Arcelia Perez fled Puerto Rico to escape a failed marriage and a history of abuse, but instead of finding her piece of the American dream, she ends up on the wrong side of Providence, Rhode Island. With three young children, Arcelia follows a rocky path that ultimately leads to prison and an agonizing drug withdrawal. But her real challenge comes when she’s released. Now she must figure out how to stay clean and reunite the family that has unraveled in her absence.
Through rotating narrators, we hear from the characters whose lives and futures are inextricably linked with Arcelia’s own uncertain fate: her charming, street-savvy son, Cristo, and brilliant daughter Luz; their idealistic teacher, Miss Valentiín, who battles her own demons; and the enigmatic Snowman, her landlord and confidante.
This powerful story of hope and redemption reveals the un-acknowledged side of one of our oldest American cities, where even the bleakest of realities can’t destroy the bonds between parent and child. Rich in humanity, This Side of Providence is a novel of exceptional force and originality.
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This Side of Providence
By Rachel M. Harper
Prospect Park BooksCopyright © 2016 Rachel M. Harper
All rights reserved.
Before they knock down the door, I run. I'm wearing flip-flops, men's pajama bottoms, and a tank top with no bra. My sunglasses on the top of my head. I grab my baby and tuck her under my arm like a purse. She's one of the few things I own, and unlike everything else in my possession, I never lost or broke her.
I hear them enter the apartment — the front door cracks, their voices boom — but I'm gone before they catch me. Out the back window and down the alley before I know where I'm running to. Doctors always say I'm too skinny but you'll never catch me with my hips stuck in no window — even them small ones they put in basements — and I can still outrun almost any man, even in sandals and with a baby in my arm and a dope habit that keeps me shooting almost ten bags a day.
My baby's three now — not a baby anymore — and if I put her down she could run alongside me, but I hold her instead, to keep her close to my body, and to remind myself that I still have something to hold onto. Besides, what kind of mother lets her little girl run from the police? I don't know a lot of things, but I know that ain't right.
Me, I'm always running. So quick my feet don't seem to touch the ground. I hear the sound, though, the slap of my sandals on the pavement as I run down Manton Avenue in the rain. It sounds loud and quick like a machine gun. I am not a gun, but sometimes I feel like a bullet. Fast. Unstoppable. Deadly. I used to think I could outrun a bullet, when I was a child and I still believed in things I couldn't see. Like the truth, love, and forgiveness. Today I believe in only the things I can feel: hunger, pain, my beating heart.
I don't remember most of my childhood. I got a few memories from when my mother was alive, but not as many as I should. Only a few are clear. The rest are faint and jumbled, like the lines of a long and complicated joke that ends without a punch line. Or that never ends.
I see flashes all the time. Real quick, like a movie preview. They jump into my head and jump out, quick as they came. I try to control them, but I can't. They're not mine. They come so often they don't belong to me. It's like I'm watching TV without the sound. Like I'm remembering somebody else's life. There's a kid in most of them — me, I guess — but I don't recognize her. I try not to look her in the eyes. There's a man with her, or sometimes a boy, but he is always someone she knows. He looks kind, but he is not kind. Sometimes he smiles at the girl, but she never smiles back. She is always trying to escape, or looking for a place to hide.
When the rain stops and darkness comes, I'm still running. My baby girl is asleep in my arms, her breath a whisper on my neck. The high gone, she's now too much to carry. My arms and legs burn. I cut through the parking lot behind Atlantic Mills, hoping to lose the cops before my legs give out. I been running my whole life — either to people or away from them — and I don't really know where to go anymore. All the streets look the same and I wonder if I'm lost. Not sure it matters, as long as I keep moving. All roads got to end somewhere.
I run up an alleyway where two men are working under the hood of an old Buick. The car looks familiar but they don't. My legs continue to move, purely on instinct. I hear music from inside the car, the radio playing a Spanish song about a bird that follows a balloon all the way to the sun. The old man whistles the tune, and the younger one sings so softly I can't even tell if he knows the words.
They don't stop to look up as I sprint past them, as if I'm so fast they can't see me.
As if I'm invisible.CHAPTER 2
On the streets I hear a lot of stories, but I'm telling this one because it's mine and it's the only one I know by heart. My teacher says storytellers use their imaginations and don't always stick to the truth, but I don't like when people lie all the time. So I'm planning on telling the whole truth here. Just as I see it. Just as I remember it.
My name is Cristoval Luna Perez, but everybody calls me Cristo for short. In case you don't speak Spanish that means Christ. Sometimes it makes me feel special, but most of the time I think it's just my name. I'm supposed to be Catholic, just because I'm Puerto Rican, but I don't believe in God. I don't really believe in anything I can't see, which means I don't believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, or my father.
It's Thursday afternoon and if I was in class right now I'd be practicing my multiplication tables in a math notebook I share with two other kids. Instead, I'm sitting on an old wooden bench in the hallway outside the principal's office. Unless they expel me, I'm in the fourth grade at Hartford Avenue Elementary School, a huge yellow-brick building that looks like a prison. It used to be the pride of Olneyville, which it says on a plaque in the gym, but then a bunch of Spanish kids moved into the neighborhood and all the good teachers quit. Last year they took out all the grass and made the playground a big slab of concrete, giving the gang bangers a better surface to tag. They also put up a chain-link fence taller than the biggest kid in school, supposedly to keep the stray dogs out. That's when it started to feel like lock-up.
I live on the west side of Providence, which is the capital city of Rhode Island, which is the smallest state in America. I learned all that last year, in Mr. Clauser's class, but I'm not sure I believe it. They teach a lot of things I have trouble believing, like how this neighborhood used to be a big old apple orchard, and how when black people first came to this country they were in chains. This year I'm in Miss Valentin's bilingual class, and if there is a God I won't ever have another teacher in my life. When I tell her that she says, "God didn't make me a good teacher, my education did." She's always saying stuff like that, about how school can save you from being poor, but I don't understand how when almost all the kids in my class are on welfare and I have to walk by a crack house and two projects just to get here.
I'm supposed to be in the fifth grade but I don't read so good, especially in English, and I don't always pay attention like I should. I don't speak that good either, but I can usually understand movies and those guys in the street who yell about women and the lottery. Teacher says I can transfer to Regular Ed once I pass some test, but I want to stay in her class because everybody's poor enough to get free breakfast and lunch, and during music hour we all vote for salsa. They call it Bilingual, which is a fancy way of saying everybody in my class speaks Spanish, and even though we all come from a whole bunch of different countries, nobody thinks they're American.
The overhead light in the hallway is busted so I'm sitting in the half-dark. I've been waiting here for most of the morning, with nothing to do but listen to the secretaries talk about their diets and watch the seconds click by on an old wall clock locked up in a cage. Fuck if I know what that clock ever did wrong. I, on the other hand, got caught trying to flush David Delario's allergy pills down the toilet. I would have done it too, but those old toilets can barely flush the water. It don't make sense that David's not sitting next to me on this bench, since he was the one who started it by calling me a Spic and saying my girlfriend's so poor she reuses her toilet paper. He might be twice my size but I still punched him in the head and tore off his backpack and stomped on it till I felt something break inside. You can't talk shit about my girl and expect me to just sit there. Not gonna happen. Mami didn't teach me everything, but she did show me how to win a fight everybody thinks I should lose.
I coulda gone right home, but they can't find anyone to come pick me up. The school's been calling the house all day and nobody's answering. Which is weird since there's always somebody home in that apartment, even if I don't know who they are. Mami brings home strangers like some people bring home stray cats. She's always trying to help someone out, as if she don't have enough to do already, taking care of three kids and half the weirdos in the neighborhood. Not to mention herself. So now I gotta sit here and wait for her to come sign me out, even though if I wasn't in trouble they wouldn't care about how or even if I got home. That's public school for you; can't get nothing for free.
At 2:45 they give up and write Mami a note about what happened and ask me to bring it home. Yeah, right. That's like those kids who bring their father his belt so he can whip them with it. What Mami don't know won't hurt her, or in this case, me. She usually don't hit, yelling's more her thing, but sometimes she grabs my ear too hard or twists the skin on my arm till it's red like a sunburn. Sometimes it's worth it because later, when she's calmed down, she sits me in her lap and rubs coconut oil onto the mark and holds me like she's never held anyone else on earth. Sometimes it sounds like she's crying but no tears ever fall.
By the time I make it outside my bus is gone and I have to walk home alone. It pisses me off because I'm only wearing a T-shirt and it's raining, nothing heavy, just a soft spit-like rain that tells you summer's not quite here yet. I don't really mind walking, but I like riding the bus because I get to sit next to Krystal and hold her hand without anybody seeing us. In the winter she used to let me keep my hand inside her mittens to get warm. I know my fingers were ice cold but she didn't complain. That's when we started going out. If I was older or had any money I'd have to take her places and buy her food and jewelry and other things girls like to make her feel special, but for now we just sit together on the bus and pass notes in class that usually just say "hi."
I first noticed her because she has long curly hair that goes halfway down her back and she never ties it up like the other girls, not even in P.E. She says she likes me because I talk when I'm not supposed to and I got green eyes like the men on soap operas. People always ask me if they're fake since Puerto Ricans aren't supposed to have green eyes. I say I wish they were darker so I wouldn't have to squint in the sun and answer dumb questions all the time. What they don't know is that I got them from my mother, and if she ain't Puerto Rican then nobody is. I know she thinks they're the only nice thing she ever gave me, even when she looks at them and says they're too pretty to waste on a boy.
I walk the long way home, instead of taking the shortcut over Route 6, since I'm by myself and gotta avoid the white kids that hang out by the water tower and smoke cigarette butts and stick up for their own like that punk David Delario. Halfway down Hartford Avenue it starts raining harder, so I stop by the projects to visit my best friend César and maybe borrow a jacket for the walk home. He's smaller than me, around the size of my little sister Luz, but his uncle Antonio gave him free run of his closet when he got a new girlfriend and she refused to touch anything that some other girl had touched before her. Most of the clothes I got used to be Antonio's, including the Yankees shirt I'm wearing right now and a pair of jeans so big I have to tie an extension cord around my waist just to keep them up.
When I pass César's apartment the door is wide open and I can hear his grandmother yelling at him to stop tracking mud into the house. She's a big woman, about the same size as Teacher, and she grabs his arm and drags him to the front door like he's no bigger than a five-pound bag of rice. He says something I can't understand but it doesn't seem to matter to her. She tears his sneakers right off and throws them out into the rain. Then she smacks him across the face. His head flops onto his chest like a rag doll and he doesn't even try to protect himself. I wonder how his grandmother can hit a kid who only comes up to her waist. At school the kids call him Elmo since he's got a wild patch of curly red hair and strangers are always asking him how an Irish kid can speak Spanish so well. He always says the same thing, "I guess it's the luck of the Irish," and then we both crack up, even though we don't know anything about the Irish or being lucky.
His grandmother smacks him again, on the other cheek this time, and I watch him wipe his eyes with the back of his hand, pretending not to cry. Before he can see me his grandmother slams the door, erasing both of them from my view. Like if I can't see it, I won't know what goes on inside. I keep walking, telling myself that next time somebody calls him Elmo I'm gonna punch them in the face. My chest starts to feel tight, like when you hold your breath too long, and when I get under the highway overpass I let out a huge scream. It echoes in a dozen voices I don't even recognize. My heart stops for a second, and then starts to beat fast again, but I don't feel better.
It's dry under the overpass, but it smells like pigeon shit and homeless people — no place I want to hang out for long. A lady with a face so dirty I can't even tell what color she is climbs up the cement hill in worn-out tennis shoes three sizes too big. She slips under the railing at the top and disappears into the darkness. The sound of coughing echoes through the overpass, so loud I duck on instinct. Crouch low like an animal. I run my fingers across the stubble on my head, a habit I picked up after I started buzzing it. I like the way it feels against my fingertips, like petting a shaved dog. The first time Mami cut it all off was to get rid of lice, but I kept the clippers she borrowed from school so I could trim it once a week — just like the black guys at the barbershop on Broad Street told me to, so I could hold onto that feeling. Sometimes I want to let it grow out, to see how big of an Afro I could have. I don't really remember having long hair, but I've seen baby pictures where it's so curly I look like I'm Dominican. Mami begs me to grow it out all the time, to look like her little boy again, but no matter what I promise her, I'm in front of the bathroom mirror buzzing it off again when Saturday morning comes.
The cars on Manton are backed up like it's a parade, half waiting in line for the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru, half going to the flea market. If I had a few dollars I'd buy Mami an iced coffee, extra cream no sugar, but instead I walk through the flea market. No matter who's working the booths they're always selling the same stuff: Nike rip-offs in extra-large sizes, twelve-packs of tube socks with the stitching all crooked, fake leather suitcases with broken wheels. One suitcase is so big I could crawl inside and it could take me anywhere. We don't go on trips no more, not since moving up here from the Bronx almost five years ago. Mami always says she's never going home again, but I'm not sure what she means. If home ain't where you live, where is it?
A small table in the corner is selling a bunch of stuff with the Puerto Rican flag on it. I grab a key chain and stuff it in my pocket before the guy can see me. I don't even have a set of keys, since the lock on the front door is busted and we only use the chain lock at night, but it's nice to feel it in my pocket, to hold something no one else has held before.
I cut across the parking lot and down a side street, passing the outdoor pool I spent every day floating in last summer. It should be opening for the season next week, but some kid drowned last Labor Day and they shut it down for good. There's a chain-link fence surrounding it, the bottom curled up from years of people sneaking in after dark. Like all the fences in this neighborhood, it can't keep nothing in or out. A piece of plywood covers the old sign, with the word CLOSED spray-painted in large black letters across it. I read the sign out loud, just for practice.
Excerpted from This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper. Copyright © 2016 Rachel M. Harper. Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
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