by Ric Rodriguez
This was the day everyone had been warning Rico about for years. Pay the piper day. Put up or shut up day. All out of luck day. He owed $44,000 -- more money than he had ever made in a single year -- and there wasn’t one person who would help him. His sister had no money. His mother had stopped bailing him out last summer. His best friend Paul, who Rico had known since they had gone to Jefferson High School together, had given up on him years ago. Even the few loan sharks that operated in Elizabeth and Newark wouldn't help him. They all knew that Rico only borrowed money to pay off other debts. And despite what you see in the movies, these men can be as discriminating as a bank.
Ironically, Rico had never wagered a single cent until he was in his mid twenties. His life had been like anyone else’s until the day that Paul asked him to go to the track with him. It was supposed to be innocent fun, and Paul himself didn't have a problem -- he worshiped money too much. A little alcohol and the chance of big earnings was all it took. By the end of that night, Rico was hooked for life.
There was no use calling Frankie Q for an extension. Q, as he was called by those who knew him, had already given him three weeks. In that time, Rico had paid none of the balance. Q wasn't the kind of hoodlum to do this to. He was insecure. The kind of guy who always thought people were laughing at him. The kind of guy who turned his feelings of inadequacy into violence.
“Hello?” Rico answered his phone.
“I'll be by tonight,” Benny said. He was the bookie who had taken Rico's recent disastrous bets. “You have it, right?”
“Well . . .”
“God, Rico,” Benny said. “I've been keeping Q at bay for three weeks. I told him you'd pay tonight. You're making me look bad.”
“I know,” Rico said.
“Do you have anything?” Benny asked. “He’s got to know that you’re at least trying to pay.”
“I have about forty dollars,” Rico said.
“Is that supposed to be a joke?” Benny asked. “Because if it is, it’s not a very funny one.”
“No,” Rico said.
“What happens now?” Rico asked. He already knew what the answer would be. They would probably use electricity on him. Maybe they would chop off a couple of his fingers. They wouldn’t break his legs, though -- that would keep him from making the money to pay them back.
“I think he’s going to kill you,” Benny said.
“What?” Rico asked, astonished and horrified. “He can’t do that. It’s only been three weeks.”
“It’s a lot of money, Rico.”
“But’s only been three weeks!”
“He knows you can’t pay it back,” Benny said.
“I’ll pay him a couple of hundred a week,” Rico said.
“Yeah,” Benny replied. “And we’ll all be dead before you pay back the balance. Face it, buddy. You got in over your head.”
“So that’s it?” Rico asked. “I’m a dead man. There’s no hope?”
“There’s always hope,” Benny answered. “Maybe you’ll get him in a good mood. It probably won’t hurt if you beg a little . . .”
“Can you give me a bet?” Rico asked. He knew it was crazy, but he was falling back on what all gamblers fall back on -- the hope that the next one will make everything all right.
“What?” Benny asked. He sounded shocked, but not surprised.
“I've got a good feeling about Miami tonight,” Rico said. “Put enough on so that we'll be even if I win.”
“And if you don't?” Benny asked.
“I’m dead anyway,” Rico said. “You said it yourself.”
“It’s your life,” Benny said. “But if you lose . . .”
“I know,” Rico said. “I won’t even bother to beg.”
* * *
Rico watched the Miami game in an Elizabeth Avenue strip bar. By half-time, it was obvious that Miami would be taking their worst loss of the season. Rico hung in there anyway, drinking beer after beer. By the time the game was over, he was pretty well gone. And so was Miami.
“Another one?” the bartender asked.
“Yeah,” Rico said. He didn’t usually drink this much, but it didn’t matter to him now. Whatever slim chance of survival he had had in the afternoon was now gone. He had only two options now: go home and die like a man, or run.
Two beers later, Benny sat down next to him. He wasn’t smiling. “I heard you were over here.”
“You know I don’t have any money,” Rico said.
“Yeah, I know,” Benny said.
“How’s Q?” Rico asked.
“He’s got the word out,” Benny replied. “You’re not to leave town. He’s going to stop off at your place tomorrow morning.”
“So you came here to tell me I’m a dead man?” Rico asked. “I already know.”
“No,” Benny said. “I came to let you know that you better be there. And that you’ve got one last night to enjoy yourself.”
“I appreciate it.”
“You knew it was going to end this way, didn’t you?”
“Eventually,” Rico said. He thought of the times he had had enough money to retire on. It hadn’t happened often, but often enough. Each time, he had gambled it all away. “Maybe this is what I wanted all along.”
“Well,” Benny said. “Welcome to your fate.”
Rico didn’t even notice Benny walk out. He had another drink, then noticed a familiar face on the other side of the bar. He wasn’t sure where he knew this man from, but it didn’t take much of an imagination to assume that it was one of Q’s men. Rico was being watched, in case he wanted to leave town.
Rico walked out of the strip bar, then wandered up Elizabeth Avenue. He had no destination. All he knew was that he wasn’t going home. Benny told him he’d be safe until morning, but Rico suspected that it had been a ploy to make him feel comfortable and easier to pick up. He turned around and saw the man from the strip bar behind him.
“What do you want?” Rico called out.
“I’m just walking, man,” the man said.
Rico put his hand into the back of his jacket, pretending to have a gun in the small of his back. “Keep walking,” Rico said.
“That’s what I’m doing,” the man said. He continued up Elizabeth Avenue.
Rico turned onto a side street. He needed to duck into a place where he wouldn’t be recognized. Most stores were closed, and bars were out of the question -- he would be recognized. Then he saw a sign outside of a basement apartment: Fortunes Told.
“That’s it,” he said, then walked down the steps and in through the door. He was faced with a tiny foyer that had been made into a waiting room. There was only enough room for two chairs. Beyond the waiting room was a doorway with a curtain hanging in it.
“Hello?” Rico called out.
“Come in,” an ancient man’s voice called back.
Rico pulled the curtain to one side, then looked into a dingy room with just one overhanging light. A table was in its center. An old man was sitting behind it. He looked to be at least eighty. In the harsh lighting, he appeared to have no eyes -- only black holes. He was holding a deck of tarot cards in his left hand. “I’ve been waiting for you all night,” the old man said.
* * *
Rico pulled a ten out his wallet and set it on the table. “This is all I have.”
“That’s more than enough,” the old man said. “Have a seat.”
Rico sat down. The old man dealt the cards deliberately, then smiled. He looked up at Rico, but said nothing, as if waiting for Rico to speak first. “What do you see?” Rico asked.
“Nothing,” the old man answered.
“Aren’t you supposed to tell me my future?”
“You don’t have one,” the old man said. “You’re all out of future.”
“Yeah,” Rico said, not surprised. He lowered his head. He would be dead by this time tomorrow, but he didn’t know how to prepare himself for it. What did people who knew they were going to die do?
“Why did you come in here?” the old man asked.
“I have nowhere to go,” Rico answered.
“I think there’s a reason you came in here,” the old man said. “A very specific reason.”
Rico looked up at him. “Like what?”
“Do you believe in fate?” the old man asked.
“I don’t know,” Rico answered, “but you’re the second person who’s mentioned it to me tonight.”
“Do you believe in coincidences?” the old man asked.
“Yes,” Rico replied. He was tempted to add that all gamblers did, but decided not to.
“You’re here because you know that I can help you.”
“How can you help me?” Rico asked, then laughed. “You don’t know the kind of trouble I’m in.”
“Someone’s looking for you.”
“Yes,” Rico said.
“I know a place where no one will ever find you.”
“You don’t know these people!” Rico said. “They’ll find me no matter where I hide. I can’t even go to Bolivia.”
“This place is closer than Bolivia,” the old man said. “But no one will find you. I promise.”
Rico was sure that the old man was trying to pull a scam on him, but he didn’t care. He had nothing to lose. He had no money, no possessions, and no future. “What do I have to do?” Rico asked.
“You only need to be willing,” the old man said.
“Willing to do what?”
“To lose yourself,” the old man answered. He stood up, then walked through the doorway leading to the waiting room.
“I don’t know what that means,” Rico said. He heard the front door being locked. He suddenly felt afraid. He felt the desire to run.
The old man appeared at the doorway. “Are you willing to give up all that you own?”
“Yes,” Rico said. He wanted to laugh. He didn’t own anything. “It’s all yours.”
“Follow me,” the old man said. He walked past Rico and into a dark corner. He opened a door, then walked through the doorway. Rico could hear him going down a flight of stairs.
“Where are you going?” Rico asked. He got to his feet, then felt the alcohol weighing his body down. It was as if he was under water. He walked to the doorway, then looked down the stairs. The old man was at the foot of the steps, waiting. “What is this?”
“I can’t help you unless you want to be helped,” the old man said. He moved out of Rico’s sight.
“I want to be helped,” Rico said. He went down the stairs. They led him to a dark basement room. He turned and saw a door. There was a strange yellow light seeping out from beneath it. Again, Rico felt the urge to run. Instead, he walked to the door and opened it. Beyond it was another, smaller room. It was illuminated by five yellow candles. They were on the floor, spaced equally apart. A chair was in the center. The old man was standing in a corner, next to the one piece of furniture that was in the room -- an old cabinet.
“Please sit down,” the old man said, then pointed at the chair.
“What is this?”
“This is the ceremony,” the old man said.
“Ceremony,” Rico repeated. He sat down, then chuckled. “Is this some kind of Satanic thing?”
“Of course not,” the old man said. He turned away from Rico and opened a drawer of the cabinet.
“That’s a relief,” Rico said, joking.
The old man turned around. He was holding a bronze cup in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. He walked up to Rico and handed him the cup. It was filled with a liquid that looked red in the dim light.
“What is this?” Rico asked.
“Silence,” the old man said. He reached toward Rico with the scissors, then cut off a lock of his hair. “Wait here.”
“Whatever you say,” Rico answered. He glanced at the door and considered walking out. Something inside him told him that that was right thing to do. But for some reason, he remained seated. Maybe it was his curiosity. Maybe it was the alcohol. Maybe even fate.
“We’re almost done,” the old man said as he approached him again. Now he had a small bag in his hand. He walked around the chair, sprinkling powder on the floor. As he did this, he mumbled something that Rico could barely hear. It didn’t sound like English to him. After finishing the powder circle, the old man stepped back. “Now, drink up.”
“Okay,” Rico said, then he took a sip from the cup. The liquid tasted like some kind of berry drink. It was delicious. Rico downed it all in three gulps. “Now what?”
“Now, you go home,” the old man said.
“When you wake up,” the old man said, “your problems will be gone.”
Rico suddenly felt something awful inside him. It was as if his insides had been violated. He jumped to his feet, knocking the chair over. “What did you do to me?”
“I’ve given you your freedom,” the old man said.
“That’s not how it feels,” Rico said. “I feel . . .”
The old man began to laugh.
“Go to hell!” Rico said, then pushed him out of the way. The old man fell to the floor, into a dark corner. Rico thought he heard a crack, but he didn’t care. He ripped open the door, then headed for the stairs. Behind him, the old man continued to laugh. “Shut up!” Rico screamed.
“It is accomplished!” the old man yelled while continuing to laugh.
As soon as Rico was back in the street, the whole incident felt like it had been a strange dream. He headed toward his apartment. There was no use running, he decided. He was too drunk and would only make a fool out of himself. It was better to go home and die like a man.
The walk home was strange. Rico didn’t feel like himself. His body was achy. His clothes didn’t seem to fit him anymore. It was as if that old man had put some kind of hex on him. Rico had half a mind to go back and beat him to death. It was the perfect time to do something like that, since he had already been sentenced to die, but he was too tired to go back. He only wanted a good night’s sleep.
Ten minutes later, Rico got into bed and closed his eyes. Surprisingly, he went right to sleep. It was as if he wasn’t going to be killed tomorrow.
* * *
The room was pitch black. Rico didn’t know what time it was, but it felt like the middle of the night. The only thing he knew for sure was that he had to piss. He sat up in his bed, then suddenly realized that he didn’t know where the door was.
“That was some sleep,” he said. He sat there, hoping it would come back to him. It didn’t, though. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t picture the room. He didn’t know where the light was, nor what furniture was in the room.
Rico got to his feet, then began to walk. He figured that he would hit a wall, then move along it until he found a light switch. After just two steps, his hand pushed against a wall -- but it was soft and rubbery. He yanked his arm back, repulsed.
“What is this?” Rico asked. He immediately realized that the room had no acoustics that he could hear. There was not a hint of echo. This was not his apartment. Rico began to panic. He pressed his hand back up against the wall, then walked along it. After just three steps, he found a corner. Then he came to a door. It, too, was rubber. There was a small window in its center, but no light was coming through it.
“Let me out of here!” Rico screamed. The sound of his voice died again, absorbed by the walls. He didn’t understand how he could have been taken in the middle of the night without remembering a thing. And then it came to him: the old man had drugged him. And now he was in some sort of cell.
Rico rammed his shoulder against the door. It did not even budge. Rico bounced back, then lost his balance and fell to the floor. It, too, was rubbery. It was then that he realized that he was in the kind of room where mental patients were kept. This was a rubber room.
“Help me!” he yelled. He was now in a full panic. He had to get out. Rico punched the walls and screamed. After a few minutes of this, his knuckles were soar and his voice was gone. He sat down in a corner, resigned and defeated. Within a few minutes, he was asleep.
Sometime later, the door opened. Rico woke up and saw a large man staring in from the doorway. He was wearing the white clothes of an orderly. For some reason, Rico knew that the man’s name was Deon. “Hello, Deon,” he said.
“Hello, John,” Deon said. “How was your sleep?”
“I had a weird dream,” Rico said. He didn’t remember much of it, except that he had been axing a woman into pieces. Thinking of it now, it made him shutter. Then he began to feel more alert. “Why did you call me John?”
“No reason,” Deon said. “Except it’s your name.”
“Oh,” Rico said. He leaned forward and looked out through the doorway. He saw a hospital hallway. A couple of patients were walking around. A nurse was pushing a cart. “How did I get here. Deon?”
“Oh boy,” Deon said. “They really shot you up, man. You think you’re ready to come out?”
“Yes,” Rico said.
“You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?” Deon asked.
“Of course not,” Rico said. He thought the idea was ridiculous, since he was barely over five feet tall and Deon was almost the size of the doorway.
“Good,” Deon said, then helped Rico to his feet. When Rico stood up, he was shocked to see that he was as tall as Deon. Deon must’ve noticed his expression change. “What’s wrong?”
“Why are the doorways so short?” Rico asked.
Deon laughed. “Man, you are a character.”
Rico followed Deon out of the room, then down the hall. He glanced through the doorways he passed. Each room was occupied by a mental patient. “Is this Elizabeth General?”
“Elizabeth General?” Deon asked. “What happened to you in that room, anyway? Did you catch yourself a case of amnesia?”
“I think so,” Rico said. “Where am I?”
“This is Marlboro Hospital,” Deon said.
“That’s a mental hospital,” Rico said.
“I noticed,” Deon replied.
“How long have I been here?”
“A few weeks,” Deon said.
“A few weeks?” Rico asked. He didn’t understand what was happening. Either this was an elaborate scam, and there were many people in on it, or he had been drugged for weeks, maybe months. He didn’t think that was possible. He would have remembered something about it.
Deon led Rico into a room that had two beds. A large fat man was sitting on the bed on the left. He was swatting at something in front of his face -- something that wasn’t there. He didn’t seem to notice that Deon and Rico were in the room with him. The other bed was empty.
“Welcome home,” Deon said.
“What’s the date?” Rico asked.
“December 6th, I think,” Deon said.
It was the date Rico had expected it to be. He turned to Deon and tried to read his expression. “How much are you being paid?”
“My salary isn’t your business, John.”
“Stop calling me John,” Rico said. “My name is Rico Carnero. Enrico Carnero.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Listen to me, Deon,” Rico said. “I know I haven’t been here for weeks. I was brought here last night. I never saw you before today.”
“Then how do you know my name?” Deon asked.
“I don’t know,” Rico answered.
“Don’t get all excited,” Deon said. “You don’t want to end up back in the quiet room, do you?”
“No,” Rico said.
“Then why don’t you get some rest?” Deon asked, then motioned toward the bed. “I’ll see you around.”
Rico watched Deon walk out. He turned toward his room mate. He was still swatting at the imaginary fly -- still unaware that he wasn’t alone. Rico sat on the bed, then looked around at the room. The place seemed vaguely familiar to him. He noticed a bare night table next to the bed. He reached to open the drawer, but stopped when he noticed an unfamiliar scar on the top of his hand. He brought his hand up to his face. It was thick and meaty, unlike the bony hand he had seen for his entire life.
“What the hell is going on here?” Rico asked. He looked down at his chest, which didn’t look like his. He pulled up his shirt and saw a pot belly that he had never had. The hair on his chest was brown, not the black that it had always been. “What’s happening?”
Rico jumped to his feet, then went to the doorway. He looked out into the hall. Deon was approaching him. He looked fed up. “What is it now?”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Rico said.
“You don’t remember where it is?” Deon asked.
“No,” Rico said.
“I’ll show you,” Deon said, then walked him down the hall. He opened a door, then led Rico into a large bathroom with open stalls. “Here it is.”
Rico rushed past Deon, to one of the mirrors on the wall. He looked into it. The man staring back at him was at least ten years older than Rico. He had reddish hair, shaved close to the scalp. His eyes were brown. He looked to be of Irish descent.
“What’s with you today?” Deon asked.
“Something terrible happened to me,” Rico said. He thought of the ceremony he had been through last night. He remembered the strange way he had felt on the way home. How it seemed that his clothes didn’t fit him. “What am I going to do?”
“You look fine,” Deon said.
“What’s my last name?” Rico asked.
“McGuire,” Deon said. “Your name is John McGuire.”
“John McGuire,” Rico repeated. The name was familiar, but only vaguely. He knew it just like he had known Deon’s name and the room he was now residing in. He turned to Deon. “Why am I in here?”
“You murdered your wife and your kids,” Deon said.
* * *
That night, Rico found himself remembering some of the details of the murders. They came to him in pictures, just like real memory. He remembered seeing his wife, Joanne McGuire and his two children, John Junior and Cynthia, lying dead on the living room floor. He remembered going at them with an axe, then throwing the pieces into the fire place.
“What’s happening to me?” Rico whispered. He tried to fall asleep, but more images kept coming to him. Memories of a childhood in Brooklyn that he hadn’t actually had. Memories of college. Memories of working on Wall Street. Memories of when he had first met Joanne.
The next day, Rico asked to speak to the staff psychologist. They met in the doctor’s office. Rico told him the entire story, but the doctor smirked through all of it.
“You think this is a joke,” Rico said.
“No,” the doctor replied, but he continued to smirk.
Later that afternoon, Rico noticed something horrible. Though he now seemed to know quite a bit about John McGuire’s past, he was finding it difficult to remember his own. He knew that he had spent four years in Jefferson High School, but the memories of it didn’t come to him. Instead, his mind remembered a high school in Brooklyn that Rico was sure he had never even seen.
“I’m losing myself,” Rico said. He wondered how far this would go, and if he would get to a point where he would no longer remember that he had once been Rico Carnero. Would he actually lose himself to John McGuire? And if so, what would remain? His soul?
Rico spent the rest of the afternoon writing letters to his mother, to his friend Paul, and to his sister. He put in as many details from his past as he could remember. Anything to convince them that it was he who was inside John McGuire’s body.
Days passed as Rico waited for a reply. He got to know Deon during this time. Eventually, he told Deon his story. Unlike the staff psychologist, Deon seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt. “If this is true,” he asked, “then explain one thing to me.”
“What happened to Rico?”
“But what happened to your body?”
“I don’t know,” Rico said.
“Did it just disappear?”
“No,” Rico said, and then the answer came to him. If his soul had moved into McGuire’s body, then the opposite had also probably happened. McGuire was inhabiting Rico’s body. “McGuire’s using it.”
“But how could you ever prove that?” Deon asked.
“I can’t,” Rico answered. He sat on his bed and looked down at the floor. For the first time, he saw the enormity of what he had done. And worse, the irreversibility of it. As far as he knew, this was not something that could be undone. Because he had been at death’s door, and willing to do anything to get away from it, he had thrown his soul away. He had traded fates with another man. And in a strange way, his life was as finished as when this had all begun. The only difference was that he no longer had hours to live. No, now he had an entire lifetime to live out–only it was someone else’s lifetime. And it was to be in a madhouse.
The next day, a letter came. It wasn’t from any of the people he had written to.
Dear Mr. McGuire,
Please stop writing to my family and friends. I don’t know where you got all the details of my life, but you’ve only succeeded in upsetting my mother and sister. I don’t know how you expected them to believe that I’m in some mental hospital when I am in fact alive and well. And for your information, I’m no longer the person you described me as. The gambling debt that you alluded to in your letters (again, I don’t know how you knew about this) has been paid off. I’ve used some money that I had stashed away to go to college, and I’m doing better than anyone expected. It seems that I’m a natural at business and investments. So unless you want some financial advice, I trust that I’ll never hear from you again.
* * *
The next day, Deon walked into the room. “Guess where I went yesterday?”
“I have no idea.”
“I took a trip to Elizabeth,” Deon said. “I went to the place you said you used to live at. And guess who was there.”
“Rico Carnero,” Deon said. “And you know what? He knew me. I could see it in his eyes. He didn’t want to talk to me, though. He was in the middle of moving his stuff out. He’s moving somewhere.”
“Rico Carnero, you said?”
“Yeah,” Deon said. “What’s with you?”
“That name sounds familiar to me,” John McGuire said. He had the vague memory of a short, skinny dark skinned man with that name, but he didn’t know where he knew him from. It was like the memory of a dream.
“It should,” Deon said. “For two weeks, you’ve been telling me that you’re Rico Carnero.”
“That’s ridiculous,” John said. “My name is John McGuire. Listen, the court may have said that I’m criminally insane, but I know who I am.”
“Yeah,” Deon said. For some reason that John didn’t understand, he looked said. “I guess you do.”
“Still,” John said. “That name does sound familiar. It’s like I knew him in a different life.”
# # # #
Connect with the author at:
His web site: www.ricrodriguez.com