“Do you know what poisons cows?” He asked.
A plastic bag rustled between the long limbs of an old and wrinkling tree. Two paper coffee cups tumbled down the street, their plastic lids clinking against the grey drum of a bubble gum strewn sidewalk in New York. A car horn screamed from somewhere not too far away. The wind picked up, the bag rustled louder, cups clinked faster, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a city.
“Is Esperanza,” He said, but I wasn’t listening.
I was too busy watching three children skip-the-cracks across the sidewalk, near a fruit cart stand selling green and purple grapes by the pound without the seeds. Bananas bagged in bushels and boxes full of strawberries on sale for a dollar. All the fresh fruit low-income housing could ask for, all for cheap, and about a walks home away from expiring.
“What?” I asked, and Mingo shifted his weight against his cane. I heard his thousand year old Puerto-Rican bones groan, and his mustache twitched like a cats whiskers as he adjusted his body weight. He smacked his lips, further adding to my mental metaphor, which was a bad habit he’d retained after years of chewing tobacco.
“The cow.” He repeated calmly. “You know what poisons them?”
And I shook my head to show I didn’t.
We were leaning on concrete slabs that edged out the corner deli just steep enough to take a seat in. Me, looking too deep into the everyday scenery, and Mingo’s
lively and grey little eyes glinting, looking out to Third Avenue the way a farmer does his crop. He had the patience only age can teach you, the still yet sturdy air of decaying trees. Wise and old, or old enough to seem wise; I couldn’t tell. An old man can say just about whatever he wants and get a stunned tribute from me. Maybe that’s the remnants of my inner Catholic I’ve yet to snuff out: respecting elders and thinking too highly of them, feeling overwhelmed by guilt if I didn’t. Or it could be that I trust experience more than anything, because the hardness of life is also a teacher. And from what I’ve seen, we don’t learn as much from happiness as we do from the scars of healing.
“Esperanza, is a plant. They eat it, and then,” He ran his index finger along his neck, a universal sign, clicked his teeth, and the little calf was done.
I clipped my cigarette, feeling a stubborn and humid heat smoldering around me. It was close to 9AM but the day didn’t seem to want to start. Sunlight lingered on the horizon and yawned across the fruit cart vendors temples, slouched between the children across the avenue who’d stopped jumping and found more interest staring at their own feet. Dingy rays dragged between the plastic lids nestling in the gutter, crawled along the sidewalk and halfway up the 99 Cent and bodega storefront buildings. Then, near the top, seemed to wince and suddenly retreat, giving up on ever moving on with the day. The morning was a low, dull Monday: fat, bloated, and sitting on itself, waiting.
But for what?
“Why do they eat it,” I asked. “If it’s poison.”
And Mingo shrugged.
Esperanza is a flower, bright and beautiful with yellow petals. And Esperanza is also hope, just as bright and ruinous. I couldn’t decide which he meant killed them first, the toxins or definition, and as I wondered this, Mingo dug his shoes into the sidewalk and began to show his roots.
“I killed somebody once,” He said unexpectedly. “Coz’ of a woman.”
He was calm, not sad or entirely delighted. Not resentful, or proud, but with the air of a man that’s lived, and in living, was reflective of what he has done. I lack the grace to remain kind in cruel situations, but a hot heart for the coldest matters. Mingo had purposefully either confided in me as a friend, or turned the sanctuary of our corner into his personal confession booth. And in either scenario I couldn’t think of what to say, so chose to remain silent. Preferred to come off as indifferent than commit to either condoning or forgiving him, listened as a cars exhaust coughed awkwardly down the road.
“You got a girl?” He asked after a while.
Down the block a gilded goddesses hips swayed toward us, and she reminded me of a girl I reminded myself to forget. Gray eyed and somber lip’d, the kind of face easy to compliment and hard to miss-remember. I was staring and I didn’t care, and the longer I dared the sooner I realized that familiar was just wistful thinking. She didn’t look anything like her. The sighs were all wrong. She didn’t have the unhappiness riddled along her creases, she didn’t hold me like a melody at the sight of her hand or freckled forearm.
She passed us and swooped around the corner, and along with her, that memory I had almost remembered was gone.
“Yeah,” I said to Mingo, and I heard his head nod solemnly by the sound of his neck creaking.
Strange, the debris our hearts seem to build even after years of street cleaning. Odd, how songs still sound the same but lose lose their meaning once we outgrow them. The plastic bag still rustled between the limbs of an old and wrinkled tree, and a car horn’s scream got louder, but sounded just a littler farther off. The wind died down, the cups sat silently in the gutter, and I thought there was a kind of music to the pollution of a human being.
“Never killed anybody for her though.” I added, and Mingo laughed, ominously.
It began to rain and the three children scrambled under the safe pan of an awning. I felt a buzz in my pocket and reached for my cell phone, stood admiring the grim blue tint of a text message from a girl I reminded myself to forget. I didn’t mind the rain and smiled as the droplets ricocheted off the screen, a familiar invitation and a promise.
“You might someday,” He said.
I clipped my cigarette and said goodbye.