(From the Bronx Stories collection)
I wanted that new shiny pink bra with the bow in the center, even though I was too young to need one. It would be years before I could wear it but I wanted it mostly because it was new. Most everything I wore as a child was ropa vieja, worn by someone else, and bought at Mami’s favorite segundas-the secondhand store, conveniently located upstairs in Doña Alba’s apartment. The old woman kept the discarded clothes in old steamer trunks and sold every article for twenty-five cents; bras, underwear, blouses, and skirts, any garment was just twenty-five cents apiece. The old shoes were just a dollar a pair. The used Stetson hats for men were Doña Alba’s prized merchandise. She sold each one for a whole five dollars.
Every other Friday, ten dollars in hand, Mami and I would walk upstairs to shop. The more you bought, the bigger the discount Doña Alba would give her favorite customers. Hyped by the promise of savings, Mami would dig, stop to gossip briefly and then dig some more. She dug deep in the trunks for two hours or more, and marveled aloud at all the treasures she had found this day: a naked doll for me, floral batas with fancy rick rack on the sleeves and neckline for her, and even handmade crochet doilies to put under her favorite saints’ statues and for the back and arms of our sofa and chair.
“Mira pa ya, lo que bota la gente,” Mami would exclaim over again to the shoppers present. It was always amazing to her what people would throw out and that is what kept her coming back. Mami would sniff the clothing, smelling for smoke and mold in the items, but not everything made its way into her shopping bag. There was her ten-dollar budget limit, for sure, and she never bought used underwear or anything that had been worn by a dead person or a whore. “La peste de muerte o de pecado no se puede quitar.” Mami was convinced that there were some smells, like the odor left behind by death or after committing sins of the body, which could never be fully washed out.
Mami bought the few new clothes I owned from the street vendors, who also sold out-of-date food, along with socks, underwear, communion dresses, veils, and holy medals from the trunks of their Buick Chevis. Don Prudencio, who sold the pasteles and alcapurrias that his wife made, sold biblias, light up pictures of Jesus with eyes that glowed and a halo that radiated beams of fire; he also preached the Nuevo Testamento, sat in the front seat of his car, and provided guidance and comfort to the pretty girls in the barrio. Don Hector, el mudo, my favorite vendor, sold limbes in all my favorite flavors: coco, tamarindo, and mango; and in all the years I bought limbes from him, I never once heard him say a word. “La tristeza se llevó su voz,” Mami told me, and everyone talked in secret about the terrible sadness that had taken the old vendor’s voice away. None of these other vendors sold a shiny pink bra.
My apartment building-a five-story, red brick structure, with a two-level courtyard separating two wings had fifty apartments, five to a floor. The Puerto Rican families that lived here knew each other very well. Some had recently come over from the Island; they were the ones that hung the Puerto Rican flag from their windows and the railings of the fire escape, and when they drank would sing En Mi Viejo San Juan loudly for all in the streets to hear. Our neighbor, Doña Yolanda, who had been in Nueva Yor for a long time, like us, was my mother’s closest friend; her daughters, Violeta and her younger sister Consuelo, were my best friends in the world.
It was on a Monday, and our mothers had gone to work at the Madame Alexander Company in the garment district, sewing clothes for expensive dolls we would never own or play with. From the fire escape of my kitchen window, three floors up, we first saw the bra salesman approach and enter our building. Light hair, very pale skin, and blue eyes, he looked like the pictures of Jesus in the wall calendars that Don Pepe, who owned the only bodega on the block, gave his customers every New Year. My mother kept those calendars from year to year and hung them up, along with framed pictures of La Virgencita and wooden crosses, on the walls of our apartment. Mami, who knew the names of all the saints and holy virgins, would start every sentence, even every curse, with Jesu Cristo or Ave Maria Purisima and kept images of her favorite holy people in every room of our apartment. Just above her bed, she hung her favorite- the light up picture of El Corazón de Jesús showing God’s bleeding heart surrounded by thorns and on her nightstand, on top of a crocheted doily she had stitched herself, she kept a favorite statue of San Judas, who according to her, was the only saint that helped los desesperados, those who in despair felt they had nowhere else to turn. In the living room, on the wall above the floral sofa with the clear plastic covers, which squeaked when you sat down, made you sweat and stuck to your skin, she hung all the blessed rosaries that she had bought throughout the years from the old priest at Our Lady of Victory Church. It was the light coming from the eyes in the light-up framed picture of Jesus and the sound of the water in it, which appeared to be constantly moving, which would make the bra salesman, with the face of the Lord, the most uncomfortable.
Tap. Tap. Tap. No one home. It was a Monday morning, and most of the adults in the building were working. Tap. Tap. Tap. He knocked hard on several of the other apartment doors before knocking on mine. “Are your Mamis home. Can I come in?” he said softly in the doorway entrance. “No, my Mami is not home,” I said, and as usual, miedosa Violeta objected that I had been too friendly, said too much to the man, but I was the leader of our group and we always did what I wanted; the bra salesman came in. He figured out early that I was the one in charge and talked mainly to me. He talked to us about the bras and showed us the samples in his case. “I have a sale price on most of the articles,” he said directly to me. “I have bras ranging from 32 to 38, but I don’t carry all sizes in every style.” So soft, so new. I touched everything and then I saw it. The shiny pink bra with the bow at the center was in the middle of the stack of underclothes, just under the panties, and enaguas. As he picked up the shiny pink bra he said to me, “You’ve picked the prettiest one and I only have one like this. Only one.” Only one shiny pink bra. “If it fits, you can keep it,” he teased me, as he held the bra close to my face. “No need to try it on, I can tell if it fits by feeling your breasts.” He slowly worked his hands upwards, under my cloth scapular and the rosary beads that I wore for protection and stroked the hard masses behind my nipples. “Putting lotion right here and rubbing it in a circular motion, like this, will help you grow one cup size larger,” he suggested. “If it fits, you keep it.” But it didn’t fit, and he turned to Violeta.
I liked her lots, and she was my best friend in the whole world, but Violeta was nothing like me; always a big miedosa, she refused to let the bra salesman touch her. She had done the same with the underwear salesman- Don Luis, who had insisted on making me try several different sizes for the right fit. “There is nothing worse than underwear that falls down because it is too big or irritates the skin because it is too tight”, he had argued. He had grabbed a tape measure from his case and very carefully measured my waist first and then measured the space between my inner thighs. “The most important thing is a comfortable crotch.” Violeta would not pull down her underwear, or let him touch Consuelo either. It was always up to me to be the brave one.
A new shiny pink bra. “If it fits, you keep it.” How could anyone, I thought to myself, pass up a deal like that, how could anyone? I knew of someone who would also like the shiny pink bra and I was certain it would fit her. I suggested he visit Migdalia, the bigger girl, who lived on the fourth floor with her mother and Joe Cuba -her brother. The salesman, with the face like Jesus, thanked us and walked upstairs.
The next morning, Violeta and Consuelo had come over early to play. We drank Malta and listened to the sounds of people talking in the other apartments, babies crying and the sirens of police cars speeding up and down Third Avenue. We took turns standing up in the corner of the fire escape, looking up at the small patch of blue sky and looking out across 149th Street, pass Willis Avenue to the places we had never visited. My turn to stand up by the railing, and when I looked down, I got a glimpse of a body. I turned to my friends, “Look, there’s a man lying near the garbage cans. There’s blood. I think he’s dead. Let’s go look at it.” Miedosa Violeta was the first to refuse to go. “Miedosa, I’ve seen dead bodies before. They can’t hurt you no more,” I yelled and convinced her and Consuelo to come with me.
I went ahead of them, and was the first to see that it was the bra salesman, who was lying on his side; blood was pooled around his head. Afraid, Consuelo shivered, and Violeta complained of having difficulty breathing. “It’s just an ataque de nervios,” I scoffed. “Mami gets them all the time.” I made sure to not step in his blood, and touched his face to make sure he wasn’t still alive. Violeta whispered, “Let’s go tell your Mami, and she can call the police.” I protested, “Not yet. Not yet.” Frantically, I looked around for the samples suitcase, and the shiny pink bra. I found nothing. We ran upstairs to tell Mami the news. She never called the police for anything, not for the syringes we found in the hallway, not even for dead bodies, and so somebody else in “el bildin” finally called the police to take the bra salesman’s body away.
For weeks, everyone gossiped about the dead man, saying it was Migdalia’s brother who had killed him, but Joe Cuba kept silent. We never saw Migdalia again after that summer, and chismes reported she had gone away because the bra salesman, with the face like Jesus, had done something very bad to her. Don Luis, the old man who sold lady’s underwear from his suitcase, stopped coming to the barrio and Joe and his ganga took turns watching out for him and other door-to door salesmen.
Most nights, for weeks and months later, I would hear Mami saying the rosary aloud, the dozen Hail Marys and Our Fathers, giving thanks that the bra salesman had not visited her little girl. She also had the old priest come to our apartment and sprinkle it with holy water, and even hung a picture of La Virgencita holding baby Jesus above my bed to watch over me and protect me during the day while she went to work, to sew the clothes for the dolls I could never own. Every night, on my knees, I prayed to Mary to protect me, but during the day, I pleaded for protection from the Jesus in the framed print in the living room- the one with the light coming from His eyes and the sound of the water in it, which appeared to be constantly moving, and which had made the bra salesman, with the face of the Lord, the most uncomfortable. I also prayed for Migdalia, from time –to- time, and wondered about what might have happened to her. “If it fits, you keep it.” I wondered too if it was she, who got to keep the shiny new pink bra with the bow in the center.