“Tamarind” by Brian McElmurry

Parts of Denver had lost power.  There was a short and a fire at the station on 14th and Jackson, my girlfriend’s sister told her on the phone.  It wasn’t far from our place, and we were one of the sections of town affected.  The fan and TV had stopped within five minutes of my arrival home from work that evening.  I did the dishes and talked with Sarah.  She was reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the couch, and I heard snickers and laughs.

It was hot, but it didn’t seem hot enough to fry a power grid.

The one-hundred and ten year old Victorian Mansion we lived in, which had been turned into apartments the previous century, had the ironic effect of becoming unbearably hot, without a fan, right after sunset.  The sun finally sets and the summer’s light lasts an hour longer.  The heat dissipates and the earth cools—but reversely our second story half of the building became even hotter.  Something about the way the hot air in the attic kept our heat from escaping.

Sweating, I finished the dishes and Sarah finished her call.  We smoked bong loads and went out on the flat roof with lawn chairs and quality ales in cans, leftover from our recent camping trip.  We chilled.  It was cool.

We had brought out books, but had been talkative of thing couples speak of, until we heard the bell of the ice cream cart.

“Is that ice cream?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking over the ivy and tree growing up, and alongside, the house.  He was coming up the street.  I padded my jeans for my wallet, not to find it. “Damn, I wish I had my wallet.”

We discussed it.  The whole thing of going in through the window and getting my wallet, going down the fire stairs for the attic apartment, which crossed the flat section of the roof outside my window, and down the stairs to the alley—to than chase the ice cream man down the street, seemed like too much work.  This was conflicting for a stoner.

The ringing stopped just in front of the midcentury apartment building across the alley.  We stood to look over the tree and bushes and saw him serving ice cream to three tall people.

“Do you want ice cream?” I said.

“Yeah, I got twenty in my wallet.  Wanna get it?” She asked.

I stood, went in the low sill-Victorian style-window, and grabbed my wallet off my desk.  Went back out the window and down the stairs to the alley where I suddenly became conscious of my shirtless attire of only jeans, low-waist Levi’s, and checkered slip-on Vans.  I adjusted my waist, tucking in my underwear, having been unconscious of myself around Sarah.  Turning the corner of the red brick three and a half story wall to the windowed and painted white apartment façade and sidewalk, to where the ice cream man was on three sides surrounded by two Latina drag queens and a flamboyantly gay Latino.  I was stoned and keeping to myself, patiently standing to the side, waiting my turn.  The light skinned Hispanic ice cream vendor exchanged ice cream and money with the gay one in the middle, as I, out of the corner of my eye, looked at the tall drag queen to my left in jeans and big long dark brown hair to confirm whether it was or was not a man.  The middle one had bought his ice cream and now began staring at me, checking me out as I stood looking to his right and the ice cream cart.  After a moment, I looked at him and said good-naturedly, “Hey man, how’s it going?”

I was trying to “out” myself as straight.  I was opening my wallet.

He answered politely, understanding.

They moved away from the cart and walked up toward the alley and the Flagstone sidewalk right in front of my apartment, and the roof where my girlfriend was watching all of this.

The cart had the Mexican fruit bars with their non-American fruit flavors.  They had twenty going across in a rainbow shape.  Thinking: hmm, Mango, Rice, and Tamarind.  That sounds familiar.

While I decided, the vendor said, in a low voice, looking over his shoulder toward the queens, “I don’t know what to call them [a female Spanish pronoun I’d never heard] or [a male Spanish pronoun I’d never heard].  At least one dressed like a man.”

I ignored his shit talking.  People could do what they want as far as I’m concerned as long as it doesn’t hurt other people.  And as a hedonist, I liked the gays.  Had a few friends and neighbors who were always good for a drink and some smoke.

“What’s Tamarind?” I asked, pronouncing it badly, “Tam-eh-rind.”

“Tamarind,” He corrected me, pronouncing it, “Tam-ah-rin-do;” rolling the R and “Doh”-ing the D. “It’s like a fruit.  It is a fruit.  It tastes kind of like Root beer.”

I thought it over, looking toward the roof trying to see my girlfriend.  She had said, as I ran off, “Get me whatever you get, or something you’d think I’d like better.”

“I’ll get a Tamarind and a Mango.” I said, pronouncing it wrong, again.

While I had been deciding on my choices the gay Latinos/as had been making noises over by the house.  I heard hoots and giggles.  And a loud out of context laugh, possibly coming from my girlfriend hearing what the men, er… I don’t know how to refer to drag queens either… what they were saying.

Exchanging money and fruit bars, I heard giggles behind me.  The gay group crossed the street coming back by us on the other sidewalk.  I heard a whistle.  The vendor gave a dirty look over my shoulder as they walked away.

I crossed the alley and up the stairs, proud of my requisition.  Sarah stood up, laughing joyfully, “Oh my god! That was classic!”

“That was funny, huh?” I said, walking under the stairs to the other side of the roof.

She turned toward me, almost jumping with excite, “I was laughing out loud-laughing.  Did you hear me?”

“Maybe… I think I heard a laugh.  Were you watching?” I asked, sitting.

“Dude, I was watching the whole thing.  And hearing it too.” She said.

I held up the bars, “I got Mango and Tam-e-rind.  Do you like that?”

“Oh my god, did you get Tam-ah-rin-do?” She said, putting her hands together, almost in prayer.

“Yeah, was that that stuff you were talking about that your mom used to make because I couldn’t remember.”

“Yeah, totally.  I can’t believe they had Tam-ah-rin-do?” She said, opening it.

“Yeah, it was a one of those Mexican carts, you know?”

“Oh.” She said, biting into and shaking her head in ecstasy, “This is so good!”

“Can I try it?” She hands it over and I take a tasty lick and little bite. “Damn, that is good.” I said, handing it back, “I wish I got one of those because I got the Mango one as backup in case you didn’t like that one.  If I’d known it was that good I would have got one of those too.”

We talked about the drag queens and the gay man.  I told her of him giving me the eye.

“Right as they walked up after getting their ice cream I heard this ‘Aye Buerito.’” She laughed, mimicking it with a gay coquettish Latina voice.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means like ‘Hey blondie-white guy’, like cute though.”

“Were they talking about me?” I asked.

“Yeah, they were talking about you.” She laughed.

“No shit.”

“Yeah, and they said sexy in Spanish and then the two drag queens were like, ‘Go back, go back.” She mimicked in her gay coquettish Latina voice. “‘Go back, go back.’ And then the gay guy would say super gay coquettishly, ‘Go back?’” She paused and continued mimicking, “‘I can’t go back.’  And then the drag queens would go ‘Go Back.’”

“Oh my god I had no idea this was going on.” I said, having been oblivious.

“Yeah, you hot little thing.” She teased, smiling wickedly, “And they kept doing it, ‘Go back, go back.’ And ‘Go back?’” And she paused and mimicked, “‘I can’t go back.’” She laughed, hard, “Oh my god it was hilarious.  And so the gay guy clicked his tongue and swiveled on his foot and started leading the pack back toward you guys when he turned back and said, ‘You’re crazy!’” She mimicked and laughed, “And that’s when they just crossed the street.”

“Did you hear them whistle?”

“No.”

“Yeah, I heard a whistle and some hoots, but I didn’t know any of that was going on?” I laughed, “I mean, they knew I was straight, you know, by when I was all ‘hey, how it’s going?”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t even matter to gay people sometimes, especially when they see a shirtless man on the street.  But that’s probably why he turned back.” She laughed.

“Damn that was funny,” I said, finishing my tasty Mango fruit bar.

I took it as a compliment.

“So funny!  That reminds me of L.A.  I haven’t seen anything like that since L.A.”

“Yeah, that’s what’s cool about Capitol Hill, anything pretty much goes.” I said.

The dark houses and dark apartment buildings begin to silhouette with the lights of the skyscrapers still lit up downtown.  There were people on bikes riding the streets and alleys with lights.  The people walking by were loud and full of life.  The traffic lights had stopped and the drivers occasionally honked.  Sirens could be heard in the directions of the major streets, and two fire trucks went past us with lights and sirens howling.  In the parking lot across the street, a crackhead looking woman chased a white van, which drove away from her quickly, swerving out of the parking lot, erratically pulling into the street, squeaking its tires.  She may have yelled “police,” but didn’t keep yelling before walking out of sight in the other direction.  The drug people down in the alley were hanging by their basement apartments.  We could hear them tinkering around, drinking beer.  The sky became a deep blue and the wind’s chill held the wild embrace of the dark city, just waiting for an excuse to let go completely.  We went inside.

The lights came back on right as we were to begin a game of chess by lantern light.

Posted June 12th, 2010

2 Responses to “Tamarind” by Brian McElmurry

  1. David says:

    This story is pure magic. And captures a moment so well. And your writing has never been better. It will be a nostalgic pleasure to read this again in years to come, in different cities and stages along life’s way. Glad to know the notebook is getting some use, too! Keep em coming…the future (when such moments are but a vague memory) will thank you.

  2. Brian McElmurry says:

    Thank you so much, Dave! That means so much to me. Writing in the notebook and then retyping it (and adding to it also) was a great way for me to capture the emotions and the textures and then get it to flow much better; which is a technique you enjoy. I was really trying to capture life in Capitol Hill. And with some editorial assistance from Sarah, there were no typos, and she gave me some good feedback.

    And thank you so much for that notebook, it is really special to me. A few years back, you had also given me a hard plastic-travelling booze holder that had metal cups. It’s called the “Executain,” like executive and entertain. Totally from the 60’s, and it worked great for camping. Scotch around the fire! And the old type writer you gave me when you moved to New York. The sultry book end and Shakespeare volumes. The chop stick holder, I use to hold incense. A Buddha. And so many other things. Your thrift store habit really works out for your friends. You are a generous and thoughful person. Thanks, Dave!

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