Benny’s laughing now, he’s got that turning red look, a Newport to his lips, but it’s not lit yet. We’re all sunshine smiles, beautiful day uptown, just clean and bright and blue, no clouds. We’re talking to Joey, one of those cats that knew Benny from back then, back when niggas used to call him Bingo. Joey just came in from Florida. He’s dressed in turquoise to match the sky, Dolphins cap, Dan Marino jersey, black pants, and he says, "I hate the fucking Bronx," laughing a little so we laugh too, waving his arms around him like a helicopter, not pointing at any one thing, but at all of it. "Look at this shit," he says. I don’t see much except the sameness of it, the buildings that lean against one another, ashy and brick. I grew up around the corner. I work at the shop right here on Southern. We lean back against the wall. One step towards the center of the street and the sunlight is cloudy and cut by the shadows of the tracks above. A five train runs over and it’s quiet, noise swallowing noise. For a moment, Benny doesn’t talk and Joey doesn’t talk and I don’t either. We stare at each other and step towards the wall, catching clear sun like we’re gasping for air.
Joey touches the cross on his gold chain, rubbing it softly. He has stubby blackish fingers, oil ground into the skin. The train passes, life begins again. "Shit Bingo, how ya been?" he says for the hundredth time.
I’m on the outside of this one, I can tell. These two have stories that go back forever, lives and memories woven and inseparable. They’ve seen blood together, got laid together. Shit they won’t admit to themselves, the other knows. They look at each other deep, for someone else lurking in the deep black behind their eyes. I’m not even here for them. They haven’t seen each other in ten years.
"Same shit, Jojo, you know how it is. Working. Making do." He lights his cigarette. Blue smoke disappears into the sky.
Joey has a recycling thing going on down there in Florida. Car parts and metals and shit. He smells of aluminum, he says, so at nights he goes swimming to wash off the stench. "The condo’s got a pool, you know."
Benny nods and looks away.
"So when you moving down? I heard your son was in Orlando," Joey says.
At the mention of his son, Benny breaks into a smile. "Been down there two years. Got married and everything."
"Yeah." Benny grins. "Flying," he says, the word slipping out like a prayer. It’s one of those words that means something. "He’s a pilot. Makes good money."
He says nothing about himself.
Joey is bronzed and tan, looking like he eats mangoes by the poolside. His belly pushes at the seams of his football jersey. He pats it with his left hand now and again to remind us that life is good. They play catch up: who got caught doing what, who got divorced, who had a kid, who died, whose moms moved back to San Juan. Old-timer shit. Who died. They keep coming back to it. It’s a long list. My people haven’t started dying yet, not really. Benny’s have been dying for years. He’s fifty-three.
"I’m sorry about Marco, Bing. That shit was terrible."
"You heard about it?"
"He deserved better than that," Joey says. Benny sighs.
A mother calls out a grocery list to her son on the street. Her voice is ragged and tired. It sounds like a train. Then another one comes, and in the thick quiet of it, Benny and Joey hug and exchange promises. Joey jots his phone number down on the back of a receipt. Benny looks at it for a second and slides it into his pocket. "Yeah," he shouts, yelling against the train, "and you know where to find me."
Be safe, they say, and say hi to your moms for me. Their smiles are banners and they grip each other at the bicep, warmly. They don’t talk to their moms though. At least Benny doesn’t, hasn’t since Marco died. And the smile he wears is hurtful, like the sun when you stare. Jojo walks up Southern, turns on Prospect and is gone.
Then the train leaves and the street is loud again. Benny squints against the bright blue of the sky. We step back into the shop, just the two of us, and it feels empty. It’s like Joey was never here.
You can read Florida in its entirety in the premiere issue of Swink.