Under a Palm Tree by the Sea
When Patrick Dawson came to Puerto Rico in 2008 he didn’t know what to expect. In Boston he got a one-way ticket and flew down to look for Pedro, a Puerto Rican buddy from the last place he worked. It was winter and he’d heard about Puerto Rico and the cheap fares from other homeless addicts in the shelter on Massachusetts Avenue. He’d heard that many junkies would migrate south for the winter like birds in order to escape the cold. He’d also heard that many cities after making a sweep of the parks would offer people one-way tickets out of town anytime a big convention was slated and they needed to cut down on the homeless. Bad for tourism they said. A guy he knew went to the Keys but after an initial postcard never heard from him again. There were good stories and there were bad ones.
He was not originally from Boston but had slowly drifted south from Maine through a series of small towns and big after he escaped from the first Rehab Center his folks had sent him. Addicts usually stick to their towns, they know the dealers, the lay of the land, and what to expect from the cops who mostly went to school with them at one time or another. He knew all the homeless parks down the I-96 corridor as he progressed from oxycodone to cocaine, from there to crack and finally to the golden doors of meth. When things got too out of hand he’d detox and even reach a few steps of the twelve in some program before drifting out on the street and start all over again.
He’d been at it for most of his twenties to early thirties and when he finally reached Boston whatever teeth he had left had turned all the colors of the rainbow. He was a seasoned veteran by then and knew how to keep his addiction just this side of the grave. It was in Boston that he was able to clean himself enough at a local Rehab to get a job as a dishwasher in the restaurants. He knew the kitchens were rife with addicts like himself so he was never too far from it but he also knew that these places would hire him because they knew they could pay him off the books like all the Latino and African migrants he ran into there and work him to the bone. Addicts are used to abuse and their drug-addled bodies could work nonstop on fourteen and twenty hour shifts.
But a junkie is a junkie for life and work was a way to keep it in check, in control. Just pop one on his day off, eat well and monitor the color and smell of your piss and shit and you’re just fine. Work was fine, just fine, but it was where you live that was the poison pill. On his wages, Patrick could only afford a room in usually the worst part of town, where he was often the only white guy in a sea of brown or black. This often meant that he was a victim of shakedowns almost daily and beatings that left him unable to grab the knives in the kitchen where he had slowly worked up to be a line cook.
Then the recession hit Boston and one restaurant closed after another. They caught him freebasing in the alley outside the kitchen with Pedro and Marcos one night and the boss told them they could all go fuck themselves in the street. It was winter. And it was beastly cold. Pedro was from a little town on the island called Cataño, across the bay, Pedro told him, from the capital, San Juan, where a gringo like him could probably get a job as a chef and land a pretty local girl to boot. He told Pedro that he’d heard about guys going down there when it got to cold and how you could sleep anywhere shirtless and nobody would give you a hard time. Pedro told him that that was true, especially if you’re a white gringo with pretty teeth. Patrick was reaching his forties and one more winter in Boston was not something he looked forward to. He didn’t know if he could survive one more winter. Pedro told him that surely not and that what Patrick Dawson needed was to sit in the shade of a palm tree and bathe in the ocean and that after a few weeks they would both be fine and sitting pretty drinking coconut water and that because of his perfect English Patrick could well end up as a tourist guide and making a ton of cash. Patrick told Pedro that he had some money stored away and maybe it would be a good idea if they went out and scored some shit and go back to his place and plan it all out.
Patrick awoke to find his place was trashed and that Pedro had lit out early with practically all his cash. He went to his old Rehab Center for a referral to Social Services. Andy, his old counselor, vouched for him and he was able to get his severance pay from the restaurant. Patrick just did not have it in him to start all over again. He knew his old boss would blackball him from there to the next couple of towns. With his back pay he bought a ticket to San Juan. He knew that was crazy but maybe Pedro was telling the truth. Maybe what he needed was to see the world and what better place that winter to start than sunny Puerto Rico.
He had no proof but he just had the feeling that Pedro was in Puerto Rico living like a prince on his hard-earned cash. He knew from the globe in the public library that Puerto Rico was just a dot in the ocean, just a bit further down than Cuba. It seemed to him a small place. He thought, it was too small for Pedro to hide forever and where could Pedro possibly go on a dot in the middle of the ocean.
When the island came into view from his window, Patrick Dawson realized that the dot had blown up in size somewhat and saw that there were a lot of damn streets and concrete on the island that stretched as far as his eyes could see and a big blue and green ocean right out of a travel agency brochure. Every other person looked like Pedro as he walked through customs and when the heat finally hit him in the face it reminded Patrick of standing over the hot grill at his last job. When he asked the luggage guy where the beach was the man laughed and said it was everywhere. And when they told him the taxi fare to San Juan, where all the time he thought he was in San Juan, he almost experienced withdrawal symptoms. But when Patrick spied what looked to be a bus in the distance he slowly made his way to the stop. He got on a bus full of Pedro-looking guys and sat down to calm the growing panic in not understanding a word that was being spoken. He fished out the little Spanish he remembered from countless nights in the kitchen with the Mexican and Honduran crews and after a while a dude who looked more like Pedro than Pedro told him where he could find the Salvation Army in Old San Juan. He had been in Puerto Rico for more than two hours and had yet to see a beach or even the ocean. He saw it finally, greasy and black, on the docks of the old town as the bus reached its last stop. He smelled it first before he saw it and stayed looking out at the bay at a little town a guy standing next to him said was Cataño, Pedro, his Pedro’s hometown. He spent that night on an improvised cot in the Salvation Army and within a week had his own spot on a bench in a little plaza from where he sometimes spent the night looking over the city walls at Cataño.
After a month, not everybody looked like Pedro anymore, but he had carved out a spot to ask passerby for change, got to know the places where he could get free food, and got to know the local dealers for his occasional fix at a place called by the locals The Pearl overlooking the loveliest stretch of ocean he had ever seen. It was true what Pedro said about the coconut water and how soothing it was to lie beneath a palm tree, but not so true about a job. He looked like a junkie and no one would give him a job. Gringo tecato, they yelled at him, take your stinky ass down the street.
Patrick found that they had no homeless shelters like in Boston where you could sleep for the night and have a bowl of soup, maybe because they had no winter on the island, just places you could occasionally go and get a free change of clothes and a meal, a haircut and some medic would give you a look see. Otherwise, you were on your own. The dealers would joke with him, asking if he was the brother of Spider Man or of Donald Trump, who Patrick later found out was a New York millionaire with whom he had, according to the locals, an uncanny resemblance. His English proved useless since the local gringos hated and abhorred him with more vehemence than he had ever experienced on the mainland and everybody seemed to know a better version of English than his.
In time he met a few of the other tecatos with whom he shared the street and eventually got to know most all the local gringo bums like himself who had either come here like him or had fallen to the abyss from the local gringo bars or the passing ship. He had long abandoned ever finding Pedro and less finding a lovely local girl to pine after. What he was offered instead was to lower his trousers and bend over for a stiff one in the ass for maybe an extra speck of crack or suck off a local wino for a few quarters. He had not imagined the tropics to be so mean. But, in all other respects, they let him be.
It was Pedro who found him. “Patrick, maricón, what took you so long?” Patrick could not believe his ears. He had all but forgotten what Pedro even looked like but that voice, yes that voice, was unmistakable. Pedro took him to a bistro where he worked as a cook up on Tanca Street and introduced him as Chef Patrick, three star whiz of the most refined eats in Boston. He cooked him up some scrambled eggs with sausage. It was heaven. Later on the ferry to Cataño, Pedro told him he had left him a note telling him he was going on ahead to prepare for his arrival. “What happened, you crazy fairy cocksucker? I left you my mother’s phone to call. Been waiting for you for months. I tell everybody you’re coming, my maricón buddy Chef Patrick, and now I find you all shitty like a bum in the street. Good thing I find you, eh?”
It looked like Pedro had called up ahead because when Patrick and he arrived at his mother’s house the welcome party was in full swing. Pedro introduced him again as Chef Patrick, his maricón buddy chef from Boston, ready to fling crêpes suzettes at every motherfucker in San Juan. Patrick danced with Pedro’s sister who was as lovely as her brother was ugly and with all the neighbors who passed by to greet him. Patrick felt it was all too surreal. Pedro jokingly porked him in the ass and told everyone that Chef Patrick was his little chef bitch back in Boston. But Patrick felt that it was all in good fun because since he arrived on the island he had noticed that the island men loved to pork each other in the behind, it was something they called the chino, and also liked to grab your pecker and ask if you were hard. He’d gotten used to it.
Later that night, Pedro explained his strategy for inserting Patrick into the local restaurant scene over Patrick’s objections that maybe he was, as the local saying goes, stretching the gum too far. But Pedro would not have any of it.
In bed after the hot shower that would easily be, in his opinion, the most delicious thing that had happened to him on the island since he arrived, Patrick felt himself swoon. Steady, steady, Patrick said to himself, you don’t want to be falling off the bed, but then he went blank.
The police had cordoned off the spot where the American homeless drug addict was found lying in the courtyard of the Old Spanish prison the locals call The Princess. Witnesses said that Patrick Dawson, the name of the deceased according to his personal papers, had against their warnings, climbed up onto the old ramparts that once encircled the town, complaining of the heat, trying to get some fresh air.
©2015 j.a. morales-santo domingo