J. M. Curét

Papi’s Stroke


José Martinez aka J.M. Curét is a poet, writer, and author of the short story Wife-Beater Tank Top, published in the recent anthology, Berkeley Noir by Akashic Books. He is a current student at the SF Writer’s Studio. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he teaches Creative Writing and Ethnic Studies and lends his voice to several local salsa bands.

Giovanni Ramirez reached a point in his life where he understood his aging parents weren’t going to be around too much longer; so for the last several years he purchased a round trip plane ticket from his adopted home of thirty years Oakland, California to his birthplace New York City to visit them in Spanish Harlem. Because he’d moved as far away from them as possible as soon as he was able to, and for decades rarely visited or called, he now felt a yearly visit was the least he could do. His work obligations at the comic book store didn’t allow for much vacation time so his New York trip was taken between mid and late October.

His parents’ apartment was a one-bedroom cacophony of trinkets, plastic covered furniture, working and non-working appliances, prison-made framed photos of Gio’s siblings, nieces and nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews, and smelled of his mother’s sofrito and rubbing alcohol. A living room window facing out onto Lexington Avenue remained slightly open even in extreme cold weather because the apartment’s heater was brutally relentless earning the nickname Calentador del Diablo or the devil’s furnace. There was no real room or way for Giovanni to stay in that apartment so he crashed at his sister’s in the Bronx.

With every visit he noticed how less frequent his seventy-eight year old mother moved from her favorite recliner in front of the television set and how much more his father, also pushing eighty, left the apartment, dragging his walker along like a reluctant companion.

"Where are you going now?" his mother asked.

"To hell,” his father answered and left wearing stained sweatpants, shiny white Nikes, an old, faded Peacoat, a red Kangol cap, and a black and white polka dot scarf.

Almost immediately after his father fled slamming the door in the process, Gio’s mother looked at him and said, “Come, I need to tell you something.” And so Gio sat by her. “A long time ago, I had an affair with one of our neighbors. Your father was in Sing Sing again for running numbers. I think it was the third time or something like that. Okay? That’s it. Now you know.” And she went back to watching television.

She revealed no name and Gio didn’t ask. He couldn't understand why she would share this information with him after so many years. He wondered what she was looking to accomplish. "Are you fucking with me, mom?” he asked her seriously.      

 “No, I am not fucking with you, mijo. I simply want to set the record straight before Papa Dios calls for me to sit by his side in Heaven,” she said continuing to stare at the T.V. Her favorite program, Caso Cerrado was on.

She had always been a woman devoted to her church and Gio had no doubt she believed in God, his son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and their mysterious master plan. Yet, Gio couldn’t help trusting there was something inside of his usually shy and extremely observant mother that called bullshit on it all while dutifully playing her role.

Furthermore, for all the drama involved in the Ramirez clan, theirs was a family of pranksters. Both parents, his two brothers and his sister, all trying to outdo each other with elaborate lies told in dramatic fashion only to divulge the tale’s nefarious intent once convinced whoever was listening was enraptured in it, believing every word. Then they’d laugh and laugh at the sucker’s expense for considering such nonsense. The Ramirez’ were adept at the art of mind fucking. He tried staring his mother down thinking damn this is a good one, mom. But his mother didn’t flinch.

“That’s why he doesn’t want to stay here anymore,” she said. “He’s going to ask you to take him to California with you.” Giovanni’s look went from perplexed to indignant.

“Wait, wait one minute,” he said. “What are you talking about, mom? First off, why would you cheat on Pops?” His mother gave him a sideways glance. He thought of the years she put up with the exaggerated drug use, booze binges, illegal gambling, police “visits”, prison sentences, verbal abuse, physical threats and other women. "Okay, never mind that," he said. "Why doesn't he ask Jesse to take him in? Or Ray Jr? Or Andrés?"

“He knows they’ll say no. They won’t put up with him,” his mother answered.

“And what? He thinks I will?”

“He knows you two share… similar interests.”

Gio could only button his lip and fume in silence, less he say something to his mother he would regret. The deliberate pause in his mother’s response stunned him. He grabbed his windbreaker from atop the pineapple print sofa and stormed out of the apartment. He'd made it halfway to the elevator before turning back, pushing open the door and asking in a controlled tone, "Does Jesse know about this?"

“Everyone knows about it, honey. You were the last one I needed to tell,” she said. “Don’t slam the door, please.”

Gio set off to find his father. He walked along Lexington Avenue and welcomed the cool breeze after the ruthless onslaught of the apartment’s heater and his mother’s news. He’d always loved autumn in New York, how the entire city embodied the term cool. He was not so much angry at his mother's indiscretion; he was surprised there had been only one. He was upset his mother alluded to he and his father being similar men.

Gio walked the streets he had grown up on and didn’t recognize anyone he passed on the sidewalk or anyone he caught looking out the few open windows from buildings along the three blocks he walked. The groups of men, young and old, hanging in front of every bodega, Chinese food joint, and beauty parlor, eyed him with indifference. He was someone of little consequence, another dude just passing through the hood, and nobody really knew or gave a fuck that he was once “one of them.” He was a tourist.

He found his father hunched against his walker on the corner of 112th street, talking to about some men who huddled around him near the bodega's steel cellar doors out front, holding court, the O.G. spewing street knowledge or recounting one of his many precarious adventures to a willing group of bored admirers. The sun had struggled to be noticed since dawn and the Barrio was all shades of cement gray.

“Pops,” cried Gio from a safe distance.

A few of the men eyed him suspiciously. His father was having trouble turning his neck so he repositioned his walker, moving his entire body to face him.

“Giovanni! So glad you decided to come find me. I want to talk to you.”  As if magic words had been spoken, the men dispersed at a pace suggesting important places and people had to be gone to and seen. "Come with me," he said.

“Pops,” Gio said again, walking beside his father at a pace faster than he expected. “What’s going on with you and mom?”

 “Didn’t she tell you?” he asked. “She told me she was going to tell you. About the other woman.”

Giovanni stopped and tilted his head, which was now beginning to ache a bit. He felt a little dizzy. He put a hand on his father’s walker to stabilize himself.

 “Hey, you okay Gio?” asked his dad. “Come on, let’s sit.” His father guided him toward the nearest brownstone. His father bent his knees slowly as he maneuvered his rear end onto the second of the three concrete steps not letting go of the walker until his ass was firmly planted. Gio sat perched next to him rubbing his temple with fingers from both hands.

 “Pops, what the hell are you talking about? Mom told me she had an affair, not you! What’s this other woman crap? Are you having another affair now? At your fucking age?” His father grinned. “What?” Gio asked, agitated.

“Your mother had an affair with another woman, mamao.[1] The neighbor Lourdes from 3A. She’s dead now, I mean, it was a long time ago, but that’s who your mom had a thing with, not another man.” All of the color disappeared from Gio’s face as he sat, mouth agape, looking at his grinning father wondering, who are these people? “That’s why it’s not like me pegó cuernos[2], you know? It was a woman. Plus, I had a thing with Lourdes years before too, so there’s that."

Gio was stuck on how, since the indiscretion had been with a woman, this apparently disqualified his father from being a cuckold. He thought about all of the things he didn’t know about his parents. As the youngest, most of the Ramirez trauma fell on his older siblings. It’s not that he was immune, just spared from the bad old days, as his sister called them.  He thought about therapy and wondered why he’d stopped going.

 “Come on, don’t stress too much about it,” his father continued. “It’s for the best. Listen, I was thinking the California climate would do me some good.” He looked at the sky while making his pitch.

“I know you’re kind of broke and, well, Jesse told me your last breakup was pretty bad. I thought maybe we could keep each other company. It’s not like I’m made of stone, you know. I don’t know how many good years I have left.”

The mention of his most recent failed relationship sent Gio staggering down a memory lane that looked more like a post-apocalyptic obstacle course. Gloria. They met in an American Literature class at San Francisco City College and immediately hit it off. Soon, she turned him on to Peter Jackson’s first feature film about fornicating puppets. He’d turned her on to cocaine, methamphetamines, and ecstasy. He’d been with her the longest—two years. He asked her to marry him and she laughed in his face, a little bit of spit actually hitting his forehead and cheek in the process.

Gloria left, as they all eventually did. She moved to Boston to live with her sister, brother-in-law and new nephew, fleeing futility for comfort and possibility is how she put it.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pops,” he said finally.

“Okay,” said his father, defeated.

“It’s not that I don’t want you to come to California—”

"You don't need to explain anything to me. I understand completely. Why the hell would you want your sick old man, with one foot in the grave, cramping your lifestyle, right? It's just that…"

Gio wasn't sure what was coming next, but whatever it was, he wanted it over with quickly.
“What is it Pops?”

"You're the only person I want to be around these days. I miss you. And as for your brothers and your sister, they fucking hate me.”

“They don’t hate you, Pops,” he said.

 “They treat me like shit every chance they get because they think your mom's too good for me like I'm holding a fucking gun to this woman's head so she sticks around!" He started to cough. "Que se vayan p'al carajo![3]

“Let’s get you some water, Pops.”

"I don't need any fucking water,” he said as the coughing died down. "I know you all got daddy issues. I can’t change the past. So I’ve done some bad stuff, big fucking deal. I think I’ve done pretty good stuff too, haven’t I? It’s not like any of you ever wanted for food and clothes. None of you are murderers or rapists or what have you.”

"Come on, don't get mad," Gio said, helping his dad up and putting his arm around his hunched shoulders. "You’ve got to admit, this is all pretty weird. The whole affair thing with mom, you, all of the sudden wanting to come to California, opening up to me and getting all sensitive and shit. It’s fucking strange. Plus, I don't really know how to deal with all this emotional stuff from you right now, okay? I'm like you in that way."

Gio had ever admitted out loud being anything like his father until then, and he immediately blamed it on what his mother had said. Sensing the significance of this occasion, his father straightened up and looked Gio in the eyes hoping to milk the moment for everything he could.

“You see? This is what I’m talking about. This is why I want to spend my last days with you. Of all of my children I feel you understand me the best. You know me. And I’ve never really felt judged by you like I feel judged by everybody else. Not as judged, anyway.”

“Pops, listen—”

"Hey! You don't even have to make a decision right now, okay? Just think about it. I know even if this pans out you're gonna have to do some finagling in California to, uh, to make for a smooth transition, so let’s forget about it for now and enjoy each other’s company, okay? You leave today, right?”

“I have to be at JFK in a few hours.”

“All right. Walk with me to Primo’s house over here on 110th. I’m gonna pick us up a little something.”

 Gio knew that by “little something” his father meant cocaine. It was his preferred adjunct for bonding with his sons. For Gio’s fifteenth birthday, while most of his friends got new sneakers, video games, and the like, Gio woke up to a folded hundred dollar bill containing about a gram of blow. It was on his dresser with a note attached that read, Happy Birthday G. Don’t give any to your brothers, they got their own. – Your Father

They walked passed the junkies, weed dealers and a few of the living relics of the barrio’s heyday. Gio marveled at the number of people who offered his father salutations and nods of respect along the streets of Spanish Harlem in the diminishing daylight. There were even a few old women who eyed his father like they shared an inside joke or sexy secret. Gio didn't want to focus on that. He was looking forward to the safe, familiar sensation of some good coke in his system, having experienced the comparative lack of quality in the stuff he snorted in California. He wondered if his father would miss the good New York shit as much as he did.




Giovanni's phone jolted him from a deep sleep. The woman lying beside him stirred. He paused to take in what was visible of her features and, once establishing he'd picked her up at the local bar the night before, he answered the phone.

“What up, Jess?” he whispered.

 “Papi had a stroke this morning. He’s in the hospital. Mom is with him. The doctor mentioned something about cocaine in his system. He asked mom and I a bunch of questions about it and I was so fucking pissed. It was embarrassing. I had no idea he was still doing that shit, but as soon as I saw the look on mom's face, I knew she knew. She played it off, though."

Giovanni pulled his knees up towards his chest and bent his right arm so he could rest his forehead. The cell phone dangled from his hand away from his face. His bed companion stirred again but didn’t wake.

"Mom wants to know if you're coming back."

After landing in Oakland the night before, Gio popped into his neighborhood watering hole near the airport, downed several Moscow Mules and seduced a pretty brunette playing pool, after sharing with her what was left of the blow he and his father had purchased in Manhattan. He had always been able to get his drugs passed airport security by keeping them in dollar bills and placing the bills in the pockets of the jeans in his checked suitcase.

His sister, giving up on getting anything else out of him at that moment, said "Call me when you’re ready to talk," and disconnected.

Bigfoot. Don Corleone. Super Fly. His father’s monikers surfaced in Gio’s mind like bubbling lava, accentuating the mythical status of the man he knew first as Papi. He wondered how could this beast of a man succumb to something as basic as old age? How could a brain as strong as his handle numbers and names without writing them down and not handle a little lack of oxygen?

Something else occurred to him: He was likely the last person his father got high with. His mother and siblings would ask questions if he was lucky, silently shoot knowing glances if he wasn’t. This was all too much for him to digest, and his body reacted. His head began to throb and he suddenly bolted from bed to bathroom where he barely made it to the toilet and threw up. No sooner had he started dry heaving he felt a violent movement of his bowels and just managed to pull down his boxer briefs and sit in time to avoid an accident. It was as if his thoughts had become so toxic, his feelings of guilt so powerfully poisonous, they had spread through his entrails prompting his immune system to enable the rejection process.

“Hey,” came a foggy voice of concern from the bedroom. “Are you okay?”

Gio sat, head bowed facing the tiled floor. He realized he hadn’t closed the bathroom door. He found himself in plain view of his houseguest, who drifted back to sleep before he could respond. He rose, flushed and showered. The bathroom smelled of shame and body wash.

He walked into his room to grab his phone and stood over his new lover. She was pretty. Her sleeping face angelic, pressed against his pillow. He took in her light brown skin and the dimple on her cheek. Her eyelashes seemed to have no end. Her lips were full, pouty and dry. He tried to remember her name. Stella? Sophie? Sylvia? Something Spanish or ambiguously European, he thought. Her mouth opened and she began to snore. He retrieved the can of disinfectant spray from beneath the bathroom sink and sprayed the room. He put on his on his robe, two sizes too big for him, his bunny slippers—a gift from Gloria—and went to the kitchen for coffee. He called his sister who answered after the first ring.

"What?" Jesse asked.

“How’s he doing?”

“About the same,” she said. “We can’t understand anything he’s trying to say and he’s being fed through a tube hooked up to some fucked up looking machine cause he can’t swallow. But other than that he’s fine.”

Gio knew his sister was being strong in the face of yet another family tragedy. He recognized the tone and cadence in her voice as when she informed him his paternal grandmother had been struck and killed by a sanitation truck while crossing the street all those years ago, and the time his seventeen-year-old nephew died under questionable circumstances in a psychiatric hospital in Queens a few years before. He wanted to cry, as he had wanted to then, but didn’t.  

“Where’s mom?” he asked.

“She’s here. She doesn’t want to talk to anybody yet.”

“What do you mean she doesn’t want to talk to anybody?”

"I mean, she doesn't want to talk to anybody. The woman has decided that she's going to wait twenty-four hours before speaking to anyone on the subject of her husband. Her words exactly."

“What the fuck is that all about?”

“I don’t know Gio!” said his sister vexed. “It’s her prerogative, her right to feel and act any which way she wants to at this point, so I’m not giving her any shit about it and neither should you, okay?”

Gio sucked his teeth in disgust. “Fuckin’ typical,” he said.

“Whatever. Are you coming back or what?” she asked.

“Jessie, I don’t have it like that and you know it. I can’t afford to drop another four to five bills on a last minute ticket back east. I’m on thin ice at work as it is. Shit, I just got back from there and I spent hella money on, on…”

“Drugs? Women? Your so-called friends?” came the voice on the other end.

That stung him. He knew his older sister adored him, but he also recognized there was a lot brewing inside of Jesse that would sometimes take her to dark places, places where she told the truth. She was able to destroy people with her words and how those words were delivered. Gio wished she had never gone back to New York. He had convinced her to move out to California after her first husband left her, but she felt out of place there. She told him she felt like a break-dancer in a ballet. She could never get used to the laid-back, passive-aggressive nature of the Bay Area. She said she felt most of the people Gio introduced her to had very little first-hand knowledge of what was real: struggle, suffering, threat of violence and Winter cold, as if for her those things were necessary to be considered a real person.

“That’s messed up, Jess,” he said finally.

"Yea, I know. It still doesn't make it any less true, though," she replied. "It doesn't matter. Bobby will hook you up with a plane ticket. All you need to do is be ready."

Gio didn’t care much for Bobby, his sister’s live-in boyfriend, a retired chef. He was forever going on about how smart he was for investing and saving money so that he was able to retire from the restaurant business at the age of forty-five, something virtually unheard of for someone from “the hood,” as he put it. But Gio wasn’t willing to turn down a free ticket home.

“Alright. I’ll look into flights out of Oakland or SFO for tomorrow and I’ll let you know what it costs,” he said.

“Why don’t you just let me handle it?” his sister shot back.

“Why? Don’t you trust me?”

“Gio, God damn it! Stop pretending to be so fucking sensitive right now and let me do this, okay?”

“Alright, alright. Don’t get so upset. Find a flight for tonight or tomorrow. And tell mom I love her.”

“Yea, yea,” she said and hung up, before he could thank her.

Giovanni stared out his kitchen window and thought of his father’s share of near death experiences, and how he’d surfaced practically unscathed from each—the time he was shot in the leg in a bar fight in Brooklyn, the time the car he was in the passenger seat of slid into a ravine in Puerto Rico during a drug run in the 90’s killing the driver, the time one of his jilted lovers stabbed him in the chest with a fork at a party at his friend’s house in New Jersey in front of his wife and kids. 

“Come back to bed. I’m not done with you,” came the voice from the bedroom.

Gio gulped the last of his coffee. He strolled back into his room, slipped off his robe and slippers, and pulled the covers away from the pretty brunette in his bed with a name that started with the letter S. He slithered in beside her and kissed her buoyant, willing breasts.

“Mmmmm. You’re sweet,” she said.

They had sex like they were married to other people. They clutched, groped, squeezed, pulled and pushed themselves in and out of each other with abandon. At one point, fully embraced and eyes locked on each other, the room appeared engulfed in an air of trepidation, as if climax and sobriety would bring a stark reality neither wanted to face. Afterward, hands clasped under his head as he stared at the ceiling, Giovanni heard running water coming from the bathroom.

The pretty brunette came out wearing one of Gio’s Star Wars T-shirts she had grabbed from the hamper. It hung just below her pubic hair. She walked toward the bed and sat at its edge.

“Hi,” he said, pulling his right arm from under his head and touching her hair.

“Hi,” she responded with a smile.

“I hope you don’t get mad at me for what I’m about to ask, but…”

“You forgot my name, didn’t you?” she asked like that type of thing happened all of time. “It’s Selene.”

Gio blushed in embarrassment. “I knew it started with an S,” he said jokingly, and they both fell silent. He continued to stroke her hair, and she seemed lost in thought, looking at the floor by the bed where her jeans sat crumpled with her panties still in them. As if sensing the magic of their time together slipping away, Gio said,

“I hope you don’t regret anything. I certainly don’t. What happened here was amazing. I mean it.”

“Yea. It was really nice. Intense. It was intense,” she said avoiding his stare.

“So, you wanna go get breakfast?” he asked.

"Uhm, I don't know. What time is it?" She reached for her jeans and pulled her phone out of one of the back pockets. “I might have to be heading home soon.”

“Are you sure? I mean I don’t want to make you feel obligated or anything, it’s just I’m probably heading back east tonight or tomorrow and, you know, it would be nice to share a meal.”

“Wait. Didn’t you mention something last night about just getting back from New York?” She sat next to him on the bed.

 “My father’s sick. He got sick after I left yesterday and now I got to go back. He had a stroke,” he said.

"Oh wow. So sorry to hear that," she said. "Was he alright when you left?"

Gio’s brows furrowed and he squinted his eyes.

“You don’t have to talk about this. I’m being nosy,” she said.

"No, it's okay. I want to talk about it. I think I need to talk about it." And he did.

He shared that his earliest memory of his father was seeing him behind a fiberglass window while Gio was in his mother’s arms, how when he was five his father drilled into his head that crying was exclusively for women, of how he made him destroy one of his closest high school friends with fists and kicks after finding out the friend had stolen one of his father’s gold chains. The beating was supposed to serve as proof Gio was not an accomplice and that he was willing to defend his family’s honor. He shared how his father was a man who had barely spoken to him in twenty-five years other than to ask for money, drugs or to make him feel guilty when he had neither. He told her how even now, as an old man his father would go to the projects on 110th and Lexington, hobbling in arthritic pain, to cop a ten or a twenty-dollar bag of cocaine almost every other day. He told her he loved his father, and that he may have killed him.

"Damn," she said, eyes bulging. "That's one hell of a story,"
she said holding his hand.

“Yea, huh?”

"He's not dead, though. You didn't kill him."

“I know. But if he doesn’t recover from this stroke, I might as well have.”

“Well, not for nothing but he’s a grown ass man.” She said. She must have noticed that, though she was right, that was probably not what Gio needed to hear right then.

“You told me last night that you liked to write,” she said.

“You remember that, huh?” Gio’s face showed surprise and appreciation.

“ I think you should write about this. Your dad sounds like quite the character.”

"I tried once in my twenties. I got the majestic idea of interviewing him and getting his story down for posterity, for his grandchildren's sake, is how I put the proposition. I really thought it would be something I could share with my own kids, someday. I wrote out the questions, had my phone ready to record and everything. ‘Fuck you’, he said. ‘My story’s going with me to my grave.’ He told me if I really wanted him to open up, I’d have to break night with him and spring for at least an eight ball and a couple of liters of Bacardi.”

“You should do it anyway. It sounds like you two have a very interesting relationship.”

They fell silent again.

“So, do you have any kids?” she asked, finally.

Gloria was the last woman Gio had impregnated. She wanted to keep their baby. He begged her not to, and had gone off on a polished tangent about not wanting to bring children into a world being murdered slowly by the selfish inhabitants in it. He did his best to believe he had gotten through to her when she reluctantly agreed to remove the life growing inside of her, tears streaming down her sullen face so he knew better. He had shown up late to Planned Parenthood and remembered the look on Gloria’s face. She blamed his father then, too, even in the sterile waiting room, calling Gio on his save the earth bullshit. 

“No,” he said.

The sound of Gio’s phone startled them and they looked at one another. Gio took her hand and pulled her back into bed with him. She didn’t resist.




[1] stupid

[2] put horns on me (an expression meaning being cheated on)

[3] “They can all go to hell!”

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