Plant closed, her sister up and gone, nothing but trouble since she got off the Greyhound … five days traveling and everything upside down … room by the station cockroach nation – still more than she can afford since she was expecting free room and board. At least till she got on her feet. Not that she could ever depend on her sister or anyone for that matter. She should have known better, stayed where she was even though her life was in tatters.
Sheila drinks and wonders what else can go wrong, aside from the roof in the dive she’s
sitting in caving in. She was holding her own out west as a strip mall beautician, until the
country made “Born To Lose” its new national anthem and the no hairdo blues became the
recession fashion. No work, no prospects and on top of that the jerk she got herself hooked up with going even more berserk than she could deal with. Drinking non stop, beating her up.
“I’m living in a world of wonder,”
The jukebox is playing her favorite song,
“happiness around each corner.”
About the only happy thing around her corner would be the coroner. She felt herself
getting tipsy, frowned and took another sip of her peppermint martini. The master of mixology behind the bar didn’t have any strawberry or chocolate kind of flavor so they had to concoct itwith schnapps. It was a miracle he found a cocktail glass in that old, warped, spider webbed cabinet. Last time anyone used one in this neck of the woods was probably the Englishman they stole the bar from at the point of a squirrel gun, back when moonshine cost a dime, and the Declaration of Independence was just signed, who was celebrating “his” independence from “them” happy to get back to merry old England. The not exactly lip smacking, neither stirred nor shaken creation was enough to knock her on her ass. But it made her think. The only wonder in her “you’re gonna get it” world that kept on giving was the sorry fact she was still living. Would it be too much to ask of that world that at twenty-one she could have a little fun? Isn’t that why she went blonde? She went blonde so she could ride a Greyhound and sit in a dump in a one horse town alongside every weirdo and loser from anyone’s worst nightmare?
“Buy you a drink?”
Sheila glances in the mirror at a shady looking guy who sits down next to her –
pockmarked face, brown bomber jacket, greasy black hair. He lights a cigarette and taps the ash on the bar. Tobacco country where asphyxiation is not open to litigation and no one ever heard of cancer or the Surgeon General. Everybody’s mouth is dangling one, if they’re not puffing on a corn cob pipe or chomping a cheap cigar stink bomb. Enough smoke in the room to set off a fire alarm. Just as well considering the place is a real eyesore and it helps to hide the fact that it’s crawling with mice and rats. Across dark man’s Neanderthal forehead is a home stitched zipper scar, which helps him look even more like some character from the shock theater.
“No thanks. I’m waiting for someone.”
She forces a smile, meets his dark eyes in the mirror.
“Your boyfriend ain’t gonna come, Hon, cause you ain’t got none.”
His expression is blank, frank, grim; no smirk, sneer, grin.
“Then I’ll learn to live without one.” She shrugs. “So long.” She toasts him. “It’s been
“The fun ain’t begun, Hon”
He studies her and sips his beer.
The bartender slides an ashtray over, backs her martini with another, which she didn’t
order, this one in a tumbler. She drops her eyes from the mirror, which she noticed had taken on the look of a startled deer. “This guy bothering you?” Wasn’t going to come from anyone in the room soon. OK Trouble Town, bring it on. Your day was long but I see your night is still young.
.“I’m all out of fun Sugar Plum.” Sheila manages to turn to him. Now for sure her martini
is shaken, if not in the glass at least in her intestines. If you let a situation own you you’re
through. Lesson one in grammar school. “Been traveling sweetie. Traveling makes me
sleepy.” She forces another smile and she hopes a cute, helpless little yawn. “Someone ain’t
my boyfriend but my brother. He’s coming after me soon. He had to work late. Just got out of the service. He’s an ex-marine. We’re getting together with our family. It’s a family reunion!”
She manages, she hopes, to infuse a little flirtation in her baby blues. “But maybe some other time if you don’t mind. I’ll be around.”
“You ain’t got no brother either, sugar.” He takes a drag off his cigarette and blows a smoke ring at the mirror, studying her, not bothering to swivel his bar stool around and face her. “I know everyone and everything in this town. I’m the dog catcher, trash collector, public investigator, probably next mayor. I knew your sister Sue. When the plant closed she split. Party girl, wild as they come. Probably partying tonight in parts unknown. She told me you were coming – dishwater blonde. She really didn’t want no part of you. ‘I need her clinging to me like a dog needs a flea.’ She said. You came in on the Greyhound. You put your bag in a locker and made an unanswered phone call. After that, you walked though the town to the pickle plant that just shut down. You read the Closed/ Keep Out sign and walked back. You got your bag and rented a room at the Horror Palace, and then you ate at the Ptomaine Terrace. Now you’re here with me drinking gasoline.”
“You stalked me?” Sheila’s voice came out squeaky. The shot and beer wizard didn’t
have an olive or one of those little onions or even a cherry to make her martini look fancy so he put a pickled crow’s egg in it without a toothpick which he finger dug from a jar on the bar. “The townie stalked me. ”She stared at it. She could see the headlines in the Goober Gully Gazette or whatever they had, assuming anyone around here read. “WHITE TRASH
TRANSIENT FOUND RAPED AND DEAD! The mutilated body (fingers and teeth removed to eliminate any identification) of an unknown white woman was found this morning in a garbage can by the Greyhound bus station …”
“I like your scar.” She took a big swallow from the martini in the tumbler which was
even stronger. “That scar will take you far. I mean around here if you want to be mayor. Kind of makes you look debonair with that greasy, black, duck ass hair, and unique, since everybody around here pretty much looks the same due to all that inbreeding.” Once she got started poking she couldn’t stop, which was why Mr. Wonderful used to beat her up. Now there was a Jock. Sit and stare in his under ware at the football games and drink beer getting all turned on by the physical contact between the men in helmets and the bouncing boobs of the cheerleaders who they tried to make look like girls next door but you could tell weren’t nothing but sluts and whores till he jumped her at half time whether she had her a real headache or the usual fake. “You get run over by a tractor? Maybe you had a lobotomy? You could run as a Republican. Better yet that new Tea Party might be up your alley. Sarah Palin was a Dogpatch type mayor and look what happened to her!”
Her head was spinning and her eyes crossing as she shifted her foggy scrutiny from the
blank profile beside her to the deadpan face watching her in the mirror until they combined in her mind to form a police mug shot like you see on “Most Wanted” which Mr. Wonderful liked to watch, maybe just to see if he was on it before he jumped her if he was still sober enough to get it up.
“Who’s this bitch?”
An Amazon from swampland suddenly appeared behind Cro-Magnon man in the mirror
and was staring at her, hands on hippo hips, wild hair a tangle like black lagoon brambles.
“I told you I don’t want no woman of mine comin’ in here.”
Mr. Personality stares at the reflection standing over his shoulder and lights another
“I asked you who this slut is? Gargantuarina stamps her foot and the rafters shake. “I’ll
stomp her whore ass all over this bar! I’ll rip out that bleached blonde hair!”
Yes, love is a many splendid thing. Sheila watches and sips her drink.
“I really enjoyed meeting you both.” She hops off her bar stool “ But I got to go.”
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“You better get your tramp butt out of here!”
“’Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!’”Sheila spins around and lifts her glass in the air.
“’My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me, And smitten me to the knee;’”
Chairs slide out of her way as staggers across the floor.
“’I am defenseless utterly!’” She shrieks.
“’I slept methinks and woke,’”
She peers around and lowers her voice.
“’And, slowly gazing, find me stopped in sleep,
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
I shook the pillaring hours.’”
“My God she’s crazy!”
The Amazon gapes at her.
Cro-Magnon stares wide eyed, mouth open.
“Goodbye Trouble Town!”
Sheila opens the door and bows.
“I exit as I entered, on the Greyhound!”
Lucky she had to memorize and recite Thompson’s “The Hound Of Heaven” for Mrs.McCully’s eighth grade English class. Probably just saved her ass.
Plant closed, her sister up and gone, nothing but trouble since she got off the Greyhound … five days traveling and everything upside down … room by the station cockroach nation – still more than she can afford since she was expecting free room and board. At least till she got on her feet. Not that she could ever depend on her sister or anyone for that matter. She should have known better, stayed where she was even though her life was in tatters.
Jumble, fumble. The alarms go off. Faster than a speeding bullet the cops show up. Camacho catches the El train, rooftops interrupted by flashes of lightening. Cold, alone, pounding rain.
Full pedal, passing the bottle, Plugger races the car down the side-streets at a hundred or more. You don’t ride often in a flying coffin but ain’t that what life is for?
“So he gave me inches seven,” the wild white girls sing some anglo bottle of beer on the wall song variation in the back seat. “I said honey this is heaven.”
Two wheeled corners, slides, skids, the radio blasting something about things going better with Coke.
Someone say coke? Yeah man.
“So he gave me inches ten, I said double it again.”
Houses a blur, whoosh, whoosh. Minds in a whirl, whoosh, whoosh.
They flash past a curbside stand in the industrial district where their parents slave everyday for minimum wage.
“Enchiladas!” The white girls giggle.
Plugger slams the breaks, slides, skids. Camacho laughs as Plugger jams it into reverse and they fishtail back.
“You no can do that.” The proprietor shakes his head. “Park on the sidewalk.”
They all pig out. The wild white girls with relish. They wash down the food with whiskey and malt.
“So he gave me inches twenty,” the girls sing, gleefully, greasy goodness stuffed in their mouths, “I said honey that’s sure plenty.”
They creep cautiously down the darkened streets, through the blackened gangways, along the unlit alleys. They spotted their hit while cruising the main strip – a cluster of punks drinking beers in the bowling alley parking lot.
“Geronimo~” They whispered.
They parked Plugger’s junker in an alley around the corner – an old beat up taxi painted black and lettered ghostly with “Tales From The Crypt,” and “Death You Deserve It,” scrawled on the sides in swirls of white – an American flag flying from the antenna.
There are a dozen of the enemy. They have to do it quickly, before the bowling alley gang gets wind of their gorilla attack and piles out on them in mass. Plugger walks straight at them, Mr. Good Wrench hidden in his army surplus jacket.
“You guys seen my brother?”
They fan out around the cars gripping tire-irons, crowbars.
“Who’s this jerk?”
“It’s me, Tony.”
“Anyone know this punk?”
“It’s me, Tony.”
They rush swinging. The punks are fast. Camacho blocks a bottle. Sixteen stitches along his arm later, no problem. They beat the punks bloody. Bam, bam. No one died. The punks must have had God on their side. Next day the punks jump them back outside their pool hall. Have themselves a ball. Good training for war. With jobs scarce, everyone is thinking about joining up when they are old enough. Even Camacho. Why not? The streets of Iraq or here? At least you get paid for being over there. Someone has to fight the wars. Nothing in it for the sons of doctors and lawyers.
A good run. Camacho leaves the pool hall, pockets the fives, ones, puts the tens and twenties in the duty booty for his parents. Too good to leave behind, he takes his beer with him and drinks it in the alley.
Dissolving night over urban blight, the rising sun pointing at the “on the run” like a gun. All over the Dead Zone the junkies are searching the catacombs for that breakfast of champions hidden in the labyrinths.
Being, being, nothingness.
Camacho closes his eyes and downs the beer, feels the darkness of the universe and all its shadows disappear.
“We’re done man!” Skinner’s teeth chatter as they sit shackled together on a lockup bench waiting for the Sergeant. “Murder one! Life man! Unless they give us death! You don’t think they’ll do that?”
Things happen. This one had happened fast. Camacho said: “Stick ‘em up” and the gun went off. They had bolted out the back door and down the alley. Camacho threw the gun in a frenzy at a backyard tree where it disappeared in the leaves.
The cops were right there. They must have been cruising by and heard the shot. Camacho watched the tree as they grabbed them, put them in cuffs, roughed them up – two troublesome looking teenagers in the middle of suspicious circumstances. It didn’t fall, the gun. It must have got stuck, good, in some branch, something like a golfer’s hole-in-one, or some basketball players one-in-a-million full court shot.
“Look Skinner,” Camacho whispers, “we went in the front and came out the back. No one saw us eneter or exit. No one was in the old man’s shop. Hey, we were just cutting through the alley. As far as they know, whoever blasted the old man went out the front while the cops were wasting their time arresting us. They got nothing except us being in the wrong pace at the wrong time. Not even in it, just near it. They got no weapon, loot, and it ain’t like we got long rap sheets like hardened criminals.”
“Unless the gun comes down!” Skinner hisses. “Then it’s homicide!”
“Calm down Skinner. We got luck on our side. Enjoy the ride. Unless some little bird talks, we walk.”
They walked alright morning, noon and night, Camacho and Skinner, alone or together in any kind of weather, up and down the alley past the tree, braced to jump the fence and snatch the evidence before it fell from some branch on the grass and the old couple who lived there found the gun and the cops had their ass.
“I’m going in there.” Skinner hollered. “I’m climbing that tree and getting that fucking thing!”
“You ain’t doing shit, half-wit.” Camacho spat at a garbage can. They were sweating bullets. It was the dog days. Flies swarmed around them. “When the leaves fall we’ll be able to spot it up there. Maybe. I’ll jimmy up there faster than you can. Bim bam the monkey man. For now we leave it alone. I don’t need your skinny, clumsy white ass clowning around and falling down. It’s a miracle.” Camacho’s voice was hushed as he stared at the tree. “It’s like divine intervention or something. Like God said: ‘Wait, fate, give them a break.’”
“Miracle? It’s a curse! It’s torture! If you think God’s protecting us you’re nuts! We’re killers – at least you are. If God’s doing anything, he’s giving us a taste of hell before we go to jail!”
“So it’s just dumb luck! Don’t fuck it up! You’re as guilty as I am and just as damned in the eyes of God or in the eyes of The Man. Get your head together, amigo, you’re going loco!” They never even charged them at the station with anything, although they questioned them long and hard for hours. Skinner almost broke. He started crying like a baby and babbling incoherently. Lucky all he bawled, basically, was: “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do anything, leave me alone.” Meanwhile the pigs combed the shop, alley, backyards, rooftops, and finally had to let them go when they came up with zero. Comacho had washed his hands as soon as they hit the station, jumping up and down and complaining he was about to pee in his pants. They never did that forensic test on them anyway.
“Skinner look. It’ll be OK. We’ll get the gun. The shooting was an accident. We just wanted to scare the old man. We didn’t want nothing like that to happen. God, fate, whatever, we got a break. Maybe a chance to change, repent, do good things not bad. Thick about that. You know what they say: God works in mysterious ways.”
Jesus Skinner was a handful. No cojones.
Skinner was dangerous. In his tiny, sports-poster filled bedroom, Camacho lay propped up by pillows on his bed and stared at his rumpled reflection in the dresser mirror. With his sweat matted hair and haggard face, he already looked incarcerated. Skinner would squawk, Camacho knew, and soon. He would get some neighborhood mouthpiece. They came cheap enough. Quick and dirty plea-bargains were what they were all about. He would show the cops where the gun was, testify. The miracle tree and the magically hanging gun were a gamble that Skinner’s nerves couldn’t handle. Could Camacho blame him? Freedom or life, all or nothing. They would try them as adults, two slum punks with nothing and no one to prop them up or hold their hand. The court would pull the chain and flush them down. But Skinner could be out before he was thirty if he played his cards right. Turn states, point the finger at Camacho. Would he do the same if it were the other way around? God if it only had been! If only he had not been holding the gun that shot the old man.
The room was a hot box. Camacho pulled off his shirt. He tried to mop the sweat off his face, chest, but the shirt was sopping wet and his efforts were useless. Through the paper-thin walls, he could hear his family talking and laughing – his mother and sisters in the kitchen cooking, his father and brothers noisily watching the baseball game in the living room. He closed his eyes and shuddered as he listened. This would kill them. His father would die inside. His mother would go crazy. His brothers and sisters would be locked up in their own little prisons with him and would sadly miss him on Christmas, birthdays, weddings, births, graduations, all the times a family came together he wouldn’t be there.
For the thousandth time he reran the nightmare in his mind. It was a two-bit jewelry store, no cameras, alarms, but enough gold school rings, trinkets, wedding bands to make a take even the head hanchos in the neighborhood could celebrate. Fence it, melt it down. The price of gold was climbing through the clouds. The place was a piece of cake. He was amazed that no one had hit the store before.
But the gun went off and the old man dropped. He dropped like a rock. It wasn’t like the shooting you see on TV. It was like the old man was a puppet and Camacho cut his strings.
“Julio we gonna eat now!”
His sister Maria shouted from the kitchen. He could hear the clatter of plates and utensils, the sliding of chairs. He couldn’t face them.
“Pronto Julio!” His sister Nanette shouted and laughed. “You don’t come quick we gonna eat it all!”
“Eat it all! Eat it all!” Little Fernando laughed and stomped around the living room floor.
Camacho rose slowly and faced his reflection in the mirror. Julio Camacho, he brooded, the pretty boy with the ugly name. Camacho meant humpback. “We’re all humpbacks in this neighborhood.” Was one of his father’s favorite jokes, “we’re all bent over by the burdens of the poor.” He felt another weight on his back now. The weight of a murderer. This weight he couldn’t throw off, despite all his sculpted muscles. He was a champion wrestler on the high school team, at least in his weight class, short like most Mexicans but strong and quick. If he stuck out two more years of high school and managed to pass, he could probably get a college scholarship. But that was a gamble he couldn’t handle. Try as he might, he could never get the complexities of math or science, or that world of chemicals and gases, all those protons, electrons, neutrons, formulas, equations, astronaut stuff. Camacho felt a fool in school. The champion with his muscles was El Stupido in the classroom. This delighted his teachers who liked to stick it to him, “that cocky Camacho kid.” “Mr. Camacho, today’s lesson seems to have you in a strangle hold. Maybe you should exercise your brain now and then. Instead of biceps and pecs try to put some muscles in your head.” To save face he played it down, swaggered around. “Fuck that book shit!” He would blow it off to his friends. “Who needs it?” They felt the same way. Brains were a liability. Didn’t that honor student in the black neighborhood just get beaten to death because he wanted to study and not join the gang? Besides, did book brains ever do anyone any good in the hood? His odds for getting out of the ghetto, like theirs, were zero. So, say he did get into college, how long would he last? So he could wrestle, was he Olympic material? The gangs were all he was good for, Camacho knew, committing crimes, running drugs. His glory days were here and now on the streets where he could flash money and strut his stuff. But that street of dreams had its dead end coming. It was written on the walls with graffiti scrawls. “Eat, drink and be merry amigos.” Their leader Pena would salute them with his toast. “If you don’t die on the streets you’ll die in jail.”
“Poppy, I got to get out of here.” Six months ago, he had sat down at the kitchen table with his father after the party they had given him on his sixteenth birthday. The tiny, appliance cluttered room with its faded walls and warped linoleum was still decorated with streamers and balloons, as the rest of the house had been, courtesy of his sisters talented hands. “I want to join up. Next year, if you sign for me, I can go in now. Be a Marine. I can get my GED while I’m there. Pursue a military career.”
His father was sipping beer. He looked tired and old beyond his years. He had spent his life in these South Side slums, before and after he had served in Desert Storm; and the mystery to Camacho was that he never seemed to regret a day of it, even though he must have seen and lived a life of hardship without let up.
“You want to go to Afghanistan or Iraq?” His father had lifted his eyebrows. “You want to get blown up? Do you know what war is muchacho? I don’t think so. No. You finish school, get a job, wife, have a life. Of course, when you turn eighteen you can do what you want. Like I told you Camacho means hump, you want also to walk with a limp, be blind, crippled? Be my guest.”
“But it’s no good here Poppy.” Camacho’s mind swirled with life in the hood, drugs, guns, gangs. Things were different now then they had been for his father when he was a kid, no matter how bad things were back then. It was a different world. If you didn’t join a gang now you were a marked man. “Es muy malo aqui, Poppy.” Camacho pleaded.
“Malo? Bueno? If it’s no good here,” his father tapped his heart, “it’s no good anywhere.”
“Julio, we’re waitimg!”
“Un momento, Mama. I got to change my shirt!”
Camacho fished a tank-top from the dresser and pulled it on. He pondered his biceps, dark eyes, wavy hair. What the zombies wouldn’t do to him if he landed in stir.
“I’m almost there! Presto, Change-O!”
He glanced at the window as he ran a comb through his hair. After everyone was in bed he would slip down the fire escape. He would meet Juanita in the church yard, go drinking with his friends. He had to get out of there, get some air, get high, forget about Skinner, the murder, before he lost his mind.
A peek-a-boo moon in a storm chased sky, like an avenger’s eye peering through its cosmic keyhole at the sinner below, watching for the chance to transform the night into God’s holy wrath and cut his throat with a lightening bolt.
Skinner moved through dark and street glow past the poolrooms and the taverns, the seedy blue-lit lounges, down into the back alleys of the catacombs amidst the midnight prowl of shadows. No one went at night to No Man’s Land. Even during the day you didn’t want to go alone. You went after school in pairs or groups to your favorite trick to get your treat clicking switchblades and looking mean. Hands in his pockets, sweating bullets, Skinner stumbled down the unlit streets, over the broken sidewalks, amidst the abandoned buildings, most of them fire scorched shells, like they weren’t in America but some third world war zone. The hanging tree waits for me. Skinner sang to himself, tunelessly. Phantom figures stalked him. He didn’t care. Hanging tree, hanging tree.
For the thousandth time, he reran the robbery in his mind. How scared he had been when he saw Camacho’s gun. “How else we gonna rob him? Say: ‘Give me your money or I’ll kick you in the skin?’” They went in as soon as the old man opened. No customers then. They lifted their tee-shirts over their noses, pulled down their hats, wore dark sunglasses. But the gun went off. Boom. Skinner had never seen anything like it, the way the old man dropped.
“If we repent and are serious and we beg God’s forgiveness with all our heart and soul,” Camacho put his arm around Skinner’s shoulder as they patrolled the alley, “God will forgive us, amigo. God wants to give us another chance. It was an accident. I’ll get the gun. We won’t go to prison.”
Was Camacho feeding him some jive, as if he were stupid? Maybe Camacho really believed all that bullshit? Camacho was not so bad. Camacho was his only friend. If it wasn’t for Camacho, Skinner knew, he probably would be dead long ago. Eventually the gangs would have stomped him good. They had come pretty close more than once. Maybe they would have set him on fire with gasoline or whatever like the gangs did to that white kid on the news.
“What you doin’ here white trash?” They surrounded him after his first day at school. Skinner’s family moved to the neighborhood a year ago. “You come to give me some money> No? I think maybe you better have some tomorrow.”
Skinner’s father had lost his job. They lost their house, savings, everything. Both his parents worked in the packing plant now for minimum wage and were lucky to have that. The new life was a shock. They came from the suburbs, good schools, jobs. The more Skinner tried to fit in the worse it got. The gangs would taunt him, shake him down, beat him up – the blonde, blue-eyed target. Now everyone left him alone. He hung with Camacho. “Muy intellegente,” Camacho would pat Skinner on the back when they ran into his pack. “A master mind.” Camacho would tap his temple. “He gonna rob a bank with his brains and put you Frito banditos to shame.”
“Dealer.” Skinner whispered and tapped at a sheet metal door across which Death was spray painted. The building was an old, brick, boarded up warehouse with a rusty truck scale out back. The phantom shapes behind him ghosted away. “Dealer.” He tapped harder
“Nada mas.” A dark voice hissed. “Go away. We closed.”
“It’s Skinner.” Skinner stammered. “Camacho’s friend. You know – Blanco.”
“I got money. Plenty.”
“Stick it up you ass.”
“It’s an emergency.” Skinner pleaded. “Camacho sent me.” He lied. “We got this party, these chicks. Camacho begs you.”
Skinner had stolen a hundred dollars from his parents savings toward rent. He could sell the crack over the next few days and put it back. He was going crazy. He had to talk to dealer. His mind was in a frenzy.
“How much is plenty?”
“A hundred?” Skinner held his breath.
“That’s plenty? Shit!”
The door swung open. Looking at Dealer made you shudder. He had wild hair and a shock theater face, nose ringed, eyebrow ringed, the forehead, cheeks, chin slashed with zipper-like scars. His eyes could stare down a firing squad. Camacho had gotten the gun from him.
Dealer swayed in the doorway and sneered at Skinner. He stood stark naked, holding a gun. His sinuous brown body shimmered with tattoos: devils, demons, screaming faces, snakes, magic numbers, voodoo writings.
“Let’s have it.” Dealer stuck out his hand. Skinner’s pale one shook as he paid him. “Stay there.” Dealer pointed at the doorstep with his gun. “Lilliana!” He turned and disappeared. “Bring me my box. It’s in the closet!”
The room beyond the doorway looked like a psychopath’s nightmare. Skinner had been in it with Camacho a few weeks ago. It was a huge, dimly lighted space. Somehow Dealer managed to reclaim part of the warehouse from extinction with plumbing and electricity. Miracles like that happened in the hood everywhere, mystery electricity, phone connections, cable TV. In the vast, warehouse space, naked light bulbs dangled from steel beams. The walls were painted with surrealistic street scenes in which giant, garishly colored figures, twisted in a hell that raged from floor to ceiling. Hell was the hood on fire. The jumble of toppling tenements and gaudy storefronts were whipped by flames and peopled with demons. In every building’s windows, Hispanic families howled with torment. Dealer must have gotten the neighborhood graffiti artists in there and supplied them with paints and brushes. Their vision was a holocaust of chaos, despair and destruction. Dilapidated furniture was scattered throughout the room. In a corner there was a kitchen, television, computer, CD player. Beyond Dealer’s torture chamber, blocked off by a maze of cinder brick walls, was a gutted shell filled with rubble and junk, inhabited by stray dogs, winos, druggies and rodents.
“Enjoy your blow.” Dealer reappeared and tossed him a bag. “Don’t do this no more, Blanco. Never. When I say ‘no mas’ you get lost, fast.”
“Dealer.” Skinner stammered. “Can I ask you a question? I don’t have a computer anymore so I can’t look up the answer. Do guns attract lightening? I mean they’re made of metal. I know cops wear guns everywhere. But say a cop stands by a tree in a storm. Trees get struck all the time. Would a gun increase the odds of lightening striking? If anyone would know you would. Dealer?”
Night winds whispered around them in the tangled parish garden, like chanting saints or nuns at prayer. Or maybe it was more like midnight angels fluttering in the dark, or priests reciting sermons, or choirs caroling incantations. Sweet sin, the sensations on their skin as they kissed, bit, tangled with delight, naked in the garden moonlight.
“Bueno.” Camacho groaned. He leaned over Juanita and searched her features, tasted her breath, felt her quiver. The heavens opened up on a world that is enough. “Bueno.” He repeated. “Amen.”
They had attended the night mass, knelt together, prayed, or at least Camacho did. It was his idea. He had showered after dinner, put on a silk shirt and new chinos, had an impulse to attend the service. “Oh, I don’t know Julio.” Juanita hesitated before the great doors of the grand cathedral with its ringing bells, towering steeple. “It doesn’t seem right. We can’t pray, then go out in the garden and – you know.”
“It’s OK.” Camacho squeezed her hand. “We’ll pray for a baby.”
“I don’t think so! I think I pray the other way! Julio you crazy!”
Darkness adorned with candlelight, silver and gold flickering in the shadows, stained glass windows that sparkled like jewels, sacred statues, the alter, the pulpit, the crucifix, the priest, alter boys, hallowed music, heads bowed they closed their eyes and crossed themselves, silent before the holy rituals and the mystical aura of a transcendent world.
Camacho had quit going to church long ago. He would pretend he went, saying to his parents that he would attend a later mass. He was too tired Sunday mornings from his week of school and wrestling practice. The mysteries of birth, death, living, dying, creation, sin, meant less and less to him as he grew up in the hood. “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” What did that mean? He lived in a no man’s land of stab and grab, where everyone was on the make, take, fake == not just the barrio but the whole country – everyone running around with their bag of tricks, rip-offs, payoffs, shakedowns. Where were the goodies in his Christmas stocking? He figured out real fast he had to fill it on his own. And it wasn’t through worship and prayer – that never got anyone anywhere.
“If it’s no good here,” his father tapped his heart, “it’s no good anywhere.”
Camacho watched the priest perform the service and recalled the words of his father. It was true, his heart was no good anymore. He was as bad as the worst. He was a killer – just an old, miserly man at the end of his days but still he deserved to live and Camacho had taken his life away. “What do you know about war, muchacho?” His father had chided him. He knew rumbles, drive-bys, gang initiations, the dangers of the streets, and now he knew murder. Could he do it again if he joined the service? Killing felt different. He should kill Skinner, Camacho knew. Snap his neck and throw him off a viaduct before he chickened out and talked. There was no way he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. Something had saved him, god, luck, the souls of his ancestors. A hand had reached out of the sky and grabbed his crime, hid it so he could get rid of it. Something had given him a chance to start again, maybe to do something grand. Could he let Skinner ruin that?
Skinner was his friend, his amigo, more than anyone else in the ghetto. He was the only reason Camacho hadn’t flunked the school year. “Let me show you some tricks.” He had sat down next to Camacho in class, after the teacher had humiliated him again. “PEMDAS.” He wrote on a sheet of paper. “This is a formula. It’s like tips on how to wrestle, trips and flips. I’ll explain how it works. What’s important is to multiply or divide before you add, unless there’s a parenthesis. Do these guys, exponents, first.” It was miraculous. Skinner was better than the teacher. He helped him with all the astronaut stuff too. Enough to get him through. “Mi amigo! What would I do without you!” What would he do with Skinner now? Skinner was a danger. He had to keep Skinner quiet one way or another.
Camacho looked at Juanita. Bonita Jaunita with her eyes closed and hands folded. She had a hard life. She had dropped out of school to work at the plant. Her father had left them. Her mother worked the second shift, which was why Juanita could easily sneak out whenever he called. She had two little brothers and three younger sisters. She paid Carlotta, the oldest, to baby sit and keep her mouth shut.
“Get a job, get a wife, get a life.” His father chided.
“Pretty one,” Camacho whispered, “it’s time for our communion.”
“That Blanco loco!” Dealer stormed through the door. “That crazy anglo! You hear him? You hear him jabber at me about lightening and cops and guns and trees? I do his skinny white ass a favor and he babble like a mad man at me about computers and metal and lightening and drive me crazy!”
“Calm down Ramon. Sit here, smoke this.” Lilliana gave him the joint she just lit. “I get you a nice cold beer. He just a loco anglo. Let it go.”
“I keel him!” Dealer flopped back on the sofa and waved his gun. “I aim and pull the trigger but the safety’s on! I get so mad I forget to take it off! I keel him!”
Lilliana returned with a beer. She snuggled up to him on the sofa and laid her head on his shoulder.
“Easy baby. Blanco gone now. No more Blanco.”
“I rip out his guts! I cut off his nuts! Next time I see heem that Blanco – he a corpse!”
“Shh … shh …”
Guns and lightening and cops and trees over and over – his brain was dizzy. Dealer imagined grabbing Skinner and slashing his throat, watching those blue eyes bug out, blood pour out of his jabbering mouth. “Un momento.” He calmed down. “Un momento. Mas tarde, mas tarde.” He took a sip from the cold beer and a drag off the joint. Guns and lightening, cops and trees. His eyes swept the wall across from the sofa. There was a sprawling tree painted near the door. A noose hung from it. “The tree of crime bears bitter fruit,” was scrawled under it. He remembered the shooting a few days before. The old guy who owned the jewelry store. Rumor had it that the cops had hauled in two suspects but they couldn’t pin it on them because they couldn’t find the weapon. Blanco and Camacho? The gun he sold to Julio? Maybe they hid the gun in a tree? Crazy but maybe.
Dealer pondered this, trying to imagine how it could be done. Jump a fence and hang it on a branch, jump back and run? Dealer was a snitch. That’s how he stayed in business. The cops let him operate for rumors, leads, names, tips. Now and then they would raid him, but it was just for show. He’s be out in the morning, shrugging it off, letting rumors spread around about his mystic powers and underground connections. A gun in a tree in a yard across the alley from the store. He’s make a call. Maybe it was nothing, but just trying would keep him in favor with the law.
Most nights, in the back of no man’s land, where the tracks turned by the packing plants, hobo fires would toss around the shadows of homeless men Chicago bound. The freight trains slowed down there to round the bend in their final run to the city where a vagrant’s paradise of missions, soup kitchens, and bustling streets where quick change could be hustled easily, lay waiting for the taking.
They would drop off there to avoid the risk of beatings and incarceration from railroad security for vagrancy, trespassing. They would take the CTA the rest of the way. When the snow came they’d be back again, heading south or west – those who weren’t dead from bad booze, fights, or who had landed in prison.
The moon was gone. Black clouds closed over Camacho like the lid of a coffin. He sat on the roof of his sweltering tenement, drinking tequila and smoking cigarettes. Like a holy vision his mind revisited the cathedral and Juanita – how they had lain side by side on a blanket of soft grass deep in the garden, two breathless shadows. The tangle of trees wove another cathedral above them as they cuddled, with a window on a dream of starlight and moon glow.
“Are you really there?” The night seemed to whisper. “Yes we are, yes we are.” Was the answer.
Thunder boomed over the tenement rooftop. The winds picked up, blowing through the windows of the inferno below him like angel’s breath, soothing the body if not the soul.
Camacho watched the tiny, hobo fires shivering by the tracks beyond the catacombs. Maybe he would ride a train soon the other way. If it came to that. Could he let it come to that? Take one west where there was not so much law and there were a lot of Mexicans and he could blend in, get lost. There was a city of vagrants who lived under the storm drains of Las Vagas. He saw that on TV. Lots of people now were out on the streets. Who would pay attention to another homeless Mexican?
He imagined himself running alongside of a freight car, climbing in, another lost soul on a ghost train – running, hiding, begging maybe, stealing maybe, staying in flop houses, missions. He wasn’t going to be caged in. He wasn’t going to fight for his life everyday with sub-humans. Maybe he deserved it. Was he one of them? But what did anyone expect of him? He had spent his life watching everyone around him, his family, friends, collect their junkyard dreams and pile them in a heap amidst the acid rains and tangled weeds of poverty. They expected him to live that way? It was an accident that he killed the old man. But he would make up for it someday. That’s what the miracle tree was all about. At least that’s what he felt in his heart: make amends, start again, do something noble, worthy, serve his country, save lives, give up his own if necessary.
Skinner. Camacho brooded. He twisted the bottle around in his hands.
Thunder rumbled across the blackened city, lightening flared. The dark, desolate buildings zigzagged through a nightmare. Skinner crossed the deserted ghetto furtively. Although no one was there, he felt he was being shadowed everywhere.
“I keel you!”
Dealer had screamed, pointing the gun at him.
He stumbled out of the catacombs, staggered home, more confused than ever. Everyone was asleep. His parents drank now heavily. They lived in a daze, working double shifts for minimum wage. His younger sisters were druggie sluts, all made up. Before you knew it, they’d both be knocked up. “Hey Blanco, last night I boom boom you seester. You no like it? Maybe you do something about it?”
He hid the crack under his dresser, sat in the dark in a frenzy looking for the answer. Maybe they should both go in and confess? They hadn’t taken anything. They ran. They were in shock. It was an accident, kind of like a hit and run. The cops had no suspects. If they did the right thing and went in, spilled their guts, the authorities should be willing to cut them some slack – serve a little time, go on parole, rehabilitation. But he knew it wouldn’t work. They would need a high priced mouthpiece to pull that off. That was rich kid stuff, suburbia. Everyone knew they threw the book at inner city fuck ups.
He got a flashlight from the kitchen and went out again. He felt like a ghost in a dream as he moved down the lightening-lit streets, along the pitch black alleys and the crypt-like gangways, stepping over broken bottles, stumbling over piles of trash. This was not his world. He couldn’t even read the writings on the billboards and buildings. Now it was his nightmare even more than before. “I keel you! I keel you!” He couldn’t stand it anymore. He wanted to go to college, be an engineer. His dream was to work on the space program, be part of conquering the new frontier. The new frontier? He was back in the middle ages. War lorda, drug lords, turf wars, misery, poverty, murders, robberies – Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the barrio, what was the difference? Instead of exploring the stars he faced a life behind bars. But he didn’t do anything! Camacho brought the gun. He didn’t want to rat out Camacho. But what did the code of silence have to do with him? What did any of this have to do with him? He was white trash in ghetto land. They would have killed him long ago if he hadn’t played along, made friends with Camacho. But would Camacho have been his friend if he hadn’t helped him? No way Jose! But But that really wasn’t fair. Their friendship went deeper than that now. There had gotten to be something inexplicable between them, something close, profound.
Skinner could see nothing. The city was erased. The only way he found the jewelry store alley was through flashes of lightening. The sprawling tree was waving its branches in the wind. It looked like some sci-fi movies monster menacing the world amidst the flares, rumbles and explosions of blinding light that erupted with the storm.
“They got a dog, amigo.” Camacho was suddenly standing beside him holding a bottle of Tequila. “Big, black, ugly, ferocious – a hound from hell.” He took a swig from his bottle and squinted at the lashing downpour. “It’s chained to the tree. It can cover the whole yard. It lives in a little house right next to it. ‘Casa no tresspassa.’ It’s in there now. It gave up trying to eat me when I moved away from the yard.” Camacho downed the rest of the bottle and tossed it in the trash. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his rain soaked silk shirt. “You got a flashlight. Bueno.” He clicked on his. “We do some tricks of math, amigo. Multiply, divide, subtract. You go over to the end of the fence and attract the demon. When he try to kill you, I hop over and climb the tree. That gun got to be stuck in some thick branch by the tree’s trunk. When I get up on the limb I shout at Satan. When he come after me it’s your turn. That grande tree too much for me. You come up the back and I pull you up. How do we get down? Maybe we have to subtract the demon.”
Skinner’s heart pounded as he listened to Camacho. The air had cooled dramatically and he felt a chill shiver over his rain soaked body. He remembered the first time the gang had surrounded him after school. He felt a fear like that come over him now. He felt trapped, surrounded and there was no way out.
“Let’s do it.” Skinner tapped Camacho with his flashlight.
“Bueno! The Alamo! Mexican standoff, amigo!”
Skinner crossed the alley tensely and moved along the fence. He tapped on it with his flashlight, bracing his body for an attack. It was as if the night had transformed into a creature exploding thunder and flashing death. The dog flew at him from out of nowhere, snarling, growling, snapping as it tugged fiercely at the chain which bound it to the tree. Skinner almost dropped his flashlight. The sudden shock of the monster caught his breath. For an instant he was staring into the mad dog eyes of Dealer. “I keel you! I keel you!” Just as suddenly the demon disappeared.
Real time was dream time – staccato images captured in flashes of lightening. Skinner saw in cosmic blinks Camacho trying to shimmy up the tree drunkenly, slipping, leaping, grabbing at a branch. He saw the bolting dog lunge at him. They were on the ground. Camacho wrestled him off. He leaped for the tree again. The dog was tearing at his leg.
“Aii Chihuahua!” Camacho kicked at the dogs mouth. “You ain’t no Chihuahua!” He grabbed a branch and pulled himself up. His pants leg was ripped to shreds. He felt blood oozing from his calf. “Maybe I should let you eat Skinner, monster, maybe it would make my life simpler?” He sat on the branch and shined the light on the leaping dog below. It was a big black one, at least a hundred pounds. Eyes blazing, it clawed and snapped, snarled and growled, determined to bite the foot off his dangling leg. “Hey Devil!” He shouted down. “When I get my gun I shoot you in the ass! What you think about that!” Camacho wondered why the old couple needed such a beast. Maybe they had money hidden in their mattress? Muy interresante. Oh well, he was done with that.
“Psst!” Skinner was behind him reaching for the branch. Camacho swung around, reached down, and grabbed him by the hand. “I thought that demon was going to see me!” Skinner rasped and shoved a tangle of leaves away as Camacho pulled him up. “I don’t know how I made it!” He settled down on a neighboring branch.
“No, he too much busy trying to kill me. Besides, Blanco, you too skinny.”
It was like a clown circus act, the two of them trying to keep their balance as they stood up and beamed their flashlights on the tossing limbs and branches. The tree pitched and swayed and swung its leafy limbs at them; but at least it kept the downpour off them. They divided the tree between them, circling around its trunk. They moved across and back, up and down, shining their flashlights all around, crisscrossing, colliding. “Man, I couldn’t have thrown that gun this high!” Camacho whispered. “I know, we should have found the fucking thing by now.” It seemed like daylight when lightening lit the sky. One flash was so bright it was blinding. The thunder that followed was like the explosion of a canon. They had to hold on to one another to keep from falling. “Can you see anything?” Skinner blinked. “Only shooting stars amigo and cross-eyed moonbeams.”
Sometimes Skinner was above him, sometimes below. Sometimes he disappeared in the leaves altogether and suddenly Camacho would find him standing right beside him. “This is loco my friend.” “I know.” They could no longer hear the barking dog. They could no longer see the ground below. The rain stopped. They had climbed above the clouds. The stars looked like basket balls.
“Where are we going Camacho?”
Skinner sat on a branch and looked down at the spinning earth in a trance.
“I don’t know.” Camacho kept climbing. “Maybe heaven, amigo.”
Right back at him and whatever it was
went right through him, body and soul.
The feeling was a sensation of falling.
With the falling the dull pain, as always,
came back into his head and it was an
effort just to breathe. Lonigan walked
slowly, paused often, his father’s winter
dress coat flapping around his legs, his
fists pushed deep in its pockets.
He felt like a ghost in a dream, as the snow
swirled around him along the drifting streets,
a shadow on the loose with no one to claim
it. The days seemed a maze of make-believe
since his discharge. The shadows of his past
seemed dislocated from his present. The
present seemed a shadow of whatever
state-side was supposed to be. Shadows,
snow swirls, ghosts of dreams …
At the Celtic bar, Lonigan slipped in from
the cold. It was still early in the day and
the bar was all but empty – just a few other
jobless Joes sipping pints in the semi-dark,
everyone avoiding each other’s eyes.
“Any luck, lad?”
Tommy slid a pint in front of him as
Lonigan sat at his corner stool.
“Not this round, Thomas.”
Lonigan pulled the rumpled job section
from his suit coat’s pocket and laid it
across the bar.
“Then this rounds on me.”
Tommy tapped the mug.
Circles round no goes, words like loosing
lottery tickets, any AD a possible, every
“I am a soldier of misfortune and”
Lonigan scribbled on the margin of the
newspaper, as he browsed through the help
“I fought that holy war on the desert sand.”
He sipped his pint and searched his fate.
I make my stand. Shoulders back, jaw set,
cross around my neck, I grin as Satan’s
sinners sweep past, daring the carnival of
tainted souls to tempt me into evil with
their heretical talk about family planning
and the use of birth control, with their
blasphemies about global warming, the need
for higher learning, which could only lead
to socialism, about equal rights and racial
mixing, same sex marriage and other
abominations, like gay acceptance and
higher taxes on the job creators, the unholy
continuation of the EPA, FDA, Medicare,
Medicaid, and the ungodly end of our
just wars and crusading nation building.
“Bring it on.” I dare them.
This poem has been approved by Rick Santorum.
In black space the world sleeps, dreams,
spins, holds its center together with stars
made of sugar.
The cosmic clock ticks for astronauts.
The subway rumbles through tunnels that
whisper secrets no one can decipher.
We paint our lives on air, naïve artists
astounded by the miracle of being here,
Love is the only color we remember.