Death can harden your soul, particularly when a piece of it has gone away with one who has departed.
Who do you call when you feel you are on the verge of death, following on the gloomy echo of a beloved?
First, a strange thirst fills your mouth, then a soft drip echoes in the cellar. Is it the cellar of my mind, or am I hearing that drip in the actual cellar of the house? A drip of life-saving water? I can hardly tell. I am compelled to find out. It’s just one flight down, past a mountain of coal. Perhaps I’ll go to the kitchen first and lean on the porcelain and sip the last memory of life from whatever I can find to sip. No—the cellar is a much better place. It’s cool. It might preserve my body. Maybe Henry’s, too. It’s our last time together, so let me put back on his boots so I won’t injure his feet. Too many splinters in the hallway.
We are born whole, but every day another piece is taken away. Some people unknowingly allow pieces to be taken away. But a human body renews all of its cells in the span of seven years. I am not human. Lucky for me I don’t suffer as my parents did. I’m comforted that there’s an afterlife, where I will once again meet them. My parents left me enough money to leave Puerto Rico in 1920 and move to Brooklyn. I was eight at the time, and my aunt made room for me in her brownstone on Cheever Street. Sometimes I would see my Aunt write Harrison Street as the return address on bills. One day I asked the postman about it. He told me that Harrison was the former name of Cheever Street. It took some time for my aunt to accept the change. My new home was crowded, although Auntie’s husband Julio traveled to Ohio for six months at a time to work on farms. Five of my cousins fought all the time and kept me up at night. Brooklyn felt like Puerto Rico. Except in wintertime. The pipes would freeze, so Uncle Julio moved our beds closer to the wall, hoping that our body heat would thaw them. Even though Julio wasn’t a blood relative, he felt like one. Seeing how studious I was enticed him to give me my own space to study. My cousins called me smarty pants. But Uncle Julio told me to ignore them. “Your intelligence will help us all someday,” he promised.
I studied a lot. The more the teachers noticed my intelligence, the more they gave me to do. More homework. More projects. More review tests. One day—the hottest day of the year—Uncle Julio was hammering and digging in the backyard. I asked him what he was doing. My uncle mumbled, “I am going to run fresh water to your room, so Henry will ever have to stop his learning.” I asked him why. He explained, “Henry needs peace and quiet, so a wash basin in your room will allow you to keep studying.” I thought my uncle was crazy, just like my cousins. As he continued to dig, his voice changed to a high pitch whistle. Maybe his front tooth finally came off, I thought to myself.
Sometimes I get quiet thinking about my mother and father. Auntie says this is normal. Maybe it’s because Julio isn’t around much. But he’ll be back before winter.
All my cousins are growing fast, especially Carmen. All the boys on Henry Street walk to our house to get a kiss from her. I’ll never be that bold. But Carmen just laughs. Then there is Miriam and her twin brother Gabriel, who is three years younger than me. Those two are so sneaky, but what they don’t realize is that the tough Brooklyn streets can cast a shadow on your every move. Puerto Rico was so different. The streets had names like Padre Noel and Santa Marta—always two or three-word street names. But in Brooklyn there’s Fulton, Flatbush and Court. So much simpler. My cousins never drink water. Only juice and soda pop.
Today is my birthday. Julio and Auntie made a beautiful flan cake. It’s not my favorite, but it was my mom’s favorite and Auntie remembers how her sister would always pay for all the Christmas gifts by selling flan. As a kid I didn’t care too much about what happens in the kitchen, but when mom would make flan the whole house would always smell so good. So I’d go into the kitchen and sit with my mom as she whipped up the cream, poured in the sugar and whisked the eggs. That’s why I’m such a fan of flan. Anyone would be if they smelled that marvelous aroma coming out of the oven. Auntie is still mourning my mother and a home filled with her special kitchen fragrances. It’s almost like my mom’s spirit is at peace.
I blow out thirteen candles, and it feels silly. I’m not a kid anymore, but still, we have fun. All my cousins give me big bear hugs and small gift boxes. From Julio I receive a crucifix and from Auntie a model airplane. I enjoy all the gifts.
At this point, at age thirteen, my life takes a strange turn. I’m putting away all my gifts and hear strange sounds coming from the water pipes in my room. It sounds like someone trying to open the line. I’m scared but take a quick glance out the window to see if Uncle Julio might be in the backyard fixing something—but he isn’t there. The sound gets louder. I didn’t want to get anyone angry because I have just gotten all those nice gifts and they threw me a really great party. So I run to the faucet to see if I can tighten the spigot, but the pipes don’t stop squeaking. My next thought is to fully open the spigot, and just as I am about to do that, a strong odor comes out. I hadn’t even touched it! Then I hear a throaty whisper: “Don’t drink me…. Don’t drink me…. Don’t drink me…”
I run out of my room.
I hustle outside with no shoes and sprint for ten blocks until someone yells, “Hey, son, your feet are bleeding.” I stop by a mailbox, panting, and look down at my bloody feet. I hear a bus screech to a stop. The driver opens the door, looks at me and says, “I don’t have all day, you know.” For some reason—I don’t know why—I hop into the bus, take a seat, and fall to sleep.
I am awakened by trees outside casting shadows that flicker on my eyelids.
“Boy, wake up,” someone says, shaking me hard. It’s a big man. He hands me eight cents. “You’ll need this to transfer because from the looks of things, you’re lost.” He pulls out a pair of socks from his pocket and hands them to me. “I don’t know what happened to you, but I assume your parents are worried,” he says.
Then the bus driver yells, “Last stop, Highland Park.”
I look up at the big man and thank him. He exits the bus and wobbles away into the setting sun.
With eight cents in hand, I put on the socks, look for the bus in the distance, and welcome a brief sense of calm. Highland Park is different than Fulton Street. There are a lot of trees, like in Puerto Rico, and the sounds almost resemble a tropical waterfall. That helps bring about the calm. I climb a small hill, where I am able to see the New York City skyline flickering in the distance. When I brush aside some tall weeds to get a better view, I discover a large reservoir of water. Where, I wonder, did all this water come from? In the distance I hear an engine humming near a one-story brick building. The engine is pumping the water above a lake and making an artificial waterfall. The water smells sweet, like Puerto Rican water. I have a crazy desire to taste it. I see a small water fountain about a hundred feet away, located on the banks of the reservoir. I figure it must share the same source of water. That makes sense.
So I make a quick dash to the water fountain, hoping to accomplish my task before the bus arrives. Pushing away more weeds, I leap to the fountain and push hard on the tap. Water smacks me in the face. I am all wet. It seems as if no one has used this water fountain in a thousand years. Resting my arms on the fountain in frustration and confusion I notice a small inscription underneath the water spout which reads, “Don’t drink the water.”
Not that again! I suddenly become very homesick. The bus is on its way. All I can think about is what my uncle and Auntie will think when they get a good look at me.
Auntie has passed on. It was day before I headed to college. I’ll never forget her. Poor Uncle Julio—taking care of three children all by himself. Maybe Auntie will see my mother again. I can only hope. I plan to major in biology somewhere in North Dakota. I promised myself I’d stay away from the cold weather, but for some strange reason the cold has become my calling. They do experiments up there in the frigid Dakota environment, and that’s appealing to me. For instance, a lot of people die when left outside in a harsh Dakota winter. But biology students look for ways to reverse the effects of frost bite. The university is a great place to be, but it can never replace the love and kindness that my aunt and uncle showed me—a home filled with the aroma of Auntie’s flan. I wonder how Uncle Julio does it alone.
The words “Don’t drink the water” appear in all kinds of places, from books and advertisements to religious doctrines. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe I’m going insane. I tell myself that these are coincidences. But the water in my bedroom at Auntie’s house—is that a coincidence, too? Or did she do something to me? Can I live forever?
After my Highland Park adventure, Uncle Julio grounds me for a month. No more birthday cake, no more fishing trips to Canarsie, and absolutely no chocolate.
I do an experiment with a butterfly. I am lying half awake as a beam of light hits my face one morning. Peaking through the sheets I see a butterfly moving strangely, causing a beam of sunlight to flicker. Getting up quickly, I rub my eyes. The butterfly moves back and forth between the curtains and the window, asking for help. I see a small bird eyeing the poor creature. Maybe that’s why she came in—to escape the bird before it nibbles at her. I never knew too much about butterflies, but I know she is “cabbage white,” a beautiful thing. So I put her in a jar with a small twig. I run to school like never before, straight to the library.
The librarian recognizes my enthusiasm and hands me a book called “The A to Z on Butterflies.” I skim through the book. Butterflies, it turns out, love sunflowers and purple coneflower. I have no money, but there has to be a sunflower somewhere in Brooklyn. After school I run to Prospect Park. Maybe they’ve planted flowers there. I hope so. If I get home late, I’ll be officially grounded again. No luck in Prospect Park. I head down Flatbush Avenue and turn left on Baltic, but no left on Henry. It’s straight to Hicks.
Huffing and puffing, worried about my newly discovered cabbage white, I’m surprised to see that the city is planting sunflowers on Hicks. There’s a big truck with plants and shovels and a man who waters the plants after they put them in soil within the ledges of light poles and sign poles at the edge of the sidewalk. He yells in Spanish, “Aguilita.” I stop and reply, “Excuse me sir?” “You are from Aguilita, yes?” he asks. “With all due respect,” I say, “who are you?” The man tells me I have a familiar face. We talk while he waters the plants and I discover that he knew my mother and he says I look just like her . He was from Aguilita, he explains. My mom lived there for a little while when her parents were going through a difficult time. As we talk he notices I keep looking at the sunflowers and he hands me a bunch. He tells me how to take care of them. He also says that Hicks Street will change someday, that more people will come. I shrug my shoulders and head home, but as I turn the corner I look back. The truck has a sign on its side: “No Drinking Water.”
This is getting creepier by the day.
I name the butterfly “Cabbage.” It’s a strange name, like calling a cat “Feline,” but she doesn’t seem to mind. Something unusual is happening to the butterfly; she’s getting bigger than usual and has lived for more than six months now. By all rights, Cabbage should be dead, but as I enter the fifth grade, Cabbage is still fluttering around. I still have to hide her so that my cousins won’t kill her or pull her wings off. Cabbage makes lonely times tolerable. I amuse myself by making puddles on my desk so that I can watch Cabbage rest her legs gently on the water droplets. So many strange things can happen in Brooklyn. It is so different than Aguilita.
My uncle always tells us to make sure the doors are closed and the windows shut tight, and to let him know if there are any broken windows screens. We love to sit during summer under the large Linden tree and watch the other boys play stick-ball off their gray and brown stoops. Uncle Julio reminds us to shut the door behind us.
As summer moves on I start to smell an odor from my bedroom as if a mouse has expired. The odor gets stronger. I glance around my room. I move things around. I still can’t find anything. The next day I jump out of bed, awakened by flies biting at my nose. I know now it must be a dead mouse, or something like it, so I go down to the basement in my pajamas, early enough so that my uncle won’t ask me what I’m doing. He keeps a flashlight next to a shrine of his mother, making it seem as if the flashlight has a sacred value. So I know to bring the flashlight back and put it exactly where I found it. Back in my room, I cast the light all around. I’m surprised my cousins don’t wake up through all of the noise, especially when I open up my desk drawers, one of which is filled with knives.
There is only one last place to check. It’s obvious now that the smell is coming from my closet, but I’m having a hard time getting up the courage to look. I slowly peel away the layers of books and old skiing equipment to open the closet door, and when I do I see a furry tail and gasp. I stand back; this is one hell of a large rat. A swarm of flies encircles its tail. I have to face it, even though the smell is driving me mad. I take one step forward, I grab a broomstick which happens to be nearby, and poke at the rat. Its body is stiff and hard. I gasp once more. I suddenly notice the creature is wrapped in white twine, so I pull at the twine and unravel it. I see it is not a rat, but a squirrel. I keep pulling at the twine and then realize that the squirrel has somehow strangled itself. But how did it get in here?
I turn my head quickly to the window and see a tear in the screen, as if a baseball has been hurled through it. Brooklyn kids love stoopball and baseball, and sometimes it drives me nuts. I just want to get this creature out of here—but I also feel pity for it; after all, squirrels are cute when they run around the backyard. But when they die, their bodies morph into something scary. Silently, I tiptoe down the stairs with the squirrel, holding it by the white twine, and drop it into the trash can. Before leaving the basement, I get some bleach and pour it all over the floor of my closet and try to swat the flies away.
The next morning I hear my uncle yell, “Son of a bitch! How did this squirrel get in here?”
I remember getting many headaches in Puerto Rico, but since I’ve been drinking this tap water they’ve gone away. Coincidence? It makes me wonder.
I TUMBLED INTO LOVE
She was the only one who I trusted with my secret. It happened between buildings on campus, in ten inches of snow. I had taken a shortcut from the cleared paths, but collapsed from a massive headache into a mound of snow. Brooklyn is still inside of me in many ways, and maybe the Kings saved me—Kings being a reference to Kings County, in which Brooklyn resides. Sharr came to my rescue. She was a neighbor from Red Hook. I knew that I needed water from Brooklyn to save me, but couldn’t foresee Sharr being my partner in life. Every so often, between long breaks from school, l would journey back home for warmth, literally and figuratively—for love from neighbors—and also for the practical reason of filling three jugs with water and bringing them back with me in my little Volkswagen. Sharr would always come along. I never wanted to test the water, but Sharr couldn’t resist. Back in North Dakota she spends most of her time using up all my water, so I hide one jug from her. From all her testing, she never detects anything different between Dakota water and Brooklyn water. Maybe it just works on me. This, too, is something I have to wonder about.
Have you ever heard of an American Elm tree? It’s found in North Dakota. It’s the state’s official tree. But the one I hit became the tallest. Sharr and I have an argument and get distracted and run over a hubcap, which blows my tire, sending my car over some really large rocks, smashing all the tires, slowing us down, then wedging us between two trees. We’re lucky. Unhurt. Sharr is silent, which terrifies me at first.
“Honey, we are leaking fuel,” I say. I grab her and we run over to the side of the road. After we compose ourselves, I approach the car. That’s when I see that the leaking liquid is not fuel, but water from the jugs that had been stored inside. They smash when we hit the tree.
Months pass. That Elm I hit grows so wide and tall that I snap a picture of it as proof. Is it this mystery water that keeps Sharr young and beautiful? And what is it doing to me? More questions. Few answers.
This little situation has matured me quickly, but I still question my life. “I’m always hiding something.” Is that right?
Just like life in Brooklyn, one moment can be calm, and the next chaotic. Brooklyn has many eyes, and you would guess some gruesome telescopic nosy-body put two and two together and discovered that I wasn’t taking water up north to make New York-style pizza or to bake bread. But can you imagine in my final year of school, standing near my front door is my nosy neighbor. In North Dakota! Yes, this gruesome telescopic nosy-body is the tax man all the way from Brooklyn. First I let him talk, but to my surprise he’s here checking out schools for his daughter. Having to hide my activity is starting to put me on edge. Or is the water having an effect on me?
I want to travel the world with Sharr, but Brooklyn will consume my ashes someday. Why do I think so far into the future? This is the day that changes my life. The Brooklyn Expressway is constructed near my family’s house. It’s a big dig. My uncle calls me to take a look. It has become an empty house in ’56. My cousins moved away. My uncle and I became closer, thanks to the quarterly visits to Brooklyn from Cape Cod, where Sharr and I make a living as marine biologists. I feel guilty visiting my uncle only for the water. But he is a good man who always shares stories about Ohio, and how good my mother and my aunt were. But the new expressway isn’t my only surprise. First, my uncle is dying. He’s leaving the house to me and asks me to figure out when the water is going to be put back on.
I just ran out of the house due to all the shocking news. My uncle is dying. Selfish Henry doesn’t want to die. I run back in and hug my uncle. After an hour of crying together I make my way to my old bedroom. The sink is missing. “Uncle, where is the sink?” I ask. “I’ve moved it to the basement, Henry,” he replies.
I make my way down those weather-scorched steps and can’t see a glimmer of that shiny porcelain sink. As I hold my breath and put my hand to my chin, I see my mother and aunt near the porcelain. “Son, come,” my mother says, “this is your time to drink from the porcelain of generations. We knew of waters that provide life, but some things cannot delay death. Even waters like this don’t guarantee longevity.” I stand still, while upstairs my uncle passes.
Everything gets replaced. This empty feeling, with many loses, can only be satisfied by moving back to Brooklyn, back to Henry, Hicks & Cheever. I never saw mom again, but a home weathered with my family’s soul makes living a delight.
The new Expressway severs the water lines and divides the lives of Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx. I make a friend at the dig. I get maps and architectural plans of rerouted pipes. It’s all good. We still look young—for 121! We get new names and fake tombstones. Those old pipes in the walls of the foundation still drip out eternal life.
Every thirty years later, we get new social security numbers. I’m on my third one now.
Writer Robertson Tirado 2017 copyright