“She just stopped singing.” Ernesto, María’s husband, was a thin, yellowish man with a wisp of a mustache. He wiped at his face as we sat in the back of his old Ford. “That’s what she liked to do best,” he went on, talking to himself as much as to the rest of us, “singing and sometimes dancing even when there wasn’t any music.”
María Esteban was only thirty--eight when she died. When she stopped singing. She was my cousin and had taken care of me after my mother died. Once we had been close. She had let me do her hair sometimes and laughed when I messed it up. Then we had grown apart, or maybe had both begun to withdraw into ourselves, the way poor people seemed to do more and more. I remembered her singing as we walked down Fox Street to our little house. I didn’t remember her stopping her songs.
The pickup truck and the three cars that made up the small funeral procession moved slowly down Mosholu Parkway toward Van Cortlandt Park.
“She always used to sing. I should have known,” Ernesto said, more to himself than to anyone else. “I should have known.”
It was getting harder to tell when people were going to die. There weren’t many warning signs. Sometimes a slight cough into a handkerchief, perhaps a distant look in the eyes, but mostly it was just a turning inward. They had simply given up on life. They had forgotten their songs. When I saw someone giving up, I wondered if, one day, I would give up too.
The casket was in the back of the pickup truck. It looked like metal, but I knew it was corrugated cardboard. Around it were a few sad flowers, pictures cut out from religious calendars and framed, and candles. Yes, and signs printed out in Magic Marker that read “Rest in Peace,” or “We Love You, María.”
Old people said that Van Cortlandt Park had been a happy place once. There had been picnics and children playing and families everywhere. I couldn’t imagine it. Now it was just a dreary place, a place where we went to dispose of the dead.
Our little convoy stopped and two men—-I thought they were probably from St. Athanasius, María’s church—-took the casket from the truck and placed it on the concrete platform in front of the old band shell. Even before the priest got to the front of it, the two men had begun to pour water into the openings at the foot and the head of the casket. Biocremation took only twenty minutes if everything went right. Oxygen--infused potassium hydroxide lined the casket, the water was poured in, and in seconds, the body would begin to decompose. We wanted to honor María Esteban, but no one wanted to be away from our neighborhood for too long. It wasn’t safe.
I had read historical accounts of bodies cremated by burning. It would have been better, I thought. We could have seen the flames rising to the heavens. We could have pretended the body was going to someplace called Heaven.
A priest was praying in Spanish for María’s soul while another man—-short, square, baggy pants—-held a shotgun as he nervously looked around for any favelos, roaming gangs who might be in the area.
Then the priest’s prayer was over, and the dead woman’s neighbors were getting into their cars. The city would send their crews to clean up the final remains of my cousin. I watched as tiny birds made black silhouettes against the steel--gray sky.
“Dahlia, it’s time to go.” Alfredo, the owner of the bodega on my corner, spoke softly.
“I’m not going back,” I said impulsively.
“You don’t have any other place to go,” Alfredo answered. He smelled of garlic and tobacco. He put his hand on my shoulder, and I turned away. “Try not to stay out too late. In any case, we’ll wait up for you.”
As the cars rolled away, I saw the mourners’ faces against the glass windows. I knew they would understand how I felt. They would think about me and María as they drove the six miles back to our own little section of el barrio. And I knew they would save my place.
María had been a cousin and a friend. She knew how to touch me, and when to put her arm around my waist and smile at me even when her own life was not going well. More than that. More than that, she knew how not to dig too deep for the truth when the truth wasn’t worth a damn, which was most of the time.
Years ago I read Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth. Good shit, mostly. We, me, María, everybody in the Bronx, we were the wretched of the earth, wandering through our lives like sheep in a storm, struggling to make sense of what was not sensible. I was feeling sorry for myself.
Good. I liked feeling sorry for myself.
I began to walk without any thought to where I was going. Through my tears, the late--summer light broke up into shards of color that made everything seem unreal. It was almost beautiful. Almost as if that was the way to look at life in 2035.
I felt sorry for María, and for myself. For a wild moment I imagined I was in my own corrugated casket, engulfed in flames. Then I stopped and got mad at myself for going there. I got mad at María, too. She needed to be stronger. She knew that.
I was cold and pulled my sweater tighter across my chest. Looking around, I began to feel fear. Back in my own community, I was frustrated and lonely. Away from those crumbling tenements, I was open to attack. What would I do if I encountered a group of favelos wandering through the park? Or Sturmers?
The Sturmers, as they called themselves, were mercenaries who sold out to the highest bidder. They dressed and acted like Nazi storm troopers and even used a variant of “Stürmer,” like the German term, for some of their troops. They managed to hate everything and everybody, but they were cruel enough to negotiate through the screwed--up world that the C-8 companies had created.
I turned and headed out of the park, the way the cars from the funeral had gone. I walked quickly. I was cold. It began to rain.
It was dark when I reached Fox Street. The streets were shiny from the rain, and the neon lights reflecting off the black pavement were almost festive. The guards at the gate waved me through. I knew I didn’t have anything at home to eat except wild rice, but all I needed was tea. I walked up the two flights in semidarkness, opened my door, went in quickly, and locked the door behind me.
Hello, yellow walls. Hello, green curtains flapping against the window. Hello, roaches.
I touched my computer screen, navigated to a puzzle, memorized it quickly, and then put the water on for tea. Chai and ginger. It would chase away the cold.
And then I was crying again, and being mad at myself for crying, and glad for the relief it brought me. There was nothing else to do and be sane. I lay across the narrow bed and closed my eyes, waiting for the sound of the kettle to comfort me.
I was so friggin’ down. My narrow bed seemed even smaller than usual, and there was no position that felt comfortable. The streets outside were quiet except for an occasional truck that rumbled past. I started counting again. I hated the counting, but I did it almost every night. One bed, one dresser, one built--in closet, one chair, one lamp, a table where my computer sat, winking at me, one basin, one sink, one small microwave oven. In the tiny bathroom there was another sink, a john, a medicine cabinet where I kept my toothbrush, baking soda, soap, and flash drives.
Think of something else. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in the back of the pickup truck. It was slowing, and soon they were lifting me onto the concrete slab where I would be disintegrated. I was glad to have it over with, to move to some other plane. I was glad, but in the stillness of my room, I was crying.
One bed, one dresser, one built--in closet, one chair, one lamp, a table where my computer sat, one basin, one sink, one small microwave oven. In the tiny bathroom there was another sink, a john, a medicine cabinet where I kept my toothbrush, baking soda, soap, and flash . . .
The window was open slightly, and the coolness of the night air felt delicious as it made the tiny hairs on my ankle stand up. Delicious because it was a feeling. It told me that I was still alive. Barely.
My name is Dahlia Grillo. I am sixteen. There was a time when I looked forward to being seventeen. My mother had me at seventeen, and I thought I would go past that age and become something great, even though I didn’t know what something great could be. Perhaps a math teacher. I liked to imagine myself teaching little kids geometry and watching them discover things about triangles and the relationships between angles. When I was thirteen, and fourteen, and just getting comfortable with my period, I knew I had to be serious about life. But being serious about your life meant getting real with your dreams. Some of my friends wanted to be singers, or actresses, and I didn’t say much about that but I knew it wasn’t going anywhere.
All that changed in a friggin’ heartbeat. It was like there was a plan to have a surprise party for everybody—-how weird does that sound?—-and then, at the last minute, they decided to kick the crap out of everybody instead.
We had all known about the Central Eight companies. C-8 controlled everything, and some people were worried about just how much influence they had, but it was the way they screwed with your head that got to me. Like when one of the companies claimed that they could end world hunger within ten years and announced a quadrillion--dollar investment. The Internet was all over that, saying that it would bring an end to war and an end to dictators and an end to everything bad except dandruff. The company brought out a whole new range of seeds that could grow anywhere and bugs couldn’t mess with. But then they got a patent on the seeds, and before anyone knew it, they controlled all the food production in the world. And people were starving everywhere.
It was bad, but it wasn’t so bad if it didn’t reach you personally.
“The sun is always warm if your belly is full!” my mother used to say. Poor mama. After my father died, she worked so hard to find a better life. When things began to come apart, when people started noticing which category they fell into, she even worked harder to keep us out of the lowest rank. That’s how we got to Fox Street in the Bronx.
The lowest rank was the favelos, poor people who lived by either stealing or begging. Nobody knew how many of them there were. Some people said that in America, it was half the population.
The next step up was the Gaters, people who lived in gated communities. At first they just built communities with their own shopping malls and restaurants away from the inner cities, places you needed a car to get to. Then they started issuing special credit cards if you wanted to buy anything in their communities. And finally they put up gates and armed guards. My neighborhood, mi barrio loco, had gates even though no one had much money and the dried--up old men guarding them were mostly useless. Still, they wanted to keep the favelos out because they’d steal whatever little we had.
Mama worked two jobs to buy an apartment just for the two of us. I knew she was working herself to death. When she died, my family bought our apartment and gave me the little place I have now rent--free.
So there are the favelos, then the Gaters, then those invisible people who seem to have everything. The New Yorker magazine always has articles about how unfair it is for some tiny percentage of the population to own everything. But just knowing something doesn’t help you to do anything about it when you’re too busy trying to cover your own butt. You saw what was going on, and then after a while—-maybe your mind closed down or something, I don’t know—-you stopped seeing it.
Nobody saw the whole school thing coming. Well, maybe some people saw it, but I sure didn’t.
It started when the government announced that it was going to increase the educational opportunities for everybody and make the whole system fairer. Then we heard that everyone was going to get the new supertablets and individual instruction in any field you wanted. Free. That was like really great. All these trucks started pulling up and unloading boxes of electronic stuff and passing it out like it was free candy or something.
What came to my mind was that there were so many around, the favelos wouldn’t steal them. The tablets were good. They had all the connections you needed, but the apps were just so--so. If you knew what you were doing, you could fix the apps, and I did. There were also some weird things going on in the registry. They spooked me out, but I fixed them, too. What I couldn’t fix, what blindsided me, was when they closed the schools. I was almost fifteen.
What did you need schools for if the curriculum apps were available? You could go over and over the material until you got it in your head, and the FAQ sections were intuitive and generally on the money. I took advanced math courses and dug them, but I missed hanging out in school. The word on the street was that the higher--level Gaters were hiring private tutors. The rest of us were on our own. It was nothing new, once you thought about it. It just was smack up in our faces for the first time.
I don’t know what it was about hanging out with other kids in school that was so good. I learned as much about the subjects I liked from the apps as I would have sitting in a classroom. But when school actually shut down I felt terrible. Something deep inside of me was going crazy, as if I was having trouble breathing. A friend said it was just because we were getting older, that letting go of being a kid was hard. I don’t know, maybe she was right.
I used to look forward to being seventeen. Now it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. If seventeen happens, it happens.