Longform

Myths Over Miami

Page 3 of 6

He explains that Satan harbors a special hatred of Miami owing to a humiliation he suffered while on an Ocean Drive reconnaissance mission. He was hunting for gateways for his demons and was scouting for nasty emotions to feed them. Satan's trip began with an exhilarating start; he moved undetected among high-rolling South Beach clubhoppers despite the fact that his skin was, as Phatt's friend Victoria explains, covered with scales like a "gold and silver snake."

Why didn't the rich people notice? Eight-year-old Victoria scrunches up her face, pondering. "Well, I think maybe sometimes they're real stupid so they get tricked," she replies. Plus, she adds, the Devil was "wearing all that Tommy Hilfiger and smoking Newports and drinking wine that cost maybe three dollars for a big glass." He found a large Hell door under the Colony Hotel, and just as he was offering the owner ten Mercedes-Benzes for use of the portal, he was captured by angels.

"The rich people said: 'Why are you taking our friend who buys us drinks?'" Phatt continues. "The angels tied him under the river and said: 'See what happens when the water touch him. Just see!'"

Phatt insists that his beloved cousin (and only father figure) Ronnie, who joined the U.S. Army to escape Liberty City and was killed last year in another city, warned him about what happened next at the river. (Ronnie was gunned down on Valentine's Day while bringing cupcakes to a party at the school where his girlfriend taught. He appeared to Phatt after that -- to congratulate him on winning a shelter spelling bee, and to show him a shortcut to his elementary school devoid of sidewalk drunks.)

One night this year Phatt and his mother made a bed out of plastic grocery bags in a Miami park where junkies congregate. It was his turn to stand guard against what he calls "screamers," packs of roaming addicts, while his mother slept. Suddenly Ronnie stood before him, dressed in his army uniform. "The Devil got loose from under the river!" Ronnie said. "The rich people didn't stop him! The angels need soldiers."

Phatt says his dead cousin told him that as soon as water touched the Devil's skin, it turned deep burgundy and horns grew from his head. The river itself turned to blood; ghostly screams and bones of children he had murdered floated from its depths. Just when the angels thought they had convinced Good Streets' denizens that they were in as much danger as those in Bad Streets, Satan vanished through a secret gateway beneath the river. "Now he's coming your way," Ronnie warned. "You'll need to learn how to fight." Ronnie nodded toward the dog-eared math and spelling workbooks Phatt carries even when he can't attend school. "Study hard," he implored. "Stay strong and smart so's you count on yourself, no one else. Never stop watching. Bloody Mary is coming with Satan. And she's seen your face."

Given what the secret stories of shelter children say about the afterlife, it isn't surprising that Ronnie appeared in his military uniform. There is no Heaven in the stories, though the children believe that dead loved ones might make it to an angels' encampment hidden in a beautiful jungle somewhere beyond Miami. To ensure that they find it, a fresh green palm leaf (to be used as an entrance ticket) must be dropped on the beloved's grave.

This bit of folklore became an obsession for eight-year-old Miguel. His father, a Nicaraguan immigrant, worked the overnight shift at a Miami gas station. Miguel always walked down the street by himself to bring his dad a soda right before the child's bedtime, and they'd chat. Then one night his father was murdered while on the job. Recalls Miguel: "The police say the robbers put lit matches all over him before they killed him."

Miguel's mother speaks no English and is illiterate. She was often paid less than two dollars per hour for the temporary jobs she could find in Little Havana (mopping shop floors, washing dishes in restaurants). After her husband's death, she lost her apartment. No matter where Miguel's family of three subsequently slept (a church pew, a shelter bed, a sidewalk), his father's spirit appeared, bloodied and burning all over with tiny flames. Miguel's teachers would catch him running out of his school in central Miami, his small fists filled with green palm leaves, determined to find his father's grave. A social worker finally took him to the cemetery, though Miguel refused to offer her any explanation. "I need my daddy to find the fighter angels," Miguel says from a Salvation Army facility located near Liberty City. "I'll go there when I'm killed."

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Lynda Edwards