Carlos is telling me his story:
“I’m so hoppy to see my boys when I go out to New Jersey for a visit. But my wife – she only asks for money. I get my kids anything they want. I buy them a motorbike. We take it to a field near the ocean. There are dirt trails running through the tall weeds. All three of us get on the bike and with a little trouble I take them along the hard sand next to the water. Salt spray fills our narices. The wind is in our hair. ‘I love my poppy!’ the little one yells. I’m feeling good but when I take them home she’s shouting at me, that I should give her the bike money for the house. ‘You mean for dee pot parties,’ I say. Then we haf a big fight and I head for the door and the little one is crying and he says, ‘Don’t go, Poppy!’ and I haf to look away from his eyes.”
When Carlos delivers his monologue, I see things through a silk screen, never getting a totally clear picture of where, when or why. He’s kind of impressionistic in his story telling. In fact, I don’t even know where he lives, though he’s told me more than once. The boss thinks Carlos doesn’t have a phone. He got that impression without being lied to, just snowed by semantics and hazy communication. Actually, the phone is under Carlos’ mother’s name and unlisted. Not having a phone excuses him from being called out on emergencies in the middle of the night when building superintendents get frantic. A water leak can be as destructive as fire.
Disaster at home is not avoided like at work where an impervious combination of oakum and hot tar keeps the rain out. In recent days my three-year-old son Jonathan has tipped the television off its stand. He made a two-foot long gouge in the piano with a pair of scissors. He cut a rug in half in the hall and broke two windows. All of this may be because my daughter who has never gotten over his arrival and doesn’t want him around. I tell Carlos about it, how when he enters her room and says, ‘Good morning, Lizzy,’ she says, ‘Go away!’ They fight like cats and dogs and we always have to separate them.”
“They love you and like to break your cookies,” Carlos says. “I’d like to see dos kids.”
The boss shows up unexpectedly during one of our long lunch breaks in the park. I smell his cigar smoke before we enter the penthouse. He’s peeved that we were not on the job. I explain that we’re ahead of the other trades and that we don’t take coffee breaks. He hears me out but I expect there’s going to be a change. In the past when guys got along too well, he separated them. Carlos seems to want to relocate anyway, but he still has a lot to tell me the next day.
“One night,” he begins. “My wife calls me on the telephone at two o’clock in dee morning. She’s hysterical and says, ‘Carlos, you haf to come right away!’ At first I think it’s because she’s finally sorry and missing me, but then she says that it’s the boys, that there’s been a fire. How bad? I want to know. ‘Come,’ she says crying and hangs up.
“I borrow a friend’s car and race through dee Holland Tunnel wondering if my boys are home or in the hospital. When I get to New Jersey where they live, fire trucks are blocking the street. I leave the car and run to see that most of the building is burned. I learn that my boys were inside, that they burned to death because of a fire that somebody started deliberately. It’s a four story, wood frame house – a matchbox. My wife sees me and wants to be near. I don’t let her touch me. I think it’s then I stop loving her. How could we haf each other now with what we let happen to our kids. Living together we could have been in a safer place but she doesn’t need me anymore because she’s now a maestro. Smoke is still coming out of the top floor. My kids are already in body bags in an ambulance. I stand next to it thinking to see them once more but I would rather remember them on that beach with the motorbike.”
Solder drips out of a joint as I turn my blowtorch away from a copper line that will supply the sink in the “dee English’s” green house. I can’t think of anything to say as the flame continues to howl. I don’t turn to look at Carlos because I know he’s crying.
“We take the boys back to Puerto Rico and bury them there. At the funeral her father, the dog doctor, looks at me like it’s all my fault and his daughter is innocent. My wife goes back to America and continues to be a maestro but I stay in my father’s house and later get a job in the boatyard that he used to own. I no see anybody. I go fishing all dee tine. My mother and brother want me to come back to New York. They think I’m a little cracy, maybe like the Gunnysack Man.”
That afternoon on the F train headed for home, I think about all that Carlos has told me. I hear him saying, “They lof you. That’s why they like to break your cookies. I’d like to see dos kids.”
At dinner, when things finally settle down I tell Alice about Carlos’ loss. She’s moved to tears and says, “We’ll have to have him over for a meal.”
“I don’t know if he’ll come to our neighborhood – maybe if I ask him to help me do a job around the house.”
Later, when the kids are sleeping, I enter Jonathan’s room. He still sleeps with his hands above his head. I’m told this is a sign of health. There’s a nightlight to keep the monsters away. Sometimes he even sets up traps made of ropes and blankets. I put my index finger in his palm and he grips it reflexively. His blond hair is almost down to his eyes and his mouth is open, the lips now swollen with innocence. What a contrast to the foxy, mischievous boy by day.
To be continued.
Terry Berkson is an author living in Richfield Springs.