Written by 10:32 pm Featured, Fiction

The Domino Room

By Richie Narvaez /

Osvaldo Ortiz, at twenty-six, late because he didn’t have a car, asked if this was the line waiting to clock in at the Book Depository.

The thin, nervous-looking man wearing a checked shirt and blue jeans in front of him said, “Yeah. Yeah. This is it.”

“Gracias—thank you.”

“Sure. No. Wait. You new?”

“Si—yes.”

“You’re Mexican, right? Right? You don’t have to wear no Speedy Gonzales outfit. Hah! The hair, the face, I can always tell.”

“Actually, I am from Puerto Ri—”

“Yeah, yeah. I thought so. ’sfunny, I just came back from Mexico a few weeks ago. Really really nice. Saw all the sights. Went to a twist party. Hah! . . . Oh wait. Shit. Wait. So. Hah! Um . . . The sparrow will sing after it rains tomorrow.”

“Rain? Tomorrow? Señor, the radio said it would be sunshine all the week.”

The nervous-looking man nodded several times. “Oh? Oh. Yeah. Yeah. Oh wait. Wait! Of course. Ummm: говорят завтра дождь?”

“¿Qué? I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“Of course. Never mind. Never mind!”

“My name is Osvaldo Ortiz. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Hah! That’s the damnedest thing. My name’s Oswald, too. Lee Harvey . . . Oswald, that is. Hah!”

“A pleasure to meet you, Oswald.”

“Call me ‘Lee.’ Yeah. Looks like we’re going to be late. I woulda been on time but my buddy Wes forgot to pick me up. That Wes!”

“I need to get un carro of my own too.”

“Carro—I know that one—it means ‘car.’ Yeah. Yeah. But, hey, I guess you’re used to it, since you people always run late.”

“What?”

“Like with siestas and ‘La Cucaracha’ and stuff.” The man began doing a little dance and singing.

“I try to always be on time.”

“No. You don’t get it. I mean . . . never mind. Listen, I get it. It’s rebellion. Agitation, Mutiny. Why just be cogs in the machinery for the establishment, right? Why follow their rules, right? I grok it, man. I grok it!”

“I promise I will be on time tomorrow.”

“Don’t tell me. Tell Mr. Truly. Come on, let me show you around. Hey, Bonnie Rae! Hey, Joe!”

“ . . .”

“ . . .”

“They’re busy. This place gets real-real busy.”

###

Osvaldo put down a two-six next to the double-six on the table. He was in the lunchroom, which they sometimes called the domino room.

“ . . . meanwhile,” Danny was saying, “those gringos earn $1.25 an hour while we get not even half that.”

Billy, next to him, nodded.

“It’s not fair.” Osvaldo put down a six-three.

“No twos, huh?” said Danny. The young man, boyish but no longer a boy, put down a double-two. “Darn right it’s not fair. I don’t trust a single one of them. Like that oddball Lee. Always too quiet like. But the other day he and I are in the elevator and out of nowhere he starts talking about how he spent some time in Mexico. From the way he talked, I tell you that sucker don’t know a taco from a pedo. He kept asking me questions about where I grew up, did I live in a pueblo or a hacienda. Man, I grew up in Dallas!”

Osvaldo was stuck in the boneyard. He drew double-five, double-four, three-four . . .

“Hey, guys!”

“Oh, hey, Lee.”

“Lee.”

Billy nodded.

“So, uh, how are you all? You playing dominoes? Hah.”

“Yeah.”

“Yep.”

Billy nodded.

“Oh, man, I just realized we got orders to fill out on 6.”

“Oh. Okay. See you, Danny. See you, Billy. H-how it’s going, Osvaldo?”

“It’s all right.”

“Um. Um. The, er, field mouse is fast, but the owl sees at night.”

“Okay, Lee. But I do not know anything about owls. I had a goat that I loved very much once. My mother said it was my first—”

“Ah, never mind. H-how’s it going?”

“You just asked me that. It’s all right.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

“It is hard work, but I am happy to be work—”

“Tell me about it. I went for this job at a bakery and then another one at this gypsum plant. Both times—both times, hah!—they wanted to hire me. But then they wanted me to drive, and, nah, I-I don’t drive. The automobile industry is one of the great evils of the Western world, you know. But y-you could always get a job as a gardener. To work with your hands, to feel soil in your fingers. That’s honest work, real work. The soil and the toil! The struggle of the worker!”

“It is good, honest work. But it does not pay enough. I have to provide for my wife and my kids.”

“You got little bambinos?”

“Uh, yes, two girls.”

“Me too! I just had my second kid. I mean, my wife did. But, you know, it’s ours. I love my kids. Wish I got to see them more. They live, uh, with their mother. Until I find a place for all of us, you know? So, they’re far. And, like I said, I don’t drive, so. . .”

“I must get a car, too. I will get one. Once I earn enough.”

“Yes, you gotta see your children. They are the light of one’s life, the whole reason we are here on Earth.”

“I couldn’t agree more, my friend, couldn’t agree more. Oh yeah, you know—I’ve been reading up. About Puerto Rico. I heard what you said, but—so, I read up. The struggle there. Fighters like Lebrón and Albizu Campos. It seems we have a lot in common, you and I. We should talk. About the struggle.”

“I don’t like to mess with politics. Two of my uncles were killed in the Ponce massacre.”

“I read about that!”

“Yeah, so, since then, my mother said our family was marked. She made me promise to keep away from that stuff, you know.”

“I understand. You gotta protect your family.”

“Correcto. Hey, do you want to play dominoes?”

“Yeah, no. Nah, nah, I don’t, no, I don’t play.”

“You want the rest of my sandwich?”

“Nah, that’s okay.”

“I can see you looking at it. It’s okay. You look hungry, my friend.”

“O-okay. I am hungry. Forgot my lunch again. Hah! I’m starving.”

###

“Ay, you smell like a brewery.” Theresa smacked Osvaldo away from her.

“Come on. I just had una cerveza.”

“Una cerveza? Did you take a bath with it?”

“Come on, Theresa. I worked hard this week. I need some loving.”

“Buena suerta con eso. Anyway, your friend Paolo is coming over any minute with another six pack. ”

“My friend? He’s your cousin, too. You always say it’s important to celebrate with family.”

“You don’t celebrate by blowing your whole first paycheck on Rheingold.”

“Not the whole thing. Come on, baby.”

“No me tocas! Aha, there comes Paolo. Go ahead. Go get drunk with your pal. Get more drunk.”

“Hola, Paolo.”

“Osvaldo! My man! How is the job?”

“He’s got a weird friend there,” Theresa said. “You should tell him to give him a wide berth and stick to his own kind at work. You know what can happen.”

“No, no, she’s got it all wrong. He’s a nice guy, I think. It’s just that the other fellas at the job, they say to avoid him. But I think he is okay. He has the same name as me.”

“Same name?! What do you mean?”

“Oswald Lee or Lee Oswald. You know, it’s the same and it’s not the same.”

“So that’s where he is . . . ”

“¿Qué?

“Nothing. Nothing. Why do they say he’s weird?”

“Well, maybe because he keeps asking all these weird questions.”

“Have a beer, man.”

“Gracias!”

“Salud!”

“Salud!”

“So, like what questions?”

“Well, like yesterday he asked me ‘Does the red robin crow at dusk?’”

“Mierda! Okay, okay. Listen, the next time he asks you that, you tell him, ‘Yes, but only in the shade of the big elk tree.’

“¿Qué qué?”

“It’s a long story. Just tell him that and then let me know what happens.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Does he talk to anybody else there?”

“Barely. So, you know this guy?”

“Listen, don’t worry your pretty head about it. It’s a, uh, union thing, that’s all.”

“Union?”

“Yeah, don’t worry. Man, you must be thirsty. Toma otro cerveza.”

###

“Trade?”

“Yes,” Osvaldo said. “Trade.”

“Your wife makes the best tuna salad. I don’t know why you don’t like it.”

“I hate tuna salad, but Theresa, she doesn’t know how to cook a lot of things. So I don’t want to say anything, sabes?”

“I grok it. I-I think it’s delicious!”

“Buen provecho.”

“W-what’s that mean?”

“Uhh, it’s like when the French say, ‘Bon appetit!’”

“‘Bon appetit!’”

“Correcto!”

“Thanks, my friend.”

“Thank you for the ham!”

“Oh, mmm, uh, um: Why does the eagle fly at dawn? I think is the way it goes.

“Is that a joke?”

“Um, n-no, sorry. Sorry.”

“Oh, it’s another of your little questions.”

“ . . . Um, yeah. Sorry. Sorry.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t—”

“Won’t what?”

“Never mind. I’m not going to say anything.”

###

“Come on, before the girls wake up.”

“No!”

“What’s wrong, Theresa?”

“I’m not in the mood. I have the right to not be in the mood.”

“Si, of course. But, baby, I just want a little love.”

“Love? Why don’t you talk to your friend Ramona next door?”

“Ramona? Where did you get that idea? I never even talk to her.”

“Everyone in the neighborhood knows. They see how you look at her. I see how you look at her!”

“I’m not even sure which one she is. The short one with the—”

“See! I know you look at her!”

“Listen, Theresa—”

Their doorbell rang, a long screech.

“Shit. Who could that be? It’s five in the fucking morning. . . .Man, can’t get any rest. Can’t get any loving . . . Oh, hey, Paolo. What are you doing here?”

“Hey, man. Come on out here. I want to show you something.”

“What the hell?

“It’s a Studebaker. It’s all yours.”

“Oh my god. I don’t— This is too much.”

“It’s nothing, man. A friend of mine needed to unload it, so he threw it to me, and now I’m throwing it to you. It’s not new, but it runs. Get behind the wheel, man. See, I grew up in a town with nothing but burros and one horse. We’re in the Estados Unidos now, the land of the free and the home of the chicken in every pot, and we should have just as much as any other American, even more. Right? My beautiful cousin should not have to walk to the market every time, not when she can have a husband to drive her. My second cousins should not be stuck in the backyard like dogs. They should know what it is to ride around town in a big car with their daddy, right?”

“Paolo, man, I appreciate it. But it’s too much. I can’t take it. I want to earn my way.”

Theresa stood in the doorway of the house and watched them.

Paolo the cousin put his face in Osvaldo’s. “‘Earn my way.’ Fuck. You will take this car, you dumb fuck.”

“B—”

“Shut up. You will take this fucking car and tomorrow, you will drive to work and let Lee Oswald know that you have a car.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to, cabrón. A day or so later, he will ask you to drive him somewhere. You will say that you will drive him. And this is the most important thing, you won’t.”

“Paolo, what the hell?”

The cousin smiled. “One more time because you’re stupid: You tell Oswald you have a car. When he asks for a ride, say you’ll take him. Then don’t show.”

“Uh? What if he asks someone else? He has that friend, Wes.”

“There’ll be nobody else for him to ask.”

“I don’t want to do this. This sounds weird.”

Osvaldo turned to his wife, who had been standing in the doorway. “Theresa, your cousin—”

“Don’t you love your daughters? Don’t you love me?” she said.

“You knew about this?”

“Shut up and do as he says.”

###

Osvaldo sat across from a man in a cowboy hat in the domino room. Osvaldo had never seen him before and did not know his name.

“Care to make a wager?” the man said.

Osvaldo looked at the three dominos cradled in his right hand. “I don’t gamble.”

The man kept his index finger on top of the single domino he had left. “How about a nickel, son? Surely you can afford to bet a nickel.”

“No, I am sorry. Every penny matters. My wife watches all the money I make now.”

“Man should be in charge of his own money. He should—”

“Hey, hey, Osvaldo, you said—you said you got a car, a carro? This morning, you said—”

“Yes, Lee. The black Studebaker.”

“Y-yeah, yeah. I saw. Nice wheels. I-I was wondering, could you, uh, give me a ride? Tomorrow. This would be for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow. Sure.”

“It’s—I got—I got a doctor’s appointment, and I’ll need a lift tomorrow. Right after lunch. Like, right away after.”

“Yes, Lee, I will be there. Here, I mean. Yes.”

“Okay. See you la—wait, um, oh, I was going to ask—you know anything about hanging curtains?”

“Curtains? Nah, sorry, I don’t.”

“That’s okay. That’s okay. Thank you, Osvaldo. You’ve always been a pal, a real pal.”

“You too, Lee. You too.”

The stranger had said nothing while Osvaldo talked to Oswald. He put down a five-two to close up the game. “I believe you’ve run out of fives.”

###

“What’s the idea of showing up so late?”

“I’m-I’m sorry, Mr. Truly. So sorry. My car—my car, it wouldn’t start.”

“Engine trouble, Ortiz? Is that really going to be your excuse?”

“It’s-it’s not an excuse. S-sorry, I’m out of breath. Ah. I-I opened the hood of the car and the whole entire engine—the whole thing!—it was gone.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Listen, I run a tight ship here.”

“They really wanted to make sure I wouldn’t show. But I had to.”

“They? What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t want to let my friend down. It’s a matter of principle. I had to take two busses and then run here. Then there’s all these people. What’s all these people doing in the streets?”

“Don’t you read the newspaper? President Kennedy’s in town.”

“Oh. I didn’t know. I’m s-sorry again, Mr. Truly.”

“Well, just don’t let it happen again. I got a million other guys lined up waiting for this kind of work. Know what I mean?”

“Yes, yeah. Okay. I will not. Can I ask you—do you know, is-is Lee here?

“Lee? Yeah. But wait—he took a powder about ten minutes ago. You just missed him.”

“Oh man. Okay. I wanted to apologize. I was supposed to give him a ride.”

“What was that? That sounded like gunfire!”

“Gunfire?”

###

Q: Mr. Ortiz, please answer the question.

A: Okay, sorry.

Q: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?

A: No.

Q: Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

A: No.

Q: Are you now a member of any group that advocates the violent overthrow of the United States Government?

A: No.

Q: Have you ever been a member of any group that advocates violent overthrow of the United States Government?

A: No.

Q: Did you assist Oswald in the assassination?

A: No!

Q: Do you consider yourself a friend of Oswald’s?

A: I guess so. Yes. Yes.

Q: When did you first meet Oswald?

A: On my first day working at the Book Depository.

Q: How did you get the job at the Book Depository?

A: My good friend Paolo.

Q: Paolo who?

A: Paolo Ramirez. They hired him first but then he said he got a better job, so he asked them to hire me.

Q: Did you have experience working in a book depository before?

A: No. But they liked me because I was big, they said, and because I spoke good English. But they warned me never to bring any spicy, stinky food to work.

Q: Did you know Oswald before you met him?

A: ¿Qué? What?

Q: I mean, did you know him before meeting him at the Book Depository?

A: No, I said—

Q: Did you meet him in Mexico?

A: I have never been to Mexico. I hear it is very nice, but I have never been.

Q: Wait, are you . . . are you not Mexican?

A: No, I am from Guayanilla, in Puerto Rico.

Q: Puerto Rico. Now, that’s not far from Cuba, is it? Not far at all.

A: Well, I guess not as the crow flies.

Q: What did you just say, mister?

A: Uh, “not as the crow flies.”

Q: Crow? What do you know about crows?

###

“ . . . woke up this morning in a gutter, like a bum—like a bum!—and I had to ask around and ask around, and everyone, they tell me I’m in Mexico! And I wonder, ‘How the heck did I get to Mexico?!’ The last thing I remember I was in Dallas. I don’t know how I got here, but I have to get home to my children! My little girls. Oh my god, what did I do? For a friend. What did I do? I gotta go home.”

“Settle down, son. Settle down. What is it I can do for you?”

“Everyone, they tell me to talk to the gringo, talk to the gringo. So I walked all the way up here to talk to you. They said you’re the only one in town who got a phone that works.”

“They did, did they? Good for them. Say, you speak pretty good American.”

“I am an American.”

“Really? Sorry, amigo, you don’t look it.”

“Well, I am a Puerto Rican, and all Puerto Ricans are Americans. It’s a fact.”

“I don’t know about that. Listen. I got a phone that works here.”

“You do?”

“Yes, in the back.”

“In the back there?”

“Yeah, just go through there and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Got a dime?”

Si. Yes.”

“Well, then, go on through.”

“Thank you, mister. Thank you!”

“Just go on through.”

###

“The body will be shipped here, should arrive Tuesday. I’d advise you to start making funeral arrangements.”

“I will. Thank you.”

“Mrs. Ortiz, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you some questions, principally about why and how your husband wound up in some backwater town south of the border.”

“Hah! If you knew my husband, you would understand. That stinking man. I know he ran off because of a woman. I know it!”

###

Richie Narvaez is the author of two novels and two short story collections.

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