One day when I was pushing the mail cart at work and happened to sneeze, I realized no one said, “Bless you.” There were about a dozen people around me, was the thing, and a curly-haired blond woman had just sneezed and gotten about four.
I laughed as I thought about it. I was passing this lady’s desk, and she looked at me like I was the biggest weirdo on the planet. So, really, it was a pretty normal day until I went back in the mail room and Phil was lifting one side of a large painting’s frame.
My friends Limon and Julia were either delivering or picking something else up.
“Roger,” Phil said. “I need you to help Diego take this to Mr. Connors’ office.”
On the way out, I noticed that the painting was really a map, and as Diego and I took it up five flights of stairs, I had time to decipher the words “Terra Incognito” on its northern portion.
When we got to Mr. Connors’ office, his secretary buzzed us in and he was there to show us to a wall full of framed maps. Diego and I moved automatically to the empty portion and put up the new old map.
“Perfect,” Connors said. Then he looked from Diego to me. “I’m sure I’ve seen you two around, but I don’t think we’ve talked. Where are you gentlemen from?”
“I’m from here,” I said, “the other side of town.”
He nodded, his eyes straining for a moment, and then he turned toward Diego.
“I’m from Mexico,” he said.
Mr. Connors began to talk about all the parts of Mexico he’d been to. While he found that Diego only knew the denser parts, I looked at the maps. They were mostly yellowed and limited to parts of Europe. Anyplace beyond that, and there were less notes around it; everything got summed up in words like “Terra Incognito,” which I saw a few times, or in a few other Latin words next to a picture of a lion. He also had a few old maps of towns I hadn’t been to.
Connors saw me looking at one. “If you went to that place today,” he said, “it’s exactly the way it was fifty years ago. Just beautiful.”
I resisted the urge to say, “Just beautiful, huh?”
When I went back to the mail room at the end of my shift, I’d cleared my head of antique maps. I mentioned how I didn’t get a “Bless you” to Limon.
Picking his fro with a blowout comb, he said: “And you’re still alive? I always wondered what would happen if no one said, ‘Bless you.’ Now I know.”
“It’s just, I think I automatically do that for just about anybody.”
“Well, if you want a ‘bless you’ for someone like us, what you should have done is obvious.”
“Yeah,” Julia said, popping up from somewhere. “Enlighten us.”
“He should have taken out a handkerchief and blown his nose like a saxophone. Then they would have started snapping their fingers automatically, like, ‘This is what’s up.'”
“Isn’t that what they do at those places you’re heading to these days?”
“Shut up,” he said with a grin. “All right, I’m off to meet up with Nellie.”
“I’m out too,” Julia said. “Tom’s been taking a little time off, so we’re going to go see a movie or something.” She took a few steps, then turned back on her heels. “What about you, Rodge?”
“Oh, you know, the usual: tennis, golf, maybe one of the Japanese sword disciplines.”
She smiled. “Later, Roger.”
I passed by the old lot on the way home, thinking about nothing in particular. Then after a sneeze, I finally noticed that the volunteer group whom thought they’d discovered the lot was prettying it up. The weeds had been gone for years, but there had never been yellow flowers creeping in this close.
When Limon and I were younger, the old lot wasn’t an unofficial border between where we lived and streets where the boldest among the upwardly mobile could feel slightly comfortable.
One day we took the long way around the guys who’d taken up one side of its fencing. At the lot’s furthest side we threw two broomsticks over, then climbed over the chain link fence after them. I let go at the top of the thing like I usually did, and nearly fell on something gross and disgusting. Limon carefully climbed down and had time to pick up the brooms while I recovered mentally.
“Yeah,” he said, “people throw all kinds of crap over here.”
“I think it was crap this time,” I mumbled.
Limon stuffed the cuffs of his jeans in his socks, and I was glad enough for the reminder that I ignored his chuckling. Then we went through the nearest path where the stalks of the weeds had been kicked at. There were lots of paths where someone did that until they got tired and just shoved their way through to the clearing by the old brick wall, like we were going to have to do.
“Wait,” Limon said, moving ahead of me. “Stand back and check this out. I’ve been practicing.”
He held a broom out in each hand and spun around into the stalks once before losing his grip on both of them.
“Well . . .” I said, “since they’re not actually real swords, it would have been even more cool–if that had worked.”
“Yeah.” Limon picked them up with a sigh. He held the new one in his right hand; the old one in his left. “Which one do you want anyway?”
“They both belong to your mom,” I said. “You pick.”
He made a face. “Which one, Roger?”
“I don’t know . . . the old one’s more like a samurai sword.”
“That’s the one I want, too. Let’s shoot for it.”
When we emerged into the clearing, I ended up with the new but heavier broom. There were already a bunch of other kids around the wall. They watched as Louis and Brett slowly circled each other with these sticks that looked like fancy wooden swords. Louis was the only white kid there; he took fighting lessons on the other side of town. Brett nobody ever said a bad word about (not to his face, anyway). They were both cool. Diane, on the other hand, hadn’t been just a grade ago when we talked a lot and some kid called her a female Roger. Now here she was, sitting at the height of the brick wall.
“Hey, Diane! It’s me!”
She didn’t look over at me until everyone else did.
“Who the hell are they?” Louis said, looking at Brett like he’d been ambushed.
Brett blinked. “What? You think they’re going to try to sweep the shit out of you?”
Louis stared back at him for a second, then he did this weird sort of headshake that you couldn’t call a “no,” exactly.
Brett went over to Limon. “I said you should come. Why did you bring him here?”
“Roger’s cool,” Limon said. “Plus, he lives closer around here than you do.”
“Is that why he’s got you hiding money in your socks?”
Diane moved off the wall and spoke into Louis’ ear. After a sigh, Louis stepped up. “You know what? It’s okay. Everybody else has got wasters; they both got their brooms, so, you know, it’s a fair right. Me and this guy . . . ” He pointed at me. “We can go.”
“Go ‘head,” Limon said. “Show ’em how it’s done, Rodge.”
Brett scoffed. “He don’t look like no ‘Rodge’ to me. He’s even more of a herb than that TV dude is.”
He shoved me closer to Louis, who swatted me on the side of the arm so hard I dropped the broom. I picked it up, holding it just above the bristles.
Brett cupped his hands and shouted: “See if you can fly away on that shit!”
I waited for Louis to make a move, but every time he did, he followed it up with a quick dash at my ribs that hurt like hell. Then he posed like he struck the killing blow in a samurai movie.
“All right,” Limon said. “Let me go.”
“Nah,” Brett said. He held his hand up to bar Limon from coming over. Limon pushed it out of his way. “Hey yo, Diane,” Brett said. “Check this out.”
Brett swung his wooden sword and hit Limon with it on the side of his head. Holding his ear, Limon screamed and dropped to the ground. His eyes were tearing up.
Two other kids quickly walked off. Diane got up and tried to drag Louis away, but he stood his ground and stared.
Holding one side of my ribs, I walked over to Limon. Before I crouched down by him, I glared at Brett and shook my head in non-Louis fashion.
“Don’t you start, nigga,” he said.
Looking for support and finding none, I sighed in frustration. I nervously patted Limon, still crying, on the shoulder. “You okay? Yeah, I know . . . stupid question. But, come on, let’s get out of here.”
“I barely even touched him,” Brett said, looking to Louis.
Louis shrugged. “I don’t know about that.”
Brett pushed me off to the side, yelling at Limon: “Are you really going to cry, nigga?”
Behind the wall, there was a nest of dead weeds that I’d thought was wheat; they hid the part of the fence that closed off the lot where the old kids were. After Brett starting yelling, it was from that direction that somebody started throwing beer bottles over at us.
“Who you talking to over there?” someone yelled out.
Green and brown glass bottles rained down, and everyone who was left scattered. Brett ran toward the sound of the voice that had just rang out. Diane finally got Louis to take off with her. A bottle shattered on a rock near my hand, and a piece of glass cut me as I nudged Limon to speed-walking away.
By the time we got to another side of the fence, the tears had dried under his eyes. But he was still holding the side of his head
“I don’t think I can get over this thing,” he said. “If I take my hand away, it hurts too much.”
“All right,” I told him. “I’ll go home, get some tape and I’ll be right back.”
Later, so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his mom, we went back for the brooms.
To be continued