold.

“Your mother is resting. Let her sleep. Those medications are strong. Bendito, que pena me da...Blessed, pity me, to think about your poor mother.”

I look away because I don’t feel bad for my mom. She needs to get it together already. I’m over her sickness. They call it “ataque de nervios.” Attack of the nerves. What sense does that make? A conversation with her feels like a never-ending carousel ride. Her words go round and round in response to musical voices only she can hear. When she’s in the hospital, Papi says only those eighteen and older can visit. What kind of madness is that? I don’t care. Whatever.

Güela watches me with a sympathetic expression and forces a smile when our eyes meet.

“¿Tienes hambre? Are you hungry?” she asks.

I nod my head and she returns the mop to its bucket. Güela leads me to the kitchen like a collie herds a lost sheep.

“Sientate aquí. Sit here,” she directs me and reaches for a Styrofoam plate atop the refrigerator on her tippy toes.

Instead, I ignore her and remove the lid from the large caldero on the stove. Güela always uses the largest rice pot to prepare enough food to feed the entire neighborhood. Steam rises from the lid and scalds my wrist, causing the cover to fall from my hand and crash to the floor.

She turns around with annoyance spread across her face.

“¡Ay, Señor! Oh, Lord!” she exclaims as she as grasps her housedress.

“¡Por poco me sale el corazón! My heart almost came out. Leave the rice alone, Meralis, sit!”

“I just wanted a taste,” I reply.

I bend to pick the lid up from the floor and pluck a loose grain of yellow rice to bring to my mouth. The Vienna sausages in the caldero look plump and dark. Güela knows how much I love arroz con salchichas. She sets the disposable plate on the counter and snatches the cover from my hand.

“How many times must I tell you…” she starts to lecture but stops short when I grimace.

“¿Te quemastes? Did you get burned?” she asks in a concerned tone.

“No, it’s not bad at all,” I reply as I clutch my wrist.

“Dejame ver. Let me see,” she insists.

“Güela, I’m fine.”

“Have it your way,” she responds and swats me with a kitchen towel.

“What would you like to drink, Meralis?”

“Soda, please.”

She opens the refrigerator to retrieve a two-liter bottle from the door. Güela gets my favorite plastic tumbler, with the name and number of the local diabetes clinic, from the dish rack to pour my drink. She sets the cup on the table and serves my dinner.

“Güela, that’s too much,” I protest.

“You need nourishment,” she sets the large spoon down and exclaims, “Tú no eres gordita. You’re not fat. Eat it all. Or else.”

“Besides,” she continues, “I have to teach you how to make this…”

“Why? I don’t need to cook. I know this kitchen belongs to you.”

“We’re not always going to be together, Meralis…” Güela’s voice drifts.

Great. What is she trying to tell me? I swallow several times to steady my thoughts and reach for my cup to gulp the dark soda in one full swoop. The carbonation makes my eyes and nose tingle, but is nowhere near the sensation I feel in my heart. My immediate future is bleak.