by Ethan Velez
No one could tell you where El Loco came from. El Loco didn’t know himself and he never spoke a word. Some said he was not human, that his voice was stolen. Some said he never had one.
He never carried more than he needed. No more, no less. Finding something he didn’t need was incredibly new. In Riverside Park, an impoverished dog rustled from under a collapsed hedge. El Loco sat on his bench and watched it approach him. He could see its cream coat underneath all the dirt and neglect.
“El Niño,” El Loco named him.
El Loco was easy to ignore. A dog didn’t change that, but curiosity stirred. Residents started offering empathy, filling El Loco’s cup. He used that money to buy for El Niño, and, when he felt he had too much of anything, left it for the others in the park — unseen and unheard.
El Loco was not kind, he told himself. He simply moved through life as he saw fit.
He heard a voice: “Curious, then, why are you kind?”
El Loco was in a children’s tent he bought from the El Mundo on Broadway. Outside, it rained steadily.
“Who speaks to me?” he asked.
“Me, stupid,” the voice thought back.
El Niño pawed at El Loco’s legs. Its small, brown eyes were suddenly big, knowing, bright.
“You?” El Loco thought.
“Me, stupid,” the dog repeated. “Look at that face. You get that from your grandmother.”
El Loco left the dog and sped off. He decided to return just after three avenues.
“Did you have a name?” El Loco thought.
“Yes,” El Niño answered.
“Will you tell me?”
El Loco could imagine hearing, even saying the name. A liberation stirred in his belly. Hunger he never knew before. He cried some evenings, then most evenings, then not at all.
“You’re being a brat,” El Niño thought.
There was a miserable silence where El Loco’s response should have been.
“They called me Lucky,” El Niño offered.
“No, they didn’t.”
“Fine. They called me Tómas.”
El Loco grabbed a package sticker from the post office on St. Nicholas. He wrote TÓMAS and slapped it on his chest. It was an honor, he thought, of El Niño’s past life.
“I was Tómas. Not you.” El Niño thought, and to admit he was right, El Loco added JUNIOR to the sticker.
“It’s good,” El Loco, now Junior, thought, “a family name.”
The solemn dog sighed.
Junior waited for the local food bank, a service he previously decided wasn’t for him. He defended himself when he was disrespected, and he learned he was not the burden he thought. He could feel it: a new life blooming.
Junior soon lost El Niño. He woke up without him, their children’s tent newly empty and threatening. After a futile search, reality struck him, and he fell to the ground on 162nd and Broadway. It wasn’t words that found him, but a cry. Not a feeling, but a sound. It spilled from him: the sound of men who want and never stop wanting.
El Niño only returned in dreams, smiling and beautiful.
Summer was enveloping the city when Junior responded to El Loco again. He sat up on a bench in Riverside Park. The shoes he wore before falling asleep were stolen in the night, and he could feel his skin tingling. He slapped himself. When it brought tears to his eyes, he did it again.
El Loco went on hurting himself when he felt four little legs climbing on him. His heart raced, but it was not El Niño. It was a smaller dog with white and tan fur eagerly trying to get onto El Loco’s lap.
Behind the dog was Shirley Rodriquez: a woman El Loco did not know. Shirley was on her routine six am walk when she heard the blows. Accompanying her was always her dog, Sophie.
This was the mute man, Shirley realized, the one everyone knew, the one who cried out in the streets at night. Shirley towered over him.
“Mira,” Shirley told El Loco. “you can’t hurt yourself like this.”
Despite never meeting, Shirley swore she’d seen El Loco’s eyes before. When she focused on them, planted her shoes in the dirt and breathed, Shirley saw flashing images of El Niño, Tómas, whole lives. She saw a hospital room, a man with brown eyes, El Loco’s eyes. People who El Loco once loved and who once loved him.
Shirley led El Loco home. She allowed him a warm shower and explained why he should consider cooler ones in the future. She gave him her grandson’s clothes. “He hasn’t lived here in seven years,” she said, dropping a stack of white t-shirts in his arms. “that’s a lifetime. You have them.”
She fed him. “Like this,” she said, assembling a spoonful of white rice and beef. She chewed for a long time.
El Loco followed. He ate like she ate, sat like she sat, and when he was softly crying over his meal, Shirley reached across the table and held his hand.
She told him all about her Nigerian-Colombian parents who had one child, all about the three sons she had, all about the man she once loved and then hated and then loved and then hated again.
“It went on for a long time,” she said. “then he passed.”
El Loco winced at her last words. He sat with perfect posture and watched her speak.
“No talking at all, huh?” she asked.
Shirley was asleep early. She gave El Loco her grandson’s bedroom and explained that in the morning she’d take him to see her doctor. “In the beginning, it is scary. But then it isn’t,” she reassured him.
El Loco would not go that next morning. Sophie watched him leave. When he returned to Riverside, El Loco could see beyond the Hudson, New Jersey, the world.
El Loco abandoned his bench. When he walked, he did not stop.
Ethan Velez is a fiction writer from Washington Heights. When he’s not working at an art store, he is the editor-in-chief for 7: the Zine. You can find him on Instagram @s0lit0.
Image credit: “New Jersey Blues,” m_laRs_k. Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.