Illustrated by Graeme Fordyce
He keeps telling me it’s not good to live here, we should move; we argue about this.
We have been arguing about this since before he officially moved in about six months ago. He says that he will not raise a child here, in this hood. I imagine he is just scared. He grew up in Walnut and nothing bad happens there. Nothing at all happens there. No kids playing in the streets. Shit, even the poor look healthy.
But I explain that I’ve lived here in East LA most of my life, in this very house. I made a few stops in other cities before. There was the basement I lived in, in Hollywood, the motel and two (separate) apartments in Alhambra. The first apartments looked like some 1960s bungalows. Our apartment was raided by the cops one morning after my dad had already left for work. I was sitting in bed eating bologna and watching I Love Lucy reruns. It was the eighties and Reagan was conducting a war on drugs in our living room. The bungalow apartments have since been torn down. I lived in Baldwin Park and Rialto. I lived in Rosemead, North El Monte, and, before I came here, in an apartment in South El Monte where my dad was shot one night.
I tell him, “It’s not bad, things have changed a lot.”
I can still remember the sparks from the last drive-by. I ran to the living-room window because I couldn’t help but follow the sound.
“But it really has changed around here,” I tell him.
I grew up across the street from Gage Maravilla, up the hill from “the Lot,” on the other side of the “Geraghty Boys,” down the street from “Folsom Alley.” My sister and I played baseball in the streets with the boys who would later become the gunslingers of Gage Maravilla, but they were so sweet when we were kids.
He listens to my stories with reluctance and always closes the conversation with, “We got to move, Love.”
One day he says to me, “Miles is a sweet kid. He won’t survive this hood.” Part of me agrees, the part that never speaks.
I say, “I survived worse.”
He responds, “It’s different for boys.” I chuckle, “Guys always say that shit.”
* * *
We are out shopping one Sunday afternoon, and at about one o’clock, my little sister starts sending me a bunch of text messages. I ignore the first couple, thinking she just wants me to buy her food. When I receive the fourth text, I see it’s a picture message. I decide to open that one: it’s an all-too-close photo of a couple of sheriff’s deputies crouched down, guns drawn. I can tell they are in front of my neighbor’s house. I immediately call my sister to tell her to get her ass inside and remind her she isn’t a fuckin’ journalist. She answers and I am for a second relieved; she is still alive. I ask her if she is okay. I tell her I am going home. I can hear the nerves in her voice, so I keep her on the phone till I can tell she is calm. I tell her we are exiting the freeway, and we will be home in five. She says okay, then asks me to bring her chili cheese fries from First St. Burger.
I don’t want to tell him what is happening, to save myself from the lecture that will ensue. So when he asks if everything is okay, I say, “Yes, Marissa wants us to take her food.”
He rolls his eyes.
* * *
When we get home, my sister is on her way out. She stops us to shoot the shit. As we stand at the mouth of the driveway, he notices a paper on his windshield.
“Fuck! I got another fuckin’ ticket!”
We walk to the van, and he pulls the paper off. It is a pamphlet from the sheriff’s department explaining how to press charges and offering a case number to him. “What the fuck is this?”
Then I have to start explaining.
He walks ahead of me to search the van for damages. He keeps saying, “What the fuck, Rebecca? What the fuck?”
I find it, under the license plate, the bullet hole. I stick my finger in it, and say, “It’s here.”
He comes to the back of the van and throws the doors open. We find a hole through a plastic container that holds his percussion instruments. It went in one side and out the other. No bullet. We continue to search: another hole in the drum case, in one side of the kick drum and out the other side. Still no bullet, just three more holes. Finally the bullet. It has stopped where it hit the metal part of the back seat. He picks it up and we go in the house.
I follow him to our bedroom. He puts the bullet in the center of the dresser, and then the shitstorm comes.
“It was out on the street! Out this door, right here, Rebecca! Right here in front of the house! Do you see this bullet? It went through the van, plastic, and two pieces of wood! Did you see how it just went through all that shit? What if Miles was outside at that time? What if he was going to the neighbor’s house? What if he was shot? What if we were outside? We have to move! This is no place to raise a family!”
I don’t tell him a thing. He is scared. I can see that. He grabs the bullet, slides it in his pocket, and walks outside.
I feel bad for him. I feel bad that I’m not scared. I’m just not. I should be worried for my son, but I don’t feel a thing.
When he comes home that night, he comes to the room in the dark, takes off his pants, takes the bullet from his shirt pocket, places it back on the dresser, then throws the shirt to the floor. This will be his evening ritual for the next week before he leaves the bullet on my dresser where it will collect dust.
* * *
This morning I am dropping my son off at school—the same school I work at in City Terrace. I have been working at this school for a little over three years now. Since I have worked here, the school has been placed on lockdown four times for gang activity or shootings, three times before I ever enrolled him, so I know it is a sketchy hood. Everyone knows that.
We usually park on the hill at the back of the school overlooking the playground. When we walk to school, Miles likes to walk in the narrow area between the cars and the chain link fence. He usually gets stuck or hits his head on the passenger side mirror. Today, like every other day, he wedges his growing body in the narrow space.
I walk on the street side, laughing and waiting for the inevitable cry from him telling me he is stuck or he is crawling away rubbing his head. I wait for him at the bottom of the hill. I look out to the main street, Eastern Avenue, and see a little cholito walking up the hill. I guess he is about 17. I’ve seen him before, handcuffed beside a cop car, the first time there was a shooting outside the school. I smile at him. His cheeks look like they still have baby fat. He smirks at me with a sideway glance and a slight nod. Maybe he recognizes me too.
I look away to find Miles getting to the last car’s passenger mirror. The kid passes me, his hands searching in his pocket. Somewhere in my head, I know what that means. I turn again to Miles to hurry him through his routine. Today he gets past all the cars without hitting his head, but the strap of his backpack gets caught on the mirror on one side and the chain link fence on the other.
I hear a car skid at the top of the hill, then the POP! POP! POP! But I see the sparks before I ever see the car. I see this just as my son is trying to pull away from the mirror. He hasn’t figured out that pulling away only tightens the grip. He is caught and I don’t move to him. I am looking at the kid at the top of the hill running toward the loud sound and the sparks. Miles’s body lunges forward, his head jolting. He is stuck, and the car holding him is blocking his ability to turn back or run away.
I do nothing. I just stand there. Miles’s hands, still chubby, thrust forward to me.
“Mommy,” he screams, “Help! I’m stuck!”
But I don’t move.
The car has turned now and is headed down the hill, and I’m planted street side of this black ’97 Ford Explorer that has hooked my son.
The car is moving.
Closer to me.
Miles is now violently fighting against the straps holding him hostage. Just as the car passes me on the street, Miles raises his arms straight up. He slips out, falling to his hands and knees.
The car makes a left turn onto Eastern Ave.
I look back again to Miles. He looks at me as if I have just betrayed him. He dusts off his hands and knees and goes to remove the backpack still hanging from the mirror and the fence. He pulls the straps from their hooks.
“Why didn’t you help me?” he asks. “I was calling you, didn’t you hear me? Didn’t you see I was stuck?”
“Well? Why didn’t you help?”
I don’t look at him.
“You figured it out, didn’t you? You didn’t need me.”
I feel his eyes on my face as we walk toward the school entrance: a green iron security gate with a camera-activated buzzer.
“What were all those loud noises back there? Did someone light fireworks, Mommy?”
I look over to him.
“Yes, it was some kids lighting fireworks. How’re your hands?”
“Okay. Just dirty, but I scratched my knee.” He looks up at me with big eyes and droopy mouth. “I ripped my pants.”
“It’s okay, Bubba. You were growing out of those jeans anyway,” I tell him.
His expression lightens. “Can I push the buzzer?”
“Sure,” I reply.
He pushes the buzzer and waves into the camera, laughing at the thought that the office ladies can see him.
We are buzzed in, and he uses all of his strength to pull open the large iron gate. We walk in together and the heavy door slams shut. He begins to dash for his class, and I call him back, asking for one last hug. He walks back toward me with a slightly tilted head and a smirk, as he brushes his hair from his eyes with his hand.
I lean over and kiss his forehead. I put my arms around his small body. And I hear the police sirens.
I want to cry, I want to keep him beside me, I want to hold this embrace, but I release him. “Behave,” I tell him.
I kiss his forehead. “I love you.”
He says “Okay love you,” and turns quickly to go.
The announcement over the P.A. system comes on, urging everyone to their classes: “All doors and gates will be locked. Teachers, please bring all students into the classroom, take roll immediately, and notify the office. Please remain in your classrooms until further notice.”
I see his body disappear down the hall toward his class, and I want to call him back, I want to stay with him, I want to tell him I’m sorry I didn’t help. I want to explain that this world is a fuckin’ crazy place, but we will be okay. But I have to let him go. I walk quickly to my class, pull the blinds, and lock the doors.
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