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By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

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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 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 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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