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Living Up The Street: Narrative Recollections - Part 3 (pp. 63-92)

Author: Gary Soto

Summer School

The summer before I entered sixth grade I decided to go to summer school. I had never gone, and it was either school or mope around the house with a tumbler of Kool-Aid and watch TV, flipping the channels from exercise programs to soap operas to game shows until something looked right.

My sister decided to go to summer school too, so the two of us hopped onto our bikes and rode off to Heaton Elementary, which was three miles away, and asked around until we were pointed to the right rooms. I ran off without saying good-bye to Debra.

These were the home rooms where the teachers would check roll, announce bulletins, and read us a story before we dashed off to other classes. That morning I came in breathing hard, smiling a set of teeth that were fit for an adult, and took a seat behind a fat kid named Yodelman so I couldn’t be seen.

The teacher, whose name is forgotten, told us that summer school classes were all electives—that we could choose anything we wanted. She had written them on the blackboard, and from her list I chose science, history, German, and square dancing.

Little John, a friend from our street, sat across the room. I had not seen him at first, which miffed him because he thought I was playing stuck-up for some reason, and so he threw an acorn at me that bounced harmlessly off Yodelman’s shoulder. Yodelman turned his head slowly, turtle-like, blinked his small dull eyes, and then turned his head back to the teacher who was telling us that we had to fill out cards. She had two monitors pass out pencils, and we hovered and strained over the card: Date of birth, address, grade, career goals. At the last one I thought for the longest time, pencil poised and somewhat worried, before I raised my hand to ask the teacher how to spell paleontology. Surprised, as if someone had presented her flowers, she opened her mouth, searched the ceiling with her eyes, and gave it a stab: p-a-y-e-n-t-o-l-o-g-y. I wrote it in uneven capitals and then wrote “bone collector” in the margin.

Little John glared at me, made a fist, and wet his lips. When class was dismissed he punched me softly in the arm and together the two of us walked out of class talking loudly, happy that we were together.

While Little John went to typing I went to science class. The teacher stood before us in a white shirt, yardstick in hand, surrounded by jars of animal parts floating in clear liquids. This scared me, as did a replica of a skeleton hanging like a frayed coat in the corner. On the first day we looked carefully at leaves in groups of threes, after which the teacher asked us to describe the differences.

“This one is dried up and this one is not so dried up,” one kid offered, a leaf in each hand.

The teacher, who was kind, said that that was a start. He raised his yardstick and pointed to someone else.

From there I went to history, a class I enjoyed immensely because it was the first one ever in which I would earn an A. This resulted from reading thirty books—pamphlets to be more exact. I was a page turner, and my index finger touched each paragraph before the thumb peeled a new page, as I became familiar with Edison, Carnegie, MacArthur, Eli Whitney … At the end of the five-week summer school, the teacher would call me to the front of the class to tell about the books I had read. He stood behind the lectern, looking down at his watch now and then, and beamed at me like a flashlight.

“Who was Pike?”

“Oh, he was the guy that liked to go around in the mountains.”

“Who was Genghis Khan?”

“He was a real good fighter. In China.”

With each answer the teacher smiled and nodded his head at me. He smiled at the class and some of the students turned their heads away, mad that I knew so much. Little John made a fist and wet his lips.

From history we were released to the playground where we played softball, sucked on popsicles, and fooled around on the monkey bars. We returned to our classes sweating like the popsicles we had sucked to a rugged stick. I went to German where, for five weeks, we sang songs we didn’t understand, though we loved them and loved our teacher who paraded around the room and closed his eyes on the high notes. On the best days he rolled up his sleeves, undid his tie, and sweated profusely as he belted out songs so loudly that we heard people pounding on the wall for quiet from the adjoining classroom. Still, he went on with great vigor:
Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken
Drei Ecken hat mein Hut
Und wenn er das nicht hatte
Dan war’s auch nicht mein Hut

And we joined in every time, faces pink from a wonderful beauty that rose effortlessly from the heart.

I left, humming, for square dancing. Debra was in that class with me, fresh from science class where, she told me, she and a girlfriend had rolled balls of mercury in their palms to shine nickels, rings, earrings, before they got bored and hurled them at the boys. The mercury flashed on their shoulders, and they pretended to be shot as they staggered and went down to their knees.

Even though Debra didn’t want to do it, we paired off the first day. We made ugly faces at each other as we clicked our heels, swished for a few steps, and clicked again.

It was in that class that I fell in love with my corner gal who looked like Haley Mills, except she was not as boyish. I was primed to fall in love because of the afternoon movies I watched on television, most of which were stories about women and men coming together, parting with harsh feelings, and embracing in the end to marry and drive big cars.

Day after day we’d pass through do-si-does, form Texas stars, spin, click heels, and bounce about the room, released from our rigid school children lives to let our bodies find their rhythm. As we danced I longed openly for her, smiling like a lantern and wanting very badly for her eyes to lock onto mine and think deep feelings. She swung around my arm, happy as the music, and hooked onto the next kid, oblivious to my yearning.

When I became sick and missed school for three days, my desire for her didn’t sputter out. In bed with a comic book, I became dreamy as a cat and closed my eyes to the image of her allemanding left to The Red River Valley, a favorite of the class’s, her long hair flipping about on her precious shoulders. By Friday I was well, but instead of going to school I stayed home to play “jump and die” with the neighbor kids—a game in which we’d repeatedly climb a tree and jump until someone went home crying from a hurt leg or arm. We played way into the dark.

On Monday I was back at school, stiff as new rope, but once again excited by science, history, the gutteral sounds of German, and square dancing! By Sunday I had almost forgotten my gal, so when I walked into class my heart was sputtering its usual tiny, blue flame. It picked up, however, when I saw the girls come in, pink from the afternoon heat, and line up against the wall. When the teacher clapped her hands, announced something or another, and asked us to pair off, my heart was roaring like a well-stoked fire as I approached a girl that looked like my girlfriend. I searched her face, but it wasn’t her. I looked around as we galloped about the room but I couldn’t spot her. Where is she? Is that her? I asked myself. No, no, my girlfriend has a cute nose. Well, then, is that her? I wondered girl after girl and, for a moment in the dizziness of spinning, I even thought my sister was my girlfriend. So it was. All afternoon I searched for her by staring openly into the faces of girls with long hair, and when class was dismissed I walked away bewildered that I had forgotten what the love of my life looked like. The next day I was desperate and stared even more boldly, until the teacher pulled me aside to shake a finger and told me to knock it off.

But I recovered from lost love as quickly as I recovered from jumping from trees, especially when it was announced, in the fourth week of classes, that there would be a talent show—that everyone was welcome to join in. I approached Little John to ask if he’d be willing to sing with me—Michael Row the Boat Ashore, If I Had a Hammer, or Sugar Shack—anything that would bring applause and momentary fame.

“C’mon, I know they’ll like it,” I whined at him as he stood in center field. He told me to leave him alone, and when a fly ball sailed in his direction he raced for it but missed by several feet. Two runs scored, and he turned angrily at me: “See what you did!”

I thought of square dancing with Debra, but I had the feeling that she would screw up her face into an ugly knot if I should ask. She would tell her friends and they would ride their bikes talking about me. So I decided that I’d just watch the show with my arms crossed.

The talent show was held on the lawn, and we were herded grade by grade into an outline of a horseshoe: The first and second grades sat Indian-style, the third and fourth graders squatted on their haunches, and the fifth and sixth graders stood with their arms across their chests. The first act was two girls—sisters I guessed —singing a song about weather: Their fingers made the shape of falling rain, their arching arms made rainbows, and finally their hands cupped around smiling faces made sunshine. We applauded like rain while some of the kids whistled like wind from a mountain pass.

This was followed with a skit about personal hygiene—bathing and brushing one’s teeth. Then there was a juggling act, another singing duo, and then a jazz tap dancer who, because he was performing on the grass, appeared to be stamping mud off his shoes. After each act my eyes drifted to a long table of typewriters. What could they possibly be for? I asked myself. They were such commanding machines, big as boulders lugged from rivers. Finally, just as the tap routine was coming to an end, kids began to show up behind them to fit clean sheets of paper into the rollers. They adjusted their chairs as they looked at one another, whispering. A teacher called our attention to the typewriters and we whistled like mountain wind again.

“All summer we have practiced learning how to type,” the teacher said in a clear, deliberate speech. “Not only have we learned to type letters, but also to sing with the typewriters. If you listen carefully, I am sure that you will hear songs that you are familiar with.” She turned to the kids, whose hands rested like crabs on the keys, raised a pencil, and then began waving it around. Click—clickclick—click—click—click, and I recognized The Star Spangled Banner—and recognized Little John straining over his keyboard. Damn him, I thought, jealous that everyone was looking at him. They then played Waltzing Matilda, and this made me even angrier because it sounded beautiful and because Little John was enjoying himself. Click-click-click, and they were playing Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and this made me even more mad. I edged my way in front of Little John and, when he looked up, I made a fist and wet my lips. Smiling, he wet his own lips and shaped a cuss word, which meant we would have a fight afterward, when the music was gone and there were no typewriters to hide behind.

Desire

I suppose my desire for girls was keenest as I approached adolescence. These feelings were tender, like rope burns, and the slightest suggestion from a girl had me drifting about the school yard with great yearning. I’m thinking of my “object of desire,” Mary Palacio, a skinny-legged Chicana with braces who had liked me in the fifth grade at Jefferson Elementary. But at that time I was quick-witted at dodgeball and football, and didn’t have time for her. When I returned from recess I was steaming and grass-stained. I chewed grass and spat the wad of green while she and her girlfriends looked on. Still, her eyes went vacant with love, despite the fact that I didn’t care.

In the sixth grade, however, my desire took a turn. I was in love with her and told my pillow so as I hugged it at night. I spoke to it—private and deep things—and it spoke back: “You’re a neat guy, Gary.” But there was a problem. She was by then in love with another guy, a seventh grader the rumor had it, and my love for her didn’t bounce back like radar, even when I gave her, by way of a friend, a valentine which had a lollipop pressed with the words “You’re a cutie!” The night before I had sat on my bed shivering from fear and weighing it all, unsure whether or not she would laugh, cry affectionately, or simply nibble at the lollipop while watching Superman or The Three Stooges. Still, it was worth a risk: I slipped the lollipop into an envelope and ran my tongue across the flap, pressing it closed. This, perhaps, was the most frightening, if not indelible, decision I had ever made. Rejection was what scared me.

The next day a friend who was in her class handed her the envelope with the lollipop valentine. It was just before lunch, prior to the period when valentines would be handed out, and in my mind I witnessed again and again her reaction. She would be surprised and alive with deep feelings; she would laugh and tell her friends I was a fool; she would satisfy her sweet tooth. I suffered greatly as I waited for school to end. When it did I ran out to the playground, to the monkey bars, where I climbed to the top and waited for her to come out of her class and head for home. Kids scattered noisily and my stare frisked the area in search of her. Finally she emerged from the room with a girlfriend and they walked with their brown bags of valentines, and although she must have sensed I was somewhere—behind a back stop or the bricked archway of one of the classrooms—she didn’t look up. She walked with her friend at her side, neither of them talking, and disappeared behind a building as she dragged my heart like a toy duck on a string. I hung upside down on the bars, blood riding to my head, and wished I were dead.

But I lived on, gained weight, and entered junior high school with Mary. She was still part of my conscious life. My eyes followed her about campus, observing her every detail. She swung a brown lunch bag twice a week; she ate in the cafeteria the rest of the days. She wore a knee-length coat, a furry blue one with a belt that was attached in the back with two brass buttons pressed with anchors. Her hair was styled in a Sassoon cut: Twiggy was big that year, with the English invasion of wide-wale cords, wide belts and cruelly pale lipstick from Yardley. Paisley was “the thing” in fall, and she wore paisley. Madras was hot in spring, and she wore madras. She joined the choir, and at the Christmas assembly she stood in the second row, third from the end, her voice carrying like a kite through the auditorium to where I sat in the back with the nobodys.

She left me to my own devices, one of which was to become a school cadet. On Fridays I wore my uniform that was clearly meant for an adult. My pants legs billowed in the slightest wind; the shirt pockets came down below my ribs almost to my belly button. Whereas Mary had become stylish and popular, a darling among the Chicana cliques, I drifted in the opposite direction to become a hall guard who paced up and down the corridor during lunch time. For a year’s service, I earned a green ribbon that I pinned proudly to my shirt pocket that sagged like loose skin. I also earned sergeant stripes that year.

The next year, as an eighth grader, my love took a different turn. It was Judy Paredes, daughter of a wealthy baker in town, whose brother Ernie was in my platoon. As a squad leader I marched my line of men about the school yard: behind the backstop between basketball hoops through the sand of the track pit to behind a row of bushes, where I stopped the squad and ordered Ernie front and center. He walked stiffly up to me, his eyes unblinking but moist from the cold. I looked over his shoulder to the squad and barked an about face command: aaabbaht fah! I turned to Ernie, who had begun to blink and wrinkle his nose, and asked him if Judy liked me. I had gotten wind of this possibility from a girlfriend of a girlfriend of Judy’s.

Ernie, whose face was marked with acne, stared straight at me until I couldn’t stand it. I had to look away and my attention fell upon an old man working his way up the alley that ran the length of the school. He was pushing a shopping cart filled with cardboard and bottles. I looked into Ernie’s face, bravely: “Does she like me?”

He had known what was coming, so his response was quick: “Yeah, I think so. I saw her hugging her pillow just the other night.” He stopped, looked down at his shoes, and then back up to me. “She called your name.” Then he rushed intimate detail that I hadn’t even asked for. “You should see her on the speedboat. You should see her stomach. It’s flat, real flat—like an anvil!”

My hair lit up. My underarms went moist and I could feel a thread of sweat lengthening. I looked away and again turned to the old man in the alley turning over in his hands a shiny object. So she’s hugging her pillow, I thought. A clear sign. Surf’s up. Groovy. Outta sight. Papa’s got a brand new bag!

“Aabaaht fah!” I barked. Ernie returned to the squad, which I marched from the bushes to the track pit between the basketball hoops behind the backstop and back to the central campus where we were assembled into a platoon and the period ended with three rings of a bell.

That night I, too, hugged my pillow that I had dimpled with punches, soft punches, that made a face of sorts. I whispered to it; I spoke hushed secrets—that once I wanted to be a priest; that I stole from my mother’s purse, dimes only. My brother, who was in the bunk above me, yelled at me to stop muttering. I slept with a big grin on my face.

The next day was a Friday, I remember, because I wore the cadet uniform my mother had bought for me at Walter Smith’s after much snivelling and whining on my part. I wandered through central campus before first period looking for Judy. It was cold that morning but I hadn’t worn a jacket because I wanted to display my two rows of ribbons: hall guard, leadership, parade, armory, and conduct. I also wanted to show off my staff sergeant rank, with my color guard cords looping my shoulder and dangling handsomely almost to my elbow.

I searched for her among the colonnades where she often whispered with a girlfriend. No luck. I stuck my head into the foyer where the girls hung out to gossip and trade sandwiches and to tease and poke at one another’s stiff hairdos. Again no luck. From there I went to see if she was already standing at her first period door. She was there, in a furry white jacket that had been in style the previous year but was quite acceptable a year later. I wet my lips as I approached her slowly, but the words—the thick note pad of love I had composed the night before—failed to flutter open in some great wind at the back of my brain. I walked past her to the end of the hall to rethink my crippled plan. I looked over the balcony. There was Scott, my best friend, in his black stretch jeans and maroon socks that beamed brightly in the gray morning. He saw me and called to me to come down and trade sandwiches. I pretended not to hear his shouting and bent down to tie my shoes, after which I waddled a few steps on my haunches because I didn’t want to explain to Scott what I was up to. While waddling, however, Judy turned to look at me as she was about to go into her class. Her face was indifferent to me, even in the awkward position I had dropped into. Soto the penguin. She didn’t laugh, smirk, or raise an eyebrow in interest but only opened the door of the classroom and entered, leaving me, the penguin, at a standstill. I got up, embarrassed and shaken at finding myself so foolish, and ran down the stairwell to search out Scott.

At lunch there was a dance in the auditorium. An arena of students looked dully on, hands in pockets and cradling stacks of books, as three or four couples dazzled everyone by turning tenderly in a slow dance with their eyes closed. For slow music there was the Righteous Brothers, The Drifters, Mary Wells. For fast dancing there was the Supremes, The Spencer Davis Group, James Brown, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Kingsmen with their Louie, Louie. Then there was surfer music: The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the GTOs, but these groups were seldom played because they weren’t revved up with brow-sweating soul. The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits were also considered surfer music.

I went to the dance and threaded my way through the crowd in search of Judy. When I spotted her with a girlfriend, both of them hugging their books, I turned around and walked back to the door to collect my thoughts. What was I going to ask her? Should I be blunt and ask her for a dance? Then, suddenly as a baseball through a window, I realized that I couldn’t dance. I had never danced, though I had studied the spastic quiverings of those couples on American Bandstand. But could I do the same? Fear caught like a chicken bone in my throat as I walked back to where she was standing. But she was gone. Another girl, a cafeteria-helper type, stood in her place. There was nothing for me to do but to watch those on the dance floor wheel to James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World, since I didn’t have the energy or right words to search out Judy. I stood there, thinking that I at least looked dazzling in my uniform, and let her go for that day.

And I let her go the next day, and the next day, because I found out it was Gary Perez the baseball stud, not Gary Soto the cadet, who made her hug her pillow and say crazy things. An innocent mistake, no doubt, but still I had to beat up her brother Ernie for pulling the moveable strings of my heart and making me look like a fool to myself. Punchpunchpunch during cadet period, and I was demoted to a private again because the teacher caught me stuffing leaves inside his shirt behind the bushes.

It’s just something you have to do.

Saturday with Jackie

I remember one Saturday being chased from the house by my mother. She had asked me to empty my pants pockets of Kleenex and I wagged my head while reading the morning comics, telling her that I would. But I didn’t. An hour later when she tugged her first load from the washer, she found it flecked with bits of Kleenex. She screamed from the garage and I hurried outside, remembering too late about cleaning out my pockets. When I looked back halfway down the street, she was standing on the porch with a pair of my jeans in her hands. I jogged looking back because my brother Rick had come to stand with her and I thought that maybe she was going to send him after me.

I sat at a curb at the end of the block peeling an orange when Jackie, a school friend, turned the corner with a rattling shopping cart. I called him, and he maneuvered toward my direction, squinting at me as if I were a fire. I got up and approached him with my hands in my back pockets and my jacket zipped to my throat and almost hurting.

“What’s up?” I asked, as if I didn’t know. On our street it was a practice to collect Coke bottles that could be traded in at liquor stores at a nickel apiece.

“Making money,” he answered, simply.

We stood in the street talking nonsense for a few minutes before I asked if he wanted to walk downtown. He looked at his cart, which gleamed like stolen goods, and pursed his lips, looking worried.

“I shouldn’t but let’s go anyhow,” he said. But first he rolled his shopping cart home while I waited at the curb. When he returned he was smiling because he had sold the Coke bottles—twelve of them—to his mother for four cents apiece, and jingled his pockets like a big spender. We started up Angus Street, looking around without talking. If we did talk, it was not in sentences but single words or phrases.

“Look,” I said on Washington Street, at a cat curled like a stone in a pile of grass clippings. Jackie threw a chip of bark and the cat turned on its side, stretched, and yawned like death.

“What the …!” Jackie said on Orchard Street, to a parked car with one of its doors missing. We looked in to find stacks of newspapers bundled and piled to the ceiling.

We walked without saying too much because talking ruined the joy of noiseless minds. Jackie understood this, I understood this, so we walked looking around like television cameras, catching families sitting down to breakfast, a dog biting fleas from his paws, a grandpa raking leaves, pomegranate trees almost ready to steal from. We looked around while that endless film wound behind our eyes.

At Rontell’s Volvo on Divisadero we stopped to run our fingers slowly across the shiny paint jobs and gawk at the instrument panels of Jaguars. Since it was early, we tried opening doors but they were all locked.

“This one’s for me,” Jackie said, pointing out a Jaguar with gas caps on both back fenders.

We left there impressed, our minds racing with cars, and made our way up Mariposa Street where we stopped at “the nun’s place.” I told Jackie that when I went to St. John’s Catholic School I often passed the convent and, for my own reasons, imagined the nuns, after a day of teaching and threatening kids with erasers in firing position, would come home, pray, and head to the backyard to play soccer with the altar boys. I would stand at the fence, which was eight feet tall, and hear sounds like balls being kicked, followed by restrained laughter.

From there we checked the telephone booths and Coke machine for change at St. John’s Cathedral, climbed into a tree and threw rocks at the Southern Pacific, and dodged cars on “L” Street on our way to the Fresno Mall. Not yet ten o’clock, the mall was quiet with only a few merchants hurrying, in a sort of panic, to their businesses; their faces looked waxen and their suits were bright as the toys at Woolworths. There were a few hobos, some kids like us, a man refilling a newspaper rack, a lone mother whose coat was like a soiled rug on her shoulders. We ambled on, occasionally stopping to gaze in store windows, especially at clothing stores where we grew dreamy as incense looking at shirts, pants, belts, loafers—those wonderful things that were as far from us as Europe.

We bought doughnuts at Hart’s Restaurant and ate them in silence at an outdoor fountain, with the film behind our eyes picking up speed when the stores began to open and mothers and daughters in colorful dresses hurried, almost in step, with big purses looped on their forearms. We ate the doughnuts, then bought popcorn at Penney’s, and returned once again to the fountain where there were now more mothers and daughters, with an occasional son in clean clothes who looked stupid, and probably felt stupid, while his mother warned him with a stern finger not to get lost or fool around.

We looked at each other, wagged our heads in disgust, and called him in low voices, “sissy boy.” Getting up, we walked up the mall toward the north end that was under construction with new stores coming up —clothing, import, jewelry, record, and china. We stopped in front of a boarded-up building, which was ready to be torn down to make way for offices, as the sign posted in the front said. There were few people shopping in the area, so we pried and pushed at the door until we could squeeze inside. Once inside, we looked around like astronauts on the moon. A shaft of sunlight, with its orbiting dust, shone from the roof and ended in a seizure of light far on the other side, where we made out desks, chairs, counters, an open elevator, and a broken mirror on the wall, its crack running like the border between Mexico and the United States. We made out mannequins, a hatrack, a pile of curtains, some empty boxes, and the octopus of a tangled chandelier resting on the ground. We took a few steps, with the film behind our eyes turning slowly, as we wanted to touch the mannequins. We walked carefully because of the dark. Broken glass crunched under our shoes; dust, thick as the first minute of snow, made us sneeze. We sensed spiders but we didn’t find any swinging on their trapeze. We sensed mice but the only noises were from those things we knocked over. We walked like blind men, hands out and feeling the air, until we reached the mannequins and started back, each of us with one of them under his arm like a surfboard. Jackie fell once, so that a finger chipped off, but mine was intact and even smiling when I squeezed it from the door into sunlight.

“It’s a guy,” I said to Jackie. “He’s got a mustache—and check out the muscles.” The mannequin was tall as Superman and his face looked like a composite drawing of Dick Tracy and Fabian.

Jackie brought out his mannequin whose wrist was limp and whose eyes were painted with feathery lashes. A merchant, who was standing at his window, winced in our direction. We pretended nonchalance and walked slowly around the building before running up the mall into an alley, where we hid behind boxes breathing hard and smiling from our adventure. When no one came to get us, we shouldered our mannequins and walked away, thinking that we could sell them. When no one came to mind, we decided to make them fight.

“You’re an idiot,” I screamed at his mannequin.

“You’re a double idiot,” Jackie said. He held his mannequin like a club and smacked mine right in the face, which cracked and chipped. I swung mine, and his mannequin’s head fell off.

“You’re a triple idiot,” he threw at me, swinging his mannequin so that it thudded mine in the chest, almost knocking me down. I swung, then he swung, and I swung again and again, and he swung again and again, until only the arms were left, which we used as swords in our fight all the way back home.

The Small Faces

I was sixteen and unable to find a summer job, so instead of moping around the house I volunteered to become a recreational assistant for the City Parks Department. I had read about the need for volunteers in the Fresno Bee. I called a phone number, left my name with a woman, and waited several days before my call was returned by the same woman who lauded my goodheartedness before she came down to business.

“Young man, there are a number of schools and parks. Take your time and just tell me which one sounds nice to you.” She read down the list and I almost shouted when she said “Emerson Elementary.”

“Emerson. I want to go there!”

“That one is still open,” she said, and I could hear a pencil scratching an imagined index card. The woman gave me the name of Calvin Jones, the recreation leader, and said that I could start Monday at six if I liked. She again thanked me for my goodheartedness, asked me to spell my last name, and hung up.

That Monday, after dinner, I walked the four miles to Emerson, across Belmont, Tulare, and Ventura Avenues, where the houses, poor and dilapidated, slowly gave way to industry and shops—bakery, auto parts stores, a tire company, machine shop, and the import car dealer, Haron the Baron. There was a house for every vacant lot, a working car for every car that was rusting on flat tires. So this is what it’s like, I thought. I walked in wonder and in quiet happiness because this was the area where I had spent my first six years. My entire family, including aunts, uncles, father, brother, and even little sister, had gone to Emerson Elementary for at least one year. I walked through the vacant lots that gleamed with glass, burst mattresses, gutted refrigerators, a TV like a large one-eyed robot without legs—all the wonderful treasures that kids like.

As I slowly approached Emerson I made out the screaming of kids at play. When I got closer I could see a line of them, wet and with their hands pressed together as if in prayer. They were shivering but anxious as they waited their turns at the “Slip & Slide,” that long runway of plastic, to dive onto, chest first, its surface of beaded water. To my surprise the coach was a black man—surprise because, aside from garbage men, I had never seen a black person employed by the city. He was leaning against the chain link fence, gazing almost in wonder at the grass at his feet. I approached him and he looked at me slowly and without response. Smiling, I told him who I was, a summer volunteer. He wrinkled up his face: “Summer volunteer? No one said anything to me.” He played with his chin, rubbing and pinching at his fuzzy goatee, and again gazed at his feet. Realizing that his welcome was unkind, if not rude, he burst out a hearty, “Well, it’s good to have you here,” and touched my shoulder. We exchanged names and bits of information, like I was a high school student and he was a college student.

We looked up together at the kids, all of them Mexican, all shiny in the twilight. One looked at me, curious about who I was, but the others had their eyes locked on the “Slip & Slide.” I watched them for a while until I became uneasy at having nothing to do. Calvin stood watching the kids, though I sensed his thoughts were elsewhere. His brow lined with worry, then relaxed, then lined again, while his mouth, slightly puckered, moved as if he were getting ready to say something. But we leaned against the fence in silence, hands behind our backs holding onto the fence. After a while I braved a question. “What kind of programs do the kids have?” When I was their age, between five and eleven, my playground had crafts contests and baseball games, as well as swimming lessons.

Calvin pursed his lips, sighed, and jingled coins and keys in his pockets. “Well, Gary, we play a lot of dominoes.” He pointed to a green shed, which he said was the game room. “We play over there.” I followed his pointing arm to a picnic table. Next to the table stood a tree, thin as a hatrack, with only a few of its leaves moving in the breeze. But most were wilting and pale. I scanned the baseball field, the bungalows, and the school building itself. Even in the early evening the place looked dry and abandoned. I squinted hard and saw someone walking toward us, a girl about fourteen who was dressed in a T-shirt and cut off jeans. She stared at me and I stared back, unsmiling but interested because she wasn’t bad looking. She clip-clopped in rubber sandals toward the line of kids where she bent to talk to one who seemed to be her younger brother. She looked up at me—or maybe Calvin—and several of the kids turned to look in our direction.

Calvin pushed away from the chain link fence and announced that time was up, the “Slip & Slide” had to be put away. He looked at his watch as he walked over to shut off the faucet. The kids moaned, begging him to turn it back on. Some took last dives, even as Calvin began rolling up one end of the plastic runway. Wanting something to do, I helped by coiling up the hose while the kids watched me with interest. Finally one asked me, “Who are you?” Without looking up, Calvin said my name and told them I was his recreational assistant. I tried to look friendly but grown up and serious too.

I asked the kid who looked like a cousin of mine what his name was, but he averted his eyes and ran away in the direction of the game room. Some other kids, after staring openly at me, ran after him while two left for home. Calvin and I walked together, with me dragging the hose and him the “Slip & Slide.” He took the hose and told me to join the kids who sat at the table pounding their fists as if they wanted to eat. Joining them I again told them my name and still they paid me little attention. I tried again by telling them where I lived and what high school I went to.

“Are you a ‘Mescan’?” the cousin look-alike asked.

I felt as if a spear had been thrown at my feet. I wanted to collar the kid for asking such a naked question, but I smiled, wagged my head, and told him that I was.

“Are you getting money for coming here?” another kid asked.

“No, maybe next year I can get a job,” I answered feebly. I was embarrassed because I couldn’t explain why I’d come to their playground as a volunteer. I was crumbling inside but on the outside I remained calm. Trying to be happy, I told the kids that I didn’t know how to play dominoes but maybe one of them could teach me.

“What’s your name?” I asked the cousin look-alike.

“Alfonso.” He offered no more information and lowered his head to pick at a sliver in his palm.

“And yours?” I asked, turning to an older boy about nine.

“Roberto. Alfonso’s my brother.” He was about to ask me a question but stopped. He looked away in the direction of Calvin who was returning with a coffee can of dominoes.

“What is it?” I coaxed him. But when Calvin was within earshot, I went silent and made an eager face because I wanted badly to be liked by these kids, as well as by Calvin. My eyes followed the coffee can as if it were a birthday cake or a present. Calvin dipped his hand into the coffee can and placed the dominoes face down. Roberto, the oldest of the kids there, helped turn them over while the two other kids, Marsha and Esteban, sat quietly watching. Alfonso ran a domino up his arm, all the while whining like a car turning a corner.

The game was interesting to me. Calvin won the first one but Roberto came back to win the second one. Grinning, Roberto challenged him to another but Calvin said that I should be given a chance to play. “You’re just scared,” Roberto taunted him. Calvin smiled back, shook his head, and stood up to look at a slow rattling truck, piled high with grass clippings and brush.

Roberto shoved the can at Alfonso, telling him to play with me, and ran toward a boy walking outside the fence with Coke bottles under his arms. Shamelessly, I turned to a seven-year-old Alfonso whose hand was already in the can scooping out dominoes, which he turned face down so the dots did not show. He smeared them with an open palm to mix them up, although they didn’t circulate very well because he just moved them back and forth so they were in their original places when he stopped. I turned over a domino—a six. Alfonso turned over an eight, so he went first, slowly building a spine of dominoes.

“You do it like this,” he said. He connected a four to a four that ran in a new direction. “And don’t use your blank ones until you gotta.” In the end Alfonso won, and wanting to try again I turned them over to mix them up.

I smiled, eager now that I understood the game. “Let’s play another.” Instead of answering me he swung his legs from under the table and ran to the game room, leaving a small impression of wet cut offs on the bench. He came back with a large four-square ball that was pressed to his chest like a bag of groceries.

“Let’s play this.”

With Marsha and Esteban, I joined him on the asphalt. He was only seven but he played like a tiger. I had to crumble to a knee on one shot and pick up my glasses from the ground when he hooked a shot at my feet and the ball rolled up my chest to my face. I won by two points. We played once more, and again I won. Marsha, a quiet girl with stringy hair, played next and I let her win a few points. She played without looking at me, and I played with my attention locked on her face: She looked like my sister at her age, except Marsha’s eyes were greenish-brown and her disposition was soft and almost angelic.

I called her by her name every time she made a point or tried to make a difficult play.

“Good girl, Marsha. Almost, Marsha.”

Esteban, her younger brother of about six, stepped into the square, and I played exaggeratedly slow, carrying the ball instead of tapping it across the line. He was like his sister, so shy that he wouldn’t look at me; he looked downward at my feet and when I said “Good, Esteban” his face wouldn’t answer back with a smile or words. As with his sister, I let him get a few points in our game to eleven.

Alfonso was ready to play again, but Calvin, who had been talking with a neighbor at the fence, returned to say that it was closing time. Alfonso moaned. He bounced the ball in mock irritation. Marsha and Esteban ran to the gate without saying goodbye, although Marsha looked back at me just before crossing the street to her house.

I said good-bye to Calvin who thanked me for coming and said he hoped I’d come the next day. I left walking up Marsha’s street and, although she didn’t show herself, I sensed she was probably watching me from her porch. I walked quickly up the street whose houses were ill-kept and broken: ripped screen doors, dirt where grass once grew, and the paint fading into chalky dust. I followed the shortcut through vacant lots to Ventura Street on my way home.

Again, after dinner the next day, I walked the four miles to Emerson Elementary, all the while thinking of Marsha and her brother Esteban. I wondered about them, why they were so shy, who their father and mother were, how they were doing in school. When I arrived sweating from the long walk, Alfonso waved at me from the line of kids who were in line at the “Slip & Slide.” Calvin was nowhere in sight.

“Where’s Calvin?” I asked. Two kids pointed in the direction of the school. I wondered why he was over there and was irritated that he wasn’t with the kids. He should be doing more, I thought. He’s the one getting paid. But I let this drop from my mind and turned to say “Hi” to all the kids—six of them—who just looked at me or made playful bird noises at me. Calvin returned shortly and together we leaned against the fence in the shade of a sycamore. We watched them in silence before Calvin suggested that he and I go play dominoes.

“Now you kids mind yourselves,” he warned them. Some made faces while others made bird noises and cow sounds. We walked slowly to the game room and, in spite of his disinterest in the kids, I still wanted to be his friend. I tried to start up a conversation about college.

“Is it really hard work?”

“Not really. Just algebra. I didn’t do too well in math. Never did.” We talked awhile about college but our talk slowly dwindled to phrases, solitary words, and finally nothing. We played three games and Calvin took the time to point out my errors after each loss. He then got up and said that he was going to put away the “Slip & Slide.” I heard moans in the distance and the slap of feet running in the direction of the table, with Roberto shouting to the others, “I’m going to play him first.”

“You’re in trouble,” I told Roberto who said that I’d be sorry. Squinting, I watched Calvin disappear into the school building and then lowered my attention to the scramble of dominoes. I smiled at Marsha and Esteban and pulled sticks of gum from my back pocket.

“This is good,” I said. I held them fanned out like cards. “Take your pick.” They did. And so did Roberto, Alfonso, and another boy by the name of Danny.

I played three games and lost them all. Tired of losing, I suggested to Marsha and Esteban that we could play two-square. They swung their legs from under the bench and headed for the asphalt while I went to get the ball. We played several games. Again I let them get a few points and played so slowly that my movements were like a swimmer’s under water. After this we played a made up game in which I bounced the ball into the air while they staggered underneath in an attempt to catch the ball. The higher I bounced it, the more they screwed up their faces and showed their tiny teeth, somewhat scared when the ball slapped their palms or bounced off their chests. With every attempt to catch the ball, I cooed, “Good, Marsha, ‘atta boy, Esteban.”

They played without once looking at me. I could have continued bouncing the ball, calling out, “It’s high as a kite—get it,” but the game had grown tiresome and I wanted another chance to play dominoes with Roberto, who was taunting me and chewing his gum loudly. I bounced the ball to Marsha, told her to play with her brother, and, rubbing my hands together, told Roberto he was in trouble, that he was dead, that he was going to be sorry that he ever came to the playground. Smiling, he made his own predictions, which were truer than mine. Again he won by luck and my mistakes. He rubbed his hands together, mocking me. Instead of playing again, I shoved the can to Roberto’s friend, made a feeble joke, and joined Esteban and Marsha.

“Let’s play some more!”

Again we played our made up game while I cried out, “It’s high as a bird—get it,” until Calvin walked slowly from the school building clapping, “Closing time.” Marsha and Esteban ran to the gate on their way home, but this time Marsha didn’t turn to look back with that wide-eyed look of “Who are you?” She crossed the street into the house with an orange tree and a dirt yard. When I passed her house that night I could make out a TV and a person I imagined to be her father, his face blue from sitting close to the screen.

The next day Calvin brought magazines for cutting out pictures to paste on milk carton collages. Only Marsha, Esteban, and Alfonso joined us. Trying to make them like me more, I again passed out chewing gum and Life Savers, which they cheered over and sucked with pleasure. Calvin refused these treats with a “no, no,” and sat apart wearing his sun glasses, and thumbed through a magazine, stopping at ads for cars.

I worked with Marsha, helping her dot glue on the pictures, and turned to Esteban’s collage to suggest that his needed some blues, maybe a sea or a picture of the sky. We found a bathtub, skyblue, with a little girl shampooing her shaggy dog. “This is funny,” he said, and snipped it very carefully from the page.

“That’s a good one,” I beamed at him. I dotted glue on the back and held the clipping up like a fish for him to grab. He pasted it on the milk carton, stared at it, and made a half attempt to smile like the girl shampooing her dog.

I turned to Calvin. “What do you think?” He looked up slowly and smiled slowly. “Esteban, you’re too much.” We worked on the collages that day but on the next I brought a bag of pinto beans, which I spilled carefully like diamonds onto the table. I handed out chewing gum and jaw breakers as I explained that we were going to write out our names using beans. They sucked, chewed, rolled their gum and jaw breakers; they considered the beans, then my moving mouth, then the beans again.

“What for?” Alfonso asked.

I was caught off guard by this question. Almost laughing, I said, “Just to see if we can do it.” I searched their faces, again almost laughing. “It could be fun—don’t you think?”

They worked diligently as they glued the beans in the shape of their last names on cardboard. When they finished I asked them to dab each bean a different color of poster paint, delicately so the beans wouldn’t fall off. Marsha and Esteban worked in silence although Alfonso whined that it was boring. But after awhile even he had grown absorbed and quiet as the other two. When Calvin, who had been hitting fly balls to Roberto and Danny, returned to the table, Alfonso was the first to point out his creation. Calvin smiled wide, like a light turned on, and said “That’s beautiful, man.” He ruffled Alfonso’s hair and called him Picasso.

The next day I brought spray paint, some cans, and a box of macaroni shaped like wagon wheels. I poured the macaroni onto the table and explained, with animated enthusiasm, that we were going to make pencil holders from the cans; that we would spray-paint the cans, glue on the macaroni, and paint each macaroni with water colors.

The following day I brought coloring books which my stepfather, a warehouseman for a book distributor, had given me. But there were no crayons in the game room, so we looked at the pictures—Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Felix the Cat—and chewed our gum. The next day I sneaked my little brother’s crayons from the house and brought sheets of my sister’s typing paper to make airplanes. We folded, drew snarling tiger mouths at the nose, and let the planes fly from our hands, all the while making the sound of jets.

In my third week at Emerson, Calvin was transferred to another playground, and William, a young white man in a bright yellow shirt and Bermuda shorts, stood in front of us saying that he was the new coach. He smiled at us for the longest time, hands on his hips, and then screwed up his face at the baseball field, the bungalows, and the school building. I was going to introduce myself as the recreational assistant, but knowing that he would say, “a what?” I said nothing and joined the kids at the table, where they were pounding their fists and singing, “We want dominoes, we want dominoes!” Trying to be friendly the new coach smiled, unlocked the game room, and clunked around. He returned with the coffee can and a football.

“How ’bout some catch?” he asked me, and I told him that it was too hot to play. Roberto and I played the first game, then Alfonso took my place. I took out jaw breakers from my pocket and offered them around, including to the coach who declined with a shake of his hand. We played dominoes while William hovered over us, one foot on the bench and arms crossed, and kept asking our names—Roberto, Alfonso, Danny, Marsha, Esteban, Gary.

Tired of winning, Roberto asked William if we could put out the “Slip & Slide.”

“Slip & Slide?” he asked, as if surprised.

Roberto showed it to him in the game room, and together they tugged the “Slip & Slide” and the garden hose across the field to the strip of lawn between the bungalows. William stretched and smoothed it flat while Roberto connected the hose and sprayed in our direction to keep us at bay because he wanted to go first.

We jumped back, laughing. “We’re going to get you,” I yelled and he mocked me with my own words. William stepped aside, still smiling as if someone were ready to snap his picture, and Roberto sprayed the “Slip & Slide” while looking over his shoulder to keep us back. But Alfonso ran, arms out and making plane noises, and he skidded across the plastic. Danny followed, with Marsha and Esteban skidding on their knees right behind him. I pulled off my shirt, flipped my rubber thongs at Roberto and buzzed low toward the plastic. When I skidded Roberto sprayed my face and yelled, “You’re dead and wet.” I glided across the plastic to the end, shocked by the cold water but happy and thinking it wasn’t so bad.

DMU Timestamp: October 20, 2015 01:40