Drowned River: Fiction by Dale Corvino

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Winner of the Christopher Hewitt Award 2015: Fiction

Drowned River
by Dale Corvino

[dropcap]“G[/dropcap]ood morning, papi, happy Friday,” I greet the bakery owner, a big, hairy Syrian, and he laughs and gives me a bag of mini-muffins from yesterday. When I make a left by the big Post Office I see Mr. Terry. He’s sweet but always a little stiff around me. Mr. Terry is from Elliot Houses, like me. He’s been working the Post Office retail window for years. It’s almost time to take his pension, “if they don’t steal it from me first,” he says every time it comes up lately. I’m feeling cute in this yellow chevron top, color of butter. Tenté taught me about the dedication that runs across the main Post Office on the 8th Avenue side, above the big staircase: Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. The words of an ancient Greek, telling his people about the Persian mail system, but of course these gringos think it’s about the Pony Express or some shit.

I see Mr. Terry a lot when he’s on breaks. He runs all the way around to the loading docks on 33rd to smoke. His daughter, who I came up with, has been begging him to quit. I’d never tell her, and he knows this, but he still blushes a little when he sees me, cute. Some nights I catch him outside the Elliot Houses, too, and he just smiles. I say hi to all the post office workers on break, the smokers. I light them up, too. I don’t pay any special attention to Mr. Terry.

“Hi Chiqui, look at you all sunshine today,” says the lady from Chinatown.

“Mira, you changed your hair, I love it! Super fanci.”

A man I don’t know makes a sexual innuendo towards me, more for the benefit of his friends. He can’t help himself, I know. I have the curves and the ass he wants in a little package. Then I catch him clocking my jawline. I haven’t done my contouring yet, the bathroom was busy. I bought yellow leggings to match this top, they fit so good, with sequins on the back. He wants my cutlets, but has to make it a joke in front of his friends. They laugh, but not Mr. Terry.
Mira tu paquetico, mister postman,” and I shake my ass at him.

They laugh more at my joke than his. I’ve conquered another man. I run my hand up through my curls and bounce them, a victory shake. I have to fix my headband, which I made from the hem of the top. Yes I am crafty that way. The curls are my own, they all have kinky hair on my mom’s side, but they straighten. I put in this new color, Nice ’n Easy Natural Medium Golden Neutral Blonde, that shit is Nice ’n Nasty going on. My clutch is leather in light gray, it elevates the whole outfit. I love a coordinated look. My lids are painted with Lemon Drop for a complete effect, it’s making my eyes sparkle, linda.

Someone always has a cigarette for me, and today it’s the papi cabron who tried to shade me. I share the mini-muffins because I earned them with my sunshine, and the sun shines on all. We go back a long way, me and Mr. Terry. He still can’t say my name, that bruto. I guess he knows me as Jaime Manriquez since I was born, and it’s funny to see him stop in the middle of calling me “Jaimito,” then mumble like his mouth ran out of batteries.

Mr. Terry’s daughter is about the same age as me, we used to play together. I liked her and she liked me, until she got her titties, then she worried about what the boys would think. I was always feminine, and I presented as a girl back then too, and all the other Puerto Rican kids called me La Chiquita. The other Puerto Rican kids from Elliot were mostly good to me, they protected me, but whenever I left Elliot I got harassed. Mr. Terry’s stepson gave me a blade to carry, it has a pearl handle, and I still have it, and he showed me how to sharpen and polish it. I took the name Chiqui when I transitioned because it took their shade and made it chic.

Music is coming from a truck, so I launch into a little number. I used to do shows at Escuelita before I transitioned. I strike a pose, pointing to the bow on my head, I’ve still got the lip sync down. This butter chevron top looks so good against my thin brown arms. The smokers lift their heads and brighten one at a time like sunflowers as I do a salsa slide through them. “Devora-me otra vez, devora-me otra vez,” I sing along. They didn’t know I can sing for real. “She says ‘eat me up again,’” I translate for the gringuito, and give him my seduction look, but he’s mute and looks down. I’m bringing it home when I hear this shriek in the sky. Everyone laughs, even Mr. Terry. It’s this giant bird, looks like a seagull but that can’t be right, why is he shading me?

Mira cabron, no me atormentes,” I say to the bird. That means, “Ugh, don’t mess with me, asshole.” He glides down in a spiral and lands on a “No Parking” sign so close to me. He looks my way and I lock eyes with him, then take in his full white breast, his gray wings, and his yellow beak. He’s coordinated with my look today. This bird is giving me life. “Where did you come from, are you lost?” I throw him a mini-muffin and he moves so fast to take it in his beak, and flies off.

The gringuito opens his mouth: “We’re just a few hundred feet away from the Hudson, and along here, it’s a mix of seawater and fresh. The Lower Hudson is actually considered a drowned river—a river overrun with salt water. That’s why we get seabirds, like that ring-billed gull.”

“Okay, professor,” I smile in reply to his lesson.

The maintenance guys know all about them, they’ve been nesting on the roof,” adds Mr. Terry. “They’re a nuisance.”

Time to say goodbye to the smokers crew, and be on my way. I give them my signature exit, throwing my hand up with a flourish and waving my little fingers in front of my mug. I pass the West Side Yard, where the Long Island Rail Road keeps its trains after bringing all the suburban papis to their office jobs. A construction crew is laying a big deck across the whole yard, and building some more office towers for them. I’m feeling myself, but I rein it in to get past the construction crew. Not soon enough though, because one of these cabrones in a hard hat and a safety vest spooks me. I catch him eye-rolling and frowning at me, I clock all his disapproval in the way he holds his big body. I hurry past him in my gorgeous Italian cork-heeled wedge sandals.

Past the Yard is this ugly ’70s office building with sloping sides that used to have an ice skating rink on the roof. It looks like the headquarters of a dark empire. This is where GMHC moved a while back. I’m a client, I go for counseling with my social worker. On my way to my morning appointment is when I pass the Post Office smokers. Then I stay for hot lunch. I see some other clients standing in front of the building entrance, and stop to catch some gossip. Tenté is there. I hug him all over, he’s so big next to me, and we have a loud kiki for everyone coming in and out of the building to overhear.

Tenté is my best friend, from the Canary Islands. He’s a handsome queen, a dancer. He works at the cafe on Christopher Street during the week, but on Sunday nights he gets up in drag and hosts a talent show. His drag is more experimental, more art school confidential, while mine was more old-school pageant. “Loca, this construction worker cabron spooked me, but now I’m with my people and unbothered!” I do a hair flip for Tenté.

Next I tell him about the big gull that almost ruined my number. “Oh, yes, I’ve seen them around here,” he says. “It reminds me of Tenerife. Once I watched one at Los Cristianos beach swoop down and carry off half a sandwich from this kid’s hand, and another pluck a catch right off a fishing line.”

Gaviota! Gaviota! Maldita seas,” I sing for Tenté.

“You’re more pigeon than seagull, loca,” he reads me.

Tenté is on point—I’m a city bird, except I’m not common, even if I came up in the projects. I’ll have to ask that professor about pigeons.

Tenté lives close to the big Post Office. He’s in and around the station all the time, sending packages to his mom—fabrics she likes, sometimes underwear. He had a tough time making friends there at first, but once he got past the workers’ gruff fronts, he found their humanity. He rents a small room on the cheap from an older queen who supports his artistry. Tenté likes to stare out his window at the office building on the corner, a regular plaid of bricks and glass, lights on this floor, lights off the next. He keeps his room dark except for a candle. He can even see the river between the buildings and beyond, just a little segment.

After hot lunch, we go back to Tenté’s. His roommate is out, I can beat my face in peace, with Tenté’s good brushes and his magnifying mirror. Tenté can be depressive, and here he goes staring out the window like an aged-out novela star. “What that postman said is the Hudson is a body half riverine and half marine. Trans, like us. Transformista, between two islands,” he says, pointing to his reflection in the window. “Trans woman, also between two islands,” he continues, now pointing at me.

“Yes, loca, tell it.” Tenté is an artist in his heart.

“I am a vagrant gull,” he over-pronounces the words, as if for his ESL teacher.

I go back to the dark empire HQ, leaving Tenté to his melancholy. GMHC does hot dinners on Fridays, they have turkey tonight, it’s okay. Turkey for a pigeon, hey. After dinner, I take 10th Avenue home. It’s that summer night when the sunset lines up with the buildings, and the sun is a disk burning at every intersection, over the pink New Jersey sky. I’m skirting the trucks pulling out of the loading docks at 29th Street when I clock him.

(Back in his dark little room, Tenté ponders the uncanny dislocation of hearing the gulls around the Post Office, while carrying a package for his mother. It takes him back to those languid days at Los Cristianos, and even further back, to time spent playing around the Port in Tenerife, picking over littered remains of crabs left by flyovers, getting into a staring match with one menacing gull roosting on a rock, and the rough dock worker who gave him attention. It takes him back to a secret boat trip with that rough man, gulls trailing the boat in a broken echelon, taking advantage of the craft’s upwash, while keeping black eyes peeled for food.)

My chest heaves and I’m breathing so hard, now that I’m sure he’s following me. Not this shit again. I have phantom pangs from the last beating, those two Irish boys who broke my lip and pushed me into the street. I crawled under a truck to dodge their kicks; they wore work boots. I hear him pant, and laugh, a snide little laugh. I dig the blade out of my clutch, and once it’s in my hand, I run like a bitch on fire. This cabron starts chasing me, I’m not that far from home. I take a quick look behind me, he’s an ugly chulo in a leather jacket too big for him. Do I even know him?

(Tenté wonders about the future of the gulls around him. There’s plenty of open sky around here, but not for much longer. The Post Office is being converted into a train station—another transformista.)

That’s when I stumble in my damn wedge heels, and the cabron takes advantage. He grabs my clutch, so I pop my blade. I’m trying to get my clutch back, it’s got cash and my pills and some good makeup in there. He catches me by the hair. “Aie! Déjame!” He’s jerking me around hard, and for once, I wish it were a wig. The cabron laughs when I show him my blade, I think he’s high. He jerks me again sharply, forcing me this way and that. He pulls me down so hard I almost fall on my back, and takes advantage of the moment to feel my breasts. He squeezes them hard, trying to prove they’re implants, but they’re mine. I break out of my wedges so I can get my balance back and face him.

(They’re raising up commercial buildings, floor by floor, over the West Side Yard. That contractor who shaded Chiqui was working on a pair of towers that taper away from each other, like two awkward strangers forced to crowd in on a subway car. That’s what it looks like in the illustration they plastered all over the site enclosure. “The sky turns solid all around me,” Tenté laments.)

I’ve been jerked around enough by this cabron, my roots are burning from his abuse. I take a desperate step: I cut off my hair, as close to his hand as I can get. I don’t want to lose too much length. I try to do it in one clean slice, but it takes a second, not so clean. He screams a little and tries to hit me, but I’ve cut myself free. I’ll be safe if I can get to 27th Street.

(Tenté marvels at how their pitchy calls block out every siren, every car horn, every downshifting truck. He finds himself surrounded by the vast Atlantic of his childhood on West 34th Street. The sea of his youth is a flat, soft vastness of blue reflections. The city outside is hard, patterned, vertical ruptures made of minerals and ores re-formed, like stalagmites dripping from hubris. The gulls have this auditory power to take him back, faster than a jet, more reliably than a carefully labeled package from his mother.)

That’s when I see Mr. Terry on the corner. He must have been enjoying his last cigarette of the day, and now he’s rushing towards me. Mr. Terry yells out “Hey!” and the cabron freezes. I make it to Mr. Terry and turn around. The cabron is just standing there with my hair in his hand, my broken shoes at his feet, looking stupid. That’s symbolic of something. I must have cut into his fleshy palm because blood is running into my hair, and there’s splatter on my expensive leather clutch. It’s ruined, and now I’m really ready to go back and slice this cabron, but Mr. Terry holds me back.

(Tenté will always be oriented to the sea, he tells himself. It’s guided his life choices, his own migrations. Staring morosely at his sliver of the river, he internalizes the tidal pull. He floats above himself walking along the river while smoking marijuana. In his sativa reverie, he passes the hulking coffin of the Convention Center, then takes in the assault of pulsing noise and aviation fumes that is the heliport.)

The cabron is yelling insults. Mr. Terry takes me by the shoulders and makes me look in his eyes, to knock me into the moment. He can’t see my pain, can he? “Are you hurt?” he asks, and I nod.

(Tente’s phone rings, taking him out of his trance. Hardly anyone calls him. He says hello, but it’s immediately clear he’s been pocket dialed. He listens for voices over the rustling of fabric against the speakers, then a dramatic scene, screaming, jostling. He’s yelling into the phone but no one hears him.)

My chest burns, I can’t stop panting, and I lose my shit when Mr. Terry embraces me. I’m just going to lean on this good man and cry, this is what it’s like. Mr. Terry rubs my shoulders like no man ever. “He’s getting away, should we…?” and I interrupt him, “Just let him go.” Mr. Terry then holds me tight to him, and exhales: “Oh Chiqui.” It’s the first time he’s ever used my name. All the fear rushes out of my shaking body, all the love I carry rushes to my skin, blushing it pink like the New Jersey sky. I am protected, respected, alive. Then I hear a tiny voice in my pocket, and it’s Tenté screaming into my phone.

“Chiqui! Chi! Qui! Are you all right, my pigeon?”

“Yes, loca.”


 

Dale Corvino found his confessional voice at “Dean Johnson’s Reading for Filth,” recounting his youthful exploits as a kept boy. Under a pseudonym, he’s blogged advice for rentboy.com, appeared in Savage Love, contributed to Prose & Lore, and to the anthology Johns, Marks, Tricks & Chickenhawks. Under his government name, he’s published a reminiscence of his family relationship to Marilyn Monroe in Salon, an appreciation of Blondie in ImageOutWrite, and a short story in Jonathan. Dale lives near New York City’s main post office, which is now transforming into a train station.


To read the introduction to 2015’s literary contest as well as the other winners, click here.