Sentenced to Search by Connie Pertuz Meza

“It’s time Macondo.” Bird Eye’s boot stabbed the old man sneaker they issued us. Slip on canvas. Couldn’t hustle up a jog with these damn sneakers if I wanted to. 

But there was no running from this. 

I heard Bird Eye, but I didn’t move a muscle. Just sat on the bench for two or three beats. That cost me. Pussy CO jammed his boot in my ankle. “Come On!”  

I shot him a dirty look. This was the kinda punk we rolled for his kicks back on my block. I stood up, real slow like the old man who belonged in these damn sneakers. Reached for the fat ass envelope I brought with me to court.

“Turn around,” he barked.

“Yo! I need my envelope!” All of Julissa’s letters from the past six months were in that envelope, unopened.

Bird Eye shoved the manila envelope in my hands as if my wrist were not cuffed behind my back. Bastard. With his crooked eyes and twisted nose. He walked close behind me as we entered the courtroom. For a second, Julissa, my boy Pipo, Colombia, and Jackson Heights, Queens, all rushed at me, and just as fast, I pushed them away. Like the pull of a Dutchie, I took a quick sip of the quivering air, and kept walking. I refused to shuffle or hang my head low. I clutched the envelope tighter.

I scanned the courtroom, dull wood and scratched floor. My eyes settled on Julissa. Then my mouth began a tug of war, as I forced a scowl. I mugged. Rules of the street were embedded like coded molecule strands, and my face did what it was accustomed to do. Julissa sat down on the second to first bench from the front of the courtroom. Dressed in a baggy gray dress, Julissa looked Pentecostal. Pale, puffy.

My mind was a jumble of thoughts. And just like that, my body drifted far away, like when I smoked too much. I learned to slip out of my body way before I ever smoked weed. Refused to feel like I did when I was scared little kid during los apagones in Colombia. Blackouts, which went on every night for over a year, a message by la guerilla who knocked power lines all over the country. And everyone sat around waiting for the lights to turn back on, miserable and at the mercy of some rebel groups. Fuck that! Same shit, different country, I thought.

The sight of some other court officer by the judge’s desk cut across me. His lip curled in disgust, his hands on his waist, and his feet pointed at me, aimed in my direction. I began to strut, having perfected the I didn’t give a fuck dip and lean. How a man walks shows how the world has treated him. Maimed as soon as the cell locks, but those cuffs are the first incisions. Can’t look tough when your hands are pinned to your back. Shit! Bird Eye that motherfucker, tightened them so much they rubbed the inside of my wrist raw. But that hurt less than thinking about J in her Pentecostal getup.

Julissa was the first person to read my notebook full of bars. At first fresh lines with the tightest rhymes, but the more I wrote, my bars morphed into poems. El Desparaser, you never fade all at once, but in small waves. No one notices. Least of all you. Those were the first words of Julissa’s favorite poem. She said I’d written what she felt, and we were soul mates. I believed her. I felt Julissa’s eyes on my face, and I turned towards the stenographer. She looked like my seventh grade science teacher, Ms. Gregory, long beak nose and the same cornflake-colored hair.

                                 #

“Ja-vi-er?” Ms. Gregory broke up my name into pieces, as if saying my name whole was too much of an effort. “Do you mind telling the class what you find so funny about Newton’s Law?”

I turned around to look at Tommy, Pete, and Frankie whose faces showed no sign they were the ones cracking jokes on Ms. Gregory calling her Toucan Sam. The thought of her face on a box of Fruit Loops made me burst out laughing. I looked at Ms. Gregory and back at the boys. When I first arrived from Colombia, it was guys like them who teased me and made fun of my clothes and sneakers. Guidos with their hair slicked back with gel, rope gold chains around their neck, a lot of Cool Water cologne on, and the latest kicks. They called me a wetback. Now, I had the newest Jordans and the only time my English wore an accent was when I was tired or angry. A nervous laugh escaped me.

“To the office right this second, young man,” Ms. Gregory screeched.

Confused I turned towards the boys for a quick second, but their eyes cast down and mouths like pencil lines. I got up real slow, being blamed for shit I wasn’t guilty of was nothing new.

“Now!” Ms. Gregory’s chin trembled and spots of pink appeared on her cheeks.

“Bitch!” I mumbled. I high-fived the boys on the way out. 

Later in the cafeteria Tommy told me how they couldn’t get in trouble or their pops would come after them hard. I thought of Mami. She was harder than any man I knew.

“No big thing,” I lied. Mami hit not just with her fists, but anything that was near her.

We all sat in different parts of the lunch room. The Italian kids all sat together, the Blacks in one side, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Mexicans on the other. The Asian kids hung out in their own little part of the cafeteria. It was as if they were these borders placed around the tables without anyone putting down a damn thing.  

                                 #

I itched to rub my jaw. Instead settled my eyes on the judge’s huge ass desk. Bird Eye behind me, Pointy Feet in front, fuckers acted like they were teachers about to give stickers to whoever sat with their hands folded in front of them. All the lessons school taught, and not one had to do with learning. It wasn’t even at school where I learned to make words dance on the page. Nah, I learned to write poetry listening to Mami’s vallenato music. The music she played late into the night, when her heart was lonesome for the man I figured was my pops or the string of assholes who followed. I loved the wail of heartbreak which spilled out the Raphael Orozco’s mouth. Corazón feliz como fiesta en pueblo. I wanted to string words and create a world.

“Keep moving Macondo.” Bird Eye breathed down my neck. “Time to face the music.” He let out a long and low whistle.

Just like all the fuckers at school who loved to see me being sent to the principal’s office. Didn’t matter I kept stacks of marble notebooks under my bed filled with the worlds I created with the right arrangement of words.  

I looked straight ahead and kept stepping. Not about to try to walk fast and trip over my feet because Bird Eye needed to go and scratch his balls. I caught sight of my lawyer, Sam. Court appointed, suit three sizes too big, surrounded by a mess of papers and folders. Then I heard it. Heels like exclamation points on the courtroom floor and a voice that boomed throughout the courtroom.  

“M’hijo!”

Hardwired to respond, I didn’t realize my body turned to the direction of the voice until I faced my mother, Eugenia. Dressed in a tight turquoise dress, she swished to the bench Julissa sat in. I shot a look at Pointy Feet whose eyes lingered over my Mami’s ass.

                                 #

We arrived in Jackson Heights Queens from Colombia, days before the start of school. A room to rent with another Colombian family was our only option. They arrived a few months before us, and acted like gringos since they could read the local Chinese takeout menu. The dad got drunk every night before el noticiero finished, and cracked jokes in order to get on my good side, and offered to take me to the park with his little daughters. I always said no. Remembered how he looked at Mami when she crossed the living room or ran into him in the kitchen. And how he hit his wife late at night when he thought we were asleep. As soon as Mami could save up for our own place we moved. She cleaned houses during the weekday, and on Saturday mornings she dusted and vacuumed offices in the tall buildings in Manhattan. Late afternoon on the first Saturday of the month Mami walked into Delgado Travel with me right on her heels. Smack in the center of Jackson Heights, Mami handed over most of her earnings to be sent back home to Abuelo and Abuela.

I had a lot of questions back then like: Why Mami sent money back home? When we needed it so bad, to move out of our studio and maybe I’d finally get a pair of real kicks, not the bootleg kind. Or why they called Jackson Heights, Little Colombia, it looked nothing like the streets of Barranquilla? No palm trees or houses the color of fruits named sapote, maracuya, or guava, just hungry looking trees, like the skinny streets kids in Colombia, and rows of busted buildings the color of rotten fruit. 

                                 #

“Javier,” Eugenia called again.

I nodded my head, a greeting reserved for a homeboy, and not a mother.

“Te ves flaco.” Eugenia dotted the corner of her eye with the crumpled tissue in her hand.

I ignored her, walked towards the table where Sam placed his briefcase. Once again Mami confused parenting with providing enough to eat.

                                 #

Already in Nueva York a few months, I waited for Mami by the shelves of Nesquik, while she ran to grab ground meat for our weekend empanadas. I once asked why empanadas for Saturday dinner and Sunday dinner. In the hushed tone of a whisper and a frenzy screech, “you must never forget we are not from here, Javier.”

I nodded and replied, “somos Colombianos.”

Mami smiled.

Distracted by thoughts of sweet pink milk like the rabbit on the wrapper held in his own rosy paw, I lost sight of Mami.  Compelled by the need to dissolve and be like everyone, a protest to the daily glasses of avena, I grabbed a can. I ran in her direction. “Mami,” I called out. I clutched the straps to my superhero book bag. I heard her before I saw her.

“Mi’jo,” she answered.

I turned around and darted up the aisle. Charged towards Mami and waved the can of Nesquik. “Mama, can we get Nesquik?” I flung my arms around Mami’s waist, and felt something cold and hard in shape of a square. At first I thought it was part of a belt, my fingers lingered, and my hands traveled underneath the long jacket Mami wore.

Mami ripped my arms from around her waist.

“What is that?”

Her eyes settled somewhere above my head.

I wished I were tall like a man, not just to meet Mami’s eyes. But, to keep her from doing the things she did.

                                 #

By the time I was sixteen, I stopped asking questions, gave Mami a fat roll of twenties to send back home the first Saturday of the month. Mami never asked where the money came from, instead had me bow my head as she made the sign of the cross.

The first time I met Sam. He pulled the Ja in my name and added an r, pronouncing it: Jar-v-er.

“Jar-v-er? Hey! Jar-v-er,” Sam’s voice punched through his memory.

I studied Sam as he shuffled papers, popped open his briefcase, and tapped his pen against the desk in between us.

“This don’t look so good.” Sam pulled out a legal pad across the table.

“What are we looking at?” My leg started to do that thing it always did when I just wanted to bolt. It bounced up and down nonstop.

“Read over my notes, I want to make sure there are no gaps.” Sam handed me a pen. “I’m sorry, you do know how to read, right?”

“Of course I know how to read, fool!” I swiped at the pen with my fingers.

“I’m sorry… I just…” Sam sputtered.

“Hijueputa,” I muttered, low enough for no one around us to hear, but loud enough for Sam to hear.

“Listen, your girlfriend.” Sam motioned his hand in an effort to recall her name.

“Julissa. We not together.” Again my leg began to bounce.

“She contacted me. Said she wanted me to set up a meeting. There is something important she needs to tell you.” Sam pulled out what looked like a black and white picture printed on thin paper.

“I don’t want anything from her!” I screamed.

“Calm down,” Sam said. He turned towards the guard who walked over. “It’s nothing.”  

“Let’s talk about my chances,” I growled.

“What about just going over some of the information I gathered looking at your file. I think I can argue the school system failed you. They certainly didn’t help. I can build a defense around it.”

“Whatcha mean?” I asked. I reached for the legal pad.

 At the very top of the sheet written in all caps: JAVIER MACONDO, and in a smaller print a perfect line of bullets. Name, address, date of birth, country of birth, and names of the characters witnesses, mother, Julissa, and old neighborhood futbol coach. Eugenia’s name was circled. The word PRIORS: assault, assault with a weapon, and possession of marijuana, trespassing, vandalism, and gang affiliation. NO FATHER followed by a bunch of exclamation points, an arrow pointed towards the words: MOTHER, linked by a line, circling back to my name. I thought of the list of priors, which could be written under their names. Mother: boosting, beating a minor, and choosing lousy men. Father: Absent. I stopped wondering about my real father, when I realized who my father wasn’t. 

“Bullshit! I’m not going to have people feeling sorry for me.” I said between my teeth. “What are my chances?”

“They have a solid eyewitness. They offered a plea,” Sam hesitated.

“I’m guilty.” My mouth went dry and I struggled to swallow. “It was all my idea.” 

It wasn’t even my idea, but my boy Pipo. In and out, those were the words Pipo used when he described breaking into some rich white guy’s house in Long Island. According to Pipo’s cousin, who worked installing cameras in the house, the guy was not only loaded, he never activated the alarm system, and the cameras were to catch his wife with the guy next door. The fool even told Pipo’s cousin he was taking his wife away for a weekend getaway. Sucka, made it mad easy. Then it wasn’t. No one counted on a visiting family member staying over, who called the cops from an upstairs bedroom, and within minutes they forced me and Pipo to the ground. My face pressed in the dirt and all I thought about was my father when he got caught. 

                                 #

Whenever I asked Mami to tell me about my father, she shrugged her shoulders, pressed her lips and remained silent.

Then one day, while still living in Colombia, I asked yet again, but this time Mami pulled my ear, and asked, “if I tell you, will you stop asking about him for good? No more questions.”

I nodded yes. I would have agreed to anything, just to have a father even for a moment.

“Well you see your father is a very famous and powerful man.” Eugenia grinned.

“Who is he?” For a second I wondered if I was the son of Raphael Orozco.

Mami pointed to the headline of the newspaper, SE BUSCA PABLO. A picture of Pablo Escobar, recently escaped from the Cathedral he was holed up in, loomed at me. I studied the eyes of the most wanted man in Colombia, and searched for evidence that indeed I was his son. I held the newspaper next to his face in the cracked mirror above the bathroom sink, and finally saw the resemblance. It was their eyes, not so much the color or the shape, but how our eyes settled in the distance, searching.

A year and a half later when every screen in Colombia televised Pablo’s apprehension and murder, Mami looked over at me and said: You were a bobo to believe a man so rich and powerful could be your father. Your father was just some trafficante. He’s got caught before you were born and killed right after.

                                 #

“All Rise, for the Honorable Adam Furman.” Pointy Feet announced.

Pipo got three years. Neither one of us ratted his cousin. Why should we all go down.

I was what the cops called the mastermind.

Exchanges were made among the lawyers and Judge Furman. I fixed my eyes ahead, but the rest of my senses took in everything. A trick, which kept you from being rolled on as you covered your corner. 

The prosecution went first, “Javier Macondo is a life criminal with a record as far back as his first year of high school.

Sixteen, I thought back. The age I turned when I caught my first charge, assault. Ronald, the asshole who jumped me twice freshman year. I was not part of a crew, with no one to have my back I was a target. Unwilling to deal with Mami and the latest man she called her boyfriend, calling me a marica if I came home with another black eye. My mind went blank, and this time when Ronald came at me, I swung and did not stop. I was not a fag, but a beraco, all heart.  At the end I gave Ronald two cracked ribs, a broken nose, and a concussion. Punk ass bitch, Ronald ratted me out, and his parents pressed charges. It was my first offense, given probation, forced into an alternative high school, with group therapy built into my schedule, along with metal detectors and gang colors. After a week at my new school I was kicking it with Latin Kings, and by the end of the first semester I was initiated. And by the start of the next school year, I dropped out, posted in a corner in Jamaica Queens first selling weed, and later the little white packets of yeyo.

The prosecution went on and on about what a low life piece shit I was. My eyes ahead, I pretended I didn’t hear the sniffles and sobs coming from J and Mami. When it was Sam’s turn, he blabbered about how the system failed all the Javiers, and some crock of shit about real justice was not a long prison term.

Judge Furman peered at me from his glasses. “Before I impose my sentencing, does Mr. Macondo want to address the court?”

Sam looked over and nudged me.

“I take full responsibility,” I said. Didn’t tell the court Pipo’s girl was due any day now, how three years without a father was better than ten, than a lifetime. How all the Macondo men were fatherless criminals, it was a family sentence.

Judge Furman gathered his hands in the shape of a steeple before he spoke again. “Javier Macondo, I hereby sentence you to ten years, eligible for parole after seven years to be served in Rikers Island.”

“Mi hijo,” Eugenia cried.

I looked ahead. Shoved fear away, instead pushed the manila envelope across the table to Sam. Bird Eye was right behind me, gripped my elbow, and re cuffed my hands to my back.

Julissa voice penetrated the silence of the courtroom. “Javier, look at me. I have to tell you something.”

I kept my eyes far away as if I was searching for something. I began to walk. Bird Eye beside me whispered, “You are cold, Macondo. That’s your kid she’s carrying, right?”

My head snapped and I saw Julissa, standing. A mound of a belly I had not seen before when she was seated. My knees buckled and I could feel Bird Eye smile. Another Macondo sentenced to search.


Contributor Notes

Connie Pertuz-Meza writes stories about her life, family, and ancestors. Called to action as a New York City public school teacher, and mother of a teenaged daughter and middle-school aged son. Currently working on a semi-autobiographical YA novel. Documenting her life through personal essay on her blog, CONNIEPERTUZMEZA.WORDPRESS.COM. Staff writer for Hispanecdotes.com, a monthly online literary magazine.

Writing published by The Rumpus, Longreads, Narratively Memoir Monday, Medium/Heinemann, Accentos Review, MUTHA magazine, La Pluma y La Tinta's Peinate Anthology, La Pluma y La Tinta Emerging Voices Anthology. Forthcoming essay in Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity Anthology and 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist and Honorable Mention. A two-time VONA/Voices fiction fellow (2015 and 2017), participant of Christina Garcia's Las Dos Brujas (2017), fellowship at the Cullman Teaching Institute with Salvatore Scibona (2017), Tin House Craft Intensive participant (2017 and 2018) and a two-time Kweli fellow (2017 and 2018). Member of M. Colleen Cruz’s writing group for teachers who write, based in Brooklyn since 2004.