Good morning to the night

Photo by Hide Obara

Reggie’s hair bounced in long curls as he pushed his shopping cart from dumpster to dumpster. Local residents immediately recognized its length and volume, and many said they could set their watches to the sight of Reggie’s bouncing locks: 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. he’d make exactly two stops, one behind the restaurant El Nuevo Leon and the other in the alley behind a new, chic coffee shop frequented by bored looking young professionals. Then he’d reach the neighborhood’s plaza. There, the many who spent their days sitting under the hot sun, contemplating work or the lack of it, with long stares and bleak squints, would feel themselves transformed at the sight of Reggie. Some would comment to him on the neighborhood’s many changes in thick accents. “It’s all the young yip-pies,” one mustachioed, worn man said. “This neighborhood has changed,” a heavily wrinkled man offered, in a long, lamenting way. Others only smiled, a simple full-mouthed gesture, as Reggie stopped to offer whatever he could from his shopping cart — matches, magazines, toilet paper, or a leftover, half-eaten sandwich. At 1 p.m., as though an alarm rang in his head, Reggie would restart his journey, reaching the local YMCA by 1:40 p.m. There, he’d submit to his monthly shower, carefully removing his jacket and lifting out a crumpled magazine photo of a blonde model in her underwear. He had a great affection for her, this Victoria’s Secret model. He didn’t know her name, Martha Hunt, nor had he seen another image of her. But this photo of her in blue-green lingerie, her hip popped to one side, her hair partially covering her face, and her long, long legs reaching up to a contorted torso, slumping shoulders and a disaffected smile, fomented in Reggie a kind of love. He believed her to be his girlfriend. He wouldn’t know, of course, what he’d do or say if he ever saw this woman in real life, but when he was in the Y for his occasional shower, he had to get over the nerves and shame to show his naked body to her. At first, he had to turn the photo the other way, flipping Martha’s cutout to face the wall while he lathered himself, careful not to ruin the magazine page with his wet hands. Later, he became more accepting of her gaze, and as they lived together, she tucked into his coat pocket, near his heart, he believed that Martha kept him safe at nights in the humid summer or cold winter. Then, he’d replace the photo, wave goodbye to the charitable men and women at the Y and be on his way. When he didn’t shower, and it was typical that he wouldn’t, he’d find himself locked into deep conversations with the local Y staff, who always wanted to discover a little more about the neighborhood. Reggie would share what he knew — neighbors in trouble, homes in foreclosure, new gentrifying neighborhoods and opening shops. Occasionally, he’d engage in a game of basketball. Some days he’d play chess. Others, he’d simply sit around and watch men and women use the facilities. He’d seen the faces change at the Y — from young and joyous latinos who brought their children to swimming lessons and soccer matches, to carefree whites who would jog or lift weights. Then, at exactly 4:30 p.m., he’d begin the journey back to his place behind the neighborhood’s public library.

His dinner would come from a variety of places: On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he might scrounge up a scrap or two from the local restaurants’ dumpsters. El Nuevo Leon’s shrimp tacos were like finding a little nugget of gold, but his personal favorite came from Al Pastor. The tiny tacqueria must not have had an extensive menu, but what they did make was nicely spiced and, on some days, still warm when a tall, gangly looking girl would bring it out. She smiled apologetically at him, and sometimes would just set the bag down, not bothering to close it. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, a local Catholic parish sent a food truck to feed the many homeless who lined up around the block. Reggie would stand with them, patiently answering the questions of concerned nuns and locals, who asked, “Are you warm enough?” or “Have you gotten enough to eat?” They never paused to consider “enough,” was in nearly each one of their sentences. And Reggie, as good natured as he was, didn’t stop them to ask, “Why are you so preoccupied with me getting ‘enough,’ while so many are concerned with getting as much as they can?” Instead, he’d simply thank them and eat his fill, cracking the occasional joke or engaging in some gossip. On Saturdays and Sundays, it would be anyone’s guess where he’d find a meal. The neighborhood filled up with tourists from the city, who wanted to enjoy a more eclectic neighborhood and get some real authentic fare.

The lights from the Catholic parish’s food truck cast long, rectangular shadows reminiscent of prison bars across Maria’s bed. Just bright enough to keep her awake, they’d draw her from beneath the covers to the window sill. There, she’d slump her chin on crossed arms and watch men and women, whose worried and tired faces briefly lit up as they reached for their hearty, styrofoam plates. Maria identified Reggie’s familiar bouncing hair when he ducked under the pale light, lifting a steaming tray of food from the truck with his soiled black hands. Maria knew those hands that waited patiently behind her parents’ taqueria — Al Pastor — and that face that would fill with unexpected joy and good nature when she’d set a bag down.

But it wasn’t until a classroom project, when her English teacher requested that each student interview a stranger, that Maria would seek out Reggie. Taking a carefully made and foil-wrapped burrito, placing it in her backpack next to her notebook, Maria set about finding this friendly face, which proved easy to do, with Reggie’s clocklike schedule.

At first, Reggie didn’t register this lanky, 15-year-old girl, who bounded toward him with her shoulders rolled confidently back and a large smile full of big, perfectly white teeth fixed on her face. If asked, he could easily see what many said about Maria, that at a minimum, she was cute, with cherubic cheeks and notable almond eyes, but if Reggie allowed himself a moment to forget his own circumstances, he might consider what any person blessed with foresight would claim to know — how incredibly beautiful Maria would become as she grew into her awkward limbs and left behind her orthodontic braces. Then, after she introduced herself and graciously handed him his burrito, he quickly forgot himself and devoured the still steaming spiced beef, cheese, rice and bean mixture. Amenable, almost pliable, Reggie sighed with a full stomach and answered her questions lazily. “How have you seen the neighborhood change?” “Lots of ways, mainly the people. Used to be that young people seemed happy — op-to-mistic, even. Nowadeys seem worried.” “Worried about what?” “Oh, I don’t know. Makin’ payments. Gettin’ da house together. Lawd knows.” Reggie then laughed, in a way that would slip from him occasionally, a long a languorous laugh that put Maria at ease immediately and gave her time to continue filling her journal with his musings.

After Maria turned in the assignment, she continued to talk with Reggie and bring him food from her parents’ taqueria. She filled her journal with his perspectives on her neighborhood, mesmerized that what he knew could be so different from what she did. It took a long while before she thought to ask what had happened, why it was that Reggie became homeless. At this question, Reggie became silent long enough Maria thought about checking his breathing. Then he roused himself, “Lost it all. Home, wife, kids. Swung a hammer. Was in construction, ya know. Then it all… Fell apart.” “When?” “Oh, I doughno… Maybe seven, eight years ago.” Maria averted her eyes from Reggie’s gaze. “But it’s alright. I understand life much mo different now. It’s the way it’s supposed to was.”

With an emphatic star in the margins, she noted in vivid detail the day Reggie pulled out the crumpled, nearly worn-through magazine page with one Martha Hunt staring apathetically back at her. “You could be a model,” Reggie said with certitude, cracking his smile. “Thanks, ‘Reg,’” Maria didn’t know when she started to use that nickname, but neither one of them seemed to think anything of it, so it stuck. “This is your girlfriend?” Maria asked with a hint of concern. “Dat’s right.” “What’s her name?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “How can she be your girlfriend then?” Reggie let out his laugh. “Cuz, ya see, she makes me feel better. I look at her, and all of dem city lights melt away. It’s jus’ da two of us. Can’t ask no more dan dat.” Reggie smiled. “Nobody can. Dat’s what she does for me. Dat’s why I love her.” Maria nodded. After that, she felt comfortable bringing her boyfriend Hector to visit Reggie, who she wished she could feel the same about as Reggie did this magazine cutout. Much to her disappointment, though, Reggie and Hector didn’t get along. Reggie stared at Hector for a long while, and when the teenager turned away, shuffling his feet, his hands in his pockets, Reggie took it as an opportunity to say, “I don’t know, Maria. He got a look — I’ve seen it before. It ain’t good.”

Maria and Hector persisted, though, and their relationship continued on past the winter, when Reggie would spend more time at the Catholic parish, sleeping in a small cot reserved for the first men and women who showed up that day, and on into the spring, when Reggie found his usual stoop behind the public library taken by a couple of angry crackheads, and he had to settle into an alley, which he chose for its convenient plaza access and proximity to Al Pastor. There, the friendship blossomed into daily conversations, and for the first time in years, Reggie’s routine changed, to incorporate a 10-minute conversation in the morning, when Maria would start her trek to school, and for a half hour in the afternoon, after she came home and brought out Reggie’s favorite burrito — carne asada with grilled vegetables. Hector looked at the friendship with increasing distrust, “He’s your puppy,” Hector would say. “You feed a dog, and now it won’t leave your doorstep.” Maria would ignore or spar with Hector, whenever Reggie came up. “You don’t know him. He’s a good man,” or “Leave him be. He’s harmless.” Whenever Hector would frustrate Maria he would always end the conversations with, “Go find your bum, since you love him more than your boyfriend.” Maria would identify Reggie as the single biggest point of contention in her relationship. Undoubtedly, Hector would say that it was Maria’s lack of “putting out” that caused strain between the two of them. She was a virgin with no plans of having sex before marriage. Hector was a star athlete, whose parents spurred him to do great things, if not mentally, then physically. And his older brother’s bullying, a constant for Hector’s life, the many punches and teases, made Hector tough, almost beyond reproach. He would never lose his cool on the soccer field, and regardless of how much his lungs burned, he would push through to the 90th minute. His hatred for his family fueled the fire inside him to keep playing, to improve. And when he received praise, it reinforced the cycle.

In fact, Maria never learned the moment that started the night that would forever change Maria’s, Hector’s and Reggie’s lives. That it was Hector’s brother, with 50 pounds and four inches on his little brother, who pinned Hector to the ground and proceeded to mock Hector’s virginity while humping his bottom, “You must be a faggot. Huh? You like this? You can’t fuck your girlfriend, you mightaswell get it somewhere.” Hector choked back his rage at that moment, knowing that if he fought his brother, it would be an even greater punishment later. But that anger, perhaps the frustration and bottled up pain he had endured his entire life, pure and vicious, came out that night, when Maria sat in Hector’s car and told him to stop talking about Reggie. “You’re being cruel. He’s just a man who needs help.”

“You should make him your boyfriend. Maybe you’d fuck him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You should go fuck the nigger.”

“Hector… I don’t… I don’t know who you are right now.”

“Take off your shirt.”

“No. I’m leaving.”

“No you’re not. Take off your shirt.” Hector’s eyes glared, anger and hatred flashed behind them. Maria moved to open the door. Hector grabbed her.

“Hector, you’re hurting me.”

“I don’t care. You’re going to like this. I’m going to make you like this.” Hector leaned in to kiss Maria. She turned and struggled against his grip. Hector’s free hand grabbed her chin, “Don’t struggle. It’ll hurt worse.” He stuck his tongue out and kissed her mouth. “Kiss me, dammit!” She spat on him. His shock subsided quickly, and soon fury replaced it. With a long wind up, he pulled back and smacked Maria across the face, drawing blood from her nose. She reached up and dabbed her mouth. Holding her wrist with his right hand, he jerked down his pants with his left and pulled out his penis.

“Hector — don’t,” Maria sobbed.

“Suck on it,” Hector said.

“Hector, please.”

“Put me in your mouth.”

Maria bit her lip, sobbing, tears mixing with blood on her face. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw Hector’s door open, and a bouncing ball of hair reach over Hector’s body. Hector’s grip loosened, then let her free. Soon, Hector was out of the car, on the ground, one blow after another coming from Reggie’s balled fists. “Dat’s not how you treat a lady,” Maria heard Reggie say. “Especially one as sweet as Ms. Maria.” Maria sniffed. She unthawed from her frozen state and pushed open the vehicle’s door. Without turning back, in panic, she ran the three blocks to her apartment, passing the food truck and well-lit plaza, as the homeless filed in a long line around its benches, each waiting for the chance to get a bite to eat.

Maria saw Reggie only twice after that night, first when she thanked him the next morning. He let out his generous laugh and said, “We’re here to take care of one another.” Then, approximately one week later, when she came back from school and saw a crowd huddled around Reggie’s alley. Maria’s throat caught. She knew when she saw the crumpled magazine clipping he held of his girlfriend in his fist. Later, she’d swear that the old, black man’s body, though beaten nearly unrecognizable, still had a smile on his face.

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