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Midnight Mambo

My future daughter-in-law Janey told me exactly how it would go down and what to say. She’s been doing this for a while now, so she had this Nancy lady down pat, from the extra-extra smile to the cautious handshake to the little sing-song apologies dangling off each phrase. Everything went just like she said it would. The words felt awkward in my mouth, like pieces of food that’re too big to chew, and I thought that Nancy was on to me right up until she says, That sounds terrific, Mr. Cortinas.

You can call me Gordo, I say.

It’s called a non-profit but everyone at the office is obviously making a killing. The kids are called minority and emotionally challenged but there’s a lot more of them and they show a lot more emotions than the staff. It’s a care facility but the windows are barred. The list goes on and on, but still, I like my job. The building’s one of these old gothic type numbers on the not-yet-gentrified end of Lorimer. Used to be an opera house or something, so it’s still got all that good run-down music hall juju working for it. I show up at 9 PM on the dot, because Janey said my sloppy Cuban time won’t cut it here so just pretend I’m supposed to be in at eight and I’ll be alright. And it works.

They set up a little desk for me by a window on the fifth floor. Outside I can see the yard and past that a little park. I find that if I smoke my Malagueñas in the middle of the hallway, the smell lingers like an aloof one-night stand till the morning and I get a stern/apologetic talking to from Nancy and then a curse out from Janey. So I smoke out the window.

A little after midnight, the muertos show up. They’re always in their Sunday best, dressed to the nines, as they say, in pinstriped suits and fancy dresses. Some of them even have those crazy Spanish flamenco skirts on. They wear expensive hats and white gloves. While the children sleep, the dead gather around my little desk on the fifth floor foyer and carry on. Mostly they dance, but a few of them bring instruments: old wooden guitars and basses, tambores, trumpets.

It was four-thirty in the morning, two Thursdays ago, when I noticed the kids were joining our festivities. They mingled with the muertos like it was some pre-pubescent/post-mortem sleepover party. There was John Carlo showing two faded shrouds some new two step, and nearby a few dapper dead fellows demonstrated the jitterbug, marking each step so the young ones could follow. It was really very touching, right up until Nancy appeared in the doorway with her mouth wide open.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

She wanted to know the same thing, but she said it more forcefully and, really, what could I say back?

Outside, I took in the still dark morning. Newly unemployed, I felt strangely fresh. Soon it would be breakfast time. Small faces gazed through barred windows as I walked away. Perhaps they were watching the jaunty procession of shadows that followed in my wake.


Daniel José Older is an author and SCBWI member who has facilitated workshops on gender violence and racism at Ivy League universities, public schools, religious houses and prisons all over the east coast. His short stories have appeared in the anthology Sunshine/Noir (City Works Press, 2005), The Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (November issue), The Tide Pool (October issue) and as part of Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series in New York City. He has presented multimedia theater productions about New York history at venues around the city and regularly collaborate as a writer and composer with a number of nationally recognized choreographers, filmmakers, and puppeteers.


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