by E. Martin-Clarke
|Raul was staring up at his friend, Damian, who had pulled himself up with both hands onto the ledge of a window to see what was happening in the inside of a circle of people. The small crowd that had gathered on the corner of 12th and Greenwich was laughing, applauding at something Damian could not hear, even though he was looking down into the circle. There were two cops inside the circle. Their patrol car was standing empty by the curb, the two front doors open, its flashing light on, the siren turned off.
With a whine to exasperate a Zen master, Raul kept asking Damian, "So, man, what's happening?" After a short while, he pulled at Damian's pants, expecting a protest and not hearing one. Here, thought Raul, what a useless friend. Good for nothing! Raul slid his hand under the left leg of Damian's pants and pinched the calf hard, saying, "Come on, man!"
Raul's sense of excitement had begun ebbing away. And so was the feeling of lightheadedness caused by the grass he had smoked earlier. He wanted to laugh and he wanted to laugh now. "Come on, man! What's going on?"
Peering down at Raul, Damian said, "That hurt, man." Then he added, "Come on up and see for yourself." He knew his offer could only be answered in the negative, for how could anyone walk--let alone climb on a window ledge--when the waist of one's pants was secured around the lower part of one's buttocks? He wished Raul would grow out of that dress code.
Suddenly, a loud cheering exploded from inside the circle, expanding outwardly. Damian laughed out loud too, though he had heard nothing.
As if pushed down by a powerful echoing wave, Raul dropped on all fours and proceeded to make his way to the inner part of the circle while holding onto his pants, which he feared he might leave behind. As he emerged from between the crowd's many legs, Raul noticed that a homeless man had buttoned himself to a lamppost by the front of his coat and was swearing at the two cops. The cops were not amused by the abuse. They kept their distance to avoid the spit that was coming out at them in a steady stream and for fear of being unfairly accused of police brutality by the public.
Raul felt an urgent need to take a shot at the cops with the small automatic he had gotten earlier today from a friend, but instead he held his hands high in front of him and applauded the homeless man, shouting,"Good for you, man. Yeah, hombre!" Somebody else applauded. Then someone else yelled, "Let him be! He's only expressing himself. His art is as good as anybody's on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art."
Raul turned his head away from the homeless man to see what the self-appointed art critic was talking about. Not that Raul knew anything about art or cared about understanding it. None of his friends did. Anyway art was for maricones! Sissies! As he looked to the right, he focused on a rectangular patchwork of vivid colors--the size of a large beach towel--that his mind had dismissed earlier as a drawing made with chalk.
Over the years, Raul had become bored with the intricate chalk drawings of fleshy angels fallen from gray skies onto the sidewalk, spilling over into the gutter. With the barefoot street artists in matted hair and glazed eyes that begged for a dollar in exchange for a square foot of disposable picture. Raul never gave anything. What was one to do in return for the money? Dig up the cobblestones or sidewalk slabs covered with the colorful marks? Dismantle the drawing as if it were a giant puzzle? I take the head! You take the torso just in case this street artist makes it to the top one day! Like that Basquiat bastard. Basquiat was still a name among some kids. The stuff of legend. How to get rich with scratches made on walls!
Now Raul realized that the colorful display he was looking at consisted of pieces of fabric arranged in such a manner to remind onlookers of the American flag, but without the stars. Big deal, Raul thought at first. Now that he could do. Though illiterate when it came to art, Raul was nonetheless able to appreciate the skills that were required to paint, on rough surfaces, the muscular angels with wings he knew came from across the Atlantic--from somewhere in Italy and in Spain. His mother, a devout Catholic, pinned postcards of such paintings around the apartment. All over. Like having the whole of the frigging Church at home every day. For dinner, in bed, in the bathroom. What's this thing with angels, Raul wondered as the words of a Cuban song suddenly went through his head, "Pintor, ¿que pintas con amor? ¿Porque no pintas angelitos negros que tambien se van al cielo?" Yeah, right! Painter, what are you painting with such love? Why don't you paint black little angels, for they too go to Heaven?
A scream followed by a statement from the homeless man pulled Raul out of his reverie, "I'm a veteran of the Vietnam War. Have a little respect!"
"So am I," the younger cop answered, sneering widely.
Not another veteran, Raul thought with a dismissive nod of the head. His father had gone to Vietnam and had never come back. Well, his mind and heart had stayed behind. In New York, he was still at war, beating wife, kids, and grandchildren, drinking his brains dead, sitting day in day out in a bodega while bitching about the American Government and concocting plans to overturn Fidel's regime. Yeah, his fucking dad was an angel. This fucking homeless man was an angel. He himself was a fucking angel. All of them were angels. Angels that had been left behind in the trenches. But to fight what? Raul laughed out loud. To fight a war of car exhaust, he told himself nodding his head in agreement to his own voice of discontent. The exhaust fumes that they inhaled after collapsing in the gutter from too much drinking. Cojones! Balls! The streets, that's where human kindness stops, but maybe not today. Not today!
"Don't touch it! Don't you dare touch it!" the homeless man was screaming as he unbuttoned his coat to free himself from the lamppost. "I am that flag!"
With his stick, one of the cops selected a corner piece from the colorful rectangular patchwork and waved it up in the air. Some people in the crowd laughed when they realized it was a pair of striped boxer shorts in red and white.
The homeless man threw himself at the cop, shouting insults and yet he was crying. The cops pinned the man down on the ground while the crowd protested. Raul thought he could feel the thick leather shoe cracking against the man's neck. Hear the gun coming out of a holster. Closing his eyes, he imagined instead that skin was bursting on his no-brains-no-heart father's chest as new sirens started to wail in the distance. Someone had called for backup. And it was wrong. All wrong!
A sudden shout squeezed through Paul's throat. A long shrieking exploded. He knew he was not a fool after all. All this time he had felt he had no voice inside, with his tongue nailed against the back of his throat. Nothing to direct him. But not today. Raul stood out of the circle, took off his pants and his Looney Tunes boxer shorts, and went in his tight-fitting Hanes underwear to place the shorts in the corner of the flag where a pair was missing. The crowd cheered, thrilled with the young man's audacity. Some onlookers applauded widely. Raul heard Damian shout, "You got cojones, man! Big cojones!"
The police, who had been slow to react, were now pushing Raul down on the ground. One of the cops smacked him on the side of the head with a gun. Yeah, Raul told himself, he had cojones and he had trouble. He could hear Damian, a wingless angel holding onto the iron bars of the window, yelling at the cop, "That's my friend you hurting! He ain't done nothing, man!"
From where he lay, his left cheek crushed into the sidewalk, Raul heard car doors slamming shut, sirens wailing. He saw feet in regulation shoes push pedestrians away from the patchwork flag, which was coming apart as careless hands were snatching away pairs of boxer shorts. Then Raul had a vision of himself as one of those sidewalk angels that were pinned flat into the ground with colorful strokes of chalk by anonymous artists. An angel as handsome as can be: black and muscular with joyful, black eyes. In his vision, a golden beam of light pierced the clouded city. The angel was sprouting large, golden wings. It was an angel as black as charcoal, gliding away, in loose swirls, high above América.