Nestor “Bimbo” Osorio had set up a beading room in his apartment, where he made elekes. Pushing eighty, he was respected, except for one thing: Bimbo loved gambling. Gambling, though, didn’t love him back. A total fish, he’d pay with his homemade protection jewelry.
“I raised my two sons tough. Hard and tough.” Bimbo lives in a sweet rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment across Central Park, on One Hundred Ninth and Fifth. “I believe in pow, pow, you know, Shorty? You don’t go three rounds Hagler-Hearns on your kids but you gotta smack ’em a little every now and then, right?” His grandmother had arrived in 1931 and lived in the apartment till she died. And his mother lived there till she died. And now Bimbo will live across Central Park, on an elegant avenue, paying dirt rent till he dies. “My kids pay my bills, bring me groceries, but they never stop and talk to me. You know why, Shorty? Because that’s all I would do for them, you know, just put food on the table and clothes on their backs and that’s it, never hugged, never kissed them boys. So, they do the same.” They were waiting for him to die so they could fight for the apartment. “Let’s open this bottle you brought me, Shorty.” We were sitting around a table by the window overlooking Central Park. The leaves were turning yellow, red, and orange, more beautiful dying than when they were alive.
“That’s why I brought it, man.” I said. “Fourteen-year-old Balvenie Caribbean Cask Scotch for you, viejo.”
Bimbo slowly lifted his beaten down seventy-something body off the chair. He returned with two glasses from the kitchen.
He sat back down, cracked opened the seal.
“Remember the OTB stands, Shorty? I miss that time. I would spend hours, whole days and nights in one of those. I never worried about my wife, my kids, my health, never worried about anything. You know why, Shorty?” He poured me a glass. I nodded. “Because scared money don’t win. If you play scared, you already lost.” For a second, Bimbo looked like the seventies. Off-Track Betting had long been put out of business by the internet.
“Thanks for the whisky but why you visiting me, Shorty?” he said. “I always liked you, you know, since the day when you found that check. But why you here?”
When I was twelve, I’d found a check for three K on the street. The Kress Five and Dime store on One Hundred Seventh and Third was paying their Con ED bill. I took it to Bimbo because somehow a hard gambler would know how to bleed the money from it.
“You heard anything about those murdered undocumented girls, Bimbo? Anything?”
Black and white TVs showing the races had hung from the OTB’s ceilings. And there had been a wall of tellers behind cell windows, like in a bank, taking bets, the floor covered white with losing tickets.
“Maybe? But why you asking?”
Taking the check to a teller, Bimbo had bet the whole thing. If our horse came in first, we would win over fifty K. We’d cheered the horse on.
“Because I’m trying to find out who’s killing them, Bimbo.”
The horse had come in last, but Bimbo was all smiles. For just a few seconds, we had been this close to being rich.
“Sounds to me like the cops got you by the balls, Shorty.”
“A man will be rich and poor five times in his life,” Bimbo said. “Watch out for that fifth time, kid.”
“The last girl murdered, Azucena,” I said. “Went by the name Roxy, hung out with a gambler. A white Puerto Rican. You know we’re the rainbow race, from coal to cotton. So, you must know a white Boricua brother gambler?” I drank from my glass. Tasted great.
“Don’t wanna talk about the cops owning you, huh, Shorty?”
“That’s my biz, Bimbo. I mean, you’re cool and all but that’s my biz.”
“Yeah, and you must feel pretty stupid cops got you.”
Silence. We drank.
His apartment was clean and neat. His kitchen in order. His living room, just the essentials: a Puerto Rican flag, sofa, love seat, big TV, rug. And books. Lots of books. On homemade shelves, but most were stacked on top of each other against the four walls.
“You broke some law, Shorty? Cause the cops got you doing their work, huh?”
“Listen, Bimbo, you gonna help me or not?”
I liked Bimbo. He was from a time when poetry reigned in Spanish Harlem. He’d slammed with the best: Piñero, Pietri, Algarin, Bon Bon, Rivas, Maria Esteves, Papoleto, Perdomo, La Bruja, and Lucky Cienfuegos, the Poet of a Hundred Fires.
“Shorty, my Shorty,” he said, pointing the glass at me. “Cops know ain’t nobody in El Barrio will talk to them. But they’ll talk to you, Shorty, so cops are bribing you, right? You can tell me. They got something on you, Shorty, right? Come on, tell me, tell this viejo, what you done?”
Bimbo’s “Puerto Rican Existentialism” was our “Howl.” Bimbo had been the sharpest of switchblade poets. He could slice an injustice with spoken word artistry, like it was a hero sandwich. Then he’d gambled his talent away.
“A white man, but Puerto Rican? Big gambler, Bimbo? Know one?”
“Come on, Shorty, tell me? What cops got on you? You just a roach exterminator, so this must’ve been big? Tell me? What you steal? Killed someone?”
“Listen, Bimbo,” I said, putting my glass down hard. “You know we cool. You know I always admired your poems. But you know you a gambling junkie, man. How do I know you won’t sell me out for a two dollar bet? Huh? And then I can’t be mad at you because it would be my fault for telling you, right? So, I ain’t telling you what I’ve done, okay?”
From his window, which overlooked Central Park, I saw two black crows perched on a branch. We were on the sixth floor, so we were eye to eye with the tree.
“What you got, Shorty?” Bimbo’s eyes were glued on the crows. “What you got?”
“I got twenty.” Bimbo needed to gamble right then and there.
“Okay, I bet your twenty that those black brothers doing nothing on that branch are gonna get harassed in two minutes.”
“Less than that.” I bet. “Thirty seconds.”
We watched the birds.
Bimbo, was enjoying the bet he’d set up.
Flying in in less than ten seconds, three blue jays pecked at the heads of the black crows doing nothing, bullied them until they fluttered away.
“One day from my window, I’m gonna see white doves wearing hoods lynching crows from branches.”
“Tell me about this gambler?” I didn’t gloat.
“Haven’t seen in him a while. Pero, ese tipo, man, I tell you, when they say money don’t make you happy, that guy’s the poster child.”
“What do you mean?”
“He liked to have me along because I’m Puerto Rican. You know, he wanted to get something of himself back, or something.” Bimbo swallowed hard. “I gave him books to read, Shorty. Marques’s La Careta, Piri’s Mean Streets. When he read Rivera’s Family Installments, he called me crying, bendito, like a baby. He was trying to get his Boricua back, but man, it was so gone, like trying to find egg shells in a cake.”
“Know where I can find him, Bimbo?”
“He’s still firing on this boat casino that leaves Pelham Bay in the Bronx every night, at one a.m.”
“Got a name, Bimbo?”
“Miguel, Miguel Plata.”
“Uh huh, Plata.”
“It’s Michael Silver, now, Shorty. His family is from San Juan. Big money Island family, right there with the Carrions and Ferrers. A very lonely guy.” He killed his last swallow. “You know me, I’m a gambling junkie, and if you want me to accompany you, I’ll tag along. Michael Sliver was always game. And he had the pockets. He was like a plastic surgeon, or something like that.”
I had more than enough.
“Let me tell you, let me tell you about these undocumented,” Bimbo said, licking his glass, “these undocumented folks, they’re like us Porto Rocks. They’re survivors, fighters. It’s just that they fight in a way we don’t recognize, you know? When we arrived here, we used our fists. West Side Story bullshit, but they, they use this invisible network of information we don’t see, but they fucking fight.”
“Bimbo, let me ask you, man, why is this killer only killing undocumented Latinas? There’s a bunch of undocumented Africans, Canadians, and others in this city. Why kill only undocumented Latinas?”
“It’s what’s fashionable, Shorty. Hate, like fashion, changes. One day is Blacks, next day is Asians, next is Arabs, or Indians, and right now, after that fucking president, everyone hates anyone undocumented. And hating women never went out of style.” He pointed at Camus, piled up against the wall. “Remember that The Plague is now gone. That fucking president was that plague. But the rats? The rats, Shorty, the rats are still here. Seventy million of them, and they’re just waiting to invade a happy city, know what I’m saying?”
I got his references.
I got up, ready to head out.
“Wait, let me hand you your winnings, Shorty.” With some difficulty he walked inside the room he had converted into his beads workshop. He returned with a bracelet made of tortoise shells. “Here, kid. Take this elekle, it will protect you, bring you good luck.” He slipped it on to my wrist. “I smell the Law all over you, Shorty. You reek of it. I mean, they got you good. And I’ve been a stool pigeon, so I know. Listen, take my advice, slow down, okay, pause, smell the roses, you know, re-read a poem you once loved, okay? Think about the good things you have in your life. So slow down, Shorty, cuz some spirit tells me that pretty soon things are gonna speed up for you real fast.”
Note: This is an excerpt from Ernesto Quiñonez’s noir novel-in-progress.
Note: This fiction part of Big Other’s Puerto Rican Writer’s Folio: A Hauntology