After Dark

by

06/14/2008

The Bronx, 10461

Neighborhood: Bronx, East Bronx

“Nothing good ever happens after 2:00 am.” That’s what my mother told me when I tried to get my curfew raised. I was 19 and thought I had made the right choice by choosing to stay home and go to the School of Visual Arts instead of Art Center in California. I could get Latin home cooking anytime I wanted and still get my laundry done. I could do my homework on the subway and have more time to go dancing. I didn’t think my laziness would have its price and that price would be my freedom. “But mom, I’m in college now, I’m an adult.” Now, my mom was the Jackie O of East 103rd Street. She speaks in a well-modulated stage whisper and has no Spanish accent whatsoever, but when she pissed me off, as she was doing now, she sounded just like Rosie Perez. “Mira. Adulto?Como you are un adulto you will live in your own house. Pero, as long as you live under my roof you will be home by 2:00 am!” So for the next five years I obeyed her. I came home drunk. I came home tripping. Once I even came home without my underwear, but by God, I was home by 2:00 am.

And then, a miracle happened. I graduated and within one week landed a job, the next, I moved in with my college boyfriend. Finally, I was an adult and could live the life I wanted. Unfortunately, after a couple of months, my boyfriend decided to live the life he wanted too, and threw me out. And instead of going back home to 2:00 am curfew, I proved I was truly an adult by getting an apartment by myself. Oh, excuse me, did I call it an apartment? Ever hear of the film This Property Is Condemned? Well, I lived there. The ceilings dripped, every outlet sparked like a Tesla coil and there was a hole under the kitchen sink large enough for a German shepherd to crawl through. All this for just $550 a month. But it did have a backyard that could have made a pretty nice garden, if it was cleaned up. I was sure it would only take a week. Two months later, I had dug up a half-century of fossilized pets, (I kept some of the more interesting bones) a three-foot pile of rusted nails and five dollars in Indian-head nickels. And every time I cut myself on yet another piece of beer bottle forged before my parents were born, I saw it as one more manifestation of my rotten miserable life. And then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, I lost my job. My new job. The job where I hadn’t yet worked long enough to qualify for unemployment.

I had $2000 dollars in my savings account, enough for about three months rent and exactly $66.66 a month for everything else, including my two new kittens. I looked out the window at the clean, tilled garden. When I looked at it before I had pictured a soothing floral oasis for my tortured soul. Now I looked at it and saw dinner. The next morning I went straight to the library and took out every book I could find on organic gardening (the internet, sadly was still a couple of years away). In the afternoon, I went to the Caton Avenue stables and pushed home a creaking shopping cart of Key Food bags overflowing with horse manure. Before the week was out, I had planted my miniature farm with plum and beefsteak tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, eggplant and 36 stalks of Silver Queen white corn. All under the watchful eyes of my next door neighbors, a family of indeterminate Eastern European origin consisting of a fat mother with an eyepatch, an even fatter drunken husband and their skinny teenage son who liked to sunbathe in his rotting yellowed underwear. They all had something to say while I planted garlic, scallions, marigolds and nasturtium in between each row. “Vy you is plantink flower mit food?” my neighbor said to me in her indeterminate Eastern European accent. “You are knowing nothing of garden. All plant vill be diet. You vill see, ugly girl.” I thought I knew what I was doing. According to the organic gardening books, planting the spices and flowers would guard my vegetables against mold, infestation and rot. But, not unfortunately, against theft.

By the middle of August my garden was like an Henri Rousseau painting bursting with life and color. My neighbor’s, a soggy heap of mold and rot. “Vat you do my plants, ugly girl?” my neighbor said as she shook her fat fist at me. What could I tell her? That all the bugs and germs that were repelled from my garden were feasting on hers? Besides, I had other things to worry about, I was now living off the bottom of a 10-lb. bag of rice, but the first veggie to be ripe, a fat purple eggplant was just a day away.

Have you ever been hungry? Really hungry? The kind that wakes you up at night and keeps you on edge all day. I know I was always just a phone call away from my parents, but I was stubborn. I intentionally had moved as far away from them as I could (while still being in the same city) and I was determined to deal with this on my own.

That morning, I went into my garden and my perfect eggplant was gone. The next day, the next eggplant was gone. Then a zucchini. Then half my tomatoes. I couldn’t understand. And then one morning, a message in the dirt: A fat bare footprint next to the chain link fence and on the other side, a stepladder. How could I have been so stupid? I looked into my neighbor’s yard and she smirked at me. “Vy your plant livit and mines is die. Not correct, ugly girl,” and she put out her unfiltered cigarette with her fat bare foot.

I had never been so furious in my life. I wanted to climb that fence, break off her fat fingers and her fat foot and stick them into the fat hole where her right eye used to be. But I knew if I even as much as touched her, I would be the one to go to jail. I went into my apartment and cried and screamed until I collapsed onto the floor. I was a total and complete failure as an adult and would now have to call home and beg to come back. As I resigned myself to a lifetime of 2:00 am curfew, Boris, my fat little Russian Blue kitten, who I caught eating a waterbug the night before, went into the litter box and took the worst-smelling cat crap I ever smelled in my life. And through the miasma, the hunger and the tears, came an idea.

I went into my backyard at 2:00 am. It was cool and peaceful under a fingernail moon. I waited until all the lights on the block went dark, then I crept into the garden. I compared the last two eggplants, only the plumpest, ripest one would do. Lying on my back, I took out my sharpest Xacto knife and slowly, carefully, sawed a circular plug out of the bottom of the eggplant and hollowed it out, all the time comparing it to the circumference of the cat turd in the baggie at my side. The sky began to grow light. I was sweating. I saw a light go on in my neighbor’s kitchen, slipped the turd up into the eggplant and replaced the plug just in time to hear their screen door open. I crawled back into my apartment just in time. Later that day, I saw my neighbors on their front stoop. They wouldn’t look at me. “How is garden?” I asked. They banged into their house and locked the door. I thought I was going to break in half laughing, because what I was dying to know was, how/when did they find out about the booby, or should I say “poopy” trap? Did it slide out into her hand as she picked it? Or did it liquefy inside as she steamed it for her family whole? I would never know.

What I did know was that nothing ever disappeared from my garden that summer or any other summer for the five years I lived there. Funny thing is, now, for some reason, there’s one vegetable I just can’t eat anymore. So nothing good ever happens after 2:00 am? Sorry mom, this time, you were wrong.

 

Michele Carlo has lived in four of the five boroughs of NYC and can remember when a slice of pizza cost fifty cents. She has been published in the short story anthology Chicken Soup For The Latino Soul, is Editorial Director for the online underground entertainment newsletter Toxic Pop and is the curator/producer of It Came From New York, a storytelling show featuring and celebrating native New Yorkers. She is currently at work on a memoir of growing up in the NYC of the 70s-80s, entitled Red Sheep: The Search For My Inner Latina.

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