Ángel works at a print shop, casting logos onto sweatshirts, white letters on black tees. TGIF. LONG HAIR DON’T CARE. YOLO. KEEP CALM AND…
He’s been in hiding from pop culture for a while and this is a crash course he feels unprepared for. “Get back on Facebook,” his sister recommends, but Ángel enjoys the mystery. WORK WORK WORK WORK WORK. I GOT HOT SAUCE IN MY BAG, SWAG.
He sometimes gets orders from organizations on shoestring budgets, asking for five hundred shirts by the end of the week. “C’mon, buddy, it’s for the cause.” Though his boss discourages it, Ángel does his best to meet these last-minute deadlines, stenciling RAISE MINIMUM WAGE and NINGÚN SER HUMANO ES ILEGAL late into the night. It’s a strange, satisfying loneliness: fluorescent bulbs, sweat pouring down his chest, shirts hot-tumbling into boxes. The dark parking lot outside occupied only by his bike, a Suzuki Supermoto with chipping yellow paint. At the edge of the pavement, crickets. And beyond them, the bright snake of highway where cars roar in and out of Philadelphia.
Occasionally there is a different kind of order to fill: ALL LIVES MATTER, BUILD THE WALL. He worries, pushing paint across the screen. This is how it feels to be a cog in the wheel. A slave to capitalism. The chemistry post-doc who plodded wearily toward the creation of the atom bomb. Who can predict with what hatred these shirts will be worn, what anger they will incite? Who can predict who will shoot, who will die?
His bike has a broken rearview mirror, but after orders like these he takes the highway anyway, revving up to eighty, ninety. He keeps his shirt on so as not to attract attention from cops, though he’d like to feel the wind on his skin, sweat droplets flying, a cartoon shower of sparks behind him as he burns up the pavement toward home. He stops before he hits a hundred despite his clawing adrenaline, his muscles’ ache for higher speeds. It’s a promise, made to his mother back when she caught him racing. He tried to explain the necessity to her: It’s not about winning. It’s about driving his body to the burning core of its capabilities, a place of nerve and smoke where one thing snaps and he’s dead. Seeing himself, from that place, reborn again and again.
She didn’t understand. “I don’t want you reborn. I want you alive. Promise me.”
He did. It’s been ten long years since then.
At home, early mornings, his mother serves him last night’s dinner with coffee. His sister sings along with Beyoncé, getting ready for work, and his daughter Mariángel knocks on the door. Her mother brings her by every morning on the way to kindergarten for a kiss, which is allowed, and a sip of coffee, which is a secret, dark and sweet, gulped just inside the front door. Then Ángel says, “See you later, mi reina,” and sinks onto the couch and sleeps, until the alarm goes off and it’s time to get back to the shop.
On sunny days he plays old salsa, Hector Lavoe and Jerry Rivera. “This is some music,” his boss says, smoking and tallying up numbers at his desk while Ángel leans over the Spider, a metal stand with six hands, one for each colored screen. He makes ten pink bridesmaids’ shirts: I WOKE UP LIKE THIS. Then thirty cheerleading practice shirts: FLAWLESS. “Do girls listen to anyone besides Beyoncé?” Ángel wonders out loud.
“Huh?” says his boss, then shrugs. “Hey, you got me.”
Fall is coming and they’re printing logos on Varsity jackets, blue onto red onto yellow, the colors sinking perfectly in place. Like sculpting a sunset. He wishes Mariángel could see. She likes pastels and watercolors already; “definitely your baby,” his mother says, taping up pictures of flowers and rainbows.
But not all the orders are colorful. #ERICGARNER. #FREDDIEGRAY. He has started predicting it by the tone of the caller, a brittle focus, an almost-deadened attention to detail. “The name has to be spelled right,” the callers say. “Please make sure the name is spelled right.”
He doesn’t tell them that, Facebook or none, he knows how to spell these names. He doesn’t tell them they’re speaking to Ángel, who once marched beside them, Ángel, who stretched out in the Vine Street Expressway, stopping traffic to demand justice. The organizers waited for him to reappear once word got out he’d come home from jail, in the same way his neighbors waited for him to sit back down on his mom’s steps and put a little money in their pockets. He hasn’t done either of those things. He hasn’t even gone back to doing tattoos. He took a job at the print shop because he thought it would be simple, far from the drama, a little like art, and sometimes it is all those things, and sometimes it is none. When the activists come to pick up their shirts, they do a double take. “My man. Where’ve you been?”
“Around,” he says, shaking his head in a half-guilty, half-dogged way. They give him fliers and new numbers. They say they’ll look for him at the next rally. He says he’ll be there, but he won’t. The rallies are where the cops first spotted him. A few trips to his block, a couple tapped phone calls, and that was that. Targeted for politics, arrested for weed. He’s abandoned them both for good measure.
The world is an earthquake. He’s keeping himself far from the epicenter.
But the orders keep coming. The worst are the calls for fifty white tees, always the same thing, a loved one shot, a grainy photo, a cursive RIP. He can see these women, heads bent over cell phones in dark living rooms, voices layered tremor upon tremor. He wishes there was a better thing to say than, “Yes, ma’am, I can do that for you.” A greater reassurance than, “It’ll be ready by tomorrow.” He says nothing sympathetic or inviting. The women weep anyway.
In October a customer comes in, bell tinkling, a gust of smoky autumn air. Ángel is six months free and still breathless at old smells, his mother’s quiet smile, the things he hadn’t known he could lose so fully until he did.
“Our order with someone else fell through,” the woman says. “You come recommended. We’re marching this Saturday. We need three thousand shirts with an assortment of hashtags. What do you think?”
Ángel looks around the shop. His boss is out for the day. “I can’t do it,” he says. It’s like standing at the top of a chorusing waterfall, deciding not to jump. His arms slacken with disappointment. “I’m supposed to cut back on my overtime.”
“Oh,” she says. He avoids her eyes. In the old days, let a mother come to his door saying her kids were hungry, a friend whose brother needed bail. A family in deportation court without a lawyer. Whatever it was, Ángel would come up with it; he’d come up with it and if he couldn’t, he’d march. He’d lie down in the street.
Once, growing up in Puerto Rico, his brother had cut himself in the leg with a machete. Ángel can still see it: green vines closing in, his brother’s terror, the helpless flap of skin, blood billowing out. Ángel had screamed for help. He’d stripped off his shirt and knotted it around his brother’s leg, but when even this soaked red and no one came, he turned the machete against himself. He didn’t know why. Did he think it would solve the problem, his mother demanded later, and he said no. It was just what his hands did, in that sickening moment of stillness.
His father had set a hand on his back. “When the world bleeds, Ángel bleeds,” he’d said to Ángel’s mother. “Can’t you see?”
His father is gone now, and his brother, and all that blood, and even the scar, replaced by muscle and exhaust pipe burns and the tiniest nick of a bullet and then nothing at all. “It’s not about other people anymore,” his P.O. says. “It’s about Ángel now.”
But who is Ángel, if not the person he’s always been? Who else can he possibly be?
“We’ll figure something out,” the customer says, giving him an undeserved smile.
He tries to smile back. Late afternoon sun pours through the windows, igniting the cardboard boxes orange. The Spider watches like a pit-bull, awaiting his command.
“I got you,” he tells the woman. “Don’t worry. They’ll be ready by Friday.”
“What’s wrong with your hands?” his boss asks. “Are those blisters?”
Ángel says they’re mosquito bites. “Too much sitting outside.”
His boss whistles. “In November? Hey. Have you been here all night? Go home and get some sleep.”
No, he hasn’t been here all night. And he’s an insomniac, doesn’t need sleep. The lies come easily.
In truth, he’s been working. Typing up hashtags, printing shirts. He made three thousand shirts for that march, and then the next one, and now, though there are no more events, he can’t stop. Coal in his veins, a thing existing in order to burn. Too many names that need printing, too many stories begging for fabric and paint. #SANDRABLAND. He thinks of his sister, whose car always breaks down. #KORRYNGAINES. His mother, at home alone. #AIYANAJONES. Not his daughter. Not his daughter. He prints until his skin rubs raw against the wooden squeegee, until his palms crack open and his eyes slip shut and his body curls into itself. Cars hurtling down the highway. Crickets at the window like humans, crying for safety.
His boss hauls out six cardboard boxes, stacks them up like a police barricade and crosses his arms. “Ángel. We need to talk.”
No, the shirts weren’t made for pre-existing orders. No, he didn’t ask permission to print the shirts. No, he doesn’t have money to pay for them. No, he has nothing to say.
His boss pulls out one after another, like a crazed mother looking for proof of her child’s delinquency. “Hashtag Janet Wilson. Hashtag Keith Scott. Look, Ángel. Look, buddy. I agree with you. I’m on your team. But we’re talking six hundred un-ordered shirts. You bringing down the system? You overthrowing the government? ‘Cause I’ll tell you where you’re headed, man. I make one call, you’re headed straight back where you came from.”
Ángel never finds out if he means jail or Puerto Rico. His boss tears up his last two weeks’ check and sends him home. He understands he should be grateful.
His mother is incredulous. “Now what will you do? Sit on the couch? How can this be, Ángel, with your talent and your skills?”
He’d planned to give her a hundred dollars, the same way he does every week. Instead, in the face of her disappointment, he gives her six hundred and fifty. His last two hundred he gives to his daughter’s mother. His pockets are empty.
But he’s home to oversee Manhunt, setting cones at the end of the block to stop traffic and sending kids inside when the streetlights come on. He’s home to help his daughter learn to write her name. MARIÁNGEL. The accent is important, he tells her. Don’t let your teacher forget it. It’s like the sun, falling through the middle of the word.
She doesn’t like it, she confesses. Her mom’s phone underlines it in red; “that means it’s spelled wrong. My name is spelled wrong.”
He writes his own name for her. He adds the accent. “Look, reina. It’s right there, the sun, shining.”
He is home, too, to hear the domestic disputes, the police raids, the fifteen-year-old killed over a basketball game. And he’s home to see the gunshots nearly every morning on Fox 29. Over and over, an endless reel.
His mother doesn’t serve him dinner. She’s tired, she says. He eats hot dogs, pretzels, canned pears. His parole officer, believing he’s still employed, congratulates him: eight months free. There is lead in his shoulders and his neck, lead in his spine, lead driving his bones into the sofa cushions, pulling his body toward the ground. If there is one thing he does not feel, it is free.
Fall turns to winter. He does odd jobs, shovels snow, patches leaking pipes. He tries to do tattoos but his hands shake at unpredictable moments. It’s not worth the risk. Besides, even tattoos require tears, RIPs.
How not to try for rebirth, he wonders sometimes, when everywhere, every day, there are so many ways to die?
But his daughter is growing. She has fire-black hair and bright eyes. She can write her first and last name.
In February, on his birthday, she brings him crispy M&Ms and dandelions she pressed in summer, brilliant flat heads tipping into his palm. Examining them, he finds a four-leaf clover, unknowingly harvested and preserved.
At the print shop, one of the T-shirts said: WE ARE THE GRANDDAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU WEREN’T ABLE TO BURN. He watches his daughter’s blazing smile. She is luck, he is sure of it. She is magic. She is victory.
Sometimes when there’s a knock on the door, he thinks his time is up, they’re coming for him. His parole officer, or the organizers, or the men on his block who are out of a job, or people who want tattoos, or his father and his brother who have been dead for years, or his sister, or his mother, or his daughter. As he gets up from the sofa, he imagines they’re standing in the street, chanting his name. Their words collect and swell and break and then they’re chanting something else, but he can’t understand them, and he can’t quiet them the way he used to, with a steady breath and a silent raise of a hand. He’s trapped in the entrance. Soon they’ll climb the steps, pound, break down the door.
“Ángel, qué te pasa, it’s your sister!” his mother says, and his fear crumples and slides, ashamed, to the edges of the room. He rubs his eyes and opens the door.
He has this recurring dream where his phone is ringing. “We’re marching,” they say when he picks up. “We’ve shut down 95. We’ve taken City Hall. Come on, man. You need to be here.” But he’s printing shirts, a million this time. “Gotta get these done,” he says. “Last minute. No one else in the shop, it’s got to be me.”
“But what are they for? The revolution is now. Leave the shirts. Get down here.”
He can’t answer, because every time he looks down, the letters blur. He can’t read them. But he has to finish. A million shirts to save the world. Black tees, more black tees, more black tees.
Four months since he was fired. The sun sets over rooftops.
Mariángel watches cartoons beside him. “Bye, brujita,” he says when her mother picks her up. That’s what he calls her now. Little witch. She calls him monster, a playful revenge, though sometimes, when she’s sad to leave, she calls him king, rey.
He’s been feeling empty. Like his blood has dried up, leaving nothing in his veins. His P.O. is happy: almost one year down. Is this what he’s been spared for? Watching the sun go down and up, another couple hours of sleep, another coffee?
“Rey o monstruo?” he asks as she hugs him. “Which am I today?”
“Rey. Y monstruo,” she says, her breath sweet, sticky hands cupped at his ear. “You’re both, Daddy.”
He stares at her, startled, strangely relieved.
When night has fallen and his mother and sister are asleep, he takes his bike out for the first time since fall. He cruises down the block and onto the highway, all the way to his old exit, the dark parking lot. He rummages in the trashcan for the spare key.
The designs only take a little time. He could write these letters in his sleep.
There are two thousand black tees in stock. Then white tees, five hundred, white on white, impossible to read. It doesn’t matter. #ÁNGEL, he prints. #ÁNGEL. #ÁNGEL. After a while, he switches to the second design. #DIABLO. #DIABLO. #DIABLO.
He’s thirsty. The clock ticks toward one, two, three.
He leaves the shirts everywhere. In boxes, on the floor, stacked ten and twenty to a pile. Some dried, some sticky. The bottoms of his shoes soaked white. The floors, the desk. They’ll find them here. Enough to plaster the world at its seams.
He gets back on his bike. Merging onto the highway, he pumps the engine to a hundred, a hundred ten, a hundred twenty. Hair flattened to his scalp. Tears flying. Each second a scorching celebration: alive! alive! alive! Faster and harder than his life has ever permitted, past his exit, past this city. As bold and as brilliant as the world is not ready, burning at his very core, at his epicenter, finally.
Sara Graybeal is a writer, performer and teaching artist living in Greensboro, NC. She co-founded the Poeticians, a spoken word and hip-hop collective based in Point Breeze, Philadelphia. Her writing has been published in Moon City Review, Floating Bridge Review, Sixfold and Tempered Magazine, among others, and her poem “Point Breeze, 2015” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.