Those You Neglect

Cocotazos were the symbol of our relationship. For those of you who aren’t Hispanic Caribbean, un cocotazo is a rap to the head with the knuckles. That shit don’t feel nice, in case y’all were wondering. Bucky hit me with them often, raising his hand above my head like a hammer before rocking me. They came my way for various reasons: I didn’t eat fast enough; I spoke too low; I gave him a look; I walked too close. My crime was existing within his boundaries.

I won’t claim to be the only one Bucky targeted—him and Ma used to box, literally—but it felt personal. Unlike Ma, I couldn’t defend myself. Whenever Bucky laid his hands on her, Ma got to swinging and she usually came out on top. I remember one night when I was five. I heard a dish shatter and woke to Bucky dashing through the sala, ponytail puffed up like a cat’s tail. Me and my siblings, Nico and Apple, shared a bunk bed in the sala. We quickly sat up to find Ma chasing Bucky with a clothes iron. Smacked him on the head with it and dragged him out the apartment. It got rough sometimes.

Incapable of triumphing like Ma, I settled for minor victories, like gradually emptying his bottle of Southern Comfort when no one was around. It was his preferred drink. Don’t act surprised he was an alcoholic.

Word is prison converted him. He was twenty or so when they booked him. Twenty-one years for a crime he didn’t commit, but you know how that goes. Take the fall or take a bullet. Took the fall for a bullet he ain’t release. Can’t imagine the coldness that settled when the cuffs locked and Tony Jr. got to screaming in the courtroom. No wonder he hugged the bottle and Malik the same, they were all he had.

Ma started seeing Bucky shortly after his release, a few months after Malik was born. Bucky took advantage of my pop’s absence, claiming Malik as his unofficial son. He often took Malik on his liquor runs, strapping him into the busted Mercury Cougar he drove, rust diluting the whiteness of the paint. Malik was by far his favorite. I genuinely believe Bucky preferred him to Ma.

Bucky protected him fiercely. He attacked anyone who came at Malik wrong, including Ma. There were times when he slapped Malik around, as abusers tend to do, but he veiled it with kind gestures. Malik got gifts and money and he even got to work odd jobs with Bucky throughout Chicago. Always came back home bragging about the money he made, the places they went. Why the hell would I care about where he went or what they did? Worse yet, Malik began telling people that Bucky was his pops. Bucky, his father.

That’s not our father; Papi is, I said one day, aggression invading my tone.

But we never see Papi, Malik responded.

*     *     *

We saw our pops maybe twice a year, if we were lucky. Common occasions were Malik’s birthday, in July, and Christmas, where three December birthdays meshed together for one half-assed celebration. I distanced myself when he showed, quietly chilling in the corner while my siblings embraced him. Apple basically did backflips for him, released toothy smiles so powerful they’d convince you this was status quo. Believing herself his only daughter, that might be what she hoped for: A smile so radiant that it’d hypnotize him into true parenthood.

Ma never pressured me to interact with him, but she encouraged it. He ain’t my favorite person, she’d say, but he is your father. A simple truth he ignored, never once attempting to bridge the gap. Lived ten minutes away, worked even closer, but he was like a ghost, an apparition, someone we fabricated a connection with but who would ultimately vanish. My pops and Bucky were similar in that they both pretended to be my father but didn’t possess a desire to fulfill the role. I was too timid for them, too different.

Even still, Bucky provided. While my pops ignored calls for child support, groceries, and school supplies, Bucky hustled, worked his connections so that we arrived at school only slightly underprepared. Sometimes, he was cool. One Christmas, he blessed us with a purple Nintendo 64, Super Smash Bros. edition. You know the one. Weekends we played together, mostly alternating story mode with his favorite character, Fox. It was good bonding until Bucky became frustrated, taking his anger out on anyone around.

Bucky’s philosophy was this: A cocotazo a day makes the softness go away. Though he never uttered the words, I felt them with each blow. Got to a point where I became terrified of Bucky, avoiding him at all costs. If I woke before him, I’d wait for him to get up and use the bathroom first, averting any conflict. Unless Ma gave the okay, I never prepped breakfast before he did. Most mornings, I’d curl beneath the window with our cat, Snuggles, murmuring passages from a Goosebumps novel while the acid my stomach churned provided me with my own. For a while, it seemed the cycle would never end, but then one day it did.

So sudden how it happened. Ma and Bucky were arguing outside about some “nasty bitch” Bucky was seeing on the side. Apple relayed the information to us as she peered out the window, her fingers stretching the blinds like Bucky did the truth out on the street. The blinds eventually fell from the pressure of Apple’s weight, which led Bucky to charge back into the apartment. I was standing near the window with Apple when he came, attempting to fix the blinds. That meant a nice cocotazo to the head, but that wasn’t the worst part. Bucky slapped Apple and knocked her to the ground, red staining her cheek.

Apple rushed Ma when she entered the apartment. You can guess what happened next: They boxed, but this time it got ugly. After whooping on Bucky, Ma called my pops and told him what happened; my pops then proceeded to call my tío Gordo and some acquaintances. Bucky attempted to escape with his dog, Bullet, but my pops and tío caught him. They forced him to the alley. We were all outside, so I snuck to the alley, attempting to cop a peek at things. Gordo had a gun pointed at Bucky, threatened to shoot him and the dog. It was my first time seeing a gun. Had Bucky been shot and killed, it would’ve been the second dead body I encountered—the first was laid out over there, near the corner. Bucky’s body didn’t hit the pavement though. He just disappeared for a while.

*     *     *

Some nights, I’d hear Ma sobbing in a corner while I pretended to sleep. Could never summon the courage to break the darkness and hug her.

The first year or so after Bucky’s exodus was rough. Ma couldn’t afford an apartment on her own, so she’d rent out rooms from friends and we’d spend weeks or months there. A bed sheet was all that separated us from the ground. Some nights, I’d hear Ma sobbing in a corner while I pretended to sleep. Could never summon the courage to break the darkness and hug her. Money for food was also lacking, so we all had to consume less to accommodate for the void. Ma skipped entire meals so we wouldn’t have to.

Things got better when Mandell arrived. Sure, home was the Altgeld Gardens, one of America’s most notorious housing projects, but it was stable. Mandell was a janitor at James Monroe Elementary, on the west side, so we commuted with him into the city every day that summer. Rides were long and uncomfortable, but Mandell was cool. We spent those trips talking basketball as Get Rich or Die Tryin’ shook the interior of his Astro van, the velvet curtains falling into synchronic dancing.

A few times, Mandell brought me to work, where I scoped the art classes for discarded pencils and sketch pads. That was my lifeline that summer. Sketch an image, show it to Ma and Mandell, gush beneath their praise. For brown boys like me, a few positive words can reverberate across a lifetime.

Most days, Ma dropped us with Abuela while she looked for work. Abuela was the warmest person I knew when she wasn’t drunk, but that wasn’t often, so it seldom showed. Before 3 p.m. she was my favorite person in the world; everyone loved her. It was through Abuela that Bucky reemerged in our lives. They went way back, before Bucky served time, so his return was inevitable.

If you haven’t already pondered it, yes, Bucky did find it difficult to be away from Malik. Initially, Ma didn’t wanna hear about Bucky, so she played ignorant when he began spending time with Malik. Turned the other cheek when he gave Malik money, some for himself, the rest for Ma to buy food, cosmetics, toilet paper, whatever we lacked in the house. It pissed me off whenever Malik handed her that money. The thought of Bucky lending a hand disgusted me; I still hadn’t been able to overlook the damage those hands wreaked just a few years prior.

Things got to the point where Ma and Mandell supported Bucky stopping by to get Malik. Sometimes for a day, eventually for a weekend. We moved into an apartment in Humboldt Park, which gifted Bucky greater visitation rights. Couldn’t stand his ass, but I have to salute his dedication. The love he showed was so deep that Malik neglected to bat an eye whenever our actual pops was mentioned. Makes me question whether I hated Bucky for the pain he caused me or for that which he failed to alleviate.

Days Bucky pulled through to get Malik were some of the worst for me. He’d often come into our apartment to help Malik pack. Had the nerve to greet me on several occasions. I always ignored him, never failing to issue my signature “motherfucker, we ain’t cool, so don’t talk to me” glare. I liked to think that my disinterest and neglect damaged him as much as his presence did me, but it never seemed to work that way. He was confident our relationship would better over time; I’d never been so optimistic.

*     *     *

We attended the Puerto Rican festival in Humboldt Park every summer. That, along with the cocotazos I endured and the food Ma made, was the extent of my Puerto Rican identity. Wasn’t until I was sixteen that I learned Puerto Rico wasn’t a country, which explained the pervasion of thick accents in my family but a lack of immigrants.

I was eight when Mandell joined us for the festival. He loved the food, the music, the dancing. How everywhere you looked, Puerto Rican flags hugged silky caramel shoulders. How even the black folks considered themselves Puerto Rican, inquiring if he was too. Wasn’t nothing like this in Alabama, he said in a twang I hadn’t detected before, grin floating ever upward like a kite.

It made me happy, knowing Ma was with someone who held an interest in her, in us. Mandell was a basketball fanatic, so you can imagine his face when he saw the Puerto Rican flag jerseys vendors were selling. Along with a jersey for himself, he bought me a hat with the flag and a coquí, the national animal, stitched to its front. I’mma wear this one to my league, he said, referencing his amateur basketball team. I wore my hat everywhere I went for months.

Sometime that summer, Bucky was to take Malik for a week. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of Malik for having someone who cared. I know Ma and Mandell cared, but it always seemed like they had to, like it was burdensome. Moments when Ma swatted my sketches, stories, and comics away convinced me everything was a charade. Nothing was hung up, nothing shared. They existed in a bubble Ma wasn’t willing to break, not unless her hand was forced and, even then, it seemed tepid. Bucky stretched himself apart for Malik, made exposing him to the outside world his mission.

The day came that he picked Malik up and, as custom went, he entered the apartment. Upon entering, he greeted me, complimenting my hat. We’re hermanos Boricuas, he said, a confident grin on his face.

We’ll never be brothers, I responded. I stomped the hat in the backyard later that day, in a patch of dirt, before tossing it. Ma said we could’ve saved it, but I was beyond that.

*     *     *

Ma and Mandell split for the same reason her and Bucky did, which made me despise Mandell more than I wanted to. He hurt Ma and I could never forgive him for it, as much as I tried. It’s possible my learning of the infidelity tarnished any sympathies I had. I overheard him gushing over someone on the phone, a woman that couldn’t be Ma ’cause her phone was deactivated. Sat on the info for several days before caving. Never saw Ma so devastated.

Ma’s suffering caused me to ignore the black eyes she left Mandell, the daggers of pussy, bitch, and idiot she lunged into his core, fixating instead on the agony of her sobs. She became crueler in those days, but her affection blinded me. Suddenly, her interests seemed to expand. She was curious about my sketches, my stories, my movies. Still cherish those nights with my head on her lap, her finger caressing my ear until my eyes fluttered into nothingness. Did I miss anything?

Nothing important, she always said, hand lost in my curls.

*     *     *

Like before, finances became tight and Ma was struggling. But guess who came to our rescue? Bucky, of course; it was always Bucky. He brought food, left money, and promised to find us an apartment.

It was actually decent: Three bedrooms with a full living room. Nicest place we’d lived in, to be honest, but when Bucky asked what I thought of it, I said: It’s alright, I’d prefer windows without bars though. Allowing him to know I was appreciative of his actions, in any form, was not an option. It didn’t matter that I finally had a real room or neighbors my age. Bucky created it, which meant it couldn’t be perfect. I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that it was him, not Mandell, who looked out for us though.

*     *     *

It was after we moved into that apartment and after Ma started seeing Dave and after he proclaimed himself dictator and after my depression reached its furthest depths that Bucky pulled a strap on Dave. Now, before I continue the story, I’ll say this, the story of Dave would take a week to tell, perhaps longer, but you should know this much: 1) he was an unrelenting force who imposed his will on us, physically and psychologically for three years, 2) my mother bore the brunt of it, and 3) Apple was harmed in some way or another, all of which leads us to Bucky.

I honestly don’t know how or when Bucky learned of what had been happening, but it didn’t matter. What did matter was that he drove an hour from his home that night, several acquaintances in his van, and parked down the block from us, with a .32 in hand. I’m talking .32 as in Magnum, revolver. He was set on shooting Dave on sight, but Ma talked him out of it. Think of what that’d do to Malik, she said.

Still, Bucky sat in his van the entire night, cradling Dave’s death bane, probably wishing he’d step out the apartment, for just one second, and accept his fate. As far as Bucky was concerned, we were his destiny.

At the time, I wished he’d done it. I wanted to see Dave laid on the ground, blood pooled around his body, rid from my life forever. I was fourteen then and eager for revenge, but Bucky was right in fighting the urge. I can accept that now.

It was then that my feelings toward him began conflicting; then that I’d begun to realize that he wasn’t the same person who cracked me on the head every chance he got; then that it dawned on me that he wasn’t simply protecting Malik and Ma throughout the years, but all of us. I’d drop my guard too late though.

*     *     *

Bucky was drunk the night he came to settle his beef with Dave. He was also drunk just about every night after. I’d find out from Malik that Bucky began downing a bottle of Southern Comfort a night not long after his split with Ma. That led to cirrhosis of the liver, which ate away at his body like cancer. His skin became scaly and his eyes yellow—jaundice transforming him into another man. You ever seen someone’s eyes slowly transition from honey brown to piss yellow in a matter of weeks? The shit will terrify you.

One day, Bucky came to our new apartment, by Fullerton and Kostner, to bring food for the week and asked for help with the bags. I was home alone, so I had no choice but to assist him. Didn’t recognize him when we met. Thin, scaly skin, arms trembling rapidly. Could only carry a couple loaves of bread—doctors told him not to lift more than five pounds, to keep it under ten. I carried everything upstairs and offered him a seat but refused to eat with him, listening closely as his coughs tore through the walls. Told him I had a lot of homework; sophomore year was rough. But that was all bullshit.

When it came time to leave, he asked for help walking down the steps (our stairs were a fucking death trap), so I held him closely the entire way down. Being closer to him than I’d ever been discomforted me, so I rushed down the last few steps, causing his body to fold against mine like a bad hand. When we reached the van, I saw several tiny bottles of Southern Comfort scattered throughout the interior.

You’ve gotta slow down with that shit, man, I said, it’s gonna kill you.

He chuckled and responded, that’s the least of my problems.

*     *     *

As Malik grew older, his relationship with Bucky strained. Malik was thirteen and wanted to chill with his boys, but Bucky wanted to spend time with him. Eventually, they compromised on a day together in Berwyn, where Bucky lived with relatives.

Malik called Bucky several times the day they were supposed to chill, but he never answered. It wasn’t like Bucky not to pick up the phone immediately. Not long after, Ma received a call from one of Bucky’s relatives, explaining how he slipped off his bed, rupturing his liver upon contact with the ground. Spent the next twenty minutes coughing up blood before the ambulance arrived.

Ma, Malik, and Apple were distraught, Nico was accommodating, and I, well, I just sat aside, uncertain of what to feel. Ma returned from the hospital with an update daily. Apparently, it was Bucky’s wish that Malik pulled the plug when the time came. Bucky’s family was livid because Malik wasn’t blood and he was only thirteen, but his estranged son, Tony Jr., backed the move, and so it was.

I tried my best to console Malik whenever we were alone, encouraging him to express what he was feeling verbally and not physically (he’d begun rolling with some suspect dudes, which also worried Bucky). Most of my efforts were fruitless, but once Bucky’s time drew nearer, Malik broke. He’s HIV positive, he told me, his tears colliding against my chest.

That doesn’t make sense, though, I said, he wasn’t a user.

Nah, man, you know how he was locked up for twenty-one years?

I didn’t want to answer because I knew where the conversation was going, and I knew what that would mean for my feelings toward Bucky, and I knew that I would feel pity for him and to feel pity for a man like him was to demean myself. Yeah, I said.

He was raped, a couple times. Malik paused and then said, I just found out earlier… That’s what’s killing him.

*     *     *

I hadn’t fully entered the room before breaking down. That was the first time I’d sob that way, the first time I’d lose complete control of my body.

About a day or two later, Bucky would lose his ability to respond. I decided to tag along with the others to visit. I was the only one who hadn’t gone, by that point. He was motionless when we entered, tubes invading his nose and mouth. Life support. From the doorway, I watched everyone grieve, evading emotion as long as I could. As Ma prepared to leave, she asked if I wanted to talk to him.

He can’t respond, I said.

That doesn’t mean he can’t hear you, Randy.

I hadn’t fully entered the room before breaking down. That was the first time I’d sob that way, the first time I’d lose complete control of my body. Ma trembled alongside me, as my body shuddered between her arms. I never got to say anything to Bucky, something I’m content with to this day. I trust he heard me, that my sobs reverberated throughout his psyche up until the plug was pulled.

He died sometime in April 2011. I don’t remember which day. Ma and Malik went to the funeral, maybe Apple, too; Nico chilled with his girlfriend; I hung back at the crib, alone. From time to time, I’d punch myself in the face, handling my emotions the only way I knew how. It never succeeded in crushing my sadness or ridding Bucky from my mind, but it provided a strange comfort.

My therapist screams progress when only my right hand is bruised. So long as you’re not hurting yourself, he says during weekly visits. I’m not, as far as he knows, but reading this essay in front of class, that’s real pain. A few punches to the jaw in response isn’t. I trust you’ll understand this is out of my control. It’s the simple nature of things.

I never choose to think of Bucky when memories of him resurface; he chooses to enter my mind. Isn’t that always how it goes? Those you neglect become those you yearn for most, your hermanos Boricuas.

Randy William Santiago is an Afro-Puerto Rican writer and Fulbright Scholar from inner-city Chicago. His fiction and essays have been published in Prometheus Dreaming, Five South, The Blue Nib, Litro Magazine, Rigorous and are forthcoming in Storm Cellar Quarterly. He is the host of the lit podcast Literature in Color.