After Marx

After Marx

"I felt the knife against my back. I didn't look at the man. I let him steer me into the alley, that narrow alley by the supermarket, next to the high rises by Mama's old building. I had anticipated this moment many times in my mind and now that it was here I just watched it happen. The man shoved his fist into my mouth. His entering burned."

Iris listened to the distant gunshots through the partly opened soot blackened window. Beyond it she saw the square buildings of the housing project. She stared at her motionless sister. Was that a flicker in the eyeball? She snapped the shutter of her camera. Ada did not move. Iris placed the gift wrapped orange chrysanthemums on her sister's lap.

"I could see the single yellow eyeball of the street lamp. He entered me standing, from behind. His entering burned. I felt him come at a huge distance." Iris whispered. "City police reports call You and I anonymous nonentities in harm's way, the victims of strangers."

Ada looked straight ahead. Iris looked at her watch. In another minute the nurse would come to bathe her sister. She took the flowers, unwrapped them, put water from the corner sink into the vase, and pushed the flowers hard into the water. She leaned forward and kissed Ada's smooth, cool cheek.

The man was saying his name was Jorge. Iris stood beside him in the center of the living room. She looked away from him at the huge red Party flag on the wall, the red drapes over the high bay window, the framed Party Congress posters with their images of fists and flames taken from her photographs. The other man remained on the low couch by the desk where Rodolfo must write his speeches and the incomprehensible theoretical articles for REDENCION. The man fingered the book he'd taken from the many tomes of theory lining the other walls. He pretended to read. The tall man who said his name was Jorge had the stiff, starched, tan look of an Island intellectual just arrived in the City.

"In France they have discovered a form of thinking that has outdated Marx," he said.

Iris let herself fall into the armchair. The man, with his Island arrogance, frightened her even before he spoke. But this petite bourgeois blasphemy! As if any thinking could transcend the thinking that had discovered the motor of history, the axles and pulleys on which moments and faces rode like ants. What other thinking had explained her to herself, named her pain Imperialism, named what was ailing her sister Ada oppression, and named their healing: Class War?

The man was a deluded, petite bourgeois fool. She saw the uniform of his class: the linen guayabera, the linen pants. She looked away from the mask face: the rictus of arrogance, the elevated, distant gaze, the perfect mustache. She fixed on the useless long fingered hands with their glossy, manicured nails, hands that had never wired a bomb.

He towered before her, then glanced behind himself at the other man. Iris saw him tell the man with his eyes to leave the room. She studied these secret, silent codes of male talk the way she had studied the language of street dogs on her one visit to the Island as a child. She watched the other man look at his empty wine glass and rise. Salsa blasted into the room when he pushed open the double doors. He pushed them shut behind him. She listened for the bass through the wall. She wished she were with the others, dancing.

The Island intellectual bent down and shoved his face against hers. She saw her alien prettiness reflecting, curved in his glasses. Whose was this pretty, funhouse face? She felt his hot, winey, wet tongue pushing against her lips. What did he think? That having stunned her with the unthinkable news from France he could now kiss her? All the Island guys thought City women militants were easy.

"Thanks but no thanks." She pushed him away. For one instant she saw a frightened boy peer from the intellectual's eye slits. Cold, brittle glass replaced the gaze of the vulnerable boy. He had flat yellow eyes. The child's eyes were hooded by the ice eyes of the brilliant man.

Ada sat by the window in the usual green plastic arm chair. She was no longer the baby sister. She was Iris' mirror, as tall now, with the same oval face and brown eyes. Iris gazed into them. She offered Ada a piece of the ripe Island mango she had brought her.

"You can eat this mango in the City but you can't find one on the Island any more. Fruit of colonialism." She placed the mango near Ada's nose, upon her lips. No salivation. No flicker of the retina. Ada's asymmetrical eyes remained dull and held blank emptiness where Iris had seen the eyes of others held a mirror or a depth.

Iris spoke to Ada of the block, the apartment, the revolution. She told her of the girl in Reader's Digest who woke up from a coma after seven years. She placed before her face and then on her lap prints of the photographs she'd taken last time showing the project buildings outside her window, the corner sink, and Ada on her chair, on the bed. She turned her sister's chair to face the sooty panes of the lone window. She longed to hold her sister. She pictured herself embracing her like a pieta painting. But when she placed her arms around Ada, she would not meld. Ada didn't stir. Still Iris came every Sunday and spoke to her silence. One year, one week, one day, one moment, her sister would speak again.

Iris walked, flanked by empty, burnt, gouged, crumbling, half-demolished apartment buildings and empty lot deserts filled with brick shards and trash. She looked behind and in front and snapped her shutter. She walked down the center of the barren street. She reached the only building it could be, the only one still standing, a gray, wood frame house. She read the weathered hand painted sign, the letters almost graffiti. Hijos de Zion. Up close the grayness was bare wood, weather stripped, rain stained. A young man, almost a boy, let her in.

"Gloria a Dios," he said. He was bone thin, short haired, scrubbed like the building. The hallway, the house, the boy, were weathered bones. "Everyone is out. Praising the Lord. Begging."

Iris nodded. That was how she had first run into los Hijos de Zion. She had been selling REDENCION and two of the Hijos approached her with their begging bowls. "I had told Brother Jose I wanted to do a story for REDENCION about your work and he told me to come by." The boy stared at Iris and stepped aside. As she entered she felt terror. It passed and she forgot it. "May I interview you?"

He shook his head. He led her by the hand into the adjoining room which would have been the living room. He sat her and left her on a scrap wood bench, the closest to the door, one of many, lined up in rows to make this room a chapel. At the front end of the room was a low platform with a cross shaped lectern and behind it, against the wall, hung a scrap wood cross. It was like a Party storefront scrubbed to the bone. Instead of Marx, Engels and Mauricio Clauvell peering form their picture frames there was a saint pierced by arrows all over, bleeding.

When the boy returned he led her to the stairs. "You can try to talk to this one." She followed him up the stripped wood stairs. Without asking she photographed up close sorry her black and white couldn't catch the faint tints of grays and greens from historic coats of paint. She passed rooms filled with rows of cots each one with a folded blanket.

She shuddered and told herself, 'They could kill me and stew me for their dinners for a month'. She saw through a clean-scrubbed window at the end of the top floor hall, a back yard with two trees with bare branches, and beyond them the gouged buildings and the rubble desert. If a woman is murdered and no one hears her scream, has the woman died? If a girl witnesses a murder and never speaks again does she unhappen it?

The boy pointed to a man who knelt beside one of the cots, against the windowless wall and beside a narrow doorway deep in the room. He pointed to her camera. "No photographs." The frayed, faded strip of Indian cotton hanging from the door frame swayed. The Holy Spirit entered. The man uttered syllables that were not words. The boy led her to the kneeling man who seemed not to notice their presence. God forgive me was his prayer.

"Perdoname Dios mio, perdoname Dios mio, perdoname Dios mio, perdoname Dios mio."

The boy looked at Iris and she read bewilderment in the raised eyebrows, the small smile. She mirrored his expression and the boy's smile widened. How to write an interview conducted in mime? The man prayed so long that Iris understood the prayer was his answer to her questions. At last he turned around, still on his knees, and raised his face. "The Lord wants me to speak with you." He rose and motioned for Iris to sit on the cot beside him. She begged the boy with eye mime not to leave the room but he left.

"I've killed you," the man said. "I've come up behind you with a knife and stabbed you. Or come at you from the front with a gun and shot you. I will never be done asking God to forgive me and God will never be done forgiving me. Reverendo Isaac says it doesn't matter how many people I've killed, in the eyes of God I am redeemed. But I can't stop asking very long for God to forgive me or the demon gets back into me. I can't leave the demon any room. I gave everything up to the demon. My wife. My children. I was hungry. There were not enough drugs on this earth to fill me."

His testimony vibrated with each repetition. The light was good enough to make out his face. The features were chiseled, the skin tight, scarred, the eyes a pale, greenish brown. In the dim light from the window she could see the demon in them, staring through her and past her, at hell.

"El reverendo says I must believe in divine grace." He turned away from Iris and knelt beside his bed facing his cross. "Perdoname Dios mio, Perdoname Dios mio, perdoname Dios mio."

The murmur of his endless prayer followed her all the way down the stairs to the front door. She didn't find the boy so she let herself out without saying goodbye or thanking him.

Iris was late. Rodolfo was well into his opening report. She walked down the aisle, squatted before the podium and took yet another photogaph of Rodolfo speaking. She turned and photographed the people who filled most of the folding chairs lined up in rows in the storefront, sat on top of the literature tables along the side walls, and stood in the front of the gated glass windows that were half blocked by stacks of back issues of REDENCION. She nodded greetings to the living and acknowledged the gaze of the martyrs peering from their frames on the walls.

"We live in momentous times." Rodolfo stood on the balls of his feet as the spoke, leaned forward, agitated his small fists. "The seesaw of history, its balancing fulcrum, is casting a huge arc: Remember Panama, but also remember Mandela."

She caught sight of Jorge just as he turned from his seat close to the front, to catch her eye. In France they'd invented a way of thinking that had left Marx behind. She let Rodolfo's words cleanse her of the blasphemy.

Inside the cocoon of her blanket Iris slowed her breathing. She had taught herself to breathe slowly, to float her gaze, to parade the moments of her life crossectioned inside glass.

She stands in the door frame, her hands clenched, her feet spread wide. She holds her shoulders stiff and stares straight ahead. Ada stands behind her, protected from Mama's wrath by Iris's body. Iris takes all the blows. Iris knows how. She feels Ada's terror and fixes her gaze on Mama's breasts, rising as he raises her arm over her head, lowering as the arm comes down for the blow. She will not show pain. Iris stands inside this armor that gives her absolute power over Mama. No blow can penetrate her. She takes herself in her mind to the green room. The empty green room. There, she towers over Mama and it is Mama who must cringe. There she lifts her arm against Mama and he hits her again, again, again. She watches the buttons of Mama's blouse go up and down each time she raises her arm for a blow. She feels nothing except Ada's terror.

Iris's bedroom is never fully dark until Mama turns the lights out in the living room, in the hallway, in the bathroom. Light makes a rectangle above the door where the air vent is kept partly open by layers of paint. Light makes a thin line under the door that widens like a fan as the floor slants.

Now the light has been gone for a long time. She holds her little sister Ada in her arms like in the pictures of Mary and Christ. She cradles Ada until the small body releases fear and melds into her arms. She feels Ada's halting breath become her sleep breath. Mama may not know how to love Ada, but Iris does. She lowers Ada gently onto her pillow, lies alongside her sister, and feels her sister's bird heart flutter against her own heart. She listens. Mama has stopped her frantic houseworking. She sleeps. Now it is safe to leave the green room.

This is the hour Iris waits for all day long. She knows the house sounds that usher in her time and she floats in the peade of Mama's absence.

She hears a creak and recognizes the sound of the window gate's accordion being pulled open. Iris must not have locked it after playing on the fire escape with Ada before Mama got home from her job as floor lady of a dress factory. She hears a scraping and recognizes the sound of the window being pushed up. She hears sneakered feet thud. She and Ada call Mama's window the turnstile because the junkies come in and out, in and out. She tiptoes down the hall to Mama's room. She stands in the darkness of the hall and watches through the slit of Mama's door.

A young man holds one hand over Mama's mouth. Mama's arms flail. She scratches at his face. She elbows him in the belly. She's protecting the dresser drawer where she's got a full month's pay. Mama breaks free and punches the boy's ribs and chest. Iris sees terror on his face. The light from the street lamp glistens on the knife. She doesn't see when the knife goes in, only when the boy pulls it out, only to plunge it again, into the middle of Mama's chest. He drops Mama, and then he pulls the knife out. He wipes it on Mama's flowered bed sheet. He walks right to the drawer, the middle one, where the money is. He steps onto the fire escape. She sees his legs climb up. It's true then, what Mama always says. The junkies come over the rooftops. only now does she notice Ada standing beside her.

She falls to the floor, hides inside the invisible armor and takes herself back to the green room. She doesn't see the changes of the light, the growing island of blood on Mama's sheet, her sister standing beside her. She doesn't hear the telephone. She doesn't feel Ada clutch at her nightgown nor hear her go silent. She is still standing there when the police break down the door. She never learns how the police got there. She lets Dona Elsa, the neighbor, lead her and her sister out of the apartment and into her own kitchen.

Iris did not look up when Chus reported he'd obtained the weapon. She knew he had obtained it by borrowing it from her who was not supposed to have one, to still have one, but was supposed to have given up all personal weapons to the Party when she joined. She did not. She was sorry she'd given it up now. For years she'd kept the gun wrapped in Mama's bloody nightgown, unused. She didn't know how to use the gun well. Carlos and she had driven upstate for target practice. It had suited her to imagine herself a woman who knew how to use a firearm. The lover or Carlos the urban guerrilla had been given the honored job of obtaining a weapon for them, Iris, Carlos, Papo, when they dubbed themselves Knight Rebels and took on what later she later learned in the Party was adventurism, barely a shade above street crime. How she'd bought the magnum was still her secret. Not even Ada had heard the story. She'd loved to imagine herself shooting. She'd hated to fire the gun. She could not make herself forget what the gun was for. She had been shocked by its size and weight and stunned by its recoil when she fired. The force lifted her hand straight up.

Chus, Millo and Jose pointed to places on the block by block diagram of the Barrio, just as Carlos and Papo had done on the blueprint of the Banco Isleno years ago. Iris feigned interest now, the way she had done then. She leaned forward, focused her eyes intensely on whatever target the men signaled, nodded her head, mimicked the excitation in the eyes of the men.

Why had the Party assigned her to this unit? Photographs and news articles were forbidden here. Would they ever really carry out a military action (not adventurism)? She wondered what the thinkers in France might have to say. She was still planning murders in Marx' name.

She looked straight overhead at the sooty skylight much higher than a church dome. This abandoned warehouse Jose had procured for their unit must at some time have been used to store bacalao, because now, again, she got the sour fishy whiff.

Inside the cocoon of her blanket Iris forced her breathing to slow down. She willed herself to breathe. She tucked the blanket under her feet. "I am safe. I am safe. I am safe." I have drawn so many fears and I have made so many fears I will never be done fearing and fear will never be done making me fear. She saw the agate greenness of the demon man's eyes.

"I am safe. I am safe. Nothing can hurt me here."

She opened her eyes onto the darkness of her bedroom. She stared at the gated window, the lush avocado tree on her sill. Through the soot streaked panes she saw the fire escape. She stared until her gaze softened and the gray light mottled. Her two eyes became one. She was all eyes, only eyes and breath. She pulsed. She was energy encased in soft parchment. Her abdomen rose and fell.

She resorped to the stillness of the girl in the green room. Ada's stillness. She saw the whole of their stillborn lives in crossection, one life between them, each crossection one moment, each moment one crossection. The moments were flat, sheer, held in glass. Their essence was that stillness. This was not others' essences. Others' essences were engaged, quickened, serrated like gears, enmeshed. But not theirs. Theirs was still, impenetrable, unpenetrating.

I am safe here. Nothing can hurt me. I am safe here, repeated a thread of this quickened parchment that was her self.

Iris drove the green van. Most times she liked driving. Many Fridays when the regular driver was away she volunteered to drive the bundles of REDENCION to the Party Committees. But this was not Friday. This was one in the morning on a Wednesday. The magnum lay on the seat beside her, loaded. Chus, Millo and Jose sat in the back of the van. She felt the force of their excitation. There had been air strikes on the Island. She was driving them all to the Armory. This was a retaliatory strike, the first time for the Party in the City.

She pulled over on a side street alongside the stone armory building so like a child's drawing of a castle. Chus and Millo eased out the back of the van. She kept the motor running, her foot on the brake. She looked at her digital watch and counted the seconds while they executed their well-rehearsed placing of explosives on the armory gate. She heard them close the van's back door 30 seconds under target. She drove. A small distance away Jose detonated the charge. She knew the explosion would be jut big enough to burst open the metal door and no stronger. Those three militants were veterans of the Island War, well trained by the City Force.

By dawn another Unit would have made the anonymous phone call to the media. Other units would have dropped hundreds of leaflets from Barrio rooftops calling el Pueblo to storm the armory.

She dropped each man off in turn at the appropriate corner they had carefully determined on the big map of the Barrio. She took the van to the warehouse, put the magnum in her bag, and walked outside. She was picked up by another car two blocks away at the appointed second.

She was putting the key into her lock when she heard the first sirens. She knew that by then the armory would have been well looted. Gangs, revolutionaries, provocateurs and adventurers of the Barrio were now armed, ready for the Uprising, even Carlos and Papo who'd gone underground when she went into the Party.

She stood by her blind window with the gun in her hand and noticed for the first time she was trembling. She had been trembling. Her womb fell in her, as in a roller coaster, at the recollection of Carlos coming in her after an action. "I loved him." Her own voice in the empty room startled her.

She stood unmoving by the window waiting for dawn. Carlos had sent her with the magnum to the Banco Isleno. She waited by the entrance where Carlos had shown her on the blueprint she must wait. She'd watched as Papo watched her from a pay phone on the street corner.

Carlos never came. She clutched the bag in her pocket with the note. Carlos never came. She watched the bank guard eye her, move toward her. Her gaze held the guard's for an instant. He was a young, thin Islander. In his eyes she read his recognition of her intention. She spun on her heel, walked outside past Papo inside the phone booth, not looking, turned the corner, and ran home.

Carlos never came. He left her alone in the bank to do the action, hold the bag, take the rap. What saved her? What led her to walk out rabbit stunned as she was? He never came. "I loved him." But he never came. He never loved. She relearned this truth with the same sharp pain she experienced each time she relearned it. He never loved. The thing that looked like love, talked like love, fucked like love, had not been love. He went underground. She joined the Party. Even Ada had not heard this story.

She wrapped the magnum inside mama's nightgown and hid it once again deep in the highest shelf of the hall closet where she kept Mama's relics. She stood on the kitchen chair and went through the quilted satin jewel box, no longer pink, now brittle. She touched mismatched earrings missing stones, the orange coral necklace Mama liked to wear to church, Mama's watch and wedding band. She read the dedication on the Bible the pastor of her Pentecostal church gave Mama when she professed her faith. El Senor todo lo puede. She held up the tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and looked through the big thick lenses. She kept the glasses because they looked like Mama's face.

Iris sat by the window in the green armchair that faced her sister's. Ada's gaze didn't register this intrusion into her visual field. Iris brought Ada a new yellow cotton blouse. She leaned toward her sister, raised her arms, removed the white shirt. She saw her sister's virgin breasts encased in pointy white cotton. She slipped the arms into the blouse and buttoned it. She combed her sister's just cut hair. She stroked her sister's face and peered into the flatness behind her eyes. She longed to hold her but when she placed her arms around her, she wouldn't meld. She told Ada about the thinkers in France. She told her in a whisper about the violated armory. She told her about Carlos. She stared at her sister and after a while she sobbed.

Iris rearranged the clutter on her desk in the small back room of the REDENCION office. She stacked half-finished articles, file folders, back issues of REDENCION, clippings from the bourgeois press. This clutter was always in motion, never begun or ended. She pulled toward herself the wheeled cart with the computer she shared with Juancho whose hours she'd studied in order to avoid him. She sipped fresh early morning cafe con leche from the Island bakery on the corner. She set the cart so that she could look out the dirty window, or at the avocado on the sill, or at the window across the air shaft. She booted the computer and she wrote:

Please god forgive me, please God forgive me, Please God forgive me. The man said his faith exorcised demons that had led him to commit one murder every day before he was saved.

Across the air shaft The Neighbor raised the blind. Iris had never seen her face, only her venetian blinds, her clear, clean window, her tidy dark wood desk, her computer terminal, her many-buttoned telephone, her coffee mug, and her back bent over the desk. Iris checked her watch. Ten o' five. As always The Neighbor was punctual. Iris imagined that through these exact morning repetitions she'd come to know The Neighbor well.

She returned to her story. She returned to staring at The Neighbor. She discovered under her telephone the pile of pink phone message slips Juancho had left her. Seven messages all from Jorge saying call him. Who was Jorge?

I cannot stop praying very long. The demons will get me.

She recognized his voice. Jorge was the man who'd brought the news from France. "You're persistent." She liked how he said her name. "A drink at seven at El Bohio?" He agreed.

"You can't take away somebody's drugs if you don't give them something else," is the philosophy of Reverendo Isaac Acosta, founder of Los Hijos de Zion. "Who would you rather your son, your brother, your husband, your neighbor, be addicted to, drugs or God?"

She walked down the interminable aisle. She felt eyes upon her. The many faces on the many bodies on the many metal chairs turned toward her. Ahead she saw only the red satin banner hanging above the dais. The faces of the Leadership Commission members blurred. She approached. She arrived. Her hand was shaken by the Party Secretary. The armory action, although clandestine, had earned her this office.

Later at the dance after the Congress closed, dazzling yellow light was all Iris remembered of her induction and her first meeting of the Leadership Commission. Light was all she saw as she danced with Jorge. "I'm Jorge. Remember me?" He'd taken her hand and pulled her to the dance floor. "You made a date for drinks but you stood me up." He spun her and she let him. She let the fast music, all horns and percussion, fill her head. He didn't let her dance with anyone else. "Wait for me." He went for one last drink.

Through her sootblack bedroom window she saw the single yellow eyeball of the streetlamp. They didn't speak as he undressed her. There was no kiss. He entered her from behind, standing. His entering burned. She stared at the single yellow eyeball of the street lamp. He gyrated her hips with his hands.
"Stop!." She didn't notice her mind form this word, didn't expect to hear her voice say it.
"Stop! Stop!."
And he did. She stepped away and turned to face him.
"But I thought you wanted this? The way you pressed your hips into me. I thought you wanted it like this."
"Stop. Stop. Stop." She whispered the word and watched him fix his pants and smooth his hair. She walked him to the door. "My mistake." She smiled and shook his hand. "Nothing personal." She leaned against the closed and bolted door and listened to his footsteps running down the stairs.

Iris studied which fixed point held Ada's gaze. She drew her own green armchair toward her sister's and put herself in Ada's line of sight. She told her Jorge had at last stopped leaving messages. She searched for a stirring in Ada's flat gaze. She read aloud from REDENCION.

"Please God forgive me, please God forgive me, please God forgive me."

Iris looked up at her sister's window. She took the front page of REDENCION with the black ARMORY LIBERATED headline, crumpled the sheet, and wet it at the corner sink. She rubbed the wet newspaper on the window. Soot and black ink teared on the glass. She wiped the blackness with the threadbare white towel, crumpled another sheet and rubbed the glass until it squeaked. She pulled the window open the few inches the side screws allowed, reached her arm around and scrubbed the outside as far as she could reach. From the corner of her eye Iris thought she saw Ada's gaze shift. Iris sat back in her green chair and studied the effect of her labor on the window. She'd cleaned a heart shaped section of the glass. Crumpled wet sheets of newspaper lay strewn on the floor. All that was left of REDENCION was the single centerfold sheet with her photographs of the barren street, the bone gray building. Iris read.

"I've killed you many times," the Demon Man said.

Ada laughed. Iris didn't register or recognize the rusty sound.

"I walked behind you and killed you from the back with a knife."

Ada laughed.

"I walked before you and killed you from the front with a gun."

Ada laughed.

This laughter resembled the laughter of the living. Iris was quiet and still Ada laughed.

She squeezed beside her sister and held her laughing sister like the pieta paintings. She felt Ada's body meld. She held her sister's gaze and in her eyes she saw herself. Ada laughed.