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Full Summaries Sorted

Living Up The Street: Narrative Recollections - Part 4 (pp. 93-137)

Author: Gary Soto

Bloodworth

As early as kindergarten I had to bob and weave through fights—some I won and some I had to escape holding my nose like a doorknob. My first loss was in first grade over a red crayon. I was busy coloring flames on a neat four-sided house with a crooked chimney when a boy tried to pull the crayon away from me. I shoved him away, called him menso and proceeded to slash red flames at the house. But he came back with a girlish over-the-head punch that thudded on my back and, for a moment, stunned me by knocking the breath out of me. But I recovered quickly, turned around, and stabbed his forehead with the crayon, which left a small, red nick and made him run to the teacher, Miss Sue, a Chinese woman who consistently referred to me as “You, you.”

Irate, because I had been a nuisance all week, Miss Sue shook me like a wet umbrella and pulled me toward the front of the classroom where she ordered the class, busy coloring, to return to their desks. Pushing her hair from her eyes, she asked, “How many of you want Gary to go to the principal’s office?” I had been tugging to get free, but stopped when I saw all the hands leap up like flames into the air, even my girlfriend Rhonda’s and my best friend Daryle’s. I was shocked, then mad. My girlfriend! My best friend! So off I went screaming “No one likes me!” and, in the principal’s office, could only think how I was going to beat up the whole class.

And I did, sooner or later, between second and third bases, in the bathroom while they stood at the urinals with their flies open like sails, and after school when I chased them home with rocks and bad words. So it went year after year, and perhaps my peak as a fighter came one week in spring the year I was a fifth grader when I was reportedly the gang leader of Mexicans who had beat up the Surfers. The Surfers, who were as poor as us and who probably had never seen the ocean in person, were sixth graders—and one of them was my brother Rick. I didn’t find it strange because we often fought at home over the smallest thing, like a glass of Kool-Aid or a misplaced pencil, so whe we met on the lawn one afternoon during lunch period, I had no bad feelings about trying to hit my brother in the nose. He made the decision to stand with the Surfers, and I made the decision to stand with the Mexicans. (I think it’s something like becoming a Democrat or Republican—there are really no hard feelings if a relative belongs to a party different from your own.)

We met on the lawn and taunted them. “Hey, how’s the surf. Your little deuce coupe, ese.” They came back, “Eat your tacos and throw up,” At that we lunged at them and sadly, since we were only fifth graders, we went down one after another from their sixth grader punches, holding our jaws and wiping our hurt noses. Lucky for us, I suppose, a teacher was walking toward the knot of onlookers; and the Surfers scattered while we ran to the jungle gym where we bared our teeth at one another to see if they were all right.

After lunch, while Mrs. Sloan read us Pinocchio and the class grew dreamy as we listened with heads pillowed in folded arms, I was called by the loud speaker on the wall next to the flag. The speaker crackled, buzzed, breathed hard, crackled some more, and finally spoke: “Please send Gary Soto to the principal’s office immediately.” I raised my head from my arms, looked around as everyone looked at me, and left the room wondering what I had done wrong. At the office a mother was there with one of the Surfers whose eyes were red from crying, and as I stepped into the principal’s office, scared at the possibility of a paddling, the Surfer cried out, “That’s him. He’s the leader.” Mr. Buckalew, usually so kind, frowned at me as the Surfer went loose-lipped; the mother wrung her hands and told Mr. Buckalew that her son had a heart condition, that any day he could die. I listened without saying anything but thought we were going to have to whip this “fink.” After the mother and son had gone breathless from complaining, the principal turned and asked me if any of it was true.

“They’re lying,” I lied, with a generous wide-eyed innocence. “Really, Mr. Buckalew.”

But in the end I leaned against his desk for a paddling, and the Surfer transferred to another school district when we chased him home for being a fink.

Hard times. All through elementary and junior high school, it was bob and weave, jab and stick. Only in high school did I get a chance to rest between rounds. I was amazed at the calm, almost pastoral, atmosphere of Roosevelt High and, for a while, was pleased to hover over tuna sandwiches during lunchtime without the worry of being jumped from behind. During the three years there I would only get into eight fights—the strangest one was with a 1963 Ford Falcon that tried to run me over as I crossed the street on my way to school. I kicked the car door, then the driver when he got out of his car, before I ran away to look for help.

Longing for the “good times,” I joined the wrestling team to exercise my combative genes. Wrestling is a difficult sport that demands top notch conditioning, followed by speed, desire, and tooth-grinding meanness. During the first week of training we ran miles, did push-ups and sit-ups until we hurt, and practiced takedowns and half nelsons. We worked out in the “oven,” a fifteen by thirty foot padded room, in which an overhead heater was turned on so we could sweat to lose weight. By the end of a two-hour workout, the room was puddled with sweat and so fogged that it was impossible to see across the room. We practiced with the intention of hurting each other, and Coach DeCarlo made no bones about it.

“When you get in there, don’t be a damned fish. You’re men, now. When you get him down, throw your chin into his back. Hurt him—or don’t come back.”

We all came back, either as victors or losers, and, if the latter, practiced even more fiercely to prove ourselves the next time. We wanted to hear the coach call us “animals,” and smile with pride.

I wrestled for three years at the one-hundred-three weight class and my record was not particularly sparkling: Twenty-four wins, eleven losses. Just an average wrestler. I earned three letters but no ribbons or pins to dangle from a letterman’s jacket. Still, I was loyal. I worked hard. I ran the miles, did the push-ups and sit-ups until I hurt, and by the end of the three years of wrestling I was in the best condition I would ever enjoy. If I lifted my shirt at my brothers, I could blink a row of taut muscles—blink, “Don’t mess with me,” or “Stay back, Jack.”

One night, in my third year, my mother decided to watch me wrestle. My family had taken little interest in my athletics and, in fact, had discouraged me from going out for the team because it meant expense: Insurance (five dollars), a check-up (seven dollars), and one knee pad (two dollars and fifty cents). Then there was the doctor bill of ten dollars for the blood poisoning I got from a scratch while wrestling. With the last, my mother kept saying, “No, it’s nothing,” even when I showed her a tangle of red veins that ran from my hand to my chest. I went to bed thinking about Jesus, but when I woke the next morning I was thinking of Dr. Welby, Dr. Kildare—anyone! I showed my veins to Mom again, and she said, “Well, OK, if we have to.” She put down her coffee cup, dabbed lipstick on her cheeks and lips the color of my veins, and drove me to the doctor’s. When I took off my shirt, his brow went dark with lines as he said, “This one’s a dilly.” He probed my armpit until it hurt and then set a row of injections on a stainless steel tray.

The night my mom decided to watch me wrestle, our match was with the perennial powerhouse, Madera High—and that night I was to face Bloodworth. His name was appropriate, since he was a city champion prone to head slapping and smearing his opponent’s face into the mat before he turned him over to show him the “lights”—the overhead lights we’d look up at as the referee counted.

There were a few spectators in the gymnasium that night. At Roosevelt High few sat together, even if they came together as boyfriend and girlfriend, brothers, close friends, or relatives. Wrestling at Roosevelt was a sport you watched by yourself with a ten-cent bag of Corn Nuts you munched quicker and harder when a wrestler was on the edge of being pinned.

My mother arrived just a few minutes before the varsity team was called out. I spied her from behind the door where the team had lined up by weight. She stepped carefully into the bleachers, looked around, and then sat quietly in about the fourth row, smoothing her dress as if she were at a restaurant.

Called out by our coach, we ran gingerly and in step to circle the mat shouting: R-O-O-S-E-V-E-L-T. After that we clapped, dropped to the mat for neck bridges and leg stretches, and stood up again to practice takedowns. We huddled together again, shouted “Let’s do it!” and broke away clapping as we turned to the folding chairs that faced the mat.

Madera was then called out and they followed with a similar routine.

I was nervous. I kept bouncing lightly on my toes and jingling my arms at my sides, all along knowing that I would be pinned. I knew Bloodworth was going to win, but I had to stay off my back and not see “the lights.” I bounced around and jingled my arms. I adjusted my headgear and repositioned my one knee pad, on which I had notched my wins and losses with a Bic pen. The coach came up to me, clipboard in hand, and asked me how I felt. OK, I told him, although my mouth was dry and my stomach had that feeling—a sense of nausea that issued from fear. Without looking at him, I knew he was searching my face and wondering, “Can he do it?”

The buzzer sounded for the first match. Mike Brooks, our ninety-five-pounder who had a mean grip and was our best wrestler that year, approached the mat looking vacantly at the referee as he explained the rules we all knew. They shook hands, backed away, and when the buzzer sounded, Mike dangled his arms in front of his opponent as he waddled toward him. He grabbed his wrist, yanked, pushed, and yanked again and the opponent was on the mat, head arched back as he tried to get up. A two-point take-down was not enough for Mike, so he hammered his chin into his opponent’s back. The other wrestler grunted to his knees, but Mike slipped his leg under his opponent’s and shoved an elbow into his back with the intention of working him on a cradle. He pulled on an arm until it gave, and within seconds the opponent was on his back trying to bridge his way out of trouble, and within another few seconds he was looking up at “the lights,” as the referee slammed his hand on the mat. Mike leaped off him and looked at the clock: Thirty-four seconds were left in the round. They shook hands and I could make out Mike saying, “Good match.”

Liar, I thought. The guy was terrible. That quick pin won’t help me out because Bloodworth will be upset at how quickly one of his teammates had gone down. I searched the bleachers and found Mom searching her purse for gum, a cigarette perhaps. The few spectators there were untwisting bags for Corn Nuts, readying for a good time.

The buzzer sounded. I approached the mat as my teammates stood up from their chairs to clap and shower me with, “C’mon, Gary. Stick him.”

I approached the mat, looked at the referee moving his mouth, and shook hands with Bloodworth. We backed away two steps, each of us looking intensely at the other, and waited for the “Readyyyyy, wrestle.” When it came I waddled toward Bloodworth with my arms dangling in front of me, in a parody of Mike’s style. We locked heads together, pushed and yanked, and separated. I was already breathing hard, just from a few friendly shoves, and my ear, despite the headgear, felt raw from banging our heads together. We searched each other’s faces and waddled toward one another, arms dangling. When he teased me with a leg, I decided,“Well, hell, why not,” and scooted on my knees to grab his foot in a half-hearted attempt at a take-down. He ripped his forearm across my face. It hurt as he twisted my head and, consequently, my neck. He took me down, but I got up to my knees almost immediately to search out the clock, then the faces in the bleachers —faces that were busy going to town on Corn Nuts. I rose to my knees, then fell, but rose again when the buzzer sounded the end of the round. I stood up breathing hard, hands on hips as I circled the mat to stall for time and a precious breath of air. The referee asked Bloodworth to choose between heads or tails as he tossed a coin in the air. Heads, he called, and heads it was. He chose top. I circled around the mat one more time and then threw myself on the mat, on all fours. He set his grip on my elbow and around my waist, and I could feel his trembling—certainly from the rush of adrenaline. When the whistle sounded I tried to snap up into a standing position but was thrown down. I crawled, snail-like, my face smearing the mat with a moist nose, and could feel him trying to push his hand over my neck and across the back of my head in a half nelson. He pushed at my head, sweated on my head, breathed foully on my head. Bent down, the referee shouted at me to quit stalling—an insult, because I was trying to get to my knees. Grunting, I rose up on my padded knee and, for a second, it looked like I might even make it to two knees when Bloodworth slammed me into the mat and I continued to snail, nose pressed moist into the mat.

Just as I looked up to the clock, Bloodworth slipped his leg around mine and pulled at my arm in an attempt to roll me into the “cradle.” “Thank God it’s almost over,” I thought as I grunted and gritted my teeth. But the buzzer sounded and I was released. I got up slowly, threw off my headgear whose earmuffs had worked their way across my eyes, and walked around the mat with hands on hips and breathing hard. I searched the bleachers and the spectators were finishing up their first bags of Corn Nuts. My mom, with a clenched fist and a strained face, was yelling, “C’mon, m’ijo, kill him.” Some of my teammates clapped their hands softly and threw out words of encouragement while others bowed their heads and looked at their feet.

Bloodworth was already on all fours and poised beautifully, eyes straight ahead like a horse’s, when I plopped down on my knees to set my grip around his elbow and stomach. When the whistle sounded I pulled to my left, then quickly pushed him to the mat where he “snailed” to rise to his feet as I hung on thinking that I might not be pinned, that maybe I might even win. No sooner did such ideas snap from one brain cell to the next than Bloodworth rose to one knee, then the other knee, before he shot straight up like King Kong with me hanging desperately to his waist, as if I were begging him to stay. He slapped my hands away, turned, and ripped a forearm across my face while he took me down where he proceeded to tuck my arm into a half chicken wing, then into a full chicken wing before he rolled me slowly over on my back, and I glimpsed the wincing glare of overhead lights, and the spectators with their Corn Nuts, and the coach banging his clipboard against his thigh, and my teammates ripping their fingernails with their teeth, and my Mom standing up and yelling, “Hurt him, m’ijo. Kill him. Right now!”

I was pinned with forty-four seconds left of the third round. I got up breathing hard, head bowed, as I circled the mat. I shook hands with Bloodworth without looking up, returned to my folding chair and my teammates patting my shoulders, and sat down to towel off and watch Rhinehardt, our one-hundred-andtwelve, roll around the mat. While he was being turned over to see the lights, my mom called from the bleachers, “M’ijo. M’ijo, do you want some gum?” Turning around, I saw that she had torn a piece of Juicy Fruit into halves and was holding it up like a goldfish. “Here, son. Catch.” She threw it from the bleachers, and I opened my hands for its small sweetness.

One Last Time

Yesterday I saw the movie Gandhi and recognized a few of the people—not in the theater but in the film. I saw my relatives, dusty and thin as sparrows, returning from the fields with hoes balanced on their shoulders. The workers were squinting, eyes small and veined, and were using their hands to say what there was to say to those in the audience with popcorn and Cokes. I didn’t have anything, though. I sat thinking of my family and their years in the fields, beginning with Grandmother who came to the United States after the Mexican revolution to settle in Fresno where she met her husband and bore children, many of them. She worked in the fields around Fresno, picking grapes, oranges, plums, peaches, and cotton, dragging a large white sack like a sled. She worked in the packing houses, Bonner and Sun-Maid Raisin, where she stood at a conveyor belt passing her hand over streams of raisins to pluck out leaves and pebbles. For over twenty years she worked at a machine that boxed raisins until she retired at sixty-five.

Grandfather worked in the fields, as did his children. Mother also found herself out there when she separated from Father for three weeks. I remember her coming home, dusty and so tired that she had to rest on the porch before she trudged inside to wash and start dinner. I didn’t understand the complaints about her ankles or the small of her back, even though I had been in the grape fields watching her work. With my brother and sister I ran in and out of the rows; we enjoyed ourselves and pretended not to hear Mother scolding us to sit down and behave ourselves. A few years later, however, I caught on when I went to pick grapes rather than play in the rows.

Mother and I got up before dawn and ate quick bowls of cereal. She drove in silence while I rambled on how everything was now solved, how I was going to make enough money to end our misery and even buy her a beautiful copper tea pot, the one I had shown her in Long’s Drugs. When we arrived I was frisky and ready to go, self-consciously aware of my grape knife dangling at my wrist. I almost ran to the row the foreman had pointed out, but I returned to help Mother with the grape pans and jug of water. She told me to settle down and reminded me not to lose my knife. I walked at her side and listened to her explain how to cut grapes; bent down, hands on knees, I watched her demonstrate by cutting a few bunches into my pan. She stood over me as I tried it myself, tugging at a bunch of grapes that pulled loose like beads from a necklace. “Cut the stem all the way,” she told me as last advice before she walked away, her shoes sinking in the loose dirt, to begin work on her own row.

I cut another bunch, then another, fighting the snap and whip of vines. After ten minutes of groping for grapes, my first pan brimmed with bunches. I poured them on the paper tray, which was bordered by a wooden frame that kept the grapes from rolling off, and they spilled like jewels from a pirate’s chest. The tray was only half filled, so I hurried to jump under the vines and begin groping, cutting, and tugging at the grapes again. I emptied the pan, raked the grapes with my hands to make them look like they filled the tray, and jumped back under the vine on my knees. I tried to cut faster because Mother, in the next row, was slowly moving ahead. I peeked into her row and saw five trays gleaming in the early morning. I cut, pulled hard, and stopped to gather the grapes that missed the pan; already bored, I spat on a few to wash them before tossing them like popcorn into my mouth.

So it went. Two pans equaled one tray—or six cents. By lunchtime I had a trail of thirty-seven trays behind me while Mother had sixty or more. We met about halfway from our last trays, and I sat down with a grunt, knees wet from kneeling on dropped grapes. I washed my hands with the water from the jug, drying them on the inside of my shirt sleeve before I opened the paper bag for the first sandwich, which I gave to Mother. I dipped my hand in again to unwrap a sandwich without looking at it. I took a first bite and chewed it slowly for the tang of mustard. Eating in silence I looked straight ahead at the vines, and only when we were finished with cookies did we talk.

“Are you tired?” she asked.

“No, but I got a sliver from the frame,” I told her. I showed her the web of skin between my thumb and index finger. She wrinkled her forehead but said it was nothing.

“How many trays did you do?”

I looked straight ahead, not answering at first. I recounted in my mind the whole morning of bend, cut, pour again and again, before answering a feeble “thirty-seven.” No elaboration, no detail. Without looking at me she told me how she had done field work in Texas and Michigan as a child. But I had a difficult time listening to her stories. I played with my grape knife, stabbing it into the ground, but stopped when Mother reminded me that I had better not lose it. I left the knife sticking up like a small, leafless plant. She then talked about school, the junior high I would be going to that fall, and then about Rick and Debra, how sorry they would be that they hadn’t come out to pick grapes because they’d have no new clothes for the school year. She stopped talking when she peeked at her watch, a bandless one she kept in her pocket. She got up with an “Ay, Dios,” and told me that we’d work until three, leaving me cutting figures in the sand with my knife and dreading the return to work.

Finally I rose and walked slowly back to where I had left off, again kneeling under the vine and fixing the pan under bunches of grapes. By that time, 11:30, the sun was over my shoulder and made me squint and think of the pool at the Y.M.C.A. where I was a summer member. I saw myself diving face first into the water and loving it. I saw myself gleaming like something new, at the edge of the pool. I had to daydream and keep my mind busy because boredom was a terror almost as awful as the work itself. My mind went dumb with stupid things, and I had to keep it moving with dreams of baseball and would-be girlfriends. I even sang, however softly, to keep my mind moving, my hands moving.

I worked less hurriedly and with less vision. I no longer saw that copper pot sitting squat on our stove or Mother waiting for it to whistle. The wardrobe that I imagined, crisp and bright in the closet, numbered only one pair of jeans and two shirts because, in half a day, six cents times thirty-seven trays was two dollars and twenty-two cents. It became clear to me. If I worked eight hours, I might make four dollars. I’d take this, even gladly, and walk downtown to look into store windows on the mall and long for the bright madras shirts from Walter Smith or Coffee’s, but settling for two imitation ones from Penney’s.

That first day I laid down seventy-three trays while Mother had a hundred and twenty behind her. On the back of an old envelope, she wrote out our numbers and hours. We washed at the pump behind the farm house and walked slowly to our car for the drive back to town in the afternoon heat. That evening after dinner I sat in a lawn chair listening to music from a transistor radio while Rick and David King played catch. I joined them in a game of pickle, but there was little joy in trying to avoid their tags because I couldn’t get the fields out of my mind: I saw myself dropping on my knees under a vine to tug at a branch that wouldn’t come off. In bed, when I closed my eyes, I saw the fields, yellow with kicked up dust, and a crooked trail of trays rotting behind me.

The next day I woke tired and started picking tired. The grapes rained into the pan, slowly filling like a belly, until I had my first tray and started my second. So it went all day, and the next, and all through the following week, so that by the end of thirteen days the foreman counted out, in tens mostly, my pay of fifty-three dollars. Mother earned one hundred and forty-eight dollars. She wrote this on her envelope, with a message I didn’t bother to ask her about.

The next day I walked with my friend Scott to the downtown mall where we drooled over the clothes behind fancy windows, bought popcorn, and sat at a tier of outdoor fountains to talk about girls. Finally we went into Penney’s for more popcorn, which we ate walking around, before we returned home without buying anything. It wasn’t until a few days before school that I let my fifty-three dollars slip quietly from my hands, buying a pair of pants, two shirts, and a maroon T-shirt, the kind that was in style. At home I tried them on while Rick looked on enviously; later, the day before school started, I tried them on again wondering not so much if they were worth it as who would see me first in those clothes.

Along with my brother and sister I picked grapes until I was fifteen, before giving up and saying that I’d rather wear old clothes than stoop like a Mexican. Mother thought I was being stuck-up, even stupid, because there would be no clothes for me in the fall. I told her I didn’t care, but when Rick and Debra rose at five in the morning, I lay awake in bed feeling that perhaps I had made a mistake but unwilling to change my mind. That fall Mother bought me two pairs of socks, a packet of colored T-shirts, and underwear. The T-shirts would help, I thought, but who would see that I had new underwear and socks? I wore a new T-shirt on the first day of school, then an old shirt on Tuesday, than another T-shirt on Wednesday, and on Thursday an old Nehru shirt that was embarrassingly out of style. On Friday I changed into the corduroy pants my brother had handed down to me and slipped into my last new T-shirt. I worked like a magician, blinding my classmates, who were all clothes conscious and small-time social climbers, by arranging my wardrobe to make it seem larger than it really was. But by spring I had to do something—my blue jeans were almost silver and my shoes had lost their form, puddling like black ice around my feet. That spring of my sixteenth year, Rick and I decided to take a labor bus to chop cotton. In his old Volkswagen, which was more noise than power, we drove on a Saturday morning to West Fresno—or Chinatown as some call it—parked, walked slowly toward a bus, and stood gawking at the winos, toothy blacks, Okies, Tejanos with gold teeth, whores, Mexican families, and labor contractors shouting “Cotton” or “Beets,” the work of spring.

We boarded the “Cotton” bus without looking at the contractor who stood almost blocking the entrance because he didn’t want winos. We boarded scared and then were more scared because two blacks in the rear were drunk and arguing loudly about what was better, a two-barrel or four-barrel Ford carburetor. We sat far from them, looking straight ahead, and only glanced briefly at the others who boarded, almost all of them broken and poorly dressed in loudly mismatched clothes. Finally when the contractor banged his palm against the side of the bus, the young man at the wheel, smiling and talking in Spanish, started the engine, idled it for a moment while he adjusted the mirrors, and started off in slow chugs. Except for the windshield there was no glass in the windows, so as soon as we were on the rural roads outside Fresno, the dust and sand began to be sucked into the bus, whipping about like irate wasps as the gravel ticked about us. We closed our eyes, clotted up our mouths that wanted to open with embarrassed laughter because we couldn’t believe we were on that bus with those people and the dust attacking us for no reason.

When we arrived at a field we followed the others to a pickup where we each took a hoe and marched to stand before a row. Rick and I, self-conscious and unsure, looked around at the others who leaned on their hoes or squatted in front of the rows, almost all talking in Spanish, joking, lighting cigarettes—all waiting for the foreman’s whistle to begin work. Mother had explained how to chop cotton by showing us with a broom in the backyard.

“Like this,” she said, her broom swishing down weeds. “Leave one plant and cut four—and cut them! Don’t leave them standing or the foreman will get mad.”

The foreman whistled and we started up the row stealing glances at other workers to see if we were doing it right. But after awhile we worked like we knew what we were doing, neither of us hurrying or falling behind. But slowly the clot of men, women, and kids began to spread and loosen. Even Rick pulled away. I didn’t hurry, though. I cut smoothly and cleanly as I walked at a slow pace, in a sort of funeral march. My eyes measured each space of cotton plants before I cut. If I missed the plants, I swished again. I worked intently, seldom looking up, so when I did I was amazed to see the sun, like a broken orange coin, in the east. It looked blurry, unbelievable, like something not of this world. I looked around in amazement, scanning the eastern horizon that was a taut line jutted with an occasional mountain. The horizon was beautiful, like a snapshot of the moon, in the early light of morning, in the quiet of no cars and few people.

The foreman trudged in boots in my direction, stepping awkwardly over the plants, to inspect the work. No one around me looked up. We all worked steadily while we waited for him to leave. When he did leave, with a feeble complaint addressed to no one in particular, we looked up smiling under straw hats and bandanas.

By 11:00, our lunch time, my ankles were hurting from walking on clods the size of hardballs. My arms ached and my face was dusted by a wind that was perpetual, always busy whipping about. But the work was not bad, I thought. It was better, so much better, than picking grapes, especially with the hourly wage of a dollar twenty-five instead of piece work. Rick and I walked sorely toward the bus where we washed and drank water. Instead of eating in the bus or in the shade of the bus, we kept to ourselves by walking down to the irrigation canal that ran the length of the field, to open our lunch of sandwiches and crackers. We laughed at the crackers, which seemed like a cruel joke from our mother, because we were working under the sun and the last thing we wanted was a salty dessert. We ate them anyway and drank more water before we returned to the field, both of us limping in exaggeration. Working side by side, we talked and laughed at our predicament because our Mother had warned us year after year that if we didn’t get on track in school we’d have to work in the fields and then we would see. We mimicked Mother’s whining voice and smirked at her smoky view of the future in which we’d be trapped by marriage and screaming kids. We’d eat beans and then we’d see.

Rick pulled slowly away to the rhythm of his hoe falling faster and smoother. It was better that way, to work alone. I could hum made-up songs or songs from the radio and think to myself about school and friends. At the time I was doing badly in my classes, mainly because of a difficult stepfather, but also because I didn’t care anymore. All through junior high and into my first year of high school there were those who said I would never do anything, be anyone. They said I’d work like a donkey and marry the first Mexican girl that came along. I was reminded so often, verbally and in the way I was treated at home, that I began to believe that chopping cotton might be a lifetime job for me. If not chopping cotton, then I might get lucky and find myself in a car wash or restaurant or junkyard. But it was clear; I’d work, and work hard.

I cleared my mind by humming and looking about. The sun was directly above with a few soft blades of clouds against a sky that seemed bluer and more beautiful than our sky in the city. Occasionally the breeze flurried and picked up dust so that I had to cover my eyes and screw up my face. The workers were hunched, brown as the clods under our feet, and spread across the field that ran without end—fields that were owned by corporations, not families.

I hoed trying to keep my mind busy with scenes from school and pretend girlfriends until finally my brain turned off and my thinking went fuzzy with boredom. I looked about, no longer mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape, no longer wondering if the winos in the fields could hold out for eight hours, no longer dreaming of the clothes I’d buy with my pay. My eyes followed my chopping as the plants, thin as their shadows, fell with each strike. I worked slowly with ankles and arms hurting, neck stiff, and eyes stinging from the dust and the sun that glanced off the field like a mirror.

By quitting time, 3:00, there was such an excruciating pain in my ankles that I walked as if I were wearing snowshoes. Rick laughed at me and I laughed too, embarrassed that most of the men were walking normally and I was among the first timers who had to get used to this work. “And what about you, wino,” I came back at Rick. His eyes were meshed red and his long hippie hair was flecked with dust and gnats and bits of leaves. We placed our hoes in the back of a pickup and stood in line for our pay, which was twelve fifty. I was amazed at the pay, which was the most I had ever earned in one day, and thought that I’d come back the next day, Sunday. This was too good.

Instead of joining the others in the labor bus, we jumped in the back of a pickup when the driver said we’d get to town sooner and were welcome to join him. We scrambled into the truck bed to be joined by a heavy-set and laughing Tejano whose head was shaped like an egg, particularly so because the bandana he wore ended in a point on the top of his head. He laughed almost demonically as the pickup roared up the dirt path, a gray cape of dust rising behind us. On the highway, with the wind in our faces, we squinted at the fields as if we were looking for someone. The Tejanohad quit laughing but was smiling broadly, occasionally chortling tunes he never finished. I was scared of him, though Rick, two years older and five inches taller, wasn’t. If the Tejano looked at him, Rick stared back for a second or two before he looked away to the fields.

I felt like a soldier coming home from war when we rattled into Chinatown. People leaning against car hoods stared, their necks following us, owl-like; prostitutes chewed gum more ferociously and showed us their teeth; Chinese grocers stopped brooming their storefronts to raise their cadaverous faces at us. We stopped in front of the Chi Chi Club where Mexican music blared from the juke box and cue balls cracked like dull ice. The Tejano, who was dirty as we were, stepped awkwardly over the side rail, dusted himself off with his bandana, and sauntered into the club.

Rick and I jumped from the back, thanked the driver who said de nada and popped his clutch, so that the pickup jerked and coughed blue smoke. We returned smiling to our car, happy with the money we had made and pleased that we had, in a small way, proved ourselves to be tough; that we worked as well as other men and earned the same pay.

We returned the next day and the next week until the season was over and there was nothing to do. I told myself that I wouldn’t pick grapes that summer, saying all through June and July that it was for Mexicans, not me. When August came around and I still had not found a summer job, I ate my words, sharpened my knife, and joined Mother, Rick, and Debra for one last time.

Black Hair

There are two kinds of work: One uses the mind and the other uses muscle. As a kid I found out about the latter. I’m thinking of the summer of 1969 when I was a seventeen-year-old runaway who ended up in Glendale, California, to work for Valley Tire Factory. To answer an ad in the newspaper I walked miles in the afternoon sun, my stomach slowly knotting on a doughnut that was breakfast, my teeth like bright candles gone yellow. I walked in the door sweating and feeling ugly because my hair was still stiff from a swim at the Santa Monica beach the day before. Jules, the accountant and part owner, looked droopily through his bifocals at my application and then at me. He tipped his cigar in the ashtray, asked my age as if he didn’t believe I was seventeen, but finally after a moment of silence, said, “Come back tomorrow. Eight-thirty.”

I thanked him, left the office, and went around to the chain link fence to watch the workers heave tires into a bin; others carted uneven stacks of tires on hand trucks. Their faces were black from tire dust and when they talked—or cussed—their mouths showed a bright pink.

From there I walked up a commercial street, past a cleaners, a motorcycle shop, and a gas station where I washed my face and hands; before leaving I took a bottle that hung on the side of the Coke machine, filled it with water, and stopped it with a scrap of paper and a rubber band.

The next morning I arrived early at work. The assistant foreman, a potbellied Hungarian, showed me a timecard and how to punch in. He showed me the Coke machine, the locker room with its slimy shower, and also pointed out the places where I shouldn’t go: The ovens where the tires were recapped and the customer service area, which had a slashed couch, a coffee table with greasy magazines, and an ashtray. He introduced me to Tully, a fat man with one ear, who worked the buffers that resurfaced the white walls. I was handed an apron and a face mask and shown how to use the buffer: Lift the tire and center, inflate it with a footpedal, press the buffer against the white band until cleaned, and then deflate and blow off the tire with an air hose.

With a paint brush he stirred a can of industrial preserver. “Then slap this blue stuff on.” While he was talking a co-worker came up quietly from behind him and goosed him with the air hose. Tully jumped as if he had been struck by a bullet and then turned around cussing and cupping his genitals in his hands as the other worker walked away calling out foul names. When Tully turned to me smiling his gray teeth, I lifted my mouth into a smile because I wanted to get along. He has to be on my side, I thought. He’s the one who’ll tell the foreman how I’m doing.

I worked carefully that day, setting the tires on the machine as if they were babies, since it was easy to catch a finger in the rim that expanded to inflate the tire. At the day’s end we swept up the tire dust and emptied the trash into bins.

At five the workers scattered for their cars and motorcycles while I crossed the street to wash at a burger stand. My hair was stiff with dust and my mouth showed pink against the backdrop of my dirty face. I then ordered a hotdog and walked slowly in the direction of the abandoned house where I had stayed the night before. I lay under the trees and within minutes was asleep. When I woke my shoulders were sore and my eyes burned when I squeezed the lids together.

From the backyard I walked dully through a residential street, and as evening came on, the TV glare in the living rooms and the headlights of passing cars showed against the blue drift of dusk. I saw two children coming up the street with snow cones, their tongues darting at the packed ice. I saw a boy with a peach and wanted to stop him, but felt embarrassed by my hunger. I walked for an hour only to return and discover the house lit brightly. Behind the fence I heard voices and saw a flashlight poking at the garage door. A man on the back steps mumbled something about the refrigerator to the one with the flashlight.

I waited for them to leave, but had the feeling they wouldn’t because there was the commotion of furniture being moved. Tired, even more desperate, I started walking again with a great urge to kick things and tear the day from my life. I felt weak and my mind kept drifting because of hunger. I crossed the street to a gas station where I sipped at the water fountain and searched the Coke machine for change. I started walking again, first up a commercial street, then into a residential area where I lay down on someone’s lawn and replayed a scene at home—my mother crying at the kitchen table, my stepfather yelling with food in his mouth. They’re cruel, I thought, and warned myself that I should never forgive them. How could they do this to me.

When I got up from the lawn it was late. I searched out a place to sleep and found an unlocked car that seemed safe. In the back seat, with my shoes off, I fell asleep but woke up startled about four in the morning when the owner, a nurse on her way to work, opened the door. She got in and was about to start the engine when I raised my head up from the backseat to explain my presence. She screamed so loudly when I said “I’m sorry” that I sprinted from the car with my shoes in hand. Her screams faded, then stopped altogether, as I ran down the block where I hid behind a trash bin and waited for a police siren to sound. Nothing. I crossed the street to a church where I slept stiffly on cardboard in the balcony.

I woke up feeling tired and greasy. It was early and a few street lights were still lit, the east growing pink with dawn. I washed myself from a garden hose and returned to the church to break into what looked like a kitchen. Paper cups, plastic spoons, a coffee pot littered on a table. I found a box of Nabisco crackers which I ate until I was full.

At work I spent the morning at the buffer, but was then told to help Iggy, an old Mexican, who was responsible for choosing tires that could be recapped without the risk of exploding at high speeds. Every morning a truck would deliver used tires, and after I unloaded them Iggy would step among the tires to inspect them for punctures and rips on the side walls.

With a yellow chalk he marked circles and Xs to indicate damage and called out “junk.” For those tires that could be recapped, he said “goody” and I placed them on my hand truck. When I had a stack of eight I kicked the truck at an angle and balanced them to another work area where Iggy again inspected the tires, scratching Xs and calling out “junk.”

Iggy worked only until three in the afternoon, at which time he went to the locker room to wash and shave and to dress in a two-piece suit. When he came out he glowed with a bracelet, watch, rings, and a shiny fountain pen in his breast pocket. His shoes sounded against the asphalt. He was the image of a banker stepping into sunlight with millions on his mind. He said a few low words to workers with whom he was friendly and none to people like me.

I was seventeen, stupid because I couldn’t figure out the difference between an F 78 14 and 750 14 at sight. Iggy shook his head when I brought him the wrong tires, especially since I had expressed interest in being his understudy. “Mexican, how can you be so stupid?” he would yell at me, slapping a tire from my hands. But within weeks I learned a lot about tires, from sizes and makes to how they are molded in iron forms to how Valley stole from other companies. Now and then we received a truckload of tires, most of them new or nearly new, and they were taken to our warehouse in the back where the serial numbers were ground off with a sander. On those days the foreman handed out Cokes and joked with us as we worked to get the numbers off.

Most of the workers were Mexican or black, though a few redneck whites worked there. The base pay was a dollar sixty-five, but the average was three dollars. Of the black workers, I knew Sugar Daddy the best. His body carried two hundred and fifty pounds, armfuls of scars, and a long knife that made me jump when he brought it out from his boot without warning. At one time he had been a singer, and had cut a record in 1967 called Love’s Chance, which broke into the R and B charts. But nothing came of it. No big contract, no club dates, no tours. He made very little from the sales, only enough for an operation to pull a steering wheel from his gut when, drunk and mad at a lady friend, he slammed his Mustang into a row of parked cars.

“Touch it,” he smiled at me one afternoon as he raised his shirt, his black belly kinked with hair. Scared, I traced the scar that ran from his chest to the left of his belly button, and I was repelled but hid my disgust.

Among the Mexicans I had few friends because I was different, a pocho who spoke bad Spanish. At lunch they sat in tires and laughed over burritos, looking up at me to laugh even harder. I also sat in tires while nursing a Coke and felt dirty and sticky because I was still living on the street and had not had a real bath in over a week. Nevertheless, when the border patrol came to round up the nationals, I ran with them as they scrambled for the fence or hid among the tires behind the warehouse. The foreman, who thought I was an undocumented worker, yelled at me to run, to get away. I did just that. At the time it seemed fun because there was no risk, only a goodhearted feeling of hide-and-seek, and besides it meant an hour away from work on company time. When the police left we came back and some of the nationals made up stories of how they were almost caught—how they out-raced the police. Some of the stories were so convoluted and unconvincing that everyone laughed mentiras, especially when one described how he overpowered a policeman, took his gun away, and sold the patrol car. We laughed and he laughed, happy to be there to make up a story.

If work was difficult, so were the nights. I still had not gathered enough money to rent a room, so I spent the nights sleeping in parked cars or in the balcony of a church. After a week I found a newspaper ad for room for rent, phoned, and was given directions. Finished with work, I walked the five miles down Mission Road looking back into the traffic with my thumb out. No rides. After eight hours of handling tires I was frightening, I suppose, to drivers since they seldom looked at me; if they did, it was a quick glance. For the next six weeks I would try to hitchhike, but the only person to stop was a Mexican woman who gave me two dollars to take the bus. I told her it was too much and that no bus ran from Mission Road to where I lived, but she insisted that I keep the money and trotted back to her idling car. It must have hurt her to see me day after day walking in the heat and looking very much the dirty Mexican to the many minds that didn’t know what it meant to work at hard labor. That woman knew. Her eyes met mine as she opened the car door, and there was a tenderness that was surprisingly true—one for which you wait for years but when it comes it doesn’t help. Nothing changes. You continue on in rags, with the sun still above you.

I rented a room from a middle-aged couple whose lives were a mess. She was a school teacher and he was a fireman. A perfect set up, I thought. But during my stay there they would argue with one another for hours in their bedroom.

When I rang at the front door both Mr. and Mrs. Van Deusen answered and didn’t bother to disguise their shock at how awful I looked. But they let me in all the same. Mrs. Van Deusen showed me around the house, from the kitchen and bathroom to the living room with its grand piano. On her fingers she counted out the house rules as she walked me to my room. It was a girl’s room with lace curtains, scenic wallpaper of a Victorian couple enjoying a stroll, canopied bed, and stuffed animals in a corner. Leaving, she turned and asked if she could do laundry for me and, feeling shy and hurt, I told her no; perhaps the next day. She left and I undressed to take a bath, exhausted as I sat on the edge of the bed probing my aches and my bruised places. With a towel around my waist I hurried down the hallway to the bathroom where Mrs. Van Deusen had set out an additional towel with a tube of shampoo. I ran the water in the tub and sat on the toilet, lid down, watching the steam curl toward the ceiling. When I lowered myself into the tub I felt my body sting. I soaped a wash cloth and scrubbed my arms until they lightened, even glowed pink, but still I looked unwashed around my neck and face no matter how hard I rubbed. Back in the room I sat in bed reading a magazine, happy and thinking of no better luxury than a girl’s sheets, especially after nearly two weeks of sleeping on cardboard at the church.

I was too tired to sleep, so I sat at the window watching the neighbors move about in pajamas, and, curious about the room, looked through the bureau drawers to search out personal things—snapshots, a messy diary, and a high school yearbook. I looked up the Van Deusen’s daughter, Barbara, and studied her face as if I recognized her from my own school—a face that said “promise,” “college,” “nice clothes in the closet.” She was a skater and a member of the German Club; her greatest ambition was to sing at the Hollywood Bowl.

After awhile I got into bed and as I drifted toward sleep I thought about her. In my mind I played a love scene again and again and altered it slightly each time. She comes home from college and at first is indifferent to my presence in her home, but finally I overwhelm her with deep pity when I come home hurt from work, with blood on my shirt. Then there was another version: Home from college she is immediately taken with me, in spite of my work-darkened face, and invites me into the family car for a milkshake across town. Later, back at the house, we sit in the living room talking about school until we’re so close I’m holding her hand. The truth of the matter was that Barbara did come home for a week, but was bitter toward her parents for taking in boarders (two others besides me). During that time she spoke to me only twice: Once, while searching the refrigerator, she asked if we had any mustard; the other time she asked if I had seen her car keys.

But it was a place to stay. Work had become more and more difficult. I not only worked with Iggy, but also with the assistant foreman who was in charge of unloading trucks. After they backed in I hopped on top to pass the tires down by bouncing them on the tailgate to give them an extra spring so they would be less difficult to handle on the other end. Each truck was weighed down with more than two hundred tires, each averaging twenty pounds, so that by the time the truck was emptied and swept clean I glistened with sweat and my T-shirt stuck to my body. I blew snot threaded with tire dust onto the asphalt, indifferent to the customers who watched from the waiting room.

The days were dull. I did what there was to do from morning until the bell sounded at five; I tugged, pulled, and cussed at tires until I was listless and my mind drifted and caught on small things, from cold sodas to shoes to stupid talk about what we would do with a million dollars. I remember unloading a truck with Hamp, a black man.

“What’s better than a sharp lady?” he asked me as I stood sweaty on a pile of junked tires. “Water. With ice,” I said.

He laughed with his mouth open wide. With his fingers he pinched the sweat from his chin and flicked at me. “You be too young, boy. A woman can make you a god.”

As a kid I had chopped cotton and picked grapes, so I knew work. I knew the fatigue and the boredom and the feeling that there was a good possibility you might have to do such work for years, if not for a lifetime. In fact, as a kid I imagined a dark fate: To marry Mexican poor, work Mexican hours, and in the end die a Mexican death, broke and in despair.

But this job at Valley Tire Company confirmed that there was something worse than field work, and I was doing it. We were all doing it, from foreman to the newcomers like me, and what I felt heaving tires for eight hours a day was felt by everyone—black, Mexican, redneck. We all despised those hours but didn’t know what else to do. The workers were unskilled, some undocumented and fearful of deportation, and all struck with an uncertainty at what to do with their lives. Although everyone bitched about work, no one left. Some had worked there for as long as twelve years; some had sons working there. Few quit; no one was ever fired. It amazed me that no one gave up when the border patrol jumped from their vans, baton in hand, because I couldn’t imagine any work that could be worse—or any life. What was out there, in the world, that made men run for the fence in fear? Iggy was the only worker who seemed sure of himself. After five hours of “junking,” he brushed himself off, cleaned up in the washroom, and came out gleaming with an elegance that humbled the rest of us. Few would look him straight in the eye or talk to him in our usual stupid way because he was so much better. He carried himself as a man should—with that old world “dignity”—while the rest of us muffed our jobs and talked dully about dull things as we worked. From where he worked in his open shed he would now and then watch us with his hands on his hips. He would shake his head and click his tongue in disgust.

The rest of us lived dismally. I often wondered what the others’ homes were like; I couldn’t imagine that they were much better than our work place. No one indicated that his outside life was interesting or intriguing. We all looked defeated and contemptible in our filth at the day’s end. I imagined the average welcome at home: Rafael, a Mexican national who had worked at Valley for five years, returned to a beaten house of kids who were dressed in mismatched clothes and playing kick-the-can. As for Sugar Daddy, he returned home to a stuffy room where he would read and reread old magazines. He ate potato chips, drank beer, and watched TV.There was no grace in dipping socks into a wash basin where later he would wash his cup and plate.

There was no grace at work. It was all ridicule. The assistant foreman drank Cokes in front of the newcomers as they laced tires in the afternoon sun. Knowing that I had a long walk home, Rudy, the college student, passed me waving and yelling “Hello,” as I started down Mission Road on the way home to eat out of cans. Even our plump secretary got into the act by wearing short skirts and flaunting her milky legs. If there was love, it was ugly. I’m thinking of Tully and an older man whose name I can no longer recall fondling one another in the washroom. I had come in cradling a smashed finger to find them pressed together in the shower, their pants undone and partly pulled down. When they saw me they smiled their pink mouths but didn’t bother to push away.

How we arrived at such a place is a mystery to me. Why anyone would stay for years is even a deeper concern. You showed up, but from where? What broken life? What ugly past? The foreman showed you the Coke machine, the washroom, and the yard where you’d work. When you picked up a tire, you were amazed at the black it could give off.

Being Stupid

What evilness had risen from my hand? Once, when I and a neighbor friend, Rinehart, a true Okie and lover of gravy on cantaloupe, were on the front porch, a very drunk man in a brown overcoat staggered down our street in the middle of the afternoon. He reeled like those drunks in the afternoon movies—side to side, forward and then backward, all the while slurring words at himself and things that got in his way.

Rinehart and I watched him pass, thinking it was funny that he should have to lean against a car and hold on. Then the brilliant idea: Why not sell him a beer bottle filled with water? We beamed at each other and rushed off to find a bottle before the drunk escaped our scheme. Pulling one from the garbage, we filled it with water from the garden hose and then ran after the drunk who had not wandered too far. Rinehart was standing behind me, somewhat scared, when I yelled: “Mister, you wanna buy a beer? Look at this.” I held up the bottle like a chalice and pointed at it. He turned slowly to show us his watery eyes. His stare drifted, and out came: “Whaaaat?” It was an ugly sound that scared both of us. Still, when the drunk took a dollar from his pocket, I snatched it from him and then set the bottle at his feet. He tried to lunge at me, but I sidestepped him and he fell to the ground, tipping over the bottle. He looked at the bottle, then back at me, and whined from some terrible cavity of the heart: “You’ll get yours, sonny.” The words scared me. I was Catholic. I knew right from wrong and what he meant.

The drunk rose to his feet with difficulty and then bent down to pick up the beer bottle and raise it to his mouth. As he continued down the street, we watched in silence as he crossed the street into the next block. I turned to Rinehart and tried to be funny by crossing my eyes but his face had gone slack from bad feelings. I suggested that we cash the dollar, but he didn’t want anything to do with it. He left me and went inside. What could I do? What was done was done. With the dollar I bought a Coke, potato chips, and a lemon pie, and rode my bike up and down the block, now and then staring at Rinehart’s house and feeling bad.

I marched through life in evilness, and perhaps a low point that will surely send me tumbling into hell was when Scott, my best friend and still another lover of cantaloupe and gravy, begged me to break into his sister’s house with him. She was on vacation in Yosemite, so it was a perfect time to undo a window screen, slither through, and come out smiling with the stereo, the color TV, the alarm clock, the antique silver, or whatever our hearts desired.

“Come on, Gar, no way are we gonna get caught,” he beat over my head all night. “We could put the stereo in the closet, and sell the rest of the stuff. Fifty-fifty.”

At first I was surprised at Scott. My mouth hung open, and when I closed it it fell open again. His own sister’s house? His recently married sister? I would never have thought of stealing from family or, for that matter, stealing period. I was Catholic. I believed in evilness.

But then, Scott’s arguments sort of made sense. Didn’t we in fact need a stereo and wasn’t it true that we were stealing from the rich? Surely no harm would result. His sister worked for the government and his brother-in-law was employed as a surveyor. He made a killing, we thought, and there were benefits to boot.

“Gar, we could do it. No one will know,” he argued for hours before I finally came around to agree with him. We planned our break-in for the following night, and then sat back in our beds bragging about what we would buy: Vienna sausages, cheeses, and assorted packages of Lipton soup, our favorite. Our imaginations narrowed to Cokes, Cheez-Its, and puffed bags of Chee•tos. Okie Heaven, we laughed.

Our circumstances were laughable. Mad at my parents, I had said “shit” under my breath and had joined Scott in renting a small room in a boarding house. We each had a bed, a chair, and one wobbly table where we fixed our meals. We lived like monks with bad eating habits: For breakfast there were Froot Loops and Sonny Boy orange juice; for lunch we slurped up a bowl of Lipton soup, along with a thin sandwich of peanut butter and jelly; for dinner, which I ate alone because Scott worked the night shift at a box factory, I often opened a can of Campbell’s Manhandler. Great stuff, I thought at the time—a time when I was trying to become a poet. I had taped my poems (all three of them) to the wall near the window where I ate, re-reading them as I weighed each steaming spoonful of my Manhandler. When a breeze came in the poems fluttered and hung on the verge of pulling off the wall and coming alive. Good stuff, I thought, but the professor I would show them to that fall would think different. The poems died in his class, or limped like old dogs in the hallway, and when I tried to tape them back to the wall they slipped behind the bed where I left them, depressed.

Scott worked hard hours while I lived on social security. Ninety dollars every month. Thirty dollars for rent, twenty for food, and fifteen for gas. There were other expenses that might have amounted to five dollars, but I managed to save the rest for a rainy day.

But it was the end of a lean month, so we agreed to rob the house. The next night Scott called in sick and as we were about to leave, a friend of ours showed up. It was Ronnie in a baseball cap; Ronnie the biologist in lime green socks; the big creep who squeezed pimples at mirrors and laughed.

“Where you guys going?” he asked. “For a walk,” I lied. He followed us downstairs and the three of us walked one block, then another, and then still another. We returned to the house and at that point we told Ronnie what we were going to do. His face was like an orange moon when he asked if he could come along. We shouted no and then told him to get lost. And that’s just what he did. He got into his ’57 Chevy, a car only a Mexican or a redneck looks good in. Ronnie was neither.

Scott and I jumped into my ’49 Plymouth and raced to Scott’s sister’s place. By the time we got there Ronnie was waiting for us on his car hood with his long legs dangling and his socks showing under a street light. He called to us, and we shushed him.

“OK, you can come with us,” Scott told him, “but don’t be too greedy. Just take what you really need.” Scott explained to us that he would climb through the upstairs window that he knew was open. I drove my Plymouth into the alley behind the house; Ronnie parked his Chevy on the end of the block. By the time Ronnie and I returned to the house, we could make out Scott’s crouched figure waving for us to come in. We tiptoed past the spray of car parts and gardening tools, up the back porch, and into the house. In the kitchen Scott again warned us, Ronnie in particular, just to take things that we needed. He flicked on the flashlight and Scott and I went to the living room while Ronnie, who was offended by Scott’s warnings, went upstairs to search the bedrooms. A match lit the way for him.

Scott and I unplugged the stereo and detached the speaker wires from the receiver. I cradled the speakers one at a time, like babies, to the alley while Scott propped the receiver and turntable on his shoulders and followed me. Together we carried the 19-inch RCA, dropping it once on the lawn and again in the alley when we tried to fit it into the trunk. When the neighbor’s dog snorted at the fence, we froze and tried not to breathe.

Meanwhile, Ronnie had brought down a tape recorder, some record albums, and a hat. “Don’t be stupid,” I told him in a low but angry voice. I slapped the hat from his hand and he said, “Oh.”

The three of us returned to the house where we searched for small things: Fountain pens, loose change, a wad of bills sandwiched under a mattress. Scott’s flashlight poked at the dark, and I followed it, looking desperately for something—anything—of value. Ronnie started upstairs to search the bedrooms again when we heard a car coming to a stop. The neighbors. We grew still and listened to the car door slam, a low voice, and then a hee-haw of laughter as they climbed their steps. This frightened me and Scott, but Ronnie remained indifferent. “Don’t worry.”

But we did. I could feel that Scott was scared out of his wits, so I told him to stay calm while I took one last look around the house. It was then that I found a plexiglas bank of quarters, dimes, and nickels. I weighed it in my palm: At least twenty dollars, I thought.

When I returned to the living room Scott was peeking out the window. He turned to me and his voice was full of panic. “C’mon, let’s get outta here.”

At the stairs I called up to Ronnie to come down, but, a true fool to the bone, he said no. I climbed the stairs where I found him in a closet searching on his knees among the shoes. I grabbed him by the arm, but he tugged away.

“You’ll get it later, punk,” I told him. My mouth was puckered with meanness and instead of waiting for later I jumped into the closet to fight him. Scott came running up the stairs to break us up. When I got up my lip felt warm and my back hurt where Ronnie had pounded me with a high-heeled shoe.

“Let’s go, Ronnie,” Scott begged, but still he refused to leave. “Listen, just give me some more time. Just ten more minutes.”

We went downstairs without him and into the alley where we placed the stereo in the back seat of the car, jumped in, and began to drive slowly down the alley. A large branch, somehow stuck to the underbody of the car, scraped against the ground and got louder as we picked up speed. The neighborhood of dogs whined, then broke the night with barks, as a porch light came on. Out of the alley I drove madly hoping the branch would snap. But it didn’t. We drove all the way home with the branch screeching and in my mind I prayed to God and confessed our evilness. “Baby Jesus, get us out of here. Save our asses.”

Back at our room we sat on our beds trying to figure out the next move. Where would we sell the stereo? Sunnyside Swapmeet? Cherry Auction? Should we drag the stuff into our room? What if anyone saw us? We went round and round fluttering with fear like chickens. Scott paced the room, searching out the window now and then, while I lay on the bed, exhausted.

Then we made out the sound of Ronnie’s car in the distance. It got louder and his tires skidded when he turned the corner to our block. He stopped with the screech of bad brakes, revved up the engine, and then shut it off. He got out of his car and I could hear the flipflop of K-mart sneakers climb our stairs. When I opened the door for him he was holding a lamp with a torn shade. I couldn’t believe it. What had gotten into his mind to make him bring back a lamp?

Immediately we began to argue. I pushed him; he pushed me. I pushed him again and we started fighting, our arms flailing at one another as we banged against the table and the bed. Scott sat on his bed with his head in his hands and suffered in private shame, indifferent to our rolling about the room. A banging came from the wall, followed by a “Shut up in there.” Ronnie and I let go of each other and got up breathing hard and pressing at the hurt places throbbing under the skin. I looked into the mirror that showed a long scratch from Ronnie’s girlish fingernails. Scarface Soto.

Ronnie dabbed at a bloody tooth with a napkin and gave me a dirty look. He looked in the mirror, his index fingers stretching his mouth open to show a yellow tongue.

The three of us then collapsed on the beds, with Scott and I in one and Ronnie lying face down in the other. Minutes later Ronnie got up, picked up his lamp, and left without saying a word. I got up and watched from the window as Ronnie roared off in his Chevy. I turned to Scott whose face was buried in the pillow. When I called to him he let out his fear: “Oh, man, are we in trouble.”

He got up quickly and looked at me. “Gar, we’re going to leave town. That’s the only way. We’ll say that we were out of town. San Francisco. My brother lives there.”

We went on building an alibi as he changed his socks, readying for the bus ride up north. We got our toothbrushes, a change of clothes, and fixed sandwiches: Six of them slapped together with tuna and limp sheets of lettuce. We hurried into the car and drove off in silence, each of us gnawed by shame and fear. Why had we done it? Didn’t we come from OK families? What drug had forced Scott to propose such deceit? It was the only time I had stolen, and guilt clamped my head like a football helmet.

Instead of going straight to the Greyhound Bus depot, we stopped at Ronnie’s apartment where we found him face down in a pillow. Incense burned in an ashtray on a nightstand, a thread of smoke unraveling. The lamp leaned like a rifle against the bed.

“Leave me alone,” he moaned without looking up. I threw myself into a chair and Scott coaxed him to come to San Francisco with us.

“You gotta come, man,” Scott whined. His hands were cocked on his hips. “Get your face up and let’s go. Now, menso.”

Ronnie moaned into his pillow, “Leave me alone.” Scott and I left and drove near the bus terminal, where we parked on an unlit street with no meters. The “stuff” was still in the back seat, and this made us feel uneasy. What if the car were towed? For sure the cops would trace the TV and stereo, we thought. We sat in the car ripping up our fingernails with our teeth and thought deeply before we started off in the direction of the terminal, past a few winos who mumbled at us like drunk priests.

At the terminal we stood in a line of greasy people who were, in my imagination, fleeing from their own predicaments. What crimes had they committed? Burglary? Forged checks? Severe knife wounds? I studied their broken faces and the clipclop of their limps. I watched them play the pinball machines and slouch at the quarter-for-a-half-hour TV sets. Some sat in plastic orange chairs while others smoked and leaned on the wall with Cokes in their hands.

I searched the terminal and everyone looked scuffed up or worn to the bone, especially the ones in mismatched clothes: Flowered shirts with striped pants.

When the man behind the counter said six dollars and seventy-five cents to San Francisco, I searched Scott’s face and he stared back because we didn’t have more than twenty dollars between us. Still, we paid and waited in another line that was slowly gobbled by the door. We passed through as the bus driver punched hungrily at our tickets. He pointed to a bus and we boarded, sitting stiffly as cardboard in cushioned seats.

I turned to Scott who was trembling and working on his fingernails again. “Do you think we’re doing the right thing? I mean, we only got about five bucks.”

He turned to me. His face was pale despite the dark stubble that rose like iron filings from his chin. “Let’s get outta here.”

Rising from my seat I pulled our six-sandwich lunch from the rack above our heads. Outside, Scott explained to the bus driver that we had forgotten our wallets at home; we couldn’t possibly make the trip.

“Now why the hell didn’t you think about that before you bought tickets,” he asked in a gruff voice. He shook his head and slurred: “Jesus Christ.”

We looked down at our shoes, then away, as the driver wrote something on our tickets. “Now go on,” he waved. “Jesus Christ.”

We stood in line again, but I noticed that the people who were milling around didn’t look all that bad after all. Perhaps I had been hasty in my observations, a college snot. I again noted the man in the flowered shirt with the striped pants and he didn’t look so bad. He was probably a homeowner, a two-car man with a Catholic background, a league bowler.

After a few minutes of arguing our case, we were refunded our money and dashed from the terminal into the night to jog up Tulare Street back to the car. We leaned against the fender, bent over with our hands on our knees to catch our breath.

“We’ve got to straighten up,” I told Scott, remorseful at our stupidity.

Scott, who had been locked in thought, proposed that we return the stuff; that the only way out was to get rid of it because he was certain that his family would find out, if not in the coming week, then in a month or a year. His sister might show up at our hovel and, with our luck, the stereo would be blaring with The Stones and the TV glowing blue with the sound turned down.

We threw this idea back and forth like a football. It was in my hands when we agreed that the stuff had to go back.

We drove back to Ronnie’s place where he was still face down in the pillow. When Scott called to him, he moaned, “Leave me alone. We’re fools.” He threw his head back into the pillow. “Fools.”

“Listen, menso, we gotta do something about this stuff,” I told him. I took a sandwich from our bag and tossed one to Scott who tossed it back to me. “I ain’t hungry.”

I unwrapped the sandwich and listened to Scott explain to Ronnie our plan of returning the television and stereo and the rest of the stuff. Ronnie listened with his eyes closed while rolling his tongue over God knows what filth in his mouth. He rose up on his elbow and blinked his red eyes at us. “Fools!”

I threw the tuna sandwich at him and again reminded him that when it was all over, I was going to ride a bike up his back, make him hurt.

“Let’s go,” I told Scott. I picked up the lamp that Ronnie had taken and propped it on my shoulder. From there we drove to Scott’s sister’s place where we parked in the alley. For a few minutes we sat in silence, each of us mulling over in private our fears. The night was busy with crickets, a whole tribe I imagined, but when we got out they stopped. Everything was still. I was amazed at the clarity of the moon that had just cleared the telephone wires toward a new day. In the distance a dog started to bark, followed by another, and then still another. We leaned against the car and waited for them to stop their racket. When they did, Scott turned to me. “I’ll go first. Wait for me.”

He pressed the flashlight against his palm: It showed blood red. He walked away and I sat on the car hood to warm myself against the late night chill. I thought of how stupid we had been. Of all people we stole from a relative. A sister. A recently married sister. I said a made-up prayer and assured God that if I got out of this one I’d be good. No problems from me—ever!

Scott returned to the car to help me lift the television that we carried solemnly like a coffin through the yard into the house. We set it on its side in the kitchen and returned to the car for the stereo, the alarm clock, the lamp, and the small things. We set them in the kitchen and rested there for a moment, our breathing like a saw going through wood, before we returned to the car. We drove home sweating but relieved, and instead of going inside we sat in the car wondering if we would be found out. Fingerprints? A dropped pencil with my teethmarks for the crime lab to work from? Anything was possible.

We sat in the dark, pensive but limp from the exertion of fear, and stared ahead up the street, mumbling the different versions of our crime. A dog crossed the street. A collie. What a lucky life, I thought, to chow down a bowl of Skippy dog food and trot off for an eventful night of dog fights and knocked-over garbage cans. What freedom from conscience. When we were kids of thirteen and fourteen we had done the same: Downed a bowl of Frosted Flakes and then met somewhere, in a vacant lot or a corner, to begin a day of wandering through the streets of Fresno in search of trouble. There had been no better time.

The dog trotted in our direction. Rolling down my window I called to him: “Come here, boy.” He stopped still, his head poised beautifully under the street light, before he started to wag his tail. He came up to the car, almost shyly, and I let my hand hang from the window. He licked it and made a whining noise. I opened the door to the back seat and the dog climbed in, his tail patting the upholstery as he whined to be scratched and loved. Unwrapping a tuna sandwich, I poked it at the dog’s nose and he nibbled at it with more manners than most people I knew.

Scott was still lost in the vacancy of his own private guilt, so when I asked him if he wanted to go to Sambo’s for breakfast because I knew we couldn’t sleep that night, he mumbled, “Yeah, maybe, why not.” Scott gnawed a fingernail of shame, and I figured a good stack of pancakes would do wonders.

I turned to the collie. “What do you think, baby?” The dog whined and pumped its tiny feet which made me love it. I started the engine, put it in gear, and started up the street while the dog’s head hung over the front seat and washed the backs of my ears.

DMU Timestamp: October 20, 2015 21:02