TURN OF THE CENTURY
At approximately 5:25 a.m., Jorge Escobedo sits at his kitchen table sporting half a frothy beard of shaving cream and red-striped boxers. On the other side of the door, he dines with his usual companions. Spread before him is a squadron of stained mugs, varying in shape, color, and volume. Coffee, the kind you microwave from a tin. Wisps from an ashtray tickle at my nostrils. That damn ashtray, the one his dearly-departed mother molded during her binges at the Y. He takes a slow drag from the last of his Luckies, and then suspends a blue-veined hand over the mugs’ mouths. Each contains a meticulously calculated ratio of milk to sugar. Many a morning I have arrived to find Jorge’s pristine nails pinching motes into the blackness of his insomnia. Today he caresses a seemingly-innocuous white mug. It must say ‘Number One Dad’ on it, or some such.
“You have to feel the difference a grain makes,” Jorge explains each time he catches my wandering eye.
Do you hear that? It is silence. The neighboring windows do not blink. That is because Jorge lives alone in his one bedroom apartment above the small-but-relatively-pleasant hair salon he runs on Clark Street. The business has done well thanks to the reputation. ‘The Queen of Boys Town’, they call him. It helps that he dresses in barber’s regalia, that he prances about the checkered tiles as though ready to send for guards at a moment’s notice. You would think he was the conductor of an orchestra, keeping time with a pair of scissors in hand. Still despite Jorge’s flamboyant disposition, his talents are undeniable, and so I stomach his personality once every six to eight weeks. Moreover, in my presence he knows to curtail—how shall I say it? His enthusiasm.
I knock twice. “Let me in, Boy. It’s cold and my joints ache.”
I am early this time. He has never denied me, least of all on my birthday. Startled, Jorge stands up abruptly, the scraping of a chair audible on the other side of the door. Ceramic shatters across the floorboards as he curses, rushing to greet me. Poor man. I can sense the fatigue, how he struggles to maintain his composure.
“Just a minute, sir.”
“You wouldn’t leave an old fool out in the wind, would you?”
“Of course not, Mr. Arjona.” He unbolts the door, guiding my cane into his apartment.
He offers to carry my coat, but I insist on hanging it myself. His morning smoke and coffee tinkering have stuck to his skin, and the smell will convince my aide that I have taken to tabagie again. Jorge begins to say something, but my coughs cut him off. The ashes of his breakfast irritate my throat, and immediately he hobbles to the kitchen, ignoring his rapidly-swelling foot.
“Forgive me, Mr. Arjona. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Just get rid of it,” I say between gasps.
I can hear him through my shut eyelids. Bent over in a fit, I wheeze against the radiator, indifferent to its warmth. Somewhere in the kitchen Jorge opens and closes drawers, each emitting a different hollow note. He intends to bury the ashtray—probably among dirty porcelain, empty take-out boxes, and more mugs. I recover, only to knead dust on my fingertips. The apartment is filthy, that much I can tell. His mother, Angela, may she rest in peace, would not approve.
Jorge and Angela pled asylum in the early Eighties during the rise of the Cali Cartel. His father, Luis Escobedo, was a childhood friend of the Orejuela brothers. On Sundays, the Orejuelas joined the Escobedos for lunch, discussing that morning’s service or the latest upper-class gossip. Too young for those conversations, the children played Military vs Guerillas and ate cheesy arepas with hot panela water to guzzle down their entitled lips. Those delights were the Escobedo clan’s specialty, passed down from generation to generation. The Orejuela Brothers’ specialty was kidnapping, something that the scars on Luis’s knuckles explained better than any of their late night stories. As for how Angela was eventually brought into their world, I cannot really say.
Women are for loving, not for understanding. That was Luis’s motto.
If Luis were to have seen Jorge’s drag rendition of Cher, if he had lived to see his son’s body slowly at war with itself, he probably would have disowned the boy. That, or looped him in with the other discardables the Cartel cleansed in pursuit of their beautiful, better Cali. It seems in some ways our lives are predetermined; Jorge always rejected his blue blood roots, but still somehow has fallen prey to the cocaine playground he was raised in. After he tested positive, I began paying for his treatments, out of guilt or provincial duty—who knows? But my aid says Jorge no longer receives them. And while I should confront him about how he wastes my assets, the harshest words are the ones we never speak.
“Jorge, you have stopped cutting.”
I am in his bedroom, seated on the Barcelona chair reserved for private clients. The first time he sat me here a shiver ran down my spine. I could feel the heat of some of his more intimate sessions pressed against me—a mosaic I wished to block out as quickly as possible. That first session I shifted my weight constantly. He has since acquired a separate chair for me, at my request.
“I am sorry, Mr. Arjona. My head is in the clouds.”
The rhythm of his scissor snips fills the stillness. A ray of sunlight slowly crawls up my thigh as the city starts to stretch its legs. I keep my eyes closed, above all else so as not to startle him during his work. I’m told that despite my blindness, something about my gaze makes others feel I can still see.
Flakes of my hair drizzle down to his floor. After a few minutes, his tender hands lather my face with shaving cream. He takes extra care with the worn flesh that dangles from my cheeks.
“You are silent this morning, sir.”
“It’s not everyday that a man finds himself in my shoes.”
“One hundred years is quite a feat.”
The straight blade rasps in my ear. Jorge’s firm wrist applies the appropriate amount of pressure against my skin. He is an artist with a razor, a genius with the grind. He memorizes the geography of every face. Not even the cocaine flowing through his arteries can break his concentration. He quickly arrives atto my jugular, where he slides the cutting-edge along the length of my throat. I swallow bitterly to tempt him.
“And of what have you been thinking of,” he asks, trying to make friendly conversation.
“Mostly of Jorge Gaitán and el Bogotazo.”
He is guiding the blade along my neck and stops short. In the kitchen, a naked bulb purrs.
“And what of Gaitán?”
“Oh you know, this and that; liberals and conservatives; communists and oligarchs; the bread and butter of my youth.”
He scratches at my bristles once more.
“Father told me you participated in the riots.”
A lie. As was everything shared between me and Luis. But Jorge is suddenly more present. Even as a child, he loved to hear stories of his namesake.
I say, “I still remember the crackle of the radio. We were at a café, enjoying lunch, when Gaitán was shot like a dog in the street.”
“Did the people really take arms?”
“Imagine bloodied machetes pointed toward an orange sky; the city was in siege. I couldn’t walk to work without slipping on empty rifle cartridges. For months, Bogotá’s burning buildings haunted me. Even now, the flames are clear as day.”
My neck burns as he grazes the last of the stubble. The aftershave he applies brings cloudy tears to my eyes. I have grown accustomed to our routine, but still I cannot help the shortage of breath, the punch to the gut that is a clean-shaven face. He offers me his shoulder, but I prefer the loyal intuition of my cane. I have committed the layout of the apartment to memory to minimize our contact.
“I often wonder what he could have done if he were allowed to live,” I say on my way to the kitchen. Jorge stays behind to sweep his bedroom floor.
“Father said he was a symbol. Nothing more.”
“Your father was a bastard who knew nothing about politics. Narcos, maybe. But not politics.”
The floorboards groan under his weight as he moves about wordlessly. I pray he can differentiate my hair from his sugar from his grams. The coffee regiment rests patiently on the table and I turn off the light, more comfortable in the darkness. The only sound in the apartment is his aggressive broom-handling. I fondle a package of powder on the counter top and taste a bit with my tongue. This one is the sugar; he must have hidden away his stash when I arrived.
Do you hear that? It is silence. The neighboring windows begin to blink. That is because Jorge and I sit awkwardly in his one bedroom apartment above the small-but-relatively-pleasant hair salon he runs on Clark Street. How does one articulate the passage of months, years in mere minutes? No amount of ‘how-are-yous’, ‘have-you-been-busys’, or coffee cups can fill the void between us. Every movement the boy makes is deafening. The way he stirs the spoon in his mug; the gentle but impatient vibration of his toes on the floor. There is a language that only tissue speaks.
I finish the last of my coffee and clear my throat. Jorge understands.
“How much do I owe you?”
“On the house.”
“Charity is unnecessary.”
He sucks his teeth and relents.
“Five is fine. Consider it a birthday gift.”
I shake my freshly-trimmed head in agreement.
The last time I saw Jorge’s face, he was but a child. As my sight was fading, I replayed the scenes from his youth in Cali, and never could I picture him as happy. He was not reserved, but carried a sort of disappointment, a willful ignorance, an ability to look past the world around him. So too, did Angela, in her wounded way. And while it was I who saw Luis and the Orejuelas for what they were, not once did I speak out. Only today, at the turn of the century, do I realize that not all things are put to rest by death.
As I walk toward the entrance, his body odor suddenly blocks my path. We embrace, and for the first time, I can feel how feeble his frame is, how little he eats. His shirt clings desperately to his sweaty chest, all ribs no meat, and his bones jab at mine. I am holding a skeleton of a man, who at half my age is twice as brittle. And though he cannot cry, the rattle of his lungs explains better than any of his late night stories.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I say into his hair, caressing him. “He is gone.”
We break apart and I move steadily toward the door, stopping to grab my coat, my scarf. The aroma of Jorge has stuck to my clothes; I shouldn’t have hugged him, and now it will be hours before his smell disappears. He is sniffling as I slip five singles into his pocket. We have a last word before I turn to grip the doorknob.
“At your service, Mr. Arjona.”
Jenzo DuQue was born into a Colombian community in North Chicago and is based in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from CUNY-Brooklyn College, where he served as an editor of the Brooklyn Review. Jenzo is an emerging writer and graphic artist, with pieces that have appeared in Glimmer Train, Joyland, and now, Cosmonauts Avenue. Read more at jenzoduque.com