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Caiseas Blues (A Terrible Racket)

by Gregory Stephens

The old man, sitting in a big house up on the mountain, hollers, moans, bitches and groans. The yellow stucco house is on a hilltop street called Caiseas, looking out over the Caribbean, towards the Dominican. An idyllic, tropical setting from a proper distance, but up close Gabriel’s vocalizations are unsettling. The zombie-ish groaning sounds like a man being crucified.


Some neighbors think Gabriel is senile. His wife Marta knows better. He makes a terrible racket but sometimes it is music to her ears. The symptoms of progressive supranuclear palsy include impulsive behaviors like “standing up without waiting for assistance,” or “loss of interest in pleasurable activities,” which Marta knows not to be true.


On the patio a Sun Parakeet is shrieking. The big bird cage hangs over the edge of the balustrade bordering the walk-around balcony, under the shade of an enormous mango tree.

“Cierre el pico, cotorra,” Marta says, her voice raspy. Shut your mouth, chatterbox. But then in a more affectionate tone, she adds:


“I don’t know why I keep feeding you.” It is not clear if she is speaking to the parakeet, or to the invalid grunting out bestial noises. In fact, the bird seems to be mimicking the old man’s bestial howls.


This aged parrot, its once splendid coat of many colors now faded, flew up from a ferry twenty-two years ago, back during boom days of Mayagüez. In that time, ferries stopped regularly, always an event. Tourists came on land and spent their money. New developments were pitched to investors sniffing around. Sometimes sexual fluids were exchanged.


Marta still remembers like yesterday how on that day, a young tropical bird escaped that ship. Maybe it belonged to a tourist or a crew member, ¿quién sabe? The brightly plumed bird flew straight up the steep slope into the house of Gabriel and Marta. It seemed like a harbinger then, presaging continued good fortune. Over time, however, the bird became a portent of something else. Nowadays this stretch of the island looks like a post-apocalyptic film.


Marta takes the tray out and dumps the bird waste onto the concrete slope, which Marta had poured all around the property about five years earlier, when Gabriel’s health turned south. The concrete keeps the jungle somewhat at bay, now that the man of the house is no longer fit to fight it back. But it also amplifies the sounds coming up the slope: traffic on 102; the grinding and whining of a power plant; the docking of a freight ship. Then there are the island specials, jeeps with sound systems powerful enough to bring down the walls of Jericho. Pumping reggaeton at an incomprehensible volume, the whole mountain trembles.


“Ai, mi amor, que es mi amor,” says Marta to her Sun Conure, in the same over-the-top sweet talk that she also uses for Gabriel, and the neighborhood dogs. She lays it on thick, and they all lap it up—dogs, men, aging birds. She gives the old parrot seeds, and looks the little guy in the eye, down in the bottom of the cage, from which he seldom strays now. Gabriel starts up again, and Marta shuffles back inside in a gown and slippers, gray hair now showing at the roots under the gold tint her beautician re-applied last visit.


The bird eats, the old man groans and the sky-scraping mango tree—towering up out of the poured concrete at its roots—is shedding its over-abundance of fruit at an alarming rate. It is April now and the mangos falling down on the concrete slope sound like mortar fire. Duds they may be, but the force of their fall still startles. They gather at a retaining wall where the concrete ends, and there they rot.


All around town the mangos sit and stink, evidence of the jungle’s decadent affluence. Puerto Ricans are eating at Popeyes or some other fast food joint, and they don’t have the time to pick up even the most beautifully formed brightly colored perfectly ripe mango. But the iguanas are having a field day. Up on Caiseas, below Marta’s house, a giant of an iguana slithers up the mango tree to feast. The blue and avocado green of the iguana’s scaly coat is somewhat of a camouflage when it moves from the long trunk into the foliage overburdened with fruit. The parakeet screeches at her.


“Cierre el pico,” Marta calls out again, but not putting much effort into it this time.


The male nurse arrives, and Marta leaves for her volunteer work at a retirement home. For decades she was an enrollment officer at the University of Puerto Rico. Gabriel had an empire set up, travelling to distribute automobile parts, working out of an inventory in his shed right next to the homestead. They have money still, but Gabriel is not free to enjoy it. Marco, the young nurse, wheels him out to the patio to smell the ocean breeze. Gabriel is bald, and bare-chested. His bald head reflects the sunlight, giving the space around his head a halo-ish glow. His bare chest is surprisingly slender and well-formed for a man who has been an invalid for five years.


“Hey,” he utters, the only word seemingly left in his vocabulary. He has pulled himself halfway up the banister, as if he might throw himself down to the concrete slope. Marco takes the hint and wheels Gabriel to the adjoining yard and storage space, where Gabriel once kept his inventory. The yard is a well-maintained island in the sea of junglish over-exuberance, a postcard stamp of tropical charm. But the yard is shadowed by huge power lines marching down to the sea. Marco helps raise Gabriel up to the metal bar atop the chain link fence, and Gabriel supports himself there a few minutes. The invalid is doing his version of pull-ups, keeping his body toned for his wife, who still hears music in his moans.

The author is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, where he specialized in Creative Writing for STEM students. The present submission is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress titled "A Terrible Racket." His book "Three Birds Sing a New Song: A Puerto Rican trilogy about Dystopia, Precarity, and Resistance" was published by Intermezzo in 2019. Recently published literary nonfiction includes “Integrative Ancestors redux--A Child's story from the past to the future,” Dreamers Creative Writing (Oct. 2018); "Split-Screen Freedom,” Writing on the Edge (Fall 2017); “Che’s Boots: Discipline and the flawed hero,” in Intraspection, while short fiction includes “Raw Meat (Sexy Mama),” in Smaeralit 3 (2017).


June 2019

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