I haven't posted here since May. That's just about a three-and-a-half month hiatus. I've been a busy little boy since then. But I'll discuss all that later, if you don't mind.
Recently, I posted a few things about my life elsewhere on the Internet and a few of my friends encouraged me to write my memoirs. They were not aware that I'd begun a novel in November of 2001 that may closely resemble a memoir, or the closest I may ever come. Memoirs aren't really my style of book at this point in my life. I'm more interested in constructing, layering and telling a good story.
All of my work is autobiographical to various degrees, even the science fiction and fantasy. But Joyride Thru Death Valley, the novel I started in 2001, is perhaps the most autobiographical to date.
I look upon Joyride as Ray Bradbury looks upon Dandelion Wine: it's a novel that may have many truths but has been constructed via imagination to capture a feeling of time and place and presence.
Not everything you will read below is true and accurate. It's not meant to be. Not everything is exaggerated and imaginary. They're not meant to be. If I can challenge my readers, make them feel themselves present within my tales and, ultimately, entertain them, I've done my job as a storyteller. I am a slave to the story and not always to the truth.
But I learned long ago that my feeble imagination cannot hold up to the drama of real life. So I often don't make the attempt. I instead gather imaginings around truth to cultivate a story.
That is Joyride. There is truth. There is imagination. And there is, if I've done my job right, a solid story.
This is incredibly rough. It's a long read, so I appreciate your patience in advance. I hope to finish this work some day.
I can only hope you enjoy.
For my friends, both new and old,
JOYRIDE THRU DEATH VALLEY
The moon danced in and out and between streaking clouds. Shadows crossed my face like the bars of a jail cell. Both barrels of the old Fox .12-gauge swung up. I pressed them forward into the face of that fucken old man. A gleam of steel momentarily flashed below Ziggy’s neck as clouds moved away and then back. I got the drop on Old Man Peck with his own gun, but he got the drop on Zig with my switchblade.
We stood in the desert for a century like a Grecian urn. Oh the ode Keats would write!
If I pulled the trigger I was sure to blast half of Peck’s face off, but I might take half of Zig’s off along with it.
Another flash of steel. That blade was pressing pretty damn hard into Ziggy’s throat. I was shocked I didn’t see any blood being drawn. Or had I? What was that shadow on his neck? Ah, fuck it! I couldn’t over-think this shit. My boy was about to die at the hands of some one-hundred-year-old crazy fuck.
I breathed deep. The night air was cold, crackling in my chest. My eyes steadied, as did my hands. I wish I could say the same for my heart. I then shattered the soft quiet of the desert night.
I was born into winter, 1976, in Flint, MI. The dragons of a snowstorm waged a war of discontent outside the hospital walls while inside I was being flushed into this world, incomplete and unhallowed. I was a sickly child and no one could ever reason why. For all appearances, I was healthy. But I wasn’t. By the time anyone figured out what was wrong with me, I had six weeks to live. I was diagnosed with a congenital cardiac condition or, in other words, a fucked-up heart. My right ventricle was underdeveloped, working at less than 10% full capacity. It wasn’t there. I had 3/4ths of a heart. Plus I had a hole in my heart. Plus I had an aortic regurgitation. The regurgitation, essentially, has to do with the valve in the heart that opens and closes to pump blood from the body into the heart. The valve didn’t close all the way, so there was a slight backwash of blood goin’ on every time my heart pumped. All of it would prove to provide continuous circulation problems for the rest of my life. Emergency, life-saving open-heart surgery had to be done on my tiny body. All this was unheard of in 1980. If I had been born a year earlier, the most any doctor would’ve done was to throw their hands up in the air and measured me for a coffin. The operation was a success, but I was still weak in body and continued getting sick. Every winter I would get at least pneumonia, if not double-pneumonia. Every season of my birth brought me a little closer to death. That’s when it was decided a move to the warmer climes of Southern California would be best for me.
I remember little of Michigan. Most of my memories begin with California and my self-adopted home of Long Beach. I loved Long Beach, even as a child I knew there was something special about this place. In Long Beach I had the closest thing to a normal childhood I could’ve ever experience. A childhood made up of weekly trips to Shoreline Village to buy planes made of balsa wood, plastic props and rubber-band engines; of flying high within myself as I twist-started their souls and sent them soaring across vast living room skies. It was a wonderful time before the Great Dying, or Dyings, and all was fun and free. It was then I began to write, to truly write my own original stories, copying the styles of Poe and the Hitchcock Mysteries I would check out from school libraries. Great adventures played out in my head and in my room as marine layer rolled in off the ocean, bringing with it the mysteries of a London Fog and the unseen phantoms of nature. This was a good time. To this day whenever life gets me a bit down I think back to this time. I make it feel like Long Beach inside. It levies some worries and makes me happy, full of childhood wonder. And once I get there in my heart, all I want to do is play. And smile.
1984. It was a year of science fiction.
Searing hot blacktop. Most people don’t realize it’ll boil in the right heat. Those long hot days in Long Beach can feel hot enough. If your every day is spent on blacktop, though, it’s a life in purgatory. And if you pay close enough attention you’ll see the blacktop change, course, flow, raise and lower with each hot new day. One day in the corner of the blacktop there’ll be a small crack, the next it’s edges will have melted and melded together. One day the blacktop will be as flat as glass, the next it’ll have bumps where air pressure has built up. The stuff is like a bubbling witch trio’s brew. It can be death to have to remain on blacktop any extended period of time. Yet we were made to. Three times a day. Two fifteens and one full hour for a grand total of an hour-and-a-half a day.
Resting atop the blacktop were four buildings, a fleet of Bauhaus amidst the massive sea of blacktop churning under the Long Beach sun. There was a cafeteria, a theater, a building for special education and one main schoolhouse, which was the tallest building. The schoolhouse was really only two stories high but each story was at least fifteen feet in height. Most buildings measure ten feet per story. This collection was the house of education for kids from grades K-6.
Each building had been painted a light gray, with an even lighter blue along the bottom. The main schoolhouse was airy with massive halls and stairwells. Walking those halls alone while class was in session made you feel very small, intimidated, frightened, watched… haunted. Everything felt so old and large and not made for kids but instead for the giants of an archaic age for unknown purposes. But this was our school, a home to many.
At the two corners farthest from the buildings were the fading painted white lines of two miniature baseball diamonds. The blacktop crept up the steel poles of tetherballs, jungle gyms, pull-up bars, rings and brick walls erected for handball but were more often used for shade. Every recess and lunch we’d jump ship and ride those black waves.
Smooth. Grooved. Attitude packed in wax. I felt the LP with my fingers. Sleek. Cool. Violently etched out. Voices screaming in the dark. Scratched. Caught. Sought after.
We had an old record player. An atavistic relic. I stood before it. It was big, more like a table. No, an altar. A shrine. The cool LP in my hands. All apartments had alleyways. Darker sides. Congregational meeting places of sex, drugs and, well, as luck would have it, rock ‘n roll.
I had been walking home from school, second grade. Sticking out of the corner of our apartment’s darker half dumpsters had been a cardboard square. It had pictures of Chubby Checker and several others I didn’t yet know. I grabbed the square. It was pretty clean. Clean enough to handle. I cocked it open. Out rolled the big, beautiful, black LP. Unscratched. Unscarred. Unbroken. It was someone’s memories now too painful to hear. Their trash was my gold. As soon as I got home, I dropped my Thundercats backpack off just inside my room and headed for the record player.
I stepped forward, the LP unsheathed and in my hands, and I summoned the player to life. Switched it to 33-1/3. Then I softly, gently lowered the great black disc to its rightful place. The revolution began. The needle fell into groove. The world was blown away from around me, like leaves in a gale.
Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” screamed out at me. I was chained to the spot instantly. I could do nothing but I had to do something. I stood motionless, unknowing yet learning. And then it came to me.
My body exploded into a fury. My puny arms whipped at the air. My feet kicked and stomped. My hair… I could feel my hair! It bounced and swayed with my frantic, stupid dancing. I was alive for the first time in my life. And I stayed alive until the song ended.
I was sweating, panting, heaving, hurting, feeling good. Alive.
I turned around, glancing, making sure no one had seen my convulsions. Two eyes stared dead at me. They were my own. I had forgotten that we had a floor-length mirror across from the stereo. There it was. There I was, witnessing me witnessing myself. I looked into those eyes. My tiny chest slowed and stopped heaving. Sweat rolled. New music played, but I did not dance.
Humanity is a collection of snapshot memories, and that is how we will be judged.
I was born into a yesteryear never before seen by human eyes. A place where Chuck Berry and Lovecraftian horrors dance in some Pooh-Bear Hunny Pot Madness mockery of life’s ideal. A place where everyone and thing is not much more than a big Fuck You to God or whatever Greater Plan there might be. And, if there are no such things, then that’s the most wonderful Fuck You of them all, to all the idiots that ever believed in false hopes, false idols and the insane, inane imaginings of monks or priests or lamas or whatever-the-fucks drunk with power, mental illness, madness, sex, their own voice or wine and mushrooms.
But no, that can’t be the ultimate joke. Death is the ultimate joke prancing in his dyed-black or charcoal gray (for that chic well-worn look) court jester suit. Dancing like a mad bum in the streets. His dancing so beyond understanding you can’t help but laugh. Yet you know his madness carries the disease of danger. He’s dangerous to passers-by and to himself. But who gives a fuck about him? You just hope he doesn’t strike out at you or hit you up or even talk to you as you pass him on the street.
Sometimes, a safe distance across the street from him, you watch his dance through some box or portal or similar periscopic device. And then you laugh at dear Mr. Dancing Death ‘til you cry. Like watching Benny Hill for the first time and you laugh partially out of shock as you ask, “Can he really do that?” And then sometimes the truly brave or depraved, but usually just the uber-bored, will stand and laugh right in his face, taunting poor Mr. Death with the promises of pennies if only he’d piss himself one more time.
Welcome to Long Beach, circa 1985.
We were growing up on Doo-Wop and Motown. I don’t know exactly how or who or why or when any which one of us first started listening, but we were. All of us. Maybe we were listening to it cuz it was all the symbol of an era that defined America. An America living in the every-day fear of the A-Bomb or the H-Bomb or the Whatever-the-Fuck-Bomb or the UFOs. Maybe cuz the fifties were confusing times and all the kids had was the music, Alan Freed, and James Dean’s red jacket or Brando’s black leather one and his soft cry of “Whadya got?”
Maybe it’s cuz we saw the same shit goin’ on in the eighties. We had fear and nukes and ICBMs and sky-jackings and dime-a-dozen serial killers and a racist president continuing the murder of the indigenous and blacks and making it harder for people to become citizens despite Lady Liberty’s promise. And we, too had our red jecket. But it was Michael Jackson’s. And we still had the music on stations like KODJ and KRLA 1110 AM. Yes, A-fucken-M. And, more than that, we still had our Brando battlecry of “Whadya got?”
Nah, fuck it. The music was fun and it bopped along and was an alternative to the fucken pussy-assed New Wave bullshit that everyone whored to the television was listening to. Doo-Wop was fun. Plain and simple.
Every decade suffers from the illness of nostalgia. But sometimes an illness can train your weakened body by exposing it to the horrors of sleepless nights, vomiting, and the tang of bile. Like chicken pox. Once you get it you’ll never get it again because your system has adapted to fight it, to prevent it. So illness, ultimately, is a walk through fire that can strengthen and enlighten you. But you still gotta go through a period of delusional flux, insane dreams when you’re unsure if you’re really asleep. A hell tailored just for you.
That was the eighties. And the nostalgic affliction hitting us then was that of the fifties. All the nobody old fucks were finally becoming somebody old fucks. The fifties dominated the eighties, flu-ing it all up. The kids of the Atomic Age were grown and taking the reigns of the Space Age.
And their music was everywhere. At least 3 or 4 radio stations surrounded L.A.; VCRs were invading homes with movies like The Buddy Holly Story; the theaters filled with movies like Back to the Future, Stand By Me, Top Gun, Great Balls of Fire, Dirty Dancing, La Bamba and The Outsiders. Hell, I was even made to read Hinton’s book twice, once in the fifth grade and then again in the seventh. Elvis-mania dominated as Nashville went from country to big city Pop.
Yep. History was repeating itself, regurgitating all over the eighties. Some absolutely hated it. So they ran, they ran so far away into something less than music and only slightly more than a jingle. Those that knew better but still didn’t jive with the nostalgia rallied ‘round Black Flag, Bauhaus, Bob Marley, The Clash, Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC.
Then there were young cats like myself. Cats that dug the jive. Some back then woulda said it was cuz I didn’t know any better. Maybe. But I learned, while those critics are still listening to the same ole shit, the eternal loop of an 8-Track, I learned. I learned where Elvis stole his moves and I learned where the Rolling Stones got their name and I learned exactly who it was that went down to the crossroads every night to pay his debt.
Besides Doo-Wop and rockabilly and Hip-Hop we had Motown. Having been born in Flint I had a factory-assembled, built-in interest for Motown. When we moved to California, we were poor. Not like eating on-sale turkey-ham for two weeks kinda poor. I mean broke-ass poor. And when you’re broke-ass poor, even turkey-ham on sale is too expensive. It was a good thing I loved my PB&Js and Ramen. Still do.
Our first place was a three-room apartment off Granada in Belmont Shores. The three rooms were a bedroom, a living room and kitchenette, and a bathroom. For a long time we slept on cheap-ass, painful plastic folding chaise lounges, the kind that I would later find out the rich and the tourists could buy, use once and throw them out, forgetting about them like any other piece of trash. But when you wake up with stripes all up and down your legs, arms, back and ass from the strips of plastic, you pray for the day you can throw them out. But you’ll never forget them. My parents wouldn’t let me sleep on the floor cuz it got too cold at night, so they said. I think it had more to do with the carpet, what little there was of it, had been too far beyond cleaning for anyone to lay on.
There was a good mix of blacks and gays and whites in our area and a helluva lotta Asians. I can’t count how many times I’d hear on the radio about boat-loads of Asians getting caught in the port o’ Long Beach or L.A. trying to sneak into the country. The news always showed the feds in some grand crack-down, charging and yelling into an inconspicuous ship that coulda been any random cargo ship, pointing their menacing weapons and blinding flashlights at massive groups of people huddled together, half-starved and unarmed and frightened. Then, at the footnote of the news piece, someone would always say how horrible their lives must have been in their country of origin. And that was that. The reporters would move on to the cuddly human-interest story of the night. Those nameless, faceless people forgotten in the second of a segue.
All of us were poor. No matter our skin color, sexual preference, politics, religion… whatever… our lowest common denominator was poverty. That made us equal, mostly respectful and sometimes even protective of each other. Though we were never so stupid as to let our guard down, to stop fearing our neighbor just enough, to ever think that that same poverty we shared or the occasional junkie’s habit would make our very neighbor either consciously or unconsciously stick a knife in us for whatever few bucks we mighta had.
But mostly we shared what we had, which was a whole lotta nothin’. But we shared the sun, laughs, heartache, and the music. And Motown was big. I quickly learned that Motown, R&B and Soul began with James Brown and ended with Marvin Gaye, with the high points in between belonging to Teddy Pendegrass, Al Green and Ray Charles. In my humble opinion, the unsung hero of soul singing (maybe because he was around during the Doo-Wop era, a decade prior to Motown) was Brook Benton. That cat could sing. I’ll admit he didn’t do as much for the music scene as other cats, but I can’t help loving his voice. Of course, the biggest group around, the one everyone listened to, were the masters known as The Temptations.
All that music, it spoke to us. It said what we were saying, what we were living. Oh, sure, we loved our M.J. and Rockwell and Grandmaster Flash. Any respectable man would. But Motown, well, it had soul. A soul we could kick back to and say “Fuck it” to the world outside and just enjoy that moment in our lives while it played.
I hadn’t many friends. I spent kindergarten in Michigan, first grade in two different schools (one in Michigan), and second grade in another. And I missed most of second grade due to my second surgery and illness.
But by the time second grade rolled around, I was stuck with a school for the first time for three years. I made the first best friends I’d ever had there.
I never knew how anyone ever got their boom box onto campus – we weren’t supposed to bring any electronic devices with us to school – but inevitably someone did. Boom boxes were everywhere. Ghetto blasters were a common name for them, too. And to see some cat walking down Redondo in the middle of the day with a massive rack of speakers on one of his shoulders was the ultimate staple of what it meant to be cool in Long Beach in the eighties. Eventually I got one of my own. It was smaller with and blue and gray. I don’t remember the brand. But I didn’t care then. It was blue and gray and had detachable speakers and that’s all I cared about. So no matter what, whether we were at home or at school or at the beach, music was blasting out at us everywhere and we were perfectly happy with that.
Outta my little group of friends back then, I was the only one born here in the States. I didn’t really know a world where one ‘race’ dominated.
There were five of us: myself, Twin, Little Sammy, Key-Man and Con-Man. We called him Twin cuz he and Sammy were always together, hanging out, studying and even fighting just like they were twins. And boy would they ever fight. The first real, up-close and personal, fully in Technicolor fist fight I ever saw was between those two. They would swing their arms wildly, landing most of their punches on the back of each others’ necks and shoulders cuz they’d have lowered their heads and just started goin’. They would beat the living fuck outta each other. The first time we saw it happen I think we were all kinda shocked, not at seeing two kids fight on the playground at school, that happened all the time. But because we cared for each other and these two were so tight we were amazed they’d even think of raising a fist to each other. But they did. Several times, in fact. Me, Con-Man and Key-Man would just stand down and let them go. We’d watch for the playground security and shit to make sure they were never seen. They never were. We came close once or twice, but they were always aware enough to hear me or one of the other two tell ‘em to break it up cuz security was popping over.
After a fight they’d always cuss in their native languages to each other, keep their heads down in class and not speak to one another. But by the time the bell rang at the end of the day things were all cool between them. They’d even be quietly studying together. Crazy little shits. What I was always amazed at was neither one never really got hurt too bad. Coupla cuts and several bruises, but never any stitches or anything big enough to really grab anyone’s attention or require anything bigger than a band-aid.
Once, these punk-ass high school kids who were most likely ditching school drove around the block and pulled up outside the schoolyard fence to watch them go. They started hooting and hollering like uncultured apes. Apparently they’d never seen a good fight, or at least not a really good fight between such young kids. Sammy and Twin stopped when they heard us yelling at the punks to go fuck themselves. They started mouthing back at us. Which of course only pissed us off all the more. I’d found a penny earlier that recess period. I pulled that thing outta my back pocket and flung it like a hot, fast flying disc right at their fucken car.
It didn’t do any real harm. It just sounded incredibly loud off his little piece of shit Pacer with all its rusting metal. The driver got out and really started screaming his head off, saying we was all little fucks and how he was gonna kick ours asses. We, of course, egged him on. Key-Man shouted back, “The only thing you can do with asses will get you thrown in jail if you touch us!” Con-Man was screaming in his native Cambodian. Sammy joined him. Twin was screaming in his native Laotian and Key-Man and I started picking up odd assortments of rocks and shit and hailing them down on the little shitty car. You shoulda heard it, like a fucken PCP addict trying to play steel drums at mach speed.
You gotta remember, this was 1986. We were ages ranging from 8 to 10. These guys we were standing up to were almost twice our age and at least twice our size, all four of ‘em squeezed into that little Pacer. But we weren’t about to let some stupid fucken asshole stop and watch and get his fucken jollies as our boys were dukin’ it out.
Twin had been born in Laos, but soon after his birth his parents had moved to Thailand thinking life would be better there. It wasn’t. So after several years of scrimping and saving they came to the States. I met him a month after he’d moved here. Key-Man, who got his name cuz he could play piano, had been born on a ship on the way to the States in international waters. He’d been in the U.S. for about four years. I think his parents somehow managed to get him declared as a U.S. citizen. I don’t really know cuz I didn’t care one way or the other then. Con-Man and Little Sammy had both been born in Cambodia. We gave Con-Man his name cuz he was always talking to girls and he was always getting’ us outta what little trouble we were actually ever caught up in. He didn’t have a way with words so much as he knew how to present himself, how to hold himself, how to say certain things or smile a certain way. He reminded us of Dirk Benedict’s character Templeton “Face-Man” Peck off the TV show The A-Team. Con-Man was like our unofficial leader. We all rallied around his leadership. He took good care of me, too. He taught me my love for math. So much so that I was able to start learning the fifth-grade math with all the fifth-graders. He was a real whiz for the shit. I, in turn, taught Sammy and Twin.
Con-Man even taught us a few basics in kempo at recess. Mostly he taught us things like foot stomps, a palm to the nose, a pencil or similarly sharp object to the eye, nose or mouth. Just basics that would get someone to scream, disoriented, and give us enough time to get the fuck outta Dodge if we ever got into trouble. Con-Man had learned all this shit from an uncle in Cambodia who was into martial arts. This uncle was still in Cambodia, though, and Con-Man seemed sad once when he mentioned his uncle didn’t want to come to the States to be with him. Con-Man had never mentioned a father, so I figured this uncle was the closest he had to one. But I never pressed the issue, so I never found out.
Out of all them, though, I don’t think I was as tight with anyone as I was with Little Sammy. He and I hung out almost as much as he and Twin did. Mostly I helped him with his studies in class. He needed a lot of help in English and math and history. Spending all that time together made us good friends. We’d joke and have fun actually studying. I guess it was at this time I first discovered my love for learning, thanks to him and his desire to learn and be good in school and my desire to help him in that.
Sammy was kind of a cute kid. He had rich, dark brown skin. His face, I hate to say, kinda had a pug-nose thing goin’ on. His hair was jet black and shiny and so were his eyes. He had this weird habit, like I did, of looking at the ground a lot. Maybe it was where we were coming from. Maybe we were just weird kids. Who knows?
Once, after school, we were sitting on this beat-up, carved-up, chipped wood bench that had been painted red over and over again. I wondered why whoever did the painting didn’t just give up on the damned thing. Making that bench look good was definitely a losing battling. If you weren’t careful you’d get splinters in your hands or in your ass from it. But it wasn’t much of a thing to pull the splinters out and the damned thing was always in the shade, no matter the time of day, so we always sat there.
Anyways, we were sitting and waiting on our mutual families to come and pick us up. I asked if his mom was coming to get him. A simple conversation began.
“No. I think mah brudder iz.” He still had his heavy accent. “But mah mudder might come, too. Mah brudder jess got here lass night.”
“Cambodia. Mah uncle came, too. We all togedder now.”
“That’s cool, man. I bet your mom and dad are happy.”
“Mah mudder’s not happy. Mah brudder got inna fight on da boat. Broke his toe. Had ta go ta da hospital. Now we got more bills an’ he can’t work yet cuz a da broke toe.”
“Shit,” I sighed.
“Yeah, an’ mah fodder, he not alive no more.”
“Fuck, man. I’m sorry. How long ago did he die?” We was tight, so I didn’t think he’d mind me asking. He didn’t, he just sorta stared at his feet as he spoke.
“When I was liddle. We lived inna farming area. Lotsa farmers. One big field all cut inta sections. But eberyone worked eberyting. We shared eberyting. We had one car only for all of us. It was mah gran-fodder’s. Mah fodder and someone else took it one day. Dey filled it wid stuff ta sell in town over da udder side of da mountains. He never come back.
“Da next day, I remember I was wearing nuthin’ and mah mudder was holdin’ me when deez two men come ta our house. Mah brudder was dere an mah gran-fodder an uncle. Mah gran-fodder’s dead now,” he added as a side note. “Never made it here.
“But deez men dey say ‘Are you dis man’s wife?’ I remember mah mudder say yes. Den dey say, ‘We sorry but your husband is dead. He was a part of some people who hate da gov’ment.’
“He was, too. So was mah gran-fodder. So was mah brudder. So was eberyone. But dis man he say, ‘We stop him on da mountain road.”
Again Sammy noted, “Da only way inna town was a long road tru da mountains. Half-day trip. Maybe more. Cliffs next ta da road da whole way. So deez men dey say, ‘We stop him and kill him an da udder man as our country’s enemy. Den we put him an’ da udder man back inna car an push it off da mountain.’”
Sammy and I were nine-years old. I didn’t know what to do for him. I didn’t know what to say. I just put my arm around his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, man.” And there we stayed until his family came. His brother was there, cast on his foot and all. And he gave me the meanest, ugliest look a man has ever given me. Had he given me that same look a decade later, I woulda gutted him with a blade then and there. He wouldn’ta left that hot fucken schoolyard blacktop alive.
But I was young then, and I didn’t yet know about the kind of hatred and sorrow that could consume a man until he was hollow, until he would stupidly break his own toe in a fight in the belly of a whale headed for Oz.
But I was learning.
And somewhere in the background, on somebody’s boom box, The Temptations sang.
We were in a mixed class of fourth- and fifth-graders. It was hard on the teachers to have such classes all day long, but it was needed with the sudden influx of families into Long Beach and all over L.A. My grades and my friends’ started rocketing up. And when our teacher, Mrs. K, saw this she allowed me to help others. She didn’t do this with everyone, but it helped her cover the whole class with little teachers aids built right into her students. Con-Man and I, along with two girls, were allowed to help others in study groups from time to time. It don’t think Mrs. K ever planned for it to happen, it just happened naturally.
I helped a couple groups with history and English. Con-Man had two groups in math. It was like our classmates saw how tight me and the guys were, how we stayed outta trouble yet were willing to take a stand should trouble come. We weren’t a gang, we weren’t a crew. We were a family. We took care of each other, watched out for each other, learned with each other and grew up together. We were what cultural anthropologists would years later call an urban tribe. And it seemed some of the other kids noted and respected that so they were glad for me and Con-Man to be in there helping them out, too.
Before Mrs. K we had a sub named Ms. Lowpass. For the first two months of that school year she was our regular teacher, fighting to get the position permanently. Ms. Lowpass was a good teacher. Every day after lunch we’d all have what she called our ‘cool-down time.’ We’d all come into class, hot and sweaty from the long lunch on the hot blacktop, and we’d have to stay quiet and relax. On really hot days she’d leave the lights off, too. This was our time to wind down, to relax and shake off the effects of the first half of our day. While we were doing this we had to stay quiet while she read to us for fifteen minutes. We didn’t have to listen, we could read on our own if we wanted to. She suggested no class work be done but she didn’t yell at you if you did. You just couldn’t talk. Reading was everything to her and she stressed that on us kids.
The first book she read to us was The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. She actually read very well, too, like a storyteller should. She paced her voice to match the action of the passage she read, sometimes raising and lowering her voice when needed. Often she also would act out a few of the things, like curling her fingers into claws and moving them in ferocious slashes as Aslan attacked. The second book she read to us was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
Yeah, reading was big for her and it sparked an interest in us all. Key-Man, who sat next to me, and I would sometimes have reading contests. The rules were simple and based on an honor system: we couldn’t skim whatever we were reading, we had to actually read it, we certainly couldn’t skip a single word, and who ever read the most pages in the allotted time won. One of our favorite contests was to pick up two copies of the same Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book from the school library and sit and read at the same time. When we finished, whoever died at the end of their adventure lost. If we both died we’d start the adventure all over again. And if we both survived we’d share our stories with each other. It was great, though admittedly pretty nerdy. But it made reading fun. That’s the problem with a lot of teachers I’ve come across since Ms. Lowpass, they make reading a chore for their students. Reading should be fun. For me and Key-Man, we felt oddly alive when we were reading cuz we were kids in a grown-up world where we couldn’t do a helluva lot on our own. After school we’d have to go home to our families, do chores, maybe sometimes help make the family make money, watch the news like everyone else after our cartoons and see the same shoot-outs and corrupt politics going on in the world that the adults were paying attention to. We lived in the same world as adults, but often weren’t treated as though we were.
I’d tried to get Sammy into our reading contests cuz he needed the practice. He read well enough, but it sometimes frustrated him to be learning the new language. He always passed on the opportunity to read. Instead he’d just sit and do other class work. And he drew a lot. He drew a lotus once and had to teach me what a lotus was.
Over the two months with Ms. Lowpass, though, I saw him doing less and less doodling and more and more reading on his own.
To this day it fucken pisses me off to see adults treat kids like they’re stupid animals. Kids may seem more animal-like, but only cuz they have yet to learn all of our useless and not-so-useless social inhibitors and rules, but kids are never stupid. If you call them stupid or treat them stupid, they’ll grow up to be stupid adults, but there’s no such thing as stupid kids. There’s only parents who shouldn’t have been parents in the first goddamn place treating and raising their kids poorly.
So our reading wasn’t reading at all, it was us taking control of ourselves. It was us going on grand adventures that no one else would allow us to go on once we got home. And it was Ms. Lowpass that stuck that all into us.
It was also Ms. Lowpass that made us, after our morning recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, sing the first verse of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land Is Your Land.” At the time I just thought it was some cool shit to be singing cuz we had all these kids from all over the world right there in that class together. I just thought it was her way of making everyone feel a little better about the alien world we were all thrust into: A world where we were taught to be quiet; A world where authorities weren’t trusted, be they cops or local or national politicians, whatever, yet we all had to answer to them.
It would be years later that I’d look back at these times and realize that Ms. Lowpass had at one time probably been a hippie. But then, why would I know that in 1980s? What the fuck was a hippie to the kids of the eighties? Nuthin’. That’s what they were. They didn’t exist to us then. But Ms. Lowpass wasn’t a hippie like all these New Ager wannabes that wanna touch and feel everything and love you and spin inanities like “You Can’t Hug With Nuclear Arms” or any other such lameness that’s on par with most political slogans or other such lower-level philosophical slang-thought.
She was more the kinda hippie on the level of Mama Cass. She reminded me a lot of Mama Cass, actually. Or vice verse, since I learned of Mama Cass much later. Ms. Lowpass loved life and learning and teaching. She was educated, smart, thoughtful, energetic yet humble enough to know that others had the validity of thought and it was in her best interest at times to listen, not just talk 24/7 about this issue or that. She knew her history lay with the Beatniks and French philosophers and German philosophers and music and literature. She wasn’t teaching us this shit or into it herself cuz it made her feel ‘free’, whatever the fuck freedom is. She just lived it. And she was very much alive. Just that simple. She never once told us outright that she loved us, she instead turned love into a verb by spending time with us, by reading to us, by singing along with us Woody’s ballad that was written in response to Irving Berlin’s overly pompous, mis-loved “God Bless America.”
If anyone ever asked me what America was like I’d tell ‘em to turn on the evening news, believe only half of what you hear cuz the other half is all lies made up to sell you something and that they’d have to guess which half to believe. If they wanted something less wise-ass, I’d tell them to listen to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” But if anyone ever asked me what America was about I’d tell them to listen to Woody’s complete version of “This Land Is Your Land.”
In those two months Ms. Lowpass had us as her class, her hippie tendencies never really surfaced. It was because she was a rare one. She was actually teaching instead of preaching. We were the kids of the eighties, digging on the fifties, and she was preparing us for the ninties. She was teaching the ancient history of her generation to us; we were the first generation to not know a world without home video game consoles. She was the generation of tune-in, turn-on and drop-out and she was teaching what was to become the first generation to plug-in, log-on and drop-out. And we all loved her for it.
The day before she was to leave and be replaced by Mrs. K, Ms. Lowpass stopped at the end of our ‘cool down time.’ She just got silent. She had been reading us children’s poetry, but she just stopped and got quiet. I thought she might have been getting sick. Now I know she was thinking.
“What do you think?” she asked the class. Damn, I didn’t know she was going to ask about the poetry she was reading. I had actually been working on some math work instead and not really paying attention, so I started hoping she wouldn’t call on me. A couple of the other kids spoke up, though, and saved me by making agreeable comments about the last poem.
“No,” she said. “I mean about reading. How do you like reading?”
The question kinda threw us all off. No one answered. A few kids, myself included, looked around at each other in confusion. What did she mean? The question was kinda from outta left field. Was it a trick question? But Ms. Lowpass never asked trick questions. Did she just want to hear we liked reading? What was she driving after? Then Sammy raised his hand.
“Yes, Sammy?” said Mr. Lowpass.
He stood and with a smile said, “I love reading.”
She returned the smile, the brightest smile I’d ever seen on her almost-always smiling face, and said, “Thank you, Sammy.”
Sammy sat and she continued, “Remember class, there are six more books to the Chronicles of Narnia and, when you feel you’re ready for it, try The Lord of the Rings.”
Mrs. K replaced her the next day.
Mrs. K was walking into an impossible situation with a tough crowd. As it turned out, though, she was a fair teacher as well and easily likable. By then Key-Man, Con-Man, Little Sammy, Twin and I had formed our little family. She caught on to this and let us start helping others with their studies. We kept away from the older kids peddling drugs and watched out for each other in the sea of blacktop from the normal dangers like dehydration, bullies, random violence that never seemed to have a reason, the vultures roosting outside the schoolyard waiting to kidnap some stray kid, and the security.
Key-Man and I kept up our reading contests that eventually evolved into writing contests. These contests were never so much contests as they were just games. We each had to write a paragraph of at least three sentences, then we’d trade our papers off to one another, read what had been written and continue the story with another paragraph of at least three sentences. We only ever did this when we got our class work done ahead of time, which was always, and when we weren’t helping others.
When we were helping other kids, I concentrated the most on Sammy and Twin. They were two fresh-off-the-boat kids in a new land having to learn a new language on top of all their regular studies. Together with Con-Man we helped bring them from near-failing to damned near straight-A’s. Hell, one quarter Sammy got more A’s than I did. They were both bright kids, they just needed that extra help we were giving them. Con-Man had already gone through all this shit and I was just a good student to begin with. It was then I realized that a vast majority of the kids around me were failing not because they were dumb or couldn’t handle the material, it’s because they weren’t getting the individualized help they really needed. One teacher just can’t do it by themselves. It’s a law of mathematics set to the student-teacher ratio versus the amount of time in any one class or subject or school day. There are bound to be kids that fall through the cracks.
One day after we got our second quarter grades both Twin and Sammy came and thanked us, all formal like. Hand-shakes and everything. “If it wasn’t fo’ you guys,” Sammy said, “we bot’ prolly been expelled this year.”
“Yeah,” Twin chimed in, “We were both told last year da only reason we bein’ put in da fourt’ grade was cuz they had nuttin’ else dey could do wit’ us.”
It’s the absolute fucken truth. They had to make room in all the grades for all the new kids coming into all the school systems. Both Sammy and Twin had started third grade real late in the year and wound up failing their classes, but the school board just pushed them on through… maybe hoping one day they’d be someone else’s problems. Or maybe hoping that once they’d drop out or flunk out, they’d become criminals outside the board members’ neighborhoods. Cuz educated kids rarely become criminals. It’s when the parents and schools fail them they turn to the desperation of crime to get ahead in life.
We told them it was nothin’, which it really wasn’t. We were like a family without really being one. We were the new urban tribe, a little more than a collection of friends, comrades in arms, a band of warriors whose only purpose was pure survival on the blacktop and inside those four walls of a classroom, the preservation of our own sacred little peace. We were brothers closer than our own brothers at home. We kept our sanity through simple contact with each other as we had to deal with a strange world where it seemed like everyone was out to get us, to con us out of money (not that we had any), deport us, fiddle with our bodies and minds for illness, to kill and rape and fuck us. We knew who the fuck Richard Ramirez was and we also knew full well what he was doing. We were growing up in a world where the adults were blatantly stripping us of any childhood we might have had and still believed in the proverb, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” We were the cattle of youth being herded through the system and one wrong move got us sent to the slaughterhouse. Helping each other came with the territory. We were standing as a united front against gangs, violence, and drugs. We were just kids trying to be kids while the whole world raged with hatred around us.
I must admit, though, hearing those happy thanks from them felt good. Sammy and I grew tighter after that. We hung out almost exclusively with each other. Life was good.
There were other kids we hung with. Our little group was pretty tight but we wandered in and out with others. The five of us just always came back and hung out together, that’s what made us a family. Usually when other people came to hang out with us it was because we were having a pick-up game of baseball on one of the two diamonds on the playground. I loved baseball, always had. I even got to see the great Reggie Jackson in a coupla games over at Angels’ Stadium before he retired. When we weren’t playing baseball we were playing kickball: the pitcher would roll a kickball to the kicker/batter, if the ball got air and was caught the kicker would be called out, and to tag a runner you could reach out with the ball and touch them or hurl it and nail them dodgeball-style. It was great.
We had the usual cast of supporting characters hanging out with us one day and gone the next, running the painted bases one day and gone from sight the next. They were like commercials interrupting the regularly scheduled broadcast of our lives to let us know other realities were out there. Among them were Pooh, Nickel-Nickel, Trent, Sheena, Eevie and her little brother Santos. Each had their own story, each their worth and place in our group.
Pooh was named after the Milne character, and he used it to get attention from all the girls. He was a bigger playa than Con-Man when it came to girls, but he couldn’t quite talk a good talk when trouble came around like Con-Man could. Pooh never did his work, but he always had the right answer if the teacher ever called on him. He was just naturally smart that way. But school didn’t seem to jive with him. He just kinda drifted in and outta class as he pleased, always late and always with an excuse why he had to leave early. Mostly he came to school just to hang out.
Nickel-Nickel got his name cuz he was always selling something on the playground at recess for a nickel. From Garbage Pail Kids to candy, Nickel-Nickel had it. His name started out as The Ice Cream Man cuz when that bell rang kids would come storming out of the building, spilling onto the hot blacktop, rushing toward him with their nickels in hand, as if he were a passing ice cream man on a hot summer day. It eventually became Nickel-Nickel.
There was always a quality about Nickel-Nickel that disturbed me. Not cuz he was peddling bullshit on the schoolyard instead of playing. Hell, we all knew our families could use the money. I just figured he was a genius for his entrepreneurialism. What disturbed me was his near-obsession over making money. He was always talking business, inside of class or outside. He tried really hard to grasp the subjects we were learning, but he always seemed to have trouble. We offered to have him study with us a couple times. I think we all learned real quick it just wasn’t going to happen. Once we started studying on our own, out from under the teacher, he’d be back in there talking about making money. I’ve seen people broke before to the point where their kids had to chip in to help out, but he seemed like he was a major bread winner for his household at the age of ten. During one of the few times he actually did try to study with us, he mentioned his father skipped out when his mom was pregnant with him. Not a new story. Pretty par for the course for many of my peers, really. On another occasion he told me, with quite some pride, his mom had her own pot plant growing in the corner of the kitchen. He said she even got the plant its own little lamp and everything so it could grow right. When he made his third and final attempt to study with us he told me that he was a direct descendant of John Dillinger. I had little idea who the hell that was back then, but I made a quick trip to the school library a couple days later and found out. Finding out only added to my frustration of not being able to shake the feeling that something else was wrong with the kid. I didn’t know why he was telling me specifically all this shit. Maybe he trusted me and they were all his own little cries for help with whatever he needed help with in his life at the time. But what the fuck did I know? I was nine and he was ten. Eventually I just learned to ignore the notions and accept him for the good guy he was, struggling with the rest of us, trying to move on to the next lesson, the next day.
Us fourth-graders looked up to the fifth-graders mostly. Con-Man, Key-Man, Pooh and Nickel-Nickel were all fifth-graders. Maybe that’s why Trent hung out with Nickel-Nickel. He never really hung out with us. The only time Trent was around us was when Nickel-Nickel was. I always felt bad for Trent. He just seemed to get into trouble no matter where he went. Out on the playground he would be yelled at for running, despite the fact every other kid did, too. If there was a test in class, he’d fall asleep in the middle of taking it and flunk it. If he was called on it was only ever when he wasn’t paying attention. But then he was never paying attention. He just always seemed distracted. Maybe that’s why he and Nickel-Nickel got along so well. At least Trent had someone watching out for him.
Sheena was some Aussie chick with silky blonde hair, part aboriginal if I remember and part Brit, who’d come to the States to live with her grandmother. She lived not far from me so we started walking to and from school together. She was a very nice girl, sometimes overly proper, but it was never out of place. She was just well behaved and friendly and respectful. She didn’t hang out with us too often while school was in session. She had made her own friends. But on a few occasions she’d come over to us and take part in whatever game or bull session we were having. Mostly we just walked to and from school together.
Eevie and Santos were Mexican. By the fourth grade Eevie and I were sharing our third classroom together. I had always had a little crush on her, even way back in the second grade. She was such a pretty girl, with almost Castilian features. She had black hair that shone in the sunlight and deeply brown eyes, mocha colored skin that was soft (I remember the first time she touched my forearm to get my attention to ask me to pass her something in class… I don’t remember what the hell she wanted but I remember that touch and her soft smile as I wordlessly handed her whatever-the-hell-it-was to her); she had a smile that could melt the whole coming of the next ice age, and she always wore prim and proper little dresses. Politeness came to her naturally. I hadn’t dared talk to her too much over those coupla years. She was too pretty and I always lost my voice when I got near her. Eventually I grew into being more comfortable around her. She would always say hi and smile and I would always return the kindness and ask how she and her little brother were doing. Santos was in the second grade by the time we were in our fourth, but I had known him since he was in kindergarten.
Eevie was very protective of her little brother. I think it was because their parents were going through a particularly nasty divorce that had been going on since I had known her. That might be the reason why she brought little Santos to us when he started getting into trouble at recess with his own classmates. They were destroying property and shit like that. Marking up the walls with crayons and markers and rocks and whatever else their little fingers could wrap themselves around. Eventually it came down to a brawl between Santos and some know-it-all punk who, even though he was only in the second grade, already had a fucken chip on his shoulder. So one day during recess me and the boys were just hanging out on a couple of the chin-lift bars (we liked climbing up and just sitting on them where we could overlook the whole playground) and here came Eevie dragging little Santos along behind her. I about shit my pants. Eevie had only rarely come our way and usually only during a kickball game, but today she was walking towards us with a purpose.
“Hey guys,” she said as she approached us. “Can I ask you a favor?” Both Con-Man and I knew her pretty well so she addressed us more than the others.
“What’s up?” Con-Man said before I had the chance.
“My little brother’s been getting into trouble. He even got into a fight last week. I was wondering if he could hang out with you.”
“Sure,” I shot. I liked Santos. He was actually a very nice kid, very much like his sister, so I didn’t mind him around. Plus I saw it as a chance to do Eevie a favor, which was my greatest pleasure at the time. And Santos started hanging out with us during recesses and lunch and, to my delight, so did Eevie. I think he was bored at first, but we all took to him real quick. Sammy, who was heavy into the sound of bass-men from the Doo-Wop groups we listened to, taught him how to properly “poppa-oom-mow-mow,” which any young cat should know how to do. Key-Man and Twin especially treated him like a little brother and were the ones who spent most of their time with him. They even got him reading at recess, which even we didn’t do. Con-Man taught him some of the defensive moves he had taught the rest of us, this time a lot more discreetly. I taught him all about Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, The Stones, Bill Haley, James Dean, and the incomparable Gene Vincent. And I spent a lot of time with Eevie.
We were all just taking care of each other. And that was that.
It turned out that Little Eevie, as we came to call her, loved all the same music we did. There was one exceptional difference, though. She could sing the shit. And I mean she could sing like nobody’s business. When she got goin’, diggin’ down deep for that gutteral pitch she could get, she sounded like a very young Laverne Baker. Eevie loved Laverne, and Etta James, The Shirelles, and she really dug Rosie and the Originals. She also swooned over Michael Jackson, as any kid did in those days, and The Furious Five, The Temptations, everything that mattered. She’d get to singing and the rest of us would clap along while Santos danced wildly and Sammy dropped in with the bass of his voice he was always practicing. Life was never so fully enjoyed by kids on that playground as we were doing it.
Every day I would look forward to school, but this time for a new reason. I’d still go to school to do my work and play my writing games with Key-Man and help other kids, all of which I loved doing. But now I also lived for those recesses, for my time with Eevie. She seemed to gravitate toward me in conversations and often we’d be having our own little talks while the guys played or talked around us. That’s when I learned how bad her parents’ marriage was.
We were sitting on the bench along the first base line of one of the diamonds watching Sammy roll-pitch a kickball to Con-Man, who had a helluva kick that could get some real air, and Twin and Key-Man scramble after the ball in the outfield. It was our usual diamond, the one we always went to when we wanted to play. I had met a lot of kids whose parents were already divorced or separated, I even met a few orphans with foster parents, but Eevie was the first kid I ever knew whose parents were actually going through the divorce shit. And it was bad. They argued over everything, even each others’ clothes. Eevie and Santos were living with the mother while their father was working for some big corporation down in San Diego. Her greatest fear, she once confided in me, was to have her dad get custody of them. She didn’t want to move outta Long Beach. She wanted to stay with her friends. Because of her parents, she hadn’t stayed at a school as long as she had at our current elementary. I found that a shocking coincidence and told her of my health issues. I told more or less anyone who was interested back then about my health and if it happened to come up in conversation, but I never really confided in anyone how much confusion had been brought on by the moving and uncertainty it caused me. But I told her.
“Oh, Charles,” she sighed as she lay her head on my shoulder. I took her hand without thought. Any other day I would have exploded inside having done such a thing, but not today. Not at that moment and not with what we were talking about. It was all just natural and it was nice.
“When the hell is this world gonna get its shit together,” I said, like some dumb, young elitist. I probably heard someone say that very thing on TV and it seemed to fit that moment.
She sighed again, “Yeah.”
We watched the playground surge with activity for a few moments. Then the bell rang and we returned to class.
There was this house on the corner across from the school. It sat empty, with a dilapidated ‘For Sale’ sign out front for a long time. It sat that way at least a year that I could remember. It was always closed up, curtains and all. Rumors spread around the school starting in third grade that some very bad people had moved in there. No one was sure who or how many lived in that house, but a common thread amongst the rumors is that one of the guys who lived there had been in prison for a few years. He’d gotten out, saved up some cash and bought the house almost in full. Whatever was going on in there we all knew to stay the fuck away. It’s like when some place has bad mojo, you don’t really know why you’re supposed to stay away or what’ll happen to you if you don’t, you just know something bad would happen and that was enough to keep us away from that house.
It was actually a cute little one-story deal. The paint job was old but in fair order, though the beige color was fucken sickening to look at. Its dark brown rooftop was nicer looking than the paint. It had a very tiny porch just off the front door.
Only a few kids who happened to live on the same street could ever say they saw anyone go in or come out of the house and no one had ever seen any furniture or anything being moved in. The only thing that changed about the house was that over night a new front door had been installed. It was big and thick and heavy looking and stuck out with its white paint job against the other muddy colors the house was made up of.
By the time the fourth grade rolled around it was pretty common knowledge that the house had been turned into a junkie hut, aka an illegal narcotics lab. PCP was being produced and pushed outta that house. Maybe some heroin on the side. Whatever. Us kids just knew to stay away and we did.
The bell rang. Kids flooded out of the school like a sink overflowing. Key-Man and I were hoping to get a game of kickball going out at our usual diamond, the diamond across from the house. I was running full speed with Key-Man, who was carrying the faded red ball, toward the corner of the schoolyard. Then Key-Man broke stride and slowed. I looked back and saw him heading for the chain link fence at the edge of the schoolyard. Others were joining him. I stopped and joined Key-Man, our fingers interlocked in the steel links of the fence. Across the street, at the junkie hut, sat a mass of uniformed men. Six or seven cop cars surrounded the joint. Several cops had their guns pulled, pointing them toward the house. Most of them were just standing around talking. Out through the heavy door came more officers, pushing and pulling a massive mountain of a man. His head was shaved clean. His muscles rippled, straining to break the cuffs that held him. The cops just yelled obscenities at him and pushed him head-first into the back of one of their black-and-whites. Then more cops came spilling out of the doorway, this time dragging a haggard woman behind them kicking and screaming. At first I thought she was an old lady, old enough to be my grandmother, but when they got her up on her feet I saw that she wasn’t old at all. She just had an ugliness about her, like a weariness. A drugged-out weariness. She wore only a halter top faded red like the ball that Key-Man was still holding and she wore a pair of cut-off jean shorts. Varicose veins ran all up and down her legs that looked all too skinny and somehow sagging at the same time. Great deep purple circles hung from under her eyes. She refused to give up the cigarette she had in her mouth until a cop pulled it away and threw it into the street. She was a mess of a woman. Not really much of a woman any more. Just another junkie.
“Shit!” I heard a voice next to me. “That’s my mom!” I turned to see look at Nickel-Nickel. He ran from the schoolyard, jumping the fence, screaming across the street towards his junkie mother. It finally all made sense. And I hated it.
The emergency school bell rang, as if there was a fire. The principal’s voice came over the P.A.: “Attention all students, return to your classes immediately. Attention all students, return to your classes immediately.” Apparently the powers-that-be in the school had seen the same shit goin’ down and were pulling us back in until the cops cleared out. The schoolyard security started rounding us up, herding us back into the schoolhouse. I took one last look over to the house. A cop had literally picked up Nickel-Nickel and was carrying him to another black-and-white where he placed in the back seat. The cop then squatted to talk to him. I looked to Key-Man. His mouth was open and sad. He looked at me. I didn’t know what to say. He shrugged. That’s all that was needed to be said. Just a shrug.
Kids walked slowly by the few windows we had that could be used to see the scene outside. Walking behind us the whole way was the playground security. When we returned to the class, Mrs. K started us into our studies right away. No one talked about what had been seen outside. No one asked about what was going on. No one even asked where Nickel-Nickel was at. We just picked up our books and carried on.
Nickel-Nickel didn’t return to school for two weeks. When he finally did, no one talked to him but the teacher. I guess no one knew what to say. And the only time Mrs. K spoke to him was on the first day he was back, just before she started class. The day after he got back I had a chance to talk to him during a study session. I asked him if he was okay. He just sorta shrugged, much like Key-Man had done two weeks before, and he left it at that. He was a real quiet student after he got back, too, and Mrs. K never called on him for anything. Sometimes I wonder if that had really been what was best for him. He didn’t get back to selling anything at school for another two weeks and when he finally did start selling he wasn’t hustling like he had before. He just put the word out that he had candy or whatever and we’d only find out through word of mouth toward the end of recess. He was ten, and it was like he was broken.
She had the look of pain in her eyes. But, more than that, a look of knowledge, a kind of wisdom, not so much a resignation, that life was full of pain. We were nine-years-old.
“Hello?” I got a phone call late one Sunday afternoon. It was from Little Sammy.
“Hey, Sammy. What’s up?”
“Not good,” is all he said.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I miss you. Key’s in anudder class wid Con-Man. Twin an I are alone. Dis whole year I been askin’ ‘Where’s Charles?’”
We were in the fifth grade now. The rent at our apartment in Long Beach was raised an unreasonable $150 a month extra. So my family and I moved to Cypress, a small burg outside of Anaheim. Cypress was six square miles and there was some culture shock to it for me. I’d gone from near inner-city to Mayberry, USA. In Long Beach, our apartment’s manager lived in a fancy condo on Naples Island. We never knew who the owners of the building were. In Cypress, we rented a house and not only were we friendly with the owners, they were our neighbors down the street.
I hadn’t seen Sammy in some time except for a chance meeting at a McDonald’s off Redondo in Long Beach one weekend. We maintained some small phone contact, however.
“I’m sorry, man. I wish I was still there, too. Are you having problems with the work?”
“No. not really. The teacher she go way too fast. I can’t keep up an’ when I ask for help she tell me ‘after school’ but den she neber dere an’ I gotta go home right after school anyway. No one pays attention to me and Twin. We understand the work, we just need more time in class but she no give us da time.”
“Damn. How are your grades?”
“Not good,” he gave a brief pause, then slammed me with the next thing he said. “You remember Nickel-Nickel?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Another brief silence, this time from both of us.
“What?” I asked.
“He died in da gutter outside his apartment.”
“He shot up pure heroin.”
“Pure!” Holy shit. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “I didn’t… I didn’t even know he was shooting.”
“Me needer,” said Sammy. “I only notice he not in school so much. But he in a different class, too. So I just thought I wasn’t seeing him. But word on da street an’ in da school is dat he was hooked an’ he hadn’t shot up in days. He got desperate. Nobody knows how he got pure, but some people think he got it from his mom’s boyfriend. Some say he got it at da house across da street. You remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“So he shot up da pure. Dey sayin’ he went crazy. Flipped-out. Ran outta da house after he shot up, crazy, and died right in da gutter in front of his apartment, his mom still on da phone wid da police callin’ for help.”
Nickel-Nickel’s death disturbed me. I’d heard of kids OD’ing at the age of twelve before, that’s old news. It happens every day in L.A. That’s why you don’t see it on TV with pictures at eleven. It’s old hat. But Nickel-Nickel’s death was different. It was different cuz he was a friend. Well, kind of. Not a very close friend, true, but a friend none-the-less. And the real tragedy was I couldn’t be there for him, to hold him while he died. Even at the age of eleven I wished I could’ve been there for him, to hold him while his life slipped from him. It took me years to understand why I wanted to be there for him like that. All I know then is that even if I couldn’t have stopped it, even if he woulda been too doped up to have known I was there, I coulda held his hand at least in those last moments of his life to let him know he was loved in this life. It was a stupid, childish thing to wish. But I wished it.
But I wasn’t there. I’d even seen all the signposts outlining what trip down what road he was taking. And I still wasn’t there. Instead, I was miles and miles away listening to another friend’s distant voice telling me of all the details two days after it had happened.
The phone rang again. It was exactly one week later and the phone was ringing again.
I didn’t want to pick it up. Something was telling me to let the damned thing ring. But I picked it up.
“Hello? Is Charles there?”
It was Sammy. Shit. Something was wrong. He’d never called this often. Something was definitely wrong.
“What’s wrong, Sammy?” I asked right away.
“Sammy?” I coaxed. “What’s wrong?”
I exploded from within. Every last bit of me, every last cell, erupted in a self-induced explosion that fire-stormed its way through my soul. I was in Hiroshima. Heat was baking and eating flesh, marrow liquefied and boiled, pressure built until my bones exploded. I melted from the world and disappeared, returning only slightly to a consciousness never again to be fully seen with everything painted black.
Sammy’s voice was soft. I wasn’t really listening but I heard every detail. I didn’t answer to anything he said. I didn’t have to. He just continued slowly and softly and affectionately.
“Her parents, dey been separated. Living in different places. Dey got togedder for dinner an’ I guess to decide stuff about da divorce. I don’t really know. But dey went out an’ left Eevie to watch Santos alone.
“Eevie, after her parents go she decided dey needed bread or milk or something. She tell Santos to stay on da couch an’ not to open da door for anyone. He fell asleep.
“Da parents, dey return an’ found Santos asleep an’ no Eevie.”
Sammy stopped for a second. I said nothing during his pause. I only listened to him breath and adjust the phone to his ear.
When he spoke again his voice was like a fishing bobber popping up from under the water after disappearing below the surface, “Dey search all night, Charles. Da cops, dey find her in da morning. Dey say she was alive most the night. She died only about an hour before dey find her.
“She was raped an’ left inna alley near da liquor store. She neber got to da store. No one saw or heard nuthin’.”
Eevie had been just eleven-years-old, same age as me. She had been raped and left to bleed to death in an alleyway just a block-and-a-half from her home. Once again I was miles and miles away hearing all this days after it happened on the phone from a friend.
Sammy and I sat on the phone silently together for the longest time. No words passed between us. We just shared our silence. Sammy was the closest thing I had had to a brother at that point in my life and he was my best friend. Eevie had also adored him, so I knew he was hurting, too. That kicked itself into my head and I finally spoke to him.
“You okay, Sammy?”
I heard his sigh. “Yeah… no. My family, we gotta move soon. Too expensive here dey come an’ say dey gonna raise the rent.”
“Yeah, they’re raising rent all over Long Beach.”
“So where eber we move to, I call you from dere. I gotta go. I gotta help clean da kitchen.”
“Okay, Sammy. You take care.”
“You too, bro.” He hung up.
Two months went by and I hadn’t heard from Sammy. I decided to call him.
“We’re sorry. The phone number you’re trying to reach has either been disconnected or is no longer in service.”
I hung up.
I loved those friends. I loved them more than anything. They were the first real group of friends I had ever had. They had taught me the meaning of family, of love and the responsibility of caring for one another. They had shared their happiness and lives with me and I returned the kindness the best I could. I loved them. But I don’t think I ever got the chance to tell them, except by just being there for them the few times I could, the few times we shared our lives. I would never hear from any of them ever again.
I picked up the phone, called Sammy’s number and listened the message again out of loneliness.