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MISSING IN PRECINCT PUERTO RICO
There was a time, when the Spaniards still ruled Puerto Rico, that the hill town of Angustias had nearly twelve thousand souls counted. This included men, women, children, and eighteen slaves. There were a little more than nine thousand citizens in the Angustias of 1982. The drop-off in population could be traced back to many factors--fewer farms needing fewer workers, the unforgiving mountainous geography, and the lure of far-off places like New York and Miami with promises of better jobs and futures that didn't include the daily wrestling with Mother Nature for the sake of a few dollars on which to live. Also, in the modern age, people simply had fewer children. Contraceptives were available in Angustias, as elsewhere on the island, and most, Catholic or not, used them. Gonewere the days of twelve children in a family. Now, even a half-dozen raised eyebrows.
Luis Gonzalo, sheriff of Angustias since 1964 when he took the job at the age of twenty-two, had been part of a small family himself, his father having died young and his mother never remarrying. He had been born and raised in town. He had seen the best and brightest go off to college in some larger town and only ever come back for Christmas, New Year's, and Three Kings' Day. He had sent several of los Angustiados, citizens of Angustias, to prison. He had put one in the grave. When the last census announced that the town's population had fallen for the fourth straight decade, Gonzalo thought of the family he had formed in Angustias--two teenaged daughters and a daughter born just the year before. They would get the best educations he could afford for them. Chances were low that they would come back after college. And there was nothing he could say that would change that. Even if there were, he wouldn't say it. Children had to live their lives, and if they thought it would be better to live it elsewhere, he wasn't the one to stop them.
Almost every afternoon for the first few years he was sheriff, Gonzalo toured the stops to watch the children as they climbed onto the school bus in the morning and then as they got on at the school to go home in the afternoon. This was a task he enjoyed, but one he now shared with his two deputies.
On this afternoon, there was only one small problem as the children of the elementary school waited for the bus, and Gonzalo was there to tend to it. Two boys, part of a group playing with marbles, got into an argument. To end the argument, one of the boys, a nine-year-old, picked up an aggie and tossed it into the woods. The aggie owner thought this deserved a punch in the nose and gave it to him. Gonzalo left his conversation with the school principal to break upthe scrabble before a crowd had formed. He held each boy by the collar, pulled them apart, but one tried for a final kick, which landed on Gonzalo's shin. Had he not been involved in this disturbance, he would have noticed a dark-skinned man in a big American car, who parked in front of the school for a minute, wrote down a few notes, made a three-point turn, and drove off. Gonzalo didn't see this, nor did the principal. The children who noticed it, said nothing.
So much passes beneath the eyes of the local police. So much that they want to do something about, but can't. When, for instance, a woman of the town, a respected woman with children, begins to go out at night with another man from another town. Or when a man has lost his job and begins to drink more than he can hold. Or when a young girl, falling in love for the first time, falls for the wrong young man. What can the officer do? Even when he has been friends with the man for many years, and has a good relationship with the wife in question, he is powerless to do more than talk to them as a friend and as an acquaintance. Drunkenness is only illegal when it's public, no matter how much damage it may cause in private. As for a woman leaving the house when her husband is away and finding comfort from some other man, there are no laws broken there either, no matter how tragically things may turn if the husband finds out. As for the daughter of the family, the one falling for a boy with a police record that, however slight the offenses, can't just be ignored, there is even less that can be said to her. Even if she is the goddaughter of the sheriff of Angustias, Luis Gonzalo, the boy's records are sealed by the court and an officer can't just blurt out this type of information.
After advice, the best an officer can do is watch the family dramaunfold, ready to step in with the force of law at the first sign of trouble.
The family in question, the Cruz family, had come close to requiring Gonzalo's intervention in the past few weeks. There had been arguments that the neighbors had complained about. Gonzalo had gotten there as quickly as he could, but the fights were over each time, Guillermo Cruz sitting in his La-Z-Boy, Amelia washing dishes, before Gonzalo knocked on the door. There had also been a call to the station house to say that Giselle Cruz, the daughter, wasn't home yet though it was nearing eight at night and school had been over for hours. By the time Gonzalo drove to the house to get a more complete report, the girl had arrived and locked herself into her room.
Today was Giselle's quinceañera--her fifteenth birthday--a cause for celebration much like the sixteenth birthday is celebrated for young ladies in other countries. Amelia and Guillermo were determined to make the party one that Giselle would remember with fondness for the decades that were to come. Between the drinking, the paramour, and the boyfriend that didn't quite measure up, Gonzalo felt certain the night would be remembered. He wasn't sure about the fondness.
He thought of all of this as he made himself a cup of coffee, straining the grounds through a colador. He was dressed in his best civilian clothes and didn't want to spill a drop on himself. He heard Mari coming toward the kitchen in her slippers and started to move faster and think less.
"You're still not done making that coffee?" she asked. "We're going to be late."
"We have half an hour before it starts," Gonzalo answered. "Besides, it's a quinceañera. It'll last for five hours or more."
"Yes, and we're the godparents. We have to be there for the whole thing."
Gonzalo rolled his eyes at the thought of trying to find that many hours of interesting conversation at a young girl's party where the attendants were either children or adults trying to duck out as soon as the food and the liquor were gone. And he had seen the amount of liquor Guillermo had packed away into the back of his station wagon a few days earlier. It would last a while.
"You know how this night is going to end, right?" Gonzalo asked his wife as she took a long sip from his cup of coffee. She twitched her nose, a sign that she waited to be enlightened.
"I'm going to be driving people home, if I'm lucky. If I'm not lucky, there'll be a fight or two for me to break up."
"It'll be nice," Mari said. She handed him his cup, half-finished, and left him to drink down the rest.
On the Cruz family's wide front lawn, a white canopy had been set up, musicians were tuning instruments, there was a giant cake on a center table, several long tables held a buffet, another table held the sodas and juices, and another one held the liquors. To the left of the house, there was an entire pig being turned on a spit by a man Gonzalo didn't know. The man's shirt was open, and he had a beer and a knife on a little table standing next to him. The band played the opening notes of a popular salsa song, then stopped. Apparently, this was a sound check. Mari and Gonzalo arrived at the house and found the Cruz family.
Guillermo had a plastic cup with a clear liquid in it. He noticed Gonzalo's look.
"Seven-Up," he said. Gonzalo nodded. It was seven in the evening, and if Guillermo could hold off drinking for a couple of hours, there was a chance the night would pass peacefully.
Soon, more people arrived, arranging themselves at different tables on the lawn, closer to the food or the soda or the liquor or the family, as they desired. The roast pig was carved bit by bit and served to each table on large platters. Amelia's lover stopped by for a minute. Gonzalo noticed that Amelia didn't look his way and instead held tight to her husband's arm. The lover walked back to his car, his look forlorn. Mari reported later that Amelia had told her the dates with that man were at an end.
"That was just the foolishness of a woman who ..." She never finished the sentence.
Giselle's boyfriend arrived in good time and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek in front of her parents. Gonzalo was happy to see that the boyfriend was not the young man it had been just a few weeks earlier. Instead, this was a worthy young man, just her age and never in any trouble with the law.
The time came for Guillermo to help Giselle in the ceremony of changing her shoes from those of a girl to those of a woman. Then there were the presents to deliver and the wishes and the toasts and the father's speech and the mother's speech and finally the cake. Throughout the night, Guillermo had nothing stronger than a Pepsi. Later, he explained that he had given up liquor, cold turkey.
"Ten days ago I got drunk and fell into the ditch across the road. I sprained my ankle, skinned my elbow, and I was crying. Giselle came out to help me. My eyes were unfocused, and I had vomited. The lowest part of my life, I think. What am I supposed to do when my own daughter is pulling me out of ditches? I just said, 'No more.'"
"And you haven't had a drink since?" Gonzalo asked.
"Nope." Guillermo walked off to greet a latecomer to the party.
Near midnight, two men who had not followed Guillermo's examplegot into an argument and shoving match over who was the greatest of Puerto Rico's writers--Zeno Gandia or René Marqués. Gonzalo had an opinion on the issue, but he kept it to himself, separating the two men quickly and having them driven home. Minutes later, Guillermo called the party to order, thanked everyone for the gifts and for their presence, and led them in singing "Feliz Cumpleaños," and people got the idea that it was late and they should go home.
At the very end of the party, Giselle, her boyfriend trailing close behind, found Gonzalo and thanked him for his gift. It was the best of the whole day, she declared.
"Your parents gave you the party," he reminded her. "And they gave you life."
"Second best, then," she said, and she gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"Que Dios te cuide," he said. May God protect you.
Mari walked up to him a few minutes later.
"You gave her the booklet?" she asked.
"Yep. Five hundred plus dollars in her own little bank account."
"Did you tell her how you've been saving since the day she was born?"
"You think it would matter to her?"
Mari shook her head, then she dragged her husband to the car so they could go home.
That night, while Gonzalo celebrated the life of his goddaughter, Tomas Villareal and his wife drove away from home. One daughter and her little brother had gone to sleep, and the oldest daughter was in charge of the house. They lived in a remote part of a remote town and little could happen to them. If some accident occurred, the children knew the phone number of the police precinct.
The eldest child, Marisol, had plans for the evening and put them into effect as soon as she was sure her parents were well away. She made a phone call and confirmed a rendezvous.
"I love you," she said with a smooch over the phone. When she hung up, her little brother, Samuel, was right behind her.
"What are you doing out of bed?" she asked. The answer didn't matter. She knew he wouldn't sleep again for hours, and if she didn't think of anything, the rendezvous would have to wait, though every cell in her body told her it would be wrong to wait. A moment's thought gave her a plan, and in another moment she had put it into action. Her brother, at the age of seven always up for an adventure, was up for this. It was only a few minutes later, in the dark of the forests, that he started to rethink the plan.
In the darkness of the woods, he stumbled over a root. He put out his right hand to keep himself from falling and caught it on a thorn on the trunk of an orange tree. He didn't yell out, though the thorn had gone completely through the flesh of the heel of his palm. He was too tired to yell. Instead, he stopped in the woods and brought the hand up to his face for closer inspection. He was desperate to rest, and he was sure he wouldn't be denied if he showed her the blood.
"Keep moving," she said, pushing the back of his head forward. Again, he almost fell.
"But I'm bleeding," he complained.
"Keep moving." Another shove.
"Look at my hand. There's a hole. I'm bleeding."
"I don't care if you're dying. Keep moving," she told him and gave him another shove.
He started to move, still examining his hand in every stray beam of moonlight. After another five minutes of marching through thewoods, he stumbled again. When he put his hand out this time, he missed the tree in front of him. Instead, his right arm grazed some bits of bark off the trunk, and a portion of the skin near his elbow was peeled back. He couldn't help crying out in pain and crying generally even though he had been warned to make no noise. He wanted no more than to sit on the ground and examine the wound. He crooked his arm to bring his elbow closer to his mouth. He was missing about two or three square inches of skin, and the spot burned. He wanted to blow on the wound.
"Get up," she told him.
"I'm hurt," he said.
"Don't care. Move." He could tell anger was rising in her.
"I think I got a splinter. It hurts."
She tried to grab him by his hair, but his mother had recently given him the only haircut she knew how to give, a short crewcut. He had on no shirt, only a pair of blue shorts that reached to his knees, and his sandals. She jerked him up off the ground by his bony, little boy's arm and pushed him farther on into the woods.
"I want to go home," he complained.
"I need to rest."
"Just a few minutes."
"Look. We're almost there. Once we're there, you can go to sleep, okay?"
"I don't want to go anymore."
"Too late. I'm not taking you home until tomorrow. I told you already. Stop whining. Be a man."
He thought about the last command: "Be a man." How do you refuse to follow that kind of order?
He walked on in silence a while longer, his punctured left hand holding his scraped right elbow. Certainly he wanted to be a man, but he was tired, thirsty, and in pain. Both his ankles had been twisted more times than he could remember in this trip into the woods. He was sorry he had agreed to come out this far. He turned 180 degrees and started walking back the way he came. He ran into her in the first step and tried to get around. She grabbed him by both elbows and shook him.
"Be a man," she said through gritted teeth. "Be a man, or I'll hurt you."
He started to cry in earnest, more from frustration and tiredness than any of his physical pains.
"I can't be a man."
"I'm only seven," he blurted, ashamed.
"But you'll be eight in a few weeks. Look. The shack is only a few minutes away. It's much closer to go there than to go home. Then you can sleep all you want, okay?"
She pushed him again, deeper into the woods, uphill now. In a few more steps they came to a fence. Three strands of rusted barbwire, strung along thin, rough-hewn sticks standing amidst tall grass. She held up the top wire.
"Go through," she whispered hoarsely.
He bent down low to perform a move he had done a thousand times before. This field, the shack in it, were secret hiding places for him. He stepped one foot through the gap in the fence and tried to swoop the rest of his body through, but he went an inch too low and scratched his forehead. His reaction to jerk away from the wire, uptoward the one being held for him, made him catch his shoulder on the wire. His reaction to that pain was to throw himself through the fencing to the other side. This gave him a long scratch down his trail leg. He wanted to lie in the grass and examine his wounds, but two hands dug themselves into his armpits, lifting him off the ground and pushing him forward.
There was a gentle slope up to a concrete house with a shiny corrugated zinc roof. Between the fencing and the house, there was a shack that seemed decades old but had, in fact, been made recently out of the best pieces of wood from a house demolished a few months before. The paint was chipped and faded, but the structure was sound and the zinc roof was shiny and new, with the smallest of inclines to run the rain off.
The shack sat in a clearing under the bright moonlight, and the boy reached it first and pulled back the simple bolt lock. He swung open the door he had swung open many times before and peered into the darkness of a room he had hidden in for hours on end. He could just make out the hammock piled in a corner, a fresh bunch of bananas hanging from a rafter, and some sacks of musty, picked coffee lined up against the wall. He heard a rustling sound from within. He was sure he saw something move. There was the glint of a machete hanging off a nail in the shack, and he was afraid.
"I don't want to stay in here!" He turned to argue.
She pushed him, her palm on his face, and he fell to the center of the shack.
"Be quiet. Stay here," she hissed, and the last he saw was a big bright moon eclipsed by the closing door.
Outside, she bolted the door and looked to the house across the field. A light went on, and a white metal slat window began to roll open. Someone was looking her way; another problem to be dealt with, but first, the boy had to be quieted and secured.
"Stop whimpering," she whispered at the door. "I'll come get you tomorrow morning. Just eat a banana and go to sleep."
"Something bit me," the boy lamented, but she had already moved a rock in front of the door and moved away toward the house.
At San Juan's airport, the flight from Miami arrived that night and a heavy man, short and with sunglasses on, found his way to a car rental counter, selected a Toyota, and drove to a hotel nearby. He asked to be awakened early in the morning.
"Business?" the young man behind the counter asked.
"I'm meeting someone," the traveler answered.
"Ah," the young man murmured. He gave a wink to signify that he understood everything perfectly, though, in fact, nothing could have been more opaque, more hidden to him, than the motives of the man who stood before him.
MISSING IN PRECINCT PUERTO RICO. Copyright © 2006 by Steven Torres. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.