Chapter 2: Otro Gallo Te Cantaría
As Arden stared up at the oak, she tried to be strong. Más fuerte que un roble. She was stoic on Lewis’s sidewalk, deciding what to do next.
Lewis had suggested going to the cops, giving a statement at the very least. But he didn’t understand. He didn’t see how tequila spilled out of people’s eyes, how Milwaukee Avenue became a river of blue agave spikes.
So she walked. She walked slowly and deliberately, watching everyone around her as she sidestepped dog walkers and looked for an affordable snack. The overwhelming stench of tequila was all around her, but no one seemed to notice. They carried their Starbucks and walked their dogs like it was any other day. One shop, one little panaderia, had the smell of freshly baked goods wafting out its door. It was a refuge.
Arden stepped in slowly, hesitant to interact with anyone. It was easy enough to ask for a concha and pay the smiling girl. But deciding whether to sit and eat it there was like physical pain. After standing and eyeing the tables for far too long, she decided to just keep walking.
She wondered what flavor the yellow concha was, feeling glad that she had chosen the vanilla one. It was like the Saturday mornings she and her dad would go get donuts before playing tennis. They would make fun of all the weird donuts that never got bought, the ones that were clearly just experiments. They would eat as they schlepped their racquets, balls, and water bottles to the park.
“Why can’t we drive? The park is so far away! I’ll be too tired to play tennis.” Arden saw her younger self whining as if it was yesterday. Thirteen was hard.
“Because walking is good for us. We’ll walk and we’ll be grateful that we even have legs that can walk,” her dad would answer.
Why couldn’t I have complained less? Why didn’t I try to walk with him more, back when he had the energy?
Without realizing how long she had been walking, she found herself at the Devil’s Three-Way. It was the name that she and Lewis gave to the three-way intersection of North Avenue, Damon Avenue, and Milwaukee Avenue. It was hipster central, the hub of amazing restaurants and a lively nightlife. But it was a nightmare when driving. Arden completely avoided it whenever possible.
Yet here she was, a frumpy pedestrian at the Devil’s Three-Way.
She looked up just in time to see the walk light come on. But time slowed as the light changed. Everything froze as she took in each event unfolding. The SUV turning east onto Milwaukee was stranded in the intersection; a shop owner yelled at a homeless guy just inches in front of the SUV; onlookers were filming with their phone cameras; traffic began to back up in every direction; a mom with her infant turned her stroller to avoid the entire scene.
Everything kept moving at this slower pace; even Arden felt one foot slide in front of the other. It was a dance, a choreographed movement where the vehicle inched forward in frustration just as the shop owner punched the homeless guy. More cars inched forward, each one sliding into the next like a line of dominoes as the first one slammed on its breaks. Everyone gasped at the sound of crunching vehicles, the homeless man now face-down on the road.
Arden knew his breath smelled of tequila.
She didn’t stick around to see the ambulance come. She could hear the police already on their way and wondered if the homeless guy being African American would change things. So she walked, like the mom with her infant, like she used to walk with her dad. She found a way around the intersection and threw out the remaining chunk of pan dulce still in her hand. Somehow, she had crumbled it in her fist without remembering.
What if he was White? What if the shop owner had been the Black one? She walked briskly down Damen Avenue, glad to be almost home. But the thoughts kept bombarding her. What if she had intervened and stood between the men?
What if she had just slept in today?
“Otro gallo te cantaría,” a voice whispered in her ear. It could have been the same one telling her she was stronger than an oak, but she couldn’t be sure.
She whipped around, ready to slug some prankster. But there was no one. Even though Wicker Park was alive with yuppie families playing in the park after brunch, there was no one anywhere near her on the sidewalk. There was just a bench.
She fell onto the bench, wondering if this was what a mental breakdown felt like. She remembered her counselor Phyllis’s advice. Breathe. Count. Focus.
As Arden took slow, deep breaths, counted down from ten, and focused on a little yellow hat on a toddler, she began to feel better. She followed the knitting pattern on the wool cap as she slumped. Imagine a string pulling your spine upward, she could remember Phyllis saying. She sat up straighter too.
Otro gallo te cantaría, she typed into her phone. Another rooster would crow for you.
It left her more confused. Why would she hear voices in Spanish if she didn’t even understand the message?
A young woman walked down the sidewalk, speaking Spanish into her phone. She smiled at Arden as she passed by, but dropped her bag as she juggled her phone and coffee. The toothbrush hopped over the deoderant. The pack of gum played leapfrog with with a bag of chips. Arden was quick to jump up and help, quick to grab the bouncing pharmacy items that sprang to life once they were free from the woman’s bag.
“Thank you,” the woman said kindly as Arden handed her the bag. “Dang, he hung up. Thank you so much. Really. I’m such a ditz.”
“You’re welcome. Sorry you lost your call.” Arden was about to keep walking down Damen toward her apartment when she paused and turned back toward the woman.
“Hey, can I ask you something?”
The woman was taken aback, but far too kind to say no. She nodded and offered a simple “sure.”
“I just, well, I noticed that you were speaking Spanish. Would you be able to translate a short sentence for me?”
The woman looked down at Arden’s phone as she held out the phrase she had heard just minutes earlier. Arden studied the woman’s face, the gorgeous skin that seemed to glisten in the brisk autumn air.
“Oh, this is the literal translation. I think it’s an idiom. I don’t hear it much, but it kind of means like, um, it would have been a whole different story, you know?”
Arden nodded as the girl kept squinting and thinking about the strange phrase.
“My name is Arden by the way.”
“Gabi,” she offered as she held out her hand. The two women shook hands and smiled. “You heard that crash just now? So crazy. I guess some guy is waiting on an ambulance.”
“Yeah, yeah. I saw it. I was standing there. I hope the guy is okay.” Arden glanced back toward the intersection, wondering what was happening. “Thank you so much, for the translation. Really. I appreciate it.” Arden smiled warmly again as Gabi waved and moved on.
Gabi walked west, Arden south. The two were headed to different worlds, worlds that collided for just a moment.
What if we had met in different circumstances and become friends? Arden thought to herself. She seems really nice. It would have been a whole different story; otro gallo me cantaría.
Eventually, Arden arrived back at her apartment door and lit sage incense. It cleared away the smell of tequila, the image of the man getting hit in the street. But it also gave her clarity that she didn’t quite know how to take; she realized that the Spanish she was hearing was from the nice Mexican man that died on the train earlier. It was so clear now. She saw his face, his smile. His mouth moved as he repeated the strange phrase.
Lewis had recommended that she take a nice salt bath after going to the police station. She decided to just skip one of the steps and dive right into the salt bath.
“Oh, if only I had never walked to the train stop this morning…” she began. Talking to herself seemed reasonable, as good a way as any to work out her problems.
“… otro gallo te cantaría.” The man was finishing her sentences now. The voice was comforting somehow, like a friend.
Yes, she thought to herself. It would have been a whole different story. But this is the day I have. This is my reality. Here. Now.
The bit of bubble bath that she had added to the water began creating orbs of magic, floating around her apartment like little fairies. “This is my reality,” she reminded herself.
Lewis texted her to see how the visit to the police station went, so she ignored him. She stepped into her bath and slid down into the hot water, wondering if she could add enough salt to make herself buoyant.
What would she even say to Lewis? What would she say to the cops?
“Hi, my name is Arden Oakley and I know who committed murder on the 9:20 train to Fox Lake.” She laughed. She laughed because Oakley was the fake last name she would give, like her favorite street with onion dome churches, like a dead man telling her that she was stronger than an oak. She laughed because she remembered the summer when she turned twenty-one, when she threatened to change her name because her parents wouldn’t pay the rent for her to move in with her boyfriend. She laughed at all of her life mistakes that ran through her mind like a movie reel. The laughter made it a little less painful.
“What if I am más fuerte que un roble? What if he does want me to come forward about his murderer?” She was still talking to herself, but hoping the voice in her head was also listening.
She could see the scene playing out like on her bathroom wall, the man minding his own business as the train moved north and left the city. But this time there was a son, an adult son. “He will want to know,” Arden said aloud.
She thought about going into work on Monday, how the Girl Scouts depended on her work to function as an organization. Sure, it was just bookkeeping, but she liked to think that she was a role model for girls nationwide. Just behind the scenes, like an Oz wizard behind a screen. So I need to do this, right? If I have any integrity at all? she wondered.
And so Arden released the bubbles, dried herself off, and decided to make the phone call.
It took a while to drain the tub with the older building’s plumbing. Plus she just didn’t want to make the phone call. The landline that was there when she moved in was an older phone, rotary and all. It seemed to spin on its own before she even got to it, like it was laughing at her, mocking her. But Arden told herself she was stronger than an oak and dialed the police station.
“My name is Arden Huntington. I have information on the man who was killed on the Metra train this morning.”