Patricia Engel

The Veins of the Ocean

For my mother and my father

“Más allá del sol, más allá del mar,

más allá de Dios, poco más allá.”

— Carlos Varela

ONE

When he found out his wife was unfaithful, Hector Castillo told his son to get in the car because they were going fishing. It was after midnight but this was nothing unusual. The Rickenbacker Bridge suspended across Biscayne Bay was full of night fishermen leaning on the railings, catching up on gossip over beer and fishing lines, avoiding going home to their wives. Except Hector didn’t bring any fishing gear with him. He led his son, Carlito, who’d just turned three, by the hand to the concrete wall, picked him up by his waist, and held him so that the boy grinned and stretched his arms out like a bird, telling his papi he was flying, flying, and Hector said, “Sí, Carlito, tienes alas, you have wings.”

Then Hector pushed little Carlito up into the air, spun him around, and the boy giggled, kicking his legs up and about, telling his father, “Higher, Papi! Higher!” before Hector took a step back and with all his might hoisted the boy as high in the sky as he’d go, told him he loved him, and threw his son over the railing into the sea.

Nobody could believe it. The night fishermen thought they were hallucinating but one, a sixty-year-old Marielito, didn’t hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn’t run away. The police came, and when all was said and done, little Carlito only had a broken collarbone, and Cielos Soto, the fisherman who saved Carlito, developed a permanent crook in his back that made him look like a big fishing hook when he walked until his death ten years later.

Hector Castillo was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison — you know the way these things go — but he killed himself right after the sentencing. Not by hanging himself from the cypress tree in the front yard like he’d always threatened since that’s the way his own father had chosen to depart this life. No. Hector used a razor purchased off some other lifer in a neighboring unit and when they found him, the floor of his cell was already covered in blood. But Carlito and I didn’t hear about all that till much later.

Since Carlito had no memory of the whole disaster, Mami fed us a story that our father died in Vietnam, which made no sense at all because both Carlito and I were born years after Vietnam, back in Colombia. But that was before we learned math and history, so it’s no wonder she thought her story would stick. And forget about the fact that Hector was born cojo, with a dragging leg, and never would have been let into any army.

In fact, the only clue we had about any of this mess was that Carlito grew up so scared of water that Mami could only get him in the bathtub once a week, if she was lucky, which is why Carlito had a rep for being the smelliest kid on the block and some people say that’s why he grew up to be such a bully.

But then, when he was fourteen and our Tío Jaime decided it was time for Carlito to get drunk for the first time, only Jaime got drunk and he turned to Carlito over the folding card table on our back patio and said, “Mi’jo, it’s time you know the truth. Your father threw you off a bridge when you were three.”

He went on to say that Hector wouldn’t have lost it if Mami hadn’t been such a puta, and next thing you know, Carlito had our uncle pinned to the ground and smashed the beer bottle across his forehead.

He was asking for it, I guess.

Mami had no choice but to tell Carlito and me the real story that same night.

In a way, I always knew something like that had happened. It was the only way to explain why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life — everyone scared to demand that he go to school, that he study, that he have better manners, that he stop pushing me around.

El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why.

I was two years younger and nobody, and I mean nadie, paid me any mind, which is why, when our mother told the story of our father trying to kill his son like we were people out of the Bible, part of me wished our papi had thrown me off that bridge instead.

All of this is to tell you how we became a prison family.

It’s funny how these things go. After Carlito went to jail, people started saying it was his inheritance — que lo llevaba en la sangre. And Dr. Joe, this prison shrink I know who specializes in murderers, told me that very often people seek to reenact the same crime that was inflicted upon them. I said that sounded a lot like fate, which I am strictly opposed to, ever since this bruja on Calle Ocho, a blue-haired Celia Cruz knockoff with a trail of customers waiting outside her shop door, told me no man was ever going to fall in love with me on account of all the curses that have been placed on my slutty mother.

What happened is that Carlito, when he was twenty-two, heard that his Costa Rican girlfriend, Isabela, was sleeping with this insurance guy from Kendall. And that’s it; instead of just dumping her like a normal person would, he drove over to her house, kissed her sweet on the lips, told her he was taking her daughter by her high school boyfriend out to buy a new doll at the toy store, but instead, Carlito drove over to the Rickenbacker Bridge and, without a second’s hesitation, he flung baby Shayna off into the water like she was yesterday’s trash going into the landfill.

But the sea wasn’t flat and still like the day Carlito had gone in. Today it was all whitecapped waves from a tropical storm moving over Cuba. There were no fishermen on account of the choppy waters, just a couple of joggers making their way over the slope of the bridge. After Shayna went in, Carlito either repented or thought better of his scheme and jumped in after the little girl, but the currents were strong and Shayna was pulled under. Her tiny body is still somewhere down there, though somebody once told me that this water is actually full of sharks, so let’s be realistic here.

When the cops showed up and dragged my brother out of the water, Carlito tried to play the whole thing off like it was one big, terrible accident. But there were witnesses in sports bras who lined up to testify that Carlito had tossed the child like a football into the angry Atlantic.

If you ask him now, he’ll still say he didn’t mean to do it; he was just showing the baby the water and she slipped out of his arms—“You know how wiggly little kids are, Reina. Tú sabes.”

I’m the only one who listens because, since they arrested him, Carlito’s been in solitary confinement for his own protection.

If there’s one thing other inmates don’t tolerate, it’s a baby killer.

This is Florida, where they’re cool about putting people to death. After the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the seventies, this state was the first to jump back into the execution business. I used to be one of those people saying “an eye for an eye,” even when it came down to my own father, who was already dead, God save his soul. But now that my brother is on death row, it’s another story. Mami doesn’t go with me to see Carlito. She’s over it. Not one of those mothers who will stand by her son till his dying day and profess his innocence. She says she did her best to make sure he grew up to be a decent man and the day he snapped, it was clear the devil had taken over.

“Out of my hands,” she says, smacking her palms together like there’s dust on them.

The last time the three of us were together was the day of the sentencing. I begged the judge for leniency, said my brother was young and could still be of use to society, even if he got life and was stuck banging out license plates for the rest of his days. But it wasn’t enough.

After she blew Carlito her last kiss good-bye, Mami began to cry, and her tears continued all night as she knelt before the altar in her bedroom, candles lit among roses and coins offered to the saints in hopes of a softer sentence. I heard her cry all night, but when I tried to comfort her, Mami brushed me off as if I were the enemy and told me to leave her alone.

The next morning she announced her tears had run out and Carlito was no longer her son.

Mami’s got a dentist boyfriend in Orlando who she spends most of her time with, leaving me in the Miami house alone, which wouldn’t be so bad if I had any kind of life to fill this place. But I use up all my free time driving down US 1 to the South Glades Penitentiary. We’re lucky Carlito got placed in a prison just a few hours’ drive south and not in center of the state or up in the panhandle, and that he gets weekly visitation rights, not monthly like most death row killers.

I want to say you’d be surprised by the kind of people who go visit their relatives and lovers in jail, but really you wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s just like you see on TV — desperate, broken-toothed women in ugly clothes, or other ladies who dress up like streetwalkers to feel sexy among the inmates and who are waiting for marriage proposals from their men in cuffs, even if they’re in maximum security and the court has already marked them for life or death sentences. There are women who come with gangs of kids who crawl all over their daddies, and ...

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