2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Living Up The Street: Narrative Recollections - Part 1 (pp. 1-32)

Author: Gary Soto

Being Mean

We were terrible kids, I think. My brother, sister, and I felt a general meanness begin to surface from our tiny souls while living on Braly Street, which was in the middle of industrial Fresno. Across the street was Coleman Pickles, while on the right of us was a junkyard that dealt in metals— aluminum, iron, sheet metal, and copper stripped from refrigerators. Down the street was Sun-Maid Raisin, where a concrete tower rose above the scraggly sycamores that lined Braly Street. Many of our family worked at Sun-Maid: Grandfather and Grandmother, Father, three uncles, an aunt, and even a dog whose job was to accompany my grandfather, a security guard, on patrol. Then there was Challenge Milk, a printing shop, and the 7-Up Company where we stole sodas. Down the alley was a broom factory and Western Book Distributor, a place where our future step-father worked at packing books into cardboard boxes, something he would do for fifteen years before the company left town for Oregon.

This was 1957. My brother Rick was six, I was five, and Debra was four. Although we looked healthy, clean in the morning, and polite as only Mexicans can be polite, we had a streak of orneriness that we imagined to be normal play. That summer— and the summer previous— we played with the Molinas who lived down the alley from us right across from the broom factory and its brutal “whack” of straw being tied into brooms. There were eight children on the block that year, ranging from twelve down to one, so there was much to do: Wrestle, eat raw bacon, jump from the couch, sword fight with rolled-up newspapers, steal from neighbors, kick chickens, throw rocks at passing cars.… While we played in the house, Mother Molina just watched us run around, a baby in her arms crying like a small piece of machinery turning at great speed. Now and then she would warn us with a smile, “Now you kids, you’re going to hurt yourselves.” We ignored her and went on pushing one another from an opened window, yelling wildly when we hit the ground because we imagined that there was a school of sharks ready to snack on our skinny legs.

What we learned from the Molinas was how to have fun, and what we taught them was how to fight. It seemed that the Sotos were inherently violent. I remember, for instance, watching my aunts going at one another in my grandmother’s back yard, while the men looked on with beers in their hands and mumbled to one another, perhaps noting the beauty of a jab or a roundhouse punch. Another time the police arrived late at night in search of our Uncle Leonard who had gotten into a fight at a neighborhood bar. Shortly thereafter, I recall driving with my mother to see him at what she said was a “soldier’s camp.” She had a sack of goods with her, and after speaking softly to a uniformed man we were permitted to enter. It was lunch time and he sat on a felled log laughing with other men. When he saw us coming, he laughed even harder.

In turn, I was edged with a meanness; and more often than not the object of my attacks was Rick. If upset, I chased him with rocks, pans, a hammer, whatever lay around in the yard. Once, when he kicked over a row of beans I had planted in the yard, I chased him down the alley with a bottle until, in range, I hurled it at him. The bottle hit him in the thigh and, to my surprise, showered open with blood. Screaming, his mouth open wide enough to saucer a hat inside, he hobbled home while I stood there, only slightly worried at his wound and the spanking that would follow, shouting that he had better never do that again. And he didn’t.

I was also hurt by others who were equally as mean, and I am thinking particularly of an Okie kid who yelled that we were dirty Mexicans. Perhaps so, but why bring it up? I looked at my feet and was embarrassed, then mad. With a bottle I approached him slowly in spite of my brother’s warnings that the kid was bigger and older. When I threw the bottle and missed, he swung his stick and my nose exploded blood for several feet. Frightened, though not crying, I ran home with Rick and Debra chasing me, and dabbed at my face and T-shirt, poked mercurochrome at the tear that bubbled, and then lay on the couch, swallowing blood as I slowly grew faint and sleepy. Rick and Debra looked at me for a while, then got up to go outside to play.

Rick and I and the Molinas all enjoyed looking for trouble and often went to extremes to try to get into fights. One day we found ourselves staring at some new kids on the street— three of them about our age— and when they looked over their picket fence to see who we were, I thought one of them had sneered at us, so I called him a name. They called back at us, and that provocation was enough to send Rick to beat on one of them. Rick entered their yard and was punched in the ear, then in the back when he tried to hunch over to protect himself. Furious as a bee, I ran to fight the kid who had humbled Rick, but was punched in the stomach, which knocked the breath out of me so I couldn’t tell anyone how much it had hurt. The Molinas grew scared and ran home, while Rick and I, slightly roughed up but sure that we had the guts to give them a good working over, walked slowly home trying to figure out how to do it. A small flame lit my brain, and I suggested that we stuff a couple of cats into potato sacks and beat the kids with them. An even smaller light flared in my brother’s brain. “Yeah, that’ll get them,” he said, happy that we were going to get even. We called to our cat, Boots, and found another unfortunate cat that was strolling nonchalantly down our alley in search of prime garbage. I called to it, and it came, purring. I carried it back to our yard where Rick had already stuffed Boots into a sack, which was bumping about on the ground. Seeing this, the cat stiffened in my arms and I had trouble working the cat into the sack, for it had spread its feet and opened its claws. But once inside, the cat grew calm, resigning itself to fate, and meowed only once or twice. For good measure I threw a bottle into my sack, and the two of us— or, to be fair, the four of us— went down the alley in search of the new kids.

We looked for them, even calling them names at their back porch, but they failed to show themselves. Rick and I believed that they were scared, so in a way we were victors. Being mean, we kicked over their garbage cans and ran home where we fought one another with the sacks, the cats all along whining and screaming to get out.

Perhaps the most enjoyable summer day was when Rick, Debra, and I decided to burn down our house. Earlier in the summer we had watched a television program on fire prevention at our grandmother’s house, only three houses down from us on Sarah Street. The three of us sat transfixed in front of the gray light of the family’s first TV. We sat on the couch with a bowl of grapes, and when the program ended the bowl was still in Rick’s lap, untouched. TV was that powerful.

Just after that program Rick and I set fire to our first shoe box, in which we imagined were many people scurrying to get out. We hovered over the fire, and our eyes grew wild. Later, we got very good at burning shoe boxes. We crayoned windows, cut doors on the sides, and dropped ants into the boxes, imagining they were people wanting very badly to live. Once the fire got going, I wailed like a siren and Rick flicked water from a coffee can at the building leaping with flames. More often than not, it burned to ash and the ants shriveled to nothing— though a few would limp away, wiser by vision of death.

But we grew bored with the shoe boxes. We wanted something more exciting and daring, so Rick suggested that we brighten our lives with a house fire. “Yeah,” Debra and I cried, leaping into the air, and proceeded to toss crumpled newspapers behind the doors, under the table, and in the middle of the living room. Rick struck a match, and we stood back laughing as the flames jumped wildly about and the newspaper collapsed into ash that floated to the ceiling. Once the fire got started we dragged in the garden hose and sprayed the house, the three of us laughing for the love of good times. We were in a frenzy to build fires and put them out with the hose. I looked at Rick and his eyes were wide with pleasure, his crazed laughter like the mad scientists of the movies we would see in the coming years. Debra was jumping up and down on the couch, a toy baby in her arms, and she was smiling her tiny teeth at the fire. I ran outside flapping my arms because I wanted to also burn the chinaberry that stood near our bedroom window. Just as I was ready to set a match to a balled newspaper I intended to hurl into the branches, our grandmother came walking slowly down the alley to check on us. (It was her responsibility to watch us during the day because our father was working at Sun-Maid Raisin and our mother was peeling potatoes at Reddi-Spud.) Grandma stopped at the gate and stared at me as if she knew what we were up to, and I stared back so I could make a quick break if she should lunge at me. Finally she asked, “How are you, honey?” I stared at my dirty legs, then up to her: “OK. I’m just playing.” With the balled newspaper in my hand, I pointed to the house and told her that Rick and Debra were inside coloring. Hearing this she said to behave myself, gave me a piece of gum, and returned to her house.

When I went back inside Rick and Debra were playing war with cherry tomatoes. Debra was behind the table on which the telephone rested, while Rick crouched behind a chair making the sounds of bombs falling.

“Rick,” I called because I wanted to tell him that Grandma had come to see how we were doing, but he threw a tomato and it splashed my T-shirt like a bullet wound. I feigned being shot and fell to the floor. He rolled from behind the chair to hide behind a door. “Are you dead?” he asked. I lifted my head and responded: “Only a little bit.”

Laughing, we hurled tomatoes at one another, and some of them hit their mark— an ear, a shoulder, a grinning face— while others skidded across the floor or became pasted to the wall. “You Jap,” Debra screamed as she cocked her hand to throw, to which I screamed, “You damn German.” We fought laughing until the tomatoes were gone. Breathing hard, we looked at the mess we had created, and then at each other, slightly concerned at what it might mean. Rick and I tried to clean up with a broom while Debra lay exhausted on the couch, thumb in her mouth and making a smacking sound. I can’t recall falling asleep but that’s what happened, because I awoke to Rick crying in the kitchen. Our mother had come home to an ash-darkened living room, a puddled kitchen, and tomato-stained walls. She yelled and spanked Rick, after which she dragged him to the stove where she heated a fork over a burner and threatened to burn his wrists. “Now are you going to play with fire?” she screamed. I peeked into the kitchen and her mouth was puckered into a dried fruit as Rick cried that she was hurting him, that he was sorry, that he would never do it again. Tear leaped from his face as he tried to wiggle free. She threw the fork into the sink, then let him go. She turned to me and yelled: “And you too, Chango!” She started after me, but I ran out the front door into the alley where I hid behind a stack of boards. I stayed there until my breathing calmed and my fear disappeared like an ash picked up by the wind. I got up and, knowing that I couldn’t return home immediately, I went to the Molinas. Just as I turned into their yard I caught sight of two of them climbing, hand over hand, on the telephone wires that stretched from above the back porch to the pole itself. A few of the younger Molinas looked on from an opened window, readying for their turn, as the radio blared behind them. I threw a rock at the two hanging from the wires, and they laughed that I missed. The other kids laughed. Their mother, with a baby in her arms, came out to the back porch, laughed, and told us to behave ourselves.


My father was showing me how to water. Earlier in the day he and a friend had leveled the backyard with a roller, then with a two-by-four they dragged on a rope to fill in the depressed areas, after which they watered the ground and combed it slowly with a steel rake. They were preparing the ground for a new lawn. They worked shirtless in the late summer heat, and talked only so often, stopping now and then to point and say things I did not understand— how fruit trees would do better near the alley and how the vegetable garden would do well on the east side of the house.

“Put your thumb like this,” he said. Standing over me, he took the hose and placed his thumb over the opening so that the water streamed out hissing and showed silver in that dusk. I tried it and the water hissed and went silver as I pointed the hose to a square patch of dirt that I soaked but was careful not to puddle.

Father returned to sit down with an iced tea. His knees were water-stained and his chest was flecked with mud. Mom sat next to him, garden gloves resting on her lap. She was wearing checkered shorts and her hair was tied up in a bandana. He patted his lap, and she jumped into it girlishly, arms around his neck. They raised their heads to watch me— or look through me, as if something were on the other side of me— and talked about our new house— the neighbors, trees they would plant, the playground down the block. They were tired from the day’s work but were happy. When Father pinched her legs, as if to imply they were fat, she punched him gently and played with his hair. The water streamed, nickel-colored, as I slowly worked from one end to the next. When I raised my face to Father’s to ask if I could stop, he pointed to an area that I had missed. Although it was summer I was cold from the water and my thumb hurt from pressing the hose, trigger-like, to reach the far places. But I wanted to please him, to work hard as he had, so I watered the patch until he told me to stop. I turned off the water, coiled the hose as best I could, and sat with them as they talked about the house and stared at where I had been standing.

The next day Father was hurt at work. A neck injury. Two days later he was dead. I remember the hour— two in the afternoon. An uncle slammed open the back door at Grandma’s and the three of us— cousin Isaac, Debbie, and I who were playing in the yard— grew stiff because we thought we were in trouble for doing something wrong. He looked at us, face lined with worry and shouting to hurry to the car. At the hospital I recall Mother holding her hand over her eyes as if she was looking into a light. She was leaning into someone’s shoulder and was being led away from the room in which Father lay.

I remember looking up but saying nothing, though I sensed what had happened— that Father was dead. I did not feel sorrow nor did I cry, but I felt conspicuous because relatives were pressing me against their legs or holding holding my hand or touching my head, tenderly. I stood among them, some of whom were crying while others had their heads bowed and mouths moving. The three of us were led away down the hall to a cafeteria where an uncle bought us candies that we ate standing up and looking around, after which we left the hospital and walked into a harsh afternoon light. We got into a blue car I had never seen before.

At the funeral there was crying. I knelt with my brother and sister, hands folded and trying to be patient, though I was itchy from the tiny coat whose shoulders worked into my armpits and from the heat of a stuffy car on our long and slow drive from the church in town. Prayers were said and a eulogy was given by a man we did not know. We were asked to view the casket, with our mother and the three of us to lead the procession. An uncle helped my mother while we walked shyly to view our father for the last time. When I stood at the casket, I was surprised to see him, eyes closed and moist-looking and wearing a cap the color of skin. (Years later I would realize that it hid the wound from which he had died.) I looked quickly and returned to my seat, head bowed because my relatives were watching me and I felt scared.

We buried our father. Later that day at the house, Grandma could not stop shaking from her nerves, so a doctor was called. I was in the room when he opened his bag and shiny things gleamed from inside it. Scared, I left the room and sat in the living room with my sister, who had a doughnut in her hand, with one bite gone. An aunt whose face was twisted from crying looked at me and, feeling embarrassed, I lowered my head to play with my fingers.

A week later relatives came to help build the fence Father had planned for the new house. A week after that Rick, Debra, and I were playing in an unfurnished bedroom with a can of marbles Mother had given us. Behind the closed door we rolled the marbles so that they banged against the baseboard and jumped into the air. We separated, each to a corner, where we swept them viciously with our arms— the clatter of the marbles hitting the walls so loud I could not hear the things in my heart.

1, 2, 3

When I was seven years old I spent most of the summer at Romain playground, a brown stick among other brown kids. The playground was less than a block from where we lived, on a street of retired couples, Okie families, and two or three Mexican families. Just before leaving for work our mother told us— my brother Rick, sister Debra, and me— not to leave the house until after one in the afternoon, at which time I skipped off to the playground, barefoot and smiling my teeth that were uneven and without direction. By that hour the day was yellow with one-hundred-degree heat, the sun blaring high over the houses. I walked the asphalt street with little or no pain toward a mirage of water that disappeared as I approached it.

At the playground I asked for checkers at the game room, unfolded the board under the elm that was cut with initials and, if he was there, I played with Ronnie, an Okie kid who was so poor that he had nothing to wear but a bathing suit. All summer he showed up in his trunks, brown as the rest of us Mexicans, and seemed to enjoy himself playing checkers, Candyland, and Sorry. Once, when I brought him an unwrapped jelly sandwich in my hand, the shapes of my fingers pressed into the bread, he took it and didn’t look into my eyes. He ate very slowly, deliberating over each move. When he beat me and had polished off his sandwich, he turned away without a word and ran off to play with someone else.

If Ronnie was not there and no one else challenged me, I just sat under the tree stacking checkers until they toppled over and I started again to raise that crooked spine of checkers a foot high.

If there were only little kids— four or five-year-olds who could count to ten— I played Candyland, a simple game of gum drops and sugar canes down a road to an ice cream sandwich. I remember playing with Rosie, a five-year-old whose brother Raymond got his leg broken when he was hit by a car. I was not around that day, but I recall racing a friend to where it had happened to look at the dried blood on the curb. My friend and I touched the stain. I scratched at it so that a few flakes got under my nails, and no matter how I picked and sucked at them, they wouldn’t come out. We both ran home very frightened.

Rosie sat across the picnic-like table from me, her stringy hair spiked with a few flowers, and called me “Blackie” when it was my turn to spin the wheel and move down the candyland road. I didn’t hit her because she had six brothers, five of them bigger than me. To smack her would have meant terror that would last for years. But the truth was that she liked me, for she offered me sunflower seeds from her sweaty palms and let me spit the shells at her.

“Spin the wheel, Blackie,” she said with a mouthful of her seeds and sniffling from a perennial cold, a bubble of snot coming and going.

“OK, tether-ball-head,” I countered. Both of us laughed at each other’s cleverness while we traded off spitting shells at one another, a few pasting themselves to our foreheads.

One Saturday morning a well-dressed man let his daughter try the slide. Rosie ran over to join the little girl, who was wearing a dress, her hair tied into a neat pony tail. Her shoes were glossy black and she wore socks with red trim. Rosie squealed at the little girl and the girl squealed back, and they both ran off to play while the father sat with his newspaper on the bench.

I went and sat on the same bench, shyly picking at the brittle, green paint but not looking up at the man at first. When my eyes did lift, slowly like balloons let go, I took it all in: His polished shoes, creased pants, the shirt, and his watch that glinted as he turned the page of his newspaper. I had seen fathers like him before on the Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best, and I was pleased that he was here at our playground because I felt that we were being trusted, that nearby, just beyond our block, the rich people lived and were welcoming.

He looked up from the newspaper at me and forced a quick smile that relaxed back into a line as he returned to his paper. Happily I jumped from the bench and rushed to play with Rosie and the little girl, hoping to catch the man’s eye as I swung twice as high as the girls and parachuted with great abandon to land like a frog. He looked up to smile, but dropped his eyes back to the newspaper as he recrossed his legs.

But then it happened: The little girl fell from the swing while Rosie was pushing her. Startled by her sudden crying, the man’s eyes locked on the scene of Rosie hovering over his daughter crying on the ground. He jumped up yelling, “You filthy Mexican.” He picked up his daughter who had stopped crying, and then, turning to Rosie who was saying that she hadn’t done anything, he shoved her hard against the chain link fence so that her sunflower seeds flew in every direction. She got up bent over, her breath knocked out, mouth open wide as a cup and a string of saliva lengthening to the ground.

Three of her brothers were playing Chinese checkers under the tree, and when they saw what had happened they ran to fight the man with handfuls of redwood chips that they had scooped up from the play area. Like the rest of us, the brothers, who ranged from eight to fourteen, wore T-shirts and cut-offs but with no shoes— sons of the very poor. But unlike the rest of us, they were fierce brawlers who would go at it even with older kids as they flew up like chickens against those who got them mad.

Yelling, “You nigger people,” his raised arm blocking the puffs of redwood chips, the man was backed into the merry-go-round while his daughter, some distance away, clung to the chain link fence. He charged one brother and pushed him to the ground only to feel a handful of redwood chips against his face. Coughing, he grabbed another brother and threw him to the ground while still another threw a softball at his back. In pain, the man turned around and chased the brother, but was stopped by the coach who had come running from the baseball game on the other side of the playground.

“Don’t touch him,” the coach warned the man, who was shouting whatever wild insults came to his mind. The coach tried to coax him to calm down, but the man, whose eyes were glassy, raved rabidly as his arms flailed about.

I had been watching from upside-down on the bars, but got down to help Rosie gather her seeds. She was on her knees, face streaked and nose running. I pinched up three seeds from the ground before I turned to stand by the brothers who were still taunting the man with Coke bottles they had pulled from the garbage. Suddenly the man broke down and as loudly as he had screamed names, he screamed that he was sorry, that he didn’t know what he was doing. He gathered his daughter in his arms, repeating again and again that he was sorry. The coach ushered him to the gate while the brothers, two of them crying, yelled that they were going to get him.

“You are no one, mister. You think you can do this to us because we’re little,” one said with his Coke bottle still cocked and ready.

I wanted to run for them as they left for their car, to explain that it was a mistake; that we also fell from the swings and the bars and slide and got hurt. I wanted to show the man my chin that broke open on the merry-go-round, the half-moon of pink scar. But they hurried away, sweaty from the morning sun, the man’s pants and shirt stained with dirt and the little girl’s limp dress smudged from her fall, and in some ways looking like us.

I returned to Rosie who was still collecting her seeds, and feeling bad but not knowing what to do, I got to my knees and asked if she wanted to play. I touched her hair, then her small shoulders, and called her name. She looked up at me, her face still wet from crying, and said, “Go away, Blackie.”

That summer my eyes became infected. My brother and I had had a contest to see how long we could stare into the table fan without looking away. I was there for an hour, my head propped up in my hands, pretending all along I was in a biplane and the earth far below was World War I France. (That summer we watched Dialing-for-Dollars, a morning program that featured many war movies. Together we sat in a rocker-turned-fighter plane and machine-gunned everyone to death, both the good and the bad.)

An hour in front of the fan, and the next morning I woke with my eyes caked with mucus and unable to open them. I screamed to my mother who was in the kitchen stirring oatmeal, and when she came to the bedroom she screamed louder than me and fainted, dropping to the floor like a bundle of laundry. My brother rushed into the room with my sister following behind him, and both of them screamed when they saw Mom moaning on the ground. Looking up, they screamed as my hands searched the air, and flew to the living room . My mother woke with an “Ay, Dios,” bundled me in her arms, and carried me to the bathroom where she rinsed a hot wash cloth and rubbed it across my eyes, until the mucus softened and my lids fluttered open.

She screamed again because my eyes were not red but milky. She called the doctor who suggested an eye specialist, and that afternoon she took me to see the specialist with my eyes covered by a bandana. We were seen immediately. The nurse ushered us into a dimmed examining room where we were met by a doctor who lifted me into a chair whose motor whined until I was tilted far back. He pointed a small, chrome flashlight at each eye and with a Q-tip he tapped mucus from the corners of my eyes. With the lights back on, he squeezed eye drops between my spread lids, gave my mother instructions, and said it was important that I wear special sunglasses for the next three days. He fitted me with plastic smoke-colored glasses with paper earpieces.

“How’s that, young man?” he said, trying to be cheerful. “You’ll be just fine in a couple of days.” He patted my knee and gave me a candy.

While Mother paid the receptionist I looked around the room, from the ceiling to the pictures of ships in a rough sea. It was smoky through the glasses. When we left the air-conditioned office the heat of the afternoon overwhelmed me, and I wanted to take off the glasses to wipe my nose of sweat, but Mother said that the light would make me go blind. We drove home in silence, past the smoky church and the smoky furniture store. I looked at my mother and she was smoky. Our block was smoky as we turned into it. My brother and sister, who greeted me with laughter, were darker than we’d left them. My mother scolded them and told them to water the lawn while we went inside where I was given a bowl of ice cream. I took this treat to the front window and looked out on a knot of smoky neighbor kids who were staring in silence. One of them asked if I was blind.

“No, Frostie,” I called through the screened window. “I can still see your mocos.”

That night I was pampered by Mother; Rick and Debra grew envious because I was served more ice cream, more this and that, and was allowed to stay up until nine-thirty to watch Dobie Gillis in my smoky sunglasses. I could hear my brother in bed trying to talk to me.

“I’m going to get you, Gary,” Rick said. I laughed especially loud at each funny scene, and when the program ended I said, “Boy, that was real good.”

When I was sent to bed, I took off my sunglasses carefully and fogged them with my breath, rubbing them clean with my T-shirt. I placed them on the bureau and climbed into my bunk bed, while Rick muttered threats because he felt that I was being spoiled.

The next day we were again warned by our mother, who worked until four candling eggs for Safeway, not to go outside the house until one or the police might arrest her. The neighbors should not know that we were being left alone.

“But, Gary , you have to stay inside. I don’t want you to go out in the sunlight .” At the door she reminded me with a shake of her finger, “You heard what the doctor said. You can go blind, m’ijo.”

I watched the morning movie in which John Wayne, injured in an attack on an aircraft carrier, had lost the ability to walk, but later, through courage and fortitude, he pulled himself out of bed, walked a few stiff steps, and collapsed just as the doctor and his girlfriend entered the room to witness his miracle comeback. I saw myself as John Wayne. Nearly blinded by a mean brother, I overcame my illness to become a fighter pilot who saves the world from the Japanese . I took a few Frankenstein steps across the living room, shouting that I was healed by the Lord. My brother countered with “You’re not funny.” He got up and went to the garage with Debra where they hammered on boards they said were going to be a scooter.

At one o’clock Rick and Debra went outside to ride their bikes in front of the house as I sat at the window yearning to join them. They rode by slowly, then with great speed, as they made certain to turn to me and smile to show they were really getting a kick out of riding their bikes. They rode for a while, their brows sweaty and their cheeks reddening, before an ice cream truck jingled up the block. They pulled together from their pockets seven cents for a juice bar which they took turns licking slowly under a tree. Rick looked at the window where I sat with my sunglasses on, and, very exaggeratedly, called out, “Ummm, good!”

They came inside , cooled off with Kool-Aid, and watched a game show neither of them cared for. Bored, Debra turned off the TV and went to her room to play with her dolls while Rick disappeared into the garage, where the rap of the hammer started up again. I peeked out the kitchen door that led to the garage, but he warned me that if I came out he would tell Mom.

Minutes later he came back into the living room where I was drawing and asked if I wanted to go to the playground.

“But Mom will get mad,” I said.

“Ah, don’t worry,” he argued. “We’ll be back before four. She won’t know.”

Debra returned to the living room and stood by Rick. Reluctant at first, I gave in when I saw them walk down the street without looking back, and trotted after them while holding onto my sunglasses so they wouldn’t fall off.

At the playground I was a celebrity; the kids milled around me and asked if I was blind, did it hurt, would I have to wear the sunglasses forever? I played checkers and Candyland with Ronnie, happy that I was noticed by so many. Even the coach asked how I was, touched my hair and tenderly called me “knucklehead.” This made Rick mad and when he said it was time to go home I told him it was only three-thirty and that Mom wouldn’t get home until after four. Upset, he left with Debra tagging along in his shadow, but turned around before he was out of sight and said that he was going to get me. I played with Ronnie and sucked on a juice bar the coach had bought me, but left in a scramble when I discovered it was close to four.

As I returned home, happy as a pup, Rick jumped out from under a neighbor’s hedge. “Now you’re gonna get it, punk.” His grin was mean and his eyes were narrowed like the Japanese I had seen on television that morning. Wrestling me to the ground , he scratched off my sunglasses, laughed a fake laugh, and ran away wearing them. Crying, and with my hands shading my brow, I rolled under the hedge Rick had jumped from because it was dark in there. The earth was cool and leaves stuck to my hair and T-shirt. I sat up Indian-style, squinting and calling for help, although no one came.

I tried to move but a branch stabbed my back and ripped through my shirt, so I sat under the hedge calling out now and then, thinking that it was only a matter of time before I would go blind. An old woman with a shopping cart passed, and I called to her that I was going blind. She stopped, looked inside the hedge, her glasses slipping down from the bridge of her nose, and said, “Dear, I know just how you feel. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I can hardly make out where things are without my glasses.” She turned away and continued down the street.

I started crying because I knew that when Mother discovered me under the hedge she would be mad. There would be no excuses. She would drag me home for a spanking while the neighbor kids watched.

Finally, about an hour later, I heard my mother’s voice calling my name. I heard the clip-clop of my mother’s sandals, her stern voice: “Where are you, Chango?”

“In the hedge, Mamma.”

She bent down with her hands on her knees and squinted into the greenery. I squinted back and begged her not to hit me. Squatting, she waddled into the hedge, grabbed my wrist roughly, and tugged until I was standing up with my hands over my eyes. She fixed the sunglasses on my face and asked me what the hell I was doing in there.

“I didn’t want to go blind. Rick took my sunglasses. They made me go to the playground,” I whimpered incoherently , spilling it all. Once home, Rick got a spanking and Mom was raising a belt to punish me when I pointed to my sunglasses and cried out that I might really go blind. She stopped, her lips pursed, and just wagged her finger at me and warned that I would get a double dose the next time I misbehaved.

From the bedroom I could hear Rick whimpering into his pillow, “You’re gonna get it, punk!”

One day the woman coach at the playground announced a crafts contest. The word went out in the morning when the kids gathered around her to hear what she had to say. Two kids sat in her lap while another played with her blond curls as she broke the contest into categories: Drawing, lanyard, clay, and macaroni. First place winners would receive baseball caps. We oohed and aahed. The second and third place winners would get certificates. We oohed and aahed again.

“Now, kids , it’s important to be original,” she said. Someone asked what “original” meant.

“You know, different.… You know, unique,” she answered, and emphasized the definition with her hands. I thought about this, and the next day for crafts period I came to the playground with a Frostie root beer bottle. At the picnic table under the tree I spray-painted it gold, let it dry in the sun, and after smearing it with glue rolled it into a pie tin of peat moss which shimmered a mystical gold. Pleased thus far , I then glued macaroni noodles that I had painted red to the neck of the bottle.

I worked in deep concentration as did the other kids, and when I finished I carried it very carefully to the game room where the coach sat on a stool behind a Dutch door thumbing through magazines. I looked up at her, smiling my happiness. She squinted and furrowed her brow when she saw my creation. “Ummm, interesting, Gary.” She took it and placed it on a shelf.

The next day I made an ashtray. I rolled clay into a ball, pressed it out into a circle, and then raised the edges with a spoon. I made four dents where the cigarettes would rest , sticking colored buttons on each side of the dents.

That afternoon I also attempted a lanyard, but my patience with “loop and tuck, loop and tuck” gave out and I threw it into the garbage can. “Damn thing,” I said under my breath as I walked to the game room to check out a four-square ball. I bounced it inordinately high in hopes of attracting the kids who were still working at their crafts under the tree. Few looked up and none left to join me; their dirty legs dangled motionless under the table.

At dinner that evening my sister and I described to our mother the excitement of the contest, each sure the other was out of the running.

“You should see my Frostie bottle ,” I said to her as I ripped a tortilla and chewed loudly. “It’s beautiful— like gold.”

Debra described the toilet roll she had painted red and black with macaroni glued in a spiral like a barber’s pole.

“Mine’s the best, Mom!” Debra tore off a piece of tortilla and chewed louder than me, with her mouth open.

“Mom, I can see Debbie’s food ,” I pointed with a fork. Debra chewed even louder, mocking me with her eyes spread wide like a bug’s.

“OK, you kids, behave yourselves.” Mom cleared the table as we scooted outside to play.

The next day I made a drawing of a dragster on fire. I outlined the lean body carefully , deliberating on each feature from the spoked wheels to the roll bar, and then scribbled the flames a vicious red and black, all the while whining like a car turning a corner. Finished, I carried it stiffly, as if I were in a pageant, to the game room. I handed it proudly to the coach who asked what it was.

“A dragster. That’s the engine.” I pointed out the eighteen pipes that hung on the side. I showed her the driver who had been thrown from the car. He was dead.

That afternoon the coach announced a special contest in which we could do anything we pleased.

“But it must be a secret,” she said. All of the kids huddled in the shade because of the afternoon heat that rose above a hundred degrees. We listened quietly as she explained that we had to do it at home with our own materials and that we should be original. And again we asked what “original” meant, and again she explained , “You know, different.… You know, unique,” with her hands flashing out for definition.

Starry-eyed, my mind blazing with a seven-year-old’s idea of beauty, I ran home because I knew exactly what I intended to produce. From the garbage I pulled a Campbell’s soup can, ripped off the paper label, and in the garage painted it red with a stiff brush, the stifling heat wringing sweat from my face. I let the soup can dry in the sun, and that evening I glued rows of bottle caps that I had dug out with a spoon from a Coke machine: One row of Coca-Cola caps, then a row of Orange Crush, then one of Dr. Pepper, and so on. When I finished with this detail I packed dirt into the can, poked two pinto beans into it, and watered them carefully so the bottle caps wouldn’t get wet and fall off.

I was pleased with my craft. When my mother came home that afternoon I took her by the hand to the back yard to show her.

“Very pretty.” Her face was plain and unmoved, tired from a day’s work of candling eggs, but still I grinned like a cat, already imagining that on Monday when the judging took place I was sure to win.

It was Friday when I finished the “special” craft, and I assumed that the next day the sprout of a pinto bean would break through the moist dirt. Nothing was there in the center of the can, so I watered it again with great care, every few hours checking to see if the beans had sprouted. Nothing.

Sunday arrived with still no sprout of greenery. Only two ants salvaging a feathery seed. I blew them from their task and again watered the beans, after which I placed the can on the fence rail in full sun and skipped off to play for the day, believing that when I returned home I would find the pale head of a bean plant pushing up from the dirt. I took the can off the fence. Nothing.

I brought the can into the garage where I pasted back the bottle caps that had fallen off from the sun’s heat. I tapped the dirt , and it was hard. I again watered the seeds, praying they would grow.

“Come on, plants, get up. Tomorrow it’s Monday.”

Monday morning the plants had not come through, and although I was disappointed I still wanted to enter the can in the contest. With Debra, who had made a pencil holder from a toilet roll encircled with popsicle sticks, I went to the playground where I handed over my craft piece to the woman coach. That afternoon there was no crafts period; instead the man coach, along with a lady we didn’t know, came to judge.

“How can you kids stand the heat?” the lady asked as she stepped into the game room fanning herself with a paper plate. She wore a white dress with a shiny red belt and a red hat, and looked very clean with her made-up face.

All the kids gathered around the Dutch door to try to hear what they were mumbling as they hovered over the crafts.

Caveman, an Okie kid whose closely cropped hair sloped at a forty-five degree angle, climbed the Dutch door, and before the woman coach could stop him he went up to the lady and tugged at her dress. Looking up to her with a face covered with snots, he asked her for a nickel. “I’m hungry.”

Embarrassed, the woman coach apologized and scolded Caveman as she carried him from the game room. She told the rest of us to go and sit under the tree. Caveman ran off as a brother of Rosie’s trailed him with his fists closed.

Finally, about half an hour later, the coaches, along with the well-dressed lady, came out and announced the names of the winners. Among them were Ronnie, Rosie, Weasel, Raymond, and even Caveman. They repeated the names because two prizes had been left out. That time around I had won third prize for my Frostie bottle! I screamed loudly, and screamed again when I saw the man coach lugging a bucket of iced Cokes that gleamed like fish. The woman coach arrived with popcorn and cookies, and we all screamed and laughed and argued throughout the afternoon.

When the party was over, my sister and I left with the crafts that hadn’t won first place. Debra had won two second place certificates, and bragged all the way home and into autumn. Still, I was happy and taped my third place certificate to the bedroom wall. That evening after dinner I took my can to the front yard where I sat on the lawn sucking a blade of grass and wondered why the plants had not come up. My brother Rick rode by on his bike and yelled, “I told you I’d get you.” I looked up at him as he rode off, and then looked at the can with realization. I scratched the surface of the dirt lightly and then dug with the full force of my fingernails. Nothing.

I looked up from the can and, with moist eyes, muttered, “My brother has to die.”

Looking for Work

One July, while killing ants on the kitchen sink with a rolled newspaper, I had a nine-year-old’s vision of wealth that would save us from ourselves. For weeks I had drunk Kool-Aid and watched morning reruns of Father Knows Best, whose family was so uncomplicated in its routine that I very much wanted to imitate it. The first step was to get my brother and sister to wear shoes at dinner.

“Come on, Rick— come on, Deb,” I whined. But Rick mimicked me and the same day that I asked him to wear shoes he came to the dinner table in only his swim trunks. My mother didn’t notice, nor did my sister, as we sat to eat our beans and tortillas in the stifling heat of our kitchen. We all gleamed like cellophane, wiping the sweat from our brows with the backs of our hands as we talked about the day: Frankie our neighbor was beat up by Faustino; the swimming pool at the playground would be closed for a day because the pump was broken.

Such was our life. So that morning, while doing in the train of ants which arrived each day, I decided to become wealthy, and right away! After downing a bowl of cereal, I took a rake from the garage and started up the block to look for work.

We lived on an ordinary block of mostly working class people: warehousemen, egg candlers, welders, mechanics , and a union plumber. And there were many retired people who kept their lawns green and the gutters uncluttered of the chewing gum wrappers we dropped as we rode by on our bikes. They bent down to gather our litter, muttering at our evilness.

At the corner house I rapped the screen door and a very large woman in a muu-muu answered. She sized me up and then asked what I could do.

“Rake leaves,” I answered, smiling.

“It’s summer, and there ain’t no leaves,” she countered. Her face was pinched with lines; fat jiggled under her chin. She pointed to the lawn, then the flower bed, and said: “You see any leaves there— or there ?” I followed her pointing arm, stupidly. But she had a job for me and that was to get her a Coke at the liquor store. She gave me twenty cents, and after ditching my rake in a bush, off I ran. I returned with an unbagged Pepsi, for which she thanked me and gave me a nickel from her apron.

I skipped off her porch, fetched my rake, and crossed the street to the next block where Mrs. Moore, mother of Earl the retarded man, let me weed a flower bed . She handed me a trowel and for a good part of the morning my fingers dipped into the moist dirt, ripping up runners of Bermuda grass. Worms surfaced in my search for deep roots, and I cut them in halves, tossing them to Mrs. Moore’s cat who pawed them playfully as they dried in the sun. I made out Earl whose face was pressed to the back window of the house, and although he was calling to me I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Embarrassed, I worked without looking up, but I imagined his contorted mouth and the ring of keys attached to his belt— keys that jingled with each palsied step. He scared me and I worked quickly to finish the flower bed. When I did finish Mrs. Moore gave me a quarter and two peaches from her tree, which I washed there but ate in the alley behind my house.

I was sucking on the second one, a bit of juice staining the front of my T-shirt, when Little John, my best friend, came walking down the alley with a baseball bat over his shoulder, knocking over trash cans as he made his way toward me.

Little John and I went to St. John’s Catholic School, where we sat among the “stupids.” Miss Marino, our teacher alternated the rows of good students with the bad, hoping that by sitting side-by-side with the bright students the stupids might become more intelligent, as though intelligence were contagious. But we didn’t progress as she had hoped. She grew frustrated when one day, while dismissing class for recess, Little John couldn’t get up because his arms were stuck in the slats of the chair’s backrest. She scolded us with a shaking finger when we knocked over the globe, denting the already troubled Africa. She muttered curses when Leroy White, a real stupid but a great Softball player with the gift to hit to all fields, openly chewed his host when he made his First Communion; his hands swung at his sides as he returned to the pew looking around with a big smile.

Little John asked what I was doing, and I told him that I was taking a break from work, as I sat comfortably among high weeds . He wanted to join me, but I reminded him that the last time he’d gone door-to-door asking for work his mother had whipped him. I was with him when his mother, a New Jersey Italian who could rise up in anger one moment and love the next, told me in a polite but matter-of-fact voice that I had to leave because she was going to beat her son. She gave me a homemade popsicle , ushered me to the door, and said that I could see Little John the next day. But it was sooner than that. I went around to his bedroom window to suck my popsicle and watch Little John dodge his mother’s blows, a few hitting their mark but many whirring air.

It was midday when Little John and I converged in the alley, the sun blazing in the high nineties, and he suggested that we go to Roosevelt High School to swim. He needed five cents to make fifteen, the cost of admission, and I lent him a nickel. We ran home for my bike and when my sister found out that we were going swimming, she started to cry because she didn’t have the fifteen cents but only an empty Coke bottle. I waved for her to come and three of us mounted the bike—Debra on the cross bar, Little John on the handle bars and holding the Coke bottle which we would cash for a nickel and make up the difference that would allow all of us to get in, and me pumping up the crooked streets, dodging cars and pot holes. We spent the day swimming under the afternoon sun, so that when we got home our mom asked us what was darker, the floor or us? She feigned a stern posture, her hands on her hips and her mouth puckered. We played along. Looking down, Debbie and I said in unison, “Us.”

That evening at dinner we all sat down in our bathing suits to eat our beans, laughing and chewing loudly. Our mom was in a good mood, so I took a risk and asked her if sometime we could have turtle soup. A few days before I had watched a television program in which a Polynesian tribe killed a large turtle, gutted it, and then stewed it over an open fire. The turtle, basted in a sugary sauce, looked delicious as I ate an afternoon bowl of cereal, but my sister, who was watching the program with a glass of Kool-Aid between her knees, said, “Caca.”

My mother looked at me in bewilderment. “Boy, are you a crazy Mexican. Where did you get the idea that people eat turtles?”

“On television,” I said, explaining the program. Then I took it a step further. “Mom, do you think we could get dressed up for dinner one of these days? David King does.”

Ay, Dios,” my mother laughed. She started collecting the dinner plates, but my brother wouldn’t let go of his. He was still drawing a picture in the bean sauce. Giggling, he said it was me, but I didn’t want to listen because I wanted an answer from Mom. This was the summer when I spent the mornings in front of the television that showed the comfortable lives of white kids. There were no beatings, no rifts in the family. They wore bright clothes; toys tumbled from their closets. They hopped into bed with kisses and woke to glasses of fresh orange juice, and to a father sitting before his morning coffee while the mother buttered his toast. They hurried through the day making friends and gobs of money, returning home to a warmly lit living room, and then dinner. Leave It to Beaver was the program I replayed in my mind:

“May I have the mashed potatoes?” asks Beaver with a smile.

“Sure, Beav,” replies Wally as he taps the corners of his mouth with a starched napkin.

The father looks on in his suit. The mother, decked out in earrings and a pearl necklace, cuts into her steak and blushes. Their conversation is politely clipped.

“Swell,” says Beaver, his cheeks puffed with food.

Our own talk at dinner was loud with belly laughs and marked by our pointing forks at one another. The subjects were commonplace.

“Gary, let’s go to the ditch tomorrow,” my brother suggests. He explains that he has made a life preserver out of four empty detergent bottles strung together with twine and that he will make me one if I can find more bottles. “No way are we going to drown.”

“Yeah, then we could have a dirt clod fight,” I reply, so happy to be alive.

Whereas the Beaver’s family enjoyed dessert in dishes at the table, our mom sent us outside, and more often than not I went into the alley to peek over the neighbor’s fences and spy out fruit, apricot or peaches.

I had asked my mom and again she laughed that I was a crazy chavalo as she stood in front of the sink, her arms rising and falling with suds, face glistening from the heat. She sent me outside where my brother and sister were sitting in the shade that the fence threw out like a blanket. They were talking about me when I plopped down next to them. They looked at one another and then Debbie, my eight-year-old sister, started in.

“What’s this crap about getting dressed up?”

She had entered her profanity stage. A year later she would give up such words and slip into her Catholic uniform, and into squealing on my brother and me when we “cussed this” and “cussed that.”

I tried to convince them that if we improved the way we looked we might get along better in life. White people would like us more. They might invite us to places, like their homes or front yards. They might not hate us so much.

My sister called me a “craphead,” and got up to leave with a stalk of grass dangling from her mouth. “They’ll never like us.”

My brother’s mood lightened as he talked about the ditch—the white water, the broken pieces of glass, and the rusted car fenders that awaited our knees. There would be toads, and rocks to smash them.

David King, the only person we knew who resembled the middle class, called from over the fence. David was Catholic, of Armenian and French descent, and his closet was filled with toys. A bear-shaped cookie jar, like the ones on television, sat on the kitchen counter. His mother was remarkably kind while she put up with the racket we made on the street. Evenings, she often watered the front yard and it must have upset her to see us—my brother and I and others—jump from trees laughing, the unkillable kids of the very poor, who got up unshaken, brushed off, and climbed into another one to try again.

David called again. Rick got up and slapped grass from his pants. When I asked if I could come along he said no. David said no. They were two years older so their affairs were different from mine. They greeted one another with foul names and took off down the alley to look for trouble.

I went inside the house, turned on the television, and was about to sit down with a glass of Kool-Aid when Mom shooed me outside.

“It’s still light,” she said. “Later you’ll bug me to let you stay out longer. So go on.”

I downed my Kool-Aid and went outside to the front yard. No one was around. The day had cooled and a breeze rustled the trees. Mr. Jackson, the plumber, was watering his lawn and when he saw me he turned away to wash off his front steps. There was more than an hour of light left, so I took advantage of it and decided to look for work. I felt suddenly alive as I skipped down the block in search of an overgrown flower bed and the dime that would end the day right.

DMU Timestamp: September 14, 2015 22:08