Adventures in River Rocks
I’m going to get soaked and sick in this rain, Luciano says to himself. The sky was clear three stops ago. Now it looks like August. I need to get these orders out. Luciano leans his head out of the metro train station across the Río Piedras’ Plaza de la Convalecencia. He pulls his black hoodie out of his backpack, ready for the moody Caribbean weather. Looking at the black stream of cement that divides the station from the Plaza, Luciano prays to the god he doesn’t believe in that he won’t slip and break his ass when he dives into the evening rain. Under the cover of a hair salon entrance, he sees the blinking aircraft warning light atop of the University of Puerto Rico’s clock tower in the distance. If he could see the very end of the avenue, his eyes would land at Plaza Colón, where El Viejo San Juan presents her age and grace to her guests. Yet, his evening does not lead him to the ancient extremity of the avenue. Tonight, Luciano heads toward a younger, forgotten point.
Luciano stops under the abandoned Banco Popular building. Its metal clock offers a few inches of cover. He strides past the three-sided sculpture, marking an entrance to El Paseo de Diego.
“¡Oye papá! A little help. Por fa,” says a homeless man lying spread out under a tarp, jangling his cup. But it’s a plea that falls on occupied ears. Luciano’s earbuds connect to his empty pocket. 21st-century solitude is an active defense.
The businesses of el Paseo are a mixture of bars, pawnshops, cheap dentists, and clothing stores that leave their wares on racks in the middle of the walkway, forcing people to wade through fabric. But for every two or three active businesses, long rows of closed metal shutters are layered in graffiti. Holes of opportunity. Holes where a young entrepreneur might figure out how to combine a bookshop with a sushi bar or a smokehouse bistro with a clothing boutique. Their vacancy was not an issue of ingenuity but of finance. The owners would rather wait at the shores of their respective abysses than take a subsidized price. Luciano heads towards the deepest abyss of el Paseo. A grave belonging to a giant of late capitalism.
Luciano rents his office for 75 bucks a night. A fair price for the keys, the space, and the solitude. He waited two weeks for his proposal to be accepted. The Dominican man who runs the pet store explained to Luciano that he had to ask the owner, who unfortunately didn’t live on the island. Luciano offered a better deal, explaining that the owner didn’t have to get involved. The Dominican man declined, saying he wouldn’t risk his rent for some pendejo. Wealth and owners are floating away every day, Luciano thought after hearing the decision. Two weeks later, the shopkeeper called Luciano, “Careful with the junkies at night. Something gets into them. They break into buildings to shoot up. We never know when we will pull up the shutters and find one dead with a needle sticking out of their arm, or so hopped-up they’re holding up the place with a butter knife.” Most of the junkies that hung around the Plaza vanished after the last election, so Luciano didn’t overthink the advice.
Luciano works the lock of the pet store and pulls up the security shutter of the storefront. The cockatiels squawk, and rodents scurry in their bedding. Weekend pets for irresponsible kids. Mortality lessons with a fixed schedule. He walks in and shuts the shutter behind him, leaving the heavy breathing of junkies beneath the hush of passing cars.
With flashlight in hand, Luciano stretches his leg over the metal railing in the back of the pet store on to the connecting escalator. Puffs of dust pop from the sides as he treks across the frozen escalator steps. The mall of el Paseo de Diego was closed before Luciano ever sipped a beer. Locked away before he knew Río Piedras was its own barrio. Off the escalators, Luciano sees a wide walkway and wall at the end with bulging yellow tiles that read CAFETERÍA and an arrow pointing right. Left of the turn sits a home décor store with the rolling grilles pulled down. Through the grilles, he sees a mess of fake flowers forever in bloom and their shattered pots. Garden statues and vases still well-stacked on racks, as if the closing was a temporary issue.
At the far end of the cafeteria, stands a massive window that looms over the Paseo. Half of the tables cover the first floor of the food court while the other half sit on a suspended second tier. On the elevated platform, through the dusty window glass, Luciano sees the haloed lights of Plaza de la Convalecencia sneak around the corners of the crosswalk. With his hoodie sleeve bunched up in his hand, Luciano clears the dust on the window and looks down, expecting to see the locked-up storefronts along the empty walkway.
Luciano takes solace in his solitude. In high school, he learned about the sharing space. At a school organized house party, in an urbanization on the outskirts of Río Piedras, Luciano and his friends’ collective boredom was at an all-time high. Luciano and Rodolfo lived in the same gated urbanization where the party was taking place. Rodolfo mentioned an abandoned house around the block where they could smoke. After cheek kissing each of their classmate goodbye and stealing a six-pack, they drove to the house in Luciano’s car. The conversation quickly became a debate on their shoddy rolling techniques.
“Let me roll it. You will just fuck it up,” Rodolfo said from the back.
“I bought the cigar, and I drove us here,” said Luciano.
“Fuck you. I bought the weed, and I live here,” Rodolfo said.
“So does Lucy, and we were just at a party down the street,” said Hugo sitting in front.
“¿And what if a security guard stops us? ¿You’re going to tell them you got lost with a half a blunt in your hand? Dale pendejo,” Rodolfo said.
“Mera cabrón, let’s not get paranoid before we smoke,” Hugo said, turning to Rodolfo.
“Let me roll it for once,” Luciano said, pulling out the gas station grape-flavored cigar from the glove box.
“Sure. Let the blanquito do it,” said Rodolfo, hitting a nerve, ignoring the fact he was only a shade darker than Luciano.
“Let’s just do this upstairs,” Hugo said before the knocking began on his window.
Luciano couldn’t see through the fogged-up glass. He didn’t see any security light behind his car. A softer knock arrived, and Luciano rolled down Hugo’s window to see a man wearing loose jean shorts and a Pistons basketball jersey.
“Oye Papo, I could hear you guys fighting from upstairs. Está tó bien. I was just screwing my girl and smoking a blunt,” the man said. “Come on up if you guys want.”
No one questioned the invitation. The man introduced himself as Julián. They approached the back entrance. A couple was sitting on the black leather sofa on the veranda, the woman sitting on the man’s lap. The man etched lacerations into its cushions with a knife. “This is Mara y El Johnny,” Julián said, pointing to the pair with his chin. El Johnny and Mara acted like they were the ones screwing around. Luciano hid his hands in his pockets as if he could pull the discomfort from their hem.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” Julián said with an open palm. Rodolfo nudged Luciano. He handed the weed and grape cigar to the host. Julián cracked along the cigar’s sides like a pro. Julián gave Rodolfo rolling tips. How to bend the edges of a blunt before flipping the paper over. How to use shoelaces to pack in the weed. Between the three private school boys were four slip-on penny loafers and two buckled loafers.
Luciano passed Mara, El Johnny, and the knife on the sofa as he walked towards the edges of the drained pool. Looking at his reflection within the green shallow water, Luciano recognized that this house was a slightly larger model of his own home. He felt small, dirty and out of place. Minus the weed, the knife, the intruders, and the slime of the pool, this was a home.
Julián lit the blunt and whistled everyone over. Mara remained on the couch playing on her phone. Luciano took a hit after Hugo. While the group told stories and passed the blunt around, Luciano waded in and out, focusing on feeling the right size.
After they tossed the blunt into the pool, Julián told the boys he dealt on the side, and Hugo and Rodolfo traded phone numbers with him. While the others said their goodbyes, Luciano made a beeline over to Mara. He bent over and gave her a cheek kiss. Luciano heard Rodolfo and Hugo calling as he raised his cheek from Mara’s lips. “Cuídate titán,” Mara said as Luciano ran after his friends. In the car, Rodolfo and Hugo snickered.
“¿What the hell is wrong with you two dumbasses?” Luciano asked.
“Idiota, she kissed you goodbye,” Hugo said.
“¿Did you forget what he told us while we were smoking?” Rodolfo asked, recognizing Luciano’s confusion. “She was just done sucking them both off.”
Luciano felt even smaller. He wiped off the cheek where Mara kissed him until it was irritated and red. His temples flared as he dropped off his giggling friends. That night his mind chewed on one thought as he laid in bed: screw the others.
After thirty minutes of lying on his stomach, Luciano stands up and slides into the cafeteria table closest to the stairs. He pulls out his laptop, his wireless receiver, and his external battery. He pops a 20mg of Adderall and cracks the WIFI security code of a local boutique. The white light of his laptop illuminates the gaunt sides of his face as he opens his anonymous communication software, making him vanish through distributed relays as he enters the Deep Web.
-¿Estás working, broki? A direct message from a blocked name. Julián.
-I’m getting ready, Luciano responds. He doesn’t mind the work, but he doesn’t enjoy working with Julian. Julián buys the supplies, and Luciano manages the bitcoin and the Silk Road accounts. Besides setting up the deals, Julián and Luciano split the runner work. Luciano works with Julián because he had no original in. He keeps working with him because his dealer friends in college either got busted or made enough money to buy the one thing they wanted and called it quits. Luciano couldn’t hear the ringing of shame after the day the bank took his parents’ home.
The murder rate in Puerto Rico is twice of any U.S. state. Upper-middle-class girls and boys are getting shot on Sunday morning walks. It terrifies people from going out at night or even going to a caserío for a twenty of weed. The Dark Web, for all its terrors and chambers, brings calm to some of the coked-up skulls of a petite boujee.
When they ask him for his name, Luciano answers Pirata C. A little 21st-century pirating doesn’t frighten him. He knows the Deep Web contains the worst of man, but so did pirate ports, the Wild West, and smut tapes.
Two years ago, after spending the night at Rodolfo’s, Luciano arrived at his house to find his mother crying in their driveway surrounded by pieces of furniture that made up their home. Police, lawyers, men in polos with Puerto Rican bank logos sewed into their shirt pockets stood in the driveway like they owned the place. Because they did. The rest of his belongings were inside, but the police wouldn’t let him past the front door. He thought it was a mere flex of power. But, after they let him through, he found his father’s body covered in a bedsheet on the humid tiles of the master bedroom. His father blew out his temples like a whistle when the police knocked on the bedroom door. Public shame in a small big city is all about who has to live with it.
Four months after, Luciano spent a night at Rodolfo’s watching documentaries on cryptocurrencies and the dark web. Luciano and his mother were still feeding off the pity of friends. When Luciano left Rodolfo’s house, he knew it was the last day they could be called friends. Rodolfo had grown tired of Luciano’s empty joke of a wallet. But Luciano did not leave the urbanization. He stood before the eyes of his old home, the two stained windows at the center of each door, where the streetlight broke in. He turned the knob with good faith and frustration, and it was open. He was content with having access but irritated with the ease. The bank took his home and couldn’t even lock the door.
He wandered through the home. A distortion rang through Luciano as he laid his head on the tiles of his childhood room. Luciano crunched into himself. He was in the right place, but this was not home. He drew in the hanging dust that filled the room. He coughed and cried and changed. Luciano took out his phone and texted Rodolfo, asking for Julián’s phone number. His phone glowed with the numbers.
One client gets desperate for Adderall. Says he’s in Río and wants to buy three months’ supply of 30 milligrams. Mid-April. Must be getting ready for finals. Luciano knows he can double the price, so he does. $550. A quick response:
***: Dale sí. ¿Donde?
Pirata C: Paseo de Diego. Al lado de la Ponce de León.
***: Perfecto. ¿20 min?
Luciano looks at the clock on his monitor- 11:45.
Pirata C: Dale.
After sliding the orange pills into a Ziploc, Luciano looks at his screen to verify the transaction. He walks to the entrance of the pet store with the keys jangling in hand. When he pulls down the shutter, a whiff of propane pummels his face. Luciano’s face scrunches, but the odor vanishes. He locks the shutter and heads towards the avenue.
He waits under the concert structure that reads PASEO DE DIEGO down its sides. A cop car drives up the Ponce de León, but Luciano doesn’t worry. While the police station is across the street from the Plaza, Luciano acts as if his parents could afford a private university in the states. He acts as if he could still say parents.
A Toyota brakes hard at the edge of the walkway. Luciano jumps onto the exterior step of the truck. The passenger window rolls down. The kid’s on an Adderall binger. Breaking a sweat with the air on high. The stereo plays an alternative band from the early 2000s almost on mute. Luciano jumps in, telling the kid, “Lap around the Paseo.” He sees the kid’s toes curl in his flip flops as he drives. Luciano shows the kid the Ziploc filled with the pills to calm the kid’s anxieties. The Kid doesn’t say a word. He must have cotton mouth. The kid stops at the street that intersects with the el Paseo. “Good luck with the finals,” Luciano says as he jumps out of the car. The Toyota rushes off before Luciano hits the ground.
Luciano’s phone reads 12:10 a.m. when he gets back to the pet store’s shutters. The metro closes at eleven. Luciano decides to make a few more deals before heading over to the Avenida Universidad and grabbing a beer. Luciano texts a friendly client who lives near La Avenida, asking if he can crash on his couch. The client texts back, “dale.,” but then asks if Luciano can bring him some oxy. A freebie. Kindness is an occupational hazard, but Luciano can afford it and texts back, “Suena bien.”
The light of his laptop leads Luciano back to the food court. It’s like the lights of San Juan calling you down from the back of the mountains. The strong whiff of propane interrupts the image of the city lights. Luciano breathes, but the gas is absent. After wiping his face, he sees the cafeteria flickering between white light and darkness. Luciano enters the escape combination on his keyboard. His doubt in the encryption creeps, and he yanks out the wireless receiver and slams the screen shut. And in the darkness, a second slam lands on Luciano’s temple.
“Oye, turn on that light. He says it’s good for you,” Luciano hears.
“¿Qué carajo?” Luciano says sitting down.
He squints but Luciano can’t make out the contours of the face. He sees the man’s bare feet and the bottom of the stick that hit him. The light brown scarf hugging the man’s forehead, and his salt and pepper beard shrouding his face come into focus.
“Mira, turn on your light,” the old man commands. “C’mon, let’s have some light. I need your help.”
Still dizzy, Luciano opens his laptop. The flickering of the codes on the screen lights up the cafeteria once more. “It can’t do more than this,” Luciano says.
“Que se joda. The exposure of words gives light. At least we understand each other,” the shoeless man says under the flashing code. “Tranquilo papá, I am no Lazarus,” the old man says, noticing Luciano’s scowl. “I want nothing from you but a favor.”
Fight or flight sets in, but Luciano can’t swing. The Adderall has made him too self-aware. He doesn’t want the junkie to make a scene and call the others. Help the old man with his problem, pick up your shit, and get out of here.
“¿Está bien, what do you need, old man?” Luciano says.
“Sobrellevad los unos las cargas de los otros y así, cumplid la ley del señor,” says the old man in the darkness. “Follow me.”
With his flashlight, Luciano finds the old man waving his stick at the bottom of the cafeteria stairs. Luciano closes his laptop as the old man turns towards the fast-food employee entrance. Luciano keeps his flashlight on the back of the old man’s coat as they walk down the hallway. The deeper they go into the mall, the more doors and hallways Luciano sees, as if his flashlight were calling them into existence. All the buildings del Paseo must be connected. This junkie must have gotten into the mall through these passageways. Luciano stops to open a door, but when he places his hand around the knob, he loses the old man.
“If he walks in the darkness and stumbles, it’s because there is no light within him,” the old man says beneath the darkness and his beard.
Luciano moves towards the hymn to find the old man facing a wall to his left. His flashlight reveals stairs in the direction the old man is facing. Luciano loses the old man to the darkness. But there the old man is, taking his time down the steps.
“¿So, what’s the favor you need?” Luciano asks his shoeless guide.
“Patience, I don’t want you to run away yet.”
“¿What should I call you then?”
“They call me Zambu. A painter friend of mine called me San Pablo. I preferred el Negro Pablo, at least that one is true,” the old man laughs. “Another friend, Luis, named me uno de sus gran ciempiés.”
“¿Do you live here, Pablo?”
“¿In this temple of the wicked? ¡Nah! I tent with the upright in Río Piedras.”
“¿You sleep with the…others in front of La Parroquia?” Luciano stopped himself before he said junkies.
“Las zorras tienen cuevas, y las aves de los cielos nidos. Más el hombre no tiene donde reclinar la cabeza. I am lucky enough to find a ceiling when I can,” Pablo says with a grin as he picks up the pace.
“¿Aren’t you worried about stumbling?” Luciano asks.
“Neither of us is blind. ¿So why worry about the pit?” Pablo says as he misses the last step. With his flashlight, Luciano searches the floor for Pablo and his pit, but only finds dirt, dust, and pipes. Luciano smells the gas again. While the scent surprises Luciano, it’s the old man’s slap that makes him jump.
“No te cagues encima, papá. Come with me,” Pablo says as he crouches under the stairs. “Aquí está.”
Her pupils are open as if she were mapping the cracks beneath the stairs like constellations. Her elbows are akimbo while wrists face upwards. She’s wearing a tank top of a local band, one that Luciano saw two weeks prior while completing a transaction. Winged tattoos border her collarbones, one a male angel, the other a succubus. Between the two creatures is a stencil of Judith admiring the head of Holofernes in her welcoming hand. He wants to compliment her but remembers he can’t and halts. He can almost recognize her. A face in the mosh. Luciano smells the second odor blended in with the gas. Her body reeks of rotting eggs and garlic. But her shoes hold the odor of propane.
“I’ve named her Leda,” Pablo says.
“¿How long has she been down here?”
“From the smell, a few days at most. I found her last night.”
“¿And you left her here?”
“The cane is not for style, nene. She was facedown and barefoot.”
“Her shoes. ¿Why do they smell like gas?”
“They’re a reminder of a forgotten tragedy. A reminder of those who exploded in the depths of their unaware souls. People were still debating terrorisms when I dragged those shoes from the rubble. That air. It’s anchored to a remembrance that denies ignorance. I put them on her to make her presentable in this mausoleum.”
“Someone must be looking for her,” Luciano says.
“Tal vez. But to be discovered was not her desire. Not in here. She had reached the age of reason. She wanted to be forgotten,” Pablo says, tapping her feet with his cane. “Like both of us.”
Luciano points his flashlight to Leda’s shoes, trying to understand how they could walk across the years. He pulls one off to investigate. The smell of propane and death is terrible, but the infected track marks between her toes are what make him squirm the most. The black tags on her foot look like bites from a swarm of elephant mosquitoes. She was a skin-popper. He holds his breath and puts the shoe back on her foot.
“Her soul may be free now, but we must get her body out of this pantheon,” Pablo says.
“¿What are you going to do?” Luciano asks.
“I take no part in the unfruitful works of the darkness. Instead, you shall expose them,” Pablo says, pointing his stick up the stairs.
“I can’t move her. We need to get the police.” Luciano ceases his shouting, realizing the ignorance in his echoes. They can’t call the police. Not with the way things look.
“Neither of us came here to stay. But she did. We came here to be unnoticed. To be forgotten. And to be forgotten is conspicuous to officials. We who are alive and we who are left will end up captured.”
“¿So, you want me to leave her on the street like a junkie?” The track marks make Luciano quiver. Her proximity to his age and his interests bothers him. He’s talking about a woman, a corpse, a heroin user, a person with similar music tastes. A Leda. Luciano knows the old man is right. He has heard the stories. Overdoses at parties. Bodies left on the Ponce de León covered in bedsheets and track marks before alarm clocks quake.
Luciano passes the flashlight to Pablo and carefully picks the Leda up. As their feet march in a percussive rhythm up the stairs, he looks down at her, protective. He too dreamed of disappearing from this city. By the time Pablo points the flashlight towards Luciano, his feet are already back in rhythm.
Luciano steps over the railing dividing his night and the pet store. The old man closes the metal shutter behind as Luciano steps into the paseo. Luciano lays Leda on a cement bench as the breaching sunlight turns the sky into a bloom of lilac. At the pet store gate, Pablo flickers from black to white. Luciano watches as Pablo glitches in and out of existence. The flashlight rolls out from the corner where the old man was standing as the storefront’s metal shutter closes with a metallic clunk.
Luciano looks at Leda’s resting on the bench and sighs. It’s April, and it’s cruel, but it is not the calendar’s fault, he thinks. He walks down the Paseo and turns toward the Plaza, passing the new Humberto Vidal shoe store. In his mind, Luciano draws a chalk map of the night’s events. Of the mall, Leda, the food court, Pablo’s vanishing, and of Río Piedras. Coming up the street, he sees the blue sides of the police station. Luciano stops at the corner and gazes at the twin spires of the Parroquia Nuestra Señora del Pilar in the center of the Plaza. He scrunches his face as he enters a panadería he frequents, that at night turns into an art scene bar where local bands play. Luciano knows the manager, the daughter of the owner. He sees her cleaning up behind the bar and waves her down. But she ignores him.
“Mala mía,” she says when their eyes finally meet. “I thought you were one of these plaza junkies who come in begging for change.”
Luciano catches his reflection in the mirror hanging behind the bar. At first, the image does not sync. Behind the dust and the grime covering his jacket, he couldn’t see himself in the mirror. He looked like a vagabond that the Río Piedras night consumed and spit back up. Luciano cleans himself off in the bathroom and orders a beer. He asks the manager if she can help him. After the manager asks why, Luciano details a night that a cop wouldn’t give a minute to, but to which a resident of Río Piedras would at least lend an open ear.
Townsend Montilla is an author from San Juan, Puerto Rico, currently based in California. His work grapples with Puerto Rican identity, neocolonialism, migration, and the diaspora. He is currently an MFA candidate in Literature at the University of California, San Diego. His creative writing has been published in Kweli Journal. Tonguas, Entre Parentisis, and in the anthology Musgo Mundo: Muestra de Poesía Puertorriqueña (1985-1994) (Parawa Editorial).