Bergdorf and Associates, by Thomas C. Mavroudis. Episode 6

Previous: Episode 5

When the night gets long and the house is asleep, I leave out of the back and traverse east through the alleys. I go far east into the next city’s limits, a city tragically renown for crime. At this hour, the alleys are dead, all of the major transactions—drugs and humans, the least of it—taking place a few blocks over near the avenue that is the town’s heart line. Nobody, I think, actually steals cars from this part of the greater metropolitan area; it’s the place where joyrides end, where chop shops hide in the back parking lots and garages of abandoned motels and filling stations.

In my pocket is a set of loose keys from the voodoo box: there are seven or eight. The vehicle I find—the one I’m drawn to, rather—is a dumpy black sedan. I hope it will start, but at the same time I know it will. It’s parked on the street beside a church or school; beneath the dead streetlamp, it’s hard to tell. The driver side is unlocked. Before I get in, I pull a key randomly from my pocket, and then sit behind the wheel. Both of my hands are huge scabs, so I pick at a spot until blood begins to percolate. I cover the teeth of the key with blood, and even though the key should not fit, should not work, it does.

I drive down the street a block, and another block, headlights off; turn west, drive another block, pull the lights on. One of them is out. It takes almost the same time getting home as it took to walk because I’m driving so cautiously on the side streets. I park on the opposite side of our street, on the far corner. I leave the key in the ignition, hoping it will work again in a few hours, after a little doze.

In the morning, walking the twins to school, I wear fatigue like an iron cloak. Penny drives them on her days off, but they like to walk the eight blocks, and so do I, most days. The mornings are getting dark, and under the overcast sky of this day, it feels much earlier. They normally walk ahead of me, discussing whatever they discuss in their non-verbal way, but today they each hold one of my hands. It reminds me of when they were little. Except their thumbs run across the back of my hands, reading the crosshatch multitude of scabs.

In the muted sunlight, their school looks like a Magyar fortress. This is how Holly and Ivy describe it. We step onto the empty schoolyard, which is brown with dead grass and gravel.  They drop my hands and run to the playground, ducking under a tube slide that looks like a corroded sewer pipe.

“Hey, girls,” I yell, “what are you doing? You have to get to class.” We must be late, but I’m sure we’re on time, and yet it feels too early.

They don’t respond. I jog to the slide where they are kneeling, facing each other, hands on their knees. “Come on, twins, go to your classroom.”

“We’re already there,” Ivy says.

“Mother drove us,” Holly says.

“Oh. I see.”

“You need to see the doctor,” they say without breaking their connection.

The hazy sky vibrates, separates into long blurry slats that twist and fold onto each other. “Oh, yes. Yes, I’m going to see the doctor. As soon as I wake up.”

“Then wake up. We have to go and we can’t leave you here alone.”

I wake up then with a flutter in my chest. An ugly flutter unlike any sensation. It’s only unpleasant because I know what it is.

The stolen sedan is where I left it. It appears unmolested and ignites without a hitch. A brief investigation of the back seat and glove box in daylight yields nothing useful, and by useful I include proof of insurance and registration; the tags, I notice, are several months expired. I drive it to the botánica, anyway. Because I have to.

Cruz stands at the glass door, perhaps as a guardian. I’m not sure it’s worth getting out of the car. He makes the universal motion for lowering the window and comes over.

“New car, huh? New to you.”

“Cruz, I’m sorry. I mean it. I apologize.”

“Apologize? For what?”

“I don’t know.” I’m frustrated by this business. It’s always been confusing, but with what I suspect to be at stake, I’m very aggravated. “Are you mad at me? Why aren’t you answering my calls? Or calling me back? I’m in trouble and I don’t know who else can help. I need your help.”

“Mad? Nah. You don’t get it. I can’t be connected to your electronic footprint. Not now. Too much juju in the wires. And the freaking wires are all gone, dude. That’s how messed up the world is. I knew you’d be around sooner or later. Sorry, bro.”

I turn off the car and get out.

“Oh, shit. What happened?” He reacts like he’s smelling fermented garbage.

I say, “You know those things…in graveyards?”

“What things? Graveyards have a lot of things. You mean, uh…jackals? Did you get bit by one of them?”

Jackals.

“No. Something else. Um, pneuma akatharton?” I draw a swirling zig-zag in the air.

“Oh. What did you say? Is that what white people call them? It stinks. Nasty. You can’t smell it?” I shake my head. “Well, come on, I can fix that. Let’s get you set up before Gramma gets back. If she catches a whiff of that chaneque, she’ll kill you sooner than free you.”

“What about the other thing? I need help with that, too.”

“Precious, I don’t think I can help you with any of that. Ancestor magic and blood magic don’t mix. Don’t mix well. That’s what happened to the Olmecs, Canaanites…, who knows who else? And the shit you’re up in? Genesis and all that? I don’t know, but we’ll see. Now, come on.”

We go directly to the consultation room, which is through the tiny office. There are no windows, but an exhaust fan quietly whirls in the ceiling. A vast pantheon of santos and pillars of candles crowd an altar that spans the length of the back wall. A section of metal library shelving occupies another wall, the shelves lined with glass and clay jars; of the contents that I can see, there are powders and herbs, liquids the color of autumn leaves, a pickled snake, another pickled creature—not exactly a fetal pig, animal bones. There is a cast-iron brazier in the center of the room and two deer hide chairs.

“Sit down. Chill,” Cruz instructs. “I’ll be right back.”

The chair is much more inviting than it looks. The room smells comforting of leather and tobacco. I’m relieved that Cruz hasn’t cut me off and the relief settles the presence in my chest. Or it could be the multitude of Cruz’s deities staring me down.

Cruz comes back, shuts the door and hands me a bottle of pineapple pop. It’s not cold. He sits in the other chair and looks at the altar with me. “Heh, when I was a little boy, my mom would take me with her to Santa Fe. To this day, I don’t know what the Hell she was doing down there. We’d stay in the same little adobe motel every time. They had this papier-mâché Indian sitting in a chair out front of the office. I didn’t like him because he had this crack on the side of his head that his wig didn’t cover. You could see inside. And he was always gone at night. I thought he was up walking around the plaza; but they took him inside so no one would steal him or mess with him.

“My mom’d leave me in the room pretty much for the weekend, alone.” Cruz takes the bottle and opens it, motions to the altar, “Except for them.” He gives the pop back to me. I take a swig, struggle to swallow the sweet carbonated burning. “Drink it,” Cruz tells me. I take smaller sips.

“I didn’t have no G.I. Joes, no He-Man, just these dudes in their robes. But it wasn’t fun having no bad guys, you know? So, one weekend before my mom locked me away, we went to a drug store in the plaza for an ice cream, and in the souvenir aisle, they had all these kachinas. You know, those Indian dolls? The little cheap ones were two for three bucks, so mom bought me a few. One with a wolf head, one with a bird head. The other two were nothing, just strange, like aliens. Or demons. That was a fun weekend. When we got home, Gramma took my kachinas outside and set them on fire.

“You know, Abe, magic is what you make it. If I truly believe I can fly, then I can fly. But I don’t believe it. Maybe one day I will. Maybe one day, I’ll have to. The saints will tell me. That is what I believe. What you believe is different. That’s about all I can do to help you sort out the business with the spirits you’ve got yourself involved in. This though,” he lays a hand on my breast and the black thing inside squirms, “this is nothing.” With his other hand, he pantomimes drinking. I chug the rest of the pop.

Cruz doesn’t detail any of the working, but it begins with him sprinkling what looks like coarse salt over the brazier which flares with blue sparks and the aroma of camphor. He takes a pinch of something from one jar and a spoonful of something from another and tosses it in, stoking a fire. He crumbles in dried leaves that disintegrate into ash, rising on the hot current. Inaudibly he recites his words, keenly focused on his formula. The only time he acknowledges I’m still there is when he pauses to wink at me for no apparent reason. At the end, he takes a half smoked cigar from a wooden box on the altar, lights it and puffs it smoldering. “Here,” he hands it to me and I draw on it, blowing the smoke over the fire. “Good. Now come in close, real close and draw deep. You have to inhale.”

I nod and lean forward. The heat from the fire is intense. I draw on the cigar, and to my shock, it sparks blue. I gulp the pungent smoke and all else, choking, coughing, retching. It feels like I’ve taken a bite of ancient Pompeii. I heave, but it’s my lungs heaving, or the hole in my soul heaving, and I feel the pneuma akatharton fight for its place in me. It can’t hold, though. It billows up my throat and clings to my teeth before I vomit it into the empty pop bottle Cruz holds. The inky thing coils around the bottom of the glass; it’s something new—greater than the sliver it began as, but a fraction of the thing that bore it. Cruz slams a wad of beeswax on the top sealing it away and puts it at my feet. He gently tamps out the cigar.

My eyes water. Every breath I take is shallow, my chest and throat scraped with fish hooks. Cruz pats my shoulder and says, “Let me get you a water. A cold one. Sit tight.”

Sometimes I wish I kept a notebook. This is how grimoires are made. Then I think it’s best to let it all happen as it happens. This is in part why I’m a good cook—better than my sister, who follows recipes as if her life depended on it. And that thought lends to another, one I’ve been too naïve or too depressed to realize: who are my tasks benefiting, what are the consequences beyond my own? I know what I’m dealing with, I’ve always known, and they are not demons.

Cruz comes back in, without the cold bottle of water, and growls softly, “You got to get, man.”

“What?” It hurts making the vocalization.

“Gramma’s here, already. She’s pulling her shit out of the car. You have to go.” He pulls me out of the chair, shoves the pop bottle in my waistband. “Go, go, go.”

Straight out the back this time. Before he pulls the door closed, I pull the bottle from my pants, ask him, “What about this?”

All he says is, “It’s yours.”

Glancing at the bottle, it appears empty and I almost toss it in the dumpster. I shake it slightly, put my ear to it. I know intuitively it’s in there.

Coming out of the alley and around the corner, I’m arrested by a woman on the passenger side of the car parked behind the stolen sedan. She pulls out an overfilled grocery bag, digs through it, shakes her head and replaces it with another. The pristine, slate-blue Trans Am looks like it was driven from a time tunnel connected to 1981. The woman, aside from a black streak down the left side of her grey hair and her aged indecisiveness, is not how I expect most grandmother’s, and for sure not Cruz’s. Of course, I never knew a single one of my grandparents. I’m afraid for her to notice me, to look me in the eye, and I’m afraid to turn my back on her. I take the lesser risk, walk the opposite direction and nothing bad happens. Likewise, deserting the car is liberating.

I get some cash from an ATM down the street and further along, I eat a giant breakfast burrito at the counter of my favorite greasy spoon. After that, I feel like everything is back to normal. Even the cop cruisers racing down the avenue are normal—until I leave the diner and see that the cops are clustered outside the botánica.

Next: Episode 7

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