The Long Vietnam of My Soul, Part 10

"There, she would slump in a booth and nurse a 50 cent cup of coffee while waiting for day to break over the Bromo Seltzer tower, staring at the numbers on the landmark and thinking of home, dawn at least two hours away."

“Yes, we died a little bit together …

                               - Nieves to Elisabeth in a postcard from across the alley



Wednesday, the 14th of June, 1988.

Flag Day – the Stars & Stripes represent a living country, are themselves considered a living thing –and the birthday of the United States Army.

The corner of Eutaw and Franklin streets in downtown Baltimore is deserted at 4 a.m. and Nieves has about nine rum and cokes in her and new blood and spittle on her brown, knee-high boots, the booze taking over where the dope left off while the band was still playing.

The booze only holding forth for so long.

Nieves had turned down a half-dozen rides home to the Holy Land to keep drinking and now had to find her way back from the steps of the Congress Hotel, a fleabag warren of hard cases on welfare, disability and giddy despair; the truly beat  - more than 100 men and women with a view of streets that waited for them as sure as the graveyard did - paying $12 a day for a room above a basement bar, the fabled Marble Bar, upon which Fred Astaire once danced , given over to sweat and noise and people fucking in the bathrooms.

[Nugent wrote with passion about the Congress, lived in the flop side-by-side with the chosen, giving away sandwiches and candy bars with his left hand while scribbling notes with his right, not giving a shit – as Nieves and Elisabeth surely would had they been born in time (anywhere but here, anyone but me) – that Iggy Pop was down in the bar, throwing himself against the walls.

 “You never see anything happen,” one old-timer told Nugent about the mysteries of the Congress. “You only hear about it later.”

Nieves steadied herself on the iron railing and stepped gingerly to the curb. A block down on Howard Street, a waitress was serving steak and eggs to a taxi-driver at the White Coffee Pot and Nieves guided herself toward the fluorescent lights.

There, she would slump in a booth and nurse a 50 cent cup of coffee while waiting for day to break over the Bromo Seltzer tower, staring at the numbers on the landmark and thinking of home, dawn at least two hours away.

The cabbie – resigned and sincere, he’d lost a daughter to heroin not long ago, a good girl, she got As and Bs – told Nieves he’d take her wherever she wanted to go as long as she didn’t throw up in the cab.

The deal fell through when, unable to make it to the bathroom at the back of the restaurant, Nieves vomited the cup of coffee, nearly a fifth of rum and two fried pork chops she’d wolfed down at Grandpop’s before going out the night before.


Kevin, the husband, in the bedroom before showering for work: “What do you mean you don’t know where your rings are?”

Elisabeth, the hunch in her gut more frightening that the broken record of her husband’s anger: “I took them off to give the kids a bath and set them on the sink.”

Kevin: “The sink has a trap in it.”

Elisabeth, a plumber’s wrench under her pillow and waiting all her life to use it: “I looked already.”

                                                           - o-

                  “Morning, Grandpop.”

                  “Good morning Basilio.”

                  “Donde esta Nieves?”

Grandpop shrugged, pushed five pieces of bacon around a frying pan with a fork. Basilio looked out the screen in the kitchen window at the pepper plants, the last one in the row - the one that got the dirt from Galicia – looking a little better than the rest, good enough for Basilio to do some en plein air  work today.

Especially if Elisabeth came outside to hang clothes in the yard.

It was 7 o’clock in the morning - Thursday, June 15 - and a piece of sizzling bacon popped with enough verve to spit hot grease onto the back of Grandpop’s heavily-veined hand, which blistered under the heat.


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