I Don’t Paint People Anymore
David and the Lion’s Den, chapter 29 and final
“Raph!” I pleaded, kneeling in the puddle growing around his body, shocked by its heat. I squeezed his hand, shocked by its ice. “Raph, are you OK?”
Warmth soaked into my jeans, wetting my shins and wicking up my legs. He gripped my palm, so lightly I could barely feel it. I smelled the copper pennies I used to roll for candy money when I was a little boy.
I probed his sliced-up arm. “Oh, my God!” His whole sleeve was sopping wet. “We gotta get you stitches, man. We gotta get you patched up.” I didn’t understand how an arm could bleed so much.
Arnold’s voice boomed from somewhere behind me. “Jill’s calling 911. Hang in there, guys. Hang on!”
I folded into a cross-legged position, and keeping the boy’s hand cradled in mine, I pulled his head into my lap. As his body turned, a warm gush wet my thigh. Needles pricked me all over me as I saw blood pulsing from a red-black deformity low down on his white shirt. It undulated with his breathing. In and out. Pulsing and welling.
I reached out and touched it, thinking to apply pressure.
“Yai!” he hollered. He writhed as hot blood bathed the palm I held to his stomach. My other hand twitched as he squeezed it harder than I thought he could.
“Hang in there, buddy,” I soothed. “We’ll get you to a hospital. You’re gonna be OK.” I struggled to believe myself.
“Stop moving him,” Arnold instructed. “Try to keep him as still as you can.”
“I’ll never be OK again,” Raph winced through clenched teeth. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry.”
I squeezed his hand as lightly as I could, horrified to see the life pouring out of him.
He started to cry. “So sorry. He told me… He said it was a joke.”
“It’s OK,” I crooned. “Everything’s OK.” My hand on his belly was useless. Blood welled up and around my fingers like they weren’t even there. I lifted it and used it to stroke his hair.
“What was a joke?” Arnold prodded, voice clipped and deadly. “Tell us. Hurry.”
“It was around the Fourth of July,” Raph whispered between shallow breaths. “In the dish room. Pedro, he wanted to show how loco my cousin was.”
Alonzo’s voiced roared out at that moment. “Shut the fuck up, Primo!” I must have jerked my body around, because Raph winced and gasped. I heard a gurgle and glanced back to see Arnold grinding one of his black oxfords into Alonzo’s throat. I noticed Carla rooting around in the storage cage.
I focused back on Raph as Arnold’s voice urged him on, low and gentle now. “You’re almost there, son. What did Pedro show you? Can you explain?”
“It was a big bowl, metal. You know the ones, David?” He meant the industrial mixing bowls the Mexicans used in the kitchen. I squeezed his hand to say yes.
“Alonzo kept one hidden in the dish room,” Raph moaned, grinding his teeth in pain. “He kept raw chicken pieces in it. Pastry cream and raw chicken all mixed together. Pedro, he show me the hiding place.”
I heard Alonzo yell out again, and turned to see him thrashing around like crazy. My heart pumped so fast that I started gasping for breath. I almost jumped up to help Arnold, but right before I could, Carla lurched out of the cage, unsteady on her feet but brandishing a meat cleaver.
She reeled toward the struggling figures, but by the time she covered the distance, Arnold had Alonzo pinned again.
I turned back to Raph and felt myself go pale to see how white and waxy his face had gone. He was shrinking as the blood drained out of him. Carla knelt beside me, cleaver clattering to the floor.
“There’s a whole boxful in there,” she muttered. She teased Raph as she took his chin in her hand and stroked it with her fingers. “Lock him up with the pasta next time, Cookie, instead of the damn Ginsu collection.”
I choked up as I watched him try and fail to smile up at her.
“OK, son,” Arnold interrupted. “You’re doing great. I get the raw chicken business. Marinating in pastry cream. Good job!” He sounded like a football coach. “Just one last thing, buddy. What did you catch Alonzo doing? What did see with your own eyes? Can you tell us?”
“Cannoli.” Raph whispered, so low we all had to lean in to hear. I struggled to dam up tears as I brushed his cheek, finger painting scarlet stripes. “Cannoli,” he repeated on a feather-light sigh. “Alonzo … filling them …”
He stopped and struggled to pull in a puff of air. I didn’t think he was going to make it, but a phrase leaked out from between his lips. “Caught him…” His breath whistled into his lungs one more time. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks as the rest of the words leaked out of his mouth. “… filling cannoli… dirty cream from bowl.”
Alonzo’s voice injected hatred into the silence that followed. “I’ll fucking kill you, you filthy maricon! You slobbering puta!”
I ground my teeth together, so angry my jaw hurt.
“Why, mi hermano?” Raph’s plea fluttered in the air softer than butterfly wings. “Why you hurt David? Why Howie? Always … always it was Esteban.”
His fingers twitched, and I knew he was trying to squeeze my hand again. His black eyes found mine. “Promised me, David. Promised to protect …”
“I promised to keep you safe from Esteban!” roared Alonzo. “But you weren’t selling yourself for him anymore. You went into business for yourself. You liked it!”
Raph’s tears etched white traces through the cherry swathes my fingers had painted on his cheeks. “You were everything to me,” he gasped. “The only family I had left.”
“Yes! And I killed them for you, Primo! For you!”
Raph’s body stiffened and convulsed. “No!” he spewed out, then slumped, spent. My hand, caressing, found his throat. His pulse fluttered fast and faint under my palm.
“It was too late for me,” Alonzo explained, now sad instead of angry. “I’m dead already. From the virus. From Carl and Jackson. Esteban. Everything. But you…”
“Me what, Primo?” Raph sighed out. “You think I want to live knowing what you did?” His pulse raced in spidery staccato under my palm, so weak.
He breathed his last words so faintly that only I heard, ear pressed against his lips, his breathe tickling the tiny hairs inside. “You killed me before you stabbed me.”
He whistled in one more breath, then his feathery pulse skipped under my hand and skidded to a halt. Hot air sighed one last time into my ear. Then nothing.
No one spoke.
My heart thubbed so loudly under my ribs that the whole room had to be listening. Now the tears washing blood off his cheeks were my own. Carla pulled me up off him and gentled his eyes closed with those long, age-roughened fingers.
I don’t know why I picked up the knife.
Alonzo started to flop around again, but I wasn’t even thinking about him. I think I needed to touch something to destroy the memory in my skin. The blade, so hard and cold, obliterated the vellum whisper of Raph’s cheek against my fingertips.
The angry steel blade traced sharp welts of incrimination into my palm as I stroked the dull edge.
I stared at Raph’s body, ignoring noises of grunting and scuffling behind me.
Tears fogged my vision, and I knew Raph was dead because I hadn’t taken the time to know him. My fingers grazed up and down icy metal as I thought back to all the times I pushed him away.
Some part of me was aware that Arnold was shouting, but my thoughts stayed focused on the dead boy I was kneeling over. If only I’d listened to him the night before. If only I’d waited for him like he asked me to. I’d have taken him to see Arnold with me this morning. We’d probably be having lunch together right now.
I noted absently that the blade was running slick with my own blood. Meat and fat puckered up out of the gash Alonzo had opened up in my hand. Nausea blurred my vision.
The next few seconds are blurs. My whole life turns on them, but I can’t be sure of what I saw, me for whom seeing had been everything.
Alonzo exploded out of Arnold’s grasp.
That much I know. The crazed Colombian’s snarls yanked my head around just in time to see him twist the knife out of his captor’s grip, half carving off one of his own fingers in the process.
I saw that clearly enough.
He rushed me, screaming, knife high in the air, wolf eyes wild and bloody.
I don’t remember moving. I remember being in the air, screaming at him. “You killed him!”
The sweet, rancid smell of his hatred filled my nostrils as his bulk grew in a blink so monstrous that it obliterated my vision. I tensed and screamed again, vomiting out all my failures, frustration, and rage.
I heard his knife clatter to the floor. Something wrenched at my arm, all but grinding it gristle-and-sinew out of its socket. I pulled and yanked, twisted and thrust, but I couldn’t break free. “Get off me!” I heard myself howling. “Get back! Back!”
Then his eyes met mine, fell forward with his nose, which brushed my own. I thought he was kissing me. I wondered about the tiny red bubbles frothing around his lips. His head lolled back, unsupported by a neck gone suddenly floppy.
The tiny bubbles grew into glistening pearls. They flowed like a fountain around the blackheads pocking his nose. He staggered and fell away from me. With the distance, I spotted my cleaver buried in his gut. I felt his stomach muscles contort as they clamped fiercely around the blade, refusing to release it.
I let go, shocked, and he crashed to his knees, greenish feces splattering me and the floor. I gagged.
He died much faster than Raphael.
The part I don’t trust, that maybe I imagined, is the part where he drops his own knife before he reaches me, before his bulk blocks my vision.
I play it over and over again in my mind — to this day — and I could swear I hear it clattering on the floor before his convulsing body starts yanking me around. I don’t know what I saw. Sometimes what you’re looking at isn’t what you’re seeing.
That day as I stood over Alonzo, watching blood and bile pump out of his body, I finally understood that seeing isn’t enough. It hadn’t been enough to save Raph, to spare Hilda the pain she suffered at the opening, or to return to Richard the love and understanding he offered me so freely.
It hadn’t been enough for Howie.
I stood there and watched Alonzo’s life extinguish, and the price of my hubris pierced me like the knife that that had shredded his liver. An ironic laugh threatened it’s way up my throat and escaped as a strangled sob.
I don’t paint people anymore.