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By Michel Stone

I’d known Angel a few weeks when he told me about his being sealed by blowtorch in the underbelly of a truck.  His words flowed fast, like the cork had blown on something bottled inside him, and the telling and my interest gave him great satisfaction.

We were tagging elms with yellow plastic tape in the tree nursery where we worked.  “You cannot imagine,” he said. He had an easy, boyish smile, almost devilish, but his eyes revealed a perpetual weariness.

“Tell me,” I said, stretching out an eight-inch piece of tape and snipping it from the roll.

“We lay like this.” He stood rigid, his arms pinned to his sides.  “Is very close, you know? With the shoes of the other mens is rubbing my head here and here,” he said, tapping his ears.

“How many of you?”

His sudden, wide smile puzzled me.

“Is ten of us.  This space is very, very small.” He stepped to a nearby elm and bent a thin branch for me to secure the length of tape.

We had to tag the best looking elms for a landscaper who’d pick up the trees the following day.  Angel could tell the caliper of a tree with a glance.  We’d walk down the field, he’d select the trees, and we’d tag them.

I didn’t want to be nosy, and I figured he’d be guarded about telling me much more, but  I was wrong.

“I try not to move in this truck, is so tight like… how you say… the little fishes in the can?”

“Sardines?” I say, tying a strip of tape to the limb.

Si, is like the sardines.  And the coyote – he is the man I pay the moneys to bring me in these truck – he close the hole in the truck with the… how you say… the fire, you know?”

“Blow torch?”

Si.  Is very dark in this place.  Is very long time in this place.”

“How long did it take you to cross?”

“Oh, is many hours!”

“Pretty scary, I bet.” I said, as we made our way down the row, eyeing trees to select.

“I think I will die on this trip.  I could no tell is day or the night, is Mexico or el norte outside this space.”

“Did you and the others talk?”

“No, not so much because we is scared of the coyote in the outside, if he hear us or if the border patrol hear us.  We not talking in there.  But then one man he get very crazy in the head,” Angel says, his perpetual smile lost now.  “Is very bad.”

“Crazy in the head?” I said.

Si, is true.  He say crazy things.  He screaming and he wanting his mama, but is no space in there and is no mama, either.  I want to hit him in the face!  You see, is no because I am a bad guy, but this man, he could get us caught, you know?”

“Did you hit him?”

“No.  Is impossible. The… how you say… the top?  Is right here, is very near to my nose.  Is no able to move to hit this man.”

I shook my head, unsure what to say, thinking about my story, my life, and how simple and unencumbered my existence would seem if he were to ask me to tell my personal narrative.

(Michel Stone’s first novel, The Iguana Tree, is just out now on Hub City Press, about a Mexican couple’s trip into the United States, ending in South Carolina. It has been called a “compassionate yet unsentimental story [recalling] the works of John Steinbeck.” …    Read an excerpt here.)

“Then the mens, they have to piss, right?  And what can they do but they have to go.  So these mens pisses, and one man he… how you say?”  Angel shoves a dirty finger into the back of his throat.

“Vomit? Throw up?” I said.

Si, he vomit and smelling very, very bad in this truck.”

As we made our way across the field, tagging the last couple of trees, I wondered what I’d do in the situation Angel just described.

I said, “Did you pray?”  I fold my hands in prayer and briefly close my eyes to illustrate my question.

“Oh, si!  I says to God, ‘Please! Please! Please!’  And the other mens I can hear them talk to God and to the Virgin, they say like me, “Please, please!”

I tried to picture Angel prone, scared, and lying in human waste among his fellow travelers with barely a few inches between their faces and the top of their hidden, sealed compartment. I imagined the unbearable stench.

(View a trailer to The Iguana Tree)

Suddenly I am thankful Angel is a thin man.  How could he have fit into the space otherwise?  Maybe a plump, well-fed fellow wouldn’t have had Angel’s motivation to leave Mexico in such a way, under the protection of a coyote, in search of something better.

“But you made it across,” I said, smiling at him.

Si,” he said, his mischievous grin contradicting the horrendous tale he’d just shared, the truth about his deliverance to el norte in the dark belly of that truck.

“When was this?” I said.

“This was in five months ago.  In Marzo.  You know Marzo?”

“March,” I said.

“Si.  In March I come here.  Soon is my wife coming and my boy.”  His face darkened when he said this, and for a moment I suspected I’d misunderstood, imagining he’d be thrilled to be reunited with his family.

“Where are they now?” I said.

“In my country, in my town, Cortazar.”

My familiarity with Mexican geography was minimal.  “Is that near the sea, or near the border?”

“No, no, is no near the sea and this town is very far from the border.  Is in middle of my country,” he said.

Then I pictured his young wife – How old was Angel? 23? – traveling up through the center of her country with a small child in tow, trying to cross into America.

Perspiration dampened the front of Angel’s shirt in this muggy August South Carolina heat, and I wonder how insufferable a sealed undercarriage of a truck would be in Mexico or Texas this time of year.

I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand.  “Why’d you do it, Angel?  Why come here?”

“Is much better here, Michel.  The moneys I make here in one week?  You know in my country I make this moneys in many weeks. Is much better here.”

My relatives owned the farm where Angel and I worked, and I kept up with him through them for years after that summer.

His wife and son did make it to el norte that autumn, their journey across the border different but equally as harrowing as Angel’s.

Then one day I learned they were gone.  Disappeared.  Rumored to have returned to Mexico.  Some farm hands mumbled that Angel had begun drinking too much, had gotten in trouble with the law, and left before he got locked up.

Where is he now?  His wife?  Their child?  I often wonder.

____

Michel Stone is a writer living in Spartanburg, S.C. Her acclaimed first novel,  The Iguana Tree, is just out on Hub City Press, and available in hardback or Kindle. Contact her at www.michelstone.com.

 

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By Anonymous*

Two years have passed and still no one has seen Rosalba Andrade. She was kidnapped soon after her 46th birthday, and has not reappeared. Her houses, cars, clothes, and other property have been divided among those who envied her and befriended her. Even her family has stripped away at all she owned.

Rosa and my mother attended the same elementary school together.  They grew up in the small town of Dr. Belisario Dominguez, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. My mother admired Rosa’s dedication and willpower.

Rosa was tall, with honey-brown eyes, long eyelashes, and a button nose. Her hair was black, layered down half her back. Young and beautiful, she was also filled with pride. She didn’t always have enough money to bring food to eat for school, but never would she allow others to offer her help. She refused to go with her classmates at lunch because she hated the humiliation of having others feel pity for her. She dreamed of becoming a doctor, but would be content as a secretary.

Her family could not provide her with more than a high school education. Instead, at 17, she was forced to marry Dagoberto Estrada, who was 24 years old. Dagoberto worked for a government agriculture program, buying crops from farmers – so he had money.

The program ended soon after the marriage, and Rosa and Dagoberto went illegally to Dallas, Texas. They had a son and worked as butchers. Rosa, however, was ambitious, and would take on the tougher and higher paying jobs. She began to make more money than her husband. People said she had a masculine nature. The job required a lot of physical exertion, and she worked more than many of the men. They said she was a lesbian because she took a man’s role.

Rosa dreamed of owning a huge, beautiful house because as a kid she was very poor and her father was lazy. She was not allowed to work in Mexico because it wasn’t the norm. Even in Texas, as a woman, she had to begin with the easy jobs and work herself up.  She had two other daughters whom she attempted to shelter. Rosa wanted her daughters to live a proper life, away from the hardships she had to overcome.

As she continued to work beside the strongest men, including her cousin, who was very close to the boss of the Juarez Drug Cartel, she began to deal marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. The cartel boss was sought by the D. E. A. and he decided on plastic surgery to change his appearance. He died on the operating table. The doctors and bodyguards were later found dead in cement barrels. The death of the boss led to the opportunity for Rosa.

First, Rosa’s cousin took charge of, but he didn’t have the support of, the cartel and he soon was arrested, along with his wife. Nolberto, another one of Rosa’s cousins, came into power, leaving Rosa third in line. Nolberto’s reign lasted five years, and in that time he helped Belisario prosper. He offered people jobs in drug packaging, assassination, in the construction of his mansions and car theft. He also opened a dance hall that was more like a prostitution bar. He provided the people of Belisario more work, but he poisoned their hearts with drugs, ambition, and violence.

Finally, the struggle for the dominion of the cartel killed Nolberto. Froylan, another of her cousins, gained power, but Rosa sent her son to murder him. In the attack, Froylan lost a leg, a kidney, his liver was damaged. He was partially paralyzed. He went into hiding and hasn’t been heard from since.

Rosa now took control and moved back to Mexico. She admitted she was a lesbian and divorced her husband. Those who could not work efficiently Rosa disposed of as if they were old rags. She took some of the independent drug connections of her cousins, who had introduced her to the trade, and murdered many of these dealers as well. Consequently, she began to destroy her family. Rosa’s son became an assassin despite her numerous attempts to make him live a decent life.

Meanwhile, Rosa renovated the town’s chapel. She had ceramic tiles placed inside the chapel and on the stairs at the entrance of the chapel. She renovated the walls of the building and placed new wine-colored wooden doors with beautiful engraving. She had granite placed around the altar, and furnished the chorus area with a wooden balcony. She also helped many people who were sick and gave many women jobs in cleaning. She was frequently criticized for being a lesbian, but as in most towns in Mexico, help from anyone is accepted.

About the time of her 46th birthday, Rosa organized the annual fiesta in Belisario. At that festival, her son noticed he was being followed. He left town because he didn’t want to disturb his mother. Some say that he was attacked because he was being pressured to kill his own mother and had refused. In his car he carried a 50-caliber gun, a .308, an R-15 rifle, grenades, and enough ammunition to take down a helicopter. But outside the town that night, he was killed. Authorities found four bodies, but his was the only one claimed by his family. His family lied about his hometown and said he was from San Buenaventura because they didn’t want to bring shame and attention to Dr. Belisario Dominguez.  People involved in the drug business often lie about names, residency, and much more.

With the death of her son, Rosa began to lose power over her drug business. One day when she was selling her bean crops at the central market, she noticed she was being followed. She had already received a threat by phone. She called her daughters and told them that if anything happened to her, she didn’t want them to look for her. She asked them to live their lives honorably and move forward no matter what.

She was never heard from again. Some say Rosa was placed alive in a container full of acid. After her disappearance, authorities, rivals, and her cousins took her property and left her daughters with only their education. Others say, however, that Rosa had planned her own kidnapping. They believe that she knew she would lose everything and die, so she decided to escape. Some say she was seen in Manhattan.

Whichever story is true, Rosa is gone. Her house sits empty in the town of Dr. Belisario Dominguez.

Drug trafficking has destroyed Belisario, as it destroyed Rosa. Young people can no longer be outside after the sun goes down. Only a few people are seen walking the streets. People talk only with those whom they trust. They fear social gatherings; weddings and quinceaneras are forced to hire armed security, and the town is being abandoned little by little.

My mom thanks God every day for our distance from Belisario.

The only thing that couldn’t be destroyed was the education Rosa worked so hard to provide for her daughters. One is a lawyer and the youngest is 18 and aspires to be a doctor. The last anyone heard, they were still living in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

_________

*The author, a high school student, has requested anonymity.

 

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By Celia Viramontes*

The train screeched to a halt in Empalme, Sonora. Don Luis adjusted his wide-brimmed sombrero over his head and clutched his small bag tightly to his chest. It carried the barest essentials: one change of clothes, including a thin shirt and a pair of pants for the journey that lay ahead.

outpics1He dipped his hand into a pocket and retrieved the identity documents he’d need to be contracted as a bracero. The men filed out of their seats, adjusting their norteño hats. Empalme represented one more stop along their journey –a junction, as its name in Spanish implies, a temporary way-station en route to El Norte.

Men sat cross-legged, others propped themselves against each other, their hats slumped over their faces, shielding them from the Sonoran heat. Lines of aspiring braceros snaked around the station. They shuffled their feet, kicking up dust, waiting for the bracero list from their home state regions to be called.

The loudspeakers above the station crackled for a few seconds. Braceros perked their ears, standing at attention. The contracting was finished for the day.

Don Luis, joined by two paisanos from his home village,dug his hand into a pocket. Against his coarse fingers, he felt the smooth round pesos inside the lining of his pants. His buddies did the same. Put together, this would buy them arroz y frijoles at the food stand.

¿Y ahora, qué?” And now, what? He turned to ask his buddies, as sunset neared. He wiped sweat off his forehead.

They joined the throngs of men leaving the station in search of shelter. Dust coated their shoes and sandals.

By evening, Don Luis and his paisanos walked the neighborhoods of Empalme. Men, women, and children spilled from their homes. They lounged in their front yards, scantily dressed in thin shorts and t-shirts.

Un peso,” a man in shorts said to them, as he walked across his small yard. “¿Cuántos?” he asked, leading them into his house. How many?

“Tres,” Don Luis was about to say. But by then, ten braceros gathered at the door. They each drew into their shirt pocket, pants, or bag. One peso per bracero. The man led them indoors, as Don Luis and his paisanos laid cardboard slats on the ground. For a peso each, he furnished them with a piece of floor. It beat sleeping on the hot Empalme roads, nakedly exposed to passers-by.

The men laid the cardboard in neat rows. Don Luis laid his back on the cardboard. Its hard edges rubbed his spine. He lay next to his buddy. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and dream. It must be two in the morning now. He licked beads of sweat off his lips, salty like the rest of his body.

Salty like the lake next to the railroad tracks that he remembered from his first stint as a bracero. Destination: Salt Lake City in Utah. Los Estados Unidos had asked for brazos, arms to be put to work in the fields and on the tracks during the war. Those first braceros had boarded the train flashing the “V” for victory sign. Some had returned in ’43 and ’44, wearing jeans and belt buckles, and their wallets a little fatter.

So he’d followed their lead and boarded a train in Mexico and a bus at the U.S-Mexico border bound for Utah. The bus made a final stop in Reno, Nevada, where he’d slept two nights in barracks before arriving at the snowy bracero camp. Don Luis and the men shivered in their thin shirts. To battle the cold, he purchased a sheep-skin coat that ran down the length of his pants. With it, he survived the cold blasts working on the railroad tracks.

Now, he yearned for even a driblet of that icy wind to extinguish the heat radiating from his body. It never came, and neither did the sleep.

At dawn, the men rose from their cardboard beds and headed to the contracting station. A swarm of braceros paced back and forth. They waited. And waited some more.

The hunger pangs were not long in coming. Don Luis dipped into his pant pocket.

Ni un cinco,” he said. Not a nickel.

They left the station and soon found themselves on a street on the outskirts of Empalme. A man summoned them over. He stood outside his yard pointing to trash cans on the side of his home, a water hose, and a littered sidewalk.

“Clean the debris and trash from the sidewalk. Use a water hose to wash it all out. Just be sure to not splatter too much mud.”

They worked through the hollow in their stomachs. When all was done, they had earned a few pesos each and a meal for the day.

That night, it was back to the cama de cartón. Don Luis rested his head and body, in search of sleep. But it wouldn’t come, just like the work contract that hadn’t come today.images

At dawn, a smaller number of braceros congregated outside the contracting station. Loudspeakers blared out names. For the unlucky, it was the call to surrender. Holding their small bags at their sides, braceros trudged back to the depot and a trip back to their village or some other place to try their luck.

Don Luis watched them go. They boarded just as they had arrived: with small bags tucked under their arms, sombreros atop their heads. But bowed lower this time.

Just then a fleet of buses circled the station and pulled into the depot. Brakes screeched. Doors opened wide. The men filed out of the bus, some carrying boxes.

Don Luis walked towards the bustling crowd. Suddenly, he spotted a familiar face. A voice drew near, as a hand, calloused just like his, reached for a handshake. It was a good friend. He carried bags.

“I’ve been all over,” he said.

The man began to rattle off all the places he’d been, all the things he’d seen. Don Luis stopped him short.

Mire, no me platique tanto. No hemos comido. Denos algo.” Look, don’t rattle off so much. We haven’t eaten. Give us something.

The paisano reached into his pocket, and dropped several pesos into Don Luis’ hands. He put his arm over his shoulder. Then he gathered his belongings and headed towards the buses departing south.

Don Luis took the money. The aroma of rice and beans from the food stand beckoned him. For the first time in a long time coins clinked in his pocket, weighing down his pants. The money carried them through another three days.

He and his buddies waited each day at the contracting station. The coins in his pockets dwindled. And then the loudspeakers crackled.

Ya salió la lista!” At last, the list of braceros.

Outside, Don Luis played with the few remaining coins in his pocket, turning them over and over in his fingers.

He hadn’t yet stepped inside the contracting station, but already, his mind was churning. If he was lucky enough to get a three-month contract, he’d walk into a money order station and send almost all his money home. With a six-month extension on that contract, he’d buy cloth for his wife and the girls to order tailor-made dresses. He’d get shirts and pants for the boys.

And if the dollars stretched far enough, he’d buy a battery-powered radio for his family. It would be one of the few in his village back home without electricity. He’d package it all with great care and tie it with twine inside a sturdy brown cardboard box.

___

Celia Viramontes was born and raised in Los Angeles. This story was taken from the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, which grew from writing workshops given by Sam Quinones at East Los Angeles Library. Contact her at oclaa@yahoo.com
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By Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes

The summer of 2009 I spent in Houston working with janitors as they fought to renew a union contract. IMG_6637 - Version 3

That July 4th, local pastors held a press conference supporting the janitors. Several union janitors were asked to attend.

That’s when I met Carmen Sanchez. I picked her up and drove her to the event. Carmen was our shortest member, in her sixties, direct, well groomed. She was from Chihuahua, Mexico. She was always at union events. She’d been a janitor for 12 years.

That afternoon, driving her home, my car got a flat tire. I called AAA, but it was clear that due to the holiday help would be a long time coming.

So it was that I found myself with Carmen Sanchez in the middle of downtown Houston on July 4th.

I thought I’d just get Carmen a cab and have her on her way home. But she refused.

“I don’t have anyone waiting for me at home,” she said.

That day, Houston dripped with humidity. She took out a jug of ground-oatmeal water.

“This water saves lives.”

I smiled and drank.

“Whenever it gets this unbearable, I go to my nearest department store and cool off,” she said. “We’re just blocks away from JC Penney. You want to go?”

Sure, I said. AAA was going to call when their truck was on its way.

We walked to Carmen’s JC Penney. The air conditioning hit us like an arctic blast.

We walked every aisle of that store. Carmen slowed when we came to the makeup. This lipstick is the best, she said. Ruby red. She wore it every day for work.

“In the office where I work, I figure I have thirty minutes where the executives and I exchange eyes. They get dressed up, so why shouldn’t I? If they take time to look good on the job, so do I.”

We walked through the shoes.

“I prefer copper brown shoes when I work,” she said. “That color best matches my work uniform.”

She wore a uniform every day. Shoes and makeup were all that were hers at work.

We passed the Bath and Body Works store and tested the seasonal lotions. Then we talked lady stuff – my favorite lipstick, her favorite recipes, and men she recommended I date.

“Why do you do this type of work?” she asked. “Wouldn’t you prefer to date and be a bit mischievous while you can?”

Before I could speak, she said, “No need to answer now –that’s your homework.”

She began to talk about her life.

When she was young, she had a daughter, then a son. She separated from an abusive husband.

To offer her children a future, she left them with her husband’s sister and took a train to the border and crossed into the United States using a phony ID. That was in 1978. She went first to Washington D.C., but with no Latinos in the capital, she didn’t feel comfortable. She moved to Houston.

Living on minimum wage jobs made it hard to ever get back home. But she wired money to her children in Chihuahua every week.

“One week the money would go to my kids’ necessities; the next week to save for the `coyote,’” who would someday take her children across to join her.

Then one day she called home and no one answered.

She called from different phones. Still no answer. She kept calling. She waited six months and went to Mexico. In her town, her mother told her that her kids now ran away from her when they saw her.

Carmen went to the house and knocked. No answer. She waited outside her children’s school – they were teenagers by now. They saw her and ran away. Carmen broke down crying. She stayed for a month and her children refused to see her. A neighbor sent her a message, No quieren saber nada de ti. No one wants to know anything about you. The coyote fund you were sending money to we used for a family emergency.

Carmen returned to Houston. That was in 1988 and she hadn’t seen or talked to her kids since then – except once. She continued to call the number she had for her children’s aunt. Then one day her daughter answered.

“It’s your mother,” Carmen said. There was no response. Silence.

“Okay, don’t say anything. Just give me a minute and don’t hang up. I just want you to know I love you and never stop loving you.”

A minute later the phone went dead.

Later, they changed their number. She kept calling her mother. Go to the house, Carmen pleaded, bring them cookies.

Tightened security on the border and low wages in Houston kept Carmen from ever traveling back to Mexico. She couldn’t attend her mother’s funeral in 1995 and still wasn’t over that.

But for 20 years, she never stopped wiring money to the same account for her children that she’d always used. Every month the bank told her that the money had been picked up.

She still sends the money, she told me, even though the kids are now adults and they haven’t spoken since they were in elementary school. An older aunt is the only family she has left in Chihuahua who still talks to her.

Perdi todo,” she said. “I lost everything and I don’t know why. My mom, my kids. I even didn’t take the opportunity to getIMG_0280 amnesty.”

In her neighborhood when amnesty for illegal immigrants came around, so did a lot of fraud, and people pretending to be attorneys. Money was tight, too, and she no longer trusted anyone.

“If I can’t trust my own family …” she said, her voice trailing off. “I’m in a foreign land. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

Night fell and by then we were sitting on a curb near the parking lot. The AAA guy had finally shown up. We spotted a hot dog vendor and treated ourselves to hot dogs and chips.

As the AAA guy worked, we ate and watched fireworks explode in the distance.

“Ahh, I liked that one, the three-colored firework!” Carmen said. “Now that was worth the wait.”

____

*Jacqueline Gonzalez Reyes was born and raised in Koreatown, Los Angeles. This story first appeared in Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles. Contact her at gonzalesreyesj@gmail.com.

 

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By Diego Renteria

________

As a teenager, I was part of a mariachi group with high school friends. We performed at birthday parties, masses, quinceañeras, and weddings around Southern California, each time becoming part of someone’s special occasion.

We always hesitated about taking gigs after December 15th because members traveled with their families for the holidays. In 2006, however, almost all our members stayed in our town of South Gate for Christmas, so that year we accepted a Christmas Eve gig because it was a one-hour performance in our hometown.

I arrived at the house about a half hour early and warmed up with my fellow musicians at a nearby strip mall parking lot. The night was chilly and our thin trajes were no match for the cold. I worried about not being able to feel or control my fingers in the cold but looked forward to a quick festive performance without worrying about being harassed by a drunk.

We walked down their driveway to their backyard. Most of the backyard was taken over by a stucco-on-chicken-wire two-story rear unit that looked perpetually under construction. A few people sat around a small fire in the center of the backyard, eating tamales from disposable plates and staying warm by the fire. The lights in the front unit were on and the smell of pozole wafted from the open kitchen door to the backyard.

They had hired us but did not seem very invested in our performance. I was accustomed to the occasional grito or exhortation in the middle of songs, clapping at the end of songs, and song requests, but this audience seemed unusually indifferent. As we encircled the family members and sang for them, the embers and smoke from their fire blew towards us, enveloping us and choking us.

When our hour was done, we bowed and started to take our leave. One of the men stopped us.

“Stay for one more hour.”

I did not expect anyone in the house to notice us leaving, let alone ask us to stay.

“Can’t. It’s Christmas Eve and we agreed to only one hour. We have to go be with our families.”

“I’ll pay five hundred dollars for the second hour.”

“Sorry, we really have to go.”

“Seven hundred dollars?”

“Look, we must…”

“One thousand.”

“We’ll talk about it with the rest of the group.”

We thought he was bluffing about the money. He gave us $500 and said he would give us the rest at the end. One hour of our time on Christmas Eve was worth $1,000 to him. Usually we charged $300 an hour.

We started singing, happy we were each getting over $100 for that night. He was pleased to have us at the family reunion for one more hour – more cheer for the house. Because it was Christmas, we tried our best to keep our songs cheerful or boisterous. We also played a few songs of heartbreak and loss because we knew they wanted to hear them. Their gritos indicated we were right.

About twenty minutes in, a woman emerged from the house and asked, “Can you come inside and play a song for us?”

We filed into the house through the kitchen and I noticed everyone outside the house followed us inside.

We walked into their living room. There, beside the Christmas tree and gifts and above the mantel was a large framed portrait of a boy no more than twelve years old. He looked down on everyone, eternally smiling for a school portrait, his hair spiky and clad in a gray school polo shirt. On a nearby stool were a backpack and some toys. On the mantel was an unwrapped tamal, a glass of milk, and two cookies. The couches were arranged to face his portrait.

I knew what song they would request and secretly hoped I was wrong.

“We want you… to play ‘Amor Eterno’ for our son…”

“Amor Eterno” was composed by the Mexican ranchera singer Juan Gabriel. Juan Gabriel is said to have composed the song to the memory of his mother and as the title (“Eternal Love”) suggests, it speaks of the pain of remembering the loss of a loved one who will never be forgotten or replaced. The suffering is so strong that the narrator prefers sleep because the pain disappears. “Amor Eterno” is almost solely requested at funerals or wakes or by people remembering their loved ones.

IMG_7077 - Version 2I don’t like performing “Amor Eterno.” It elicits such sadness and despair in listeners. There is always at least one person who starts crying. I feel bad for them and don’t know whether to cry or hang my head. Other mariachis have told me they feel the same. Our group vowed to play this song only when requested because it was too sad for most occasions.

We anxiously looked at each other. Our singer for “Amor Eterno” was sick at the time. Luckily, another member knew the lyrics and could sing in range. We were saved from the embarrassment of not being able to play the song.

We stood in a semicircle behind the couches. The family sat on the couches or in the doorways. Everybody in the room looked at the portrait.

They started crying as we started to sing. I stopped paying attention to who cried when. We mariachis exchanged glances to distract us from the mourning. Everything seemed to stop. No glasses clinked, no laughter punctuated the song. Everyone started singing to their son, their nephew. His mother broke down in tears on the couch, comforted by his madrina. A man who seemed to be his father stood against a wall, stone quiet.

The song ended but the family’s sobs did not. We filed out and finished our hour outside the house, colder than before we entered.

The man who paid us $1000 for the extra hour was in the street, burning rubber in his truck, drunk. Family had to drag him out of the truck. He kept his word and paid us the remaining $500.

We went home to our families that night. I went straight to sleep. But I think about that family, and the boy whose name I never knew, every Christmas Eve.

_________
Diego Renteria
Diego Rentería is a semi-retired mariachi musician who plays the guitar, vihuela, and  guitarrón and now lives in Boston. This story grew out TYTT workshops at East L.A. Public Library in the winter of 2014 and was first published in the book, Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, Volume 1. Read more of his  writing at http://soledadenmasa.wordpress.com.

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By Johnathan Quevedo

I’m 28 and grew up in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest — in different states. My mother suffers from severe bipolar disorder. I came out to Los Angeles to get away from her.

You can Google her and understand perfectly why I left. She was a mess and made the news in every state we lived in. Somehow she wrote a book and it’s on Amazon now.

She was a medical doctor for 34 years, originally from Panama and immigrated here in 1984 with my grandmother who was from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. She was considered “gifted” and graduated medical school at 17. She and my father divorced in 1991, but recently got back together in 2011. He is Chilean, and a cook, an author, and a small restaurant owner in Michigan.

I haven’t seen them in seven years and I’m actually going to visit them tomorrow for the first time since I left for Los Angeles.IMG_3641

But the last time I saw her, in 2006, she was living in a mansion in a gated community in Detroit called Sherwood Forest. I planned on staying a week but she was in full manic mode and people I didn’t recognize were constantly coming and going. I remember the neighbors handing out flyers out front and purposefully avoiding me, which gave me a clear indication that something was going on. The house had also been raided by the D.E.A four days before I arrived.

I love my mother but she constantly treated people badly when she was manic. I was her son but nobody else wanted anything to do with her. Her manic phases didn’t allow her to sleep so she worked at Henry Ford Hospital, ran a medical clinic on the southwest side of town, and hosted a radio program in Spanish about medicine and health.  She did the same thing in Alabama.

Anyway, back to me. I moved here from Detroit with two brothers from Los Angeles who I met when they were living in Michigan with their father. I stayed with them and their father in Michigan for a time. This was common. My mother’s manic phases meant I lived with different people all the time. When I was 15, I lost my virginity to a 46-year-old woman named Gina. I left her place at 16 and stayed with another woman named Maria who was 35 and the same thing happened there. Maria did it to get back at her husband who was cheating with a prostitute, who was an old friend of mine. Now that I look back on it they both took advantage of me knowing I was desperate and had nowhere to go.

It was during this time that my two friends from California helped me out by allowing me to stay with them and their father.  By the time I graduated high school I had credits from schools in four different states: New York, Georgia, Michigan, and California, which I visited with the brothers. During one visit, I met a girl I stayed in touch with.

I fell in love with Los Angeles. The mountains, the deserts, the climate, and the beaches were so different from what I knew growing up back east. When you aren’t from here, the vision of California you have is what Aaron Spelling and Arnold Schwarzenegger show you: Malibu, Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. A lot is overlooked — like all the social tensions within the communities.

When I turned 21, in 2005, I moved here permanently. Anything was better than the on-and-off hell of my mother. I knew something was wrong with her but I didn’t know how to help her. Because I didn’t realize how much it cost to live here, I eventually ended up staying in Skid Row for a while. I slept on benches, in car trunks, in the Panama Hotel and finally the Ford Hotel on 7th St.

I didn’t have any family or support. The girl I met on an earlier trip became my girlfriend and her family helped me. She is Mexican-American and her family moved here from Michoacan, Mexico in 1983. My existence is due to her entirely.

She and I had the idea that since we couldn’t go to school simultaneously, she would go, then I would go. So she finished in 2008 and that was when I returned. Because she was in school at Cal State University, Los Angeles and doing her student teaching and I didn’t have a career job to support us, we decided to move to Compton where her father owns a duplex.

I knew Compton was bad, but I’m not involved in gangs, and I worked, and this was only a temporary thing, so I agreed to live there.

I had two jobs, one working for Evergreen Aviation and the other as a Loss Prevention Officer at the Marriott Hotel in downtown L.A.

Then my car’s transmission went out, so I had to take the train to work: The Blue Line to 7th and from there I’d just walk. I had to be there at 6 am.

One day, I was walking to the Blue Line station in Compton, when an SUV with four Latino gang members passed me as I was at the intersection. The passenger held a gun out the window and said, “Don’t move, motherfucker!”  They were talking directly to me as if they knew me personally.

I ran. They made a U-turn and raced after me. They came up on me. All four of them hopped out, and one of them shot me once, point blank. I just remember not believing I was hit until at the same time I fell face first in the cement and had a concussion. I tried to get up but noticed my equilibrium was off. I remember feeling the blood spread inside my head and grabbing the left side just to see a handful of blood, bone fragments, and pieces of my own brain in my hand. I remember tasting it because it was in my throat.

I remember being carried away by the mechanic and my girlfriend to the back because they thought the gang members might return. As they carried me, a neighbor’s wife was coming home and she helped us also. I was yelling for help. But people there stay out of things even if a life is in jeopardy. I’m pretty sure they heard me.

I stayed conscious for about 30 minutes until the blood started swelling in my head. I still remember seeing pieces of my own brain, mixed with blood and skull fragments in my hand and on the street.

I had never seen these guys before and, as far as I know, they’d never seen me until that moment. They passed everyone and came directly for me and left the rest alone.

I had surgery at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood and immediately moved to Downey. Physically I was fine but it took me two years to recuperate psychologically. I suffered from massive headaches, seizures, short-term memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to learn how to walk, read, write, and socialize all over again.

I wanted to be a stand-up comedian but that ended with the depression and anxiety I began to feel.

Everyone I know believed this happened because, though I’m ethnically Latino, I have black features. The gang members never yelled a racial slur, so it was never counted as a hate crime. But I don’t think it was anything else.

Since then I’ve seen other cases and I’ve listened to people, coworkers, students, teachers, family, and witnessed open encouragement for hatred of blacks on the trains, in these communities, and downtown. This is the city’s very open secret.

The guys were never caught, and the lack of justice sparked my interest in political science. I’m hoping to finish a degree in that soon.

My boss was able to contact my mother later that day. She had been in prison by then for three months.

She was released a month later. Then she remarried my father.

___

*Johnathan Quevedo has remained in Southern California, working full time and studying political science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. This is his first story for Tell Your True Tale.
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By Milovan Pompa

[dropcap1]T[/dropcap1]he game had no meaning. We were playing Santa Clara University. But we’d already lost two of a crucial three-game series to them. Had we won those games, we’d have gone to the playoffs by being co-champs in one-half of the season. We still had to play the third game, but we were done.

I got the start that Friday against Santa Clara University and on the drive to our field I was thinking of something to tell the team so we’d at least show up and not get slaughtered. The team wanted to get the game over with quick cause there was beer to drink.

I walked into the coach’s office. My god-mother had called me, I told him. Fresno State’s number one pitcher was academically ineligible and the team was going to forfeit all their games in the second half. We, the San Jose State Spartans, were back in it. The college season is has two halves, with a champion of each half. We could be Champs of the first half of the season now, and we’d be in the playoffs if we beat Santa Clara — as both of us had tied for second place in the first half of the season.

“One sec, I’ll get Bennett (the Fresno state coach) on the phone,” my coach, Gene Menges, said.

My heart dropped.

“Damn, no answer! Are you sure about this?”

“I just talked to her. She was so excited to know we could be going to the playoffs.”

I told the coaches that she was a Fresno State Booster (she wasn’t) and had come to see me pitch when I beat them that year (she didn’t).

“We got to get to the field and tell the team,” he said.

Santa Clara was one of our hated rivals and this year was one of the worst for rag-talk between the teams.

The coach announced to the team what I had told then. They couldn’t believe it, nor could some of the fans and parents.

With new energy, to the mound I went.

Santa Clara was tough that year. They had a good team: Big Jim Sunberg from Texas and Donny Davenport, whose dad was a coach with the San Francisco Giants and a supporting cast of tough players.

I came from Los Angeles two years before with the attitude of teaching the Bay Area kids a thing or two about baseball. So when Santa Clara started to rag-talk me while I was pitching, they were only cutting their own throats.

It was a close game. I had a one-hit shutout for seven innings. Then someone on their team said something about my grandmother. When I heard that, BAM! High and tight right on the outer bicep of one of their best players. The benches cleared but calm was restored when the umpire told everyone that he would call the game unless we got back in the dugouts.

They tied the game in the 8th inning on an unearned run. In the bottom of the 8th inning we scored again and took the lead, 2-1.

In the ninth, I got the first out but the second hitter singled and stole second base. One of their best hitters was up. He had hit me hard earlier.

The count was two and two. It had been a little windy that night, though not anything to notice. I start to deliver my pitch. The wind picked up and a dust-devil funnel cloud about two feet tall suddenly spun right on home plate.

I was releasing the ball and the batter, eyes squinting, threw his hand up and jumped out of the batter’s box.

“Time out! Time out!”

The umpire didn’t move as my pitch sailed over the plate.

“STRIKE THREEEE!”

The stadium exploded. The other team was yelling and screaming, jumping up and down, running onto the field. Their coach raced to the umpire.

“He couldn’t have hit that pitch!”

The batter was on fire.

“I called time out ! I couldn’t see!”

The umpire looked at everyone and walked out to the infield, raised his hands and held his mask over his head. The crowd quieted.

“It was an Act of God. He’s out!”

Santa Clara exploded again. The ump had none of it.

“Play ball!”

I got the next hitter to fly out for the third out and when the catch was made I walked over to the foul line by their dugout, peered in and pointed my finger at them.

“I don’t hear anything about my mom now.”

They promised to beat me down when they got me alone.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

I walked over to my dugout hearing their coach telling them to sit down and be quiet, that I had beaten them fair and square.

That night the game was on Spartan radio, KSJS. As I was putting my gear in my bag, the announcer asked me if I’d do an interview.

I went up to the announcers booth atop the stadium behind home plate. I gave the play-by-play of the last inning. After about ten minutes the interview ended.

By then, the stadium was empty. In the dugout, I found my gear bag and stuff lying on the floor.

“Thanks, guys!” I yelled to a ghostly empty dugout.

I grabbed my stuff and came out of the dugout and back through the field access gate to leave the stadium. As I exited the field, the entire Santa Clara team began filing out from under the stadium to the visitor parking lot. I stopped between the field and the service gate and slowly took a step back.

There I was. Just me and them, face to face.

“Well, well, well, lookie here? All by yourself, Two-Nine?” (My number)” said their big catcher, Jim Sunberg.

“You’re dead, you punk ass!” yelled another player.

By this time the entire team had come out from under the stadium. I was standing at the field access gate, a double-gate, but only one side was swung open. Realizing I was alone, they started to come around me. But the gate didn’t allow all of them them to get in at one time.

I told them that I didn’t give a shit who they were and that there was no way in hell that I was going to allow candy-ass boys to come into my stadium and talk shit about my mom and grandmother.

They started to come at me.

“Oh, what a fair fight?! You can’t beat me on the field so ALL OF YOU have to come at me? Really? You must think I’m as stupid as you look. Want to make it fair? Line up!”

They all looked at each other and then at me.

“Are you serious?” said one.

“Get in line! I’ll kick your asses one by one here, too!”

So they got in line. Sunberg started to pull a bat out of his bag. I told him that he’d better not miss cause I was going to wrap the bat around his arm and break it in three places.

I reached into my bag and put my cleat knife in my glove. As they yelled at him to kill me and as he started to take his first step towards me, the Santa Clara coaches and the umpires came walking out of the tunnel.

“What the hell!” yelled their head coach, who walked over, looking at his catcher and his team in line.

He looked at me.

“You?!!”

“Get in line, coach!” I said. “I’ll kick your ass after I kick this big asshole’s first!”

He saw his team has formed a single-file line. He turned to me.

“What the hell did you say?”

“I said, `Get in line, coach, and after I break this guy’s arm, I’ll kick your ass next!”

He slowly looked at his players lined up then at his catcher holding a bat.

“Yeah coach, can you believe it?” said one player. “He told us to make the fight fair to line-up and he’d kick all our asses one-by-one!”

The coach looked at me. I was in my fighting stance.

“Give me that bat and go get in line,” he said to the catcher.

“Relax, son,” he said to me.

His team began to protest. He cut them off.

“So all of you come out of the tunnel and see him by himself. You attempt to fight him and he tells you all to line-up to make it fair and you all do it?”

Again, one players chirped, “Yeah, coach. Can you believe it?”

The coach looked at me and then at his team.

“I think that if I encountered ONE MAN who told TWENTY-FIVE men to get in line to get their asses kicked that I think I’d run! ARE YOU ALL THAT STUPID? He beat you on the field and thank God I got here in time to prevent him from beating you physically!

He looked at me.

“Son, what’s your name?” He stuck his hand out to shake hands. I didn’t.

“Son,“ he said, “you pitched a helluva game. I wish I had nine players like you.”

He looked at his team.

“Stand aside and let this man walk by. If I hear one word about him while he’s walking by or when we get to the van, none of you will play tomorrow. I might even bring up the JV instead.”

I headed to the dorms. When I got there everyone was showered and shaved and drinking beer celebrating our win without me.

“Where you been?”

“Shit,” I said, and told them what happened.

They all looked at each other, then at me, then burst into laughter.

“It’s true.” I said

We partied most of the night and I wondered what happened to Santa Clara the next day. But that’s a whole nuther story.

___

*Milovan Pompa was raised in Claremont, CA, where he graduated from high school, played baseball and was influenced by Rod Serling. In 1981, pitching for San Jose State University, he led the nation in shutouts, and his league in ERA and hit batters. He was a recipient of a National Academic Athletic Award for also maintaining a 3.92 GPA. He has moved back to his hometown, where he now works and raises a family, plays bass and writes stories about his life. This is his first for Tell Your True Tale.
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By Richard Gatica

One day I went to my vent and called my buddy, Manny, who lived on the tier above me.

“Hey Manny! Are you hungry?”

“What you got?” he yelled back.

“I can make some bean and cheese burritos with Tapatio sauce and side of hot-cheese crunchies.”

“Shoot it,” he replied.

We stepped away from the air vent.

My defense team put money on my trust account every week. I would buy food from the commissary. I was able to feed the homies who came through. Sometimes it was simply snacks. Other times, we made entire meals. But in some prisons it’s not easy to pass an item from one cell to the next. If our cell door is too low to pass anything, or the cell we want to pass to is above or below use – in those cases, we fish – which is what I was about to do with Manny.

A fishing line is made out of strips of sheet or by using nylon that is taken from waistbands of underwear. Hooks are made from a small piece of plastic comb. We drop the hook into our toilet and flush. The hook will travel into the main drain and be tossed around by the flow and pressure created by several flushings. We do this at the same time with the person we want to fish with. We coordinate our efforts by yelling to each other through the air vents that connect our cells. When the water settles, I pull in my line hoping to find his line attached. Sometimes it takes two or three attempts.

Once the lines connect, they are pulled tight. I soak up all the water in the toilet bowl with a towel. The towel is stuffed deep into the drain to absorb every last drop. Then it is rung out in the sink.

The absence of water creates a powerful vacuum. Air from the cell is sucked into the drain. We do not have to communicate through the vent any more. We can hear each other through the drain, although there is a slight echo. Prisoners also remove the toilet water to smoke weed or cigarettes. We blow the smoke directly into the drain. The powerful vacuum sucks the smoke and odor out and prevents the guards from smelling it. In some places, our ability to communicate through the air vent is poor due to a particular design. In those units, by habit, some people will keep their toilet devoid of water while not in use. This allows them to hear if someone calls them. This is why we call toilets and vents our “telephone.”

I reached into my canteen bag and pulled out the ingredients.

“Hey, Manny,” I yelled, “you want a slice of hot pickle with that?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“All right.”

I ran the hot water in my sink. I needed it to get as hot as possible to soften up the dehydrated refried beans. I dumped the beans into a large plastic cup, added hot water, stirred and popped a lid on.

I sliced the pickle with a small razor blade. I made four burritos. I wrapped two of them individually in multiple layers of plastic. Each layer was secured with string taken from my sock, one layer on top of the other.

Burritos are naturally shaped to travel through the drain. I was careful not to make them too fat.

I smashed up his portion of the crunches in the same bag in which they were sold. I pressed the air out and tied off the top. I shaped the bag into a form similar to the burritos. I then wrapped it up in several layers of plastic, each layer tied with string.

“Hey Manny! You ready to eat?” I shouted into the now-open toilet drain.

“Man, what took you so long? You got me up here starving.”

“Any more complaining and I’ll take a bite out of one of the your burritos.”

Manny laughed but complained no further.

I tied the burritos and crunchies to the line. I was careful to make sure both ends of each item were secured. I fed them into the drain as Manny pulled. Slowly they traveled from my cell into his.

Manny took in the burrito and disconnected my line. I pulled it back.

Although there was no visual contamination, the first thing Manny did was rinse off each package in his sink. He patted it dry with toilet paper. He then removed the first layer of plastic and rinsed the package again. He repeated the process down to the final layer of protection. He then washed his hands.

Manny opened the finally layer of each package. He removed the burritos, sliced pickle, packs of Tapatio and hot cheese crunchies and sat them on his desk.

He licked his chops and called me to the vent. We no longer needed the toilet so we flushed them and they filled back up with water.

“Richard, they look delicious. Thanks!”

“No problem. Are you ready to eat?” I asked.

“Yes. You ready?”

“I’m ready,” I replied.

“Go!” he said.

“Go!”

Although we were in separate cells and on separate tiers, we ate together. We sat at our tables, closed our eyes and imagined ourselves in a Mexican restaurant.

___

*Richard Gatica is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has also just completed a memoir of his life in prisons, jails and the streets of California, from which this story was taken. His first story for TYTT was Killing Donald Evans, about the night he killed his crack dealer. Contact him at
Richard Gatica – #D48999
Kern Valley State Prison
P.O. Box 5101
Delano, CA 93216

 

 

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By Rachel Kimbrough

Just after I’d turned 18, Crazy Ma pulled another fun-filled fuck-with-your-kid stunt. I got home from work one night to find her sitting on the couch with this weird bemused look on her face. She instructed me to sit on the couch next to her, and then told me that she’d just woken up from a wet dream about me and her only to find a demon on top of her with its mouth over hers.

She said she rebuked it in the name of the LORD and it scampered away. I moved out the next week.

Fast forward to a couple years ago. I grew some balls and told my mother that I’m agnostic. She already knew, but would not acknowledge, that despite her best efforts I had roundly rejected Christianity. I’d sort of held off on officially labeling myself anything not-Christian in order to reflect on the possibility that I might have rejected the religion out of an abundance of young-adult rebellion, a drive to do and be the opposite of my mother.

As it turns out, my initial suspicion was and is the accurate one: I simply do not have the capacity for that sort of faith.

She said to me then, “You’re a Christian, Rachel. You’re just mad at God for taking Emri away.”

Actually, Emri’s death marked the last time I ever regretted being agnostic.

Emri should have been a living, just-woken-up child in the early afternoon February 15, 2008, but instead he was a fresh corpse. I, you know, called an ambulance and performed unsuccessful CPR until medical personnel arrived, and then he was whisked off to the hospital where a doctor and about a dozen nurses attempted to revive him for nearly four hours, no one willing to be the first to say, “It’s no use.” His dad and I sat in folding chairs watching the effort. I wish now I’d just stayed in the waiting room instead of allowing those mental images to solidify in my mind.

After those four hours, they all finally gave up, named it SIDS, swaddled him in a blanket, and handed my dead baby to me. Family entered the ER room, siblings and parents and aunts and uncles. Every so often another person joined us in the room. I held him for the majority of two hours, unable to shake the thought that he might, at any moment, wake up again. He did not.

For the most part everyone was quiet, with a few exceptions. I don’t know what I expected anyone to say, but most of what was said was something summatory. We will miss him dearly. I’m so sorry for your loss. God needed more angels in heaven. Things like that. My stomach wrenched every time someone referred to Emri in the past tense.

But what was said most frequently was something along these lines: “We will see him again in Heaven.”

I searched the face of anyone who expressed such a thought. Being a lady who does not have such faith, it’s difficult for me to imagine what it’s like to truly believe something like that. I looked for facial cues indicating things like deception, guilt, any sort of falsity. I found none.

“We will see him again in Heaven.”

My dad said that. My mom said that, among many other things. My uncle, the pastor Tim, said so, too, and then repeated the sentiment at the funeral service five days later. I watched his face for a full minute after he said so in the ER room and again found only sincerity. I looked from him back to the discolored mass that earlier in the day had been my three-month-old son. And I felt beneath my feet the sickening warp-speed movement of the earth, its rotation around the sun, its inhabitants routinely moving right along, happily ignorant of Emri’s having ever existed at all.

Most of all I was crushed under the unbearable weight of complete isolation at possibly being the only person in the room who did not–could not and cannot–find relief in the knowledge that I will see him again. That he’s happy somewhere. For all I know, he’s something somewhere or nothing nowhere, and you know a mother never stops worrying about her kids. If I could believe it, I would.

I relayed this information to my mother, that day when she told me I’m mad at God for taking Emri. She told me, “You will see him again,” forgetting or ignoring for a moment that my not being a Christian would guarantee my spot in Hell, if it’s a real thing. So I wouldn’t see him anyway. I changed the subject and departed shortly thereafter. I bit my nails bloody on the drive home.

____

*Through now four stories for TYTT, Kansas’s Rachel Kimbrough has displayed herself to be a greatwriter.

 

 

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By David Chittenden*

I want to tell you today about my friend BJ.  His name was really Billy Joe, but we called him BJ, or just Beegee.  Now BJ was a fat little boy, but this was at a time when it was OK to be fat, and it could be argued that if the Lord God had decided that you were to be fat, then who were you to argue with the decision of the Lord?

Then there is the spinning Earth argument.  Here you are – a fat person on one side of the Earth.  You perhaps don’t realize that the Lord God has placed another fat person on the other side of the Earth to balance you off.  (I realize that you have probably been wondering what was the purpose of all those people on the other side of the Earth.  I am glad to be able to fill you in on that.)  Now you decide to become thin. You’re going to unbalance the Earth!  I would not want to be responsible for that!

BJ’s parents really loved him, and they wanted him to be close to them.  Therefore BJ was not allowed to leave his yard.  He could go to school all right, but other times he was supposed to be either in the house or in his yard.  And if he were not in his yard, then you would hear the call, “Billy Joe, where are you?”  You could hear it all over the neighborhood; in fact, you could hear it four blocks away.  If BJ were with us, he would start to run home saying, “I’m gonna get a whopping now.”

But Billy Joe’s yard was nice; we liked to play there.  For example, it had big shade trees that you could climb.  It had such dark shade that was never really hot in Billy Joe’s yard.  You could do things at BJ’s that you couldn’t do other places.  This was because BJ did not have a monocultural lawn like the rest of us.  Billy Joe just had a broad collection of native plants that liked to grow in the shade.

So you could dig your hole to China anywhere you wanted.  Well, I shouldn’t have said just anywhere.  Because when the sewer came down our street, it was free, but you had to pay to be connected to it.  Billy Joe’s parents never felt it was worthwhile to pay, for they still had the outhouse there behind the house, and it was working fine.   There was a well-worn path from the back door of the house and to the outhouse.  Naturally you couldn’t dig a hole to China on the path, or you couldn’t place any obstructions on the path in case someone had go in a hurry.

When we did dig the hole to China, we got down about two feet.  Then we found there was tough clay down there.  It was tan, and had blue streaks in it.  But it was tough, and we didn’t have the equipment for penetrating that clay easily.  Also when we were in the bottom of the hole it seemed rather hot down there.  We had heard that the center of the earth was very hot and we were little concerned that we might be getting to close to the center.  However, the hole to China was never filled in.  After all the labor of digging it, what would be the use of filling it in?  Besides we might later get new technology that would allow us to dig further.

And another thing that Billy Joe had that really attracted us was the fireworks.  Now we had fireworks sometimes, but it was only around the Fourth of July.  Billy Joe would have fireworks anytime his father brought them home. There were none of those sparklers, pinwheels or those awful gray snakes that burned along the ground.  Billy Joe had cherry bombs, and we certainly wanted to use them when we could.  I can’t imagine why anyone’s father would bring home fireworks that they didn’t expect would be used.  What good would that be?

Another thing that Billy Joe had first on our block was television.  It was a 10-inch diameter screen that showed movin’ pitchers in beautiful black and white.  We would go over on Saturday night to Billy Joe’s house to watch wrestling and I want to tell you about what happened one Saturday night when we were there.

Of course, we thought the wrestling was real.  We would do some wrestling ourselves on the floor at Billy Joe’s living room.  We were all careful not to really hurt each other.  But we must have been too noisy.  Billy Joe’s dad came out of the downstairs bedroom, and shouted, “Out, out, out in the yard!”  He was trying to sleep.  Billy Joe’s dad worked for the railroad, and he had rather irregular hours.  Now was the time for him to sleep.

So we went out into Billy Joe’s yard and it was getting very dark now.  So it was just the time to hunt for night crawlers.  We took the hose and saturated the ground with water.  This made the night crawlers come out of their holes to see what was going on.  You had your flashlight and flashed around in the weeds there until you saw a night crawler.  Then you grabbed him quick, but usually he got back into the hole before you could catch him.  And if you did catch him, then he would throw out his anchor, so you couldn’t pull him out. Earthworms have anchors.  But sometimes you got one, and then when you pulled the worm you could see it get thinner and thinner in the middle.  Then it broke, and you had two worms.  That didn’t bother us because we heard that they can regenerate themselves from pieces.  We just considered that we were taking an important part in their reproductive process.

After we had worked on night crawlers for a while and tired of that, we decided to test out the cherry bombs.  We had heard that if you put the cherry bombs in tin can, and crush the can around it just leaving a little space for the wick, you can make a bigger bang with that device.  We wanted to test it.  We got our cherry bomb into the can, and crushed it down leaving a spot for the wick, and then lit that wick.  We then threw the device into the hole to China.  This must have been the beginning of what we now know as underground testing.

Then something happened that we were not prepared for.  The back door of the house opened, and BJ’s father came out running.  Running down the path to the outhouse.  I had never known that big people could run that fast.  He was really making time.  Also I didn’t know that big people sometimes slept in their long johns.

Billy Joe’s father was really fast until he came that muddy spot on the path, that got muddy from our earthworm activity.  Billy Joe’s dad hit that spot, and then flew into the air and he was waving his arms so fast that I thought he was gaining altitude for a while.

That is when the cherry bomb went off in the underground testing hole to China. POW!!  The next thing I heard was another POW! when Billy Joe’s dad hit the path — flat on his back.

I can say, however, that as I ran for home just as fast as I could, I heard that familiar call, “Billy Joe, where are you?”

____

*David Chittenden was trained as a chemical engineer, but he enjoys telling stories more. He has been co-President of the South Coast Storytellers Guild. This is his second story for TYTT. His first was Climbing the Mesa.

 

 

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By Monah Li

The night before I leave New Delhi, I stare at the dress-samples hung up for my inspection.

They suck.

I force myself to smile. Those women, some not even 12 yet, have worked around the clock to bring life to my lackluster designs, all without a fan in India’s brutal heat. I don’t want to seem ungrateful!

While I pack my suitcase at the Taj Mahal hotel, I order room service from their 5-star menu. The cart arrives with dinner for six.

“Where are your guests?” the waiter asks.

“They’re on their way.”

“Would you like company…?”

“I would love to. But. They’re almost here. Another time?”

I’m thinking:

“When the fuck will you be out, so I can eat!”

Finally! I stuff myself using my hands. This could be dog-food. Too frantic for the bathroom ten feet away, I vomit into the Champaign-bucket whenever I need room for more.

I try to pace myself. But an hour later I’m licking the last plate.

Now what?

Panic about those samples sticks to my brain like the sweet burhfi (yes, that’s an Indian dessert) I can’t throw up no matter how deep I stick my toothbrush down my bleeding throat.

I wake up to the stench of vomit.  Handfuls of extra money will help the cleaning crew to see this as the remains of a decadent party – I hope.

Dragging myself onto the plane, I have no idea that last night was to be my last orgy with food.

I need to back up. How did I get trapped in this hopeless cycle of binging and purging for almost two decades?

 

I grew up in Vienna, in a family obsessed with weight. To maintain my ideal of 90 pounds, I had to become a junkie. Another deadly trap I barely escaped.

But, my friends and even my dad are at my favorite restaurant to celebrate my first year without drugs.

They are amazed – and so am I – how fast I’ve changed from junkie to celebrity fashion designer – with my very own boutique!

However, the downside to clean living is killing me:

I can’t stop eating. I’ve gained 60 pounds!

365 diets have all ended the same: with a monster binge.

365 mornings start the same: ashamed and even fatter.

So, before I blow out my candle, I decide to try what my beautiful sister does to stay so skinny. It hasn’t worked before, but maybe tonight it will.

With a spoon up my sleeve I sneak to the bathroom. I bend over the toilet, touch that spot she showed me so many times,  and:  WOW!

Everything I ate spills out.

I have the magic touch!

I can eat whatever I want and lose the weight! My life-long dream has become real.

I rinse my mouth and check my face: I’m meant to do this. Otherwise – would it be so easy? This is a gift. It’s my reward for staying clean.

I am finally in control.

Over the years, I train myself to vomit without a noise. In public bathrooms, I sit all the way back on the seat and barf between my spread legs.

I’m envied for my slim figure. But the price I pay for this is steep: By 45, I have full-blown osteoporosis. My teeth are replaced with implants, for the cost of two houses.

Relentless back-pain, constant fatigue and shame make me suicidal.

I pray for just one day of freedom, but I am stuck.

Fast forward to the present and to India:  A holy man I asked about my future has warned me: “I see a huge rock rolling towards you. Too late to change direction, fight or it will kill you.”

No kidding.

Stuffed with salty airplane-grub, I’m in the bathroom, about to do my thing, when a sudden image stops me: An image of a scale holds my public self and my private self in such a very dangerous balance, shivers run down my spine. I flee back to my seat without throwing up.

This moment in a stinky toilet marks the end of my shameful double life.

I land in LA. In Los Angeles, my fantasy of reclaiming my fame as a designer, a famous designer free from bulimia is just that: a fantasy.

Out of my mind and too anxious to focus on my work, I inspire confidence in no one. I am lonely and bored.  I miss food … my only friend.

I’m fucking hungry all the time and terrified of getting fat again.  I spend too many hours at the Gym, hating every second.

After five months of agony, I can’t take it anymore. Then, one day, about to leave the gym to binge myself into oblivion, exotic music pulls me into a room, where a dance class has just begun.

I am intimidated but I join the class anyway. What I see in the mirror is a pathetic and ungraceful weirdo, not a dancer at all, but I stay – for the music and the costumes that remind me of my lost creative fire and fill my heart with hope.

But why does the beautiful teacher look so familiar? The voice! Dark bangs, falling over those eyes?

Oh My God!

She is my ex-husband’s former girlfriend. The last time I saw her, she cried and said I stole him from her. I did not know he had a girlfriend but I should have.

That encounter was 20 years ago. Now this woman stops the class to hug me. Then she returns to her place in the front and starts to teach me the steps and moves that begin to save my life.

Which is how, for the past five years, I’ve exchanged my bottomless longing for a passion that feeds my body and my soul:

Belly Dancing!

___

*Monah Li, a native of Vienna, Austria, is a fashion designer and writer living in Los Angeles. This is her second story for TYTT. Her first was Speed Kills. Contact her at monahli.wordpress.com.

 

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By Alexis Rhone Fancher*

1.

I remember listening

to Bob Dylan in Donna Melville’s attic

bedroom, 3 a.m. We were

drinking her daddy’s bourbon, playing

Subterranean Homesick Blues over and over,

memorizing it word by mumbled word.

Johnny’s in the basement,

mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement, thinkin’ ‘bout

the government… Donna passed me the bottle. The bourbon made me sick but I took a swig anyway. I didn’t want her to think I was a lightweight. The word might get

around.

Maggie comes fleet foot, face full of black soot…

 

Donna took the bottle to her lips, her moon face flushed,

beautiful. She was my first Catholic and I was in

awe of the certainty of her faith, couldn’t take my eyes off

the lucky gold crucifix that dangled between her breasts.

“What do you think Freewheelin’ means?”

We were on the bed, pretending to study

the album cover, Dylan and some blond on

a New York street, looking happy. “I think it means fuck the

consequences, just do what you want,” I said.

Drunk, reckless, soon I’m ready to do what I want –

let my hand slip from the

album jacket to Donna’s left breast. Her sharp intake of breath. My tom-tom heart.

Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did God knows when but you’re doin’ it again…

 

These were the moments I lived for at 13: the hot, disheveled solace

of Donna’s attic room, her clueless family asleep below,

Dylan’s growl on the stereo,

Donna in my arms, her lips on mine, her tongue down my throat,

Fingers fumbling with my zipper.

 

2.

Get dressed get blessed try to be a success…

3.

Donna hits the Confessional.

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned.”

I am that sin. I listen in.

“I kissed a girl,” says my girl.

“You’ll go to hell,” says the desiccated

man in the box.

 

4.

light yourself a candle…

you can’t afford the scandals…

5.

The Gospel According To St. Donna:

She is the innocent,

I am the sin.

I am the bad girl

That let the sin in.

 

6.

I remember listening

to Bob Dylan in Donna Melville’s attic

bedroom, 3 a.m., the last time I drank

her daddy’s bourbon, the last time we ever touched.

This was the moment I dreaded at 14: Afraid of

the spark, afraid of her own ignition –

Donna changed the rules.

Jesus had entered the bedroom.

“See ya,” Donna said as she walked me

out of her life.

“Soon?” I asked. ( A girl can dream, right?)

“Sure,” she said.

7.

She didn’t call.

I didn’t call back.

 

You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows…

 ___

*Writer/photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher’s latest chapbook is Gidget Goes To The Ghetto. Her “pillow book,” explicit, came out in 2010. She studies with the poet Jack Grapes, and is a member of his L.A. Poets & Writers Collective. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Gutter Eloquence Magazine, Downer Magazine, Bare Hands Anthology. She was recently named poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, where this poem was first published. Contact her at hotnovelist@me.com.
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By Theresa Asiedu*

My phone rang.

”Theresa, I am so sorry.”

I heard my mother’s quivering voice.

”He’s burning everything, all of your belongings.” I let the words digest and hung up.

I stared at myself in the mirror, the red marks around my neck slowly turning blue; my forehead was still bleeding.
I had lost everything within the last twenty-four hours by the same man who had been in my life since I was three; the man who had tormented my family for as long as I could I remember; the father of my two younger siblings and the reason my mother decided to move to the Caribbean from Germany many years ago.
That morning, all I wanted to do was take a jog. It was a morning too beautiful for such ugly things on Dominica — the Caribbean island so often mistaken for the Dominican Republic.
The sun was shining, the fresh mountain breeze was gently touching my skin and I still had the scent of pink blossoming hibiscus flowers in my nose.
My stepfather popped in and out of our lives trying to maintain control of our family. He would yell at everything, from the house that was never tidy enough to the food that didn’t suit his taste. I would find myself holding my breath when he spoke, my body tensing with every word he uttered, his voice leaving goosebumps on my skin.
That day he had come by and ranted and raved as usual. My younger brother and sister were crying terrified by his behavior. ”I will kill all of you and line you up in graves,” he screamed. This man did not need a reason to ignite his rage. The smallest things would make him act like a mad man. Before I knew it I said,”Then kill me!”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, my heart pounded, in my chest and throughout my body. All my sense of sanity must have left me in that moment.
”Kill me, then,” I repeated. ”If that’s what it will take for you to leave this family alone!” I was only fifteen but I felt so strong.
His eyes red filled with rage, shocked at my audacity.
Before I knew it his, hands were around my neck choking me. I felt nauseous, stars appeared. He banged me against the metal gate. My forehead began bleeding profusely. He just left me there lying at the gate.
I managed to get up. I was disoriented, my clothes were torn. I walked down the graveled roads filled with pot holes without looking back, until I found someone who took me to the hospital. I later found out that my mother had run to the neighbor who was five minutes away to call the police after my stepfather had ripped our phone cords from the wall.They didn’t show up, something that wasn’t unusual for such a small island. It wasn’t until after I appeared battered at the station that they finally took action.
Before the police arrived that day to forcefully remove my stepfather, he had enough time to single me out and burn all of my belongings childhood photos, school books, all the clothes I owned.
Unfortunately the Caribbean police tend to be slow and didn’t show up in time. He burned the things right next to our house with my mother watching too scared to do anything, an act of revenge to show me one last time what he was capable of. I was left with the torn shirt on my back, my sweats and a pair of sneakers.
He was gone, though.
____
*Theresa Asiedu, from the island of Dominica, is an international student at San Joaquin Delta College. She is currently finishing her degree in Business. Contact her at theresa_heitz@hotmail.com.

 

 

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By Matthew Garcia

I close the door at work behind me. It’s 2 a.m.

I look up and see a car up ahead. It’s my coworker Cecilie. She got off an hour before I did. I go to the window and say ‘’What are you doing?’’ in the cuntiest voice I can come up with.

She laughs.  ‘You know, just hanging out.’’

I see someone in the back seat; her boyfriend. I roll my eyes. She smiles and then says, sorry, I can’t give you a ride tonight. But come in the car and kick it with us.

I remind myself that I need to be back at work at nine in the morning. I need all the hours I can get.

I look up to the night and feel the breeze as wraps its arms around me. I pull out my CD player and put on my headphones. I start my walk. I only live five blocks away, but five blocks feels like 50 after having to clean most of the store on my own. There are no cars, though.  This is one of the busiest streets in town.

I cross and turn the corner I can see my friend’s house where I am living for now. I am excited because I was given some fruit cups from my store that was set to expire in two days. They were perfectly good but you know how food regulations are. There was a recent Taco Bell outbreak where people got sick from the food, so nobody wanted to take any chances. But to me, food is food and this means one less trip to the dollar store this week.

As I cross the street, I see a car coming and the lights get brighter. I am one step from making it across and the car turns in front of me. Time freezes. I don’t close my eyes. The car hits me and I am on top of the hood. I hear the screech of the tires and the smell of rubber burning. My head then hits the windshield and my sight goes black for a second. My body flip upside down as if I were on a roller coaster. The car isn’t done with me. It is as if the car grows arms and grabs me and spins me around — just as in wrestling where after being spun around you get slammed into the ground. My body is tossed to the side. Silence. The car takes off.

‘’Don’t leave me here I don’t deserve this,’’ I say.

My face is bleeding and I cannot feel my legs and blood is running all over me. My mouth is bleeding but the blood is mixed with saliva. I spit out as much blood as I can. I feel like I am drowning in a pool of my own blood. I try to move my legs and I hear a scrape. My left leg bone is sticking out and scraping against the asphalt. I feel like my legs are being cut open with a hacksaw. I can feel flaps of my skin dangling from my body and bones.

‘’Is someone going to help me or what?’’ I yell.

I cannot stand the pain in my legs. For some reason I think to myself that I need to spread the pain. So I start to scratch the concrete with my nails until they start to bleed. Then I start to bite my hand as hard as I can until I bleed.

I can hear someone running up. My roommate. I know this because I can always tell what his steps sound like.  Andrew is 6’2″ and 200 pounds and a strong person. Growing up with him, he always did the heavy lifting. He was never scared or one to be queasy. In high school a senior hit him in the face with a bat, and he never cried.

“Matt! Oh my God. Oh, my God!”

He sputters his words I can hear them break and crackle like when you sit on an old chair that needs to be thrown out.

“I’m calling 911.”

He runs back to the house but just a few footsteps away I hear him stop and the sound of splashing comes to my ear as he throws up. My best friend comes out with her boyfriend. She is crying and screaming. Her boyfriend who I had just known for only a few weeks is talking to me saying, ‘’Don’t fall asleep.” But it’s too late. I have already invited death to come put me to sleep. The pain is intense. If I can just close my eyes and go to sleep the pain will go away. I feel the cold wrap around me. The breeze gentle before is now a grip on my body. The back of my head starts to feel like there is a drill going inside. I really wish my brain would shut up. I just want to sleep.

I can hear the sirens coming. Within seconds, people are around me asking me questions. I wait for death — even mocking it, saying, ‘’What are you waiting for?’’ People around me stop talking; they think I have lost it. I tell the police officer what happened as I lie on the ground bleeding. His voice is over all the others. I can hear the empathy and his touch is light. His hand is shaking as he puts his arm on my shoulder. I can feel him crying. He says to me ‘’Its okay. We’ll get them. Don’t worry.’’

The chorus of the song I was listening to is in my head and playing over and over.  ‘’It cannot be, it’s not me my heart is weighed down with grief for not being made of stone when the heavens asked me for patience.’’ The song is of two people who fall apart, a memory of my family comes to mind.

I was in a wheelchair for a year and from the waist down my legs are filled with metal. I still have foot-long rods in my hips and legs.

Lying there that night, I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel or some stupid shit you hear on Oprah. I was not depressed or feeling upset when I thought I was about to die. I just thought it was my time. At times I feel death was feeling annoyed with me and wanted to see me scared before taking me away.

 

*Matthew Garcia is an honor-roll student at San Joaquin Delta College, working on transferring to San Jose State University in two years. Contact him at Zelkova2297@gmail.com.

 

 

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By Gina Reyes*

This is the story of Joe. He was a helpful, loving, compassionate person. He did his best to prove he was worth the air he breathed.

In my time of need, Joe was there for me. I had just found out I was pregnant. My boyfriend, the father of my son, decided he was going to be with both me and another woman at the same time, until I found out. I confronted him. I told him I was pregnant. If he was not ready to be a father, be responsible, then goodbye. He did not care, so I left and never turned back, though it was devastating. I fell into depression, stressing about what I was going to do and how I could do it alone.

Joe was my shoulder to cry on. He was my companion to keep me occupied. He was there for me to kill time and help me keep my mind from getting stuck in a rut. We would lie around making jokes, laughing, playing spades over and over, and having a fun time together to pass time.

In the time we spent together, we built a stronger bond that turned into a love that was unmistakably precious.

He was willing to accept me and my unborn child, as well as the child I already had. He was willing to support us knowing he was not the father. He cherished my children as if they were his own. How many men out there are willing to do that? Boy was I lucky.

Joe came from a broken home. His mother was a single mom raising four children on her own. He was the oldest, so he took on the role of the father in their family. His mother did have boyfriends who would come in and out, but they treated her children poorly. In comparison, I was raised in a family that had more structure. I have two brothers and one sister; I am the youngest. My mother and father are middle class working people. He was raised in Guam and I was raised in California. Through our differences we created a powerful bond that we thought was invincible.

We had our differences. He felt the need to constantly prove his worth to others. I accepted him no matter what his struggles were, as he did with me. He was going to school, and trying to earn his GED. He was attending classes with my brother, David, and my brother in law, James. He was struggling on the essay portion of the exam partly due to English, which he didn’t speak well. He tried over and over, and failed and failed again. James and David passed the exam easily and on occasion would call him “stupid”. They made jokes like, “Are you ever going pass the test?” He also struggled getting a job. He was so driven. Out of determination, he would go to temporary agencies that pay the same day. When he was short on cash, he would ask his mother, but she would also call him “stupid” and tell him to go get a job.

In our relationship, I learned he hated the word “stupid”. It extremely offended him. I learned this because I would use the word jokingly. No matter how the word was used, it was offensive to him. At the time, I did not really understand why he was bothered and offended by the word.

Then, one night, we were fighting and in the midst of anger, I told him, “Get out. Leave me alone.” After that, I went to sleep for the night. It was a heated fight and I even put his clothes outside.

In the morning, when I awoke, he was gone. I was over the anger, so I looked for him. I could not find him, but his clothes were still outside. Later that day, I went to his mother’s house to see if he was there. He was not. His mom said she had not seen him, which made me feel worse. I continued on with my daily errands, wondering where he went. What was he doing?  I stopped by all of the places that he would go. Nobody had seen him.

Feeling bad and confused I returned home. I began telling my mother all that had happened since the fight and she said, “He was probably just upset and when he calms down, he will be back.” And I remember telling her how weird I felt because I looked everywhere and I had this funny feeling that he was watching me.

A while later, Archie, my cousin, and Marky, his friend. Marky’s car was in my garage and they were working on it. The car had been there for about a week. It was up on jacks with the hood open. The right corner of the garage was blocked by the car; the garage was a mess, so I did not bother going out there at all.

They opened the garage opened, so they could work on the car. The next thing I heard was, “NO!” “NO!” ”JOE! “

I ran out. Joe was hanging there in my garage from a rope connected to the wood studs in the roof. He was wearing a grey windbreaker pants and a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head.

I screamed, “Oh, my God!” and repeated his name over and over. Why? Joe? Why?

How could a person go so far as to take their own life? I used to think it was impossible for someone to go to that extreme.  Use your words wisely. The wrong ones can break a person’s soul.

___

*Gina Reyes is a student at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton.

 

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By Christian Lockwood

I once had a house with a white picket fence. In it, I lived with a wife, and two children. Life seemed pretty good. But the shell shock from a tour in Libya fighting the war on terrorism tore me up, and drugs and alcohol became a way of life from which I could not free myself.

That is how one warm August day in 2009, well into my self-medication, I awake on the seat of my pickup after another night of no place to rest my head. My pickup, my dog Batman, and my cell phone are all I have left. My wife and kids have been embarrassed by me for the last time. They have disowned me.

I am sweating profusely as most junkies who need a fix experience. The gagging has started. “I need a drink,” I say to myself. If I don’t get one I could die. I am in the DT’s. My skin is crawling as if overrun with bugs. I am drenched in my own bodily fluids. The hallucinations are starting now. It’s  as though I am being pursued by little green men coming from everywhere. A full blown seizure is sure to happen soon. I need a dose bad.

I scuffle across the street to get my medicine. I gag the entire way, only bringing up yellow bile. It’s 5:56 am and this damn storekeeper better not be late today. By 6:05 am, with no store owner in site, I’m getting sicker by the minute.

Finally, at 6:12 he drives up and notices me and my condition. He exchanges pleasantries with me and hurriedly opens the door to let me in. He knows what I need. The storekeeper doesn’t stop to turn the lights on and upon entry goes immediately to the shelf to pull down my elixir.

A pint of Jose Cuervo and a tall Coors are my usual liquid meals. I’m infamous here at this store. They know me all too well. I pay for my stash with change I’ve bummed from passing folks and leave. I barely get away from the storefront and I need to get the first couple of pops in me. The sooner I down it, the better. The first couple never stays down anyway. As predicted up comes the burning alcohol through my nose and mouth. My Boston terrier gazes up at me with a look of “Really?” Then he smells the frothy discharge and laps it up. Wow, I’m turning the damned dog into an alcoholic too. I need to sit down and let these first two swigs work. After a minute or two my gag reflex has given me a reprieve and it’s time now to completely bury my torments in life.

I was once a proud United States sailor with an impeccable service record and receive citations for Honor and Expert Marksmanship. In civilian life I  was a well-respected member of the Tri-County Gang Task Force and had a reputation as a tough cop who was known for fighting gang crime and drug interdiction. Now, in fact, this is more of a hindrance when it comes to copping my dope. Too many of these street people know me. Only my selected posse at Gibbons Park know me as Rocky, just another park dwelling bum like them.

Speaking of my posse, it’s time to get back to the park.  I finally feel fit enough to navigate my way back to my home, the park. I get to our favorite picnic table where we all hold court and share our harrowing tales about surviving the night before. We begin to pass our bottles between us as if in attempt to see who could out-drink who. Then the talk always turns to who has weed, and eventually someone comes up with some to smoke. Then it moves to crystal and soon we are all snorting meth off of a paint chipped picnic table.

Eventually it happens. Black-and-whites drive into the park from all directions; everyone runs but me. I am as if frozen in time. Was it that I was surrendering? Nope, really how fast can a man run with a little black dog tethered to his leg? A cop car stops in front of me and the officer jumps out and immediately opens the back door.

“Oh Jesus,” I say to myself. I know this officer.

I quickly drop my head hiding my face and obey every command. I am frisked, and out comes my driver’s license. The officer puts his hand on my shoulder and yanks me toward him forcefully.

“Lockwood?” he asks.

“Yes, it’s me bro,” I reply. I used to work Gang sweeps with this officer on multi-agency procedures.

“What in the world has happened to you?” my buddy asks. “You need help.”

My cop friend for some reason lets me go. My posse, on the other hand, is not so lucky.

Once again I am alone, the dog and I. It was time for another drink. I feel lucky. I stumble to my truck and upon trying to get into the driver’s door I see my reflection in the window. My cop friend’s voice rings loudly in my head as I stare at somebody I don’t even recognize looking back at me. I have checked out of life completely.

The day before a church guy had stopped by the park and gave us all sandwiches, talking “God” the entire time. We all pretended to listen because we were actually thankful someone was feeding us. He quoted the Bible and said something from the book of Romans that while we don’t want to do wrong, we are powerless to stop. He quoted scripture that didn’t make sense to me at the time. But it was all making quite good sense now.  I was a proud United States Military Veteran who was trained to adapt and overcome. But I can’t figure out why I am destroying myself when deep down inside I don’t want to.

I recall a saying I saw on a flier I saw at the VA Clinic. It said, “It takes the courage of a warrior to ask for help.”

The time has come. I need to ask for help. I pull out my dying cell phone and make one last call. They send someone to come to the park and pick up Batman and me.

I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that August day in 2009.  I have started a new journey in life. That’s who I am now.

____

*Christian Lockwood is studying at San Joaquin Delta College and Bible College at Fellowship Church Community in Stockton and aspires to be an ordained pastor and serve military veterans in San Joaquin County.

 

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By Darshay Smith

My mother, Shaun, was about to turn twenty-five in January, 1994.

She had one beautiful daughter, who had just turned one. They were living in Hayward with their aunt’s family. That day, Shaun had worked an eight hour shift at work. She was exhausted and couldn’t wait to get home to see her baby girl.

Driving the dark streets of Hayward alone, Shaun went quickly. It was 1:45 in the morning. She was stopped at the spotlight. To her left, she saw a group of young Mexican men readily to cross the street. Shaun waited.

Next thing she knew, these guys were walking towards her car. Shaun began to panic. Her fingers hit the lock button on the doors. She wanted to speed off.

The guys approached the car with no force or intention to hurt her.

“Excuse me ma’am, do you know what time it is?” one asked.

“It is 1:45 am,” my mom replied.

As she began to drive off, she saw the light. One of the boys had pulled out a gun and shot her. She screamed. Blood poured down her face and all over the inside of the car. Her face was steaming hot. Immediately her whole body grew very hot and she had no control of it.

“My last day on Earth. Shay is going to grow up without a mother,” she thought.

After managing to drive away she picked up her phone and called her sister Jessica.

“I just was shot!” Her sister hung up and called the family.

My mom made it to her aunt’s house and ran in her room. “Call 911! My face is burning!” she screamed. Her aunt and uncle were barely waking up and thought she was hallucinating. They started to scream, and then called 911.

All my family came up to the hospital. They cried and prayed. The doctor later came with the results. The gun had hollow point bullets and the bullet exploded inside her face. It would take more than eighteen months for the bullet fragments to surface to the skin.

“I would then be able to pick them up out of my face like pimples,” she told me later. My mom stayed in the hospital for a while as she went through a serious operation and later had plastic surgery.

Months passed and my mom was back at home. After she was released her face was swollen and in pain. The part where the bullet entered remained very dark. For three months, my mom stayed in the house, afraid to go outside, and replaying the scene in her head.

During recovery, she never went to therapy or counseling. She thought that she could deal with it by just talking to family and close friends. Later she realized she needed counseling.

It has been eighteen years since that incident.

She still replays the scene in her head. When she watches a movie or crime show that has anything to do with guns and killings she catches herself replaying it.

When we go to bed all the televisions are on. It can never be dark in our house because she gets so nervous that something bad is going to happen. When the power goes out, all these thoughts in her head begin to pour out. When my brother and I are out with our friends late at night, she calls often to make sure we are okay. Her nerves are always acting up until we are safely at home because then she knows we are okay.

I ask her how life has been. “I am living and I have a story to tell,” she says. “I am blessed and thanking God every day.”

But I catch her crying sometimes at night when we listen to killings on the news or in a movie.

____

Darshay Smith was born and raised in Oakland, CA. She now attends San Joaquin Delta College as a sophmore student studying to become a registered nurse.

 

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By Jeffrey Scott Hunter

I’d been robbing banks for close to a year when I came to the realization that it wasn’t about the money any more.

I was hooked on the adrenaline rush, the preparation, the recon that went into laying out the perfect score.

When we’d steal the car (the hot box) we’d use, we went as far as getting a set of 150 master keys with which to steal them, so we wouldn’t damage the steering column or the ignition. Sometimes we’d have to leave the hot box in an apartment complex for a few days, and the last thing we needed was to show up armed to the teeth, truculent with adrenaline dripping from our ears, ready to go to war, and the hot box is gone because some do-gooder damaged the steering column and called the cops.

Sometimes I’d be in a car for 10 to 15 minutes trying every key. But in the long run, it was worth it. My partner always had my back. We’d be walkie-talkied up, and he’d be listening to the police scanner. So I was pretty safe.

It was all a big power trip and my ego loved it.

I remember this one time, I’m sitting inside a mall, packing my 9 mm, with lots of cash on me, eating a bag of popcorn and feeling proud of myself. As I watched people move around me, I started to notice that they all looked like drones moving with no real purpose, shuffling along. I began to glance around, taking a harder look. Cashiers mindlessly checking people out. None of these people were living, not like me. I was on a higher plane, experiencing life to its fullest, sticking it to The Man. I was a rebel, unplugged from what society dictated was normal behavior. I was an outlaw.

There were times when we really needed to know certain things about a bank. And there are only two ways to do it. One is to walk inside and have a look, which is out of the question. No way was I getting caught on tape. The second and my personal favorite was to do recon.

(Order Jeffrey Scott Hunter’s crime novel, Paragon, available on Kindle at Amazon.com.)

My partner would drop me off on the side of the road well before dawn. I’d be dressed in camouflage from head to toe. Most banks we did were in rural areas so there was always some vegetation around to lay in. I’d bring my trusty high-powered binoculars, a gallon of water, and some food. Sometimes I’d see how close I could get to the bank, but that really wasn’t necessary. As long as I could see in through a window, I was fine. Most times I’d be fifty to a hundred yards away, watching everyone arrive.

One morning, while laying on this one bank, I watched the manager show up first and go inside. Five minutes lat4er, she removed a plant from the front window. At the time I thought nothing of it. The next day she did the same thing, only this time I was in a different spot getting a better view and saw a cop car sitting across the street in a gas station. After she removed the plant, the cop drove off.

I went back every day the following week, and each morning within a couple minutes of the manager arriving, she’d remove the plant. Sometimes the cop would do a slow drive-by, and it was always at the same time.

That was the whole point of watching the bank in the first place; I needed to know everything. You can’t control everything, but if on Friday at 10:30 a.m. there are no cops around two weeks in a row, chances are good there won’t be any on that third week.

I’d usually watch a place from Wednesday to Friday because that’s when the big money was dropped off. The recon would last maybe three weeks. I’d be hiding for up to 16 hours a day, loving every minute of it.

Another ritual was on the eve of a score, my partner and I would go out to dinner – a nice steak and lobster joint, have a good meal and a few drinks while going over the last details of our plan.

After that he’d drop me off at my girl’s place for some lovin’ and on those nights it was always the best.

My girl wasn’t stupid. She knew I was an adrenaline junkie who liked to carry guns, sometimes disappearing for a month to do a score out of town. She never questioned me. Once I had thirteen grand stuffed in my jacket and when she went to hang it up, she saw it. She only looked at me, not saying a word. And she knew when my partner and I would go out for dinner that the next day something was going to happen. I think that was one of the things the kept our relationship so passionate – a little danger in the uncertainty of not knowing if we’d see each other again. We lived our lives in the moment a lot more than other couples.

After dinner, we’d head over to my partner’s place and get ready to do the score. This was another rush in itself. I’d always have my Walkman, listen to Judas Priest’s Painkiller or an AC DC song called Shoot to Thrill over and over. The combination of cranking those tunes while loading clips to my AK-47 and 9mm, strapping on body armor, making sure the scanner was properly programmed – now that’s exhilarating.

Now here’s where it all started to unravel. It’s a winter day, so it gets dark maybe by 5 p.m. My partner and I were out cruising when I spot a pretty good-sized bank sitting about 30 feet off the road. It’s all lit up with what looks like a few people inside.

“Is that place open?”

My partner glances as we pass. “No, must be cleaning people.” (Back then all the banks closed at 5 p.m.)

“I need confirmation,” I say. “Pull over at that gas station.” I get out and go to a pay phone, call information, then call the bank.

“Hello, Independent Bank. How can I help you?” a girl cheerfully answers.

“Are you still open?” I ask.

“We’re open til six.”

“The drive through?”

“No, you can walk in.”

“Thanks, I’ll be right there,” I say.

I tell my partner the good news, only he’s not as excited as I am at my plan to rob it before it closes. He likes the rush, but he’s more about the money, and we’re out of town. We don’t know the area, have no body armor, no heavy fire power, no scanner, no hot box. Nothing. But I reassure him that this bank will be a walk in the park. I have a 9 mm, a ski mask, gloves. All I need is a pillow case to carry all the cash. Best part is, it’s dark out. He reluctantly goes along.

We drive around. We find a couple of outs for me to run in case the cops chase me, find a place for him to park, and buy a set of sheets to the pillow case, of course. Then I walk up to the bank, take a quick look around, pull down my ski mask and blast off through the door like a Tasmanian Devil. I vault the chest-high counter like an Olympic high jumper.

Two tellers are in shock. They can’t believe what’s happening.

“What are you doing?” one of them manages to say.

“What do you think I’m doing? Open the drawers.”

I clean them out in record time. But before I do, I look at the drive-up teller window and decide to get a little extra cash. So I blast over to her drawer and clean it out, too. This takes maybe 20 seconds, then I fly out of the place and down an alley to the pick-up spot.

Within 30 minutes of coming off my best high ever, I knew that if I didn’t start to control myself I wouldn’t last much longer. I needed to get back to acting like a professional. I had to put my ego in check. But, when you’re getting off like that, it’s hard to control.

It’s like diving into frigid ocean water in the dead of winter. Your heart is pounding harder than you could imagine possible, your vision is clear, hearing impeccable. The raw adrenaline takes control. Suddenly, you’re released from everything, leaving you with a God-like feeling of pure power.

That’s how I felt every time I went charging into a bank.

The feeling should be illegal and in my case it was.

About six months later, the FBI caught up to me and I’ve been locked up every since.

_____

*Jeffrey Scott Hunter is serving a 29-year federal prison sentence for bank robbery. (BOP# 11557-014) This is his second story for Tell Your True Tale.  His initial piece was titled My First Bank Robbery. He is the author of the crime novel, Paragon, available on Kindle at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at Oakdale FCI federal prison.

More fab TYTT stories:

Me and Stan Getz by Jonathan Bellman

Planting Flowers by Betsy Klee

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By Rachel Kimbrough

For four years, I could not remember what my son looked like alive.

If I shut my eyes and focused, I had one vague memory of him laughing–the second and last time he ever laughed, immediately before the nap from which he would never wake. But I couldn’t remember his face. My one vivid memory of him was what he looked like when I found him dead, SIDS having somehow drained the life out of him–his blue cheeks, purple lips, spiderweb-like something spreading on his tongue. Thoroughly limp, all the infantile will to remain fetal completely gone.

I have a chest of all his belongings. Clean and unwashed spit-up cloths and onesies and sleepers and pacifiers and blankets, a small wooden box, courtesy of Amos Family Funeral Home, containing clay imprints of his hands and feet and a lock of hair.

I thought, for these four years, that if I opened that chest, I would die. And I don’t mean a piece of me would die, or whatever–I mean I thought I would physically perish. There is such a thing as too much to handle.

A couple weeks ago, though, my therapist urged me to dig in anyway.

So I did.

I went in my room, shut the door, paced around for a while, occasionally glancing over my shoulder at the chest pushed up against a wall. Eventually I sat on the ground in front of it and lifted the lid.

Everything inside smelled like wood, not babies. There on top was the item he died in–a full-length sleeper, cut through from top to bottom with medical shears. The Amos box with his hair in it. Same color as mine. Further digging yielded his favorite blanket, birth confirmation, gag-gifted t-shirts like the one featuring Chewbacca with the phrase, “Change me, I smell like a Wookie!”

I found the one photo album we’d gotten around to making. The day he first smiled, when I took about a hundred pictures in half an hour, doing all sorts of ridiculous things to earn the toothless grin again. The week his eyelashes started to grow, when I took the whole week off work to watch those insanely long, luxurious lashes unfurl. Our family Christmas photo–”Kill the houselights, it’s Christmastime.” I reached in and dug a little deeper.

I felt a CD or DVD case, and couldn’t think what it may be. I pulled out the case and discovered the DVD we’d played at his funeral, Sigur Ros’ “Glosoli” playing over bits edited together. I’d thought we left that at the funeral home.

I figured, what the hell, I was already in this far. I put the DVD in my laptop and watched.

And Jesus Christ, did I lose ten pounds in tears. He was just right there, video revealing nuances in his expressions pictures can never quite convey. There he was, only four weeks old and already bopping around in a Johnny Jumper. Six days old and already holding his head up independently. Three months old and already trying to crawl. I’d forgotten he was some superbaby. There was my favorite of all his smiles, the slow-builder, when he’d catch your eye and hold it, and then slowly, so slowly, the corners of his mouth would lift until he was fully grinning. Him almost but not quite sneezing. Trying to sit up but rolling forward onto his dad’s chest instead.

I could remember all of these things. Not just what they looked like in video–I could remember being there with him, the sound of his voice, the feel of his skin. The video ended. I put it back in its case, put that back in the chest and closed the lid.

And then, I didn’t die. I felt close to him again. I sat on my bed and allowed myself to remember him, calling forth every memory I could from pregnancy to death. I couldn’t tell if it felt good or hurt, like getting blood drawn or extracting a splinter. And after a while, it occurred to me that his death isn’t a thing I’ll ever get over, like an ex-boyfriend or daily offense. It’s something I can only hope to eventually accept. But I am so lucky he lived at all, and I can still hold on to that.

I opened the chest again and removed a picture from the photo album. I pinned it on my wall.

____

Rachel Kimbrough is a writer living in Kansas. This is her third story for Tell Your True Tale. Contact her at rkimbrou@stumail.jccc.edu.

 

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By Hugo Garcia

The intersections near MacArthur Park were congested as commuters traveled to downtown offices from the Westside of the Los Angeles.

The morning sunrise made its way through the window of my bedroom in our second-floor apartment. As the alarm clock went off, I hit the snooze. Then I heard a loud Bang! on my door downstairs. Was somebody trying to break in my house? This early in the morning?

I peered through the window, then rolled out bed, threw myself on the rug and ran to another window in my room to get a clearer view of the scene unfolding downstairs.

About twenty army-green helmets clustered together, surrounding my doorsteps, guns drawn. Fifteen yards from my door in each direction stood a sheriff agent, helmet and vest on, pointing a sniper rifle right at me as I looked down from my window. Across the street plainclothes agents spoke through their portable radios.

Then I heard the loud knocking down of my front door and the officers call out my name.

“We’ve got an arrest warrant!” one of the officers shouted. They forced their way in. I was sure they awoke the entire neighborhood.

My heart pumped fast. My mind raced. My stomach churned.

I threw my Nikes on and rushed to the back door next to the second bedroom. I’m not going out like a sucker. In a few seconds the unit will be all over this dump of an apartment like hound dogs that haven’t been fed for weeks. I look out the back window. Two officers were right outside. I could almost swear I hear the helicopter right above the building. What have I gotten myself into?

I realized it’s no use. Then the questions began, What could they possibly think I committed? Robberies? Burglaries? On second thought, Maybe they want my dad? Or my brother? He moved out months ago! This only happens in the movies. This is how Henry Hill felt when they raided his family in Goodfellas. Maybe they want drugs?!! Are there any drugs in my room? I can’t remember.

Suddenly my mother broke my train of thought, she hurried to the doorway in the living room that gave way downstairs. From the doorway she turned back with a preoccupied look, and whispered, “Oh baby.”

In my mother’s eyes I saw agony.

One morning, when I was five, in a different apartment I woke up to my mother sobbing in her bed. My older brother’s room was a mess, everything had been tossed around, like a tornado had hit. My brother wasn’t there. I learned later that policemen had stormed into our dwelling and had taken my brother while I slept. The tornado hadn’t interfered with my sleep that morning. I didn’t see my brother again until I was ten years old. Even after, the reason for his incarceration was never discussed.

My mother made her way down the steps.

“Don’t do anything foolish, baby. God’s going to take care of this,” she said. The officers shouted orders.

As she opened the door, I paced the living room. They shouted my name again.

“STEP INTO THE HALLWAY WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”

Petrified, I stared at the red laser dots floating around the doorway leading to the steps. This wasn’t a nightmare and any stupid mistake would be my last. The sheriffs made it very clear that they were “ready to shoot!”

I stepped into the doorway.

“Put your hands on your head! – Turn around and face the other way! – One step at a time – Make your way downstairs!”

I just thought of mom, and it hurt to feel like the greatest disappointment. I didn’t deserve to be her son.

Three agents grasped me and cuffed me. The squad stormed upstairs, and a policewoman interviewed my mother. Neighbors watched from their doorways. Rubberneckers stared as they drove to their morning shifts.

“Suspect’s in custody, the location has been clear – bring vehicle over,” ordered the cop who identified himself as Sgt. Kyle.

“Ten four,” another officer replied over the walkie-talkie, within seconds, a caravan of fifteen patrol cars emerged from side streets and parked in front of the apartment complex.

Still in my sleepwear and Nikes on, I was escorted to one of the unmarked police cars. I watched my mother, teary-eyed, wave good-bye. The sheriffs carried out boxes filled with my belongings. I kept wondering whether there were any stashed drugs in the apartment. They carried out my laptop and PC. Also, they brought down posters that I had framed on my wall — posters that I had stripped from metro buses, that displayed a one-eight-hundred number, urging commuters to report any tagger activity that they witnessed. These were the posters that hung from my wall; no high school diplomas, no sport trophies, and certainly no recognitions.

“I’ll have my partner come speak to you in a second to state you your rights and formally charge you with your arrest warrant.”

“That’s fine,” I said, feigning disdain for authority.

I looked at my apartment for the last time. How beautiful does my street look now that I face much uncertainty. Funny how things seem different under nerve-racking circumstances. I chased my thoughts away. I’d always thought of this place I called home as a dump. It had gone through so much misery through the years, more drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, and guilt than any teenager could bear.

That misery laid a path for me to the streets and I knew it had everything to do with the raid that morning.

I recalled my attempts at trying to assimilate to my social environment at school. Home and family were ideas that I didn’t want to be identified with. So I tried identifying with my immediate friends at school. My peers all had issues at home and they had joined a tagging crew called The Rejected Crew. This name the crew would tag on private properties across the city. It was the name that we felt represented our place in society. Although my interest was not graffiti, I was enthralled with the sense of brotherhood I attained from the crew. We looked out for each other during fights with other crews and often times experimented with liquor and cigarettes. This certainty and reassurance I received from my brotherhood was what I had read in The Outsiders and what my home had failed to provide. I joined their missions. Sometimes I would be a photographer; other times I’d look out for landlords while crew members tagged. I became apathetic about school and my older peers had already become involved in burglaries and drug dealing.

The lifestyle, however, had led me to this point in my life — with the sheriffs knocking down my door.

The next few days are one big blur. I was charged with numerous counts of vandalism, each ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 dollars worth of damage to private property. The investigators knew that I was just a scapegoat for graffiti damages caused collectively by several people. The investigators understood that I knew it too, so they put their cards on the table and asked me to give up names of people that I was in cahoots with. When you grow up in the bleaker side of town you learn early on that you shouldn’t give up other people. I refused to cooperate.

By the end of the week, I traveled among the hard core, those who told their war stories of drugs, murders, and power in the county jail bus.  One of the younger inmates was boasting how active his neighborhood was. He told of an incident that had occurred two weeks prior, he spotted a rival gang member inside an arcade in the corner of a disputed neighborhood block. As soon as he recognized him he became heated and ran home on a back street to get a shotgun he had just acquired from an arm dealer. He had to rummage through his mom’s clothes looking for what he called a “coat like the one Sherlock Holmes wears.” He used the trench coat to disguise the shotgun. He described how he had a hard time rushing back to the arcade because the gun was too long. Before reaching the main street he heard three gunshots and commotion nearby. He heard sirens wailing and the helicopter above. He fled back home but he struggled with the shotgun, so he decided to dump it in an alley. He later heard that his close friend got to their rival first and shot him three times and was caught when the police searched the area.

Suddenly, his boastful manner of this crude reality made me want to puke and I knew then that I didn’t belong in that circle of people who remained frozen in a time when they are teenagers and never quite grow. His stories will involve himself as a teenager even when he’s in his 40’s.

In shackles, I waited an entire day in the holding tank, which is a large holding cell where inmates wait to be seen in court. Finally the court bailiff called me in. But instead of directing me towards the courtroom, he escorted me to the release-processing center.

“What’s going on officer?” I asked.

“Don’t ask any questions, buddy, unless you want to go back,” he replied.

My heart raced. I’ll shut up, I thought to myself.

Eventually, a stern, yet beautiful, female sheriff explained to me that the District Attorney had rejected my case. My heart almost jumped out.

“Do you have any idea why?”

She gently smirked. “Lack of evidence it seems.”

I went home and everything in the neighborhood felt the same. Neighbors continued their day-to-day activities. Street vendors kept on their routes, and children played. For a moment, my life had stopped in time. Yet life kept going for everyone else. It reminded me of the defiant youth I met inside the walls, and how they knowingly went in there to serve 25-to-life prison sentences. Is any of it worth it? Their world gets stuck in time, yet society keeps moving.

It made me reconsider my philosophy. Although, the easy way out for a youth facing adversity is to give in to the social norm and succumb to delinquency, it takes real courage to change for the better and therefore I did.

____

Hugo Garcia is a Ralph Bunche Scholar Honor student at Los Angeles City College, completing his second year of undergraduate studies.

 

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