VOICES FROM THE FIRE: Paul Ilechko

Kingbird

I was watching the birds the day that Jose Mendez cracked up. I do that a lot. You can learn a lot from birds, trust me on this. I bet that old Chinese guy, Sun Tzu, got some of his ideas from watching them. They know strategy. I was watching kingbirds – a whole family of them, squatting on a branch in one of Celia’s apple trees. Kingbirds, yeah. Ain’t nobody going to mess with those boys. Nobody. Not the crows, not the blue jays, not even the mockingbirds, who harass just about anything that comes into their territory. The mockers are tough too – they’ll take on a crow if they have to, even a red tail. But a kingbird? No way. 

Some of the guys that I chat with online think it’s pretty damn weird when I tell them about the birds. You don’t get it, man, I tell them. Birds are incredible. That morning – the one I’m talking about – I’d been watching the ballet of the kingbirds catching flies – a thing of beauty, let me tell you. Then Celia’s goddamn lawn service shows up, all noise and exhaust fumes. 

Ilya hasn’t been the same since the accident. He doesn’t remember too much about the details, and it’s probably best that way. He doesn’t remember what happened right before we got in the car, and that’s definitely a good thing. It would be much too complicated to tell him about the truth at this point, so I keep up the story that we’ve settled into. One thing that’s odd, though, is that he’s never called me Mom, or Mother, or anything like that, since the first time I visited him after his surgery. He called me Celia, there in the hospital, and that’s what he’s called me ever since. At first, I thought it was because he remembered the conversation with Ernesto, but now I’m sure that he doesn’t, so I don’t understand what caused the change. There’s a lot of stuff that we don’t understand though, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve concluded that it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.  

Don’t get me wrong about the lawn service, I love those guys. All of them are Mexicans, and they’re a good crew. They all work for Ernesto, not that he ever shows his face around here. He’s got three crews: he’s raking in the dough. Spends half his time in Miami. Anyway, they like me because I speak Spanish, and because I’m a regular guy, not like most of the upper-class assholes around here, with their expensive suits and Mercedes Benz trucks, their snooty attitudes. We’re the misfits in this development; we only live here because Celia got the house when she divorced Robert.

When Ernesto’s guys come, I always make up a big jug of tea for them. I made one that day too, same as usual.  I’m heading outside with it, down the ramp and out through the garage, and I’m just in time to see Jose drive his lawnmower right through Celia’s tulip bed. Man is she going to be pissed, I’m thinking to myself, when he stops, pulls out a gun, and starts shooting out the windows at the Canters’ house. Jesus H. Christ, and I’m scrambling back inside. If I learned one thing from my birds, it’s that flight is usually the wisest move when there’s trouble.

Fuck the bastards, fuck all of them. I cut their lawns and my sister cleans their houses, but we’re invisible to them. We can’t afford to live in their expensive neighborhoods, but the places where we have to live, the white people there don’t want us either. They complain because we live too many in a house, or they see us waiting for work in the street. What’s the problem with trying to work, I ask you? Then, one Mexican commits a crime, they want to deport all of us, they say we are savages, we are criminals. All we try to do is feed our families. When one white man commits a crime, they don’t blame the whole race, do they? Well, they say I’m a criminal, I’ll show them what a fucking criminal is.

Out of the window I see the cop cars come screaming in, followed by Ernesto in his Porsche. Ernesto is chatting with the cops. I guess he’s trying to keep them calm enough that they don’t kill Jose, who doesn’t seem to be trying to hurt anyone specifically.  Now here comes Celia, home from work. The cops have blocked off the access road, so they wave her over to the side of the street, and Ernesto walks over to talk to her.

I’ve known Ernesto for years. We used to shoot pool together over at Billy’s. Man, he was one hell of a player, and he knew how to milk it. Most of the guys there, they would show up wearing jeans, t-shirts, cutoffs – you know, very casual looking. Ernesto comes in wearing a white suit. Under the suit he has on a chocolate brown shirt and a bowtie. He has his own cue, a two-piece MacMorran, that he assembles so carefully that you’d think it was likely to explode if he made a mistake.

He’s a short guy, Ernesto, even for a Mexican. When he’s playing, he stands with his feet apart, watching his opponent. He’ll have the cue resting on the floor, leaning in the crook of his elbow, and he stands there with his thumbs in the lapel of his jacket, all oratorical looking, like some kind of crazed schoolteacher. He stands and stares into the eyes of his adversary, never looking at the balls on the table until it’s his turn to play

Ilya is a good kid. I tried so hard to help him when he was growing up. Celia was a mess in those days. She wouldn’t talk to me anymore, but when Ilya came to the pool hall, I was able to get to know him a little. He’d had a tough childhood, like most of the kids in that neighborhood.

Everyone who meets Celia thinks that she’s Hispanic. But she isn’t. In fact, her father was half Russian and half Armenian, and her mother was from Haiti. She grew up speaking English, French and Armenian, still speaks fluent French. She told me that most of her cousins spoke patois, but that she had to be careful her mother didn’t hear her speaking it, otherwise she was liable to get a beating. If she was to speak French, then it had to be proper French, no matter where she was.

Before she had Ilya, she had been a dancer, but she never quite made it at the top level. It’s a damn shame, because you’ll never meet anyone so naturally graceful. After that ended, and after her marriage broke down, that’s when she started the drugs. Of course, I blame myself for that, which is why I’ve always tried to help her and the boy.

Gambling was always big at Billy’s, and Ernesto made a lot of money there. The regulars would never bet against Ernesto, but Billy’s was a location on the unofficial tour, and there were always guys coming by to take on the local champion. Suckers, most of them, but every now and again you would get a real hustler, and then the game was on. Like the time that Dooley showed up.

Dooley was a former pro. He was retired, but he could still play. Even I was thinking that maybe betting on Ernesto was not such a good idea that day. The game was nine-ball, first to win seven games.  Dooley won the first two, Ernesto came back to win the third with an unbelievable seven ball break, finishing with a seven-nine combination shot off two cushions. Dooley had to nod his head and tap his cue at that one. The fourth game was where the trouble started.

I remember it well. Ernesto in his usual pose, feet spread. He has a slightly unhinged grin. Dooley is in a good position; he’s cleared four balls and has a makeable combo shot to win it.  The shot lines up in such a way that Ernesto is directly in his line of vision. Etiquette demands that he move, but he just stands there, smiling, looking right into Dooley’s eyes. Dooley is in position, he’s going to play the shot, when he stops, straightens up, and glares at Ernesto.

“Are you going to move the fuck out of my way, or are you just going to stand there staring at me, you spic bastard?”

Silence. The whole crowd is on tenterhooks. The Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are looking at Ernesto, with this ‘shall we kill this asshole?’ look on their faces. The Irish boys are looking nervously around, realizing how outnumbered they are. Everyone else just wants to see what’s going to happen. Then Ernesto grins, takes his cue, bangs it on the ground twice, and laughs out loud. “You may as well pay me now, you Irish prick, because you just lost the match.”

Dooley stares at him with a confused expression, but Ernesto has already walked away and taken a seat, adjusting his pants so that the creases stay sharp. Dooley blows the shot, and Ernesto wins every game from that point forwards. You know what I think? I don’t believe that Ernesto was the best player that day; he won because he was the kingbird. Dooley was the mocker, but that wasn’t good enough. Not even close.

After I talked to the cops, I went into the house. Just like I expected, Ilya was at the window, watching everything.

“Hi, kid,” I said. “I knew you’d be by the window – are you trying to get yourself shot?”

“Come on, Celia, Jose isn’t going to shoot up this house. We’re buddies.”

“Ilya, love, think straight, will you? You don’t know where Jose’s head is at right now. Plus, the cops have guns too, remember.”

I wheeled him away from the window, into the middle of the room. I could see him fuming. He’s never adjusted to the loss of his ability to walk. The doctors say that there is nothing physically wrong, that it’s all in his mind, but that just makes him mad. I don’t know what to believe.

Celia grew up in a mixed neighborhood, but after it started getting more Spanish a lot of folks moved away. She learned to speak Spanish herself, and married a Dominican guy. His name was Carlos, and that’s pretty much all I know about him. He moved out when Celia got pregnant, and she divorced him. She was the one who named me, after her grandfather.

My childhood – what can I say? We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, a walkup off Melrose Avenue. I guess she was doing drugs then, but it wasn’t something that a kid would notice. People would come over for parties; in the morning the place was a mess. I would get myself up and go to school. Celia would come and pick me up in the afternoon, all apologetic.

When I got to my teens, I started to realize what was going on, and to get angry with her. She made some effort to clean up her act, or at least she hid it from me better. That was when I started hanging out around Ernesto. He’d been a friend of Celia’s for a while, but they didn’t speak anymore. He would try and have these man-to-man talks with me, telling me what a great person she was, and how I should focus on my schoolwork so that one day I could take her away from all the garbage. I liked Ernesto, but I just figured he was telling me this stuff as a favor to her. I just figured he tried something with her once, and she put him in his place.

I want to know what’s going on, so I wheel myself over towards the window, just as Celia turns back into the room. She catches hold of my chair and spins me around, and then dances away from me towards the kitchen. Watching her graceful movements just makes me more frustrated, makes me want to dance too.

Sometimes I dream that I can fly. There are birds that don’t have legs that are any use at all; they spend almost their entire lives in the air. Swifts are like that. They eat, drink, even breed, while flying; they can go over five hundred miles in a day. All they can do with their legs is hang on to vertical walls. My legs aren’t even that much use. They should have just cut the damn things off, have done with it. But the doctors tell me that there is nothing wrong with them, it’s all in my head.

That bastard Ernesto is here now. Look at him, chatting with the cops. It’s OK for him, he’s legal here, they can’t touch him. He’s a millionaire, and we’re barely surviving, living three in a room so we can send money back to our families. You’d think a man wouldn’t exploit his own people, but it’s human nature. Mexicans know about this. We remember the revolution, even though what they tell us in school is all lies. We know the truth and we pass it down, generation to generation, so that the children will know what we tried to do, and how it was perverted. It’s the same in the USA, except here they don’t even remember. 

The accident happened when I was seventeen. Celia was driving me back from the pool hall. She was angry with me because I was supposed to have come home early, I don’t remember why, and I was angry with her because she was strung out. She was still high when she picked me up, and I remember her screaming at Ernesto, although I don’t recall what it was about. I guess I was a little drunk too. She never saw the red light that she ran, or the truck that was coming down Jerome Avenue, the one that slammed into us.

God, I still remember everything about the first time I went to visit Ilya at Bronx-Lebanon. He’d been in there a week already, and had surgery three times, but I’d been injured too, and couldn’t get to him sooner. The nurses were great, they gave me daily updates on his condition.  He’d had his bones set, and it was just a matter of time, the doctors said. They would send him home in a wheelchair, and he’d be up and about in no time. That never happened; he’s been in that wheelchair eight years now. At least the accident straightened me out. I was done with the drugs.

When I went home from the hospital something was bothering me, and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t even want to talk to Celia, I was still pissed with her, but not because of the accident, there was something else, something that I couldn’t get a grip on. You’ll be walking soon, the doctors told me. Three weeks, maybe four, you can start taking your first steps. I never got out of the wheelchair. Oh, I tried, but my legs didn’t work. It’s psychosomatic, they tell me. Bullshit, I say.

Somehow Celia got enough money to move us to New Jersey, to a small town with a train station and an old-fashioned main street. She got a job as a waitress, and that was when she met Robert. They dated for a year or so, and then married. Robert never liked me– he was a prissy WASP guy, and I think he just saw me as a hoodlum. We moved into his house, the one we still live in. Robert moved out after the divorce; he lives in Manhattan now. Celia still runs the bakery store that Robert bought for her. None of the neighbors talk to us – I know that they think Celia is a gold-digger.

Two gunshots. Celia runs to the screen door. She screams “Ernesto!”, opens the door and runs out. I jump out of my chair and hobble to the window. Even before I get there, I know. I know what I’m going to see. I remember. I remember everything.

I remember Ernesto and Celia outside the pool hall arguing. I remember what Ernesto said that made Celia turn white. I remember the things she said to him after that. I remember getting in the car and driving home – yes, I was the one driving, not Celia. I was trying to calm her down, and I never saw the red light.

I know where the money came from, the money to pay for my treatment, and to make the down payment on the house in New Jersey. I know why we moved to the area where Ernesto had just started his landscaping business. I don’t want to go outside and see what’s waiting for me, but I do anyway. After all, I can walk. Walking feels almost like flying, almost like dancing. For maybe ten seconds, I am the kingbird.

I open the screen door. Ernesto is lying on the ground with Celia cradling his head, blood spreading on to her white blouse. Paramedics from the ambulance are running towards them; it looks to me like they are moving in slow motion. A cop is standing there with his rifle raised. Jose is slumped across the wheel of the mower, blood dripping from a wound in his head. I walk, unsteadily, down the steps to the patio, and stumble slightly as I walk across the lawn, walking to Celia, walking for the first time in eight years, walking out there, to be there, so that I can watch my father die.

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