“I’m going ten meters across the street for dinner.”
It was exaggerated compliance with her request that he tell her where he was going when he walked out, rather than just walking out, and he’d meant it to be rude. Now Restaurant Other Fish was closed.
All he’d wanted was the shrimp dinner and Premium beer he’d had the night before. He had been counting on it being open. It had been open earlier; he had seen the girls that worked there sitting out front. Then again, maybe they had only been sitting out front because they didn’t know where else to sit on their day off. It was impossible to know. He could have asked if they were open, but still he could never be sure that they hadn’t just made up an answer on the spot. He could never really know what their status had been at the very moment that he had seen them sitting there, before he’d asked out loud and given them time to think about it.
Michael estimated that he and his girlfriend had fought 14 times in the last two weeks. Now Other Fish was closed.
He could see that the Irish bar at the end of the block was dark, so he went back across the street and continued two blocks in the other direction, past the bus company building and the taxi drivers and deadbeats who hung out there. There was a place open on the far corner. There were people eating there, and there was an old man with a cart alongside.
“Is there anything to eat?”
“One then. Is there any beer?”
“Victoria. A liter.”
“They’re gonna have somebody bring it.”
He turned and recognized the young man who had spoken as the crackhead who had inserted himself into the baseball game that afternoon. He had waltzed right in and demanded an immediate turn at bat, and Michael had lobbed the first pitch at his head.
Although a crackhead, the kid was still a friendly face. Michael nodded a non-verbal greeting at him and sat down.
The food came and was delicious. He hadn’t eaten real barbeque, the kind that reminded him of home, in three months. He ate slowly to avoid finishing before the beer came, which it eventually did. The guy who brought it had the face of a 24-year-old, but none of a 24-year-old’s enthusiasm. The beer was not Toña or Victoria, but Brahma.
At least it wasn’t Quilmes, he told himself.
“Fucking foreigner. I asked him if he could spare a peso for food, and he started giving me shit. I should go back there and fuck him up. Fucking foreigner. If it was for vice, I wouldn’t have asked, but it was for food. I’m so fucking hungry I can’t stand it. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Please. Drink beer.”
The guy had just walked up, and was Michael’s age. He wore jeans that didn’t fasten and a baseball uniform undershirt, white with red sleeves and collar. His left arm and leg hung crooked and almost useless at his side, very nearly more trouble to drag around than they were worth.
“Everyone calls me Scatterbrain, even my grandma. ‘Scatterbrain, dinner’s ready.’ I used to be a little crazy. I was skinny.”
He was a crackhead. Michael suspected he was also furious at his disability.
“That’s Candy. He’s like a Volkswagen.”
He was talking about the guy who had brought the beer. Michael encouraged his tablemate to explain by raising his right eyebrow slightly and winking halfway with his left eyelid.
“He’s got his motor in back. He likes to get it from behind.”
Michael smiled and made a noise. He noticed for the first time that Scatterbrain was so unwell, he looked as though finishing his beer might kill him. There were few streetlights in this neighborhood, and the last thing Michael wanted was the death of a local on his hands, even a crackhead.
No one else seemed concerned. The two women continued to eat and serve food, first to a woman walking by with a small child, then to a taxi driver idling at the curb. Candy paid scant attention to the addict’s chatter, which did not diminish in volume or pace despite his abject appearance.
“What’s your name, friend?”
People here pronounced his name Mycole when hearing it and Meetchelle when reading it, so he always just said Miguel.
“Miguelito. Did what I said bother you? About the fucking foreigner?”
Michael shook his head sympathetically.
“Good. Because I’m telling you, I should have killed him. Oh, and watch out for this guy, though. He’s a thief and a criminal.”
Michael looked at the man Scatterbrain indicated. He had faintly muscular arms and a few amateur tattoos.
“Good evening, ma’am. Miguelito here is gonna buy me a dinner and a beer.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw the woman laugh off the request and the man chuckle.
“If you want marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or a woman, Scatterbrain can help you. He’s into that stuff.”
The crackhead nodded much more assuringly than Michael would have thought him capable of.
“Or maybe you’d rather take a spin with Candy?”
The man shrugged, indicating it wouldn’t be the first time a stranger had taken a liking to Candy. Scatterbrain encouraged him.
“She’ll appreciate it. Look at her, she’s excited already!”
Even crackheads hit the nail on the head once in a while, Michael thought. Candy half smiled, his lips lengthening and shining wet. He wore a scarf, despite the heat, and his eyebrows were almost entirely shaved off.
“Look at her! Posing!”
“Candy! Is your name Candy, or isn’t it?”
“My name is Ricardo.”
“Or María Ricarda. Candy or María Ricarda.”
Scatterbrain seemed to continually be trying to convince himself that he occupied a superior position in the neighborhood hierarchy than the gay prostitute. Michael wondered who really outranked whom. If nothing else, Michael thought, Scatterbrain could be sure that Candy would never stab him. Any other of the neighborhood nightcrawlers was liable to get fed up with him and become violent at any time.
Michael felt himself relax a little, but remained wary of slipping into overconfidence. Scatterbrain seemed to notice.
“Buy me a meal. You bought me a drink, and I appreciate that, but what I really need is a meal. I’m starving.”
“I’d love to be able to buy everyone a meal.”
Michael didn’t explain that what he’d really done was to invite the altered young man to help him finish a bottle of beer that he knew he wouldn’t finish alone. He had intended to get drunk, but thought better of it after seeing how many guys with nothing to lose were out on the dark street between the hotel and the restaurant. His girlfriend didn’t drink at all anymore, and now two beers were almost too many.
“Buy him some dinner, and buy me some dinner and some beer.”
The tattooed man had initially put on a stone cold straight face, but abandoned it when he saw Michael smirking.
When a particularly antagonizing crackhead went by and fired a toy gun at him, Scatterbrain found the energy to stand up and hurl the empty pint glass at his enemy’s head and yell that he was sick of the guy. Still, he hadn’t forgotten his hunger.
“Miguelito won’t buy a guy a plate of food, but he’ll buy him a beer.”
Michael thought this sounded terrible, but decided that it was probably true. The tattooed man just laughed.
“Miguelito’s gonna wish he never ate here. You can tell that he’s good at dodging conversation, though.”
Michael took the comment as a sign of approval, a message that he could relax. Here he would be free of the usual harassment of foreign faces, on account of his having shown himself to be adept at avoiding becoming nervous or being sucked into any double-meaning sex jokes, a pastime in that part of the world. It felt good to have the backing of someone from the neighborhood who knew everybody and whom everybody knew.
A boy from the baseball game came running up to the man to ask permission to stay out until nine o’clock. When Michael showed himself curious, the man said it was his nephew.
Michael heard people call the man Oscar. He had a cell phone, and for the last half hour, when he wasn’t renting it to passers-by, he had been calling home to ask whether or not the milk had been delivered yet.
Somebody asked why he bought milk from that son of a bitch instead of over at the other place, where they bring it right away.
“Because that son of a bitch is cheaper, that’s why. 70 pesos instead of 84. Here, Miguelito, have a beer. Go on, drink it, it’s cold.”
“I practically never leave my house, you know? I’m only out here right now because I got in a fight with my wife.”
Michael laughed an honest laugh.
“Drink the beer, it’s cold. Scatterbrain, take this and go buy yourself something to eat.”