Emperor Crush had once been a fat little boy named Moises in the fifth grade at Sacred Heart School, between Mount Pleasant Street and Park Road and also Sixteenth and Park. He and Charlotta had played in the Mount Pleasant soccer League together, both the yellow team, the best team. Every Saturday, for hours on la polvosa, the little kids played dusty soccer while their parents shouted and watched. Vietnamese children, Haitian kids, children from El Salvador, from the Dominican Republic, from the Philippines, black kids, white kids, kids from everywhere liked to play. Mostly, those playing fútbol were Latino with a few of the others on one team or the other. It was how the neighborhood worked out. The coaches coached in English, or they could, but they were happier and proud to shout directions in Spanish.
Charlotta and Moises were both fullbacks and they were both good. Once, Moi threw himself almost at a goal post, to stop the ball from getting in. The coach yelled, “Cuidense!” and, “Idiota!” for which he later apologized to Mrs.Romero, regarding the boy’s safety and his facilitating a goal by that same act, because causing a handball so near to the goal meant the other team, from Adams Morgan, was going to put the ball back into play much closer to the Mount Pleasant goalie. Charlotta was the only girl on the yellow team, always was. After a scuffle to rearrange themselves after the ball was kicked in, one that the referees either didn’t see or didn’t say anything about, Charlotta raced ahead, got the ball to herself, and kicked it as hard as she could while screaming something—anything—as loud as she could to all of the boys charging down that side of the field. She might learn later on that blindly kicking the ball away from the boys wasn’t the best strategy, but it was some kind of start. The parents inside the wire fence and the neighbors leaning on it from the outside unhooked their fingers and laughed with amazement.
Mrs. Romero ran along the field, waving the girl over. In halting English, more hastened and difficult for her now that she was excited, “No, when you kick the ball… you pass it. But, wow. You go, very good, girl!”
Charlotta was angry and embarrassed, returned the hug and kept running. Every Saturday after practice,
Mrs. Romero walked her son and their neighbor Charlotta back down Irving Street from la polvosa. “You kids are so good… díle.”
Now Moi was the one embarrassed, for having to translate for his mother. “Earlier, she saw you screaming and said you were good.”
“I know that—”
“But to pass the ball instead, and kick more with your laces next time, to lift it. The ball.”
“Entiende.” She tried.
“No, that’s not really how you say it…” and now Moi was helping Charlotta with Spanish also. She wasn’t able to learn it in school, everybody already spoke it anyways.
And then, when they were far older, he living in Maryland and Charlotta also graduated from college but stuck at home with her parents, the two of them found themselves going down Irving Street again.
They’d come from the Columbia Heights Metro station together and were walking up to Don Juan’s restaurant. Both had just been to a DC United game across town, and had seen the half tennis court-half baseball field behind them where la polvosa used to be. A smaller version was backed even further from that another street behind, where the old Bell Multicultural school had been. Not one stone of the old building remained.
“No me importa esas cosas… Es evidente que—” Charlotta cut herself off. “Look, I just feel like an idiot.
That guy started speaking Spanish to me, really fast on purpose. We were having a fine conversation, I was doing really well, and then he goes and does that on purpose to try and trip me up. But, I’m from Mount Pleasant.”
“Right, but you’re not Latino. I’m not Latino, I don’t feel like it… I’m Spanish and Salvadorean, but it never felt right. Mom raised us, but on paella and then we’d watch Shin Chan in the summers, down in Andalucía… It’s weird, I don’t know, but it’s just the way things are.”
“But you get to pass, Moi.”
Charlotta became frustrated, “I dunno what I’m even saying—like, light skinned black people used to pass as white… a lot of times, and there are black people in Central and South America, but then I go to get some damned shoes fixed and he talks to me like I’ve got no right. I played soccer with you, I went to the same church as you, everyone in our class, everyone in the neighborhood speaking Spanish, but I’ve got no right?”
“Where was this again? The one in Mount Pleasant?” And they were walking passed Leon’s Shoe repair now.
“No, it was the one in Union Station.”
“Why did you go all the way over there?”
“It’s close to my job… so, okay, I really went because I’ve never been into Leon’s and I didn’t want to… well, I’m not really fluent yet.”
“Get fluent, then, and you’ll stop having these problems. You can do it. Why don’t you think you can do it?
And avoiding Leon’s that’s just wrong, Charlotta. I thought you were in Spain too, years after Sofí and
I were, right? That’s where you discovered Shin Chan.” And Moi made the funny anime character’s boyish laugh. Charlotta could not be brought out of her gray thoughts.
“I think I’m bicultural or something, Moi, but I can’t say it—no one will believe me. And I don’t feel comfortable living anywhere else but here, in Mount Pleasant. If I can’t hear Spanish all the time, if I can’t shop at Bestway…”
“Bestworld.” He corrected her, and Charlotta pushed him, almost back into the street once they got on the corner of Irving and Park where Don Juan’s Salvadorean and Mexican restaurant was.
“To me, it will always be Bestway.”
“I know, me too.”
“But what do you call that? What in the world do you call that… I’m black but I also have this other side I love… both are me. I’m worried because I have a date with this guy I met at the bus stop…”
“Yeah…” she smiled, “I finally asked him. I think he was just dating that other girl I saw him kissing or whatever, she’s not his girlfriend or anything.”
“Whatever. Let’s go inside. We’ll talk about your weird life and how you think too much in there. Y mira—I want to get that platter you got the last time, los chicharrones…”
“Moi—” she blocked his way in.
“Look, Charlotta. I don’t like this guy, but if you’re so worried about it—he’s probably going to be fine with it, with you, if he lives in the neighborhood too. You said he likes Mount Pleasant, so what are you doing to yourself? Plus, it’s just a first date.”
“I’m not doing it… he’s from New England. He’s really hot, I’ve never dated anyone so hot before, and he’s handsome…”
“Same as hot, Charlotta.”
“He’s Asian. I think he’s Korean. But maybe I’m the one who has too much going on…?”
“You think? Oh God… Anyways, so what? He’ll be like any other guy… and you’re just dating him, unless you think he’s gonna propose? Oh my God, what color dress should I wear, and I better go over to England to get my shoes fixed this time, because I’m afraid to try speaking Spanish in Mount Pleasant or even in Union Station even though I’m bicultural.” All this, in a girl’s voice. And, he sort of sounded a bit like that anime character they loved together too.
“Stop. People speak Spanish in England, Moi.”
“Order some pupusas so I can steal them off your plate.”
“Can you believe people are starting to wear heeled shoes, so they can walk on their toes like those deer?”
“I heard Obama’s even doing it. He wants antlers also but they won’t let him.”
They sat down inside. Don Juan’s had murals of beautiful Latina women, three in tangas (they counted) who were relaxing in the even more beautiful country side, making tortillas, grilling the sort of food they were about to eat.
“Moi? Are you going to that protest next Sunday? It’ll be here, in Mount Pleasant.”
“Really? Didn’t they learn from the riots? I mean, have another potentially dangerous language barrier thing here? And, with those deer?”
Moi hadn’t been wrong. Moi knew exactly what to be wary of, where not to stand when the neighbors and the deer people started shouting, and the police car got tipped over. Moi had known exactly which way to run when the DC police tried, but could not stop the fighting between the people bucking their antlered heads on all fours, and the Mount Pleasanters raising up bottles, breaking sticks down off the skinny little sidewalk trees, brooms, anything.
Moi laughed through his slanted teeth after aiming at one of the deer with a beebee gun.
Charlotta, “What is wrong with you, idiota! Y cuidénse… Shit, the police…”
“I was protecting that kid, a deer was coming right for him. I’m not afraid. Come on, Charlotta.”
But Charlotta had run. Moi was arrested, Charlotta assumed, because she did not see him again. She was afraid to answer Sofi’s messages when she called.
Mike sat on a log next to the angry-faced black girl, guns leaned on either side of them, hand stroking her back. “De… colores…” he sang.
“Oh God, stop.”
“De colores se vista en los campos en la primavera…”
“Oh my God…” she started laughing.
“… y los pollitos, con su pio, pio, pio, pio, pio, pio, pi…”
“Pio pa.” she corrected.
“Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores les gustan a mi.”
And she, “Y por eso, los grandes amores de muchos colores les gustan a mi.”
“You won’t be so hungry after we shoot that deer. And then, you’ll feel better. For two reasons.”
Mike looked at Charlotta. She was watching him, but he didn’t care. He saw his hand pushing at her back, the very real, warm beating brown disappearing beneath his pale hand. “My mother knows about us. It was the same night you called me a Viking.”
“I’m so sorry I called you that. And I’m sorry I made you so upset that you went ahead before it was right to introduce us.”
“It’s okay.” Mike shrugged. “She was going to find out anyway. My mother did not have a lot of nice things to say about a woman she barely knew…” he left out what else, “and who made her son as upset as you did.”
“Shit, I’m so sorry. Even if we do get out of here, and the deer, what’s going to be left for us?”
“My mother should have seen it coming, though. Most of my friends down here are Latino, they speak Spanish. You aren’t the first black woman I’ve wanted… and a black woman who speaks Spanish because she grew up in Mount Pleasant and wanted to try… she tells off a Korean guy who speaks Spanish because all his friends grew up in Mount Pleasant, and he wanted to try to understand… I was so turned on. You were terrified weren’t you?”
“I was obsessed.”
“There were talking deer in the neighborhood, it was hard not to be. Things changing so fast… and those deer did not want to learn to speak Spanish.”
“Mike,” Charlotta sat up when he did, to have a sudden look around. Both of them put hands near their guns. Then, he gestured an all-clear, and they want back to resting, “My father once told me that, though there are natives, a lot of the people in Mount Pleasant, maybe most of them, aren’t Pleasanters because they were born and bred… rather than passing the experience down by blood, it’s been passed down by sweat. People who work and protested to keep the neighborhood safe, people who see me running down the street in my hoodie and try not to cross the street though they look like they’re going to. They say hello instead.”
“God, I can’t believe you put up with that.”
“Sweat, not blood.”
“And your parents aren’t from here, are they? I remember you told me that… so… I’m a native too.
Do you know what I mean?”
Charlotta thought about this.
“If it’s sweat and not blood. Then, I’m a native too. Like you. And our kids will be like you, with two parents who earned the right to be here. A dream realized… I do see it. That and a yard full of the thai basil you still owe me, querida.”
Charlotta did not want to repeat to Mike what he had just admitted to, about what she meant to him. She shivered instead.
“I can’t believe that we met on the H4 of all places. Why didn’t we meet on the street, or at Don Juan’s or anyplace else in Mount Pleasant?”
“Your friend Moi, Crush, whoever-the-hell, gave away the underground for a lot of our neighbors, and carried on a campaign, for weeks, to brainwash the rest. He’ll not be stopped by us having a reasonable lead. We should keep moving.”
But that choice no longer belonged to them. A man with antlers was standing several paces behind them.
Mike could not have smelled him nor seen his shadow, as Emperor Crush easily had done. It had only been a few months ago, but, downwind of them, Crush still smelled like spilled gasoline, tear gas, ripped grass from a scuffed up soccer field, the wet leather of the ball… a Mount Pleasant riot.
“And I thought one of you wanted to shoot me in the head, for betraying the neighborhood? Aquí estoy.”
1, Busdriver Marlin :: 2, The Quiet, Angry-Faced Girl :: 3, Love, After the Deer Apocalypse :: 4, Moises “Emperor Crush” Romero :: 5, Screaming in Spanish :: 6, His Hoodie :: 7, Amazonia :: 8, Behind the Waterfall :: 9, The Cricket Queen :: 10, Don Juan’s