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Sunny shouted, "Paahcooo!" His head thrown back, he looked up, waiting. "Come on down Paco, I need you. PACO!" Finally a window on the third floor pulled open. It was morning and freezing cold, twenty-two bitter degrees cold. Sunny stopped yelling and waited.

Paco lived two floors above a liquor store. No one was hanging around the front today. It was Christmas, the store was closed. Besides the cheap wine and hard liquor, they sold lottery tickets and the police suspected they maybe sold something else, something less than legal. The cops had no proof, but they had their instincts and a watchful eye. They knew there would be a slip-up one day and they would have their excuse to go inside, and then they would find their something, they felt certain of it. The police were aware of who Paco was, too.

He stuck as little of his head out of the window as he could. "What the fuck, Sunny?" Paco wore a silk robe over a red tee shirt and skimpy elastic underpants.

"Come on down, Paco, we have a problem."

"What problem do I have?"

"With the family. With Mariel's father."

"I don't have Poppy Frank for a father-in-law anymore, I don't have his problems."

"Yeah, you do."

"Get out of here Sunny."

"No, I need you to do a thing. It's important."

"No, this is Christmas today, get out of here."

"This is family, Paco."

"Fuck that, pandejo, maybe tomorrow."

"You coming down?"

"Do I look like I am coming down?"

"Okay. I'm calling in my five hundred dollar debt. Right now."

"You're a stupid piece of shit, you know that?"

"You coming down?"

"You better make this fast, what ever it is, dumb shit."

"Yeah. Okay."

Sunny stomped on what was left of the dirty, crusty snow from a storm three days before. His feet in sneakers were cold. He was small and tightly built, solid, lean. His black baseball cap sat low on his head, he wore sunglasses on a cloudy morning because of the astigmatism in his left eye. They were prescription glasses, and he wore them all the time because he didn't want people on the street to know he could barely focus out of his left eye.

"Yo, what's the deal, Sunny, you piece of--"

"Yeah, Merry Christmas, to you, too. Get in the car, Paco, you lazy ugly son of a bitch."

Sunny had left his wife and kids at his mother-in-law Rita's house. They were still unwrapping presents, surrounded by a sea of colored paper. Rita's Chihuahua was yap-barking and ripping through the paper and ribbons. The kids shouted and laughed. Sunny had gone outside with Rita's husband, Poppy Frank.

Poppy Frank said they should go over to Marguerita's Bodega. "You okay, Poppy Frank?" Sunny asked his father-in-law as they drove.

"Fine, hang out with me a little, Sunny, I don't get to see you ever anymore."
"What about the kids, the presents?"

"We'll come back."

"What's up Poppy?" Poppy didn't answer.

At Marguerita's Sunny saw that Poppy was restless. He rubbed his hands together and didn't say much to his friends standing around at the back of the store. Then Sunny understood. A woman walked into the store and suddenly Poppy was all attention. She was a fake blonde, but she wore the yellow hair well with her skin of olive tones mixed together with light coffee tones of a smooth and soft texture. Sunny saw the sparks fly. The woman's shape was full and inviting, she had to be thirty years younger than Poppy. She signaled to him from the doorway then turned to talk to Margie, the bodega owner's wife.

Sonny grabbed Poppy's arm. "Let's have it, Poppy." The other men noticed but they went on talking. "Poppy you are doing that woman out there? You got cancer in your thing, man!"

"In the prostate, Sunny, and I got off that medicine."

"The doctors took you off it?" Poppy didn't answer. "Great, you took yourself off, now you'll die."

"I'm not dead yet, Sunny." He looked longingly at the woman, like a dog ready to lie down on command. She turned and smiled. Poppy and Sunny looked at her behind.

"Jesus, man, you're seventy years old."

"Sixty-eight. But this mujer bonita has a boyfriend, Sunny."

"Does he know?"

Poppy Frank nodded. "He's going to get me, he said so."

"Poppy..."

"He treats her bad, Sun. He takes her money. Maybe he sells drugs to kids; not a good man for her."

"Does Mommy Rita know anything about this?"

"No! You think I am stupid, Sunny?"

Sunny lifted his hands. "It came to mind you might be."

"You think I need to get a gun?"

"No guns. No, Poppy, that's how to definitely get killed. I'll go talk to the guy. What's his name?"

Poppy shrugged. "He is tall, not big though, with big hands, huge. He goes to Chi Chi's store on K Street."

"You don't know the guy's name?"

"I never saw him. She told me."

Sunny left Poppy at Marguerita's. He told him to stay there and to tell the woman to go away for today. At Chi Chi's, Sunny thought he saw the guy in question. He approached, but the man played dumb. Sunny told him he had heard he was going after Frank Quinones, that Frank was his father-in-law and that he didn't think it was too good of an idea to go after him. He said, "Everyone here knows me, my reputation, they can tell you my reputation." The others at the back of Chi Chi's store were quiet. They were drinking coffee and beer. "So you leave off Frank Quinones, and that is my only warning."

The guy said nothing, he didn't argue, so Sunny had no choice but to leave. He hadn't mentioned the woman. Sunny wasn't sure, though; this guy's hands were big, but not that big. Maybe he had the wrong man. Sunny got a bad feeling because he couldn't be sure. He had made a warning in front of everyone, but wasn't certain he had the right guy. "I'm leaving now," he said, "and I'll be watching." He hunched up, trying to look as mean as he could, but the guy still said nothing and Sunny felt almost foolish. And even if he was the right one, he wasn't sure he had made his point. Sunny hated to doubt, he liked for things to be clean and clear, but somehow they almost never were. Back in his car he decided to go over to Paco's. He didn't like the way things were turning out.

Paco was a living monster. He had been Rosa's, Sunny's wife's, sister's husband. Even Mariel had called her ex an animal. Paco was a man without remorse, a walking time bomb in the public's way. He had already done a year and a half for shooting two teenage robbers. They had come into his friend's store to rob the cash and to mug any customers. They had picked the wrong day, Paco was there and he pulled out his gun and started to shoot. He hit one kid in the stomach, the other in the thigh--fourteen and fifteen year old kids. They had a gun too, but never got off a single bullet. Paco hit them at close range, and would likely have killed one of them had he bothered to raise his gun above his belt when he pulled it out of his pants.

Paco's friend, standing next to him that day, never recovered from witnessing such a scene; the two skinny kids sprawled on the floor, the sight of opened-up guts, the smell of blood mixed with feces and gun powder. He threw up, he went a little crazy. Paco said later that he should have shot his friend, too, "I should have put that little boy-man out of his misery."

Sunny had lent the five hundred dollars to Paco when he was still married to Mariel. Rosa never knew about the loan. Sunny had not demanded payment because he liked having it over Paco's head. Something like that could act as a kind of check on Paco, who understood the value of money over the value of a human life.

"Okay, I'm here, was is it about, Sunny?"

"I need you to talk to a guy who is threatening Poppy Frank."

"What's he threatening for?"

"Never mind what for. I already talked to the guy once, at Chi Chi's. I need you to back me up. Only, there is one thing: I am not absolutely certain this is the guy."

Paco started to laugh. "You don't know who the guy is? That's funny. You're very funny, man. Stop the car."

Sunny ignored Paco's request. "I need you to say it out to everyone there. The guy's got big hands, that's how to know him. So you say something like, 'whoever is threatening Frank Quinones has to answer to me,' and maybe look in the guy's direction. Just say it into the room, to anyone there, you know what I mean?"

Paco leaned up against the passenger door, looking out of the window at nothing. "Yeah, I know. This is stupid. That old Poppy never had anything right, somebody ought to take him out."

"Paco, you want to play or pay?"

"Lets go."

Paco walked into Chi Chi's and looked around. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. Seeing him, everyone put down their beers and coffees and pressed back. Paco said to Sunny, "Okay, which is the guy? I don't see no big hands anywhere." He said it loud.

Sunny nodded in the direction of a man standing near the radio. "Maybe him," he said softly.

Paco walked over to the guy and let him have his threat. First he grabbed hold of his wrists and turned the hands palms up to have a better look; maybe the guy's hands were a little big, but nothing special. Paco dropped the wrists and told him, into this face, what would happen if he hurt his father-in-law, Frank Quinones. He corrected himself, his ex father-in-law, but so what, he, Paco, would find the guy at the ends of the earth and he would break anything in him that cold be broken and maybe kill him on top. Paco had a quality about him that could unnerve a ten foot polar bear. The room was dead silent.

Sunny stood watching in disbelief. Paco talked to the guy with the big hands for three spine-curdling minutes, then turned and said to Sunny, "Okay, lets go, man, take me home. It's Christmas."

In the car Sunny said, "Paco, you stupid, I said that only might be the guy, I said to say it into the room. Damn, man, you singled out only that one guy. We don't even know for sure it was him!"

"What's the difference, they all heard it?"

"The difference, cabron, is that the right one would think you'll go for the guy you said it to, dumb fuck, if anything was to happen to Poppy and that wasn't him."

Paco calmly picked at a back molar with the long nail of his right hand pinky. "I did what you said, more or less. Now I am going home. And that debt, Sunny, is wiped clean."

Sunny laughed a joyless laugh. "Think so? You messed it up back there, you specifically did not say what I asked you to say. The debt holds."
"I came out on Christmas, pandejo."

"And the debt still stands."

Paco slammed the car door and waved behind him to Sunny in the car. He hulked back inside his building.

Now Sunny was mad. He felt stupid on top of uncertain. A sheer cold anger gripped him. Icy and sharp, fussing up through his blood. His eyes shot glints of steel. He wanted to ram his car into something--or someone. Inside him ping pong balls bounced, let loose by his sudden fury.

Nothing was settled! And now he looked stupid! Damn that Poppy Frank! Sunny pounded the steering wheel. A car pulled up beside him at the stop light, on his right side. "Go ahead," Sunny said through clenched teeth, "go ahead and look at me, give me an excuse! Just one look." The light changed, Sunny hit the gas and raced ahead, cutting off the other car.

The other driver, startled, pulled back, giving Sunny a wide berth. "That's right!" Sunny shouted into his rear view mirror, "and stay backed off!" He laughed a mirthless laugh. He was a cowboy and this was the Wild West. His car was his pony and all around them was the danger of the ghetto, a place untamed and hurting.

Sunny roared as he drove, all his shut up energy looking for a place to burst through until inside he swelled with sadness, and the sadness collided with his rage. He drove aimlessly for nearly an hour. Lucky no one was outside. It was cold, it was Christmas, maybe there would be more snow. He drove his car slowly, like a Wild West hunter looking for one false move from anyone, but the streets were bare of prey. He pulled over, under the overhead train tracks, to let an ambulance go screeching past, red lights flashing.

Sunny turned the car around and went back to Marguerita's Bodega. Poppy Frank was gone. They said he didn't go home, but had gone over to Chi Chi's. Sunny swore. He jumped back into the car and drove fast to Chi Chi's on K Street. He found Poppy Frank. He was pacing back and forth in the store, in front of the door to the back room. They could see him from in there, pacing like a lion, his head thrown back, his posture erect.

Sunny hissed, "Poppy, what are you doing!"

"Sunny! You see me, ha, a brave man, ha?" Poppy laughed raucously, full of crazy joy. He was a man with cancer to his most prized part, but he was still a man. They couldn't take that from him. He could die and they could have him, but they could never say that Frank Quinones was not a man. "You saw her, Sunny. I had her, that fine one sat in these arms." He held his arms open.

"I know, Poppy. We all saw. Now come home, it's Christmas." Poppy Frank nodded. He closed up is jacket and went outside with Sunny.

At home the women were waiting. Rosa looked up to Sunny from the floor, where she sat among the children with their gifts. She studied his face. Sunny's anger had gone quiet again, but his wife knew its trace still just beneath the surface. Mariel was there with her kids, and their brother with his family. Sunny's kids yelled up at him, "Daddy! Poppy-Daddy! Look, see all our toys?" The room smelled of coffee and breakfast.
Rosa's mother turned away from her Poppy Frank. Her worried expression had turned to resignation. Poppy Frank pulled a small wrapped package out of his pocket. It was a gift meant for the other, the younger, sumptuous woman. He presented it to his wife. She accepted the box with a nod and placed it in her own pocket. She did not open her prize.

Sunny sat down on the floor with the children, all the cousins and sisters and brothers. He asked Poppy Frank to get him a beer. His three kids crowded around him to show off their Christmas booty.

©1998 J.Stefan-Cole


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