Illustrated by Nery Gabriel Lemus
Luster Little bent over the bathtub, spreading his khakis lengthwise across its still water. When one side of the tan pants had been saturated, heavy and blue, he lowered the khakis even deeper into the water until they were deep wet. He held the farthest edge of the right pant leg with one hand, the belt buckle with the other, the khakis perfectly suspended. He’d been washing his khakis like this as long as he could remember. It was a delicate process, but one he had mastered. As long as the water soaked in slow and every inch was wetted, the system worked as proper as a washing machine.
Sharone Bonilla sat in his chair a few feet from Luster, reading. He was probably the last person alive who still read the paper in the morning. Leaning forward, he stared at the Los Angeles Times headlines and tried to come alive with the dawn. “Y’all think y’all hard out here. Shoot, in Sudan you got kids in Jordan jerseys, flip-flops, totin’ damn AK-47’s.”
Luster didn’t look up from his work. The news was the news, and 6:30 in the a.m. was just too early to go mixing the problems of Africans with African Americans.
Sure as sunrise, this was the routine. Sharone’s schedule was rolling craps: 7 to 11 in the a.m. he worked a day job at the downtown bakery, then 7 to 11 in the p.m. he delivered pizzas in Suerte’s North side suburbs and the ranches above. Wedged in between, no siesta, the brother was busy with a day class at community college, stalking down that barber’s license one unit at a time. Hard as it was, it wasn’t all the work that got to him, even though it throttled him out of bed in the mornings and numbed him into sleep at night; it was school that cut him like a knife edge; it forced him to hope, it filled him with the world and its possibilities.
At least he didn’t have to work Friday nights anymore. Newer cats had come on who had to shoulder that burden. He could relax, do some chores, put the apartment in order. He folded up the paper and took stock of the boy: Luster’s off him, too, Sharone thought, playing with the name. Luster’s lackin’, needs a shine. Lustrous too little.
The boy lifted his khakis from the bathtub water. Now, Sharone got up from his chair and drained the tub. Luster walked into the Little family kitchen, which required him to open the bathroom door as gently as he could and step out onto the cold kitchen tiles. He hurried, sliding across the tiles, past the kitchen table, to the stove at the far end of the room.
The stove seemed to swell out and hold dominion over the table, sink, and refrigerator.
Luster followed after Sharone with the dripping slacks still held lengthwise in his hands. When Sharone made it to the stove and turned on the four burners, Luster held his khakis over the low, red-blue flames. The boy had slipped a finger through one belt buckle and was holding only the top end of the right and left pant legs so that his skin would avoid the leaping fire, made all the more leaping by the window Sharone had opened and the hard Santa Ana wind driving through the apartment. The stove flames danced in the gusts as youngblood moved the wet khakis back and forth delicately, patiently, letting them dry in the heat. After a few minutes, he turned up the flame. Sharone grunted, remembering, as he did every morning, how all his South Central uncles used to starch and iron better than the fussiest woman, until they could stand their slacks stock still against a corner wall like a ghost was wearing them. What’chu know ’bout that starch job, boy, what’chu know ’bout that? they’d hoot and holler.
It took hours to make pants do that, and back in the day it had amazed, not bothered, him; but now even Luster’s ritual was trying his patience.
“Why don’t you do all this the night before, for once?” He rubbed his frustrated fists against his closed eyelids. He was figuring the time things would take and wondering if he’d be late to work yet again. “E’rything’s process,” he lectured. “You get a routine, you follow the routine. I’m prepared. I gots my garments ready when I wakes up.”
“It don’t work for me,” Luster shrugged, indignant and harassed. He hit his foot hard against the carpet in four-four rhythm and hummed to himself. Looking out the open window and across the way, he saw two big, barrel-chested, pitch-black-skinned men draped with white linens that fluttered like ship sails, and a third, smaller man, Eddie Richard, huddled around an object Luster could not see. It looked like a pile or a stack of something, but he couldn’t tell. The men stood in the parking lot of the small G Street strip mall. Behind them, the nail shop and the Chinese takeout had let their doors open prematurely; Closed window signs still hung like early morning moons in their doorways.
Keeping his quiet, Sharone had left the kitchen, gone the short distance back to the bathroom, and returned with his chair. He spent a minute moving the sleeping bag that lay at the foot of the kitchen table out of the way, folding it up and putting it in its proper place before he sat down.
“What they needin’ from the nail shop?” Luster wondered out loud. “Plus,” the boy kept on, his curiosity breaking through, “what’s Eddie even doin’ out here, showin’ his face?”
Sharone shrugged. It was none of his business, or Luster’s.
“You heard about that Mexicano kid they call Paid? How people say Eddie shot him?” “The boy alive, right?” Sharone asked.
Luster nodded, confirming that one piece of luck.
“E’rything ain’t what it seem, youngblood. I know Eddie lit out like Marion Jones when that boy got shot, people was talkin’—but who knows what actually happened, cain’t go assumin’ things.”
Luster ticked his tongue along his teeth. “They brought Paid home. He had on a halo like they give dogs, all around his neck. Cain’t move his head for nothin’.” Luster turned down the flames and rotated the tan khakis over them once more before turning the burners off for good. He had been shivering in his boxers for a long time now. He put the pants on and started out of the apartment. As he passed the open bedroom door, he could see over the dresser and the television propped on top of it, the two beds placed end-to-end at the far wall. In the bed that touched the left wall his mother lay still, her small frame tucked there like a child’s. She had her own bed in her own room, which was off-limits to children; but she had taken his bed, too, trading him a bunch of her blankets so she could sleep near her daughter in a double occupancy that relegated him to anywhere else he chose to rest. He usually chose the closet, which sounds worse than it was. It was a walkin closet, secluded and warm, with more space to spread out than either bed would offer. Luster remembered huddling with his mother in rooms almost as crammed as the tightest closet, just him and her back in the day when they were truly broke; how he would listen to her pretty voice mingling with Prince’s, she and the boom box singing “Adore” and “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” over and over until he fell asleep. That was before she gave birth to Starshine.
Them two, he thought, casting his eyes over the improvised sleeping arrangement, them two, they sleep so sound. But in the other bed his sister shook beneath her covers like a swimmer flailing through a ruthless current.
Luster followed Sharone out into the morning world. Outside, he noticed that the crew had had to relocate, and in the place where they had been now stood a sign reading No Loitering. They were crossing the street over to the apartment complex parking lot. It was rare that anyone paid mind to the No Loitering signs that the Korean and Middle Eastern business owners put up in front of their property, let alone these gang-active criminals. Luster had overheard conversations about what people called the stay-aways, rules that meant to keep known gang members from grouping together, even in private. Maybe the stay-aways were why Eddie and them were doing as told.
Luster and Sharone arrived at the bus stop. “You actually gon’ go to school today, cousin?” Sharone asked.
Luster shrugged, carelessness rolling down his shoulders like water. He leaned against an available light post. “Nah,” he finally answered, and looked down the gridded, intersecting roads, the palm trees standing like sign posts every few feet. “It’s ’bout to be summertime. Ain’t no reason now, school almost out.” Then he heard the bus coming, its deafening, arthritic brakes sounding as it made the turn onto G Street and slowed gradually to a stop. He began to edge back from the waiting crowd and away from Sharone. Sharone wasn’t watching him; his attention had shifted to a listless girl on the opposite side of the street. The girl’s body moved in two or three different ways with every step she took. The child felt in his pocket where two dollar bills unfurled in his fingers. “Hey, is Des home?”
“Nah,” Sharone said over his shoulder. “Destiny at work in the morning. Remember, she’s cleanin’ house. Domestic labor.” Without looking at Luster, he motioned north, toward the hills and the wealth and the cities beyond.
But Luster didn’t remember anything except for the need to be somewhere else, do something else besides get on this bus again for another ride to another stupid school day.
“I don’t know when she gon’ be back. I don’t know her schedule like that.” Sharone’s words were drowned out by the approaching bus. He had deposited his fare before he noticed that his little man was no longer following behind him, but had instead cut back the way they’d come and was running down G Street with what looked, at a distance, like a handful of grass, but that Sharone figured was stolen money.
* * *
Luster ran, and then he walked. The lonely street not only seemed like it led on forever when he looked down it longways; G actually did lead on forever: the palm trees and liquor stores and gas stations endless all the way to the frozen caves of standing lava rock at Joshua Tree; all the way to the dry, parched wealth of Palm Springs; all the way deep into the desert; shit, all the way to Vegas and past it; even farther, probably.
He saw La Raza liquor store ahead. Its parking lot was a stretch of unmarked gravel where cars typically came to rest in improvised relation to each other, at hard, strange angles. There were only two cars in the lot now, at its opposite ends. A trashcan lay neglected, fallen to one side, its guts scattered liberally out. When the neighborhood Albertson’s had shut its doors, the store owners or the workers or the garbage collectors or somebody had simply turned all the dumpsters over in the middle of the parking lot. The result was a huge trash pile, one big, triangular, pyramidal pile of refuse, probably 10 feet high and weighted off-kilter, leaning to the right, threatening for the months that it stood to spill into an even bigger mess on the ground, Pythagoras for the poor. It stayed like that until the new developers came along and razed the whole thing with a monstrous compactor that chewed louder than a thunder clap, waking the whole neighborhood one bad Monday morning. Luster went to pick up what all had fallen out. He set the trashcan upright and dumped the trash back in its proper place.
“Hey, you!” the store owner’s voice called at him from an invisible spot inside the store. Luster raised up, stared at a bodiless voice.
“You see sign! No loiter.”
Apparently that included people trying to clean up his raggedy little spot, too. Luster didn’t get the logic of it, but he knew not to argue with the man, who had a notorious fierce temper. He brushed himself off and started into the store, and then he stopped short, in the narrow entryway. Right there in front of him stood the dark, hunched figure of Eddie Richard. He was leaning over the cash register counter leafing through a thick stack of dollar bills like it was a deck of cards, each dollar handled briefly then flicked off and sent fluttering through the air and onto the counter.
Luster stared. Eddie turned on him and did a quick onceover, considering him like he would a weapon, deciding if he were dangerous. It was the first time the child could remember anybody looking at him quite that way. He noticed, hard and panicked and breathless, that Eddie’s shirt read Here Lies Vegas. He stared at the shirt because it was better than meeting eyes. Then Eddie turned back from the boy, giving him his side profile, his attention returning to the money. Having glimpsed the magical criminal, Luster remembered his manners. He got a hold of his breath, checked his flooding curiosity, and stepped into the store. Slowly backing his way down an aisle stacked with candy and kink magazines and baby formula, he looked for something to shop for. That night, Eddie would visit him in a dream, an uncertain silhouette wavering, oscillating in a hallucinated heat wave just above the desert floor. Luster took two bags of M&M’s from off the highest shelf and examined them, weighing both in his hands, feeling for malformed candies, all in an attempt at miraculous disappearance. He knew the store owner was watching him. That was fine. He hoped Eddie was not.
Luster came back up the aisle: Eddie, he saw, had put his wallet away, and now it was the store owner who’d opened his cash register and was counting the money on the counter into it. Like a robbery in reverse, Luster thought, his curiosity still not entirely gone. Then the two men nodded at each other. The store owner looked at Luster again and then he took a key from out his pocket and locked the cash register. He and Eddie walked to the far corner of the store and, standing at opposite sides of a small shelf full of liquor bottles, took hold of the thing and crab-walked it out of the way of what Luster had until then assumed was a wall but now knew to be a door. The bottles rattled but none fell to the ground, and the men exited and the door shut and locked behind them.
Luster was fascinated and afraid all at once. He wondered what would happen next. He waited for them to reappear. Then he thought that it would look real bad if he was still there when they came back. They would expect him to be gone. He looked down at his hands and the items in them. They expected, Luster realized, that he would take these things. His heart raced, not because he had never shoplifted—he had—but because nobody, especially no adult, had ever forced him to do it. What was all this? What was happening behind the hidden door? And what should he do? Run, something in him screamed. He cut his eyes to the store’s open front door and bolted.
Back on G, he fled as if chased by more than his imagination. But there was no alarm singing his guilt, no barefoot store owner racing after him and shouting for the police. He stopped before he had run but half a block. The street was peopled and alive now; someone might notice a boy running from nothing. The child took a moment, his senses returning to him. Deep, reverberant screw music shook and cradled the ground, its beat coiling devilishly downward in territorial moan. Cars crowded the road idling processional and undirected, in the usual anathema to space and time and the rush hour, the everyday parade that the child witnessed sure as each sunrise: cars idling inch by inch up the street, people afoot between the vehicles dipping their heads into open driver’s side windows to ask for this or that, the drivers leaning out and shaking hands and hollering, hollering, hollering above, within, below the music.
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