Darlene P. Campos earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but she currently lives in Houston, Texas with an adorable pet rabbit named Jake. She is the author of Behind Mount Rushmore, published through Vital Narrative Press. She is working on her second forthcoming novel, Summer Camp is Cancelled, which features characters from her short story Mason Jars. Since 2001, her creative works have been selected for publication in journals such as A Celebration of Young Poets, Prism Review, Glass Mountain, Crunchable, Alfie Dog and many others. In addition, she is the prose winner of the Glass Mountain poetry and prose contest and the recipient of the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. Her website is www.darlenepcampos.com.
A Natural Distaste
Every time I go to King’s Taste on Astoria Boulevard, I order fried rice and chicken wings. One afternoon, I told the cashier “Number Three” and then I realized I was short on cash.
“$4.50,” the cashier reminded me.
“I only got $3.82,” I said.
“Here you go,” the man behind me said. He slid a dollar into my hand which I quickly transferred to the cashier.
“I like the vegetable fried rice,” the man told me as I picked a table. “Wanna try it?”
“Sure,” I said. He sat down next to me and sprinkled his rice over my chicken wings.
“So what do you do at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Amad?”
“It’s Amada,” I said. “The A rubbed off my nametag. I clean tombstones.”
“Oh no,” I shook my head. “I like it ‘cause I don’t deal with people.” He tried not to laugh, but he did anyway. Before he left, he gave me his phone number. I didn’t look at it until I was back at the cemetery rubbing dirt off Jenna Horowitz. From the area code, I saw he lived in Queens and thank God for that. I wasn’t about to get on the subway during rush hour.
“Amada,” I heard the boss say. “You can go home early if you want.” As much as I hated hearing that from him, I went home to Jackson Heights. I’ve lived on Roosevelt Avenue since I was a little girl. My apartment is above an ice cream parlor and a block away from the subway station, but I like the noise. You don’t hear much noise in the cemetery and when you do, it’s only someone sobbing. Before I called King’s Taste man, I made a big bowl of soup and a tall glass of tea to calm myself. My dog, Othello, was begging me for another walk.
“But I just took you out, little buddy,” I said and tossed a treat to him. I watched him gobble the biscuit and then I finally did it.
“Amada?” he answered after one ring.
“Is your name really Hamlet Herrera?” I asked.
“My mom is a huge Shakespeare fan,” he said. “I’m Hamlet Romeo and my sister is Cordelia Juliet.”
“My dog is Othello,” I said. I had no idea why he thought that was so funny.
I didn’t hear from Hamlet for a week. Then he appeared at the Jackson Heights Library on the morning of my day off. Before he saw me, I picked up a book and covered my face.
“Hamlet, I didn’t see you here.”
“Trouble in your marriage?” he said and pointed to the book I held
“I’m not married,” I said. Then I looked at the cover of the book – 50 Ways to Spark Fire in a Cold Marriage: The Bedroom Volume.
“I thought you could be since you never called me again.”
“Did you want me to?” I asked him.
“You have a dog named Othello, of course I wanted to call me again,” Hamlet whispered. The old and grumpy librarian was eyeing us from her desk.
“Hey, have you been to Coney Island lately?” he continued in a low voice. “There’s a bookstore I like over there. Wanna join me?”
“That librarian is about to kick us out, so yeah,” I answered. Hamlet smiled at me, but it was a different smile than the ones I had seen before.
While we were on the subway to Brooklyn, Hamlet was asking me all kinds of questions. Creamy or crunchy peanut butter? Low fat or non fat yogurt? Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? A homeless man waddled over to us and asked me for change and I instantly said ‘Chocolate.’
“Sorry, he asked me about my favorite ice cream,” I said and gave him a dollar.
“You grabbed a nice lady here, huh?” the homeless man nodded to Hamlet.
“She grabbed me, I was an innocent bystander.”
After a long train ride, Hamlet held my hand as we walked through the bookstore. He bought a few books and a postcard with Laurence Olivier dressed as Richard III. After we were finished browsing, we walked around Coney Island. Hamlet tried to buy me a hot dog from Nathan’s, but I kept saying no. I couldn’t have him spend money on me, especially since he already gave me a dollar at King’s Taste. But eventually I got so hungry that I accepted his gratitude. As we ate, I focused on Hamlet. There was nothing in him which stood out from anyone else. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking.
During our train ride back to Queens, Hamlet told me more about himself. He was 30, born in Warsaw, raised in East Elmhurst and still living there, and he was half Puerto Rican and half Polish. His mother was married to his uncle for three years until he died in a car wreck and she married Hamlet’s father soon after.
“What in the world was your mom doing in Warsaw?” I asked.
“She got a scholarship to the University of Warsaw and met two brothers in literature class. My dad left when my mom was eight months pregnant with me, so she gave me her last name to get back at him. I should be an Abramowicz, like my sister Cordelia.” Then he told me his mom’s favorite Shakespeare plays were Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear, but his favorite was Richard III.
“Have you ever read Richard III?” he asked me.
“In my sophomore year,” I said. “All I remember is the part when Richard says he’s deformed and unfinished. Didn’t we all feel that way in high school?”
“I hope you don’t feel that way now,” Hamlet said and kissed my hand. He wanted to know about me, so I told him I was 26, finishing my English degree at Queens College, and born to Ecuadorian parents who were still living in my childhood house. Hamlet said he went to college once to get an application and I laughed, which seemed to please him.
When we were back in Queens, I shook Hamlet’s hand and started walking home. But he caught up with me and soon enough, we were at my apartment door.
“Goodnight,” I said. “I’d invite you in, but you’d freeze in here.”
“I had fun with you today. So can I call you sometime?” he said.
“Yeah, you can,” I answered. “You should.”
Hamlet called me the next day. Then he began having mysterious cravings for ice cream whenever I would get home from work. I liked the attention, but I wasn’t sure it was sincere. ‘Amada’ is Spanish for ‘loved one.’ Before I met Hamlet, I dated a few men, but none of them stuck. I had never been anybody’s ‘loved one.’
One Saturday morning, I told Hamlet I was going to walk Othello in Travers Park. I didn’t think he’d be waiting for me when I got there. He had an orange Frisbee and tossed it in the air for Othello to fetch.
“I got a question for you, Amada,” Hamlet said.
“Oh no,” I groaned.
“Whenever people say they have a question before they ask it, it usually means it’s an inappropriate question.”
“Maybe I’m nervous,” he said and nudged me with his arm. Othello returned, so I tossed the Frisbee and watched him chase after it.
“Would you mind being my girlfriend?” Hamlet finally asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. If I were flexible and outgoing enough, I would have been doing somersaults through the park at that moment. Since I’m neither of those, I settled for giving Hamlet a kiss on his cheek.
As I wiped down Benedict Gray one morning, I noticed how filthy his wife’s tombstone was. Mr. Gray died in 1902 and Mrs. Gray joined his side in 1911. If someone died before 1945, nobody visited the grave anymore. The dead stay in the same place and it’s easy to find them. But the living move on and on and sometimes they disappear.
I left the cemetery close to four in the afternoon and headed to King’s Taste to pick up my dinner. Hamlet had placed the order for me, so all I had to do was tell the cashier my name. When I opened my box of takeout at home, I saw he told the cook to form a heart shape with my chicken wings. I couldn’t eat them for another hour.
Hamlet surprised me by showing up at my door later that night while I was getting ready for bed. He was talking at full speed, saying he wanted me to meet his family and he wanted to meet my family too. I reminded him we had only been dating for two weeks, but he was too excited to hear me.
“Sorry,” Hamlet said in his normal voice. “I really like you, Amada.”
“I kinda like you too,” I told him. As hard as it was to say that to him, I didn’t regret it.
I awoke with Hamlet by my side. I had offered to have him spend the night since I didn’t want him walking back to his place alone so late. When I took Othello out for his daybreak walk, Mr. Marconi waved to me and said, “Nice looking boy you got in your apartment.”
“There isn’t a fee for having him over, right?” I gulped.
“I’m teasing, Amada,” Mr. Marconi said. “Just keep the noise down when he’s at your place; we get enough from the subway and the kids who come to the shop.” I promised I would. Then I tugged on Othello’s leash and rushed him back home.
“Good morning, lovely,” Hamlet said when I returned. “Why are you so pale?”
“The, super, heard us,” I stammered. Hamlet said it was impossible since the subway must have covered everything, but I shook my head.
“Next time I’ll put a rag in my mouth,” he winked. He gave me a kiss on my forehead and went back to making pancakes. I went to the bathroom, opened the window, and stuck my head out into the air. The subway was making its rattling sound, Mr. Osorio was selling hot dogs, and kids were jumping rope along the sidewalk. It wasn’t a dream.
When I met Miss Herrera at her apartment in East Elmhurst, I noticed her bookshelves which were filled to maximum capacity. There was one book that caught my eye. It was a 1900 Shakespeare anthology.
“I got that in Warsaw,” she said of the anthology. “Hamlet’s dad gave it to me.”
“Mom, not that story again,” Hamlet cut in.
“I don’t mind,” I said and looked at Miss Herrera. She said she met the Abramowicz brothers during her first year at the University of Warsaw. Stanislaw, Hamlet’s uncle, proposed to her after four months of dating and they were married soon after. Cordelia was born within a year and then Stanislaw was hit by a drunk driver while walking to work.
“I was so depressed, I couldn’t even sleep,” Miss Herrera told me. “Lolek, Hamlet’s dad, read from that anthology to me every night so I could relax. We got married too, but the bastard ran off a month before Hamlet was born. I was still legally married to him for three years because I couldn’t find him anywhere. After the divorce, I came home to Queens.”
“Mom, Amada’s bored,” Hamlet said, but I assured him I wasn’t.
“Hamlet used to have bad insomnia when he was little, so I had to read to him until he fell asleep. He loved listening to Richard III, right Hamlet?” she said and pulled on his ear. Hamlet nodded, but I could tell he was feeling uneasy. Miss Herrera asked him to recite the opening lines of Richard III, and he did, reluctantly.
“You’ve still got it memorized,” Miss Herrera said and hugged him. “Now get to memorizing Shakespeare’s sonnets for Amada. She’s got a dog named Othello, you keep her.”
After we said goodnight to Miss Herrera, I walked with Hamlet to his apartment a few blocks away. Even though we held hands the entire time, we were in complete silence.
“Is something wrong?” I asked when we were inside his apartment.
“I hate it when Mom talks about my dad,” he said and sat on the sofa. “Cordelia’s dad was a good guy. She might come home from Ohio for the holidays and I’ll introduce you.”
I kicked my shoes off and sat down next to him. I held him and rested my head on his chest. His body was cold, but after a couple of minutes, he was warm again.
Since my parents are old fashioned, I waited before I introduced them to Hamlet. If they knew Hamlet was spending nights at my place and me at his, they would have spontaneously combusted. I went with Hamlet to my childhood house on the other side of Roosevelt Avenue, hoping for the best. We all had a decent dinner together, but when it was over, my mom was after me like she was a hawk and I was a fresh carcass.
“Is he going to marry you? Are you going to have kids? Is he divorced? You can’t marry him if he’s divorced, it won’t count-”
“Mami, it’s only been three months,” I said into her ear as I helped clean up the kitchen. Hamlet was talking to my dad in the living room and the walls in my childhood house are thin.
“Three months? How come you don’t got a ring yet? And what kind of name is Omelet?”
“It’s Hamlet, Mami,” I said. “His name is Hamlet, like the play.”
“After a play? How would you feel if me and Papi named you Fiddler on the Roof?”
“His mom is a Shakespeare fan.”
“I’m a fan of cookies, but your name isn’t Chocolate Chip,” she said. My dad walked in to refill Hamlet’s drink and he whispered to my mom in Spanish, “Can you believe that guy is named after a boring movie?” I sighed and put the rest of the dishes in the cabinets.
My parents liked Hamlet, but it was because he was the first boyfriend I ever brought home and they couldn’t compare him. The half-Polish thing was something they didn’t appreciate, even though Hamlet was the image of his Puerto Rican mother. They thought races shouldn’t mix. But I liked Hamlet half-Polish. There still wasn’t anything about him I didn’t like.
“You look like your parents,” Hamlet said during the bus ride back to my apartment.
“Genes usually work that way, Hammy.”
“Do you think your parents are deformed and unfinished then?”
“No, just in their brains,” I said.
“Definitely,” he agreed and patted my hand. “But they made one hell of a daughter.”
One evening, I didn’t leave work until 7pm. There was a funeral service for someone important, so I was on duty to make sure everything was in place. St. Michael’s Cemetery averages five to eight funerals a day, an hour for each. This funeral was six hours. When the man was in the ground, I headed to King’s Taste. The cashier put my usual order in when he saw me.
As I walked down Astoria Boulevard, Hamlet appeared beside me. I had forgotten about the date we planned. He said he had been looking for me at the cemetery and when he didn’t find me, he knew I went to King’s Taste.
“I’m so tired, Hammy, let’s go somewhere quiet,” I yawned and held onto his hand.
“So not your apartment?” he said. “What about Othello?”
“My mom’s got him for the day.”
Hamlet’s apartment in East Elmhurst was smaller than mine, but much quieter. I sat on his couch, eating my takeout and struggling to stay awake. He put a movie for us to watch but I sprawled myself out on the sofa instead.
“C’mon, we haven’t finished the opening credits,” he said with a light laugh.
“I can’t get up,” I groaned. Hamlet laughed again and went to his bedroom to get a blanket for me. He held me until I fell asleep. When I woke up, he wasn’t there.
I wasn’t angry at Hamlet for belonging to someone else. I was angry because he hadn’t bothered to tell me he was separated. He swore he didn’t tell me because we were happy and saying so would’ve ruined everything.
“I didn’t know my wife would come back,” Hamlet said. “It’s been a year since I’ve heard from her, Amada, how was I supposed to know she’d show up out of nowhere? She doesn’t even live in New York anymore.”
“Stop talking before I kill you! I work at a cemetery; I know what to do with your body!” I shouted. He tried to pull me back to him, but I slapped his hand away. The whole time, even though it wasn’t too long, I thought he would eventually ask me to be his wife. But there already was a Mrs. Herrera and he hadn’t told me.
“She left me the same way my dad left my mom. I was looking all over for her, but then one day I wanted Chinese food and I met-”
“Bye Hamlet,” I said and rushed out of his apartment. I jumped on the next bus that passed by. Since it was 6 in the morning, I was at work over two hours early. I clocked in anyway and started wiping. The cemetery still wasn’t open to the public when I got to Benedict Gray’s tomb. I knew because the only sobbing I heard was mine.
The cemetery saw more deaths in December than in the previous months. My boss said that happens because more people die around the holidays. I had to work more often than usual. But eventually, a month passed and it was a new year.
The day after Martin Luther King Day, I only saw two funerals and was relieved. At last, the death season was over. I wiped Mrs. Brave, leaving her clear of snow. She died in 1923 and I doubted anyone would visit. Then I clocked out for the day and walked to King’s Taste for some warm Wonton soup.
I was in my sub-zero apartment just before rush hour hit Roosevelt Avenue. Mr. Marconi didn’t sell as much ice cream during winter, but he kept the thermostat the same. Othello begged me to go out and I said, “In a minute, let me check what came in the mail.” Bills. Coupon for a store I never heard of. Pizza parlor menu. Yellow envelope addressed to Amada Aviles.
“What’s this?” I said. I tore the envelope open and pulled out a postcard of Laurence Olivier dressed as Richard III.
I’m divorced now. I am deformed, unfinished…without you. Hamlet.
I agreed to meet Hamlet for lunch at King’s Taste during my break on the following Tuesday. When I got there, I said “Number Three” to the cashier and then I felt someone hugging me from behind.
“I thought you wouldn’t come here,” Hamlet said.
“But I’m starving to death,” I said. He laughed a little and ordered his usual.
“I missed you a lot,” he said while we waited. “I wanted to crash a funeral at the cemetery just to see you again.”
“I would’ve pushed you into the hole,” I said. Hamlet began to apologize for everything but I stopped him. I didn’t want to hear him talk at all. It had been too long since I saw Hamlet and for that moment, I wanted to make sure he was really there. The cashier handed us our orders and the scent of the rice hit my senses. I wasn’t dreaming.
“Next subject,” I told him and he nodded.
“So Amada,” Hamlet said. “Why do you work at the cemetery anyway?”
“I have a natural distaste for most living people,” I said as I eased into the corner table.
“I’m a living person,” Hamlet frowned.
“Hamlet,” I said. “You’re not most living people.” Hamlet sighed from relief. He sat down next to me and sprinkled his rice over my chicken wings.