They say she was buried alive. Rufina Cambaceres was a great beauty on the eve of her nineteenth birthday when a friend whispered in her ear a terrible secret: Rufina’s beloved fiancé was having an affair with Rufina’s own mother. Rufina collapsed to the floor. Three doctors declared her dead; they did not know her heart still beat, however slowly.
She was interred until a few days later, when workers heard her scream. When they unburied her there were scratches on her face and on the coffin lid from her attempts to escape. They were too late to save her. Her mother then had her laid above ground in a white marble mausoleum, her coffin behind a glass wall so that if the lid should ever rise again, everyone could see . . .
The riffraff of Tompkins Square wear wool jackets in the humid night, perhaps in defiance of the elements. The squirrels aren’t panhandling as usual. They’re preoccupied with something in the weeds behind a bench, what looks to your eye like a mangled piece of bread or a crumpled paper bag. A closer look reveals a human hand . . .
Mid-eighties Manhattan, when the weird were weirder, the dirty dirtier, and neon orange tits pulsed the heart of Times Square. When hookers in hot pants and platforms sneered at the down-and-outers on 96th and Broadway, and even the cushiest berth, like the Apthorp, with its locked gates and classy facade, hid horror . . .
Because of the incessant drumming on congas, radios blasting salsa or narcocorridos. Because flatbed trucks pull up and sell watermelon, cantaloupe, bananas, grapes off the back. Because there is nothing as nice as a nap in the grass while watching a woman walk past. Because plantains fry nice, pork’s sabor when slow-cooked in its own fat, rice and beans is enough in the stomach to drink all day. Because lengua, sesos, and chicharrones are a taste acquired by those nostalgic for elsewhere. Because life is glorious when there is so much on the line. Because it was winter. Because the blue-sky illusion of warmth persuaded me to go to Humboldt Park that day. To visit Umberto, as Jose Luis tipped me to do, as he served breakfast tacos where North Avenue intersects with California . . .
I sat on a railroad tie along the driveway, with my bad leg stretched out in front of me and the bike wheel across my lap. After deflating the tube, I worked the tool around and peeled the tire out of the rim. I kept having to stop to wipe the sweat from my eyes . . .