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Yesterday, I watched my kids fumble over the Amazon catalog wedged in between the bills stuffed in the mailbox. All four of them were pushing through my legs in the hopes that whoever grabbed it would get first dibs on making their Christmas list for Santa. I stood aside and just watched them fight for a while — shoving, grabbing, yelling at each other — all kinds of mayhem as the bills cascaded and piled underneath them. Normally, I wouldn’t encourage sibling rivalry, but their little pleito made me get all nostalgic and cry a few silent tears. To be honest, I got lost in time. I thought of the days, back when we were kids, when me and my brothers and sisters never scrambled over anything in the mailbox. That shit was sacred. It was point A on the road that kept us from starvation.
Every first of the month, like clockwork, the feds blessed my mother with a few hundred colorful bills held together in a white booklet adorned with dull red stripes. They were split into small denominations — a bunch of brown ones, a couple purple fives, some green tens, a few red twenties and less than a handful of fifties. Though they weren’t green like money and if you stared real close you would notice the fine print, “non-transferable except under conditions prescribed by the Secretary of Agriculture,” in our neighborhood it didn’t really matter. Those food stamps got us almost everything that kept our stomachs full and the parties lit on the weekends — beers, wine coolers, cigarettes and rum. They cut down the days we had to resort to just bread on bread or arroz con huevo. Matter of fact, even the jodedores would take them on the 1st and 15th of the month. But this one December, the coldest one I have ever known, the welfare gods passed through our mailbox and left it all empty inside.
It was the first time I had seen Mami cave under the pressure of getting by without ever having enough and just moving on faith. She lost so much weight during those first two weeks of December, I forgot about the Atari 2600 and G.I. Joe collection held hostage in my mind for months. She didn’t mention anything to us but on a few late nights when we were supposed to be asleep, I caught her hiding behind the massive lace curtains draped on our windows and sobbing into the seams of her bata. During one of those covert self-therapy sessions, I could tell by her jarring tone and all the coños rolling off her tongue, she was talking to my father on the phone. We hadn’t heard from him in months and before I could picture the Christmas miracle of him coming back, I heard her tell him “vete pal carajo” and slamming the phone extra hard on the cradle. I’m not too sure of what happened between the conversation and sunrise but the next day, all seven of us found ourselves abrigao in sweatshirts and long johns waiting for our father in the middle of Central Park.
My sisters tried to pass the time hop-scotching and skipping over the cracks lining the pavement, but they mostly found themselves snuggled up beside my mom on a frigid wooden bench. With five days until Christmas, I figured they sat there fantasizing of the new Superstar Dream Date Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids they drooled over in front of the T.V. As for me and my brothers, we slammed each other into pockets of grass in the name of flag football and climbed the wall of rocks dividing the park and the street. On any other day, we could act this reckless and drown out my mother’s “bajate de ahí te va dar un golpe” for hours, but it was so brick, it didn’t take too long before we couldn’t feel our feet. More than a few times, I caught a glimpse of my mother’s eyes and sensed she wanted to just grab us and run. I imagine she held on for those three hours running solely on hope which is what I was doing despite the cold settling into my bones. My dad didn’t show up at the park or any other day of my life.
Years later, I found out by eavesdropping on Tia Beba and Mami, my dad didn’t come to the park because he flew to Santiago earlier in the day. His father, el de crianza, left him an herencia. He had promised to see us and give Mami money before leaving to collect; instead, he boarded a plane while we nearly froze to death and lost pieces of our wonder. But it didn’t really matter anymore. Years before, on that savage winter night, I had already buried him in a tiny icy patch of grass.