Rafael Alvarez. “Burdens of Home.” A new story from The Holy Land of Baltimore.

3 Oct

Rafael Alvarez

Un Libro de Relatos Breves

Ronnie stepped out of the crab house to call his mother, beer and cigarette in one hand as he dropped a dime into the phone at the corner of Baltimore Street and Decker Avenue. He usually called her from work and always from a pay phone on the street.

“That way,” he told people, “I always have some excuse for cutting it short.”

While the old lady yaks and yaks about cleaning out the basement for a flea market – “You wouldn’t believe how much I have to work to get anything done around here … Cha-Cha just sits on his ass …” – Ronnie hears his mother’s boyfriend shouting in that background.

“’Zat Ronnie? Ask’em to bring a dozen females home tonight. I want to make soup tomorrow.”

And in that moment – Monday night traffic making noise, grimy transit buses jockeying with primer-painted Pontiacs at the light, people trying to cross East Baltimore street with babies and groceries – it’s as though Ronald Miller doesn’t exist anymore.

“You know he can’t bring home crabs without paying for ‘em.” Now they’re screaming at each other.



“Mom,” says Ronnie, 22, draining what’s left in his warm can of beer, flicking his cigarette butt into the gutter, yelling into the phone like any other snot-nosed hoodle in Crabtown.


And then back into the steam room to put another bushel on the stove and figure out how he was gonna pay for them.


How many Ford Granadas can one asphalt lot of used narrative hold?

Cherry and Judy: “… I don’t want you to wash my clothes …”

Alvarez and his second cousin in New York City (the 1977 model; the Ramones saving rock and roll on 2nd Avenue and Billy Martin beating the shit out of his players in the Bronx.)

Basilio round and round and round the cul-de-sac of brick ranchers.

“Got a football field of Granadas,” said Greene, a dealer who lived in his own cul-de-sac of half-truths and white lies, spiced-up hogwash in his cereal bowl every morning, no milk in the fridge.

“They’re selling like hot cakes.”

“Crab cakes?” said the guy next to him at the bar.

“Sold out,” said the heavy-set woman behind the bar, a leaky pen behind her ear, ink on the fleshy lobe.

Ronnie passed the bar on his way to the kitchen as Greene told the barmaid to “Come by in the morning. I’ll work up something special for you.”

Special, thought Ronnie: Cha-Cha in the trunk of a Granada at the bottom of a lake somewhere, a crab mallet up his ass.


Landau roof, fake wood grain on the dash, hand-cranked windows and an 8-track tape player playing Jerry Vale’s Greatest Hits: “… you don’t know me …”

At least that’s what was playing when 10th grader Cherry Triplett was banging Judy Apicella in the back seat of her husband’s white-on-white Granada by the boat lake in Patterson Park this afternoon, ballgames and kids flying kites all around them.

White car with white vinyl roof and white interior in the hollows of the Ford Administration as two squad cars blocked the car from getting away, not that Judy or Cherry could reach the ignition from the back seat with their drawers around their ankles.

Ceramic bong on the floor, still warm; three of Judy’s Valium [10 mg., blue] in his belly and five in the pocket of the jeans with the MOTT THE HOOPLE patch on the knee.

“Get out here,” said one cop, leering at Judy – on her back as she shimmied into her jeans, meeting his stare eye-for-eye, recognizing him from the church carnival.

His partner, taking his time, reached between Judy’s legs to get the bong.

Cherry would long fantasize – often in his nomadic wanderings as a musician for hire – about grabbing the pig’s wrist and breaking his arm but he was neither strong enough nor brave enough or stupid enough to have tried.

“Next time it’ll be her old man who catches you,” laughed the officer, smashing the bong into a thousand shards on the asphalt.

“Then you’ll wish we had locked you up.”

A few years later, talking to a reporter from the News-American visiting him in prison, Armand Apicella talked about how much he loved that car, for which he’d paid almost $4,000, loaded.

“Banging my old lady in the middle of the afternoon while I’m working the L furnace? What can I say, kid was 15-years-old. What was he gonna do, take her to the prom? But fucking her in the back seat and then stealing the car? That really burned me up.”


It was a couple of years before Apicella shot his wife in the middle of the night while drinking milk out of the carton, a quart of two percent in one hand, .22 pea shooter in the other: BANG!
Cherry was long gone by then (some things simmer, some things boil) but tonight—pedaling his Japanese 10-speed toward Danny’s Crab Shack—he could still get his cookie soft just about anytime he wanted; riding a mile or two to pick up a bag of what Judy loved even more than Cherry’s biscotti: a dozen Number One steamed Jimmies, sweet back-fin covered with coarse black pepper with kosher salt.

Hot, hot, hot out of the pot!

Cutting through the park—spiky, bright red fragments of his bong still on the path, riding on the grass so he wouldn’t puncture a tire—Cherry jumped the curb at Lombard Street, just avoided being clipped by a car as he crossed over to Rochester Place and left the bike in the alley behind Decker Avenue as he went in the back door to see Ronnie.

The night was hot—Monday, September 1, 1975, an off night for the Orioles, no game on TV in the bar, Freddy Fender on the jukebox—and the kitchen was hotter, whirring with window fans, ceiling fans, oscillating fans.

“What you got?” said Ronnie, sweating from his armpits to his belt loops.

“What you want?”

“Guys in the bar looking for reefer and yo-yos.”

“Got the one, half of the other.”

Ronnie nodded for Cherry to go back out to the alley, where—immediately — Cherry began shouting.

“Cocksucker. Motherfucker.”


“Fuck, fuck shit, fuck.”

Ronnie told him to shut up and Cherry wheeled on him. “Somebody stole my bike.”

Cherry ran past Ronnie and down the alley, out to the street in time to see the shadow of a figure—just pumping knees and shoulders, getting smaller by the second—racing his Azuki down Baltimore Street toward downtown, a warren of narrow streets, alleys, and garages built for horse-and-wagons.

Feet stuck on the corner of Baltimore and Decker like the cement was drying around his ankles, Cherry shouted into the humid night: “MOTHERFUCKING WHORE!”

Ronnie came down the alley after him, a dozen of the biggest crabs they had that night in a brown paper bag and a six-pack of National Beer.


Cherry took it and handed Ronnie a plastic sandwich bag of cheap Mexican marijuana and another with a few Valium, two or three Seconals and some Placidyls (all stolen from housewives with bad nerves who lived in the neighborhood) that looked like emerald jelly beans.

“Got time to blow a joint?”

“Nah,” said Cherry, no money for a cab, Ronnie too busy to run him back to Conkling Street.

“Got a bowl?” asked Cherry and when Ronnie nodded—yes—he reached into his other pocket to pinch a booger of blonde hash from a gooey bouillon cube of the shit wrapped in aluminum foil.

Passing it to Ronnie, they ducked back into the alley and hit the wooden pipe with Crab Shack matches until blonde had faded to gray.

“Sorry about your bike, man.”

“Yeah,” said Cherry, knowing he’d never see it again. “Cut lawns all summer for it.”

He nudged Ronnie on the shoulder with the six-pack—“Thanks”—and began walking toward Judy’s with a nice buzz, adding to it with one of the Valium he hadn’t traded away, washing the pill down with great gulps of beer.

Ronnie went back into the bar and tapped a guy on the shoulder, who tapped another guy and in 20 minutes made enough money to bring a half- bushel of females home to Cha-Cha for soup and crab cakes and crab imperial and whatever else the Spic and his mother decided to make while talking over one another as they picked the shells clean.

Enough money to keep his mother off his back for another day and pay for the dozen crabs and six beers he’d given to Cherry because the Polacks who’d owned the joint since the Babe hit 60 kept track of every red cent, every nickel.

And the following day he’d split the seventy bucks that Cherry’s brand- new, $240 bicycle had gone for in a bar on the other side of town.


photo courtesy Macon Street Books

photo courtesy Macon Street Books

One Response to “Rafael Alvarez. “Burdens of Home.” A new story from The Holy Land of Baltimore.”


  1. the top 15 most-read posts | pea river journal - October 1, 2016

    […] Rafael Alvarez’ story Burdens of Home […]

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